In his Gita, commentary and elsewhere, Shankara declares repeatedly that meditation is the immediate precursor of Knowledge. Verse 8 in the Chapter of the Self runs:
The yogi who practises realization of that in everything,
and always holds to firmness in that,
Will see that which is hard to see and subtle,
and rejoice in heaven.
In the commentary, Shankara defines Ignorance as taking the Self to be limited by such things as mind and body, and Knowledge as knowing the Self as universal, ‘a binding of the Knower to Brahman’. He sees it through ‘great skill’ in samadhi, and the word for skill means the same as the word which occurs in the Patanjali Yoga sutra on samadhi, ‘when there is skill in the higher (samadhi), there comes undisturbed inner calm’.
In the commentary on the next verse, Shankara says that the man of Knowledge sees this first in meditation, with his senses withdrawn; but the man of Brahman even at the time of dealing with the world sees the Self who has entered into all beings. Now the senses and mind are functioning in response to events in the world, but the Self is not felt to be identified with a body and mind. It is universal, ‘Brahman, in the highest heaven’.
Self-awareness is universality. ‘He becomes all-pervading’ are the last words of the Chapter of the Self. There is no individuality in the body and mind of the yogi who has reached liberation. They are like fingers of the Lord and do not act for themselves.
It is often objected that avatars and sages do behave like individuals, some of them with very marked personalities. There is a consistency in their lives and actions; Christ hid from the crowd who wished to make him king, whereas Kama played out his life as a prince and a king. Shankara was a monk and Mohammad a householder. The Jain teachers were lifelong vegetarians, but Peter was a fisherman. Buddha began as a prince and ended as a wandering beggar, whereas Paul insisted on supporting himself by his own trade. If these are all the universal Lord, how is it that the individual characteristics persist?
One answer is that they are different roles, played by an actor who keeps his fundamental identity hidden beneath them, and creates beauty by displaying the appropriate characteristics of the role. It would not be proper for the actor playing Othello to display the same detachment and wisdom as when he plays Prospero. If we say, Could he do it? The answer is that as the actor, he could do it, but as Othello, he could not.
In discussing the world illusion, Shankara sometimes uses examples like the rope which is mistaken for a snake, causing terror in the beholder. The fright disappears when the nature of the rope is known. This example is meant to give an illustration of only the one point, namely super-imposition of a false snake on a real rope. It is not meant to be taken that the world process is an unfortunate chance error. He says again and again when setting forth the Upanishadic accounts of projection that the one important point is that this projection is conscious and purposive, from a supreme divine intelligence. It can best be compared to the illusions projected by a magician for the entertainment of the beholders, or the illusion of the play projected in a drama.
The characters of Hamlet and Horatio are indeed ‘set up by Ignorance’ in the sense that they are not absolutely real; but they are not meaningless. The ‘Ignorance’ corresponds to the voluntary suspension of disbelief which the audience practises at the beginning of a play. This suspension of disbelief is meant to go far enough to move them very deeply, but not so far as to produce a lasting impression of absolute reality.
The illustration of the actor works best when he is taken as the Eastern story-teller – one man who takes all the parts, and somehow produces an impression of a number of people in lively conversation and vigorous action. He has a minimum of stage props – perhaps only a fan, as in Japan, which becomes a sword, a cup, a staff, a pen and so on. The change of voice and behaviour creates a sort of world whose characters are very distinct; the effect has to be seen to be fully believed.
Another illustration which Shankara gives is that of the dream. Here the one mind stretches out a universe full of people; there is the same reason to believe that these people are conscious selves as there is in the waking state. Supposing that each of them represents a facet of the sleeper’s mind, individualized and self-conscious, then the ‘fact’ of Knowledge will be that this is all one; this fact will seem to contradict the direct experience of multiplicity. It is possible for one dreaming to attain insight that it is all a dream; then the circumstances cease to oppress him.
All these are no more than intellectual ideas, and their purpose is only to pacify the vehement objection, ‘But this is impossible’, in order to give the mind the chance to settle down in meditation to get a glimpse of what lies behind the thoughts and feelings of multiplicity.
