Essay on the Rational Basis of Sankara’s Conception of Self

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The conception of self set forth above is chiefly based on revealed texts. But it is also independently reached by the Aviating through different lines of argument based on the logical analysis of ordinary experience. We may briefly indicate them here.

It should be clearly mentioned at the outset that Sahkara never thinks that the existence of the self (atman) need be proved by any argument.

The self is self-manifest in everyone. ‘Everyone believes that he exists, and never thinks “I am not.” But there are so many different kinds of meaning, attached to ‘I’ or ‘self that it requires a good deal of analysis and reasoning to find out what the self really is.

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One method of enquiry is the analysis of language. The word ‘I’ seems sometimes to imply the body (e.g. ‘I am fat’), sometimes a sense (e.g. ‘I am blind’), sometimes a motor organ (e.g. ‘I am lame’), sometimes a mental faculty (e.g. ‘I am dull’), sometimes consciousness (e.g. ‘I know’).

Which of these should be taken to be the real essence of the self? To determine this we have to remember the true criterion of reality. The reality or the essence of a thing is, as we saw previously, that which persists through all its states.

The essence or the reality behind the world of objects was found, in this way, to be pure existence because while other things about the world change and perish, this always reveals itself in every state.

In a similar way it is found that what is common to the body, sense, mind, etc., with which the self identifies itself from time to time, is consciousness.

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The identification of the self with any of these means some form of consciousness or other that is the consciousness of the self as the body (T am fat’), as a sense (‘I am blind’) and the like.

Consciousness is, therefore, the essence of the self in whichever from it may appear. But it is not consciousness of any particular form, but simple consciousness common to all its forms.

Such consciousness is also pure existence since existence persists through all forms of consciousness.

The different particular and changing forms of consciousness can be shown, from their contradictory natures, to be mere appearances, in the same way as the different forms of existence were shown to be so before.

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This conclusion is further supported by the linguistic expressions ‘my body,’ ‘my sense,’ ‘my intellect,’ etc. which show that the self can alienate itself from these (body, sense, etc.) and treat them as external objects distinct from itself.

These cannot, therefore, be regarded as the real essence of the self. It is true; one also sometimes says ‘my consciousness’.

But such an expression cannot be taken literally, as implying a distinction between the self (as possessor) and consciousness (as possessed).

For, if the self tries to distinguish itself from consciousness, it only assumes the form of distinguishing consciousness.

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Consciousness thus proves inseparable and indistinguishable from the self. So ‘my consciousness’ must is taken in a metaphorical sense.

The possessive case here does not really imply distinction but rather identity or apposition (as in ‘the city of London’), By comparing and analysing the different meanings of the self expressed by ‘I’ and ‘mine’ we discover thus pure consciousness as the real essence of the self.

If again we compare the three states, namely of waking, dreaming and sleeping without dreams which the human self experiences daily, we can reach the same conception.

The essence of the self must remain in all these or the self would cease to be. But what do we find common to all these states?

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In the first state there is consciousness of external objects; in the second also there is consciousness, but of internal objects present only to the dreamer.

In the third state no objects appear, but there is no cessation of consciousness, for otherwise the subsequent memory of that state, as one of peace and freedom from worries, would not be possible.

The persistent factor then is consciousness, but not necessarily of any object. This shows again that the essence of self is pure consciousness without necessary relation to object.

But two more points of special importance also emerge out of this consideration. The first one is that consciousness, the essence of the self, is not dependent on objects.

There is no reason, therefore, to think that consciousness is produced by the relation of the self to objects through some proper medium. We have to revise then our ordinary theory of knowledge.

If the self self-exists and self-revealing consciousness and every object also is, as we saw before, a form of self-revealing existence consciousness, the only way we can understand the non-cognition of an existing object is that there is some obstacle which conceals the object.

The relation of the self to the object through sense, etc. is required then only to remove this obstruction, just as the removal of the obstacle of a cover is required for the perception of a self-revealing light.

The other point is that the self in its intrinsic nature, isolated from all objects, as it is in dreamless sleep, is found to have blissful or peaceful existence. Consciousness in that state is bliss.

When in the light of this discovery we scan the other two states we can understand that even there some joy or bliss does exist though in distorted or mutilated forms.

The fleeting pleasures which we have in wakeful life and in dream can be understood as the fragmentary manifestation of the joy or bliss which forms the essence of the self.

This explanation is further supported by the fact that man derives pleasure by owning property, etc., that is, by identifying them with his self. The self can thus be explained as the ultimate source of all joy.

This joy is ordinarily/finite and short-lived because the self limits itself by identifying itself with finite and fleeting objects.

Sorrow is related to want and joy to fullness. When the self can realise what it really is, namely, pure consciousness which is infinite (being free from all particularity), it is one with the essence or self of the universe. It is then above want and attains infinite bliss.

