May 30, 2022 | Acharya Prashant
Questioner (Q): You talked about consciousness, and you also said how we should not associate ourselves with our identities like daughter, student, or a friend. But I was born as a daughter, and my parents took care of me; then I was a friend, a sister, and a student. So, in all this chaos, how do we identify who we really are? What exactly is consciousness?
Acharya Prashant (AP): That which is making you ask this question right now, that which is hearing and would respond very soon, that without which this world itself doesn’t exist—that is consciousness.
These identities that we are born with or start assuming later on through the course of life, they are shallow things. Sometimes we need to carry them just to make practical life a little smooth and a little efficient. It makes sense to carry your ID card if you are to enter an examination hall, right? You cannot say there, “I am nobody and I don’t have an identity.” If you want to cast your vote, you need your voter ID proof and such things. You cannot say, “I do not exist, I am none of my identities. What is India? I am not an Indian, I am not a human being.” If you say all those things, probably you would be existentially right but you won’t be able to cast your vote.
So, we have to take all the various identities with a pinch of salt. They are there, but they must be kept in their right place. They should never be allowed to encroach on the center, on the pure sanctum sanctorum of your life. And you know that. You never keep one identity very close to your heart anyway. When you go home, for example, you do not speak to your parents as a student of geology, do you? We don’t do that. So, we know how to keep the identities away for a while. The only problem is that when we keep one identity aside, we supplant it or replace it with another identity. That is what we keep doing.
We do not allow a pure and free space within which is independent of identities. Even if the identities are to rotate, even if the identities keep shuffling, one identity is always replaced by the other. The correction needed is to keep all the identities a little out of the center of your life. There has to be an inner circle, and then there can be several concentric circles of various identities. Let there be a lot of activities among those concentric circles. They may keep interacting with each other—one circle may dissolve into the other, one circle might expand, one circle might fall out; all those things can keep happening there. But at the center of your life, no identity should be present. Only then there is some freedom. Otherwise, you are not free at all; otherwise, at all times you are just carrying the burden of some responsibility, some identity or the other.
Remember, there can be no identity without an accompanying code of conduct and responsibility. Practically, it is alright to behave as per the role you are playing at a particular moment. But irrespective of the number of roles that an actor plays, fundamentally that actor is none of those roles. An actor might play, let’s say, four hundred roles in his lifetime or her lifetime. Is the actor any of those roles? But those roles are good, those roles are fun. If you can be alive, aware, and wise, then playing those roles can be good fun. But you cannot say that you are one of those roles. Otherwise, it will become absurd—initially hilarious, later tragic. Imagine Amjad Khan (an Indian actor) living as Gabbar right till today. He has forgotten it was just a role, and he thinks Gabbar is his identity.
All the roles are just roles. You do not exist for the sake of those roles. They are incidental. Lot of those roles you never even asked for, they were always situational. Even the program you might have enrolled in, it is not necessarily the program that you always desired to be in. I can say for myself, I got a certain IIT-JEE rank and that JEE rank determined the department I got into. In fact, while preparing for JEE I had thought nothing of departments. I got a certain rank in the UPSC civil services exam, and that rank determined the service that I got allotted to. And then you are supposed to be in that cadre all your life. You are supposed to be called a mechanical or civil engineer or whatever all your life.
Do you see how coincidental these identities are? You never wanted to be born a woman. You never explicitly desired to be born in India or in your particular religion. But these things just happen; these are just incidents. How much importance can one give to accidents? How seriously do you want to take something that just happened? And if such things that randomly happen are to be at the core of your life, then tell me where is freedom? Anything can randomly happen.
The professor was kind enough to give a very topical introduction, and he talked of the COVID-virus. Any of us wanted it to happen? COVID is life—it just happens. And to be at the mercy of stray situations is to lead a very undignified life.
Spirituality is an attempt, Vedanta is an attempt to give some dignity to life. Our friend referred to Ātman—a beautiful word, ‘True Self’. That is Ātman—True Self. That is an attempt to give some dignity to this life that is otherwise always buffeted by situational forces and hit around by circumstances, like the shuttlecock or like the football—always in motion but never in command of its motion. Somebody else decides where it should go, for what purpose, with what speed, at what angle. No fun in that. The shuttlecock is never going to complain because it is not conscious, but we are conscious people. And if we live our lives like a shuttlecock or football, it is no fun.
Q: Sometimes I feel that people associate with identities to escape. For example, in my mind there is a void that I am not able to fill, and I am scared to go close to it. Therefore, I identify myself as a student, as a sister, or as a daughter. What is this void? Is it our aim to fill the void?
AP: I am glad you are talking of the inner void. That void is something very real. That void is a cry for help: something urgently needs to be done. And because we are not able to do what is really needed, we do all kinds of other things and hope that the needful will get done on its own. It won’t happen.
