Talks with Annamalai Swami

Dialogs with Annamalai Swami, a Self-realized expert on Self-enquiry who was a direct disciple of Ramana Maharshi.


ANNAMALAI SWAMI CAME to Bhagavan in 1928. After a brief spell working as Bhagavan’s attendant, he received a new job from him, supervising all the building projects in the ashram. Between 1928 and 1938, working directly under Bhagavan, he supervised the construction of the cowshed, the Veda Patasala, the dining room, the storeroom, the old office block (now used as the book-packing room), the dispensary and the large revetment on the north side of the ashram.

In 1938 an experience he had with Bhagavan changed the course of his life:

I went to Bhagavan’s bathroom to help him with his morning bath. Madhava Swami and I gave him the usual oil bath and massage. When the bath was over, Madhava Swami asked a question: ‘Bhagavan, the people who take ganja lehiyam [an ayurvedic medicine whose principal ingredient is cannabis] experience some kind of ananda. What is the nature of this ananda? Is it the same ananda the scriptures speak of?’

Bhagavan replied, ‘Eating this ganja is a very bad habit’. Then, laughing loudly, he came over to me, hugged me and called out, ‘Ananda! Ananda! This is how these ganja-taking people behave!’

It was not a brief hug. Madhava Swami told me later that he held me tightly for about two minutes. After the first few seconds I completely lost all awareness of my body and the world. Initially, there was a feeling of happiness and bliss, but this soon gave way to a state in which there were no feelings and no experiences. I did not lose consciousness, I just ceased to be aware of anything that was going on around me. I remained in this state for about fifteen minutes. When I recovered my usual world-consciousness, I was standing alone in the bathroom. Madhava Swami and Bhagavan had long since departed for breakfast. I had not seen them open the door and leave, nor had I heard the breakfast bell.

This experience completely changed my life. As soon as I recovered normal consciousness I knew that my working life at Sri Ramanasramam had come to an end.* I knew that henceforth I would be living outside the ashram and spending most of my time in meditation.

*In 1942, following a request from Bhagavan, he came back to the ashram and did one more major construction job: the construction of a dispensary. Though he was not a full-time ashram worker after 1938, he continued to help with minor ashram works whenever Bhagavan asked him to.

This article is reprinted from The Mountain Path, Aradhana 1993.

Bhagavan approved of his decision to leave, and. within a few hours of having had the experience Annamalai Swami had established himself in Palakottu, the sadhu colony which adjoined the ashram. Bhagavan encouraged him to build a house there and even helped him by advising on its design and construction. Annamalai Swami has lived there ever since. In fact, he has not left Tiruvannamalai, even for a single day, since 1938.

Bhagavan told him to lead a quiet, reclusive life, and to meditate continuously on the Self. Taking this to be his Guru’s upadesa, he spent the succeeding years trying to stabilise in the experience of the Self, a brief glimpse of which had been given him by Bhagavan during their encounter in the bathroom. After many years of arduous and unremitting effort, he says that he was able to stabilise himself in Self-awareness to such an extent that the experience is now continuous and effortless.

In the last few years many devotees have started to visit him, seeking spiritual guidance. Though he does not encourage visitors, he is, health permitting, always willing to see people who want to talk about Bhagavan’s teaching or the practice of meditation. The following exchanges, recorded in 1987, are typical of the many that have taken place in his ashram in the last few years.

The talks

Question: What is the easiest way to be free of ‘the little self’?

Annamalai Swami: Stop identifying with it. If you can convince yourself, ‘This little self is not really me’, it will just disappear.

Residents and visitors at Sri Ramanasramam in the 1930s. Annamalai Swami is at far left with crossed arms.

Q: But how to do this?

AS: The ‘little self’ is something which only appears to be real. If you understand that it has no real existence it will disappear, leaving behind it the experience of the real and only Self. Understand that it has no real existence and it will stop troubling you.

