top of page

    BACK TO 32.2



[A reference, say, to Ch.2, Shloka 7 of the Bhagavad-Gita would simply be given as “(2 – 7)”

without mentioning the Bhagavad-Gita.

You may want to keep a copy ready on hand.]

3. Jiva, the Empirical Self


[Caution: Read carefully and proceed slowly. There are many hair-pin bends.

Alternatively, by-pass the speed-breakers, go forward,

but come back to re-traverse the path several times.]


The punchline of the operating part of advaita, is, as we said at the end of the previous section, that the IP (Imperishable puruSha) is a nonparticipating witness. He is the real I within us, and he does not do any action, he does not think any thoughts, he does not feel any emotions. He is unaffected, unperturbed, uncontaminated, unsullied by any of the happenings to the PP (Perishable puruSha). He is the One introduced by Krishna very early in the Gita in verses 23, 24, 25 of the 2nd chapter and later, in many other contexts. He, being the real ‘I’, can therefore very well say: “I am not the doer or the experiencer”. Like the street light that witnesses everything that happens under the light but is itself neither the doer nor the experiencer of the happenings, He is the nonparticipating witness to everything that happens to the PP.


We shall now try to comprehend some of the nuances of the concepts of nonparticipating Witness and the superimposition that we do on this. At the final end of the theory of non-duality one is told that the knower, the known and the knowledge are all one. But, ordinarily, the knower is the subject and the known is the object. The subject which knows the object is the centre of consciousness. It exists, and it knows. The object only exists. The JIva (the soul) is the subject of all experience. It is a complex of Consciousness (Sanskrit: ChaitanyaM) and Matter. When objects are in relation to the subject we have the stream of presentations called Vrittis. When there are no objects there will be no presentations but the consciousness that lights up the presentations will remain. That consciousness is the Witness, the non-participating Witness. Objects are not presented to Consciousness as such. They are directly presented to the JIva (the soul) and only indirectly to the Witness. There can be no relationship between Consciousness and objects, because they belong to different orders of reality, like the rope and the snake. The subject, the centre of consciousness, is experienced directly in an intuition, like an ‘Ifeeling’ (Sanskrit: aham-pratyaya), but the object is known only from the outside like ‘this-feeling’ (Sanskrit: idam-pratyaya). Then how did this Pure Consciousness become the JIva or the empirical self and how was the JIva made the subject of all experience? Strictly speaking, there is no ‘becoming, no making, no transition, no transformation’. Pure Consciousness (= Atman, Brahman) does not undergo any change of form or character. JIva is only Brahman in an empirical dress of BMI in which the sprouting of the thought of distinctness from Brahman has occurred. This thought of individuality is the Ego, the starting point of the JIva. JIva is therefore Consciousness conditioned by Ignorance in the form of an ego of individuality. The Self can have no direct knowledge of the world except through the apparatus of the BMI. This apparatus as well as the small world which becomes the object of its knowledge is spoken of as the adjunct (Sanskrit: upAdhi) of Consciousness. All this adjunct is matter. Consciousness (‘Chaitanyam’) which has this limited portion of matter for its adjunct is the JIva. Each JIva has its own knowing apparatus and moves in a small world of its own, with its own joys and sorrows and thus has its own individual existence. Though the Self is one, the JIvas are many.


Acharya Shankara draws attention to this fact of one Self and several JIvas, for instance, in his commentary on (2-12) where the Lord says “There was never a time when I was not there nor you were not there, nor these leaders of men nor that we, all of us, will come to be hereafter”. He comments: “The plural number (in we) is used following the diversity of the bodies, but not in the sense of the multiplicity of the Self”. Generally in his commentaries, Shankara uses two illustrations to bring home this point. One is the sun appearing as many reflected images in different pools of water. If the waters are dried up the several images get back to the original sun. The other illustration is the infinite space being delimited by artificial barriers. If these barriers are knocked down there will be no occasion to speak of the different spaces. These two illustrations of the exact mode of conceiving the relation between the Self and the Soul gave rise to two schools of argument in later advaita, namely, the argument of original and its reflection (‘bimba-pratibimbavAda’), and the the argument of delimitation (‘avaccheda-vAda’). The  former is the Vivarana school and the latter is the Bhamati school. (See Dennis-ji’s definition of the JIva for a full explanation of these names). Thus when Consciousness is conditioned by its association with Ignorance or Matter it is no longer Pure Consciousness but a complex of both, called JIva, the soul. This does not mean however that Matter or Ignorance is outside of the Reality of Consciousness, because that would contradict non-duality. The relation between Self and Soul has therefore to be conceived in the following way.


