An Introduction to Self-inquiry
Arjuna asks Krishna to describe such a wise person whose knowledge of the Self is firm and whose mind isn’t shaken by anything. In other words, Arjuna is saying to Krishna, “Okay, I’ve listened. Now, tell me what to expect if I choose to heed your advice.” (Arjuna wants to know what he’s signing up for.)
Krishna has already indicated that the wise do not grieve with this memorable verse from early in the chapter:
Although you speak words of wisdom, you grieve for those who needn’t be grieved for. The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead. (2.11)
If the wise don’t grieve, then who is that does? Those individuals who don’t know, the ignorant. And what is the remedy for ignorance? Knowledge of the Self.
Describing the wise is not easy because unless you have the wisdom yourself you cannot really understand what it is to be wise! This is why they say only a mahatma (great soul) knows a mahatma. Furthermore, you cannot emulate the wise because a wise person’s wisdom isn’t based on doing something or looking a certain way, it’s based on knowledge. That means the wise appear and mostly interact in the world like everyone else. Nevertheless, Krishna describes such a person who is firm in wisdom as “happy in oneself with oneself alone.” Because of their application of knowledge, they dwell on the Self, satisfied as eternal, limitless and unchanging awareness. They are not shaken by adversities, nor seduced by pleasures, and they are free from longing, fear and anger. The wise are unattached in all situations and neither become elated when things are pleasant, nor bitter when they become unpleasant. And how do the wise know when their wisdom is steady? One way to know is when the mind is no longer a problem.
In the darkness which sleep all beings, the wise one is awake. Where other beings are awake, it’s darkness for the wise one who sees. (2.69)
This verse seems to imply that most of the world is in a kind of stupor, unaware of reality. In this case, “darkness” refers to the darkness of ignorance. In this darkness, people go through their day-to-day lives lost in a world full of erroneous thoughts about what they perceive to be real. We all live in this darkness to various degrees due to our conditioning and ignorance of certain truths. Even scientists will tell you that how we interpret the physical world is based strictly on appearances; that objects are in actuality, only energy and that our mind is working correlatively with phenomena to produce sensations like color and sound. It’s for this reason the sages say we’re living in a dream world, because when examined closely, what we find is that everything is constantly changing and nothing is what it seems. In short, there’s nothing substantial regarding our waking experience. We are like sleepwalkers walking through life only able to accurately interpret a small portion of actual reality. In this dream world we identify with our belongings and relationships, not to mention our body, thoughts, feelings, and emotions, causing us to suffer and feel anguish when all our attachments inevitably change.
An analogy often used in Vedanta to describe the difference between the wise and the other-wise, is the snake and the rope. In certain parts of the world where snakes are common, a coiled rope at dusk may appear like a snake. The thought that it’s a snake elicits fear in us until the object is seen for what it really is—a coiled rope. The wise see a rope, and for that reason, have no fear. But what of those who still see a snake? There can only be compassion or indifference for those who cannot see the problem with their own thinking.