The important principle that he [Sri Ramana] teaches us in verse 25 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu is that this ego is only a formless and insubstantial phantom that seemingly comes into existence, endures and is nourished and strengthened only by grasping form (that is, by attending to and experiencing anything other than itself), so we can never free ourself from this ego so long as we persist in attending to anything other than ourself (that is, anything that has any features that distinguish it from this essentially featureless ego). Therefore the only way to free ourself from this ego is to investigate it — that is, to try to grasp it alone in our awareness. Since this ego itself is featureless and therefore formless, and since it can stand and masquerade as ourself only by grasping forms in its awareness, if we try to grasp this ego alone, it ‘will take flight’ and disappear, just as an illusory snake would disappear if we were to look at it carefully and thereby recognise that it is not actually a snake but only a rope.Referring to this passage, a friend called Hatschepsut wrote a comment in which she asked:
When you say: “Since this ego itself is featureless and therefore formless, and …[…]” do you not cover up the difference between the ego and ourself alone which is said to be also featureless and formless[?]The day before Hatschepsut wrote this comment another friend had sent me an email in which he asked a similar question. In his email that other friend first quoted the following passage from one of my earlier articles, Any experience we can describe is something other than the experience of pure self-attentiveness:
The only permanent thing (nitya vastu) that we experience is ourself, and everything else that we experience is impermanent (anitya). Whatever experiences you described, and whatever experiences we could ever describe, are impermanent, because what is permanent — namely ourself — is devoid of any distinguishing features, and hence in Sanskrit it is described negatively as nirviśēṣa, which means featureless.He then quoted some extracts from the passage that I quoted at the beginning of this article, in which I had written, ‘[…] so we can never free ourself from this ego so long as we persist in attending to anything other than ourself (that is, anything that has any features that distinguish it from this essentially featureless ego). […] Since this ego itself is featureless and therefore formless, and since it can stand and masquerade as ourself only by grasping forms in its awareness, if we try to grasp this ego alone, it ‘will take flight’ and disappear […]’, and asked: ‘Could it be not contradictory to speak first about ourself as featureless and another time about the ego as featureless?’
This article is my reply to this question asked by Hatschepsut in her comment and by my other friend in his email.
- The ego is formless and hence featureless
- The ego is a phantom and hence insubstantial
- Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 25: how does this ‘formless phantom-ego’ seem to exist?
- Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 24: the ego is cit-jaḍa-granthi
- Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 23: why is this body not what I actually am?
- Nāṉ Yār? paragraph 4: this body and world are a projection of the ego or mind
- Nāṉ Yār? paragraph 5: without the ego nothing else exists
- The ego and other things are mutually but asymmetrically dependent
- Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 26: investigating the ego is giving up everything
- Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verses 22 and 27: except by self-investigation, how can we experience what we really are?
- The ego does not actually exist
- The ego is a confused mixture of self-awareness and awareness of other things
- Can self-awareness be considered to be a feature of the ego?
- A feature is anything that stands out in our awareness
- If our real self and our ego are both featureless, how can they be different?
I believe that the idea that our essential self, which alone is the nitya vastu (the permanent thing or eternal substance), is nirviśēṣa (featureless or devoid of any difference or distinction) is not at all controversial among the followers of Bhagavan Ramana or any other advaitins, because it should be familiar to anyone who has studied either his teachings or any of the older texts of advaita philosophy, since Adi Sankara and others frequently asserted that brahman (which is our real self) is nirviśēṣa. However I appreciate that the idea that our ego is essentially featureless may seem to be new and unfamiliar, and perhaps even controversial. Nevertheless, I believe it is an inference that we can justifiably draw from what Bhagavan teaches us in verse 25 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu, particularly from his description there of our ego as உருவற்ற பேய் அகந்தை (uru-v-aṯṟa pēy ahandai), which means ‘the formless phantom-ego’.
உருவற்ற (uru-v-aṯṟa) means ‘formless’, because it is a compound of two words, உரு (uru), which means ‘form’, and அற்ற (aṯṟa), which means ‘which is without’ or ‘which is devoid of’ (being the past relative participle of அறு (aṟu), which means to cease, perish, become extinct or be severed). I think it should be obvious that anything that is a form (whether a physical form or a more abstract one such as a thought or mental phenomenon of any kind: a concept, a belief, a feeling, an emotion, a memory, a desire, a hope, a fear or whatever) will have features of one kind of another, because features are what defines each form and enable us to distinguish one form from another.
A form and its features are inseparable. Indeed the very concepts of form and feature are inseparable. Whatever has form of any kind must have features of that kind, and whatever has any features thereby has form. A featureless form would be neither cognisable nor even conceivable, because it is only in terms of its features that we can cognise or conceive any form. Just as there cannot be a form without features, there cannot be any features that do not belong to a form. Features must be features of something, and that thing must be a form of some kind, because whatever has features has the form of those features. Features are what gives form to each thing, so anything that has no form can have no features either. Therefore when Bhagavan describes the ego as ‘formless’ he implies that it is also featureless.
2. The ego is a phantom and hence insubstantial
He describes the ego not only as being ‘formless’ (உருவற்ற: uru-v-aṯṟa) but also as being a ‘phantom’ or ‘ghost’ (பேய்: pēy). This analogy of a phantom is applicable in several ways. Like a phantom, our ego seems to exist but does not actually exist. Like a phantom, it seems to exist only by lurking in the shadows, so to speak, unseen but nevertheless making its presence felt. Just as a phantom vanishes in a clear light, our ego vanishes in the clear light of vigilant self-attentiveness. And just as a phantom manifests by possessing forms that are not its own (that is, according to some beliefs by possessing the bodies of living people, or according to other beliefs by possessing freshly dead corpses in a burial ground), the ego manifests only by possessing forms that are not its own, namely a succession of different bodies (one in our current waking state, and some other one in each of our other dreams). Whatever body our ego takes to be itself (whether in our present state or in any other one) is not itself, any more than a body possessed by a ghost belongs to that ghost.
Finally in this phrase உருவற்ற பேய் அகந்தை (uru-v-aṯṟa pēy ahandai), ‘the formless phantom-ego’, the word that Bhagavan uses to denote the ego is அகந்தை (ahandai), which is a Tamil form of the Sanskrit word अहंता (ahaṁtā), which is an abstract noun formed from the pronoun अहम् (aham), which means ‘I’, with the suffix ता (tā) appended to it, which means more or less the same as the English suffix ‘-ness’, so अहंता (ahaṁtā) or அகந்தை (ahandai) literally means ‘I-ness’. When talking or writing in Tamil, this word அகந்தை (ahandai) is the one that Bhagavan used most frequently to refer to the ego — our false finite sense of ‘I’, or ‘thought called I’ (நான் என்னும் நினைவு (nāṉ eṉṉum ninaivu) or நான் என்னும் எண்ணம் (nāṉ eṉṉum eṇṇam)), as he also often called it.
By describing this ego as உருவற்ற பேய் (uru-v-aṯṟa pēy), a ‘formless phantom’, he indicates that it is not only formless but also insubstantial. It is formless because it has no form of its own, and it is insubstantial because it has no substance of its own. It therefore seems to exist only by usurping forms that are other than itself and a substance that is not its own, masquerading as if it were both the forms and the substance that it claims as its own. The basic form that it usurps as itself is a physical body, which is an illusory appearance created by it, and the substance that it usurps as itself is self-awareness, which is what we really are.
3. Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 25: how does this ‘formless phantom-ego’ seem to exist?
The verse in which Bhagavan describes our ego as உருவற்ற பேய் அகந்தை (uru-v-aṯṟa pēy ahandai), ‘the formless phantom-ego’, is verse 25 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu:
உருப்பற்றி யுண்டா முருப்பற்றி நிற்குBecause it has no form of its own, this ego can come into existence only by grasping one or more forms, and it is only by continuing to grasp such forms that it stands or endures. Since its very existence depends entirely upon it grasping forms, it is only by grasping forms that it feeds and nourishes itself, and the more it grasps them the more it waxes, expands and grows strong. Since it cannot stand without grasping some form of other, when it leaves one form it grasps another one.
