In this talk we begin by exploring of a very well-known Upaniṣad-ic mantra.
asato mā sad gamaya
tamaso mā jyotir gamaya
mṛtyor māmṛtaṁ gamaya
Auṁ śānti śānti śāntiḥ
Oh Lord, lead me from illusion into the eternal reality. Lead me from darkness into the light. Lead me from the realm of death into the nectar of immortality. Let there be the peace of spiritual enlightenment! – Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.3.28
What does it really mean? – “Oh Lord, lead me from illusion(untruth) into the eternal reality.”
The Sanskrit word “sat” (reality, truth) and “asat” (nescience, ignorance, untruth) in this mantra references the extraordinary way the ancient sages looked at this world, relationships and the self.
Some of the verses I quoted:
Ignorance consists of considering that which is temporary as eternal, the impure as pure, misery as happiness and the non-self (the body or mind) as the real self. Yoga-sūtra 2.5
Only one who can learn the process of nescience and that of transcendental knowledge side by side can transcend the influence of repeated birth and death and enjoy the full blessings of immortality. – Śrī Īśopaniṣad mantra 11
Aum Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya
So tonight I’m planning to begin the first of a two or three part series which is titled From Darkness To Light. The first part that we’re going to do, I’m giving it the title of Confused or Enlightened. It’s kind of like, what could that possibly mean, confused or enlightened?
One of the big challenges for me is to be able to speak appropriately so that you will benefit from what it is that I am even very imperfectly trying to share. I have received the most extraordinary gifts in the form of great transcendental knowledge from my spiritual masters. This knowledge and the practices that were shared with me have made it so that my own appreciation for this knowledge has grown exponentially and in an extraordinary way. It has completely blown my mind the way in which these truths have been gradually revealed to me for my understanding; and I know that in passing on spiritual truth there is always going to be many challenges. There will be my own imperfections but there will also be the different states of consciousness of you, the people that are listening to this. We all have different types of filters that make it so we hear sometimes with great clarity, but it can also mean that it interferes, it distorts the message. Our own state of consciousness can do that. This subject that I’m going to deal with is really at the heart of all spiritual life. It is of extraordinary relevance and importance. And my challenge is to try and present it in a way that is suitable for your hearing. And of course, I am very much lacking in ability and purity, and so I have to take shelter of the Lord within my heart and ask Him to help me to become an instrument for His use.
So in this series that we’re going to do, we’re going to explore, it’ll be an exploration of a very well known mantra in the yoga world. Most people, I think, would have heard it or may even know it quite well. It is from one of the Upanisads. It is the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad. And the verse goes:
asato mā sad gamaya
tamaso mā jyotir gamaya
mṛtyor māmṛtaṁ gamaya
Auṁ śānti śānti śāntiḥ
The translation of this is:
“O Lord, lead me from illusion into the eternal reality. Lead me from darkness into the light. Lead me from the realm of death into the nectar of immortality. Let there be the peace of spiritual enlightenment!”
So if we just look at this verse for a moment, and consider, “What does this mean to me?” This is not a lightweight or trivial thing. This is of grave and serious importance.
Actually this mantra, the way I presented it here is how most people know it, and many people are unaware that it’s actually only one line from a much longer verse or mantra. The opening chant of aum, the pranav omkara, actually in reality, if we’re following the strict rules of chanting, should not be placed here. The chanting of aum usually occurs at the very beginning of a mantra. So like you have these, like any one of the Upanishads will contain many different verses or mantras and generally when one of them is selected and chanted they will chant this transcendental sound aum in front of it; but because this is from the middle of the mantra, if we follow the rules strictly they wouldn’t chant aum in front of it. But it you don’t have to worry about that. I do it, and it’s not only fine, it’s a wonderful thing to do.
The last part of it, the santi mantra, is also not part of this mantra. It is something that is often added to the end of an invocation, when somebody is chanting a sacred mantra as an invocation then it’s normally added at the end, not in all cases but often, frequently, to ask that we experience the great peace that comes from spiritual enlightenment.
So the part that we’ll deal with, since it’s got three parts to it, we will deal with this first part. So the translation is,
“Oh Lord, lead me from illusion (or untruth) into the eternal reality.”
