Swami Abhedananda.

Vedanta philosophy Self-knowledge [atma-jnana] online

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same as the Personal God whom people wor-
ship, but it is one wdth Brahman, the absolute

Having heard this, the seeker after Self-
knowledge went into meditation and searched
for the illuminator or director of the mind,
that which is beyond the reach of our thoughts,
words and sense-powers. He spent some
time in Samadhi or the superconscious state,
and realizing the Self he returned to the
ordinary plane of consciousness and said:
"I have known and realized the absolute
Truth, I have known the Self." The
master replied: "If you think that you know
the Self, then you know very little of it." If
you believe that you have known the Abso-
lute Brahman perfectly, you have known very
little of the Truth which dwells in you as
well as in the universe. Truth is one. When;
you begin to think that you have kno^vn the
Truth, you are using your secondary knowl-
edge of the intellect, which cannot reveal the

Absolute. If you imagine that you have


known the Self or Brahman, who is the
director of the mind, you have comprehended
ver)- little of it. If you think that you have
realized it as dwelling in your body, you have
not understood its absolute nature. If you
believe that you have cognized it as dwelling
outside your body, still you have not realized
the Truth. If you have known the Self as
God, the Creator of the universe, you have
apprehended ver\' little of it.

Here the question rises, "Why is it that we
have kno^^'n very little of the Self if we have
known it as dwelling in our body?" Bccausr*
that something which is the director of the
mind does not dwell in one place; it is beyond
the space relation. Therefore, when wc have
known it as dwelling in a particular place
and not anywhere else, we have not realized
the Truth. Again, if we have perceived it
as dwelling outside of us and not in us, then
also we have not known that this Being is all-
pervading and beyond the relation of time

and space; but we have known only that


much of the Infinite which is limited by time
and space and conditioned by their relations.
.,.>- Then the disciple sat in meditation once
more, and his soul, rising above the plane of
thoughts, entered into the superconscious
state. Having remained there for some time
he came back to the plane of sense-conscious-
ness and declared: "I do not think I know
the Self well, nor do I know that I do not
know it at all. The Self is neither to be
known nor is it the same as that which is
absolutely unknown; he who has known this
truth has realized it (the Absolute Brahman)."
What he meant by this was that Self-knowledge
is beyond relative knowledge and ignorance.
Whatever we know by the understanding is
only possible through the light of intelligence
which proceeds from the true Self; there is no
other knower of the Self, who is the illumi-
nator of mind and thoughts. The Self is in
reality the eternal knoM^er, there is nothing
in the universe that can know the true Self,
yet it is the source of all the true knowledge



that \\c possess. It is always the subject of
knowledge or consciousness, but never its
object. Furthermore, the disciple said: "He
who thinks that the Self (Brahman) can never
become an object of knowledge thinks rightly;
but he who thinks 'I have known it,' has
not realized its true nature. The Self (Brah-
man) is not known by those who think it is
kno\^Tl; but it is realized by those who think
it is not known."

This seems an enigma; what does it mean?
If we analyze our perceptions what do we
find ? When we see a color, we find that
the sensation of color is produced by light
which is a certain kind of vibration of the
ether. A ray of light coming in contact with
the retina? causes some kind of molecular
change in them; this being carried by the
optic nerves into the brain cells creates cer-
tain molecular vibration in those cells. It
requires a conscious ego to translate this
vibration into a sensation, which we perceive

and call color. If the conscious ego be not


there, then these vibrations may be carried
to the brain centers where they may produce
other changes, but still we shall not see the
color. For instance, when we are looking
at a color, if our mind be suddenly distracted
or concentrated on some other object, the
color may remain before our eyes, yet we do
not see it. Although the vibration of light
has been carried to the brain centers, the molec-
ular changes have been formed and all the
physiological conditions are fulfilled, still we
have no sensation of color, because there is
no one to translate the molecular vibrations
of the brain cells into the sensation of color.
The ego who translates them is concentrated
on something else. But when the changes are
translated by the ego into sensations, then we
perceive it. Now let us go a little deeper.
Behind this intellectual perception there is
the self-consciousness of the ego. If the ego
be unconscious, if there be no sense of "I,"
then these vibrations will come through the
senses and pass away without producing any



