The Crown of Life



    Yoga is as timeless as Brahman Itself. As with every fresh cycle man comes to an awareness of the All-pervading, he tries to discover the means for realizing It. It was Hiranyagarbha, we are told, who first taught yoga or the Divine Way, but it was his successors, Gaudapada and Patanjali, who developed it into a regular system. As we have already seen in the foregoing chapter, all true yoga begins with a dualistic assumption but ends in a non-dualistic one. It is not surprising, therefore, that many students of the inner science should have been confounded by this paradox. As time passed, confusion led to controversy, and a half-truth was often mistaken for the full truth. It was at such a time that Shankara, the prodigy from South India, arose to preach the true philosophy of Advaitism.
    He was gifted with amazing powers of reasoning, logic and insight and few have attained to the depth, subtlety and consistency of vision that are to be found in Shankara's writings. Taking up all the great scriptures as they came down from the past, he unequivocally interpreted their meaning and established their identity of substance. He showed that the Reality was One and, in its ultimate analysis, could not tolerate any pluralism or dualism. An individual jiva might begin as distinct from the Brahman, but by the time he had attained full realization, he would have realized his oneness with the Absolute, the All-pervading. Armed with clairvoyant intellectual power, he swept Indian thought clean of all the seeming contradictions that were clogging its free development.
    We may now examine some of the basic concepts that he taught.

Self - the basis of conscious life

    Shankara regarded the empirical life of the individual consciousness as nothing but a waking dream, and as any other dream, an unreal substance. Its unreality comes to light when one travels from limited to cosmic consciousness, or contemplates the relative nature of physical consciousness as it varies from waking (jagrat), to dream (swapan), and from dream to dreamlessness (sushupti). If empirical experience is relative in character, wherein lies its reality? The answer provided by Shankara is that it is to be sought in the Thinking Mind, which in turn only reflects the light of the Atman, the Eternal Self, the unchanging, the absolute, the real witness (sakshi).
    The principle of causality is just a condition of knowledge. The objects appear to be real so long as we work within the limits of cause and effect. The moment we rise above these limitations, all objects vanish into airy nothings. In the true nature of reality, there is no place for causation, because causal explanations are always incomplete and ultimately lead nowhere. The objects momentarily appear as bubbles or ripples on the surface of the water and disappear the next moment into the water and are no more. Water alone remains the real substratum of the whole phenomenon. In just the same way, the Real contains and transcends the phenomenal, and is free from all relationships of time, space and cause. The entire world lives in the mind of man, and it is the movement of the conscious mind that produces the distinctions of perception, the perceiver and the perceived, a differentiation where in fact there is none, as everything is part of the Vast ocean of unity. This state does not recognize the distinctions of knower, known and knowledge, all of which are but relative terms with no finality about them. Similarly, the three states of the human experience (waking, dreaming and the dreamless) are unreal, for none of them lasts long enough, and each gives place to the other in turn, as the mind passes from state to state. Each of them has a beginning and an end and exists only in the absence of the others. The term "relativity" in itself implies its antithesis, the "Reality," and beyond the three states specified above lies the atman, as the basis of them all. It alone is and constantly remains, behind the ever changing panorama of life, the ever unborn, eternally awake, the dreamless and self-illumined, by its very nature a pure cognition distinct from the non-cognition of the sleep state.

