Fundamental Human Problem according to Vedanta
Fundamental Human Problem Part 1
We have discussed two aspects, the mind and the subtle body. Of the mind, the important component is the Ego, involving 'I am this', which is the essence of the individual 'I' which ‘does’ all the transactions. It involves the conscious-existent entity, 'I am' identifying with inert entities such as body, mind and intellect to facilitate all transactions in the world. The ego, although a necessary vehicle without which I cannot transact in the world, has become as if the essence of myself, since I do not know what my true nature is. Thus a false guy, ego, has become a real guy, since the real guy is not known.
When I take myself as 'this', the limitations of 'this' becomes my limitations. 'This' is always limited by 'that', while freedom is to BE beyond all limitations, absolute infiniteness, Brahman (the word Brahman itself means infiniteness). Any limitation causes unhappiness, and no one wants to be unhappy. Unlike other infinities with which we are familiar in mathematics, such as pi or e or parallel lines meeting at infinity, etc., which are all conditionally infinite or qualified infinite (for example pi cannot be more than and less than some numbers or parallel lines are separated by some finite distance, etc), Brahman is absolutely infinite or unconditionally infinite or unqualifiedly infinite and therefore unconditionally limitless which is the same as absolute happiness.
Limitless though I am, I take myself to be limited; notionally, 'I am = this'. This leaves me with three fundamental limitations which can be expressed as a) I am a mortal b) I am unhappy and c) I am ignorant. I do not like these presumed limitations that I have. Hence, I struggle hard to gain my true nature. If we examine our lives we find that all our struggles in life can be reduced to two broad categories, a) trying to gain something (pravRRitti) and b) trying to get rid of something (nivRRitti). All these struggles are to overcome the three fundamental limitations stated above. Thus from birth to death or from womb to the tomb, every living being is trying to solve these three fundamental limitations by way of trying to gain something or trying to get rid of something, pravRRitti and/or nivRRitti. This is true across the board and from time immemorial. The tragedy of life is that no one can solve these problems of limitations, now or ever. Let us look at each one carefully and see where the problem lies.
When I take myself to be the body, then body problems become my problems. The body, by its nature, undergoes six modifications: existence in the womb (asti) for seven to nine months; birth as a baby (jAyate); growing pains as a child to an adulthood (vardhate); modifications of the body (vipariNamati, i.e. problems of the grownups); slow disintegration with all the health problems in the world (apakshIyate) and ultimately kicking the bucket (vinasyati). That which is born has to die or that which has a beginning has to have an end, (jaatasya hi dhruvo mRituH), says Krishna. That is the Law of Nature. No body or nobody is permanent here. Civilizations have come and civilizations have gone. The world is always in a continuous flux, never in a static condition. Hence the Sanskrit word for the world is 'jagat' and etymologically it means 'jAyante gacchate iti jagat' that which is continuously coming and going; that is the nature of the world. What comes must go, like the slogan, what goes up must come down.
In a dialogue between a celestial being (yaksha) and King YudhiShTara in the MahAbhArata, yaksha asked the king, 'What is the greatest wonder in the world?'. Obviously, the King had no idea of our seven wonders of the world. He responded, "We see people being born and people dying every day, yet everyone acts as though he is going to be permanent in this world; and that is the greatest wonder of the world". Incidentally, related to the mind there was a question too. Yaksha asked the king, "What moves the fastest in the world?". The king replied without knowing that the velocity of the light is the fastest we can reach, "mind moves the fastest in the world".
The body cannot but be mortal. When I identify with the body, I feel that I am going to die one day. The fear of death is the greatest fear that a human being faces. No one wants to die. Even those who want to commit suicide do not want to die, but they think that by ending their life they will solve their problems. They do not want to die if the problems of their mind can be solved without dying.
Those problems arise because of the ego or identification with the body, mind and intellect. Therefore we can never solve the problem of mortality, whatever pills or medication we take or however much we try to hide our age by coloring or making up the deficiencies, etc. Man's longing to live eternally is inherent, where as finite life seems to be the fact of life. To solve this problem some turn to religion. Some religions promise eternal life, not now, but after death; of course only if you believe in them. After your death, no one would know if you lived happily ever after. There is a day of judgment when you will be taken to eternal heaven or pushed to eternal hell - either way eternity is guaranteed. All these beliefs sprang up since there is an inherent desire to live eternally. No animal wants to die. Preservation of one's life at any cost is instinctive. Hence mortality is a problem, since I identify myself with the body. It has become not merely the body's mortality but my mortality. But whatever we do, we can never solve or escape the jaws of the death. I want to be eternal, but with the body I can never be. Hence all attempts to live happily ever after with the body will be futile.
