A commentary on the Chapter of the Self
In one of the old law books of India which is dated about 300 B.C. there is a chapter on the Self – on realisation of the Self. Shri Shankara, the great Yogic philosopher and commentator, selected this chapter and made a commentary on it. He says it appears in the law book because, although the law books are designed to uphold dharma (the law of righteousness) and to uphold the world order, whereas realisation of the Self is to transcend the world order, still they have in common that the yogas of the Self are the best way for a man to attenuate the defects of character.
Some of the verses are these:
“Let a man practice realisation of the yogas of the Self, the Adhyatma yogas, which confirm to truth and pacify the mind. There is no higher goal than attainment of Self. Every living being is a city, a city of one that is hidden deep within, which cannot be struck down and is without taint. Those who practice the realisation of that unmoving which dwells within the moving become immortal. There is an eternal dweller existing within all beings, omniscient, deathless, firm, ever blissful, without limbs, without words, without touch, one that is great, that is pure. He is all things, he is the highest peak, he is the centre, he is the city where the many roads intersect. The yogi who practices realisation of him everywhere and always follows the path of renunciation, meditating on him, when he sees that subtle Self which is hard to see, he rejoices in heaven. When he sees all beings in the Self, not straying from meditation and sees the Self everywhere, the sage indeed is a knower of Brahman, he shines in the highest heaven. Subtle, finer than a lotus fibre, he stands pervading all. Greater than the whole earth, firm he stands supporting all. He is other than the sense knowledge of this world. The world is not different from him, the Supreme who is to be known, who divides himself into many. From him the bodies all come forth. He is the root, he is the eternal, he is constant. Destruction of the defects here in this life is based on yoga. Having thrown off these which consume the beings, the pundit, the wise one, attains peace.”
These are words which point to something, and it’s said in the Far East that often there is a movement from within when we hear these words, and we feel they must correspond to the truth – obscurely we feel that there is a reality. Then something says, “No. It isn’t so.” There’s a sort of perversity which springs up and says, “No. Come down to reality. Be practical.” In Goethe’s Faust this is represented by Mephistopheles. Belief is not at all the same as knowledge and it may be opposed to knowledge and knowledge may be opposed to belief.
In America, not so much in this country, there’s something called high-pressure salesmanship, where young salesmen force things on to people who don’t want them. If you ask one of them how they go about it, say selling an inferior encyclopaedia, pestering people for weekends in their homes until they take it, they give you an interesting account. The young salesmen all meet in the morning, before eight o’clock in the office of the sales manager – a big place with a big pair of double doors. Then he sits down and he harangues them. First of all he frightens them – he says, “The management are on at me to sack the last man in your list- you all have a list of what you’re selling. One of you is coming last. It doesn’t matter whether he’s increasing his sales, still he’s coming last. Our management doesn’t want a last man.” So first of all he gives them a terrible fright. Then he says, “Think if you sell this what you will be able to buy, what you will be able to do. All the things you wanted for you and your family, you will be able to do.” Then he goes on, “To sell this encyclopaedia is your social duty, because you’re raising the level of education of all the people in the city who are crying out for it, although they’re not quite sure this is what they want. Then he says, “… and furthermore this is your patriotic duty, because this is a country which manifestly is going to lead the world. The citizens of this country must have a higher level of understanding and knowledge.” Then he drops his voice and says, “… and those of you who have a religious faith – and I always stress the religious faith is very useful in business, provided the business remains the main thing – in the good book it says, ‘Know the truth and the truth will make you free’ and this encyclopaedia contains the truth – so to sell it is your sacred duty.” Then they all get up and sing the company song and he throws open the double doors and they go out running.
