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Who am I ?

This is a profound question asked by a devotee. It has been meditated upon for thousands of years by sages, and its answer can be found in the Upanishads

A human being, like an onion, consists of several layers covering his seed, called the Atman. We are, truly speaking, Atman, which is a part of Paramatman. And since Paramatman is indivisible, we may conclude that we are Paramatman in its true sense.

If we have an expensive emerald or a diamond and we don't know its worth, then it is merely a stone to us, unless we seek the help of a jeweler who knows its worth. Similarly, we should approach Sri Krishna or a true saint to help us evaluate our worth. 

Essentially, there are five layers covering or hiding our Atman. There layers are:

  • Body and the senses

  • Prana, or energy in its rudimentary sense

  • Mind, or a faculty that “desires” or wishes

  • Intellect that discriminates between good and the evil

  • Blissful Self

If we can purify all these layers, we can see or feel our Atman through them.

The supreme objective of a human being is to realize that he/she is not different from the original source of this creation. Animals or lower lives have not been given the potential to realize their true Self even though, birth, growth, decay and death as well as sleeping, eating, procreating, raising  young ones and then dying are common to man and the lower creatures. If these common actions are all a human being does, then there is a very little difference between a man and an animal. We have a superior faculty within us that must be used to achieve our ultimate goal whether now or later, in this life or next. As all rivers end up in the ocean in various ways, so do all human beings ultimately, whether happily or through sufferings, end up in that Infinite Being called Brahman.

We shall try to understand the characteristics of each of the above five elements, which are like layers of clothes covering the body. True peace, joy, love and security lies only in realizing the Atman, which is also known as the Self. Everything in the world is considered a finite toy, and therefore, only children who forget their mother play with their toys. Only strong hunger can create an intense longing to be in the mother’s lap. Gita is our Eternal Mother. Man, being infinite in nature, cannot be satisfied with the finite toys of this world. In the Upanishads, we find a significant statement of a saint: “There is no happiness in the finite.” 

The Body:

This is our outer most shell and is the product of the foods and drinks we consume. It is the material cover. We know from observation and our own experience that it lives on food and dies without it. This body of ours, as well as that of animals, is a mass of skin, flesh, blood, and bones. This shell can never be our Eternally pure and Self-existent Atman.

The body doesn't exist prior to conception or after dissolution. It only lasts for the short intervening period between them. Its virtues are transient, and they are changeable by nature. It is inert and constantly changing. It is a sense object for the enjoyment of others like cars, clothes or food.  

The body consisting of arms, legs etc. is not Atman because it is subject to destruction and dependency. It is not independent by itself. It is not wise to identify ourselves with a mass of skin, flesh, fat, bones and filth since it is merely an inert vehicle like a car. We, as Atman, are not a car but the owner of the car (the body). 

Only a stupid man thinks of himself as a body. A “book learned” modern man, highly educated, may think of himself as a mixture of body and mind. Only saints or true wise men who have realized God, humbly think of themselves as servants of God or “limbs” of God.

A man, however clever in scriptures and worldly achievements, is foolish and uneducated as long as he thinks of his body as his primary self, because in thinking so, he is identifying himself with the shadow (the body), an image in a mirror. The body is a reflected self, not the Real Self or Atman. Identification with the body alone is the root cause of the miseries of birth, growth, beauty, decay and death. This body is merely is a mirage. Ignorance also causes cycles of birth and death and miseries and delusive joys. Knowledge is to transcend all that is transient.

We must, however, keep this vehicle fit for our Spiritual journey just as we should keep our automobile properly tuned or maintained. This body should neither be worshiped or neglected. It should be used for our Supreme purpose before it is inevitably consumed by time. So we should not misuse our body for lower purposes. 

The Prana: 

The prana or energy is the next layer and is coupled with the five organs of actions. It engages itself in all activities. The prana is a modification of Vayu or Prana Vayu -- the life force that is constantly in motion due to the process of breathing. It is dependent on Atman, and therefore, is not our real Self either. It is similar to the carburetor of a car and is not the owner of a car, but only a breathing instrument of it. The prana, or the life force, comes to us at birth and leaves at the time of our death. Therefore, it is not ever existing and cannot be our eternal Atman. 

The Mind:

The organs of knowledge (the brain centers that control sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) combined with the mind form our mental cover. This causes the feeling of “I” and “mine” or egotism and vanity. The mind creates names and forms. It is the source of likes and dislikes. Based on that, it thinks of things as ugly or beautiful, black or white, good or bad, male and female, etc. It permeates the previous coverings, i.e the body and the Prana. It is superior to both those coverings; it controls them. The mind is like a fire fed with the fuel of desires of the five sense organs and creates a dream world of this phenomenal universe. There is no ignorance outside the mind. The mind is the cause of knowledge or ignorance. The experiences of dreams and dreamless sleep are merely creations of the mind.

The purification of the mind is essential to realize our true Self. This can be done through selfless services, disciplined and controlled life, as well as materially helping others without any expectations of rewards of any kind. All thoughts, traditions, beliefs etc. -- right or wrong -- are products of the mind. We need a clean slate (mind) to realize our true Self. Most of our efforts in Self Realization will be towards the unlearning of our past ignorance. All superimpositions are due to the mind. Birth and death belong to the body, thirst and hunger belong to the Prana body, and happiness and miseries belong to the mind, the creator of all dualities.The mind is constantly changing, and therefore, it cannot be our true Self ,which is free from sins, old age, death, grief, hunger, thirst and all desires. 

The Intellect: 

Intellect helps us to distinguish between the Truth and the untruth, what is wrong and what is right, between what is good and what is bad. It helps us advance to a superior level. It is closely associated with the mind. The mind might say, “I would like some candy even though the body is sick." At that time, the intellect reminds us, by our discriminative ability and our past experiences, that desire is not good for us. It is the reflection of the “Chit” or consciousness that is closely identified with the Self or Atman. Intellect is the discriminative faculty while the mind simply demands without wisdom.  

The Blissful Self: 

This is a modification of ignorance. Its characteristics are pleasure and rest like the rest experienced in a dreamless sleep or when hallucinating. It is a state of intense ignorance. This state is only temporary and it returns to the original state of man when the influence is over, just as when deep sleep is over. The blissful body has its total play during profound sleep. While in the dreaming or wakeful stages it has only partial manifestation occasioned by the sight of agreeable objects. Since this is also not Eternal, it is not the Self or the Atman. 

We have described, in short, who we really are not. The question “Who am I?” can be answered presently by realizing that we are not the above five layers. What remains is the Self, the ever existing, the ever conscious and the ever blissful.

The purpose of spiritual study and practice is to realize what we are not, and who/what we are. This much is to meet your appetite for learning and practicing the message of the Vedanta or Gitaji for Real peace, joy and love.

--Swami Radhanandaji 

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 04 September 2007 )
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“Just as, my dear, by one clod of clay all that is made of clay is known, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the truth is that all is clay, even so, my dear, is that instruction by which one knows what cannot be known.” – Chandogya Upanishad

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