Five Delusions Discussed In Advaita Vedanta

The translator of Kaivalya Navaneeta: The Cream of Emancipation offers us a clear, if also tantalizing, gloss. When the disciple states that he is “now free from the delusions of mind,” Swami Sri Ramananda Saraswathi, the translator, inserts a footnote: “The delusions [he is referring to] are of five kinds: (1) that the world is real, (2) that I am the body, (3) that I am the doer and the experiencer, (4) that I am separate from the Almighty, and (5) that Pure Consciousness is not ‘I’ but Shiva” (p. 34).

1. The World Is Not Real

In the Vedantic tradition, a common starting point for the inquiry into one’s true nature is to flip the assumption around: where it’s long been held that the world is real, henceforth take the world to be unreal. For if the world is real, then it shall continue to ‘grab’ one’s attention. Indeed, if it is real, then ‘extroversion,’ or the outward-going tendencies of the mind, shall continue apace.

Hence, the spiritual instruction (upadesa) is to, for the time being, reject the reality of the world. What does this mean?

In the first place, it must be understood that reality refers specifically to imperishability so that whatever is imperishable–and the world as it appears to us is nothing if not imperishable–is set aside.

In the second place, setting aside the world–that is, taking it to have nothing more than a ‘borrowed existence’–allows for the inquiry to get underway. For now the question rises and ripens: “What, then, is real? And who is the one asking this question?”

2. I Am Not The Body

In my understanding, the “I am the body idea” is, essentially, the very idea that appears to (i) localize, (ii) limit, and thus (iii) bound consciousness. Hence, it is precisely this mind-concocted idea that is a superimposition of the body on the Self and, in this sense, is ignorance (avidya).

Hence, we must inquire:

  • Am I localized or unlocalized?
  • Am I limited or unlimited?
  • Am I bound or free?

To discover that I am not the body is also to discover that I have always only ever been the Self. But see 4. and 5. below.

3. I Am Neither The Doer Nor The Experiencer

Much ink has been spilled on these identifications–most notably, perhaps, by Sankara in A Thousand Teachings. Needless to say, the doer and the experiencer are subtle forms of separate selves. One argument that Sankara makes is this: since the Self is unmoving, it stands to reason, as much as to intuition, that one’s practice (sadhana) must be a practice of stillness. Any false beliefs about being the doer or the experiencer will encourage seeking–for objects via action or for experiences that, in the hands of spiritual materialism, get fetishized.

4. and 5. I Am Not Separate From Universal Consciousness

Because I wasn’t able to find a longer exposition on Swami Sri Ramananda Saraswathi’s footnote, I’m going to follow my own interpretation when it comes to 4. and 5. My sense is that the delusions involve positing any separation between an ego-self and what is ultimate. For this reason, I’ve elected to bring 4. and 5. together.

If 1. (i.e., rejecting the idea that the world is real) helps us to get the inquiry underway and if 2. and 3. (i.e., rejecting false bounded identities) follow neti neti by showing us that we are “not this” and “not that,” then this leaves us open to two mistakes–namely, purgatory and nihilism.

We can fall into a kind of limbo, or weightlessness, if we stop the inquiry after having rejected the world and ego-selves. Then it may seem as if we are in this intermediate state between being a definite something and being a no-thing/everything. Therefore, we must press on.

Or we can succumb to nihilism by presuming that there’s only some vague ego-me spinning in a vast void. For this reason, Sankara, in A Thousand Teachings, makes very clear that neti neti must be combined with the affirmation that “I am Pure Consciousness.”

In the very least, there must be trust that I am This.

The Point At Hand

Where does the rubber meet the road? Self-inquiry cannot end until there is a resolution to the very question that has arisen so naturally and that, since then, has carried on so insistently. And that question is: “Who am I?”