Because its abstract truths cannot be easily understood by the finite intellect, Vedanta is most effectively taught by a living teaching, through practical illustrations taken from daily life.
The main purport of Vedanta is that Brahman (awareness) alone is absolutely real and cannot be negatable in the past, present and future. While the world (including your body-mind with which you are reading these words right now) — is seemingly-real, because it is both impermanent and dependent upon awareness for its existence.
Moreover, Vedanta asserts that the jiva (the apparent individual) is nothing other than Brahman, or awareness, itself.
This reality cannot be comprehended by those immersed in the life of relativity. Because relativity always involves forms. Yet the absolute reality is formless. It can’t be seen, perceived, inferred, touched, smelled, heard or tasted. Although it can be revealed through a certain means of knowledge.
The absolute reality (awareness) is the subtlest of the subtlest (even subtler then space or time) — thus needs a highly refined and mature mind to appreciate.
Otherwise, the mind helplessly turns Awareness/Consciousness into another object. Neuro-science is flooded with claims, “Consciousness is product of your physical brain”. Or “one day, we will find the region of neurons which supply consciousness”.
As brilliant as neuro-scientists or quantum physicist’s mind and thinking is — in reference to understanding the final reality (Consciousness) — one has a long way to go.
Therefore to help loosen the rigidity of a gross mind, keeping it in world of relativity — Vedanta employs relatable illustrations to help you shift focus deeper and subtler. That’s the intention of this article.
This article will use effective illustrations which you can contemplate on, assuming you have already attended or are attending Advaita Vedanta classes by a living teacher. If not, these analogies won’t do justice of what they’re intended to do, because you need to draw from other Vedantic teachings for these analogies to have any substantial transformational power.
The Sanskrit word for these illustrations is nyaya.
Nyaya is a method or scheme of logic in the form of an analogy, illustration, model, or metaphorthat is employed to prove or disprove a proposition.
It formulates in a nutshell an entire argument or epitomizes a whole viewpoint.
The merit of nyaya is that since it is derived from common experiences in daily life — the student can easily relate to it and, thus, more clearly understand its purport.
These analogies, however, are not perfect. They have their limitations, as any example can only show one facet of the total reality — never the whole. So keep in mind that the “perfect analogy” or “model of reality” doesn’t exist. That’s why Vedanta has many.
Moreover, argument is not evidence. Its purpose is to illustrate.
The analogies and illustrations attempt to represent something that cannot be perceived.
One has to strive to extract from the illustration what is called a “positive analogy”. In other words, allowing yourself to let it widen your perspective. The opposite is to find loopholes — dismissing it as “outdated, dualistic, or flawed”. We see this often with beginners who seem to get a kick by showing limitations of any analogy.
Nonetheless, the value of these analogies or illustrations is that they facilitate a passage from doubt to the non-contradictable truth. They come from Upanishads and have been used for thousands of years, simply because they work.
1. The Rope and the Snake (rajju-sarpa-nyaya)
In the twilight a weary traveler comes upon a well rope curling up over the edge of the bucket to which it is tied, and mistakes it for a poisonous snake. He cries out and stands paralyzed with fear. His heart throbs.
When a wise old man happens by and shines a light on the rope and the bucket, the frightened traveler sees that what he had taken to be a poisonous snake was after all only a harmless rope, and instantly his fear abates.
This analogy illustrates the unreality of the world and its superimposition on the limitless awareness.
It also shows what happens when we don’t have full knowledge of the rope (symbolic of reality). Our mind fills in an approximate. It superimposes what it wants to see based on partial past knowledge.
The mistake produces a genuine emotional response and opinion in light of the superimposition, and is not keeping with the actual reality.
A common man lives like the traveler. Going about one’s day to day experience — quick to make confident assumptions — and even contaminates other minds by sharing her half-baked and uninvestigated conclusions. Thus the perception remains skin-deep.
Awareness alone is the nature of reality. And just as the snake is a superimposition on the rope, so the world is only a superimposition on attributeless awareness. Not knowing this, one innocently attributes absolute status to things seen, heard, smelled, touched and tasted. When in truth, they are merely modifications of Awareness. (To understand the depth of this, you need a Vedanta teacher.)
2. The Mirage and the Water
(mrigatrishna-nyaya / mṛgatṛṣṇikā-nyāya)
t high noon, a desert traveler sees a mirage where water, meadows, trees and mansions apparently abide.