முருப்பற்றி யுண்டுமிக வோங்கு — முருவிட்
டுருப்பற்றுந் தேடினா லோட்டம் பிடிக்கு
முருவற்ற பேயகந்தை யோர்.
uruppaṯṟi yuṇḍā muruppaṯṟi niṟku
muruppaṯṟi yuṇḍumiha vōṅgu — muruviṭ
ṭuruppaṯṟun tēḍiṉā lōṭṭam piḍikku
muruvaṯṟa pēyahandai yōr.
பதச்சேதம்: உரு பற்றி உண்டாம்; உரு பற்றி நிற்கும்; உரு பற்றி உண்டு மிக ஓங்கும்; உரு விட்டு, உரு பற்றும்; தேடினால் ஓட்டம் பிடிக்கும், உரு அற்ற பேய் அகந்தை. ஓர்.
Padacchēdam (word-separation): uru paṯṟi uṇḍām; uru paṯṟi niṯkum; uru paṯṟi uṇḍu miha ōṅgum; uru viṭṭu, uru paṯṟum; tēḍiṉāl ōṭṭam piḍikkum, uru aṯṟa pēy ahandai. ōr.
அன்வயம்: உரு அற்ற பேய் அகந்தை உரு பற்றி உண்டாம்; உரு பற்றி நிற்கும்; உரு பற்றி உண்டு மிக ஓங்கும்; உரு விட்டு, உரு பற்றும்; தேடினால் ஓட்டம் பிடிக்கும். ஓர்.
Anvayam (words rearranged in natural prose order): uru aṯṟa pēy ahandai uru paṯṟi uṇḍām; uru paṯṟi niṯkum; uru paṯṟi uṇḍu miha ōṅgum; uru viṭṭu, uru paṯṟum; tēḍiṉāl ōṭṭam piḍikkum. ōr.
English translation: Grasping form, the formless phantom-ego rises into being; grasping form it stands; grasping and feeding on form it grows [spreads, expands, increases, rises high or flourishes] abundantly; leaving [one] form, it grasps [another] form. If sought [examined or investigated], it will take flight. Investigate [or know thus].
Because it is essentially formless, whatever form this ego grasps is something other than itself. However it cannot grasp other forms without first grasping a form as itself (as Bhagavan indicates in verse 4 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu, which I quoted and discussed in the eighth section of my previous article), and the primary form that it grasps as itself is a physical body. Therefore it is only by grasping a physical body and identifying that body as itself that it is able to then grasp or become aware of other forms. When it does not experience itself as a body, it does not experience anything else. In fact it does not even exist when it does not experience itself as a body, which is why Bhagavan often described it as the experience or idea ‘I am this body’.
4. Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 24: the ego is cit-jaḍa-granthi
However, though it cannot exist without grasping forms, it is something that is distinct from all forms, because whereas any form is non-conscious (jaḍa) this ego is something that is conscious or aware (cit). However even its awareness is not its own, because awareness endures even when this ego has ceased grasping forms and has therefore subsided. What is permanently aware is only ourself, and since we exist and are aware of ourself even in the absence of this ego (such as in sleep), this ego is not what we really are. It therefore comes into existence only by posing both as ourself, who are what is truly conscious or aware (cit), and as a body, which is non-conscious (jaḍa), and hence it is sometimes described as cit-jaḍa-granthi, the knot (granthi) that binds together the conscious (cit) and the non-conscious (jaḍa) as if they were one.
When two strings are tied together they form a knot, but that knot is not something that can exist by itself. When either string is removed, the knot ceases to exist. Likewise this ego seems to exist only when it ties together both our conscious self and a non-conscious body. It is neither ourself nor a body, so it cannot exist without seemingly tying ourself to a body. This is what is implied by what Bhagavan says in verse 24 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu:
சடவுடனா னென்னாது சச்சித் துதியாWhen he says that the body does not say ‘I’, that is a metaphorical way of saying that it is not aware of itself as ‘I’, and the reason it is not aware of itself is that it is jaḍa, which means not conscious. In the compound term sat-cit, sat means what is or what exists, and cit means what is aware or what experiences, so this term sat-cit refers only to ourself, since we are the only thing that actually exists and is actually aware. Since we always exist and are always aware, we do not ever rise, appear or come to existence. Therefore the body and ourself are quite different: whereas the body is jaḍa and hence not aware of itself as ‘I’, we are cit and hence aware of ourself as ‘I’; and whereas the body appears and disappears, or rises and subsides, we neither appear nor disappear, and neither rise nor subside, because we are sat — what actually exists, and hence what exists without either a beginning or an end.
துடலளவா நானொன் றுதிக்கு — மிடையிலிது
சிச்சடக்கி ரந்திபந்தஞ் சீவனுட்ப மெய்யகந்தை
யிச்சமு சாரமன மெண்.
jaḍavuḍaṉā ṉeṉṉādu saccit tudiyā
duḍalaḷavā nāṉoṉ ḏṟudikku — miḍaiyilitu
ciccaḍakki ranthibandhañ jīvaṉuṭpa meyyahandai
yiccamu sāramaṉa meṇ.
பதச்சேதம்: சட உடல் ‘நான்’ என்னாது; சத்சித் உதியாது; உடல் அளவா ‘நான்’ ஒன்று உதிக்கும் இடையில். இது சித்சடக்கிரந்தி, பந்தம், சீவன், நுட்ப மெய், அகந்தை, இச் சமுசாரம், மனம்; எண்.
Padacchēdam (word-separation): jaḍa uḍal ‘nāṉ’ eṉṉādu; sat-cit udiyādu; uḍal aḷavā ‘nāṉ’ oṉḏṟu udikkum iḍaiyil. idu cit-jaḍa-giranthi, bandham, jīvaṉ, nuṭpa mey, ahandai, i-c-samusāram, maṉam; eṇ.
அன்வயம்: சட உடல் ‘நான்’ என்னாது; சத்சித் உதியாது; இடையில் உடல் அளவா ‘நான்’ ஒன்று உதிக்கும். இது சித்சடக்கிரந்தி, பந்தம், சீவன், நுட்ப மெய், அகந்தை, இச் சமுசாரம், மனம்; எண்.
Anvayam (words rearranged in natural prose order): jaḍa uḍal ‘nāṉ’ eṉṉādu; sat-cit udiyādu; iḍaiyil uḍal aḷavā ‘nāṉ’ oṉḏṟu udikkum. idu cit-jaḍa-giranthi, bandham, jīvaṉ, nuṭpa mey, ahandai, i-c-samusāram, maṉam; eṇ.
English translation: The jaḍa body does not say ‘I’; sat-cit does not rise; [but] in between [these two] one ‘I’ rises as the extent of the body. Know that this is cit-jaḍa-granthi, bandha, jīva, the subtle body, ahandai, this saṁsāra and manam.
However between us and this body a spurious entity rises calling itself ‘I’ yet taking itself to be limited to the extent of the body (that is, limited to its extent both in space and in time). By experiencing and calling itself ‘I’, this spurious entity is usurping what rightfully belongs only to ourself, and by taking itself to be limited to the extent of the body, it is likewise usurping this body. Therefore it is called cit-jaḍa-granthi, the knot (granthi) that binds together the conscious (cit) and the non-conscious (jaḍa) as if they were one, and it is also called by various other names such as ahandai (the ego), manam (the mind), jīva (the life, soul or individual self), the subtle body, bandha (bondage) and saṁsāra, which is a word that means wandering, perpetual movement, restless activity, worldly existence or the cycle of birth and death.
5. Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 23: why is this body not what I actually am?
