Thursday, June 7, 2012




[* A Paper read at a meeting of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society on Wednesday, August, 18th 1909, with His Excellency Sir Hugh Clifford, K.C.M.G., the Colonial Governor, in the chair. It is here reprinted with the kind permission of the Author, Hon. Mr P. Arunachalam, M.A., Camb., C.C.S., Vice President, R.A.S (C.B).- Ed. L.T.]



    The Jnana Vasishtam is a Tamil poem of authority in that collection of the spiritual traditions of Ancient India known as the Vedanta, and consists of a series of discourses said to have been delivered by the sage Vasishta to Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, the Liad of India. Seized in early youth with an aversion to worldly life, he longed to abandon his royal state and to retire as a hermit into the forest. By these discourses the sage persuaded him that, even amidst the pomp and temptations of royalty, it was possible to attain to the highest spiritual state. He showed the way to the goal, which the prince in due time reached. From the name of the sage (Vasishta) and from the fact that Jnanam,1 [1
Another form of a Greek expression meaning 'knowledge or wisdom' and of know-ledge, the root being jna, gno, to know.] or the spiritual science known of old as Wisdom, is the subject of the discourses, the work has been called Jnana Vassishtam.

    The original discourses were in Sanskrit, and are said to have been reported by Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, for the benefit of his pupil Bharadvaja in 100,000 stanzas, of which 36,000 are extant under the name of the Yoga Vasishta Maha Ramayana. They were reduced to 6,000 by Abhinandana, generally known as the Kashmir Pandit, whose abridgment passes under the name of Laghu (i.e., little) Yoga Vasishta.

    The Tamil work consists of 43 chapters of 2,055 quatrains, and was composed by Alavantar Madavappattar of Virai, a village near Vembattur in the Madura district of the Madras Presidency. I have not been able to ascertain his date. He probably lived about three hundred years ago. He is said to have belonged to a family distinguished in literature during many centuries and still holding lands and titles conferred on them by the Pandiyan kings in reward of their merit. A valuable commentary was made on the poem1 [1
The first edition of the Tamil poem and commentary appears to have been printed in 1843, having previously existed in MS. Palm leaf, and is very rare. The two next editions were of 1850 and 1851.] about eighty years ago by Arunachala Svami of Piraisai near Negapatam, who lived in Madras many years and had a great reputation as a teacher of philosophy. The Tamil author and commentator are regarded as no mere translators or commentators, but rather as men of spiritual insight confirming by their testimony the truth of the experiences related by Vasishta.

    Vedanta means the end of the Vedas, the most sacred books of the Hindus, and was so called because it taught the ultimate aim and scope of the Vedas. It was in short the Goal of the Law. The Vedanta, as Oriental scholars have pointed out, is the basis of the popular creed of the Hindus of the present day. Of the Vedanta Professor Max Muller, lecturing in March 1894, at the Royal Institution, London, said: "A philosopher so thoroughly acquainted with all the historical systems of philosophy as Schopenhauer, and certainly not a man given to deal in extravagant praise of any philosophy but his own, delivered his opinion of the Vedanta philosophy as contained in the Upanishads in the following words:- 'In the whole world there is no study as beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. It has been the solace of my life, it will be the solace of my death.' If (adds Professor Max Muller) these words of Schopenhauer's required any endorsement, I should willingly give it as the result of my own experience during a long life devoted to the study of many religions. If philosophy is meant to be a preparation for a happy death or euthanasia, I know of no better preparation for it than the Vedanta philosophy."

    This philosophy was at an early period systematized in certain sutras or aphorisms1 [1
Known variously as the Vedanta Sutras, Vyasa Sutras, Brahma Sutras, Uttaramimamsa Sutras or Sariraraka Mimamsa Sutras.] attributed to Badarayana alias Vyasa, which have been copiously interpreted and expounded. The best known exposition2 [2
Called after him Sankara Bashyam] is that of Sri Sankaracharya Svami, the Hindu philosopher, who lived about the sixth century of the Christian era. His writings and apostolic zeal were mainly responsible for the downfall of Buddhism in India. He founded the abbey of Sringeri (in Mysore), the abbot of which is still the spiritual head of many millions of Hindus. Sankaracharya's views are often erroneously identified, especially by European scholars, with the Vedanta, as if there were no other authoritative view. An earlier commentator was Sri Nilakantha Svami, who is of great repute and authority among the Saivas, or those who worship God under the name of Siva. Nilakantha's work3 [3
Called after him Nilakantha or Srikantha bhashyam, and also Saiva bashyam Suddahdvaita bashyam.] is so little known outside the circle of Saiva theologians that the learned Dr. Thibaut, who has translated the Vyasa Sutras and Sankaracharya's commentary for the Sacred Books of the East series of the Oxford Clarendon Press, was not aware that in some of the points in which Sankaracharya appeared to him to misunderstand the original, Nilakantha took a different and truer view. Another commentary4 [4
Called after him Ramanuja bashyam.] is that of Sri Ramanuja Svami, which enjoys great authority among the Vaishnavas, or those who worship God under the name of Vishnu. The three expositions5 [5
There are two other commentaries in current use, one by Madhavacharya and another by Vallabhacharya. Two others, little known and said to be older even than Nilakantha's, are attributed to Bodahyana and Bhaskara.] may briefly, if roughly, be thus distinguished in regard to their conception of the relations between God, soul, and matter. Sankaracharya is a Monist, Nilakantha a pure Non-dualist (Suddhadvaita), Ramanuja a qualified Non-dualist (Visishtadvaita). All take their stand on the Upanishads, while putting forward each his view to be the true one. The expositions are not easy to follow, and require the same effort of attention and study as Western students have no devote to the intricate arguments of Aristotle or Kant.

