What is reality? What do we mean when we use the nouns ‘reality’ and ‘truth’, and their corresponding adjectives ‘real’ and ‘true’? We consider many things to be real or true, but are any of those things absolutely real, or is their reality merely relative? If the reality of something is only relative, can it actually be called real in the strictest sense of the term?
If something is relatively real, it is also relatively unreal. It may appear to be real at certain times or under certain conditions, but it ceases to be real at other times and under other conditions, so its reality is impermanent. Because its reality is dependent upon certain conditions, it is not independently real. Its so-called reality is limited by and relative to the reality of whatever conditions it depends upon, and is therefore imperfect. Being relative, conditional and dependent, it is not real in its own right, but merely appears to be real under certain conditions.
That which appears at one time will inevitably disappear at some other time. Since it is not real either before it appears or after it disappears, it is in truth not real even when it appears to be real. Its seeming reality is only a transitory appearance or apparition, and is therefore not absolutely true. That which appears at one time and disappears at another time merely appears to exist, but does not really exist. That which really exists, that which really is, must be at all times. Hence all temporal forms of existence are mere appearances, and are therefore not real.
Only that which is absolutely, unconditionally, independently and permanently real is real in the strictest sense of the term. That which is perfectly real must be real at all times, in all circumstances and under all conditions. Its reality must not be in any way dependent upon, limited by or relative to any other thing. Moreover, it must not change, or cease to be as it once was.
That which changes exists in one form at one time, and in some other form at some other time, so it has no permanent form of its own. Being impermanent, none of its forms are absolutely real. Moreover, since change occurs within time, that which changes is time-bound, and hence its reality is dependent upon, limited by and thus relative to time. Only that which is unchanging and immutable, therefore, is real in an absolute sense.
Thus a thing can be considered to be absolutely real only if it is permanent, immutable, unaffected by the passing of time and the changing of conditions, independent of any other thing, unlimited by any other thing, and in no way relative to any other thing.
If we are satisfied with things that are impermanent, imperfect, changeable, relative, conditional and dependent, we may take such things to be real. But are any of us really satisfied with such things? Do we not all consciously or unconsciously seek happiness that is permanent, perfect, immutable, absolute, unconditional and independent?
We cannot attain such happiness from anything that is impermanent, imperfect, changeable, relative, conditional and dependent, and therefore we can never be truly satisfied with any such thing. Something that is relatively real can give only relative happiness, and only that which is absolutely real can give absolute happiness.
Therefore, if we are serious in our desire for absolute happiness, we should accept only an absolute definition of reality. If instead we choose to accept a relative definition of reality, we clearly have not understood that what we really desire is only absolute happiness. Because we wrongly think that we can obtain the happiness that we desire from objects and circumstances in this relative and temporal world, we delude ourself into thinking that such relative and transient objects and circumstances are real. However, so long as we continue to believe that such transient and relative things are real, we can never experience the absolute happiness that we all desire, and that can be found only in that which is absolutely real.
We are all free to choose either to accept the relative as real, or to accept only the absolute as real. Therefore the definition we give to reality is dependent upon what we truly want. If we think we can be satisfied with things that are relative, we will accept a relative definition of reality. But if we understand that we can never be satisfied with any form of relative reality, we will not accept any definition of reality that is not absolute.
Since this book is concerned only with the attainment of absolute happiness and absolutely true knowledge, the definition of reality upon which the reasoning in this book is based is an absolute one. Therefore, unless the context clearly indicates otherwise, wherever the nouns ‘reality’ or ‘truth’, or the adjectives ‘real’ or ‘true’, are used in this book, they should be understood to mean only that which is absolutely, unconditionally, independently, permanently and immutably real.
When we say that our mind, our body and this world, and the God who is believed to have created all these things, are all unreal, we do not mean to deny the fact that they are real in a relative sense. What we mean to say is that they are not absolutely real – permanently, immutably, unconditionally and independently real. They are all transitory appearances that are conceived or perceived by our own mind, and hence their apparent reality depends upon our mind, which is itself impermanent and ever changing.
Though our mind, and all that is known by our mind as other than itself, is unreal, it could not appear to be real if there were not some reality underlying it. The reality that underlies all relativity is absolute. What is the nature of that absolute reality?
Since every form of duality is relative, the absolute reality cannot be more than one. It is therefore single and non-dual. There cannot be more than one absolute reality, because if there were, each such reality would be limited, and would be relative to each other one, and hence none of them would be the unrestricted whole.
To be absolute is to be free of all conditions, restrictions, limitations and modifying influences – to be infinite, whole, complete, uncontaminated, perfect and independent. Therefore the absolute reality is by definition only one perfectly non-dual whole, apart from which nothing else can exist.
Everything else that appears to exist is not actually other than the one non-dual absolute reality. The absolute reality is like the rope, and everything else is like the snake that that rope is mistaken to be. Just as only the rope really exists, and the snake is merely an imaginary appearance that is superimposed upon it, so the absolute reality alone truly exists, and all the duality and relativity that appears in it is merely an imagination that is superimposed upon it. The absolute reality is not only the substratum underlying the appearance of all duality and relativity, it is their sole substance, because other than it nothing exists.
So long as we see the illusory snake, we cannot see the real rope as it is. Similarly, so long as we experience duality, we cannot know the non-dual absolute reality as it is. Therefore, if we wish to attain true experiential knowledge of the absolute reality, we must stop attributing reality to any form of duality and relativity.
So long as we believe that duality and relativity are real, our mind will continue to attend to them, believing that it can attain real happiness thereby. Only if we are firmly convinced that all forms of duality and relativity are illusory and unreal appearances – mere figments of our own imagination – will we be willing to turn our mind away from them to seek the absolute reality that underlies them.
Does such an absolute reality actually exist, and if so can we attain true experiential knowledge of it? Before deciding whether it actually exists, we must first decide exactly what its nature must be. We have already seen that the absolute reality must be permanent, unchanging, unconditional and independent, but there is one other necessary quality of the reality that we have not yet examined.
According to Sri Ramana, the definition of reality is that it is that which is eternal, unchanging and self-shining. To be eternal is to be permanent, so we have already examined the first two elements of Sri Ramana’s definition, eternal and unchanging. But what does he mean by self-shining, and why should self-shining be a defining quality of the absolute reality?
Self-shining means the quality of knowing oneself by the light of one’s own consciousness. If something is known only by some consciousness other than itself, or if it cannot know itself without the aid of some ‘light’ that is other than itself, it cannot be real, because it must depend on that other thing in order to be known. Since it cannot be known without the aid of that other thing, its seeming reality is dependent upon the reality of that other thing, and hence it is not absolutely real.
If the absolute reality were not consciousness, it could not know itself, and hence it would have to depend upon some consciousness other than itself in order to be known. However, if it had to depend upon anything other than itself for any reason whatsoever, it would not be absolute.
Therefore, a necessary quality of the reality is that it should not only exist permanently and without ever undergoing any form of change, but that it should also know its own existence or being. The absolute reality is, and it knows that it is. That is, it is not only being, but is also the consciousness of being. Since it is non-dual, the absolute reality is both being and consciousness. Its being and its consciousness are not two different things, but are one and the same essence.
But does any such reality actually exist, or is it merely a hypothetical concept? Do we know anything that exists always, that never undergoes any change, and that always knows itself by its own self-shining light of consciousness?
All the objects that we know, and our mind through which we know them, are impermanent and subject to change. Though our mind seems to know itself, it cannot be the absolute reality, because it is impermanent and constantly changing. Our mind seems to exist and to know itself in waking and dream, but in sleep it ceases to know itself, and ceases to exist as the thinking and object-knowing consciousness that we call ‘mind’.
However, as we have seen earlier, underlying our mind we have a deeper level of consciousness that continues to know itself in all our three states of consciousness, waking, dream and sleep. This deeper level of consciousness is our fundamental consciousness of our own being – our true and essential self-consciousness ‘I am’.
This fundamental and essential consciousness of our own being exists permanently, not only throughout our three normal states of consciousness, but beyond the limits of the life of the physical body that we now imagine to be ourself. Since this physical body is merely an imaginary product of our own mind, just as any body that we mistake to be ourself in a dream is, our mind will retain its power to create imaginary bodies to identify as ‘I’ even after the life of this body – the dream that we call our present waking life – has come to an end. The existence of our mind is not limited to the lifetime of this present body, because this lifetime is merely one of the many dreams that our mind imagines and experiences in its long sleep of self-forgetfulness. So long as our mind remains in this slumber of self-forgetfulness or lack of clarity of self-knowledge, it will continue to imagine such dreams, and thus it will continue to reappear after each occasion that it disappears temporarily either in sleep or in death. Since the essential foundation that underlies and supports the appearance and disappearance of our mind is our fundamental consciousness of being, ‘I am’, it endures throughout our sleep of self-forgetfulness, in which so many dreams or so-called lives appear and disappear.
Like our mind, which appears in it, our sleep of self-forgetfulness is just a temporary apparition. Though we seem to lack a clear knowledge of what we really are, this lack of clarity affects only our mind, our superficial object-knowing consciousness. Our real consciousness, which is our fundamental consciousness of our own essential being, always knows itself clearly as ‘I am’. It is therefore unaffected by the illusory appearance and disappearance of our seeming self-forgetfulness.
Our self-forgetfulness or lack of clarity of self-knowledge exists only in the view of our mind, and not in the view of our real consciousness ‘I am’. Therefore our real non-dual consciousness of being exists and knows its own existence eternally, whether or not our sleep of self-forgetfulness appears to occur.
Not only does our fundamental and essential consciousness of being exist eternally, but it also remains without ever undergoing any change. All change is an appearance that is experienced only by our mind, which is a limited and distorted form of our original consciousness of being, ‘I am’, and not by the true form of this consciousness. That is, our original consciousness of being knows nothing but itself, ‘I am’, which alone truly exists. Therefore it never knows the illusory appearance of our changeful mind, or any of the ever-changing knowledge of duality that our mind experiences.
Our fundamental consciousness ‘I am’ therefore remains unaffected by any changes that may appear to occur within it. Whatever we may be doing or thinking, or whatever experiences we may be undergoing, we always know our being, ‘I am’, even if we do not pay any particular attention to it. Thus from our own experience we clearly know that our essential consciousness of being remains ever unchanged.
Moreover, our fundamental and essential consciousness of our own being is self-shining, because we continue to know ourself as ‘I am’ both when our mind appears and when it disappears. We require the aid of our mind to know all the imaginary duality that it creates by its power of imagination, but we do not require the aid of anything to know ‘I am’. Even in sleep, when our mind and everything else has disappeared, we continue to know ‘I am’. In sleep nothing else exists, yet in that absence of all other things our essential consciousness continues to know itself as ‘I am’. Since it knows itself without any external aid, our consciousness of our own being is eternally and immutably self-shining.
