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Sri Shankaracharya and Maitreya: Who am I?
by Patricia Pitchon

A comparison of teachings on the nature of the self and the path toward self-realization. 


"Who am I?" This question was boldly taken up by the great Indian  philosopher Sri Shankaracharya (788-820 AD), who wrote commentaries  on some of the spiritual treatises known as the Upanishads, which  form the latter part of the Vedas, the holy scriptures of India. Although he addressed himself to the scholars, philosophers and  monks of his day, both Buddhist and Hindu (and has even been  considered as a 'secret Buddhist' by many because of his affinity with important aspects of Buddhist thought), the deep enquiry into  the nature of the Self, and of the theme of man's bondage and  liberation, afford interesting parallels with Maitreya's current teachings. The teachings received from Maitreya have a dynamic,  direct, universal appeal. It is said that out of compassion for the  layman Shankara wrote another work, the Aparokshanubhuti, some of  whose verses I propose to examine and compare with aspects of Maitreya's teaching. The appeal of these verses is also direct and  universal. 

The nature of the self and its relation to the Creator is a basic  theme in the Upanishads themselves: "Concealed in the heart of all beings is the Atman, the Spirit, the  self; smaller than the smallest atom, greater than the vast spaces.  The man who surrenders his human will leaves sorrows behind, and  beholds the glory of the Atman, by the grace of the Creator."  (Katha Upanishad) 

The concern that man should free himself from bondage by coming to  know the nature of the self is already evident in the Upanishads: "When a man knows God, he is free: his sorrows have an end, and  birth and death are no more. When in inner union he is beyond the  world of the body, then the third world, the world of the Spirit,  is found, where the power of the All is, and man has all: for he is  one with the ONE." (Svetasvatara Upanishad) 

Shankaracharya did not think the self can be known through the  powers of reason and logic alone. The self is not an 'object' which  can be known by thought. The self is known, ultimately, through  direct experience. Nevertheless, his verses for the layman are  offered as signposts: 

"Indicated by the personal pronoun 'I' abides the transcendental  Self, one and only one. How can the physical bodies which are many  be the Self?" 

Here we have two interesting ideas: the self is one and  indivisible, yet it can be pointed to via the personal pronoun 'I'.  This suggests that man comes to know the self as 'I'; in other  words, this identity with the self is experienced in consciousness.  Shankaracharya develops a comparison: 

"I am without attributes, actionless, eternal, ever free and  indestructable; I am not the body which is ever changing and  unreal. This the wise call knowledge." 

It is notable that, while Shankara did not accord a permanent  reality to the material world, as some of the realists of his day  did, he was also at pains to defeat the idealists, because the  'unreal' did not mean, to him, 'non-existent in time and space',  but rather, in his view, that the world of phenomena and appearance  have a relative reality. This reality is relative because it arises  and passes away; what is real does not appear and disappear, but  rather, it endures. The task, for man, is one of discernment, until  the moment he comes to experience in himself what is real, imperishable, enduring: 

"The Self, which is in fact the Lord and which is called I  (Spirit) because it abides in the body, is different from the  physical and subtle bodies. I am that Spirit. I am the self of all.  I am all, imperishable and beyond all." 

In the first of Shankara's verses quoted above, we are told that  the self is without attributes and does not act. Maitreya, in this  regard, teaches that the self witnesses; it is not the body, the emotions or the mind. Maitreya says that the self plays the "mini- role" of the Almighty, because the self is the spark of the  Almighty. In His words: "There are times when you become aware that someone is behind you, within you, over you, around you something is present. That 'something' is the Almighty. It does not  participate; it observes. No one need struggle for this step. Everyone qualifies at this stage."

The importance of detachment

Sri Shankaracharya did not think the purpose of philosophy was  merely to engage in clever argument. Self-knowledge and therefore  freedom from the bondages or conditioning which causes suffering in  life are the ultimate goals. Maitreya has called this "the art of  Self-realization" which He has come to teach. 

For Shankaracharya, detachment (vairagya) and renunciation  (samnyasa) are essential prerequisites for Self-realization. The  true essence of the self is freedom, and this freedom cannot be  experienced without detachment. Professor A.N.Pandey, in his book  Shankara's Interpretation of the Upanishads, points out that the  individual self thinks that he is in bondage and, after liberation,  other individuals think that he is now liberated. "But the pure  self does not think either." In effect, the self does not 'think';  the self is, and its true nature is awareness, a state which goes  beyond either. 

