Many people set themselves up as self-help gurus and offer remedies for the children of democracy. They are sensitive to the characteristics of these children, whose governing sound is ‘freedom’ and have been described so well over 2500 years in Book VIII of Plato’s Republic. Here is how Democratic Man is spoken of:
“… He lives on, spending his money and labour and time on unnecessary pleasures as on necessary ones; but if he be fortunate, and is not too much disordered in his wits, when years have elapsed, and the heyday of passion is over… he balances his pleasures and lives in a sort of equilibrium, putting the government of himself into the hands of the one which comes first and wins the turn; and when he has had enough of that, then into the hands of another; he despises none of them but encourages them all equally…
“Neither does he receive or let pass into the fortress (of mind) any true word of advice; if anyone says that some pleasures are the satisfactions of good and noble desires, and others of evil desires, and that he ought to use and honour some and chastise and master the others – whenever this is repeated to him he shakes his head and says they are all alike, and that one is as good as another…
“He lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; the he takes a turn at gymnastics; sometimes idling and neglecting everything, then once more living the life of a philosopher… his life has neither law nor order; and this distracting existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom; and so he goes on…
“… And as a result of all, see how sensitive the citizen becomes; they chaff impatiently at the least touch of authority and at length, as you know, they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten; and they will have no one over them.
“Such, my friend, is the fair and glorious beginning out of which springs tyranny.”
In this ‘fair and spangled’ environment the successful spiritual guides are those that work along with the democratic tendency, thus described, and set no absolutes against them. The teachers are the non-critical parents that are craved for by many and, by picking at this and that teaching, manage to string together a necklace of delightful experiences and attractive validations that allow the ‘spiritual’ life and worldly life to run on parallel tracks.
Much of what is on offer can be very helpful in calming the agitated spirit but many of the teachers do not acknowledge that what they manage to achieve is prepare the ground for knowledge. They present their antidotes as ‘going all the way’. So yoga goes all the way; tantric sex goes all the way; mantra meditation goes all the way; the Direct Path affirmations go all the way; prayer and worship go all the way; sacrifice and rituals go all the way; crystals, full moon meditation, angel channelling, walking round holy mountains – all go all the way. In this way, the latter half of the twentieth century has been spiritually unique in witnessing the ‘awakening’ or ‘realisation’ or ‘enlightenment’ of a surprisingly large number of Western seekers.
Traditional Vedanta acknowledges that there is some value in the work of Western teachers and also in psychological and other such techniques in creating reasonable doubt that the world is as commonly experienced. This is the equivalent of arriving at the conclusion, as stated in Part I of this essay that the shape lying beside my bed in the semi gloom is not a snake. We have largely arrived at a position whereby we are not totally deluded by the experience. It does not mean that the experience changes. To know that in truth the sky is not blue, does not change the experience of it as blue. To know that a stick in water is not bent does not change the perception that it is bent. We still experience the sun as rising and setting. We still experience the force and play of waves. The experience does not change but we know that the sky is not blue, so when asked what colour is the sky we can say for certain (even when staring at the blue thing) that the sky is colourless, despite appearing coloured. We know for certain that once the stick comes out of the water it will be as straight as it ever was. Even as we look at the rising sun we know that it is the spin of the earth that creates the illusion. We can watch waves and cognitively resolve them into their truth as water. We are seeing water: we know that for certain and we know that the form taken by water at that time and in that place and under certain conditions is given the name wave – not daffodil.
All the work till this point has been to sharpen the mind. It’s the equivalent of a hungry man sharpening a knife in anticipation of preparing a meal, and he can even cut the vegetables, but even if there is cooking, unless there is eating, no amount of sharpness of the knife or cutting or cooking will appease the hunger. We have a mind ready for knowledge and now the process of removing the mistakes needs to begin.
We are ready for self-enquiry. (Obviously this is too vast a subject to be covered in any useful detail in an essay, so here are some broad principles that characterise the traditional approach to self-enquiry).
1) Establish reasonable doubt. This simple enquiry, touched on above, uses logic to eliminate the limited things that ‘I’ is appended to by reasoning that what can be observed cannot be the valid locus of identity. Thereby we reach the conclusion that I am not the body, mind, sense amalgam, etc. Anyone can do this. It requires no external guide or external resource: intellectual honesty and a relatively still mind allows one to spot the identifications. These in turn have been brought about through dispassion towards earthy (and heavenly) pleasures, which simply means not over-valuing their importance in the large scheme of the journey of self-discovery. The twin of dispassion is discrimination, the ability to discern what is permanent and what is transient, what can be relied upon and what is merely the passing show. Already by this stage, therefore one will have gained mastery over the mind and senses, one does the needful with attention and care, one doesn’t get knocked off-course by pain or misfortune, one isn’t straight-jacketed by the ‘democratic-man mindset’ of distrust of traditional wisdom and traditional guides, and one can noticeably remain centred for increasing lengths of time. Previously one was ignorant about the truth of the self but was ignorant of one’s ignorance. Now one faces up to one’s ignorance and searches out the knowledge and the teacher.
2) Secure the ground. Having reasoned that I am not this physical and mental set-up, one has to account for the physical and mental realms. What are they? Why am I so identified with them? Surely they are alive and sentient? If not what is their nature? The traditional teachings help one see that none of these bodies can be the locus for individuality by showing that each of them is nothing more than an aspect of the universal. Taking the body, for example, it can be reduced to elements which are universal: the fundamental particles of which my body is made are no different from the fundamental particles that constitute a cow, a tree, a stone, a distant star. Where is the basis for individuality here? Which atom can I call ‘I’ when an atom of an identical form obtains in a worm? (For those who choose to argue that it is not the atom but the particular assemblage of atoms, then to them also the teacher points out that the assemblage is changing every second and thus the ‘I’ never has a stable basis. This contradicts our experience of a continuous ‘I’. If the bid for individuality leaps from body to mind, it needs to be pointed out that content of different people’s minds may differ but mind matter is universal. Names and forms may vary but the essential cause does not: many earthenware objects, but one clay.)
