Upadeshasaram: The Essence of Instruction of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi

Upadesham Saram of Ramana Maharshi
New translation and commentary

From Vedantic Meditation, By Vamadeva (David Frawley)


Upadeshasaram means the essence of instruction. In this Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi explains the all main yogic practices culminating in jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge its main method of Self-inquiry that he emphasized. He shows how aspirants grow and mature from preliminary practices into the higher knowledge and finally into Self-realization.

The first half of the teaching consists of the foundational practices of the yogas of karma, bhakti, mantra, and prana. The second half consists of a specific explication of jnana yoga and its various methods.

Some people, noting Ramana’s emphasis on Self-inquiry, have come to the wrong conclusion that he rejected the other yogas as useless. In this teaching he shows their place and their stage by stage unfoldment. That so much could be contained in a mere thirty verses is quite amazing to say the least. I have added a commentary that tries to show the practices intended by the verses and their relationship.

1. By the command of the Creator one gains the fruit of one’s deeds.Karma is not the supreme. Karma by itself is inert.
2. Karma is the cause of falling into the vast ocean of action. Its fruit is transient and it prevents us from achieving our goal of liberation.

The first stage of spiritual practice is recognizing the law of karma by which we are caught in the cycle of rebirth and its resultant sorrows of birth and death. Karma, the fruit of our actions, accrues owing to the will of God, which has the power to take us beyond them. Recognizing that karma depends upon the Divine we cease to pursue action as our goal in the life and look to its source.

Because of our past deeds we are trapped in the ocean of samsara that binds us to the transient and prevents us from contacting the freedom of our eternal nature. Recognizing this we gain detachment from outer actions, which is the necessary basis of all yogic practices.

3. Action dedicated to the Lord, not done by desire, is the means of purifying the mind and of facilitating liberation.

Karma yoga in general is now defined, which is the beginning of spiritual practice. The way out of the web of karma is through karma yoga or selfless service, action dedicated to God. This purifies our minds and aids us in gaining liberation. It is not karma that binds us but desire. Desireless action is the foundation of the spiritual path and all its methods, which should be free of selfish motivation.

4. The supreme duties of body, speech and mind are ritual, mantra and meditation.

Our nature compels us to act. Liberating action consists of spiritual practices. These are threefold according to the three aspects of our nature as body, speech and mind. The supreme bodily duty is puja or service to God and humanity. The supreme duty of speech is mantra or repetition of Divine names. The supreme duty of the mind is meditation.

5. Service to the world should be done with the thought of God. Ritualistic worship should be of the Lord who takes the form of the eight aspects of creation.

This verse explains the two aspects of karma yoga done with the body as service (seva) and devotional worship (puja). Service to the world should be done with the thought that the world is a manifestation of God. Ritual worship, as of Divine images, should be based upon the recognition of the Divine presence in the world, the Creator who takes the form of the eight aspects of creation. These are the five elements, mind, ego and nature that are embodied in the different aspects of puja. Without this inner recognition service or ritual remain mechanical and ineffective. Note that yogic asanas come under ritual as a form of bodily practice.

6. Better than loud chanting of mantras, is the soft muttering of them, best is their mental repetition.

This verse explains mantra yoga that deals with speech, which is usually the next stage after karma yoga that deals with the body. Mantras take three forms. Loud chanting helps us imbibe the basic quality of the mantra. Soft muttering of mantras connects them with the breath. Mental repetition, in which they come to reverberate in the subconscious mind, has the strongest transformative effect. Practicing mantras in these three stages and holding them at the third stage is the best.

The Ramanashram, since Ramana’s time, has always held daily Vedic chanting for its power to calm and purify the mind. Ramana also recommended to various people the chanting of mantras like OM and various Divine names, particularly the name of Shiva or Arunachala mountain (OM Arunachala Shivaya Namah!).

7. Like the flow of ghee in a steady stream, the simple and sustained thought is better than that which is complex and broken.

This verse explains the basis of meditation or concentration (dharana). Meditation, of whatever form, should be simple, pure and unbroken like a pouring stream of warm ghee (clarified butter). This follows the mental repetition of the mantra, which should become a stream of meditation.

8. From meditation on difference, one proceeds to meditating on “He am I.” Meditation without difference is regarded as most purifying.

