An Advaitic Story: Ten Men crossing a River

Here is a version of the story as told at Jyotir Math:

Ten Men Crossing the River

Ten men were crossing a fast river and when they reached the other side they started counting themselves to make sure that all had reached the other side safely. Each one counted but found only nine because he did not count himself, and they became very worried. Just at that time a holy man passed by and looking at their miserable faces asked what was wrong; they told him and demonstrated how there were only nine of them, though they had started as ten. He made them stand in a line and with his stick he hit the first man once and separated him from the line. He hit the second one twice, and so on till the last one. He hit him ten times and declared he was the tenth one. They were very happy and went on their way.

This is Shantanand Saraswati's interpretation:
(Shantanand Saraswati was Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math 1953-1980)

“In the world today there are a multitude of ideas prevailing, and everybody stands up to declare his principles and wants to lead everybody else according to his own principles; others are also trying to state their own! In this situation there is, of course, need for a man who is not involved in any desire for ideological victory.”

“The same situation today prevails in the world. These ten men represent the numerous ideologies which prevail, each counting all the others without looking at itself, so they all like to keep on fighting. Unless someone comes along and hits each of them hard to bring them to their senses, this situation will go on.”

(source: Shantanand Saraswati: The Man who wanted to meet God, myths and stories that explain the inexplicable. Published by The Study Society/Element Books 1987)

Shantanand chooses here to give an exoteric interpretation, related to the struggle for domination between competing religious, philosophical and political ideologies apparent in the gross material world of his time, which is still applicable today. Shantanand's explanation suggests the cause is related to the tendency to look outwards and not within. The story, of course, is rich in allegory and symbolism, consequently there are various possible esoteric interpretations, applicable to the subtle world. Shantanand also taught there are ten levels of self, there are ten levels of being, ten levels of substance and ten levels of existence.

9   Brahman
8   The Unmanifest, Avyakta   
7   Primordial Nature, Prakriti, consisting of the triad: Sattva, Ragas, Tamas,
     the triad manifesting at the causal, subtle and gross levels.
6   The Great Being, Mahat, associated with the triad: Ahamkara, the I am maker;
     Buddhi, intellect; Manas, mind.
5   Space/Ether, Akasha, associated with sound
4   Air, Vayu, associated with touch
3   Fire, Tejas, associated with sight
2   Water,  Sneha, associated with taste
1   Earth, Prithivi, associated with smell

0  is the Unmanifest, Prakriti.
1  is also the Absolute, The Parabrahman.
1 to 9 are the numbers of Manifestation, the nine stages of Creation.
10 is the Self or Absolute standing with Unmanifest Prakriti by its side.

There are ten men in appearance only. There is actually only one man crossing the river, who has all ten levels of being and self within him, but the maximum number of selves he can ordinarily know are only nine. The nine he can count, and thus classify, in himself are the nine states of self, the nine levels of manifestation: from (1) physical body, to (2) natural body, to (3) spiritual body, to (4) divine body, to (5) Sakshin the lower witness, to (6) Purusha the higher witness, to (7) Atman pure awesome consciousness, then (8) Avyakta the unmanifest, and so on to (9) Brahman, as his Shakti, unfolding herself in nine stages including the three gunas and the five subtle elements. But the genuine Self (10) is the transcendental Parabrahman, which is beyond both the manifest (the seven levels from the physical body to the atman) and the unmanifest eighth (avyakta). The Parabrahman is also beyond the 9th level, Brahman, since the Parabrahman as Absolute is not in Creation, not even as an active presence at the beginning of Creation. It is the Shakti of Brahman who, as a chimera and co-eternal with Brahman, unfolds herself as the nine stage Creation, not the Parabrahman, who is said by jnanis to be transcendentally remote.

“The ultimate or the Brahman is one and with the start of Creation it (Shakti) unfolds itself in nine states and there it ends. In this nine-stage creation we see all the manifestation. When the stages of creation have seen their fulfilment, it once again unites in the same Brahman.” (Shantanand)

“Each one counted but found only nine.” None of the nine levels of self can find the genuine Self. None of the nine states of self are yourself and consequently, if you attempt to know, see, or even to be yourself, you believe you have lost yourself.

You are not any of the nine stages of Creation both on the outward thrust and the return journey. On the return to the source there may be nine stages of revelation but the genuine Self has neither presence nor evidence in any of them. The tenth is yourself. The tenth is the one, the all and everything, the whole, with the zero, which is unmanifest, a beginningless and endless circle of nothingness. Not only is the Absolute Self absent from the manifestation, but it is not discovered in the unmanifest either.

The unmanifest is actually Unmanifest Prakriti, a state of equilibrium in which there is neither being nor non-being, neither existence nor non-existence. The Sanskrit word 'Prakriti', literally meaning 'before creation', sometimes is translated into English as, 'Primordial Nature', in an attempt to indicate the original or natural condition of everything, the causal source of the material world, the fundamental substance or antecedent state or constitution of the cause of all phenomena. Prakriti is merely the name of the three gunas when they are in a state of equilibrium, and thus are unmanifest. Prakriti, in the manifest state, can be regarded as the action and interaction of the three gunas, entwining and wrestling with each other, ever competing for dominion, continually combining and dividing, continually uniting and separating, and their different quantitative and qualitative combinations produce all that exists. The observer of the entwining gunas is Purusha, the higher witness, looking down upon the world as an arena in which these contestant constituents struggle for supremacy. Purusha has location but no form. Nisargadatta says you are in the universe as the witness (Purusha) and outside the universe as the Absolute (Parabrahman). Because you have no detectable or observable manifestation, how can you possibly count yourself? Because you have no exterior and no interior characteristics, how can you possibly see yourself? Because you are not an object of knowledge, how can you possibly know yourself? Because you are beyond being and non-being, how can you possibly be yourself, or equally, how can you possibly not be yourself? Because, as the Absolute, you are not actually in the universe, how can you possibly be something that can be subjected to the principles and laws of mathematics, especially to a process of mathematical counting?

