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BACK TO 32.3



[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.]

  Who is the Knower?


                                                                    [Recall the caution given at the beginning of the previous section]


Man is not only conscious of the world around him but is also selfconscious. This self-consciousness is not self-knowledge. The JIva is a complex of spirit and matter. It is therefore made up of the knower and the known, the subject and the object. The latter is presented to the former and the resulting cognition is self-knowledge. This self is the empirical self and not the Absolute Self. There can be knowledge of the empirical self (‘empirical’ means ‘arising from observation, experiment and experience’); there can be no such ‘knowledge’ of the Absolute Self. The latter is the Inmost Self, the Witness. It is Pure Consciousness. Both subject and object are presented to it, whereas itself is not presented to anything. It cannot be an object in relation to itself as subject nor can it be presented to some other subject since there is no other. It is the ‘nonwitnessed Witness’.


Two names of God bear testimony in this connection: ‘Devoid of witness’ (“sAkShi-varjitA” in Lalita-sahasranama), and ‘Witness’ (“sAkShI” in Vishnu-sahasranAma).


What hears sound is the ear. What tastes an edible is the tongue. But both sensations are received by the brain, registered by the mind and the awareness of both sensations are due to the life-force, the Consciousness within. When we switch on a light in a dark room we see many objects. The same light lights them all. But when the room is empty of objects, the emptiness itself is indicated by the same light. In the same way, when the room is dark, the darkness is registered in our awareness by the Light within us. Consciousness, or the Self, is that Light. It is the same Consciousness that showed the light to us when the room was lighted. 15 Of course if we are blind this Consciousness would not tell us whether the room is lighted or not. But it (the Consciousness) would know that it (this BMI) does not know whether the room is lighted or not. A dead body in the room would not know whether the room is lighted or not and would not also know that it does not know. Because the dead body is just inert matter (PrakRti) without the presence of the purushha (Consciousness) in it. But one may ask very legitimately: “The dead body also should be Consciousness, because Consciousness as the Absolute Reality is everywhere. Then why is it not knowledgeable about the lighting of the room?” The subtle explanation is that although the Ultimate Self is there at all times and in all things, yet it cannot shine in everything. Just as a reflection appears only in polished surfaces, so also the Self shines as Consciousness only in the intellect (Shankara’s Atma-bodha, verse 17). But the intellect (and the mind) has left the body in the case of the dead body!


This Absolute Self is unseen, beyond empirical dealings, beyond the grasp (of the organs of action) , undefinable, unthinkable, indescribable (as this or that), and whose valid proof consists in the single belief in the Self, in which all phenomena cease and which is unchanging, auspicious and nondual. (Mandukya U. 7). As the all-pervading space is not tainted because of its subtlety, so also the Self permeating the entire body, is not tainted by anything that the body, mind or intellect does (13 – 32). The Atman/Brahman/The Self is like the Sun which illuminates the whole world but is at the same time uncontaminated by anything of the world. Every action of the world as well as of the body, mind and intellect is dominated by prakRti. However this does not mean that the Absolute Self has to be unknown. It is known intuitively as the very self in us. It is selfluminous. A burning lamp does not require another light to reveal it. Consciousness does not need to be revealed by another consciousness. The Self is not unknown to anyone for it is the inmost self in us. ‘The Self to which all mental states become objects of knowledge, is known through every one of these states. The witness of all mental operations, whose essence is mere sentiency, is implied by those operations themselves as being the common element in them all. There is no other means of knowing the inner Self’ (Shankara Bhashya of Kenopanishad. II – 4). “Through what should one know that owing to which all that is known? Through what should one know the knower?” (Br. U. II-4-14). “As fire does not burn itself, so the self does not know itself and the knower can have no knowledge of a thing that is not an object” (Shankara Bhashya to Br.U.II – 4 -14)


 The empirical self (The soul, JIva) is the knower of whatever can be known. But his knowing is all vitiated by the tendencies sticking to the mind. This is particularly emphasized by Shankara’s interpretation of the name “avijnAtA” (= non-knower), one of the names in Vishnu Sahasranama. Shankara says “The soul is the knower, namely the one for whom the knowledge that the doership and experiencership are only imagined as belonging to the Atman is vitiated by the age-long tendencies of the mind and known in the opposite way; the Ultimate is the nonknower”. In other words, JIva ‘knows’ things the wrong way! That it is the ‘wrong’ way dawns on him when true enlightenment illumines him. How long has he been knowing it the ‘wrong’ way? Ever since he became the JIva. When did he become the JIva? When ignorance descended on him. Whose ignorance? JIva’s ignorance. Thus Ignorance and JIva are coeval. You cannot say which was first. Vedanta says this is undecidable (*anirvacanIyaM*). But when finally Enlightenment comes to the JIva, there is no more JIva thereafter; only Brahman. Thus what was a beginningless Ignorance comes to an end. But the end of ignorance comes in such a way that the very ‘fact’ (!) of a stated ignorance is no more even a past fact; because Brahman has always been Brahman; there ‘was’ no JIva at all!


