Last revised: 5 April 2008
Where is the end of the journey?
Usually the term “enlightenment” is used synonymously with Brahmajnana or God Realization. However, the term actually refers to a series of events beginning before Brahmajnana and continuing after it.
The “first” enlightenment
Earlier, we heard from sages like John Ruusbroec, Jacob Boehme, and J. Krishnamurti what the first experience of enlightenment, or spiritual awakening, is like. We saw that it occurs when the kundalini reaches the fourth or heart chakra. It reveals to us our true nature as divine Light, the Christ, the Child of God. You may wish to review their experiences before turning to the second level.
The “second” enlightenment
A second experience of enlightenment arises when the kundalinireaches the sixth or brow chakra. One goes into a type of samadhi called “savikalpa” which means “with form,” as opposed to “nirvikalpa”, which means “without form.” In savikalpa samadhi, as Swami Vivekananda explains, “one feels a trace of duality, of distinction between subject and object.” In nirvikalpa samadhi, “one effaces, in the depths of meditation, all distinction between the knower and the goal of knowledge.” (1)
In savikalpa samadhi, says Swami Brahmananda, “one experiences the mystic vision of the spiritual form of God, while the consciousness of individuality remains.” (2) Sri Ramakrishna gave Swami Brahamananda exactly that boon while he was a young boy, then known as Rakhal.
"Look," said the Master, "there is your Chosen Ideal!" Rakhal in ecstatic vision saw his chosen aspect of the Godhead standing before him -- living and luminous, with a smile playing on his lips. When Rakhal regained his external consciousness and saw Sri Ramakrishna, he prostrated at his feet with loving devotion. He had known and experienced the divine power and grace of his guru. (3)
Another common form of sixth-chakra enlightenment experience is the seeing of a mystic light suffusing the whole realm of creation. It was the source of William Wordsworth’s poetry.
Such was the Boy -- but for the growing Youth
What soul was his, when, from the naked top
Of some bold headland, he beheld the sun
Rise up, and bathe the world in light! He looked --
Ocean and earth, the solid frame of earth
And ocean's liquid mass, in gladness lay
Beneath him:-- Far and wide the clouds were touched,
And in their silent faces could he read
Unutterable love. Sound needed none,
Nor any voice of joy; his spirit drank
The spectacle: sensation, soul, and form,
All melted into him; they swallowed up
His animal being; in them did he live,
And by them did he live; they were his life.(4)
The sense of subject and object, or duality, persists in savikalpa samadhi. It may be that St. Paul was referring to savikalpa samadhi when he wrote:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (5)
St. Paul conveys a sense of this barrier between us and God characteristic of sixth-chakra enlightenment. It is as if we were seeing through a glass pane.
The “third” enlightenment
Brahmajnana occurs when the spiritual energy reaches the seventh chakra or sahasrara, at the crown of the head. The spiritual energy has completed its circuit in the body. Sri Ramakrishna describes what can happen next, though it is not necessarily the case with everyone, as we shall see.
After passing the six centres the aspirant arrives at the seventh plane. ... The individual soul and the Supreme Soul become one. The aspirant goes into samadhi. His consciousness of the body disappears. He loses the knowledge of the outer world. He does not see the manifold any more. His reasoning comes to a stop. (6)
Here are some descriptions of what Brahmajnana is like.
I am life. My glory is like the mountain peak. I am established in the purity of Brahman. I have attained to the freedom of the Self. I am Brahman, self-luminous, the brightest treasure. I am endowed with wisdom. I am immortal, imperishable.
I am indeed that Brahman which is free from diversity. O dear friend, how can I, the Self, salute the Self? ... I am uncreated and separate from creation, for I am ever present. ... I am Self-luminous, I am Existence-Knowledge-Bliss and boundless as space. (8)
There follows a third kind of experience, namely, that we feel ourselves to be one with God, for by means of our transformation in God we feel ourselves to be swallowed up in the groundless abyss of our eternal blessedness, in which we can never discover any difference between ourselves and God. (9)
The Master went into deep samadhi. His body was motionless; he sat with folded hands as in his photograph. Tears of joy flowed from the corners of his eyes. After a long time his mind came down to the ordinary plane of consciousness. He mumbled something, of which only a word now and then could be heard by the devotees in the room. He was saying: "Thou art I, and I am Thou -- Thou eatest -- Thou -- eat! ... What is this confusion Thou has created?" ... There was complete silence in the room. The eager and unsatiated eyes of the devotees were fixed on the Master, a God-man of infinite moods. (10)
We can see from the following passage that Sri Ramakrishna loses consciousness at the onset of the nirvikalpa state.
