Shankara on the Self


This is from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, one of the oldest: “That Self should be realized in one form only. That Self is unknowable and eternal. The Self is taintless, beyond the subtle ether, birthless, infinite, and constant. Intelligent aspirants after Brahman, reality, knowing about this alone should attain prajnā, intuitive realization. He should not think of too many words.” (ref: IV; 4; 20)   Shri Shankara’s commentary on this, “In this place and elsewhere in the Upanishad, it says that the intelligent aspirant after Brahman, knowing about this kind of Self alone, from the instructions of a teacher and from the scriptures, should attain intuitive realization of what has been taught by the teacher and the scripture.”

That is, practice the means of this knowledge, renunciation, calmness, self-control, withdrawal of the senses, courage, and concentration. He should not think of too many words. This implies that a few words dealing exclusively with the unity of the self are permissible.  “Meditate upon the Self, with the help of the syllable ‘Om’.”  And he comments on the same passage (in I; 4; 7) of the same Upanishad. “It is true that this conveys the necessity of meditation, in addition to knowing the meaning of the scriptural truths.  But it is not an original command, for meditation on the Self is already natural. The directions are to restrict that meditation to the right path. The knowledge of Brahman means only cessation of identification with other things such as the body. The relation of identity with the Self is already there.  Everybody will always have that identity with it, but it appears to be related to something else. Therefore, the scriptures do not enjoin, that identity with Brahman should be established, but that the false identification with things other than that should stop. When the identification with other things is gone, a natural identity with one’s own Self becomes isolated. This is what is expressed by the statement that the Self is known – it is unknowable, by any means.”

Shri Shankara explains in one place the meaning of this restrictive injunction. It means that when a person is going to do something, which he will do anyway, the restrictive injunction is to get him to do it in a particular way, not to initiate his action. Even if it initiates the action, it’s not necessary, he would still perform the action, but it’s to make him perform at once. He gives the example of a hungry man. The man is very hungry, he’s starving but he waits politely for the host to begin, too, and then the host says to him, “No, eat, eat.” It isn’t an order to eat, the man is going to eat; but what he means is, ‘Don’t wait. Don’t do anything else’. He’s turning his mind away from anything else, and then it will go in the natural direction, and he will eat.

Another example is when the command is given, ‘Drop some it!’ To drop it doesn’t mean to do anything positive, it only means to cease to hold it. In the same way, Shri Shankara says, “These injunctions to know the Self are, in fact, to turn our mind away from what hinders us from knowing the self; and then the natural consciousness of the Self, which now is cloudy, will become clear – will become,” as he says, “Isolated.”

In one of his prose works, Rumi says, “Ali said, ‘He who knows his own Self, knows God.’ Was he speaking of this individual soul in this body, or the great soul, which is free? The Master said, ‘Even if it is explained as meaning that great Self, he who knows that great Self, his great Self knows God. Still the listener will understand it as referring, in fact, to this soul, since he does not know that Self. The mere words cannot ensure understanding; words only bring to light the inward impulse of the listener.’”

What he’s saying then is there are fixed convictions in ways of thinking, which affect our direct experience, not merely our inferences, but our direct experience. One experiment which they do is to show playing cards and people are asked to identify them. Nearly everybody identifies them without trouble but when the time given is longer, people appear to hesitate. Certain cards are more likely to be confused than others.  Most people after a little awareness of what’s going on are able to identify correctly, but before that people fit the card into one of the categories. Either they go by the shape, and they call it a heart and disregard the colour, or they go by the colour and take just an approximation of the shape and say, “Well, it’s must be Four of Spades.”

The example is given to show us that when we have fixed expectation, categories in our mind, of what to expect, that category is being stimulated by showing the normal cards at the beginning, then it affects our actual perception.  This example is given for a very important new book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where he explains how people identify these.  A few subjects, however, were never able to make the requisite adjustment to their categories. Even at 40 times the average exposure required to recognize normal cards for what they are, more than 10% of these anomalous cards were not correctly identified. Subjects who then fail often experienced acute personal distress. One of them exclaimed, “I can’t make the suit out, whatever it is. It didn’t even look like a card at that time. I don’t know what colour it is now, or whether it’s a spade or a heart. I’m not even sure what a spade looks like.”  It’s even possible on occasion to see scientists behaving this way, too.  These experiments are given so that we can become aware that we have fixed categories and expectations in our mind, and is not a simple matter to just step out.