Fundamental Human Problem Part 2
The second problem arises with the notion that I am unhappy. This arises with the identification with the mind (as ‘I am the mind’). The mind is never happy with what it has and therefore it always wants to make itself more full by acquiring this or that. Life becomes a rat race and twenty-four hours is not sufficient. However much we accumulate, the inadequacy that I feel (that ‘I am not full’) still remains. Only way to solve this problem of inadequacy is to be fully adequate. But that would mean to have everything in the world, possessing limitless entities. One can never reach the limitless by adding limited things. Addition of finites cannot accumulate to infinite. Hence, the problem of inadequacy of the mind or unhappiness of the mind remains as an unsolved problem.
The third problem is based on the identification that ‘I am the intellect’, which is always limited. We cannot stand this limitation either. Hence, the longing or curiosity to know remains. Unfortunately, the more we learn, the more things we find that there is to learn; things that we did not know even existed before. However much we learn, we are left with an uncomfortable feeling that what we know is very little compared to what we do not know. Our ignorance grows exponentially with our knowledge. Hence, even the ignorance problem we cannot solve. Man becomes desperate. In one of the Upanishads, the student goes to a teacher and asks, "Sir, please teach me that, knowing which I will know everything". The Upanishads recognized that there is an intrinsic desire to learn everything.
Vedanta says there is a fundamental problem in our understanding about ourselves. Since I am a self conscious entity, not knowing who I am, I take my self to be what I am not - that is ‘I am the limited body, limited mind and limited intellect’. Equipments, body, mind and intellect remain limited irrespective of who I am. As a result of this identification, I take myself to be mortal, unhappy and ignorant. All struggles in life are to solve these fundamental problems. The analysis shows that all our attempts to solve these three fundamental limitations fail miserably. For the majority of us these struggles temporarily end one day – when we die. This seems to be the autobiography of everybody – the billions of people that live on this planet earth; only the details of how they failed in trying to solve these fundamental problems vary.
Vedanta says that everybody fails only because everyone is trying to solve a problem where there is no problem to solve. Why should anyone try to solve a problem when there is no problem to solve? According to Vedanta, the problems are not real but imaginary, since we started with a wrong assumption about ourselves. Imaginary problems can never be solved. Since we do not know who we are, we take ourselves to be something other than who we are. Intrinsically there is a natural drive to be who we really are. Hence the longing to be immortal, absolutely happy and having infinite knowledge are inherent drives to become what we are. Hence, according to Vedanta, there is really no problem to solve but only the need to recognize our true nature. We are ignorant of our selves and the solution to this problem is to know who we are.
Who are we then? According to Vedanta, we are sat-chit-Ananda svarUpa; that is we are of the nature of existence-knowledge and limitlessness or happiness. Hence, Vedanta is considered to be a mirror that shows us who we really are compared to what we think we are. 'I think, therefore I am' - was the statement of Descartes. Vedanta says, I am - therefore I think. That is I am an existent and conscious entity. Existence has to be infinite. Finitude would make the existence bounded. A question then will arise: what is there beyond the boundaries of finiteness that is different from existence? Difference from existence is only non-existence; and we cannot say non-existence exists on the other side of the existence. That is a self-contradictory statement. Therefore existence has to be infinite. I am not only an existent entity but also a conscious entity. Consciousness has to be existent, since we cannot talk about non-existent consciousness. Hence existence and consciousness are not two separate entities but one and the same entity viewed from two different perspectives. I cannot qualify myself - since any qualification belongs to an object, which is inert. Hence Vedanta says: I am unqualified, absolute, infinite, existence-consciousness - which the bible renders as ‘I am that I am’, since I cannot add anything else to ‘I am’ to qualify myself.