    Sankaracharya is sometimes described as a "a Monist or Non-dualist." But the terms are not regarded as a synonymous by the pure Non-dualists, especially by that school of pure Non-dualism, which is the glory of Tamil philosophy and is known as the Saiva Siddhanta. Its chief authority, the Sivajnana potham, draws this important distinction (ii., 2 and 3):-

    "One," say the Vedas. Behold, it is said of the One. The One is the Lord. Thou who sayest "One," are the soul. Lo, in bondage art thou. If the One were not,- If vowel A were not, letters there would be none. In this wise say the Vedas "One."

    Like song and its tune, like fruit and its flavour, the Lord's energy everywhere pervadeth, non-dual. Therefore say the great Vedas not "One," but "Not-two."

    The meaning is this: When the Vedas say "Ekam Sat," "All that is, is one," they do not mean the identity of God and the soul, but that God pervades and energizes the soul. The first sound uttered as the mouth opens is the sound of U in but, which sound is represented in Indian alphabets by their initial letter, the vowel A (Sanskrit , Tamil ). This sound exists in, and is indispensible to the formation of, the sound represented by every other letter. Thus the Indian letter A, while it may be said to pervade and energize every other letter, remains also a distinct and the chief letter. So God and the soul. All souls are pervaded and energized by God, as all letters by A, as a song by its tune, fruit by its flavor. Nevertheless, like A, God stands apart, Himself, of all things the source and the chief, "One," therefore, in the Vedas must be understood to mean not unity, but non-duality, of God and soul. The same argument is pithily expressed by the poet. Tiruvalluvar in his celebrated Kural:

        "All letters have for source the letter A,

        The world for source hath the Ancient One,

        The Adorable."


    This traditional illustration of the pure Non-dualists, prominently set forth in the very opening verse of the poem, shows that the author – who, in spite of his outcast birth, is "the venerated sage and law-giver of the Tamil people," whom every Hindu sect is proud to claim – was a Vedantist of the pure Non-dualist type.

    The study of the Vedanta is held in high esteem in India as the most effective cure of the disease ajnanam, or ignorance, which keeps the soul from God. The doctrines of the Vedanta are expounded in the Jnana Vasishtam mainly on the lines of Sankaracharya, with endless variety of illustration, in the form of stories which convey to the thoughtful reader, with all the interest of a romance, an easy understanding of the most difficult problems of philosophy – Who am I? Whence? Whither? It is no uncommon thing in the towns and villages of Tamil-land for groups of earnest seekers to meet in the quiet hours of the day or night to listen to the reading and exposition of the poem and ponder on the great questions. At such séances women are not the least interested of the listeners nor the least keen of the questioners.

    The Jnana Vasishtham not only explains the doctrines of the Vedanta as to the nature of God, the soul and the universe, but teaches the practical methods by which the soul may effects its union with God. The mode of effecting this union or 'yoking' is called Yoga, a word having the same root as the English yoke. It is treated here under two heads: Karma Yoga or the Way of Work, and Jnana Yoga or the Way of Knowledge. It is the latter form of Yoga of which the book mainly treats. Karma Yoga in its higher forms – work for work's sake, duty for duty's sake, without reference to any ulterior motive or reward – is given a prominent place and shown to have the same goal as Jnana Yoga. Four chapters – the stories of Uttalakan, Vitakavyan, Pusundan, and Sikitvasan – discuss Karma Yoga in its lower forms (bodily penances and mortifications), which are said to be rewarded with wonderful powers over nature called the Siddhis. But their pursuit is generally discouraged by the sages as likely to involve the soul in the bonds of desire and to perpetuate its ignorance and separation from God. Another and most important form of Yoga called Bhakti Yoga, the Way of Love, which is fostered by the ordinary worship of the temples and churches, is but lightly touched in this work.

    It is difficult to give an adequate idea of the Jnana Vasishtham in a summary or even in a translation. I have, however, attempted to summarize a few discourses and to translate a few others, adding to each some explanatory comments. One of the most memorable of the discourses, entitled "The Worship of God," is included in the translations.

