Swarupa Ashtakam – I

(Geetha Ganapathy)

Introduction

For any spiritual seeker, life is a (spiritual) journey. But it needs to be conducted as a guided tour with the help of a Guru who uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) called Shastras. If not, it will only end up being a directionless wandering or worse, groping in darkness.

Scriptures give four definitions for a spiritual journey, each more evolved than the previous.

It is thus described as a journey from

(i)  Samsara to Moksha

In other words, it is freedom from the repeated cycle of births and deaths.

(ii) Mrtyu (mortality) to Amrtam (immortality)

Since samsara is nothing but repeated cycle of births and deaths, it signifies mortality. Spirituality guides us along the path to discovering our own Immortality.

(iii) Asat (myth) to Sat (Truth)

Logically, immortality can never have a definite time period. Hence it cannot be a time-bound destination for anyone. If immortality cannot be arrived at, it only implies that it is already our inherent nature. If we are immortal, we should not be restricted by false notions of growing old and dying. This realization is symbolized as the journey from illusion to Truth.

 (iv) Tamas (ignorance) to Jyoti (Knowledge)

Any false notion denotes ignorance. And like darkness, ignorance cannot be forced away. The only way of dispelling the darkness called ignorance is to light the lamp of knowledge.

The very same essence is captured in the well-known Shloka below where the spiritual seeker seeks guidance in this spiritual journey.

असतो मा सद्गमय। “Lead us from illusion to Truth”

तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय। “Lead us from ignorance to light of Knowledge”

मृत्योर्मा अमृतं गमय । “Lead us from mortality to immortality”

In summary, a spiritual journey is nothing but pursuit of knowledge. This journey has three stages –

  • Jnana Yogyata Prapti: qualification for the study of Atma Vidya
  • Jnana Prapti: acquisition of Atma Vidya through systematic study
  • Jnana Nishtha: completion assimilation of Atma Vidya

Each of the above stages has relevant spiritual exercises to help in improving oneself and becoming qualified for the next stage. During the first stage, practice of Karma Yoga and Upasana Yoga help a seeker to attain Chitta-shuddhi and reach Jnana Yoga stage. Shravanam (listening) and Mananam (removal of doubts through discussions) are exercises used in the Jnana Prapti stage. And finally, knowledge acquired thus, needs to be imbibed via the exercise of Nidhidhyasanam (assimilation) to reach Moksha ultimately. By assimilating this Knowledge, we ensure that the Vidya so obtained is not merely academic, but completely ingrained and every cell of our being throbs with it. That is when one attains Moksha.

Swarupa Ashtakam (also known as Swarupanusandhanashtakam) is a short work by Sri Adi Shankaracharya that focuses exclusively on this exercise of Nidhidhyasanam. Anusandhanam means Dhyanam or meditation, or in other words, continuously dwelling on a particular thought. Here we do not meditate on some specific deity, instead we meditate on the true nature of self (Swarupa) via the eight verses (Ashtakam)

Out of the verses in Swarupa Ashtakam, verses 1-2 are brief references to the Jnana Yogyata Prapti and Jnana Prapti stages respectively. Verse 9 is the Phala Shruti. And through the remaining verses 3-8, Adi Shankaracharya expounds the qualities of Brahman and repeatedly drives home the point that I, the spiritual seeker, is not anyone else but indeed the very same Brahman.

Verse 1

तपोयज्ञदानाभिः शुद्धबुद्धिर्विरक्तो नृपादेः पदे तुच्छबुद्ध्या ।

परित्यज्य सर्वं यदाप्नोति तत्वं परं ब्रह्म नित्यं तदेवाहमस्मि ॥

Through the practice of Tapa (austerities), Yajna (regular worship of Isvara) and Dana (charity) one who attains a pure mind (Shuddha buddhih) and even ends up rejecting (Viraktah) the status of a king (Nrpade pade) as insignificant (Tuchha) and develops a sense of detachment (Parityajya sarvam) that I am that eternal supreme Brahman.

