An ancient Sanskrit text on the nature of Reality
James Swartz © 1996
Vedic culture is based on the Vedas , books of knowledge of great antiquity. The four Vedas are divided into three parts. The mantras, the earliest portion, are hymns to the power of nature which is seen as a kind, tolerant and merciful, yet mighty, severe, and unrelenting deity. The Brahmanas, are detailed instructions needed to perform rituals and meditations that produce certain sought-after and limited results: wealth, progeny, a happy afterlife, health, etc. Such knowledge is valuable for those who believe that happiness comes from outside themselves.
A few of us doubt that lasting happiness comes from the pursuit of desired objects and/or the performance of finite activities, religious or otherwise, in a time-bound world and, for whatever reasons, are convinced that happiness comes from within. The Aranyakas or Upanishads, the third portion of each Veda, commonly known as Vedanta, agrees and delivers an “absolute” knowledge that, under the right circumstances, reveals the limitless blissful Self and destroys the suffering arising from the belief in oneself as a limited being.
Actions, subtle and gross, can only produce things not immediately available. For example, if I live in San Francisco and want to go to New York I need to catch a plane, or drive a car. But the Self, the limitless I, our true identity, is eternally present, the nearest of the near, so no action will help me reach it.
One day a devotee said to God, “Please give me a head on my shoulders.” God thought long and hard about the request and concluded that, in spite of His omnipotence, He could do nothing. So He said to the devotee, “I can give you another fatter head. I can move your present head to a different location. I can shrink or expand your head. I can put a dozen heads on top of your head. I can twist your head into the shape of a pretzel. But I cannot give you a head on your shoulders because you have a head on your shoulders.” “So what should I do?” the devotee asked. “I think the only way to solve the problem is to realize that you already have a head on your shoulders,” said the Lord.
I can only get something I already have through knowledge. But knowledge doesn’t happen by itself. It must come through a vehicle or instrument.
THE MEANS OF KNOWLEDGE
Perception, inference, and language are means of knowledge. The means of knowledge we use is determined by the type of object we want to know. For example, if I want to see a sunset I can’t use my ears. Knowledge of thought depends on intellect. To understand feelings I should have a heart
The means of knowing relative things is obvious, but the knowledge revealing the limitless I is subtle because it has to remove a deep and hidden obstacle, the ignorance of my limitless nature.
For the means to operate properly, assuming a clear message is coming from the scripture through the teacher, the mind must be trained to listen. Listening with an open mind requires disciplined and consistent setting aside of cherished views of oneself and world. A means of knowledge is not brainwashing, accepting a new belief system; its only purpose is to deliver of a clear vision of truth, the limitless I.
Simply hearing that one is free of limitation is not enough. Doubt comes from incomplete and incorrect thinking and is only removed by careful and patient reflection. Meditation as a thought-free state or religious ritual as devotional practice are valuable tools for purifying the mind, but will not remove self doubt. So, along with the knowledge that I am limitless Awareness, I should follow the method of thinking enjoined by the scripture, the negation of all incorrect views about the nature of the world and myself.
The most formidable obstacle to the assimilationof the truth is the thought “If only I were different or the world were different, I would be happy.” Looking forward to an ideal inner or outer situation is futile because life and oneself is already and always perfect. When this thought is removed the mind enjoys limitless vision. So spiritual practice, meditation if you will, is the struggle to purify beliefs supporting the notion of oneself as a limited being.
Words can only reveal known objects. For example, the word ‘television’ wouldn’t have been understood a hundred years ago. Words only work to describe substances, properties of substances, actions, species or classes, and relationships, so how can the limitless I, which is apparently not an experienced object and obviously beyond these categories, be revealed through the teachings of Vedanta?
If I say “tree,” a tree thought takes place in the mind because we have experienced trees, but the words “limitless I” don’t mean anything to most of us because we think of our ourselves as limited I’s. And the limitless I is the part of ourselves that can never be objectified, so it seems words won’t work to reveal it. However, if the thought that we’re limited is a delusion and the limitless I present and accounted for, an intimate part of every transaction, words can reveal it.
