This article is a chapter from the book An Instrument of Thy Peace.
Occasionally you must take time to systematically ponder the question “Who am I?” in depth and in earnest. You are endowed with the faculty of reason, and the greatest function of this faculty is to enquire into your ultimate nature. Out of an unmanifest condition where you exist without form, height, weight or colour, you manifest for a little while on this planet as a personality with a particular name and form endowed with many distinctive physical and mental attributes. Your manifestation begins at a certain point in time called birth and ends soon after at a certain point in time called death.
Between these two points you talk, laugh, love, hate, smile, sing, study, work and play. You go to school, and you learn all about trees and plants, animals, manufacturing, mathematics and whatever else it may be. Everything under the sun you learn about your external environment, but you know next to nothing about yourself. What little you do assimilate in self-knowledge is paltry, disconnected facts—but nothing real or whole. If you are ever really in a difficult spot, you go and lie down on a couch and ask someone else to tell you about yourself!
You are walking about in a kind of darkness about yourself. You read a few books, hear a few lectures, and maybe a little ray of light somehow enters your mind. This single ray is better than nothing, but it is not enough. One ray of light is not enough to illumine you, and one small segment of knowledge will not help you through a deep crisis. In a crisis you need the truth, and you need it whole and not merely in bits and pieces floating about on the surface of your mind. You need it to be anchored in the very depths of your being.
I met a person recently who seemed to know nearly all there is to be known about Vedanta, the immortality of the soul, the purity and perfection of the eternal, and the freedom and independence of the highest state. Yet, he was totally unable to avail himself of all this knowledge, because it had never really penetrated his mind. These ideas are impotent if they have not taken deep root in the mind-soil. To raise man out of the quagmire into which he has fallen, great power is needed. Ideas must be absorbed in depth.
Intellectual conviction is good—if it is firm. It is better than mere mental fascination, but eventually ideas must become a part of you so that they actually change your way of doing things. Your ideas must vitally affect your life and reform your attitude. Eventually you must acquire the higher knowledge of the Self. Life bereft of this higher knowledge is a life steeped in darkness, ignorance and error. How in utter darkness can you ever hope to reach the ultimate goal?
You will be very surprised if you take a dispassionate survey of your present pursuit of what passes for “knowledge.” You will see that, by and large, this pursuit is only to serve your worldly interests. Why, for instance, are you taking all these night courses, correspondence courses and degree courses? Because you want dollars. You want to buy a new car, a colour TV, a swimming pool, a trip to Hawaii or membership in some country club. You want to visit nice places, see nice things, and have nice people to talk to. You are in pursuit of knowledge, for you believe that in this way you will be able to improve your earning capacity. You believe that if your pay cheque is fat, your main wants will be satisfied. Do you suppose that people are flocking nowadays to colleges and universities in quest of the Absolute? Do you think they are fired with a noble urge to dedicate their lives to the cause of freedom? Do you think it is wisdom they’re after? They want to improve their prospects for a better job and a better income.
Indian sages told us long ago that even though man is the shining glory of all creation and made in the image of God Himself and in spirit one with Him, with respect to the physical apparatus he is not different from every animal in creation. This is not meant in a derogatory way, but is meant to show that man’s needs for food, water, sleep and survival are all the same physical urges that are in an animal. Man shares them with every beast of the field, every fowl of the air, every fish of the water—with everything that moves upon the surface of the earth.
Animals fulfil their needs in primitive and simple ways, and man fulfils them in very sophisticated ways, but there is not much difference, except that man needs knowledge for his survival. He strives to get this knowledge, but in this elaborate and roundabout way, he endeavours to get it only as a means to fulfil his sensual urges. Ultimately, he converts his knowledge into cash. The intellect serves the interests of the body, because in this circumstance the body is the kingpin.
However, real knowledge is Self-knowledge. Self- knowledge is the higher knowledge acquired in the form of light. The light of Self-knowledge illumines the inner depths of your being, banishes the darkness of Self-ignorance, awakens you from the slumber of non-awareness, and leads you into the experience of Self-realisation. When the intellect is employed in pursuing this higher knowledge, it is serving not the interests of the body but those of the soul. The inevitable fate of the body is dissolution—it will be reduced to dust. Sooner or later the body will be put six feet under, and then what will all this lower knowledge of our external environment avail us? After all is said and done, of what use is all the lower knowledge?
A young boy once referred to all this lower knowledge in a very contemptuous way: “What will a mere bread-winning education do for me? It will only pump more food into my stomach. This is not the knowledge for me. Day in, day out, from the womb to the tomb, from the cradle to the grave, men are slaving to fill the wants of the body. I want to be free from this slavery. Give me that knowledge which will set me free!” That young boy, Sri Ramakrishna, became one of the greatest spiritual giants the world has ever seen. His disciple, Swami Vivekananda, was the first great Hindu to bring the knowledge of Vedanta to the West. In Chicago in 1893 that brilliant young man thundered, “It is the greatest folly to call man a sinner! Man is divine. Can impurity remain in the presence of divinity? Impurity cannot remain. Man is an ever-pure, ever-perfect son of the divine Being!”
