Buddhism vs Vedanta | Self vs no-self | Nirvana vs Self-Realisation | The Unborn | The Deathless

Here in this article we will explore the Buddhist teachings and contrast them to Vedanta or ‘Hindu-style’ teachings. We will look at notions of self and no-self, nirvana and self-realisation, and look at the earliest complete Buddhist teachings ie. as recorded in the Pali Suttas (Sutta is a Pali word meaning ‘thread’ and refers to a ‘string of verses’, ie. a text; Sutra is the equivalent word in Sanskrit)

Also see: Ramana Maharshi: was the Buddha self-realised?

Some people think that the teachings of the Buddha point in some fundamental way to something different to teachings of ‘Hinduism’ (Sanatana Dharma) and Vedanta. Most of these people are either only approaching the teachings in an intellectual way or are attached to a particular conceptual view; or perhaps they have not made a deep study of the teachings, or perhaps they have not developed a deeper insight into the teachings for themselves.

Let us see why this is the case, as if one reads the early recorded teachings of the Buddha for oneself, clarity on this issue arises:

The Unborn, the Unmanifest, the Uncreated, the Unconditioned

A closer reading of the Buddhist texts reveals that the Buddha did actually acknowledge in many places the existence of what in Vedanta would be called ‘The Self’ (Sanskrit: Atman) and what others may even call God. Here is just one example from the Nibbana Sutta verse 3 (Udana 8.3), which is from the Pali Canon:

There is, bhikkhus [monks], that which is unborn, that which is unmanifest [or has not come into being], that which is not fabricated/created, that which is unconditioned.

If there were not, bhikhus, that which is unborn, that which is unmanifest, that which is not fabricated/created, that which is unconditioned, there would not be escape from that which is born, from that which is manifest, from that which is fabricated/created, from that which is conditioned – that therefore would not have been clearly known/experienced/seen.

But because, bhikhus, there is indeed that which is unborn, that which is unmanifest, that which is not fabricated/created, that which is unconditioned, therefore escape from that which is born, from that which is manifest, from that which is fabricated, from that which is conditioned, is [or can be] clearly known/experienced/seen.

We can clearly see that the Buddha is categorically stating that there is something that is beyond birth and creation, beyond manifestation and that which is conditioned (ie. all objects).

He then goes on to sate that only because there is such a thing as this Unborn is it possible for liberation to occur. The Buddha even states that without the existence of ‘that which is unborn’ liberation would not be possible.

Negating vs affirming language

Note that the Buddha characteristically uses negating language – ie. NOT born, NOT manifest, NOT created, etc, rather than the combination of both negating and affirming language often used in the vedic literature.

I hope you will see that this is clearly analogous to descriptions of the Self in Vedic literature which is described as being that which is Unborn, Unmanifest, Unconditioned, etc.

Please note that the above verse and following verses are taken from the Pali canon which represents the earliest complete recorded teachings of the Buddha (rather that the writings of later schools).

Nirvana

Please also note that the word Nibbana is the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit word Nirvana (sometimes spelt Nirbana), which is a word that is also used in pre-Buddhist Vedic texts such as the Bhagavad Gita as a synonym for liberation. This means that the Buddha chose to use the same word for liberation that the Vedic texts also used.

‘No Self’ means no ego or no Jiva, NOT no Brahman/Unborn principle

So what does the word ‘Nirvana’ mean? It literally means extinguishment or annihilation or ‘blown out’ (like extinguishing or blowing out a flame).

Why is this word used in both ‘Hinduism’ and Buddhism (and Jainism too) as a synonym for liberation? It is because in all these traditions, it is accepted that liberation is simply destruction or extinguishment of the ego-self, which is illusory or unreal. So when ‘no-self’ is proclaimed in Buddhism, it is only the denial of the Jiva (apparently separate self) or ego-illusion.

In Vedanta this is also known as manonasa or destruction (extinguishment) of mind (manas = mind; nasa = destruction or anihiliation). We will see later that the Buddha also conceived of liberation in the same way – ie. destruction of the thinking and desiring mind.

Anatman (Anatta in pali) vs Atman

The Sanskrit word atman means self, and anatman means not-self or no-self. The Pali equivalent of anatman is anatta.

The Buddha points to various phenomenal arisings and points out that in none of these can a self be found and that all of these phenomenal arisings are anatman or ‘not-self’. An example of this is the Buddhist teaching of the five skandas, which is clearly analogous to the Vedic teaching of the five koshas. In both these teachings it is pointed out that these five skandas or five koshas are not-self, meaning no self can be found in them.

It should be clear that he Buddha is not saying there is no Unborn Principle (quite the opposite as we can see from the Nibbana Sutta verse 3 above), but that the phenomenal appearance of a separate self (Jiva in Sanskrit) or ego is illusory and that only by coming into the Unborn we can attain liberation – see the next section for more on this as well as how to do this for oneself.

The Deathless – how to attain Nirvana & Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teachings

Earlier we saw how the Buddha referred to what called the Unborn, the Unmanifest, the Unfabricated. Elsewhere he referred to the same Unborn as ‘the Deathless’. See here for an example of this – in this post I also go more into the actual methodology of liberation as proposed by the Buddha and show how it is essentially the same method taught by Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi.

The Unmanifest or Nirguna Brahman

In Vedanta teachings, two forms of Ultimate Reality or Brahman are spoken of: the manifest or saguna Brahman and the unmanifest or nirguna Brahman (sa = with; nir = without; guna = qualities).

