Friday, April 29, 2022

What does Ramana Maharshi mean by “All sciences end in the Self”?

Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi” has been my reflection companion for over two decades. It contains conversations with Ramana Maharshi (RM) (1879-1950), a spiritual teacher known for his emphasis on self-inquiry. The conversations in this book took place between 1935 and 1939 in RM’s ashram in Tiruvannamalai in South India and were recorded by one of the then residents of the ashram, Munagala Venkataramiah.

In one of the conversations with a visitor in 1937 (Talk 380), RM said, “All sciences end in the Self”.  What did RM mean by this? Science continues to unravel so many mysteries including the mystery surrounding the concept of self. Isn’t it an important path towards understanding reality and one’s own nature? Did RM underestimate the power of science? This is an attempt to explore these questions.

Let’s begin with an excerpt from Talk 380 where this quote appears. The visitor had come from Europe and most likely there would have been a translator.

V: I want confirmation of the Self.

RM: You seek the confirmation from others. Each one though addressed as ‘you’, styles himself ‘I’. The confirmation is only from ‘I’. There is no ‘you’ at all. All are comprised in ‘I’. The other can be known only when the Self is posited. The others do not exist without the subject.

V: Again, this is nothing new. When I was with Sir C. V. Raman he told me that the theory of smell could be explained from his theory of light. Smell need no longer be explained in terms of chemistry. Now, there is something new; it is progress. That is what I mean, when I say that there is nothing new in all the statements I hear now.

RM: ‘I’ is never new. It is eternally the same.

V: Do you mean to say that there is no progress?

RM: Progress is perceived by the outgoing mind. Everything is still when the mind is introverted and the Self is sought.

V: The Sciences - what becomes of them?

RM: They all end in the Self. The Self is their finality

Let’s note that “the Self” is a translation of the Sanskrit word Swarupa which could also be translated as “one’s nature” or essence. 

How ignorant was RM about sciences? In the same book where the above-mentioned conversation happens, there are a couple of places where RM refers to science. “Even the material sciences trace the origin of the universe to some one primordial matter - subtle, exceedingly subtle.” (Talk 199) And, another one, “There is no difference between matter and spirit. Modern science admits that all matter is energy.” (Talk 268) This implies that RM had probably heard of the implications of the special theory of relativity and the brand-new branch of quantum mechanics. Looks like he was not totally ignorant.

Then where does this confidence of “All sciences end in the Self” come from? Let’s look at one more elaboration of RM on this topic (Talk 388):

“There are no objects without the subject, i.e., the objects do not come and tell you that they are, but it is you who says that there are the objects. The objects are therefore what the seer makes of them. They have no existence independent of the subject. Find out what you are and then you understand what the world is.”

Empirical evidence is an important aspect of the scientific method. Scientific theories predict future observations for a given context. This implies the separation of observer and observed. Is observer independent of observed? What if the observer is the observed? It could be like one hand observing the other hand – having some relative independence but ultimately part of one whole. Perhaps what RM is trying to say is that science has relevance when the subject considers itself to be independent of the object and loses its relevance when the sense of separateness vanishes.   

And even if a branch of science (e.g. quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, neuroscience) is telling that observer and observed are not independent, RM feels that having the mere knowledge is not the same as internalizing that knowledge. A scientist may champion a monistic theory and yet feel frustrated or get depressed because fellow scientists are not paying attention to his theory. RM brings it out in the following Q&A from Talk 27.

Q: Is the study of science, psychology, physiology, philosophy, etc. helpful for (1) this art of yoga-liberation. (2) the intuitive grasp of the unity of the Real?

RM: Very little. Some knowledge is needed for yoga and it may be found in books. But practical application is the thing needed, and personal example, personal touch and personal instructions are the most helpful aids. As for the other, a person may laboriously convince himself of the truth to be intuited, i.e., its function and nature, but the actual intuition is akin to feeling and requires practice and personal contact. Mere book learning is not of any great use. After realisation all intellectual loads are useless burdens and are thrown overboard as jetsam. Jettisoning the ego is necessary and natural.

This is like the difference between cycling and cycology. One may know the theory behind how a cycle works and how a cyclist balances his weight and yet may not know cycling. Cycling is a full-body knowledge also called embodied cognition and it is mostly implicit. Similarly, knowing that the self is not independent of and intimately connected with the outside world is not enough. It needs to be embodied and internalized to be effective.  

One implication of what RM is saying is that reading this blog itself is of very little use. Turning attention inwards, watching the movement of thought, and exploring the origin of I-thought is more important. RM says, “Change your outlook. Look within. Find the Self. Who is the substratum of the subject and the object? Find it and all problems are solved.” (Talk 331)

Related blog:

Ramana Maharshi’s self-inquiry through Upadesa Saram verses, Dec 2021.

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