The central difficulty faced by the seeker comes down to the understanding of “who am I?”. The great sage Ramana Maharshi used this question as the basis for distinguishing the true self from the apparent self. The Gita poses this as the central question that must be resolved. The human being starts by identification with the surface personality based in the ego. We experience ourselves as separated and different from everyone and everything else. We experience a wall of separation and we act as if we are independent of the rest of the manifestation. We either treat the world as a field of self-aggrandisement or else, as a place of fear when we realize the immensity and power of the forms and beings and our own small individuality.
The Gita tells us that there is a true self, the Jiva, which is not this weak, fragmented, fearful or desire-filled ego-personality, but a portion of the supreme Divine which has taken shape here to fulfill the potential of the manifestation and carry out the Divine Purpose. This Jiva is not fragmented, weak and separate, but until we distinguish it and identify with it, it remains hidden and obscure to the surface individuality.
Sri Aurobindo explains: “The life of the ego is founded on a construction of the apparent mental, vital and physical truth of existence, on a nexus of pragmatic relations between the individual soul and Nature, on an intellectual, emotional and sensational interpretation of things used by the little limited I in us to maintain and satisfy the ideas and desires of its bounded separate personality amid the vast action of the universe. All our Dharmas, all the ordinary standards by which we determine our view of things and our knowledge and our action, proceed upon this narrow and limiting basis, and to follow them even in the widest wheelings round our ego centre does not carry us out of this petty circle. It is a circle in which the soul is a contented or struggling prisoner, orever subject to the mixed compulsions of Nature.”
The experience of the Jiva is quite different: “On the other are the vast spiritual reaches of immortal fullness, bliss and knowledge into which we are admitted through union with the divine Being, of whom we are then a manifestation and expression in the eternal light and no longer a disguise in the darkness of the ego-nature.”
The Taittiriya Upanishad makes the distinction between the two states of consciousness quite clear: “…for when the Spirit that is within us findeth his refuge and firm foundation in the Invisible, Bodiless, Undefinable and Unhoused Eternal, then he hat passed beyond the reach of Fear. But when the Spirit that is within us maketh for himself even a little difference in the Eternal, then he hath fear, yea, the Eternal himself becometh a terror to such a knower who thinketh not.” (Taittiriya Upanishad, Brahmanandavalli, Chapter 7, translated by Sri Aurobindo in The Upanishads, pg. 271)
Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 22, The Supreme Secret, pp. 524-525