Knowing brahman (Awareness)

Our Scriptures repeatedly impress on us that the Ultimate Truth can never be known by a “me” by taking any amount or type of action. “brahman” is known only by “Knowing.”  Puzzlingly, It knows Itself!

Here is a selection of a few mantras for deep contemplation as we enter the New Year:

1नायमात्माप्रवचनेन लभ्यो न मेधया न बहुना श्रुतेन । 

     यमेवैष वृणुते तेन लभ्यस्तस्यैष आत्मा विवृणुते तनूं स्वाम् ॥  — 3.2.3, muNDaka.

[This Self is not attained through study, nor through the intellect, nor through much hearing. The very Self which this one (i.e. the aspirant) seeks is attainable through that fact of seeking; this Self of his reveals Its own nature.  Trns: Swami Gambhirananda.]

2.   नायमात्मा बलहीनेन लभ्यो न च प्रमादात्तपसो वाप्यलिङ्गात् । 

      एतैरुपायैर्यतते यस्तु विद्वांस्तस्यैष आत्मा विशते ब्रह्म धाम ॥   — 3.2.4, muNDaka.

[This Self is not attained by one devoid of strength, nor through delusion, nor through knowledge unassociated with renunciation. But the Self of that knower, who strives through these means, enters into the abode that is brahman.Trns: Swami Gambhirananda. ]

3.   नायमात्मा प्रवचनेन लभ्यो न मेधया न बहुना श्रुतेन ।

     यमेवैष वृणुते तेन लभ्यस्तस्यैष आत्मा विवृणुते तनूंस्वाम् ॥ — 1.2.23, kaTha upa.

[Same mantra as at # 1 above.]

4.  न कर्मणा न प्रजया धनेन त्यागेनैके अमृतत्वमानशुः ।

   परेण नाकं निहितं गुहायां बिभ्राजतेयद्यतयोविशन्ति ॥ — anuvAka 12, mantra 14, mahAnarAayaNopaniShad.

[Neither by works, nor by offspring, nor by wealth, but only by means of renunciation can the life eternal be attained. Higher than the heaven, hidden in the cave, it shines. Those who make strenuous effort enter into it.]

5.   न कर्मणा न प्रजया धनेन त्यागेनैके अमृतत्वमानशुः ।

    परेण नाकं निहितं  गुहायां बिभ्राजतेयद्यतयोविशन्ति ॥  —  mantra 3,  kaivalya Upanishad.

[Same mantra as at # 4.]

6.  चित्तस्य शुद्धये कर्म न वस्तूपलब्धये । — verse 11, vivekacUDAmaNi of Shnakara

[All action is for the purification of the mind but not for obtaining the (true) substance.]

7.  कुरुते गङ्गासागरगमनं, व्रतपरिपालनमथवा दानम्।

    ज्ञानविहिनः सर्वमतेन मुक्तिं न भजति जन्मशतेन॥ – verse 17, bhajagovindaM of Shankara

[One may cleanse one’s sins immersing in Ganga’s waters. One may fast and donate riches to the needy.  But devoid  of jyAna or Knowledge of the truth, none else can get  liberation in spite of being born a hundred times.]

8.   वदन्तु शास्त्राणि यजन्तु देवान् कुर्वन्तु कर्माणि भजन्तु देवताः ।

     आत्मैक्यबोधेन विनापि मुक्तिः न सिध्यति ब्रह्मशतान्तरेऽपि ॥ — verse 6, vivekacUDAmaNi

[Let erudite scholars quote all the scripture, let gods be invoked through sacrifices, let elaborate rituals be performed, let personal gods be propitiated — yet, without the realization of one‘s identity with the Self, there shall be no liberation for the individual, not even in the life times of a hundred Brahmas put together.]

9.  ज्ञानादेवतु कैवल्यम् – garuDA purANa

[Liberation is from the Knowledge (of the Self) only.]

