A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 13

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Vedic cosmology posits that creation is cyclical—the universe arises from consciousness-existence and eventually ‘dissolves’ back into consciousness-existence, lying dormant until the time comes for it to arise again.  This dissolution of the universe into consciousness-existence is called laya.  Another meaning of laya is “absorption,” which in relation to enlightenment pertains to the belief that a person attains freedom by merging their ‘relative self’ (the individual soul) into the ‘absolute self’ of consciousness-existence. 

But here in the four verses of Chapter Five, Ashtavakra offers a very different perspective on these traditional notions of laya.  He declares the universe doesn’t need to be physically dissolved into consciousness-existence because it naturally ‘dissolves’ into the consciousness-existence through the understanding that the universe is nothing other than consciousness-existence.  In the same way, the relative self does not have to be literally merged into the absolute self because the relative self—in its true nature as consciousness-existence—already is the absolute self.  And understanding that fact is freedom (enlightenment) because freedom is the nature of the absolute self.                     

Ashtavakra said:
5:1 – You are ever pure and untouched—what is there to renounce? [Knowing this] destroy the collection of matter known as the body-mind and attain dissolution.

The universe is an illusion that never affects you so only the belief that it’s real can be or need be renounced.  And by extension, nothing can be or need be destroyed or dissolved.  But figuratively speaking, by renouncing the belief that the universe is real, the body-mind is ‘destroyed’ through understanding and you attain ‘dissolution’ (freedom from the body-mind).               

5:2 – The universe arises from you like bubbles arising from the ocean. Having known yourself to be one alone, attain dissolution.

All of the objects that comprise the universe are nothing but you, consciousness-existence, in the same way that bubbles arising from the ocean are nothing but water.  Unlike bubbles that literally dissolve back into the water from which they came, the universe is ‘dissolved’ into you by understanding that is none other than yourself.      

5:3 – The universe that appears in you is like a snake being seen where there is only a rope—it is unreal. It does not exist in you who are ever-pure. [Knowing this] attain dissolution.

Just as an illusory snake is ‘dissolved’ upon realizing it is a rope, so the universe is ‘dissolved’ when it is known to be none other than you, the ever-pure self.   

5:4 – You are perfect and changeless in pleasure and pain, hope and despair, and life and death. [Knowing this] attain dissolution.

To escape the uncomfortable duality of pleasure and pain etc., some people may seek a literal dissolution of the universe.  But this isn’t necessary when you understand that duality is merely an appearance that never affects you.      

A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 12

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Ashtavakra said:
4:1 – The one who is steadfast in self-knowledge enjoys playing the game of life, unlike the deluded beasts of burden who are trapped in it.

An enlightened person can lead a regular life just like an unenlightened person.  But the difference is that an enlightened person’s understanding of life, and their relationship to it, stands in stark contrast to that of the unenlightened person.  Here the unenlightened person is unflatteringly—and I might add, disrespectfully—characterized as a beast of burden.  The beast of burden metaphor only applies insofar as the unenlightened person is ‘trapped’ by the belief that they are an individual body-mind.  And by extension they are ‘burdened’ by the weight of performing actions and reaping results in the world.  But the enlightened person who understands that they are the action-less self and that the body-mind and universe are unreal, can ‘play’ the game of life, never taking it too seriously and enjoying it for whatever it is worth. 

Ultimately, describing the behavior of an enlightened person is unproductive because an enlightened person knows that as consciousness-existence they are not, nor have they ever been, a person.  As such, whether the body-mind performs action as sport or under the delusion of being a doer and enjoyer never has, and never will, apply to them.      

4:2 – The yogi does not take pleasure in attaining steadfast self-knowledge even though the gods, wishing to attain that state, feel afflicted.   

The Vedic religion—in which Vedanta has its roots—asserts that you can become a god through religious rituals and strenuous discipline.  While this may sound alluring, the drawback is that once the merit of the deeds that earned you godhood is exhausted, you return to being a normal person.  Or worse, you drop down a couple of rungs on the evolutionary ladder and become an animal or a plant.  This is why Janaka says that even the gods, despite their exalted position, wish for something more i.e. self-knowledge.  

While I doubt these religious myths are literally true, they do point to something true—that anything acquired by action has a beginning and an end.  This means that accomplishing something, whether incredible like becoming a god, or mundane like getting hired for a new job, is never a permanent solution to the problem of suffering. 

