By Swami Shraddhananda
Coming to the United States in 1957, Swami Shraddhananda was head of the Vedanta Society in Sacramento from 1970 until his death in 1996. He was the author of Seeing God Everywhere and Story of an Epoch as well as many articles published in both English and Bengali journals. “Our Immortal Self” appeared in the Jan-Feb 1961 issue of Vedanta and the West.
Busy people have no time to think of either death or their mortality. They are preoccupied with life—the life which they possess and enjoy as something vividly present and which ramifies in different directions through their various interests, physical, intellectual, and emotional. But then death is a certainty for every one of us, and when that certainty draws nearer even the busiest people discover that they were callous to this vitally important subject. As a matter of fact, in their subconscious mind there had been a continuous challenge to death. They had been living and moving all along with the belief that they would never die. Immortality was, as it were, their birthright.
Unfortunately, they cannot be too sure of this birthright in the face of impending physical extinction. Their fond, unconsciously cherished hope appears to be an illusion. They are tossed between faith and doubt. Perplexed, they look to wise people for succor. They come, of course, with loads of consolation of different types and texture. “You cannot die,” says one comforter, “you in others—this is your soul. This is what you are. This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life—your soul, you immortality, your life in others. You have always been in others and you will remain in others.” (See Yura to Anna Ivanovna in Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago.)
“You do not die,” says the Vitalistic philosopher, the elements of your character will be continued in the species—in your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren.”
“Through physical death to immortal life in heaven,” assures the priest, “this is your destiny, if, of course, you have faith in the Savior.”
These are only three specimens of the legion of consolatory counsels available to the death-scared. Sometimes, some of them work wonderfully well. People die with a peaceful smile on their faces as if nothing is being lost; as if they are just leaving on a delightful journey. But often, perhaps, the words meant for comfort remain empty, and the listener has to face the inevitable in dire confusion.
We can marvel at and entertain ourselves with sublime supraphysical concepts when we have the proper leisure and mood and when everything around us is smooth and pleasant. But in the event of an actual crisis occurring, imaginative knowledge is too feeble a power to counteract it. What is needed then is a vivid experience—a clear vision of truth. If we are spirit and immortal, that immortality, to be of any value, must be grasped as a fact of immediate comprehension.
When Vedanta speaks of Atman, the immortal Self, it leaves no doubt as to the nature and scope of this immortality. It is not a prospective state to be attained by us after death, but an already accomplished natural condition of the human personality. Immortality of our soul has to be seen and got hold of here and now. It has to be utilized in the various channels of our present life. If we cannot normally do this, it is due only to our own callousness, vanity, prejudice and, above all, our over-involvement in sense values.
Immortality, says Vedanta, is the very core of our personality. We are born with it and when we die we cannot leave it, that is to say, the essence of our personality can never disappear. What dies is a nonessential part of our being. Again, immortality does not mean merely the unhampered continuance of an inert existence like that of the primeval rocks or the vast ocean, etc.
Immortality, when referring to humanity, implies a conscious existence which has no beginning and no end. It is not a state of darkness and inactivity but of profound illumination and awareness. Immortality also includes infinite freedom. It is freedom not only from death but from all possible limitations, physical and mental—from all sins and all sufferings. Finally, immortality is joy—the joy of fulfillment. Our immortal Self, says Vedanta, is the essence of uncaused, unalloyed, unmitigated blessedness—“peace that passeth all understanding.” This blessedness implies again all-embracing love. “The immortal Self is sweetness,” says the Taittiriya Upanishad.
If such is the richness of the Vedantic notion of the immortality of our Self, and if, as Vedanta declares, it is not a poetical fancy but an accomplished fact only awaiting our discovery, then surely it is a value worth seeking for in right earnest. But let us not forget that it is not to be earned bit by bit. It is a question of finding what we already own—a case of taking possession of a forgotten legacy. Knowledge of our immortal Self need not be looked upon either as an exclusively religious pursuit or a special business for the philosopher. The Self is the common basic element of all people. Its discovery and the consequent benefits are open to anyone ready to devote time and energy for the task.
