Swami Madhavatirtha was a Gujarati vedantic scholar who in the 1920s had been a follower of Sri Aurobindo. He came to Ramanasramam in 1944 and later recorded his impressions in a book entitled Ramana Maharshi Patichaya Temno Ane Bodha (The Life and Teachings of Ramana Maharshi). This excerpt from his book is featured in the final chapter of The Power of the Presence, part one:
* * *
On one of the days of my [Madhavatirtha’s] visit somebody gave to the Maharshi the English book Supreme Mystery, by Mirra, the mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Sri Maharshi opened it and read from a page of it on which was written, ‘Till now in this world every man has made an effort to attain his own liberation only. Our yoga is of such a type by which others also can be given moksha [liberation].’
The Maharshi made no comment, but after listening to this extract somebody made a remark that in the path of yoga and Sankhya [one of the six systems of Hindu philosophy] thought is only given to the experience of the waking state. Because of this attitude, he said, many separate people are seen in the waking state, and so thoughts of doing good to others arise. Vedanta, on the other hand, takes into consideration and gives thought to all the three states.
‘When this perspective is taken,’ concluded the man, ‘multiplicity does not remain.’
Sri Maharshi commented on this, saying, ‘During the waking state, if the one who sees the many is subtracted, that is, if the feeling of ‘I’ is removed, the many will not remain. If the state of being the observer is given up, nothing can then be proved. So, the true standpoint is that of the adhistana [substratum]. There is nothing except the substratum. To keep the knowledge of that which is not real is useless.’
Sri Maharshi frequently used this term adhistana during my visit. On more than one occasion he compared it to the sruti note, the continuous monotone sound that underlies many compositions in Indian music:
Question: How to maintain the thought that all is Brahman in the midst of worldly activities?
Maharshi: When the harmonium is being played there is a constant note that is called the sruti. Along with that, other notes also come out. If the ear is fixed on this note that is constant, then, while listening to the other notes, that original note cannot be forgotten. Actually, that first note gives strength to all the other notes. So, the principle to understand is that the first note is the adhistana [substratum] while the other notes represent worldly activities. During worldly activities, if [awareness of] the note of the adhistana is continuous, whatever is spoken is then done with the authority of this adhistana note. But an ordinary man does not keep his attention on the first note, the adhistana. He merely listens to the subsequent notes. The jnani keeps his attention on the first note. Sukdev [a sage of ancient India] used to keep such attention and maintain his awareness of Brahman. When the attention is fixed properly on the first note, the effect of the other notes will not be felt.
I noticed during my visit that the Maharshi often gave practical demonstrations to drive home a point that he had been making. On a subsequent day, when the conversation I have just recorded was still fresh in our minds, some women started to perform a bhajan accompanied by a harmonium.
As soon as the first note came out the Maharshi said: ‘Remember that. On the basis of this first note all the other notes will come out and stay. It should be understood that the same thing happens in the case of adhistana.’
The sruti-note analogy is not an exact one for, as the Maharshi often pointed out, the Self or adhistana alone exists. The world and all the people in it have no real independent existence, so it is not quite correct to compare them to the melodic line that emerges simultaneously with the sruti, which would still continue even if the sruti note suddenly ceased. This was brought home to me in a wide-ranging discussion I had with the Maharshi on the undifferentiated Self and the nature of knowledge and ignorance.
Question: Some see a serpent in the rope, some a stick, some a garland, and some a flow of water, but the one who sees the rope as a rope has the true knowledge. The knowledge of the other witnesses is not true.
Maharshi: It is not necessary to think of the view of other witnesses. Those others are only in your imagination. Know the one who sees and all will be well.
M: In a dream many are seen, but they are all in the imagination of the one who sees. When you wake up from the dream, the dream and those in the dream will take care of their own prarabdha.
Q: Then there will be no others?
M: It is the same in the waking state. In Aparokshanubhuti [an advaitic work attributed to Sankara], the author says, ‘The sight should be fixed in that state in which there is no existence of seer, seeing and seen, and not on the tip of the nose’.
Q: A question arises from this: how can daily life go on if the sight is fixed in this way?
M: Jnanis fix their sight in the substratum, the adhistana, even during worldly activities because nothing else is real except adhistana. To feel that there is clay in the pot is the proper attitude [that is, see the essence and not the form].
Q: A pot can be filled with water, but one cannot achieve the same result by pouring water on clay.
M: I do not tell you to see clay after breaking the pot. Even when the pot is whole you can see it as the form of clay. In the same way the world can be seen as the form of Brahman. To have the knowledge of Brahman in the waking state is similar to having the knowledge of clay in the pot.
Q: Are names and forms real?
M: You won’t find them separate from adhistana. When you try to get at name and form, you will find reality only. Therefore attain the knowledge of that which is real in all three states [waking, dreaming and sleeping].
Q: Is it a fact that dreams arise because of impressions received during the waking state?