It is also found from the above arguments, that pure existence without any specific limitation is common to the self and to the world outside, that consciousness is also present in both, though it is patent in the former and concealed in the latter.

The reality underlying the world is, therefore, identical with that underlying the self. Had the self and the world not a common basis, knowledge of the latter by the former would not be possible; and far less possible would be the identification of the self with external objects.

In other words, Brahman, the infinite existence-consciousness is the only reality that constitutes the self and the external world. Brahman is also found to be bliss or joy, since the state of dreamless sleep exhibits the intrinsic nature of the self, pure objectless consciousness, to be identical with bliss.

The finite appearance of the self as the ego, ‘I’ in different contexts must, therefore, be due to ignorance (avidya) which makes it identify itself now with the body and then with a sense or any other finite existence.

How infinite, formless consciousness, which is the self’s essence, can assume particular forms is a problem which we already came across in another form, namely, how pure existence can appear as particular objects.

As no particular and changing phenomenon can be regarded as real we have to face here the same insoluble puzzle, namely, the appearance, in experience of what is unreal to thought.

In admitting this unintelligible fact of experience, logical thought has to acknowledge a mysterious or inscrutable power by which the Infinite Self can apparently limit itself into the finite. So Maya is admitted by the Advaitin as the principle of apparent limitation and multiplication in this as in every other sphere.

But this Maya may be conceived in a collective as well as in a distributive way. We can imagine Brahman, the Infinite Pure Consciousness-Existence-Bliss limiting itself by an all-overpowering Maya and appearing as the universe of finite objects and selves.

Or we can think of each individual self as labouring under a power of ignorance and seeing, in place of the One Brahman, the universe of many objects and selves.

These would be but thinking of the same situation from two different points of view, the cosmic and the individual. When such distinction is made, the word, Maya, is restricted, as we said before, to the first or collective aspect of the power of ignorance and avidya to the individual aspect.

The individual (Jlva) can then be imagined metaphorically as but the reflection of the Infinite Consciousness on the finite mirror of ignorance (avidya) and compared to one of the many reflections of the moon cast on different receptacles of water.

Just as there the reflection varies with the nature of the reflecting water, appearing clear or dirty, moving or motionless, according as the water is of one nature or another, similarly does the human self, the reflection of the Infinite, vary with the nature of the avidya.

We saw previously that the human body gross and subtle, is the product of ignorance, and the mind (the antahkarana) is one of the elements composing the subtle body.

The mind is thus a product of avidya. Now, the mind may be more or less cultured; it may be ignorant, impure, swayed by passion or enlightened, pure and dispassionate.

These differences can be said to constitute differences in the avid as of the individuals. The analogy of reflection would thus explain how the same Brahman can appear as different kinds of individual selves, without really becoming different and only being reflected in different kinds of minds constituted by different vaidya.

This conception would also point to the possibility of attaining to a better and better realisation of the Brahman in us by purifying the mind more and more.

The possibility of a more tranquil state is also shown by our daily experience of dreamless sleep, wherein the self, dissociated from objects, enjoys temporary peace.

The attempt to understand the appearance of individual souls on the analogy of images is called the theory of reflection (pratibimba-vada).

One great disadvantage of this metaphor is that it reduces the souls to mere images, and liberation, which according to it would consist in breaking the mirror of ignorance, would also mean the total cessation of the illusory individuals.

To secure a status of greater reality for the individual, there is an alternative metaphor preferred by some Advaitins, namely, the imaginary division of Space, which really remains one and undivided, into different particular spaces.

Just as the same space is conceived to exist everywhere and yet it is conventionally divided, for practical convenience, into the space of the pot, that of the room, that of a town and so on.

Similarly though Brahman is the one and all-pervasive Reality, it is supposed, through ignorance, to be limited and divided into different objects and souls.

Really, however, there is no distinction between objects and objects, souls and souls, since all are at the bottom of the same pure existence.

What is illusory here (in this alternative imagery) is only the limitation, the finitude imposed on Reality by ignorance. Every soul, even when supposed to be finite, is really nothing other than Brahman.

Liberation consists only in breaking the illusory barriers, and what was limited by them namely existence, is then left unaffected. This alternative explanation is known as the theory of limitation.

The attempt of Sahkara and his followers is to show how the intrinsic, pure condition of the self can be regained.

The fact that the blissful state of dreamless sleep is not permanent and man once more returns to his finite, limited, embodied consciousness on waking up, shows that there remain even in dreamless sleep, in a latent form, the forces of karma or avidya which draw man into the world.

Unless these forces, accumulated from the past, can be completely stopped, there is no hope of liberadon from the miserable existence which the self has in this world.

