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  • Writer's pictureKrishna Bhatt

5 Powerful Books for Self-Inquiry Journey

Updated: Jul 7, 2023

Self-discovery is a unique process; this term is a lifelong journey where one tries to get know themselves, why they behave in a certain way? What makes them tick? And their true self, their likes and dislikes, their aims in life. Everyone can agree that the relationship one has with oneself is the most important one. One should always prioritize themselves. We are our lifelong friends and at the end of the day we are the ones we must face.

This journey with oneself can come into purview when one goes through various hurdles or while taking important decisions asks oneself, who am I? Or what is my purpose in life. Only through this process can one acquire self-awareness and move to the higher levels of spirituality or self-awareness. This is the most significant process for one’s spiritual development.

Self Inquiry with Nature
Self Inquiry with Nature

Exploring the Self

Self-inquiry can also be referred to as jnana-vichara or Atma-Vichar in Sanskrit or the constant attention to the inner awareness or “I". Leading to the process of realization or liberation where the “I” sheds all Vasans or desires and becomes aligned with the universe and forms a totality. This was one most famous teaching of Sri Ramana Maharishi.

This process has gained more popularity in this era due to failure to pay attention to one’s own mental or physical requirements. This hustle culture has gained popularity with the rise of Capitalism. Earning more and more money is the goal which has led to the erosion of the quality of the society in which one resides. Self-inquiry is not something new as it has been prevalent in early Hinduism as well as other religions like Buddhism and Jainism.

It is a process where one undertakes the journey to know the “I”, and to know oneself. Not through possessions but as a sole identity as the subject itself, liberated from external limitations.

Unlike the Monks normal individuals like us cannot abandon our responsibilities and undertake a journey towards self-discovery. Mapping our way through the rocky terrains of the Himalayas and meditating for long hours to gain enlightenment.

So, should we then abandon the quest altogether? Not at all, just because we are busy trying to earn our livelihoods and enjoy our life does not mean that we would have to abandon the quest altogether. But the solution to this problem is one which is prescribed by modernity itself.

Pathways to Personal Enlightenment

Some of the ways in which we can enlighten ourselves is having or giving time to ourselves. And then we can utilize that time in various ways, some of the ways are:

  • Cultivate self-awareness: Pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Observe yourself without judgment and try to understand what drives your actions and decisions. Mindfulness practices, such as meditation or journaling, can help develop self-awareness.

  • Reflect on your values and beliefs: Take time to identify and clarify your core values and beliefs. What is truly important to you? What do you stand for? Reflecting on these aspects can provide insight into your priorities and guide your actions.

  • Explore your passions and interests: Engage in activities that genuinely interest and excite you. Explore new hobbies, take classes, or pursue creative outlets. Pay attention to what brings you joy and fulfillment. This exploration can help uncover hidden talents or passions.

  • Challenge your limitations and fears: Step out of your comfort zone and confront your fears and limiting beliefs. Explore new experiences, take calculated risks, and push yourself beyond self-imposed boundaries. Embracing challenges can lead to personal growth and reveal untapped potential.

  • Seek feedback and self-reflection: Engage in meaningful conversations with trusted friends, mentors, or therapists who can offer insights and perspectives on your strengths, blind spots, and areas for growth. Regular self-reflection through journaling or introspection can also deepen your understanding of yourself.

  • Embrace solitude and silence: Spend time alone in solitude, away from distractions, to connect with your inner self. Silence allows you to listen to your thoughts, desires, and intuition. Use this time for introspection, contemplation, and nurturing your relationship with yourself.

  • Embrace lifelong learning: Engage in continuous learning and self-improvement. Read books, attend workshops, take courses, and explore different philosophies and perspectives. Lifelong learning expands your horizons and contributes to personal growth and self-discovery.

Other than these techniques one the most important tool for the purpose of Self-inquiry can be Books. Books provide us with a plethora of knowledge and are also very significant when it comes down to learning new things. They provide one with a proper guide by making one aware of the other’s journey and methods of going about it.

