Chapter 3: The Mystery of One’s Own Self
Philosophical enquiries are either inductive or deductive in their methods. Modern thinking, especially of the Western type, is mainly inductive in the sense that it deduces universal conclusions out of information gathered from isolated particulars. Experimentation and observation is the method of science and even modern critical philosophy. It is inductive because it does not come to conclusions except through particulars which are accessible to experiment and observation. This experiment may be sensory in the case of science or rational in the case of philosophy; however, the methodology is almost similar in either case. We have to see before we believe, or understand before we can accept. These are the trends of thinking these days in science and philosophy.
Ancient Indian thinking was mostly deductive. It was critical and rational, no doubt, but its criticism or its rationality would not go counter to direct experience. Thus in India, philosophy has been called darshana, or vision of Reality. It is not merely a critical analysis through the intellect of man, which they found inadequate to the purpose. It is not possible for the intellect to understand everything in the world. Though there is a great utility in the application of reason and intellect within a certain limit, beyond that limit it is not only not useful, but it can even mislead us.
Indian thinkers of ancient times – the philosophers, the saints and the sages – approached the question of Reality by a practical application of personal methods, through experience, and they convinced themselves that they were face to face with God, with Reality, with Truth, with things as they are within themselves. Their critical reason was of course there to corroborate their experience. Logic was not opposed to the vision of Reality. The deductive method follows the coming down to specifics from generals already experienced by insight – by samadhi, by sakshatkara, by Realisation – which is called immediate experience or non-mediate coming in contact with Reality, whereas sensory and even logical understanding is mediate, not immediate, in the sense that human instruments of knowledge cannot really come in contact with anything in the world.
If we are to understand contact in its true spirit, we can contact nothing by means of the senses or even by the mind. This great issue – that man or anything that man has, either sensorily or rationally, cannot come down into contact with Reality as it is in itself – is the great thesis of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He spent his life writing a book proving that human faculties are inadequate to the purpose of contacting Reality. We may ask why this is so. Why are we not equipped with adequate instruments to contact things as they are in themselves? The point which is very critically and largely expatiated upon by this philosopher is that we look at things with spectacles on our eyes, and the spectacles condition the nature of the perception. Whatever the nature of the glasses we put on, that would be the nature of the conclusions we arrive at by our visions.
The glasses which the rationality of man puts on are sensory as well as intellectual. We wear two types of glasses. The scientist also wears a set of glasses, and he cannot escape being conditioned by these spectacles – namely, space and time. The scientist sees everything through space and time only, and he cannot escape this predicament. There is nothing which is not in space and time, and the scientist himself is involved in space and time. This is a defect in the sense that we cannot overcome the shackles to which we are subject by our very placement in the atmosphere of space and time. The philosopher fares no better because, though he is accustomed to a very critical analysis of things, he also wears certain mental spectacles in addition to being conditioned by space and time, because the mind cannot even think except in terms of space and time. While our senses are conditioned by space and time, the mind also is of the same category as far as cognition or perception is concerned because the mind cannot conceive what the senses do not perceive.
Further, there are additional difficulties of the mind of man, in addition to space and time. There are certain habits which are logical or psychological in their nature. We have certain logical habits – we may call them psychological habits, if we like – namely, anything that we can think in our mind has a quantity, is of some shape, some size, and it occupies some place. We cannot think of any object which does not occupy a place. Even if it is a pinpoint, it has a quantity, a dimension; it has a three-dimensional jurisdiction which it occupies. This is the habit of thinking of objects in terms of quantity. We cannot think anything without a quantity attached to it, however small be the measure of quantity that is associated thus. Secondly, we cannot conceive any object unless we relate it to something else. The definition of an object, psychologically – the idea or notion of anything in our mind – is possible only by comparing and contrasting the qualities of that object with other things. We say a crow is black because there are things in the world which are not black. If everything is black, we cannot know what is black. We cannot visualise the colour of a particular object unless we contrast it with other colours which do not belong to that particular object. Likewise, no quality of any particular object can be conceived in the mind except by comparison and contrast. So, there is a relativity involved in the conception of an object; an absolute object cannot be seen or conceived. Also, no object can be seen or conceived unless it has some quality, a character by which we can define it. Nothing that is indefinable can be conceived. This is another difficulty of the mind, namely, the necessity to define everything in terms of certain characteristics or qualities by comparing and contrasting, by way of relation with other things. So quantity is there, quality is there, and relation is there. We cannot think anything except in terms of these characteristics.
