In time then the babe arrives at self-consciousness; and, as one might expect, the growing boy or girl often becomes intensely aware of Self. His or her self-consciousness is crude, no doubt, but it has very little misgiving. If the question of the nature of the Self is propounded to the boy as a problem he has no difficulty in solving it. He says "I know well enough who I am: I am the boy with red hair what gave Jimmy Brown such a jolly good licking last Monday week." He knows well enough--or thinks he knows--who he is. And at a later age, though his definition may change and he may describe himself chiefly as a good cricketer or successful in certain examinations, his method is practically the same. He fixes his mind on a certain bundle of qualities and capacities which he is supposed to possess, and calls that bundle Himself. And in a more elaborate way we most of us, I imagine, do the same.
Presently, however, with more careful thought, we begin to see difficulties in this view. I see that directly I think of myself as a certain bundle of qualities--and for that matter it is of no account whether the qualities are good or bad, or in what sort of charming confusion they are mixed--I see at once that I am merely looking at a bundle of qualities: and that the real "I," the Self, is not that bundle, but is the being INSPECTING the same--something beyond and behind, as it were. So I now concentrate my thoughts upon that inner Something, in order to find out what it really is. I imagine perhaps an inner being, of 'astral' or ethereal nature, and possessing a new range of much finer and more subtle qualities than the body--a being inhabiting the body and perceiving through its senses, but quite capable of surviving the tenement in which it dwells and I think of that as the Self. But no sooner have I taken this step than I perceive that I am committing the same mistake as before. I am only contemplating a new image or picture, and "I" still remain beyond and behind that which I contemplate. No sooner do I turn my attention on the subjective being than it becomes OBJECTIVE, and the real subject retires into the background. And so on indefinitely. I am baffled; and unable to say positively what the Self is.
Meanwhile there are people who look upon the foregoing speculations about an interior Self as merely unpractical. Being perhaps of a more materialistic type of mind they fix their attention on the body. Frankly they try to define the Self by the body and all that is connected therewith--that is by the mental as well as corporeal qualities which exhibit themselves in that connection; and they say, "At any rate the Self--whatever it may be--is in some way limited by the body; each person studies the interest of his body and of the feelings, emotions and mentality directly associated with it, and you cannot get beyond that; it isn't in human nature to do so. The Self is limited by this corporeal phenomenon and doubtless it perishes when the body perishes." But here again the conclusion, though specious at first, soon appears to be quite inadequate. For though it is possibly true that a man, if left alone in a Robinson Crusoe life on a desert island, might ultimately subside into a mere gratification of his corporeal needs and of those mental needs which were directly concerned with the body, yet we know that such a case would by no means be representative. On the contrary we know that vast numbers of people spend their lives in considering other people, and often so far as to sacrifice their own bodily and mental comfort and well-being. The mother spends her life thinking almost day and night about her babe and the other children--spending all her thoughts and efforts on them. You may call her selfish if you will, but her selfishness clearly extends beyond her personal body and mind, and extends to the personalities of her children around her; her "body"--if you insist on your definition --must be held to include the bodies of all her children. And again, the husband who is toiling for the support of the family, he is thinking and working and toiling and suffering for a 'self' which includes his wife and children. Do you mean that the whole family is his "body"? Or a man belongs to some society, to a church or to a social league of some kind, and his activities are largely ruled by the interests of this larger group. Or he sacrifices his life--as many have been doing of late--with extraordinary bravery and heroism for the sake of the nation to which he belongs. Must we say then that the whole nation is really a part of the man's body? Or again, he gives his life and goes to the stake for his religion. Whether his religion is right or wrong does not matter, the point is that there is that in him which can carry him far beyond his local self and the ordinary instincts of his physical organism, to dedicate his life and powers to a something of far wider circumference and scope.
Thus in the FIRST of these two examples of a search for the nature of the Self we are led INWARDS from point to point, into interior and ever subtler regions of our being, and still in the end are baffled; while in the SECOND we are carried outwards into an ever wider and wider circumference in our quest of the Ego, and still feel that we have failed to reach its ultimate nature. We are driven in fact by these two arguments to the conclusion that that which we are seeking is indeed something very vast--something far extending around, yet also buried deep in the hidden recesses of our minds. How far, how deep, we do not know. We can only say that as far as the indications point the true self is profounder and more far-reaching than anything we have yet fathomed.
In the ordinary commonplace life we shrink to ordinary commonplace selves, but it is one of the blessings of great experiences, even though they are tragic or painful, that they throw us out into that enormously greater self to which we belong. Sometimes, in moments of inspiration, of intense enthusiasm, of revelation, such as a man feels in the midst of a battle, in moments of love and dedication to another person, and in moments of religious ecstasy, an immense world is opened up to the astonished gaze of the inner man, who sees disclosed a self stretched far beyond anything he had ever imagined. We have all had experiences more or less of that kind. I have known quite a few people, and most of you have known some, who at some time, even if only once in their lives, have experienced such an extraordinary lifting of the veil, an opening out of the back of their minds as it were, and have had such a vision of the world, that they have never afterwards forgotten it. They have seen into the heart of creation, and have perceived their union with the rest of mankind. They have had glimpses of a strange immortality belonging to them, a glimpse of their belonging to a far greater being than they have ever imagined. Just once--and a man has never forgotten it, and even if it has not recurred it has colored all the rest of his life.
