The Ignorance that Isn’t – 8/8

Part – 7/8

15.  jIva and jagat are Notional (Contd):

When Arjuna laments at the prospect of killing his loved ones in the war, Krishna tells him, “It was not that I was not existing before nor will I stop existing in the future.” That means there is no beginning or end, nor do the birth and death exist. Life is merely a transitional form that arises in between the unreal appearance of birth and death. Since birth and death are unreal, we (as the Self) are already liberated.

त्वेवाहं जातु नासं त्वं नेमे जनाधिपा |
चैव भविष्याम: सर्वे वयमत: परम् ||              —  2:12, Bhagavad-Gita.

[Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.]

In the very next verse, Krishna, however, says:

देहिनोऽस्मिन्यथा देहे कौमारं यौवनं जरा |
तथा देहान्तरप्राप्तिर्धीरस्तत्र मुह्यति ||             —  2:13, Bhagavad-Gita.

[Just as the embodied self continuously passes from childhood to youth to old age, similarly, at the time of death, the self passes into another body. The wise are not deluded by this.]

These two verses sound contradictory to each other. But the essence of Krishna’s message is that if the individual identifies with the Supreme Self, then the individual Self is no different from the Supreme Self. He will remain as the Absolute Consciousness that is not subject to birth or death.

In contrast, if we identify with the various appearances (forms) of the Supreme Self, we will continue to form and deform, die and be reborn again and again. If we rise above relativity (particulars) and cultivate a vision that sees Universality and not particulars, we will experience our Self as pure Consciousness and become free of vikAra-s (modifications). Instead, if we identify with appearances (mAyA), we will continue to be caught up in the snares of samsAra.

16.  Knowledge and the Knower:

Everything that Self perceives is an object that is known. Objects undergo change (vikAra). They are perceived as “mine,” and not as “Me.” They cannot touch our essential nature, which is pure Consciousness. For an object to be known to the Self, it must be separate from the Self. For an object to lose its separate existence, it must dissolve completely into the “Me” (Self as pure Consciousness). It must become “Me”, not “mine.” If it continues to appear separate from me, it will continue to change in form and can never be “me.”

Hence, our minds need to be still, devoid of vikAra-s, in order to experience Self as pure Consciousness.

17.  Self is Pure Knowledge:

The substance, the primary nature of the Self, is Pure Knowledge (vignAna swarUpa). The “knowing” aspect of the Self is its secondary nature. When we say fire and rain do not affect space in any way, it is we who say so on behalf of space in order to establish the fact that space is formless and changeless. Space itself does not make any such claims.

When the Upanishad says that the Self is “satyam jnAnam anantam, the word jnAnam (Knowingness) is used and not the word jnAta (Knower). If the Self were to be the Knower, it would have had some relationship with the object that It knows. It would then imply that the Self had undergone some change. But Self is Pure Knowingness. It does not undergo any change.

Therefore, when we refer to the Self as the Knower, it is only a manner of speaking.  For example, if we throw a piece of paper into the fire, we see the paper burning. We attribute in our common parlance the act of burning (doer-ship) to the fire and say that the fire burns the paper. But it is the paper that burns. Heat is the intrinsic nature of the fire. Fire simply stands as itself in its essential nature while the paper burns. Irrespective of the piece of paper being thrown into it or not, the fire remains to be hot. Fire does not undergo any change (vikAra), but the paper does. The statement, “fire burns,” is just a metaphorical expression. Burning is a secondary nature that is superimposed on fire.

Likewise, Self is pure Awareness-Beingness. It is changeless and unmoving. It is the upAdhis (body/mind adjuncts) that are superimposed on the Self that change continuously.

18.  Knowledgeable Seeker and Ritualistic Action:

Shankara before concluding his commentary at 13.2, Bhagavad-Gita answers one more question by the Discussant.

