Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

The soul as individual consciousness — Part II

P.J.Mazumdar


Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

This ‘the great Upanishad of the forest’ is considered the oldest Upanishad, and the most important. It is a part of the Yajur Veda.

The sutras of this Upanishad are very important and can be said to have authorative significance among all the other Upanishads. Some of the important sutras in the present context are:

2.3.1:

Brahman has but two forms – gross and subtle, mortal and immortal, limited and unlimited, defined and undefined.

This is the defining sutra of the Upanishads. This can be considered the most important sutra in the Upanishads for Advaita Vedanta.

Here, the ontology of the world is clearly defined. It is set forward directly as two levels of existence, the absolute, which is subtle, immortal, unlimited and undefined. At the other end is the relative, which is gross, mortal, limited and defined. All of Advaita Vedanta can be said to start off from here, from this sutra.

Here, two levels are very clearly defined. There can be no place for another level of existence, apart from the gross – the visible, experienced world, and the subtle –the root, absolute Brahman. So, no question of a soul which exists apart from either.

The subsequent sutras are also important.

2.3.2:

The gross form is that which is other than air and ether. It is mortal, it is limited, it is defined. The essence of that which is gross, mortal, limited and defined, is the sun that shines, for it is the essence of the defined.

2.3.3:

Now the subtle – it is air and ether. It is immortal, it is unlimited and it is undefined. The essence of that which is subtle, immortal, unlimited and undefined is the being that is in the sun, for that is the essence of the undefined. This is with reference to the gods.

In these two sutras, the gross and subtle in respect of the objects are defined. The ‘essence’ of all creation is taken to be the sun, the chief of all that is external. Here in the sun it is said, there are two levels of existence, the gross form, the sun itself, which as before is called limited, defined and mortal. Behind this is the ‘being that is in the sun’, which is subtle, immortal, unlimited and undefined. This being within the sun is the absolute Brahman itself, as we know from the first sutra. Brahman is the support of all objects and is inherent in all objects, hence the absolute Brahman is called the ‘being within the sun’. So, in respect of the objects, the two levels are defined clearly again.

Now, in respect of the human body:

2.3.4:

Now, with reference to the body: the gross form is this – which is other than the corporeal air and the ether that is in the body. It is mortal, it is limited and defined. The essence of that which is gross, mortal, limited and defined is the eye, for it is the essence of the defined.

2.3.5:

Now the subtle – it is the corporeal air and ether that is in the body. It is immortal, it is unlimited and it is undefined. The essence of that which is subtle, immortal, unlimited and undefined is this being that is in the right eye, for this is the essence of the undefined.

In these two sutras, the two levels are defined in relation to the human body. The essence of the gross form here is described as the eye. The eye is not just a physical organ but also a ‘indriya’, a sense organ and part of the consciousness, our ‘antahkarna’. Hence the eye is the essence of the body-mind. The body–mind is called mortal, defined, etc. behind this is the ‘being that is in the right eye&rsquo, the absolute Brahman. Brahman is the support of our body and mind, hence it is the Brahman itself which is inside us as our support.

Some points to be noted here are that Brahman is compared to air and ether, possibly because they are both non–material, at least in the eyes of the Upanishadic seers. Again, why the text should describe it as being behind the right eye and not the left, are points which cannot be understood today as we are divorced from the cultural context in which these sutras were written, possibly there was some traditional context behind such terms. Such historical contexts which are not comprehensible today are quite common of course, and we need not do a lot of hair splitting over these, sticking instead to the essence of the sutras.

So in these five very important sutras, we find the whole of the Advaita philosophy laid out clearly. The definition of Brahman as having two levels of existence, the gross and the subtle, the gross defined as the limited, mortal, defined, the subtle defined as the immortal, unlimited, undefined – all the framework of the Advaita philosophy is spelled out here clearly.

Sankaracharya also was quite enthusiastic in his commentary on these sutras and gives a lengthy commentary. He is also quite clear that only two levels are defined here and there is no third entity. He says, moreover, the expression, ‘brahman has but two forms’ does not agree with the view that posits ‘three entities’ and then goes on to give the various definitions which support three levels and contradicts them all.

