It’s “I am I” not “I-I”

Every time you see “I-I” in a Ramana book, it’s a translation mistake that distorts the meaning.

By Michael James

IT IS IMPORTANT TO POINT OUT THAT although in most English books the term நான் நான் (nāṉ nāṉ), which Sri Ramana often used to describe the experience of true self-knowledge (such as in verse 20 of Upadēśa Undiyār, verse 30 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu and verse 2 of Āṉma-Viddai), is generally translated as ‘I-I’, this is actually a mistranslation of it (or at least a very inadequate and misleading translation of it). That is, though நான் நான் (nāṉ nāṉ) literally means just ‘I I’, what it actually means is ‘I am I’, just as though நான் யார்? (nāṉ yār?) literally means ‘I who?’, what it actually means is ‘I am who?’ (or ‘who am I?’).

First published on the Happiness of Being blog.

The reason why there is no explicit verb meaning ‘am’ in sentences such as நான் நான் (nāṉ nāṉ) or நான் யார்? (nāṉ yār?) is that a feature of Tamil (which it shares with many other languages) is a phenomenon known as zero copula, which means that the link between a subject and its complement (what it is said to be) is understood without the need for any overt copula (linking verb) such as ‘am’, ‘is’ or ‘are’. It is possible to use an overt copula in Tamil, but it is complicated and in most circumstances would seem unnatural. For example, the normal way to say ‘I am Raman’ would be to say ‘nāṉ rāmaṉ’ (‘I [am] Raman’), but to include an overt copula one would have to say ‘nāṉ rāmaṉāy irukkiṟēṉ’, which literally means ‘I am being Raman’ or ‘I am as Raman’.

As Lakshmana Sarma points out in his Tamil commentary on verse 30 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu, Sri Ramana described the experience of true self-knowledge as ‘நான் நான்’ (nāṉ nāṉ), ‘I am I’, in order to contrast it with our experience of the ego, ‘நான் இது’ (nāṉ idu), ‘I am this’, and he expresses the same idea in Chapter 9 of Maha Yoga when he writes, “the Sage calls this formless Consciousness the ‘I am I’ to distinguish it from the ego-sense which has the form of ‘I am this (body)’” (2002 edition, p. 149). That is, whereas we now experience ourself as ‘I am this body’, when this false ego-sense is swallowed by the clear light of true self-knowledge we will experience ourself only as ‘I am I’.

A clear example of such a contrast can be seen in the passage from the first sub-section of section 1 of Vicāra Saṅgraham that I quoted in my previous article, Demystifying the term ‘sphuraṇa. In one sentence in that passage Sri Ramana says that if one keenly investigates what it is that now shines as ‘I’, then a kind of spurippu (or sphuraṇa) will appear as நான் நான் (nāṉ nāṉ), ‘I [am] I’, and in the next sentence he says that if one just remains without leaving that spurippu, it will completely annihilate the ego, which is (what experiences itself as) தேகம் நான் (dēham nāṉ), ‘[this] body [is] I’:

[…] இப்போது நானென விளங்குவது எதுவென்று கூர்மையாய் விசாரித்தால், அப்போது ஹிருதயத்தில், நான் நான் என்று சத்தமில்லாமல், தனக்குத்தானே ஓர் வித ஸ்புரிப்பு மாத்திரம் தோன்றும். அதனை விடாது சும்மா இருந்தால், தேகம் நானென்னும் அகங்காரரூப ஜீவபோதத்தை முற்றிலும் நாசமாக்கி, கர்ப்பூரத்திற் பற்றிய நெருப்புப்போல், தானும் சாந்தமாய்விடும்.

[…] ippōdu nāṉ-eṉa viḷaṅguvadu edu-v-eṉḏṟu kūrmaiyāy vicārittāl, appōdu hirudayattil, nāṉ nāṉ eṉḏṟu sattam-illāmal, taṉakku-t-tāṉē ōr vidha spurippu māttiram tōṉḏṟum. adaṉai viḍādu summā irundāl, dēham nāṉ-eṉṉum ahaṅkāra-rūpa jīva-bhōdattai muṯṟilum nāśam-ākki, karppūrattil paṯṟiya neruppu-p-pōl, tāṉ-um śāntam-āy-viḍum.

[…] if one keenly investigates what it is that now shines as ‘I’, then in [one’s] heart a kind of spurippu [a fresh clarity] alone will itself appear to itself [or to oneself] without sound as ‘I [am] I’. Without leaving that [fresh clarity of self-awareness], if one just is, it will completely annihilate the sense of individuality in the form of the ego, [which experiences itself as] ‘body [is] I’, and [then], like fire that catches on camphor, it will itself also be extinguished.