Discussant: हन्त । तर्हि आत्मनि क्रियाकारकफलात्मतायाः स्वतः अभावे,  अविद्यया च अध्यारोपितत्वे,  कर्माणि अविद्वत्कर्तव्यान्येव, न विदुषाम् इति प्राप्तम् । 

Well, if the Self has in Himself no concern with action or with its accessories (instruments like the body, life-force, mind etc.) or with the results (of the actions), and if these are ascribed (to the Self) by avidyA, then it would follow that the rituals ( karmas ) are intended only for the ignorant, not for the wise. (Would this not be violating the shAstra which tells us that one should perform the sacrificial rituals with knowledge?)

Vedantin:  सत्यम् एवं प्राप्तम् , एतदेव च, 18.11 इत्यत्र दर्शयिष्यामः । सर्वशास्त्रार्थोपसंहारप्रकरणे च (18.50) इत्यत्र विशेषतः दर्शयिष्यामः । अलम् इह बहुप्रपञ्चनेन, इति उपसंह्रियते ॥

Yes. It does follow, as we shall explain when commenting on 18.11 and in the section at 18.50 where the teaching of the whole shAstra is summed up. We shall dwell more particularly on this point. No need here to expatiate further on the subject; so, we conclude for the present.

Shankara is very categorical and does not mince his words in his expression at the end of the verse 18.50. He observes:

“Those who hold that cognition (jnAna) is formless and is not known by immediate perception must admit that, since an object of knowledge is apprehended through cognition, cognition is quite as immediately known as pleasure or the like.

Moreover, it cannot be maintained that cognition is a thing which one seeks to know. If cognition were unknown, it would be a thing which has to be sought after just as an object of cognition is sought after. Just as, for example, a man seeks to reach by cognition the cognizable object such as a pot, so also would he have to seek to reach cognition by means of another cognition. But the fact is otherwise. Wherefore cognition is self-revealed, and therefore, also, is the cognizer self-revealed.

Therefore, it is not for the knowledge (of brahman or the Self) that any effort (with a view to bring into existence something that does not already exist by means of an act enjoined in the shruti) is needed; it is needed only to prevent us from regarding the not-Self as the Self. Therefore, Devotion to Knowledge (jnAnaniShTha) is easily attainable.” (Translation: A.M. Sastri, 1923).

19.  Conclusion:

Advaita Vedanta tells us that we are not the Gross, the Subtle or the Causal body with which we mistakenly identify ourselves and consequently suffer their fate as ours. It reminds us that what we are in truth is the Self, the Pure Consciousness. For some inexplicable reason, the Self appears as though contaminated and fallen from Its pristine nature. The apparent fall of the Self to not-Self is described in the Vedantic literature as a veiling of the self-effulgent Consciousness by “ignorance.”  Shankara avers that ignorance really cannot exist. He leaves no scope to doubt if ignorance is more than anything but a convenient placeholder to explain the appearance of the One Self as a multiplicity. Because of our inability to discern the Self from not-Self, we attribute the qualities of Consciousness, the subject onto the objects that are perceived.

Shankara says that if we stop identifying with the not-Self, ignorance will not affect us. Ignorance is not inherent to us; it is imagined. It cannot exist in the subject that is perceiving an object.

Knowingness and ignorance are like “Illumination and darkness” – ignorance cannot be present in Knowingness or the Self. No spiritual practices are required to get rid of ignorance; Self-inquiry alone will lead to Self-Knowledge.

Both jIva and jagat are notional; everything we perceive including the jIva and jagat is anAntmA. ‘jagat’  is nothing but an ensemble of variable forms; ‘jIva’ is a collection of thoughts and feelings along with a sense of doership and experiencership. Atma is sat-cit (Presence-Awareness) that permeates the entire universe of infinite forms. If we recognize that Universal that is all-pervasive as what “I” truly am, we will be free from sorrow and fears.

prANa (life-force) entices manas (mind) to act. Mind thinks of myriad ways to act (kriyA shakti) and experiences the results of its actions. It is samsAra.  It is ignorance to identify oneself with the body and mind and assume doership for the actions. One would then necessarily become the experiencer of the consequences of the action done. If one does not identify with the body/mind, and stands as the unconcerned witness to the changes that the body and mind undergo, with a firm conviction that “I am not the doer or the experiencer,” the separate self (jIvAtma) expands into being the Supreme Self (paramAtma).  Shankara impresses on us that no effort is needed for obtaining Self-knowledge. What is needed is to prevent ourselves from regarding the not-Self as the Self. He assures us that abidance as “the Self (jnAna-niShTha) is easily attainable.”

