Knowing the Ultimate Reality

Everyone of us has to deal with this existential problem at our  individual level. Everyone of us has to individually recognise the problem and  know the answers and solutions to it. Just as my drinking the water will not quench your thirst, this too is an intensely personal affair.  YOU need to drink water to quench YOUR thirst. Likewise, the fundamental existential questions are to be understood, addressed and overcome by you at your  individual level. Mere believing is not enough. You need to know the mechanics of life and living at the core of our individual level. Life is truly a solo journey. Alone we come here and alone we leave from here. We are like a lone traveller on a pathless land. It is only our direct  “knowing” that will help us in our journey. That much important is this subject for us. 

The  basic nature of the problem is already discussed  in the last chapter. These problems can be summarised in these questions.  What is “real” or “ultimate truth” or the ‘ultimate reality’ here in this world? What is the purpose of my individual life here? Why did the individual ‘I” come here? Am I real here? Is this world real? Which part of the ‘me’ is real? Is this body of mine real? Is this mind of mine real? When I say, ‘my body’, and ‘my mind’, there ought to be two things – one is the object and the other one is the  subject. The subject is the one who possess the object. Body and mind are two objects possessed by the subject ‘I”. Therefore, I am different from those two objects I call “my body” and “ my mind”. What is the truth about all these? The fundamental questions here are many-fold. But it is very simple in essence and all questions can be summarised as, “What is the Ultimate Reality?”

Defining Reality 

Our ancient sages addressed these existential questions very intelligently. Sages were the equivalent of our present day scientists.  The only major difference between sages and scientists was that the scientists deal only with matter and accepted only those fall within Newtonian paradigms as ‘scientific’. Officially known as scientific materialism, the scientist’s world view upholds the view that everything exists merely  as a phenomenon of matter moving in space and time and the result of material interactions. They did not accept any studies other than “matter” as scientific. (Note: With the beginning of Quantum Mechanics about a hundred years ago, and with the emergence of evidence for a reality beyond the boundaries of matter, this stern view of scientists are slowly changing. For more on Quantum Mechanics please see the separate chapter. ) . Our ancient sages did not have any such self imposed limitations for their scope. They  were searching truth openly and without exceptions and conditions. Both were / are sincere truth seekers, in all other respects. 

Ancient sages first defined the word ‘real’ so that there is no confusion about what  they were talking about. According to ancient Indian sages, for anything to be accepted as “real” or “ultimate truth”, or “ultimate reality”,   it must fulfill three conditions, which are:

  1. The ultimate reality  should be non-dual and absolute, which means it should be one without needing a second thing to be responsible for its existence. For example, a son cannot be real, because a son needs a father and a mother as his cause. A ‘real’ thing should be one without such a second thing causing or limiting  its existence – it must be absolute, totally independent and non-dual. Only such a thing can be accepted as the “Ultimate Reality”
  2. The ultimate reality should be changeless. It should not undergo any changes at any time. It should always be  changeless. If something keeps changing, it is a limitation that it is unable to stay eternally changeless. Therefore something that is subject to change cannot be ultimately real. It must be changeless and therefore it should be naturally eternal too.
  3. The ultimate reality should be all-pervasive, meaning, it must be present everywhere all the time. In other words, it should have universal existence.  If something is present here but not there, it is a limitation and such a limited thing cannot claim the status of  “ultimate reality”

Ancient sages verified which is the ONE that fulfills all three conditions to be called the ‘Ultimate Reality’.  They realised the objects of the world and they themselves do not fulfill these conditions and cannot be, therefore, rightfully called “Real”.

The Paradox – the world and ‘I’ are both unreal & real 

Although,  going by the definition,  the world and I are unreal, we cannot dismiss the world and I   as ‘unreal’ either. We know that this world and I are real in some way, because both do  exist. I need to deal with the world, I need to eat food to avoid hunger, I need to travel to reach from A to B, so on and so forth. Therefore, the ancient sages came to the conclusion that  the world and I are both real and unreal, which is a sort of paradox. The paradox was resolved when the sages realised that the world and I must have a reality content in it, which is non-dual, changeless and all-pervasive. This should be the only reason why the world and I exist, even though it exhibits the classical symptoms of unreal objects.   Ancient sages thereafter set out to find out that Ultimate Reality content in themselves and in the objects of the world. 

Tracing the Reality Content. 

Ancient sages studied the nature and constitution of the objects of the world which included themselves. They found out that all objects of the entire world (including themselves) are the result of various types of combinations of just five elements! These elements are:

  1. Earth
  2. Water
  3. Fire
  4. Air
  5. Space.

A thing that exists is called an ‘object’. Sages found out that when elements are combined together they become objects. Objects are elemental combinations.They also found out that elements can exist singly or co-exist with  other elements as elements themselves, without transforming as objects. Thus the entire world that we can see, touch, hear or taste ( as well as we cannot see, touch, hear or taste too) is an expression of these five elements only and nothing else! All objects and beings are, therefore, elemental  combinations. Where no objects or beings exist, elements alone exists either singly or co-exists with one or more of other elements. 

