A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 17

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Ashtavakra said:
10:1 – Be indifferent to everything:  Give up the enemy of desire (kama), the pursuit of gain (artha) which is inevitably mixed with loss, and their cause, the performance of good works (dharma).   

Desire is a helpful tool for achieving your goals but it’s the enemy of happiness because no one is truly happy when they want something.  Even when desire helps you get what you want, the happiness you feel won’t last because you’ll inevitably lose what you’ve gained.  And in the meantime you still won’t be happy because desires for other things will most likely pop up.  The takeaway here is that happiness isn’t maximized by wanting more.  Rather, it’s by wanting less. 

Since getting what you want is usually accomplished by dharma—here meaning skillful right actions—Ashtavakra recommends giving those up as well since they’ll just lead to more accomplishments which lead to more desire.  But take note that in this verse the dharma Ashtavakra is imploring you to give up is not proper everyday conduct.  That should never be given up, especially if you’re interested in happiness.  If you act like a jerk and break the accepted rules of society, you’ll have so much conflict in your life that happiness will be very difficult to come by.            

10:2 – Rightly understand that friends, spouses, land, houses, wealth, gifts and such other marks of good fortune are like Indra’s Net, a dream that does not last.

The symbol of Indra’s Net is employed by certain schools of Buddhism to represent the interdependent and inherently empty nature of all things.  But that isn’t the case here.  Contrary to Buddhism, Vedanta says that the inherent nature of everything is the fullness of consciousness-existence i.e. yourself.  So in this verse, Indra’s Net is used in the Vedic, pre-Buddhist sense of illusion or magic.  Ashtavakra is pointing out that friends etc. (meaning objects in general) are like a dream—they’re transient and unreal.  This means they’re an unreliable—and therefore unsuitable—source of satisfaction.  Being aware of this allows you to appreciate objects for what they’re worth while not depending on them for contentment, the true source of which is your own self, consciousness-existence.  That’s why self-knowledge should be sought above all else.           

10:3 – Know that wherever there is desire there is samsara (the world). To become content and free of desire, seek recourse in a mature dispassion.

Desire isn’t pleasant.  And reducing desire through mature dispassion—meaning a cultivated sense of objectivity—undoubtedly improves your mental state.  But seeing as 1) desire never truly ends and 2) the true definition of samsara is identifying with the contents of the mind (such as desire), the real solution to samsara is to break identification with the mind altogether through self-knowledge.        

10:4 – Bondage consists of desire itself.  Liberation is said to be the destruction of desire. Only by non-attachment to the world does one attain constant joy.

On the relative level, being a slave to the pursuit of desired objects is bondage and breaking that cycle is liberation.  But truly speaking, bondage consists of self-ignorance alone.  And liberation is either the destruction of that ignorance or the gain of self-knowledge, however you want to think of it.  As pointed out above, gaining self-knowledge is the only solution to desire—it’s the true liberation. 

All the same, non-attachment to the world of objects is a crucial step on the path to self-knowledge.  Why?  Because if you haven’t truly seen that attaining objects won’t solve the problem of desire then you’ll most likely keep seeking them compulsively.  And when that’s the case, you won’t see the value of seeking the real solution: self-knowledge. 

10:5 – You are the one pure consciousness.  The universe is non-conscious and unreal.  Ignorance itself is nothing (unreal / non-existent).  What can you yet desire to know?

Pure consciousness is one—there’s nothing but consciousness.  So from the absolute viewpoint, when you know that you’re consciousness there’s nothing left to know.  At that point, it’s still necessary to learn relative knowledge about the universe since it pertains to your day-to-day life but on the issue of your true nature, the case is closed.  And since you know that the universe is unreal, you don’t take the pursuit of relative knowledge too seriously. 

10:6 – Kingdoms, sons, wives, bodies and pleasures have been lost to you birth after birth—being attached to them has never stopped this from happening. 

Whether reincarnation is real or not, the point of this verse remains true:  holding on to something doesn’t keep you from losing it and grieving for its loss doesn’t bring it back.  Hence, other than pain, there is nothing to be gained from attachment.  For peace of mind, enjoy things while they last.  And when the time comes, let them go.      

10:7 – Enough of wealth, desire and good deeds—they are part of the forest of samsara.  The mind will not find peace in them. 

Samsara is identifying with the body-mind.  And when you identify with the body-mind, it seems like acquiring wealth, fulfilling your desires and doing good deeds will lead to satisfaction.  But unfortunately this isn’t possible because no accomplishment in samsara lasts. It makes sense, therefore, to seek what does last—consciousness-existence.  When you realize that you are consciousness-existence the mind has a reliable source of satisfaction to draw on at all times.    

10:8 – For how many births have you done hard and painful work with body, mind and speech? Therefore cease today.

Striving with the body-mind for even a single lifetime is an arduous task, one that never leads to lasting satisfaction.  Knowing this, it makes sense to ‘cease’ doing work with the body-mind (which includes speech).  But does that mean you should literally stop the mental and physical activity of the body-mind?  No, because refraining from activity is just another activity that continues to presuppose you’re the body-mind.  So to ‘cease’ here means to give up the idea that you’re the body-mind in the first place.   

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