Thinning The Veil

Freedom Through

SWAMI VIDYARANYA'S classic, Panchadashi, starts off, after a preliminary salutation to his Teacher, with the encouraging words:

This book is meant to teach the supreme truth in an easy way to those whose hearts have been purified...

One is reminded at once of the words of the Christian Gospel, 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God', but one can hardly imagine a Western spiritual classic promising to teach the spiritual truth 'in an easy way'. Rather one expects to encounter the forbidding sentiment:

Strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth unto (everlasting) life, and few there be that find it. (Matthew 7.14)

Strait here of course does not mean the opposite of crooked, it is the old word which is still familiar to us in the term 'strait-jacket' or the Straits of Gibraltar or when we hear of someone as 'in dire straits'. It implies great difficulty and restriction binding us down and a major struggle if we are to get free. This makes the claim of Vidyaranya all the more remarkable when he offers to convey the spiritual truth in an easy way. But there is no doubt at all that this is the general claim of Vedanta as a whole, and it is one of the particular characteristics of Yoga that it claims to bring within the reach of the ordinary man, and each and every man at that, the means whereby he can attain that knowledge of spiritual truth which has been claimed for the saints and sages of all great spiritual traditions.

What then is the particular merit of Vedanta which allows it to achieve this? It is no academic question, but a most important and practical one with tremendous implications for each and every individual. It is therefore worth examining more closely what it is that the Teachers of this tradition themselves say on this topic.

First of all Vedanta maintains that the spiritual aspirations of man are not something exceptional or extraordinary. Religion, says Swami Rama Tirtha, is as natural to man as eating. His hunger for truth and beauty, his innate admiration for the wise and the good when he comes across it, are as natural to him as his healthy appetite for a good, appetising and nourishing meal. Of course, his tastes may become jaded by indulgence in the wrong food, and his spiritual sense can become blunted and perverted by the indulgence in the wrong mental and spiritual fare, but the underlying hunger will only achieve its full satisfaction in either sphere when it is provided with a balanced and wholesome diet. In the case of the spiritual quest, man will never be satisfied until he has known the spiritual truth. This is not just the teaching of Yoga. It is the teaching of all the great traditions. As St. Augustine says, the human heart is restless until it finds rest in knowledge of God, of the ultimate spiritual truth.

It is a misconception to suppose that the spiritual view of the world is incompatible with the scientific view. On the contrary, if one looks at the great figures in science, like Max Planck, Einstein, Eddington, Schroedinger and many others, you find the explicit recognition in their writings of a mystical, transcendent dimension to reality, lying behind the world of finite scientific concepts, and implicit in the findings of science. Again this is not something totally exceptional. As Eddington wrote:

A point that must be insisted on is that religion or contact with spiritual power, if it has any general importance at all, must be a commonplace matter of ordinary life, and it should be treated as such in any discussion. I hope that you have not interpreted my references as referring to abnormal experiences and revelations... To suppose that mystical religion is mainly concerned with these is like supposing that Einstein's theory is mainly concerned with the perihelion of mercury and a few other exceptional observations. For a matter belonging to daily affairs, the tone of current discussions often seems quite inappropriately pedantic. (The Nature of the Physical World, pages 326-7)

Eddington calls 'the insight of consciousness' the only avenue to what he has called 'intimate knowledge of the reality behind the symbols of science' (page 326). In other words it is only by turning within to seek the spiritual truth within the depths of the personality itself, that this dimension of life can be fully explored.

