Sw Sarvapriyananda

Swami Sarvapriyananda

What is Enlightenment, 2020

Advaita Vedanta is based on your experience and understanding.  This experience and understanding are provided by the texts and you see it in an entirely new paradigm. At Harvard University, professors were sitting and talking about enlightenment, the discussion was in the Buddhist context.  But it equally applies to Advaita Vedanta.  What is enlightenment?  How do we understand enlightenment? Two models. One is called the epistemic shift model.  Another one is called the ethical manifestation model.  What does it mean?

Epistemic shift means, I was thinking of myself as this little creature, body and mind, birth and death, pleasure and pain and suffering.  Struggling through life.  This is one idea of myself.  My understanding now shifts.  I am that one unchanging light.  This awareness, this existence consciousness which is clear to me.  Now suppose the shift happens then this is enlightenment. This is one way of looking at enlightenment and epistemic shift.  It means a change in our paradigm about ourselves.  What we thought about ourselves has undergone a revolutionary shift.  Sudden shift and permanent.  It comes in a flash, but it remains stable.  Just like our idea of ourselves right now is stable. I am a body/ mind stable.  But once the shift happens that also is stable.  That I am this witness consciousness, this awareness, this existence consciousness place. This is one way of understanding enlightenment, as the epistemic shift model.

The second way of understanding enlightenment is again in the Buddhist context.  This idea of the Buddha nature which is within all of us.  Manifesting that love, unselfishness, and overcoming desire. Serenity, peace, joy, and compassion for all beings. We would regard a great Saint as having the manifestation of those qualities.  Divine qualities in life.  This is called the ethical manifestation model.

Now what we reckon, up to this much, was the paper which we discussed, but Vivekananda said, both are enlightenment.  His beautiful definition “religion is the manifestation of the divinity already within us. Now look at that.  It is a very simple and profound definition. There is an epistemic shift. I am Brahman.  Not I am body/mind. I am Brahman.  Not I am mortal. I am immortal.  Not I am flesh-and-blood. I am awareness.  Not I am changing moment to moment.  I am the unchangeable reality.  Not I am going around in the world with a begging bowl.  Give me happiness.  Give me a little praise.  Give me a little fulfillment.  No, I am the source of all peace and fulfillment.

So that is the epistemic shift and the other side.  So, I’ve awakened.  This is manifestation.  It must be reflected in my thoughts, in my words, in my deeds. So, Swami Vivekananda says for such a person the thoughts will be automatically good.  The words of such a person will be blessings. The actions of such a person will be blessings.  In fact, this person will be a living blessing for everybody around.  This is the ethical manifestation model.  So, both are enlightenment. I know I am Brahman and able to manifest it in my life.  So, what a very, very beautiful insight.

So, Vivekananda says there are two great questions.  One is,” Is it practical?  Is it possible to realize this?  Second what will happen after this?” One of the professors is fond of asking these question at Harvard.  How many people get enlightenment?  Very few.  So, is it worth pursuing?  How many?  Even an optimistic figure. How many will get enlightenment?  Why should we pursue this rare case?  So, he asked me.  I gave him two answers and then he gave me a beautiful third answer.

So, I will give you all three.  The first answer which I usually give, is that all of us will get enlightenment.  Only it may take many lifetimes. Since you are Brahman, according to Advaita Vedanta what can stop you?  It is your greatest birthright.  It is very natural that one day or the other we will all realize our real nature that we are one with God.  That all of this is the manifestation of Brahman.  We will realize it. So that’s one.  We all will get enlightenment.  Sri Ramakrishna used to say in Banaras in Kashi, which is the place of Annapurna.  “Divine motherhood gives food.  All will be fed. Nobody will go hungry, but some get food in the morning, some in the afternoon.  Don’t worry, everybody will get food, but some will get food in the afternoon, some will have to wait till sunset, until evening but they will all get food.” What does it mean, all will get liberation!  Some here itself, some at the end of their lives, some maybe next life.  Some at the end of the universe, at the end of the cosmic cycle.  That’s evening.  That’s God’s evening.  So that’s one answer.

The second answer I gave was, once you have understood what spiritual life is, what else will you do?  What else will you do except pursue your enlightenment.  Maybe you’ll not get enlightenment, but what else will you do except pursue this.  What else is worthwhile.  Everything else in life will go on but this will become your central pursuit.  What else is worth doing.  