There are two things that are unqualifiable. One is Brahman, since it is absolutely infinite. The reason is simple. Only finite things can be qualified since a qualification is that which distinguishes the qualified object from the rest of the objects in the world. The absolute infinite has to be only one, since if they are two, each limits the other and neither one will be Brahman. Hence, there cannot be anything else besides Brahman, in order for it to have qualifications to distinguish it from anything else. Hence whatever descriptive words that are used are only indicative of Brahman (lakShyArtha) and not literal descriptions (vAchyArtha), similar to the word infinite, to indicate that anything finite cannot be Brahman. The other thing that cannot be described is the subject I, since I am a subject and not an object, and objects alone have qualifications. Hence when I state my qualifications using my bio-data, I am only describing all 'this' that I identify with, which are qualifications of 'this' and not 'I'.
Now we arrive at the famous equations that Vedanta calls mahAvAkya-s (great aphorisms). Since Brahman is one without a second, absolutely infinite, existent and conscious entity and I am also an unqualifiable existent-conscious entity, we are left with no other possibility other than the identity relation: I am = Brahman (aham brahmAsmi). Our problems started with our presumed identity equation ‘I am = this’ but Vedanta says the correct equation is: I am = Brahman. The first equation is invalid, since I am equating a conscious entity with an unconscious entity. On the other hand, in the second equation I am equating two conscious entities, with the clear understanding that there cannot be any divisions in consciousness or in existence.
Fundamental Human Problem Part 3
Looking at our struggles to solve the three fundamental problems stated above, Vedanta declares that we are trying to solve a problem where there is no problem; and that has become the fundamental human problem. All attempts to solve this problem fail. The only way to solve this problem is to recognize that I am not the limited entity that I think I am. The limitations are the result of my superimposing qualities that do not belong to me - the qualities of the body, or the mind or the intellect or all of the three.
Hence Vedanta says: YOU ARE THAT (tat tvam asi). I am referring to the unqualified existence-consciousness that I am and Brahman is absolutely infinite existence-conscious which cannot be away from me – in fact it is me. This teaching is direct and immediate like seeing an apple in my own hand, which is by direct and immediate perception. I do not have to think; I do not have to run to the Himalayas to sit and meditate or contemplate in order for me to see the apple in my hand. As soon as I open my eyes, I cannot but see. Similarly I do not have think or contemplate or meditate or analyze to find out whether or not I exist. I do not have to prove to myself that ‘I am’. I am a self-conscious and self-existent entity. I might even say that I am the only one that is self-conscious and self-existent. As far as I am concerned, I have to be there in order to establish any other's existence.
That I am a conscious-existent entity is direct and immediate and so is Brahman, since it is absolutely infinite. Whether I can accept this equation or teaching immediately or not depends on my faith in the teaching as well how seriously I am interested in discovering my true nature. It is logical, yet the truth is beyond logic. That I am an existent-conscious entity is not logic - it is a fact. That Brahman is infinite existent-consciousness is what Vedanta declares. The identity of the two is pointed out by Vedanta and that is logical too, since it is illogical to divide existence; it will be like dividing space. Just as space cannot be cut, made wet or dry or be burnt by fire, Krishna teaches in the Bhagavat Gita that the existence-consciousness that you are cannot be cut, made wet or dry, or be burnt by fire. That you are indestructible and immortality is your very nature. It is amazing that we readily accept that we are the inert body, mind or intellect but are not ready to accept we are limitless existence-consciousness, says Shankara, the one who formulated this advaita philosophy on firm grounds using Vedanta as the means of knowledge.
The question that remains then is: why is that I do not know who I am, since I am taking myself to be what I am not? Essentially, when did this ignorance of myself begin? The related questions are: what is this world, if Brahman is everything? Why did Brahman become this world since, unlike Brahman, the world appears to be an unconscious entity?
In addressing these issues, we are going beyond the boundaries of logic. Hence , Vedanta alone becomes a means of knowledge for these things, even though the answers that Vedanta provides are not illogical. The reasons why logic fails is that the answer is not in the domain of the intellect, with its cause-effect relationships. Causes and effects are in the realm of time. We are asking questions that transcend the concepts of time and hence the intellect cannot find the answer by itself. This is the same reason why science also will fail to address these issues, since science is logical and objective while the truth is beyond logic and deals with subject ‘I’.
