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Darsana Four - Verse Three


Maya Darsana verse 3


The non-Self is unreal, the Self is real;

thus, the means by which such knowledge comes,

that is this vidya, like the recognition

of the truth about rope and snake.


         Nataraja Guru’s translation:


“The non-Self is unreal, the Self is real”,

Thus what looms is vidya, knowledge

As the reality of the snake (appearance)

(Superimposed) on the rope-reality is understood.


         The 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.

         The 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.

         Happily, 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 with 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 were, they

That delight in knowledge.


Other, indeed, they say, than knowledge!

Other, they say, than non-knowledge!

– Thus we have heard it from the wise (ahira)

Who to us have explained It.


Knowledge and non-knowledge –

He who this pair conjointly (saha) knows,

With non-knowledge passing over death,

With knowledge wins the immortal. (v. 9-11)


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 is it 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.

   It 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 happens.


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 world 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 soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

                                                     (Sonnet VIII)


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.

         Such 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.

         As 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.

         Andy recalled fondly mantra 15 if the Isa Upanishad:


The entrance to Truth is closed with

a golden disc. That, you, O Nourisher,

open (so that I) established in Truth

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….

         Bushra 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.

         In 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 dispossession?

         We 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.

         In 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 becomes boundless;

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.

         Narayana 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 bamboo grove.


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.


         To 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.

         Deb 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 its best.

         Artistic 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.

         Andy 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.

         Deb 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 life.

         Jan 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 experience.

         And 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.

         Nitya sums up the gist of this transformative philosophy:


In the Bhagavad Gita it is said that a wise man 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.


Part II


         Swami Vidyananda’s commentary:


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. My has a bright intelligent side and a dark ignorant side, of these the bright intelligent side is here referred to as vidy or science which is the way to salvation.


*         *         *


         Deb felt this poem by Anne Carson fit well with our class discussion:


My Religion



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


that looks

from the other side

(God’s side)



but we are blind.

Our gestures are blind.


Our blind gestures continue

for some time until finally

from somewhere


on the other side of the partition there we are

looking back at them.

It is far too late.


We see how brokenly

how warily

how ill


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

and battering


to get out.

It batters my soul

with its rifle butt.


*         *         *


         Class notes on the Isavasya Upanishad, verses 9-11, from June of 2012, can be accessed here: I’ll clip in a few excerpts:


         Nestled 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.

         A 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 limited parameters.

         Jan 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.

         Susan 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.


         Ignorance 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. Ignorance and 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.


         We 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!”

         I 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 him.


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.


         The 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.


         Nitya’s 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.


Scott Teitsworth