The two important problems which absorb the attention of Sri Krishna are the nature of the Self and the problem of conduct. Of these, he proceeds first to a consideration of the former and disposes of the latter afterwards.
The ego in man is the cause of all errors and the origin of all false values. It is that to which we refer all our judgments regarding everything in our experience; and being itself limited and circumscribed, it cannot confer infallibility upon its judgments. Hence the errors. Hence also doubts, which demand further enquiry. Deeper enquiry reveals the totally unreal character of this ego, thus shifting our sense of self-hood to a deeper reality.
Here we come upon the great Vedantic conception of the Sāksin (witness or ultimate observer) which no philosopher in the West has arrived at, but towards which Western thought is steadily and unmistakably proceeding through its application of scientific methods to the problems of psychology and epistemology. That the ego is unreal, that man’s individuality or self-hood does not consist in the ego, is the central truth in Buddhism; that is what modern biology and psychology also hint at.
Says that voluminous digest of modern biological knowledge, The Science of Life, by H G Wells, G P Wells, and Julian Huxley (pp.878-89):
“Alone, in the silence of the night and on a score of thoughtful occasions, we have demanded: can this self, so vividly central to my universe, so greedily possessive of the world, ever cease to be? Without it surely there is no world at all! And yet this conscious self dies nightly when we sleep, and we cannot trace the stages by which in its stages it crept to an awareness of its own existence.
“Personality may be only one of Nature’s methods, a convenient provisional delusion of considerable strategic value. …
“The more intelligent and comprehensive man a picture of the universe has become, the more intolerable has become his concentration upon the individual life with its inevitable final rejection. …
“He escapes from his ego by this merger (identification with and participation in a greater being), and acquires an impersonal immortality in the association, his identity dissolving into the greater identity. This is the essence of much religious mysticism, and it is remarkable how closely the biological analysis of individuality brings us to the mystics. The Individual, according to this second line of thought, saves himself by losing himself. But in mystical teaching, he loses himself in the Deity, and in the scientific interpretation of life, he forgets himself as Tom, Dick, or Harry and discovers himself as Man. The Buddhist treatment of the same necessity is to teach that the individual life is a painful delusion from which men escape by conquest of individual desire. The Western mystic and the Eastern sage find a strong effect of endorsement in modern science and the everyday teaching of practical morality: both teach that self must be subordinated, that self is a method and not an end.”
Modern biological and psychological analysis must go deeper in the search for men’s sense of individuality in order to avert the fallacy of total nihilism.
Philosophy in India discovered behind the ego, which is part of the ceaseless flow of Nature, the reality of the ultimate Observer or Witness, whom it called the sāksin. The Sāksin is that timeless Being which witnesses all this flow and change in the world of thought and things. The philosophical significance of this discovery has yet to be fully grasped. Yet all true knowledge, all valid judgments in logic or science, imply unmistakably a shifting of the subject from the ego to the sāksin. When science insists in studying things from the point of view of the objects themselves by eliminating the personal equation, it is, in effect, emphasizing only the sāksi-bhāva or sāksi point of view; for, the limited and circumscribed vision of the ego gives place to the unlimited and universal vision of the sāksin by the practice of scientific or intellectual detachment. In ordinary life also, when we insist on what is called impartial judgment, what is sought to be achieved is this same ego-elimination. Says Professor J B S Haldane in his Possible Worlds:
“I notice that when I think logically and scientifically or act morally, my thoughts and actions cease to be characteristic of myself and are those of any intelligent or moral being in the same position. In fact, I am already identifying my mind with an absolute or unconditioned mind.
“Only in so far as I do this can I see any probability of my survival, and the more I do so, the less I am interested in my private affairs and the less desire do I feel for personal immortality.”
The two important charactereristics of the sāksin are detachment and universatality. It marks the highest point of perfection in the process of de-personalization. Thus it is the fulfillment of the scientific attitude and outlook. That it is the fulfillment of the ethical, and to a large extent of the religious, discipline also will be shown in the sequel.
When Sri Krishna tells Arjuna that the true Self of man is unborn, immortal, and eternal, he is referring to the sāksin. (BHagavad Gita, II.16 ; XIII.22; XV.10; and XVIII.17.)
The Gitā conceives Reality as that which never changes. The ego, being subject to change, is unreal; so also are all its objects. Hence Sri Krishna asks Arjuna to transcend the dualities of experience like heat and cold, pain and pleasure, and identify himself with the permanent and unchanging Being, the Sāksin.
The Sāksin being the ultimate subject or observer, the difficulty of comprehending it truly is well expressed by Sri Krishna thus: (Gitā, II.29):
Āscaryavat pasyati kascit enam āscaryavat vadati tathaiva cānyah;
Āscaryavaccinam anyah srnoti srutvāpyenam veda na caiva kascit. —
“Some look upon this Self as marvelous; others speak about It as wonderful; others again hear of It as a wonder. And still others, though hearing, do not understand It at all.”
Excerpted from “The Central Theme of the Gita”, a chapter in ETERNAL VALUES OF A CHANGING SOCIETY Vol.1 – PHILOSOPHY AND SPIRITUALITY by Swami Ranganathananda, published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, India 1994.