When he tells you this, you say, “How can you sit there through all this?” He says, “You don’t understand. You need this. You’ve got a terrible hangover and it’s raining and you’re feeling absolutely down. When this is going on you need it, you want to believe it – and it does. It energises you and you feel excited with it – you’re a member of the team and out you go running. You make quite a number of calls, and sometimes you’re very energetic. You get inside the place, you shoot questions at the people – ‘Do you know what bimetallism is? Do you know what the scaphoid is? No? You don’t? Do you want your children to grow up ignorant like you?’ So then you can sell them. He said, it lasts until about eleven o’clock and the suddenly it’s all down – but by that time you may have sold one or two, and perhaps you’ll be able to keep going on that.” You say to him, “Do you ever look inside the encyclopaedia?” He says, “No – it’s not a good thing to do. You may start thinking perhaps this is not so good. And it’s better to simply have the faith, to feel you’re part of this group. You’re selling something. You don’t want to investigate it very closely, and it gives you the energy and enthusiasm to do what you’ve got to do.”
This is an example of a sort of belief that’s built up. He says, while you’re in the company you find yourself actually believing it, but as soon as you leave the company you can see that it’s all nonsense. But it can be built up and maintained. This is the very opposite of yoga in which these things are presented and then – Shankara stresses very much – they must be examined. In his works he repeatedly produces objections, he allows the objector to state his objections very forcibly. They’re not just straw objections which can be easily knocked down, they’re very strongly stated. Then the result is not simply a faith or a belief, which isn’t closely examined because one might be frightened of finding nothing in it, but what he calls knowledge – something which has been examined and experimented with and is finally confirmed. This is Shankara’s method. He says the texts are presented and then they have to be examined and thought about very deeply.
Part 2: Overcoming anger and other defects
As an example of Shankara’s method, are two of these verses from this lost Upanishad which is quoted in the law book. Shankara says it is an upanishad, but the name of it was not known even when he lived, and it’s not known to us now, we only know these verses from it.
‘Subtle, finer than a lotus fibre, he stands pervading all. Greater than the whole earth, firm he stands supporting all. He is other than the sense knowledge of this world.’
Shankara says the supreme Self is not the sense knowledge – he is other than whatever knowledge is produced by the senses about this world. He is not the knowledge of our investigations, he is not the knowledge of our ordinary perceptions, he is not the knowledge produced by science, he is not the inspirations of art, he is other than what is produced by the senses of this world. Shankara says he is described as different from that worldly knowledge.
Then he says, from this description in the whole verse, we come to know that he is Knowledge itself. Pure knowledge, not sense knowledge. ‘Existence, knowledge, infinity’, says the scripture. So it is said that he is other than the knowledge about this world which is produced by the senses.
The verse goes on, ‘The world is not different from him, that Supreme who is to be known.’ Shankara comments that it might be supposed that the world is utterly distinct from him. To prevent that he says, “Of this world which is none other than, which has no existence separate from, that which is to be known from the highest Lord.” This world is ‘none other than’, that is to say, he explains, ‘… it has no existence separate from the highest Lord who is to be known, who is non-dual, the ultimate truth. The world is nothing other than him, as pots made of clay are nothing other than clay. He is the one standing as Supreme. He stands in his glory. He ‘stands’ – which means abides in the space in the heart. He is eternal.’
‘That Self alone divides.’ The verse says, ‘He divides himself into many.’ Shankara says, “That Self alone dividing, separating, sharing himself out, into gods, sisters, men and so on, and as the distinction of knower, known and knowledge. He alone, the Self which is to be known, divides himself of himself variously into the world. Thus from the Self alone, the bodies come forth in order. The whole from the first-born god, Brahma, down. He therefore is the root of the world. The scripture says, ‘… from whom these beings are born.’ So too he is eternal, for whatever is a modification – for instance a birth – that would perish in due course, it would revert to its cause and such a thing is not eternal, it is not constant. This Self is the ultimate root, there is no other cause beyond it. What is born will perish, will revert to its cause. But this which is different from those things is eternal, it is eternity itself. It is constant because of its oneness, greatness and ultimate causality.
In the next verse, he says, ‘For the man who has known this Self as described, the yogas practised in the proper way become effective. For the obstructions, the defects, or doshas as they’re technically called, come from false notions. When the defects cease, sansara, the world also – which arises from them through the actions of right and wrong – ceases.’ To show this the next verse says, “Destruction of the defects here in this life is based on yoga. Having thrown off these which consume the beings, the pundit, the wise one, attains peace.”
