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Atma and I PDF Print E-mail
Gita - Gita Articles

nainam chindanti sastrani
nainam dahati pavakah
na cainam kledayanty apo
na sosayati marutah

The soul can never be cut into pieces by any weapon, nor can he be burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind.

acchedyo 'yam adahyo 'yam
akledyo 'sosya eva ca
nityah sarva-gatah sthanur
acalo 'yam sanatanah

This individual soul is unbreakable and insoluble, and can be neither burned nor dried. He is everlasting, all-pervading, unchangeable, immovable and eternally the same.

avyakto 'yam acintyo 'yam
avikaryo 'yam ucyate
tasmad evam viditvainam
nanusocitum arhasi

It is said that the soul is invisible, inconceivable, immutable, and unchangeable. Knowing this, you should not grieve for the body.

Krishna is laying down the foundations here. He has talked about Sat and Asat and then he came down to talking about the physical body. Now he is talking about the basics of the Atma. Krishna as we explored before is talking the language of a scientist. He is describing what Asat and Sat are, what the properties of body are and now he gets into the essentials of the Atma. He is not speculating or trying to answer why Atma is like this or that. He is simply saying what Atma is like or what Atma is not like. We shall come back to this but let me first explain few important points that will assist in understanding the shlokas better.

We explored in our last column the non-permanent nature of the physical body. Once the physical body dies the astral body with all its sanskaras travels in the non-corporeal world and then at an opportune time enters another physical body, and thus the journey from life to life continues. We also addressed the issue that Atma is not involved in the process of this journey. The question then is as to what the role of this Atma is in this journey or what is the relationship of Atma with the body?

The role of Atma is that of a catalyst. There is a definite co-operation of the Atma in this journey from life to life. The body may not notice it, but it is there. Otherwise there is no possibility of the journey. There is no real example to understand this phenomenon, but we can try to get close. It is the month of January in Maine and the ground is frozen and covered with snow. By the month of May and June the snow melts and the sun shines on the grass. The grass grows and the flowers bloom. Little do they know that the rays of sun have something to do with their growing and blooming? Atma’s co-operation is very similar. It is just there. Atma does not work, it is in a state of inaction, and its role is somewhat akin to a catalyst in the process of this journey. This inaction of Atma should be understood. The atma has no need to work. Actually desire at level of Atma and result are not seperate. Atma desires to get lost and it is lost. It desires to find itself and the journey starts. We shall explore this in future more fully.

What then is Atma? The difficulty in understanding Atma is mainly because we try to understand it as a deeper level of I. I am not the physical body, I am not the etheric body and I am not the astral body. I am ultimately the Atma. This is our common understanding. In real sense to understand Atma we have to somehow get away from this I. I is more a part of the Ahamkar (ego) and has nothing to do with the existence of Atma. Once we get away from I-ness and try to understand Atma as existence itself, then it becomes a little easier. Atma is like existence, which has no beginning and no end. By definition (Sat and Asat) any thing that has a beginning and an end is Asat, and Atma is not part of Asat, it is a part of Sat. I should say Atma is Sat. Now, it may be said that Atma is the existence and the waves that are seen on the existence is the ‘I’. Atma is not I and I is not Atma.

But if the Atma is not I and I is not Atma, then, how does the technique of Koham (who am I?) work? This is a technique that was popularized by Ramana Maharshi. The idea is to keep asking and enquiring with this question, “Who am I.” On the way the ‘I’ is dropped and only the Atma remains. And at that moment the Atma can proclaim Soham (I am that). Here the quality of ‘I’ has changed and it is the limitation of the language that makes both ‘I’ to sound similar. When a Rishi declares that Aham Brahmasmi, he simply means, “Only the Brahma remains,” and it is the limitation of the language that makes him use the word ‘Aham.’

Now, let us analyze the shlokas. Krishna is taking a negation approach here. He tells Arjuna that Atma is not penetrable, it cannot be burnt nor can it be drowned. Arjuna is worried about the possible death of his loved ones. And Krishna tells him that the essence in them cannot be destroyed. When Krishna says that the Atma cannot be destroyed, he implies that Atma is not like a thing. Instead of saying that it is not a thing, he is saying that it does not have the properties of a thing. A thing can normally be destroyed by buring, cutting or drowning in one solution or the other. The definition of Atma is similar to that of energy. We all know that Energy cannot be destroyed. Similarly Atma cannot be destroyed by any means.

Krishna then goes on to say that not only that Atma cannot be destroyed, it cannot be altered either. Atma is all pervading, unchangeable and eternal. It is invisible and inconceivable. But then Krishna says that knowing this you should not grieve for the body. This word ‘knowing’ is important. Atma is invisible and inconceivable but it can be known, it can be experienced. And once you know it, it is not possible to lament for the body.

Let us analyze this a little. How can knowing something liberate you or me? Krishna is not saying that body is not important. This is the commonest mistake in understanding of these shlokas. We all feel that Atma is important and the physical body is not. Krishna appears to be saying that physical body is disposable and Atma is not. No, Krishna is simply telling Arjuna to know spade as spade. The physical body has certain properties and Atma has certain others. There is a relationship between Atma and the physical body and Krishna wants Arjuna to understand that fully. But, at no point does Krishna say that the body is not important. If the body were not important, Krishna would not have asked Arjuna to arise and fight. Krishna would not have been the saarathi if the body were not important. In our example of the light bulb and electricity, we know that the bulb will not work if we do not have the electricity. But, at the same time if there is no bulb, there will be no light. The light bulb is important for the electricity to manifest into the light. The body is similarly important for the Atma to manifest in its full glory. We would perhaps not have understood Parmatma so well, had there been no Krishna, Rama, Buddha or Nanak.

Krishna has laid down the foundations by talking about the Sat, Asat, the body and the Atma and is going to build further on these fundamentals. We will be now going on to understand karma yoga, and sooner or later Krishna is going to talk about mun, buddhi and ahamkar (mind, intellect and ego) and the indriyas (senses) and much more.

Atma and I are separate. Atma is not the deeper core of the body or I. Atma is akin to existence and the waves on the surface of this Atma are the ‘I’. Atma is not confined to any time or space, is not a thing and is not comprehendible by our mind or intellect. It can, however, be known by experiencing through meditation. Once the ‘I’ drops and Atma is known, then clarity sets in about the relationship of the body to the Atma. The significance of the body is then obvious and so is the fact that there is no need to worry about the death of the physical body. Because one then knows that there is really no death, it is merely changing of the body.

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