In Sanskrit, Maya has various meanings including: 'power, magic, the magical power to create illusion, deception, the source of the apparent universe, energy'. Maya also means 'measuring' and is derived from the Sanskrit verbal root 'ma' which means either: 'not', a particle of prohibition and negation, or meaning 'to measure, to help anyone to anything, to prepare, to arrange, to form, to show, to display, to exhibit'. Combining some of these meanings Maya can approximately be understood as those laws of mathematics which prepare and arrange the apparent universe, a magical illusion, in order to help the atman which has separated from Brahman to return to unity with Brahman by the negative method of prohibition which essentially is the realization of what it is 'not'.

The Absolute is One and nothing further can be said about it, because speech implies separation from the One and the positioning of a second to observe and comment upon it. The nearest we seem to be able to approach the One is to formulate the concept of the Whole. The Whole appears to have three fundamental constituents... awareness, energy, mathematical law. Brahman is awareness, Shakti is energy, and Maya is the mathematical laws of triads and octaves. Maya, as 'measuring', appears to be the mathematical laws which are the means by which the apparent universe, consisting entirely of nothing but Shakti's energy, is constructed or arranged. Once the atman has separated from Brahman, once the atman, an apparently individual awesome consciousness, separates from Brahman, which is universal impersonal awareness, and the separate atman begins to look out, then Shakti combines with Maya, which is energy combining with mathematical laws, to produce the magical appearance of the universe, which is perhaps intrinsically designed to aid and achieve the reunification of the atman and Brahman. Some profound jnanis, such as Nisargadatta, state that the universe has no purpose and no meaning and therefore it can not have been designed with any aim or intention of achieving a result. This may be true at the over-view level of the Great Lila, the divine drama, which is being presented as the Universe with its three interacting constituents, the gunas, but within the drama itself possibly there can be design, as well as meaning and purpose, contrived dramatic meaning and purpose, enacted out meaning and purpose, and within such a system ultimate comprehension of, and rational integrity of, the Advaita Vedanta philosophy requires that disunity and unity, individual consciousness and universal consciousness, atman and Brahman, energy and mathematics, Shakti and Maya, Isvara and the world, light and darkness, bliss and even pure consciousness and all knowledge... are nothing more than constituent parts of the drama? Your movement away from the unity of Brahman, and the long journey back to Brahman, and then beyond to the Parabrahman... is the very drama which you, pure awareness, are watching. Forgetting who one is, losing oneself, the pain of ignorance, the fortuitous contact with Advaita Vedanta, the finding of a teacher, the development of knowledge and understanding, the purification of being, even Self-realization itself... are all merely part of the drama, the divine Lila? And in the drama you have reached a significant place, a mystical river to cross, a special and highly significant crossing place, located in the subtle world? But crossing from where to where?

Advaita Vedanta states that there are 'not two', therefore there are unlikely to be 'three' either? All threes are merely the division and separation of an original One. The mathematical law of triads is essentially the same as the advaitic phenomenon of the three gunas: ragas, tamas and sattva (and in Western language this triad is detected and known as the primary positive, negative and neutralizing forces of the quantum universe, which appear as opposite fundamental energy charges appearing inexplicably out of an original nothingness). In both the Samkhya and the Advaita philosophies the three gunas, in their competitive action and interaction with each other, constitute manifest Prakriti, Great Nature, which intrinsically has an eightfold constitution. Shakti through the power of mathematical Maya unfolds herself as a successional octave of causal and subtle and gross material elements and she herself simultaneously enters into them at every level. This relationship between Shakti, energy, and Maya, mathematical law, is observed by Brahman, awareness, in the form of a witness, Purusha, who observes the gunas performing their struggle for domination in the somewhat bizarre theatre of the universe, the Great Lila. More significantly, Purusha also observes how the atman is deceived by Shakti-Maya into identifying with an illusory nature, a jiva. This deception is the principle and long running dramatic plot being enacted out in this mechanically turning, slowly circling, theatre of the universe. The atman, due to lack of knowledge relating to his genuine self, due to his characteristic intrinsic and compulsive 'I am' statement, due to the belief that he is everything, and due to the deception performed upon him by Shakti and her associated forms... the atman engages in identification with what he is not and consequently becomes the 'jivatman', which is subject to an epic drama of transmigratory existence. All this also is part of the drama. In the theatre of the universe, Prakriti is the stage machinery which, when it turns and moves, sets the whole scene to a watching audience consisting of sakshin and purusha. Cosmic cogs turning human cogs.

If the river represents transmigratory existence the story appears to be about who reaches the other side, who is it who actually transcends transmigratory existence? The tenth, the oneself, appears to have disappeared in the process of transcending transmigratory experience? He was there in the beginning but not at the end? The ten men are attempting to count themselves, thus using a mathematical method to know themselves but, perhaps unknown to them, they are in fact trying to use Maya (measuring) to know the Absolute. This method is certain to fail, and can only result in the appearance of an illusory absolute, probably some form of Saguna Brahman? The holy man, reached only on the other side of the crossing place, appears to use a different method. He operates at the level of the subtle element of Air (Vayu) which is 'power', known in Advaita as prana. By the touch of subtle Air, by the 'touch' of his stick, the stick perhaps representing the shock and power of knowledge, he is able to separate them from each other, and thus separate the 10th from what he is not. His method is essentially 'neti', 'neti', not this, not this. What remains is declared to be the tenth, which is the One with the nine stages of Prakriti, collectively the zero, by its side. The man now realizes the One and realizes that the nine others, separated and standing by his side, are nothingness, collectively a mere zero, a circle of magical cosmic machinery, turning round and round, the powerful creator of hypnotic illusion for anyone who comes within its vicinity or finds themselves entangled in its slowly revolving cogs... the manifestations of Prakriti. A principle meaning of the story appears to be that you cannot know who you are, you can only separate from what you are not.

