Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Self Realization and the Parables
of Plato and Bhagavan

flower picture

Sundararajan Mohan

(As published in the October-December 2009 issue of Mountain Path, a quarterly journal from
Sri Ramanasramam, Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu - 606 603, India)

Sundararajan Mohan

For more information about Sundararajan Mohan and his work, visit his blog, Advaitananda.

Know the Atman as the Lord of the chariot, the body as the chariot; know the intellect as the charioteer and the mind again as the reins.
Katha Upanishad (I, iii, 3)

The spiritual literature of the world is filled with analogies, metaphors, parables and symbols. All these help in illustrating a particular concept or throw light on a specific process. They assist understanding by drawing attention to relationships and parallels.

One of the classic parables in ancient Greek philosophy is �The Parable of the Cave� in Plato�s The Republic at the very beginning of Book VII. Plato (427 � 347 BCE) came from a distinguished family of Athens. His writings, treasured in the Western world, are the very first recordings of Greek philosophy available in complete form. Earlier writings do exist but have survived only as fragments. Plato�s writings are mainly in the form of discourses between a teacher and his associates. Almost every dialogue features Plato�s own teacher Socrates (469 � 399 BCE). Plato depicts Socrates as a man of simple tastes, a cheerful disposition and with a great desire to clarify how to live life meaningfully. Many young men of Athens, like Plato, flocked to learn from Socrates. The politicians in the Athenian democracy became apprehensive about the contents of these discussions as well as the considerable influence that Socrates exerted on the young men of the city. He was therefore falsely accused of corrupting their minds and introducing new religious concepts and was put to death.

Socrates did not leave any writings and it was left to Plato to record the various dialogues that took place. The first part of Plato�s writings focuses on the philosophical legacy of Socrates and includes a description of his trial and his advice to his students and friends before he died.

Plato is said to have left Athens after Socrates� death and traveled extensively in Asia Minor and Egypt. There is some speculation that during this period of ten years he might have come in contact with Indian religious philosophy. When he returned to Athens he established a place of learning called the Academy. The writings of this later period continue to figure Socrates but are actually expositions of Plato�s own philosophy. The Republic, comprising ten books is the most comprehensive of his later writings. It is a description of an ideal state. �The Parable of the Cave� appears at the beginning of Book VII, which outlines the scheme of education for what Plato calls the �Guardians� who are to be �Philosopher �Statesmen�, at the top tier of governance.

This parable describes the very first qualification of these philosopher-statesmen. It describes a group of prisoners in a cave, manacled and bound, so that they cannot even turn their heads. They are forced to look at a wall in front of them. Behind them is a raging fire which lights up this wall. In front of the fire but behind the prisoners, there is a ramp on which people walk to and fro. Their shadows are thrown on the wall, moving, gesticulating and also talking as their voices echo from the wall. The prisoners gazing at this shadow play on the cave wall regard what they see as reality.

The parable describes how one of the prisoners escapes, and unshackled and free, discovers a way out of the cave. He emerges into the outside world but is dazzled by the sight. Orienting his eyes slowly, he first gazes at the sun�s reflection in water, and then learns how to look at the moon and the stars in the cool light of night. Finally he is able to look at the sun directly. He realizes that this world, not the cave wall, is the true reality. He goes back into the cave to try to share his insight with the other prisoners. But they are unable to accept the views of the returned prisoner.

This parable describes the two states of humanity, the constrained condition of illusion within the cave, and the freedom and enlightenment outside in the sunlight. As the treatise proceeds to describe the education of the philosopher-statesmen, Plato implies that the Guardians of his Republic must be persons who have experienced enlightenment. In this parable the sun is the source of enlightenment. The cave represents the mundane world, shrouded in the darkness of ignorance, and where moving shadows are mistaken for reality. Gradually learning how to view the moon, the escaped prisoner is finally able to experience the dazzling brilliance of the sun.

