I AM

A spiritual travelogue on a journey of self discovery


Part I: The Seeker
My journey to the source started innocently enough. I was at an airport dayroom, trying to look presentable for the final leg of my journey. I was looking at the mirror and for some reason the reflection did not seem to quite fit the description of "I". Maybe it was the lack of sleep, or maybe it was the airline food, but here I was, looking at the reflection and asking myself "who am I"?

On an impulse, I picked up an old photograph of mine from the passport and there, staring at me was a kid of maybe nineteen! The feeling of "I" has not changed in the decade separating the current me from the version of me in the photo and yet, what we would have normally associated with the feeling of I am - the appearance - has changed dramatically.

Even our thought process changes with time. The brain and the faculty we call "mind" evolves, continuously changing from childhood to adolescence to old age and yet the feeling of "I" remains unchanged.

The awareness of "I am" is something most of us take for granted. However, when we try to look deeper, we can't seem to identify what exactly it is that we call "I". Is it the body? or maybe the brain? or maybe this thinking faculty we call mind? All of them?

Science doesn't have an answer to this question. It is still grappling with the issue of why people ask such questions! (and has come up with interesting answers like Prozac!)



It was time to fly again. I was on the plane, closer to the skies, yet no closer to an answer. I made a mental note to check out quantum physics when I land. There was no particular reason I picked up on quantum physics, except that it was esoteric enough and therefore qualified to be on the research agenda! Besides, I was hoping Einstein would have an answer.



It was a little past midnight, when I woke up with my hands numb! The cramped seat of the economy class seemed to be squeezing the blood out of my veins.

I suddenly remembered that I had a dream just before I woke up. A few minutes back, totally oblivious to my physical discomfort, I had completely identified myself with "me" in that dream! A different body, different setting, a different set of pain and pleasure. Yet, it was totally believable, down to the dream sense of touch and smell. So long as the dream lasted, the body in that dream was more real. It was my complete reality!

Strange as this line of thought was, I was stuck by another, bizarre one! What is really "me" in a dream? If it was my dream, everything in it from the beach to the sun to the wind to myself is all me!

I dream every single action of every single entity in my dreams and yet I identify myself with only one. Each new dream creates a new entity for me to identify with (as a subject or an object) and yet, the feeling of "I" remains the same. Could this mean that all "forms" are really an illusion? That, our reality is someone else's dream? Convinced that I need the help of great minds to crack this puzzle, I went back to sleep.



It is a week since I landed. I made good on my promise to look up on quantum physics. The basics were simple enough. Newton was of the opinion that space was three-dimensional and time runs in parallel and has nothing to do with space. Einstein demolished this with his theory that made space and time one inseparable entity (it has since been proved that when one travels through space at the speed of light, time stands still!)

In his most famous equation of all time, E=M c2, c refers to the speed of light which is a constant. The equation means that energy and mass are equivalent and one can be converted to the other. It is easy enough to imagine mass being converted to energy. But, energy to mass? Was Einstein by any chance suggesting that I can, for example, "think" a book into existence? (The publishing houses may not like that!)

Another interesting conclusion from the Relativity theory is that space and time are not absolute as we take for granted, but are relative to the observer and the object being observed!

As I ponder this, I am surprised to learn that several scientists are of the opinion that atom may actually be energy rather than matter! Strange as this may sound, "The stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality - one where the universe begins to look like a great thought rather than a giant machine" writes one scientific observer.

All this was interesting reading, but I was no closer to an answer. I decide to look into the Veda for an explanation.



The Vedas are ancient Hindu scriptures. The Vedas (estimated to be over 4000 years old) mean fountain of knowledge. The Vedas are written in Sanskrit, reputed to be the oldest language on earth. A very powerful and poetic language where each statement has the capability to hold multiple meanings! Astronomy and mathematics were well advanced during that period, but the information was tucked away neatly underneath layers of poetry! Take for example the line "Eka dikena parvesam" (literal translation: one more than the previous one), that appears in a poem. The poet seems to be praising the king and crediting him with growing the prosperity and livestock of the kingdom. Deciphered, it gives a method for calculating 1 over 19! Since the phonemes themselves can represent numbers in Sanskrit, the same line can be interpreted as the value of 1 over 19 to the accuracy of 18 digits!! (for more information and a host of other techniques, read Vedic Mathematics published by Banares University. You can also find the information at the Wikipedia here ).