Vedanta tackles the word problem by first informing me that I’m an unlimited I. That I’m limitless is indicated by the fact that though I have literally hundreds of thousands of unique experiences in my lifetime, I continually experience myself as a simple conscious being, one transcending all experiences. The same I, unaffected by time, witnessed my baby body, youth body, adult body, and feeble old-age body and their myriad transactions.
WHAT LIMITLESSNESS DOESN’T MEAN
To say we’re unlimited by nature does not mean that if we knew who we were we could walk on water, fly like birds, or leap tall buildings in a single bound like Superman. Nor does it mean that we are omniscient, endowed with extraordinary psychic powers, capable of zipping around the cosmos in our spirit bodies. With rare exceptions, the body and mind are limited by Nature and behave in conformity with its laws. And one could hardly imagine a more limited phenomenon than a miracle.
A common example of limitlessness is the “peak” experience when the sense of limitation temporarily dissolves and the person feels completely happy, carefree, peaceful, loving, rich, and powerful. In deep sleep we experience limitless and bliss. Though seemingly a momentary feeling, limitlessness is the most fundamental fact of our existence, our own forgotten nature. That it’s our nature is indicated by the fact that whenever I feel this way I never try to rid myself of the experience, unlike limitation, which I always view as a serious disease.
Though it’s my nature I don’t see myself as limitless because I’m identified with my limited selves. Not to put too fine a point on it, when I negate and cease to identify with my relative selves, (which is the purpose of this Upanishad) my non-negatable limitless Self is (hopefully) realized by default. The rediscovery of oneself as a limitless awareful Being is known as liberation or enlightenment.
The trick lies in recognizing oneself as limitless awareness without turning oneself into an object. When we turn ourselves into objects we suffer. In a dream a man decided to try to find his waking self and looked high and low with no success. Dejected, he sat down under a tree when he heard a voice from the sky say, “Why don’t you wake up.”
Surrendering his status as a dreamer and leaving the dream world, he discovered the waker by becoming the waker without turning himself into an object. In fact, the dreamer was the waker, temporarily identified with the conditions in the dream world. Similarly, from the point of view of the limitless I, all waking state entities are consciously or unconsciously searching the limitless I in a state that doesn’t contain it as an object. The only way we are going to discover what we’re searching is to awaken from this waking dream.
In the twilight a thirsty traveler approached a village well. Reaching down, she recoiled in fear when she saw a big snake coiled next to the bucket. Unable to move for fear of being bitten, she imagined terrible things, including her own death. At that time an old man coming to the well noticed her predicament.
“What’s the problem?” he asked kindly.
“Snake! Snake! Get a stick before it strikes!” she whispered frantically.
The old man burst out laughing. “Hey!” he said, “Take it easy. That’s no snake. It’s the well rope. It just looks like a snake in the darkness.” Though never in danger, the misapprehended rope produced intense fear. Our existential fears and desires come from mistaking the limitless I for the limited I. The fear of the snake arose simultaneously with the misapprehension of the rope and, significantly, vanished when the rope was correctly perceived.
In the Mandukya Upanishad, an English rendition of which is given below, the rope represents the limitless I and the snake the limited I broken into three sub-I’s: the waker, dreamer, and sleeper and their respective worlds. In the story, the traveler, who represents anyone striving to know who they are, makes a mistake and sees a snake where there is only a rope. This superimposition of our limited self or selves on our real or limitless I (which is going on all the time) is the cause of much suffering. The removal of this error is the purpose of the Upanishad.
This mistake, a symbol of normal perception, took place in twilight, which represents the waking entity’s partially-conscious state of mind. In broad daylight (full knowledge) or pitch darkness (total ignorance) no such error could have occurred. Because we’re so obsessed with the objects of perception and the limited I’s reactions to them, in normal perception we vaguely or incompletely see the limitless I even though it’s an intimate part of every transaction. And we are unaware that the snake needs the rope, borrows its reality from the rope. Meaning that my life exists because I exist, not the other way around. Even if we are superficially aware of our Consciousness we don’t understand that deep inquiry into it confers freedom and endless bliss. Our story has a happy ending because the snake disappears into the rope and the traveler’s suffering ceases. In reality, the disappearance of the snake, all our false conceptions and discriminations, except in exceptional cases, comes about after long and patient inner work.