Shadows in the water. Photo: Carlos, Auroville
Brahman is Real The World is a Lie
Brahma satyam jaganmithya jivo brahmaiva naparah, "Brahman alone is real, the universe is unreal, and the individual soul is no other than the Brahman ": the call of the centuries that has held the soul of India in its spell. Some resounding echo of this powerful and impelling cry can still be heard in the remote corners of our own being — even though we belong to another age. The One Transcendent Reality, knowing which, all else seems unreal. The immobile and eternal Silence, the ineffable Peace, the Absolute Existence beyond all possibility of relation, of feature, of differentiation. The One that eternally is.
The innate power of this experience, the stamp of utter finality that it carries and the overwhelming convincingness of argument and analysis with which it has been presented, has not only dominated the mind of India for over a thousand years but has moulded the entire temperament of the race. There have been, no doubt, other experiences of great power, other philosophies that have left their deep and lasting impress, but the kind of conclusiveness, the absoluteness that this experience carries for the human mind has been difficult to match. The individual who embodied it and gave it an overwhelmingly powerful expression was Sri Shankaracharya: a name deeply revered, a remarkable personality that combined in itself the soul of an ardent and most intrepid spiritual seeker with a powerful and keen intellect, capable of the most subtle and incisive reasoning. The presence of these two elements is strongly reflected in his presentation of this experience in the form of a philosophy and of a practice or way of life.
Shankara, as he is habitually known, had a short span of life — barely 32 years. He lived towards the end of the eighth and the beginning of the ninth century AD. Not much is known of his life but the, little that comes down to us conjures, up a most interesting and striking image.
Shankara belonged to the simple, learned and hardworking Nambudri sect of Brahmins of Malabar and is supposed to have been born at Kaladi, on the West Coast of India. At a very early age, he went to a Vedic school, which was presided over by Govinda, who was himself a pupil of Gaudapada, the great masterly commentator of the Upanishads. Even as a very young boy, Shankara studied the Vedas with avidity and with delight. He was evidently a youthful prodigy of Vedic learning. He became a sannyasin in his eighth year — even before he knew of the world and its ways. We have, coming to life before our eyes, the picture of a young Brahmin boy, devoted to a life of learning and practice in one of those Vedic schools that flourished at the time, An ascetic from birth, so to speak, with a passion for truth — a sole passion in which all others were drowned.
The period of studentship over, he wandered as a teacher throughout India engaging in debate with the pandits and clarifying points of ambiguity in the interpretation of the scriptures and trying to wean them away from the rather sterile ritualistic practices which were then prevalent. In place of these practices, he attempted to show them a pathway to a yogic experience, and helped them to arrive at a rational understanding of the same.
During his travels throughout the length and breadth of the country, Shankara founded four mutts or centres of learning which exist to our day and enjoy deep veneration. . These mutts are situated at Sringeri in modern Karnataka, at Puri in the East, Dwarka in the West and Badrinath in the Himalayas. In four giant strides, he covered the entire sweep of the land. In the temple at Badrinath, the priests even today come from the Nambudri sect of Brahmins from the South. Shankara himself is supposed to have disappeared in the eternal snows of the Himalayas at Kedarnath, where a small monument by the side of the main temple marks this disappearance.
We have before us the image of a giant of a man — in learning and in the pursuit of truth — who stalks through the country on foot in an attempt to rejuvenate spiritual seeking and right intellectual understanding. At the time, Buddhism was still powerful and Jainism was at its zenith, Vedic rites -were falling into disrepute and a sterile ritualism, accompanied by much futile discussion, was widespread. The way of devotion to God, connected with Puranic Hinduism, was becoming popular
in the form of festivals and temple-worship. In this setting, Shankara appears — to take the people back to the mystic and experiential truth of the Upanishads. According to him, this would offer a truer fulfilment to the individual than would the paths of Buddhism, Vedic ritualism and Bhakti. In this process, however, he assimilated into his work some of the elements present in these three forms. In the case of Buddhism there is even an obvious line of continuity, both in terms of the actual experience that underlies it and the intellectual form in which it is presented. In the history of Indian experience and thought, this fact is recognised and Shankara is sometimes seen as carrying forward the work done by the Buddha.
