“I'm going to have to side with you on most of what you say here, though I think we can distinguish between Neo-Vedanta and Neo-Advaita. Like Ramakrishna, Ramana was not a political activist like Vivekananda. And I would have to say that there are indeed differences between the teachings of Shankara and Ramana. And the Vivekachudamani does not make for good comparison since it was not written by Shankara. There was, on the other hand, a form of self-enquiry taught by Shankara, and we find it in the Upandeshasahashri, the only authentic independent work written by Shankara. However, as you say, Shankara's enquiry is much more scripturally oriented, while Ramana's attempts to deal with experience per se. There is much that Ramana teaches that is more or less derived from Shankara, but there are also other elements that are foreign to Shankara.”
I of course enjoy it when others agree with me on something, especially someone as well-versed in the traditions as Kelamuni. His too-brief blog has some excellent papers he's written on the subject of Vivekananda and Neo-Vedanta that anyone interested in the topic ought to read. And he's right that I should have described Vivekananda as a Neo-Vedantin rather than a Neo-Advaitin, although in a sense it's Vivekananda who is responsible for the rise of Neo-Advaita, in that his Neo-Vedanta movement elevated Advaita to the center-stage of the Vedantic traditions, and in the process opened it up to its modern stature and character, which has made significant departures from the tradition mode of Advaita in Gaudapada's and Shankara's time. Ramana is of course one of the primary influences in modern Advaita, and its fair to say that even in India, it is Ramana's style of Advaita that has proved more popular than the traditional approach.
Kelamuni is right that there are some traditional precedents for the self-enquiry that Ramana taught, including within Shankara's teachings. I hope Kelamuni reads this and can forward some citations from Shankara that describe this form of self-enquiry, because I'd be very curious to read about it. I haven't tried to justify or find precedents for Ramana's self-enquiry in the traditions, but I aware of the efforts of David Godman to do just that, and he's admitted to failure. His study of the traditional sources doesn't find a clear parallel between the kind of self-enquiry Ramana taught, and any previous practice. There are certainly some similarities in the general approach, but not in the details. The Ribhu Gita perhaps has the most widely known references to self-enquiry, and that is the reason it is recited daily at Ramanashram, but the actual instructions of Ramana on the practice are not found there.
From what I do know of Shankara's approach to self-enquiry, it was indeed scripturally based, and directed towards the practice of niddidyasana, or “not this, not this”. In other words, the practitioner was directed to examine everything he considered to be “himself”, and see that none of it was actually himself. He would examine his body, his thoughts, his emotions, his life in the world, and see that none of this is “I” or “mine”. There's something quite Buddhistic about this practice, a form of annata, or the doctrine of no-self, in which one meditates on phenomenal existence with deep observational inquiry, to the point of seeing that there is no “self” in anything observed, even one's own body and mind. Seeing that no such thing exists, one is freed from the illusion of selfhood. Shankara's method may even be derived in part from Buddhist sources and influences, as it has long been inferred that his non-dual philosophy was actually a way of incorporating key aspects of Buddhism into the Vedanta, especially those aspects which Vedantic debators were unable to find good counter-arguments for, perhaps because they were true. In some ways , Advaita is an admission that these aspects of Buddhism are indeed true, and need to be acknowledged.
However, in the practice of Ramana's self-enquiry, there is no admonition to inspect phenomenal arisings of any kind, even one's own thoughts or body or relations. This is where Ramana differs from both Shankara's Advaita and the Buddhist trains of thought. In some ways, it could be said that Ramana is completing Shankara's work, which is to find a wholly Vedantic approach to transcending the dualistic ego which does not rely on the Buddhist influence and method of inspecting phenomenal existence. In fact, Ramana makes clear that he strongly opposes the entire approach of niddidysana, and also any approach which puts attention on phenomenal events, internal or external, even an enquiry which inspects them for the purpose of voiding the assumption of an interior self.
Shankara's approach of niddidyasana is considered justified because it negates all arisings, even as it inspects them, and thus leaves the practitioner with only the true Self. The idea is to negate all forms of false self, all forms of ego, such that what is left behind is only what is true, eternal, and unsullied by phenomenal appearances – the Ground or Source from which all phenomenal appearances arise. However, what Ramana criticizes in this approach is the energy and attention it gives to these phenomenal appearances, and thus he says that it ends up feeding and strengthening them, even by opposing them, and this prevents ever truly going beyond them. To him, the very act of inspecting any arising phenomena will only reinforce our attention to them, and for him, it is attention to the non-self which makes the both the egoic self and the non-self seem real and separate. So as long as one tries to discriminate between the real and the unreal, one will keep duality in place by that very act.
To Ramana, the key to transcending duality is not to entertain any dualistic approaches, and discrimination is inherently dualistic. The entire idea of discrimination is to separate two opposites, and in that sense it is the epitome of dualism. Thus, his form of recommended self-enquiry is not an exercise of phenomenal discrimination, but the abandonment of it.. This may sound strange, in that self-enquiry is usually described as a form of Jnana Yoga, as the exercise of discriminative intelligence, but in point of fact this is not how Ramana taught it, and if fact this is something he repreatedly warned against.