Sage Vasishta also gives importance to Detachment and Dispassion:

10.  अस्ति चेद्भोगवैतृष्ण्यं किमन्यद्ध्यानदुर्धिया ।

      नास्ति चेद्भोगवैतृष्ण्यं किमन्यद्ध्यानदुर्धिया ।। — verse 19, sarga 46, book 2, Ch 6, Yogavasishta

[Meditation is useless without Detachment. Meditation is meaningless with Detachment.]

In a slightly different context:

11.  नाहं वेदैर्न तपसा न दानेन न चेज्यया ।

      शक्य एवंविधो द्रष्टुं दृष्टवानसि मां यथा ॥ — 11.53, Bhagavad-Gita

[Not by Vedas, nor by austerity, nor by gifts, nor by sacrifice, can I be seen in this Form as you have seen Me.]

Rupert Spira explains the same message in a direct way that Awareness cannot know Itself as an object, but is never not known and It knows Itself by being Itself in this Video of 13:25 min.





14 thoughts on “Knowing brahman (Awareness)

  1. Thank you Ramesam.

    Sankara in his commentary on Brhadaranyaka Up 3.5.1, quoting Mahabharata writes:
    ‘”The gods consider him a knower of Brahman who has no desires, who undertakes no work, who does not salute or praise anybody, and whose work has been exhausted, but who himself is unchanged”. 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 . . . Since scholarship regarding the Self cannot come without the elimination of desires, therefore the renunciation of these is automatically enjoined by the knowledge of the Self.’

    Happy New Year to you and all too.

  2. Hi Venkat,

    Thank you for your observations and a reference to Shankara’s commentary at mantra 3.5.1 of brihat. You have taken the above blog Post of mine to the next level with your comment.

    Shankara said while introducing the mantra 3.5.1, “The existence of that which is bound, as also its distinctness from the body etc., has also been known.” My post, as you certainly must have noted, is confined to that “knowing” of “The existence of that which is bound, as also its distinctness from the body etc.”

    I just stop there for the present because the point you brought out unavoidably throws us into a much discussed and debated issue of sannyAsa being mandatory or not for achieving “Liberation.”

    Many of the modern Acharyas tend to conveniently interpret Shankara’s commentary to mean that renunciation at a mental level is required and not at a physical body level, thereby implicitly painting the life with a family and a monthly pay cheque are acceptable.

    From my own experience and what I can “learn and understand” from my life is that it is impossible to be absorbed 24/7, 365 days in the thought of brahman (taila dhAravat), having a family to be taken care of, taxes paid etc. Even having to eat food (including its procurement) seems to be a great burden and hindrance. Yes, to be mendicant, living a life in forests, do appear to be great facilitators. Of course, if one really does reach the level of Krishna as a ‘sthita prajna,’ one may enter back the world and fight wars. But until then,…. yes, I too feel Shankara is right from a practical POV.

  3. Dear Ramesam (and Dennis)

    I was just about to respond to Dennis’ blog post on Samadhi, to repeat Sankara’s comment . . .
    “Since scholarship regarding the Self cannot come without the elimination of desires, therefore the renunciation of these is automatically enjoined by the knowledge of the Self.”

    . . . But you beat me to the point I was going to make. I don’t recall Dayananda’s school ever making this point on elimination of desires being a necessary qualification for knowledge of the Self.

    This renunciation is a difficult point though isn’t it? As JK would note, forcing oneself to renounce, in order to gain something “higher” cannot be the path either; that simply reinforces the “I” that is trying to achieve something. Could it be that it is a natural falling away of desires / fears, as the understanding of the illusoriness of the mental construct of ‘me’ deepens? For the one who has done his preparation, mere hearing of this truth is sufficient for the conviction and concomitant renunciation to follow; for other mere mortals, manana and nididhyasana seems necessary for this conviction to take root.