While discussing the ego, it is also worth considering verse 23 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu, because in it Bhagavan packs many of the ideas that he expresses more fully in verses 24 to 26:
நானென்றித் தேக நவிலா துறக்கத்துIn the kaliveṇbā version of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu (which is the version in which Bhagavan added words between each verse in order to link all the forty-two verses together as one) he added important words both before and after this verse. Before it he added the words மதியிலதால் (mati-y-iladāl), which mean ‘since it is devoid of awareness’, and which therefore indicate that the reason why the body does not declare itself as ‘I’ is that it is not aware. And at the end of this verse he changed the final word எண் (eṇ) to எண்ண (eṇṇa) and added the word நழுவும் (naṙuvum).
நானின்றென் றாரு நவில்வதிலை — நானொன்
றெழுந்தபி னெல்லா மெழுமிந்த நானெங்
கெழுமென்று நுண்மதியா லெண்.
nāṉeṉḏṟid dēha navilā duṟakkattu
nāṉiṉḏṟeṉ ḏṟāru navilvadilai — nāṉoṉ
ḏṟeṙundapi ṉellā meṙuminda nāṉeṅ
geṙumeṉḏṟu nuṇmatiyā leṇ.
பதச்சேதம்: ‘நான்’ என்று இத் தேகம் நவிலாது. ‘உறக்கத்தும் நான் இன்று’ என்று ஆரும் நவில்வது இலை. ‘நான்’ ஒன்று எழுந்த பின், எல்லாம் எழும். இந்த ‘நான்’ எங்கு எழும் என்று நுண் மதியால் எண்.
Padacchēdam (word-separation): ‘nāṉ’ eṉḏṟu id-dēham navilādu. ‘uṟakkattum nāṉ iṉḏṟu’ eṉḏṟu ārum navilvadu ilai. ‘nāṉ’ oṉḏṟu eṙunda piṉ, ellām eṙum. inda ‘nāṉ’ eṅgu eṙum eṉḏṟu nuṇ matiyāl eṇ.
அன்வயம்: இத் தேகம் ‘நான்’ என்று நவிலாது. ‘உறக்கத்தும் நான் இன்று’ என்று ஆரும் நவில்வது இலை. ‘நான்’ ஒன்று எழுந்த பின், எல்லாம் எழும். இந்த ‘நான்’ எங்கு எழும் என்று நுண் மதியால் எண்.
Anvayam (words rearranged in natural prose order): id-dēham ‘nāṉ’ eṉḏṟu navilādu. ‘uṟakkattum nāṉ iṉḏṟu’ eṉḏṟu ārum navilvadu ilai. ‘nāṉ’ oṉḏṟu eṙunda piṉ, ellām eṙum. inda ‘nāṉ’ eṅgu eṙum eṉḏṟu nuṇ matiyāl eṇ.
English translation: This body does not declare [itself as] ‘I’. No one declares ‘In sleep I did not exist’. After one ‘I’ rises, everything rises. Investigate with a subtle mind where this ‘I’ rises.
எண் (eṇ) is an imperative that usually means think, consider, ponder on, deliberate or determine, but in this context it means investigate, examine or observe, and எண்ண (eṇṇa) is the infinitive form of the same verb. However in Tamil the infinitive is often used in an adverbial sense to connect a conditional clause to a main clause, in the same sense that ‘when’ is used as a conditional adverb in English, so in this context எண்ண (eṇṇa) means ‘when one investigates’ or ‘when one observes’. நழுவும் (naṙuvum) is the neuter third person singular form of நழுவு (naṙuvu), which means to slip, slip off, slip away, skulk away, escape or evade, so it means ‘it will slip away’. Therefore the final sentence of the kaliveṇbā version of this verse is ‘இந்த நான் எங்கு எழும் என்று நுண் மதியால் எண்ண, நழுவும்’ (inda nāṉ eṅgu eṙum eṉḏṟu nuṇ matiyāl eṇṇa, naṙuvum), which means: ‘When one investigates [or observes] with a subtle mind where this ‘I’ rises, it will slip away’.
Thus in the kaliveṇbā version of this final sentence Bhagavan expresses the same idea that he expresses in verse 25 when he says, ‘தேடினால் ஓட்டம் பிடிக்கும்’ (tēḍiṉāl ōṭṭam piḍikkum), which means, ‘If sought [examined or investigated], it [the ego] will take flight’. The reason why it will ‘slip away’ or ‘take flight’ when we investigate or keenly observe it is that it has no form of its own and can therefore seem to exist only when it grasps some form or forms (that is, anything other than itself), and hence when it tries to grasp only itself it will subside and disappear.
In verse 25 the condition under which the ego will ‘take flight’ is specified as ‘தேடினால்’ (tēḍiṉāl), which means, ‘if sought’. That is, our ego seems to exist so long as it is looking at or attending to any form (anything other than itself), but if it turns its attention back to look for itself, it will disappear, because it does not really exist. Here in verse 23 the condition under which it will ‘slip away’ is specified as ‘இந்த நான் எங்கு எழும் என்று நுண் மதியால் எண்ண’ (inda nāṉ eṅgu eṙum eṉḏṟu nuṇ matiyāl eṇṇa), which means: ‘When one investigates with a subtle mind where this ‘I’ rises’. The ‘I’ that rises is only our ego, and where it rises is only from ourself, so investigating or observing where it rises means investigating only ourself, the source from which this ego and all it progeny arises. When we do so, our ego will slip away, because it seems to exist only when we are attending to anything other than ourself.
In the first sentence of verse 23, ‘மதியிலதால், நான் என்று இத் தேகம் நவிலாது’ (mati-y-iladāl, nāṉ eṉḏṟu id-dēham navilādu), which means, ‘Since it is devoid of awareness, this body does not declare [itself as] I’, Bhagavan expresses the same idea that he expresses in the first sentence of verse 24: ‘சட உடல் நான் என்னாது’ (jaḍa uḍal nāṉ eṉṉādu), which means, ‘The non-conscious body does not say I’. In both cases this is a metaphorical way of saying that the body is not conscious and is therefore not aware of itself as ‘I’. What experience this body as ‘I’ is only our ego.
In the second sentence he explains why this body is not what we actually are: ‘உறக்கத்தும் நான் இன்று என்று ஆரும் நவில்வது இலை’ (uṟakkattum nāṉ iṉḏṟu eṉḏṟu ārum navilvadu ilai), ‘No one declares that in sleep I did not exist’. That is, we are aware that we were asleep, so we are aware of having existed in sleep, and hence after waking up we do not feel that we had ceased to exist in sleep. We had simply ceased being aware of anything other than ourself. Therefore we were aware of neither our ego nor our body while asleep, so neither of these things can be what we really are — that is, what I actually am.
What I actually am must be something that I experience at all times, not just something that I experience temporarily. Since I experience myself in sleep, even though I do not experience either my ego or my body, I cannot be either of these two temporary phenomena. I can be only what I permanently experience, and that is nothing other than myself. Therefore I am only I, and not anything else.
In the third sentence of verse 23, ‘நான் ஒன்று எழுந்த பின், எல்லாம் எழும்’ (nāṉ oṉḏṟu eṙunda piṉ, ellām eṙum), which means ‘After one ‘I’ rises, everything rises’, Bhagavan expresses the same idea that he expresses in the first sentence of verse 26: ‘அகந்தை உண்டாயின், அனைத்தும் உண்டாகும்’ (ahandai uṇḍāyiṉ, aṉaittum uṇḍāhum), which means ‘If the ego comes into existence, everything comes into existence’. In verse 25 he says that the ego rises into being by ‘grasping form’ (உரு பற்றி: uru paṯṟi), which might seem to suggest that forms exist independent of it, but in verses 23 and 26 he clarifies that they do not exist independent of it, because they come into being only when it rises, and hence they do not exist in its absence. In other words, everything (all forms) are merely a creation of the ego and are projected by it as soon as it rises, and they cease to exist as soon as it subsides.
