Maya Darsana verse 3
The non-Self is unreal, the Self is real;
thus, the means by which such knowledge
that is this vidya, like the recognition
of the truth about rope and snake.
“The non-Self is unreal, the Self is real”,
Thus what looms is vidya, knowledge
As the reality of the snake (appearance)
on the rope-reality is understood.
first aspect of maya Narayana Guru addresses is vidya, knowledge. Where maya
includes both rope and snake, vidya is represented by the rope and avidya,
nescience, endlessly produces virtual snakes.
class took up two issues. Deb asked why and how does knowledge transcend death?
Later we explored the dual and conflicting definitions of knowledge we find
woven into much of Indian philosophy, even here in the Gurukula.
Jan knew the answer to the first poser, that transcending death means
transcending the oppression of the transactional. She found for us the
paragraph where Nitya mentions this explicitly:
The entire world of transaction, along
whatever is of empirical knowledge, comes under the category of the actual. To
apprehend the real, one has to transcend the transactional. Even at the
transactional level the only reality is the Self alone. In comparison to the
Self, the transactional world is unreal. Therefore “right knowledge,” mentioned
in this verse as vidya, can only be
knowledge of the Self.
This is another instance where Nitya clearly distinguishes
between the actual (transactional or horizontal) and the real (Self or
vertical). In his comments he cites three famous mantras from the Isavasya
Upanishad on how to unite knowledge and ignorance dialectically:
Into blind darkness enter they
That worship ignorance;
Into darkness greater than that, as it
That delight in knowledge.
Other, indeed, they say, than knowledge!
Other, they say, than non-knowledge!
– Thus we have heard it from the
Who to us have explained It.
Knowledge and non-knowledge –
He who this pair conjointly (saha)
With non-knowledge passing over death,
With knowledge wins the immortal. (v.
Those last two lines hold the claims Deb was asking about. A
close scrutiny helps. In his commentary on this Upanishad, Nitya defines
immortality as fearlessness, and death as submission to the constraints of
social pressures, adding:
Such continuous exposure to the
enigmas of a world governed by its rationalized irrationality continuously
brings to each member of the community the fear of their imminent extinction or
abandonment. This negative and dark side of life is here poetically alluded to
as death (mrityu). Compared to that,
going breathless and leaving the body is only a minor death.
Fortunately, Nitya spells out the antidote to socially mandated
psychological death in some detail here:
An intelligent person should ask: “What
that compels me to act?” As he seeks to understand his own state, enquiry will
disclose to him first that action is preceded by volition. Then he will see
that volition is preceded by desire, and that desire is born from the
preference for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Pleasure is a quality of
awareness that reflects the element of happiness, which in truth belongs to the
Self. If the seeker understands this, he will realize that he should turn his
attention inward into his own being to find true and lasting happiness, instead
of seeking it through the gratification of his senses in the world external to
himself. When one gains this knowledge, he naturally curtails all activities in
which he previously engaged which were born of the confusion arising from the
ignorance of his projected values. Then he is saved from the world of transient
values that the Isavasya Upanishad describes as darkness.
is for this reason that the Isavasya Upanishad says that a man who knows the
secret of ignorance will transcend death. A wise man who is initiated into the
secrets of the ultimate meaning of life and the reality of the Self should also
know how he can bring the light of his wisdom to bear on everything that
In the way I conceive of it, spiritual death is when we
become stale due to our habitual behaviors, closed off to the living flow of
the spirit. We limit the vast cosmos available to us to a prescribed series of
pitiful contractual thoughts. Nitya calls to mind the absolutely perfect sonnet
fragment from William Wordsworth, with an introductory comment:
What is termed here as ignorance is the
of transactions, where we are concerned only with the factual and objective
entities of that world. Pragmatic people who take pride in their down-to-earth
attitude miss most, if not all, of the sublime values of life. Wordsworth
complains of such people:
The world is too much with us; late and
Getting and spending, we lay waste our
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid
Without having in them an element of
transcendence, worldly transactions can become very prosaic and spiritually
unrewarding. For many people, music, poetry, and the other fine arts become
meaningful only at the level of commercial propositions.