    In reading them it should be borne in mind that interpretation from one language to another is seldom successful and never easy. The difficulty is in this case greatly increased by the nature of the subject, a metaphysical one so profound as confessedly to be beyond the reach of word or even thought. The Hindu system of metaphysics, moreover, is in many respects different from modern European systems, and suitable English equivalents are not found for its technical terms. For example, the word manas, though philologically the same as the Latin mens and the English mind, cannot be translated as mind without serious confusion of ideas. Mind, in modern European metaphysics, is understood to mean the sum-total of the intellectual, volitional, and emotional faculties of man and to be antithetical to matter. But manas is regarded by Hindu philosophers as a subtle form of matter, an organ by which the soul receives from the gates of the senses impressions of external objects, and is enabled to know them and thereby to experience pains and pleasures, which it utilizes for its development and progress to God. The antithesis of matter according to Hindu philosophers would thus be not mind, but the soul or spirit (atman), which is conscious of thought and for its salvation has to free itself from the fetters of thought.

    The great gulf between the two systems is the doctrine that consciousness may exist without thought, which to European philosophers, at least of modern times, appear to be an absurdity and an impossibility. However, Hindu sages declare, and declare not as a speculation but as actual experience, that when thought is completely suppressed and also it twin brother sleep, the pure consciousness or spirit long hidden begins to manifest itself.1 [1
See the writer's article on "Luminous Sleep" in the Westminster Review of November 1902, republished in 1903 by the Government Printer, Ceylon.] Free from the stain of thought and oblivion and truly pure in heart, the soul is blessed with the vision of God, wins the peace of God that passeth all understanding, realizes somewhat of the infinite power, glory, and bliss of the Divine Spirit, and finally is united to it.

    A kindered experience is thus described by Tennyson:-

        "For more than once when I

        Sat all alone, revolving in myself

        The word that is the symbol of myself,

        The mortal limit of the Self was loosed

        And past into the nameless, as a cloud

        Melts into Heaven. I touched my limbs, the limbs

        Were strange, not mine – and yet no shade of doubt

        But utter clearness, and thro' loss of Self

        The gain of such large life as match'd with ours

        Were Sun to spark – unshadowable in words,

        Themselves but shadows of a shadow-world."

                                The Ancient Sage.

    Notwithstanding the difficulties of interpreting such a work as the Jnana Vasishtham, the attempt has been made in the hope that, even in the garb in which it is here presented, a poem which has been of inestimable help to the best spirits among countless generations of Hindus will be of interest to Western students, and perhaps be of service to some among that large and increasing number of cultured men and women, in the West as in the East, who are sick of church or temple, sick of ritual and prayer, and are left stranded on the shore of atheism or agnosticism without hope or comfort. Here they will find, and perhaps have comfort in finding, what the sages of ancient India conceived, and their successors still conceive, to be the true worship of God, and as a preparation for which has been established the Hindu religious system with its diversity of methods, providing spiritual food for all according to their needs, and significantly called the Sopana Marga or "the ladder-way."


    The Vedanta is not taught indiscriminately to all, for, as Vasishta says, "The study of the great books is fraught with danger to persons of little understanding. It will breed degrading folly in them, no other books will breed so much," – an observation verified in the case of students who take to idle, useless, and even vicious lives, pleading the principles of the Vedanta. Hence, before admitting a pupil to these studies, the teacher is enjoined to test his moral and spiritual fitness. The pupil should be imbued with a sense of the impermanence of life and the worthlessness of all worldly things, all desire must have died in him for the so-called goods of this world or the next. He should be truly poor in spirit and hanker and thirst after wisdom, in the pursuit of which he must be ready to give up all else. Rama was the type of the qualified student, and the chapter called Vairagya prakaranam, or the Chapter of Renunciation, describes his spiritual condition just before his initiation.

    He was the heir to a great kingdom and had just returned from a pilgrimage, which in those days, as now, apart from its spiritual uses, is the popular form of travel in India and covers the face of the land with happy troops of pilgrims of all grades, ages, and sexes, for whose counterpart in England one must go back to the time of Chauccer. Rama was transformed on his return. His royal duties, the pleasures of the court and the chase, became irksome to him; he went through them mechanically for a time, and finally gave them up altogether. His religious duties, to which he had been devoted, had no interest for him. He neglected food and sleep, sought solitude and contemplation, and pine away until his attendants were filled with anxiety and reported his condition to his father who doted on him. The king sent for him and questioned him with much concern, but could get no clue to his troubles. Shortly afterwards the sage Visvamitra came on a visit to the king in order to obtain the help of Rama against some wild men who were molesting him in his forest retreat. With great reluctance the king consented to part with his son for the purpose. Rama being sent for comes to the king's presence and, instead of taking his usual place in the assembly, seats himself on the floor to the consternation of the king and his courtiers. Vasishta, the guru or spiritual preceptor of the royal family, who was present, and the visitor Visvamitra speak to Rama and beg him to explain the cause of his melancholy. Unable to disobey them, he breaks silence and answers:

    "Born of this king, reared by him, trained in the knowledge of various arts and sciences, I duly performed my religious and royal duties. I have now returned from a pilgrimage to sacred shrines, and straightway all desire for the things of the world hath ceased in me. There is no pleasure in them. We die but to be born, and are born but to die. All, all, are fleeting. What good is there in the fictitious things which constitute wealth? What good in worldly enjoyment, in royalty? Who are we? Whence this body? All false, false, false.1 [1
Bossuet: On trouve au fond de tout le vide et le neant.] One who reflects and asks himself 'Who hath obtained what?', will have no desire for them, even as a wayfarer desires not to drink water which he knows to be a mirage. I burn, I choke, seeking a way out of this delusion and sorrow."

