Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Self as Knower or Known

8. The Self identified as that which is a known object of any action

Only two kinds of people can attain to Self-knowledge: those whose minds are not encumbered at all with learning, that is to say, not overcrowded with thoughts borrowed from others; and those who, after studying all the scriptures and sciences, have come to realize that they know nothing. Ramakrishna

That the Self is not knowable in the usually understood sense of this word is made clear throughout the scriptures. Neither can it be experienced since all experiences are limited in time. This is the purpose of the teaching of Advaita – to point to that which cannot be explained. The reason this is not appreciated is because of ignorance in the mind and the only way to dispel this is by knowledge. This is the path of j~nAna and, yes, it is intellectual/analytical. And of course it is discarded along with everything else once the penny drops. Swami Sivananda explains in his commentary on the Brahma Sutra bhAShya:

Brahman is not an object of the action of knowing. “It is different from the Known and again it is beyond the Unknown.” ( kena upaniShad I-3) “How should he know him by whom He knows all this?” ( bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShad II-4-14) Brahman is expressly declared not to be the object of an act of devout worship ( upAsana). “Know that alone to be Brahman, not that which people adore here. ( kena upaniShad I-5). I.i.4 (Ref. 36)

Shankara tells us that the world of name and form is revealed to us through the “self-effulgent” light of Brahman, in the same way that visible things are revealed to sight through the light of the sun. But, whilst Brahman reveals all other objects, no object reveals Brahman. (BSB I.iii.22).

The statements in the scriptures have to be understood in the context in which they occur. In the bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShad, the seeker, Usasta, asks his teacher, Yajnavalkya, to explain further the nature of Brahman, having just effectively been told “This is it.” He asks for clarification. As Swami Krishnananda loosely translates:

You have only told me, this is your inner Self in the same way as people would say, “this is a cow, this is a horse,” etc. That is not a real definition. Merely saying, “this is that” is not a definition. I want an actual description of what this internal Self is. Please give that description and do not simply say, “this is that.” bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShad III.iv.2 (Ref. 2).

Swami Krishnananda goes on to explain Yajnavalkya’s response:

Nobody can know the Atman inasmuch as the Atman is the Knower of all things. So, no question regarding the Atman can be put, such as “What is the Atman? Show it to me” etc. You cannot show the Atman because the Shower is the Atman; the Experiencer is the Atman; the Seer is the Atman; the functioner in every respect through the senses or the mind or the intellect is the Atman. As the basic residue of reality in every individual is the Atman, how can we go behind It and say, “this is the Atman?” Therefore, the question is impertinent and inadmissible. The reason is clear. It is the Self. It is not an object. (Ref. 2)

Swami Satprakashananda states that:

The Knower is contrary to all that is known including the body and the mind. While the known are many, limited, changeful, and non-conscious, the knower is one, unlimited, changeless, and self-aware. (Ref. 27)

And he quotes from Sureshvara (one of the four principal disciples of Shankara):

The inmost Self, which is perpetual awareness, which is not dependent on any other proof [being self-evident], which is without attributes, such as sound, form, etc., as to whose existence there is no room for doubt, which is supreme blessed­ness, which is immeasurable, which is the innermost being, cannot be determined by such means of knowledge as perception and the rest engendered by despicable desire. (Ref. 27)

 In reality, however, the Self is “self-luminous” or self-evident and does not require to be “known” in the usual sense of the word. What the scriptures seek to teach us is not the self-evident nature of the Atman but the fact that this Atman is brahman.

 Atmananda Krishna Menon agrees that we cannot “know” That, in any normal sense of the word. It is more a case of “identity”:

“I know I am” is a single experience, recognized by all persons. It consists of two parts: “I know” and “I am.” The “I am” can never be an object of “I know.” Therefore both mean the same thing, and together are an experience in identity. When knowledge is objectless, it is not the subject either. These are the only two statements that require no proof. (Note 654 Ref. 13).

And later: “Knowledge of Self is knowledge as Self.” Note 1320.

Francis Lucille asks:

How can we know this presence? We can only be it. We cannot touch, feel, comprehend, or see it. That is why we can never say that it is finite, or in time. What can the mind say about something that escapes it? We are knowingly this presence, the moment we know nothing about it, or about what we are; and thus, the moment we “know nothing” about anything. To meditate knowingly, means to take our stand in unknowing, to make “unknowing” our home…

Do not try to know what you are. You would catch only a shadow. Simply understand that you are this mirror, the abode of all things, and also peace and happiness. (Ref. 59)

The mental ‘thought’ that occurs at the moment of realization, when Brahman is effectively ‘known’ is called akhaNDAkAra vRRitti but, as was explained in Chapter 4, this is not a knowing as such but the mind ‘taking on the form of the undivided.’

9. The Self identified as that which knows or experiences

Be still, and you will know. You will know there is no one to know; that there is nothing to know. Robert Adams (Ref. 42)

This is effectively the same as the previous belief, but viewed from the other side, so to speak. Since there is only the Self, knower and known must be identical. But it is worth considering so as to throw yet more light on the differences in the teaching methods.

The traditional view is that the Self only knows anything by virtue of the body, mind and senses of the individual. These do not really exist of course, but from the phenomenal point of view they are what are called “limiting or conditioning adjuncts” ( upAdhi-s) apparently existing as a result of ignorance. Thus, Shankara says, in his commentary on the kaThopaniShad (I.iii.4):

Rightly do the wise, the discrimi­nating ones, speak of the Self associated with body, senses and mind as the experiencer, the one undergoing transmigration. For the Self alone is not an experiencer. It only appears to become an experiencer through association with such apparent conditioning adjuncts ( upAdhi) as the intellect ( buddhi), etc. (Ref. 24)

The Self neither knows nor is known in any literal sense. In his bhAShya on the bhagavadgItA, Shankara says: “Because the Imperishable is unmanifest, He is not accessible to words and cannot therefore be defined. He is unmanifest, not manifest to any of the organs of knowledge.” (BG XII 3 Ref. 28)

In the vivekachUDAmaNi, one of the texts often attribute to Shankara, the Self is described as agochara, meaning “not perceptible” or “not objectifiable” (Ref. 58). It cannot be experienced, only recognized. It is self-illuminating like the sun. The Direct Path view given by Greg Goode is similar:

Seeing the Self as a knower of something is a teaching metaphor. It still leaves the subtle residue of the subject/object paradigm, which eventually gives way. “Knowing your True Nature” sounds beautiful and inspirational, but it is not meant to be taken literally. This Self-knowledge is not cast towards an object, as is perception. It’s not like mirrors, images, or reflections. It’s more like the shining of the sun. (Ref. 57)

Nisargadatta Maharaj points out that the Absolute only becomes conscious and thus aware “of” anything at all in the context of a phenomenal world, with time, space and mind:

As Absolute, I am timeless, infinite, and I am awareness, without being aware of awareness… Unless there is space and duration I cannot be conscious of myself. (Ref. 129)

This is the thinking which justifies the idea of lIlA, the manifestation of a creation in order that the Absolute can experience Himself.

Order from or


Extracts from the Book
Summary and Endorsements
List of Contents
List of Quoted Writers and Scriptures
1. Potential Problems with Sources and Teachers
2. saMskAra
3. Different Types of Knowledge
4. Becoming the Disciple of a Guru
5. Ishvara
6. The Self as Knower or Known
Page last updated: 07-Jul-2012