If you want to use Nirvana Shatkam, it might be more productive to choose translations which do the job that the text can. Because of that, a ‘faithful’ translation of Sanskrit into English is not the primary requirement; the process and the goal should determine how the words are best understood. With this in mind, some suggestions regarding the translation of the Sanskrit verses.
It is important to notice that the words in these verses refer to components (physical, physiological, psychological, etc.). Therefore, assume that human ‘mind’ (or human psychology) is referred to (or spoken of) in modular terms.
- The first line of the first verse picks out four such modules. If chitta is read as ‘focus’ or ‘attention’, it is best to understand its function or role in terms of a ‘scanner’. This module or component scans what comes in from the outside as well as what occurs in the body. The scanned results are transmitted to ‘manas’. Imagine it as the module that ‘interprets’: it translates the ‘language’ of chitta into a ‘language’ that ‘buddhi’ can work with. (In very, very crude programming terms, ‘manas’ interprets inputs from chitta and outputs them in a language that ‘buddhi’ can compile. This analogy is very crude because you can also see ‘manas’ as the compiler and the ‘buddhi’ as the interpreter or even reject this functional analogy. Use it only if the analogy is required or is helpful. Do not take this as a true description of their functions or their nature.) If this crude terminology is retained, ‘Ahamkara’ identifies the ‘programmer’: he is inside the person or in the body, he is the person or the body and so on. The ‘I’ (‘aham’) is none of these modules (or components). The first line suggests that the sense of self that we have (the feeling of ‘I’), is not the sensing or experiencing of any component or object or module existing in the human mind. The verse elaborates this idea further in the next two lines: neither is it a component of the body, nor is it any of the ‘basic’ elements of the physical world. (Many cultures and people believed that earth, water, sky, fire and air were the fundamental elements that made up the world. Retain this understanding to translate ‘pancha bhuta’.) In very simple terms: the ‘I’ that we all sense or experience is not an object either in the human mind, or in the body or in the world. The subsequent verses carry these thoughts further.
- None of the different components of the body (the ‘animate’, different ‘gases’, different organs) is the ‘I’.
- This ‘I’ does not have (or possess) properties (whatever their nature) like hatred, greed, etc. Nor does it have goals: ‘being ethical’, ‘being rich’, ‘satisfying desires’ or ‘to be liberated’.
- The ‘I’ is not something that is bound by things that circumscribe, like ethical or legal consequences or rituals etc. It is neither the subject nor the object nor the process of ‘consumption’.
- The ‘I’ is not bound by ‘death’ that limits all organisms, or by ‘relations’ (whether social, familial or cognitive) that chart our existence.
- The ‘I’ does not have properties which objects (events, processes) in the world have (like growth, development, transformation, etc.); it is the ‘vibhu’ everywhere and of the ‘sense organs’. (‘Vibhu’ gets translated as ‘master’, ‘controller’, ‘lord’ etc. If you keep this notion, it has to be divested of its most crucial element, namely, ‘vibhu’ as an expression of ‘power’, or as a ‘controlling force’. You need to understand the ‘controller’ here as something that does not and cannot ‘control’ anything or exercise any ‘power’ over anything, including itself.) It is neither attached nor does it require to be freed.
These rough translations are enough to think through the basic thought: the ‘I’ is not something with properties which we ascribe to objects (events, processes) in the world. It is not an object in the physical, physiological, psychological, social, cognitive and the ethical world we inhabit. It does not possess (or have) any property that an existing entity in the world has (or should have). Yet, we sense or experience this ‘I’ in the world. Now, questions begin to emerge: Could it be an imaginary entity? But such entities exist, even if they do so as imaginary entities. Perhaps, it is a hallucination. In that case, are all human beings hallucinating all the time? On the other hand, if we ‘sense’ or ‘experience’ this ‘I’ in the world and are not hallucinating, what is this ‘I’? If it is not any kind of an object existing in the world, what do we sense or experience? If it is not an object (event, process) in the world, how could it be ‘everywhere’? If we can only access things that are there in the world, how could we ever access or experience ‘it’, when ‘it’ does not exist? And so on. What is this ‘it’, ‘the I’? In short, who am I?
