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Everything About Spiritual Life
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 3: The Difficulty of Knowing the Atman

During the first session we discovered that our essential nature is something totally different from either the body or the mind, and that we seem to be existing in the state of deep sleep minus the relationship with body and mind. On a further probing into the implications of the memory that follows after sleep, we discovered that we ought to have existed in the state of deep sleep as consciousness only, but for some important reason we were not aware that we were such a thing. Consciousness, which in Sanskrit is known as the Atman, is not only inside the body. “I slept.” “I was conscious.” Such statements may suggest that this ‘I' is inside this body. Bereft of proper investigation into the subtlety of the situation, this is the primitive untutored feeling that may arise in everybody's mind. Consciousness cannot be locked up inside the body. I mentioned the second point involved herein: If the consciousness is only inside the body, it cannot know that there is a world outside because who is to know that there is a world, unless the consciousness itself is to be aware of it? It cannot know it because it is inside, like a prisoner within the walls of this body. But the fact that you can know even about the stars in the heavens, that you can see the vast space and endless structure of things, that you can have a consciousness of such an immensity should imply that this thought, the mind or consciousness cannot really be only inside this body. You can touch the stars with your thought, and actually you are doing that because otherwise, you would not know that there are stars. This was the second implication of our studies. Firstly, our essential nature is consciousness. Secondly, this consciousness is not inside the body; it is as immense and large as the whole creation.

You will be surprised to know where you are actually sitting in this great circumstance of the unlimitedness of That which seems to be inside you. We have it in the Upanishad that Prajapati, Brahma the Creator, once declared: ya ātmā apahata-pāpmā vijaro vimṛtyur viśoko vijighatso'pipāsaḥ satya-kāmaḥ satya-saṃkalpaḥ, so 'nveṣṭavyaḥ, sa vijijñāsitavyaḥ sa sarvāṃś ca lokān āpnoti sarvāṃś ca kāmān. yas tam ātmānam anuvidya vijānāti: īti ha prajāpatir uvāca (Chhand. Up. 8.7.1). In his constituent assembly, Brahma proclaimed loudly that there is a thing called Atman which is deathless, all-pervading, immortal, pervading all the worlds in all realms of being; and whoever knows this is the master of all the worlds and has the instantaneous capacity to fulfil all his desires, and there is nothing else that he wants afterwards. This proclamation that he made in the assembly was broadcast everywhere. Everybody came to know about this new proclamation, this wonderful thing that he declared, that here is such a thing called Atman and if you know it, there is nothing else that you need to know. The whole world is under your control, and all your desires are fulfilled instantaneously. The devas and the asuras – the gods and the demons – both heard this.

“Oh! This is what Prajapati Brahma declared. We must know it; we shall have it; let us know it! Let us be masters. We shall go to Prajapati Brahma and prostrate ourselves, and request him to teach us what this Atman is,” they said.

All the gods assembled and declared, “Indra will be our representative. He will go and learn this art, and then come and communicate the same to every one of us.”

The demons also sent one representative, called Virochana. “You also go and know this Atman, so that we become masters of everything.” Indra and Virochana, representing two opposite camps, went to the great Creator Brahma and prostrated themselves.

“Indra, Virochana, what do you want?” asked Prajapati.

“Great Master, you declared that there is the Atman which is everywhere, and if we know this we have everything. Please teach us this Atman,” they said.

“Observe self-control for thirty-two years, and then come to me,” replied Prajapati.

“Well, all right,” they agreed.

You are prepared to undergo any suffering if you know that you are going to get a great reward for it. Any suffering is all right, provided that wonderful thing is coming. So, Indra and Virochana observed intense austerity, tapasya, for thirty-two years, hoping that something would come as a result. Then they went back to Prajapati.

“We have observed thirty-two years of self-control, O Master. Please tell us about the Atman,” they said.

“Go see yourself in a pot of water. Look at the water, and that which you see is the Atman,” Prajapati replied.

“Oh, I see. So simple,” they thought. They looked into a pot of water, and saw themselves. This body, head to foot, was seen reflected in the water. “So, this is the Atman! This head-to-foot six-foot frame, this is the Atman. It is a very simple matter; the Atman is now known.” Indra and Virochana both thought that they had gained what they wanted.

Virochana went to the demons and declared, “Wonderful! This body is the Atman; feed it. The Atman wants nothing else except physical consciousness, material enjoyment, and comfort of the body.” The philosophy is eat, drink and be merry, and so these followers of Virochana became what we call materialists, believers in the body and material substances and the satisfaction of all things connected with the instincts of the sense-ridden physical body.

