The Brahma Sutras as a Moksha Shastra
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 5: Knowing Things as They Are

Regarding the attainment of final liberation, the Brahma Sutras raise certain questions as to the means to be adopted for this attainment. What is the attainment? It is obvious that the search of the soul is for union with what is omnipresent. The soul is not seeking for unity with another finite being, whatever be the largeness of that finitude. Anything that is limited by space, time and causation ceases to be an eternal being; and that which is eternal should surpass the limitations of the time process and exceed the limitations of space, and cannot be bound by causal processes.

How would anyone reach that which is omnipresent? That is to say, it is an attempt to reach that which is everywhere. The question of reaching implies distance between the one who wishes to reach the destination and the destination itself. The great commentator on the Brahma Sutras is very eloquent on this subject, pointing out that there cannot be any kind of movement towards that which is everywhere. Yet, it is necessary for the soul to attain that which is everywhere.

The question finally hinges upon the necessity to attain it at all. The need felt for the attainment of what is omnipresent arises in some location which cannot be called omnipresent. The omnipresent itself does not search for the omnipresent. There seems to be a localised somewhereness of what we consider as the individuality, the jivatva of a person, which tries to overcome the limitations of individuality for the purpose of entering into the bosom of the omnipresent. Obviously, this would imply the negation of every characteristic which distinguishes the individual from the omnipresent. This art of self-transcendence in a perfectionist manner carried to the point of logical conclusion would demand from the seeking spirit a qualification which is not easy to understand. This way of reasoning, this way of thinking, this conclusion that the omnipresent cannot be reached without the abolition of individuality, and simultaneously the feeling that it is practically impossible to annihilate individuality, bringing about a contradiction between the two issues, makes jnana marga a very difficult process. This is the way of knowledge calling for acute understanding, a sharp mind, and a will that is prepared to surrender everything that it considers as its belonging.

The dearest belonging of any individual is individuality itself. Our greatest love is to exist as we are today as persons. Our love is not for land and property, relations, money, authority, power, though they appear to be our longings. The final longing is to exist as a person, as an individual, as me, this particular identity that I am. If we are not prepared to allow the existence of even this much, and we need to sacrifice it for the sake of immolation in the Supreme Absolute, we generally will not be prepared for this arduous sacrifice. This is a hard path, says the Bhagavadgita. Body-consciousness prevents even the attempt to think in this matter. The love of one’s own body is more potent and insistent than the love of anything else. If we want that to be sacrificed, we may be asking for the impossible. But the impossible has to become the possible if the path of knowledge is to become a practicability. The omnipresent cannot be reached by that which is localised. No human being can reach God; it will mean that, if this condition is not fulfilled.

Since the condition imposed is very hard, and the price is too high, the dear ‘me’ cannot be so easily sacrificed. This ‘me’ has to go. If ‘me’ goes, then what remains? There is a shock inwardly felt by even the question that the ‘me’ has to go. “You want me to go? Then, what happens to me?” Nobody can answer this question. “All my endeavour is engulfed in an unimaginable, unthinkable ideal which you consider as my goal. How will it be my goal when I myself will not be there?” These are the doubts that arise in the mind of even intelligent persons. Professors of philosophy and metaphysicians will have this very doubt: “If I myself will vanish in order to attain the Absolute, then who is it that is going to attain the Absolute?” Human nature is so inveterate in its insistence on clinging to this personality that any argument will not brook interference.

Acharya Sankara’s commentary on this issue is profound and exhibits the highest acumen of logical intelligence. We will shiver even to read these commentaries. Only the omnipresent can reach the omnipresent. Only God can know God. Only the Absolute can reach the Absolute—not me, not you, not this, not that, not anybody. Does anybody understand what this means? It cannot be understood because the mind is impure; it has not been purified properly. Unpurified minds should not try this method of practice. It may blow the top off, if we insist on this kind of thinking too much. But this will not happen, and we will really achieve the goal, if the one who is attempting this kind of practice of meditation on the Absolute is hard like a diamond in the art of thinking and has an adamantine will determined to achieve it, and has no desire of any kind other than this longing for the Supreme Being.

