Did Ramana practice Self-enquiry for four years or a few minutes?

How did Ramana Maharshi get Self-realized? The standard description goes something like this:

One day when Ramana was 16 years old, for no apparent reason, he suddenly thought he was about to die. Instead of shouting for help or running to a doctor, he lay on the floor and pretended he was already dead. He made his limbs immobile and held his breath. He did this, according to his biographer’s translation of his words, in order to “solve the problem.” Then he thought, in effect, “Okay, this is what it’s like to be dead. But I’m still conscious. Therefore I’m not my body. I am something else.”

With this understanding, he realized the Self. It took just a few minutes.

Why does this story matter? Because the method of Self-enquiry that Ramana taught for the rest of his life was based on this experience. When he told people to practice Self-enquiry he was saying in effect, “Do what I did when I was 16 years old.”

Therefore if we understand exactly what he did that day, we will know better how to practice Self-enquiry.

If you want to read all the published accounts of this experience at full length, you can find them here.

This account has never made sense to me for the following reasons:

1. What “problem” was Ramana trying to “solve”? Usually when people think they’re dying, the problem is that they’re dying and the solution is preservation of life. But he made no effort to save his life. On the contrary, he pretended that he was already dead. Why did he do this?

2. This experience came out of nowhere. Before it happened, he knew nothing about enlightenment and had never done sadhana. Why would he suddenly react this way?

In this article, I’m going to suggest a hypothesis that answers those questions. Why does this hypothesis matter? Because if we can understand what Ramana really did that day — if we can understand his motivations — if we can put ourselves in his shoes — we will be better equipped to imitate his example and practice Self-enquiry successfully and get Self-realized.

Here’s the hypothesis:

On that day, Ramana had already been practicing Self-enquiry for four years. He had begun this practice at age 12 when his father died and he wondered, “Is dad really gone now? Or is he still alive in a non-physical form, like religious people say?”

His father’s death caused tremendously powerful emotions which made him wonder about this with enormous intensity.

Soon after his father died the corpse was cremated. Ramana was a smart kid, and he understood that this meant that his father could only still be alive if he had never been his body.

So Ramana began to wonder, “Was my father his body? Or was he and is he still something else?”

And then Ramana’s wondering went one step further. He realized that this same question applied to himself. If his father had been something other than his body, then Ramana also is something other than his body.

In which case Ramana should be able to see this fact. He should be able to look at himself and recognize that he isn’t his body.

To put this another way, Ramana could figure out whether his father was still alive by looking at himself, Ramana, and seeing whether he was his body or something else.

So he started looking at himself, at his sense of “me”, to see whether he was his body or something else.

In part he was trying to figure out whether his father was still alive, and in part he was trying to discover whether he himself, Ramana, would die one day like his father apparently did or whether he would live forever.

That was the “problem.” The problem was a question: Am I my body or am I something else?

He didn’t merely ask the question.

He tried to see the answer.

The effort to see the answer is Self-enquiry.

He made this effort without thinking, “I’m doing sadhana.” He didn’t tell himself, “This is Self-enquiry.” His effort was simply a natural, unpremeditated reaction to events in his life.

During the next four years this effort became a sort of vasana, a chronic thought, a habitual wondering.

Then one day Ramana felt like he was dying and suddenly he had to find the answer very quickly because time was running out.

Why did he suddenly feel like he was dying? Because the four years of trying to see the answer to his question had brought him to the final moment of Self-enquiry when the I-thought gets sucked into the heart and dissolves. That final experience can be scary and can feel like death.

This hypothesis explains the enormous intensity with which Ramana made this enquiry. He was driven by the emotions caused by his father’s death. This intensity, in turn, helps explain why he was so successful.

This hypothesis makes Ramana human and intelligible. Without it, he’s a mysterious superhuman prodigy to whom something inexplicable happened. With it, he’s a human being like you or me. We can empathize with him. We can understand what he did. We can imitate him.

