Seeking the Self

These three texts are the subject of the lecture; they’re connected – the Gita 15:11, the Katha Upanishad 1:2:23 and the Mundaka 3:2:3.  I’ll read them:

The Gita:

“Those who strive, being yogis, perceive Him dwelling in the Self; though striving, those of unrefined self, without wisdom, perceive Him not.”

In his commentary on this verse, Shri Shankara follows very closely, though he doesn’t quote it, the Katha Upanishad:

“This Self cannot be known through many words, nor through the intellect, nor through much hearing.  It can be known through the Self alone, that one prays to. This Self of that seeker uncovers its true nature to him.  One who has not ceased from bad conduct, whose senses are not controlled, whose mind is not set in samadhi, who is not free from anxiety, cannot attain this Self even through knowledge.”

In the Mundaka, the first verse is the same as the Katha above:

“This Self cannot be known through many words, nor through the intellect, nor through much hearing.  It can be known through the Self alone, that one prays to. This Self of that seeker, uncovers its true nature to him.  This Self is not attained by one devoid of strength, nor through delusion, nor through knowledge if not associated with sannyasa (renunciation), but the Self of that Self-knower, who strives through these means, enters into the abode of Brahman.”

The Gita verse: “Those who strive, being yogis (‘when they are yogis’, Shankara says), they perceive Him dwelling in the Self.  Though striving, those of unrefined self, perceive Him not.”  In his commentary, Shankara says even though they pursue the quest for the Self through the proper means – the study, the scriptural texts and reasoning on them – they do not know him unless they are yogis.  He defines yogis as those who are expert in meditation.  This theme comes again and again in Shri Shankara – knowledge is the means to liberation; karma is the means to experience in the world.  Knowledge is the means to liberation.  Yet he gives accessories to knowledge which are essential; and yet in other places he says knowledge alone; and in still other places, he says these things follow naturally from knowledge; and in other places he enjoins them as though they didn’t follow naturally from knowledge.

We can say, “Well, too many contradictions.”  Our teacher said there are no contradictions in Shri Shankara – but we must study everything that he says, not only one or two [points].  At a certain time of the year a tree is brought into the house and the children admire it.  It’s set down, and they expect it to grow.  The older one says, “It’s very, very slow to grow, but we’ll measure some of its little branches and after a week I expect they’ll be an inch longer.”  Then they put ornaments on it and a star at the top, but it still doesn’t grow.  Then, to the disappointment of the little ones, it begins to wither; and they think, “Perhaps it’s just for a little bit.”  But then another branch begins to wither and turn brown and finally it’s thrown away.  This is a tree, but it’s not a tree.  It’s called a tree, but it’s no tree.  Two of the oldest systems of writing which, as far as we can tell, were developed independently have a picture for a tree.  The Egyptian one – they had time in Egypt – they drew a trunk and the branches, and then little branches.  Or, if they were in more of a hurry, they drew it [more simply].  That is their picture of a tree.  But the Chinese picture of a tree is quite different. The top part of the tree is very small compared with the roots.  They had insight.  They knew this (the trunk and branches) isn’t the whole tree – the tree goes on down [below].  In the same way, the Egyptian symbol for grass showed [the grass above the ground], but the Chinese picture, with insight, showed the roots.

Because the Christmas tree had no root, however attractive it looks, however many ornaments we may put on it, we shall never have the fragrance or the beauty, because it’s not ours.  It has been developed somewhere else, by someone else.  Then it’s been taken away from its root and it’s been brought like a present.  In the same way, the spiritual truth grown by someone else can be, so to speak, packed up and brought, and it looks very beautiful; but it has no roots and so, when the time comes, we can’t rely on it.  It will give us no fragrance, no beauty in the garden.  The proper way to make the tree our own is to take a seed from a living tree.  Then we must plant it in our own garden, and we must help it to grow – we can’t make it grow, but we help it to grow by removing the obstructions. Then this will grow downwards, not only upwards – and then it will become our own.  In the same way, the spiritual truth has to be planted like a seed and go very deep into the man, not only upwards into the intellect and the feeling; and however many ornaments it may have on it, unless it has deep roots, it’s not a living thing.  This is one illustration.  It must go deep.