Kant mentions a fourth limitation, namely, the condition in which a particular object is. Everything is in some state, some condition, some situation, some circumstance; it cannot be without circumstance. We cannot think of objects except in this manner. These are the spectacles as conceived by Emmanuel Kant. How can we know what is there in the world, as it is in itself? The thing in itself, the world as it is, the Supreme Being or whatever we call the Reality as such, cannot be known by the human mind because on the one hand there is space and time, and on the other hand there are these psychological spectacles.
This is a great advance in critical thinking made in the history of Western philosophy. But there is something hidden behind Kant’s critical observations, which was noticed by his successors, such as Hegel. Kant uttered a great oracular statement which is valid for all times, which meaning was not clear even to himself because there was something unconsciously suggested or implied there.–These suggestions were carried further into their metaphysical edifices by his great successors in Germany, England and America. These conclusions which were carried further in the critical field of philosophical studies in the West almost coincide with the great visions of Indian thinkers. Though not identical in every respect, they are almost ready to shake hands.
Now, these are certain problems which philosophers raise before their minds and, as I mentioned, the difficulties which Kant poses before us, including those that any other thinker of this type may raise, arise on account of following only the inductive method, under the impression that there is no way of knowing anything except in this way. But there are more things in heaven and earth than philosophy dreams of, said Shakespeare. Philosophy cannot dream of everything; there is something more than that. We ourselves are a great mystery. The philosopher himself is a mystery which he has to understand first, before he tries to understand the spectacles of the world outside him.
How do we know that we exist? Do we know it by any argument, inductively conducted? No logic is capable of proving or disproving our existence. It is a fact taken as it is. Here is a conviction in regard to ourselves which defies any logical approach. We would not like to be cast into the mould of logical thinking. We are above logic; logic proceeds from our minds, and we ourselves cannot be tools of logic. All proofs, philosophical or scientific, are emanations of something which itself cannot be proved. I mentioned the other day that the world being there in front of us is something that is taken as a hypothesis both by the scientist and the philosopher. Likewise, there is a greater hypothesis that we take for granted – namely, that we exist. Do you know that you exist? Can you apply any method of knowledge to know this? No method of epistemological analysis – the theory of knowledge – can be applied to your existence. I exist, I am; there the matter ends. No further talking is permitted. I know that I am. How do I know that I am? This is an impertinent question because nobody would like this question to be raised. Why do you ask this question, whether I am? I am, and there the matter ends. I am, yes.
Now, I will digress a little further to another great thinker in the West, called Descartes. The question of ‘I am’ was taken up by him for consideration. While the position of our existence is something prior to thinking we ‘are’ and therefore we think, and this seems to be a correct way of approach to our own selves, Descartes came to the conclusion “I am, because I think”. Cogito ergusu: I think and therefore I am. We do not know why he resorted to this method of proof of his own existence, as thinking cannot be considered as a proof of one’s existence, while the other way round, one’s own existence is adequate explanation of every other activity. Our existence is an explanation of everything.
This existence was taken hold of as a principle subject, or object of study, by ancient Indian thinkers. Nobody can deny one’s own self. One’s doubts can be extended to anything in the world, but that doubt cannot be extended to one’s one self. We may doubt anything, but we cannot doubt that we are, because if we start doubting that we are, the validity of that doubting itself will require another precedent reality, whose existence we cannot doubt. So, nobody can go on doubting doubt itself. Thus, there is something which is indubitable.