Indra also felt, “Oh! Okay. This is what we have learnt after thirty-two years of self-control.” He went away. But on the way home, he had a doubt which had never occurred to Virochana. “Prajapati Brahma said what I see in the water is the Atman, and he said it is deathless, immortal, all-pervading, but this does not look like that. It is just this body; it is not all-pervading, and it cannot be deathless. It is going to perish. This mortal frame cannot continue for a long time. No, something is wrong. I don't think it is correct.” Halfway, he went back to Prajapati, and did prostrations. Virochana did not come back, because he was fully satisfied.

Brahma said, “Indra, why have you come back? What is the matter?”

“Great Master, there is some difficulty. I don't feel quite all right in accepting that this thing which I saw reflected in water is the Atman. You said the Atman is all-pervading, immortal, deathless, but this body that I saw in the reflection of the water is not all-pervading and is not deathless. So, there is something wrong in what I heard from you. I don't feel happy, and I require rectification. Please tell me where the true Atman is,” said Indra.

“I see. Go! Observe self-control for another thirty-two years,” replied Brahma.

“All right, I will observe self-control for another thirty-two years,” said Indra. After the second round of thirty-two years of self-control, Indra returned to Brahma. “Please tell me about the Atman,” said Indra.

“Do you know that you are seeing something in dream? That is the Atman. Go! Now, I have improved upon the concept of the Self,” replied Brahma.

Because the great master said that, and it was his order, Indra obeyed and went. But halfway, he had doubt again. ”No, no. This is not all right. What is there in dream? It is just like waking. In dream there is hunger and thirst, and physical death also can be experienced. One can fall from a tree and break one's legs, and can die also. This is no good. This Atman is perishable. Something is wrong in this doctrine.” Again he went back, and prostrated himself before Brahma.

“Indra, again you have come?” said Brahma.

“O Master! Something is wrong with this doctrine. What is the use of this thing that I see in dream? It is as perishable, nonsensical, meaningless, absurd, and not worth anything as is the case with what I see in the waking condition,” said Indra.

“All right. Observe self-control for another thirty-two years,” replied Brahma.

So, thirty-two times three means ninety-six years of self-control that Indra underwent. Afterwards Indra went back. “Please teach me the Atman that is all-pervading, by knowing which I can have everything.”

“Do you know that in deep sleep you are observing, seeing something, and experiencing something?” asked Brahma.

“Yes,” Indra said, “I am experiencing something in deep sleep.”

“That is the Atman. Go,” said Brahma.

Indra went, and halfway again he had doubt. “No, this is no good. This sleep Atman is no good because it is as if it is dead. This immortal Atman is dead in deep sleep. He is annihilated. His existence is abolished. He knows nothing. He is in a state of idiocy, negativity. No, no. Immortal, deathless, all-bliss, said Prajapati Brahma, but what is the condition of this that I experience in deep sleep? No, there is something wrong here.” Again, Indra went back to Prajapati.

“Oh, Indra! You have come again?” said Brahma.

“There is something wrong, Master. I don't see any worth in that which I experience in the state of deep sleep because it is a complete negation of all values, so how can that be called the Atman? Where is the point in it?” asked Indra.

Brahma said, “Okay, go again, and observe five years of self-control.”

He was a little considerate this time. Instead of thirty-two years, he said five. Thus, 101 years of self-control – it was a very difficult situation indeed. We cannot understand what this self-control and austerity was, or what they underwent. With all that tapasya, they got nothing finally, except some kind of tentative definition which meant nothing in the end.

After 101 years of self-control, Indra went to Prajapati: “Please tell me about the Atman.”

Maghavan martyaṃ vā idaṃ śarīram (Chhand. Up. 8.12.1), said Prajapati to Indra. “O Ruler of the gods, Maghavan Indra, all this formation is perishable.”

That which you observe through the sense organs as a positive object of perception, whether in waking or dream, cannot be the Atman because it has a beginning and an end. It is destructible, whereas the Atman is deathless. Even if we consider the state of deep sleep as the Atman because it does not look like something that is observed as a perishable object, deep sleep is an annihilation of consciousness.