The method of exploration is also important. We often get asked the question by casual acquaintances: 'Where do you live?' But we seldom ask ourselves this question because we take it for granted that we know the answer. But do we? Our physical surroundings may be a trivial circumstance of our existence when compared with our mental surroundings. All of us throughout our life use our minds as living quarters, but regrettably few of us are tidy-minded and these habitual surroundings of ours are often littered with all sorts of rubbish and bric-a-brac which we have collected in the course of our daily life. The yogic teachings remind us first that we cannot improve the quality of our life unless we settle down to tidy and reorganise the mental lumber room and introduce some system and purpose into it. Furthermore this is impossible so long as it is so cluttered up with mental 'jumble sale material' that we cannot move freely without knocking into some obstruction. The lumber has to be cleared if we are going to live well and wisely. The 'easy method' of learning the supreme truth, Swami Vidyaranya reminds us, is for those who have purified their hearts, and this is a qualification we cannot ignore and have to take active steps to acquire.

The yogis remind us that there are two sorts of knowledge. On the one hand we spend most of our life stuffing the mind with an unselected stream of impressions and ideas, many of them silly and perverse, from the barrage of sense impressions which bombards us from morning to night in modern Western civilisation. Even if we select the material to be of the highest quality, the idea that knowledge is to be gained by feeding in facts from the outside world is the great fallacy of the scholar and the academic. We may end up as knowledgeable as the Encyclopedia Britannica or contain within ourselves the equivalent of a library of books, and still be ignorant of the simplest things which experience can teach us. Wisdom, or even common sense, comes from insight and the intuitive recognition of truth.

Swami Vidyaranya starts his teaching on the easy way to realisation of the supreme truth by contrasting these two sorts of knowledge. The knowledge which we go to science for, the knowledge of the external world which reaches us through the senses, is all characterised by detailed information about the finite peculiarities of particular objects and events. In this sense, it is like the data bank which we build up on our computers, or the knowledge which we accumulate in our encyclopedias and reference libraries. It is a mass of detailed descriptions of events, historical and contemporary, and of objects and the relationships between them. And a characteristic of such knowledge is that, however detailed it is and however much one adds to it, it can never be complete. On the other hand there is the knowledge of the underlying consciousness which perceives experience, which is something apart from the experiences themselves. As one of the opening verses of the classics puts it:

The objects of sound, touch and so forth, which are perceived in the waking state, differ from each other in their peculiarities, but the perceiving consciousness, considered as something apart from them, is one, undivided and the same. (Panchadashi, 1.3)

But this does not only apply to the experiences which come to us through the senses. It also applies to the mental experiences which we enjoy in a dream or in imagination or memory. These may be relatively fleeting when compared with the objects of the waking state, says Vidyaranya, but the subjective or perceiving consciousness is one and the same in both states. There is a unity of consciousness in all the states of experience.

This is a fairly easy point to appreciate, but perhaps more difficult to accept at first sight is the contention of the yogis that consciousness also persists in the state of dreamless sleep. Certainly one knows that one is unconscious at that time, and the provisional argument that Vidyaranya uses is that one must therefore have a memory of that experience of lack of perception. This implies that in dreamless sleep too, consciousness persists. We might take as an analogy the physical world in which we can turn electricity on and off to light our rooms or heat our houses, without altering the more fundamental fact that the whole world of matter is created from the electromagnetic forces within the atoms.

But, whatever arguments are used to try and convince one of this point, the case of the yogis really rests on the nature of experience as revealed to them by their further investigations, and the conclusion of this is that the true Self of man abides unchanged and self-revealed within the personality, even in those states which appear as states of unconsciousness or lack of perception. As Vidyaranya puts it:

Through the many months, years, ages, world cycles, past and future, consciousness is the same and self-revealed. It persists and, unlike the sun, neither rises nor sets.
This ever abiding consciousness is the Self (Atman). It is the highest bliss since it is the object of the greatest love. The love of the Self is seen in the (universal) feeling 'May I not cease to exist, may I continue to exist further'. (Panchadashi, 1.7-8)

The 'easy teaching' of Yoga starts from the 'insight of consciousness' which Eddington identifies as the only avenue to 'intimate knowledge of the reality behind the symbols of science'.

