Consciousness, brahman and mokSha

The taittirIya Upanishad explains brahman as:

सत्यं ज्ञानमनन्तं ब्रह्म ।  — 2.1.1, taittirIya upa.

[Beingness, Knowingness and Infiniteness is brahman.]

Unending Beingness and Knowingness is the nature of brahman.

There are two endpoints for anything in this world — one is the beginning and the other is the ending. But brahman, The Knowingness, as the Upanishad says is Infinite, without limitations or edges or endpoints. It has neither a beginning (origination) nor an end (culmination).

From a common sense point of view, it may be argued that “Knowingness” cannot exist on Its own in the absence of a knower and something to be known. Can Knowingness ‘be’ in a vacuum? Is Its presence not dependent on a knower who would have been the locus for It? In the usual parlance, knowingness is that which interlinks the ‘knower’ with the ‘known.’ With the two end-members being absent, can ‘Knowingness’ exist on its own independent of the other two?

For example, let us take ‘hunger.’ There has to be someone who is hungry. Also there has to be a substance that can satiate the hunger. Suppose there is none who is hungry, nor anything edible in this world. Can the word ‘hunger’ mean anything under those circumstances? ‘Hunger’ cannot “be” on its own, nor could ‘experience,’ the feel of being hungry to eat something “be”; hunger cannot exist eating itself!

Similarly, for ‘fear’ to be present, there has to be someone who feels the fear, and something to cause the fear. In the absence of anything to be afraid of and someone who is scared, ‘fear’ does not have any meaning.

Extending the same logic, we may question if Knowingness can be present in the absence of the knower (the knowing person, me) and the known (the world, the object). Does not Knowingness establish a relationship between the knower and the known?  There is no scope for a ‘relation’ to exist all alone by itself, when there are no ‘relata’ to be related to one another by it.

Counterintuitively for us, the amazing answer the aitareya Upanishad provides is that neither the individual nor the world exist and what is really present is Knowingness alone! It asserts that the jIva and jagat (the individual and the world) depend on Knowingness and not the other way round. It makes the significant declaration, a mahA vAkya:

 प्रज्ञानं ब्रह्म   —  3.5.3, aitareya upa.

[The Absolute Knowingness is brahman.]

prajnAna is derived as: prakRiShTam jnAnam prajnAnam, meaning that the Knowingness referred to here is prakRiShTam. ‘prakRiShTa’ stands for exceptional, extraordinary, magnificent, distinguished etc.

Thus the Knowingness that the Upanishads talk about is significantly different from the ordinary ‘knowingness’ we possess in our day to world – like, for example, London is the Capital for England; The Sun raises in the East; Dr. Einstein was a theoretical Physicist; I have to take the 8:30 flight tomorrow; and so on. These are all ‘memory-based’ informations, commonly covered as knowledge. One can become an “expert” accumulating more and more of such knowledge stored in his mind on any subject. The accumulated knowledge and expertise ends with him. This knowledge is ever growing and ever incomplete and imperfect. The Vedantic Knowingness, in contrast, is eternal, ever Perfect and Complete, always New and not stored in the mind (memory system).

And Shankara tells that mokSha (Liberation) is brahman Itself:

ब्रह्मभावश्च मोक्षः । — Shankara at 1.1.4, BSB.

[Liberation is the state of identity with brahman (Translation: Swami Gambhirananda).]

Therefore, Liberation is nothing but being brahman or in other words, being as the endless Knowingness, the endpoints being the knower and the known, aka, the jIva and the jagat. All the three – jIva-jagat-Ishwara – dissolve in the Perfection of the Absolute Knowingness like the rivers merging with the Ocean and, once merged they cannot retain their presence and identities (perhaps beyond a short while, as chAndogya 6.14.2 says).


[Note: The Sanskrit word “jnAnam” occurring in the 2.1.1, taittirIya is usually translated as “Knowledge” or higher Knowledge or Awareness etc. I preferred to translate it as “Knowingness” because the English word ‘knowledge’ is a broad term that connotes “the understanding gained through experience or study.” It encompasses a bundle of “the facts, feelings or experiences known by a person or group of people,” or it refers to “the state of knowing.” Such a translation often is quite confusing because, “jnAna” in its Vedanta sense does not refer to the accumulated data or mass of information stored but to that elemental quality or ability “to know, to sense or detect” like in a sensor. I hope the word “Knowingness” can bring out better this subtle difference leading to a correct understanding because understanding the word “jnAna” is very crucial in and fundamental to Advaita doctrine, as the essay explained above.]


