Friday, March 27, 2015

Nan Yaar? (Who Am I?) - Ramana Maharshi

(Long post)

In the spring of 2014, a book kept coming up on my book recommendations on Kindle. It was around $3.00. I bought a copy. When it arrived in the mail, I almost missed it because it was so thin. At about 15 pages, it felt like a pamphlet.

I picked it up a few days later to read. One paragraph in, the book dropped from my hands. Because I was in shock, feeling something like a pleasant void.

In one paragraph the author had answered all questions we usually ask.


Nan Yaar? is a compilation of answers given in writing, by Ramana Maharshi in 1902. Fourteen questions were asked by another. It was translated into Who Am I?

In the answer to the first question – Who am I? Ramana Maharshi answered first who he is not. In summary, he (I) is not what we (as I’s) usually think we are.
Isn’t all we think- from the experiences we seek, our books, art, travel– about understanding ourselves? Understanding our lives and our world, using our senses and comprehension?  (He said that isn't us!)

If you’re someone for whom the above is funny and only that, now may be a good time to stop reading. It has been said- There is no Tao without the hearty laugh!


All living beings desire to be happy always, without any misery. In everyone there is observed supreme love for oneself. And happiness alone is the cause of love. In order therefore, to gain that happiness which is in one’s nature and which is experienced in the state of deep sleep, where there is no mind, one should know oneself…

Happiness alone is the cause of love. Oh my. So clear, so elegant. I had been thinking it was the other way around! So clear, my unanswered questions simmering indefinitely on many back burners simply turned off.  Many dots got connected and are still connecting.

(As an aside- the essential difference between eastern and western philosophy is in the above. Core eastern philosophies speak of the elusive state of no mind, of stillness, of action in non-action and the reverse. Western philosophy is of the mind1.)


Born in Tiruchuzhi, a small town near Madurai in 1879, Venkataraman Iyer lived with his parents, two brothers and a sister2. One day in 1896, when he was 16, he felt as if he was dying3. Surely, there was something about him that led to this feeling. It was no ordinary feeling, as found out later. He went upstairs and laid down.

The fear was violent. His senses became numb. He instinctively asked himself- Nan Yaar?

What happened afterwards was spontaneous. He saw the seer in him disappear, and no thought arose. An awareness came over which became the “I” and the “I” associating with the body disappeared.  This Self-awareness was luminous, continuous, unrelated to anything.

It took him a few weeks to realize that this was him, that this state was staying. Gradually he found himself unable to function at home and school. He left home with three rupees for the train and went to Tiruvannamalai. He went to the temple in Arunachalam. He was there for many months, unaware of his body. Kind people took care of him- even feeding him.

He lived in a similar way until 1916, in caves and temples. Feeling an attraction, people started coming to him. In 1902, Sri Sivaprakasam Pillai, slate in hand, asked him the 14 questions which became the book, Nan Yaar. He was addressed with the title “Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi” by Sri Ganapati Sastri, a scholar who visited in 1907 and was overwhelmed.

In 1922 he moved to a place which came to grow as Ramanasramam. He lived in the ashram until 1950.

Sri Ramana Maharshi stayed in the magical state of Self-awareness while living a regular life. A regular life- as one in such a state would be. This state was felt by one after another visitor, who felt Self-awareness sweep over them by just being in the ashram4. It was not explainable by any known analyses.


Ramana Maharshi just was5. He was said to emanate bliss from the stillness of being. Those who visited him (or sometimes even far away) felt this as a quietening of their own minds and feeling their true selves.  He lived simply, spent most of his life in a small corridor/room with bare-minimal personal possessions. His authenticity was disarming.

When a new room was built to accommodate the large number of visitors, his reluctance to leave his old room also had to do with – how will the squirrels find me? Apparently birds and animals visited him. He woke up very early to work in the kitchen and insisted on food be shared equally, even with visitors. He didn’t like food being wasted, apparently not even mustard seeds that rolled off in the kitchen. He asked the fruit from trees be picked with care and only as needed. His affection for Lakshmi, a cow in the ashram was legendary6. He was sensitive- it is said once a man rushed in and hugged him, and Ramana Maharshi’s skin broke out in welts. He did everything himself- even in sickness in later life, he would not take a hand to navigate a small step into the visitor room.

He didn’t need religion or philosophy. He was all spiritual. What he said to the people who visited him is difficult understand as-is. But was explained by David Godman (name is a coincidence), who collected and published Ramana Maharshi’s words in Be As You Are and other collections, with dedication.

Ramana Maharshi offered help- depending on the level of the person asking him. This level was of the mind and heart of the visiting person. Some were met with silence (his highest form of communication). With people who could not absorb the silence, he spoke.  So some of what he said can be very confusing, if out of context- because of necessary shifting of levels to the seeker’s level of Jnana. This ability is not of intellect but of extent of Self-knowledge- how quiet is the mind and how open is the heart.

An extraordinary story was of a poor weaver from a small village who came to visit him, Mastan Swami. When he first met Ramana Maharshi, Mastan Swami apparently stood still, for hours.


