Nitya Teachings

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Darsana Four - Verse Four


Maya Darsana verse 4


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

thus, the means by which such knowledge comes,

that alone is avidya, like the erroneous cognition

about rope and snake.


Nataraja Guru’s translation:


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

Thus what looms is avidya, nescience indeed

As the erroneous cognition

As between rope and snake.


         Nestled near the middle of the book, this unassuming commentary gently suggests the entire context of the search for truth. Gurukulites are famous for being overwhelmed by all the magnificent thought-trees growing in our literature, and consequently being tongue-tied about its value as a forest. Nitya’s commentary is a depiction of the enfolding grove where all those wisdom-trees flourish, revealing their reason for being.

         Why is that we don’t see the forest for the trees? We haven’t stepped back far enough.

         Each of us proceeds from the confident conviction that the world we see is real, and the assumption serves us very well, most of the time. In ordinary circumstances, if there are such things. But when events take unexpected turns, we may find out there is an invisible skewing force at work, which can be very frustrating. We have a hard time accomplishing what we intend, because there is a gap between our vision and our realizations. While we usually blame ‘the other’ for causing this, wise yogis assure us it is a reflection of a disconnect within our own psyche, projected onto the screen of the world we live in. It brings to mind a bit of a letter to Debbie from Nitya about a mutual friend, found in Love and Blessings:


   When X says high things and does not live up to them, you should underline the value of his vision and should ask why he always fails. The answer is that he sees the vertical possibility, but he does not know how to cross over the hurdles of the gross brutality of the horizontal. There is no easy correction for this, other than going all the way through the process of destructuring the wrong mold and re-integrating the very Self that has to see its own integrated vision of itself. (379)


         The tools allotted us in the course of our education are not adequate for assessing this discrepancy between the horizontal and vertical elements, which we can sometimes think of as matter and spirit or objective and subjective. Concrete and abstract. The psyche or the Self is not an object among other objects, and does not conform to the same natural laws as matter does. If we conceive of it as a rational object, we will be impotent to interact with it successfully. Yet that is precisely what we do when we treat the non-Self as real. Nitya opens his masterful commentary by pointing this out:


The Self described in the previous verse cannot be comprehended in the same way in which objects are perceived by the senses or concepts are comprehended by the mind. In all such experiences, the agency of the I-consciousness retains its identity. This causes a very illusory separation between the I-consciousness and the object of knowledge, whether it be external or internal.


And why is it that the I-consciousness falls short of accurate interpretations of its situation? As science has now discovered, although it strikes us as all and everything, our I-sense is only a limited, though important, part of our entire mind-brain complex. It is not the Self itself, so by limiting ourselves to that arena alone, we leave out most of what makes us tick. We consign ourselves to the surface only. Nitya uses a single sentence to express this:


From childhood onwards, the personal identity of the embodied self can be recognized by its capacity to will and control all the activities that can possibly arise from the operation of the five organs of sense and the five organs of action.


So first we limit ourselves to a caricature of who we think we are, and then we assume that not only are we perfectly right, the rest of the world conforms seamlessly to our limited understanding. Often, then, in conflict situations where we should be acknowledging our limitations, we look instead for ratification of them from scripture or other dogmatic assertions propounded by people who are caught like us in a web of delusion. There is plenty of such support to choose from, and so we may wrap ourselves ever tighter in egotistical beliefs. Bill in particular liked the way Nitya puts it:


When one speaks of himself as “I,” the image he has is an amalgam of the physical body, the senses, the mind, and the I-consciousness. He takes all these to form a single identity. Every person treats another individual as having a separate identity and as being similar in all important respects to himself. Just as a man experiences himself as being real, so does he also give the quality of reality to others. The same principle is extended to inanimate objects, such as a stone or body of water, and to animate beings, such as animals or birds. Such a person does not make a distinction in his mind between the real (paramartha) and the actual (yathartha), for the simple reason that he is unable to do so. The effect of this is that the reality of the Self is erroneously attributed to the non-Self. This action will not seem unnatural to most.


