In January the spring semester starts here at Banares Hindu University. As part of the Master’s program there is a requirement to have several weeks on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The person who taught the course in recent years is on Sabbatical, so I asked the person who will be teaching it this January -how Judaism will be covered? He answered that he will focus on “I am that I am” [Exodus 3:14] as showing that God is ultimate Brahman, that only Moses was the realized being who attained this insight therefore the Israelites will accept him, and that unfortunately Judaism does not teach that the goal of the soul should be to identify and merge with this “I am.” He will also teach about the names of God and those that can still be pronounced and those that cannot be pronounced. His source is Ramana Maharshi. Since I will teach part of this class- Where should I cover? Where do I begin?
Questioner: Is the thought “I am God” or “I am the Supreme Being” helpful?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: “I am that I am” [Exodus 3:14]. “I am” is God – not thinking, “I am God”. Realise “I am” and do not think I am. “Know I am God” – it is said, and not “Think I am God.”
~ from ‘Talk 354’; 8th February, 1937
Ramana Maharshi (1879–1950) is one of the outstanding Indian gurus of modern times. At the age of sixteen, he lost his sense of individual selfhood, an awakening which he later recognized as enlightenment.In response to questions on self-liberation and the classic texts on Yoga and Vedanta, Ramana recommended self-enquiry as the principal way to awaken to the “I-I”,realising the Self and attaining liberation. He also recommended Bhakti, and gave his approval to a variety of paths and practices. Paul Brunton, Carl Jung and Heinrich Zimmer were among the first westerners to pick up Ramana’s teachings. In some of the following quotes Ramana Maharshi is simply called “Bhagavan” – “his divinity.” The discussion below relies on both direct quotes and discussion by David Goldman, a leading authority of Ramana Maharshi.
Ramana Maharshi often cited the Bible, and in particular the statement ‘I am that I am’, to support his contention that God’s real nature was ‘I am’.
‘I am’ is the name of God. Of all the definitions of God, none is so well put as the biblical statement ‘I am that I am’ in Exodus chapter three. There are other statements such as brahmavaiham [Brahman am I], aham brahmasmi [I am Brahman] and soham [I am He]. But none is so direct as Jehovah [which means] ‘I am’.
The essence of mind is only awareness or consciousness. When the ego, however, dominates it, it functions as the reasoning, thinking or sensing faculty. The cosmic mind, being not limited by the ego, has nothing separate from itself and is therefore only aware. That is what the Bible means by ‘I am that I am’.
Here are some more short statements
Mr. C. R. Wright, his secretary, asked: How shall I realise God?
M.: God is an unknown entity. Moreover He is external. Whereas, the Self is always with you and it is you. Why do you leave out what is intimate and go in for what is external?
D.: What is this Self again?
M.: The Self is known to everyone but not clearly. You always exist. The Be-ing is the Self. `I am’ is the name of God. Of all the definitions of God, none is indeed so well put as the Biblical statement “I AM THAT I AM” in EXODUS (Chap. 3).
God says “I AM before Abraham.” He does not say “I was” but “I Am’ (Talks, 408).
The Cosmic Mind, being not limited by the ego, has nothing separate from itself and is therefore only aware. This is what the Bible means by ‘I am that I am’ (Reflections, 111).
“I am that I AM” and “Be still and know that I am God.” (Talks, 307).
Is God personal?
One of Brunton’s criticisms of Ramana was that Ramana did not believe in a personal God. And yet there are statements where Ramana says the opposite. Ramana responds to the question, “Is God personal?” as follows:
M. Yes, He is always the first person, the I, ever standing before you.Because you give precedence to worldly things, God appears to have receded to the background. If you give up all else and seek Him alone, He alone will remain as the I, the Self (Maharshi’s Gospel, 55).
But other statements indicate a God far removed from our personal concerns:God has no purpose. He is not bound by any action. The world’s activities cannot affect him. (Osborne, Path of Self-Knowledge, 87, in answer to question is not this world the result of God’s will?)
Below is from David Goldman, a leading expert on Ramana
Ramana criticized some Jews and Christians for clinging to the idea of a permanently real and separate ego, although he says that the greatest mystics did not do so (Osborne, Path of Self-Knowledge, 46). [He also criticizes thinking about God rather than pure I am.]
Ramana refers to prayer. He says that Western thinkers pray to God and finish with “Thy Will be done!” He comments that it is better to remain silent: If His Will be done why do they pray at all? It is true that the Divine Will prevails at all times and under all circumstances. The individuals cannot act of their own accord. Recognize the force of the Divine Will and keep quiet (Talks, 546).
Kabbalistic ideas on creation are also derived from their conception of God as ‘I am’. In the Jewish tradition creation occurs by the utterance of a single word. The word is the first of all sounds to be heard in manifest existence, and thus parallels the Hindu conception of Om. For the Kabbalists this word is none other than the supreme name of God, ‘Eyheh’, ‘I am’.
The only Jews who used God’s revelation of Himself as ‘I am’ to develop both a theology of God and a spiritual practice through which He might be directly experienced were groups of mystics who followed a tradition known as Kabbala.(10) They evolved intricate cosmologies, deriving them from a mystical exegesis of Old Testament texts, and broke with traditional Judaic thought by proclaiming that man could approach YHWH and in His presence commune with His beingness.
