A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 5

CHAPTER TWO

Through Ashtavakra’s instruction in the first chapter, Janaka gets enlightened.  Chapter Two is Janaka’s statement of self-knowledge.    

Read Part 4 here.

Janaka said:
2:1 – I am consciousness: without defect, tranquil, and beyond the material world.  All this time I have been deceived by delusion. 

As previously mentioned (in Part Two), enlightenment or self-knowledge is a matter of identity.  When you are ignorant of your true nature, you mistakenly identify with the body-mind.  But when you know what your true nature is, you correctly identify with consciousness.  You can tell that Janaka now clearly identifies with consciousness instead of the body-mind by the way he starts speaking of consciousness in the first person, saying “I am consciousness” instead of “consciousness is (such and such)” as if he were describing something other than himself.  For that reason, the verses in Chapter Two are excellent for meditation, recitation and contemplation.        

When Janaka says that he is beyond the material world, it does not mean that consciousness is in one place and the material world in another because consciousness has no spatial location.  Furthermore, since reality is non-dual, there cannot be both a world and consciousness.  So to say that consciousness is beyond the material world means that consciousness is not affected by the illusory appearance of the world.   

2:2 – As I alone reveal this body, even so do I reveal this universe. The entire universe is mine; or alternately, nothing is mine. 

The entire universe—which includes the body—is a known object.  That which knows it is consciousness.  In this way consciousness ‘reveals’ everything in the universe.

In the second part of the verse Janaka switches from the empirical viewpoint to the absolute viewpoint (see 1:16 for explanation of viewpoints).   From the empirical viewpoint, which provisionally accepts the appearance of the universe, it can be said that everything ‘belongs’ to consciousness since everything is consciousness.  Yet, from the absolute viewpoint, which does not admit of the universe whatsoever, nothing belongs to consciousness because there is nothing other than consciousness to belong to it. 

2:3 – Having left behind the body and the universe, I now see the highest self.

When people get enlightened, they continue to have bodies that exist in the universe.  If this were not so, then the moment Janaka got enlightened he would have disappeared and been unavailable to make these statements.  Actually, if this were not so, Janaka would not have gotten enlightened in the first place because Ashtavakra, his enlightened teacher, wouldn’t have been there to teach him.  So when Janaka says he has left behind the body and the universe, they remain as they are but he has ‘left them behind’ by recognizing them for the illusion they are and ceasing identification with the body. 

In this chapter, Janaka starts referring to consciousness/existence as “the self” (atman).  In the sense that consciousness/existence is what you truly are, it is the “self.”  Therefore, the terms will be used synonymously in the text from here forward. 

Sight being a common symbol of knowledge, when Janaka says that he sees the self he means he understands that he is the self, not that the self is some kind of object of perception.  That this self is the “highest self” means that consciousness/existence is the true self, as opposed to the false self of the body-mind.    

2:4 – As waves, foam and bubbles are not different from water, so the universe emanating from me is not different from me.

At first, Vedanta posits two fundamentally dualistic categories: self (consciousness/subject/knower/witness) and ‘not-self’ (non-conscious/object/known/witnessed).  But seeing as reality is ultimately non-dual, these two categories can only be conditionally accepted.  You may ask, “Then why use them at all?”  The answer is that in the beginning of the teaching the concept of ‘not-self’ provides a stable and critically important platform from which to inquire, one that helps you objectify the body-mind and see that it is unreal.  Once the body-mind is clearly known to be an illusion that never affects your true nature, the temporary dualistic split of self and ‘not-self’ must be mended in order for the ultimate truth of non-duality to be grasped.  Examining the relationship between water and its various manifestations is an excellent way to do this. 

Initially, it can be said that waves, foam and bubbles are different from water because the waves etc. are transient, ever-changing and possessed of form while the water is ever-present, unchanging and formless. But when the existence of the waves etc. is negated by the knowledge that they are only water, it must be said that the waves etc. are non-different from water because they are not really there; there is ever only water and therefore nothing else exists to be different from it. 

