Insights on Swami Nikhilananda’s text, ‘Self-Knowledge’ (the Ātmabodha)

The text entitled ‘Self-Knowledge (Ātmabodha)’ , which draws from non-dualistic Vedānta philosophy, provides invaluable insights to those who strive to live their yoga to the fullest extent.  After all, the very title denotes the state that we, as spiritual aspirants, are hoping to attain and reside in.  If we compare our yogic path to a journey in which self-knowledge represents the final destination, then this book would surely be considered a useful guidebook to refer to both prior to embarking and all throughout the trip.

This text aims to educate the reader on the meaning of self-knowledge and how it applies to our spiritual growth.  Furthermore, it warns of the challenges that are imminent in the pursuit of this utmost level of realisation of truth, and prescribes the steps that need to be followed in order to progress.

Of particular significance, the Ātmabodha starts off by admitting that the teachings are targeted towards a specific audience – that is, those who are already on the path towards self-realisation:

I am composing the Ātmabodha, or Self-Knowledge, to serve the needs of those who have been purified through the practice of austerities, and who are peaceful in heart, free of cravings, and desirous of Liberation [ref. 1, p. 117, verse 1]

While this may appear discriminatory,  it must be pointed out that the concept of self-knowledge is very complex, even for those who are serious, long-time practitioners of yoga; therefore, individuals who have a strong inclination towards spiritual self advancement are the most apt to benefit from the teachings of this text. This is due to the fact that such individuals are aware of the greatest obstacle that stands in their way of attaining their goal, which is ignorance.  Hence, they would likely be interested in discovering how that ignorance manifests in their quest for liberation.  Armed with this knowledge, they can be better equipped to avoid (or at least deal with) the illusions that could delude them.

Action cannot destroy ignorance, for it is not in conflict with ignorance.  Knowledge alone destroys ignorance, as light destroys dense darkness.

It is only because of ignorance that the Self appears to be finite,  When ignorance is destroyed, the Self, which does not admit of any multiplicity whatsoever, truly reveals Itself by Itself. like the sun when the cloud is removed.  [ref. 1, p. 121, verses 3 & 4]

In both the introductory address and the notes that accompany Sankarāchārya’s scriptures,  the author repeatedly reminds the reader of the essence of the true Self – Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute – which has been expressed in one of the great Vedic statements:

“That beyond which there is nothing; which shines above māyā and is infinitely greater than the universe; the Inmost Self of all; the One without a second; the true Self; Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute; infinite and immutable – that Brahman art thou. Meditate on this thy mind” [ref 2, verse 264]

The main point of this passage is that we are one with Brahman.  It follows, therefore, that the true nature of all beings is divine, infinite in its potential and boundless in its capacity for bliss and knowledge.  In fact,  Brahman, alone, is real and all-pervading;  What we perceive to be real, which is basically the entire universe and all matter contained within, is simply illusion, born out of our ignorance.

The world appears to be real as long as the non-dual Brahman, which is the basis of all, is not known.  It is like the illusion of silver in an oyster shell.

All the various forms exist in the imagination of the perceiver, the substratum being the eternal and all-pervading Vishnu, whose nature is Existence and Intelligence.  Names and forms are like bangles and bracelets, and Vishnu is like gold. [Ref. 1, pp. 124 & 126, verses 7 & 8]

Thus, all that constitutes primordial nature is ever-changing and eventually perishes, as a function of the 3 gunas, which are always in flux.  Brahman, however, which represents its composing fibre, remains forever unchanged.   As per the example, though we may create innumerable pieces of jewellery of every shape and size, the metal that we use to form the jewellery remains constant in each of the creations.

Our greatest challenge that we experience in our quest for self-knowledge is our attachment to the physical aspects of our own selves as well as the universe.  Again, this is due to ignorance.  We have difficulty with the concept of non-duality, and because of our weak discernment skills, we mistake things from the relative and phenomenal world, for the true Self.  Furthermore, as a result of our limited imaginations, we cannot easily relate to anything as formless and intangible as the individual or collective soul.  We tend to either superimpose names and forms upon Brahman, or we conjure up limitations or conditioning characteristics (known as upādhis, in Vedānta philosophy) on Its nature, but this obviously creates a false portrayal of Brahman.