What is the meaning of purification that is necessary for the purpose of cracking this hard nut of the way of knowledge? It is sense control. What is the meaning of sense control? It is the withdrawal of the ramified channelising of energies of one’s own system and centring them in one’s own self. The outwardness of consciousness has to be inwardness of self-sufficiency, tending towards universal experience.

What are we conscious of day in and day out? Everything that is not ourselves. Does anyone think of one’s own self? There is no time to think that because we are too busy. We have to run to the office. Where is time for us to think of ourselves? We have heavy work. We have pending files. We have a family. We have problems of many kinds. Externally motivated movement of consciousness through the sense organs prevents even the attempt to know that one exists at all. We have no time to know that we are existing. We are existing in something else—in a railway train, in a bus, in a car, in a shop, in a market—but we are not existing in our own selves. This ‘me’ does not exist; it is gone because there is no time to think of it. We get wedded to the outer world of activity to such an extent that we are conscious only of what is outside us day in and day out throughout, and do not know that we are also here.

People who are engaged in social welfare activities, who always say that they serve people, forget that they are also a part of the people whom they have to serve. The subject which serves the object cannot stand outside the object. There is a correlativity of action between the seer and the seen, the doer and the deed, and the target. This unfortunate situation in which every individual finds oneself is the pressure to sell oneself to the object and cease to be a subject. They think of the world always, and do not think anything else. They think of the market, think of the office, think of everything, but do not think of themselves. This is the opposite of sense restraint. In sense restraint, we are conscious of ourselves as much as we are conscious of the world outside. There cannot be objective performance unless the subject is already there. The sense organ rushes with a great speed in the direction of its respective object with the wrong notion that the satisfaction that it seeks is outside it. We think that what we want is outside us, that it is not near us, much less inside us. We forget the fact that it is futile to pursue anything which is outside us. We have already dubbed that object as not connected with us, as it is totally outside. How will we get that which is outside, because the outsideness of the object will preclude the very possibility of possessing it? There is a self-contradiction in the expression of any kind of desire for objects. The objects cannot become subjects, which is to say, we cannot possess them. The possession of an object implies the necessity to convert the object into a subject, which is not possible.

Therefore, all sense activity is a mistake of individual effort. We have to employ the power of discrimination, viveka shakti, as they call it, in order to know what is actually happening to us in our daily life. One should not get drowned completely in a mess of confusion. There must be time enough to think clearly, cogently, logically, and systematically. Energy of the system should not be depleted by any means. This is called brahmacharya in ordinary language. It has nothing to do with having or not having a family life. We can be a sannyasin in the midst of a huge city or we can be a householder in a forest. It depends upon what we are thinking in our mind. In the midst of New York and London we can be a sannyasin, but in the Himalayas we can be a householder, because it is the way of thinking that makes us what we are. So we should never imagine that not having a family is brahmacharya. It does not mean that, because the family is also a kind of object. If the object cannot be possessed for the reason mentioned already, the family also cannot be possessed. To call anybody our family is foolishness. They are not ours. They exist as we are existing, independent by themselves. We may have an obligation, but we cannot possess anything. Even a wife cannot be possessed by the husband, and vice versa. Nobody can be possessed by somebody else, because the object cannot become a subject. Hence, we may be living in the midst of a thousand of people and yet we may be free from any kind of attachment, or we may be alone in the wilderness of a forest but brooding over sense objects.

Space, time and circumstance may, of course, contribute largely to the way of self-restraint, but they are themselves not all. Samma samadhi sampat are the technical words used in the Vedanta system. Viveka, vairagya, shad-sampat and mumukshutva are the preliminary qualifications prescribed. Viveka is the capacity to discriminate between what is real and what is unreal, vairagya is dispassion towards that which is unreal, samma samadhi sampat means emotional restraint, and mumukshutva is ardent longing for union with God. Many feel that mumukshutva is the most important of qualifications. Whatever be the situation in which you are, it does not matter. Your longing is the qualification required of you. When you ask for it from the bottom of your heart, from the deepest recesses of your soul, you will have it. But any amount of intellectuality, logical argument, without feeling for it, will not cut ice.