For the Kabbalists, God, the Supreme Being, is Ehyeh, ‘I am’, and one can approach him directly by invoking the divine name of Yahweh. In the Book of Zohar, one of the most important Kabbalistic texts, it is written, ‘Blessed is the person who utterly surrenders his soul to the name of YHWH, to dwell therein and establish therein its throne of glory’.( Tikkune Zohar, Scholem, Second Lecture, n. 137.)
In one interesting practice, which parallels Hindu sadhanas, Kabbalists split the name Yahweh into two components and invoke ‘Yah’ with the incoming breath and ‘weh’ with the outgoing breath in an attempt to be continuously mindful of the reality that the name signifies.
We find similar emphases on the ‘I am’ experience in other writers dealing with comparative mysticism. Rudolf Otto comments on Eckhart’s use of the verse “I am that I am”, and compares this to Shankara.D.T. Suzuki says that all our religious or spiritual experiences start from the name of God given to Moses, “I am that I am.”
One should not push parallels between Judaism and Bhagavan’s teachings too far, for orthodox Judaism maintains that God is wholly and eternally separate from the world, whereas Bhagavan taught that the Self is the sole reality, and that the world is an appearance in it, rather than a creation of it. For Bhagavan, the world is being in the same way that God Himself is being, for the two cannot be separated: ‘Being absorbed in the reality, the world is also real. There is only being in Self-realisation, and nothing but being.'(12)
There is another crucial area in which Bhagavan’s teaching differ fundamentally from those of both Judaism and Christianity. Bhagavan taught that ‘I am’ is not merely the real name of God, it also the real name and identity of each supposedly individual person. Extending the notion to its logical conclusion, Bhagavan maintained that if one could become aware of one’s real identity, ‘I am’, then one simultaneously experienced the ‘I am’ that is God and the ‘I am’ that is the substratum of the world appearance. The following quotes are typical and summaries his views on the subject:
It [I am] is the substratum running through all the three states. Wakefulness passes off, I am; the dream state passes off, I am; the sleep state passes off, I am. They repeat themselves and yet I am.(14)
The egoless ‘I am’ is not a thought. It is realization. The meaning or significance of ‘I’ is God.(15)
‘I exist’ is the only permanent self-evident experience of everyone. Nothing else is so self-evident [pratyaksha] as ‘I am’. What people call self-evident, viz., the experience they get through the senses, is far from self-evident. The Self alone is that. Pratyaksha is another name for Self. So to do self-analysis and be ‘I am’ is the only thing to do. ‘I am’ is reality. ‘I am this or that’ is unreal. ‘I am’ is truth, another name for Self.(16)
I should like now to return to the Old Testament and elaborate on another quotation that Bhagavan was fond of citing. In Psalm 46, verse 10, it is written ‘Be still and know that I am God’. Bhagavan appreciated this line so much that he sometimes said that the statements ‘I am that I am’ and ‘Be still and know that I am God’ contained the whole of Vedanta.(22) In Bhagavan’s view the quotations are very closely related for he taught that ‘the experience of ”I am” is to ”Be still”’.(23) The two words ‘Be still’ denote both the method and the goal for it is through being and through stillness that the ‘I am’ is revealed: ‘If [the mind] is turned within it becomes still in the course of time and that I-AM alone prevails. I AM is the whole truth.'(24)
Question: How is one to know the Self?
Answer: Knowing the Self means ‘Being the Self’ … Your duty is to be and not to be this or that. ‘I am that I am’ sums up the whole truth. The method is summed up in ‘Be still’. What does stillness mean? It means ‘destroy yourself’. Because any form or shape is a cause of trouble. Give up the notion that ‘I am so and so’.(25)
If one paraphrases Psalm 46, verse 10, to bring out more fully the meaning that Bhagavan attributed to it, it would say, ‘Reach the state of pure being and absolute stillness in which the mind is destroyed and one will then experience directly that God is ”I am”’.
Bhagavan often stressed that in order to ‘Be still and know that I am God’ one must be totally free from thought, even the thought ‘I am God’. After citing this biblical quote he once added, ‘To be still is not to think. Know and not think is the word.'(28) And on another occasion: ‘One should not think ”I am this – I am not that”. To say ”this” or ”that” is wrong. They are also limitations. Only ”I am” is the truth. Silence is ”I”.'(29) ‘Being still’, according to Bhagavan, requires no thinking and no assertions. On the contrary, it requires a complete absence of both.
Hear O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord;And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.
Once one knows that Yahweh denotes God as ‘I am’, That is to say, both Moses… were saying, indirectly, that heart, soul and mind must be directed exclusively and lovingly towards the ‘I am’ that is God. In fulfillment of this command, orthodox Jews attend their synagogues wearing phylacteries on their foreheads and hands that contain copies of these verses from Deuteronomy. They also have copies in special containers that are attached to their door and gateposts. Some devout Jews even kiss the container reverently each time they enter and leave as a gesture of respect towards Yahweh, the one God who revealed Himself to Moses as ‘I am’. Verse four in particular is the greatest and most widespread affirmation of faith for all Jews. Whatever their mother tongue, and irrespective of what country they live in, all practicing Jews regularly recite verse four in the original biblical Hebrew.