Like fire that emerges from churning sticks,
the boundless discrimination that arises from contemplatives
burns as the sun that has attained the firmament of supreme consciousness;
to this everything is fuel.
Like the fire that comes from rubbing sticks together, a
wisdom of great discrimination arises from the minds of discerning
contemplatives. It flames in the sky of consciousness, burning everything as
Like the fire that emerges out of churning sticks
That boundless wisdom that from within those who seek
As the Sun ascendant in pure reason’s firmament supreme.
It stays burning and to its flames consuming, fuel everything
verse is yet another embarrassment of riches, one that lays out the parameters
of spirituality so clearly and beautifully that you can’t imagine anything else
the same time, the content goes against the grain of the popular imagination,
where effort is viewed as a block to realization. While it’s true that most
ill-considered efforts lead us up blind alleys, not all do. The most important
discrimination is to distinguish between valuable and worthless striving, and
the irrefutable indicator of success is the development of a passionate
interest, what we often call a consuming interest in English.
“wisdom of great discrimination” here is what we usually term enthusiasm. How
much of spirituality is supposed to be about doing what we don’t enjoy? Here we
are instructed to see our innate resistance as an indicator that we are forcing
ourselves into an inappropriate context. This has to be distinguished from our
aversion to facing up to reality, otherwise known as laziness. A little focused
reflection should make the difference clear.
makes a number of references to the effort required to energize our enthusiasm,
knowing that it is a natural effort we willingly contribute so long as we’re
doing what makes sense to us. Ananda is the bliss of things making sense to us.
It is every individual’s choice whether to live engaged or disengaged with
their surroundings, yet it is much easier to engage with what makes sense. In
This can be true of anyone’s
life. When you do something half-heartedly, as a customary thing, a convention
or a habit, you sink more and more into the morass of life’s darkness. When you
kindle a meaningful interest, light shines forth to illuminate the whole world.
bring the heat (tapas) of our intentionality to bear on our circumstances, and
after a period of effort we begin to glow. Like sticks catching fire, we may
note a poof! of brightness when the ignition temperature is reached. The
kindled flame begins to emit light and warmth. Then we don’t need to churn any
more in the way we were. Now we just have to feed the flames, feed the
interest. The idea that everything is fuel means that whatever happens
throughout the day is seen in the new light you are generating, so it
stimulates you to greater heights of insight. Nothing is left out; it all fits
together. There is no need to stay cordoned off from reality. This can produce
a truly spectacular breakthrough. As Deb phrased it, rising to the challenge to
perceive and understand things correctly reveals our inner being to us.
of us labored long under the delusion that permeates our culture that there is
a rare state far more refined than what we normally encounter, and our task is
to make our way there. The belief produces a schism between our daily activity
and our ideals, where we come to dread all the supposed boring, draining,
ridiculous demands on our sovereignty, and we develop a finely-honed attitude
of rejection of everything that doesn’t fit our narrow definition of what is
acceptable. This may well be an essential early stage of development, like an
egg or chrysalis. If we can manage to emerge into the next stage, however,
where we are strong enough to directly interact with the world around us,
everything becomes an educational opportunity. Not just positive stimulations,
but hostile ones as well, are melted down in the crucible of our understanding,
coaxing us to grow and expand. In humanity’s intensely chaotic social milieu,
it is very helpful to have wise associates around to buoy us up, so that we
aren’t tempted to retreat back into our shell. Our world abounds in not just
hostility, but wise and sympathetic souls willing and eager to lend a hand. We
could easily take or give a hand ourselves.
talked about the change it made in my life when I finally decided to give up
the cynical attitude about everything I had adopted in my teens and replace it
with an undefended openness. Quite a few toads turned into princes right on the
spot! Jan told us about having that same kind of experience herself this past
weekend. She had to drive with two strangers to a distant city where their
teenagers were participating in a debate competition. Dreading the tedium and
anticipating deprivation from anything interesting, she brought along all sorts
of things to amuse herself with. To her surprise, the other parents were fun to
talk to, and they quickly became friends. By the end of the weekend she was
sorry to have to go back home; they all wanted to keep doing what they were
Vedanta this joy of the ordinary is spiritual experience. It isn’t about
finding ways to not interact so you can revel in otherness or nothingness. Life
is brimming with possibilities. Depression comes when our inner promptings to
enjoy are suppressed and given no outlets. It is fairly easy to allow them, but
we have been mesmerized to not go there. I recently came across a relevant
fragment in Love and Blessings, from when Paul Gaevert was traveling with Nitya
and Nataraja Guru:
During our time in Hardwar Paul
became more despondent day by day. While we were walking along the banks of the
Ganges, Guru said, “Paul is in depression. This is because he was spoiled by
all his sisters when he was a child.”
