Everyone born within the last two generations has seen in his lifetime such far-reaching changes that the world has literally become a different place from the one which his father grew up in. The power to master our environment that we now possess has to many seemed an end in itself, something supremely worth-while, providing a sufficiently solid ground on which to base a good life. The tremendous success of our achievement has contained within it the seed of its own imperfection, as it has claimed our attentive imagination so much as to confirm us in the belief that all things that are possible for the world and ourselves will one day be physically demonstrated (generally by someone else) before our very eyes. Unfortunately, we are alive to little else.
Great as our skill of technological manipulation is, and greater as it will inevitably become, it is as nothing compared to the ethical, aesthetic and above all, spiritual capacities of man’s being. Yet these things are by nature intangible. The fruit of one’s ethical behaviour is never seen to travel in its correct orbit round the earth ; an aesthetic experience loses integrity on communication.
Because of the imprecise nature of the values of the moral order, we are tending to forget them and turn to that which ‘ is ’ or has been achieved as our standard of truth. One aspect of this can be seen in the move of the reading public towards non-fictional literature. “ I had much rather read something that has actually happened—something true, than novels ”, is often heard from young people. To think that truth resides in fact alone is to denude life of all worth, as anyone will see who stops to consider. Where is ‘ fact ’ concerned in the smallest act of self-sacrifice, in the deliberately anonymous exercise of un-selfconscious virtue, in faith in an order of being beyond the merely physical ? To cram one’s mind with ‘ facts ’ and to neglect faith and goodness is to become quickly sub-human.
Knowledge of things is never gathered for the sake of those things themselves, although we behave as if it were ; it is gathered for our sake, to enhance us in some way. It is obvious, then, that we ourselves possess the primary value and things only a secondary or derived value, but in allowing ourselves to be mesmerised by the ‘ facts ’ about us, indiscriminately collecting information and evidence and experience, we behave as though the reverse were true. Knowledge is for the benefit of the person. No benefit is conferred upon the world by thinking we must give equal attention to all of its phases, irrespective of their significance and power to broaden and uplift the mind.
Then what is it that we need to know and contact ? To what should we re-orientate our imagination ?
“ The most important thing in nature is neither sun, nor atoms, nor the laws, but it is human experience. It means : a conception of underlying unity. This thought, expressed so often in the Upanishads and Gita, is the keynote of the philosophy of Shri Shankara.”
We might question this view. How finite is man when compared to the immensities of inter-galactic space ! Admittedly space and its contents, even the notion of its unthinkable vastness, are encompassed by the human mind, but the mind is the subject of this conception and space the object, therefore the two cannot be identical. Does this credit the witnessing mind with superiority over its concepts ? If so, man once again seems to be placed at the centre of the universe and is apparently the measure of all things. Such Humanism was never upheld by Shri Shankara, however ; his idealism was never of this sort.
Our error lies in the interpretation that we have given to the words ‘ human experience ’. It does not mean a particular experience or the sum-total of those experiences. It means that which makes these possible and is experience itself. It means the Witness-consciousness, in other words, the unifying factor which supports the trio—experience, experienced and experiencer—and which enables the experiencer to consider himself a stable fact amongst the world of facts.
But such notions as multiplicity are to be overcome if we desire freedom from fear and consequent suffering. In the words of the Chandogya Upanishad : “ Where one sees nothing else, hears nothing else, understands nothing else, that is the Infinite. Where one sees something else, hears something else, understands something else, that is the finite. The Infinite is Immortal, the finite is mortal ”.
Human experience is capable of reaching that pitch where the underlying unity behind phenomena is intuitively realised. The guarantee of this is contained in the everyday experience of which we are all aware—personal identity, and it is only from personal identity that all ‘ facts ’ derive their significance. Linking the infinite phases of man’s life is the substratum of all, Absolute Consciousness, and it is to be realised as the innermost Self.
The great Yogis tell us that in this experience lies man’s highest good, and until it is made his own he will suffer and know no rest.