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With ‘Who am I’ begins the quest for spiritual knowledge

February 28
20:43 2013
Swami Mukundananda

Swami Mukundananda

It is said that once Socrates was pondering over philosophic truths and walking absent-mindedly on the street when he bumped into someone. The man asked annoyedly, “Can you not see where you are walking? Who are you?”

Socrates replied nonchalantly, “My dear friend, I have been pondering over that question for the last forty years, and have still not found the answer. If you have any tips to offer, do let me know.”

We may have never pondered as deeply as Socrates, but surely at some point of time in our lives we have asked ourselves the same question, “Who am I”? Am I a lady, a man, a father, a businessman, an American, an Indian? What is my true identity?

When we ask the question, “Who am I,” we begin our quest for spiritual knowledge. This is the first step. The Bhagavad Gita says in this regard:


“To understand the difference between the body and the knower of the body is wisdom.” This wisdom is imparted to us by the Vedic scriptures that inform us: The body is not you; it is like a house in which you reside, or like clothes that you wear.

You are the eternal soul seated within it. The body is made from matter, and hence it is perishable, but you are the soul which is indivisible, impartial, eternal, nirgun (formless), divine, and hence immortal.

However we constantly identify ourselves with our body and even if we intellectually understand that we are soul and not this body, we mistakenly perceive that the soul resides within us. But the truth is that neither is the soul within us, nor are we in the soul. We are the soul that is seated within the body. The Vedic scriptures state that the atma, or soul, resides in the heart though it is not physically bound to the heart, and we are that atma.

Once this truth of our identity is realized, naturally a lot of other questions also come up like what is our relation with our body and how does our inner apparatus of mind and intellect function? These questions are answered here in simple words for both spiritual aspirants and knowledge seekers.

Q: What is consciousness? How is it different from the soul?

SM: “Consciousness” is the symptom of life that is manifested by the soul. It is not the soul itself; rather, it is a quality of the soul. This is just as heat and light are manifestations of the fire, but by themselves, they are not the fire.

Everything that exists is verily the energy of God. However, it is not all consciousness. Matter is “insentient” or devoid of consciousness, while the soul is “sentient” or possessing consciousness. This is an important distinction between the soul and matter.

Apart from having consciousness itself, the soul also has the ability to impart consciousness to matter, when it associates with it. Just as “a flower carries aroma itself, and the garden where it grows also becomes aromatic by its presence.”

Likewise, the soul is sentient, and by its presence, it makes the dead matter of the body sentient as well. As long as the soul resides in the body, the senses, organs and limbs, all display signs of life. Upon death, when the soul departs, the body is dead matter once again.

Q: What is mind if it is not the soul or the brain?

SM: The mind is a subtle machine provided along with the body to the soul. It is such a machine that continuously generates thoughts, feelings, ideas, perceptions, and stores knowledge and memories.

The brain is not the mind. The brain is the hardware that the mind uses for its functioning. Someone’s brain may get damaged, but the mind may still continue functioning normally. The brain is made from the gross elements – earth, water, fire, air, space. On the other hand, the mind is subtler than these gross elements. The Bhagavad Gita states:

“Earth, water, fire, air, space, mind, intellect and ego, are various constituents of my material energy, Maya.” Here, Shree Krishna has enumerated the mind as separate from the five gross elements. Modern science has some idea of the nature of the gross brain, but is yet to comprehend the functioning of the subtle mind.

The mind is thus distinct from the brain. Nevertheless, in figure of speech, often when we say “the mind,” it refers together to the mind and the brain.

Q: How does the soul communicate with the elements in our body? Where is the connection between the body and the soul?

SM: The soul communicates with the body by energizing it with the force of life, or consciousness. Its presence makes the intellect, mind and body work. As already mentioned the soul is sentient, and by its presence, it makes the dead matter of the body sentient as well.