Thus our consciousness of being is the only thing we experience that has all the essential qualifications required to be the absolute reality. It is eternal, unchanging and self-shining, it is non-dual, it is not affected in the least by the passing of time and the changing of conditions, and it is independent of any other thing, unlimited by any other thing, and in no way relative to any other thing. Therefore, is it not clear that the one and only absolute reality is our essential consciousness of our own being – our fundamental non-dual self-consciousness, ‘I am’?
When we clearly know that our own self-consciousness is absolutely real, how can we accept that any transitory and relative phenomenon like our mind or any of the things known by it are real? Though they may appear to be real from a relative standpoint, from an absolute standpoint they are all unreal. The only thing that is real in an absolute sense is our non-dual consciousness of our own being, ‘I am’.
As we have seen, our being is itself our consciousness of our being. Our essential being and our essential consciousness are one and the same reality. Since our being is consciousness, it knows itself just by being itself. And as we saw in the first chapter, perfect happiness is only the state in which we remain merely as our essential consciousness of being. That is, being conscious of ourself as mere being is the state of supreme happiness.
Why do we experience perfect happiness when we thus remain as our mere consciousness of being? It is because happiness is our essential nature. Our being is not only consciousness but is also happiness. Our essential being, our essential consciousness and our essential happiness are not three separate things, but are all one and the same reality.
Being, consciousness and happiness appear to be three separate things only in the view of our mind. That is, they appear to be separate only from a relative standpoint. In the limited and distorted view of our mind, we exist throughout the lifetime of our physical body. But though we recognise that we exist whether our mind is in the state of waking, dream or deep sleep, it appears to us that we are conscious only in waking and dream, and that we become unconscious in sleep. And it appears to us that our happiness is even more fleeting than our consciousness. Our experience of happiness appears to be so transient and relative that it even seems to have different degrees of intensity, and to be constantly fluctuating from one degree to another.
From the relative perspective of our mind, not only do being, consciousness and happiness appear to be three separate things, but they each also appear to have an opposite, and their opposites appear to be as real as them. We imagine that we exist for a certain period of time, and are non-existent at all other times – that we came into existence when our body was born, and that we may or may not continue to exist after our body dies. We also imagine that we are conscious in some states and unconscious in other states, and that we are happy sometimes and unhappy at other times. Likewise, we imagine that all other things come into existence at one time, and become non-existent at other times, that they are either conscious or unconscious, and that if they are conscious they may be happy or unhappy.
In the view of our mind, existence and non-existence, consciousness and unconsciousness, and happiness and unhappiness are all equally real. However, the reality of each of these opposites is only relative. Their reality is time-bound and dependent upon circumstances, and the knowledge of their reality is dependent upon our mind. Therefore none of these opposites is absolutely real.
Since everything that is known by our mind is only relatively real, is there no such thing as absolute existence or non-existence, absolute consciousness or unconsciousness, or absolute happiness or unhappiness? Let us first consider the negative qualities. A negative quality such as non-existence, unconsciousness or unhappiness can never be absolute, because a negative quality can only ‘exist’ relative to its corresponding positive quality. In fact a negative quality does not really ‘exist’, but is only the absence or non-existence of a corresponding positive quality.
Non-existence or non-being can never really exist, because it is just an absence or negation of existence or being. There is truly no such thing as non-existence or non-being, because if there were, it would be an ‘existent non-existence’, which is a contradiction in terms. Non-existence or non-being is therefore real only as a mental concept, and it does not exist except as an idea or thought in our mind. As such, non-existence is an essentially relative quality, and can therefore never be absolute.
Similarly, there can be no such thing as absolute unconsciousness. What we call ‘unconsciousness’ is just an absence of consciousness, but in a complete absence of consciousness no ‘unconsciousness’ could be known or experienced. Like non-existence, unconsciousness is therefore real only as a mental concept. The consciousness or unconsciousness of other people, creatures and things can never be known by us directly, but is only inferred by our mind, and as such it is real only as an idea or thought in our own mind. Moreover, though we do know our own consciousness, we can never know our own unconsciousness. Unconsciousness is therefore something that we can never actually know, either in ourself or in anything else, and hence it is merely a hypothetical condition, and not a condition that is ever really experienced.
When we wake up from sleep, we think that we were unconscious in sleep, but we did not actually know or experience complete unconsciousness in that state. What we actually experienced in sleep was merely the absence of any knowledge or consciousness of anything other than ourself. When we say, ‘I know that I was unconscious in sleep’, we are describing our actual experience in sleep, but we are doing so in very loose terms, because we have not reflected deeply about what we actually experienced at that time, or what exactly we mean by the term ‘unconscious’. In order to know that we were unconscious in sleep, we must have been conscious of that seeming ‘unconsciousness’. That is, we were able to experience the relative ‘unconsciousness’ of sleep only because we were actually conscious at that time.
When we say, ‘I was unconscious’, we do not mean that we were absolutely unconscious, but only that we were unconscious of our body, the world and all the other things that we are accustomed to knowing in our waking and dream states. Our ‘unconsciousness’ or lack of objective knowledge in sleep is relative only to our objective knowledge in waking and dream. The absence of all objective knowledge in sleep, which is what we mean to describe when we say, ‘I was unconscious’, is not merely inferred by our mind, but was actually experienced by us in sleep.
When we say, ‘I did not know anything in sleep’, we do so with a strong sense of certainty, because we remember what we actually experienced at that time, which was a relative absence of knowledge. The fact that we now remember having experienced at that time an absence of all objective knowledge clearly proves that we were conscious in sleep. Though we call that experience of no objective knowledge as a state of ‘unconsciousness’, it is only a relative unconsciousness, because we were present as consciousness to know that condition of seeming unconsciousness.
We can therefore definitely say that non-existence and unconsciousness are real only as mental concepts, and can never exist or be known as absolute qualities, but can we say the same about unhappiness? Is not unhappiness something that we actually experience? If we reword our description of unhappiness as ‘suffering’, ‘pain’ or ‘misery’, does it not become a positive quality?
Firstly, we cannot equate the word ‘pain’ with unhappiness. Pain is a word that is usually used to describe a physical sensation, and a physical sensation of pain makes us feel unhappy only because we strongly dislike it and are unwilling to tolerate it. As we all know, a person can be in great physical pain yet feel quite happy and cheerful. To the extent to which we are willing to tolerate pain, we are able to feel happy in spite of it.
However if we use the word ‘pain’ in the sense of mental anguish, it does then describe a state of actual unhappiness. We can mentally detach ourself from physical pain, and thereby remain unaffected by it, but we cannot so easily detach ourself from mental pain, and if we are able to do so, then it will cease to be mental pain.
Though we may use positive terms such as ‘suffering’, ‘misery’, ‘pain’ or ‘anguish’ to describe it, unhappiness is still just a relative state, and is experienced by us as a lack or absence of something that we desire and feel is rightfully ours. We desire happiness because we feel it is natural to us, and we are uncomfortable with suffering or misery because it feels unnatural and alien to us.
If we did not have any desire or liking to be happy, or any aversion for feeling unhappy, happiness would not make us feel happy, and suffering would not make us feel miserable. What we suggest in this sentence is of course a self-contradictory absurdity. But more than being just absurd, it is in fact an impossibility, because our experience of happiness is inseparable from our love for happiness, and our experience of unhappiness is inseparable from our aversion for unhappiness. Happiness makes us feel happy because we love it, and we love it because it makes us feel happy. Likewise, unhappiness makes us feel unhappy because we are averse to it, and we are averse to it because it makes us feel unhappy.
Though we speak of them as if they were two different things, our love for happiness and our aversion for unhappiness are actually one and the same thing. These two terms, ‘love for happiness’ and ‘aversion for unhappiness’, are just two ways of describing the same single feeling, a feeling that is inherent in our very being. The words ‘aversion for unhappiness’ are just a negative description of our positive feeling of love for happiness. Because we love happiness, and because unhappiness is a state in which we are deprived of the happiness that we love, when we are confronted with unhappiness we experience our love for happiness as an aversion for that unhappiness.
Even if we use seemingly positive words such as ‘suffering’ or ‘misery’ to describe it, unhappiness is essentially just a deprivation of happiness. Whatever way we look at it, we cannot avoid the conclusion that unhappiness, suffering or misery is basically just a negation, an absence of the happiness that we all desire. Therefore, since unhappiness exists only in contrast to happiness, it is an essentially relative quality, and hence there can be no such thing as absolute unhappiness.
If non-existence, unconsciousness and unhappiness are each necessarily just relative qualities, qualities that can never have any absolute reality, can we not say the same of their opposites? Are not existence, consciousness and happiness likewise just relative qualities?
Yes, when we speak of each of these qualities as one of a pair of opposites, they are certainly relative, and cannot be absolute. For example, when we speak of existence and non-existence, the existence we are speaking of is relative to its opposite, non-existence. When we consider existence to be a quality in contrast to its opposite, it is only a relative quality.
However, just because in the limited and distorted view of our mind existence, consciousness and happiness all appear to be just relative qualities, does this mean that there can be no such thing as absolute existence, absolute consciousness and absolute happiness? To answer this question, we must again consider what we mean by the word ‘absolute’.
Etymologically, absolute means ‘loosed from’ or ‘freed from’, and hence to be absolute is to be free from all conditions, restrictions and limitations, free from all forms of confinement, free from all dimensions such as time and space, free from all boundaries or limits, free from all divisions and parts, free from all relationships and modifying influences, free from all dependence, free from all forms of imperfection or incompleteness, free from all finiteness, relativity and duality. Or to express it in more positive terms, absolute means complete, whole, infinite and perfect. Therefore our question is whether or not there is any such thing as an existence, consciousness or happiness that is infinite, undivided, independent and free of all conditions and relativity.
Infinitude does not allow for the existence of any other. To be infinite, a thing must be the one single whole, apart from which nothing else can exist. If anything were to exist apart from, outside of or independent of the infinite, that would set a limit upon the infinite, and hence it would cease to be infinite.
Not only can there be nothing other than the infinite, there can also be no divisions within the infinite, because a division is an internal form of restriction or limitation, and the infinite is by definition devoid of all limits, both internal and external. Therefore, if there is any such thing as an infinite or absolute reality, it must be the only reality, the whole reality, and a reality that is essentially single, undivided and non-dual.
There cannot be more than one absolute reality. Hence, if there is indeed an absolute existence or being, an absolute consciousness and an absolute happiness, they cannot be three separate things, but must be one and the same reality. Is there such a reality, and if so is it existence, consciousness and happiness?
To answer this, we must first consider consciousness, because consciousness is the starting-point and foundation of everything, the basis of all that we know or ever can know. If the absolute reality were not consciousness, it could not know its own existence or being, and since there can be nothing other than the absolute to know it, it could never be known and would therefore be merely a hypothetical concept or supposition.
All talk of being or existence presupposes consciousness, because without consciousness to know it, who could say that it is? The very word ‘exist’ etymologically means to ‘stand out’, because a thing can be said to be or to exist only if it ‘stands out’ in consciousness. An unknown being or existence is a mere imagination, an unfounded supposition, and as such it cannot be real.