These are some of the qualifications prescribed, and if emotional turbulence is made to subside to the extent necessary, and the understanding is sharp enough, and one is clear as to what the goal is that one is seeking, the mind gets purified automatically. This is something about the jnana marga, the way of knowledge, which is the method of cutting short samsara at one stroke. It is an immediate destruction of individuality, leading to immediate salvation—a thing that does not come tomorrow and is not somewhere else. It comes here and just now. The nature of this attainment is here and now, not somewhere else and tomorrow. But, as mentioned, it is a hard job because of the natural incapacity of the mind to adjust itself to this ordeal, which is hard enough. It is like entering into flames, which is not an easy affair.

The Brahma Sutra does not preclude the adopting of some other means to salvation which may be lesser in intensity and potency and may take more time for fructification or maturity. There is certain well-known jargon used in this connection, such as the way of the bird and the way of the ant, etc. Both the ant and the bird reach their destination. Jnana marga is like a flying bird; it directly reaches the place where it wants to go. The ant has to wriggle here and there on the ground, though it will also reach the same place the bird reached. They are called suka marga and pipilika marga. Suka marga is the path of the bird—immediate flight; and pipilika is the ant. Its way is slow, a gradual adaptation of oneself to the needs of slow, slow, slow concentration of mind to the personality of this Absolute.

There is certainly a repulsion created between the needs of an individual and the needs of the omnipresent Absolute. Therefore, that suka marga, that path of the bird, is hard for ordinary people. The concept of Ishvara, or the personal God, is also one of the prescriptions in the Brahma Sutras. In the Veda there is a hymn called the Purusha Sukta, which describes the Absolute as a cosmic person. It is somewhat pleasant to conceive such an ideal because the person that we are would like to contact a person rather than a nonperson. We feel satisfied when we meet a person. We cannot easily be happy when we meet a thing which is not a person. So the prescription of the devotional path is also entertained even in this strict doctrine of the Brahma Sutra way of salvation. While the Absolute, the omnipresent Being, includes the whole of creation, creation does not exist outside it. The lesser concept, which is prescribed for the purpose of easier meditation, conceives of the Absolute as the Creator of the universe, holding that one may meditate on that which is seen with the eyes as the body of God. The Cosmic Person has the Cosmic Body, which is this universe, and we are all included within it.

The Brahma Sutra is very gracious in its prescriptions. In the case of third-rate individuals, it goes down even further by prescribing symbols for the purpose of meditation. We can meditate on a diagram of the creative process. The creative process of the twenty-five principles adopted by the Vedanta, and even according to the Sankhya, may also be directly taken as objects of concentration. We can go on thinking, “Here is the Supreme Purusha, here is the avyakta, here is the mahat, here is the ahamkara, this is space and time, here are tanmatras, here are the five elements which split themselves into the individuals and create all this problem of human existence.” This is the philosophy of yantra, for instance, in the Agama Shastra. A diagram can represent our beloved object of meditation. Pratika upasana is the name given to it. An emblem of the Absolute can be considered enough for concentration of the mind. Knowledge arises gradually.

In the earliest of stages, the very desire to know is called the first step in knowledge. Subhecha is the name given to it. If we wish to be good, we have already started moving along the right path. Though we have not actually moved, even the desire to move is good enough. It is a virtue. “I shall be a good person.” Even if we decide in this way, we have become a good person from that moment. Ostensibly in the performance of our daily duties the goodness may not be easily visible, but our heart decides, “I should be good.”

Subecha is the desire to be good. The longing to know is the first stage. The next stage is called vicharana, the deliberation on this subject. “How will I be good? What is the way of knowing the secret of things? Who shall I ask? Where shall I go? Who is to be the guide?” This kind of enquiry within oneself is the second stage.

