Q. 373 – Ego, soul and mithyAtva

Q: For the last few years I have been trying to develop a manuscript detailing a working model which marriages the teachings of Advaita Vedanta with contemporary research on NDE or “Near Death Experience” and similar fields of inquiry. There are several questions I have, but for now I will only bother you with one: Is it possible the Atman does possess a “spiritual ego”?

 Clearly the culprit for the ignorance of our real self as the Self is the wrongful identification with the body-mind. Shankara explains the identification with the kosha-s perpetuates the illusion, which is nothing more than a superimposition of the kosha(s) on brahman helped by mAyA.

 The way I see it, our greatest enemy is the ego, the human ego. This ego comes from the mind and is maintained alive by desires. But I have many reasons to suspect there is also a “spiritual ego” present in the Atman, which similarly perpetuates the ignorance of the wrongful identification by the so-called discarnate “spirit soul”.

 The metaphor I have used is this: there is an actor in the “spiritual world” (the Atman) which wrongfully identifies with a spiritual ego preventing it from realizing brahman. This actor goes through an induced amnesia, after agreeing to play the role of a character in the Grand Stage of the world. This is the incarnation stage. The human ego is the combination of the spiritual ego – which carries the saMskAra-s and the vAsanA-s – plus particular influences on the personality traits caused by internal factors such as the brain/mind of the new body, as well as external factors such as family, society, education, etc. This is the embodied Atman as the jIva.

 Eventually the actor leaves the stage (discarnation) and finds himself/herself in a special setting with others. This new setting is a transitional stage which I call the In-Between World, where familiar and relaxing settings are chosen through a process of affinity or attraction. Eventually there is a “second death” or the death of the human ego. Here the actor as Atman awakens and remembers he/she is the actor who has played many roles in different human bodies. This new setting is what I call the Spiritual World. The Atman does possess a spiritual ego (ultimately an illusion) which in reality is much more than just the accumulation of all the human personalities it has lived (the characters portrayed). The reason for venturing back to the phenomenal world (Earth or the “grand stage”) is in my opinion straightforward: only in the phenomenal or material world changes to the ego (both human and spiritual) can happen. Here the Atman can learn its real nature as the Self or brahman and become liberated with the end of saMsAra or the need to play additional roles as human characters with more human egos.

A: You probably haven’t read ‘How to Meet Yourself’ (not many have!) In there, I mention NDE briefly and agree with Susan Blackmore that it is induced by chemical activity and has nothing whatsoever to do with glimpses into other worlds.

Your basic question does not have any real meaning. The key tenet of Advaita is that there is only brahman or Atman (or, if you prefer, Consciousness). There is nothing else – reality is non-dual. So, if you are wanting to speak as if from the vantage point of absolute reality, Atman cannot contain anything – there is only Atman.

All explanations for how there seems to be a separate world are, like that world itself, mithyA. There is only brahman. The explanations are intended to be interim only, in order to satisfy the intellect until such time as you realize the truth. They are like the pole vault and have to be discarded before you can ‘pass over’ the bar of ignorance. This includes the explanations of Shankara, as he would be the first to admit.

It would certainly be possible to put forward alternative theories and maybe the one you outline could work to provide such an interim explanation for someone (other than yourself!) But, to be frank, why bother? The various explanations provided in the shruti have worked for innumerable people for several thousand years. You can read about and hear them presented in slightly different ways in many books and from many teachers until they finally work their magic and the Self-ignorance is dispelled. But then you throw them away just like all ideas about the truth. It is simply not possible to speak about the ultimate truth. Attempting to devise some alternative approach to do the same thing would seem somewhat ambitious and entirely a waste of time. (Sorry to be blunt!)

 Q: Most certainly, I wholly agree with the main tenet of Advaita Vedanta that the only reality or truth (satyam) is brahman and everything else is just mithyA. Also Atman is brahman. But we live in a world where ignorance rules. The identification with the non-self (ego) is too powerful. The mind and the intellect get in the way of realizing this truth.

 My reply to “Why bother?” is: Why not? As brahman, I (the Self) as well as the I as the non-self or ego, want to enjoy the lIlA. To me it is just irresistible to relish the position of knowing all this is an illusion, or more appropriately, mithyA.

 I truly appreciate your straightforwardness. But I feel I need to explain the role of a model. As you stated, any model is after all just a tool, a pointer, to be eventually discarded as Vedanta explicitly says. A model is not supposed to explain reality (and much less the Absolute Reality), but to help visualize a concept. It acknowledges it is just an approximation which takes into account our limitations. For as long as we are identified with the non-self as the human ego, the intellect will always be there. With both faith and logical personal conviction someone could strongly asseverate a belief in the tenets of Advaita (which I do), but I would be fooling myself to claim that by just doing so this would somehow stop the influence of mAyA. In other words, I may believe I have attained God-realization in the form of brahma-vidyA and hence mokSha, but this would be arrogant and wishful thinking. The way mAyA is meant to act is for us mere mortals (the illusion of being a human being) to only experience mithyA. So for serious students of Advaita, there exist a dichotomy or disconnect between what we believe or know to be satya and what we experience at all times (away from meditation) as mithyA. On one hand, I (the ego/intellect) can accept what reality (satyam) is, but on the other hand, I only experience mithyA.