Believing he has found a beautiful spot in which to enjoy a respite from the hot sun and cool drink to slake his thirst — the traveler rushes toward it.
The nearer he thinks he is to the oasis, however, the further it retreats from him.
Only upon finding that he has strayed from his path and has wandered far into the desert — does the man realize he has made a mistake in seeking set foot within the bounds of this false appearance.
Though during future travels, the man sees similar appearances, never again do they deceive him.
This analogy illustrates the falsity of the universe, whose myriad tantalizing objects appear to promise pleasure — but due to their temporary nature inevitably produce pain.
When self-knowledge reveals that this world is unreal and, therefore, incapable of providing permanent peace and happiness — one ceases one’s ardent pursuit of objects and thereby shirks the pain and suffering that inevitably comes as its result.
The mirage is only an apparition caused by the sun’s rays. Not knowing this, it becomes a promise that it’s cool waters can quench one’s thirst.
Similarly, the world is only an apparent reality caused by ignorance (partial knowledge of reality). Consequently the world becomes a promise that sensual pleasure, name and fame, can produce lasting happiness.
3. The Silver and the Shell / The Silver and the Nacre
(shuktirajata-nyaya / śuktirajata-nyāya)
This is similar to the analogies of the snake and the rope (#1), the blue sky (#23), and the ghost in the post (#24).
The mother-of-pearl (shiny inside of a shell) is mistaken for pure silver. The rope is mistaken for a snake. The attributeless sky appears blue. And the post is mistaken for a man at night.
These analogies illustrate the superimposition of the unreal (mithya) on the real (satyam Brahman).
The knowledge of the limitless awareness, the non-dual reality, comes after proper understanding — through discrimination, patience, endurance, renunciation and meditation.
Just as the silver is an appearance of nacre, the snake an appearance of the rope, and the ghost an appearance of the post — so the world is nothing other than an appearance of awareness.
4. The Gold and the Ornaments
This is similar to the analogies of the clay and the pot (mrittika-ghata-nyaya, #24) and the analogy of the iron and the implements. Though many are the forms, all the ornaments are made of gold. Though the vessels are various, all of them are composed of clay. Though the tools are assorted, all of them are made of iron. The forms and their names are apparent — since in reality they are only the substance out of which they are fashioned.
These analogies illustrate that the various names and forms (nama-rupa) of this world are seeming — for all are essentially nothing other than awareness. How so?..
What is any tangible object or mental concept such as a mathematical equation, filled by? Your awareness of it. Even the experience of agreement or disagreement to this statement, has no existence without your Awareness of it.
Even if you state that objects are filled by various elements such as carbon, or sub-atomic particles, and obtain within space and time — that too is a concept which depends entirely on a conscious being, you.
5. The Wave and the Ocean
Though there are countless waves rolling in the vast ocean, and each wave can be distinguished from the others and perceived separately — all are water only and are not separate from the great ocean. In reality, all are only one — the difference being only apparent.
This analogy illustrates that all the innumerable apparent individuals (jivas) that appear in this universe — though perceived to be separate from one another — are in reality made of the same “substance” as that singular ocean of awareness whose nature is existence-consciousness-fullness (satchidananda) and are identical with it.
Truly speaking, there diversity or difference is only seeming, not actual.
6. The Color in the Crystal
Though the clear crystal is pure in itself has no particular color of its own, when a colored object is placed next to it, it reflects the object’s color and itself appears to be that same hue.
Just as the clear crystal seems apparently colored by the adjacent object — in the same way, the attributeless brahman (awareness) is apparently transformed or sculpted by the names, forms, and qualities that constitute the various limiting adjuncts (upadhis) — such as the three bodies (gross, subtle, and causal) and the three states of experience (waking, dreaming, and deep sleep).
The upadhi makes I (brahman) appear to be something I am not. Because the body-mind is finite, therefore “I” am finite, which compels the “small me” to seek fulfillment in this world in form of experiences.
It’s analogues to clear crystal taking on attributes of an old, wilting rose. Therefore whatever conditions belong to the rose, the crystal erroneously concludes, “this is happening to me”.
In case of an unenlightened person, this error translates to, “Let’s become bigger, better! Let me find love. Let me entertain myself! Let my name be recognized in the society!”.
While Vedanta encourages one to contribute to the society in light of one’s strengths and God given talents — at the same time, one’s “busy life” may be a desperate attempt of silencing the unceasing existential angst of feeling small in this vast universe.
