A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 3


Ashtavakra said: 
1:13 – Having freed yourself from identification with the body and mind—the delusion of thinking, “I am an individual person”—reflect on the truth, “I am immutable, non-dual consciousness.” 
1:14 – My child, you have long been caught in the noose of thinking you are the body.  Sever it with the sword of the knowledge “I am consciousness” and be happy.
1:15 – You are unattached, actionless, self-luminous and flawless.  To continue seeking samadhi is bondage.

“Samadhi” means absorption into, or union with, an object of meditation.  While meditation in general is a healthy practice that focuses and calms the mind, in the case of self-inquiry, meditating for the sake of samadhi only reinforces bondage, meaning ignorance.  How so?  First, seeking samadhi presupposes that you are an object that can be meditated upon.  But as the “one seer of all (1.7)” that is “not perceived by the senses (1.5)” and “neither the doer nor enjoyer (1.6)” you cannot be what is perceived, what is experienced i.e. an object.  Second, you cannot be absorbed into yourself or gain union with yourself because you already are yourself, similar to the way a gold bracelet cannot gain union with, or absorption in, gold because it is already gold. 

In this verse you are described as “self-luminous” which is a metaphorical way of saying that you are self-evident.  Just as the sun does not need to be illumined by an external light because its very nature is light, you do not require an external means to be ‘known’ because your very nature is consciousness, which is the very essence of knowledge.  To put it simply, you know you are conscious precisely for the fact that you are conscious.  Nothing else is required.                  

1:16 – This universe exists within you and is pervaded by you.  You are pure consciousness; do not be narrow minded and think otherwise. 

After Ashtavakra says that the universe exists within you, to avoid the doubt that it could be something separate from you—the way a boat exits within, but is separate from, the ocean—he adds that the universe is also pervaded by you.  A good illustration of this point is how a wave exists within the ocean but is also pervaded by the ocean (as water).  However, you cannot actually say the wave is pervaded by water because that would imply that there is some substance apart from water called “wave.” In reality, there is no wave, only water.  Similarly, it cannot be taken literally when it is said that you pervade the universe, because upon analysis, the universe is merely an appearance that is nothing but you, consciousness.  This is how you are “pure” consciousness; because nothing exists apart from you that could taint you. 

One of the features of the Ashtavakra Samhita that can make it difficult to read is that it rapidly switches viewpoints from verse to verse or as in this case, within a single verse.  In the first part of the verse Ashtavakra assumes the empirical viewpoint (vyavaharika), taking the everyday experience of the world at face value, in which case he says that the universe is “within” you and is “pervaded by you.”  However, without giving an explanation, he immediately jumps to the ‘absolute’ viewpoint (paramarthika) and states that there is only consciousness, thereby negating the appearance of the world and by extension, the idea that it is within you or pervaded by you. 

Without being aware of these two viewpoints, some of Ashtavakra’s statements may seem contradictory.  But with the right understanding you can see that they are like looking at the same thing from two different perspectives.  For instance, if you are looking at water from the perspective of a wave, you can say that the wave exists within, and is pervaded by, water. But when you look at a wave from the perspective of water itself, you have to say there is only water.  However, it must be kept in mind that only one perspective is actually true while the other is only relatively true.  Because of that, just as the perspective of the wave must be given up when the perspective of water is known, so the empirical viewpoint that accepts the appearance of the universe must be given up when the absolute viewpoint—that there is only consciousness—is known.  

1:17 – You are independent, formless, changeless, calm, unfathomable intelligence and imperturbable.  Desire to be this consciousness alone.

“Unfathomable” means that you cannot be apprehended or defined by thoughts, words, concepts or sense perception.  For this reason, the word “intelligence” cannot be taken literally since it denotes a mental process consisting precisely of those things.  Therefore, the implied meaning of “unfathomable intelligence” is consciousness.  How so?  Because the one factor that is there in the presence of every single thought, word, concept or perception, that itself is not grasped by them, is consciousness.  Since it is the essence of all intelligence but never the object of intelligence, it is “unfathomable intelligence.”      

