This article originally appeared on my blog.
A couple of days ago I was asked, in one of the comments to a post: ‘in ajatic terms, is there such a thing as ‘life’ or even ‘Life’?
Ajata means ‘not created’ or ‘not caused’. When the word is used as a prefix in vedantic creation theories, it indicates a philosophical or experiential position that the world was never ‘created’. The classic formulation of this position can be found in Gaudapada’s Mandukya Upanishad Karika, chapter two, verse thirty-two. This is Bhagavan’s Tamil rendering of the Sanskrit verse:
There is no creation, no destruction, no bondage, no longing to be freed from bondage, no striving to be free [from bondage], nor anyone who has attained [freedom from bondage]. Know that this is the ultimate truth.
This rendering appears as ‘Stray verse nine’ in Collected Works and as ‘Bhagavan 28’ in Guru Vachaka Kovai. Variations of this verse can also be found in the Amritabindu Upanishad (verse 10), Atma Upanishad (verse 30) and Vivekachudamani (verse 574).
The ajata doctrine takes the position that since the world was never created, there can be no jivas within it who are striving for or attaining liberation. Though it violates common sense and the experience of the senses, Bhagavan regarded it as ‘the ultimate truth’.
Muruganar has noted that, though Bhagavan taught a variety of theories of creation to devotees who asked him questions on this topic, the only explanation that tallied with his own experience was the ajata one:
Though Guru Ramana, who appeared as God incarnate, expounded numerous doctrines, as befitted the different states and beliefs of the various devotees who sought refuge at his feet, you should know that what we have heard him affirm to intimate devotees in private, as an act of grace, as his own true experience, is only the doctrine of ajata [non-creation]. (Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 100)
Adi-Sankaracharya generally invoked maya to explain how an unreal world is created within the Self, whereas his Paramaguru, Gaudapada, taught that the world did not exist at all, even as maya. Swami Madhavatirtha, a vedantic scholar, once asked Bhagavan which side of this doctrinal divide he favoured.
Question: In the Vedanta of Sri Sankaracharya, the principle of the creation of the world has been accepted for the sake of beginners, but for the advanced, the principle of non-creation [ajata] is put forward. What is your view in this matter?
Na nirodho na chotpattir
Nabaddho na cha sadhakaha
Na mumukshur na vai mukta
This verse appears in the second chapter [v. 32, vaithathya prakarana] of Gaudapada’s Karika [a commentary on the Mandukyopanishad]. It means really that there is no creation and no dissolution. There is no bondage, no one doing spiritual practices, no one seeking spiritual liberation, and no one who is liberated. One who is established in the Self sees this by his knowledge of reality. (The Power of the Presence, part one, p. 240)
Though Bhagavan says here that ‘One who is established in the Self sees this [the truth of the ajata position] by his knowledge of reality’, it was not a teaching that he often gave out. Bhagavan himself explained why in this extract from Day by Day with Bhagavan:
The letter went on to say, ‘Ramana Maharshi is an exponent of ajata doctrine of advaita Vedanta. Of course, it is a bit difficult.’
Bhagavan remarked on this, ‘Somebody has told him so. I do not teach only the ajata doctrine. I approve of all schools. The same truth has to be expressed in different ways to suit the capacity of the hearer. The ajata doctrine says, “Nothing exists except the one reality. There is no birth or death, no projection [of the world] or drawing in [of it], no sadhaka, no mumukshu [seeker of liberation], no mukta [liberated one], no bondage, no liberation. The one unity alone exists ever.”
‘To such as find it difficult to grasp this truth and who ask. “How can we ignore this solid world we see all around us?” the dream experience is pointed out and they are told, “All that you see depends on the seer. Apart from the seer, there is no seen.”
‘This is called the drishti-srishti vada, or the argument that one first creates out of his mind and then sees what his mind itself has created.
‘To such as cannot grasp even this and who further argue, “The dream experience is so short, while the world always exists. The dream experience was limited to me. But the world is felt and seen not only by me, but by so many, and we cannot call such a world non-existent,” the argument called srishti-drishti vada is addressed and they are told, “God first created such and such a thing, out of such and such an element and then something else, and so forth.” That alone will satisfy this class. Their mind is otherwise not satisfied and they ask themselves, “How can all geography, all maps, all sciences, stars, planets and the rules governing or relating to them and all knowledge be totally untrue?” To such it is best to say, “Yes. God created all this and so you see it.”’
Dr. M. said, ‘But all these cannot be true; only one doctrine can be true.’
Bhagavan said, ‘All these are only to suit the capacity of the learner. The absolute can only be one.’ (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 15th March, 1946, afternoon)
I began this post by citing a query that appeared in response to something else I had written: ‘in ajatic terms, is there such a thing as ‘life’ or even ‘Life’?