Consciousness is universal. There is no limitation or ‘little self’ in it. It is only when we identify ourselves with and limit ourselves to the body and the mind that this false self is born. If, through enquiry, you go to the source of this ‘little self’, you find that it dissolves into nothingness.

Q: But I am very accustomed to feel ‘I am this little self’. I cannot break this habit merely by thinking ‘I am not this little self’.

AS: This ‘little self’ will only give way to the real Self if you meditate constantly. You cannot wish it away with a few stray thoughts. Try to remember the analogy of the rope which looks like a snake in twilight. If you see the rope as a snake, the real nature of the rope is hidden from you. If you only see the rope, the snake is not there. Not only that, you know that there never was a snake there. When you have that clear and correct perception that the snake never at any time existed, the question of how to kill the snake disappears. Apply this analogy to the ‘little self’ that you are worrying about. If you can understand that this ‘little self’ never at any time had any existence outside your imagination, you will not be concerned about ways and means of getting rid of it.

Annamalai Swami with Lakshmi on Arunachala

Q: It is all very clear but I feel that I need some help. I am not sure that I can generate this understanding by myself.

AS: The desire for assistance is part of your problem. don’t make the mistake of imagining that there is some goal to be reached or attained. If you think like this you will start looking for methods to practise and people to help you. This just perpetuates the problem you are trying to end. Instead, cultivate the strong awareness, ‘I am the Self. I am That. I am Brahman. I am everything.’ You don’t need any methods to get rid of the wrong ideas you have about yourself. All you have to do is stop believing them. The best way to do this is to replace them with ideas which more accurately reflect the real state of affairs. If you think and meditate, ‘I am the Self’, it will do you a lot more good than thinking, ‘I am the little self. How can I get rid of this little self?’

The Self is always attained, it is always realised. It is not something that you have to seek, reach or discover. Your vasanas and all the wrong ideas you have about yourself are blocking and hiding the experience of the real Self. If you don’t identify with the wrong ideas, your Self-nature will not be hidden from you.

You said that you needed help. If your desire to gain a proper understanding of your real nature is intense enough, help will automatically come. If you want to generate an awareness of your real nature, you will be immeasurably helped by having contact with a jnani. The power and grace which a jnani radiates quietens the mind and automatically eliminates the wrong ideas you have about yourself. You can make progress by having sat sangh of a realised Guru and by constant spiritual practice. But the Guru cannot do everything for you. If you want to give up the limiting habits of many lifetimes, you must practise constantly.

Most people take the appearance of the snake in the rope to be reality. Acting on their misperceptions, they think up many different ways of killing the snake. But they can never succeed in getting rid of the snake until they first give up the idea that there really is a snake there. People who want to kill or control the mind have the same problem: they imagine that there is a mind which needs to be controlled and then take drastic steps to beat it into submission. If, instead, they generate the understanding that there is no such thing as mind, all their problems would come to an end. You must generate the conviction, ‘I am the all-pervasive consciousness in which all bodies and minds in the world are appearing and disappearing. I am that consciousness which remains unchanged and unaffected by these appearances and disappearances.’ Stabilise yourself in that conviction. That is all you need to do.

Bhagavan sometimes told a story about a man who wanted to bury his shadow in a pit. He dug the pit and stood in such a position that his shadow was on the bottom of it. The man then tried to bury it by covering it with earth. Each time he threw some soil in the hole, the shadow appeared on top of it. Of course, he never succeeded in burying the shadow. Many people behave like this when they meditate. They take the mind to be real, try to fight it and kill it, and always fail. These fights against the mind are all mental activities which strengthen the mind instead of weakening it. If you want to get rid of the mind, all you have to do is understand that it is ‘not me’. Cultivate the awareness ‘I am the immanent consciousness’. When that understanding becomes firm, the non-existent mind will not trouble you.

