Gita chapter 13: By meditation, some behold the Self in the self by the self, others by Sankhya-Yoga, others by Karma-Yoga but others, not knowing thus, meditate, having heard from other people. They too cross beyond death, following the shruti, following what they have heard.
Shankara explains that these are steps. The people who begin only by following what they have heard with no knowledge or experience of their own, they finally come to have experience then the minds become purified. Then in the stage of Sankhya, they become able to reason, to appreciate the evidence themselves, to go deeper into enquiry. Finally, through meditation, they can enter into the intelligence, the consciousness, which is at the base of the individual and of the universe.
In shruti, what is heard is taken as an authority for the people who are beginning yoga. Authority can be power, or it can be a source of truth. Without the acceptance of a source of truth within, the application of power, of terror from without has been ineffective.
If the contemporary figures are right, Henry VIII executed 72,000 people in his reign, which would’ve been about 5% of the male population. A contemporary remarks that with all those people hanged, it was wonderful there were any criminals left to commit the murders and crimes, but there still seemed to be plenty. The authority himself was engaged in plundering the monasteries so the people who were his subjects, they didn’t accept any in authority.
In the yoga, shruti revelation, which is not confined to any particular scriptures or revealed teaching, is taken as an authority but only at the beginning does it have to be taken on trust. Shri Shankara says it’s a progress from shruti, from authority in that sense to anubhuti, to becoming that very thing, to confirming it in the man’s own experience.
The Veda shruti tells us two kinds of things: things about the world and things about the transcendent. Things about the world: it tells us how to behave. It gives us codes of ethics and it tells us in order to obtain certain ends, how to behave. All that teaching is for the people who don’t want what is called liberation, who want to remain as they are as individuals. They want to have a better life, they want to be happier or more successful.
In the Gita, these too are mentioned: four kinds of people endowed with virtue, worship God. First, the distressed. The people who are in distress, who come for protection, they don’t want to change but they want to be protected. Even a little of this yoga protects from great fear. And the people who want success, they too don’t want to change, but they want to be successful in life and they want to have the yoga and the worship of the Lord as a background to their success, to have that as the background against which they prosecute their real aim in life, worldly success or science or philanthropy or art.
Then the third class of people are not satisfied to remain as they are. They want to know, and with them, Shri Shankara says, the search, the enquiry begins. Then shruti is to tell us. It tells us many things. It tells us things about the world too. Shankara discusses this point. He said it is not the purpose of the shruti to give us information which we can attain from other sources, but only to tell us things which we cannot attain in the ordinary way. Nevertheless, it does give us accurate information.
For instance, as an example – this is from a recently published book on biology by a Fellow of the Royal Society, Professor Waddington: “The effectiveness, the natural selective value of a protein depends mainly on one or a few reactive sites of the configuration into which it is folded. These sites involve only a small fraction. The rest can be regarded as packing or scaffolding and have not much more to do with the activity of the protein than had the scaffolding, which allowed Michelangelo to lie on his back in a convenient position to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to do with the resulting artwork.”
Here a biologist is bringing in an example from the history of art, but it’s to give us simply an example to show that the activity of the protein is connected with only one or two small sites which are active and the rest of it is folded up and is not active at all. He’s told us something about art. We could learn something about art by reading this book on biology. We say, what does he know about art? Yes, he knows a lot. He’s written a book on scientific themes, themes from science in modern art. But it’s not the purpose of studying the book nor is it his purpose in writing the book to teach art. Although something could be learned about art from that book, it would not be the right way to study art, reading a book about biology.
Last year, a year ago, a meteorologist of University College, London published an analysis in terms of meteorology of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind. He said it is a masterpiece of meteorological observation which until very recently hasn’t been equaled even in the scientific literature. He points out how extraordinarily acute the observations were, but the purpose of the poem is to give us the feeling and the impression of a travelling thunderstorm. It isn’t to teach meteorology. One could learn meteorology from it, but that would not be the right way to learn it, and it would have its dangers. The poem says, “Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,/ Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean.” One would think, ‘Boughs, tangled boughs, trees in heaven in the sea?’