One more example on the same lines is given. This was given to students at London University. There were three groups of fifteen. They were shown a picture of two strips, the righthand one of which was covered over; and the instruction was given, “If the line on the left is longer than the line on the right, then the line on the right will be red.” It is actually red. Then the line on the right was exposed, and they were asked what they could tell about the line on the left. Unanimously, they answered that the line on the left would be longer.  They were asked to confirm it and they confirmed that the line on the left was slightly longer.  Now the point here is that these same lines were then showed to an independent group, who were simply told the line on the left is longer. Of these, only just over two-thirds said it was longer.  And then they were shown without any instruction at all, to a group of another fifteen students, who said they were the same length. What is shown is that, if we simply look at them, we consider them the same length. If we are told, “This one is longer,” then quite a lot of people will see it as longer.

If we are given an inference, which we draw, then 14 out of 15 will see that line as longer.  One of the important things to notice is that the inference is, in fact, a false one – because we’re told, if the line on the left is longer then the line on the right will be red.  But it doesn’t follow that, because the line on the right is red, the line on the left will be longer. They all drew that false inference. The examiner says, “With intellectual people, in a tense situation, it’s fairly easy to get them to make this false assumption, so that our assumptions and especially our inferences can affect the perceptions.”

These are modern examples of the same thing which the old teachers illustrated with ancient examples. They used to illustrate it by the snake in the rope. It doesn’t mean anything in this part of the country, very few people have seen a snake; but in a country where there many poisonous snakes, a man can have a great shock.  Anyone who’s experienced it will never forget it. He sees what looks like a snake on the ground and, because the lantern in his hand is moving, that shape on the ground also moves.  Immediately he’s getting the perception, “It’s a snake.”  When he jumps back and looks very carefully, he sees it’s a rope.  In the same way that expectation is transformed into a perception.

Shri Shankara is saying that there seem to be adjuncts, qualities, which are imposed, so to say, on the supreme Self in man, and which make him appear to himself as limited. Those adjuncts are the body, senses, mind, and intellect. He says, for instance, in the Brahma-Sutras (III; 2; 10), “What is called the individual soul is not really different from the highest Self; so that it could be distinguished from the latter in the same way as a drop of water can be distinguished from the ocean. As we have explained repeatedly, Brahman itself, the supreme Reality, the supreme Self, is, on account of its connection with the limited adjuncts, metaphorically called the individual soul.”  He’s saying that what is within these adjuncts, so to say, seems to become separate from the consciousness outside, seems to become an individuality, but this is only because of the presence of the adjuncts. If they are wiped away, then there won’t be a separate individual self, and there’ll only be the universal Self.

When it’s said, “The Lord is the Self in the heart of each and every being” it doesn’t mean that, in each and every being these adjuncts are kept as they are.  Shankara, in places, says, “We never say that the scriptures say that the Lord is the Self of the individual soul; but by denying these attributes, what was the individual soul is the self of the Lord, is the lord.”  This is one of the techniques of Yoga – to deny the upadhis, the adjuncts, the identification with the body and mind which seems so complete.

One of the methods explained in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad verse was by meditation; but in other places, Shri Shankara says, “Not by meditation, only by knowledge.” In this verse, it says, “It is only by meditation on the truths, on the knowledge, the texts of the Upanishads, that realization is attained.” The meditations which aim at complete knowledge, terminate with the effect, perfect knowledge. No injunction applies to whoever knows that Brahman is his own Self. On the other hand, there are some meditations which are aimed at certain forms of exaltation.  For instance, they can create cognitions which produce the state on which he has meditated; then those meditations don’t affect the individual as he stands. He remains an individual. They simply improve the adjuncts or the circumstances. The individual is still an individual, still stays as he was; but the circumstances have changed.

Shri Shankara repeatedly makes this point that he still remains an individual, he still remains distinct from the supreme Self.  If the circumstances have changed one way, the time can come when they will change back, or become even worse. He says these meditations are temporary and they don’t lead to liberation.  But it’s almost impossible for us to forget the limitations because we have been associated with them for a long time – except through the special techniques of Yoga pursued very earnestly.