This last statement reminded me of something I had just read
in the program notes by Elizabeth Schwartz to the Oregon Symphony performance
of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto. After arriving in Boston on his first
tour of North America, he was an instant sensation, but:
Despite his success, Rachmaninoff
heartily disliked America. In a letter to his cousin, he wrote, “In this
accursed country you’re surrounded by nothing but Americans and their
‘business,’ ‘business’ they are forever doing, clutching you from all sides and
driving you on. Everyone is nice and kind to me, but I am horribly bored by the
whole thing, and I feel that my character has been quite ruined here.” Lonely
and homesick, Rachmaninoff returned to Russia in February 1910.
Being accosted every moment by scheming hucksters is a kind
of living death. Such stampedes of desperate panic attacks are only resolved by
Self-realization, of coming to know that the source of our equanimity and
happiness lies within us already.
a blissful state is referred to poetically as immortality. Immortality happens
when we realign our conscious mind with the ever-new exuberance of our inner
currents. The instant of connection is blissful and liberating in the extreme,
William Blake’s “eternity in an hour.” It might only last a second, but its
impact never dies. For most of us it is an all-too rare occurrence, yet one
that makes all the difference. The Ramana Maharshis, Hypatias and Narayana
Gurus of this world appear to sustain the state for their entire lives, but
even mere mortals are welcome to moments of immortality.
Andy observed, we are fortunate that immortality is our native state and we
don’t have to make it happen. Rather we only have to remove the impediments
that have displaced it into the hidden depths of our being. In other words, we
don’t have to know anything about it to be it.
recalled fondly mantra 15 if the Isa Upanishad:
The entrance to Truth is closed
a golden disc. That, you, O
open (so that I) established in
and Law, may see.
The way our minds hide truth behind a compelling description
of it is another depiction of spiritual death, one which hints at why we are so
readily satisfied with ersatz reality. The images we produce to invoke the
sublime essence of our being are beautiful, and we have learned to be content
with them. Why look at the moon when we can already see it in the mirror? Now
if we can only polish the mirror so it is a bit clearer….
loves the idea of going beyond the aspect of the mind that keeps us at a
permanent peripheral level of awareness. She likes to settle into her breathing
or some other kind of inner rhythm, and then the “golden disc” of description
is stilled, revealing what is always right behind it.
what turned out to be a very fruitful interaction, we redirected our attention
to a contradictory aspect of knowledge, something Andy described as a
compelling paradox. Where the Isa Upanishad warns that to delight in knowledge
is a great darkness, Nitya comments that anyone who gains knowledge of the
Self, “is saved from the world of transient values that the Isavasya Upanishad
describes as darkness.” So what is knowledge after all—salvation or
tend to think of knowledge as being like grains of sand that accumulate to make
a beach, and the bigger the pile, the better. All through our early development
we delight in the growing pile and like to compare it to our neighbors’ piles.
This is how transactional knowledge becomes deeply embedded. But knowledge of
the Self, delightful though it is, is an all-pervasive state, not based on any
kind of accumulation. And it is called incomparable for a reason: being unique,
it cannot be compared to anything else. Plus, it’s universal.
a paean to this central notion of our study, Andy recalled verse 31 of Atmo:
Inert matter does not know;
knowledge has no thought
and does not articulate; knowing
knowledge to be all,
letting go, one’s inner state
indeed, thereafter he never
suffers confined within a body.
Knowledge and consciousness in this sense are identical. If
knowledge is all, then consciousness is preeminent. Matter is its evolute. Some
physicists are beginning to suspect this may be the next revelation of science,
though dogmatic posturing is still widely entrenched.
Guru is by no means advocating a remote and impossible state to be arduously
attained. He well knew that this wisdom pertains to our everyday lives, each
moment of which could be an immortal moment of intense connection. We are not
working hard to become something else, we are allowing our natural essence to
burst forth. Bushra likened it to a tree growing on its own, which reminded me
of another musical discovery of this week. I recently came across this by
preeminent Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu in the notes to his 1967
composition blending Japanese and Western instruments, November Steps:
3. The sounds of Western music
dispose themselves along a horizontal. The sounds of the shakuhachi occur
vertically, the way a tree grows.