Now, this subject has been thought about--since the beginning of the world, I was going to say--but it has been thought about since the beginnings of history. Some three thousand years ago certain groups of--I hardly like to call them philosophers --but, let us say, people who were meditating and thinking upon these problems, were in the habit of locating themselves in the forests of Northern India; and schools arose there. In the case of each school some teacher went into the woods and collected groups of disciples around him, who lived there in his company and listened to his words. Such schools were formed in very considerable numbers, and the doctrines of these teachers were gathered together, generally by their disciples, in notes, which notes were brought together into little pamphlets or tracts, forming the books which are called the 'Upanishads' of the Indian sages. They contain some extraordinary words of wisdom, some of which I want to bring before you. The conclusions arrived at were not so much what we should call philosophy in the modern sense. They were not so much the result of the analysis of the mind and the following out of concatenations of strict argument; but they were flashes of intuition and experience, and all through the 'Upanishads' you find these extraordinary flashes embedded in the midst of a great deal of what we should call a rather rubbishy kind of argument, and a good deal of merely conventional Brahmanical talk of those days. But the people who wrote and spoke thus had an intuition into the heart of things which I make bold to say very few people in modern life have. These 'Upanisihads,' however various their subject, practically agree on one point --in the definition of the "self." They agree in saying: that the self of each man is continuous with and in a sense identical with the Self of the universe. Now that seems an extraordinary conclusion, and one which almost staggers the modern mind to conceive of. But that is the conclusion, that is the thread which runs all through the 'Upanishads'--the identity of the self of each individual with the self of every other individual throughout mankind, and even with the selves of the animals and other creatures.
Those who have read the Khandogya Upanishad remember how in that treatise the father instructs his son Svetakeitu on this very subject--pointing him out in succession the objects of Nature and on each occasion exhorting him to realize his identity with the very essence of the object--"Tat twam asi, THAT thou art." He calls Svetaketu's attention to a tree. What is the ESSENCE of the tree? When they have rejected the external characteristics--the leaves, the branches, etc.--and agreed that the SAP is the essence, then the father says, "TAT TWAM ASI --THAT thou art." He gives his son a crystal of salt, and asks him what is the essence of that. The son is puzzled. Clearly neither the form nor the transparent quality are essential. The father says, "Put the crystal in water." Then when it is melted he says, "Where is the crystal?" The son replies, "I do not know." "Dip your finger in the bowl," says the father, "and taste." Then Svetaketu dips here and there, and everywhere there is a salt flavor. They agree that THAT is the essence of salt; and the father says again, "TAt twam asi." I am of course neither defending nor criticizing the scientific attitude here adopted. I am only pointing out that this psychological identification of the observer with the object observed runs through the Upanishads, and is I think worthy of the deepest consideration.
In the 'Bhagavat Gita,' which is a later book, the author speaks of "him whose soul is purified, whose self is the Self of all creatures." A phrase like that challenges opposition. It is so bold, so sweeping, and so immense, that we hesitate to give our adhesion to what it implies. But what does it mean --"whose soul is purified"? I believe that it means this, that with most of us our souls are anything but clean or purified, they are by no means transparent, so that all the time we are continually deceiving ourselves and making clouds between us and others. We are all the time grasping things from other people, and, if not in words, are mentally boasting ourselves against others, trying to think of our own superiority to the rest of the people around us. Sometimes we try to run our neighbors down a little, just to show that they are not quite equal to our level. We try to snatch from others some things which belong to them, or take credit to ourselves for things to which we are not fairly entitled. But all the time we are acting so it is perfectly obvious that we are weaving veils between ourselves and others. You cannot have dealings with another person in a purely truthful way, and be continually trying to cheat that person out of money, or out of his good name and reputation. If you are doing that, however much in the background you may be doing it, you are not looking the person fairly in the face--there is a cloud between you all the time. So long as your soul is not purified from all these really absurd and ridiculous little desires and superiorities and self-satisfactions, which make up so much of our lives, just so long as that happens you do not and you cannot see the truth. But when it happens to a person, as it does happen in times of great and deep and bitter experience; when it happens that all these trumpery little objects of life are swept away; then occasionally, with astonishment, the soul sees that. It is also the soul of the others around. Even if it does not become aware of an absolute identity, it perceives that there is a deep relationship and communion between itself and others, and it comes to understand how it may really be true that to him whose soul is purified the self is literally the Self of all creatures.