by Swami Krishnananda
I made a brief reference to the natural difficulty that one may feel in understanding the subject of the Upanishads, that difficulty being the nature of the Upanishadic discussion itself. It is the subject of the Atman, but it is more easily heard than clearly understood.
All our educational technology these days, as education is generally understood, concerns itself with objects of perception and intellectual understanding. The Atman is not a subject which can be perceived through the sense organs, nor can it be understood intellectually by any kind of logical acumen. The reason is that the Atman is yourself; it is not somebody else. In all courses of knowledge and procedures of study, you place yourselves in the position or context of students, and you consider the world of objects outside as subjects of observation, experiment and study. In your education you do not study yourself; you study something other than your own self. You go to a college or a university and study subjects like mathematics, physics, chemistry, sociology and what not. All these subjects, which are so well placed before you in great detail, are external to yourself. Everything that you study, anywhere, is outside you. You do not study yourself in any course of study that has been made available to you.
But the Upanishad is a study of ourselves. Atmanam viddhi is the great oracle of the Upanishad: "Know thyself and be free." It is something astounding to hear that you can be free by knowing your own self. It is so because of the fact that you have a feeling generally, in the work-a-day life of the world, that you become free only when you know the world outside. You study sociology, history economics, and what not – external studies and empirical observations – for the purpose of acquiring freedom in life. The more are you educated, the more you seem to be free in human society. But the Upanishad says this knowledge cannot make you free. It is only the knowledge of your own self that can assure you true freedom.
The reason for this opinion of the Upanishads is very deep-rooted. How is it that freedom is embedded in you only, and not anywhere else? I mentioned on the very first day that this particular something, which the Upanishads call the Atman, is not a prerogative of any particular individual. It is not something that is in you only; it is the pure subjectivity of all things. The deepest essence of anything and everything in the universe is what is called the Atman. So the study of the Atman is not the study of the self of some person, Mr. So-and-so; it is the study of the self of every Mr. So-and-so. Everything, everyone – all things – are a pure subjectivity in themselves.
There is an 'I-ness' or a feeling of self-identity even in a tree, which grows according to its own predilection for the purpose of its own survival. The instinct of survival is present in each and every living entity – and perhaps even in non-living elements, like an atom. They maintain an identity of themselves. The Atman may be said to be the characteristic of the self-identity of everything. You cannot become other than what you are. You are something, and you want to be that thing only, and you cannot be something else. 'A' is 'A'; 'A' cannot be 'B'. This is the law of identity in logic. Everything is what it is; nothing can be other than what it is. There is a peculiar inherent tendency of the maintenance of self-identity in all things. You have to listen carefully to every word that I speak. This inherent tendency in everything in respect of the maintenance of that vehement form of self-identity consciousness is the Atman.
The Atman is not merely a force that causes this impulse of self-identity in things, it is also a consciousness of there being such a self-identity. You are what you are, but not only that; you are also aware that you are what we are. So it exists, and it is also conscious that it exists. Therefore, the Atman is existence, and it is also consciousness. Now, what sort of existence? It is the existence of the fact that it cannot be identified with anything other than itself. This is the characteristic of pure subjectivity. You cannot become somebody else. Rama cannot become Krishna, Krishna cannot become Jesus, Jesus cannot become Thomas, and so on. A particular thing is just that particular thing for the reason that it is constituted of characteristics that make that thing only that thing. This cohesive element which brings the parts of your personality into a centrality of apprehension, awareness, is the work of the Atman within.
To repeat once again what I told you a few minutes ago, this tendency is present in everything and everyone. Therefore, the study of the Atman is not the study of something somewhere; it is the study of everything. I hope you catch what I am saying. The study of the Atman is the study of the essence of everything anywhere because of the fact that everything everywhere has this Atman. There is an Atman in all things in the sense that they maintain an identity-consciousness of themselves. So the Atman has a peculiar characteristic of being just what it is. That is to say, it cannot be an object of anyone. The self-identity aspect of consciousness, which is the Atman, cannot become Anatman, to put it in the Sanskrit language. The Atman cannot become Anatman. The Self cannot become not-Self. The subject cannot become the object. Consciousness cannot become matter. You cannot become somebody else.
