What is the Nature of the Self?

gurudev (2)

अहमस्मि सदा भामि कदचिन्नाहमप्रिय:|

ब्रह्मैवाहमतः सिद्धं सच्चिदानन्दलक्षणम् ||

 Ahmasmi sada bhami kadachinnahamapriyah |
Brahhmaivahamatah siddham saachidanandalaksanam ||

सदा = always, अहम् अस्मि = I exists, भामि = I shine, अहम्= I (am), न कदाचित् = never,  अप्रियः = not dear, अतः = therefore, सिद्धम् = it is established (that), ब्रह्मन् एवं अहम् = brahman alone I am, सत् -चित् -आनन्द -लक्षणम्  = whose nature is existence-consciousness-fullness

I exist ever and always I shine; never do I dislike myself. Therefore, it is established that I am brahman, of the nature of existence-consciousness-fullness alone. (Advaita Makranda – 2)

This verse provides a simple way of looking at ourselves. For instance, if I look at myself as the body, then I had a birth and I will face death; I am mortal and I am limited. If I look at myself through the medium of the mind or intellect, I can see that in knowledge, I am limited, and in terms of my memory, I am limited. Even in terms of skills, I know that I am limited. In every way that I look at myself, I can only sense that I am limited. such is the perception I have of myself. Yet the nature of the limitations I feel depends on the standpoint through which I judge or observe myself; indeed, if I were to stop looking at myself in terms of these incidental factors, my ’costume’, and consider myself in terms of what I really am, I will become free.

What is it in each one of us that is abiding?

Everything that you might consider has two aspects, an incidental aspect that is constantly changing, and an inherent or intrinsic aspect, which is constant and abiding. Take the instance of this cloth that I am wearing: it is made of cotton, and, in this form, it is called cloth. If you were to take away all the interwoven yarn, it would not be cloth anymore; you may perhaps call it threads. The name is changed when the form is changed; if you take away all the threads from cloth, there would not be any cloth. However, even as thread, it is still cotton. You can cut these threads into small pieces and they would still be cotton. The fact that it is cotton never changes; that is never denied. Because it never ceases to be cotton fiber, cotton is the intrinsic aspect of this garment, whereas, its status as a piece of cloth or threads or shorter lengths of thread is incidental.

Remember that the actor only appears as a beggar, king or minister, each of the roles is incidental, while being an actor is intrinsic to the individual. This is how everything in this universe is a combination of the essential and the incidental. Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, (Bhagavad Gita 13-26):

यावत्सञ्जायते किञ्चित्सत्त्वं स्थावरजङ्गमम्।
क्षेत्रक्षेत्रज्ञसंयोगात्तद्विद्धि भरतर्षभ।।

 yāvat sañjāyate kiñcit, sattvaḿ sthāvara-jańgamam
kṣetra-kṣetrajña-saḿyogāt, tad viddhi bharatarṣabha

 Oh Arjuna, whatever being, animate or inanimate, is born, know it to have emanated from the union of the क्षेत्र  ksetra (matter) and the क्षेत्रज्ञ ksetrajna (consciousness). Here Lord Krishna says to Arjuna that whatever is created in this world is a product of the union of the spirit and matter, the essential and the incidental; it is  सच्चिदानन्द  saccidananda alone, in some name and form or the other. In this cloth that I am wearing, the aspect of cotton is its essence and the fact of its being cloth is incidental. One must learn to separate the abiding, the inherent, the unchanging and essential from that which is changing and incidental. We have to investigate and discriminate between the two.

What about the self? Well, consider what it is that is unchanging and inherent about you. That would be the truth, your inherent reality. The essence of a golden ornament is the gold of which it is made, while the different forms and designs in which it may appear may change. Similarly, there is a part of you that keeps on changing at any moment, you may be a walker, dreamer, sleeper, speaker, or worker; these forms, or states are constantly changing. Then what is it in you that never changes? It is the fact that you ’are’ that never changes. The I ’am’ never changes. Your roles as a son, a father, a brother or friend, a sleeper, dreamer, speaker or teacher keep on changing, but the fact that you ’are’ never changes.

How do I know that I ’am’? Do I need to hear myself to know that I am? Do I need to touch myself to know whether I am? Do I ever need to say, “Let me see whether or not I am there”? Understand that even seeing, touching, hearing etc., can take place only when one is there in the first place. Making any such effort presupposes that one ’is.’ If I want to know where I am, I may need to ask somebody or look around to determine my position. However, to know that I ’am’ does not require any effort on my part. Everything requires the ’I’ to reveal it, whereas, the ’I’ itself does not require anything in order to reveal itself. That I ‘am’ or that you ’are’ is self-revealing. This is the meaning of such: bhami, I always shine.

