When we get into a state of emotional crisis or a depression we might say “I don’t see any light” or “I am in a state of absolute darkness.” There is a contradiction in this statement that we miss to see due to our negative attitude, which is that for us to know we are in a state of ignorance implies a degree of knowledge. If there was no knowledge at all, one would not even see that one was in a state of darkness. There is a self-luminous light of knowledge always flickering within us. It is not which is bought from outside, but is our very awareness. With this awareness we can at least say “I am”.
When Descartes was assailed by great doubt, he became very confused. In his search for certitude he examined the many general laws which were the foundations of his knowledge, such as those which were said in the Holy Bible. He started with a doubt regarding the authenticity of the Bible itself. The authenticity of the Bible cannot be revealed by the Bible itself. If the Bible is not authentic, he cannot put his trust in it. In this way Descartes rejected idea after idea as unexamined statements.
Socrates said that the life that is not examined is not worth living. Descartes felt the same way, so he wanted to examine everything critically. Thus, he turned away from word testimony to sensory perception. Even when our sensory systems are of normal health and without defects, we see many optical illusions. We see blue in the sky when there is neither a sky as such nor any blue color. There is only vacant space filled with invisible air, but because of a certain diffraction of sunlight we see a blue dome-like thing above us. In this way, Descartes doubted everything, one thing he could not doubt, though, was that he was doubting. Everything else can be doubted. From this he came to the conclusion that there is something imperative in knowledge. There is even a categorical imperativeness, and there is a logical necessity in accepting this categorical imperativeness in reasoning. Thus, he arrived at an axiomatic basis for philosophical thinking. He said cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” Or dubito ergo sum, “I doubt, therefore I am”.
Vedanta uses a similar argument, which says that even in our darkest moment we say “I am”. We experience our existence even while sitting in a dark room with eyes closed. This inner light is called cit, chaitanya, gnosis. When we know something, what is the knowledge with which we know? If we take away that knowledge, is there any known remaining with us? When we carefully consider, can we differentiate the knowledge by which we say “I am” from this knowledge of the known? Don’t we see here that there is only one knowledge, which is seen to be the knower, the known and knowledge?
So, when we say “I am”, it is a very clear case of self-evidence. The highest form of certitude is one you don’t have to prove. In mathematics this is called axiomatic. Axiomatic knowledge requires no proof, because it is self-evident. What we are saying is it is evident to our self. Thus, self becomes the measuring rod of all knowledge; in other words, the self is the normative notion with which we measure truth. All other truths are derived only by using this normative notion.
Nothing is more clearly experienced that the awareness “I am”. Even a simple person knows this. From a little child to the most profound philosopher or scientist, this knowledge is common to all. Our experiences have within it a bright spot and a dark spot, between them there can be many gradations of consciousness. When we turn only to the dark element, life appears full of cries. It may look negative and depressing. Even at such dark moments it is with the consciousness of “I” that we say it is bleak and dark. If we turn to the very self with which we say this, and that brings us back to the brightest spot within ourselves. Then we won’t lose the stable footing of our life. If we habilitate ourselves in the bright centre of our own selves, then we can withdraw from that which frightens us, that which makes life dark.
Most of us think that realisation or self-knowledge is very hard to achieve, that it is a rare attainment of only a few people. Vedanta wants us to know it is not so. Realisation is of all people; everybody is already experiencing it in some measure. It is just that we do not know it is Self-realisation. We are under the impression that some day this world is going to disappear and some other kind of reality is going to assert itself, this is just another of the many illusions created by exaggerations of religious people. Such belief only increases unhappiness by convincing people they are ignorant and unrealised. It is a very simple thing to know we exist. This can be the starting point of us to reclaim more and more of our world into the realm of awareness, into the light of the Self.
That knowledge we have within us is Self-knowledge. We should go one step further and tell it to another person. When we do that, the other person at least knows that someone is speaking to him. When I say “I know I exist,” the other person says “yes, I also know I exist.” There is a homogeneity in the understanding of two people of the concept of ‘I’. There is an identity involved: the quality of awareness of the ‘I’ in me is identical with the ‘I’ in the other person, the third person, the fourth, of all the people in the world. So at least we all have one common knowledge- we all recognise “I am.”
In this basic awareness “I am,” we should see the unity of all awareness. This is the common platform on which we can link ourselves as part of the one binding knowledge of all beings. A great pitfall that happens to many in the spiritual path is mistaking the fictious ego-identity as the Absolute. This will only result in an inflated ego or the spiritual ego which is very hard to curb. Here we are putting together two incompatible things: the perishable ego-identity born of the body and mind, with the suggestion given by the rishis that “You are the Absolute.” Adi Shankara calls this filling a dog’s skin with milk. We must foresee a great danger in this perishable ego hitching itself to the imperishable Absolute, and then falsely believing that it is the Absolute. Thus, we are asked to discriminate between the perishing self and the imperishable Absolute. Identity with the Absolute comes with divine grace. It is not by mere intellectual pursuits or internal argumentation that we come to it.
A guru says “That thou art,” before coming to this realisation, though, the disciple has to give up his present concept of the “I” which is identified with the body, mind, senses, caste, creed, clan etc. For meditating on this dictum of instruction, other dictums are given. They are called manana vakya, the dictums for meditation. One of these is prajnanam brahma. When we are asleep, consciousness is filling that state which has within it no division of subject and object, and yet it has all the possibilities of becoming the dream or the wakeful through the slightest stimulation. Prajna or the seed ground of all this universe, is within you as the basis of consciousness.
“All these variations which I see in the world are all modifications of my own prajna. Prajnanam Brahma: all the variation that I see in the form of this cosmic universe are none other than the Absolute.” This should be attitude in contemplation. Thus, depriving ourselves of the phantom of ego-consciousness, we arrive at the pure knowledge. This universe thus becomes our Self and the phantom ego disappears into the vision of reality, which is self-evident and therefore axiomatic.