The addition of the adjunct is only a difference in the standpoint that we adopt. There are two standpoints – the intuitive and the intellectual. The intuitive is that of immediate and direct realisation. It is the method of the mystics. There is no dualism of subject and object there, nor that of doer and the deed, nor that of agent and enjoyer. These distinctions of duality arise only in the intellectual method of looking at reality. That is why the Gita says that it is “beyond the intellect” (III – 43). It is the nature of the intellect to break up the original unity and revel in these distinctions. At this intellectual level what we are doing is actually a come-down in the level of perception. The JIva is now perceived in relation to its own small world, the subject in relation to the object and the doer in relation to the deed. The Self thus reflected in the medium of the intellect becomes the JIva.

As per the Vivarana school, the Atman or the Self is the original, the intellect is the reflecting medium and the JIva is the reflected image. In the case of the Bhamati school, the Atman is the infinite space, the adjuncts (upAdhis) are the limiting barriers and the JIvas are the small spaces. The reflection idea is used skilfully by Kapila Maharishi in his exposition of Vedanta in Bhagavatam (III-27: 12, 13): “The presence of the Supreme Lord can be realized just as the sun is realized first as a reflection on water, and again as a second reflection on the wall of a room, although the sun itself is situated in the sky. The self-realized soul is thus reflected first in the threefold ego and then in the body, senses and mind”. An explanation is necessary for this analogy. The topic is how one recognises that the Supreme Consciousness is the One Power behind every action and every presence in the universe. Imagine a room in which there is a large vessel of water that receives direct sunlight and reflects it onto the opposite wall in the room. What is the source of this light on the wall? It is the reflected Sun in the water (contained in the vessel). And what is the source of that reflected Sun? The actual Sun in the blazing sky. So also we individuals seem to be having awareness of the outside world. The source of our awareness is our consciousness within. But  this consciousness itself is a reflection of the real supreme Consciousness, the reflection being in our own ego-mind. The JIva is thus a complex of Consciousness (Chaitanyam) and matter. It is Pure Consciousness with a limited adjunct of matter, namely, the BMI. This limited adjunct is spoken of as the Ignorance (Sanskrit: avidyA) of the JIva. Stripped of its adjunct the JIva loses its individuality and is then nothing but Pure ChaitanyaM. The analysis of the three states of waking, dreaming and sleeping is intended to show that Consciousness is the only constant factor running through them all. Even in the sleeping state, this Consciousness is there. “That the soul does not see in that state is because, although seeing then, it does not see; for the vision of the Witness can never be lost, because it is imperishable. But then no second thing exists there separate from it which it can see.” (Br. U. IV – 3-23). Shankara quotes this passage in his commentary to Brahma Sutra II-3-18 and adds his own explanation: “This appearance of absence of awareness is owing to the absence of objects of knowledge, but not owing to the absence of consciousness. It is like the non-manifestation of light, spread over space, owing to the absence of things on which it can be reflected, but not owing to its own absence.” It is in the fourth state called ‘turIya’, that transcends the three states of waking, dream and dreamless sleep, all traces of Ignorance disappear. When the JIva is thus disassociated from Ignorance and therefore from all material vesture, the spiritual core of the JIva comes into its own. Shankara sets forth (in his commentary on Br.S. I-3-19) the nature of this transcendence of all adjuncts in the following way. A white crystal placed by the side of something red or blue appears red or blue on account of the adjunct. But in reality the crystal is only white. It does not ‘acquire’ its white colour but only shines in its own natural colour. (Recall the story of the ‘tenth man’).


