Colonial Consciousness and Enlightenment

This post will use an imagery as its organising thread, which tracks the search for enlightenment in terms of notions known to us from our secondary and higher education.

  1. If we consider the search for happiness in these terms, then the ideas expressed in the reply to Kannan could be reformulated thus: as human beings, almost all of us would like to be literates or would like to have a primary education. This is the move ‘away’ for unhappiness that all of us aim at, namely, to be ‘less unhappy’. After a period of time, many of us would like to move further. This is the move ‘towards’ (peace of mind, contentment, satisfied, etc.) happiness now formulated in positive terms: the phase of secondary education. The completion of this process is to reach a state of peace (shanti), or contentment (samadhana), or satisfaction (trupti) etc. The Sri Sri’s and the Sadguru’s of this world help us here through their Sudarshan Kriya’s, their yogic practices, their meditative courses and so on. The vipassana meditation, the Satsangh’s, the bhajans, the dhyaanas etc. are also situated here. Some people in this phase also call themselves Saadhakas, doing their ‘saadhana’ on a very regular basis.
  2. Suppose that you want to go further and, therefore, seek higher education (call it Ananda, or happiness). There are two broad routes here: technical or vocational education is one route; university education is another. If you want to be plumber, a carpenter, a sculptor, a painter, a machinist…then you are better-off choosing technical education. However, you could also go for a university education. There is no ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ here; both are different forms of higher education. (Of course, there are endless discussions about ‘superiority’: one group disparagingly calls the other ‘vocational training’, while the other caricatures the first as ‘purely theoretical’ that is unsuited for fulfilling the ‘need’ for useful education or the ‘needs’ of society.) A society cannot survive without plumbers, electricians, machinists, artists, etc. Nor can it live without the ‘ivory tower’ that universities are and should be. Individual students make their choice based on multiple reasons (from aptitude to financial rewards) and many gifted teachers prefer to teach in vocational or professional schools than in a university. However, whatever the choice, both demand that the student specifies clearly what s/he wants to learn: do you want to be a sculptor or a machinist; in which subject do you want  your bachelor and Master’s degree? ‘Ananda’, the generic word, does not suffice here because it merely picks out ‘higher education’: do you want to do physics or chemistry or biology or English literature at the university? ‘Gyaana marga’ (the university) on the one hand and ‘other routes’ (vocational and professional training) on the other hand are the main avenues in higher education.

Within the framework of this imagery, ‘enlightenment’ refers to the total process of ‘higher education’ and ‘seeking ananda’ fixes the goal of higher education. Each avenue has its way of classifying its internal levels or divisions (Bachelors, Masters, Doctoral, Post-doctoral in the university, for example) and teaches students accordingly. They share many commonalities: the subject matter, the instruments, the theoretical frameworks, etc. etc. They are also different from each other in ways of teaching, investigating, making and reporting discoveries, and so on. The names of some teachers in higher education are known to us: Buddha, Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Vallabha, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Ramana, Nisargadatta Maharaj, etc. Let us not deal with the question whether they taught at the University or were active in professional or technical education because something else of greater importance has to be noticed: you have to choose the ‘subject’ of higher education first. ‘Seeking Happiness’ or ‘wanting enlightenment’ are not adequate at all. You need to specifiy what you are seeking and, preferably, why.

