Light of lights
Light illumines manifold objects in varying degrees of darkness; that is its property. Sources of such light may be external or internal to us. Examples of the former class are well known, such as Sun, moon, fire, various kinds of lamps etc; The latter class, the internal, would be the psychic apparatus of man, comprising the sense organs, intelligence, intuition and above all the transcendental ‘Oversoul’ of R W Emerson the American philosopher. Vedanta too subscribes to such a transcendental super-conscious entity, illumining all, comprehending all and all-encompassing supreme brahman. Flashes of intuition reveal discoveries which remain obscure prior to such overpowering experiences. Archemedis, crying out 'eureka – eureka’ and Newton, when the apple fell and the law of gravitation revealed are instances of such intuitions . A deeper mental cloud prevents one from knowing who one exactly is in the ultimate analysis.
There is, in greek mythology, a river named 'lethe' whose waters, when drunk, would make the drinker profoundly forgetful.. One would forget, who one was, the 'whence and wherefore' of one's own very self. A great philosopher likened our human predicament, to such a state of congenital amnesia, in which we lost our moorings- our "original innocence" as it were. Nescience is the technical term used for this state of primordial ignorance, which is said to to cover one's wisdom, 'like smoke shrouds the fire or as dust sullies a mirror or as the womb envelops an embryo' as th bhagavadgiitaa puts it. This is the ultimate darkness which needs for its dispelling, no less a light than that of the ‘Lord’, quoted in the gItA chapterXI-12 ever so stunningly - "if the light of a thousand suns were to blaze forth in the sky all at once, that might resemble the splendoour of that exalted Being" - nothing short of an 'apocalypse', as it were, a revelation, of something not previously known or realized. Oppenheimer, the nuclear physicist, whose name is associated with the first atom bomb and who was a witness to its detonation.was so awe-struck at the sight that this line of the gItA chapter XI-32 flamed in his mind " I am the full blown, the all-destroying Time ". It was an indubitable intimation from the depths of his being and not much later, his intuitive insight was proved right, by the nuclear holocaust, the mayhem and the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki- it was cataclysmic in proportion
To Sankara, that transcendental spiritual genius, is ascribed a one-stanza poem, by name, 'ekashlokI'. In it, is encapsulated the pith, the quintessence of the celebrated "mahAvAkya's or the four great vedic statements, called as such in the advaita vedanta. They are culled one from each of the four vedas those statements or rather 'truths' are
a) " praGYAnam brahma, (RRigveda) pristine consciousness is Brahman.
b) ayam aatmaa brahma (atharva veda) - consciousness in all its apparent transformations is Brahman,
c) "tat tvam asi” (saamaveda)- You are, in essence, that consciousness, the eternal- nitya, the unsullied- shuddha, the fully awakened- buddha, and unfettered - mukta ; the corollary follows that you are not the ignorant embodied jiiva, which you imagine you are.
d) ("aham brahma asmi " (yajurveda) I am indeed that all-encompassing consciousness
It is with considerable trepidation that I have dared to translate the ‘mahaavaakya’s for fear that they may suffer the 'noble transmutation from gold to lead', in the process.
The order in which they are recounted here is not the temporal order in which they occur in the veda but they seem, to me, to be the order adopted by sankara in this small ‘upadesha’ work, namely, the ekashlokii ’ As will become clear in the sequel, what is attempted here is not a word-for-word translation of the Sanskrit texts, not even a paraphrase but rather an unfolding of the traditional thought couched in the highly compressed poem
Before reproducing the sanskrit verse, a short anecdotal account of the poignant scenario in which it is set, would be well in order, One might be tempted to ask 'why only one verse-an 'ekashlokI? Had not Sankara composed his shatashlokI of hundred verses and his upadesha sAhasrI of thousand teachings ? Afterall, what were the extenuating circumstances? As though in answer to such questions, a story is recounted thus: Sankara, on one of his peregrinations, chanced upon a spiritual aspirant who was in the throes of death. bemoaning his fate of his having ro die before he could get his 'beatitude'. The compassionate master had empathy with the man's plight and knowing well the shruti declaration that "he who departs from this world without realising the ‘axara', the Imperishable entity, is a veritable wretch- a ‘kRRipaNa", the master devised for him the shortest discourse and the 'ekashlokI was the result. The verse was composed in a frisky meter named 'shArdUla vikrIditam' which has four quarters of 19 syllables each, to enable him to pack all the punch at his command, in a single stanza. This imaginative story illustrates the truth that, when an exceptional master and a pupil desperately thirsting for the 'saving wisdom' come together, spiritual enlightenment can not be far behind.