7. The Lotus-Leaf and the Water
Though rainwater falls on a lotus-leaf, the water drips down and the leaf does not get wetted by or attached to the water.
In the same manner, Brahman remains untainted by the countless worlds, experiences, phenomenas, emotions and thoughts appearing within its scope — and the countless bodies “worn” by it.
But due to ignorance one one’s nature as we’ve seen in “Color in the Crystal” (#6) — the self (brahman), as though, gets wet or influenced and contaminated.
8. The Air and the Scent
While the wind carries whatever scent is exposed to it and spreads it everywhere — the air itself remains ever pure and is neither defiled by a putrid stink nor ornamented by a pleasant scent existing within it.
This illustration is similar to that of the “Lotus Leaf and Water” (#7), and shows the unattached state of Brahman despite the myriad names and forms it seemingly sports and actions it apparently performs in its manifestation as the universe.
9. The Spider and the Web
The spider spews forth the silk with which it weaves its web from its own mouth and withdraws it again into its mouth. The web is, thus, nothing other than the body of the spider itself and is one with it.
In the same way, this world is both projected forth and then again withdrawn by awareness and is, thus, nothing but awareness in manifest form. This shows that awareness alone is.
10. The Sun and Its Reflections
(surya-bimba-nyaya / sūrya-bimba-nyāya)
There is only one sun illumining all the worlds. But there are perceived as many different reflections of the sun, as there are ponds, tanks, rivers, mirrors, etc. The sun is reflected in all waters — but there is only one real Sun.
So also there is only one absolute existence, limitless awareness. But that One Reality is reflected through the upadhis (as spoken of in #6), or limiting/conditioning adjuncts as various worlds and jivas (apparent individuals).
From this point of view, the universe is only pratibimba (many reflections of the One Reality; awareness). This is the vision of non-duality.
11. The Space and the Pot
(ghatakasa-nyaya / ghaṭākāśa-nyāya)
The same space that pervades the whole universe also exists inside a single jar.
The space in the jar can seemingly be differentiated from the total space on account of its being enclosed and contained by the jar.
However the space is not in the least affected by the partition created by the shell of the jar.
When the jar is broken the space in the jar becomes one with the total space, having undergone no change at any time.
Just so, while Awareness in your body-mind-sense-complex is seemingly separated and different from the Total, because of your body-mind enclosure — in reality, your Awareness is exactly the same as Awareness in every other body-mind complex.
There are no two Awareness’s. Awareness is one. Thoughts about “what awareness is” may be different as thoughts belong to countless minds — but no opinion defines Awareness. On contrary, because I am aware, there can be an opinion about Awareness.
In reality, Awareness (brahman) or “I” undergoes no change, despite the ongoing changes occurring within the mind-body-sense complex. However, due to ignorance (avidya) of one’s nature — “I” is placed in the finite body-mind, thereby “I” becomes finite, hungry, desirous, tired, stupid, smart, etc.
12. The Wasp and the Insects
(bhramara-kita-nyaya / bhramara-kīṭa-nyāya)
By stinging and thereby poisoning the insects it brings to its hive — the wasp makes them feel its presence alone everywhere, at all times. The insects thereafter meditate incessantly on the presence of the wasp, so to speak, and in turn become the wasp themselves.
This illustration shows that by meditating on the meaning of the great statement, “You are That” (tat tvam asi), the jiva (limited individual) comes to eventually understand that “the truth of myself and the total is not two”.
In other words, the notional error that I am different from the Whole, is removed.
13. The Burnt Cloth
(dagdhapata-nyaya / dagdhapāṭa-nyāya)
After a cloth is burnt, its charred form remains intact. By means of even the gentlest touch, however, it is reduced to ashes.
Similarly, the physical body of one with self-knowledge (jnani / jivanmukta; meaning one who is liberated while living), appears — but has no reality from standpoint of the jnani.
In contrast, the ignorant person (ajnani; one whose “I” is placed in the body-mind complex), to them, the body also appears, but is taken as real.
In reference to the jnani — physical body’s and the mind’s apparent reality has been incinerated by the fire of self-knowledge. They are merely instruments for transacting with the world.
Because meaning of “I AM” is no longer placed in the body-mind, but Awareness — the jnani is untouched by worldly transactions. In other words, “My body and mind is operating, experiencing, crying, jumping in joy — but none of that belongs to Me”.
14. The Star in the Sky
(arundhati-nyaya / arundhatī-nyāya)
In order to show a person the small star called “Arundhati” — one points first to a bigger star above it that can be clearly seen, and says that it is Arundhati.
