Sunday, August 9, 2009

In Pursuit of Knowing the Self

by Sri Subbu Venkatkrishnan

As spiritual seekers, we are often urged to do our sadhana. Let us start by trying to understand some things about what sadhana really is. The most common meaning of the word sadhana is, ‘the means by which something is achieved.’ The end desired to be achieved is called sadhya. The one who is trying to achieve a desired end is called a sadhaka. The sadhya or desired end is always kept in view by the sadhaka or seeker who connects himself or herself with the sadhya through sadhana.

Life can be looked upon as a series of ends which have already been achieved and/or which are yet to be achieved. Usually, more than one mean is available to achieve any given end. These means may be righteous whereby the seeker takes into account the moral and ethical codes of his or her conduct. The means may be unrighteous whereby the seeker tramples upon the rights and requirements of others. As a human being, one is endowed with the faculty of choice and so one can choose the means he/she considers to be the most appropriate. My writing is open to my choice. You also have a choice to read or not read this - you can choose to sleep or do something else instead of reading. If I want to reach a particular place, I can do so either by walking, by driving a car, or boarding a bus.

When we analyze the pursuits of our life, we find that the end or the sought is always something other than the seeker – i.e. what I want to achieve is something other than myself. The end may be money, wife, children, name, fame, power, etc., which I do not have at the moment and which I wish to gain. When the end is something other than me - that is, separated from me by time and place - the end as well is open to choices as are the means. When the end or goal of life is not understood, the ends keep on varying. Then, every small end assumes the proportion of the end. But when that end is achieved, it yields its place to yet another end, and so the cycle goes on and on. The ends become endless, and bring about an end to the life of this person. Everyone usually has a long list of what is to be accomplished in spite of all one has achieved so far, because they haven’t yet discovered that one true end of life!

So, what is the real end that I am seeking and that seems to elude me at all times? It must be the end that frees me from all of my desires because I entertain a desire not to keep it going but to fulfill it. In our discussion of sadhana here, it is this end which we shall address ourselves to and not the limited ends such as wealth, fame etc., which perpetuate the wants. We are interested in that end which can be called the end. And with regard to this end, the human being has no choice. This is the end that is desired by everyone, at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances. Even if a person appears to be pursuing various ends, this is the end that is in the background - the end behind all ends. The means of achieving this end is what we mean by sadhana in this discussion.

Life should be meaningful, purposeful – i.e. I should see the meaning of life, and then the whole life becomes the means to achieve that end. If I know the end, the other ends in life such as a house, or an industry, or a spouse, or a child can be seen in their proper perspective. They can all become the means to achieve the ultimate end. The sadhana, i.e. the mean becomes meaningful only when I know the sadhya, the end. If I want to see a form, the eyes become the means. If I want to hear a sound, my ears become the means. Once the end is clear, the mean also becomes clear.

As discussed earlier, the real end behind all ends is to end one’s desires. There are three approaches towards ending a desire: 1) by acquiring the object of desire as followed by a samsari, 2) by giving up the desire as followed by a tyagi, and 3) by growing out of the desire as followed by a sannyasi.

The one who goes about fulfilling the wants as they arise in the mind finds that more wants keep cropping up even before one want is fulfilled. No one end seems to satisfy him because he finds that an end loses its significance by the time it is achieved. No particular end seems to give him freedom from dependence. Such a person who finds himself as dependent upon the fulfillment of desires is a samsari.

A tyagi is the one who has given up an object or a desire either because of an ideal or because of a bargain to get something better. However a tyagi still retains a taste for the object. For example, take the case of a boy playing with marbles. Marbles are the most precious thing to him and he would not settle for anything else, not even money. If his father asks him to stop playing with marbles, he may do so only because he has value for his father’s word or because he is promised something that he ends up deeming even better (e.g. a cricket bat). This is not a mature way of getting rid of desires because the dependence on things desired is not totally eradicated.

The same child, when he grows old has no craving for the marbles. He has grown out of his desire for marbles. He is no more tempted by marbles. He may play with marbles with his child, but he will not feel happier upon winning them or feel a loss upon losing them. He has neither a raga or a dvesa. He is a sannyasi with respect to marbles. A sannyasi is one who has grown out of wants and who therefore enjoys real freedom. A sannyasi is not dependent upon any external object or situation for his happiness. Everyone is a sannyasi with respect to a few things. For example, we are sannyasis with respect to the banana peel, but not with respect to the banana.

In our life, the sadhya and sadhanas keep changing but one thing remains constant - that is the sadhaka or the seeker. Do I always want to remain the seeker? Do I want to remain dependent upon objects and situations for my happiness, or do I want to be free? Everyone no doubt wants to be happy, but everyone also wants to be free. There is happiness in freedom and unhappiness in dependence and hence everyone wants to be like the sannyasi (who is not dependent upon anything else for his happiness). This total freedom is called moksa which means liberation or total release from dependence. Only when I discover an adequacy, fullness, a richness that is not other than me, do I feel fulfilled. The sadhana must be such that it attains the sadhya, the lasting fulfillment that every human heart yearns for.

