Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Mystery - Part 6

Rarely Asked Questions
Bimal Prasad

Bimal Behari Prasad (60) is a government servant in the Government of India. As a student of Advaita, he also works for the cause of Advaita.




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9. Witness

Q47: What is the Witness?

Answer: How the Witness functions; what is its nature; whether it has a form or it is formless; whether it is an object:-; these are the questions which concern us. Let us do an experiment. Stand comfortably or sit in a chair comfortably in a relatively noise-free place. Watch the surroundings, to start with slowly and then intently. Simply observe what is there without labeling it with any adjective like good or bad. Gradually there is awareness as the background to all our sense perceptions. This awareness which is in the background is the Witness. It stands aloof from what is happening. It is the abode of peace and stillness. By practice we can master this experiment.


Q37: What is the relationship between the Present and the ego?

Answer: Life has an abiding relationship with the Present in the sense that any action takes place in the present. If this relationship is skewed, it is also manifested in every situation. As discussed earlier, ego is the manifestation of our prejudices and is therefore another name for our skewed relationship with the present moment. It is for us to decide what type of relationship we want to have with the Present. If we make the present moment our friend and constant companion, it is the death knell for the ego. A similar thing happens with regard to unhappiness. In ‘The Power of Now’, Eckhart Tolle writes, “Unhappiness has different manifestations: irritation, impatience, anger, rage, depression. Catch it the moment it awakens from its dormant state. This will bring you in the Present. And the intensity will gradually diminish. This is the power of Present (Now).


Q48: Why is it said that one should live like a Witness (sakshi)?

Answer: The Witness is distinct from the mind and body duo. It is the subject and all the happenings are the objects. If we live like a witness, we, as witness, will not identify ourselves with whatever happens: tangible or intangible. We stand aloof, so to say. Our response to the happenings will not be coloured by our likes and dislikes. As a result, our action will justify the demands of the situation.


Q49: What is the relationship between the Witness and Consciousness?

Answer: Objects in the material world are recognized by our sense organs, namely, eye, ear, tongue, etc, i.e., the sense organ is the subject and an item in the material world is the object. Now, what is the status of the sense organs vis-á-vis the mind? It is easy to understand that the mind is the subject and the sense organs are the objects. Beyond the mind lies Consciousness and we can feel the mind only because of Consciousness. Thus, Consciousness is the subject and mind is the object. The question is, is Consciousness also an object and, if so, what is the subject? It is easy to infer that Consciousness is itself the subject and it cannot be the object. This is why we say that Consciousness is the seer. Even the process of seeing is in Consciousness itself. In other words, subject, object and the process of perception merge into Pure Consciousness. Thus Pure Consciousness is the ultimate subject. It is self-luminous, and it does not require the support of anything for its existence. Now, we agree that the Witness is the ultimate subject and Pure Consciousness is also the ultimate subject. It is noteworthy that Witness is not same as Consciousness. There is duality in ‘Witness’, whereas, Pure Consciousness is non-dual.


10. Non-dualism and Universal Oneness


Q50: What is Reality?

Answer: The world exists though we have to understand the nature of this existence. According to an Indian tradition, Existence (satta) has three different ‘levels’—pratibhasa (apparent reality), vyavahara (empirical reality), and parmartha (Absolute Reality). The apparent reality is perceived under certain conditions. It ceases to exist under empirical conditions. Mistaking a rope for a snake in semi-darkness is a well-known example. This perception disappears in light. The perception of the rope as a snake was an apparent reality, or pratibhasika satta. It is not an empirical reality. The empirical reality, or vyavaharika satta, is perception in daily life under the normal wakeful state.


There are two distinct ways to use the word “reality”. One is the reality we experience, our image of reality; and there is the underlying reality that we never know directly, but which is the source of our experience. In Indian traditions the two realities are often referred to as the Absolute and the Relative. The Absolute is the underlying reality. It does not change according to who is experiencing it. The relative is the reality we observe, the reality generated in our minds. There is just one Absolute; but there are numerous relative realities, each relative to a particular experience at a particular point in space and time. Pure Consciousness never changes, is the underlying reality, i.e., the Absolute.


Q 51: What is mithya?

Answer: Often the world is described as mithya. It does not mean that the world does not exist. It only means that the world has no separate existence other than the Absolute. Its existence is dependent on the Absolute and is relative. The world is a manifestation of the Absolute. Each one of us is a manifestation of the same Absolute. However in our day-to-day life we fail to see through this reality and believe that we all are different. This is on account of our ignorance (avidya).


Q52: What is Maya?

Answer: In ‘Advaita Made Easy’, Dennis Waite defines Maya “as the name given to the ‘force’ or ‘principle’ which causes us to see a world of duality when the reality is non-dual.” Maya operates in two complementary ways, namely, concealing the reality, and distorting the reality. Not only do we not perceive the Reality, we substitute something else in its place as Reality. The ‘substitute’ exists as real until all duality is transcended. The world ‘appears’ as real until the non-dual Self is ‘known’. In semi-darkness, we confuse the rope with snake. The real rope is concealed and in its place snake is substituted. When the light is thrown, the real rope is known.


Q53: What is the essence of Advaita teachings?