As the smaller star is very faint and not easy to see — the person is led from the nearby brighter star to the Arundhati star.
Similarly, the aspirant is at first shown a physical method of approaching Brahman — through the practices of karma yoga (in Bhagavad Gita CH3), devotional worship, jnana yoga, and meditation.
But once his or her mind has reached the necessary degree of purity to allow for effective self-inquiry, he or she is led gradually to the knowledge of the limitless self, which is formless and eternal.
This analogy also illustrates the method, used in Vedanta classes, of adhyaropa-apavada (superimposition and negation). It when one’s suppositions regarding reality of objects are serially granted and negated until reality of all objects is understood to resolve into, or depend on awareness.
15. The Seed and the Tree
(bija-vriksha-nyaya / bījavṛkṣanyāya)
The seed is the cause of the tree and the tree is the cause of the seed. It cannot be unequivocally determined which is the cause of which.
This analogy illustrates that for every question and statement, there is a counter-question and counter-statement.
It shows that each “this” has a corresponding “that” — thereby showing the interconnectedness and relativity of the world.
And according to Vedanta, the ultimate reality of the relative world which one gets entangled with, taking it to be absolute real — is the underlying attributeless, non-dual awareness that pervades and supports time-space and all objects arising within it.
17. The Stone and the Mud
(ashma-loshta-nyaya / aśma-loṣṭa-nyāya)
Mud is very hard when compared to cotton, but very soft when compared to stone.
This illustration shows that any object may be “bad” or inferior when compared with something better or superior — but “good” or superior when compared with something “worse” or inferior, and vice versa.
All objects are, therefore, value-neutral.
That is, no object possesses an inherent quality in itself. An object’s worth is determined solely by the values of the person making the judgment.
By extension, this illustration implies that there is no plurality in life, and that all perceived difference is imaginary and rooted in ignorance (meaning one doesn’t have full knowledge of any given object, therefore assigns it a subjective worth).
18. The Teeth of a Crow
(Kakadanta-Nyaya / Kākadaṇṭa-Nyāya)
It is useless to search for the teeth of a crow, for it has no teeth.
Similar is the case of the son of a barren woman (vandhya-putra-nyaya), a lotus grown in the sky (gaganāravinda-nyāya), a city in the clouds (gandharvanagara-nyaya), and the horns of a hare (shashavishna-nyaya / śaśaviṣāṇa-nyāya).
This illustration shows that it is meaningless to question the contradictions and mysteries of existence, such as, “Why did the Perfect God create an imperfect world?”.
These questions only arise so long as one has not gained self-knowledge, not found a teacher to help remove ignorance, not understood what is “God”, and fails to recognize the absolute awareness that is the nature of existence.
19. The Cakes and the Stick
(Dandapupa-Nyaya / Daṇḍapūpa-Nyāya)
When many cakes are tied to a stick and the stick has been pulled down and is not to be found, it naturally follows that the cakes also are missing.
This analogy illustrates that all doubts are cleared and desires pacified when it is known that one’s true nature is whole and complete, limitless, actionless, unborn, eternal, all-pervasive, non-dual awareness.
Doubts and desires arise only when there is the erroneous perception of change or evolution due to ignorance (placing “I” into the changing body-mind-sense complex).
Another way to explain…
The stick represents our fundamental, unchanging nature (awareness). The cakes symbolize our doubts, desires and misconceptions. These doubts and desires are tied to our understanding of our true self — much like the cakes are tied to the stick. When we realize our true nature (i.e., when the stick is pulled down) — the doubts, desires and misconceptions (the cakes) disappear along with it.
Not that desires and doubts won’t be there anymore; they continue as usual. Experience of pain, pleasure, anxiety, concern — all continue for the enlightened person. But they’re understood to belong to the body-mind complex, not to “I”.
20. The Barber and His Son
(Kshaurikaputra-Nyaya / Kṣaurikaputra-Nyāya)
A king asked a barber to bring him the most beautiful boy in his kingdom. The barber searched throughout the whole country, but could not find a boy whom he felt was really beautiful.
Feeling sad and frustrated, he returned to his home in distress. Upon seeing there his own son, who was actually an embodiment of ugliness — the barber believed this boy the most beautiful in the world and brought him to the king.