This verse shows the form aspect of devotional meditation or bhakti yoga. One begins with meditation on forms, like those of Gods like Shiva, Vishnu or the Goddess, as different from oneself. Then by degree one comes to understand that the Gods are just forms of one’s own deeper Self or pure consciousness, the Divine presence in the heart. This is the realization as “He the Self within the Deity) am I.” One comes to meditate upon the deity as oneself. This seeing of the Self in the deity is the real purifying power, not the particular form that one uses, however useful that is as a vehicle.

Ramana himself worshipped Lord Shiva in the form of Arunachala mountain and as the main deity of the Tiruvannamalai temple, experiencing directly the form path of bhakti yoga. He also worshipped the Goddess both at Madurai and at Tiruvannamalai. Many of Ramana’s great devotees, including Ganapati Muni, worshipped Ramana himself in the form of Lord Skanda or Dakshinamurti.

9. From the absence of any particular state comes abidance in the state of being. From the strength of that feeling comes the highest devotion.

This verse shows the formless aspect of bhakti yoga. Once one goes beyond the feeling for a particular form one comes to the state of pure being. From the strength of feeling that pure being in all comes the highest devotion that goes beyond all forms. Note that the Maharshi first explains karma, mantra and bhakti yogas as the basis for jnana that is taught later.

10. When the mind attains its composure in its abode within the heart, this is certainly the essence of karma, bhakti, yoga and jnana.

This verse explains the essence of all yogic practices described in the previous verses which is knowing the origin of the mind within the heart. Though they have different mean their goal is the same.

After this Ramana focuses on the how to abide in the heart, which mainly has two methods of yoga (control of prana) and jnana (mind control) as the heart is the source of both mind and prana.

11. By controlling the breath, the mind comes to rest like a bird in a net. Breath control is a means to control the mind.

The mind can be controlled by controlling the prana. This is the basis of yoga sadhana that emphasizes the practice of pranayama. Generally only rare advanced aspirants can control the mind directly. For most practitioners the use of prana to control the mind is a great aid. Without the net of prana, the bird of the mind is almost impossible to catch.

Ramana mentioned that if one is not in the company of a great teacher or sadhu, pranayama is the best method to gain power and energy in one’s practice. It should not be ignored by those of us in the West who don’t have such company or circumstances to inspire us. Pranayama purifies the body and energizes the mind for meditation. It helps us control the unruly senses that draw the mind outward into external involvements.

12. Mind and prana are endowed with knowledge and action. They are two branches whose root is a common power.

The mind is the power of knowledge and prana is the power of action. They are like the two wings of a bird. Knowledge implies action and action requires knowledge. The mind has its energy and the prana has its intelligence. Both have a common power behind them which is that of the Self. One can control both of them by going to their root energy, the power of consciousness.

13. Mergence and dissolution are the two types of mind control. The mind that is merged will rise up again. The dissolved mind is dead.
14. Through control of the prana, the mind is merged. From meditation on the One, the mind is dissolved.
15. The superior yogi has a dissolved mind. What further duty can he have, who abides in his own nature?

Breath control temporarily suspends the mind. Self-knowledge dissolves the mind permanently. Therefore, however useful a tool breath control is, without advancing to direct mind control the aim of dissolving the mind cannot be attained. So one should use pranayama as a means to mind-control and not stop short with it as the goal. The highest yogi goes beyond it.

16. The mind dissolved in the Self repels all objectivity. The vision of pure consciousness is the vision of truth.

The key to dissolving the mind is turning one’s attention away from all objectivity. This is the practice of pratyahara or control of the outgoing mind and senses. It links control of prana with control of the mind. Ramana himself practiced total pratyahara, simulating the death experience, and drawing all his prana into the heart, when he had his realization as a lad of sixteen. Without withdrawal from sensory activity and external attachments, the practice of Self-inquiry is like gathering water in a vessel with holes in it. Therefore pratyahara should be practiced as the basis for Self-inquiry.

Having explained mind control in general, Ramana now focuses on the specific methods of Self-inquiry that bring this about.

17. What is the nature of the mind? When the search is accomplished, there is no mind. This is the direct path.

When pratyahara has been achieved and one has turned completely away from the world, one can look directly into the nature of the mind. Without the support of any external object on which it depends, the mind itself disappears. This is the direct path for which one has to hold the mind in the heart. If we look for the mind we will not find it because the mind itself is a form of external seeking which introversion removes. The first stage of the direct path is to look into the nature of the mind.

18. All mental activities are rooted in the I-thought. The mind is its thoughts. Know that the ego is the mind.
19. Meditating “from where does this I come” the ego falls away. This is Self-inquiry.
20. When the ego is destroyed the pure I, the heart opens by itself as the supreme fullness of being.

