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

(I’ve just typed this up quite quickly so, as usual, apologies for any spelling or gramatical 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.

Section 4 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. 

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.

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!

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”….

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, remians 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.”  

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. 

So we can see in the above verses Yajnavalkya has described the three states and how the Self remains unaffected by the 2 states of waking or dreaming. Now Yajnavalkya proceeds to teach more about the Self, comparing 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 it’s 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 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 thathence ‘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. objective phenomena such as body 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.

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

The Upanishad tell 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 for 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.

Does stillness of mind lead to liberation?

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Advaita Bodha Deepika is a traditional text and a masterpiece, summarising the methods and techniques of advaita vedanta. It was a favourite text of Sri Ramana Maharshi and was often recommended by him. Here is what it says about how to attain liberation, the following is from Chapter 3:

17…Master: With complete stillness of mind, samsara will disappear root and branch. Otherwise there will be no end to samsara, even in millions of aeons (Kalpakotikala).
18. Disciple: Cannot samsara be got rid of by any means other than making the mind still?
M: Absolutely by no other means; neither the Vedas, nor the shastras nor austerities, nor karma, nor vows, nor gifts, nor recital of scriptures of mystic formulae (mantras), nor worship, nor anything else, can undo the samsara. Only stillness of mind can accomplish the end and nothing else.
19. D: The scriptures declare that only Knowledge can do it. How then do you say that stillness of the mind puts an end to samsara?
M: What is variously described as Knowledge, Liberation, etc., in the scriptures, is but stillness of mind.
D: Has any one said so before?
20 M: Sri Vasishta had said…

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Beloved Ramana Maharshi says the same in Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 141:

All the jnana* scriptures that teach the way to redemption proclaim in unison that restraining and stilling the mind is the best means for liberation. This is also emphasised by jnanis*. If, after a certain amount of study, one knows this to be the inner purport of the scriptures, one should then direct ones whole effort towards that [practice]. What is the use of continuously studying more and more scriptures without doing this?

*Jnana, literally meaning knowledge, refers to the teachings of spiritual liberation, whereas jnani, literally ‘knower’, refers to the spiritually liberated sage.


In Ramana’s ‘Who am I?’, the question as to the nature of Jnana arises and is simply answered:

Questioner: What is wisdom-insight (jnana-drsti)?
Ramana Maharshi: Remaining quiet is what is called wisdom-insight.


The Katha Upanishad states the same, in verse 2.3.10:

When the five organs of perception become still, together with the mind, and the intellect ceases to be active: that is called the Supreme State [Brahma-Vidya or Self Knowledge].

Shankara’s commentary on this above verse (Katha Upanishad, verse 2.3.10) states the following:

‘At the time when the five senses…, together with the mind…, which is now no longer functioning and thinking, are at rest in the Self alone, after turning away from objects, and with the intellect…no longer engaging with its functioning, that they call the highest state [Brahma-Vidya or Self-Knowledge].’

Earlier in the Katha Upanishad we see the following verse:

The Lord created the senses out-going: therefore, one sees outside and not the Self within. Some intelligent man, with his senses turned away (from their objects), desirous of immortality, sees the Self within.
~ Katha Upanishad 2.1.1

In his commentary on this above verse (Katha Upanishad 2.1.1), Shankara writes:

‘…the perceiver sees the external objects which are not-Self/not the Atman, such as sound, etc., and not the Self within. Though this is the nature of the world, some (rare) discerning man, like turning back/ reversing the current of a river, sees the Self within…The group of sense organs, beginning with the ear, should be turned away from all sense-objects. Such a one, who is purified thus, sees the indwelling self. For it is not possible for the same person to be engaged in the thought of sense-objects and to have the vision of the Self as well.

