The ‘Real I’ verses the ‘Presumed I’ – An Examination of chidAbhAsa

Ramana Maharshi’s instruction to seekers to ask themselves ‘Who am I?’ is lauded by many modern Western teachers as sufficient, on its own, to lead to enlightenment.  I suggest that this is not strictly true; that what it can do is rather to give us insight into what we are not and thereby point us in the direction of traditional teachings to learn about our real nature. It is inciting us to conduct Self-inquiry in the proven manner, i.e. by listening to a qualified teacher interpret the scriptures, rather than merely providing a mantra or formula to provide an answer directly.
An explanation of how traditional teaching can lead us to an understanding of who I am might begin with an analysis of our three states of consciousness – this is the so-called avasthA traya prakriyA of traditional advaita.
We almost certainly begin with the belief that who-I-really-am is only fully present in the waking state. In the dream state, I am not in command of my mental faculties so that the mind free-wheels outside of my control even though I am not actually unconscious. And we no doubt accept the deep sleep state as one in which mind and body rest and recuperate in order to be ready for the trials that the next day may bring. According to this interpretation, consciousness in deep sleep is in a resting state, as indicated by the lowered activity shown by EEG displays. (This view, also supported by many Western philosophers, claims that consciousness is a by-product or ‘epiphenomenon’ of the brain; an evolutionary advantageous development to enable an animal to find food and mate more efficiently than before. This is also the view of the chArvAka-s or materialists of thousands of years ago – it is certainly not new!)
But the way that the mANDUkya upaniShad and other scriptures view the three states is quite different. The waker-I, or vishva, is the name given to Consciousness identified with the gross body, when it is functioning in the external world. The physical senses are turned outwards and we believe that ‘I’ am the gross, material body.
When dreaming, this body is absent. Instead, our minds conjure up an entirely new, dream world, in which we have a new dream body which may be quite different from our own. This world has its own rules of time and space and the events may contravene all rules of waking physics. The dreamer-I is given the name taijasa; Consciousness is identified with the subtle objects of the mind. The physical senses are inoperative and attention is turned inward.
In deep sleep, neither physical nor subtle bodies are evident. We are aware of nothing and it may seem that we only infer that there was something still present after we wake up and see that waking time has elapsed. The deep-sleeper-I is called prAj~na and our knowledge is said to be resolved into an undifferentiated state of Consciousness. But Consciousness is not absent during deep sleep; rather it is aware of nothing. And this is quite different.
The bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShad (IV.iii.23) states: ‘That it does not see in that state is because, though seeing then, it does not see; for the vision of the witness cannot be lost, because it is imperishable. But there is not that second thing separate from it which it can see.’[1] I.e. the reason that we are not aware of anything in deep sleep is simply that there is nothing to be aware of. In the waking state the senses are aware of external objects; in the dream state, the ‘dream senses’ are aware of the ‘dream objects’ of the mind. In deep sleep, all these are resolved and there are no objects of any kind.
It seems that, being conscious of nothing, I am effectively not there at all. advaita tells us that this is certainly not the case. When we say that ‘I was not there’ , the ‘I’ that was absent is the ego. Identification of my true self with the body-mind takes place in the mind so that, since the mind is inactive during deep sleep, there is no identification.
Sureshvara says in his naiShkarmya siddhi (II.54): ‘One who wakes up from deep sleep says ‘I did not know anything in sleep’. Here the term ‘I’ signifies the pure Self as the ego is suspended in sleep. When we say that the iron burns, we mean that fire, by which the iron has become red-hot, burns, and not the iron as such. Similarly in the sentence, ‘I am brahman‘, the term ‘I’ signifies the Self and not the Ego.’[2]
Even after hearing an explanation such as this, it does not alter our experience. We still feel as though this body-mind-ego that I think of as my ‘self’ is alive and conscious in its own right, as it were. How can it be that the Consciousness that we are – the real ‘I’ – is actually brahman, and therefore not different from the Consciousness that you are?
Shankara uses the metaphor of the sun sending its light out in all directions. We need not be able to see the sun itself to know that it exists because, everything that we see, we see only by virtue of the sunlight reflected from it. Suppose that we are floating in the emptiness of space, with no objects, no planets or other opaque material, within the range of our eyes. If we were facing away from the sun then we would see only blackness. Although the light from the sun continues to stream outwards, there is nothing to illumine so that nothing is seen. And so it is with deep sleep. Although consciousness is still present (after all, it is our true nature), the mind and senses are effectively ‘switched off’. Consciousness itself is aware of nothing. It is the reflected consciousness in the mind that perceives objects via the senses. Since these are inactive, we are not aware of anything. But Consciousness is still there, as we realize on awakening because we know that we were aware of nothing whilst we were in the deep sleep state. This is why the Self is called the eternal witness or sAkshI; its ‘light’ is still there even in deep sleep.
So where does this leave us in respect of answering the question ‘Who am I?’? The answer is provided by an advaita concept called chidAbhAsa and an extension of the above metaphor. The word chit refers to consciousness and AbhAsa means ‘semblance, phantom, phantasm of the imagination; mere appearance, fallacious appearance; reflection; or simply image’. chidAbhAsa (when the words join, the ‘t’ converts to a ‘d’) therefore means the ‘reflection, image or false appearance of Consciousness’.
