The subject matter of Vedanta is you — specifically, the recognition of who you truly are: pure awareness/consciousness. For lack of a better word, we call this Brahman, or the Self…
As the non-dual basis of existence, the Self is limitless.
‘Limitless’ is perhaps the strictest definition there is, and one that permits no exception. A thing cannot be limitless some of the time and then limited the rest of the time.
With no beginning and no end, the Self is formless and timeless, impervious to defect and free of action.
Its nature is sat chit ananda: existence, consciousness and bliss (the bliss inherent in freedom from lack and limitation).
That’s all good and well, you might say. But if the Self is formless, limitless and eternal, then why do I experience myself as a separate entity in a world of form, multiplicity and division? From where does this world of objects and experience arise?
Maya Makes the Impossible Possible
According to Vedanta, there’s a power inherent in universal consciousness called maya.
It’s courtesy of this maya that the formless and indivisible Self appears to take on form and limitation. Thus, from the unmanifest non-dual (advaita), a world of form and duality (dvaita) is seemingly born.
Maya is what we call an upadhi. The term upadhi means ‘limiting adjunct’; something that apparently lends its qualities or attributes to something else.
For example, if you hold a transparent crystal in front of a red cloth, the crystal will seemingly adopt the attributes of the cloth. It will look like you’re holding a red crystal, because the cloth is serving as an upadhi; ‘lending’ its quality of redness to the crystal, making the crystal appear to be other than it is.
As an upadhi, maya makes the Self appear to be other than it is: specifically, as this entire universe of form and multiplicity.
While everything is ultimately the Self alone (it is limitless, after all), at the level of form, we end up with three seemingly different principles: jiva, jagat and Ishvara.
Jiva refers to the individual being — a person.
Jagat means ’world’ and refers to the entire field of creation, both gross and subtle.
Ishvara is the creative principle responsible for the creation and sustenance of the entire cosmos.
These three principles are united in that they are all actually the Self, just as the wave and the ocean are nothing but water. The difference between them is accounted for by the difference in upadhi, yet it’s the same consciousness/awareness animating and sustaining all things.
Ishvara: the Creator and Controller
The Self associated with maya at a macrocosmic level is called Ishvara. Ishvara (discussed in detail here), wields the power of maya in order to create and sustain the entire universe.
Behind every creation we find a twofold cause: a raw material (the material cause) and the intelligence required to fashion this material (the efficient cause).
These two factors must combine in order for anything to be created. To create a clay pot, for example, we require a material cause, the clay, and an efficient cause, the potter.
In the case of most objects, the material and efficient cause are separate and distinct. A cook, for instance, is separate from the food he or she is preparing, just as a ring-maker is separate from the gold.
Ishvara, however, is both the intelligence that shapes the creation and the substance of which it is shaped.
The Mundaka Upanishad uses the analogy of the spider and its web:
“As the web issues out of the spider
And is withdrawn; as plants sprout from the earth;
As hair grows from the body; even so,
The Sages say, this universe springs from
The deathless Self, the source of life.”
Therefore, Vedanta does not speak of a God that somehow sits outside of the creation. Ishvara is the creation—its shape and substance as well as the creative intelligence responsible for it. If you want to find God, all you need to do is look around you. Ishvara is manifest in and as every single aspect of the creation.
Again, it’s important to remember that Ishvara is not separate from the Self. Ishvara is the Self plus maya; the creative principle that allows the formless Self to appear as the world of form.
It’s for this reason that Ishvara is technically referred to as Saguna Brahman, which means ‘the Self with form and attribute’. Saguna Brahman exists at the relative/empirical order of reality, while Nirguna Brahman is the formless, attributeless Self at the absolute order of reality (and which ultimately remains changeless in spite of the appearance of maya).
Satya and Mithya
The Self is the only independently existent principle there is. Being self-existent means that it doesn’t depend on anything else for its existence. The term for this is satya, which means ‘real’. Something is only ‘real’ if it enjoys an independent existence of its own.
All objects in the phenomenal reality—all the bodies, minds, plants, animals, planets, stars and galaxies—enjoy only a limited, time-bound existence, and are entirely dependent on the substance and intelligence that created them. After all, an effect can never be separate from or independent of its cause.
Because they are entirely dependent upon the Self for their creation, these objects are called mithya.
