We have looked at where to start the journey and have found that it is possible to find out what “I” is not, using logic and reasoning.

To go back to the classical rope-snake example, having made the mistake of assuming that what is seen is snake, it is negated by observation, analysis and reasoning. That, unfortunately, still does not help one know what there is. That truth is still covered and is revealed only when a light is brought in.

This example, from the world of objects is relatively easy to understand. What happens when trying to understand the nature of the self is far more complicated. As we saw in the previous part, a little pause, a little thought, analysis and logic could quickly negate the assumption that the body-mind-senses complex, karya-karana-sanghatha, is the self. The nature of the self, however, is not so easy to grasp.

Subject-Object

Humans are uniquely placed to examine everything that is not I, which will include all objects in this jagat, including ideas, thoughts concepts etc., break it down into its smallest elements, find and analyse patterns, apply logic and reasoning to get a clear idea of how it is put together and how the parts and total work.

We see around us wondrous creatures, some we have never seen (thanks to some of the channels on television, we can see some of these on land, in air and in water with stunning clarity). We can study how they are constructed, how they react to their environment, how they seek food and escape becoming food. Many of them can be brought into controlled environments and examined in great detail. 

We have seen that the body, mind and senses are non-I, and can also be studied and analysed in exactly the same way. Psychology, for example, examines the mind by studying a large number of people in different situations, their behaviour and their reactions to external inputs, finding patterns and developing hypothesis and theories.

In such studies, the primary means of data collection are the five senses — eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. Their power can be enhanced several times over by using various instruments and equipment, such as the electron microscope. However, the inputs still depend upon the senses.

These five senses are “outward looking”. They are excellent for collecting data from the world-of-objects, the non-I. However, when wanting to know more about I, the subject, the knower, the enquirer, the power behind all the senses they fail. It is like taking a torch light into a dark room. The torch light reveals everything that is there in the room upon which the light from the torch falls, but fails when trying to light up the source of light.

These senses prove totally inadequate when trying to get information on the subject, I. Kathopanisad goes to the extent of saying that the Lord Svyambhu has made the sense organs useless by making them extrovert (and thus making self-knowledge, the ultimate goal of humans, not easy to gain)

Sastra as a pramana, a means of knowledge

One cannot therefore, use the same senses to understand the nature of the self. It is not available to the senses, indriya athithah. If the senses are the only means of knowledge available to us, but cannot help to know the nature of the self, would it imply that it is not possible to know the self?

There has to be another means of knowledge. One (and the only one) whose subject matter is the self, the subject, I,  which does not contradict any inputs from other means of knowledge (even if the conclusions drawn from them may be contradicted), one that is consistent and one that cannot be negated by any other means of knowledge.

Such a pramana is vedanta, consisting of the various upanisads from the four Vedas. All upanisads give us this knowledge, using different methods and perspectives. But because the knowledge is so unlike anything else, sometimes diametrically different from what we think we know, certain preparation is mandatory before one can settle down to studying vedanta to understand “I”.

Following the injunctions and procedures in the earlier portion of the Vedas, the karma kanda, helps us in this preparation for studying the upanisads and understanding what they are trying to tell us. Bhagawan Krishna says performing all actions as karma yoga will help one gain antah karana shuddhi, helping one to becoming an adhikari, one qualified to gain the knowledge. In mathematical terms such preparation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for uncovering the knowledge of the self.

Vedanta is words and needs a guru

Vedanta is in the form of words and words lend themselves easily to false interpretations. We see this even in everyday life. What is intended to be conveyed is often not what is received.

Words have an immediate meaning, which may or may not be the intended meaning. A simple translation of a single verse could give us cryptic or paradoxical meaning and may even sound absurd. For example, there is a verse in the Bhagawad Gita that says “In that which is night for all beings, the one has mastery over himself is awake. That in which beings are awake, is night for the wise one” That is perhaps why the owl is called wise! This has to be seen in the context of the total grantha, with reference to what has come before and what is yet to come, keeping in mind the consistency across this text and all other vedanta texts. This is well nigh impossible without a guru who has understood, who can unfold the targeted meaning, so that the student gains clarity.

Often one comes across people with very strong intellect, who want to analyse and understand the truth themselves. They question the need for a guru. What they fail to discern is that while the false projection of non-I on “I” can be negated using these strengths, knowing the truth of the self is not possible with the exercise of the intellect as long as it depends on the base data from the senses. 

Therefore, mundaka upanisad says, to gain that knowledge, the one with discernment should go to a guru, who is a strotriya brahmanista, a guru who has learnt in the parampara and who has clear knowledge of brahman.