Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

upadesha sAhasrI part 14

Atma and Anatma: Distinguishing Differences


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Read Part 13 of the series...

Dropping the identification with ahankara is liberation.

In the previous issue, the universal problem of mixing up Atma and anatma was presented, along with a brief analysis of how Atma differs from anatma, to help a seeker discriminate between  Atma and anatma (Atma-anatma vichara).

An inquiry into the nature of Atma based on the well-known Vedantic law that all experienced attributes belong to experienced objects was also presented.

Difference in Illumination

As a further step in  sorting out Atma from ahankara, Adi Sankaracharya points out some  more distinguishing features between Atma (drashta) and ahankara (drashta ahasa) 
(i) Atma
is an illuminator by its very nature (drashta svarupavan). Ahankara, on the other hand, illuminates things by a process of thought modification (vritti parinamam) and, therefore, it is called Drishti vyaparavan.
(ii) Atma illumines everything by its mere presence, without any will or deliberate action.  Therefore, it does not undergo any change and is free from modification (nirvikara drashta).  Ahankara’s illumination involves a lot of action and, therefore, its illumination is subject to constant changes (savikara drashta). 
(iii) Atma
illumines the material world, including ahankara,  without requiring any medium and, therefore,  it is known as karana nirapeksha drashta. On the other hand, ahankara can be an illuminator only through a medium, either in the form of thought modification or sense organs of knowledge (jnana indriyas), and is therefore known as karana apeksha drashta. 
(iv) Atma
is a permanent illuminator (nitya drashta) illumining both the active ahankara (available in the waking and dream states) and the passive ahankara (in deep sleep).  The phenomenon of Atma illumining the passive mind in deep sleep is evidenced by the recollection on waking up that ahankara  was passive in sleep.  Ahankara’s illumination, however, is not permanent.  It is available only in waking and dream states and totally folded in deep sleep and, therefore, ahankara is called anitya drashta. 
(v) Atma
can directly illumine only the ahankara which, in turn, with borrowed illumination,  illumines the external world. Thus, Atma is called mano drashta.  Ahankara, which illumines the world with reflected consciousness (chidabhasa), is, therefore, called prapancha drashta. 
 Atma and anatma are physically inseparable, as Atma is all-pervading and is, therefore, in and through everything including ahankara. Atma  as the karanam (cause) will inhere in its product (karyam), anatma.

An Intellectual Process

The separation has to be a purely intellectual process by way of Sastra vichara under the guidance of a competent acharya.  The scriptural study will make it clear that (i) the conventional or primary meaning (vachyartha) of “I” is the constantly changing ahankara which perceives the external world, is temporary and is my incidental nature, and (ii) the implied meaning (lakshyartha), as revealed by scriptures, of “I” is the Atma (Drashta or sakshi) as the changeless witness of ahankara  and is my intrinsic nature. 

The author says that once we sort out Atma from ahankara on the strength of the Upanishadic revelation and reasoning as taught to us by the teacher, and claim Atma as our real nature, we will be liberated and become free from samsara.  From the standpoint of ahankara, we will be ever bound but as Atma, we are ever free.  However, to claim our Atma status we need to use ahankara,  which must have been already purified and fine-tuned by sadhanas, such as karma yoga and upasana yoga, to accept the vedantic teaching.

The ideas set out in the foregoing paragraphs (also in the last issue) have been extracted from the 19 verses of the 12th chapter of Upadesa Sahasri which has been titled Prakasa Prakaranam as the self-luminous nature of the drashta has been brought to the fore.  The verses are tersely worded and a mere translation will not convey the author’s intended import.  Verses 1 to 6 present the universal problem of the mixing up of Atma and ahankara and the factors responsible therefor. 

The well-known example of the tenth man (dasama purusha drishtanta) is presented in this portion to bring out the erroneous identification with ahankara and the superimposition of the attributes of ahankara  (like pain, etc) on the Atma.

There is also a reference in this portion to the apparent contradiction of the commandments relating to vaidika karmas in the karma kanda and the revelation of one’s nature as the actionless Brahman in the Jnana kanda.

This contradiction is reconciled to understanding that one has to initially  perform karmas for gaining jnana yogyata (qualification for pursuit of Self-knowledge) and that once jnanam is gained the notion of kartrutvam (doership) is automatically given up. 

Any combination of karma and jnanam (jnana karma samuchchaya) has also been negated.  The remedy in the form of mahavakya (Tat tvam asi) for correcting the error of identifying with ahankara has also been hinted at in this portion. 

From Verses 7 to 19, the essential and unique characteristics of Atma (drashta) as contrasted with the attributes of ahankara (as explained in detail in paragraphs 3 to 7 above ) have been discussed. 

A couple of highly technical questions have also been discussed in these verses.  One is that Atma (drashta)  being self-evident, how can gaining of Self-knowledge be talked about?  This is answered by saying that claiming one’s real status as Atma by dropping the identification with ahankara alone is figuratively called Self-knowledge, which is not gained as an event in time.  In fact, the wise person does not even claim that he is a knower of the Self  (jnani status).

The other point which is clarified is that notions of sentience and inertness are themselves relevant only from ahankara perception, while Atma is pure knowledge by its very nature.  Also, being Pure Consciousness and being self-evident, notions of knowledge and ignorance talked about at the objective level do not relate to Atma  at all. 

Can Atma Know Itself?

There is also a question whether Atma can know itself.  There is a school of thought that in samadhi avastha  the Sakshi (Atma) knows itself.   This is refuted by Vedanta, as this will make Atma an object of knowledge which contradicts the Atma’s  aprameya status as defined in the scriptures. 

Also, the subject and object can never co-exist in the same locus.  Fortunately, Atma  need not and cannot know itself  being ever self-evident.  The relevance  and limitations of  performance of Vedic rituals and essential nature of Atma as akarta (non-dual) have been specifically addressed  in Verse 18. 

The chapter is concluded in Verse 19 with a declaration that I am changeless, motionless, pure, free from old age, ever liberated and non-dual.

Read Part 15 of the series...

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



Page last updated: 28-Nov-2013