A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 4

Read Part 3 HERE.

Ashtavakra said:
1:18 – That which has form is unreal; that which is formless is permanent (and therefore real).  Through this instruction you will escape rebirth.

Here Ashtavakra presents a fundamental axiom of Vedanta, one on which making the distinction between yourself (the real) and the body-mind (the unreal) hinges.  While the commonly accepted definition of the word “real” is “that which can be known or experienced,” Vedanta defines “real” as “that which is ever-present and unchanging.”  The logic behind Vedanta’s definition of “real” is this:  Something cannot be real if it is here one moment and gone the next, or if it is one thing one moment and something else the next.  According to this line of reasoning, things that have form, such as the body-mind, cannot be real because they A) are not present before birth, after death, or even in life during dream and deep sleep and B) when they are present they change continuously, subtly on the cellular level and more obviously on the external level of physical appearance.  Therefore, only that which is formless, consciousness, is real because it is always present and it never changes.   

Here, some objections may arise:

Student:  I didn’t exist before birth and I won’t exist after death. 

Teacher:  Then you must not exist right now because that which has no existence in the beginning and no existence in the end has no existence in between, just like a mirage in the desert or silver in mother- of-pearl.      

Student:  But it’s obvious I exist.  I am here asking this question. 

Teacher:  Then you must be confused about what the word “I” really refers to. 

Student:  “I” refers to my body-mind.

Teacher:  Which body-mind? 

Student:  I don’t follow. 

Teacher:  If you are the body-mind, which one are you?  Are you the infant body-mind or perhaps the adolescent body-mind?  If so, where are they? 

Student:  They are gone. 

Teacher:  Are you gone? 

Student:  No.

Teacher:  Then that suggests you are different from the body-mind, does it not?

Student:  Yes, but my adult body-mind is here right now and that is what feels like me. 

Teacher:  Agreed, it does feel that way.  But that does not make it so.  Feeling like you are running from a tiger in a dream does not mean that it is really happening.  So not being the body-mind is not a matter of experience but one of understanding what experience means.  We’ve already seen that the infant and adolescent body-mind cannot be you because they are no longer present while you still are.  But if you are the adult body-mind, the same kind of question applies:  Which adult body-mind are you?  It changes from moment to moment, let alone from day to day or year to year.  Are you the adult body-mind from last year?  From last week?  From five minutes ago? 

Student:  I can see your point but it is difficult to discard the possibility that I could be the body-mind that changes throughout life.            

Teacher:  Yes, the belief is deep-rooted and hard to get rid of.  But the body-mind which changes continuously, which is one thing one moment and something else cannot be real.  You are real.  But another way to look at it is this:  even when the body-mind appears to be relatively permanent, such as in adulthood, it still cannot be real because it is not always present.  Where is your body-mind when you dream, or during dreamless sleep? 

Student:  Lying on the bed, I think.  If that is the case then it is still present, correct?   

Teacher:  By observing others sleeping, we can assume that the body-mind is lying on the bed during sleep.  But if the body-mind is truly you, how could it not be present in the dream or dreamless sleep?  You are present in those states of sleep are you not?

Student:  Yes. 

Teacher:  So if the body-mind were essential to your nature, then they too would be present because you can never be apart from what you truly are.  This proves that the body-mind is an illusion that is incidental to your existence. 

Student:  I can see how that could be true regarding the body; it is not there in a dream.  But in dreamless sleep, when the body as well as the mind are not present, I am not present.

Teacher:  Again, you are confusing yourself with the body-mind and taking its absence in dreamless sleep to mean you do not exist.  But if you do not exist in dreamless sleep then you cannot exist while you are dreaming or awake either because that which truly exists can never not exist.  And we have already established that you exist.  It is obvious. 

Student:  But it’s also obvious that the mind exists in a dream and that the body-mind exists when I am awake, is it not?   

Teacher:  I am using the word “exist” in the sense of being real, permanent and unchanging.  So although the body-mind, like an illusion, can be experienced, it is not real.    

Student:  That makes sense.  But is it not true that, “I think therefore I am”? How can I say I exist in dreamless sleep when my body-mind is not there to prove I exist by thinking and experiencing?    