Even the basic research on Sanskrit and Vedanta are deeply intriguing. Aham is the Sanskrit word for "I". A (pronounced as in aunt) is the first letter of Sanskrit and Ham (pronounced hum) is the very last letter. A mere coincidence in a language known for its complexity and ability to hold deceptively deeper meanings?



When it comes to spirituality, India is very experimental and tolerant. There are as many religions and spiritual schools of thought as there are diet plans in the United States! I suspect we also have the highest people to Guru ratio of any country in the world! It should therefore come as no surprise that there are so many interpretations of the Vedas.

There are four Vedas, Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharvana. Each of them have an area of specialization! The Rig Veda, has various verses that pay homage to the Gods. The Sama is very closely tied to the Rig Veda, so much so that some consider it to be the poetic form of Rig Veda! Yajur Veda deals with the rituals one has to perform for the Gods. Atharvana has various magical chants for healing!

Upanishads are the footnotes to the Vedas, added and edited by various commentators over several thousand years. It is these Upanishads that throw more light on the meaning of the verses and the secret they encode!

There are several of these Upanishads (over 200!), most famous of these are the Kh‚ndogya Upanishad (from Rig Veda), Katha Upanishad (from Yajur) and Mundaka Upanishad (from Atharvana) and Kaushitaki Upanishad (part of the Rig Veda).

There is also the Prasana Upanishad which are a series of question and answers found at the end of certain chapters in Atharvana Veda (the questions, six in all, ask such things as: where from are all the creatures born? What is the relationship between the life-breath and the soul? What are sleep, waking, and dreams? etc).

Another famous Upanishad is the Mundaka Upanishad, which also appears as footnotes to the Atharvana Veda. It contains twelve verses that delineate four levels of consciousness: waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and a fourth state of being one with the Absolute. This Upanishad by itself, it is said, is enough to lead one to liberation.



After speaking to a few scholars, I decide that the best place to search for the meaning of "I", is the Upanishad that deals with the absence of it! So, I start my exploration with the Kaushitaki Upanishad, which deals with the question of death and reincarnation.

The Upanishad explains it with the following metaphor (the following is a verbatim excerpt from the 1879 translation by Max MŁller):

He (at the time of death), having reached the path of the gods, comes to the world of Agni (fire), to the world of V‚yu (air), to the world of Varuna, to the world of Indra, to the world of Prag‚pati, to the world of Brahman. In that world there is the lake ¬ra, the moments called Yeshtiha, the river Vigar‚ (age-less), the tree Ilya , the city S‚lagya, the palace Apar‚gita (unconquerable), the door-keepers Indra and Prag‚pati, the hall of Brahman, called Vibhu (built by vibhu, egoism), the throne Vikakshan‚ (buddhi, perception), the couch Amitaugas (endless splendour), and the beloved M‚nasÓ (mind) and her image K‚kshushÓ (eye), who, as if taking flowers, are weaving the worlds, and the Apsaras, the Amb‚s (sruti, sacred scriptures), and Amb‚yavÓs (buddhi, understanding), and the rivers Ambay‚s (leading to the knowledge of Brahman). To this world he who knows this (who knows the Paryanka-vidy‚) approaches. Brahman says to him: 'Run towards him (servants) with such worship as is due to myself.

He comes to the lake ¬ra, and he crosses it by the mind, while those who come to it without knowing the truth are drowned. He comes to the moments called Yeshtiha, they flee from him. He comes to the river Vigar‚, and crosses it by the mind alone, and there shakes off his good and evil deeds. Being freed from good and freed from evil he, the knower of Brahman moves towards Brahman.