The End

11 thoughts on “The Ignorance that Isn’t – 8/8

  1. Dear Ramesam

    This was a superb series of articles, especially this last one – I appreciated the metaphor of fire burning for knowing.

    One question for you / YSR: for a jnani, for whom there is no anatma, no duality, what action can he do?

    One solution is to say that the reflected consciousness of a jnani, knows the truth of nonduality and continues to act with this knowledge (seeing the jiva/jagat like a burnt rope or a mirage). Another is eka jiva vada – once ignorance is dispelled, particular consciousness dissolves, and there is no longer any illusory world.

    Thank you again.


  2. Dear Venkat,

    Thank you for your kind words.
    I am happy to see that this Series of Posts passed through your critical eye successfully. I noticed a few mistakes in the English language in the initial posts and made corrections for better readability.

    Coming to the question posed by you.
    You ask: “For a jnani, for whom there is no anatma, no duality, what action can he do?”

    As you are well aware, an answer to that question is beset with many difficulties.
    No single answer can satisfy everyone. The main problem is in the definitions and concepts held by each individual with respect to the keywords like jnAni (jIvanmukta), world, disembodiment, liberation etc.

    Clarity is also required about whose actions we refer to when one speaks of a jIvanmukta – is it the action of the mukta puruSha or that of the body which housed the former seeker who is now liberated . The liberated individual is now brahman (brahma veda brahmqaiva bhavati, 3.2.9, muNDaka); he is no more a claimant of the body which housed him prior to Self-realization. He will have no action to perform.

    We have to be clear about what world and whose world we are talking about. Do the 7 billion of us see one world or does everyone see his own separate world. After all, a world appears to one who has a sense of separate ‘self.’ But unless the sense of separate self collapses, one cannot be a jIvanmukta. Would s/he continue to be seeing a world or not in the post-liberation phase?

    There is a difference of opinion among the teachers of Non-duality — whether the seeker would still retain a link to the body after his realization or the body lives by itself guided by its built-in intelligence until it finally drops.

    In addition, would a jIvamukta live for a long time or is it only for a short period till the body drops as 6.14.2, chAndogya says.

    Further complication arises from the fact that there are a different type of jIvanmukta-s who maintain a body by virtue of their being office-bearers within a particular creation-phase as explained by Shankara at 3.3.32, BSB. How does one distinguish such jIvanmukta-s from the regular stream of seekers who attain Self-knowledge and liberation?

    As suggested by you, one can come up with a solution provided a working model for the entire process of liberation is agreed to. But if one goes by ajAti vAda, we have to think totally differently about the concept of jIvanmukti itself!


  3. Dear Ramesam

    As we are told that Vedanta can be realised through reason based on experience, would you mind if we pursue this inquiry further?

    If we (try to) take the ajata vada viewpoint, there is no seeker and none liberated; there is only Brahman.

    However there is a world, body and mind that is being experienced – Gaudapada tells us that this is essentially like a dream, an illusion on Consciousness. As this experience seems to be from the perspective of a body-mind called venkat, an I-thought is erroneously superimposed and identifies with the body-mind, as separate from the rest of the Jagat experience that is witnessed; and thence all the other thoughts arise that affect me and my well-being; and thence suffering.

    Model (1): The ‘I’ has agency – it seems to make decisions, acts and enjoys.