In the story the ten men are presumably on a journey. The journey they are on is perhaps an allegory of the Way? If so, they have been travelling along the Way and have now reached a 'crossing place'. There are actually three Ways and the story does not appear explicitly to distinguish between them. One Way leads to Siva Loka, the second leads to Vishnu Loka, and the third leads to Brahma Loka.

Siva Loka is the Earth, subtle earth. It is the Ground, the Substratum. 'The Ground' in the subtle world is the fundamental basis of the here and now. We are never here and now, but always looking forward to the future or reminiscing the past. Thus we fail to adequately study the here and now. Everything we need to know is in the here and now. If we could study the here and now sufficiently deeply we would arrive at the Truth. The Way to Siva Loka is the Way of the Yogi who is attracted by and studies the Truth. It is a difficult and intense intellectual way. Siva Loka is a masculine world. In Siva Loka all the heads of the yogis merge into one Self.

The Way of the Yogi is the intense study of truth. This is the Way to Siva Loka which eventually brings you to a crossing place. In the subtle world the crossing place to Siva Loka is presented as a nebulous abstract mass of Earth, the ground, the fundamental basis of all and everything, the here and now. It is incomprehensible to the mind, and jnanis say it is precisely at this point of difficult, even impossible, comprehension that the mind must subsume. It is necessary to go beyond the mind. The crossing place is the crossing from the Vyavaharika to the Paramarthika. The Vyavaharika is the superimposition, the illusion. The Paramarthika is the underlying truth. The crossing place is the place where you may potentially cross from the superimposed illusion to the underlying truth.

Vishnu Loka is Water, subtle water. It resembles an Ocean into which all individual drops of water disappear without trace. It is actually a great mass of Being. It is the Way of the Bhogi who is attracted to enjoyment and pursues enjoyment all his life. By feeding on enjoyment, by accumulating enjoyment, the Bhogi grows in being. What the Bhogi may not realize is that his being is not his own. Individual being is part of universal Being, and Universal Being is that very great mass of Being which is Vishnu Loka. The being of the Bhogi is destined eventually to reach Vishnu Loka, although the journey to Vishnu Loka appears to take  millions of years, perhaps as long as the whole length of the Kalpa, one cycle of the universe. A million miles long, the Bhogi moves along the Way a quarter of an inch per life-time. But the way of the Bhogi is a sure and certain way, because passing time is an illusion, and the future has already been. The past has not disappeared , the future is not merely waiting to come into the present, because both past and future appear everlastingly present in the eternal moment 'now'. Only being is real and thus Visnu Loka is the destination of everything that is real. Vishnu cultivates, collects and preserves whatever is real. Vishnu Loka is a world in which the male and his insistent following companion female merge without trace. All those who dissolve into the ocean of universal being in Visnu Loka no longer know that they exist. Because a river is being crossed, involving water, the crossing place in the story is probably entry into Visnu Loka?

The Way of the Bhogi is the accumulation of enjoyment and the consequent development of being. This is the Way to Visnu Loka which also eventually brings you to a crossing place. In the subtle world the crossing place to Visnu Loka is a wide estuary expanse which you appear unable to cross over by yourself. There is an interval, a chasm, beyond which you cannot go. The characteristic of estuaries is that the other side can just be glimpsed in the far distance but only indistinctly so that the observer cannot know what is on the other bank, and passage across seems difficult, impossible, without a means of crossing. Upon reaching the crossing place there may appear to be no boats waiting for you. Of course if you are an incarnation of Brahma you would not expect any boats to be awaiting to assist your crossing, since Visnu Loka is not your heaven. Only those who are real can enter and merge, dissolve without trace, into Visnu Loka. Strangely, the merged inhabitants of Visnu Loka are not perfect, they often find each other irritating. Those who are unreal may glimpse this great ocean of Being but remain spectators without participation. Those who are real look upon those who are unreal with compassion. Because the incarnations of Brahma carry with them a certain amount of understanding, they know they are unreal.

Brahma Loka is Fire, subtle fire. At one level it is the star, the Sun from which all the individual rays of light originate and may desire to return. It is a golden world. It is the golden world of Heaven. It is the place of good company, for in it are such beatific people who love and support each other. Brahma Loka is based upon the discovery and understanding that existence is possible if all support all. The Way to Brahma Loka is the Way of the Advaitin. It is the Way of Understanding. There is a mystical tree in the midst of the world with its branches on the ground and its roots in heaven. Those who ascend this mystical tree do so by understanding alone. Brahma Loka is, initially, a feminine world in which individuality is not lost. The Advaita Vedanta teaching states that you can only stay in Brahma Loka for a limited duration of time, after which you must return to the world and take up an incarnation again. Expulsion from Brahma Loka occurs when you sound an “I” and “me” for the first time during your sojourn there. Expelled, you look behind and see the receding heavenly golden world, its gates closing upon you, and you find yourself in this gloomy violent menacing world. You ascend to Brahma Loka through understanding and merit but you fall from Brahma Loka by forgetting who you are, when you fatally identify with the suggestion of an impostor “I” or “me” which you are surprisingly not. Identify with one lie and the heavenly company withdraw, leaving you to fall back to Earth. Because the Absolute cannot be understood, for the reason that it is beyond mind and understanding, the Way of understanding does not reach all the way. Nisargadatta says: Understanding is only a stage, 'not understanding' is beyond understanding.

The Way of the Advaitin is an ascent by means of understanding alone. This is the Way to Brahma Loka which eventually brings you to an abode of beautiful goddesses who greet you with their full and wondrous love, which is spontaneously instantly reciprocated. It would be understandable if you wished to stay in their company for ever but, if you realize that you can never be satisfied except by the attainment of full understanding, you then cross beyond that scene of noble heavenly enrapture and enter the divinely intelligent world of the gods. There you may eventually meet the god of wrath, who puts those who secretly and unconsciously live for benefit of themselves.. down, and those who live for the benefit of all... he puts up. His holy presence and awesome critical gaze makes everyone a little apprehensive.