The third stage is the attenuation of the thinking process, called tanumanasi. Now the mind is fattened with ego and stout with attachment to sense objects, but these processes of inwardised analysis, called vicharana, thin the mind in the sense that the gross tamas and rajas gradually get eliminated, and there is a sign of the transparency of sattva guna manifesting itself. It is in this stage that the light beams forth through the mind from within. Flashes of light will be the experience of the subsequent stage, which is known as sattvapatti, the acquisition of the joy of luminosity arising from the sattvic nature of one’s own mind. In our case, mostly rajas and tamas cloud the mind, and there is no illumination from inside. By investigative process, deep analysis, self-enquiry, the tamas and rajas are eliminated. Light flashes forth—sattvapatti.

Then the desire to be in the midst of objects ceases. This is called asamsakti. We are satisfied with our own self. We do not want to go and shake hands with some friend, and so on. We ourselves are the friend of ourselves. We feel satisfied with whatever we have and whatever we are. It is an unsatisfied individual that runs about like a dog in all directions seeking for its grub. The satisfied mind does not want any grub. Then people start speaking less. Sometimes they do not speak at all unless they are actually accosted and questioned. This is the sign of detachment from anything that is external—asamsakti.

The higher stage is called padartha-bhavana, which means to say, the recognition of the non-materiality of things. Matter does not finally exist. Matter is an externalised form of condensed light itself, as our modern science will tell us. Light externalised and condensed looks like a material object. The materiality is shed by the material objects, and radiance will be seen peeping through every corner of creation. We will see the eyes of perception everywhere. We will begin to note that the leaves are looking at us, the walls are hearing what we are speaking, the space and the time, the atmosphere around, reverberate with the sound of echo and response to whatever we are thinking in our mind. The world begins to say, “I am here with you.” Usually the world does not respond in that manner. The world does not seem to care a hoot for us. But now the world will open up its treasures and say, “I am with you for all times.” This is the recognition and experience of the non-materiality of things, experiencing light everywhere.

Then this non-materiality is recognised even in one’s own body and personality. Of course, this is a very advanced stage indeed, where oneself also seems to be taking part in this large oceanic illumination of non-material light. Light experiences light. The subjectivity that is associated with one’s own self is seen in every other thing also which usually went as an object. Philosophers oftentimes speak of what they call the kingdom of ends. The whole universe is a big empire where only ends are there, and means are not available anywhere. To consider anything as a means to some other end would be to subject the means to a subordinate situation and have the end as superior. Since the world does not contain subordinate things and each element has its own role to play in the perfection of the universe, the world stands as an empire of ends and not servants, means, etc. Selfhood beams forth in all those things which appeared as objects outside. This is the penultimate stage of liberation. It is one step before we invade the Absolute and enter into the sea of experience.

Then there is mukti, actual freedom—freedom from the very consciousness of objectivity, freedom from the necessity even to be aware that there is something external causing bondage. There is no one to impose a penalty upon us, or to restrict us in any manner. We are svaratsvarat bhavati. We become the Self-emperor.  Atma-rati, atma-krida are the words used in the Upanishads about a person in this condition. One’s self is pleased with one’s own Self. One’s self is satisfied with one’s own Self. One’s self loves one’s own Self. One’s self enjoys one’s own Self. One’s self enters into one’s own Self, the Self being the Universal Self. Ātmanas tu kāmāya brahma priyam bhavati (Brihad. Up. 2.4.5). Idaṁ sarvam, yad ayam ātmā (Brihad. Up. 2.4.6), says the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. All this is the Self. This is the end of knowledge.