It would be interesting for us now to make a direct approach to the work of Shankara. We would like to get a living feel of the experience of the world and of existence as made by him and to understand the formulation of it in terms of a reasoned presentation. This presentation is made in the book, Vivekachudamani. Viveka means "discrimination", Chuda is "crest" and Mani is "jewel". The title literally means, "Crest Jewel of Discrimination ". This is a masterpiece among works treating of discrimination between the Real and the unreal. It contains 580 verses, of which a small selection is being given here to help us savour the experience embodied in this writing.
We must make mention of the other major works of Shankara. His commentary on the Brahma-sutras is considered a classic of Vedantic thought and literature. There are also his commentaries (or, Bhasya) on the ten principal Upanishads: Isha, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Brihadaranyaka and Chhandogya; and the commentary on the Bhagavadgita. A large body of popular hymns and stotras too were composed by him.
In our attempt to reach out to the experience made by Shankara, we must first see what was the nature of his quest and how did he formulate it. He states it thus: is there anything in experience which may be regarded as "foundational"? Something on which all rests or to which all returns? This quest led him to the discovery, by an intense intuitive experience, of a transcendent Reality, immutable and eternal, a sole existence beyond name and form, feature and relation, change and motion. The experience of this eternal immutability, a vastness beyond all possibility of differentiation, carried in it such a conclusive power of truth and absoluteness, that all the rest — our experience of the phenomenal world — seemed unreal by contrast. At best, a real-unreal world that is and is not but can in no satisfactory manner be "related" to this transcendent Reality —for this Reality, in its featureless stillness, is beyond all possibility of relation. Yet in some sense the world "is": we live in it, we move
and act in it, have our being in it. Ourselves and the world appear as a mirage that is "somehow" super-imposed upon this Absolute Reality — something that floats, something that can be said to be real only as a dream is real to the person who sleeps and who, on waking, finds that it was only a dream. The state of "wakefulness "possesses a quantum and degree of reality which the dream does not. The dream "seems to be real" while it lasts; but, on waking, it vanishes. Similarly, when the individual has had the experience of the Real — in its pure transcendence and eternality — then the world of phenomena and his own separate self lose all "appearance" of reality that they possessed for him prior to such experience and he recovers his identity with the One Real. This disentanglement from appearance through just discrimination of the Real from the unreal leads to this supreme merger, which is the goal of all existence and human effort, and which brings with it ineffable Peace and completest fulfilment. Finally, even the individual is no more, for That alone is: the One Existence without a second, ekam eva advitiyam.
What Shankara thus communicates to us with such power and impact is his experience of the One shining transcendent Reality, besides which there is no other, But to us of the present times, imbued as we are with the sense of actuality that the phenomenal world represents for us, this experience holds us only for a brief spell. The manifest world is too real, too intense, extremely compelling, and the Transcendence seems to be a far cry — something even irrelevant, even unreal.
But if our quest is for knowledge that is not enclosed within any pre-conceived and given formulas, then we may find that Transcendence is also a part or, rather, the inescapable base of a total knowledge, which perhaps we have too hastily, rejected in our centuries of scientific effort. Science itself seems now to be groping toward some distant figure of It.
Shankara s philosophy has been called the philosophy of the Advaita, since it is based upon the monistic experience of the unqualified Reality, described as the One without a second. There are other philosophies which came after Shankara, and they maintained that the Ultimate Reality is qualified by inherent qualities or that it is dual or plural. They did not accept Shankara s view that the highest spiritual experience is that of the unqualified static and motionless Absolute. There has thus been a long history of conflict between Shankara s monism and other systems of philosophy such as qualified monism and dualism. In recent times, it has been held that the solution can come only through an integral experience in which the varieties of spiritual experience can be synthesised. But, even then, the experience of the Advaita is admitted as foundational.
Let, us now turn to some verses from Vivekachudamani for a taste of the original. The selection is brief and can only serve as an introduction: the joy of discovery comes from reading the entire work is incomparable. The work itself is like a mighty orchestra, mounting up in a crescendo to the One Note, in the passion for Oneness that exhausts all other passions.