According to Vedanta, in truth there is only one form of Brahman – the unmanifest or Nirguna Brahman, but is spoken of as being two purely for purposes of teaching. This Nirguna Brahman, which has no qualities that can be described in words and has no qualities that can be perceived by the senses, this nirguna Brahman is the only True Reality, and realisation of this Truth is tantamount to liberation.

The manifest or Saguna Brahman refers to the apparent world of phenomenal appearances and according to Vedanta these do not actually exist and are illusory. The Vedanta teachings encourage us to turn away from objective phenomena towards the Subject-Self which is then revealed to be Nirguna Brahman.

Unsurprisingly we see exactly the same teaching in the Buddhist Pali Suttas time and time again.

Extinguishing the Fire of Egotism

For example in the Fire Sermon, which was said to be the third sermon the Buddha gave, the Buddha explains that everything that we can perceive and imagine is just egotism which he likens to a flame or fire. It then makes sense that Nirvana is extinguishment of this flame or fire of egotism. He encourages us to ‘become disgusted’ with the various phenomenal arisings and turn away from them, and it is in this way liberation or nirvana, which is the end of egotism and suffering, occurs.

In Nirvana there is the cessation of all phenomenal appearances

How does the Buddha describe Nibbana? Where better to look than the Nibbana Sutta that was quoted above? Here is verse 1 (Udana 8.1):

There is, bhikkhus, that Base where there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air…neither this world nor another world nor both; neither sun nor moon. Here, bhikkhus, I say there is no coming, no going, no staying, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not movable, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering.

We can see from the last phrase ‘just this is the end of suffering’ that the Buddha is describing Nirvana (which he defines as the end of suffering, and which is generally defined as the end of suffering) or what is Vedanta would be called The Self (Atman).

In his description the Buddha is also explaining that in Nirvana ‘there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air…‘, ie. by negating the appearance of the four classical elements he is stating that in nirvana there are no phenomenal arisings whatsoever. He continues this theme by stating ‘there is neither this world, not another world…neither sun nor moon… no coming, no going…

See the PDF file here to see this same process of cessation of all phenomenal arisings being described in Vedanta.

The ‘Unmoving’, that which requires ‘no support’, the ‘Unaffected’

The Buddha then goes on to describe what in Vedanta would be called the Self – the Buddha states it is ‘…not moveable, it has no support‘. In Vedanta it would be said to be immovable or unchanging (that which moves can change, that which doesn’t move does not change) and self-shining, meaning it supports itself. In Vedanta, the word ‘ananda’ which means happiness or bliss means the cessation of suffering. Hopefully it is fairly clear that the teachings are pointing to the same basic thing!

In verse two of the same Nibbana Sutta (Udana 8.2) The Buddha speaks of ‘the Unaffected‘, which is clearly another name for the Vedic notion of Self, by which craving and all phenomenal appearance (Maya in vedanta) is ended. Every phenomenal appearance is within the realm of ‘the affected’, so what is this ‘unaffected’ but the True Self?:

It’s hard to see the Unaffected,
for the Truth isn’t easily seen.
Craving is pierced
in one who knows;
For one who sees,
there is nothing.

In liberation there are no thoughts or desires

As we have already quoted from verse 3 at the top of the post, let us proceed to verse 4. In verse 4 of the Nibbana Sutta the Buddha explains that one who has not found the ‘Unaffected’ (ie. the True Self) remains dependent (on phenomenal objects) and so ‘wavers’. This wavering refers to the movements of the mind, ie. what we would call thoughts and desires. Here is verse 4 (Udana 8.4):

One who is dependent has wavering. One who is independent has no wavering. There being no wavering, there is calm. There being calm, there is no desire. There being no desire, there is no coming or going. There being no coming or going, there is no passing away or arising. There being no passing away or arising, there is neither a here nor a there nor a between-the-two. This, just this, is the end of suffering.

See how Sri Ramana Maharshi explains this here.

Cessation of time and space in Liberation

In the above verse 4 the reference to ‘there being no passing away or arising’ not only indicates no arising phenomena in liberation, but also the cessation of time itself. Similarly the reference to ‘there is neither a here nor a there nor a between-the-two’ refers to the cessation of perception of space.

We can see that the teachings are referring to what in Vedanta is known as ‘non-duality’, or advaita, Oneness beyond the illusions of ego, separation, time and space

See this described here in Vedanta teachings.

The ‘Stainless’, the ‘Sorrowless’, the ‘Blissful’

In verse 5, the final verse of this Nibbana Sutta, the Buddha states the following, continuing the theme of the need to efface all desires, wants and cravings. Note how he refers to ‘stainless’ and ‘sorrowless’ and ‘blissful’ – could be be referring to what in Vedanta would be called the Self? I think so!:

The sorrows, lamentations,
the many kinds of suffering in the world,
exist dependent on something dear.
They don’t exist
when there’s nothing dear.
And thus blissful & sorrowless
are those for whom nothing
in the world is dear anywhere.
So one who aspires
to be stainless & sorrowless
shouldn’t make anything
in the world dear
anywhere.

See how Sri Ramana Maharshi similarly describes the way to liberation here.

Some concluding remarks

I have only touched upon one Sutta here in any detail. If you read the Pali canon for yourself you will find countless references like these, eg. to the Unborn and the Deathless, again and again. You will also see references to the need to turn away from objective phenomena towards that which is unborn. You will also see references to the cessation of all arising phenomena. Again and again these references are made.

Surely the Buddha and Vedanta teachings are pointing to the same thing in their own way?

I hope you found this post of use. I have written it rather hastily in one quick sitting so apologies for any spelling or grammatical or other errors.

Namaste and best wishes!