Is there therefore any such thing as an absolute consciousness, a consciousness that is free of all conditions and limitations, free of all external boundaries and internal divisions, free of all modifying influences, free of all dependence, and free from all relativity and duality? Since we cannot know any consciousness other than our own consciousness, we can answer this question only by applying it to our own consciousness.
Faced with this question, most of us would conclude superficially that our mind is the only consciousness that we know, and that our mind meets none of the criteria required to be called absolute. It is of course true that our mind is not absolute, but is our mind the only consciousness that we know? Since we are conscious of our own being in sleep, when our mind is absent, we are clearly a consciousness that transcends our mind and all its limitations. Our real consciousness is therefore not our mind, but is some other more basic consciousness that underlies our mind. That basic underlying consciousness is our essential self-consciousness, our non-dual consciousness of our own being, which we always experience as ‘I am’.
Applying the above question to our own fundamental self-consciousness, ‘I am’, we will find that it meets all the criteria that distinguish the absolute reality. It is free from all conditions, restrictions and limitations. It is free from all forms of confinement. It is free from all dimensions such as time and space. It is free from all boundaries or limits. It is free from all divisions and parts. It is free from all relationships and modifying influences. It is free from all dependence. It is free from all forms of imperfection or incompleteness. It is free from all finiteness, relativity and duality. It is therefore complete, whole, infinite and perfect.
This fundamental self-consciousness is non-dual and devoid of all relativity because it is not a consciousness of any other thing, but only of itself – of its own essential being, which it experiences as ‘I am’. Since it is, and is conscious of its ‘is’-ness, or rather of its ‘am’-ness, it is not only consciousness but is also being.
However, though it is being, it is not any form of objective being or existence, because objective being requires some consciousness other than itself in order to be known. Whereas the existence of any other thing depends upon consciousness to be known, the existence of consciousness cannot be known by anything other than itself.
Consciousness is not an object, and hence its existence or being can never be known objectively. Though there may be objective signs or indications of the existence of the finite consciousness we call ‘mind’, the actual existence of that consciousness can never be known by anything other than itself. When even that finite consciousness, which interacts with the objects known by it, cannot be known objectively or by anything other than itself, how can the real infinite consciousness be known as an object?
The being or existence of our fundamental consciousness ‘I am’ is perfectly self-conscious being, and therefore it is non-dual, undivided and entirely independent of all other things. All other things depend for their seeming existence upon this fundamental consciousness, but this fundamental consciousness depends upon nothing. It is, and it knows its ‘is’-ness or being without the help of any other thing. Its being and its consciousness of its being are therefore one and the same thing – the one non-dual, undivided, unlimited and absolute reality.
Because it is not confined within any limits or boundaries, our essential self-conscious being, ‘I am’, is the infinite fullness of being. It is truly the only being that is. The being of any other thing is only a limited and distorted reflection of this one real being, which experiences itself eternally as ‘I am’. True being is not any being that is experienced either as ‘is’-ness or as ‘are’-ness, because ‘is’ and ‘are’ both denote an objectified experience of being. True being is only that being which is experienced as ‘am’-ness, because the first person singular verb ‘am’ alone denotes the self-conscious and non-dual experience of being as it really is.
Thus we have established the fact that our fundamental and essential consciousness ‘I am’ is the absolute reality, and that it is also the infinite fullness of being. However, it is not only absolute consciousness and absolute being, but is also absolute happiness.
We experience unhappiness only in the states of waking and dream, in which our mind has risen and is active, but in the state of deep sleep we experience no such thing. In sleep we only experience happiness, and while we experience that happiness it is not relative to any other thing. Though it appears to come to an end when we wake up, the happiness that we experience in sleep does not actually cease to exist but is merely obscured when our mind rises.
In sleep we experience no duality, so whatever we experience at that time must be one with our essential being and our consciousness of our being. Therefore, since we experience happiness in sleep, which is a perfectly non-dual state of pure self-conscious being, happiness must be the very nature of our essential being. Hence, since our essential being is the infinite and absolute reality, and since it is also perfect happiness, the absolute reality must not only be the fullness of consciousness and being, but must also be the fullness of perfect happiness.
Therefore, though there can be no such thing as absolute non-existence, absolute unconsciousness or absolute unhappiness, there is a single reality that is absolute being or existence, absolute consciousness and absolute happiness. However we should not confuse this absolute existence, consciousness and happiness with relative existence, consciousness and happiness, which each possess a corresponding opposite quality.
Like all other forms of duality, these pairs of opposites, existence and non-existence, consciousness and unconsciousness, and happiness and unhappiness, are all relative and therefore mutually dependent. Absolute existence, consciousness and happiness, on the other hand, are one single reality, which is entirely independent and completely free of all forms of duality and relativity.
The non-dual and absolute reality, which is infinite being, consciousness and happiness, transcends these relative pairs of opposites, existence and non-existence, consciousness and unconsciousness, and happiness and unhappiness, and is entirely unaffected either by their appearance or by their disappearance. However, though the absolute reality is in no way related to these pairs of opposites, they are intimately and unavoidably related to it. It is their substratum and support, and without it they could not even appear to be real.
The absolute reality is not related to any form of duality or relativity, because in truth it alone exists. In its view, therefore, there is no such thing as duality or relativity, or anything other than itself. Hence it transcends and is unaffected by any relationship that other things may appear to have with it.
In the view of our mind, however, all other things that appear to be are known by the consciousness that knows itself as ‘I am’, and are therefore unavoidably related to it. The truth is, therefore, that all things are related to our mind, because it is the consciousness that knows them, and our mind is related to the absolute reality, because the absolute reality is the fundamental consciousness ‘I am’ that our mind mistakes to be its own.
Our mind exists only in its own view, and not in the view of our true, non-dual and absolute consciousness of being, which knows nothing other than itself. Therefore the relationship between our mind and our absolute consciousness ‘I am’ appears to be real only from the standpoint of our mind, whose view of our real consciousness is distorted.
In the limited and distorted view of our mind, our being, our consciousness and our happiness, which are the one non-dual and absolute reality, are mistaken to be three separate things, each of which is experienced as one member of a pair of opposites. What our mind sees as relative existence and non-existence is merely a limited and distorted reflection of our true and absolute being. Similarly, what it sees as relative consciousness and unconsciousness is merely a limited and distorted reflection of our true and absolute consciousness, and what it sees as relative happiness and unhappiness is merely a limited and distorted reflection of our true and absolute happiness.
What is it that imparts a seeming reality to duality and relativity? It is only our mind. But how is our mind able to impart such reality to things that exist only in its own imagination?
Because our mind is a confused mixture of our real consciousness ‘I am’ and a set of unreal limitations, it mistakes itself together with all its limitations to be real. And because it mistakes this mixture of itself and all the limitations it has imposed upon itself to be real, it also mistakes everything known by it to be real.
In a dream we see and experience many things, all of which appear to be real, but when we wake up, we find that all those things that we experienced were in fact unreal, being mere figments of our imagination. After waking up, we feel that the only thing that was real in our dream was ourself, that is, our own mind, the consciousness that experienced that dream. However, the truth is that our mind is as unreal as the dream that it experienced.
Our mind was confused about the reality of the dream it experienced because it was and is confused about its own reality. And just as it was confused about the reality of everything that it experienced in a dream, it is also confused about the reality of everything that it is now experiencing in this so-called waking state.
In dream we felt, ‘I am walking, I am talking, I am seeing all these things and hearing all these sounds’, but in fact we were not walking or talking, nor were we seeing or hearing anything. We were only imagining all these things. We felt that we were walking and so on because we mistook ourself to be a particular body, but that body was in fact just a figment of our imagination. We mistook ourself to be that imaginary body because we are confused about what we really are.
As our essential consciousness ‘I am’ we are real, but as our mind we confuse this real consciousness ‘I am’ with various limitations, all of which are unreal. Because we are real as ‘I am’, and because we confuse this real ‘I am’ with an imaginary body and its imaginary actions such as walking, talking, seeing and hearing, we mistake that imaginary body and its imaginary actions to be real.
Since that imaginary body is part of an imaginary world, and since we perceive that imaginary world by means of our imaginary actions such as seeing and hearing, everything that we perceive or experience, whether in a dream or in this so-called waking state, appears to us to be as real as the imaginary body and imaginary actions that we have confused with ‘I am’.
Our confused knowledge of ‘I am’ is therefore the root cause that imparts reality to all the duality and relativity that we experience. So long as we imagine any experience such as ‘I am this body, I am this person, I am walking, I am talking, I am seeing, I am hearing, I am thinking’ and so on, we cannot but mistake all these experiences to be real, because they are all superimposed upon and identified as ‘I am’, which is the only thing that is actually real.
Therefore, if we wish to free ourself from all confusion, and to know what is truly real, we must first endeavour to know the reality of our fundamental consciousness ‘I am’. Until we gain a clear and unconfused knowledge of our own consciousness ‘I am’, all our knowledge about other things will remain confused, and we will be unable to distinguish clearly between reality and our own imagination.
So long as we mistake duality and relativity to be real, we cannot experience the absolute reality as it truly is. Conversely, and more importantly, until we experience the absolute reality as it truly is, we cannot avoid mistaking duality and relativity to be real. Therefore, in order to transcend and free ourself from all duality and relativity, and all the confusion that results therefrom, we must gain true experiential knowledge of the absolute reality.
If there were no absolute reality, or if the absolute reality were something that we could not know, we would be doomed to remain for ever in confusion, both about our own reality and about the reality of all other things. So long as we experience only relative reality, our knowledge of reality will always be confused, because relative reality is a knowledge that we experience only through the medium of our mind, which is itself an inherently confused knowledge or consciousness. Since we are the consciousness that knows all other things, we cannot know the reality of any of those other things unless we know the reality of ourself.
What is the reality of ourself? Are we merely a finite and relative reality, or are we the infinite and absolute reality? If there is indeed an infinite and absolute reality, we cannot be separate from or other than it, and conversely, it cannot be separate from or other than us. The absolute reality must therefore be our own essential being.
Hence we cannot know the absolute reality as an object, as something separate from ourself, but can only know it as our own true and essential self. Therefore in order to experience the absolute reality, and thereby to transcend all relative knowledge, we must know our own real self – that is, we must attain the non-dual experience of true and perfectly clear self-knowledge.
Many people feel confused and frightened when they are first told that their mind is not real, and that the world perceived by their mind and the God in whom their mind believes are both as unreal as their mind. Though this truth may at first appear to be very daunting and unpalatable, and for many people therefore quite unacceptable, it is not actually as terrible or as unpalatable as it may appear to be.
‘If this world is unreal, like a dream, why should I not behave in any way I wish? In an unreal world, what need is there for ethics or morality? If all other people are just figments of my imagination, like the people I saw in a dream, why should I care for their feelings, and why should I feel compassion when I see them suffering? If this world is just a dream, why should I not just enjoy it to my heart’s content, unmindful of any suffering that I may thereby appear to cause to other people? Even if I cannot bring myself to behave in such a heartless and uncaring manner, if everyone is told that this world is just a dream, will not many of them begin to behave in such a manner?’.
