Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Teaching of Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon Prakriya 7 - The Background

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Note that the following commentary is provided by Ananda Wood, a disciple of the sage Atmananda Krishna Menon (1883 - 1959). The material is not copyrighted and may be freely used by any true seeker. It is extracted from a discussion, led by Ananda, on the Advaitin Egroup during Nov - Dec 2003 and the text for the complete discussion may be downloaded by members.

After the sat, cit and ananda aspects have been examined, the next prakriya investigates the changeless background of all change and difference.

As the world appears, to anyone, it is shown in seeming pictures -- physical, sensual and mental. These are pictures that have been created by changing acts of perception and conception, through our bodies and our minds. As our minds and bodies differ, so too their acts of picturing get to be different as well. The differences produce a great variety of pictures -- at different times and places, and in different cultures and personalities.

But in the end, each picture must arise from the same complete reality of physical and mental world - which includes all times and places, together with all cultures and all personalities. Whatever picture may appear - of anything or to anyone - that complete reality is always implied, in the background of the picturing.

Each apparent picture is portrayed at the foreground of experience, by some act of picturing. This very act must express the reality from which it has arisen. That expressed reality is quietly implied. It stands utterly unpictured in the background, while changing pictures are portrayed on the seeming surface of the mind's attention.

Accordingly, reality can be approached as a background screen, on which all pictures of the world are drawn. The screen is in itself unpictured -- remaining everywhere the same, never varying at all. In this sense, of standing changeless underneath, that background is called 'sat' or 'existence'.

But that background is no object in the world. Each object is a pictured element, appearing on the background screen. And each such element is lit by consciousness. The knowing light of consciousness is present through all pieces of the picturing. Throughout all varied pieces of the pictured show, that light stays present with the screen.

The pictured pieces change and vary; but their background and their knowing light stay present always, throughout all the changes and the differences. There is no way of distinguishing between that background reality and the knowing light of consciousness. The two cannot be told apart. They are in fact identical. The background screen is light itself, illuminating all its pictures from behind.

The pictures are all made of light. As they show, they shine by that light, which illuminates itself. In this sense, as self-illuminating light, the reality is called 'cit' or 'consciousness'.

As the pictures come and go, they all arise expressing consciousness, from which they come. That expression is their life, which animates their changing movement. From it comes all their sense of purpose and meaning and value.

In the end, all pictured acts are done for the sake of consciousness, which they express. As it knows itself, in identity, it shines non-dually -- identical with the reality of each picture that it lights. By that non-dual shining, all actions in our pictures are inspired to take place, spontaneously and naturally, of their own accord.

For that non-dual shining is the happiness that is uncovered when desire is fulfilled. The wanting mind is dual, feeling need for something else. When what's wanted is obtained, the self that knows is felt to be at one with what has come about. The wanting mind's duality has there been brought to rest, dissolved into a non-duality that is its real motivation. In this sense, as that which is ultimately valued, the reality is called 'ananda' or 'happiness'.

The background is thus 'sat-cit-ananda'. As 'sat', it is the background of all objects and objective acts. As 'cit', it is the background of all thoughts and ideas. As 'ananda', it is the background of all feelings and all values. But then, how can it be investigated, beneath the pictures that appear to cover it?

As Shri Atmananda explained, it can be found by looking carefully at the gaps in our picturing of the apparent world. There, in the gaps, when they are properly examined, the background may be found uncovered, shining by itself.

In deep sleep, the gap is obvious, because it corresponds to a gap in physical time, seen from the waking state. But there is also a less obvious gap -- which need not take any physical time, and which usually passes quite unnoticed. This is the gap that keeps taking place in the mind, whenever a perception, thought or feeling comes to end.

At this point of time -- just after each mentation disappears and just before the next appears -- there is a timeless gap, in which the mind has returned to dissolution in its shining background. In that gap, as in deep sleep, the ego is dissolved and the real self is found 'shining in its own glory'.

Taking note of that gap shows the background positively, as that true and positive reality of each object and each action that appears. What makes this prakriya so positive is that the gap can be seen to keep occurring all the time. It occurs before and after every moment -- as each present moment rises from the dissolution of what went before, and as this moment in its turn dissolves into a timeless shining out of which the next succeeding moment is then born.

