Asatya Darsana introduction
A Vision of Nonexistence
introduction to our next darsana reviews some key ideas that are often not
given their proper weight in popular spirituality or science. It’s an important
read in order to be better prepared for what lies ahead.
first discussed something Nitya did not, probably because for him it is old
hat: what exactly does non-existence mean? From our modern perspective, it is
absurd to affirm that all of what we perceive and conceive does not exist. But
to a Vedantin there is an important difference highlighted by the term. Deb and
Moni knew what it was: only what is eternal has absolute reality, and anything
that comes and goes has only a temporary reality, or what we will be calling
actuality. This distinction is one of the main building blocks of a spiritual
orientation. Fixating on the reality of the transient impedes our view of its
lasting underpinning. We are being invited, not so much to disparage the world
show, but to access another level, the one that imparts its brilliance to the
show, that gives it life.
too often in worshipping the underlying unity, people feel compelled to disdain
the transient. In the Gurukula’s wise accounting, the unity is meant to
infinitely enhance the days of our lives, not supplant them with an
abstraction. Darsanamala is the place Nitya inaugurated a distinction between
reality and actuality, so that the “non-existent” could be described as actual in place of unreal.
It’s a very significant upgrade. First, here, he points out
the fragility of the idea of reality:
“Reality” is a term which
is not used in quite
the same sense by everybody. A religious person is likely to say that his
particular scripture expresses all that can be known of what is real. But a physicist
may be slightly amused by the same scripture, while a professed atheist might
be outraged. For many people reality is what they see.
Then, in the seventh darsana, the Jnana Darsana, verse 5,
Nitya sets down the critical distinction:
Usually we consider the word ‘real’
synonymous with the word ‘actual’. In the present darsana Narayana Guru makes a
distinction between atmajnanam,
knowledge of the Self, and vastu vijnanam,
knowledge of things.
the Random House Dictionary the word ‘actual’ is given these meanings:
in act or fact;
at present; current; real as of now;
to or involving acts or action.
The corresponding Sanskrit term is yathartha,
which means ‘conforming to
the true meaning of the word’. The truth that is referred to here is of an
empirical order. Such truth as this is to be contrasted with absolute truth.
Absolute truth in Sanskrit is called paramartha.
We would very much like to use the English word ‘real’ to mean absolute truth,
in contradistinction to the word ‘actual’. Such a concept is not attached to
the word ‘real’ by lexicographers. However, in the present study we intend to
attach that concept to the word so that the reader will always distinguish the
real from the actual.
Nancy affirmed that everything we experience is comprehended
in terms of memory, and that memory aspect is an existent entity even if it
isn’t physical. It certainly affects what we do as we go through our life. I
added that the point of the efforts we are being called to make on our own
behalf is to not be dominated by oppressive memories that bog us down and make
us ineffective. We are meant to meet the present in a fresh way that is not so
dominated by the past.
also noted how she can look at pictures of her forebears and get a sense of a
persisting reality she shares with them. Although they look very different and
live in different time periods, she feels a kinship with them that transcends
the externalities they each are clothed in. This imparts in her a sense of
eternal reality behind the transient.
glib belief that we should discard all our memories to be emptily available in
the present is a recipe for zombiehood. We want to have a measure of
independence from conditioning, but are pleased to remain unique by not
dissolving in an undifferentiated stew. This philosophy is not about
subtracting all our individuality to live up to some abstract ideal. That may
happen at death, but what’s the rush? Nitya gives memory its due here:
A continuous stream of memories is always
passing through a person’s awareness. Many of them go unnoticed, while some are
recognized, a few are relived, and some are critically reviewed to assess their
affective connotation. This is happening all the time, except when we are in deep
sleep, although deep sleep is also a functional state of mind. We have an
extensive dependence on our past memories for both the purpose of reasoning and
of responding to sensory stimulation. Memory gives the right bearing to every
passing thought or sensation so that it finds its appropriate place in the
structuring of a meaningful situation. Again, it is the value implied in the
associated memories of the past which goes a long way toward making a person
decide one way or the other in determining a course of action. In short, memory
is associated with reasoning, feeling, and willing.
