At its broadest, the question I want to explore is just one version of a most fundamental one for anyone moved by Sri Ramakrishna’s life and teachings; how does one properly understand the idea of the Self? Anyone who has seriously sat and thought about it knows that the Self, conceptually, is a slippery thing. Both in ordinary language and in the words of wise and spiritual individuals, the term “Self” seems to capture different things at different times, and even at a given time it proves difficult to precisely delineate the boundaries of one’s “Self.” Today I’d like to hone in on the idea of Self, not by building or defending a fully comprehensive definition, but by describing three different perspectives from which to view the Self. To my mind, each of these visions of Self has its own validity to it, and all three can be readily drawn from the words and actions of Sri Ramakrishna. It is worth considering each of these descriptions of “Self” in turn, since they each carry an important lesson that we can use in our own journey through life, guiding us, in the spirit of Sri Ramakrishna, towards Self-realization. He maintains firmly that Self-realization is our ultimate goal, and in his overflowing kindness and humanity he would do what he can to lead us there, but we are quite liable to lose our way if we are conflicted in our ideas about what the Self is (before we even come to ask what it is to realize the Self).
Like these “systems of thought” or “stages” described in the Gospel, the three conceptions of Self I talk about may seem inconsistent on the surface, but each is essential in a complete picture of how one achieves the singular goal of Self-realization. I am calling these “perspectives” on the self, rather than “definitions” of Self or different “kinds” of Self, because they do not so much provide a metric by which to determine the presence or absence of Self, but rather suggest a framework within which to fit one’s Self-directed thoughts and actions – a way of regarding the Self – so, a perspective. The notion of differing perspectives helps, I think, to preserve the thought that each depiction possesses its own truth – one may use different lenses to look at the same object, and the view one receives can be revelatory and even useful whether the glass be dirty, warped, or fractured.
The first conception of Self I want to discuss I call “Self-as-obstacle.” According to this perspective, “Self” paradoxically refers to that about aperson which stands in the way of her Self-realization. When one confronts the pressures of lust or greed, for example, one is driven by Self-referential feelings – I say, for instance, that it is I, myself, that craves pleasure or power, I, myself that will have or do the desired thing. From this standpoint, I can see the Self as the fundamental source of my penchant for worldly attainments.
We know that Sri Ramakrishna himself spurned actions motivated by lust and greed – he formally and practically renounced any prospect of a career or typical family life, and by all accounts he was not at all attracted to sex or wealth. He was, it seems, initially discouraged from pursuing the priesthood at the Kali temple in Daksineśwar because of the wealth and ornamentation associated with the position itself and with the founder of the temple. Sri Ramakrishna is said (in the Gospel) to have “loved his freedom,” and to have been “indifferent” to worldly achievement. In spite of and perhaps partly because of his uniquely untethered bent of mind, he was especially sensitive to the way attachments of this nature tend to pull other people away from their highest goals and their own spiritual truth. He appreciated the force of the ego, which presents as Self – creating an establishment of “I” and “mine”(in the fashion of my example, a moment ago) – even though he would deny that the pronouncements of the ego reveal the deeper truth about Self.
Possessions, personal relationships and bodily desires are the material connections in which one most easily identifies the ego, and they suggest a dualistic image of Self – an individual being that reaches out to interact with reality that is external and therefore distinct from itself. Human language has developed to reaffirm this conception; verbally, one largely cannot help but attach a desire to the individual who feels it – desire essentially belongs to a person. The picture of Self that emerges is uncomplicated and visceral, and though Sri Ramakrishna would warn us of the delusion implicit in it, he would also sometimes rely on this notion of the Self, both because he was linguistically limited in the same ways we are, and because he wanted to make the spiritual lessons he had already grasped accessible for people with a more common kind of self-understanding. In order to advance in our understanding of Self, it is necessary for most of us to first reckon with the basic, egoistic aspect of ourselves that undeniably shapes our life. Thus, this first mode of thinking about Self represents it as our own limitation – as a source of entrapment and disorientation to be avoided. The Self, in this perspective, is what one must conquer – it is the primary obstacle between the individual and the ultimate goal (of Self-realization).
In order to fulfill his task of guiding others on their spiritual path, Sri Ramakrishna had to do his work in the world and so had to manifest (what the Gospel called) “a trace of ego.” Conscious of his embodied form (most of the time), Sri Ramakrishna demonstrated what the Gospel refers to as the “ripe ego,” the “ego of devotion,” “of service” or “of knowledge.” He remained at least minimally attuned to a human desire to serve the common welfare in his uniquely compelling way, showing, in the process, the value of becoming master over the Self as it seeks to attach to the world – the value of overcoming the Self-as-obstacle. Thus, even though Sri Ramakrishna had moved beyond this view of the Self, he did not completely lose sight of it, so that he could use it towards the end of spiritual guidance. I already highlighted the fundamentally dualistic frame of mind the Self-as-obstacle view implies, but we can also note the fit of classic religious dualism with this picture. Where the Self is the obstacle, the Deity can serve as the means of overcoming it. The idea of an external and even a personified God can play a key role for the spiritual aspirant confronted with the obstacle of her Self; she can surrender before the image of a God with the power the reduce selfish desires into insignificance. For the individual on whom worldly pressure lay a strong claim the view of Self-as-obstacle is most relevant, and even while one acknowledges Sri Ramakrishna’s goal of ultimately experiencing the truth that she is not bound by the limitations of her bodily personhood, she may need the help of this dualistic picture in order to get closer to that goal. By adopting the Self-as-obstacle view one may be better able to escape illusive attractions of the ego.
