Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Nature of Reality and Unreality in the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads: Who We Really Are

Our world today is filled with strife and the options open to us for change are many.  But it seems first that before we can change what ails us in the outer world, we need to change ourselves and how we view the world.  In this quote from Albert Einstein, is a message that how we perceive ourselves in relation to one another and the world around us is no longer a private personal matter - humanity`s survival depends on it.

A human being is part of the whole called by us "universe" ... We experience ourselves, thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a prison for us, restricting us to personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.  The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self.  We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.
-  Einstein

The new manner of thinking can be found in the most ancient texts. I start with a quote in the Bhagavad Gita:

Chapter 8 The Way to Eternal Brahman
Arjuna asks:
“Tell me Krishna, what Brahman is.  What is the Atman, and what is the creative energy of Brahman? Explain the nature of this relative world and of the individual man.
Who is God who presides over action in this body, and how does He dwell here? How are you revealed at the hour of death to those whose consciousness is united with you? “

These two stanzas reveal several things about the Gita`s philosophy.  First there is the ever-creative energy of Brahman as the source of all.  Then there is the relative world and the individual person.  God is situated in the body of human beings and can be known to the consciousness of the human being – in particular at the time of death.

Krishna replies:
Brahman is that which is immutable, and independent of any cause but Itself.  When we consider Brahman as lodged within the individual being, we call Him the Atman. The creative energy of Brahman is that which causes all existences to come into being.

The nature of the relative world is mutability.  The nature of the individual man is his consciousness of ego.  I alone am God who presides over action, here in this body.

At the hour of death, when a man leaves his body, he must depart with his consciousness absorbed in me.  Then he will be united with me.  Be certain of that.  Whatever a man remembers at the last, when he is leaving his body will be realized by him in the hereafter; because that will be what his mind has most constantly dwelt on during this life.

The supreme creative energy that is the source of all is changeless and entirely self-sufficient and independent, but is within each individual person, and referred to as the Atman.  The relative world in which we live is by nature always changing.  The individual identifies with ego consciousness, but in reality, it is really God who is the power of all action within the body. Krishna goes on to give instructions on how to unite with God especially at the time of death.

All the worlds, and even the heavenly realm of Brahma, are subject to the laws of rebirth.  But for the man who comes to me, there is no returning.

In the philosophy upon which the Gita is based, all existence is cyclical.  Due to the nature of mutability of the relative created worlds, all beings that are born are subject to birth, dying and rebirth in all realms of existence.  Only reunion with the Lord can enable a person to escape the cycle. Hence, the Gita`s focus is in teaching how to achieve metaphysical reunion with the supreme and eternal Lord.

The Gita reflects the ancient Vedic philosophy. In the entire Vedic thought system, a distinction is made between the Real and the Unreal. The eternal remains always untouched, is never changing, is pure love and bliss and is the only Reality.  It is the substratum of all creation and exists simultaneously with its creation, but remains untouched by it.  It is the only Truth.  Each created being is, at its core, always united with this Reality but remains unconscious of this Truth.  Each created being can be seen as a spoke emanating from the hub of a wheel, the hub being the creative, eternal Reality. Thus, the most fundamental underlying principle to understand is the distinction made between the Real and the Unreal:

Lead me from the Unreal to the Real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

 This fundamental Vedic teaching is found throughout the Gita.  Another concept found in the Gita, also reflects Vedic thought on the nature of mind and matter and the power of Maya which hides Reality from the human consciousness.  The power of Maya to identify mind with matter, puts us to sleep and we are as if in a dream, falsely believing that what we perceive with the senses to be real. When the true Reality, which is God, is thus hidden from our understanding, we are considered ignorant.

Mind and matter, master and servant—both have existed from beginningless time.  The Maya which unites them has also existed from beginnningless time. When all three –mind, matter and Maya—are known as one with Brahman, then is it realized that the Self is infinite and has no part in action.  Then is it revealed that the Self is all.

Matter is perishable.  The Lord, the destroyer of ignorance, is imperishable, immortal.  He is the one God, the Lord of the perishable and of all souls.  By meditating on him, by identifying oneself with him, one ceases to be ignorant.

Know God, and all fetters will be loosed.  Ignorance will vanish.  Birth, death, and rebirth will be no more. Meditate upon him and transcend physical consciousness.  Thus will you reach union with the lord of the universe.  Thus will you become identified with him who is One without a second. In him all your desires will find fulfillment.