Annamalai Swami and Major Alan Chadwick

Q: I don’t think that repeating ‘I am not the mind, I am consciousness’ will ever convince me that I am not the mind. It will just be another thought going on within the mind. If I could experience, even for a moment, what it is like to to be without the mind, the conviction would automatically come. I think that one second of experiencing consciousness as it really is would be more convincing than several years of mental repetitions.

AS: Every time you go to sleep you have the experience of being without a mind. You cannot deny that you exist while you are asleep and you cannot deny that your mind is not functioning while you are in dreamless sleep. This daily experience should convince you that it is possible to continue your existence without a mind. Of course, you do not have the experience of full consciousness while you are asleep, but if you think about what happens during this state you should come to understand that your existence, the continuity of your being, is in no way dependent on your mind or your identification with it. When the mind reappears every morning you instantly jump to the conclusion, ‘This is the real me.’ If you reflect on this preposition for some time you will see how absurd it is. If what you really are only exists when the mind is present, you have to accept that you didn’t exist while you were asleep. No one will accept such an absurd conclusion. If you analyse your alternating states you will discover that it is your direct experience that you exist whether you are awake or asleep. You will also discover that the mind only becomes active while you are waking or dreaming. From these simple daily experiences it should be easy to understand that the mind is something that comes and goes. Your existence is not wiped out each time the mind ceases to function. I am not telling you some abstruse philosophical theory. I am telling you something that you can validate by direct experience in any twenty-four hour period of your life.

Take these facts, which you can discover by directly experiencing them, and investigate them a little more. When the mind appears every morning, don’t jump to the usual conclusion, ‘This is me. These thoughts are mine.’ Instead, watch these thoughts come and go without identifying with them in any way. If you can resist the impulse to claim each and every thought as your own, you will come to a startling conclusion: you will discover that you are the consciousness in which the thoughts appear and disappear. You will discover that this thing called ‘mind’ only exists when thoughts are allowed to run free. Like the snake which appears in the rope, you will discover that the mind is only an illusion which appears through ignorance or misperception.

You want some experience that will convince you that what I am saying is true. You can have that experience if you give up your life-long habit of inventing an ‘I’ which claims all thoughts as ‘mine’. Be conscious of yourself as consciousness alone, watch all the thoughts come and go. Come to the conclusion, by direct experience, that you are really consciousness itself, not its ephemeral contents.

Clouds come and go in the sky, but the appearance and disappearance of the clouds don’t affect the sky. Your real nature is like the sky, like space. Just remain like the sky and let thought-clouds come and go. If you cultivate this attitude of indifference towards the mind, gradually you will detach yourself from it.

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Q: Bhagavan said that repeating ‘I am the Self’ is an aid to enquiry, but it does not constitute the enquiry itself.

AS: The meditation, ‘I am not the body or the mind, I am the immanent Self’ is a great aid for as long as one is not able to do self-enquiry properly or constantly. Bhagavan said, ‘Keeping the mind in the Heart is self-enquiry’. If you cannot do this by asking ‘Who am I?’ or by taking the ‘I’-thought back to its source, then meditation on the awareness ‘I am the all-pervasive Self’ is a great aid.

Bhagavan often said that we should read and study the Ribhu Gita regularly. In the Ribhu Gita it is said, ‘That bhavana “I am not the body, I am not the mind, I am Brahman, I am everything” is to be repeated again and again until this becomes the natural state’. Bhagavan sat with us every day while we chanted extracts from the Ribhu Gita which affirmed the reality of the Self. It is true that he said that these repetitions are only an aid to self-enquiry, but they are a very powerful aid.

By practising this way the mind becomes more and more attuned with the reality, when the mind has become purified by this practice, it is take it back to its source and keep it there. When one is able to abide in the Self directly, one doesn’t need aids like this. But if this is not possible, these practices can definitely help one.

Annamalai Swami

Q: What is the correct way to pursue self-enquiry?