Being and shining or revealing always go together. For instance, there is a flower in my hand. When can you say the flower is? Only when the flower is, that you can see it; only when you see it can you cognize it. Only when the flower becomes an object of your awareness do you see it. However, when can the flower become the object of your awareness? That can happen only when it is. So which comes first? Is it the fact that you see it or the fact that it exists? Unless it exists you cannot see it and unless you see it you cannot be aware of its being there. This is why being and shining or being and knowing happen together.

To be and to shine are not two different things. That you are is a self-revealing and undeniable fact about you. Nobody can take away from you the fact that you ’are.’ That you are smart can be taken away by proving you not to be so, or that you are successful can be proved wrong by pointing out your failures. Such concepts are relative, whereas the fact that you are and that you shine is not relative; it is not a point of view. The fact of your being does not depend on anything else for it to be. It is the one aspect of you that is independent of everything else.

Now the poet says, कदचिन्नाहमप्रिय: kadacit na aham apriyah, I am never ‘not dear’ to myself, meaning, I always love myself. One may ask, “How do you say that I love myself”? Sometimes, I hate myself for having done something wrong.” It is true that sometimes, people hate themselves so much, they want to commit suicide. Nobody would want to commit suicide if they did not hate themselves. However, upon careful deliberation, we can see that every instance of self-hatred is indeed a hatred of pain, of failure; what one hates is the incapability that has led to the failure. Why do we hate these things? It is because there is always love for oneself.

We love the limitless self, which is  आनन्द ananda (bliss), so we hate that which makes us feel limited. A person has thoughts of suicide when there is no hope in life and he feels helpless. Yet this only shows a hatred for pain and not hatred for existence, only, he does not know how to end the pain. The impulse to end his existence only reflects his desire to end the pain. In fact, even hatred for life reveals the love for the self, and, therefore, under no condition, कदाचित् kadacit, does one hate oneself; in other words, under all conditions, one loves oneself.

The love for the self is unconditional. For instance, while others may not like to see our faces, we love to see ourselves in the mirror. We keep looking at ourselves when we brush our teeth, or when we comb our hair after a shower, and ‘We never miss a chance to look at ourselves on any reflecting surface, even if it looks distorted!

But why is the body so dear to us? It is because the self is reflected in it; it is not dear when the self does not reflect in it. As Sri Sankaracarya says in the Bhaja Govindam (Bh.Go – 6), भार्या बिभ्यति तस्मिन्काये  bharya bibhyati tasmin kaye, even the wife fears the body of the husband once the life-breath leaves it. Even the wife that loved the husband more than her own life fears his body once life ceases to reflect in it, once the grace of the self is no longer present in it. Anything becomes clear because of its association with the self and it remains so for as long as it reflects the self.

When does something reflect the self? It is seen to reflect the self as long as it is favorable to us, as long as it is helpful to us or pleasing to us. The moment things start hurting us, they do not remain the object of our love. We love things as long as they reflect the self or are favorable to us. While the love for everybody and everything else is conditional, the love for the self is unconditional.

Everything about us changes, but that we are aware never changes. We are aware in the waking state, we are aware in the dream state, and we are aware in the sleep state as well. We are of the nature of that awareness, which illumines the waking, dream, and deep sleep states. In the deep sleep state, we are not aware of anything particular, but unconditioned awareness is nevertheless present. In a pitch-dark room, we do not see anything Yet when we say that we do not “see” anything, what do we mean? It is only when our eyes have the ability to see anything at all that we can say we do l not see anything. Saying we do not see anything in darkness nevertheless involves seeing; it simply means that one is aware of the absence of everything.

The eyes see even in a dark room, but they see only darkness. It is because of this that we can say that it is dark. Similarly, even in the deep sleep state, there is awareness; only, there is nothing to be aware of. The self is always shining and as awareness illumines the waking, dream and deep sleep states. This awareness has no boundary because it has no form or attributes. We are of the nature of that attribute-less awareness.

Asti is sat, bhati is cit, and priyam is ananda, because happiness is so dear to us. Wherever there is ananda, there is also love. Therefore, we are sat-cit-ananda. What is the nature of ब्रह्मन् brahman? That is also sat-cit-ananda. The Taittiriya Upanisad (2-1) defines brahman as सत्यं ज्ञानं अनन्तं satyam, jnanam, anantam. Satyam means truth, jnanam means knowledge, and anantam means limitless. Whatever is limitless is also ananda.

As the Chandogya Upanisad says, (Ch.Up. 7-23-1) यो वै भूमा तत्‌ सुखं yo mi bhuma tat sukham, what is limitless is indeed happiness. Satyam is the same as sat and jnanam is the same as cit. Therefore, brahman is the same as sat-cit-ananda. Because we are also sat-cit-ananda, it stands to reason that we are brahman; brahman is our essential nature. It is in this manner that the author shows the possibility that we can be brahman.