Questions such as these arise in the minds of some people when they first come to know that sages such as Sri Ramana have taught that our life in this world is just a dream, and some people even remark that this is potentially a very dangerous philosophy, because it could induce people to act irresponsibly. However these questions are all based upon a basic misunderstanding of the truth taught by Sri Ramana and other sages. When they say that this world and everything else that we know, except our basic self-consciousness ‘I am’, is unreal, they mean only that none of these things are absolutely real, and they do not mean to deny the relative reality of anything.
The world we perceive, and the God we believe in, are both as real as our mind. So long as we feel ourself to be real as an individual, the world and God are also equally real, as are all our actions and their consequences. The other people and creatures that we see in this world are as real as our mind, which sees them, and hence their feelings – their happiness and their sufferings – are all as real as our own feelings.
If our actions cause harm to any other sentient being, we will have to suffer the consequences of those actions, because the consequences we experience are as real as the actions that we do. The laws of karma – which include the fact that we must sooner or later experience the consequences of each of our actions, whether good or bad, and the fact that the appropriate time, place and manner in which we must experience those consequences are all ordained by God in such a way that we gradually develop spiritual maturity – are all real so long as we mistake ourself to be real as an agent or ‘doer’ of action, and as the one who experiences the ‘fruit’ or consequences of action.
As Sri Ramana says in verse 38 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu:
If we are the doer of action, we will experience the resulting fruit [the consequences of our actions]. When [we] know ourself [by] having investigated ‘who is the doer of action?’, kartṛtva [our sense of doership, our feeling ‘I am doing action’] will depart and the three karmas will slip off [vanish or cease to exist]. [This state devoid of all actions or karmas is] the state of liberation, which is eternal.
The compound word vinai-mudal, which I have translated as ‘the doer of action’, literally means the origin or cause of an action, but is used idiomatically, particularly in grammar, to mean the subject or agent who performs an action. In the context of karma or action, the word ‘fruit’ is used idiomatically in both Tamil and Sanskrit to mean the moral consequences that result from any of our actions, whether good or bad, in the form of correspondingly pleasant or unpleasant experiences that we must sooner or later undergo.
Each action that we do by mind, speech or body is like a seed, as indicated by the words vittu-p-pōṉḏṟa, which Sri Ramana added before the first line of this verse when, in order to make it easy for people to memorise and chant Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu, he appended an additional one and half metrical feet between each of its consecutive verses, thereby transforming it from two plus forty verses in veṇbā metre to one single verse in kaliveṇbā metre. These words, vittu-p-pōṉḏṟa, which mean ‘seed-like’, are appended to the opening sentence of this verse, which in combination with them mean, ‘If we are the doer of actions, which are like seeds, we will experience the resulting fruit’.
Just as a fruit contains two elements, its edible portion and its seed, so the consequence of each of our actions is twofold. One element of the consequence of each action is the pleasure or pain that we must sooner or later experience as a result of it. This element is like the edible portion of a fruit. The other element, which is like the seed contained within that fruit, is the resulting karma-vāsanā, the tendency or inclination to do that same action again.
That is, our karmas or actions are habit forming. The more we indulge in any particular type of action, the more we will generate and nourish a corresponding vāsanā, an inclination or liking that will impel us to do the same type of action again. Therefore in verse 2 of Upadēśa Undiyār Sri Ramana says:
The fruit [produce, result or consequence] of [any] action having perished [passed away or ceased, as it does as soon as it has been appropriately experienced by us in the form of a pleasure or pain], will as [a] seed make [us] fall into the ocean of action. [Therefore action and its results, its fruits and its seeds] will not give liberation.
The truly harmful consequence of any action that we do is not just the pleasant or unpleasant experience that will sooner or later result from it, but is the seed or latent impulse that it generates or nourishes within our mind. Just as the edible part of a fruit passes away when we eat it, so the potential experience that results as the moral consequence of an action will pass away when we undergo it. But though that experience passes away, a harmful residue of our action will still remain in our mind in the form of a vāsanā, an inclination or liking to repeat such an action. That is, just as the seed survives the consumption of a fruit, waiting for a suitable opportunity to germinate and produce more such fruit, so the tendency or impulse to do such an action again will remain within us in a dormant form, waiting to assert itself either when some seemingly external experience prompts it or when no other stronger impulse has a hold on our mind.
These karma-vāsanās or mental impulses are the seeds of our desires, which are the forces that impel us to do actions by mind, speech and body. Whether any particular action can be classified from a relative perspective as being a good action or a bad action, the impulse or latent desire to do such an action again is yet another knot that helps to bind us to the perpetually revolving wheel of karma or action.
If bad actions are like iron chains that bind us and immerse us in the restless ocean of action, good actions are like golden chains that bind us and immerse us in that same ocean. The only difference between the seeds left by good actions and the seeds left by bad actions is that the former will impel us to do more good actions, which will yield relatively pleasant fruit or resulting experiences, whereas the latter will impel us to do more bad actions, which will yield relatively unpleasant fruit or resulting experiences.
Therefore Sri Ramana says in verse 2 of Upadēśa Undiyār that any action that we may do will only immerse us further in the ocean of action, and will therefore not liberate us from the bondage of compulsively doing more action. Since this bondage results from our illusion that we are this body-bound mind, which is the doer of actions and the experiencer of the resulting pleasant and unpleasant fruits, it cannot be removed by any action that this mind may do, but can only be removed by the absolutely clear experience of true self-knowledge.
So long as we do any action, we will perpetuate the illusion that we are this mind and body, which are the instruments that actually do such actions. Since we are in reality not this ever-active mind or body, but only the underlying self-conscious being, ‘I am’, in which they appear and disappear, in order to experience ourself as we really are we must separate ourself from these instruments of action by remaining unswervingly as our ever-inactive self-conscious being.
Therefore we cannot attain liberation by ‘doing’ anything but only by just ‘being’. That is, liberation from the bondage of our present illusion that we are a finite individual, who does actions by mind, speech and body, cannot be achieved by our doing action of any sort whatsoever, but only by our being just the absolutely non-dual self-conscious being that we always really are. Since the goal that we seek to achieve is just action-free self-conscious being, the only path or means by which we can achieve it is likewise just action-free self-conscious being.
This oneness of the path and the goal is expressed by Sri Ramana clearly and emphatically in verse 579 of Guru Vācaka Kōvai:
Because of the non-dual nature [or greatness] of [our eternally] enduring svarūpa [our own essential self], [and] because of the [consequent] fact that excluding [this non-dual] self there is no other gati [refuge, remedy or way to attain it], the upēya [the goal] which is to be reached is only self and the upāya [the means to reach it] is only self. [Therefore] see that they [our goal and our path] are abhēda [not different].
In this verse Sri Ramana emphasises three times the truth that our goal and the path to reach it are essentially the same. Firstly he says that because our ever-existing self is non-dual there is no way by which we can experience it other than this self itself. Hence our essential self is our only refuge if we wish to be saved from the bondage of karma or action, that is, from the illusion that we are a finite person who is ensnared in duality and who consequently does actions and experiences their results. Secondly he says, ‘upēyamum tāṉē upāyamum tāṉē’, which means ‘the aim is only self, and the means is only self’. And finally he concludes emphatically that our goal and our path are therefore abhēda or ‘not different’.
That is, since our essential self is eternally and absolutely non-dual self-conscious being, it is devoid of all otherness and therefore of all action or ‘doing’, and hence there can be no means to attain it or experience it other than just to be as it is – that is, to remain simply as the thought-free non-dual self-conscious being that we always truly are.
The ‘three karmas’ that Sri Ramana mentions in verse 38 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu are (1) our present actions, which we perform by our free will under the influence of our vāsanās or the latent ‘seeds’ of our desires, and which therefore generate not only more such ‘seeds’ but also ‘fruits’ to be experienced by us later, (2) the store of the ‘fruits’ of our past actions that are yet to be experienced by us, and (3) our present destiny or fate, which is the set of those ‘fruits’ of our past actions that God has selected and ordained for us to experience now. These ‘three karmas’ will all appear to be real so long as we mistake ourself to be a doer and an experiencer, that is, an individual who does actions and experiences pleasure and pain, which are the ‘fruits’ or consequences of actions that we have done in the past.
If we investigate ‘who am I, who now feel that I am doing actions?’ – that is, if we keenly scrutinise our own essential consciousness ‘I am’, which we now confuse with the mind, speech and body that do actions – we will discover that we are actually not a finite individual who does actions by mind, speech and body, but are only the infinite consciousness that just is. When we thus come to know ourself as we really are, we will cease to mistake ourself to be either the doer of any action or the experiencer of the fruit of any action.
In the absence of any such sense of doership or experiencership, all our ‘three karmas’ will slip off us like the skin that slips off a snake. Sri Ramana describes the state in which we will then remain as the state of mukti – liberation, emancipation or salvation – which he says is nitya, a word that is usually translated as ‘eternal’ or ‘perpetual’, but that also means ‘internal’, ‘innate’, ‘natural’ or ‘one’s own’.
What is the significance of his using this word nitya or ‘eternal’ to describe the state of true self-knowledge, in which we are liberated from our sense of doership and from all the ‘three karmas’, which result from that sense? This state is eternal because it is the only state that really exists. There is truly never a time when we do not clearly know ourself as we really are.
Our sense of doership, ‘I am doing this or that’, and all our other confused knowledge about ourself is experienced only by our mind, and not by our real self, which is the infinite and eternal non-dual consciousness that knows only ‘I am’. Our mind is a mere apparition or imagination, and it exists only in its own distorted view of the reality. When we know what we really are, we will discover that we have always known only our own real self, and that our mind is a phantom that never really existed.
However, though the absolute truth is that our mind has never really existed, so long as we imagine ourself to be this mind, its existence will appear to be real, but only in its own distorted view. And so long as our mind thus experiences itself as real, it will also experience everything that is known by it as equally real.
That is, all that our mind experiences appears to it to be as real as it itself appears to be. However, except our basic knowledge ‘I am’, neither our mind nor anything that is known by it is absolutely real. But though none of our knowledge of anything other than ‘I am’ is absolutely real, it is all relatively real. That is, in relation to our mind, which experiences it, all our knowledge of otherness or duality is real.
Moreover, because our entire experience of duality is real in relation to our mind, each individual element in our experience of duality is also real in relation to certain other individual elements. However, though a particular element may be real in relation to certain other elements, it may appear to be unreal in relation to various other elements. The reality or unreality of anything that we experience within the realm of duality is therefore relative.
For example, in a dream we may feel hungry, and if we eat some food in that dream our hunger will be appeased. Though neither our hunger nor the food that we ate was absolutely real, they were both real in relation to each other, and also in relation to our mind, which experienced them both in the same state of dream. Because the dream food was as real as our dream hunger, it was able to appease it, or rather to give rise to a sense of appeasement, which was as real as our former sense of hunger.
