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The Ascent to Moksha
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 2: Understanding and Exceeding Our Limitations

In a cinematographic projection the pictures move at the rate of perhaps sixteen per second, but we do not see this movement at all. Though we may see a few minutes of a person standing in the film projected on the screen, hundreds of frames must have been rushing forward with great speed to give us this impression.

Now, how does movement of a rapid rush of pictures give the impression of a stable form? It is because of a stationary screen behind it which is not moving together with the pictures. Just imagine the screen also is rushing forward with the same speed as the pictures. What will you see there? You will not see anything, and get up and go away. The eyes are satisfied by having perceived a beautiful show because of a permanent, unmovable screen behind the moving pictures. This is a well-known fact needing no further explanation.

This instance gives us an idea as to what actually happens to us in our daily perceptions of objects. That someone is sitting in front of me for a few minutes or that I see objects – a mountain in front of me or, for the matter of that, any other thing in the world involving a stability of character even for a few minutes – is on account of the fact that there is a screen behind the moving pictures of this panorama of creation, the screen itself not being directly seen. When we see the picture, the screen is not seen. When we see the screen, the pictures cannot be seen. Go to a cinema and try to concentrate on the screen behind the pictures. You will not see the pictures. You will not enjoy the film at all because you are concentrating on the screen. But if you enjoy the moving pictures, the screen appears to be absolutely absent. It is not noticed there at all.

So when we enjoy the drama of this beautiful world, the screen behind it, on which this drama is played, is not seen. But if we can for a moment concentrate our mind on the presence of a screen which ought to exist there in order to give meaning to the show, then we will not see the show. The world will not be visible at all. We will begin to see something else behind the formation of things.

But, fortunately or unfortunately for us, we all see pictures. We are all the audience, as it were, seeing the beautiful show of this vast creation. We are not interested in seeing the screen behind it. We have not bought a ticket for that. Let the screen take care of itself; we see the beautiful show.

All this world is thus a transient moving picture show projected before our senses by a director of a theatre, who is also behind us somewhere, in whom we are not interested for obvious reasons, and we are getting on happily in the world. But if we lift the screen, then what happens to the show? There will be no show.

The reason why objects look permanent in their character – the table appears for a few moments in front of me – is that there is a stable being underlying the impermanent process. As philosophers generally put it, there is being underlying becoming, existence at the bottom of change of character.

If something changes, there is also something which does not change. This is common logic. If something moves, it implies that something simultaneously does not move. If everything moves, movement cannot be seen. We see some person running because we ourselves are not running parallel with that person at the same speed. If two trains are running parallel to each other at the same speed, it does not appear to a passenger in the train that the trains are moving. But if one train is stable and another is moving or we are on the platform observing the movement of a train, we see the train is moving.

We say the river flows, and so on, because the bed of the river does not flow and we are standing as an observer of the flow of the river. If the observer, or the background of the motion, moves at the same speed as the motion, the speed cannot be observed. The fact of the observation of change is enough proof of there being something which does not change. If the fact that everything is transient, everything is momentary, everything is perishable can be known by us, it will be sufficient proof that there is something which does not change, does not move, or is not perishable. If everything is perishable, we cannot even know that everything is perishable because that would contradict the very principle of logical thinking.

The mind which perceives the objects of sense is incapable of discovering this fact of the impermanence of things, and that the transient picture show of the forms of the world is being juxtaposed with a being which is invisible. This is called adhyasa, or superimposition, and with this confusion that the mind makes between permanence and impermanence, it is unable to know what actually is happening. The whole of our personality is involved in this erroneous perception of the world. Neither do we see the permanent element behind the impermanent show of forms, nor do we discover the impermanence of forms. There is a mixture of the two elements so that we do not see either this or that completely or thoroughly, as it really is. We cannot understand anything properly on account of this admixture of characters which the mind makes, or creates, in every form of cognition or perception.

Thus, the mind can know neither the truth of the impermanence of things nor the truth of there being something permanent behind this impermanence, as our whole personality is thus involved in this confusion in the form of wrong perception. Just as we cannot know anything outside, we also cannot know ourselves properly. There is a lack of discrimination. This muddle is called samsara, once again. When we say we are in samsara, we mean that we are in a state of utter confusion, knowing nothing whatsoever within us or outside us. This is one mistake that we commit. The impermanent world is mistaken for a permanent reality, in which confused perception our own body and individuality, our personality, is involved.