Knowledge is not an intellectual guess or inference or hypothesis. It is a direct experience. But at the beginning this experience is mixed up with the habitual convictions of duality, so it is something extraordinary, and cannot be integrated into ordinary life.
One sees him as a wonder; and so also another speaks of
him as a wonder; and as a wonder another hears of him;
and though hearing, none understands him at all.
Shankara comments on this that one sees the Self as a wonder, as something never seen before, as something strange, seen suddenly. And though seeing him, though hearing and speaking of him, they do not understand him.
They do not understand what it is, because the direct knowledge is confused with super-impositions of Ignorance. When the disciple sees the great vision of the Lord, in the eleventh chapter of the Gita, he does not understand it as the Self at all. He is terrified, and asks that it be withdrawn. He feels it as something infinitely great and strange, and nothing to do with his Self, which he still believes to be his own body, mind, and role in life. This shows clearly in what he says at the time. In the vision of the universal, he sees all the worlds and their inhabitants, and he is also shown a glimpse of the future, to help him perform his own proper role in the light of the memory of it. In that glimpse he sees some of the figures with which his present role is concerned, and among them that of his great opponent Karna. The disciple Arjuna is of royal birth, and Karna is believed to be the son of a charioteer. Even at this moment of vision, Arjuna exclaims, ‘I see the hosts of warriors, Bhishma, Drona and that son of a charioteer. . . .’ He was firmly locked into his own individual role, with its attendant prejudices, and could not see the Self in all. So the vision passed, and though he had exaltation through it, he did not attain Knowledge.
What is beyond super-impositions can only be thought about by re-imposing some of them again, and the Brahman beyond all super-impositions is thought of in terms of attributes like the projection of the universe, and the individualities imagined in it, and the presiding Lord who is the friend of all. The human mind without experience tends to think that Brahman must be either without attributes, or with attributes – it cannot be both. When he has experience, he can accept that Brahman is both without attributes and with them, as the English actor playing Brutus both is and is not a Roman and playing Cerimon both is and is not a doctor.
In his Brahma-sutra commentary, Shankara sums up the point: the creation comes from the supreme Brahman through its unlimited powers. The Upanishads say that the Lord is omniscient and omnipotent. If it be objected that the Upanishads also say that the supreme Brahman has no attributes, being described as ‘Not this, not this’, the answer is that reasoning cannot apply to the supreme Brahman which is to be known from the Upanishads alone. Although all attributes are indeed denied, still Brahman has all powers of creation and so on which Brahman projects as illusion. So the Upanishad says, ‘He moves and grasps without feet and hands, He sees without eyes, and hears without ears.’
The Gita recommends that the mind should not try to dwell on Brahman without attributes, but rather on Brahman with attributes, which is approachable by the mind.
The technical reason is, that the remaining sanskaras representing the unexhausted karma keep the mind engaged in its remaining role in life, and this role can be understood and carried out in connection with the divine attributes by expressing the divine attributes, especially the attribute of the Lord as friend of all. Brahman without attributes is not expressed by any role in life.
The purpose of creation is an overflowing of joy as a sort of sport, not as a compulsion; the illustration is a man singing a song, creating beauty out of mere joy. Dr Shastri asked his pupils to find the thread of beauty in the world creation, and seek to embody it in some way in thought and activity as well as realize it in meditation.
