Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

upadesha sAhasrI part 22

Atma Jnanam, Antidote to Ignorance


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Read Part 21 of the series...

Student should shift focus to implied meaning of ‘I’.

Upadesa Sahasri reveals  in all its 19 chapters the essential Vedantic teaching of Jivatma-Paramatma aikyam (identity).  The scriptures convey this teaching through mahavakyams (statements revealing the oneness of I, the individual Self, and Brahman, the Supreme Self).  These are also called Jivatma-Paramatma aikya  bodhaka vakyams. 

The mahavakyam, Tat tvam asi, is extensively discussed in this book, Chapter 18 in particular.  Tat refers to Isvara  (Brahman, Paramatma), and tvam to I (the individual, jivatma). Asi signifies oneness or identity of tat and tvam.

Generally, while introducing the Mahavakya, the seeker has  no problem in accepting the explanation of the nature of Isvara, such as omnipotence, omniscience, all-pervading, free from attributes,   because he has no prior concept of Isvara and, given the sraddha in his guru and Sastra vakyam, he will have no difficulty in absorbing the teaching.  

However, with regard to tvam pada, the position is different.  Tvam Pada stands for  Jivatma , commonly understood as “I.”  Even before coming to Vedanta he has built up his own notions about “I” (Tvam pada), such as“I am an individual having various kinds of relationships with people,  objects and situations in the external world; I am limited, mortal, subject to experience of pleasure, pain.”

Totally Incorrect

All these notions are totally incorrect, according to the scriptures.  Sruti reveals that “I” (Tvam Pada) am non-different from Brahman, ever free, eternal, pure, of the nature of consciousness, unattached, free from action and results, etc.  Therefore, it will be difficult intellectually for a seeker with strong misconceptions to accept the Vedantic teaching and interpretations of “I.”  Thus, the resistance to mahavakya content is considerable.

Therefore,  to avail of the benefit of the mahavakya revelation one must clearly gain a correct idea about “I” (Tvam Pada).  We learn that what we call and own up as “I” really comprises three parts, the mind (antah karanam), reflected consciousness (chidabhasa) and original consciousness (Chaitanyam or Sakshi).  While sruti  (mahavakya) has sakshi as the purport of “I” (Tvam Pada), the ignorant seeker considers “I” as mind, with reflected consciousness (otherwise known as ahankara). 

Thus, there is a need for him  to shift from ahankara  to Sakshi and identify himself with Sakshi to absorb the revelation of the mahavakya.  In other words, the student should shift his focus to the implied meaning of “I” (Tvam pada lakshyartha) from the primary or direct meaning (Tvam Pada vakyartha or Ahankara).

This is the biggest sadhana in Vedanta. Once it has been successfully completed, the seeker will have no difficulty in accepting the mahavakya conclusion that “I” the Sakshi Chaitanyam (Jivatma), am Brahman (Paramatma). 

Other topics are also discussed elaborately in the scriptures, such as srishti prakaranam, sarira-traya viveka, avastha-traya viveka, pancha kosa viveka, drk-drishya viveka, etc., which are meant only to bring home the main teaching of Jivatma-Paramatma aikyam.  The entire process of sravanam, mananam and nididhyasanam will have as its main focus only the ahankara-sakshi viveka (sorting out Atma from  ahankara).

Therefore, Upadesa Sahasri text is mainly devoted to ahankara-sakshi-viveka, and discussion of Tvam pada is predominant, there being no significant elaboration on Tat pada in the absence of any misconceptions related thereto.  All the 19 chapters in the text with a total of 675 verses are so designed that each one is wholesome and can be independently studied without reference to earlier or later chapters.  However, it is a Tvam pada vichara pradhana text. 

Atma-Mind Dialogue

The 19th and concluding chapter is  relatively small, with only 28 verses, and is titled Atma-Mana Samvada Prakaranam.  The chapter is in the form of a dialogue between “I,” Atma, and my own mind.  Here Atma cannot be taken literally as sat-chit-ananda Atma, as it is by itself non-dual and unattached (asanga).  What is to be understood is that “I,” the individual, am, as it were, standing aloof from my own mind, as a witness would do, and using the mind as instrument and addressing the same mind as an object. 

This chapter is also called trishna jvara nasa prakaranam (topic of curing the fever of desire) based on the expression, trishna jvara nasa karanam occurring in the very first verse. 

All ignorant people suffer, as though from a fever caused by desires, because of which they feel distressed, restless, incomplete and ill at ease with themselves.  Atma Jnanam is presented along with vairagyam as the medicine for this fever and hence this title.  There is a third title by way of bheshaja prayoga prakaranam (Atma Jnanam being employed as medicine to cure desire and the consequent restlessness).

