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In this post, we look into the concept of “The Self” in perception to all religions, especially with regard to Advaita Vedanta of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. All religions teach the same truth and it is the ignorant and arrogant teachers and preachers who misinterpret spirituality due to their own lack of realization of the self.
The fundamental principle and the most important teaching in spirituality of all religions is that the divine god- the almighty is timeless, deathless ,formless and lives as the soul / the self in the heart of all living beings. “Seek God in thyself” –There is a spiritual similarity of all religions in the world as to oneness of “The self” and God. The Hindu version of describing this is called Advaita ( Non duality – Non Secondness)
Look into every great religious, spiritual, and wisdom tradition, and we find the same precept — that life’s ultimate truth, its ultimate treasure, lies within us. These are the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi.
“The Self” and “I” in terms of Hinduism / Advaita Vedanta
“Who am I?” The question and answer of this quintessential path of self enquiry will alone make you arrive to the truth of god, life, death and the world. The question of “who am I” through self enquiry and attaining Self-Knowledge has been explored since time immemorial attests to it universal value and one’s relationship to the true god.
Long before Socrates advised to “Know thyself”, great Indian saints have been explaining the truth in humans and the universe. Self-knowledge is fundamental since all other knowledge is dependent upon this knowledge. It is important for us to know who we are so as to formulate a correct perspective in relation to other things. Without knowing who we are, we can never understand truly where we stand in the cosmic scheme of things.
Truly, what is the purpose of life? Who are you? Who am I? Who is the “I” – is it the mind (ego)? Or is it the body? Or is it the Atman (The self /Spirit/ God) ? As Sri Ramana Maharshi says –“ If you know everything in the world but don’t know who am you are, then everything else you know is of no use. On the other hand, if you know nothing, but you know the self ,then everything is known and there is nothing more to know”
Adi Shankara and Sri Ramana Maharashi are two great saints who experienced the “SELF” by self enquiry. That divine experience of the self made them say this – “The self is Brahman(God) and the self is one only, without a second. The self is absolutely one with the Atman (God); The AtmaN (Self) is ever-free, pure consciousness. The many facet world and all the appearances of the world is Maya (Illusion) and a super imposition.
When you realize your true self, you will realize that that the self alone is reality and the ignorance of this truth alon is the cause of human sufferings. Self enquiry of “who am I” and attaining enlightenment alone is the means to liberation. Liberation ( enlightenment, mukti or moksha) is not possible until one realizes or attains the knowledge of oneness of the SELF and GOD. To see and know the true God you need to seek the self inside you. The knower of self sees the Self in everything and everything in the Self. ―Self in all and all in the Self. This is Advaita ( Non-duality).
Non – Duality does not mean the non-existence of a second thing, but its non-existence as other than yourself. The mind must know that it is of the same substance as the objects.‖ The Avadhuta Gita explains this as “All is verily the Self alone and All is verily Brahman alone” . These two verses then establish the reality and the identity of Brahman and Atman. The Atman is the individual Self within, the eternal witness of all. The Brahman is the Self without, the universal Self of all.
As the Advaita Saint, Adi Shankara explains in Vivekachudamani “You are indeed the supreme Self but due to your association with ignorance you find yourself under the bondage of the not-self, which is the sole cause of the cycle of births and deaths. All the effects of ignorance, root and branch, are burnt down by the fire of knowledge, which arises from discrimination between these two—the Self and the not-Self.”
In Advaita, the false identification of the Self with the non-Self is considered to be the root cause of Samsara. (worldly problems). The mind alone is the cause for bondage when attached to sense objects and at the same time mind alone is the cause of liberation when you freed it of useless thoughts. The mind creates and raises all thoughts. The mind is a wild power which rises from your inner self and also resides within the self. Hence, thoughts are mind’s basic nature and thoughts create the world and everything related to the world. These thoughts are temporary and so is the world. Other than thoughts, there is no separate entity for the world. This is the reason, saints call the world and all the objects connect to it as Maya (Illusion).
When the world which is what-is-seen has been removed, there will be realization of the Self which is the seer. When the mind, which is the cause of all cognition and of all actions, becomes quiescent, the world will disappear.Only through self-inquiry of “who am I ?” this false identification can be eliminated. This is known as liberation – Enlightenment
Ramana Maharshi asks “How can god be apart from you?” What truly exists is the Self alone. God is the self. Sri Ramana Maharshi and Adi Shankara explain as follows- “ The world, the individual soul and God are appearances in it, like silver in mother-of-pearl; these three appear at the same time and disappear at the same time. The Self is that where there is absolutely no ‘I’-thought. That is called ‘Silence’. The Self itself is the world; the Self itself is ‘I’; the Self itself is God; all is Shiva, the Self.” The nature of Awareness is Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.”
