Q. 366 – Self-knowledge – should we bother?

Q: At the end of the day, what does knowledge of self give us ?

It does not help answer the burning question of why the appearance/dream/mAyA that we are experiencing as humans or animals exists.

(I am not clear on this one but..) It appears that even though one attains knowledge of self in one janma, he/she can actually become a cockroach in the next due to karmic effect, i.e. we are not really liberated from the birth-death cycle.

The only benefit I do see in a janma where one attains knowledge of self is that such a person might lead a life devoid of misery in the mind as they sail through good and bad times (although they may still experience physical pain).

A (Sitara): In Advaita Vedanta we ask the question “who or what is the true Self” because we trust (in the scriptures and/or statements of those who claim to have answered this question for themselves) that the true Self is one without a second, meaning the true Self is all there is. So knowledge of the true Self, i.e. Self-realization, equals the realization that the perceived world is nothing but the Self alone. As to why it is perceived as world and not as the Self there are many answers within Advaita Vedanta and in Sri Atmanandaji’s Direct Path. I cannot sum them up in a few sentences, as they belong to an extended teaching methodology. I recommend, for a taste, to watch an interview with Greg Goode.)

 As to your second point: For the one who has attained knowledge of the Self, the law of karma has become irrelevant. He/She has gone beyond this concept, which is for teaching purposes only.

 The third point you make shows that your main interest is in the first three puruShArtha s (security, well being and ethics) and not yet in mokSha the fourth puruShArtha – mokSha defined as per Advaita Vedanta. There is nothing wrong with the first three puruShArtha-s but for those who focus on them there is no inclination to Vedanta yet. Vedanta is for those who focus on mokSha. They again belong to the group I mentioned in the first paragraph: they ask the question “who or what is the true Self” because they trust that the true Self is one without a second, meaning the true Self is all there is”.

A (Ramesam): Perfect.

 The conclusion that you have come to, viz. “The only benefit I do see in a janma where one attains knowledge of self, they might lead a life devoid of misery in the mind,” is technically called ‘mukti’ or ‘liberation.’ After all, what is liberation? To be liberated is to be free from the after effects of all the actions that go on with a ‘me’ or without a ‘me’ being posited there.

 The results of any action, whether good or bad, have necessarily to be faced by ‘me’ as long as I am the doer of that action. There is no escape from the consequences so long as I claim ownership to the instruments of action (my body-mind) or doership for acting (my agency). That’s the inviolable law of Nature (niyati). The Nature’s Law cannot be altered. So Advaita, cleverly solves the problem of misery by magically evaporating the ‘me’ and not the actions or the natural laws.

 Therefore, Advaita teaching is completely useless to help us in our day to day problems that are concerned with the presence of a separate and distinct ‘me’ like:

  1. My Balance of payments.
  2. My Children’s education,
  3. My Relationship issues with the spouse or neighbors, friends and so on,
  4. Fixing My broken leg in an accident,
  5. My being stuck in Natural disasters,
  6. Injustices or insults heaped on Me for no apparent reason (in My opinion),

etc. etc. etc.

And agreeing to all that, if you ask what is the guarantee that Advaita would grant ‘liberty’ from misery, the probability of successfully attaining the end is almost next to nothing!

That is why I hold that “Advaita ends the ‘sufferer’ but not the ‘suffering’ per se.”

For a more detailed exposition on this theme, please see the Power Point Presentation titled “Inquiry in Science and Vedanta”.

 But, on the other hand, if you are a serious investigator yearning to know what is the “really real” (satyasya satyam) of the world (which includes this ‘me’ also), and not worried about your immediate problems of health or the next meal, then read the three articles starting from:


 Just as, on waking up from a dream, the dream world is not found anymore, you will realize that the ‘me’ too disappears on clearly ingesting the teaching of Advaita Vedanta. Anything happening less than that would mean that the ‘me’ is still continuing with its likes and dislikes, its receivables and rejectables and its preferences and judgments etc.

 The signs of the dawning of true understanding are: The whole world which thus far seemed to be out there separated from ‘me’ and to be acting as an antagonist, appears to be the facilitator and one with the ‘me.’ Desires diminish, disinterest in social interactions grows, and you tend to accept things as they happen without let or hindrance. No special struggle is made to arrest the inevitable dis-ease, decay and death of the perishables (including the body). A sense of relinquishment envelops you. Even the desire to be free disappears, for there is nothing out there to be free from! One will then begin to laugh away at the childish tales of janma and rebirth. Polemical debates on mAyA and ignorance appear like high school kids’ quarrels.