Self-knowledge, however, is a permanent solution to the problem of suffering because it’s a matter of understanding rather than action—understanding that as the eternal, unchanging self you are never subject to suffering, whether you be a god, a man, a dog or a houseplant.    

4:3 – Knowing that (consciousness-existence), one is not touched by good or evil, just as the sky is not touched by smoke, even though it appears to be.

The empty space we refer to as the sky seems to be tainted when smoke appears in it.  But in reality, the space remains the same.  Similarly, consciousness-existence seems to be affected by the good and evil deeds of the body-mind.  But in truth, it is never affected because the body-mind and the actions it performs are illusory.  Knowing that, you are never touched by good or evil.           

4:4 – Who can prevent the wise one who knows the universe to be the self alone from acting spontaneously?

The wise one knows that as the self, they are action-less and free of the body-mind.  So from the absolute viewpoint, whether the actions of the body-mind are spontaneous or otherwise is irrelevant.  But from the empirical viewpoint, when one understands that the universe is really the changeless self they’re not obligated to act with a motivation in mind because they know that nothing can really be accomplished.     

4:5 – Out of all beings in the universe, the wise one alone is capable of renouncing desire and aversion.

The wise one doesn’t need to renounce anything because as the self, states of mind such as desire and aversion don’t apply to them.  But taking into account the body-mind from the empirical viewpoint, those with self-knowledge are better equipped than anyone else to renounce desire and aversion for two reasons. 1) They know that neither desirable nor undesirable objects are real and that there’s no reason to compulsively desire or avoid something unreal.  2) They know that as non-dual changeless consciousness-existence, a desirable object can’t add anything to them and an undesirable object can’t take anything away.   

4:6 – Rare is the one who knows the lord, the self, the one without a second.  That one feels no fear anywhere.   

When you know you’re one without a second, there’s nothing to fear because everything is yourself.  Alternately, there’s no reason for fear because anything feared is an object and all objects are unreal.  In the same way that no one needs to fear a dream object when, upon waking it’s seen to be unreal, no one needs to fear anything in the world when, upon self-realization it’s known to be an illusion. 

In this verse Janaka refers to the self as the lord (isvara) but then declares that the self is one without a second.  This shows that the title of “lord” is only figurative because the self could only be a lord in the literal sense if there were something other than itself to lord over. 

A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 11

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Janaka said:
3:9. The steadfast person who ever sees the self alone, is neither pleased nor angry, whether feasted or tormented. 

You can’t literally see the self because it isn’t an object of perception. So to “see the self” means to know that you are the self.  And as the self you are never affected by the states of the mind—in this way you are “neither pleased nor angry.”  But when you know you’re the self does that mean the mind is never pleased nor angry?  No.  It is impossible to have a mind completely devoid of emotion. 

It is arguably not even practical.  Can you imagine if you told your child or significant other “I love you” and they replied, “I feel nothing.  I am the self”?  Or if you informed someone of the death of a loved one and they simply stared at you blankly and said, “I don’t care.  I am the self and I don’t have emotions”?  That would be absurd. 

However, for the mind to be overly emotional about external circumstances is definitely not desirable because this can cause it a great deal of unnecessary suffering.  That’s why self-knowledge should help the mind put its emotions in perspective.  It clearly demonstrates that there’s no need for excessive attachment because everything is transient and unreal. 

Keeping that in mind, you can appreciate your external circumstances for what they’re worth, without having your sense of well-being or self-validation depend on them.  And when those circumstances inevitably change or take a turn for the worse, you can take it in stride, knowing that as consciousness-existence you are completely fine.  For instance, if a loved one dies, it is totally normal and healthy for the mind to experience sorrow.  But with the knowledge that all is consciousness-existence, the sorrow is ameliorated by the fact that as the self, no one is ever really born and no one ever really dies.         

3:10 – Witnessing the body acting as if it were another’s, how can the wise person be disturbed by praise or blame? 

Taking credit for a good or bad deed is the result of falsely identifying with the body-mind.  But when a wise person understands that they are consciousness-existence—ever actionless and free of the body-mind—the belief that they can be either praised or blamed for the actions of the body-mind is negated.  They simply witness the actions of ‘their’ body-mind as if they were observing the actions of another person’s body-mind.   

