At one pole of my being I am one with stocks and stones. There I
have to acknowledge the rule of universal law. That is where the
foundation of my existence lies, deep down below. Its strength
lies in its being held firm in the clasp of comprehensive world,
and in the fullness of its community with all things.
But at the other pole of my being I am separate from all. There
I have broken through the cordon of equality and stand alone as
an individual. I am absolutely unique, I am I, I am
incomparable. The whole weight of the universe cannot crush out
this individuality of mine. I maintain it in spite of the
tremendous gravitation of all things. It is small in appearance
but great in reality. For it holds its own against the forces
that would rob it of its distinction and make it one with the
This is the superstructure of the self which rises from the
indeterminate depth and darkness of its foundation into the open,
proud of its isolation, proud of having given shape to a single
individual idea of the architect’s which has no duplicate in the
whole universe. If this individuality be demolished, then though
no material be lost, not an atom destroyed, the creative joy
which was crystallised therein is gone. We are absolutely
bankrupt if we are deprived of this specialty, this
individuality, which is the only thing we can call our own; and
which, if lost, is also a loss to the whole world. It is most
valuable because it is not universal. And therefore only through
it can we gain the universe more truly than if we were lying
within its breast unconscious of our distinctiveness. The
universal is ever seeking its consummation in the unique. And
the desire we have to keep our uniqueness intact is really the
desire of the universe acting in us. It is our joy of the
infinite in us that gives us our joy in ourselves.
That this separateness of self is considered by man as his most
precious possession is proved by the sufferings he undergoes and
the sins he commits for its sake. But the consciousness of
separation has come from the eating of the fruit of knowledge.
It has led man to shame and crime and death; yet it is dearer to
him than any paradise where the self lies, securely slumbering in
perfect innocence in the womb of mother nature.
It is a constant striving and suffering for us to maintain the
separateness of this self of ours. And in fact it is this
suffering which measures its value. One side of the value is
sacrifice, which represents how much the cost has been. The
other side of it is the attainment, which represents how much has
been gained. If the self meant nothing to us but pain and
sacrifice, it could have no value for us, and on no account would
we willingly undergo such sacrifice. In such case there could be
no doubt at all that the highest object of humanity would be the
annihilation of self.
But if there is a corresponding gain, if it does not end in a
void but in a fullness, then it is clear that its negative
qualities, its very sufferings and sacrifices, make it all the
more precious. That it is so has been proved by those who have
realised the positive significance of self, and have accepted its
responsibilities with eagerness and undergone sacrifices without
With the foregoing introduction it will be easy for me to answer
the question once asked by one of my audience as to whether the
annihilation of self has not been held by India as the supreme
goal of humanity?
In the first place we must keep in mind the fact that man is
never literal in the expression of his ideas, except in matters
most trivial. Very often man’s words are not a language at all,
but merely a vocal gesture of the dumb. They may indicate, but
do not express his thoughts. The more vital his thoughts the
more have his words to be explained by the context of his life.
Those who seek to know his meaning by the aid of the dictionary
only technically reach the house, for they are stopped by the
outside wall and find no entrance to the hall. This is the
reason why the teachings of our greatest prophets give rise to
endless disputations when we try to understand them by following
their words and not be realising them in our own lives. The men
who are cursed with the gift of the literal mind are the
unfortunate ones who are always busy with their nets and neglect
It is not only in Buddhism and the Indian religions, but in
Christianity too, that the ideal of selflessness is preached with
all fervour. In the last the symbol of death has been used for
expressing the idea of man’s deliverance from the life which is
not true. This is the same as Nirvnana, the symbol of the
extinction of the lamp.
In the typical thought of India it is held that the true
deliverance of man is the deliverance from _avidya_, from
ignorance. It is not in destroying anything that is positive and
real, for that cannot be possible, but that which is negative,
which obstructs our vision of truth. When this obstruction,
which is ignorance, is removed, then only is the eyelid drawn up
which is no loss to the eye.
