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The real meaning of steadfastness || On Advaita Vedanta (2019)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
23 min
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यथाऽपकृष्टं शैवालं क्षणमात्रं न तिष्ठति । आवृणोति तथा माया प्राज्ञं वापि पराङ्मुखम् ॥

yathā'pakṛṣṭaṃ śaivālaṃ kṣaṇamātraṃ na tiṣṭhati āvṛṇoti tathā māyā prājñaṃ vāpi parāṅmukham

Just as a pulled-up water reed stays not still even for a moment, so does Maya (ceaselessly) envelop even a wise man if he averts his face from the Truth.

~ Adhyatma Upanishad, Verse 15

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जीवतो यस्य कैवल्यं विदेहोऽपि स केवलः । समाधिनिष्ठतामेत्य निर्विकल्पो भवानघ ॥

jīvato yasya kaivalyaṃ videho'pi sa kevalaḥ samādhiniṣṭhatāmetya nirvikalpo bhavānagha

Whosoever wins absoluteness while alive continues to be absolute even after death. Rooted in concentration, O sinless one, remain steadfast.

~ Adhyatma Upanishad, Verse 16

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Questioner: Can you please elaborate on what the Upanishad describes as “averting one’s face from the Truth” and “remaining steadfast”?

Acharya Prashant: There are always two directions to look at. Who is the looker, the one who abides in twoness, in choices, and has therefore two choices available? This must be clear. Who is the one who has these two directions, two options available to him? The one that we are, the one that we usually identify with, the usual ego-state.

So, if the ego has two directions to look at, what are these two directions? The first, the easiest, and the obvious direction is its own direction. The ego loves to go its own direction. What is the other direction? Accurately speaking, it is just the direction that does not lead to itself. It is the direction in which the ego is not being itself. Euphemistically, it has been called the direction of Truth. Really, it is not any specific direction; it is just the denial of the tendency of the ego to go its own way.

So, who is the goer, who is the chooser? The ego. What is its usual and obvious choice? Itself. The other choice is difficult, counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, against itself. The ego going against itself is a difficult thing, almost magical; therefore one says that it requires grace.

So, now you know what is it that we commonly refer to as a direction of the Truth: not any specific direction. It is enough that the ego does not choose itself. It does not really have to choose the Truth. Choosing the Truth is just a metaphor, it’s a wordplay. Actually, it is an impossibility. Only something limited can be chosen.

So, the two choices really available to ego are: choose oneself, and not choose oneself; go one’s own way, and not go one’s own way; live by one’s own center, do not live by one’s own center. And when I say one’s own center, what do I mean? The center of the ego, because we are clear that the one having the choice is the ego. So, when the one having the choice is the ego, obviously its center is the ego-center.

Now you know why it is not very important to know what to do, what to become; rather it is much more relevant, practical, and useful to ask what not to do, how not to live, what not to become. There is one choice in which you become yourself, the ego lives as itself, and the other choice is not to remain what you have been, what you have taken yourself to be.

It is not useful to ask, “If not the ego, what else?” It is a mischievous question. Because that ‘what else’ cannot be described in words, so you will never get the answer. It’s such a mischievous question, it cannot have an answer. And when you will not get the answer, you will feel entitled to continue as you are.

Never ask, “If not the ego, what else?” The answer will not come. Even if it comes, it will not satisfy you. So, those who are looking for an alternative will always stand disappointed. Those who say, “I am prepared to leave my egoistic ways, but give me an alternative” will find that the alternative never comes. Therefore, faith is needed.

One has to leave what one has without knowing anything about that which would now come. It is a blind dive. You cannot ask for security in advance. You cannot have a blueprint or a map ready. The choice is me or not me. Not me—that’s all that words can say. The words fail and mean nothing when they say God or Truth. God cannot be contained in three letters. Truth cannot be contained in five letters. But when you say ‘not me’, that is perfectly expressible in words because the ‘me’ is limited.

So, ‘not me’ is very apt as an expression. It’s honestly put. It’s a practical thing to say ‘not me’. “What then?” Don’t ask that question. Your cleverness will make you ask that question. The moment you say ‘not me’, what pops up? “Who else? If not you, then who?” Immediately that question arises, right? It’s an evil question. It’s a question that will make you seek security and assurance, and that security and assurance you will really never get. When you will not get that assurance, you will never leave yourself. So, the ‘not me’ will not materialize; ‘me’ will stay secured.