Teacher:  How can the presence or absence of the body-mind validate or invalidate your existence?  You are consciousness; you are what validates (reveals) the existence—albeit illusory—of the body-mind and not vice versa.  Just because the body-mind is not present does not mean that you, consciousness, are not.  For example, if you are blinded in an accident and your eyes lose the power to see, does your mind—the knower of what your eyes see—stop existing too?  No, it is still there knowing the absence of sight.  Similarly, if the perceptions and thoughts of the mind temporarily cease in dreamless sleep, does consciousness stop being conscious?  No.  It is still there, conscious of the absence of the workings of the mind. 

Student:  But I don’t experience that.  I don’t know anything in dreamless sleep. 

Teacher: Because experience and knowing are functions of the mind.  So when the mind disappears no experience or knowing is possible.  But that does not mean that you, consciousness, are not still there. 

Student:  How can that be?  Consciousness is called “the knower,” is it not?    

Teacher:  Calling consciousness the “knower” is only a figurative description, as are all words used to describe your true nature, owing to the fact that it is not describable by any word.  Since there is no other option, the teaching is forced to use words, but they are only employed as indicators of the truth, not the truth itself.  If you ask someone where a particular star is, they will use their finger to point to it in the sky.  But the finger is not the star itself, only an indicator of where the star is.  The limitation of this metaphor is that unlike the star, you, consciousness, are not an object of the mind or senses that exists in a particular location.

In its initial stages, when the teaching conditionally accepts the appearance of objects, it describes you as “the knower.”  In truth, knowing is a process of the mind but describing you as the knower is meant to draw your attention to the fact that the knowing of your mind is itself a known object and therefore cannot be you.  In this regard, instead of saying your mind is known to you, it is more appropriate to say that you are the “light” that illumines the mind—light being a metaphor for consciousness—because it must be admitted that because the mind is not self-evident, it must be revealed by something other than itself.  “Light” is a more apt description of what you really are because similar to the way the sun illumines the earth effortlessly because light is its very nature, you illumine the mind with absolutely no volition or action because consciousness is your very nature.  Therefore, when the reality of objects is negated, along with the knowing of the mind, you are left simply as consciousness.      

Student:  How can I be conscious if I don’t know anything? 

Teacher:  Because, like the previously mentioned sun that requires no action to be luminous, consciousness does not depend on the knowing of the mind to be conscious.  Consciousness is what you are, not something you do.  It is important to note that the fact that you are still conscious when you sleep is impossible to experience because the instrument of experience, the mind, is not present.  This means you can only understand—while you are awake—that during sleep you are still consciousness. 

Student:  I’ll admit that that is a reasonable explanation.  But it has not completely removed my doubt.  I am so used to equating being awake with being conscious.  Sleep still seems like the absence of consciousness.  In fact, it appears to be the absence of everything.  It appears to be nothingness, a void. 

Teacher:  Fair enough.  But keep in mind that the word “consciousness” is not being used in the traditional sense.  Vedanta’s definition of consciousness is much broader because it is used synonymously with the word “existence.”  In other words, consciousness is pure being, existence itself, that which makes the existence of illusory objects such as the mind even possible.  So the question is, “When the mind is not present, do you, existence, stop existing?” 

By merit of the fact that we are discussing the particulars of dreamless sleep, it appears that you are admitting that it exists, correct?  Otherwise it would be pointless to discuss the details of a non-existent entity.    

Student:  Yes, I am admitting that dreamless sleep exists. 

Teacher:  So in dreamless sleep, despite the absence of the mind or experience, existence still exists. 

Student:  Perhaps.  What if dreamless sleep is total non-existence? 

Teacher:  First, there is no definitive evidence that when your mind is not present to experience it, that the world (or at least the illusion of it) does not continue to exist.  In that case, dreamless sleep would not be total non-existence, just the absence of experience in the world by your mind. 

Student:  But conversely, there is no definitive evidence that the world does exist when my mind is not there to experience it.  Hence the possibility of dreamless sleep being nothingness, a void. 

