Vedanta Meets Lao Tzu
“Despite all the scientific evidence to the contrary, we remain prehistoric, Paleolithic paradigms ignorant of the Einsteinian universe around us.”
In Memory of Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1930-2015)
Millennia ago our ancestors truly believed that they lived on a solid, flat piece of land that stretched over vast distances. Yes, there were hills and mountains, but essentially the Earth appeared stretched straight out. And, if you ventured far enough, you would drop into oblivion.
They also believed that the Sun, stars and planets revolved around the Earth. They noticed that objects like leaves on trees always fell down, never up. It was simply natural, they surmised.
Today, we know so much more about our planet and its place in the Universe. We know that most of the notions held by our ancient ancestors have been scientifically disproven. Nevertheless, when we rise from bed in the morning, we experience this world and the Universe in the same exact way that ancient peoples did.
We look up at the Sun and see an orange ball rising overhead and never give a thought to the fact that it is the Earth which is moving and circling the Sun. We get into our cars and drive along flat stretches of freeway without ever considering the fact that the Earth is actually round, even though we often refer to it as “the Globe.” But as we walk or drive along, the Earth is as flat to us as it was to our ancestors ages ago.
We see leaves falling and streams and rivers flowing down hillsides and mountains and never give any thought to gravity. As we move about our planet on foot, in cars, trains or planes, we feel that the Earth is still, motionless. We never consider it spinning around that orange ball in the sky at a tremendous speed. In all our hectic, helter-skelter movement, we fail to realize that we are pinned inside an encapsulated, pressurized, electromagnetic rock that is spiraling through the cold darkness of space.
Our everyday awareness of the world around us has not changed since the beginning of human history. If we still sense this everyday apparent reality exactly the way our ancestor did, how then can we expect to sense the true reality of non-dual limitless, unchanging Awareness? Or, as James Swartz (Ramji) asked in Essence of Enlightenment under the heading of Self-inquiry: “How does the identity I have right now jibe with my identity as awareness?”1
Well, I suppose it doesn’t jibe. But then again why should it? Instead of decrying this confusion, let us praise it, for it attests to the absolutely brilliant mystique of Maya (ignorance), which has not only clouded over who we truly are with an apparent reality of suns and planets and entire galaxies in a stark, macrocosmic dance of immense proportions. But astoundingly, Maya has clouded over that apparent macrocosmic reality with yet another thick fog – a beautifully vivid microcosmic dream of a still and motionless world.
The effect then is this: Despite all the scientific evidence to the contrary, we remain prehistoric, Paleolithic paradigms ignorant of this Einsteinian universe in which we find ourselves.
Since the discoveries of science have done little to snap modern everyday man out of his dream world, let us then return to the ancients to see what kind of remedy they might suggest.
Let us go back 2600 years to Lao Tzu in China and the popular Tao de Ching and superimpose his contemplative findings over the teachings of Vedanta, a system of knowledge presented to the Rishis of Northern India, a thousand or more years prior to Lao Tzu. Thus we can equate Lao Tzu’s Tao, the Unmanifest, with Paramatman or Brahman (the Absolute; limitless, changeless Awareness). Teh, Tao manifested or embodied, equates with Brahma (without the final ‘n’), God the Creator, also called Isvara. Maya (Ignorance or Illusion) is a power in Awareness (Brahman) that gives Awareness the ability to create. When it is associated with Maya, which it controls, Brahman becomes Brahma or Isvara.
James Swartz explains: “When ignorance or Maya does manifest, Isvara in its capacity as a creator appears, followed by the apparent creation, the world of sentient beings and insentient elements…”2 As Lao Tzu puts it: “the ten thousand things” or simply Nature.
In essence Swartz and other Vedantists agree with Shri Adi Shankaracharya, an eighth century sage, who reinterpreted Hindu scriptures and revived the Upanishads and especially Advaita (Non-Dual) Vedanta. In his reinterpretation of scriptures, Shankara described God (Isvara) as an effect of Maya (illusion or ignorance) and therefore not the Supreme Brahman (The Absolute). In other words, Shankara established Brahman (The Paramatman) as that which is before and beyond God or Brahma (Isvara).