But it’s crucial to understand that non-responsibility for the actions of the body-mind only applies to consciousness-existence.  Non-responsibility never applies to the body-mind itselfAfter enlightenment the body-mind remains part of the illusory world and therefore the rules of the illusory world continue to apply to it.  So if the body-mind breaks those rules, consequences are sure to follow—this means that self-knowledge can never be used to justify improper behavior. 

3:11 – After realizing the universe is illusory, desire for it and curiosity about it goes away.  How can one of steady mind (firm self-knowledge) be afraid when death draws near? 

When the universe is seen to be an illusion, the basis for seeking satisfaction in it is negated because no satisfaction can be found in something unreal.  And there is no reason to be curious about the purpose of the universe because an entity that has no real existence can’t have a purpose, the same way a snake falsely seen where there is really a rope can’t have a purpose.  

Does knowing this justify nihilism?  No, because you’re free to find whatever relative meaning in the illusory world that you choose.  And it’s no problem that this relative meaning, being transient, offers no lasting comfort because you know that as consciousness-existence, you are the true ‘meaning’ of the universe insofar as you are its very essence—without you no relative meaning is even possible.             

Death is an unreal state that applies to an unreal body-mind.  And as consciousness-existence, the eternally self-existent reality, it’s not possible for you to die because you were never born.  For both reasons, there is no need to fear death.        

3:12 – What comparison can be made to the wise one content with self-knowledge, whose mind is free from desire even in disappointment?

As the self you are naturally free from the mind, so it’s ultimately irrelevant whether or not the mind has desires.  But from the relative viewpoint, when the mind truly assimilates the implications of self-knowledge—that at its essence, it’s none other than consciousness-existence—it can rest in the truth that everything is completely fine, even during the inevitable disappointing moments of life.  Nothing needs to be done or can be done to make everything okay, because everything is always okay.                

3:13 – Why should one of steady mind (firm self-knowledge), who knows that objects of perception do not really exist, consider one thing acceptable and another unacceptable?

There are two ways to look at this verse. 1) There is nothing to accept or reject because there is nothing other than the non-dual self to accept or reject and the self cannot be accepted or rejected because you are the self.  2) If an object of perception does not really exist, then its being acceptable or unacceptable is also illusory.    

Does this mean that a person with firm self-knowledge, who knows that nothing is actually acceptable or unacceptable, would just as soon drink a glass of cold muddy water as a cup of hot tea?  Or cause harm rather than give help?  No. They make choices like any other person, based on personal preference and accepted rules of conduct.  The difference is that they are not unduly disturbed by the outcome of those choices, whether acceptable or unacceptable, because they know that as the self, they are unaffected by both.          

3:14 – When experience arises naturally, it causes neither pleasure nor pain for the one who has given up interest in the world, who is free from desire and the pairs of opposites (the duality of experience).  

This verse is tricky because it mixes the empirical and absolute viewpoints.  “The one who has given up interest in the world” must be the empirical body-mind because you, consciousness-existence, have no interest in the world in the first place.  But the phrases “it (experience) causes neither pleasure nor pain” and “who is free from desire and the pairs of opposites” must be the self from the absolute viewpoint because the body-mind is always subject to desire and the opposites of pleasure and pain, which continue to arise “naturally” even after self-knowledge.  Regardless, a body-mind free of self-ignorance should become increasingly objective about its desires and dispassionate about the ups and downs (opposites) of life.     

A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 8

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Janaka said:
2:15 – Knowledge, knower and that which is known—these three do not exist in reality.  Through ignorance, they appear in me, the stainless (the self). 

At first Vedanta says that you, consciousness, are the knower and that all objects known to you—because they are transient—do not really exist.  So why is Janaka saying that the knower doesn’t exist?  Because knowing is also a transient object.  It may seem like Vedanta is contradicting itself but there is a good reason for the teaching to initially describe consciousness as the knower and that is to deny the idea that consciousness could be a known object.  Once that notion is refuted, the idea that you are the knower no longer has any purpose—so the teaching negates it.   

Student:  If my nature is consciousness, how can I not be the knower?  Consciousness is what knows. 

Teacher:  Knowing is an action.  But in Verse 1:12, Ashtavakra explicitly denies all action on the part of the self by calling it “action-less.”  So consciousness can’t be the knower.  At best you can say that consciousness makes knowing possible by ‘illuminating’ knowledge of an object and the knower of that knowledgeAnd it does this without any action on its part because as consciousness, its very nature is ‘luminous.’ 

