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The three possibilities of the self—choose yours
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
14 min
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उद्धरेदात्मनात्मानं नात्मानमवसादयेत्।

आत्मैव ह्यात्मनो बन्धुरात्मैव रिपुरात्मन:।।5।।

uddhared ātmanātmānaṁ nātmānam avasādayet

ātmaiva hyātmano bandhur ātmaiva ripur ātmanaḥ

One should save oneself by oneself. One should not lower oneself. For oneself is truly one’s own friend. Oneself is truly one’s own enemy.

~ Chapter 6, Verse 5

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बन्धुरात्मात्मनस्तस्य येनात्मैवात्मना जित:।

अनात्मनस्तु शत्रुत्वे वर्ते तात्मैव शत्रुवत्।।6।।

bandhur ātmātmanas tasya yenātmaivātmanā jitaḥ

anātmanas tu śhatrutve vartetātmaiva śhatru-vat

Of him by whom has been conquered his very self by the self, his self is the friend of his self. But for one who has not conquered his self, the self itself acts inimically like an enemy.

~ Chapter 6, Verse 6

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जितात्मन: प्रशान्तस्य परमात्मा समाहित:।

शीतोष्णसुखदु:खेषु तथा मानापमानयो:।।7।।

jitātmanaḥ praśhāntasya paramātmā samāhitaḥ

śhītoṣhṇa-sukha-duḥkheṣhu tathā mānāpamānayoḥ

The supreme self of one who has control over the aggregate of his body and organs and who is tranquil, becomes manifest. He should be equipoised in the midst of cold and heat, happiness and sorrow, as also honour and dishonour.

~ Chapter 6, Verse 7

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Questioner (Q): Shri Krishna speaks of three selves. What are these three different selves?

Acharya Prashant (AP): These three different selves are actually the three different possibilities of the ego, and the freedom of the ego to choose the various possibilities—not merely two or three, but an entire range of possibilities that are available to it.

There is the highest state of the ego which is so very unlike the usual, normal states of the ego that we commonly come across that that highest state is not even called an ego state. That highest state of the ego is then called as ‘pure Self’ or ‘pure Truth’ or ‘ego dissolved’ or ‘ego sublimated’.

Nevertheless, that final state is actually the highest possibility of the ego itself. And it is very important to acknowledge that―that highest state is possible to the ego, is attainable to the ego, is not out of the reach of the ego―because if you do not emphasize on that, then that highest state remains a mere concept. A grand concept, but nevertheless just an unattainable utopia.

So, there is that Self; that Self which is extremely, extremely valuable, immense, immeasurable, free of all the usual limits and pettinesses of the ego. But because It is valuable, rather invaluable, therefore the ego obviously has to lose, forfeit or sacrifice its usual properties and pleasures in order to be That.

Then there are the various lower states of the ego all equally possible to the ego. Club them all together in one name: the ego itself. The ego holds the possibility to remain as the ego to retain its various fractions, fragments, falsenesses and continue living as most of us do. So that’s the second possibility.

Then who is this third one, the third self that is being referred to in these verses? Have we understood the first two, first of all?

The first one is the highest possibility of the self. It is referred to as the ‘pure Self’. We are saying it is the purest form of ego. It is ‘I’ alone devoid of not only all objectivity, but also all subjectivity, and therefore all duality. That’s pure Self. That’s one.

And then the other is the possibility of the ego to continue without attaining its highest potential. That is the second self.

Who is the third one? The third one is the one that chooses, the one who decides between the two selves. Even this third one is not really different from the two other selves; in a sense it is like the ego deciding what it itself wants to be. So, there are no three. The ‘I’ is deciding what the ‘I’ wants to be.

The ‘I’ can ascend. The ‘I’ can descend.

The ‘I’ can top the peaks. The ‘I’ can go down in dumps.