  1. Our past makes things very difficult for us precisely here. These difficulties are many: for instance, there is reticence, reservation and , yes, even embarrassment.  ‘I want to be a physicist’ comes naturally; ‘I want to be an atmagyaani’ does not come out at all; ‘I want to be a painter’ is OK, not at all OK when you say ’I seek the Buddhahood’. To many, this problem emerges at the earlier stage itself: it is very difficult even to say ‘I seek enlightenment’ or ‘my goal is to seek Ananda’. Saying such things openly is simply ‘not done’: it is almost equivalent to confessing to a pornographic fantasy or to a ‘dirty’ dream in public. There are multiple reasons for this tragic state of affairs; one such is the puerile, pernicious and pubertal idea about what ‘enlightenment’ is alleged to be and what it is supposed to do. Here is one thumbnail sketch of one such image.
  2. The ‘enlightened’ ones are some kind of ‘special’ people: exceptional, privileged and, in many senses; ‘super-human’. They are not given to anger or sorrow; they are ‘altruistic’ in some extraordinary way (no ‘ahankaara’ at all, for instance); they are always beatific, profound and wise; they are always calm and collected, deeply insightful and see things that ordinary mortals cannot. As paragons of all virtues, they fully control all biological urges, including the sexual urge. They are ‘the chosen’. (The secret pornographic dream is the vague conviction that one also belongs to ‘the chosen’; however, it is camouflaged  by the false but open declaration of modesty: one is a mere ‘saadhaka’,  for more than a decade, busy doing the ‘saadhana’ that some or another guru taught; no ‘truly enlightened’ ever says that s/he is enlightened; so on and so forth.) One can only seek enlightenment (secretly) if one is enveloped in ‘Shama, ‘Dama’, ‘Karuna’, and all such ‘virtues’. Not otherwise. Such an image simply paralyses the brain because it forbids us from asking the most simple and a very elementary question: which human being is ever capable of reaching such a state? If you know even elementary science, you know that this is an impossible state to be in. It is biologically, sociologically, psychologically, cognitively impossible for human beings to be in such a state. Surely, it is logically possible, but, at times, it is even physically (leave alone biologically) impossible. If ‘enlightenment’ is supposed to be that kind of state, we need to be ‘Super-Natural’ entities to go there. In short: this image short-circuits the goal, which is its foundation, namely, human beings can be enlightened and that it is a desirable goal. Though extremely important, let us not go into the ‘why’ of this image. Instead, let us ask another simpler question: do the Indian traditions countenance such puerile ideas? Is enlightenment akin to puberal fantasies about sex?
  3. In the Chandogya Upanishad, there is a very famous dialogue that begins this way: “The Self (Atman), …is free from evil, ageless, deathless, sorrowless, hungerless, thirstless…He should be searched out, Him one should desire to understand. He obtains all worlds and all desires who has found out and who understands that Self.’–Thus spake Prajapati.

Then both the gods and the devils (deva-asura) heard it. Then they said: ’Come! Let us search out that…by searching out whom one obtains all worlds and all desires!’”

Virochana and Indra then go to Parjapati, works for him free (without receiving any wages, one presumes) for 32 years. At the end of that time period, Prajapati asks them what they desire. They answer:‘ “The Self (Atman), which is free from evil, ageless, deathless, sorrowless, hungerless, thirstless…He should be searched out, Him one should desire to understand. He obtains all worlds and all desires who has found out and who understands that Self.”–Such do people declare to be your words, Sir. We have been living desiring Him.’  The story continues further, but let us leave it here.

Notice the following important fact in the above dialogue: Indra and Virochana want to “obtain all worlds and satisfy all desires”. This is not only a worldly goal but it is also the wet dream of those who think thus: ‘who does not want to obtain all worlds and have all his desires satisfied?’ Desiring to achieve such an ‘extremely’ materialistic goal, Indra and Virochana approach Prajapati. The latter sells ‘Atman’ as the only way to completely satisfy all lusts, including carnal lusts. Prajapati teaches ‘adhyatma’ to fulfil the goal of fully satisfying these worldly, materialistic and carnal desires. (One is frustrated if these desires and lusts are not fully but only partially satisfied, of course.) He sells ‘adhyatma’ to enable people to reach this goal of complete satisfaction of worldly desires and does not reproach Indra or Virochana for seeking such materialistic goals. Instead, he approves such a pursuit and teaches ‘Atman’ to them. That is, he teaches ‘enlightenment’ to them because it is the best and only way to satisfy all our desires and wants. (The puerile image would probably understand it as the ‘total disappearance’ of all such desires. It is, of course, unclear which desires disappear: does the desire for ‘atman’ disappear as well? A modern day Maslow enthusiast would have no problem in saying that such is indeed the case with ‘deficiency needs’.)

The contrast between our image of ‘enlightenment’ (and ‘Atmagyaana’) and how this Upanishad deals with the same issue cannot be starker and sharper. Our image tells us that we must give up our worldly desires, embody all kinds of virtues and practice asceticism seriously and earnestly and smile beatifically (and perhaps even levitate), if we seek ‘Atmagyaana’. But here is Prajapati, coolly preaching and accepting the opposite. No shama, dama, karuna, or anything of that sort. No altruism of any kind; the utter ‘selfishness’ of wanting to satisfy all of one’s desires is the most legitimate goal.

Think this issue seriously through and ask yourself what ‘enlightenment’ could then be about. Why is this dialogue so very famous and, yet, its structure hardly understood or commented upon? Prajapati offers more than the proverbial “philospher’s stone”: he offers a magical wand to completely satisfy worldly desires!  Worldly desires should not be cast aside, apparently; instead, they should be very earnestly pursued. Thus: What do you want? Atmagyaana, say. Why do you want it? To fully and completely satisfy all of one’s worldly desires. Wow, (awesome!), as the Americans say.