The next sutra gives a very important definition of Brahman:

2.3.6:

The form of that being is as follows: like cloth dyed with turmeric, or like grey sheep’s wool, or like the scarlet insect called Indragopa, or like a tongue of fire, or like a white lotus, or like a flash of lightning. Now, therefore, the description of Brahman: ‘not this, not this’. Because there is no other and more appropriate description than this ‘not this’. Now its name, ‘the Truth of truth’. The vital force is truth, and It is the Truth of that.

Here, the meaning is, the ‘form’ of that being, when the subtle Brahman is in the right eye, is that is like cloth dyed with turmeric, that is, it is colored by the impressions of the mind, or like a tongue of fire, etc. All this means that when the absolute Brahman is within our consciousness, the gross form, it appears to be colored by the impressions of the mind.

But this is not true, Brahman is neti, neti, this is the only possible description. The import is, that though Brahman is the support of our consciousness, and also all of the gross forms, it itself is not at all affected or ‘colored’ by these gross forms and remains undefined, ‘neti’. Here for the first time, we see this important description of Brahman, ‘Neti, neti’.

2.4.12:

As a lump of salt dropped into water dissolves with its component water, and no one is able to pick it up, but from wheresoever one takes it, it tastes salt, even so my dear, this great, endless, infinite Reality, is but Pure Intelligence. The self comes out as a separate entity from these elements, and this separateness is destroyed with them. After attaining this oneness, it has no more consciousness. This is what I say, my dear. Thus said Yajnavalkya.

Here, we find Brahman described as intelligence, the ‘information field’, or ‘consciousness field’. The word used here is ‘vigyan’. From this consciousness field, our individual consciousness comes out as a separate entity and then merges back into it. When we attain mysctical union also, we lose our consciousness, that is, our individual consciousness, and merge into the sea of consciousness.

2.5.19:

...This self, the perceiver of everything, is Brahman...

Here, the self is described as the ‘perceiver of everything’, which translates readily into the self being consciousness. Here, the word for self is ‘atman’, the ‘sarva anubhuteh’, meaning the experiencer or perceiver of all. Here, we may well say that the atman is something different, the perceiver, and not consciousness. But as we can see, defining atman as consciousness works just as well.

This is so for most other sutras where it is commonly understood that the self as a separate entity is being described. On going through the sutra itself, we find that it can also as readily be understood as describing the self as consciousness.

Another example of this is this sutra:

3.4.2:

‘...Explain to me the brahman that is immediate and direct –the self that is within all’. ‘This is your self that is within all’. ‘Which is it, Yajnakavalya?&rsquot; ‘You cannot see that which is the witness of vision; you cannot hear that which is the hearer of hearing; you cannot think that which is the thinker of thought; you cannot know that which is the knower of knowledge. This is the Self which is within all, everything else but this is perishable’.

Here also, we may say at the first reading that an individual soul apart from the consciousness is described, and it is this soul which is the hearer of hearing, thinker of thought, etc. but this is not so. The immediate Brahman, the self which is within us all, is the absolute Brahman itself, and there is no third entity between our consciousness and Brahman.

The questioner here asks Yajnakavalya, the learned rishi, explain to me the immediate Brahman, the Brahman that is directly within us. Yajnakavalya then goes on to explain this. The argument is that vision, thoughts, etc. constitute our consciousness, but beyond that is the immediate Brahman, which supports this. It is this Brahman as the support which gives us the ability to have vision, think, etc.

But by describing the ‘self within all’ as imperishable, the Upanishads show that the self here means the absolute Brahman itself, and it is described as the witness of vision, thinker of thought, etc. only because it is ultimately the basis of all vision, thought, etc. and not because it actually is doing the seeing, thinking, etc. There is nothing posited in between. There is no third entity. At the gross level, there is thinking, hearing, etc which constitutes our consciousness. and at the subtle level, there is the absolute Brahman, the imperishable.

Sankaracharya says in his commentary of the last lines, ‘everything else but this self, whether it is the gross body (here he means the material body) or the subtle body consisting of the organs (here he means the mind) is perishable. This only is imperishable, changeless’.

3.7.23:

..He is never seen, but is the Witness; He is never heard, but is the Hearer; He is never thought, but is the Thinker; He is never known, but is the Knower. There is no other Witness but Him, no other Knower but Him. He is the internal Ruler, your own immortal self. Everything else but Him is mortal...

Here also, the Internal Ruler, our own immortal self, is quite clearly the absolute Brahman and there is no other entity as our self.

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