    Rama then proceeds to analyse worldly things and makes them out, one and all, to be worthless. Wealth, he says like kings, favours its courtiers without regard to merit, dissipates energy by manifold acts, harbours the snakes "like" and "dislike" shuns the teaching of the wise and good. Whom doth wealth not corrupt? It is like the flower of a plant in a snake-encircled pit. Life is like a water-drop at the tip of a pendant leaf, a mad man rushing out at unexpected, unseasonable times, a flash of lightning in the cloud-desire, a stumbling-block to the unwise. Life is harder to guard than to cleave space, to grasp the air or to string the waves of the sea. Unstable as a rain cloud, as the light of an oil-less lamp, as a wave, life causeth pain to those who desire it, as the pearl is the death of its oyster-mother. The life, except of the wise man, the Jnani, is the life of an old donkey. No enemy so great as egoism. All acts, religious and other, mixed with it are false. As the ego-cloud grows, so doth the jasmine-creeper desire. The ego is the seed of desire, the breeding ground of fatal delusion and ignorance.

    Thought wanders in vain like a feather tossed in a storm or like an ownerless dog; it is like water flowing from a broken pot. Mind, a dog running after the bitch desire, tears me, says Rama, to pieces, drives me about as if I were possessed with a devil, entangles me in vain acts as though I tried with a rotten rope to pull a beam from the bottom of a well. The mind-devil is fiercer than fire, more impassable than mountains, harder to control than to pull the Himalayas by their roots, to dry up the ocean, or swallow the submarine fire. If thought dies, the universe dies. If thought springs, the universe springs. Gladness and sorrow thrive in the mind as forests on mountains, and with the mind disappear.

    These strictures on the mind may seem extravagant. But what is here condemned is not the use but the abuse of mind, the tyranny of thought of which we are the victims. What reflecting person but is conscious of the difficulty of the habit of undivided concentration on the thing in hand, conscious of the wandering of the mind, of its division and distraction, its openness to attack by brigand cares and anxieties? Man prides himself on mastery of sea and land and air, but how rare the mastery of the mind? The weary and care-worn faces of thousands, especially among the wealthy and educated classes, with their projects and plans and purposes, bear eloquent witness to the fever of thought by which man is dominated and over-ridden, a miserable prey to the bat-winged phantoms that flit through the corridors of his brain. Until one is able to expel a thought from his mind as easily as he would shake a pebble out of his boot, it is absurd to talk of man as the heir of all the ages and master of nature. A slave rather. But if while at work you can concentrate your thought absolutely on it, pounding away like a great engine, with great power and perfect economy, no wear and tear of friction, and then when the work is finished and there is no more occasion for the use of the machine, you can stop it equally absolutely, no worrying, as if a parcel of boys were allowed to play their devilments with a locomotive as soon as it was in the shed, - if you have gained this mastery over thought, only then would you be deemed by the sages of India on the way to freedom. But the effacement of thought does not mean it's giving place to sleep. This too must be conquered, a no less difficult conquest, and then according to them the veil lifts and you pass into that region of your consciousness where your true self dwells and where, in the words of Tennyson, is the gain of such large life as matched with ours were Sun to spark.    

    To return to our hero, he continues:- In the dark night, desire, the owls, lust, anger, and the rest haunt the sky of the soul. Good qualities are destroyed by desire, as the strings of a violin by mice. Caught in desire like a bird in a net, I faint, I burn. Desire makes cowards of heroes, blinds the clear-sighted, makes the wise tremble, is like a courtesan who runs in vain after men though her charms have long departed, or like a dancer attempting dances beyond her power, seeks things hard to get, is not satisfied even when they are got, is ever on the move like a monkey or a bee, traverseth earth and heaven in a second, is the root of all sorrow. Desire masters and ruins the greatest of men in a moment: its only cure is the riddance of thought.

    Nothing is so mean and worthless as this body, the dwelling place of the ego, with his wife desire, and handmaidens the organs of sense and action. Fleeting riches and royalty and body, are they worthy to be sought? In a little while they disappear. Rich and poor alike are subject to age, disease, death. What profiteth this body? Infancy is more restless than waves or lightning or woman's eye; it eats dirt, is easily moved to joy and sorrow, it calls to the moon, is the home of folly, ever breeds fear to parents and guardians. Passing from infancy to youth greater dangers wait. Youth is attacked by the demon lust in the cave of the heart. None so learned or wise but in youth is deluded and blinded. Youth is a mirage which torments the deer, mind, sinking in the slough of external objects. Only those rare ones, who cross the dangers of youth and in youth attain wisdom, are worthy to be called men.

