Dialectics of Enlightenment

Painting of krishna’s form of vishvarupa, the cosmic Person. Unknown Date, US public Domain via wiki Commons.

In the image above, we see Vishvarupa, as the cosmic Person. The cosmic Person is the body and embodiment of Ultimate Reality (called Brahman in Sanskrit).

In art and in myth, the Cosmic Purusha is often depicted as  being comprised of worlds (called Lokas). The body of Purusha contains lower worlds and upper worlds, places where Devas and Asuras reside. It is said that Enlightenment entails a movement toward the light of the Devas (spiritual truth), and away from the darkness of the Asuras (ignorance). Ultimately, this duality is resolved as we encounter the cosmic light and heart of Purusha.  This inner heart is our own and it is cosmic. It does not find its location in any organ of the body, but is known as the center of existence. It is a symbolic heart: a symbolic light, ours and beyond ours.

It is also said that the Vedas (ancient Sanskrit texts) are the body of Ultimate Reality (Brahman). As we read the Vedas, and work with the symbols and concepts contained therein we inhabit a sacred body.

One hymn in particular is known for presenting the dialectics of Enlightenment. The hymn is called the Isha Upanishad. The dialectics of Enlightenment present two opposing ideas, which are integrated as the spiritual seeker realizes higher and higher levels of synthesis and integration. In the Vedas, the supreme dialectic is found between the Innermost Self (Ātman) and Ultimate Reality (Brahman). Enlightenment is an integration and unification of these two aspects of being.

The Isha Upanishad challenges us to integrate opposing forces within our own psyche so that we might be capable of realizing the supreme unity and of individual Self with Ultimate Reality. This realization is sometimes called non-duality and sometimes Oneness depending on spiritual teaching and historical context. I am going to go into some technical detail on regards to the Isha Upanishad so as to illustrate the dialectics at play.

Mantra 1 of the Isha Upanishad begins with a concise presentation of a core dialectic of the Veda.  This dialectic reveals something about the Veda itself, about the body of Brahman. We are offered a riddle: Isha vāsyam idam sarvam. The translation of this sacred hymn is complex and ambiguous, even for those steeped in the tradition. Translation from Sanskrit to English adds another level of ambiguity. Yet, through working with the sacred words and their meaning, through a practice of spiritual contemplation (upāsanā), spiritual knowledge emerges.

In my previous post on Mantra 1, I draw from Adi Shankara and Sri Aurobindo, and I show a difference in the interpretation of vāsyam between these two great thinkers. Depending upon the translation, the word Vasyam has various meanings: “all this”; ‘dwelling in’; ‘covered by’; ‘enveloping’;‘inhabiting’.

The two central concepts in this phrase are idam sarvam meaning ‘all this’ and Isha meaning ‘Lord’ or ‘God’. The dialectic integrates as we contemplate the dynamic tension in the term vāsyam: ‘dwelling in’ or ‘covered by’, ‘enveloping’ or ‘inhabiting’. One is encouraged to meditate on the relation between “God” and “all this”. Is God dwelling in all this? Is God covered by all this? Is God enveloping all this? or inhabiting all this? Or is the answer all of these at once?

The labor of dialectics may lead to many resolutions, to various ‘schools of thought and enlightenment’. For instance, the dialectic may resolve into a realization that God is covered by All this. Or, the dialectic may resolve into a realization that God dwells within All this. Or, the dialectic may resolve into a realization that all this is conditional upon God. 

Enlightenment is the Ultimate realization of the relation between Idam sarvam (all this) and Isha (God).For a few, the dialectic resolves into sat chit ānanda, an experience of love and bliss (ānanda) beyond the concepts of ‘God’ or ‘all this’. One transcends ‘schools of thought’ all together in an experience that is sometimes called knowledge, or liberation, or non-duality. Most simply, this is an experience of Oneness and unity with God as it exists beyond name or form.

Some are graced by an experience of Oneness that is absolute and liberating. Others, are graced with a glimpse of Onesess, an intuition. Both of these possibilities are to be respected and honored.  The intuition gives rise to a call, a call to protect the realization though renunciation of all that is conditional, temporal, and ephemeral.

Knowledge evokes a path, as we un-weave the ties that bind the living soul. The intuition of Oneness offers a transformation in consciousness. The intuition is itself joy (ananda). A joy so powerful that we are is no longer content with the works of the world. And thus, we now seeks works of the soul: the works of symbolic life. Works which will lead us deeper into the joy of Oneness.

Spiritual Life is itself a dialectic: at once the joy (ānanda) of eternal Truth and at the same time a path, weaving together the dualities inherent in the mind, until one steadies in sat chit, the eternal Truth of being. This is freedom.

If upon hearing these words, one finds no meaning, no Truth, then Mantra 2 of the Isha Upanishad offers the path of works (karma). Mantra 2 says “By doing karma, indeed, one should desire to live for a hundred years.” It is implied that by doing karma and living a hundred years, one may become ready for knowledge (jñāna).

The dialectic of Mantra 1 between all this and God opens a space for the dialectic of Mantra 2 between works (karma) and knowledge (jñāna). Shankara says, “the antithesis between jñāna and Karma is in fact unshakable like a mountain.”  Shankara is setting up a clear dialectic. He is correct in doing so: the word karma finds its root in the Sanskrit kr-, meaning “act, do, bring about”; jñāna finds its root in the Sanskrit jñā-, meaning to “know.”   The antithesis between jñāna and Karma is undeniable.

Karma speaks of processes; Jñāna is beyond all process. Karma signifies a relation between subject and objects;  Jñāna is the identity of Subject and object. Karma finds the self in multiplicity; Jñāna finds the Self in unity. Karma speaks to our actions within the world of transience and temporality; Jñāna speaks to knowledge of the Oneness beyond transience and temporality.

Those that practice karma work within the realms of cause and effect; jñāna is bliss beyond cause and effect. Those that practice karma seek rewards; jñāna is bliss beyond reward. Shankara reminds us that “the fruits of Karma are there perceived or enjoyed (lokyante)” (Shankara, p. 7) Loka is a Sanskrit word for the world or “all this”;  jñāna is the joy of all this.

Karma is a spiritual principle that works with the subtle dialectics of good and bad, right and wrong, light and dark. The principle of karma says: Just as the fruit of seeds planted now or in the past may bear fruit in the future; so too, the seeds (bīja) planted by one’s actions now or in the past may bear fruit (phala) in the future. The path of karma involves awareness of how our current (good/ bad, right/wrong) actions may lead to later fruit of joy or suffering.

The dialectics of karma may, in time, lead to jñāna. This dialectic does not resolve to a realization “beyond good and evil”, but to a more subtle Truth of the heart. This possibility is conditional upon how we practice karma. The Isha Upanishad implies that if we are going to practice karma then we should practice karma with awareness of the eternal truth. In this way, the seeds (bīja) planted by our actions now may one day bear a fruit (phala) of a Truth which resolves all dialectics. This is the path the Upanishads offer, not enlightenment as a fixed or frozen state of consciousness, but enlightenment as jñāna, as Sat Chit Ananda…  as the love, bliss, and limitless enjoyment of knowledge, as eternal Truth deeply related to ‘all this’.


  1. The Upanishads and Sri Sankara’s Commentary: Isa, Kena & Mundaka, 1898.
 This post was edited and updated on 5/13/2018