In his commentary on Katha Upanishad verse 1.2.20 Sri Shankara writes:

‘…One whose intellect has been withdrawn from all objects, gross and subtle, when this takes place, this is known as ‘inactivity of the sense organs’. Though this ‘inactivity of the sense organs’ one sees that glory of the Self. ‘Sees’ means he directly realises the Self as ‘I am the Self’ as thereby becomes free from suffering’


The Amritabindu Upanishad equates the controlled/stilled mind with Jnana (knowledge) and liberation:

2. It is indeed the mind that is the cause of men’s bondage and liberation. The mind that is attached to sense-objects leads to bondage, when unattached from sense-objects it tends to lead to liberation. So they [the sages] say.
3. Since liberation is based on the mind devoid of desire for sense objects, therefore, the mind should always be made free of such desire, by the seeker after liberation.
4. When the mind, with its attachment for sense-objects annihilated, is fully controlled within the heart and thus realises its own essence, then that is the Supreme State (Brahma-Vidya or Self-Knowledge is gained).
5. The mind should be controlled [made still] so that it becomes merged in the heart. This is Jnana (knowledge) and this is Dhyana (meditation). All else is argumentation and verbiage.

The Advaitic giant, Sri Gaudapada, (Shankara’s guru’s guru) writes in his Mandukya Karika:

The controlled mind is verily the fearless Brahman’ Chapter 3, verse 35

And in verse 37 of the same chapter he writes:

[Atman is] beyond all expression by words and beyond all acts of mind; It is all peace, eternal effulgence free from activity and fear and attainable by samadhi’ Chapter 3, verse 37

In the wonderfully authoritative Advaita Vedanta text Yoga Vasistha it is written:

The rock-like state in which all thoughts are still and which is different from the waking and dream states, is one’s supreme state [Brahma-Vidya or Self-Knowledge].

And elsewhere in the same Yoga Vasistha it is said:

Just as the great ocean of milk became still when the Mandara Mountain (with which it was churned by the Devas and the Asuras) became still, even so the illusion of samsara comes to an end when the mind is stilled.

And again from Yoga Vasistha…

He who casts away from his mind all objects ofperception and, attaining perfect quiescence, remains still as space, unaffected by sorrow, is a liberated man; he is the Supreme Lord.


Shankara states the same 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.

Also see:

The key to nonduality and yoga

In brief: How to attain liberation

The ‘ultimate means’ to liberation

Shankara on Samadhi (stillness of mind)

Ramana Maharshi: be still

Ramana Maharshi: a quick and simple method to self-realisation

False enlightenment

Advaita Vedanta: Gaudapada’s Method (Mandukya Upanishad Karika)

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Gaudapada is a giant in the history of Advaita, and he is often known as the great-grandfather of Advaita Vedanta. Here in this post I want to focus on the practical aspects of the principle text of Gaudapada, the Mandukya Karika (you can read the entire text here), aimed at the seeker of liberation. What is Gaudapada urging the seeker of liberation to actually do? There are many other aspects of the karika too, such as the metaphysical and philosophical elucidations, but maybe I will save discussion of these for a future post. Here I will stick to the practical method Gaudapada prescribes in order to attain liberation (Moksha).

Gaudapada (c. 6th century CE) was the great-guru of Shankara (788-820 CE), ie. he was Shankara’s guru’s guru. And for those of you who don’t know, Shankara is the person who made the word non-duality (Sanskrit: Advaita) famous. It was he who brought together various texts and propped them up with logic and scriptural arguments and essentially systematised and founded what is today known as Advaita Vedanta.

While we know very little about Gaudapada and his life, he is famous for writing a commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad called the Mandukya Karika or Gaudapada’s Karika. Whilst Gaudapada was not a Buddhist, it is clear that he drew heavily on Buddhist teachings in the karika, often using near exact copies of some Buddhist phrases in his writings, and much of what he writes will be very familiar to those who have studied Mahayana Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism.

In my view much of the methodology for spiritual practice as well as the conceptual framework within which Gaudapda forms his views is much more similar to Buddhist thought that any Vedanta scripture that we know of that comes before Gaudapada. Conversely, we have many Buddhist scriptures that in essence give the same practical method for enlightenment as Gaudapada, the only substantive difference with Gaudapada being their philosophical way of interpreting and writing about the nature of reality. Now whilst I have been studying both Vedanta and Buddhism for over twenty years, I still do not consider myself to be an expert on the scriptures, so I welcome any corrections or alternative views you want to put my way.

As an interesting aside, the only copies of the Mandukya Upanishad we have are those which are combined with Gaudapada’s commentary. As no earlier versions without the commentary have been found, this has led some to speculate that perhaps Gaudapada himself wrote the Mandukya Upanishad. Textually and stylistically this seems unlikely, but, like with many upanishadic texts, their precise origins and authorship remains shrouded in darkness.