  1. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the sage Yagnavalkya decides, on his deathbed, to distribute his wealth to his two wives. Speaking to Maitreyi about it results in one of the most famous discourses on ‘Atman’. Hearing of this decision to divide the land, his wife asks him whether that would make her ‘immortal’ (overcome death). When Yagnavalkya says ‘no’ to her question, her reply tells us why she seeks immortality: what is the point of possessing wealth, if one cannot enjoy it in perpetuity or forever? What can one do with it  (kim ahaṁ tena kuryām=what can I do with it)? Yangnavalkya answers this question at length. The first long passage discourses about why things are desired, whether husbands or wives or sons or the worlds, etc. Each of the items desired, he says, are ‘loved’ not because the object is loved but because of the desire for ‘Atman’.  The sentence structure is: “na vā are…(husbands, wives, sons, worlds,….) kāmāya…(the item named) priyo bhavati, ātmanas tu kāmāya…(item named)… priyo bhavati.  (Kāmāya=because of desiring; priyo bhavati=becomes loved.) How does one understand these multiple sentences? One route, the most famous and perhaps the only route known to us so far, is to make ‘Atman’ into an object that is different from the named items (husbands, wives, etc.). Consider one such rendering: “not for desiring ( kāmāya)  the husband is a husband loved (priya), but for desiring (kāmāya) the Soul (Atman) is a husband dear (priya)”. This rendering leads to the understanding ‘Atman’, for example, in the following way: “For the desire of the Infinite, which is the Self, everything appears to be desirable. Here, the word ātman is to be understood in the sense of the Totality of Being. It is the Selfhood of all beings…” (

The structure of thought behind such a rendering is all too familiar to us. Most probably, all of us have read ‘Atman’ as some kind of an entity that we ‘really’ should seek and that we confuse this entity with objects in the world. Only this ‘Atman’ will give us the happiness we all seek. Of course, from this follows the idea that we should not seek happiness in ‘material’ things but in ‘Atman’. If we replace ‘Atman’ by the word ‘God’, we get the following: we all seek ‘God’ but do so mistakenly in ‘material things’. Complete happiness is not to be found here on Earth but in God, “the Totality of Being”. As our learned Swamiji puts it: “the desire of the mind for a particular desirable object is a desire to get united with that object in its being”. Thus, this  union, which is impossible with any given object in the world, is possible uniquely with ‘God’,  whom we all seek. Thus ‘atman’ is the essence or the foundation or the ground or the totality of all beings, of the world and of existence itself. This is what we all seek.

Consider this question, provided you are honest with yourself: why do you have difficulty in understanding this claim? What the devil does ‘union’ with an object, any object, or with the ‘being and the totality of being’ etc. mean? When you want that million dollars or that beautiful Porsche, or that marvellous painting or that sexy person, are you seeking to become ‘one’ (seeking the ‘union’) with that million dollars, that Porsche, that painting or that sexy person? What is ‘the totality’ of their ‘being’ that you seek? (Consider what your answer has to do: if you ‘desire’ that your son has a good education, satisfaction of that desire would mean you have ‘united’ with that education and with ‘the totality of the being’ of that good education.) If you cannot answer this question to yourself, how could a housewife (Maitreyi is a housewife), who does not have the education and the consequent mental development that you have, understand her husband at all? If this heavy-duty ‘spiritual stuff’ is impenetrable to your mind, how could it be ‘crystal clear’ to a woman nearly four thousand years ago? The probability is very high that she did not even know how to read and write; she could not have been a trained philosopher or scientist; she would not have known any mathematics or logic; she would not have heard of ontology or the metaphysics of being…How, in heaven’s name, could she ever understand this discourse on ‘Atman’, when even we cannot figure out what our learned Swamiji is saying in his very extended commentary on the subject? Surely, “there is something rotten in the state of Denmark…”

