Nitya Teachings

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Mandukya Upanishad - Mantra 1

5/12/15

Mantra 1

 

That (eternal) syllable, AUM, is all this;

its further elaboration, past, present, and future,

all is this AUM indeed;

even what is beyond, transcending the three times,

that too is AUM.

 

         In keeping with the first mantra, Nitya affirms Aum as an existential reality, to counterbalance the tendency of spiritually-minded people to slip into idealist fantasies. Even though Aum is not visibly apparent anywhere in the terms we are familiar with, we are not seeking a remote abstraction but the intrinsic reality at the heart of everything. The “secret” of the Upanishad is that Truth is right here, present with us. In a sense, it’s almost the exact opposite of a secret, a reality so apparent we run a risk of overlooking it:

 

For a wise person, the world is like an open book. Everything in this world speaks to them. A blade of grass, a small worm, a bird in the bush or a floating cloud - anything can reveal to a seeker the hidden meaning of this world.

 

         To further develop our ability to attune with the hidden meaning of the world, Nitya invites us to contemplate the beauties of everything we perceive. The word Aum begins with ‘A,’ the symbol of the world of concrete objects, and, as Michael and Nancy pointed out, as we develop we progressively recede into levels of abstraction, almost like a tadpole turning into a frog. A frog first masters the pool that nurtures and sustains it, and only when it has developed fully is it capable of jumping out of the pond onto solid ground. Like that, we begin from the world we experience and draw insights from that, becoming ever more generalized in our thinking, until at last we can make a quantum leap out of the context that has made us into the shape we are. Such a leap into turiya, the total context, the all, is symbolized by the silence that comprises the fourth element of Aum.

         We are not meant to leave ourselves or our egos behind when we make the leap, as so many practices insist. All of what we are is an integral part of the event, the bearer of chit, if you will. Nitya instructs us:

 

The contemplative who has taken this mantra for reflection should first dive deep into the meaning of “all” (sarvam). There cannot be an all without including one’s self also in that all embracing awareness.

 

         Nitya describes a meditation on this perspective that is perfectly suited to the view from our “classroom,” with its vast panorama:

 

The subtlety of the mantra makes it a fit subject for reflection. To get into the spirit of it, one should sit quietly, if you prefer, on a hilltop where you have a vast panorama to watch. Then say to yourself: “this all.” When you say “this,” you will experience a sudden convergence of awareness to the central focus of your attention, and from there, instantaneously, the awareness expands in all directions and you are compelled to believe that something is taking you even beyond the seeming bounds of the horizon…. This expanding universe of awareness not only transcends space, but it also transcends time.

 

         Interestingly, before class I was reading in Max Tegmark’s book Our Mathematical Universe, his theory that the universe is a mathematical structure. The structure itself has no qualities; only the relations between its parts generate describable factors. Descriptions are “baggage”: appendages on the pure reality of the structure. There are highly abstract descriptions like those in conventional math and logic, but the whole range of baggage includes layer after layer of interpretations, all the way to the external world we perceive and interact in. Tegmark’s ideas bear a close kinship with the rishis’ concept of Aum—a baggage-free monad on which everything is appended. The difference, if any, is that Tegmark is working primarily in one direction, back into the formless, since at least for a scientist this is where the unknown territory lies. By contrast, the Upanishad invites us to make a two-way probe from multiplicity to unity, and from unity back to multiplicity. Each aspect informs and augments the other, and without both together we probably don’t have a universe at all.

         Since Tegmark is exploring new terrain, at least as far as physicists go, he is still visualizing a plethora of structures rather than a single, unitary source. It will be interesting to see if he gets to a structural essence or not, maybe even later in the book. In the meantime, this excerpt should show the parallels with our spiritual version of the exploration. After giving an example of an everyday situation that he describes mathematically, Tegmark concludes:

 

There are clearly many more equivalent ways of describing this mathematical structure, but there’s only one unique mathematical structure that’s described by all these equivalent descriptions. In summary, any particular description of a mathematical structure contains baggage, but the structure itself doesn’t. It is important not to confuse the description with that which is described: even the most abstract-looking description of a mathematical structure is still not the structure itself. Rather, the structure corresponds to the class of all equivalent descriptions of it. (264-5)

 

See how closely this resembles Nitya’s invocation of sat:

 

[Our] attention is called to appreciate the existentiality of things and the philosophical validity of reducing everything to the persistent verity of erasable existence. This is certainly not the approach of an idealist. Even highly respected Indian pundits like Dr. Radhakrishnan could not see the methodological correctness of the Indian rishi who gave primacy to sat, existence. “Existence precedes essence,” was not any new invention of Jean-Paul Sartre. As Dr. Radhakrishnan did not see this point, he depicted Vedanta as an idealist view of life. It is the existence that is then interpreted, described and restructured to suit the conceptual clarity of the perceiver.

