The Ignorance that Isn’t – 2/8

Part 1/8

4.  Ignorance is Indeterminate:

Ignorance is like a gossamer sheath that covers up and conceals our true Knowledge. An analogy may help. Think of a muslin cloth in which a few pieces of asafetida are kept wrapped in. The smell of asafetida lingers on the cloth even after the asafetida is consumed and the cloth is washed. Like the persisting smell on the cloth, impressions from the past experiences get stored in the causal body. Just like the smell of the asafetida that cannot be gotten rid of easily, the clinging impressions on the causal body too are difficult to be eliminated.  These lingering traces of the effects of past actions are called the vAsanA-s. They get expressed as the desires in the mind, and also as the individual’s likes and dislikes, proclivities, etc.

The Yoga system of Patanjali says that the causal body must be controlled so that the machinations of the vAsanA-s could be neutralized.  Shankara advises us that the causal body must be completely annihilated because suppression and control give scope for violent return of the vAsanA-s. He says that it must be completely melted away leaving no trace of the vAsanA-s so that desires do not sprout up in the mind. This process of dissolving the causal body is called pravilApana.

Explaining how arduous it is to eliminate the vAsanA-s, Shankara in his commentary at 13.2, Bhagavad-Gita refers to Sage Vyasa’s words in Mahabharata:

सर्पान्कुशाग्राणि तथोदपानं; ज्ञात्वा मनुष्याः परिवर्जयन्ति |
अज्ञानतस्तत्र पतन्ति मूढा; ज्ञाने फलं पश्य यथा विशिष्टम् || — 14, Dialog between Manu and Brihaspati, Mahabharata.

Veda Vyasa cautions that it is not easy to annihilate the causal body. He says that it is like walking along a “way infested with snakes and thorny bushes. The ground is treacherous with deep wells concealed under layers of grass. We need to be extremely vigilant. Those who are knowledgeable and keep their eyes open to these dangers will be able to successfully avoid them. But those who are ignorant and unaware will be ensnared by the impediments.” The difference in what happens to the one who is knowledgeable and well prepared and another who wallows in ignorance is thus highlighted by the Sage.

Shankara adds further, to say: We live trapped in the body misidentifying ourselves with it as Atma.   When we say “I,” it almost always has a reference to our body and or mind. If we can put the body and mind aside and recognize who we really are, we can free ourselves from worldly bondage. But we stay obsessed with our likes and dislikes, and our self-made concepts of right and wrong in our actions.  Hence, we continue to live in captivity and are born again and again to experience the results of our actions. Using sound reasoning, if we separate ourselves from the body and mind and recognize who we really are, in that recognition we will transcend the polar pairs of opposites and get liberated.

Habituated to seeing only the unreal appearance of the world, we have totally forgotten what Reality is. We superimpose a false image on what is actually present. Instead of seeing Reality as It is — which is Space-like Beingness and Knowingness (sat and cit) — we see a multitude of objects.

Krishna says in the Gita that He is the Self that resides in all bodies. That means there is the same one Self in all. If so, why is it that every individual so strongly identifies with a separate body and mind? Krishna himself answers that it is due to ignorance. Because of our ignorance, the One that-IS appears as though there is multiplicity. For the same reason, we see bodies, minds, vital-force, etc. If there is no ignorance, these multiple adjuncts would also not have come into existence.

Every living entity, from an ant to the human being, is subject to ignorance. It’s like mistaking a pillar for a thief in the dark. Only the thief is seen by us; the pillar is completely missed. It is not that we see the pillar first and then mistake it for a thief. We get carried away by what we think we see. We fail to recognize the real ‘thing’ that is actually present.  This is called mithyAtma (the false-self). In mithyAtma, reality is attributed to something without any verification. If we had prior knowledge of the pillar, we would not have superimposed a thief on the pillar. To think that “I am my body” or “I am my thoughts” is an example for the mithyAtma. Our familiar ‘me-ness’ is mithyAtma.

In addition to a ‘me,’ we also claim many things/people as ‘mine.’ We take their travails and tribulations to be our own and suffer with them and feel happy when they are happy. Examples are my house, my property, my family, my children, my nation, my prestige etc. This is called as gouNAtma (the figurative or secondary self) in Vedanta. In gouNAtma, the entity that is actually present is recognized but it is attributed to something else deliberately.

Much like the imaginary thief on the pillar, the body is superimposed by us in the context of the jIva. Everyone is accustomed to seeing the non-existing thief (the body/mind), and not the really existing pillar (substratum Reality). From the time we are born until the time we die, we only see our body, mind, and senses. We do not notice the substratum on which they appear. The Substratum is space-like in which everything appears, including the Sun, Moon, stars, and this body of ours!  That space is sat, which IS (Existence). We impose names and forms on the open space. But it looks as though Consciousness together with Existence created the illusory names and forms. By themselves, Existence and Consciousness are pure and untouched. But somehow, by a freak chance, for a reason that none knows, an illusion seems to arise.

There is no point in asking questions about why the illusion happened or when. It is unknown and, indeterminable. That is why it is called avidyA or ignorance. However, we don’t need to worry about such misapprehensions. After all, the thief never did become the pillar, nor did the pillar become the thief. They are two separate and unrelated entities whose characteristics cannot be imposed on each other.  Just because we impose a body on Consciousness, the inert quality of the body does not stick to the sentient Consciousness, nor does the sentient nature of Consciousness ever come to the inert body.