The nature of creation

    Creation as such does not exist per se. The actual and the real is ever the same and is not subject to change. The unconditioned cannot be conditioned as infinity cannot be finitized. All that is, is Brahman, and there can be nothing apart from the Absolute Unity. It projects Itself into varying forms, which are an expression of Its power; but if we perceive them in terms of plurality or duality and of limitation, it is not that such qualities inhere in the Absolute, but that our own perception is limited by the narrow, everyday, human consciousness. He who has passed from avidya to vidya, from ignorance to knowledge, knows the world of the relative to be only maya or illusion, and sees the Absolute in everything, just as he who knows the true nature of ice sees it only as another form of water. The power of the Absolute, popularly known as Ishwar and called the Creator, is the root-cause of all consciousness. The world of plurality or duality is mere maya (an instrument for measuring things on the level of the intellect), while the real One is non-dual and hence is at once measureless and immeasurable. To use the well-known simile--"The variety subsists in the atman, as does a snake in the rope or a ghost in the stump of a tree." As an empirical experience is neither identical with the atman, nor exists apart from or independent of the atman, so the world is neither one with the atman nor separate from it.
    Atman is one and universal, unconditioned and limitless like space, but when conditioned by mind and matter, it looks like Ghat-Akash or space enclosed in a pitcher, yet becomes one with the universal space when the pitcher breaks apart. All the differences, then, are but in name, capacity and form. The jiva and the atman are one and of the same essence. Kabir, speaking of it, says that the spirit is part and parcel of Ram, or the All-pervading Power of God. The Muslim divines also describe it (rooh) as Amar-i-Rabbi, or the fiat of God. While the jiva is conditioned and limited by the limiting adjuncts, physical, mental and causal, the atman or the disembodied jiva, freed from these finitizing adjuncts, is limitless and unconditioned.

The Self or Atman

    The basis of truth lies in Self-certainty. The Self precedes everything else in the world. It comes even before the stream of consciousness and all concepts of truth and untruth, reality and unreality, and before all considerations, physical, moral and metaphysical. Consciousness, knowledge, wisdom and understanding presuppose some kind of energy known as "Self" to which all these are subservient; and in fact, they flow from it. All physical and mental faculties, even the vital airs and empirical experiences, appear in the light of the shining Self, the self-illuminated atman. They all have a purpose and an end that lie far deeper than themselves and which form the springboard for all kinds of activity, whether physical, mental and supramental. All these, however, fail to grasp the real nature of the Self, being themselves in a state of continuous flux. Self being the basis of all proof and existing before proof, cannot be proved. How can the Knower be known, and by whom? Self is in fact, the essential nature of everyone, even that of the atheist. This Self then, is eternal, immutable and complete, and in its essence, is ever the same at all times, under all conditions and in all states.

The nature of Self

    Though we know that the Self exists, yet we do not know what it is, for knowledge itself follows the Self and is due to and because of the Self. The true nature of the Self may however be comprehended by the Self, if It could be stripped of all the enshrouding sheaths of senses, mind, understanding and will, in which it is clothed and covered. What is then left is variously described as "Undifferentiated Consciousness," "Eternal Knowledge" or "Pure Awareness," and is characterized by the Light of the Great Void. It is the supreme principle whose essential nature is self-effulgence. It is infinite, transcendental and the essence of absolute knowledge. It has three attributes of Sat, Chit and Anand, i.e., pure existence, pure knowledge and pure bliss. As the Self is complete in Itself, and by Itself, It has no activity of Its own, nor has any need for it, nor requires any outside agency. All-pervading and self-existent, It knows no limits and no motives.

Individual knowledge and consciousness

    Though the ultimate reality is the non-dual spirit, yet determinate knowledge and empirical experience presuppose the existence of: (i) The knower, or the subject that knows apart from the internal organ behind the senses and the object known. The knowing mind is but a reflecting mirror that reflects the luminosity of the atman, in which knowledge grows. (ii) The process of knowledge as determined by modifications in the internal organ: vritis or undulations creating ripples and bubbles in the stream of consciousness. These vritis are of four kinds: the Indeterminate (manas or the mindstuff), the Determinate (budhi or intelligent will), Self-sense (ahankar or the self-assertive ego), and the Subconscious (chit or the deep and hidden potencies). (iii) The object known through the light of the atman as reflected by the internal organ (antahkaran).

