Self and Eternal
A Study of Indian Monism.
The Open Court, March, 1896
“As the web-wombed spider puts forth and draws to him, as trees come forth upon the earth, as from a living man his locks and tresses,-so from the unchanging eternal comes forth all the world.”—Mundaka Upanishad.
The teaching of the Upanishads is this: the real self of each being and of all beings is the supreme eternal; this self, though unchanging, falls into dream; it dreams itself first into many separate hostile selves; then it dreams for their enjoyment the manifold sensuous life of the three worlds; then, that the hostile selves may not fall into perpetual fascination and enthralment, the self dreams the last and sanative dream of death; and through the power of that last dream the wandered selves find no lasting joy in their sensuous ways, for they see that all this fades and wastes and wanes; that there is no unchanging joy outside the self, the self re-become one and awaking from all dreams to the reality of its immemorial oneness.
Thus awakened from the dream of life, they see the steps through which they fell to dreaming the dream of the world; they see that, as the rivers come from the ocean and return again to the ocean, as kindred sparkles come forth from a well-lit fire, so this dream of the world, this world of dream, came forth from the self, from the eternal that the seers plainly see as the worn b of the worlds.
These teachings of the Upanishads are high inspirations and intuitions, from the golden dawn of India’s life, if indeed their essence and doctrines be not older even than India. To these high intuitions we cannot rise at once, though they awaken strong echoes in our hearts; for, since those sunny days, the self’s great dream has grown heavier and darker, so that we can no longer hold clear truth directly by strong intuition, but must fortify intuition by intellect; must support the verdict of our souls by the reasonings of our philosophies.
Thus, it came that, in the latest period of India’s life, the clear intuitions and shining wisdom of the Upanishads were expressed anew, in the philosophy of the Vedânta, whose lucid thought and admirable statement can compare with the highest work of the human mind in any age, and only gain by the comparison.
When one speaks of the Vedânta, one means, for the most part, the greatest man of the Vedânta school, the Teacher Shankara, who holds in India the supremacy that Plato holds in Greece, or Kant in the philosophy of today. Though his life was very brief, Shankara did all that could have been done to restore for later ages the pure wisdom of India’s dawn; the Upanishads themselves he commented on and interpreted, writing much also of the poem which best reflects their spirit, the Bhagavad Gîtâ, “the Master’s Songs.” In his day, the learning of the school of the Vedantins was enshrined in a book full of enigmas and obscurities, quite meaningless in parts, without an added explanation; this obscure book of memorial verses, the Brahma Sutras of Bâdarâyana, Shankara took as the theme of his most extensive, and, doubtless, his greatest work, and did all that lucidity, intense concentration of thought, and fluent language could do, to make its dark places light, its rough ways smooth. Besides all this, and many practical labors of reformation and teaching that accompanied it, Shankara found time to write a whole series of lesser works, in verse and prose, full of that wisdom of old, the love of which was the single passion of his passionless life.
From one of these lesser treatises, the “Awakening to Reality,”—Tattva Bodha,—we shall take so much as is needed to make quite clear, in the language of philosophy, what is meant by the great Indian teaching of oneness, the doctrine of the one self in all selves, the unity of the self and the eternal.
After certain sentences of introduction and benediction, and an enumeration of the powers of mind and heart required for the gaining of wisdom, Shankara harks back to the title of his book, and asks,—for most of the work is in the form of question and answer,—“What is the discerning of reality? It is this,” he answers:
“That the self is real; that all things other than self are delusive.”
Then, with that intentness of logical thought which gives Shankara such a charm, this is at once followed by another question and a definition:
“What is the self? He who stands apart from the physical, emotional, and causal vestures; who is beyond the five veils; who is witness of the three modes; whose own nature is being, consciousness, bliss,—this is the self.”
Not a word in all this, whose meaning is not nicely and carefully defined, whose exact value in thought is not precisely ascertained. And as this sentence contains all that the self is not, as well as all that the self is,—in a word, all things whatsoever that exist,—by gaining a full insight into this one sentence we shall have mastered the whole world-teaching of the Vedântins, and, above all, their supreme teaching of the One, above every change and seeming separation.
