A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 10

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Chapter Three is usually characterized as Ashtavakra testing Janaka after the latter makes a statement of self-knowledge in Chapter Two.  But there doesn’t appear to be a coherent line of questioning.  And some of the verses are not questions at all, but statements.  Additionally, owing to a lack of definitive background information about Janaka to give them context, it is not even clear whether Ashtavakra’s questions and statements pertain directly to Janaka or not.  In a way, this is preferable because it allows Chapter Three to be more of a universal lesson about the effect of self-knowledge on the thinking and behavior of the body-mind rather than a critique of a specific person.      

Ashtavakra said:
3:1 – Having known yourself to be one (non-dual) and indestructible, how can you feel attached to acquiring wealth? 

If the body-mind knows itself to be non-dual unchanging consciousness-existence, there is no reason for it to be attached to the idea of possession or non-possession of wealth.  Why?  Because being wealthy or impoverished are states that only apply to an illusory body-mind.  So there is no virtue in the body-mind being poor nor any vice in the body-mind having wealth—neither one has any effect on you, consciousness-existence. 

3:2 – From self-ignorance comes attachment to illusory objects of perception, just as from ignorance of mother-of-pearl comes greed for illusory silver. 

When you don’t know that you’re the non-dual self, the sole existent reality, you think that 1) objects are real and 2) that they are different or separate from you.  These beliefs are what makes attachment possible, because why would you be attached to an unreal object?  In the same way that greed for silver dissipates when it is known to be mother-of-pearl, attachment for objects dissipates when they are known to be illusory.    

Does this mean that a person with self-knowledge has no desires?  First, if someone knows that they’re the self, they understand that they are not, never have been, and never will be a person.  Therefore, whether the person (the body-mind) has desires or not is ultimately immaterial. 

Regardless, self-knowledge can—and should—inform the way the body-mind thinks and behaves.  So when the mind knows that at its essence it’s the sole unchanging existent reality, its desire for illusory objects should naturally decrease.  The next verse illustrates this point perfectly.     

3:3 – Having known yourself to be that in which the universe appears like waves on the ocean, why do you run after objects as if you are in need? 

If you have self-knowledge, you know that the body-mind is illusory and has nothing to do with you.  But despite being unreal, it does not suddenly disappear.  And according to rules of the universe the body-mind inhabits, it still needs food, shelter, clothing etc., assuming you do not want it to wither away and die; jobs, relationships and family commitments need to be maintained, assuming you want to keep them.  The difference is that you can tend to the body-mind and its circumstances without the undue stress caused by thinking it is real and that your well-being somehow depends on it.  As consciousness-existence, you are always completely fine, regardless of the state of the body-mind—even when it is running after objects as if it is in need.        

3:4 – After hearing oneself to be pure consciousness and surpassingly beautiful, how can you continue to be attached to the impurity of sex?

Pure consciousness, the self, can be considered “surpassingly beautiful” in a few different ways.  1) It is the most attractive ‘thing’ there is insofar as all actions are done for the sake of the self. 2) Beauty is often considered to be a measure of perfection; in this regard, owing to its utter lack of defect, the self—as opposed to inherently flawed objects—is “surpassingly beautiful.” 3) Since no beauty in the empirical world is even possible without consciousness being there as its very essence, it is “surpassingly beautiful.” 

If you have discovered your own ‘inner beauty’ as the self, there is no need to be preoccupied with sensual pleasures such as sex that can never bring any lasting satisfaction.  But like the issue of wealth discussed in 3:1, there is nothing inherently wrong with sex, even for one who is free from self-ignorance.  It is a natural part of life and done consensually and respectfully, it is a healthy part of loving relationships. 

Being an ascetic, perhaps Ashtavakra would not agree with this sentiment.  But having a monastic lifestyle doesn’t make a person more pure than someone who leads a normal life in the everyday world.  As Ashtavakra points out, you are pure consciousness; since purity is your nature, you can never be impure. 

3:5 – It would be astonishing for the sense of ownership to continue in the wise one who knows that he is the self in all and that all is in the self.

If you know that everything is yourself, then you can’t say you own anything for the simple fact that you can’t own yourself—you simply are yourself.  Does this mean that on the empirical level you suddenly lose all notions of having a body, a house, a car etc.?  No.  But the idea of ‘owning’ those things is put into perspective in light of the truth of non-duality–even though notions of ownership may persist, they are known to be completely baseless. 

3:6 – It would be strange for one dwelling on the highest non-duality and intent on liberation to be impaired by the desire for enjoyment. 

When you realize that transient objects can never give lasting satisfaction, your desire for them should become subservient to your desire to seek freedom from objects through self-knowledge. 

3:7 – It is astonishing how one debilitated and approaching death could still have desire, even after ascertaining that its arising is unfriendly (contrary) to knowledge.

