Is The True Self An Inference Only?

Here’s the scene: in I Am That, a questioner is pressing Nisargadatta (Maharaj; below “M”) to provide epistemic proof about the jnani, the self-realized one.

In what follows, I use “[A]” to indicate that I = the Absolute and I use “[R]” to indicate that I = the relative. Quoting:

Q: Is the knower [the true self] an inference only?

M: You know your body, mind, and feelings. Are you an inference only?

Q: I [R] am an inference to others, but not to myself. [The questioner, taking himself to be a limited body-mind, is here caught up in the philosophical problem of other minds. –AT]

M: So am I [A]. An inference to you [R], but not to myself [A]. I [A] know myself by being myself. As you [R] know yourself to be a man by being one. You [R] do not keep on reminding yourself that you [R] are a man. It is only when your humanity is questioned that you [R] assert it. Similarly, I [A] know that I [A] am all. I do not need to keep on repeating, ‘I [A] am all, I [A] am all.’ Only when you [R] take me [A] to be particular, a person, I [A] protest. As you [R] are a man all the time, so I [A] am what I [A] am–all the time. Whatever you [A] are changelessly, that you [A] are beyond all doubt. (pp. 313-4)

A few things are worth noticing here.

One, it is the finite mind that is involved, quite often and seemingly endlessly, in corrosive skeptical doubt. In Buddhism, this is referred to as one of the Five Hindrances.

Two, the epistemological questions raised above are thus quite moot. They indicate resistance on the part of the questioner who is afraid to inquire deeply, and directly, into his true nature. Out of compassion, Nisargadatta is using discourse to quiet (if only momentarily) the interlocutor’s mind, which, unknowingly, is in the midst of turmoil.

Three, Nisargadatta is quite right when he asserts that “I know myself by being myself.” The desire for proof (see also 2 above) only shows up for the one embroiled in mental confusion. No proof is necessary for the sun to confirm that it is the sun. It knows itself by being itself. Or to put the same point differently: the sun doesn’t know itself in virtue of the fact that it is completely itself. The desire for proof always implies separation as well as a commitment to separation. Here, fear and desire are evident in the interlocutor who won’t dive deep without first securing epistemic guarantees.

And four, at the very end, Nisargadatta deftly moves from addressing his interlocutor as a separate self to addressing him as the nameless absolute: “Whatever you [A] are changelessly, that you [A] are beyond all doubt.” After having compassionately spoken to him on the relative level throughout their exchange, what an act of kindness to address who he truly is!


I selected this passage because I often encounter doubt when I’m philosophizing and meditating with people. In many cases where doubt has become prominent, the key is to stop taking it seriously. It is a sign of dis-ease, not a starting point for further inquiry. As the mind quiets down and as trust naturally arises, going beyond the mind becomes possible.

In fact, we use the mind to go beyond the mind. We use the body to go beyond the body. And we use the perceptible world to go beyond the perceptible world. Then what remains? What, in fact, has always already been here?