18 thoughts on “Consciousness, brahman and mokSha

  1. From the Note at the end:

    ” Such a translation often is quite confusing because, “jnAna” in its Vedanta sense does not refer to the accumulated data or mass of information stored but to that elemental quality or ability “to know, to sense or detect” like in a sensor.”

    This is a penetrating remark, what Krishnamurti called learning.

    Jnana is always and everywhere in the active present, moment by moment.


  2. Shishya,

    Thanks for the link – i will take a look later (it’s too long for a quick read).

    Have you noted the innocent contradiction in the last line of your comment? That naivete is actually what Advaita tries to point out to us. When “jnAna is always and everywhere,” one should see and feel It to be present without gaps in space and time. But why does one have to add “moment to moment”? Why and wherefore are the ‘gaps’ in between two moments?


    • Ramesam, there is no contradiction there, it is you that have innocently reified “knowingness” into Brahman, a notion that is, by definition, incomprehensible. So you slip easily from Jnana to Brahman to an ontological claim about the world.

      I meant “everywhere and always” in the following historical sense as in Huxley’s preface to The First and Last Freedom by Krishnamurti.
      “In every region and at every period of history, the problem has been repeatedly solved by individual men and women. Even when they spoke or wrote, these individuals created no systems – for they knew that every system is a standing temptation to take symbols too seriously, to pay more attention to words than to the realities for which the words are supposed to stand. Their aim was never to offer ready-made explanations and panaceas; it was to induce people to diagnose and cure their own ills, to get them to go to the place where man’s problem and its solution present themselves directly to experience.”
      Sorry to disappoint, but the main feature of Advaita that appeals to me is hard determinism and the main feature that does not appeal to me is the notion of Brahman however subtly it is asserted.

      • The fundamental understanding of oneself does not come through knowledge or through the accumulation of experiences, which is merely the cultivation of memory. The understanding of oneself is from moment to moment; if we merely accumulate knowledge of the self, that very knowledge prevents further understanding, because accumulated knowledge and experience become the center through which thought focuses and has its being.

        J. Krishnamurti, The Book of Life

  3. Exactly.
    That is why Advaita speaks about jnAna niShTha (steady abidance “as” (not ‘in’) Knowingness, neither reifying It nor deifying It.

    Who could get It?
    18.51, BG answers: [One who is] endued with a pure reason, controlling the self with firmness, abandoning sound and other [sensory] temptations, and laying aside likes and dislikes.

    Who is fit for It?
    18.53, BG tells: [One who has] abandoned egotism, strength, arrogance, desire, enmity, property, free from the notion of ‘me-mine,’ and peaceful, he is fit to be brahman (= Knowingness).


  4. “Who is fit for It?
    18.55, BG tells”

    In the interest of abandoning error, that would be 18.53, BG

  5. Ramesam, putting together verses 51-53 is this translation:
    BG 18.51-53: One becomes fit to attain Brahman when he or she possesses a purified intellect and firmly restrains the senses, abandoning sound and other objects of the senses, casting aside attraction and aversion. Such a person relishes solitude, eats lightly, controls body, mind, and speech, is ever engaged in meditation, and practices dispassion. Free from egotism, violence, arrogance, desire, possessiveness of property, and selfishness, such a person, situated in tranquility, is fit for union with Brahman (i.e., realization of the Absolute Truth as Brahman).
    Unfortunately for me, my faith in verses 18.59-18.61 is much stronger and aligns very well with Sri Ramana’s utterances on this topic.
    If, motivated by pride, you think, “I shall not fight,” your decision will be in vain. Your own material (Kshatriya) nature will compel you to fight.
    O Arjun, that action which out of delusion you do not wish to do, you will be driven to do it by your own inclination, born of your own material nature.
    The Supreme Lord dwells in the hearts of all living beings, O Arjun. According to their karmas, he directs the wanderings of the souls, who are seated on a machine made of the material energy.

  6. BG 18.63: Thus, I have explained to you this knowledge that is more secret than all secrets. Ponder over it deeply, and then do as you wish.
    How to “do as you wish” as advised above ? Below is one response:
    It is only a mind that is incapable of inquiring and investigating that asks ‘how’. A mind that is looking, observing never asks ‘how’ because ‘the how’ implies a mechanical process.

    Krishnamurti Public Talk 4 in Bombay (Mumbai), 27 January 1974
    Maybe you don’t have to “do” anything in the sense below from Swami Sivananda?

    Though every experience is finally caused by Prarabdha alone, its connection with one’s consciousness constitutes effort or a fresh deed. Effort is nothing but consciousness of action as related to oneself, whatever be the thing that prompts one to do that action. It is not the action as such but the manner in which it is executed that determines whether it is a Kriyamana- Karma or not. A Jivanmukta’s actions are not Kriyamana-Karmas; for they are not connected with any personal consciousness. They are spontaneous functions of the remaining momentum of past consciousness of agency.
    All that is needed is to lose the sense of agency, easier said than done.

