11. THE ABSOLUTE AS IT IS
Real, Consciousness, Infinite (satyam jnAnam anantam brahma) is the Upanishadic definition of the Transcendental Absolute. This definition is applicable irrespective of the religion on which we want to base the discussion. Such a definition is called 'Definition As Is'. The Sanskrit name for this is svarUpa-lakshaNa. In contrast there is the other type of definiton called taTastha-lakshaNa. The word 'taTa' means 'shore' or 'bank'. When someone wants you to show the location of a river which is somewhere nearby but not visible, very possibly you may show a tree that stands on the bank of the river and say that the river is just where the tree is. Instead of using this much of language the common man may just say: 'That is the river', pointing to the tree. Here the tree is only a pointer to the river. The river, in other words, is indicated by the tree on the bank or shore. So also, the faint few-days-old moon is indicated by pointing to the space between two branches of yonder tree. And it must be noted that the moon has nothing to do with the branches of the tree; yet the branches of the tree help us to precisely look in the direction of the distant moon. That is why this type of definition is called a 'Definition by Indication'. The technical Sanskrit name for this, namely, 'taTastha-lakshaNa' means exactly this. It means 'Definition' (of the river indicated by pointing the tree) 'located on (its) 'bank'. So also when we want to specify the Almighty who is the Transcendental Absolute brahman, since we cannot handle or delimit the concept by our senses we just 'indicate' it (or Him!) by saying
He is the Father of the Universe.
Certainly this is a good pointer, since there can be no other than the absolute who can be the Father of the Universe. 'ahaM bIjaH pradaH pitA' says the Lord in the 14th chapter of the Gita, meaning, 'I am the Father who plants the seed'.
The concept of the Father of the Universe has two connotations. One is that He is the Creator of the Universe. The other is that He is the Soul of our souls, the Core of our core.
First let us take the Creation aspect. Where does He create the universe from? This question is often asked with great interest by all thinking persons. Much water has flown under the bridge of this debate whether He created the Universe out of Nothing or whether He created it from something other than Himself. Neither of the hypothesis is acceptable to either the advaita or the viSishTAdvaita philosophy. It is maintained by both that the Universe was created by the Lord out of Himself! In other words, He Himself is the material cause of the Universe. How can this be? The muNDaka-Upanishad explains this by giving three analogies. He creates the Universe just as a spider creates its own web, says the Upanishad. But this actually raises a question in our minds: Does it mean then that the Lord is in need of a place just as the spider weaves its web so as to have a place of residence for itself? No, says the Upanishad, by giving another analogy. Just as plants grow from Earthso also the Universe emanates from the Lord, continues the scripture. But again a further question may arise. So then, is the Lord, probably, an inert entity like the Earth?! No, look at the third analogy: Just as hairs grow on a man, says the Upanishad. Thus the universe sprouts forth from the Lord spontaneously, without any effort, from His Cosmic Energy, called prakRti.
For more on prakRti, go to 11.6 Essay on prakRti.
By the very presence of the omnipresent Absolute, the prakRti gives birth to the universe. It is actually a manifestation of the Absolute through the phenomenon called mAyA, which is only another name for prakRti. Manifestation is not transformation or a change of state. A change of state is called pariNAma or vikAra. The Absolute brahman does not undergo a change when it appears as the universe. It just appears; that is all. Such an appearance where the original does not modify its own svarUpa (inherent 'form') is called a vivarta -- like the rope appearing as the snake.
The second aspect of the Lord being the Father of the Universe is its role as the Soul of our souls. The Gita in its seventh chapter uses the word jIva-bhUtAM, in this context. It is the spark from the Light Absolute that becomes the life-giving Consciousness in every being.
The intellectual understanding of these two facets of the Father of the Universe is not very difficult. The logic that sustains the explanation above certainly appeals to one's intellect. There is a vague feeling that it is intellectually satisfactory. But what we fail to achieve is an emotional conviction of the whole thing. Mark the italicized words. We are deliberately not saying: 'intellectual conviction' or 'emotional satisfaction'. Usually the word 'conviction' is associated only with intellect. But that is exactly the problem here. So long as it is only an intellectual conviction, it does not lead to an experience at the spiritual level. Unless the conviction reaches the heart, that is, unless the conviction almost merges with that type of innate yearning that is more of an intuitive kind than of the speculative reasoning kind, the spiritual experience that arises will be only academic and to that extent is not real. Real emotional conviction comes only from experience.