was very painful for Paul to listen to Guru’s remarks. Guru went on, “Nobody
will admit anything that is deeply lodged in their ego. The vulnerable part of
your ego is putting up a defense. If somebody touches that place, your soul
will wriggle like a worm. To bring you back to the tranquility of the Self, you
have to take your life seriously.
for the Absolute to prevail is the only medicine for states of depression. The
human mind is so constituted that its instructive dispositions need a strong
numerator interest: a passion for Truth, Justice or Beauty. When one supplies
this element all blues and troubles vanish.” (234)
Nitya concurs in his commentary:
Whatever pursuit you engage in—art,
literature, science, anything that is your first love or your dearest value in
life—when that overpowers you and you are given to it entirely, your sticks
catch fire. Your interest flares up until you become like a great ball of fire.
Half of the world becomes your fuel and the other half is the flaming fire.
Though this consumption can be described as a great enjoyment, everything in
you is consumed.
Consumed in a consuming interest, that is.
course, in accessing our authentic self-expression we can’t just so berserk and
run wild, we have to learn to open up artistically and discretely. Enthusiasm
often starts off with a bang, but it should mellow into a steady state instead
of a jet-propelled up. Nitya once told us about one of his major revelations,
the one recounted in the chapter The Light of the World and the Life of All
Beings, in Love and Blessings, when he
suddenly realized his oneness
with everyone. He was so excited to know in his heart that all beings are
united in the core of truth, that he went around hugging everyone he met.
Pretty soon he noticed that all those dear dignified people were horrified to
be hugged by a wild-haired, grinning stranger. He learned to restrain himself,
to keep the fire inside where it wouldn’t embarrass anyone. In a way, doing so
made it burn all the brighter, and people could decide for themselves whether
to bask in its glow or not.
was reminded of Leo Tolstoy, who wrote much about the futility of renunciation
as opposed to dedicated participation in the world. Prabhu was very moved by The Death
of Ivan Ilyich, where a
prosperous judge undergoes a deathbed conversion, realizing how he lived
selfishly his whole life, while under the pretense of being a useful member of
society. Apparently the work goes into the subtleties of how we delude ourself,
maintaining our distance while pretending to be involved. An act of surrender
of our guarded mentality is necessary for a genuine transformation to take
place, which Ivan was able to accomplish at the last moment before his death.
Andrew, recognized this as a perennial theme of Tolstoy’s, and recalled the
short story, Father Sergius, about a
penitent hermit who cannot overcome his desires simply by isolating himself in
a hermitage, and eventually finds salvation in worldly service.
rare few have denied themselves absolutely, and managed to burst into flames in
spectacular fashion. Their stories are dominant in the popular imagination. But
theirs is not the only way. Narayana Guru invites every single one of us to be
fully involved, emphasizing the tremendous value of every moment, of every
being, of every event, if we dare to join in. Total participation turns out to
be almost as rare as complete withdrawal. Most of us fall somewhere in between.
people have a lazy streak, and imagine that not doing is bound to be easier
than doing. It may actually be much harder, though, because restraining our
dharma demands unceasing strain, like holding back a flood. The way of a yogi
is easy, according to the Gita, because once we are in harmony with our natural
abilities our expression becomes effortless. We go with the flow. Or here, once
the sticks catch fire we can leave off trying to light them. Nitya describes
the apparent contradiction this way:
You churn your mind, and when you
do there comes the fire of discrimination. Narayana Guru says the fire of
discrimination can become boundless. It can shine forth in the firmament of
consciousness as a great sun. In the light of that sun all inertia, all
darkness, all ignorance, is burned away….
is a paradox in this. Our two “sticks” are a world of ignorance and an ignorant
person who is seeking to enjoy that world. The paradox is when the ignorant
person and the object of his ignorance are rubbed together, what is produced is
not more ignorance but science, knowledge, awareness, even wisdom. Two mistakes
are not making a greater confusion, but a bright light. It’s very paradoxical.
we both begin and carry on in ignorance, all we need is a smidgen of
confidence. We don’t have to have everything laid out and properly prepared, as
if we were building a house or solving a math problem. Nitya continues:
This is hard to understand, but
then, as is said in the verse itself, one should churn one’s own mind to arrive
at the meaning of this paradox.