The study of the Vedanta helps man conquer these deep- rooted effects of long-standing ignorance. But the study of the truth taught by the Vedanta would have no effect unless the mind is previously prepared.

This initial preparation, according to Sahkara, is not the study of the Mimamsa sitra, as Ramanuja thinks.

The Mimarhsa, which teaches the performance of sacrifices to the various gods, rests on the wrong conception of a distinction between the worshipper and the worshipped. In spirit is, therefore, antagonistic to the absolute monism taught by the Vedanta.

Far from preparing the mind for the reception of the monistic truth, it only helps to perpetuate the illusion of distinctions and plurality from which man already suffers.

The preparation necessary for undertaking the study of the Vedanta is fourfold, according to Sahkara One should, first, be able to discriminate between what is eternal and what is not eternal (nityanitya-vastu-viveka).

He should, secondly, be able to give up all desires for enjoyment of objects here and hereafter (ihamut-rartha-bhogaviraga).

Thirdly, he should control his mind and his senses and develop qualities like detachment, patience, power of concentration (samadamadi-sadhana-sampat). Lastly, he should have an ardent desire for liberation (mumuksutva).

With such preparation of the intellect, emotion and will one should begin to study the Vedanta with a teacher who has himself realised Brahman.

This study consists of the threefold process: listening to the teacher’s instructions (sravana), understanding the instructions through reasoning until all doubts are removed and conviction is generated (manana), and repeated meditation on the truths thus accepted (nididhyasana).

The forces of deep-rooted beliefs of the past do not disappear so soon as the truths of the Vedanta are learned. Only repeated meditation on the truths and life led accordingly can gradually root them out.

When wrong beliefs thus become removed and belief in the truths of the Vedanta becomes permanent, the seeker after liberation is told by the teacher ‘Thou art Brahman.’

He begins then to contemplate this truth steadfastly till at last he has an immediate realisation of the truth in the form ‘I am Brahman.’ Thus the illusory distinction between the self and Brahman at last disappears and bondage, too, along with it. Liberation (mukti) is thus attained.

Even on the attainment of liberation, the body may continue because it is the product of karmas which had already borne their effects (prarabdha-karma). But the liberated soul never again identifies itself with the body.

The world still appears before him, but he is not deceived by it. He does not feel any desire for the world’s objects. He is, therefore, not affected by the world’s misery. He is in the world and yet out of it.

This conception of Sankara has become well known in later Vedanta as Jivanmukti(the liberation of one while one is alive).

It is the state of perfection attained here. Like Buddha, the Sahkara, the Jaina and some other Indian thinkers, Sahkara believes that perfection can be reached even here in this life.

It is not a mere extra mundane prospect, like heaven, to be attained hereafter in an unperceived future.

It is true that the seeker after liberation is asked to begin with some faith in the testimony of the scriptures regarding the utility of the spiritual discipline he is required to follow. But his faith is fully justified and more than repaid by the end it secures in the very life.

Three kinds of karma can be distinguished. Karmas gathered in past lives admit of a twofold division, those that have borne their effects (prarabdha-karma) and those that still lay accumulated (sancita-karma).

In addition to these two kinds, there are karmas which are being gathered here in this life (sanciyamana). Knowledge of reality destroys the second kind and prevents the third and thus makes rebirth impossible.

But the first kind which has already borne effects cannot be prevented. Hence the present body, the effect of such karma, runs its natural course and ceases when the force of the karma causing it becomes automatically exhausted.

Just as the wheel of a potter which has been already turned comes to a stop only when the momentum imparted to it becomes exhausted. When the body, gross and subtle, perishes, the jivan-mukta is said to attain the disembodied state of liberation (videha-mukti).

Liberation is not the production of anything new, nor is it the purification of any old state; it is the realisation of what is always there, even in the stage of bondage, though not known then.

For, liberation is nothing but the identity of the self and Brahman, which is always real, though not always recognised.

The attainment of liberation is, therefore, compared by the Advaitins to the finding of the necklace on the neck by one who forgot its existence there and searched for it hither and thither. As bondage is due to an illusion, liberation is only the removal of this illusion.

Liberation is not merely the absence of all misery that arises from the illusory sense of distinction between the self and God.

It is conceived by the Advaitin, after Upanisads, as a state of positive bliss (ananda), because Brahman is bliss and liberation is identity with Brahman.

Though the liberated soul, being perfect, has no end to achieve, it can work still without any fear of further bondage. Sankara, following the Gita, holds that work fetters a man only when it is performed with attachment.

But one, who has obtained perfect knowledge and perfect sadsfacdon, is free from attachment He can work without any hope of gain and is not, therefore, affected by success or failure.