Teacher:  Granted, but let’s suppose dreamless sleep is nothingness, a void.  Are you not admitting that nothingness, the void, exists?  If you do not admit that nothingness exists, then there can be no argument.  An objection cannot have a non-existent premise, correct?   

Student:  Yes. 

Teacher:  So even if it is admitted that dreamless sleep is actually a void, the void would exist.  And because of that, existence itself still exists.  This means you still exist in dreamless sleep.  This means that you are still consciousness in deep sleep because they are the same thing. 

Student:  I can see your point about existence but trying to think of myself as consciousness in dreamless sleep is still difficult. 

Teacher:  Upon further contemplation it may become easier.  But if not, there is no need to get hung up on the words used to point to your true nature because as I mentioned before, they are only indicators.  The words “consciousness” and “existence” are only employed to help you see that you are ever-present and unchanging.  Use whichever words best help you to understand that, and once you do, you can even disregard those. 

Student:  Is it not possible that I can exist, then not-exist, then exist again?  Or both exist and not exist at the same time? 

Teacher: Can you think of a single example of something totally non-existent—such as the son of a barren woman—coming into existence? 

Student:  No. 

Teacher:  That’s because it is impossible—and illogical—for something of the nature of non-existence to become of the nature of existence.  That which is truly non-existent always remains non-existence.  That which is truly existence always exists.  The true nature of a thing cannot be changed.

Student:  Can something be of the nature of two things at once, such as being simultaneously existent and non-existent? 

Teacher:  Is the son of a barren woman both existent and non-existent at the same time? 

Student: No. 

Teacher:  Can fire be both hot and cold at the same time?  Can light be both luminous and dark at the same time? 

Student:  No. 

Teacher:  Then having two different natures at once is also impossible, as well as being contradictory to common sense.  Therefore, you have always been existence/consciousness and will always be existence/consciousness. You can never be other than what you are.             

1:19 – Just as a mirror exists within and without the image reflected in it, so you exist inside and outside this body.

In this verse, you are likened to a mirror and the body to a reflection.  This metaphor works on two levels: 1) Just like a reflection is superimposed onto a mirror without the mirror being affected, the appearance of the body is superimposed onto you without affecting you whatsoever 2) You are not contained within the appearance of the body just as a mirror is not contained within a reflection; as existence itself, you exist everywhere equally.  You are the ‘background’ upon which all appearances are superimposed.     

The limitation of the mirror analogy is that it implies duality and a spatial relationship between two things: that like a real object exists outside of a mirror and is the cause for the illusory reflection, there could be a real object outside of yourself (existence) that is the cause of the superimposition of the body.  But this cannot be because there is nothing ‘outside’ of existence.  Hypothetically, if there were something outside of existence it too would exist and therefore not be different from, or outside of, existence itself.   

Note:  The word literally used to denote you in this verse is parameshvara, the highest (parama) lord (ishvara).  In relation to the relative appearance of the world, you are the ‘absolute’ (the highest), that which is real, as well as the ‘lord,’ that by merit of which all relative things are even possible.  But to keep things simple by avoiding unnecessary theistic symbolism, I translated parameshvara as “you” because that is the direct meaning.    

1:20 – As space pervading the inside and outside of a jar remains one, so the unchanging brahman remains undivided while existing within and without all things.

Space is quite possibly the best metaphor for your true nature (here called brahman).  Just as there is only one space and it is the same everywhere, there is only one you and you are the same everywhere.  And just as all things appears within space, yet do not affect space, so all things appear within you but do not affect you.  In the same way that saying space is inside or outside of anything, such as a jar, cannot be taken literally because it implies space has a location, saying that you, brahman, are within and without all things must be taken as a figure of speech.  Its purpose is to point to the fact that you are one and the same everywhere. 

The shortcoming of the space metaphor is that space is not consciousness, while you can never not be conscious since consciousness is your true nature. 

Note:  Since the term brahman is so common in Vedanta I have left it untranslated but please understand that anywhere you see this word, it simply means “you,” or if the statement is in first person, “I.”

This verse concludes Chapter One, as well as Ashtavakra’s answer to Janaka’s initial question.  Next week I will start Chapter Two, which is Janaka’s response. 

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