When did I become ignorant of myself? Vedanta says that ignorance has no beginning. Suppose that, not knowing anything about Anthropology, I ask myself: when did my ignorance of Anthropology start? I must say that from the beginning I did not know Anthropology. However, even though my ignorance of Anthropology is beginningless, that ignorance can end once I learn that science. Similarly, self-ignorance has no beginning but can end once I learn that my true nature is limitless existence-consciousness. This beginningless self-ignorance, which is the root cause of all human suffering, is called primordial sin by some religions.
Ignorance or lack of knowledge is only one aspect. The related aspect is projecting myself as something other than myself. The classical metaphor is that of the rope and snake. I do not know that the long thin soft object that is lying on the semi dark road is a rope and I project it to be a snake. Because of that projection, I sweat; my blood pressure goes up and I may even faint. The innocent rope does not have anything to do with all these secondary reactions that arise from my misunderstanding. Vedanta says the problem is exactly the same when I do not know myself. I project myself to be something other than myself and suffer the consequences of that false projection. The ego that we discussed earlier is the starting point of that misrepresentation of myself.
Next we ask: when did the ego start? When did I start seeing the snake in place of the rope? The moment I saw that there is something on the road and did not realize that it was a rope, I saw it instead as a snake. It was not the case that I first saw the rope and then the snake. Similarly, the moment I know I am here but do not know my true nature, that very moment I take myself to be 'this', which is different from ‘I’. Taking myself to be ‘this’ will start a set of chain reactions involving the three fundamental pursuits in life - to be immortal, to be full and to be knowledgeable, as discussed above.
It is common knowledge that what I do now will affect what I will have or what I want to be in future. That is, what I am now must be the result of my past actions. Within the transactional reality, the laws of cause and effect are perfectly valid. If I am an engineer today, it is only because in the past I went and studied engineering. Similarly, all the effects that I am experiencing now are the product of my past actions, whether I remember them or not. Likewise, the future that I experience will be the result of my past actions modified by my present action. Having become an engineer, if I now study medicine, I may one day become a physician but with an engineering background. Thus I am the prisoner of my past, and also master of my future. If this is perfectly logical, then Vedanta says that where I am born, to whom I am born and the type of body with which I am born - all these results - cannot be due to random choice but must be effects caused by my previous actions. I do not accept that I become a engineer or a doctor randomly; I believe that I am what I am today as a result of my deliberate or willful action in the present or in the past. (As a scientific aside, randomness does not operate at an individual level. All the statistics that we use relate to group behavior and do not predict the behavior of an individual entity. We cannot use statistics to predict the behavior of an individual. At an individual level statistics can only tell us about the probability of my becoming this or that. In technical language, the deterministic behavior of an individual cannot be predicted by the statistical randomness of a group.)
This means that my birth in this life is dictated by the actions that I must have done in the past and the birth in the previous life must have been dictated by the actions that were done in the life before that, etc. Then how is my first birth determined? Since ignorance is beginningless, my misunderstanding that ‘I am this’ is also beginningless, in the sense that it is also beyond the concept of time. As stated above, intellect itself is the product of the birth, which is due to ignorance. One cannot provide an intellectual answer to the question of the very first birth. Vedanta says birth-sustenance-death is a cycle with no beginning. It can have an end once we have knowledge of who I am, since there are then no more struggles related to taking myself to be who I am not. Knowledge of who I am can end the ignorance of myself.
Then who is that takes rebirth life after life? We discussed before that we have a gross physical body consisting of gross matter - called the food-sheath; that which is born of food, sustained by food and returns to food. We have a subtle body consisting of a total mind that has four components: 1) an emotional center, mind; 2) ra ational intellect; 3) a memory and 4) an ego, together with five physiological functions, five senses and five faculties of organs of action – altogether making 19 entities. In addition to these two bodies that we discussed before, there is a still subtler one called the causal body (kAraNa sharIra). It is called ‘causal body’ since it is the cause for the other two bodies. Since we just mentioned that it is the primordial ignorance that is the cause for our birth, that ignorance constitutes the essence of the causal body. We need to discuss now the contents of this causal body since it is the cause of the divergence into different types of birth and accounts for why I am born with such and such body, in a particular place, to particular parents and the environment into which I am born.