(To Continue  … Part – 3/8)

5 thoughts on “The Ignorance that Isn’t – 2/8

  1. Dear Ramesam,

    Could I ask for a couple of clarifications, please.

    You say that “Shankara advises us that the causal body must be completely annihilated” but I do not see the actual quotation to substantiate this. You also say “if we separate ourselves from the body and mind…”. Presumably you mean ‘if we cease to identify with body and mind’? (A subtle difference!)

    You translate sat and chit as ‘Space-like Beingness and Knowingness’. This is not, surely, a traditional translation. Do you not simply mean ‘existence and Consciousness’? This is much less emotive, and more meaningful; less likely to lead to flights of neo-imagination!

    The pillar-thief metaphor is slightly misleading. You say: “Everyone is accustomed to seeing the non-existing thief (the body/mind), and not the really existing pillar (substratum Reality).” But we cannot ‘see the really existing pillar (of the Self)’ because we ARE the Self. It is this sort of idea that leads seekers to say things like ‘I understand and am certain that I am Brahman but I have yet to have the experience (of seeing, joining etc.) of Brahman.’

    Best Wishes,

  2. Dear Dennis,

    Thank you for the very subtle and critical observations.
    I agree that there is always scope to improve and sharpen the words so that the accuracy of what is being spoken about in another language is not lost in precision in the translation. Keeping this in mind, let me try to answer the questions raised by you so that the implied meaning of the original comes out better.

    1. Regarding, “Shankara advises us that the causal body must be completely annihilated” :

    I believe the Speaker is summarizing the essential difference between Patanjali’s Yogic approach and that of Shankara’s in freeing oneself from ignorance (symbolized by the causal body, the seat of all vAsanA-s from past experiences). While the Yoga adopts “control (निरोध)” as its principal tool, Shankara recommends “total dissolution (प्रविलापन)” so that the seeds of vAsanA-s are completely incapacitated.

    I think Shri YSR is presenting here the distilled view of Shankara as expounded by him at 2.1.14, BSB, 3.2.21, BSB, 1.3.14, kaTha etc. which speaks about total “melting (pravilApya = having melted) into the puruSha, the Atman, all the three, i.e. name, form and karma, which are produced by false knowledge” in arriving at the final understanding which “the Vedanta-texts declare by saying that for him who has reached the state of truth and reality the whole apparent world does not exist.”

    Thus, I contend that the reference to Shankara in the present context only means that it encapsulates the wisdom of all his teaching rather than any specific quote from him.

    2. Regarding “if we separate ourselves from the body and mind…”.

    The allusion is to the famous 2.6.17, kaTha analogy,

    तं स्वाच्छरीरात्प्रवृहेन्मुञ्जादिवेषीकां धैर्येण ।
    [One should draw him out from one’s own body boldly, as stalk from the leaf.]

    3. Regarding ‘Space-like Beingness and Knowingness’ :

    The analogy of space is particularly introduced so as to eliminate the idea of sat-cit combo being at some remote inaccessible place and to emphasize Its presence right at where the seeker is in the here and now. As you are well aware, in its formlessness and all-pervasivity, space is the nearest we can cite as a handle to brahman. Space from its etymological meaning is also, like brahman, gives an opportunity (अवकाश) for things, without itself being in any way affected.

    The word “Beingness,” I feel is far better than ‘existence’ which implies, from its latin derivation ex + sistere — stand out. What stands out can be the ‘object’ against the background. The background itself is simple “Isness.”

    Similarly, Consciousness, a noun form, has the danger of objectification. So I prefer the gerund form of “Knowingness.”

    Maybe it’s time we have to take a hard look at our terminology and revise some of our Advaita argot!

    4. Regarding “The pillar-thief metaphor” :

    I suppose your objection is to the usage of the word “seeing.”

    As you are well aware, when we use expressions like:
    “Do you “see” my point?”
    “You can “see” the profundity of Shankara’s teaching,”
    the word “seeing” as you know does not refer to mere vision. It acquires the meaning of “knowing.” And most of the time, “seeing,” IMHO, is used in this sense in the philosophical discussions.


    • Dear Ramesam,
      Regarding ” seeing “, I think you will like –
      Roger Penrose – The Emperor’s New Mind – Chap 4 titled ” Truth, Proof, Insight” .

      • Keeping in mind Dennis’ reminder that this is solely an Advaita website, I would nevertheless like to mention two books I have read lately…seems to me if the “causal” body is a thing worthy of mention then mental phenomena – “knowing”, “feeling”, “seeing” etc, – as explored in the books below are also worth considering.
        Robert Burton, MD
        On Being Certain Paperback – March 17, 2009
        “In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton shows that feeling certain―feeling that we know something— is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. An increasing body of evidence suggests that feelings such as certainty stem from primitive areas of the brain and are independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning. In other words, the feeling of knowing happens to us; we cannot make it happen.

        by ROBERT A. BURTON


  3. Thanks, Shishya for the three book-references.
    The advances in Neuroscience are happening so fast that the information in a 2009 or even 2013 book could already be dated. (: 🙂

    As Dennis often remarks here, it would be more helpful if you can tell us the specific point from Neuroscience angle that you would like to talk about. The vAsanA-s are often compared to genetic and epigenetic info. in a body-organism. It was Prof. J Dobson who said a long time ago that liberation was more like counter cheating the genes.


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