Self-Realization, Atma Bodha, in Hinduism

Wisdom of the Upanishads

by Jayaram V

When all the desires of the heart are cast away, then the mortal becomes the immortal - Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.7)

I know this imperishable, ancient self of all (Vedaham etam ajaram puranam sarvatmanam) - Svetasvatara Upanishad 3.21

Few years ago, I wrote an article titled "Aham Brahmasmi" meaning, I am Brahman. In the article, I discussed the evolution of consciousness in matter, explaining the five states of self-awareness through which, I believed, consciousness progressed in creation, starting from the ignorant state of "I do not know who I am" to the all-knowing state of "I am I am." Creation is essentially a coming together of consciousness and matter or the flowering of consciousness in matter culminating eventually in self-awareness.

A being is essentially matter with dynamic consciousness (caitanyam) where as a rock or a stone is matter with inert consciousness (acetanam). There is life in a rock too, but it is too dark and tamasic to qualify as life. In this article I would like to speak about the individual Self or Atman and explore the conventional method of knowing it as suggested in the Upanishads. I will try to explain how one may arrive at the hidden Self through an inward journey as recommended by the Upanishads. My basic premise is that self-realization begins with the gradual silencing of the being from the outer to the inner. Two divine virtues facilitate this inverse process: withdrawal and detachment.

Are a Soul and Self the same?

Before I begin the discussion, I would like to draw a subtle distinction between the words "Self" and "Soul." Because of our frequent use or misuse of English and since the word soul is more familiar to the English speaking world, at times we treat as if both the words are synonymous. However, they are not the same. There is a very fundamental distinction between the two as they belong to two very divergent traditions. According to Judeo-Christian beliefs, a soul is God's creation. It is inferior to God, and dependent upon Him. It has a specific form, an ethereal or astral body, certain distinguishing qualities and an individuality with which one can relate. We further learn that each soul is different, distinct and remains bound to certain knowledge, awareness, experience, relationships and state. Thus when a person dies, except for the body, the rest of the personality along with the soul goes to heaven and remains eternal. Not only that, all the relationships the soul forms upon earth survive, enabling the soul to continue its bonds with friends and family in the afterlife.

In Hinduism, you see a different approach. According to the Vedas, the Self has no beingness except when it is bound to the earth and remains in the body. An individual Self is considered pure, eternal, omniscient, infinite and without qualities. It has no gender, although it is referred mostly as Purusha, a male person. It may be bound to certain awareness and states of consciousness during the course of its existence in the mortal world, but in its purest and pristine form, it is devoid of qualities and distinctions. A Self that is bound to certain individuality, and burdened by the weight of its accumulated karma, may, like the Christian soul, enter the ancestral heaven (pitr lok) and may enjoy the company of related souls, but it cannot enter the world of Brahman. After spending its time in the ancestral world and exhausting its karma, it falls down to earth and take birth again. Thus, in Hinduism a soul is a living Self (jivatma). It, indeed, is a Self with an attitude. That attitude prevents it from being itself. Only pure Selves (muktas), freed from the cycle of births and deaths and all notions of individuality, can enter the highest heaven, the world of Brahman.

What is Self, or Atman?

Having drawn the distinction, let us now examine the nature of Self. When I say, "I am the Self," what am i implying here? To which aspect of me, I am referring to? Am I speaking about my body, my mind, my consciousness or something that I cannot exactly describe? Let us examine this issue further freeing our mind of our prejudices, preconceived notions and mental blocks. If you stay with me until the end of this discussion, I am sure you will gain some insight into this subject along with me. Let me state this clearly. I am not trying to invent anything here. I am restating an ancient knowledge, or a thought process, in a modern language for the modern, educated mind, so that we know somewhat clearly what a Self means and how one can reach that state safely with effort.

Our knowedge of the Self in Hinduism comes to us mainly from the Upanishads. Every other text is a reassertion of what is already stated in them. They describe the Self as the indweller of the body. He is the seer, the perceiver, the enjoyer, the witness and the Lord of all organs in the body. The body cannot surived without the Self because it is the support. These are the various descriptions we have in the Upanishads regarding the Self.

The Self should not be confused with the human personality. the Upanishads make this point amply clear. The following is a brief summary of the descriptions of Self found in the Upanishads.