    What is the attraction of woman's beauty? Analyse the component parts of her lovely body – flesh, bone, blood, mucus, and the rest – and then, if you think it beautiful, hanker after it. Women's breasts, once decked with strings of rarest pearl, become the food of dogs in the burial-ground. Her soft fragrant locks, her eyes that deal destruction, who can escape their power? Pleasant at first, painful in the end, she is Cupid's net to catch men, she is the bait by which the death-god catches them into hell. I seek not the pleasures of woman, that chest of love, jealousy, anger, locked with the lock of dire sorrow. Deliverance from sexual desire is the beginning of heavenly bliss.

    Old age, which follows on youth, is a time of greater sorrow still. Wisdom runs away from old age as love of first wife runs away from the heart of him who has married a second. Weakness of body, disease, excessive desire, inability to satisfy it, are the lot of the old. Their tottering gait, their failings, are the laughing-stock of children and women, of servants, kinsmen, and friends. Desire comes home to roost in old age, fear of the next world torments it. Grey heads are ripe fruit to feed the messengers of death. The king of death comes in state attended by an army of diseases and fanned with chouris1 [1
Tail of the Yak ( a wild ox of the mountains of Tibet) used by Eastern princes as fans and fly-flappers.] of grey hair. He lives in a palace washed with grey, and his wives are weakness, disease, danger. What availeth life so beset with pain and sorrow at every step, its string hourly gnawed by time?

    What thing in the universe can escape Time, which swallows all like the fire that dries up oceans? The greatest and the least he destroys – he will not grant a moment's grace. Oceans and mighty mountains yield to his power as a leaf or a gain of dust. Worlds resonant with the buzzing of countless gnats, are apples dropped by the tree of Time. With his eye, the sun, Time watches throughout the ancient garden of the universe and eats the fruit as they are ripe, to wit, the warders 2 [2
Regents or presiding deities appointed for the four cardinal and the four intermediate points of the compass by Brahma at each creation of the world.] of the world. He wears a necklace of world-clusters strung on the three strands of the gunas.3 [3
The gunas, the three ingredients or constituents of nature, corresponding pretty closely to the three principles of the soul according to Plato (Republic, IV. 441 E, 442 A):-

    (1)    Sattva (logos) – Purity or goodness, producing illumination and mildness, wisdom, grace, truth, &c.

    (2)    Rajas (thumos) – Passion or energy, producing activity, and variability, mental exertion, courage, learning, &c., and also worldly covetousness, pride, falsehood, sensual desire.

    (3)    Tamas (epithumia) – Darkness or ignorance, producing sluggishness, arrogance, lust and other depraved attachments.] He hunts game in the forest of the universe. He gathers into his death-chest falling worlds; at intervals of ages, at the great Kalpa1 [1
Kalpa, or the duration of the universe, is supposed to be 36,000 times a 432 million years, at the end of which it is destroyed, and after a pause again created.] time of destruction, he gambols in the oceans as in a pond. Time, too, yields to the power of the great Goddess of Destruction, who rangeth like a tigress through the universe, destroying all, the earth her drinking cup, the worlds flowers on her neck, her pets time and the terrible man-lion whose thunder-roar is death, the unreal her bow, pain her arrow, the celestial regions her tiara, the infernal worlds her anklets fastened with the cord of sin, the mountains Himavan and Mahameru her earrings with pendants sun and moon. She wears the heads of Brahmas, Vishnus, Rudras, and, terrible to herself, she danceth the peerless dance at the final dissolution of the universe.

    The universe, according to Hindu philosophers, has been created and destroyed times without number, and will be again and again created and destroyed, not in the sense of being created out of nothing and reduced to nothing, but in the sense of being projected or evolved (Srishti) out of cosmic stuff (mula prakriti) and of being involved or withdrawn into it (Samhara). The manifestation of the creating or evolving energy of God is called Brahma, of the preserving energy Vishnu, and of the destroying or involving energy Siva or Rudra. These three manifestations constitute the Hindu Trinity, and each has a time-limit counted by thousands of millions of years. At the end of the cycle they all withdraw into the absolute Godhead, to come forth again.

    The whole universe, continues Rama, is fleeting and unreal. It is born and dies, it dies and is born, without end. The deluded mind faints with desire. Youth wasted flies, the friendship of the wise unsought, freedom and truth far away. Attachment to the fleeting things of the world is the chain that binds to birth.2 [2
Reincarnation, to which the soul is subject until it becomes pure and ripe for union with God.] All living things perish. The names of countries change. Mighty mountains become dust. Oceans disappear. The quarters of the sky vanish. The starry worlds, the celestial hosts, the holy Rishis pass away. The lord of the polar star dies. Time, space, law cease. Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, merge in the One Reality, the pure substance ineffable. The whole universe is mean and naught by It.    