Brahman is sat-cit-ananda. The abiding reality of each one of us is also sat-cit-ananda. Even though the states of waking, dream, and sleep come and go and our roles as doer, enjoyer etc. are variable and constantly changing, अस्ति भाति प्रियं asti bhati priyam, never leaves us under any condition; it is अबाधितं abadhitam, never negated. You are asti bhati priyam always, at all times, in all places, and under all conditions. At no time are you not asti bhati priyam. You cannot get away from it, just as a golden ornament cannot get away from gold.

Upon being told this, however, a question immediately arises. How can I be brahman’? I am limited in power, knowledge, and strength, and insignificant in every way, so how can I be the limitless brahman? Vedanta says that even the insignificant can be limitless, because insignificance obtains solely at the level of the form. For instance, a drop of water might feel insignificant if it compares itself with the ocean; here it is looking at itself as a form, a tiny drop, whereas the ocean is endless. However, if it thinks of itself as water, it would feel no different from the ocean. As a drop, it is insignificant in size and extent compared to the size and boundless nature of the ocean, but as water, it is the truth of the very ocean itself. Similarly, you are limited only at the level of the उपाधि  upadhi (costume) and your reality is no different from brahman; you are sat-cit-ananda.

When brahman manifests in the costume of a limited name and form, it is the ego, the jiva, and when the same brahman manifests in the costume of the totality, it is Isvara. In essence, however, Jiva and Isvara are are not different. In the Upadesa Saram, Sri Ramana Maharshi (Upadesa Saram 24) says,

ईश जीवयोर्वेषधीभीदा|
सत्स्वभावतो वस्तु केवलम् ||

isa-jivayor vesa-dhi-bhida, sat-svabhavato vastu kevalam

 due to the reality given to the costume (upadhi) there is the notion of division between Isvara and जीव jiva. However, from the standpoint of the essential nature, which is sat, the truth is only one. The difference between ईश्वर Isvara and जीव jiva is thus restricted to वेष  vesa in terms of their essential nature, the jiva is as much अस्ति भाति प्रियं asti bhati priyam as is lsvara.

Is it really true that your experiential reality shows you to be limited? Is it indeed your direct experience that you are limited? What is direct experience? It is something that takes place in the mind and through the sense organs. However, आत्मा atma obtains as the witness. The sense organs and the mind cannot objectify it. The fact is that your self or atma cannot be objectified by any available प्रमाण  pramana or means of knowledge. You can truly never really ’see’ yourself. In reality, it is a mere notion that you are limited, something that you just take for granted. You believe quite strongly that you are an insignificant speck in this universe, limited in every possible way. Nevertheless, who is it that says you are insignificant? It is you yourself who Says that you are insignificant. Yet on what grounds do you say that?

Have you ever experienced yourself to conclude that you are limited? Given that the self cannot be objectified, how do you say you are limited? Is it because you were born, because you have a body that is subject to various limitations, and because you are going to die some day? What was born? Only the body is born; you are not born. The conclusion that one is limited truly has no basis. You may feel that you are a limited being, but the self that is judged to be limited is indeed not available for direct experience, unlike this flower in front of me, which is there for you to see here and now.

आत्मा Atma cannot be objectified by any available means of knowledge, and, therefore, not available to inference or to any other means of knowledge. The conclusion of the self being limited thus has no basis. You can never see the ’I’ directly and you cannot experience it in any way or even visualize it, like you can any other object. It is like looking at yourself in a mirror and concluding that there is a big stain on your face, when, in reality, the stain is a flaw or smudge in the mirror. In the same way, you look at your body, see that it is limited, and conclude that you are limited. The cause for it is the identification with the body, which is the non-self. There is a lack of discrimination between the self and the non-self.

The self can never become the object of perception or object of knowledge. It is of the nature of knowledge and cannot become the object of knowledge; it is the witness and cannot ever be witnessed or objectified. So you must understand that you cannot ever say that it is your experience that you are a limited being. It is a conclusion and not an experience.

When I see a snake where, in fact, there is only a rope, it is again a conclusion; it is my projection and not a reality. In the same way, the limitedness of the body-mind complex is projected on the self and you take yourself as limited. Limitedness is present in the vesa or costume alone. That one is limited is not an experience, but a projection. Let alone experience this limitedness, you cannot even infer limitedness, for all inference is based on perception.

Swami Viditatmandanda Saraswati

Excerpts from Advaita Makaranda of Sri Lakshmidhara Kavi

Link to Swamiji’s Various Discourses


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