Our own reality is sufficiently obvious to us, and so we project it outwards onto shaky ground. It does seem perfectly natural to us. We don’t need or want to look beneath our expectations, at least until the cognitive dissonance becomes loud enough to disturb our slumbers. Materialists are what we call those who maintain a dogged faith in physical reality, no matter how clearly both science and contemplative insight reveal its inherent vacuity. We might even say that avidya as defined here is synonymous with materialism, as Nitya knows quite well:


There are several schools of thought which do not question the reality of things as such. These include the materialists and the existentialists. At the empirical level the world is perceived according to the actions of the senses. From incoming sensory data the world is structured, restructured, and projected as though external to the individual. It is the certitude arising from the operation of his senses and the input of data which vouchsafes for the ordinary man the reality of the objects of perception.


If you can screen out the vertical, teleological aspects of life, you can squeeze yourself into a strictly horizontal vision. It’s tight, but it just might work! Doing this undoubtedly plays a role in freeing us from popular delusions in the short run, but it then should be re-expanded into a holistic, more inclusive philosophy. Subtracting inane fantasies from our outlook is just a preliminary step.

         Deb set the tone for the class, reiterating that we mistake what is “out there” for the Self. She recalled a time when she was passionate about saving the whales and dolphins, and Nitya chided her about mistaking them for her own Self. He felt she was displacing her focus outwards, when the true conflict was within. After she got over feeling miffed, she came to see how this was a repeating pattern in her life, of finding causes to focus on, usually without a lot of intensity. They were mostly superficial interests. What the Guru was suggesting was for her to turn around and look into her core, so she might find her passion. At least it’s a good place to start. Afterwards you can save the whales.

         It really is amazing that, no matter what our philosophical orientation, the mind continues to feed us a very convincing diet of apparent reality. Objects and gestalts appear utterly real, while our source of perceptiveness is unreal, or at least of secondary importance. We can doubt our veracity, but not what we’re looking at. As Bill noted, this is exactly what is meant by ignorance in the present context. Vedanta wants to turn this on its head: With all faults, we are the source and original point of departure, and the world dances to our idiosyncrasies.

         Knowing the essential unreality of our perceptions—that they are cobbled together from a welter of input and made palatable to our state of mind, no matter what it happens to be, by our brain—does not make the apparent world disappear, or even seem less real. It truly is a magic show, as Narayana Guru often refers to it, and we are easily drawn in again and again. And that’s as it should be. Who wants to live in an unreal world?

         Paul wondered if we are being invited to find a way to view the Self from a rectified version of the non-Self, and it kind of sounds that way sometimes. In mirror-polishing Zen and such approaches, or opting for sattva over rajas and tamas, there is an effort implied to cleanse the perceptions of their distortions and thereby attain the Absolute. Yoga is a bit different. Falsehood is accepted for what it is, and its limitations as well as the limitations of truth are brought together in a dialectical synthesis that is much greater than either aspect on its own. We are not plying truth against falsehood, but seeing their relationship within a total context. And yes, it is as radical as it sounds. The excerpt from Nataraja Guru in Part II is quite helpful on this subject, as is the rest of his book on Unitive Philosophy.

         Karen and Nancy presented opposite sides of the rope and snake image that Narayana Guru uses in his two verses on vidya and avidya. Yes, we are trying to see that the terrifying snake is much more like a rope, but Nancy reminded us that if we see a rope and it’s actually a snake, we may get bitten. Taken together, this is right. We are not eliminating the snake in favor of nonlethal objects, we are seeing both the original reality and what we magnify it into. Turning things into projections is how our mind-body functions, so there will always be a rope accompanied by a snake with a nodding resemblance to it.

         Wisdom helps reduce our inevitable reaction to our projections, but it’s not for everyone. Lots of people crave attention, and so telling their friends they saw a rope in the forest will not engender much excitement. But if you run screaming through town claiming you saw a snake, you will soon build an admiring crowd. The more terrible the snake, the better. The current Presidential torment in the US is a prime example. Each side is portraying the other as the most demonic creature in history, trying desperately to mobilize backing for themselves. It works, sadly. Hysteria sells; philosophy is for losers. Life is a carnival, believe it or not.

         We all are certain that we always opt for vidya over avidya, but on reflection we might not be so sure. That’s a major trick, the way we mistake one for the other, and Narayana Guru is emphasizing that here.