Whatever may appear is thus shown to rise immediately from the shining background, which provides both knowing light and continuing support. And with the same immediacy, what rises into show is then returned to that same background, which stays present quite unchanged.

Through this reflection back, all perceptions, thoughts and feelings keep on pointing to a positive reality, which underlies their fitful appearances in changing mind. They point back by their natural and spontaneous returning to dissolve in that reality - where they keep expiring, at every moment that we know.

How and where is this prakriya described in traditional and ancient texts? I must confess to not having much of an answer. I can only give a few preliminary indications, which are appended below, as a postscript.

The concept of the 'background' in traditional advaita -- some preliminary indications

First, when speaking of the 'background' in his native Malayalam, Shri Atmananda used the word 'porul' (with a retroflex 'l' -- the word comes from Tamil). My dictionaries translate the word as 'meaning, truth, wealth, essence, sum-and-substance'.

Second, Ramana Maharshi often speaks of the background as a screen. For example, in 'Forty Verses on Reality', he says (in stanza 1, translated from his Malayalam version 'Sad-darshanam'):

Names and forms are pictures. The one who sees, the light and the screen: all these are one reality, and that alone.

Similarly, at an earlier time, Shri Jnyaneshwar says in 'Cangadeva Pasashti', 13 (composed in old Marathi prakrit):

A non-existent picture shows, but what exists is only wall. So too, what shines is consciousness, here in the form of changing world.

Third, going back to ancient times, the concept of 'AkAsha' is often used to indicate or to imply a continuing or changeless background. In particular, as the fifth element, AkAsha is the background continuity pervading all of space and time. And this word 'AkAsha' has also a deeper meaning, shown by its derivation. It comes from the root 'kash', which means to 'shine'. To this root, the prefix 'a-' is added, indicating 'nearness' or 'immediacy'. So, more deeply seen, the word 'AkAsha' indicates an immediate shining, found in the background of our space-time pictures.

In that deeper meaning, the element 'AkAsha' shows a changeless reality that is identical with knowing self. That meaning is brought out in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, chapter 3, through a persistent questioning of Yajnyavalkya by Gargi.

Initially, she goes through the five elements, asking what each one is made of. When she gets to ask about AkAsha, he answers cosmologically, through various mythical and religious conceptions that lead up to the limitless expanse of 'brahman'. And he refuses to answer beyond that -- telling Gargi that her head will fall off, if she asks too many questions.

But, some time later on, she comes back with a more intelligent way of asking about the underlying nature of AkAsha. She asks a leading question that brings out the pervading continuity of AkAsha, throughout all space and time. And then she goes on to ask what it is that supports the continuity.

Only then does Yajnyavalkya give a full and direct answer, telling her that AkAsha shows an unchanging reality (akShara) which is directly found as knowing self. As he puts it (in 3.8.11):

This, Gargi, is that same changeless principle ... which is not known, but is the knower. ... Other than this, there is no knower. Gargi, it is in this very changeless principle that AkAsha is woven, warp and woof.

prakriyA-s in this Section:
Atmananda Krishna Menon home page.
1.  Universal and Individual - the 'cosmological' and 'direct' paths.
2.  The three states - enquiry from everyday experience.
3.  'I am consciousness' ('Prajnyanam asmi') - reflection back into the 'I'.
4.  Witness of thoughts - change and the changeless.
     -- Consciousness and Enlightenment
     -- Memory
     -- Higher and Lower Reason
     -- Knowing
     -- Further Comments on Deep Sleep
5.  All objects point to consciousness - 'Existence has the chair.'
6.  Happiness - not in objects or the mind, but coming from the real 'I'.
     -- Love and Devotion
7.  The background - where all experiences arise, abide and subside.
8.  Merging back - 'Sleep in consciousness.'
     -- Some Questions
Ananda has provided an updated version of these essays May 2007 and this may be downloaded as a PDF file (251k); it has a linked Table of Contents and a glossary (unlinked).
"Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda" now available for download - see 'modern books'.
Selected discourses from Shri Atmananda
Page last updated: 07-Jul-2012