Reason, Revelation & Self-Realization in the Naish – Karmya Siddhi13 min read

Shri Sureshvara tells us that his great work, Naish- karmya Siddhi, was written at the behest of his Teacher, Shri Shankara, in order to expound the secret doctrine hidden in the heart of the Upanishads which leads directly to the supreme goal of life. The doctrine is ‘secret’ in the sense that it can only be grasped by the extremely subtle intellect which is undistorted by worldly and even other-worldly desires; and this is achieved by moral discipline and the unselfish performance of all one’s duties as an offering to the Lord. When a man has become indifferent to all transient gains whatever and desires the eternal alone, then he is ready to follow the highest spiritual path, the path of knowledge, which is expounded in the Naish- karmya Siddhi.

The goal which all men naturally seek, yet fail to attain, is freedom from every kind of pain and the achievement of waveless and unconditional bliss. They fail only because they seek it in the wrong way. It has not to be striven for by means of action, it has merely to be realized; for it constitutes the very nature of the Self of man, which is infinite and immortal, the sole, non-dual reality. Being nearer than all else, it is selfevident; but it is obscured by ignorance (avidya) which gives rise to the world of duality, including our limited empirical selves, which we take to be absolutely real; hence arises all suffering. It will not be brought to an end until ignorance is destroyed; and this is achieved by means of spiritual knowledge, which comes through Revelation.

Revelation serves to remind the pupil of what is in a sense already known, though not recognised through delusion. It is the pronouncing by the Traditional Teacher of the “great sentences” (mahavakyas) of the Upanishads, such as Tat Twam Asi (That Thou Art), which proclaim the identity of the Self with Brahman, the Supreme Reality. In the case of the fully qualified pupil—one whose delusion has been reduced to a minimum—this is all that is required to free him from his imagined bondage. Those who cannot grasp the full import of the Teacher’s words, however, must labour to become qualified. They must gradually discard all the false notions which they attach to the word ‘Self’, and this involves the use of reasoning, on the basis of the texts given in the Scriptures. Thus both reason and Revelation serve a purpose in the highest stages of the spiritual path, but their roles are not to be confused.

By study of the Scriptures the pupil learns that there are only two categories in experience, Self and not-Self. The Self is the subject of experience; the not-Self, the object. The Self is eternal, changeless, partless, non-dual, absolutely real; the not- Self is finite, ever-changing, multiple, and in the final analysis unreal, a product of ignorance. But this cannot be fully understood until the non-dual Self is realized, and the first task of the pupil is to locate it through reasoning of the type known as anvaya and vyatireka (distinguishing the variable and the invariable). This involves searching for the Self as the constant and immutable element in one’s own experience, and rejecting all that is merely incidental as not-Self.

The pupil works from the gross to the subtle, rejecting one by one all the outer coverings of the Self, and so gradually pressing towards that which is innermost, the eternal subject of experience.

It can soon be recognised intellectually that the body is neither immutable nor constant in experience; being a product of food it is continually in the process of transformation and decay. Furthermore, it is clearly an object of experience, and therefore separate from the Self which knows it. Also, like every other object, it comes and goes before our consciousness; for example, during dream there is no awareness of the physical body—it is replaced by a dream body. For these reasons the physical body should be rejected as not-Self.

The same arguments can be applied to the mental states and qualities, including the notion I, which are all transient objects of experience and hence different from the experiencing subject, the Self. But this is not so easy to accept immediately. After all, one may argue, the ego is the subject of experience. It is both subject and object at the same time; self-consciousness is an undeniable fact of experience. But this reasoning is fallacious. Sureshvara points out that it is impossible for one and the same thing to be both the object and the agent of an action; for example, fire bums other things, it does not burn itself.

