Who am I?

Pause for Thought  on BBC Radio 2

My spiritual master Srila Prabhupada was once asked to speak to a group of school children. “Who is the most intelligent student here?” he asked. A sea of modest blank faces stared back but eventually one child was thrust forward by his obliging friends and Prabhupada said to him, “Please point to your head.”

The bemused boy, expecting a sterner examination of his intellectual powers, duly complied. His next challenge was to point to his arm, followed by his leg, stomach and chest. Having sailed through all these tests he was finally asked by Prabhupada to point to his self. The boy raised his finger and turned it inwards but then hesitated. Where indeed was the self?

It was perhaps no surprise that the student was perplexed. The puzzle of understanding who we are has vexed the greatest minds for millennia. Even the avowed materialist Thomas Huxley, known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ for his fierce advocacy of evolution, once said, “It seems to me pretty plain that there is a third thing in the universe, to wit, consciousness, which I cannot see to be matter or force or any conceivable modification of either.”

Well, at least there I would concur with the good Mr Huxley. So would Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita where he explains that the self or consciousness is different from the body it inhabits. In fact all of us regularly refer to that difference. “My body, my mind”, – there is a duality, a difference between the seer and the seen. Plainly the young lad taking Prabhupada’s test had realised this as his finger hovered over his chest and he understood that it was not really him, the actual person.

Krishna helps us directly perceive this by describing how the body constantly changes but the self is still the same. We all see it happening. I was looking wistfully at a photo of myself at the age of twenty the other day, slim, fit and bursting with life. Where is that body now? Certainly not occupied by me today, as the mirror mercilessly confirms when I dare glance at it. But I am certainly the same person that I was then. Only the vehicle has changed, not the driver.

This is the first point of the spiritual teachings in the Gita. Know thyself. You are not the body you inhabit and can never become happy merely by bodily enjoyment. That’s a lesson I’d like to see taught in more schools.