Because Brahma is a divine personification and manifestation of the ragas guna, and Siva is a divine personification and manifestation of the tamas guna, and Vishnu is a divine personification and manifestation of the sattva guna... they are essentially part of Prakriti and are fundamentally illusory. Their enormous power derives from the energy of Shakti. Without their shakti they have no power and cannot even move. Therefore their three Lokas are also part of the subtle illusion. Heaven, although perhaps the summation of all your deepest half-forgotten desires, is part of the subtle deception created by Shakti-Maya. All desire is associated with the desire body, the jiva, the nature with which you, as the atman, pure consciousness, have so easily identified, and because the jiva is a non-existent projection of Isvara's buddhi, a static form that comes to life only when animated by Shakti-Maya's Ahamkara, therefore all your desires are ultimately illusory and are surprisingly not even your own, even that great ancient deep longing for heavenly existence. Shakti is gracefully and skilfully deceiving you. All creation and manifestation, all preservation and maintenance of the universe upon its course, and all destruction and dissolution... are thus also ultimately illusory. Everything positive, neutral, and negative are merely attitudes, forces that have made their appearance out of a disturbed original nothingness. Nothing can come from nothing, therefore the positive, the neutral, and the negative, the three gunas, are all simply nothing appearing as something. Nothing, the zero, is Prakriti in a state of equilibrium, which has divided and manifest itself into three... that is the essential nature, the principle construction, of the strange theatrical presentation that is the universe which fascinates its audience so mesmerically. The theatrical presentation of the universe is nothing more than a gigantic mechanism, but because the constituents are touched by Shakti's subtle element of air, prana, it all comes to apparent life, and begins to move and gesticulate and talk, and exhibit all the qualities of selfhood, even love and hate... and so the sense of illusion is lost, and it may all seems so amazingly real! Truth and the false, real and unreal, understanding and non-understanding... also seem to be genuine and significant constituents of the universe, but... they are also part of the illusion, although for most yogis, bhogis, and advaitins this is difficult to accept.

There are three Ways, and movement along each of the Ways eventually reaches a point of great difficulty, which allegorically is described in the story as a 'crossing place'. The crossing place has a transcendental quality because it is characterized by the reaching of the limits of the ordinary human faculties of consciousness and reason, and yet upon arriving there the quiet realization occurs that it is necessary to go beyond, deeper than those limitations would seem to allow. It is realized at the crossing place that by going beyond this point of great difficulty one would reach a different world. Although at first one may not understand the full implications, the different world one might find oneself in are... the three contra-distinct Lokas: the worlds of Brahma, Visnu and Siva, the principal gods of the universe. The place of great difficulty is in fact an interval, the upper interval, in the the law of octaves, which is one of the mathematical laws that is highly characteristic of Maya, and indicates its presence. The interval is the upper interval in the octave of successionary forms unfolded by the combination of Shakti-Maya, which is nothing more than energy dancing in a formidable duet with mathematics. The interval in the octave is a place of deviation and therefore difficult to cross because the tendency to deviate from the straight line at that very point is extremely acute. The slightest deviation and you find yourself going around in circles, going in precisely the opposite direction to what was intended.

Because the 'crossing place' is the crossing over the upper interval in the law of octaves, an octave of mere successional forms related to the manifestation of Prakriti, there are many crossing places, in fact as many as there are octaves, great and small. The great crossing places that are entrances into the Trimurti Lokas are not the only ones. Wherever the interval is to be transcended, and movement back along the octave to be completed, there will always be a final difficult-to-cross barrier. The principle is that usually you cannot cross by yourself, and help has to come from the other side, often in the form of the gift of powerful energy, necessary to transcend the crossing. Here is another example: A variant interpretation of the meaning of the 'crossing place' relates to the phenomenon of self-remembering or self-realization.  The Self is said to live in the heart. How is it reached? By going down, and down, and down, towards the heart. Something calls one... one responds and travels down towards the call. Down, and down, and down, and down, and down, and down... until one believes one can go down no further. It appears impossible to go down any further! Then one meets someone. He is clearly divine. Soundlessly he says “I am you, and you are I”. There is an interval between us which I am unable to cross. He observes this and he moves across. He pushes me a little from behind. I transcend the interval. I go just a little further down. And there I am... I am God. Everything is myself. There is only myself. The old world, as I had known it, has disappeared. I am in my own universe and wherever I look, everything is myself! I existed before Creation. Before this universe came into being, I was, and still am. I realized this is my original self. I am the self at the origin. The original self is not lost, it has merely been forgotten. But, I wonder... how could one have forgotten who one is? How could I have forgotten I have always had this great wealth, this exalted quality, this serene magnificent and sublime nature of being myself? How can God have forgotten who he is?

You have forgotten who you are because you have identified with the various nine manifestations of self, and such is the powerful nature of this identification it has persisted through aeons of time. Nisargadatta says: 

“Some people have realized. They have stabilized in the consciousness. They have understood the godhead, that they are God, but could not transcend it.” 

Therefore being God, remembering yourself at the origin of Creation, seeing everything as yourself, is not the same as the realization of the Absolute. Making some comparisons between self-realization and the man in the story, with nine levels of self within him, the philosophical principles are quite similar. In contradiction to the presentation in the story, all nine, all the nine manifestations of self, are actually on this side of the river, the estuary expanse; all nine are located on this side of the difficult to cross interval in the successional octave, and it is necessary for someone on the other side, the holy man, to notice them, and to come over and give the man a push from behind, in his case a blow from a stick. Then he instantly crosses. Then he remembers who he is, and has always been. The other nine disappear, he has separated from them. They vanish, at least temporarily, because they were, and are, mere magical illusions created by Maya in combination with the powerful hypnotic energy of Shakti. The crossing into each of the Trimurti Lokas is not realization. It is still part of the illusion of transmigratory existence, merely the high end of transmigratory existence.

