In the beginning—which was not long ago but now–ever—is the Self. Everyone knows the Self, but no one can describe it, just as the eye sees but does not see itself. Moreover, the Self is what there is and all that there is, so that no name can be given to it. It is neither old nor new, great nor small, shaped nor shapeless. Having no opposite, it is what all opposites have in common: it is the reason why there is no white without black and no form apart from emptiness. However, the Self has two sides, the inside and the outside. The inside is called nirguna, which is to say that it has no qualities and nothing can be said or thought about it. The outside is saguna, which is to say that it may be considered as eternal reality, consciousness , and delight. Thus the story which follows will be told of the saguna side.
Because of delight the Self is always at play, and its play, called lila , is like singing or dancing, which are made of sound and silence, motion and rest. Thus the play of the Self is to lose itself and to find itself in a game of hide–and–seek without beginning or end. In losing itself it is dismembered: it forgets that it is the one and only reality, and plays that it is the vast multitude of beings and things which make up this world. In finding itself it is remembered: it discovers again that it is forever the one behind the many, the trunk within the branches, that its seeming to be many is always maya , which is to say illusion, art, and magical power.
The playing of the Self is therefore like a drama in which the Self is both the actor and the audience. On entering the theater the audience knows that what it is about to see is only a play, but the skillful actor creates a maya, an illusion of reality which gives the audience delight or terror, laughter or tears. It is thus that in the joy and the sorrow of all beings the Self as audience is carried away by itself as actor.
One of the many images of the Self is the hamsa, the Divine Bird which lays the world in the form of an egg. It is said also that with the syllable ham the Self breathes out, scattering all galaxies into the sky, and that with the syllable sa it breathes in, withdrawing all things to their original unity. Yet if one repeats the syllables ham–sa they may also be heard as sa–ham or sa–aham, which is to say “I am that,” or THAT (the Self ) is what each and every being is. As breathing out, the Self is called Brahma , the creator. As holding the breath out, the Self is called Vishnu , the preserver of all these worlds. And as breathing in, the Self is called Shiva , the destroyer of illusion.
This is, then, a story without beginning or end since the Self breathes out and in, loses itself and finds itself, for always and always, and these periods are sometimes known as its days and nights—each day and each night lasting for a kalpa , which is 4,320,000 of our years. The day, or manvantara, is further divided into four yuga, or epochs, which are named after the throws in a game of dice: first treta, with a score of three; third dvapara, with a score of two; and fourth kali, the worst throw with a score of one.
Krita yuga is the Golden Age, the era of total delight in multiplicity and form and every beauty of the sensuous world, enduring for 1,728,000 years. Treta yuga is somewhat shorter, lasting for 1,296,000 years, and is like an apple with a single maggot in the core: things have just started to go amiss and every pleasure contains a slight shadow of anxiety. Dvapara yuga is shorter still. Its time is 864,000 years, and now the forces of light and darkness, good and evil, pleasure and pain, are evenly balanced. In the temporary end there come the 432,000 years of the kali yuga when the world is overwhelmed by darkness and decay, and when the Self is so lost to itself that all its delight appears in the disguise of horror. Finally, the Self is manifested in the form of Shiva, ten–armed and bluebodied and wreathed in fire, to dance the terrible tandava–dance whereby the universe, incandescent with his heat, turns to ash and nothingness. But as the illusion vanishes the Self finds itself in its original unity and bliss, and remains for another kalpa of 4,320,000 years in the pralaya of total peace before losing itself again.
The worlds that are manifested when the Self breathes out are not just this one here and those that we see in the sky, for besides these there are worlds so small that ten thousand of them may be hidden in the tip of a butterfly’s tongue, and so large that all our stars may be contained in the eye of a shrimp. There are also worlds within and around us that do not reverberate upon our five organs of sense , and all these worlds, great and small, visible and invisible, are in number as many as grains of sand in the Ganges.
Throughout these manifested worlds all sentient beings pass through the six paths or divisions of the Wheel of Becoming. These, counting clockwise from the top of the Wheel, are, first, the realm of the deva, that is, of gods and angels at the summit of happiness and spiritual success. Second is the realm of the ashura, of dark angels who manifest the Self in the bliss of rage. Third is the realm of animals, of beasts, fish, birds , and insects. Fourth is the naraka realm, which is the depth of misery and spiritual failure, lying at the bottom of the Wheel and comprising the purgatories of ice and fire, manifesting the Self in the ecstasy of pain. Fifth is the realm of the preta, that is, of frustrated ghosts having immense bellies and tiny mouths. Sixth, and last, is the realm of mankind. All beings in the six paths are bound to the Wheel of Becoming by their karma , which is to say action motivated by desire for results—whether good or evil. Every being is desirous for the fruits of action so long as it remains ignorant of its true nature, thinking “I have come to be, and I shall cease to be,” not realizing that there is no “I,” no Self, except that which is one and original and beyond all time and space.
It is thus that anyone who, setting aside all ideas and theories, and looking earnestly and intently at the feeling of “I am,” will—all of a sudden—awaken to the knowledge that there is no self but the Self. Such a one is called jivanmukta, that is, liberated while still in his individual form, before the death of the body, and before the dissolution of all worlds at the end of the kalpa. For him there is no longer self and other, mine and yours, success and failure. On all sides, within and without, he sees all beings, all things, all events, only as the playing of the Self in its myriad forms.