Q.502 Brahman and Awareness

Q1.     Many advaita teachings suggest that on the absolute level of reality, there are no objects, no people, no selves, and many times, people will say that, ‘from awareness’ point of view, there is just awareness’… However, in my experience it seems that awareness has the ability to know finite objects because ‘I’ (awareness) am the observer of thoughts, feelings, and sensations (all finite objects). So how can we say that from awareness’ point of view there are no objects, when awareness is aware of finite things? To piggyback off of this, is there some way to differentiate between the witnessing position and the absolute viewpoint? because I think this is where I am really getting mixed up.

Q2.     Why does it seem that awareness can know something finite when it is infinite? I’ve heard from certain advaita teachers that consciousness takes the form of the mind in order to know finite objects, but this confuses me because that would imply that awareness becomes the mind, but is also simultaneously aware of the mind. It seems a little far fetched in my opinion, but maybe I’m just not understanding it completely.

A: I never use the term ‘awareness’ for precisely this sort of reason. It is a term used by Nisargadatta and his disciples and causes much confusion. I only use it in the context of X being ‘aware of’ Y, in duality.

The non-dual reality in Advaita is called Brahman, strictly speaking. Being non-dual, it has no ‘attributes’ If it had the attribute X, this would mean that it could not be ‘not-X’, which would then negate the fact that Brahman is said to be unlimited or infinite (anantam). You might find the 3-part post beginning https://www.advaita-vision.org/satyam-gyanam-anantam-brahma/ useful.

Brahman being non-dual, it cannot ‘know’ anything – because there is nothing else to know. It is only in the context of the apparent world that knowing, seeing etc. become meaningful. The world is mithyA – it is name and form of Brahman. Objects have no existence of their own. The metaphor of rings and bracelets being only gold is relevant.

In the world, Brahman is said to be ‘reflected’ by the intellect so that we are said to be conscious and can perceive and know things. This is called chidAbhAsa and there are a series of posts about this: https://www.advaita-vision.org/chidabhasa/ and https://www.advaita-vision.org/continuing-reflections-on-reflections/ and discussion at https://www.advaita-vision.org/discussion-on-chidabhasa/. These should definitely help if you are unfamiliar with the term.

Q.156 may also help – http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/q_and_a/q_and_a16.htm#q156.

Q.402 talks about the witness – https://www.advaita-vision.org/q-402-witness-vs-jiva/ – but it is a confusing topic that occupies nearly 5000 words in my next book (‘Confusions in Advaita Vedanta’), so don’t worry that you find it difficult!

Hope these observations help.

Q: These concepts are all very new to me, so I am hoping that you can bear with me, but I would like to ask a few questions regarding the texts that you just shared:

1. In the first text recommended, it writes, “When a thought modification does not take place in the mind, meaning, when a thought is not generated, then cognition does not take place”. For some reason this doesn’t sit right with me. I could be misinterpreting it, but it feels like the author is giving too much power to thoughts by implying that all objects are dependent on thought for their reality? I thought that objective experience is dependent on awareness for its reality, but according to this text, it is actually deriving its reality from thought?

2. In the second text, the author talks about the consciousness reflecting in the ‘inert mind,’ but where does this ‘inert mind’ come from? How can there be room for this finite mind in Brahman (the infinite)?

3. In the second text, the author writes, “It is the reflected consciousness in the mind that perceives objects via the senses.” Are the senses just different forms of consciousness? For instance, seeing would be consciousness directed towards sights. Or is it more that consciousness is aware of the five senses?

4. The fourth article that you recommended says, “It is ignorance which leads us to think that we are the reflection when we are really the original. Rectification of this mistake is enlightenment.” However, if I seemingly know objective experience through the senses, as previously mentioned, how can I say that I am not the reflection in the mind?

5. “Act of witnessing has to take place through the body-mind-intellect, which is not who you really are.” If I am not the witnesser of experience then how can I say that Brahman is aware?

A: I am always happy to answer a few ‘informed’ questions from seekers. But obviously I cannot embark upon prolonged explanations of basic topics. I am in the process of writing books so cannot reasonably spare lots of time. If you are relatively new to Advaita, you should read a comprehensive overview before trying to challenge key concepts. I suggest my ‘Book of One (2nd edition)’, Venugopal’s ‘Vedanta – the Solution…’ or Sadananda’s ‘Introduction to Vedanta’.