It is our ignorance which makes us think that our self, as self,
is real, that it has its complete meaning in itself. When we
take that wrong view of self then we try to live in such a manner
as to make self the ultimate object of our life. Then we are
doomed to disappointment like the man who tries to reach his
destination by firmly clutching the dust of the road. Our self
has no means of holding us, for its own nature is to pass on; and
by clinging to this thread of self which is passing through the
loom of life we cannot make it serve the purpose of the cloth
into which it is being woven. When a man, with elaborate care,
arranges for an enjoyment of the self, he lights a fire but has
no dough to make his bread with; the fire flares up and consumes
itself to extinction, like an unnatural beast that eats its own
progeny and dies.
In an unknown language the words are tyrannically prominent.
They stop us but say nothing. To be rescued from this fetter of
words we must rid ourselves of the _avidya_, our ignorance, and
then our mind will find its freedom in the inner idea. But it
would be foolish to say that our ignorance of the language can
be dispelled only by the destruction of the words. No, when the
perfect knowledge comes, every word remains in its place, only
they do not bind us to themselves, but let us pass through them
and lead us to the idea which is emancipation.
Thus it is only _avidya_ which makes the self our fetter by
making us think that it is an end in itself, and by preventing
our seeing that it contains the idea that transcends its limits.
That is why the wise man comes and says, “Set yourselves free
from the _avidya_; know your true soul and be saved from the
grasp of the self which imprisons you.”
We gain our freedom when we attain our truest nature. The man
who is an artist finds his artistic freedom when he finds his
ideal of art. Then is he freed from laborious attempts at
imitation, from the goadings of popular approbation. It is the
function of religion not to destroy our nature but to fulfil it.
The Sanskrit word _dharma_ which is usually translated into
English as religion has a deeper meaning in our language.
_Dharma_ is the innermost nature, the essence, the implicit
truth, of all things. _Dharma_ is the ultimate purpose that
is working in our self. When any wrong is done we say that
_dharma_ is violated, meaning that the lie has been given to
our true nature.
But this _dharma_, which is the truth in us, is not apparent,
because it is inherent. So much so, that it has been held that
sinfulness is the nature of man, and only by the special grace
of God can a particular person be saved. This is like saying
that the nature of the seed is to remain enfolded within its
shell, and it is only by some special miracle that it can be
grown into a tree. But do we not know that the _appearance_ of
the seed contradicts its true nature? When you submit it to
chemical analysis you may find in it carbon and proteid and a
good many other things, but not the idea of a branching tree.
Only when the tree begins to take shape do you come to see its
_dharma_, and then you can affirm without doubt that the seed
which has been wasted and allowed to rot in the ground has been
thwarted in its _dharma_, in the fulfilment of its true nature.
In the history of humanity we have known the living seed in us
to sprout. We have seen the great purpose in us taking shape
in the lives of our greatest men, and have felt certain that
though there are numerous individual lives that seem ineffectual,
still it is not their _dharma_ to remain barren; but it is for
them to burst their cover and transform themselves into a
vigorous spiritual shoot, growing up into the air and light, and
branching out in all directions.
The freedom of the seed is in the attainment of its
_dharma_, its nature and destiny of becoming a tree; it is the
non-accomplishment which is its prison. The sacrifice by which
a thing attains its fulfilment is not a sacrifice which ends in
death; it is the casting-off of bonds which wins freedom.
When we know the highest ideal of freedom which a man has, we
know his _dharma_, the essence of his nature, the real meaning of
his self. At first sight it seems that man counts that as
freedom by which he gets unbounded opportunities of self
gratification and self-aggrandisement. But surely this is not
borne out by history. Our revelatory men have always been those
who have lived the life of self-sacrifice. The higher nature in
man always seeks for something which transcends itself and yet is
its deepest truth; which claims all its sacrifice, yet makes this
sacrifice its own recompense. This is man’s _dharma_, man’s
religion, and man’s self is the vessel which is to carry this
sacrifice to the altar.
We can look at our self in its two different aspects. The self
which displays itself, and the self which transcends itself and
thereby reveals its own meaning. To display itself it tries to
be big, to stand upon the pedestal of its accumulations, and to
retain everything to itself. To reveal itself it gives up
everything it has; thus becoming perfect like a flower that has
blossomed out from the bud, pouring from its chalice of beauty
all its sweetness.
The lamp contains its oil, which it holds securely in its close
grasp and guards from the least loss. Thus is it separate from
all other objects around it and is miserly. But when lighted it
finds its meaning at once; its relation with all things far and
near is established, and it freely sacrifices its fund of oil to
feed the flame.