Pratika upasana was referred to, that is, concentration on a symbol of the ideal. Do we not keep a photograph of a person whom we love very much? We keep that photo in our pocket. It reminds us of that which we love. A pratika, or a symbol, can be anything. It can be even a japa mala. People generally keep a japa mala in their pocket, or a small edition of a scripture such as the Bhagavadgita. Keep it in your pocket always. It will remind you of what it is by itself. You can keep a symbol like a yantra or a mantra written on a plate. People call it a talisman. Anything is good enough to make the mind think of that which is above itself. Meditation is actually the art of concentrating on that which is beyond us. In meditation we do not think only that which is like us. It is not one thing thinking another thing; it is one thing thinking that which is above that thing. There is an element of transcendence in every kind of meditation. If we concentrate our mind on that which is more than what we are, then there is longing. We love that which is more than what we are. We cannot love that which is just like us. The finite cannot love the finite. Even when the thing that we love is a finite object, we impose upon it a non-finite characteristic, and then it looks like a divinity before us. The God that is above us is symbolised in the emblem that we are worshipping in the idol, in a murti, in a yantra, in a mantra, in a diagram, in a mandala, whatever we call it.

The Brahma Sutra is a very wide range of prescriptions for reaching the summum bonum of life in any manner whatsoever. By any manner we have to reach it, under any circumstance, with any effort. There is no other way.

A question arose oftentimes, whether what we do as activity or karma can be considered as a means to moksha. The Brahma Sutra has two answers to this question. Firstly, no action can lead to the Universal Being. It is in the Bhagavadgita that we hear of a message of this kind. Na veda yajñādhyayanair na dānaiḥ na ca kriyābhir na tapobhir ugraiḥ evaṁrūpaḥ śakya ahaṁ nṛloke (Gita 11.48): Not yajna, not study, not scripture, not tapasya, not charity, not anything that you do can be regarded as a means enough to enable you to pursue this Universal Being. Nāhaṁ vedair na tapasā na dānena na cejyayā śakya evaṁvidho draṣṭuṁ dṛṣṭavān asi māṁ yathā (Gita 11.53): Nothing that you do can enable you to touch that boundaryless Absolute because anything you consider as your action or performance is what is happening outside you. The action, the performance, the work that you do is not going on inside you. You are not working inside your body; it is outside. Therefore, it ceases to be a part of the Self. The self can become fit enough to realise the Universal Self only when it has started developing within itself the characteristics of universality even in a small percentage.

There is a contradiction between external activity and universal experience. But there is a concession given to activity. Karma can purify the mind. This is the insistence of the Bhagavadgita. Do work. No one can sit quiet without doing something or the other. Na hi kaścit kṣaṇam api jātu tiṣṭhaty akarmakṛt (Gita 3.5). There are actions which bind, and there are actions which do not bind. There are actions that lead to the purification of the mind. There are actions which are the consequence of a liberated experience. God acts, and human beings also act, but they are two different kinds of action. There is a freedom in the activity of a liberated spirit; there is bondage in the activity of an individual. The limited person is obliged, compelled to do work, whereas the free person is spontaneous in the performance of work. The overflow of the perfection of an individual may look like a performance of work, like the emanation of light from the Sun, but if action is a drudgery like a servant working for the master, that may be considered as binding. So there is liberating action, and also binding action. Any action that is universalised, or has even a tendency to get universalised, is liberating in its nature. Any action that is tending towards one’s own selfish individuality and personal enjoyment can be regarded as binding.

Thus, the Brahma Sutra has two things to say about karma. It is binding if it is motivated by personal, egoistic enjoyment; it is liberating if it is a self-purificatory process and a gesture of goodwill. Very lengthy discussions on this subject are available in the Sutras, where there is argument and counterargument between the Mimamsa ritualists who advocate only karma or action, and the Brahma Sutra philosophers who take action in its true spirit, as mentioned, either as permissible or as not advantageous. Everything can bind a person from one point of view, but everything can also liberate a person, from another point of view. The world can become a chain to imprison us, or it can be means to the liberation of the soul and act like a ladder to the Supreme Being.

These discussions are highly interesting, and they require a lot of impersonality of the philosophical mind to appreciate and understand them. A philosopher is an impersonal investigator. A philosopher has nothing to gain for one’s own self. Philosophy is the art of knowing things as they really are in their ultimate nature, and not as they appear. The quest for Reality is the object of philosophy.