Know Thyself


Swami B.S. Govinda

The inspiration to ask questions about the essence of life comes to fortunate conditioned souls through self-realisation. The Vedānta-darśana begins, “Athāto Brahma jijñāsā: now let us search for the Absolute.” Athāto means, “Now, after experiencing so many things in the mundane world and gradually coming to properly realise their position, the jīva-souls come to enquire about the Absolute.” The necessity for spiritual life can be felt by the conditioned souls only after a fundamental level of realisation.

Proper realisation begins by understanding consciousness and then the ātmā (self). The first lesson from the sādhu, the first lesson in spiritual life, is ātmānam viddhi: “Know thyself; try to understand your own self.”

When a conditioned soul becomes a sincere seeker and he finds a real master, then both the master and student are fully satisfied. The sādhu teaches the sincere seeker how to discover his own self. Self-realisation is the best thing for the conditioned souls, and it is the real necessity of the conditioned souls. When, through their fortune, souls begin to search for their own self, they will begin to feel it, at first a little and then more and more. When their feelings come to them, then their searching spirit will increase, and they will come to understand who they are and the illusion they have fallen into. The jīva-soul will gradually realise, “This body is not actually me. I am simply existing inside this body and mind. My mental position is playing under the influence of the illusory environment, and it is neither acting according to my soul’s intelligence nor guiding me properly.”

The transmigration of the soul

The conditioned souls under the influence of the illusory environment act foolishly, but they are not actually foolish. They need only to discover their ātmā (self). It is necessary for everyone to discover the ātmā so that they can act in their own best interest. As jīva-souls, we are not our mundane bodies. If we think about this we can feel that it is true. If my father dies and I look at his dead body, what is different? My whole life I have been seeing his body, but now it is useless. Within two or three days it will spoil and emit a bad smell. There must have been something inside his body that has now left, some spark of life. You can call it a spirit or whatever you like. Only when his spirit was present was his body active and conscious. The presence of his soul, the jīvātmā, gave life to his body. Now that his jīvātmā has left, his body is dead.

In Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā death is compared to the routine changing of clothing:

vāsāṁsi jīrṇāni yathā vihāya navāni gṛhṇāti naro ’parāṇi
tathā śarīrāṇi vihāya jīrṇāny anyāni saṁyāti navāni dehī
(Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā: 2.22)

Every day we change our clothes. We take off our dirty clothes and put on clean clothes. When our clothes become too old, we take them off and never put them on again. The jīva-soul’s position in the mundane world is like this. The soul changes bodies the way the body changes its clothes. When the soul’s body becomes too old or diseased, the soul leaves that body and accepts a new one. In this way the soul moves along the waves of birth and death. Na hanyate hanyamāne śarīre (Bg: 2.20): the soul is never killed when the body dies. The soul is sanātan: eternal, indestructible, always fully conscious, and active.


It is also very helpful to understand clearly not only the relationship between the soul and the body, but also the soul and the mind.

indriyāṇi parāṇy āhur indriyebhyaḥ paraṁ manaḥ
manasas tu parā buddhir yo buddheḥ paratas tu saḥ
(Śrīmad Bhagavad-gītā: 3.42)

The senses—the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin—are the most prominent features of the body. Indriyebhyaḥ paraṁ manaḥ: the mind is superior to the senses. If the mind does not give its attention to the senses, then one does not experience anything. An elephant may walk right in front of someone, but he will not see it if he is not paying attention with his mind. In this way we can understand that the mind is superior to the senses. Manasas tu parā buddhir: the intelligence is superior to the mind. If someone does not have good intelligence, he will not get any good results from his mind. A madman has a mind, but because his mind is unsteady and not guided by his intelligence, he does not get a good result from his mind. Finally, yo buddheḥ paratas tu saḥ: the soul is superior to the intelligence.

Vedavyās has given us a very nice example to understand this:

na rarājoḍupaś chhannaḥ sva-jyotsnā-rājitair ghanaiḥ
ahaṁ-matyā bhāsitayā sva-bhāsā puruṣo yathā
(Śrīmad Bhāgavatam: 10.20.19)

If we look for the moon in the night sky during the rainy season, we see only clouds floating across the sky. We are not able to see the moon. But how are we able to see the clouds? By the moon’s light. Even though we cannot see the moon, we know it is present in the sky because we are seeing the clouds with its light.

Like the moon, our ātmā is covered by the clouds of our subtle body—the mind, intelligence, and false ego (ahaṅkār). The subtle body is called chidābhās, a hazy reflection of our consciousness. The conditioned souls live in the haze of their mundane mind, intelligence, and false ego, unable to directly see their true self (ātmā). But it is the light of the jīvātmā (soul) that illuminates their subtle body, and through their subtle body souls experience the mundane world. In this way we can understand that it is the jīva-soul’s light that powers his intelligence, mind, senses, and body. The jīva-soul exists inside his mind and body but cannot be seen by them because it is the jīva-soul himself who is the seer.

Liberation: self-determination

When the jīva-soul begins to realise something about his position, he considers, “I am transcendental to mental and physical existence. I now have this human body and the opportunity to pursue the supreme benefit of my life.” But when the Upaniṣads say, “Sṛṇvantu viśve amṛtasya putrā: you are all sons of nectar”, how much can a conditioned soul feel this to be true? Only a liberated soul can feel the full form of this truth. And liberation does not mean demolition of the jīva-soul’s individual existence; it means realising the jīva-soul’s eternal form as Lord Krishna’s servitor.

muktir hitvānyathā rūpaṁ sva-rūpeṇa vyavasthitiḥ
(Śrīmad Bhāgavatam: 2.10.6)

In the scriptures it is explained that mukti (liberation) means giving up the illusory forms we have adopted within māyā and becoming situated in our eternal conscious form (svarūp) as a jīva-soul, as an eternal servant of Krishna—jīvera ‘svarūpa’ haya—Kṛṣṇera ‘nitya-dāsa’.

īhā yasya harer dāsye karmaṇā manasā girā
nikhilāsv apy avasthāsu jīvan-muktaḥ sa uchyate

“Anyone who gives up all other activities and wholeheartedly serves Kṛṣṇa with his body, mind, and words at all times under all circumstances is a liberated soul (jīvan-muktaḥ).

Nothing a soul engaged in Krishna’s service does binds him, even though he may exist within the material environment and his activity may look like that of an ordinary person. A liberated soul may remain engaged in Krishna’s service here in the material world or he may cross over into the Lord’s eternal abode.

(excerpt from ‘Revealed Truth’)