1. The Self, known as Atman, is not the body, but that which occupies the body.

2. The Self is not the senses, but that which makes use of the senses. He is not the eyes, but the one in the eyes who sees. He is not the ears, but the one who hears. He is not the nose, but the one who smells. He is not the tongue, but the one who tastes.

3. He is not the food, but the eater of food.

4. He is not the speech, but the speaker of the speech.

5. He is not the mind, but the thinker who uses the mind.

6. He is not the breath, but the one who breathes.

7. He is not the intelligence, but the one who makes use of intelligence to discern things.

8. He is the sustainer of all deities (organs) in the body.

9. When he departs from the body along with the breaths through an aperture in the head, the body dies and life comes to an end.

10. The Self participates in the processes of life, but they do not taint him, just as a dreamer in sleep is not tainted by his dreams, because he remains unattached.

11. The Self cannot be understood except negatively as not this not this (neti, neti). That is, in meditation you have to think like this, "I am not this body, not this mind, not these senses," and so on until you reach the state, "Aha, this is I am."

Such descriptions leave no doubt in our minds as to what constitutes the Self and why it is not possible for us to find it in our wakeful state. You, bereft of all the qualities and attributes, are the Self. If you remove everything in your being, what is left in the end, the pure consciousness, is the Self. To state it differently, the person hidden in the name and form, who is writing this article is the Self. The person in your name and form, who is reading this article is also the Self. Thus the Self in each is the ultimate doer. Here he has has written something, which a Self elsewhere will read and make sense. The world is full of such individual selves. We usually call this Self hindded in each as purusha (person). He is purusha because he illuminates the inner space.

This person is hidden in all beings, not just humans. He is there in a dog, cat, whatever plant, animal, bird, insect, worm or organism you can think of. You see him everywhere, although you do not recognize him because he is hidden and you cannot perceive him with your senses. This person is not only in the body of the beings, but also in the body of the planetary bodies and other higher beings. There is a person in the sky. You call him the sun, or Aditya. There is a person in the earth. You call him the support. There is a person in each and every river, stream, lake and ocean. There is a person each in all the stars and planets we know. They play a vital role secretly in ensuring the order and regularity of the world. The whole creation is interconnected through innumerable selves. This person, whether he is in you or in me or in a dog, is the same. Everywhere, wherever he is, whichever body he occupies, whether male or female, he enjoys, experiences, perceives, thinks, lives and finally departs. That person, without qualities, is the universal cosmic being. I have provided ample examples to explain the concept of Self because having right understanding is vital to our understanding of the Self and eventually know him within ourselves.

Why self-realization is difficult?

If you are an atheist, you may deny the existence of God. But can you deny your own existence? When you touch fire, you instantly pull back your hands. Who is doing that? Who enjoys the beauty and tragedy of life? Have you ever been absent from your life, except when you were asleep? An atheist may deny the existence of God, but he cannot deny his own existence. Therefore, let us conclude that the Self exists in each of us and he is the ultimate enjoyer of everything that life offers. Beneath the coloring and disfiguring, the same Self exists in all us, the same pristine feeling of subjectivity or pure I amness. But how to find him? How can we know whether he is mortal or immortal? Is there a way you can reach him?

Yes, it is possible, say our Upanishads. In fact, they imply that it is very easy for the well prepared, and impossible for the ill-prepared. Self-realization is not something meant for a few privileged castes. It is not the copyright of a few gurus and yogis. It cannot be bought or sold. It cannot be transmitted through the internet or explained adequately to those who have never bowed to the gods or studied the scriptures. It cannot be revealed through a thousand dollar a person yoga program. It can be known by you and by your efforts. Neither age nor gender nor race nor caste nor nationality is a bar. If you have the inclination and desire and if you follow the drift in this article, , with right effort and guidance from a good guru you will eventually find your true Self. But for that you must have conviction and willingness. You must strive hard, understand the basic concepts of this discussion and try to apply it with all sincerity.

