Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century


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Definition - Ananda Wood

'chit' is the knowing light of consciousness, found in each person's mind.

In everyone's experience, it is a subjective knowing that illuminates whatever may appear or disappear. As time proceeds in any mind, perceptions, thoughts and feelings come and go. But consciousness continues as their knowing principle. It stays present always, illuminating all appearances and disappearances. It is a common principle of knowing, found always present in all states of experience, beneath their changes and their differences.

Found as a knowing principle, consciousness is called 'praj~nAna'. It's that which is prior (pra-) to all different instances of knowledge (j~nAna). Where different things are told apart, we speak of a discerning knowledge called 'vij~nAna', with the prefix 'vi-' implying differentiation. Where different things are put together, we speak of an associating knowledge called 'saMj~nAna', with the prefix 'saM-' implying mixture or inclusion.

But consciousness itself is neither differentiating nor associating. Its knowing is no action that tells things apart or puts them together. Its knowing is no act that it starts doing at some point of time or stops doing later on. Instead, its knowing is just what it is. Its very being is to know, to shine with knowing light. That light shines by itself, by its mere presence in all changing states that show a differentiated world.

All differences appear through changing acts of perception, thought and feeling in our bodies and minds. It is these changing acts that produce the different things we perceive or think or feel. And it is again these changing acts that put things together, in our constructed pictures and stories that describe a differentiated world. All telling things apart and putting them together are thus personal acts, which are performed by our minds and our bodies in the world.

How then can we come to a true knowledge of reality, which is shown in common by our differing descriptions of it? How can we interpret our constructed pictures and stories, so that we may know more clearly and more truly what they show? This investigation is pursued in the j~nAna mArga or the way of knowledge. Here, truth is approached by questioning belief. Our descriptions are examined to uncover the assumptions that we make in them, so as to remove confusions and mistakes of unquestioned belief.

In the tradition of Hindu texts, the j~nAna mArga first shows up in some philosophical chants from the Vedic saMhitA-s. It is further shown in various passages from the Upanishads, which raise basic questions about the Vedic world view. But in the Upanishads, the questions are raised through some rather condensed and cryptic statements, without much explanation or systematic treatment of the questioning.

The systematic treatment is put forward in the darshana-s or schools of philosophy, which have developed a variety of differing world views. The differences have naturally given rise to philosophical debates, through which the various schools have developed their theoretical systems, in relation to each other.

However, such debates are institutional and theoretical. Debate is what pandits or scholars do, as they construct and establish the competing views of their various different schools. This is a theoretical activity, in which each school sets out its own system of thought, in competition with other schools.

This construction of world views is not the actual practice of philosophy. It cannot be more than a theoretical preliminary, which serves to prepare a student for reflective questioning. The actual practice of philosophy does not begin till reason is reflected back from built-up ideas, so as to question the very basis of assumptions upon which the ideas have been built.

So long as reason is applied to question someone else's beliefs, then that is just a theoretical debate, which is used largely to prevent the questioner's beliefs from being opened up to question. But when the questioning turns round reflectively, upon one's own assumptions, then one's own understanding is at stake. And if such a questioning is genuine, it then amounts to an investigating experiment, in which one looks to see what clearer understanding it may lead towards.

The results of such a questioning are then inherently practical, for the new understanding gets inherently expressed in further feelings, thoughts, perceptions and actions that arise from it. It's through such questioning that we get educated, as we learn in practice from the process of experience.

The actual practice of philosophy is just that turned back questioning. It takes place within all schools: as each student learns received ideas and gets to question what they mean, for herself or himself.

Debate and enquiry have thus two different functions. Debate is used institutionally, to set out a systematic view of world that represents a school of thought to those who see it from outside.

Enquiry serves individually, for each student of a school to learn its ideas and to investigate their meaning from within. An inner education is here sought through an individual questioning, under the guidance of a living teacher. That inward and individual emphasis lies at the heart of the j~nAna mArga.

In the Katha Upanishad 5.15, the 'cit' aspect is described as that light which does not shine from sun or moon or stars, nor indeed from any object in the world. It shines instead subjectively, as self that knows itself within. That shining is just what it is, with all the world found shining after it, as its mere reflection. The passage is appended below (with a somewhat free translation).

na tatra sUryo bhAti na chandratArakaM nemA vidyuto bhAnti kuto 'yamagniH |

[In that, the sun does not shine, nor do the moon and stars, nor these flashes of lightning. How, then, this fire here?]

tameva bhAntamanubhAti sarvaM tasya bhAsA sarvamidaM vibhAti ||

[That shines itself. Everything shines after it. All of this world reflects its light.]

Note from Dhyanasaraswati

The following dialogue between Janaka, emperor of Videha and Sage Yajnavalkya is given in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

`Yajnavalkya, what serves as the light for a man ?' asks Emperor Janaka .

`The light of the sun, O Emperor', said Yajnavalkya; `it is through the light of the sun that he sits, goes out, works and returns'. `It is just so, Yajnavalkya'.

`When the sun has set, Yajnavalkya, what exactly serves as the light for a man ?' `The moon serves as his light. It is through the light of the moon that he sits, goes out, works and returns'. `It is just so, Yajnavalkya'.

`When the sun and the moon have set, Yajnavalkya, what exactly serves as the light for a man ?' `The fire serves as his light. It is through the fire that he sits, goes out, works and returns'. `It is just so, Yajnavalkya'.

When the sun and the moon have both set, and the fire has gone out, Yajnavalkya, what exactly serves as the light for a man ?' `Speech (sound) serves as his light. It is through the light of speech that he sits, goes out, works and returns. Therefore, O Emperor, even when one's own hand is not clearly visible, if a sound is uttered, one manages to go there.'. `It is just so, Yajnavalkya'.

When the sun and the moon have both set, the fire has gone out, and speech has stopped, Yajnavalkya, what exactly serves as the light for a man ?' `The self serves as his light. It is through the light of the self that he sits, goes out, works and returns.' `It is just so, Yajnavalkya'.

Consciousness is all there is!
Prajnanam Brahma
Consciousness is Brahman

(Aitareya Upanishad 3.3, of RRig Veda)

The most illuminating light of all is 'consciousness'

Om Tat Sat !

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012