An Introduction to Self-inquiry
Chapter 2 is a preview of coming attractions. It’s a bit of a whirlwind as Krishna introduces several important themes all at once. At the same time, Krishna chastises Arjuna for no longer having the will to fight. In order to have Arjuna pick up his weapon again, Krishna must give him the knowledge to break the spell of samsara. Once the spell is broken, Arjuna can begin to see experience for what it is and get on with the business of defending dharma. Krishna throughout the second chapter reminds Arjuna, “You have nothing to grieve.” Of course, to say this is one thing, to have Arjuna (and the rest of us) understand it is another.
According to Vedanta, knowledge is the key to freedom. Moksha isn’t about reaching nirvikalpa samadhi, awakening kundalini, having a feeling of oneness or any of the other enlightenment experiences promoted by various spiritual traditions. Spiritual experiences have their use—they encourage us to continue on the path and if we’re lucky, can sometimes show us an instance of the truth—but they are just that: temporary experiences, not a reliable means to liberation. After all, limited freedom isn’t what we’re looking for—we’re going for full moksha.
It’s not uncommon for long-time yogis to complain that the peace they’ve worked so hard for is fickle and dissipates as soon as they find themselves back in the real world trying to make a living or take care of family. And although some spiritual experiences may provide insights, they don’t last, are subjective, may or may not be interpreted correctly, and can’t always be relied on to deliver the truth. Nevertheless, certain spiritual practices, such as meditation, help prepare us for the knowledge taught by Vedanta.
The knowledge the Gita shows and Vedanta teaches is not easy to understand for the simple reason that ignorance is hard-wired. Once the knowledge is learned, it will most likely require much repetition before sinking in. First we learn the knowledge (shravana), then we understand it (manana), and finally, we make it stick (nididhyasana). Furthermore, modern life seems to have all of us in a state of perpetual mental agitation as we are bombarded daily with news headlines, advertising, text messages, tweets, email, and robocalls. In addition, our once simple lives are now overwhelmed with hundreds of choices for everything from choosing which toothpaste to buy, to where to send our children to school. In short, our minds are anything but clarity—they are a non-stop whirlpool of distraction and clutter. Therefore, to really understand the knowledge spoken by Krishna in the Gita you need not only instruction, but a mind that is steady and receptive.
The special knowledge taught in the Gita is referred to as “Self-knowledge.“ It’s the knowledge which, once known, renders everything else as good as known. Pursuing the knowledge of objects only reveals more ignorance, but to understand the essence of who you are and that all objects ultimately fold into that, means the end of the search.
To gain the knowledge needed for liberation, a reliable source is needed. To the outsider, Vedanta and the teaching of non-duality may appear like an elaborate fabrication—like just another story cooked up by people from a bygone era. After all, in a world full of charlatans who like to feed on people desperately seeking an escape from their suffering, it’s prudent to be skeptical and not dive in head first. “Choose your story wisely” is one of the best pieces of advice to anyone at any age. But there’s something different about Vedanta and what it teaches.
As an ancient wisdom tradition, Vedanta has the unique status of not being a religion or a philosophy. Even “spirituality“ doesn’t seem to quite fit it. While it shares attributes of all three, it’s not based on belief, a thought system or having special experiences. Vedanta is closer to being a science and yet, in addition to having a psychology and cosmology, it also has a theology. For this reason, perhaps it’s best to simply define it as a unique means of knowledge that explains consciousness and removes a sense of limitation.
In modern times, there has been a lot of confusion around what Self-inquiry implies. Self-inquiry is not about asking “who am I?” The problem with simply asking “who am I?” and believing that the answer will eventually reveal itself is that you cannot know what you don’t know. Knowledge doesn’t just happen, nor can it be “transmitted.“ An intellect is required.
