Knowing the unknowable all-pervading Atma
Riddle 1: What is it that always exists, but can never be known?
Let’s use an example to explain – the camera & photo. When you take a photo with your camera, you could take a picture of anything: People, animals, mountains, trees, stars and even other galaxies. But there is only 1 thing that you can definitely never capture in a photo. But at the same time, it is the 1 thing you are 100% sure exists when you look at a photo. Sounds strange – what is that? The camera which took the photo. You cannot see it in the photo because it is the very one taking the photo, but at the same time it still definitely exists because without it there would be no photo possible in the 1st place! So the camera exists, but is never known (as an object within the photo).
So it is not reasonable to say ‘I don’t see it, therefore it doesn’t exist’. What about the camera? What about space? No one has ever seen the colour of space. Or tasted it. Or touched it. Or smelled it. Or heard it. So how do you know space exists then? But we know it obviously does without actually knowing it via my senses… Similarly, Atma, your true Self, is described as ‘unknowable’ (aprameya) in Gita Chapter 2 v18. You can never ever know Atma. It’s simply impossible. Why? Because it is always the knower, not the known objects. Just like the camera is always the ‘picturer’ not the ‘pictured’. Another way of looking at it is that Atma has no colour, fragrance, sounds, texture, taste (no attributes= nirguna atma). Just like space has not attributes. But Atma still very much exists because without it nothing would be here. Riddle solved!
Riddle 2: What is it that is everywhere (all pervasive), but seemingly limited?
Again the example of space (akasha) is commonly used to explain this. Is space inside the room you are sitting in right now? Yes. Is space inside the room next door? Yes. So now we have 2 spaces. Correct? Hmmm. No. There are not 2 spaces. There is only 1 space. And this 1 space pervades both rooms. It appears that the walls of the room divide this 1 space into many spaces. But in reality, the walls cannot actually divide space, it is just seemingly divided. In fact, even to say ‘space in the room’ may not be wholly accurate. Is there space ‘in’ the room? Or is the room ‘in’ space? Really speaking, the room is in space. If you break the room walls, you do not break the space ‘in’ the room. Space is unaffected by the walls. Space pervades everything in the universe – inside and out. In fact space does not exist ‘in’ the universe. The universe exists ‘in’ space. There is a very important difference between the 2 sentances.
OK – now, replace the word ‘space’ with ‘Atma’. And this is what the Gita teaches us. That Atma is all-pervasive (sarva-gattam). Spatially. And all Atma is also all-pervasive time-wise (called eternal = nitya). So Atma is not limited by space-time (in science, this is a commonly used term made famous by Einstein to describe the very fabric out of which the physical universe is made from. But thousands of years before Einstein, the Bhagavad Gita/Vedas were already talking about space-time or desha-kala as the Universal fabric).
If Atma (which is consciousness) is everywhere, then is there Atma in your friends? Yes. In your family? Yes. In your enemies? Yes. Animals? Yes. In plants? Yes. In rivers? Yes. In a stone? Yes. In a stone idol? Yes. In God? Yes. In the planets and stars? Yes. In everything ! That’s what we mean by ‘all pervading’. This is exactly why Hindus should try to respect and love everything in the Universe. All things in the universe are sacred from the perspective of Vedanta.
This is why in India, you will very commonly see people worshipping cows (go-puja), people (e.g. athithi, pitr, kanya, guru puja), the Sun (e.g. surya-namaskara), a car (ayudha puja), a river (e.g. ganga-aarati), a stone (e.g. temple idol worship), a tree (e.g. ashvatta tree puja), your own body (e.g. we invoke devatas in the body before sandhya), the list goes on! What is being worshipped is the presence of the all-pervading Atma in all these things. The name and form is not important really. It can be anything that one is drawn to. But it is actually the 1 non-dual Atma within them that is the thing being worshipped.
Such varied & flexible forms of worship within Hinduism often draw confusion or even criticism. I say this is something Hindus should be proud of as this simple act of worshipping any form reveals the non-dual truth of this Universe which pervades all names and forms. The worship reflects the highest non-dual (advaita) philosophy, even if those worshipping don’t fully realise it!
Therefore, may we sincerely love and respect all beings, as all beings are myself alone.