In the classic called the Ramayama, translated in to three volumes by our teacher, another example is given, which is called ‘churning the ocean’.  Churning is a spiritual process, in which the depths of the being are touched.  The gods and the demons cooperate to churn the ocean, because they are told by the supreme Spirit that something wonderful will come out.  These are cosmic actions put in this form, just as we now say the ‘big bang’ for a particular creation theory.  Although it couldn’t have been a big bang, because it couldn’t have been big or small if it was all there was; and a bang is a sound, a pressure wave travelling through a medium, and there was then no medium through which it could travel.  But, nevertheless, the phrase very well sums up the cosmological theory.  It has a very vivid and explicit significance to tell us – it sums up the theory very well.

In the same way these stories that are told us are not imaginary in the sense that they have no basis; but cosmologically we have to remember the world creation is a mental process.  It has a relevance as seen in the Ramayana to the fortunes of a nation and a group.  Then again, it has relevance to the fortunes of an individual practising spiritual training.  All the elements cooperate, the gods and the demons.  In man himself, the dark aspects of the personality, cooperate – they wish to get something from the practice of spiritual discipline.  The gods and the demons put aside their hostility for the time being, and they put this great mountain in the ocean as a churning rod.  We don’t churn our milk nowadays but [in the old days] the milk was there and it was churned around.  Something is spun in it and finally the butter emerges.  So they got the mountain and they persuaded a great snake, who’s referred to in the Gita, Vasuki, the king of the snakes, to cooperate as the rope which was around the mountain in a half-hitch.  Then the demons after some dispute took the head end of the snake which they felt was the better, more honourable end, and the gods took the tail – and they pulled alternately.  Just as in the human personality there’s a struggle going on in cycles so, in the spiritual discipline, the motives are mixed and there are cycles.  This churns the personality.

The first thing that comes out after a thousand years of effort, after a long time, is a terrible poison which begins to consume everything, the whole world – gods, demons, mountains, ocean, everything.  The poison is going to consume the world, and the god Shiva, to save the world, drinks the poison.  It corrodes his throat, so that his throat turns blue, and this is one of his names, Nilakantha, the blue throat.  In this story, this corresponds to the crucifixion, where the god takes on himself the suffering in order to save the world.  It makes it clear that it’s a terrible corrosion and suffering, but the god, who symbolises detachment, is able to endure it in detachment.  He drinks the poison and then he goes back to the mountain where he lives.

In this Ramayana, Rama is the younger son of the King, but outstanding in virtue, and his elder brother, who is normally the first in line for the throne, is a great devotee of Rama and has no wish to inherit.  Everyone is agreed that Rama should inherit the throne and the king is about to proclaim him heir when suddenly a poison, a venom, appears from nowhere.  It’s begun by the servant of the mother of Bharata, one of the queens. It’s not clear what her motivation is.  It’s said that when she heard that Rama was to be declared heir a terrible anger and jealousy came over her. She had no reason for this.  She had a hunch-back, but she must have been a person of great charm and personality, because the queen was very attached to her – and, in fact, she had brought her with her from her own father’s family when she married Rama’s father.  So she had a marvellous position and she had tremendous influence with the queen.  There was no reason for her jealousy but suddenly this venom sprang up and she infected the queen with it.  The queen was at first very pleased that Rama should inherit; she said this will be the best of kings and my son is a great devotee of his and they had great affection for each other. But the servant said, “Now, now.  The moment he becomes king, the first thing he’ll do will be to get rid of his elder brother.”  This venom begins to spread and the queen finally is infected with it.  She uses a particular influence that she has to get Rama banished to the forest for fourteen years.  The effect of this goes on.  Rama is able, like Shiva, to accept this with detachment.  One of his other brothers, Lakshmana, is not able to do this at first. He says to Rama, “The people would support you.  Let’s arrange a coup.  We’ll say that the king is doddering, and we’ll replace him and put you on the throne.”  Rama refuses to do this, and his face doesn’t change, even when assailed with this poison which sends him into exile for fourteen years.