We are also involved in another blunder of mistaking the objects for a part of our own self, which we unwittingly do every day. You will be wondering as to how an object can be regarded as a self. No one can be so foolish as to imagine an object to be the self. But we do it every day without knowing what we are doing. Unless we establish contact of a personal character with an object, we cannot make a personal observation of it.

In the language of epistemology, or the theory of perception, a process is described by which the mind undergoes a tremendous transformation in the perception of an object. It is not a simple process. We do not just look at a mountain and it appears. An internal change of an invisible character takes place within the mind when there is a perception. There are so many things that are happening within us that we are not aware of. And in this perception of an object by the mind, in which the mind is involved in a process, it is again subject to a double error. The error which the mind commits in all perceptions is twofold. One is of a general character, and the other is of a purely personal nature.

We can perceive objects in two ways. When I look at a person, I can see him as a person, as a human being, pure and simple. That is general perception. But a personal perception is to look upon that very same person as a father, a mother, a friend, an enemy, this or that, in relation to one's own emotional structure. We know what difference it makes in perception. The very same person appears to be something else to us when our emotions are tethered to the objects. That person is not merely a human being; he is also our father. That man is not merely a person; he is our enemy, and so on. Hence, perceptions can be emotional or they can be purely indeterminate, general perceptions. We may see a tree that is growing wild in a forest, in which we are not interested at all, or it may be a beautiful mango tree in our own garden, which we would not like others to touch, and so on.

We have perceptions which are general, and perceptions which are specific. These specific perceptions are more dangerous and more harmful than the general ones, though the general perceptions are also erroneous, as we will see shortly. The specific emotional perceptions are what are called samsara sagara. Our emotional connections with the objects of the world are responsible for our pleasures and pains. Our perception of a mountain in front of us is not as much responsible for our pleasure and pain as our emotional perception of what belongs to us and what does not belong to us.

Emotions are not mere activities that take place within us. They are connected with external objects. In this technical language of the theory of perception, to which I made reference just now, when the mind perceives an object, a transformation of the mind takes place, and in this transformation the mind pervades the object and takes the shape of the object in such a way that the mind and the object become indistinguishable in that perception. We do not know whether we are seeing our mind there or we are seeing the object there.

To give an example to make this matter clear, an object – a piece of stone or a pot or a human being – is visible in sunlight. The light of the sun is cast on the form of the object, and the object shines before us. When we see an object in sunlight, the sunlight is responsible for our perception of the object. What is it that we see? It is the sunlight that is really responsible for the shining character of the object, and not the object as such. The fact that the object as such cannot be seen independently of light is known to us very well. For example, in pitch darkness objects are not seen. What is it that makes us see an object in light? It is the shining character with which the object is temporarily invested on account of the light falling on the object. So what we see as shining is really the light, and not the object, yet we say the object is shining. When we see a person or object in front of us, what we see is only the light that has fallen on the body of the person or the object, and not the body as such or the object as such. The light takes the shape of the object, and so we see a shining form of a body, of a person or a thing, and we mistake one thing for another. Here also there is a sort of adhyasa – the form or the shape of the object getting superimposed on the formless light of the sun, and the shining character of the light of the sun being superimposed on the shape or the form of the object. This is known as anyonya-adhyasa, or mutual superimposition of character.

This also happens when we look at an object with our mind. You look at your baby, your only child, with great affection. How beautiful, how endearing, how nice is your only child, which you keep on your lap. Now, in this emotional perception of your child, the same anyonya-adhyasa, or mutual superimposition of characters, takes place. The mind, which is the perceiver of the child, has taken the shape of the child, pervading the form or the bodily structure of the child, just as light pervades an object. But just as you cannot distinguish the light from the object, and you mistake the one for the other, you cannot distinguish between the mind that has pervaded the child and the child itself. So when your emotion of love has pervaded the child, it looks as if you are loving the child itself, whereas what you love is your own emotion. If emotion is absent, there is no love in the world. But, unfortunately for us, we cannot see this distinction. If we are able to see it, then the world will be different for us.

