Ashtavakra Samhita, Chapter 2, Verse 20


Translation and Commentary by Jayaram V


Chapter-Index | Verse Index

Verse 20

shareeram svarganarakau bandhamokshau bhayam thathaa
kalpanaamathram evaitat kim me kaaryam chidaathmanah


The body, heaven and hell, bondage and liberation, so also fear all this is mere formation. What purpose they serve me who is pure consciousness?


Understanding the Person and the Personality

Ashtavakra suggested here the basic mindset of an adept yogi who became fully established in his consciousness. His very advice from the beginning was that a yogi should fully identify himself with his pure consciousness rather than his physicality or beingness, which are transient.

In consciousness also, there are grades. The commonest form of consciousness to which we all can easily relate is the consciousness of the mind. It is also part of the beingness only, and subject to the five types of modifications which are mentioned in the Yogasutras. How do we know that it is not the same as pure consciousness which Ashtavakra mentioned in this verse? It is not pure because you can silence it, control it, alter it or suppress it. It exists when you are awake and when your mind is active, but disappears when you enter deep silence or deep sleep. Most importantly, it is colored by your desires, attachments, emotions, egoism and expectations.

One should therefore not become lost or deeply involved with this consciousness. Instead, one should find that consciousness which remains awake when one is asleep, which cannot be altered or controlled or influenced, and which does not depend upon any externality, sense activity or sense objects. That consciousness, which exists in all of us as the very core of our existence, remains awake when our minds are asleep. It is that pure consciousness, which one should recognize as one’s essential nature and which Ashtavakra declared as the very Self.

When one discovers it, or becomes established in it, one realizes that everything else that forms around it is a mere formation or projection. The “chidatmanah,” or the yogi who has realized that he is pure consciousness, arrives at this conclusion not by the study of the scriptures or learning from his master but from direct experience (pratyaksha anubhava). Like Uddalaka Aruni (Chandogya Upanishad) he breaks open the seed of his mind and goes beyond it to find the ultimate essence.

Kalpana means creation, formation, arrangement, imagination, phenomenon or fabrication. Philosophically, in Hinduism anything that arises as an effect from a cause falls into this category and is considered unreal or illusory. It is unreal or illusory, not because it does not exist but because it has a beginning and end and has no permanence. All the causes in the field of Nature (Prakriti) are also considered unreal because they too are effects only and have their own causes. For example, a seed may be the cause of a seedling, but the seed itself has its own cause.

Thus, from this perspective the body is also unreal because it has a beginning and end and arises from an egg, which is its source. The world, heaven and hell also are illusory since they have a beginning and end and arise from the golden germ (Hiranyagarbha). The same is true with regard to thoughts, ideas, and emotions such as fear and anger. The world is unreal or a dream like phenomenon only in this sense, not that it has no physical basis. It is unreal only because it is subject to modifications, impermanence and destruction.

In contrast, pure consciousness, which we have discussed before, has none of these states. It is without a cause, self-existing, independent, eternal and indestructible. Hence, he who becomes one with it becomes indestructible and has no fear. He remains steadfast in his realization. He may still experience pain and suffering, show emotions and liveliness, but they happen in his surface consciousness and do not unduly disturb his inner tranquility.

Person and personality

The mind is active as long as the senses are active. When the mind is active, there is the awareness of the body and personality. They disappear as soon as the senses rest in silence and the mind lapses into tranquility. Body awareness or the idea of personality arises from the mind, and the activity of the senses. Hence, in a way you may partly consider it a creation of the mind and unreal.

In Hinduism, you will find a clear distinction between the person (purusha) and the personality. The personality is the formation (kalpana) which depends upon the person for its existence. Without the person, there is no personality. The person is not the personality. However, it is because of the person and for the sake of the person does the personality exist and perform all the functions.

Hence, in the Upanishads you will find expressions such as, “That which is unseen by the eye but by which the eyes are seen, know that it is Brahman. That which is not thought by the mind but by which the mind thinks, know that it is Brahman” The person cannot be seen or known through the senses but can only be experienced as oneself. If you understand this clear distinction, many philosophical concepts of Hinduism become easier to understand.