Such a lamp is our self. So long as it hoards its possessions it
keeps itself dark, its conduct contradicts its true purpose.
When it finds illumination it forgets itself in a moment, holds
the light high, and serves it with everything it has; for therein
is its revelation. This revelation is the freedom which Buddha
preached. He asked the lamp to give up its oil. But purposeless
giving up is a still darker poverty which he never could have
meant. The lamp must give up its oil to the light and thus set
free the purpose it has in its hoarding. This is emancipation.
The path Buddha pointed out was not merely the practice of self-
abnegation, but the widening of love. And therein lies the true
meaning of Buddha’s preaching.
When we find that the state of _Nirvana_ preached by Buddha is
through love, then we know for certain that _Nirvana_ is the
highest culmination of love. For love is an end unto itself.
Everything else raises the question “Why?” in our mind, and we
require a reason for it. But when we say, “I love,” then there
is no room for the “why”; it is the final answer in itself.
Doubtless, even selfishness impels one to give away. But the
selfish man does it on compulsion. That is like plucking fruit
when it is unripe; you have to tear it from the tree and bruise
the branch. But when a man loves, giving becomes a matter of joy
to him, like the tree’s surrender of the ripe fruit. All our
belongings assume a weight by the ceaseless gravitation of our
selfish desires; we cannot easily cast them away from us. They
seem to belong to our very nature, to stick to us as a second
skin, and we bleed as we detach them. But when we are possessed
by love, its force acts in the opposite direction. The things
that closely adhered to us lose their adhesion and weight, and we
find that they are not of us. Far from being a loss to give them
away, we find in that the fulfilment of our being.
Thus we find in perfect love the freedom of our self. That only
which is done for love is done freely, however much pain it may
cause. Therefore working for love is freedom in action. This is
the meaning of the teaching of disinterested work in the _Gita_.
The _Gita_ says action we must have, for only in action do we
manifest our nature. But this manifestation is not perfect so
long as our action is not free. In fact, our nature is obscured
by work done by the compulsion of want or fear. The mother
reveals herself in the service of her children, so our true
freedom is not the freedom _from_ action but freedom _in_ action,
which can only be attained in the work of love.
God’s manifestation is in his work of creation and it is said in
the Upanishad, _Knowledge, power, and action are of his nature_
[Footnote: “Svabhaviki jnana bala kriyacha.”]; they are not
imposed upon him from outside. Therefore his work is his
freedom, and in his creation he realises himself. The same thing
is said elsewhere in other words: _From joy does spring all this
creation, by joy is it maintained, towards joy does it progress,
and into joy does it enter_. [Footnote: Anandadhyeva khalvimani
bhutani jayante, anandena jatani jivanti,
anandamprayantyabhisamvicanti.] It means that God’s creation has
not its source in any necessity; it comes from his fullness of
joy; it is his love that creates, therefore in creation is his
The artist who has a joy in the fullness of his artistic idea
objectifies it and thus gains it more fully by holding it afar.
It is joy which detaches ourselves from us, and then gives it
form in creations of love in order to make it more perfectly our
own. Hence there must be this separation, not a separation of
repulsion but a separation of love. Repulsion has only the one
element, the element of severance. But love has two, the element
of severance, which is only an appearance, and the element of
union which is the ultimate truth. Just as when the father
tosses his child up from his arms it has the appearance of
rejection but its truth is quite the reverse.
So we must know that the meaning of our self is not to be found
in its separateness from God and others, but in the ceaseless
realisation of _yoga_, of union; not on the side of the canvas
where it is blank, but on the side where the picture is being
This is the reason why the separateness of our self has been
described by our philosophers as _maya_, as an illusion, because
it has no intrinsic reality of its own. It looks perilous; it
raises its isolation to a giddy height and casts a black shadow
upon the fair face of existence; from the outside it has an
aspect of a sudden disruption, rebellious and destructive; it is
proud, domineering and wayward; it is ready to rob the world of
all its wealth to gratify its craving of a moment; to pluck with
a reckless, cruel hand all the plumes from the divine bird of
beauty to deck its ugliness for a day; indeed man’s legend has it
that it bears the black mark of disobedience stamped on its
forehead for ever; but still all this _maya_, envelopment of
_avidya_; it is the mist, it is not the sun; it is the black
smoke that presages the fire of love.