But why only a few people succeed in knowing themselves? It is because most of us get caught up in the delusion of words or activity and do not give it a real try. Divine Maya in this world is so powerful that for the unprepared even religion and spirituality or the teachings of a guru become sources of delusion only. Let us say, if the effort of self-realization is equal to crossing a whole mountain range and reaching the other side, most people stop at the very base of the first mountain and never go beyond. They may stay there for several life times, build a huge temple, sing and dance around it, but do not venture beyond the base of that mountain.

Why they do not practice spirituality in right earnest, that is a whole subject in itself. Most people do not practice it because they lack faith and they have the fear of the unknown and uncertain. So they keep dancing around the fire, and never try to walk upon the burning coals. In spiritual life, if you are unable to make progress or looking for someone to blame, that should be you. You, indeed, are the problem. The earlier one realizes it, the better. In spiritual life, you have to be very honest with yourself. You cannot blame the gurus or the scriptures or the world for your failure or lack of progress. You have to find the demons that reside in you who block your progress, and deal with them with the ferocity of Narasimha or the determination of Vamana or the strength of Varaha.

Why it is so difficult? Because to succeed, you have to deal with not one but hundreds and thousands of self-induced delusions and mental constructs. To understand the real Self in you, you have to peel of a lot of layers that have accumulated around you over many births and rebirths. It is like you have a radiant body, which I call your inner Self, which you have covered with millions of different veils. With all those wrappings around you, you become so bloated, disfigured and insensitive that you do not even feel that you have a real body inside those veilings. These shrouds around your inner Self constitute your beingness or your personality or individuality in which it remains hidden. Your beingness, or the formation created by you, exists because you keep modifying and reconstructing it continuously to give meaning and purpose to your existence.

If you want to discover your true Self, you have peel of all the layers of clothes, all the impurities, desires, attachments, feelings, emotions, past life impressions, relationships, fears, prejudices, beliefs, assumptions, opinions, judgments, language, skills, professions, worldly knowledge etc. until nothing remains but your pure Self. You have to either peel them off or dissolve them in a sea of silence, until you begin to shine in your own light. It is like you have populated the entire universe inside you with a billion minuscule replicas of yourself and they have all come to stay and decided to have an existence of their own, just as we in the universe of God have developed our own individualities and entrenched ourselves deeply in our little homes called our bodies. Now, this situation can be resolved only when every one of these formations are fully dissolved.

Therefore, I say that self-realization is a process of getting to the bottom of things inside you and knowing your essential nature. Does this make sense? Have you got the idea? Do you understand, why in Jainism and in many ascetic sects of Hinduism, the practitioners discard all clothing and wander around fully naked? The clothes symbolize the many layers of illusion we weave around our true selves. We weave and weave, fine weavers that we are, so many layers of illusions around ourselves that at some stage we begin to mistake the coverings for our real selves.

Self-realization is difficult because we have lost our way. We are caught in a web of illusions. Life after life, birth after birth, we keep chasing our dreams and desires to such an extent that we do not even realize that we have changed so much since we began our journey and we no more recognize ourselves. Imagine how difficult it would be for you to remember your childhood at the age of eighty or ninety. Imagine how much more difficult it must be to remember your beginnings at the end of a million years of existence in the mortal world.

Hence, to know yourself, you have to unwind yourself, empty yourself, disrobe yourself, discard everything concerning yourself, renounce all your desires, opinions, judgments, feelings, emotions, preferences and attachments and become zero, a big zero, an empty person, a person without name, without individuality, without ego and without desires. You have to recourse to silence. You have to silence everything, both inside and outside. To be yourself, you have to become like the space, silent and non-intrusive. Can you do that? Are you ready for that? Nowadays, people practice yoga to lose weight or getting into shape. Yoga is actually meant for self-realization and the process of self-realization is very much like losing weight, getting back into shape, becoming the ideal person you always wanted to be, through rigorous and austere effort. All this you do not to impress anyone or satisfy your vanity but to know the truth about yourself.

How to begin the journey of self-realization?

Self-realization is a really tough process, more or less, a self-cleansing process, for you have to wash away all the mud that has accumulated on your Self for centuries and through numerous lives. It is a silencing process, in which you have to become completely silent in every sense of the word. It is also a transformative process, for you have to balance the gunas and bring your mind to total rest. It is a daunting task. If losing 50 pounds of weight is equal to 10units of suffering, losing all the dirt around your Self and arriving at your purest self is equal to a million units of suffering and sacrifice. Yet, if you are ready and ripe for this revolutionary transformative process, our Upanishads suggest a very simple technique. It is called withdrawal. You come into existence as an embodied Self or a living being because of an outgoing process, in which you become involved with the world through your senses. You can put an end to this ongoing involvement through a step by step withdrawal whereby in the end every part of your being become silent, revealing to you your true self.