However, shortly before experiencing that dream, we may actually have eaten a full meal in the waking state. In relation to the full belly we experienced before falling asleep, the hunger we experienced in dream was unreal. But our mind had forgotten the full meal it had just enjoyed in the waking state, so the hunger it felt in dream appeared to it to be real.
Though the reality of what we experience in one state may negate the reality of what we experienced in another state, we cannot say that either state is more real than the other. Just because we really felt hungry in dream, we cannot conclude that we did not really have a full belly in the waking state. The reason why the two sets of reality that we appear to experience in these two states seem to contradict each other is that the body we imagine to be ourself in one state is different from the body we imagine to be ourself in the other state. Relative to our waking body, our feeling of fullness is real, but relative to our dream body, our feeling of hunger is equally real.
What we experience in each one of these states is just as real as what we experience in the other one, but neither of them is the absolute reality. Our same mind, which takes one set of experiences to be real in one state, takes another set of experiences to be real in another state.
Because the reality that we experience in waking and the reality that we experience in dream are both only relative forms of reality, neither of them can permanently and conclusively establish the unreality of the other. In waking we may think that we know our experiences in dream to be unreal, but before long we will again mistake our experiences in another dream to be real. However clever we may think we are, our mind will always delude us and make us mistake our present imaginations to be real.
Not only does the reality that we experience in waking fail to convince us permanently that the reality that we experience in dream is unreal, and vice versa, but in fact both these sets of reality have a quite opposite effect. That is, they both serve only to reconfirm the reality of our mind, and in doing so they each reinforce the basic delusion that makes us feel that whatever state our mind currently happens to be experiencing is real.
So long as we experience our mind as real, we cannot but experience whatever we are currently knowing through the medium of our mind as equally real. Only in contrast to some other experience that our mind may later experience will it then be able to conclude that what it is now experiencing was unreal.
Our mind will always feel that what it is now experiencing is more real than what it experienced in the past or will experience in the future. The present moment in time is always experienced by our mind as being relatively the most real moment, and every other moment is felt by it to be relatively less real. Therefore since we always feel that our present set of experiences is real, when we are awake we always feel that our present waking experiences are real, whereas when we are dreaming we always feel that our then present dream experiences are real.
Since our mind is the root cause that makes all our relative experiences appear real, and since our experiences in both waking and dream reinforce the seeming reality of our mind, nothing that we experience in either of these two states, except of course our basic and permanent consciousness ‘I am’, can enable us to discover with absolute clarity and certainty the unreality of all relative experience. Only in the real, absolute and non-dual state of true self-knowledge will all relative knowledge be dissolved permanently. That is, we can know for certain that our mind and all that it experiences in both waking and dream are entirely unreal only when we actually experience the absolute reality of our own essential consciousness of being, ‘I am’.
Until we experience the absolute reality of our own essential self, we will continue to experience our mind and its knowledge of duality and otherness as real. However, though we experience them as if they were real, neither our mind nor anything known by it, except ‘I am’, is absolutely real. Therefore the reality of our mind and of all the duality and otherness that it experiences is only relative.
Relative to our mind or individual consciousness, this world is real. Since it is real, everything that exists in it is equally real, including all the people and the innumerable other sentient creatures, and all their various actions and experiences. However, though they are real, none of these things are absolutely real, but are only relatively real. They are in fact all just figments of our imagination, but that does not make them any less real than our mind, which simultaneously imagines and experiences them, because our mind is also just a figment of our imagination.
In a dream we imagine not only the dream world, but also the person who experiences that dream world. Unlike a cinema show, in which the spectators are not actually participants in the drama they are watching, but are quite separate from it, in a dream we are not only the spectator but also a participant who is intimately involved in the drama we are experiencing. We do not experience a dream as an outsider looking in, but as an insider who is actually a part of the dream world. In a dream we cease to be the person we were in the waking state, who is then supposedly lying asleep in a bed, and we become another person – another body – who is engaged in various activities and experiences in some other imaginary world.
The imaginary world that is experienced in a dream is as real as the imaginary person who experiences it. So long as we are dreaming, we mistake that person to be ourself, but when we wake up we understand that he or she was only a product of our imagination. Similarly in our present waking state, we have not only imagined this world, but have also imagined this person who experiences this world. This world is therefore as real as this person, whom we mistake to be ourself so long as we remain in this waking state. In dream we cease to mistake this imaginary person to be ourself, but instead mistake some other imaginary person to be ourself, and in sleep we cease to mistake ourself to be any imaginary person whatsoever.
Though the imaginary person we mistake to be ourself in waking and the imaginary person we mistake ourself to be in a dream are essentially the same person, in that it is our same mind that as each of them experiences a corresponding world, we speak of them as if they were two different persons for two closely related reasons. Firstly and most obviously, the body that we mistake to be ourself in a dream is not the same body that we mistake to be ourself in this waking state. Secondly, in a dream we not only identify ourself with another imaginary body, but we also consequently identify ourself with the experiences we undergo in that body, whereas when we wake up we cease to identify ourself either with that body or with those experiences.
For example, in dream we may have felt, ‘I am hungry’, but in waking we think, ‘I was not really hungry’. In dream we may have felt that we had injured ourself, but in waking we think, ‘I was not really injured’. Thus in each state we dissociate ourself both from the body and from the experiences of the person we mistook ourself to be in another state, and in doing so we in effect deny the reality of that person who experienced that other state.
In these two states, waking and dream, we experience two distinct and independent sets of relative reality, and each of those sets of relative reality include a distinct and independent person whom we mistake to be ourself. When we wake up from a dream, we allow the relative reality of this waking state to supplant and supersede the relative reality of that dream. Likewise, when we begin to dream, we allow the relative reality of that dream to supplant and supersede the relative reality of this waking state. Therefore when we wake up from a dream in which the person we mistook ourself to be was hungry or injured, and when we find the person we now mistake ourself to be is neither hungry nor injured, we allow the relative reality of this waking person to supplant and supersede the relative reality of that dream person, and hence we think ‘I was not really hungry’ or ‘I was not really injured’.
The non-hungry and uninjured person of our present waking state is in fact no more real than the hungry or injured person of our dream state, but because we now mistake this waking person to be ourself, he or she appears to us to be more real than the person we mistook to be ourself in dream. Exactly the same thing happens when we begin to dream. The hungry person we mistake ourself to be in our dream is no more real than the person we mistook ourself to be in the waking state, who had just gone to bed with a full belly. However, because in our dream we mistake that hungry person to be ourself, at that time he or she appears to us to be more real than the person we mistook to be ourself in the waking state, and hence the reality of his or her hunger supersedes the reality of the full belly of the waking person.
The person we now mistake ourself to be and the person we mistook ourself to be in our dream are both figments of our imagination, and are therefore both equally unreal. However, at the time that we actually experience each one of these persons to be ourself, that person and his or her experiences appear to be quite real, whereas the other person and his or her experiences appear to be quite unreal. Therefore the judgement that we now make in this waking state about the reality of our present experience and the unreality of our dream experience is one-sided and therefore unfair.
However, we continue to maintain this biased and prejudiced judgement in favour of the reality of our present experience in this waking state only so long as we mistake this waking person to be ourself. As soon as we begin to mistake some other person to be ourself in dream, we make another equally biased and unfair judgement in favour of the reality of our experience in that state.
For example, in a dream we may meet a friend who had died many years before in our waking state, and though we may be surprised to see that friend alive, we nevertheless feel happy to be able to talk to him and tell him all that has happened in our life since we last met him. Though we remember that he was supposed to have died long ago, now that we actually see him we are unable to doubt his present reality, and so we feel convinced that our memory of his having died is somehow not quite correct. In this way, our judgement of reality will always favour whatever state we are currently experiencing.
The reason why we always feel our present state to be real is that at this particular moment we mistake this particular person, who is not only experiencing but also participating in this present state, to be ourself. We cannot but feel that what we mistake to be ourself is real. In a dream, because we mistake that dream person to be ourself, we cannot but mistake him or her to be real, and therefore we mistake all of his or her experiences to be real. Exactly the same happens in this waking state. Because we now mistake this waking person to be ourself, we cannot but mistake him or her to be real, and therefore we mistake all of his or her experiences to be real.
Therefore, if we analyse our experiences in waking and dream carefully and without partiality, we will have to conclude that our waking experiences have no greater claim to reality than our dream experiences. Both are relatively real while we experience them, even though they each appear to be unreal while we are experiencing the other state. Each is real relative only to the person who experiences them, whom at that time we mistake to be our real self. However, though they each appear to be real from the standpoint of the person who experiences them, they are both actually mere products of our imagination.
What gives all our imaginary experiences a seeming reality is only the actual reality of ourself. Our experiences all appear to be real while we experience them because they are experienced by us. But what is the actual reality of ourself, who experience them? We experience them as a person, and that person is a part of our imaginary experience. What reality does that imaginary person have? There is only one element of actual reality in that imaginary person, and that is our essential consciousness of being, ‘I am’. Because we feel ‘I am experiencing this’, whatever we experience appears to be real.
However, though our simple consciousness ‘I am’ is absolutely real, our compound consciousness ‘I am experiencing’ is unreal. That is, it is unreal in the sense that it is not absolutely real. It is a mere imagination, a transient apparition, which appears at one time and disappears at another time.
Moreover, not only is its appearance transient, but it appears only in its own view, and not in the view of our simple adjunct-free consciousness ‘I am’. In the view of this simple self-consciousness ‘I am’, only ‘I am’ exists. Other than this simple and basic consciousness ‘I am’, everything is an imagination, and is experienced only by the imaginary consciousness that imagines ‘I am experiencing’.
This imaginary consciousness ‘I am experiencing’ is our mind, which is what becomes one person in one state and another person in another state. This imaginary consciousness cannot remain without becoming a person, because it needs to limit itself as an imaginary form in order to be able to imagine and experience things other than itself. The basic form in which it always limits itself is a physical body, which it imagines to be itself, and through the five senses of that imaginary body it experiences an imaginary world. The compound consciousness that arises when we imagine ‘I am this body’ is what constitutes the person we become.
In each state of dualistic experience – that is, in each of the many dreams that we experience, of which our present waking state is just one – we become a person, who is an intimate part of that dualistic state, and who is therefore entirely caught up in the seeming reality of everything that he or she experiences in that state. Since everything that we experience in any state of duality is a product of our own imagination, the imaginary person that we mistake ourself to be whenever we experience such a state is no more real than any of the other imaginary people and things that we experience in that state.
The only thing about this imaginary person that distinguishes him or her from all the other imaginary people in that state is that our experience of this imaginary person is mixed and confused with our consciousness ‘I am’, and therefore we feel ‘I am this person who is experiencing all this’. Because we thus imagine ourself to be this experiencing person, who is a part of the world that we are experiencing in that state, we become entangled and ensnared in the seeming reality of all that we are then experiencing.
