(An edited version of this article was published in the March 2017 issue of Vedanta Kesari, the monthly magazine published from Ramakrishna Math, Chennai.)
“There exists only One, and not two. It is Satchidananda alone that has taken all these various forms; He alone has become the world and its living beings.” (Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p746) This idea occurs repeatedly in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. This idea occurs again and again in the Upanishads, Gita, other Hindu Scriptures and in the teachings of various Hindu saints.
This statement can be understood from two different stand points – the Absolute (paarmaarthika, nirguna) point of view and from the Relative (vyaavahaarika, saguna) point of view.
Oneness of Nirguna Brahman
All the four cardinal statements (mahavaakyaas) taken from the four different Vedas indicate the Oneness of Nirguna Brahman. In fact, there are innumerable such statements. The four taken are only representative. For analysis here, we take the statement “Satyam Jnaanam Anantam Brahma” from the Taittiriya Upanishad (verse 2.1.1).
The statement says that reality (Brahman) is pure Existence (Sat or Satyam), Consciousness (Cit or Jnaanam) and Infinite (Aananda or Anantam). Here is a way to understand this.
What we see as the world is based on the sense organs and the instruments that extend the sense organs. The human eye can see only a limited range of frequencies. Similarly the ears can hear only a limited range. There are other animals which have a different range of vision and sound. Also, they have much more powerful sense of smell than us. So their world is an entirely different one. For example, when a cat enters a room, it knows who was sitting in the sofa an hour back based on the smell. It also knows if you have gone to the park or not based on the smell of the flowers on you. Sharks can detect the electrical current in the bodies of animals swimming in the water a few meters away. Even with all the modern technology to extend our access to the various physical phenomenon in the world, there is no reason to assume that what we detect in the world is all that actually exists. There can be entirely new kinds of matter and energy that so far we do not have senses or instruments to detect.
What we see and interpret depend on the state of our mind. If we like someone, we see them as beautiful. The chemicals and hormones in our blood affect the way we think and judge. Also, all our past experience affects our interpretation of the people, objects and situations in the world. Thus, though the world seems to appear outside us objectively, what we know of the world is only what our instruments (senses and mind) show us. We have no access to the bare naked reality that exists. This fundamental reality is referred to as Existence.
What is the nature of Existence which is beyond these apparent properties like color, sound, smell, mass, temperature, charge, momentum, etc.? We know that properties like color, sound, texture, etc. are all emergent phenomenon. When we look at things at their minutest constituents known today like quarks and leptons, these properties do not exist. There are a different set of fundamental properties, which give rise to the perceivable properties at various composite grosser levels.
Vedanta extends this concept and says, “As long as properties are experienced, you have not reached the most fundamental level.” So, every property is only an emergent phenomenon. At the ultimate fundamental level, Existence would necessarily be free from any properties. Vedanta gives an example to understand this: pot-ness does not exist in the clay out of which pot is made.
This fundamental entity, of which the whole universe is made of, is called Sat or Satyam. It cannot have any properties (nirguna). Any two objects are distinguished only based on properties. As Sat does not have any properties, is has to be only one (ekam eva adviteeyam). Any change is only change of properties. So Sat has to be changeless (nirvikaara). Changeless with respect to space and time. So Sat is all-pervading (sarvagata) and eternal (nityam). Parts of an entity are based on properties of constituents. So Sat is partless (akhanda). So, Sat is One, Infinite, All-pervading, Eternal, Changeless, Partless, Property-less, Absolute Existence.
Let us analyze the subject-object relationship in perception. When I see a flower, I (subject) am the body, including the eye. The flower is the object. Form and color of the flower are properties. When I want to judge the properties of the eye like myopia or color-blindness, I put one step back. The eye is the object. “I”, including the mind, is the subject. Extending this further, the real “I” is the ultimate subject, which can never become an object of perception by the senses or conception by the mind. (Drg Drsya Viveka – 1-5) This ultimate subject is called Cit or Jnaanam.
In any subject-object relationship, properties always belong to the object. To judge the property of anything, it has to be given the status of an object. I need to extend myself to the edge of the instrument that is in contact with the object (internal or external) to experience and evaluate the properties of the object. Thus, I, the Cit, being the ultimate subject, cannot have any properties.