These three verses explain the practice of Self-inquiry which involves tracing the I thought back to its origin in the heart. Returning the mind and ego to the heart, one discovers infinite being as one’s true awareness. This is Ramana’s most characteristic teaching and the main path of jnana yoga.

21. This heart is known by the word I in our daily experience. Even when the ego is forgotten in deep sleep, it continues as its foundational being.

Another method of Self-inquiry is to trace our waking consciousness back to the awareness that persists even in deep sleep when the mind is put to rest. That deep sleep I is the real Self, while the waking ego is an illusion. Once one has learned Self-inquiry in the waking state one must carry it over to dream and deep sleep for it to be really efficacious.

22. I am not the body, the senses, the prana, the intellect or the ignorance behind them. I am the Unitary Being. That which is dependent is non-being.

Yet another method is to discriminate between the seer and the seen (drig drishya viveka). This is done on all levels of our being. We must learn to differentiate our true Self, subjectivity and sentience from our various bodies, vehicles or instruments which depend upon it. This practice starts with the physical body which is an instrument of action, to the senses, which are instruments of knowledge, to the prana, which is the power of action, and the mind that is the power of knowing. The Self that these depend upon is different and abides in the heart behind all these instrumentalities.

We must practice Self-inquiry not only on a conceptual level but in our physical, sensory and pranic activities as well on all layers of the mind down to its core. Self-inquiry is not just tracing the root of thought into the heart but the root of our entire existence.

23. As the illuminator of Being how can Consciousness be different from it? Consciousness exists as Being. That consciousness exists as I.

Another method is to see being as consciousness and consciousness as I or pure subjectivity. Once we have returned to that Unitary Being we realize it as pure consciousness and the true Self.

24. God and the soul are distinguished by their vestures. Their Self-nature as pure being is the supreme reality.
25. By eliminating the vestures in the perception of the Self-nature, the vision of God takes the form of the Self.

God and the soul are the two ultimate factors of the universe, which is their field of action. They differ by their vestures. God has an all powerful mind and prana. The soul has a limited mind and prana. Yet their common Self-nature unites them in the supreme reality. The way to unite God and the individual soul is to negate their names and forms and recognize the common Being and Consciousness behind both of them. One can only truly know God as one Self. Otherwise knowledge of God is indirect and not real. This method includes and unites both jnana and bhakti.

26. The condition of the Self is the perception of the Self. From the non-dual nature of the Self is abidance in the Self.

To see is to be. To see the Self is to be the Self. To be the Self is to see the Self. Meditating on the unity of being and seeing is another important approach. Actually there is no approach because the Self simply is what it is.

27. Consciousness devoid of knowing and not knowing is the real knowledge. What else is there to know?

Another method is to meditate on “What is knowledge?” The real knowledge is devoid of any object to be known. It is self-luminous self-aware wisdom. The highest knowing is going beyond knowledge. This is not a mere theoretical leap but a revolution at the core of consciousness.

28. What is the Self-nature? In the perception of the Self is the immutable, unborn, consciousness bliss absolute.

Another method is to inquire as to what the Self-nature of all things really is. The Self cannot be anything limited by objectivity, by time, space or causation. It is no body and no thing.

29. The supreme bliss beyond bondage and release, who attains that here is a Divine soul.

The soul becomes Divine by achieving that state beyond bondage and release. This is the supreme goal of practice that is beyond all goals. To reach it is a Divine gift and follows from all the practices set forth in the previous verses. This bliss that is our origin and end as the Upanishads say.

30. One’s own awareness free of the ego, this is the great tapas and the Word of Ramana.

This pure awareness beyond the separate self is the highest knowledge. But it is not conceptual. It is like a great fire. It is the tapas or ascetic practice that Ramana proved in his daily actions. Ramana did not merely talk about Self-realization or teach it as a mere theory, fantasy or emotion. He lived it, to the extent of letting his body be eaten by ants and mosquitoes while he was in samadhi. Those who want to achieve this state must have the tapas to bring it about or they are only indulging in wishful thinking. Many years of such tapas are usually necessary to achieve the goal.

This teaching is also Ramana’s Divine Word. It arose from the Divine Word in the heart and is not a product of human thought or any person’s ego, even Ramana’s. It is very easy to read such teachings and not difficult to understand them logically. One can use them to create a mental or emotional high. But their true realization is quite another matter and entirely beyond our human limitations. To reach that we must dedicate ourselves to the task in all that we do and in all that we are.

June 28, 2017

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