Similarly, at first it can be said that the self and the ‘not-self’ are different because the ‘not-self’ is transient, ever-changing and possessed of form while the self (consciousness/existence) is ever-present, unchanging and formless.  But when the existence of the ‘not-self’ is negated by knowledge that only the self exists, it must said that the ‘not-self’ is non-different from the self in the sense that there is nothing other than the self to be different from the self.   

It could be argued that it would be more efficient to simply skip the first step that falsely admits of something other than the self in order to go directly to the truth of non-duality.  However, very few people can do this because at first the idea of non-duality appears to stand in direct opposition to their everyday experience.  And when people are still convinced that there is such a thing as the ‘not-self’ (objects of experience) it is not productive to merely deny its existence.  Therefore, Vedanta, being eminently practical, offers an intermediate step.  It conditionally accepts the ‘not-self’ and then provides you with the tools that are needed to understand that it only appears to exist while you, the self, are the only thing that actually exists.  When that is known, the temporary difference between self and ‘not-self’ is discarded in favor of the non-dual view that there is only the self.  This view is reiterated in the next verse using the analogy of cloth and thread and requires no additional commentary.            

2:5 – As cloth, when analyzed, is found to be nothing but thread, so this universe, when analyzed, is nothing but me. 

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Metaphors & The Meaning of Life