Self-inquiry must be taught because due to our ignorance, it’s just too hard to figure out on our own. Self-inquiry is a system that progressively reveals the nature of the truth and ultimately, eliminates suffering. Because Vedanta is an objective analysis of our experience and is indifferent to historical, cultural or personal opinion, its knowledge belongs to no one. And although it comes from India, to claim it as Hindu would be like the Germans claiming ownership of modern physics. The point is, in spite of what appears to be exotic trappings, Vedanta’s utility has no borders and belongs to no particular culture or group of people. Its most salient quality—like all great knowledge traditions—is that it’s universally applicable.
The teachings of the Gita and Vedanta are counterintuitive, even radical one could say. So, one’s first exposure to it most likely will inspire more skepticism than faith. But any faith in the teachings is only meant as preliminary. In Vedanta, faith is always taught as faith pending your own investigation—much like a scientific formula before putting it through the rigor of application. When one is first introduced to chemistry or physics, it also seems implausible to learn about something not immediately recognizable. This is why scientists rely on empirical evidence, because otherwise it’s all just theory or worse, elaborate conjecture. Science never asks you to believe something, instead it provides you with the tools or formula with which to draw your own conclusion. When hundreds of scientists are able to follow the same process and draw the same logical conclusion, it’s no longer a theory, it’s a concluded fact.
In science, there are certain inarguable laws like the nature of gravity or thermodynamics. We may not understand how these phenomena came to be, but we cannot deny their existence and should we have the interest, know that the we can retrace the steps of scientists in order to investigate and prove to ourselves their conclusions. For this reason, we say science is a process for discovering objectively verifiable facts. In much the same way, Vedanta may appear mysterious and encrypted until we take the proper steps to understand and see for ourselves its validity.
Introduction to the Yoga of Knowledge
Krishna introduces the topic of Self-knowledge to Arjuna by saying:
There never was a time I did not exist, nor you, nor these kings. And there will never be a time any of us cease to exist. (2.12)
Krishna doesn’t yet explain to Arjuna how he or anyone else will not cease to exist. First, he commends those who are qualified for Self-knowledge:
Arjuna, chief among men, the person who is undisturbed by sense objects and is the same in both pleasure and pain is fit for liberation. (2.15)
Here, Krishna touches on the qualifications for moksha. They include discrimination, dispassion, discipline and a burning desire for liberation. All the qualifications focus on management of our binding likes and dislikes and not obstructing the mind.
Next, Krishna gets to the heart of the matter:
There is no being for that which is unreal, there is no non-being for that which is real. This is known by the seers of the truth. (2.16)
That which pervades the entire world cannot be destroyed, for there can be no destruction for that which is always present and never changes. (2.17)
Krishna is showing Arjuna why there’s nothing to fear but in a way that is not easily understood by someone who isn’t already familiar with the Upanishads. It’s not clear why Krishna all of a sudden introduces such a challenging topic with his new student. It’s as if he has chosen to go straight to calculus without first introducing even the basics of algebra. However, according to Swami Paramarthananda, “A good teacher is one who gives the essence of the teaching in the beginning and in the end.” It also helps to set the goal and have one’s mind set on that goal (in this case, moksha). Luckily for us, this is just a preview of what’s to come. Nevertheless, because this is the first time knowledge yoga appears in the Gita, it deserves some explanation.
Vedanta is taught as two distinct practices or yogas. A yoga is a discipline or means of preparing the mind in order to help make the truth accessible. The Gita recommends various yogas, including triguna vibhava yoga (energy management) and dhyana yoga (meditation) to help steady the mind and prepare it for Self-knowledge, but mostly emphasizes karma yoga and jnana yoga. Although the two themes are introduced in this chapter in reverse order, it’s important to know that karma yoga (the yoga of action) comes first as preparation for jnana yoga (the yoga of Self-knowledge).