The question that naturally arises is, ‘What is the mean to this end?’ No one will undertake a pursuit unless one knows it will achieve the desired end. The nature of the mean depends upon the end. Therefore, the end must be ascertained before one can decide upon the proper mean. What everyone wants is absolute freedom, the fullness, the limitlessness. But we find that in all our pursuits of acquiring and enjoying, there is invariably a loss associated with every gain. If I acquire power, I lose the money or the resources with which I bought the power. If I acquire a car, I have to give up my savings. If I get married, I lose the freedom of bachelorhood. From the standpoint of what I acquire, there is a gain - but from the standpoint of what I spent for it, there is a loss. Even if it is the gain of swarga, there is the loss of punya. Thus we find that every gain is limited, and there seems to be no way of achieving absolute gain by means of fulfilling the desires.

If a person cannot achieve this absolute gain, this completeness, can he or she give up the seeking? No, because this is a natural urge like hunger or thirst. A cultivated or an acquired desire can be given up by reasoning with the mind, but a natural desire cannot be given up through deliberation or force. On the one hand I cannot achieve the absolute gain through actions. On the other hand, I cannot give up the seeking to achieve the absolute gain. There appears to be a fundamental problem here! Only when I appreciate this problem and realize that the usual means and ends cannot give me what I seek in life, do I become a true sadhaka. At this stage, one wants to do something odd because all normal and accepted things have already been tried out. We think this fulfillment, the so-called enlightenment, is an event in time that will hit us as we do something strange – perhaps while sitting under a bodhi tree!

However one cannot gain completeness by merely becoming or achieving something because completeness means an absolute gain and no loss. I cannot become complete through a process of becoming - because any becoming involves change, and change means giving up the previous state and reaching a new state. Thus in a change there is a gain and a loss as well. A child wants to become an adult so that he/she can be complete, but the adult loses the freedom of a child. By getting a Ph.D, I am not going to be complete. In fact, I will be more keenly aware of the areas in which I am ignorant. Any sadhana that achieves a sadhya can fall only within the framework of time and space. So, no process of change can make a person complete. Since becoming complete is not possible, there remains only one possibility – and that is the possibility of me already being complete! However if I am already a complete being and still want to be complete, it means I do not know myself. From self-ignorance, there is a disowning of the self and hence this predicament.

It is a fact that I disown myself and then search for myself. I have concluded that I am incomplete, and also realize that any addition to myself or change in myself only leaves me incomplete. What sadhana then can remove this assumed incompleteness? The sadhana must be such that it removes this self-ignorance. That sadhana or the means can only be self-knowledge because knowledge alone can remove ignorance. Knowing my real nature is the only means of eliminating self-ignorance and the assumed incompleteness arising out of it. Hence the primary means of achieving completeness, fulfillment, and freedom is the knowledge of the Self.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, there is a statement that says, Atmanastu Kamaya Sarvam Priyam Bhavati-----whatever is dear to me is dear because I love myself. This statement shows that I always love myself and therefore my innate nature is happiness since everyone including me loves happiness. It further shows that I love the things and beings of the world not for their sake, but for the sake of the Self. So, happiness or ananda is what I am seeking in and through the pursuits of gaining things and through the relationships in my life.

That happiness is my true nature becomes clear when we analyze an experience of happiness. When I am happy with an object, I feel at home with the object. At that moment, the mind does not demand anything and is quiet and content with itself. I like this state of mind because it reflects my nature which is absolute peace, contentment, and freedom from desire. Any object that creates such a condition of mind becomes an object of my liking. I am not happy with an agitated or demanding mind because it does not reflect my true nature. Thus I like myself and therefore also a mind that reflects my true nature. My true nature is happiness because I like happiness and dislike unhappiness. Everyone is happy with what is natural and unhappy with what is unnatural. I cannot be comfortable with a dust particle in my eye or a bug in my ear – they are foreign to me, they are irritants and so I want to get rid of them. Similarly, I find that I am not comfortable with unhappiness because it is an irritant and is not my true nature. I never want to get rid of happiness or ananda and so ananda must be natural to me. Similarly, being free is my nature because I love freedom and want to get rid of all shackles. I am limitless because I cannot stand limitations. However even though I am limitless, I do not enjoy limitlessness because my nature is covered by ignorance. Ignorance can only be removed by knowledge and so Self-Knowledge is the primary sadhana.

