by Peter Bonnici
6. The mantra, pUrNam adaH, pUrNam idam, is the most succinct expression of the truth of the relation between the individual, the creation and Reality. An enquiry into this simple statement reveals the profundity of the Vedic vision that banishes self-ignorance with awe-inspiring brevity – using just one noun, two pronouns, two verbs and one emphatic particle.
PUrNam (completeness, wholeness, limitless fullness) (noun)
adaH (that) (pronoun 1)
idam (this) (pronoun 2)
udacyate (arises/comes forth) (verb 1)
AdAya (having taken/ having removed) (verb 2)
avashiShyate (remains) (verb 3)
eva (alone) (particle)
To begin, the common understanding of the noun and two pronouns need to be re-assessed and re-defined…
7. ‘Perfect’ is not a helpful translation of the noun ‘pUrNam in this context. PUrNam is more accurately translated here as ‘completeness’, ‘limitlessness’. One can have a perfect sphere and a perfect gentleman. But completeness leaves nothing out. If it did, then it would not be complete. The first two statements now become: “That is complete. This is complete…”
8. Idam, ‘this’, means ‘this manifest creation’ (as stated in the ISha Upanishad: “idam sarvam”). It stands for everything that can be objectified now and in the future. In short, idam is mithyA jagat. So pointing to the surroundings is okay; but, only half-okay because mithyA also covers everything about myself that can be objectified – my body, my mind, my senses, vital force, etc. ALL that is not-I (individual as well as universal) is meant by the word idam.
9. Adah, ‘that’, must, by remainder, stand for everything that is not capable of being objectified. Instead of pointing to something remote in terms of distance, it indicates something remote in terms of understanding – the objectifier, the subject, ‘I’. Understanding what ‘I’ really is, seems to be a distant prospect. I take myself to be body mind amalgam, despite scripture telling me otherwise, leaving a large gap between belief and teaching. That ‘I’, which is distant in understanding, is what the mantra means by adah, ‘that’.
Oops, we’ve hit a bit of a snag…
10. Comprehensive as idam and adaH are, we’re left with an apparent contradiction in the statements: “pUrNam adaH and pUrNam idam”. The contradiction is as follows: If idam is everything except the ‘I’, then it cannot be pUrNam because there can be nothing outside pUrNam. Equally if the subject ‘I’, adaH, is distinct from all the perceived objects, then it too cannot be pUrNam for the same reason. So does this mean that this mantra is not tenable?
11. The water-wave metaphor can once more be pressed into use. Take the point of view of a wave: it may accept that it is water, but it still sees itself as different from the vast ocean. But from the point of view of water, all waves are encompassed and so is the whole ocean. All waves arise out of water, are pervaded totally by water and resolve back into water. Water is the same truth of every wave and is thus the truth of the ocean. Similarly, if we consider pUrNam adaH and pUrNam idam from the point of view of idam and adaH, there is an apparent problem because they both exclude the other and therefore not complete. But if we start from the limitless pUrNam, then everything is included. The seeming differences between idam (the world) and adaH (I) are swallowed up by pUrNam.
Isn’t this just a semantic trick?
The Vedic thinkers employ a technique called ‘shaking the post’ in their discourses to test their propositions. Like the person who bangs a post into the ground gives it a good shake it to see how solidly it is embedded, so too arguments are given a good shake to test their robustness. Below we employ this to test the strength of Vedanta’s propositions.
12. SHAKE 1. The question that arises is: Why bother to use two separate words that cause so much confusion, when it would be easier to say, ‘Everything is pUrNam’?
Answer: because this mantra starts from where we are. Experience tells me: there’s me and there’s everything else that’s not me. If the intention is to show the essential unity, then it is not useful to deny the perceived differences as non-existent, because at one level they DO exist. The intention is to show that they have no absolute reality: they are only apparently real. So we start from apparent difference to end up at absolute non-difference.
13. SHAKE 2. Common experience throws up another problem with the statements. I see myself as incomplete, limited. And I spend my life struggling to overcome this sense of limitation. I am limited by space (I am bounded by skin), by time (I was born and will die) and by objects (I cannot occupy the space occupied by something else). Observation also shows that everything that is not me also has similar limitations. And yet the mantra says that I, and the universe, are pUrNam, without limitation – contradicting experience. So how can I be pUrNam? Equally, how can the bounded jagat be pUrNam?
> Answer: Whilst experience backed by reason shows that everything in the jagat has limitations, only experience tells us that ‘I’, aham, is limited – this is NOT backed by logic. I believe that ‘I’ am limited because that is how I experience myself, but logic says:
• There can be just one experiencer, one ‘I’.
• If that ‘I’ has a boundary, it means there is something outside the ‘I’ to experience it, and that new experiencer will be saying: “I have experienced the ‘I’.“
• This makes the second ‘I’ the experiencer and that ‘I’ then needs to be without limit.
• If not, we regress endlessly looking for the ultimate ‘experiencer’.
• Thus we conclude: I, the ultimate experiencer, is limitless (pUrNam).
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