These five elements differ in their nature, quality and power. It is these differences that enable these five elements to co-exist or to combine together in various ways to give rise to objects and beings. One of the most important properties of these five elements is its ability to pervade or to spread. Earth, for example, is least pervading and most gross. It cannot move from where it is put. In other words, we can say that it has the least freedom for movement. On the other hand, the next element water is subtler than earth and enjoys more freedom, as it can pervade to its sides and below. It can interpenetrate earth. The next element is fire, which is subtler than water and enjoys a higher level of freedom for movement than water. Unlike the element water, the element fire can move upwards. It has higher pervasiveness, as evident from its ability to heat up both water and earth.  The next element is air, which has even higher ability to pervade and has greater subtlety than fire. Air can pervade or co-exist with all grosser elements higher than itself.Hydrogen and Oxygen can either remain by itself or interpenetrate with each other to form water. Oxygen can interpenetrate with fire and transform itself as fire. The fifth and final element is the subtlest and superior in freedom to all the rest 4 elements. It has a universal existence; space is there even where air cannot reach- for example, outer space. Space permeates into everything and everything exists in space. It is the most subtlest. Space is not perceptible at all. 

Following tables shows a summary of the overall nature of these elements as discovered by the ancient sages.  

Element Grossness & Subtlety  Pervasiveness &  Freedom  Quality Perceptibility
Earth Grossest Cannot pervade Smell Perceptible by smell
Water Less Gross and more Subtler than Earth Can pervade  to Earth Taste Perceptible by taste  
Fire Less Gross and more Subtler than Water Can pervade to water and Earth.  Colour Perceptible by sight.
Air Less Gross and more Subtler than Fire Can pervade  to Fire,Water and Earth Touch Perceptible by touch
Space Subtlest element ever – non perceptible All pervading with Universal existence Sound Not Perceptible at all


There are some interesting facts evident from the above tables.  

  1. The more perceptible an element or object  is, the grosser it will be; the less pervasive it will be;  and the less freedom it will have.
  2. The reverse is also true.  The less perceptible an element or object is, the subtler it will be; the more pervasive it will be; and the more freedom it will have.
  3. The imperceptibility is a natural corollary to all-pervasiveness. (Note: Imperceptibility does not indicate non-existence. For example, we know ‘mind’ exists, even though we cannot see, smell, touch or taste the mind)
  4. The grosser an element or object is, the lesser will be the  space it occupies due to its less pervasiveness. 
  5. The subtler an element or object is, the greater will be the space it occupies due to its more pervasiveness. 
  6. There is no further scope for any sixth element to exist beyond ‘space’. This is because space is all pervading  and there is no where any sixth element can exist outside of Space.

Note: Modern science views ‘atoms’ as the building blocks of all matter. An “atom”  is the smallest indivisible part of matter. An atom consists of electrons and nucleus.  The nucleus of an atom is a bundle of neutrons and protons. Neutrons and protons are made of quarks.  Neutrons and protons are held together by gluons; electrons orbit the nucleus while interacting with W and Z bosons; additionally if these particles are collided additional particles acting in the nucleus can be observed. They are   pions, muons, and many more. This is as much as science has reached so far with respect to their research into matter. This is understandable since scientists deal only with matter on account of their self-restricting Newtonian paradigm. However, with the beginning of Quantum Mechanics about a hundred years ago, and with the emergence of evidence for a reality beyond the boundaries of matter, this stern view of scientists are slowly losing its grip. For more on Quantum Mechanics please see the separate chapter given later in this section.

Non-elemental “X” factor beyond  Matter

Ancient sages found out that all the elements are modifications of matter, as matter and objects are made out of elements.  Essentially ‘matter’ is an inert object obeying Newton’s first law of motion. (Newton’s first law states that, if a body is at rest or moving at a constant speed in a straight line, it will remain at rest or keep moving in a straight line at constant speed unless it is acted upon by a force).

Matter is  inert. Elements are matter. Therefore, elements should be inert. But we have seen that elements show continuous movement and activity by way of pervasiveness and it ability to combine with other elements and transform itself. This means a sixth non-elemental  factor has acted upon and activated the otherwise inert elements in order to make them efficient and sentient. This conclusion is inevitable. We can call it by any name. Let us call it the non-elemental “X” factor for now. 

  • This  non-elemental “X”factor should be logically present universally,  because it cannot otherwise cause incessant activity and movement everywhere. 
  • Since this non-elemental “X” factor is universal, it cannot have any specific form. To be with a form is a limitation. This non-elemental “X” factor is therefore formless. 
  • This  non-elemental “X”factor is Universal in pervasiveness  it is extremely subtle and therefore non-perceptible. 
  • We have seen that the fifth element Space is  Universal in its pervasiveness and therefore it leaves no scope for a sixth element to exist. Following the same line of reasoning, it is only possible that the fifth element Space is existing in this non-elemental “X” factor. Since all the remaining 4 elements  occupy space within the 5th element Space, it is inevitable to conclude that everything exists in the non-elemental “X” factor. 
  • Presence of a non-elemental “X” factor is evident by observing a dead body which was sentient and conscious which has now become inert and unconscious when that factor is withdrawn.