"So long as [the kundalini] does not reach the brain, I remain conscious, but the moment it does so, I am dead to the outside world. Even the functions of the eyes and the ears come to a stop, and speech is out of the question. Who should speak? The very distinction between 'I' and 'thou' vanishes. Sometimes I think I shall tell you everything about what I see and feel when that mysterious power rises up through the spinal column. When it has come up to this, or even this (pointing to the heart and throat), somebody stops my mouth, as it were, and I am adrift. I make up my mind to relate to you what I feel when the Kundalini goes beyond the throat, but as I think over it, up goes the mind at a bound, and there is an end to the matter." Many a time did the Master attempt to describe this state, but failed every time. One day he was determined to tell and went on until the power reached the throat. Then pointing to the sixth centre, opposite the junction of the eyebrows, he said, "When the mind reaches this point one catches a vision of the Paramatman and falls into Samadhi. Only a thin, transparent veil intervenes between the Jiva and the Paramatman. He then sees like this --" and as he attempted to explain it in detail he fell into Samadhi. When his mind came down a little he tried again, and again he was immersed in Samadhi! After repeated attempts he said with tears in his eyes, "Well, I sincerely wish to tell you everything, but [the Divine Mother] won't let me do so. She gagged me!" (11)
But not everyone does.
The more I study enlightenment, the less capable I feel of saying anything that takes in all cases. Da Free John realized in a moment what he is, without losing consciousness.
Da Free John
In an instant, I became profoundly and directly aware of what I am. It was a tacit realization, a direct knowledge in consciousness itself. It was consciousness itself without the addition of a communication from any other source. I simply sat there and knew what I am. I was being what I am. I am Reality, the Self and Nature and Support of all things and all beings. I am the One Being, known as God, Brahman, Atman, the One Mind. (12)
The same thing happened to Franklin Merrell-Wolff. His experience of Brahmajnana occurred “with eyes opened and no sense stopped in functioning – hence no trance.” (13) “I was … prepared not to have the personal consciousness share in this Recognition in any way. But in this I was happily disappointed.” (14) All through his experiences of Brahmajnana and beyond, Dr. Wolff still found the relative consciousness active:
[During Brahmajnana] relative consciousness by its own momentum continued to function all this time, so that I never for one moment lost sight of my environment or the ceaseless train of thoughts. It was simply a discriminative abstraction of the pure subjective moment and Recognizing Myself as That. (15)
Throughout this whole experience [which he called the “High Satisfaction”] and the following more profound state [the “High Indifference”], the egoistic or subject-object consciousness was actively present. It was present, however, as a witness on the sidelines, while all about and through and through there was an immeasurably vaster Consciousness. (16)
Here is what he saw with eyes open in Brahmajnana:
I found Myself above space, time, and causality, and actually sustaining the whole universe by the Light of Consciousness which I AM. Almost at once, there followed the Nectar-like Current [the kundalini] and the gentle, yet so powerful Joy. (17)
I felt the Ambrosia-like quality in the breath with the purifying benediction that it casts over the whole personality, even including the physical body. I found myself above the universe, not in the sense of being above space, time, and causality, My karma seemed to drop away from me as an individual responsibility. I felt intangibly, yet wonderfully, free. I sustained this universe and was not bound by it. Desires and ambitions grew perceptibly more and more shadowy. All worldly honors were without power to exalt me. Physical life seemed undesirable. … I looked, as it were, over the world, asking: “What is there of interest here? What is worth doing?” I found but one interest: the desire that other souls should also realize this that I had realized. (18)
In the 1960s and 1970s, we called God-Realization "final" or "complete" enlightenment, but apparently it isn't. Many of the sages speak of at least one level of enlightenment past it.
