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Darsana Four - Verse Eight


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:


As the ignorance about the mother-of-pearl

The basis of the silver presentiment becomes;

So too what in the Self is the basis (of the world)

That is known as darkness (tamas).


         Current 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.

         Daniel 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 become. (257)


         Paradoxically, 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 spiritual.”

         Bushra 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 hazardous.

         In 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?

         Growing 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!

         Deb 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.

         Andy 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.

         Nitya reminds us of what a worthwhile philosophy contributes to our natural unfoldment in this area:


As we grow and change, we continue to make 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….

         Nitya knows the idea bears repeating, and he does:


Most of our social norms are based on the 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.

         Everyone 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 awareness.

         Bill 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.

         I 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 immanent.

         Speaking 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.”

         There 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.

         Nitya offers several broad examples so we can apply this teaching to our everyday lives:


The example given in this verse is the silver 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.


“Mistaking 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.

         Nataraja 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 threatening.

         I 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.

         I’ve 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.

         So 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 efficacy 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.


         I 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.


Part II


         Swami Vidyananada’s commentary:


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.


*         *         *


         Bill 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 radiance,

Frail living leaves burn with you brighter than cold stars:

Make me your servant, your breath, your core.



*         *         *


         As 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 helpful:


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.



         Besides 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.

         By 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:

         Appearance 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.

         This 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 treatises.

         Many 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 his own brand of the theory of error, outside the five classical ones, which is called abhinava (new) anyatha-khyati.2

         This 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 actuality.

         Horizontal 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 can find 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.

         We have said enough for the present to show how this example is precious to Vedanta.

         All 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:


The 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 Vedanta 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:


The 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.


The 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 chapter.


*         *         *


         Sri 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:


Scott Teitsworth