Isn’t Brahma-Jnanam (Knowledge of Brahman) also Adhyasa (a superimposition or false appearance)?

Questioner: Isn’t Brahma-Jnanam (Knowledge of Brahman) also adhyasa* (superimposition or false appearance)?

Tom: It depends what you mean by ‘Knowledge of Brahman’. If you mean knowledge in the mind, then this too is certainly maya/illusion/adhyasa.

However True ‘Knowledge of Brahman’ just means the Self devoid of all objective phenomena. It is also called Silence or Samadhi and is also what is meant by Yoga. This ‘knowledge’ is just the Pure Self-Shining Reality (and so it is not adhyasa and not the result of any action/karma or teaching/dharma).

It is only this ‘knowledge’ (the Self) that removes ignorance.

(*Tom: Note that adhyasa is a Sanskrit word that means superimposition, false attribution or false appearance. It essentially refers to any object that appears, such as the body, mind and world and includes thoughts, feelings, imaginings, states of consciousness, teachings, teachers, tables, chairs, the sun, the sky, etc. The idea is that these objects are falsely ‘superimposed’ onto pure consciousness like the movie is superimposed onto the cinema screen. According to the Upanishads and Advaita Vedanta, all these superimposed appearances/objects may appear to be real to us out of ignorance, but they are actually totally false or unreal, like a dream may appear to be real, but is actually not real at all – rg. was that four-headed dinosaur you dreamt of real? Put simply, adhyasa is another word for maya (cosmic illusion) or ignorance or duality, all of which are also synonyms.)

NOT ‘THIS’, ONLY ‘THAT’

Some say that all is One already, All is Divine, so no need to give anything up, no need to do anything. Whilst there is a truth in this, and whilst this type of teaching can provide us some limited time-bound relief (which is good as a start), it is almost always an ego-preservation strategy: the thinking mischief-causing mind is allowed to continue with its ideas and concepts and beliefs about ‘this’, and the genuine thought-free Blissful Realisation of That Which Always Is, is postponed yet again. Suffering and duality continue, apparently, and we remain stuck in illusion, apparently.

Why ‘apparently’? Because in Reality there was never any ignorance, any delusion, any duality or any suffering. Only Blissful Being ever really is.

‘This’ never was (referring to objective phenomena/maya).

There is only That (Divine Formless Spirit)…
…and That Thou Art.

To realise this is very simple: (1) Surrender all to the Him (or Her or It), (2) allow the mind to become first happy, then very calm and still, and then (3) enquire into yourself as per instructions of Bhagavan Guru Sri Ramana Maharshi

Bhagavan Ramana summarises the teachings using the Biblical phrase ‘Be Still and Know I Am God’

Om Tat Sat
🕉

Shankara: The Self or Brahman cannot be known!

A definition of Jnana by Shankara

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, verse 4.4.20, states the following:

20. It [Brahman] should be realised in one form only, (for) It is unknowable and eternal. The Self is taintless, beyond the (subtle) ether, birthless, infinite and constant.

Here we can see that the Upanishad is stating that Brahman is unknowable. So what of Self-Knowledge or knowledge of Brahman that is so often spoken about? Shankara explains this contradiction in his commentary on this verse:

The knowledge of Brahman too means only the cessation of the identification with extraneous things (such as the body). The relation of identity with It [Brahman] has not to be directly established, for it is already there. Everybody always has that identity with It, but it appears to be related to something else. Therefore the scriptures do not enjoin that identity with Brahman should be established, but that the false identification with things other than That should stop. When the identification with other things is gone, that identity with one’s own Self which is natural, becomes isolated; this is expressed by the statement that the Self is known. In Itself It is unknowable – not comprehended through any means. Hence both statements are consistent.

We can see that Shankara is stating that Brahman is indeed unknowable, and that Jnana, or knowledge, only signifies the cessation of identification with extraneous things, ie. loss of identification with objects, specifically the body-mind. Jnana is not of the mind and is not for the jiva or individual.

We do not need to affirm our identity as Brahman, as we already are and always have been and always will be Brahman. Any affirmation of Brahman would simply be on the level of thought or concepts, and so it would be Maya, or more ignorance. But once the false identification has been removed, then the Self naturally shines as itself, and this lack of wrong-knowledge, or lack of wrongly identifying as the body-mind, is what is called ‘Jnana’ or ‘knowledge’.

In Ulladu Narpadu verse 12, Sri Ramana Maharshi writes:

True Knowledge is being devoid of knowledge as well as ignorance of objects. Knowledge of objects is not true knowledge. Since the Self shines self-luminous, with nothing else for It to know, with nothing else to know It, the Self is Knowledge. Nescience It is not.

In Upadesa Saram verse 27, Sri Ramana Maharshi writes:

That is true knowledge which transcends
Both knowledge and ignorance,
For in pure knowledge
Is no object to be known.

The above is an excerpt from the following post which further explores this topic: What exactly is Jnana (knowledge) according to Shankara and Gaudapada and the scriptures?

Deep Sleep and Self-Realisation | Falling asleep during Self-Enquiry

Also see:

Deep sleep is Brahman – the three states according to the Birhadaranyaka Upanishad with commentary by Shankara

Ramana Maharshi: the method of wakeful sleep (Jagrat Sushupti) to attain liberation

Tom: In the following quotes Sri Ramana Maharshi gives us a teaching on the correct relationship between Deep Sleep & Self-Realisation or Jnana:

Questioner: Sushupti [deep sleep] is often characterised as the state of ignorance.

Sri Ramana Maharshi: No, it is the pure state. There is full awareness in it [deep sleep] and total ignorance in the waking state. It is said to be ajnana [ignorance] only in relation to the false jnana prevalent in jagrat [the waking state].

