Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

How perfect is the
'Perfect' Prayer?

flower picture

by Peter Bonnici

Part I

OmPuurnamadaHpuurnamidampuurnaatpuurnamudachyate (quick breath)
Puurnasyapuurnamaadayapuurnamevaavashisyate (quick breath)
Shaantihshaantihshaantih (glow of satisfaction).

That�s how I would chant this mantra. When asked what it meant, I'd rattle off the English equivalent:

Thatisperfectthisisperfectperfectcomesfromperfect (quick breath)
Takeperfectfromperfectandtheremainderisperfect (quick breath)
Maypeaceandpeaceandpeacebeeverywhere (glow of satisfaction).

Sometimes, for added ‘clarity’, there would be hand gestures to accompany the recitation. ‘That is perfect’ – point to some distant place in the sky. ‘This is perfect’ – point to all around in the vicinity. ‘Perfect comes from perfect’ is so obvious that it barely needs explanation. Finally, the numeric concept of infinity is pressed into service to explain the mathematics of the final statement, ‘Take perfect from perfect and the remainder is perfect’.

In all this finger-pointing, the one place missed is the place occupied by the pointer. And thus the whole point of this tiny invocation is also missed. The glow of satisfaction at the end is what the Sanskrit sages call: avicAra-Ananda, (literally, ‘bliss without enquiry’). Or, to put it in common Western parlance: ignorance is bliss.

In ignorance, the fact that is missed was that this simple mantra held vital knowledge that would free me from my sense of limitation, insecurity and unhappiness. The reason for missing this vital knowledge is that the way the words ‘this’ and ‘that’ in the mantra were understood left me out of the picture: they were taken as a reference to the ‘Absolute’ something ‘out there’ and his creation here all around us. In order to correct the misunderstanding we need to start by being clear at the outset about why one should bother.

Why bother?

Vedanta tells us that our struggles in life arise from a simple error: we take ourselves to be what we are not, and then take on the limitations of what we’ve mistakenly assumed ourselves to be. We take ourselves to be everything bounded by skin, and everything external to the body is ‘not me’. Everything that’s not-me threatens my security and happiness because the ‘me’ bounded by skin is not up to the challenges thrown up by the not-me world. The struggles end when we realise that instead of trying to compensate for the impotence of the mistaken ‘me’, we try to correct the error and discover the true self.

Vedanta also tells us that the jIva, the individual, is not limited to just the body-mind complex, but has a ‘self’, AtmA, which lends existence to the body-mind complex. In fact, of these two levels of reality, the AtmA is what’s absolutely real and the body-mind complex is merely ‘as though’ real. The two levels of reality are termed satyam and mithyA. The common translation of satyam and mithyA as ‘real-unreal’ is, typically, only half-true. The true bit is that the word ‘real’ is accurate enough as a translation of satyam. But Vedanta recognises two types of unreality: tuccham, totally unreal, non-existent like the son of a barren woman, and mithyA, that which is not totally non-existent, nor totally real. That which has independent existence is sat and that which needs sat for its existence is mithyA. The traditional example of water and wave in Vedanta helps explain the relation.

A wave is nothing but water, remove the water and there is no wave. But water is not wave: remove the wave and there is still water. Can we say the wave is non-existent? No. But, unlike water in the analogy, it has no independent existence. Wave is mithyA, water is satyam. Cloth is sat, shirt is mithyA. Clay is sat, pot is mithyA. Gold is sat, necklace is mithyA. When you touch necklace, you are touching gold. The weight of necklace is the weight of gold. The colour and lustre of necklace is the colour and lustre of gold. Necklace, on enquiry, is merely the name of a form that gold takes: nAma rUpa. Gold alone is real, pervading the necklace fully. Similarly, Vedanta tells us, AtmA is sat and the body-mind amalgam is mithyA – the name of a form taken by AtmA; Brahman is sat and the creation is mithyA.

The value of this vision is that it can help us shake off the burden that comes from identifying with that which isn’t absolutely real. To continue with the water-wave metaphor, we start off by seeing just the differences in waves, which we take to be real. Then we appreciate mithyA waves as nothing but satyam water. Then we understand that there is only water; wave being merely the name of a particular form that water takes. This is how wave is resolved into water. Similarly, the vast ocean, the name given to the amalgam of millions of waves, is also resolved into water. Wave, ocean and water are non different.

The metaphor applies where it really matters: wave stands for the individual (jIva), ocean stands for the creation (jagat), water is AtmA. (The ‘tattva Bodha’ chart shows the full extent of, and relation between, these terms. And shows that they all stem from the one Reality. See m article ‘Tattva Bodha in a nutshell’ on this site:

With key terms established, we’re now ready to make it personal…

This brings us back to the original question:

Part II

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012