Here Sri Ramana is clearly contrasting two different experiences of self-awareness, நான் நான் (nāṉ nāṉ) and தேகம் நான் (dēham nāṉ). Though neither of these two pairs of words contain an explicit copula meaning ‘am’ or ‘is’, such a copula is implicit in both of them, so they are each a complete clause. That is, in this context just as தேகம் நான் (dēham nāṉ) obviously means ‘body is I’ and not just ‘body-I’, so நான் நான் (nāṉ nāṉ) obviously means ‘I am I’ and not just ‘I-I’.

Whenever Sri Sadhu Om wrote a பொழிப்புரை (an explanatory paraphrase in Tamil prose) for any verse in which Sri Ramana used this term ‘நான் நான்’ (such as verse 20 of Upadēśa Undiyār, verse 30 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu or verse 2 of Āṉma-Viddai), he usually paraphrased it as ‘நான் நானே’ (nāṉ nāṉē), which means ‘I am only I’ (the added suffix ‘ē’ being an intensifier that in this context conveys the sense of ‘only’), in order to emphasise that what is experienced as ‘I’ in the state of true self-knowledge is only ‘I’ itself and not anything else such as ‘this’ or ‘that’.

When நான் நான் (nāṉ nāṉ) is translated correctly as ‘I am I’, it is clear what Sri Ramana meant by these words, but when it is translated as ‘I-I’, as it is in most English books, it is not at all clear what he meant. Because the translation ‘I-I’ does not indicate or even suggest that ‘நான் நான்’ (nāṉ nāṉ) is actually a complete sentence or finite clause with a verb that is clearly implied though not explicitly stated, ‘I-I’ does not at all convey the meaning that is clearly conveyed in Tamil by ‘நான் நான்’ (nāṉ nāṉ), but somehow this mistranslation has become established and most translators, commentators and writers of English books or articles on the teachings of Sri Ramana continue to use it unquestioningly and without any apparent idea of what the original term in Tamil actually means.

What actually does ‘I-I’ mean? Is it a repetition of ‘I’, or a double ‘I’? And what would a repeated ‘I’ or double ‘I’ actually imply? Why would Sri Ramana have so frequently used such a vague and ambiguous term? The answer is that ‘I-I’ does not actually mean anything at all (or at least not anything clearly), and that Sri Ramana did not actually use this term.

However, many people seem to assume that ‘I-I’ means a pulsation or throbbing of ‘I’, as if ‘I’ were the sort of thing that could pulsate or throb. Because pulsation and throbbing are two among the many meanings of the Sanskrit word sphuraṇa (though not actually the meaning intended by Sri Ramana when he used this word), the mistranslation of நான் நான் (nāṉ nāṉ) as ‘I-I’ has reinforced the mistaken belief that ahaṁ-sphuraṇa means a pulsation or throbbing of ‘I’.

The essential meaning of sphuraṇa is ‘making itself known’, so anything that makes itself known in any way can be described as a sphuraṇa, so this includes any sort of throbbing, quivering, trembling, pulsating, shining, flashing, glittering, manifesting or coming into view. However, in the sense in which Sri Ramana used this term sphuraṇa it means shining or shining forth in a metaphorical sense, or in a more literal sense, being experienced more clearly. That is, since he used sphuraṇa with respect to ‘I’, and since ‘I’ cannot throb, tremble, pulsate or even shine in the literal sense of a visible light, what he called ahaṁ-sphuraṇa or a ‘shining of I’ simply means a clear experience of ‘I’ — that is, a clarity of self-awareness. And since sphuraṇa also implies shining forth or ‘making itself known anew’, he used the term ahaṁ-sphuraṇa to mean the fresh clarity of self-awareness that we experience when we try to focus our attention only on ‘I’, thereby withdrawing it from all other things.

Michael James is the world’s foremost scholar and English translator of Sri Ramana Maharshi’s writings. He worked closely for years with Sri Sadhu Om.

Text © 2014 Michael James. Reprinted from நான் நான் (nāṉ nāṉ) means ‘I am I’, not ‘I-I’ . Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Links to Michael James’s Websites

CC BY-SA 4.0

You may use the text on this page under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license (CC BY-SA 4.0).

This page was first published on September 15, 2023 and last revised on September 15, 2023.



comments powered by Disqus