  7. Shishya,

    I submit not to get into all that business of prArabdha, jIvanmukti etc. etc.

    I suggest just stay with what JK said, as quoted by you: “A mind that is looking, observing never asks ‘how’ …”
    BG 18.53 is precisely the recipe for such a mind.


  8. Sorry, Ramesam, but (as I have said before) the term ‘knowingness’ does absolutely nothing for me. From where have you got this? (Sounds like the sort of word Rupert would use.)

    Did you see my comment on this in Venkats’ post? I reproduce it here since it is clearly relevant:

    The three words (satyam j~nAnam anantam) are in apposition. They are adjectives but they are lakShaNA-s, not visheShaNa-s. They negate the usually understood meanings. It is only by considering how each restricts and modifies the meaning of the other two that the phrase can be understood as to how it applies to Brahman. Because the j~nAnam is anantam, for example, it has to be other than the usual meaning of knower, known or knowledge. The root ‘j~nA’, also being satyam, is rather understood as ‘Consciousness’. Shankara says “j~nAnam means j~naptiH, the unqualified knowledge. The word j~nAnam can be only taken to mean the lakShyArtha of the knowing process.”

    Best wishes,

  9. Dear Dennis,

    Thank you for your comment reiterating your view about the usage of “Knowingness.”

    Yes, we did discuss this issue a few times in the past. For example, in 05/20, you said:

    “Regarding ‘Knowingness’, I did say that it was a ‘mental block’ on my part. (I initially used the phrase ‘hang-up’!) But I think that many seekers would have difficulty dissociating anything to do with the stem ‘know’ from duality. The knower-knowing-known combination is so intrinsic to our way of thinking.

    In contrast, the use of the word ‘Consciousness’ (with capital ‘C’) is so common amongst writers of Advaita these days that equating this with non-dual Brahman is much less of a problem. (My feeling is that ‘awareness’, capitalized or not, has some of the same connotations as ‘knowing’, strongly implying that one must be aware of ‘something’.)”

    I agree with you that “Knowingness” is not a great term. As I observed at that time, “Consciousness, a noun form, has the danger of objectification. So I prefer the gerund form of “Knowingness.” Maybe it’s time we have to take a hard look at our terminology and revise some of our Advaita argot!”

    As you are aware even Shankara struggles quite a bit in trying to convey the correct sense of the word “jnAnam” at 2.1.1, taittirIya. While he agrees that the word would mean “jnapti,” knowledge, he is careful to point out that it does not stand for the agency or action of knowing. He says that the word “conveys the abstract notion of the verb,(‘jnA’ to know).”
    We have to understand all the four words – satyam, jnAnam, anantam and brahman to be “samAnAdhikaraNa.”

    Shankara says a little later, “the word jnAna … is derived in the cognate sense of the verb, and it is used to form the phrase, ‘jnAnam is brahman’ in order to rule out all instrumentality as that of an agent, as also for denying non-consciousness as that of earth etc.”

    What he is trying, IMHO, is to tell us that he is referring to that inexplicable sense of ‘knowing/sensing/detecting’ like a what a sensor probe does. If we look into the Dictionaries, neither Knowledge nor Consciousness adequately convey that special “quality” of sensing. Knowledge, often, refers to a wad of acquired/stored information-base and Consciousness is too obscure a term, it having multiple meanings depending on the field (science, medicine, psychology etc.) where it is used.

    So for now, I just repeat what I said above: “Maybe it’s time we have to take a hard look at our terminology and revise some of our Advaita argot!”


  10. Dear Ramesam:

    I think you understood these things very well once (tongue in cheek..) and carried out many brave experiments….

    I would also like to congratulate the three of you – Dennis, Venkat, Ramesam on not having given up an inch of ground since the time of this post..

    Good God, does that also mean you haven’t advanced an INCH since 2014 in your quest for jnana…!!! (all T-I-C)
    ramesam on May 28, 2014 at 18:06 said:

    “knowledge may come but not immediate phalam”

    If any one talks of knowledge and its phalam in a way comparable to karma and karma phala, such a usage calls for a lot of explanation.

    One cannot say much without knowing:
    i) The exact words and wording used by the speaker;
    ii) The context and relevance of usage of these words;
    iii) The meaning the words ‘knowledge and phalam’ convey to a listener;
    iv) What meaning is wished to be conveyed by the speaker;
    v) What is understood by the speaker himself;
    vi) The Speaker’s own level of understanding;
    etc. etc.