Imagine some savage who, in his ignorance, thinks that it is the
paper of the banknote that has the magic, by virtue of which the
possessor of it gets all he wants. He piles up the papers, hides
them, handles them in all sorts of absurd ways, and then at last,
wearied by his efforts, comes to the sad conclusion that they are
absolutely worthless, only fit to be thrown into the fire. But
the wise man knows that the paper of the banknote is all _maya_,
and until it is given up to the bank it is futile. It is only
_avidya_, our ignorance, that makes us believe that the
separateness of our self like the paper of the banknote is
precious in itself, and by acting on this belief our self is
rendered valueless. It is only when the _avidya_ is removed that
this very self comes to us with a wealth which is priceless. For
_He manifests Himself in forms which His joy assumes_. [Footnote:
Anandarupamamritam yadvibhati.] These forms are separate from
Him, and the value that these forms have is only what his joy has
imparted to them. When we transfer back these forms into that
original joy, which is love, then we cash them in the bank and we
find their truth.
When pure necessity drives man to his work it takes an accidental
and contingent character, it becomes a mere makeshift
arrangement; it is deserted and left in ruins when necessity
changes its course. But when his work is the outcome of joy, the
forms that it takes have the elements of immortality. The
immortal in man imparts to it its own quality of permanence.
Our self, as a form of God’s joy, is deathless. For his joy is
_amritham_, eternal. This it is in us which makes us sceptical of
death, even when the fact of death cannot be doubted. In
reconcilement of this contradiction in us we come to the truth that
in the dualism of death and life there is a harmony. We know that
the life of a soul, which is finite in its expression and infinite
in its principle, must go through the portals of death in its
journey to realise the infinite. It is death which is monistic, it
has no life in it. But life is dualistic; it has an appearance as
well as truth; and death is that appearance, that _maya_, which is
an inseparable companion to life. Our self to live must go through
a continual change and growth of form, which may be termed a
continual death and a continual life going on at the same time. It
is really courting death when we refuse to accept death; when we
wish to give the form of the self some fixed changelessness; when
the self feels no impulse which urges it to grow out of itself;
when it treats its limits as final and acts accordingly. Then comes
our teacher’s call to die to this death; not a call to annihilation
but to eternal life. It is the extinction of the lamp in the
morning light; not the abolition of the sun. It is really asking us
consciously to give effect to the innermost wish that we have in the
depths of our nature.
We have a dual set of desires in our being, which it should be
our endeavour to bring into a harmony. In the region of our
physical nature we have one set of which we are conscious always.
We wish to enjoy our food and drink, we hanker after bodily
pleasure and comfort. These desires are self-centered; they are
solely concerned with their respective impulses. The wishes of
our palate often run counter to what our stomach can allow.
But we have another set, which is the desire of our physical
system as a whole, of which we are usually unconscious. It is
the wish for health. This is always doing its work, mending and
repairing, making new adjustments in cases of accident, and
skilfully restoring the balance wherever disturbed. It has no
concern with the fulfilment of our immediate bodily desires, but
it goes beyond the present time. It is the principle of our
physical wholeness, it links our life with its past and its
future and maintains the unity of its parts. He who is wise
knows it, and makes his other physical wishes harmonise with it.
We have a greater body which is the social body. Society is an
organism, of which we as parts have our individual wishes. We
want our own pleasure and license. We want to pay less and gain
more than anybody else. This causes scramblings and fights. But
there is that other wish in us which does its work in the depths
of the social being. It is the wish for the welfare of the
society. It transcends the limits of the present and the
personal. It is on the side of the infinite.
He who is wise tries to harmonise the wishes that seek for self-
gratification with the wish for the social good, and only thus
can he realise his higher self.
In its finite aspect the self is conscious of its separateness,
and there it is ruthless in its attempt to have more distinction
than all others. But in its infinite aspect its wish is to gain
that harmony which leads to its perfection and not its mere
The emancipation of our physical nature is in attaining health,
of our social being in attaining goodness, and of our self in
attaining love. This last is what Buddha describes as
extinction–the extinction of selfishness–which is the function
of love, and which does not lead to darkness but to illumination.
This is the attainment of _bodhi_, or the true awakening; it is
the revealing in us of the infinite joy by the light of love.