If one compares this easy teaching with the teaching of other spiritual traditions, it seems at first sight very different indeed, and it is only by looking carefully at the testimony of some of the great saints of other religions that one can begin to see how the teachings could, after all, be fundamentally the same in so far as they are a clue to the riddle of our own experience. One of the greatest figures in the Christian tradition is St. Augustine, and he is particularly interesting in that, because he was writing early in the tradition and was already a philosopher and a seeker before he became a Christian, he has written down for us a very full account of his own experiences on the spiritual path and his understanding of the spiritual truth. His writings leave no doubt at all that he had himself confirmed what Vidyaranya expresses in the first few verses of Panchadashi, that the Self or God is that supreme consciousness which underlies even the ordinary experiences in the mind. Consider, for instance, these words of St. Augustine himself:

Different (from the things intellectually seen) is that light itself whereby the soul is so enlightened that it beholds all things truly the object of the intellect. For that light is God himself.

It is worth adding that this was written in AD 415 when Augustine had been a bishop already for twenty years and that there are many other passages which could have been quoted which make the same point. He also speaks of having verified this truth by his own experience. In the Confessions, for instance, he says: 'I found by the eye of my soul, above the mind, the light unchangeable.' And St. Augustine speaks of that supreme Light as the object of the greatest love, addressing it as 'O Beauty, so ancient and so new!' In other words he confirms the teaching of Vedanta that this supreme reality is not only the unchangeable light of consciousness, but also Bliss Absolute.

But even if such towering figures as St. Augustine can be quoted in support of the Vedantic teaching, the position of the ordinary man is entirely different. His starting point is from experience as he knows it in everyday life. And, seen from this point of view, not only are the teachings of the different spiritual traditions very different, but the realisation of which the Vedanta speaks seems very remote from his own grasp. And this is why the next point raised by Vidyaranya is one that he should appreciate, for as he says:

If it is an established fact that the nature of the Self is supreme bliss, then, we ask, is this bliss evident or not? If it is not evident, the absolute love for the Self is inexplicable. On the other hand, if it is evident, why is one attracted to worldly objects such as wife, wealth and power? The answer is that the bliss of the Self is ever revealed but is not recognised owing to certain obstructions. (Panchadashi, 1.11)

The present state of our mind, with its inability to see clearly and its tendency to be distracted into irrelevancies, prevents us from seeing the spiritual truth as it really is. There is, in other words, a veil of ignorance or wrong thinking obscuring our inner eye and hiding the spiritual truth from us, and it is only when we begin to concentrate on strengthening and cultivating our inner vision and thinning the veil which hides the truth from us that we can begin to verify that truth for ourselves.

When we do so, we shall find, according to Swami Rama Tirtha, that the apparent differences between the teachings of the different spiritual traditions were manifestations, not of differences in the light of the one eternal truth itself, but of the thickness and quality of the mental or empirical veil through which we were seeing it.

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity.

Swami Rama also says that, while each and every man has an inner spiritual hunger, the way in which it is satisfied varies at different stages of his spiritual evolution.

Imagine the loyal subject of a king. He is patriotic and willing to lay down his life for his king and country if the call comes. He sees the monarch on state occasions and he affirms his oath of loyalty to him in time of war or during his service in the king's forces. His whole feeling of loyalty is expressed in the conviction 'I am his subject', 'I am a true patriot'. The love of the king is like the love of God felt by a devout but conventional member of the church, mosque or temple. He feels that he is one of God's children, but he does not presume to have any close personal relationship with God. This, says Swami Rama, is characteristic of someone who lives under the light of the spirit, but sees it only through the thickest of veils. His faith expresses itself in the conviction 'I am one of His children'.

