The root cause for the various manifestations is the misidentification of the Atman as the anatman. This is the fundamental reason behind the many names and forms. In other words, due to this misidentification the universe exists. Billions and billions of years have passed since the universe first came in to existence. Till date this misidentification is strong and intact among the common man. In a sense, this misidentification is becoming stronger in this modern world. The person who understands this misidentification and leads life accordingly is a wise person. Swami Chinmayananda said, “The one thing that is to be taken in life seriously is – do not take life seriously”. The problems, miseries and sufferings that we experience in the life are due to this misidentification. In Vedanta, this misapprehension of the Atman as the anatman is termed as ‘tadatmya’. In this thick forest of samsara, the only light is Vedanta. Only through the Atma-anatma-viveka, this bubble can be burst and the truth is revealed. Among millions of different beings in this world, only a human birth has the capacity to understand this basic misidentification. The purpose of taking the human birth is served only by doing Atma-vichara.
Tadatmya leads the Self to identify with the false ‘ I’, which is ego. By this misidentification the ego becomes more powerful and creates miseries and pain for itself and for the others. It is due to this misidentification, we get the notion that, ‘I am a man or woman, I am a teacher, I am hungry, this is my family, and this is my friend and so on’. We build our life on these wrong notions. In our busy scheduled life, we are not even aware of these wrong notions. In the above example, the ‘I’ and ‘my’ are the expressions of the ego and not the Atman. Thus the Self forgetting its real nature identifies with the false ‘I’.
A verse from Sri Adi sankaracharya’s tattva-bodha will throw some light on this concept. “Just as bangles, ear-rings, house etc, known as “mine” are all other than the knower – so too, the five sheaths known by the Self as ‘my body, prana, my mind, my intellect and my knowledge”, Tattva-bodha, 2, 15. The above verse explains that, when I say ‘my bangle’, the bangle is distinct from me; my ear-ring is distinct from me and so on. “Whatever is described as “mine” is different from me”. When I say ‘my body’, the owner of the body, that is ‘I’ the Self, has to be distinct from the body. The body is owned as ‘mine’. Similarly, when I say ‘my mind’, the Self which is the owner of the mind is distinct from the owned mind. When I say ‘my intelligence’, the owner of the intelligence is distinct from the owned intelligence. Sankaracharya says that the owner of the body, mind, intelligence etc is different from the owned. Whatever is described as ‘my’ and ‘mine’ is different from the Self, the Atman. In that sense, Atman is distinct from the five kosas (sheaths). The annamaya kosa is described as ‘my body’, pranamaya kosa is described as ‘my prana’, manomaya kosa is described as ‘my mind’, vijnanamaya kosa is described as ‘my intellect’ and the anandamaya kosa is described as ‘my bliss state’. And so, Atman is distinct from these kosas. An individual has to detach from these kosas and experience the true Self.
Even in the day to day life, when I say ‘I am writing’, actually the pen is writing. I, the Self use the pen as an instrument to write. I, the Self is distinct from the pen. Likewise, I, the Self use the body, prana, senses, mind and intellect as an instrument to become active. Instead of saying, ‘my pen is writing’, I say ‘I write’. This is because when something serves as an instrument of the Self, and when it is in constant close proximity, then it gains the status of the Self. The body, prana, mind, intellect etc are instruments and in close constant proximity with the Self. They are anatman but mistaken as Atman. Suppose, if the nib of my pen is broken, then it will not cause any harm to me, because I know that the pen is distinct from me. If my dress fades away or torn, it never affects me, the owner of the dress. Likewise, if the body ages or gets affected, it should not affect me, the Self. In Baghavad Gita, Lord Krishna compares the body with an old dress and says that it has to be thrown off at death and a new one is to be assumed at birth. ” Just as a man casts off worn-out clothes and puts on new ones, so also the embodied Self casts off worn-out bodies and enter others which are new”, Baghavad Gita, 2, 22.