The realization that you are God, the realization that there is only yourself, that everything is yourself, the realization that you are the One Alone, are characteristics of reaching the level of Saguna Brahman. If you identify with Brahma, Visnu or Siva, even reach and merge with them in their Lokas, even become a Brahma in your own universe, even realize that you existed before Creation.... all this is merely Saguna Brahman. Saguna Brahman is Brahman with the three gunas. The three gunas intertwining and acting and interacting, at the gross material, or at the subtle, or even at the causal level... is merely Saguna Brahman, and is the highly attractive part of the illusion subtly plumaging out of Shakti-Maya. The nine men crossing the river... even managing to cross the difficult to transcend upper interval in the octave of Shakti-Maya, even their realization of the tenth with the help of a holy man... have merely reached a high level in the illusion. They have reached another illusion... Saguna Brahman, an imitation of the Absolute itself.

If is difficult to understand what the holy man on the far bank of the river precisely represents? The holy man on the other side of the upper interval in the octave of successionary forms is perhaps the Mahat, the great form of the self, the holy form of oneself, the perfect form of oneself? In relation to the Way to Visnu Loka, the Mahat is perfection of being to which the child-self, hidden in the breast, sometimes known as krishna-consciousness, child-consciousness, or the bija-seed, is destined to evolve towards. The child is the seed of the Mahat. The child in the breast can grow, move along the Way, evolve into the Mahat. Unmanifest Mahat desires to manifest again and again. Alternatively, and only faintly possibly, the Mahat is the inner guru, or perhaps he represents the Sat-Guru. Certainly he has been waiting for you at the crossing place, on the other side of the estuary. He knows you will eventually reach him, because your reaching him already is, now, and has been before. He was there at the beginning and will be there at the end. He is an imitation of your own perfection of Self. He is quite magnificent, even awesome, pure perfection in being, consciousness and intelligence, he is everything you have always wanted to be. Unfortunately he is an imitation. He is actually the creation of Shakti, who introduced him to you at conception.

The holy man will separate you from not only your nature, but from all the nine that you are not. But, this can only happen if you, the nine, are arranged in a straight line. If you are able to glimpse people as they are in the subtle world you will observe that they are all slightly bent. Inclined to deviation, thus it is almost impossible for anyone to reach the Mahat. Your Shakti knows there is very little chance. Purification and great service is necessary to open a straight line. The stick the Guru uses to hit the nine and separate them from the tenth is possibly the power of knowledge to administer shock. The stick is one of the most puzzling elements in the story. If it is power, the power to separate the false selves from the genuine Self, then it indicates the presence of energy, and energy is Shakti. A stick has two ends and a revealing characteristic of the presence of Shakti is her polarity. If Shakti is present, then the illusion continues, and this continuation of the illusion after the tenth has been reached is a difficult-to-understand paradox lying half concealed in the story. The genuine Self cannot be touched, since touch is at the level of the subtle element air, vayu, and therefore neither knowledge nor any shock can reach or touch or separate the Absolute. If there is a stick, if there is the shock of knowledge, if there is a holy man, even a Mahat, able to hit and separate the tenth, the self, and if there is the power to separate the illusory nine selves from the genuine tenth... then probably this is merely Shakti hitting one of her own illusory forms? A clever double illusion?

The principle is that it takes the help of someone on the other side, someone who has managed to escape before, to help one to cross the entrance to the next world, on the long journey of searching for oneself. Notice that, in the story, the holy man separates you from multiple selves that you are not (a negative method), in contrast to the divine being, a manifestation of yourself, who helps you to cross the final step into the heart, where your original divine Self, God, resides (a positive method). Which is right? Is it possible that both could be illusory?

The holy Mahat is not the ultimate Self. It is another illusion. You are not the holy form of yourself however desirable the acquisition of magnificence and perfection may appear to your nature. The universe is little more than names and forms and you are neither the creation of any vibration, or of any word, or of any mantra, nor do you have any form. You believe you are in search of yourself and momentarily you, the jivatman, may have mistaken the Mahat for the Self, but the Cit deep within is never deceived by Shakti-Maya. Cit instantly sees and knows Mahat is simply an enticing illusion created by your Shakti. The Mahat is designed to attract you. The Mahat is designed to attract the jiva who is severely limited and desires to be magnificent in form, intelligence and emotion. The spiritually perfect Mahat is everything the limited jiva has ever wanted to be. Because the atman, pure consciousness, is identified with the jiva, a nature, therefore 'you' as the jivatman assume the desire to become the magnificent perfect Mahat. All desire, even to be holy, appears to comes from the jiva, the desire body, and all interest in the spiritual comes from the atman, pure consciousness, who identifies with everything he is conscious of. Consequently the  strongly bound combination, the jivatman, wants to evolve and become the self in the Mahat. Cit instantly sees and knows that there is a difference: the atman is pure awesome consciousness looking outwards whereas the Mahat is pure awesome being that is without consciousness. Therefore the Mahat is really part of Prakriti, because all evolution is in Prakriti, and Prakriti is eternally unconscious, and all being is the chattel of Visnu. All desire originates ultimately from the Shakti, even the apparent desire of the jiva, since the Absolute Self is desireless. The nine men crossing from the Vyavaharika to the Paramarthika, see and meet the holy man on the other side, but since you cannot be anything that you see, the holy man cannot be yourself, nor is it the Absolute. It is merely a magnificent form encountered at the end of the Way, arranged as an enticement to movement by your Shakti. Your Shakti wants you to move. If you do actually manage to traverse the entire length of the Way and become the Mahat, even realizing that it is not yourself, then Shakti may offer you compensation, but it is wise to realize there is further to go. Shakti secretly wants you to go on further. You hear her mind in the akasha of shared space. But you are free, you don't have to accept what Shakti wants you to do. You don't have to go on further. You don't have to go anywhere. There is no where to go. You are not in the universe. You are desireless and without need of anything. You don't have to accept the offer of a divine incarnation. You do not even have to accept the offer of an ordinary incarnation, if you are wise enough to see, know, and understand the deception being played upon you at the moment of conception. Cit is perhaps one of your greatest friends, although it appears to rise from below. Because Cit simply and neutrally sees and states the truth, it probably arises from Truth itself, Siva Loka? The truth is one thing, but understanding is another, and although great and welcome truth is it may lack understanding. But... take notice of what Cit may tell you at the moment of conception. Self-realization is not something to be reached, it must be there already.