         The rishis and our gurus have shared with us a reasonably scientific attitude to go beneath the surface and reduce our delusions, if not eradicate them entirely. Wholesale rejection of falsehood is rather too intense for the average mortal, but we can upgrade our understanding considerably with a modicum of contemplative thought. Nitya neatly epitomizes its parameters:


The composition of the world is not so simple as we think it to be. One cannot relate to an object, another person, an event, or even a sound without being to some extent affected. The dynamics of affection surge up from the depths of an unconscious state which is the seedbed of countless incipient memories. Thus the essence of existence becomes a matter for concern, because we are not, as we usually believe, the conscious masters of our own responses to experiences. Our reactions to situations produce varying gestalts. From this it should be evident that the false identity of the I-consciousness, together with the conditioned activity of the psychophysical organism, does not leave the incoming sensory data unmodified. Each situation gains a psychic or social coloration, and thus, on the whole, life becomes a continually changing matrix made favorably or adversely meaningful by the actions of our latent tendencies.


To put it bluntly, we (mostly unconsciously) fashion the world to suit our (mostly unconscious) prejudices. If we can wrestle with this form of bondage, we can liberate ourselves to a marked degree from being hapless victims to having a meaningful role in defining our life. It might seem like pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, but those wise ones who have gone through with it stand as proof of the pudding. They radiate compassion, joy, insight, and all the rest of the finest qualities human beings are capable of, and that is why we are attracted to them and to their discipline of self-examination.

         The real tragedy is that, by assuming our version of the world is true, we adjust ourselves to it and force ourselves to become comfortable with it. Naturally, then, we resist not only the well-meaning attempts of others to help us, but routinely sabotage our own fitful attempts to break out of the morass we live in as well.

         Narayana Guru wants to encourage us regain contact with our innate flow or dharma, so that we can live our own life optimally, without being battered by conforming to external pressures. He is certainly careful to not add to the pressure, but only to extend his hand to be taken by those who are willing.

         Nitya closes with a classic image that we discussed at length:


Hope, fear, love, elation, depression, a sense of guilt or insecurity, and many other states of mind come into being as though they are alternatives between the possibilities of extreme pain on the one hand, and supreme joy on the other. This state of alternation is described in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad as being like a fish swimming in a stream, who swims from one side of the stream to the other, touching the two banks alternately. A person who is immersed in this kind of affective involvement, with both the encounters in his external world and the compositions of meaningful situations created by the fancies of his own mind, is described in this verse as a man of ignorance, or avidya.


I’ll clip in more about the fish in Part II. Nataraja Guru’s mention is particularly germane, so check it out. The original mantra explicitly defines the banks as the wakeful and dream states. In other words, they stand for the horizontal extremes, making the river’s flow the vertical aspect. The fish is of course us, and we get battered as we journey down the river. A battered fish… hmmm. Fried just right it would be delicious.

         In my understanding, the image is not as negative as it appears here. It is very natural for us to live in the horizontal and swing between waking and dreaming. The main current is in the middle. I suppose any attachment to the banks impedes our progress, so the image says to me that we should relax and go with the flow. If we ricochet off each side we will bounce over to the other, and the flow will become chaotic. We might well become battered. I always picture a lazy fish making gentle sweeps of its fins to stay in the current, which after all moves around too. The very floatiness of the water imparts a sense of ease, reminding us to relax and enjoy.

         Karen wondered if we weren’t supposed to prefer happy states over sad ones, if we were supposed to accept depression and such things as equal parts of the total situation, which is indeed on the right track: We don’t want to pit good against bad and get into endless banging against the shores on each side of the river. There is a way to accept everything, via understanding. We can reframe at least some of the negatives to be more positive, and bring relief very quickly. Bushra mentioned grief, which many people are afraid of, but if you open yourself to a grievous situation it cures you of it, where if you bury it, it lingers and cankers.

         I told of an article in the most recent Scientific American Mind (November-December 2016) about nostalgia, which I had been taught to disdain. As a child I often reveled in the bittersweet joys of longing for what was gone. It felt great! Then as a young adult surrounded by popular spirituality, I picked up that nostalgia was mere clinging to the past, which was toxic. We were supposed to stay put in the present, severing ourselves from the past. So I swept it under the rug. The article, Embrace the Nostalgia, instantly resurrected the feeling, affirming it as increasing zest for life: “this sepia-toned sentiment does not cement us in the past but actually raises our spirit and vitality.” One study collaborator calls it a “psychological immune response.” It is associated with social connectedness. So I instantly took the cement overshoes off of the emotion. I have already decided that the past and the future are only meaningful when they are present in the present, so it makes good sense to me now.

