CHAPTER 17: Part One
I really like the Ashtavakra Samhita. Next to Upadesha Sahasri, it’s one of my all-time favorite Vedanta texts. That’s why it’s difficult for me to disagree with it. But I can’t help but find Chapter 17’s description of the behavior of the enlightened person to be problematic. The reason is simple: The primary point of Vedanta is to learn to identify with the self that you actually are and to disidentify with the thoughts, feelings, characteristics and behavior of the body-mind that you aren’t.
So once you’ve seen that you aren’t the body-mind, then doesn’t it seem counterproductive to continue to look to the body-mind for validation, especially considering that the suffering caused by thinking you’re defined by the body-mind is usually the original reason for seeking enlightenment? Hint: It is. That’s why real freedom is knowing that you’re always the unchanging, limitless self regardless of what the body-mind does or doesn’t do. For that reason, I think describing the behavior or mind state of a so-called enlightened person is almost always unhelpful. Almost.
At least initially, before you know enlightenment has nothing to do with the body-mind, it can be useful to hear a description of the enlightened person’s behavior in order to set the bar high and give you tangible goals to strive for, especially considering that understanding you’re the non-dual self, free of any and all qualities is extremely abstract and hard to grasp. For me, I was inspired by the concrete examples of greats such as Krishna, Shankara and the Swamis Chinmayananda, Dayananda and Paramarthananda. Looking to them motivated me to dedicate myself to spiritual practice and to alter my lifestyle in such a way that it fully supported and nurtured my self-inquiry.
But eventually, comparing myself to them became problematic because it lured me into thinking along the lines of, “Well, if I act like them, I’m enlightened. And if I don’t, I’m not enlightened.” The irony was that I was trying to measure my enlightenment by the standard of these teachers’ behavior when they were clearly saying, “Enlightenment is knowing you’re not defined by the state of the body-mind or what it does.”
Yes, good behavior is good. And a poised and peaceful mind is nice. Both are possible when you know you’re the self. But they belong strictly to the realm of the body-mind so you have to remember that if you’re not the body-mind, they ultimately say nothing about you. Consider this: How can what you do determine the status of your self-knowledge when many well-behaved, poised and peaceful people have absolutely no idea who they really are?
My advice is to use the following lines for inspiration if you like, but don’t take them literally and fall into the trap of thinking that you only know you’re the self if the body-mind thinks and acts in a certain way. If you know you’re the self, then you know you’re the self. Period. If knowing you’re the self improves the thinking of the mind and behavior of the body, it’s an incidental bonus, not a validation of what you already know to be true.
17:1 – He has gained the fruit of knowledge as well as of the practice of yoga, who, contented and with purified senses, ever enjoys being alone.
I’ve always liked being alone. As a kid, I spent hours on end wandering in the woods by myself. Did that mean I had gained the fruit of knowledge? No. At the time I had no idea who I was. So if you like to be alone, fine. If you like company, that’s also fine. Either way, it doesn’t indicate whether or not you have self-knowledge.
Still, when you know who you are you do see that you’re alone whether you like it or not, insofar as in a non-dual reality there’s nothing other than yourself. When I first realized that, oddly enough, I didn’t like it—it made me feel weird and isolated. But when I looked at the situation from a different perspective, that rather than being isolated I was actually connected with everything around me, I started to enjoy being ‘alone’ in a metaphysical sense.
17:2 – Oh, the knower of truth is never miserable in this world, for the whole universe is filled by himself alone.
The knower of truth is the mind. That’s where the knowledge, “I’m the self” occurs. So when the mind knows it’s the self, can it still be miserable? Yes. The mind is fickle and subject to subconscious forces that aren’t usually under your control. That’s why you can never fully predict what the mind will think or feel and why you can’t make it think and feel one way all of the time. For instance, my mind sometimes feels miserable for no reason I can put my finger on. The feeling just pops up. But the key at that moment is not to fall into the trap of thinking, “I’m miserable.” It’s to remember, “Even when my mind is miserable, I, the self, am not.” That’s self-knowledge.
