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Freedom: Understanding Awareness, the Individual and the Total
Discriminating you, awareness, from your individuality (jiva) and the field of life (Isvara) is Vedanta’s most subtle teaching. It is hard to grasp. Understanding it is freedom (moksa). Here is the key to understanding how you as awareness relate to the individual you are accustomed to think you are and the world around you. It is a description of maya, beautiful, intelligent ignorance.
Reality, though one, is comprised of three factors: (1) An apparent person, or jiva, the “small self,” or subtle body. It is an experiencing entity. (2) A causal body produced by maya, macrocosmic ignorance. Maya is also known as Isvara, the power that creates the dharma field. The dharma field is pure awareness associated with maya. Isvara creates the experiencing entities and what they experience. Vedanta refers to Isvara as the “Unmanifest” because it cannot be experienced. It is known by inference. (3) The knower of both: pure awareness, the self.
Both the jiva and Isvara enjoy the same identity as awareness, and on inquiry dissolve into awareness because they are impermanent. Awareness cannot be dismissed because it is “permanent.” Permanent and impermanent are not actually good words because they imply duality and seemingly set the experiencers apart from the objects of experience. But we need these words and others like them to set up the discrimination that brings about moksa, freedom. Awareness is always prior to and free of the jiva and Isvara, the subtle and the causal bodies. Therefore there is really only one self, or awareness, free of all objects, from which everything arises and into which everything dissolves.
Here is a verse that establishes these three factors from Chapter VI, Verse 17 of the Bhagavad Gita:
“Two selves, one perishable and the other imperishable, exist in the world. The conscious beings and matter are perishable, the Unmanifest is imperishable. But other than these is the Self beyond the selves, the limitless, changeless Awareness that has entered the three worlds and sustains them. Therefore I am renowned as the Supreme Being. If you know me in this way you become a knower of everything, the Self of All.”
This means the apparent self, or jiva (the self under the spell of ignorance), is not real because it is not always present (think deep sleep) and is always changing. Although it appears to be conscious the apparent self is not actually conscious; it is modified by maya/ignorance and is perishable because its lifespan in the apparent reality is very brief. Moksa is freedom from the notion of doership and ownership, notions that are the essence of jivas identified with the subtle body. Identified jivas are also known as human beings, or people, although any living being is a jiva. Once ignorance of its true nature is removed the apparent person continues to exist in the apparent reality, although as the self (no longer under the spell of ignorance (avidya) it is forever free of the notion of that it is limited, inadequate and incomplete. It knows it is nameless, formless, unconditioned awareness.
Isvara associated with maya is conscious (although it is not a jiva or person) and is not modified by ignorance/maya (the gunas). It too is dependent on awareness. Isvara is conscious because with the appearance of maya there is something for awareness to be to be conscious of. But Isvara (in the role of Creator associated with maya) merges back into awareness at the end of the creation cycle, so it too is not unchanging and not always manifest.
Isvara is always present in awareness but it is either manifest or unmanifest with reference to awareness.
Therefore Isvara associated with maya is not real either although in terms of the apparent person Isvara is “relatively” real and eternal. In other words, Isvara associated with maya is eternal or permanent with reference to the jiva and the objects it experiences, but impermanent with reference to awareness. To say that Isvara associated with maya is eternal with reference to the jiva does not mean that it is limitless because ignorance, or maya, only “operates” on “a tiny fraction” of non-dual awareness and because it is resolved back into awareness at the end of the creation cycle.
Maya is eternal because it is a power that exists in awareness and awareness is eternal; this is why maya is said to be beginningless. Personal ignorance (avidya) ends for the jiva when the self is realized to be its true nature, ending its cycle of incarnation and suffering; but maya, or cosmic ignorance, continues unchanged although it is not always manifest because the creation is not always manifest. When ignorance, or maya, does manifest, Isvara in its capacity as a Creator appears followed by the apparent creation (Isvara srsti), the world of sentient beings and insentient elements.
Isvara as pure awareness prior to maya is called paramatman. Although paramatman is called eternal and imperishable it is neither. “Eternal” and “imperishable” infer non-eternal and perishable, and since paramatman is non-dual it is neither. It is “isness,” being. It is simply that which gives rise to everything, that which is self-knowing, and when objects are present knows objects. It is prior to and the knower of both the jiva and Isvara. It has no qualities. It is the knowing principle.
