In the unitive experience, every trace of separateness disappears; life is a seamless whole. But the body cannot remain in this state for long. After a while, awareness of mind and body returns, and then the conventional world of multiplicity rushes in again with such vigor and vividness that the memory of unity, though stamped with reality, seems as distant as a dream. The unitive state has to be entered over and over until a person is established in it. But once established, even in the midst of ordinary life, one sees the One underlying the many, the Eternal beneath the ephemeral.

What is it that makes undivided reality appear to be a world of separate, transient objects? What makes each of us believe that we are the body rather than our own Self? The sages answered with a story still told after thousands of years. Imagine, they said, a man dreaming that he is being attacked by a tiger. His pulse will race, his fists will clench, his forehead will be wet with the dew of fear – all just as if the attack were real. He will be able to describe the look of his tiger, the way he smelled, the sound of his roar. For him the tiger is real, and in a sense he is not wrong: the evidence he has is not qualitatively different from the kind of evidence we trust when we are awake. People have even died from the physiological effects of a potent dream. Only when we wake up can we realize that our dream-sensations, though real to our nervous system, are a lower level of reality than the waking state.

The Upanishads delineate three ordinary states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. Each is real, but each has a higher order of reality. For beyond these three, the Upanishads say, is the unitive state, called simply “the fourth”: turiya. Entering this state is similar to waking up out of dream sleep: the individual passes from a lower level of reality to a higher one.

The sages called the dream of waking life – the dream of separate, merely physical existence – by a suggestive name, maya. In general use the word meant a kind of magic, the power of a god or sorcerer to make a thing appear to be something else. In the Gita, maya becomes the creative power of the Godhead, the primal creative energy that makes unity appear as the world of innumerable separate things with “name and form.”

Later philosophers explained maya in surprisingly contemporary terms. The mind, they said, observes the so-called outside world and sees its own structure. It reports that the world consists of a multiplicity of separate objects in a framework of time, space, and causality because these are the conditions of perception. In a word, the mind looks at unity and sees diversity; it looks at what is timeless and reports transience. And in fact the percepts of its experience are diverse and transient; on this level of experience, separateness is real. Our mistake is in taking this for ultimate reality, like the dreamer thinking that nothing is real except his dream.

Nowhere has this “mysterious Eastern notion” been formulated more succinctly than in the epigram of Ruysbroeck: “We behold what we are, and we are what we behold.” When we look at unity through the instruments of the mind, we see diversity; when the mind is transcended, we enter a higher mode of knowing – turiya, the fourth state of consciousness – in which duality disappears. This does not mean, however, that the phenomenal world is an illusion or unreal. The illusion is the sense of separateness.

Here again we can illustrate from physics: the world of “name and form” exists only as a condition of perception; at the subatomic level, separate phenomena dissolve into a flux of energy. The effect of maya is similar. The world of the senses is real, but it must be known for what it is: unity appearing as multiplicity.

Those who disidentify themselves with the conditions of perception in maya wake up into a higher mode of knowing in which the unity of life is apprehended directly. The disciplines for achieving this are called yoga, as is the state of union: the word comes from the root yuj, to yoke or bind together. The “experience” itself (properly speaking, it is beyond experience) is called samadhi. And the state attained is moksha or nirvana, both of which signify going beyond the conditioning of maya – time, space, and causality.

In this state we realize that we are not a physical creature but the Atman, the Self, and thus not separate from God. We see the world not as pieces but whole, and we see that whole as a manifestation of God. Once identified with the Self, we know that although the body will die, we will not die; our awareness of this identity is not ruptured by the death of the physical body. Thus we have realized the essential immortality which is the birthright of every human being. To such a person, the Gita says, death is no more traumatic than taking off an old coat (2:22).

Life cannot offer any higher realization. The supreme goal of human existence has been attained. The man or woman who realizes God has everything and lacks nothing: having this, “they desire nothing else, and cannot be shaken by the heaviest burden of sorrow” (6:22). Life cannot threaten such a person; all it holds is the opportunity to love, to serve, and to give.


Matter and Mind

Perhaps I should confess at this point that the paragraphs that follow in this short section are somewhat technical and not necessary for understanding the Gita. They can be skipped by anyone who finds them dry. I include them simply because Sankhya’s explanation of mind and matter, when properly understood, makes sense of many subjects in the Gita that might otherwise seem arbitrary: maya, the survival of personality after death, the way karma works through the mind. It accommodates modern physics perfectly and offers promising explanations of mind-body relationships in health and disease. However, Sankhya’s way of looking at the mind is very different from our usual physical orientation, and therefore impossible to absorb without reflection.