And that’s a common demand. You will say, “Oh, I am prepared to not remain myself, I am prepared to give myself up—but give me a good deal. If I am giving this up, what am I getting?” If you are remaining to still get, what you have left behind? On one hand, you say, “I am leaving myself behind”; in the same breath, you say, “Leaving myself behind, what next will I have?” You are asking what the next thing that you will have. Have you really dropped yourself? If you have dropped yourself, who is still remaining to talk of the future and become something else? So, you have really not dropped yourself.

One has to drop the stink, the rot without any cover, without any backup. The rot stays because we insist on a backup. We say, I can leave this but give me a backup, an alternative—an alternative that I will assess to be better than myself. Who is the assessor? ‘I’. And who will assess the quality of the alternative? ‘I’. And what am I going to assess the alternative against? Myself.

Will I ever find any alternative better than myself? I am the judge judging whether you are better than me. File closed! Even if I do judge that you are indeed better than me, who has judged? Myself. So, I am at least good enough to judge you. Even if I am judging that you are better than me, I am good enough to judge you. So, practically, what have I asserted? I am better than you. Even if I concede that you are better than me, being the judge who has delivered this verdict, I have proven that I am one up over you.

There are two lawyers who stand in front of the judge. Doesn’t matter which of them wins the case; the fact is both of them bow down to the judge, right? Among the three of them, who is the highest? The judge. The two lawyers may keep quarreling and arguing, but the judge will remain higher than both of the lawyers. When you assess the alternative to the ego, according to yourself, the position of the judge, then who is the highest among these three? Which three? The two alternatives, and the one who is assessing the alternatives. Who is the highest one? You.

So, now look at the absurdity of the situation. There is the ego as the judge, and what is the ego judging? “Whether I should have myself or I should have the Truth.” The ego is judging “whether I should stay as myself, or whether I should have the Truth or surrender to the Truth”. So, there are these three—ego, the judge; ego, the choice; and Truth, the choice. Irrespective of which of these two choices prevail, who is the real winner? The judge. Therefore, one keeps as one is; one stays trapped within oneself. Most of us are just too smart for our own good. We judge, we assess, we decide.

It is not about turning your face to the Truth. The Upanishad says that Maya ceases the man who averts his face from the Truth. That does not mean that the Upanishad is asking you to turn your face towards the Truth. The Truth is not standing anywhere in any particular direction—how will you turn your face towards the Truth? What is being implied is, do not keep looking at yourself.

Now, don’t ask me, “What else do I have to look at?” The question is irrelevant. Just don’t look at yourself. I know it’s not a very comforting answer, it leaves one in the middle of nowhere. We want certainty. We will agree to not look at ourselves, provided one tells us, in a definite sense, what else is there to look at; then we will agree. But no, that is not the way.

You don’t have to look at the Truth. You have to just stop looking at yourself. You don’t have to abide by the Truth. You just have to stop abiding by yourself. You don’t have to follow the Truth, you don’t have to surrender to the Truth. You just have to stop surrendering to yourself.

Most of us are our own slaves. Who enslaves the ego? Nobody else. The ego is its own slave. The ego cannot defy itself. The ego is its own compulsive victim. The ego is helpless in front of itself. That’s spiritual practice: not to seek the Truth but to overcome oneself.

But most of us rather try to overcome the Truth. When you say, “I want the Truth, I must get the Truth, I must own the Truth, I must reach the Truth,” it’s the Truth you seem to be grappling against. That’s nice! The ego enjoys nothing more than that—grappling with the Truth, declaring that it wants the Truth.

Look at yourself. Don’t try to look at the Truth. Truth is nowhere to be looked at. You have only yourself. Sort yourself out.

So, then you will ask, “If it’s about me not being myself, if it’s about me looking at myself, if it’s about me getting just sorted, then what’s all this thing about Truth and grace and mysticism and spirituality? Then it is just about me and me; I look at myself. Why bring in the Truth? Why raise a song and a dance? What is all this about worship and prayer and transcendence? It seems it’s just a thing between the ego and the ego. Where is God in this? Is spirituality, then, needlessly bringing in the God-element?” I’ll tell you why the God-element is not only important but rather central.

It is impossible for the ego to look at itself. I did say ‘not me, not me’, but that’s easier said than done. The fundamental characteristic of ego is its self-obsession. It knows nothing beyond itself, so it will keep favoring itself. If the ego is the judge, it will always be biased towards itself. It’s a pre-scripted judgment.

So, you do have to look at yourself, but it is very difficult to honestly look at oneself. The ego will not look at anything that offends it. The ego will not look at anything that proves it to be false. Therefore, something quite surreal is needed for the ego to actually turn inwards, a magic is needed; otherwise, it cannot happen.