The Yogasutras call it pratyahara, or the withdrawal of the senses. The senses represent the physical world or the phenomenal world. Our scriptures call it samsara, because, being unstable, it is always in a kind of whirl, just like your senses. You have to escape from this world. It is the first step. What it means is you have to withdraw from the sensory world literally by disengaging your senses and look into yourself. Then only you will find time and opportunity to understand and deal with the layers of ignorance, those highly fashionable veils, masks and appearances with which you have wrapped your radiant self and in the process became a prisoner of your own thoughts, desires and expectations. Through pratyahara, you have to cut off yourself literally from the source of your desires and disturbances.

The Upanishads and the Yogasutras also say that you cannot accomplish the withdrawal of the senses without practicing certain austerities, rules and restraints. In other words, you have to cultivate simultaneously physical and mental purity by practicing virtue and building a certain moral foundation. Without this preparation, you will not be able to absorb the shocks and suffering that arise from your initial attempts to curb your mind and senses. Without corresponding inner purity, you will not be able to deal with the internal churning that happens when you unwrap yourself and remove all the defenses that you have built around yourself. The Bhagavadgita, which is technically both a scripture of yoga (yogasastram) and a secret teaching (Upanishad) suggests a similar approach, by recommending a list of divine qualities one has to cultivate to facilitate the predominance of sattva.

Morality and spirituality are inseparable. An immortal person cannot be spiritual. A spiritual person cannot be immoral. Spirituality also demands immense courage. Courage comes from faith and conviction. You will never realize your true Self if you live defensively building walls of security around you in the form of wealth, possessions, name and fame. All these are good, only if you want to flaunt the millions of clothes that you wear on your Self, if you want to wallow in the mud that has accumulated around your Self and if you are comfortable carrying the burdens of your past and accumulating further karma. Then you can be happy with your surface personality formed out of your association with things, institutions, organizations, ideologies, philosophies, race, caste, gender and so on and you do not have to even read this article further.

True freedom is freedom from desires and attachment. If you are serious about going beyond the forest of appearances and the sea of delusions that presses upon you constantly from all around, you have to practice the unwinding process, step by step, bearing all the pains and suffering that comes with it, until you find the rare gem of your real Self hidden in the snake pit of your own heart.

Self-realization begins with withdrawal and silence

Armed with the knowledge we have discussed above, and guided by an enlightened yogi, you can safely go on a journey of adventure and self-discovery into our own mind and body. Your purpose is to find the golden swan hidden in an iron cage inside your own heart by the evil magician called your Ego. On your way, you have to deal with many evils, and overcome many temptations and enchantments.

The first step in this process, which we have already discussed is withdrawing the senses and silencing them. What this means is you have to detach yourself from the senses and their activities and learn to observe them with a certain calm and detachment. When you succeed in calming your senses, you become free from a lot of negative habits, desires, like and dislikes. You feel lighter as the outer layers of your beingness become silent and less troublesome. By paying attention to your senses with detachment, you will realize how desires influence your thoughts and actions and how they bind you to things through repeated contact. This is a very important step where you realize the consequences of your self-indulgence and the source of your suffering.

Making progress on the path of self-realization

The next step is to use your breath to control your mind and body and pacify them. With regulated breathing you can control both your senses and your mind. Breath is superior to every organ in the body. Hence, if you want to control your physical self, or the food body, you have to rely upon breath only. Some hatha yogis try to control their breathing and silence it eventually. But for our purpose it is not necessary. If you learn to regulate your breath and remembering it occasionally, it is sufficient.

The next step is to calm your mind and bring it to a total rest. The mind is where you have to wage a total war, before here you succeed in peeling of many false layers from your Self. It is here you become Siva and dissolve many desires and delusions and thereby many afflictions and modifications. How can you control your mind, which is fickle and very much monkey like? The recommended methods are concentration and meditation, supported by the continued practice of restraint of the senses and regulation of breath. All these should be bound together by the practice of rules and restraints and detachment. When your mind is tamed, you become the stable minded. You become the lord of your emotional world.

