The true Mahatma

In India, the term 'Mahatma' is used to describe a person who is a highly learned and erudite scholar in the spiritual and philosophical realm, who is free from greed and avarice and who is a role model to be emulated for his purity and nobility of character and conduct, one who has rendered great, invaluable service to society and to the country and who is venerated by future generations.

Adi Shankaracharya in his work 'Vivekachudamani' speaks about the real significanace of the term 'Mahatma.' In order to effectively highlight this subject, Shankara describes the characteristics of ordinary persons and also the scholarly class from the philosophical viewpoint and then finally describes the qualities of a 'Mahatma'.

Though everyone, irrespective of religious affiliation is aware of something that is variously described as 'soul,' 'inner being,' 'Atman' and so on, when asked about this, they identify their physical body with this intangible entity.

He is the ordinary man who thinks that 'I' and his physical body are one and the same. Shankara calls this man as "alpa" (small) who thinks that "this mass of flesh, muscle, bones and foul smelling exudations is the 'I'. Then there is the learned scholar whose acquired knowledge has made him understand that there is something else apart from his physical body, the real 'HE,' the outer body being just a sheath for it. This scholar is intelligent and aware, who is a part of the generality of men in this world for his earthly existence who calls his body as his 'I', but, at the same time, knows that for his inner spiritual nourishment, growth and other-worldly well being, he has to take recourse to the principle of an inner, supremely knowledgeable and powerful entity of which he is but a spark.

Finally, there is the fully realized man, who has realized and experienced that this inner entity is the real 'I'. He is the one who has transcended all limitations of space, time and place. Though living in this world, he is not a part of it. "He is the true Mahatma, worthy of veneration and worship" says Shankara. "This conviction that he is a reflection of the divine marks him out as a 'Mahatma' says Shankara.

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