He says the defects are destroyed, annihilated, by the yogas. The defects are given as anger, excitement, irritation, greed, and so on. There’s a long list and there are some interesting comments on them. He says that hatred can never lead to a good result, anger sometimes can. The example of Dhruva is given. In one of the classics the boy, he’s a small child, – and in those days the kings had a number of wives in order to be sure of having a male heir to the throne and this was the son of the second wife – he wanted to climb up to his father’s lap. The stepmother said, “No – that’s not for you, you’re not the heir to the throne.” The little boy was so angry that he left the palace. He’d heard that to sit in meditation was a way of attaining one’s desires, so he sat in meditation on the Lord. First of all, a great sage came to tell him this is not a right course of action, but he persisted. Then Indira sent wild animals to frighten him, but he still continued and in the end the Lord appeared and said, “You’ve pleased me with your devotion, now what is it that you want?” But by this time he’d forgotten, he’d gone far beyond his little childish ambitions. So the Lord then granted him the place in heaven – the heaven of realisation as Shankara says.
So that was anger which led him to a spiritual discipline, and that spiritual discipline made him grow up spiritually. Then the anger was gone – it vanished and the spiritual discipline gave him spiritual eminence. But he says that with most of them there is no good element about them – greed, delusion, hypocrisy, false speech, criticising others. He makes an interesting remark. There is one element, he says, which means an impatience, an inability to sit still when confronted with the good points of other people. This is a very acute analysis.
When Goethe was in old age – he was one of the most famous men in the world and he had conducted the affairs for which he was responsible in the Weimar government with great integrity and great benevolence – an official demanded more detailed accounts from him of all the money he had handled. It gave great satisfaction to that official to think, ‘He may be a great poet, he may be a great scientist, he may be a world-famous figure; but that’s all nothing to me – he presents his detailed accounts like every junior official.’ Goethe’s eminence was something that he couldn’t stand and he had to react to it in that way.
Part 3: Real power?
Shankara says these defects are all based on a false notion, and because they’re based on a false notion they can be destroyed by yoga which is based on a true notion. These things are analysed in some spiritual schools humorously. In one sect in Japan which was a very rich and prosperous one, the primate, the head of that sect lives a very simple life and wears simply a cheap cotton robe when he’s in his private room. But the rule is in the Buddhist schools that if any three or four believers come and ask for the sutras to be read formally, they are read – and to read them the priests wear wonderful gold-embroidered robes. It’s a very impressive ceremony.
This primate was a famous man in his own right and he also wore these wonderful robes. One day one man talking to him said, “I suppose, being as famous as you are and having this complete authority that you have over all the believers of this sect and wearing these wonderful robes in these wonderful impressive ceremonies, it must be very difficult to remain humble.”
The primate said, “Not so difficult as it was when I was in a tiny little temple. You see, now it’s true that I speak, but if I give a sermon on the words of the buddha, on the sutras, people say it’s too difficult. But then if I give a simple sermon people say, ‘Aren’t the words of the Buddha good enough for you?’” He says, “Whatever I do there are many who criticise. It’s true I have the authority, but there’s an election every five years, so there has to be a certain consensus with what I do. But when I first started in a tiny temple, I was the cook and I was the best cook of the four or five there. As I cooked, I used to think to myself, ‘My service is perfect.’ Then, as number two to me, a boy came in from the country. He was no good at cooking and I had to train him. Nobody knew, it was just the two of us, but I gave him hell. That was real power. I haven’t got that power now. Everything I do is done in front of everybody.” So he said, “These things like power and pride, they can only be maintained, the conceit of them, by artificially limiting the sphere, making it very small. A man can’t be conceited if he simply looks around, he can only be conceited if he makes a very small sphere and thinks I’m the best in that.”
