God is an Actor

Recognition Sutra #8

Sūtra Eight of The Recognition Sutras is truly remarkable; perhaps one of the most profound ideas, and certainly one of the most original for its time, ever to be expressed in a single sentence. The author, Rājānaka Kshemarāja, has been discussing the nature of the One divine Awareness that underlies all existences and manifests as the mind of every sentient being (and all that those minds perceive). Now in Chapter Eight he addresses the 'problem of plurality': that is, how are we to understand the many different religions, spiritual paths, and philosophies of life that humans have articulated? How do we reconcile the fact that they share common elements yet contradict each other on key points? Are they merely cultural constructs or do they have an element of Divine revelation? He answers these questions through the sūtra and the discourse that follows it. Note that, in the sūtra, 'It' refers to the One divine Awareness, the Self of all sentient beings.

तद्भूमिकाः सर्वदर्शनस्थितयः ॥ ८ ॥

The positions held by all the philosophical Views are Its various roles, the levels of Its self-expression.

Kshemarāja explains: The positions, i.e. the established doctrines, of all the philosophical Views—from the Materialists on—are the crafted roles that “It,” i.e. this Self [= nondual Awareness], freely adopts, like an actor.

For the first time in this text, Kshemarāja uses “the Self” (ātman) to refer to the ultimate reality, which he previously described as nondual Awareness. In fact, this chapter is partially an exploration of the various views on what constitutes selfhood in Indian philosophy. 

Since his tradition teaches that agency is singular, i.e., that there is only One performer of every action, he argues in Sūtra Eight that all the different schools of spiritual philosophy (darśanas) throughout the world are like different parts played by one actor. Kshema is indirectly echoing Śiva-sūtra 3.9, which says “The Self is an actor.” One being, one Consciousness adopts every possible viewpoint by taking on all the roles played by sentient beings throughout time and space. 

I am reminded here of a story that Swāmī Muktānanda used to love to tell, the story of “the lords’ club.” According to this story, there was once a group of lords, members of the aristocracy, who decided to form a club. But, being an exclusivist sort of group, they didn’t want anyone to set foot in the club who wasn’t a lord. “Then who shall do all the menial tasks, such as cooking and cleaning and so on?” one of them asked. “We all will!” said another. “We’ll take it in turns. Each week, we’ll put all the different jobs on slips of paper, put them in a hat, and each member will draw out a job, and perform that job for that week.” Which is what they did. The president of the club one week would be the cook the next, the sweeper one week would be the master of ceremonies the next, and so on. Swāmī Muktānanda would get very excited at this point, proclaiming, “You see? Whatever task they performed, whatever role they played, they enjoyed it, because they never forgot that they were lords! In the same way, whatever is your role in life, you play it to the best of your ability, without believing it defines you, when you know that you are really the Lord.” And he would laugh with delight. 

In a parallel metaphor, an actor who is playing a part on stage, even a very tragic one, derives a profound joy from playing it well. However much he loses himself in the part, feeling the pain of the character, there is still that undercurrent of joy, because he never totally loses touch with the fact that he is an actor who can play virtually any part he is called upon to play. Similarly, when you are actually in touch with the pattern of the whole within you, when you can sense your ability to play any appropriate part, there is a kind of joy in simply playing well the part given to you in this moment.

But let us return to the specific topic here, which makes a somewhat different point then the general one of “The Self is an actor.” Kshema is postulating that the different philosophical schools and spiritual paths are like roles (bhūmika) played by the one Self on the stage of the history of human thought, as it were. Now, the word bhūmika in the sūtra means both “performance parts” and “levels” (as on a terraced hillside); so it is translated twice above, to bring out its suggestive quality. For it is not the case that Kshema thinks all these different schools of thought are equally true (that is a philosophically incoherent position known as “relativism”), rather, he ranks them in a hierarchy of levels, according to the degree of revelation or concealment of the true autonomy of Awareness that is displayed in each. In the commentary immediately following the sūtra, Kṣema adds an adjective modifying “roles,” and that is the word kṛtrima, which means crafted or constructed. Thus, kṛtrimā bhūmikāḥ means “crafted roles/scripted parts” or “constructed levels.” This implies that each philosophy constitutes a fixed doctrine that is a product of the (collective) intellect, and as such can only partially represent the true nature of reality, which is organic, spontaneous, and multiform.  

While Kshemarāja does present a hierarchy of philosophies, it is still an inclusivist model, something rarely found in the premodern world. That is, he is not simply saying that the other schools of thought are wrong. He is saying that the followers of each path do indeed reach the goal promised by their system; the question is, what do they conceive as the ultimate goal? One can hardly argue with his primary thesis here, which is that, since Awareness freely creates its experience of reality, followers of each philosophy can ascend to a level of reality no higher than the one they postulate as ultimate. If you don’t believe there is anything higher than the level you have reached, you will not be open to realizing anything more, and without that openness and that intention, it is very unlikely that you will realize anything more. (Nonetheless, it can sometimes happen, and this what we call “the power of grace,” denoted in this tradition by the word śaktipāta.

Some modern readers might be turned off by a philosopher ranking philosophies in a hierarchy with his own philosophy implicitly at the top. I would argue that this attitude is hypocritical, since that is in fact what we all do, consciously or unconsciously. While paying lip service to the modern relativist idea that every point of view is equally valid, in reality we believe that some perspectives are truer than others (and rightly so), and we tend to think that our own interpretation of reality is the truest, and others are true only insofar as they resemble our own. You may not be conscious of that conviction, but you have it, because you could not act decisively in any matter without believing that your interpretation of reality is correct. You couldn’t form coherent thought-structures without believing that some things are truer than others. So what Kshemarāja is doing here is simply demonstrating intellectual honesty. All the more honest because he has an argument to make that, if accepted, justifies his whole project.

There is no philosopher, of any time or culture, who accepts the relativist maxims that “everyone’s point of view is equally valid” or “everyone’s entitled to his own opinion.” Rather, philosophers examine the reasons for holding different opinions and make arguments about the validity of those reasons (or lack thereof). If you cannot explain your reasons for holding your opinion, and demonstrate that they might be good reasons, you have no business holding that opinion. Kshemarāja displays intellectual integrity by making a coherent argument, explaining why he thinks as he does. Furthermore, he holds that every interpretation of the nature of reality (since that is all a philosophy really is) reveals the nature of divine Consciousness to some degree. Though we cannot explore his argument in detail here (but you can in my forthcoming book), here is how he sums it up:

Thus, all these levels or roles of the Blessed Lord — i.e. the singular Awareness-Self —, manifested through Its absolute freedom (svātantrya), are differentiated by degrees of revelation or concealment of that freedom. Hence, there is only One Self which pervades all of this.

But that's not all. He presents a second, entirely different, reading of the sūtra, which is a device in Sanskrit literature called paranomasia. This second reading seeks to show that the nature of Consciousness can be realized by reflecting on the process of cognition--how thoughts, feelings, and perceptions arise and dissolve within awareness. And this reflection can be done on the basis of any cognition. Such profound and careful self-reflection (vimarśa) leads one beyond philosophy to a direct contemplation of the nature of fundamental Awareness itself. This contemplative process, if properly directed, leads to awakeness and liberation. 

This second reading is found in this post.

For the online course to accompany the book, go to The Sutra Project

IMAGE CREDIT: Android Jones (buy his art!)