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From self-consciousness to 
self-culture to self-knowledge

From a talk by Swami Nirliptananda

Part six in a series of discussions on the Bhagavad Gita, addressing the challenges of personal spiritual growth in modern times.

London, England, UK
We may wonder what prayer is and why we pray, what the objective of prayer is and what benefits we get from praying. Lord Krishna has said that praying is like cleansing a lampshade full of soot and putting the wick very high to get the glowing light. If we do not clean the shade, we still do not see the light even though the wick is burning. We are not talking, however, about light but about knowledge. With a purified mind knowledge itself manifests. When the mind is impure, our nature is impure and then the light within is stifled. We do not get that light because of ignorance.

Lord Krishna said - and this is very important - that the Lord does not take account of what we do; He does not wonder whether we do good or bad. Every good act that we have done purifies our being like cleaning the lampshade, and every negative action is like staining that shade. He said that God is not the cause of our suffering; our own actions cause it because our Self-knowledge is veiled by ignorance and we, thereby, come to suffering. Even if we know the difference between what is right to do and what is not, our nature forces us in the wrong direction. Lord Krishna said that this is all that happens.

The latent power within

Let us look at the whole panorama of life, everything that exists, the land, the animals, plants, and so on; everything is actually moving on and we ourselves know that we can improve, we can become better; we always strive to become better and we will not be satisfied until we attain that state of perfection. There is something in us that is urging us, just like the life in a seed. When the seed we have planted grows into a huge tree, that is life. That latent power is within us, but because we are not aware of it we act like a blind man. Lord Krishna said that through the tapasya - austerity - of prayer the shade gets cleaned. Regularly praying means to regularly clean the shade within us. But when we pray one minute and the rest of the year we forget it, the shade gets dirty. When we then pray again, nothing happens, but when we continue to pray we begin to feel differently.

Bad habits may be a hindrance. Two people I met, who had been to a seven-day retreat, switched the television on as soon as they came home; automatically their hand reached out for the television and, so, they wondered what had happened to them. We create negative habits; they take us over and we do not understand what is happening. So it is with darkness, as Lord Krishna said, which covers Self-knowledge, our light, and with the darkness of bad habits we do not see what is right for us. When we come home at night, the first thing we do is to find the switch to switch the light on - if we do not do that before proceeding we will stumble over everything that is there. The very things which are supposed to be a comfort, like chairs, tables, and so on, in the darkness they all are obstacles. Therefore, that light is important for us to see what is there so that we do not stumble. And so it is with the world we are living in, which is like our home.

The light of consciousness

Self-knowledge is the light within us, the light of our consciousness which guides us. Ninety-nine per cent of people are not Self-conscious. We are conscious about everything that is outside us, our friends, our work, our house, and so on. Objectively we are conscious, but subjectively we are not. We are not aware of what is happening with us and within us. Therefore, the first step towards this Self-knowledge is Self-consciousness. We have to learn to be Self-conscious. That Self-consciousness develops through silence and prayer. If we find also some time to repeat - in silence - a holy mantra or the name of God and contemplate it, our mind will settle down, for the mind is never silent; it is always working fast. Even scientists cannot stop it. If they give us a drug to sleep, then still the mind does not settle down. So, drugs and these types of things cannot stop the mind, cannot control it.

Relaxing the mind

How to relax the mind is the biggest problem of modern times. Unless the mind is relaxed we cannot experience peace. And the mind can only be relaxed if we practise prayer and meditation because through their practice by the mere fact that the mind thinks about God, is involved in good things the purifying process starts. We clean the lampshade of sin by thinking about the Lord, by surrendering ourselves to Him, by offering to Him what we have from our true heart - when we aspire to become pure. It is a matter of meditation, of spiritual practice which will purify our nature and our mind. When they are purified, we will experience peace and happiness.

The Lord does not only bless us with wealth, health and material things, but He also takes care of what He has given us. So, when we completely surrender to the Lord, taking refuge in Him, He is going to live with us in this world of sins and suffering. When we have attained Self-knowledge, we realize that God is near to us, that He is so near that we cannot separate ourselves from Him. But ignorance separates us from Him. To the same degree that we are ignorant we feel that God is far from us while some people - who are absolutely ignorant - think that God does not even exist. So, Self-knowledge brings God near to us and ignorance keeps Him away from us.

Knowledge comes through worshipping the Lord, thinking about Him and meditating on Him; these are the ways. Ignorance comes by forgetting God and by only thinking of, and getting lost in, the material world. We do not often take the time to think about God and our mind has become so confused that even if God comes in front of us in person we fail to recognize Him.

The purity within us

The Bhagavad Gita mentions that those who think about the Lord, who merge themselves in Him, who are fixed on the Lord and have Him as the supreme goal, attain to non-return, all their accumulated sins being dispelled by Self-knowledge. And when this happens, we experience happiness in this world, and in the other world as well. We will have no more problems in this world.

So, this is the idea: to think first about God, to surrender ourselves to Him, and always to praise Him. We should not allow our mouth to speak just anything, but we say to ourselves: "From our mouth comes the prayer of God," and remember that there is that purity within us. When we allow our mouth to be used only for proper things, then we will find it as a means through which we come to ourselves and we develop that Self-culture through which our mind is cleansed. When we always think about the Lord, surrender to Him and pray to Him, we will come to Him and we shall go where there is no return to this mortal world of birth, death, disease, old age and suffering.

When our inner Self is pure, our understanding of ourselves becomes clear, and we are no longer blind. With Self-knowledge certainty develops as well. When certainty develops within us, the mind becomes firm and anxiety and tensions are no longer there. Anxieties disappear totally when we come near to God, for only God can give us security.


The important thing is that when we start to practise this, we immediately start to find results, not after we die. With just a bit of practice of this dharma - righteousness - we will find that we become free from all the fears of this world and the world hereafter. So fear disappears when we come near to God. Dharma is about Self-culture. To culture ourselves means that we eat, read, see, listen to, and speak the right type of things, because the senses create either Self-knowledge or ignorance within us, and so we have to be careful about what we say, eat, hear, read and watch, because when good sattvic - things enter our nature the negative things cannot be there. Just like light and darkness cannot be in the same domain, similarly, the positive and the negative cannot be in the same place. Therefore, we try to allow only positive things to enter our being. Sometimes we do not feel like doing so, but when we go against what our nature and mind dictate, these negative things within us gradually will go away. Only through such tapasya (austerity) negativity leaves our body, our mind, our nature.

Lord Krishna said that when ignorance is destroyed within us, the light of Self-knowledge is revealed in us like the sun. As in the daylight we do not need a torch, we are not afraid, we just walk, so when Self-knowledge comes we become fearless. Om Tat Sat Hari Om.

The Bhagavad Gita, or √ęSong of God', one of the sacred Hindu texts, recounts the dialogue between Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, and Arjuna, His disciple.

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005