Vedanta teachers often start by defining what’s “real” in order for the student to discriminate and better understand their experience. A simple definition for real is that which is always present and never changes. As you may soon realize, nothing exactly fits that definition, that is, except for awareness (a.k.a. the Self, the non-experiencing witness). You might protest, “Space is always present and never changes!” True, except Vedanta says space relies on awareness, because otherwise space could not be known. Without awareness, there is no space, but without space, there is still awareness. Awareness is that by which all objects come to be known. Everything resolves into awareness which is what Vedanta means when it says existence is non-dual. What Krishna is trying to communicate to Arjuna is that since objects are not real (are changing and not always present), they cannot have actual being. In other words, they are as good as non-existent. Vedanta is one of the few traditions that argues objects are both experienced and not real at the same time—like a mirage in the desert.
We can’t say the “water“ from a mirage is real because if that were the case, we would be able to drink it or bathe in it. However, we also can’t say it doesn’t exist because otherwise we wouldn’t be experiencing it. Therefore, we say it’s apparently real or mithya. In the same way, while most objects feel substantial and real, on closer inspection we find that’s not the case. If we were able to speed up time we could witness the actual coming and going of all objects as they are created, preserved for some time, and then dissolved and changed into something else. On the other hand, for that which is real (the Self), there is no creation or non-being. The Self always exists in spite of objects coming and going because awareness is the substrate or “screen“ that life and the entire world projects onto. And because the Self cannot be objectified, the Self is unaffected by the world (just as the objects projected on a cinema screen can never affect the screen itself). Figuratively speaking, the whole world could be annihilated on the great screen of awareness, and awareness wouldn’t even flinch. For this reason, Krishna says about the Self— “that which pervades the entire world, cannot be destroyed.”
Next, Krishna compares the embodied Self to a person who changes clothes.
Just as a person gives up their worn-out clothes and puts on new ones, so the embodied Self gives up the bodies of the old and enters into new ones. (2.22)
The Self is that unchanging constant which has watched you your entire life. Like a person giving up old clothes and putting on new ones, it is that which has watched you as a child become a teenager, mature into an adult, and enter into old age. It is that which watched you open your eyes for the first time, and it will be that which watches them close for the last time. It was there before you were born and will be there still, after you die. It’s only by having this unchanging constant, this non-experiencing witness, that we are even able to measure change. If this weren’t the case, like two trains moving parallel to each other at the same speed, subjective change would not be perceptible.
In Chapter 2, Krishna continues by describing the nature of the Self using the negative, which is really the only way to describe the Self since it’s not an object with attributes. This fact also makes it a challenge to understand. How can I understand something that is not even a thing, let alone have any descriptive qualities? Words can only take us so far.
For starters, we know the Self exists for the simple reason that we know we are conscious. No one needs to be taught that they exist, because it’s self-evident. What could possibly be easier to know than the Self? And yet, we struggle to recognize that which should be most obvious.
Krishna continues to describe the Self as:
…not the body
…not the killer, not the killing, nor the killed (in reference to the battle)
…never born, nor dying (it is eternal and unchanging)
…Weapons do not slay it, nor does fire burn it
…Water does not wet it, nor does wind dry it
…It cannot be slain, burnt, drowned or dried
…”So get up and fight!” Krishna emphatically adds
To elaborate on what is known about the Self, we can say:
The Self is not a part, product, or property of the body-mind
The Self is an independent principle which pervades the body-mind and enlivens it
The Self is not limited by the boundaries of the body-mind (it is all pervading, like space)
The Self continues to exist even after the death of the body-mind
The Self relies on the body-mind to express itself in the world and is otherwise, not recognizable after the death of the body-mind
Even in worldly terms, basic science shows us that like water turning into steam, nothing actually ever disappears. Everything that comes out of the system goes back into it and simply turns into something else (the law of conservation). Vedanta says all of nature is made up of just five basic elements: space, air, fire, water and earth. These elements are constantly being combined and repurposed to form new objects. For this reason, in describing the body sages in India don’t refer to it as “the body“ but as the five elements or “walking earth.“ Which begs the question, how can we claim to be these bodies if they are just the five elements? Furthermore, if jivas are just the five elements plus the Self, how is it that I’m any different from you except in name and form?