Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

upadesha sAhasrI part 11

ATMA—Witness Consciousness


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Read Part 10 of the series...

It is free of all attributes and actions

The eleventh chapter of Upadesa Sahasri is titled Ikshitrutva Prakaranam or Sakshitva Vishaya Prakaranam (the topic of Atma being the Witness Consciousness).

Two important topics are discussed by Adi Sankara in this chapter of 16 verses. One is in respect of the Self being revealed as the witness of everything (Atmanaha sarva sakshitvam). Sakshi means witness. Sarva Sakshi means that the Self is witness of everything, comprising both the external world and the entire body-mind complex (made up of gross and subtle body which includes the mind).

If the Self (Atma) is called Sakshi, everything that is witnessed is called Sakshyam (sarvasya sakshyam anatmanah sakshi Atma). The general principle is that the witness is always different from what is experienced. Thus the witness can never be the experienced object. In other words, Sakshi can never be Sakshyam.

No Perceptions

There is another universal law in terms of which all experienced attributes belong to the experienced object alone (either external or internal).  Based on these two principles, it can be concluded that ‘I’ the Self (sakshi) am different from the world (jagat), body (sariram) and mind (manaha).  All the properties (gunas) experienced by the jiva, in terms of sensory perceptions as well as emotional perceptions (likes, dislikes, happiness, grief) do not belong to  the Sakshi.  Thus, ‘I’ the Self (Atma) am free from all attributes (Atma nirviseshaha or nirgunaha).  

 Modification (vikara) is another property experienced by the jiva in every anatma (the external world and the body-mind complex).  But this vikara does not belong to the witness.  Therefore, ‘I,’ the sakshi, am free from modification (sakshi nirvikaraka).  Thus, Atma is a witness of everything without undergoing any change.  Therefore activities, such as walking and talking,  do not belong to the sakshi.

Thus, Atma is not a doer (Atma akarta), as any action involves vikara and as Atma has been established as nirvikara.  Atma by its mere nature is illumining everything and not by any deliberate action (Atma svaprakasa chaitanyam sannidhya matrena sarvam prakasayati).  All the above features of Atma are revealed in the Upanishads and the author is primarily relying on the various mantras mainly drawn from the Brihadaranyakopanishad (and in particular Ajatasatru Brahmanam, Svayamjoti Brahmanam, Akshara Brahmanam, Maitreyi Brahmanam, and Murta-Amurta Brahmanam). 

Assistance Not Needed

The second topic discussed in this chapter is that Self-knowledge (Atma Jnanam) is the only means for liberation and does not need the assistance of any other sadhana, such as  karma or Upasana (unlike in the karma kanda where mere knowledge is not sufficient but it has to be followed by action).  Liberation is generally understood as freedom from samsara in the form of kartrutvam (doership) and bhoktrutvam (enjoyership).  Atma, however, has only  Sakshitvam or Ikshitrutvam and is always free from kartrutvam and  bhoktrutvam, both of which belong only to the body-mind complex (anatma). 

Though the mind by itself is inert (jadam), in the presence of the Witness Consciousness it  is not only illumined but also borrows consciousness from Atma in the form of chidabhasa (reflected consciousness).  It thus becomes a karta/bhokta/pramata (knower).  This karta/bhokta/pramata mind alone is known as ahankara, to whom only kartrutvam, bhoktrutvam and pramatrutvam belong.  However, due to the proximity of the Sakshi and ahankara, the attributes of the latter are erroneously superimposed on the former.

As these attributes are experienced only in the waking and dream states and are totally resolved in deep sleep state, Sakshitvam alone is my original and intrinsic nature, not being subject to arrival or departure as Atma alone exists in all the three states.  Thus, freedom from samsara is its very nature and, therefore, I do not have to do any action for liberation.  All that is needed is Self-knowledge. 

The topic of Atma sakshitvam is introduced by the author in the first verse, where he says that all human beings are by nature endowed with sakshitvam (status of witness).  It is only because of ignorance that human beings are taken to be otherwise.  All the superimpositions, such as kartrutvam, bhoktrutvam, and limitations of various kinds are removed by the Vedantic teaching in the form of the mahavakya tat tvam asi.” 

Status of Witness

The topic of Self-knowledge being the only means of liberation is introduced in the second verse.  As explained in the previous verse, other than gaining knowledge through mahavakya vichara nothing else is necessary for liberation.  As bondage is the result of ignorance, knowledge alone can be the means of liberation, being capable of removing ignorance.

Sankaracharya quotes in support of this conclusion the famous mantra from Maitreyi Brahmanam of Brahadaranyakopanishad, yetavadhi amrutatvam” (knowledge alone is the means for immortality).  The author feels it is necessary to establish this idea in order to refute what is known as jnana-karma samucchaya vada. 

From verses 3 to 13, the author elaborates the idea of Atma sakshitvam introduced in the first verse.  A broad summary of the author’s detailed exposition of this teaching is presented hereafter. 

‘I’ the sakshi am the witness of the thought modifications in all minds.  As I am free from any change, I am also devoid of any property attributes, such as doership or knowership.

As the Witness Consciousness principle, I illumine by my mere presence the mind directly and through the mind illumine the world indirectly.  This is because the mind, being more subtle, has the capacity to reflect consciousness--unlike the external world of objects which are gross and totally inert. 

Witness of Mind

I am the witness of the mind and its functions both in the waking and dream states.  In deep sleep state, the mind and its functions are resolved, but I remain as Pure Consciousness, all-pervading (because even space and time get resolved in deep sleep) and changeless.  Thus, “witnessing” does not involve any deliberate action on my part, but in my presence the mind undergoes all experiences in both the waking and dream states.

That the mind is an object is clearly perceived if we analyse our dream experiences which are nothing but projections of the mind, while in the waking state where the external world is experienced by the mind, we tend to miss the perception of the mind also being experienced as an object.  Even in the waking state, we can see the mind as an object when we talk about the condition of the mind such as “my mind is disturbed/happy, etc.”

Non-duality of Self

The non-duality of the Self (Atmanaha advitiyam) is another aspect highlighted by the author.  This becomes necessary because it has been mentioned earlier that the sakshi is the witness of the mind and its thoughts and through the mind the experiences of the external world leading to duality in the form of the experiencer and the experienced world.  Therefore, the author declares that the entire sakshya prapancha is unreal (mithya) and cannot be counted.  This is illustrated by the example of dream experiences which are negated on waking up. 

Thus, experience, utility, good order, etc., cannot be accepted as arguments for establishing reality.  Just as the dream world does not exist separate from the waker, the jagrat prapancha is not different from me the sakshi.  However, the jagrat prapancha would appear to be real as long as there is no Self-knowledge.  Thus, the entire sakshya prapancha is mithya and Atma alone is satyam thus establishing non-duality. 

It may be seen that the author has so far (in verses 3 to 5) established that Atma is the witness of everything--Sarvasakshitvam, of the nature of pure consciousness (chinmatratvam), free from  modification (nirvikaratvam), all pervasive (sarvagatatvam) and  non-dual (Advaitatvam) which  implies Atma’s  real status (satyatvam).   

Several other features of  Sakshi, highlighted in this chapter, will be dealt with in the ensuing article.

Read Part 12 of the series...

Compiled by R. B. Athreya from the lectures of Swami Paramarthananda in Chennai.



Page last updated: 11-Jul-2013