Maya Darsana, verse 8
As ignorance of mother-of-pearl
is the basis of silver,
what is imagined in the Self –
that is known as tamas.
Nataraja Guru’s translation:
the ignorance about the mother-of-pearl
basis of the silver presentiment becomes;
too what in the Self is the basis (of the world)
is known as darkness (tamas).
events are a pressing and depressing example of how maya continually impacts
our awareness despite all our efforts to overcome it. We prefer to imagine we
have left the dark side of the psyche behind, and yet here it is again, right
in our face. As Nitya reminds us, “Consciousness alternates between the dual
states of brightness and darkness in varying intensities and combinations.” He
means everyone’s consciousness. And
the alternation is by no means random: it is more an expression of our total
state, including what we attend to and what we do not. Unless we follow some
course like what our gurus have been teaching us, we are not going to get very
far. While our selective vision picks out the bright side and adheres to it,
this is merely an indication that we are ignoring something important,
essential even, in our nature.
Pinchbeck, in his excellent book Breaking
Open the Head, expresses this concept very nicely:
Beyond early childhood, most of
us learn to keep our minds shut to the possibility that other worlds exist
beyond this seemingly solid, deterministic one that we accept as reality. We
are trained, indoctrinated, to void those aspects of our being that belong to
the realms of insight, intuition, spiritual manifestation, and dream. The
narrowed consciousness of “adulthood” is a kind of rigidly defined trance,
continually reimprinted on us by the world we have created. If we studied the matter,
we might discover that our modern presumptions of rationality rely entirely on
secondhand information, on faith in what “experts” have told us. They have no
more basis in “reality” than a vivid dream or a child’s fantasy. (217-8)
Pinchbeck comes to a conclusion that resonates with Vedanta:
Perhaps our belief systems, and
even our socially constructed personalities or egos, function like layers of
insulation that must be stripped away if we want to discover what we can
we revel in the pleasure of an insulated life so long as things go well. It is
the tragedies and reversals that prompt us to put enough energy into the
daunting task of stripping down to our essence. Here is precisely where our
preference for pleasure subverts our stated intention to become “more
affirmed that truth is not a state we just achieve and then rest in, saved
forever: life is always presenting us with new opportunities to discover it
every day. It is always tempting to think you are right, that you are in the
light of truth, but as soon as we think that we have lost our bearings.
Remember Nitya’s line from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: “one thing is sure—if
you have seen it, you have not seen it.” Deb added that what seems to be good
to us may not be, and vice versa. We always have to double check. Bushra agreed
that the unquestioning belief in the rightness of our own judgment is
the context of yet another fascist uprising bringing out the best in many
people, Bushra also wondered at how in catastrophes people are often kinder.
They help each other more, and are less cynical. I think it’s because many
people are looking for an opening to make contact with their neighbors, but the
ordinary veneer of life seems to militate against it. Deb had recently seen a
surprising study of where in the world people had the perception of others as
kindest. Number one: Somalia, number two: Sudan. Places wracked with suffering.
She noted that where there is suffering people support each other. Perhaps we
can some day find a way to do it without all the suffering?
sanely isn’t just a matter of intentionally choosing the hard route; life
provides us with plenty of opportunities. All we have to do is face them
instead of trying to hide. Yet even this attitude gets a bad press in our
ridiculously comfortable world. Not in Darsanamala, though!
talked about how what we take for silver in the mother-of-pearl of the analogy
is in reality the obscuring, deadening effects of maya. Of tamas. Instead of
seeing the intense, brilliant elf self, we project our preferences onto it.
mentioned how in other contexts Nitya talks about maya as having a freezing
quality, how it makes us rigid. We are trapped in an ongoing flow of names and
forms, which are solidified in memory. When we think there is nothing to us but
that, we get into trouble. Deb added that this was what Gayathri’s meditation
highlighted for us last week: we identify the flow of thoughts (or other
performances) as defining us, as allowing us to persist, yet that is only an
external and fluctuating level of who we are. Andy suggests a radical stilling
of the narrative flow to break free of the clinging vines of our illusions.
reminds us of what a worthwhile philosophy contributes to our natural
unfoldment in this area:
As we grow and change, we continue to
evaluations and revaluations of whatever we and the world around us consider to
be valuable. As a result, constant and sometimes radical changes occur in our
personal vision of values…. One cannot evaluate or revalue without
adopting a normative notion of fundamental values.
Ah, the normative notion! We call it truth, yet that is our
golden disk again, a satisfying term that tells us nothing. What in the world is a normative notion? Or out of this
world, for that matter? We should have a pretty good idea by now. And yet….
knows the idea bears repeating, and he does:
Most of our social norms are based on
vested interests of groups which themselves have a historical relevancy. The
light we try to derive from relativistic notions inherent in our social norms
is at best only the light of half-truths. On the other hand, the light to which
the rishis wanted to turn, to which the Buddha turned for his illumination, for
which Jesus pledged his life, and in the name of which the Prophet recorded the
immortal words of the Quran, is the pure light of the Absolute. Until our mind
is flooded with this uncompromising light of truth and justice, compassion and
love, we will not see how faulty our stand is.