He approaches the tree Ilya, and the odour of Brahman reaches him. He approaches the city S‚lagya, and the flavour of Brahman reaches him. He approaches the palace Apar‚gita, and the splendour of Brahman reaches him. He approaches the door-keepers Indra and Prag‚pati, and they run away from him. He approaches the hall Vibhu, and the glory of Brahman reaches him (he thinks, I am Brahman). He approaches the throne Vikakshan‚. That throne is PragŮ‚, knowledge, for by knowledge (self-knowledge) he sees clearly. He approaches the couch Amitaugas. That is Pr‚na (speech). UdgÓtha (OM) is the (white) coverlet; prosperity the pillow. On this couch sits Brahman, and he who knows this (who knows himself one with Brahman sitting on the couch) mounts it.

Then Brahman says to him: 'Who art thou?' and he shall answer:

'I am a season, and the child of the seasons, sprung from the womb of endless space, from the light. The light, the origin, which is the past, which is the present, which is all living things, and all elements, is the Self. Thou art the Self. What thou art, that I am.'

Brahman says to him: 'Who am I?'

He shall answer: 'That which is. The Truth (Sat-tyam).'

Brahman asks: 'What is the Truth?'

He says to him: 'What is different from the gods and from the senses that is Sat (Existence), but the gods and the senses are Tyam. Therefore by that name Sattyam is called all that there is. All this thou art.'

(In case you noticed the extra u's, its because Max MŁller happened to be British!)



Now, for a translation of the translation!

The Vedas's contain several references to the Devas. The Devas are benevolent beings of light that are believed to help guide evolution from the world between births. The reference to the Devas are really a metaphor. For example, the principal Devas Agni(fire), Vayu(air), Varuna(water), Surya(sun), Prithivi(earth) are really the elements that make life possible and are metaphors for the five senses. Indra*, the king of the Devas is a metaphor for cognition. Akasa and Pragapati refer to space and time respectively. Therefore, what the above translation really means is that when we cross over the sense barriers and get past the door keeper (mind), we enter the kingdom of Brahman, the Absolute, the Eternal and all encompassing! Those that fail to transcend the sense barriers, continue their cycle of life and death inside Maya.

*contrary to popular belief, Indra is a title, not a person!



I am stuck in traffic. In India, driving is an adventure sport! While I wait, I ponder about the Vedas.

The crux of the Vedantic philosophy is: "Om Tat Sat". Loosely translated, it means "Thou are that". The Vedantic theory is that there is one infinite existence (Brahman or Absolute) and all else is Maya or Illusion! Within this Maya are the pairs of opposites and Karma (the law of cause and effect) reigns supreme.

Just like white light is seen as multiple colors in a rainbow, this one existence manifests itself as this universe. Thus, the Maya is full of duality, pairs of opposites. Joy and sorrow; happiness and suffering; good and bad; action and inaction. When you transcend Maya, there is only unity. There is no joy and no sorrow, no happiness and no suffering, no past and no future; neither space nor time, neither darkness nor light, neither life nor death, neither wisdom nor ignorance; not even illusion and transcendence!



Om Tat Sat. I ponder this for a while. It is hard to accept it and yet I am drawn to this as a theory. The universe as we know it is really an illusion? And I am is really the infinite existence? Was this the subtle meaning of Aham? That "I" is the beginning and end of all? That Aham is all there is?

My world seems too real to accept it as an illusion. But then, weren't so my dreams while they lasted?

I explore further and discover that Maya does not really mean illusion. An often repeated analogy is "mistaking a rope for a snake". This gives Maya a meaning that is closer to dream than illusion! The Vedantic explanations on Maya also hasten to add that a person who sees the world and denies it is as ignorant as one who sees it and believes it! It goes on to add that those that realize the Absolute, transcend Maya. For them there is no duality and no pairs of opposites. (Interestingly, Einstein's theory of relativity lead to the concept of "black holes" at whose center, space and time don't have any meaning. The law of cause and effect would therefore cease to exist!)



If the 200+ Upanishads seem astounding, the number of interpretations and commentaries on those are simply overwhelming! Take for example two great philosophers, saints and social reformers, Sankara and Ramanuja. Sankara takes the text "Tat Tvam Asi" from the Vedas (which also means "Thou are That") and explains it as the individual self (or the real "I" or atman) being no different from Brahman (Absolute) and uses the Vedic concepts of Nirguna & Niranjana to describe the Absolute as attributeless. Ramanuja, however, reads the same text as "Tasya Tvam-Asi" and interprets it as "You are His servant" and explains it as the God is absolute and eternal! He adds that Nirguna & Niranjana does not mean that God has no qualities, but only that he has no bad qualities!

