Of swans and jīvas

Some offer an analogy between swans and jīvas. The analogy goes like this:

“Consider a caged swan. Looking at the swan, one would not know that the swan has the ability to swim. But unlock the cage and put the swan onto the water, and it starts to swim! The ability to swim was in the swan but was not manifest in the cage. Liberate the swan, and its ability manifests.

In the same way, when in the cage of the material body, the jīva does not manifest its inherent qualities or nature. When it is outside the cage, then its inherent nature manifests- that of being a servant in love with his master, Bhagavān.”

The parallel drawn here is between the caged swan and the conditioned jīva, and the swan that swims, with the liberated jīva. This analogy fails for a number of reasons which are described below. 

First, the swan works and functions as an independent unit with its own inherent potency of swimming. It just needs to be taken out of the cage and put in water, and it will swim on its own. The ātmā, however, is not an independent unit, whether in the cage (conditioned state) or when removed from the cage (in the liberated state). In both conditioned and liberated states, the ātmā is dependent on the Paramātmā for knowing, experiencing or acting. For example, in the conditioned state, the ātmā’s intrinsic śakti of knowership and agency functions through the mind and body, which are constituted of the Paramātmā’s māyā-śakti. In the liberated stage, the ātmā’s śakti of knowership and agency functions through the siddha mind and deha, which are constituted of Bhagavān’s svarūpa śakti. In either state, unlike the swan, the ātmā is unable to function as a self-sufficient or independent unit that can know, think or act on its own. 

Second, unlike the caged swan, none of the śaktis of the ātmā stop functioning in the conditioned state. What then is the difference between the conditioned state and the liberated state? The difference, as Śrī Jīva Goswami reminds us over and over again in the Sandarbhas, is a lack of awareness of the fact that the ātmā is an utterly dependent śakti of Paramātmā. What is bestowed in liberation is direct experience of this fact by Bhagavān, at which point the ātmā becomes properly situated in its svarūpa as a śakti of Bhagavān. 

Does this mean that the ātmā stops being a śakti of Paramātmā in the conditioned state? As we mentioned above, the inherent qualities i.e. the qualities in the svarūpa of the ātmā, can never become inactive. The ātmā continues being śakti of Paramātmā, but it identifies with Paramātmā’s māyā śakti, and appears to become part of māyā in some ways, taking on material qualities. It remains utterly dependent on Paramātmā even in the conditioned state for its very existence. 

Third, the analogy implies that observing the swan’s swimming on water, which is equivalent to the liberated state, can help deduce the swan’s intrinsic qualities. Because the ātmā is not an independent unit even in the liberated state, the approach of deducing the intrinsic qualities of the ātmā taken as a self-contained or separate unit, by analyzing its liberated condition, is fatally flawed. For example, the liberated condition is described to be a state in which the ātmā has the quality of satya-saṅkalpatā, which means that its every desire comes true. Is satya-saṅkalpatā an inherent quality of the ātmā as a self-contained unit, taken independently of Paramātmā, then? No, because satya-saṅkalpatā is actually a quality of Paramātmā, and the Paramātmā can choose to endow the ātmā with this quality by bestowing a siddha deha on it. This is the grace of Paramātmā on the jīva.

Now it is true that qualities like satya-saṅkalpatā are described by the scriptures to be in the very svarūpa of the ātmā – and that the ātmā simply attains its own svarūpa in the liberated state. In the Prīti Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva Goswami states that Paramātmā is the primary meaning of the word ‘svarūpa’ when used in the context of the ātmā. In liberation, the attainment of Paramātmā Himself (i.e. the awareness or experience of Him), the ātmā’s very svarūpa, opens the ātmā to experiential possibilities that were not available to it when in the conditioned body. It is for this reason that the scriptures sometimes ascribe qualities of the Paramātmā to the ātmā. As just one example, the word sarva-gataḥ – all-pervading is used for the ātmā in the Bhagavad Gītā, even though it is a quality of Paramātmā, and not the ātmā.

To summarize the ideas in the above paragraph, we ask: Is satya-saṅkalpatā in the svarūpa of the ātmā? Yes, because it is a quality of Paramātmā, who is the ātmā’s svarūpa. Is satya-saṅkalpatā in the svarūpa of the ātmā, construed as a self-contained or separate unit? No, because it is possible to experience the ātmā as a separated or self-contained unit when in deep sleep, and one recalls no thought, no will, no experience, and no desire in that state upon waking up. One only recalls that one knew nothing, and that one experienced no suffering.

The explanation above should not be misinterpreted to mean that there is no difference between the Paramātmā and the ātmā at all. There are at least two major differences.  One major difference is that the Paramātmā is śaktimān, and the ātmā is śakti. The other major difference is that the ātmā, when analyzed as a separated unit, does not contain the śaktis that are present in the Paramātmā. Some claim that the Paramātmā’s svarūpa śakti, composed of hlādinī, sandhinī and samvit, is also the ātmā’s svarūpa śakti when the ātmā is analyzed as a separate unit. The notion that hlādinī, sandhinī and samvit śaktis are inherent in the ātmā is rejected explicitly in the Sandarbhas, which I have discussed on this website elsewhere.

This brings us to yet another reason why the swan analogy fails. Observing the swan’s swimming, one might deduce that the swan in the cage had the ability to swim even when in its cage. In contrast, by analyzing the ātmā’s liberated state, one cannot necessarily ascribe the qualities of the liberated state to the intrinsic nature of the ātmā when analyzed as a unit. For example, in the liberated state, the ātmā is in a siddha deha. It does not follow that the siddha deha, then, is inside the ātmā. Instead, the siddha deha is made of Bhagavān’s svarūpa śakti . Likewise, the bliss that the ātmā experiences when situated in awareness of Paramātmā is not in its own inherent nature. Swimming is the swan’s inherent nature. But bliss is not in the ātmā’s inherent nature. This is because in the liberated state, the ātmā experiences the bliss of Paramātmā. It is Paramātmā who has bliss in His inherent nature. The ātmā experiences this bliss by His grace, and His grace alone. There is no bliss inherent in the ātmā.

In summary, not recognizing that the ātmā always exists as a part of the whole – its intrinsic quality of śeṣatva – and has no independent existence, even in the liberated state, can lead to misleading conclusions.

Categories: jīva-tattva

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4 replies »

      • Ji I want you to refute their conception of “Brahman having Shakti Maya and taking on the forms of Saguna Brahman”. How does a formless pure consciousness even take up a form and how does Maya exist if only Brahman alone is real as per them.


      • I have written some articles on this topic that you should see. Here are some quick thoughts:

        1) Brahman does not have sakti in Advaita-vada.
        2) The formless pure consciousness does not “take up a form”, because this event is anadi or beginningless.
        3) Study the snake and rope analogy (articles on this site).
        4) Maya exists at the vyavaharika level, not at the paramarthika level. Again, study the articles on this site to learn more.


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