In the same way in the New Testament, the motivation of Judas is not at all clear.  It’s not clear what he hoped to gain.  Luke simply ascribes it to a sort of possession by the devil.  But, there again, in the middle of a spiritual process this venom suddenly appears.  This is the first thing that comes out of the churning of the ocean, and it has to be overcome by detachment as best they can.  In the Ramayana by Rama completely, by Lakshmana only after great difficulty, but in the end he’s able to accept it.  Then they go on churning for a long time and then the mountain begins to sink into the sea, so the process will stop.  Then they pray, and the supreme Lord incarnates himself as an enormous tortoise, and upholds the mountain like a sort of tectonic plate on which the mountain is supported and they can go on churning.

Then the Lord, the supreme Spirit who’s presiding over this warns the devas, the gods, not to be attached to any of the things that may come out of the ocean.  They actually succeed in remembering this, which was no easy matter.  On other occasions they were not so successful; but they do succeed.  A horse, representing energy, comes out.  In the spiritual process the poison has to be met with detachment, then depression, a sort of apathy which can be overcome only by devotion.  People say, “You can’t be devoted to something you don’t believe in.”  But our teacher said, the spiritual things, the incarnations, the holy rishis are more real than our food and drink and if we search for them we shall find them.  There can be an emotional scepticism just as much as an emotional credulity.

In the investigations now going on on the authenticity or otherwise of the Turin Shroud, one very prominent sceptic has remarked, “Well some of the evidence is admittedly impressive, and it’s not very easy to upset – there can never be a complete proof.  But the trouble is that the people who are investing it although they seem to be doing it very well, have appointed themselves to do it and there is no active opposition by a man who’s furiously determined to disprove it.  That is what you need.”  Now why does he need that?  It’s an odd remark to make.  If somebody was proposing to use the waves as a source of energy, enthusiastic proposals would be put up and people would have to be highly critical of them, but they wouldn’t be furiously determined to disprove them.  This is an example of emotional scepticism.  Our teacher remarked that emotional scepticism is based on fear, and that devotion is a natural thing for man and if he pursues his spiritual practice he’ll find it springing up in himself.

Then energy appears – the spiritual process, after the depression has been overcome to some extent by devotion, releases energy.  The next thing is rejuvenation, the physician of the gods who is a young man with these remedies for all illness and old age and all the defects of life.  Rejuvenation, that is able to do something new.  Normally, as our teacher said, the lives tend to become repetitive, but when this happens there is the capacity to do something completely new.  There is a rejuvenation.  He said this has nothing to do with the state of the physical body – the mind can be rejuvenated at any time.  Then finally, immortality.  What we would call now a sealed jar appears with immortality, and the gods remember the warning and they don’t clutch for it, and then the demons begin to fight over who shall have it.  Then an illusion appears, and the demons become distracted by the illusion, because they become attached to it and in the end it is the gods that get the draught of immortality.

This is a story that is told in the Ramayana and in other places; and our teacher told us that this represents an inner process also, as indeed does the whole of the Ramayana.  For instance, the poison is not a question of bad people necessarily showing the poison – it can appear at any time.  When Rama is in exile, his wife and his younger brother volunteer to go with him, living in the forest.  A magician shows the form of a jewelled deer and they see this going past, brilliantly shining.  Lakshman recognises this is a magical illusion and says this.  But Sita is captivated by it and says, “I must have it”; so Rama goes off and says to Sita “Stay here”.  This is a very important word in this spiritual document.  “Stay here with Lakshmana, and I will go and shoot the deer.”  So he goes with the bow and arrow to shoot the deer and leaves Sita, his young wife and the younger brother, with the instruction, the injunction, “Stay here”.  He shoots the deer, and as the magician dies he cries out in an imitation of Rama’s voice, crying out for help.  This is heard by Sita, the wife and Lakshman the younger brother.  She says to Lakshman, “Go and help him” and Lakshman says, “Even if the whole universe were to fight against Rama it could not prevail.  This is an illusion.”  Then the poison suddenly comes up in Sita, who is a paragon of virtue.  She says, “You’re hoping to get rid of him, then you’ll claim me as your wife, but I’ll never become your wife.”  Still Lakshman says, “No. I won’t listen to this.  I’ll stay and guard you.”  She says, “Probably you’re in league with the older brother Bharata to get rid of him.”  So finally under this venom he can’t stand these false accusations and he goes off to help Rama.  He draws an OM around Sita and says, “Stay here.  Stay in this circle.”  Rama Tirtha refers to this circle drawn by Lakshman in his notes.  He goes to help Rama.  Then the master of the magician, Ravana, appears and he persuades Sita to come out of the circle.  She doesn’t stay there, she comes out.  He seizes her and is able to take her away.  This leads to a great war that Rama has to fight in order to rescue her.