That is, because we confuse our essential consciousness ‘I am’ with this imaginary person, who seems to be experiencing the current state, we mistake him or her to be real. And because we thus attribute reality to this experiencing person, we thereby attribute the same degree of reality to all that he or she is experiencing. Therefore, though everything that we experience is just as real as this experiencing person, whom we imagine to be ourself, everything that we experience actually derives its seeming reality only from this experiencing person, who in turn derives his or her seeming reality only from our own essential self-consciousness ‘I am’.
In a dream we may sometimes think that we are just dreaming, but even then we are unable to change what we are experiencing in that dream. Since the dream is our own imagination, why can we not imagine it in any way we wish?
The reason is that we who wish to change that imaginary experience are ourself a part of it. Because we have imagined ourself to be a person who is not only experiencing an imaginary world, but is also a part of that imaginary world, we have in effect become a figment of our own imagination. Being a part of the dream we have imagined, we are powerless to change it. Our power of imagination is so intense and vivid that whenever we imagine something, we become ensnared in our own imagination.
Since we who experience our imagination are unable to control it, who or what does control it? Is it running haphazardly, or is it being regulated in some way? Though there does often appear to be an element of disorderliness and haphazardness in the events we experience in a dream, at least in our waking world there does appear to be a high degree of order and regularity. What then is the power or controlling force that regulates all the events that we experience in this imaginary world that we are now experiencing? Clearly it is not us as an individual, because as a part of this imaginary world we are subject to the order by which it is running. We cannot change this world at will, just as we cannot change our dream world at will.
Though the world we experience is a product of our own imagination, as an individual in this world we are unable to regulate the order by which it is running. Therefore the power that is regulating this imaginary world is separate from this individual that we now imagine ourself to be. What then is that power? Is it our real self?
No, it cannot be, because our real self is just being, and knows nothing other than mere being. Our real self is just our essential consciousness of being, ‘I am’, and since it knows only its own being, in its view there is no imagination or any product of imagination. Since it is infinite, undivided and non-dual, it alone truly exists, and there is nothing other than it for it to know. That is, our real self is the absolute reality, and as such it has no function, but is just the substratum, support and only true substance of this world of relativity and duality.
Since it is not us as our individual mind, nor us as our real self, the power that regulates all that we imagine appears to us to be something separate from us. That seemingly separate power is what we commonly refer to as ‘God’.
Though God appears to be separate from us, his separateness exists only in the limited and distorted view of our mind. In the unlimited view of God, neither we nor this world are separate from him, but are just distorted forms of his own essential being.
In reality, God is not other than our own real self, but what seemingly distinguishes him from our real self is his function. The only ‘function’ of our real self is to be, whereas the function of God is to regulate this entire world of our imagination. Because he has this function of regulating or governing this entire world, God is in effect an entity or being that is separate both from the world and from us as individuals.
In reality neither this world, which we imagine we experience through our five senses, nor God, who regulates exactly what we experience in this world, are separate from us, that is, from our real self. However, because we have separated ourself as a finite mind or individual consciousness, the world and God both appear to be separate from us. Therefore the root cause of the seeming separation or division that we experience between ourself, the world and God is our basic imagination that we are a separate individual consciousness.
In a state devoid of form, there can be no separation, so we are able to separate ourself only by imagining ourself to be a form. Because we imagine ourself to be a distinct form, other forms that are separate from us also appear to exist. The basic form that we imagine to be ourself is our physical body, but by imagining ourself to be this body, we also give rise to a more subtle form, namely our mind, which is the individual consciousness that feels ‘I am this body’, and we thereby feel ourself to be this more subtle form also. Thus the form that distinguishes us as an individual is a compound form consisting of the physical form of this body and the subtle form of this mind.
By imagining this compound form to be ourself, we seemingly divide or separate ourself from our own absolute reality – our formless, infinite and indivisible real self – and having separated ourself thus, we experience our own self as two other basic entities, namely the world and God. Because we imagine the world and God to be separate from us, we imagine them to be forms like us. Therefore in verse 4 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu Sri Ramana says:
If we are a form, the world and God will be likewise. If we are not a form, who could see their forms, [and] how? Can the sight [whatever is seen] be otherwise than the eye [the consciousness that sees it]? We, that eye [the formless consciousness ‘I am’], are the limitless eye [the infinite consciousness].
The form in which this world exists in our imagination is a physical form, like our physical body, and the form in which God exists in our imagination is a more subtle form, like our mind. Just as we cannot see our mind as a physical entity, we cannot see God as a physical entity, but that does not mean that he does not have a form. Though we cannot see his form in the same manner that we see the physical form of this world, he is not for that reason any less real than this world.
Just as our mind is the soul that animates the physical form of our body, so God is the soul that animates the physical form of this entire world. We cannot see the mind in the physical body of another person, but from the behaviour of that physical body we are able to infer that a mind is present within it. Likewise we are able to infer the presence of God in this world even though we cannot see him.
Just as our mind is a subtle and intangible form, a form that we experience as our first thought ‘I’, so God is also a subtle and intangible form, a form that we can experience only as a thought, a concept, a belief or a mental image. However, just because the form of God as we know him is only a thought or mental image, this does not mean that he is unreal. As a form or separate being, God is as real as this world and as our individual self.
Even the physical forms of our body and of this entire world are actually only thoughts or mental images, but that does not mean that they are unreal. Our individual self, the world and God are all thoughts, and as such they are real, but only relatively real. As separate entities, none of them is the absolute reality, but they are each a relative reality. The world and God are both as real as our mind, our individual consciousness, which experiences them both as mental images.
As distinct mental images, not only the world and God but even our own individual self or mind exists only in our imagination. As soon as we imagine ourself to be a separate individual, the world and God also come into existence as separate entities. The reality of each one of these three basic entities is inseparable from the reality of the other two. Though all three of them are imaginary, so long as we experience the existence of ourself as an individual, we will also experience the existence of the world and God.
As Sri Ramana says in the seventh paragraph of Nāṉ Yār?, which we discussed in the previous chapter:
That which actually exists is only ātma-svarūpa [our own essential self]. The world, soul and God are kaṯpaṉaigaḷ [imaginations, mental creations or fabrications] in it [our essential self], like [the imaginary] silver [that we see] in a shell. These three [basic elements of relativity or duality] appear at the same time and disappear at the same time. [Our] svarūpa [our ‘own form’ or essential self] alone is the world; [our] svarūpa alone is ‘I’ [our mind or individual self]; [our] svarūpa alone is God; everything is śiva-svarūpa [our essential self, which is śiva, the absolute and only truly existing reality].
Therefore, though God as a separate entity is only a figment of our own imagination, he is nevertheless as real as this world, and also as real as our mind, which imagines him to be separate from itself. So long as we experience our mind as if it were real, we cannot deny the relative reality of God. Since he is the infinitely subtle power that regulates everything that we experience in this or any other world, he is as real as anything else that we experience.
As we saw above, the function of God is to regulate or govern this world and all the individuals in it. His overall function of governing everything in this universe includes many aspects or sub-functions, including various material functions such as ensuring that all the physical objects in this universe obey the various ‘laws of nature’ – the laws of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and so on. However, his most important and significant function is his most subtle one, which is to bestow his ‘grace’ or ‘blessing’ upon all us individual souls in such a manner as to guide us towards and along the path that leads to ‘salvation’ or true self-knowledge.
This function of bestowing grace includes ordaining the time, the place and the manner in which each of the ‘fruits’ or consequences of all our past actions should be experienced by us. We generate these ‘fruits’ by thought, word and deed, that is, by using our free will to perform karmas or actions through our mind, speech and body. All these actions that we thus perform by our free will are driven by the force of our desires.
When our desires are strong and we do not keep them in check, they rage wildly as thoughts in our mind and impel us to speak and act rashly, selfishly and without concern for the effects that our words and actions will have upon others. Such selfishly motivated thoughts, speech and actions are ‘bad karmas’ or ‘sins’, and by such sins we generate bad ‘fruits’, which we will later have to experience as some form of suffering or pain.
When we keep a check on our desires, and shape them with due concern for other people and creatures, we will think, speak and act more carefully and with greater compassion, not wishing to cause any harm to any other living being. Such actions of mind, speech and body that we perform with due care and true compassion are ‘good karmas’, by which we generate good ‘fruits’, which we will later have to experience as some form of pleasure.
Good desires lead to good actions, which in turn yield good ‘fruit’, while bad desires lead to bad actions, which in turn yield bad ‘fruit’. The rate at which we generate ‘fruit’ is determined by the strength of our desires. Whether they are good desires or bad desires, or as is usually the case, a mixture of both, if our desires are strong we will generate ‘fruit’ rapidly. We can avoid generating fresh ‘fruit’ only by surrendering our will to God, that is, by giving up all our desires, both good and bad.
However, because our desires are generally very strong, we usually generate fresh ‘fruit’ at a much greater rate than we are able to experience them. Thus in each single lifetime we generate far more ‘fruit’ than we could possibly experience in a single lifetime, so during the course of many lifetimes we have each accumulated a vast store of ‘fruits’ that we are yet to experience. Even if our desires are now greatly reduced due to our efforts to surrender our own will and to yield ourself to the will of God, we will still have a vast stock of ‘fruits’ that we have accumulated as a result of our past desires.
From the vast store of the ‘fruits’ of our past actions that we have not yet experienced, God is able to select carefully those ‘fruits’ that will be most beneficial for us to experience now, and he therefore ordains that those ‘fruits’ should be experienced by us as our destiny or fate in this present lifetime. The ‘fruits’ that he destines us to experience now are those that will be most conducive to the development of our spiritual maturity, that is, to enkindling in our mind the clarity of discrimination that will enable us to free ourself from our desires, fears and attachments, and to develop the true love just to be. Since everything that we experience is our destiny, and since our destiny is those ‘fruits’ of our past actions that for our own greatest good God has carefully selected and ordained for us to experience now, whatever we happen to experience is truly the ‘will of God’.
All the divine qualities of God that are described by our various religions are true. Most importantly, he is all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful. Because he is omniscient or all-knowing, nothing can happen in this world that he does not know. Because he is omnipotent or all-powerful, nothing can happen in this world without his consent. And because he is all-loving, or rather because he is love itself, nothing can happen in this world that is not for the ultimate good of all concerned.
All this is true, but only as true as our existence as a separate individual consciousness. If we are real as a separate individual, then the God and all his divine qualities are also real. In other words, until we attain true self-knowledge and thereby merge in our own real self, losing our separate individuality, God will exist as a separate all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful being, and he will always be guiding and assisting us in our efforts to know ourself. However, when we do finally know our real self and thereby become free from the delusion that we are a separate individual, God will also cease to exist as a separate being, and will instead be experienced by us as our own real self.
As a separate being, God is real, but only relatively real. So long as we imagine him to be separate from us, he cannot as such be the absolute reality, which is infinite and therefore separate from nothing. However, his separation from us is real only in the limited and distorted view of our mind. In his real nature or essential being, God is always one with our own essential being, so when we experience our essential being as it really is, we will discover that God is our own real self, and that as such he is the absolute reality.