[Optional note that may be skipped: The above is known as the ‘argument of appearance’ (AbhAsa-vAda). (AbhAsa also means ‘shadow’ or ‘semblance’).


It is akin to the argument of ‘’reflection’ that we saw earlier. There the reflection was taken to be an ‘empirical’ (Sanskrit: vyAvahArika) reality. The argument was then called ‘bimba-pratibimbavAda’. But now the reflection is taken as a ‘phenomenal’ (Sanskrit: prAtibhAsika) reality.  Before the onset of true enlightenment the Spirit (Consciousness) on account of its association with the BMI appears as the JIva. But the rise of true knowledge does make a real difference. All false notions disappear and Spirit rises to its true stature. The self-hood of the empirical self falls to the ground and the Self shines forth in its original splendour. To know the highest truth is only to know the self in its true nature. The moment true enlightenment dawns on man he realises that he is no other than the non-dual self, that very moment he sheds his finitude and rises to his full stature. There is no question of the JIva merging in anything other than itself. It simply comes to its own. In truth there is no entity as the JIva at all. It is not among the things created. It is a false creation due entirely to adventitious (Sanskrit: ‘Agantuka’) or incidental circumstance, that is, coming from without and not pertaining to the fundamental nature. “The idea of embodiedness is a result of nescience. Unless it be through the false ignorance of identifying the Self with the body, there can be no embodiedness for the Self” ( ‘sasharIratvasya mithyA-jnAna-niimittatvAt …. kalpayituM’ : Shankara’s Commentary on Br. Su. I-1-4 ). JIva has always remained Brahman. Only the adjuncts have to be removed for this truth to stand out. Once this realisation is there, the finitude of the JIva will disappear, as also its misery and its supposed agency and enjoyership. “When that Brahman, the basis of all causes and effects, becomes known, all the results of the seeker’s actions become exhausted” (Mundaka U. II – 2 -8). The transmigration of the JIva which is due to its false association with the adjuncts, will also come to a close. That is when the ego-thought of separateness from the Supreme Self, with an ‘I’ of its own, will get destroyed. That is what we mean by saying ‘Jiva attains mokSha’. The two things are simultaneous, like the simultaneity of disappearance of darkness with the lighting of a match. But that does not mean that Jiva ‘reaches some destination’ or ‘obtains something’. ‘JIva sees the Truth’ simply means that it sees that it is itself Brahman. In other words, it wakes up to the Truth that was always there. Not waking up to the Truth was the Ignorance. Ignorance is not in Brahman, which is pure and self-illumined, but in the JIva. So long however as the latter does not realize his identity with Brahman, ignorance is said, rather loosely, to envelop Brahman. All the injunctions that are given by the Vedas to man are given to him in his state of ignorance because activity is natural to man in that state. The Self is never the doer. The injunction is only a restatement following what is given in experience. All the ritual purifications through chanting of mantras and the results of such actions are enjoined on, and enjoyed by, that entity which has the idea “I am the doer”, as stated in the Mundaka Upanishad mantra “One of the two enjoys the fruits having various tastes, while the other looks on without enjoying” (Mu. U. III-1- 1). The misery that falls to the lot of the JIva, the empirical self, is entirely due to its fancied association with its adjuncts. This association imagines such ‘realities’ as ‘I am a brahmin’, ‘I am a renunciate’, ‘I am a 14 JIva’ and the like. When the JIva sheds these imagined realities and all adventitious adjuncts and realises its true nature by a discrimination between the permanent and the ephemeral, then there is an end of all its misery. Except by such knowledge of the Ultimate Self, misery and finitude cannot be overcome.


Question: So then we come back to the oft-mentioned idea, ‘SelfKnowledge’. But who is the knower of this knowledge here? Is it the Self, who is always illumined, or the JIva in his unillumined state? We shall take this up in the next section                               


                                                                                              GO TO 32.4

bottom of page