Living a Spiritual Life
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 2: Total Perception

Last Sunday we delved a little into the phenomenon of being aware of an object outside us – the process of perception. It was noticed that in this activity known as perceiving an object, three elements are involved. There must be an object in order that it may be perceived, there must be a method or a medium of perception, and there should be an awareness of the fact of perceiving the object.

It was felt that the introduction of a principle called mind or psyche between awareness as such and the object outside becomes necessary; otherwise, there will be perpetual perception, or non-perception. Conditioned perception is possible only if there is a limiting medium we call the mind or the psychological organ.

We also observed that if these three elements in the process of knowledge stand isolated from one another, there could not be what we call total perception. There would be only little bits of conscious effort, not coordinated into a whole. But we see that our perception is a wholeness of awareness of that object placed before us.

In order that this completeness or wholeness of perception be possible, it is essential to introduce a transcendental awareness, which rises above the threefold procedure of perception—that is, the subjective awareness, the process as such, and the object outside. So, four principles come into the surface of our observation when we analyse the fact of perception of an object.

Usually we glibly, like untutored persons, think that everything is clear to us: “I see something, and it is such and such a thing.” Such a statement is made, but no one knows how such a perception is made possible. What are the elements involved in this activity known as perception? How many contributory factors are there?

Accepting that there is some intricate involvement of a fourfold factor in the process of perception, as mentioned, it now becomes necessary for us to go deeper into two other aspects of this phenomenon—namely, what do we mean by ‘an object’, and who perceives the object?

There is no use merely saying, “I am seeing such a thing.” This is not a clarified explanation of the phenomenon of knowledge. To us lay minds, an object looks like some solid thing placed somewhere, in some location, and we have nothing more to say about the object.

There are two types of objects: stationary objects and movable objects. Inanimate things, plants and trees, are stationary objects; animals, human beings, etc., are movable objects. Whatever they be, it is necessary to know what these objects are made of. We have anatomical, physiological and biological explanations of what an object is. If we consider the human being as an object of perception, we would naturally say that the human being is made up of bone, marrow, flesh, blood, sinews, heart, lungs, brain, limbs, etc. But this is not a clear answer to the question of what the human being is made of.

Even physically, this explanation is inadequate because this conglomeration of the components of the physical body, as described, is part and parcel of the physical world, which is made up of five elements known as ether, air, fire, water and earth. We do not see anything anywhere, other than the composition of these five elements known as pancha mahabhutas—five great foundations of any type of objectivity. If that is the case, the human body, or any located object, has to be composed of these five elements only, there being no other thing in the world except the five elements.

We generally feel that a particular object is in one place only. It cannot be in two places at the same time. One thing is in one place, and it can be in that place at one time. Now, this is a very casual observation of what the object really is. If it is to be accepted that every physical object is composed of the five elements—earth, water, fire, air and ether—the object would be there, where these five elements are.

We cannot compartmentalise these elements into bits unconnected with one another. Nature seems to be a whole of action. Even this fivefold description of the elements is not the final truth about them. The five are not five different things, but five degrees of the descent of one and the same stuff called matter. Condensation and particularisation take place when the matter, originally a ubiquitous all-pervading something, centralises itself and becomes a graduated descending process which we now call ether, air, fire, water and earth.

Finally, there is only one element everywhere, and that is matter, counterpoised to consciousness. If we reduce the elements of existence into their fundamentality, we will find there are only two things: consciousness and matter. Matter is not only in one place; the entire world is matter. The whole solar system, all the universe we can conceive of, is materially composed. Matter is omnipresent. In Sanskrit, in certain doctrines of philosophy, we call this prakriti, or the matrix, the original stuff and substance of everything.

If a particular object that we see before us is composed of the very same matter that is ubiquitous, incapable of division into parts, we will realise, to our astonishment, that this one object before us looking like some particular thing located in one place is linked to the whole universe.

It is so because the substance of this object is an all-pervading something; therefore, the potentiality of being all-pervading is present even in a little particle of sand. It is not only in one place. Thus, no object is in one place only. It has the capacity to go deep into its origin and become omnipresent. But we do not see this potentiality of omnipresence in any localised object. We cling to one thing, ignoring other things, while the fact is that the so-called other things, apart from the one object perceived, are also included within the purview of the omnipresent material substance.