    (1a) As such, one model could be that by pursuing self-knowledge, the knowledge-thought arises in the individual mind, that it is non-separate from all that is, and hence its agency acquires a different character (unselfish, etc)

    (1b) Realisation means that the ‘I’-thought no longer arises, since that is the ignorance. So the body continues to function to some extent, but without an ‘I’ it is balya – childlike – and has no protective / accumulative instinct, and so would, as Sankara says, live like a homeless ascetic, on what comes by chance

    This model 1 would seem to be in keeping with much of BG in talking about how a jnani behaves, and that this behaviour is the sadhana for a seeker. But this model has a seeker, a jnani, and individual agency, which would be inconsistent with ajata vada

    Model 2: If ‘I’ has no agency, because it is fundamentally non-existent (which seems more consistent with ajata vada) then we are saying that agency is part of the dream, and every act is predetermined in the dream. But if that is the case, then sadhanas, purifying the mind, sravana, manana, nidhidyasana is also predetermined, which is all being witnessed as the dream. So, there is nothing ‘I’ can do to remove ignorance. Here, on ‘liberation’ the dream may continue but without the superimposed ‘I’. OR the dream may no longer be there.

    This model 2 would seem to be more in keeping with Ramanamaharishi, except that whilst he says everything is predetermined, he does say that the one thing we can do is self-enquiry. But then that is agency . . .

    What would you / YSR say to this?

  4. Dear Venkat,

    Thank you for your thought-provoking comments. As you may be aware, Shri YSR left this world towards the end of 2015.
    I do not have the competency to respond authoritatively on what you say. However, I shall share my understanding to the extent I can. So whatever I write here is circumscribed by these limitations.

    You observe that “Vedanta can be realised through reason based on experience … ”
    Let us remember that the word “experience” here should be taken as sArvatrika anubhava, but not as vaiyuktika anubhava. I understand that this point was emphasized by SSSS. IOW, the experience cannot be empirical and personal. It has to be unsublatable, and available to all.

    Next, you refer to two Models.
    It looks to me that what you described as Model 1-(a) can be called as the preliminary preparatory step of “purification of the mind” (citta suddhi). It concerns with the code of conduct for a mumukShu.

    Your description under Model 2 sounds more like determinism or fatalism to me, effectively tying down the seeker with pre-planned destiny. Will such a stand not make the entire corpus of teaching Vedanta an exercise in futility?
    Sage Vasishta, for example, lays a lot of emphasis on human effort. He says in the Ch 2 of Yogavasishta: “When the weak-hearted people are overtaken by a string of miseries, they often lose their sense of balance and thinking ability. This word ‘destiny’ is invented only as a solace to such weaklings. Other than that, there is no truth to it.”

    You may also recall that BG too very clearly says at 5.15:

    नादत्ते कस्यचित्पापं न चैव सुकृतं विभुः ।
    अज्ञानेनावृतं ज्ञानं तेन मुह्यन्ति जन्तवः ॥
    [The Lord allots neither the evil nor the good deed of any. The mortals are deluded because their wisdom is enveloped by ignorance.]

    Therefore, I guess that there is a choice available for one who thinks that s/he is the agent for taking action (i.e. one who holds “I am a separate self). Hence, it may not be correct to hold that “there is nothing ‘I’ can do to remove ignorance.” However, one may not be able to predict when exactly the “tipping point” occurs.

    Regarding Ramana’s teachings, you are yourself much more knowledgeable.


  5. Dear Ramesam,

    I too am not attracted to fatalism . . . but isn’t it an inevitable implication of ajata vada?

    If there is no seeker, and none liberated; there are no parts to Brahman; this is all just a dream of consciousness; ignorance is that there is a separate jiva; and vedanta tells us that we are not the doer / enjoyer . . . then doesn’t that only leave a dream over which the dreamed actor has no control?

    Wei Wu Wei used the analogy of bumper cars in a fair ground: when you are in the car you have the illusion that you are driving it, but you aren’t really.

    As long as we believe that we are the doer / enjoyer, we have to act as if we have control; indeed we are compelled to. This is the cause of suffering. If we step back, and no longer identify with the doer / enjoyer, then there is no more suffering. As far as the doer/ enjoyer is concerned this stepping back is a culmination of sadhana and knowledge. But as there was never a doer / enjoyer, then who has had the free will to pursue sadhana and knowledge?

    Perhaps that is why Ramanamaharishi talked about surrender as a path to liberation, and Buddha talked of “acceptance”.