There are a number of descriptions of the rise of Knowledge in the Gita, and of the man in whom Knowledge has risen. Of course these descriptions have to use the super-impositions of words to direct the attention to what is beyond words; it is something like the use of perspective to point the attention to a third dimension, into the canvas itself. Here are a few of the passages:
The enlightened one is he who knows that the Self does no action
The enlightened man has seen the Self
. . . has acquired a knowledge of the Self
. . . has a clear Knowledge (viveka-jnana) of Self
… is unshaken by gunas
. . . his joy is in the Self, he knows the Self
. . . sees the supreme
. . . sees the oneness of Self and the Lord
. . . has realized the true nature of the Self
. . . has attained right vision (samyag-darshana)
. . . knows the truth and sees the supreme reality
. . . realizes Brahman as the Self
. . . knows the real nature of the Lord
. . . worships the imperishable, devoid of attributes
. . . sees no distinctions . . . sees rightly
… is free from delusion
. . . perceives in the Self no pain whatever
. . . awakens to the immutable Self
. . . distinguishes the Self from what is not Self
The Chapter of the Self refers to the ‘pandit’; this can mean a learned man, and has been anglicized as ‘pundit’. But Shankara says in his commentary,
Delusion does not disappear simply by a view arising merely out of words. He sees it first in meditation. . . . Having thrown off the doshas which torment beings, the pandit attains peace. Here pandit is used in the sense of knower of Brahman, not a knower of doctrine.
Knowledge as used by Shankara must not be confused with the knowledge of the world through the senses, for the text says, ‘He is other than the sense-knowledge of this world’; nor is it the system of inferences and hypotheses called science; nor is it academic learning of revealed texts. These things do not remove delusion and grief, nor do they give immortality. And the text says, ‘Those who realize it, they are immortal.’
Great academic learning is sometimes a refuge from practice, and the compulsion to study the details can become a way of having no time for the main thing. There is a traditional teaching story on the point.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, a famous scholar made every year a lecture tour of towns in northern India, to speak on Vedanta. He used to hire little horse carriages to transport him between towns when there was no railway. Once he had some difficulty in finding a carriage to take him the next stretch of about twenty miles, and he realized he would have to walk. His hosts did not seem able to find even a porter willing to go in that direction, but in the end a man turned up and they set out. In conversation on the way, the pandit discovered that the porter knew his name and that he lectured each year. The porter said, ‘I couldn’t afford to go to the lecture, and anyway I wouldn’t have understood it, but I heard about the title of the one which you gave in our town last year. It was “The Lord standing equally in all beings”. I often thought about it.’
‘Well, the lecture would have been perhaps rather difficult for you,’ remarked the scholar. ‘But I think I showed that the concept appears already in the Skambha of the Atharva, for instance; my title I took of course from the dialogue in the sixth book of Mahabharata, the Gita I expect you would call it.’
‘It must be wonderful to be a great scholar,’ replied the porter, ‘I was so happy to have the honour of carrying your luggage.’
‘How was it that everyone was unwilling to come this way?’ asked the pandit casually. The porter made an evasive answer, but this roused the other’s curiosity, and in the end he admitted,
‘The fact is that there is a lion in this area which is a bit lame, so it can’t catch its prey. It has a habit of attacking travellers, and we porters don’t like going this way. No, sir, it would be no good turning back now; we’ve already passed most of the dangerous part, and it’ll be safer to go on.’
Soon afterwards, a lion appeared round a rock. The porter dropped the luggage and jumped in front of the pandit. ‘My Lord,’ he said, ‘this is a great scholar who is doing so much good to our neighbourhood with his lectures. If you are hungry, please take me as your dinner.’
The lion looked at him and went quietly away.
They went on in silence, and then the pandit whispered, ‘What happened there?’ The porter was rather reluctant to say anything, but the pandit asked again and again, and then he told him, ‘I used to think about the title of your lecture last year. They said it had been marvellous, the educated people did. But I thought it must be nonsense – how can the Lord be standing equally in all beings? And then I thought, well, he’s a famous scholar, and if he says so it must be true. It used to come to my mind when I was on the journeys. I was looking at the birds and trees and men, and wondering where is the Lord in them? One day I saw something, just for a moment, and since then the thought has never left me. When that lion came out, I saw the Lord looking at me out of his eyes. And I thought, perhaps today the Lord will take me to himself. That’s all.’
‘Why,’ said the scholar, ‘I have spent my life and made my name studying the items on the menu, but inwardly I have been starving. You read only one line of it, but you ate the food.’