6. Nāṉ Yār? paragraph 4: this body and world are a projection of the ego or mind
This projection and withdrawal of everything other than itself is graphically described by Bhagavan in the fourth paragraph of Nāṉ Yār? (Who am I?) using the analogy of a spider spinning out thread from within itself and again drawing it back into itself, because it is in a similar way that our ego or mind projects from within itself everything other than itself as soon as it rises (that is, when it wakes from sleep or begins to dream), and withdraws everything back into itself when it subsides (that is, when it falls asleep).
Since the whole of that fourth paragraph is relevant to what we are discussing here, and since many of the ideas expressed in verses 23 to 26 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu are also expressed in it, it is worth considering it here in its entirety:
மன மென்பது ஆத்ம சொரூபத்தி லுள்ள ஓர் அதிசய சக்தி. அது சகல நினைவுகளையும் தோற்றுவிக்கின்றது. நினைவுகளை யெல்லாம் நீக்கிப் பார்க்கின்றபோது, தனியாய் மனமென் றோர் பொருளில்லை; ஆகையால் நினைவே மனதின் சொரூபம். நினைவுகளைத் தவிர்த்து ஜகமென்றோர் பொருள் அன்னியமா யில்லை. தூக்கத்தில் நினைவுகளில்லை, ஜகமுமில்லை; ஜாக்ர சொப்பனங்களில் நினைவுகளுள, ஜகமும் உண்டு. சிலந்திப்பூச்சி எப்படித் தன்னிடமிருந்து வெளியில் நூலை நூற்று மறுபடியும் தன்னுள் இழுத்துக் கொள்ளுகிறதோ, அப்படியே மனமும் தன்னிடத்திலிருந்து ஜகத்தைத் தோற்றுவித்து மறுபடியும் தன்னிடமே ஒடுக்கிக்கொள்ளுகிறது. மனம் ஆத்ம சொரூபத்தினின்று வெளிப்படும்போது ஜகம் தோன்றும். ஆகையால், ஜகம் தோன்றும்போது சொரூபம் தோன்றாது; சொரூபம் தோன்றும் (பிரகாசிக்கும்) போது ஜகம் தோன்றாது. மனதின் சொரூபத்தை விசாரித்துக்கொண்டே போனால் தானே மனமாய் முடியும். ‘தான்’ என்பது ஆத்மசொரூபமே. மனம் எப்போதும் ஒரு ஸ்தூலத்தை யனுசரித்தே நிற்கும்; தனியாய் நில்லாது. மனமே சூக்ஷ்மசரீர மென்றும் ஜீவ னென்றும் சொல்லப்படுகிறது.Though in this fourth paragraph of Nāṉ Yār? Bhagavan does not actually mention the word ‘ego’ but instead discusses the ‘mind’, in verse 24 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu he said that ‘mind’ is another name by which the ego is called. The term ‘mind’ is also often used to denote the entire collection of thoughts, in which case it includes both the ego and all other thoughts, but as he explained in verse 18 of Upadēśa Undiyār (which I quoted and discussed in Distinguishing the ego from the rest of the mind, the fourth section of my previous article, Dṛg-dṛśya-vivēka: distinguishing the seer from the seen) the ego or ‘thought called I’ is the root of all other thoughts, so what the mind essentially is is just this ego. In this paragraph he uses the word மனம் (maṉam) or ‘mind’ nine times, and in most cases it could be replaced by the word அகந்தை (ahandai) or ‘ego’ without significantly changing the meaning.
maṉam eṉbadu ātma sorūpattil uḷḷa ōr atiśaya sakti. adu sakala niṉaivugaḷai-y-um tōṯṟuvikkiṉḏṟadu. niṉaivugaḷai y-ellām nīkki-p pārkkiṉḏṟa-pōdu, taṉiyāy maṉam-eṉḏṟōr poruḷ illai; āhaiyāl niṉaivē maṉadiṉ sorūpam. niṉaivugaḷai-t tavirttu jagam-eṉḏṟōr poruḷ aṉṉiyam-āy illai. tūkkattil niṉaivugaḷ illai, jagam-um illai; jāgra-soppaṉaṅgaḷil niṉaivugaḷ uḷa, jagam-um uṇḍu. silandi-p-pūcci eppaḍi-t taṉṉiḍamirundu veḷiyil nūlai nūṯṟu maṟupaḍiyum taṉṉuḷ iṙuttu-k-koḷḷugiṟadō, appaḍiyē maṉam-um taṉṉiḍattilirundu jagattai-t tōṯṟuvittu maṟupaḍiyum taṉṉiḍamē oḍukki-k-koḷḷugiṟadu. maṉam ātma sorūpattiṉiṉḏṟu veḷippaḍum-pōdu jagam tōṉḏṟum. āhaiyāl, jagam tōṉḏṟum-pōdu sorūpam tōṉḏṟādu; sorūpam tōṉḏṟum (pirakāśikkum) pōdu jagam tōṉḏṟādu. maṉadiṉ sorūpattai vicārittu-k-koṇḍē pōṉāl tāṉē maṉam-āy muḍiyum. ‘tāṉ’ eṉbadu ātma-sorūpam-ē. maṉam eppōdum oru sthūlattai y-aṉusarittē niṯkum; taṉiyāy nillādu. maṉam-ē sūkṣma-śarīram eṉḏṟum jīvaṉ eṉḏṟum sollappaḍugiṟadu.
What is called ‘mind’ is an atiśaya śakti [an extraordinary or wonderful power] that exists in ātma-svarūpa [our essential self]. It projects [or causes the appearance of] all thoughts. When one sets aside all thoughts and sees, solitarily there is no such thing as ‘mind’; therefore thought alone is the svarūpa [the ‘own form’ or fundamental nature] of the mind. Excluding thoughts [or ideas], there is not separately any such thing as ‘world’. In sleep there are no thoughts, and [consequently] there is also no world; in waking and dream there are thoughts, and [consequently] there is also a world. Just as a spider spins out thread from within itself and again draws it back into itself, so the mind projects the world from within itself and again dissolves it back into itself. When the mind comes out from ātma-svarūpa, the world appears. Therefore when the world appears, svarūpa [our ‘own form’ or essential self] does not appear [as it really is]; when svarūpa appears (shines) [as it really is], the world does not appear. If one goes on investigating the nature of the mind, oneself alone will turn out to be [what now seems to be] the mind. What is [here] called ‘oneself’ (tāṉ) is only ātma-svarūpa. The mind stands only by always going after [attaching itself to] a gross object [a physical body]; solitarily it does not stand. The mind alone is described as sūkṣma sarīra [the ‘subtle body’] and as jīva [the ‘soul’ or finite self].