Unless that happens, it is audacious to believe that one has really grokked the teaching of Advaita. What one can do till then is to focus 24/7 one’s attention on being aware – to be aware of the thoughts rather than their content, to be aware of perceiving rather than what is perceived. When it is clearly realized that there is no ‘me’ in here, it must be also be obvious that there is no ‘doer’ to do anything with a motivated purpose or goal. After all, it is Awareness which has exploded into this variegated and colorful multiplicity and it is Awareness that implodes back again to its pristine Beingness. It is the fisherman who has cast the net and it is up to him to fold back the net. The actions of the net or the fish in it do not decide when the net is folded back into the boat. That is the complete surrender to that One Awareness that I am.

A (Ted):

Q: At the end of the day, what does knowledge of self give us?

Ted: It frees one from suffering.

Q: It does not help answer the burning question of why the appearance/dream/mAyA that we are experiencing as humans or animals exists.

Ted: True. There is no reason for experience. There simply obtains the existential irony that inherent in pure awareness is the deluding power of maya, ignorance, which makes pure awareness appear to be something that it’s not, a circumstance that upon further consideration nullifies the “why” question altogether since nothing is actually happening since, given the fact that reality is non-dual, nothing other than awareness exists and thus no essential change in the nature of reality is possible.

Q: I am not clear on this one, but it appears that even though one attains knowledge of self in one janma, he/she can actually become a cockroach in the next due to karmic effect, i.e., we are not really liberated from the birth-death cycle.

Ted: Actually, one who attains self-knowledge realizes that he is not the apparent individual person he appears and had formerly taken himself to be. Rather, he knows himself to be atma, pure awareness, which is not subject to birth and death and, thus, does not reincarnate.

Moreover, the idea that the apparent individual person reincarnates is a mistaken understanding of the concept of reincarnation. The apparent person one seems to be does not transmigrate to another body. Rather the vasana-bundle that was associated with the apparent individual’s subtle body migrates to another subtle body that can serve as a suitable vehicle for any vasanas remaining in the karmic account from which that vasana-bundle originally came and continues to be associated.

Following the logic of the previous explanation leads to the inevitable conclusion that the vasanas are not personal. Though they associate with and express through the mind-body-sense complex that constitutes a particular individual and, moreover, can be reinforced, neutralized, or even generated by means of the apparent choices and actions of that apparent individual, the source of all vasanas is the macrocosmic causal body, which is personified as Isvara, and thus are essentially Isvara’s tendencies manifesting through the vast array of apparent individuals whose mind-body-sense mechanisms serve as vehicles for their expression.

Regarding the concept of reincarnation, therefore, we can say that on the one hand the notion is completely erroneous, or to paraphrase Krishna’s comments in the Bhagavad Gita it is an explanation intended to provisionally satisfy the minds of the ignorant.

On the other hand, it is true that the jiva or apparent individual person is never free of the cycle of birth and death. In order to properly understand this circumstance, however, we must realize that the jiva is a universal entity. Though it looks like there are innumerable jivas, there is in reality only one, for all jivas are essentially the same. The gross bodies of all are made of the same five elements, the subtle bodies of all are constituted of the same component functions, and the causal bodies attributed to all are actually portions of the same universal causal body. Moreover, maya is a power inherent in pure awareness and will forever serve as the conditioning agent by means of which the apparent reality is projected time and again through an interminable cycle of manifestation and dissolution. Hence, the universal jiva will continue to manifest indefinitely despite the eradication of avidya, personal self-ignorance, in any given individual jiva.

This topic is actually a perfect example of how Vedanta is not an “either-or” proposition, but rather a “both-and” understanding that is dependent on one’s ability to navigate between the relative and the universal perspectives, to understand experience from not only the apparent individual’s point of view, but also those of Isvara (i.e. the macrocosmic mind) and Brahman (i.e. absolute, non-dual awareness), though technically speaking Brahman, limitless conscious existence, has no particular point of view or definable scope of being.

From the jiva or apparent individual’s point of view within the context of the apparent reality, the jiva does seem to be a discrete entity whose subtle body is on a transmigratory journey through a series of gross bodies that afford it the appropriate circumstances through which to express, experience, and eventually exhaust the vasanas stored in its causal body. As long as the jiva takes itself to be a karta, a doer, it reaps the results of its karmas, actions, in the form of punya, merits, and papa, demerits. Essentially, these merits and demerits take the form of vasanas, impressions, that add to or reinforce those already stored in the causal body and inevitably enter the subtle body when the appropriate circumstances for their expression present themselves either within the context of the jiva’s present incarnation or a subsequent one, where they manifest as raga-dveshas, likes and dislikes, that compel the jiva to act (i.e., think, speak, behave, and pursue particular objects) in an effort to satisfy them.