Beginning with what the self is not, in the individual, and with the assertion already made, that the physical vesture is not the self, Shankara asks:
“What is this physical vesture?”
And replies in a formula full of concentrated meaning, in which the wisdom of many ages, of many philosophers, is worn down to the fewest possible words:
“Formed of the five elements fivefolded, born through works, it is the dwelling where opposing forces like pleasure and pain are experienced; it has these six accidents: it becomes, it comes to birth, it grows, it changes, it declines, it perishes; this is the physical vesture.”
We may ask here, as Shankara does in a later part of his book,—when he has left the individual to speak of the building of worlds,—what are the five elements of which the fivefolded nature of the physical body is formed? We must preface the answer by saying that, from the very beginning, Indian philosophy had become entirely penetrated with the thought that we can know nothing except our own states of consciousness; that anything outside our states of consciousness can only be, as Professor Huxley once said, matter for more or less probable hypothesis. With this belief and knowledge, the best Indian philosophy never speaks of matter and force as things-in-themselves, as independent realities, as anything but more or less probable hypotheses; the phenomena which we should call the phenomena of matter and force they always expressed as far as possible in terms of our states of consciousness, and not as independent realities.
Looking in this way at the phenomena of the physical world,—the field in which the physical vesture is manifested,—they found that the states of consciousness from which we infer the existence of the physical world have five leading characteristics or qualities, or shades of color; in other words, the states of consciousness, which not only represent, but also are, the physical world, are five; these five are what we call the five senses, and what Indian philosophy calls the five perceptive, or knowing, powers: hearing, touching, seeing, tasting, smelling.
In order to reach clearness of thought, to give expression to that tendency of our consciousness which sets subject and object up against each other, in complement to each other, they further divided each of these types of physical consciousness into a trinity of subject, predicate, and object; as, seer, seeing, seen; hearer, hearing, heard; knower, knowing, known. Then, seeking for an expression by which the last term in each of these trinities might be expressed by itself, and spoken of as having, for the sake of hypothesis, an independent existence, they developed the terminology of the five elements, ether, or rather the “forward shining” or “radiant” power, as the outward complement of hearing; wind, breath, or air, as the complement of touch, or, rather, extension; fire or light or radiance, as the complement of seeing; the waters, as the complement of tasting, because taste can only apprehend fluids; and, lastly, earth, as the complement of smell.
But as each of these hypothetical elements of sensation contains within it the possibilities of other sensations than the dominant one,—camphor, for example, being seen and touched and tasted, as well as smelt,—they were led to say that these elements, these types of physical consciousness, were not simple but compound, each having in it, besides its dominant character, a possibility of each of the other four; the dominant character and the four other subsidiary characters make the “fivefolded” nature of the elements spoken of by Shankara. Thus, the physical vesture or body is “formed of the five elements, fivefolded.”
It is “born through works,” or, as we should say, it is subject to the law of causality; which, for the physical body, largely takes the form of heredity. Then again, the physical vesture is subject to the six accidents of generation and birth, growth and change, decline and death. This needs no comment. In each of these characteristics there is also implied a sentence of discrimination: “Therefore this is not the self.” The physical vesture is subject to causality; the self is not subject to causality; therefore the physical body is not the self. The physical vesture is subject to change; the self, the pure idea of “I am,” is not subject to change; therefore the physical vesture is not the self, and so on, with the other characters.
This doctrine of the five elements is, therefore, not merely defective physics, but far rather a metaphysical attempt to render the phenomena of physical consciousness, the physical world, into terms of our states of consciousness, in a simple and methodical way.
So far the physical vesture, the first of the series of things which the self is not, defined in order to show what the self is. The self is, further, other than the subtle—or psychic or emotional—vesture. This vesture, again, corresponds to a primary fact in our states of consciousness. We quite clearly recognise one set of facts in our states of consciousness as being outward, physical, objective; we not less clearly recognise another set of facts in our states of consciousness as being inward, mental or psychic, subjective. Both sets of facts, both series of pictures and feelings, are outward from consciousness, other than consciousness, objects of consciousness; therefore both are not-self. But the clear difference between them must be marked; therefore, the outward, objective series are spoken of as the physical vesture, while the inward, subjective series belong to the psychical or emotional vesture. Looked at closely, the real difference between these two is, that physical things are constrained and conditioned by both space and time; while psychic, mental things, though subject to time, are free from the rigid frame and outline of space. Both are, of course, subject to causality.
