Have you ever wondered who we are and why we are here? Have you ever looked up at the stars of the Milky Way on a moonless night and thought, there has to be more to this life than meets the eye.
The gift of vedanta (the path of knowledge which sprang from the vedas), is one of understanding. If we can come to know who we are and why we are here, we can then make choices in alignment with dharma (laws of creation) and experience greater freedom and contentment.
When exploring vedanta, it helps to set aside preconceived notions of life, philosophy, psychology, and religion. Directly experience the teachings and then over time, determine if you feel greater freedom.
Let’s begin this journey understanding with the structure of the jiva (embodied soul) and then explore the jiva’s relationship to brahman, the non-dual sea of consciousness from which all things arise from and then return to.
“There are three kinds of jiva’s, unrealized, realized and actualized,” James Swartz. Truth be told, one jiva is not better than another. We are all just experiencing different aspects of the one, non-dual consciousness. As in a rainbow, light (consciousness) refracts into colors when it hits a prism of water, revealing a spectrum of color, red to violet. While violet is a higher vibration then red, each color has its purpose and place.
Most humans walking upon the planet are unrealized, preoccupied with security, pleasure, and virtue. These jiva’s are fully entranced in the waking dream of samsara – the birth/death cycle. They may look to the stars and wonder if there is more but they don’t often reflect further, what the great hindu saint Ramana Maharshi called self inquiry.
The realized jiva, has indirect knowledge of true self – satchitananda (being/awareness/bliss) and knows there is something more than meets the eye. She has studied it and may feel great passion for the path of understanding but hasn’t fully embodied the knowledge, yet.
The self-actualized jiva is one who knows the truth and lives it. There is alignment between what one thinks, says and does. There is yoga between one’s personal dharma (laws/duties) and the greater dharma. This jiva, over lifetimes, has cultivated the qualities necessary for enlightenment. These include non-attachment and discernment.
Jivas are like the water that evaporates from the ocean of oneness (brahman) and coalesces into clouds. When ripe and ready, raindrops form and then fall from the sky. A raindrop is a jiva who has incarnated into form and is living life. When the right conditions are present and with the blessing of Ishvara the creator, one can realize their inherent connection to source before returning to the ocean of oneness (death). This is rare, one in millions.
The Three Bodies
On the physical level, jivas are made of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air and either. This unique combination results in a person’s dosha or ayurvedic constitution. A jiva also has five sheaths or veils: physical, energy/prana, psycho-emotional, wisdom/intellect and bliss/love. Finally there are three bodies: the gross, subtle and causal.
Through exploring the three bodies we begin to see a connection between matter and spirit, between the individual jiva and the collective brahman. When looking at the diagram below, brahman is synonymous with awareness and consciousness.
The gross body contains the sensory organs: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin and also the organs of action: feet, hands, mouth/speech, anus(elimination) and genitals. These organs sensing and action are the bridge between the five elements and the subtle body. We use the gross body to interact with objects and experience but it is the subtle body that does the feeling and thinking.
The subtle body, which is more refined than the gross, contains the mind(psycho-emotional sheath), the ego (identity/doer) and the intellect (wisdom sheath). The mind receives stimulus from the sensory organs, processes them with the intellect and then takes action with the ego/doer and the organs of action.
When the wisdom body, which is the place of discernment, oversees the jiva, and makes choices in alignment with dharma, contentment results. When the emotions and ego guide the jiva’s way, suffering results.
Finally, there is a third body within the structure of the jiva, the causal body. While the gross and subtle bodies are the machinery, the causal body is the programing. The programs within the causal body are called vasanas or tendencies and result from past karma or action.
The Three Gunas
In addition to the vasanas, the causal body provides the three gunas (ropes). I say provides because they are not contained in the causal body but are the light of consciousness (shakti) that shines through from Brahman. The gunas are qualities of consciousness – tamas, rajas and sattva. Tamas is a state of covering or darkness, rajas is a state of action and projection and sattva is balance, purity and knowledge.
The more sattvic we become, through our daily choices relating to diet, activity or rest, intention and practices, the more peace and joy we experience. Think of sattva as the gateway from maya(duality) into brahman (non-duality). Without sattva, we can’t see the truth, because we are too clouded in tamas or too busy with the rajas of doing or mental activity.
While sattva is the desired guna if we wish to awaken we can’t escape tamas and rajas as they are a necessary part of Maya. While sattva is the clear light of ideas and knowledge, tamas is the material (clay to make the pot) and rajas the creative force (the artist).Maya is matrix of physical manifestation. It operates according to laws called dharma, which we will explore further in a bit. Maya is consciousness moving into form. In physics, this is the wave of energy that blinks on as a subatomic particle. There are several primary aspects of maya: duality, time, matter, change and balance.