Part II: The Sought
When faced with an insurmountable problem, it is not uncommon to see people turn religious. They entreat God as to why they were chosen for the bad turn. But, according to all scriptures, God has no negatives. An entity that is variously described as infinite love, joy & bliss is not about to wreck havoc in anybody's life! It would, then, seem that the good and bad turns are part of the cycle of Karma. Inside Maya, Karma is the law! Karma is simply cause and effect (you drink, you have a hangover!) . So the good and bad turns should be of our own doing!

This immediately brings the question of whether we can exercise free-will or are we an actor in a play as Maya seems to imply. The Vedic answer is, it's a little of both! You are free and yet bound at the same time! There are a lot of inescapable events (birth, death, etc) that you cannot alter. But within the Maya, you can exercise a great deal of choice, that will in turn create a ripple of cause and effect. In fact, the very decision to step out of Maya and gain enlightenment is an act of free will!



I am being swept away by a strong current. I hold on to a branch, trying to pull myself to the shore. The current is strong and it is a losing struggle. There is a faint thought that this may be a dream and I will wake up and be all right. This thought is soon lost as I struggle to save myself. I move closer to the shore and as I try to pull myself out, the branch snaps....

.....and I wake up to the door bell ringing! When I calm down, I quickly realize that ordinary waking and sleeping has a lot to teach us about life and death. Maybe it is such an everyday event that we lose sight of the big picture, or maybe, we don't want to know the big picture, afraid of what it might convey.

Most ingredients mentioned in the scriptures are there in a simple dream! I moved from a conscious reality into a dream reality. The names and forms were different, but "I" was still there. The entire dream was my Maya. One small part of it (Vidya Maya) was trying to tell me that this was a dream and that the fastest way to the shore was not over the branch, but by merely waking up! Yet, another part of the Maya (Avidya Maya) was pushing me deeper into the dream, trying to make the unreal real. In the end, Avidya Maya won! The unreal was seen as real. The illusion, for the moment, was reality.

The truth is present and yet the fear of the unknown keeps us desperately clinging to what is familiar. "You search for the Truth and yet can you step over the precipice not knowing what is below? Know that life starts this way!" reads a Tao poem.

In a dream, just knowing the dream to be a dream gives us a great deal of power. We suddenly hold sway over Maya, free to mold the dream any which way we like. Yet, it is the most difficult of tasks! If even our dreams can make us believe they are real, could not our Reality be much more convincing?



What does one really seek? A purpose in life beyond the mundane? Everlasting happiness? Freedom from death? maybe from life?

Life as we know it seems to be narrowly bounded, delineated on one side by birth and on the other side by death. On one side by happiness and on the another side by sorrow. It is within these bounds that we carry on our day to day living, not questioning and not wanting to question what lies beyond. When one witnesses a birth or a death , or during moments of extreme joy or sorrow - whenever life's boundaries are breached, we are driven by a strong need to look beyond.

Most of us go through life, amassing things that are impermanent. As a society, our focus is on wealth, fame and other material things that are even more evanescent than life itself! The traveler is laying claim and getting attached to every tree and rock on the path he treads! The trees and rocks have been there for centuries and will continue to be there long after the traveler has walked past!

So, we search. But the more we search, the more we go around in circles! I am reminded of a story where a disciple asked his master, "where will I go after I die", to which the master replied, "to wherever you were before you were born".

We search, until we come to the understanding that we are really seeking ourselves! All the questions and all the seeking are about the existence. Our very own!



A search for a clear and concise explanation lead me to Nisargadatta, who with no schooling and no knowledge of Vedanta, explained it all very nicely (incidentally, he was not explaining the Vedas; these were taken from answers given by him to his visitors in his final years). Here was the explanation of the highest truth from a man who was born a poor illiterate making his living as a street vendor rolling and selling cigarettes from a stall in a Bombay slum!