I thought I’d start with verse 90 of Chapter 4 of Gaudapada’s Karika, as it gives an overview of his approach:

IV 90. One should be conversant, at the very outset, with four things. These are as follows: the things to be avoided, the goal to be realised, the disciplines to be cultivated and the tendencies to be rendered ineffective. Of these four, all except the goal to be realised ie. the Supreme Reality, exist only as products of the imagination.

Gaudapada lists four things we should know from the outset as a spiritual seeker: what we are looking for, what we should do, what we should not do and what habitual tendencies we should get rid of. The supreme reality he is speaking of is none-other than Brahman. This is the goal to be realised, and all else, he states, is illusory. Essentially Gaudapada is saying there appears to be a spiritual path with a seeker and a goal and things to do and things to not do, but actually all there is is Reality. The spiritual path is an illusion.

He makes this clearer in this famous oft quoted verse from Chapter 2 verse 32:

II 32. There is neither dissolution nor creation, none in bondage and none practicing disciplines. There is none seeking Liberation and none liberated. This is the absolute truth.

As we are stuck in illusion, what is the (illusory) way out? What is the (illusory) path we should follow? Gaudapada has already stated that the goal of the search is Brahman. Much of the Karika is devoted to philosophical explanation and reasoning about the nature of Brahman, illusion, cause and effect, duality vs. non-duality, etc, but in the following verses Gaudapada gives us a method we can use, and in doing so he also gives us an experiential definition of Brahman. The following verses are from Chapter 3 (click here for just a list of these specific verses without my commentary):

III 40. Yogis who are ignorant of non-duality depend on the control of the mind for attaining fearlessness, the destruction of misery, Self-Knowledge and imperishable peace.

First Gaudapada makes it clear that for one who is not already self-realised or liberated  (‘ignorant of non-duality’), control of mind is the method. What are the fruits of this method? They are fearlessness, the end of suffering, knowledge of the supreme reality and unending peace. That control of mind is required was already stated in verse III.35 in which he writes ‘The controlled mind is verily the fearless Brahman’ – he is essentially saying that the mind is to be still and egoic vasanas (habitual tendencies) need to be removed – a point which he will reiterate later in verse III.46 below.

III 41. The mind is to be brought under control by undepressed effort; it is like emptying the ocean, drop by drop, with the help of a blade of kusa grass.

Gaudapada then says that this (illusory) path takes much effort, ie. a spiritual practice is required, and he likens this to using a blade of grass to empty the ocean drop by drop. Whilst Brahman is already fully here and now, an (apparent) path is required to remove (apparent) ignorance. As I said before, this post will not dwell too much on the philosophical aspects, but focus on practical steps for the (apparent) seeker. So how do we proceed on this path?

III 42. The mind distracted by desires and enjoyments should be brought under control by proper means; so also the mind enjoying pleasure in inactivity (laya). For the state of inactivity is as harmful as the state of desires.

Here Gaudapada states we should not be distracted by desire for sensual pleasures and warns us that dwelling in the pleasure of inactivity (laya) is also not the way, for this is actually just another sensual pleasure that fuels the egoic process further. ‘Inactivity’ here is a translation of the Sanskrit word ‘laya’ which means a tamasic state, not the still/silent mind that is one with Brahman. In his commentary on these verses Shankara equates laya with susupti, deep sleep; Shankara writes:

‘The word ‘laya’ in the text indicates susupti, ie. deep sleep in which state one becomes oblivious of all things…the mind should be withdrawn from the state of laya as it should be withdrawn from objects…’

Already here, for those of you versed in a variety of Buddhist thought, you will see the familiarity in the methodology, in which dwelling on any sense object is pointed out as nothing other than egoic desire. But why should we turn away from these desires? Isn’t desire for pleasure natural and human?

III 43. Turn back the mind from the enjoyment of desires, remembering that they beget only misery. Do not see the created objects, remembering that all this is the unborn Atman.