Shankaracharya debates with Mandana Mishra, a leading exponent of
I bow to Govinda, whose nature is Bliss Supreme, who is the Sadguru,1 who can be known only from the import of all Vedanta, and who is beyond the reach of speech and mind.
Let people quote the scriptures and sacrifice to the gods, let them per- form rituals and worship the deities, but there is no liberation without the realisation of one's identity with the Atman, no, not even in the life-time2 of a hundred Brahmas put together.
Therefore the man of learning should strive his best for liberation having renounced his desire for pleasures from external objects, duly3 approaching a good and generous preceptor, and fixing his mind on the truth inculcated by him.
The man who discriminates between the Real and the unreal, whose mind is turned away from the unreal, who possesses calmness and the allied virtues, and who is longing for liberation, is alone considered qualified to inquire after Brahman.
Regarding this, sages have spoken of four means of attainment, which alone being present, the devotion to Brahman succeeds, and in the absence of which, it fails.
First is enumerated discrimination between the Real and the unreal; next comes aversion to the enjoyment of fruits (of one's actions) here and hereafter; (next is) the group of six attributes; and (last) is clearly the yearning for liberation.
A firm conviction of the mind to the effect that Brahman is real and the universe unreal, is designated as discrimination (yiveka) between the Real and the unreal.
I In this opening stanza salutation is made to God (Govinda), or to the Guru, in his absolute aspect. It may be interesting to note that the name of Shankara's Guru was Govindapada, and the sloka is ingeniously composed so as to admit of both interpretations. Sadsuru — lit. the highly qualified preceptor, and may refer either to Shankara's own Guru or to God himself, who is the Guru of Gurus.
2, Lifetime, etc. — That is, an indefinite length of time. One day of Brahma (the Creator) is equivalent to 432 million years of human computation, which is supposed to be the duration of the world.
3. Duly — That is, according to the prescribed mode (Vide Mundake, I, ii, 12)
Now I am going to tell thee of the real nature of the Supreme Self, realising which man is freed from bondage and attains liberation.1
There is some Absolute Entity, the eternal substratum of the conscious- ness of egoism, the witness of the three states and distinct from the five sheaths2 or coverings.
Which knows everything that happens in the waking state, in dream, and in profound sleep; which is aware of the presence or absence of the mind and its functions; and which is the background of the notion of egoism. — This is that.
Which Itself sees all, but which no one beholds, which illumines the intellect etc., but which they cannot illumine. — This is that.
By which this universe is pervaded, but which nothing pervades, which shining, all this (universe) shines as Its reflection. — This is That.
By whose very presence the body, the organs, mind and intellect keep to their respective spheres of action, like servants!
By which everything from egoism down to the body, the sense-objects, and pleasure etc., is known as palpably as a jar — for It is the essence of Eternal Knowledge!
This is the innermost Self, the primeval Purusa (Being), whose essence is the constant realisation of infinite Bliss, which is ever the same, yet reflecting through the different mental modifications, and commanded by which the organs and Pranas perform their functions.
In this very body, in the mind full of sattva, in the secret chamber of the intellect, in the Akasa known as the Unmanifested, the Atman, of
1. Liberation —Kaivalya literally means extreme aloofness.
2. Five sheaths etc. — Consisting respectively of Anna (matter), Prana (force), Manas (mind), Vijnana (knowledge) and Ananda (bliss), The first comprises this body of ours, the next three make up the subtle body (suksma Sarira),and the last the causal body (Karana-Sarira). The Atman referred to in this sloka is beyond them all.
charming splendour, shines like the sun aloft, manifesting this universe through Its own effulgence.1
The Knower of the modifications of mind and egoism, and of the activities of the body, the organs and Pranas, apparently taking their forms, like the fire2 in a ball of iron; It neither acts nor is subject to change in the least.
It is neither born nor dies. It neither grows nor decays, nor does It undergo any change, being eternal. It does not cease to exist even when this body is destroyed, like the sky in a jar (after it is broken), for It is independent.