Great emperors have ruled this earth. Where are they now? They have vanished. Alone in the desert are the Sphinx and the Pyramids, testifying to the civilisations that once rose and fell there. In Rome the imperial palaces still stand—stone monuments to the Caesars who lived and died there. Everything passes. Even our modern physicists agree that billions of years ago this universe didn’t exist. It came into being at a certain point in boundless time, and it will also eventually cease to be. Now even the scientists are trying to probe within to find out what is permanent and enduring. They want to discover what is unchanging and what is fixed in this vast, constantly changing, non-eternal flux called the universe.
The Justice of the Law of Karma
Karma is not some terrible factor that has come down upon human society. The law of karma is a supremely just and supremely all-loving provision by the cosmic Being to enable the individual to attain his own supreme welfare. This law of karma that prevails is compatible with man’s self-effort and is not something opposed to self-effort. On the contrary, self-effort—if undertaken with the proper understanding—can be utilised for attaining man’s supreme divine destiny. Self-effort and the law of karma go together. Yet, you cannot stop the effects of the causes which you have already brought into being and which have already started to work. It is like an arrow that a hunter has shot from his bow that is winging its way through the air. He cannot recall it, and it has to end its flight and hit the target.
When we come into this body, we bring the entire karmic pattern as in a gramophone record. The life pattern unfolds from cradle to grave in the form of varied experiences. There is no choice in this matter, and one has to undergo these experiences. However, that is only a minor part of the law of karma, because what happens to you is not the essential thing. Experience happens even to the animals, and they suffer from hunger, thirst, heat and cold. The uniqueness of man is his ability to engage in purposeful activity and not be simply governed by the mechanism of instinct. He is an independent agent and acts with great freedom. What you get out of this life is not through what is happening to you, but through how you choose to deal with what is happening to you. As you undergo the experiences that are ordained by your own karmic pattern, you are still the architect of your own fate because of your ability to act.
All these experiences in the ultimate context are not imposed upon the individual by some extraneous agent that arbitrarily enforces a certain pattern. No. This karmic pattern with which a human individual comes into birth is the sum totality of the results of what he himself has engaged in during a previous period. Fate is the harvesting of the seeds that you yourself have previously sown. In the ultimate analysis you are yourself the creator of that karmic pattern. This does not contradict the omnipotence of God, for it is the omnipotence of God that has willed you to have this freedom of action. This freedom of yours is God-given. Within the scope of His omnipotence, you are a free agent. Man’s duty is to make effort, as though everything depended upon his effort. Do the right effort with all your heart and soul, but you always have the understanding that you leave the ultimate outcome in the hands of the all-intelligent Being. If It chooses to give you the ultimate effect that you desire, well and good, you may then take it.
Man can raise himself to the highest Heaven or damn himself to the lowest hell. It is all in his hands. If he recognises and is aware of the law of karma, he can utilise it in a meaningful way. If unfortunately he is completely ignorant of the law of karma, then he will be totally subject to its operation. Not knowing that it is his own action that has caused his present condition, he may be confused, he may shake his fist at God, and he may blame everyone else and make them responsible for his suffering. However, one who understands the law of karma cannot harbour resentment, for he knows that no one else is responsible. He knows that he has created the experience at some period in the past, and now he is reaping the harvest of the seeds that he has sown. He bears no ill will towards his fellow human beings, and he is able to accept his experience with a deeper understanding. If he is wise, he will try to learn something from the experience he undergoes.
How does one explain the fate of the Shah of Iran some decades ago? He summoned the heads of state of all the great countries of the world to Tehran, and for about two or three weeks he celebrated in a very grand and pompous way the 2,500 years of his dynasty. He must have spent millions on this celebration. He also had one of the most sophisticated armies that the United States could provide to protect him from his enemies, but then what happened to him? He was deposed from his throne, he fled to the one country in the world that would accept him, and soon thereafter, ignored and despised, he died a miserable death.
In a similar way, a farmer may slave day and night in his field for months, and then suddenly there may be an invasion of locusts or a cruel frost, and seventy-five per cent of his crop may just wither and perish. The outcome of karma is ultimately in the hands of a cosmic force in keeping with the law of compensation or retribution. Without the operation of the law, nothing will happen. This law may be hidden from the human gaze, but it operates based upon absolute justice, goodness and infinite love.
Let the intellect ponder, “Who am I? Whence have I come? What was my condition before I entered this body? When I leave it, where will I go? Let me know. That condition is far more important to me than this physical existence, for this is only temporary, whereas that is lasting and continuous. It existed before, and it will continue to be hereafter. If it is real, it must be present even now, covered over by something else—something that is temporarily superimposed upon it. Now let me know that real condition.” The highest function of the intellect is to ponder these questions and others like them. “I have been given this body and sent to live in this universe. Now in what way am I related to it?” This universe seems to be the handwork of some vast intelligence, for it is a perfect systematic whole. Everything moves here in rhythm and order. What is this vast intelligence endowed with unimaginable power that staggers the mind merely in imagining it?”
Thus pondering the ‘I,’ pondering the universe, and pondering the infinite, absolute intelligence behind both, man will rise gradually into a state of awareness in which the answer to all these questions becomes clear. To rise up and take flight in this higher investigation of the real nature is the proper employment of the intellect in the service of the soul. In this employment, man will acquire the knowledge of himself, and Self-knowledge will set him free.