The phrase “desire to be consciousness” also cannot be taken literally because it seems to say that consciousness is something you should desire to become.  But since you are already consciousness, you cannot become consciousness.  Therefore, “desire to be consciousness” means “desire to understand that you are consciousness.” Or it can mean “be satisfied with being consciousness alone” because trying to find fulfillment in the transient objects of the world is futile.    

Part 4 coming next week.  In the meantime…

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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 2

1.8 – Being bitten by the great black snake of egoism, you think, “I am the doer.” To be happy, drink the nectar of the conviction, “I am not the doer.”

Identifying yourself with the ego—the thought or concept of “I” in the mind—is like the bite of a poisonous snake.  How so?  Because it leads to the false conviction that you are the one that acts when the body and mind act and thinking this is ‘fatal’ to happiness.  When you believe, “I am doing this” or “I am doing that” you falsely claim ownership of the results of what the body and mind do.  That this is an impediment to happiness is obvious when the results of body-mind’s actions are unpleasant.  What is not as evident is that this is also an obstacle to happiness when the results are pleasant, the reason being that achieving a desirable result does not lead to permanent happiness.  Once the pleasurable effect wears off, you are inevitably left with a desire to do something else to try to regain happiness, thus creating an endless cycle of action and desire that never lead to the contentment you want.  So Ashtavakra astutely points out that if you truly want to be happy, step out of cycle of doing and enjoying entirely through understanding.  When you have been poisoned by the belief, “I am the doer” the antidote is the conviction, “I am not the doer.”  If you are not the doer, the problem of action, desire and reaping the results of action—good or bad—does not belong to you.      

1.9 – “I am the one, pure consciousness.”  In the fire of this conviction, burn down the forest of ignorance and be happy.

Just as a forest is made up of countless trees, the forest of ignorance is composed of the innumerable ways you can mistake yourself to be the body-mind.  You ‘burn’ this ignorance with the conviction that you are the consciousness that knows, and is therefore free of, the body-mind and all of its problems. Or alternately, ignorance is incinerated by the conviction that since you are one alone, you are not affected by the body-mind because it is only an appearance.  This is stated in the next verse.     

1.10 – Although you are consciousness, the highest bliss, you are imagined to be the world, just as a rope is imagined to be a snake.  Know this and live happily.

When a rope is mistaken to be a snake, the snake is only an appearance.  Despite the illusion, nothing but the rope ever exists.  Similarly, when you, consciousness, are imagined to be the world (“world” here includes the body-mind), the world is merely an appearance while nothing but you ever exists.  Believing that there is actually a world is ignorance, an error based on the misperception of reality.  When this error is corrected, you can live happily, knowing that the world, just like an illusory snake, can cause you no harm. 

In this verse Ashtavakra says that consciousness is the highest bliss.  The word “bliss” can only be taken in the metaphorical sense because bliss is a feeling, a state of mind, and it has been clearly stated that consciousness is free of the mind.  A synonym for bliss is satisfaction, so by calling consciousness the highest satisfaction it indicates that the only way to get real satisfaction—as opposed to temporary satisfaction gained from everyday pursuits—is to understand what your true nature is.  When that happens you see that you lack nothing and have nothing to fear because there is only you and you are never touched by the appearance of the world. 

1.11 – He who considers himself free is free indeed and one who considers himself bound remains bound. “As one thinks, so one becomes,” is a popular saying in this world, and it is quite true.

In a text brimming with excellent verses, this is by far the finest because in two short sentences Ashtavakra gives a disarmingly simple summary of the essence of the entire teaching:  freedom, self-knowledge, enlightenment, moksha or whatever you choose to call it is only a matter of how you think about yourself.  While it is easy to get distracted by Vedanta’s ornate symbolism, hyperbolic metaphors, theoretical propositions, dazzling intellectual gymnastics and multitude of spiritual practices, freedom is really that simple.  If your idea of self is “I am ever-free consciousness” then you are free because that is actually the truth.  But if your idea of self is “I am the body-mind” then you are bound because that is the also the truth (at least for you).  “As one thinks, so one becomes.”  Take the word “becomes” loosely because you cannot become what you already are i.e. consciousness.  And as consciousness your nature is ever-free so you cannot become bound any more than fire can become cold or water can become dry.  You can only ‘become’ free by understanding you have always been free and you can only ‘become’ bound by believing you are bound.