Applying the same logic that we applied to Sat, Cit also is One, Infinite, All-pervading, Eternal, Changeless, Partless, Property-less, Absolute Existence. So, Sat and Cit are not different. They are the same entity.
Thus, real I, the Consciousness is the fundamental entity from which the whole universe has emerged. This is what is conveyed in innumerable mahaavaakyaa statements in the various Upanishads belonging to various Vedas.
To understand the relationship between the infinite (Anantam) Sat-Cit and the finite world, let us take an example.
We have the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, … The existence of these finite numbers indicate that we can go on counting forever. So we have the concept of “infinity” in mathematics. From the point of view of infinity, we cannot distinguish finite numbers like 1, 2, 3, etc. This can be seen from the equations below:
(1) inf – 1 = inf
(2) inf – 2 = inf
From the above statements,
inf – 1 = inf – 2
Thus, from the point of view of infinity, 1, 2, 3, etc do not exist as discrete numbers. As the number line is homogeneous, any point on it is only imaginary. There is really no difference between one point and another point.
Thus, from the point of view of the infinite, finite does not exist. But from the point of view of finite, the infinite exists.
Now, we can apply the same logic to the whole of existence. We have seen that Sat-Cit is the Infinite. The world that we see is finite. From the point of view of infinite Sat-Cit, the finite world does not exist. From the point of view of the finite world, the existence of infinite Sat-Cit cannot be denied. So, Sat-Cit has absolute existence and the empirical world has only relative existence.
This relationship between the infinite and finite is called Maaya.
The three points we have seen here has been summarized as the three famous statements by the great teacher Sankara:
- Brahma satyam (from 1) – Infinite Consciousness is the fundamental reality.
- Jagat mityaa (from 3) – The finite universe is a relative appearance.
- Jeevah brahma eva na aparah (from 2) – The real ‘I’ is not different from Infinite Consciousness.
Oneness of Saguna Brahman
Taittriya Upanishad verses 2.1 to 2.5, Gita 18.14-15 and Gita 15.13-16 give details of five aspects of the individual (vyashti) and the whole (samashti). These are popularly called the five sheaths (panca koshaah).
It should also be noted that, at every level, the individual is not independent or apart from the whole. The individual and the whole are inseparable. The very concept of individuality is only a convention. When we give too much importance to the individuality, it is Ignorance (avidya) and it is the cause of bondage (samsaara). When we realize that the Whole alone is real and individuality is unreal, it leads to liberation (mukti).
The physical body is made of physical matter. The physical body is an integral part of the physical Universe. Every moment millions of molecules from the rest of the physical Universe become apart of the body and millions are shed away from the body. The physical body has no independent existence apart from the physical Universe.
The human being is considered to be “alive”. By the same perspective, every cell in the human being is also an independent living being. What we call as the living human being is a collection of millions of living human cells and also millions of bacteria and other living beings that have permanent and temporary home in the human body (without which, the human body cannot be alive). When a cell which is a living being divides, it becomes two living beings. One living being arises out of another living being. When the live seed or stick of a plant is buried in the soil, it becomes another plant. Looking at all these, we can see clearly that the concept of an “individual” living being is very vague. Every living being is an inseparable part of the whole living Universe. There is only One life in the whole of existence, which manifests through the lives of the millions of living things. This is beautifully presented in the Gita 15.13-14. Krishna, representing the living Universe, says, “I manifest as food in the outside world and also I am the digestive force eating the food from within the living beings.” This is mentioned in the Purusha Suktam, Naaraayana Suktam, Gita 11.23, Gita 13.14 and so many other verses in the various Hindu scriptures as the Universal being with thousands of eyes, ears, hands and feet in all directions.
The same concept can be extended to emotions also. We use expressions like “India condemns the acts of terrorism in Europe”, “India grieves with the near and dear ones of the children killed in the school shootout in US”, etc. The emotions of the country is usually considered as the collective emotions of the people of the country. Looking at how in the case of the physical and physiological levels, the individuality was only a reflection of the whole, here also, we can consider the individual emotions as reflection of the collective emotion. The whole Universe is not only “living”, it is also “feeling”. The Universe feels through the minds of the individuals. The feelings of the Universal reflects in the minds of the individuals. This is mentioned in Gita 15.7.
