Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

upadesha sAhasrI part 13

Atma Enjoys Its Own Sentiency


Tattvaloka cover image


Read Part 12 of the series...

Body-mind complex is not the original seer. Mind experiences the world with borrowed consciousness.

Sri Sankaracharya has highlighted in the earlier chapters of the text the central vedantic teaching, which is the revelation of the fact that Jivatma and Paramatma are essentially identical.  The scriptures present this teaching in the form of the well-known mahavakyas--Tat tvam asi, Aham brahmasmi, Prajnanam Brahma and Ayam Atma Brahma.  This knowledge of  Jivatma’s oneness with Paramatma is called Self-knowledge (Atma Jnanam).  This knowledge can be gained only from a competent guru who will provide guidance to analyse and understand the purport of the mahavakyas.

However, when the teacher conveys the Vedantic revelation, Aham Brahmasmi (“I am Brahman”), the student finds it difficult to absorb the teaching due to a gap in communication, arising out of differing interpretations of the expression “Aham” (“I”) as conveyed by the teacher and as understood by the student.  While the teacher has in his mind the meaning of  ‘I’ as Atma, the student takes the “I” to be his body-mind complex, a commonly understood interpretation. 

Thus, when the teacher says “I am Brahman,” there is no contradiction because the scriptures have already revealed that Atma and Brahman are only two different terms to indicate one essential Truth.  However, at the level of the student, the statement is full of contradictions as from the standpoint of body-mind complex one cannot obviously equate “I” with Brahman.

Understanding Atma

The “I” notion held by the student is technically known as ahankara (which is a mixture of the mind and Atma). To accept the teaching of the guru, the student has to sort out  Atma from ahankara.  As ahankara and Atma are intimately associated at the body-mind complex level and as it is impossible to separate one from the other physically, what is needed is to intellectually separate Atma from ahankara  and to claim one’s real nature as Atma. 

Adi Sankaracharya helps the student in Chapters XI and XII to effectively do the sorting out.  While the ideas contained in Chapter XI have been dealt with in the previous two articles, an attempt is being made to summarise the contents of Chapter XII in the following paragraphs.

The Difference

Atma is defined by scriptures as self-luminous and self-evident and all pervading Consciousness, in whose presence things become evident and are experienced. Sankaracharya refers to Atma as Drashta in line with the expression used in Brahadaranyaka Upanishad to describe Atma. Ahankara, on the other hand, being the conscious mind which is by nature inert and does not enjoy any natural illumination, but borrows consciousness from Atma and with this borrowed consciousness experiences the world, is, therefore, called by the author as drashtra abhasa (reflected consciousness).

In arriving at the correct notion of “I,” we need to use one basic law of Vedanta that I am different from whatever I experience. Applying this law, it can be seen that I am different from everything in the creation which I experience in one form or other, such as the external world, my own body, mind, etc.

I am always the subject and never the object. I am, therefore, called the seer (Drk) and whatever I experience is known as seen (Drisyam). Based on this analysis, we can deduce certain important differences between “I” the Atma (Drk) and the rest of the creation (anatma or drisyam), such as (i) seer and seen; (ii) sentient (chetana) and inert (jadam); (iii) changeless (nirvikara) and subject to change (savikara) and (iv) real (satyam) and unreal (mithya).

Atma is ever the seer (experiencer) and the entire anatma prapancham is always the seen (experienced). It is true that the mind (ahankara) also experiences the world but it does so with consciousness borrowed from Atma and as being experienced by me, the Atma. It is also seen (Drisyam) and, therefore, it cannot be taken as an original seer.

While Atma enjoys sentiency of its own, the external world and the body-mind complex, though appearing to be sentient, are basically inert, born of the five elements, but are endowed with sentiency borrowed from Atma.

As illumination by Atma of the external world and the body-mind complex happens by its mere presence (Sannidhya Matrena) and no action is involved, Atma is free from any change and is uniformly luminous. Our experience reveals the obvious fact of constant changes in the external world and the body-mind complex.

Finally, as the entire creation is a product (karyam) of Atma (karanam), it cannot exist separately from Atma and, therefore, cannot be counted as a second entity. Therefore, anatma has to be considered unreal (technically called mithya) and Atma is the only reality.

Atma Is Non-dual

Once it is ascertained that I am Atma different from anatma, an enquiry into the nature of Atma can be made. For this, the author introduces the second Vedantic law, which says that all the experienced attributes belong only to the experienced objects and not to the experiencer, the subject.

Applying this law, we can see that while Atma is free from all attributes (nirguna), anatma is endowed with endless attributes (saguna). It follows, therefore, that Atma is formless (aroopam), infinite (anantam) and, therefore, only non-dual or without a second (ekaha).

Read Part 14 of the series...

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



Page last updated: 29-Oct-2013