Since it is so crucial, at the risk of being redundant, I want to repeat myself:  freedom is how you think about yourself.  That means right now is the time to start taking the stance that you are free even if you don’t yet understand how that can be.  Every time you catch yourself identifying with the body-mind and thinking a limiting thought about yourself, stop and apply an opposing thought, one that is harmony with who you really are.  If you find yourself identifying with the body thinking thoughts such as, “I am tall, short, skinny, fat, male, female, black, white, pretty, ugly etc.” stop and think, “I am not the body.”  If you identify with the mind with thoughts such as, “I am happy, sad, angry, peaceful, afraid, focused, distracted etc.” stop and think, “I am not the mind.”  If you find yourself thinking, “I am doing this, I am doing that” stop and think, “I am not the doer.” Or in general if you find yourself thinking in any way, “I am bound, I need to get free” stop and think, “I am free.”  Regardless of whether or not you see how these assertions can be true, they are nonetheless fact, and in time the supporting logic behind the statements you are making will become clear.  When they do, you have already put in the hard work to change the habitual thinking patterns of the mind, getting them into alignment with your true nature.  This is something you will inevitably have to do, either before or after enlightenment, assuming you are interested in mental peace.  So you might as well do it now. 

Contrary to the belief that enlightenment is a momentous realization that occurs at the end of an incredibly difficult spiritual journey spanning countless lifetimes, one that can only be achieved by an exceedingly rare and select few, if you can see that it’s possible to change the way you think about yourself, then enlightenment is available to you in this very lifetime. “As one thinks, so one becomes.”    

1.12 – You are consciousness, the all-pervading, full, actionless, unattached, desireless and peaceful witness. You appear as the world or of the world through error. 

This verse provides a timely opportunity to practice thinking differently about yourself.   You can put it in first person, say it to yourself, and contemplate its implications.  “I am consciousness, the all-pervading, full, actionless, desireless and peaceful witness.”

Of the words used to describe you in this verse, “full” and “peaceful” have not yet appeared in the text.  “Full” means that as the non-dual reality, you are complete; there is nothing left out, nothing that can be added or taken away; you cannot be perfected because you are already perfect.  “Peaceful” indicates that since you are ever-free witness of the conditions of the body-mind, you can never be disturbed. 

Part 3 coming soon.

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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 1

The Ashtavakra Samhita—more commonly known as the Ashtavakra Gita—is an unambiguous statement of non-dual wisdom from the highest standpoint and this is both its strength and weakness.  On the one hand, unlike texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, the uncompromising absolutist stance of the Ashtavakra Samhita makes it nearly immune to creative interpretation.  In this regard it is unmatched in its fidelity to non-dualism. On the other hand, its unyielding statements, which are rarely bolstered with supporting logic, can be difficult to comprehend because they generally refuse to cater to the lower levels of Vedanta’s teachings, sometimes outright rejecting them.  Also, the Ashtavakra Samhita has a clear monastic bias, flatly denying all day-to-day empirical activity in the apparent world, save for its descriptions of the ‘behavior’ of an enlightened person, and this can be hard to relate to for a non-monk.  So while the Ashtavakra Samhita is one of Vedanta’s finest texts, it greatly benefits from commentary to give its statements perspective and put them in the proper context.  However, since this is an advanced text that presupposes prior knowledge of Vedanta, the commentary I am providing will not dwell unnecessarily on the basics of the teaching.    

