Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Ashtavakra Gita

There's a cheery sort of breeziness about the Astavakra Samhita (trans. by John Richards)an ancient sanskrit scripture in the Advaita tradition. How old is it? My introduction to the Advaita Ashrama edition says that it belongs to the same era as the Bhagavad Gita and is certainly older than the Karikas of Gaudapada. Looking up the age of the Gita, and having recourse to that frail support Wikipedia I am told that Western scholars place it between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. Followers I am assured adhere to an earlier date of 3102 B.C. Don't you love the precision of that 2. Them's real scholars.

The breeziness of the text comes out in many places e.g.: A.S. II.18

I have neither bondage nor freedom. Having lost its support, the illusion has ceased. Oh, the universe, though existing in me, does not in reality so exist.
(trans. by Swami Nityaswarupananda)

Mind you when you go into this in greater detail the rigours of doing your tapas between the five fires of the senses are revealed. The world is always presented to you under the auspices of perception, nihil in intellectu quod non fuerit prius in sensu, (nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses) as the Scholastics put it. So the fact of the matter is that you can never not be presented with the experience of duality, to be experiencing is to be in a subject-object mode.

The question is then: how do you get from that stage of experience to the realistion that the teacher is talking about. What is it for a start and how are we to orient ourselves towards it if we accept that there is such a thing. Despite the cheerful urging of Ashtavakra and his repetition these basic question do not appear to be answered. Here I dust off the ancient dictum of the Canadian sage McLuhan and say that ‘the medium is the message’. Ashtavakra the instructor is the instruction and the goal of the instruction. He represents the reality of the teaching. When Jesus said ‘ I am the way, the truth and the life’, he was speaking for all teachers.

At this stage of development of the Advaitic teaching the precise teazing out of its ontological justification was yet to be established. That would be the work of Adi Shankara (788-820 A.D.) Here we are presented with summaries of the condition of the sage. Inevitably this will have a strongly illusionistic emphasis. Only later is the concept of illusion broken down into its components of pratibhasika (standard illusion, confusion and delusion) vyavaharika (conventional or relative truth and paramarthika (absolute truth).

However for most people ontological pondering is not the way that they achieve realisation. Philosophy is a limited force compared to darshan which is the vision or the presence of the Master in the flesh or the spirit.

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