But whatsoever is the state of the ‘I’, it is the ‘I’ itself. So, there are not many different entities as such. It is the ego and the possibilities, potentials, the freedom, and therefore the dangers that it carries for itself. The freedom of choice available to the ego can take it to its peak point, and this same freedom of choice available to the ego can ruin it and bring it to total disaster. Right?

‘I’, the one who chooses, ‘I’, the one who chooses to be the Highest, and ‘I’, the one who chooses to not to be the Highest. These are the three selves.

It depends on you, obviously, what you want to make of your life. You’d probably feel like asking, “Sir, if it is possible to choose to be the Highest, why would one at all go for a lower choice?” One goes for a lower choice because lower choices offer something that the higher choice doesn’t. The lower choices offer, at their lowest level, pleasures. At a little higher level, the lower choices offer happinesses; excitement, sensation. The top point, the top state obviously offers everything that’s purely tops, so the usual lowly pleasures are not available at the highest state. They are not available at the highest state because at the highest state those pleasures find no takers; at the highest state there is nobody to care for those pleasures. There is nobody who values those pleasures, so therefore those pleasures are unavailable at the highest state. Lack of demand.

If one is habituated to a lowly life, then the habit has a certain momentum. Momentum is inertia. There’s nothing else that is fascinating about a lowly life, a low state of ego except that one is habituated to it. Nothing else. The top state is not called the ‘top’ state for no reason. It is indeed far better than, rather incomparable to all other states that are possible to the ego, and yet we find so few people targeting it and even fewer people attaining it. Why?

The reason must be obvious because that state is unknown; some say even unknowable―and the other states that we usually reside in are very well known to us. In knowledge is habit; in knowledge is conditioning and security. It might be a lowly thing but we have experience of it, and experience makes a fearful man feel secure even if falsely, artificially: “I know this here state."

The topmost state beckons, but one does not know it; one does not have any experience. Therefore there is fear, and therefore there is a lack of response as well.

Somebody’s calling you. The proposal appears attractive, but you do not really know what lies in store for you; you won’t really be compelled to go. The offer would not appear absolutely convincing, that’s the thing.

Therefore, the offer from that unknown top position has to be coupled with detachment or disillusionment from one’s current position. When these two combine, when these two team up, only then it is possible for the ego to migrate from a lowly position to a higher position. In general, if either of these forces is absent, the ego will continue to laze where it has always been. Do we get these two forces? They must act in tandem.

On one hand, you must have situations—external, internal, preferably both—where you experience the call of something beyond you. There could be a person in your life; you could have newly chanced upon a book; you could have moved to a place where the environment is of a higher level than what you have usually experienced. There must be something to tell you that it is possible to live a higher life. That is one factor.

And then, there must be an inner disillusionment. One must feel disenchanted with his own ways. One must say, “Of what good have I been to myself? Why must I continue to be rooted in my old ways? What is this insistence? What is this arrogance rather? Why can’t I just give myself up?”

When these two combine, only then one ascends.

Sadly, for most human beings this combo is a rarity. It does not happen to most people. Forget about the two forces coming together—most people do not experience even one of them. Therefore, people remain stuck in their lowly positions in spite of the great and higher potential being available to them. What Shri Krishna is saying here is so beautiful, so simple and so obvious.

“One should save oneself by oneself.”

There is nobody else who is really going to come to save you. Remember here that the chooser is the choice. Remember here that the ego is deciding of its own destiny; you’re not deciding somebody else’s life. What Krishna is saying here is that you are the one who will decide the course and fate of your life.

“One should save oneself by oneself. One should not lower oneself. For oneself is verily one’s own friend. Oneself is verily one’s own enemy.”

Decades back when I had first come to the Gita, this was one line that had really enchanted me. I’ll read it out to you.

Ātmaiva hyātmano bandhur ātmaiva ripur ātmanaḥ.

“You are your own friend, and you are your own enemy,” simply put.

Ātmaiva hyātmano bandhur ātmaiva ripur ātmanaḥ.