We see another classic Buddhist teaching here. It is pointed out that seeking pleasure, or ‘enjoyment of desires’, just leads to further suffering. This is akin to the Buddha’s teachings on Dukkha (Pali for suffering). In fact the Sanskrit word here used is ‘Dukkham’, almost paying homage to the Buddha’s teachings. All pleasures come and go, and though they may please us for a short time, eventually they leave us. And when they do, they leave us wanting more, feeling incomplete, addicted to our desire for more and more and more. And so the seeking-suffering, the wheel of samsara, continues

The remedy suggested here is to see all this as the ‘unborn Atman’, and not to see the objects themselves at all: ‘Do not see the created objects, remembering that all this is the unborn Atman.’

What problems may we encounter on this path, and how do we remedy them?

III 44. If the mind becomes inactive, arouse it from laya; if distracted, make it tranquil. Understand the nature of the mind when it contains the seed of attachment. When the mind has attained sameness, do not disturb it again.

This verse mimics the Buddhist scriptures we see detailing various Buddhist meditation methods, in which remedies for both inactivity and distraction are advised so that the meditator can find that still point of equanimity. Again, the idea is of neither slipping into the dull state of laya with all its bliss and laziness (tamas), nor being hyper-agitated and enamoured with thoughts and the world (rajas), and thus peace (sattva) is attained.

Are there any further stumbling blocks on this path?

III 45. The yogi must not taste the happiness arising from samadhi; he should detach himself from it by the exercise of discrimination. If his mind, after attaining steadiness, again seeks external objects, he should make it one with Atman through great effort.

The instructions Gaudapa give us are extremely concise, and each of these terse verses could be unpacked in much greater detail. Here the seeker is warned not to become attached to happiness, which is nothing other than another subtle object. Seeking objects in order to gain fulfillment is a sure way of perpetuating the ego-illusion together with its addiction to feeling good.

Shankara writes in his commentary on this verse (III.45) ‘The seeker should not taste that happiness that is experienced by the Yogis seeking Samadhi. In other words, he is not to be attached to that happiness. What then should be done by the student? He should be unattached to such happiness…he should turn away the mind from such happiness…’

The second sentence also highlights another important aspect of the teaching, namely that even after steadiness of mind is attained, there can be a lapse back in to delusion/ignorance, where the ego and it’s object-centred desires raise their head. The remedy for this is continued practice. Avoid this step at your peril.

What about when the mind no longer falls back into egoic desire or laya?

III 46. When the mind does not lapse into inactivity [laya] and is not distracted by desires, that is to say, when it remains unshakeable and does not give rise to appearances, it verily becomes Brahman.

Here we are given a pragmatic definition of self-realisation or Brahman – ie. when ignorance no longer remains, when the mind is still and no longer deviates and follows egoic desires, where the grasping mind has essentially died.

To put this into vedanta-speak, Gaudapada is equating realisation of Brahman with stillness of mind that is not attending to objects and removal of the egoic vasanas, something reiterated by Shankara when he famously wrote vasana kshaya moksham, which means ‘destruction of the vasanas is Moksha (liberation)’. It is also completely in line with Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teachings, see here or here for an example.

The Sanskrit word that has been translated as ‘unshakable’ here is also the same as the Sanskrit word for silent or quiet. Shankara explains this in his commentary on the verse:

‘When the mind brought under discipline by the above-mentioned methods, does not fall into the oblivion of deep sleep, nor is distracted by external objects, that is to say, when the mind becomes silent – like the flame of a light kept in a windless place; or when the mind does not give rise to objects – when the mind is endowed with these characteristics [ie. silent and not giving rise to objects], it verily becomes one with Brahman.’

So I will end this post here. The actual instructions are few, and for those with faith they can easily be followed. Be patient – remember – slow and steady wins the race. Re-read the above verses a few times so they sink in, and best wishes.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

See also:
The ‘Ultimate Means’ to Liberation
False Enlightenment

4 things you (may) need before you can be enlightened

buddha leaf.jpg

Over the centuries, the lives of countless enlightened and self-realised sages have been studied and investigated, contrasting how they were prior to and after enlightenment, searching for clues as to what may aid other seekers in reaching total and complete liberation. Through this investigation several common qualities have been found which, if developed, aid the spiritual seeker to reach their goal.