To this extent the defects, Shankara says, are all based on false notions. They can only be maintained, they take their life, from false notions. “When a man has known this Self – knowledge of Self” he says, “… then the yogas practiced in the proper way, become effective for clearing away the defects. When the defects cease, sansara also ceases. Destruction of the defects here in life is based on yoga.” Shankara says, “… it won’t be done unless it’s practised with yoga. Although they can be temporarily suppressed, they will return. The annihilation of defects is done on the basis of yoga. Angerlessness is a yoga because it leads to samadhi and the others are yogas because they lead to samadhi. They are the basis on which the defects are removed. Confronted with these yogas the defects are weak and can be shaken off. Here in this life, to end the body-wearing, the identification with the body, the defects must be dealt with because life itself is caused by actions which themselves arise from the defects.”
Now he raises a number of objections. “It may be objected: ‘How are aspirants to put forth the tremendous efforts in the yogas because these are against sansara, against the current of the world in which we now are, they go against the very current of our life. The yogas and the defects being mutually opposed, why should it be only the yogas that defeat the defects and not the defects which destroy the yogas?’
The reply is, ‘The yogas are the strong ones because they have right knowledge behind them; and the others, the weak ones, being false notions are destroyed. So the yogas kill the defects, just as we see in this world, those of strong intelligence overcoming the foolish. Having thrown off these defects which consume the beings – and he says, when these defects are excitement or anger or irritation or the impulse to slander others or delusions arise, beings are burned as if by fire and there is no peace, and so the defects are called the consumers of beings – having shaken them off, one goes to peace, to fearlessness, to liberation. The scripture says, ‘He who knows the bliss of Brahman is not afraid anywhere’ and ‘Fearlessness, O Janaka, you have attained it’ and ‘For the knowers there is no fear anywhere.’”
The verse says, he must be a ‘pundit’ and Shankara explains that as meaning, not a knower of the scriptures, but a knower of Brahman. Without knowledge of Brahman one cannot attain peace simply by eliminating defects. ‘Pundit’ here is used in the sense of Brahman-knower, not scripture-knower. The Upanishad says about Self-realisation ‘The Brahmin masters this true learning and attains it.’
It may be said that if the instruction about shaking off the defects applies to the wise man as well, then his knowledge of Brahman doesn’t bring peace. If his knowledge of Brahman alone did produce peace, then after knowing Brahman he should not be experiencing suffering. Shankara says, “Not so, and this is why. The yogas based on the strength of right knowledge have the power to destroy the defects – because they are based on the right knowledge. The defects are feeble because they are essentially wrong knowledge. Attainment of peace is from the Brahman knowledge alone because, without that, the defects cannot be eliminated, nor the karma destroyed.”
Part 4: Knowledge destroys karma
The objection: “But if shaking off the defects and the destruction of karma come inevitably from the knowledge, they’re automatic and the instruction to shake off the defects is unnecessary, is redundant.” Shankara says, “No, because some defects are activated by karma which has already begun to operate, prarabdha karma. As regards producing effects, karmas accumulated in many lives are of two kinds – those already in operation and those which have not yet begun to operate. The karma already in operation is karma by which the defects are being activated to give to the doer his karmic results in the form of pleasure or pain and so on…
“Unless some defects, some attachment, some aversion, unless some were there, these results would not be felt at all. No-one ever sees pleasure or pain experienced unless there is some desire or aversion there. The defects are activated by prarabdha karma, karma which has already begun to operate and so they bring about their effects. Association with karma has made them strong and they have to be thrown off with effort. They’re caused by the storm of activity and so they are to be destroyed here in this life on the basis of yoga. Referred to here are differences in clarity of knowledge which may be weaker, or middling or perfect. For even among knowers of Brahman not all of them have the same attainment of Brahman. Some of them have perfect clarity of vision. As the Mundaka Upanishad says, ‘He is highest among the knowers of Brahman’, and smriti says, ‘Perfect in right vision’. But the instruction about renunciation and detachment and conquest of the senses applies to those of weaker or middling clarity of knowledge of Brahman. In regard to those of perfect knowledge of Brahman, who have already attained their goal, it is only anuvada, confirmation.”
