If a person goes missing, and has not been seen by anybody for a sufficiently long time, they are pronounced legally to be “missing, believed dead”, although those who are real friends and loved them, still keep faith with them. They go on hoping and believing that they will eventually turn out to be alive and will reappear.
But when in history a great ruler has disappeared, who is heir to the throne of a great kingdom then many pretenders may arise, each claiming the throne for themselves, each asserting that they are the King. Such things really happen, as they have done more than once in the history of Russia. When the ambitious Tartar Boyar, Boris Goudonov, was appointed Regent of Russia, he should rightfully have passed on the throne of Russia to the young son of Ivan the Terrible, Dmitri, when he became of age.
But the boy disappeared and was reputed to have been murdered in his ninth year on the orders of Boris. Later, in the last years of Boris’ life, a pretender appeared claiming to be the genuine Dmitri who had escaped the assassins. At that time many people in Russia believed him and, after making an alliance with Poland, he led a revolt after Boris’ death, marched on Moscow and succeeded in having himself proclaimed Czar. But his reign was short lived. He was murdered shortly afterwards in a second popular uprising, engineered by yet another would-be Czar, Prince Shuisky, who in turn took the throne for himself.
So it is clear, that when the one true and rightful monarch of a kingdom disappears and he is widely believed to be no more, many pretenders are liable to appear, hoping to claim the throne for themselves. In the same way, the ego, knowing that Atman has not been seen by anybody for a long time, seizes its opportunity and usurps the throne of Atman. But the ego is a creation of duality, one among many. It lives within ignorance under the delusion that it is the body and that the world of multiplicity is real. The facts are quite different. There is only one true Atman, but many pretenders arise.
There are many egos, each with its own body, and each and every one of them, under the impress of avidya, has the secret ambition to become Ishvara. Each and every ego harbours this secret desire to be the Lord of the universe. This is what is meant by the life of the lower self, the asuric nature spoken of in the Gita Shastra. Lurking in the snake-pit of the subconscious is this desire, which is only held in check (as the Masnavi says) by “lack of means”. It is like the frozen dragon spoken of by Maulana Rumi which can be awakened to reveal its full destructive potential when it is warmed by the advent of empirical power and influence, as it did in the case of Stalin and Hitler.
To mistake the ego for Atman is the root of the problem of avidya. The knot of the heart, of which the Upanishad speaks, is a case of mistaken identity, and it is only possible because of the concealing power of avarana. The ever present Atman has been concealed. The real Inner Ruler of the universe, seems to have left his kingdom, like the Duke of Vienna in Measure for Measure, but he is really there all the time, witnessing and controlling events, but himself unobserved by those whose eyes are hypnotised by their immersion in the life of the ego.
In the case of an eclipse, people who do not know the truth of the matter say in error that the sun has been swallowed by darkness, when it has not actually been swallowed, but only appears to have been.
“In the same way, people still in error behold the great Knower of the absolute as if he were embodied, although he is free from all connection with the body and so on, because they see the appearance of a body.” (Viveka Chudamini 548-549)
Atman is one-without-a-second and, like the monarch that he is, the whole realm of multiplicity and activity, which is his creation, proceeds by his mere presence, without involving him in the phenomenal life of sansara in any way. How can such an entity as the ego convincingly pretend to be Atman, when it is far from unique—there are thousands if not millions of egos, each with its own body, competing with each other—and when it is clearly seen to be striving as a desirer of desires and a doer of actions in the realm of duality and multiplicity?
“As long as one is connected with the evil ego sense there is no question of liberation, which is totally different in kind.
“When one is free from ‘eclipse’ of the ego sense one attains one’s true nature, pure, infinite, self-luminous, eternal bliss, like the moon when the eclipse is over.
“That which was formerly imagined by the mind, thoroughly deluded through ignorance, as ‘I am such-and-such’, realises without any further obstacle that its true Self is the Absolute, when all such wrong ideas have been removed.
“The treasure of the bliss of the Absolute is wrapped round for protection by the fearsome snake of the ego sense, with its three vicious hoods representing the three gunas. If a hero cuts off these three heads with the great gleaming sword of knowledge and destroys the ego, then he can enjoy the delightful treasure.”
(Viveka Chudamani 299-303)
If the ego were real, then it would be a fight to the death between Atman and the ego, but since it is only a phantom—the result of the mistaken idea that the ego is the real self, identified with body, in a world which is real—its pretensions to be Atman can be dismissed as ridiculous by a recognition of the truth—which was never otherwise.
Bondage is due to the careless, wrong habits of thought into which we have fallen, but these are only due to absence of careful and focused enquiry, vichara, into the truth of the matter. Swami Prakashananda says:
“As long as bondage to merit and demerit remains, one should pass one’s time with concentration, meditating on the massed bliss, bringing about the gradual dissolution of the whole objective realm, inner and outer.
“One should never be careless over one’s continued devotion to the Absolute. The holy son of Brahma, Sanatkumara, spoke of carelessness as death.”
For too long we have allowed our carelessness to hide the truth from us, imagining that we are the body, and that the world is real, but here we are given an indication of the means to escape from this knot or complex of wrong thoughts, which hides the truth from us.
First, says Swami Prakashananda, we must prepare the mind by stilling and tranquillising it and suspending all raga and dwaisha.
Then the mind is to be focused on the truth “BRAHMAN SATTYAM JAGAN MITTHYA”.
A very important stage in this dissipation of relativity, is the recognition that we are not the miserable, subservient Jiva, at the mercy of the play of circumstances, but that we are one with the Inner Controller of this whole play of Maya, Ishvara. Beyond both Jiva and Ishvara is that consciousness which never fails and which is the experiencer of both Jiva and Ishvara.
“Of the unreal there is no being; there is no non-being of the real.
Of both these is the truth seen by the seers of the essence.”