It is like suicide. You are asking the ego to look at itself, figure out its falseness, and then openly declare itself to be false. Why would the ego do that? It neither has the capacity to honestly look at itself, it does not have the intention to honestly look at itself, and it does not have the guts to openly declare its falseness. Capacity is not there, intention is not there, courage is not there. How will the ego ever say, “Not me, I am false”? So, the ego requires a great deal of help.

So, some people who were fun-loving, they said, “If the ego requires help, surely there must be a helper as well.” And they named the helper as God. That’s why in the spiritual process you require the God-element. Without God, the ego remains as helpless as ever. It can look at everything, but not at itself. It can choose everything, remaining itself. It will never unchoose itself. And if that magic is to happen, surely some help from somewhere is needed—some blessing, some grace. That’s Godliness.

When you are to do the impossible and you have no option but to attempt the impossible, then you have to bring in a factor that makes the impossible possible. That’s God. So, ‘God’ is the name for the element that renders the impossible possible. Without God, only the ego remains possible; freedom, liberation, love—they all remain totally impossible.

The Upanishad is saying, “Whosoever wins absoluteness while alive continues to be absolute even after death. Rooted in concentration, O sinless one, remain steadfast.” What does it mean to remain steadfast?

You know, it is not without reason that the ego does not want to exercise any choice outside of itself. The moment the ego says ‘not me’, it faces, it experiences deep inner convulsions. As we said, ‘not me’ is almost like suicide—painful, frightful.

So, even if the ego turns a little playful and tries to experiment and says ‘not me’, the result is so drastic that the ego cannot hold on to this experimental position for long. It tries, it gets punched, and it returns to its shell. Having inferred from the experience that ‘not me’ is dangerous and is not to be tried again in the future, the ego says, “You know, I tried it and I felt such fear, and I went through such agony that now I know that it is never to be tried again.” Therefore the importance of steadfastness. It is not important merely to say ‘not me’. One has to keep saying ‘not me, not me’ till the ‘me’ itself is no more there to say ‘not me’.

Who is saying ‘not me’? ‘Me’, the ego. Therefore, till what point do you have to keep saying ‘not me’? Till the ‘me’ remains. So, if the ‘me’ is there, it must keep saying ‘not me, not me’. When must ‘not me’ cease? When ‘me’ ceases. Till ‘me’ is there, ‘not me’ must continue steadfastly. It cannot be a periodic or episodic thing. You cannot say that, “Once a week I say ‘not me’.” Or, “When I am in trouble, I say ‘not me’.” Or, “When I am in the church, I say ‘not me’.”

The ‘me’ has to abide in ‘not me’. The ‘me’ has to live not as itself. The ‘me’ has to live in its own denial—continuously. Because till ‘me’ is there, it will experience a huge motivation to come out of ‘not me’.

It’s almost like holding somebody’s neck and keeping him fully immersed in a tank of water. Till the time he is alive, he will continuously keep trying to come out. Therefore, if you really want to get rid of him, you have to not only hold him down, you have to steadfastly hold him down. If he manages to come to the surface even for a while, he will be able to breathe and normalcy will be restored. He has to be continuously kept down. Even a moment of respite to him is like a new life to him; all the effort, practice, sādhana will go waste.

You were strangulating your enemy—which is you—and then in the middle of strangulation, you allowed him to breathe. What happened to all your effort? So, the wrestler has pinned down the other wrestler to the ground, and the referee is counting: ten, nine, eight, seven… And the wrestler on top is exerting all his force, all his might to keep the opponent down. And when the referee in his countdown reaches one, the wrestler on top loosens his grip; the one who had been pinned down gets up. What happened to all the effort that the wrestler on top had made? It goes totally waste.

The one who could have been defeated by keeping him down steadfastly has now been given new life. All is back to normal; both return to square one. The referee will say, “Alright, now both of you stand up again”—and the bout resumes, again. Just a little more perseverance, just a little more steadfastness, and the dominant wrestler could have won the fight for good, forever, with just a little more patience. But he gave up. Not that he didn’t work hard enough, he gave up. He gave up at just the wrong time, with the result that all the good work that he had done became neutralized; now he stands at zero.

So, it’s not sufficient just to throw your opponent down on the mat. You must also display the patience and the stamina to keep him down on the mat. Throwing him down on the mat is not sufficient. He has to be continuously kept glued to the mat for a time sufficiently long enough to exhaust him out.