In Vedanta, traditionally, there are four qualities (sadhana catustaya in Sanskrit) that a person should cultivate prior to engaging with the higher teachings of vedanta. These qualities, or qualifications,  are deemed necessary to have, at least in some degree, before enlightenment can subsequently be achieved.

A similar notion that a certain level of attainment or qualification is required before higher teachings are taught are found throughout spiritual traditions, including many ‘no-path’ schools such as Dzogchen, Mahamudra and Zen (all types of Buddhism).

The idea is that without these qualities being present the seeker may have many insights and epiphanies, but the results will be unstable, with insights often coming and going, the results being a continued sense of lack and frustration. In a more mature seeker this may result in so-called ‘flip-flopping’, when the seeker has repeated experiences of being enlightened only to find, much to their dismay, that these experiences also end and suffering resumes.

The idea is that without these qualities being present the seeker may have many insights and epiphanies, but the results will be unstable, with insights often coming and going, the results being a continued sense of lack and frustration.

Conversely, when a seeker has developed these qualities, when exposed to the higher teachings of vedanta they make quick progress and quickly attain moksha (Freedom), which does not come and go.

Below Shankara, that great proponent of advaita vedanta (non-duality), tells us that these qualities are more important than other factors in attaining moksha. This quote is taken a text attributed to Shankara called vivekachudamani, one of his most famous texts and one of my favourites when I was a seeker:

Ultimate success in spiritual endeavours depends chiefly upon the qualifications of the seeker. Auxiliary conveniences such as time and place all have a place indeed, but they are essentially secondary.
Vivekachudamani by Adi Shankara, verse 14

The 4 Qualities (sadhana catustaya)

Here are the 4 qualities, sometimes known as the ‘4 Ds’, (with the Sankrit word in brackets):

  1. Discrimination (viveka): being able to tell the difference between what is permanent and what is transient
  2. Dispassion (vairagya): not desiring what is transient/impermanent; turing away from the impermanent towards what is permanent
  3. Discipline (samadisatkasampatti): dropping trivial activities and turning towards the teaching and what is permanent.(Samadisatkasampatti  more literally refers to the six treasures, each of which will be discussed in later posts).
  4. Desire for freedom (mumuksutvam): this helps overcomes the ups and downs that life may bring and enables the seeker to overcome obstacles along the way.

There are several texts that outline these 4 qualities, perhaps the most succinct being Shankara’s Vivekachudamani which I have already mentioned above:

17. He alone is considered qualified to inquire after the supreme Reality (Brahman), who has discrimination, detachment, qualities of calmness etc., and a burning desire for liberation.
18. Great sages have spoken of four qualifications for attainment which, when present, succeed in the realization of Brahman and in the absence of which the goal is not attained.
Vivekachudamani by Adi Shankara, verses 17 & 18

Risk Factors vs qualifications

Before we look at each of the qualities in turn (in forthcoming articles), I would like to give my view. I don’t think these qualities are definite prerequisites for Freedom or self-realisation, important as they are. I think of them more as risk factors – ie. there may be an increased risk of enlightenment if these qualities are cultivated. Having the qualities does not guarantee enlightenment, and not having them does not bar one from Freedom.

It should be obvious really, but just because a particular tradition states something is necessary, doesn’t mean it is so – that’s my take on things at least. For me this Freedom is so simple, beyond simple actually, as it already is, that the whole notion of qualifications seems a bit arbitrary.

That being said, I do think they are of importance, and understanding and practising them will benefit many seekers, both in terms of increasing their day-to-day happiness, and in  terms of realising Freedom.

It has been said that this knowledge of the four qualities required for enlightement has come about by looking at and studying the lives of hundreds of spiritual seekers and knowers-of-Freedom (Jnanis) and seeing if they had anything in common. When we go through each of the four qualities I hope that you will be able to see, in a commonsense way, how these qualities work together and the principles that underlie them, and how they can indeed aid the attainment of moksha (the realisation of Freedom).

At the same time I feel it is important that we bear in mind that there are also inherent problems with the notion of qualifications which must also be understood if one is to engage with them effectively, namely that the very idea of a progressive path to Freedom (implied by the need for qualifications) can itself be an obstacle to realising that-which-already-is.