This is a little difficult to digest – isn’t it? Why ‘little’? It is the most difficult advaitic teaching to accept. Because we still continue to think as an ‘empirical self’ in an ‘empirical’ way! When we mistook the rope for the snake, and better lighting showed there was no snake but only the rope, the rope-knowledge eradicated the ‘appearance’ of the snake thoroughly. The empirical reality of the knowledge here was of a higher order of reality than the phenomenal reality of the delusion of the snake-phenomenon. But when we are told that “JIva is only Brahman, the phenomenon of JIva is only an appearance, and the real thing is the IP”, we, BEING THE EMPIRICAL SELF, receive the knowledge in an empirical way and this empirical knowledge has no strength to destroy the identity with the BMI, which is also at the SAME EMPIRICAL LEVEL of understanding.


Thus there can be no ‘knowledge’ of the Absolute Self, the nonparticipating Witness, in the ordinary sense of the term. There can be only an intuitive experience of it. “A man, who is in the presence of an object to be known, has only to be drawn attention to the object of knowledge. When that is done, the knowledge arises naturally in conformity with the the object and the means of knowledge.” (‘jnAnaviShaya eva darshyitavyaH ….. jnAnam-utpadyate’: Shankara, Commentary on Br.S. III – 2 -21). Mark the word ‘arises’ (Sanskrit:  ‘utpadyate’). Knowing and Being are welded into a unity here. Since this state is also free from all desires, it is further characterised by Bliss. Hence its ‘own state’ (‘sva-rUpa’) is sat-chid-Ananda. Shankara’s emphatic insistence on the point that, The Self is not something that is ‘attained’ can be seen throughout his writing. Two instances may be quoted here from his commentaries in this connection, though the context is slightly different from ours.


In the first he emphasizes the need to distinguish between ‘parabrahman’ and ‘apara-brahman’ (meaning ‘superior brahman’ and ‘notso-superior brahman’ : See the Weekly definition files on Brahman). Only the ‘apara-brahman’ is attainable. The ‘para-brahman’ cannot be ‘attained’ nor can it be ‘known’, for it is the Self of every one. Attainment is possible only when there is difference, where the attainer is different from the attained. Commenting on Brahma Sutra IV – 3 – 14 he says:


“Therein by the fact of not clearly distinguishing between ‘para-brahman’ and ‘apara-brahman’, the scriptural statements of movement etc. attributed to ‘apara-brahman’ are superimposed on the ‘para-brahman’. Does it mean then that there are two brahmans, namely ‘para’ and ‘apara’? Certainly, yes. There are two. Because, ‘He Satyakama! What is known as Omkara is itself both ‘para-brahman’ and ‘apara-brahman’ says Prashna Upanishad (5 -2). If it is questioned ‘What exactly is ‘parabrahman’ and what is ‘apara-brahman’?’, here is the answer. Wherever brahman is taught by words such as ‘not material, not concrete’ in order to negate the attributes like name and form created by Ignorance, that is ‘para-brahman’. And wherever that same brahman is taught, for the purpose of worship, as if it has name and form, by the words such as ‘He consists of mind, His body is life, His form is light’ ‘ (Chandogya U. 3- 14-2), that is ‘apara-brahman’.


“OBJECTION: If that is so, then all the shruti that proclaims non-duality, will be contradicted.


“ANSWER: No. That fault is nullified by the fact that the name and form are only adjuncts created by Ignorance”. (“tatra para-apara-brahma-viveka-anavadhAraNena ... nAma-rUpopAdhikatayA parihRtatvAt”)


The second instance is from his commentary on the Gita verse (18- 50): “Therefore the effort should only be to discard the superimposition of Ignorance on the Self; no effort is necessary to ‘obtain’ the enlightenment of brahman – because it is self-evident. Though thus quite self-evident, easily affirmable, quite near and forming the very self, Brahman appears to the unenlightened, to those whose understanding is carried away by the differentiated phenomena of names and forms created by ignorance, as unknown, unaffirmable, very remote, as though 18 he were a separate thing”. (“avidyA-kalpita-nAma-rUpa- ....yatnaH kartavyaH”). So when we ask “Who is the knower?”, the answer has to make a distinction between the knower of all that goes by the name of knowledge—which is the same JIva, as before -- and the knower of Brahman, which, as we have seen, is not an object of knowledge. The knower of brahman becomes brahman, says the Upanishad (Mundaka U. III – 2 -9).


Look at the grand truth of what is illumined, what illumines and the Illumination, by the concluding paragraph on ‘de-superimposition’ from Vedantra SAra of Sadananda (of the 15th century,), translated by Swami Nikhilananda: “As the light of a lamp cannot illumine the lustre of the sun but is overpowered by it, so Consciousness reflected in that state of the mind is unable to illumine the supreme Brahman, self-effulgent and identical with the individual self, and is overpowered by it. And on the destruction of this state of Absolute Oneness with which that Consciousness is associated, there remains only the Supreme Brahman, identical with the individual self, the JIva, just as the image of a face in a looking-glass is resolved into the face itself when the looking-glass is removed. Such being the case, there is no contradiction between the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad statement “By the mind alone it is to be perceived” (Br. U. IV -4-19), and the Kenopanishad statement “That which cannot be thought of by the mind” (Kena U: I – 5). We are to suppose that the unknown Brahman is brought into contact only with the mental state, - which simply destroys the JIva’s ignorance concerning Brahman, but does not help to reveal it -- but not with the underlying Consciousness, because Brahman is self-luminous and it does not require the help of another Consciousness to reveal itself.” Thus it is that what is illumined, what illumines and the Illumination are all Brahman – recalling to us the immortal verse (4 – 24) from the Gita.

                                                                        GO TO 32.5

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