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From the atheism of the cArvAkas down to the ShUnya theory of Buddhism, most of the  opinions are delusions. These delusions will vanish once the intuitive perception of the Transcendental Absolute dawns on us. The body cannot be the Self, because it is visible, it is inert, it has colour and form, it has parts, and it is made up of the five elements of matter. Also, if body were the Self, even when it is sleeping, even when it is in coma, in fact, even after death, it should be able to recognize itself as 'I'. The senses cannot be the Self, because, the blind, the deaf, the lame all can recognize the 'I' in them. The vital breath prANa cannot be the Self because when the body is sleeping, the prANa is still working, but it is not sentient as is clear from the fact that it does not recognize the purse being picked from its body. The intellect cannot be the Self because it exists neither before nor after life in the body and even while it exists in the body it is so full of change that you can never call it the immutable!

Now let us come to 'SUnya'. The question is: Why is the void not the Self? The 'void' comes in the discussion because of a gradation of logical alternatives. The body, the prANa, the senses, the mind - none of these is the Self. Remember that those who contend that these are the Self have started from the premise that there is no Self within, except one or more of these. So when by logical argument you prove to them that the Self which seems to be the motivating power within cannot be the body, cannot be the senses cannot be the mind, - the next subtle contender for being the Self is the concept of changing consciousness (kshaNika-vijnAna). That is, the series of momentary cognitions. This could be the Self. But the very fact that each instant it changes its awareness of things, denies it the status of the Self. What is ceaselessly changing cannot be the Self. And so now comes the proponent of ShUnya who says: There is no Self at all. In deep sleep there is nothing, there is only void -- neither the subject of experience nor any object of experience. Therefore says the ShUnya-vAdin: The Self is 'nothing'. Shankara calls this also, a misapprehension. To see the strength of his logic regarding ShUnya let us quote from various masters and experts. Each one contributes, in a uniquely different way, to a better understanding.

1. TMP Mahadevan in his commentary on the sixth verse of Dakshinamurti stotra: advaita examines experience as a whole in its triple form - waking, dreaming and sleep. The evidence of sleep is of special importance for it is not obtainable otherwise. Sleep is not a state of emptiness. While in waking and dreaming consciousness is related to a world of images and objects, in sleep it shines as Existence unrelated to anything else. Consciousness is not to be regarded as a characteristic of the mind, because in sleep there is no mind, and yet there is consciousness. That there is consciousness in sleep is clear because on waking up we say: I slept happily, I did not know anything. Just as consciousness is required for knowing the presence of anything even so it must be there for knowing the absence of anything.

2.From 'Advaita-bodha- deepika' published by Ramanashram: (p.75)

Disciple: When according to your instructions I enquire into the five sheaths and reject them as being non-self, I do not find anything left but simple void. Where then is the Self? Master: To say that there is nothing left behind the five sheaths, is like saying 'I have no tongue to speak’. Disciple: How so? Master: Unless one has a tongue one cannot say that one has no tongue to speak with. Similarly unless there is the seer of the void one cannot say there was nothing left. Otherwise one must not say anything. On the contrary since the speaker says that nothing is seen, it is obvious that the Self remains there revealing nothing besides Itself.

3. From Swami Chinmayananda's explanation of Verse 51 in Atma-bodh: When a lighted lamp is put on a table, no doubt its glowing illumination plays upon the surfaces of the various objects in the room and in varying degrees of intensity it illumines the objects. But as soon as the lighted lamp is slowly and carefully lowered into a pot or a jar, the light of the lamp must come to illumine only the inner space of the jar. Similarly, Consciousness, while playing through the equipments, no doubt gets reflected upon the objects and provides us with their knowledge; but when we have withdrawn the Consciousness from the vehicles into Itself, it can illumine only Itself.

4. Swami Prabhavananda and Isherwood in their explanation of Patanjali's Yoga sutra I - 38 in 'How to know God": In dreamless sleep the two outer coverings are removed and only the causal sheath, the ego-sense, remains. It follows therefore, that we are nearer
to the Atman in dreamless sleep than in any other phase of our ordinary unspiritual lives; nearer - yet so far, for what separates us is the toughest covering of the three, the basic layer of our ignorance, the lie of otherness. And this sheath can never be broken through by mere sleeping. We cannot hope to wake up one morning and find ourselves united with Reality. Nevertheless, some faint hint, some slight radiation of the joyful peace of the Atman does come through to us in this state and remains with us when we return to waking consciousness.

5. From Panca-daSi (by Vidyaranya Swami)

supto-thitasya saushupta-tamo-bodho bhavet-smRtiH /
sA cA-vabuddha-vishayA avabuddhaM tat-tadA tamaH //

It means: The knowledge of ignorance caused by sound sleep, becomes a memory (the technical name for this is pratyabijnA; this is taken up in the 6th shloka of dakshiNA-mUrti stotraM) when the individual wakes up. That memory has as its substance only what has been experienced. Therefore, when one sleeps, certainly there has been cognition of 'absence of perception', also called 'ignorance'. When we go into a dark room without light, we know there is darkness. In other words we 'see' darkness. In sound sleep we (now) know we were then unaware of everything and it is this cognition of ignorance that becomes the memory: 'I did not know a thing when I slept'.