Here is one possible route, which solves these problems in a simple and obvious way. It consists of not looking at ‘atman’ as an object of desire at all: ‘ātmanas tu kāmāya’ is best understood (in modern English) as ‘for the sake of oneself’ or ‘for the sake of one’s own self’ or even ‘desire of oneself’: “not for desiring (kāmāya)  the husband is a husband loved (priya), but because oneself desires (kāmāya) is a husband dear (priya)”. In its simplest form, using a language that we all can use in daily life: the objects are loved not because they are desired (for their own sake) but because one desires them. I love that million dollars because I desire it; I love that Porsche because I desire it; I love that painting because I desire it; I love that sexy person because I desire it… ‘You love things because you desire them’. Period. Then, because you love things in the world only because you desire them, it is extremely important to know who you are. Since I do things in the world because I desire them and they are dear to me because I hold them dear, it is extremely important to know who I am, is it not? (I might love my wife for any number of reasons, or for no known reason at all, but she is dear to me and she remains dear to me independent of whatever she is to anyone else in the world: she is dear to me because I desire her.) This appears as an extraordinarily crude form of ‘egoism’ or ‘selfishness’. It is. However, what you think of both (‘egoism’ and ‘selfishness’) depends very much on what you think ‘ego’ is and what that ‘self’ is. If every one of us has a unique ‘ego’ or a unique ‘self’, where each of these has its own unique sets of desires, passions and goals, then, indeed, this is the crudest form of ‘selfishness’ and ‘egoism’ that one could think of. If each of us has this unique ‘soul’, then, yes, this is ‘ethical egoism’ in its worst form. What, however, if we do not have such unique selves? What, if this ‘self’ is not ‘the soul’? What, if the Upanishadic claim is true, namely, that ‘atma gyaana’ is knowledge about this ‘self’ (of yours, mine, and so on)? What, if this ‘I’ (that we all have) cannot be individuated at all?

Maitreyi would then understand  without any education of any kind: things are important to her only because she (herself) desires them; her husband says, therefore, Maitreyi, understand yourself, who you are. ‘Know thyself’ is to ‘know thy self’: what is this ‘self’? A unique soul or something that cannot be individuated? Do each of us have a ‘unique self’ or is this ‘I’ that we all have is not a unique and individuated entity? Here is where a choice has to be made: does ‘ātmanas tu kāmāya’ mean ‘desiring the Atman’ (as an object) or not? This is not a grammatical or a translation issue; the question is already answered by how ‘atman’ is understood, which defines how one translates and how one uses grammar. ‘By desiring oneself’ can either mean “by desiring the ‘oneself’ (Atman)” or it could mean (in an expanded form, and keeping to how we use the English language) something like some object is loved by one ‘because one has desired it oneself’. Under this second interpretation, which appears to be the most understandable to someone like Maitreyi, the normal attitude of almost all people at all times and in all cultures becomes foundational to raise the issue of ‘atmagyaana’: who am ‘I’ that desires these objects?

