Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

upadesha sAhasrI part 6

Identification with anAtma erroneous


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Read Part 5 of the series...

Intellect alone can remove misconception through Vedantic teaching.

The author had established in the fifth chapter that identification with anatma (non-Self) is the error committed by the intellect, which is responsible for bondage. The process of resolving this error involves the discrimination of the Self (Atma) from the non-Self (anatma).  After successfully sorting out Atma from anatma, one has only to claim himself as the Atma and this alone is hailed as freedom from bondage. The essence of the sixth chapter is this Atma-anatma viveka (discrimination of Self from non-Self).

Our scriptures, comprising the Upanishads and the Gita, provide wholesome guidance in this task of separating Atma from anatma by presenting the essential features of both, as summarised below:


1.Drk--seer or experiencer--subject  Drishyam--object (includes gross, subtle  and  causal bodies sarira trayam)
2.Nirvikara (free from modification)    Savikara (subject to modification)
3.Nirguna (free from attributes) Saguna (subject to attributes) (body, mind and the observed world have attributes) 
4.Chetana (sentient, conscious) Jada (insentient, inert)
5.Satyam (absolute reality or intrinsic existence) Mithya (conditional reality) (dependent, borrowed existence)


3. Whenever we use the expression, ‘I’ in our worldly transactions (vyavahara) it is a mixture of Atma and anatma. This by itself does not lead to bondage but only when we wrongly identify ourselves with the anatma component (amsha) that we become subject to samsara in the form of doership/enjoyership and experience of pleasure and pain. In this chapter, the author wants us to focus on the nirgunatvam of Atma, as opposed to the sagunatvam of anatma, as a part of the analysis of Atma and anatma, leading to discarding the identification with anatma and claiming our real nature as Atma.

The term guna is replaced with vishesha by the author. In order that we are enabled to claim our Atma status, we have to remove all the attributes from the expression ‘I’, and negate these as anatma. As this chapter is devoted to this exercise of removal of attributes (vishesha), it is titled visheshapora prakavanam (negation of attributes). This once again is a brief chapter with only six verses.

Atma Is Nirvisesha

Though our scriptures reveal that as Atma, we are free from all attributes, we erroneously superimpose on ourselves attributes which really belong to anatma. This mistake is made because of the intimate association of Atma and anatma.

Thus, instead of claiming we are nirvisesha (attributeless) we take ourselves to be savisesha (subject to attributes).  The author, therefore, wants to establish that Atma is nirvishesha (free from attributes) (Atma nirvishesha sthapanam).

As part of this exercise, we have to keep the following principles in mind: (i) Subject and object can never be interchanged. In other words, subject is not available for objectification. (I, the knower, am ever the knower and can never be known.)

(ii)   All known attributes belong only to known objects and never to the subject.
(iii) Any attribute is said to be innate or intrinsic if it always remains with the substance.

Applying the above laws, we can ascertain whether Atma has any attributes at all and also to whom the attributes really belong.

Do Not Belong to Atma

6. Vedanta does an analysis of the three states of experience we are all subject to, namely, waking state, dream state and deep sleep state. Certain attributes, such as youth, old age, walking, talking, performing actions, etc. are specific to the waking state. These attributes are also generally experienced during the dream state.

If these attributes are intrinsic to Atma, they must stay with us all the time. But we find that this is not so, as in the deep sleep state all such attributes are absent, while I continue to be present in that state also. Thus, while Atma is invariable and constant all the time, the attributes are only incidental (agantuka). Using the same logic, the attributes belonging to the gross, subtle and causal bodies (sharira trayam) belong only to the respective body and not to Atma.  Thus I am free from all attributes, which belong only to the respective media (aupadhikam).

Sankara’s Reasoning

Sankaracharya, however, gives a different reasoning. He wants us to observe that in the waking state itself (jagrat avastha), the attributes are not permanently present. For instance, an experience like “I am rich (aham dhanavantaha)” is not present always, as one who is presently wealthy may not be so in the future or may not have been so in the past.

