The true meaning of Jnana (Self-Knowledge) is revealed by Sage Vasistha, taken from the wonderful and highly authoritative traditional Advaita text, the Yoga Vasistha.
At Rama’s request, VASISTHA narrated the following story:
Once upon a time there was a king named Bhagiratha who was devoted to dharma. He gave liberal gifts to the pious and holy ones and he was terror to the evildoers. He worked tirelessly to eradicate the very causes of poverty. When he was in the company of the holy ones his heart melted in devotion.
Bhagiratha brought the holy river Ganga from the heavens down to the earth. In this he had to encounter great difficulties and propitiate the gods Brahma and Siva and also the sage Jahnu. In all this he suffered frequent frustrations and disappointments.
He, too, was endowed with discrimination and dispassion even at an early age, O Rama. One day while remaining alone he reflected thus: “This worldly life is really essenceless and stupid. Day and night chase each other. People repeat the same meaningless actions again and again. I regard only that as proper action which leads to the attainment beyond which there is nothing to be gained; the rest is repeated foul excretion (as in cholera).” He approached his guru Tritala and prayed, “Lord, how can one put an end to this sorrow and to old age, death and delusion which contribute to repeated birth here?”
Tom – here below the first teaching will be dispensed. The teaching says that suffering will end when the self is known. How to know the self? One has to abide as the Self for a long time:
TRITALA said: Sorrow ceases, all the bondages are rent asunder and doubts are dispelled when one is fully established in the equanimity of the self for a long time, when the perception of division has ceased and when there is the experience of fullness through the knowledge of that which is to be known. What is to be known? It is the self which is pure and which is of the nature of pure consciousness which is omnipresent and eternal.
BHAGIRATHA asked: I know that the self alone is real and the body, etc., are not real. But how is it that it is not perfectly clear to me?
Tom – how often we have heard the teaching, we have heard the words, we may know the theory, but still we do not know! Let us listen to Tritala’s response, in which he will tell us the true nature of Knolwedge and the means to it:
TRITALA said: Such intellectual knowledge is not knowledge! Unattachment to wife, son and house, equanimity in pleasure and pain, love of solitude, being firmly established in self-knowledge—this is knowledge, all else is ignorance! Only when the ego-sense is thinned out does this self-knowledge arise.
BHAGIRATHA asked: Since this ego-sense is firmly established in this body, how can it be uprooted?
TRITALA replied: By self-effort and by resolutely turning away from the pursuit of pleasure. And by the resolute breaking down of the prison-house of shame (false dignity), etc. If you abandon all this and remain firm, the ego-sense will vanish and you will realise that you are the supreme being!
VASISTHA continued: Having heard the teachings of his teacher, Bhagiratha decided to perform a religious rite as a prelude to total renunciation of the world. In three days he had given away everything to the priests and to his own relatives, whether they were endowed with good nature or not. His own kingdom he handed over to his enemies living across the borders. Clad in a small piece of loin-cloth, he left the kingdom and roamed in countries and forests where he was totally unknown.
Very soon, he had attained the state of supreme peace within himself. Accidentally and unknowingly Bhagiratha entered his own previous kingdom and solicited alms from the citizens there. They recognised him, worshipped him and prayed that he should be their king. But he accepted from them nothing but food. They bewailed, “This is king Bhagiratha, what a sad plight, what an unfortunate turn of events!” After a few days he left the kingdom again.
Tom – in the following paragraphs we will see some hints, in bold type, as to how life is for the apparently self-realised sage:
Bhagiratha once again met his teacher and the two of them roamed the country all the time engaged in spiritual dialogue: “Why do we still carry the burden of this physical body? On the other hand, why should it be discarded? Let it be as long as it will be!” They were devoid of sorrow and of rejoicing, nor could they be said to adhere to the middle path. Even if the gods and sages offered them wealth and psychic powers, they spurned them as blades of dry grass.
In a certain kingdom the king had died without an heir and the ministers were in search of a suitable ruler. Bhagiratha, clad in a loincloth, happened to be in that kingdom. The ministers decided that he was the person fit to ascend the throne, and surrounded him. Bhagiratha mounted the royal elephant. Soon he was crowned king.
While he was ruling that kingdom, the people of his previous kingdom approached him once again and prayed that he should rule that kingdom also. Bhagiratha accepted. Thus he became the emperor of the whole world. Remaining at peace within himself, with his mind silenced, free from desires and jealousy, he engaged himself in doing appropriate action in circumstances as they arose.
Once he heard that the only way to please the souls of his departed ancestors was to offer libation with the waters of the Ganga. In order to bring the heavenly Ganga down to earth, he repaired to the forest to perform austerities, having entrusted the empire to his ministers. There he propitiated the gods and the sages and achieved the most difficult task of bringing the Ganga down to earth so that all the people for all time to come might offer libations to their ancestors with the waters of the holy Ganga. It is only from that time that this sacred Ganga which adorned the crown of lord Siva’s head began to flow on the earth.
Tom – traditionally the river Ganges, here called the Ganga, its Sanskrit name, springs from the head of Lord Shiva. In the picture below we can see the out-shoot of water from the crown of his head which is the source of the Ganga:
VASISTHA continued: Even so, Rama, remain in a state of equanimity like king Bhagiratha. And, like Sikhidhvaja, having renounced everything, remain unmoved. I shall narrate to you the story of Sikhidhvaja. Pray, listen. Once there were two lovers who were reborn in a later age on account of their divine love for each other…[and so the wonderful Yoga Vasistha continues with its interweaving stories all explaining in different ways to paths to Realisation…]
In the text Kaivalya Navaneeta (The Cream of Liberation; a 16th century traditional advaita text that was often recommended by Sri Ramana Maharshi), four types of liberated sages are described starting at verse 94.