See, this is how it happens. You want something, you do not know what you want. All you know is that you want because there is a restlessness within. So, I want something, I want something, I want something. But because we are not conscious enough, not spiritually educated enough, therefore we do not know what exactly we want. And when you do not know what exactly you want, you fall for any of your random wants, any random wants that appear big, appealing, and pressing at that particular moment.
It is like this: I am hungry for some particular thing. Let’s say there is a deficiency in the body, and the body is asking for that particular thing. But because I do not know myself, so I do not know what I really want. So, what do I do? I start eating whatsoever is available at that moment. That is how our desires take their course. That is how we often make decisions in life. There is a gap here (pointing towards the heart), there is a hollow, a void here. I do not know what would really fill that void.
So, because we do not know what we really want, we just look around, and whatsoever is appealing and relatively promising at that particular moment, we allow it entry into our lives. That is how we choose courses, that is how we choose jobs, that is how we choose partners, that is how we choose clothes, that is how we choose the movies to watch, that is how we choose the places to visit. None of our decisions are really informed decisions. We are groping around in the dark.
There has to be a follow-up. I am sure this is not complete. I am sure this cannot satisfy.
Q: Is it like getting used to that void and sticking to it so that somehow you can make an attempt to fill that?
AP: Yes, you have to remember this cardinal rule: Living with the void is far, far better than filling the void with unworthy stuff. And something special starts happening when you learn to honor the void, when you are not very afraid of the void, when you don’t go nervous just thinking of the void: you start discounting the competitor’s whine to fill that void.
Think of this. You have a certain need in your house, and the need is pretty urgent; you need to buy something. So, all kinds of vendors will come running to your place. The moment this news spreads in the market that here we have a hungry, needy customer facing an urgent situation, all kinds of sellers will rush to you. And they will rush to you with all kinds of unworthy, nonsensical things, even spurious goods. They will come, they will promise big, and they will quote a high price—why? Because they know that you are needy, they know that you do not like your situation of being needy, so they know that you will pay anything to get rid of your situation.
When the world knows that you badly want to get rid of the void, when the world knows that you badly want to get rid of your inner situation, then it starts fooling you; it starts making you fake promises; it starts quoting you unreasonable prices; it even starts extorting stuff from you. On the other hand, if you do not have that great a need to buy stuff from the market and the vendors are all lined up, you will find yourself in a far better position to discreetly assess their goods. Now you can have the upper hand in the dealing. Now you can say, “Show me what you have got, and I want to test your promise. I want to probe deep.” Now you are in a position to investigate. Now you can ask sharp questions.
And when you can ask sharp questions, then all the contenders to the void start falling apart—because they are all fake always. They gain entry in your core only because you could never deeply investigate. When you investigate, you will mostly, even invariably, find that all of them are false. When you find that all of these are false, then you find coexisting with the void even easier.
You see, the void appears so intolerable because of the presence of the promising options. “My life is so lonely, and I have five contenders to fill up my life with.” As long as these five contenders appear genuine, life will continue to appear more and more lonely. But if you learn to not be very impatient with your loneliness, with your void, then you get the freedom to enquire into the worth of these contenders. And when you enquire into their worthiness, I am saying, mostly you will discover they were never worthy at all. They were just making use of your desperation to somehow fill your void. Never be desperate.
The more you learn to acknowledge this void, this fact of our existence, the more you find the various options that the world presents being ticked off; none of them are suitable. And the more you discover that none of them are suitable, the more your dislike towards the void reduces. A point comes—and it is a beautiful point to come to—when you are content with the void. Not only are you content, you are blissful in the void. And that alone is the real bliss.
That does not mean that being in the void, you will no longer relate to anybody in the world. Being blissful in the void means that now you can relate to the world without being needy, without being desperate. Now you can have relationships without being frustrated, without appearing weak, and without being lonely. Now you are in a position of strength from where you have healthy relationships. Now you are in a position of strength from where you can exercise compassion.
Vedanta is about living a powerful life, a life of dignity, a life of sovereignty.
Q: So, in that stage we will be able to choose our contenders. We will be able to be who we want to be at a any particular time.
AP: Yes. We anyway choose; we always exercise some kind of choice. But mostly that choice is exercised in a state of helplessness, of dependence, and of desperation. And whenever you exercise a choice from a state of fear, nervousness, or helplessness, the choice is bound to be wrong. Whereas, when you exercise your choice from a state of fulfillment, power, blissfulness, then the choices further your bliss.
One could call him the best contemporary representative of Advait Vedanta. Or one could simply call him a teacher beyond any tradition. Equally, one can see an abundance of compassion, love and reverence in his being. But the most appropriate way to know him would be through his work. Know More