    Sunk in petty enjoyments, thinking them so wonderful, the world perisheth. If the day is not spent in treading in the footsteps of the wise, whence cometh sleep at night? Wives and children and gold are sought and loved as ambrosia. For them nothing is left undone. When the time of parting comes, they are more painful than deadly poison. Every foe overcome, surrounded by every prosperity, one liveth happily, sole emperor. Lo, from somewhere comes sudden death and cuts him off. Wife, children, and the rest are travellers meeting at a fair. The lives of Brahmas1 [1
A day of Brahma = 432 million years of man. 360 such days constitute a year of Brahma, and 100 such years his life-time, or a kalpa, which is equal to 36,000 times 432 million years, the duration of the world.] are but a second. The difference between long life and short life is a delusion. Mighty power and prosperity, learning, deeds all pass away and become mere fancies – so do we. Pain and pleasure, greatness and smallness, birth and death, all are for a moment. A hero is killed by a weakling, one man kills a hundred, the mighty become low and the low mighty. All goes round and round. "I care for none of these things. I care for neither life nor death. Grant me, O sages, calm and peace of mind. My heart yearns for union with its Lord, and is distressed as a woman parted from her beloved. What is that state without pain, fault, doubt, or delusion? What is the state incorruptible? Ye sages know it. Declare it unto me. I want neither food nor drink nor sleep. I will not perform religious rites nor royal duties. Come weal, come woe. I care not. I stand still, doing nothing. I welcome death."

    Such an appeal it was impossible to resist, and the discourses which constitute the Jnana Vasishtam were the answer.



[1 This is the Tamil form, in the honorific plural, of the Sanskrit Suka.]

    The first discourse is attributed to Visvamitra, who relates to Rama the story of Sukar and comments upon it. Though short, it is interesting in more respects than one. It shows that in those times, as now, though not generally known, the Brahmins were not the sole custodians of spiritual knowledge, but were even glad to seek it from men of other castes, as in this instance from one of the royal caste. Indeed it would appear from the Chandogya Upanishad, V, 3,7, that in ancient Vedic times a Brahmin was not deemed fit to receive instruction in the mysteries of spiritual knowledge. A Brahmin is there represented as seeking instruction from a king who tells him that no Brahmin was ever taught such knowledge, this being reserved for the Kshattriya or the royal caste. The king was, however, induced to make an exception in this instance. The fact that verses so prejudicial to the interest and dignity of the Brahmin-caste occur in writings, which now for three thousand years have been in their sole charge, is remarkable, and is strong testimony to the authenticity of this particular Upanishad.

    The term Brahmin had once a purely spiritual meaning, viz., one who had seen God (Brahm, or Supreme). Any one of whatever caste who had attained the vision or knowledge of God, was called Brahmin. The descendants of such men gradually crystallized into a caste, which after a time lost all spiritual culture and even came to be regarded as unfit to receive spiritual instruction. The Brahmins, as a caste, then became what they are now, ritual priests, whose duty is to conduct public worship in the temples and to perform the countless domestic ceremonies of the Hindus. The aim of this ritual is to develop spiritual life in the laity and prepare the soil for the seed of the spiritual priest. The relationship of the latter to his disciple is a purely personal one, and no caste, race, or sex-qualification is necessary either for teacher or pupil, for the Spirit has no caste, race, or sex. A person of a low caste, or even an outcast, may be a spiritual teacher. This rule has lightened the burden of the Sudra's lot, for it throws open to genius the highest of positions. The best known of modern Hindu sages, Ramakrishna Svami of Bengal, who died in 1886, and whose life was written by Professor Max Muller, had for his teacher a woman, who was for him what Diotima was to Socrates, and inspired in him the same devotion, love, and gratitude.

    It is related of Sankaracharya – the great Hindu philosopher and apostle, to whom I have already referred, - that on one occasion, while travelling with the pomp suitable to his dignity, he suddenly met on the road a Paria bearing a load of beef fresh slaughtered and dripping with blood. Shrinking from the sight with a holy Brahmin's horror, he called out imperiously to the outcast to move out of sight. "Whom dost thou order," answered the Paria with amazing boldness, "to move out of sight – the spirit or the flesh?" Sankaracharya, remembering that the flesh of his own body did not differ from that of the Paria or the beef, and realizing that the all-pervading Spirit of God was equally in Paria and Brahmin, recognized in this outcast his long-waited-for spiritual teacher, and descending from his palanquin prostrated himself at the Paria's feet. The Paria, who was (it is said) no other than the Lord Siva, vanished. Sankaracharya's conversion dates from this incident, and to him Hinduism owes more than to any other man.

    The story of Sukar also shows that to gain the knowledge of God and participate in the divine bliss, it is not necessary to abandon the world and retire into the solitude of a forest, nor is death of the body a condition precedent. King Janaka attained this high estate while still in the flesh and in the active exercise of royal power.

