Outline of the Commentary on the Chapter of the Self13 min read

First, it is necessary to have a rough idea of certain technical terms :

Self (Atman) universal consciousness, which with human beings is felt to be limited and imprisoned in a particular body or mind. Brahman universal consciousness, generally with reference to its projection, maintenance and withdrawal of this apparent world. Brahman and Atman are the same.

dosha a defect, something clouding or impeding or spoiling the existence or proper functioning of a thing. In spiritual matters, doshas are states such as anger, hatred, unwillingness to share, absence of meditation, and above all Ignorance – feeling the Self as imprisoned and of special qualities. They are based on false notions.

yoga meditation in a sitting position, and the preservation and exercise of the insights attained during the sitting period, when actively dealing with affairs in the world. Yoga is based on right Knowledge.

Ignorance (avidya or ajhana) Shankara’s description of Ignorance, in verse 8, is: taking the Self as conforming to its ‘apparent conditioning adjuncts’ (upadhi). Individually, this is experiencing the Self as just the aggregate of body, senses and mind; cosmically it is to take the universe as a totality of matter energized by unconscious forces, without a purpose.

Shankara uses the words avidya and ajnana almost indifferently (though there is a statement that avidya is one of the doshas, and ajnana is the seed of doshas).

upddhi this is generally translated by the awkward phrase ‘apparent conditioning adjunct’ – that is, it is not the nature of the thing but attributed to it by juxtaposition. The reputation of King Edward I for integrity rests on the fact that a Latin phrase ‘promised is done’ was written on his tomb at Westminster Abbey centuries after his death in quite another connection. But because of the juxtaposition, it was taken to apply to the King (whom his contemporaries thought a rather devious statesman); this is an example of an upadhi.

Knowledge (vidya or jnana) In this text, Knowledge means clear awareness that the universe is an illusory projection from Brahman or the universal Self, and that the human self is really universal, its apparent limitations being part of the illusion; Ignorance (avidya or not-Knowledge) is taking the universe and its divisions as absolutely real. Neither Knowledge nor Ignorance refer to an intellectual posture; they are direct experiences. Shankara occasionally here uses the word ‘direct-vision’ (samyag-darsana – a favourite phrase of his, occurring frequently in the Yoga-sutra commentary) as a synonym of knowledge. samsara life as an individual, dying and being born in life after life, always accompanied by suffering because of the frustration of the freedom which is obscurely felt to be natural. Samsara is an endless circle of (1) Ignorance and other doshas, which give rise to (2) activity, which gives rise to (3) ideas of what should be done and what should not, which produce (4) intentional action as an individual (karma), which as its result throws up (1) doshas again, karma literally ‘action’, but including the results of action also in the moral and psychological fields, causing experiences of pleasure and pain, circumstances favourable or unfavourable in this and future lives.

As action, karma means an intended operation by an agent, i.e. a man who thinks ‘I am acting’. An involuntary cough would not be an action in this sense, but if a cough were to give a signal or express disapproval, it would be.

To the spiritual aspirant of the Law-book, action is perfected when it is fulfilling of the duties (dharma) prescribed for his particular station of life, accompanied by the proper religious attitude as expressed in rituals and sacrifices, and without a selfish desire for the results (though favourable results must inevitably follow).

Guna is often translated ‘quality of nature’ or ‘aspect’. There are three: tamas, which is born of Ignorance as the Gita says, and is inertia leading to darkness; rajas is passion-struggle, giving energy and attachment to action. These two correspond to the Yin-yang of the Chinese philosophical school. But in the Indian tradition there is one more, sattva, which is clarity and the harmony of health. It produces happiness and knowledge in a possessor, but also binds him by attachment to happiness and to knowledge, if that remains merely intellectual.

It is customary for a commentary to begin with a statement of what the text is about, what is its purpose, and for whom it is intended. The Law-book has been concerned with a man who feels himself to be an agent; this man wishes to wipe out, or at least lessen, the bad karma he has performed, so he is given penances to perform, which may involve giving in charity, fasting, and devotional practices. Then the Chapter of the Self is introduced for a man who wishes to go beyond individuality altogether; even the pleasures of a heaven no longer attract him, because he knows that they will be only transitory, and will still involve limitation to an individuality.