The truth is that you are always united with the Lord.  But you must know this.  Nothing further is there to know. 
Meditate, and you will realize that mind, matter and Maya (the power that unites mind and matter) are but three aspects of Brahman, the one reality.
Svetasvatara Upanishad

One of the earliest statements about mind over matter is found in this Upanishad, where it is clearly stated that mind is the master, and matter the servant. This is an empowering idea, although in the search for the ultimate Brahman, we are advised to see only that these are in union with Brahman. It explains to us why we dream, why we are asleep, why we are lost in an illusion we believe is reality but which actually enforces our sense of separateness from the unitary Reality.

When Maya dominates our mind, we identify with matter. From this identification with matter, flows our perception of a world, the world of Maya which is illusory, unreal.  It is the world of separate entities, embodied beings subject to duality – of joy and pain, pleasure and displeasure, heat and cold, youth and old age, birth and death, beginning and ending, alpha and omega.  It is the realm of Time, Creation and Destruction.  It is the ever-changing experience which is a dream, an Unreal dream and when we are wedded to this dream, we can never know true happiness.   We may find happiness temporarily but since all things inevitably change, are lost, die, we experience loss and suffering. Our forgetfulness of being always united with God is the source of our pain. 

Chapter 9 Yoga of Mysticism
Maya makes all things; what moves, what is unmoving.
O son of Kunti, that is why the world spins,
Turning the wheel through birth
And through destruction.

Fools pass blindly by the place of my dwelling
Here in the human form, and of my majesty
They know nothing at all,
Who am the Lord, their soul.

Many falsely believe that God is somehow associated with this Unreality that we perceive.  It is the nature of being asleep to disown our true Self and to refuse to accept the responsibility for our state of being.  Rather, we would like to blame God for our suffering and by so doing, our power to transcend the state of ignorance lies dormant within us, perpetuating the dream.

Chapter 5 The Yoga of Renunciation
Do not say: ` God gave us this delusion.`
You dream you are the doer,
You dream that action is done,
You dream that action bears fruit.
It is your ignorance,
It is the world’s delusion
That gives you these dreams.

The Lord is everywhere
And always perfect:
What does he care for man`s sin
Or the righteousness of man?

The Atman is the light:
The light is covered by darkness:
This darkness is delusion:
That is why we dream.

When the light of the Atman
Drives out our darkness
That light shines forth from us,
A sun in splendour,
The revealed Brahman.

This wording has often   troubled me.  Is not a good and loving God interested in the life of human beings?  For someone who is religious, who has relied on God, has turned to God for help and comfort, is it not despairing to read ``What does he care for man`s sin or the righteousness of man?`` I have checked other translations of the Gita to see how this latter section of the Gita has been translated. Arnold`s translation:

The Sovereign Self does not create for the people agency, nor does He act.  Nor does He connect works with their fruits.  It is nature that works out (these).

The All-pervading Spirit does not take on the sin or the merit of any.  Wisdom is enveloped by ignorance; thereby creatures are bewildered.

My interpretation now sees in this statement a more merciful message. The illusory characteristic of creation, is a pattern of nature.  While God may be the source of everything, He is not involved in the mechanics of the dream. We are in fact at all times rooted in God who awaits us with love, peace and bliss as our inheritance. He does not judge us for our mistakes, made out of ignorance.  Indeed, this is a statement of unconditional forgiveness and mercy freeing us from guilt.  If we are asleep, we can awaken.  The Gita is a call to wake up from our dreams, in particular, the fundamental dream that we are separate bodies, that matter is a given reality over which we have no control.  The truth is that mind governs matter when it is free from ignorance.  Mind that is harnessed has the ability to discern between the unreal and the real, leading us to experiential knowledge of our true identity, which is the eternal Brahman. In the Svetasvatara Upanishad:

Control your mind so that the Ultimate reality, the self-luminous Lord,

may be revealed. 

Strive earnestly for eternal bliss.

With the help of the mind and the intellect, keep the senses

from attaching themselves to objects of pleasure. 

They will then be purified by the light of the Inner Reality and that light will be revealed.

When that light shines forth from each of us, it will light up the world we all share.  Collectively, we will recognize our interconnectedness and the impact of our thoughts and actions on one another, on nature, on the world around us.  Knowing we are not separate, we can resist selfishness and act for the welfare of all.

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