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Know the Atman!

Part 9 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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He who thinks the Self is the slayer and he who thinks the Self is slain: neither of the two understands; the Self slays not, nor is it slain (2:19).

Except for the most unfortunately wounded in spirit, everyone is more than willing to accept the truth of their immortality. Because the authority of the Supreme Spirit is behind each word of Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna, something deep within us responds with recognition to each statement, and that includes his insistence on the eternal nature of every spirit. Consequently there is no need for me to keep going over and over that principle.

The body may appear to be killed, but never is the Self (Atman) slain. This does not mean that those who (seemingly) kill others are not culpable, for it is their murderous intention that is the root evil. Having learned this in India, Jesus insisted on its truth in his teachings. “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment… Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: but I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28).

He who thinks he can be killed is mistaken. This is not very hard to grasp, but the second part–the statement that the Atman can no more slay than be slain–is not so commonly accepted. So it needs due consideration.

What is going on here?

Krishna has already told Arjuna that all sensory phenomena are temporary. Later he will be explaining that they are nothing more than ever-shifting movements of energy that the individual consciousness is merely observing–not undergoing, as it thinks. Consequently the wise one watches the sense-movie and learns from it. As already cited, the Mundaka Upanishad expresses it thusly: “Like two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, the individual self and the immortal Self are perched on the branches of the selfsame tree. The former tastes of the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the latter, tasting of neither, calmly observes.” In Western metaphysics the expressions “lower self” and “higher Self” are often employed for these two “birds.”

The situation is this: The immortal part of us, the Atman, the pure spirit (consciousness) ever looks on at the experiences of the lower self–the mind, ego, subtle and gross bodies–all that go to make up our relative “self.” But so convincing is the drama, so compelling and literally engrossing, that it loses itself in the spectacle and thinks it is born, lives, and dies over and over, feeling the pain and pleasure that are nothing more than impulses in the field of energy that is the mind. These are the vrittis in the chitta spoken of by Patanjali at the beginning of the Yoga Sutras, the permanent cessation or prevention of which is Yoga. Through meditation we come to separate ourselves from the movie screen of illusion. Learning is the purpose of the movie, so we do not just throw the switch and leave the theater. Rather, we watch and figure out the meaning of everything. When we have learned the lessons, the movie will stop of itself. Yoga is the means of learning.

So we are points of consciousness tied to the seats of our bodies, helplessly watching and identifying with the 360-degree surrounding screen, overwhelmed by the sensory avalanche. When we cease to identify and come to see with the clarity of objectivity (that is the reality of the situation), then we begin to really see and learn. Then, just as the ear is trained by listening to music, so the consciousness is developed by witnessing the drama of many lives. Yet it is not changed–it is freed. For change is illusion.

When we have experienced this–and therefore truly known–for ourselves, then we know that nothing has ever “happened” to us–only to the vibrating substance which we have mistakenly thought was us. Vairagya, detachment from all things, then arises, for that is the only realistic response or view of our life. Then perfection in true knowledge (jnana) becomes our only goal, for that perfection alone is freedom.

The lessons to be learned

Being either killer or killed is impossible; so Krishna assures Arjuna, and us. The Gita is being spoken on a battlefield, so martial action is the subject, but the principles presented by Krishna can be applied to anything in life. The fundamental lesson is twofold: 1) everything has a meaning for us, and 2) no happening or change is real. But we are real, and that should be the basis of our entire perspective on our present entanglement in the birth-death drama.

If we are not careful we will fall into the trap of considering only the negative as unreal and think of the positive as real and therefore to be accepted as such. This is not so. Sin and virtue, hellishness and holiness, are equally unreal. However, sin and evil render us incapable of seeing the truth of things, whereas virtue and holiness wean us from the illusions around us and purify our mind so we can come to learn the real Facts of Life from life itself.

Yet, no change is ultimately real. Not even the decision: “I want to know God.” Insight and aspiration mean nothing of themselves. Only when they result in involvement in spiritual practice (sadhana, tapasya) do they mean anything. Yes, even the process of sadhana (meditation, yoga) is unreal, but its result is real in that it reveals the Real. In Indian thought spiritual practice is often spoken of as a thorn used to remove a thorn in the foot. Both are then discarded. Yoga is also just a movie, but it is a movie that leads to self-knowledge in which yoga ceases to be a practice and becomes a state–the state of consciousness that is our eternal being.