S: I guess I have a problem relating to a non-material pure consciousness the same way I can’t relate to the idea of an abstract god/creator. It’s my mission to overcome my old beliefs of materialistic existence only.
V: If you’re having trouble relating to a non-material entity, then I’ll ask this: do you have trouble relating to empty space, even though it’s totally immaterial and not something you can perceive? No. This proves that things don’t necessarily have to be material to be relatable.
One of the definitions of the word “relate” is to “identify with.” The reason you can’t yet identify with pure consciousness is because you don’t understand that it’s you. If you keep studying Vedanta, over time your identity with pure consciousness becomes perfectly clear and the issue of relating or not relating becomes moot.
Imagine an eyeball looking outward trying to see itself. When it can’t, it thinks, “I must not exist!” instead of realizing, “Because I see, I know I exist.” Right now you’re kind of like the eyeball. You’re looking outward, trying to see yourself, pure consciousness, as an object. When you can’t, you think that pure consciousness is something that’s as good as non-existent instead of realizing, “I know pure consciousness exists for the very fact that I am conscious. It’s self-evident.” And if you can see this, then you have no trouble relating to pure consciousness because it’s clear that you are it.
S: In the examples of water-wave or clay-pot (from your previous e-mail) there is a cause and effect. Some kind of force created a new form (wave or pot) out of the same substance (water, clay). So something did happen (a cause/force) to create a new form (shape). In the sun-objects example, the sun only reveals the pre-existing objects that were in the dark before. Both sun and objects has a separate materialistic existence.
V: The examples of clay/pot, water/wave, sunlight/objects are metaphors, and all metaphors have limitations. Hence, they’re not mean to be taken literally. They merely imply certain truths from different perspectives.
The sunlight metaphor is meant to deny that you, pure consciousness, are any of the things you illumine. The sun reveals the world but it isn’t the world, nor is it affected by the world. Similarly, you reveal the body/mind but you aren’t the body/mind or affected by it. That’s all the metaphor is trying to say: you aren’t an object nor are you affected by objects. Anything besides that is beyond the scope of the metaphor and shouldn’t be taken literally.
If you do take the sunlight metaphor at face value then you’re left with the problem you’ve pointed out: that the sunlight and the objects it reveals are two different things. But if you study Vedanta as a whole you’ll see that it flatly and utterly denies duality. It unambiguously states that there’s absolutely nothing other than brahman (pure consciousness/pure existence). So you have to take the sunlight metaphor in that context. While it may seem like it’s establishing two different things (you and objects) it isn’t. It’s only denying that you’re an object or that you’re ever affected by objects. All objects are you, brahman, but you are not an object, nor are you affected by objects. Explaining that last statement is one of the purposes of the wave/water and clay/pot metaphors. Similar to you and objects, all waves are water but water is never a wave. All clay pots are clay, but clay is never a clay pot.
I’ll focus on the water/wave metaphor because it has the same meaning as the clay/pot metaphor. Water does not transform into some substance called ‘wave’ when a wave appears. It remains entirely unchanged as H20. Furthermore, no additional substance called ‘wave’ is created. Let’s say we have 1,000 liters of water that take the form of a wave. Is there now 1,000 liters of water plus a couple extra liters of wave? No. There’s still only 1,000 liters of water because a wave has no substance apart from the water. It’s merely an appearance. The wave is the water but the water is never the wave. It’s always water no matter what. This is how you, brahman, are not an object but all objects are nothing but you.
Taking the metaphor literally, you could say that it implies cause and effect, that water is the cause and wave is the effect. But if wave is found to have no substance of its own, that it’s nothing other than water, is there really a cause and effect? No. There is only water. You could argue that the appearance of the wave is an effect but the appearance is still absolutely nothing other than water. If you investigate the wave, you don’t find water plus some substance called ‘appearance.’ All you find is water. So in reality, the metaphor denies cause and effect, which is in harmony with Vedanta as a whole which asserts that in a non-dual (advaita) reality, there is only one thing and one thing alone: you, brahman. There is not two separate things such as cause and effect.
Again, taking the metaphor literally, you could say that gravity is the cause, water is the affected substance and wave is the effect. Or in the case of the clay and pot that the potter is the cause, clay is the affected substance and the pot is the effect. But Vedanta refutes this objection by stating that if there is a cause, a substance affected and a resulting effect, then all three are none other than brahman, while brahman is not them. To be clear though, this is a lower level of understanding because as I said, ultimately Vedanta denies cause and effect.
S: How can the false appearance of materialistic existence (my body/mind and the universe) be manifested in my mind with no cause, force, event or a reason? Why does this false world exist (even if it’s just in my mind which also doesn’t exist) if it has no meaning or purpose?
V: I have no idea. No one does. Again, if you’re looking for explanations for why the world appears you have to consult religion. There’re no other option because even if science determines the ‘how’ of creation, it can’t determine the ‘why.’ It’s a total mystery. That’s why explaining the appearance of the world is not the point of Vedanta. Its purpose is to show you that the appearance of the world is not real so you don’t have to worry about it. Because if you know that the world isn’t real, how concerned will you be with where it came from? For instance, if you have a dream that you’re flying through outer space on a giant pink bunny, do you wake up genuinely disturbed asking, “Why?! Where did it come from? What does it MEAN?!” No, you don’t. You dismiss it as a silly dream and move on with your day. It’s the same situation when you fully understand that the world has no reality, that it’s just a strange appearance.
However, Vedanta doesn’t leave things totally open-ended. After it denies the reality of the appearance of the world, is shows you what it actually is: you, brahman, pure existence. You could ask why pure existence exists but I would reply with the question, “How can it not exist?” Its nature is to exist so it does. Really speaking, the question of why it exists doesn’t factor in because existence wasn’t created. It’s eternal. Only things created, transient things, can have a reason for their creation. But you, brahman, were never created. You have always been.
Those are the highest teachings of Vedanta. I’m not holding anything back. I genuinely hope they make sense but it’s normal if they don’t. It took years of intense, dedicated inquiry–listening to the teaching and contemplating its meaning every single day–to understand what I was being taught.
Finally, on a personal note: It’s true that the world has no meaning, at least not an objective one everyone agrees on. You could take this in the negative sense and become a grouchy old nihilist if you wish. Or you could take it in the positive sense that if the world has no definite, objective meaning that you are free to superimpose whatever subjective meaning onto it that you wish. Find what makes life meaningful for YOU and pursue it. That’s what I do and it works great. I’m not beholden to a pre-determined meaning of life I didn’t choose, handed to me by society, my forefathers or some deity I can’t prove exists. Take that for what it’s worth.
All my best – Vishnudeva
This is a continuation of a previous satsang. You can read it here. If anyone has questions about this satsang or Vedanta in general, please contact me.