There are two conditions which are very important for you to know here. Firstly, that which you see with your eyes is not the Atman. That which you experience through the sense organs, or even by the mind conditioned by the sense organs as is the case in waking and in dream, cannot be regarded as the Atman. So, the first point is that anything that is outside, externalised, projected in terms of the sense organs, whether in waking or dream, cannot be the Atman, because that which is external cannot be the universal. Hence, the waking and dream conditions are not the Atman. Why not sleep? What is wrong with it? The other condition of the Atman is that it is pure Self Consciousness. It knows that it is: “I am what I am.” This consciousness is absent in the state of sleep. Therefore, the condition of the experience of the Atman is that on the one hand, it should not be externalised as an object of the sense organs or even the thought process; and, on the other hand, it should not be an annihilation of awareness. Existence minus awareness is equal to no existence, just as wealth minus the consciousness of it is no wealth at all. A rich person who does not know that he is rich cannot be regarded as rich.

Consciousness is the conditioning ruling factor in all our experience but, as mentioned, it cannot be externalised. Both in waking and dream, the Atman seems to be externalised, dissected into the seer and the seen. There is a partitioned existence of the Atman, as it were, which is a total negation of its true nature. Neither in the waking condition, nor in dream, nor in sleep, can you know the Atman. What other experience do you have in this world? You are either awake, or dreaming, or sleeping; there is no fourth condition. And if all these three states are worthless instruments for the purpose of knowing the Atman, what other means can you employ in knowing it?

“I have no means of knowing the Atman. All my apparatus has been exhausted. I have no further ammunition with me to tackle this situation. What is it? This particular ‘I am' is nothing but a bundle of experiences in waking, dream, and sleep, and you say all these three states are useless for the purpose of knowing the Atman because of these defects that are very clearly observed. I have no other experience in this world. If the three states, which are my property, my nature, are incapable of knowing the Atman as it is, I have no means of knowing the Atman. Don't talk about it.”

The difficulty of knowing the Atman is here presented before us. Here is a wonder before you. You have to know it, and yet you have no way of knowing it. You are in a serious predicament. In this connection, I shall narrate an anecdote which appears in the Kathopanishad. Nachiketas, a great seeker like all of you, went to Yama, the great master of wisdom, and according to the story, he was offered three boons.

“Ask for the first boon,” the great Yamaraj, master of knowledge, told the boy seeker Nachiketas.

“I have come to you, great Master, from the mortal world of an experience which is not happy in any way. In the world there are no friends, really speaking. Anyone who is a friend today can be an enemy tomorrow. That which is my possession today may not be my possession tomorrow. Today this is the object of my possession, my property; tomorrow the same thing is the property of somebody else. Nobody in this world can be trusted. Anybody is a friend, anybody is an enemy. Not only that, everything is perishable. Now I have come to you; I am at the gates of the doors of Yama. When I go back, please bless me with this first boon that I ask, that all shall be well with me in the world. I shall not be victim of anyone's love and hatred, and I shall be received as one with the whole world,” said Nachiketas.

“This is a great thing that you have asked, ‘Let the whole world treat me as itself, so that I have perfect security. No difficulty of any kind, no suspicion, no worry, a life which is not distraught with agony and suffering of any kind, may that be granted to me as the first boon.' Take it. When you go back, you will be received by the whole world as its own friend,” replied Yama. In one second this unthinkable gift was bestowed.

“My dear boy, ask for the second boon,” said Yama.

“I hear that the gods in heaven have no sorrow of any kind. They are bereft of the turmoil of physical existence as is experienced by people. They are possessors of the knowledge of the wealth of the whole creation. Let me be also blessed with this boon of the universal perception of things,” asked Nachiketas. In Sanskrit, this experience is sometimes called Vaishvanara.

“Take it,” replied Yama. In one instant, the wonderful boon was bestowed. What kind of thing it is that he was given? Kāmasyāptiṁ jagataḥ pratiṣṭhāṁ krator ānantyaṁ abhayasya pāram (Katha Up. 1.2.11): “It is the soul of the world, the joy which is inexpressible by any thought of mortals, the universal experience of the possession of everything in space and time – such Vaishvanara knowledge I have given in one instance. Take it.”

“Master, you are very kind,” said Nachiketas.

“Now, ask for the third boon,” said Yama.

Nachiketas threw a bombshell on the head of this great Guru by saying, “Tell me what happens to the soul after the death of this body.”

“No, no,” Yama said. “Don't talk like that. My dear boy, you are a good child. Never utter such foolish things, and do not raise questions that even the gods cannot answer. What happens to the soul when you are rid of mortal encasement, what happens to your consciousness when it is free from the shackles of body – you are asking such a question! Go back. I am sorry that I asked you to request a third boon. Don't worry me. Go!” replied Yama.

“No, I cannot go like that. You told me that you will give me three boons, and I am now asking for the third. You must give it to me,” said Nachiketas.

“No,” Yama said. “I am very sorry that our discussion has gone this far. Even the gods cannot answer this question as to what happens to consciousness when it is rid of the mortal encasement.”

