A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 18

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Ashtavakra said:
11:1 – One who knows for certain that existence, non-existence and change are the nature of everything in the universe easily comes to peace, unaffected by affliction.

Anything that changes or that can be classified in dualistic terms such as existence* and non-existence is unreal. So when you see that the entire universe is unreal like a dream, you can rest easy in the knowledge that it can’t harm you. When I say “you,” do I mean the body-mind? No. The body-mind can always be harmed. It can always be affected by affliction. But “you,” meaning consciousness-existence, cannot.

*“Existence” here means that something is perceptible. It’s not to be confused with the “existence” in consciousness-existence which refers to the imperceptible essence of everything i.e. your true nature.

11:2 – One who knows for certain that nothing exists but Isvara, the creator of all, has their inner desires swallowed up in peace. To what can they be attached?

The literal translation of Isvara is “lord” and in this sense it denotes the creator and ruler of the universe. But in the classic Vedanta expounded by Shankara—Vedanta’s most prominent teacher—Isvara is taken in a broader sense to mean consciousness-existence. So the verse is saying that when you know everything in the universe is consciousness-existence—your own self—the desires of your mind are swallowed up.

Does this literally mean that if you know you’re consciousness-existence that you’ll never want to eat a sandwich, find a new relationship or get a new job? No. It just means that when needed, you can put your desires in check from these two perspectives: 1) If everything is your own self, you already have everything you want. 2) If everything in the universe is only an appearance of your own self, there is nothing to want, at least nothing of real substance.

At the initial stages of Vedanta it is fine to think of consciousness-existence as a creator god, especially for the purpose of purifying devotional practices. But ultimately, consciousness-existence is no creator or god. Why? Because it’s non-dual. If there’s only consciousness-existence, there can’t be a second thing over and above it, such as a creation*. And if there’s no creation, then consciousness-existence can’t be a creator i.e. god.

*Vedanta doesn’t deny the appearance of a creation, which is a plain fact of our everyday experience. But it says that the appearance of a creation is in reality just consciousness-existence, similar to the way that the appearance of a wave is really just water.

11:3 – One who knows for certain that fortune and misfortune come in their own time abides in their own self with senses under control, neither desiring nor grieving.

You can never be certain what the day will bring, good or bad. And while it’s a positive and healthy practice to believe that everything happens for a reason, when things go wrong it’s helpful to abide in your own self, meaning you fall back on the knowledge that as the changeless self you are always okay. Does falling back on that knowledge necessarily fix the situation? No. Constructive action is still required. But you can work toward solutions for your relative problems from the stable platform of self-knowledge rather than being overcome with the desire and grief caused by the false belief that you’re the body-mind.

11:4 – One who knows for certain that happiness, misery, birth and death are due to fate alone does not see anything to be accomplished. They are free from action and attachment, even while acting.

Things change. Shit happens. The universe operates according to laws that you have no control over. When you come to this conclusion, it can be taken in the negative sense that fate controls your destiny. But this only applies if you’re the body-mind, the doer of action and the recipient of the results of action. When you know that you’re the self you can relax in the knowledge that you’re not subject to the cycle of action (karma), even if it feels like you are. From that standpoint, there’s nothing to be accomplished in the sense that as the self you’re never actually doing anything, despite the continued appearance that the body-mind is acting. This is how you’re free from action and attachment, even while acting.

11:5 – One who knows for certain that suffering is caused by thought alone becomes free from it. They are happy, peaceful and everywhere rid of desires.

The thought, “I am the body-mind” causes identification with the source of suffering, the body-mind. But you can rid yourself of that thought by seeing you’re really consciousness-existence. When this happens, does the body-mind cease suffering? No. But by correctly identifying with consciousness-existence, you know that the suffering doesn’t apply to you.

11:6 – One who knows for certain, “I am not the body, nor is the body mine. I am consciousness” attains kaivalya and does not remember what they have done or not.

By dis-identifying with the body-mind and subsequently identifying with consciousness-existence, you attain kaivalya. While this term has various meanings in other schools of Indian philosophy such as yoga, in the context of Vedanta it refers to liberation, the clear understanding that you’re non-dual, changeless consciousness-existence rather than the body-mind. In other words, it’s the realization that you’re always okay, no matter what happens to the body-mind. When you no longer view yourself as the body-mind, you don’t remember what you’ve done or not done. This doesn’t mean you literally forget. You simply see that all action or lack of action never has and never will have anything to do with your true self, consciousness-existence.

11:7 – One who knows for certain, “I alone am everything, from Brahma (the creator) down to a clump of grass (the lowliest creation)” turns away from what is attained or unattained and becomes pure, peaceful and free from thought.

To know, “I alone am everything” is to know that you’re the non-dual self. And when you understand that there’s only yourself, then despite appearances to the contrary, you know that nothing is ever attained or unattained because you’re free from action and change. It’s hyperbole to say that this knowledge makes you (meaning the body-mind) completely pure, peaceful and free from thought. In truth, the body-mind will always have impurity. The mind will periodically be subject to anxiety. And being its very nature, the mind will always have thought. Only as the self are you totally pure, peaceful and free of thought. Regardless, knowing “I alone am everything” is a powerful tool for increasing purity and peace of mind and reducing thoughts, at least thoughts of anxiety.

11:8 – One who knows for certain that the curious appearance of the universe is but a non-existent manifestation becomes peaceful and free of desires as if nothing exists.

“Non-existent” here means “unreal.” When you take the typical viewpoint that the universe is a real entity, it’s a genuine cause for distress and desire. But when it’s seen as being unreal, anxiety and desire can be reduced. Because what sense is there in worrying about something or desiring something that doesn’t truly exist? As Biggie Smalls famously says, “It was all a dream.”

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