The Supreme Self, different from the Prakrti3 and its modifications, of the essence of Pure Knowledge, and Absolute, directly manifests this entire gross and subtle universe,4 in the waking and other states, as the substratum of the persistent sense of egoism, and manifests Itself as the Witness of the buddhi, 5 the determinative faculty.
By means of a regulated mind and the purified intellect (buddhi) realise directly thy own Self in the body so as to identify thyself with It,6 cross the boundless ocean of Samsara7 whose waves are birth and death, and firmly established8 in Brahman as thy own essence, be blessed.
Identifying the Self with this non-Self — this is the bondage of man, which is due to his ignorance, and brings in its train the miseries of birth and death. It is through this that one considers this evanescent body as
1. This sloka gives a hint as to where to look For the Atman. First of all there is the gross body; within this There is the mind or "inner organ'' of which buddhi or intelligence, characterised by determination, is the most developed form; within buddhi again and pervading it, is the causal body known as the Unmanifested. We must seek the Atman within this. The idea is that the Atman transcends all the three bodies, in fact the whole sphere of duality and materiality. The word "Akasa" often occurs in the Sruti in the sense of the Atman or Brahman.
2. like the fire, etc. — Just as fire has no form of its own, but seems to take on the form of the iron ball which it turns red-hot, so the Atman though without form, seems to appear as buddhi and so forth.
3 Prakrii — The Mother of the entire manifested universe.
4. gross and subtle universe — The world of matter and thought.
5. witness of the buddhi — All actions that we seem to be doing are really done by the Buddhi, while the Self ever stands aloof, the only Absolute Entity.
6.with it— Instead of with the gross, subtle, and causal bodies.
7. Samsara — the entire relative existence.
8. established etc. — By our very nature we are ever identified with Brahman, but through ignorance we think we are limited and so forth.
Painting by Rolf, Auroville
real, and identifying oneself with it, nourishes, bathes,1 and preserves it by means of (agreeable) sense-objects,2 by which he becomes bound as the caterpillar by the threads of its cocoon.
One who is overpowered by ignorance mistakes a thing for what it is not: it is the absence of discrimination3 that causes one to mistake a snake for a rope, and great dangers overtake him when he seizes it through that wrong notion. Hence, listen, my friend, it is the mistaking of transitory things as real that constitutes bondage.
To remove his bondage the wise man should discriminate between the Self and the non-Self. By that alone he comes to know his own Self as Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute, and becomes happy.
It is this Supreme Oneness which alone is real, since there is nothing4 else but the Self. Verily, there remains no other independent entity in the state of realisation of the highest Truth.
All this universe which through ignorance appears as of diverse forms, is nothing else but Brahman which is absolutely free5 from all the limitations of human thought.
Ajar, though a modification of clay, is not different from it; everywhere the jar is essentially the same as the clay. Why then call it a jar? It is fictitious, a fancied name merely.
None can demonstrate that the essence of a jar is something other than the clay (of which it is made). Hence the jar is merely imagined (as separate) through delusion, and the component clay alone is the abiding reality in respect of it.
1. bathes — Keeps clean and tidy.
2. sense-objects etc. — He runs after sense-pleasures, thinking that will conduce to the well-being of the body, but these in turn throw him
into a terrible bondage, and he has to abjure them wholly to attain his freedom, as the caterpillar has to cut through its cocoon.
3. discrimination — Between what is real (the Self) and what is not real (the phenomenal world).
4. nothing else etc. — Everything but the Self is an appearance merely.
5.free etc. — We imagine all sorts of things through ignorance, but Brahman is ever beyond them, and is the only Reality.
Similarly, the whole universe, being the effect of the real Brahman, is in reality nothing but Brahman. Its essence is That, and it does not exist apart from It. He who says it does is still under delusion — he babbles like1 one asleep.
This universe is verily Brahman — such is the august pronouncement of the Atharva Veda. Therefore this universe is nothing but Brahman, for that which is superimposed (on something) has no separate existence from its substratum.