Really speaking jagrat [the waking state] is ajnana [ignorance] and sushupti [the sleep state] prajnana [wisdom]. If sushupti is not the real state where does the intense peace come from to the sleeper?

It is everybody’s experience that nothing in jagrat can compare with the bliss and well-being derived from deep sleep, when the mind and the senses are absent. What does it all mean? It means that bliss comes only from inside ourselves and that it is most intense when we are free from thoughts and perceptions, which create the world and the body, that is, when we are in our pure being, which is Brahman, the Self. In other words, the being alone is bliss and the mental superimpositions are ignorance and, therefore, the cause of misery. That is why samadhi is also described as sushupti in jagrat [sleep in the waking state]; the blissful pure being which prevails in deep sleep is experienced in jagrat, when the mind and the senses are fully alert but inactive.

~ Guru Ramana, pp. 112-13

Tom: Here are some verses from Sri Ramana Maharshi taken from Guru Vachaka Kovai that make similar points, namely that deep sleep is not actually ignorance at all but actually the Self. It is only our belief that the waking state is Reality (and that we are the body-mind) that makes us feel that Deep Sleep is a state of total ignorance. It is actually Pure Knowedge:

455.

Having experienced fully the great bliss of the sublime state of sleep where no other object exists, it is sheer ignorance not to value that state and to regard it as one’s salvation, but instead to desire something else, imagining it to be one’s defence against the misery one experiences.

457.

The ignorance of forgetfulness which makes you say that the waking state is a state of illumination makes you [also] declare that sleep is a sheath [kosa] of ignorance. If the belief that the waking state is the illustrious and unique state of truth goes, then sleep will become, and shine as, pure non-duality.

461.

Only in an intellect that has developed a desire for the waking state will the eminent state of deep sleep, which is all bliss, be classified as a state of ignorance: ‘I did not know anything during sleep.’ By failing to enquire into and realise the true experience that exists and shines in the same way forever, one becomes deluded and thinks, ‘I am the one who woke up’. If that powerful sheath of the intellect, the ignorance that is experienced in the waking state, is destroyed by the sword of vichara [that leads to the knowledge] ‘I am not the one who woke up’, then the eminent state of sleep will shine, remaining as pure bliss, its ignorance destroyed.

Tom: We see the same teaching in Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi. The following is from talk number 314:

Again, sleep is said to be ajnana [ignorance]. That is only in relation to the wrong jnana prevalent in the wakeful state. The waking state is really ajnana [ignorance] and the sleep state is prajnana [full knowledge].

Tom: Here Bhagavan Ramana explains that the waking and dream states are mere projections of the minds habitual tendencies (vasanas), and when these are removed, only Deep Sleep remains, and this Deep Sleep is nothing but the Self (here called Turiya, the ‘forth’ state.):

460.

If the beginningless, impure vasanas that remain as the cause for waking and dream leave and perish, the state of sleep [previously perceived as] void-like and dull, and which led us into a state of ignorance and suffering, will become the transcendent state of turiya.

Tom: What about if we fall asleep during Self-Inquiry, what then? Bhagavan Ramana reassures us as follows:

462.

If the illumination that is awareness of your being exists so firmly that it remains unshaken until sleep overpowers you, then there will be no need to feel jaded and disheartened, lamenting, ‘Oh, the forgetfulness of nescient sleep has come and unsettled me!’

Tom: Note that the word nescience in the above verse is just a synonym for ignorance, the root meanings of the words being the same, ie. not-knowing. Ignorance negates the Greek word ‘gnosis’, which means knowledge, and nescience negates the Latin word ‘scientia’ which also means knowledge.

The above verses allow us to more fully understand the somewhat cryptic but important verse in the Bhagavad Gita Chapter 2, verse 69. It also reveals to us the depth of knowledge present in the Bhagavad Gita:

What all [ignorant] beings consider as night, is the day for the wise,

And what all [ignorant] beings see as day, is the night for the sage.

Tom: We can see that the above verse from the Bhagavad Gita is saying that most people consider deep sleep as being total darkness and ignorance, whilst the Sage considers this to be Knowledge, ie The Self. Conversely, what most people consider to be the ‘waking state’ is actually considered by the Sage to be a state of pure ignorance and delusion.

The waking state is considered by most to be a state in which we know things (other objects) and in which we ‘live our life’ as a human being – this is the meaning of ‘day’ for most people. The sage considers this ‘day time’ or ‘waking state to be pure illusion and delusion, or ‘maya’.

Because most people identify as being the body-mind in the waking state, and because most people consider the waking state to be a worthy state in which we experience ‘real life’ and gain ‘worthy life-experiences’, they therefore consider deep dreamless sleep as being a dull dark state full of ignorance. However the sage, who has lost the ego-identification as body-mind, sees Deep Dreamless Sleep only as the Pure Self in which there is only Perfect Love-Being-Bliss devoid of space, time, creation, body, mind, thoughts and concepts.

This same teaching that Bhagavan Ramana has made so clear to us above is also given in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, see here for details

Also see: Ramana Maharshi: the method of wakeful sleep (Jagrat Sushupti) to attain liberation

Let us give thanks and gratitude to Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi for his wonderfully clarifying teachings!

!Om Namo Bhagavate Sri Ramanaya Om!

Shankara – If I am Brahman already, why the need for effort? Advaita Vedanta

If You are That, if all is already Brahman, why the need for effort? Here is what Shankara has to say about this in his masterpiece Vivekachudamani. What do you think these verses from Shankara’s Vivekachudamani are trying to convey?

