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Self-knowledge: The Only Antidote to Grief by Swami Viditatmananda Saraswatiji – Part 3

Self-knowledge is separating the self from the personality

How can one transcend grief? Becoming free from sorrow is a two-step process. In the first step we acquire the four-fold qualification[1], which is the prerequisite to gaining self-knowledge, by performing our karmas as an act of worship to the lord.[2] Having acquired these qualifications, which is not easy, we deliberate on the nature of the self as described in the scriptures with the help of a teacher. The Bhagavad Gītā teaches that knowing the true nature of the self is the means to get rid of our sorrow and delusion. It delivers both brahmavidyā, the knowledge of the self, and yoga-śāstra, the means to attain that knowledge.  The premise of the Bhagavad Gītā is that the knower of the self transcends grief.

Self-knowledge alone can lead us out of this ‘ocean’ of grief and delusion. Gaining the knowledge of the self is not an event but a process that culminates in total abidance in the self. The tradition is to start with addressing the healthy mind. For those whose minds are healthy, vicāra or the path of contemplation upon the nature of the self is prescribed. In the Bhagavad Gītā, Lord Krishna begins his teaching with a discourse on self-knowledge. The mind must become available and receptive to the knowledge.

The suffering arising from mental afflictions, like grief or sadness, is due to aviveka or non-discrimination between the self and the non-self.

The body is a product of gross matter, while the mind, intellect, etc. are products of subtle matter. We mistake them to be conscious entities since consciousness pervades every aspect of the personality. We take the personality to be the self. The knowledge of the self is of the nature of separating the two. The body-mind complex is but a vehicle for the manifestation of consciousness; even as it manifests, it makes the personality appear as though also conscious.

Separating the self from the non-self, or the person from the personality, is the way to know the true nature of the self. The self ‘shines’ in our awareness as the subject, and everything other than the self ‘shines’ as the object in the presence of the self. They do not exist in the same locus. The self, in fact, is never touched by the non-self. Lord Krishna begins the Bhagavad Gītā by addressing a student whose intellect is prepared and objective enough to discern the self from the non-self.

There are two causes of grief in Arjuna: One is at the level of the ego, where he thinks he will be the killer of people, and the other is at the emotional level, where he worries about the loss of his teacher and kinsmen. Lord Krishna addresses both these problems. It is the problem of death at the emotional level and the problem of hurt and guilt at the level of the ego.

Lord Krishna first deals with the problem of death. The death of a loved one, or even the potential death of a loved one, is very serious matter. It creates a great sense of loss depending upon the type of relationship one has with that person. The death of a loved can cause a lot of emotional pain because we derive nourishment, emotional support, protection, acceptance, validation, companionship, service etc. from such relationships. Lord Krishna, therefore, explains the true meaning of death. The death of the body should not be equated to the death of ātmā, he says. Further, you are mourning for those who are not worthy of grief.[3] The wise, who know how to separate the self from the non-self, recognize that the body is the locus of the manifestation of the immortal. Grief does not arise in them.

Life continues from one embodiment to another, Lord Krishna teaches. It is neither created nor destroyed. We equate the presence of life with the existence of the body. The death of the body is taken to be the death of life, yet this body is but like a garment. We wear a garment only for a certain period of time, and the garment does not affect the person who is wearing it. The wise person knows this and discerns the self as being separate from the non-self. Death is certain for the one who is born, and birth is as certain for the one who dies. There is continuity of life; something dies but there is something that does not die.

Lord Krishna says that what dies is the gross body. All beings emerge from the unmanifest and become unmanifest again; in between, they manifest. There is an essential indweller of the body who does not change. This is the self which is conscious of the various stages of the body like childhood, youth, old age etc. There is grief because the death of the body is taken to be the death of the self. This is an unfortunate delusion because the self is free from decay, birth, death and ever-changeless.

The necessity for the separation of the self from the non-self is the first important teaching imparted to Arjuna. It is the nature of the body to change and perish, like a beautiful flower which withers away in a few days. When we recognize that the flower is perishable, we have a suitably appropriate relationship with it. Its perishability is accepted gracefully. Similarly, anything that we possess is subject to decay and going to perish. When we understand the nature of things and know them for what they are, we are also able to develop a level of comfort with them. We should learn to accept the nature of life and assimilate the realities of life. Living will then become easier. It is a tall order, but we have to develop a level of comfort with the realities of life.



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.

[1] The four-fold qualification, sādhanacatuṣṭayasampati, consists of viveka or discrimination; vairāgya or dispassion; śamādiṣaṭkasampatti or the six-fold inner wealth beginning with śama (śama or mastery of the mind, dama or restraint of the sense organs, uparati or abidance of the mind, titikṣā, endurance, samādhānam or concentration of the mind, and śraddhā or trust and devotion), and mumukṣutvam or the keen desire for liberation.

[2] svakarmaṇā tamabhyarcya siddhiṁ vindati mānavaḥ, Bhagavad Gītā, 18-46

[3] aśocyānanvaśocastvam, Bhagavad Gītā, 2-11

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