does this really mean to each one of you? It is common knowledge that when you
don’t have an answer to a question, when you encounter a puzzling situation, or
when you meet one of life’s challenges, you gather yourself together, you go in
to the very core of your being and look for light. You do not know how to
produce that light, so you struggle. As you go on struggling, you find new
steps suggesting themselves to your mind. Perhaps you adopt them. There may be
a lot of trial and error, but eventually, out of the many things that turn out
to be successful and the few mistakes you make, you gain a wisdom which enables
you to avoid making those mistakes. It is as if the seemingly random steps you
are taking in the darkness are all being guided from within.
doesn’t happen of its own accord. There has to be a tremendous effort, an
intensity, a yearning, a desire to find a way. You are always approaching the
goal, the end you seek, with increasing confidence. Finally you emerge
One of the major impediments is our egoistic mania for
always being right, which forces us to try to figure things out in advance.
Often the true way in is to admit to being wrong, which goes against all our
intense determination. The minute we feel we're wrong we seek to avoid the
situation, and in doing so we avoid learning what it is offering to teach us.
Contrary to our expectation, we are maintaining our own mediocrity. Nitya
instructs us how to compensate for our incorrect alignment by facing up to the
[Vedantins view] knowledge as a
kind of lever with which to pry themselves out of bondage. The solution is
sought not in some unknown place but in the everyday world of experience, which
itself is seen as coming into being as a result of our ignorance. Both the
incentive to act and the object that attracts us arise in us as our agency to
be an enjoyer or knower of what is outside as this experience.
There is a wrong identification in your agency as a knower
and a wrong identification in your agency as an enjoyer. You go into meditation
about it, into a search for it. The search has to be in the very field where
the action is going on: you can’t seek something by going away from it. It’s in
the experiential world in which everything is happening, so you go there. It is
the so-called wrong identification of the interest in the object that reveals
to you that the projection of the Self’s happiness was made on it in the first
place. And it is the apparently wrong urge you think of as coming out of
ignorance that opens to you the truth that it is the Self’s nature to be by
itself. Its nature is happiness, so it has to seek happiness. So through these
two mistaken identities you come to the right identification, which shows you
your true Self, both within your enjoyment and in the object you are enjoying.
The only difference is the ignorance which had been surrounding it is no longer
the process you don’t run away from anything, nor is the world consumed in any
fire of wisdom. The world remains as it is; you remain as you are. But you no
longer have a smoldering problem in your mind—it has become a bright light.
Another person may perform the same action or follow the same track with a
sense of anguish, guilt and sadness, but now you walk that path as a ray of
light, as happy as ever, unaffected by anything. Unscathed. That’s all the
often think that finding our dharma means becoming a great artist or
philosopher, or successful in business, sports or politics. Sometimes that does
happen, but for most of us, our lack of any one outstanding quality can lead to
low self-esteem if we hold that view. Plus, we then think we are following our
dharma some of the time and not at others. Why not posit our whole life as our
dharma? After all, simply being alive is the most miraculous of all criteria.
We can always be living our dharma. Then it’s no longer an intermittent thing,
reserved for special occasions.
mania of well-tutored humans is to think of religion or spirituality as having
a fixed form. Christianity even has images like “fighting in God’s army,”
conjuring up images of marching troops in formation carrying bayoneted rifles,
spreading the “good news.” Mathematics orders all its ideas in a row, in neat
patterns, and in so doing may leave out something essential. But Vedanta is
more like a cloud blowing across the sky: despite numerous efforts to pin it
down, it nebulously floats along, constantly shifting and churning. As you fix
your attention on one wisp, it becomes something else. Such an open structure
or antistructure allows us to relax into our beingness, instead of frantically
trying to locate it in the midst of the madding crowd.
Neither This Nor That But . . . Aum:
Guru defines the Self as that which knows while remaining in the dark. When we
are in deep sleep we do not know anything, but as soon as we wake up we experience
consciousness pervading our body. Consciousness does not come from outside, it
is always inside, even when we are asleep. As a person is aroused from deep
sleep to wakeful consciousness, so can the wakeful mind be aroused to another
degree of clarity. The Guru compares this to the churning of fire sticks to
make a fire. Firewood is cold and inert, but when two sticks are rubbed against
each other with force they emit fire, and this fire can ultimately burn away
are two factors in us which can be compared to two pieces of firewood in the
churning process; they are the ego that enjoys and the world that is enjoyed.
