HINDUISM: The Way to God through Knowledge

Reference: Hinduism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

The Omniscient Self is aware of all motion; because it itself is truly motionless.

Jnana yoga, intended for spiritual aspirants who have a strong reflective bent, is the path to oneness with the Godhead through knowledge. Such knowledge—the Greeks’ gnosis and sophia—has nothing to do with factual information; it is not encyclopedic. It is, rather, an intuitive discernment that transforms, turning the knower eventually into that which she knows. (“She” is appropriate here because in the principal Western source-languages—Hebrew, Latin, and Greek—the words for knowledge in this mode are usually feminine in gender.) Thinking is important for such people. They live in their heads a lot because ideas have for them an almost palpable vitality; they dance and sing for them. And if such thinkers are parodied as philosophers who walk around with their heads in the clouds, it is because they sense Plato’s Sun shining above those clouds. Thoughts have consequences for such people; their minds animate their lives. Not many people are convinced by Socrates’ claim that “to know the good is to do it,” but in his own case he may have been reporting a straightforward fact. 

Jnana yoga, intended for spiritual aspirants who have a strong reflective bent, is the path to oneness with the Godhead through knowledge. 

For people thus given to knowing, Hinduism proposes a series of demonstrations that are designed to convince the thinker that she possesses more than her finite self. The rationale is straightforward. Once the jnana yogi grasps this point, her sense of self will shift to a deeper level. 

The key to the project is discrimination, the power to distinguish between the surface self that crowds the foreground of attention and the larger self that is out of sight. Cultivating this power proceeds through three stages, the first of which is learning. Through listening to sages and scriptures and treatises on the order of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, the aspirant is introduced to the prospect that her essential being is Being itself.

There is a “potential” and a “manifested” aspect to knowing. The potential, unmanifested is the infinite self, and the manifested is the finite self. In other words, the potential aspect is the “thinker” and the manifested aspect is the “thought.” 

The second step is thinking. By prolonged, intensive reflection, that which the first step introduced as a hypothesis must assume life. The Atman (God within) must change from concept to realization. A number of lines of reflection are proposed for this project. For example, the disciple may be advised to examine our everyday language and ponder its implications. The word “my” always implies a distinction between the possessor and what is possessed; when I speak of my book or my jacket, I do not suppose that I am those things. But I also speak of my body, my mind, or my personality, giving evidence thereby that in some sense I consider myself as distinct from them as well. What is this “I” that possesses my body and mind, but is not their equivalent? 

Anything that is manifested can be possessed. Anything manifested cannot be the “I”.

Again, science tells me that there is nothing in my body that was there seven years ago, and my mind and my personality have undergone comparable changes. Yet, throughout their manifold revisions, I have remained in some way the same person, the person who believed now this, now that; who once was young and is now old. What is this something in my makeup, more constant than body or mind, that has endured the changes? Seriously pondered, this question can disentangle one’s Self from one’s lesser identifications. 

The true “I” is something that has always remains constant but is unidentifiable.

Our word “personality” comes from the Latin persona, which originally referred to the mask an actor donned as he stepped onto the stage to play his role, the mask through (per) which he sounded (sonare) his part. The mask registered the role, while behind it the actor remained hidden and anonymous, aloof from the emotions he enacted. This, say the Hindus, is perfect; for roles are precisely what our personalities are, the ones into which we have been cast for the moment in this greatest of all tragi-comedies, the drama of life itself in which we are simultaneously coauthors and actors. As a good actress gives her best to her part, we too should play ours to the hilt. Where we go wrong is in mistaking our presently assigned part for what we truly are. We fall under the spell of our lines, unable to remember previous roles we have played and blind to the prospect of future ones. The task of the yogi is to correct this false identification. Turning her awareness inward, she must pierce the innumerable layers of her personality until, having cut through them all, she reaches the anonymous, joyfully unconcerned actress who stands beneath. 

The identity that is manifested is very similar to a mask that one wears.

The distinction between self and Self can be assisted by another image. A man is playing chess. The board represents his world. There are pieces to be moved, bishops to be won and lost, an objective to be gained. The game can be won or lost, but not the player himself. If he has worked hard, he has improved his game and indeed his faculties; this happens in defeat fully as much as in victory. As the contestant is related to his total person, so is the finite self of any particular lifetime related to its underlying Atman

Atman is the unmanifested, infinite self that underlies the manifested finite self.

Metaphors continue. One of the most beautiful is found in the Upanishads, as also (by interesting coincidence) in Plato. There is a rider who sits serene and motionless in his chariot. Having delegated responsibility for the journey to his charioteer, he is free to sit back and give full attention to the passing landscape. In this image resides a metaphor for life. The body is the chariot. The road over which it travels are the sense objects. The horses that pull the chariot over the road are the senses themselves. The mind that controls the senses when they are disciplined is represented by the reins. The decisional faculty of the mind is the driver, and the master of the chariot, who is in full authority but need never lift a finger, is the Omniscient Self. 

The Omniscient Self is aware of all motion; because it itself is truly motionless. See The Static Viewpoint

If the yogi is able and diligent, such reflections will eventually induce a lively sense of the infinite Self that underlies one’s transient, finite self. The two will become increasingly distinct in one’s mind, separating like water and oil where formerly they mixed like water and milk. One is then ready for the third step on the path of knowledge, which consists in shifting her self-identification to her abiding part. The direct way for her to do this is to think of herself as Spirit, not only during periods of meditation that are reserved for this purpose, but also as much as possible while performing her daily tasks. This latter exercise, though, is not easy. She needs to drive a wedge between her skin-encapsulated ego and her Atman, and an aid in doing so is to think of the former in the third person. Instead of “I am walking down the street,” she thinks, “There goes Sybil walking down Fifth Avenue,” and tries to reinforce the assertion by visualizing herself from a distance. Neither agent nor patient, her approach to what happens is, “I am the Witness.” She watches her unsubstantial history with as much detachment as she lets her hair blow in the wind. Just as a lamp that lights a room is unconcerned with what goes on within it, even so the yogi watches what transpires in his house of protoplasm, the texts tell us. “Even the sun, with all its warmth, is marvelously detached” was found scribbled somewhere on a prison wall. Life’s events are simply allowed to proceed. Seated in the dentist’s chair, Sybil notes, “Poor Sybil. It will soon be over.” But she must play fair and adopt the same posture when fortune visits her and she would like nothing better than bask in the praise she is receiving.

As a “witness” one simply looks at oneself in the third person.

Thinking of oneself in the third person does two things simultaneously. It drives a wedge between one’s self-identification and one’s surface self, and at the same time forces this self-identification to a deeper level until at last, through a knowledge identical with being, one becomes in full what one always was at heart. “That thou art, other than Whom there is no other seer, hearer, thinker, or agent.”

One then becomes simply detached from one’s fixed personality and becomes a creative self.


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