"There is the Absolute, unmanifested, impersonal, pure Awareness, beyond all sensory perception, complete in itself. That pure Awareness is not the presence of anything, it the complete absence of everything. It cannot be explained since all words negate it. Consciousness arises in this pure Awareness for no particular cause or reason other than that it is its nature to do so - like waves on the surface of the sea. In this consciousness is the entire cosmos and all the beings. This super-personal, manifested 'I', embraces the body and identifies itself with it. This is the individual, personal 'I', appearing to be separate, the apparent doer and enjoyer and sufferer of actions."

"In truth there can be no individuals separate from one another, no guru and no disciple, there is no God and no devotee, there are no opposites, there is no second, always there is only one. Your true nature is not circumscribed by time and space. You are prior to all these things. In any activity that which witnesses the play is the 'I am'; that which concocts the play is Maya. The universal consciousness giving sentience to all beings and acting through the three qualities associated with Maya (tamas, rajas and satva) is the "God" of this universe."

He, however, adds that "Whatever I am telling you is not the Truth. The Truth is beyond expression, words negate it. You can never have knowledge about your Self because Brahman cannot be witnessed. You know what you are not... what you truly are you cannot know."

Part III: The sum of all religions
Various religions and schools of spirituality offer a variety of techniques to realize the Truth:

Zen's approach is to give its disciples a "Koan" (a question like "what is the sound of one hand clapping?") which they contemplate till they arrive at an answer (realization, to be precise). It may take several years of meditation till the realization comes to them in a flash!

Tao (the pathless path), says nothing needs to be done! What is so difficult about giving up this dream? it asks and adds that "we refuse to accept with joy what we will enter through suffering". (It is seen by many as taking the leap as opposed to a path!).

Ramana Maharishi's self inquiry tells us to ask the question "Who am I". This would serve to kill all other thoughts and focus our attention on that single thought "Who Am I". He tells us to then trace to the source of this thought - where is it coming from?

Vedas provide four paths: Karma Yoga, which asks us to do our duty but renounce all the fruits of our actions (you are neither the doer nor the enjoyer of the actions). This detachment would eventually allow one to be the "witness" and stabilize in the Absolute and realize the Truth.

The Jnana Yoga, is the path of inquiry. We use the mind to trace to the source by reasoning what is not and eventually realizing what is. It is considered one of the most difficult of paths.

The Raja Yoga, is the path of meditation. It teaches us to elevate our consciousness through seven chakras or energy points in the body ending with the highest one at the top of the head where one realizes the Absolute in Nirvakalpa Samadhi(Conscious Death). The seven chakras are associated with the three "I" discussed earlier. Three of the lowest chakras with the personal "I", two with the impersonal, manifest "I" (God) and two with the unmanifested "I" (Absolute).

The easiest one is Bakthi Yoga, the path of love and surrender to God. In total faith and abject surrender one realizes the Truth. In almost all religions, the references to God asking the devotee to kill his/her loved one is really a metaphor for total, unwavering, absolute faith and abject surrender.

Buddhism asks one to "give up all desires" as the means to Nirvana. Most people think of this as pure renunciation. The underlying philosophy, however, is to really give up all desires including the desire to give up the desire! It is more about detachment and being a "witness" than renunciation (trying to renounce is also a desire!)

"What right do we have to believe or not believe in a God that we have not seen, yet whose existence we cannot disprove?" asks Swami Vivekananda and adds that "We are all atheists until we realize God".

Part IV: The Lightness of Being


It has been a few years since I started my search. It seems like I have read every conceivable school of thought on this subject, but I was still no closer to an answer. I was under the impression that every new line of thought by a new author was educating me, taking me closer to my goal, making me free; but the exact opposite seemed to be true! I now had more questions than answers!

Worse, I was now tied to those hundreds of thoughts produced by thousands of minds! What was supposed to set me free has bound me.

I was beginning to get frustrated. Is there such a thing as seeking too much? Am I trying too hard? Searching implies that I am looking for something specific. But, here I am searching for something that I don't even know. Doubts were beginning to set in. Is there truly no experience other than the one we have? Is this the only Reality? Is that the reason nobody has really described a True Experience? Maybe the whole concept of spirituality is a clever cloak for ignorance in a thick shroud of secrecy?