When a person enjoys something, he is unconsciously reducing his enjoying self
and the object of his enjoyment to the homogenous principle of a conscious
appreciation of value. In that value-appreciation both the “I” and the “other”
vanish and their place is taken by a pure sense of happiness. In the previous
verse, the Guru divided nature into two halves, the enjoyer and the enjoyed. In
that division he conceived the enjoyer as inseparable from the enjoyed and as
pervasive as the “other.” In the present verse, he recommends that these two
aspects should be critically scrutinized.
ego is born of ignorance and so is the object of enjoyment. When an object is
egoistically desired, this very desire obstructs the ego from seeing its own
ground, which is nothing but pure happiness. The temporal, spatial and concrete
specificity of the object provides a false ground for the projection of the
Self's own happiness and perpetuates the consciousness of “otherness.” The
inquiry into the truth of both the self and the “other” is likened in this
verse to the churning of fire sticks. When one submits oneself to the rigorous
discipline of reflection, there emerges from such a person the bright light of
discrimination which can dispel the ignorance that creates the false division
of Self and non-Self. The emergence of wisdom in such unbounded measure has
already been mentioned in earlier verses as the flaming sky of consciousness,
or the rising of ten thousand suns in the sky of consciousness. In the present
verse, Narayana Guru considers both the conditional self and its adjuncts of
conditioning as the fuel for the great fire of unitive discrimination.
THE Upanishadic analogy of two sticks rubbing together to
produce fire (see Katha Upanishad IV. 8.) is resorted to by the Guru to bring
out the twin aspect of Nature as referred to in the previous verse, and the
notion of the Absolute which is altogether beyond all relativistic
considerations. The man who is engaged in the incessant search for Absolute
Truth does not arrive at his prize in slow graded installments or degrees.
Wisdom is a flame that bursts out in its brilliance when the required intensity
of thought is arrived at. The analogy is meant to underline the need for
persistent and relentless research in the pursuit of wisdom, and to stress the
emergent nature of the resulting wisdom with the full white light of the
Absolute, which is not to be expected in any slow gradations. One has to wait
for the bridegroom to arrive without blinking a minute, as the Biblical parable
Merit or virtue in the religious or ethical context is one
thing and the boundless
wisdom here under reference is quite another. The two should not be mixed up
directly, as with ends and means. When textbooks on meditation indicate that
one attains perfection after much practice, this same verity is viewed from the
relativistic side. Either one has Absolute Wisdom or one does not have it. The
middle ground is abolished here. The fire of wisdom is referred to in the Gita
as being capable of burning up all dross of karma (action) (Cf. IV. 37).
The light of wisdom is qualitatively different from that
innate negative factor which
is at the basis of manifestation or creation. These two aspects in nature have been
their paradoxical perspective in this and in the previous
verses. If we should
consider one aspect of nature as positive, and the other aspect as negative, we
can, by a simple mathematical operation, explain how all manifested things
become absorbed and burnt in the conflagration of the fire of wisdom that is
here described. All duality vanishes in the unitive Absolute.
Besides the Upanishads and the Gita we have the testimony of
generations of mystics, sages and seers, like the author of the present set of
verses himself, whose words have to be respected in such matters. Such visions
depend on a priori and not on a posteriori reasoning, and this is why the
Brahma Sutras start off boldly and categorically by asserting that the proof of
the Absolute is in its having its source in the sastras (canonical scriptures).
Sabda or the ‘word’ is also recognized in Vedanta as a pramana (basis of
certitude). Wisdom is an emergent factor and the cause of it is prior to
inferential reasoning, as Sankara explains in three verses quoted by him at the
end of the Chatussutri.
If we should be permitted to use the terminology developed in
these comments and elsewhere, the horizontal version of truth is effaced when
the vertical version of the same prevails. The vertical needs no proof but
proves itself. Like an equation in physics the two limbs prove each other.
Relativistic nescience thus
gets absorbed and cancelled out when absolutist knowledge or full wisdom prevails.
sent a lovely poem that fits the balance between silence and verbiage we’re
exploring in these verses:
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
How To Be a Poet.
by Wendell Berry
Prabu also wrote:
You never identify yourself with the shadow cast by your
body, or with its reflection, or with the body you see in your imagination .
Therefore you should not identify yourself with the living body, either.
This is the quote that I mentioned in our class
Nitya and the Guru have repeated throughout That
Alone, our Self seeks to know itself, and it is “that consciousness that
animates the physical body” (p. 581).