The next step is controlling your intelligent mind or your logical brain and silencing it. This is where you have to learn to renounce all your thoughts, notions, opinions, judgments, prejudices, beliefs, conclusions and your intellect itself. This is in fact, a very hard goal to achieve, because intelligence extends your personality into the thought world by imparting certain individuality to your thinking. This individuality is very difficult to renounce. You have to renounce your sense of justice as well as your notion of right and wrong and remain indifferent to all happenings. When you cease to react to both the good and evil of the external world, you become a person of stable intelligence (sthithaprajna).

The next step is controlling your imagination. Imagination constitutes your wandering mind. It gives your mind certain agility, divine like creativity and the artistic temperament of the celestial beings who live in the mid region. Imagination can be a major impediment in your search for truth, because imagination it is actually a modification of the mind (cittavritti). Imagination can delude you into believing things that do not exist or accepting truths as falsehood and falsehood as truth. Silencing your imagination is the most difficult and arduous of all spiritual practices. Those who practice yoga on a regular basis know what I am speaking about.

After overcoming all the obstacles in the early stages of yoga, after silencing the senses, the mind and intelligence, and resting everything in the silence of your mind and body, an adept may still find it difficult to stop imagining and focus his mind upon his Self. imagination is the ultimate delusion we have to overcome or silence to enter into the world truth. Many people fail at this stage because they mistake imaginary spiritual experience for real and begin to take pride in it. Therefore, at this stage you should remain fully awake and exercise great discretion to make sure that you are not tricked by your own mind to believe into having life altering transcendental experiences. In this phase, many people experience seeing golden Buddhas, angelic faces, snow covered mountains, green meadows, expansive skies, celestial beings, ethereal music, beautiful dawns and sunsets, fog, trees etc. One should regard them as mere distractions and ignore them.

Becoming a muni in the silence of the night when everyone is asleep

Self-realization is not only a withdrawal and detachment process, but it is also a silencing process. You become silent gradually from outer aspects of your beingness into your inner aspects, until you become fully silent. Therefore, the next step in your progress is to rest your imagination completely and enter into a zone of silence. This, in fact, is the last frontier in your quest for truth. When you enter into the silence of your being, you are almost there. You are knocking on the door to eternity. In silence, in the total silence of the mind and body, you become a muni, the silent one. The silent one is the last vestige of the world you left behind and first manifestation of the world you are about to enter.

The basis of your success in worldly life is speech. Noise is what defines us. The louder noise you make, the greater will be your chances of success and becoming recognized and appreciated. We listen to the people who make the most noise. We love leaders who know how to talk fluently and rhetorically. But in the spiritual world, the rules are different. In the material world, no one pays attention to a silent person. In the spiritual world, every one turns to him and looks to him for knowledge and inspiration. Even though, he does not speak, his very silence can enlighten you.

The basis of progress in the spiritual world is silence. Through speech you impress the gods and obtain boons from them. Through silence, you transcend them and rise above them. Through speech you make your words and intentions travel through space and reach out to others. Through silence, you become the space itself and connect with everyone without uttering even a single word. This phase in your spiritual practice is very indefinite and indeterminate. It is like the night in which everyone is asleep but you are awake. Since there are no sign posts in the world of silence, no specific answers or solutions, your mind cannot make out whether you are making progress or whether you are lost in a limbo. If you are not careful, your mind can play many tricks in this state. You may become depressed, fearful, confused or anxious. You may stop your sadhana out of despair and recourse to normal life. Controlling your imagination and stabilizing your mind are therefore very imperative before you consolidate your progress in this zone.

Sri Aurobindo believed reaching profound silence was the first (not the last) and the most important step in self-realization. He believed that silencing the mind and body totally was imperative for the descent of supreme consciousness inside a human body. He said that none could ever hope to bring the higher realms of consciousness into one's being without this basic and foundational step. He wrote that after entering into a deep silence, one should keep the aspiration high and pure, surrendering at the same time to the will of God totally, and letting the Divine Mother do the necessary transformation entirely by Herself. In other words, you have to become silent and offer yourself at the feet of God, just the way you offer Him a fruit or a flower.