Thus it is self-evident that the action of a sentient non-elemental factor  upon the five insentient elements is what gives rise to the world and objects. How do we study this factor?  What is the best way to study this factor?

Study of the “X” factor  

The only way to study this “X” factor is to study its presence within ourselves rather than studying in others. It is a unique study  because it is the study of a non-matter that is internal (not external) and much subtle (and not gross) and imperceptible (and not visible). If it is a study about matter we could have selected an external object. Such an external study will be invalid in this context, since  matter is dual, ever fleeting and ever confined and limited by space and time. Our intended object of study is non-dual, non-fleeting, and all pervasive (therefore extremely subtle).  

The study of this “X” factor  is, thus, a purely subjective study. My study will not be good enough for you. You need to study it yourself within yourself in order to make it experienceable to you. That alone will bring about the evolutionary changes in you.  One unique factor to remember throughout our self-search is that we have to search for that factor within us which is absolutely changeless. When we find that changeless factor within us, we have successfully found the Ultimate Reality in us.  Meditation is the name for this unique process of search for that changeless anchoring point with in us. Our body and mind are always changing. Our body changes over the years. The content of our mind and the nature of our mind’s response to events change. Therefore, we have to go beyond our ever changing body and mind  in order to reach the never changing Ultimate Reality.  

Default Proof for the Existence of “X” factor

We must also remember that change and changelessness go hand in hand. We will notice a change only when we compare it with a non-changing base. For example, when we travel in a train, we feel that the outside scenes are moving backwards (changing). The train is moving (the change)  while the outside in not moving (the changelessness). Had the outside also been running with the train at the same speed in the same direction, we would not notice that the train is in motion. In other words, had the train and the outside scenes been moving (changing) alike, train’s motion (changes) would not have been experienced.  

Another example for change and changelessness going hand-in-hand  is our inability to see the aeroplane’s motion, when sitting in it and flying through a cloudless sky.  Had there been clouds in the sky (which is not moving and hence indicating changelessness), we would have felt the motion of the aeroplane (changefulness). This indicates that a change is perceptible only in the presence of something that is changeless to compare with.  

We are recognising that our bodies have grown up, or grown  old, or grown fatter etc only because of the existence of an unchanging factor in us. It is this changeless factor that is responsible for our knowing.  It is this factor that we are searching. Meditation is nothing but the equivalent of a research experiment in a scientific laboratory with only one major difference. Meditation is intensely personal and purely subjective and done with pure love. Scientific experiments are  purely objective and with no subjectivity or love. That is the reason discoveries of phenomena beyond matter is so difficult in the realm of science. As in the case of objective scientific experiments, in subjective personal experiences too the results are re-demonstrable as many times as they are repeated in order to render the results  valid.

Key Concepts Discussed So far:

  1. A close examination of our experiences in life will reveal the anomaly of  its transient and changing nature. We do not know what is the purpose of this transient  life. When we take a closer look of our life experiences, we become confused as to what is real and what is not  real in life.
  2. In order to resolve this dilemma we need to understand what is  considered as real. Reality is defined as one that is absolute, nondual, changeless, and all-pervading.
  3. When we examine our own life  based on the above definition, we notice  a paradox that our life is both real and unreal at the same time;  it is essentially unreal; but it has a reality-content in it, which is the reason and cause for its existence. Everything in this universe is made of matter.
  4. A close examination of our experiences in life will reveal the anomaly of  its transient and changing nature. We do not know what is the purpose of this transient  life. When we take a closer look of our life experiences, we become confused as to what is real and what is not  real in life.
  5. In order to resolve this dilemma we need to understand what is  considered as real. Reality is defined as one that is absolute, nondual, changeless, and all-pervading.
  6. When we examine our own life  based on the above definition, we notice  a paradox that our life is both real and unreal at the same time;  it is essentially unreal; but it has a reality-content in it, which is the reason and cause for its existence. Everything in this universe is made of matter. 
  7. When we explore any matter as to how it is made of, we realise that all matter is made of just 5 elements, namely Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space with diminishing levels of perceptibility and increasing levels of inter-penetrability. All of them essentially being inert,  there is a need for a fifth factor, which is non-matter and responsible imparting that sentience to all matter. 
  8. For tracing that reality-content in the matter,  the only valid “object” to study is our own body-mind complex and not any external matter because it is purely a study non-matter / outside object.

Recommended Further Reading:

  1. Tirtha, Swami Bhoomananda. (2007). Brahmavidya Abhyasa, Sure Way to the Inner Self. (Narayanashrama Tapovanam, Venginassery, PO, Paralam, Thrissur, Pin 680575, Kerala.). India. ISBN 978-81-89588-01-4 . http://www.brahmavidya.org
  2. Saraswati, Swami Niranjanananda. (2009) Prana and Pranayama. (Yoga Publications Trust, P.O.Ganga Darshan, Fort, Munger, Bihar 811201). India. ISBN 978-81-86336-79-3. http://www.biharyoga.net