Therefore, objects are not manifold in their nature, and the world is not constituted of many things. Objects are manifold appearances, modifications, of one all-pervading substance. It is in the light of this fact that the eighteenth chapter of the Bhagavadgita mentions that to cling to any particular object as if it is everything is the worst kind of knowledge that one can have. If that is so, our knowledge is the worst kind of knowledge because we see things only in particular places, and not everywhere. One thing is in one place only and, therefore, under the impression that one particular thing is in one place, we sell ourselves to that object, hug it and want to make it our own, under the impression it is everything. “Oh my child, you are all for me!” says the mother.

This is what everyone does in the transference of consciousness to an observed object. The object is, to mention again precisely, not in one place only. So, when we look at the object, we are looking at the world as a whole, which has all eyes everywhere. Sarvataḥ pāṇipādaṁ tat sarvatokṣiśiromukham (Gita 13.13): Everywhere it has hands and feet and eyes and heads. Every particular, located object is an eye of matter, through which it sees everything; this is the omnipresence thereof. Inasmuch as we are also one of the localised objects from the physical point of view, we, in our own selves also, cannot realise the potentiality of omnipresence in ourselves.

So, both the subjective perceiver and the object perceived stand parallelly on a single footing. The perceived object appears to be located in one place; the subjective perceiver also seems to be located in one place only. You are in one place as my object, and I am in one place as the subject. This is erroneous perception. This is what is called the bondage of consciousness, and if all perception is virtually a bondage, the whole world is in bondage.

It looks as if everything is crazy and not in a normal condition of knowledge. The great poet Bhartrihari said, Pitva mohamayim pramadamadiram unmatta bhutam jagat: “Having drunk the intoxicant of ignorance, the world has gone mad in its perception of things.” This tragedy, in which everyone seems to be deeply sunk, is called samsara, aberration from reality or, philosophically speaking, empirical existence, relative living. So we, as spiritual seekers, not wanting to be bound helplessly by the forces of nature, wishing to be liberated from this kind of bondage, have to see not the object but see through the object to what is behind it.

There are three conditions of an object: status, dynamis and equipoise. These three conditions are known in Sanskrit as tamas, rajas and sattva. Sattva is a Sanskrit word which is derived from the word sat, or ‘being’. The character of Being is called sattva. So we will be in a state of equipoise, equilibrium, harmony only when our experience of anything is interpreted in terms of Being, whose nature also is to be understood properly.

Being means Pure Existence. The nature of that existence is called sattva. In scientific fields, the condition of equipoise is not considered; there is only status and dynamics, or kinetics. But there is a third element which harmonises the static and kinetic condition of things, which is the sattva spoken of—the nature of Being.

Here again we are coming to the same point which we observed earlier—namely, that a transcendental element is operating in the midst of so-called separated subjectivity and objectivity. As is the case in the process of perception, so is the case of the knowledge of an object by a subject. That is, we confront an object as a colliding taking place between one individuality and another individuality. In our perception of an object, the object does not enter into our being. It stands outside. This is why I said that we collide with the object but do not make the object part and parcel of ourselves.

Nothing can enter into you. Even the dearest and the nearest of your possessions is outside you; therefore, bereavement is inescapable in life. Whoever possesses anything shall lose it one day because it does not belong to anyone. It cannot belong to anyone, because it is certainly outside the Being of the subjective perceiver.

How would you introduce the principle of permanency, while it is not to be seen in our asking for things? Do we want a thing only in imagination, or is it to be ours, really speaking? Really, it cannot belong to us, because the individuality of the object separates itself from the individuality of the subject. How do we know that the object is there in front of us, therefore, if both stand apart? There is a Being, sattva, presiding over the very process of the collision of the subject with the object. This is the transcendental element I mentioned.

So, if we want to have anything permanently, we have to approach that thing through the transcendental principle and not directly confront it without taking into consideration the element of transcendence, which within its purview includes both the subjective perceiver and the object perceived. It is not only transcendent in the sense that it stands above them; it is also involved in this process. This transcendent so-called something is just now between me and you, without which you would not be seeing me and I would not be seeing you.

You may ask me why we do not perceive it, if this transcendent Being is just now here between us, among us. It cannot be seen because it is the transcendental subjectivity and cannot be converted into an object of perception. It is the knower, and not the known something. So, your expecting it to be made an object to be seen is a futile attempt. This is why the transcendental reality cannot be seen with the eyes.