We are now like people who are told that the person we’re looking for is in a certain room, but on entering the room there are other people in it. We may well be seeing the one we are searching for, we might even have bumped into the person or spoken to them – without realising it. This is how it is with self-knowledge. Self is never absent: we ‘see’ it all the time. All we are missing is an accurate, authoritative description from a reliable witness to recognise Self for what it is. We need to uncover the facts.
3) Remove the covers of ignorance. The above two processes will considerably weaken our belief that ‘I’ is the amalgam of our physical and subtle bodies. Now we really want to know what ‘I’ is. From this point onwards, reliance on simple logic is not enough on its own. To go further in a steady, systematic way, traditional teachers recommend the words of Vedanta, expounded by one who is qualified. This is not an overnight process and the scope of this article is not to supplant the role of the traditional teacher. Instead here are some of the headline characteristics of the teaching methodology called ‘sampradāya’.
• The thing we are enquiring into is not an object, it is the very subject, the enquirer himself or herself, and so the usual means for gaining knowledge do not apply. Direct perception through the senses or inference from evidence or being told about the thing by a third party or reading about it – all these means of knowledge work because they are based eventually upon sensory knowledge. If someone tells me that a gnu is like a buffalo, then it only makes sense if I have seen a buffalo (and then project upon my memory more features as given by the person describing the gnu) or seen a picture of one. But, just as the eye cannot see itself, so too the ‘I’ cannot know itself as we know an object. So any vision, sensation, experience – be it of Christ or Buddha or a wise master, glowing lights, a sensation of oceanic vastness, the sounds of chakras spinning – all of these, being objects of perception, are not ‘I’ who is the perceiver.
• For the eye to see itself we need a mirror (and even then, the image is reversed left to right); so too, to know the ‘I’ we need a reflecting medium and a means by which to recognise what we are seeing. Mind is the mirror at one level, and at another level the mirror into which we look to see our self reflected is the meaning of the words of Vedanta. Most names that indicate physical or even subtle objects work by evoking some image of their object in mind. If I say ‘rose’ everyone who knows a rose will have a picture in mind, drawn from memory. The moment I say ‘elephant’ the image of the rose changes dramatically. But if I say ‘consciousness’ nothing arises. If I say ‘limitless existence’ nothing arises. If I say ‘Absolute Reality’ nothing arises. Or, if something arises on hearing these words, then that ‘thing’ is likely to have some perceptible attribute or other, thus rendering it capable of being objectified. Thus common words in the mother tongue in colloquial speech might be conveying the ‘correct’ information but not necessarily establishing the truth because of the possibility of mis-interpretation, projection, creative imagination or any other such distorting filters. The words of Vedanta work differently in revealing their subject.
• Vedanta texts are available in the Sanskrit language, with precise instructions on pronunciation, accent, tone, meter, etc. To treat these words as mere data, like a spiritual recipe that needs to be acted upon to deliver the result, is to totally miss the point. The very meaning of the words themselves is the result we are after. An equivalent would be that by merely understand a recipe precisely our hunger gets appeased without the need for shopping, chopping, cooking or any physical food entering the belly. If such a recipe book existed there would be millions of takers. Yet, a teaching does exist to reveal the very truth that resolves one’s false identity and thereby ends our hunger for security and happiness for good, but it is not recognised for what it is. Some people may pick out a verse here and a verse there and place it on a pedestal: this is subtle idolatry.
The methodology for revealing that which is most subtle is, itself, most subtle. One cannot understand the Upanishads without a guide, one cannot accept one part of them and dismiss another, words in Vedanta don’t just have one meaning (context is king), one cannot self-study, one cannot totally ignore the Sanskrit and deal only in one’s mother tongue (some technical words have no translation because the concept does not translate). I am aware that this idea will open a floodgate of objections, but so be it. It is for the objectors to account for why by merely saying: ‘You are that Awareness’ nothing essentially changes apart from a ‘better sameness’ in some cases. In these cases difficulties become more manageable, recovery from life’s knocks is quicker, there’s a greater appreciation of the beauty of the world, finer behaviours, more tolerance, etc. But the ‘I’ still remains individual, separate, and different from all and everyone. First one was agitated and ignorant, now one is calmer and ignorant. Self-knowledge doesn’t deliver a better ‘I’, it resolves the ‘I’ into the truth of itself, which is the truth of all: ‘I’ is the all, not this small separate being that goes by my name.
• The final feature of Vedanta self-enquiry is that assimilation takes place in stages: first there’s hearing what the teaching is actually saying through dedicated study with a qualified teacher for a length of time, after which one arrives at the conclusion that one’s own self is no difference from the pure consciousness that is the self of everything in the cosmos. Next there is establishing this realisation beyond doubt or challenge through reflection and pitting the understanding against external challenges to it. The third phase is to assimilate the doubt free knowledge through continuous contemplation – this time not on the nature of the Absolute Reality but on one’s own nature as Absolute Reality.
The combination of a prepared mind, a qualified teacher and a genuine source of knowledge sets one firmly on the path to discovering one’s true identity, whereby sorrow ends and happiness is discovered to one’s very own self. This is the end of the identity crisis.