We commonly use the English “soul” or “spirit soul” to denote the same entity, but without the same clear meaning. The Sanskrit word ātman (in the root form) or ātmā (in the nominative singular), is a noun meaning “the self.” (The same word also serves as the reflexive pronoun, the “-self” in words denoting myself, yourself, herself, etc.)
When I take note, as Descartes did, of my own consciousness, I understand that I am aware, at least to some degree, of the ātman, of myself as a conscious, experiencing living being, now bearing and animating a certain material body and mind.
For two decades preceding my own Cartesian investigation, I’d been engaged in spiritual practices amounting to researching of ātman. To try to understand my own certitude about God, I began to reflect upon those practices.
Ātma–tattva, the science of the self, like any science, presents itself first as a theory, as kind of picture, or conceptual map, of spiritual reality. A theory, like a map, is the fruit of the experience of previous researchers, prepared as a guide for later explorers. The only purpose of theory is to guide practice, just as a road map is drawn up to facilitate a successful automobile journey.
Ātma–tattva also includes practical instructions on how to undertake the spiritual journey, how to use the map correctly. It is, in this way, an applied science dedicated to the clarification and expansion of consciousness.
We do not find any enterprise like this in modern Western philosophy. Modern philosophy certainly speculates endlessly about consciousness and experience, about knowledge and the knower and the known, but it has lost the applied element so prominent in the ancient classical traditions of Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Plato. There is now no distinctive “philosophical way of life.” It’s just another job.
I had taken up a tradition from India, yet it returned me to the very foundations of Western philosophy. When I recognized this, I felt that I’d come back home.
The applied knowledge, the spiritual way of life, requires a commitment to a relatively rigorous and demanding discipline. This is called yoga. The discipline is required to remove the material veil so that one can attain direct experience of spiritual reality: of the ātmā, the self, and of paramātmā, the superself or God.
The necessity for such a disciplined life is stated succinctly in Bhagavad-gītā (14.17): spiritual knowledge depends on goodness, on sattva. If our awareness is covered by the material modes of passion (raja-guṇa) and ignorance (tamo–guṇa) we will not be capable of direct perception of ātmā and paramātmā. Therefore, we who undertake this project live a regulated and radically simple life designed to minimize the demands of the senses, to decrease lust, anger, greed, and so on.
Modern materialistic culture fosters values and activities that expand the modes of passion and of ignorance, so it is necessary to insulate oneself from its influence. Spiritual culture has the contrary aim of developing goodness and reducing passion and ignorance.
After several decades of practice in ātma–tattva, the science of the self, my own consciousness had become somewhat clarified and expanded. I had gained at least some awareness of my own spiritual identity, and, along with that, of God.
A master of yoga named Kavi has stated (Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 11.2.42) that for one practicing properly, three things develop simultaneously: devotion, direct perception of God, and detachment from everything else. This happens in the same natural way that for a person who is eating, satisfaction, nourishment, and relief from hunger increase together with every bite.
In the yoga discipline, the practitioner realizes his or her own identity as ātmā and also encounters God initially as paramātmā, as the interior, guiding superself, the self of all selves. In this experience we find the Cartesian key. For knowing God, the paramātmā, is something like knowing our own self. Thus the experience engendered total certitude in the experiencer. As one cannot doubt one’s own consciousness, when that same consciousness has expanded somewhat, God becomes known as I know myself, for God is the very self of my self. Then I can no more doubt God’s existence than I can my own.
I can, of course, doubt my experience of objects perceived in this world. It is possible, Descartes noted, that one is being deceived by some evil demon. (Here he anticipated the premise of The Matrix by some four centuries.) Even so, one still cannot be deceived about one’s own consciousness.
Knowledge of God is not like knowledge of the external world, of this table I write on, of the garden outside my window, of the people relaxing in the garden. In this case, I am spirit knowing matter. There is a far more intimate connection between me and God: Not only are ātmā and paramātmā of the same spiritual nature, but ātmā is part and parcel of paramātmā. For this reason, once there is experience of paramātmā, doubting God becomes impossible. After that expansion of consciousness, God remains part of the content of every experience I have. I experience my own being as part of God’s being.
It is not that in this experience, I perceiving something novel, like a new next-door neighbor or the latest cool thing from Apple. Rather, with consciousness purified and expanded, I now perceive what had always be there, merely unnoticed, unrecognized, unacknowledged.
In this state of expanded consciousness, I am aware that I cannot see anything without God’s seeing it first, hear anything without God’s first hearing it, and so on. I cannot doubt God’s seeing and hearing anymore than I can my own.
The experience of ātmā–paramātmā, which renders doubting God’s existence as impossible as doubting one’s own, is evidently not exclusive to my own or historically related traditions. A natural and unwavering certitude concerning God has appeared in advanced practitioners in many theistic traditions. Those traditions may have various theories (theological doctrines) about God and the worshipper, but, so far as I can see, the simplest and soundest explanation for the experienced certitude of advanced practitioners everywhere is found in the understanding of ātmā–paramātmā.
We can also conclude that we are made for belief, for conviction. There is no way around it.
Herein lies the foundation, I propose, for authentic conviction, for conviction arising from the opening up of the self. Without that, we seem contemned to verify Montaigne’s observation: “We are, I know not how, double within ourselves.” Authentic conviction may serve as antidote to the current global wars between modes of doubleness: Militant belief born from despair at its own unbelief clashing with militant unbelief born in denial of its own belief.