 

Yajnam, Danam and Tapas are primary part of Karma Yoga. Here, Yajnam means worship of the Lord. In the beginning phases, though one might indulges in these activities for self-serving purposes, eventually these very same activities help attain purity of the mind. To illustrate this point further, Lord Krishna Himself in the Bhagavad Gita talks about an Artha Bhakta for whom God is the means and world is the end although He does not deride him. But on the other hand, if we continue to remain Artha Bhakta for long, there will be spiritual stagnation. Similarly, everyone starts as a consumer of resources, contributing very little to the world in return. But one must outgrow this tendency and start giving more and more to the world, taking lesser and lesser from it in return. Danam, it is said, is the stepping stone to Tyaga and Tyaga, to Moksha. Next comes Tapas, which in this case, denotes Upasana Yoga. By keeping the Shanta swaroopi Lord in our minds for ten mins at least every day, the guna will tend to rub off on us as well. By keeping at these, we will gradually attain Chitta-shuddhi or purity of mind. What are the indications of a pure mind? The presence of Viveka (the realization that the world is Anitya and only Brahman is Nitya) and Vairagya (the tendency to exist in and serve the world, but not lean on it) Only by Chitta-shuddhi can one reach a state of mind evolved enough to reject even kingship and develop a sense of detachment towards the world. This stage is called Jnana Yogyata Prapti – which means that the spiritual seeker is now fit to attain Jnana.

Verse 2

दयालुं गुरुं ब्रह्मनिष्ठं प्रशान्तं समाराध्य मत्या विचार्य स्वरूपम् ।

यदाप्नोति तत्वं निदिध्यास्य् विद्वान्परं ब्रह्म नित्यं तदेवाहमस्मि ॥

Having approached a Guru who is compassionate and abides in his real nature, revere the liberating wisdom received. The revelation and wisdom thus attained by meditation on reality, I am that eternal supreme Brahman.

Karma Yoga only converts a person from being impurely ignorant to purely ignorant. It does not give Moksha. After purity of mind is established through Karma Yoga, the next step would be to systematically study Vedantic scriptures for a length of time under a competent guru who himself has been a Shishya under another such guru. This exercise is Shravanam. If Ahamkara and Mamakara remain in the mind, the mind is pre-occupied and shallow and not available for Shravanam. Hence it is important to renounce our so-called ‘possessions’ including the mind and body and offer everything to the Lord – which is achieved through the Karma Yoga stage. Once Ahamkara and Mamakara disappear, mind opens up for Jnana.

One should also note that when materialistic knowledge itself can take up to twenty or thirty years to gather, a profound subject like Vedanta cannot be grasped through a crash course. It requires time and effort. Following Shravanam, comes Mananam – the conviction that follows the academic knowledge gained. It indicates an earnest dialogue between the guru and Shishya and clearing of doubts, if any.

Vedanta, in essence, addresses three fundamental questions:

(1)   Who am I and what is my purpose?

(2)   Why does the world exist and why are there so many problems and suffering?

(3)   Does God exist?

And by no means, do these answers reveal themselves instantly. It requires study and tutelage under a compassionate guru who is kind enough to accept the spiritual seeker as a disciple and who himself abides in his real nature of Shantam and Anandam.

Verse 3

यदानन्दरूपं प्रकाशस्वरूपं निरस्तप्रपञ्चं परिच्छेदहीनम् ।

अहंब्रह्मवृत्त्यैकगम्यं तुरीयं परं ब्रह्म नित्यं तदेवाहमस्मि ॥

That which is of the nature of eternal bliss, is the consciousness principle, free from the second thing called world (since the world is not independent from Brahman), which is the Fourth and can be known only in one way, that is by claim and not by experience, I am that supreme eternal Brahman.

Beginning with the third verse, the first three lines of every verse in Swaroopashtakam talk about the nature of Brahman as given in the Upanishads. And the fourth line claims that such a Brahman happens to be Me.

Let us delve deeper into this to understand the nature of Brahman and the meaning of the verses.

