The Self and body

Adi Shankaracharya’s Upadesha Sahasri highlights the difference between the gross physical body of man and the inner Self or Atman that inhabits the body but is different from it.

This fact is explained in the form of a conversation between a student and his preceptor, wherein the student introduces himself with his family background, lineage, etc, and expresses his desire to cross the ocean of birth, death and rebirth, the ocean of transmigratory existence. To this, the Guru asks how the student proposes to achieve it, since the gross body will be reduced to ashes or end up as food for animals after death.

The student says that he is aware of the difference between the gross physical body and the inner Self. “The body is born and dies. It is destroyed by fire, weapons, etc. It suffers from diseases. On account of the merits and demerits accrued from my previous lives, I have entered this present body, like a bird entering its nest and just as the bird goes to another nest when the previous one is destroyed, I shall enter another body after the fall of the present one. Thus, I have been going round and round in this beginningless cycle and have been assuming successive bodies of animals, men, divinities and other lesser beings, like the continuous rotation of a Persian wheel. In course of time, I have obtained this present body. I know that this body is temporary, like the cloth that adorns the human body. I am tired of this cyclical process. Pray, Sir, teach me how to extricate myself from this rotation.”

The teacher congratulates the student on his wisdom about human life, but cautions him about one fault in his understanding, namely, the consciousness of his lineage, family, etc. He says that these pertain only to the gross body, not the inner Self, which is ever pure, eternal and unconnected with all that is gross. This is how the teacher explains this. “The inner Self within you is the self-effulgent divine force, which is without beginning or end, without name and form, unblemished. It is the unseen seer, unheard hearer, unthought thinker, unknown knower, comprised of pure knowledge, infinite in power. It is the cause of everything else in the universe, the seed of all.

This Self then took the form of space or ether, like the foam that arises from water. Foam is neither pure water nor can it be said to exist without water.

“Similarly, the Self is the basis of everything, but at the same time different from everything. In the course of manifestation, space took the form of air. From air came fire, water and earth. From earth came food. From food came life. We attribute name to the body, which passes through different stages like infancy, youth, householder, etc, and finally disappears. Thus, understand that you are different from your body,” says the teacher Shankaracharya in his Upadesha Sahasri.

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