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Limitations of the Afterlife & the Significance of Existence

S:  In reference to what you said in your last e-mail, you’re right, I’m actually looking for an afterlife experience.  Maybe my next step should be to study some dualistic Vedanta lectures.  What do you think?

V:  Like I said before, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting an afterlife experience.  That’s an acceptable goal.  However, if your goal is permanent freedom, you’ll eventually give up wanting an afterlife experience when you see that no experience, either in this life or in the afterlife, will last.  Here’s the logic.  If there is an afterlife experience—and I mean if—the idea is that earn that experience by the actions you do in life.  Your actions in life are the cause and the afterlife you get is the effect.  The catch is that all the actions you do in life have limited, impermanent results.  So how can you get a permanent afterlife experience?  It’s not possible.  And wouldn’t a temporary afterlife experience be an awful lot like a regular life experience that makes you happy for a while until it inevitably ends, leaving you unfulfilled?  Yep.  So even in death, nothing has really changed. 

If you can follow the logic that nothing you do can give you a permanent result, it means you’re ready to go for freedom directly, meaning you’re ready to understand that you are already free.  You’re ready to see that you are ‘beyond’ both life and the afterlife and always fulfilled.  If you’re not ready, then you’re not, and that’s completely okay.  I’ll still be happy to teach you Vedanta or point you in the direction of other good teachers but maybe, as you’ve pointed out, it’s not right for you, at least not for the time being. 

If that’s the case then I seriously encourage you to practice a religion of your choosing.  Religion is the only place you’ll find information about how to go to the afterlife.  In that case a dualistic form of Vedanta—as you mentioned above—such as the Dvaita Vedanta of Madhva or Vishishtadvaita of Ramanuja may very well be appropriate for you.  I’m not extremely familiar with them but I do know they are concerned with the afterlife.  I think I’d suggest Vishishtadvaita over Dvaita because Vishishtadvaita is a bit closer to Advaita and of course, I am an Advaitin. 

If you’re not interested in the route of religion, I highly recommend starting a serious and dedicated meditation practice.  It’s excellent for peace of mind and personal growth and it will help you in any area of study you decide to pursue.  Along with your practice you might want to study the Yoga Sutras, the premier text on meditation.  If you’re not interested in any of those things, then I’m out of ideas.  The bottom line is that you should do whatever appeals to you most.  Go in the direction your heart tells you to and you’ll find the right path.  For me it was Vedanta.  For you it might be something else. 

S:  Since I don’t believe in god (as presented in Christianity), I was looking for something else, like pure consciousness to hold on.

V:  You came to the right place because Vedanta doesn’t require you to believe in pure consciousness.  It shows you directly that it exists and that you are it. 

S:  My understanding is that, according to Advaita Vedanta, pure consciousness, the “I / Me,” is not the perceiver, feeler or thinker of my reality. 

V:  Right.  You aren’t the perceiver, feeler or thinker.  Instead, you’re the pure consciousness that reveals them.  You, pure consciousness, are like sunlight.  And the perceiver, feeler and thinker are like the various objects illuminated by the sun.     

S:  If I ‘exist’ in deep sleep, I also exist in a coma or a stone.

V: Yes, although technically, they all exist in you

S: That may be the ultimate truth but that kind of existence is not ‘attractive’ to me. There is no comfort, significance or value for me (as I see it) in this kind of ‘existence.’