Ramana's form of self-enquiry dispenses with discrimination, and instead directs all attention back upon the one who might discriminate himself from objects. The question “who am I?” is not a discursive or intellectual exercise of analyzing the phenomenal mind and self, with the aim of separating the true Self from the false identification with objects. It is a literal “looking” in the direction of the self to see what is there. Rather than looking at one's body, one simply askes “to whom is this body arising?” Rather than examining one's thoughts, self-enquiry simply asks “To whom is this thought arising?” In this way, one does not engage in an act of discrimination, but only in one of knowing oneself directly. One does not intentionally separate from what is observed, one thoughts or emotions or bodily life. One simply doesn't give it any special attention. One allows it to simply continue in the background, but one's primary focus is on the self.
This takes the form of a basic asana of “feeling the sense of self”. Rather than analyzing the separate self sense in relation to its objects, one simply “feels” this core feeling of being a self. He even recommends, for beginners, simply repeating the word “I, I, I...” over and over again to help feel the sense of self more deeply and clearly. The purpose of this self-enquiry, then, is to concentrate oneself entirely in the feeling of self, to know it more and more intimately, directly, feelingly, in an experiential sense, not in an abstract sense. By becoming immersed in this feeling of self, and essentially being indifferent to everything else, one becomes naturally freed of every form of external seeking and craving. Eventually, one is able to “hold onto the 'I'-thought”, and in so doing, all other thoughts fall into line, since all thoughts proceed from the 'I'-thought. Eventually, the mind itself collapses, and falls into the heart, where it finally dies through the Grace of the true Self, and never arises again. Instead, only the Self arises in the generative form of its own Light, and all the worlds are recognized as the Self.
There are certainly aspects of this approach to realization that are contained in Shankara or other traditional teachings. One cannot fault Shankara or praise Ramana for this distinction. It remains to be seen which is the most effective approach. Certainly Shankara was teaching in a very different time, and contending with very different personal and cultural currents. His main opponents within Vedanta were the Vishishtadvaitins, Ramanuja primarily, who argued for a qualifed form of non-dualims which was, in essence merely an advanced form of dualism rather than an alternative form of non-dualism. So Shankara tended to emphasize discrimination, to try to keep these sorts of influences at bay. He wanted people who were worshiping the forms of various Gods and Goddesses to see that any form was not the true Self, but was subtly separate from the Self, and that it should be surrendered to the formless Self. This of course encountered a lot of resistance within Hinduism, which has always been devotionally based, rather than non-dual in its popular forms. And it's no surprise that Shankara's teachings, though finding a strong base of support within some parts of the monastic community, were not embraced by the general population of Hinduism, and did not become a prominent part of the Vedantic tradition for a very long time. Instead,. non-dualism remained a largely esoteric tradition, even a kind of “secret teaching” that was not widely disseminated, until the rise of the Neo-Advaitins in Vivekananda's time.
For most of the intervening years, Hinduism was defined by devotionalism, and its nod to non-dualism was purely of the qualified variety, not the pure non-dual approach. However, this also led to various forms of decay, much of which was exacerbated by the consequences of British occupation and rule. One of those consequences was the re-emergence of Brahmanical religious traditions, most of which had fallen into disfavor or simply decline over the centuries. When the British arrived in India, they found a largely disorganized people who had no central political, cultural, or religious core that they could appeal to. Instead, Hinduism was divided into thousands of sects and approaches, largely centered upon various devotional approaches to differing Gods and tribalisms. Politically, this was disadvantageous to the British, who wanted to be able to deal with only a single Hinduism, both culturally and politically, which could make the administration of India workable.
To solve this administrative problem, the British encouraged the Brahmanical classes to become the internal leaders of India, both politically and culturally. This suited the British who had their own class system that had a rough correspondence to the Hindu caste system. It also suited them to have Hinduism moved in the direction of a unified cultural sense of itself, which the Brahmanical religion could provide if it were organized around a more cohesive sense of itself. For these reasons, the Vishishtadvaitins who worshiped Krishna tended to grow and become more powerful, and other forms of Vedanta became less powerful. The British could respect this more, since their own religion was centered around a single religious figure, Jesus, and this becomes a powerful political model for organizing people. So the worship of Krishna and the various forms of Vishishtadvaita began to predominate among the emerging ruling classes within India itself, who were glad to assist and cooperate with the British occupation since it advanced their own interests.