Suppose that we have a dark, shuttered room. It is so dark that we are unable to find anything inside it. We are only able to open the door and, although there is bright sunlight outside, this does not penetrate far enough to illumine the interior. There is no electricity and I do not have a torch. I do, however, have a mirror. By positioning myself in the doorway, I can hold the mirror at such an angle that the sunlight reflects in the mirror and illumines the contents of the room. Although the mirror is itself inert, having no light of its own, it becomes a source of light by virtue of reflecting the light from the sun, which does have its own light. This, of course, is also how we get the moonlight by which we can see during the night, when there is a moon in a cloudless sky. The light of the moon is simply the reflected light of the sun.
The parallel can now be made with our own inert equipments and Consciousness. brahman is the equivalent of the sun, the only true ‘source’ of Consciousness. brahman ‘illumines’ the instrument of the mind, which itself is not a source of Consciousness. But, by virtue of this illumination, the mind is able to reflect the Consciousness via the senses into the ‘room’ of the world and become aware of the objects therein and interact with them (including the body-mind itself).
Furthermore, when we see an object, we register the object itself (i.e. its name, form and attributes) but rarely think that this is only possible because light is being reflected off it from an external source. Similarly, in respect of our actual awareness of objects or of our own body and mind, we register that we are aware of something but not that by which we are aware, i.e. Consciousness itself. Once I have acknowledged that my feeling of being an aware, conscious being is because Consciousness is reflecting in my (independently) inert mind, I can also acknowledge that it is the same Consciousness reflecting in other independently inert minds that gives the impression of other people.
The ‘reflection’ theory (or pratibimba vAda) was fully developed post-Shankara by the vivaraNa school of philosophy as opposed to the theory of ‘limitation’ or upAdhi-s (known as avachCheda vAda), which belongs to the bhAmatI school. But the origins of both can be found in Shankara’s own writing and, in particular, the reflection metaphor is found in his commentary or bhAShya on brahma sUtra (II.3.50) (AbhAsa eva cha). Shankara says on this: ‘The individual soul is not directly the highest Atman, because it is seen to be different on account of the upAdhi-s; nor is it different from the Atman, because it is the Atman who has entered as the jIvAtman in all the bodies. We may call the jIva as a mere reflection of the Atman. But just as when one image of the sun in some water trembles, the other image in other portions of water need not, even so if one soul is connected with actions and fruits thereof, the others need not be so connected. So there would be no confusion. And, as the reflection itself is the effect of avidyA, the whole of the saMsAra as connected with this reflection is also the effect of avidyA. Naturally, with the destruction of the avidyA there will be the destruction of the so-called reflection of the Atman on buddhi, and the consequent justification of the instruction that the soul is nothing but the brahman.’[3]
There are many reflections, jIva-s or chidAbhAsa-s [‘reflections of consciousness’], but only one ‘original Consciousness’, bimba chaitanya. The pratibimba or reflection is the ‘I’ that we start off presuming ourselves to be. But this is only the empirical or vyAvahArika reflection, otherwise known as the ego or ahaMkAra. The real, or pAramArthika Consciousness or chit on which it is founded – its adhiShThAna – is the sAkshI chaitanya, the ‘witness’ Consciousness. And it is this which is the real ‘I’. We are the sun, not its reflection in the mind-mirror of the jIva. (N.B. Swami Paramarthananda, commenting on brahma sUtra (II.3.49), points out that the metaphor should not be taken too literally – there is no physical separation between Consciousness and its AbhAsa, unlike the distance between the sun and mirror.)
The pa~nchadashI states that (VII.29) ‘chidAbhAsa with his mind devoted to the worldly existence does not know that he is the self-evident kUTastha.’[4] Because our attention is constantly turned outwards, it never occurs to us that who-we-think-we-are is not this ‘as-if’ separate, but actually only reflected, ‘individual’ consciousness but the immovable, unchanging, absolute spirit (kUTastha literally means ‘standing at the top’). What happens is that this truth is obscured by ignorance and, instead, we superimpose other ideas such as ‘I am the doer, enjoyer’ etc.
Accordingly, in the progression of asking ‘Who am I?’ we start off by believing we are the ego or, we might say, the ahaMkAra ‘supported by’ sAkshI. In the end we realize that ‘I am the sAkshI functioning through the ahaMkAra‘. The thinking or speaking of this at all, of course, requires both aspects. I am chidAbhAsa from the vyAvahArika perspective but chit from the pAramArthika. Without the sAkshI Consciousness, the ahaMkAra is inert; without the mental equipments, Consciousness does not think or speak, like the sun in deep space metaphor. Whilst we remain identified with the reflection, we continue to believe that we are mortal and limited. As soon as we realize ourselves to be the original, we recognize that we are eternal and forever free.

(Article originally published at Advaita Academy, March 2011.)


[1] The bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShad, with the Commentary of shaMkarAchArya, Translated by Swami Madhavananda, advaita Ashrama, 1934. ISBN 81-7505-102-7.


[2] naiShkarmya siddhi of shrI sureshvarAchArya, English translation by S. S. Raghavachar, Pasaranga University of Mysore, 1965. No ISBN.


[3] Vedanta Explained: Shankara’s Commentary on The brahma sUtras, Volume II, V. H. Date, Munishiram Manharlal Publisher Pvt. Ltd., 1954. No ISBN.


[4] pa~nchadashI of Sri Vidyaranya Swami, Translated by Swami Swahananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1967. No ISBN.

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