The Ashtavakra Samhita is written in the form of a dialogue between two people, Ashtavakra and Janaka.  No personal information is given about either of them in the text but they both make an appearance in the great mythological epic, the Mahabharata, where it is said that Ashtavakra is an ascetic sage and Janaka is a king (Janaka is also mentioned in the Upanisads).  Although both characters are most likely fictional—which in no way takes away from the truth expounded in the text—I find the authors choice to use the polar opposites of a monk and a king very interesting.  It shows that despite the fact that the teacher Ashtavakra would have been living an austere lifestyle of renunciation, his student Janaka—who as a king would have had many worldly responsibilities to attend to—is nonetheless is able to get enlightened.  As you will see, even though the Ashtavakra Samhita never admits to the value of activities in the empirical world or even encourages them, it does not set them up as an insurmountable obstacle to enlightenment or prohibit action for an enlightened person.  Instead, it encourages action to be understood in light of self-knowledge.  In this way, although the text espouses a very monastic viewpoint, it can remain relatable to a non-monk.       

I will be primarily using Swami Nityaswarupananda’s translation of the text published by Advaita Ashrama.  It is well written, cheap and readily available so I highly recommend picking up a copy.  I will also be consulting translations of the text by Hari Prasad Sastri and Ananada Wood.  Also, be aware that I will be altering the translation of certain verses as I see fit if I think they can benefit from clarification.      

The dialogue begins with Janaka questioning Astavakra.

Janaka said:

1.1 – How can knowledge be acquired? How can freedom be attained? How is dispassion possible?

Ashtavakra said:

1.2 – If you aspire after liberation, shun the objects of the senses as poison and seek forgiveness, sincerity, kindness, contentment and truth as nectar.

Here Ashtavakra describes the preliminary conditions for gaining the knowledge that leads to freedom.  “Shun the objects of the senses as poison” is an exaggeration since it is impractical to avoid the objects of day-to-day affairs.  For instance, you can’t shun food—an object of the senses—as poison, assuming you want to live long enough to get self-knowledge.  Besides, the teaching itself, in the form of sounds, books etc. is a sense object.  However, equating sense objects to poison emphasizes that being preoccupied with the gaining and maintaining of material possessions and particular circumstances is ‘deadly’ to self-inquiry because if you don’t truly see that acquisition and enjoyment of sense objects is not a permanent solution to suffering, it is unlikely that you’ll be serious about pursuing freedom. 

Furthermore, unless you are committed to a wholesome, peaceful lifestyle—such as one that cultivates a value for forgiveness, sincerity, kindness, contentment, truth etc.—the chances of gaining freedom are greatly decreased.  The reason is that a person who is insincere, unkind, discontent and untruthful is going to have conflict in their life that will inevitably disturb their mind.  So even if they want freedom, their mental condition will prevent them from assimilating knowledge when they are presented with the teaching. 

It’s important to note that Ashtavakra only devotes a single sentence to this topic before moving on.  Partly, I think this is because—owing to his austere disposition—he was not very interested in discussing worldly affairs.  But also I doubt he saw any point in thoroughly discussing an issue such as good conduct that is a matter of common sense.  The implication here is that if a student is genuinely confused about what it means to live a decent life, they probably have no business studying Vedanta in the first place.  Regardless, before getting into the teaching, Ashtavakra makes the point that a peaceful life leads to a peaceful mind and a peaceful mind is the fertile soil needed for the seed of knowledge to take root. 

1.3 – You are neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor air, nor space. Know yourself to be consciousness, the witness of these and be free. 

Ashtavakra then launches directly into the primary method of Vedanta, which is the practice of making a mental differentiation between yourself, consciousness, and the ‘not-self’—here described as the elements—until the distinction between the two is crystal clear.  “Elements” is an archaic way of referring to what we think of today as matter although a crucial difference must be understood: the Vedantic conception of matter also includes the mind and all of its modifications such as thought, emotion, memory etc.  So the bottom line of what he is saying is that your true nature is neither material nor mental, it is not the body or mind.  The reasoning behind this claim is based on the foundational logic of Vedanta, that you cannot be what is known to you.  If you know the body, you cannot be the body.  If you know the mind, you cannot be the mind.  Since you are the knower of the body and mind, here called the witness, you are not affected by the conditions of either, good or bad.  Knowing this is freedom, or rather the appreciation of the fact that you have always been free.  You simply thought you were bound because the distinction between yourself and the body and mind was not clear. 

