What is True Self-Knowledge (Atma-Jnana)? Yoga Vasistha and the source of the River Ganges

The true meaning of Jnana (Self-Knowledge) is revealed by Sage Vasistha, taken from the wonderful and highly authoritative traditional Advaita text, the Yoga Vasistha.

At Rama’s request, VASISTHA narrated the following story:

Once upon a time there was a king named Bhagiratha who was devoted to dharma. He gave liberal gifts to the pious and holy ones and he was terror to the evildoers. He worked tirelessly to eradicate the very causes of poverty. When he was in the company of the holy ones his heart melted in devotion.

Bhagiratha brought the holy river Ganga from the heavens down to the earth. In this he had to encounter great difficulties and propitiate the gods Brahma and Siva and also the sage Jahnu. In all this he suffered frequent frustrations and disappointments.

He, too, was endowed with discrimination and dispassion even at an early age, O Rama. One day while remaining alone he reflected thus: “This worldly life is really essenceless and stupid. Day and night chase each other. People repeat the same meaningless actions again and again. I regard only that as proper action which leads to the attainment beyond which there is nothing to be gained; the rest is repeated foul excretion (as in cholera).” He approached his guru Tritala and prayed, “Lord, how can one put an end to this sorrow and to old age, death and delusion which contribute to repeated birth here?”

Tom – here below the first teaching will be dispensed. The teaching says that suffering will end when the self is known. How to know the self? One has to abide as the Self for a long time:

TRITALA said: Sorrow ceases, all the bondages are rent asunder and doubts are dispelled when one is fully established in the equanimity of the self for a long time, when the perception of division has ceased and when there is the experience of fullness through the knowledge of that which is to be known. What is to be known? It is the self which is pure and which is of the nature of pure consciousness which is omnipresent and eternal.

BHAGIRATHA asked: I know that the self alone is real and the body, etc., are not real. But how is it that it is not perfectly clear to me?

Tom – how often we have heard the teaching, we have heard the words, we may know the theory, but still we do not know! Let us listen to Tritala’s response, in which he will tell us the true nature of Knolwedge and the means to it:

TRITALA said: Such intellectual knowledge is not knowledge! Unattachment to wife, son and house, equanimity in pleasure and pain, love of solitude, being firmly established in self-knowledge—this is knowledge, all else is ignorance! Only when the ego-sense is thinned out does this self­-knowledge arise.

BHAGIRATHA asked: Since this ego-sense is firmly established in this body, how can it be uprooted?

TRITALA replied: By self­-effort and by resolutely turning away from the pursuit of pleasure. And by the resolute breaking down of the prison-­house of shame (false dignity), etc. If you abandon all this and remain firm, the ego-sense will vanish and you will realise that you are the supreme being!

VASISTHA continued: Having heard the teachings of his teacher, Bhagiratha decided to perform a religious rite as a prelude to total renunciation of the world. In three days he had given away everything to the priests and to his own relatives, whether they were endowed with good nature or not. His own kingdom he handed over to his enemies living across the borders. Clad in a small piece of loin-­cloth, he left the kingdom and roamed in countries and forests where he was totally unknown.

Very soon, he had attained the state of supreme peace within himself. Accidentally and unknowingly Bhagiratha entered his own previous kingdom and solicited alms from the citizens there. They recognised him, worshipped him and prayed that he should be their king. But he accepted from them nothing but food. They bewailed, “This is king Bhagiratha, what a sad plight, what an unfortunate turn of events!” After a few days he left the kingdom again.

Tom – in the following paragraphs we will see some hints, in bold type, as to how life is for the apparently self-realised sage:

Bhagiratha once again met his teacher and the two of them roamed the country all the time engaged in spiritual dialogue: “Why do we still carry the burden of this physical body? On the other hand, why should it be discarded? Let it be as long as it will be!” They were devoid of sorrow and of rejoicing, nor could they be said to adhere to the middle path. Even if the gods and sages offered them wealth and psychic powers, they spurned them as blades of dry grass.

In a certain kingdom the king had died without an heir and the ministers were in search of a suitable ruler. Bhagiratha, clad in a loincloth, happened to be in that kingdom. The ministers decided that he was the person fit to ascend the throne, and surrounded him. Bhagiratha mounted the royal elephant. Soon he was crowned king.

While he was ruling that kingdom, the people of his previous kingdom approached him once again and prayed that he should rule that kingdom also. Bhagiratha accepted. Thus he became the emperor of the whole world. Remaining at peace within himself, with his mind silenced, free from desires and jealousy, he engaged himself in doing appropriate action in circumstances as they arose.

Once he heard that the only way to please the souls of his departed ancestors was to offer libation with the waters of the Ganga. In order to bring the heavenly Ganga down to earth, he repaired to the forest to perform austerities, having entrusted the empire to his ministers. There he propitiated the gods and the sages and achieved the most difficult task of bringing the Ganga down to earth so that all the people for all time to come might offer libations to their ancestors with the waters of the holy Ganga. It is only from that time that this sacred Ganga which adorned the crown of lord Siva’s head began to flow on the earth.

Tom – traditionally the river Ganges, here called the Ganga, its Sanskrit name, springs from the head of Lord Shiva. In the picture below we can see the out-shoot of water from the crown of his head which is the source of the Ganga:

Lord Shiva Ganges Ganga Om

VASISTHA continued: Even so, Rama, remain in a state of equanimity like king Bhagiratha. And, like Sikhidhvaja, having renounced everything, remain unmoved. I shall narrate to you the story of Sikhidhvaja. Pray, listen. Once there were two lovers who were re­born in a later age on account of their divine love for each other…[and so the wonderful Yoga Vasistha continues with its interweaving stories all explaining in different ways to paths to Realisation…]