Very different is the attitude of one who becomes a close courtier and privy councillor of the king's. His relationship is altogether more intimate and personal, and his feeling of loyalty undergoes a subtle change accordingly. He is in daily contact with the king and close to him as an adviser and loyal confidant. His feeling of loyalty expresses itself in a much closer identification with the king personally. He feels, not so much 'I am his', which is still the feeling of one who stands at a distance from the object of his love, but 'I am yours'. He feels a close personal bond with the king. In the same way, says Swami Rama, those devotees of the spiritual truth who deepen their relationship with God and draw near to Him in their spiritual practices, see the light of Truth through a much thinner veil and they enjoy the feeling of a close personal relationship with God. St. Teresa's love of the infant Jesus is an example of such a loving relationship with God in his personal aspect. Many sincere Christians achieve this stage of intimacy with the Lord in the course of their communion with God.

But even in such a relationship there is a distinction between the devotee and the Lord. The truth is still something other, experienced at a distance, however closely; and the culmination of the spiritual quest is the direct experience of truth as it is. To take what inevitably is a weak analogy further, the loyal subject of the king who is chosen by the king as his bride enjoys the closest affinity with the king. She alone has the right to feel, as the culmination of her love and loyalty to the king, 'he and I are one'. And so it is that in the Christian tradition we find the mystics speaking of the highest enlightenment conferred by God on the soul as 'the unitive life', in which, it is said, Christ becomes the bridegroom of the soul.

Relationships are in the world of time, space and causation. The three types of relationship represent three degrees in the clarity of vision of the inner eye in its appreciation of the spiritual light through the obscuring medium of the unenlightened mind. But in the final experience, the enlightened seeker goes beyond the mind to appreciate the light of truth itself.

Swami Rama says that in the highest experience of the mystics the veil is drawn aside, at least for the time being, and the soul experiences the light of truth as it is. But the everyday mind soon reasserts itself. Nonetheless, the light of truth transforms the quality of life of the individual and, once seen, this experience permanently changes the personality of the individual, conferring on him that light of wisdom and inner peace which sees the unity in all beings. The veil reasserts itself, so to speak, but the memory of what has been experienced permanently alters his attitude to the empirical suggestions which the mind brings. Here Swami Rama Tirtha makes an important point. He says that it is the special role of Vedanta and Yoga that it aims, not only to make available to each and every man the ability to verify this state of enlightenment which results from the drawing aside of the mental veil, but also to make the veil so thin that one can (so to speak) see through it at all times throughout everyday life. And it is for this reason that it teaches the identity of the true Self of man with God.

This truth is not known through sense experience, nor by any mental experience, as the world and the ideas in the mind are known. The spiritual truth is beyond the subject-object relationship. As St. Augustine says:

The human mind when judging a thing as visible is able to know that it itself is better than all visible things. But when, by reason of its failings and advances in wisdom, it confesses itself to be changeable, it finds that above itself is the truth unchangeable.

He says that:

The truth unchangeable shines like a sun in the soul, and the soul becomes partaker of the very truth... there is the Truth unchangeable, containing all things that are unchangeably true, which belong not to any particular man, but to all those who perceive things unchangeable and true; (it is) as it were in wondrous ways a secret and public light, it is present and offers itself in common (to everyone). This is the light of true knowledge and that by which empirical truths are recognised.

As he says:

Finally all truths are perceived in the unchangeable truth itself. If you and I both see that what you say is true, and both see that what I say is true: where do we see this? Not I in you, nor you in me; but both of us in the unchangeable truth itself, which is above our minds.

Swami Rama Tirtha, that great modern yogi, says that the ultimate reality remains unknowable so long as we rely on the local consciousness and have not developed this cosmic consciousness. Only when we develop the cosmic consciousness, spoken of by the mystics, can we know the infinite truth. We may by reason infer its existence, but this is not to know it. So long as we rely on the mind, says Swami Rama Tirtha, even if we come to know the existence of the absolute by inference and conviction, we are in the same position as we are when someone comes up behind us and covers our eyes with their hands, so that we cannot see who it is. We know it is a friend, says Swami Rama, because no-one but a friend would take such liberties with us, but who it is we cannot tell. It is the same with the infinite, because, as the Upanishad says: 'It is beyond the reach of speech and mind.' If it could be made an object of knowledge, it would not be the infinite. One would at once have duality established, the duality of the seer and the seen and the subject and the object. But it is in the experience of cosmic consciousness that universality and non-duality is established. (In Woods of God-Realization VI. pages 147-148)