No limited object obtained or limited action executed by a limited entity (i.e., the jiva) can produce a limitless result, however, and, thus, no object or action is capable of providing the jiva with the permanent peace and happiness that is the essential, albeit usually unconscious, goal of all the jiva’s deeds. Hence, all of the jiva’s vasana-driven endeavors only cause suffering and the accumulation of more vasanas that eventually must find expression. In this way, the jiva remains bound to the wheel of samsara, the cycle of birth and death, from which ultimately only self-knowledge, the understanding that nullifies the erroneous notion of individuality along with its twin aspects of doership and enjoyership and thus closes the jiva’s karmic account, offers emancipation. Harboring no more karma that requires circumstances in which to fructify, the jiva’s journey ends with the dissolution of both the subtle and causal bodies into pure consciousness.

From Isvara’s point of view, the jiva’s journey never ends. That is, any particular apparent entity’s transmigratory journey to self-realization or quest for moksha, ultimate inner freedom or liberation from all sense of limitation, ends with the eradication of avidya, the microcosmic aspect of maya that takes the form of personal ignorance. However, due to the fact that it is an inherent power in awareness and as such is unborn or beginningless and hence endless, maya itself persists indefinitely and will continue to condition pure awareness and make it appear to be something it is not by projecting “upon” it the appearance of the apparent reality, replete with innumerable jivas, each of whom owes their personal character to the constellation of vasanas he or she has drawn from the universal pool of vasanas that is the macrocosmic causal body or, in personified terms, Isvara. For this reason, jivas will continue to manifest as apparent entities until the time of pralaya, universal dissolution. In this sense, there is no end to what might be referred to as the “universal jiva,” the archetypal apparent individual entity.

From Brahman’s perspective, of course, there is nothing other than pure awareness, and therefore the whole notion of reincarnation is a moot point, for nothing is actually happening, no essential change has ever occurred. No entity was ever bound, and no entity need be freed.

Q: The only benefit I do see in a janma where one attains knowledge of self is that they might lead a life devoid of misery in the mind as they sail through good and bad times even though they may experience physical pain.

Ted: This is the point of self-knowledge. While pain and pleasure persist, suffering ceases. That’s a pretty powerful consequence.

But you are right. As long as you don’t mind suffering, self-knowledge is not necessarily worth the fuss.

A (Martin):

  1. The question ‘what does knowledge of self give us?’ is philosophically weak, ambiguous, and/or irrelevant – a) What kind of benefit is meant? b) To whom? c) Truth is its own benefit (and ‘truth will make you free’).
  2. Why does mAyA, etc., exist? In other words, the play of forms, the dance of life (Lila), or the tragi-comedy that life seems to be for the questioning, forlorn individual – with its successes and tribulations, hopes and disappointments, and the inevitability of death of the body.  A good question, but it has no positive answer, unless from mythology and literature, including sacred literature (‘I was a hidden treasure and wanted to be known’). Advaita teaches that the idea of mAyA is false, and though it is not the same as ignorance (avidyA), is its consequence. The reality of the world of phenomena (appearances) is merely subjective, illusory (vyavahAra, or mithyA), but not completely unreal, its essence or substrate being reality itself. The laws of karma and reincarnation are mythology (interesting, but why bother?)
  3. If one attains knowledge of self, then there is no longer a separate self and, consequently, nothing to achieve or attain by that ‘self’. Once the puny, self-absorbed ‘self’ disappears (and it is a good riddance!), something much larger, incommensurable and indefinable, takes its place.

A (Venkat): Shakespeare wrote “Life’s but a waking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.  It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Life has no point, no meaning. We are born alone and we will die alone – in between we fill our lives with goals, attachments, predilections – in order to attain some meaning, some sense And we measure ourselves against the yardstick of what others around us say is important, imbibed through years of conditioning. All this to ameliorate the darkness of the unknown that inevitably awaits us.

You talk of the cycle of rebirth – but we do not understand what our current life is about, let alone any putative rebirth. And what is it that is reborn as a cockroach? Your mind with its current characteristics and likes / dislikes? An individual soul – but do we even know what that soul is now, in this birth?

Life has no point, no meaning . . . EXCEPT perhaps to try to understand its mystery. And the greatest mystery is the subject – what is it that we truly are. So at the end of the day, self-knowledge strips away all that societal conditioning has hitherto taught us is important, and leaves us naked, open to discovery. It may not answer the question of why this life, but it does answer the question of who lives and how to live.  And as you rightly say, we are told that a by-product of this, is peace and equanimity.

Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living”.  Quite so.

A (Dennis): Self-knowledge removes Self-ignorance and it is that which makes us think we are limited, unhappy, doomed to old age and death. With Self-knowledge we realize that we are not human, living in an inhospitable world; we are brahman. The world appears as separate because of our ignorance. On gaining Self-knowledge, we realize that its substance is nothing but brahman.

From the perspective of the ignorant person, there is rebirth (possibly as a cockroach) and we are subject to karma. With Self-knowledge, we realize that there is no person, no birth or rebirth, no death, no creation.