This story illustrates that attachment clouds one’s judgment, and that as a result of one’s love of and attachment to worldly objects and experience — one remains bound by the notion that one is a separate, independent mind-body-sense complex and suffers the inevitable feelings of incompleteness and inadequacy that is that is the consequence of this identification.
21. The Worms and the Poison
(Visha-Krimi-Nyaya / Viṣa-Kṛmi-Nyāya)
Worms reveling in poisonous substances are not affected by that poison and are happy within its midst. In other words, an environment that could be deadly or repugnant to other creatures, could be a “perfect home” for worms.
This illustrates that even though an object is worthless to one person, it may be very valuable and desirable to another. Just so, apparent individuals mired in ignorance of their true nature remain satisfied with the relative and temporary happiness found through worldly enjoyments because they do know not there exists anything greater.
22. The Crow and the Fruit
(Kakataliya-Nyaya / Kākatalīya-Nyāya)
At the same moment in which a crow alighted on the branch of a palmyra tree — a fruit of that tree fell on its head and killed it. The falling of the fruit, however, was not prompted by the crow’s presence in the tree. The two events were merely coincidental.
Put another way, the two events are unrelated. The fruit’s fall is due to its ripeness (or some other factor), and the crow landing on the branch is a separate event. The correlation between the two events is coincidental, not causal.
It shows the concept of false causality or coincidental correlation, a logical fallacy where two events happening at the same time are incorrectly perceived as being causally related, when they are not.
This story is often used to caution against drawing hasty conclusions based on observed correlations. It can also serve as a reminder that not all observed phenomena in the universe have an obvious cause-and-effect relationship.
This analogy underscores the element of unpredictability and spontaneity in life. According to Yoga Vasishtha, the shared experience of a common world among many individuals (each navigating it according to their desires, fears, and value-based preferences) — it is not orchestrated or predestined.
Just as we’ve seen with the fruit and crow. The crow was not predestined to die, as one would erroneously conclude.
Rather, the world unfolds organically and spontaneously.
Unlike the crow, the human being is endowed with capacity to choose. Freedom to will. In other words, even amidst the spontaneity and unpredictability of life, we have the freedom to navigate our paths, make choices, and influence the course of our own lives. Therefore, rather than rendering us powerless, this perspective empowers us to take charge of our own experiences.
23. The Blue Sky Parable
This parable is used to illustrate the concept of incorrect perception of reality. Just as the sky appears blue to the human eye, though it is not inherently so, our perception of the world around us is not always an accurate reflection of reality.
In the context of Vedanta, this analogy is often used to highlight the illusory nature of the material world. While the world appears to us in certain ways due to our sensory perceptions and mental constructs, its true nature is Brahman, the ultimate reality which is unchanging and eternal.
Just as one understands upon closer inquiry that the sky is not really blue, a spiritual seeker, through deep contemplation and self-inquiry, realizes the true nature of Self. This realization leads to the dissolution of the false perception of separateness and appreciation of the non-dual nature of reality.
Another way to look at this parable…
It compares Brahman to the clear, blue sky.
- Like the sky, Brahman is infinite and all-pervading. Just as the sky stretches endlessly in all directions, Brahman exists everywhere without limits.
- The sky is unchanged and undivided. Though we see different shapes and objects in the sky like clouds, birds, planes etc — the sky itself remains one uniform entity. Similarly Brahman remains undivided and unmodified — though the world of names and forms exists within it.
- The sky is pure, clean and unchanged by anything that happens in it. Brahman too is absolutely pure and untouched by anything that occurs within it, like the world and all activities.
- We cannot live without the sky as it gives us air and space. In the same way, we cannot exist without Brahman as we are supported by it at all times.
- The sky cannot be tainted or Polluted by anything. Smoke may cover a portion of it temporarily but the sky itself remains pure. Similarly sins and impurities may veil our vision of Brahman but do not affect Brahman.
So in essence, just as the sky serves as the unmodified background to everything that happens in space — Brahman serves as the pure, infinite, eternal background of existence on which the entire phenomenal world operates.
This analogy helps explain the Vedantic concept of Brahman in a simple metaphorical manner.
24. Ghost in the Post
A person walking at night mistakes a post (stambha) for a ghost (nara) due to darkness and imperfect eyesight. He sees the post as a ghost, gets frightened and runs away. But when light comes, the post is revealed as it is and the erroneous notion of the ghost disappears.
Similarly, Brahman is the eternal, unchanging reality. Our ignorance (avidya) creates the mistaken error of the changing world upon Brahman, like the illusion of ghost on the post. Thereby we give more reality to the changes, then the changeless substratum; Brahman.
