Q.476 – Metaphors

Q: Which metaphor in Advaita is the closest to truth? For example:

1.      If I take the “Snake in rope” metaphor, I must consider that “there-is-something” called rope, which is mistaken for something else (snake). So, in this metaphor, there is a TRUE rope and UNTRUE snake.

2.      If I consider the “Water in Mirage” metaphor, there is the UNTRUE water, but there is no substrate on which this is happening (there is no rope equivalent here).

3.      If I consider the “Dream” metaphor, there is the UNTRUE dream cosmos and dream characters and there is the TRUE dreamer in whose mind all this is happening. So the substrate is the dreamer’s mind – though it is “no-thing” in itself.

The doubt is…
Metaphor 1 gives an impression that there “is-something” out there, but we mistake it for something else and give it name & forms etc.

Metaphor 2 gives an impression that there is “nothing out there” and what we see is only inside our mind (the mirage has no substrate out there, but just an error in our mind).

Metaphor 3 is somewhat in the middle of metaphors 1 & 2 – Like metaphor 1, it has a TRUE substrate (the dreamer’s mind) but that substrate itself is just mind stuff (like metaphor 3) which can appear and disappear instantly, following no rules of any sort (rope will follow some rule, but a dream elephant may fly).

So is there something “out there” (some ineffable substrate – say energy) which is misunderstood as something else (say matter, forms) OR there is “nothing-out-there” and whatever we see is only our minds-stuff in motion?

Many thanks to the teachers for having this forum where seekers could ask their questions and helping others see the great truth!

A: The truth is that Brahman (the reality) cannot be described – it is non-dual and there is nothing other than Brahman to do the describing!  Metaphors are useful to the extent that they point your mind in the right direction. But you mustn’t try to push them beyond their usefulness (or mix them)!

Brahman is certainly real but it is also Consciousness and without limit – so it cannot be the world (but this doesn’t stop the world from being Brahman). Also, the dream world is real FOR THE DREAMER. It is only for the waker that it exists in the mind. Similarly, the world is real FOR THE WAKER…

But the world is not unreal (as you know)! The way that Advaita puts it is that it is name and form of Brahman. Like the ring being name and form of gold – another useful metaphor.

Q: Thank you very much for your valuable comments. I appreciate it very much.

I agree with what you mentioned – that metaphors are just pointers and should not be extrapolated. Yet, for some reason, I tend to connect more with the DREAM example. It is for the following reasons. Can you tell me what you think of them?

  1. Seers like Ramana Maharishi & Nisargadatta kept saying – “there are no others” when people inquire about helping others. This assertion – “There are no others” fits seamlessly in the dream metaphor because all the characters are only “you” and there are literally no others.
  2. Again, when people insist & and ask what is the best method to help the suffering of the world – Ramana Maharishi & Nisargadatta answer that the best way to help others is by “getting enlightened yourself”. Though for many people this answer may sound selfish – I think it again perfectly fits the dream metaphor. Because all suffering or war inside a dream can instantly stop & disappear when the dreamer wakes up! So in that sense the dreamer has the power to help alleviate the suffering of the “others” by getting enlightened and realizing that “there are in fact no others”.
  3. Apart from the above points, many other description of the Jiva, Jagat and Brahman given in the scriptures fit nicely inside this one metaphor. In fact, I think this one metaphor sublates or assimilates all other metaphors in it & one may not even require take help of another metaphor.

What do you think? Could the dream metaphor be closer to truth (in pointing of course)?

A: All metaphors have their realm of applicability. The dream one is particularly good but is also perhaps one of the ones that easily be taken too far or in the wrong way. I discuss this quite extensively in ‘A-U-M: Awakening to Reality’.

I’m afraid that one should always be very wary with Nisargadatta and Ramana (and Vivekananda, whom you don’t mention). I am currently writing a book, called (provisionally) ‘Clarity for The Confused Seeker’, which discusses quite a number of topics in Advaita where much confusion has been caused by what has been said by non-traditional teachers. You really have to go back to the scriptures, interpreted by a qualified sampradAya teacher, to get correct understanding.