7. Nāṉ Yār? paragraph 5: without the ego nothing else exists
Bhagavan also expresses some of the ideas that he expressed in verses 23 to 26 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu in the next paragraph of Nāṉ Yār? (the fifth one), so it is likewise worth considering here:
இந்தத் தேகத்தில் நான் என்று கிளம்புவது எதுவோ அஃதே மனமாம். நானென்கிற நினைவு தேகத்தில் முதலில் எந்தவிடத்திற் றோன்றுகின்ற தென்று விசாரித்தால், ஹ்ருதயத்தி லென்று தெரிய வரும். அதுவே மனதின் பிறப்பிடம். நான், நான் என்று கருதிக்கொண்டிருந்தாலுங்கூட அவ்விடத்திற் கொண்டுபோய் விட்டுவிடும். மனதில் தோன்றும் நினைவுக ளெல்லாவற்றிற்கும் நானென்னும் நினைவே முதல் நினைவு. இது எழுந்த பிறகே ஏனைய நினைவுகள் எழுகின்றன. தன்மை தோன்றிய பிறகே முன்னிலை படர்க்கைகள் தோன்றுகின்றன; தன்மை யின்றி முன்னிலை படர்க்கைக ளிரா.What Bhagavan describes here as நானென்னும் நினைவு (nāṉ-eṉṉum niṉaivu), which means the ‘thought called I’, is only the ego, and when he says that it rises in the body as ‘I’ he means that it rises by projecting a body and experiencing that as itself. Once it has risen its experience of itself seems to be limited within the confines of the body it has projected, so if it investigates itself it seems initially as if it is investigating itself within its body. This is why he says ‘நானென்கிற நினைவு தேகத்தில் முதலில் எந்தவிடத்திற் றோன்றுகின்ற தென்று விசாரித்தால்’ (nāṉ-eṉgiṟa niṉaivu dēhattil mudalil enda-v-iḍattil tōṉḏṟugiṉḏṟadu eṉḏṟu vicārittāl), which means ‘If [one] investigates in what place the thought called ‘I’ rises at first in the body’. However he concludes that sentence by saying ‘ஹ்ருதயத்தி லென்று தெரிய வரும்’ (hrudayattil eṉḏṟu teriya varum), which means ‘[one] will come to know that [it is] in the heart’, thereby indicating that our ego does not actually rise from any place in our body, but only from our ‘heart’, which is a term that he often used metaphorically to mean what we essentially are (our real self), since what we essentially are is the core or centre of what we now seem to be.
inda-t dēhattil nāṉ eṉḏṟu kiḷambuvadu edu-v-ō aḵdē maṉam-ām. nāṉ-eṉgiṟa niṉaivu dēhattil mudalil enda-v-iḍattil tōṉḏṟugiṉḏṟadu eṉḏṟu vicārittāl, hrudayattil eṉḏṟu teriya varum. adu-v-ē maṉadiṉ piṟappiḍam. nāṉ, nāṉ eṉḏṟu karudi-k-koṇḍirundāluṅ-gūḍa a-vv-iḍattil koṇḍu-pōy viṭṭu-viḍum. maṉadil tōṉḏṟum niṉaivugaḷ ellāvaṯṟiṯkum nāṉ-eṉṉum niṉaivē mudal niṉaivu. idu eṙunda piṟahē ēṉaiya niṉaivugaḷ eṙugiṉḏṟaṉa. taṉmai tōṉḏṟiya piṟahē muṉṉilai paḍarkkaigaḷ tōṉḏṟugiṉḏṟaṉa; taṉmai y-iṉḏṟi muṉṉilai paḍarkkaigaḷ irā.
What rises in this body as ‘I’, that alone is the mind. If [one] investigates in what place the thought called ‘I’ rises at first in the body, [one] will come to know that [it rises] in the heart [the innermost core of oneself, which is what one essentially is]. That alone is the birthplace of the mind. Even if [one] remains thinking ‘I, I’, it will take and leave [one] in that place. Of all the thoughts that appear [or arise] in the mind, the thought called ‘I’ alone is the first [primal, basic, original or causal] thought. Only after this rises do other thoughts rise. Only after the first person appears do the second and third persons appear; without the first person the second and third persons do not exist.
In such contexts, whenever he uses any word that literally means ‘place’, such as இடம் (iḍam) in this case, he is generally not referring to any physical place, but is instead using the word ‘place’ in a metaphorical sense to refer to ourself, since we alone are the source or ‘birthplace’ (பிறப்பிடம்: piṟappiḍam) from which our ego and everything else arises, and the ground or foundation on which everything stands. Therefore when he says that we should investigate in what place the thought called ‘I’ rises, he means that we should investigate only ourself.
In the final sentences of this paragraph he refers to the first, second and third persons. The first person is our ego or thought called ‘I’, whereas the second and third persons are everything else that we experience. Therefore the idea that he expresses in the concluding sentences of this paragraph, ‘Of all the thoughts that appear in the mind, the thought called ‘I’ alone is the first thought. Only after this rises do other thoughts rise. Only after the first person appears do the second and third persons appear; without the first person the second and third persons do not exist’, is essentially the same as the idea that he expresses in the third sentence of verse 23 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu, ‘After one ‘I’ rises, everything rises’, and also in the first two sentences of verse 26, ‘If the ego comes into existence, everything comes into existence; if the ego does not exist, everything does not exist’.
8. The ego and other things are mutually but asymmetrically dependent
In the fourth paragraph of Nāṉ Yār? Bhagavan said, ‘மனம் எப்போதும் ஒரு ஸ்தூலத்தை யனுசரித்தே நிற்கும்; தனியாய் நில்லாது’ (maṉam eppōdum oru sthūlattai y-aṉusarittē niṯkum; taṉiyāy nillādu), which means ‘The mind stands only by always going after a gross object; solitarily it does not stand’. Here அனுசரித்தே (aṉusarittē) is a participle that literally means ‘going after’, ‘following’ or ‘pursuing’, so in this context it means attending or attaching itself to. ஸ்தூலத்தை (sthūlattai) is the accusative form of ஸ்தூலம் (sthūlam), which means gross, solid, concrete or material, so ஒரு ஸ்தூலத்தை (oru sthūlattai) here means ‘a gross object’, ‘a concrete thing’ or anything that is material. In this context it means specifically a physical body, because that is what the mind first attaches itself to, and what it cannot stand without holding on to.
Thus in this sentence Bhagavan expresses the same idea that he expresses in verse 25 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu, namely that the ego comes into being and stands only by ‘grasping form’ (உரு பற்றி: uru paṯṟi). Therefore what he implies in both these places is that our ego or mind depends for its seeming existence upon the seeming existence of other things, and that it cannot stand alone, but must always cling to other things that are more gross or solid that itself.
However, in the concluding sentences of the fifth paragraph of Nāṉ Yār? and in verse 26 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu he indicates that just as our ego depends for its seeming existence upon the seeming existence of other things, all other things depend for their seeming existence upon the seeming existence of our ego, and that they cannot appear without it. Therefore the ego and other things are mutually dependent, and hence neither can exist without the other.
However, though they are mutually dependent, their mutual dependence is not symmetrical, because whereas there are many other things, there is only one ego, so whatever else may exist (or seem to exist) depends upon the ego, whereas the ego depends upon no particular other thing. It cannot exist without grasping something other than itself, but since everything other than itself is created or projected by it, whenever it leaves one form it can project and grasp another form.
This is what Bhagavan indicated when he said in verse 25 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu, ‘உரு விட்டு, உரு பற்றும்’ (uru viṭṭu, uru paṯṟum), ‘leaving [one] form, it grasps [another] form’. Therefore though our ego now experiences itself as our current body, it does not depend on this body alone. Whenever it leaves this current state and dreams some other state, it no longer experiences our present body, but instead it projects and experiences some other body as itself. Likewise, when it leaves its current body at the time of death, it will be able to project and experience some other body as itself.
Such is the nature of this ego. Though it depends upon other things, it is nevertheless relatively independent, because whatever other things it depends upon are its own projections, so whenever it wants to rise it can do so simply by projecting and grasping other things (as it does in any dream). This is why the final sentences of the fifth paragraph of Nāṉ Yār? are such an important conclusion to all that Bhagavan said about the mind (which is essentially just the ego) in the fourth and fifth paragraphs, and why verse 26 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu is such an important conclusion to all that he said about the ego in the preceding three verses.
9. Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verse 26: investigating the ego is giving up everything
What he says in verse 26 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu is:
அகந்தையுண் டாயி னனைத்துமுண் டாகுThe first word in the final sentence of this verse, ஆதலால் (ādalāl), means ‘therefore’, so it provides a logical link between the idea expressed in this sentence and those expressed in the preceding sentences. However, to understand this logical link fully, we need to recognise that it refers not only to the preceding sentences in this verse, but also to the final sentence of the previous verse, namely ‘தேடினால் ஓட்டம் பிடிக்கும்’ (tēḍiṉāl ōṭṭam piḍikkum), which means, ‘If sought [examined or investigated], it [the ego] will take flight’. That is, since everything else seems to exist only when the ego seems to exist, and since the seeming existence the ego will cease if we investigate it, ‘investigating what this [ego] is alone is giving up everything’ (யாது இது என்று நாடலே ஓவுதல் யாவும்: yādu idu eṉḏṟu nādal-ē ōvudal yāvum).