In the psychical, as in the physical states of consciousness, there are the “five knowing powers”; and we also speak of “the mind’s eye,” “mental touch,” and so on. Indeed, according to Shankara’s philosophy, hearing, seeing, touching, and the rest are purely psychical powers, even when manifested through physical organs, as “the eye cannot see of itself, nor the ear hear of itself.”
As the physical vesture is the complex or nexus of the physical states of consciousness, so the psychical vesture is the complex or nexus of the psychical or mental powers and states of consciousness; these are free from the tyranny of space, though subject to causality and time.
The mention of Kant’s famous triad, space, time, and causality, brings us to the third vesture, of which Shankara writes thus:
“What is the causal vesture? Formed through ineffable, beginningless unwisdom, it is the substance and cause of the other two vestures; though unknowing as to its own nature, it is yet in nature unerring; this is the causal vesture.”
Without comment, this is hardly intelligible. The idea in it is this: Our states of consciousness, the pictures and feelings and sensations which are objective to our consciousness in unbroken series, are expanded, the one part in space and time, the other part in time only. Both are subject to causality. That is, the series of pictures, of feelings, of sensations are presented to our consciousness in a defined order, and we interpret this order as implying a causal connection; we consider the first of two states of consciousness in a series as being the cause of the second; the second as being the effect of the first. This attribution of causality, the division of our states of consciousness into cause, causing, and caused is a separation in a double sense. In the first place, it divides the single substance of existence threefold, into cause, copula, and effect; and, in the second place, it separates the single substance of existence from consciousness, by establishing the idea of knower and known, of observer and observed, and thus sets up a duality. Now it is axiomatic with the Vedânta philosophy, for reasons which we shall presently see, that this duality does not really exist; that the substance of being, the self, is not thus divided into knower and known, observer and observed.
Therefore it is said that this causal vesture or complex of the idea of causality is formed of unwisdom, the unwisdom which sets up a division in the undivided One. Now the idea of causality goes deeper than either space or time. It goes deeper than the idea of time, because time, properly considered is a product of causality. Causality divides the objective into causal series. The elements of these series must appear before consciousness in order, in succession, for this succession of effect to cause is the essence of causality. Now it is this very succession in the series of objects, images, sensations which is the parent of the idea of time; for consciousness of itself has no idea of time. If consciousness had a sense of the passage of time, then the sense of time, in different states of consciousness, would be equal; but in waking and dream, in dream and trance, the sense of time is entirely different. Therefore the sense of time is derived, not original in the self; it has its rise in the succession of images which is the effect of causality.
Space is a further derivation of the same idea, arising from the presence of more than one causal series—or series of images, conditioned by causality—being present to consciousness at the same time; thus giving a breadth or sideways extension to perception; and this breadth of extension is the sense or the idea of space.
Thus the ideas of time and space are not original and independent but derivative from the idea of causality; hence the causal vesture, or complex of the idea of causality, is said to be the cause and substance of the other two vestures, the psychical—or vesture of causality and time—and the physical,—or vesture of causality, time, and space. We saw already that the causal vesture is formed of unwisdom, because the causal idea, the distribution of the one substance of being into causal series, is not inherent, or a property of the thing-in-itself, but merely the result of our mode of perception, “a result of intellect, which supplies the idea of causation” as Shankara says, thus anticipating almost the very words of Kant.
Born of unwisdom, this idea of causality is necessarily beginningless, or outside of time. Because, as causality is the parent of time, it naturally follows that it cannot be expressed in terms of time, or be said to have a beginning in time. As, again, this causal idea goes to the very root of intellect, it cannot be expressed in terms of intellect; so it is said to be ineffable, or “not to be spoken of” in the language of intellectual thought.