The eyes can empirically perceive that which is placed in space and time, in the midst of the five elements, but the transcendental Being is consciousness. We have to repeat it again, as we mentioned earlier. Consciousness cannot become an object; it is the pure subject. It is not a subject in the sense of a so-called individual perceiver of something, it is the knower of the whole universe. In that sense, we may say that there is only one observer of the whole world, and not many people seeing things in a different manner. There is only one object called the universe, and there is only one perceiver of it—this transcendent Being. Only that Being has control over this omnipresent object; otherwise, the object will escape our control and run away from us. Sarvaṁ tam parādād yo'nyatrātmano sarvaṁ veda (Brihad. 2.4.6), says the great master Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: If you consider anything as outside you, it shall run away from you because it is ashamed to feel that you consider it as outside you and then want it. What kind of friendship is it, where you regard your friend as totally alienated from you and yet want unity, equanimity, with that person or thing? There is a duplicity, a vagueness, involved in all associations of one person with another person, one thing with another thing.

Things do not unite with each other; they repel each other, actually. This repulsion looks like a coming together, unfortunately. When I touch this table with my finger, an electrical repulsion takes place between the particles constituting this table and the very same particles constituting my finger. The repulsion, the kick, as it were, electrically produced, looks like a contact. Actually, we have not contacted anything; repulsion has taken place. The object hates us, and kicks us, and then we feel that we have got it. The whole thing is topsy-turvy, irrelevant, chaotic, if we deeply consider this matter.

What is the point in our discussion of all these things? The point is simple: we are after perfection. We call ourselves spiritual seekers, which means to say, we seek the ultimate spirit of things. The ultimate spirit is this very same thing I called the transcendental Being. We are in search of it; we are seeking it. We are wanting to have communion with it, attain it, merge in it, and become it.

This process which I now expounded in a psychological language, this object, this transcendent Being, is known as the God of religions, the Supreme Father, as it is called. It is above everything; therefore, we call it Father. It is everything; therefore, it is also called the Absolute.

Unless we feel competent to visualise our life with the eyes of this universal presence, we will catch hold of shadows which flee in different directions, and will get nothing in this world. People come to this world weeping, and they have to leave this world weeping; and many live, weeping. The samsara sagara, the ocean of turmoil, is misery incarnate. Yet, the fact before us is not realised fully on account of another mischievous activity taking place. I cannot describe it in any other way. It deceives us every minute, due to which we think that everything is fine while everything is dead wrong.

Why it is wrong, we have now understood from this analysis made a few minutes before. But why does it look right, and why do we wish to lick the honey of the objects of sense? It is because of the immanence, the indwelt presence of this very same transcendent Being even in the isolated objects of the world.

The contour of the object, the shape of the object, the particular placement in a given context of the object in respect of a perceiving subject creates the impression that it is worth having. Why do we feel that something is worth having? That content of that particular object is what we lack in our personality. There is some feature in the object which we do not have in our own self. If we are looking like the very same thing which we love, we will not be able to love that thing. It would be like loving one’s own self.

Yajnavalkya, whose name I mentioned just now, says in another context that every person is like a split pea. A pea has two halves, and every person is a half. The other half is the object, like the positive and negative sides of electrical contact. So, no one feels completeness in oneself. We want to take something and make it our own. The half pea wants to unite itself with the other half, but two halves cannot become one. Even if we join the two halves of the pea with gum, they will still remain two. They cannot become one, like broken glass which cannot be united into one by any amount of gluing, unless they are melted down.

Now, this feeling that something is worthwhile, is dear, beautiful, wonderful, “I must have it,” arises because whatever quality we find in that object is absent in us. If we have also the same quality, we would not like that thing. This is one point to remember. We are lacking something; that something that we lack is seen in that object which attracts us, as the counterpart of what we lack in ourselves. So, one person can be attracted to only one thing at a time. It is not possible to be wholly attracted to two things because our lacuna is of one type at one given moment of time. But when we grow in the evolutionary process, the feeling of lack will change in its nature. Then we will not like that particular thing which we liked earlier because the lacuna takes a new shape in the process of evolution; and as that new shape requires its own counterpart, we then run after another object.

This process being endless in the life of a person, all the world put together also cannot satisfy us because objects, being relative to one another, flee away from one another as repulsive elements, and one thing localised in one place cannot merge into another thing which is localised in another place. Space divides things; it will not allow things to unite or come together.

The reason for our attraction to things is explained in this manner. The beauty and the taste that we see in an object of attraction is the hidden presence of this transcendent element which suddenly, like a flash of a matchstick, manifests itself in the contact of the subject with the object—at which time, the mind foolishly imagines that it has obtained the object but actually has not. Still, the feeling that it has got the object brings a temporary cessation of that desire for that object. When the desire temporarily ceases, the externality of mental operation ceases for that moment. When the externality of mental activity ceases, it draws itself into itself. Then, immediately sattva manifests itself; pure Being flashes forth, and then we feel rejoicing, happy. That feeling of happiness does not arise from the object, which has only acted as an instrument in rousing a feeling in us that we have got what we want. It has deceived us, and it has now run away from us and left us in the lurch. Life is thus a perpetual deception, while we think it is a reception of objects.