If you are interested in my view, I explain more about this teaching here.


62. A disease does not leave off if one simply utter the name of the medicine, without taking it; (similarly) without direct realisation one cannot be liberated by the mere utterance of the word Brahman.

63. Without causing the objective universe to vanish and without knowing the truth of the Self, how is one to achieve Liberation by the mere utterance of the word Brahman?- It would result merely in an effort of speech.

64. Without killing one’s enemies, and possessing oneself of the splendour of the entire surrounding region, one cannot claim to be an emperor by merely saying, ‘I am an emperor’ merely in an effort of speech.

65. As a treasure hidden underground requires (for its extraction) competent instruction, excavation, the removal of stones and other such things lying above it and (finally) grasping, but never comes out by being (merely) called out by name, so the transparent Truth of the self, which is hidden by Maya and its effects, is to be attained through the instructions of a knower of Brahman, followed by reflection, meditation and so forth, but not through perverted arguments.

66. Therefore the wise should, as in the case of disease and the like, personally strive by all the means in their power to be free from the bondage of repeated births and deaths.

Also see:

Ramana Maharshi on Jiddu Krishanmurti’s Choiceless Awareness

Advaita Bodha Deepika – vital teachings for Self-Realisation that are often missing in modern non-dual and Advaita Vedanta teachings

Turn Within? Really? Isn’t this dualistic and doesn’t this just strengthen the ego?

Deep sleep is Brahman – the three states according to the Birhadaranyaka Upanishad with commentary by Shankara

Please see the end of the article for a summary of the main points or jump ahead to verses 4.31 and 4.32 for the part where the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad equates Deep Sleep with Brahman.

Also see:

Deep Sleep and Self-Realisation

Ramana Maharshi: the method of wakeful sleep (Jagrat Sushupti) to attain liberation

(I’ve just typed this up quite quickly so, as usual, apologies for any spelling or grammatical mistakes)

The teaching of the three states (ie. the waking, dream and deep sleep states) is a staple Vedanta teaching and often the source for this teaching is cited as being the Mandukya Upanishad. However, the three states are presented and analysed in the earlier-written Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, especially in section 4.3.

Dry Upanishadic Humour

Section 3 of the Brihadarankaya Upanishad consists of a conversation between King Janaka and the Sage Yajnavalkya. Now for those of you who have not encountered Sage Yajnavalkya, he is quite a character at times, demonstrating the dry humour present in many of the Upanishads. Here is an example from Section 3.1 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

3.1.1:   Om. Janaka, Emperor of Videha, performed a sacrifice in which gifts were freely distributed among the priests. Brahmin scholars from the countries of Kuru and Panchala were assembled there. Emperor Tanaka of Videha wished to know which of these brahmins was the most erudite Vedic scholar.  So he confined a thousand cows in a pen and fastened on the  horns of each ten padas of gold. 

3.1.2:    He said to them: “Venerable brahmins, let him among you who is the best Vedic scholar drive these cows home.”  None of the brahmins dared. Then Yajnavalkya said to one of  his pupils: “Dear Samsrava, drive these cows home.” He drove them away. The brahmins were furious and said: “How does he dare to call  himself the best Vedic scholar among us?” Now among them there was Asvala, the hotri priest of Emperor Janaka of Videha. He asked Yajnavalkya: “Are you indeed the  best Vedic scholar among us, O Yajnavalkya?” He replied: “I bow to the best Vedic scholar, but I just wish to  have these cows.” Thereupon the Hotri Asvala determined to question him. 

Here we have a scenario in which King Janaka effectively sets up a challenge to see who the best Vedic Scholar is, with the prize being one thousand cows. However before the challenge has even begun, Sage Yajnavalkya simply asks one of his students to take the cows. When challenged by the other scholars to see if he is really the most knowledgeable in the Vedas, Yajnavalkya dryly replies that irrespective of who the best scholar is, he just wants the cows! For me this demonstrates the humour, irony and rebellious spirit that is present throughout many of the Upanishads, but this humourous aspect of the teaching is often missed when the approach becomes overly intellectual and analytical.

The Guru wants to get paid!

Anyway, back to the three states and section 4 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. In section 4.3 Yajnavalkya goes to King Janaka with the intent of not speaking, but because he had previously made a promise to King Janaka that he will answer any questions King Janaka asks, we obtain the dialogue of section 4.3 which pertains to the three states. In Shankara’s commentary on these verses he explains that the real reason Yajnavalkya visits King Janaka is to gain more wealth and cattle from the King, and throughout the following dialogue King Janaka keeps on gifting increasing numbers of cattle to Sage Yajnavalkya.

4.3.1 Yajnavalkya called on Janaka, Emperor of Videha. He said to  himself: “I will not say anything.”  But once upon a time Janaka, Emperor of Videha and  Yajnavalkya had had a talk about the Agnihotra sacrifice and  Yajnavalkya had offered him a boon. Janaka had chosen the  right to ask him any questions he wished and Yajnavalkya had  granted him the boon.  So it was the Emperor who first questioned him. 

Shankara’s commentary on the above verse reads as follows:

‘Yajnavalkya went to Janaka, Emperor of Videha. While going, he thought he would not say anything to the Emperor. The object of the visit was to get more wealth and maintain that already possessed….’

Note how this is contrary to how many nowadays state that a true teacher would not accept money or material objects for their teaching. In this, the oldest, longest and perhaps the most authoritative of Upanishads, we have the reverse situation! Again, such is the often dry humour of the Upanishads!