In Chapter 6, we heard Sri Ramakrishna describe vijnana, a state beyond Brahmajnanaor God-Realization.
There is a stage beyond even Brahmajnana, After jnana comes vijnana. (19)
Thejnani [i.e., knower of God or Brahmajnani] gives up his identification with worldly things, discriminating, 'Not this, not this'. Only then can he realize Brahman. It is like reaching the roof of a house by leaving the steps behind, one by one. But the vijnani, who is more intimately acquainted with Brahman, realizes something more. He realizes that the steps are made of the same materials as the roof: bricks, lime, and brick-dust. That which is realized intuitively as Brahman, through the eliminating process of 'Not this, not this', is then found to have become the universe and all its living beings. The vijnani sees that the Reality which is nirguna, without attributes, is also saguna, with attributes. ... This is known as vijnana. (20)
Do you know what I see? I see that God alone has become everything. Men and animals are only frameworks covered with skin, and it is He who is moving through their heads and limbs. I see that it is God Himself who has become the block, the executioner, and the victim for the sacrifice. ... There sits Latu [later Swami Adbhutananda] resting his head on the palm of his hand. To me it is the Lord who is seated in that posture. (21)
In vijnana, we know, not only that we are God, but also that all is God. Compared to the Brahmajnani or God-realized sage, the vijnani has gone further.
The Yoga Vasistha spoke of the “Turiyatita,” the overcomer of Turiya, the fourth state of consciousness beyond wakefulness, sleep, and dreamless sleep.
The mind of the knower of truth is no-mind: it is pure satva [the cosmic quality of balance]. After living with such no-mind for some time, there arises the state known as turiya-atita (the state beyond the transcendental, or the Turiya, state). (22) Beyond even this fourth state [of transcendental consciousness or Turiya] there is absolute purity of consciousness. One who is established in it goes beyond sorrow. (23)
The state of liberation-while-living is ... the turiya consciousness. Beyond that is ... turiya-atita (beyond turiya). In every atom of existence there is nothing else but the supreme being [i.e., vijnana]. (24)
Millennia later, Ramana Maharshi used the same terms to signify Brahmajnana and a stage past it.
Sri Ramana Maharshi
The Turiya … is the self or “I”-nature; and what is beyond that is the state of Turiyatita, or pure Bliss. (25)
Turiya means that which is the fourth. The experiencers (jivas) of the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep, who wander successively in these three states, are not the Self. It is with the object of making this clear, namely that the Self is that which is different from them and which is the witness of these states, that it is called the fourth (Turiya). When this is known the three experiencers disappear and the idea that the Self is a witness, that it is the fourth, also disappears. That is why the Self is described as beyond the fourth (turiyatita). (26)
The Turiya is God-Realization. Therefore the Turiyatita (which I believe to be a term synonymous with vijnani) has gone further.
We saw that Sri Ramakrishna distinguished between Brahmajnana and the stage beyond it by using the term vijnana. But, as we have seen, Sri Ramana Maharshi uses different terms for these two levels. Instead of Brahmajnana and vijnana, I believe that he distinguishes between two types of nirvikalpa samadhi. In effect, I think he covers the same territory.
Sahaja is also Nirvikalpa. You are probably meaning Kevala [sic] Nirvikalpa, which is temporary, while the Samadhi lasts. The Sahaja Nirvikalpa is permanent and in it lies liberation from rebirths. (27)
In kevalya nirvikalpa samadhi, the spiritual heart or hridayam (not to be confused with the physical heart or the heart chakra) opens and then shuts, but in sahaja nirvikalpa samadhi, the heart remains permanently open. It is at this stage that we are liberated from the need to reincarnate, not at the stage of Brahmajnana or kevalya nirvikalpa samadhi..