AS: Bhagavan has said, ‘When thoughts arise, stop them from developing by enquiring “To whom is this thought coming?” as soon as the thought appears. What does it matter if many thoughts keep coming up? Enquire into their origin or find out who has the thoughts and sooner or later the flow of thoughts will stop.’ This is how self-enquiry should be practised.

When Bhagavan spoke like this he sometimes used the analogy of a besieged fort. If one systematically closes off all entrances to such a fort and then picks off the occupants one by one as they try to come out, sooner or later the fort will be empty. Bhagavan said that we should apply these same tactics to the mind. How to go about doing this? Seal off the entrances and exits to the mind by not reacting to rising thoughts or sense impressions. Don’t let new ideas, judgements, likes, dislikes, etc. enter the mind, and don’t let rising thoughts flourish and distract your attention. When you have sealed off the mind in this way, challenge each emerging thought as it appears by asking, ‘Where have you come from?’ or ’Who is the person who is having this thought?' If you can do this continuously, with full attention, new thoughts will appear momentarily and then disappear. If you can maintain the siege for long enough, a time will come when no more thoughts arise; or if they do, they will only be fleeting, undistracting images on the periphery of consciousness. In that thought-free state you will begin to experience yourself as consciousness, not as mind or body.

However, if you relax your vigilance, even for a few seconds, and allow new thoughts to escape and develop unchallenged, the siege will be lifted and the mind will regain some or all of its former strength.

In a real fort the occupants need a continuous supply of food and water to hold out during a siege. When the supplies run out, the occupants must surrender or die. In the fort of the mind, the occupants, which are thoughts, need a thinker to pay attention to them and indulge in them. If the thinker withholds his attention from rising thoughts, or challenges them before they have a chance to develop, the thoughts will all die of starvation. You must challenge them by repeatedly asking, ‘Who am I? Who is this person who is having these thoughts?’ If the challenge is to be effective you must make it before the rising thought has had a chance to develop into a stream of thoughts.

Mind is only a collection of thoughts and the thinker who thinks them. The thinker is the ‘I’-thought, the primal thought which rises from the Self before all others and says, ‘I am this body’. When you have eradicated all thoughts except for the thinker himself by ceaseless enquiry or by refusing to give them any attention, the ‘I’-thought sinks into the Heart and surrenders, leaving behind it only an awareness of consciousness. This surrender will only take place when the ‘I’-thought has ceased to identify with rising thoughts. While there are still stray thoughts which attract you or evade your attention, the ‘I'-thought will always be directing its attention outwards rather than inwards. The purpose of self-enquiry is to make the ‘I’-thought move inwards, towards the Self. This will happen automatically as soon as you cease to be interested in any of your thoughts.

Q: Many people find self-enquiry very difficult. Even most of Bhagavan’s devotees seem to follow a bhakti path. If one cannot do enquiry successfully, should one first purify the mind with japa?

AS: No. If you have some interest in the path of self-enquiry, you should follow it even if you feel that you are not very good at it. If you want to do self-enquiry effectively and properly you should stick to that method alone. Other methods may be good in their own right, but they are not good as preparations for self-enquiry. If you are serious about becoming a good violin player, you take lessons from a good teacher and practise as much as you can. If you encounter some difficulties, you don’t switch to the nadaswaram [a type of clarinet) for a few months. You stay with your chosen instrument and you keep practising until you get it right. The best preparation for self-enquiry is self-enquiry.

Annamalai Swami.

Q: Going back to your advice to think ‘I am the Self’: we are accustomed to make distinctions between things. You say, ‘Meditate that you are the Self’. If I try to generate this feeling, ‘I am the Self, it will not be the real thing; it will just be another idea in the mind. Can thinking about this idea really help me?

AS: When I say, ‘Meditate on the Self, I am asking you to be the Self, not think about it. Be aware of what remains when thoughts stop. Be aware of the consciousness that is the origin of all your thoughts. Be that consciousness. Feel that that is what you really are. If you do this, you are meditating on the Self. But if you cannot stabilise in that consciousness because your vasanas are too strong and too active, it is beneficial to hold on to the thought ‘I am the Self’. If you meditate in this way, you are not cooperating with your vasanas, the ones that are blocking your Self-awareness. If you don’t cooperate with your vasanas, sooner or later they are bound to leave you.