Then he said those are good answers Swami, but they’re sort of abstract philosophical answers.  Let me give you a practical answer.  Why one should pursue enlightenment?  “Once you start, whether you get enlightenment or not, day to day the benefits that flow, the peace and the joy and the sense of security and strength, sense of protection, it slowly becomes the most valuable thing in your life”.  Whether enlightenment is there or not, we don’t know but you can never let go of it anymore.

I like that answer.  That’s a very practical answer and for most people that’s how we are continuing actually.  So, what happens is it practical?  “Yes” Swami Vivekananda said.  In fact, in that lecture he said  “By the touch of such, for such extraordinary persons exist, who have realized it, and in fact I met one such person, and by his touch my entire life was transformed”

I will give two examples.  One the example of two wheels which are going and connected by a pole.  They are rolling along, and you take an axe and cut the pole and one wheel stops.  The other goes on rolling for a while and then falls. Similarly, one of the wheels is the real self, pure consciousness and the other one is the apparent self.  The ego connected with body and mind.  The one which is changing all the time, the one which we think we are.  One is the real, what we think we are, the real thing which we are Brahman.  The other one is the Jeeva the apparent self and they are connected.  How?  By no connection at all.  The only connection is ignorance.  When you cut the pole, which connects, which is no pole at all.  It’s just ignorance.  Knowledge shows you. I am never that other wheel. I am Brahman. Once you do that, it’s cut, but the other wheel will not stop it will go on.  The force of Prarabda karma is upon it.  It will roll a little more and then come to a stop.

Same example I found in Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism.  Very interesting.  The example of the of the strong Potter.  So, the Potter makes a pot in the potter’s wheel. The Potter gives a very strong push to it. Then he gets up and goes.  The wheel will not stop immediately.  Two or three times that wheel goes around before stopping; similarly body/mind will continue because of past karma. This is called jeevan mukthi. Enlightened while living and so Vivekananda says, “this is the goal of Vedanta”. The goal of Vedanta is not to become Brahman.  You are Brahman already.  the goal of Vedanta is to realize that you are Brahman and continue in this way, as long as it will continue.  These are the enlightened beings of this world.  You’re still continuing in this body and mind, but you know that you are not it.  You are prominent and as long as this body and mind lasts it is a great blessing to everybody in this world.

The second example he gives us is of the mirage. He says, when I was travelling in the western part of India in the deserts of Rajputana I would see these beautiful lakes in the distance. One day I was thirsty, and I went up to one of those lakes and I saw it was just desert. It’s just shimmering air.  There’s no water there at all and I realized, oh this is the mirage which I have read about.  Then I started walking again and the mirage came back but now I know it’s a mirage, and he says that similarly, after enlightenment the world will come back.  There’ll be the world appearance, body appearance.  Thoughts will be there. Everything will come back as it is, but he stays awakened.  The poison will be gone from it.  The chains of karma will be much weaker they cannot bind you anymore.

Sri Ramakrishna gives the example of a rope which is burnt and yet retains its shape.  It looks like a black chain.  You know it’s just ash, but it looks like a rope.  He says it cannot bind anybody.  In fact, if you blow on it, it will fly up into ashes.

Similarly, body, mind, ego, all will appear, but it cannot do anything to you anymore.  That is living while free.  This mirage example was a beautifully worked out mirage example.  In detail it was given by Professor Garfield, in one of his articles which I liked very much.  He says driving in the desert of Arizona and Nevada there are these mirages and there are different kinds of drivers.  One is the new driver who does not understand it, so he is driving and what does he see?  Water, oh! there is water there in the road, shimmering there.  It has to be explained to him that it’s not what it looks like.  That is a mirage.  The ignorant people are like that.  We think there is the world here.  It’s like a mirage, but actually we take it to be real.

There is a second type of driver who is the one who wears polarized glasses.  This is his addition to the example.  He says he wears polarized glasses.  Now they didn’t have polarized glasses in Buddha’s time or Shankara’s time. In fact, it seems if you wear those glasses you cannot see the illusion also.  So polarized glasses up there you can see everything, but you will not see the illusion.  The mirage you will not see.  So, you’ll see neither water nor mirage.  He just says what are you talking about.  Nothing. That is like the yogi who is in Samadhi.  What world-body-mind.?  Well nothing is there as you’re immersed in Samadhi.  World disappears.  Nothing is seen, you remain as the Atman that’s the yogic approach.