sensation in the mind. Again, if the mind be
separated from the source of apperception and
intelligence, then the sensations will remain
in the subconscious mind without affecting
the conscious ego. This source of conscious-
ness in us is the knowcr. It is our true Self.
We know that we are sitting here; when
we walk, we know that we are walking; when
we perform an act, wc know that we are
performing it; this knowcr of all acts and
thoughts is the director. Is that knowledge
different from our true Self? No, it is in-
separable from our Self; our true Self is J\
like a sea of intelligence. Some people say
that knowledge proceeds from the Self, or
in other words, that from which this knowl-
edge proceeds is the Self. This would imply
that the Self is separate from knowledge and
would raise the question, "What is then the
nature of the true Self?" According to
monistic Vedanta the true nature of the Self
or Atman or Brahman is absolute knowledge

or absolute intelligence which never changes.


The functions of the intellect and mind are
changeable, but Self-knowledge is unchange-
able. Suppose you have a feeling; when it
rises, you feel it and know that there is that
feeling; when it subsides and another takes
its place, then also you Icnow that the new
feeling is there. The knowledge by which
you cognize each feeling cannot be known
by any other knowledge, for there is only one
knowledge in the universe; consequently the
knower of that knowledge cannot be known
by any other knowledge. That by which
vou know the existence of a feeling or a sen-
sation cannot be revealed by intellect, under-
standing or any other faculty. Upon it de-
pends intellectual understanding. Whenever
we perceive any object through the senses, that
knowledge is a partial expression of the Self
or absolute knowledge, which directs the
mind and senses to perform their functions.
The nature of the Self is all-knowing; its
knowledge does not depend upon the relation
between the knower and the object of knowl-



edpc, but it remains unchanged even when
all the objects of knowledge have ceased to
exist. The all-knowing Self may be com-
pared to the sclf-eflulgent sun. As the nature
\^ I of the sun is to illumine himself as well as
other objects, so the light of the Self illumines
\ its own nature as also the phenomenal world.
The sun himself can illumine everything as
well as his own form, we do not need a candle
or a torch to see him; therefore, we call him
self-effulgent. Self-effulgence does not need
any other light to illumine its nature. For the
same reason the Atman is said to be the self-
effulgent sun of knowledge. That knowledge
by which we perceive all sensations and feel-
ings, organic functions, intellection, under-
standing and other activities of the mind as
well as external objects, the sun, moon, stars,
is the light of the self-effulgent Atman or Self ^
which is the source of intelligence and con-

This self-effulgent Atman is the knower and

director of the mind and senses. The mind
" 146


and senses will not perform any function
if they are separated from the self-effulgent
light of knowledge. Mind, as we have al-
ready seen, is "finer matter in vibration."
Vedanta does not teach that mind is the same
as the Self or spirit. There is no intelligence
in the vibration of the mind substance. It is
not the source of consciousness. All the
activities of the mind may stop, still we shall
remain conscious of our Self. In the state
of Sam§,dhi there may not be any feeling,
like fear, anger, or any other modification of
the mind substance, such as volition, desire,
emotion, will, determination, cognition, or
understanding, but still one does not lose self-
consciousness or become absolutely unconscious
in that state. This will prove that pure con-
sciousness or pure intelligence is separate
from and independent of mental functions.

All these functions and sensations can be
stopped by entering into superconsciousness ;
in short, one can cut ofJ all connection with

the body and mind and still continue to be


conscious on the hij^hcr plane. It will be
difTicult for those who have not rcali/A-d
Sam^dhi to grasp this truth. Intellectual
knowledge will not reveal the Self; we must
learn the method of going beyonrl intellect
and rising aljove the realm of thoughts if
we wish to realize the Absolute Self or Atman.
Intellectual ai)prehension being relative and
imperfect, cannot transcend the limits of
phenomena and cannot reach the sphere of
the Absolute. Therefore, it is said, "He who
thinks he knows the Self knows it not." /
Self-knowledge precedes even the concep-
tion of God. If the thought about God, which
is in our mind, be separated from self -con-
sciousness it instantly vanishes and becomes
non-existent. We know God because there
is knowledge in us, because the light of the
Self reveals the existence of God. If this be
so, we ask: Which is higher, the Personal
God or the Self? The Self is higher, because
it illumines the existence of God. This source