From the Indian and Vedantic viewpoint, this parable seems to symbolize Self- realisation. In this context, it is interesting to consider how Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharishi portrays this state as recorded by Sri Natanananda in the text called Spiritual Instruction or Upadesha Manjari. Bhagavan compares the human system to a cinema projector, using a paradigmatic twentieth century innovation as his example. He likens the lamp, the source of illumination, to the Self or Atman. The lens which is close to the lamp and helps focus the light is the �pure sattvic mind� or intellect. The film is the �stream of subtle thoughts�, coloured and superimposed with �latent tendencies�, imprints and memories of past experiences, a multitude of experiences from many lives. The screen is the world outside on which the images fall, processed by the �lens-intellect� and the �film-mind� and lit up by the luminosity of the �lamp-Self�. The various pictures projected are the objects perceived in the world with their names and forms. The mechanism and the process of projection are what Bhagavan calls �the divine law�.

Bhagavan explicitly states, as recorded by Sri Natanananda, that �just as the lamp illumines the lens, etc, while remaining unaffected�, the Self illumines the human system, the world of names and forms that are dependent on the latent tendencies or vasanas, while the Self itself remains unaffected or unchanging. This simile powerfully describes the nature of the �Unchanging Sun� or Aruna-achala. Plato does not explain his parable, but Bhagavan explains very clearly why he chooses this example to illustrate the nature of truth. These illustrations of the nature of the Self or Atman, remind us of the analogy in the Katha Upanishad, quoted at the beginning of this essay. In this classic metaphor, the Self is depicted as the Lord of a chariot. He owns, guides and energizes his charioteer, the Intellect, who, through the reins of the Mind, controls the sense-horses. The chariot itself is the human body. This metaphor comes from an exposition on the nature of Brahman and the concept of Self-realization, as expounded by Yamaraja, the Lord of Death, to a young man called Nachiketa.

The major part of the Katha Upanishad takes the form of a dialogue between Nachiketa and Yamaraja. Nachiketa�s father performs an important sacrifice, and desiring the boon of heaven, proceeds to give away gifts to the officiating priests. Nachiketa, a sensitive young man, is perturbed at the poor quality of the offerings being made by his father, and fearing that the father will therefore not be successful in achieving his objective, pesters his father as to how he will dispose of him. In exasperation, the father retorts, �I will give thee to Death.�

To fulfill his father�s vow, Nachiketa goes to the house of Yamaraja and waits there for three nights. On his return, Yamaraja is dismayed to find that he has made a pious Brahmin wait for three nights without food and to atone for his error, offers Nachiketa three boons. Nachiketa asks for the restoration of his father�s love and peace of mind as his first boon and for his own initiation into the secrets of the sacred fire sacrifice as his second boon. Both his boons are fulfilled. Nachiketa then asks to be instructed on Brahman and blessed with the state of Self-realisation. After testing his competence and commitment, Yamaraja proceeds to describe the nature of Brahman in a beautiful manner as well as the process for realizing Brahman. The analogy of the chariot appears in this description. At the end of this exposition, the Upanishad states that Nachiketa, �having acquired this knowledge imparted by Yamaraja, and also the whole teaching about Yoga, attains Brahman, having become free from all impurities and death.� (Katha Upanishad (II, iii, 18))

Reading the Upanishad, many questions arise: Who was Nachiketa? Was he a real person? Did some incident in his life provoke such serious questions in his young mind? Is the Upanishad (which appears in the Katha-Saktha Brahmana of the Krishna Yajur Veda, as also the Taittiriya Brahmana), the real life experience of a sage, who, in his youth attained Self-Realization, at a moment when he was close to death? Was this a death-experience? Such questions lead one, startlingly, to Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharishi himself. According to Sri B.V. Narasimha Swami, in the second chapter of his book Self-Realization, Bhagavan experienced the �death-experience� and emerged from it as a Self-realised soul. His attitude to life changed completely and he sought solitude and proximity to Arunachala. He was blessed with the continuous experience of Brahman and for the rest of his life shared his experiences and offered his guidance to the countless devotees who sought him out.

The accounts of Bhagavan�s account of his death experience and his teachings on Self-enquiry are thus fit to be considered as a twentieth century Upanishad. Blessed are those who knew him and blessed are those who seek him even today. For, �the Knower of Brahman verily becomes Brahman� and like his father, Arunachala, Bhagavan is himself a permanent source of illumination to the entire world.

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