This is exactly what Lao Tzu was hinting at in Chapter 4: “I do not know whose son it is. It might appear to have been before God.”3
In Chapter 1, Lao Tzu states one of the main qualifications that Vedanta stresses in preparation for Self-inquiry, namely, Vairagya or Dispassion. “Ever desireless, one can see the mystery; ever desiring, one sees only the manifestations. And the mystery itself is the doorway to all understanding.”4
Both Vedanta and the Tao de Ching stress feminine qualities as the gateway to understanding the mystery of who we are. For example, in the Gita Dhyanam (hymn of praise) that opens the Bhagavad Gita, Swami Dayananda Saraswati translates it thusly:
“Om. Goddess Mother Bhagavadgita! I repeatedly invoke you who were taught by Bhagavan Narayana himself for the sake of Arjuna , the son of Prtha (Kunti), (you who were) faithfully collected and reported by the ancient sage, Vyasa, (and placed) in the middle of the Mahabharata, (you who are) in eighteen chapter, you who have the nature of showering the nectar of non-duality, and who is the destroyer of the life of becoming (samsara, rebirth).”5
In this opening hymn, the Bhagavad Gita is likened to a goddess, a Divine Mother who presents a manual of instruction for attaining self-realization and stopping the cycle of rebirths.
In Chapter 6 of the Tao de Ching Lao Tzu expresses the same solution:
“The spirit of the Valley never dies. It is called the Mystic Female. The Door of the Mystic Female is the root of Heaven and Earth.”6
In Chapter 10: “In opening and shutting the Gate of Heaven, Can you play the part of the Female?”7
In Chapter 28: “He who is aware of the Male But keeps to the Female Becomes the ravine of the world. Being the ravine of the world, He has the original character which is not cut up, and returns again to the innocence of the babe.”8
Here the Male refers to the physical body while the Female refers to the Mind or Subtle Body as it is called in Vedanta. Original character which is not cut up is Paramatman (The Absolute, the Primordial Self) and its reflection exists within the deepest part of our Subtle Body, referred to as the ravine of the world when the Mind is calm and not conflicted with distracting vasanas (tendencies).
The ability of feminine energy to realize the Self is further emphasized in the story of a royal couple, King Shikhidhvaja and Queen Cudala9 from the Yoga Vasishtha, an Advaita Vedanta text. The couple was so greatly devoted to each other that they seemed like one jiva (an individual person) in two bodies. They did everything together including studying spiritual texts from which they concluded that only self-knowledge could enable one to overcome sorrow.
However, the Queen alone constantly continued her contemplation on the means of self-knowledge:
“Now I see myself and enquire ‘Who am I?’
“How could ignorance of self, and delusion arise?
“The physical body is surely inert and it is certainly not the self. It is experienced only on account of the movement of thought in the mind. “10
She proceeded deeper into self-discovery, finally realizing her true nature. The King, noticing his wife’s radiance, asked her to explain how she attained self-realization. She told him that she remained rooted in Truth and not appearances. But the King, a typical paternalistic type, did not understand that her words signified a higher consciousness. So, he dismissed her teaching and called her “childish and ignorant.”11
Although this story illustrates how male chauvinism has discredited females throughout the ages, the important point here is why Queen Cudala became self-realized and the King did not.
The key rests in the conclusion of the story: ” After enjoying the pleasures of the world, because he was the foremost among kings, after having lived for a very long time, he attained the supreme state, because in him there was but a little residue of satva.”12
Maya is composed of three energies or gunas. Two of them, Rajas and Tamas, keep us identified with our physical bodies and attracted to seeking pleasure or happiness from worldly objects rather than from within. Sattva guna on the other hand is a more feminine energy that calms, purifies and reveals while Rajas energy often excites and accelerates and Tamas, a grounding energy, often decelerates into lethargy.
Thus, Queen Cudala’s subtle body or mind had a predominance of Sattva over Rajas and Tamas, and she was able to assimilate and actualize the knowledge of the true Self. Since the King had a predominance of Rajas guna, he flitted away a long lifetime, ten thousand years, trying to enjoy the pleasures of the world, which blinded him to his real nature. His long life symbolizes many rebirths on the wheel of samsara before attaining enlightenment.
Vedanta teaches that there are four qualities necessary to qualify us for the intense Self-inquiry that Queen Cudala symbolizes: Discrimination (Viveka), Dispassion (Vairagya), Discipline, and a Desire for moksha (freedom). All four of these qualities are also interspersed throughout the 81 chapters of the Tao de Ching.
But how do we realize this greatest of mysteries when Maya’s Ignorance keeps us from even recognizing the apparent reality of the relative world around us?
By cultivating Sattva, the feminine, creative energy, as advised by both the Vedantists and Lao Tzu.
Sattva enables us to rise above the ignorance of Maya, which uses Rajas to project illusion and Tamas to conceal our real identity, but Maya will also reveal when Sattva predominates the Subtle Body.
Thus, if we look to Vedic cosmology for a particular deity that personifies creative intelligence along with an abundance of Sattva energy and the four qualities necessary for Self-inquiry, the Goddess Saraswati stands out.