No immediate answers…

In the next verses, verses 4.3.2 to 4.3.6 Yajnavalkya reveals that the Self is the Ultimate Reality upon which all stands. You can see that Yajnavalkya does not give the ultimate answer straight away, but only when pressed by King Janaka does he eventually reveal the Self as the true answer he is looking for. My reading of this is that Sage Yajnavalkya only wants to give the teaching to those who are truly intererested, who are truly enquiring, and not to those who merely accept the first answer given to them:

4.3.2.    “Yajnavalkya, what serves as light for a man?”  “The light of the sun, O Emperor,” said Yajnavalkya, “for with  the sun as light he sits, goes out, works and returns.”  “Just so, Yajnavalkya.” 

4.3.3.    “When the sun has set, Yajnavalkya, what serves as light for a  man?”  “The moon serves as his light, for with the moon as light he  sits, goes out, works and returns.”  “Just so, Yajnavalkya.” 

4.3.4.    “When the sun has set and the moon has set, Yajnavalkya, what  serves as light for a man?”  “Fire serves as his light, for with fire as light he sits, goes out,  works and returns.”  “Just so, Yajnavalkya.” 

4.3.5.    “When the sun has set, Yajnavalkya and the moon has set and  the fire has gone out, what serves as light for a man?”  “Speech (sound) serves as his light, for with speech as light he  sits, goes out, works and returns. Therefore, Your Majesty,  when one cannot see even one’s own hand, yet when a sound is  uttered, one can go there.”  “Just so, Yajnavalkya.” 

4.3.6.    “When the sun has set, Yajnavalkya and the moon has set and  the fire has gone out and speech has stopped, what serves as  light for a man?”  “The self, indeed, is his light, for with the self as light he sits,  goes out, works and returns.” 

4.3.7 “What is this Self”….

The three states…

…waking and dream

In the next few verses Yajnavalkya teachings that the Self floats between two states, the dream state and waking state, but remains unaffected by theses states, returning to the state of deep sleep when not in dream or waking. All this time Yajnavalkya receives more and more cattle from King Janaka for his teachings! Here is a description of the dream state by Yajnavalkya, in which he explains the dream is a mere unreal projection:

4.3.9 and 4.3.10 ….”And when he dreams, he takes away a little of the impressions of this all-embracing world (the waking state), himself makes the body unconscious and creates a dream body in its place, revealing his own brightness by his own light-and he dreams.  In this state the person becomes self-illumined. There are no real chariots in that state, nor animals to be yoked  to them, nor roads there, but he creates the chariots, animals  and roads. There are no pleasures in that state, no joys, no  rejoicings, but he creates the pleasures, joys and rejoicings.  There are no pools in that state, no reservoirs, no rivers, but he  creates the pools, reservoirs and rivers. He indeed is the agent. 

Similarly in verse 13:

4.3.13.    ‘In the dream world, the luminous one attains higher and lower  states and creates many forms – now, as it were, enjoying  himself in the company of women, now laughing, now even  beholding frightful sights. 

Next Yajnavalkya describes how the Self, referred here by the term Purusha, which literally means ‘supreme being’ or ‘supreme person’ (think ‘higher-self’), floats between two states, the dream state and waking state, but remains unaffected by theses states, returning to the state of deep sleep when not in dream or waking. He receives cattle for his teachings here:

15.    Yajnavalkya said: “The entity (purusha), after enjoying himself  and raoming in the dream state and merely witnessing the  results of good and evil, remains in a state of profound sleep and then hastens back in the reverse way to his former  condition, the dream state. He remains unaffected by whatever he sees in that dream state, for this infinite being is unattached.”  Janaka said: “Just so, Yajnavalkya. I give you, Sir, a thousand  cows.  Please instruct me further about Liberation itself. 

16.    “Yajnavalkya said: “That entity (purusha), after enjoying  himself and roaming in the dream state and merely witnessing  the results of good and evil, hastens back in the reverse way to  his former condition, the waking state. He remains unaffected  by whatever he sees in that state, for this infinite being is  unattached.”  Janaka said: “Just so, Yajnavalkya. I give you, Sir, a thousand  cows.  Please instruct me further about Liberation itself.”  

…and deep sleep

17.    Yajnavalkya said: “That entity (purusha), after enjoying  himself and roaming in the waking state and merely witnessing  the results of good and evil, hastens back in the reverse way to  its former condition, the dream state or that of dreamless sleep. 

18.    “As a large fish swims alternately to both banks of a river – the  east and the west – so does the infinite being move to both  these states: dreaming and waking. 

19.    “As a hawk or a falcon roaming in the sky becomes tired, folds  its wings and makes for its nest, so does this infinite entity  (purusha) hasten for this state, where, falling asleep, he  cherishes no more desires and dreams no more dreams. 

The Self…

…no objects present in the Self

So we can see in the above verses Yajnavalkya has described the three states and how the Self remains unaffected by the two states of waking or dreaming. Now Yajnavalkya proceeds to teach more about the Self. Using a series of metaphors he explains how no objects are present in the Self. Initially he compares it to the ecstacy of sexual orgasm in which one loses all knowledge of the body mind and world, one loses all sense of fear and misery, and one feels completely and totally fulfilled, not desiring anything more and with no trace of suffering:

21.    “That indeed is his form-free from desires, free from evils, free from fear. As a man fully embraced by his beloved wife knows nothing that is without, nothing that is within, so does this infinite being (the self), when fully embraced by the Supreme Self, know nothing that is without, nothing that is within. That indeed is his form, in which all his desires are fulfilled, in which all desires become the self and which is free from desires and devoid of grief.” 