Understanding these descriptions can help explain and reconcile the different views of liberation one may come across, such as whether or not the body and world appear after liberation, what type of lifestyle a liberated sage would exhibit and whether or not they would experience any kind of afflictive or suffering-causing emotions at all. My comments are in italicised red:
94. The wise, remaining like ether and liberated even here, are of four classes, namely Brahmavid (i.e. a knower of Brahman), vara, varya, and varishta, in order of merit.
Tom: The four types of liberated sage are called Brahmavid, Vara, Varya and Varishta. First we will discuss the Brahmavid or or ‘knower or Brahman’ (Vidya is Sanskrit for knowledge). The phrase ‘remaining like ether’ refers to the previous verse 93 and means the wise sage abides as consciousness, fully liberated.
95. The Brahmavids who by steadfast practice have gained clear realization of Brahman, continue to perform even the hard duties of their caste and stage in life, exactly as prescribed by the shastras for the benefit of others, without themselves swerving from their supreme state.
96. Should passions rise up they disappear instantly and cannot taint the mind of the Brahmavids who live in society detached like water on a lotus leaf. They look ignorant, not showing forth their knowledge, and remain mute owing to intensity of inward Bliss.
Tom: the first type of liberated sage is called the Brahmavid. They continue to be fully engaged in society and the world whilst simultaneously being liberated. Occasionally afflictive emotions and passions arise but they are short lived and do not affect the Brahmavid. They may seem like an ordinary person with nothing particularly special about them, but they are often outwardly quiet.
97. Prarabdha, i.e., karma which is now bearing fruit, differs according to the actions in past incarnations. Therefore the present pursuits also differ among jnanis, who are all, however, liberated even here. They may perform holy tapas; or engage in trade and commerce; or rule a kingdom; or wander about as mendicants.
Tom: Prarabdha essentially refers to the destiny of the particular body mind based on its previous actions, ie. its karma . This verse states that the actions of the (body of the) jnani or sage (jnani literally means ‘knower’, ie. ‘knower of truth’ or ‘knower of Self’) varies depending on what the activities the body did prior to realisation. So the sage may, for example, perform holy penance, or engage in the world, or be a ruler, or a wandering monk. Basically there is no fixed description of what a sage would do in daily life in terms of their ‘occupation’.
98. They would not think of the past or future; would partake of what comes unsolicited; would not wonder, even if the sun turned into the moon, or at any other marvel, whether the sky were to spread its shoots down like a banyan tree or a corpse were to be revived; nor would they distinguish good and bad, for they always remain as the unchanging Witness of all.
Tom: the last point on the Brahmavid is that they are unaffected by whatever appears to happen, no matter how marvelous, calamitous or ridiculous. Why? Because they are liberated, ‘fixed’ as the Self, remaining as the ever-unchanging ‘Witness of all’.
Now let us look at the other three classes of Jnani or Liberated Sage:
99. Among the other three classes, the vara and the varya remain settled in samadhi. The vara feels concern for the maintenance of the body; the varya is reminded of it by others; the varishta never becomes aware of the body, either by himself or through others.
Tom: Here the vara and varya are both aware of the body at times whilst the fourth type of Jnani, the varishta, is not even ever aware of the body at all, even though others may perceive him as a body. The vara has a desire to maintain the body, whilst the varya occasionally becomes aware of their body if someone else prompts them.
So which of these types of liberation is best? Let us see…
100. Although there are distinguishing characteristics in the lives of the different Sages, who are themselves very rare in the world, yet there is absolutely no difference in the experience of Liberation. What can be the use of the hard-won samadhi? The Brahmavid, who is outwardly active, seems sometimes to feel the misery of calamities, whereas the others remain in unbroken Bliss.
Tom: Here it is made clear: all of these four types of sage are rare, and all are the same in that they are all fully liberated. They all in theirselves have the same essential experience of Liberation, the differences being only superficial and present from the point of view of other non-liberated people.
However a point is raised that is dealt with in the next verse. The Brahmavid may appear to suffer and stress like the unliberated, whereas the other three categories of liberated sage are lost in eternal Peace and Bliss. How can this be? How can the Brahmavid be said to be truly liberated?
101. Now if the Brahmavids live like the ignorant, how are they free from the cycle of births, and how is their ignorance gone? The all-pervading ether remains untainted by anything; the other four elements are tainted by contact with objects. So it is with the Brahmavid and the ignorant.
Tom: The answer given is that, as Consciousness, the Brahmavid remains unaffected and untouched by whatever seems to happen in the world of objects that we ordinarily call life.
Tom’s summary: So we can see there are various types of liberated sage that are all fully and totally liberated, but appear different to each other only from the point of view of ignorance or the ‘unliberated’. Some jnanis are active in the world and appear to stress and suffer, some are immersed in constant experiential bliss, some are totally unaware of their body or only aware of it to some degree, and others seem to have a need to look after their body. Some appear to be holy sages, other just ordinary mundane people int he world. However, all of this does not matter from the point of view of Liberation – Liberation is only One. Know Thy Self!
From Shankara’s Vivekachudamani:
170. In dreams, when there is no actual contact with the external world, the mind alone creates the whole universe consisting of the experiencer etc. Similarly in the waking state also; there is no difference. Therefore all this (phenomenal universe) is the projection of the mind.