  1. A basic concept in Advaita is that everything is Brahman and we (the mind) ‘separate out’ forms and give them names. Also perception in Advaita does not work in the way that modern science explains. The mind ‘goes out’ through the senses and takes on the form of the object. But that is a complex subject and is not really needed for grasping the essentials. Read the series beginning http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/knowledge/intro1.htm if you are really interested.
  2. The mind is itself name and form of Consciousness but it is ‘animated’ by Consciousness in the jIva. But all these are only meaningful in the empirical sense. From the absolute ‘point of view’ there is ONLY Consciousness.
  3. The entire body and mind is basically inert – gross and subtle matter – until ‘activated’ or ‘enlivened’ by Consciousness. Consciousness ‘enables’ everything. (In reality, everything IS Consciousness.) It does not ‘participate’ in any empirical transaction. The metaphor that is sometimes used is that of electricity causing heat, light, motion, whatever depedning upon the particular inert mechanism through which it functions.
  4. The question of who, exactly ‘I am’ is actually quite a confusing one and I write about this in my next book. Fortunately, I have actually posted this material to the site and you can read the two sections at https://www.advaita-vision.org/pratibandha-s-part-5-of-7/.
  5. Hopefully the previous answer will also clear this one. Brahman is NOT aware in the sense that this is usually used (i.e. A is aware of B), since Brahman/reality is non-dual.

Q: Recently I came across the theory of solipsism unintentionally, and ever since, it has plagued my being. I can’t shake the idea of there being only my mind no matter how hard I try because in the end, there is no way to prove that it is false. Can you give me some guidance on how to approach my problem?

A: In reality, there is only Consciousness; and you are that, not your mind (which is inert).

Solipsism is a theory in Advaita post-Shankara. It is called eka-jIva-vAda. Shankara himself did not accept this. You can read my views on the subject in a two-part post beginning at https://www.advaita-vision.org/the-devils-teaching-part-1/. All theories of this type relate to the apparent world only, so they become redundant once you appreciate that the world is mithyA.

2 thoughts on “Q.502 Brahman and Awareness

  1. Answer: For the sake of simplicity, I will break the Q 1 and Q2 and try to provide answers.
    Q1.1 According to Advaita, awareness is infinite, and it alone is. If so, is awareness aware of finite objects?
    Q1.2 Is there witnessing from the Absolute viewpoint? OR Is the Absolute a witness?
    Q2.1 Is awareness involved in the act of knowing?
    Q2.2 If so, does the awareness become the mind for the purpose of knowing?

    In order to take up the above questions, it is desirable to investigate our ordinary experiences and go back to the source. A human being is a conscious entity. He has a sense of self-called ego- located in the mind. It is important to note that only a conscious entity has a sense of self; an inert entity does not have. According to Advaita, the mind is a subtle body made up of five inert elements (PanchbhutAs) in their nascent forms. The gross body is made up of the panchabhutAs when they undergo grossification. Though the mind is inert, yet it behaves like a conscious entity having a sense of self. It follows that the mind borrows consciousness from an outside source, the Original Consciousness (OC). As OC is responsible for generating the sense of self in the mind, it is also called Self to distinguish it from the self or ego. It is as though OC is reflected in the mind, i.e., the there is Reflected Consciousness (RC) in the mind. The mind plus RC is the self (ego). We have now the OC (Self), the RC, and the self (ego). Sanskrit’s word for Self is AtmA. By Its mere presence, the RC is produced in the mind and enables the conscious mind to do all the transactions in the world. The OC ‘blesses’ the mind, so to say. Further probing reveals that the OC is beyond the mind and is the subtlest and there is nothing beyond the OC. In this sense, the mind is an object of OC, the ultimate subject. As attributes belong to an object, it follows that OC is attribute-free, is action-free, and changeless. The attributes belong to the mind-body complex. It means that the OC of a person X is the same as the OC of Y. Although there are many persons in a room, there is only one Self. One OC pervades the entire objective world. The OC is infinite. On the other hand, the RCs are different and finite because the minds are different and finite.
    Q1.1: According to Advaita, awareness is infinite, and it alone is. If so, is awareness aware of finite objects?
    Answer: As awareness is infinite, it is taken to refer to OC. As explained above,
    the OC is actionless. It simply is. It is the mind with the help of RC that is aware of finite things including thoughts that arise in the mind. As the RC ‘represents’ the OC, one may loosely say that the OC is aware of the objective world with the clear understanding that the OC is actionless.
    Q1.2 Is there witnessing from the Absolute viewpoint?
    OR
    Is the Absolute a witness?
    Answer: The OC is the Absolute and from Its viewpoint, it alone is. Witnessing involves at least two. The question of witnessing is meaningless.
    Q2.1 Is awareness involved in the act of knowing?
    Answer: Knowing is the faculty of mind plus RC. The OC is not involved in knowing.
    Q2.2 If so, does the awareness become the mind for the purpose of knowing?
    Answer: The question does not arise in the light of the above answer.

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