Sankara attaches great importance to disinterested work. For one who has not yet obtained perfect knowledge, such work is necessary for self-purification (atma- suddho); because it is not through inactivity but through the performance of selfless action that one can gradually free oneself from the yoke of the ego and its petty interests.

Even for one who has obtained perfect knowledge or liberation, selfless activity is necessary for the good of those who are still in bondage. The liberated man is the ideal of society and his life should be worthy of imitation by the people at large.

Inactivity or activity that would mislead them should, therefore, be avoided by the perfect. Social service is not, therefore, thought by Sankara to be incompatible with the perfect life, but rather desirable.

In his own life of intense social service Sankara follows this ideal. This ideal is also advocated by some eminent modern Vedantists like Swami Vivekananda and Lokamanya B.G. Tilak.

The critics of Advaita Vedanta have often urged that if Brahman be the only reality and all distinctions false, the distinction between right and wrong also would be false. Such a philosophy is, therefore, fruitful of dangerous consequences for society.

This objection is due to the confusion of the lower and the higher standpoint. From the empirical standpoint, the distinction between right and wrong, like other distinctions, is quite valid.

For one who has not yet attained liberation, any action which directly or indirectly leads him towards the realisation of his unity with Brahman is good, and that which hampers such realisation, directly or indirectly, is bad.

Truthfulness, charity, benevolence, self-control and the like would be found to fall under the first category even according to this criterion, whereas falsehood, selfishness, injury to others would come under the second.

One who has attained perfect knowledge and liberation would look back upon these moral distinctions as being relative to the lower standpoint and, therefore, not absolutely valid.

But neither would he perform a bad action insofar as the motive of every bad action is based on the ignorant identification of the self with the body, the senses and the like, in a word, on the lack of the sense of unity between the Self and Brahman.

A pragmatic critic, for whom practical utility is the highest value, often complains that Sahkara indulges in visionary speculation which reduces the world to an empty show, deprives life of all zest and causes failure in the struggle for existence.

The reply to such a charge is that if man chooses to live the unreflecting life of an animal, or of the primitive man’, he need not go beyond the world of practical reality.

By if he is to use his reason and think of the nature and meaning of this world, he is irresistibly led by logical necessity to realise, as we saw, the contradictory and unreal nature of it and search for its real ground.

Reason demands again that he should reshape his life on a rational basis in the light of what it discovers to be the highest reality. As a child grows into an adult he has to remodel life gradually in accordance with his changing outlook the play things which were once valued more than things precious to the adult, yield place to the latter.

Remodeling life to suit a truer conception of reality and value causes no harm to practical life, but, on the contrary, places life on a more rational, real and permanent footing.

It surely deprives life of its zest in the sense that it controls the passions and impulses which push the animal, the child, and the primitive man blindly from behind.

But it gradually replaces these blind forces by conscious and radial ideals which can create for life an enthusiasm of a higher and a more abiding kind.

As to the question of survival in the struggle for existence it should be borne in mind that what constitutes fitness for survival in the plant world, is not the same in the animal world, and it is all the more different in the human world.

Social qualities like love, unity, self-sacrifice and rational conduct possess greater survival value than egoism, jealousy, selfishness and blind passionate conduct.

And no view of the world and life can supply a better foundation for such superior qualities than the one which inspires man with the belief in the unity of all men, all creation and all existence. Such is the view, we have found, of Sankara.

It is a misunderstanding, then, to suspect it of baneful effect on practical life. The moral and spiritual discipline which he recommends, aims at the actual realisation, in immediate experience, of the unity of existence or the presence of Brahman all things.

The unity which reasoning convinces us to be real by its irresistible logic, but which our present actual experience of difference and multiplicity tries to set aside.

In conclusion, we should observe that the Vedanta of Sankara, in its different aspects, is an attempt to follow out the Upanisadic idea of the unity of all existence to its logical conclusion.

With all its defects and excellence, it stands in the history of thought as the most consistent system of monism.

As William James puts it (in appreciation of Sarikara’s Vedanta as presented by Swami Vivekananda in America): ‘The paragon of all monistic systems is the Vedanta Philosophy of Hindustan it is true that such a system fails to appeal to those who turn to philosophy for the justification of their imperfect ideas of worldly distinctions and worldly values.

Like the teachings of early Buddhism and Jainism, the monistic philosophies of Sarikara is only for the strong, hearted who can follow logic dauntlessly and face conclusions, however subversive of ordinary ideas of reality and value.

But, for those few who have the heart for it, Advaita monism is not without recompense and is not even without emotional satisfaction.

As James puts it: ‘An Absolute One and I that one, surely we have here a religion which, emotionally considered, has a high pragmatic value: it imparts a perfect sumptuosity of security.’ ‘We all have some ear for this monistic music: it elevates and reassures.’

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