Hence whatever is manifested, viz. this universe, is the Supreme
Brahman Itself, the Real, the One without a second, pure, the Essence of Knowledge, taintless, serene, devoid of beginning and end, beyond activity, the Essence of Bliss Absolute — transcending all the diversities created by Maya or nescience, eternal, ever beyond the reach of pain, indivisible, immeasurable, formless, undifferentiated, nameless, immutable, self-luminous.
Sages realise the Supreme Truth, Brahman, in which there is no differentiation of knower, knowledge, and known, which is infinite, transcendent, and the Essence of Knowledge Absolute.
Which can be neither2 thrown away nor taken up, which is beyond the reach of mind and speech, immeasurable, without beginning and end, the Whole, one's very Self, and of surpassing glory.
Fixing the mind firmly on the Ideal, Brahman, and restraining3 the external organs in their respective centres; with the body held steady and taking no thought for its maintenance; attaining identity with Brahman and being one with It — always drink joyfully of the Bliss of Brahman in thy own Self, without a break. What is the use of other things 4 which are entirely hollow?
1. like etc. — That is, incoherently.
2. neither etc. — Because it is not a material thing, but one's very Self.
3. restraining etc. — That is, not allowing them to go outward.
4. other things — Pursued as means of happiness.
Giving up the thought of the non-Self which is evil and productive of misery, think of the Self, The Bliss Absolute, which conduces to liberation.
Here shines eternally the Atman, the Self-effulgent Witness of everything, which has the buddhi for Its seat. Making this Atman which is distinct from the unreal, the goal, meditate on It as thy own Self, excluding all other thought.
Reflecting on this Atman continuously and without any foreign thought intervening, one must distinctly realise It to be one's real Self.
Strengthening one's identification with This, and giving up that with egoism and the rest, one must live without any concern for them, as if they were trifling things, like a cracked jar or the like.
Fixing the purified mind in the Self, the Witness, the Knowledge Absolute, and slowly making it still, one must then realise one's own infinite Self.
There is only Brahman, the One without a second, infinite, without beginning or end, transcendent and changeless; there is not duality whatsoever in It.
There is only Brahman, the One without a second, the Essence of Existence, Knowledge, and Eternal Bliss, and devoid of activity; there is no duality whatsoever in It.
There is only Brahman, the One without a second, which is within all, homogeneous,1 infinite, endless, and all-pervading; there is no duality whatsoever in It.
There is only Brahman, the One without a second; which is neither to be shunned2 nor taken up nor accepted, and which is without3 any support; there is no duality whatsoever in It.
1. homogeneous — Admitting of no variation.
2. shunned etc. — Because it is the Self of all.
3. without etc. — Self-existent, being Itself the support of everything else.
High-souled Sannyasins1 who have got rid of all attachment and discarded all sense-enjoyments, and who are serene2 and perfectly restrained,3 realise this Supreme Truth and at the end4 attain the Supreme Bliss through their Self-realisation.
The majesty of the ocean of Supreme Brahman, replete with the swell of the nectar-like Bliss of the Self, is verily impossible to express in speech, nor can it be conceived by the mind — in an infinitesimal fraction of which my mind melted like a hailstone — getting merged in the ocean, and is now satisfied with that Essence of Bliss.
Where is the universe gone, by whom is it removed, and where is it merged? It was just now seen by me, and has it ceased to exist? It is passing strange!
In the ocean of Brahman filled with the nectar of Absolute Bliss, what is to be shunned5 and what accepted, what is other (than oneself) and what different?
I neither see6 nor hear nor know anything in This.7 I simply exist as the Self, the Eternal Bliss, distinct8 from everything else.
Blessed am I; I have attained the consummation of my life, and am free from the clutches of transmigration; I am the Essence of Eternal Bliss, I am Infinite — all through thy mercy!
I am unattached, I am disembodied,9 I am free from the subtle body, and undecaying. I am serene, I am taintless, and eternal.
1. Sannyasins — Lit. Those who struggle after realisation.
2. serene — Refers to the control of the mind.
3. restrained. — Refers to the control of the senses.
4. end etc. — They attain videha mukti or disembodied, absolute Freedom after the fall of their body.
