Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

'sAkShin' or the 'witness'

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Definition - Ananda Wood

In Advaita philosophy, our perceptions of the world are considered objectively, as part of an objective world which is perceived through them.

This world is taken to include our bodies, our senses and our minds -- as changing instruments which act in the world. These instruments make up our personalities. And, as they act in their containing world, they produce a succession of perceived and thought and felt appearances, which come and go in each of our minds.

But how is this succession known? It's known through passing states of mind, whose limited attention keeps on turning from one changing appearance to another. Here, in the mind, each passing state brings an appearance which replaces past appearances and which is then replaced in turn.

To know that change has taken place, what knows the change must carry on. As mind's appearances get changed, a continued knower must stay present through the coming and the going of these changing appearances.

That knower must stay present silently. It is completely uninvolved with the distraction of noisy appearances, which clamor to replace each other in the mind's attention.

That silent knower is called 'sAkShin' or the 'witness'. It is an impartial witness that remains invariably the same, beyond all change and difference. For it is never in the least affected by any of the differing appearances which come and go before its disinterested witnessing.

That witness is not a changing doer. It does not do anything which changes it in any way. It is just that pure knower whose continued presence is shared in common by us all, beneath all changes and all variety of personality and world.

From there, the world is rightly known, with a complete and impartial objectivity.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.8.11, Yajnyavalkya describes the witness briefly -- as an unchanged observer, beneath all continuity of space and time in changing world. The relevant passage is appended below, with a somewhat free translation.

tad vA etad akSharam gArgI
adRRiShTam draShTRRi, ashrutam shrotRRi,
amatam mantRRi, avij~nAtaM vij~nAtRRi;
nAnyad ato 'sti draShTRRi, nAnyad ato 'sti shrotRRi,
nAnyad ato 'sti mantRRi, nAnyad ato 'sti vij~nAtRRi;
etasmin nu khalv akShare gArgI
AkAsha otash cha protash ca.

[This, Gargi, is just that which is not changed.
It is not seen, but is the see-er.
It is not heard, but is the hearer.
It is not thought, but is the thinker.
It is not known, but is the knower.
Apart from it, there is no see-er.
Apart from it, there is no hearer.
Apart from it, there is no thinker.
Apart from it, there is no knower.
Gargi, in this alone which is not changed,
all space and time are woven, warp and woof.]


The witness is of course not truth itself, but a concept that is used to point towards truth. If a sAdhaka follows where this concept points, the concept is left behind and finally disappears.

Viewed by reflecting back from mind, the witness is conceived as a changeless knower, which knows a succession of changing states that come and go. But when the mind reflects completely back to this changeless knower, it turns out that the knower is itself the true reality of each passing state. So, in knowing these states, the knower only knows itself.

What was approached as the 'witness' is thus realized to be a self-illuminating reality whose very being shines with knowing light. In that realization, the 'witness' concept is completely dissolved in a non-dual self.

What the witness concept does is to provoke the mind into asking questions that reflect it back into its truly knowing self. But when the mind gets reflected all the way back, it completely disappears along with all the objects it has conceived.

Accordingly, the witness is a conceptual limit that the mind approaches, by removing what is found to change from this mind's idea of itself. As more and more of the changing mind is removed from its idea of itself, the mind approaches closer and closer to its true self.

So long as anything that changes remains, the mind must look questioningly back to a changeless witness at the final limit of the changing mind. On getting closer and closer to that witness, the mind gets closer to changelessness and to the absence of all changing things.

In that borderland near to the final limit, the mind may get stuck in a sense of listless and hopeless nothingness. Tennyson describes this somewhat mythically, but rather beautifully, in his poem "Tithonus":

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-haired shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn....

Tithonus is here speaking to the Goddess of Dawn, with whom he has had a love affair. As a result of that affair, she has granted him a boon of immortality, but not of the eternal youth that he forgot to ask for. I take the whole poem as describing an unpleasant aftermath of visionary or mystic exaltation, leaving poor Tithonus badly stuck and wasting away "here at the quiet limit of the world". He's stuck of course because he hasn't actually reached that limit, but stays teetering a little distance still away from it. That distance is an immeasurable gulf which still remains to be leapt across.

When the leap is made and the witness is finally reached, all world and mind and witnessing are found dissolved in knowing truth.

Advaita reasoning is thus directed back paradoxically, to a supporting truth from which no supported mind or world can truly be recovered.


Note from Dhyanasaraswati

Swami Ranganathanada speaks of the sAkShin in reference to the Bhagavad Gita , 2-29:

'When Sri Krishna tells Arjuna that the true Self of man is unborn, immortal, and eternal, he is referring to this sAkShin (vide Gita 2- 16, 13-22, 15-10, 18-17).

The Gita conceives Reality as that which never changes. The ego, being subject to change, is unreal; so also are all its objects. Hence Sri Krishna asks Arjuna to transcend the dualities of experience like heat and cold, pain and pleasure, and identify himself with the permanent and unchanging Being, the sAkShin (witness).

The sAkShin being the ultimate subject or observer, the difficulty of comprehending it truly is well expressed by Sri Krishna thus:

"Some look upon this Self as marvelous; others speak about It as wonderful; others again hear of It as a wonder. And still others, though hearing, do not understand It at all." '

(From )

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012