Answer: It is difficult to explain it in a short space and time. However, a very brief outline can be given here. It is a philosophy whose teaching is revised as the seeker`s understanding grows; on reaching a certain level, the earlier view is discarded. This is not to belittle the earlier level: it is verily required to understand the next level. It is like an athlete who after using the pole to reach the bar discards it at the moment of crossing it. The teacher asks the disciple as to whether the world is real or unreal. His answer is, as expected and based on day-to-day experience, that it is real. The teacher then explains to him that it is mithya because everything in this world is subject to change. Its existence is relative. Then the teacher takes the disciple to the next level and explains what could be the Truth, the Reality: the Absolute: which never changes, which is beyond time, space and causation. In the still next level the teacher explains the relationship between the Absolute and the empirical world: that the empirical world is nothing but manifestation of the Absolute. In the final level the teacher explains that the empirical world is same as the Absolute: Non-dualism (Advaita). Everything is the Absolute (Self): Universal Oneness. An apt metaphor is like this: the cloth merchant has in his showroom fabric in rolls (Self). The empirical world is the same fabric when spread out. There is only one: Universal Oneness.


Q54: If everything is Self, why do we not accept it straightaway?

Answer: Accepting the Truth straight away without completing the process will not be even an intellectual exercise, let alone the Realization (Enlightenment).


Q55: What is Self-knowledge?

Answer: As the name suggests, Self-knowledge means knowledge of the Self. Knowledge can be of an object only. As Self is not an object, the term Self-knowledge would appear contradictory in itself. Therefore the only real way for one to gain Self-knowledge is to be the Self. In Advaita, Self is explained as Pure Existence, Pure Consciousness and Limitless. It is also stated that our true nature is Self and everything is manifestation of Self. There is only Self, i.e., non-duality. On the face of it, Self-knowledge should be automatic. But the obstacle is the mind. By practice, mind can be trained for Self-knowledge. Therefore, Self-knowledge is an event in the mind when there is a firm conviction that our true nature is Self: Pure Existence, Pure Consciousness, Limitlessness and that there is non-duality: everything is Self. It is also called Self-realization. Sense of Selfhood remains unchanged. Feelings, emotions and passions change and take us hither and thither, but the Self is ever-existent.


Q56: How does Self-knowledge help our life?

Answer: Our life is full of duality: a combination of sorrow and happiness. Once we have the realization of non-dualism, there is no attachment to sorrow, misery, etc. Since there is only One, there is no space for discord, hatred, jealousy. There are two approaches to it. The indirect approach requires discovering the cause of sorrow and grief and applying some method to remove it. Sorrow and grief usually relate to a material object. But grief itself is a mental phenomenon. Grief is felt when we become conscious of it. It has no existence in the absence of Consciousness. If by some method of knowledge, the Consciousness can be divorced or disentangled from the grief, then grief has no meaning. The grief is felt because Consciousness is identified with mind. There is super-imposition which leads to the false notion of grief. We already have the knowledge that Consciousness is different from mind and body. However, in day-to-day activity, we are oblivious of this and the identification and super-imposition lead to sorrow. Therefore, the indirect approach requires constant awareness of the dichotomy between Consciousnesses on the one hand and mind and matter on the other. This can be developed through the practice of meditation.


In the direct approach, we say that happiness already exists and the task is to find it. Consciousness, and knowledge of its nature work together as a tool. We have seen how Consciousness is the source from which mind and matter draw strength. In other words, I draw my strength from the same source from which others draw their. The same Consciousness is in you, him and me. It is only to be realized. Swami Vivekanada in his address titled “Is Vedanta The Future Religion” in San Francisco on April 8, 1990 says: “Therefore Vedanta formulates, not universal brotherhood, but universal oneness. I am the same as any other man, as any animal-good, bad, anything. It is one body, one mind, one soul throughout. Spirit never dies. There is no death anywhere, not even for body. Not even the mind dies. How can even the body die? One leaf may fall-does the tree die? The universe is my body. See how it continues. All minds are mine. With all feet I walk. Through all mouths I speak. In everybody I reside.”[Ref: Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 1]


Q57: What is Satchidananda?

Answer: There are three words: Sat, Chit and Ananda. Sat means Pure Existence, Chit means Pure Consciousness and Ananda means Bliss. They are not the qualities or attributes of the Absolute. Each one is indeed the Absolute or the Self or the Truth or the Reality. An Indian tradition holds: The senses are superior to gross matter; the mind is higher than the senses; intellect is still higher than the mind; and the Self is even higher than the intellect. Further, the non-manifested Self is perfect; the manifested Self (the material world) is also perfect.


Q58: If our true nature is happiness, why is there evil in the world?

Answer: At Q18 it was explained that Consciousness is not the doer. Action is in the material world. Therefore from the vantage point of the Absolute, the question, “Why is there evil?” makes no sense. Vice or virtue exists only in empirical world. There is no duality in Pure Consciousness; so it supports both vice and the virtue and is itself beyond all phenomena; even the noblest. Does anyone blame the rain which has caused a catastrophic flood? The same fire burns one man's house and cooks another man's dinner, but the fire is beyond any praise or criticism.


Q59: How is Self-knowledge the remedy for miseries?

Answer: When we gain Self-knowledge, we know that there is no duality; there is no misery because there are not two; everything is a form of my Self, just as ring and bangle are different forms of one and the same gold. In “The Secret Path” Paul Brunton refers to Self as Overself and says that “One inevitable result of all these practices will be that your attitude towards things, people and events will gradually change. You will begin to express the qualities which are natural to the Overself, the qualities of noble outlook, perfect justice, the treatment of one`s neighbours as oneself.


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Page last updated: 02-Aug-2016