A good way of defining the spiritual journey is A Quest to Discover the Nature of the Self, as we have seen. 

Universally, all of us start with the assumption that the body and whatever it contains must be I, the self. This is validated by the fact that when the body moves, “I” seem to move. One also finds that everyone else is also working on the same assumption, thus confirming one’s own assumption. If everyone around me thinks that is the truth, then it must be the truth, even if I am not totally comfortable with it.

However, if the assumption is correct, the limitations that one senses about oneself must be all true. This implies that one will always be a limited, wanting person. However active one is, whatever success (as viewed by the world) one achieves, there would always be more to do, more to achieve. There can never be completion. The bondage of samsara is then real. Therefore, there can be no spiritual journey, no ‘higher truth’.

Sastra, however, says there is freedom, moksa, for humans and that bindings of samsara are but a sort of illusion. According to sastra, I, the self is attributeless. This is possible only if the assumption we have made about self is erroneous.

Two types of errors – vikshepa and aavarana

A man walks into a dimly lit store-room and sees something long and curly on the floor. He has been reading a book where venomous snakes play an important part. He thinks it is a snake. He bounds back with a cry and his heart seems to skip a beat. However, on reflection, he sees that he may have made a mistake. There is no movement, no hood, and the object seems to be of even width across its length. There are, even in the dim light, tell-tale signs to indicate it may not be a snake. What relief!

He still does not know what the object is. Taking courage, he switches on the light and in that brightness, knowledge arises. “Oh, thank God, it is only a rope!”

This knowledge was covered, called aavarana. This is one type of mistake. He still has to account for the object. He now projects a snake on the object, and makes the second error, called vikshepa. This error is validated based on his orientation at that time.

In a similar way, every human knows “I exist” He does not need anyone to tell him or teach him. Nor does he need a means of knowledge to know this fact. It is universally true. However, he is not clear what the nature of the “I” is – the knowledge is covered. Yet, it has to be accounted for. Based on the orientation, he concludes “I am the body” and then, because doubts persist, “I must be the body plus everything contained in it” This explanation, however unsatisfactory, is accepted. Since everyone around him also seems to have a similar explanation (explicitly or implicitly), his own assumption is validated.

This is vikshepa – projection of a thing on another, because one is not sure what the reality of the object is.

This false idea is projected because knowledge is covered. In fact, all knowledge is covered. When a layer of ignorance is uncovered, we make a ‘discovery’. There is no new knowledge. Science today says that every particle has the entire knowledge of the universe, jagat, embedded in it. We see this in simple things in everyday life – a seed contains all the information required to form a particular type of tree. A mango seed will grow into a mango tree of that variety only — not sprout a bitter gourd vine. 

In the rope-snake example, the knowledge that the object is a rope is covered, but that there is something is known. In the case of the knowledge of the self, the knowledge of the self is covered, but the clarity that “I exist” is unshakeable. In order to account for this existent “I”, one has to project something known on it.

Clearing the errors

A pause, careful thought and logic can negate the vikshepa of the snake on the rope. “No, it can’t be a snake”, is a conclusion one can arrive at.

Similarly, all projections on the self can be negated by observation, analysis and reasoning. Anything external to the body can easily be negated because external objects do not move when “I” moves. 

What about the body? And mind? And the senses? How do we negate them? Sastra itself provides us many ways of examining and negating these. Any one sufficient is for the thinking person. We will look at one such reasoning.

The physical body, called sthula sharira, consists of trillions of cells. Each cell has a limited time span; it dies and is replaced by a new one. Millions of cells in the human body are destroyed and replaced every second. In effect, the sthula sharira one has today is totally different from one he may have had a few years ago. If this body were “I”, we would have different “I” at different times during a life time. How then, can this body be “I”? Clearly, the physical body cannot be “I”. I has to be constant over time.

A similar analysis of the more subtle elements of what we generally consider “I”, called sukshma sharira or subtle body is also subject to constant change and cannot be “I”, the self.

Such analysis and reasoning helps us gain a distinction between the constant “I” and the ever changing “non-I”, called nitya-anitya viveka.

However, the problem does not go away. In fact, it is compounded! I know I exist. I also now have clarity about what “I” is not, but are still far from finding out what it IS. The knowledge is still covered.