Metaphorically, if the sun is the person, its light is the personality. One may say that the seed is the person, and the tree is the personality. However, those who are conversant with the Hindu philosophy know that this is an incorrect analogy because the seed becomes the tree through transformation. As soon as the tree is born, the seed is gone. It is not the case with the person. The person remains unchanged even after the personality is formed. The person is more like a catalyst who makes the personality possible without undergoing any change.

Identification of the person with his personality is the source of suffering and bondage. We all do it in ignorance and delusion. We identify ourselves with our minds and bodies and assume that our names and forms are real. This creates in us the triple states of impurity namely, egoism, attachments and delusion. It keeps us bound to the cycle of births and rebirths, until the truth dawns upon us.

Therefore, having understood the distinction between the person and the personality, the wise ones withdraw their attention from the personality (meaning the mind, body, senses, sense-objects, etc.) and focus upon the person. Through introspection and using the “neti-neti (not this, not this)” approach, they gradually eliminate all that which is not the person and find him as the highest, deepest state of pure consciousness. Ashtavakra referred to that person in this and in other verses and advised Janaka to ignore the personality and become established in that person.

Modern psychology focuses upon the human personality and its freedom from self-inflicted limitations and natural aberrations, whereas Hindu spirituality is primarily concerned with the person and his final liberation. Knowledge of the personality and the human mind may help spiritual people to cleanse their minds and bodies with resolve and work for their liberation. However, it is not the ultimate goal or purpose.

The ultimate purpose of all schools of Hinduism is to find the person and become one with him through a gradual, self-cleansing and transformative process, which is generally referred to as yoga. Modern psychology also suggests that the human personality is a product of the mind and body whereas Hinduism suggests that the Self (person) is the ultimate support of all the three, and they cannot exist without him. The three constitute the shadow Self or the not-Self (anatma). In the Mundaka Upanishad, the person is compared to the spider and the personality to the spider's web.

Worshipping the personality (the not-Self) rather than the person (the Self), be it your own personality, that of God or your guru is considered lower knowledge (avidya) or ignorance. It is usually practiced in Hindu rituals and devotional worship, but discouraged in many spiritual paths since it leads to rebirth and bondage.

Many people worship the personality of their gurus, and end up being deluded and lost in the maze formations. In meditative practices, also one should focus upon the cause or the source rather than the effects. In meditation, if you focus upon the ultimate cause of all that happens in your mind and body or field of observation, you will gradually peel off layer after layer of your personality and its variations and find the person who is hidden behind all. In spiritual terms, we call it self-realization or the highest realization.

Significance of the body

Although the body is a mere formation, still in Hinduism it has a great religious and spiritual significance. The body is impure, but just as the temple of God it is also sacred since it houses the person, the deity. The body is also a vehicle (vahana), just as the vehicles of the divinities. You may therefore cultivate detachment, but should not disrespect it or subject it to self-torture or cruelty.

Hindu rituals are mostly meant to nourish the bodies of various beings, including gods and ancestors or to protect them and strengthen them with the help of gods and the predominance of sattva (purity). In the Vedas, you will find many hymns which describe the ritual and symbolic significance of the body. They even suggest that the entire manifestation constitute the body of Purusha, the Cosmic Person.

From the ritual perspective, the body is considered the sacrificial pit. It is also the abode of gods (senses). Hence, it is a heaven in itself. However, when the senses and the organs of the body fall into evil ways and when suffering arises because of it, the body becomes a hell. The body is also the source of bondage, since it is responsible for desires, and desire-ridden actions.

The knowledge which is associated with the body, the rituals, heaven and hell, bondage and liberation is relevant and important to worldly people and householders since they have to engage in obligatory actions and nourish their bodies to keep themselves and the world going. Since they are subject to karma, they have to be concerned with the problem of bondage and the means to liberation as well as their existence in afterlife.

None of it matters to a self-realized yogi who clearly understands the distinction between the person and the personality. They cease to be relevant to him since he knows that he is the person, the eternal Self whose essential nature is pure consciousness. Having reached the person and become established in him, he knows that he has reached the ultimate destination (parandhama).

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