To gain any knowledge, we must have a valid and adequate means of knowledge. The type of knowledge sought determines the nature of the means of knowledge one should adopt. For example, to perceiving colors, eyes are the means. To perceiving sound, ears are the means. What I want to know is ‘I’ the Self - not the limited little self I take myself to be, but rather the limitless, complete Self. The primary means of knowledge at my disposal, the sense organs, are capable of knowing only the external world. They can give me only perceptual knowledge. The capacity of sensory organs can be improved or enhanced by the use of instruments such as telescope, microscope etc., which enable us to perceive the objects that cannot be seen by the naked eyes. But the Self is the Subject behind the senses---i.e. the senses cannot objectify the Self. Other means of knowledge such as inference, presumption, comparison, etc., are also not applicable in case of the Self, because these means too are based on sensory data. For example we can infer the presence of fire (the cause) when we see smoke (the effect) or we can infer the presence of a rat (the whole) when we see its tail (a part). Self is not connected with anything in terms of cause and effect or in terms of whole and part - and so these indirect means of knowledge are also not applicable in the case of understanding the Self.

All the means of knowledge available to me are of no use in knowing the Self. But it still has to be known – i.e. I must know I am full and complete in order to overcome the sense of limitation and inadequacy. So, we have to look for an external means of knowledge and this means is the Vedanta or Upanishads----vedanto naama upanishad pramanam. Vedanta is in the form of words and it is also called sabda pramanam, a means of knowledge in the form of words. What cannot be perceived by the sense organs or inferred by the mind can be revealed by the words. Hence the Self is called the ‘Being revealed by the Upanishads’. How do the Upanishads reveal the Self to Me? By changing the vision about myself, by removing the notions I entertain about myself. I take myself to be a limited, helpless being, a seeker of freedom. This self-judgment keeps me away from being the Self. The Upanishads reveal, “You are not different from what you want to be. You are not limited or inadequate. You are indeed the limitless, complete being. That You Are (Tat Tvam Asi)”.

This removes all the notions I have been entertaining about myself and removes my ignorance. Removal of ignorance is the same as knowledge of the Self - so the primary means of Self-knowledge is enquiry based on the Upanishads. What should I do to know the Self clearly without any error or doubt? First the teaching of the Upanishad has to be listened to, sravanam, followed by reflection, mananam, followed by meditation, nidhidhyasanam. By mananam, the knowledge gained by sravanam is assimilated, and by nidhidhyasanam it is made free from error. Most of us would ask, ‘How does Self-knowledge not take place in spite of hearing about the Self so often?’ The words of the Upanishads do not seem to create the direct knowledge they are supposed to create. It appears as though I have understood all that the words have to say and still find something lacking. Do I have to do something else? Eyes are the only valid means for realizing the knowledge of color, and yet if we cannot see colors properly, we must do something to correct the eyes rather than trying to gain this knowledge through the ears or any other organ of perception.

Similarly, the words of the scriptures are the only valid means of knowledge to make me realize what I am. They must give me direct knowledge because the subject of knowledge, I, is already available. This is not like the knowledge gained by someone when he hears about a laddu. If he does not know what a laddu is and I describe the laddu using words, his knowledge will at best be indirect. Once he does something else, i.e. taste the laddu, he gets direct knowledge. This is not so for Self knowledge, because the Self is already obtained. The words therefore directly reveal the Self. There is no second step. The second step is needed in case of the laddu example only because the object is different from the subject.

However, if I don’t get direct and immediate knowledge from the words, I must look at them again, just like checking the eyes if they do not produce the knowledge of color. So, vichara or enquiry must be performed again and again to ascertain the meaning of the scriptures since words are the only medium to communicate the Self, and enquiry must be conducted repeatedly until we realize the essence of the Self. Direct knowledge has not taken place if one hand I think I have understood the Self, while on the other hand I don’t ‘feel’ like a complete and limitless being. There is no business of ‘feeling’ here, there is simply knowing.

If I am not able to see the meaning of these words, which is myself, there must be something wrong with my mind where the meanings are seen. Unless I see the meaning of the sentence as myself, it is a meaningless sentence. It does not become meaningful in spite of repeating it several times. That means that the intellectual discipline or preparedness of mind is lacking. Take the case of consoling a man who has lost a near and dear person. In that sorrowful state, if we tell him, ‘You are ananda’, he wouldn’t be able to appreciate it - in fact it will upset him. Even if he sees the reasoning of how he can be nothing but ananda, the sorrow remains. The words do not create any impact. Similarly, the words of the scriptures do not create an impression on my mind if it (i.e. my mind) is not ready to see the meaning.

Ignorance is the main obstacle to Self-knowledge and the words of the scriptures are meant to remove this. But when the words are not able to create knowledge, it shows there are some other obstacles. These secondary obstacles are two-fold - one is impurity of the mind or mala, the second is distraction of the mind or viksepa. Action performed with the attitude of worship (karma yoga) is prescribed by the scriptures to eliminate the impurities of the mind, while mental worship, chanting of the mantra, meditation etc, (all of which can be called as upasana) are recommended to eliminate the distraction of the mind. When one becomes free from the obstacles of mala and viksepa, the meaning of the words of the scriptures is directly understood and Self-knowledge takes place. Performing our sadhana is concerned with removing the obstacles of mala and viksepa. Upon their removal, the mahavakyas of the scriptures are directly understood and Self-knowledge takes place.

Om Namah Shivaya.

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