Search & Read
Ramana and the No-Thought State
Jane: Through Mooji, I finally found Ramana Maharshi. His being is like a divine presence and deity for me, in the sense used by Ramji when we need a form to worship the Divine. Ramana never claimed to be a teacher or to have students in the sense that James understands being a Vedanta teacher. For his teachings, I turned mostly to scholar and researcher David Godman as a source of information and Michael James, both British people. These two are great devotees of Ramana who have tried to transmit what they understood from Ramana’s legacy. What I get from both is that, according to Ramana, it is required to have no thoughts for full realization of the self. As long as your mind is active, you are still not fully self-realized.
Now, Ramji says that for enlightenment to be complete there is no need to have no thoughts. Most people who have had epiphanies around Ramana did experience the no-thought state, which is a great help of course but is not permanent. I seem to stumble upon this difference between what Ramana seems to say and what Ramji says. To me, what Ramji says makes sense, but then I do not talk from a place of full Self-realization. On the other hand, Ramana was a great soul, surely he must have known what he was talking about. There is an uncertainty here in my understanding of the state of Self-realization. Any comments?
Rory: I love Ramana too. He was a true mahatma. I was in Tiruvannamalai a few years ago and I loved spending time at his ashram. I used to find quiet corners to sit and just bask in the stillness. I swear you can actually still feel his radiant presence in the temple.
As you said, he wasn’t a teacher as such. People would ask him questions, and he would answer them according to their level of understanding. Therefore his answers would differ from person to person. This can cause confusion.
I once saw a guy online who actually believed that Ramana was an extraterrestrial! Ramana said that the Self is in the Heart, which he said is located in the right side of the chest. This was actually a metaphorical statement, but this fellow thought that Ramana was literally saying that his heart was in the other side of his chest. He decided that Ramana must therefore be an alien, and there was no hope of any of the rest of us mere humans becoming enlightened like he was! This demonstrates how bizarrely Ramana’s words can be misconstrued.
It’s difficult for me to presume to know what Ramana was meaning when he spoke about enlightenment as a no-thought state. I can only analyse it in the light of Vedanta’s teaching. Certainly, there is a school of thought, prominent in yoga theory, which believes enlightenment to be a state of no thought. Indeed, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali start by proclaiming enlightenment to be “chitta virtti naroda,” a mind free of thought.
The problem with this notion is simple.
Moksa means “freedom.” If your freedom is dependent on the attainment of a certain state – in this case, a state of no thought – then you’re not free, because the moment that state goes (and any state that can be attained can be lost), your enlightenment goes along with it. Freedom is independence from all objects, including subtle objects such as states of mind/consciousness.
Furthermore, inquiry reveals that awareness, the Self, is independent of anything in mithya, and that includes states of mind. Awareness shines the same whether there are thoughts or no thoughts in the mind. The mind is affected by thought and modifies to each thought, but the Self is unaffected and unmodified by anything in this world, whether gross or subtle. So the notion that moksa is a state of no thought doesn’t pan out, because the Self is independent of thought and you are the Self.
It’s also the nature of the mind to think. In fact thinking is involved in basic perception. Objects appear in the mind, in the form of subtle vrittis, or thoughts. The senses relay information and the mind, formless in nature, actually takes the form of those sense objects, allowing perception to happen. A thoughtless state doesn’t, therefore, lead to enlightenment in itself. Every night, everyone experiences a state of no thought in deep sleep, but sadly, no one ever wakes up enlightened for it.
A lot of seekers believe that if they can just attain a state of inner silence they will get enlightened. This doesn’t work, because silence is not opposed to ignorance. The two happily coexist, so enlightenment won’t automatically happen in a silent mind.
Moksa requires knowledge of the Self – and this knowledge takes the form of a particular vritti, thought. So you could in fact argue that actually thought is actually essential to Self-knowledge!
HOWEVER, the mind does need to be receptive to this knowledge. A mind completely overrun by thoughts, desires, aversions and attachments is not a fertile ground for Self-knowledge.
Such a mind is extroverted and will likely just to keep enacting the same merry dance of samsara – craving, desire, action, attainment and attachment. In Panchadasi, Vidyaranya Swami says, “Knowledge of one’s Self as awareness does not happen for those whose minds are fickle and agitated. Therefore it is necessary to control the mind.”
So I believe Ramana was talking about the necessity of a qualified, sattvic mind for the assimilation of Self-knowledge.
Rajas and tamas are the great impediment to the attainment of knowledge. Rajas agitates and extroverts the mind; tamas dulls and obscures. Both make the assimilation of Self-knowledge impossible. Krishna says in the Gita, “Without a peaceful, stable mind, contemplation of the Self is impossible and freedom is elusive. Lacking the ability to contemplate, there is no peace. Without peace, how can there be happiness?”
So while a thought-free state does not equate to moksa, a sattvic mind is necessary for the apprehension and assimilation of Self-knowledge. That’s what I believe Ramana meant, and that’s why Vedanta stresses the importance of cultivating the necessary qualifications. When the mind is sattvic, it is tranquil, reflective and contemplative. Such a mind needn’t be thought-free, but when sattva predominates, the mind will generally produce less thought. Gone are the agitating, desire-based, grasping and compulsive thought patterns of a mind conditioned by rajas, and gone are the dull, fear-based, ignorant thought patterns influenced by tamas.
When the mind has been tamed by the practice of karma yoga, the consistent application of Self-knowledge reconditions the mind to identify as awareness, and not the jiva. This leads to liberation, to the removal of Self-ignorance and the freedom of knowing oneself to be already whole and complete.
A sattvic mind is not the direct cause of moksa. It is indirect. It allows the assimilation of Self-knowledge, which is the direct cause of moksa.
It’s worth noting that the body and mind of the jnani, who knows himself/herself to be awareness, is (like everything in mithya) still subject to the gunas. But they no longer identify with the content of the mind and all of its thoughts, feelings, etc. They know these are mithya, while the Self is satya. Awareness is always unaffected by the content of the mind. The Self is free of thought, even if there are thoughts in the mind.
On the topic of thoughts and moksa, Swami Dayananda says: “Knowledge is not obtaining a certain state of mind. Knowledge is recognition of the fact that I am thought-free. This recognition is different from a state of mind that is thought-free. The difference between recognizing my fundamental nature as thought-free and aiming for a thought-free mind is the difference between knowledge and ignorance.”