If this is the case, then why do I, the Self get affected when the body, mind, or intellect gets affected? The answer is – the misidentification of the Atman to be the anatman. The misidentification brings with it a lot of problems. We think that the Atman is the body; Atman is the mind, intellect etc. When the Self, Atman identifies with the annamaya kosa of the gross body, it feels that ‘I am the body, I am fair, I am dark, I am tall, I am a man, and I am Indian etc’. The credits and defects of the body are superimposed on the pure Atman. When the Atman identifies with the pranamaya kosa of the subtle body, it feels that ‘ I am energetic, I am lethargic, I am hungry or thirsty etc.’ When the Self identifies with the manomaya kosa of the subtle body, it feels that ‘I am distressed, I am confused, I am clear’ etc. The qualities of the mind are superimposed on the Atman. When the Atman identifies with the vijnanamaya kosa, it feels that, ‘I am intelligent, I am a fool, I am a doctor, I am determined, I know everything’, etc. The Atman assumes the qualities of the intellect. When the Atman identifies with the anandamaya kosa it experiences the bliss ignorance, and it feels that I am peaceful. In the dream state, the Atman identifies with the inner world of impressions and it feels the dream. These identifications lead to a lot of misunderstandings. Actually the Atman is neither a man nor a woman nor an Indian nor energetic nor lethargic neither calm nor agitated. These are the qualities or identifications of the anatman. Atman does not have papa (sins) or puniya (good deeds) to suffer or to enjoy. The karmas are in the causal body in an unmanifested form and Atman is the witness of the causal body. Due to this basic misidentification of Atman as anatman, the samsara continues. When the ignorance is cleared by Atma-anatma-viveka, the anatman loses its individual power of existence. The Atman remains undisturbed and unaffected by these wrong notions and misidentifications.
So far it is discussed that the Atman is misidentified as the anatman. Similarly, the anatman is also misidentified as Atman. Due to this wrong notion, the anatman feels that it is intelligent and it has knowledge. In reality the anatman is inert. But it refuse to accept its inert nature. Even the mind and intellect are inert. Only by the close constant proximity with Atman, they seem to be intelligent and knowledgeable. The mind and intellect are only inert impressions, which have to be illumined by the Atman. Only when the Atman illumines these inert impressions, they become active. That is why it is said that all the beings are equally intelligent, only their impressions and experiences in the form of mind and intellect differ. But the anatman (intellect, mind) refuse to accept it and they feel that the intelligence is their own and not borrowed from the Atman, whose nature is knowledge itself. The body, mind and intellect may vary but the intelligence is the same. It is the same Atman which illumines the different mind and intellect. By this cross identification, the anatman, which is basically inert, searches for happiness and peace outside itself, whereas it is the nature of the Self, Atman. The anatman considers itself as intelligent as the others and it experiences pride and jealous. It is a total complicated cross identification. It has to be cleared at each and every stage. The qualities of the anatman are superimposed on the Atman and because of this it is assumed that the Atman is temporary and limited. This is the main cause for fear and weakness. The anatman hides the nature of the Atman and projects the idea that the Atman is multiple and can be destroyed by time and nature. In reality, Atman is eternal, omniscient and omnipotent and it is our true Self.
Atma-anatma-viveka helps one to have a clear view of the world and makes one understand the world as mitya (unreal), so that one will not be disturbed by the chores of this terrible samsara. Bondage is caused by the absence of enquiry and it is destroyed by right enquiry alone. A seeker should always practice differentiating the Atman from the lower self. “The supreme Self Atman is that which remains unchanged in the three periods of time, it is of the nature of absolute knowledge and absolute happiness”, Tattva bodha,(16-2,3,4 ). These are qualities of the true Self and anatman lacks these qualities.
This article is based on the course material of advanced Vedanta course from Chinmaya international foundation, www.chinfo.org
Tattva bodha of Adi Sankaracharya