1.4 – If you distinguish yourself from the body and rest in your true nature, consciousness, you will at once be happy, peaceful and free from bondage.

Ashtavakra makes it very clear that freedom is merely a matter of understanding that you are already free; it is not a matter of doing something or becoming something.  Even though he exhorts Janaka to distinguish himself from the body, the mental act of doing so is not itself the cause of freedom because it only points to what is already true.  And while the phrase “rest in your true nature” seems to recommend doing an action for the sake of freedom, the word “rest” is only being used in the metaphorical sense because there is no action you can do to rest in what you already are.  You are what you are despite of anything you do.  Therefore, “rest” merely means the cultivation of the mental appreciation of what already is.       

1.5 – You do not have a social status; you do not belong to any age group or stage of life.* You are not perceived by the senses. You are the unattached, formless witness of all.  Be happy. 

Previously, Ashtavakra approached the differentiation between yourself and the ‘not-self’ in terms of consciousness and matter.  Here matter is categorized as particular conditions of the body or the circumstances it inhabits.  These are things people commonly identify with such as financial status (lower, middle or upper class), age (young, middle aged, old) or stage of life (student, working adult, retiree).  While not explicitly stated, this includes things such as gender, race, religion, occupation or national identity.  This means that anything you normally think of as “I” or “me” is not really you at all.  You are not an object of the senses or even the senses themselves.  Nor are you somehow associated or attached to them.  Instead, you are the formless witness, that which knows the body, mind, senses and sense objects.  Understand that and you can be happy because all dissatisfaction stems from the conditions and circumstances of the body and mind described above.      

*The first part of the verse is literally, “You do not belong to the brahmana or any other caste or to any ashrama.” Vedanta undeniably originated in India and so it naturally reflects the cultural norms of that country.  But since the message of Vedanta is universal, I took the core meaning of the verse and re-interpreted it to apply to anyone from anywhere. 

1.6 – Good and bad conduct and pleasure and pain are of the mind, not of you, the all-pervading one. You are neither doer nor enjoyer. Verily you are ever free. 

Another way of identifying yourself with the ‘not-self’ is to associate who you are with what you do or what you feel.  So Ashtavakra is pointing out that when you say, “I did this” or “I experienced that” that you are mistakenly taking yourself, the “I”, to be a doer or an enjoyer (experiencer).  The “I” that you are mistaking yourself to be is the ego, which upon analysis is merely the thought of “I” in the mind.  Is this “I” that takes credit for the actions of the body and claims to experience the pleasure and pain of the mind known to you?  Yes, so it cannot be the “I” or at least not the real “I”.  The true “I” is the previously mentioned consciousness, which is the witness of the body, mind and ego.  Ashtavakra adds another piece of information about this consciousness, which is none other than yourself:  it is all-pervasive.   This means that you are everywhere, without exception. It only seems like you are in a particular place when you identify with the body and mind.    

1.7 – You are the one seer of all and are really ever free. Verily this alone is your bondage, that you think you are something other than the seer. 