So all the holy and spiritual thoughts and feelings or philosophy we may come up with are just more of the same light and shadows that have been fooling us for countless creation cycles. They will eventually degenerate and reveal themselves as valueless as all our other fantasies. Only when they inspire us to take up meditation and authentic spiritual life are they of any worth, assisting us in drawing nearer and nearer to The Real.

The effects of Self-knowledge

But knowing the Atman-Self is a different matter altogether. The attainment of self-knowledge is not the same as working out a puzzle or figuring out a riddle. It has a practical effect: eternal peace and freedom. Therefore Krishna continues:

Neither is the Self slain, nor yet does it die at any time, nor having been will it ever come not to be. Birthless, eternal, perpetual, primeval, it is not slain whenever the body is slain (2:20).

This is the perspective that gives abiding peace to the seer. And further:

In what way can he who knows this Self to be indestructible, eternal, birthless and imperishable, slay or cause to be slain? (2:21).

Do not dream: know. Then you will be free from the compulsions and anxieties of the world-dream.

When we cling to these compulsions and anxieties, birth, life, and death are agonies raking us like hooks and whips. But what are they in actuality? Krishna says:

Even as a man casts off his worn-out clothes and then clothes himself in others which are new, so the embodied casts off worn-out bodies and then enters into others which are new (2:22).

How simple. And how effortless. It is our clinging, our grasping, that torments us. For though we do not realize it, aversion and distaste are also graspings. To push a thing away we have to touch it, to come into contact with it. And once touched it works its effect on us.

Although Krishna is speaking of the experiences of physical birth and death, the same is true of any kind of “becoming” or dissolving of both external and internal experiences. The same is true of the various states of consciousness that we pass through on the way to the goal of perfected awareness. We should pass into and out of them as easily as changing our clothing, neither clinging to them nor tearing them away from us.

Easefulness is the keynote of genuine spiritual development. There are no traumas, no cataclysms or sweeping shake-ups in the path to God. Such things only take place in the prisons of illusions. If they do occur we may know that we are either on the wrong path or are walking it in a wrong manner. Spiritual hypochondriacs revel in these things, regaling their hearers with lurid accounts of how traumatic and cataclysmic every step of “the path” has been for them. Their dramatic bombastic revelations are symptoms of mental illness, not of progress in spiritual life.

Finally, Krishna’s statement that “the embodied casts off worn-out bodies and then enters into others which are new” is an indication of the truth that it is we and we alone that are always in control. But, like those afflicted with short-term memory loss, we put ourselves into a situation and then forget we did so, attributing it to God, fate, accident, or just about anything but ourselves. Therefore, praying to God, engaging in superstitious “good luck” practices (including much of religion), trying to “cheat fate” and suchlike are doomed to failure and frustration. WE are the key.

The immutable self

Krishna’s next statement is to be looked into beyond the surface appearance:

This Self by weapons is cut not; this Self by fire is burnt not; this Self by water is wet not; and this Self is by wind dried not (2:23).

First of all, the four factors: weapons, fire, wind, and water, represent the four gross elements, earth, fire, air and water (ether being the fifth, most subtle element). By the “elements” we do not mean material earth, water, fire, etc., but the four types of creative energies that combine to make up all that is material. The names given to the elements are merely symbolic of their behavior and effects. We are encased in five bodies: annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, jnanamaya, and anandamaya koshas (coverings). These are the “bodies” corresponding to the material, biomagnetic, mental, intellectual and will levels of our makeup. These, in turn, correspond to the elements of earth, water, fire, air, and ether. The idea is that no matter what our consciousness is encased in or what kind of external force is working on us, our true Self, our true nature, cannot be altered in any manner whatsoever.