It takes courage even to admit our stand may be faulty. This
is one of a guru’s most important gifts: indicating the falsehood lurking
within our own prized perspectives, the ones we tenaciously hold on to no matter
what the weather. If we respect our teachers enough, we may lower our ego to
the point where we can dare to admit the validity of what they are telling us.
was touched by the thought of being flooded with the purifying light of truth
and compassion. Moni talked in a nonspecific way about how she used to have
strong convictions that she held onto very tightly, and now she understands
that they were blocking her ability to see the rest of the world. When she
realized what she was doing, she let go, and it allowed the light to pour in.
We talked about how the light is already who we are, so we aren’t making it
happen, but only revealing it to ourselves. We are allowing it to live in our
is feeling something similar. The current disaster has called him to bring more
of his light into play in the transactional world. He is not alone. There are
millions of caring people who are realizing how much their light is needed in a
world gone mad. If those of us who have enjoyed a lifetime of basking in wisdom
and generosity can’t meaningfully contribute to the general good, our status as
a species is more dire than we have imagined.
added that this is one advantage of getting old: I have seen over and over how
my fixed ideas turned out to be ridiculous, so I don’t hold onto them as
tightly as I once did. Even the good, solid ones—there is no point in clinging
to something that we already are. I probably sound like an opinionated fool as
much as I ever did, but I’m not basing my existence so much on what I believe.
My ideas are provisional, subject to change. Evolution is the building up of
more complex ways of interpreting the world around us, so why would I think it
has stopped right where I am? I want to keep evolving, so I’m thirsty for more
awareness, especially the flood of loving compassion that is so near, so
of paradox, Narayana Guru presents us with a fascinating one in the verse text,
where the silvery luster of the shell lining represents darkness, tamas. Our darkness is not just the
absence of awareness, but where we choose to focus the light of our superficial
attention. We see brightness where there is only a satirical imitation of it.
We may get so excited about it that we become advocates for it, and before you
know it we are aggressive partisans of our preferred form of brightness.
Whenever we limit the Absolute to a narrow channel, we invite conflict: “our
shell shines brighter than your shell.” Or “My God is better than your God.”
is no value in applying this teaching to the foibles of others, as the current
political morass amply demonstrates. Our behaviors have no impact at all on the
Not-Sees taking power in the USA, but theirs have blasted our peace away. How
is that possible? We are letting them influence us from afar. We will not be
effective in mounting a corrective response unless we can hold to a balanced
mental state. It is our first task is meeting the challenge.
offers several broad examples so we can apply this teaching to our everyday
The example given in this verse is the
seen in the mother-of-pearl. The sight of the silver certainly pleases the mind
of the observer, but when light is brought to shine on the mother-of-pearl, the
silver in it vanishes. This can be very frustrating. We are exposed to such
experiences on many occasions during our lifetime. Disillusionment in matters
such as the accumulation of riches, mistaking infatuation for love, and
treating scholarship as wisdom are only a few cases which remind us how we are
deceived day after day by the veiling power of our own psychic darkness.
infatuation for love” could pretty well stand for all our superimpositions.
Usually we only find out after we attain some conquest of our infatuation that
it was a fool’s errand, a fool’s goal. Could a fool’s goal be fool’s gold, iron
pyrite? Bushra recalled digging in the sand at a beach near here with a friend,
and finding chunks of gold. They were very excited, but had some doubt that if
it really was gold people would have already dug it up. They took it to their
geology professor, who immediately identified it as fool’s gold. Yet it was
still beautiful, still looked like the real thing. Bushra knows that this is
exactly what the silver in the shell is meant to stand for.
Guru refers to the mother-of-pearl image here and there in his writings, many
of which I have collected in Part II. His main idea about it is that the most
important analogies in Vedanta depict a substantial gap between truth and falsehood,
while in this one they come very close together. They are hard to distinguish.
Nitya’s example of mistaking scholarship for wisdom is just right. Most of what
passes for wisdom is an academic recounting of secondhand opinions and
historical beliefs, with little or no transformative impulse. In fact,
transformation is intentionally left out of much psychological and
philosophical churning, in order to make it palatable to timid eaters. Non
have previously given the example of my uncle, who was very rich in dollars but
spiritually impoverished. His main drive was to accumulate more money, and it
fully occupied his attention when he wasn’t playing games. He never had to ask
himself any hard questions about his existence because adding more zeros to his
bank account was visible proof he was on the right track. I find it sad.