    And it is the earnestness of the seeker in investigating this ‘I’ (as implicit in your first two upanishadic quotes) and having the courage to follow this investigation to its inevitable conclusion (no “I” can only mean no attachment, no possession, no identification) is what seems to differentiate the jnani from the academic.

    I understand and seemingly agree with Advaita and its message. I still lack the earnestness / conviction / courage to live it. As JK would say “you need to feel it in your bones”. Because living it is being it – can there be any other meditation that this?

    I would really appreciate your / Dennis’ / Martin’s reflections.

    With warm wishes,

  4. I just re-read your Vasistha quote, which I think makes my last point on meditation far more eloquently:

    “Meditation is useless without Detachment. Meditation is meaningless with Detachment.”

  5. Following on Venkat’s reflections, in the same way that ‘I am a doer/enjoyer’ drops away with the dawn of understanding (ad-dvaita), any desires also fall off by themselves – I think this is evident.

    Getting the paycheck, moving to a new and more convenient location, buying a (not too expensive) suit, etc., have nothing go do with it, in my experience.

    ‘Mind alone – when ignorant – is the cause of bondage, and mind alone – when enlightened – is the cause of liberation’. – Amrita Bindu.

    It is the onus on us to become enlightened… er, to understand.

  6. “This monasticism is a part of Self-knowledge because it is the renunciation of desires which contradict Self-knowledge, and are within the province of ignorance.” Shankara: Br.Up. 3.5.1

    It seems to me that desire of any sort is the result of a feeling of limitation or lack, and the belief that the obtaining of the desired object/state would result in elimination of that lack and a state of ‘completeness’. It is the repeated frustration of these endeavors that stimulates the one desire that is not only allowed but actually advocated – mumukShutva. And, as Shankara points out in his introduction to Mundaka, this is not a desire for ‘gaining’ but a desire for ‘knowing’.

    But I think that it is a fallacy to suppose that locking oneself away from temptation might bring a natural end to desire for those things no longer present. In fact, I would imagine that absence of comfort, good food, entertainment etc. might have the opposite effect! The feeling that desires would vanish in the absence of their objects is a delusion. I suspect that the actual reason why seekers left their material lives and ran away to the Himalayas is because that is where they could find the true teachers.

    It is not that one has to give up desires in order to be able to gain Self-knowledge, it is that once Self-knowledge has been gained, we realize that we are already unlimited and complete so that desires are redundant and naturally fall away.

    It is certainly true that Shankara often advocates the desirability of taking saMnyAsa as a preliminary to gaining mokSha but not always – in the Gita, Krishna states that the gRRihastha is a true saMnyAsa and Shankara gives the example of Janaka. So clearly saMnyAsa is not a sine qua non. It is simply that this Ashrama is more conducive to obtaining the qualifications of sAdhana chatuShTaya than any other lifestyle.

    Venkat, I’m not sure why you say “I don’t recall Dayananda’s school ever making this point on elimination of desires being a necessary qualification for knowledge of the Self.” Swami D and his disciples are part of the Shankara sampradAya and they teach what Shankara says. I have only found one place where Shankara himself talked about this precise point: Gaudapada kArikA 3.43 and, if you read Swami D’s translation and commentary on this, you will find that he does not depart from Shankara at all. Perhaps you can indicate some other references and I will then check them out.

    On a more general front, you do seem to be very anti Swami D et al for some reason. Maybe you could cite some actual instances where Swami D or P makes a statement which is contrary to what is said by Shankara?

  7. Martin, Dennis – many thanks for your posts.

    Dennis – reading Sankara and even Gaudapada, it is clear that they advocate renunciation and monastic life. Sankara in Brihadaranyaka (I can’t remember the precise mantra) goes on to argue it is not eulogistic.

    My impression, in reading / listening to Swami D and Swami P, is that they emphasise scholarship – the analytical word by word interpretation of the Sanskrit – as the route to knowledge, as opposed to emphasising the renunciation of desires. To be fair, I can’t give you a quote, because I stopped listening / reading them or their derivatives a long time ago. I find it rather insipid, compared to the beauty of the original Sruti and Sankara’s commentary, or indeed that of SSSS.