In ‘self-consciousness’, the subject and the object are different; the subject is the Self, but the object is the ego. If the Self could know itself as an object, it would have to divide into two, but it is changeless; and in any case, who would there be left to be aware of the division? The ego-sense, or notion I, is not a property of the Self. Since it comes and goes, in waking and deep sleep, that in which it inheres must change with it, just as a fruit does when it assumes different colours as it ripens. It is a modification of the mind, which is known as an object, not of the Self which is always the changeless subject.

But then, since the ego is also a subject in relation to outer objects, does this mean that there are two subjects? No, the Self is the only subject, pure consciousness by nature; all else is its object, by nature inert. But there is a confusion in the case of the ego because it borrows the light of the Self and so acts as a subject. It is not a subject by nature, otherwise it could never become an object. That consciousness which knows objects through the medium of the ego, is the Self; but the ego itself is an inert object of the consciousness which is Self. The ego-sense, the notion of individual agency, arises because the pure unchanging consciousness which shines through the mind, and is the subject, is falsely identified with the manifold movements of the mind, which are modifications of the inert object. There can be no identity between subject and object; between consciousness and inertness; between the immutable and the changing. Therefore the ego-sense, which presupposes this identity, is an illusion, the basic illusion from which all error arises. It is something innate which requires the power of Revelation to destroy it. Shri Sureshvara compares it to the darkness in the presence of which a rope is falsely experienced as a snake; so in the presence of the ego-sense, the non-dual reality which is the Self is falsely experienced as the world.

The work of anvaya and vyatireka reasoning, then, is to negate intellectually all the outer coverings or false selves with which we are identified, up to and including the ego; at which point the reasoning becomes very subtle, because the ego borrows the light of the Self and is extremely close to it. But one must understand that the Self is not distant at all—it is innermost. The pupil arrives at the conclusion that since the ego is known as an object, it points to a Witness beyond it which is always the subject, and that this is the Self of which the Upanishads speak. He even has to clarify his understanding of the meaning of the word ‘Witness’. For it usually implies the act of witnessing, and an action is a change; but the Self is the light which reveals all change. It does not move, but is ever- shining; when the mental modifications rise before it, it is spoken of as “witnessing” them, but all the movement is on the side of the ego and is falsely ascribed to the Witness:

“The notion that the changeless Self can be an experiencer is due to an error set up by the ego-sense; it is like the notion that mountains are moving, due to the error set up by the motion of a boat”.

“The Self is like the radiant motionless light of a splendid jewel, which remains actionless whatever objects are placed within or removed from the ambit of its rays”.

“When we say of the jewel ‘it illumines’, this refers to external circumstances and not to any activity on the part of the jewel. In the absence of objects in the vicinity we say ‘it does not illumine (anything)”.

“In the same way, the highest Self is a light which illumines all intellects and is illumined by none; it stands motionless amid the presence and absence of the modifications of the mind.”

(II. 63-66)

Here is a further point that the pupil has to understand by reasoning—that the Self illumines all intellects, not only his own. There can be only one Self, since multiplicity is something which must be known objectively. The Seer in all beings is one and the same, the infinite Lord.

But then, how can all the different egos be related to the one Self? The relationship is imaginary, just as contradictory views held about one and the same person are imaginary. In fact, it is not possible to establish the reality of anything other than the Self; the transient nature of all objects of experience betrays their phenomenal nature.

By continually reasoning along these lines, the pupil gradually negates his sense of identity with the different coverings of the Self. Sureshvara says that the enquiry must be pursued up to the stage of vision, by which he means insight into the unreality of the not-Self and a feeling of detachment from it. He admits that one-pointed enquiry into the scriptural texts can yield “a certain degree of spiritual realization”, but denies that it can ever give full realization.

Such flashes of illumination that come are mental, transient, experienced objectively, and therefore known to be not-Self. Through intense enquiry, the unreality of the not-Self is recognized, but still the Self is not known. Ignorance is reduced to a minimum, but still it is not destroyed. It is at this stage that the pupil is on the brink of Self-realization and ready to receive the revelation from the Teacher in the words Tat Twam Asi, which will free him for ever.

