The Vedanta in Daily Life
Theosophical Quarterly, April, 1907
Every land has something to contribute to our life. In many cases we may recognize our indebtedness. Thus from Rome we get the foundation of our law. From Greece, much of our poetry, philosophy and art. From Palestine, spiritual and humane principles, and a wider ideal of human liberty. We are not less indebted in the detail of our practical life. China has made possible world-navigation, by giving us the compass, world-intercourse by the invention of printing, world-warfare, by discovering gunpowder. To the tribes of the New World, we owe much. The delights of summer, hammocks, canoes, straw hats, even cigarettes and chocolate, all come to us from the Caribs and the natives of the Isthmus.
I should like to make it clear that India also has something to give us, something of great and inestimable worth. And this contribution consists, in my view, of something we greatly need in this great new country of ours: wide general ideas. We have notions in America, in abundance, but with ideas, in the wide Platonic sense, we are less familiar. And this is the lack which may be supplied from India.
To take an example: We talk about people being conscious, losing consciousness, and regaining consciousness. Now a Vedantin would never use the expression, “losing consciousness;” nor admit that such an expression can have any proper meaning. In his view, its use is an evidence of confused thinking, or of not thinking at all. A Vedantin would say that consciousness is of such a nature that, if you could by any possibility lose it, you could not conceivably recover it. It is something which could not possibly be derived from anything else, and could not possibly change into anything else. By its very nature, consciousness is beginningless and endless.
It is not difficult to show in what way the Vedantin reaches this understanding of consciousness. Let us begin, he would say, with the prince of a state. He is conscious of himself as prince of such and such a territory, with such and such titles.
But he can perfectly well think of himself without thinking either of the territory or the titles; simply as an individual of such and such a name, with such and such bodily appearance. And once more, he can perfectly well think of himself without including either bodily appearance or name, and will yet preserve his sense of selfhood, of being himself, perfectly unimpaired. In just the same way, carrying the same stripping process into more inward regions, he finds that he can lay aside the passional and emotional nature, and much of the argumentative mind, as one does in moments of inner stillness, without in the least impairing the sense of selfhood, of being himself. On the contrary, the sense of selfhood is greatly enhanced, cleared and strengthened with each stripping-of, and at last he reaches the final “I am I:” pure consciousness, which has been wrapped in so many vestures. Dwelling in that pure consciousness, that final sense of selfhood, “I am I,” he realizes that it is one and indivisible; that the inner sense of selfhood is of such a nature that it could not possibly be compounded of other things, or made up of anything else of other nature; that it is single, inherent, original, pure. Nor, were the sense of selfhood interrupted for an instant, is it conceivable that it could ever be restored?
We do not lose consciousness when we cease to be conscious of certain fields of observation. I do not cease to be myself, because the train in which I am traveling leaves a certain district behind. It is just in this matter of the different fields of observation opened up to consciousness that the Vedanta is most distinctive and most valuable. We Western folk habitually took at the world from the point of view of our waking, physical consciousness. We think of reality as what the physical eyes see, the physical senses observe. Thus a few months ago a Western writer maintained that there could be no heaven, because the telescope failed to show such a place on a clear night; and moreover, that the passage of souls thither would be highly precarious, because the earth, and the solar system even, constantly change their position in space.
The Vedantin looks at the universe with other eyes. For him, waking consciousness is not the be-all and end-all, but only one among many similar modes of being. Of these, he reckons four, as being naturally divided from each other in a very marked way. There is, first, the physical, waking consciousness of our ordinary daily life. Then there is what the Vedantin calls dream-consciousness, reached, ordinarily speaking, by going to sleep. The Vedantin analyses it very clearly. What has been seen in waking, he says, is seen again in dream. What has been heard is heard again. What has been perceived by the other senses is perceived again. So far, this is much the view of our Western psychology. But the Vedantin adds: “Things seen and unseen, things heard and unheard, things perceived and unperceived;” thus suggesting that there are other sources and objects of dream-consciousness than the images derived from waking life.