It’s always very challenging when we attempt to translate the beauty of Sanskrit into English. The Sanskrit asato ma sad gamaya: so this first word, asato, it’s actually the word is asata but because of rules of what’s called sandi, when words touch each other or join together the last sound of asata is changed to asato, and it’s for ease of pronunciation. And similarly sad gamaya, sad is actually sat but because of these rules of sandi, and grammar the t sat becomes a d sound, sad gamaya.
So what is this word sat? Here in this first line or first part of the mantra the principle word being used is sat, and then it’s negative form which is asat. So when you put the sound a in front of a word it negates it. It gives the opposite meaning to that word. So sat, as with all Sanskrit actually can be understood in many different ways, but if I give you some actual examples from the Sanskrit dictionary of how sat could be translated you will get a deeper sense perhaps of what the word actually conveys. So it can mean that which is real or that which is actual. It can mean as anyone or anything ought to be, meaning in its pure or original state. It can also mean that which is true in the highest sense. But it can also mean that which is good, that which is right, that which is beautiful, wise, venerable and even honest. So we have a whole group of words there that hopefully will give us more appreciation and more texture to what has been described. So sat means, it refers to the eternal reality.
There is an understanding that within the material world the reality that we encounter is temporary, and is constantly changing, and for that reason it is considered unreal because it’s not permanent. It’s not eternal. It is flickering and constantly changing. And so the term asat, the English word that best describes it is the word nescience. Nescience is not a word that’s very commonly used anymore. It’s sometimes used as ignorance, but ignorance can mean slightly different things to different people also. But here if you look at the dictionary definition of nescience, it means a lack of knowledge. It can also mean a lack of information or a lack of education. And it can also be classified or it is defined as being a state of ignorance, or a state of being ignorant.
So here we have these two contrasting terms, sat and asat, sat meaning that which is eternally true, the ultimate and eternal reality, and asat, that which is flickering, that which is ignorant, that which is transitory and impermanent. But if we appreciate how asat is used in yogic teachings, it’s even deeper than this. It’s kind of like a worse condition than this. You know the state of being in an illusion where you are looking at something and understanding it to be a thing— you think that you appreciate and understand it, but actually you don’t. There’s something entirely else going on there. And it’ll become more evident to you as we go through this.
This is not a question of word jugglery. What’s being addressed here—A few weeks back, a couple of weeks back I did three talks that were also actually part of a group. The first was The False Self and the Real Self, and we discussed how the everybody in the material world is caught up in a false idea of who they are, that everybody takes this temporary body that we are occupying to be who we are. It’s kind of like a person taking their outer garment, a shirt, or a sweater, or a blouse, or whatever, to be your identity. And then if you take that off it’s kind of like you’ve now lost your identity. And then you put on a new, a different style, a different colour, and you become that new identity.
In the yogic teachings they consider this is how bad our situation is, because while we are caught up in the external identity considering the body to be the self, at that same time we are utterly deprived of any knowledge of who we are as an eternal spiritual being. We are caught up with the material personality, and the state of mind, and the desires of the mind, and the likes and the dislikes of the mind. We are caught up in all of these things, thinking that to be who we are. And in reality this is all an utter illusion, which was the third presentation in that series about the great illusion, or maya.
So this state of nescience, of not knowing, is so incredibly pervasive it’s like everybody is caught up in it. Everybody is overwhelmed by it. And it is this nescience, or ignorance, that is at the heart, it is the foundation of all suffering, of all unhappiness that people go through in life. When we see with this war that’s going on in Ukraine—and I was just looking at the news today, and seeing a maternity hospital that had been bombed, and women just weeping, the pregnant woman who is crying and being carried on a stretcher, men running to get her out of the line of fire, and young children and people just so distraught. And this is like a tiny snapshot into the vast ocean of suffering that is part of material life. Sure, we have some good times, we have good days, but there’s a lot of bad days also. There’s a lot of incredible suffering. Everybody wants to put on a brave face. That’s what the selfie is all about: try to show something fantastic in your life; but it’s all shallow and empty. And so this mantra really addresses this state of ignorance, of nescience.
