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Athmopadesha Shathakam Verse-17

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Athmopadesha Shathakam (One Hundred verses of Self-Instruction)
Translation & explanation of Verse-17

Having two tiers of five petals, whence pain arises,
Rotating, beginingless, hangs the lamp of the Self,
Burning as the shadow (of true being), with the oil
Of latent urges and mental modifications as the wicks.

(“Azhalezhumanjithalaarnnu randu thattaay
Chuzhalumanaadi vilakku thookkiyaathmaa
Nizhaluruvaayeriyunnu neyyatho mun-
Pazhakiya vaasana varthivrithiyathre”):

Key message-
Here, a picture is given for our individuated self. It also holds true for the universe in general. In fact, one is interlaced in the other. So the verse can be understood cosmologically as well as psychologically. Light and darkness are two counterparts which make a total reality.
The nature and content of the Self is more closely viewed in this verse, as compared to verse-10 and 11 that gave a preliminary experimental concept. In ancient India, people used to hang an oil lamp, with tiers of petal-shaped wick holders, in the middle of the room. With the wicks lit, it resembled simple candelabra, which would swing gently and rotate with the movement of air in the room, casting fantastic shadows over the walls and furniture. Our life is here compared to such a rotating light with five burning petals of the senses. The burning brings a kind of pain, but our attention is focused more on the play of light and shadows on the walls.

“Having two tiers of five petals, whence pain arises,
Rotating, beginningless, hangs the lamp of the Self”

(“Azhalezhumanjithalaarnnu randu thattaay
Chuzhalumanaadi vilakku thookkiyaathmaa”):

All the five senses contain a mixture of pain and pleasure. If there is too much noise, you want to shut it off. But if it is a good music, you want to listen. Real music comes only rarely. Most of the time, you have to put up with the many terrible noises of the world. At times, we exalt in the fragrances wafted to us by gentle breezes, but we are often breathing in the pollution of smoke, exhaust and carbon monoxide. A gentle caress is delightful, but it quickly becomes irritating when carried on for more than a short while. This is why the Guru began this verse with the word “Azhalezhum”, pain-filled.

Sense experience is described in this verse as being pain-filled. Sensation in Sanskrit is called ‘samvedana’. This has two implications. ‘Vit’ means to know; ‘veda’ is that which is known; ‘veditam’ is that which makes you know.

When we see an object through our eyes, we will have two experiences. One is about the object existing in the external world. The other one is about the enjoyment on seeing the beauty of that object. Therefore, we can conclude that the knowledge gained through our senses is two-staged.
In this verse, the Self is compared to a lamp hung from high as it were from the regions of the Absolute, which are beyond all definite conception. The chain suspended does not have any origin point as well as the terminal point. It is considered as the Self, which has no start or end point. The biophysical and biochemical aspects of sensation are agitations in the nervous system. When we do not have any sensations and our system is peaceful, we do not know anything. Literally, our experience is based on agitation. We are aware only when these disturbances are taking place, so no one was there to know when the process first started; the Guru therefore calls it ‘anaadi’, beginningless.

Ordinary suspended lamp is stationary by its nature. But the suspended lamp referred in this verse is rotating and our five senses are compared to the five petals of the lamp. This means, each sense organ after enjoying the object will keep on searching for the next one. This process is continuous without an end and is similar to rotational type. But it is not like a vehicle’s wheel, which gives movement to the vehicle. The rotation referred here is that which does not give any prosperity to the life, and merely revolving in the same state. The subjective and objective aspects of our existence and knowledge, or the mental and physical facets of our being, are symbolically signified by the two tiers. In other words, the two tiers are our body and soul, matter and spirit. Each is meaningless without the other. We have all these dualities and ambivalences within our system. Guru leaves us to discover for ourselves the concept of two tiers; i.e. any number of pairs of tiers operating in us, such as the external and the internal, motor and sensory, material and spiritual, physical and psychic, and so on. The tragic note in all this is that the present is a product of the past and its arms are stretching into the future and we are caught within this web.

“Burning as the shadow (of true being), with the oil
Of latent urges and mental modifications as the wicks”.

(“Nizhaluruvaayeriyunnu neyyatho mun-
Pazhakiya vaasana varthivrithiyathre”):
In this verse, we are brought back from the high state of spiritual ecstasy to where we fit into this world. It is from all these actual, necessary aspects of existence that we have to rise to that higher state.

A wick (‘varthi’) burns at each of the petals; it is none other than the function (‘vrithi’) of each of the senses, mental faculties, or organs of action. These flames derive their energy from the oil of ‘vasanas’. The ‘vasanas’ are the impressions left behind by previous experiences in the store-house of mind. How such ‘vasanas’ are handed down through a long line of generations, controlling the character and life pattern of each individual, is a factor well acknowledged even by modern genetics. How old such ‘vasanas’ are, we don’t know. One thing is sure: they are linked to the very beginningless.

Guru wants us to know that the ancient ‘vasanas’ serve as the oil feeding the lamp which is burning in us. Our past, present and future are all filled with the impact of ‘vasana’. The present is actually a manifestation of this ‘vasana’ as it is being burned through the five senses. The ‘varthi’, the wicks of the lamp, are the five senses; while the ‘vrithi’, the flames are the modifications that come as our experiences. The ‘vasana’ of previous lives and the ‘samskara’ of this life are the past which is bearing on the present. That present is aspiring to experience the future. I look into the future with desire, and also with anxiety because of the painful experiences I previously had.

And now, what constitutes the total figure, both the physical and mental aspects included, of the lamp? It is just a shade. No shade, no matter how visibly apparent has an existence of its own. Shade is just an obstruction caused to the free flow of light-rays. Likewise, the free flow of the effulgence of ‘Arivu’ faces a self-caused obstruction, that of ‘avidya’, the ignorance. An individual’s existence, in other words, is a shade-like one, with all the above-mentioned activities and functions taking place in it. Such a mystery is what we call ‘the individual’.

When we look at a beautiful form, it is very pleasing to us. One way of putting it is the form is visible, because it is highlighted. On the other hand, we may say that the figure is projected on a background of darkness and it is in contrast to the shadow that it stands out. When we say we are seeing something, it is the dark shadows that provide us with the figure. If we remove all the shadows from a painting or a photograph, nothing is left. Similarly, when we are watching a film projected on a screen, the screen itself is white and the film is casting shadows on it. These shadows are where the bright light of the bulb in the projector is screened off. So what we look at is not the light so much as the shadows. They are what create all the meaning for us. This is not only true for the eyes, but for the other senses also. When we consider this, the world is a shadow play (‘Nizhal uruvaay’=own shadow becoming the body).

In the ordinary light, we cannot see anything. We see the objects in light, only because, the light cannot pass through them thereby acting as a barrier. By its nature, the darkness is obstruction of light. Therefore, when we see various objects separately, they are individual forms of darkness. At the same time, it is the light which brings us the objects to our visibility. This apparent contradiction can be resolved by understanding that there is no real darkness. We normally define darkness to the state when there is no light.

Similarly, we can conclude that in the light of Self, we think about the existence of Non-Self. What we call experience is shadow, so it is darkness; and the real is the Self. As we are so tuned into this shadow, we never know the light of the Self at all. We just go from one shadow to another shadow. Instead, everyone should go and find the real light, then identify the people who are still caught in the shadow world and reach to them and teach them about another world, which is more real than what they are seeing.

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