The Purpose of Life, Part Two
Recently, a question – or rather a series of questions – was submitted to Advaita-Vision whose fundamental concern was the seeming purposelessness of life. This series of questions and comments also directly expressed or implied various other doubts that beg for clarification in order to better understand and more fully appreciate the existential predicament in which we find ourselves as apparent human beings.
The entire series of questions was included in the introduction to “The Purpose of Life, Part One” and can be reviewed therein if you would like an overview of the issue as a whole. The series has subsequently been divided into several sections, each of which focus on a different aspect of the fundamental doubt concerning life’s purpose, to facilitate a thorough and coherent analysis of each of the issues raised.
What follows is the second in a series of inquiries through which we will progressively consider each aspect of the rather complex and enigmatic issues of whether or not life has a purpose, and if so what it could possibly be.
Inquiry 2: What is the Purpose of Ignorance
Question: If, as stated in Advaita, we are actually in a state of sat-chit-Ananda and we are actually this ‘Self’ already, why have these ‘illusions’ and this ‘ignorance’?
Before beginning an inquiry into the reason for ignorance, the erroneous notion that limitless awareness is a state begs for clarification.
The self is not a state. All states of being are subject to time and, thus, are transitory, or impermanent. The limitless self, however, is intrinsically…well, limitless. It is eternal, permanent, or more precisely beyond the bounds of all such defining factors. It is the timeless being in which all phenomena characterizing the three most fundamental states – waking, dreaming, and deep sleep – and indeed the states themselves appear. For this reason, the self is not particular mood, attitude, code of behavior, or epiphany to be achieved, attained, acquired, merged with, or otherwise procured and thereafter reproduced, retained, maintained, sustained, adhered to, displayed, or otherwise held onto. In short, the self is both formless and free. Moreover, it cannot be had for it is already me.
Vedanta refers to my true nature as being-consciousness-bliss (i.e. satchitananda). These three words do not denote three distinct attributes, but rather stand in apposition to one another. In other words, they are parallel or synonymous in meaning.
Being (I.e. sat) is what is. If I see a bird or a book or a girl, and I say, “The bird is,” “The book is,” “The girl is,” the common denominator in all three statements is the beingness denoted by the word “is.” The bird, the book, and the girl all are. They all exist.
How do I know they all exist? Consciousness (i.e. chit). I am aware of them. They exist in consciousness and are, indeed, made of consciousness. Any object can only be said to exist if it appears in consciousness. Objects require a field in which to appear, and consciousness is that field. Moreover, since reality is non-dual, objects not only appear in consciousness, but are also made of consciousness. In the same way that the image of the prodigal son appears in Rembrandt’s masterpiece of the same name but is actually nothing other than paint, so the myriad objects appearing in consciousness are nothing other than consciousness itself. Hence, being and consciousness are one and the same.
Though the objects may come and go – indeed inevitably will and do come and go – their essential beingness, which is consciousness, forever remains. It is eternal or “without end” (i.e. ananta). Actually, “forever,” “eternal,” and “without end” are bad terms with which to describe consciousness, for they imply time, and consciousness is beyond the limited scope of both time and its Siamese twin space. In fact, time and space, the inviolable parameters of the entire apparent reality in both its subtle and gross aspects, are themselves only objects appearing in limitless consciousness. A simple consideration of my own experience verifies my eternal nature. Though countless thoughts, emotions, and sensations have arisen and subsided within the scope of my being, I have remained ever the same, essentially untouched by all experience.
The usual interpretation of the word ananda in the appositive phrase satchidananda is “bliss.” And regarding the issue of which term most appropriately describes the true nature of the self, it is worthwhile to consider the fact that the scriptures use both ananta and ananda to describe the indescribable Brahman. Sathyam jnanam anantam brahma is one of these definitions. Sat chit ananda the other.
The word sathyam means “being” and refers to what we might call “eternality” or temporal limitlessness. The word anantam means “without end” and refers to what we might call “infinity” or spatial limitlessness. Since anantum itself does not sufficiently describe limitlessness because it does not include time, the apposition of these two terms is employed in order to express the fact that the self exists beyond the bounds of the time-space continuum and so cannot be measured in terms of such. The phrase sathyam jnanam anantam brahman can therefore be translated as “Brahman is the eternal all-pervading consciousness.”