This verse from the Gita as spoken by Lord Krishna confirms the theme of Oneness, born of true Knowledge (Jnana) -“Persons who, meditating on Me as non-separate, worship Me in all beings, to them who are constant and devout in this, I provide what they lack and make secure what they have”.
This is how Advaita – Hinduism explains Hinduism – the nature of god, life,world and clearly explains that the self alone is god.
“The Self” and “I” in terms of Christ
The same teachings and explanation of “I” and “The Self” by Hinduism in Advaita Vedanta, Gita, Vedas and also by other great Illuminated saints such as Sri Ramana Maharshi and Adi Shankar in terms of Advaita (Non Duality) is also explained by Jesus Christ and in many phrases of various Christian scriptures. The whole Advaita Vedanta is contained in the two Biblical statements: I am that I AM and Be still and know that I am God.”
The primary words of Christ were ‘I am that I am’ (Exodus 3.14). God are in fact one and the same reality, the spirit that exists within each one of us as our fundamental consciousness ‘I am’. That is why he said, Of all the definitions of God, none is indeed so well put as the Biblical statement I AM THAT I AM in Exodus (Cap. 3). Nothing is more direct as the name JEHOVAH=I AM. Hebrew Jehovahâ is equivalent to “I am”, and “That” expresses God correctly.
Before Abraham was born, I was’, but, ‘Before Abraham was born, I am’. (John 8.58). The person who was Jesus Christ was born long after the time of Abraham, but the spirit which is Jesus Christ exists always and everywhere, transcending the limits of time and place. Therefore, though Christ appears to us to be a separate individual person, he and his Father
Jesus says ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10.30).Therefore, when Christ said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me’ (John 14.6), By the words ‘I am’ and ‘me’ he was referring not merely to the time-bound individual called Jesus, but to the eternal spirit ‘I am’, which he knew to be his own real self. The inner meaning of his words can therefore be expressed by rephrasing them thus, ‘The spirit “I am” is the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the spirit “I am”, which is the Father or source of all things, but by this same spirit’.
Jesus was once asked when the kingdom of God would come. The kingdom of God, Jesus replied, is not something people will be able to see and point to. Then came these striking words: “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21) With these words, Jesus gave voice to a teaching that is universal and timeless.
As Jesus made unambiguously clear, we can experience this inner treasure — and no experience could be more valuable. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” he declared, “and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).
Jesus Christ is called the son of God as Jesus rose after being crucified to identify with god and he did not identify with the body. The body is the cross and the sense of its self-hood is named Jesus Christ. His attainment of the real self is the resurrection and all who have won this state are Sons of God. Christ-consciousness and Self-Realization are both the same.
Here are few examples from various Christian and Catholic saints, Philosophers and Theologians on “the self” as experienced by them –
St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–394 – Turkey)
Gregory of Nyssa was one of the four great fathers of the Eastern Church and served as Bishop of Nyssa in Turkey. He explained that the soul leaves all surface appearances, not only those that can be grasped by the senses but also those which the mind itself seems to see, and it keeps on going deeper and deeper till the spirit penetrates the invisible and incomprehensible, and it is there that you can see God.
St. Augustine (354–430 – Algeria)
St. Augustine, wrote more than a thousand works on philosophy, psychology, theology, history, political theory, and other subjects. In his popular work His Confessions, he writes “I entered into the innermost part of myself. . . . I entered and I saw with my soul’s eye (such as it was) an unchangeable light shining above this eye of my soul and above my mind. . . . He who knows truth knows that light, and he who knows that light knows eternity. Love knows it. O eternal truth and true love and beloved eternity! And I often do this. I find a delight in it, and whenever I can relax from my necessary duties I have recourse to this pleasure.
I experience a state of feeling which is quite unlike anything to which I am used — a kind of sweet delight which, if I could only remain permanently in that state, would be something not of this world, not of this life. But my sad weight makes me fall back again; I am swallowed up by normality.
St. Gregory the Great (540–604 – Italy)
Gregoru was born into an eminent Roman family and was the heir to a large fortune. But Gregory instead decided to become a monk. He eventually became Pope at the age of 50. He devoted himself to social causes and he was the first pope especially known for social causes and reforms. Here, in his book Morals on Job, he writes on the inner self and soul, which influenced religious ideas for centuries.