There are a lot of books and shortlisting from them can be quite a hefty task, but one can never go wrong with classics as the saying goes. Why to look anywhere else when Hindu scriptures provide the oldest of all guides.

Five Must-Reads for Your Journey into Self-Inquiry

5 Books that are the most powerful and intuitive while undertaking the journey of self-inquiry are:

The Upanishads

To generate self-awareness and to come out of the veil of ignorance, and to look beyond just our physical self, beyond just ever-changing emotions, we seek guidance from the age-old sages and their writings in the Upanishads.

The Katha Upanishad 2.1.1 expresses, "पराञ्चि खानि व्यतृणत्स्वयम्भूस्तस्मात्पराङ्पश्यति नान्तरात्मन् । श्चिद्धीरः प्रत्यगात्मानमैक्षदावृत्तचक्शुरमृतत्वमिच्छन् ॥"

This speaks to the notion that our senses are inherently oriented outwards, causing us to base our identity on how we perceive the external world. It is an uncommon occurrence when an individual chooses to invert their senses in the quest for self-understanding, thus arriving at the pinnacle of self-realization.

The attainment of self-realization, or connecting to the entirety of the cosmos, is highly regarded in the Upanishads. It encourages the quest for self-discovery, referred to as 'atma-anushandhana' or 'atma-vichara' in Sanskrit.

These ancient Upanishads, celebrated as the zenith of Vedic enlightenment, stress the acknowledgment of the divine self that resides within us all. The Upanishads articulate the transient nature of our physical being, transcending the physical body's limitations and instead alluding to it as a form of pure consciousness or delight that fuels existence.

The purpose of self-realization is not merely to exist within physical consciousness but to understand oneself as an unrestricted self. This profound concept is more than mere intellectual comprehension; it is a direct, experiential understanding of one's true essence. It involves surpassing the deception of isolation and acknowledging the fundamental unity that connects all beings.

In an awakened state of profound revelation, the individual recognizes that they are not detached from the ultimate reality, referred to as Brahman, but rather an integral component of it. The Upanishads provide diverse pathways to achieve this self-realization, including Jnana Yoga (path of wisdom), Bhakti Yoga (path of love and devotion), Karma Yoga (path of selfless action), and Dhyana Yoga (path of meditation). These avenues involve self-reflection, consideration, devotion, moral existence, and meditation, guiding one towards an intimate experience of their true essence.

Emphasizing that self-realization is the paramount objective of human existence, the Upanishads suggest it to be the solution for liberation (moksha) from the cycle of life and death. It is depicted as the epitome of fulfillment, tranquility, and liberation from affliction.

In Upanishadic thought, the aim of self-realization is to acknowledge and personally experience one's true nature as the eternal self (Atman) and to comprehend its intrinsic unity with the ultimate reality (Brahman). This state of deep revelation and liberation is obtained through varied paths of understanding, devotion, action, and meditation.

Interpreted and elaborated by Swami Krishnanada, the Kathopanishad also offers us profound insights into the higher aspects of individual existence. This Upanishad unravels a significant conversation between Nachiketa, a young seeker of truth, and Yama, the deity of death. Through this engaging discourse, the text underscores the significance of self-exploration and the pursuit of spiritual knowledge. Nachiketa, driven by an insatiable thirst for wisdom and a relentless commitment to understanding the truth, seeks answers about life, death, and the essence of the soul.

The journey towards enlightenment is laden with risks and allurements. The innermost self, the Atman, is often ensconced in a shroud of obscurity, its understanding lying beyond the conventional realms of human comprehension. This elusive Atman can only be truly realized under the guidance of an enlightened mentor, since it surpasses the constraints of rational thought.

As per the Upanishadic wisdom, attaining the Atman requires the complete surrender of the self and a detachment from the material world, inclusive of all its aspects. The sacred Vedas echo the sentiment of joy and liberation experienced in this process of self-discovery, emphasizing the need to relinquish all worldly pursuits.