Thus it can be seen that Sureshvara gives an important place to reason, when it is properly used, but not the highest place. Indeed, he points out that when reason is used without scriptural guidance, it may even lead to nihilism, since it is powerless to reveal the Self. This is because reasoning is performed by the intellect, which is an instrument used by the Self in order to know outer objects; it cannot grasp the Self which uses it. It operates on the data of sense-experience and is therefore focussed outwards; but the Self is innermost. The most that reasoning can do is to produce the inference that there must be an ultimate subject, but it can tell us nothing about it; inference gives only indirect knowledge.

Even when one is following the guidance of the Scriptures, Self-knowledge will not come through reasoning. For the mind always operates in the realm of duality; but the Self is the sole non-dual reality. By reasoning one can discriminate between the Self and not-Self and recognize the unreality of the latter, but this means that there is still the consciousness of duality. In any case, by the process of discrimination one comes to the conclusion that the mind itself is unreal and that even the notion of individual agency is an illusion. To insist on mental

strivances is to perpetuate the illusion. One must know the Self which is free from action, the changeless light of Consciousness which is the basis of all. This is liberation—Naishkarmya Siddhi, the realization of actionlessness. The Self is “being”, not “doing”.

Since one’s own efforts cannot destoy the causal ignorance from which the I-notion springs, there is no liberation without Revelation. But how does Revelation operate? Surely, being merely verbal, it can at best give mental knowledge, which is again in duality?

Sureshvara denies this in the case of the fully qualified pupil. When all the outer coverings of the Self have been negated by anvaya and vyatireka reasoning and the intellect is focused inwards towards the Witness, ignorance (avidya) is deprived of its power. It is only our false imagination which gives it strength, it has no reality of its own. Therefore, when it has been reduced to the bare sense of personal identity, all that it needs to remove it is a thrust; and this is the function of Revelation, mediated by the Teacher with whom the pupil is fully attuned.

The words are not grasped logically by the mind which is entirely focused inwards, but in an intuition which serves to dissolve the causal ignorance and the mind with it. It is comparable to the case of a sleeper who awakens when his name is called, though his mind was not then operating; the name touches a deep layer of consciousness and sleep is dispelled. So it is in the case of Revelation, but in this case the sleep of avidya is thrown off for ever. Then the Self- revealed Self shines without obstruction. Revelation, paradoxically, does not reveal it; it merely destroys all mental notions which obscure it.

What does Shri Sureshvara tell us about the state of Self-Realization? Firstly, that when it arises there can be no doubts as to its validity; there can only be doubts where there is duality. The Self is the light by means of which all else is proved, but it is self-established, ever self-evident, and when all obstructions have been removed, this is recognized. Even the obstructions are realized to have been illusory. As Sureshvara expresses it: “It is as if darkness had first been superimposed on the sun and then removed—and that sun is my Self” (II. 117).

But how does the Self-realized man carry on his duties, how does he teach, once avidya, which produces duality, is at an end? Perhaps one should not ask this question. Who can

fathom the inner experience of the Sage? Avidya is inexplicable. As Sureshvara says,

“Before knowledge it is there, and after knowledge it is known to be non-existent in the past, present and future” (III. 116.).

He can only hint at the mystery by saying that the enlightened man knows and accepts everything in the empirical world and at the same time denies everything. “The acceptance is but a deliberate and artificial acceptance of distinctions; the denial is the natural reaction based on the real state of affairs” (IV. 51.). One thing is certain, however; he is incapable of unrighteous conduct since this only arises from ignorance, which has been utterly destroyed. “How can the man of discrimination, who sees the same one Self in the friend, in the enemy and in his own body feel anger, since all things have become to him like the limbs of his own body?” (II. 18.)

Self-realization is unbroken God-realization. Those who have attained it are the supreme benefactors of mankind, since they alone have the power to transmit the liberating knowledge which destroys the inner darkness of the soul, the cause of every evil.