What is ananda?
Because it can be interpreted in two ways, the term ananda (ānanda) can be confusing. Ananda is most commonly translated as “bliss,” meaning “perfect joy” or “perfect happiness,” and most spiritual people associate it with enlightenment—which is accurate but with some important nuances.
The first kind of ananda is experiential bliss. This is joy gained through a sensory experience, such as interaction with or the acquisition of an object of desire. Or it can be gained through a spiritual practice, such as the joy experienced from deep meditative states (samādhi). Sattva guna is also experienced as joy or happiness, for example the joy that an intellectual pursuit, piece of music or art can elicit. Although experiential joy is undeniably pleasing, its draw-backs are that it is temporary and therefore ultimately, unsatisfactory. In truth, there is no object or experience that can provide us with permanent, unlimited happiness. As such, as individuals we must continue to find new objects, places, relationships and experiences so that we never run out of things to make us happy. And when we can no longer do so, due to financial constraints or just not being able to get what we want, we quickly become agitated, angry and depressed.
Vedanta shows that the reason objects and experiences can never completely satisfy us is due to the nature of the changing gunas (natural forces). Because objects in and of themselves are incapable of giving happiness, it also shows that the temporary joy we experience must be coming from us and not objects. If that weren’t the case, every object that gives you happiness would give the same to me. This means that any joy must be coming from me.
Vedanta describes experiential bliss as “reflected bliss” (pratibimbānanda) or the Self reflecting in the body/mind. The temporary happiness we gain through, for example, acquiring an object of our desire can be thought of as a “blip” or a momentary, faint reflection of our true nature. But we can also experience object-oriented joy when a strong wanting creates a build up of tension. Once the object or experience is obtained, any tension that was created before is released and as a result, we feel happy. We then associated this sense of satisfaction with the object that elicited it. In either case, our happiness is dependent on an object, person, place or experience.
The second type of ananda is associated with another Sanskrit word, ananta, meaning “infinite” or “limitlessness,” and it is this ananda that Vedanta teaches. The difficult is that we don’t always know which ananda scripture is referring to. For example, take the epithet for the Self: sat-chit-ananda. In this case ananda doesn’t refer to experiential bliss, but the nature of the Self to be “limitlessness.” Thus, the complete translation should be “existence-consciousness-limitlessness” with each word acting as a synonym describing the nature of the Self.
In addition to “limitlessness,” ananda or the bliss of the Self can also be described as “wholeness,” “fullness,” or even “love” (parabhakti or “supreme love/devotion”).
In contrast to reflected bliss (pratibimbānanda), Self bliss is original bliss (bimbānanda or ātmānanda). Original bliss is not experienced as the sometimes giddy feeling one gets from reflected bliss. Instead, it’s described as limitless satisfaction knowing that whatever happens, I’m always okay. This is the result of gaining Self-knowledge and constantly focusing our attention on it. “It’s love loving itself,” as one teacher aptly puts it.
Some of the main differences between reflected bliss and original bliss are as follows:
Reflected bliss belongs to ānandamayakoṣa (the bliss sheath; one of five sheaths that hide the truth about the Self), while original bliss belongs to the Self.
Reflected bliss is subject to arrival and departure and is impermanent, while original bliss is constant and never-changing.
Reflected bliss is subject to gradation because it changes and disappears over time, while original bliss is not subject to gradation.
Reflected bliss can be experienced because it is available for objectification, while original bliss can only be experienced indirectly via Self-knowledge. So, while original bliss is not available for direct experience, it is available for claiming as our nature.
Thus, actual bliss isn’t the joy I get from, for example, buying a new car of my choice, starting a new romantic relationship, vacationing on a tropical island, or even reaching a special spiritual state. Instead, it’s the constant satisfaction knowing that I am not the doer/enjoyer, I am the Self as infinite, eternal, whole, complete, unlimited, non-dual consciousness.