Who Am I?

Who Am I?

In this method the final question is the only one, and it is raised from the very beginning. (Ramana Maharshi)

The question ‘Who am I’ is the direct method to the realization of the ‘Self’’ according to Ramana Maharshi. He called this direct path to enlightenment ‘Self-enquiry’.

Direct it is. This question aims straight at the center, at the core of human existence. It looks for the pulsating Heart of the universe and discovers it in the depths of our own being. It is about meaning. It is about existence. What does it mean to exist as a human being?

From the depths of the human soul, the human consciousness, this question arises. It flows upwards to meet us in our world of illusions. It confronts us with what we are, with what we have become. Who am I? It is the final question, the only one which needs to be answered. It is the question that has been with us from the beginning.


Although Ramana regarded the Silence as the highest form of his teachings, he recommended the method of self-enquiry to people who asked him for practical advice. The beauty of this method, which consists of two questions only, lies in its simpleness. It can be applied by anyone without the need of esoteric knowledge or the study of philosophical systems. This simple system can be of great value to the modern man who seems to become a victim of his own thoughts, his own creations. We suffer from the lack of meaningfulness and hence are prone to depression, fear, and loneliness.

To understand how the method of self-enquiry works, we consider the following three aspects of our existence:

First, the world outside us. This is the world of the objects, the three-dimensional realm of time and space.

Second, the inner world, the psychological domain, the world of our thoughts and desires.

Third, the spiritual world, the kingdom of the Silence, of the Gnosis. It is the realm of the Center, the spiritual Heart, the Self.

Two questions

Ramana points out that when our consciousness is directed outward, it creates connections with the objects around us. He gives the striking metaphor of a spider’s web. The spider creates the web from its own being. The outgoing threads are all the identifications we make with things around us. Once the web is in place, it veils our true nature, we become blind to it. We only see and experience the web of identifications we have created. The spider desires to catch something but is caught in its own web of illusions in the end.

What is the first thing we can do to free ourselves of our illusions? Just as the spider withdraws its web back into itself from time to time, we too can retract our web. We do this by asking ourselves the question ‘Who is having all these thoughts?’. This question shifts our attention from the world around us to our inner life. It severs the connection with all objects from the world outside us. The first question of the method of self-enquiry is ‘To whom do all these thoughts occur?’. Who is the one having all these desires and fears? The answer is: me.

Now the second question must follow. The spider has retracted his web inside him; we have shifted our attention to our inner, psychological world. We become aware that the web of illusions exists in our inner world too. It consists of all the lines of force which connect our auric sphere to our personality. To dissolve this inner web, the second question is raised: Who am I?

Am I my body? Am I my name, my bloodline? Am I my possessions? Am I all of my sensory experiences, hence the past? Am I my education and upbringing? Am I my religious beliefs? Am I my esoteric knowledge? Am I my talents and qualities? Am I my hopes and desires?

The answer from Ramana Maharshi is: you are not all these aspects. Although this is a little push in the right direction, he who wants to attain real self-knowledge must discover it for himself. If we are not all these aspects, then the question remains: who am I?

Ramana says: “The thought ‘who am I?’ will destroy all other thoughts, and like the stick used for stirring the burning pyre, it will itself in the end get destroyed.[1]

To understand what he means, let’s elaborate a bit more on our metaphor. The spider has retracted the web of illusions inside himself; we focus on the contents of our own mind. Why does the spider make a web? To survive, to maintain itself. Without its web the spider loses its existential basis. The question ‘Who am I?’ lets the bright light of consciousness shine on the web of illusions. In this way the funeral pyre is lit.

Amazing discovery

If we persevere in our self-enquiry, we will reach an amazing conclusion: the spider itself is nothing else than the web, the bundle of all these thoughts. The spider, the I-consciousness, is the synthesis of all this information processing. Ramana says that the I-thought, that is ‘I am a separate person living in a body and have to maintain myself’, is the root thought. After the rising of this I-thought, all other thoughts arise. But when the root is pulled out, all other thoughts are uprooted also.

Hence the I-thought is the root, the spider, from which all other thoughts, the web, arise. How do we free ourselves from the spider and its web? With the question ‘Who is having all these thoughts?’, we shifted our attention from the outer to the inner, psychological world. Now our subjective world, the domain of the I-thought, must be surrendered to the spiritual world, the spiritual Center, our true Self. The question ‘Who am I?’ points us in the direction of the One-source.

Universal Teaching

We can describe the path of liberation as the outer world – inner world – spiritual world. Or, in other words: body – soul – spirit. The step from the inner world to the spiritual world is the most abstract, because it concerns a part of our existence which is unknown to us. To help us we can use a tool that was given to us by the School of the Golden Rosycross. Is it justified to combine spiritual teachings of different cultures? Yes, because both the method of self-enquiry as well as the teachings of the Golden Rosycross are part of the Universal Teaching.

The Universal Teaching itself is not a method or a book, it is the fullness of cosmic radiation. It can be experienced as Love, Light, Wisdom, Truth, Power, Grace and more. The great teachers of mankind, like Ramana Maharshi, have direct access to this fullness of radiation. As persons they have become one with their spiritual Self. They drink from the One Source and can transfer certain aspects to mankind in a material form, like a book, or more directly like etheric radiation. Hence, we can cross cultural boundaries that are just the threads in the web. One Source, One Universal Teaching, One Mankind.