    Ramana: “Surrender once for all and be done with desire. So long as the sense of doership is retained, there is the desire. That is also personality. If this goes, the Self is found to shine forth pure. ‘Be still and know that I am God’. Here stillness is total surrender without a vestige of individuality. Stillness will prevail and there will be no agitation of mind. Agitation of mind is the cause of desire, the sense of doership and personality”

    Best wishes,

  6. Dear Ramesam

    The BG5.15 and the immediately preceding verse are really interesting for this conversation.

    BG5.14: The Self does not create agentship or any objects of desire for anyone; nor association with the results of actions. But it is Nature that acts.

    From Sankara’s bhasya:

    Objection: If the embodied Self does not do anything himself and does not make others do, then who is it that engages in work by doing and making others do?
    The answer is: but it is Nature, my Divine Maya

    In the bhasya to 5.15 he continues: “mortal creatures in samsara are deluded and think “I act, I cause to act, I shall enjoy, I cause to enjoy” etc.”

    An apposite quote from Wei Wu Wei:
    “The purest doctrines, such as those of Ramana Maharshi, Padma Sambhava, Huang Po and Shen Hui, just teach us that it is sufficient by analysis utterly to comprehend that there is no entity which could have effective volition”

  7. Dear Venkat,

    Thanks for the two comments.
    I have been in fact thinking how to formulate my response to your first comment above. You made it easy for me by posting the second comment.

    Shankara in his adhyAsa bhAshya, as you know, opens with the very problem of how the “me-thou” differentiation happens, giving raise to the sense of ownership and doership.

    Shankara writes: “This behavior has for its material cause an unreal nescience and man resorts to it by mixing up reality with unreality as a result of superimposing the things themselves or their attributes on each other.”

    In the Shankara bhAShya for 5.15, BG, he also said “Discriminative knowledge is enveloped by ignorance.”

    As you are aware, Shankara used the terms mAyA, avidyA, ignorance etc. almost as synonyms to indicate that the appearance of the world (and the jIva) is a sort of unexplainable “magic show.”

    With reference to linking these concepts with that of ajAti vAda, I feel that it will not be a fruitful exercise.

    As all of us know, Advaita allows for the three levels of reality.
    Each seeker has to first assess, IMHO, the reality s/he is in. Then s/he may proceed with the technique of “neti-neti” to gradually home on to the cause (reality) by a denial of the effect (appearance). IOW, one may adopt a model of the appearance of the jIva (individual) and jagat (world) that is commensurate with the reality that s/he is currently in. It may not be very helpful if one tries to understand the veracity of an Advaita model that pertains to a different level than what one is in.

    As one moves from the empirical level to the Absolute level, one may go by the ajAti vAda and the concept of “nitya suddha buddha mukta svabHavaH.”


  8. Dear Ramesam

    I am just reading Suresvara’s vartika on Brhad Up 4.4 (Sariraka Brahmana), and came across these verses

    223: there is not noticed any activity in the case of one who is without desire; whatever a being does is the doing of desire

    226: Desire is preceded by some attachment to objects; ie desire cannot be without any attachment

    261: The activity of a human being depends on it as the agent; therefore the state of having a desire depends on its being an agent through ignorance.

    262: Knowledge destroys various means of activity in the same way as a barren land destroys the seed; there does not exist any means of activity since knowledge by its very rise is capable of destroying the cause of that (ie ignorance)

    266: As desire being pursued gives rise to thought etc, so also being abandoned it comes to remain in the state of liberation (lit state of being devoid of any activity)

    446 Since the Brahman, not being related to activity, its means and its results is without any duality; therefore individual selves who have discarded all other activities ever have that Brahman to be the object of worship, as the inner self.

    So Suresvara seems to be saying:

    Ignorance -> Superimposition of little self as agent -> attachment -> desire -> activity -> agentship. And so a self-reinforcing loop, that creates the sense of a false I.

    This then serves to explain Sankara’s prescription in Brahd Up 3.5.1 of neti, neti (through viveka) and utter detachment leading to a (non-volitional) renunciation of all activity.