Nachiketas said, “Great Master, you are saying that nobody knows the answer to this question. I know, therefore, that you know the answer. So, after having seen a person like you, which fool can go back without getting this knowledge?”

“You should not persist in this question. I give you everything: the longest life, as long as the universe itself; all the joys conceivable; all the wealth of the whole Earth. You are the emperor of all things. I give you this boon, but you should not ask this question,” replied Yama.

Now, you may wonder, what is wrong with this question. Why did Yama hesitate to answer this question? Actually, the question was simple. Nachiketas wanted to know what this Atman is, as was the case with Indra and the others, who wanted to know the Atman. They had some tentative answers which were not satisfying. The same was the case with Nachiketas, but Yama would not give the answer. Why? What would he have lost by giving the answer? It is because questions and answers are processes which cannot apply to the realm of the Atman. The Atman is the knower bereft of any knowable object external to it. You can logically, methodologically, philosophically discuss anything which is an object of reasoning, understanding, but how can you convert the Atman into an object of reasoning when it is at the back of the very process of reasoning? Reason cannot operate until and unless the Atman is already there behind the reasoning process. So, you are trying to climb on your own shoulders by asking what the Atman is. Who is to put the question – because the questioner has the Atman behind him. This is the reason why no answer can be given to this question regarding the Atman.

Then, what is all this effort, if you have no means to know the Atman? Because it is the knower itself – it is the seer behind all the processes of seeing – it is not an object that can be investigated by any available means of knowledge.  Perception, inference and so on are useless as instruments of knowing this Atman, because it is prior to the very operation of the faculties of perception, inference, etc. Yet, you have to know the Atman. Here is the contradiction before you. Āścaryo vaktā kuśalo'sya labdhā, āścaryo jñātā kuśalānuśiṣṭaḥ (Katha Up. 1.2.7). Both the Bhagavadgita and Kathopanishad say that to think this is a wonder, to hear this being spoken is a wonder, blessed is the person who can speak of it, and blessed is the person who can listen to questions and discussions of this kind. You cannot know it, and yet you have to know it. Here is a peculiar contradiction.

This contradiction can be solved only if you know what Indra did for 101 years by way of what is known as self-control. Self-control is the means of knowing the Atman, which cannot be known in other ways. It is a returning of yourself to yourself. At present, you are not in yourself.

You may put a question, “What is the meaning of saying ‘returning of myself to myself'? I am already in myself. I am Mr. so-and-so sitting here. What is returning?”

You are actually not in yourself at the present moment. You are outside. When you are looking at the tree, you have become the tree. The consciousness takes the form of a modified psychic operation, called vritti in Sanskrit, which is the shape of the object which you look at, which you hear, which you taste, which you smell, which you touch. What are you doing the whole day? Either you are seeing something, or smelling something, or hearing something, or touching something, or tasting something. Other than these five activities, what other things are you doing in this world? So, in all these activities which are the operations with the five sense organs, you have gone out of yourself. You, the so-called Atman or the Self, have become other than what you are.

Do you know what it means to be other than one's own self? If you have studied this subject, you can imagine psychoanalytically what it is to be aberrant in regard to one's own self. When they are not feeling normal, sometimes people say, “Now I am not myself.” When you are angry beyond comprehension, or filled with desire beyond expression, or in an inebriated condition, you are not in your own self. There is not a moment of time when you are in yourself because you are always seeing something, hearing something, and contacting something in some way, so that there is a perpetual movement of yourself out of yourself into an objective condition which is called perception. In all perception, you are losing yourself. That is why Patanjali's Yoga Sutras say that every modification of the mind is an obstacle to the knowledge of the Self. Yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ; tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe avasthānam (Yoga Sutras 1.2-3): You can find yourself in yourself only when the vritti or the modification of the mind in terms of the perception, or the cognition of things, ceases. This is the self-control which Indra practised for 101 years.

Now, in this self-alienation that is perpetually taking place, you are becoming weaker and weaker every day.  You are weak bodily, mentally, and also in your reasoning capacity. In every respect you are a helpless person in this world, because the more you are conscious of outside things, and the more you are concerned with those things, the worse for you. Nothing can be worse than that.

There are two ways of perception or modification of the mind known as aklishta and klishta vrittis. These are non-painful operations of the mind, and painful operations of the mind. A general consciousness that there is a tree does not cause you any pain because there are so many trees in the forest, so they do not matter to you. Nevertheless, a modification of the mind has taken place in the process of knowing the existence of the tree. But suppose it is a plant in your own garden which you have tended – a mango tree or a rosebush. You are attached to it, and it is a source of pain. If somebody plucks your rose, you are very annoyed. If somebody cuts a tree far off in a forest, you do not care, but if it is your tree in your garden, you do not want it cut.