In the Yoga Sutra Patanjali actually gives a definition of this ignorance which—he uses the Sanskrit word avidya. Avidya can be used in the place of asat, which means falsity or untruth, but avidya directly addresses the lack of knowledge, to be in a state of utter ignorance. And in this verse, he lays out what is considered ignorance. He states:
“Ignorance consists of considering that which is temporary as eternal, the impure as pure, misery as happiness and the non-self (meaning the body or mind) as the real self.”
So this actually has very deep and incredibly profound meaning. The great transcendentalists, the yogis and sages, they in their enlightenment have developed an extraordinary perspective on the world. That perspective is not negative. It is simply seeing things for what they are. The foundation of all ignorance is this idea that the body that we are currently wearing, the subtle or the gross body (subtle body being the mind, principally), when we consider that to be our self. That is the foundation of all ignorance. It is a complete lack of awareness of who we are.
I was having a conversation with a very, very dear friend over the internet; and they had gone through a very tragic experience in life where, after having practiced these spiritual practices and really appreciating the reality of spiritual truth, because of carelessness, and neglect, and acting inappropriately they gradually completely lost sight of where they have come from in their spiritual journey, and how far they have come, and became enamored and entangled in the world. This person left their spouse and their children and went and practically lived on the streets, after developing a serious drug addiction. And after being caught up in this horrible spiral, into this absolute hell (and I cannot even begin to convey how bad the situation was) they finally, after much pain and suffering, decided they didn’t want to be in that condition anymore, and sought help.
And of course, a big part of this journey now is the struggle to deal with serious drug addiction, and how— anybody that’s dealt with drug addiction, they know what I’m referencing, where you may go through enormous difficulty for the first few days, and then you become a little bit more stabilized. But then the mind can suddenly start raging and demanding, “Just go back for one more hit. You need to do it. There’s no point in hanging on doing what you’re doing, going through what you’re doing. Just go, and one more hit, and everything will be okay.” And when the mind goes on this rampage, it’s like it completely overwhelms the person.
And in that state where somebody is saying, “I need to just go do this one more time,” “I”—it’s like I’ve spoken with them in those moments. You have to now ask yourself who is this “I”? Who is this “me”? Is it this transcendental spiritual personality who is residing within the body? Or are these the demands of the body, of an addicted mind? Who is this I? And because of the training that this person has had, and anybody that’s engaged in spiritual life, they know immediately when they ask that question, “Yes, it’s only my mind.” It doesn’t mean that the demands of the mind are instantly then just evaporated. No. When we become overwhelmed by this illusion, that this is me, the body and the mind, and I have to follow the body and the mind, then we utterly lose the plot.
So, circling back here, the foundation of reality and truth is that I am an eternal spiritual being. The foundation of all untruth and all illusion is the misconception that the body and the mind is the self. And then from that will flow endless other things, like this idea that I can find a home in this world, a place of safety and protection where I can always be. No. You can occupy a space for a limited time, but it is not and will never be your home. And then this other idea that I will live forever, the idea that I will not die—maybe I don’t directly think that, those words, but the way I am living, I am living as if the time I’m spending in this body is everything. I am constantly forgetful that this is a very temporary thing, and therefore I should use the time in this body wisely and carefully for my benefit.
This asat, or ignorance, is also manifest in want to be “wannabe” spiritual seekers. And when I raise this point I really—please, I ask you to understand, I’m not trying to be critical or to find fault, but when people superficially take to what they think is spiritual life just by adopting external things, a certain type of dress, being able to move or sit in a certain way, to do the Namaste thing, and to just be “so spiritual” without any appreciation, or very little appreciation of my eternal spiritual nature and how all of these external things are part of the great realm of ignorance. So we have this asat manifest in false spiritual practices that are not really spiritual at all. It’s just like a label that you put on things, but my life has not really changed, my internal consciousness is not really changed.
The way in which the great seekers, the great spiritual teachers understood this ignorance, asat, it even extended to the realm of what people often think of being educated, education, material education that is devoid of spiritual content, is also categorized as ignorance or asat. And I could give you an example. And I again I’m not wanting to sort of like denigrate or humiliate anyone. These are just examples.