6. From one of thousands of Shri Ramana's observations: Is dreamless sleep empty of all consciousness? That may be what you feel after waking from sleep. You do not do so in sleep itself. That in you which now feels that sleep is unconsciousness is your mind. But it was not present in your sleep and it is natural for the mind to be ignorant of the consciousness there is in sleep. Not having experienced sleep, it is unable to remember what it was like and makes mistakes about it. The state of deep sleep is beyond the mind. The waking mind cannot judge of sleep.

7. From Shloka No.12 of Sad-darSanam, translation of Ulladu-nArpadu, by Shri Ramana.: Neither sleep nor the cognition of objects is knowledge; In the true state, which is different from both, there is no awareness of objects. But consciousness alone shines. Hence it is not void.

8. Adapted From the explanations by Swami Nikhilananda and Swami Ghambirananda of Sloka No.IV-83 of MANDUkya-kArikA:

There are four alternatives. Either Atman exists independently as different from us -- and in order to make it different from impermanent objects as a jar, it is said to react diversely, sometimes happily and sometimes sorrowfully. The changeability is the fault of this theory. Or the Atman does not exist differently that is, it is inactive, because of its constant nature. This theory makes the denial of existence a constant feature and so, consciousness of our own self has to be denied and this is the fault. Some assert the state of both existence and non-existence; this has a double fault, namely both the faults of the earlier two theories. Then there is the total non-existence of the Self on account of everything ending in absolute negation or void; this is the nihilist view. The fault of this is one has to deny the very existence of oneself by this. So all these theories are delusions, says the shloka[1] which goes as follows: Childish (note the usage of this word here) persons verily cover It (fail to know It) by predicating of It such attributes as existence, non-existence, existence and non-existence and absolute non-existence, through ideas of changeability, unchangeability, both changeability and unchangeability, and non-existence.

9. Viveka-cUDAmaNiH Shloka No.218[2]: Meaning: (This shloka comes after one has negated the five sheaths as not-self). Whatever experiences the non-existence of everything else has itself as the witness to this experience. Therefore the Inner Self is the Absolute; nothing else is.

10. Extracted from Sankara's BhAshya on the B.G. for Shlokas 13-1 and 18-50:

On 13-1: (kshetrajnaM cApi mAM viddhi …) That the changeless actionless Self is the knower is only a figure of speech. Fire has the property of heat. But just as we give it the agency of the action of burning; so also the Self has been given the agency of knowing. This agency is actually our superimposition on the actionless changeless Self. So when we say the Self is conscious of being aware of nothing in sleep, it should be understood in the same manner of speaking. It is in this sense that the Lord says: 'Who thinks of This as the killer …' (ya enaM vetti hantAraM …) (2-19); 'He does not take anybody's sins …' (nAdatte kasyacit pApaM … ) (5-15).

On 18-50: ( … yathA brahma Apnoti … ) How does one know the Self?, is the disputant's question. The contention is 'both Consciousness and the Self are formless and changeless; how does knowledge take place?'. Some think that the body is the Self. Some think it is the senses. Some think it is the mind. Some think it is still deeper, it is the avyakta, the unmanifest factor. All these have the stamp of the Consciousness that is the Self. That is why the confusion arises whether these are themselves the Self. None of these is the Self. We have only to discard all this non-self, which have name and form. We do not have to be conscious of anything extra. It is the consciousness that is felt along with everything that is non-self. It is because of this that there is also a contention that there is nothing other than these feelings of cognition and so there is no Self other than the feelings. They contend that these feelings are self-validating, and so needs no other proof. In reality, therefore, what we have to do is only to discard the non-Self; we do not have to take any more effort to 'understand' or 'know' brahman. The tragedy here, is that the differentiations are nothing but names and forms stipulated by Ignorance and this has misled our discretion and intellect – the consequence being what is most explicit in us looks implicit, what is well-known to us appears unknowable, what is nearest seems distant, what is our own self turns out to be something other than ourselves. In sum, even the absence of everything has to be 'cognized'. The cognizer is consciousness. It first of all illumines its own presence without any external help - just as we know;'I am'. If in sleep we do not feel this illumination it is because of the presence of the ego in us. The 'memory' of unawareness that was there in sleep is 'pratyabijnA', which is an internal phenomenon, not of the mind, but of the ego - because of its faint contact with the radiation of joyful peace which is natural to us and with which we have an 'asymptotic' contact, as it were, during sleep. It is this natural peace which we discover after we have discarded everything else, thus ending, not with void, but with the Self.


[1] asti nAsty-asti nAstIti nAsti nAstIti vA punaH /
cala-sthiro-bhayA-bhAvaiH AvRNotyeva bAliSaH //

[2] asau sva-sAkshiko'bhAvo yataH svenA-nubhUyate /
ataH paraM svayaM sAkshAt pratyagAtmA na cetaraH //

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