Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century


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First Definition - Dennis Waite

The Sanskrit term that is used for our present condition is jIva, the “embodied Self.” It literally just means “living” or “alive” but is often equated with the idea of an individual soul as encountered in Christianity. The word jIvAtman, the “personal or individual soul” is also sometimes used (as opposed to paramAtman, the supreme spirit). In the book advaita bodha dIpaka (dIpa is a lamp, providing bodha, knowledge, through its illumination), this is explained as follows:

In the body appears a phantom, the “false-I,” to claim the body for itself and it is called jIva. This jIva always outward bent, taking the world to be real and himself to be the doer and experiencer of pleasures and pains, desirous of this and that, undiscriminating, not once remembering his true nature, nor inquiring “Who am I?, What is this world?,” but wandering in the saMsAra [ the continual cycle of death and rebirth, transmigration etc. to which we are supposedly subject in the phenomenal world until we become enlightened and escape] without knowing himself. Such forgetfulness of the Self is Ignorance. (Ref. 1)

Who we really are is the non-dual Self, the Atman, but because of this covering of ignorance, we believe ourselves to be limited to a separate soul, contained in a body and mind. The jIva could thus be thought of as the Atman, together with the upAdhi (limiting adjunct) of avidyA (ignorance). An upAdhi is something that appears to restrict or limit but does not really.

A metaphor that is used to explain this is that of a jar being an upAdhi for the space apparently contained within it. If we have a one-litre jar, then it can clearly only hold one litre of liquid and we might regard the space within it as being similarly limited. But space is really everywhere, totally unaffected by the presence of the jar. If we move the jar a foot to the right, the space that was previously occupied by the jar is now seemingly free but nothing has really changed from the point of view of the space. If you now place a plant pot where the jar has previously been, the space will now seem to be conditioned by the pot.

The jIva is really the Atman but, because of the limiting form of body and mind, it appears to be a separate entity, just as the space appears to be limited by the jar. If the jar should break, the space that previously “occupied” it is found to be quite unaffected. Similarly, on the death of the body, the Atman remains untouched. This way of explaining the nature of the jIva is called avachChedavAda (vAda is a thesis or doctrine; avachCheda literally means “cut off.” It could be called the theory of limitation.) This is the theory held by one of the two traditional schools of Advaita, the bhAmatI school [bhAmatI means “lustrous” and is the word that was applied to the philosopher vAchaspatimishra’s brilliant exposition of Shankara’s commentary on the brahmasUtra-s. The school is also called the vAchaspati school.]

Another metaphor for explaining the jIva was also used by Shankara. This says that avidyA or ignorance acts like a mirror. Who we really are is the Atman but this is only normally seen in the mirror. The essence of the reflection is, of course, the Atman, our true Self. It is not the actual Self but effectively an illusion, just as the image of our body in the mirror is not the actual body. This theory is called pratibimbavAda and is associated with the vivaraNa school of Advaita . pratibimba means a “reflection.” In logic, bimba is the object itself, with the pratibimba being the counterpart with which it is compared. [vivaraNa means “explanation” or “commentary.” This is from the vivaraNa on PadmapAda’s pa~nchapAdikA, produced by prakAshAtmayati in the 13 th century AD. PadmapAda was one of the four principal disciples of Shankara and his book, the pa~nchapAdikA was a commentary on Shankara’s commentary on the first part of the brahma sUtra. It can be understood how, with commentaries upon commentaries stretching through the ages, divergences of interpretation and understanding have developed.]

Advaita Bodha Deepika [Lamp of Non-dual Knowledge], Sri Karapatra Swami translated into English by Sri Ramanananda Saraswathi, Sri Ramanasramam, 2002. Electronically available from

*** The above is extracted from the forthcoming book, ‘Back to the Truth’ now available from ***

Second Definition - Ananda Wood

A 'jIva' is a living person
who expresses consciousness
in acts of body, sense and mind.

Each act is known by consciousness,
whose knowing light illuminates
all acts where it is found expressed.

In every personality,
that consciousness is real self:
the knowing centre of all life
in which it's found to be expressed.

That knowing self remains the same,
through a variety of acts
found to express its changelessness
in differing and changing ways.

It's the expressions that get changed,
while that which gets to be expressed
stays always utterly unchanged
and utterly indifferent.

Where the expressions are confused
with that from which they are expressed,
a living person there appears
mistakenly identified --

as a false ego which is thought
to be at once both changeless self
and changing personality.

This seeming ego (wrongly thought
to be a person in the world)
is a confusion which gets cleared
by turning back to knowing self,
from where all changing acts are known.

Return to the Contents page for the Terms and Definition.

Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012