This was the stand taken by Vedanta philosophers in the East. The existence of one’s own self – True Being, as it is called – is the basis of all proof, and unless this is taken for granted, we cannot be convinced of the existence of other things such as the world or objects – or anything, for the matter of that. If we have a doubt regarding our own existence, we will have a doubt about everything else also – about the world, and about anything that is connected with us. The conviction that the world is there as a solid reality in front of us, which we cannot gainsay under any circumstance, arises because we are sure that we are and, therefore, knowledge of the world proceeding from our own self is also something to be accepted as a value. We cannot doubt the fact that we see the world, because we do not doubt that we are here, and anything that is ours is very valuable to us. One loves one’s own self, as psychologists generally tell us. Because the self is a doubtless existence, everything that is connected to the self is also doubtless. And the whole world is connected to the self in one way – in an important way, rather. The existence of the world is a conclusion we arrive at by means of a perception of it, through means of knowledge emanating from our own self, which is doubtless existence. This existence of ours is the rock bottom of Indian philosophy.
There are varieties of terminologies, definitions, descriptions being applied to this existence of one’s own self. What is meant by the ‘existence of one’s own self’? Now we are entering into certain discussions held among Indian thinkers. What is this existence of one’s own self, which is persistently intruding into our experience? Who am I? What is the self? Unless this is clear, nothing else can be clear to us. If I am not clear about my own self, how could I be clear about anything else connected with me? Even the whole world, even the concept of God Himself, everything, is finally hinging upon the character of the self – the ‘me’ or the ‘I’, so-called.
“I am.” I mentioned that we cannot doubt that we are. But what is it that we mean in our minds when we say “I am”? This should be explained a little further. Is this body, this little physical frame, this son or daughter of somebody, the ‘I am’, that we are speaking of? Maybe. Mostly, we think this is the ‘I am’. We often refer to our bodies so vehemently often throughout the day, as if the body is the be-all and end-all of ourselves, and all our reference is to this body only. This is an unphilosophical, uncritical attitude of man, whereby he concludes that for all purposes in life, he is the body only. What else can be there? Man cannot see anything else in himself except this conglomeration of bones, flesh, nose, eyes, ears, and what not. But a philosopher is not satisfied merely by reading the lines; he also reads between the lines. Is it true that we are only the body? Is this the only experience we are undergoing in life, or do we pass through other experiences?
The great adventure of Indian thought has been along the states of consciousness, the conditions through which the self passes, and the experiences we undergo in our own personal life. Do we experience only one continuous field of perception such as this waking world, this Rishikesh, this India, this world, this humanity, or have we any other condition also? The philosophical analyses go deep into further experiences we are capable of and through which we pass. We are not always awake; sometimes we sleep, and sometimes we dream. We are unconscious at times; we are semi-conscious in dream, and we say we are very intensely conscious in the waking condition. These three conditions are important from the point of view of deep philosophical studies.
Do we exist in all these three states? Nobody can deny that we exist in all the three states. How do we know that we exist in all the three states? While a dreaming person cannot know anything of the waking world, and we cannot bring to the waking world anything that we saw in the dream world, and in sleep we knew nothing, how can we conclude that we existed in all the three states? Who told us this? Especially in sleep we are totally unconscious; we could not be aware that we were, and yet we say, “I was.” Who told us this? Who is making this statement that we existed in sleep and dream, as we were in the waking world? Is it this body? Can we say that the body is making this statement? No sensible person will say so.
The statement “I existed in all the three states” is not made by the body because, firstly, the body was not operating in the dream world. It was dead, as it were, lying like a corpse, and it had no consciousness of entering into the dream world. But, much worse, it was practically non-existent in the sleep condition. There was nothing practically observable or sensible or knowable in sleep, yet we say, “I existed in all the three states.” Who is making this statement? Not the body, it is very clear, because the body is not conscious. The body seems to be conscious because it is pervaded by consciousness, as a copper wire can be said to be electricity because electricity is passing through it. The force generated by the power house is charging the wire in so intensive a manner that when we touch the wire, we get a shock. The shock is not given by the wire; it is given by the force that is passing through it. Yet, we identify one with the other and say the wire gives a shock. Likewise, the body is conscious in the same manner as the copper wire is electricity. We know the difference between the two, yet we mistake one for the other and mix up one with the other.