    You are right in observing that I have an anti-Swami D / P bias. Frankly I don’t trust them. Vide the previous discussions on their articulation around Sri Ramana.

    I appreciate that you have a different opinion on this, and we aren’t going to convince each other to the contrary!

    Best wishes for 2019.


  8. Two reputed modern scholars, Lance Nelson and Michael Comans are clearly affine to Sw. Dayananda in equating ‘traditional’ Advaita Vedanta with the post-Shankara commentators, therefore with the Vivarana and Bhamati schools. This is an error, as has been repeatedly and amply demonstrated by SSSS – I can document on this. I think my comment of Dec. 18, 2018 (under samAdhi, part l) may have been overlooked by all (there was much traffic here that day). Thus, I repeat them here, with a small addition (last paragraph):

    “The teaching of Sri Vachaspati Mishra (Bhamatikara) and Swami Dayananda is opposed to the Sampradaya of Shankara… Swami Dayananda (and Jaisankar), it would seem, belong to Mandana’s Sampradaya, not Shankara’s…the post-Shankara theories lead to a number of logical problems, already pointed out by Ramanuja in his 11th century critique of the Advaita school as he knew it (that is, the post-Shankara Advaita school). The critique of Ramanuja only applies to the standpoints of the post-Shankarites, and could have been avoided if the post-Shankarites had remained faithful to the teachings of Adi Shankara himself. And this critique makes way for the rise of the dualist schools. So, at least to some degree, the post-Shankara theories were responsible for the forming of rival Vedantic schools.” The Vedantin

    One of Cinmayānanda’s disciples, Svāmī Dayānanda Sarasvatī (1930- ), would eventually go on to break with the Chinmaya Mission and polemicize against the teachings of “modern teachers of Vedanta,” including such modern lights as Vivekānanda, Ramana Mahārṣi, Śivānanda and Cinmayānanda himself (1993). (I can find source)



    Maybe it could sound a bit repetitious, but I guess, if you don’t mind, there is no harm to occasionally remind ourselves the guide posts that the scriptures and Knowers offer us in shedding what is truly “not-me” so that the pristine and resplendent Self coruscates in Its own effulgence unimpeded like the Sun shines in his brilliance when there are no clouds.

    As we all know, the basic Advaitic message is simple and straightforward and can easily be grasped at an intellectual level. What is tough is to really get it viscerally, so to say, at the level of every cell of the body.

    The one question one can ask oneself is “Who is it that “understood” the message. The moment even a flash of thought that “I grokked it” comes, clearly there is still an “I” lingering somewhere. We need to then remember the dictum of kena upanishad which says: “It is unknown to those who know and known to those who do not know” – mantra 2.3. As long as an ‘I’ that understands it is there, it is a conceptualization.

    So it is recognized that the most difficult part in ingesting the Non-dual message is to giving up even the minutest attachment to the body. If there is a thought that I need to clothe, feed and take care of the body, the mumukShu has further to go in developing detachment. One can see at how many places the body-related impediments (pratibandhaka-s) occur from the Table at :

    As pointed out by Martin, yes, mind is the crucial factor in bondage. But what is mind but for the desires and intentions? There is a need to eliminate the very source for the mind. That source is christened as vAsnA-s by some and they recommend vAsanAkShaya. We have kaTha upa advising us in this connection:

    यदा सर्वे प्रमुच्यन्ते कामा येऽस्य हृदि श्रिताः ।
    अथ मर्त्योऽमृतो भवत्यत्र ब्रह्म समश्नुते ॥
    [When all the desires that dwell in the heart fall away, then the mortal becomes immortal and here attains Brahman. ]

    यदा सर्वे प्रभिद्यन्ते हृदयस्येह ग्रन्थयः ।
    अथ मर्त्योऽमृतो भवत्येतावद्ध्यनुशासनम् ॥
    [When all the ties of the heart are severed here on earth, then the mortal becomes immortal. This much alone is the teaching. (Translation: Sw Nikhilananda)]
    — kaTha II – vi – 14 and 15

    Such an utter giving up is samnyAsa (renunciation).
    We get very good guidance regarding samnyASa from what Shankara called the “sAdhana prasthAna (The Way to go for a seeker) – Bhagavad-Gita.”