Sankhya’s hallmark is a list (sankhya means counting or listing) of twenty-four principles or tattvas (“suchnesses”) which trace the steps by which unitary, primordial prakriti becomes manifested as the countless forms of mind, matter, and energy that make up the world we live in. The tattvas are listed in the Gita:

The field, Arjuna, is made up of the following: the five areas of sense perception; the five elements; the five sense organs and the five organs of action; the three components of the mind: manas, buddhi, and ahamkara; and the undifferentiated energy [prakriti] from which all these evolved. (13:5)

I know of no English words to use for most of these twenty-four constituents. Manas corresponds roughly to mind the way that word is commonly used; buddhi is the discriminative faculty, the discriminating intellect; ahamkara, literally “I-maker,” is the sense of ego. I have used such rough labels in the translation which follows, but really they are technical terms with precise definitions, each associated with a specific function and level of consciousness. Approximations are misleading because they bring in associations from Western philosophy, which has a wholly different orientation. Behind all these categories lies a powerful, practical assumption: Sankhya is not trying to describe physical reality; it is analyzing consciousness, knowledge, for the sole purpose of unraveling the human being’s true identity. So it does not begin with the material universe as something different and separate from the mind that perceives it. It does not talk about sense objects outside us and senses within and then try to get the two together. It begins with one world of experience. Sense objects and senses are not separate; they are two aspects of the same event. Mind, energy, and matter are a continuum, and the universe is not described as it might be in itself, but as it presents itself to the human mind. As they say in the “new physics,” it is not just an observable universe but a participatory universe.

Let me illustrate. This morning I had a fresh mango for breakfast: a large, beautiful, fragrant one which had been allowed to ripen until just the right moment, when the skin was luminous with reds and oranges. You can see from that kind of description that I like mangoes. I must have eaten thousands of them when I was growing up, and I probably know most varieties intimately by their color, shape, flavor, fragrance, and feel.

Sankhya would say that this mango I appreciated so much does not exist in the world outside – at least, not with the qualities I ascribed to it. The mango-in-itself, for example, is not red and orange; these are categories of a nervous system that can deal only with a narrow range of radiant energy. My dog Bogart would not see a luscious red and orange mango. He would see some gray mass with no distinguishing features, much less interesting to him than a piece of buttered toast. But my mind takes in messages from five senses and fits them into a precise mango-form in consciousness, and that form – nothing outside – is what I experience. Not that there is no “real” mango! But what I experience, the objects of my sense perception and my “knowing,” are in consciousness, nowhere else. A brilliant neuroscientist I was reading recently says something similar in contemporary language: we never really encounter the world; all we experience is our own nervous system.

When the Gita says that the material world is made up of five “material elements,” then, it is talking about the world as we perceive it through our five senses. The objects of this world are in the mind, not outside. “Physical objects” in this sense require a mental component also: five “essences” or mental conditions of perception, each corresponding to one of the five senses. From these five tanmatras derive on the one hand the five sense organs, and on the other hand the five material elements. You can see that the number five and the correspondences of Sankhya are not arbitrary, but reflect the ways we have of sorting electrical information supplied to the brain.

Four of these elements have names similar to those from ancient philosophy in the West – earth, air, fire, and water. But if we remember that we are talking about principles of perception rather than “earth-stuff,” “fire-stuff,” and so on, it should become clear that this is not an antiquated theory left behind by the progress of physical science. It is quite sophisticated and accommodates contemporary physical thought rather well, for it recognizes that in the act of knowing, the mind conditions what is known.

Senses and sense objects, then, are very intimately related. There is a causal connection, for example, between the things we see and the physical organ of seeing, the eye and its related branches of the nervous system: both depend on the underlying form in the mind that conditions how we perceive light. The objects we see are shaped by the way we see. So senses and sense objects “make sense” only together: each is incomplete without the other. That is why there is such a strong pull between senses and sense objects.

On the other hand, the Gita says, this pull has nothing to do with us – the Self, the knower. When Krishna keeps telling Arjuna to train his mind to be alike in pleasure and pain, he is simply being practical: to discover unity, consciousness has to be withdrawn from the hold of the senses, which ties it to duality.

When the senses contact sense objects, a person experiences cold or heat, pleasure or pain. These experiences are fleeting; they come and go. Bear them patiently, Arjuna. Those who are not affected by these changes, who are the same in pleasure and pain, are truly wise and fit for immortality. (2:14–15)

The sensory attraction of pleasure is just an interaction between inert elements of similar stuff, very much like a magnetic pull between two objects. We are not involved. When I look at a fresh, ripe mango, it is natural for my senses to respond; that is their nature. But I should be able to stand aside and watch this interaction with detachment, the way people stand and watch while movers unload a van. In that way I can enjoy what my senses report without ever having to act compulsively on their likes and dislikes.

Sankhya’s explanation of mind and body has profound implications for psychosomatic medicine. In a system where mental phenomena and biochemical events take place in the same field, it is much easier to account for how ways of thinking affect the body. If one idea is central to yoga psychology, it is that thoughts are real and have real, tangible consequences, as we saw in the discussion of karma. Sankhya describes thoughts as packets of potential energy, which grow more and more solid when favorable conditions are present and obstacles are removed. They become desires, then habits, then ways of living with physical consequences. Those consequences may look no more like thoughts than an oak tree looks like an acorn, but the Gita says they are just as intimately related. Just as a seed can grow into only one kind of tree, thoughts can produce effects only of the same nature. Kindness to others, to take just one example, favors a nervous system that is kind to itself.

Extract from “The Bhagavad Gita”
by Eknath Easwaran