Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

upadesha sAhasrI part 16

Understanding the ‘I’ Taught by Scriptures


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Read Part 15 of the series...

Atma-anatma mix-up must be sorted out.

The essential teaching revealed in the Upanishads (Vedanta) is that “I,” the individual Self (Atma), am the eternal and infinite Brahman.  Sankaracharya presents only this teaching in Upadesa Sahasri with guidelines on how a seeker can absorb and assimilate the Upanishadic declaration. 

As spiritual seekers, we have no difficulty in understanding and accepting an eternal and infinite Brahman.  However, we are faced with a serious problem when the Upanishads say, “You are that eternal and infinite Brahman.

It is difficult to accept and absorb this message as in day-to-day experiences we are painfully aware of our mortality, limitation, finitude at physical, emotional and intellectual levels, vulnerability to grief and sorrow (all of which are collectively referred to as samsara or bondage). 

Does this mean that the revelation of Vedanta is meaningless? It cannot be so as the Vedas do not say anything meaningless.  The fact that this teaching (tat tvam asi) has been repeated nine times in Chandogya Upanishad and similar revelations are found in other Upanishads makes it clear that it is a statement made with all seriousness and conviction intended as the main teaching (tatparya vakyam).  How can we reconcile the scriptural teachings and our contradictory worldly experiences? 

A Different Idea

The only possibility is that the Upanishads must have a different idea when the expression “I” (or “Tat”) is used in the maha vakyam, Aham Brahmasmi (or tat tvam asi) from what is normally meant by us when we use it for our worldly transactions.  To eliminate this communication gap, we have to look at the Veda’s intention (vivaksha) in the use of “you” (tvam), which is totally different from what we mean when we say “I” (aham).

We need to attempt an analysis of “I,” the individual (tvam pada vichara). Scriptures say that this “I” is the mixture of Atma (the real Self) and anatma (ahankara) (comprising the body-mind complex).  In normal vyavahara, we use “I” as anatma, whereas the Upanishads have Atma in their intent when they refer to “you.” 

Further, the scriptures reveal Atma as Pure Consciousness which is not part/property/product of the body but is an independent entity pervading and illumining the body.  It is not bound by the boundaries of the body and survives even after the body falls. Thus, Atma is eternal and all-pervading by definition.

The Difference

Everything other than Atma (Pure Consciousness) in the creation observed by us (the external world and our own body-mind-sense complex) is called anatma.  The scriptures also teach that while Atma is non-material, sentient, beyond sense perception, free from attributes and not subject to arrival and departure, anatma  is made up of matter (bhoutikatvam), inert (jadam), available for sense perception, full of attributes and subject to arrival and departure.

In order that the Vedantic revelation becomes meaningful and relevant, we must learn to interpret the “I” we use as Atma by properly sorting out the Atma–anatma mixture.  I also must understand that, really speaking, I am not anatma.  I must claim that I am Atma pervading and illumining the entire anatma prapancha, including the body-mind complex, and I am not limited by either of them and that I will survive the fall of the body.

To facilitate this separation of Atma from anatma and to help us claim our higher and real status as Atma, the scriptures and the Acharyas in the tradition have suggested several techniques, such as drk/drisya viveka, panchakosa viveka, avastha trya viveka,  which have been dealt with in the earlier chapters.

The logic inherent in all these methods is that ‘I am different from what I experience’.  While this logic can be easily applied in the case of the external world and the physical body, we encounter difficulty in applying it to the mind, whose status as an object is obscured as we use the mind as an instrument also.

In the 14th Chapter titled Svapna smriti Prakaranam (topic of dream and memory) the author provides one more method to separate Atma from ahankara using our dream and memory experiences, where the mind is clearly evident as an object of perception. 

This chapter has 50 verses and can be divided into two portions, Atma anatma viveka (verses 1 to 10 and 41 to 50) and Atma Brahma identity (Atma Brahma aikyam) (verses 11 to 40). Both topics are important because without Atma anatma viveka, Atma Brahma aikyam is not possible.  The reason is that when I take myself to be the ahankara, I cannot obviously claim immortality or infinitude.  I should, therefore, identify with Atma if I want to be eternal and infinite, which is what the scriptures promise. 

Otherwise, I will be subject to all problems of bondage, such as mortality, location, finitude, grief and sorrow. Therefore, I need to sort out Atma from the mixture. For this purpose Atma anatma viveka is essential. 

Atma Anatma Viveka

The author presents in Verses 1 to 10 and 41 to 50 a different way to sort out Atma from ahankara. He draws our attention to a special feature of ahankara (mind).  While consciousness illumines the mind directly, it has to depend on the mind to illumine the external world. 

Therefore, in illumination of the world mind serves as an instrument.  Examining the process of dream and memory, the author comes up with the finding that in both these, the mind is an object.  Whatever one experiences in dream are only mental projections and there are no objects in dreams other than the mind. It is the same in memory, where mind alone is the object, the only difference being memory happens in the waking state (jagrat avastha), while dream occurs during sleep state (sushupti avastha).

While in the sleep state the mind is totally resolved, it is an object in dream state (in the absence of the waker, external world and waker’s body).  In the waking state, the mind is both an object and instrument.  While we have no difficulty in understanding the object status of the mind in dream as well as in memory, we have a problem in the waking state as the mind serves also as an instrument of knowledge or experience. 

The instrument status of the mind is so prominent that it makes us lose sight of the object status of the mind.  It is just like when you are wearing spectacles you count all objects you see but you miss the spectacles themselves and do not include it in your enumeration and counting. The dream/memory experience helps us to recognise mind as an object in jagrat avasta also. 

This is very important as I can easily negate whatever is an object of my experience as being different from me.  The author goes on to make the point that whether the mind is an object or an object-cum-instrument, I, Atma, am different from the mind.  I, Atma, am, of course, different from the body or external world which are easily recognised as objects of my experience.

Atma Brahma Aikyam

The author highlights in Verses 11 to 40 several features of Atma to help us appreciate Atma Brahma identity.  These features are:

  • As consciousness, I (Atma) am illumining everything in the creation by my mere presence without undergoing any change.  I illumine the mind directly and (through the mind) the physical body and the external world.  I alone illumine the absence of mind in sleep, the mind in the dream, the mind, physical body and the external world in the waking state.  Thus, I am witness of all the three states (avastha traya sakshi).
  • I (Atma), as the illuminator, am the same behind all the bodies and minds.  Thus, I am without a second (non-dual) (advayam).
  • I, the Witness Consciousness Atma, am the eternal (nityam) illuminator.  What I illumine may vary but that I illumine everything remains unchanged.  The objects I illumine may come and go but I remain invariable and uniformly available without arrival or departure.  Thus, I am immortal as sakshi but as ahankara I accept mortality.
  • I am all pervading (sarvagatam) like space.
  • I am free from change or modification (nirvikara) as, being a witness, I illumine and experience the creation without undergoing any change. 
  • I am free from any association (asangam) as I am without a second, though I pervade the entire anatma prapancha like space or light.
  • I am pure (suddham) unlike the physical body which is subject to hunger, thirst, old age and death or the subtle body which is subject to likes and dislikes and grief and delusion or the causal body afflicted by ignorance and doubt.
  • As sakshi I am free from actions (akarta) and, therefore, free from results of action (abhokta).
  • Because of all the above factors, I am identical with Brahman, which has been defined by scriptures as endowed with all the above glories. 

As the mind’s status as an object can be clearly determined only by an analysis of our dream/memory experience, the chapter is titled  Svapna Smriti Prakaranam.

Read Part 17 of the series...

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



Page last updated: 18-Feb-2014