The passage of our self is through its selfhood, which is
independent, to its attainment of soul, which is harmonious.
This harmony can never be reached through compulsion. So our
will, in the history of its growth, must come through
independence and rebellion to the ultimate completion. We must
have the possibility of the negative form of freedom, which is
licence, before we can attain the positive freedom, which is
This negative freedom, the freedom of self-will, can turn its
back upon its highest realisation, but it cannot cut itself away
from it altogether, for then it will lose its own meaning. Our
self-will has freedom up to a certain extent; it can know what it
is to break away from the path, but it cannot continue in that
direction indefinitely. For we are finite on our negative side.
We must come to an end in our evil doing, in our career of
discord. For evil is not infinite, and discord cannot be an end
in itself. Our will has freedom in order that it may find out
that its true course is towards goodness and love. For goodness
and love are infinite, and only in the infinite is the perfect
realisation of freedom possible. So our will can be free not
towards the limitations of our self, not where it is _maya_ and
negation, but towards the unlimited, where is truth and love.
Our freedom cannot go against its own principle of freedom and
yet be free; it cannot commit suicide and yet live. We cannot
say that we should have infinite freedom to fetter ourselves, for
the fettering ends the freedom.
So in the freedom of our will, we have the same dualism of
appearance and truth–our self-will is only the appearance of
freedom and love is the truth. When we try to make this
appearance independent of truth, then our attempt brings misery
and proves its own futility in the end. Everything has this
dualism of _maya_ and _satyam_, appearance and truth. Words are
_maya_ where they are merely sounds and finite, they are _satyam_
where they are ideas and infinite. Our self is _maya_ where it
is merely individual and finite, where it considers its
separateness as absolute; it is _satyam_ where it recognises its
essence in the universal and infinite, in the supreme self, in
_paramatman_. This is what Christ means when he says, “Before
Abraham was I am.” This is the eternal _I am_ that speaks
through the _I am_ that is in me. The individual _I am_ attains
its perfect end when it realises its freedom of harmony in the
infinite _I am_. Then is it _mukti_, its deliverance from the
thraldom of _maya_, of appearance, which springs from _avidya_,
from ignorance; its emancipation in _cantam civam advaitam_, in
the perfect repose in truth, in the perfect activity in goodness,
and in the perfect union in love.
Not only in our self but also in nature is there this
separateness from God, which has been described as _maya_ by our
philosophers, because the separateness does not exist by itself,
it does not limit God’s infinity from outside. It is his own
will that has imposed limits to itself, just as the chess-player
restricts his will with regard to the moving of the chessmen.
The player willingly enters into definite relations with each
particular piece and realises the joy of his power by these very
restrictions. It is not that he cannot move the chessmen just as
he pleases, but if he does so then there can be no play. If God
assumes his role of omnipotence, then his creation is at an end
and his power loses all its meaning. For power to be a power must
act within limits. God’s water must be water, his earth can never
be other than earth. The law that has made them water and earth
is his own law by which he has separated the play from the player,
for therein the joy of the player consists.
As by the limits of law nature is separated from God, so it is
the limits of its egoism which separates the self from him. He
has willingly set limits to his will, and has given us mastery
over the little world of our own. It is like a father’s settling
upon his son some allowance within the limit of which he is free
to do what he likes. Though it remains a portion of the father’s
own property, yet he frees it from the operation of his own will.
The reason of it is that the will, which is love’s will and
therefore free, can have its joy only in a union with another
free will. The tyrant who must have slaves looks upon them as
instruments of his purpose. It is the consciousness of his own
necessity which makes him crush the will out of them, to make his
self-interest absolutely secure. This self-interest cannot brook
the least freedom in others, because it is not itself free. The
tyrant is really dependent on his slaves, and therefore he tries
to make them completely useful by making them subservient to his
own will. But a lover must have two wills for the realisation of
his love, because the consummation of love is in harmony, the
harmony between freedom and freedom. So God’s love from which
our self has taken form has made it separate from God; and it is
God’s love which again establishes a reconciliation and unites
God with our self through the separation. That is why our self
has to go through endless renewals. For in its career of
separateness it cannot go on for ever. Separateness is the
finitude where it finds its barriers to come back again and again
to its infinite source. Our self has ceaselessly to cast off its
age, repeatedly shed its limits in oblivion and death, in order
to realise its immortal youth. Its personality must merge in the
universal time after time, in fact pass through it every moment,
ever to refresh its individual life. It must follow the eternal
rhythm and touch the fundamental unity at every step, and thus
maintain its separation balanced in beauty and strength.