  1. These two Upanishads, each in its own way, completely undercut the images we have of enlightenment today. Neither suggests that we have to become ‘Super-Natural’ or lose our ‘base’ emotions or become recluses or renounce ‘the world’, or be ‘the chosen’ to seek or find enlightenment. They take our daily experiences as the source and the drive for the quest for enlightenment. Why is it, then, that this route has not been pursued, or if it has been, not available to us? The hypothesis about ‘colonial consciousness’ provides one avenue for investigating this question: colonialism has damaged the transmission of our culture. To appreciate this idea better, consider your own possible resistances to the simple route taken by the previous point. Surely, Maiteryi, as a rishi’s wife, was very, very knowledgeable and not a simple housewife? Surely, those days they ‘knew’ all these things (like atman etc.) as matters of daily concerns? Surely, the culture of that time was more advanced and sophisticated than ours, spiritually? Surely, it is this degeneration that makes us want to seek their ‘deep’ and ‘profound’ knowledge? What we have lost, surely, is this ‘ancient wisdom’ of our rishis? And so on. (These reflections that hinder the simple route also block other obvious questions: how could Maitreyi seek the secret of ‘immortality’ from her dying husband? If he knew that secret well enough to teach it, why did the bugger die and not live on forever?) The damage to the transmission of our culture (that the two colonialisms have wrought on our culture) has other consequences as well, two of which are important to notice in this context. Let us bring this story back to the image of higher education to understand these better.
  2. The first is this: we cannot assess the nature of the texts adequately. What kinds of texts do we have? Is the Gita an essay, a textbook, a thesis, a theory, a compendium, a ‘metaphysics for the dummies’, a popularising discourse…? If it is textbook, say, of what kind: a secondary school textbook, or something like Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, or like Schaum’ s outline series…? What about the Upanishads? Random teachings strung together as individual Upanishads? How is each ‘discourse’ related to the other: chronologically, theoretically, conceptually, thematically…? What about the Brahma Sutra? Is it one text, authored by one individual? Or compilation of various statements made by people over centuries? Is each sutra in the text a complete sutra with ‘deep’ and ‘profound’ connotations? Are there fragments and words, each masquerading as an independent Sutra? And so on and so forth. Every answer to these questions is, more or less, also a complete answer.
  3. Consider a second consequence with the help of an analogy. Let us assume that the writings of Democritus are available to us today. Let us also say that Rutherford’s planetary model is also accessible to us. However, the works of Dalton, Avogadro etc. are not accessible. How would we construct the developmental story about the atoms? A straight line would be drawn between Democritusand Rutherford and, in the absence of other texts and chronology, we would plot a predecessor, successor relationship between them. Assume that someone discovers the text about Avogadro’s hypothesis later. That person would say that Avogadro and Rutherford were each other’s rivals: one speaks about atoms and the other about molecules as the basic building blocks of matter, such a person would say. In this story, Chemistry (Avogadro) becomes the rival of Physics (Is Rutherford, a chemist or a physicist? Is his model a part of chemistry or a hypothesis in physics?): they become antagonistic tendencies, competing with each other. (Our science history tells us a different story, of course.) The dating (Democritus to Rutherford) is false; the conflict (between Avogadro and Rutherford) is spurious; but this becomes ‘the history’ of western culture and its science. However, these claims acquire the mantle of authority because of ‘who’ said them (which ‘authority’) first and how often they get repeated. How do we know that this is not the case with the so-called Indian history? Is the alleged rivalry between ‘Brahmanism’ and ‘Buddhism’ something like the spurious conflict between Avogadro and Rutherford? Is the ‘astika’ and the ‘nastika’ divide or the ‘Vedantic’ and ‘Nastika’ conflict something akin to the imaginary story about Chemistry and Physics? (The difference between Democritus and Rutherford can be seen either the way Gaudapada relates to Shankara or the way of Advaita is related to the Upanishads.) Every silly answer to these questions is satisfactory because some or another ‘authority’ says that such is the case and others repeat it after him. How to settle these issues? Surely, these are all knowledge questions and can be settled only by discovering how and in what sense ‘gyaana’ can mean knowledge at all. And the question of what knowledge is, then, cannot become a definitional or stipulative issue about how we use the word ‘gyaana’ or ‘knowledge’. Instead, it is a question about the nature and structure of knowledge which is itself a knowledge question. This is where ‘gyaana marga’ comes into the picture.
  4. However, as noted before, ‘gyaana marga’, which some seek, is merely one avenue. Others seek different routes. Most, however, do not want to go beyond seeking peace of mind, contentment, satisfaction in life. In terms of the higher education analogy, not everyone seeks higher education. Even in the modern day world, not seeking higher education is not an ‘inferior’ way of living: one could finish secondary education and want to become a farmer; or run the family business (from shopkeepers through butchers to running a small scale industry) and so on. In terms of desires, it could be formulated in this fashion: most people do not desire all the wealth in the world or all the three worlds; they do not seek to sleep with all the women in the world nor father all the children in the world. Most would like to be content with what they have: some wealth, some goods, one wife, two children, one car…They do not seek nor do they desire ‘more’ than this: surely, there is nothing ‘inferior’ to this way of living. These people would then be quite happy with secondary education (say, doing some kriya, yoga, bhajans, meditation of some kind, etc.). In short, they do not seek enlightenment; they do not desire it; they are happy with what they have. There is nothing wrong or inferior about this choice. Remember that Indra and Virochana wanted to “obtain all worlds and all desires” and Maitreyi wanted to enjoy her land forever and in perpetuity. Most people on earth do not want to “obtain all worlds and all desires” but are content with very, very limited portions of both.

By the same token, if you desire ‘more’ than what most seek and want to “obtain all worlds and all desires”, you need higher education. However, unless you are able to choose what you want to learn and thus know the reason why, you cannot pursue higher education. Enlightenment is not possible if you cannot say what you want and why. This general requirement becomes stricter, if you want to pursue your higher education at the university. To get the Master’s, you have narrow your choice after your Bachelors. It narrows down even further if you want to do doctoral research. In exactly the same way, you cannot ‘vaguely’ and ‘secretly’ seek enlightenment or happiness. If there is no progressive narrowing down of the goal or your want, it is simply impossible to pursue higher education of any kind.

Remember, however, that mere ‘hard work’ does not suffice to get through the University. You need to work hard to learn the subject that you want to learn. You need to bend your back learning whatever it is that you want to learn. In exactly the same way you cannot learn quantum physics through e-mail conversations, you cannot get enlightened through e-mail exchanges. Glancing casually through some or another text, citing some sentences and using some words will not give you knowledge of quantum physics. The same conditions apply here also: citing some or another ‘gyaani’, using some or another word (‘Arivinalli niluvu’ or ‘Atman’) is not knowledge of any kind. To the extent you present it that way, you bullshit. In any case, you will not understand anything about enlightenment nor will you ever be enlightened.