By What Knowledge is the Spirit Known?

Originally printed in the July - August 2003 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation:Ravindra, Ravi. "By What Knowledge is the Spirit Known?." Quest  91.4 (JULY - AUGUST 2003):142-145, 149.

By Ravi Ravindra

Two kinds of knowledge are to be known . . . the higher as well as the lower . .
And the higher is that by which the Undecaying is apprehended

— Mundaka Upanishad

Theosophical Society - Ravi Ravindra is an author and professor emeritus at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he served as a professor in comparative religion, philosophy, and physics. A lifetime member of the Theosophical Society, Ravi has taught many courses at the School of the Wisdom in Adyar and at the Krotona Institute in Ojai, California. WITH ALL THE PROGRESS in scientific and medical fields, have human beings morally or spiritually advanced? Is it reasonable to assume that future Nobel Prize winners in science will be more spiritually advanced than the past ones because more scientific knowledge will be available to them? What sort of scientific facts or spiritual information will or can lead to this transformation in the nature of human beings? Is a quantitative extension of our infor­mation about the universe likely to lead us to a more spiritual life?

All traditions assert that the spirit is higher than and prior to the body-mind, which is sometimes called the "body," for simplicity. One of the ideas which is common to all the great religious traditions of the world is the assertion that in general human beings do not live the way they should and furthermore, the way they could. The Christian perspective claims that we live in sin but we could live in the grace of God, and the Hindu-Buddhist way of saying this is that we live in sleep but we could wake up. All the traditions suggest ways by which human beings could move towards a life of grace or wakefulness, a shift which is a qualitative transformation of being. Here, I will focus largely on the Indian spiritual traditions, more particularly on the theory and practice of Yoga, the way of transformation.

Yoga begins from a recognition of the human situa­tion. Human beings are bound by the laws of process, and they suffer as a consequence of this bondage. Yoga proceeds by a focus on knowledge of the self. Self-knowledge may be said to be both the essential method and the essential goal of Yoga. However, self-knowledge is a relative matter. It depends not only on the depth and clarity of insight, but also on what is seen as the "self " to be known. The Chandogya Upanishad in­structs spiritual seekers in identifying the self with pro­gressively more and more spiritualized self.

A change from the identification of the self as the body (including the heart and the mind) to the identi­fication of the self as inhabiting the body is the most crucial development in Yoga and is considered a matter of great progress. Yoga identifies the person less with the body than with the embodied. Ancient and modern Indian languages reflect this perspective in the expres­sions they use to describe a person's death: in contrast to the usual English expression of giving up the ghost, one gives up the body. It is not the body that has the spirit, but the spirit that has the body.

The identification of the person in oneself with something other than the body-mind and the attendant freedom from the body-mind is possible only through a proper functioning and restructuring of the body and the mind. The Sanskrit word sharira is useful in order to steer clear of the modem Western philosophic dilemma called the "mind-body" problem. Although sharira is usually translated as "body," it means the whole psycho­somatic complex of body, mind, and heart. Sharira has the same import as flesh in the Gospel of Saint John, for example in John 1.14, where it is said, "The Word became flesh." The important point, both in the Indian context and in John, is that the spiritual element, called Purusha, Annan, or Logos ("Word"), is above the whole of the psychosomatic complex of a human being, and is not to be identified with mind, which is a part of sharira or the "flesh."

Sharira is both the instrument of transformation as well as the mirror reflecting it. The way a person sits, walks, feels, and thinks reveals the connection with the deeper self, and a stronger connection with the deeper self, will be reflected in the way a person sits, walks, feels, and thinks. Sharira, which is individual­ized prakriti (Nature), is the medium necessary for the completion and manifestation of purusha (the inner spiritual being), which itself can be understood as in­dividualized Brahman (literally, "the Vastness"), whose body is the whole of the cosmos, subtle as well as gross.

Sharira is the substance through which each one of us relates to the spirit, according to our ability to respond to the inner urge and initiative. The development of this relationship is the spiritual art. To view the sharira or the world, as a hindrance rather than an opportunity is akin to regarding the rough stone as an obstruction to the finished statue.

The most authoritative text of Yoga is the Yoga Sutras, which consists of aphorisms of Yoga compiled by Pa­tailjali sometime between the second century BCE and the fourth century CE from material already familiar to the gurus (teachers, masters) of Indian spirituality. Patanjali teaches that clear seeing and knowing are functions of purusha (the inner person) and not of the mind.

The mind relies upon judgment, comparison, dis­cursive knowledge, association, imagination, dreaming, and memory through which it clings to the past and future dimensions of time. The mind is limited in scope and cannot know the objective truth about anything. The mind is not the true knower: it can calculate, make predictions in time, infer implications, quote authority, make hypotheses, or speculate about the nature of real­ity, but it cannot see objects directly, from the inside, as they really are in themselves.

