Understanding the Self in Advaita Vedanta by Swami Sarvapriyananda

In a recent discussion on the Ashtavakra Gita, Anup K. from Toronto posed an intriguing question about the concept of the Self in Advaita Vedanta. He asked about the idea that all beings exist within the Self and that the Self is present in all beings. Anup understands the concept of all beings being appearances within the Self, but struggles to grasp how one consciousness shines through all beings.

Swami Sarvapriyananda, Understanding the Self in Advaita Vedanta, Advaita Vedanta

Anup drew a parallel with the dream experience, where in a dream, it seems like other people have consciousness. However, upon waking, he realizes that there was only one consciousness—the dreamer. He wonders if the waking world could be similar, questioning how he can be certain that consciousness shines through all beings and how to rule out the theory of Eka Jiva Vada (the view that there is only one sentient being).



Addressing the Dream Example

The dream analogy is insightful for understanding Advaita Vedanta. When dreaming, it appears there are many people with consciousness. Upon waking, we realize it was just one consciousness—the dreamer's. But even in the dream, was there truly one person with consciousness? No, because the dreamer and the dream characters were all imagined.


In the dream, the mind of the dreamer created everything—the world, the characters, and the dream self. Similarly, in the waking state, the one limitless consciousness (Satyam Jnanam Anantam Brahma) appears as both the world and the individual experiencing it. This consciousness manifests as both subject and object, creating the illusion of a world with many beings.


The Philosophy of One Consciousness

Advaita Vedanta teaches that there is only one limitless consciousness underlying everything. This singular consciousness appears as the objective world and the subjective experiencer. The analogy helps to understand that what we perceive as multiple conscious beings are all manifestations of the same underlying consciousness.


All Beings in the Self and the Self in All Beings

This concept, found not only in the Ashtavakra Gita but also in the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, can be challenging. Anup understands that all beings exist in the Self, likening it to an ocean of existence where all beings are like waves. This limitless ocean of existence is the Self, and all beings are appearances within it.


The Nature of Existence and Consciousness

Ashtavakra describes this beautifully: the limitless ocean of existence brings forth sentient beings who play, fight, and eventually merge back into the source. This process is driven by their inherent nature and past actions (karma). While it might seem chaotic, it’s all part of the same existence.


The Theory of Eka Jiva Vada

Eka Jiva Vada posits that there is only one sentient being. This idea is related to solipsism, where only one's own mind is sure to exist. The dream analogy blurs the lines between waking and dreaming, making one feel they might be the only real consciousness. However, this is just a perspective to help understand deeper philosophical truths.


Teaching and Understanding Advaita Vedanta

Good teaching starts from where the student is. Advaita Vedanta acknowledges the perceived reality of a world with many beings and uses that to guide students towards understanding the one ultimate reality—limitless consciousness. This approach helps students move from their current understanding to a realization of the ultimate truth.


Practical Application and Monastic Life

For those deeply detached from the world, such as monks in the Himalayas, the perspective of being the only sentient being can be a useful tool. In such settings, the world seems to fade away, making it easier to grasp the underlying reality. However, for those embedded in worldly life, this perspective can be dysfunctional. It’s important to use the right approach in the right context to avoid spiritual and worldly troubles.


Conclusion

Ultimately, whether one subscribes to the view of many sentient beings or just one, the goal is the same: to realize the infinite existence, consciousness, and bliss that is Brahman. Advaita Vedanta offers various paths to this realization, tailored to different levels of detachment and understanding. Each path leads to the same ultimate reality, emphasizing the unity of all existence and consciousness.

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