These images, these pictures in the mind, the Vedantin regards as both real and durable. It would not be misleading to say that he considers them to be forms in the ether, just as physical objects are forms in physical matter. And in general, one might speak of dream-consciousness as being, in the view of the Vedantin, a perceiving of things in the field, or on the plane, of the ether.
One may find much support for this association of things psychic with things etheric in the close analogy between certain classes of psychic phenomena with others recognized as etheric. Thus the ability of certain clairvoyants to see through physical objects is closely analogous to what we know of the X-Rays. And what we know of telepathy is very similar to the now familiar phenomena of the Hertzian rays used in wireless telegraphy. It is a strong point in favor of the psychics, that in both cases they made their discoveries first, the psychical power being described and defined before its physical counterpart was discovered.
So that a Vedannin would be inclined to speak of the objects of dream-consciousness as being in the ether, and as being visible, audible, tangible, and so forth, to the dream-consciousness, very much as the things of physical life are perceptible to our bodily senses. And the Vedantin would add that these psychical objects are perceptible in two ways: primarily, in dreaming; but also in waking consciousness, as a second field of objects, overlaid, so to say, on the field of physical objects which we call the outer world. Much of our “thinking” consists in resting the perceiving consciousness on these psychical objects, these mind-images, which we review, arrange, classify and so forth, in our “mental processes,” the consciousness running from one to another, as the sunlight runs from wave to wave.
The third field of consciousness is called by the Vedantin “dreamlessness.” And this may remind us that, after a certain point, we shall find the Vedantin using only negative expressions to define higher things. He tells us what they are not, rather than what they are. And this, not at all because he believes that higher things are in their nature negative. Quite the contrary, he believes that they are the only lasting realities. But he is most careful to guard our conceptions of higher things against impurity, against the attribution to them of material and physical characters, such as disfigure, for example, the heaven in which the Moslem heart is supposed to delight.
Yet we are told a little more of the third field of consciousness, than the merely negative fact that it is “dreamless.” The full phrase in the Sanskrit is very suggestive: “When entering into rest, he dreams no more dreams, and desires no more desires, then in him that bliss arises.” And another Upanished carries the thought further. Speaking of the consciousness in dreamlessness, this ancient scripture declares that there “the Sprit sees not; yet seeing not, he sees. For the energy that dwelt in sight cannot cease, because it is everlasting. But there is no other besides the Spirit, or separate from him, for him to see.” And so with the other powers, perceptive and active alike. The energy in them is everlasting, but their character is transformed.
Here, the dominant thought is that of union, of oneness. The separate powers are muted in a single intuitive consciousness. The sense of separateness is lost, so that souls are no longer held apart and isolated from each other and from divine life. “The partition-wall is broken down, and the twain are made one,” to use Saint Paul’s graphic and eminently Vedantin expression. There is also the suggestion, that the powers thus united expand in a new way on the other side of dreamland; and that there, and not in astronomical space, the kingdom of heaven is to be found.
As before, this spiritual consciousness is to be reached in two ways: in the deep sleep of dreamlessness, and in waking life. We know its apparitions in waking as love, as inspiration, as valor; it dwells in all that is divine in our human life. In the spiritual realm all souls are at one, and there universal brotherhood is “a fact in nature.” In the natural world, we an feel the brooding presence of that divine reality, and give it effect by self-sacrifice, by purity, by unselfish love, by courage, by creative work. Thus the divine will is performed, “as in heaven, so on earth.” He who loves his neighbor as himself, according to the Vedantin, fulfills the divine law, and the Upanishads again and again insist that we shall see self in all beings, and all beings in self. Thus is brotherly love made to rest on a primary reality, known directly in spiritual consciousness.
