‘sarvAtmabhAva’ – 4/5

Part – 3

Words play a significant role in any communication. In imparting the Truth of the Truth, which is the aim of Advaita Vedanta, words, however, lose their rigidity and attain certain fluidity in pointing to something beyond or prior to what their immediate referent stands for. Therefore, it is often suggested that a seeker on the Advaitic path has to approach a teacher who is well-versed with scriptures so that a correct meaning for the words as per the context in the shruti are obtained by a seeker.

In our normal parlance, words refer to something that has one or other of a ‘distinguishing mark such as name, or form, or action, or heterogeneity, or species, or qualities.’ “But brahman has none of such distinguishing marks. Hence brahman cannot be described as, ‘It is such and such,’ as we can describe a cow by saying, ‘There moves a white cow with horns.’ brahman is described by means of name, form and action superimposed on It, in such terms as, ‘Knowledge, Bliss, brahman‘ (3.9.28, BU), and ‘Pure Intelligence’ (2.4.12, BU), brahman, and Atman” and so on,” writes Shankara.

If we wish to describe the true nature of brahman, “free from all differences due to limiting adjuncts, then it is an utter impossibility,” says Shankara. “Then there is only one way left, viz. to describe brahman as ‘Not this, Not this,’ by eliminating all possible specifications of It that one may know of,” avers Shankara in his commentary at 2.3.6, BUB. Therefore, the teaching of Advaita Vedanta essentially follows an apophatic process.

Another interesting aspect of the teaching of Advaitic Knowledge is that nothing new or unknown is sought to be taught. There is no new knowledge to be acquired or be gotten by rote. No gaps in our knowledge or information to be filled. Shankara assures us in no uncertain terms at 4.4.6, BUB, “Let anyone regard oneself as ignorant and confused; we, however, accept everyone who sees like this as knowing and possessed of a clear ‘perception’.”

A little later he adds, “We hold that it is the definite conclusion of all the Upanishads that we are nothing but the Atman, the brahman, that is always the same, homogeneous, One without a second, unchanging, birthless, undecaying, immortal, deathless and free from fear.”   

Hence, brahmajnAna, Knowledge of the Self, is like ‘obtaining what one already has’ (प्राप्तस्य प्राप्ति: prAptasya prAptiH). Or, as kaTha says at 2.5.1, विमुक्तश्च विमुच्यते (vimuktazca vimucyate — i.e. becoming freed, one becomes emancipated). In other words, Knowledge of the Self (brahman) is about negating or dropping all such unverified beliefs that ‘I am my body’; ‘I am limited to my body’; ‘I am a finite being’; ‘There is a world out there external to me’; ‘I am born and subjected to disease, decay and death’ etc. etc.).

Simply put, we are already That which we seek to be by obtaining the Self-knowledge. Once the thought of ‘I am not Infinite or I am limited’ ends, nothing further needs to be done. No additional ‘Positive reinforcement’ is required or called for, as per Advaita, to say, “I am the Infinite.” There is no other ‘must-do-activity’ (kartavya) between the realization of brahman and “identity with All” (sarvAtmabhAva) as he writes at 1.1.4, BSB.

The brihadAraNyaka Upanishad tells us,

ब्रह्मविद्यया सर्वं भविष्यन्त: | – 1.4.9, BU.

(brahmavidyayA sarvaM bhaviSyantah |)

Meaning: Through the Knowledge of brahman we shall become All.

Shankara explains in his bhAShya at this mantra that ‘All’ excludes nothing. Swami Madhavananda explains through a footnote that “All here, as well as in many subsequent passages (in the Upanishad), means ‘Infinite Existence’.” That is to say, ‘All’ may not be understood as an agglomeration of diverse things with their forms and edges remaining intact. The ‘All’ refers to a seamless and boundless Infinity having had absorbed into Itself everything like when the rivers merge into the ocean lose their distinct IDs and forms (vide 6.5, prashna Upanishad; 3.2.8, muNDaka; 6.10.1, chAn). ‘All’ remains as a single homogeneous ‘Mass of Intelligence only’ (vijnAnaghana eva). Shankara emphasizes the fact of ‘homogeneity’ in the following words: “The word ‘Ghana‘ (a solid mass) excludes everything belonging to a different species, as ‘a solid mass of gold or iron.’ The particle ‘eva‘ (only) is intensive. The idea is that there is no foreign element in It”  – 2.4.12, BU. 

Advaita Vedantin, Shri V. Subrahmanian, who received an Award from Shringeri maTha recently, observes that “Immediate fruit of attaining brahmavidyA is the attainment of sarvAtmatva, the realization that ‘I am the All’.  This is a result that obtains in the jnAni during his lifetime.  In the Bhagavad-Gita, we have a verse that expresses this realization:

योगयुक्तो विशुद्धात्मा विजितात्मा जितेन्द्रियः।

सर्वभूतात्मभूतात्मा कुर्वन्नपि लिप्यते॥ — 5.7, BG.

Meaning: Endowed with Yoga, pure in mind, controlled in body, a conqueror of the organs, the Self of the selves of all beings — he does not become tainted even while performing actions.”