To negate the possibility of thinking that there is more than one consciousness, Ashtavakra says, “You are the one seer of all.”  In other words, you, consciousness, are one without a second.  Taking this in conjunction with the previously mentioned fact that you are all-pervasive, the conclusion is that there is not simply one of you, there is only you.  Your nature is non-dual, meaning there is nothing other than you that exists.  Ashtavakra points out that not comprehending this is bondage.  Why? Because the only way you can be bound is if there is something other than yourself to bind you.  Saying this may initially seem contradictory since the text has already admitted to something other than yourself, namely the body and mind.  However, this is not a problem because even though Vedanta initially accepts the appearance of the body and mind, it only does so conditionally, in order to put itself on equal footing with the viewpoint of the average person.  Otherwise its claims would be incomprehensible but for a rare few people.  So as an intermediate step, it accepts the body and mind at face value and proceeds to the logical conclusion that you can’t be the body and mind because they are objects known to you.  But after that the second step of Vedanta is to realize that in reality there is no body and mind, only yourself, consciousness, appearing to be the body and mind, the same way clay appears to be a pot.  In the same way that the form of a pot cannot limit or change the nature of the clay because the pot is merely an appearance made of nothing but clay, the body and mind cannot limit you, consciousness, because they are simply an appearance made of nothing but consciousness.  In other words, if there is only consciousness, then consciousness cannot bind itself.  Not knowing this alone is bondage, meaning you are bound only because you think you are, not because you actually are.    

Part 2 coming soon.  In the meantime…

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DROP THE BOAT: When the teaching has served its purpose, you can leave it behind

F: So I want to go back to our discussion on Existence/Consciousness for a minute in reference to our previous exchange Who Knows? There are a couple of points I’d like to probe.

When you see Ishwara as a matter of speculation what do you mean?   I find Ishwara to simply be a matter of understanding not speculative belief.  Speaking to a fellow Vedantin, “we” know that there is only Brahman.  And it has a power called Maya (which is nothing but Brahman) to manifest as the world we experience.  When Brahman is apparently functioning in this capacity as creator we use the word Ishwara.   Where is the speculation?  

V:  Here’s three answers from different perspectives. 

A) This is my primary answer, one that expresses both my personal opinion and what I contend is the view of Vedanta in general. This answer actually applies to all of your questions: While I find the details of Vedanta as a teaching methodology interesting, its theories and explanations are only conditionally true from the empirical standpoint or perhaps not true at all (take the theory of the evolution of the elements for example). Whether they are true or not is inconsequential because Vedanta only uses them as temporary devices to point to the only truth there is:  brahman (you).  This means that once Vedanta’s theories and explanations have revealed who you are, they completely lose their value, similar to a boat having no purpose once you have reached the other side of the river.  You could carry the boat with you if that was your prerogative, discussing its features and design, but considering your goal was to cross the river, wouldn’t it make more sense to leave the boat behind and simply enjoy the other side of the river rather than quibbling about the vessel that got you there?    

In the same way, once Vedanta has shown you that you are brahman—and I am assuming that it has—its various teaching devices no longer have a purpose.  You could continue analyzing them if you wanted to but if your reason for seeking self-knowledge was peace of mind, then once knowledge is gained, why not leave the teaching behind and simply enjoy the implications of who you really are?    

So I think the most important question to ask is, “Will continued analysis of the teaching bring me greater peace of mind?”  If the answer is yes then I say go for it.  But when I asked myself that same question, after three or four years of incessantly re-hashing the ins and outs of the teaching with my guru brother and fellow jnani, Paul, the answer was no.  So I stopped.  Then I shifted my focus to simply re-affirming and appreciating my true nature, which did in fact bring me greater peace of mind.     

B) If you think Isvara is a matter of understanding while I find it to be a matter of speculation, then no problem. You should think/believe whatever makes the most sense to you.  Because of that I don’t have much interest in defending my position.

But…. 🙂        

Seeing as we are both well-versed in Vedanta, doesn’t the very fact that we see this issue differently prove that Isvara is a matter of speculation?  If Isvara were simply a matter of understanding, like understanding the earth is really round even though it looks flat, wouldn’t we both simply agree?  (Considering all of the Flat-Earthers out there, maybe that’s not a good example but hopefully you can see past the shortcomings of the metaphor). 

C) Here’s my technical, picky answer. The first two answers are heartfelt but I want to give this one too so it doesn’t seem like I’m blowing you off. I did after all tell you to send your questions.     

When you see Ishwara is a matter of speculation what do you mean?

