A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 26

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CHAPTER 17: Part Two
Ashtavakra said: 
17:11 – The liberated one is always found abiding in the self and is pure in heart; they live free from all desires, under all conditions.

If you are the self, then how can you abide in the self you already are?  Technically, you can’t.  So in this verse, “the liberated one” is referring to a mind that has self-knowledge (or a mind that lacks self-ignorance, whichever way you want to look at it). And a mind like that can ‘abide’ in the self inasmuch as it can dwell on the implications of what it means to be the self.  In other words, when a mind with self-knowledge is presented with problematic situations or uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, it can remember that it’s still okay because at its essence, it’s always the unchanging, limitless self. 

In Vedanta, heart and mind aren’t two different things, seeing as what’s normally regarded as heart is a  collection of feelings that only appear in the mind.  So is a mind with self-knowledge always pure?  Since the author doesn’t give a precise definition of the word “pure” it’s hard to tell exactly what he means.  Assuming he’s using the word “pure” in the common sense of being free of all negative thoughts and emotions, then no, a mind with self-knowledge is never completely pure.  Why?  Because the mind is part and parcel of the relative world and nothing in the relative world, being made up of parts that continuously change, can be fully purified or made to remain one way all of the time.  

For the same reason, a mind with self-knowledge can never be free of desires, at least not in the literal sense.  Desire will continue to arise naturally.  However, there is a certain level of choice that the mind can exercise when confronted with those desires.  It can ‘abide’ in the self, evaluating whether or not to indulge a desire in light of the fact that as the self, there’s nothing to be gained by doing so.    

But if you follow that line of reasoning to its natural conclusion, there’s also nothing to lose by pursuing a desire, seeing as the self is unaffected either way.  Furthermore, while I agree that a mind free of desire is preferable to a mind full of desire, wanting the mind to be free of desire is, ironically, just another desire.  So in order to have a mind free of desire, you still have to have the desire to ‘abide’ in the implications of self-knowledge in order to get rid of the desire.  That means the only way to really be free of all desires is to recognize that as the self, you’re free under all conditions, even the condition of desire being present in the mind.         

17:12 – Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, taking, speaking and walking, the great-souled one, free from all efforts and non-efforts, is verily emancipated.

When you realize you’re the self, you see clearly that you’re not the ego, the part of the mind that claims, “I’m doing this” or “I’m not doing that.”  In that way you’re free from all “efforts and non-efforts,” despite the continued thoughts and actions of the mind-body.  

17:13 – The liberated one neither slanders nor praises, neither rejoices nor is angry, neither gives nor takes. They are free from attachment to all objects.

As the self, the liberated one neither slanders nor praises etc. As the self, they’re free from all attachment.  Their body-mind may still slander or praise, rejoice or get angry, give or take.  Or have attachment to objects, even if it’s just an attachment for having peace in the mind. This isn’t a problem, however, because they know that they’re not the body-mind nor affected by it.         

17:14 – The great-souled one is not perturbed and remains self-poised at the sight of a woman (or man) full of love as well as of approaching death. They are indeed liberated.

To react the same way to the approach of death as to the sight of a loved one would truly be an admirable feat.  But to whom would the credit for this feat belong?  To you, the self, or to the mind?  To the mind.  So in this verse the “great-souled one” isn’t referring directly to you, the self, but a poised mind, firmly rooted in the knowledge, “As the self, I’m completely fine in all circumstances.” Because as the self you’re neither perturbed nor calm, poised nor flustered, liberated nor bound.  

Keeping in view the distinction between the relative level of the mind and the ‘absolute’ level of the self while reading these verses is crucial in order to avoid the confusion of identifying with the mind instead of the self.  If verses like this give you a constructive example of the type of mind you want to strive for, then great.  I honestly think that’s their purpose.  But don’t get confused, thinking that you’re more or less enlightened because of the condition of your mind.  Being enlightened is knowing you’re the self.  That means there’s nothing the mind can do (or not do) to make you more (or less) than the self you already are.         

17:15 – The steady one who sees the same everywhere, sees no difference between happiness and misery, man and woman, and prosperity and adversity.

The “steady one” isn’t you, the self, but a mind that knows that ultimately everything is the same as the self.  At times when the mind is experiencing something it doesn’t like, this knowledge is helpful because it helps to reduce your aversion to the experience, seeing as there’s no point in being averse to your own self.  But the knowledge only applies on a cognitive level.  Because it’s not as if you’d just as soon drink a hot, delicious cup of coffee thrown as have it thrown in your face, simply because at the ultimate level, both experiences are the self.     

