Nature of the Self

In Indian philosophy, the concept of the ‘Self’ or ‘Atman’ as it is called in Vedantic parlance forms the core of all thoughts and discussions. All the Upanishads speak about this, each in their own way to show that this Self is no different from the supreme or universal consciousness and which is separate from the physical body.

Adi Shankaracharya, in his treatise Vivekachudamani, speaks about this at length in eight distinct passages, though it is dealt with elsewhere also in the work. A striking similarity to the explanations on the same ‘I’ concept by Bhagawan Ramana Maharshi is immediately obvious. When Ramana Maharshi was directing his disciples to seek the source of the feeling of ‘I’ as the answer to all their troubles and queries, he was telling them to seek the ‘self’ that lay within the core of their being.

Shankara commences by saying that there is something which exists by itself, as the substratum of the ‘I’ consciousness, which is a witness to all the three states of waking, dream and dreamless sleep of man. This is the Atman, which knows all the actions of man. That which perceives everything, but which nothing can perceive; that which enlivens the mind of man, but which cannot be enlivened by another thing - that is the Atman.
As the Upanishads unequivocally declare, it is impossible to grasp the Atman with the eyes, by speech, by any of the sense organs. It is beyond description.

It has to be experienced. That by which the universe is enveloped, but which nothing can envelop; that effulgent power from which this universe derives its effulgence - that is the Atman. By whose very presence, the body, the mind, intellect and the sense organs carry out their respective duties as if impelled to do so - that is the Atman.

As the Kenopanishad puts it beautifully, “Induced by whom does the mind function, induced by whom does the newborn take its first breath, induced by whom does the tongue utter speech, induced by whom do the eye and ear act?” The answer is also given. “It is the ear of the ear, eye of the eye, mind of the mind, speech of speech, breath of breathing - the Atman.” The Self is of the nature of knowledge, of bliss, which induces all activities of the mind and body, the very acts of life of inhalation and exhalation. Like the resplendent sun in the sky, the Self exists in the cave of the heart, enlivening this otherwise inanimate body. Though it witnesses all man’s activities, it remains a detached onlooker, just like the sun, in whose presence the inanimate world undergoes change, but itself remains unchanged.

The Self is eternal with no origin, no decline and end. Just as the air inside the pot is not destroyed when the pot is destroyed, but simply merges with outside air, the Self merges into the universal Self when this body collapses. This pure intelligence - formless, quality - less, eternal is the Self or Atman.

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