This essay is a meditation on Christianity and Advaita Vedanta, specifically Jesus’s mystical insight that the kingdom of God is “within” and its perfect parallel with the concept of Self as understood in Advaita Vedanta.
As always, I owe all my understanding of Advaita Vedanta to the wise and erudite fountain of Vedantic knowledge that is Swami Sarvapriyananda and his many lectures on YouTube. Any misunderstanding of Vedanta is my own. I write not in an aim to position myself as a “teacher,” but rather, to make public my own spiritual learning journey. Writing down my thoughts helps me understand and internalize these abstract concepts, so consider me merely as a spiritual friend and fellow seeker, not a qualified teacher of Advaita Vedanta or spirituality.
The kingdom of Heaven is within
Consider the following two passages:
20 Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)
“12. The Self is witness, all-pervading, perfect, One, free, Consciousness, actionless, unattached, desireless, and quiet. Through illusion It appears as if It is of the world (i.e. subject to the ever-repeating cycle of birth and death).” ~ Ashtavakra Gita, Chapter 1
Traditional Advaita Vedanta is a universalizing spiritual philosophy and has no qualms about recognizing Jesus of Nazareth as an enlightened master of nondualism who attained perfect Self-realization/God-realization in accordance with the Ultimate conclusions of Vedanta.
Luke 17:20-21 is the perfect encapsulation of Vedantic wisdom but is often not fully appreciated by mainstream Christianity, which sees as dangerous any suggestion that our own True Self is perfectly Divine i.e. the kingdom of God/Heaven.
In mainstream Christianity, it is considered blasphemous that any human other than Jesus of Nazareth has the right to say that they are “One with the Father,” and yet in Advaita Vedanta this is considered basic spiritual philosophy 101. In my opinion, Jesus understood deeply this basic Vedantic Truth but by cultural necessity had to teach the esoteric truth of Vedanta in a way that his Jewish audience would be receptive to since he was, after all, a Rabbi in the Jewish tradition well-versed in the Jewish scriptures and Law.
Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears hear!” Meaning, “Most people will not understand the deeper spiritual truth of my teachings but if you go beyond the exoteric trappings of religion you will find a deeper spiritual truth.” In my view, this “deeper” truth is the Vedantic wisdom that it is not just Jesus who was One With God, but that we are all One with God, indeed, that our very Inner Nature is perfectly Divine and infused with the Absolute Perfection of Pure Existence-Consciousness.
Most Christians today do not want to accept that they are also One with God. They want to hold onto the spiritually limiting belief that the incarnation of the Christ-Logos was only manifested in a single human individual rather than infused into the entire cosmos, from the lowliest of worms to the worst of sinners, radiating universal Divinity into the spiritual interiority of every nook and cranny in the universe.
But that is what He says! Quite clearly! He says the kingdom of God, i.e. perfect divinity, is not to be found as a “thing” that can be observed. It is not a location in space. It is not an object like a tree or a rock or the sky or the ocean. You cannot measure it in the empirical world whatsoever for it is not an object at all.
Rather, Divinity is “within.” More precisely, what He means is that Divinity is within-ness itself, which is the manifest birthright of every existing thing in the cosmos, for all things are but manifestations of the all-pervasive, eternal ocean of Pure Existence-Consciousness-Bliss that is God Herself.
Consciousness according to Advaita Vedanta
And what else fits into that description of within-ness itself? Consciousness. Pure Consciousness. You can’t point out Consciousness by saying, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” Similarly, with the Self, It is the pathless path of pure subjective interiority.
If a brain surgeon cracked open your skull, even with the most delicate of measuring instruments she would not be able to point and say, “Look, there is the Self!” or “Look, there is Consciousness!”
Why? Because Consciousness is not an object. Consciousness is that Pure Subject through which and in which the awareness of objects is possible.
Consider the nature of your own experience in this moment or any moment. As Swami Sarvapriyananda argues, all experience is defined in the following way:
Experience = consciousness + object.
You cannot possibly imagine any object without acknowledging the presence of consciousness in the phenomenological equation, for if there were no conscious awareness, how would you be aware of the object in order to have knowledge about its existence? That is a phenomenological impossibility and has profound ontological implications.
Any knowledge of an object, any experience of an object, requires the presence of consciousness to “light up” that object in the illuminating awareness that makes our experience of objects properly subjective.
But in this equation, consciousness itself can never be made an object. This parallels perfectly with Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed.”
But it is very natural for the human mind to try to turn Consciousness/Self into an object when trying to gain knowledge about it. But as the Ashtavakra Gita points out, it is only through illusion (Maya) that we perceive the Self to be among the world of objects, which are subject to coming and going, birth and death.
Metaphors of Mind
Why is it so natural for the mind to objectify Consciousness when thinking about it? According to Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, the human mind is quite literally constructed out of analogies that have causal origins based on an interaction with the physical world.
Consider our metaphors of the mind. We say we have an idea “in” our minds as if the mind is a container that ideas, memories, thoughts, etc. can go in and out of. Cognitive scientists Mark Johnson and George Lakoff call this the “container metaphor,” which is one of the many basic building blocks of cognition that start from our everyday experience with the physical world and build up into ever-increasing layers of cognitive abstraction.
In this model, we use these basic building blocks of analogical cognition grounded in our experience of the physical world to psychologically understand more abstract phenomena.
The basic model of analogical cognition is understanding the unknown in terms of the known.
In the case of trying to understand the Pure Subjectivity of Consciousness/Self, which is absolutely, transcendentally unknown, we use analogical cognition to understand it in terms of something which is more known to us.
