At a time when the political correctness of labels and identities has become paramount, it would serve us well to remember the nature of our true selves. Adi Shankara, an ancient Indian philosopher and theologian, reminds us that the way to understand our true self is not by defining what we are, but by discarding what we are not.

 

Legend has it that a young Shankara, while meandering in the Himalayas looking for his guru, encountered a sage who asked him, “who are you?” The boy answered with these verses which are known as the ‘Nirvana Shatakam’, ‘Atma Shatakam’ or simply, ‘The Song of Self’.

 

Written by Shankara in the 8th century, this poem explains the process of examination of one’s “atman” (true self), namely by rejecting the superficial attributes, vices, virtues and relationships imposed upon our real selves, both by the world and our own limited understanding. Unless we shed these artificial trappings of the apparent self, we cannot reach “nirvana: or absolute freedom.

 

The ‘Nirvana Shatakam’ is considered to be the most sophisticated and succinct summary of the Advaita Vedanta, or the Hindu teachings of non-dualism. While it may be impossible to detach completely from a world in which we are so enmeshed, this song serves as a reminder to focus on the essential truth of our existence.

 

Here, we select a few of the most powerful stanzas from the song, translated by Swami Vivekananda:

 

“Mano buddhi ahankara chittani naaham

Na cha shrotravjihve na cha ghraana netre

Na cha vyoma bhumir na tejo na vaayuhu

Chidananda rupah shivoham shivoham”

 

I am neither the mind, nor the intellect, nor the ego, nor memory;

I am neither the body, nor the changes of the body;

I am neither the senses of hearing, taste, smell, or sight,

Nor am I the ether, the earth, the fire, the air;

I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute—I am He, I am He.

 

***

“Na me dvesha ragau na me lobha mohau

Mado naiva me naiva matsarya bhavaha

Na dharmo na chartho na kamo na mokshaha

Chidananda rupah shivoham shivoham”

 

I have neither aversion nor attachment, neither greed nor delusion;

Neither egotism nor envy, neither Dharma nor Moksha;

I am neither desire nor objects of desire ;

I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute—I am He, I am He.

 

***

“Aham nirvikalpo nirakara rupo

vibhur vyapya sarvatra sarvendriyanam

Sada me samatvam na muktir na bandhah

Chidananda rupah shivoham shivoham”

 

I am untouched by the senses, I am neither Mukti nor knowable;

I am without form, without limit, beyond space, beyond time;

I am in everything; I am the basis of the universe; everywhere am I.

I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute—I am He, I am He. 

 

You can listen to one rendition of the song here.

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