A man who knows meteorology can say that Shelley was already aware of a concept that had hardly been formulated in his time; the circulation of water between the ocean and the sky; the concept of incessant circulation of water. He understood it well, as is clear from his writings, though it had scarcely been formulated. He says the tangled boughs are what we would now call the branches of the water currents, of the vapour rising from the sea and descending in the thunderstorm.
He says in his very long article and analysis at the end, “Shelley’s verse has an immediate appeal, even to the reader who is no expert student of the weather. This is not only because of the inspired way in which it is used to develop the theme of the ode, but because it is based on an acute awareness of the nature of the scene before him and of its relation to a dramatic event of an even grander scale -the sudden onset of the Mediterranean winter, a phenomenon even now hardly mentioned, still less examined in meteorological texts.”
He’s saying in this poem there are scientific truths, but still it is not the way to learn meteorology, to study Shelley’s poem. In the same way, it is not the way to learn scientific truths to study the shruti. There are some references, but the purpose of the shruti is not to teach these things.
There are many accounts of the creation in the shruti. They are conflicting in places. Although Shankara spends a long time, perhaps a 10th of his Brahma Sutra commentary in reconciling them, he says, in the end, that to give an account of the order of creation is not the purpose of the revelation. The purpose is to show that the creation was conscious, proceeded from a conscious source. This is the purpose and our teacher says, this is the great secret to be learned: that the universe has a plan, that it is consciously directed and this is the purpose of shruti.
Our teacher, in his book Wisdom from the East explains one of the accounts of creation when God takes upon Himself the condition in which He is able to project Himself. He projects himself as akasha, a Sanskrit word difficult to translate – space or ether.
In Indian philosophy, there are seven divisions of space divided into the great space and the lesser. We cannot feel the vibrations of the great akasha by any instrument of subjective consciousness that we possess here and now. Perhaps one day, we may be able to do so because the elements of subjective perception are being added to every 50 or a hundred years. We feel this is a postulation of some super space, which is not accessible to our observation in any way and then it’s said that there are imperceptible vibrations that can’t be observed or perceived by us at all and we feel how utterly unscientific the account is.
In this super space, material is constructed out of non-material. This ‘nothing’ contains entities far too fine for direct perception. There is no inherent time or space in reality at all; time and space exist only on more superficial levels, the foam and bubbles of ‘nothing’.
Russell in his book, Science and Religion says all the mystics say this, time is unreal. He very strongly attacks the view. He’s saying that if this is right, if time is unreal, then there’s no distinction between improvement and deterioration. No difference. If you find a corpse with a dagger in it, it makes no difference whether the man died of the wound, or if the dagger was put in after the death. This view, if true puts an end, not only to science but to prudence, hope and effort. It is incompatible with worldly wisdom and what is more important to religion, with morality. He points out how hopelessly unscientific it is, but as so often, you notice that he has shifted the point. He’s not now discussing whether time is unreal, but whether an illusion could have a value, he has shifted the point. He has said, taking it for granted, that an illusion could have no value. Therefore, he says, this theory is absurd.
But an illusion has a value. The time-scale, for instance, of the play Hamlet, is illusory. Months pass between the acts. Their time is illusory. On Russell’s theory, it wouldn’t matter if you had the fifth act at the beginning because the time is illusory. He doesn’t see that an illusion can still have a meaning and a value. It may not be so hopelessly unscientific to say there is no inherent time or space in reality at all, time and space exist only on more superficial levels, the foam and bubbles of nothing. Those are the words, not of a mystic, but of Professor John Wheeler of Princeton University, who’s now one of the leading physicists. It wasn’t perhaps altogether unscientific! It is a view put forward by one of the leading scientists in the field.
But none of this proves that the yogic account of creation is correct. All it does is show that it’s not quite so silly and irrational as Russell and others want to make out, but it’s not the purpose of shruti to tell us such things. The reason that Shri Shankara spends so much time in resolving the contradictions is that he says if contradictions exist in a system, then one will doubt the whole system.
