By Swami Bhaskarananda
In ancient times some thinkers of India wanted to arrive at one truth that could explain this manifold creation. A very small number of those thinkers were somehow able to transform their minds into what we may call extraordinary minds. Such minds are also called pure minds. With such minds they were able to know that one truth that would explain everything else. That truth, according to them, was the ultimate truth. The knowledge of that truth was the conclusion or end of all knowledge. This truth being one is called Advaita—One without a Second.
This “oneness” cannot be related to any other number, such as “two.” It is also called Vedanta. They also called it Brahman—the meaning of which is the Supreme Spirit, the Absolute, the Supreme Being, the Divine Essence, etc.
It alone exists. It is Consciousness itself, and Infinite Bliss. Brahman is beyond time, space and causation. In other words, it is beyond name and form. Being formless, it is beyond gender.
It cannot be denoted by the pronouns He or She. Therefore, the neuter pronoun that (Sanskrit: Tat) is used to denote Brahman. Aside from that, Brahman being the most abstract, and subtler than the subtlest, cannot be described through words, just as we cannot describe abstract ideas like joy, etc. Due to Brahman’s extreme subtlety, an average mind, no matter how intelligent, cannot know Brahman. Only the pure mind can know it.
One may wonder what this pure mind is, and how it can know Brahman, which is beyond space and time. Both of these questions can be answered with the help of the following analogies:
Mind can be compared to water. Water can exist in three states—solid, liquid and gaseous. In the solid state water is called ice. In the liquid state it is called water. In the gaseous state it is called water vapor. Judging by the freedom each one enjoys, we can easily see that ice has the least amount of freedom. It can hardly move. Water enjoys more freedom. It can spread out and flow downward. But water vapor enjoys the maximum amount of freedom. Not only is it invisible, it can also fill up a large room and reach the walls and ceiling of that room.
The pure mind is like water vapor. It can reach the outermost frontier of this world of time, space and causation, and being there, can have a glimpse of what is beyond. In other words, it can have a glimpse of Brahman, which is beyond time, space and causation.
It should be noted here that according to Indian thinkers, mind is extremely fine matter. Being matter, it belongs to this realm of time and space. It cannot go outside it.
Another analogy also explains how mind, which is matter, can know the Supreme Spirit or Brahman. Indian schools of philosophy say that matter and spirit are diametrically opposite to each other and can never combine. It is also accepted by these schools of philosophy that the mind, in order to know an object, gross or fine, has to take the form of that object.
Is it possible for the mind, even if it is pure, to take the form of the formless Spirit? That it may be possible can be explained by the example of a solution of common salt in water. Water does not have any specific form. It takes the form of its container. Salt, when dissolved in water, becomes invisible. Nevertheless, it is present everywhere in that solution. It is as though it has taken the form of water and has become one with it.
But has it really become one with the molecules of water? No, it has not become one. It is hiding inside the intermolecular space in water. Even though it has taken the form of water, it has not combined with water molecules.
In the same manner, the pure mind as though melts away in Brahman, and thus gets to know it without having become one with Brahman. But this knowledge is intellectual knowledge in the sense that it has been acquired by the mind. Therefore Sri Ramakrishna, the greatest saint of modern India, used to say that the Absolute Truth—which is called Vedanta or Brahman—is beyond any intellectual knowledge of Brahman.
One who hasn’t had the knowledge of Brahman surely has ignorance about it. But where is this ignorance located? Undoubtedly, it’s in the mind. The knowledge of Brahman acquired by the mind, when it has been made pure through spiritual practice, can destroy that ignorance.
Sri Ramakrishna explains this using a beautiful analogy. He says that when a thorn is embedded in someone’s body, another thorn may be used to remove the first thorn. After removing the first thorn with the second, both of them are thrown away.
Ignorance of Brahman is also like a thorn in a person’s mind. To remove this thorn of ignorance, a second thorn is needed. This second thorn is his knowledge of Brahman—which is also mental. These two counteract with each other. After that both of them are eliminated from the mind. What remains is only Brahman—the one and only Reality— shining beyond the realm of mind or matter.