Now the reverse communication – how does the body communicate with the soul? The link between the material body and the spiritual soul is established by the ego. In the materially conditioned state, the first covering on the soul is of the ego. The word for ego in Sanskrit is asmita, which means “that which is not.” This ego creates a false identity for the soul. Due to it, the soul is under the illusion that it is the body, mind and intellect.

In this illusion that it is the body, the soul identifies with the pleasures and pains of the body. When the senses come in contact with the sense objects, they experience fleeting pleasure. Under the illusion that it is the body, the soul too experiences this pleasure. However, the experience does not satisfy the soul, which can only be satisfied by Divine Bliss. So the search for pleasure continues.
This is how the two-way communication between the soul and the body-mind-intellect works.

Q: What are the activities of the soul in the body? Is the soul simply God’s “overseer” in each body with no administrative duties?

SM: To enable us to comprehend the administrative position of the soul in the body, the Vedas give the analogy of a chariot:
AtmanamRathinamviddhi… (Kathopanishad)

The Upanishads say there is a chariot; this chariot has got five horses pulling it; the horses have reins in their mouths; the reins are in the hands of a charioteer; a passenger is sitting at the back of the chariot.

In this analogy:
• the chariot is the body
• the horses are the five senses
• the reins in the mouth of the horses is the mind
• the charioteer is the intellect
• the passenger seated behind is the soul residing in the body
Ideally, the passenger should give directions to the charioteer, who should pull the reins accordingly and guide the horses in the proper direction. However in this case, the passenger, or the soul is asleep, and so the chariot is going awry:
• The senses (horses) desire to see, taste, touch, feel and smell various things.
• The mind (reins), rather than controlling the senses, supports their desires.
• The intellect (charioteer), instead of directing where to go, submits to the pulls of the senses.
• Seated on this chariot, the soul (passenger) is moving around in this material world since eternity.

So in the materially bound state the soul does not perform any administrative functions because it has surrendered the control of the chariot. It merely experiences the pleasures of the mind and senses vicariously, by identifying with the bodily elements. And because of its inherent nature to seek the divine bliss of God, it perceives the dissatisfaction from bodily pleasures.

However, if the soul wakes up and decides to take a proactive role, it can inspire the intellect in the right direction. The intellect will then govern the mind, the mind will control the senses, and the chariot will move in the direction of eternal welfare.

Q: According to Bhagavad Gita 13.30, 13.32, the mind and body do the work, not the soul, which is akarmi, only a witness. If we (souls) do not do anything, then why do we have to suffer for all bad karmas and travel through 8.4 million species?

SM: The soul by itself is not the doer of actions. However, it has been given a body-mind-intellect mechanism by God. These are all made from inert matter, and it is the soul that inspires life into them by its presence. Hence, it is responsible for the actions performed by the body in which it is housed.

This is just as when you sit in a car and drive it, you are responsible for its motion. If the car were to have an accident, the law would not hold the tires, steering wheel, accelerator or ignition switch responsible for it. It would be your responsibility, since you were the driver within. Similarly, the soul seated within the body is held responsible for all the actions of the body-mind mechanism that has been given to it.

There is a story on responsibility in the Puranas. A king had gone for war on his chariot. While returning from a successful combat, a child got crushed under the wheels of the chariot. The king said, “O Charioteer! You are responsible for this death, since you were driving it at great speed.” The charioteer said, “O King! You are responsible for this death, not me. The credit of the successful combat has gone to you, and so the sin is also yours.”

Swami Mukundananda is a world renowned spiritual teacher from India, and is the senior disciple of Jagadguru Shree KripalujiMaharaj and founder of JK Yog. He has received his degrees in engineering from world renowned institutes in India, IIT and IIM. He has inspired people all over the world on the path of spirituality, holistic health, yoga, meditation, service to society and God realization. This year, Swamiji will be conducting weeklong programs in 30+ cities of USA from April onwards. For more information visit:

Swami Mukundananda 



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