171. In dreamless sleep, when the mind is reduced to its causal state, there exists nothing (for the person asleep), as is evident from universal experience. Hence man’s relative existence is simply the creation of his mind, and has no objective reality.
Swami Chinmayananda writes in the introduction to his commentary upon the Ashtavakra Gita of how in a way it is superior to the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and Bhagavad Gita (these are the Prasthana Traya or ‘Holy Trinity’ of scriptures in Advaita Vedanta) in communicating the nature of the Supreme Reality.
Note the final paragraph in which all concepts, including that of ‘Supreme Reality’ or ‘Brahman’ are also dissolved:
In communicating to the seekers the unsurpassing beauty and indefinable perfections of the Absolute, the Upanisads stammer; the Brahma sutras exhaust itself and the Bhagavat Gita hesitates with an excusable shyness. A theme, in dealing with which, even these mighty books of Hinduism are thus, at best, unsatisfactory; we must, in sheer gratitude, admire Astavakra Samhita for the brilliant success it has achieved in communicating, through words, perhaps, more clearly the nature and glory of the Supreme Reality, than by the Prasthana Traya.
The student of this Samhita is himself giving the autobio-data of the liberated in life. We have here in this book a revealing autobiography of the Saint, the Liberated-in-life in King Janaka.
Beyond all assertions and denial, beyond the concepts of bondage and liberation, lies this Realm of the Self, wherein there is neither the individual-ego(jiva), nor is there even the Supreme-Reality (Brahman)!
The above was written by Swami Chinmayananda, taken from his introduction to the Ashtavakra Gita
This image is taken from a story in the Mahabharata and represents the situation we are in if we are ignorant.
Our past deeds (elephant) are chasing us, our future karma (snakes) and eventual death (snakes) awaits us, the present moment (the branch) is being eaten away by mice – our time is slowly running out as days (white mouse) and nights (black mouse) pass by.
Meanwhile Vishnu holds out his saving hand of Moksha (liberation) to us but we are too entranced by the honey (pleasure) dripping from Maya (honeycomb) that we endure the pains of life (bees stinging us) and we stay in this ridiculous and precarious situation rather than take Vishnu’s hand of Moksha.
[Aparoksha = direct; Anubhuti = experience]
By Adi Sankaracharya (788-82 CE)
Translated by Swami Vimuktananda, this version edited by Tom Das
Swami Vimuktananda: Shankara discusses the identity of the individual Self and the universal Self through the direct experience of the highest Truth.
Tom: the original text has no subheadings – I have added these. My brief comments and annotations are in square brackets. I have added bold type for emphasis of what I feel are key points. Occasionally I have removed some verses or I have changed the order of some verses where I have felt this makes sense thematically. I hope these additions are of benefit for sincere seekers of liberation.
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti
- I bow down to Him – to Sri Hari (the destroyer of ignorance), the Supreme Bliss, the First Teacher, Ishwara, the All-pervading One and the Cause of all Lokas (the universe).
- Herein is expounded (the means of attaining to) Aparokshanubhuti (Self-Realization) for the acquisition of final liberation. Only the pure in heart should constantly and with all effort meditate upon the truth herein taught.
FOUR PRELIMINARY QUALIFICATIONS
[Q. Who is ‘pure in heart’?
A: He who has the 4 qualifications listed below
Q: How to become ‘pure in heart’?
A: Devotion to God, renunciation and karma yoga as per verse 3]
- The four preliminary qualifications (the means to the attainment of knowledge), such as Vairagya (dispassion) and the like, are acquired by men by propitiating [gaining favour of] Hari (the Lord), through austerities and the performance of duties pertaining to their social order and stage in life.
- The indifference with which one treats the excreta of a crow – such an indifference to all objects of enjoyment from the realm of Brahma to this world (in view of their perishable nature), is verily called pure  Vairagya.
- Atman (the seer) in itself is alone permanent, the seen is opposed to it (ie., transient) – such a settled conviction is truly known as  discrimination [Viveka].
[ The 6 treasures]
- Abandonment of desires at all times is called [3i] Shama and restraint of the external functions of the organs is called [3ii] Dama.
- Turning away completely from all sense-objects is the height of [3iii] Uparati, and patient endurance of all sorrow or pain is known as [3iv] Titiksha which is conducive to happiness.
- Implicit faith in the words of the Vedas and the teachers (who interpret them) is known as (3v) Shraddha, and concentration of the mind on the only object Sat (i.e., Brahman) is regarded as [3vi] Samadhana.
- When and how shall I, O Lord, be free from the bonds of this world (i.e., births and deaths) – such a burning desire is called  Mumukshuta.
- Only that person who is in possession of the said qualification (as means to Knowledge) should constantly reflect with a view to attaining Knowledge, desiring his own good.
- Knowledge is not brought about by any other means than Vichara [inquiry], just as an object is nowhere perceived (seen) without the help of light.
- Who am I ? How is this (world) created ? Who is its creator ? Of what material is this (world) made ? This is the way of that Vichara (enquiry).
[Answer – what I am not, neti-neti, via negativa]
- I am neither the body, a combination of the (five) elements (of matter), nor am I an aggregate of the senses; I am something different from these. This is the way of that Vichara.
[The philosophical paradigm: all phenomena is a creation of thoughts/ignorance:]
- Everything is produced by ignorance, and dissolves in the wake of Knowledge. The various thoughts must be the creator. Such is this Vichara.