Mithya means ‘apparently real’—objects that enjoy a certain order of reality, but which have no independent existence of their own. Instead, they borrow their existence from the Self, satya, much as the moon borrows its light from the sun.
The Jiva and Self-Ignorance
Within Ishvara’s creation, appear countless jivas.
A jiva is what we think of as a person; a finite individual equipped with a body and mind.
Like a mirror illumined by the light of the sun, the body-mind-sense complex is, for a finite time, capable of reflecting the light of consciousness (the Self). Consciousness, therefore, is not a property of the otherwise inert body and mind. They are simply instruments through which consciousness can function, manifest or express.
(Note: A jiva doesn’t just refer to a human being, but any separate living entity, including animals and plants.)
If Ishvara is the Self associated with the power of maya at the macrocosmic level, the jiva is the Self associated with a particular body-mind-sense complex at the microcosmic level.
Unfortunately, while Ishvara has complete knowledge of the entire creation and of itself, the jiva has only limited knowledge specific to its particular body and mind. Furthermore, the jiva is born ignorant of its true nature as the Self. The term for this self-ignorance is avidya.
Avidya, as it happens, is the source of all the jiva’s suffering.
By identifying with the body and mind alone, and taking ourselves to be a finite entity, a meagre conglomeration of gross and subtle matter, we suffer all the pain associated with such limitation.
As long as this fundamental self-misapprehension remains, our existence will be characterised by a sense of self-insufficiency, lack, limitation and fear.
Because it’s not inherent to our nature, this limitation is unacceptable to us and we thus spend our lives striving to overcome it.
We end up performing countless actions, and chasing all kinds of worldly comforts, pleasures and trophies, believing that our happiness, wholeness and peace of mind is completely dependent on the attainment or avoidance of certain objects.
Sadly, we find, time and time again, that nothing outside of us is capable of removing our underlying sense of lack and insufficiency. Yet, unfortunately, the compulsion to keep chasing is hard-wired into us, and so we keep seeking freedom outside of us, in form, objects and experience.
This endless cycle of dissatisfaction, action and frustration is called samsara.
Samsara is a case of misplaced seeking. The jiva, under the spell of ignorance, seeks permanence in the world of the impermanent, fulfilment from the finite, and happiness from that which can only ever deliver it with an equal measure of sorrow.
People are naturally compelled to seek security, permanence, fulfilment and happiness. The problem arises when we seek these things in the world of the perishable, not realising that they belong to the Self, to us, alone.
In the Gita, Krishna admits that the spell of maya is hard to break. There’s no solution to maya within maya, because anything within maya is limited to maya. Therefore, the only solution is to seek the Self, the underlying essence of reality, which remains ever-untouched by the ignorance of maya.
Swami Chinmayananda writes:
“Identifying with maya, the ego, in its preoccupations with the outer world and with its idle imaginings, finds itself incapable of knowing its own true nature, misunderstanding oneself to be only a mass of flesh and continuously panting for self-gratification through the senses.”
This all stems from a basic misapprehension of identity.
Even though the Self is always there, as that by which all experience is known, deluded by maya, we fail to recognise this Self for what it is.
The knowledge ‘I am’ is self-evident. We all know that we are. The error arises from attaching the knowledge ‘I am’ to what I am not. By falsely identifying with the adjuncts of body, mind and ego, we create a whole world of suffering based on erroneous self-misassumptions.
Self-Repeating Grooves in Consciousness
The glue binding jivas to the wheel of samsara is the need to continually perform action in order to find scraps of happiness in the external world and thus allay our existential sense of limitation and fear.
Until we are committed to following dharma above all else, our actions are largely driven by our accumulated desires and aversions, which, in turn, are determined by the impetus of our past actions.
These likes and dislikes exist in the form of vasanas; self-repeating and self-perpetuating grooves in consciousness.
Whenever you perform a certain action, or even think a certain thought, it leaves a subtle imprint in the mind.
Depending on the result of that action, it creates a tendency in the mind to either repeat or avoid it. The more this happens, the stronger this tendency, or vasana, becomes.
When you wake up in the morning, you probably don’t even have to consciously think about what you’re going to do. Perhaps you stagger to the bathroom, brush your teeth and go make coffee. The momentum of your past actions, reinforced every day, created the vasanas that determine what you will do each morning.