Knowledge and its sources

    Knowledge is of two kinds; ultimate and final, or empirical and relative. Knowledge in its ultimate reality is a state of being and never grows. It is already there and is revealed by the light of the atman, which transcends at once both the subject apprehending and the object apprehended, beyond which there is nothing.
    True knowledge is purely an action of the soul and is perfect in itself and independent of the senses and the sense organs. "An all-knowing mind," says Professor J. M. Murray, "embraces the totality of being under the aspect of eternity. As we gain our entrance into the world of being, a total vision is ours." According to Shankara, "highest knowledge is the immediate witness of reality itself," for then, the knower and the known become one reality. But the real Self which is pure awareness cannot be the object of knowledge.
    The empirical knowledge of the external world is just like animal knowledge. It is based on and derived from the sense organs, and as such has forms and modes all of which are conspicuous by their absence from true knowledge. But nothing becomes real till it is experienced. Even a proverb is no proverb until it is illustrated in actual life and practice.
All empirical knowledge is revealed either by perception or by scriptural testimony. The human perception has never been considered true, perfect and accurate. One may see a snake in a rope, or a ghost in the stump of a tree. Generally, things are not what they seem to be. The colors of things we see are those that are not absorbed by them, but are rejected and thrown out. The redness of the rose is not part of the rose but something alien to it. Again, inference and scriptural testimony are not altogether infallible. The source of inference is previous experience, which is itself fallible and even if it were not, situations in the present may not wholly fit in with the knowledge gained in the past. This is the case even with intuition, which is the sum-total of all experience in the subconscious. A cloud of smoke on the top of a distant hill may be indicative of fire or it may be a sheet of fog. Similarly, scriptural testimony, though admitted as an infallible and certain source of knowledge, cannot always be treated as such. The Vedas, which constitute the Divine knowledge, appear and disappear with the rise and dissolution of each cycle of time. They are supposed to be an inexhaustible mine of universal and ideal knowledge. But the term "knowledge" implies a record of spiritual experiences gained at the supersensory planes. The moment the experiences thus gained are translated into human language and reduced to writing, they acquire form and method, and the moment they acquire form and method, they lose their freshness and life, their quality of limitless being. That which cannot be limited or defined, begins to be treated as something defined and limited, and instead of the scriptures giving vital knowledge, they tend to distract men from it by offering only abstractions. At best they can only point toward the Truth, but they can never give it. The concepts of the Universal as contained therein, remain as mere concepts, for they can neither be received, inferred nor correctly communicated; they begin to have meaning only when one learns to rise above the empirical plane and experiences Truth for himself.
    From the above, one comes to the irresistible conclusion that "seeing," or direct and immediate perception, is above all proof and testimony. It is seeing in the pure light of the atman, which is free from even the least shadow of correlatively. It is nothing but a direct, integral experience of the soul. Sruti, or revealed scripture, without first-hand inner experience, is sound without sense. All flights of thought, imagination or fancy, and all empirical knowledge, are inadequate and cannot do justice to Truth or the Ultimate Reality. Anubhava is verily the real and absolute knowledge, and is knowledge of the Absolute. It is the self-certifying experience of the soul, which bears testimony to the recorded spiritual experience of the sages as given in the srutis.

The nature of Brahman

    The very idea of finitude implies the existence of the Infinite, as does the word "unreal" of something real, the basis of all intelligence and imagination. Again, we have the overwhelming testimony of scriptural texts, which speak of religious experiences of all seers at all times and in all places.
    The nature of Brahman cannot be expressed in words. It is the foundation of all that exists. It spreads everywhere, and at the same time is nowhere in relation to anything particular. It is a paradox at once of being and non-being. There are two ways of looking at the problem: the negative way and the positive way. There is God, the Incomprehensible Absolute, and God Who actually creates, works, and is the First Cause, and is known variously as the Logos or the Holy Spirit, the Kalma or the Bang-i-Qadim, the Naad or the Udgit, the Naam or the Shabd. The latter terms indicate the life-principle, the Word or the Power of God that is immanent and vibrates everywhere from the highest to the lowest in the Universe. It is both the material and the efficient cause of the world. It is the principle of Truth and the spirit of God (God-in-action--Ekankar). Of this Power of God, the Gospels tell us that, "The Light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not." This power of Brahman (Ishvara) or Godhead is the medium between Brahman and the Universe and partakes of the nature of both. But His oneness is not affected by self-expression into many--Eko aham babusiam. The two exist as reality and appearance, and the difference arises because of the limited insight in man.