Spiritual seekers should not be duped by this kind of phenomenal activity. The will has to be developed strongly. There is no harm in seeing things; you may see a thing, but see it as the transcendent Being sees—as composing within its bosom both the subjective side and the objective side. When you see an object, do not feel that you are seeing another thing outside you, as an object. With great effort of will and determination, lift your consciousness from this bodily encasement and place it literally between you and that object.

Can you imagine that you are sitting between me and you? It is a great herculean feat. Is it possible for me to feel that I am between me and you, and not in me or in you? If that is possible, you will not be attached either to this body or to the body of the object. You will be observing both sides, like the body seeing two hands, not being attached to either of them. Here is an explanation of what perception of an object is, and what the object is.

Now, I raise the question, “Who is perceiving the object?” You know the old story of the Kenopanishad: The gods thought they won victory, while actually the victory was won by somebody else. The Pandavas were thought to have won victory; actually, Sri Krishna won the victory. The silent witness actually won the victory, the active participants only boasting that they won.

Hence, who is the perceiver of the object, the object which is so intriguing? “I am perceiving”—again the same old answer comes. Who are you? Analyse yourself. Is the body, which is seated here, perceiving the object? Everyone knows the body cannot perceive anything; it is inert, made up of the elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether. The sense organs also, which are supposed to be the perceivers, are inert substances. They are like glasses, spectacles, which cannot themselves see anything; they are only acting as a medium for knowing things, perceiving things. Neither the body sees, nor the sense organs see.

Can we say the mind sees? The mind does not operate always. In the state of waking, it is actively performing its function; in dream also, it is operating in a similar manner. But when we are asleep, the mind ceases to function; the sense organs also do not operate. You say, “I am seeing the object.” The question is, who are you? Not the body, because it is inert; it cannot see anything. Not the sense organs—they are equally inert. Not the mind, because it is not always there, especially in sleep. What else is there in you other than the body, the sense organs, and the mind?

The well-known study of this phenomenon of sleep has brought to the surface of our observation the fact that we feel that we did exist in sleep, but we do not know in what condition we existed. We did not exist there physically, nor sensorially, nor mentally, but as something which cannot be described. Why is it possible not to know it? The impressions of unfulfilled desires act like a thick layer or cloud over what we really are, and prevent us from knowing what we are. It is like painting our spectacles with coal tar. It will not allow us to see anything because of the opaqueness of the medium.

Do you know that you did exist in sleep? You may say, “I know that.” Through what medium of perception did you know that you were existing in sleep? If not the body, if not the sense organs and the mind, what is the medium of perception or cognition through which you come to say that you did exist in sleep? There was no medium of perception. That knowledge of the fact of your having been there in the state of deep sleep is not mediated cognition, but immediate cognition. It is self-identical knowledge.

What was that kind of knowledge? What is it made of? You cannot say, because at that time you were not aware of anything. You can only remember that you slept. But what is remembrance? It is a memory of a past experience. Unless you had an experience earlier, there cannot be a memory. You have a memory of having slept, and if memory is a remembrance of what you experienced earlier, you have to explain what ‘experience’ is. Unless there is consciousness, there cannot be experience.

So, from this analysis we again conclude that we did exist in the state of deep sleep as consciousness—not as the mind, not as the intellect, not as the sense organs and the body. That is our real nature. That is why when we enter into it, we feel relaxed. Even a sick man gets up feeling a sense of betterment. Fatigue goes after sleep. Great joy supervenes. The joy of sleep is superior to the joy of any other conceivable thing in the world because it is self-identical experience, consciousness entering into consciousness, being getting identified with Being. The Absolute is reflected there.

Such a wonder is within ourselves—a great treasure. The Chhandogya Upanishad tells us we walk over this treasure every day, but we do not know that it is hidden underneath. We walk over it in the sense of contacting it unknowingly in the state of deep sleep, but actual awareness of this contact is not there, because of the unfulfilled desires impeding this knowledge.

The whole spiritual aspiration is a process of removing the desires impeding the perception of our own selves as transcendent Being, which rises above the individual subjectivity and the external object, and makes us an all-pervading, perfect, eternal immortal Being. This is what we are, and this is what we are aiming for. How we can actually achieve it is incidentally also implied in what I mentioned to you just now in a few words—the details thereof, perhaps we shall be able to consider further on.