Yajnavalkya then goes on to say that with realisation of the Self, everything is no longer what it appeared to be, and the Self is untouched by karma – good deeds and bad deeds – and also untouched by any suffering:

22.    “In this state a father is no father, a mother is no mother, the worlds are no worlds, the gods are no gods, the Vedas are no the Vedas. In this state a  thief is no thief, the killer of a noble brahmin is no killer, a chandala is no chandala, a paulkasa is no paulkasa, a monk is no monk, an ascetic is no ascetic. This form of his is untouched by good deeds and untouched by  evil deeds, for he is then beyond all the woes of his heart.” 

He then states that even in deep sleep the Self exists as pure consciousness, not conscious of any object, for there are no objects in deep sleep, but conscious somehow nonetheless, for its nature is imperishable eternal consciousness:

23.    “And when it appears that in deep sleep it does not see, yet it is seeing though it does not see; for there is no cessation of the vision of the seer, because the seer is imperishable. There is then, however, no second thing separate from the seer that it could see. 

The above verse is essentially repeated for all the senses and mind, but then culminates at verses 31 and 32. I have here included the full sanskrit and Shankara’s commentary for these important verses. The verses state that when objective phenomena appear, ie. in the dream or waking states, it appears as if we can see something separate from us or perceive something separate from us. This apparent perception is due to ignorance or illusion. However, when we return to deep sleep, that is the Self:

Verse 4.3.31:

यत्र वा अन्यदिव स्यात्, तत्रान्योऽन्यत्पश्येत्, अन्योऽन्यज्जिघ्रेत्, अन्योऽन्यद्रसयेत्, अन्योऽन्यद्वदेत्, अन्योऽन्यच्छृणुयात्, अन्योऽन्यन्मन्वीत, अन्योऽन्यत्स्पृशेत्, अन्योऽन्यद्विजानीयात् ॥ ३१ ॥

yatra vā anyadiva syāt, tatrānyo’nyatpaśyet, anyo’nyajjighret, anyo’nyadrasayet, anyo’nyadvadet, anyo’nyacchṛṇuyāt, anyo’nyanmanvīta, anyo’nyatspṛśet, anyo’nyadvijānīyāt || 31 “||

31. In the waking and dream states, when there is something else, as it were, then one can see something, one can smell some-thing, one can taste something, one can speak something, one can hear something, one can think something, one can touch something, or one can know something.

Shankara’s commentary on 4.3.31:

It has been said that in the state of profound sleep there is not, as in the waking and dream states, that second thing [ie. objects] differentiated from the self which it can know; hence it knows no particulars [ie. objects] in profound sleep. Here it is objected: If this is its nature, why does it give up that nature and have particular knowledge [of objects]? If, on the other hand, it is its nature to have this kind of knowledge, why does it not know particulars [ie. objects] in the state of profound sleep? The answer is this: When, in the waking or dream state, there is something else besides the self, as it were, presented by ignorance, then one, thinking of oneself as different from that something—although there is nothing different from the self, nor is there any self different from it—can see something. This has been shown by a referrence to one’s experience in the dream state in the passage, ‘As if he were being killed, or overpowered’(IV. iii. 20). Similarly one can smell, taste, speak, hear, think, touch and know something.

Verse 4.3.32:

सलिल एको द्रष्टाद्वैतो भवति, एष ब्रह्मलोकः सम्राडिति हैनमनुशशास याज्ञवल्क्यः, एषास्य परमा गतिः, एषास्य परमा संपत्, एषोऽस्य परमो लोकः, एषोऽस्य परम आनन्दः; एतस्यैवानन्दस्यान्यानि भूतानि मात्रामुपजीवन्ति ॥ ३२ ॥

salila eko draṣṭādvaito bhavati, eṣa brahmalokaḥ samrāḍiti hainamanuśaśāsa yājñavalkyaḥ, eṣāsya paramā gatiḥ, eṣāsya paramā saṃpat, eṣo’sya paramo lokaḥ, eṣo’sya parama ānandaḥ; etasyaivānandasyānyāni bhūtāni mātrāmupajīvanti || 32 ||

32. In the deep sleep state, it becomes (transparent) like water, one, the witness, and without a second. This is the world (state) of Brahman, O Emperor. Thus did Yājñavalkya instruct Janaka: This is its supreme attainment, this is its supreme glory, this is its highest world, this is its supreme bliss. On a particle of this very bliss other beings live.

Shankara’s commentary on 4.3.32:

When, however, that ignorance which presents things other than the self is at rest, in that state of profound sleep, there being nothing separated from the self by ignorance, what should one see, smell, or know, and through what? Therefore, being fully embraced by his own self-luminous Supreme Self, the Jīva becomes infinite, perfectly serene, with all his objects of desire attained, and the self the only object of his desire, transparent like water, one, because there is no second: It is ignorance which separates a second entity, and that is at rest in the state of profound sleep; hence ‘one.’ The witness, because the vision that is identical with the light of the self is never lost. And without a second, for there is no second entity different from the self to be seen. This is immortal and fearless. This is the world of Brahman, the world that is Brahman: In deep sleep the self, bereft of its limiting adjuncts, the body and organs, remains in its own supreme light of the Ātman [the Self], free from all relations, O Emperor. Thus did Yājñavalkya instruct Janaka. This is spoken by the Śruti.

How did he instruct him? This is its supreme attainment, the attainment of the individual self.