After a lifetime of trying and failing to find fulfillment in fleeting objects it would be unfortunate if it didn’t become obvious that attainment of desires isn’t the key to satisfaction.  Ironically, pursuing desires is the main impediment to the fulfillment that is being sought because it keeps attention riveted outward, looking for solutions in external objects, thereby inhibiting the contemplation of the non-object ‘inner’ self—‘inner’ meaning it is the essence of everything—that leads to actual satisfaction through self-knowledge.      

3:8 – It is strange that one who is unattached to the objects of this world and the next, who discriminates the eternal from the transient, and who longs for liberation (moksha), should yet fear liberation! 

Even highly qualified students who are dispassionate (“unattached to the objects of this world and the next”) and able to discriminate the eternal (the self) from the transient (the ‘not-self’ i.e. objects) may fear the very liberation they are seeking.  Why?  Because it appears to be the destruction of their own individuality.  But this fear is unfounded and it stems from a basic misunderstanding of liberation.  Liberation, instead of being the destruction of the individual (the body-mind), is the destruction of self-ignorance. 

This means that while the body-mind persists after liberation, the belief that you are the body-mind is what is destroyed.  Granted, since you have identified with the body-mind your entire life, this may still seem unsettling.  But seeing as the body-mind is the seat of all suffering, both mental and physical, negating the notion that it is who you are should be a welcome change. 

Here is another way to look at it: the word “individuality” normally means to be an entity distinct from other entities and this is how people suffering from self-ignorance normally view themselves; they think they are one unique body-mind among many body-minds.  Self-knowledge does negate individuality in this sense.  But a word that is synonymous with “individuality” is “uniqueness,” which means to be “one of a kind.”  So even when self-knowledge destroys the idea that you are an individual body-mind, you still retain your individuality in the sense that as non-dual consciousness-existence—you are one of a kind because there is nothing other than you.  

The Process of Inquiry

If you have questions about this satsang, contact me HERE. 


Can you please explain the process of self-inquiry?  I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. 


The process of self-inquiry was first enumerated by Yajnavalkya to his wife Maitreyi in the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad:

The self, my dear Maitreyi should be realized—should be heard of, reflected on and meditated upon.  By the realization of the self, my dear, through hearing, reflection and meditation, all this is known.     BU II.iv.5 

 Later in the text, he repeats himself in a nearly identical verse:

The self, my dear Maitreyi should be realized—should be heard of, reflected on and meditated upon.  When the self, my dear, is realized by being heard of, reflected on and meditated upon, all this is known.     BU IV.v.6

 While Yajnavalkya makes it clear that steps of self-inquiry are hearing, reflecting and meditating, he doesn’t explain them.  For further details, let’s look at Shankara’s commentary on the previous verse, BU IV.v.6:

How is the self realized?  By being first heard of from the teacher and the scriptures, then reflected on, discussed through argument or reasoning—the hearing is from the scriptures (and the teachers) alone, the reflection through reasoning—and lastly meditated upon (lit. known), ascertained to be such and such and not otherwise.  What happens then?  All this (the mind, body and universe) is known to be nothing other than the self. 

Step One:  Listen to the scriptures being taught by a capable teacher.  The teacher is a must because there’s an underlying methodology to the scriptures that’s not obvious unless it’s pointed out to you.  Without understanding the methodology, the scriptures appear to be contradictory or even nonsensical.  If you don’t believe me, just pick up a copy of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and start reading. 

However, once you’ve been taught by a good teacher how to interpret the scriptures, you can then study them yourself.  The cool thing is that if your mind is properly prepared to understand what’s being taught, having the scriptures explained to you by a teacher is completely sufficient for removing ignorance regarding the true nature of your self.  If that happens, no independent study of the scriptures is required.  Granted, that’s the best case scenario, which is why the second step, reflecting on the teaching through reasoning, is often necessary.  But before moving on to the topic of reflection, let’s talk about the different ways to listen to the teaching.  It is, after all, the primary step.

The most obvious way to listen is to attend a class.  This option can be inspiring owing to the example of the teacher—assuming they live according to the teaching—and the company of other dedicated inquirers.  But to be clear, actually seeing the teacher or having fellowship with other students is by no means a mandatory prerequisite for self-knowledge, which is good because the live teaching of Vedanta isn’t widely available (at least outside of India).  Luckily, many teachers record their lectures and make them available to the public.  These lectures are easy to find online and the recordings are just as effective as being taught in person (having studied Vedanta both ways, I can attest to that).  Most of the time I actually prefer listening to a recording because I can rewind the parts I want to hear again and take notes.  Also, I’m able to more effectively control my surrounding environment, thereby reducing potential distractions.  However, if you’d still like to hear Vedanta live but you either can’t, or don’t want to physically attend the class, teachers such as Swamini Svatmavidyananda broadcast their teachings live on the internet.  As an added bonus, video recordings of the lectures are then made available afterwards for you to review.  It’s the best of both worlds (a link to Swamini Svatmavidyananda’s site is on the Links page).  