But I could dedicate my life, being a biologist, to studying a particular species of plant, and I could come to know everything about this plant, and all this amazing detail. And I could live my whole life cataloguing, looking through microscopes, trying different experiments, doing all this stuff, building up a vast amount of so-called knowledge. And none of it helps me in my understanding that I am an eternal spiritual being. And the pursuit makes it so I fritter away my life, engaged in following something that will not bring me enlightenment and knowledge of my true spiritual identity. And so I may have even multiple Phd’s, but I can die in a state of great ignorance about my spiritual identity.
You have other people that are maybe studying animals, and they spend their life living with and following around and observing animals, a certain species—and become so obsessed with them. And their understanding and appreciation of this particular life form becomes so overwhelming for them that they can end up dying and then taking birth amongst that species because of their fascination, their attraction, their desire is centred around it; in which case that lifetime of study has not resulted in emancipation, or liberation, or spiritual enlightenment. It has brought me to an undesirable situation where I now have to live out a lifetime amongst the species that I filled up my life with.
And then of course, you have all these glaringly obvious effects of social media and how people are surrendering their lives to big tech. And almost everyone has heard about how destructive this is for the individual. And we will speak at some length another time about all of the evidence of this catastrophe that has befallen humanity, how the rates of mental illness and psychological problems, of loneliness, of suicide, how it’s going through the roof, unlike any other period in human history. And everybody knows it’s been largely caused by our surrendering our life to big tech and these tools that they put in our hands. And yet even though we know this to be true nobody does anything about it. This is called asat, or ignorance.
In another Upanisad, the Sri Isopanisad, there is an incredibly beautiful verse that guides and directs us about what is essential and important. Some people think that, “Okay, I will just dedicate my life to some spiritual practices and rituals or observances, and that will be enough,” but in this Upanisadic verse it tells us that there is a grave need to cultivate the process of nescience alongside transcendental knowledge. So the verse is,
“One who can learn the process of nescience and that of transcendental knowledge side by side can transcend the influence of repeated birth and death and enjoy the full blessings of immortality.”
So I don’t know if you recall, when we read the first verse in the beginning, part of it spoke about the nectar of immortality, and we will address that later; but what we can see in this verse, it speaks to what is the actual purpose of human life. This is the biggest problem that everybody is facing. It is like, “What is my purpose?” and I engage in so much activity, all this searching that I’m doing on the internet, all of this listening that I’m doing, and observing, is all actually about looking for some deeper meaning and purpose; and having found what I think to me may be a deeper meaning and purpose, I then become absorbed in this activity. But here in this mantra, the last part of the mantra, where it says that by learning both of these things it can transcend, that a person who does this can transcend the influence of repeated birth and death and enjoy the full blessings of immortality.
In his commentary on this verse one of my spiritual masters, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, he has stated:
“The Sri Isopanisad instructs us not to make one-sided attempts to win the struggle for existence,”
So I’ll just pause there; and we see this with the materialistic society. It’s an utterly one-sided attempt to find meaning and fulfillment and happiness only through material endeavour. So reading again:
“…Sri Isopanisad instructs us not to make one-sided attempts to win the struggle for existence. Everyone is struggling hard for existence, but the laws of material nature are so hard and fast that they do not allow anyone to surpass them. In order to attain a permanent life, one must be prepared to go back to Godhead.”
So here this reference to Godhead means the spiritual dimension where the soul eternally resides, our actual eternal spiritual home. Reading on:
“Since the creation of the material world, everyone has been trying to attain a permanent life, but the laws of nature are so cruel that no one has been able to avoid the hand of death. No one wants to die, nor does anyone want to become old or diseased. The law of nature, however, does not allow anyone immunity from old age, disease or death, nor has the advancement of material knowledge solved these problems. Material science can discover the nuclear bomb to accelerate the process of death, but it cannot discover anything that can protect man from the cruel hands of old age, disease and death.”