 

Of course, the supposition that reality exists does not by itself validate our interpretation of it; as Tegmark realizes, every description or portrayal is a secondary phenomenon with a greater or lesser schism between it and the essence it attempts to reveal. We work to close the gap to true up our relation to the outside world even as we prepare to leap from that very pond when the right combination of circumstances arises.

         In the next excerpt Nitya expertly weaves saccidananda into his elucidation of Aum, first highlighting sat and chit. Note the upending of our expectations in the sentence, “Everything of the past is still held close to the present by converting the existentiality of the past into an ever-present memory.” We tend to think of the present as ineluctably real and the past as a fictional representation held in the present, which is true enough, but Nitya also accords those memories a grounding in existentiality. In other words, they were once as true as our present is to us now. We could honor them, at the same time as we recognize their fictionalization in the present through our unavoidable interpretive process. In fact, to the extent we are captivated by our memories in the present, we are living in a personally constructed image in place of reality. Nitya packs a vast amount into this paragraph:

 

Only by experiencing a thing do we become impressed by the truth of its existence. As we move in time our appreciations of existence are piled one over the other and everything of the past is still held close to the present by converting the existentiality of the past into an ever-present memory. It is by the relevancy of that memory that we give our present its vast magnitude both in time and space. There is no past sitting anywhere other than in the immediate awareness of the present. Similarly there is no future except in the anticipation of an individuated mind. Existence cannot support itself, at least for the recognition and appreciation of it by the human mind, unless every form of existence is substantiated by a comprehending consciousness. This shows the methodological excellence of the Indian rishi who placed chit, consciousness, immediately after sat, existence. These two aspects of Truth are inseparable. That is why Nataraja Guru defined science as a discipline which transforms visibles into calculables.

 

This reminded Prabu of Bergson’s duration, the pure essence of time in which past, present and future are called up sequentially.

         Nataraja Guru’s definition fits Tegmark’s hypothesizing to a T. Calculables can be thought of as increasingly refined attempts to remove baggage from scientific descriptions. From a mathematician’s or a rishi’s point of view, the limitations of science are its continuing reliance on descriptive baggage. The joy of meditation is to a significant degree to be found in the relinquishment of descriptive baggage, of “taking a break” from the brains’ obsession with matching favorite descriptions to its surroundings. Unlike scientists held to rigid standards of justifying their stances, we can regularly dip into periods of baggage-free beingness. Nitya invites us to do that in this series of guided meditations, as he rounds off saccidananda by bringing in its third term:

 

It is not necessary to get into all the jargon of philosophy to appreciate the perennial persistence of fundamental values. That is why even a sentimental poet can readily see the truth of a perennial joy dwelling in the heart of beauty. Here we see the relevancy of ananda coming as the culminating mark of our search.

 

         Science deliberately leaves ananda—meaning—out of its calculations, and that is appropriate, though very dangerous. Meaning is the domain of philosophy and its evolutes, religion and spirituality. Because of this self-imposed limitation, science has unleashed many destructive forces, side by side with its beneficial ones.

         Fortunately, we are not constrained to omit meaning and value from our musings. Only the first quarter of the scheme of consciousness, the ‘A’ realm as we’ll be calling it, is better left untainted by interpretations. But understanding meaning is what converts us from sadness to joy, from despair to optimism. As Bill put it, how we predicate the mysterious “this” can be joyful if we so choose. As always, Nitya waxes eloquent on this matter, and I’ll defer to him. This is where the sentimental poet mentioned above came into the talk:

 

Instead of saying “all this,” if you were to say “this dewdrop,” “this flower,” “this rainbow,” you could also think of the dewdrop disappearing in evaporation, the flower drooping and falling off, and the rainbow vanishing. In all these specific objects of experience one can see the stamp of phenomenality. Like an Omar Khayyam you can sigh in frustration: “this will pass away.” In the present mantra you are in the company of a joyous teacher and not a weeping philosopher. When Keats said: “a thing of beauty is a joy forever,” he was seeing eternity in the beauty of the otherwise transient world of phenomenality. It does not trouble the poet or the artist how short-lived are the dewdrops, the butterflies, the sunrise, the rainbow, and the smile of recognition. From the very dawn of the human appreciation of beauty, poets were singing the glory of all these enchanting visitations of the divine. Thus a philosophically trained eye can see the imperishable dwelling in the very heart of the perishable. So it is not a poetic exaggeration to say “all this is AUM the imperishable.”

 

         We closed with a meditation on Aum, in the way Nitya often led us to do, where we start loud and taper down into silence with each iteration, and each time you start a little less loudly. Finally, the whole chant is done in silence. It provides a wonderful convergence of all aspects of the psyche. We plan to close each class of the Mandukya with this harmonizing activity. Aum.