 So please do not spoil the lIlA. Let us assume there is only lIlA for as long as avydiA (nescience) or mAyA or the “undifferentiated” becomes differentiated as the illusion of mithyA. So for now let us play the game.

 My intellect (I know I am not this intellect) accepts the concept of reincarnation. The way I see it, there are two possible scenarios. We either reincarnate in all the human beings that ever existed and will exist, or there are individual egos which transcend death and carry over the lessons learned to the next incarnation. So if there is a continuity of relative existence (mithyA) of the non-self (ego) there must be a way to carry over to the next life this ignorance of the Self. The shruti recommends performing sAdhana in order to remove ignorance, thereby achieving mokSha which then stops saMsAra. If we accept this then, logically, there must exist some kind of school or grading system by which the individual soul (Atman) can advance up the spiritual ladder. Therefore, it would be inevitable to conclude that there is (in the ignorant plane of existence) a perpetuation of this non-self (the ego) which creates the illusion of individuality. Otherwise, whatever progress achieved in one lifetime would be wasted.

 These models, in my humble opinion, do not take away anything from Advaita Vedanta. Actually, I feel it is quite the opposite. It is a validation of our ignorance and our condition of mithyA.

A: You clearly have a good understanding of many of the key concepts in Advaita and argue well. But you seem to have a mental block regarding the value of them.

You must have come across the metaphor of the sunrise. Having read some of my books, you will know it is one of my favorites. To utilize and extend this metaphor, it seems that you prefer to try to explain the mechanism for the sun’s orbiting of the earth rather than admit that it does not take place at all.

All of the theories used to ‘explain’ why there is a separate creation or what happens when we die are mistaken (or, in the context of Advaita, adhyAropa-apavAda). They are mistakes consequent upon the fundamental ignorance in thinking that there is separation to begin with. Since there has never been any creation, there is no need to look for an explanation for it. Since we have never been born in the first place, there is no need to try to explain reincarnation.

Yes, these aspects are dealt with by the scriptures but their value in explaining life, death, heaven and rebirth etc is analogous to the dreamer trying to explain why the elephant in his dream has just turned into a chair. prAtibhAsika is real from the standpoint of the dream and vyAvahArika from the waking standpoint. When the dreamer wakes up, there is no longer any meaning in trying to explain the elephant transformation. (And it is not relevant to bring Freud in here, because he was trying to explain the dream from the waking, not the dreaming standpoint. It was not the waker who was having the dream!) These explanations are of value only to the interim seeker who needs explanations for things that will later be realized to be unreal.

There cannot be any lIlA because brahman has no desires, does not act and does not enjoy. Advaita takes you all the way; don’t allow yourself to be diverted by the distractions along the way. And don’t try to discover whether or not the rope-snake is poisonous!

If you are really interested in the ‘journey of the soul’, the first part of Chapter 3 of the Brahmasutras deals with this but this is not easy reading! I did write a two-part blog on some aspects of this – ‘Between Lives’ and ‘The Fires of Reincarnation’; see http://advaita-academy.org/pages/BlogSingle.aspx?BlogId=16. A book which I often recommend for those interested in karma and reincarnation is that with this title by Swami Muni Narayana Prasad (ISBN 81-246-0022-8).
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2 thoughts on “Q. 373 – Ego, soul and mithyAtva

  1. Dennis
    The questioner here says that he believes the pink elephant under the bed is imaginary but he still wants to find out all the details of this pink animal like a straight or curved trunk. Panchadasi and probably other prakarana granthas warn about dwelling on pink elephant!
    “PanchadashI by Vidyaranya, one of the advanced Prakaran Grantha, cautions that dwelling on this world which is mithya (not real) and annirvachniya (beyond real and unreal) will only suck you into more confusion. The best thing to do is to ignore it! (पञ्चदशी श्रीविद्यारण्यमुनि) panchadashI by Vidyranya – Chitradeep 6.0 (Swahananda translation) – 138. By raising objections to the wonderfulness of Maya we do not solve the mystery. Besides, we also can raise serious counter objections. What is essential is that we should eradicate Maya by systematic enquiry. Further arguments are useless, so do not indulge in them. 139. Maya is an embodiment of marvellousness and doubt; the wise must carefully find out means and make effort to remove it. 143. Even if all the learned people of the world try to determine the nature of this world, they will find themselves confronted at some stage or other by ignorance. 146. In the end you will have to say, ‘I do not know’. …”.

  2. Apart from being whimsical (‘spiritual world’, ‘spiritual ego’), the chief defect I find in what the questioner is saying is his (mis)understanding, and use of, the concept ‘maya’, giving it a positive value, as something existing, whereas it is nothing other than a consequence of avydia, thus wrong perception.

    Examples: 1) ‘but I would be fooling myself to claim that by just doing so this would somehow stop the *influence of mAyA*.’ 2) ‘… the identification with the kosha-s perpetuates the illusion, which is nothing more than a superimposition of the kosha(s) on brahman *helped by mAyA’*.

    Besides, the example of the koshas – from the tradition of Shankara – is just a case of deliberate superimposition for the purpose of teaching (adhyaropa-apavada), and not of spontaneous or congenital ignorance.

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