Brahman is the source from which the material creation emerges from and returns to. It’s qualities are: oneness, timeless, infinite, and changless.
So now that we have the basic structure of the jiva, maya and brahman, I can ask you a few questions: Are you truly happy? Are you doing what you want? Is what you think, say and do in alignment? If your answers are no, then you are most likely suffering. If this is the case, and it is for most, there are yoga practices that can help bring you back into union and prepare you for self-realization.
Bhakti, Karma and Knowledge Yogas for the Subtle Body
The most powerful practice for bringing the emotional sheath(manomayakosha) into balance is bhakti or devotion. Karma yoga works best for the ego/doer and vedanta or knowledge yoga supports the development of vinjanamayakosha, the wisdom sheath.
Bhakti is devotion, cultivating a life of humility, with reverence and gratitude for all that is. Bhakti can be expressed by the metaphor of the tea ceremony. Pouring the tea, I am the Buddha, the tea itself is the Buddha, and the person receiving the tea is also the Buddha.
The question I have been asking myself of late is how can I bring more bhakti (devotion) into every aspect of my life? How can my whole life become a ceremony? Brushing teeth, making breakfast, being with children, working, playing,… all being and action can be infused with bhakti. With devotion, nothing is wasted, because everything is an aspect of Brahman. Devotion is love, loving itself.
Karma or action yoga is doing what needs to be done and releasing all attachment to outcome. This is very healing for the ego which is often hell bent on controlling everything and everyone. The ego says, if I get this or do that, I will feel ssfe and be happy. The wisdom sheath knows that lasting happiness cannot be found in objects or experiences because we already are the happiness and love we seek.
The yoga that best supports the intellect or wisdom sheath is vedanta or knowledge yoga. The snake by the well story can help illuminate this yoga.
There was a thirsty traveler who came to the town well one evening. As he reached for the water bucket, he saw a large snake coiled up next to the well and became terrified. A man standing near saw the frightened traveler and said, my friend, that is not a snake, it’s the well rope. The traveler let out a great sigh of relief.
Most of us confuse experience with the truth. Our experience tells us the rope was a snake in the twilight, vedanta is the hard and fast knowledge that reveals the illusion of the snake as a rope. Vedanta reveals the nature of maya as impermanent and directs us to what is lasting and true.
Within maya, there are laws or structures called dharma. There are universal dharmas like gravity, time, and karma (the law of cause and effect) and moral dharmas like do no harm. There are also personal dharmas specific to a jiva, such as our gifts and passions. When we discover and share our person dharma and this svadharma is in alignment with the greater dharma, we feel content.
Everything within maya must follow the laws of dharma or bad karma results. Bad karma, or negative vasanas are carried from one lifetime to another until they are resolved. Through yoga and meditation we purify past karma. Through recognizing and remaining unmoving in the face of our fears and desires, we transform karma. With right thought, speech and action, we gain merit with positive vasanas stored in the bank account of the causal body.
I forgot to share some bad news, life is a zero sum game. This is because of the dharma of balance within maya. For every gain there is a loss, and for every benefit there is a detriment. This is life in duality. We seek a better job with more pay but then have more responsibility, a bigger house and more things to take care of. However, when we realize the knowledge that life is a zero sum game, we step off the wheel of suffering and do what needs to be done with devotion, while releasing all expectation of a particular outcome. This is karma yoga, this is unconditional love.
The science of enlightenment has been around for thousands of years. All that’s required to walk upon this golden path of knowledge is everything. You have to be all in, with total commitment and at the same time, dis-identify from the falsity of this waking dream called maya. Yes we are this body, heart and mind but they are not the deepest truth of who we are.
I’ll close with a final story: A student and teacher were bathing by the river and the student asked, “what commitment is required to realize the truth of self?” At first the teacher did not respond to the student. After some time, when the student was bending down close to the water, the teacher grabbed his head and forced him down to the river bottom. The student struggled for his life but could not break free. Finally, just before the student was about to drown the teacher released him. Gasping for air the student was rageful and about to hit his teacher when his teacher asked, “what were you thinking about when you were drowning at the bottom of the river?” The student replied, “air.” The teacher said, “yes, all you could think of was air right?” “Yes” said the student. The teacher then shared, “this is how strong and true your commitment to the truth and this path of awakening must be.”
Eaden Shantay owns True Nature Healing Arts in Carbondale, CO with his wife and partner Deva. True Nature is an invitation to learn, heal, love, be and serve. Learn more at http://www.truenatureheals.com
Thank you to James Swartz, a wonderful teacher of vedanta for sharing much of this knowledge with me. Please visit Shining World to learn more. His book the Essence of Enlightenment is wonderful. Also the pyramid diagram above was from James.