Most of us have acquired higher degrees by passing certain examinations. The certificate issued by the Universities declares that we got specialization in the specific field we have chosen to study. Now, after many years, assuming that I am going to sit in the same examination hall, I may not be able to answer the questions as I did before because what I knew then has now been forgotten. What is the use of gaining a knowledge that comes and goes? Besides, the knowledge I gain about a subject today is not complete because tomorrow it is likely to change. What was proved earlier has been dispelled later. An Economist who advocated a policy of protectionism earlier is now advocating the policy of liberalization. The world is undergoing changes every minute and therefore any knowledge we acquire about the world will be applicable only at that point of time and not for ever. That alone is true knowledge which remains for ever at all times and in all conditions and which is absolute.
All the problems we face today arise because we are eager to learn more about the world outside. Everything we learn from educational institutions relate to the world outside. Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi said: “Though the images that one sees during dream appear real, they are mere mental projections and similarly, the images he sees in waking state, though appear real are also mental projections.” “If you felt thirsty in a dream, the drinking of illusory water did quench your illusory thirst. These are not illusions to you so long you do not know that the dream itself is an illusion. Similarly, in the waking state, you get the impression that the world is real. Just as the dream did not give you any doubt about its reality, the world you see in the waking state does not give you any doubt about its reality. If you withdraw your mind completely from the world, turn it within and abide by the Self, which is the substratum of your experience, you will find the world as unreal as the world in which you lived in your dream”.
A knowledge can be gained only if someone is there to receive it. So, unless the subject is there, the question of knowing the object does not arise. Knowing about the subject is primary and knowing about the object is secondary. Before we start finding about the world outside, we should first ponder the question; ‘for whom the world appears?’ Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi said that if a person has to admit the existence of the world, first he has to admit the existence of a seer. So, before one sees the world, one should see himself first and know what constitutes his Self.
What is Self-knowledge? The very sense of ‘being’, ‘existing’ or the awareness of “I AM”, is Self knowledge. This consciousness, expressed as ‘I am’, is the reality. There are moments when one is not consciousness of his body as in sleep but there is no moment when he is not conscious of his Self.
The Self is the truth. It is ever-existing and revealing at all times. There is no moment when the Self as Consciousness does not exist nor can one remain apart from Consciousness. The Self is self-luminous. One is conscious of Self without the aid of any other instruments like body or senses. Self-knowledge is absolute because knowing it, nothing else needs to be known. The Self is one only; non-dual. It is not an object to be known because Self is both the knower and the known; the seer and the seen. Self is unchanging. Though we pass through different stages in life like youth, middle age and old age and different states like deep sleep, dream and waking, what prevails for ever is the I-Consciousness, which remains unchanged at all times. Self knowledge alone is real. The world, the individual and God are mere appearances on the Self. The Self is pure Consciousness, Existence and Bliss. One who abides by his Self is transcended to a state beyond time and space, beyond knowledge and ignorance and beyond the normal Gunas (Satwa, Rajas and Tamas). Once the Self is known, one does not recognize anything external to him. He has nothing to give or take from this world. He performs whatever duties expected of him in the spirit of Nishkama Karma. He does worldly functions (Vyavahara), attends to his work at office and home and yet remains conscious of his Self. Enlightened within, he becomes the truly liberated soul.
When a person says “I am’, it means he is aware of his ‘being’. Though the word ‘am’ appears secondary, in point of truth, it is primary because the word ‘I’ gets changed but ‘am’ does not get changed. For example, though the ‘I’ gets different experiences, like “I am a writer, ‘I am a singer’ and ‘I am handsome’ and so on, the word ‘am’ remains unchanged in all experiences and only the ‘I’ changes its character. Though the word ‘I’ comes first and the word ‘am’ comes second, the total meaning signify the existence and therefore two words always appear together. While the ‘I’ is the physical element, ‘am’ is a divine element. While the ‘I’ denotes the matter, the ‘am’ denotes the spirit.
Unlike other knowledge which is only relatively or conditionally true, our consciousness, “I am” is absolute, permanent, unchanging and self-evident. Since it is the only thing we experience at all times, in all states and conditions and since it never undergoes changes, this fundamental consciousness, ‘I am’ is our real Self, our true and essential nature. The true knowledge lies in realizing this truth.