It illustrates the concept of superimposition (adhyasa), where one thing is mistakenly perceived as something else. Just as the post is mistaken for a ghost or human, we often mistake our true self, which is Consciousness — for the body-mind complex due to ignorance (Avidya).
Driven by this ignorance, we see the world as full of dualities, suffering and impermanence. We run after sense objects seeking happiness just like the person ran away from the imagined ghost.
But when the light of self-knowledge (atma-jnana) dawns, we realize that the dual, ever-changing world had it’s being not apart from Awareness.
Awareness was always the sole unchanging reality, just as the post remained the post. All our fears and efforts were due to ignorance, just like the person’s fear was due to ignorance of what-is.
So this analogy illustrates how ignorance creates illusion and hides the true nature of self.
Removal of ignorance removes the error and reveals Brahman, just as light reveals the post.
It underlines the central tenet of Advaita that Brahman alone is real, and the ever-changing world is a temporary appearance created by avidya. The essence is ONE Brahman without a second.
24. Clay and the Pot
(mrittika-ghata-nyaya / mṛttika-ghaṭa-nyāya)
Imagine a potter who takes a lump of clay (mṛttika) and shapes it into a pot (ghaṭa). Before it was a pot, it was clay. After it becomes a pot, it still remains clay. The pot can never be separated from the clay. The pot may change its form, break, or be reshaped, but the essential nature of the material remains clay.
Similarly, Brahman is the fundamental, unchanging reality. Just as clay manifests as a pot, Brahman manifests as the universe and all its myriad forms, including the body-mind complex. Each form is not separate from Brahman, just as the pot is not separate from the clay.
It illustrates the concept of Satyam (Truth/Brahman) and Mithya (time, space and objects). Just as the pot (mithya) is nothing but the clay (satyam) in another form — the universe (mithya) is nothing but Brahman (satyam) in another form.
In our ignorance (avidya), we often mistake the transient forms (mithya) for reality (satyam) — just as one might mistake the pot for something separate from the clay. We identify with the body-mind complex and forget our true nature as Atman, the Self, which is not different from Brahman.
Driven by this ignorance, we perceive the world as full of dualities and suffering. We run after material possessions and sensory pleasures, seeking happiness in the transient and forgetting the eternal.
But when the light of self-knowledge (ātma-jñāna) dawns, we realize that our true nature is not the body-mind complex but the Atman, the Self. Just as recognizing the pot as clay dispels the illusion of the pot’s separateness, recognizing one’s truth (the content of all things) is not different from the total — it dispels the notion of one’s separateness from the total.
Awareness, like the clay, remains the sole unchanging reality, even as the forms it takes, like the pot, come and go. All our fears and desires are due to ignorance, just like the mistaken belief in the pot’s separateness from the clay.
This analogy illustrates how ignorance creates illusion and hides the true nature of the Self. The removal of ignorance reveals Brahman, just as recognizing the pot as clay reveals the clay’s true nature.
It underlines the central tenet of Advaita Vedanta that Brahman alone is real, and the world of forms is assumed to be real due to ignorance of Brahman (the one reality from which all comes).
1. The Butter in the Milk
Potential for butter or ghee exists in milk. But where is it? Though it cannot be perceived, it is present in each and every drop of milk, and there is no particle of milk in which potential for butter or ghee is not present.
This analogy illustrates the omnipresence of Brahman. In the same manner, Brahman, limitless awareness, is present everywhere, and there is no speck of space where Brahman is not. Since Brahman is attributeless and cannot be perceived, however, it seems to be nowhere. Though limitless, attributeless awareness is the very essence of existence, the worldly-minded man fails to apprehend it.
Another way to look at this is…
Just as the butter lies hidden in milk and requires churning to manifest, the Self is, as though, hidden within each individual and requires a means of knowledge to reveal it.
2. The Fire in Wood
Just as butter is present in every particle of milk, so fire is present in all parts of wood. Moreover, though fire is a singular phenomenon and, therefore, it is essentially the same fire that exists in all wood, it diversifies into various names, forms, and actions when it manifests as visible fire. Such as sparks, or glow of wood, or as the heat emanated.
Even so Brahman, which is the essential reality of all objects, appears as many in name, form, and action when manifest as various jivas (living beings) and countless worlds. While it appears as many, however, the truth is only one.
