If jivatma is taken as finite and mortal, it can never become infinite and immortal.
In the Vedantic tradition, mahavakya vichara (analysis of statements, such as tat tvam asi), is considered the only means of gaining Self-knowledge (Atma jnanam).
The mahavakya reveals the essential identity of jivatma (Self) and paramatma (Brahman). The teaching is that there is only one Atma, though we use two different expressions, jivatma and paramatma, which are only two names but reveal one substance. (This is, of course, contrary to our normal experience in the world where, generally speaking, different words are used to indicate different objects).
However, in practice, we do use different words, such as bubble, wave and ocean, all of which ultimately refer to water. Why then do we use different words? It is only because, though the three expressions in the above case are not essentially different, there is a superficial difference caused by name and form (nama-rupa). The difference is superficial, but identity is essential. This is seen in any mathematical equation, such as 5-4=3-2.
When two things are essentially the same, there is no need for an equation. Again, when two things are clearly different, there cannot be any equation. It is only when two things are superficially different but essentially the same that an equation would be in order.
Thus, the mahavakyam becomes relevant as jivatma and paramatma are essentially identical, though superficially different. Atma, with one set of nama-rupa is called jivatma,and Atma with another set of nama-rupa is called paramatma. The scriptures point out that without nama-rupa,there can be only one Atma (thus revealing jivatama–paramatma identity). Vedanta says one who has this knowledge gets liberated.
In the 15th chapter of Upadesha Sahasri, Sri Sankaracharya, as part of establishing the Vedantic revelation of jiva-brahma aikyam, introduces a new approach by enunciating a law or principle which states that a thing or entity cannot become another. (Anyat na anyat bhavati). This is why the chapter itself is titled Nanyat anyat prakaranam (the topic of impossibility of one becoming another).
Does a thing become another by undergoing a superficial change? Or does a thing become another by undergoing an essential or substantial change? On enquiry we find that in either case, a thing cannot become another because superficial change cannot alter the entity, and the essential change will result in total extinction of the very entity. Thus, as long as a thing does not lose its essential nature, it cannot become another.
Applying this law to Vedanta mahavakya, we can see that if jivatma is taken as finite and mortal, it can never become infinite and immortal. Therefore, problems born of finitude, such as mortality, location, limitation, sense of inadequacy, sense of want and fear, cannot be altered if one takes himself to be finite.
Any improvement in the external conditions also cannot change the essential nature of finitude and thus even one becoming a devata (exalted jiva) will be faced with the same problem. Thus, it appears that no purpose will be served by any struggle or effort to become infinite. On the other hand, if the jiva is already infinite, there need be no struggle at all to become infinite. Thus, while it is futile for a finite jiva to struggle to become infinite, it is meaningless and foolish for infinite jiva to attempt to become infinite.
An enquiry on the above lines is necessary before we embark on our spiritual quest and review our life’s struggle. It is our experience in the world that all of us wish for permanent peace, security and satisfaction with freedom from mortality, limitation (in short, infinitude). Based on the above law, we need to find out what our essential nature is. If we conclude that we are indeed finite, we should drop all our struggle to become infinite and learn to accept all consequential limitations of finitude.
If it is ascertained that we are clearly infinite, then also there is no need for struggle, and all we have to do is to own up our infinite status and drop all notions of limitation, location, etc. Therefore, it becomes essential for us to determine our real nature.
This is how the author introduces the subject matter of this chapter in the first four verses where, besides the enunciation of the law referred to above, the author summarises the ideas contained in the 14th chapter related to Atma-anatma viveka, establishing that I, Atma, am different from the body-mind complex.
In Verses 5 to 8, there is a brief discussion on the significance of taking to sannyasa in one’s spiritual journey. The author makes the point that any amount of karma can never take one out of the cycle of birth and death. Karma will produce results, to exhaust which one has to take birth either in a higher world or lower, or again in this world.
Therefore, a serious spiritual seeker must take to sannyasa after renouncing all karmas or at least remain in the world diluting the extent of karma so that one gets time to take to jnana yoga and gain Self-knowledge. This does not mean that karma has no place in the scheme of spiritual progress. Initially, one has to practise karma yoga to prepare and refine his mind and to make it subtle and ready to engage in Self-enquiry as laid down in our scriptures. Once the aspirant is exposed to spiritual study and gains Self-knowledge, he can gradually get out of karma or substantially reduce it.
Read Part 18 of the series...
Compiled by R. B. Athreya from the lectures of Swami Paramarthananda in Chennai.