As Swami Krishnanada interprets, "The individual basks in the ecstasy of the Self, for they have apprehended the pinnacle of comprehension through listening, grasping, and reflection upon this elusive truth. This understanding is unique, distinct from both action and inaction, transcending the realms of past and future, rooted in the immediacy of knowledge. The splendor of this realization is the chorus of the Vedas. All forms of asceticism indicate its grandeur. Continence is observed with the intent to achieve this."

This sublime state is symbolized by the word 'OM,' which signifies the Supreme Absolute. Recognizing this foundational principle elevates one into the realms of the Absolute.

The Upanishads advocate that Brahman, the ultimate reality, can be directly experienced through self-exploration and reflection. This realization opens the doors to understanding the intrinsic unity among all beings and the interconnectivity permeating all aspects of existence.

Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita, a revered 700-verse scripture integral to the grand Indian epic, the Mahabharata, holds a significant position in Hinduism. Unfolding in the form of an enlightening dialogue between Prince Arjuna and his divine charioteer, Lord Krishna, the Gita introduces Arjuna to the application of profound truths contained in the Upanishads.

The Gita masterfully interweaves diverse spiritual paths, recognizing that human beings are born with distinct propensities and tendencies, known as gunas. It acknowledges the varying emotional intensities among individuals, some naturally gravitating toward spirituality, while others are more attuned to their emotions.

To cater to these unique individual traits, the Gita presents distinct paths: the path of wisdom (jnana yoga), the path of devotion (bhakti yoga), the path of selfless action (karma yoga), and the path of meditation (raja yoga). Each offers a spiritual route tailored to the individual's predisposition.

The Gita's chapters are thoughtfully divided, aligning with different yogic paths: Chapters 1 to 6 detail Karma Yoga as a means to the final goal. Chapters 7 to 12 elaborate on Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion. Finally, chapters 13 to 18 describe Jnana Yoga, the embodiment of knowledge and the goal itself.

As conveyed in A.M. Sastri's translation of the introduction to the Bhagavad Gita commentary, the Religion of Works, while initially a path towards earthly prosperity for different castes and religious orders, also serves as a spiritual guide. Practiced with complete devotion and indifference to immediate outcomes, it purifies the mind (sattva-suddhi). A purified mind is better equipped for the path of knowledge, eventually gaining wisdom. Thus, indirectly, the Religion of Works leads to Supreme Bliss.

The Bhagavad Gita's verse 5.10, 11 epitomizes this sentiment: "He who does actions, placing them in Brahman" ... "Yogins perform actions, without attachment, for the purification of the self." The path to self-realization in the Gita involves a profound understanding of the self. This self-inquiry fosters a union between the Atman, or the self, and the Brahma, or the universe, propelling one towards liberation, realization, and profound peace.

I Am That

"I Am That" is a profound exploration of self-inquiry, a collection of dialogues with the spiritual teacher Nisargadatta Maharaj. It is not to be confused with the spiritual journey outlined in "Autobiography of a Yogi" by Paramahamsa Yogananda. While both books share the theme of self-inquiry, they offer different perspectives and experiences.

"I Am That" invites us on a journey of inner exploration, encouraging us to understand the profound reality of 'I'. It challenges us to distinguish this deep-seated reality from superficial perceptions of self. Unlike Yogananda's emphasis on self-analysis and reflection, Maharaj's approach is more about questioning and understanding the nature of our existence.

Maharaj encourages us to delve into our consciousness, seeking to understand the essence of our being beyond the physical body and the limitations of the mind. This involves questioning the nature of desires, attachments, and the transient nature of the material world.

While Yogananda presents meditation as a tool for inward exploration, Maharaj's teachings focus more on the practice of self-inquiry. He encourages us to pay attention to our inner emotions and sensations, not to transcend them, but to understand them.

The goal of self-inquiry in "I Am That" is to awaken to our true nature, which is described as divine and interconnected with universal consciousness. It involves recognizing the divinity within oneself and perceiving the divine essence in all aspects of life. This transformative practice allows us to recognize the aspect of Divinity in all realms of life, even in the most mundane tasks.