3. The Smoke and the Fire
When smoke emanates from fire, suppose a dense cloud covers the bright fire and the fire cannot be seen. Though the source is the fire and the smoke could not exist independent of the fire — the smoke is capable of blocking a clear line of sight for you to recognize the fire in it’s true-ness.
Similarly, maya (a power of Brahman) erupts within the being of Brahman, and clouds your crystal-clear recognition of Brahman, thereby making it seem as though there is variety in existence.
Being itself only a power within awareness — maya is one with Brahman and, thus, it is nothing other than Brahman appearing as the vast array of gross and subtle objects that constitute the entire universe.
4. Thread and the Necklace
(From BG 7.7)
While the necklace contains many beads of various forms — there is but a single thread (one God) that connects them all and keeps them unified. The thread is their very support and being.
Similarly, Ishvara (intelligence from which forms manifest and the laws the govern the interaction of those manifest forms) is one who puts together and sustains all forms (beads) together.
In fact the beads are also manifest out of Ishvara. You as a body-mind complex are one of the beads.
Meaning the thread (intelligence) is invisible, yet holds all beads together. The invisible is essential, as without thread, beads can’t connect. Entire setup is Ishvara, in which you have free will to express yourself differently (such as becoming a doctor or engineer).
Furthermore, the invisible thread connects your past actions, and delivers immediate or future results.
Even so, underlying the existence of the vast array of diverse jivas and worlds is awareness – personified as the Supreme Brahman – that is the very support and being of all that is.
5. The Wearer and the Apparel
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna states that just as a person discard old, worn-out clothes and puts on new ones, so the jiva (living entity) throws off his or her old, used-up body-mind-sense complex and assumes a new one.
This analogy illustrates the jiva’s relative immortality. Though the body “dies” or resolves into the 5 elements — the Self, one’s true identity as limitless awareness, is ever untouched by all that appears to transpire within the parameters of time and space and is, thus, not subject to change or death.
6. The Chameleon
The chameleon is an animal capable of changing its color at any time as a means of camouflaging itself in accordance with the color of the surface on which it is situated.
While a person who has seen the chameleon only when it is assuming the color red says that it is red, and another who has seen it only when it is assuming the color green says that it is green — one who has observed the chameleon in the context of various environmental circumstances over an extended period of time — knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that it is a single chameleon who has assumed not only these but a host of other appearances as well.
This analogy illustrates the nature of reality is non-dual. While people who erroneously interpret reality to be a duality quarrel among themselves about what is right and what is wrong, what the nature of God is, and what it is not, etc. — a jnani, or one with self-knowledge, who has thoroughly inquired into the nature of existence and removed all ignorance concerning its true nature — harbors no more doubts regarding its essential identity.
All the diverse names and forms appearing within awareness – including the apparent individual mind-body-sense complex with which one is associated itself – are essentially nothing other than awareness. Hence, awareness alone is.
7. The Salt and the Water
Though a particle of salt dropped into a large vessel of water dissolves and is no longer perceptible as a separate, independent entity — the water thereafter tastes salty.
In the same manner, the jiva (living entity who is ignorant of one’s true nature), on attaining self-knowledge, “dissolves” in the ocean of Truth (sat-chit-ananda). “Dissolving” means removing the notion that made the seeker believe he or she was different from the Truth, or thinking Truth was located somewhere away from me.
More appropriately put, the individual understands his or her true nature as whole and complete, limitless, ever-present, all-pervasive, non-dual awareness and, moreover, realizes that he or she has always been so.
The entire universe, thereafter, is apprehended as nothing other than awareness as well.
8. Two Thorns
If a thorn is stuck in one’s foot, another thorn can be used to remove it. After the deed is done, however, both thorns are discarded.
Even so, the negative qualities and evil, or self-insulting, actions born of avidya, or ignorance — should be removed by the cultivation of virtuous qualities through the practices of karma yoga, devotional worship, jnana yoga, and meditation that ultimately produce a purified mind that is capable of assimilating self-knowledge and thereby gaining moksha, or liberation.
Once having been set free, one discards the notion of duality altogether.
So duality (in form of words and teachings) is used to remove the notion of duality.
9. Sword and the Philosopher’s Stone
By the touch of the philosopher’s stone, the sharp iron sword transforms into gold and is, thereafter, no longer capable of cutting despite it having retained the appearance of a sword.
