“There is no ‘real’ me—a tiny homunculus hidden beneath layers of frozen feelings. … It is not an isolated ‘object,’ a ghost locked in a machine or a mere consciousness located within the body. … You are inextricably enmeshed in the web of meanings shaped by the psychoculture that you helped to form and that, in turn, helps to form you.” (Daniel Yankelovich, in New Rules: Searching for Self-fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down)
What is the self? Is it something shaped and shared by our surroundings, as Dr. Yankelovich believes, or something private, autonomous, internal? Since everyone, no matter how he chooses to define the self, is interested in self-fulfillment, it is of paramount importance to know what the self is. Generally our concepts of the self are vague and speculative; so we often feel unfulfilled, even after attaining our goals. At a time when we are finding material goals more and more difficult to attain and when we are at a loss to find deep self-satisfaction, the Vedic literature’s unique statements can provide us with invaluable information about the self and self-fulfillment.
In Bhagavad-gita Lord Krsna describes the self as a permanent individual, an eternal conscious entity who interrelates with other selves. Bhagavad-gita gives us exact information of the self as an imperishable, nonmaterial particle, a spiritual soul (atma), who gives consciousness to the otherwise dead body.
People often deny the existence of the atma simply because the concept of the spiritual soul is rejected by modern science. Since with empirical methods one cannot detect or measure the spiritual soul, many people conclude—dogmatically—that no soul exists and that whoever believes in such a thing is only imagining a “ghost in the machine.” But from the perspective of Bhagavad-gita, to think of life in mechanistic terms, as mere chemical combinations and electrical impulses, is at best misguided, and at worst demonic.
Many people who scoff at religious explanations for the self embrace the theories of science as their new religion. Yet after hundreds of years of scientific philosophizing and experimentation, there is still no empirical explanation for consciousness, which the Bhagavad-gita explains to be the symptom of the self. Even the simple fact of individual conscious perception—everyone’s awareness that he is alive—remains totally inexplicable in material terms. Although the common man is in awe of advanced research in computer science (“artificial intelligence”) and other technologies, no scientist has been able to duplicate anything like a conscious living being.
The reason mechanistic science has failed to explain or create consciousness is easy to grasp. As Bhagavad-gita explains, the atma, the source of consciousness, lies entirely beyond the body and mind, so methods of perception that depend on the sensory apparatus of the body and mind can never detect the atma. Still, we can readily see the difference between the atma and the body by reflecting a little on our common everyday discourse. We think of the body as “ours,” and we say “my hand” or “my foot,” even “my mind.” Since the “I,” the self, is the owner of the body, it must be different from the body.
Bhagavad-gita describes that above the body is the mind, above the mind is the intelligence, and above the intelligence is the spiritual soul. It is because of a case of mistaken identity, false ego, that the deathless spiritual soul takes up residence in the perishable material body. The self’s identification with the body is like a person’s taking his body in a dream to be real. And a society that accepts the theories of mechanistic science as the absolute truth reinforces this misidentification.
Vedic knowledge confirms the sociologists’ claim that the beliefs of a society greatly influence the self. From birth, parents assure a child that he or she is a boy or a girl, a member of a certain family, a certain society, and so on. Except in a rare case in which a family or society imparts transcendental knowledge to the conditioned soul, one grows up with concocted, socialized conceptions of the self. Therefore one is bound to meet frustration in one’s search for self-fulfillment. Since one is actually eternal, one cannot be satisfied with temporary material goals.
The self can truly be satisfied only by gaining enlightenment concerning his relationship with the Supreme. Lord Krsna describes this enlightenment in Bhagavad-gita (6.21-23):
In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness and enjoys himself through transcendental senses. Established thus, one never departs from the truth, and upon gaining this he thinks there is no greater gain. Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken, even in the midst of the greatest difficulty. This indeed is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact.
And what about social responsibility? If the soul is spiritual, different from the material body, doesn’t that mean that a self-realized soul is antisocial, uninterested in helping others? No. Rather, when a human being comes to understand his real identity as atma, an eternal spiritual soul, a servant of God, then for the first time he realizes his loving connection with all living beings. Such a self-realized person becomes automatically nonviolent, even toward animals. And being self-satisfied and therefore not overly dependent on material things, he does not conflict with others in vicious competition. Moreover, his universal vision, in which he sees all living entities as spiritual souls or sons of God, enables him to take a nonsectarian view and give up envious distinctions of race, sex, religion, and nationality.
Paradoxically, one who becomes spiritually self-realized ceases to be selfish. The materialist, on the other hand, is always selfish. One who regards the self as isolated and private will selfishly try to experience as much sense pleasure as possible and minimize his concern for others. Or if he chooses to see the self in terms of shared meanings with society, he usually pursues the selfish interests of a particular social class or nation over all others. Only he who sees all selves on the spiritual basis can act in a way that will actually benefit others in their self-fulfillment.
Bhagavad-gita teaches that the real purpose of human life is to transcend death by liberating the atma from his bondage to material life. The soul who does not understand the self’s relationship to Lord Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, has to transmigrate and return again to the material life of miseries: repeated birth, old age, disease, and death. Self-fulfillment conceived only in terms of one’s body, family, occupation, or nation is ignorance. Real self-fulfillment never ends, even with death. Since people are becoming increasingly concerned about self-fulfillment in an age full of uncertainties and great dangers, I would suggest that they not overlook the treasure of information about the eternal self and its fulfillment that has been presented by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in Bhagavad-gita As It Is.—SDG