    To sum up, the Supreme Reality is the basis of the world as we know it, speak of it and see it. The plurality, or diversity in unity, is the result of erroneous judgment. The world is unreal but not a subjective illusion. The Absolute is in the world but the world is not the Absolute, for a shadow cannot take the place of the substance. A thing based on the real cannot be the "real" itself. The world is but the phenomenal truth and not the essential truth of the Reality, or the centripetal force at the core of it.
    The individual self is a complexity of likes and dislikes, preferences and prejudices, purposes and projects, memories and associations. The conditioned jiva is essentially the unconditioned atman. This empirical self or the individual understanding is, through ignorance of its own real nature, the active doer, the enjoyer and the sufferer in the pure light of the atman, of which it has no knowledge nor any experience. Enclosed in the physical body, composed of five elements (ether, air, fire, water and earth), is the subtle body consisting of seventeen elements (five organs of perception: eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin; five of action: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch; the five vital airs, and manas and budhi), and also the causal or seed body. The self follows the inexorable law of karma as it migrates from one body to another on the giant Wheel of Life. These limiting adjuncts (the physical, mental and causal), reduce the atman to the level of a jiva (individual consciousness), and determine its fate, taking it into endless gyres. In the core of the jiva is the Witnessing Self, that merely looks on and sheds luster on the entire stage and, while illumining the ego, mind, senses and the sense objects, continues to shine in Its own light, even when the stage is cleared. It is against this illumined silver screen that the whole show takes place.
    The attainment of the state where the atman knows itself for what it is and realizes that it is naught but Brahman, is the goal of Advaitism. This state is one of direct experience and, as Shankara has made abundantly clear, it cannot be attained merely by ratiocination, the reading of scriptures or the performance of rituals. It can come only through the pursuit of yoga, and the essential thing to be remembered is that Advaitism by itself is not a yoga but, strictly speaking, represents the philosophy of yoga at its subtlest and profoundest. Shankara, as he himself clarified, was not speaking of something new. He was engaged in the task of reformulating what had already been expressed in the Upanishads and the Gita. Endowed with an extraordinary intellect and an amazing flair for logic, he set about restating in a coherent and systematic form the insight embedded in the srutis, which in subsequent times had been confused and had led to much needless controversy. He demonstrated once and for all that any approach to Brahman which did not preach the non-pluralistic and non-dualistic reality was in its very nature illogical, and that Advaitism was in fact the logical conclusion of yogic thought. Implicit in this approach was the view that of all states of samadhi, the one in which the individual atman lost its identity in the Brahman (called Nirvikalp Samadhi), was the highest. This state was to be attained here and now, and one could be free in this life (jivan mukta). He who had plumbed beneath the phenomenal to the Absolute, would never again be taken in by appearances. He was a liberated spirit, living in the light of True Knowledge. Past actions might carry him onward through physical existence, but once these were exhausted, he was absorbed wholly into the Brahman, the pure cognition.
    Shankara was indeed a remarkable man of learning and insight and his contribution to Indian thought is permanent. In carrying it to its logical conclusion, he gave it the brilliance of consistent clarity. But just as ritual and scripture cannot be a substitute for direct inner experience, likewise merely knowing that the Self and the Brahman are One cannot take the place of an actual experience of this union. The philosophy of yoga is not the same thing as yoga. At best, it can only clear our thinking of its present confusion and point out the final goal to be attained, but the rest must remain a matter of practical and personal realization through yoga.

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