I think the answer to that would be: ‘If the world was never created, where is life going to reside?’ I could also point out that postulating a category such as ‘life’ (or even ‘Life’ with a capital L) implies some sort of dichotomy between animate and inanimate, sentient and insentient. I don’t think that the formless Self can support such distinctions.
I gave a brief reply to Michael, the original questioner, who responded by asking, ‘Are you aware of others who have spoken of this [ajata]?
Yes, I am. Papaji wrote about this extensively in his diary, and I also spoke to him about his views on ajata on a few occasions. Here, for example, is what he wrote in his journal on 6th March 1982:
NO seeker after liberation,
This is the ultimate Truth.
is the only Truth.
Creation indicates an unsatisfied desire on the part of the creator. If the ultimate reality is perfect in itself, then the act of creation can never be predicated on it. (Nothing Ever Happened vol. 3, pp. 217-8)
The emphatic upper case words come from Papaji himself. He begins with a summary of Gaudapada’s classic verse and then elaborates on it in a most interesting way by postulating that creation can never happen because such a process would imply imperfection or incompleteness in the Self. The argument seems to be: creation arises from desire; desire implies incompleteness in the one who has the desire; since the Self is complete, it has no desires; and since it has no desires, creation can never happen.
The corollary of this would be: if you see a world, you have desires; if you have desires, you are ignorant of the Self; if you knew yourself to be Self and Self alone you would have no desires, and in that state there would be no creation. Here is Papaji again elaborating on this chain of logic:
Ignorance gives rise to desires. Desires give rise to the world. When you realise that ignorance itself does not exist, you will discover the illusoriness of your desires. As a result the whole world becomes illusory and non-existent. The world never did exist. If there was no past happening, how then could the desire to have possession of an object arise? If there is no desire, how then could the world be seen as reality? If the desire is ended, you will discover the illusory relationship between the seer and seen. Thus you become the goal where all sufferings end. (Nothing Ever Happened, vol. 3, p. 221)
I think that most devotees of Ramana Maharshi can assimilate the idea that an unreal world is created by the seer of it. This, however, is not ajata; it is drishti-srishti vada. As Bhagavan noted in the quote I gave earlier, this is not the final truth. Ajata, flying in the face of logic, common sense and everyday experience, says very clearly that not even an unreal, illusory projected world has been created. The bald truth, the final truth, is ‘No world has ever been created’.
Maya, the idea that a power within the Self creates and sustains an unreal illusory world, gives a handy and convenient explanation of why an unreal world appears to exist and be real, but ajata rejects this compromise. It sticks firmly to the position that there is no creation and no causality.
Gaudapada declared ‘non-creation’ to be paramartha, the final truth, and Bhagavan endorsed this conclusion, saying that it tallied with his own experience. Papaji too sided with Gaudapada on the issue of whether creation ‘never happened’ or whether it appeared to happen on account of maya:
Somehow, I have to accept Gaudapada’s teaching. And that teaching is ‘Nothing ever existed at all’. This is the teaching which I like. Even Sankara did not agree with him. He started this maya philosophy, the idea that all is an illusion. (Nothing Ever Happened vol. 3, p. 218)
Papaji was fond of saying, ‘Nothing ever happens,’ or ‘Nothing ever happened’. For him this was the ultimate truth, even if it appeared to violate common sense and everyday experience. Bhagavan used this phrase himself in a reply he gave to Swami Madhavatirtha:
…one who is properly established in the Atman knows that nothing happens in this world, and that nothing is ever destroyed. Something is felt to be happening only when we are in the state of pramata, the knower. This state is not one’s real nature. For the jnani who has given up the idea of the knower, nothing ever happens. (The Power of the Presence part one, p. 238)
This is an interesting comment that explains, to some extent, the paradox of ajata. Something can only happen or exist if there is a knower or an experiencer of it. If there is no seer of the world, the world itself is not there, and never was.
It is hard to defend any of this logically or rationally, so don’t expect me to do so in the ‘responses’ section. All I can say is that this is what certain masters have said on this topic, and I can add that they have all said this on the basis of their own direct experience of the Self. That experience does not seem to be governed by the rules of logic.
The issue is complicated even further by their statements that the world still ‘appears’ after realisation, even though the ajata position would seem to indicate that it shouldn’t be there at all. Bhagavan said on several occasions that the world can be taken to be ‘real’ when it is known and experienced to be an indivisible appearance within one’s own Self, and unreal when it is perceived as an object by a seer.
He [Sankara] said that (1) Brahman is real, (2) The universe is unreal, and (3) Brahman is the universe. He did not stop at the second, because the third explains the other two. It signifies that the universe is real if perceived as the Self, and unreal if perceived apart from the Self. (Guru Ramana p. 65)
Papaji gave a very similar explanation in a conversation I had with him in the mid-1990s:
In that place [the silence of the Heart] and in that place alone, one can say, ‘Nothing has ever happened. Nothing has ever existed. The world never came into existence or disappeared from it.’