5. what... shunned etc. — There is nothing besides the One Atman, and the aspirant is identified with That.
6. see etc. — All finite ideas have ceased.
7. This — State of Realisation.
8. distinct etc. — Being the eternal Subject, whereas all else are objects.
9. disembodied etc. — I have realised my identity with the Atman, and no longer consider myself as a body or mind.
I am not the doer, I am not the experiencer, I am changeless and beyond activity; I am the Essence of Pure Knowledge, I am Absolute and identified with Eternal Good.
I am indeed different from the seer, listener, speaker, doer, and experiencer; I am the Essence of Knowledge, eternal, without any break, beyond activity, limitless, unattached, and infinite.
I am neither this nor that, but the Supreme, the illuminer of both; I am indeed Brahman, the One without a second, pure, devoid of interior or exterior, and infinite.
I am indeed Brahman, the One without a second, matchless, the Reality that has no beginning, beyond such imagination as thou or I, or this or that, the Essence of Eternal Bliss, the Truth.
I am verily that Brahman, the One without a second, which is like the sky, subtle, without beginning or end, in which the whole universe from the Undifferentiated down to the gross body, appears merely as a shadow.
I am verily that Brahman, the One without a second, which is the support of all, which illumines all things, which has infinite forms, is omnipresent, devoid of multiplicity, eternal, pure, unmoved, and absolute.
I am verily that Brahman, the One without a second, which transcends the endless differentiations of Maya, which is the inmost essence of all, is beyond the range of consciousness, and which is Truth, Knowledge, Infinity, and Bliss Absolute.
I am without activity, changeless, without parts, formless, absolute, eternal, without any other support, the One without a second.
I am the Universal, I am the All, I am transcendent, the One without a second. I am Absolute and Infinite Knowledge, lam Bliss and indivisible.
As darkness, which is distinct (from sunshine), vanishes in the sun's radiance, so the whole objective universe dissolves in Brahman.
As, when ajar is broken, the space enclosed by it becomes palpably the limitless space, so when the apparent limitations are destroyed, the knower of Brahman verily becomes Brahman Itself.
As milk poured into milk, oil into oil, and water into water, becomes united and one with it, so the sage who has realised the Atman becomes one in the Atman.
Bondage and liberation, which are conjured up by Maya, do not really exist in the Atman, one's Reality, as the appearance and exit of the snake do not abide in the rope, which suffers no change.
Hence this bondage and liberation are created by Maya, and are not in the Atman. How can there be any idea of limitation with regard to the Supreme Truth, which is without parts, without activity, calm, unimpeachable, taintless, and One without a second, as there can be none with regard to the infinite sky?
There is neither death, nor birth, neither a bound nor a struggling soul, neither a seeker after liberation nor a liberated one — this is the ultimate truth.
I have today repeatedly revealed to thee, as to one's own son, this excellent and profound secret1 which is the inmost purport of all Vedanta, the crest of the Vedas — considering thee an aspirant after liberation, purged of the taints of this Dark Age, and of a mind free form desires.
Hearing these words of the Guru, the disciple out of reverence prostrated himself before him, and with his permission went his way, freed from bondage.
1. secret — The discrimination between the Real and the unreal which is hidden from the vulgar man.
And the Guru, with his mind steeped in the ocean of Existence and Bliss Absolute, roamed, verily purifying the whole world — all differentiating ideas banished from his mind.
Thus by way of a dialogue between the Teacher and the disciple, has the nature of the Atman been ascertained for the easy comprehension of seekers after liberation.
Extracts from Vivekachudamani of Sri Shankaracharya,
text in Devanagari with English translation, notes and Index,
by Swami Madhavananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1974).
Suggestions for further reading
Dasgupta, S. N. History of Indian Philosophy. Cambridge, 1957.
Mahadevan, T. M. P. Invitation to Indian Philosophy. Arnold & Heinemann Publishers (India), 1974.
Radhakrishnan S. Indian Philosophy. London: Alien & Unwin.
Vivekachudamani of Sri Skankaracharya. Translation by Swami Madhavananda. London: Advaita
Ashrama, 9th edn., 1974.