The other attainments, characterised by the taking of a body, from the state of Hiraṇyagarbha down to that of a clump of grass, are created by ignorance [Tom: ie. all objects of the universe are creations of Ignorance; we can see Shankara is equating ignorance with Maya here, as Maya is traditionally said to be the cause of the phenomenal universe] and therefore inferior to this, being within the sphere of ignorance. But this identification with all, in which one sees nothing else, hears nothing else, knows nothing olse, is the highest of all attainments such‘as identity with the gods, that are achieved through meditation and rites. This too is its supreme glory, the highest of all its splendours, being natural to it; other glories are artificial. Likewise this is its highest world; the other worlds, which are the result of its past work, are inferior to it; this, however, is not attainable by any action, being natural; hence ‘this is its highest world.’ Similarly this is its supreme bliss, in comparison with the bther joys that are due to the contact of the organs with their objects, since it is eternal; for another Śruti says, ‘That which is infinite is bliss’ (Ch. VII. xxiii. 1). ‘That in which one sees something. . . . knows something, is puny,’ mortal, secondary joy. But this is the opposite of that hence ‘this is its supreme bliss.’ On a particle of this very bliss, put forward by ignorance, and perceived only during the contact of the organs with their objects, other beings live. Who are they? Those that have been separated from that bliss by ignorance, and are considered different from Brahman. Being thus different, they subsist on a fraction of that bliss which is perceived through the contact of the organs with their objects.


Tom’s concluding remarks:

We can see that in the above two verses Shankara and Yajnavalkya are stating that:

The Self cannot be attain by various karmas or works, for these are relating to objective phenomena only which occur only in the dream and waking states. ie. works or practices can only occur in the waking or dream states.

-However, the Self already is, it is already our True Actual Nature, naturally unattached and unaffected by it all, naturally beyond desire and suffering, its nature being happiness or bliss and oneness in which there is no sense of other.

In deep sleep, when there are no adjuncts, ie. no objective phenomena such as body, world or mind, then there is only the Self. Shankara states ‘this is spoken by shruti’, shruti referring to the revealed scriptures that are the vedas and upanishads, meaning that this teaching comes from the highest authority.

This same teaching is given by Sri Ramana Maharshi here. Note that it is only from the point of view of ignorance (in the waking state) that deep sleep is considered to be a third state (and not the Pure Self) and it is inferred (ignorantly in the waking state) that a seed of ignorance remains in this deep sleep state in order to account for the ‘fact’ that we are not liberated through sleep.

All else, ie. all objective phenomena, are created and presented to us by ignorance (ie. ignorance and maya are one), and so we are separated from the Bliss of Brahman by our seeing of objects ‘outside of us’.

The Upanishad tells us Thus did Yājñavalkya instruct Janaka

Note that a clear and direct method for realisation is not given in this section of the Upanishad, although it is hinted at. For more on this see here which is where the instruction on the method on how to attain liberation is given in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad by our friend, Sage Yajnavalkya.

Note that this above section of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad also tallies with and is indirectly explained further by Sri Ramana Maharshi’s method of wakeful-sleep, a wonderful and simple explanation of the path to liberation.

Also see:

Deep Sleep and Self-Realisation

Shankara: The Self (That Brahman Art Thou)

Here in a series of verses taken from Shankara’s masterpice Vivekachudamani, the Self is described and the basic technique of meditation is given. We can see we are to meditate upon ourselves as being Brahman, which is eternal, ever-present, timeless, beyond all names and forms and devoid of names and forms. It is the Source of all. It is unmoving, like the ocean without any waves. It, being formless, cannot be known by the intellect or sense organs. It is unmoving, unchanging, causeless, non-dual, needs no other support and has no parts or components.

Sri Shankara

254. That which is beyond caste and creed, family and lineage; devoid of name and form, merit and demerit; transcending space, time and sense-object – that Brahman art thou, meditate on this in thy mind.

255. That Supreme Brahman which is beyond the range of all speech, but accessible to the eye of pure illumination; which is pure, the Embodiment of Knowledge, the beginningless entity – that Brahman art thou, meditate on this in thy mind.

256. That which is untouched by the sixfold wave; meditated upon by the Yogi’s heart, but not grasped by the sense-organs; which the Buddhi [intellect] cannot know; and which is unimpeachable – that Brahman art thou, meditate on this in thy mind.

257. That which is the substratum of the universe with its various subdivisions, which are all creations of delusion; which Itself has no other support; which is distinct from the gross and subtle; which has no parts, and has verily no exemplar – that Brahman art thou, meditate on this in thy mind.

258. That which is free from birth, growth, development, waste, disease and death; which is indestructible; which is the cause of the projection, maintenance and dissolution of the universe – that Brahman art thou, meditate on this in thy mind.

259. That which is free from differentiation; whose essence is never non-existent; which is unmoved like the ocean without waves; the ever-free; of indivisible Form – that Brahman art thou, meditate on this in thy mind.

260. That which, though One only, is the cause of the many; which refutes all other causes, but is Itself without cause; distinct from Maya and its effect, the universe; and independent – that Brahman art thou, meditate on this in thy mind.

261. That which is free from duality; which is infinite and indestructible; distinct from the universe and Maya, supreme, eternal; which is undying Bliss; taintless – that Brahman art thou, meditate on this in thy mind.

262. That Reality which (though One) appears variously owing to delusion, taking on names and forms, attributes and changes, Itself always unchanged, like gold in its modifications – that Brahman art thou, meditate on this in thy mind.

263. That beyond which there is nothing; which shines even above Maya, which again is superior to its effect, the universe; the inmost Self of all, free from differentiation; the Real Self, the Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute; infinite and immutable – that Brahman art thou, meditate on this in thy mind.

The above excerpt was taken from the post: Shankara: How to Meditate for Self-Realisation