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The Wonder of the Atman

Part 12 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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The Seven Wonders of the World

Earlier generations grew up in awe of Richard Haliburton, the archeologist-explorer whose books read better than most novels, and whose every word was true. The most favored book was that in which he told of both the Seven Wonders of the modern world and the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Many readers felt a real pang at the thought that they would never see the Colossus of Rhodes, the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria, or the Mausoleum. I was one of them for a long time. But when I read the Bhagavad Gita my regret was transmuted into optimistic awe, for I came to understand that my own Atman was a wonder beyond all earth or any other world could offer, and that I was destined to be established in permanent and perfect knowledge-experience of that Self.

The One Wonder of India

For thousands of years both readers and hearers in India (and in the West for a couple of centuries) have taken inspiration from the story in the Chandogya Upanishad about the sage Uddalaka teaching his son Svetaketu about the Self. In many ways he demonstrates the existence of the Absolute Self, concluding each time with the thrilling words: “All beings have their Self in him alone. He is the truth. He is the subtle essence of all. He is the Self. And that, Svetaketu, THAT ART THOU.” As Sri Aurobindo has observed, even those that do not have direct knowledge of the truth of these words yet are inexplicably moved upon hearing them, knowing subliminally of their truth. Stirred to their real depths, the wise of many ages have been set on the path of Self-discovery by Uddalaka’s assurance that they, too, are THAT.

Knowledge and ignorance

The fact is that there is only one real problem for us as human beings: ignorance of the Self. And the solution is obvious: knowledge of the Self. For this reason Arjuna could not be swayed by Krishna’s exhortations to fight that were based on egocentric factors such as personal disgrace, hope of heavenly reward, social order, and such like. This much Arjuna understood. Having revealed this to Arjuna (for Krishna had no need to find it out for himself), Krishna went directly to the core issue of the Self and stayed there for the remainder of that miracle of wisdom we know as the Gita. Like Uddalaka he used many means to convey the single message: Know the Self.

The four states of understanding

After his initial exposition of the Self, already considered in previous essays, Krishna speaks of the responses human beings have to the teaching about the Self:

Some perceive this Self as wondrous, another speaks of it as wondrous, another hears of it as wondrous, but even having heard of this Self, no one knows it (2:29).

Prabhavananda translates this: “There are some who have actually looked upon the Atman, and understood it, in all its wonder. Others can only speak of it as wonderful beyond their understanding. Others know of its wonder by hearsay. And there are others who are told about it and do not understand a word.”

It is intriguing to see how the number four has significance in many ways in the scriptures of India. We usually think of seven as the mystic number (and it is), but four also comes into the picture many times, especially in considerations of the development of consciousness. For example, there are four castes based on the level of the individual’s consciousness. (The present-day “caste system” is an unfortunate degeneration based on just about everything but the individual’s state of evolution.) The solar system is said to pass through four ages (yugas) in which the general consciousness of humanity ranges from only one-fourth to four-fourths of its potential. This numbering is the most important of all considerations, because it deals with the unfoldment of consciousness, consciousness being the nature of the Self.

Even in the life of Jesus we find this fourfold categorizing of spiritual consciousness. Toward the end of his public ministry, in response to his prayer God spoke in a great voice from the heavens. In the Gospel of John (12:27-29) we are told that those present reacted in four ways: 1) some knew it was the voice of God, 2) some thought it was the voice of an angel, 3) some did not hear it as words or a voice, but thought it was thunder, and 4) some did not hear a thing. If we analyze these responses we will find exactly the psychology of the four castes being expressed. But let us return to Krishna.

According to Krishna there are four states of awareness in relation to the Self: 1) direct knowledge, 2) deep faith and conviction–an intuition of the Self’s reality, 3) intellectual comprehension of the “theory” of the Self, and 4) complete non-comprehension.

Divine knowledge

“Some perceive this [Self] as wondrous.” In the ultimate sense, to know something is to be something. Although we are always our Selfs and incapable of being anything else, because we have fallen into the pit of delusion we are aware of and “know” just about everything but our Selfs. This is an awesomely horrible plight. But Krishna tells us that there are those who have actually regained their self-awareness, “seen” themselves in atmic vision and comprehended what they saw, coming to know the Self in the fullest sense.

Divine intuition

“Another speaks of it as wondrous.” Since we are the Self, we obviously know all about it on the real level of our being. Evolution consists mainly of development/elaboration of our body vehicles, including the mind, but it also entails a refining of those vehicles, a transparency in which intuition comes more and more into play. It is this which is the real transcendence of the mind (intellect) and entry into true knowing. As a prelude to the direct knowing of the Self, the intuition of the Self arises and increases, leading the sadhaka onward to that knowing.

Divine understanding

“Another hears of it as wondrous.” Before intuition arises, the intellect is developed through evolution and becomes capable of grasping the concept of the Self–insofar as it can be intellectually grasped. No small degree of evolution is required before genuinely intelligent (buddhic) apprehension of the Self is possible. Therefore to simply have an intellectual comprehension of the incomprehension of the Self–to wonder at the truth of the Self–is itself a mark of significant spiritual development.

Uncomprehending ignorance

“But even having heard of this [Self], no one knows it.” Simply hearing or reading about the Self is not knowing the Self, and never can be. This is not a matter of intelligence only, but also a matter of evolution of consciousness. I have met highly intelligent people who just could not comprehend even the simplest of the principles set forth in the Upanishads or the Gita. No matter how I tried to make their meaning clear by restating them in different ways, they remained incapable of even a glimmer of understanding.

For example, one very mentally active and intelligent man was thoroughly flummoxed by my statement that as long as we see life with the two eyes of duality we will wander in confusion and delusion, but as soon as we begin to see with the one eye of spiritual intuition we begin to understand our life and our selves. Again and again he asked me to explain, but he never got it in the least. He was very frustrated, at least realizing that I was making sense and the lack was on his part, but he never managed.

On another occasion one of the monks of our monastery was speaking to a Fundamentalist Protestant minister. The monk told him that we believed everyone could become exactly what Jesus was. Over and over he asked the monk to explain–he was not rejecting the idea: he just could not grasp it. And he never did.

As I have said, it is a matter of evolution, for non-comprehension is even lower than a mistaken understanding.

Sometimes, however, incomprehension is a matter of negativity. The Tibetan Buddhists say that stupidity is a “daughter of hell.” Evolution of intelligence is a requisite, but it is certainly true that without purification of the intellect, however evolved, no understanding of higher spiritual realities is possible.

The four castes

Returning to the subject of caste, we can now realize in the light of Krishna’s exposition that Shudras are those who are servants to materiality and ignorance, Vaishyas are those who have an intellectual understanding of the possibility of their betterment, Kshatriyas are those who, being close to apprehension of the Self, are able to intuit the truth of the Self while aware of their limitation, and Brahmins are those who see and know the Self. This is the sum of the entire matter.

Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Indestructible Self

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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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