Above this third field of consciousness, there is a fourth. Above the spiritual, there is the divine. Of that, little can be said. The Upanishads tell us that it is the consciousness of the Oversoul; that it is “benign and undivided,” that it is divine peace, that it is the Supreme Soul. Perhaps we an best illustrate the idea, by referring to a very intuitional book, published five or six years ago, with the title “Cosmic Consciousness,” wherein the author sought to show that, just as direct consciousness rises into self-consciousness, so self-consciousness rises into Cosmic Consciousness, which has appeared in the greatest masters of our race, in Buddha, in Christ, in supreme poets like Dante, in creators like Balzac. The phrase is an excellent one, and may well stand as an indication of the Vedantin view of the fourth state.
We have thus a splendid and orderly conception of consciousness, as one, universal, continuous. And, just as Western thought has grasped the great unprovable truths of the conservation of matter and the conservation of energy, so Eastern thought has always held the kindred doctrine of the conservation of consciousness, the continuity of consciousness, which manifests itself in the four modes already outlined.
Another direction in which the Vedanta develops the same idea. We have all heard of the doctrine of Reincarnation, of development through an ordered series of bodily lives. And we have likewise heard the very logical and cogent defense of this idea which is put forward by Eastern teachers. The logic is cogent. The argument is exceedingly strong. Yet we should do well to remember that this belief is not held in the East as a result of argument, nor as a conclusion of logic. It is rather a fruit of direct experience, one of the fruits gathered on “the small old path, stretching far away, the path the seers tread, who go to the Eternal.” The seers speak of rebirth, not because they think rebirth probable, but because they know rebirth to be a fact. They tell of former births, because they remember them; they tell of future births, because they foresee them. Thus Krishna says to Arjuna:
“Many are my past births, Arjuna, and thine also; mine I remember; but thou rememberest not.” And in exactly the same way we find the Buddha speaking constantly as one who remembered his former births, and indeed this memory gives their form to a characteristic series of his teachings. He constantly illustrates moral situations by the appeal to former births, not as a matter of speculation, but of direct perception. So the Buddhists give precise and very intelligible directions for the recovery of this memory, and one has only to study them, to see how credible they are. Patanjali gave like directions, before the Buddhist philosophers, for the author of the Yoga Sutras was probably a contemporary of the Buddha himself.
The memory of the past births is looked on as a fruit of development, of the unfoldment and awakening of the third consciousness, which takes us to that part of our being that has lived through many births. In waking up to a knowledge of our spiritual life, we awake also to a knowledge of the stages through which that spiritual fife has passed.
This “great awakening” is a fundamental part of the Vedanta teaching, though one which I shall speak of only very briefly. It marks a turning point in the history of the soul, an event of deep moment and high seriousness. How seriously this turning point is viewed in the Eastern wisdom, may be illustrated by two examples from the Indian books. Take first the Katha Upanishad, translated by Edwin Arnold under the title: “The Secret of Death,” and also translated as “In the House of Death.” Here the symbol used is that so familiar in the New Testament, the sacrifice of the son by the father; the sacrifice of the personality to the Higher Self. In the Katha Upanishad, the father first makes lesser offerings, just as, in the parables, the householder sends first his servants and then his son. So the father of Nachiketas offers first cattle, and then his son, giving the boy as an offering to king Death. The boy descends to the House of Death; and, as the monarch is absent, he waits three days at the door. Then Death returns, and, to make amends, offers him three wishes. So the boy asks, and Death answers.
This is the frame of a mystery-drama, representing the great awakening, and the choice of Death as the initiator shows the reverence in which the theme was held in ancient India. We have a like example in the Bhagavad Gita, where Arjuna is represented as standing on the field of battle where the arrows are already falling. Nor is any element of tragedy lacking; for this is a battle of close kin, a battle of brothers contending for a kingdom. Here again we see what a high matter this great awakening was, for the sages of India. We have a third instance in the great renunciation of Siddhartha the compassionate, who gives up kingdom and father and mother and all things, to follow the divine light. This too is the theme of the Gospels.