Whenever I reached out to him as an adult, he was cold and closed off; the
warmth I knew in him as a younger adult had gone out. If he missed it he wasn’t
about to let on.
also previously talked about the two academic conferences I was invited to,
ostensibly about sharing wisdom but mainly about free lunches and turf
guarding. My lack of social standing made it impossible for me to contribute
any insights about Narayana Guru or yoga. I felt like I was being kept out by a
defensive wall of tamas. There was plenty of recycled scholarship, but little
wisdom and no self-examination whatsoever. Well, in one there were pockets of
it, off to the side.
once again the point is to see how and where we are superimposing trivial ideas
over core values. The gurus repeatedly direct our attention to the essence as a
way to heal ourselves from the inside out. Not via the idea of essence, but as
a living source of transformation and creativity. As Andy continually reminds
us, we can’t talk our way in, or even think our way in. And yet we do enter in
with intention, else we remain in limbo. Nitya closes with another invocation
of the uncompromising light of truth and justice, compassion and love that
reveals our faulty stance:
In this context one should realize the
of truth as the most dynamic principle to dispel darkness. When we turn to God
or to a master, we are seeking light to dispel the innate darkness of maya, described
in this verse as tamas.
closed the class with a reminder that there is nothing cultish about Vedanta.
It is wholly open. Each person finds their way into truth in their own way.
Having just driven around Oregon and Northern California, there are big signs
all over that Jesus is the only way, implying that if you choose any other path
than theirs you are doomed. It’s how religions advertise, I suppose. But we are
not upholding anything specific, we are encouraging everyone in their own way
to bring more light and love and understanding to bear. God knows we all need
it. Just hearing how many formerly complacent people are stretching their wings
and contemplating using them to fly gives us hope in these dark times. Let’s
see what we—the “sentient species”—can accomplish.
Some people see
the mother-of-pearl and mistake it for silver. The reason for this error is
ignorance. In the same way, ignorance, which is the cause of the presentiment
of the world, is darkness. When the Self is properly understood we come to know
that it alone is real and the world is only a presentiment in the Self and is
unreal. Just as darkness is the cause of the error in perceiving silver in the
mother-of-pearl, so the cause of the supposition of the world in the Self is
that aspect of maya called darkness.
sent a thought for the day, related to our class:
O love, O pure deep love, be here, be now
Be all; worlds dissolve into your stainless endless
Frail living leaves burn with you brighter than cold
Make me your servant, your breath, your core.
promised, here are the references to the well-worn analogy in this verse, all
from Nataraja Guru. As they are rather dense, I have starred the ones most
Unitive Philosophy, Vedanta Revised and Restated, ch. X:
Even a modern Vedantin desiring to change the time-honoured
examples of Vedanta, such as the pot and the clay, the wave and the sea, the
snake and the rope, and the silver and the mother-of-pearl, would feel
exasperated to do without these favourite literary devices which have struck
root at the core of all Vedantic speculation.
THE MOTHER OF PEARL AND SILVER
these highly favoured examples there is a whole range of others, some more
frequently encountered. We cannot enumerate or examine all of them here, but we
shall select a few more which have structural implications particularly
interesting to us in our present study.
far the most important is the example of the shukti-rajatam (mother of pearl and silver). The calcium carbonate
of the shell is the material basis, which represents sat or reality, on which there is silver or silveriness established
or superimposed. This silver-semblance, according to modern biology, is only an
opalescent iridescence due to the polarization of light in the nacreous layer
inside the shell. We are treating the example here only as meant by Vedantins,
overlooking these scientific aspects.
We can glean the following structural peculiarities from
this one example itself:
is supposed or superimposed on a basic existent reality separable vertically
into two poles. The lower half or the minus pole is represented by the material
of the shell. The silveriness belongs to the positive pole of the vertical axis
whether it is treated as actual illusion, semblance, or half-truth, to be
valued or to be considered valueless according to the temperament of the
philosopher concerned. If other examples like that of the snake and the rope
help us initially to reject outright what is evil and implied in the visible
world, admitting full contradiction between good and evil, here these two cling
more closely and subtly together, so as to reveal thought-contradictions or different
grades of value relationships available to man in his life here.
example, moreover, happens to be unlike the example above of the rope and the
snake, and one that is equally a favourite with Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhva.
The reason is that by its very structure and actual constitution this example
lends itself admirably to be used to reveal subtle aspects of error and
judgement about appearance and reality at one stroke, instead of having to
treat them in disintegrated fashion and in separate abstruse paragraphs
referring to each of these aspects, as is more usual in verbose philosophical
arguments get clinched together into a compactly conceivable knowledge
situation by this one example.
