Transcending the gross body

Indian philosophy, while deriding excessive attachment to sense pleasures mentions that attachment to the body lies at the basis of the misconception that worldly pleasures provide lasting happiness. This flows from the fact that man tends to go after comforts and pleasures while failing to recognise the presence of the indwelling divine spark.

Thus it is that sages and philosophers have warned of excessive attachment to the gross body.  Though this may seem unwarranted and also a too highly placed and unattainable ideal for ordinary mortals, nevertheless, even a cursory glance at what great minds have had to say on this will be enlightening. Adi Shankaracharya in his Vivekachudamani has this to say. 

This gross body is born of and is composed of matter. It lives by matter.  Without it, it dies. The body is made up of blood, skin, flesh, bones, fat, excreta, bodily secretions and other foul substances. Before being born, it does not exist. After its fall, it ceases to exist. Throughout its existence, death hovers over it, ready to strike anytime. It is continuously subject to change. Hence it is impermanent. Why this attachment to such an object? 

Shankara says only a fool thinks that his body is his real self. He who is wise, who takes the advice of a preceptor, who follows the scriptures and develops a sense of discrimination understands that his gross body is different from the ‘self’ that exists separately, which is always pure, unattached eternal.  It is this ‘self’ or ‘Atman’ on which the mind is to be focused upon.  Mere theoretical proficiency and knowledge is of no use. Effort, coupled with faith in the words of the preceptor and that of the scriptures will confer the understanding that this gross body is not the Atman, hence sense pleasures will not lead man anywhere but only cause trouble. 

Shankara gives the examples of man’s shadow, his reflection in a mirror, a dream and an imagined body. Nobody will take them to be real. Similarly with this gross body, which is as ephemeral as any of these. Just as the wind enters from one window of a room and exits through another, so does the vital air enter the gross body (birth) and leave it (death). Only the life force, the outward manifestation of the divine is permanent.  By not knowing this impermance of his gross body, man gets into a never ending circuit of desire, efforts to gratify desire, more desire and so on and is subject to untold hardships and miseries.  

Shankara here gives the analogy of a sacrificial ritual. The five sense organs- ear, skin, eye, tongue and smell are the priests who offer oblations to the sacrificial fire. Sound, touch, colour, taste and smell are the sense objects, like the ghee which is offered to the fire. The residual impressions of past lives which impel man to seek desires are the fuel. Thus the fire of desire burns down everything. “Rein in your desires,” says Shankara. 

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