The Neo-Vedanta and Neo-Advaita revolutions of the 19th century can be seen in part as a reaction to this colonial influence. While Ramakrishna was in some ways a classic Krishna Bhakti, he as by no means a traditional one. Nor was he in league with the Brahmanical classes who were cooperating with British rule. Many of Ramakrishna's devotees were involved with the Brahmo Samaj, a modern political movement arguing for the regeneration of traditional Hinduism in the face of British rule. Their motives were at times contradictory, in that they both wanted to modernize Hinduism, and at the same time restore its original roots. One thing they were agreed upon was that the current form of Hinduism was corrupt, decayed, and far too weak to defeat British colonialism. So part of Vivekananda's genius was to formulate a version of Vedanta which served all these ends, even creating a unified form of Hinduism which had never really existed before, taking the British one better, but this time creating a Hinduism which could resist Birtish rule by coming together in opposition to it, rather than in support of it.
When Vivekananda began advocating for the centrality of Advaita to the Vedanta, he was not merely making a religious truth declaration, he was aiming to unify and strengthen Indian nationalism around a single cultural theme taken from its own traditions,. What better theme to unify a country around than one of universal oneness and brotherhood? In the political sense, this was sheer genius, and provided a cultural basis for the unification of the disparate branches of Hindu culture and politics in opposition to foreign occupation. It allowed India to become a modern country, one in which its inhabitants, divided throughout their history by divergent languages, religions, and interests, could identify as a people with a common sense of values and purpose
In the spiritual sense, this new emphasis on Advaita had profound effects on India's religious heritage. The traditional Advaitins, who had kept their tradition alive via monastic institutions and what was virtually an underground tradition of practice, began to find themselves in a strange situation. To a degree, they were quite happy to gain at last the prominence in Hindu culture which had generally eluded them for most of their history, but which they felt they were of course deserving of. And yet, at the same time the growing popularity of Advaita brought many non-traditional ideas into the fore which had no been there before. Vivekananda himself was not a traditional Advaitin, and never underwent any traditional education. His spiritual education was at the hands of yogic geniuses like Ramanakrishna and Pahvari Baba, not traditional Advaitins, and when he began to teach about Advaita, it was from the point of view of these non-traditional types, not the Shankaracharya maths.
In the 20th century this pattern continued. Ramana realized the Self in 1896, right about the time that Vivekananda was at his most influential. Of course Ramana had no direct influence on Advaita for many decades, but his life in some ways epitomizes the new approach. He had zero religious training, zero knowledge of Advaita, and realized without the help of any human Guru or influence. It was only well after his realization that he began to acquire an education in the traditions, and quite naturally he did not feel that such things were necessary or even important. He focused upon a simple practice that anyone could engage, Hindu or not, and made no gestures towards the necessity of traditional Advaitic practice. It was the practice of self-enquiry that made for a non-dual approach, not the cultural or religious context in which one practiced.
In some ways, Ramana destroyed non-dualism by releasing it from its traditional roots. But in practical effect, he helped make it immensely popular. In the India of today, devotionalism is still the dominant outward cultural and religious form, but non-dualism is widely known, admired, and even practiced. Friends of mine familiar with India tell me that probably 90% of people who are interested in Advaita there are drawn to the Neo-Advaitins such as Ramana and Nisargadatta, and not the traditional maths.
One can easily say that Ramana's teaching on self-enquiry was simply a response to the needs of his time, just as Shankara's teachings were in his time. The modern age has created a whole class of people who are open to the direct, non-traditional, experientially based, feeling-oriented, yogically active approach that Ramana represents, rather than an approach. The advent of westerners has itself been responsible in many respects for this, going back to the British occupation itself and the influence of western philosophical and political thought on India. It is no surprise then that it is this form of Advaita that has proved popular in the West, as well as to a westernized India.
One cannot say which is “better” without bowing to the needs of the times in which they appear. I don't think Ramana's approach would have caught on well or been terribly effective in Shankara's time, and vice-versa. This doesn't mean that there are no inherent contradictions between the two approaches, or that one might represent an improvement over the other. My own sense is that Ramana's approach does indeed represent a deeper understanding of the non-dual process, and that Shankara's description in many ways represents the limitations of his age, which was deeply wedded to traditional scripture and fealty to the same. But one cannot pretend that Ramana is the final word on the subject either. There is always room for both greater depth and greater cultural readiness for the pure non-dual approach.
Even so, it remains interesting to me that Ramana choose a path which departs from the phenomenological approach of both Buddhism, and to a lesser extent, Shankara. One could argue that Ramana is actually restoring Advaita to a pre-Buddhist approach, even if the end result is not at all at odds with Buddhist ideas. Ramana's teaching constantly affirms that there is no individual self or ego, something which tends to contradict Vedantic dualisms and the theory of the soul or individual atma. But the process of realization, to Ramana, is directly and entirely subjective, and not oriented towards an inspection of the world. Rather, it has a highly natural relationship to the world, not trying to analyze it or adapt to it, but merely to recognize it as the Self, non-separate from top to bottom. This seems very much in alignment with the pre-Advaitic Upanishadic rishis, whose orientation was always to the Self, not to an inspection of the natural world as something to discriminate oneself from.