17:16 – In the wise one whose worldly life is exhausted and who has transcended the limitations of human nature, there is neither compassion nor any desire to harm, neither humility nor insolence, neither wonder nor mental disturbance.

To be human is to be a body-mind.  How then can a body-mind, even a “wise one,” transcend its own human nature by simply behaving in a different way?  It can’t because it would still be a body-mind, just a body-mind behaving in a different way than before.  So the only way to truly transcend the limitations of human nature is to realize that as the self, you’re not human in the first place.       

17:17 – The liberated one neither abhors the objects of the senses nor craves for them.  Ever with a detached mind he experiences them as they come.

When the “liberated one”—the mind with self-knowledge—understands what it means to be the self, it can have less attraction and aversion for sense objects.  It can become more detached to experience in general.  But to be truly free from those things is simply to appreciate that as the self, you’re never attached to, or detached from, sense objects in the first place. 

17:18 – The wise one of vacant mind knows not the conflict of contemplation and non-contemplation, good and evil. He abides as it were in the absolute state.

If your mind is vacant—literally shunya, meaning “void” or “empty”—then there’s obviously not going to be anything going on, not contemplation or non-contemplation, not recognition of good or evil.  So I can’t argue with that statement.  But I will argue that being a “wise one”—meaning one with self-knowledge—doesn’t mean your mind is non-functioning, especially considering that enlightenment is knowing you’re the self, not an empty mind (I’ll elaborate on this point further in Verse 20). 

“Absolute state” is a translation of the word Sanskrit word kaivalya.  As I mentioned in the commentary to verse 11:6, this term has different definitions, depending on the school of Indian Philosophy that’s using it.  Literally, it means “aloofness, aloneness, isolation” (See “A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy” by John Grimes).  In this sense it describes the nature of the self, seeing as the self is aloof (impersonal, detached from the world) and non-dual (alone or isolated by default, because there’s nothing other than the self).  So to say that the mind of one with self-knowledge abides in the knowledge that the self is kaivalya is accurate.  It’s inaccurate, however, to describe kaivalya as a state.  Because kaivalya is what the self is, it’s nature, not a state or condition it achieves. 

17:19 – Devoid of the feeling of “I” and “mine”, knowing for certain that nothing is, and with all their inner desires set at rest, the one with knowledge does not act though they may be acting.

Being crucial to the functioning of the mind, the ego can’t disappear unless the mind itself isn’t present, such as when you’re unconscious or asleep.  This means a mind endowed with self-knowledge will surely still have an ego, the sense of “I” and “mine.”  The difference is that the one who knows they’re the self doesn’t identify with the ego, thinking it belongs to them or defines them.  In that way, the “one with knowledge” doesn’t act, at least not as the self, even when the body-mind does. 

The “one with knowledge” knows for certain that “nothing is” insofar as they understand that the body-mind—as well as the world it inhabits—are nothing but insubstantial illusions whose only reality is the self.       

17:20 – An indescribable state is attained by the wise one whose mind has melted away, its functions having ceased to operate, and who is free from delusion, dreaming or dullness.

As much as I’d like to, I can’t interpret “indescribable state” metaphorically to mean “being the self” since the self isn’t a state.  It just is.  Nor can I say that having self-knowledge causes the mind to melt away and cease functioning.  If that were the case, there would be no enlightened people or teachers of enlightenment, because you can’t live, let alone teach, without a mind.  You’d just be a vegetable.  And just being a vegetable isn’t enlightenment, otherwise you’d get enlightenment by going into a coma. Or by going to sleep.   

So I have to take “indescribable state” to mean that point in deep meditation when the mind truly does stop or disappear, at least temporarily.  At that time, since there’s no mind, there’s no delusion etc.  In a way, this is an “indescribable state” seeing as there’s no mental activity available to differentiate it from other mental states.  Having the mind stop, despite not being enlightenment, is actually a very helpful pointer towards enlightenment.  How so?  Because what you normally think of as yourself is the mind.  So when it disappears and you still exist, it indicates that you’re something other than the mind.  At first, you may not understand that that ‘something’ is the self.  But when you do, that’s enlightenment, not a blank mind. 

This concludes Chapter 17.  From here, Chapters 18, 19 and 20 remain, with Chapter 18—which contains 100 verses—being the largest of the entire text.  I’ll be saving the commentary on those chapters for a book version of the Ashtavakra Samhita I hope to release at the end of the year.  All of the previous installments of the commentary will be compiled, revised and expanded for the book.  I’ll also be adding an introduction and possibly, a few essays. 

I’ll continue to add new material to the site while I work on the book.  As always, feel free to write in and ask any questions you may have about this text or Vedanta in general. 

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