[All is Brahman, what I am, via positiva]
- The material (cause) of these two (i.e., ignorance and thought) is the One (without a second), subtle (not apprehended by the senses) and unchanging Sat (Existence), just as the earth is the material (cause) of the pot and the like. This is the way of that Vichara.
[What I am – I am Brahman]
- As I am also the One, the Subtle, the Knower, the Witness, the Ever-Existent, and the Unchanging, so there is no doubt that I am “That” (i.e., Brahman). Such is this enquiry.
ATMAN (The Self)
- Atman is verily one and without parts, whereas the body consists of many parts; and yet the people see (confound) these two as one ! What else can be called ignorance but this? [repeating refrain]
- Atman is all consciousness and holy, the body is all flesh and impure; and yet, etc.,
- Atman is the (supreme) Illuminator and purity itself; the body is said to be of the nature of darkness; and yet, etc.,
- Atman is eternal, since it is Existence itself; the body is transient, as it is non-existence in essence; and yet etc.,
- How strange is it that a person ignorantly rests contented with the idea that he is the body, while he knows it as something belonging to him (and therefore apart from him) even as a person who sees a pot (knows it as apart from him) !
I AM BRAHMAN
- I am verily Brahman, being equanimous, quiescent, and by nature absolute Existence, Knowledge, and Bliss. I am not the body which is non-existence itself. This is called true Knowledge by the wise. [repeating refrain]
- I am without any change, without any form, free from all blemish and decay. I am not, etc.,
- I am not subjected to any disease, I am beyond all comprehension, free from all alternatives and all-pervading. I am not, etc.,
- I am without any attribute or activity, I am eternal, ever free, and imperishable. I am not, etc.,
- I am free from all impurity, I am immovable, unlimited, holy, undecaying, and immortal. I am not, etc.,
- O you ignorant one ! Why do you assert the blissful, ever-existent Atman, which resides in your own body [ie. is your essence] and is (evidently) different from it, which is known as Purusha [The Person] and is established (by the Shruti as identical with Brahman), to be absolutely non-existent?
[ie. Why do you say ‘There is no Atman/Self’?]
- O you ignorant one ! Try to know, with the help of  Shruti and  reasoning, your own Self, Purusha, which is different from the body, (not a void but) the very form of existence, and very difficult for persons like you to realize.
[This will be explained below]
- The Supreme (Purusha) known as “I” (ego) is but one, whereas the gross bodies are many. So how can this body be Purusha?
- “I” (ego) is well established as the subject of perception whereas the body is the object. This is learnt from the fact that when we speak of the body we say, “This is mine.” So how can this body be Purusha?
- It is a fact of direct experience that the “I” (Atman) is without any change, whereas the body is always undergoing changes. So how can this body be Purusha?
- Even the subtle body [ie. mind] consists of many parts and is unstable. It is also an object of perception, is changeable, limited and non-existent by nature. So how can this be the Purusha?
- The immutable Atman, the substratum of the ego, is thus different from these two bodies [ie. gross and subtle bodies], and is the Purusha, the Ishwara (the Lord of all), the Self of all; It is present in every form and yet transcends them all.
[Shruti literally means ‘heard’ or ‘that which is heard’, and refers to revealed scripture, the highest form of scripture in Vedic tradition, and the examples are the Vedas and Upanishads. Traditionally Shruti is not of human origin but of Divine origin, as opposed to Smriti or ‘remembered’, which comes from the minds of human beings. This text, not being the Vedas or Upanishads would be considered to be Smriti. Most epics such as Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita are all Smriti scriptures]
- Wise men have ascertained the (real) nature of Purusha from that Shruti text, “(There is nothing) higher than He (Purusha),” etc. So how can this body be Purusha ?
- Again the Shruti has declared in the Purusha Sukta that “All this is verily the Purusha”. So how can this body be Purusha ?
- So also it is said in Brihadaranyaka that “The Purusha is completely unattached”. How can this body wherein inhere innumerable impurities be the Purusha ?
- There again it is clearly stated that “the Purusha is self-illumined”. So how can the body which is inert (insentient) and illumined by an external agent be the Purusha ?
- Moreover, the Karma-kanda also declares that the Atman is different from the body and permanent, as it endures even after the fall of the body and reaps the fruits of actions (done in this life).
- The Shruti in the form of the Brihadaranyaka has declared that this Atman, which is the Self of all, is verily Brahman.
[So far we have discerned the difference between Self and Not-Self (ie. the phenomenal world including the body and mind). Now we see this too is an artificial duality and now the focus is on Advaita, or non-duality:]
- Thus the view that the body is the Atman has been denounced by the enunciation of the difference between the Atman and the body. Now is clearly stated the unreality of the difference between the two.
- No division in Consciousness is admissible at any time as it is always one and the same. Even the individuality of the Jiva must be known as false, like the delusion of a snake in a rope.
- As through the ignorance of the real nature of the rope the very rope appears in an instant as a snake, so also does pure Consciousness appear in the form of the phenomenal universe without undergoing any change.
- There exists no other material cause of this phenomenal universe except Brahman. Hence this whole universe is but Brahman and nothing else.
- From such declaration (of the Shruti) as “All this is Atman”, it follows that the idea of the pervaded and the pervading is illusory. This supreme truth being realized, where is the room for any distinction between the cause and the effect?