Q: When I read the Ramanasramam literature, Bhagavan often appears to be very strict and stern. Was Bhagavan as kind to you as you have been to us?

AS: Different people elicited different responses from him. In my case he was always kind and considerate. But you should not judge Bhagavan by his behaviour. If he got angry with people or ignored them, it was always for their own good. He was transmitting grace through his anger as well as through his kindness.

Q: Bhagavan’s body has gone now. I know intellectually that he is the Self and that he is everywhere but I still sometimes wish that I could have had the good fortune of sitting in his physical presence. I know that the body is ultimately not important, but I would feel so happy and secure if I knew that I could go and talk or just sit with Bhagavan every time I had a problem.

AS: Everything you see is Bhagavan’s body. The guiding presence that you desire is shining through all these forms and animating them. Don’t be attached to Bhagavan’s form or body. The real Bhagavan is beyond form and beyond death.

Though water flows through the mouth of a stone tiger statue, everyone knows that it is not coming from the tiger. We all know that it is coming from the reservoir. Similarly, Bhagavan now speaks through everyone who knows and experiences him as he really is.

Annamalai Swami and Ramana Maharshi

Q: You often say that sat sangh is important. Can I have sat sangh of Bhagavan even though he is now dead? I am asking this because I once had a very powerful experience of his presence while I was in Switzerland. At that time Bhagavan had been dead for many years.

AS: Bhagavan is at all times and in all places. Since he is the Self and not any particular form, it is of little importance that the body which we took to be Bhagavan is now dead. Radio waves can be received anywhere. If you tune yourself to Bhagavan’s frequency, which means abiding in the Self, you can be aware of him broadcasting his grace wherever you are.

There is never any separation from Bhagavan. Every atom in the material universe is Bhagavan. Every act which happens in the world is done by Bhagavan alone. Every being, every form, is Bhagavan’s form. When you are clearly attuned to Bhagavan you will experience clarity and peace. You will receive guidance wherever you are.

Reprinted from The Mountain Path, Aradhana 1993.

Annamalai Swami was a direct disciple of Ramana Maharshi.


Recommended Books

Annamalai Swami, Final Talks

Final Talks

By Annamalai Swami and David Godman

This small book is one of a half dozen that we recommend most strongly to people who want to practice Self-enquiry in order to realize. It contains transcripts of talks that Annamalai Swami held with seekers during the last six months of his life. His advice about how to practice Self-enquiry is unusually valuable because he worked for a long time to become Self-realized. Annamalai Swami spent nearly ten years with Ramana Maharshi, first as his personal attendant and later as construction manager at Sri Ramana’s ashram.

See it on Amazon.

Annamalai Swami, Living by the Words of Bhagavan

Living by the Words of Bhagavan

By Annamalai Swami and David Godman

This book is an autobiography of Annamalai Swami who became Self-realized after many years of effort and close association with his guru, Ramana Maharshi. It paints an unusually intimate portrait of the Maharshi based on Annamalai Swami’s ten years of interactions with him, first as his personal attendant and then as supervisor of building projects at Sri Ramanasraman. The book is sober and free of the sentimentality that colors many memoirs of this type. This is not a hagiography; Annamalai's Maharshi is a surprising figure who does quirky and sometimes puzzling things. The final section of the book contains transcripts of conversations that Annamalai Swami held with seekers in the 1980s. Annamalai Swami worked hard for many years to realize the Self, making his advice especially useful to seekers for whom Self-realization does not come easily. We think this is a wonderful book, one of the best about Sri Ramana, and we recommend it very highly.

See it on Amazon.

This page was first published on May 18, 2017, last revised on May 18, 2017, and last republished on January 12, 2023.



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