         Vedanta goes one step farther than simply repairing damaged states of mind or learning to accept them, by affirming that our true nature is extremely blissful. Being ourself is then automatically wonderful. But we have fastened all sorts of impediments onto our basic nature in the presumption that they will secure our happiness, even though they tend to diminish it in many cases. Over time we have forgotten our native bliss and substituted ersatz enjoyments that lose their savor rather quickly.

         Our work last night took us in an unexpected direction. Whether it was the intensity of the initial brainstorming or what, I don’t know. First Bill reminded us that there is a difference between happiness based on objects and bliss unfettered by specific identities, i.e. the bliss of the Absolute. Bushra added that it’s our identification with preferential states that causes the miseries we link with them. She thought that rather than willfully bumping against the shores with our identifications, we should take a more neutral witnessing position toward the fish, step back, and watch how it drifts along unconcerned.

         Andy quoted Thich Nhat Hanh (who just turned 90 this October 11), as praying, “Oh my darling. Oh my darling crisis.” Welcoming troubles is the best way to resolve them, and avoidance close to the worst. Why is it we naturally prefer option two? We have to catch ourself and turn back around. This is a hard one to learn—it must be part of the New Humanity we are trying valiantly to give birth to. Andy agreed it was utterly non-escapist to act this way.

         Jan added that an element of play helped immensely, and Deb agreed that play and laughter were wonderfully restorative. The trick is how to get there. Laughter can be defensive as well as liberating; play can be likewise. We may have to solve or resolve our problems before we can truly relish the laughter of the immortals.

         We started telling stories about how if you try to run away from your troubles they will pursue you, because they are actually attached to you, and soon we were erupting in laughter, feeling giddy. I reprised the time our dog Kutti was tied to a chair by our daughter Emily when she was about four years old. He took a carefree step and this horrible thing grinded after him. So he took off running. Emily had done this on her own, so all we knew was the dog was gone. Didn’t notice the chair missing. Emily was too young to explain what happened. We searched anxiously for two days before finding Kutti in a field where the chair had gotten stuck between two trees. It took a while before the humor of the situation sank in, but once it did it became a source of family mirth. Relief always helps. Laughter is in many ways an active form of relief.

         Paul had a collie he tied up one time with twine while the family was out at the lake. A coffee cup lid got stuck on the twine somehow, and when the dog noticed this round thing following her, she bolted. The twine was strong, but the dog was stronger. She broke free and headed for the hills at full speed. Eventually they found her hiding by the lakeshore.

         Karen did us one better with the dog stories. When her dog Mali was young, she tied her to the cooking grate of a barbeque grill. When the dog took a few steps, the barbeque naturally tipped over with a crash, and the grate came bouncing after her. Mali took off, with the grate crashing along behind, urging her to ever more desperate speed. Luckily some neighbors down the street caught her, or she might still be running.

         Hilarious, yes, but aren’t we all in a kind of similar predicament? We are invisibly tied to bulky things we don’t comprehend, and we drag them around wherever we go. Occasionally we can hear them scraping along behind our back, and we speed up to get away. It takes a powerful act of will to turn around and take a good look at what they are and see how we are tied to them.

         It was good to laugh together. Maybe every class should end in lightheadedness.

         For the closing meditation, Bill also quoted Thich Nhat Hanh: breathe in and smile. We did, and it was delightful.


Part II


         Swami Vidyananda’s commentary:


What has the form of knowledge is vidy (science) and what has the form of ignorance is avidy (nescience). That is to say, nescience is contrary to science. Patanjali has said (in the Yoga-Sutras, II.5):

What is transient (anitya), unclean (asuchi), having a seat of suffering (duhkham) and belonging to the side of the non-Self (antm) are respectively taken to be (as the opposites such as) lasting (nitya), clean (suchi), happy (sukham) and consisting of the Self (tm). Such perverted awareness is produced by nescience (avidy).

Wrong value-judgements are thus included under nescience.


*         *         *


         Okay, let’s look at that fish!

         To my surprise, I have the fourth adhyaya of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad typed up by someone long ago, which makes this easy. The mantra in question is IV.3.18:


As a large fish swims alternately to both the banks of a river, the east and the west, so does the purusha move alternately to both these states, dreaming and waking.