The body appears to be conscious. We can touch any part of the body and can feel a sensation because intelligence, consciousness, pervades every cell of the body, as every grain or atom of the copper wire is charged with electricity – or, as the example that is usually given goes, an iron rod heated until it becomes red is charged with the heat of the fire unto its minutest particles. When we touch a heated iron rod, it burns. What burns is not the rod but the fire, yet the iron rod burns, we may say. The body is conscious in a similar manner. That it is really not conscious can be seen in conditions like dream. In the dream world, while we seem to be conscious of a different realm altogether, the body lies there unconscious. We can place a few particles of sugar on the tongue of a dreaming man, and he will not taste it. He will not hear music, and he will not know anything, because he is not there. The so-called ‘I’ is not there in dream. As far as the body is concerned, the ‘I’ has isolated itself from the body. It is not called a dead body because what we call the prana keeps it alive, but the mind is withdrawn. Mind, which is associated with a type of consciousness, is withdrawn from the body. In death it is completely withdrawn in every sense of the term, but we do not call sleep and dream death because the vital energy – the prana, as it is called – keeps the connection of the subtle body with the physical body. If the prana is withdrawn, then there is death of the body. Hence, in the condition of dream, we are conscious of a different world, and the body is not the thing that is so conscious.
Thus, we conclude that this ‘I am’, ‘I exist’ – this centrality of our existence – cannot be the body. Therefore, we are not sons or daughters of somebody; we are something else. We can be anybody else in dream. But there is a greater mystery awaiting us in the state of sleep. Dream is a great mystery indeed, but a profounder mystery is deep sleep. What happens to us? How is it that we are completely cut off from every kind of experience? We are not there at all. Nothing is there – neither ourselves, nor our relations, property, loves and hatreds, the world, creation, or God. Nobody exists for us. What happens to us in sleep? Do we exist there? Yes. Who told us this? Here is the mystery. Who is making this statement, “I was in a state of deep sleep”? Not the body, not even the mind, because the mind was not operating in the state of deep sleep.
While we are obliged to conclude by this analysis that the body is not the ‘I’, even the mind does not seem to be the ‘I’, because in sleep we exist even without the mind. While in dream we can exist without the body, in sleep we can exist even without the mind. What were we then if we were not the body or the mind? The pride attached to physical personality and intellectuality goes when we realise that we seem to be a little different from both body and mind. We are not the physical frame nor the intellectual personality, because both these important items of our experience were completely ruled out in sleep; yet, we existed there. “I was in a state of deep sleep.” Who was in the state of deep sleep? ‘I’ was. What is this ‘I’? Not the body, not the mind. Who else?
Are we not a great mystery? Are we not a wonder in ourselves? What wonder can there be in this world greater than this peculiarity that we ourselves are, which defies every kind of definition. We cannot compare ourselves with anybody. We cannot define ourselves in terms of any quantity, quality, relation, mode, etc. We are nothing of this kind. We are not capable of being shackled even by space and time, because they were not even there in sleep. We were there. Therefore, we could be there even without space and time, without these definitive characteristics of objects of the world, without relationships of any kind, without being men or women, without being the physical body, without being even human beings. Without any of these things we consider as valuable and meaningful in the world, we existed. We existed in the state of deep sleep as something which is not at all of this world.
The ancient masters of India caught hold of this as a central point to be meditated upon and experienced. This is the point of what they call darshana, or vision of Reality. The vision of Reality is the goal of our life. Everyone knows this, and we are all after that. We have to directly come in communion with this great mystery of the universe.
We are pursuing this by what we call the practice of yoga, but the mind has to be very clear about all these things. These analyses, these studies, and these discussions we are carrying on are intended to clear the muddle of the mind, the cobwebs of our personality, the dirt of our thinking, and make it perspicuous, clear and doubtless in regard to everything that is us and everything that is connected with us.