We have a great system of philosophy, beginning with the world as we know it and leading up to liberation and expansion and identification of the Self, the true Self within man with the Self of the whole universe, which transcends the universe also. This can be something almost inconceivable, and there will be a tendency to judge of some small part, which we think we can understand. If we find an inconsistency or contradiction in that part, we shall doubt the whole. Shankara says that the shrutis never contradict the other means of knowledge. There’s a famous passage, which is always quoted, where he says a hundred shrutis might declare that fire is cold or that it is dark, but they have no authority in that matter. If they should at all declare that fire is cold or it is dark, we would suppose that some different meaning is intended, a secondary meaning or the authority of the shruti would not otherwise be maintained.
This passage doesn’t mean that in a conflict between, say, perception and the shruti, the shruti would be wrong. Shri Shankara never countenances or admits that, but he says one of two things. Either the shruti will intend another sense from the ordinary one, in which we take it, or that our perception will be fallacious.
In another passage, he says, for instance, the ignorant people think of the light of a firefly as fire, but this is not hot. Yet it is not a conflict with perception. It is only that their perception of fire is fallacious. The perceptions of the ignorant, although they are definite experiences, prove to be fallacious. Therefore, the authority of the Vedas being inviolable, a Vedic passage must be taken exactly in the sense that it is tested to bear. Not according to the ingenuity of the human mind. The Vedic passages cannot be made to give up their meaning.
In another passage, he says, “If it be urged that here there is a contradiction with a fact of ordinary sense perception, we deny this because, like the perception of the body as the Self, a sense perception may be mistaken.” Therefore, he says, shruti is never in conflict with perception, but it may be in conflict and it may correct mistaken perception.
Then, if so, why not search the shruti for inspiration for science? Our teacher did quote Jagadish Bose, who said that his discoveries had only borne out the inspirations of the ancient rishis, but we are not asked to do this, because if we search Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind for truths about meteorology, we may come to think that there are tree branches in heaven, that there are rushing Vaikunthas tearing across the sky, because we shan’t know what to take literally and what to take in a secondary sense.
The pyramids are tiny triangles. Those are tiny triangles, and we read somewhere else, that one climbs the pyramids. Somebody who has seen the pyramids will understand what the poet means. Against the dawn, they do look like that – tiny triangles from a distance, but without the ordinary source of knowledge, we shall not recognize that it’s the secondary meaning that is intended. In the same way, sometimes a man with jaundice sees everything yellow, and this is called having a jaundiced look at things. Now, in some cases, the shruti knows the ordinary man of the world is seeing everything yellow. In such a case, imagine if you want to say something, to show something which is green, if you show the colour green, he will look at it through his yellow and the colour will be changed. So, the coloured blue is put up and then when he looks at it through his yellow, he will see it as green, but he’s expected in the end to clear his vision.
In the same way, when we teach children that the earth goes round the sun, not that the sun goes round the earth, they have a lot of difficulty in accepting it. Then we say well, you know at sunrise and they say, “Look, you said sunrise. You yourself admit the sun’s rising, don’t you? You’ve contradicted yourself!” In that case, the word sunrise is only used as an acceptance of the ordinary usage in order to speak and to talk about the subject in the same way. Shankara says the shruti sometimes takes the concepts and the impressions of ordinary life in order to begin the discussion, but they’re not meant to be ultimately true, they’re not to be taken.
In the same way, sometimes in teaching a physical skill, there are people who for one reason or another are always slightly out of the true perpendicular. They are bent this way. If you want them to stand upright, you say, “Hold yourself upright,” they say, “I am.” So, you say, “Well, bend over to the right,” and then they do that. By countering the bias with another bias, you obtain the middle. But the aim is that they will, in the end, get the feeling of what it’s like to be symmetrically placed and held upright.
This, then, is one big part of the doctrine of Shri Shankara on the shruti. He says that it is free from contradiction. It is not to be attacked on grounds of internal contradiction, nor on grounds of contradiction with other sources of knowledge, but that what we have to remember the purpose of the shruti, which is not as a textbook of knowledge of the world, but only as a textbook using certain information about the world in order to lead to liberation.