[The Mahavakya or great saying ‘Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma’ or ‘All this is Brahman’ is taken from the Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1]
- Certainly the Shruti has directly denied manifoldness in Brahman. The non-dual cause being an established fact, how could the phenomenal universe be different from It ?
- Moreover, the Shruti has condemned (the belief in variety) in the words, “The person who”, being deceived by Maya, “sees variety in this (Brahman), goes from death to death”.
- Inasmuch as all beings are born of Brahman, the supreme Atman, they must be understood to be verily Brahman.
- The Shruti has clearly declared that Brahman alone is the substratum of all varieties of names, forms and actions.
- Just as a thing made of gold ever has the nature of gold, so also a being born of Brahman has always the nature of Brahman.
- Just as a jar is all earth, so also is the body all consciousness. The division, therefore, into the Self and non-Self is made by the ignorant to no purpose.
- Fear is attributed to the ignorant one who rests after making even the slightest distinction between the Jivatman and the Paramatman.
[ie. duality causes fear]
- When duality appears through ignorance, one sees another; but when everything becomes identified with the Atman, one does not perceive another even in the least.
- In that state when one realizes all as identified with the Atman, there arises neither delusion nor sorrow, in consequence of the absence of duality.
[ie. lack of duailty, or nonduality, removes suffering]
THE THREE STATES
[ie. The 3 states change, they come and go, and so are without any enduring essence, as opposed to Atman]
- This world, though an object of our daily experience and serving all practical purposes, is, like the dream world, of the nature of non-existence, inasmuch as it is contradicted the next moment.
- The dream (experience) is unreal in waking, whereas the waking (experience) is absent in dream. Both, however, are non-existent in deep sleep which, again, is not experienced in either.
- Thus all the three states are unreal inasmuch as they are the creation of the three Gunas [ie. tamas, rajas, sattva]; but their witness (the reality behind them) is, beyond all Gunas, eternal, one, and is Consciousness itself.
[The illusion of duality: the illusion of the individual person or Jiva, the illusion of the manifold universe]
- Just as (after the illusion has gone) one is no more deluded to see a jar in earth or silver [irridescence] in the nacre [mother of pearl], so does one no more see Jiva in Brahman when the latter is realized (as one’s own self).
- Just as earth is described as a jar, gold as an ear-ring, and a nacre as silver, so is Brahman described as Jiva.
- Just as blueness in the sky, water in the mirage, and a human figure in a post (are but illusory), so is the universe in Atman.
- Just as the appearance of a ghost in an empty place, of a castle in the air, and of a second moon in the sky (is illusory), so is the appearance of the universe in Brahman.
- Just as it is water that appears as ripples and waves, or again it is copper, that appears in the form of vessel so it is Atman that appears as the whole universe.
- Just as it is earth that appears under the name of a jar, or it is threads that appear under the name of a cloth, so it is Atman that appears under the name of the universe. This Atman is to be known by negating the names.
- Just as there ever exist the relation of cause and effect between earth and a jar, so does the same relation exist between Brahman and the phenomenal world; this has been established here on the strength of scriptural texts and reasoning.
METAPHORS FOR ILLUSION
(YOU ARE NOT THE BODY!)
[Note: If I think I am the body, then this is taking the Self (myself) to be the body]
- Just as a rope is imagined to be a snake and a nacre to be a piece of silver, so is the Atman determined to be the body by an ignorant person. [repeating refrain]
- Just as earth is thought of as a jar (made of it) and threads as a cloth, so is Atman, etc.,
- Just as gold is thought of as an ear-ring and water as waves, so is the Atman, etc.,
- Just as the stump of a tree is mistaken for a human figure and a mirage for water, so is the Atman, etc.,
- Just as a mass of wood work is thought of as a house and iron as a sword, so is the Atman, etc.,
- Just as one sees the illusion of a tree on account of water, so does a person on account of ignorance see Atman as the body.
- Just as to a person going in a boat everything appears to be in motion, so does one, etc.,
- Just as to a person suffering from a defect (jaundice) white things appear as yellow, so does one, etc.,
- Just as to a person with defective eyes everything appears to be defective, so does one, etc.,
- Just as a firebrand, through mere rotation, appears circular like the sun, so does one, etc.,
- Just as all things that are really large appear to be very small owing to great distance, so does one, etc.,
- Just as all objects that are very small appear to be large when viewed through lenses, so does one, etc.,
- Just as a surface of glass is mistaken for water, or vice versa, so does one, etc.,
- Just as a person imagines a jewel in fire or vice versa, so does one, etc.,
- Just as when clouds move, the moon appears to be in motion, so does one, etc.,
- Just as a person through confusion loses all distinction between the different points of the compass, so does one, etc.,
- Just as the moon (when reflected) in water appears to one as unsteady, so does one, etc.,
THE END OF IGNORANCE
- Thus, through ignorance, arises in Atman the delusion of the body, which, again, through Self-realization, disappears in the supreme Atman.
- When the whole universe, movable and immovable, is known to be Atman, and thus the existence of everything else is negated, where is then any room to say that the body is Atman?
- O enlightened one, pass your time always contemplating on Atman while you are experiencing all the results of Prarabdha [Fate or destiny]; for it ill becomes you to feel distressed.
- The theory one hears of from the scripture, that Prarabdha does not lose its hold upon one even after the origination of the knowledge of Atman, is now being refuted.
- After the origination of the knowledge of Reality, Prarabdha verily ceases to exist, inasmuch as the body and the like become non-existent; just as a dream does not exist on waking.