Now I want to shift to a new perspective on the Self, probably the hardest to articulate of the three I’ve chosen. I have been talking about an instinctual view of Self with which we are all familiar, from experience, but if we reflect on the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna we will believe the deeper truth about our nature must be seen from a different vantage point. We will suspect the Self-as-obstacle approach essentially involves navigating an illusion, and that we might step back, take a view of the mechanism operating behind he curtains, and see a new side of the Self.
I want to call this second conception “Self-as-dust,” and it corresponds to the second “stage” of spiritual development I referred to – Visishtadvaita or “Qualified Non-Dualism.” For me, the challenge of describing this view of Self is made easier in this context by thinking about the Goddess Kāli.
One could discuss the rich symbolism of Kāli at great length, but I want to focus on a particular idea that she represents, what I see as one of her most fundamental features. The Goddess is called the Divine Mother – every birth is from her womb, and every growth spurred by her nurturing hand, whose kindness and generosity knows no bounds. But on the other hand (well, actually in one of her other hands), Kali holds a blade, the instrument of destruction that vanquishes even kingdoms, demons, and Gods. Kali is known as both the giver and taker of all life, as the source of both creation and destruction. The image of Self she helps to expose depends on the combination of these apparently opposite powers. In fact, the deep insight we can learn from her is that this opposition is only apparent – Kali reveals the unity of these seemingly different forces, merging them to show that every creation is a destruction, and vice versa. They are, to use the common phrase, two sides of the same coin.
Wherever one creates one must start with ingredients – a shirt takes cloth, a painting needs colored pigment and a blank canvas, and a speech requires intelligible ideas (not to mention particles through which sound waves can travel). After creation, the initial components are no longer recognizable as what they were; they’ve been replaced with whatever was constructed out of them. That is to say, they have been destroyed. Conversely, after destruction, something is always left behind – it is only by convention that we say the building was just demolished, rather than saying the pile of debris was just made. Everything standing in this world had been built up from pieces that were already on hand – from the rubble of prior destruction– and it will all fall into a new shape before too long.
With a degree of calm thought one can appreciate Kali’s point of view – one can witness the unification of creation and destruction into just the inevitable process of change. The shirt, painting, or speech I may have made is just a coincidental arrangement of certain tiny parts of reality, soon to fall apart again. Further, importantly, the same thing applies to my very being, as I perceive it. My individual person – or that of Sri Ramakrishna – is one of the infinite, infinitesimal creations that issues from the Divine Mother, and is also just a patch of canvas or bit of pigment destroyed in the process of making whatever comes next. When one really adopts this perspective the concerns of ego vanish, for what is the hunger of a body put on the grand stage of creation and destruction? Self-as-dust is a view from which what we normally say is our Self-interest is seen as utterly inconsequential.
Desires like lust and greed do not pose a threat to one with this perspective – we have moved beyond the position of Dvaita – but we have not yet stepped all the way into the framework of Non-Dualism, for we notice a personal aspect of ourselves, albeit only to point out its triviality. Thus I think Self-as-dust is a view befitting of the Qualified Non-Dualist, the second stage, Visishtadvaita. The inflated Self of the ego is absent, but the mind hovers between recognizing and dismissing the existence of any Self that exists as a discrete entity. This is the perspective of an individual consciousness, but one that has largely lost the bonds that would tie it to particular events. There is but one more step from this viewpoint to the third and final.
Fortunately, the last perspective I’ll mention is the easiest to describe, though the same may not be said of comprehending it. This third I will call Self-as-all-pervading- existence, or just Self-as-all, for short. The link to Advaita, the third stage of spiritual development, is evident, I think. This mode of thought is absolute Non-Dualism, wherein one regards the Self as One Without Second. One sees herself not as an individual within a surrounding whole, and not even as an infinitesimal indistinguishable constituent of that whole, but rather sees that the whole of reality is not different from Self – that all there is is Self. Such an absolute perspective cannot be reconciled with someone who views the Self-as-obstacle or Self–as-dust, for their conception depends on a distinction that is unfounded when one sees Self-as-all. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna says that Advaita transcends human speech and mind – it is the highest standpoint, from which all that can be seen is One existence, with no room for any distance between speaker and speech, or between thinker and thought.
Because Advaita represents the third and final stage, we should look to the Self-as-all perspective it entails when we want to consider the ultimate goal Sri Ramakrishna sets for any who will listen – Self-realization. Naturally, one reaches the goal at the final stage, when there is no further to go. So the Self one must realize is the Self of absolute Non-Dualism.
By my lights, Sri Ramakrishna laid out distinct outlooks that are vital at different points along one’s spiritual path, and by doing so helps to illuminate that path for countless others. I would be happy if my words contributed to his message. Thank you for listening, and Swamiji for inviting me to speak. Namaste.