Isvara and jiva are often said to be non-existent but this statement is only true from the paramatma perspective. If we take maya into account it is untrue because maya produces Isvara and jiva, the gross and subtle objects and the entities that experience them. When you add maya to pure awareness two existential categories are created: sentience and insentience. Experience is only possible when these two factors are present. The gross and subtle material elements come from Isvara, and the sentiency comes from paramatma, awareness. Isvara is a combination of both, and jiva is also a combination of both. Jiva is like a little Isvara, “cast in the image” of Isvara, but limited in all respects whereas Isvara is limitless. This similarity is responsible for the belief that Isvara is a big jiva, a Supreme God person somewhere beyond the world of jivas. But Isvara is impersonal and not influenced by experience. Isvara is everything that is.
You cannot say that Isvara and jiva don’t exist, a common statement in the modern spiritual world. It is a bogus statement because you cannot experience something that does not exist, like the horns of a rabbit. To explain the status of the world of experience, Isvara and jiva, Vedanta introduces another concept: mithya. It means “apparently real.” A person who is completely identified with his or her body and mind (samsari) thinks that what he or she experiences is real. But experience is not real. It is apparently real. Thinking experience is real when it is apparently real causes suffering.
“Real” means “permanent, unchanging, always present.” “Apparently real” means “impermanent, subject to change.” Experience itself, which is brought about by maya, is relatively permanent with reference to jiva’s perspective but impermanent with reference to paramatma’s perspective because it ends when the creation no longer exists. We know that there will be a time when creation is no more because it began at a certain time. What is born dies. While experience is relatively permanent the discrete experiences that make up the jiva’s existence are exceedingly impermanent. Jiva’s body lasts on average 75 years but jiva does not experience its body continually for 75 years. It only experiences it when its attention is put on it. When its attention is elsewhere the body does not exist for it. It is bodiless for at least one-third of its life (sleep). In fact jiva’s experience is just what jiva thinks and feels about the events that Isvara generates during jiva’s lifespan. These thoughts and feelings are exceedingly short-lived. They exist for a moment and cease to exist when they are replaced by new thoughts/feelings. But because jiva is unfamiliar with paramatma’s perspective – which is real and which gives the lie to the belief that its experiences are real – it thinks that what it experiences is real. Something that appears and disappears is not non-existent, it is “apparently real.” It is taken to be real but it is not. Insofar as jivas exist they cannot dismiss the apparent reality. They have to deal with it. Failure to deal with it means suffering.
Dependence is another fact about mithya, the apparent reality created by maya. The appearance of events presupposes a substrate. The substrate is pure awareness (paramatma). Both Isvara and jiva are dependent on paramatma, pure awareness. So they are not real either. Although it depends on paramatma, Isvara does not suffer because Isvara is not a person. Isvara is paramatma plus maya. It is just the factor in awareness that makes experience and therefore suffering possible. But jiva has a will of its own (apparently) and suffers because it is completely dependent on the objects created by Isvara. To say that jiva and its world are dependent means that jiva is not free. The purpose of this teaching is to set jiva free by revealing its nature as paramatma. When jiva realizes it is free of objects it is free to understand that it is actually paramatma, free of jiva.
As long as the apparent entity, the jiva, is embodied in the apparent reality, enlightened or not, it is conditioned by Isvara, the Creator. In the apparent reality a liberated person is called a jivanmukta. A jivanmukta is not actually a person as we think of a person. He or she is actually paramatma appearing as a human being freed of the idea of personhood and free of attachment to objects. Both Isvara and jiva appear as objects – simply thoughts – to him or her. He or she knows that a power in awareness (maya) creates the ever-changing appearances that make up the worlds. Insofar as this understanding is moksa, the karma yoga sadhana that leads to this understanding no longer obtains although the karma yoga attitude remains without effort.
The distinction between these three factors is crucial for the jiva’s moksa because it disentangles jiva’s psychology from the objective world. It shows that everything it could claim to be the author of belongs to Isvara and that anything that it thinks it owns also belongs to Isvara. At the same time it makes it clear that it is not under the control of Isvara because Isvara is not real. How can something that is not real actually create or control anything? Furthermore, it separates its awareness from both Isvara and jiva, the Creator and the created. In so doing it reveals the simple fact that its ordinary awareness, which is the essence of its identity, is limitless. With this understanding suffering is no longer possible and jiva enjoys the endless bliss of self-knowledge.