These vasanas can be positive or negative; helpful or harmful. Automatic and often largely unconscious, they drive and compel action, shaping a person’s mind, reactions, behaviour, relationships and entire life.
A Wheel In Perpetual Motion
Like a wheel, samsara spins in perpetual motion, driven by the momentum of our past actions, which, in turn, generate yet more action.
It should be noted that this cycle outlasts the span of a single lifetime.
As Swami Dayananda says:
“Nothing in this world really ends. Matter does not get destroyed, nor does energy. One form may get converted into another, but it does not disappear altogether. There is no logical basis for thinking that the conscious being comes to an end.”
The Vedantic texts make abundantly clear that the jiva—the conscious being inhabiting a particular body-mind complex—does not die when the body dies.
Just as physical matter is recycled into new forms, so is subtle matter.
The jiva’s subtle body can be likened to a traveller, moving from body to body, led by the trail of its karma. When one body dies, another is assumed. Death only means that the jiva’s association with a particular gross body has come to an end.
So what is it that keeps a jiva in this cycle of death and birth, moving from body to body?
When an action is performed, the karma accrues results, both good and bad. This karma fructifies in the form of the vasanas; the psychological pressures that compel the jiva to keep performing action.
Some of these results are experienced in the present lifetime, but most must be carried over to some future time. This karma remains on the jiva’s karmic ‘account’, so to speak. Accordingly, the jiva will be reborn to exhaust its accumulated karma.
The problem is the moment the subtle body is associated with a new gross body, the vasanas compel this ‘new’ jiva to perform more actions, accumulating yet more karma, requiring them to assume yet another body. And so the wheel of samsara keeps on turning.
Anatomy of a Jiva
It may be helpful to explore the consitution of the jiva in a little more detail.
A jiva consists of three interfunctioning instruments—a gross (physical) body, a subtle body (comprising the mind, intellect and ego) and the causal body (unconscious)—all of which are enlivened by the reflected light of awareness/consciousness, which is our innermost essence and true nature.
1. The Gross Body
First of all, it goes without saying that all human beings and animals have a gross or physical body comprised of the five elements.
Functioning through this body are the sense organs, of which there are five perceptive organs (sight, sound, touch, taste and smell) and five active organs (relating to speech, manipulating objects, movement, sex and excretion).
These senses allow us to perceive and interact with our environment. They function automatically, connecting to their respective sense objects without any effort on your part. For instance, when you wake up in the morning, you don’t have to switch on your eyes in order to see, or switch on your hearing in order to hear. In that respect, the senses are like open gates.
2. The Subtle Body
According to the Upanishads, above the senses, is the mind.
The mind, as a component of the subtle body, manages the five streams of sensory data coming through the perceptive senses and arranges them into one cogent experience.
The senses register around eleven million bits of data per second, yet we can only consciously deal with around forty bits per second. The mind must determine which bits are relevant and which to filter out.
The second function of the mind is to doubt and determine. It must question the information being relayed by the senses.
Let’s say you’re wandering through the jungle alone. Although the senses objectively relay your surroundings to you, you still have to make sense of and interpret what you are perceiving. The jungle might look safe, but the mind is hard-wired to doubt; to question things. After all, who knows what might be lurking unseen in the shadows? This doubting function helps you navigate your environment and avoid dangers and threats.
The mind also emotes. All behaviour is driven by emotion. Emotion is what compels us to act. If the mind determines that you are in danger, it generates the appropriate emotion—in this case fear—which activates the organs of action, allowing you to respond appropriately—ie., run!
The mind is amorphous by nature. Constantly modifying to sensory data, it takes the shape of each and every thought you think. The yoga sutras refer to thoughts as vrittis, which means ‘modifications of the mind’.
The mind constantly changes configuration according to these vrittis. These, in turn, are largely determined by the vasanas and the interplay of the gunas, the three qualities of matter that determine the makeup of the entire universe.
Another component of the subtle body is the ahamkara. The word ahamkara literally means “I-maker”, and is our sense of ego; of “I-ness”.
In Vedanta, terms are used with exacting precision to avoid potential confusion. The word ‘ego’ has different meanings depending upon context. In this instance, ego is the “I-sense”; the agent that takes ownership of the mind’s thoughts and interpretations and acts them out accordingly.
