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What is The Self according to the Upanishads and the Gita?

In the Upanishads and the Gita, there exist a number of commonalities. Those being the
idea of self reflection, self consciousness and most importantly, The Self. It is first
introduced to us as a mysterious entity that embodies everybody, but remains unknown
or misunderstood to most as it is cloaked in human ignorance, desires and delusion.
However, all is not lost as it is possible to attain an awareness of the Self through long
term meditation, a practice that changes ones own perspective towards the world.
Yajnavalkya explains what the Self is in the Upanishads using the idea of duality. He
compares pairs such as a drum and a drummer1 , taste and tongue, feet and
walking, and most importantly, nothing and the Self. These pairs that Yajnavalkya
cites all exist only because the other does as well, and what this does is show that the
Self, being the antithesis of nothing, is everything that exist in the universe. Moreover,
these pairs, in addition to being dependant on each other, both exist in order to achieve
a common goal. Just as how a drum and a drummer produces music, the taste and
tongue sends signals to the brain; and more importantly, the nothing and the Self, both
being imperishable and uncreated, give life meaning. The beauty of life only exist
because it ends and having a finite amount of time forces us to make it worthwhile. So
rather than spending our precious time chasing after wealth, we should be focusing on
meditating to realize the Self in ourselves.
Through ones own pursuit of the Self, they themselves will gain wisdom that surpasses
any other form of intellectual ability. One of the obstacles in this process is the fact that
peoples interest are often not aligned with the Self, hence most of their undertakings
will be filled with anxiety. For example, a painter or musician in todays day and age
would be worried about whether their art would be profitable, and, more often than not,
this affects the untethered ingenuity of their works. Many artist then resort to producing
watered down and commercialised forms of their art in order to make them sellable.
They do this out of fear and anxiety, for they do not have a stable form of income. What
these artist must do instead is let their selfish desires be consumed in the fire of
knowledge2 , only then will all his undertakings be free from anxiety above results.
The Gita is telling us that in the pursuit of knowledge, a pursuit that is aligned with the
Self, will eliminate your anxiety because you no longer care about the outcome of your
works; rather, the result becomes a side product of your quest for knowledge. This line
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Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Chapter 2 Paragraph 4.7


Bhagvad Gita, Chapter 4

of thinking frees everybody from expectations and from all sense of possession only if
the mind and body are firmly controlled by the Self. From this, we can conclude that
when someones consciousness is unified with the Self, then they themselve will
become wiser as they will be able to let go of perishable desires, such as results, that
cause anxiety, selfishness and fear.
The Self exist in everything as it is infinite and omnipresent, but is difficult to
comprehend because of obstacles such as money. For example, Yajnavalkya tells
Maitreyi no one can buy immortality with money and that in order to achieve this, the
Self has to be realized; The Self being the basis of love and unity between
everything, since Everything is not loved for its own sake, but because the Self lives in
it. Furthermore, when this happens, you will come to understand everything in life3 .
What Yajnavalkya is talking about is the fact that money corrupts your ability to realize
the Self despite the importance of it. When humans obtain wealth, they tend to act like
Maitreyi; they see collecting all of the wealth in the world as a goal of life and that it will
somehow ease the reality of death. However, what these people dont understand is
that when the lights go out, none of it carries on beyond death; everyone lives and
dies like any other rich person. Ever since humans concocted this idea of value, the
achievement of wealthiness has become a top priority, leading everyone to separate
themselves from the Self and each other.
The concept of categorizing people and objects for the sake of common discourse and
ease is ultimately an ineffectual endeavour, since it is at odds with the purpose of the
Self. People tend to place everything into categories because it fuels their own ego and
their selfishness. For example, many wealthy people who refuse to pay more taxes to
fund welfare programs would defend themselves by saying I worked hard for my
money, why should I give it to someone who doesnt deserve it?. These people have
created categories where they are the rich and deservant whereas the people on
welfare are poor and undeserving, hence creating separation between people who are
fundamentally the same biologically and spiritually. Yajnavalkya in the The Upanishads
state that those who realize the Self will see themselves in everyone and everyone in
themselves4 . What this tells us is that people who selfishly refuse to assist others are
morally reprehensible because they see themselves on a higher level than others,
despite the fact that they are not. What Yajnavalkya says also provides us with a basis
for morality and an achievable utopia because in the collective pursuit of the Self, a
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Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Chapter 2 Paragraph 4.5


Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Chapter 4 Paragraph 23

community will manage to eradicate injustice and inequality in all forms, whether it be
racial, wealth or moral. Knowing that the pursuit of the Self leads to a morally just
landscape allows us to make objective claims about moral values as well, since any
decision made that strays from the pathway to the Self can be said to be wrong.
Therefore, the Self can be seen as the origin of morality, a fundamental necessity to life
that allows us to overcome all evil and sin that exist in this immoral social construct
that we live in today.
Sri Krishna further establishes that the realization of the Self is what us humans have to
strive for as we would be able to destroy our own ignorance with the knowledge of the
Self within5. Without the Self, we become selfishly attached to the result of their work
because our desires are fragmented by wrong knowledge6. But obtaining wisdom
from the Self, unifying consciousness would allow us to abandon all attachment to the
results of action and attain supreme peace. This statement reinforces the idea that the
Self is what gives morality to the world because any other action that doesnt lead to the
understanding of the Self is an action that isnt aimed at attaining supreme peace.
Moreover, according to Sri Krishna, those who possess this wisdom have equal regard
for all. They see the same self in a spiritual aspirant and an outcaste, in an elephant, a
cow, and a dog. Such People have mastered life. Once again, we are told that we are
all essentially the same spiritually, as all of us possess the Self. Therefore it is our
spiritual duty to realize the joy of spiritual awareness by unifying our consciousness
through meditation so that we can live in abiding joy, ridding ourselves of delusion,
selfishness and anger in the process.
From the Upanishads and the Gita, we can see that the Self is a spiritual ideal that
provides us with the basis for morality, equality and objective knowledge for life. It is
explained to us multiple times throughout the text that we as humans should strive to
realize the Self, as this would lead to us gaining joy, wisdom and happiness. Moreover,
the Self is imperishable and infinite, unlike anything physical distractions such as
money, evil deeds or separateness. Thus it is only rational that we invest our time into
discovering the Self, something that we can do through the practice of meditation, yoga
and reading of the scriptures. Ultimately, only through the pursuit of the Self will we see
the improvement of the world in many different facets, whether it be in moral, wealth or
any other terms that we use to perceive everything. Only then will we collectively
achieve a unified consciousness that will exist for the betterment of humanity.
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The Bhagavad Gita Chapter 5


The Yoga Sutras 8