So long as we feel ourself to be a person, a distinct and finite individual, we have a tendency to consider God to be some sort of a person – not a limited person like ourself, but somehow a person nonetheless. We believe God to be infinite, yet we nevertheless consider him to be a person. How can we reconcile this obvious contradiction, and what is the actual basis of this almost universally held concept of God?
How can God be both the infinite fullness of being and any sort of person, even if we consider that person to be the ‘Supreme Person’? If he is truly infinite, he cannot be a person of any sort whatsoever, because a person is by definition a finite individual, a distinct and separate being. What then are we to infer from the fact that we have this confused notion of an infinite yet personal God? Does this not indicate that none of our concepts of God are actually an adequate depiction of his true nature, because in reality he transcends all human conception?
It is true that God is infinite, but as such he cannot be separate either from ourself or from any other thing. Since he is the infinite fullness of being, he is the whole that includes all things within itself, and as such he is the essence of everything. However, so long as we do not experience his infinite being as our own real self – our own true essence – we mistake ourself to be a finite individual, and this mistaken view of ourself distorts our conception of the infinite reality that we call God, making us feel that he is somehow separate from us.
Given the fact that we mistake ourself to be somehow separate from the infinite reality that we call God, relative to this mistaken view both of ourself and of God do we have any valid reason to consider God to be a person? Is our concept of a personal God even a remote approximation to the truth of his nature? Surprising though it may seem, our conception of God as a person does in fact have a reasonable and valid basis in reality. What is that basis?
The ultimate reality of God is that he is our own real self, our essential being. As we have seen earlier, an intrinsic characteristic of ourself is that we love ourself and we love happiness, because happiness is our own true nature. When we remain as we really are, that is, as our pure self-conscious being, devoid of all ‘doing’ and dualistic ‘knowing’, we experience perfect happiness, because our essential being, which is our adjunct-free non-dual consciousness of being, is itself the infinite fullness of happiness. However, when we imagine ourself to be a finite individual, we seemingly separate ourself from the infinite happiness which is our own true being, and hence we become restless, hankering to experience once again that infinite happiness.
Our love to be happy is inherent not only in us as an individual, but also in us as the infinite and non-dual consciousness of being. Love is in fact our true nature – our own essential being. We can never for a moment remain without love for happiness, because we are that love. Our true self-conscious and perfectly happy being is infinite love, because happiness and love are inseparable. We love whatever makes us happy, and we are made happy by experiencing whatever we love. The ultimate happiness lies in experiencing that which we love most, which is ourself – our own true self-conscious being.
When we imagine ourself to be a finite individual, we seemingly separate ourself from God, who is in reality nothing other than our own true being, which is perfect peace and absolute happiness. Whether we know it or not, our love for happiness is love for God, because ‘God’ is a name that we give to the infinite happiness that we all seek.
Since God is in truth our own real self, he loves us as himself, and his only ‘will’ or ‘desire’ is that we should be perfectly happy. Because he loves each and every living being as himself, and because he therefore loves us all to be infinitely happy as he is, all religions teach the fundamental truth that God is love.
Because we each feel ourself to be a human being, we cannot avoid thinking of the love of God in anthropomorphic terms. Due to our deluded experience of ourself as an individual person, we mistake love to be something personal, and we are unable to conceive of a love that is impersonal, or rather, transpersonal. Hence, though in reality the love of God transcends all forms of limitation, including the limitation that is inherent in the love of one person for another person, we are not entirely mistaken in considering God to be a person whose love is all-embracing. That is, from the limited standpoint of our human mind, the love that God has for each one of us does function in a manner that is very similar to the love between one person and another.
The love that is the true nature of God, and that manifests in our view as a seemingly personal love for each one of us, is the basis of our belief in a personal God. Though in reality he is not a person, but is the essential substance and infinite totality of all that is, from the finite standpoint of our human mind, he does in effect appear to act as a person who has unbounded love for each and every one of us.
Therefore, though our belief in the seemingly personal nature of God may appear to be incompatible with the ultimate truth of his nature, namely that he is the infinite, indivisible, non-dual and absolute reality, which is our own true self or essential being, this superficial incompatibility is reconciled by the fact that God is not only infinite being and consciousness, but is also infinite love.
Because he is infinite being, and because there is therefore nothing that is separate from or other than him, he is indeed all-powerful or omnipotent. Because he is infinite consciousness or knowledge, being the ultimate foundation and essential substance of all forms of knowledge, he is indeed all-knowing or omniscient. And because he is infinite love, having unbounded love for everything as his own self, he is indeed all-loving.
So long as we imagine ourself to be a particular person, the almighty, all-knowing and all-loving infinite reality that we call ‘God’ does appear to function as a person, and therefore we are able to experience an intensely personal love for him, even though we may understand the truth that he is the impersonal absolute reality. By cultivating such love for him in our heart, we can learn to surrender our self-deluded individual will to his divine ‘will’ – which is the simple love just to be – and thereby we can attune ourself to his true nature of non-dual self-conscious being.
The personal love that we feel for God is by no means a love that is one-sided on our part. In fact, if it is in any way one-sided, it is on his part and not ours, because his love for us is infinitely greater than our love for him. Therefore, when we cultivate sincere love for him, he responds in far greater measure, helping us to surrender ourself entirely to him by drawing our mind inwards, thereby establishing it firmly in our fundamental consciousness of our own being, ‘I am’, which is his real nature.
In truth, however, God does much more than just respond to the love that we feel for him, because he is actually responsible for enkindling such love in our heart. That is, since he is the ultimate source of all love, whatever love we feel for him originates only from him.
Though we speak of our personal relationship with God in this apparently dualistic manner, the duality that seems to exist in the love between him and us actually exists only in the inherently dualistic outlook of our own mind, and not in the inherently non-dualistic outlook of his real being. Since he knows us and loves us as his own essential self, his love is in truth always perfectly non-dual, and therefore completely non-personal. Nevertheless, though the absolute truth is that his love for us is non-dual and non-personal, from the relative standpoint of our mind the seemingly dualistic and personal nature of his love is quite real.
That is, his personal love for us is every bit as real as our seeming existence as a separate individual person. So long as we mistake ourself to be a person, the non-dual love that God has for us will appear to us to be a personal love, albeit a love that is infinite. Only when we respond to his infinite love by surrendering our mind or separate individuality entirely to him – sacrificing it in the clarity of our own self-conscious being, which is his true essence – will we be able to experience the real non-dual and transpersonal nature of his love.
Though in the limited and distorted view of our mind God appears to perform certain functions, in reality he is just being, and hence he does not do anything. All the functions that he appears to perform happen due to his mere presence, without him actually doing anything. This fact is explained graphically by Sri Ramana in the fifteenth paragraph of Nāṉ Yār?:
Just as in the mere presence of the sun, which rose without icchā [wish, desire or liking], saṁkalpa [volition or intention], [or] yatna [effort or exertion], a crystal stone [or magnifying lens] will emit fire, a lotus will blossom, water will evaporate, and people of the world will engage in [or begin] their respective activities, do [those activities] and subside [or cease being active], and [just as] in front of a magnet a needle will move, [so] jīvas [living beings], who are caught in [the finite state governed by] muttoṙil [the threefold function of God, namely the creation, sustenance and dissolution of the world] or pañcakṛtyas [the five functions of God, namely creation, sustenance, dissolution, concealment and grace], which happen due to nothing but the special nature of the presence of God, move [busy themselves, perform activities, make effort or strive] and subside [cease being active, become still or sleep] in accordance with their respective karmas [that is, in accordance not only with their prārabdha karma or destiny, which impels them to do whatever actions are necessary in order for them to experience all the pleasant and unpleasant things that they are destined to experience, but also with their karma vāsanās, their inclinations or impulsions to desire, think and act in particular ways, which impel them to make effort to experience certain pleasant things that they are not destined to experience, and to avoid certain unpleasant things that they are destined to experience]. Nevertheless, he [God] is not saṁkalpa sahitar [a person connected with or possessing volition or intention]. Even one karma does not adhere to him [that is, he is not bound or affected by any karma or action whatsoever]. That is like world-actions [the actions happening here on earth] not adhering to [or affecting] the sun, and [like] the qualities and defects of the other four elements [earth, water, air and fire] not adhering to the all-pervading space.
Like the sun, whose mere presence causes so many things to happen on this earth, God has no icchā or saṁkalpa, desire or intention, and hence he never makes any yatna or effort to do anything, yet his mere presence causes all living beings to act, each according to his or her own destiny and personal inclinations. Though all that happens happens due to his mere presence, he remains completely unaffected by anything that happens – either by any action or by its effects. He does not do anything, and he is not affected by anything that appears to be done, because he is pure being.
Being is the single, non-dual, undivided and infinite ‘is’-ness or essence of all that is, and as such it just is, and never does anything. Whatever we or anything else may appear to do, our essential ‘is’-ness or being remains as it is. All karma, all action or ‘doing’, is finite and therefore relative and superficial. That which is infinite, absolute and essential is only being. All ‘doing’ depends upon ‘being’, and it can happen only in the presence of ‘being’. Unless we are, we cannot do, but whatever we do does not in any way affect, change or modify the fact that we are. Being therefore transcends all forms of doing.
God is the infinitude or fullness of being. He is the ‘is-ness’ or essence of all that is. Because he is the essence of everything, he is present everywhere, in all places and at all times. His all-pervading presence is therefore just his being, which is the essential being or ‘is’-ness of everything. Because he is the one infinite whole or fullness of being, nothing can exist apart from him, and hence he is present in everything as everything.
Because he is everything, he is also said to be mahākartā, the ‘great doer’, or sarvakartā, the ‘all doer’, the one who does everything, including the five fundamental actions or pañcakṛtyas, namely sṛṣṭi, the creation or projection of this entire appearance of duality, which we call the ‘world’ or ‘universe’, sthiti, the sustenance or maintenance of this appearance, saṁhāra, the dissolution or withdrawal of this appearance, tirōdhāna or tirōbhāva, the concealment or veiling of the reality, which not only enables sṛṣṭi, sthiti and saṁhāra to take place, but also more specifically enables living beings to continue to do karmas and to experience their consequences so long as they have desire to do so, and anugraha or grace, the revealing of the reality, which enables us to experience true self-knowledge and thereby to transcend the unreal state of duality in which all these pañcakṛtyas appear to happen.
However, though in our limited outlook it appears that God does all these ‘five actions’ or pañcakṛtyas, he does not in fact do anything. He just is, and due to the mere presence of his ‘is’-ness or being all these pañcakṛtyas happen automatically and spontaneously.
Therefore, if we wish to say that God does everything, that is true only in the sense that he does it all by just being. This is why Sri Ramana says that these pañcakṛtyas all happen due to īśaṉ sannidhāna viśēṣa mātra, which means ‘nothing but the special nature of the presence of God’.
