A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 5


Through Ashtavakra’s instruction in the first chapter, Janaka gets enlightened.  Chapter Two is Janaka’s statement of self-knowledge.    

Read Part 4 here.

Janaka said:
2:1 – I am consciousness: without defect, tranquil, and beyond the material world.  All this time I have been deceived by delusion. 

As previously mentioned (in Part Two), enlightenment or self-knowledge is a matter of identity.  When you are ignorant of your true nature, you mistakenly identify with the body-mind.  But when you know what your true nature is, you correctly identify with consciousness.  You can tell that Janaka now clearly identifies with consciousness instead of the body-mind by the way he starts speaking of consciousness in the first person, saying “I am consciousness” instead of “consciousness is (such and such)” as if he were describing something other than himself.  For that reason, the verses in Chapter Two are excellent for meditation, recitation and contemplation.        

When Janaka says that he is beyond the material world, it does not mean that consciousness is in one place and the material world in another because consciousness has no spatial location.  Furthermore, since reality is non-dual, there cannot be both a world and consciousness.  So to say that consciousness is beyond the material world means that consciousness is not affected by the illusory appearance of the world.   

2:2 – As I alone reveal this body, even so do I reveal this universe. The entire universe is mine; or alternately, nothing is mine. 

The entire universe—which includes the body—is a known object.  That which knows it is consciousness.  In this way consciousness ‘reveals’ everything in the universe.

In the second part of the verse Janaka switches from the empirical viewpoint to the absolute viewpoint (see 1:16 for explanation of viewpoints).   From the empirical viewpoint, which provisionally accepts the appearance of the universe, it can be said that everything ‘belongs’ to consciousness since everything is consciousness.  Yet, from the absolute viewpoint, which does not admit of the universe whatsoever, nothing belongs to consciousness because there is nothing other than consciousness to belong to it. 

2:3 – Having left behind the body and the universe, I now see the highest self.

When people get enlightened, they continue to have bodies that exist in the universe.  If this were not so, then the moment Janaka got enlightened he would have disappeared and been unavailable to make these statements.  Actually, if this were not so, Janaka would not have gotten enlightened in the first place because Ashtavakra, his enlightened teacher, wouldn’t have been there to teach him.  So when Janaka says he has left behind the body and the universe, they remain as they are but he has ‘left them behind’ by recognizing them for the illusion they are and ceasing identification with the body. 

In this chapter, Janaka starts referring to consciousness/existence as “the self” (atman).  In the sense that consciousness/existence is what you truly are, it is the “self.”  Therefore, the terms will be used synonymously in the text from here forward. 

Sight being a common symbol of knowledge, when Janaka says that he sees the self he means he understands that he is the self, not that the self is some kind of object of perception.  That this self is the “highest self” means that consciousness/existence is the true self, as opposed to the false self of the body-mind.    

2:4 – As waves, foam and bubbles are not different from water, so the universe emanating from me is not different from me.

At first, Vedanta posits two fundamentally dualistic categories: self (consciousness/subject/knower/witness) and ‘not-self’ (non-conscious/object/known/witnessed).  But seeing as reality is ultimately non-dual, these two categories can only be conditionally accepted.  You may ask, “Then why use them at all?”  The answer is that in the beginning of the teaching the concept of ‘not-self’ provides a stable and critically important platform from which to inquire, one that helps you objectify the body-mind and see that it is unreal.  Once the body-mind is clearly known to be an illusion that never affects your true nature, the temporary dualistic split of self and ‘not-self’ must be mended in order for the ultimate truth of non-duality to be grasped.  Examining the relationship between water and its various manifestations is an excellent way to do this. 

Initially, it can be said that waves, foam and bubbles are different from water because the waves etc. are transient, ever-changing and possessed of form while the water is ever-present, unchanging and formless. But when the existence of the waves etc. is negated by the knowledge that they are only water, it must be said that the waves etc. are non-different from water because they are not really there; there is ever only water and therefore nothing else exists to be different from it. 

Similarly, at first it can be said that the self and the ‘not-self’ are different because the ‘not-self’ is transient, ever-changing and possessed of form while the self (consciousness/existence) is ever-present, unchanging and formless.  But when the existence of the ‘not-self’ is negated by knowledge that only the self exists, it must said that the ‘not-self’ is non-different from the self in the sense that there is nothing other than the self to be different from the self.   

It could be argued that it would be more efficient to simply skip the first step that falsely admits of something other than the self in order to go directly to the truth of non-duality.  However, very few people can do this because at first the idea of non-duality appears to stand in direct opposition to their everyday experience.  And when people are still convinced that there is such a thing as the ‘not-self’ (objects of experience) it is not productive to merely deny its existence.  Therefore, Vedanta, being eminently practical, offers an intermediate step.  It conditionally accepts the ‘not-self’ and then provides you with the tools that are needed to understand that it only appears to exist while you, the self, are the only thing that actually exists.  When that is known, the temporary difference between self and ‘not-self’ is discarded in favor of the non-dual view that there is only the self.  This view is reiterated in the next verse using the analogy of cloth and thread and requires no additional commentary.            

2:5 – As cloth, when analyzed, is found to be nothing but thread, so this universe, when analyzed, is nothing but me. 

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