poet W.S. Merwin, in a recent video biography, states that we live all the time
in the past, shrouded in memory. Momentary glimpses of the present are very
rare. He’s right. What we perceive looks like the present, but it is
tape-delayed, replayed after the fact. Plus, the impact of memory processing
adds additional delays and distortions. The creative artistic moment properly
invoked can break into the present at any instant, with memorable results. You
may have read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, where Ken
Kesey’s Merry Pranksters took lots of drugs and tried desperately to speed up
enough to catch the present, but always lagged just an instant behind. Powerful
motorcycles don’t go near fast enough. Perhaps the speed of light might do it.
Much of psychedelic experience is advanced memory processing and repair, but
the breakthrough moments are glimpses of an unalloyed immediate reality, always
unfamiliar because it is unclouded by any memory. The Merwin bio, one of the
best of its genre, superbly inspiring, can be accessed here: http://www.thirteen.org/programs/w-s-merwin-to-plant-a-tree/. In keeping with the poetic muse,
the fabulous poem Deb read out from Jim Harrison will be placed in Part II.
the Asatya Darsana deals with tamas in depth, Nitya addresses it here. Susan
was pleased to read about the good side of tamas, so often disparaged in the
popular imagination. Sattva, rajas and tamas, the three gunas, are often taken
to stand for good, mediocre and bad, respectively. The Bhagavad Gita laid that
to rest some time ago, but humanity is slow to catch on. A trite cliché will
often beat out a philosophical insight. Against this tide, Nitya often extolled
the positive value of tamas.
liked how tamas provides a protective cover so you only have to deal with one
thing at a time, and also hardly notice when you move on to the next. Otherwise
we’d be perennially confused, with multiple thoughts piling on top of each
other. Moni added that tamas slows things down for us, and Deb added that it
allows you to concentrate. We have talked about it lots in the past, so we’ll leave
it at that. The bottom line is that, while many people say things like “we
should try to be more sattvic,” the truth is that all three gunas are part of a
balanced and healthy mentality.
preparation for Narayana Guru’s Asatya Darsana, however, Nitya brings out a
subtle negativity about tamas:
are shielded and preserved by tamas.
This close association of tamas with memory shows a near identity of incipient
memories with ignorance. Incipient memories are called vasanas, and ignorance is called
avidya. In both the systems of Vedanta and Yoga, vasana and avidya are
sometimes treated as interchangeable terms.
If your search is for total rejection of your life and its
world, then this can be an appealing formula. Most of us are not interested in
anything that extreme, however. We merely want to foster our positive vasanas
(potentials) while weeding out the negative ones. Nitya is right that vasana
and avidya—genetic inheritance and ignorance—are ultimately related, as
Narayana Guru will instruct. But remember that ignorance is like non-existence.
It is not a monolithic negative, it is the natural outcome of being alive. It’s
okay. It is actual if not real. So it isn’t a matter of escaping from
ignorance: it is our native state. This would be a good answer to the question
once universally asked in India of foreigners: “what is your native place?”
Ignorance, of course. I live there all the time.
ignorance just compounds our ignorance. Try accepting ignorance instead. It
actually works very well. Humbling and opening.
any philosophy there are subtle contradictions for us to contend with, and this
is one of those places. For the most part Nitya advocated for the spectacularly
liberal and open attitude of the Gurukula, but occasionally the more
conservative background that permeates much of India creeps in virtually
unnoticed. We can see how over time this was thoroughly weeded out, but at this
stage there are still some vestiges.
basic assumptions are really just like the ocean to a fish: an environment so
omnipresent as to be taken for granted. Learning to notice the shape of our
thinking so we can eliminate its distortions makes for a good exercise. That’s
where we’re headed in this darsana especially, and in the whole work as well.
is an example of subtle contradiction right here in the Introduction. It begins
with Nitya’s excellent comparison regarding the unknown:
In religion, most of the inexplicable
are relegated to the domain of God. Scientists use the blanket term “nature” to
cover up most of their ignorance. The most convenient term that has come to the
psychologist to explain all such phenomena is “the unconscious.” Memories are
said to be residing in the unconscious when they are not required. On recalling
them, they show up from the depths of the unconscious.
