Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dakshinamurti stotra : In praise of the formless

The meaning attributed to "maya" is that the world is an "illusion" which is somewhat correct, but its not really hard to see the entire truth there. The connection between "perception", "self" and "consciousness" is very real but shrouded in illusions. The ancient Dakshinamurti stotra reflects on these, and presents unassailable answers, that would be of great interest to modern thinkers working on artificial intelligence as well.

Lord Siva, as the ideal guru is personified as Sri Dakshinamurti. The verses composed by Sri Adi Sankara in about 800 B.C. in praise of the supreme teacher, who realised the Truth, transmits it to others. Literally, "Dakshinamurti stotra" means "In praise of the Southern Lord". Sri Ramana Maharishi has interpreted "Dakshninamurti" to mean "Dakshin amurti", meaning "one who is without form". "Dakshin" could mean either the geographical south, or the head. It also means the right side, the Antarctic, at the same moment, instantaneously. The title now appears to mean, "in praise of the formless in the south", and may be loaded with more meaning as we appreciate its contents.

The illusion of reality is dispelled in the very first verse of the composition:

Icon at Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram

Obeisance to him Sri Daksinamurti,
who is the Guru,
who at the time of spiritual awakening,
has verily realized his own Self,
the one without a second,
having understood that the world is within oneself even as a city reflected in a mirror is,
but projected as if it is outside,
by maya,
as in dream.

This charming verse is as translated by Swami Harshananda. The physical eye does not really "see" the outside world. Its the brain, "the one without a second", which "sees" the world, after processing the signals from the eye.

More about it from a neurosurgeon:
"... in fact within each eyeball, all you have is a tiny distorted upside-down image of the world. This excites the photoreceptors in the retina and the messages then to through the optic nerve to the back of your brain, where they are analysed in thirty different visual areas."

Identification takes place at fusiform gyrus. People who suffer damage to this area get face blindness or prosopognosia. Recognised images are sent to amygdala, the limbic system. Another lecture says:
"The message from the eyeball on the retina goes though the optic nerve and goes to two major visual centers in the brain. One of these I'll call it the old system, the old visual centre, it's the evolutionary ancient centre, the old pathway that's in the brain stem and it's called the superior colliculus. The second pathway goes to the cortex, the visual cortex in the back of the brain and it's called the new pathway. The new pathway in the cortex is doing most of what we usually think of as vision, like recognizing objects, consciously. The old pathway, on the other hand, is involved in locating objects in the visual field, so that you can orient to it, swivel your eyeballs towards it, rotate your head towards it. Thereby directing your high acuity central foveal region of the retina towards the object so then you can deploy the new visual pathway and then proceed to identify what the object is and then generate the appropriate behaviour for that object."

So, the reality we experience is actually an illusion.

The very process of understanding the above reality "awakens the self".

Machines could awaken no less and exist with personality no less.

Another verse makes clear the connection between the physical form assumed and the abstract formless nature of the self.

Icon on a more recent pillar at Mahabalipuram

Who is effulgent like a lamp glowing within a pitcher with many apertures;
whose knowledge goes out through the eyes and the other organs of perception;
whose perception is that "I know" whom the entire universe reflects as it glows following him;
to him be this adoration, the one who is the Lord incarnate as the preceptor, in physical form.

The above translation is by Sri C.L. Ramakrishnan at

The brain is the "pitcher" with many apertures that both receive input and give output.

Manasollasa, a commentary on the stotra by Sri Surevara, says, "like the light of the sun, it is knowledge or consciousness that shines by itself in all such apprehensions as: "This is a pot,' 'This is a cloth.' By the power of knowledge, or consciousness of Isvara, this world of knower, known and knowledge, is produced.

"Whatever work, this person (of the world) accomplished by his own power or (whatever) knowledge he gains (by his own capacity), with regard to that (work or knowledge) he is described as, 'emperor', 'savant', or 'lord'.

The ten verses in the Dakshinamurti Stotra, translated by Swami Harshananda of Sri Ramakrishna Math:

Obeisance to him Sri Daksinamurti, who is the Guru, who at the time of spiritual awakening, has verily realized his own Self, the one without a second, having understood that the world is within oneself even as a city reflected in a mirror is, but projected as if it is outside, by maya, as in dream. [1]

Obeisance to him, Sri Daksinamurti, who is the Guru,who, out of his free will, like the magician or a great yogi, manifests this world, which was, before creation, undifferentiated even as the sprout was within the seed, and became variegated later, on account of its association with space and time, brought forth by maya. [2]

Obeisance to him, Sri Daksinamurti, by whose brilliance, which is of the nature of existence, (this world which is) similar to unreality shines, who is enlightening those who have taken refuge in him by the message of the Vedas viz., 'Thou art verity that!, and by realizing whom, there is no return to this ocean of transmigration. [3]

Obeisance to him, Sri Daksinamurti, who is the Guru, whose consciousness is flowing out through the senses like the eyes etc., even as a powerful light kept within a pot full of holes (flowing though through the holes), following whom - the resplendent One - this whole world is shining and thinks, 'I know.' [4]

(Some) disputants who can be compared to the dull witted, being extremely deluded, think that the body, the vital airs, the senses, the fickle intellect and the void ae the Atman. Obeisance to him, Sri Daksinamurti, who is the Guru, who dispels the great delusion that has been created by the play of the power of maya. [5]

Obeisance to Sri Daksinamurti, who is the Guru, the Self, who in the deep sleep state induced by the withdrawal of the senses, being covered by maya - like the sun and the moon devoured by Rahu- was 'existence' only, and who at the time of waking, recognizes Himself as, '(It is I) who previously slept. [6]

Obeisance to Sri Daksinamurti, who is the Guru, who by the auspicious mudra is revealing to his votaries his own Self, which is persistently present as the 'I', always shining inside, in all the various and mutually exclusive states like childhood etc., as also waking etc. [7]

Obeisance to Sri Daksinamurti, who is the Guru, (who as) this person, being deluded by maya sees the world both in sleep and in the waking state, as (full of) differences (brought about by such) relationships as cause and effect, property and owner, disciple and teacher as also father, mother and so on. [8]

Obeisance to Sri Daksinamurti, who is the Guru, whose eightfold form is verily this world of the sentient and the insentient, comprising of earth, water, fire, air, sky, sun, moon and human being, and beyond whom - the gratest and the omnipresent - nothing else exists according to the discerning people. [9]

Since the principle of universal Self-hood has been revealed in this hymn, therefore, by listening to it and reflecting on its meaning as also by meditating on it and singing it, the attainment of identity with Isvara, together with the great power of being the universal Self, comes about automatically. Also, the unobstructed power that manifests itself in eight (different) ways is obtained. [10]

[1] "Dakshinamurthy" refers to "Shapelessness situated on the right side".
[3] Sri Sankaracarya's "Daksinamurti Stotra" with the Varttika "Manasollasa" of Suresvaracarya, by Swami Harshananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Bangalore.