The question not infrequently is raised: “If the Vedantic teaching says, ‘You are not the body; you are the Self,’ then does the jnani cease to be embodied upon Self-realization?”
I. Understanding: “You Are Not The Body“
As I see it, the point of this teaching (upadesa) is, at the outset, to get one to (a) begin Self-inquiry (atma vichara) in earnest as well as to allow one to (b) begin disidentifying from the “I am the body idea.”
“But, again, if I disidentify with the body, then do I cease to be embodied?”
II. Ramana Maharshi Clarifies
Consider, on this score, this seminal verse from Sri Ramana Maharshi:
To those who do not know the Self and to those who do, the body is the ‘I.’ But to those who do not know the Self the ‘I’ is bounded by the body; while to those who within the body know the Self the ‘I’ shines boundless. Such is the difference between them.Ramana Maharshi, “Reality in Forty Verses,” The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi (ed. Arthur Osborne), p. 95.
The key words in the passage are bounded, within, and boundless.
(1) Since the Self is ever-present, it is, necessarily, present in the body as well. The question is: what is the ontological status of the ‘I’ for the ajnani as well as for the jnani?
(2) For the ajnani, the “I” is bounded by the body. To ask, “Where am I?,” the commonsensical yet incorrect answer is: “I am within the body and wholly within the body.” Or even (since the ajnani shifts from “I am the mind” and thus am ‘in here’ to “I am numerically identical with the body”): “I am identical with all that is within the body.”
(3) Crucially, for the jnani, the Self shines forth luminously everywhere. That is, the jnani, identified fully with the Self, is herself everywhere. But this also means that the jnani is, in some sense, still within the body. Said differently, the one we call the jnani is within the body but identifies, timelessly so, with the Omnipresent Self.
To illustrate: the jnani identifies just as much with the weeping woman or the weeping willow as she does with this particular body. She loves all and thus, as a matter of course, takes care of this body. Only she ceases to call this body mine or–uniquely, specially–“I.” The “I,” shining everywhere “promiscuously,” also shines in, on, and through this body.
In some sense, the jnani is “still” embodied (during this lifetime), yet in a more proper sense it should be said that the jnani has never been (exclusively) embodied. This body is as near and dear to the jnani as is every other atom in the universe.