It’s like, oh my God, this is like the stark reality of things, things that require our attention and focus. So referencing again the first line of the mantra that we started with:
“O Lord, lead me from illusion into the eternal reality…”
This prayer, this beseeching, this ardent request that forms the first part of this mantra is extremely beautiful and the most wonderful aspiration or desire.
This talk I titled Confused or Enlightened, and what we have learned is that the material condition is a condition of being confused, in a state of illusion, clutching at straws in the hope of finding permanence, shelter, love, to become free from death, to have eternal relationships, to find eternal love. But we are looking for these things in all the wrong places, and therefore it is considered ignorance. To live in wisdom is what we are being asked to do. To live in wisdom means that we need to acquire transcendental, or spiritual knowledge, and when we apply that knowledge to our life we are truly wise, we will make wise choices, we will make wise decisions, we will live guided by light, by wisdom, we will become increasingly enlightened and move away from the state of confusion.
All pain and all suffering in this world arises from ignorance. I ask you to please consider that very seriously. We experience it in so many ways. In relationships, when there are betrayals, we suffer, and we never consider that my own ignorance is the cause of this suffering, that I actually believed this person when they promised that they would always love me or that they had my best interests at heart, that they would never leave me, that they would always protect me. I accepted those proclamations as being eternally true, and then when it turns out that this person cannot provide those things to me I feel betrayed. Well, there were two parties in the betrayal. There was the cheater and the cheated. And you cannot have a cheated without a cheater, and you cannot have a cheater without someone that’s willing also to be cheated.
So when I openly embrace these proclamations as being always true and entirely trustworthy this is an unrealistic expectation, and so when betrayal rears its head I suffer. Bonds of attachment that we have that forcibly against our will become broken—the pain has arisen because I believed that I could eternally have a home in this place, or that I could always possess this thing, and when it has been removed I suffer. If I lived in wisdom then I would know, at any moment I can lose anything, even this body that I am occupying.
One of our spiritual masters, in Bengali he sang this beautiful bhajan, this devotional song, and one part of it “kamala-dala-jala, jivana talamala”, and it means that the kamala, the leaf—I don’t know if you’ve seen actual lotuses, big lotuses. They have very large leaves, and when you drop a drop of water on a lotus leaf it forms like this perfect sphere, but if the wind is blowing, or anybody is moving the leaf then the bead of water rolls around on the leaf, and at any moment can just fall over the edge and be lost; and this is the material condition. At any moment everything will be taken from you, even this body to which we are so attached. But when we falsely cling to—or we cling to this false idea that there’s permanence to this body, permanence to this world, to these relationships, it becomes a source of great suffering for us later, at some point. And so this suffering has its origins in ignorance, accepting something that is untrue to be true. So, so many examples that actually constitute what is called asat, that which is untrue.
And so even when everybody thinks, when life, everything seems to be going for you in life, people don’t consider that that state is actually a state of confusion rather than enlightenment, that it is a state of ignorance, because while it seems to be going so well right now it is only a question of time before it all comes to an end.
And so we are told, “Wake up. Wake up from this dream, this sleep. Take to this process of chanting these beautiful transcendental sounds. Engage in cultivation of spiritual understanding. Develop an understanding of the nature of the material world.” As we read in that verse from the Sri Isopanisad, cultivate knowledge of that which is transcendental alongside the knowledge and understanding of what is ignorance. And engage in better life choices so that we become increasingly enlightened, and we become free from our suffering, we experience true security of happiness. There will be an awakening of the condition of spiritual love, and everything that you have desired within your heart of hearts can be experienced, in this process.
So this is the first part of this mantra, the contrast between sat, eternal reality, and asat, illusory existence or ignorance, that which is untrue even though everybody takes it to be true and real, that’s how extraordinary the power of this illusion.
So I hope that’s not too–often I just want to kind of keep it light and encourage people, but we are calling these talks that we’re doing every Wednesday Yoga Wisdom Wednesday, and while we won’t dwell on these things all the time they are important to hear. They are important to take on board if you want to find peace, complete happiness and awaken your love for your eternal soul mate the Supreme Soul.
Thank you very much. So let us chant. I will chant Aum Hari Aum, and then maybe the beautiful mantra, Haribol Nitai-Gaur Nitai-Gaur Haribol