In the process of shifting from being a me, identified with a body-mind, and becoming Atman, the cosmic Self, there is a series of stages. I typically describe this in terms of stages of development in consciousness. Shifts in how consciousness is self-aware locally.
Adi Shankara described this process in a slightly different way that I’ve mentioned here several times. That is in terms of the dominant guna of our body-mind. This is more about the Shakti or feminine side of the process, unlike the more masculine consciousness-based approach. More of an emphasis on embodiment.
As described before, when Tamas guna (inertia) is dominant, we experience the world like a covering. The physical world seems real and everything else illusory. Our inner life is given little weight. This is of course the way most people in the world perceive.
When Rajas guna is dominant, we experience the world as illusory. This is common after some time in spiritual practice and/or after the initial Self Realization shift. Thus, we now typically have a rich inner world but the outer looses it’s weight. But this may well show up much earlier in the process, perhaps even resulting in a dark night. Rajas is the fire that transforms inertia, tamas, into purity or clarity, sattva.
If sattva is dominant, then we experience the world as the divine play. Clarity brings us subtle perception and the mechanisms of creation become apparent, including the doers and the source.
Of course, if someone already has some sattva well developed, this stage can come well before awakening and will lead to a much different experience of the transitions. Much less dry, more rich. Fullness rather than emptiness.
The “world as illusion” stage has become the dominant meme in some spiritual circles, completely out of this context. It is sometimes taught as the “true reality” even though it’s inherently transitional. While it’s certainly an upgrade from tamas, it’s a poor cousin to sattva.
Worse though, some of the references to illusion are confused with Vedanta which actually refers to a much later stage.
But this does lead to a useful observation. Just as the awakening process can shift from covering to illusion to clarity, so too the Brahman process.
Just as we once transcended the ego into Atman, with the Brahman stage, we transcend Atman (consciousness) into Brahman. And that process could well be described in the same stages. Not in terms of the gunas, but relative to the clarity of it.
In the first stage, we are Atman, the Self, Unified, infinite consciousness. Brahman is not recognized (although people may use the term for the absolute). Atman behaves as a covering over it.
In the next stage, Brahman is recognized and Atman comes to be seen as illusory. We recognize nothing has happened or been created and never has been.
In the final stage of the process the inherent divine nature of Brahman becomes clear.
When you’re reading an ancient text, in what context were they speaking? Were they referring to, in the terminology it was translated with, that first passage of illusory world? Or the second passage of illusory creation? The two are very different in experience. The initial stage still has that dwaita or duality of experiencer and experienced. That is not Vedanta although sometimes the choice of words may seem like it. In most cases, it will be the first.
It’s also useful to note the distinct reality of each of these steps. Someone who is Self Realized and clear about the nature of consciousness and Being may totally reject the title of this post. For them Atman, consciousness is the reality. And in fact, the steps that follow see that reality absorb all others until all is recognized as Atman. This is the crowning knowledge of Unity. All is one.
Yet as high as that truth may be, it still must be dropped in the light of Brahman.
It may seem like such a waste: to progress into profound truths, only to have to let them go again. But this is part of the art of life itself. As a bag of blood and bones, there is no capacity to recognize Brahman. Thus we must create capacity by taking in ever greater vistas. Build the muscles of our legs and the capacity of our vision as we climb the mountain.
And nothing is really ever lost. All that we lose is the old context. In time, everything is recognized again (regained) from the new perspective. And this was the story of our youth as well. It is the journey of life itself, shedding what is done and growing anew.