The entire dialogue is a form of nididhyasanam, where one dwells on various  aspects of the Vedantic teaching already dealt with in the earlier chapters.  For convenience of study, the chapter can be divided into four portions as follows:      

(1)   Dwelling on the features of Self (Atma rupa chintanam).  This is elaborately done in Verses 1 to 11 in the form of a dialogue with the mind recalling the characteristics of Atma with a refrain that the mind has no role in improving the condition of Atma and that it may remain quiet and not take any wasteful efforts to better my lot. 

This also negates the Sankhya view that prakriti (anatma) assists Purusha (Atma) to become free.  The basic purpose of the dialogue is to bring into focus the sorting out of Atma from anatma .  Mind, being the most subtle and difficult part of anatma to be negated, has been highlighted but it includes the entire anatma prapancha. 

The features of Atma dwelt upon in this portion include freedom from modification or change (nirvikaratvam), infinite and wholesome (purnatvam), freedom from action (akartrutvam), freedom from results of action (abhoktrutvam), eternal liberation (nitya muktatvam) and freedom from notions of ’me’ and ‘mine.’ (ahankara, mamakara, rahitvatvam).

This portion of the dialogue also makes it clear that we do not use Vedanta to improve the condition of the mind or ahankara or to change the external set-up (anatma prapancha).

Ahankara will always have some problem or other. The physical body is vulnerable to problems, such as sickness, old age, hunger and thirst. Mind is subject to emotional and intellectual problems in the form of grief, depression, frustration, confusion, ignorance and doubt, and constant modification in its conditions because of the operation of the three gunas (sattva, rajas, tamas).

Problems caused by prarabdha cannot be totally controlled by us. While we can remedy some of these, there will be many beyond our control and free will. 

Thus, any improvement in ahankara  by Vedanta can only be a by-product, as with a relatively quiet mind (the benefit of Vedantic teaching) we can experience a higher degree of mental peace.  Therefore, Vedanta wants us to clearly understand that we are different from ahankara and free from all its problems. 

Thus, in nididhyasanam we need to be totally objective and all the time focus on the fact that we are not ahankara and that we cannot expect ahankara to be totally problem-free. 

(2)   Appreciation of the fact that “I” am the real substratum (satya adhishthanam) behind the entire universe.  Verses 12 to 18 highlight the Vedantic message that “I,” Atma am the eternal truth behind the entire phenomenal universe.  I am not enclosed in the body alone but I abide as the permanent and real substratum in all beings and things in the creation.

Here Sankaracharya negates the sunya vada of Buddhism,  which considers everything including the adhishthanam as void  as it cannot be objectified by pointing out that while Atma is not available for objectification, its existence cannot be questioned as there has to be witness to the blankness (sunyatvam) postulated by this  school. 

(3)   The unreality of the objective world of experience (anatma or jagat mithyatvam).

In verses 19 to 24 the dialogue dwells on the unreality of the objective universe (anatma prapancha, which includes the external world, the body and mind, being objects of my experience).  The anatma prapancha is experientially available but does not have a real existence of its own.  

From the standpoint of Atma, anatma prapancha is unreal as it is a mere name and form (nama rupa) though from the perspective of anatma itself all its constituents enjoy relative reality.  In my higher vision as the Turiya Atma, the external world, body and mind are not real and do not have an existence separate from me.  The unreality of the creation is substantiated even by modern science, which holds that matter cannot be created or destroyed. 

There are, of course, several sruti statements to support this conclusion, like the famous Chandogya Upanishad,  “vacharambhanam vikara namadheyam” (the world enjoys only verbal existence as mere name and form).  The point to be noted is that an unreal anatma cannot improve my condition at all.  Thus. the mind is addressed in the dialogue not to make any efforts in this direction.  In this portion Sankaracharya negates the nyaya/vaiseshika  contention that anatma prapancha is also real. 

4. Benefit of Atma Jnanam and Conclusion: Verses 24 to 28.

The primary benefit of Self-knowledge is presented as enabling us to see the fact that we were, are and will ever be free and that liberation is not an event in the future but a fact which obtains all the time.  Thus, the end of Moksha expectation is the main benefit, as I understand that Moksha is my real nature (svarupa) and that it need not “come.” 

The secondary or incidental benefit  is the enjoyment of a higher quality of mental peace and tranquillity, as for example described elaborately in the Chapters 2,12 and 14 of the Gita by way of sthita prajna, para bhakti and gunateeta lakshanam (commonly understood as jivan mukti).

The other secondary benefit is that the wise person after the fall of his physical body will not have rebirth and this freedom from punarjanma is known as videha mukti.  These descriptions are related to the quality of the mind of a living jnani and dissolution of the mind at the time of a jnani’s death, respectively.  From the Atma angle, however, the wise person is a nitya mukta. 

The series is now concluded

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



Page last updated: 06-Oct-2014