In the phrase sat chit ananda, the word ananda again means “limitlessness.” With regard to this term of reference it is important to understand that there are two kinds of ananda: bimbaananda and pratibimbaananda.
Bimbaananda, also called atmaananda, denotes my true nature. It is always present, but cannot be objectified and is therefore not experienceable. It cannot be gained, attained, or achieved. It is to be claimed and owned.
Pratibimbaananda is reflected ananda, and as such it can be experienced in a pure (i.e. sattvic) mind. Translating ananda as “bliss” reduces ananda to pratibimbaananda, or experiential bliss. In the spiritual world you find this mistranslation all over, especially in yoga. But it is not correct because the self cannot be adequately defined in terms of experience. First, all experience by definition takes place within the context of time and space, whereas the self, limitless awareness, as previously pointed out, exists beyond the parameters of time and space. Second, no discrete experience can comprehensively define the non-dual self.
Though accepting that the interpretation of ananda as “bliss” is actually a misinterpretation of ananta makes sense, there is nonetheless a degree of validity to the standard interpretation as well. In such case, however, it should be re-emphasized that the “bliss” referred to in the scriptures is not an experiential state of perpetual grins and smiles and giggles and laughs. Rather, it is uncultivated, unqualified, and unassailable peace and contentment. It is conscious beingness without fear, existential anxiety, or any sense of inadequacy or incompleteness – not that it is a personality that could actually harbor such feelings. Since consciousness is everything, it is termed purno’ham (i.e. complete, full, perfect). Its inherent absence of lack – for since it is everything there is nothing other than itself for it to acquire or experience – renders it, moreover, naturally desireless and, therefore, by definition wholly content and ever at peace.
That bliss or joy is my true nature is again not a philosophical conjecture to be taken on faith, but rather a fact irrefutably verified through an analysis of my own experience. Upon examination it becomes quite clear that the intention behind every action I perform is to secure a greater sense of happiness, peace, and contentment. Whether I am scratching an itch, eating a sandwich, bandaging a cut, trying to finish that last task before I head home from work, getting the last word in edgewise, making love with my partner, taking out a mortgage loan, or buying a new car, I am always impelled by the hope for greater joy and more peace of mind – or at least less pain and angst. And, furthermore, when I do find myself in agreeable circumstances, I never consciously seek to spice up the entrée of my experience with even a light seasoning of stress, suffering, or sorrow. Because happiness is who I am, I am perfectly happy being happy.
Given that unlimited joy is my intrinsic nature, the condition of my apparent ignorance and its apparent impingement upon my inherent happiness is one of the great ironies of my limitless nature. Were I limited by my inability to suffer ignorance – apparently suffer ignorance, that is – I would not be limitless.
Ironically, such apparent paradoxes are the rule rather than the exception when attempting to accurately reflect that which is limitless and without attributes. Such seeming contradictions as how Brahman (i.e. the self) can be both without qualities (i.e. nirguna) and with qualities (i.e. saguna), how the self can be beyond the mind (i.e. not available to the mind as an object) and yet as atma can be seen by the mind (i.e. manasa pashyati), how the self can be at once smaller than the smallest and greater than the greatest, how action can be seen in actionlessness and actionlessness in action, how there exists no difference between the limited individual and the limitless self, how multiplicity can exist within the context of a non-dual reality, and how we can merge with or attain that from which we have never been apart are the unavoidable consequence of attempting to accurately and comprehensively reflect the indefinable, immeasurable, yet all-encompassing and subtly nuanced nature of the self. Vedanta, thus, needs be recognized and processed not as an “either/or” but rather a “both/and” proposition, so to speak. In order to fully assimilate self-knowledge, one must be able to “see” from both the apparent individual’s point of view as well that of the limitless self.
Moreover, it is important to understand that the self does not “have” illusions and ignorance in either the sense of actively employing these phenomena or the sense of possessing them as one would an object. In reference to the former, the actionless self is not a doer and delusion or ignorance is not an action that is performed. In reference to the latter, though illusions might be defined as subtle objects, the ignorance that is their cause is not such a thing. Ignorance is simply a power within the self. As such, it is not something that came into being or began. Ignorance, like the self, is beginningless. Unlike the self, however, it does have an end.