And what is known to us? The world of objects. Thus, the trap of spiritual philosophy comes when we fail to realize that psychologically understanding the transcendental unknown (kingdom of God/Consciousness/Self) operates in terms of our more primitive psychological models of the world of objects. The same trap is involved in not recognizing the inherent cognitive limitations of metaphors for Consciousness in terms of the ocean manifesting as waves, etc.
The Self is not “inside” us
Thus, strictly speaking, it is not ultimately accurate to even say the Self is “inside” of us because our psychological understanding of “inside” is necessarily limited by a spatial container metaphor based on our developmental knowledge of placing objects inside and outside of a physical, spatially localized container.
At best, the metaphor of saying the kingdom of God or the Self is “inside” of us is meant to act as a pointer that jolts us into a contemplative and mystical realization that goes beyond the limitations of cognitive metaphor to grasp the essential nature of Pure Witness Consciousness as being completely separate from the world of objects, even and especially the “objects” of the mind including thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions, desires, etc.
Thus, if we go back to Swami Sarvapriyananda’s equation:
Experience = consciousness + object
We can do a little bit of algebra and realize:
Consciousness = Experience – object
In other words, Pure Consciousness, the Self, which is Atman, which is Brahman, is completely separate from the world of objects, completely separate from the world of finitude and causality, the world subject to birth and death, the world of things that can be objectified.
And if Consciousness is completely separate from the world of objects subject to birth and death, then it must itself be completely unborn and completely undying i.e. Eternal.
It must be perfect and complete with respect to itself. It must be whole, holy, perfect, One, unitary, unattached to the world of action and activity, unattached and separate from the objective world of cognition and physicality. Consciousness stands completely set apart from Nature (mental and physical) as the ever-unattached, eternal, contentless Witness, completely and absolutely unaffected by the world of finitude and causality.
This is what we might call “pure interiority,” which is the type of interiority that Jesus is getting at with his suggestion that the kingdom of God is “within.” He is not saying that divinity is simply physically inside our bodies. Nor is he saying that divinity is inside our minds. Both of those realms are still “things” that we can point to and say, “Look, there it is!”
When Jesus says the kingdom of God is “within” us, he is using the limitations of spatial analogy to point out the same core nondual truth of Advaita Vedanta, which is that True Divinity is to be found in the Pure Subjectivity of Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.
The Palace of Nowhere
In the Christian contemplative tradition this “nonspatial interiority” is sometimes called the “palace of nowhere.” It is an interiority that is beyond the physical or cognitive limitations imposed by our spatially constructed cognitive analogies of inside/outside.
But far from being philosophically abstract and unknown to us, the essential truth of Advaita Vedanta is that this “palace of nowhere,” this Pure Interiority, we are always already that and have never not been that and never will not be that.
This “inner” world of absolute, transcendental divinity, this pure, eternal, perfect realm of God, this is our True Self.
And thus, we reach this essential teaching of Vedanta: Our True Self is identical to Brahman, the Absolute.
Our True Self is the very same eternal, all-pervasive Witness Consciousness that lights up and makes possible all objects of experience and thus operates as the ontological substrate in which and through which the entire mental and physical universe manifests itself.
Why does it not seem as if I am all-pervasive?
At first blush, this radical conclusion is hard to swallow because it certainly seems as if “I” am not all-pervasive and eternal and perfectly One with all of reality. On first blush, it seems as if I am just a body-mind complex localized to my desk chair typing at this particular laptop in this particular location.
But as the Ashtavakra Gita says, this ultimately false view of ourselves is borne out of illusion. We simply do not know the Truth of Who We Really Are. We do not know that we are truly divine. We do not know that Our True Self at the absolute level is the same Self of God Herself, that our Consciousness which lights up our experience is the very same Eternal Consciousness that lights up the entire manifest universe.
And suppose you accept all this intellectually. Suppose you agree with the line of reasoning I have laid out in this essay. Finding conviction in this argument does not suddenly make your experience of being a localized and individualized body-mind complex go away, no more than knowing a visual illusion is an illusion makes the illusion stop appearing as an illusion.
Even when we fully understand and internalize the truth of nonduality, we nevertheless still continue to perceive the multiplicitous world of 10,000 things in all their manifest plurality and buzzing, blooming confusion.
The path to deeper self-realization
However, as Swami Sarvapriyananda emphasizes, the deeper and deeper we internalize this Vedantic truth beyond just a mere intellectual belief, the more this Self-realization manifests in our lived reality as ethical behavior, calmness, unattachment to the world of craving and sense-desire, and true discernment of what’s real and unreal even while we continue to perceive and operate in the world of Maya.
Swamiji says that the more we understand the nature of our True Self the more we will set our focus on the world of the Absolute, which will manifest in our selfless ethical actions toward all living beings (karma yoga), our calmness and equanimity of mind (raja yoga), our capacity to see holiness and divinity in the entire manifest world in true acts of devotion (bhakti yoga), and utter philosophical-spiritual conviction in our discernment between what is real, permanent, eternal, and Absolute vs what is temporal, finite, and limited (jnana yoga).
One might be able to grasp the intellectual truth of Vedanta or have a temporary meditative absorption into the Oneness of reality, but a truly deep and lasting realization of our Inner Divinity takes many lifetimes to fully realize and internalize in such a way that it has a lasting manifestation in our everyday lived experience.
Nevertheless, according to Swamiji, having an intellectual understanding and the occasional meditative glimpse of the transcendent are good signs that we are heading in the right direction of understanding and internalizing our deepest knowledge of our True Self. But with such intellectual or temporary insights, Swami Sarvapriyananda emphasizes emphatically that one must still continue to practice the various spiritual disciplines of karma yoga, bhakti yoga, raja yoga, and philosophical and scripture study in order to deepen our progress on the path towards Self-realization and ultimately achieve liberation from the sufferings intrinsic in the world of human finitude, in this lifetime or the next.