We can say, “What is this story telling us?”  There is an illusion, and she knows it is an illusion because Lakshman has said so, but she’s so captivated by this glitter that she takes it as real and says, “I must have it” – because the knowledge that it’s an illusion has no roots, and such knowledge gained from another person doesn’t have roots.  For instance, I can say to someone who’s never seen the pyramids, “The stones are enormous, but they have cut little steps in them, and a reasonably active man can run up the Great Pyramid, or go up very fast.  And the same with the second pyramid – the stones aren’t the same size.”  I’ve seen them, I’ve been there, I’ve climbed them, so when I say this, the listener has knowledge.  He knows it.  But then he reads in a book, a reasonably active man can walk or run up the Great Pyramid.  But to climb the second pyramid you have to have ropes.  This too is knowledge and it’s accurate; but these two things are in complete contradiction about the second pyramid.  One that you can go up it like the Great Pyramid, the other is that you need ropes.  Both these in fact are accurate pieces of knowledge, but they can never have real roots in someone who’s not seen them.  In actual fact the Great Pyramid the casing has fallen off and it’s irregular, its stones are now sticking out.  The second pyramid is like that, the casing has fallen away and you can walk up these stones; but just at the top, the casing has been preserved, it is absolutely smooth, so you need the ropes for this last bit.  So for someone who’s been there, these two bits of information are not in contradiction at all – you can walk up the second pyramid like you can the Great Pyramid.  You can walk up the Great Pyramid, but you need ropes to go up the second pyramid.  They’re both accurate, but when the knowledge is obtained from another, there would always be contradictions because descriptions can never be complete.

So he said, “Until the man has ceased from bad conduct, until he has controlled his senses, until his mind is set in meditation, samādhi, until he is free from anxiety about the results of his samādhi, he cannot attain this Self, even through knowledge.”  What does this mean?  He says the man has knowledge, he calls him, ‘Self-knower’; he calls him ‘one who has experience of Brahman’, Brahma-vijnana, and yet he says these injunctions are necessary; that he has to devote himself to it to get the strength.  It cannot be attained even by a knower unless he has strength.  Shankara explains that as devotion to this knowledge.  This is an injunction – in the Gita it explains this as going to a solitary place and being ever engaged in yoga and dhyana, and engaged in meditation on the Self.  These are injunctions and they can’t apply to knowledge.

These things come in many places in Shankara, although some interpreters don’t care for them.  In the Upadesha Sahasri he says, “An action which has already begun, in the sense that the karma has begun and is manifest in the body, it can overcome, overpower, the knowledge in you concerning the truth.”  What do these things mean?  Shankara stresses that knowledge cannot be the subject of a command – we either know a thing or we don’t  know it, and yet these commands are given.  When the man has knowledge he may have to devote himself to that knowledge.  These commands are no commands.  The command, “Stay there” to Sita doesn’t mean that anything is to be done because she is there.  So it’s no true command, and such commands are explained as, although they have the form of commands what they are really saying is “Don’t do anything else”.  The devotion to knowledge is not something new, but only says, “Don’t lose [your] knowledge.”  The Gita says the senses are powerful, although illusory her mind was pulled by it.  The injunction is to stay, and in other places Shankara says these injunctions to sannyasa are no true injunctions, because sannyasa is an inevitable result of knowledge.  But that result can be obstructed by the pulls of the senses or by other illusions.  The apparent command to devotion to knowledge simply is equivalent to “Stay there”, where he is already.  Otherwise illusions, known to be illusions, can still disturb the peace of mind of the knower; and if they do, as he says in the Upadesha Sahasri chapter 3, “If the knower of Brahman finds his mind disturbed then he practises the repetition of knowledge.” He doesn’t say that every knower of Brahman will have to practise repetition of knowledge – that would be completely against Shankara’s doctrine.