         Nitya says of this in part:


This mantra contains one of the most important allegories given in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. This is one of the major poetic illustrations of individual and collective consciousness which the science of psychology has ever attempted. The river spoken of here is the stream of consciousness in which the whole individual is always immersed. One may think of oneself as an organism in which there is a stream of consciousness but this is not so. The Western concept of physiology leading to psychology or psychic idealism is maintained to secure the acceptance of these fields of study within the Western notion of science. But a deeper study, such as of Pythagorean mathematics, will show that everything in this world is, so to say, pre-fabricated in tune with an all-embracing harmony of mathematics where not only melody and harmony but also changing rhythms and dissonance are part of physical chemistry, biochemistry and psychosomatic functions.




         The universal stream of consciousness is a historic fact with geographical dimensions and there is constant interaction between individuated consciousness and cosmogonic consciousness. That is the river spoken of here. It is not just the consciousness of one individual but the collective consciousness of humanity. Just as there are alternating phases in an individual’s consciousness within each twenty-four hours, there are also alternating phases in the evolution of human history.

         A fish is an aquatic animal. A river has two opposite characteristics. One is that it is made up of water which never changes its quality, H2O. At the same time, a running river is not at the same place in any two seconds. It represents the flux of becoming. Unless an object is firmly grounded in the river bed, the current of the river is sure to sweep it away. Here the river is the stream of consciousness inherent in all living beings. That special aspect of consciousness primarily has the beingness of existence (sat).

         It is also in perfect tune with the law of life which enables every living being to harmonize with the requirements of life. This is the conscient aspect of the stream. A fish does not drown if it is thrown into water. Water is both an environment as well as the inner nourishing energy of the fish. Knowledge, which is inseparable from consciousness, is eternally present in cit and therefore it has no actual birth, sustenance or death. The fish can find its level at any depth. Similarly, an idea can be a surface awareness or a subliminal principle or can lie dormant in the unconscious. It is these variegations available to cit that allow it to be the regulating principle of life.

         A living body is a self-correcting, self-mending, self-generating being. It is this aspect of the fish that we have to take seriously in the image of it swimming in a river, touching sometimes the left bank and sometimes the right. The study of the functioning of a living organism reveals an astonishing amount of polarized activity where opposite operations are placed side by side. The power to control is juxtaposed with the power to release.


*         *         *


         Nataraja Guru touches on the fish image in a section of Unitive Philosophy (p. 227-8), where he elucidates the dialectical secret of yoga. Here is his invitation into the subject:


The Self and Non-Self in Spiritual Progress


The Self and the non-Self can be treated as dialectical counterparts and both placed in one unitive context of the Absolute. Fichte, among Western philosophers, viewed these in such a perspective, although the dialectical implications of his methodology and epistemology were not quite clear.

         In Vedanta it is normal to speak of atma (Self) and anatma (non-Self) as pratiyogis (counterparts) with an intimate bipolar relation (samavaya) between them, and not merely a contiguous relationship (samyoga). These two can be looked upon as fitting into a one-to-one relationship in tensorial space, one having its locus here and the other having it in some hypostatic value-world beyond or elsewhere, such as in the orb of the sacred Sun known to the Vedas.

         The non-Self can be thought of in a more workaday sense as fitting into a horizontal world of practical values, while the purer Self with its dialectical counterparts, one ontological here and the other of a teleological or transcendental order elsewhere in the beyond or above or the ultimate or infinity, referring to vertical value worlds, could represent all values possible for the Self to be affiliated to in contemplative life. We have already explained and justified the use of these references in previous studies.

         The Self can be thought of as a big fish swimming in a stream, almost with the current and in its direction, and alternately avoiding the two banks, if we may take an analogy dear to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The coastal sides represent its limits in the horizontal axis of reference while itself and its almost motionless motion would represent the Self, whether thought of as a sphere, ellipse or the tractrix that mathematicians like Lobachewsky have suggested for the structure of space tensorially understood and independent of size.

         The Upanishads often speak of a person the size of a thumb entered into the cavity of the heart, who has his counterpart in the Sun. There is a subtle dialectical equation of these into unitive terms of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The Self and non-Self have to be fitted into a schematic structure before what we should understand as the purpose of all such scriptures can be fulfilled or justified. Such is the scope of this chapter.


Scott Teitsworth