Maitreya says that the self makes itself known through awareness. Shankaracharya thinks that man can help himself by taking certain  steps, as follows: 

(1) discrimination of what is eternal and what is non-eternal; (2)  detachment; (3) possession of six qualities: self control,  abstinence, the ability to endure pain and pleasure alike,  concentration, and faith in the teacher and the scriptures; (4) the  desire for liberation. 

Professor Pandey points out that detachment is the notion which is  central to all of these. He emphasizes that, for Shankaracharya,  knowledge of the self is not to be equated with intellectual understanding. The knowledge Shankaracharya speaks of is direct  experience of the self and therefore of the state of being of the  Self, which is "pure awareness". 

Maitreya suggests three disciplines which lead man to the state of  awareness which enables him to experience himself as the Self:  honesty of mind, sincerity of spirit and detachment. These three should be practised together, because they are interconnected in  interesting ways and enhance each other. For instance, in order to  practise honesty of mind, it is necessary to endure seeing yourself  in an unflattering light. If you exaggerate, or try to deceive  yourself about something, and you then examine yourself mentally  you may see that you are dependent on the approval of others, or  afraid of ridicule, or you may be trying to cover feelings of envy  or jealousy. You need courage to see yourself as you really are,  and if you practise watching yourself with the disinterested  detachment of one who observes another whom he does not know, this  courage is strengthened. Maitreya goes further, however, because an  honest mind is a mind freed from 'isms', from unexamined beliefs  which man has accepted, sometimes without knowing when or how they  were accepted. Sincerity of spirit refers to the life of feeling,  perceived, lived and responded to as it really is. One way we can  come to know and express this attitude, according to Maitreya, is  to be found in our relationships with other people when we engage  in 'heart to heart' communication. This is not the same as  indulgent exhibition of feeling. It is communication from the  deepest part of ourselves. In Maitreya's view, this sincerity has  the power to transform, and miracles can occur. When two people  communicate in this way, old rancours dissolve, mistaken beliefs  fall away, wounds are healed. 

Detachment, for Maitreya, is essentially detachment from erroneous  identification with our physical, emotional and mental life. He  says: "You are not your thoughts, you are not your emotions, you  are not your body." Gradually, the person becomes in consciousness  the one who observes, who witnesses, the 'seer' rather than the  'doer'. This does not mean adopting a passive attitude in life; it  means not becoming attached to the things that you do. You can do  your best in a given situation, for example, yet be detached from  the results, knowing that you have done everything you can do. In  Maitreya's view, nothing can liberate man without the practice of detachment. It is this detachment which creates the space for the self to manifest itself as awareness. Maitreya says: "In awareness there is no burden. You remain meticulous, immaculate, pure. There is grace, peace and happiness. These are the blessings of the  Lord." It is the natural state of the Self, and according to  Maitreya: "Textbooks cannot describe it, because there is no beginning nor end to it. Awareness can only be experienced. It is a  seed in all creation and in every individual."

Overcoming fear

He who knows himself as the self conquers fear, according to  Shankaracharya: 

"The dull-witted man who persists in making even the least  distinction between the embodied Spirit (Jiva) and the Spirit  Absolute (Brahman) is subject to fear." 

And he affirms: 

"All beings are born of Brahman who is the Supreme Spirit; they are  therefore Brahman. Be convinced of this." 

Hari Prasad Shastri (in Direct Experience of Reality) adds this  beautiful thought: "All being the one Self, whom shall we hate,  whom shall we consider a stranger?" he adds, by way of explanation  in his study of Shankaracharya's thought, that fear is our greatest  enemy: "It cripples our judgement and robs us of all initiative to  do good and to make investigations into truth." 

Fear, according to Maitreya, is a poison. To overcome it, we have  to come to know that "The Lord is within." We can come to know that  we are not the body, the mind or the emotions. When we gradually  cease to identify with these, when we come to know ourselves as the  Self, we lose our fear.

Background reading and references: Dasgupta, Surendranath: A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 1,  Cambridge University Press, 1963; Pandey, Gaya Ram: Shankara's  Interpretation of the Upanishads, S.N.Publications, Delhi, 1988;  Chaitanya, Krishna: A New History of Sanskrit Literature , Asia  Publishing House, Bombay, 1962; Shastri, Hari Prasad: Direct  Experience of Reality, Shanti Sadan, London, 1975; Mascar , Juan  (trans. and intro.): The Upanishads, Penguin, 1981; Creme,  Benjamin: Maitreya's Mission, Volume 2, Share International  Foundation, Amsterdam, London and Los Angeles, 1993.

(Note: In the Alice Bailey literature, the Master DK indicates the  connection between Shankaracharya and Maitreya.)


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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005