You can say, “Well how can it happen.  If a man knows a thing he knows it and can’t be disturbed.”  But it isn’t so.  A man who’s been very poor, who fights his way up; he has a good place in Oxford Street, a big house and several other properties and his businesses make money. But he’s becoming ill with the tremendous effort he’s putting in.  His friends say to him, “Well, you have this whole basis now, you’re a wealthy man.”  And he says, “Yes, on paper”.  They say, “But not just on paper – you actually  have these properties, which are going up and up.  Why don’t you work part time in your business?”  He says, “You don’t know what it was like building that up.”  “But you’ve built it up now, this is going well.  You could have a manager.  You have a big house in the country.  The children have got their own.”  “Yes, I built that for three thousand, now it must be worth forty or fifty thousand.”  “Well, you could sell that, you only need a small place now.”  “Yes, but you don’t know what it cost to make that first three thousand.”  Now he knows, in a certain sense, that he’s done what he needed to do and more.  He wanted to practise music.  He went across to New York to see Horowitz play when he came out of retirement.  But he can’t free himself from the idea; he said, “It’s been such a struggle”, that he can’t free himself from the feeling that he must go on struggling.  This is an example of clear knowledge which is somehow carried away by something that he knows is illusory.  His face assumes a sort of anxiety and he can’t realise that his struggles are now in the past.

In these ways, something that is illusory and known to be illusory can disturb the peace of mind of a man in spite of his clear knowledge.  This is only a certain kind of man and a certain kind of circumstance.  Other people would say, “Right I’ve made it now.  Now I’m going to enjoy myself.”  They can do it without thinking at all about the past struggles. But under certain circumstances, certain people can’t do that.  The illusion continues to hold them and then life can be spent meaninglessly in an illusion and the man doesn’t find an inner satisfaction.  He knows, and yet he doesn’t know.  In his case, he should leave his business and think and actually realise that he no longer has to do that, and that would be the devotion to knowledge.  It will not be anything different from the knowledge that he has, but the knowledge would be clear.  Otherwise we spend our time in illusions.

A miser in Japan used to go and eat his bowl of rice next to an eel shop, where they fry eels – it’s a delicious smell.  He used to eat the rice.  The little boy, the son of the eel merchant, once heard his father say, “That smell – that’s our business, that’s what brings the people in.  They’re passing…”  So at the end of the year, the little boy and one or two of his friends went round to see the miser and they said, “You’ve been coming around and taking away our business, because daddy says that smell is our business and I see you sitting there taking it away.  You’ve got to pay for it, you’ve got to.”  They got quite upset about it and he realised there would be a row, so he said, “All right, I’ll pay.”  He opened his purse and got out the money and said, “Yes, think of the money.”  And the little boy was satisfied.  In this way, by trading in illusions you can seem to be satisfied, but actually nothing is gained.

Then I’ll read the verses again.

“Those who strive, being yogis, perceive Him dwelling in the Self;  though striving, those of unrefined self, without wisdom, perceive Him not.”

“This Self cannot be known through many words, nor through the intellect, nor through much hearing.  It can be known through the Self alone, that one prays to. This Self of that seeker uncovers its true nature to him.  One who has not ceased from bad conduct, whose senses are not controlled, whose mind is not set in samadhi, who is not free from anxiety, cannot attain this Self even through knowledge.”

“This Self cannot be known through many words, nor through the intellect, nor through much hearing.  It can be known through the Self alone, that one prays to. This Self of that seeker, uncovers its true nature to him.  This Self is not attained by one devoid of strength, nor through delusion, nor through knowledge if not associated with sannyasa (renunciation), but the Self of that Self-knower, who strives through these means, enters into the abode of Brahman.”