He goes on
with an amusing affirmation:
However, there is a disadvantage in accepting
this theory of the unconscious. The only instrument which can make any kind of
probe in any realm is the conscious mind. The unconscious, by the very
definition of that term, should be beyond the reach of consciousness. This
being the case, it looks ridiculous for anyone to claim that they have an
insight into the structural details of the unconscious.
This always brings a laugh, because it neatly torpedoes some
of the fantasizing of the ego about its capacity. Yet, as the class eloquently
maintained, the essence of the spiritual search is making the unknown known.
Evolution is the process of incorporating what we don’t have into what we do.
Nitya himself says this later in the essay:
In our search for a starting
point, or some fundamental principle on which we can have a firm footing, we
shall have to take the risk of making a plunge into the unknown. From the
darkness of the unknown and from the mystery of the unconscious will arise our
first glimpse of the intimation of an awareness. However intangible the origin
of this awareness is, we should step onto it as the alpha point of our search.
chortled, “Isn’t that the point of meditation? To invite the unknown parts of
us into our life?” Yes, of course. The aim of our efforts is to minimize the
impediments we (for the most part unconsciously) put up to promoting our best
abilities, namely creativity, compassion, listening, making progress, and all
it amounts to is that our memories pile up and take over from any unfettered
perception of the present moment we might otherwise have. After a while the
infusion of new growth via inspiration is brought to a halt, and we replay the
same familiar scenarios over and over, even if they are painfully constraining.
The fearful mind always wonders what woes the unknown may intend to add to our
state of mind. It is a significant achievement to attain an optimistic attitude
about our inner being so that we can welcome its input instead of shutting it
out. The accomplishment is made even more challenging by the negative
pronouncements of unenlightened social and religious proponents.
recounting the morose negativity at the basis of several prominent religions,
Nitya offers the contrast of Narayana Guru’s philosophy:
Darsanamala, Narayana Guru is not much interested in the analysis of man’s
woeful condition of ignorance. He is interested in imparting a positive
discipline called atmavidya – a
Sanskrit term meaning “knowledge of the atma
or Self.” It is only through the acquisition of true knowledge that man can be
freed from what he sees as nauseating or sorrowful conditions which are bound
to arise during the span of his conscious life on earth. Atmavidya is a discipline of understanding evolved by seers
period of thousands of years, and they have found it to be effective in
releasing individuals from the negative conditions arising from ignorance.
When we get
bogged down in memories and social constraints, our own personal being is
suppressed, which leads to depression, malaise, and the inability to accomplish
much of interest. Our inner being is always trying to find ways to be expressed,
and if we don’t permit it, we suffer. Deb and Jan told of how nothing more than
performing some simple task and bringing it to completion felt terrific. Of
course all such actions are temporary, but therein lies their beauty as well.
Nancy summed up that each day is an opportunity for us to express ourselves,
and these studies help her foster that healthy attitude. Once we realize that
all transient expression floats on the solid reality of the Absolute, we can
take joy in everything.
Nitya invites us to
looming up in the next stage of our study:
Narayana Guru, in the third darsana of the present
work, places before us a
number of examples to make us familiar with all the implications of what he
calls darkness and ignorance, that is, tamas
and avidya. The examples given in the
darsana are to be seriously meditated upon. In order to be able to decipher the
subtleties of the differences given in each analogy, we must continuously
remember that this is not a safe ground for us to engage in fanciful
speculation. Holding fast to the Guru’s hand, we must go step by step into the
interior castle of our realization.