It is possible that the river which is being crossed is the river of transmigratory existence? Transmigratory existence is simply the identification in consciousness with someone who transmigrates from life to life. Who is identifying with what? It is the Atman who has identified with the jiva. The Atman is your pure awesome consciousness which is looking out. The Atman has separated from Brahman. The Atman believes everything is himself. The Atman, being pure consciousness, believes everything he is conscious of... is himself. Shakti-Maya through her emissary and intermediary of Ahamkara (the I-am maker) induces the Buddhi (intellect) to present the manifestation of a jiva (a nature) in front of the Atman (pure consciousness). The Atman believing everything he sees is himself, instantly identifies with the jiva (a mere projected nature). The Atman becomes what he is not, the jivatman. The jiva, your nature with which you have identified, possibly through aeons of time, is really the subtle element water, Sneha, level 2 in the nine stage manifestation. The strength of the bond between the jiva and the atman is immense and can endure the whole length of the Kalpa, unless broken. You, as pure consciousness, may wish to separate from the severely limited jiva, your uncomfortable nature, by tasting it, by not being able to stand it, or by the realization it is not the genuine self, but the atman fundamentally lacks the knowledge to do so. Pure consciousness, even awesome consciousness, lacks knowledge. The atman needs to realize that everything he sees is not necessarily himself.

Nisargadatta says that after realization he allowed his nature to do what it wanted. He was unaffected by it. Thus realization effects the separation of the awareness that is the Self from the jiva, the nature which it is not. The jiva, the nature, then goes on its way, doing what it likes. The story suggests that a blow from the 'stick' of a holy guru can achieve the separation of each of the nine. Being the atman, being everything, being one with everything, is therefore almost certainly merely a stage, and whatever some Advaitins may suggest eg... “atman is Brahman”, the Absolute is yet beyond that atman. It is necessary to transcend consciousness, to transcend the atman, awesome as he is. Purusha transcends the atman.

Shantanand says: 

“The Unmanifest is the bank or store room where all things and all forms lie hidden, and manifest when the time calls. Just as one collects all things in a store and uses them when the need arises, in the same way, all the multifarious forms of the universe lie stored in the unmanifest before creation breaks out and are absorbed in it when the creation is to be withdrawn.”

We start as ten, which is One and the Zero by its side. All that has happened is that we have identified with some of the nine levels of names and forms in the store room of the unmanifest. We especially identify with the name “I” or “I am”. This is because we believe we are pure consciousness looking out, not realizing that there is an awareness standing behind consciousness, observing it. There is even an awareness of that awareness. That awareness-of-awareness may be close to the ultimate observer, because it cannot be seen? There appears to be nothing observing it. Nisargadatta says there is even an ultimate awareness which is unaware of awareness. That, possibly, is number ten? Who knows?

In the story there is no mention of the nine being withdrawn back into the unmanifest. On the contrary they go on their way. Clearly Creation is not withdrawn. Does Creation dissolve the moment it is realized to be entirely illusory? Does Creation disappear at full Self-realization? Some advaitins state that the universe does not immediately disappear for the jivanmukta. Some jnanis state that creation disappears the moment Brahman awakes, and his Shakti subsides into sleep. Yet the Parabrahman never sleeps.

Towards the conclusion of the story some potential contradictions seem to appear? If genuine, and not mere misunderstandings, how can these apparent contradictions be interpreted or reconciled? The main incongruity present in the interpretation so far is that all ten cross over from the vyavaharika to the paramarthika but the way continues, even for the tenth. But the tenth, the Absolute, is not on any way, nor makes any journey. One logical inference is that the tenth, as described in the story, is not the Absolute, it is something else? A further problem is that only the real can enter Visnu Loka and be preserved, but most of the nine are unreal, therefore they cannot in principle enter Visnu Loka. Everything is unreal except the two witnesses. Sakshin is the first of the real (occupying the 5th position in Shakti's successional octave of forms) and Purusha is the other and more genuine real. Purusha has no form and is unentangled in Prakriti, therefore because Visnu is part of Prakriti, and merely a personification and manifestation of the Sattva guna, Purusha also cannot in principle enter Visnu Loka. Therefore only Sakshin, of the nine, can cross the river of transmigratory existence at the crossing place. Only companion pairs, male and female, enter Visnu Loka, and a further incongruity is that Sakshin may or may not have a companion. Of course these and other theological incongruities may be explained away if the crossing of the river in the story is not actually an allegory of the crossing place into Visnu Loka, nor an allegory of the crossing from the Vyavaharika to the Paramarthika, into Siva Loka. There may be a quite different unknown meaning? A more probable explanation is that the allegorical references at the higher end of the story are beginning to break down?

Further incongruities and contradictions appear at the end of the story: 'very happy (bliss?) they go on their way'. The ten appear not to have yet transcended the anandamayakosha, the bliss sheath? Advaita frequently states that you are Sat-Cit-Ananda, which is usually translated as being-knowledge+consciousness-bliss. It has already been suggested that the genuine Self is beyond being and non-being, beyond both consciousness and knowledge, and beyond bliss. Therefore the question arises: what, in the story, is the nature of the tenth that the nine have with them and who was considered to be lost? It cannot be Sat-Cit-Ananda, which is probably merely yet another stage on the return to the Absolute? Jnanis state that at Self Realization the sense of personal identity is replaced by impersonal awareness. It may be necessary to consider the possibility that the genuine Self is not a self at all? Self implies separation of world and self. In truth they are not separate. If there is no separation how can the sense of self arise? There cannot be a separate tenth?