But this is only a temporary explanation because, being non-dual, there is nothing other than consciousness for it to illuminate.  That’s why the verse says that knowledge, the knower and the known objects don’t exist.  They only seem to exist when the non-dual nature of consciousness is not known.               

2:16 – All misery is rooted in duality.  There is no other cure for it except the realization that all that is experienced is unreal.  I am one alone; I am of the essence of pure consciousness. 

The body-mind is where all suffering—both physical and mental—occurs.  Since the existence of the body-mind, and subsequent identification with it, is only possible owing to a belief in duality i.e. self-ignorance, duality is the root of all misery.  And the only cure for this misery is to understand that the body-mind is not real and that, despite any appearances to the contrary, you are non-dual pure consciousness. 

Now, when you come to this realization, does the body-mind suddenly disappear? No.  Does it stop suffering and experience unending peace and happiness?  Absolutely not.  The body-mind continues just as it did before.  The difference is that you know for certain that the problems of the body-mind are totally unreal and that they do not belong to you in any way whatsoever, similar to the way you understand that the problems of other people’s bodies and minds have nothing to do with you.    

2:17 – I am pure consciousness. I am conceived as limited only through ignorance.  Constantly reflecting on this truth, free from all doubt, I remain established in myself. 

Even when you have no doubt that you are limitless consciousness, habitual thoughts of limitation may continue to appear in the mind, causing negative emotions.  To combat those patterns of limiting thoughts, you simply need to remind yourself of what you know to be true.  In this way you remain ‘established’ in yourself, meaning you get the thinking of the mind in harmony with what you know to be true about yourself.       

2:18 – I am neither bound nor am I free.  Delusion, no longer having a support, has come to rest (ceased).  The universe, though appearing to exist in me, does not in reality exist.

Bondage is only an idea based on the delusion of identifying with the body-mind—in your true nature as consciousness-existence, you can never be bound.  This means, however, that you can also never be free for the simple reason that freedom is also just an idea, the idea of being released from imaginary bondage. 

This may seems like an unnecessary point to make but it isn’t because to say, “I am now free from bondage (ignorance)” is to admit that you were once bound by it, which is itself the product of ignorance!  Granted, it can be figuratively said that as non-dual consciousness-existence you are ‘free’ of the illusory body-mind.  But technically, since both bondage and freedom are purely dualistic concepts—and therefore unreal—you are never affected by either of them.        

2:19 – I have known for certain that there is no such thing as this body and this world.  There is only me (the self), pure consciousness.  [If this is so] on what can the imagination [of the body and world] now be based?

When you understand that everything is yourself, pure consciousness, there is no longer any possibility of imagining the body and world to be real.  The basis of this imagination, ignorance, is gone. 

2:20 – Body, fear, heaven and hell, bondage and freedom—all of these are fictional (imagined through self-ignorance).  What do they have to do with me, consciousness? 

If the body—and by extension, the mind—is imaginary, then there is no real reason to fear since fear always pertains to the state or circumstances of the body, whether it be ‘your’ body or someone else’s.  Regardless of whether the body is in a pleasant state or circumstance such as heaven or freedom, or in an unpleasant state or circumstance such as hell or bondage, it is of no concern to you, consciousness.  Since all of those states and circumstances are unreal, they have absolutely nothing to do with you. 

Now, does this mean that when you know that you’re consciousness-existence that the body-mind should abandon all conventions of the illusory world and step out into a busy street declaring, “There is nothing to fear!”?  Assuming the body-mind does not want to be maimed or killed, no.  Instead, it should conduct its everyday affairs just as it did before enlightenment, but with the understanding that all actions are illusory.  Knowing that, there is no need for undue concern about action and it can be performed for its own sake simply because it needs to be done.  And no matter what the outcome you can have peace of mind knowing that as consciousness-existence, you are always completely fine.

A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 6

This week, Janaka continues his statement of self-knowledge from PART 5.

Janaka said:
2:6 – Just as crystallized sugar is completely permeated by the sweetness of the sugarcane from which it is produced, so the universe produced in me is completely permeated by me. 

The true nature of something is that which is essential to its existence, something that, if taken away, the thing itself would cease to be.  For instance, if it were possible to remove heat from fire or wetness from water they would no longer exist, because heat and wetness are the essence of fire and water.