Then, the second point is that the long path to liberation has signs on the way. People who have undertaken a long journey with only very rudimentary maps through wild country will know how useful it is. You can be told, “Simply follow this path for 40 miles and you will get there.” Well, you can go 10 miles, 15 miles and then you can camp and then go on, but you are bound to have certain doubts, although there’s only one clear path or there seems to be, and you wonder if it is right and it’s a very great help to be told by your man who has sent you out that “After eight or nine miles, there’ll be a big rock on your left with a reddish colour. If you go around that, you’ll see there’s a big chasm there.” But when you go along and, if you keep your eyes open, you do see a rock and it’s not quite the red that you thought, but it’s reddish, and you go round and then you see this big cavern, and then immediately your whole attitude changes. You know now that your path is right. Before, one always had a slight doubt and then if it’s on the wrong path with every step, you are getting further away. But to find that is a great help. It brings you no nearer the goal, and to stay and look at the chasm will prevent you from ever reaching the goal but it’s a great help.
In the same way, there are signs in yoga, which are often referred to. There are yogic practices, which of themselves don’t give liberation, which are signs of increasing concentration and increasing purification. Vachaspati, in one of his commentaries says, “But who would doubt what is clearly stated by scripture, by the teacher, and by inference?” and then a little voice says, ‘I would.’
He says it is for this, that these signs on the way – these yogic practices – are given, whereby there’s an experience of light, or of sound, or of touch, they’re often referred. Without this, he says, until some one thing, however small, has been confirmed, the whole remains something merely secondhand. We know that by reasoning, one can have a clear picture and gradually thinking and thinking, as our teacher says, one can have an idea and come to be convinced of the world as a great unity and everything that happens as following a plan and one’s own role in that plan and after some time, there is this feeling of being one with it. But, as Mephistopheles says in Faust, you will never keep it up, and most people know that there’s a reaction and a doubt as to whether really this is true. There can be eloquence, an internal eloquence by which we can feel in a way that we are convinced. But afterwards, as with some famous orator, there’s a reaction against what he said, although it seemed convincing at the time.
Vachaspati says it is for this purpose that the pravritti experiences, the yogic practices are given. Now, if we give one from The Heart of the East Mystical Teaching, he says, look at a candle flame in a dark room, look at the tip of a candle flame and endow that candle flame, that light with your ideal, with your divinity, your devotion, feel this is a manifestation of God. Then close the eyes and then feel that light within. He says after some time you will become conscious of a light burning internally. We can say, “Oh, this could be a hallucination, an illusion. After all, it could be a symptom. There are people with illnesses and they see light so this could be a symptom too,” and Shankara commenting on this says, no, this is the first experience. Yoga, he says, is concerned with direct confrontation and this is the first direct confrontation. And by this sort of practice, that first confrontation can be brought about quickly. It fills the yogi with joy. It leads to strong faith, it leads to energy, it leads to memory, it leads to samadhi, and it leads to insight. The symptoms don’t lead to these things. A man who likes walking in the open air will become healthy. He will also get, even in this country in the summer a tan, a man who falls in the mud will get his skin brown too. We can say, “Oh, look, you see he’s got a tan too.” Yes, but he isn’t healthy. In the same way, when young people are building up a physique, if they want to be athletic, they’re told, “Well, measure the leg. You will see how the calf muscle develops and that’ll be a great encouragement to you.” A man who gets very severe bruising on his leg, his leg gets bigger too, but he can’t use it. The test of these practices is that they bring faith and joy and energy and memory, samadhi and wisdom.
The shruti tells us if we do one of these practices, this result can come about, an inner perception of light can come about quickly. Although that inner perception of light is not liberation or a spiritual advance in itself, but it’s a sign like the reddish rock and the cavern. We are not to linger there or be proud of it. but it’s a sign.