This is something that will follow from a proper analysis of the nature of what is called the Atman – the great, grand, magnificent subject of the Upanishads. Inasmuch as this is something which you have never heard in your life, something which nobody has taught you anywhere in any educational institution, something that cannot be included in the curriculum of any kind of science, arts or humanities in the ordinary sense of the term, it is astounding for you. That is the reason why the Upanishads insist that it is a secret knowledge. It is not a subject for public oration. It is secret because it cannot be understood by any amount of scratching your head. The reason is, you are studying your Self as a basic principle – this 'Self' not being the person 'you', this physical body-mind complex, but the principle that is the principle of all things.
Therefore, the study of the Atman is the study of first principles. The philosophy of the Atman is the fundamental philosophy. When that is known, we have known the secret of all things. It is the vital spot of every individual, of anything in the universe. This knowledge is not communicated by merely reading books in a library. It is possible to acquire it through hard discipline. The mind of the human being is usually characterised by three defects, and any kind of self-discipline implies the avoiding of these defects somehow or other – the scrubbing out of the defect-ridden personality of the individual. In Sanskrit, this threefold defect of the human mind is called mala, vikshepa and avarana.
Mala means dirt, something like a thick coating over a clean mirror, preventing reflection of light in it. Dirt is that which covers the essential nature of an object, like a thick coating of dust, etc., on a mirror. There is some such thing covering the mind of the human being also, on account of which correct knowledge is not reflected in the mind, just as a mirror that is covered over with dust cannot reflect sunlight. So some step has to be taken in order to see that this dirt of the mind is scrubbed off.
The other defect of the mind is known as vikshepa – which is fickleness; the inability to concentrate on anything for a long time. Instability is the basic nature of the mind. It thinks twenty things in one minute and is not able to fix its attention on one thing, even for a few seconds. These are the superficial aspects of the defects of the mind.
But there is a deeper defect known as avarana. It is like a thick veil over the mind, a black curtain, as it were, which totally prohibits the entry of the rays of light into the mind. The Atman is pure subjectivity and, therefore, the impulsion of the mind to move outward in the direction of sense objects is an anti-Atman activity taking place in the mind, a movement towards the not-Self. Any psychic operation, any modification of the mind in the direction of anything other than what the Self is, is to be considered as impelled by some dirt in the mind.
Sometimes the mind operates like a prism which deflects rays of light in various forms and in various hues. It is up to each person to consider for one's own self what are the thoughts that generally arise in the mind from morning to evening. You may be doing anything, but what are you thinking in the mind? This is what is important. The thoughts which take you wholly in the direction of what you are not and engage your psychic attention on things which are not the Self – these thoughts should be considered as a serious infection in the mind itself.
Since basically everybody is what one is, and even when one is operating in the direction of a so-called sense-object, through the perceptive activity of the senses, what is actually happening is that one particular psycho-physical location of this universal Self – it is universal because it is present in all beings – tries to impinge upon another such location in the form of an object outside. It wrongly considers another thing as an object because of the movement of the Atman consciousness through the eyes and the various sense organs.
There is a tendency inherent in the human mind by which the pure subjectivity, which is the consciousness of the Atman, is pulled, as it were, in the direction of what it is not, and is compelled to be aware of what it is not in the form of sense-perception. Not only that, it cannot be continuously conscious of one particular object. Now it is aware of this; now it is aware of another thing. It moves from object to object. The tendency to move in the direction of what the Atman is not – the impulsion towards externality of objects – is the dirt, or mala, as it is called. The impossibility of fixing the mind on anything continuously is the distraction, or the vikshepa. The reason why such an impulse has arisen at all is the avarana, or the veil. These three defects have to be removed gradually by protracted self-discipline coupled with proper instruction. It takes its own time.