மகந்தையின் றேலின் றனைத்து — மகந்தையே
யாவுமா மாதலால் யாதிதென்று நாடலே
யோவுதல் யாவுமென வோர்.
ahandaiyuṇ ḍāyi ṉaṉaittumuṇ ḍāhu
mahandaiyiṉ ḏṟēliṉ ḏṟaṉaittu — mahandaiyē
yāvumā mādalāl yādideṉḏṟu nādalē
yōvudal yāvumeṉa vōr.
பதச்சேதம்: அகந்தை உண்டாயின், அனைத்தும் உண்டாகும்; அகந்தை இன்றேல், இன்று அனைத்தும். அகந்தையே யாவும் ஆம். ஆதலால், யாது இது என்று நாடலே ஓவுதல் யாவும் என ஓர்.
Padacchēdam (word-separation): ahandai uṇḍāyiṉ, aṉaittum uṇḍāhum; ahandai iṉḏṟēl, iṉḏṟu aṉaittum. ahandai-y-ē yāvum ām. ādalāl, yādu idu eṉḏṟu nādal-ē ōvudal yāvum eṉa ōr.
அன்வயம்: அகந்தை உண்டாயின், அனைத்தும் உண்டாகும்; அகந்தை இன்றேல், அனைத்தும் இன்று. யாவும் அகந்தையே ஆம். ஆதலால், யாது இது என்று நாடலே யாவும் ஓவுதல் என ஓர்.
Anvayam (words rearranged in natural prose order): ahandai uṇḍāyiṉ, aṉaittum uṇḍāhum; ahandai iṉḏṟēl, aṉaittum iṉḏṟu. yāvum ahandai-y-ē ām. ādalāl, yādu idu eṉḏṟu nādal-ē yāvum ōvudal eṉa ōr.
English translation: If the ego comes into existence, everything comes into existence; if the ego does not exist, everything does not exist. [Hence] the ego itself is everything. Therefore, know that investigating what this [ego] is alone is giving up everything.
In this sentence, the suffix ஏ (ē) that is appended to the verbal noun நாடல் (nādal), which means ‘investigating’ or ‘examining’, is an intensifier that implies ‘only’, ‘certainly’ or ‘itself’, so I translated it here as ‘alone’. The reason I interpreted it in this sense is that we can infer from verse 25 that investigating the ego is the only means by which we can give it up (and hence the only means by which we can give up everything else), because if we attend to anything other than the ego we are ‘grasping form’, and by grasping form we are feeding and nourishing this ego.
10. Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu verses 22 and 27: except by self-investigation, how can we experience what we really are?
In this context it is important to take note of the fact that these four verses of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu in which Bhagavan explains the essential nature of the ego, namely verses 23 to 26, are sandwiched between two other verses in each of which he emphasises (by the use of rhetorical questions) that self-investigation (ātma-vicāra) is the only means by which we can experience what we really are and thereby destroy our ego (as he also clearly implied in verse 25). In verse 22 he says:
மதிக்கொளி தந்தம் மதிக்கு ளொளிருThe word பதி (pati) literally means ‘lord’ or ‘master’, and is therefore a term that is often used to denote God, but in this context it refers specifically to God as our real self, and not to any idea of God as something that is separate from or other than ourself. As our real self, God is the pure self-awareness that illumines our mind, enabling it to be aware of both itself and all other things. Therefore in order to know God as he really is we must experience ourself as we really are, and in this verse Bhagavan emphasises that the only means by which we can ‘know God’ or experience ourself as we really are is by turning our mind (our power of attention) back within ourself and thereby drowning it in God, our real self.
மதியினை யுள்ளே மடக்கிப் — பதியிற்
பதித்திடுத லன்றிப் பதியை மதியான்
மதித்திடுக லெங்ஙன் மதி.
matikkoḷi tandam matikku ḷoḷiru
matiyiṉai yuḷḷē maḍakkip — patiyiṯ
padittiḍuda laṉḏṟip patiyai matiyāṉ
matittiḍuda leṅṅaṉ mati.
பதச்சேதம்: மதிக்கு ஒளி தந்து, அம் மதிக்குள் ஒளிரும் மதியினை உள்ளே மடக்கி பதியில் பதித்திடுதல் அன்றி, பதியை மதியால் மதித்திடுதல் எங்ஙன்? மதி.
Padacchēdam (word-separation): matikku oḷi tandu, am-matikkuḷ oḷirum matiyiṉai uḷḷē maḍakki patiyil padittiḍudal aṉḏṟi, patiyai matiyāl matittiḍudal eṅṅaṉ? mati.
அன்வயம்: மதிக்கு ஒளி தந்து, அம் மதிக்குள் ஒளிரும் பதியில் மதியினை உள்ளே மடக்கி பதித்திடுதல் அன்றி, பதியை மதியால் மதித்திடுதல் எங்ஙன்? மதி.
Anvayam (words rearranged in natural prose order): matikku oḷi tandu, am-matikkuḷ oḷirum patiyil matiyiṉai uḷḷē maḍakki padittiḍudal aṉḏṟi, patiyai matiyāl matittiḍudal eṅṅaṉ? mati.
English translation: Consider, except by turning the mind back within and immersing it in God, who shines within that mind giving light to the mind, how to know God by the mind?
He also implies the same in verse 27, in which he says:
நானுதியா துள்ளநிலை நாமதுவா யுள்ளநிலைThe ‘place’ (sthāṉa) or source from which our ego rises is only ourself, so ‘investigating the place from which ‘I’ rises’ (நான் உதிக்கும் தானம் அதை நாடல்: nāṉ udikkum thāṉam-adai nāḍal) means investigating just ourself. Therefore by asking ‘நான் உதிக்கும் தானம் அதை நாடாமல், நான் உதியா தன் இழப்பை சார்வது எவன்?’ (nāṉ udikkum thāṉam-adai nāḍāmal, nāṉ udiyā taṉ-ṉ-iṙappai sārvadu evaṉ?), which means ‘Without investigating the place from which ‘I’ rises, how to attain the annihilation of oneself [the ego], where ‘I’ does not rise?’, Bhagavan implies clearly and emphatically that the only means by which we can annihilate our ego is by investigating ourself.
நானுதிக்குந் தானமதை நாடாம — னானுதியாத்
தன்னிழப்பைச் சார்வதெவன் சாராமற் றானதுவாந்
தன்னிலையி னிற்பதெவன் சாற்று.
nāṉudiyā duḷḷanilai nāmaduvā yuḷḷanilai
nāṉudikkun thāṉamadai nāḍāma — ṉāṉudiyāt
taṉṉiṙappaic cārvadevaṉ sārāmaṯ ṟāṉaduvān
taṉṉilaiyi ṉiṯpadevaṉ sāṯṟu.
பதச்சேதம்: ‘நான்’ உதியாது உள்ள நிலை நாம் அது ஆய் உள்ள நிலை. ‘நான்’ உதிக்கும் தானம் அதை நாடாமல், ‘நான்’ உதியா தன் இழப்பை சார்வது எவன்? சாராமல், தான் அது ஆம் தன் நிலையில் நிற்பது எவன்? சாற்று.
Padacchēdam (word-separation): ‘nāṉ’ udiyādu uḷḷa nilai nām adu-v-āy uḷḷa nilai. ‘nāṉ’ udikkum thāṉam-adai nāḍāmal, ‘nāṉ’ udiyā taṉ-ṉ-iṙappai sārvadu evaṉ? sārāmal, tāṉ adu ām taṉ-ṉilaiyil niṯpadu evaṉ? sāṯṟu.
