First 11 verses of ईशोपनिषद् īśopaniṣad in Devanāgarī

The Goal and the Uniqueness of Vedānta-1

The purpose of Vedānta is one and only one: To help cognize in oneself by oneself the one unchanging conscious principle—the Universal Witness—which is the real Self within all and everything. This unchanging principle is one, without a second (अद्वैत).

Vedānta is practical in the sense that it has a methodology to enable us cognize its truths within ourselves. And it uses our day to day common experience to point to our true nature. That is what makes it universal.

The subject-matter of Vedānta is our very own Self—something that is the most closest to us.

How do we know what we know?

Now, in order to know something, we need appropriate means of knowledge. For example, if we want to know form and color, we need eyes; if we want to hear something, we need ears and so on. These means of knowledge have their strict field of operation. For example, we cannot use our eyes to hear and our ears to know form and color. We have been given five senses—eyes to see the forms and colors, ears to hear various sounds, nose to smell, tongue to taste, and a sense of touch that is distributed throughout our body. These direct means of perception/knowledge (see, hear, smell, taste, and touch) are perfect to know objects that are separate from us. All such knowledge naturally involves the subject-object division.

Science uses direct perception (pratyakṣa प्रत्यक्ष) primarily to know about the physical universe, supplemented by another means of knowledge called inference (anumāna अनुमान). Please note that inference is also based on prior perception. We know that where there is a fire, there is a smoke. So, when we see smoke rising up at a distant hill, we infer that there must be some fire. But if we have not seen fire and smoke together before, we will not be able to infer fire from seeing smoke later on. There are further refinements of inference that science uses, but basically it uses perception and inference as the only two means of knowledge to know the external phenomenon.

Can we know the Self through Perception and Inference?

As we just indicated, perception and inference serve as means of knowledge when the object to be known is out there, separate from us. Is our Self such an object? Definitely not! No, our Self is not out there, unless of course, we are talking about a character in James Joyce’s collection of short stories called Dubliners— where he speaks about a certain Mr. Duffy who “lived a short distance from his body.”

Therefore, it is logical to conclude that our Self cannot be known through perception and inference, the two pet means of knowledge used by science. Hence, the discovery of Self does not fall within the purview of science. Lately, looking at the observations of some quantum physicists/thinkers (Neil Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Penrose, Bohm[1], Pribram, Kak, Stapp, to name just a few) one senses that science is finally warming up to the possibility of consciousness, beyond the passé that matter is energy. To delve any further into this is beyond the scope of this introductory essay.

I Am, therefore I think!

At this stage of our inquiry, Vedānta drops a great bombshell. It tells us that we already experience our Self; it is just that we are not aware of it, as we should. When you ask someone, ‘Do you know your true nature?’ The person may say, ‘I do not know it.’ S/he will never be able to say, ‘I do not experience it.’ This is a fundamental point. It turns the Cartesian logic upside down. René Descartes said, I think, therefore I am (cogito ergo sum). Vedānta makes a friendly amendment to it: I am, therefore I think (sum ergo cogito).  There is only one fact that we know first-hand that can never be denied: the fact that we exist. No one as yet has been able to deny their own existence, for to say that I do not exist proves the existence of one in the first place to deny it.

Vedānta calls this felt sense of our knowing-presence as ‘I am.’ By logic, It is the only absolute Subject, which, by definition. cannot be objectified. This is the most important point to keep in mind on our journey to understand Who Am I, our true nature.

Vedānta builds its whole edifice on the foundation of this inalienable conscious-principle that—sense of I Am—that inheres and enlivens all our experience. It is a fact-based inquiry that requires no faith on the part of the explorer.

All that is required beforehand is the trust in the teachings, pending verification.

During the next series of essays, we will consider the methodology of Vedānta to discover our true nature.

To be continued….

[1] It is well-known that David Bohm worked with J. Krishnamurti. In 1957, in a Landon library where he was browsing for some titles for light summer reading, he chanced upon a book called, First and Last Freedom by ‘K’ in the new arrivals section. He opened it at random and his eyes fell on the sentence:  ‘The observer is the observed.’ He could not believe that a non-physicist could garner this insight. He inquired about the author. K happened to be in town at the time. Both met. Mr. Bohm immediately knew who is the master and who is the student. Their association lasted for good part of 25 years. K was hopeful that Mr. Bohm, if any one, would understand. During the last years of their association, one senses that K was disappointed that the great physicist did not make the final plunge. Such are the ways of Divinity. One has to give oneself, body, mind and soul, to fathom its secrets. If one retains even an iota of one’s self, the “me” notion, one may miss the boat entirely. In this sense at least, with a tip of the hat to George Bernard Shaw, a miss is a mile indeed!

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