Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Is Self Knowledge Beyond the Intellect?
Satyan Chidambaran

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sadA shiva samArambhAm sha~NkarAchArya madhyamAm
asmadAchArya paryantAm vande guru paramparAm

Starting with Lord daxiNAmUrti, having shrI Adi sha~NkarAchArya in the middle, all the way up to my current teachers, I salute the entire guru paramparA, the lineage of teachers who have preserved and communicated para vidyA, the Knowledge of the Self. Anything in this essay that is illuminating is entirely due to their grace and anything that falls short is entirely my limitation. (Editor note: para = supreme; apara = inferior)

para vidyA is often mistakenly equated to some form of Understanding that is beyond the intellect. Usually, the term ‘beyond the intellect’ conjures up images of some mystical ‘Experience’. This requires some clarification and also a vichAra (investigation) into the nature of Self Knowledge, and hence this essay.

What is the locus of any understanding? Is it not the intellect? We only require to add an adjective to a noun in order to qualify it further. Are there other possible loci for Understanding that demand that the adjective ‘intellectual’ should be prefixed to ‘understanding’? Are there other forms of understanding that are different from ‘intellectual understanding’? Is there ‘dental understanding’ or ‘cranial understanding’ that is different from ‘spinal understanding’ or ‘understanding in the intellect’?

No. Any Understanding or Definite Knowledge can only arise in the intellect. Thus, the intellect is the only possible locus for understanding. Then, the word ‘intellectual’ prefixed to ‘Understanding’ or ‘Knowledge’ is redundant. Prefixing unnecessary terms can be a source of great confusion (especially with Self Knowledge). Prefixing an unnecessary term leads to a mistaken downplay of reason where reason is to be employed because it is ‘intellectual’. Prefixing an unnecessary term leads even to a mistaken downplay of a systematic study of the shAstra because it is ‘intellectual’.

With this background in mind, apara vidyA is best described as ‘Understanding of Objects’ whereas para vidyA, on the other hand, is the ‘Understanding of the Subject’. As we already discussed earlier, neither of these is or can be ‘beyond the intellect’ as that phrase itself is an oxymoron. Both are just ‘Understanding’. The difference is simply with what the understanding is about.

apara vidyA alone without para vidyA makes a person look at a fragmented world of plurality, a world in which jIva, jagat and Ishvara are all different; a world where the jIva is caged in a body and the jagat is a resource to be exploited and Ishvara may or may not be there in heaven. With just apara vidyA alone, a person continues to be ‘knowledgeable’ about the world but unfortunately ignorant about his own Self.

para vidyA on the other hand, removes all wrong notions about oneSelf that are entertained in beginningless ignorance. para vidyA also informs the jIva of the Identity with Ishvara. This vision surely liberates a person once and for all. There is nothing more to be accomplished for such a jIvanmukta who revels in his Real Nature.

The ‘I’, the Eternal Self is there shining ever-free in all experiences. The intellect has made wrong conclusions about this ‘I’. Over countless janma-s (births), the intellect has arrived at and accumulated the wrong conclusions due to using the laukika pramANa (worldly sources of knowledge) in evaluating the Self. When the intellect is exposed to para vidyA through the shAstrIya pramANa (authority of the scriptures), then the Self Knowledge thus generated in the intellect negates all the false conclusions about the ‘Self’ and generates definite knowledge about the Nature of the Self.

We only speak of ‘Self Knowledge’ being generated in the intellect, not in the Self. The Self shines unmodified in all experiences. The Self does not ‘gain knowledge’. The Self never had any problem. It just exists and shines and illuminates the experiences before the seeking, during the seeking and after the dawn of Knowledge!! The intellect has the problem of saMsAra. The intellect gets the solution to the Problem with ‘Self Knowledge’. The intellect sees that in Reality there is no 'Problem'. All problems were only imagined to be so due to ignorance.

We should note that the Problem of saMsAra in the intellect is not Real. There is only one Reality, the Self. The Problem of saMsAra in the intellect is thus an Imagined Problem. The intellect is really seeking a solution to an ‘imagined problem’. An imagined problem in the intellect only needs a solution in the intellect just as Dream Thirst only needs Dream Water. In fact, we can be more aggressive and state that Dream Thirst can only be solved with Dream Water, not with Real Water!! The Real water by the bedside is of no use in quenching the Dream Thirst. Similarly, the imagined problem of saMsAra in the intellect can only be solved with the special methodology employed by the pramANa of the shruti whose job is to generate the valid knowledge about the Self in the intellect. Once the pramANa does its job of generating the valid Knowledge in the intellect, then its job is done. The Self just shines as it always did, unmodified. Only the understanding of the Self in the intellect is now modified.

A person ignorant of his own Self is much like a millionaire who has somehow deluded himself into believing that he is actually a penniless beggar. Such a jIva who has been exposed to para vidyA through the grace of a compassionate guru is much like this so called beggar who has been informed that he is actually a millionaire and not the beggar that he had all along taken himself to be. Much like the case of a beggar who has become a millionaire overnight who cannot still rid himself of the deeply ingrained reaction to put forth his begging bowl when he sees a passer by, a jIva who has now appreciated his Real Identity as the Atman, owing to doubts and habitual errors, may still repeatedly associate himself with the body/mind complex. In case of the so called beggar, this just means that the beggar has to remove the habitual error of taking himself to be a beggar in the light of the new knowledge. In case of the jIva, similarly, any accompanying doubts and habitual errors that are barriers to the full fructification of knowledge need to be removed.

The process of shravaNam is when the Knowledge or Understanding can take place in a qualified sAdhaka. At this point, doubts and habitual error can still exist. Repeated mananam removes all doubts and contrary views. The so called beggar sees again and again that he is a millionaire and nothing but a millionaire. nididhyAsanam subsequently removes the habitual error of identifying with the body mind complex in the light of doubt-free knowledge. The so called beggar no longer extends his begging bowl. The intellect is there all the way.


1) guru pUrNimA talk transcript by pUjya swAmi paramArthAnanda in regard to the role of the buddhi, the shAstra and the guru in Self Knowledge.

2) pramANa-prameya-vichaara: Talks by pUjya swAmi dayAnanda from Arshavidya bookstore.


An acknowledgement is especially due to my Vedanta and Sanskrit teacher, shrI vijay kapUr-jI, who has kindly taken the time to review this essay and whose weekly Vedanta classes on Sundays have shaped many of my thoughts on various Vedantic topics over the years.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012