- Just as the body in a dream is superimposed (and therefore illusory), so is also this body. How could there be any birth of the superimposed (body), and in the absence of birth (of the body) where is the room for that (i.e., Prarabdha) at all ?
- The Vedanta texts declare ignorance to be verily the material (cause) of the phenomenal world just as earth is of a jar. That (ignorance) being destroyed, where can the universe subsist ?
- Just as a person out of confusion perceives only the snake leaving aside the rope, so does an ignorant person see only the phenomenal world without knowing the reality.
- The real nature of the rope being known, the appearance of the snake no longer persists; so the substratum being known, the phenomenal world disappears completely.
- The body also being within the phenomenal world (and therefore unreal), how could Prarabdha exist ? It is, therefore, for the understanding of the ignorant alone that the Shruti speaks of Prarabdha.
- “And all the actions [Karmas] of a man perish when he realizes that (Atman) which is both the higher and the lower”. Here the clear use of the plural by the Shruti is to negate Prarabdha as well.
- If the ignorant still arbitrarily maintain this, they will not only involve themselves into two absurdities but will also run the risk of forgoing the Vedantic conclusion. So one should accept those Shrutis alone from which proceeds true knowledge.
FIFTEEN STEPS TO MEDITATION & LIBERATION
- Now, for the attainment of the aforesaid (knowledge), I shall expound the fifteen steps by the help of which one should practice profound meditation at all times.
[The need for practice]
- The Atman that is absolute existence and knowledge cannot be realized without constant practice. So one seeking after knowledge should long meditate upon Brahman for the attainment of the desired goal.
102-103. The steps, in order, are described as follows: the control of the senses, the control of the mind, renunciation, silence, space, time, posture [asana], the restraining root (Mulabandha), the equipoise of the body, the firmness of vision, the control of the vital forces, the withdrawal of the mind, concentration, self-contemplation and complete absorption.
[These above stages are similar to and include the classical 8 stages of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga. Shankara will redefine these steps in the next few verses giving them a non-dual spin]
- The restraint of all the senses by means of such knowledge as “All this is Brahman” is rightly called Yama, which should be practiced again and again.
[Yama or self-control is usually defined as being ethical, truthful, not stealing, etc]
- The continuous flow of only one kind of thought to the exclusion of all other thoughts, is called Niyama [discipline], which is verily the supreme bliss and is regularly practiced by the wise.
[The one kind of thought are those of the Mahavakyas such as ‘I am Brahman’, etc]
[Niyama, or discipline usually includes virtuous habits to externally and inwardly cleanse the body and mind respectively]
- The abandonment of the illusory universe by realizing it as the all-conscious Atman is the real renunciation honored by the great, since it is of the nature of immediate liberation.
[as in verse 104, the underlying method utilised is the realisation that ‘All is Brahman-Atman’. The emphasis is on a shift of perspective rather than just taking yourself to be the body-mind and renouncing objects from that ignorant perspective]
- The wise should always be one with that Silence wherefrom words together with the mind turn back without reaching it, but which is attainable by the Yogins.
[The Silence refers to the Self, Atman/Brahman, which is what we are. ‘Mind turns back without reaching it’ refers to Taittiriya Upanishad II.9]
108-109. Who can describe That (i.e., Brahman) whence words turn away ? (So silence is inevitable while describing Brahman). Or if the phenomenal world were to be described, even that is beyond words. This, to give an alternate definition, may also be termed silence known among the sages as congenital. The observance of silence by restraining speech, on the other hand, is ordained by the teachers of Brahman for the ignorant.
[True Silence is Self-Knowledge and not mere cessation of speech]
- That solitude is known as space, wherein the universe does not exist in the beginning, end or middle, but whereby it is pervaded at all times.
[True solitude is Self-Knowledge, in which there is only One without a Second, the implication is that solitude is not the mere retiring to a forest in seclusion]
- The non-dual (Brahman) that is bliss indivisible is denoted by the word ‘time’, since it brings into existence, in the twinkling of an eye all beings from Brahman downwards.
- One should known that as real posture in which the meditation on Brahman flows spontaneously and unceasingly, and not any other that destroys one’s happiness.
[Shankara’s humour that the true Yogic asana/posture are not mere contortions of body that ‘destroy one’s happiness’ but meditation upon Brahman]
- That which is well known as the origin of all beings and the support of the whole universe, which is immutable and in which the enlightened are completely merged … that alone is known as Siddhasana [a seated meditation pose] (eternal Brahman).
- That (Brahman) which is the root of all existence and on which the restraint of the mind is based is called the restraining root (Mulabandha) which should always be adopted since it is fit for Raja-yogins.
- Absorption in the uniform Brahman should be known as the equipoise of the limbs (Dehasamya). Otherwise mere straightening of the body like that of a dried-up tree is no equipoise.
- Converting the ordinary vision into one of knowledge one should view the world as Brahman itself. That is the noblest vision, and not that which is directed to the tip of the nose.
- Or, one should direct one’s vision to That alone where all distinction of the seer, sight, and the seen ceases and not to the tip of the nose.
- The restraint of all modifications of the mind by regarding all mental states like the Chitta as Brahman alone, is called Pranayama.
119-120. The negation of the phenomenal world is known as Rechaka (breathing out), the thought, “I am verily Brahman”, is called Puraka (breathing in), and the steadiness of that thought thereafter is called Kumbhaka (restraining the breath). This is the real course of Pranayama for the enlightened, whereas the ignorant only torture the nose [more humour from Shankara here].