As James Swartz explains:
“[Ego] identifies with the body-mind-sense complex. The ears listen but they do not say, “I am listening.” The one who says, “I am listening,” is the ego (ahamkara), the part of the subtle body that owns action.”
It’s necessary to for the mind to create a sense of ownership in order to initiate and perform action. This, however, is simply another modification of the mind. Ego is based upon the thought, “I am seeing/listening/hearing/thinking/acting.” What was hitherto simply an impersonal set of mechanisms is now given the stamp of “me-ness”. Things become personal!
The ahamkara is both a blessing and potentially a curse. Because of the problem of self-misidentification, this simple mechanism has the potential to create an incredible amount of suffering for the jiva.
There’s still another faculty of the subtle body, even subtler than the senses, mind and ego: the intellect.
The intellect is the part of you capable of weighing up what you sense, think and experience. Having considered all the variables, the intellect will then determine the appropriate course of action.
The intellect might be seen as part of a checks and balances system. Instead of blinding acting on emotion, as many people are prone to do, the intellect helps you respond to life in a more mature fashion. Capable of seeing the bigger picture, it’s the part of you that’s able to learn from past experience, and help you navigate life with greater intelligence, skill and reason.
Like a muscle, it atrophies if not exercised. If someone goes through life acting on impulse and emotion alone, their intellect is most likely undeveloped, and their life will be riddled with chaos and stress.
While New Age-type spirituality often decries the mind and intellect as somehow being ‘unspiritual’, Vedanta maintains that the intellect is crucial to helping us discriminate the true from the false. Without such discrimination, we continue blindly acting out our vasanas, forever binding us to samsara.
Ideally, once the intellect has made sense of the data relayed by the senses, and resolved the mind’s doubt, it then relays instructions to the ahamkara. The ego, by assuming ownership of the thoughts, feelings and actions, then carries out the appropriate action.
3. The Causal Body
We’ve already spoken about vasanas, the unconscious imprints created in the mind whenever we perform action, and which make us likely to repeat or avoid that action in the future.
These psychological tendencies, which are our likes and dislikes in hard form, are stored in what we call the causal body.
The closest parallel in modern terms might be the unconscious mind. It’s sometimes called the unmanifest ‘seed state’ because it contains the self-replicating ‘seeds’ sown by our past thoughts and actions. These seeds later germinate in the subtle body as specific thoughts and impulses, predisposing us to act in certain ways.
Depending on their nature, the vasanas of the causal body can be either positive or negative and binding or non-binding.
Positive vasanas might include thoughts and actions that are harmonious and healthful to our nature and well-being, such as the habit of healthy eating, exercising and meditating every day.
Negative habits create correspondingly negative vasanas, continually compelling us to do things that may not be beneficial for us, such as overeating, smoking, drinking, procrastinating or thinking negatively.
A non-binding vasana expresses as a preference or predilection, whereas a binding vasana has become an unstoppable compulsion or addiction.
It’s impossible to enjoy psychologically freedom as long as your mind is continually pushed and pulled by binding vasanas. They agitate and distort the mind, and may compel you to violate dharma left, right and centre in order to get what you crave. That’s why it’s necessary to convert all binding vasanas to the non-binding variety with the steady practise of karma yoga.
The Lightbulb Metaphor
There is, of course, one final factor in the equation—the most important of all, and the very means by which the jiva apparatus works.
We have just discussed the body-mind-sense complex, consisting of the gross, subtle and causal bodies. As perceivable objects, these come under the category of mithya, meaning they have no independent existence of their own. They rely upon another factor for their borrowed existence.
Mithya, the dependent effect, can never exist without satya, the independent cause—which is the Self, or awareness/consciousness.
Matter alone, whether gross or subtle, is inert and insentient. What brings it to life is the light of the Self. Awareness blesses these objects with sentience, much as the sun blesses the moon with its reflected light. The body and mind function, therefore, with the reflected consciousness of the Self.
Swami Paramarthananda uses the analogy of a lightbulb. Let’s imagine that the bulb and filament represent the jiva’s gross and subtle bodies. By themselves, the bulb and filament are inert and incapable of producing light. Another factor is required; the invisible principle by which the bulb becomes a source of light: electricity.