There are techniques of yoga practice known as karma, bhakti and jnana – or karma, upasana and jnana. Karma is activity, work, performance of any kind – discharge of one's duty, we may say. This impulsion of the mind to always move in the direction of objects outside is due to a desire that is present in the mind to grab something from outside and make good a particular lacunae that it feels in itself. This tragic movement of the mind in the direction of objects for the purpose of fulfillment of selfish desires can be obviated only by a certain type of activity called karma. Karma does not mean any kind of work, but a specific kind of work. Everybody is doing some work; everybody is busy in this world, but it does not mean that they are doing yoga in the form of work. Work becomes yoga only when the performance of work is free from the impulse of selfishness.
When you do a work, you must put a question to yourself: "What is the reason behind engaging in that work? Is it because there is some extraneous or ulterior motive behind that work? Or is it done for mere self-purification? You must distinguish between work done as a job and work done as a duty. A duty may not apparently bring you a material benefit at the very outset, but it will bring you an invisible benefit. That is why duty is adored so much everywhere and people say you must do your duty. If duty is not so very important, but a remunerative job is the only thing that is important, then insistence on duty would be out of point.
Everybody says duty must be done; but, what is duty? Work done as a duty alone can purify; no other work can purify the self. It is not any kind of labour that can be regarded as karma yoga. So, what is this duty that we are talking of which is going to chasten the personality of the individual, and purify it? Briefly it can be called unselfish action. It is a work that you do for the benefit that may accrue to a larger dimension of reality, and not merely to the localised entity called your own individual self.
When you serve people, you are to always bear in mind the reason why this service is done at all. Mostly, the reason is buried underneath. You have social reasons, political reasons, economic reasons and family considerations when you do any work in the form of service of people. But service which is spiritually oriented is not a social work or a political activity, nor is it connected even with family maintenance. It is actually a service done to your own self.
How is that so? You may put a question: In what way is the service of people, for instance, a service to you own self? Remember the few words that I spoke a little while ago, that one's essential being is also the essential being of everybody else. So the people that you see outside, even the world of space-time, is a wider dimension of the selfhood which is your own pure subjectivity. This is a subject that is a little difficult to understand, and is to be listened to with great caution and care. The service that you render to others – even to a dog, let alone human beings, even feeding manure to a tree for its sustenance or taking care of anything whatsoever – is not to be done with any kind of ulterior motive, much less even the consideration that it is something outside you.
Work becomes purely a spiritual form of worship only when the character of selfhood is introduced into the area of this performance of work and into the location of the direction towards which your work is motivated. You are serving your own self when you serve humanity. People sometimes glibly say, "Worship of man is worship of God." It is just a manner of speaking, without understanding what they mean. How does man become God? You know very well that no man can be equal to God. So how do you say that service of man is equal to service of God?
Therefore, merely talking in a social sense does not bring much meaning. It has a significance that is deeper than the social cloak that it bears – namely, the essential being of each person is present in every other person also. So when you love your neighbor as yourself, you love that person not because that person is your neighbor in the sense of social nearness, but because there is a nearness which is spiritual. The person is near to you as a spiritual entity, as part of the same self that is you, rather than a nearness that is measurable by a distance of yards or kilometres.
The spiritual concept of work is the great theme of the Bhagavadgita. The whole theme of the Bhagavadgita is how we can conduct our activity in the sense of a transmutation of all its values into spiritual worship. Actually, service is not service done to anybody else – that term 'else' must be removed from the sentence. It is service done to a larger area of one's own self. This idea can be planted in one's own mind by doing service of any kind, whether it is service of Guru, service of mankind, or even work in an office without laying too much emphasis on the salary aspect, etc. If the administration is well managed, the salary will come of its own accord – you need not cry for it – and this universe is a well-managed organisation. It is not a political system which constantly requires amendment of laws and regulations. Everything is systematically ordained and, therefore, you need not have any doubt in your mind whether you gain anything at all by doing service in this manner. When you serve your own larger self, which becomes largest when it is a service done to the universe as a whole, virtually you are serving God, because the largest self is God. And it is an expanded form of your own self. This is the point to be borne in mind. This has to be borne in mind again and again because of the fact that this is the subject of the Upanishads.