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 as 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)