- The absorption of the mind in the Supreme Consciousness by realizing Atman in all objects is known as Pratyahara (withdrawal of the mind) which should be practiced by the seekers after liberation.
- The steadiness of the mind through realization of Brahman wherever the mind goes, is known as the supreme Dharana (concentration).
- Remaining independent of everything as a result of the unassailable thought, “I am verily Brahman”, is well known by the word Dhyana (meditation), and is productive of supreme bliss.
- The complete forgetfulness of all thought by first making it changeless and then identifying it with Brahman is called Samadhi known also as knowledge.
[The method is to make thought changeless, which means to only have one thought such as ‘I am Brahman’ as per verses 119 and 123, and then to realise this thought as nothing else but Brahman or Atman (self), and then forget all thought. Shankara equates this Samadhi with Knowledge]
THE FRUIT OF PRACTICE
- The aspirant should carefully practice this (meditation) that reveals his natural bliss until, being under his full control, it arises spontaneously, in an instant when called into action.
- Then he, the best among Yogis having attained to perfection, becomes free from all practices. The real nature of such a man never becomes an object of the mind or speech.
127-128. While practicing Samadhi there appear unavoidably many obstacles, such as lack of inquiry, idleness, desire for sense-pleasure, sleep, dullness, distraction, tasting of joy, and the sense of blankness. One desiring the knowledge of Brahman should slowly get rid of such innumerable obstacles.
ENCOURAGEMENT AND A WARNING
- While thinking of an object the mind verily identifies itself with that, and while thinking of a void it really becomes blank, whereas by the thought of Brahman it attains to perfection. So one should constantly think of (Brahman to attain) perfection.
- Those who give up this supremely purifying thought of Brahman, live in vain and are on the same level with beasts.
- Blessed indeed are those virtuous persons who at first have this consciousness of Brahman and then develop it more and more. They are respected everywhere.
[Against the intellectual approach:]
- Only those in whom this consciousness (of Brahman) being ever present grows into maturity, attain to the state of ever-existent Brahman; and not others who merely deal with words.
- Also those persons who are only clever in discussing about Brahman but have no realization, and are very much attached to worldly pleasures, are born and die again and again in consequence of their ignorance.
- The aspirants after Brahman should not remain a single moment without the thought of Brahman, just like Brahma, Sanaka, Suka and others.
ANALYSIS OF ‘CAUSE’ AND ‘EFFECT’
- The nature of the cause inheres in the effect and not vice versa; so through reasoning it is found that in the absence of the effect, the cause, as such also disappears.
[Cause and effect refers to karma and the phenomenal world. When this world is removed, only Brahman remains:]
- Then that pure reality (Brahman) which is beyond speech alone remains. This should be understood again and again verily through the illustration of earth and the pot.
[ie. When the pot is destroyed, the earth from which it is made remains]
- In this way alone there arises in the pure-minded a state of awareness (of Brahman), which is afterwards merged into Brahman.
- One should first look for the cause by the negative method and then find it by the positive method, as ever inherent in the effect.
[Here the cause is Brahman and the effect is the world, ie. by removing all objects from perception through meditation (negative method 1) or by negating all objects of perception as being not-self (negative method 2) the Self should be discovered, but then the Self should be seen being in All Objects (positive method)]
- One should verily see the cause in the effect, and then dismiss the effect altogether. What then remains, the sage himself becomes.
- A person who meditates upon a thing with great assiduity and firm conviction, becomes that very thing. This may be understood from the illustration of the wasp and the worm.
UNITY OF FORMLESS AND FORM
- The wise should always think with great care of the invisible, the visible, and everything else, as his own Self which is consciousness itself.
- Having reduced the visible [objects of perception] to the invisible [formless Brahman], the wise should think of the universe as one with Brahman. Thus alone will he abide in eternal felicity with mind full of consciousness and bliss.
- Thus has been described Raja-Yoga consisting of these steps (mentioned above). With this is to be combined Hatha-Yoga for (the benefit of) those whose worldly desires are partially attenuated.
[The above described Raja Yoga is purely mental, having been stripped of the more external practices. Therefore for those whose minds have not been purified, the external and physical aspects of yoga, denoted here as Hatha Yoga, should also be performed]
- For those whose mind is completely purified this (Raja-Yoga) alone is productive of perfection. Purity of the mind, again, is speedily accessible to those who are devoted to the teacher and the Deity.
[Devotion to and faith in Guru and God are recommended methods of purification of mind. When the mind is sufficiently pure, then Shankara’s form of Raja Yoga on the mental levels alone leads directly to liberation]
Perhaps the most important single text that traditionally outlines the Jnana Marga (Path of Knowledge) is Shankara’s Vivekachudamani. This text has been used for centuries as a step by step manual to take one from (apparent) ignorance to Moksha (liberation) in which there is no suffering and it has been recommended by all the great Advaita sages including Sri Ramana Maharshi.
There are many gems littered throughout the text, and here is one of them which you may have missed:
160. The stupid man thinks he is the body, the book-learned man identifies himself with the mixture of body and soul, while the sage possessed of realisation due to discrimination looks upon the eternal Atman as his Self, and thinks, “I am Brahman”.
In verse 160 Shankara tells us that the one who is book-learned in Vedanta considers himself to be a mix of ‘body and soul’. In doing so, the one with mere book-learning still retains identification with the body, and so remains in ignorance and continues to suffer. In verse 162 Shankara, as is characteristic of the writing in Vivekachudamani, repeats his point and elaborates on it to make the meaning clear and beyond doubt:
162. As long as the book-learned man does not give up his mistaken identification with the body, organs, etc., which are unreal, there is no talk of emancipation for him, even if he be ever so erudite in the Vedanta philosophy.