17:3 – No sense-objects ever please him who delights in the self, even as the leaves of the neem tree do not please an elephant who delights in the leaves of the frankincense tree.
The point here is that the bitter neem leaves of transient, unreal sense objects can never be a steady source of satisfaction the way the apparently delicious frankincense leaves of the ever-present self can. While I don’t have any experience eating neem or frankincense leaves, I agree with the sentiment. Regardless, that doesn’t mean you won’t—or shouldn’t—find temporary enjoyment in something like a good movie, a nice meal or an interesting conversation. Because why would anyone seek enlightenment if it robbed everyday life of meaning? Not everyone wants to sit in a cave meditating on their transcendental nature all day, waiting for the body to die. Why not simply enjoy life for what it’s worth, all the while armed with the understanding that no matter what happens, you’re always okay as the self?
17:4 – Rare in this world is one on whom experience leaves no impression and who has no desire for things not yet experienced.
I won’t argue that a person like this isn’t rare. In fact, since it’s impossible to know the inner-workings of another person’s mind, I have no idea if a person like this even exits. But even if they do, it doesn’t mean they have some special form of self-knowledge that others don’t. It just means that have a particular kind of mind, affected by self-knowledge in a particular way. If your mind is affected by self-knowledge in a different way, it doesn’t mean you don’t know who you are. Because if you really know you’re the self, you understand that the state of the mind doesn’t determine your status as the self.
17:5 – Those desirous of worldly enjoyment and those desirous of liberation, both are found in this world. But rare indeed is the great-souled one who is not desirous of either enjoyment or liberation.
The idea here is that when you know you’re the self, the joys of the world lose their appeal. This is true to a degree, especially considering that the self is always available for satisfaction whereas worldly joy is fleeting. But just because you know that worldly enjoyment doesn’t last doesn’t mean that the body-mind won’t periodically want something. That’s normal. In my experience, I’ve never met a single enlightened person who didn’t want something. Not even the wise and peaceful Swamis. Because how could they not want something when they’re part of international organizations with an explicit agenda to travel around the globe sharing the teachings of Vedanta? I’m not saying that wanting to teach Vedanta is a bad thing. I’m doing it right now. But I’m simply making a point that rare indeed is the one who doesn’t want anything—and that wanting something doesn’t mean you don’t know who you are.
One thing, however, that enlightened people definitely don’t want is liberation. Why? Because they know that as the ever-free self, they were never bound. Frankly, the absence of feeling like you need to continue seeking freedom is probably the biggest benefit of self-knowledge. Spiritual practice and self-inquiry are good and necessary things but they’re difficult and they often put you at odds with the people around you that don’t understand what you’re doing. So to realize you’ve always been free and to no longer feel like you have to do something to get free is a big relief. You can stop endlessly studying texts and hanging out with the neurotic weirdos in the ‘spiritual world’—myself included—and go back to being a normal person, albeit a normal person who knows they’re not really a normal person.
17:6 – Rare is the broad-minded person who has neither attraction for, nor aversion to, dharma (duty), artha (worldly prosperity), kama (desire), and moksa (liberation) as well as life and death.
This verse is based on the idea that when you seek fulfillment by doing your duty, acquiring wealth, satisfying desire or seeking liberation, you’re really just seeking the fulfillment of being the self. So when you understand that you already are the self—and therefore that you already ‘have’ what you’re seeking—you lose your attraction to those pursuits.
To a degree this is true. But even while enlightened people don’t have an interest in seeking liberation, they probably still need money and have responsibilities like everyone else. They may even have a desire or two. That’s because enlightenment isn’t a golden ticket that suddenly changes the particulars of your world. It only changes how you view and relate to that world insofar as knowing you’re not the body-mind, you don’t have to feel aversion (or attraction) to its responsibilities, needs or desires.