Shankara expands the word सर्वभूतात्मभूतात्मा (sarvabhUtAtmabhUtAtmA) as

सर्वेषां ब्रह्मादीनां स्तम्बपर्यन्तानां भूतानाम् आत्मभूतः आत्मा प्रत्यक्चेतनो यस्य सः सर्वभूतात्मभूतात्मा सम्यग्दर्शीत्यर्थः … |

(sarveSAM brahmAdInAM stambaparyantAnAM bhUtAnAm AtmabhUtaH AtmA pratyakcetano yasya saH sarvabhUtAtmabhUtAtmA samyagdarzItyarthaH … | )

Meaning: The Self of the selves of all beings is one whose Self (AtmA), the inmost Consciousness, has become the selves (AtmA) of all beings (sarva-bhUta) beginning from Brahma to a clump of grass, i.e., he who is fully illumined. (Translation: Swami Gambhirananda).

“That this realization is attainable in this life itself is not at all in doubt as the Lord teaches this about a jnAni who is alive:  कुर्वन्नपि लिप्यते – such a jnAni is untouched by both the agency and the results of action even if he engages in them.”  

It is reasonable to get a doubt in the mind of a seeker “When I am already myself brahman according to the shruti how is it possible to know brahman? Can ever the eye see itself or the tip of the finger touch itself?”

Shankara himself raises that question in the guise of a pUrvapakShi (opponent to the Vedantin) and provides an inarguable answer at 1.4.10, BUB. He writes:

“This sort of Knowledge (i.e. brahmajnAna) involves no contradiction. The Self is indeed known as ‘The Seer of sight.’ Also it does not depend on any other knowledge. He who knows that the vision of the seer is eternal, does not wish to see It in any other way. This wish to see the Seer automatically stops because of its very impossibility, for nobody hankers after a thing that does not exist. And that sight which is itself an object of vision does not dare to visualize the Seer, in which case one might wish to do it. Nor does anybody want to see himself. Therefore, the sentence, ‘It knew only Itself,’ only means the cessation of the superimposition of ignorance, and not the actual cognizing of the Self as an object.”

Shankara continues, “How did It know Itself? As ‘I am brahman, the Self that is the Seer of sight.’ ‘brahman’ is That which is immediate and direct (यत्साक्षादपरोक्षात्yat sAkSAdaparokSAt) , the Self that is within all, beyond hunger and the like, described as ‘Not this, Not this,’ neither gross nor subtle, and so on.”

Shankara finally concludes the argument saying, “Since by the cessation of the superimposed notion of not being brahman, its effect, the notion of not being all, was also gone, therefore It became all.”

Shankara also assures us, without any ambiguity, that no lag exists between the attainment of the Knowledge of brahman and one’s identity with All. He writes:

यथा लोके द्रष्टुश्चक्षुष आलोकेन संयोगो यत्कालः, तत्काल एव रूपाभिव्यक्तिः, एवमात्मविषयं विज्ञानं यत्कालम् , तत्काल एव तद्विषयाज्ञानतिरोभावः स्यात् ; अतो ब्रह्मविद्यायां सत्याम् अविद्याकार्यानुपपत्तेः, प्रदीप इव तमःकार्यस्य, केन कस्य विघ्नं कुर्युर्देवाः — यत्र आत्मत्वमेव देवानां ब्रह्मविदः ।   — 1.4.10, BUB.

Meaning:  Because this result, the attainment of brahman, immediately follows the Knowledge. How? As in the world a form is revealed as soon as the observer’s eye is in touch with light, similarly the very moment that one has Knowledge of the Supreme Self, ignorance regarding It must disappear. Hence, the effects of ignorance being impossible in the presence of the Knowledge of brahman, like the effects of darkness in the presence of a lamp.

A little later, Shankara explains that, “That, this sarvAtmabhAva (identity with all), is his highest state, the Atman’s own natural, supreme state.”

He further says, “When, prior to this realization of identity with all, he views the latter as other than himself even by a hair’s breadth, thinking, ‘This is not myself,’ that is the state of ignorance. The states divorced from the Self that are brought on by ignorance, down to stationary existence, are all inferior states. Compared with these states with which the jIva has relative dealings, the above state of identity with all, infinite and without interior or exterior, is his supreme state. Therefore, when ignorance is eliminated and Knowledge reaches Its perfection, the state of sarvAtmabhAva, which is another name for liberation, is attained.”  — 4.3.20, BUB.

[Note: Translations are adopted from the works of Swami Gambhirananda (for all the Upanishads except as mentioned) and brahmasUtra-s / Swami Madhavananda (for brihadAraNyaka / A.M. Sastri (for BG).]

(To Continue … Part – 5) 

1 thought on “‘sarvAtmabhAva’ – 4/5

  1. SarvAtmabhAva is understood by most as “everything is Brahman”. The table,pot, mountain, river all are Brahman only. Your arguments do lead towards removing this misunderstanding. I am hoping you will explain more in #5 the true meaning of “everything is Brahman”.

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