Saraswati is the Goddess of Knowledge as well as Music, Arts, Wisdom and Learning. She is considered the creative intelligence and shakti (power) of Brahma and represents the free flow of wisdom and consciousness. Her name means “essence of one’s Self.” Thus, she leads one to the essence of self knowledge. Known as the Mother of the Vedas, her name has evolved over time to mean “knowledge that purifies.”
Saraswati is often depicted dressed in pure white and seated on a white lotus, the symbol of Supreme Reality. This means she is rooted in Supreme Reality and engenders supreme knowledge and truth. Her iconography is typically in white themes from dress to flowers to swan – the color symbolizing Sattwa Guna or purity, discrimination for true knowledge, insight and wisdom.
Her four arms denote her omnipresence and omnipotence – the two front arms, the physical world and the two back arms, the spiritual world. The four hands represent the four elements of the Subtle Body – mind (manas), the intellect (buddhi), the conditioned consciousness (chitta) and the rear left hand, the ego (ahankara), which holds a rosary, signifying meditation and contemplation, leading to samadhi or union with God. This indicates that true knowledge acquired with love and devotion melts the ego and results in liberation (moksha) from bondage to the physical world.
She plays the music of love and life, on the Veena, an expression of knowledge that creates harmony. Her swan symbolizes spiritual perfection, transcendence and moksha (liberation). It has the ability to drink pure milk alone from a mixture of milk and water, which symbolizes Viveka, the ability to discriminate between right and wrong, good and evil and between essence, reality (Satya) and apparent reality (Mithya).
There is a peacock, which represents unpredictability, anxiously waiting to serve her. But Saraswati chooses the Swan rather than the peacock as her carrier, signifying that one must overcome fear, anxiety and indecision in order to acquire true knowledge.
By renouncing the fruits of one’s actions and devoting oneself to Saraswati, one can call upon her prior to meditation and Self-inquiry, to open “the door of the Mystic Female” and reveal the root of all creation, the gateway that leads to moksha.
Calling upon Saraswati, we are activating the Sattva Guna within our Mind, the Subtle Body, and prompting the Mind to turn inward to discover that door, that gateway.
And what exactly is that door?
Ramana Maharshi called it the “I-thought.” Queen Cudala called it the “I-idea.” Both used Self-inquiry – ‘Who Am I?’ – to uncover the “I-thought.”
And its exact location? Not the physical heart or any other physical location as Ramana Maharshi often pointed out.
The I-thought is our mental/emotional reset button deep within the Subtle Body. It brings about an entire factory reset, if you will, better known as self-realization. And where exactly is this reset button?
Look at your smart phone, a product of thousands of years of human ingenuity. Where did the evolved human consciousness decide to place that reset button? Mine is located in the Privacy setting. And where is the Privacy setting in our Subtle Body? It is where we store our most intimate, darkest secrets about ourselves – “the ravine of the world” – my particular world. That reset button is buried under all those Tamasic fears and memories that we are most ashamed of.
Let Saraswati’s Sattva energy remove those Tamasic elements and reveal the I-thought, the gateway to the knowledge that enlightens us.
Before meditating or beginning Self-inquiry, one can invoke Saraswati’s aid with the following prayer:
May Goddess Saraswati, who is fair like the jasmine-colored moon, and whose pure white garland is like frosty dew drops; who is adorned in radiant white attire, on whose beautiful arm rests the veena, and whose throne is a white lotus; who is surrounded and respected by the Gods, protect and fill me with your Sattva energy. May you fully remove my lethargy, sluggishness, and, above all, my ignorance in order to reveal my true nature – Om Saraswati.
Before beginning any creative activity such as music, dance, art, writing, public speaking or tai chi, you can invoke Saraswati’s creative energy with this prayer:
May the goddess of speech and skillful art enable us to attain all possible eloquence, she who wears on her locks a young moon, who shines with exquisite lustre, who sits reclined on a white lotus, and from the crimson cusp of whose hands pours, radiance on the implements of writing, art, music, dance and other skillful means produced by her favor.– Om Saraswati.
And a word of warning: be careful driving north on Interstate 5. If you go far enough, you could fall off the face of the Earth.
1. Essence of Enlightenment, James Swartz, p. 175
2. Ibid. p. 185
3. Tao de Ching, Lao Tzu, Chapter 4
4. Ibid. Chapter 1
5. Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, p 1
6. Tao de Ching, Lao Tzu, Chapter 6
7. Ibid., Chapter 10
8. Ibid., Chapter 28
9. Yoga Visastha, Swami Venkatesananda,Section VI.1, Chapter 77
10. Ibid., Chapter 78
11. Ibid., Chapter 80
12. Ibid., Chapter 87 – 110