Self-Inquiry or Atma Vichara: By Dr. Harsh K. Luthar
Self-Inquiry, also known as Atma Vichara in Sanskrit, is based on a philosophy that has its origins in the ancient teachings of Advaita Vedanta. Advaita is based on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and is found in a number of other scriptures that are considered sacred by the Hindus. Advaita means nonduality, the ultimate Oneness that pervades or underlies everything.
Essentially Advaita implies that even though there is a diversity of phenomena, it has its origins in God and that ultimately everything not only exists in God but also resolves itself into God. According to Advaitic sages, the nature of God is Sat-Chit-Ananda. Sat means Existence. It is the nature of God to Exist. Chit means Knowledge. It is the nature of God to Know. Ananda means spontaneous Joy. The nature of God is Bliss or Joy.
Sri Ramana Maharshi, the great Indian sage of the Arunachala Hill, taught that since God is One without a second, and is present everywhere, He could be found by directly inquiring and reflecting on one’s own sense of being and existence. Sri Ramana once pointed out that in the Bhagavad Gita (Song of God) it is stated , “I am in the Heart of all beings.” Therefore, the logical conclusion of the Advaitic philosophy as explained by Sri Ramana is that if we want to find God, we need to look into our Heart, our own sense of Self and Identity because these have their origins in God and are inseparable from God.
The method of Self-Inquiry or Atma Vichara is very subtle. It does not have the glamour associated with the many methods of Yoga, Meditation, and Tantra. It teaches us to inquire within and abide in quiet being. This is not easy as we are conditioned to engage in doing things. To do nothing and quietly abide in one’s own sense of existence may even appear boring and a waste of time to many people. So one should follow the paths which are suitable for one’s own personality.
Although the potency of Atma Vichara is not always obvious to everyone, this was the one method that Ramana Maharshi advocated often. Of course, Sri Ramana accepted the validity of the paths of Yoga and Tantra for spiritual growth but held that ultimately these must lead to Self-Inquiry into the origin of one’s own source and the complete surrender to the Lord who sits in our Heart as our own Self.
There is a beautiful story of the great Sanskrit scholar and Yogi, Ganapati Muni, who had mastered the scriptures and the Vedas and had done much spiritual practice since childhood. Still, Ganapati Muni did not feel satisfied with his spiritual progress and went to Sri Ramana in great sorrow and fell at the feet of the Sage of Arunachala. Ganapati Muni told the young sage about how hard he had worked in knowing the mysteries of the spiritual path through various practices of mantra yoga but still did not understand the underlying meaning of “Tapas”. The word “Tapas” in Sanskrit refers to “genuine, intense, and prolonged spiritual practice”.
Sri Ramana gave Ganapati Muni a clear answer. The Sage of Arunachala explained that to see where the mantra or any thought arises and to be merged in that source is the true Tapas. This practice requires turning the mind within to its own origin, and merging it in That which is the Heart, one’s very center of existence. The Heart is where the God resides as the Universal Being which is nothing other than one’s own Self.
The practice and potency of Atma Vichara as taught by Bhagavan Ramana is not easy to understand. But if one develops the spiritual maturity of the mind and recognizes that all arising of thoughts and perception depend on the arising of the “I” sense, that is the first step. When the method takes hold and the “I” becomes the primary fascination to itself, that is the second step. When we realize this “I AM” within us, this sense of existence and being, the sacredness of life in us, we start to see that the same life is everywhere and in everyone.
So from the method of self-inquiry, the principle virtue and the life style of Ahimsa (philosophy of nonviolence) naturally emerges. It does not come about as something artificial and contrived but as a natural consequence of our seeing the sacredness of life in us and seeing the same life in others. It all flows from the same source. What is that Source? Some call it God. Any name could be given depending on language being used or one’s culture and religion. If God is Love, God certainly would not want people to fight over the label given to Him (Her).
The light and energy of God animates the existence of all beings. It is an ancient custom in India that when people greet each other, they fold their hands and say “Namaste”. Namaste means, “I bow to the light in you.” The greeting recognizes the sacredness of life in everyone and is rooted in Ahimsa, the philosophy of nonviolence which emerges spontaneously from practice of reflective Self-Inquiry.