Understanding Ishvara for Liberation

Who is working “you”? Are you the operator of “you”? Are you doing your actions and thinking your thoughts? Is it “you” suffering?

If you have been studying Vedanta for a while, or are a follower of any non-dual teaching, you know that all there is is awareness. There is only one reality, and a little investigation reveals this reality to be consciousness. The bottom line of Vedanta, and any non-dual teaching, is “I am that,” or “I am awareness.” Since awareness alone is real, and you know you are real, how could you be anything else?

But where the bulk of the self-inquiry work comes in is actually taking the sense of “I,” your normal, everyday sense that you exist, and understanding that this “I” is pointing to awareness and not to the individual being that it feels like you are.

This is where Ishvara comes in.
Ishvara is a term in Vedanta that describes that which operates the field – “the field” meaning the entirety of that which appears, commonly called “the world.”

The field is only apparently real. It isn’t
really real, because only awareness is really real. But undeniably, stuff appears, and the stuff that appears is apparently real. But even though the field is not really “real,” it still operates under a totally consistent and logical system of laws. The field does not behave in a random fashion – actions are followed by reactions, and they’re usually pretty predictable, even just by casual observation.

Ishvara operates the entire field. That includes you. That means your body, your mind, everything. We think we control our body and our mind, but Ishvara actually does that, down to every last detail. There is nothing in the appearance that is not totally Ishvara’s realm.

So there is no actual “you” that exists in the apparent world! Would you still call this entity “I” if it were clear you had no control over it at all? It’s Ishvara’s job to keep you thinking that entity is you – to keep the dance of duality going, to keep you involved and playing along. But unfortunately, this role-playing robs you of the knowledge of your true identity as inherently free and limitless awareness. The real fruit of self-inquiry is putting an end to the mistaken placement of the “I” sense onto a body and mind that is appearing in the field. Goodbye and good riddance to the apparent bondage!

If you were actually controlling the body and mind, then it would make sense to have your “I” attached to that. And that’s what we generally keep thinking, for years and years, even after we have heard and assimilated the knowledge “I am awareness.” There is a tendency to try to keep both identities afloat – both “I am awareness” and “but I’m still in a little bit of control here in the body, I’m still in a bit of suffering, I still need to fix things here,” etc.

There is a reluctance to let go of the idea that I am the person appearing in the field, because it’s not readily apparent how the suffering is going to finally end unless I stay here in the world and get rid of it myself! But you can’t get rid of the suffering by arranging things in the world – not in a million years. Only the understanding that the “I” you actually are is already free ends the suffering. That means knowing without a doubt that the “I” appearing in the world with a body and a mind is not you.

So when we say “I,” there are a few tests to run through your mind to challenge your thinking. It’s just a habit of yours (Ishvara’s habit!) to associate the “I” with the person. But if you have looked into it, you have seen how there is really no control there on “your” part. Thoughts come without your willing them. Feelings arise in response to the thoughts. Actions happen based on the thoughts and feelings. Physical laws are obeyed. There isn’t any choice about any of this. It’s all just happening, according the rules of the apparent matter, and we call that Ishvara.

So if Ishvara is running the body and mind you think of as “I,” that takes away the “doingness,” doesn’t it? Not thinking, not feeling, not acting – not doing anything at all. Just being. And I’m still here, even though Ishvara is running the body and mind. Knowing that Ishvara is in charge does not take away the “I,” does it? So then, what
is the “I”? If there’s no doingness going on, and yet there is beingness, what am I?

There is only one possible “I” – it is the awareness within which all this activity appears. I am awareness. There is nothing I have to do in the appearance to make myself more full, more safe, more satisfied. The appearance will never provide the mind with a sense of safety and fullness, because the mind is a duality machine, operated by Ishvara. The job of Ishvara is to keep this appearance going. Ishvara gives your mind a duality banquet every second, and for every step towards liberation in the appearance, there is a step away. As long as your “I” is planted there, you believe you are not free.

Place the “I” in the right place – that’s all! The beingness you know right now, just pure beingness, conscious presence – take this, see the logic in taking this non-doing, non-controlling beingness as the real “I.” This is liberation.

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As always, I recommend checking out
James Swartz’s Vedanta website, Shining World. My deepest gratitude to James and his tireless work of teaching Vedanta for forty years.