of all knowledge, which is the absolute Truth,


is higher than a Personal God, since the
Personal God, who can be described by words
and thought of by the mind, becomes subject
to the mind and speech, consequently to the
Self or Atman, which is the director of the
mind and speech, and that which is subject
to a thing must be lower or less than that
which governs it. So when we try to know
our true Self, we do not attempt to know it
as we know the existence of a book or a tree,
because that kind of knowledge will never
reveal it. We must not try to see any form,
because there is no form in the Self. We
must not make the objects of the senses, like
sound, color, odor, touch, the starting point
of our search after Self, for these are on the
relative plane, while the SeK is the Absolute

Thus we can understand the difference be-
tween the relative plane and the absolute.
So long as we are on the relative plane, we can-
not reach the Absolute, because the absolute

knowledge, by which we know the existence


of things which arc related to one another,
is beyond all relations and infinite. All
relative phenomena exist in and through the
Absolute, but the Absolute Atman is inde-
pendent and self-existent. If we were unin-
telligent beings and did not possess Self-
knowledge, then these sensations and per-
ceptions would have no relation to us. The
pure knowledge of the Absolute Self may be
compared to the thread which goes through
the pearls of percepts, ideas and thoughts that
rise in our minds, and strings them together
into one harmonious whole, forming a garland
of our daily experiences. This pure knowl-
edge must not be confounded with the relative
knowledge which is finite and rckited to ignor-
ance, or non-knowledge. The Self, being the
knower of ignorance, is higher and greater
and its light of absolute knowledge is that by
which we realize that we know this or do not
know that.

In Vedanta it is said: "The Self is the

knower of that which sees, hears, thinks or


perceives. It is the knower of the body, senses,
mind, intellect, and heart with which we
identify our Self." Through this identifica-
tion, when the Self appears as the ego, then
we say that we are the hearer, seer, perceiver
and thinker; but the ego sees, hears, thinks
and perceives, being dependent upon the pure
knowledge of the Self. In fact the ego can-
not exist without Self-knowledge. Self-knowl-
edge and existence are one and the same. We
know that we are here; if for a moment we
forget that we are in this place or if we become
unconscious of our surroundings, we shall
remain non-existent, as it were, in relation
to our environments. Thus although we may
try to separate our Self-knowledge from our
existence, we can never do it ; for pure knowl-
edge or consciousness and existence are in-
separable. When we have realized Self-
knowledge, we have understood our exist-
ence and discovered that the director of the
mind is all-knowledge and all-existence. We

say the sun exists; why? Because we are


conscious of liim; when nvc arc not con-
scious of him, as in trance, he does not exist
in relation to us. Self-consciousness, there-
fore, is the standard of all relative knowledge
and relative existence. Herein lies the begin-
ning and end of the existence of all objects
which we can think of or perceive. The
moment that we are unconscious of our body
and ever)'thing of this world, they will cease
to exist in relation to us. We all experience
this truth during our sound sleep, when our
conscious connection with the body being
cut off, it ceases to exist and consequently we
do not claim anything of the material world
as belonging to us. But as our consciousness
returns to the body, instantly the body together
with everything related to It appears as belong-
ing to us. Therefore, it is said that knowledge
and existence are one.