Therefore, painful vrittis and non-painful vrittis are two types of operations taking place in your mind, and you are subject to both of them. You are not merely allowing yourself to be transported away from yourself to the objects of perception, you are making matters worse by either clinging to them or hating them. The process of general perception is studied in schools and colleges in what is called general psychology, and the process undergone in the perception embedded with emotional like and dislike is studied in abnormal psychology, especially in psychoanalysis.

Now, can you know what kind of persons you are? Are you subject to all these limitations and troubles? Certainly, your whole life is a bundle of this great grief from being compelled at every moment to be other than what you are. This kind of life you are living in this world. Therefore, Prajapati said, “You must practise 101 years of self-control before you can know the Atman.” Yama said, “Go away from here. You can take the whole world, but don't talk about this matter.” What is the use of talking about a thing which is implied in the very question that you are asking, and nothing can be done about it as long as you are a person? To be a true seeker of the Atman, you have to be other than an ordinary person. A person is one who thinks in terms of the sense organs – either with love and hatred, or otherwise – and we are nothing but a jumble of these operations. We are a psychic chaos, rather than a stable individuality. Therefore, none in the world can be always happy. One cannot be secure even for twenty-four hours continuously. You have anxieties of all kinds, and do not know what will happen to you the next moment. Even within your family, you are not safe. When you suspect the members of the family, what about other relations far away? The whole life is spent in this manner. You have two types of agony: consciously felt agony, and unconsciously felt agony. Something is worrying you inside, of which you are not consciously aware; and that is the case with everybody. But in certain cases, you are aware what the agony is.

A yoga seeker, a seeker on the spiritual path, should be a very good psychologist. You must be a master of the knowledge of your own mind. There is no use studying psychology in order to teach it in a college. You must know how your mind is operating first. At a particular moment of your mood or whim and fancy, what happens to your mind? Why are you thinking in this manner at this moment? What has happened to you? You may say that somebody is doing something to you, but are they really, or are you doing something to yourself without realising it? Self-control is the restraint of the movement of consciousness in terms of the sense organs. Self-control does not mean closing your eyes and chanting something, because you may close the physical eye, but the conscious eye will operate. It is not the physical organ of sense that is troubling you; it is the consciousness that is moving through the aperture of the sense organs that is the source. Self-control is the restraint of the operation of consciousness along the lines of what is other-than-being-selfhood. All the things of the world are non-self in the sense they cannot be considered as yourself. Other people are not yourself, the trees and mountains are not yourself, nothing is yourself. You are simply thinking that you are identical with your little physical frame, as if all other things are null and void in respect of yourself.

If you want to study the nature of self-control, you have to be at the feet of a master for years. Knowing the Atman is a different subject altogether. That is why Yamaraj told Nachiketas, “Go away from here, and don't worry me unnecessarily about this matter. It cannot be known.” Anyway, the answer was given to Nachiketas later on after the severe testing which Yama imposed upon him; and that was the case with Indra also, who finally understood the transcendent and immanent nature of the Atman. In the state of deep sleep, the Atman is immanent, hiddenly present in ourselves, but really it is above the condition of sleep.

The philosophy of India is a transcendental immanence. It is not any kind of ‘ism' that can be found in Western thought. It is not pantheism, deism, atheism, or any kind of ‘ism'. It is impossible to conceive it, because while accepting that the Atman is everywhere, one also accepts that it is not anywhere in this world. A transcendentality together with an immanence is inconceivable to the ordinary mind. God is in the world, and yet He is not in the world. Both these aspects of the Ultimate Reality have to be borne in your mind even before you try to practise self-control.

Thus, yoga practice, spiritual life, understanding yourself – the purpose for which you have come to this ashram – is an arduous task. You have to live for it, and die for it. It is a dedication until the end of your life, and not something to be learnt in two months and then forgotten. This is not to be learnt for a period of time like a semester in a college or university. It is a discipline of life, a restraint of yourself from self-aberration or alienation, which you cannot understand by reading a book. You have to be purified at the feet of a Master whose blessings are your solace, and perhaps the Almighty Himself will bless you if your heart is sincere. Great is this subject. That is why Prajapati had to inflict so much suffering upon Indra, and Yama had to turn Nachiketas away without an answer. This is the case with all great Masters. They will not tell you anything for years together, though they will bless you one day.