So, while philosophy as merely an intellectual pursuit is not sufficient, it is a walking stick that we can use for a time. While the walking stick does not walk, it is us who will have to walk, yet it is an aid in our walking. Likewise, philosophical analysis, whether of the East or the West, purely from an intellectual, rational point of view, cannot take us to God or the ultimate communion with the Absolute, but they can aid us in walking towards that Supreme. They can be a kind of support to an extent, up to a certain limit, and beyond that some other law will operate.
This peculiar thing that we are in the state of sleep is the mystery of man. This is the so-called ‘I’, and all enquiry regarding “Who am I?” lands us in this difficult situation of trying to know who we ourselves are. The great point that is made out of this situation by philosophers in India is that we existed as pure consciousness. We were not unconscious. Deep sleep is not really an unconscious condition, though it appears to be unconscious. The appearance of an unconscious state in deep sleep is associated with certain factors, which are other than our real nature. There are certain impeding elements which cover the consciousness.
Without going into details about this intricate matter, I may sum up by saying that the ancients concluded that unfulfilled desires are the causes of this unconsciousness. There are deep layers of the psyche in which are buried the impressions of all our lives – desires, fulfilled as well as unfulfilled. Fulfilled desires create an impression of a potentiality or a latency of a further impulsion to repeat the fulfilment of that desire. When a desire is fulfilled, the desire is not extinguished. It always leaves a subtle impression in the mind in the form of longing for an endless repetition of that fulfilment because no desire can finally be satisfied, for certain reasons which I have outlined earlier and into whose details we shall go further on. The unfulfilled desires which are the frustrations of the psyche – which have been repressed even on the subconscious level, for reasons we all know very well, in all the lives that we have lived – also act as an additional thick layer of cloud which prevents our being aware that we are.
Unfortunately, the consciousness that we really are becomes identified with the desires; we become one with our desires. “I want this.” When a statement like this is made, there is a mix-up of what we really are with what we are not. The “I want” is a confusion in the mind; and that every desire is a sort of contradiction on the basis of an error involved in perception itself, is a fact which I have mentioned. This contradiction, which is desire of every kind, produces a big difficulty before us in the form of a darkness which causes us to be apparently unconscious in the state of deep sleep. If we were made up of unconsciousness only, if the substance of our being – the Self, as it is called – is constituted of only unconsciousness and nothing more, then we would not remember that we slept, because we cannot remember anything that occurs in unconsciousness. The memory of sleep is considered as proof of the existence of our being as an essential point of consciousness during the state of deep sleep, and not essentially unconsciousness.
We cannot be constituted of unconsciousness. The building bricks of our personality essentially, basically, at its root, cannot be unconscious. Who would like to be called an unconscious idiot? We would not like to be called that. Even an idiot does not want to be called an idiot; even a foolish person does not want to think that he is foolish – because essentially we are not fools. There is intelligence within us, and this is the so-called Self of the human being – the Self of anything, for the matter of that. In Sanskrit, we call it the Atman.
What is this Self made of? It is made up of pure consciousness only. It is not made up of unconsciousness, as it appears in sleep. It is not mind as it appears in dream, and it is not body as it appears in the waking condition. Neither are we body, nor are we mind, nor are we unconscious. What else are we? Pure scintillating awareness, consciousness.
Where is this consciousness? Philosophers push this argument further and further. Where are you? “I am here in this hall, in Sivananda Ashram.” This is not a correct statement because it becomes meaningful and valid only if you say you are the body. “I am in Rishikesh.” As far as you are the body, it is so, but if you are honest in believing that you cannot be the body merely, then your statement that you are in a particular place in the world is not a correct statement. Nor can you extend it to a mental realm, because you seem to be not even a mind. Where are you, then? Where is this consciousness? Where are you sitting? Here is a further probe into the mystery of one’s own self, the mystery of Ultimate Reality itself.