The play of life and death we see everywhere–this transmutation
of the old into the new. The day comes to us every morning,
naked and white, fresh as a flower. But we know it is old. It
is age itself. It is that very ancient day which took up the
newborn earth in its arms, covered it with its white mantle of
light, and sent it forth on its pilgrimage among the stars.
Yet its feet are untired and its eyes undimmed. It carries the
golden amulet of ageless eternity, at whose touch all wrinkles
vanish from the forehead of creation. In the very core of the
world’s heart stands immortal youth. Death and decay cast over
its face momentary shadows and pass on; they leave no marks of
their steps–and truth remains fresh and young.
This old, old day of our earth is born again and again every
morning. It comes back to the original refrain of its music. If
its march were the march of an infinite straight line, if it had
not the awful pause of its plunge in the abysmal darkness and its
repeated rebirth in the life of the endless beginning, then it
would gradually soil and bury truth with its dust and spread
ceaseless aching over the earth under its heavy tread. Then
every moment would leave its load of weariness behind, and
decrepitude would reign supreme on its throne of eternal dirt.
But every morning the day is reborn among the newly-blossomed
flowers with the same message retold and the same assurance
renewed that death eternally dies, that the waves of turmoil are
on the surface, and that the sea of tranquillity is fathomless.
The curtain of night is drawn aside and truth emerges without a
speck of dust on its garment, without a furrow of age on its
We see that he who is before everything else is the same to-day.
Every note of the song of creation comes fresh from his voice.
The universe is not a mere echo, reverberating from sky to sky,
like a homeless wanderer–the echo of an old song sung once for
all in the dim beginning of things and then left orphaned. Every
moment it comes from the heart of the master, it is breathed in
And that is the reason why it overspreads the sky like a thought
taking shape in a poem, and never has to break into pieces with
the burden of its own accumulating weight. Hence the surprise of
endless variations, the advent of the unaccountable, the
ceaseless procession of individuals, each of whom is without a
parallel in creation. As at the first so to the last, the
beginning never ends–the world is ever old and ever new.
It is for our self to know that it must be born anew every moment
of its life. It must break through all illusions that encase it
in their crust to make it appear old, burdening it with death.
For life is immortal youthfulness, and it hates age that tries to
clog its movements–age that belongs not to life in truth, but
follows it as the shadow follows the lamp.
Our life, like a river, strikes its banks not to find itself
closed in by them, but to realise anew every moment that it has
its unending opening towards the sea. It is a poem that strikes
its metre at every step not to be silenced by its rigid
regulations, but to give expression every moment to the inner
freedom of its harmony.
The boundary walls of our individuality thrust us back within our
limits, on the one hand, and thus lead us, on the other, to the
unlimited. Only when we try to make these limits infinite are we
launched into an impossible contradiction and court miserable
This is the cause which leads to the great revolutions in human
history. Whenever the part, spurning the whole, tries to run a
separate course of its own, the great pull of the all gives it a
violent wrench, stops it suddenly, and brings it to the dust.
Whenever the individual tries to dam the ever-flowing current of
the world-force and imprison it within the area of his particular
use, it brings on disaster. However powerful a king may be, he
cannot raise his standard or rebellion against the infinite
source of strength, which is unity, and yet remain powerful.
It has been said, _By unrighteousness men prosper, gain what they
desire, and triumph over their enemies, but at the end they are
cut off at the root and suffer extinction._ [Footnote:
Adharmenaidhate tavat tato bahdrani pacyati tatah sapatnan jayati
samulastu vinacyati.] Our roots must go deep down into the
universal if we would attain the greatness of personality.
It is the end of our self to seek that union. It must bend its
head low in love and meekness and take its stand where great and
small all meet. It has to gain by its loss and rise by its
surrender. His games would be a horror to the child if he could
not come back to his mother, and our pride of personality will be
a curse to us if we cannot give it up in love. We must know that
it is only the revelation of the Infinite which is endlessly new
and eternally beautiful in us, and which gives the only meaning
to our self.