Third one, is the person who has read about a mirage.  Who’s understood.  Driving along, he sees water. Then he remembers no, mirage.  This is how it’s happening.  It looks like water.  He thought it was water, and now it still looks like water, but he knows the theory behind it.  Who is that professor who he has read about and understood it that it is Brahman?  Because of name and form it all appears, as good and bad human beings, and all of these appearing like that, affecting me. I know the theory but practically it’s not working.  It still looks like that, looks like a real world for me.  Not only world looks real, body looks real and feels real to me.  Mind feels real to me.  Desires and frustrations and unhappiness, I know these are all appearances in one radiant awareness, which still feels real and hurts. I know the theory, but it looks like this. He says this is the level of the professor.  Of the seeker.  Beyond understanding all of this, but when we come into contact with life, when we see the thing, we don’t see mirage.  We say water and when we remember and understand the theory, mirage still helpful.  Good, we now begin to understand what it is.

The last one is the enlightened being who sees, who does not even see the water, he sees mirage.  It is so practiced.  So natural. He sees that here is an appearance.  Here is Maya doing its job.  That sadhu who came to ashram, and who would sit in his room and meditate all day long.  Once in a while, he would come out and clap and dance with joy and walk a mile.  What Maya this is!  The sky and the Ganga and the river and the temple it’s all Brahman, but it’s appearing like this wonderful Maya. Here is Brahman, which appears like a river.  What Maya! How beautiful, wonderful and then he would go back to his room and meditate again.

So that is the level of the expert driver. Most of us, we are at the level of the driver who has read the book about the mirage and now we’re driving, but then experiencing it again and again, getting problems.  But after enlightenment, we will still see the same thing, but we know it to be an appearance and Maya.  What happens then?  What good is it?

Swami Vivekananda gives another of his beautiful examples. What good is it if you ask?  He says first of all, why should it be any good.  Truth is good for its own sake.  We should know the truth for its own sake.  He gives the example of a baby.  For the baby, the candies are the most important thing for little child and if you teach the baby electricity, which was latest technology at the time of Swami Vivekanand.  Nowadays, no doubt he would talk about iPhones and all these things today if he had used that example.  He says if we try to explain about electricity to a child the child will say what good is it, will it give me a candy?

We are like that; Think about it. I mentioned it at the Divinity School where we are studying religion. What good will religion do to us?  Will it solve how to use religion, to solve global warming, how to use religion, redefine religion to fit with LGBTQ how to use religion in politics. Stuff to my liking.  All these are, will it give me candy? If it doesn’t it’s no good. I am NOT saying I am against this.  This has to be done. Religion has to be useful to us in our society in our day and our time. What is our problem with religion, it should be able to help us to solve It, no doubt, but this is the secondary by-product. The side benefits.

The real benefit is what Buddha said.  Solving suffering at the deepest possible level.  So, Swam Vivekananda says it does good.  It does the greatest good.  His love, the highest of things.  He says, he alone loves, who sees God in all beings.  That person alone loves, who sees God in friend and foe.  The husband loves the wife the more by seeing God in the wife.  The wife loves the husband more by seeing God in the husband.  The parents loved (very conscious words) parents loved the children the more seeing God in the children.  The people loved a holy person more by seeing God in the holy person, and the same people love the unholy person also seeing God in the same way. Love your friend more by knowing that that the friend is nothing other than God and you will love your greatest enemy too.  By knowing that the enemy is nothing other than God, this is the benefit. He says, if even a small fraction of humanity we’re to realize some of these truths then this earth itself would be transformed into heaven.

You’re talking about what benefit will it give to society. It transforms the human into divine.  This will be the benefit of this great philosophy.  Hitherto this philosophy was restricted to a very few. Even in the land of its birth, but now the time has come to broadcast it across the world and nowadays it would be very happy with YouTube. The day will come, I pray to the Lord when this great truth will become the common property of humanity and the very air of our societies will be surcharged with “that thou art”, “Aham Brahma asmi” thought.

Om shantih shantih shantih.  Harihi Om.


Swami Sarvapriyananda is a dynamic young monk of the Ramakrishna Math. He joined the Ramakrishna Order at Ramakrishna Mission Vidyapith, Deoghar, Jharkhand in 1994. Since then he has served the Ramakrishna Mission in various capacities including Vice Principal of the Deoghar Vidyapith Higher Secondary School, Principal of the Sikshana Mandira Teachers' Training College at Belur Math, and as the first Registrar of the Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University at Belur Math. At present he is an acharya at the monastic probationers training centre at Belur Math.

He holds a degree in business management from the Xavier Institute of Management (XIMB) Bhubaneshwar. His interests are in the fields of spirituality, philosophy, management science and education.



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