V:  A common metaphor used to illustrate the significance of that truth is that the mind, body and world are merely waves in the ocean of you, pure existence.  Just like water (the ocean) always exists despite the appearance of waves, you always exist despite the appearance of the mind, body or world.  And similar to the way water is never affected by the condition of the waves, you are never affected by the condition of the mind, body or world.  Since all anyone fears is change (in various forms) or non-existence, understanding for certain that you always exist and can’t be changed is very valuable and comforting.    

S:  How can ‘existence’ be something for me if it’s not an object?

V:  To say that existence is not an object is to say that existence is not any particular object.  Instead, it is the essence of every object.  It’s not a something but the essence of everything.   It’s that by which everything is, rather than isn’t.  Since it’s the intrinsic nature of everything, it’s not any particular thing.  You can’t point to an object and say, “That’s existence!” because existence doesn’t have a shape, color or any other qualities.  Instead, existence is that which makes all shapes, colors and qualities possible.  So while everything you experience is a ‘confirmation’ of existence, existence is not defined by anything you experience.           

S:  How can ‘existence’ be beyond time and space and still be applicable in my life or effecting my growth?

V:  It’s applicable for the reasons I mentioned above.   

S:  Existence, according to Wikipedia, comprises the state of being real and the ability to physically interact with the universe or multiverse. 

V:  Vedanta only uses the first definition of existence.  It says existence is that which is real.  And that which is real is that which never changes.  According to Vedanta, existence has absolutely nothing to do with physically interacting with the universe.  It is the essence of the universe, but never touched by it.    

S:  Discussing an existence with no dimensions or qualities is nice as poetry.   But my problem is that I can’t even relate or develop a real philosophical discussion about existence if it’s not present in my world.

V:  How can existence not be present in the world if the world exists?  How can existence not be present in the world if you yourself exist?  As I said, existence isn’t any particular thing in the world but it’s the essence of everything in the world.  Existence is like water and the world is the waves.  But the water is never a wave.  It’s always water.  You’re the existence, the water.  The body, mind and world are the waves.  So you’re always present as the essence of them all, but you’re never any of those things. 

S:  Talking about ‘existence’ with no dimensions or qualities is like discussing an existence outside of our universe/multiverse.

V:  That’s because you don’t yet understand what I mean by existence.  Existence is the very fabric of the universe.  The universe is the clay pot, existence is the clay.  Just like clay is never a clay pot (or affected by the clay pot) but the clay pot is always clay, you, existence are never the universe but the universe is always you.  Right now, you’re focusing on the clay pot (body/mind), and missing the clay (existence/consciousness).  Because of that, you think the clay (existence/consciousness) is something remote from the clay pot (body/mind/experience).     

An additional thought:  Our universe exists.  If you say there’s anything outside of the universe, by default you’re acknowledging that it also exists (If it didn’t, it would be non-existent and there would be nothing to talk about).  If our universe exists and anything outside of our universe exists, then they are both of the nature of existence.  Since there aren’t two ‘existences,’ nothing that is something can ever be outside of existence.  Anything that is, is always ‘inside’ existence.  Or to put it another way, nothing can exist apart from existence itself, similar to how a clay pot can never exist apart from clay.        

S:  It seems to me that Advaita Vedanta say:  Pure consciousness is the only existence there is and it’s  You/Me/I.

V:  Yes! 

S:  But this ‘existence’ is not an existence I can grasp/understand/imagine because it’s beyond time and space. It’s beyond my intellectual abilities.  So it seems like Vedanta is saying that pure consciousness is an ‘existence’ that doesn’t exist for my intellect 😦

V:  Ignorance of who you are resides in the intellect.  Therefore removal of that ignorance happens in the intellect.  Saying that existence is ‘beyond’ the intellect simply means that existence is not an object.  It’s not something you know as a thought, or a feeling etc.  You know it directly as yourself.  It is self-evident like the sun, not needing to be revealed by something else because it’s the revealer itself.       

All my best, Vishnudeva

This is a continuation of a previous discussion, An Empty Shell.  If you have any questions, please Contact Me.

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