Once again I invite everyone to come up with examples, and
please share them if you dare. Because of our native ignorance, each of us may
only be able to think of a couple of examples. If we pool our insights, the
potential benefit will be much greater.
read out Jim Harrison’s last poem in his last book. (He died in March):
Most of my life was spent
building a bridge out over the sea
though the sea was too wide.
I’m proud of the bridge
hanging in pure sea air. Machado
came for a visit and we sat on the
end of the bridge, which was his idea.
Now that I’m old the work goes slowly.
Ever nearer death, I like it out here
high above the sea bundled
up for the arctic storms of late fall,
the resounding crash and moan of the sea,
the hundred-foot depth of the green troughs.
Sometimes the sea roars and howls like
the animal it is, a continent wide and alive.
What beauty in this the darkest music
over which you can hear the lightest music of human
behavior, the tender connection between men and galaxies.
So I sit on the edge, wagging my feet above
the abyss. Tonight the moon will be in my lap.
This is my job, to study the universe
from my bridge. I have the sky, the sea, the faint
green streak of Canadian forest on the far shore.
—Jim Harrison, from Dead
Man’s Float, 2016
Harrison appeared again in today’s Writer’s Almanac, sent
along by Nancy Y:
We live far out in the country where I hear
creature voices night and day.
Like us they are talking about their lives
on this brief visit to earth.
In truth each day is a universe in which
we are tangled in the light of stars.
contributed a version of the diagram from the Introduction I could copy:
wrote about the diagram:
The positive and negative words could lead people to think
this is the bad / good theme.
It is the magnetics or electro-magnetism of the
It is showing the opposites that exist in the universe, but
one is consciousness / negative magnetism and materiality / positive magnetism.
It does not presuppose bad and good, that is a discussion all its own -
although it does fit into the magnetics of the universe as described in
The concept is deep.
from Nevada sent some diagrams of his own. When I asked him about their
provenance, he wrote, “These are some of my personal notes from the last two
years. I am always happy to find other quadratic diagrams, but these are
entirely original.” I’ve been forced to load them in reverse order, but I don’t
think that’s important, as they’re not specifically related to each other. You
should be able to zoom and make them more readable.
The Above is Waves
The Below is Particles
The Within (Left) is Imaginal-Subtle
The Without (Right) is Real-Gross
Harrison struck a nerve. Deb read me the epigram of Harrison’s In Search of Small Gods. They are
possibly Antonio Machado’s best known lines. So perfect:
Walker, your footsteps
are the road, and nothing more.
Walker, there is no road,
the road is
made by walking.
Walking you make the road,
and turning to look behind
you see the path you never
again will step upon.
Walker, there is no road,
only foam trails on the sea.
Goodreads has it this way—I prefer wanderer to walker, but
also foam trails over wakes, so you can split the difference:
Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes
the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod
again. Wanderer, there is no road— Only wakes upon the sea.
Then Paisley wrote:
I'm reading Dead Mans Float [the name of Harrison’s last
book] too. I also went over In Search of Small Gods and it's now on my top 10
I've been carrying this one around in my pocket.
This small liquid mouth in the forest
is called a spring but it's really
a liquid mouth that keeps all the secrets
of what has happened here, speaking in the unparsed
language of water, how the sky was once closer
and a fragment of a burnt-out star boiled its water.
This liquid mouth has been here since the glaciers
and has seen a few creatures die with its billions
of moving eyes-- an ancient bear going bald who went to
and never knew that it died, an Indian woman
who plunged in her fevered face, deciding to breathe
the water. Since it is a god there is a delight
in becoming unfrozen in Spring, to see the coyote
jump five feet in the air to catch a lowly mouse
or to reflect a hundred thousand bright moons.
To sleep under a deep mantle of snow or feel
the noses of many creatures who came to drink,
even the man who sits on the forest floor, enjoying
the purity of this language he hopes to learn someday.