If a Guru asks you to do something, anything more than what you are already doing (for spirituality), he/she is not a guru

From Ramana Maharshi we know that a true Jnani sees everyone and everything as equal and does not glorify anything, even Jnana or Self-knowledge.

What really is Jnana?

The standard response is – it is knowledge of the Self. But it means nothing to most. What Jnana is not is learnings from schooling or skills for livelihood and survival7.

So instead, let’s ask- what is Self?

My simple theory - Self is like a hidden pattern behind patterns. Jnana is being able to feel, analyse and discover the hidden pattern. This is pathless. We can feel the Self for what it truly is, only at the elusive end-point of Jnana road. Somehow at the dead-end, a person has an irreversible change. Tunes into a non-anthropomorphic state. In that reality all questions are answered because… they cease to exist.  Especially the most daunting questions- What is death? Why do we exist? Why do we suffer? Why does a child suffer? What does it mean that questions cease to exist?

There are no prerequisites for Self-knowledge. There is no need for renunciation.

Ramana Maharshi’s response to the question- What is the nature of the Self?What exists in truth is the Self alone. The world, the individual soul and God are appearances in it, like silver in mother-of-pearl; these three appear at the same time and disappear at the same time. The Self is that where there is absolutely no ‘I’-thought. That is called ‘Silence’. The Self itself is the world; the Self itself is ‘I’; the Self itself is God; all is Siva, the Self.

As we can see, Self-knowledge is elusive. A knowledge which a culture has been trying to know and keep, any way it can, for a few thousand years, in song, story or stone.

I’ve read that Buddha wondered, he wondered after Nirvana just how was he to explain what he knew to people because it was so… ungraspable.

There is nothing to achieve

Ramana Maharshi said this many ways, for it is difficult to get our minds around because it is counter to everything we know and perceive. I summarize-

-As long as you are seeing yourself as “I am different”, you are not seeing. Quite contrary to what we learn from birth, we have to lose subject-object differentiation.

-You just need to realize that you already are the Self. This happens when the ego is gone, like a stirring stick in a burning pyre, by method of Inquiry, asking “Who am I?”

-Rituals, prayers, fasts, feasts, meditation, yoga,  chants, music - are of limited nature because they involve I, unless it is overcome (if overcome, you won’t need them). Yoga nidra, however long, tantras & siddis, however mighty, are all of limited nature, they involve I. Even visions, if any, have to pass. Bliss is beyond ecstasies. There is no Mukti to achieve. You already have it.

- Then you’ll see that you do not exist, only the Self exists (so your suffering also does not exist!)

You see, his view was different from ours. It is difficult for us to understand. His view was of a Jnani, he was Self-aware and he saw through Maya. (But the less said about the mystical Maya, the better, because it has been used up a lot by many). Another way is to look into shrusti-dhrusti, dhrusti-shrusti.

Two kinds 

Now we come to the most riveting part of the whole. 

Our normal view is the shrusti-dhrusti. It is: world-view. We see the stars, the world, nature, people and animals. We make laws, form pockets of cultures and traditions. We learn, we figure out how things work. We have science, art, religion, sports and entertainment. Each one of us is separate and we are trying to live to our maximum potential. We are born, we live, and we die.
This is the cause-effect world we know. It has our dear friends- the mind and the ego.

Then there is dhrusti-shrusti. It is: view-world. It is most mysterious. Is it for real? For some extremely rare people.  They have said that we make our own world.

They have said the change happens when you see your true nature. The world as we know, disappears somewhat, because everything and everybody becomes equal. 
(Ramana Maharshi said to persistent questioners who were curious about super powers- Who is asking the question? Who is using the powers? To show to whom?)


Alas, spirituality is a business opportunity for some. A link came up the other day and I heard someone declare on YouTube- I am Self Realized! And offered the same for select devotees. But in the nature of the claim was the contradiction. It was also in the voice, in the eyes, in what was said and not said. 

Someone making a claim may be real or not. It may be difficult to differentiate. Most likely- someone may have an idea and some experience, but the road is long, and it is all or nothing. Delusion is probably a part of the process for some, but conning others needn’t be a part of it.

I believe we can try to understand the nature of Self-Awareness but cannot lay any claim to it. We can’t mix and match the two views with poor understanding of either. It is insincere in more ways than one. Worse, if with a personal agenda, we go advocate a public policy on a social platform. 

As Taoist saying says- If you are still thinking that you are doing, you are no closer than the day you were born! Our world- our regular world- is where we comprehend with our senses and mind. And enjoy cardamom tea in the afternoons.

O Sita! O Rama! O Krishna!

(I digress. This is related, but separate. I’ve never read Ramana Maharshi say anything about Rama or Krishna, except comment on the Gita- only when someone mentioned a sloka and asked for opinion. I only read that he spoke of Siva8)

We don’t understand goodness, do we?  Maybe because it is so difficult to explain, it mostly has to be felt, Rama and Sita were declared a priori gods by bhakti narratives of past centuries. So, no questions were left to be pondered.

There’s a fine layer beneath the layer beneath the surface layers of the story? I believe so.