This universe is more subtle and devious than we may imagine? Upon passing with great difficulty and effort along the great length of the Way, managing to separate from the nine which we are not, and upon revealing the tenth, even realizing the holy form of oneself, the Mahat, even experiencing bliss, we may find there is another Way ahead of us, even another nine to transcend.... Shakti Maya hasn't finished with us just yet? Full realization has not occurred. What is realization? Realization is only sharing. You enter a wider consciousness and share in it. Realization is not something which can be attained, nor is it something which occurs, Self-realization is already there. For the Self there is not, nor can there be, any spiritual progress. There is no path, no Way, no instruction, no method, no technique, at all. There is no experience of the Absolute because it is beyond all experience. The Absolute state cannot be remembered, because it cannot be forgotten. In the end it is not the goal that one concerns oneself with, it is the transcendental itself. We are ever transcendental to ourselves. There is no ultimate, no end, nothing to reach, nothing to attain. It is all beginningless and endless. The search for oneself will never end. It is all Maya. After the disappearance of everything, whatever remains, that you are, neti, neti.

Most allegorical stories have limits to their interpretation. Stretch the comparisons between the literary elements in the story and corresponding phenomena in the subtle world, then frequently the allegory breaks down and may become increasingly inaccurate or even contradictory. The story of the ten men crossing a river is perhaps inevitably a limited allegorical  approximation of the subtle world, since the tenth, the genuine Self, is not subject to the process of conceptualization. No stories, no allegories, no speech, no written texts, no Upanishads, no Vedas, can approach or relate to the Absolute, or to the genuine Self.

Teaching by stories, myths, enigmas, and double language, which convey double or even multiple meanings, and containing frugal quantities of hints... is very characteristic of the indirect method favoured by incarnations of Visnu, especially in the schools they dominate. Visnu is the great sly arch-manipulator of the universe and everything in it, however this fact may not be well known. Everything that comes within Visnu's field of influence is used for the furtherance of his aim, which remains concealed and secret and is never disclosed, since the success of a sly man depends on those involved with him never guessing or knowing what his aim actually is. The indirect teaching method is Visnu's preferred Way. It can be assumed that the story of the ten men crossing a river has be authored by such a devotee to the Visnu method. It is conceded that this sly manipulative method often achieves considerable results. The value of the story is that, by its indirect language, faint allusions, semi-hidden allegories, in order to understand the meaning of the story the student is encouraged to remember past experience and ponder upon everything he may already know, so that the process of recollection, reasoning and insight may take him a little further towards truth, reality, and understanding. Visnu's rarely tell you anything you do not already know. Fundamentally, the design and secret aim of the Visnu method is to encourage the student to discover everything for himself. Visnu's secret aim is to cultivate a self-evolving being. This generally is also the essence of the indirect method in Advaita Vedanta. There is a prevailing belief in Advaita that you cannot give knowledge to someone, knowledge cannot be transmitted directly from a teacher to a student through the ordinary means of language. The student has to make the right effort. Knowledge is only genuine knowledge when you experience something yourself and when insight arises in the mind revealing to the conscious observer the principles manifesting in the experience. Knowledge does not genuinely arise when someone shares their conceptualizations with you. This is merely the transmission of information, or even opinion, which is subtly different from knowledge. Therefore Advaita attempts to create the conditions in which genuine knowledge may arise.

There is however a further surprising subtle feature in Visnu's indirect method of teaching... it is possible that specific contradictions and paradoxes are intentionally incorporated into the story at some significant place so that the discerning student detects some incongruity, some potential contradiction, something he suspects to be wrong, consequently the student becomes confused and doesn't know whether to believe the text, believe his teacher, or rely upon his own experience. Those who rely on their own experience to resolve the detected contradictions and incongruities may even begin to doubt the quality of the teaching material, and may even begin to criticize the teacher? It is useful to realize that Visnu is sly, utterly sly, to the very core of his being, and rarely undertakes anything that is not certain in its result. Having little self-love, cultivating no noble image of himself that he may be compromised to protect, Visnu is completely unaffected whether you love him or despise him, whether you distrust him and criticize him or worship him and devote yourself to him... he always succeeds in turning you into a self-evolving being. Remember, all being is destined to merge into the great mass of universal being that is Visnu Loka, and that all evolution is in Prakriti. The Absolute is beyond being and non-being and does not change or evolve. Therefore ask yourself the question: why do you want to evolve in knowledge, being and understanding?

Further, even if you become aware that Visnu is playing with you, even manipulating you... and he sometimes deliberately lets you catch sight of himself, so that you see his utter slyness and take deep aversion to his form... it will not make much difference because you will feel compelled to investigate and study the subtle universe even deeper in order to decide whether what he is saying, alluding to, or hinting, is accurate or not, and so you will still want and attempt to grow in knowledge and understanding. You will therefore remain under the influence of the desire body, the jiva, believing its desires are your own desires. Visnu wants you to become a self evolving being.

Because your consciousness, the atman, has identified with the jiva, and has become the jivatman, and because the jiva is the illusory creation of Isvara and Shakti-Maya, and because the jiva, your nature, is nothing other than level 2, sneha, subtle water, in the octave of forms, subtle elements, which Shakti unfolds herself, and because even your consciousness, your atman, is not your own, but is part of universal consciousness, and all of this is merely the manifestation of Prakriti, and because manifest Prakriti consists of the action and interaction of the three gunas, of which Visnu is the principal manifestation of the sattva guna... then you may realize that your very desires, by a long causal chain, are being manipulated by Visnu. Whatever you desire, whether to study the hidden meaning in Advaitic stories, or not, whether to work on yourself according to the recommended practices of advaitic sadhana, or not, whether to discover everything for yourself, or not... you are being manipulated by Visnu. The only way to appear to escape the manipulations of Visnu is to abandon all desire and all action, and all concern for your own being. But, by ceasing to identify with being 'something', with being anything, with being itself, can you be sure you have escaped the manipulations of Visnu? Can you be sure that this is not what Visnu intended you to do from the very beginning?