‘Thinking through’ merely means this: take components, whatever they are, whether anger or money, fame or house, father or your kidneys and ask, is this me? Would I not be me if I lose this? Add as many new elements as you want: this Nike shoe, that IPhone 7, this beautiful number which tells you the state of your savings, that original thought which showed you, but not the others, the kind of unrecognized genius that you ‘really’ are, this liver which is scheduled for a transplantation or that tooth which got pulled recently….To each, ask the question: is this the ‘I’ that ‘I’ experience? Would I not be me if I lose this property or did not have this property or was not this? Thus, one way to avoid monotony of this thinking process is to expand the range of objects (events and processes) to include things that Shankara does not mention. The other way is to expand the thinking to include relationships that pick out the ‘I’, namely, the ‘my’, ‘mine’, etc. (My house, my fame, my wife, my dog, my car…) The third would pick out ‘properties’: of your ‘personality’ (I am a thinker, I am an introvert, I am clever or intelligent or stupid…), or of your body (I am beautiful, I am fat, I am strong…) And so on.
If you are able to initiate this process and sustain it over a period of time, you will reach the stage where you have to admit that the ‘I’ that you experience cannot possibly exist in the world. Because the world is everything there is, you cannot experience the ‘I’ if it is not there in the world. Though you are not hallucinating, the ‘object’ of your experience does not and cannot exist in the world. Nor can it exist ‘elsewhere’, i.e. ‘outside’ the world, because if something exists at all, it exists in the world. (After all, that is what ‘the world’ means. Even ‘non-existent’ objects, Sherlock Holmes for example, are objects that could but do not exist in our world. The ‘I’ is not like that: it cannot exist; therefore, it is not merely a non-existent object that could but does not exist.) ‘Supra-mundane’, ‘spiritual’ etc. do not and cannot pick out something (whether called ‘lokas’ or ‘worlds’) that is not in the world (Vishwa). The Vishwa, as Indians circumscribe it, is everything that was, is and shall be. Nothing exists outside ‘the world’, not even ‘shunyata’ or nothingness. If something exists or even if it could only possibly exist, it does so in the world. (Please do not forget that, unlike the Semitic religions, Indian culture knows no ‘outside’ to the world. The different ‘lokas’ that one speaks about are not worlds existing outside the Cosmos or the Universe, whether they are localizable, ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’ to human sight or whatever else. The World or Vishwa is all inclusive: it includes ‘ghosts’, ‘spirits’, ‘gods’, and such like, if these are in the world.)
Of course, you could break this process of thinking-through before it reaches completion. You could do so by choosing to come up with pseudo-talk about Sadhana and Sadhaka to ‘impress’ others and also to convince yourself that its completion requires many rebirths; or tell yourself that this is a wrong way or that it is fruitless or that it is dumb, foolish, inane, esoteric,….etc. There are indefinitely many such routes to take. If you do not follow these but do go through to the end, at that stage, and only at that stage, will the ‘who am I?’ question become your ‘own’. The last line of the Nirvana Shatkam might or might not help you during this process. However, know this: when you understand that line, you will understand the question. And you will definitely understand that line, if and when the question truly becomes your ‘own’. This is not a ‘circular reasoning; only the outer limits of the end result are indicated here.
A final thought, expressed with very great reservations and, in a manner of speaking, against better judgement: a pursuit of this process, the effort that gets put in and its result do not require a teacher, a guide, or any external help of any kind. Any human being can go through this process without external aid. When you understand the last line repeated in each of the verses, only then will you realise how it answers the question, ‘who am I?’ That stage is what we call ‘enlightenment’: ‘atmagyaana’, ‘atmaanubhava’, ‘atmasaakshaatkaara’ etc. are some of the words we use to talk in different ways about this stage. (Needless to say, this is an outline sketch of just one route to enlightenment.) Buddhists call it the state of ‘awakening’: the word identifies that state where you know that the ‘I’ cannot be an entity in the world and when further consequences of this truth to experiences in daily life are pulled out.
Broadly speaking, two avenues open up now. To pursue either of the two, you will need help, guidance and support. The ‘guru’ (understood only as an aid, or help, or guidance) is an absolute requirement only at this stage. Generally speaking, a teacher is not a necessary requirement, even if it might be useful to have one, to become enlightened; but it becomes an absolutely vital requirement thereafter. When you get enlightened, you will also know the ‘why’.
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