But how can that readiness come? What sparks the initial interest? If our ever existing birthright normally lies hidden from our view by reason of the natural outwardness of our senses and mind, as the Katha Upanishad says, how can this veil be lifted? This is a difficult question to answer. Probably there is no uniform rule applicable to all.
For some, the interest is roused by certain tremendous shocks in life, such as bereavement, loss of fortune, frustration. In moments of deep despondency and agony the mind suddenly recoils inward and begins to question the meaning of life. “Who am I?” “Why should I suffer like this?” Such ideas begin to trouble it. In this mood of introspection we may catch a glimpse of an unthought-of realm of fullness—the mighty basic truth of our personality. “Eureka! Eureka!” we cry out. A beginning is made.
Some are led to self-inquiry by a feeling of disgust and repulsion for the humdrum ways of everyday living. Beneath the surface glamour and excitements of life there is surely an element of sad irony, a picture of compelling slavery linked with the fate of humanity. What thrusts me into this monotonous round of bodily and emotional activities, day after day, year after year? How awfully ridiculous is this state of things! Is there a way of escape?” These questions begin to agitate the mind. It is a good start for turning inward.
There are also persons born with an introspective temperament. Deeper questions about the nature and destiny of humanity assail their mind even from their youth. For them no external shock is necessary to kindle the spiritual fire. They shudder to follow the beaten tracks of the worldly wise. They are “abnormal” people, of course, and often misunderstood. Pundits condemn them as other-worldly. But they, for themselves, have no doubt about the objective of their life and they do not rest until that great purpose has been fulfilled by self-realization.
Holy company, that is to say, association with illumined souls, is another means by which our veil of self-forgetfulness can be removed. When you see before your eyes a person living day and night on a superior plane of existence, radiating uncommon purity of character, unselfishness, calmness of mind, fearlessness and peace, you cannot remain skeptical for long. You feel curious and start collecting data. Satisfied, you are drawn nearer to the person, till you catch the contagion.
Again, there have been cases of spiritual awakening which did not require any of the above mentioned stimuli. From a life of intensely secular pursuits, a person has been suddenly transformed, overnight as it were, into an ardent seeker of spiritual truth. We attribute such change to divine grace. God, who is almighty, can, if he chooses, throw off the spell of ignorance from any one of us, at any moment.
To be conscious of the necessity of self-knowledge, to feel an impelling desire to find out the ultimate meaning of life—this is what is meant by spiritual awakening. Somehow this must come, it does not matter through what channel. Vedanta calls this awakening mumukshutva, yearning for freedom. It is the basic requirement for regaining our neglected inheritance—our immortal Self. Mumukshutva by itself serves to quiet down appreciably the mad uproar of our outgoing senses and brings to the mind a great degree of inwardness. The stage is prepared now to probe deeper, to get at the root of our personality and at the bedrock of our experiential universe as well.
Three different, broad approaches may be mentioned. Apparently they sound very simple, so much so that they may not draw our serious attention. We are too fond of words and ideas. We cannot believe that the greatest truths of life are the simplest. Yes, Atman, our immortal Self, is the simplest possible truth, and there need not be any complexity in the approaches. The most important thing is to free our mind from preconceived, unauthenticated notions and theological bias. Then it will be easy for us to see the resplendent truth as clear and self-evident as the sunlight.
The first approach is through “observation of change.” Vedanta calls it Drig-drishya-Viveka (literally: discrimination between the seer and the seen). We all know that the world is changing, but our observation is very superficial. We see change but do not seriously believe it. We think that today is just like yesterday and tomorrow will not be substantially different from today. This is only a make-believe, a convenient oversight.
In fact, no two days are alike. Each day brings unthought-of events, unfolds unsuspected vistas of experience. From the day to the hour, and from the hour to shorter and shorter units of time, change pervades. Each millionth of a second is unique. It casts off the old and appears as something distinct from its predecessor.
