Having established in the first chapter that Self-ignorance is the cause of samsara and that Self-knowledge is the only means for liberation by negating the need for karma as a supporting sadhana, Sankaracharya begins the actual Vedantic teaching in the second chapter, entitled Pratisheda Prakaranam (topic of negation).
This small chapter with only four verses provides a clear insight into how the scriptures communicate the teaching about the Self. The discussion in the verses is highly subtle and technical in the area of the process of how knowledge takes place (Pramana Sastram).
Knowledge of external objects involves three constituents: 1. The knower (pramata) 2. The instrument of knowledge (pramanam) and 3. the object of knowledge (prameyam). By the operation of the Pramanam (instrument) the knower (pramatha) gains the knowledge (prama) of the object. The position is different in the context of Self-knowledge (Atma Jnanam or Brahma Jnanam). Here the Sastravakyam (scriptural statement) is the instrument (pramanam), which has the job of revealing Atma or Brahman (prameyam), which is non-different from myself, the knower (pramata).
As Atma or Brahman is not an object of knowledge by definition, the question arises as to how the Upanishad (scriptures) can be considered as pramanam to reveal Brahman. Scriptures have, therefore, a serious problem in providing the seeker with the Vedantic teaching (Self-knowledge)
Fortunately, however, as Atma (Brahman) is self-evident as the ever present Consciousness (chaitanyam) in the form of ‘I’ (aham), Sruti need not reveal it. However, whenever we use the expression ‘I,’ we experience along with the awareness the intellect, the mind, body and the external world, all of which are intrinsically inert (jadam) but illumined by the awareness, directly in the case of the intellect and mind and indirectly in the case of the body and the external world.
While we can easily exclude the external world as different from ‘I,’ there is a problem with regard to the intellect, mind and the body. If we take ‘I’ to be the ‘I’ together with body-mind complex, as we are all normally disposed to do, this ‘I’ will be subject to the attributes and limitations of the body-mind complex.
Sruti, therefore, has to do the job of only negating the body and its attributes, mind and its attributes and intellect and its attributes as part of the object of awareness ‘I’ and not as part of awareness itself. The limitations of the body, mind and intellect are also objects of the awareness ‘I’ and not part of ‘I.’
This process of separation of body-mind and intellect from ‘I,’ which is purely cognitive and intellectual, is technically referred to in this first verse as pratisheda (negation). The author, therefore, points out in this verse that once the body-mind-intellect complex is negated as ‘I am not this,’ ‘I am not this,’ what is left behind is the ‘I’ awareness (pure consciousness) which is unnegatable. This methodology of negation is based on the famous teaching contained in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, ‘Neti, neti.’ By employing this process, the student gets to understand clearly the Self without needing any other specific pramanam to support this conclusion.
The author deals with a problem generally faced by spiritual seekers in clearly distinguishing the ‘I’-thought in the mind (otherwise called ahankara) from Pure Awareness (witness consciousness otherwise known as Sakshi Chaitanyam). While we are able to negate external objects, and even the body-mind complex as non-Self (anatma) we encounter difficulty in dismissing ahankara as an object of consciousness.
Sankaracharya establishes in this verse that ahankara is also to be considered as an object and negated as anatma. The logic generally given in the scriptures for this negation of ahankara is our deep sleep experience where ahankara is totally resolved and Pure Awareness remains as witness.
In our waking state, both ‘I,’ the pure awareness and ahankara are intimately mixed up, resulting in our inability to distinguish one from the other. In sleep, I continue to exist without any attributes, such as ahankara, but unfortunately I cannot recognise Atma as I am asleep and as I need a mind for such cognition. Therefore, the scriptures say that I have to use the sleep experience to know that I am the witness consciousness.
The ‘I’ thought or ahankara is defined as the mind along with the reflected consciousness (pratibimba chaitanyam), while I am the original Consciousness (bimba chaitanyam). The author clarifies in the second verse that the ‘I’-thought arises in the mind. It has ahankara as its object and all these three are to be negated as non-Self (anatma) and, therefore, as unreal (mithya). Thus, the knower (pramata), the instrument (pramanam) and the object (prameyam) are all unreal and need to be negated, leaving behind the unnegatable Atma, ‘I’ the Witness Consciousness.
What about Jivan Muktas?
The author also answers the question whether the triad of knower, instrument and known will operate in the case of a wise person who has gained Self-knowledge (jivan mukta). The jnani will employ the triad for conduct of day-to-day transactions (vyavahara) with clear understanding of its unreality (mithyatvam). Samsara will not afflict the wise person and will remain only like a defanged cobra.
While to be Brahman I do not need to be a pramata, to listen to the Mahavakya, Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman), I should be a pramata consisting of the original consciousness, reflected consciousness and the mind. This is true also in the case of my claiming ‘I am Brahman,” as I need to entertain that thought (vritti). Thus, I have to use my status as pramata for any vyavahara as a ‘dress’ (referred to as kanjukam by Sri Suresvaracaharya in his famous work, Naishkarmya Siddhi).
Though both ignorant and wise men (ajnani and jnani) use their pramatrutvam for vyavahara, the wise man has a clear understanding of his real nature as Sakshi Chaitanyam, while the ignorant person identifies himself with ahankara.
The author answers a possible doubt in the third verse. Prior to the advent of Self-knowledge one has a strong identification with ahankara, proved by his direct experience (pratyaksha pramanam). However, with the use of Sruti pramanan, he gains Self-knowledge and is able to negate his pramata (ahankara) status. The doubt that can arise is whether the new knowledge revealed by Sruti Pramanam has itself the risk of being negated by any other pramanam (just as what was perceived as a snake earlier is later on seen as a rope with the advent of rope knowledge, replacing the prior snake knowledge). Sankaracharya dismisses this doubt by saying that Self-knowledge can never be negated as any new cognition has to be illumined only by the Witness Consciousness, which enjoys eternal independent existence.
In the concluding verse of this chapter (Verse 4), the author highlights the need for a spiritual seeker to assimilate the teaching received from the Acharya. This has to be done by a process of discrimination (like Panchakosa Viiveka, Avastatraya Viveka) and by using well known methods of reasoning (anvaya vyatireka, adhyaropa/apavada) own himself up as Atma which is non-different from Brahman.
To illustrate this point, Sankaracharya refers to a story recounted in Chandogya Upanishad (Ch. 6 M. Il) of a man taken away by robbers and left in the middle of a dense forest with his eyes blindfolded and later on rescued by a compassionate person who guides him back to his own country. The robbers are compared to ignorance and attachment while the blindfolding is compared to loss of discriminatory power. The compassionate person is the guru and his guidance is in the form of Sastra Pramanam, based on which the seeker has to gain Self-knowledge.
(To be continued)
Compiled by R. B. Athreya from the lectures of Swami Paramarthananda in Chennai.