    • Apologies, the reference should be to Brhad 4.5.15, not 3.5.1

      However, there is a relevant quote from 3.5.1:
      “Therefore the knower of the Self should embrace that vow of the highest order of monks which is characterised by the renunciation of desires and the abandonment of all work together with its means”.

  9. Dear Venkat,

    Thank you very much for your post quoting Sureshwara vArtika on brihat.
    The essence of it dovetails well with what we have been discussing offline through private mails as an extension to my previous comment.

    Liberated state is sarvAtmabhAva which is our True nature, aka, The Absolute Reality. One may say that its structure is represented through the formulation of ajAtivAda – nothing is ever born and Its “svabhAva” as “nitya suddha buddha mukta.”

    As brought out in the Part – 1 of this Series, there is a “fall” from the Absolute Reality of being the Self to that of being not-Self which is the Empirical reality.
    The formulation as given by the vArtika quotes spells out the structure of this level of reality.

    At this level, we seem to be endowed with three bodies corresponding to karma (action), propelled by kAma (desire) sprouting from vAsanA-s (impressions). The holding term for all of them is “avidyA or ignorance.” The corresponding bodies are the gross body, subtle body and the causal body.

    Shankara repeatedly uses the phrase “अविद्याप्रत्युपस्थापित” (presented by nescience) for the body and organs both at BSB and brihadAraNyaka. So karma and desire have their source in avidyA.

    As BG says at 2.62, and 2.63, “When a man thinks of objects, attachment for them arises. From attachment arises desire.” Ultimately he is led to “the loss of conscience and from loss of conscience he is utterly ruined.”

    Thus the Gita verses summarize the “fall” from the original pristine nature.

    If one wants to pry himself out of this mire, s/he has to make effort to regain his original state which gets, as though, occluded by the fall.

    Shankara sums up the whole process beautifully in his commentary at 4.3.20, brihadAraNyaka which should be studied by every seeker, IMHO. he says there:

    “That ignorance is not the natural characteristic of the Self, since it automatically decreases as Knowledge increases, and when the latter is at Its highest, with the result that the Self realizes its identity with all, ignorance vanishes altogether, like the notion of a snake in a rope when the truth about it is known.” (Translation: Swami Madhavananda).

    In his Intro to the 3rd brahmaNa of the 4th chapter, brihadAraNyaka, Shankara writes that one knows the true Self “By dissolving – pravilApya – (in the Supreme Self) through Knowledge the ‘self’ identified with the world, which is but a limiting adjunct.”

    Thus we can conceive that each level of reality is described by a characteristic formulation, like each “field” in Physics by its own equation, and we cannot transpose these formulations or equations from one field to the other. We should also bear in mind, IMHO, that these formulations are all ‘notional’ only to help the seeker in his sAdhana and not to suggest that different levels of reality truly exist.

    As I commented at another occasion, it does look to me that the very fact that we invented a non-existing ‘ignorance’ as causal to our failure to “know” our own true intrinsic nature merely betrays our “arrogance.” We feel smug about our knowledge not realizing that it is only ‘particular’ (visheSha), however specialized and expert one may be. We have lost sight of the “sAmAnya” (Universal) Knowledge of ourselves being the formless and featureless Beingness-Consciousness (sat-cit). If we can and do humbly feel “responsible” for that lapse, we do not need to take cover under the fictitious ‘ignorance’ to explain why the sense of a separate ‘self’ and a corresponding world have arisen.


  10. It is interesting to note that 4.3.21 says:
    “When ignorance is eliminated and knowledge reaches its perfection, the state of identity with all, which is another name for liberation, is attained”

    And 4.4.22:
    “The knowledge of Brahman too means only the cessation of the identification with extraneous things (e.g. body). The relation of identity with It has not to be directly established, for it is already there . . . Therefore the scriptures do not enjoin that identity with Brahman should be established, but that the false identification with things other than That should stop”

    Therefore when false identification stops, the cycle of attachment-desire-action-doer/enjoyer is broken. This is the sense in which BG’s “you are not the doer / enjoyer” needs to be understood – with no more desire-motivated actions – as opposed to “I am the witness and can witness whatever this body/mind chooses to do”

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