Secondly: cut, burnt, wet, and dried are symbols of being changed, taken from or added to (increased or decreased). Since we cannot be altered in any way, anything that can be is not our Self. This is the very important teaching known in Sanskrit as anatma–the teaching regarding what is not the Self. Buddha emphasized this greatly, and was being completely traditional in doing so. Sadly, those outside India who encountered his teachings thought that the term (anatta in Pali) meant there is no Self. But the term means not-Self, not no-Self, which would be niratma or niratta. So wherever we see change…that is not the Self. “Change and decay all around I see. O Thou Who changest not, abide with me.” Unfortunately, these words are addressed to God, Who is not the problem. What should be sought is the abiding experience of our own unalterable Self. For Krishna sums it up in this way:

This Self cannot be cut, burnt, wetted, nor dried. This primeval Self is eternal, all-pervading, and immovable (2:24).

The Self is the inmost reality and can only be known at the core of our being–which is the Self. Yet it pervades all that we call “us,” enlivening all our body-levels in the same way the proximity of fire creates warmth in inert substances and the light of the sun stimulates the growth of living things. This is a basic concept of Sankhya philosophy. Primordial energy has no motive power of its own, but the proximity of Spirit causes it to “live” and move. It is with us as it is with God. The presence of God causes the primal matter to manifest as all creation; and it is the presence of our spirit that causes our own private prakriti to manifest as a chain of ever-evolving births and deaths. Self-knowledge is the apex of our evolution, after which our prakriti becomes a mirror, silent and motionless, no longer moving, but reflecting only consciousness itself.

Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Practical Self-Knowledge

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Introduction to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Preface to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:

  1. The Battlefield of the Mind
  2. On the Field of Dharma
  3. Taking Stock
  4. The Smile of Krishna
  5. Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
  6. Experiencing the Unreal
  7. The Unreal and the Real
  8. The Body and the Spirit
  9. Know the Atman!
  10. Practical Self-Knowledge
  11. Perspective on Birth and Death
  12. The Wonder of the Atman
  13. The Indestructible Self
  14. “Happy the Warrior”
  15. Buddhi Yoga
  16. Religiosity Versus Religion
  17. Perspective on Scriptures
  18. How Not To Act
  19. How To Act
  20. Right Perspective
  21. Wisdom About the Wise
  22. Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
  23. The Way of Peace
  24. Calming the Storm
  25. First Steps in Karma Yoga
  26. From the Beginning to the End
  27. The Real “Doers”
  28. Our Spiritual Marching Orders
  29. Freedom From Karma
  30. “Nature”
  31. Swadharma
  32. In the Grip of the Monster
  33. Devotee and Friend
  34. The Eternal Being
  35. The Path
  36. Caste and Karma
  37. Action–Divine and Human
  38. The Mystery of Action and Inaction
  39. The Wise in Action
  40. Sacrificial Offerings
  41. The Worship of Brahman
  42. Action–Renounced and Performed
  43. Freedom (Moksha)
  44. The Brahman-Knower
  45. The Goal of Karma Yoga
  46. Getting There
  47. The Yogi’s Retreat
  48. The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
  49. Union With Brahman
  50. The Yogi’s Future
  51. Success in Yoga
  52. The Net and Its Weaver
  53. Those Who Seek God
  54. Those Who Worship God and the Gods
  55. The Veil in the Mind
  56. The Big Picture
  57. The Sure Way To Realize God
  58. Day, Night, and the Two Paths
  59. The Supreme Knowledge
  60. Universal Being
  61. Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
  62. Worshipping the One
  63. Going To God
  64. Wisdom and Knowing
  65. Going To The Source
  66. From Hearing To Seeing
  67. The Wisdom of Devotion
  68. Right Conduct
  69. The Field and Its Knower
  70. Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
  71. Seeing the One Within the All
  72. The Three Gunas
  73. The Cosmic Tree
  74. Freedom
  75. The All-pervading Reality
  76. The Divine and the Demonic
  77. Faith and the Three Gunas
  78. Food and the Three Gunas
  79. Religion and the Three Gunas
  80. Tapasya and the Three Gunas
  81. Charity and the Three Gunas
  82. Sannyasa and Tyaga
  83. Deeper Insights On Action
  84. Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
  85. The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
  86. The Three Kinds of Happiness
  87. Freedom
  88. The Great Devotee
  89. The Final Words
  90. Glossary

Visit our e-library page for Free Downloads of this and other ebooks in various formats.

Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.

Read The Bhagavad Gita (arranged in verses for singing) by Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri).

Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

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