This also applies to hatred, repulsion. The mind negatively pervades an object in hatred, and the negative characters that are present in the mind pervade the object in such a way that the object repels you, and vice versa. So you hate an object, though you have made a tremendous blunder in thinking that you hate the object as such. An emotion has been poured over the crucible of the form of the object, and the emotion has taken the shape of the object. It is the emotion that you love or hate, and not the object as such. Now you know what mistake you commit in your perceptions, how wrong you are in your emotional perception of things.

This is to give you an outline of a process of mental transformation that takes place in loves and hatreds, or emotional perceptions in general – which is very wrong, very bad, most undesirable. You are not supposed to judge a person by pouring your mind over him. This is misjudging an object. This is to consider for a few minutes the essential character of mental transformation in emotional perception, or specific perception, determinate perception, as we may call it.

Now, I said there is another form of perception which is not involved so much in emotion but is a general form of perception, as we see a human being with whom we are not very much concerned, or we see an object or a rock on the bank of the Ganges. We are not worried about it, but yet we see it. This is general perception, not emotionally connected. Yet, it is wrong perception from the point of view of truth in its own nature, in which the mind is involved.

What is the error here? The error is that a particular involvement, which is not emotional but something else, is mistaken for the object as such. Just as in emotional perception the love or the hatred involved in the mind, embedded in the mind, is projected to the object and then the object is loved or hated, likewise, some invisible natural structure limits our perception of truth and makes it appear as an object.

To reiterate again, just as an object which has no specific character of its own can be a dear object or an objectionable thing due to the emotion working within, truth, universal in its character, can look specified, localised as an object with name and form, on account of the operation of some other element, just as we have emotion within. As emotions are not seen visibly and, therefore, we mistake one thing for another thing in our perceptions, these invisible structural limitations causing the bifurcation of objects from one another are also not visible to our eyes.

What is this difficulty that is around us, causing a limited perception of objects? Just as emotion is the cause of the specific perception of an object, what is the cause of the general perception of an object? Our mind is not trained to discover what this mystery is. That which causes this mistake in our perception is not visible to us because if it is to be discovered or seen, then we would immediately get rid of the defect. If everyone knew very well, clearly, that emotions are wrongly working and are giving a wrong impression about objects, then we would be very cautious in judging things. But this does not happen because emotions take possession of us. Like a devil possessing a person and making him dance and blurt out things in various ways, emotions take possession of us, catch hold of us, and make us their tools so that we obey the commands or the instructions of the emotions, and judge people and things wrongly, from the wrong perspective.

Likewise, there is an erroneous perception of nature as a whole. That is the cause of the indeterminate perception of objects. This cause is imperceptible because it is a part of the structure of objects. If this element were not there, the objects would not be seen. They call this element desa-kala-karya-karana-sambandha, or space-time-cause-relationship, a set of terms which are often used but cannot be understood by any amount of contemplation. One cannot know what this really means. That these forces which constitute a continuum in the whole cosmos should appear as localised objects is a mystery. We see lumps of things as bodies. Though they may be persons or inanimate object, they are nothing but concretisations of force, energies brought together into focus.

Who is responsible for the focussing of these energies in particular locations and making them appear as things, persons or objects? This is the structural pattern of space and time. We cannot, with any stretch of our imagination, understand what space is or what time is. Space is not emptiness, as children would imagine. Time is not merely the movement of a clock or a timepiece. It is something more mysterious than what we are able to think or contemplate in our minds. They are states involved in our very consciousness. That peculiar character in our consciousness which separates one location from another is space, and that very same consciousness which observes the succession of the movement of these locations is time. But we are involved so much in these processes of space and time, they have become so much a part and parcel of our very existence and life in this world, that we cannot see them, and we can make no sense out of them. This again is another, more difficult, aspect of samsara.

Samsara, thus, is of two types, or two degrees. One is the samsara of loves and hatreds, raga-dvesha-yukta samsara. The other is a more difficult, more powerful enemy, we may say. It is the samsara which may not be directly involved in individualistic emotions but is involved in a universal structural defect of space-time-cause, over which no human being can have any control. It may be said that we have some sort of control over our emotions, but we can have no control over space, time and causal relationships.