The author uses in this chapter the example of “I am one with hand” (aham hastavan). As long as I have the hands I can be called hastavan, but if these are removed, the attributes will cease to be there. This can be extended to all organs of the body and, in fact, the entire body-mind complex. The position will be exactly the same in respect of all attributes based on varna ashrama dharma (such as brahmana,  kshatriya, brahmachari,  sannyasi, etc.) or gender  (purusha, stree). Thus, all attributes are relevant only as long as one identifies with the body-mind complex.

Atma Is Free

In the first verse, Sankaracharya introduces the example of the arm (hand) which has been cut off from one’s body and thrown away. He points out that Atman continues to be there and, therefore, the arm or hand is not an attribute of Atma at all. It is concluded, therefore, that Atma is free from the gross, subtle and causal bodies together with their individual attributes (which had been erroneously superimposed and are only incidental and not intrinsic).

The same idea is further stressed in the second verse, where the author says that as all other attributes related to the body-mind complex are similar to the arm that has been cut off and thrown away. The wise man, who knows that these belong to the non-Self, is always free from all attributes. It is true the ignorant person is also really free from all attributes, but does not know this fact, as he chooses due to ignorance wrongly to claim these as belonging to him.

Another example is given in the third verse to clarify the revelation. The attributes of the body-mind complex are erroneously superimposed on Atma just like the attachments or wealth of ornaments worn by a person being falsely attributed to him or her. Once a person gains the knowledge of Atma, all these attributes are perceived by him as unreal. A wise person may still continue to be confronted by attributes of anatma, but he is clear in his mind that he is always essentially free from attributes (nirvisesha).

Disowning Ahankara

Sankaracharya in the fourth verse  focuses on the seeker learning to disown ahankara (ego) as part of anatma on the same reasoning. The expression, ‘knower’ (jnata) has two parts, one being the ego (relative ‘I’ or ahankara) otherwise known as pramata made up of mind (antakaranam) and reflected consciousness. The other is the witness consciousness (Sakshi Chaitanyam).

The author, therefore, makes the point that one should claim the sakshi part, which alone is free from all attributes (nirvisesha), rejecting the ahankara (pramata) part, as it is part of anatma, just as the parts of the body cut off or thrown away. Ahankara is only a temporary attribute available only in the waking and dream states and totally dissolved in deep sleep state, and therefore, needs to be negated.

In the fifth verse, the author points out that once all attributes (including ahankara) are negated, what is left behind is ‘I,’ the Atma of the nature of Witness Consciousness, which is different from all the attributes.

Owner of Cows

He gives the example of the man who is described as being 'the one with the spotted cow'. But this is not an attribute of the man, who just happens to be the (temporary) owner of a spotted cow. He did not have that name before he got the cows and will cease to have the name when the cow is no longer with him in the future. The person will nevertheless be there all the time. Similarly, I, the Atma, will be ever present, despite the arrival and departure of anatma attributes.

A technical discussion is presented in the concluding verse (6), connecting the topic discussed to the mahavakyas--tat tvam asi and aham brahmasmi. In and through all our transactions (vyavahara) we use the   relative ‘I’ (ahankara or pramata), since the absolute ‘I’ (Sakshi Chaitanyam) is beyond all vyavahara. Even during Vedanta shravanam (teaching of the mahavakya), only the relative ‘I’ is activated and used both by the teacher and the disciple. But I need to understand that I am really the Sakshi Chaitanyam knower without ahankara, which is the implied meaning (lakshyartha) of ‘I’ (aham).

Change Status

I,  therefore, need to drop the relative ‘I’ and claim the status of absolute ‘I’. Sankaracharya also deals with a possible objection to the use of aham (I) in the mahavakya, as aham,  first person singular, involves  separation from the second and third person implying duality.

Also devoid of ahankara, there is only consciousness left, rendering the expression, ‘I’ irrelevant.

The author explains the use of ‘I’ as necessary as the teaching is with respect to negation of ahankara and as the student and the teacher both use ahankara during shravanam, the expression, ‘I’ has to be necessarily introduced in the mahavakya.

Read Part 7 of the series...

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



Page last updated: 09-Jan-2013