[The] Heart is the seat of Jnanam as well as of the granthi (knot of ignorance). It is represented in the physical body by a hole smaller than the smallest pin-point, which is always shut. When the mind drops down in Kevalya nirvikalpa [samadhi], it opens but shuts again after it. When sahaja nirvikalpa samadhi is attained it opens for good. (28)
[The hole called the Heart as a small as a pinpoint] is always shut, being the knot of ignorance which ties the body to consciousness. When the mind drops in the temporary Kevala Nirvikalpa it opens but shuts again. In Sahaja it remains always open. (29)
In Kevala Nirvikalpa there is the mental bucket still in existence under the water, which can be pulled out at any moment. Sahaja is like the river that has linked up with the ocean from which there is no return. (30)
He couples this distinction with another between the jivan-mukta, who has experienced kevalya nirvikalpa samadhi (Brahmajnana, or knowledge of the Turiya) and the videha-mukta, who has experienced sahaja nirvikalpa samadhi(vijnana or the state of the Turiyatita).
Note his contention that the jivan-mukta experiences the attributeless Brahman whereas the videha-mukta experiences the transcendent attributeless Brahman.
“I am not the body; I am Brahman which is manifest as the Self. In me who am the plenary Reality, the world consisting of bodies etc., are mere appearance, like the blue of the sky.” He who has realized the truth thus is a jivan-mukta. Yet so long as his mind has not been resolved, there may arise some misery for him because of relation to objects on account of prarabdha (karma which has begun to fructify and whose result is the present body), and as the movement of mind has not ceased there will not be also the experience of bliss. The experience of Self is possible only for the mind that has become subtle and unmoving as a result of prolonged meditation. He who is thus endowed with a mind that has become subtle, and who has the experience of the Self is called a jivan-mukta. It is the state of jivan-muktithat is referred to as the attributeless Brahman and as the Turiya. When even the subtle mind gets resolved, and experience of self ceases, and when one is immersed in the ocean of bliss and has become one with it without any differentiated existence, one is called a videha-mukta. It is the state of videha-mukti that is referred to as the transcendent attributeless Brahman and as the transcendent Turiya. This is the final goal. (31)
[The state beyond bliss] is the state of unceasing peace of mind which is found in the state of absolute quiescence, jagrat-sushupti (lit. sleep with awareness) which resembles inactive deep sleep. In this state, in spite of the activity of the body and the senses, there is no external awareness, like a child immersed in sleep (who is not conscious of the food given to him by his mother). A yogi who is in this state is inactive even while engaged in activity. This is also called sahaja nirvikalpa samadhi (natural state of absorption in oneself without concepts). (32)
The technical terms that Hindu masters use may challenge us, but Hindu seers have laid the foundations for the cross-cultural study of enlightenment. For millennia, they have served as spiritual scientists who have done for Truth what the great western scientists have done for Science. Again, compared to the knower of Brahmajnana or kevalya nirvikalpa samadhi, Sri Ramana’s knower of sahaja nirvikalpa samadhi has gone further.
Let us look at the explorations of Da Free John. God-Realization is itself the result of the kundalini leaving the muladhara chakra at the base of the spine and uniting with the sahasrara chakra at the top of the head. The moment of Shakti meeting Shiva is God-Realization. However, Da Free John says that we reach a point in spiritual evolution where the chakra system itself drops off or falls away.
Da Free John
In February I passed through an experience that seemed to vindicate my understanding. For several nights I was awakened again and again with sharp lateral pains in my head. They felt like deep incisions in my skull and brain, as if I were undergoing an operation. During the day following the last of these experiences I realized a marvellous relief. I saw that what appeared as the sahasrar, the terminal chakra and primary lotus in the head, had been severed. The sahasrar had fallen off like a blossom. The Shakti, which previously had appeared as a polarized energy that moved up and down through the various chakras or centers producing various effects, now was released through the chakra form. There was no more polarized force. Indeed, there was no form whatsoever, no up or down, no chakras. The chakra system had been revealed as unnecessary, an arbitrary rule or setting for the play of energy. The form beneath all of the bodies, gross or subtle, had revealed itself to be as unnecessary and conditional as the bodies themselves. (33)
If the chakras utterly drop away, that experience must be one beyond God-Realization. Da Free John has gone further.
Bernadette Roberts had her first contemplative experience at fifteen years of age and experienced what we have called Brahmajnana at age twenty-five. As far as she knew, she was at the end of the spiritual path.