So, I finally gave up.

It then dawned on me, that I was freer than before! When the hundreds of ideas of thousands of people were cut off, the uncluttered mind was at peace!

I soon realized that it was not required of me to seek; neither was it required of the world to evolve into a better place; nor was it required of life to be perfect or death not to be! All that was required was my acceptance of all things as they are! Then there is a great peace!



A few months after I had given up completely, I was able to experience the deep peace that seem to be the goal of most meditations (some call it "the zone"). First, there was a great peace (similar to a 'conscious sleep' - if you can live with a paradox!), followed by a sense of complete and unbounded joy. Take the feeling of an everyday joy, throw in a sense of relief, a dash of peace and multiply it by a million times - that is the magnitude of the joy and it seems to happen spontaneously without reason (no, I was not on any drugs!!). A surprising aspect of it was the duration - while a normal "peak" of joy would last for a few seconds or minutes, this one lasted well over 4 hours. What was even more surprising was the newness of it every second. It was an exhilarating, great bubbly sense of joy, that was ever new - that is the closest that can be said about it. In that state, there is no pain and death holds absolutely no fear.

What was significant about the experience was the feeling of unity of all things and that the past, present and future are really the same! This was not a reasoned or deduced understanding, but rather an intuitive knowing of it - an epiphany! Any experience, especially one that is so personal, when communicated does not do justice to it and seems trifling!

This left me to wonder, if a brush with the Infinite Unknown was so exhilarating, what the totality of the experience would be! It seems when we accidentally stumble upon the Infinite, we are a Seeker; when we merge with the Infinite at will, we are a Yogi; when we are ever part of the Infinite, we are Enlightened!

Part V: 1+1=0
The "experience" had changed my perspective. Where, once I had looked at the wandering hermits (there are plenty of them in India) and thought that they had renounced what little material comfort they could get in pursuit of a fleeting idea, I now think that we are the real renouncee - having renounced the great peace and infinite joy in pursuit of a fleeting material dream!

The world or universe is not evolving to perfection and we are not on the path to enlightenment. Everything is already perfect. It is just that we see bits and pieces of it and think differently. When the concept of time and space is dispelled even for a tiny amount of time, we see the true nature of things and it is perfect. Everything is as they should be and everything should be as they are! We just need the "balance" - neither doing nor deliberate non-doing as the Vedas put it. Then the Maya will lose its sting.

Although, I am far from being enlightened, the quest is finally over! I am at peace. I am thankful for the experience, by whatever name it should be called.



"True enlightenment is not gain. It is the loss of everything, including one's identity. Where is the teacher, where is the teaching? Where is knowledge and where is wisdom. Where is the beginning and where is the end. He alone exists and He alone is all. He is the beginning and the end. We are him. Mere forms, waves on a ocean, deluding ourselves into believing that we are the doers and enjoyers of the action" says Ashtavakra Samhita.

Enlightenment is the merging of all with the source. It is the absolute negation of everything. When the seeker and the sought merge, there is unity. That only happens when the seeker is no longer there! It is a mathematical oddity where 1+1 = 0!

"There is but one existence, the Absolute. In it is the infinite universe. The Absolute is pure awareness, pure joy, pure bliss, pure knowledge. It is the absence of all things and yet the presence of everything!" says Ashtavakra Samhita.



Descarte's said "I think, therefore I am". The reality is "I am, therefore I think!". The awareness, "I", has somehow identified itself with the body and mind creating the sense of duality. "You are consciousness itself. You are not the body, nor is the body yours. You are not the doer who performs actions, nor are you the enjoyer or sufferer of the results of actions. You are the eternal witness, forever free" says Nisargadatta.

"I AM" is all there is. Pure awareness is all. Those who realize this transcend life. And those that realize the unity of consciousness of all beings, realize God and therefore transcend death.

The "I AM" as we know it is a mirage in time. A candle flickering in the wind. The true "I", the pure consciousness will always be. It was never created and never to be destroyed. It was never born, therefore never to die.




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