4. Perhaps you have heard: The
sound which a shakuhachi master hopes to achieve in performance, the consummate
shakuhachi sound, is the sound the wind makes when it blows through a decaying
5. First of all you must listen
totally, open your ears wide to what you hear. Before long you will understand
the aspirations of the sounds themselves.
generalize these ideas, by allowing our inner dynamism a chance to spring forth
and grow in a natural way, we free our latent abilities to emerge in a most
satisfactory fashion. Happily we even shared some practical examples of how
this plays out.
and I recently attended that Rach 3 concert referenced above. The piano part
was performed by one of the greatest living pianists, Mark-Andre Hamelin.
Seemingly effortlessly, as though he was sitting on the back porch taking tea,
he blazed out the most ferociously difficult and rapid playing imaginable.
Actually, unimaginable. That inhuman ability alone overturns the theory of
mechanical impulses, because there is no way to be that subtly accurate and
hypervelosic using mere nerves and muscles. And because of his relaxed ease,
Hamelin was able to be supremely expressive and nuanced as well. It was yoga at
endeavors like this are the perfect paradox to cast ourselves into. Don Berry
used to talk about how you had to get your skills well honed, but also you got
to a point where they became your well-disciplined servants and you made the
leap into true art. Without the practiced skills, the result is usually
mediocre. Without the art, it is soulless. Effort and non-effort have to go
together, and not necessarily one before the other, but both simultaneously.
told us how D.T. Suzuki, the famous author of An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, distinguished the schools of
effort versus what he called the “sudden school,” the school of immediate
insight. Do you work hard to achieve something, or simply let it happen? Many
of us, exhausted from a lifetime of forced effort, long for ease of the sudden
school. In Vedanta these two factors are to be yogically brought together and
not viewed as mutually exclusive.
recently visited the new Afro-American Museum in Washington DC, and related how
the exhibits were mostly very depressing, filled with genocide and oppression,
but the people attending—she estimated 90% Afro-American—were inspired and
uplifted nonetheless. There was sharing and communicating going on everywhere.
A woman showed Deb the pictures she’d brought along of her ancestors. Barriers
were ignored in the excitement. The material frame was there as a kind of
stage, but the real artistic performance was in the living interactions of
people. Connecting, communicating: that’s what brings inanimate objects to
similarly recalled the amazing dioramas at New York’s Museum of Natural
History, a place many of us know. Again, the exhibits, while beautiful, are in
themselves dead and static. Everything is stuffed. It’s our own imagination
that brings them to life, making them an exciting and transformative
of course, all these things are what you make of them. If someone is prejudiced
against what they are seeing or their mind is elsewhere, they will dislike it,
not matter how wonderful another person finds it. While the environment is a
valuable staging area, the source of delight is always within. We are learning
to access it as a dynamic factor, and not so much as passive entertainment.
sums up the gist of this transformative philosophy:
In the Bhagavad Gita it is said that a
should not disturb the world, nor should he be disturbed by it. When the wisdom
of a man is sound, he lives in a state of transcendence without neglecting his
role in the world of transactions. The Isavasya Upanishad speaks of such a man
as one who becomes immortal in wisdom.
Everyone stayed a while after the closing meditation to
listen to a little of November Steps. It is utterly unexpected music, noisy and
chaotic, especially at the beginning. Since the night was getting on, no one
had the patience stay long enough to let it blow their mind, 1960s style. It’s
just as well. To each their own. It is enough to dip ones toes in at first.
That knowledge which sees things as they really are is
knowledge or science. That knowledge which makes us aware that the Self alone
exists and all else outside it does not exist is (also) knowledge or science. Màyà has a bright intelligent side and
dark ignorant side, of these the bright intelligent side is here referred to as
vidyà or science which is the way to
felt this poem by Anne Carson fit well with our class discussion:
My religion makes no sense
and does not help me
therefore I pursue it
When we see
how simple it would have been
we will thrash ourselves.
I had a vision
of all the people in the world
who are searching for God
massed in a room
on one side
of a partition
from the other side
but we are blind.
Our gestures are blind.
Our blind gestures continue
for some time until finally
on the other side of the partition there we are
looking back at them.
It is far too late.
We see how brokenly
our blind gestures
what God really wanted
(some simple thing).
The thought of it
(this simple thing)
is like a creature
let loose in a room
to get out.