The same concept can be extended to intellect also. The whole Universe is one learning entity. As time proceeds, the Universe experiments and learns through the activities of all human beings and other living things. What is seen as the intellect of people is only a reflection of the Universal intellect. This is beautifully given in the Gita 15.15, “I am seated in the hearts of all beings and manifest as memory, knowledge and forgetfulness. I am all that has to be known. I am the knowledge and I am the knower too.”
The same concept can be extended to free-will and the fruits of action also. The storage of tendencies (samskaara) and fruits of action (karma) is called the causal body (kaarana sharira) or sheath of bliss (ananda maya kosha). The individual tendencies and fruits of action are integral parts of the Universal collection of tendencies and fruits of action. Thus, the whole Universe has its dynamics and evolution. This Universal being is referred to in the Gita 15.16 and 8.18-20. This Being is eternal. Even when the whole physical Universe gets destroyed and recycled, the collective tendencies and fruits of action cannot be destroyed. They remain in dormant form to be the cause of the next manifestation of the Universe.
Thus, Vedanta presents the whole Universe as one living Being who feels, thinks and wills. Every individual is an inseparable part of the whole. The materiality, life, feeling, thought and will of the Universal Being reflects in the individual. Every thought and action of every individual is a contribution to the Universal Being.
This concept of the Universal Being is the basis of all morality and religion. In his 1930 Hibbert Lectures at Oxford titled “The Religion of Man”, Rabindranath Tagore calls this Universal being as “Man” (with an upper case M). He says, “The individual man must exist for Man the great, and must express him in disinterested works, in science and philosophy, in literature and arts, in service and worship. This is his religion, which is working in the heart of all his religions in various names and forms. (p. 4,5) … Creation has been made possible through the continual self-surrender of the unit to the universe. And the spiritual universe of Man is also ever claiming self-renunciation from the individual unit. (p. 11)”
It is this Universal Being that the Hindus worship through various names, forms, incarnations and saints. It is this Being that the Hindus serve by morality, kindness, self-control, social service, charity, etc.
According to Hindus, it is this same Universal Being that the Jews call Jehova, Christians call Father and Muslims call Allah.
Oneness of Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman
The Absolute Consciousness is called Nirguna Brahman. The Universal Being is called Saguna Brahman. The relationship between them is Maaya. Thus, Nirguna Brahman with Maaya is called Saguna Brahman. Maaya is called the Sakti of Nirguna Brahman. They are inseparable.
Superficially and logically, the Absolute and Relative seem to be totally unrelated. Swami Vivekananda was asked repeatedly by different people in India and abroad about the relationship between the Absolute and the Relative in different words. This cannot be answered based on logic. His answer was always to the same effect. Here is a sample of his answer. “The question — what is the cause of Mâyâ (illusion)? — has been asked for the last three thousand years; and the only answer is: when the world is able to formulate a logical question, we shall answer it. The question is contradictory. Our position is that the Absolute has become this relative only apparently, that the Unconditioned has become the conditioned only in Maya. By the very admission of the Unconditioned, we admit that the Absolute cannot be acted upon by anything else. It is uncaused, which means that nothing outside Itself can act upon It. First of all, if It is unconditioned, It cannot have been acted upon by anything else. In the Unconditioned there cannot be time, space, or causation. That granted your question will be: “What caused that which cannot be caused by anything to be changed into this?” Your question is only possible in the conditioned. But you take it out of the conditioned, and want to ask it in the Unconditioned. Only when the Unconditioned becomes conditioned, and space, time, and causation come in, can the question be asked. We can only say ignorance makes the illusion. The question is impossible. Nothing can have worked on the Absolute. There was no cause. Not that we do not know, or that we are ignorant; but It is above knowledge, and cannot be brought down to the plane of knowledge.” (Complete Works, Vol 5 p 276) The Absolute and Relative are inseparable. So there cannot be a causal relationship between them.
Sri Ramakrishna says, “That which is Brahman is also Kali, the Mother, the Primal Energy. When inactive It is called Brahman. Again, when creating, preserving, and destroying, It is called Sakti. Still water is an illustration of Brahman. The same water, moving in waves, may be compared to Sakti, Kali.” (Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, 634) This idea is found repeatedly in the Gospel at several places.