Vedanta gives these two attributes to the
Absolute Self, who is the director of the mind.
The first is absolute existence, in Sanskrit

"Sat"; and the second is absolute knowledge


or intelligence, "Chit" in Sanskrit. These
two, as we have already seen, are one and
inseparable. A third attribute, however, is
also given in Vedanta. It is called in San-
skrit "Ananda," meaning pure happiness or
bhssfulness. Where absolute knowledge and
absolute existence prevail, there is also abso- /y\>4^-
lute happiness or blissfulness. It is different
from changeable pleasure or relative happi-
ness. Unchangeable blissfulness again is al-
ways attended with absolute peace. Wherever
there is true happiness, there must be abso-
lute peace, and the mind will not seek anything
else, but will enjoy it and will try to possess
it and never be separated from it. The
ordinar}^ pleasures, which we mistake for
true happiness, may be agreeable for the time
being, but in the next moment we dislike
them and tr}' to get away from them. Think
how transitory are the pleasures that can be
derived through the senses, they last only for
a short time and in the reaction make us

miserable. True happiness, however, is un-


changcaljlc. It brings no reaction and is
everlasting. In the state of absolute existence
and pure knowledge alone can be found
absolute peace and true happiness. Such is
the realm of our true Self, which is above all
relativity and beyond all conditions of this
earth. This indivisible Sat-chit-ananda, abso-
lute Existencc-intelligence-bliss, the disciple
realized in Samidhi as the director of the
mind and the source of all the phenomena
of the universe.

He then said: "Whosoever realizes that
which manifests within us as tlie conscious
Self, attains to immortality. " Death means a
change of the body. The body may die, the
mind may die, the senses may die, but pure
knowledge can never die. When we know
that something is dying and if we do not iden-
tify ourselves with it, but become conscious
of our absolute Self, then we are sure to attain
to immortality. If we once grasp the idea
that we are the Absolute Being, how can we

ever be changed by death into a non-being?


As being cannot come out of non-being, so
it cannot go back to non-being. Pure exist-
ence can never become non-existence; this is
the proof of immortahty. The Absolute Self
or Atman is the immortal Being. It is also
Brahman, the beginning and the end of the
universe. The same eternal Being is wor-
shipped as God under various names and
forms. He is the Being who dwells in us and
is inseparable from our true SeK. The Abso-
lute Being is not many but one. If there were
many Absolute Beings they would be limited
by each other and consequently not absolute.
That one Absolute Being alone is immortal
and deathless, and by knowing it we become
immortal. No Divine Incarnation can give
us immortality, if we do not possess it already.
The Christian belief that immortality can be
obtained only through the grace of Jesus the
Christ, is not founded upon the knowledge
of the immortal nature of our true Self. The
students of Vedanta are not deluded by such

statements; they try first to know the real


Self and then tliey realize that immortality
is their birthright. "

Since the true Self is the source of all strength,
the disciple said: "We gain strength and im-
mortality by Self-knowledge." Real strength
comes to us when we have known that which
is changeless and immortal. The spiritual
strength which is gained through Self-knowl-
edge is greater than material, physical, mental,
and moral strength together. All other powers,
except spiritual strength, are subject to change
and death. Few people understand the mean-
ing of "spiritual strength." By the word
"spirit" is not meant a disembodied spirit,
but the Absolute Spirit or Self or Atman or
Brahman. Spirit is that Self which is the
source of absolute intelligence and which is the
Absolute Being. Knowing it, one attains
to spiritual strength, which is higher than
physical or psychic strength. With physical
strength a man can kill a tiger or destroy
thousands of mortals, but it will not protect

him from death. He may possess material


strength, but it will not save his life at the
last moment. He may gain psychic power
and do wonderful things, but that will not
stop the changes of body and mind. Spiritual
strength, however, which Self-knowledge
brings, makes one free from birth and death.
He who has gained physical and psycliic powers
will remain subject to birth and death, but
if he can know that immortal Being, he be-
comes a master of the universe. The gigantic
forces of nature serve and obey the command
of him who has acquired Self-knowledge.
"If a man know this Self here, he has gained
the Truth." In this world of imperfection
he who has known the Self has reaUzed the
Absolute Truth and has fulfilled the highest
purpose of life. He has attained absolute
freedom, perfect peace and true happiness
in this Hfe. But "if he does not know this
here, for him there is great suffering." He
who does not realize the Self comes back to
this earth again and again, and, remaining in

ignorance, seeks sense-pleasures and suffers


great sorrow and miser)-. He does not escape
the law of Karma and reincarnation.