English translation: The state in which ‘I’ exists without rising is the state in which we exist as that [brahman or God]. Without investigating the place [or source] from which ‘I’ rises, how to attain the annihilation of oneself [the ego], where ‘I’ does not rise? [And] without attaining [this annihilation of one’s ego], say, how to abide in the state of oneself, in which oneself is that?
Likewise, in the final sentence of this verse, ‘சாராமல், தான் அது ஆம் தன் நிலையில் நிற்பது எவன்?’ (sārāmal, tāṉ adu ām taṉ-ṉilaiyil niṯpadu evaṉ?), which means ‘Without attaining [this annihilation of one’s ego], how to abide in the state of oneself, in which oneself is that?’, he implies that we cannot experience ourself as ‘that’ (God or brahman, which alone is what is real) except by annihilating our ego.
11. The ego does not actually exist
In verses 23 to 26 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu Bhagavan gives us a clear description of the essential nature, behaviour and effect of our ego, and in verses 22 and 27 he indicates that we can free ourself from it and thereby experience ourself as we really are only by turning our attention back within ourself to investigate our essential self, the source from which we seemed to rise as this ego. So far in this article we have considered the meaning of each of these verses, and also the fourth and fifth paragraphs of Nāṉ Yār?, in order to understand clearly and thoroughly the nature of our ego as explained by him. However, our primary concern in this article is with his description of it in verse 25 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu as உருவற்ற பேய் அகந்தை (uru-v-aṯṟa pēy ahandai), ‘the formless phantom-ego’.
After considering in so much depth what Bhagavan taught us about this ego, we may be left with an impression that it actually exists, albeit as something very elusive and hard to pin down. However, if this is the impression we are left with, we would be missing the main point of all that he taught us, which is that this ego does not actually exist. This is the most important point for us to understand and bear in mind at all times.
This ego seems to exist so long as it grasps or experiences anything other than itself, but if we look for it, we will find no such thing. This is why he describes it as a ‘formless phantom’ (உருவற்ற பேய்: uru-v-aṯṟa pēy), and it is likewise why I described it as ‘featureless’. Whatever features it may seem to have are not its own but ones that it has usurped either from ourself or from the forms that it has grasped, or from a combination of both.
If we try to abstract our ego from our body and all the other forms that it has grasped, all we will be left with is simple self-awareness, which does not belong to our ego itself but only to ourself as we really are. We can understand this by trying analytically (that is, at a conceptual level) to abstract our ego from everything else that we experience, but we should not stop with merely trying to abstract it in a theoretical sense like this. To progress beyond theory and conceptual analysis, we must try experientially to abstract our ego from all its adjuncts and everything else that it experiences, and we can do so only by trying to be aware of ourself alone, isolating ourself from any awareness of anything else. This is the practice of self-investigation (ātma-vicāra), by which alone we can experience ourself as we really are and thereby experience the non-existence of this ego.
In verse 25 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu Bhagavan says that the ego comes into being by grasping form, it stands or endures by grasping form, it grows, spreads or expands abundantly by grasping and feeding on form, and leaving one form it grasps another one. But what actually is it that grasps form? Until it grasps them, it does not exist, and without continuing to grasp them it cannot continue to exist. If we strip away all the forms that it grasps, what remains is only pure self-awareness. However, it is not pure self-awareness that grasps form, because whatever grasps form ceases to be pure self-awareness as soon as it grasps them.
Pure self-awareness is ourself as we really are, and as we really are we never grasp anything, because we just are, and are never aware of anything other than ourself. Therefore what grasps form is neither ourself as we really are nor is it any form, because without grasping form (something other than itself) it does not exist. Hence Bhagavan describes it as a ‘formless phantom’ (உருவற்ற பேய்: uru-v-aṯṟa pēy). Since it is not ourself as we really are, which is all that remains when there is no grasping of form, and since it is not any form that it grasps, this ego does not actually exist, so how could it have any features?
12. The ego is a confused mixture of self-awareness and awareness of other things
So long as it seems to exist, our ego is a confused mixture of two things: self-awareness and awareness of other things. Other than a combination of these two things, there is no such thing as ego. Awareness of other things is what Bhagavan calls ‘thoughts’ (நினைவுகள் (niṉaivugaḷ) or எண்ணங்கள் (eṇṇaṅgaḷ)), and also what he calls ‘form’ (உரு: uru) in verse 25 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu and elsewhere. If we strip away awareness of other things, no such thing as ‘ego’ remains.
As Bhagavan says in the fourth paragraph of Nāṉ Yār?: ‘நினைவுகளை யெல்லாம் நீக்கிப் பார்க்கின்றபோது, தனியாய் மனமென் றோர் பொருளில்லை’ (niṉaivugaḷai y-ellām nīkki-p pārkkiṉḏṟa-pōdu, taṉiyāy maṉam-eṉḏṟōr poruḷ illai), which means ‘When one sets aside all thoughts and sees, solitarily there is no such thing as mind’. Here ‘thoughts’ means awareness of anything other than ourself, and ‘solitarily there is no such thing as mind’ implies that there is no such thing as ego, because the root or essence of the mind is only the ego, so the mind endures so long as the ego endures, and in the absence of the mind there is no ego.
Awareness of other things is constantly changing — that is, it is in a state of constant flux. It is a continuous flow of impressions or thoughts, with each one being rapidly replaced with some other one. However, though awareness of other things is constantly changing, the ego that is aware of those others things remains the same, so awareness of other things is not what the ego essentially is. Since the ego is not constantly aware of any one particular other thing, it is not any of the other things that it is aware of. But in the absence of any awareness of other things, all that remains is pure self-awareness, and as we have seen pure self-awareness cannot be called the ego, because the ego is what is aware of other things, whereas pure self-awareness is never aware of anything other than itself.
13. Can self-awareness be considered to be a feature of the ego?
Even if we were to argue that self-awareness (albeit in a mixed form) is the essential nature of the ego, could we say that it is a feature of the ego? Perhaps in one sense we could say so, but generally self-awareness is not considered to be a feature, or at least not a ‘feature’ in the sense in which we are now using this term. Ourself as we really are, or brahman as it is also called, is always aware of itself, but its self-awareness is not considered to be a feature in advaita philosophy.
The Sanskrit equivalent of what we call ‘feature’ in English is viśēṣa, and brahman (our real self) is defined as nirviśēṣa — non-viśēṣa or devoid of viśēṣa. ‘Feature’ is not quite an adequate translation of viśēṣa, because the term ‘viśēṣa’ denotes a somewhat more abstract concept than ‘feature’. What viśēṣa means exactly is what is special, peculiar, different or distinctive, or the abstract quality of being special, peculiar, different or distinctive, so a feature is something that is viśēṣa. That is, a feature of anything is what is special, peculiar, different or distinctive about that thing.
Since being self-aware is something that is special, peculiar, different or distinctive about ourself, why is it not considered to be viśēṣa in the same sense that any other feature is considered to be so? In other words, why is self-awareness considered to be nirviśēṣa or ‘non-distinctive’? The reason is that self-awareness is the one essential ingredient in any experience. It is the very foundation on which any experience is based. Without self-awareness there could be no experience, either of self-awareness itself or of anything else. Therefore there is nothing peculiar, special or distinctive about self-awareness, or at least not in the sense that it is something that is experienced at some times but not at other times. It is not viśēṣa because it is not special or peculiar in any way, since it is what always is and what is always experienced.
This can also be explained using the example of our experience in sleep. Most of us would agree, I think, that sleep is a featureless experience. In sleep we do not experience any features, yet we do not cease to be self-aware. In waking and dream we are aware of ourself, and we are also aware of numerous features. When our awareness of all the features that we experience in waking and dream is removed, what remains is the state that we call sleep.