My body is a series of changes in the tissues, ducts, glands, and nerves. My mind is the scene of ceaseless variations in thoughts and emotions. My world is a world of constant alternation of forms, qualities, standards, values. Inside and outside of myself all that I see bears one inevitable characteristic—change.
We do not require a Buddha or a Heraclitus to point out to us this essential feature of the universe. Change is a patent fact which anyone of us can notice to the extent we keep our eyes open. An earnest student of Vedanta is expected to be a keen observer of things. As the mind gets less and less distracted by sense pleasures, the capability to perceive change in wider and subtler fields increases. Eventually the mind gets a firm grasp on the nature of the phenomenal world. It is seen to be a perpetual flux, a flow of “point-events” at every phase of it. It seems to share the character of dreams.
If the inquirer is unprejudiced, his or her observation will not stop here. It will revert to the direction of their own self. True, everything I perceive or think of or speak of is a flux, but at the back of this constant change there is the perceiver, the knower, the real I, my true Self. It is not my ego. It is my Self—the eternal “I Am.” My ego appears and disappears, but my true Self is free from all change. It is immutable, immortal. Says the Katha Upanishad:
“Eternal peace is for those and not for others—who by discrimination discover within their hearts Him who is the ever-existing among the transient and the consciousness among the conscious.”
The second approach to the Self is by examination of the process of knowing. Psychology and physiology have given us valuable information about the way cognition takes place in our mind. External stimuli, the sense organs, the nerves, the brain cells—all of these do surely play their part in the cognitive process. But still one thing is missing, and we should say the most important thing, in the findings of these two sciences. It is the question about the composition of knowledge.
We know from the sciences the different factors leading to cognition, but what is cognition? Probably psychology and physiology avoid this question as beyond their scope of treatment. Many philosophers have attempted to solve the riddle by devising wonderful speculations. One speculation has been challenged by another, and that in its turn has been opposed by a counter-speculation. The riddle stands as unsolved as ever.
Vedanta has its own answer to the question. It is not an “opinion’ but the statement of a fact which inquirers can find out for themselves. Knowledge, says Vedanta, is a property of Atman, our true Self. The Atman is the essence of knowledge. Each cognition is a revelation of an object—a sort of illumination of a dark field. When all the necessary factors such as external stimulus, sense organs, etc., have finished their part, the final operation of “enlightening” is conducted by the “Lord” within—the Atman. A ray of the light of Consciousness emanates, as it were, and the object is “known.”
It is possible, says Vedanta, to have a vision of this Illuminator by watching carefully the process of cognition in our mind. Ordinarily we are accustomed to view all cognitions as processes independent of the cognizer. This is a tragic mistake. In fact, any piece of knowledge is inseparably linked with the Knower—the Atman. That is why it is feasible to discover the Self by analyzing our cognitions. Says the Kena Upanishad:
“The Self is adequately known when it is known with each state of cognition. By such comprehension of the Self one attains immortality.”(2.4)
The third approach to self-knowledge is by the analysis of the three states of our experience, namely waking, dream, and dreamless sleep. Dream, as we well know, lands us in a new world with a set of time, space, and interrelations often different partly or wholly from our waking world. Sometimes our own familiar personality is completely changed, and when we awake we wonder how it could happen.
Dreamless sleep, on the other hand, pushes us into a complete oblivion of our waking world, including our personality. Yet when we place dream and sleep by the side of our waking, we cannot deny that there is a unity of the perceiver running through the three states. This unity, says Vedanta, inheres not in our ego but in our true Self, Atman. The three states of experience are variable, but Atman, the perceiver of the three states is invariable. It is our own immortal Self.
These three approaches have often to be combined for an effective search for our Self. The observation and reasoning implied in them require repeated practice. That is called sadhana—struggle for self-discovery. Gradually it deepens into contemplation, and contemplation finally leads to a direct realization of our immortal Self. An incomparable blessedness descends on life, a fearlessness, and a knowledge which is free from all doubt and contradiction, a vastness of vision which rests on the Supreme Truth attainable by us here and now.