Isvara is posited as the omniscient, all-powerful creator of the universe.  But how do you know this is true?  Have you ever personally experienced an omniscient, all-powerful being?  I know I haven’t.  Granted, not experiencing something doesn’t mean it isn’t there or that it isn’t true, just like the example I gave above about not experiencing the Earth as round even though it is.  However, in the case of the earth, it is possible to experience it as round by viewing it from space, or by looking at a photo taken from space.  Is there a similar means of empirical proof for Isvara?  At this point someone may be tempted to give the argument of intelligent design.  But observing a reasonable amount of order in the universe is certainly no rock solid proof of an omniscient, all-powerful creator (philosopher have poked holes in this argument for a long time).  So where do we get our information about Isvara?  From scripture.  Swami Dayananda talks about this in his Tattva Bodha commentary on pg. 277-288 (not that I’m trying to say his view of Isvara is the same as mine).  While discussing how we can know anything about the details of Isvara he says, “We have no means of knowledge (about Isvara) except the sruti to tell us.”

This means that if we want information about how Isvara works or what it is, you have to believe what the scripture says.  And belief is speculation.  This is what I mean by Isvara being speculation.  If Isvara were a matter of understanding it would be provable as an indisputable empirical fact. 

“Speaking to a fellow Vedantin, “we” know that there is only Brahman.”

Correct.  No disagreement there. 

“And it has a power called Maya (which is nothing but Brahman) to manifest as the world we experience.”

We’ve established that we both know that there is only brahman.  If there is only brahman then there is no maya.  Brahman plus an entity called maya would be duality.  Even if, as you say, maya is nothing but brahman, there is still no maya.  Why?  Because if maya is none other than brahman, then there is still only brahman.  There is still no reality above and beyond brahman called maya.  That’s simply the logic of non-duality. 

As I pointed out above, Vedanta uses various temporary teaching devices to point to the non-dual reality of brahman only to have those devices negated when that reality becomes known.  The maya/Isvara theory is one such teaching device.  It is only necessary when someone believes that there is such a thing as objects and they need an explanation of where they come from and how they are “created” from brahman.  But when it is seen that what you mistakenly thought were objects are really nothing but brahman, there is no longer a need for a theory of a creative power (maya) because there is no creation.  And if there is no creation, there is no creator (Isvara).  Hence there is no longer a need for the theory of Isvara as creator either. 

On an everyday level, even though it is a matter of speculation and belief, there is no harm in thinking of the apparent creation as the work of an apparent Isvara.  It can be a positive construct through which to view the world.  But it always needs to be remembered that brahman is the only “thing” that is real while the creation and the creator are dualistic concepts that are always unreal.  Hence there is about as much value in debating the details of Isvara/maya as in debating the details of a mirage or a dream.  And on a related point, no one needs to force themselves to believe in Isvara if the concept either doesn’t make sense to them or more importantly, if it doesn’t help them to be happier in their day to day lives.  The world is an illusion so nothing definite can be determined about it, which means people are free to choose to believe in what they find most reasonable and helpful.    

F:  Coming back to the claim “to exist is to be known” for a minute.   I understand you are saying it isn’t to be taken literally, however, after giving it more thought I am finding it hard not to.   The thinking being that since all objects appear within consciousness, aren’t they inherently known?   Or said in reverse, if Consciousness manifests as an object how could it not be known to that same Consciousness?  Another point is to leverage the fact/teaching that Brahman is self-evident and objects are evident.   If an object is evident it must by definition be known.  Wouldn’t this imply that all objects are known (i.e., illumined by consciousness)?

V:  If there is such a thing as objects then it must be consciousness that knows them.  But again, this is debating something based in duality, specifically the duality of knower vs. known, existent vs. non-existent or consciousness vs. unconscious objects.  Being dualistic, all of these ideas are based in ignorance and are unreal so what can actually be said about them?  How can you discuss the existence of objects if they don’t really exist?  How can you talk about something being known where there is nothing other than yourself to be known?  How can you find the relationship between consciousness and unconscious objects when there is only consciousness and therefore nothing for it to have a relationship with? 