"The wise ones, who have realized the all-
pervading absolute Self (Brahman) in all ani-
mate and inanimate objects, become im-
mortal after departing from this world."
The knower of the Absolute and Immortal
Self becomes one with it and remains as the

immortal and perfect Spirit forever and ever.

"That which is the Infinite is Bliss. In


IS BLISS. This INFIN^TY is to be realized.

"The Self (Atman) is the Infinite. Self
is below, above, behind, before, right and
left; Self is all this.


LOVES THE Self, delights in the Self, revels
IN THE Self, rejoices in the Self, becomes
the lord and master in all the worlds."

Chandogva Upanishad.




In the Brihadaranayaka Upanishad of the
iXci %Prr^- Yajur Veda we read that there lived in ancient
Vk/ ci&-. India a great sage, Yajnyavalkya by name. He
was a seer of Truth and hved a pure, virtuous,
and righteous hfe. He had a devoted wife,
whose name was Maitreyi; he performed all
the duties of the householder as also of ii
good citizen, and lived in peace, doing good
to others. As the result of all these good
and unselfish w^orks his heart was purified
and his eyes were open to spiritual Truth.
He understood the transitoriness and im-
permanent nature of the phenomenal world,
and reahzing that the life of a householder
was only a grade in the process of evolution,
he desired to enter into a higher state and

make further progress. He had discovered

\X4.0' 1


L/W-^ ht


ihc foolishness of pcoijle whn lc:ul a worldly
life and constantly try to fulhll their earthly
desires; therefore, he made up liis mind to
li\e a life of seclusion, and devote the rest
of his days to the pursuit of eternal Truth.
He wished to take refuge in the absolute
Reality of the universe by retiring into the
forest where he would not be disturbed by
the world. Constant meditation upon the true
Self had become the aim of this great seer.

One day he came to his wife and said:
"Beloved Maitreyi, verily I wish to retire
into the forest, leaving with thee my wealth,
property and whatever belongs to me. Enjoy
these and grant me thy permission." On
hearing this, Maitreyi felt extremely un-
happy, but being spiritually-minded, she asked
this question: "Bhagavan, please tell me, if
I possess the whole earth with all the wealth
it contains shall I gain immortality by it?"
She was not like the wives of to-day, who
are greedy for wealth and possessions and

who are delighted to acquire a little inheri-


tance; she was not ambitious for material
property like a woman of the world, but she
understood that immortality was the highest
of all treasures. Being guided by this ideal,
she questioned: "Shall I be immortal by
possessing all the riches and property which
thou art going to give me?" "No," re-
plied the sage, "if thou possessest the prop-
erty and wealth of the world thou wilt live
like the rich who enjoy, in whatever manner
they desire, the luxuries, comforts and pleas-
ures of earthly existence. There is no hope
of gaining immortality by wealth. None can
ever become immortal by means of riches or
material possessions." Then the wife said:
"What shall I do with that thing which can-
not bring me immortality? If thou hast any-
thing by which I shall become immortal
please give me that. I .do not care for thy
wealth." Her husband, the great sage, re-
plied, "Thou art truly my beloved; thou
hast spoken well, it is worthy of thee. If

thou desirest, I will tell thee of that by which


one can attain immortality. Come and listen
attentively to what I will say."

lie first explained the true nature of the
object of love. People love tlicir parents,
children, husbands, wives, property, wealth,
and all other things that they possess, but
they do not know what they love in reality.
The real ol)ject of love is not a material
thing, but that Avliicli lies behind tlie ma-
terial form. O beloved, verily I say unto
thee: "A wife loves her huslxand not for the
husband's sake, but it is for the sake of the
Atman, the Self, who is within, that the hus-
band is loved." The wife does not love the
dead particles of matter which make up the
body of her husband, but she loves the soul,
the Atman, which lies behind his form. "The
husband loves his wife not for the wife's sake,
but it is for the sake of the Atman, the Self,
wlio is within, that the wife is loverl." The
physical body of the wife is not dear to her
husband, but her soul, the Atman, is dear

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Online LibrarySwami AbhedanandaVedanta philosophy Self-knowledge [atma-jnana] → online text (page 6 of 8)