That experience goes through two processes of negation. Every time the Upanishads refer to this they use the phrase 'neti' - meaning, na iti, not thus - and they use it twice every time, as if to emphasize that there are two negations. The first negation is a real negation that helps you transcend the mAyA which veils the Absolute and projects this universe as a superimposition on Reality. To negate the Universe is therefore to see brahman in everything and everywhere. In other words we have to see the brahman, without its adjunct, mAyA. The second negation, however, is a different category of negation and is perhaps the more difficult one. It negates the adjuncts of the Self. In other words it transcends the five sheaths, which 'cover' the Inner Self. These five sheaths are: in order of increasing subtlety, the physical, the vital, the mental, the intellectual and the blissful self. This negation is important in the understanding of the Self defined by satyam, jnAnaM and anantaM.
It is interesting to note, in this context, that the two words 'deha' and 'SarIra' used for 'the body' in Sanskrit carry in their meanings the transient character of the physical body. What is continuously being burnt, destroyed or consumed is the 'deha' - the root verb being 'dah' to burn or consume. What is continuously undergoing a process of decay is 'SarIra' - the root word being 'jharjhara' indicating decayal or the process of being digested. Thus the body has no permanence. The primary object of all teaching in Vedanta is to eradicate the feeling of 'I-ness' in this body-cum-mind-intellect
This is the path of Spirituality, even while remaining in this body. The object of all Hindu religious teaching is to save our Self from getting into another body after it leaves the present body. In other words, the object is to be able to die without being born again. It is a combination of four things, the Hindu scriptures tell us, that will ensure the non-occurrence of another birth;
catur-gagAra-samyukte punar-janma na vidyate
What are these four? They are four words beginning with the consonant 'ga':
gangA, gItA, govinda and gAyatrI.
gangA is the water of the Ganges that flows from the Lord after washing His lotus feet - this has to be received on our head so that it may wash off the sins committed by the body (= kAyena).
gItA is the nectar of His music coming from His own mouth in the form of the greatest exposition of scriptural truths - this has to be received and kept in our mind so that it may wash off the sins created by the mind (= manasA).
govinda is His sweet name - the dispenser and protector of the vedas is to be kept continuously kept in our tongue, the organ of speech, so that it may wash off the sins committed by our speech (= vAcA).
It is said that,
sins of the mind will land one into a birth at a lower level of evolution;
sins of speech will end up in one being born in the animal world
thus losing the capacity to speak; and
sins committed by the body will result in one becoming inanimate
and inert as lifeless matter.
Grandfather Bhishma of the mahA-bharatA was divine in his previous birth, but had to be born as a human, Bhishma, because as a divine he once allowed his mind to be infatuated just at the sight, for a second, of a danceuse whose shoulder-covering slipped, for a moment, during the dance. In the biography of Shirdi Sai Baba there is the story of two, otherwise, very pious, brothers, who quarreled endlessly using abusive and filthy words of each other and so were born in the next birth as two cows. In the Ramayana we have the story of ahalyA who had to be immobile for ages, just because she allowed her modesty to be assaulted by the King of the Divines.
gAyatrI is the very breath, if it can be so called, of the Lord Absolute, as to be received and treasured in the heart so that ultimately it may open up the gate of Self-Realization. It is the One thing that unveils the vastness of the Infinite to our heart.
For a detailed meaning of the gAyatrI, go to The Three fundamental Urges of Man. (Page 12)
The passage from the finite to the Infinite, is not on the physical, mental or intellectual plane. It has to be a transformation of the heart. It is by that internal transformation alone that one hopes, with the Grace of the Absolute, to have the experience of the Infinite. Actually the Lord expresses His agony, as it were, when He says: (Gita, VII -26):
I know all the past, all the future and all the present,but nobody knows Me.
Instead of trying to know Him we often spend time in discussing mundane trivialities.
(For instance, every one of us spends time, money and energy to enjoy the sunrise and sunset, particularly at certain key tourist spots - but what does not come to our minds is the fact that every sunrise and every sunset is taking away our life and must be a reminder for us to hasten to know what is to be known, satyasya satyaM - the Truth of Truth).
The sage Ramana puts the occupation with mundaneness graphically: 'I tell you there is no snake; there is only the rope. But you want to spend your lifetime in researching whether the snake that appears to you is of this variety or that variety, whether it is a cobra or not'!