Shankara’s method of exposition, here and elsewhere, is to present a statement from a holy text and then propose various objections to it, which he meets partly by citing other texts, or (in the case of objections raised from a basis of scepticism) by showing that the objection rests on an irrational standpoint. In this way the meaning and implications of the text are brought out more fully. All these objections will rise at some time in some form in the mind of a pupil, and he is shown how to meet them intellectually, against the time when he will have to meet them out of his living experience.

The discussion in the introductory part of the commentary turns on what is meant by action. The objector says that a man is always acting, and that he is directed by the texts to act in accordance with duty (dharma) and avoid sin (a-dharma). Even when a man seeks freedom, he must still continue to engage his consciousness in these actions, thinking ‘Here I am, so-and-so, and now I will do this and I shall get that result.’

Shankara’s reply is that it is just this conviction ‘I am so-and- so, and now I will do this’ which is the cause of imprisonment in a body. If he wants freedom he should give up this conviction and feel ‘I am the universal spirit’. The objector replies, ‘The holy texts say that every individual must perform the actions which are his proper duty in his particular situation in life’, and Shankara says, ‘They do indeed say that, but these directions are given to individuals, to people who feel that they have a situation in life. They cannot apply to the universal spirit.’

The point is made again and again in Shankara’s writings. It does not mean that when there is no individuality now functioning in that body and mind, they will necessarily cease from working. But what they do will be a direct expression of the universal spirit, and not an impulse from an individual concerned with his own interests, especially the interest of selfpreservation.

The doctrine of the original text, and this commentary on it, follows closely the passage in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3.5.1): the knower of Brahman, having known that wisdom, should seek to stand on the strength of it; having realized wisdom and strength, he meditates in silence; having realized silence and non-silence, he is a knower of Brahman. How should he behave? However he should behave, he is just that. Except this, everything is perishable.

He is a knower of Brahman at the beginning as at the end; the ‘strength’ and ‘meditation’ are simply throwing off attachments which try to revive and hold him to an individuality in the world. Shankara in his commentary on this Upanishad remarks that it would be expected that one on the path of yoga of knowledge, which begins with knowledge of Self, would become a renunciate, but ‘however he should behave, he is just that’. Shankara adds that the behaviour will not be meaningless, and he himself, though he became a monk, founded monasteries which flourish today, and transformed the whole spiritual climate of India. All the voluminous commentaries on the Upanishads and the Gita which came before him were superseded by his own, terse but profound.

These are the main points of the discussion in the introduction. In verse 3, Shankara points out that just practising yoga, meditation sitting, without a penetration into the true nature of the Self, does give temporary calm and clarity. But it cannot last, because the consciousness of individuality, though temporarily forgotten, springs up again in a man who has not pierced through to the nature of what he really is. So there is no freedom. Therefore there must also be an acceptance of some Upanishadic revelation, not simply intellectually but in the depths of the being.

Then verses 4 and 5 give a method of penetrating to the Self. Self is concealed behind the thoughts and emotions, and beyond them, by the buddhi, the spiritual peak of the mind, which is yet a veil. The Self is said to be at rest in a cave. Often a cave in a hill-side in India is not apparent, it is not clear that there is a cave there at all. The cave has to be located. In the midst of the shifting senses and mind and buddhi, the yogi has to search very carefully and calmly, to find the hidden place where there is something which does not move – the unmoving concealed in the moving, the undying in the dying, light concealed by darkness, universality imprisoned in a dream.

In verse 6 the pupil says that he has not been able to find it within himself: surely God must be outside. The teacher says that God is indeed outside, but it must not be thought that He is not in one’s own Self. The teacher describes for the pupil forms of meditation on the Self as universal, especially in terms of light and splendour. These meditations are not simply thoughts, beginning and ending as ideas in the mind. They have to be carried to the point where experience changes, where there is a direct vision of the Lord as the universe, as given in the Eleventh Chapter of the Gita. It may be noted that there Arjuna, the pupil, was overwhelmed by the vision, as Saul was overwhelmed on the road to Damascus. The descriptions are not poetic similes.