In sleep we are aware of ourself, just as we are in waking and dream, but whereas in waking and dream we are aware of ourself as having many features (which are the features of the body or person that we then experience as ourself), in sleep we are not aware of ourself as having any features at all, except perhaps a complete absence of all other features. The only ‘feature’ of sleep that distinguishes it from waking and dream is the absence of any of the features that we experience in those two other states. Since our self-awareness is the only thing that our contrasting experiences of each of these three states have in common, it is not something that is special or peculiar to any of these states, so it is not a feature of any of them. If it is to be considered a ‘feature’ of anything, it is only a feature of experience itself.
In this context what I wrote in We are aware of ourself even though we are featureless (the second section of one of my recent articles, Being attentively self-aware does not entail any subject-object relationship, which I wrote in answer to a friend who asked whether it is possible to attend to or look carefully at something that is featureless) is relevant:
[...] you ask whether it is possible to look carefully at anything featureless. Nothing other than ourself is featureless, because it is only features that enable us to distinguish each thing from each other thing and also from ourself. There can be no such thing as a featureless object, because nothing could be an object of our experience if it did not have any features that we could experience. Each object is defined only by its features, and in the absence of any features it would not be an object or a distinct thing at all.In this passage I referred only to ‘we’ or ‘ourself’ without drawing any distinction between ourself as the ego and ourself as we really are, because in some contexts such as this that distinction is irrelevant and trying to draw it would confuse matters rather than clarifying them, since we ourself are always one and the same self, whether we experience ourself as this ego or as we really are. In either case, we are always aware of ourself, and as such we are always essentially featureless.
What we essentially are is featureless. Now we seem to be a person with certain features (both physical and mental), but all such features are mere adjuncts, because we experience ourself in their absence in sleep. We do not experience any features in sleep, yet we know that we were asleep, because we did not cease to experience ourself then. When we say, ‘I slept peacefully last night’, we are expressing our experience of having been in a state in which we experienced no features.
If we did not experience such a state intermittently, we would be aware of only two states, namely waking and dream, with no perceptible gap between successive occurrences of them. The fact that we are aware of gaps between such states shows that we actually experience those gaps while they are occurring. Those gaps are what we call sleep, and in them we experience no features. Thus we experience two kinds of states, one in which we experience features, and one in which we experience no features. Waking and dream are each the former kind, whereas sleep is the latter kind.
Since we experience ourself in both these kinds of states, we cannot be anything that we experience in one of them but not in the other. Therefore we cannot be any of the features that we experience in waking or dream, because in sleep we experience ourself without experiencing any such features. What we actually are is therefore essentially featureless.
If we try to describe our experience in sleep, we can do so only in negative terms by saying that we did not experience any features of the kind that we are accustomed to experiencing in waking and dream. Our experience in sleep is therefore almost a complete negation or opposite of our experience in waking and dream, yet in both these states we experience ourself.
The fact that we are aware of ourself in each of these three states means that we are able to be aware of ourself even though we are essentially featureless. In other words, we do not need to have any features in order to experience ourself. Even in the absence of all distinguishable features, we are still aware of ourself. Therefore, if at all we wish to describe ourself as having any feature, the only thing about ourself that we could call a ‘feature’ is our self-awareness, and it is by this ‘feature’ alone that we cognise ourself.
The only difference between experiencing ourself as this ego and experiencing ourself as we really are is that when we experience ourself as we really are we are aware of nothing other than ourself, whereas when we experience ourself as this ego we are aware both of ourself and of other things. However, whether we are aware of other things or not, the one thing we are always aware of is ourself, and as I shall argue below, our self-awareness is not a feature in the same sense that anything else is a feature.
14. A feature is anything that stands out in our awareness
All the features that we experience in either waking or dream are things that — while being experienced — stand out in our awareness. We become aware of any feature only when it stands out, so to speak, in our awareness, which is perhaps why the English word ‘exist’ is derived from a Latin verb that means ‘stand out’. A feature seems to exist only when it stands out, emerges or appears in our awareness.
Therefore, since a feature is anything that stands out in our awareness, how can our awareness itself be considered to be a feature? Awareness does not stand out or appear in awareness, because it is always present as the awareness in which all other things stand out. Awareness of any other thing may stand out, but awareness itself does not stand out, or at least not in the same way.
If we consider awareness to be a feature, it is one that is fundamentally unlike any other feature. Not only is it the most abstract of all features, but it is also that by which and in which all other features are experienced. Other features are known when they stand out in awareness, but awareness is known by itself without ever standing out in anything.
However, the awareness in which other things stand out is not the most fundamental form of awareness. The most fundamental form of awareness is only self-awareness, and self-awareness is aware of nothing other than itself, so nothing stands out in it. What stands out is features, and in self-awareness there are no features, as we know from our own experience in sleep, when we experience nothing other than bare self-awareness.
The awareness in which other things stand out is not ourself as we really are but only ourself as this ego or mind. Self-awareness is certainly an element in this ego, but it is not the whole of it, because this ego is aware not only of itself but also of other things. However, in spite of being an awareness in which awareness of ourself and awareness of other things are mixed, this awareness that is the ego or mind is not a feature, or at least not a feature in the sense of something that stands out in awareness, because it is the awareness in which all features stand out.
Therefore, just as our awareness of ourself as we really are is featureless, so too is our awareness of ourself as this ego. This brings us back to the original question that this article is intended to address, namely the one that was asked both in the comment and in the email that I quoted at the beginning of this article, which can be paraphrased as: by saying that both our real self and our ego are featureless, are we not obscuring the difference between them?
15. If our real self and our ego are both featureless, how can they be different?
Paradoxically, though our real self (ourself as we really are) and our ego (ourself as this ego) are each in itself featureless or non-distinctive, and though our real self alone is what our ego essentially is, each is nevertheless distinct from the other in one respect. The distinction between them is that our real self is pure self-awareness, being aware of nothing other than itself, whereas our ego is a mixture of that same pure self-awareness along with awareness of other things.
When I said that each is in itself featureless or non-distinctive, what I meant by ‘in itself’ is when considered in isolation from the other. If we consider our real self alone, we are featureless and non-distinctive because we are aware of ourself alone, and hence there is nothing else from which we could be distinct. Therefore it is perfectly reasonable to say that our real self is nirviśēṣa, non-distinctive or devoid of any distinguishing features.
On the other hand, if we consider our ego alone, we are featureless and non-distinctive because though we are aware not only of ourself but also of other things, we are not any of those other things but are only the awareness without which none of them could appear to exist. Hence we are the awareness that enables and supports the appearance or seeming existence of all features, and as such we are the essential pre-condition that is required in order for any feature to appear or stand out. Therefore as the awareness that experiences all features, we are distinct from each of them, and hence we are not any of the features that we experience.
However, since we are distinct from each feature that we experience, is not our distinction from them a feature? To answer this we need to consider exactly what we mean when we say that we are distinct from them. As this ego we are distinct from each feature that we experience, because our existence as this ego does not depend upon the existence or experience of any particular feature. However our existence as this ego does depend upon the existence and experience of features in general, so though we can distinguish our ego from each particular feature, we cannot entirely distinguish it from all features, because in the absence of any feature this ego does not exist.
In verse 25 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu Bhagavan says that the ego is itself formless, yet it comes into being, endures and grows only by grasping form, and we can paraphrase this by saying that the ego is itself featureless, yet it comes into being, endures and grows only by grasping features. Therefore, though the ego is distinct from each particular feature, it is not distinct from all features. Its distinction from features is therefore limited and conditional. It is distinct from any particular feature, but only on the condition that it is temporarily grasping some other feature, because though no feature is its own, it cannot exist without grasping at each moment at least one feature as if it were its own.
Our ego is non-distinctive in that it cannot be distinguished as being any particular form or feature, yet if we try to distinguish it from all forms and features collectively, we will not be able to find any distinct thing that we could call our ego. Therefore it is perfectly reasonable to say that in itself our ego is nirviśēṣa, non-distinctive or devoid of any distinguishing features.