That place is my real home. It is where I always am. One can say this with authority only when one abides in that ultimate place where nothing has ever happened.
A few weeks ago someone asked me, ‘You say that the world is a projection of the mind, and that you yourself have no mind. If you have no mind, how does the world still appear to you?’
I answered, ‘I don’t see any world, so I don’t need any explanation for its appearance. If I ever see a world in front of me, then I will have to think up an explanation for it.’
That’s one way of answering this question. I could also have said that the world is Brahman, and that everything that is seen is Brahman.
You can see the world as real, as Brahman, or, like the Buddha, you can say that it is not there at all. He never saw anything. Both statements are equally valid.
I can say the world never existed or that the world is Brahman. Both statements are equally true, but this is very hard to understand. The world is real because it is Brahman, not because it appears as names and forms. It is the names and forms that never existed. (Nothing Ever Happened, vol. 3, pp. 223-4)
This elaboration of the points that Bhagavan made in the earlier quote from Guru Ramana gives an indication of how some of the perplexing tenets of ajata can be resolved, at least on an intellectual level. The next quotation is what I wrote as an introduction to some Guru Vachaka Kovai verses that deal with the topic of creation. I included this explanation in a post I made a few months ago, but it is worth repeating here since it dissects some of the terms that are used in Hindu theories of creation:
The question ‘Is the world real?’ is a recurring one in Indian philosophy, and Bhagavan was asked for his views on this topic on many occasions. To understand the context and background of his replies it will be helpful to have a proper understanding of what he meant by the words ‘real’ and ‘world’.
In everyday English the word ‘real’ generally denotes something that can be perceived by the senses. As such, it is a misleading translation of the Sanskrit word ‘sat’, which is often rendered in English as ‘being’ or ‘reality’. Bhagavan, along with many other Indian spiritual teachers, had a completely different definition of reality:
Bhagavan: What is the standard of reality? That alone is real which exists by itself, which reveals itself by itself and which is eternal and unchanging. (Maharshi’s Gospel, p. 61)
In Indian philosophy reality is not determined by perceptibility but by permanence, unchangeability and self-luminosity. This important definition is elaborated on in the dialogue from which the above quotation has been taken. It appears in full as a note to verse 64. As for the word ‘world’, Muruganar points out in his comments to verses 63 and 64 that the Sanskrit word for world, ‘loka’, literally means ‘that which is seen’. The Tamil word for the world, ulagu, is derived from loka and has the same meaning. If one combines this definition of the word ‘world’ with the standard of reality set by Bhagavan, the question, ‘Is the world real?’ becomes an enquiry about the abiding reality of what is perceived: ‘Do things that are perceived have permanence, unchangeability and self-luminosity?’ The answer to that question is clearly ‘no’. The names and forms perceived by a seer do not meet the standard of reality defined by Bhagavan, and as such they are dismissed as ‘unreal’.
According to Bhagavan these names and forms appear in Brahman, the underlying substratum. Brahman does meet the stringent test for reality outlined above since it, and it alone, is permanent, unchanging and self-luminous. If one accepts these definitions, it follows that Brahman is real, whereas the world (the collection of perceived names and forms) is unreal. This formulation, ‘Brahman is real; the world is unreal’ is a standard and recurring statement in Vedantic philosophy.
Vedanta is the philosophy that is derived from the Upanishads, the final portions of the Vedas, and the subdivision of it that tallies with Bhagavan’s teachings is known as ‘advaita’, which translates as ‘not two’. ‘Not two’ means, among other things, that there are not two separate entities, Brahman and the world; all is one indivisible whole. This point is important to remember since it is at the crux of the apparently paradoxical statements that Bhagavan made on the nature and reality of the world and its substratum. Since there is nothing that is separate from Brahman, it follows that the names and forms that appear and manifest within it partake of its reality. This means that when the world is known and directly experienced to be a mere appearance in the underlying Brahman, it can be accepted as real, since it is no longer perceived as a separate entity. If one knows oneself to be Brahman, one knows that the world is real because it is indistinguishable from one’s own Self. However, if one merely perceives external names and forms, without experiencing that substratum, those forms have to be dismissed as unreal since they do not meet the strict definition of reality.
Once these terms (‘world’ and ‘real’) are analysed and understood, some of the more perplexing conundrums that characterise advaitic creation theories can be seen in a new light. If a world is ‘seen’, it is created and sustained by the ignorance of the ‘seer’; it is not a creation of the Self. In these circumstances, it is still possible to say that in the Self creation has ‘never happened’. But what of the world that ‘appears’ to the jnani? This may seem to be semantic hair-splitting of an extreme kind, but ‘appearance’ does not mean ‘creation’. Ajata means ‘not caused’ or ‘not created’. It doesn’t necessarily mean ‘not existing at all’. The world of the jnani is an uncaused and uncreated appearance within the Self; the world of the ajnani, on the other hand, is a creation of the mind that sees it.