On the other hand, an incidental quality of something is that which can be removed or changed while the nature of the thing itself remains unchanged.  If the color of fire changes from red to blue, the fact that it’s hot does not. This means the color of the fire—as opposed to heat, its essential nature—is merely an incidental quality.  Similarly, the form of water can change from a wave, to mist to rain but the wetness of the water does not; the form of the water is an incidental quality while the wetness of the water is its true nature.   

That doesn’t mean an incidental quality is separate from the thing it is removed from.  The red, yellow or blue color of a flame is completely permeated by the heat of the fire from which it comes.  And there is no wave—from a ripple in a pond to a tsunami in the ocean—that is in any way separate from the wetness of the water from which it is comprised. Knowing this relationship between the essential nature of something and its incidental qualities, what Janaka says in this verse can be understood.  Just as crystallized sugar is permeated by sweetness, the essential nature of sugar cane, so the universe is pervaded by consciousness/existence, the essential nature of the self.  But unlike sugarcane, which undergoes a real transformation to become sugar—meaning after the sugar is produced, the sugarcane is gone—the self never transforms into objects.  It only appears to do so, in the same way that water appears to become a wave.

2:7 – The world appears because of self-ignorance and disappears owing to self-knowledge, just as a snake appears from non-cognition of a rope and disappears when the rope is recognized. 

You only see the world when you don’t understand that it’s the self, the same way that you only see a snake when you don’t realize it’s a rope.  And just as you can no longer see a snake when you become aware of the existence of the rope, you can no longer see the world when you have knowledge of the self.  However, the literal meaning of the word “see” only applies to the example of the snake and the rope, because seeing a snake where there is only a rope is a perceptual error that disappears when the rope is known.  But in the case of mistaking the self to be the world, even after you realize it is the self, the ‘snake’ of the world does not go away.  You continue to perceive and experience the world exactly the same way as someone who does not know they are the self; the only difference is that you no longer believe the world is real.          

2:8 – Light is my very nature and I am never other than that.  I alone shine, even when the universe appears. 

As previously mentioned (1:18), light is a metaphor for consciousness because it is the invariable factor in every experience that ‘illuminates’ all objects by making it possible for them to be known.  Nothing in the universe has the ability to ‘shine’ in this way, not even apparently luminous objects such as the sun.  Not even its light can ‘illumine’ anything—meaning make something known—without you, consciousness, being present. 

2:9 – The universe appears in me, conceived through ignorance, just as silver appears in mother of pearl, as a snake appears in a rope or water appears in the desert (as a mirage). 

As Janaka unequivocally states, the only reason the universe appears is ignorance.  Although it seen it never actually exists, just as silver, a snake or water, although seen, never exist in mother of pearl, a rope or a mirage.  From this fact it follows that there is no need to waste time trying to understand how or why the universe manifests because it never does.  It only seems to when you do not know that it is really just you, consciousness/existence. 

Even if that makes sense, you may be tempted to inquire into the nature of ignorance or perhaps to whom it belongs.  But this too is unproductive, because the nature of self-ignorance, to state the obvious, is not knowing you are the self.  And if you do not know you are the self, then the self-ignorance belongs to you.  At that point the only pertinent thing to do is to get rid of the ignorance, not sit around pondering what ignorance is. Luckily, Vedanta gives you the tools to do this.  Ironically, when inquiry guided by the logic of Vedanta removes ignorance, it clearly demonstrates that you, the self, were never ignorant in the first place; it only seemed that way when you thought you were the body-mind.       

2:10 – Just as a clay pot is dissolved into clay, a wave is dissolved into water and a gold bracelet is dissolved into gold, so the universe which has emanated from me will dissolve into me.

There are two ways in which a clay pot, a wave and a gold bracelet can be dissolved into clay, water and gold, respectively.  The first way is literal: the form of the clay pot, the wave or the gold bracelet are physically destroyed, leaving behind the clay, water or gold from which they are composed. The second way is figurative: the clay pot, wave or gold bracelet are ‘dissolved’ into clay, water or gold through understanding that a clay pot is nothing but clay, a wave is only water and a gold bracelet is none other than gold.  In the same way, the universe is ‘dissolved’ into you, consciousness/existence, by the knowledge that it is consciousness/existence alone. 

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