As a Vedanta student would do in the Shravanam phase, there are two approaches to study the nature of Brahman. They are –

  1. Tatastha Lakshanam (from a worldly standpoint)
  2. Swaroopa Lakshanam (from a Brahman standpoint)

Per #1, Brahman is seen as that because of which the universe originates, exists and dissolves. Per #2, Brahman is the nature of happiness. Therefore, Brahman is Karanam (#1) and Brahman is Anandam (#2)

Tatastha Lakshanam

From this one can draw corollaries

(1)   If Brahman is the Karanam, Jagat (world) is the Karyam (product) very much like clay & pot, gold & jewelry, metal & weapons etc. Out of one lump of gold, many ornaments can be produced. In other words, Karanam is Ekam but Karyam is Anekam

(2)   Karyam do not have their own substantiality or weight. E.g. 20 grams weight of a bangle is simply that of the gold. ‘Bangle’ here is merely a word given to the particular circular shape the gold is in for transactional purposes and has no weight of its own. Therefore Karyam is always non substantial or weightless (Asara) Thus Karanam is Sara, Karyam is Asara

(3)   Gold exists before creation of ornaments, and continues to do so after their creation and destruction as well. On the other hand, ornaments have a finite shelf life. So, one can say that Karanam is Nityam, Karyam is Anityam

(4)   An ornament (read Karyam) cannot exist if the raw material (gold) is withdrawn from it. So its existence is dependent entirely on gold. But gold or Karanam on the other hand is intrinsic, indigenous and independent. Thus we can say that Karanam is Satyam while Karyam is Asatyam

Chandokya Upanishad summarizes this as –

Eka, Sara, Nitya, Satyam Karanam

Aneka, Asara, Anitya, Asatya Karyam

This is beautifully illustrated with the example of moonlight. Moonlight is nothing but brightness borrowed from the sun, though in general, light on the moon is mistaken as light of the moon. Similarly, one should realize that universe is only a Karyam owing its existence to Brahman. Brahman is the only Karanam of everything around us.

Swaroopa Lakshanam

If all that we are aware of is Asara, Anitya, Asatya Karyam, how can we depend on such a transient and unstable source for happiness? Wisdom is relying only on Brahman as a permanent source of Ananda or bliss.

If Brahman is the Karanam – the essence of everything in the Universe, and can be found everywhere, then Brahman can be found in me also. How to do this search for Brahman?

We have learnt that Brahman is Nityam and Nirvikaram (changeless) Therefore it is wise to first ask – is there anything in me that is permanent and non-changing? Is it the body, the senses, the mind, the intellect? No – all of these are susceptible to changes and are temporary. Then what is permanent? If everything is changing, and everything is negated, then what remains? Blankness! To witness and experience this and declare the same, we need an experiencing entity – that consciousness principle is “I”, the Atma. Therefore I, the Sakshi chaitanyam, am Ekam, Saram, Nityam, Satyam and Ananda Swaroopam.

Listening to and understanding these concepts is Shravanam and Mananam respectively. Dwelling upon these ideas, we should meditate every day – this is Nidhidhyasanam. Therefore, we should weaken our Jeevabhava and strengthen our Brahmanubhava by meditating upon these thoughts and reminding ourselves of our Divine nature.

Verse 4

यदज्ञानतोभातिविश्वंसमस्तंविनष्टंचसद्योयदात्मप्रबोधे।

मनोवागतीतंविशुद्धंविमुक्तंपरंब्रह्मनित्यंतदेवाहमस्मि॥

The world appears (as real) because of ignorance of Brahman and disappears as soon as Brahman is realized. That which is beyond words and mind, pure and free of limitations, I am that supreme, eternal Brahman.

 

Continuing to analyze the nature of Brahman, let us revisit the example of a bangle made out of gold. Considering that the bangle borrows its existence from gold, we can say that bangle seems to exist, but is, in fact, non-existent. We can extend the same concept to the world and Brahman. In the vision of a Jnani, the world does not actually exist, but only has seeming existence, but for Ajnanis, because of lack of awareness of Brahman, the world seems real. In other words, when Brahman is known, the world ceases to exist, although it continues to ‘appear’ (note the difference)

This Brahman is also beyond words and mind. Words are only meant to describe that which is experienced. But in the case Brahman (being beyond experience) words are not enough. Unlike Samsara, characterized by limitation, helplessness, anger and frustration, Brahman is pure and beyond limitation.

 (to be continued in Part II)

(This article is based on a series of talks on Swarupa Ashtakam by Swami Paramarthananda)


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