The shruti, the things mentioned must become anubhuti, must become matters of direct experience, and Shri Shankara says this first direct experience is very important. The function of the shruti is to tell us something can be possible. In some parts of the world about 35 or 40 years ago, there were many blind people. You often saw them in the villages. The eyes were covered with a white film, children and grown up people. On asking about it, you found the midwives didn’t know if they wiped the eyes of the babies as soon as they’re born with a weak antiseptic, very simple, there wouldn’t be the blindness, but they don’t know this.
A missionary said, “It’s a very simple thing, and the antiseptic is very easy to get and prepare, and we would give it to them,” but he said, “it is surprisingly difficult. It’s very difficult to persuade them it need not be like this.” If you ask him, “Well, what do they say?” He said, “They say, ‘look, this is the way our village is. We don’t want people like you who look as though you’ve been painted all the colours of the rainbow with your red hair and your blue eyes and your big noses coming here, pushing in, trying to boss us, trying to change the immemorial customs of our village, we don’t want it. This is us. We want to be as we were. It’s good enough for our fathers. It’s good enough for us’.”
He said this is the problem, to convince them it doesn’t have to be like this. Then he said one or two villages do it, and after 10 years, the other villages will see it, and then sometimes it can be a change, but at the beginning there’s a resistance to the idea of a change.
The shruti tells us something about the Self, which is first, as the Gita verse says, taken on authority. They, not knowing, hear from others and they meditate on it, then gradually they change. They have an experience, then they’re able to reason about it, and finally, they’re able to realize it.
It says also about the instructions on daily life, that this is something which although it’s given us an authority, in fact is natural. Periodically in history, there’s a wave when people feel, ‘What actual basis is there for morality?’ Quite often, the philosophers and leaders of opinion come to the conclusion that there isn’t any. Not long ago a man had a heart attack and fell to the ground and three or four young boys kicked him to death and they’ve been sentenced, but a reporter got to know another member of this little gang who didn’t happen to be there. He asked him, “Don’t you think that it’s wrong to do this?” The boy said to him, “Look, we’re different. We think it’s all right. You think it’s all wrong. We’re simply different, that’s all.” Almost exactly Russell’s words, but the yoga tells us, the Gita tells us that, in fact, there is a difference between the two standpoints.
Russell in his book says, “If one man says I like oysters and another man says, I don’t like oysters what is there to decide between them? Nothing.” But there is a difference. If one man says I like opium and the other man says I don’t like opium, because in the end, the opium-liker regrets it. It’s not a natural thing, and it ruins his health. It is not a natural development of his life.
The Gita tells us that the qualities which are recommended on authority are, in fact, at the heart of every living being. They are in the heart. For instance, the qualities listed in the 13th chapter of the Gita, it’s a formidable list: to be unmoved in the presence of the desirable and the undesirable, to be humble, to be enduring, to be able to do without anything in the world, and yet at the very end it says, “These are implanted in the heart of every living being.”
We say, well, how can it be? They’re natural. How can humility be natural? We shall find that the people who are best at something are the ones who are humble. A professional always takes advice. He reads the critics very carefully, and he always has one or two friends on whose judgment he can rely, and he asks them especially after a successful performance, and they tell him, they say, “Look, it’s successful. Yes, you’ve done it before, and you’re doing it again. It’s very successful, but the fact is you are bored with it. Aren’t you? You’re just going on with it because it’s successful and you are known for it.” He thinks deeply. He says, “Yes, I think you’re right. I play that piece, because I know they want it. I can do it well, but really I’m bored with it. I’ll change.” But an amateur will never stand for that. An amateur will say, “It’s terrifically sporting of me to come on at all. Unless there’s more appreciation I shall not perform.” The humility is natural to the people who are good. It appears that when the people are not so good they feel uneasy and that they have to defend themselves.
Then I’ll read one of the practices which our teacher gave. He says, turn the attention to the heart centre, where the ribs meet the breast, and then feel there’s a light there, like a flame and breathe, and with each breath feel that the flame is increasing, the flame is burning higher. If you would like to try for a minute. OM.