Silence is the means not an end in itself

Silence is the bridge between your ordinary self and your higher Self. It is also the major chasm that separates both. Many people mistake the state of deep silence to be Nirvana or the highest goal and stop there. It is believed that the Buddha reached the profound state of silence under the Pipal tree and stopped there. As his desires became silent, and as his mind and body fell into deep silence, he felt that he found out the truths he was searching for regarding suffering and human existence and reached the end of his journey. Those truths, he did find, but unfortunately, he stopped there. He did not proceed further, because his aim was not self-realization but knowing the truth about life and suffering. Therefore, he remained silent about the immortal Self and focused on dissolving the beingness and ending human suffering, more or less with the same methods we have discussed before, that is withdrawal and detachment.

The Upanishads see a clear distinction between a yogi who has silenced his desires and awakened to a new knowledge and a seer, who has actually witnessed the true Self. When the mind and body become silent, when intelligence and imagination stop playing games inside your consciousness, when you enter into a deep silence and spend considerable time there, you peel off the last remaining layers of impurities around your Self, which are mostly the past life impressions (samskaras). Then you pass through several states (desas) of samadhi, some in which you will retain little awareness (savikalpa) and some in which you will transcend all subtleties and distinctions (nirvikalpa), until you become your True Self. Some say, this is the end of the journey. After that you are like a rain drop that has fallen into the ocean. Some say, there is one more step, that is coming into contact with Supreme Brahman (brahmasparsa).

Self-realization is knowing you without all the bells and whistles that manifest in your beingness overtime. It is a pure state of "I am" devoid of everything that imparts to you certain individuality. You will experience it only in deep sleep or in a state of complete self-absorption when you peel off all the outer layers of your personality. This pristine state of "I am" exists in everyone of us. But it does not manifest, even if a single desire remains active in your consciousness. It is difficult to remain in this state forever, especially if you live in the world and deal with it. Hence many yogis experience it briefly and intermittently and rarely maintain that state forever. They fall down, sometimes to the earth, and sometimes even lower.

The stages in self-discovery, which are described above are summarized in the following table. They also describe the planes or the worlds through which a seeker passes through before reaching the true Self.

Level of progress Suggested Yoga Corresponding Cosmic Region Presiding element or deity
The senses Sense withdrawal The physical world - Earth Earth
Breath Breath control The mid-region Air
The mind Concentration The world of gods Space
Intelligence Meditation The watery region Water
Imagination Concentrated meditation (samyama) Astral world Fire
Speech Silence Night sky Moon
Awakening Intuition Horizon Dawn
Self-realization Samadhi The world of Brahman The sun

Knowing without the mind, but without losing the mind

We reach the world of silence everyday in our deep sleep. The world of imagination or the astral world, indeed, is the world of dreams. We go there also every night. In deep sleep, we all become munis. However, when we are in these states we do not remember anything at all about our physical states. When we wake up we do not remember much of what happened in the dream state either and nothing at all about the deep sleep state. This because we live in two different worlds simultaneously, the gross and subtle worlds, and we do not have the means to remain connected to both at the same time.

Through yoga, we can bridge this gap to some extent, although not completely, and begin to develop an insight into the deeper and hidden states of our consciousness. This inner opening facilitates a mental foray into your own inner world, but it also exposes you to grave dangers and makes you vulnerable to many evil influences. When you have an inner opening, like the sudden awakening of Kundalini, if you have not purified yourself enough, you become extremely sensitive and even paranoid, to the extent that even small things like a faint bad smell or a hateful thought in the mind of someone nearby may severely disturb you and throw you out of balance.

In other words, unless you are well prepared, the very practice of yoga, which is meant to make you stable and equal, may throw you into an emotional rollercoaster leading to severe emotional problems. Hence, the advice that if you want to realize the Self, you need the protection and the guidance of a guru, who will protect you from possible dangers and help you course through the ups and downs of sadhana. Finally, if you are serious about self-realization, please look for a genuine guru (not a representative of the guru, or a trained and certified teacher of the guru, but the guru himself) who will help you cross the dangers and find your true Self.

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