In Vedānta, Self-Realization is an “understanding,” an “awareness” of that which is. It is our real nature—our real Self.

How can that which alone is “real” be “real-ized” or made more real?

It can only be “recognized” as such.

Nothing gained, nothing lost…

पाया कहे सो बांवरा, खोया कहे सो कूड़
पाया खोया कुछ नहीं, जीओं का तओं भरपूर –कबीर

Pāyā kahe so bāṅwarā, khōyā kahe so kūda /
Pāyā khōyā kucha nahin, jeeon kā teeon bharpūr // ~Kabir

He who calls it an ‘attainment’ is crazy; and he who considers it as lost is phony;
Nothing ever attained or lost, the Real remains ever so full and complete.

In the similar vein, Gurubani sings:

ना नेड़े, ना दूर, सर्वत्र्र् भरपूर, हादरा हज़ूर
Nā naidey nā dūr, sarvattra-bharpūr, hādrā hadūr…Gurubani

Neither near nor far; full and all pervading, ever-present everywhere…

That which is, has verily been recognized as such. This is long and short of Self-realization.

The Gita (2.16) assures us that ‘the unreal never is; the real never ceases to be.’ So, the Real, the Witnessing Principle, the Unchanging Consciousness Principle, is always there as being/presence-awareness. The sages and seers of the world have talked about enlightenment by way of concession for the not-yet-enlightened. The Self is ever-enlightened. Being our very self, it is ever-attained— nitya-siddha-vastu. So, all teachings are in the nature of the Self teaching the Self about the Self by the Self.  Because the Self is all there is. It is ‘wisdom seeking wisdom.’

One of my teachers used to say:

गंगाजी के पानी को, गंगाजी से लेकर, गंगाजी को अर्पित कर के, गंगाजी जी को खुश करना है.

It is as if, to take the water of the Ganges from the Ganges itself, and to make the Ganges happy by offering it back to the Ganges.

All teachings of Vedānta are like this. It is इव, iva, of the nature of as though, only. It is for this purpose alone, the technique, prakriya, of adhyāropa-apavāda (superimposition and subsequent negation) is employed. The whole siddhānta, teachings, take place within this domain. As Ādī Śaṅkara famously declares in the Bhagavad Gītā Bhāṣya 13.13, that there is a saying of samparadāya-vids—the knowers of the right, samyak, traditional method of teaching:

अध्यारोपापवादाभ्यां निष्प्रपञ्चं प्रपञ्च्यते adhyāropāpavādābhyāṁ niṣprapañcaṁ prapañcyate

That which is devoid of all duality is described by adhyāropa and apavāda, i.e., by superimposition and negation, by attribution and denial. [Alladi Mahadeva Sastri, trans., The Bhagavad Gita with the commentary of Sri Shankaracharya (Madras, India: Samta Books, 1995), 349.]

The story of The Bonded Mule metaphorically explains the phenomenon of human bondage and enlightenment through the process of superimposition and negation,adhyāropa-apavāda. In reality, there is no one in bondage, and hence no one gets enlightened. This is the ultimate truth, says Gauḍapada in his Kārikas on Māndukya Upaniṣad. I first heard this story from my teacher at Rishikesh:

The Story of a Bonded Mule!

In a small village, there lived a potter. He had a mule. Everyday his mule would carry soil from the field to his house. Since the field was quite far off, the potter would rest under a tree midway, tying his mule nearby.

One day, the potter forgot to take the rope with which he tied the mule everyday. When he reached the tree, he thought, “How do I tie this mule today? He might run away if I sleep. “The potter decided to tie down holding the mule’s ears so that the mule would not run away.

But this way neither the mule was comfortable nor the potter was able to take rest. A sage, who happened to be passing by, saw the potter holding on to the mule’s ears. Then the sage wanted to know what the problem of the potter was. When the potter told the sage what the problem was, the wise sage said, “Take the mule to the place where you tie him every day. Pretend to tie him using an imaginary rope. I assure you he won’t run away.” The potter did what the sage had said.

He left the mule and went to take a nap. When he woke up, to his surprise and relief, he found the mule standing in the same place.

Soon the potter prepared to leave for home. But the mule did not move. “What is wrong with this mule!” exclaimed the potter in frustration.

Luckily, the potter saw the wise sage again. He ran up to the sage and told him about the mule’s strange behavior. The sage said, “You tied up the mule, but did you untie him?” Go and pretend to untie the imaginary rope with which you had tied the mule.” The potter followed the sage’s advice.

Now the mule was ready to leave for home. The potter understood that mule was the bonded mule. The potter thanked the wise sage and went home happily with his mule.

[Source for the story:]

Grace notes: So we first pretend to tie the imaginary rope (adhyarōpa) and then pretend to untie the imaginary rope (apavāda). And even so are all the teachings of Vedānta. To use a famous analogy of kārya-kārṇa nyāya, first the reality of pot (kārya) is provisionally accepted (adhyāropa). Then the truth of clay as the substratum or cause, adhisthānam or kārṇam, of the pot is recognized. And the determination of the apparent reality (mithyattva nirṇaya) of pot is made. This is apavāda, negation of the substantial reality of the pot. The pot does not cease to exist; it is just recognized as apparently or dependently real (mithyā).

Chāndogya Upanisad 6.1.4 calls this whole process as वाचारम्भणं विकारो नामधेयं मृत्तिकेत्येव सत्यम् ॥ vācārambhaṇaṁ vikāro nāmadheyaṁ mṛttiketyeva satyam: [all clay objects are just various] fabrications/modifications indicated by different words and names; they are in truth clay only. And so is this nama-rupa jagat, the world of name and form. Since Brahman (Pure Awareness) is its cause and substratum, like clay is the substratum and cause of pot, Brahman alone is real and the world is only apparently real (mithyā): Brahma satya, jagan mithyā. Since Brahman is Ātman only (aham Brahmāsmi), the self is non-different from Brahman (jivo brahmaeva na paraḥ).

Brahma satyam jagat mithyā jivo brahmaiva nāparah: This half verse, ardha śloka, of Ādī Śaṅkara is virtually the theory of everything (TOE), if there is one.

Our salutations to all teachers of Vedānta.

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