What is Mind? What is ‘I’-thought?

August 15, 2018



I am part of a group which meets weekly to study and have dialogs about the spiritual development. Currently we are studying a book on Vedanta – The Essential Teaching – Updesa Sara by Bhagvan Raman Maharshi with commentary by Swami Tejomayananda of Chinmaya Mission. ISBN 978-81-7597-195-0

The content that follows in this blog is an extract from this book.

Innumerable creatures live in this God-created world. However, man alone is the roof and crown of creation. Being endowed with an intellect, he comprehends his present state of limitations, bondages, imperfections and incompleteness. He is naturally inclined to free himself from them and attain completeness and perfection. He strives hard to change the present. Wishing to transcend the mortal state of the body, he desires immortality. He wants complete knowledge and so wishes to get rid of all ignorance. He is perpetually in search for eternal happiness, in which there is not the slightest trace of sorrow and bondage, be it political, economic, social or religious. In short, he desires and attempts to  become a complete and free an. Sad indeed is his plight, as despite continuous and untiring efforts from the womb to the tomb, he is still a bound, limited, struggling soul unable to experience the joy of total freedom.

It is seen in nature that each thing remains in its natural state. If such a state is somehow lost, it strives continuously till the natural state is regained. Now if man is seen to be always attempting to free himself from the shackles of bondage, it must be because his inherent nature is freedom and completeness. The knowledge of one’s own nature is called Self-knowledge, By gaining it, a man attains Liberation and experiences completeness, and without which he cannot rid himself of sorrow even if he strives day and night. Bhagvan Raman Maharshi was such a man of Knowledge. He composed this book Upadesa Sara.

Upadesa Sara is a short text but it contains the highest knowledge. It propounds the four main prevalent paths to the Truth (Knowledge).. They are Karma Yoga (path of Actions), Bhakti Yoga (path of Devotion), Ashtānga Yoga (Path of Eight-fold Yoga) and Jnana Yoga (path of Inquiry). Today we will focus on the Jnana Yoga


Jnana Yoga:


All the 4 paths referred to in previous section lead to the same unique goal – abidance in the self. Jnana Yoga is also called the path of Inquiry (Inquiry about the Self).

The key modus of operations in this Inquiry approach is this: When we are faced with a problem, we seek to solve it. We consider the problem as real and start thinking about its solution. In other words, we take the existence of the problem for granted. That being the case, we do not spend time thinking whether the problem is real or not, but on its solution.

The majority of mankind is in search of peace. WE are faced with the problem of mental agitation and disturbance. Here we have taken for granted that there is such a thing as “mind” which is agitated. We then try to reduce agitation and attain peace by various methods like pranayama or Japa, as described in previous paths. By these practice the mind becomes relatively and temporarily peaceful. But when we go back to the din and crowd of the market place, this hard found peace is shattered. When problems arise in other forms we again become agitated. In some cases we find that the very practices are seen to cause a greater disturbance.

Therefore it becomes necessary, first to understand what our problems is. The path of enquiry teaches us how to inquire into the problem with a quiet unperturbed mind.

So the first question is:


What is Mind?


Shloka 17:

manasam tu kim margane krute |

naiva manasam marga arjavat || 17 ||

The question asked here is not ‘how’ the mind can be quietened or ‘how’ it can abide in the self, but ‘what’ is the mind that causes so many problems. The question implies: ‘Is the mind that we experience is real or unreal/’, since the experience of a thing can be either real or imaginary. The next question that arises is, ‘What is real and unreal? How can one define them?’ The common meaning of these words as we use in our life is decided according to each situation. This relative truth and untruth is the subject of Dharma Sastra. But in the Spiritual Science (Adhyatma Sastra), the enquiry is conducted from the absolute standpoint.

The Absolute Reality or the Truth defined in Vedanta as that which remains the same in all the three periods of time – past, present and future. Unreal is that which does not exist in any of the three periods of time. That is, it is totally non-existent. According to the above definition of the Absolute Reality, the mind cannot be called real, since it is experienced only sometimes and not at all times. Also it is experienced as a constantly changing entity. It is made up of thought modifications like anger, desire, likes, dislikes and volition. It is also not unreal, since if it were non-existent it would not be experienced by us. A thing which cannot be described either as real or unreal is known to as “mithya” or illusion in Vedanta.


What is I-thought?

Even though we are defining Mind to be an illusion, an illusion cannot exist without a substratum. Then we have another definition of ‘Mind’. “The mind is the continuous flow of thoughts.

Shloka 18

vrittyas tvaham vrittimasritha |

vrittayo mano viddhyaham manah ||18||

Now thoughts make the mind. All thoughts depend on the ‘I’-thought.. Therefore, know ‘the ‘I’-thought to be the mind.

The thoughts are of innumerable objects. These objects may be perceivable gross objects or emotions like desire and anger or ideas and concepts. Each thought must necessarily have an object. In the thought, ‘This is a pot’, the pot is the object of the thought. Moreover, the thought, ‘This is the pot’ cannot arise without a knower of the thought. Therefore, the complete thought is – ‘I know this is a pot’. Here ‘I’ is the subject and the ‘pot’ is the object. Innumerable thoughts of such objects, in perpetual flow are called the mind.

On further enquiry, we understand that the innumerable thoughts are in fact made up of only two thoughts. They are the ‘this’-thought and the ‘I’-thought ‘I know this pot’, I am’ is the ‘I’-thought and ‘pot is’ is the ‘this’-thought. The ‘this’-thought keeps changing in each thought, but not the ‘I’-thought.

Bhagvan Ramana Maharshi leads us a step further. Each of ‘this’-thought depends on the ‘I’-thought and therefore the mind is not made up of not two thoughts, but only the ‘I’-thought. Only after the thought, ‘I am’ has arisen, we are capable of knowing any object. This is made clear when we analyze the deep sleep sate. On waking up we first realize ‘I am’ and then alone the world of objects

This way, we understand that the thought ‘I am’ or ‘I’-thought alone is the mind. If we wish to solve the problem of the mind, it becomes necessary to understand the ‘I’-thought.. So the path of inquiry about ‘I am’ will lead us to know the absolute truth about the self!


  1. It seems that one has to develop a “mind filter”, prior to engaging in any thought related activity. The filter has to be very efficient so that others do not see the impact of the delay associated with this internal filtering process. Also, there needs to be some sort of quality check process for the effectiveness of this filter. Man is faced with continuous need to deal with trivial thoughts or events on a daily basis. Furthermore, trivial has a different meaning to others when compared what it means to us. As a result, a response to a so called trivial something could lead to unanticipated consequences. For example a benign comment to your spouse “you look nice today” might get a response from the spouse such as “you mean I don’t look nice on other days!” Is there a simple, easy to follow approach recommended to deal with these types of occurrences each day?

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