The bottom line is that ignorance has no purpose, or rather – since ignorance is an insentient subtle object without volition – there is no purpose for the fulfillment of which ignorance is employed. Ignorance is simply an existential condition clouding one’s apprehension of reality, which once identified and understood evaporates in the all-pervasive sky of pure awareness, the limitless, non-dual self.
A very competently written and informative article. Thank you, Ted. Concerning the paradoxes and apparent contradictions you refer to, such as “how Brahman (i.e. the self) can be both without qualities (i.e. nirguna) and with qualities (i.e. saguna), how the self can be beyond the mind (i.e. not available to the mind as an object) and yet as atma can be seen by the mind (i.e. manasa pashyati)”, there is an important example of this in the Bh G (9.04-05), with which you must surely be acquainted: All beings exist in Me, though I am not in them (04). And yet beings do not exist in Me (05). A clear ‘contradiction’. The way to unravel it can be done, it seems to me, with the aid of various concepts, all leading to the same result: !) In terms of transcendence – immanence – nirguna/saguna, etc. – though this may not be applicable to some of the cases of apparent contradiction, such as ‘greater than the greatest’ and ‘smaller…, etc.’, which are simply hyperboles (?).
2) Invoking the principle of tadatmya (essential unity, or discontinuous continuity), which refers to an internal relation, samsarga. My ‘Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy’ distinguishes between abheda-samsarga (oneness with relation), and svarupa abheda (true oneness, non-relational). Can we not say: ”Ishvara (or saguna Brahman) is (the same as) nirguna Brahman, but nirguna Brahman is not (the same as) Ishvara, or saguna Brahman”? “Multiplicity (or ‘me’, ‘I’) is the One, but the One is not multiplicity (or ‘me’, ‘I’)”·; “the jiva is Atman, but Atman is not the jiva”.
3) Invoking the principle of avyakta (unmanifest). In the example of the Gita, avyakta can/may have two different referents or subjects: In the first statement, they exist in Me (9.04), ‘Me’, as prakriti, is the support of ‘all beings’, though in itself (as a principle) is unmanifest: but I am not in them (avyakta 1), whereas in the immediately following assertion: beings do not exist in Me, ‘Me’ is Brahman (nirguna), transcending all creatures (avyakta 2). Thus, as per the first stat., one can say that Atman (or pure Consciousness) is immanent in the creatures, or in manifestation, through prakriti, Its own substance and, at the same time, the phenomenal realm. This is the same relation of Transcendence-Immanence of point No. 1, above. I found this distinction between the two senses of avyakta in Bh. G – 9.04-05, in the translation of the Gita (and corresponding foot-notes) by J.A.B. van Buitenen. I wonder if you have any thoughts on this.
From the principle of tadatmya (or abheda-samsarga), saguna Brahman is (the same as) nirguna Brahman, but nirguna Brahman is not (the same as) saguna Brahman; equally so with other examples. Discontinuous continuity. All this has to be grasped by intuition (anubhava), not just by discursive thought or thinking.
But there is something more: Consciousness, Atman-Brahman, being the only reality, there is, in the end, no question of staying with any conceptual distinctions, such as mind vs. consciousness, saguna vs. nirguna, jiva vs. atman, unmanifest vs. manifest, unity vs. plurality, ocean vs. wave, etc. There is only water (in the last example), as there is only the One – which is not a number, and is neither personal nor impersonal.
Great analysis of two viable means of resolving the apparent contradiction between nirguna and saguna Brahman. Thank you.
The bottom line is that while all objects in the apparent reality depend upon awareness for their existence, awareness is ever free of all objects. Deep sleep and nirvikalpa samadhi, which are the two most profound experiences of reflected awareness available, attest readily enough to this fact. Because the knowing entity — i.e. the intellect — is absent in these experience, however, they unfortunately do not lead to self-knowledge and liberation.
Assimilating the understanding offered by your explanation is the key to moksha.
Thank you Ted for your reply to my belaboured comment to your post (I have been travelling for the past week). As you know, conceptual analyses by the mind have their place in clearing problems of understanding; they are really pointers and nothing else (there are passages in the Upanishads that are not easy to grasp, and we need help). You bring it all down to the essential: awareness, which is free and available, and the multifarious objects of awareness, ever changing; then the role of the intellect. Much appreciated.