I will explore each of the above 4D’s in turn in forthcoming articles.

Nisargadatta Maharaj: In reality there is no person

Nisargadatta_Maharaj

The person is merely the result of a misunderstanding. In reality, there is no such thing.

Feelings, thoughts and actions race before the watcher in endless succession, leaving traces in the brain and creating an illusion of continuity.

A reflection of the watcher in the mind creates the sense of “I” and the person acquires an apparently independent existence.

In reality there is no person, only the watcher identifying himself with the ‘I’ and the ‘mine’.

Taken from I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj

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Unknowable yet known (Upanishads, Sufism, Ramana and Taoism)

sparrow branch

If you think: “I know Brahman well,” then surely you know but little of Its form
Kena Upanishad

One of the astounding things about this is that it is impossible to put this into words. Put what into words you may ask?….this! Just this! Call it Tao, God or call it Brahman – these are really just meaningless words unless we understand what the words are pointing to.

All the great teachings have tried to express the Inexpressible. They have tried to indicate That which gives meaning to life but is beyond meaning, That which is transformative but at the same time nothing changes when It is ‘realised’ (how can that be?), That in which suffering and separation are seen to be imaginary and illusory. When That is understood, all the scriptures can be made sense of, and all of the scriptures are also seen to be ultimately inaccurate.

The Tao Te Ching, that wonderful poem from ancient China, starts with the confession that what it is writing about cannot be written about:

The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao
Tao Te Ching, verse 1

What you are seeking is constantly being realised, whether you realise it or not! One of the advantages of the concept of God is that God is not meant to be knowable. However with the concept of self-realisation and the ever increasing preponderance of the all-knowing guru on the spiritual scene, it is often thought that this is something that can be known by the mind. Here’s what our Sufi friend Abol-Hasan has to say about it.

One may speak of those absent,
but one who is Ever Present,
one can say nothing of
Sheikh Abol-Hasan, saying 92

Throughout the ages, people from all walks of life have spontaneously awoken to this ‘understanding’: scholars and illiterates, men and women and children, those with a spiritual tradition and those without one.

All true knowers of truth are always fuzzy when it comes to how to realise this for oneself, for there is no single path and no single practice that has the monopoly here. This is not always a popular message, and certainly not one that is easy to grasp (it’s impossible to grasp) and pass on through the generations.

Here we can see the Kena Upanishad trying to express the futility of organising a spiritual system around this understanding:

The one who has thought it out does not know it.
It is not understood by those who understand it;
it is understood by those who do not understand it.
Kena Upanishad

This is ever present, it is none other than Our-True-Self, which is simply life devoid of the illusion of doership. It is here, yet cannot be known by the mind or senses. It cannot be captured in words.

I do not think I know It well, nor do I think I do not know It. 
He among us who knows the meaning of “Neither do I not know, nor do I know”
— knows Brahman.

Kena Upanishad

This realisation is nothing to be gained. When you realise, there is no realisation at all. It all just falls away. What is there to realise? Who is there to realise? There is just this. This is enough. Realisations come and go in this. And this is not a concrete thing that you can grasp or possess, but it is life just happening right now as it is.

Boddhidharma, the Indian monk and founder of Zen (Chan) Buddhism tells us just this, and he says it repeatedly – here is just one example:

“To say he attains anything at all is to slander a Buddha. What could he possibly attain?”
Boddhidharma from the Bloodstream Sermon

Ramana Maharshi was someone who had a spontaneous realisation of all of this as a teenage boy. He had no guru and knew little of any spiritual teaching. Over the years he learnt the language of Advaita Vedanta and found that its teachings described that which he was already experiencing. Here’s what he has to say about self-knowledge (Atma-Jnana in Sanskrit):

Q: When a man realises the Self, what will he see?

M: There is no seeing. Seeing is only being. The state of Self-realisation, as we call it, is not attaining something new or reaching some goal which is far away, but simply being that which you always are and which you always have been.

All that is needed is that you give up your realization of the not-true as true…At one stage you will laugh at yourself for trying to discover the Self which is so self-evident.
Ramana Maharshi

And he repeats this again and again (italics added by me):

If we talk of knowing the Self, there must be two selves, one a knowing self, another the self which is known, and the process of knowing.