The fact that God is just the infinite fullness of being and therefore does not do anything is the ultimate and absolute truth. However, from the limited standpoint of our finite mind, the fact that he is separate from us and has certain functions to perform is relatively real. That is, so long as we feel ourself to be a doer of action, it will appear to us that the functions of God are actions that he is actually doing.
So long as any action is done, there has to be something or someone who is doing that action, so from our relative standpoint we are correct in believing that God is the ultimate doer of everything. The fact that he is just being, and that due to his mere being or presence all actions appear to be done, can be fully comprehended by us only when we experience ourself as just being, and thereby discover that we have never done anything, and that all action or ‘doing’ was a mere imagination that existed only in the distorted view of our unreal mind.
All ‘doing’ is merely a distortion of being. Though being is truly the only reality, and though it just is, in the limited and distorted view of our mind it is experienced as doing. Though all doing is an unreal appearance, being a mere figment of our imagination, it could not even appear to be real if it were not supported by the underlying reality of being. Before we can imagine that we are doing anything, we must first know that we are. The imagination that we are doing appears and disappears, but the knowledge that we are endures. Since our being alone endures, it is the only permanent and absolute reality, and therefore the appearance of doing is an illusion that can occur only due to being, or rather, due to our mind’s distorted view of being.
Just as we are real in two very distinct senses, so God is real in the same two distinct senses. As a finite individual consciousness that imagines ‘I am this body’, ‘I am doing this or that’, we are relatively real, but as the infinite consciousness ‘I am’, we are absolutely real. Likewise, as a separate all-doing, all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful being, God is relatively real, but as our own infinite consciousness ‘I am’, which is the limitless fullness of being, love, knowledge and power, he is absolutely real.
So long as God and ourself appear to be two separate beings, the world will also appear to exist. Relative to our individual self or mind, God and the world are both perfectly real. None of these three separate entities is any less real than the other two. We cannot experience either the world that we perceive or the God who governs it as unreal so long as we experience our experiencing mind as real.
Understanding theoretically that our mind, the world and God are all unreal is necessary, but it is of practical value to us only to the extent that it enables us to develop true inward detachment from our mind and our entire life in this world, and true love to know and to be our own real self. If we believe that we have understood the world to be unreal, but we still have desire to enjoy any of the seeming pleasures of this world, we are only deluding ourself. The sole purpose and benefit of our understanding the theory of spiritual philosophy is to enable ourself to develop the true love to experience only our own essential self, which is the one and only absolute reality, and the true freedom from any desire to experience anything else.
If we really understand that this world, our mind and everything other than our essential consciousness of being is unreal, we should turn our attention inwards to discover what is real. However, until we actually experience the absolute and infinite reality as our own self, we will continue to experience our finite mind as ourself, and hence we will inevitably experience our mind and everything known by it as real. So long as we experience ourself to be this mind-body complex, we will continue to experience the world as real.
Though for our true inward purpose of discovering the absolute reality we must develop the understanding and conviction that this world is unreal, for all outward purposes we must behave as if this world were real, because it is unreal only from the standpoint of the absolute reality, and not from the standpoint of our equally unreal mind.
Relative to our mind, this world is real, so we must interact with it accordingly. For example, the fact that fire burns may not be the absolute reality, but it is definitely a relative reality. Though we may imagine that we have understood fire to be unreal, if we touch it we will still feel pain. The fire, our pain and our mind, which experiences that pain, are all equally real.
Therefore in the non-dualistic philosophy of advaita vēdānta, an important distinction is always made between absolute reality and relative reality, which in Sanskrit are called respectively pāramārthika satya and vyāvahārika satya. The word satya means ‘truth’ or ‘reality’, and the word pāramārthika is an adjectival form of paramārtha, which in this context means the ‘ultimate substance’ or essence. Thus the term pāramārthika satya, which is usually translated as the ‘supreme reality’ or ‘absolute reality’, literally means the reality that is the ultimate substance or essence of all things. The word vyāvahārika is an adjectival form of vyavahāra, which means doing, action, practice, conduct, behaviour, occupation, activity or any worldly interaction such as business, trade, commerce or litigation, and thus vyāvahārika satya means mundane, practical, interactive reality. Hence in advaita vēdānta the term vyāvahārika satya is used to denote the relative reality of our mind and all that it experiences, while the term pāramārthika satya is used to denote the absolute reality of our essential being.
In addition to these two quite distinct forms of reality, some scholars like to distinguish a third form of reality called prātibhāsika satya. The word prātibhāsika is an adjectival form of pratibhāsa, which means an appearance, a semblance or an illusion, and thus prātibhāsika satya means ‘seeming reality’ or ‘illusory reality’. In certain philosophical texts of vēdānta the world that we experience in the waking state is described as vyāvahārika satya or ‘practical reality’, whereas the world that we experience in dream is described as prātibhāsika satya or ‘seeming reality’. However the same texts also say that certain things that we experience in the waking state, such as a mirage or the illusion of a snake in a rope, are not vyāvahārika satya but only prātibhāsika satya. Thus the distinction that is supposed to exist between vyāvahārika satya and prātibhāsika satya is that the former is a reality experienced ‘objectively’ by many people, whereas the latter is a reality experienced ‘subjectively’ by just one person.
However, this distinction is false, and it appears to be true only in relation to our present experience in this waking world. Just as we now imagine that this waking world is experienced objectively by many people, so in dream we imagined that that dream world was experienced objectively by many people. In both states, however, the ‘many people’ exist only as images in our own mind. All forms of relative reality or vyāvahārika satya are in fact only an illusion, a seeming reality or prātibhāsika satya, and conversely, all forms of seeming reality are real relative to the mind that experiences them. Therefore, though the distinction between vyāvahārika satya and prātibhāsika satya may appear to be true from a mundane standpoint, from a strictly philosophical standpoint both these terms denote the same form of reality, the relative but illusory reality experienced by our mind.
Basically there are just two forms of reality, absolute reality and relative reality. Everything that we experience is either absolutely real or only relatively real. Since there can truly be only one absolute reality, everything else is only a form of relative reality. Though we may be able to distinguish different forms of relative reality, such distinctions are of no use to us if our aim is to experience the absolute reality.
We distinguish relative reality from absolute reality only because, in order to experience the absolute reality, we must learn to ignore everything that is not absolutely real, and to focus our attention only on that which is absolutely real. However, when we do actually experience the absolute reality as it is, we will discover that it alone exists, and that there is nothing other than it. In that state all relative reality will have merged and disappeared, being found to be nothing other than the one infinite, undivided and non-dual absolute reality.
Some scholastic philosophers describe absolute reality and relative reality as being different ‘levels’ or ‘planes’ of reality. However, absolute reality and relative reality cannot be compared in this manner. The absolute reality is absolutely real, so it is relative to nothing, and therefore cannot be compared in any way to anything else.
However, from the limited and distorted perspective of relative reality, we have to say that the absolute reality is the ultimate foundation, substratum or support of all this relative reality. Therefore, though the absolute reality is not related in any way to relative reality, relative reality is intimately, intrinsically and unavoidably related to the absolute reality, because it is entirely dependent upon it. That is, all relativity depends for its own seeming reality upon the true reality of the one absolute essence, which is our own self-conscious being or ‘am’-ness, whereas this absolute essence does not depend upon anything else.
The concept of such a one-way relationship would be meaningless and self-contradictory if it were formed with respect to anything other than this ‘relationship’ between the absolute reality and relative reality. However, we cannot explain this particular ‘relationship’ as being anything other than a one-way relationship, because of the two partners in this relationship, only the former is truly real, while the latter is a mere apparition – an illusion that exists only in the outlook of our mind, which is itself part of the illusion that it experiences.
The concept of ‘levels’ or ‘planes’ of reality can therefore be applied only to the various different forms of relative reality. So long as relative reality appears to exist, there may appear to be any number of different ‘levels’ or ‘planes’ of such reality. However, since our aim is to transcend all relative reality and to experience only the non-dual absolute reality, we need not concern ourself with any analysis of or discussions about any different ‘levels’ or ‘planes’ of reality, because in truth there is only one reality, and we are that.
To our minds, which are long accustomed to the idea that the problems of life are complex and difficult to comprehend fully, and that the solutions to those problems are equally complex and obscure, the account of reality given here may appear to be excessively simple and free of obscurity, and as such to be overly simplistic. However, the absolute reality is indeed perfectly simple and free of all obscurity.
Complexity and obscurity belongs only to the realm of relativity, and not to the realm of the absolute. That which is absolute is by its very definition perfectly simple and clear. To be absolute it must be perfectly non-dual, because all duality is by its very nature relative. So long as we imagine any form of duality in the reality, that reality is not absolute but only relative.
If we consider the countless relative problems of life, they are indeed extremely complex and impossible to comprehend fully or adequately, and the aim of our discussion here is not to pretend otherwise. What we are considering here is not any relative problems, but is only the absolute reality that underlies all relativity, and since it is absolute that reality must be perfectly simple and free of all obscurity.
Since the absolute reality cannot be limited in any way, it must be infinite and undivided, and as such it must be single, non-dual and free of all complexity. Since it is infinite, nothing can be other than it, so it must be the true and essential being of everything, including ourself. Therefore the absolute reality is nothing other than our own essential being, which we always experience as our perfectly simple, self-knowing and therefore ever clearly self-evident consciousness ‘I am’. The absolute reality is as simple and as obvious as that.
The root of all the relative problems that we experience in our life is our mind. Our mind by its power of imagination creates all duality and relativity, and duality and relativity inevitably give rise to conflict and complexity. The problems of the relative world will persist in one form or other so long as we seek to solve them only by relative means.
No relative solution can solve a relative problem perfectly or absolutely. As soon as one relative problem is solved, or appears to be solved, another relative problem pops up. In a relative world, therefore, a problem-free life is inconceivable. Utopia can never be experienced in a world of duality and relativity, but only in a state beyond all duality and relativity – in a state of absolute non-duality.
Since all duality and relativity are experienced only within our own mind, if we wish to find a perfect solution to all the relative problems of life, we must look beyond our mind to the absolute reality that underlies its appearance. Our mind is a relative form of consciousness, and as such it is extremely complex and fraught with problems. In fact our mind thrives on complexity and problems, and it instinctively shies away from a perfectly simple and problem-free state of non-dual self-consciousness. Why? Because in a state of perfectly clear non-dual consciousness, a state of simple and true self-knowledge, our mind cannot survive.
Being an illusory phantom, our mind can appear to exist only in the confusion and darkness of the complex duality of its own self-created state of relative consciousness. In the state of perfectly clear non-dual self-consciousness, all that is known is our simple consciousness of our own being, ‘I am’. In the clarity of such absolute non-dual self-consciousness, therefore, the illusory appearance of the relative object-knowing consciousness called ‘mind’ – the consciousness that feels not merely ‘I am’ but ‘I am knowing this’ or ‘I am knowing that’ – will dissolve and disappear.