The real identity of ātmā is that it is part of Kṛṣṇa’s intermediary potency, taṭasthā-śakti, as Kṛṣṇa proclaims in Bhagavat Gīta 15.7:
“The eternal living being is an integral part of Me alone.”
However, because we are under the influence of beginningless ignorance about our own true identity, we identify instead as an integral part of the mind / body complex, as Kṛṣṇa further stated in the very same verse:
“He is entangled with the mind and the five cognitive senses, which are rooted in prakṛti, material nature”
In reality, ātmā cannot have a real relationship with the mind-body complex manifested by prakṛti.
īśād apetasya viparyayo ‘smṛtiḥ (SB 11.2.37): Ātmā, if forgetful of its source, is confused.
The pure ātmā has a sense of “I” as a subject without object / predicate. To manifest its inherent sense of “I,” it must find a predicate. Those who lack knowledge of Bhagavān find this predicate in prakṛti, which evolves ahaṅkara, just to facilitate this need. Identifying the subject, “I,” with that predicate, gives it a manifest specificity, called asmitā.
The ahaṅkara identity-complex seeks further specificity and deeper integration with the whole of prakṛti. Without it, we experience deep loneliness, with concomitant emotions of fear, vulnerability, and worthlessness.
To deal with this, ahaṅkara identifies with broader products of prakṛti, such as families, teams, and nations. This gives it a sense of pride, abhimāna. This pride is not negative. It gives self-respect and self-worth. It is only negative if it becomes abnormal or exaggerated.
The self alone is purely a subject, “I.” With the asmitā of ahaṅkara it acquires a bridge to specificity, “I am something.” With the abhimāna of ahaṅkara it finally acquires the specificity of a predicate, “I am this.”
Abhimāna is typically endowed with specificities such as:
In these various ways, the ātmā’s inherent sense of “I” tries to link itself with some specific products, characteristics, or actions in prakṛti. However, it is impossible to truly form such relationships. As Bṛhad Āranyaka Upaniṣad (4.3.12) says, ātmā cannot really touch or be touched by such things (asaṅgo hi ayam purusaḥ).
Even if it were possible for ātmā to truly link with prakṛti, it would not be a sustainable link, because prakṛti constantly fluctuates. Thus, whatever the ātmā can identify with soon disappears or changes, generating frustration. Furthermore, it is not really possible for the conscious self to be truly happy by contact with unconscious things. Unconscious objects do not contain inherently happiness.
So, although the ātmā experiences a sense of fulfillment by manifesting itself with specificity, that specificity is derived from objects foreign to its very nature, and therefore impermanent and unsatisfying. This brings ātmā back to an unfulfilled state, with a lonesome sense of “I,” unable to manifest satisfactorily in relation to the world.
We usually combat this loneliness by trying to ignore it. As long as the mind is occupied, we will not have time to notice how lonely we are. However, when there is a lull, and we are not busy, feelings of emptiness and loneliness creep in on us.
Without being introduced to spiritual knowledge, we never suspect that the entire notion of establishing our identity in relation to prakṛti is flawed. Instead we merely suspect that the specifics of our abhimāna are at fault. So we blame our parents, friends, spouse, and so on, for our lack of fulfillment.
We rely on interpersonal relationships to combat our inherent loneliness, because such relationships are the closest thing to spiritual union we can find. But, as the nature of prakṛti is to fluctuate, we always lose contact with our dear ones, or the relationships develop flaws and turn sour.
Of all interpersonal relationships, we have the most hope in sexual relations, which grants the sense of unity between conscious beings more fully than anything else we know of. But again, like all things in prakṛti, this unity and its fulfillment is either fleeting or disappointing.
In fact, it is impossible that anyone can bring anyone else true and lasting fulfillment. The reason is that both partners are lonely. Two beggars don’t become rich by combining their resources. Similarly, two unfulfilled persons cannot become complete by being together. Thus, even the closest of romantic couples often feel lonely and unfulfilled. To avoid breaking up with one another, they keep distracted from the persisting loneliness by going to bars, beaches, movies, concerts, and so on.
Loneliness cannot be averted until the ātmā recognizes its flaw in trying to manifest in relation to prakṛti. If it gains information about Kṛṣṇa, it can finally attain a truly fulfilling manifestation of “I” in relation to Him. There is no alternative to this. Therefore, in His ultimate instruction to Arjuna, Kṛṣṇa recommends to be united with Him in love:
sarva-guhyatamaṁ bhūyaḥ śṛṇu me paramaṁ vacaḥ
iṣṭo ‘si me dṛḍham iti tato vakṣyāmi te hitam
man-manā bhava mad-bhakto mad-yājī māṁ namaskuru
mām evaiṣyasi satyaṁ te pratijāne priyo ‘si me
“Hear again My supreme word, the topmost secret of all. Because you are extremely dear to Me, I shall tell you what is beneficial for you. Fix your mind on Me, become My devotee, worship Me, and bow down to Me. By doing so, you will come to Me. This I truly promise you, because you are dear to Me.” (Gītā 18.64 and 65.)
In reality, the ātmā is always linked to Paramātmā. As Śrī Kṛṣṇa says, “I am situated in the hearts of all beings.” (Gītā 15.15). Loneliness is therefore an illusion, born out of beginningless unawareness of Kṛṣṇa.
The spiritual ahankara is giving energy to the material ahankara. The spiritual I gives consciousness to the material I, so you think that, ‘I am this body.’ This identification is very deep and it is not easy to get out of it. It is very difficult to transcend the maya because the atma itself doesn’t have any potency to get out of it. It needs the intrinsic potency. That is why Bhakti is necessary.
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