Reply To: Shrila Madhvacharya's concept of the sakshi

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Ashish Dalela

There is a difference between objectivity and objects.

Objectivity means something exists apart from the observer. Object means that thing that exists apart from the observer has no ‘inside’, and hence everything about the object can be known to me. The rejection of objects is not the rejection of objectivity. And the acceptance of objectivity is not the reduction of the world to objects. Objectivity can also be other persons.

The idea of objects is that there is no ‘internal’ reality; everything is ‘external’ and hence everything is knowable. The idea of objectivity is that there is a world separate from me. When objectivity is equated to objects, then the world is fully knowable as things. But when objectivity is equated to a person existing outside of me, then the world is not fully knowable.

If you have doubts about this, then consider these ideas: Krishna never fully knows Himself, and nobody knows Krishna completely. In spiritual life, we are simply trying to get to know Krishna better and better, and that takes eternity because we never fully know the truth completely.

The ignorance about the full truth is not identical to the illusion of that truth. Let’s say the truth is a set of X claims. Illusion means that my claim of truth is outside these X claims, which are not true. Ignorance means that I know a subset of X claims and not all the claims. In short, I know the truth partially, which is different from believing in something that is not true.

These distinctions are very important. Objectivity is not objects. Ignorance is not an illusion. Everything is objective, but it is not an object. We have different levels of ignorance about the world, but that is not an illusion. If we came to know everything completely right now, then life would be futile here on. There would be nothing left to be known, nothing more to be said, so our seeing and talking must come to an end. That end would also be the end of life itself.

So, knowing has many levels. The initial level of knowing is removing the illusion, and that removal leads to liberation into Brahman. The moment you are rid of false ideas, you are immediately liberated. That liberation is freedom from illusion. It is not freedom from ignorance. Therefore, further knowing means becoming aware of a subset of the X claims, and that is an infinite process. In short, the illusion comes to an end, but ignorance has no end.

Ultimately, at some point, the observer becomes satisfied: I know enough, and I don’t want to know more. That is when the soul settles into an abode of the Lord. He is content, satisfied. Those who are not satisfied, keep going higher. And there are some souls who are never satisfied. Their hunger is infinite, so, they are trying to know more, and consequently, their knowledge gets deeper. That dissatisfaction is indicative of the fact that this process is infinite.

Now, we come to the main issue about how to remove illusion. What is an illusion? It is ultimately an idea about oneself. Who am I? Since the illusion is a false idea about the self, it can never be removed if you don’t want to remove it. No amount of observation, reason, philosophical analysis, can make anyone change an idea about themselves. And unless that idea of the self is changed, all other ideas also remain illusory. The illusion of self is not external.

If you think that life is confined to the present existence, then, you will construct a picture of the world consistent with that idea about the self. If you know you are a liar, then you will think everyone is a liar. So, based on the idea of the self, a picture of the world is constructed. And that idea of the self is our free will. Therefore, the illusion can be eternal, if we want it to be eternal.

The escape out of illusion is suffering. Why am I suffering so much? I must have done something bad in the past. Then, I must be eternal. If I am eternal, then what is my eternal nature? And that eternal nature must also make me eternally happy. We are back to the point of happiness.

So, removing the illusion requires the idea of happiness. You can never truly know who you are unless you become eternally happy. And that happiness is also your choice: there are many grades of happiness, and to find greater happiness, we accept dissatisfaction and become unhappy. So, there are some devotees of the Lord who are always happy, because they have become content: I know this much, and this is enough. Other devotees are not contented in this way: I don’t know enough, and I need to know more about it. This is also free will.

So, two main points: (1) happiness is required to remove illusion, and (2) the quest for greater happiness is required to reduce the ignorance, but the process is eternal. This is the philosophical basis of bhakti. We cannot erect a philosophy of bhakti on pure external observation of reality. We must know ourselves, and that knowledge of the self is free will — we can choose to believe who we are. Free will means there is no foolproof method to knowing anything. It is ultimately a choice. That choice is not constrained by logic, observation, reason. It is constrained by happiness. So, we change our idea of happiness, then we change the idea of the self, then we change our idea of the world, and then the illusion is removed and ignorance is reduced.