The only possibility of freedom from the manipulations of Visnu, or any of the other gunas, is to reach the higher witness, Purusha, which is not entangled in Prakriti. Even though Purusha has no form, because Purusha has location, it cannot be identical to the Absolute, since the Absolute, by definition, has no location, nowhere nor everywhere. Since Purusha observes the atman and its inherent ignorance, Purusha would appear to occupy a greater position than the atman on the journey back to the genuine Self. If advaitins are correct and the atman is Brahman, then Purusha is closer to the genuine Self than Brahman. Initially, this is quite surprising? Purusha is not referred to in the story, although it can be inferred to be present.

“Very happy, they go on their way.” The nine levels of self will persist as long as the manifestation phase of Prakriti persists. Your consciousness, the atman, became identified and strongly entangled with a form, a nature, which is part of Prakriti. Purusha is never entangled in Prakriti and therefore is already released. If the atman, through the help of knowledge, ever becomes released, then Prakriti with its nine levels of manifestation will go on without you, the atman. According to the Samkhya philosophy, another Purusha (since there are multiple Purushas), will potentially eventually arrive within the vicinity of Prakriti, the bonding of the atman to a jiva will again happen, and the process of transmigratory existence will recur. The genuine Self is completely unaffected by any of this. Because the nine forms of self are not your possession, nor are any your genuine Self, they are independent of you, whether you are free of them or identified with them. Therefore they are free to go on their way, until Brahman awakes and his Shakti subsides in sleep. The tenth, the genuine Self, never moves, is never in movement along any way, is not subject to evolution or improvement or change. The nine are the manifest Prakriti of Shakti-Maya, they go on their way because they are mechanically beginningless and endless. According to Samkhya philosophy, the function of Prakriti, the function of the nine, is to do everything they can to help the Purusha return to the Self, the Parabrahman. Their purpose accomplished, they go on their way. The three gunas rest in equilibrium as Prakriti awaiting the approach of another Purusha, when they will again manifest and the whole phenomenal universe will recur, if necessary, again, and again.

Someone is moving along the way. It is easy to assume it is oneself. Shakti intimates that you should take a self, which she presents to you at conception, along the way. Because you have to get into that self in order to be it, and by means of intense effort and study develop it, so that gradually it will increase in quality, and become the magnificent perfect Mahat... you may forget that it is not actually your genuine Self? Perhaps you never quite realized it is not the genuine Self? It is actually a pseudo-self. But, there is a mystery here, a deception to be solved. Subtly, you are neither the pseudo-self, nor are you the self to whom the pseudo-self is being presented. That is the secret. The self to whom the pseudo-self is being presented is the jivatman. The realization that you are not the jivatman who Shakti is addressing and offering the incarnation is subtle and potentially quite difficult, because you have perhaps been identified with it for aeons of time, and the bond formed between consciousness and nature is immensely strong. The you who Shakti offers the incarnation is not yourself. You were never born.

A question may arise: Why is it necessary to take someone else, nothing like myself, along the way? You are not in the universe, but the person you believe yourself to be is in the universe, and therefore the principles of the universe apply to who you think you are. The universe is founded on the principle that existence is possible if all support all. Therefore you can do nothing exclusively for yourself. The truth is you do nothing, you can do nothing, you can do nothing for yourself, you can perform no action for your own benefit. It is not possible to do anything for the benefit of oneself because the very principle upon which the universe is based would collapse and fall into waiting menacing malevolent chaos. Therefore you are taking someone else along the way, a pseudo-self in fact, someone who does not really exist. It is a condition of the incarnation that you accepted. Your shakti intimates that if you achieve the taking the pseudo-self along the Way to the level of the Mahat, there may be compensation. The subtle universe seems to be organized on the principle of compensation. This hint of compensation is vague and unspecified, and naturally the idea of compensation does not interest you. Perhaps you agree because of impulses of benevolence, a desire to be helpful, arising in your nature. Experience demonstrates that those who undertake something, difficult, even dangerous to themselves, only because of perception of a need, for the benefit of others... sometimes unexpectedly discover that the compensation is... a gift of knowledge. 

Therefore, it is only when you undertake the journey along the Way, take someone else to the level of the Mahat, achieve everything the shakti asks you to do, then upon encountering the Mahat you realize that the jiva is not yourself, the buddhi is not yourself, the god within you is not yourself, the lower witness, the sakshin, is not yourself, purusha is not yourself, the atman is not yourself, the Mahat is not yourself, anything and everything manifest or unmanifest is not yourself, Brahman is not yourself, neither Brahma, Visnu, nor Siva are yourself... by separating from all suggested selves, you are perhaps what remains? Neti, neti. This is how, by traversing the river of transmigratory existence, how, by meeting the holy man, the Mahat, a series of separations from what one is not may occur. To deserve the final help, you have to have a miserable face, this tells the holy man you can't abide being the jiva, you miss and want to find your long lost self, very much.

This interpretation of the story of the ten men crossing a river has perhaps become too complex? Because the allegories at the higher end of the story are beginning to break down, and even some implied criticism of the ultimate accuracy of the story and the integrity of the story-teller are beginning to appear, I suspect this essay has gone much too far in its subtle interpretation. Sedulous imagination cannot be discounted? Perhaps it is necessary now to seek a simpler explanation?

Your true state is always there. It has not gone anywhere.” (Nisargadatta).

This may be the simple and perhaps the only significant meaning of the story?