17:7 – The man of knowledge does not feel any desire for the dissolution of the universe, or aversion to its existence. The blessed one, therefore, lives happily on whatever subsistence comes as a matter of course.
If you watch a movie, you may dislike a particular scene and want it to end. But that doesn’t mean you don’t know who you are, that you don’t remember you’re a person unaffected by the film. Similarly, you may feel aversion to, and desire for the dissolution of, certain experiences in the world. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have self-knowledge, that you don’t know you’re the self, unaffected by the world. It just means that ‘your’ mind, like all minds, has preferences—it likes what it likes and doesn’t like what it doesn’t like.
But if self-knowledge is clearly understanding that the mind—along with its preferences—has nothing to do with you, then how can the mere presence of preferences in the mind be a determining factor in whether or not you have self-knowledge? It can’t. The real proof would be whether or not you recognize that likes and dislikes belong solely to the mind—and not you, the self—when they arise. That’s self-knowledge.
Otherwise, you’re still trapped in the same predicament as everyone else, judging yourself by the workings of the mind (or the characteristics and actions of the body). “If my mind thinks a certain way, I’m okay. If it doesn’t, I’m not. If my body looks or acts a certain way, I’m okay. If it doesn’t, I’m not.” That’s samsara. Simply trading regular worldly samsara for a ‘spiritual’ form of samsara where you judge your enlightenment according to what the mind thinks is no solution to the problem. You’re the self, free of the mind. Just own it.
The good news is if you do own that knowledge, it can pacify the likes and dislikes of the mind. And a mind with less—or at least less intense—likes and dislikes is more peaceful, which is nice. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that if your mind is more peaceful that you’re somehow more enlightened or if it isn’t peaceful that you’re less enlightened. Self-knowledge is knowing you’re the self, period. It’s not manipulating the mind into being a particular way.
The second part of the verse shows the author’s predisposition to a monastic lifestyle. In a traditional setting, a person would first be a student, then go on to a life of marriage, kids and career. Afterwards they would give up their domestic life and become a monk so they could devote their time fully to self-inquiry. As a monk they would beg for subsistence or just wait for some to show up. If you choose to follow the traditional route, it’s completely fine. That system has been around for a very long time and has some well-thought out reasoning behind it.
My only objection is that the path to self-knowledge isn’t one-size-fits all. Most people studying Vedanta will never become monks and never want to become monks. They lead regular lives and have commitments to fulfill and that’s completely fine to them. So to judge their self-knowledge by a monastic standard is inappropriate and misleading, especially considering that self-knowledge is knowing that as the self, you’re unaffected by the lifestyle of the body-mind.
17:8 – Being fulfilled by the knowledge of the self and with his mind absorbed, and contented, the wise one lives happily, seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and eating.
This is the best verse in the chapter, the only one I think is truly accurate. Even when you know who you are, you can still act like a regular person. Because self-knowledge is simply knowing you’re the self, not the body-mind thinking or acting in a certain way.
17:9 – There is no attachment or non-attachment in one for whom the ocean of the world has dried up. His look is vacant, action purposeless and the senses inoperative.
When you know you’re the self, there may still be attachment or non-attachment in your mind. Your look may be vacant or otherwise. Your actions may have purpose or be purposeless (although who does anything for no reason?). Your senses may be operative or inoperative. But all of this is irrelevant seeing that as the self, you’re free from the mind and its thoughts, free from the body and its actions.
17:10 – The wise one neither keeps awake nor sleeps, he neither opens nor closes his eyes. Oh, the liberated soul anywhere enjoys the supreme condition.
As the self, the wise one neither sleeps nor wakes, although their body will mostly certainly go through periods of rest and activity. And as the self, the wise one doesn’t have any eyes to open or close. But their face definitely does. Regardless, the wise one can appreciate that they’re the self in whatever situation or condition the body-mind happens to be in. That’s freedom.