THEOSOPHY, Vol. 88, Issue 6, September/October 2000
(Pages 287-291; Size: 10K)


[Article number (10) in this Department]

What is the relationship between belief and self-realization?

Spiritual sight is subject to the same acuity or cloudiness as physical sight. If we only see what we want to see, when does belief become self-evident, become truth? Our spiritual self responds to awe-inspiring visions and, just as easily, can turn blindly toward unfocused images that we then define based on our previous knowledge and experience. Yet, to become oneself, to know oneself, is to see beyond limits of the intellect and emotion. Without spiritual sight, will we ever find satisfaction in being human? To become oneself, to survive as such, and to transcend one's limits are all stages in the development of being human. What does it mean, then, to see oneself wholly? Three students ponder the relationship of belief and self-realization in these facets of inquiry.


Belief is very important to our well-being. Without belief in something, life becomes empty, devoid of meaning. The most important belief we can hold is that there is a purpose to life and that our participation in it counts for something. Without that, nothing really matters in the final analysis. In a culture that all too often is cynical about anything idealistic, noble, or generally spiritual, it isn't surprising that the kinds of values promoted through the medium of popular culture are surface appearances, "get yours now," and success measured by what you own. The fact the teenage suicide rate is so high, especially in the freest and richest countries on earth, should stop us in our tracks to reevaluate what we as a people believe in.

Don't we often admire people with strong beliefs? There is a kind of surety about them, a purpose and direction that is admirable. People of strong belief often exhibit such qualities as courage, perseverance, self-composure, and joy. While our beliefs, religious or secular, are often the driving force in our lives, there is no guarantee they are based on anything really substantial. Most of us are born into our beliefs. They are passed down to us from our parents, our educational system, or our religion or they accompany our social or economic situation. Rarely do we take a good long look at our beliefs unless they do not serve us well in a particular situation. It is at those times that we are on the brink of self-realization.

There is a power in human beings that resides within the higher mind or soul that sees to the essence of things. We call it insight, intuition, or soul perception. When it is able to impress our brain consciousness, to penetrate the constellation of beliefs, thoughts, ideas, desires, likes, dislikes, fears, etc., that clog up our thought life, we see the nature of things, inside and out, more clearly. This is sometimes called realization of the Self. In other words, we have a clearer sense of who and what we are and what is important in life. As it is stated in Patanjali's Yoga Aphorisms, "When the understanding and the soul are united, then self-knowledge results" (Bk. IV Aph. 21). Self-realization might be defined as the perception of truth within the context of our particular lives or situation.


We are, individually, a microcosm of the macrocosm and therefore have our own universe to govern as a part of the whole of life. This unity of life places us in the position of responsibility for our words and deeds. The ideas we hold to be true represent our philosophy. Philosophy tells us the why of life. How, then, do we arrive at a value system or set of ideas that are capable of guiding our decisions altruistically? In Therapaeia (pg. xx), Robert Cushman offers, "Philosophic knowledge has its inception by way of man's honest encounter with himself."

If we base our judgment on the opinion accepted by the majority, we merely learn that a thing is. On the other hand, we might hold to the findings of the scientific community that bases its conclusions on a hypothesis and arrives at part of the why but cannot bring us to the principle of the conclusions. It would seem that these two alternatives give us information from sources that we may consider as acceptable authorities, thereby relieving us of the responsibility for the ensuing conclusions.

In his introduction to Plato's Phaedo, Thomas Taylor describes another species of knowledge "that results from Plato's dialectic; in which, by a progression through all ideas, we arrive at the first principles of things, and at that which is no longer hypothetical." If Self-realization is synonymous with Plato's divine reason, the journey from testimony to illumination is by way of "raising the self by the Self" (Gita, pg. 45). We must start where we are and progress through presently held ideas, in the light of universal principles, to the point where we are able to take the position that "the soul is the Perceiver; is assuredly vision itself pure and simple; unmodified; and looks directly upon ideas" (Patanjali's, pg. 26). This represents Taylor's final species of knowledge: "it no longer uses analysations or compositions, definitions or demonstrations, but by a simple and self-visive energy of intellect speculates things in themselves, and by intuition and contact becomes at one with the object of its perception; and this is the divine reason which Plato speaks of ... which far transcends the evidence of the most divine revelation; since this last is but founded in opinion; while the former surpasses even the indubitable certainty of science."

Some say that philosophy is not a practical pursuit for everyday life or that it is too metaphysical and not useful in daily living. "But to a sound judgment," said Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature), "the most abstract truth is the most practical. Whenever a true theory appears it will be its own evidence."


From the Bhagavad-Gita we read, "Among thousands of mortals a single one perhaps strives for perfection, and among those so striving perhaps a single one knows me as I am" (Ch. 7, pg. 53). "Thousands of mortals" have belief. The few who "strive for perfection" are deliberately trying to transcend belief in order to attain knowledge. And the "single one" who succeeds in making this transition has gained the highest knowledge, self-realization.

Belief is of our lower nature. It may center in our physical and emotional principles; for instance, among those who are much given to ceremonies and rituals or those who have strong childhood associations with a particular creed or practice. Or it may center in our lower manasic principle, among those who have an intellectual understanding of certain ideas.

But self-realization is of our higher nature. It centers in our higher manasic and buddhic principles. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna he will give him both jnana (knowledge) and vijnana (realization), "which, having learned, there remains nothing else to be known" (pg. 53). What is the difference between jnana and vijnana? Ramakrishna, a nineteenth-century Bengali sage, says that jnana is direct experiential (as opposed to intellectual) knowledge of the self, the underlying unity of life (Eknath Easwaran, The Bhagavad-Gita for Daily Living, Vol. 2, pp. 28 and 136-137; Petaluma: Nilgiri Press, 1979). Vijnana, he says, is spiritual experience, which is the ability to apply jnana in a practical, daily ongoing way, free from texts, dogmas and rituals. Ramakrishna describes intellectual knowledge (ajnana, ignorance, belief) as knowing that you can get a fire from two sticks -- jnana is actually making the fire, but vijnana is cooking rice on the fire, eating it, and being strengthened by its nourishment.

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