Like electricity, there is an independent factor pervading the otherwise inert body-mind-sense complex and granting it life.
Just as electricity continues even if the bulb is broken, so is this animating principle unaffected by the condition of or loss of the body. The body may be gone, but the Self cannot go anywhere. It is, as we have established, without limit and without beginning or end.
One final point. Although there may be millions of lightbulbs, electricity is one. Similarly, although there are billions of jivas, the Self pervading, illumining and granting them life is also one.
You Are Not Who you Think You Are
Until Self-knowledge is fully assimilated, your sense of identification naturally remains fixed to the world of form; erroneously pinned to the body, mind, intellect, as well your memories, thoughts, desires, fears, nationality, age, gender, sexuality, wealth or education, and any number of other factors.
These become you.
You create a narrative about who you think you are; an ad-hoc assemblage of personas; a parade of often-conflicting identities, strung together by various wants, desires, fears, and goals, all competing for mental bandwidth. When I ask who you are, you might tell me, “I’m a straight, middle-aged Republican doctor from Utah.”
A mind fixed on mithya is always burdened by a sense of insufficiency, lack, and limitation. This ‘I’ has limited itself by identifying with form and thought, and a limited self is never acceptable to us.
At our core, we feel a deep, burning desire to be whole; to be complete, to be validated, to be acceptable to others and, by extension, acceptable to ourselves.
This is the fundamental ‘itch’ of samsara; caused by ignorance of the fact that we are already whole and free, and completely acceptable as we are.
Digging around in maya, scrambling for wealth, security, and pleasure, can never provide a lasting sense of wholeness because, as we have seen, object-happiness is inherently tainted by dissatisfaction and pain.
Only knowledge of who we truly are can bring lasting wholeness and peace. This isn’t a case of adding anything to ourselves, either. Anything that can be added can then be taken away again.
Freedom is the recognition of the wholeness and happiness that was always there, as our innermost nature, but was previously obscured from us by ignorance.
Swami Dayandana says:
“For the wise, there is no goal other than Brahman (the Self), which they already are.”
The wise attain liberation, not by manipulating the maya world to their liking, but by shifting their self-identification from the limited jiva to the limitless Self.
While such a soul still lives and functions in the world, duality is destroyed by negation; by knowledge.
Enlightenment is the assimilated knowledge that, while the body and mind continue functioning as programmed by Ishvara, you are neither the body or mind, but the pure consciousness illumining them.
While, as mithya objects, the body and mind are finite and subject to all kinds of limitation, consciousness is without beginning and end, remaining untouched and unmodified by anything in the phenomenal world.
When this knowledge is fully actualised, samsara is destroyed and liberation attained.
The jnani (one liberated from samsara) knows that everything in existence is the Self—consciousness alone. They see the Self everywhere, in all things; as That which is immaculately pure, eternally shining, and untouched by anything in this world.
It’s worth noting that, although the wise see the Self in all, they do not treat all equally.
In his classic text, Aparokshanubhuti, Shankara says that the wise see no difference between a lump of gold and the excreta of a crow. Both are objects appearing in consciousness, and both derive their existence from the Self. That doesn’t mean, however, that a jnani would treat both objects the same way. Only a fool would take a lump of crow poop to the bank and try to exchange it for currency!
The jnani doesn’t lose the ability to transact with the material world. As long as their body remains, they still have to play by the rules of the empirical reality. Like everyone, they must eat, sleep, sustain the body, and perhaps work or take care of various responsibilities.
They know, however, that action is apparent only.
Although, courtesy of maya, appearing as a universe of seemingly separate forms, the Self is free from limitation. Being of a different order of reality, the Self is unaffected by the world of matter and the subtle forces that drive action and experience.
Divested of the samsari’s sense of doership and ownership, the enlightened know that karma and its results pertain only to the mind and body, and never the Self.
The jnani, by owning this knowledge, and seeing him or herself in all beings, is freed from limitation. Even amid the world of multiplicity, they see nothing but the one universal consciousness.
Released from identification with form, there is ultimately no jiva at all, only the Self, and this is the highest liberation.
Just as the wave is liberated by knowing that it is nothing other than the mighty ocean, the jiva is freed by the knowledge Aham Brahmasmi: “I am the deathless, eternal Self”.