Our quest to discover our true Selves is, in essence, a journey that takes us into the inner  layers of our being.  As we go deeper inward , we shed off more of our ignorance and become more akin to Ātman – that is to say, the Supreme Soul. This process is well illustrated by the traversal of the  five kośas, or sheaths.  Each sheath represents a veil that covers the innermost and true Self.  As one would expect, the outermost sheath, consisting of gross particles of matter, is the most dense.  Those who reside at this layer identity only with the physical body. As the thirst for self-knowledge grows, though, we acquire the intellect to drill into the underlying sheaths, which symbolize the subtle and causal bodies. The sheaths become increasingly finer, allowing more and more of the true nature of the Soul to be revealed, until the innermost sheath – that of bliss – is reached.  However, it is important to remember that, like any type of covering, it is not the actual  object that is being sought.  By clinging to the bliss experienced at this level, we would remain entrapped in an illusory state.

On account of union with the five sheaths, the pure Ātman appears to be like them, as is the case with a crystal, which appears to be endowed with such colours as blue or red when in contact with a blue or red cloth.

One should, through discrimination, separate the pure and inmost Self from the sheaths by which It is covered, as one separates a rice-kernel from the covering husk by striking it with a pestle. [Ref. 1, pp. 134-135, verses 14 & 15]

As spiritual aspirants, we should be striving to become jivamuktas, which, upon attaining that state of ultimate self-realisation, enables us to become the embodied Brahman and enjoy absolute freedom from suffering.  As a result of this complete liberation from ignorance, we need no longer fear becoming bound by our sense organs and minds, for we are now able to differentiate between what is real and what is illusion.  With this comes eternal bliss and enlightenment, and the promise of immortality:

A yogi who is a jivamukta, after crossing the ocean of delusion and killing the monsters of passion and aversion, becomes united with Peace and dwells in the Bliss derived from the realization of the Self alone. [Ref. 1, pp. 158-159, verse 50]

The path to liberation is admittedly difficult.  Our inability to discern causes confusion and makes us prone to numerous setbacks along the way.  In all probability, we will, from time to time, draw our own conclusions which leads us even more astray and further from the Truth that we seek.  However, provided that we continue to fuel our desire for liberation, adhere to the practices prescribed in the eight-limbed path of yoga, and faithfully follow the guidance of a trusted guru, it can only help us in our quest.  Of course, intense contemplation is also required in order to gain deeper understanding. Through constant meditation upon a subject, one may eventually reach the state of all-knowing with regards to that topic.

He who, renouncing all activities, worships in the sacred and stainless shrine of Ātman, which is independent of time, place, and distance; which is present everywhere; which is the destroyer of heat and cold, and the other opposites; and which is the giver of eternal happiness, becomes all-knowing and all-pervading and attains, hereafter, Immortality.  [Ref.1. p. 171, verse 68]

The  points that I presented here are those that resonated most deeply with me.  There are, of course, many others, but it would require considerably more words to adequately summarize them.  Suffice it to say, it is very clear to me now why this book forms the basis of so many spiritual discourses by our beloved teacher, Sri Dharma Mittra.  I wish to conclude this reflection with a passage by the author, Swami Nikhilananda, which touched me profoundly.  May these words serve to inspire as many individuals as possible to cultivate a strong desire for self-knowledge, for it “serves the practical purpose of destroying pain and suffering (which are always caused by ignorance of the Self) and also the positive end of helping everyone enjoy supreme peace and blessedness here and always.” [Ref. 1, p. xv]




Swami Nikhilananda, Self-Knowledge (the Ātmabodha), New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 2005.

Śankara, Vivekachudāmani, publishing information unknown