There are many who know the scriptures, know the teachings, but still identify with the body in some way. These verses are a warning against this view. Shankara concludes this small section as follows, dispensing his sagely advice:
163. Just as thou dost not identify thyself with the shadow-body, the image-body, the dream-body, or the body thou hast in the imaginations of thy heart, cease thou to do likewise with the living body also.
164. Identifications with the body alone is the root that produces the misery of birth etc, of people who are attached to the unreal; therefore destroy thou this with the utmost care. When this identification caused by the mind is given up, there is no more chance for rebirth [ie. liberation is attained].
So don’t take yourself to be the body, just as you do not take your shadow to be yourself, do not take your body to be your-Self. Also, do not take yourself to be both the body and something else and in doing so retain a sense of limitation. You are That alone, you are the Self.
You are That alone,
You are the Self.
Tom is the only one [teacher] I’ve seen who doesn’t come from his point of view, he always comes directly from the silence and meets the seeker exactly where they’re at. If they need a practice, he has it, if they already have one but are stuck he knows how to move them, if they’re just beginning he knows how to guide them…it’s wonderful to see.
To arrange a 1 to 1 session with me please contact me via the contact page.
I offer 1 to 1 sessions either in person or via zoom. These sessions can be a wonderful way of clearing apparent blocks and confusion and can provide a much needed short-cut on your spiritual journey.
I meet you wherever you are in your journey and guide you from there – whether you’re completely new to this or are a seasoned seeker, whether you want to focus purely on non-duality or instead want to heal emotional issues, deal with practical aspects of life or explore relationship issues.
Even if you don’t have a specific question or issue in mind, I often find I can intuitively feel where you are and advise you accordingly.
Here are just some of the many things I have helped guide those who have approached me:
- Total Freedom – right here, right now!
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- a sense of isolation or loneliness
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- other more specific issues such as psychic and energetic experiences.
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Tom is the easiest person to talk to and he gave me the support I needed.
Tom’s teaching is unique. His guidance is a non-dual lighthouse emitting a bright light-beam across life’s turbulent expanse to steer the seeker from crashing on the rocks of ignorance, misunderstanding and delusion, to reach the shore of Timeless Being.
His gift is discerning where the individual seeker is at and what is required specifically for that ‘individual’ to support them in their thirst for freedom from suffering. His maturity, as a guide, is evident in how he can appreciate the wisdom teachings, the ‘treasure in the field’, in traditions not generally associated with non-duality.
This breadth of understanding sets him apart from the smorgasbord of spiritual snake-oil merchants, pedlars, ‘evangelical’ non-dual purists and genuine teachers which, in practical terms, allows a welcoming and genuine spirit of inclusivity for anyone attending his satsangs.
I find Tom’s teachings clearer, simpler, and less encumbered by BS than just about anyone out there whom I have encountered. I’ve had teachers from Alan Watts to Adi Da, to Andrew Cohen, and others. Tom has the least ‘baggage’ I think…
Your words always affect me like a clear, clean breath of fresh air in the midst of what is often a lot of misconception and gobbledygook about what there is to ‘attain’ and all the rest of it.
I chanced upon Tom’s website at a very interesting time in my journey. I had studied traditional Vedanta for many years. I had some good understanding about the concepts and was doing some serious self inquiry or Atma Vichara. That’s when I started tying myself into all sorts of knots. I wasted a lot of time confused by concepts and was in a very frustrated place until I spoke to Tom.
I believe things happen for a reason and you meet the right people at the right time in the journey. Within a couple of sessions, Tom was able to help me unravel some of these knots. As the layers started peeling off and more layers and depth opened up the journey started taking a different shape. Throughout this, Tom was able to ask just the right question and clarified many concepts that would have otherwise taken a life of their own.
I found his teaching style refreshingly down to earth and humble and since he was able to speak from his direct experience, it made everything so real and relatable.
In the traditional path of Knowledge or Jnana, first we are to know our True Self (Atman) and know this to be the same as the Absolute (Brahman). Then we are to be still and renounce all desires.
This spiritual knowledge (Jnana) of ‘I am Brahman’ (Aham Brahmasmi) allows the mind to become still and desireless. Note this does not mean that the body becomes totally inert – no – rather it continues to function naturally according to its destiny (Prarabdha Karma) until the body dies.
Shankara states this multiple times, eg, in Vivekachudamani, and also in his many commentaries, eg. in his commentary upon the Kena Upanishad – in his introduction to the Kena Upanishad Shankara writes:
And [the Self] being eternal, it is not to be secured by any means other than the cessation of ignorance. Hence the only duty is to renounce all desires after the realisation of the unity of the indwelling Self and Brahman.
This is akin to Self-Surrender, as spoken by Sri Ramana Maharshi:
There is no destiny. Surrender, and all will be well. Throw all the responsibility on God. Do not bear the burden yourself. What can destiny do to you then?”
and again here:
Question: Surrender is said to be Bhakti [the path of devotional love]. But Sri Bhagavan [Ramana Maharshi] is known to favour enquiry [ie. the path of Knowledge or Jnana] for the Self. There is thus confusion in the hearer.
Ramana Maharshi: Surrender can take effect only when done with full knowledge. Such knowledge comes after enquiry. It ends in surrender.