However, twenty years later, she found that the Self that she had found utterly and suddenly dropped away.
[During my] two-year journey [into the No-Self] ... I experienced the falling away of everything I can call a self. It was a journey through an unknown passageway that led to a life so new and different that, despite forty years of varied contemplative experiences, I never suspected its existence. … I came upon a permanent state in which there was no self, not even a higher self, a true self, or anything that could be called a self. Clearly, I had fallen outside my own, as well as the traditional, frame of reference when I came upon a path that seemed to begin where the writers on the contemplative life had left off. (34)
Roberts turned to Buddhism for help, but found that most Buddhist authors, though they say they speak of the “no-self” were really speaking of “no-ego.”
Unfortunately what most Buddhist authors define as the no-self experience is actually the no-ego experience. The cessation of clinging, desire, the passions, etc., and the ensuing state of imperturbable peace and joy articulates the egoless state of oneness; it does not, however, articulate the no-self experience or the dimension beyond. (35)
The Buddhist writers she turned to are what Buddha described as arahants and what Hindus describe as Brahmajnanis. Roberts could not find a Buddhist author who made a distinction that took in her experience of the “No-Self.” But one day Roberts’ search came to an end.
Four years later, however, I came across two lines attributed to Buddha describing his enlightenment experience. Referring to self as a house, he said, "All the rafters are broken now, the ridgepole is destroyed." And there it was -- the disappearance of the center, the ridgepole; without it, there can be no house, no self. When I read these lines, it was as if an arrow launched at the beginning of time had suddenly hit a bull's-eye. It was a remarkable find. These lines are not a piece of philosophy, but an experiential account, and without the experiential account we really have nothing to go on. In the same verse he says, "Again a house thou shalt not build," clearly distinguishing this experience from the falling away of the ego-center, after which a new, transformed self is built around a "true center," a sturdy, balanced ridgepole. (36)
Here is another passage in which the Buddha distinguishes between arahants (or Brahmajnanis) and buddhas.
The reason why all devoted disciples do not at once attain to supreme enlightenment is because they do not realize two primary principles [the principles of individuating ignorance and of integrating compassion] and because of it some attain only to Arhatship. (37)
Just as the Buddha has traveled further on Jacob’s Ladder than the arahant orBrahmajnani, so has Bernadette Roberts gone further.
Through what we have read here, we are invited to open our minds to the possibility that enlightenment goes farther down the road than the “complete enlightenment” we spoke of in the 1960s and 1970s; i.e., Brahmajnana or God-realization.
We see that what we call “God-Realization” is again only another step on Jacob’s Ladder. Beyond it is at least one stage, and perhaps a number of stages, variously called vijnana, turiyatita, sahaja nirvikalpa samadhi, the "No-Self," etc.
Are there more stages than even these?
For full details on these sources, see “Bibliography.”
(1) VIV, 562.
(2) EC, 189.
(3) Ibid., 25-6.
(4) ECST, 399.
(5) I Corinthians 13:12.
(6) GSR, 245.
(7) UPAN, 54.
(8) AG, 56.
(9) JR, 176.
(11) LSR, 107-8.
(12) KOL, 134-5.
(13) PTS, 4.
(14) Ibid., 5.
(15) Ibid., 32. As I am told, those who knew Franklin Merrell-Wolff referred to him as "Dr. Wolff."
(16) Ibid., 117.
(17) Ibid., 32.
(18) Ibid., 5.
(19) GSR, 288.
(20) Ibid., 103-4.
(21) Ibid., 70-1.
(22) CYV, 306.
(23) Ibid., 76.
(24) Ibid., 314.
(25) SE, Question 28.
(26) SI, Chapter 4, Question 8.
(27) GR, 88.
(28) Ibid., 96.
(29) Ibid., 81.
(30) Ibid., 90.
(31) SE, answer to question 40.
(32) SI, Chapter 3, Question 4.
(33) KOL, 117-8.
(34) ENS, 9-10.
(35) PNS2, 136-7.
(36) Ibid., 137.
(37) BB, 123.