To continue with the same analogy, a very standard one in Vedanta literature, one notices that the rope is the more substantial one whereas the snake is only an appearance, a manifestation, a phenomenon that comes and goes. There is no permanent reality to it. In the same manner, the only Immutable and ever-permanent Reality is the Absolute brahman - which may be taken either in The Personal Form (the Supreme Transcendental Personality) or in the Impersonal 'Form'. For Him the six 'waves' ( = Urmis) of samsAra are non-existent. But these matter very much for us, because they are the ones which create all the ups and downs, pleasures and pains, in fact all the dualities in our lives. They are
well-known to us but we are so much engrossed with them that we are not aware of the need to isolate and brand them as only the transient 'waves' of samsAra. They are:
aging, death, suffering, infatuation, hunger, and thirst.
In addition, there are six vikAra's namely, six transformations or changes of state that all beings are subject to, but the Lord is not. These are:
we exist, we are born, we grow, we mature, we decay, we die.
The Lord, on the other hand, is not subject to these changes of state
because, He transcends the dualities implied in their description. Thus neither the six Urmi's nor the six vikAras apply to Him. That is why we have to bask in His Light in order to overcome the six Urmi's and transcend the six vikAra's. The esoteric meaning of the six faces of Lord subrahmaNya, the six-faced God, is just this. His six faces give us the spiritual strength to overcome these. In fact every manifestation of the Lord has this purpose.
To continue with the analogy of the rope and the snake, having disposed off the snake that it was never there, we now try to understand the 'rope'! In other words, having disposed off the status of the created universe that it is only a passing appearance, we now go to the root of the matter.
What is the basis or locus of this visible universe? The only way by which we seem to understand anything is by our mind. But we have seen above that the mind itself is transient. The Reality is deeper than the mind. A little analysis is relevant here. When we cognize the presence of an object, we say we are conscious of the object. Leaving aside the physical instruments of perception, logically we can come to the conclusion, that it is not just the eyes or the mind or the brain that cognizes, but deeper within, there is our consciousness without which we could not be conscious of any-thing. But now suppose you walk into a totally dark room. What are you conscious of, now? You are not conscious of anything. You might say that because it is dark you are not able to see anything, and so you are not conscious of anything. But you are conscious of the fact that you are not able to see anything, because of the darkness. In other words, you are conscious of darkness. The point of it all is that consciousness is never absent in you. One may say that during deep sleep one is not conscious. But after waking up one remembers he was asleep. If the consciousness was not present
during sleep one will not remember that he had the enjoyment of sleep.
For a deeper analysis of sleep, go to
The Three Fundamental Urges of Man (Page 12) and to Essence of Upanishads. (Page 17)
That is why the scriptures cry hoarse: The Self is Consciousness. Because, after all the other things have been negated as transient, that one thing has to remain.
The three words Real, Consciousness and Infinite all refer to one and the same thing, namely brahman. When qualified by the three epithets, brahman is distinguished from everything else. The words distinguish brahmanfrom all unreal, insentient and finite things. Whatever is absolutely real exists in the past, in the present, and in the future. All things which have vikAras are unreal.
vacArambhaNam vikAro nAmadheyam, mRttiketyeva satyam
says the chAndogya-Upanishad, meaning: all that changes form is only a name and a creation of speech; what is clay is alone real. Here the analogy of the context is that of the pot made of clay. The pot has only name and form; it is the clay that is relatively real. In the analogy of the rope and snake, it is the rope that is relatively real. That thing is unreal which deviates from its form; so, the snake and the pot are unreal. The universe is unreal because it is subject to deviation. In general what arises from something else has no status of absolute reality. So always the cause is relatively real and the effect is unreal. The universe is an effect, therefore it is unreal.It is only an empirical reality. It is certainly more real than the phenomenal reality of the dream. But even the universe is not absolutely real since it is subsumed in a still higher experience. In the same way the five sheaths that 'cover' the Self are not absolutely real. That is why their negation ( Recall neti-neti) is necessary to become and be, the Self within. When the fundamental unity of the Self with brahman is realized, the world of our waking moments is submerged. So brahman-consciousness is of a higher order of reality. There is no higher reality beyond that because it is Pure Consciousness. Absence of Consciousness is a contradiction in terms. The very knowledge of absence of consciousness implies the existence of consciousness. This highest intuition, which should not be called consciousness of the Absolute, is Consciousness itself. This is the 'jnAna' occurring in the definition of brahman.