"I Am That" is a spiritual guide that encourages us to question, explore, and understand our true nature. It is a journey of self-discovery that leads us to the realization of our interconnectedness with the universe and our inherent divinity.

Vivek Chudamani

Vivek Chudamani is a work attributed to Adi Shankarcharya. One of the central themes in this work is self-inquiry or self-realization. Vivek Chudamani literally translates to “Crest of Jewel Discrimination”, this delves into the path of nature of reality and self-realization (moksha) or liberation. Self-inquiry known as ‘Atma Vichara’ in Sanskrit this path leads to realization and liberation.

The core idea in Vivek Chudamani is to distinguish between the temporary, ever-changing aspects of human life and the eternal, unchanging reality that lies beyond the ephemeral aspects.

Shankaracharya in Vivek Chudamani emphasizes the importance of discrimination (Viveka) between the real and the unreal, to achieve self-realization. Only by recognizing the limitations of physical self-one is encouraged to turn inwards and inquire into the nature of true self.

The process of self-inquiry in Vivek Chudamani is considered a powerful tool for transcending the illusion of individual identity (ego) and realizing one’s oneness with the universal consciousness (Brahman). It is not mere intellectual exercise but a profound practice that requires sincerity, dedication, and a mind free from distractions.

Self-inquiry is a central theme not only in Vivek Chudamani but also in various other spiritual traditions in India, particularly in Advaita Vedanta, the philosophical school to which Shankaracharya belonged.

Through self-inquiry, one is believed to attain liberation and liberation from birth and death (samsara) and achieve ultimate freedom which would to liberation.

Atma Darshan

"Atma Darshan," penned by Atmananda Krishna Menon, stands as a noteworthy contribution to Advaita Vedanta, delving into the practice of self-exploration and the journey towards self-illumination. It proposes a direct, experiential method to grasp the essence of self and to ultimately reach a state of liberation.

In the pursuit of self-inquiry presented in "Atma Darshan", one is guided to witness their thoughts, emotions, sensations, and perceptions. At the same time, questioning the fundamental awareness that silently observes these experiences is encouraged. This aids individuals in probing the characteristics of consciousness, ultimately recognizing it as the foundational truth behind all phenomena.

Atmananda Krishna Menon steers seekers through the process of self-inquiry to delve into the nature of the "I" or "I-thought," the origin of our individuality. By meticulously examining the subject-object relationship and deconstructing the illusion of an isolated self, the text leads to the understanding of one's quintessential nature as pure awareness.

"Atma Darshan" underscores the significance of first-hand experiential insight over mere intellectual understanding. It motivates individuals to reside in the present moment, to inquire into the directness of their own experience, rather than depending exclusively on theoretical knowledge. The purpose of self-inquiry, as described in "Atma Darshan," is to surpass the restrictive identification with the body-mind complex and acknowledge one's true essence as pure consciousness.

Through persistent self-inquiry and the subsequent dissipation of the ego-driven self, the text suggests that one can apprehend the non-dual nature of reality, consequently experiencing liberation or enlightenment.

Final Thoughts

The exploration of self and enlightenment is a singular and individual path, with these insightful books serving as catalysts, propelling one towards the achievement of this significant journey. Despite the guiding wisdom they provide, it remains in the hands of the individual to embark upon and embrace this pursuit of enlightenment.

When delving into the profound layers of self-inquiry, it is essential to remember that this is a lifelong endeavor. One needs to exercise patience and kindness towards oneself during this process. Even a realization that may seem less than the ultimate one signifies progress and this should be acknowledged and appreciated as part of the journey.

It is crucial to continually remind ourselves that the universe, in all its vast complexity and wisdom, resides within us, serving as our inner compass, guiding us through this challenging yet rewarding terrain. This understanding, grounded in humility and openness, fosters an environment conducive for personal growth and self-realization.

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