He gives many examples. Indra, in the Chandogya Upanishad, wishes to become lord of the worlds.  The teacher takes that aspiration and says, “Indra, you wish to become master of the world. You are one, and the worlds and their inhabitants are another; but this is not what will do you any good. The aim of the Yoga, of the Upanishads, is to change your individuality, and by removing those adjuncts, you yourself and the self of those worlds will be one, and you will attain unity.”

There are many stories in the classics, and modern examples, too, to explain that although we feel that intellectually we could deny the attributes, that we could consider a change on the absence of those attributes, in actual fact, it’s like a conjuring trick. When the conjurer holds the penny and snaps his fingers, the penny is gone, but somehow, it’s still there, though it’s not so visible; and when he shakes his sleeve, out it comes. In the same way, the attributes are denied, they’re completely negated, they’ve gone – but somehow they’re still there.

This is illustrated in the Indian traditional story of the god who saw the pig in the mud.  He felt a wave of compassion, and appeared before the pig in this brilliant, divine form and said, “I’ve had compassion on you, I’ll raise you to heaven, you will become a god like me.  If you will agree to come, you will have this blazing, shining form, and in heaven, all the delights will await you.” The pig said, “Yes,” then he hesitated and said, “Will there be mud there?”  The god said, “No, you will be in divine form, you won’t want mud.”  The pig looked down and he just pressed his hoof into the mud, “I think there ought to be some mud there.”  In one way he knew that the transition to heaven would finish with his pig body, he would become divine; but he couldn’t, in fact, free himself from the idea, so he stuck to the mud and the god left him.

In the same way, this can happen with very intellectual people. Professor Zaehner, in his book on mysticism, explains one of the Upanishads.  He takes two verses, “The mystic has transcended the body.  The body lies cast away, like the skin may be thrown off, and Sage is one with supreme Self, the creator and the maker of all.”

I remember the professor saying, “Well, what a ridiculous statement. How absurd. Like a maniac might say that a man could be the creator and maker of all.” He’s forgotten that, two or three verses back, that the sage had completely left the body. Now, he’s put him back in the body again, and he’s associated that statement of oneness, of being the creator of all, with the man inside the body. Although through that intellectual trick, that sleight of hand, we feel these can be negated, in the next moment with the left hand, so to say, the man is drawing them again, and they are there.

In the same way, one of the philosophers, one of the scholars said, “The universal Self is the changeless witnessing principle in each one of us. That will be, so to say, the consciousness, which seems to be imprisoned in those attributes.  The senses, the ordinary mind, the intellect, and the individual self are successively merged in Yoga, in the universal Self.”  He says, “… until at last everything else, seems to be one with the real Self, and it’s a oneness.”   Then he finishes up with that real Self hidden in all beings. He’s put it back again in his last few words.

There are many such examples, Russell gives is one of them. He asked a don he knew, “What do you think will happen after death?”  The don didn’t want to talk about it, but he persisted.  So he said, “Well, I suppose I shall inherit eternal bliss; but don’t talk about unpleasant subjects.”  Russell said it meant that his conscious attitude hadn’t at all affected his unconscious attitude, but the Zen teacher would say the reverse. He would say that the man’s speech and words about eternal bliss were not conscious at all; that he wasn’t conscious at all about it.  He was unconscious of what he was saying.

Shri Shankara, discussing the world, says that these adjuncts are, in a sense, an illusion. He refers to ‘vyavahāra’ or ‘practical life’, in which we deal with practical realities of distinctions. We make distinctions and take them as realities. In that, there are illusions, like the snake in the rope, which is called ‘mithya vyavahāra’ or ‘false practicality’. In one sense, the whole thing is false; but in another sense, the rope is relatively real, and the snake part is purely illusive.

If we like to consider it in familiar terms, we go to a play, Macbeth. The paramartha is the highest truth, the truth of the audience in the theatre; this is the highest truth. On that, is superimposed the play. Macbeth and the actors in it see each other, talk to each other, and conduct their affairs in a consequent way with each other, so that there is a, sort of, separate reality on the stage. On that stage, things have practical validity.  But then, on top of that stage play (which includes the witches and their properties, which come true, though not quite in the way that they’d been understood) on top of that, there are certain other things.