He writes “The mind of the elect . . . is frequently carried away into the sweetness of heavenly contemplation; already it sees something of the inner most realities as it were through the mist . . . it feeds on the taste of the unencompassed light, and being carried beyond self, disdains to sink back again into the self. . . .Sometimes the soul is admitted to some unwonted sweetness of interior relish, and is suddenly in some way refreshed when breathed on by the glowing spirit. . . .When this is in any way seen, the mind is absorbed in a sort of rapturous security; and carried beyond itself, as though the present life had ceased to be, it is in a way remade in certain newness. There the mind is besprinkled with the infusion of heavenly dew from an inexhaustible fountain.
Johannes Tauler (1300–1361 – France)
Johannes Tauler was one of the greatest and most influential German spiritual writers of the 1300’s. Martin Luther honored Tauler as a primary influence, and Tauler has exerted a profound influence on religious thought ever since. As one scholar remarked, “Tauler presents the Christian tradition in its purest form.”
Tauler writes and says “The soul has a hidden abyss, untouched by time and space, which is far superior to anything that gives life and movement to the body. Into this noble and wondrous ground, this secret realm, there descends that bliss of which we have spoken. Here the soul has its eternal abode. Here a man becomes so still and essential, so single-minded and withdrawn, so raised up in purity, and more and more removed from all things. . . . This state of the soul cannot be compared to what it has been before, for now it is granted to share in the divine life itself.
St. Teresa of Avila (1515–1582 – Spain)
St. Teresa was one of the greatest women of the Roman Catholic Church. Her books are considered masterpieces. St. Teresa initiated the Carmelite Reform, which restored the original contemplative character of the Carmelite order. In 1970 she was Doctor of the Church — one of just 33 individuals, and the first woman, to be so honored by the Catholic Church.She wrote in her book The Interior Castle “My soul at once becomes recollected and I enter the state of quiet or that of rapture, so that I can use none of my faculties and senses. . . .Everything is stilled, and the soul is left in a state of great quiet and deep satisfaction.
From this recollection there sometimes springs an interior peace and quietude which is full of happiness, for the soul is in such a state that it thinks there is nothing that it lacks. Even speaking — by which I mean vocal prayer and meditation — wearies it: it would like to do nothing but love. This condition lasts for some time, and may even last for long periods.
Teresa received a vision of a crystal castle inside the human soul, with God, the Beloved, at its center. “The journey to union with the Beloved is a journey home to the center of ourselves. . . . The human soul is so glorious that God himself chooses it as his dwelling place. The path to God, then, leads us on a journey of self-discovery. To know the self is to know God.”
Thomas Merton (1915–1969 – United States)
After completing a masters degree in English at Columbia University in New York, Merton entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, as a monk. He was later ordained as a priest. From the seclusion of the monastery, he exerted a worldwide influence. Merton describes the experience of contemplation as the utter simplicity and obviousness of the infused light which it pours into our soul suddenly awakens us to a new level of awareness. We enter a region which we had never even suspected, and yet it is this new world which seems familiar and obvious.
The old world of our senses is now the one that seems to us strange, remote and unbelievable. . . .A door opens in the center of our being and we seem to fall through it into immense depths which, although they are infinite, are all accessible to us; all eternity seems to have become ours in this one placid and breathless contact. . . .You feel as if you were at last fully born.
“The Self” and “I” in terms of Islam
Prophet Muhammad believed in the brotherhood and sisterhood of men and women. He treated everyone alike. He used to say to his followers, Ana mislakum, that is “I am one like you”. Islam is derived from the root Salama which means peace, tranquility and finally surrender of oneself to the Divine. The word “Islam” implies absolute submission to God’s will’. Hazrat Ali, the fourth Caliph, the son-in-law of the Prophet said that “No one can have any conception of God unless he knows his own Self”
For a Sufi, the self within, the self without, the kingdom of the earth, the kingdom of heaven, the whole being is his teacher, and his every moment is engaged in acquiring knowledge. For some, the Teacher has already come and gone, for others the Teacher may still come, but for a Sufi the Teacher has always been and will remain with him forever.
In the Ghaznavids & early Saljuq’s period there was a great philosopher-poet Nasir-e-Khusrau, who was acknowledged as a mystic of a great order. In his poem Raushani nama on Self-knowledge he writes-
“Know yourself; for if you know yourself
You will also know the difference between good and evil.
