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Chapter Three is usually characterized as Ashtavakra testing Janaka after the latter makes a statement of self-knowledge in Chapter Two. But there doesn’t appear to be a coherent line of questioning. And some of the verses are not questions at all, but statements. Additionally, owing to a lack of definitive background information about Janaka to give them context, it is not even clear whether Ashtavakra’s questions and statements pertain directly to Janaka or not. In a way, this is preferable because it allows Chapter Three to be more of a universal lesson about the effect of self-knowledge on the thinking and behavior of the body-mind rather than a critique of a specific person.
3:1 – Having known yourself to be one (non-dual) and indestructible, how can you feel attached to acquiring wealth?
If the body-mind knows itself to be non-dual unchanging consciousness-existence, there is no reason for it to be attached to the idea of possession or non-possession of wealth. Why? Because being wealthy or impoverished are states that only apply to an illusory body-mind. So there is no virtue in the body-mind being poor nor any vice in the body-mind having wealth—neither one has any effect on you, consciousness-existence.
3:2 – From self-ignorance comes attachment to illusory objects of perception, just as from ignorance of mother-of-pearl comes greed for illusory silver.
When you don’t know that you’re the non-dual self, the sole existent reality, you think that 1) objects are real and 2) that they are different or separate from you. These beliefs are what makes attachment possible, because why would you be attached to an unreal object? In the same way that greed for silver dissipates when it is known to be mother-of-pearl, attachment for objects dissipates when they are known to be illusory.
Does this mean that a person with self-knowledge has no desires? First, if someone knows that they’re the self, they understand that they are not, never have been, and never will be a person. Therefore, whether the person (the body-mind) has desires or not is ultimately immaterial.
Regardless, self-knowledge can—and should—inform the way the body-mind thinks and behaves. So when the mind knows that at its essence it’s the sole unchanging existent reality, its desire for illusory objects should naturally decrease. The next verse illustrates this point perfectly.
3:3 – Having known yourself to be that in which the universe appears like waves on the ocean, why do you run after objects as if you are in need?
If you have self-knowledge, you know that the body-mind is illusory and has nothing to do with you. But despite being unreal, it does not suddenly disappear. And according to rules of the universe the body-mind inhabits, it still needs food, shelter, clothing etc., assuming you do not want it to wither away and die; jobs, relationships and family commitments need to be maintained, assuming you want to keep them. The difference is that you can tend to the body-mind and its circumstances without the undue stress caused by thinking it is real and that your well-being somehow depends on it. As consciousness-existence, you are always completely fine, regardless of the state of the body-mind—even when it is running after objects as if it is in need.
3:4 – After hearing oneself to be pure consciousness and surpassingly beautiful, how can you continue to be attached to the impurity of sex?
Pure consciousness, the self, can be considered “surpassingly beautiful” in a few different ways. 1) It is the most attractive ‘thing’ there is insofar as all actions are done for the sake of the self. 2) Beauty is often considered to be a measure of perfection; in this regard, owing to its utter lack of defect, the self—as opposed to inherently flawed objects—is “surpassingly beautiful.” 3) Since no beauty in the empirical world is even possible without consciousness being there as its very essence, it is “surpassingly beautiful.”
If you have discovered your own ‘inner beauty’ as the self, there is no need to be preoccupied with sensual pleasures such as sex that can never bring any lasting satisfaction. But like the issue of wealth discussed in 3:1, there is nothing inherently wrong with sex, even for one who is free from self-ignorance. It is a natural part of life and done consensually and respectfully, it is a healthy part of loving relationships.
Being an ascetic, perhaps Ashtavakra would not agree with this sentiment. But having a monastic lifestyle doesn’t make a person more pure than someone who leads a normal life in the everyday world. As Ashtavakra points out, you are pure consciousness; since purity is your nature, you can never be impure.
3:5 – It would be astonishing for the sense of ownership to continue in the wise one who knows that he is the self in all and that all is in the self.
If you know that everything is yourself, then you can’t say you own anything for the simple fact that you can’t own yourself—you simply are yourself. Does this mean that on the empirical level you suddenly lose all notions of having a body, a house, a car etc.? No. But the idea of ‘owning’ those things is put into perspective in light of the truth of non-duality–even though notions of ownership may persist, they are known to be completely baseless.
3:6 – It would be strange for one dwelling on the highest non-duality and intent on liberation to be impaired by the desire for enjoyment.
When you realize that transient objects can never give lasting satisfaction, your desire for them should become subservient to your desire to seek freedom from objects through self-knowledge.
3:7 – It is astonishing how one debilitated and approaching death could still have desire, even after ascertaining that its arising is unfriendly (contrary) to knowledge.
After a lifetime of trying and failing to find fulfillment in fleeting objects it would be unfortunate if it didn’t become obvious that attainment of desires isn’t the key to satisfaction. Ironically, pursuing desires is the main impediment to the fulfillment that is being sought because it keeps attention riveted outward, looking for solutions in external objects, thereby inhibiting the contemplation of the non-object ‘inner’ self—‘inner’ meaning it is the essence of everything—that leads to actual satisfaction through self-knowledge.
3:8 – It is strange that one who is unattached to the objects of this world and the next, who discriminates the eternal from the transient, and who longs for liberation (moksha), should yet fear liberation!
Even highly qualified students who are dispassionate (“unattached to the objects of this world and the next”) and able to discriminate the eternal (the self) from the transient (the ‘not-self’ i.e. objects) may fear the very liberation they are seeking. Why? Because it appears to be the destruction of their own individuality. But this fear is unfounded and it stems from a basic misunderstanding of liberation. Liberation, instead of being the destruction of the individual (the body-mind), is the destruction of self-ignorance.
This means that while the body-mind persists after liberation, the belief that you are the body-mind is what is destroyed. Granted, since you have identified with the body-mind your entire life, this may still seem unsettling. But seeing as the body-mind is the seat of all suffering, both mental and physical, negating the notion that it is who you are should be a welcome change.
Here is another way to look at it: the word “individuality” normally means to be an entity distinct from other entities and this is how people suffering from self-ignorance normally view themselves; they think they are one unique body-mind among many body-minds. Self-knowledge does negate individuality in this sense. But a word that is synonymous with “individuality” is “uniqueness,” which means to be “one of a kind.” So even when self-knowledge destroys the idea that you are an individual body-mind, you still retain your individuality in the sense that as non-dual consciousness-existence—you are one of a kind because there is nothing other than you.