Now, for instance, Swami Rama Tirtha discussing this point says about jivanmukti, liberation in this life, “The knowledge which is essential has to be raised in intensity to the pitch where mind becomes no mind and the vasanas, the latent impulses, are dissolved. But if a man has been devout enough to realise the presence of God in all those who come into contact with him – which means he has passed through the stages where the mind transcends the mind and the impulses are dissolved – then when he is initiated into knowledge of Truth, then from the very moment of hearing the mahavakya, ‘Tat Twam Asi’, he is a jivanmukta. But if a man out of mere inquiry turns to jnana, to knowledge, he will certainly be free after death. But to be free in this life he must resort to transcending the mind and to dissolution of the latent impulses.”
Then the objector says again, “Well, in that case, if there are some defects even in the enlightened, and if he is doing some actions then, like everyone else, he will be born again, he won’t be free from the circle of sansara.” “Not so”, says Shri Shankara. “It is like an arrow which has been shot. An arrow which has been shot, its energy gradually spends itself so that it becomes weaker and weaker. As the impetus of the arrow spends itself, so the activities of the enlightened man – though involving some defects activated by his karma already operating – are simply for experiencing the result of that karma. He has no further motive and hence they cannot lead to another birth. As for the karma which has not yet begun to operate, that is burnt by the fire of knowledge where it lies – like scorched seeds it cannot germinate into another birth. The Mundaka Upanishad says, his karmas are destroyed and the Gita says, the fire of knowledge burns up all karmas.”
So the conclusion is, it is a wise man, the knower of Brahman who, by shaking off the defects, attains peace. Swami Rama Tirtha speaks of activity and he says, “The activity, also called the activity of the world – the reading, the speaking, the feeling, the acting – is passivity and idleness. In real work the world is lost. Infinite activity is never, as such, conscious activity. Consciousness works through reflection and reflection is through limitation. As soon as we reflect upon the activity of the ego, the ego is finite. Were the question raised, ‘Is the ego infinite’, by the very question the ego is finite.” And he speaks of the activity of the liberated man, of the enlightened man, as infinite activity which is not limited by an ego which posits itself as active. He says, “Until the conviction of the material world is entirely obliterated, the consciousness of simple being becomes as unconsciously natural as the coming in and going out of breath. Then the effort to keep up the vasana, the current, of consciousness, of pure consciousness, should not be discontinued.”
He speaks of ‘intently looking at the world’. “He is happy who can by deeply and intently looking at the dark surroundings make them full of light, just as we make the things in a dark room visible by continually keeping our gaze over them.” In a number of places he refers to this ‘looking intently’ and then, he says, the mists which obstruct the vision begin to dissolve and he will see something he didn’t see before.
So with these points that have been discussed I’ll read the verses again:
“Let a man practice realisation of the yogas of the Self, the Adhyatma yogas, which confirm to truth and pacify the mind. There is no higher goal than attainment of Self. Every living being is a city, a city of one that is hidden deep within, which cannot be struck down and is without taint. Those who practice the realisation of that unmoving which dwells within the moving become immortal. There is an eternal dweller existing within all beings, omniscient, deathless, firm, ever blissful, without limbs, without words, without touch, one that is great, that is pure. He is all things, he is the highest peak, he is the centre, he is the city where the many roads intersect. The yogi who practices realisation of him everywhere and always follows the path of renunciation, meditating on him, when he sees that subtle Self which is hard to see, he rejoices in heaven. When he sees all beings in the Self, not straying from meditation and sees the Self everywhere, the sage indeed is a knower of Brahman, he shines in the highest heaven. Subtle, finer than a lotus fibre, he stands pervading all. Greater than the whole earth, firm he stands supporting all. He is other than the sense knowledge of this world. The world is not different from him, the Supreme who is to be known, who divides himself into many. From him the bodies all come forth. He is the root, he is the eternal, he is constant. “