This causal idea seems to have its root in the seeming necessity of the one substance of being, the eternal, to reveal itself to itself gradually, in a successive series of revelations. This gradual series of revelations of the eternal to the eternal is the cause of manifested existence, or, to speak more strictly, is manifested existence. Now this gradual series of revelations implies a gradually increasing knowledge which shall stop short only at omniscience, when the whole of the eternal is revealed to the whole of the eternal. And each step in this gradual revelation is perfect in itself, and a perfecting and supplementing of all the revelations that have gone before. Hence each is “in its own nature unerring.” But we saw that the revelation of each part of the eternal is in three degrees: first, as conditioned by space, time, and causality, in the physical world; then, as conditioned by time and causality, in the psychical or mental world; and, lastly, as conditioned by causality only, in the causal or moral world. Therefore the revelation in the moral world is freer from conditions than the other two, free from the errors of time and space, and thus “unerring wisdom” as compared with these. But before the whole of the eternal can be revealed to the whole of the eternal, the causal idea must disappear, must cease to separate the eternal into causal series; so that the causal idea is an element of error, of illusion, and therefore “unknowing as to its own nature.” This plenary revelation of the whole eternal to the whole eternal is “the own-being of the supreme self”; therefore the self is above the causal vesture, the causal vesture is not the self.
To change for a moment from the language of philosophy to that of common life, the teaching is this: The individual is the Eternal; man is God; nature is Divinity. But the identity of the individual with the eternal, the oneness of man with God, is veiled and hidden, first by the physical body, secondly by the personality, and, lastly by the necessity of continuity which makes one physical body succeed another, one personality develop into another, in the chain of rebirths which continuity and the conservation of—mental and moral, as well as physical—energy inevitably bring forth.
Now, freedom from this circle of necessity will only be reached when we have succeeded first in seeing that the physical body is not our true self, but outward from and objective to our true self; then that the psychic body—the complex of mental states—is likewise not our true self; and, lastly, that our causal vesture—as containing within it the suggestion of our separate individuality opposed to other separate individualities, and thus different from the plenitude of the eternal which includes all individualities—is not our most real self; for our most real self is that very eternal, the “Theos which is all things in all things,” as another teacher says. This is the awakening from the dream of the hostile selves, which, as we saw at the outset, the self falls into, and from which it will awake into a knowledge of its own fulness as the eternal.
The self, Shankara further said, “is other than the five veils.” These five veils—physical, vital, emotional, intellectual, spiritual—are a development of the idea of the three vestures. The physical veil is the physical vesture, regarded as a form rather than as matter; as formal rather than material, in harmony with the conception of Faraday, that the atoms of matter are really pure centres of force; the seeming substantiality of matter belonging not to the atoms at all, but to the web or network of forces which are centred in the atoms. The idea of a “web” of forces is exactly that of the Vedânta, which constantly speaks of the world as “woven” by the Eternal, as a spider weaves his “web.”
The next three veils—vital, emotional, intellectual—are subdivisions of the mental or psychical vesture. A precise determination of their values would lead us too far into the mental psychology of India to be practicable at present. The spiritual veil, again, is the causal vesture, of which we have said much already.
Again, the “three modes” of which the self is “witness,” are what are called in the Vedânta: waking, dreaming, and dreamlessness. They are the fields of the activities of the three vestures; waking, the field of the physical vesture; dreaming, the field of the psychical or mental vesture, whether in daydreams or the dreams of night; and dreamlessness, the field of the moral or causal vesture, whether in waking inspiration, dreaming vision, or dreamless trance. Here, again, to develop the subject fully would lead us too far afield.
Freedom, the conscious oneness with the most real self, which is the eternal, consists in setting aside these vestures, in stripping off these veils. How this is to be done, we can best show by repeating the words of Shankara:
“Just as there is the firm belief that ‘I am the body,’ ‘I am a man,’ ‘I am a priest,’ ‘I am a servant,’ so he who possesses the firm conviction that ‘I am neither priest, nor serf, nor man, but stainless being, consciousness, bliss, the shining, the inner master, shining wisdom,’ and realises this in direct perception, he, verily, is free, even in life.”