M: No, it is not true. In your dream you see many new things and many people whom you have never seen before in your waking state. You may even see a second dream within the dream. After waking up from the second dream, you may feel that you have woken up, but that is the waking state of the first dream. In the same way, man wakes up daily, but it is not to a real waking state.
Q: Why do we see the world as something real?
M: We see so much on a cinema screen, but it is not real. Nothing is real there except the screen. In the same way, in the waking state, there is nothing but the adhistana. Knowledge of the waking state is knowledge of the knower of the waking state. Both go away in sleep.
Q: Why do we see such permanency and constancy in the waking state?
M: It is seen on account of wrong ideas. When someone says that he took a bath in the same river twice, he is wrong because when he bathed for the second time, the river was not the same as it was when he bathed for the first time. Somebody may say that he is seeing the same fruit every day, but really, a lot of changes are taking place in the fruit. On seeing the brightness of a flame, a man says that he sees the same flame, but the flame is changing every second. As the oil gets less and less, the flame keeps on changing. The waking state is also like this. The stationary appearance is an error of perception.
Q: Whose is the error?
M: Pramata [the knower].
Q: From where did the knower come?
M: On account of the error of perception. In fact, the knower and his false knowledge appear simultaneously, and when the knowledge of the Self is obtained, they disappear simultaneously.
Q: From where did the knower and his ignorance come?
M: Who is asking this question?
M: Find out that ‘I’ and all your doubts will be solved. Just as in a dream, a false knower, knowledge and known rise up, in the waking state the same process operates. In both states, on knowing this ‘I’ you know everything, and nothing remains to be known. If, in the waking state, there is enquiry into the ‘I’, everything can be understood and nothing else will remain to be known. In deep sleep knower, knowledge and known are absent. At the time of experiencing the true ‘I’ they will also not exist. Whatever you see happening in the waking state happens only to the knower, and since the knower is unreal, nothing in fact ever happens.
Q: After waking from sleep, why does the world of the previous day appear the same?
M: The world seen on the previous day was not real. It was the knowledge of an unreal knower. In the same way, the world of the next day is also is the knowledge of an unreal knower. For the ajnani the world is experienced at these times [yesterday and today]. But for the jnani the world is not there at any time, past, present or future. What appears separate from us is called by us ‘the world’. It appears separate from us due to ego-consciousness [ahankara]. When ahankara goes there is nothing separate; there is no world. Time also arises from pramata, the knower. Because pramata is not real, time is also not real. Professor Einstein has also stated this in his theory of relativity.
Q: How then do the affairs of daily life go on?
M: At present the Viceroy has changed the time by putting it an hour in advance. Though the new time is false, daily life still continues.
Q: In Panchadasi there is an example that if you wish to hear the music of your son who is singing along with the other boys attending the same school, you have to ask the other boys to be quiet. In the same way, to hear the voice of Self, you have to stop all other activities.
M: In this particular example, even if your son is not present you will hear the music of the other boys. So since this is a different situation, the analogy does not fit well. According to another example, if we fix our attention on the main tune of the harmonium, there will be no difficulty in listening to that tune, even if many other tunes are going on along with it.
Q: Just as a mirage, though believed to be unreal, appears again, similarly, though the world is believed to be unreal, it reappears.
M: Just as the knowledge of the water in the mirage is not true, similarly, the knowledge of the world in Brahman is not true. All is one Brahma-rupa [form of Brahman]. That alone is true knowledge.
Q: According to the old system of Vedanta, it seems that ignorance arises first, and then arises the idea of individual existence, but according to the new system there seems to be no before or after. The idea of individual existence, ignorance and the world arise simultaneously, and on attaining knowledge, all of these three disappear.
M: It is true. See the world as consisting of Brahman after making your vision jnanamaya [full of knowledge].
Q: Such a state can only be obtained by satsang [association with holy men].
M: Do not think that satsang means only talks and conversations. It means abidance in being as the form of the Self.
Q: What is the meaning of ‘Atman is swayam prakasa’ [The Self shines by its own light]?
M: Just as the sun has never seen darkness, similarly, the Self has never seen ignorance. The Self is unknowable, but it can be experienced by aparoksha anubhava [knowledge of the Self by direct perception]. This is called swaprakasatwa [Self-illumination].
The subjects of knowledge and ignorance, and of the knower, knowing and the known, are naturally connected to ideas about the reality of the world. Before I give some of the Maharshi’s view on this subject, I should mention that it is a subject I had long been interested in myself, so much so that I had, prior to my visit, authored a small book entitled Maya in which I had attempted to relate certain Indian ideas on the reality of the world to those propounded by Einstein in his theories of relativity. I had sent the Maharshi a copy prior to my visit and was very curious to know what he had thought of my basic thesis.
Question: Professor Einstein has recently proved by the method of mathematics that space, time, objects, form, weight and speed, etc. are all relative to the sight of the seer. A small booklet called Maya was sent to you on this subject.
Maharshi: Yes, what you say is true. I liked it and I have read it fully. By correcting the seer, everything gets corrected. In the book there is talk of many seers, but in reality the seer is only one. The many are in the imagination of the seer only.