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Self-knowledge: The Only Antidote to Grief by Swami Viditatmananda Saraswatiji – Part 2

The Bhagavad Gītā explains the anatomy of grief

In the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, sage Nārada is a highly qualified student, so the anatomy of grief itself is not discussed very much. However, Arjuna’s state of mind is described in great detail in the Bhagavad Gītā and the teachings helps us understand it and deal with it better. Arjuna asks, “Overcome by faint-heartedness, confused about my duty, I ask you: Please tell me which is truly better for me.” His situation equally applies to all of us.

In identifying with his body-mind complex, Arjuna takes himself to be a kartā, doer, and suffers the likely consequences of killing his relatives and teachers. Like all of us, he looks upon himself as an agent of action and an experiencer or victim of the result of his own or others’ actions. His mind is completely overpowered by grief. His situation equally applies to all of us.

As human beings, we are uniquely conscious of our emotional issues and problems. To begin with, our misperception of ourselves creates various states of mind, such as fear, anxiety, and irritation, which then manifest in our interactions with people around us as intolerance, anger, etc. This creates conflict and confrontation and results in suffering and unhappiness. It is clear from this that the problem lies in ourselves, meaning that our wrong perception of ourselves, or moha, delusion, is the source of all śoka, grief. It is the cause of all mental friction. An afflicted mind may even become very damaged and need other kinds of solutions, such as therapy.

Our minds are overpowered by kārpaṇyam, faint-heartedness or miserliness. The word, kṛpaṇaḥ occurs in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad: By definition, one who departs from this body without knowing akṣaram, the true nature of self, is a kṛpaṇaḥ, miser.

Self-ignorance is the cause of grief

The one who knows the self becomes free from all suffering and attains happiness. If the knower of the self becomes free from grief simply by knowing the self, then the self must itself be free from grief. Self-knowledge simply reveals what is; it does not create anything new. The essential nature of the self is revealed to be free from grief or suffering. It is of the nature of unsurpassable happiness. That the knowledge of the self makes one free from grief means that ignorance is the cause of grief.

What is ignorance? Ignorance is that which manifests as all our notions or judgments about ourselves. Ignorance has two aspects: Āvaraṇam, veiling, and vikṣepa, projection. In the famous example of the rope-snake, there is āvaraṇam, in that we are ignorant of its ‘ropeness,’ and there is vikṣepa, in our taking it to be a snake. Similarly, here, our true nature is veiled, and we mistakenly identify with the body, sense organs, mind, intellect, and ego.

Five categories of identification or notions are discussed in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad: Annamayakośa, notions arising from identification with the body; prāṇamayakośa, notions arising from identification with the vital airs or physiological functions (e.g., ‘I am hungry’, ‘I am sick’), manomayakośa, notions arising from identification with the mind, vijñānamayakośa, notions arising from identification with the intellect, and, finally, ānandamayakośa, notions arising from identification with the personality that is of the nature of ānanda, happiness (e.g., ‘I am happy’). We identify with one or the other of these five aspects of our personality and judge ourselves based on that. We take ourselves to be a man or a woman, tall or short, a speaker or a listener, a mother or a father, etc. due to our identification with the body-mind complex. In short, we entertain all kinds of notions primarily due to our ignorance of the true nature of the self. The knower of the self is one who is free from the ignorance of all these notions.

Every notion, complex, or judgment about ourselves is a potential source of unhappiness, and the nature of the suffering will vary depending on the kind of notion or identification we have. We see in the scriptures that even devatās, like Indra, are not free from grief as they do not know the true nature of ātmā. This is meant to show the importance of gaining self-knowledge.

If we understand the nature of ignorance, we will come to understand the nature of the self. The ‘I’ is a complex entity consisting of consciousness and the personality. They are essentially the self and the non-self, and we are born with the habit of lumping the two together. They appear to be one in the same way as an iron ball when heated in a furnace appears to be a ball of fire. Ignorance is the inability to discriminate between the two and taking them to be one as a result.


This essay is based on Swamiji’s 2020 Memorial Day Camp lectures on ‘tarati śokam ātmavit.’ Transcribed and edited by students of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, Saylorsburg, PA.

[3] kārpaṇyadoṣopahatasvabhāvaḥ pṛcchāmi tvāṁ dharmasammūḍhacetāḥ, Bhagavad Gītā, 2-7

[4] yo vā etadakṣaraṁ gārgyaviditvāsmāl-lokātpraiti sa kṛpaṇaḥ, 3-8-10

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