Shankara does not accept the total extrapolation of dream to waking to enlightenment. Why would the likes of Shankara go on to teach others if he regarded them as no more than a dream in the mind of Ishvara?

7 thoughts on “Q.476 – Metaphors

  1. Whilst Dennis and I agree on a number of areas, this is one we definitely disagree on. I’m afraid that I find his dismissal of Maharishi and Nisargadatta intemperate and ill-informed.

    I think we would both agree that the recorded talks of both were addressed to specific individuals asking for guidance, and as such, their responses were aimed specifically at the questioner and the jnani’s assessment of their level. By and large, the people they were addressing (especially true for Maharishi) were relatively advanced or dedicated seekers.

    Reading their works can be inspirational and can provide some insight into how a jnani behaves and thinks – akin to the question Arjuna asked Krishna in the latter half of the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita.

    By contrast, the methodical teaching of scriptures provides a structured and systematic study of advaita vedanta, which enables one to grasp more firmly the philosophical foundations. Having grasped these, then it is relatively easy to understand why, for example, Maharishi recommended Atma vicahara (self-enquiry) as the key tool.

    Maharishi’s and Nisargadatta’s (and J Krishnamurti’s for that matter) suggestion that ‘the greatest help that can be given to the world is by becoming enlightened yourself’, can be understood at a number of levels. Firstly, an ego trying to go about helping the world, however altruistically, is inevitably going to corrupt his actions by his own inherent sense of separation; even if it is just the feeling ‘I know best’. Secondly, most of the actions of Homo sapiens have been detrimental to the world, especially since we cannot foresee the ramifications of all of our (even altruistic) actions. So arguably the only life worth living is to ‘live without trace’, simply, quietly and with minimal impact. In Chinese philosophy it is ‘tao’, or ‘wu wei’.

    And at the highest level, they mean that there is no entity there at all. The entity itself is ignorance. So ‘enlightenment’ is simply seeing that the ego is a mistaken, but deeply embedded assumption. If there is no ego, no ‘I’, there are no others.

    Gauadapada – Shankara’s guru’s guru – was fairly clearly in equating the dream state with the waking state; and equally clear in stating that on realisation, a jnani would live the life of an ascetic, living on what comes to him by chance. Because he has no identification with a body-mind that needs to be preferentially preserved over others.

    Sankara knew beyond doubt that there is no separation; there is no Sankara and no others; just the Absolute. So why did Sankara teach? Why do birds sing or rivers rage? It is in their nature. Nisargadatta’s response, when asked this question, was “to pass time”.

    • Brilliant summation…absolutely spot on.

      “So ‘enlightenment’ is simply seeing that the ego is a mistaken, but deeply embedded assumption.”

      Ah, that word “seeing”, a.k.a. MOUNA.

  2. We are actually largely in agreement. I have said many times that Ramana and Nisargadatta were excellent teachers. Their responses to the many questions that are logged were frequently valuable and often inspirational. The problem is that most seekers do not have a single question which, once answered, will immediately give enlightenment. They need to have the entire teaching explained one step at a time, slowly but surely advancing their understanding without taking them down cul de sacs or leaving them stranded.

  3. On the question of metaphor, it is to be borne in mind that any metaphor has a limited purpose dealing with a particular aspect only. For example, rope-snake metaphor is meant to explain superimposition or even mAyA, and it is not meant to explain non-duality. To me, metaphors of clay-pot, gold-ring and water-wave are closer to non-duality when compared to rope-snake, water-mirage and waking- dream metaphors.

  4. Metaphors are useful to the extent that they enable someone to understand something that they had hitherto been unable to understand. Some metaphors can be used in a number of different situations. Rope and snake is a particularly versatile one. Arvind Sharma has written an entire book about it! (And another one about shell-silver.) But if it doesn’t work for you it is a waste of time. Horses for courses as they say, although I have never understood that one…

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