We may consider the matter in this way: For most of us, life is a contest with material obstacles, for material success. We are still under the animal struggle for existence; we are still adventurers in nature. But there comes a time when we perceive an alternative path. Instead of regarding ourselves as adventurers in nature, struggling against natural forms and the resistance of others, we come to see ourselves as children of the Divine Will, sent into the world to work the works of that Will, and with no duties other than that. We lay aside our own ambitions, hopes, fears, longings, expectations, and set ourselves ardently to seeking the Will of the Divine, and to carrying it out; and in so doing, we realize that we have discovered the great secret.
This transformation of life, called in the New Testament, “metanoia,” is thus expressed in the Upanishads: “When all desires that dwell in the heart are let go, the mortal becomes immortal, and enters the Eternal.” Thus untying the knot of separateness, which binds us to the physical self of matter, we may rise through psychic to spiritual consciousness, as the lotus, rooted in the mud, passes upward through the water, and opens its bloom in the sunlight.
This may well suggest to us another use of the ideas of the Vedanta. They make clear and intelligible to us much that has been obscure in religious thought, and especially in the thought of the Gospels. We can see far more clearly what is meant by the kingdom of heaven, the hidden treasure, when we understand the Vedanta teaching of the spiritual world taking its place in the orderly continuity of consciousness. And indeed that very symbol of the hidden treasure, used in the parables for the kingdom of heaven, was earlier used in the Upanishads for the divine consciousness of the Oversoul.
We shall come to realize also how much of the religious experience of the West rests on the same basis. For a knowledge of the Vedanta will make us understand what Saint Paul meant, when he said: “I knew a man in Christ, above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.”
Closely similar are the words of Saint John: “After this I looked. And behold a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice said, Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter. And immediately I was in the spirit. . . .”
Very beautiful also is the description of the “cosmic consciousness” of another Western Saint, Columba of Donegal, who: “did not deny that by some divine intuition, and through a wonderful expansion of his inner soul, he beheld the whole universe drawn together and laid open to his sight as in one ray of the Sun.”
We find Saint Catharine of Siena rising to the same divine consciousness, when, speaking for the Oversoul, she says: “Thus considering that all that happens to them comes from Me, they are strong with an invincible patience, and bear all things, not only with resignation, but with cheerfulness and joy, tasting in all things that befall them outwardly or inwardly the sweetness of My ineffable love.” Is not this the very accent of the Vedanta, as when Krishna Says: “Ever doing honor to Me, they bow down to Me in love, drawing near to Me in perpetual union.”
And not less noteworthy than the identity of terms in which this divine consciousness is described, by so many seers, in so many lands, is the unity of view which all alike give of the spiritual world, the structure of the spiritual universe. One example of this was given in the Theosophical Quarterly for January, where it was shown that the seer of the Apocalypse and the seer of the Bhagavad Gita give an identical view of the divine realm, and of the just men made perfect who dwell there. More noteworthy still is the unity of spiritual law set forth by all these seers, the law of righteousness, of purity, of self-sacrifice, of courage, the law of divine valor, which opens the door of heavenly worlds.
Thus we may draw from the Vedanta, from the ancient wisdom of India, very much that is available for our daily life. We may reach, first, a sound philosophical science, which will enable our understanding to escape from confusion, and to perceive the universe in true proportion, in orderly realms revealed consecutively to consciousness. Then we may gain a sound understanding of religion, whereby many hard matters will become easy, many stumbling blocks be removed, many enigmas solved, many crooked paths made straight. And, lastly we may gain a truer comprehension of life itself, as the field of divine law, in ceaseless operation, weighing motes and feathers as well as worlds, a law akin to the divine consciousness in the hidden place of our hearts.
And finding this wonderful unity in the spiritual teaching of all times, we shall see in these teachings, not the view of this teacher or of that, but the veritable voice of that Oversoul, toward which all consciousness and all life tend, and which is the source not only of spiritual teachings, but of the spiritual world itself, wherein all worlds rest.