    Here, too, is briefly enunciated the fundamental doctrine of the Vedanta that the One and only Reality is the Spirit or pure consciousness, and that the universe is a differentiation and evolute of that one Reality resulting from the cosmic illusion called Maya. Students of modern science will recall Professor Huxley's definition of Matter as "a name for the unknown and hypothetical cause of certain states of our own consciousness" (Lat Sermons, p. 142). A learned Christian Professor, Dr. Sanday, not long ago wrote in this connexion:-

    All sure knowledge is knowledge of states of consciousness and nothing more. The moment we step outside those states of consciousness and begin to assign a cause to them, we pass into the region of hypothesis or assumption. The first effort of thought is to distinguish between "self" and "not-self," but neither of the "self" nor of the "not-self" have we any true knowledge, we do not even know that they exist, much less how they exist or what they are. We might as well call the one X and the other Y as give them the names we do. And if this holds good for a process of thought which seems so elementary, much more must it hold good for others which are more remote. When we call things about us and give them names, as Adam is described as doing, what we really name is only the states of our own consciousness, not the things themselves. Judged by the standard of strict logic, the world which we inhabit is a world of visions, of phantasms, of hypothetical existences, and hypothetical relations. All thought and all the objects of thought are at the bottom pure hypothesis. Its validity is only relative. The propositions which we call true are not true in themselves. When we call them true, all that we mean is that to assume them gives unity and harmony to the operations of the thinking mind. The belief that we can trust our memory, that one state of consciousness is like another preceding state of consciousness, that the ego is a centre of permanence, that nature is uniform, and that what has happened today will also happen tomorrow, all these beliefs stand upon the same footing. They are working hypotheses, assumptions which enable us to think coherently: we cannot say more.* [* Professor Sanday on "Professor Huxley as a theologian.]

    The great divine and philosopher, Bishop Berkeley, has said in terms which a Vedantist would have used:- "The physical universe which I see and feel and infer, is just my dream, and nothing else. That which you see is your dream, only it so happens that our dreams agree in many respects." The Vedanta goes further and declares that underlying this fiction of the universe there is a very real reality, not as the Bishop supposed, the mind, which is itself a fiction, but the Spirit which the Vedanta declares to be the One and Only Reality. This One Reality is called by many names, Brahm (the Supreme), Jnanam (wisdom), Atman (the Self), Sivam (auspicious), etc. It is also called Sat-chit-ananda as being sat,- pure and eternal being or truth, - pure knowledge (chit), pure bliss (ananda): pure in the sense of there being no distinction between subject and object. Being spirit as well as infinite, it is frequently called chit-akasa or jnanakasa, Spirit-space.

    It was of this chit or pure knowledge Plato spoke in the Phaedrus (247 p):- "Knowledge absolute, not in the form of created things or of things relative which men call existence, but knowledge absolute in existence absolute." It was of this sat, the One Reality or Truth, Jesus spoke to Pilate (John XVII. 37). "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I unto the world, that I should bear witness unto the Truth. Every one that is of the Truth, hearth my voice." To Pilate's next question "What is Truth?" no answer was vouchsafed, probably because the question was a mocking one and because the infinite spirit is not to be described in words. "It can only be described," says the Brihadaranyaka Upanishat (IV. 515), "by no, no," i.e., by protesting against every attribute. The usual Vedantist illustration is that of a Hindu wife who, asked to point out her husband from among a number of men, said "no, no," to every person pointed out, until her husband was pointed out, and then she stood bashful and silent. In a dialogue reported by Sankaracharya Svami from an Upanishat, :Vashkali said, 'Sir, tell me Brahm.' Then Bhava became quite still. When Vashkali had asked a second and a third time, Bhava replied 'We are telling it, but thous dost not understand. That Brahm is quite still."

    In the absolute unconditioned infinity, the Spirit, there arises an energy whereby the Spirit seemingly becomes conditioned or limited and differentiates itself – as under a breeze the calm face of the ocean breaks into waves – into the universe, countless souls, infinite varieties of matter, endless growth of sun and satellite and planet, all passing from a state of latency to manifestation and vice versa. The task of the soul is to emancipate itself from the grasp of this cosmic illusion of Maya, under the influence of which the soul cherishes the idea of "I" and "mine" (as if each wave were to think itself a separate entity from other waves and from the ocean) and identifies its fictitious coats of mind and matter with itself. In other words, the soul has to go back from the unreal to the only real. What Maya is, how it originated, how and when it ceases, are explained in the story of Sukar.

    Having heard Rama's impassioned address which I have summarized in the last chapter –

    Visvamitra says: O Rama, by pure intellect thou hast seen all things free from fault. There remains naught else for thee to know clearly. The sage Suha and thou are peers. Even they who have attained the knowledge of the real and unreal, yearn for peace.

    Rama inquires: How happened it that Sukar, having attained the knowledge which destroys "I" , attained not peace at once but afterwards?