The sharp iron sword represents the ordinary I-sense (ego), loaded with binding likes and dislikes (vasanas), desires and fears. The sword, being the only source of entertainment for oneself, is used in the world impulsively. This is compared to the ignorant, small I-sense being compelled to act in the world for sake of gaining some fulfillment or sense of completion.
On the other hand, the philosopher’s stone represents the wisdom of the Self — the recognition of one’s true nature as pure, limitless awareness. When clarity dawns that one’s true Self is Brahman (consciousness) — it transforms the I-sense (ego) like the sword turning to gold.
The I-sense (ego) of the jnani, or self-realized person, is no longer compelled to act at the behest of the vasanas, or one’s binding likes and dislikes, desires and fears — and is thereby freed from the wheel of samsara (the repetitive cycle of joy and sorrow).
Despite the jnani’s continued appearance as an apparent individual — he or she understands his or her true nature as whole and complete, limitless, non-dual awareness.
10. The Chandelier and the Electricity
Though a chandelier is comprised of various bulbs of different color and diverse form, the basis of the light emitted by the entire apparatus is the singular power of electricity that, though colorless itself, is the common force upon which all the bulbs depend to produce their various hues.
Even so, there are various worlds and creatures of multifarious names and forms, but all having their basis or support in limitless, non-dual awareness (Brahman) — that is indivisible and attributeless, without name and form.
11. The Two Birds
(Rigveda and the Mundaka Upanishad)
Two birds live in the same tree as comrades. But one of them eats the sweet fruit of the tree and gets lost in the taste. The wise-enlightened bird is also able to appreciate various tastes the tree (life) has to offer. But it remains ever alert, abiding in it’s own fullness which no worldly taste can top. It remains an objective witness to the world, no longer giving the world value it doesn’t intrinsically have.
This analogy illustrates that the jiva, or the apparent individual, and Paramatman, or limitless awareness, both “inhabit” the same body — though technically it is the body that appears within the scope of limitless awareness.
While the jiva enjoys contact with sense objects and its consequent pleasures and pains and inevitably becomes bound to the Wheel of Samsara (the repetitive cycle of birth and death, joy and sorrow) — the self whose true nature is limitless awareness, remains as a sakshi (witness), and exists ever untouched by and completely free of all relative phenomena.
12. The Woman and the Necklace
Having forgotten that she is wearing it around her neck, a woman frantically searches here and there for her prized gold necklace – all to no avail – only to ultimately have her erroneous conclusion that the necklace had been stolen corrected by her husband who points out that she has been sporting the valuable accessory on her very person all along.
Similarly, the jiva, or apparent individual, searches for completeness, perfection, peace, and permanent happiness through the repetitive pursuit of gross and subtle objects in the world or one’s own imagination.
However both gross experience (such as sex, entertainment, status in the world, etc) and subtle objects (such as subtle “feel-good” experiences which spiritual noobs mistake of enlightenment) — enjoy a completely different ontological status, or exist in a completely different order of reality than his or her true self.
Just as the woman was looking in the wrong place due to ignorance, in that same manner, the seeker looks for self elsewhere (in experiences), yet it is one’s very nature ever present, here and now.
13. The Silkworm and the Cocoon
The silkworm projects thread from its mouth and then binds itself within a cocoon.
The silkworm represents the ordinary human mind, spinning out thoughts, desires and actions based on ignorance of its true nature. Driven by vasanas(latent tendencies), it weaves a cocoon of ego-identification, mistaking itself to be a limited body-mind complex.
Attachments to the transient world further reinforces this false identity, binding the jiva (individual self) in bondage to samsara. Suffering arises from the notions of lack and inadequacy that accompany this erroneous identification. Trapped in its self-created cocoon of delusion, the silkworm remains imprisoned in its limited existence.
Just as the silkworm itself projects the threads to bind its freedom, the mind creates its own suffering by attachment to its illusory identity. However, through the wisdom of Advaita Vedanta, one realizes the falsehood of this limited self.
When the truth of one’s absolute nature as non-dual Brahman is recognized, the identity with the body-mind drops away. By letting go of ignorance and attachment, the cocoon of ego dissolves, freeing consciousness from bondage. One transcends the cycle of samsara, no longer bound by the notions of lack or limitation.
The apparent individual self emerges as nothing but Self, limitless and eternal. Like the silkworm transforming into a free moth, one transcends identification with the ego-mind and abides in self as the self.Based on the chapter “Illustrations in Vedanta” from Swami Sivananda’s book, “Vedanta for Beginners” (The Divine Life Society, 1941)