Despite the fact that the traditional way of listening to Vedanta is to literally hear a teacher giving a discourse, you can also expose yourself to the teaching through reading.  As I said, don’t simply go out and start reading the scriptures.  This won’t work.  Instead, find a book that is either an overview of Vedanta based on scripture, or find a translation of a scripture that includes a teacher’s commentary.  Good examples of Vedanta overviews based on scripture are Swami Dayananda’s Introduction to Vedanta or Ted Schmidt’s Self-Knowledge.  If you want a text that is both a scripture and a summary of Vedanta, Swami Dayananda’s Tattva Bodha is an excellent choice.  Here would be a great place to recommend my own Tattva Bodha commentary, but I’m currently in the process of revising it. 

Step Two:  Reflect on what you learned from the teacher and resolve your doubts through reasoning.  As I said above, the ideal situation is that you hear the teaching, understand it, and no further work is needed.  But usually doubts remain and reflection and reasoning are required to resolve them.  This can be done independently or if you need help, by asking the teacher or even one of your fellow inquirers.  Or doubts may simply be removed through further listening.    

Step Three:  The first two steps, listening and reflection, together form the means to gain self-knowledge—or more accurately, remove self-ignorance—and nothing else is required.  This begs the question that, if listening and reflection accomplish the primary goal of self-knowledge, what’s the purpose of the third step, meditation?

Here, it’s important to know that the word commonly translated as meditation in this text is nididhyasana in the original Sanskrit and nididhyasana is not necessarily a synonym to the meditation described in the Yoga Sutras (dhyana) or the meditation on the deities from other portions of the Vedic scriptures (upasana).  Similar to dhyana and upasana, nididhyasana is a form of concentration and contemplation.  However, unlike dhyana and upasana, whose respective aims are to stop the mind and contemplate deities, the goal of nididhyasana is to counteract emotionally disturbing thought patterns by assimilating the self-knowledge previously gained from listening to, and reflecting on, the scriptures.  This process of assimilation continues until it fully transforms the way you think about yourself, meaning until your thinking becomes completely harmonized with the implications of self-knowledge.    

Why is assimilation required to change your thinking if you already have self-knowledge?  Shouldn’t your thinking change automatically? No, because the mind is a creature of habit.  After a lifetime of thinking erroneous self-limiting thoughts, it takes a while for the mind to change its ways, even when it clearly understands that it is none other than the limitless self.  Here’s an illustration.  There is a homely adolescent girl, overweight, who wears awkward, thick glasses.  She is constantly teased and develops a negative, emotionally disturbing self-image, thinking herself to be inferior and unworthy.  However, as she grows up, she loses the weight and glasses and develops into a beautiful woman.  Despite the obvious fact that she is physically attractive and in the face of advances from potential suitors, owing to mental habits developed from childhood, she continues to view herself as undesirable and suffers needlessly. In other words, the knowledge of who she is—even though it is clear to see—and how she thinks about herself are not yet in alignment.  Only over time, through combatting negative untrue thoughts with positive true thoughts about who she really is, does she develop a healthy self-image.  (I’m not trying to say that being physically attractive is necessary for good self-esteem or that it determines someone’s worth.  This is just a metaphor). Similarly, once it is totally clear that you are the self and that by extension, you are full, complete and always okay, it takes time and continued application of self-knowledge for the mind to accept that this is true and to develop new and healthy thought patterns in alignment with this truth.  

The scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita say that a healthy and balanced mental state is the mark of a truly enlightened person.  However, is mental stability the actual goal of Vedanta?  No, self-knowledge is the goal, and self-knowledge clearly shows that you are not your mind and that the mind never affects you.  This is true liberation because the mind can never be perfectly and perpetually balanced.  Regardless of that fact, self-knowledge only applies in the realm of our everyday transactional world.  So even if you know you aren’t the mind, the mind continues to exist.  Therefore, if self-knowledge merely shows you that you are not your mind, but your mind continues to be plagued by fear, anger, sadness and attachment, self-knowledge has little value.  What good is self-knowledge if you—at least the apparent you—continue being miserable? If could be argued that it doesn’t matter because you aren’t the apparent you, but as I said, self-knowledge only applies to the apparent you so it might as well help the apparent you be happier.  Otherwise, what is the point?     

SUMMARY:  The two steps required for self-knowledge are listening (in whatever form you choose) to a teacher explain the scriptures and then reflecting on what you’ve heard until it’s absolutely clear and doubt-free.  Then, to change the way you think about yourself and to get rid of negative emotions caused by your previous self-ignorance, you meditate on the self-knowledge you’ve gained from listening and reflection until it is fully assimilated into your everyday thought-process.  Technically, since the first two steps give you self-knowledge, and self-knowledge shows you that you aren’t your mind, the third step of assimilation is optional, assuming you like how it feels when your mind is angry, fearful etc. 

That’s the process of self-inquiry.  Now hop to it!  And let me know if you need any further assistance.       

All my best – Vishnudeva

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