 

Part II

 

         Nitya was very fond of a baffling quote from the philosopher F.H. Bradley, which led him to an important insight. Here’s the how it appears in the present text:

 

Suppose the general knowledge comes as “this.” It is immediately followed by the question “what is this?” This is suggestive of the two main components of one’s apprehension: they are the “this” and the “what.” If the mind readily comes out with an answer: “this is a pot,” “this” is qualified with the characteristics of a pot. “This” remains, and the “what” is substituted with the idea of a pot. In a number of such predications you can see that the general idea “this” remains unchanged and the interrogation “what” is substituted with object identities such as “this is a pen,” “this is a watch,” “this is a stone,” etc. When F.H. Bradley says: “this ‘this’ is different from this ‘this’ because of the difference between the ‘what’ of this ‘this’ and the ‘what’ of this ‘this,’” he is not playing with words but putting his finger on the primeval incidence of specifying awareness entering the uncharted field of consciousness.

 

         I read out the excerpt from Love and Blessings pertaining to Bradley’s quote, which helps us to understand what he was getting at. It also points to That Alone verses 41 and 42, where Nitya really throws light on this idea. At the time of this writing he was teaching at Vivekananda College in Madras. In the Magazine, apostrophes were added to Bradley’s quote for clarity, but I now prefer the more baffling version without them:

 

         A very beautiful thing happened while I was teaching F.H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality to the students of the senior M.A. class. In it Bradley presents his idea of “this” and “what”. His whole contention can be summarized as follows: “This this is different from this this because of the what of this this and the what of this this.”

         On first reading we get only a jargon of words. When taken individually, in every item of cognition a certain “this” is presented, and we are curious to know what “this” is. “This,” as such, is an undeciphered presentation of an unqualified presence. The cognitive function has to examine the features of what is presented to see how it can be distinguished from whatever was presented previously and whatever is to be presented afterwards.

         Bradley’s statement did not yield any immediate envisioning of the problem it presented. So I allowed the students to disperse, and they all went to the canteen for coffee. I returned to my residence and had a cup of hot coffee. After taking a few sips, I opened a book that was lying on a table. It was Narayana Guru’s Atmopadesa Satakam. I opened it at random and read, “In ‘This is a pot’ the first impression, ‘this’, is the difficult to discern; ‘pot’ is its qualifying predicate.” The gist of what Bradley was trying to say in an elaborate essay running to many pages was given by Narayana Guru in just two short lines. I was thrilled by how he explicated this philosophical problem without going into the jargon of logic. I could hardly wait for the next class to share my new insight and joy with my students. Then I thought there should be more opportunities for me to teach Narayana Guru’s vision rather than beating about the bush with Bradley’s philosophical paradoxes. (161-2)

 

         Nitya eventually found that gesturing in two places to visually distinguish this this from another this helped make the point much clearer to his students.

         I also read out the next part of the chapter, not related but still wonderful:

 

         By the beginning of 1954 the atmosphere at the college had become rather suffocating. Although nobody directly asked me to resign, there were several pinpricks. I thought I would wait for Nataraja Guru’s counsel before taking an initiative. And although I thoroughly enjoyed my sessions with the students, I felt an urge to walk away from institutions and find the freedom to go into whatever pleased my inner self. The call to go into an elaborate comparative study of Narayana Guru with all the major philosophers of the world was becoming irresistible. Moreover, my stance for equality was getting me into hot water with the administration.

         A few days later Nataraja Guru came to see me again. When I told him how smothering the college atmosphere was and how I felt like revolting against it, Guru said, “An educational institution is a sacred place. When you were in need of it, the Vivekananda College opened its doors and welcomed you. When you leave it, you should go out with dignity, without regret and without malice to anyone. Give your blessings to the students and say goodbye in good taste to your colleagues.” He added that leaving a position should always be considered a promotion, like leaving a short ladder to get onto a taller one. So I tendered my resignation with good grace.

Though as usual Nataraja Guru had said exactly the opposite of what I’d expected, it was sound advice. If he hadn’t cleared my mind I’d have felt very angry and frustrated. Afterwards I learned firsthand of the Benevolent Grace that guided me to leave my academic career behind when I revisited Vivekananda College twenty years later. I went to the philosophy department and saw all my old friends sitting on dirty chairs in musty rooms and looking no brighter than the fossils displayed in the biology lab. (162-3)

 

*         *         *

 

         Excerpts from Love and Devotion (1979, by Nitya Chaitanya Yati) related to the first mantra:

 

         This story is given to explain not only the historical background of Krishna but also to explain how he became instrumental in unifying the conflicting strata of India’s civilization and also the role he played in evolving an integrated philosophy presented in the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna took the best from the pre-Aryan contemplative India, and also he welcomed the joyous and positive attitude of the Aryans. In both his life and philosophy we can see this beautiful blend of the contemplative detachment of a seer and the positive acceptance of the transactional world in all its variegated richness. (20)

 

Bliss is at its summit when all traces of duality are effaced from consciousness. Experiencing nondual joy is not the rare privilege of the seers alone. God is kind and compassionate to give every sentient being a taste of nondual joy, at least for a moment when they are in the exaltation of love. (21) [The book has exultation, possibly an error – ed.]

 

 

Scott Teitsworth

rsteitsworth(at)yahoo.com