It batters my soul
with its rifle butt.
notes on the Isavasya Upanishad, verses 9-11, from June of 2012, can be
accessed here: http://scottteitsworth.tripod.com/id31.html.
I’ll clip in a few excerpts:
in the exact center of the Upanishad is one of the most powerful teachings to
be found anywhere, spread over three mantras. We look forward to digging deep
into the ways we can benefit from meditating on it.
significant part of the impact comes from the gauntlet thrown at the feet of
our ego, which invariably takes delight in knowledge. Even those who denigrate
knowledge are showing off the superior knowledge they have that knowledge is
overrated. In fact, knowledge is the ego’s primary protective defense. As we
have learned, defenses constrict our world, and so are inimical to the thrust
of liberation. There is a very thin line, if any, between bondage and our
defensive fortifications. As seekers it is time to free ourselves from these
got us off on exactly the right foot, claiming that it doesn’t make sense to
equate knowledge with darkness. Don’t we strive for knowledge to set us free,
to bring us to the light? Of course we do, and the Isavasya Upanishad is not
telling us to quit. But we are instructed to change our relationship with what
we know. There is knowledge that liberates and knowledge that binds, and we
need to be clear about the difference.
sent a quote this morning from Fyodor Dostoevsky:
It seems, in fact, as though the
second half of a man’s life is made up of nothing but the habits he has accumulated
during the first half.
Sad but true. The Upanishad is
begging us to avoid the knowledge that reinforces our habits, and open
ourselves instead to the knowledge that breaks their hold on us. It’s a very
large challenge, because we like our habits very much.
and knowledge are the polarities here, and they will be resolved dialectically
in mantra 11. Notice that the Upanishad is speaking here of worshipping ignorance and delighting in knowledge.
knowledge are normal and inevitable aspects of conscious life, but when we
habitually cling to them we are not only unable to treat them dialectically, we
are sure to become stuck fast in a mental dungeon. The more we love them and
treat them as ends in themselves, the less likely it is that we will ever be
able to expand our awareness.
should be aware at the outset that the Isa Upanishad is targeting spiritual
egoism as much as anything. After all, who reads Upanishads other than seekers
of truth? A large percentage of spiritual practices are the most intractable of
traps, and the spiritual ego is the most resilient defense of all. It shouts,
“You have to love me because I’m so special!”
want to share a couple of excellent quotes that express the same sentiment as
the present mantra. From Goethe:
None are more
hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.
And from Leo Tolstoy:
The most difficult subjects can
be explained to the most slow-
witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest
thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly
persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before
In other words, once you are
convinced that you know all you need to know, you have closed and bolted the
door of your prison. A yogi must never fall into that trap. Even as we seek
certitude, we must remind ourselves that it is the seeking and not the
certitude we’re really after.
Upanishadic rishis want to help us reclaim the much larger freedom we have
abandoned in order to secure our basic needs. This entails seeing the ignorance
in knowledge and the knowledge hidden within ignorance, and letting both go.
This is not something an infant or child can do, or a young person trying to
make their way in the world. It requires some form of security and stability.
Either we can be a mendicant and minimize our needs, or like most of us have
some kind of supply line in place. Anyone who is fortunate enough to have their
needs met has the rare and exceptionally wonderful opportunity to make the leap
to the next level of human potential. That is exactly what the Upanishad is
designed to foster.
Knowledge and ignorance are two
sides of a coin we hold onto very hard. The seer transcends them by
contemplative yoga, to arrive at “immortality,” which means a liberated state
of mind. Nitya equates immortality with fearlessness in his commentary.
original genius is to associate the knowledge side of the coin with the
collective ignorance of humanity. It’s tough enough that each of us is an
ignorant soul, but then we quite naturally gather into groups like families,
tribes, nations and religions. Each of these more complex entities chooses and
enforces rules and customs, which become the narrow channels for thinking and
acting we are required to adhere to. This collective ignorance becomes exalted
as “knowledge.” It is definitely a “greater darkness” than mere individual
ignorance, because it is so pervasive we may hardly notice it, and like gravity
it pulls us back to earth whenever we try to soar high.
Okay, enough for now. It’s pretty
good reading, I must say. There’s quite a lot more, if you can bear it.