    But it is not also, perhaps, correct to let go such expressions without a word or two on the potential confusion they may create because, at least on the face of it, they sound not only strange but also “unshAstraic.”

    Why “unshAstraic”?

    Conventionally, “phala” implies bhoktRtva and therefore, the existence of a bhokta (experiencer). A bhokta reaps the just desserts/rewards of his/her karmic actions.

    But in the case of dawn of the Self-Knowledge, by its very definition, what happens is the complete dissolution of any sense of a ‘separate self’ as the experiencer (bhokta). There is a total absence of triputi — of experiencer-experiencing-something to be experienced — on attaining Self-Knowledge. In simple terms, a bhokta does not exist after Self-Knowledge to enjoy any ‘phalam.’

    The intuitively and experientially realized understanding of the “absence” of a separate “me” as an ‘experiencer’, who still would be looking for the bhoktRtva of something to be experienced itself, is the True “Knowledge” (with capital “K”). So there is no gap (time itself cannot exist) in such an understanding happening and the dissolution of an ‘experiencer’ taking place. They are simultaneous; the two are identical; they are synonymous.

    In the absence of such an understanding of Self-Knowledge, all other ‘knowledge’ is only information gained at a verbal level. So there is a need to distinguish “Knowledge” from ‘knowledge’ (lower case ‘k’).

    Though, admittedly, Knowledge and knowledge are both schematically supposed to happen as vRRitti-s, a qualitative difference is postulated between these two notionally conceived vRRittis. The former is referred to as the akhaNDAkAra / brahmAkAra (unbroken and of the nature of brahman or formless) going by the ‘conceptual’ model of vRRitti-s. In contrast, the latter vRRitti is said to be delimited and of a finite form.

    [Incidentally, it may be stated here that Vedanta Scholars aver that the usage of “akhaNDAkAra vRRitti” is not found even in Shankara’s prasthAna trayi bhAshya! So Shankara never used such terminology/conceptual vRRritti model!!]

    To further help to bring in some clarity between Knowledge and knowledge, the following illustration may be useful:

    Everyone knows that on contact, electric power gives a shock. You may also have some idea of what a shock feels like. All this is ‘knowledge.’ But how exactly is the experiential Knowledge of a 440 V shock? Have you ever experienced at least a 220 V shock by willfully touching with your finger a power supply line standing on an uncarpeted cement floor with naked feet? Can you ever forget that experiential knowing of the shock once you had it? What “gap” is required to have any phalam between touching the live wire and the shock?

    I do not advise you to try it; you may say it is foolish to touch a live wire; but I had done that as a curious teenager when I saw for the first time in my life electricity at home when I went for college education to a different town! I simply wanted to know what an electric ‘shock’ was.


  11. Dear Shishya,

    Your ‘touching the electric wire’ is just another version of the ‘going to a foreign land’ or the ‘tasting the fruit’ metaphors. These all attempt to demonstrate that simply ‘hearing about it’ is quite differenct from ‘experiencing’ it for yourself. They claim that ‘anubhava’ is more than simple, ‘intellectual’ knowledge.

    But these all relate to something objective – electricity, country, fruit. What we are talking about here is not something ‘other’ – Atman is our essential nature, now, always. We cannot ever NOT experience it because we ARE it. We just do not realize this. Accordingly, learning about it IS sufficient. If we do not realize it, we need to hear about it some more until the realization ‘clicks’.

    Experience can be contradicted by knowledge (e.g. rope-snake). Knowledge cannot be contradicted by experience (e.g. sunrise). What is needed is knowledge. No need for capitalizing this!

    Best wishes,

    • Dear Dennis,

      Those are all Ramesam’s words, (between the horizontal lines, top and bottom) not mine. I merely reproduced his post from 7 years ago, May 28, 2014


  12. Dear Shishya,

    Thank you for the Post.
    Quite interesting and nostalgic to read through.
    You make a good historian of this site!

    Your very words show clearly how, like brahman, real Knowledge too stays ever the same, changeless, immutable and eternal – it is not for nothing that it is said, Knowledge is brahman (2.1.1, taittirIya).

    Thus Real Knowledge remains ever the same – “a Thing to which nothing need be added and from which nothing can be taken out,” as Shankara comments at 2.1, kena.

    Unlike the Real “Knowledge,” the worldly “knowledge,” be it of Science or Medicine, Carpentry or Theoretical Physics, as you know, constantly gets mutated, modified or improved. What change/improvement/reconciliation can one expect for the Self Knowledge?!

    Why from 2014, the Upanishadic Knowledge remained the same for thousands of years, not conceding, why an inch, not even a hair’s width of territory, in spite of so many invaders from Islamic and Christian regions! You should be truly proud.


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