You decide. Even if a lot of information or support is available to you, yet ultimately the support cannot decide on your behalf. The judgement must be written in your own handwriting, in your own ink. You may have a team to assist you; you may have seniors to advise you, but the signature below the judgement you pass on your life will always be yours. Nobody else can decide for you.

It is such a great exposition of one’s own complete responsibility towards himself. If you don’t want to do it, who else will do it? And if you do not want to do it, then you’ve already done it—but you have done the wrong thing. If you don’t want to rise high, if you don’t want to ascend, what do you think, you haven’t made a decision? You have decided, but the judgement is all wrong. What have you decided? You have decided to keep basking in all the lowly places. Getting it?

How does one know what is low, what is high? If you are honest, then your suffering is the answer. If you remain fearful, if you remain suspicious, if you remain tense, anxious, if you feel the need to be cunning and deceptive, if you have stuff to hide and you fear being exposed, then you have telltale signs that you are living in a lowly state.

On the other hand, if you live carefree, if you can be spontaneous, if you see things that are obvious, simple, yet missed by most people, if the world does not appear like an enemy to you, if you can freely give, if your head doesn’t keep spinning with thoughts, then you are the higher state of the ego.

What is the highest state? That is not too important a question. Shri Krishna says in this very chapter, the method is detachment and practice—‘Abhyasa’ and ‘Vairagya’—and all practice is incremental improvement, which means it is something that takes you to a higher state relative to your lower state.

Therefore, what matters to you is whether you are better today compared to your previous self yesterday. You have to be better relative to yourself. Talking too much of the grand absolute not only is not helpful, but can actually be deception towards oneself. You can keep talking of the highest state—and there is a certain pleasure in that, it is quite juicy—and you can willfully keep ignoring your current state. What matters is that you should be better today compared to how you were yesterday—Abhyasa—and that is sufficient because much more than that is anyway not possible to the human being given his body, given his conditioning.

This does not sound too glamorous, does it? Instant nirvāṇa is much more fascinating. You do something utterly heroic and you are suddenly enlightened or liberated. All that is just laziness, no? “I will not take the laborious route of doing the little maximum possible daily to me. Instead, one grand day I’ll just go for the jackpot!” no?

First of all, it is quite improbable that you will hit the jackpot given your history. Secondly, consoling yourself that a sudden jackpot is possible to you, don’t you see how you continue to preserve your rotten state?

Always be cautious of the tendency to burst into excited spells of activity. It is not a spell of activity; it is not an episode of enthusiasm that will help you through the marathon called life. It’s a long-distance thing. In fact, those who try to sprint in between are likely to be the first ones to fall by the wayside. Think of a sprinter—in a marathon. Odd, very odd! But then, that’s what most people prefer. Instead of continuous and honest work, they would rather want to go for an enthusiastic sprint and that would carry them some 500 meters. Getting it?

The way to reach your highest potential is to drop all images of the Highest and continue to work on yourself, relative to yourself. The Highest is so high that you cannot picture it. You cannot target it. Why waste your time dreaming of it?

Remember that the Highest is absolute. You understand ‘absolute’? Absolute means infinite. Infinite means beyond the scope of the mind. If it is beyond the scope of the mind, why then are you mandating on it? Just keep progressing. Keep progressing.

Abhyasa and Vairagya; practice and detachment. These two words so pithily sum it up.

Why detachment? So that you can move up. If you’re attached, then you are attached to your current state. So first of all, you need detachment. Detachment will allow you the mobility to ascend. Otherwise, if you are attached, do you have any mobility? There is no mobility. You are attached; you are stuck. So, detachment is needed so that you have mobility.

And then, practice is needed so that you continue to move up. Detachment gives you the freedom to move up and practice gives you the distance, the movement. Are you getting it?

Detachment gives you the freedom to move and practice gives you the movement itself.

Getting it?

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