For instance, at one point, Macbeth sees a dagger floating in the air before him. None of the other characters can see that.  He sees it, but in the play, that dagger has no practical validity, it’s illusory in the play. The other daggers in the play have practical validity in the play, they can kill people and do. From the ultimate point of view, of course, the play daggers and Macbeth’s dagger, which he alone sees, they’re equally illusory; but if we accept the play then we accept these stages of reality within the play.

Now, as another example, is a modern example of the same thing, something that I’ve been studying at Heidelberg. The man who’s hypnotized, he volunteers to be hypnotized, which means he abandons his judgement, accepts the declarations of the position. It’s explained to him, they want to test sudden pain. He volunteers for this; he’s going to be well paid for the part. He’s blindfolded, so he won’t be able to anticipate anything. They say, “Now we are going to burn your arm.” He gives a cry as the hot iron comes on his arm, then a blister comes up.  Although it’s very difficult to explain this anatomically, still it is fairly well attested. Professor Shaffer has given an account of one of these cases he saw himself, and there’s a whole literature on the subject. In fact, this so-called, red-hot iron is ice. He survives, still it causes a blister.

This is the mithya vyavahāra, the illusion, which nevertheless can cause a real result. Now, when the hypnotist says to him “This is a red-hot iron,” he accepts that, and it burns him.  Then the doctor says to him, “No, it’s ice.” This too is a suggestion.  He accepted the first suggestion, now he can accept this one – but this happens to be a suggestion that corresponds with reality.  He’s given the second suggestion, “This is ice”  and when we touch him, it is ice, it’s not a red-hot iron. He must accept that, if he can, straight away; or he must meditate on it until he does accept it. The purpose of that second suggestion is not to impose another suggestion on him, but so that he will actually feel, in the awakened state, that it is ice, that it is true.  Similarly, the meditations which are given can be false, like the red-hot iron; or they can be true, like the ice. By concentrating on the ice, the man comes out of the state of illusion, and then he actually feels directly that it is ice, it’s not subject to illusion.

Shri Shankara divides the meditation into three, meditations which people perform, which have nothing to do with knowledge, but which help to achieve a certain end. These meditations need not be true at all. He gives a number of examples. He says there are meditations connected with certain wishes, like a meditation to ensure long life for one’s children. These meditations, which like actions, effect a result, there’s no reference to any direct vision or to knowledge of truth, they are simply to get a result. The other class of meditations are concerned with truth, their purpose is to give knowledge, and that knowledge can lead to action, but the purpose is to give knowledge.

We can take another example. In the last war, when the refugees streamed out of Burma, they had to go round a number of hills, and around each hill there was another one beyond. Many of those refugees had to walk hundreds of miles in very bad circumstances. When they came to these hills, they were just on the Indian border. At each hill, there was a relief station to provide a little rest, a little water, and a little food for the people. They used to tell them, when they came to the last few hills, at each one, “This the last one.” Then they would somehow stagger round it, and they would see another one. They were told, “Well, we did say that was the last one, just to get you here.  Now this one is the last one.”  Then they went on, and they saw another one. Well, they could jolly them along for a little way, but what really was the last hill, was also the biggest.  At this point, a number of the refugees just gave up, and they lay down and died – because they’d been deceived so often that that meditation on being ‘the last one, the last one’ could no longer hold their attention, because it was false.

Then somebody got a bright idea, at the last relief station, of posting up a very big map. On this map you could recognize the places, and you could see that this hill, though big, was in fact the last one, and there was the Indian border beyond. Now that was a meditation on the knowledge.  The meditation on, ‘This is the last one, this is the last one’, was a meditation on something which was false but designed to produce an action. But that meditation, after viewing the map, was on knowledge; they could actually check, from looking where they were, that this would be the last hill. It did also lead to action, it got many of them round that last big hill, but this was based on knowledge.

Shri Shankara makes a big distinction there between the meditations which are designed to attain a certain result and have nothing to do with, as he says, direct vision and those classical meditations, such as, “He whose wishes are true”, speaking of the Lord, “Have all of them equally the obtaining of the Lord for their fruit. One should therefore choose one of them and go on with it until he attains the Lord.” Now, he says there, that there are two sets of meditations. One is based on life and our existence in this world. “The Lord,” he says, “Assumes attributes for the sake of his devotees to make it possible for them to meditate on Him.”  These meditations are not arbitrary, but Shri Shankara says, “The fact that these meditations are prescribed in the text, proves that the Lord does exist in that form, endowed with those attributes.” He says that in Brahma Sutras III, 3, 38. They’re not arbitrary.