Sri Ramakrishna elaborates this beautifully in his own characteristic manner in his conversation with Keshab Chandra Sen:
“The jnanis, who adhere to the non-dualistic philosophy of Vedanta, say that the acts of creation, preservation, and destruction, the universe itself and all its living beings, are the manifestations of Sakti, the Divine Power. (Known as maya in the Vedanta philosophy.) If you reason it out, you will realize that all these are as illusory as a dream. Brahman alone is the Reality, and all else is unreal. Even this very Sakti is unsubstantial, like a dream.
“But though you reason all your life, unless you are established in samadhi, you cannot go beyond the jurisdiction of Sakti. Even when you say, ‘I am meditating’, or ‘I am contemplating’, still you are moving in the realm of Sakti, within Its power.
“Thus Brahman and Sakti are identical. If you accept the one, you must accept the other. It is like fire and its power to burn. If you see the fire, you must recognize its power to burn also. You cannot think of fire without its power to burn, nor can you think of the power to burn without fire. You cannot conceive of the sun’s rays without the sun, nor can you conceive of the sun without its rays.
“What is milk like? Oh, you say, it is something white. You cannot think of the milk without the whiteness, and again, you cannot think of the whiteness without the milk.
“Thus one cannot think of Brahman without Sakti, or of Sakti without Brahman. One cannot think of the Absolute without the Relative, or of the Relative without the Absolute.
“The Primordial Power is ever at play. (This idea introduces the elements of spontaneity and freedom in the creation.) She is creating, preserving, and destroying in play, as it were. This Power is called Kali. Kali is verily Brahman, and Brahman is verily Kali. It is one and the same Reality. When we think of It as inactive, that is to say, not engaged in the acts of creation, preservation, and destruction, then we call It Brahman. But when It engages in these activities, then we call It Kali or Sakti. The Reality is one and the same; the difference is in name and form.
“It is like water, called in different languages by different names, such as ‘jal’, pani’, and so forth. There are three or four ghats on a lake. The Hindus, who drink water at one place, call it ‘jal’. The Mussalmans at another place call it ‘pani’. And the English at a third place call it ‘water’. All three denote one and the same thing, the difference being in the name only. In the same way, some address the Reality as ‘Allah’, some as ‘God’, some as ‘Brahman’, some as ‘Kali’, and others by such names as ‘Rama’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Durga’, ‘Hari’.” (Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, 134-135)
Thus, the whole finite universe of name (conception by mind) and form (perception by senses) exists as an apparent emergent phenomenon in the pure infinite Consciousness. The Consciousness reflected on a particular body-mind complex is called Jeevaatmaa. The Consciousness reflected on the whole universe is called Paramaatmaa or Ishvara. (Tattvabodha, 4.3-4)
As long as the person considers himself as the limited individual, the Universal Being (Ishvara) has to be accepted. He should also accept that the individuality is only a notion and he is inseparable from the Universal Being. When the person understands and identifies himself as the real ‘I’, which is pure Consciousness, he understands that the real Ishvara and the real Substratum of the world are also the same pure Consciousness.
Thus, the Absolute Reality is not in conflict with the Relative Reality. They are complementary to each other. From both viewpoints, God alone is real. It is God alone who has become this world and its living beings. This allows us to deal with the everyday life in the world.
Liberation (mukti) is freedom from the psychological defects like insecurity, anxiety, sorrow, fear and desire and complete dissolution of identity.
From the Absolute point of view, the whole universe exists in Me, the pure Consciousness, as a relative appearance. My existence is of a higher order of reality compared to the world. Vedanta gives an example to understand this: When a rope is mistakenly perceived as a snake in dim light, the rope is not affected by the perceived snake. The world and its problems cannot affect me, just like the water in the movie does not wet the screen on which it is projected. The world is just a relative emergent superimposition which exists using me, the Sat-Cit-Ananda – Infinite Conscious Existence, as the support. This understanding frees me from all psychological defects.
From the Relative point of view, my individuality is only a notion. It is only the Universal Being that exists. My body, life, mind, intellect and will are reflections of the Universal Being only. These are neither me nor mine. My duty is to surrender completely to the Lord and do justice to every situation in life as much as possible as an offering to the Universal Being. It is the Lord Himself who experiences the world through me and expresses through me. This understanding also frees me from all psychological defects.
In both cases, the individual identity is dissolved. Thus, “All is One” at both Absolute and Relative levels. Realizing them is freedom.