Rama had one thing- his closeness to the Self. It was this grace of goodness that earned him the hearts of people. The knife-edge journey, of Rama to the Self, and of Sita, is the Ramayana. I feel it is out of this world.

“…Bhadre, …” After the war, pensive, Rama pointed out four aspects to unsuspecting and soon, a shocked Sita. A regular person would have rushed to success and glory. Instead, Rama put everything aside. It is a mystery. 

In our world view we see this episode only within the cultural-knots of the time- faithfulness, honor and duty. This is the tone of most narratives.
What is love? What are our bonds? For a Jnani, love is unconditional and bonds are egoless. Do the mystery puzzle pieces of this episode actually start in dhrusti-shrusti?  What did Rama say, why, how did Sita Devi respond and what happened, is the stuff that stories are usually not made of9.

Oh Krishna! Is there anyone who realized his Self like this? Asked the baffled Arjuna. Krishna replied “Yes. There was Janaka10”.

Of all the people, Arjuna alone stood at the doorway of Maya. He dissolved in his place in the world. Filled with grief, he could not move despite the crisis at hand. So Krishna walked him over to a temporary dhrusti-shrusti. The Gita is a treatise by Krishna, of the state of Self-awareness. Unbelievable.

(One has to have the eye for the verses of cause-effect nature, most likely from layers added later on by others)


Who Am I?

In last century we had Ramana Maharshi, who spoke in silence. He left a book11- in which he gave us a method of self-inquiry for knowing the Self. A BKM (best known method), if I may say that. It starts and ends with the question- Who am I? It is beyond extraordinary.

How does it work? He said- When thoughts arise, one should not pursue them, but should inquire: To whom do they arise? The answer would emerge “To me”. Then one should ask “Who am I?” The thought will become quiescent. With repeated practice, the mind will go its source, the heart. Then the “I”, which is the source of all thoughts will go and the Self which ever exists will shine.

He also said elsewhere- The thirst for Self-awareness has to be as desperate as a drowning man’s for a breath of air.



  1. Socrates spoke of the mind that uses information from senses as not seeing the reality.
  2. This section is compiled from a number of resources, mostly online including wikipedia.
  3. The accounts of this vary based on the interpreters. Some of them tend to dramatize the narrative. Ramana Maharshi himself spoke very little and either in Tamil, Telugu or Malayalam.
  4. Face to Face with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Complied by Prof. Laxmi Narain. An excerpt from the book from an account by Dilip Kumar Roy from Aurobindo Ashram:                                                                                                                                                                           “…All our ideas as to how the great should act seem to be dismissed by him with a smile of simple disavowal. I saw with my own eyes day after day during my five-day stay at the Ashram of this unique sage, the like of whom I am sure is not to be met within this vast world. I have never in my life of varied experience and wide travelling met a man so utterly indescribable and yet so profoundly moving. I cannot say why he moved me to my depths with eyes where no soft light of emotion presided, and yet it bathed me when I met his gaze with a peace that I find as unaccountable as it was delectable. The Maharshi has not the slightest use for pretentiousness and self-importance. He is for no trappings either of speech or learning. I saw indeed a man, who in his exterior was anything but distinguished, far less handsome or captivating, and yet – how shall I put it – he was so compelling and so disarming!...”                            
  5. This section and parts of section There is nothing to achieve are based on the book Be As You Are and You Tube videos on Ramana Maharshi posted by David Godman.
  7. That it is not, is a simplification.
  8. Siva is symbolization of Self.
  9. From Ayodhyakanda to Yuddhakanda. Authorship of Uttarakanda, a sequel, is debatable.
  10. All the kings of Mithila of a certain time had a name ending with Janaka. We actually don't know if the reference was to a king in this line. 
  11. The book Nan Yaar, has many editions. The book I have has 28 questions.



  1. “Whatever is destined not to happen will not happen, try as you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to prevent it. This is certain. The best course, therefore, is to remain silent.”
    ― Ramana Maharshi

    Here , to be Silent is not a passive tamasic silence ...It is to Silence the thoughts .In short , Raman's message is , in fact , the summary of Gita's sloka :
    karmany evadhikaras te
    ma phalesu kadachana
    ma karma-phala-hetur bhur
    ma te sango ’stv akarmani" (Bhagwat Gita: Chapter Two verse 47)
    It Means:-
    "You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty."

  2. To silence the thoughts which arise before and after the ' performance of an action'
    It is the art of 'suspending the mind' before performing the action - while performing the action and after performing the action .

  3. I believe-

    The quote of Ramana Maharshi and sloka from Krishna, as mentioned, when taken out of original context can be - interpreted in so many ways.

    To want to control the mind is still- attachment

    The basic method would ask- "Who is wanting to suspend the mind?"

    1. Hi,
      I was thinking about this and had a couple of other thoughts-

      There is some difference in how karma (& type) was discussed by Ramana Maharshi and Krishna.
      That said, what you were pointing with the specific mentions, was probably the same state- of 'choiceless awareness' (a phrase used by J. Krishnamurti).
      Only thing is I believe this state has be effortless to be authentic.

  4. Who Am I (Nan Yar?) is a great document. Thanks for posting you views and experience.