    Visvamitra replies as follows: Sukar, filled with the knowledge that cuts off birth, pondering like thee on the nature of the universe, grew in understanding and gained the knowledge that is without flaw. Yet doubt remained regarding it, and peace he had not. He sought his sire (Vyasa) who lives on the northern mountain (Meru) and asked: "Whence cometh this dangerous maya? How shall it perish? To whom does it belong? What is its measure? When did it appear?" The father made answer to these questions so that Sukar should understand. But Sukar replied: "What thou hast said was already known to me." Then his father, seeing that Sukar reached not the excellent state of peace, said: 'There is a king named Janaka, great in the knowledge that is without flaw. Seek and ask him." So saying, he graciously sent him, and Sukar departed. He reached the gate of the golden palace where Janaka dwelt. The king, hearing of his coming, came not to meet him, thinking to try him. Seven days tarried Sukar there, indifferent. Seven more days the king set him in another place, then he lodged him in the beautiful inner chambers of gold wherein the women dwell. Slender-waisted maidens served him with dainty food and pleasures. He bore with them, being like unto the cold full moon. Neither the pleasures provided by the king nor his previous insult touched the mind of Sukar. Can the gentle south wind shake Meru, the greatest of mountains? Seeing his state, the king worshipped and praised him and said: "O thou who art rid of the acts of the world and hast obtained all that is to be obtained, seeking what hast thou come hither?" He replied "Whence sprang maya? How grows it? How will it cease? Tell me truly." To the sage thus seeking the truth, the king spake as his father had spoken. The sage replied: "This have I already known by my understanding. Thou hast spoken even as my father spake. The perfect Scriptures all declare but one thing. If the differentiation that spring within ceases, maya ceases. There is nothing in maya. Such is its nature. Declare unto me the One Reality, O king who cures the infatuation of all."

    The king made answer. "O sage, what thou hast thyself ascertained, what thy father has declared to thee, again in doubt thou askest. That alone is true. Here is infinite Spirit, nothing else. That Spirit is fettered by thought, it is free when rid of thought. "Tis because thou knowest well that Spirit, thou art rid of desire and of all visible things. Thou hast attained all that is to be attained by a perfect mind. Thou inseparably blendest with the One that is beyond sight. Thou art free. Give up the doubt that troubleth thy mind."

    Thus when Janaka, king of kings, taught, the faultless Sukar, quenching his restlessness in the Supreme whose place is Itself, freed from fear, from sorrow, from agitation, from act, from doubt, went up on the golden mount Meru and, standing in the calm of undifferentiating abstraction (Samadhi) for twice 500 years by the sun's count, like unto the light of a lamp quenched with the burning out of oil and wick, became blended with Spirit-space. Rid of the stain of thought and become pure, the rising thought ceasing as water drops merge and become one with the sea, he became one with the Absolute. He was freed from delusion and desire and so from sorrow. That way will be thine, I Rama. The manner of the mind which knoweth all that should be known, is never to think that pleasures and pains are "mine."

    As the attachment to things which are not realities becometh established, the fetters riveted; as that attachment dwindles, the baleful fetters waste away. To crush the influence of outward objects, O Rama, is to be free; to sink in it is to be a slave. They who have overcome its might and, rid of desire, turn away from the enjoyments of the world, they alone have attained the high state of Jivan Mukti, of freedom while still in the flesh.

    The purport of this story appears to be that a man may by investigation and reflection understand what is real and what is unreal, and may reject the unreal and be rid of all desire, and yet not attain perfect peace, which is won only when by the intense abstraction of samadhi he has realized in actual experience the One Reality. So also Tiruvalluvar says:

    "Though the five senses are under control, still there is no gain to them who know not the One Reality" (Kural xxxiv. 4).

    "Wisdom is freedom from the delusion which is the cause of birth, and the vision of the One Reality, the supremely beautiful" (ibid. 8) The delusion here referred to is explained (ibid.1) as that which takes for real the unreal.

    Then turning to the assembly, Visvamitra says: What Rama has grasped with the mind, that is the reality, and nothing else. Who save Vasishtha can teach great Rama this? – Vasishtha who, having learnt it from the lips of the wise, hath won peace of mind and freedom from doubt, who knoweth time past, present, and future, who is the world's tracher, who looketh on, a witness to all things that have name and form.* [* i.e., the manifested universe] (Addressing Vasishtha: ) Rememberest thou, O Vasishtha, the words of wisdom which the Lotus-God Brahma spake to us to heal our enmity and to cure good men of their ancient karma and help them to be free. Declare it, I pray thee, to the learned Rama. The precious words spoken to the heart of the pupil that is free from desire, are indeed knowledge; they are the substance of the Scriptures, they alone are beautiful. The words spoken to a pupil in the bonds of desire, will become impure like precious milk poured into a black dog-skin vessel.

    In compliance with the request Vasishtha proceeds to deliver to Rama the discourses which form the bulk of this work. Vasishtha, it may be added, is believed by the Hindu to be still alive, inspiring and enlightening seekers after truth. Tradition has assigned him a perfect wife, Arundhati, who, translated to the skies, shines in the Pleiades. Among the interesting and picturesque ceremonies of a Hindu wedding is the leading of the bride into the court-yard to point out the star to her as the ideal to be cherished. Vasishtha himself is one of the seven stars of the Great Bear, called by the Hindus the Seven Sages.

P. Arunachalam.

1 comment:

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