While Ramanuja would say that the silveriness that is seen
as an actuality refers to silver present here or somewhere else in the universe
on the basis of esse est percipi,
Shankara would tend to dismiss the silver-semblance as an error of judgement
altogether, admitting full contradiction between good and bad, right and wrong,
existent and non-existent. Madhva, who is well known as an anyatha khyativadin (one who locates error elsewhere), has
brand of the theory of error, outside the five classical ones, which is called abhinava (new) anyatha-khyati.2
is not the place to enter into a full discussion of his theory of error and
right judgement. Suffice it for us to state in passing that, unlike Ramanuja,
Madhva looks at error as taking place between two ambivalent counterparts in one
and the same vertical axis. His duality resembles duality between two monads as
understood by Leibniz, where they range vertically from simple monads of the
Monad of monads through the best of all possible worlds corresponding to
values and actualities enter more into the vision of life as envisaged by
Ramanuja. Madhva prefers to sink deeper into the world of tattvas or elemental categories where his scale of values
full amplitude to swing between the poles of his svarupananda taratamya (scale of values in terms of self-bliss), by
which the holy tulsi (basil) plant
and Hari (Vishnu) as the highest Absolute, get linked vertically in living
terms for the guidance of the devout seeker of wisdom of the Absolute.
have said enough for the present to show how this example is precious to
that we want to underline here is that this example yields us a structural
basis for discussing different epistemological aspects by different Vedantins
that no other example that we can readily think of affords. Ontology,
epistemology and axiology can refer to the same content of right or wrong
judgement by virtue of this example. The value of such an example is what has
made it such a favourite with Vedantins.
*ISOA, ch. IV, Maya Darsana:
darkness here is just enough to be a kind of clear-obscure twilight
accommodating the kind of error which makes the mother-of-pearl seem like
bright silver. There is a subtler contrariety or contradiction or both, of an
epistemological order, implied in the other examples like the snake-rope
confusion involving a more basic gullibility or predisposition to error than
what is normal to a robust common sense attitude of a realist and a practical
and matter-of-fact man of the world. We have also pointed out that this whole
chapter is outside the scope of the usual Vedanta. The content of maya is not only analysed into its
components but its subtler ambiguity or ambivalence more fully revealed as a
two-sided negative and irrational factor. By introducing the concept of cidatma he gives a revised locus to the
particular kind of irrationality intended by maya. In doing this he is able to meet the objections of those who
are against the maya principle of
Shankara and accommodates their viewpoints within the scope of this or the
previous chapter avoiding all possible lacunae.
*ISOA, ch. V, Bhana Darsana:
Even the four classical examples used in
each involves two aspects of reality or truth. The examples of wave-water,
rope-snake, pot-clay and mother-of-pearl and silver are meant to be used in
different contexts where normalisation of error is intended. In the last
example of mother-of-pearl and silver, the interplay of right and wrong between
the two sides is so subtle and natural that it can be used most profitably in
explaining the need for normalising the physical and metaphysical prejudices
hindering the vision of a fully neutralised Absolute. In the snake-rope example
the frightened man suffers in a more crudely and unphilosophical form from the
conflict of the yes-no of the situation. The clay-pot example should interest
the logician who gives primacy to the material cause. The wave-water example is
the most inevitable one for Advaita Vedanta where all paradox and contradiction
are abolished by a fully verticalised view. Even the bubbles and foam in water
produced by horizontal disturbances are not admitted as having any reality
other than water. These two broad divisions in consciousness exist in Vedanta
as well as in modern thought.
*ISOA, ch VI, Karma Darsana:
silveriness of the mother-of-pearl is a mere superimposed effect and not a
basic cause. It belongs to the domain of maya
in its ultimate and positive implications. Although maya taken as a whole has a greater part of its function on the
negative side, this positive aspect is also very important. This is because maya can participate with the bright and
dark sides of reality as a basic principle of ambiguity.
The non-Self is here compared
to a silvery gleam superimposed on a mother-of-pearl.
Absolute cannot tolerate the duality of subject and object. The very fact of
being the content of a concept detracts from the reality of the Self. It is,
therefore, compared by Narayana Guru to the epiphenomenon or iridescence
imagined in a mother-of-pearl shell.
ISOA, ch. VII, Jnana Darsana
At the end of
the last chapter it was indicated that the wise man was one whose Self was
eternally lifted above all action belonging to the world of things and their
relation. It was further pointed out that such a Self was not ultimately real
but had only a superimposed status like the false lustre of a mother-of-pearl.
Instrumentalism has the end result of revealing such a hypostatic Self. In this
chapter Self-knowledge is again extolled and referred to as the means of
complete Self-absorption in the Absolute reached in the last chapter. It is
further to be noticed that awareness belongs to the context of consciousness
and it is natural to suspect that it has already been comprised within the fifth
Kumar has an important website, and has just shared an article he has written
on one of Narayana Guru’s most important disciples. Well worth a look, and
maybe it will inspire you to start your own project: http://www.sreenarayanalokam.com/guru-devotees/p_r_sreekumar.jsp