Shankara, following the teaching of the Vedanta, describes the three bodies that constitute man.
- Gross body: physical senses
- Subtle body, or the mind/psyche: emotions, feelings, attractions, aversions, etc
- Causal body, or the intellect: thoughts, images
Together, they make up the phenomenal world, i.e., the world as experienced, or Jagat. Note, particularly, that what we commonly regard as our “inner life” is actually part of the phenomenal world.
The intellect is called the causal body because it is the cause of our experiences in the subtle and gross bodies. Few people are aware of that process occurring in their own consciousnesses. That is because they regard the outer world as real, independent, and objective, but their thoughts as subjective, and actually the result of events in the physical world, not the other way around.
Shankara describes the activity of the causal body as a waking dream, analogous to the sleeping dream state. Liberation comes from knowledge of the Self. This Self, or Atma, transcends the causal body, and is unaffected by the vagaries and divagations of the causal, subtle, and gross bodies. Atman is consciousness itself, and that is what brings the activities of the three bodies into awareness.
Unfortunately, we do not who we are, not as Atman, but we identify we a false finite self, a creation of the causal body. Due to ignorance, the causal body creates an illusory world that we believe we inhabit. When and if we wake up to our true identity, that world dissipates, just as a nighttime dreams does when we awaken to sleep. It is pointless to look for that “ignorance”, since it is not real, but is only a privation; one cannot find ignorance, any more than one can find the darkness while walking around with a torch (as they say).
It is difficult to convince anyone that he is ignorant, since the identification with the ego is so strong, it seems undeniably certain to him. Nevertheless, by pointing out the ill effects of ignorance, perhaps some will be prompted to pursue things a little deeper.
First of all, it is clear that the experiences of the gross body, i.e., everything experienced through the senses, is remarkably stable (apart from special cases of malfunctioning sensory organs). In other words, we all go outside and agree that the sky is blue and the grass is green. If I ask three people in the know for directions to the nearest convenience store, they will pretty much agree and I will arrive at my destination. The relative reliability of the gross world will be of value in the beginning exercises for the upcoming Gnosis seminar.
This stability cannot be explained if the causal body is randomly creating sensory experiences. Shankara elaborates a system of five elements (space, fire, air, water, earth), five pranas, ten organs, manas, and buddhi. These are subtle states that determine the gross material world. So the awakening from the limited ego to knowledge of the true self, involves a change in the perspective of the observer, not in the outer world. Swami Chinmayananda explains:
If and when [after that awakening] there is an outward cognition of any experience, such a Mahatman of Self-realization cannot but see the same matter equipments of experiences, which were before his own, singing the Eternal Song of Life.
The situation is reversed for the subtle body, which appears to be entirely subjective. Clearly, there are emotional states that are reflected in the bodily gestures. But for the most part, our inner states are invisible to each other; there are anxieties, fears, concerns, desires, etc., that dominate our minds. That is because of the identification with the ego, which results in a constant state of negativity. This makes interpersonal relationships so difficult: each party experiences the world filtered through these inner states and is unable to take into account the inner state of the other. To do so, is an art; first one must become detached from his own identifications.
The activity of the causal body in those identified with the ego is also private and subjective, yet has an interpersonal element due to the faculty of speech. Speech then communicates systems of thought or ideologies. We can call the totality of public thought the “Noosphere”, in accordance with common usage. However, the Noosphere is not necessarily a boon, as it is actually in chaos.
With no way to arbitrate incompatible ideologies, they multiply and ramify. Since the identification with one’s own ideologies is so strong, any threat to it is misconstrued as a threat to one’s very self. Imagine, in our other examples, that every time you asserted that the “sky is blue”, you would find yourself embroiled in arguments with your neighbors, and sometimes even very bitter arguments. Then if you asked three friends for directions, two of them would give you totally incompatible directions and the third would try to convince you not to go to the convenience store at all. Life would be difficult and tedious; you would eventually carve out enough partial knowledge to function. Furthermore, you would form alliances with those holding similar ideologies. That is the chaos in the Noosphere.
The obvious question that arises is whether there is a way to settle ideological disputes, analogous to the way the gross world is organized. Some will turn to scientific positivism, which is the study of the orderliness of the gross world. That provides some sense of consensus, since mathematicians and scientists can agree on their thought systems; or at least, they have a recognized and mutually accepted way to resolve such differences, relying on experiments in and observations of the gross world. But this comes at the heavy cost of limiting what counts as knowledge; the rest of life, e.g., philosophy, political opinions, etc., does not lend itself to scientific methods.
Keep in mind that when we say we “know” something in the physical world, that really means that we intuit its form in the intellectual soul, even if we are unaware of doing so. So is there an analogous intuition of the thought world? Yes, there is, in fact, and that is the revelation of Tradition. Valentin Tomberg calls that “the book”, so we have the progression of thought to speech to the book. Exoterically, this revelation seems to be just another ideology competing for space in the Noosphere. The result is that the original revelation gets distorted and ramifies into multiple versions. A Traditional society is organized around its originary revelatory impulse, which maintains the populace in the awareness of that revelation. Rites, prayers, sacraments, scriptures, and so on, will awaken a little intuition in people so that they can maintain that faith. But this system is fragile, depending on the fuller understanding by the spiritual leaders.
The intuition in relation to the Intellect is not of the forms of objects, but rather of the Self. This this is ultimately One, there can be only one revelation. The method described by Shankara is remarkably similar to what Tomberg calls the birth of the Logos from the Spirit and the Virgin. Shankara uses the analogy of the water reflecting the light of the moon. If the Intellect is agitated by attachments, desires, pleasures, pains, likes, dislikes, and so on, the moon’s reflection is fragmented. However, if the water is still, the moon’s reflection in the water is a one.
Shankara concludes with a threefold plan to rid the ego of such impurities:
- Listen to the truth of Scriptures, i.e., hear the Word
- Reason from those truths
- Deep contemplation on what has been heard and reasoned out
Shankara does not proceed beyond the realization of the self; at that point, the task is complete, the realizer is immortal, and there is no longer any concern with the manifest world. This is unlike the Buddhism who claim that the Bodhisattva will return to the world. It also differs from the Western Tradition, which sees the end in the fulfillment of the Person, not in his merging into the Absolute.
Reference: Atma Bodha, by Shankara, commentary by Swami Chinmayananda
Next: whether Tomberg and Solovyov offer anything further