The poem runs as follows :-
Unless the composition is split up at the right places, it would seem baffling at the first sight, to a beginner. The piece is in the form of a catechism or what in modern pedagogy would be called a 'one on one' interactive session. There are five question-answer pairs, one affirmation and one authoritative live-wire exhortation of the teacher and a final total concurrence, by the disciple, after his instant transformation. We shall now proceed with what may, euphemistically, be termed an exegesis of the verse. As will be seen in the sequel, what is attempted here is not a word-to-word rendering in to English, nor even a mere paraphrasing of the work; it is rather an attempt to enter in to, and to bring out the traditional import of this vedantic composition, ro the extent my limited faculties permit. Much pertinent digression from the text has been indulged in, in the exposition.
The break- up of the verse, is as follows :-
Q 1 :kim jyotih tava ? – what is your illuminator? By this question, the teacher is trying to ascertain a ‘baseline’, as it were, of the pupil’s understanding so as to lead him thence to higher levels. This was a well established methodology of spiritual instruction in the days of yore. It may be noted here that the question is a general one with no adjuncts of time or place specified. The student however thinks the question pertains to daytime and to things within his visual range.
A: bhhaanumaan ahani me – The daylight of the Sun sir. This answer establishes that the seeker has his vision riveted on the external objects – the out-gooing vision, the so called ‘paraak pasyati’ concept of the kaThopaniShad
Q 2 : raatrau ? what after Sun-down ? what illumines then ?
A: pradiipa aadikam- light of the various kinds of lamps which includes illumination from the moonlight, bonfires, lighted torches et cetera; it may be noted that the field being covered is still the outer world.
Affirmation : syaad evam. rightly so my dear; here the guru seems to be saying to hijself “ Oh my! your answers are correct as far as they go; but they do not go very far. Here is the next question:
Q 3 ravi diipa darshana vidhau kim jyotih ? Akhyaahi me – Now tell me what enables you to visualize the objects so illumined by the Sun, the lamps etc.Here the preceptor is shifting focus from the outer to the inner world of the mind. Even the sun, the lamps etc. stand in the relation of visible objects to the perceiving eye.
A: caxuH- “My eye, sir, is the perceiving light in this context” Now the student is made to understand the eye as the window to to his inner cognitive apparatus – the mind.
Q4 : tasya nimiilana adi samaye ? If your eyes are shut, what then? The reasons for the shut-down may be many; one may choose to turn a blind eye like Nelson or to give a more noble example, one may actually be blind like Helen Keler. ‘ The word aadi’ in the Sanskrit original in the above question may include a legion instances The guru is taking the student in to deeper waters here, to turning his mind’s eye inward and enable him to watch the gyrations of his own mind
A: dhiiH, sir, it is my intellect that provides me the illumination necessary for my purposes, I can think thoughts that would navigate the scenes for mee
Q 5: dhiyaH darshane (kim) ? you are right again my son! But thought is like a spring or a fountain. There must be some faculty to get to its mainspring- its source as it were What ultimate light is it that stands as a ‘witness’ or ‘sAxI’ as it is technically termed, to your cognitive equipment?
A: ‘tatra aham ’ sir, Shorn of the baggage of all acquired accretions, appurtenances and appearances - in short, of all objective superimpositions I stand in all my majestic aloofness, and isolation (kaivalya). as ‘Myself’.
The great spiritual warrior in Sakara has finally drawn the bitterest foe of his pupil -'the beginningless spiritua ignorance' to the edge of the precipice. with a view to pushing it over to its final annihilation. With a solemn and apocalyptic, coup de maître - a masterstroke, he is going to deliver the final push the student would be led to his beatitude meaning perfect blessedness or happiness. In devising this stepwise instruction Sankara has trodden the path of the ancient sages, established for ages. The famous dialogue between the sage yaaGYavalkya and janaka the king in the bRRihadaaranyaka upaniShad chapter iv-3, the kaTha upaniShad III-10 as also the bhavadgiitaa chapter III-42 have laid down the same rising hierarchical levels of of consciousness viz - sense objects, sense organs, intelligence, intellect and the highest of all the puruSha- the the non plus ultra, higher than Which there can be nothing. To use the those very Sanskrit words pregnant with proven meaning - proven to mystic seers of all creeds and climes in their deepest visions down the millennia - saa kaashThaa, saa paraa gatiH. THAT is the summum bonum the last post
And what may that stupendous, staggering declaration be ? Let us see that in the next line:-
THE FINAL PUSH : ataH bhavaan paramakam jyotiH Therefore my child, you are verily that Light of lights, which the vedaanta asserts in stentorian voice and peremptory tone- tat tvam asi – THAT THOU ART . It is not the denoted dictionary meanings of the words of the scriptural testimony that will bring the peace that passeth understanding but the inner experience of the truth which is transforming in nature
The finis : tat asmi prabho !!! Oh my master I am indeed that Light of lights because I have just experienced that ecstatic mystic state, by your bounteous grace. It is another matter that the experience of that state can communicated in words only after descending somewhat from those Olympian heights. But at all events he has been raised to that dizzy altitude of sagehood, the memory of which shall stamp its hallmark on every rhought word and deed everafter.