This inexorable drive to realize the Self as it goes on operating in an
environment of ignorance, darkness, and alternating dualities—our world of life
and death—positions that Self so that it continuously and directly confronts
those three barriers. They require
attention, and in his commentary on this verse, Nitya penetrates their true
nature and places it in a cosmic totality of which we are both part and
whole. The very fact of our
inclusion in that one grand plan—the wave and the water are not two—means that
our Self (the Karu of the first verse) is both immortal and continuously
evolving. Out of ignorance comes
we are embedded in our cyclical world of necessity, however, the barriers to
waking up present difficulties.
Maya, the duality-driven character of our work-a-day world daily present
itself to our senses as real and enduring, despite the self-evident evidence to
the contrary. No form endures, but
our senses systematically tell us the opposite so they can return as often as
possible before the body gives out.
The mind/body operates on its own schedule and is marvelously equipped
to prize physical survival and endurance.
But as Nitya counseled us in his commentary on the 27th
verse, “The Self-luminous Atman itself is not known, but its effect—all the
pluralities of the phenomenal transformations and modifications that come into
being—is all we see. What is, is
not known; while what is not, is known.
Hence it is called the grand magic” (p. 194).
Nitya continues with his commentary on verse 83, he extends his previous
observation on the impermanence of manifestation by focusing on how the body we
live in presents to us continuous lessons on the subject of constant
change. After about 30 years, it
begins its inevitable decline despite our (or Ponce De Leon’s) best efforts. In
fact, writes, Nitya, we know almost
nothing about why the body operates as it does. It salivates when eating, for example, but we don’t have any
idea why. We can only connect the
two in a descriptive process when we notice them. Nitya calls this ignorance darkness and thereby pretty much locates our position vis-à-vis the
body. Limited by its perspective
and ignorant of its internal functions, “our awareness is like a small island
floating in an ocean of darkness” (p. 582).
Continuing with his lesson on our
condition as tethered to the body, Nitya then points out that the body is not
just one thing or system. It is
comprised of a countless number of them operating in harmony as they repeatedly
replace dying cells with new ones—until they don’t. When the system collapses, he goes on to say, it is buried
or burned but “nothing is lost.”
As with any material form, the body eventually becomes the nourishment
out of which new forms are then fashioned, “a continuous transformation of
birth, growth, and decay” (p. 583).
This holonic, constantly changing,
and unstable system reflects an indisputable picture of life as we live it day
to day. Select
atheist-evolutionary theory roughly describes this set of circumstances but
then walks away from it as being pointless because
of its cyclical redundancy. Taken
as a complete explanation for everything unto itself and as not part of any
larger one—split off as free-standing and completely autonomous and not as part
of a system within a system in a cosmic holonic dance—evolutionary theory as
commonly understood (in contemporary American culture at any rate) fails to
explain its value. As a
stand-alone process, it does indeed spin on mindlessly in its eternal dumb show
without a purpose that cannot be inferred through any isolated evaluation
process. The error in this dead
end method is in its narrow focus and its insistence that the manifest
ever-present arising exists wholly on its own (in spite of all the facts of the
The very same fallacy presents
itself in literal Christian interpretations (and echoed in contemporary
politically correct atheist ones) where this kind of separation from the whole
is sometimes personified in Satan’s apostasy, at least as John Milton would
have it when he presents the “Arch-Fiend” of the poet’s Calvinist Epic going
public with his manipulation of this misinterpretation as he challenges the
angel Abdiel to carry his (Satan’s)
message as to who created what:
That we were
form’d then say’st thou? And the
hands, by task transferr’d
Son? Strange point and new!
would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation
was? Remember’st thou
the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time
when we were not as now;
Know none before
us, self-begot, self-rais’d
By our own
quick’ning power, . . .
Of this our
Heav’n, ethereal sons.
our own, our own right hand
highest deeds, by proof to try
Who is our equal:
then thou shalt behold
supplication we intend
begirt th’ Almighty Throne
besieging. This report,
carry to th’ anointed king;
And fly, ere
intercept thy flight.
Book V, Paradise Lost)
totality of the system, writes Nitya, includes and transcends the immanent, a
principle that if we can come to comprehend will enable us to place Maya where
she belongs: “Our body is an object lesson when we see how it changes and
perishes day by day, it prepares us for its final dissolution. Dying with grace
is as beautiful as
living with grace” (p. 586).