We’re told to meditate on the Lord as radiant, to feel that radiance. The meditator is to feel that radiance entering into himself. Now the sceptic will say, “Yes, no doubt, it does make him feel better. If he meditated on the Lord of some other colour, or in a harlequin dress, because he thought that would make him feel better, then he’d feel better.” Shri Shankara says, “No. These are actual forms which the Lord assumes for the sake of his devotees; and they can meditate on Him and they come into touch with Him.” In modern terms, we should say that it’s bringing a radio receiver onto this particular frequency.  Then you will find it and a power, which doesn’t derive from the auto-suggestion of the radio receiver, will come, and he will hear.

Śaṅkarācārya says to us that all the attributes can be transcended, but this is very difficult to do for a man while he has any sense of identity with the body.  So that, until a man is practised in meditation and he can transcend completely his identification with the body, it will be much easier and more appropriate for him to meditate on the Lord with certain attributes. Those attributes are given in the 11th Chapter of the Gita.  Shankara says the classical meditations lead up to this one, “The universal form, which is a radiance filling the whole universe.”  “It is not the sun,” our teacher said, “but there is something like the sun, which is pouring out energy. That pouring out of energy is the universe. It’s a manifestation of the Lord as the universe.”

He says, “When those upadhis, those adjuncts, have been thinned very much, then the perceptions of the Lord will begin to become clearer. You begin to have flashes of intuition.” These are spoken of, but it is said that, unless the discipline is kept up, we may feel that just an intellectual knowledge or even a flash may be sufficient; and then we try to live simply on that memory or on our intellectual conviction. When the upadhis become very thin, then the man begins to have flashes; but before that, to imitate those who have inspiration, will never be a genuine thing and will never be fruitful.

Rumi gives a story. A king, who represents the spiritual teacher, has a number of slaves, who represent the pupils. One of them meditates on the divinity in the teacher.  One day, a guest is expected and the slaves are all given golden cups, from which they will drink to the guest when he comes. They sit holding them and then the King comes in.  The slave who’s meditated sees suddenly the divinity in the king, and is so distraught that he drops the cup. The other slaves are aghast. What will happen? But the king gives him a look of great affection.  So then the other slaves think naturally, this is the thing to do, and drop their cups.  The king said, “Why did you do that?” They said, “Well, he did it, and you seem to approve.” The teacher, the king says, “He didn’t drop the cup. It was I who dropped the cup.”

This is one example. Rumi says that they came to him, and said, “Do the great ones come before him?” This is a question by a disciple, which is included in the book. “We said to the master, ‘Do the great ones come before you?’ The master said, ‘There is no ‘before’ left to me. If they come, they come before that imaged thing which they believe to be me. He has passed beyond the attributes and consciousness of the attributes, ‘before’ or ‘after’, but the disciples are still imposing attributes on him.’”

“If they come, they come before that imaged thing which they believe to be me.” The supreme Self is speaking through that mouth, but it isn’t an individual with a ‘before or after’.

Rumi was one of the greatest poets of Persia, which is a nation and always has been a nation of poets. The people in the villages can write poetry and he is one of the greatest. He says, “When these friends come to me, for fear that they may be weary, I speak poetry so that they may be occupied with that. Otherwise, what have I to do with poetry? I care nothing for poetry. In my own country, there is no occupation more shameful than poetry. If I had remained in my own country, I would have lived there in harmony with their temperament and would have practised what they designed such as lecturing, composing prose books, preaching, observing abstinence, and doing all the outward acts.” Here, he’s speaking something universal; something is speaking from within the man, not something individual, which thinks, “I am a poet and because I’m a religious man, I will write poetry about religion.”

Closing with a verse, a little way on from where we began in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, “When a man directly realizes this effulgent Self, the Lord of all that has been and will be, he no longer wishes to hide himself from it.” Shri Shankara says, “Everyone who has seen diversity is wishing to hide himself from God.  But that Self, the Lord of all that has been and will be, when he sees unity, he’s not afraid of anything.”



Similar Posts