Brahman, the ultimate Reality, is one-without-a-second from the absolute standpoint. From the relative standpoint, however, Brahman appears as the universe of names and forms, including a multitude of individual souls, called jivas. As jivas, we are attached to our body and mind, and believe that we are limited beings. Freed from this attachment, we are essentially the Atman, the core dimension of our personality. The Atman is the imperishable Reality behind body and mind, and is the source of eternal Knowledge, eternal Bliss, and lasting fulfillment. Brahman and Atman are not different, but "This Atman is Brahman." (Mandukya Upanishad, 2)
Journey to perfection
Maya, or cosmic illusion, keeps us ignorant of our real nature, and we take the world to be the only reality. We seek lasting fulfillment in it, and subject ourselves to good and evil, pleasure and pain, birth and death, and other inevitable pairs of opposites that characterize the world. Our experiences leave their impressions on our mind, called samskaras. These impressions fashion our character and shape our life.
Vedanta assures us that as we gain experience in the world, a time will come when we realize the impermanence of the things of the world and begin to seek something permanent and unchanging. Then begins our spiritual quest. This must happen to everyone sometime or other, in this life or in a life to come. All is not over with death, but after death we assume a new body and the journey continues. The new embodiment is another opportunity for us to discipline the mind, evolve morally, and grow in devotion to God. This birth-death cycle continues until we become fully free from attachment to body and mind, and realize our divine nature.
Says Swami Vivekananda, "The soul [jiva] is a circle whose circumference is nowhere (limitless), but whose centre is in some body. Death is but a change of centre. God is a circle whose circumference is nowhere, and whose centre is everywhere. When we can get out of the limited centre of body, we shall realize God, our true Self."
How does Ishvara differ from jiva?
Brahman associated with maya is Ishvara, or Personal God, and Atman associated with maya is jiva. What distinguishes Ishvara from jiva? First, Ishvara has maya under His control, while jiva is under maya's control. Second, Ishvara is responsible for the creation, sustenance and dissolution of the universe, while jiva forgets his real nature and undergoes pleasure and pain in the world. Third, Ishvara freely moves about in his creation like a spider in its web, whereas jiva is trapped in the world like a silkworm in its cocoon.
The differences between Ishvara and us persist as long as we are conscious of our body and mind, names and forms. Realizing our divine nature, we become one with God. It is like a clay elephant and a clay mouse: both are different in form, but essentially one as clay.
In the words of Sri Ramakrishna, "God is the infinite Being, while jiva is only a finite being. How then can the finite grasp the Infinite? It is like a doll made of salt trying to fathom the depth of the ocean. In doing so the salt doll is dissolved into the sea and lost. Similarly, the jiva, in trying to measure God and know Him, loses his separateness and becomes one with Him."
Part 3To be continued...