Kabaddi is a nice Indian sport. You enter half of the opponent; there are two halves, the Kabaddi court consists of two halves—watch a few Kabaddi matches tonight, it’s all there on YouTube. Now, once you have reached there and touched the opponent, one of two consequences will follow: either the opponents will display enough stamina and might to hold you and clutch you till you exhaust your breath, and then you have lost the point and you are out; or, having touched the opponents, you run back to your own half and then the opponents are out.

From your perspective, it is not sufficient merely to touch the opponent; you must also be able to escape. From the opponent’s perspective, it is not sufficient merely to clutch the raider; the raider has to be steadfastly held down till his breath expires. Otherwise, it is a great loss. The raider came to your half, you held him, but you didn’t hold him steadfastly. You held him, you did hold him for a while, but you allowed him to slowly escape away and touch the center line. All of you are gone.

Therefore, when you tackle the raider, make sure that you do it fully. Or, don’t intercept him, let him come; say, “Kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi”; you stay behind at the baseline, play defensive. He will utter his kabaddi for a while and find that you are not lured, you are not up for a fight, and he will retreat to his half. But in case you decide to tackle him, intercept him, it has to be done fully—bring him down and keep him down. Merely bringing him down is not sufficient. In fact, it will prove suicidal. You brought him down, but he stretched his hand and touched the line. And what happens to you then? You are gone.

That’s the fate of most spiritual seekers. They do manage to bring Maya down—she is the raider. They do manage to bring Maya down, and Maya is smiling. She is saying, “Yes, yes, five of you come and put me down!” And all five are upon her, and she invites two more: “Two more, you too come! All of you must collectively ensure that I have been held to the ground.” And just when the half a dozen of them are all over her, she stretches her extensible hand and it goes right up to the center line, and the whole team is wiped out.

This is what happens to spiritual seekers. They try to tackle Maya . Don’t try to mess with her if you cannot steadfastly hold her down. Give her half a chance, and she will decimate you. If you are not sure of yourself, then just stay behind, don’t touch her. But if you have touched her, then you have to fully dominate her. That is what is meant by steadfastness.

Touching her is like declaring war upon her, and you can’t fight wars half-heartedly. If you are not man enough to declare a war, then just stay mum. But once you declare the war, then you have to be fully in the war. Not fighting is bad; fighting with anything less than absolute dedication is far worse.

That’s why the fate of most spiritual seekers is worse than the fate of those who do not seek at all. Those who do not seek at all are playing it safe. They are saying, “We are not trying to mess with Maya . She can have her way.” But those on the path of liberation have picked up a fight. Now, why did you pick up a fight? Look at the opponent, look at her might, and look at your vacillation, your half-heartedness, your lack of determination. Now she will beat you down very, very badly. Don’t challenge her.

Challenge her only when you have no other pre-occupation. If you are entangled in five things, then you are not the one who should challenge her. The moment you get occupied in anything other than beating her down, that will give her the space she needs to resurrect herself. When you are jostling with her, then defeating her has to be your only occupation. If you have other things to do, then the moment your attention shifts to those other things, she will spring back to her feet and beat you down mercilessly.

Maya takes no prisoners. She is extremely ruthless. Once she knows that, “This fellow is dangerous: he troubled me, he challenged me, he declared war on me!” she will not just warn you and let you go. She will kill you—not physically but actually. She takes no prisoners, she kills. The spiritual universe is full of those who overestimated their intention, their capacity and their honesty, and tried to take Maya on. Where do you find such people? In the spiritual graveyard, dead. Maya shows no mercy.

So, if you do manage to clutch her throat, keep strangulating her with all your might till you know that now she is finally gone. And when you know that she is finally gone, strangulate her even more. This is called steadfastness. Either don’t touch her, or if you touch her, then keep upon her till she is totally and fully annihilated.

What do spiritual novices do? In their enthusiasm to take on Maya , they just try to cross her, and then they come in her bad books. She notices: “Oh, this one!” Don’t get noticed. Keep mum, stay underground, keep preparing, and then declare yourself with one grand explosion. Catch her unawares. Don’t keep issuing her advance warnings. Catch her unawares, and then snuff the life out of her.

It’s not going to happen, you know, just saying. There have been too many before me who had the same intention—catch her, kill her. Hasn’t happened so far. Except maybe in a few rare handful of cases. But there is no harm in, you know, just entertaining yourself with the idea. It’s a nice idea—catching hold of Maya , remaining steadfastly at her throat, seeing the light go out of her eyes, and saying, “Yes! I did it!” (Raises his hand victoriously)

And just as you raise one hand to say, “I did it!” and you loosen the grip on her throat, what happens? (Chuckles)

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