The state we call realisation is simply being oneself, not knowing anything or becoming anything. If one has realised, one is that which alone is and which alone has always been. One cannot describe that state. One can only be that.
Ramana Maharshi

So if this is unknowable, how to reach this ‘understanding’ at all? Let us listen to the Maharshi:

Q: But how is one to reach this state?
M: There is no goal to be reached. There is nothing to be attained. You are the Self. You exist always. Nothing more can be predicated of the Self than that it exists. Seeing God or the Self is only being the Self or yourself. Seeing is being.

You, being the Self, want to know how to attain the Self. It is something like a man being at Ramanasramam asking how many ways there are to reach Ramanasramam and which is the best way for him.
Ramana Maharshi

Isha Upanishad: That is full, this is full

full-moon

“That is full, this is full,
From that fullness comes this fullness,
If you take away this fullness from that fullness,
Only fullness remains”
Invocatory verse of Isha Upanishad

Gandhi famously declared the Isha Upanishad to be the summit of human wisdom. He said if all the scriptures in the world were lost, as long as the first verse of the Isha Upanishad remained then Hinduism would last forever.

To the rational mind devoid of spiritual experience this verse makes little sense – how can you take fullness from fullness, and for fullness to still remain? However to the one whose heart has glimpsed the Lord, the poetry reverberates and delights.

That is full, this is full…I can imagine the anonymous rishi (seer or wise person) who composed the verse pointing  away from him when saying ‘that’ and pointing near him or even perhaps towards himself when saying ‘this’. That is full, this is full…We are surrounded by the infinite. That is the infinite, I am also the infinite. The infinite is everywhere, nothing is not it. Nothing is limited, everything is free and unbound, one.

In the invocation above, the sanskrit word that has been translated as ‘full’ ispurna. Purna can also be translated as complete, whole, infinite, limitless or perfect. Taking this into account, what does it mean? It means that we are already whole and complete. You are whole and complete, I am whole and complete – already. You do not have to make yourself whole. Sadhana (spiritual practice) will not make you complete – it cannot. Sadhana can only reveal the completeness that is already here.

The problem for a spiritual seeker is not that they are un-enlightened or deficient in any way. It is that they do not realise they are already enlightened and whole.

This lack of realisation of one’s true nature is called ignorance, meaning that you do not see what is already the case, you do not know your true identity as That which is already full.

This ignorance or misunderstanding of reality has been demonstrated using many metaphors in the classic texts of vedanta, such as the woman who thinks she has lost her necklace only for a look in the mirror to reveal it is on her neck. The snake on the dimly lit ground that scares the man was actually a rope all along; when revealed by the light the rope is seen and the man’s fear is abated. Or when ten men have crossed a river the group leader becomes worried when he can only count nine men on the other side. A passer-by reassures the leader: he has merely forgotten to count himself.

In all these examples, all was well the entire time, only the protagonist made a mistake. The protagonist did not need to make things well, they only needed to see things clearly. The mirror, the light and the passerby in the analogies above represent the scripture or guru that reveals the mistake and thus ends suffering.

The solution to suffering and lack is therefore not one of self-improvement in which you build your small-shallow self up into some perfect super-duper being: you are already the perfect super-duper being. In fact we are all that One Being. We just don’t see it. All we have to do is look deeply at reality as it is now and investigate it and our assumptions about it. Then we can see for ourselves that the sense of lack is based on illusion and that we are already free.

As Jesus said, “seek and ye shall find” and “the truth shall set you free”.

Don’t take spiritual concepts too seriously

pine cone

“The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao” Tao te ching, verse 1

We don’t need to take spiritual concepts too seriously. They are there to guide us, to point us in the right direction only. The reality they point to cannot be described. When we start to take teachings too seriously we miss this point and start to become dogmatic.

Any interpretations that are set up and established as truth become meaningless phrases” Bankei

I’ve met people who follow Advaita Vedanta who say that consciousness is what we really are, and others who say what we are is beyond consciousness. Both of these are useful teachings, but don’t take them too seriously, either one of them. Both are useful and untrue. If you take a single position as being true, then that is a belief. Your attachment to a conceptual truth indicates the belief in ego/individuality that underlies it. Continue reading