St. Augustine speaks of the process leading to the awakening of the cosmic consciousness:

If the tumult of the flesh were hushed; hushed the sense impressions of earth, sea, sky; hushed also the heavens, yea the very soul be hushed to herself and by not thinking on self, transcend self; hushed all dreams and revelations which come by imagery; if every tongue and every symbol, and all things subject to transiency were wholly hushed: since, if any could hear, all these say: 'We made not ourselves, but He made us who abideth for ever.' If then, having uttered this, they too should be hushed, having roused only our ears to Him who made them; He alone speak, not by them but by Himself, so that we may hear His word, not through any similitude, but His voice whom we love in these His creatures - may hear His Very Self without intermediary at all - as now we reached forth and with one flash of thought touched the Eternal Wisdom that abides over all: suppose that experience were prolonged and all other visions of far inferior order were taken away, and this one vision were to ravish the beholder, and absorb him and plunge him in these inward joys, so that eternal life were like this moment of insight for which we sighed - were not this to 'enter into the joy of thy Lord!' (Confessions IX. 25)

And he makes clear that he himself had experienced this state:

Step by step I was led upwards, from bodies to the soul (mind) which perceives by means of the bodily senses; and thence to the soul's inward faculty, to which the bodily senses report external things, which is the limit of the intelligence of animals; and thence again to the reasoning faculty, to whose judgment is referred the knowledge received by the bodily senses. And when this power also within me found itself changeable, it lifted itself up to its own intelligence, and withdrew its thoughts from experience, abstracting itself from the contradictory throng of sense images, that it might find what that light was wherein it was bathed when it cried out that beyond all doubt the unchangeable is to be preferred to the changeable; when also it knows That Unchangeable: and thus with the flash of one trembling glance it arrived at THAT WHICH IS. And then at last I saw Thy 'invisible things understood by the things that are made'; but I could not sustain my glance; and my weakness being struck back, I was relegated to my ordinary experience, bearing with me but a loving memory and a longing for what i had, as it were, perceived the odour of, but was not yet able to feed upon. (Confessions VII. 23).

The experience of that drawing back of the veil or cosmic consciousness is not one where we are distanced from Truth. It is an experience of identity. This may be misunderstood. As Swami Rama says, when I say 'I am God' I do not mean that this little personality is God. Nor that this mind is God. Nor is it some new state which has been conferred on me, like being created a king or a baronet. The realisation is that at the innermost core of this personality, man is identical with the reality behind the universe, and that all the empirical world of time, space and causation, including the personality and the body, are in a certain real sense transient and phenomenal. They are not abiding realities, which can in any sense be called unchangeable.

If you read the Christian mystics and many of the Sufis, you will find them talking of such experiences, but hedging round their statements with qualifications. They speak of the soul becoming one with God by participation in the experience of cosmic consciousness, but carefully add that this is only like the iron becoming red hot when it enters the fire. It appears while it is in the fire to be of the nature of the fire, but it is really of a different nature. This represents exactly what is meant by Swami Rama Tirtha in the simile of the thicker veils. These faiths still speak of the individual in its relationship with God in terms of the subject-object relationship, in terms of the feeling 'i Am His' of the loyal subject of the king and, at a higher level, the 'I am Thine' of the courtier and the close confidant. But they do not, at least in their philosophy and theology, envisage the thinnest of the veils exemplified by the Vedanta philosophy, in which the intrinsic identity of the soul with God is recognised at all times. The glory of Vedanta is that it comes closest to expressing the real Truth insofar as it can be expressed in words or thoughts.

Freedom through Self-Realisation
A.M. Halliday
A Shanti Sadan Publication - London
ISBN 0-85424-040-3
Pgs. 209-223

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