Brahman is the ultimate Cause. But It is not like clay being the cause for the pot. Clay is insentient, but brahman is not. That is why the scripture says, brahman is Consciousness. Because Consciousness alone is absolutely real. Insentient matter is real only from the standpoint of worldly experience. The word 'jnAna'which is used here to define brahman along with the adjuncts 'real' and 'infinite', usually arises in the context of the knower, the object known, or the instrument of knowledge or the act of knowing. The knower is the agent of the act of knowing and so he undergoes a vikAra in the very act of knowing. If brahman were the knower he would be other than what is known and so cannot be infinite. Brahman cannot also be the object known for the same reason.
Thus brahman has to be defined only in terms of Knowledge, Consciousness, pure and simple - just as it is Existence, pure and simple. Ordinarily knowledge or consciousness means that through which something is known or shines forth. But here in the definition of brahman it has to mean knowledge itself . It denotes the very consciousness on which is based the entire process of knowing along with the concepts of knower and known. This Consciousness is not material and therefore it is limitless and infinite. The word 'infinite' denies all limitation of space, time and causation. The words 'real' and 'consciousness' not only deny the opposite of these words but also have positive connotations of 'unfailing existence' and 'self-luminous knowledge of objects' - as was remarked in the instance of our understanding darkness of a dark room.
QUESTION: Is it not illogical to talk about a pure contentless consciousness?
No. This is the crux of the matter. In Advaita Vedanta, a book by M.K. Venkatrama Iyer, Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1964, there is a beautiful presentation of a possible answer to this question. Take an illustration from the fine arts. From architecture to sculpture, from sculpture to painting, from painting to poetry, from poetry to music, there is a gradual transition from a situation of content-domination to one of form-domination. In architecture brick and mortar occupy a very prominent place. This prominence recedes into the background when the sculptor with his chisel produces a whole saga out of just one piece of stone. In painting there is very little physical content, but there is a substantial amount of form that predominates. In poetry, by mere words one brings a whole bundle of meanings, emotions and expressions. Here matter or content is at its lowest and form takes over almost fully. But when we go over to music, there are not even words. By the mere form of music we are enraptured into whatever emotion the composer has designed for us. Music is pure form with no material content. If this can happen in art, it can also happen in the description of the reality behind the universe, where, as we advance in spiritual evolution, we pass to higher and higher states of consciousness. Starting from the waking state of consciousness in which we are so full of content that even the consciousness behind it is hidden, we go step by step until we reach the stage where there is no matter but only pure spirit, pure consciousness. Twentieth century Physics tells us that our consciousness is in some intricate way mixed up with the external world. Vedanta declares that there is no mixing up, in the sense that there is only consciousness. There is not even a subject and an object.
QUESTION: When the subject and object disappear, are we not left with a complete blank?
No. It is an error to think that when the series of presentations to consciousness come to an end, there is nothing left behind. Even the statement that there is nothing left behind is a piece of knowledge, presupposing consciousness. The reminiscent experience that we slept well the previous night and did not know anything about what went on when we slept, would not be possible if the state of deep sleep were a complete blank. While everything is presented to consciousness and is revealed by it, consciousness itself is not presented to anything else. It is never an object in relation to a subject. It is that which underlies both subject and object and can manifest itself without any aid. This is the Ultimate Reality which sages experience in the state of nirvikalpa-samAdhi, when they have left everything far behind. One can deny everything external to oneself but one cannot deny one's own self. Consciousness is the Self.
Hence it is that the Lord is addressed as 'jnAna-svarUpa' and 'satya-svarUpa'. He is also 'Ananda-svarUpa' because of His infiniteness. 'Ananda' is bliss and 'ananta' is infinity. What is total bliss has only to be infinite, it cannot have any limitation. What is finite cannot be happiness or bliss.
For a discussion of this go to the passage from the chAndogya-Upanishad in Essence of Upanishads.
What is infinite can have neither a beginning nor an end. Our
gnorance is beginningless, but it will have an end, when we get Self-Realization. Thus brahman is satyam orsat; brahman is jnAnam or cit; and brahman isanantam or Ananda. Its svarUpa, 'form' as It is, is sat-cid-Ananda which is the same thing as satyam-jnAnam-anantaM.
In sum there are five and only five concepts that matter;they are:
sat, cit, Ananda, nAma and rUpa.
The first three are absolutely real and they are only one, namely brahman. The last two take care of all the universe, and the knowledge of it by science and other means; they are real only so long as we are not AWARE of the absoluteness of the Absolute.
Om tat sat.
FOR A STEP-BY-STEP EXPOSITION OF ADVAITA IN A DIALOGUE FORM, GO TO 11.1 TO 11.5