What evidence do I have for this hypothesis? I know of only two brief published paragraphs that support this idea. The first is a paragraph in the first edition of Conscious Immortality published in 1984 by Sri Ramanasramam. The paragraph no longer appears in the current edition.* Presumably the paragraph was written by Paul Brunton:

Maharshi told once how he got realization. On the day his father died he felt puzzled by death and pondered over it, whilst his mother and brothers wept. He thought for hours and after the corpse was cremated he got by analysis to the point of perceiving that it was the ‘I’ which makes the body to see, to run, to walk, and to eat. “I now know this ‘I’ but my father’s ‘I’ has left the body.” (Paul Brunton and Munagala Venkataramiah, Conscious Immortality, first edition, p. 68)

There is also a footnote in The Path of Sri Ramana Part One by Sadhu Om:

When, after hearing of His father’s death, Venkataraman [Ramana] came from Dindukkal to Tiruchuzhi to see him, He wondered: “When father is lying here, why do they say that he has gone?”. Some elders then told Him, “If this were your father, would he not receive you with love? So you see, he has gone.” This information might have roused in Him the idea that this body was not his father, the person. We may assume that this was a seed which afterwards — blossomed in Him at the age of sixteen. (Sri Sadhu Om, The Path of Sri Ramana Part One, p. 4)


This hypothesis may help explain why Ramana wrote in his farewell letter to his family, when he left home for Arunachala, “I have [gone] in search of my father.” People usually say he wrote “father” because he had been educated in a Christian high school, and Christians frequently refer to God as “father.” But maybe that’s only part of the explanation.


*The Paul Brunton Philosophical Foundation has told me that by July 2020 they will publish Brunton’s notebook on which Conscious Immortality was based. The foundation seems to be highly competent at publishing Brunton’s works properly, and presumably for the first time we will have a reliable, accurate edition of the notebook.

16 thoughts to “Did Ramana practice Self-enquiry for four years or a few minutes?”

  1. Thus is very insightful. I would say if Sadhu Om made that remark or wrote it, then what you have written is more than just your hypothesis. Sadhu Om was close to Muruganar and Muruganar, from what I have read seems to be Ramana’s closest friend and peer.

    Also, you point out Ramana was a human like the rest of us. This is important because it shows that all human beings have the capacity and potential to realize the truth of who we are. If it were not so then God would somehow be limited and that is not possible if God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient.

    1. Hi Rafe. I hope you’re well. 🙂

      Thanks for the kind words. It was Sadhu Om’s footnote that made me start thinking about this, and I’m grateful to him for publishing the footnote, but I think I am saying things that he may not agree with.

      I’m suggesting that as a result of his father’s death, Ramana did Self-enquiry between the ages of 12 and 16. But Sadhu Om says nothing about those four years, implying that Ramana did nothing until age 16 when the “seed” suddenly blossomed for no apparent reason.

      For another thing, I’m emphasizing the strong emotions that must have been caused by Ramana’s father’s death. Sadhu Om says nothing about emotion. In fact Sadhu Om’s description of Ramana’s thought processes is bloodless and without feeling, as if he’s describing Ramana thinking about a math problem for homework instead of his father’s death.

      I agree completely about the value and importance of seeing Ramana as human. In my opinion, when people put him on a pedestal, or when they imagine him as so different from themselves that they can’t empathize with him, they make it harder for themselves to become enlightened.

  2. Based on this quote you provided:
    “When, after hearing of His father’s death, Venkataraman [Ramana] came from Dindukkal to Tiruchuzhi to see him, He wondered: “When father is lying here, why do they say that he has gone?”. Some elders then told Him, “If this were your father, would he not receive you with love? So you see, he has gone.” This information might have roused in Him the idea that this body was not his father, the person. We may assume that this was a seed which afterwards — blossomed in Him at the age of sixteen.” (Sri Sadhu Om)

    I am saying that within this statement, there are indicators of your hypothesis.

    For example,
    “This information might have roused in Him the idea that this body was not his father, the person. We may assume that this was a seed which afterwards — blossomed in Him at the age of sixteen.”

    He says this was a seed that blossomed at 16. That means the seed had to go through a blossoming process and after a period of time, in this case 4 years, the seed blossomed. What you describe in your hypothesis is an expansion upon the idea Sadhu Om presented. You developed that which Sadhu Om said into a more full exploration of what the four year blossoming may have consisted of. And I see the relevance of your hypothesis.

    The other factor that is always mentioned in the realization at 16 is that Ramana says:

    “All this was not dull thought; it flashed through me vividly as living truth which I perceived directly, almost without thought-process.”

    Once the seed was planted that the body dies, Ramana must have had plenty of dull thoughts from age 12 to 16. The blossoming was the end of dull thought. No longer did Ramana have to think about what death was, as he had that irreversible shift into being deathless, taking his identity to be spirit from that point on.