First become intimate with your own inner being,
Then become the commander of the whole company.
When you know yourself, you know everything;
When you know that, you have escaped from all evil.
You don’t know your own worth, because you are like this;
You see God Himself, if you see yourself.
The nine spheres and seven stars are your slaves,
Yet you are your body’s servant: that’s a pity!
Don’t be fettered to bestial pleasures
If you are a seeker of that supreme blessedness.
Be a real man and abandon sleep and fasting;
Pilgrim-like, make a journey into yourself.
What are sleep and fasting? The business of brute beasts;
It is by knowledge that your soul subsists.
Be wakeful for once: how long have you been sleeping?
Look at yourself: you’re something wonderful enough.
Reflect now; regard from where you’ve come
And why you are now in this prison.
Break the cage; depart to your own celestial station;
Be an idol-breaker like Abraham, Azar’s son.
You were created after this fashion for a purpose;
It will be a shame, if you neglect that purpose.
It is a shame for an angel to take orders from a devil;
It is a shame for a king to be servant to a doorkeeper.
Why must Jesus be blind?
It is wrong for Karun to be one-eyed.
You have snakes coiled over your treasure:
Kill those snakes, and be free of pain.
But if you feed them, you will become fearful,
You’ll have nothing of that boundless treasure.
There’s a treasure in your house, yet you’re a beggar;
You have a salve in your hand, yet your heart is wounded.
You are asleep; how will you reach journey’s end?
You weave charms, and are heedless of the treasure.
Quick, break the charm and take the treasure:
Take a little pain, and rid yourself of pain”.
The great Islamic mystic poet, as quoted by R.A. Nicholson in his “Rumi, Poet and Mystic”, says this about Rumi’s view on “God and the self” –
Rumi was asked, “Is there any way to God nearer than the ritual prayer?”
Rumi Replied – “No”, “but prayer does not consist in forms alone. Formal prayer has a beginning and an end, like all forms and bodies and everything that partakes of speech and sound; but the soul is unconditioned and infinite: it has neither beginning nor end. The prophets have shown the true nature of prayer…. Prayer is the drowning and unconsciousness of the soul, so that all these forms remain without. At that time there is no room even for Gabriel, who is pure spirit. One may say that the man who prays in this fashion is exempt from all religious obligations, since he is deprived of his reason. Absorption in the Divine Unity is the soul of prayer.”
“When a fly is plunged in honey, all parts of its body are reduced to the same condition, and it does not move. Similarly the term istighraq (absorption in God) is applied to one who has no conscious existence or initiative or movement. Any action that proceeds from him is not his own. If he is still struggling in the water, or if he cries out, ‘Oh, I am drowning’, he is not said to be in the state of absorption. This is what is signified by the words Ana’l-Haqq, ‘I am God’.
People imagine that it is a presumptuous claim, whereas it is really a presumptuous claim to say ‘Ana’l-’abd,’ ‘I am the slave of God’ and ‘Ana’l-Haqq,’ ‘I am God’, is an expression of great humility. The man who says,‘Ana’l-abd’ ‘I am the slave of God,’ affirms two existences, his own and God’s, but he that says ‘Ana’l-Haqq’ ‘I am God’ has made himself non-existent and has given himself up and says, ‘I am God,’ i.e.‘I am naught, He is all: there is no being but God’s.’ This is the extreme of humility and self-abasement.”
Great spiritual saints like Sri Ramana Maharshi and Adi Shankara explained the true nature of the self. Even the world’s greatest philosopher famously maintained that our true self is our soul. Socrates said “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. The unexamined life is not worth living.”
“The Self” has many names. Plato refers to it as the Good and the Beautiful, Aristotle as Being, Plotinus as the Infinite, St. Bernard of Clairvaux as the Word, Ralph Waldo Emerson as the Oversoul. In Taoism it is called the Tao, in Judaism Ein Sof. Among Australian aborigines it is called the dreamtime, among tribes of southern Africa Hunhu/Ubuntu. The names may differ, but the inner truth they refer to is one and the same. In every case, it is understood that this inner self, – the inner transcendental reality can be directly experienced.
This experience has likewise been given different names. In Indian traditions it is called Jnana (Enlightenment), in Buddhism Nirvana, in Islam fana, in Christianity spiritual marriage. But the essential and fundamental truth is that God truly exists in the inner self of every living soul. “The self” is a universal teaching based on a universal reality and a universal experience.