Long ago when I read a poem from the vairAgya shataka of BhartRRihari about vairAgya – dispassion or non-attachment -- little did I know that it was an important concept in Vedanta and that it was also an important preparatory stage for acquiring self-knowledge. BhartRRihari devoted about hundred stanzas on various facets of dispassion. A particular sloka is quite interesting, which, translated freely, runs as follows.
In sensual indulgence, there is the fear of disease; in noble birth there is fear of fall from status; in wealth, there is the fear of king snatching away (in the good old days of kings); in honour there is fear of losing it; in strength, there is fear of a stronger enemy; in beauty there is fear of old age; in erudition there is fear of a stronger scholar, in virtuousness there is fear of the villainous, in the human body there is the fear of Death and likewise in all things in life except in non-attachment where alone there is fearlessness. (sloka 31).
All conceivable types of paranoia are visualized in the above poem by the philosopher king who knew all stages of life before becoming a recluse. The paranoia of strong nations with regard to others, the fierce competition of the multinationals, the vested interest of the elite in society, the anxiety of the beauty queen and all such are touched by the writer. Such fear does not appear to be a natural or necessary instinct for survival, but it seems to be a socially acquired trait arising out of the desire to excel and arising out of the idea of losing something that we have. In the language of Vedanta this behavior can be identified to be the by-product of rajo-guNa, the propelling characteristic for all human activity.
Taking a cue from this we cannot try to practice vairAgya – non-attachment. It could be a false vairAgya if we do so. vairAgya is the state of vi+rAga – one whose rAga or attachment has disappeared. Getting rid of attachment involves a lot of effort on one’s part because it is a natural law that our senses develop either rAga (attachment), or dweSha(dislike) for the sense objects(Gita 3-34).
Pundits have warned us about the false vairAgya which may be due to force of circumstances. They have given three interesting examples:
purANa vairAgya nyAya, the example of developing non-attachment immediately after listening to a pravachan (discourse) of a swamiji;
prasUti vairAgya nyAya, which a mother develops during the pangs of child birth;
shmashAna vairAgya nyAya, which one develops when one visits the cemetery for the obsequies of a loved one.
These are examples of false vairAgya where it is not non-attachment but a sense of disgust. Fleeting sense of detachment due to disgust or frustration is not non-attachment. Perhaps we do injustice to Buddha when we say that he developed vairAgya after seeing the sick man or a corpse being carried, as some of the biographies say. His detachment must have taken place after a more serious speculation.
Vedanta expects us to understand this mind-set. It does not dictate to us to develop vairAgya, but asks us to inquire into what is ephemeral and what is permanent, what is unreal and what is real and so on. This is what we find in nityAnitya viveka – the discrimination to be made by a seeker. Such winnowing of chaff from the grain gradually leads to non-attachment where there is no fear of losing anything.
In the poem quoted above, we noted the relationship between fear and vairAgya. Like real detachment and false detachment, there are two types of fears, one a benevolent and positive fear and the other due to ignorance. Positive fear is as in the taittirIya Upanishad (2-8) bhIShAsmAd vAtaH pavati, bhIShodeti sUryaH, (due to fear of this Brahman the wind blows, due to fear the sun rises) and so on referring to the governing forces of the universe which follow a cosmic order. Such statements appear in other Upanishads also. Perhaps the English poet Wordsworth was expressing this idea in the lines:
Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Foster’d alike by beauty and by fear.
This fear is not a sense of cowardice but understanding of a universal order.
The second type is fear due to ignorance which has to be avoided. Rather, it will automatically disappear as a result of self-knowledge. This is again mentioned in the Upanishads. As the taittirIya says – atha so.abhayam gato bhavati.(2-7) The discussion is first on freedom from fear and later on fear. There is freedom from fear when the seeker realizes the Brahman which is adRRishyaM – the changeless, anAtmyam – formless, aniruktaM – indefinable, anilayanaM - without any support, that is, one which is devoid of any attributes. The seeker is supposed to posit himself in such an immutable entity where he attains pratiShThA or stability in Self and also abhayaM gato bhavati – attains fearlessness.
Shankara explains this further. The seeker attains AtmabhAvam – true nature of Self, and the cause of fear, i.e. ignorance, is absent. He no longer sees anything other than the Self. Perception of duality is only in the avidyA or state of ignorance only. Somebody is generally afraid of someone else, but not of himself.
How does he develop fear? The same passage of taittirIya continues: yadA hyevaiSha etasminnudaramantaraM kurute atha tasya bhayaM bhavati. tattveva bhayaM viduSho.amanvAnasya.(2-7)
The slightest deviation from the Self causes distortion in view. Shankara gives the example of a person having an eye disease who sees two moons. Bhedadarshanam or seeing duality, according to him, is a disease to be avoided. The words ‘ut aram’ in the above quote means ‘a little bit’. Even a little bit of distraction from Self causes fear. Such deviation suddenly diminishes his stature, making him a finite and delimited person and draws a line between himself and the God who suddenly gets created. He moves from I-am-Brahman mode into worshipper-worshipped mode. Such a person, even if he is learned, should be considered unwise.
bRRihadAraNyaka tells the same; dwitIyAd vai bhayaM bhavati – fear is due to perception of the second, i.e. one other than himself(1-4-2). A free rendering of the mantra is like this:
In the beginning, the creator prajApati (not the absolute Brahman) noticed that he was alone and he became afraid. He then contemplated as to the reason for fear and realized that there is nothing else than the Self. By that realization he became free from fear; indeed, fear is due to the perception of the second.
prajApati is the first jIva and he is responsible for the creation, according to Vedanta. He is a manifestation from the absolute Brahman with the power of mAyA. The ‘I’ feeling in him was the cause for trouble. His notion that he was a finite and delimited person was the cause for his fear. His initial understanding was that he, an embodied person with limbs, was vulnerable and mortal. Contemplation, that is, self-enquiry made him realize that he was nothing else than Brahman, and this was the reason for his freedom from fear.
Similar references can be seen in other places in the Upanishads. But the crux of the issue is realization of the Self, or in other words, becoming Brahman; for, the texts say – brahmavid brahmaiva bhavati – the knower of Brahman becomes Brahman. We get stuck here because the human mind is very comfortable with duality. In duality a person can commit any action including a prohibited action and seek forgiveness of god. On the other hand a j~nAnI has to go through a lot many spiritual exercises, a lot of self-restraint, lose his attributes (as the Supreme is without attributes) and identities. What is an identity crisis for others is the desired goal to the seeker and this is a difficult task. We are scared, as pa~Nchadashi (2-27) says:
The concept of the Brahman without parts and attributes is frightening, and a person is bewildered like a person drowning in the sea, his senses perplexed.
Or, we feel like TS Eliot – humankind cannot bear very much reality.