The Golden Rosycross says: a human being is a microcosm. This microcosm is a whole universe on a small scale. It is a sevenfold spiritual creation, an emanation of the Sevenfold Spirit. The spiritual archetype of the true human being is the center of this little universe. We call it the ‘Rose’; Ramana calls it the ‘Self’. The One-Source emanates itself as the Sevenfold Spirit. This fullness of radiation manifests itself as the universe, as macrocosm and microcosm. Thus we can understand that our central rose, our spirit-spark, is connected to the Universal Teaching, to the Sevenfold Spirit.

Maybe this short explanation can help with our last step: transition from the psychological world to the spiritual world.

As a person we live in our microcosm. Only, we are not aware of it, our consciousness is not capable of experiencing the spiritual reality. The spider and its web have put a veil over the spiritual world. The reality we experience reflects our identifications, our connections to things outside us.

For a seeker of Truth, it becomes evident that both spider and web must be dissolved, surrendered to the spiritual fire.


When Ramana was asked to summarize his teachings in one word, he said: “Attention”.

On the path of liberation, we shifted our attention from the outer world to the inner domain. We discovered that the web of attachments exists also in our mental, subjective world. To dissolve this web, our attention must reach a deeper level. We need the purifying fire of the Spirit. To reach the spiritual realm we direct our focus, our attention, to the spiritual Center, the Rose, the Self. The question ‘Who am I?’ puts us in the right direction. Who am I really?

We find a nice confirmation of the ‘attention principle’ in the Gnostic Mysteries of the Pistis Sophia, chapter 16 ‘The wonder of the original atom’. There we read about the experiences of a person who kept his attention fixed on this spiritual Center, his Self, his spirit-spark atom.

The rosebud is a world order, a world soul, an omni-manifestation that cannot express itself here. It is an omni-manifestation that is not of this world, a gigantic kingdom, but not of this nature. The rosebud contains a stilled life that would be able to blossom with exuberant majesty.

An example from a different culture? Yes. Different terminology? Yes. The same universal Truth? Yes.


As a boy, Ramana was drawn to the holy mountain Arunachala in the south of India. At the age of sixteen he left home and lived in a cave high up the mountain. He loved the Silence, but even there, seekers came to him for spiritual advice. Later in his life he moved downhill to be more accessible. Then a big ashram formed itself around him at the foot of the mountain.

An old Hindu legend tells that the god Shiva manifested himself as a column of Light. But out of compassion for the people who could not bear this Light, he concealed himself in the mountain Arunachala.

You can watch a nice video about this mountain here. The quotation below is taken from a beautiful essay about the power of Arunachala.

Arunachala is truly the holy place. Of all holy places it is the most sacred! Know that it is the heart of the world. It is truly Shiva himself! It is his heart-abode, a secret kshetra [holy place]. In that place the Lord ever abides the hill of light named Arunachala.” (…) However, as the above verse of Arunachala Mahatmyam says, Arunachala is a secret kshetra. Because it is this place that bestows jnana [self-knowledge] and because most people have so many other desires and do not truly want jnana, Arunachala has always remained comparatively little known. But to those few who seek jnana, Arunachala always makes itself known through some means or other.

Let us try to lift the veil of this mystery a little. First, we need to know that Shiva is the Sevenfold Spirit, also known as the Holy Spirit. Shiva is the architect of the universe, of macrocosm and microcosm. Shiva destroys and builds, it is the renewer of all.

Due to the spider and its web, the I-central consciousness with its desires and identifications, our sevenfold microcosmic nature is unknown to us. We have lost ourselves in the web of illusions. Arunachala is hidden from us.

Now it becomes clear why Arunachala, that is the sevenfold Light of Shiva, shows itself when we start looking for true self-knowledge. Who am I really? When we overcome the idea that we are the body, the form, then Arunachala becomes the column of Light again and reveals its true nature.

We climb the mountain. Step by step we discover our real nature. More and more we surrender spider and web to our central spiritual fire, to our ‘Self’. When we reach the top, a spiritual coronation takes place. Shiva reveals himself directly to us; it is the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Hindu Tamils celebrate this festival of light, they call it ‘Karthika Deepam’. In the Christian tradition we call it ‘Whitsun’ or ‘Pentecost’.

During ‘Deepam’ a big fire is lit on the highest top of Arunachala. It becomes a beacon of light that can be seen from far. From the gospels we know that when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, tongues of fire were seen around their heads. Shiva dances surrounded by a ring of fiery flames. It is the same universal symbolism as placing the top stone on the pyramid. Deepam, the top stone, the fiery tongues during Whitsun, they describe the same holy event when Shiva reveals himself to us.

Then we know ourselves and the universe. Then we stop asking the question ‘Who am I’, because WE ARE.

At the age of seventy, when the body of Ramana was dying, some of his pupils asked him if he could not sustain his material form. He answered them:

“They say that I am dying, but I am not going away. Where could I go? I am here.”


[1] https://www.sriramanamaharshi.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/who_am_I.pdf

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Date: March 6, 2024
Author: Niels van Saane (Bulgaria)
Photo: Miriam Aigner CCO

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