A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 21

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Janaka said:
14:1 – One who is void of mind, whose thoughts of sense objects are spontaneous and who remains awake while sleeping has their recollections of worldly life exhausted. 

In Swami Nityaswarupananda’s excellent translation of the Ashtavakra Samhita he interprets “void of mind” to mean that the mind of one with self-knowledge is devoid of desires, habitual mental tendencies and knowledge of objects.  Unless I’m misunderstanding his words, I politely but heartily disagree.  Because how could a self-realized person write, teach—or do anything else for that matter—without the desire to do so?  How could they have a personality without habitual mental tendencies?  How could they function in the world without knowledge of objects?  Either self-realized people do have desires, habitual tendencies and knowledge of objects or those with the desire to teach self-knowledge, using their personality and knowledge of objects to do so, aren’t actually self-realized. 

The latter scenario is problematic, seeing as there would be no living proof that enlightenment is possible.  So I contend—and I think Vedanta supports this contention—that “void of mind” means despite the fact that self-realized people have desire etc. in their minds, they are void of the belief that the contents of their minds either belong to them or affect them.  

The idea that a self-realized person’s thoughts of sense objects are “spontaneous,” meaning they simply come to that person’s mind rather than being the product of a deliberate desire-based thought process is rooted in the theory that a self-realized person is free from the karmic cycle of cause and effect.  In other words, once they give up the notion of being the doer, the body-mind, they’re passively reaping the effects of past karma created by the doer rather than actively creating new karma. 

If the theory of karma is true, then perhaps this is correct.  But if self-knowledge clearly demonstrates that you’re not the body-mind—and therefore never involved in the cycle of karma in the first place—what does it matter?  The fact is that regardless of self-knowledge, the body-mind is going to keep functioning as it always has until it dies.  The key is to know it has nothing to do with you either way. 

To “remain awake while sleeping” can mean two things: 1) A self-realized person is ‘awake’ to the knowledge of their true nature even while appearing to still be ‘asleep,’ meaning while appearing to still be a regular person ignorant of who they really are and 2) A self-realized person knows that they’re always ‘awake’ as consciousness-existence, even though the body-mind may be asleep. 

To have your “recollections of worldly life exhausted” is not to develop amnesia upon gaining self-knowledge.  Rather, it’s to no longer identify with the sum of your past actions, thinking they somehow define or affect you.   

14:2 – When desire has melted away, where are my riches, where are my friends, where are the robbers in the form of sense-objects, where are the scriptures and where is knowledge?

Self-knowledge puts things in perspective.  It demonstrates that money, relationships and sense objects—while they all have relative value in the everyday world—don’t offer any lasting happiness, owing to their transient nature.  For those who eschew such mundane pleasures and instead seek peace in so-called spiritual things such as scriptures, Janaka is quick to point out that they too have no lasting value.  Even though the scriptures can be useful guideposts on the path to self-knowledge, once you’ve ‘arrived’ at the goal, they no longer serve a purpose, the same way a map is useless once you’ve reached your destination.     

“Knowledge” here can be taken in two ways.  The first is as worldly knowledge, which suffers the same drawback as money etc.  The second is as indirect knowledge of the self obtained from either the scriptures or a teacher.  “Indirect” means you’re told about the self.  But once you understand that you are the self, these indirect statements are no longer useful.      

14:3 – Realizing I am the self, the witness and the lord, I have become indifferent to both bondage and liberation and I no longer think of my own emancipation.

Bondage and liberation are dualistic concepts that only apply when you think you’re the body-mind.  But when you know you’re consciousness-existence you understand that the desire for liberation—although a necessary component in the process of self-inquiry—is ultimately irrelevant seeing as you were always the self, the witness of the body-mind seeking liberation, and therefore never bound in the first place.   

14:4 – The state of one inwardly free of doubts but who outwardly moves about at their own pleasure like a deluded person can only be understood by others like them. 

Self-knowledge doesn’t dictate certain behavior precisely for the fact that it demonstrates you’re not the doer in the first place.  So just because someone’s body-mind goes about their life in a completely normal way, just like those without self-knowledge, doesn’t mean they don’t know who they really are.  Although this fact can be used by unscrupulous individuals to justify their bad behavior, it’s nonetheless true.  So if you know who you are, your body-mind can still act like an asshole.  But I certainly don’t recommend it.  Because if you truly know that everyone is actually yourself and that you’ve got nothing to gain or lose, what’s to be accomplished by abusing or taking advantage of ‘others’? 

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