In order to allow direct seeing to take place, the mind, which by its very nature attempts to mediate between the object and the subject, has to be quieted. When the mind is totally silent and totally alert, both the real subject (purusha) and the real object (prakriti) are simultaneously present to it. When the seer is there and what is to be seen is there, seeing takes place with­out distortion. Then there is no comparing or judging, no misunderstanding, no fantasizing about things dis­placed in space and time, no dozing off in heedlessness nor any clinging to past knowledge or experience; in short, there are no distortions introduced by the organs of perception, namely the mind, the feelings, and the senses. There is simply seeing in the present, the living moment in the eternal now. That is the state of perfect and free attention, kaivalya, which is the aloneness of seeing, and not of the seer separated from the seen, as it is often misunderstood by commentators on Yoga. In this state, the seer sees through the organs of perception rather than with them or as William Blake says, one sees "not with the mind but through the mind." Blake speaks about the transformation of perception that this re-ordering allows in "Auguries of Innocence":

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

It is of utmost importance from the point of view of Yoga to distinguish clearly between the mind (chitta) and the real Seer (purusha). Chitta pretends to know, but it can itself be known and seen, that is, it is an object, not a subject. However, it can be an instrument of knowledge. This misidentification of the seer and the seen, of the person with the organs of perception, is the fundamental error from which all other problems and sufferings arise (Yoga Sutras 2.3-17). It is from this fun­damental ignorance that asmita (I-am-this-ness, egoism) arises, creating a limitation by particularization. Purusha says, "I AM"; asmita says, "I am this" or "I am that." This is an expression of egoism and self-importance and leads to the strong desire to perpetuate the special­ization of oneself and to a separation from all else. The sort of "knowledge" that is based on this misidentifi­cation is always colored with pride and a tendency to control or to fear.

The means for freedom from the ignorance that is the cause of all sorrow is an unceasing vision of discern­ment; such vision alone can permit transcendental in­sight (prajna) to arise. Nothing can force the appearance of this insight; all one can do is to prepare the ground for it. The purpose of prakriti is to lead to such insight, as that of a seed is to produce fruit; what an aspirant needs to do in preparing the garden is to remove the weeds that choke the full development of the plant. The ground to be prepared is the entire psychosomatic organism, for it is through that organism that purusha sees and prajna arises, not through the mind alone, nor the emotions, nor the physical body by itself. A person with dulled senses has as little possibility of coming to prajna as the one with a stupid mind or hardened feel­ings. Agitation in any part of the entire organism caus­es fluctuations in attention and muddies the seeing. This is the reason that Yoga puts so much emphasis on the preparation of the body, as well as of feelings by right moral preparation and of the mind by immersing oneself in the views from the real world, for coming to true knowledge. It is by reversing the usual tendencies of the organism that its agitations can be quieted and the mind can know its right and proper place with respect to purusha: that of the known rather than the knower (Yoga Sutras 2.10, 4.18-20).

If the notion of the spiritual and the corresponding possibilities of enlightenment, freedom, or salvation are taken seriously, then what is spiritual is almost by defi­nition, as well as by universal consensus, higher than what is intellectual. The intellect is contained in being, as a part in the whole, and not the other way around. It is a universal insight and assertion of the mystics and other spiritual masters that spirit is above the mind. Of course, many other words have been used other than "Spirit" to indicate Higher Reality, such as God, Brahman, the One, Tao, the Buddha Mind, and the like. Furthermore, it has been universally said that in order to come to know this Higher Reality in truth, a trans­formation of the whole being of the seeker is needed to yoke and quiet the mind so that, without any distor­tions, it may reflect what is real.

Paraphrasing Saint Paul, it can be said that the things of the mind can be understood by the mind, but those of the spirit can be understood only by the spirit (1 Corinthians 2: 11-14). It is this spiritual part in a person that needs to be cultivated for the sake of spiri­tual knowledge. In some traditions, this spiritual part, which like a magnetic compass always tries to orient itself to the north pole of the spirit, is called "soul." This part alone, when properly cultivated, can comprehend and correspond to the suprapersonal and universal spir­it. Any other kind of knowledge can be about the spirit but cannot be called knowing the spirit.

Of course, to be against knowledge, scientific or oth­erwise, is hardly any guarantee of transcending the lim­itations of the mind. Ignorance is not to be commend­ed. For almost all the sages of India, the ultimate cause of all sorrow or bondage is ignorance. As the Buddha is quoted in the Dhammapada (243) to have said, "avilia paramam malam" (ignorance is the greatest impurity). To recognize that a certain kind of knowledge is lower, and that the Undecaying is apprehended by the higher knowledge of a radically different sort does not deny the necessary role of the lower knowledge. But does a quan­titative extension of such knowledge and information necessarily lead to wisdom or spiritual life?

In order to understand the sages and the scriptures spiritually, we need to undergo a change of being or a rebirth or a cleansing of our perceptions. How can progress in intellectual scientific knowledge lead to the sort of insight and transformation which takes one beyond the intellect? An intellectual and physical (that is, scientific) understanding neither requires any trans­formation of our being nor can it lead to such a trans­formation. Neither scientific knowledge about people who have spiritual knowledge nor theoretical knowl­edge about the spirit makes one a sage.

At the end I return to the importance of humility and wonder in the presence of the Great Mystery. In my long experience in academic life I have been struck by the difficulty of freedom from arrogance of knowledge, a major obstacle to spiritual life. I wonder if this dark­ness of intellectual conceit worse than ignorance is what a sage in Isha Upanishad (9) has in mind in saying, "Into blinding darkness enter those who worship ignorance and those who delight in knowledge enter into still greater darkness."

It seems to me that it is a matter of spiritual progress when one becomes free not only of the knowledge which is inevitably from the past, but also from the need to know which is so often permeated by a fear of the unknown and a desire to predict and control—an attempt to squeeze the Vastness into one's mental categories. In this freedom one can wonder and stand before the Mystery. In a way one then knows something, but it is not anything that can be expressed in a way that our ordinary mind can categorize and argue about, it is not anything that can be measured as progress in a quantitative sense. It is closer to an insight into the suchness of things, as in the following remark of Albert Einstein in his book Ideas and Opinions:

There is the cosmic religious feeling of rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.

To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, mani­festing itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.

Ravi Ravindra is Professor Emeritus at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada. His most recent Quest Book is Science and the Sacred: Eternal Wisdom in a Changing World. Among his many other works is Heart without Measure: Work with Madame de Salzmann.

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