In verses 7 and 10 there are references to some Upanishadic accounts of the projection of the universe in a particular order of five ‘elements’. These are not the earth and fire which we know here, but subtle principles in a realm beyond the human mind. Shankara subscribes to the accounts, and in several of his commentaries he carefully reconciles them, but he adds that discussion of the details has no importance for spiritual progress, the one point which is really important is that beyond them all, and consciously projecting them, is a Lord, the universal Self.

In verse 8 Shankara gives one of his rare definitions of Ignorance. It is seeing the Self-nature as conforming to the ‘apparent conditioning adjunct’ – thinking that the actor really suffers and dies as Othello, or partially controls his world as Oberon or Prospero.

Here there is the first statement that the realization is first attained by ‘great skill in samadhi meditation’, and must afterwards be firm and steady. The word translated ‘skill’ is used in the commentary on the Patanjali Yoga-sutra several times, it has also the sense of clearness in meditation.

In verse 9 the text makes the same point, that the Self is first seen in meditation. ‘The seer meditating, seeing everything in the Self, will not be deluded.’ ‘Seeing everything in the Self’ means with the senses withdrawn, as a tortoise withdraws his limbs. But Shankara points out that the next line, ‘seeing the Self in everything’, means that the yogi can and must retain the insight of the meditation when the body is going about and dealing with the world. This means that the mental layers have become so thinned that the universal Self shines clearly through them, although the objects of the world still register on the senses and thence in the mind.

Verse 11 makes one of the main points of the commentary. The man who has seen the Self continues formal yoga meditation, if the remnant of his past karma comes to disturb the mind so that it tends to perpetuate the sense of individuality, though now known to be illusory. The objector makes the apparently very strong point that this must be self-contradictory: either Knowledge frees from illusion, or it does not. If it frees from illusion, no yoga practice would have any meaning, for it would itself be illusion. If Knowledge does not free from illusion the whole notion of a yoga of Knowledge falls to the ground.

The answer is, that the yoga practice is illusory like the rest of the world, but it supports Knowledge because it drives towards universality, rejecting the apparent separations of the world. ‘The world is not different from him, who is ever standing as the supreme . . . who himself divides into many. From him the bodies all come forth, he is their root, eternal.’ The yogas, says Shankara, are associated with right Knowledge, and therefore they are powerful, whereas the doshas, which are founded on false notions, are ultimately weak. They are weak because they are unstable, as an illusion is always fundamentally unstable. In the world the test of an illusion is that it cannot maintain itself.

The disturbances which may arise after Knowledge has appeared are caused by past impressions which continue to operate for a little, though with ever-diminishing force, like a flying arrow. These are the remnants of the karma which has set up the present life; the rest of the karmas are discarded like throwing a quiver of arrows on to the ground without shooting them at all. There may be none of the past impressions left – for instance if the moment of Knowledge is at the very end of life. But it is common that some of them do continue to work themselves out, and they prompt the yogi to action. As there is no individual motivation in the yogi, he does not act from any personal basis any more, and no new karma is created. The past karma dies away like a bell which has been struck and vibrates for some time.

In general these are cases, as Shankara hints in his Gita commentary, where a man has undertaken many responsibilities in the world before his Knowledge arises  the promises made have their own urgency, and after Knowledge his mind and body will be pulled by the undertakings entered into, and will fulfil them, experiencing pleasure and suffering in the process. But these feelings do not press on the awareness of the universal Self which is clear behind them, shining through them as it were. The actions are inspired by the cosmic urges and express the yogas of universal benevolence and so on, set out in verse 14. It is doshas which produce action by an individual, based on Ignorance. The yogas are action expressive of the Knowledge of the universal, and convey the message of the universal spirit to the people of the world. Such action is spiritual teaching, whether the body-mind aggregate is inspired to take that role formally or not. The remainder of these lives is sometimes quite obscure, but they bring a sort of freshness to the people who come into touch with them.

© Trevor Legget