So it looks as though we are in the world, and we have to be in the world, and there is no way of getting out of it. What is the way out of samsara? If samsara is of this nature, so difficult even to understand, over which we seem to have no control in any manner whatsoever, at any time of our life, how are we to achieve freedom in this world?

What is moksha, or the liberation of the spirit? What is God-realisation, or Self-realisation? What is spiritual life in such a setup of affairs where we can do nothing? We are helpless in every way. As I mentioned, when emotions begin to operate within us, we become helpless. For a moment it may look like we can control our emotions, but when they arise, we are nowhere. Who is free from loves and hatreds in the world? Not one person. That means everyone is completely involved in emotions, helplessly, as it were. Apart from this, we have the further, greater difficulty of the limitation of our consciousness to space-time-cause-relation. With these two things before us, it looks as if we bid goodbye to all spiritual pursuits. Nothing is possible. We can simply keep quiet, expecting the worst.

Now, are things as bad as it appears? Not so, is the answer. This is a fearful picture that appears before our eyes when we analyse the world through the senses and the mind. But is there another way of analysing the truth of things other than through the instrumentality of the senses and the mind? Are we capable of any higher achievement? Are we bound to be mere slaves of space, time and emotion? No. We have an urge from within us that we have to be perfect one day or the other. We are never satisfied with any given object or status in this world. We are never happy even for two consecutive moments of time. Whatever be our possession, we are not satisfied with it. We want to live as long as possible. We pray for a long life, an eternal life. A long life does not mean merely a few hundred years. After a few hundred years, what will happen? Then what is the use of a long life? So when we speak of long life, we inadvertently think of eternal life. We would like to live forever and ever, unendingly through the process of the passage of time. Let time pass on, but we will not end.

We have an urge from within us which is not subject to the logical categories of the mind and intellect because logic cannot explain why this urge should arise at all. Nevertheless, we have this urge for eternal life. Not merely that, we want infinite possessions. We are not satisfied with one or two possessions in this world. We would like to expand our empire, as they say. We want to annexe other states, and become ubiquitous if possible. Is it possible? If it could be possible, we would be very, very happy. We would like to be everywhere, possessed of everything, for all times to come. It is humanly impossible; nevertheless, it is there.

How can humanly impossible things arise in the mind of a man? What is this mystery of the human mind? How do we conceive impossible things? To conceive an impossible thing is illogical because absolutely impossible things cannot even be conceived in the mind. How could impossibility exist at all? Impossibility is the opposite of existence because we already said it is impossible, it cannot be. But we have a desire for the so-called impossibility of eternal life, infinite possessions, continuous happiness. Such an urge arises from the mind, though no one knows how this urge could arise and what it points to. This should be our guide in our spiritual pursuits.

While mathematics and logic are very good, they are not everything. They are good so far as the world of space-time is concerned. Where the spirit is concerned, the logic of the mind is not of much help, though it is helpful in the sense that it can realise its own limitations. Reason and logic are helpful in recognising the limits of reason and logic. Reason can tell us how far we can go, beyond which we cannot go. The limits of reason give us a hint as to the existence, or the character of the existence, of something beyond this limit of reason. This is what is implied in the logical process of thought. Logic is limited, yes, but the very recognition of the limitation of logical thinking is an acceptance of the existence of something beyond this limitation, logically speaking. Otherwise, how could we explain our urge for infinite possession and eternal life? Why do we cry for perennial satisfaction or unending happiness?

There is something in man which man himself does not know, and cannot know. There is a deep mystery in all human beings which no one has been able to unravel up to this time. Man is a marvel in himself. The greatest miracle of creation is the human being. The solar system and the astronomical cosmos is not a miracle compared with the miracle of the human mind and the human individuality. What the human individuality and structure, the microcosm, can enshrine in its frail structure is indeed the marvel of marvels, the wonder of wonders, the miracle of miracles. And if this marvel within us could be discovered, we would have seen through the marvel of the whole of creation.

“The proper study of mankind is man,” said the great poet Pope. “Know thyself,” said the oracle of Delphi. “Atmanam vidhi,” says the great Indian sage. Towards this end we shall struggle with all ardour and fervour, which is spiritual sadhana.