If you were someone I thought was still trying to understand that reality is non-dual then I would cater to the lower, temporary viewpoints of the teaching that allow for theories of knowledge and existence and debate them.  But I don’t think you are so what’s the point?  The non-dual viewpoint is the only one that is true and it negates all others.  Why not leave them behind? 

I am not trying to be dismissive.  I’m just trying to draw attention to the fact that at some point you have to transcend the teaching methods of Vedanta and simply appreciate what they have taught you, that you are brahman.  Understanding and appreciating your non-dual nature at some point necessitates leaving behind dualistic concepts.  Drop the boat!     

F:  Finally… new topic!  I’ve been researching the topic of Vedanta as a pramana.   My question is do you think Vedanta as a pramana is falsifiable in any way?  Meaning is there anything one could experience which would negate the core absolute truth of Brahman/Atma?    I don’t think so but I’d love to know your view.  This came up since I was in a conversation recently with a scientifically minded friend who found this position highly objectionable.  I indicated that since what Vedanta expounds is uncontradicted by other knowledge and unique then it can be accepted.   He agreed that it certainly “could” be true but was pushing to know what proof could be given vs. relying on a lack of contradictory evidence.  I then pointed out that one can only test the veracity of Vedanta by exploring it for themselves and going through a process of self inquiry.  Until you do that you won’t know.  For me having done quite a bit of meditation work before coming to Vedanta was key.  It allowed teachings like drg drishya viveka to be assimilated very quickly.  But for those who haven’t gone into the teachings carefully, and have a scientific bent the whole thing seems like crazy conjecture akin to saying “we are all in the matrix”:)!    Any thoughts on this one?

V:  No, I don’t think there is any way to disprove the truth of brahman.  If there were I certainly wouldn’t be into Vedanta. 

But as a thought experiment I think it might be possible to disprove that brahman is consciousness, assuming it could be shown that what we think of as consciousness is really just one part of the brain watching the functions of another part of the brain.  Of course, this seems unlikely.  But time and again, science has proven things that seemed impossible.  As much as Vedanta is called a science, we have to remember that yogis from thousands of years ago were not even remotely aware of what we now call the scientific method.  As I mentioned above they believed that earth evolved from water, water from fire, fire from air, air from space.  But despite their shortcomings regarding the natural sciences, they were in fact experts in investigating their own subjective experience.  From that vantage point it seems like a reasonable conclusion that consciousness is the base level of reality.  Meditation very much seems to prove that.  But being limited by our subjective viewpoint and our incomplete knowledge of the brain, can we say that for certain?  If I’m being honest, I’d have to admit the possibility—no matter how slight—that I could be wrong.    

What?  How could you say that brahman might not be consciousness and still claim that the truth of brahman can’t be disproved?  Aside from the fact that consciousness is just a word based on dualistic concepts–and brahman transcends all words–even if brahman weren’t consciousness, it wouldn’t fundamentally change the fact that I am non-dual, ever-present and unchangeable because I don’t see any conceivable way to disprove my own existence.  The very fact that I can question my existence proves I exist.  If you destroy “me” meaning my body/mind then everything else besides my body/mind still exists.  If you destroy everything else, then existence itself still exists because to say that there could be such a thing as nothingness would be to admit that nothingness exists. Existence and brahman being the same, there would be no way to negate brahman.  So to me, the conclusion of myself being a changless, non-dual reality not subject to negation would still hold completely true.    

And I agree with your view that the claims of Vedanta must be investigated for yourself.  To simply sit on the sidelines and intellectualize about it won’t do any good.  There’s usually no point in trying to convince people to take up Vedanta.  They have to want it themselves.  That’s why the teaching is only given to people who are receptive to it.  And personally, I don’t think Vedanta is science so I don’t try to legitimize it on a scientific basis.  I think teachers like Swami Vivekananda started calling Vedanta science and comparing it to science in order to make it seem more legitimate to Western or Western-influenced audiences. But since Vedanta investigates subjectivity and is not based in materialism, it’s its own unique thing.   

All my best – Vishnudeva

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