    1. The main ideas in this article are that (1) Ramana had strong emotions which (2) caused him to do Self-enquiry between the ages of 12 and 16.

      Sadhu Om doesn’t say a word about either of those things.

      I agree with you that those ideas are additions to what he says.

      I also agree with you that they are consistent with what he says.

      But here’s what I think you may be overlooking:

      We don’t know whether he agreed with those ideas. He may have disagreed with them.

      That’s why I think we should avoid attributing the ideas to him. He may have disagreed with them, and if we assume otherwise, we are putting words in his mouth.

      I’m not sure why you think this is important. Are you trying to establish who was the first person to write about this subject? If that’s the case, it’s probably Brunton. He wrote his paragraph years before Sadhu Om met Ramana for the first time.

  3. No, that is not the concern. There isn’t a concern. I was trying to convey that a seed blossoming can mean what you have written about. A seed blossoms with light and water and soil. I like your suggestion of what the blossoming entailed.
    I do confess that I put more relevance on what Sadhu Om may have said than Brunton.

    1. Thanks. I agree that those blog posts of David’s are well worth reading and I endorse your recommendation. The only reason I didn’t link to them in the article is because the article links to a page that links to them.

      Maybe I’ll add a section of links to the article.

  4. I don’t see how to edit it.
    Isn’t there some writing about the temple Ramana would got to with the statues of saints and cry. Was that before the acting out death scene at 16 or after, I can’t recall.

    1. Maybe there’s no way for you to edit. I see an edit button but maybe that’s because I’m the moderator. If you want to change your earlier post, you can write a new one that will replace it and then I’ll delete the original for you.

      Ramana used to stand in that room and cry during the six weeks following the death scene.

      I can answer that off the top of my head because it means something to me personally. This stuff began for me in 1985 when I stumbled around in Meenakshi Amman Temple for hours in a kind of trance. I described that day in the second post on this blog. One of the things I did that day was stand in that room and look at the saints. I had never heard of Ramana at that time. Years later, when I found out that he had also stood in that room looking at the saints, it made an impression on me.

      Another personal note: the reason I had that experience that day in 1985 was because my father had recently died. That’s probably one of the reasons why I’ve thought so much about Ramana’s father’s death.

      1. Interesting, thanks for sharing that.
        Before enlightenment, crying.
        After enlightenment, crying.
        That’s what comes to mind.

  5. Thanks, Rob.

    What you wrote in the original post is very insightful and detailed about Ramana doing inquiry with intensity after his Father’s death. Sadhu Om didn’t say anything about that. Sorry to detract from the original post with my unnecessary comments. Feel free to delete them all.

    I do want to say one thing that hopefully doesn’t nag as you.
    Anytime anyone says anything in any language about a seed and it blossoming, we can assume that all seeds are planted and then after a period of time, they blossom. A seed doesn’t get planted and then lay dormant for years and then suddenly blossom. A seed is planted and then light and water and the soil immediately begin a process and at the end of that process there is blossoming. You seem to imply that seeds can be planted and there are other options. I am not aware of any. Again sorry, I could be not clear in my writing but can a seed blossoming have any other meaning other than it went through a process of growth which took a period of time and then blossomed?

    And at this point I’m not at all speaking about what Ramana did it what Sadhu Om said or what your original post was about.

    And if this question is not worth answering just delete it, I won’t think it rude.

    1. What nagged at me wasn’t anything you wrote. It was the fact that I hadn’t replied directly to your main point. I thought that was rude of me.

      And at this point I’m not at all speaking about what Ramana did it what Sadhu Om said or what your original post was about.

      Okay, in that spirit, let’s talk about botany. 🙂

      A seed doesn’t get planted and then lay dormant for years and then suddenly blossom.

      Seeds sometimes lie dormant for years. It’s called seed dormancy. Wikipedia’s article on that topic says, “Many species of plants have seeds that delay germination for many months or years.”

      1. Yes, I had a feeling I didn’t know enough about seeds… I stand corrected, you are right, I have no point, and again please feel free to delete all my comments if they distract from your post. I apologize for babbling about things I don’t know about. ☺

        1. It’s fine, I’ll leave all the comments up. The reason I deleted my last comment yesterday isn’t because we started talking about seeds blossoming. It was because that last comment of mine was an example of the kind of textual analysis that I associate with my days as a PhD student and I don’t want this blog to become too intellectual. My main intention with this website is, “Stay close to experience. Bring the reader back to his or her immediate experience.”

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