    Bhagavad-Gita 5.6 says: “Renunciation is hard to attain except by Yoga; a sage equipped with Yoga ere long reaches brahman.”

    In his commentary on the above verse at 5.6, Shankara observes as follows: “Renunciation (samnyAsa) here spoken of is the true pAramArthika samnyAsa” and adds a little later, “brahman here means renunciation (samnyAsa), because renunciation consists in the knowledge of the Highest Self (paramAtman); and the shruti says: ” What is called nyasa is brahman ; and brahman is verily the Great.” (Tait. na-78).”

    But then who is a samnyAsi?
    He is not the one who wears ocher robes and shaves his head just to run away from responsibilities. BG again provides us the needed advice. In 6.1 and 6.2, it says: “samnyAsi is not he who is without fire and without action….No one, verily, becomes a Yogin who has not renounced thoughts.”

    We get further clarity from BG 6.4 and 18.2:
    6.4 says: “When a man, renouncing all thoughts, is not attached to sense-objects and actions, then he is said to have attained to Yoga.” (Here Yoga does not mean Patanajali’s Yoga).
    And 18.2 says: “Sages understand ‘ samnyAsa ‘ to be the renouncement of intentions; the abandonment of the fruits of all works, the learned declare is ‘tyAga.’ (Shankara says in his commentary that tyAga is same as samnyAsa).

    Having given up all intentions, how does the body that thus far housed the seeker live? BG tells:

    यदृच्छालाभसन्तुष्टो द्वन्द्वातीतो विमत्सरः ।
    समः सिद्धावसिद्धौ च कृत्वापि न निबध्यते ॥ — 4.22
    [Satisfied with what comes to him by chance, rising above the pairs of opposites, free from envy, equanimous in success and failure….]

    Such an individual “though acting, he is not bound.”

    And Shankara in his commentary offers the down-to-earth “to do” guidance:
    “He who is satisfied with whatever he may obtain by chance, without his effort or request, who his not affected in mind by the attack of such pairs of opposite (dvandva) as heat and cold, who cherishes no feelings of envy and jealousy,
    who is calm whether he obtains or not such things as might come to him without effort,-such a devotee, feeling no pleasure or pain whether he obtains or not food and other things required for the maintenance of the body, seeing action in inaction and vice versa, ever steady in his knowledge of the true nature of the Self, always disowning agency (”I do nothing at all, energies act upon energies”) in all acts of the body, etc., while begging or doing any thing else for the bare
    existence of the body, thus realizing the non-agency of the Self, he really does not act at all…”

  10. Thank you Martin, that explains much.

    Ramesam, if I may add to your comment, BG is infused throughout with guidance on how knowledge is attained and how a jnani behaves – and it is all to do with detachment and abiding in the Self, and not just scholarship (‘sruti vichara’):

    12.12: Knowledge is surely superior to practice; meditation [associated with knowledge, adds Sankara] surpasses knowledge. The renunciation of the results of works excels meditation. From renunciation, Peace follows immediately.

    The following verses go on to enumerate the qualities of a yogi ‘not hateful, ever content, who does not disturb and is not disturbed by the world’ etc, ending with:

    12.19: The person to whom denunciation and praise are the same, who is SILENT, CONTENT WITH ANYTHING, HOMELESS, steady-minded and full of devotion, is dear to me.

    12.20: But those devotees who accept Me as the supreme Goal and with faith SEEK FOR THIS AMBROSIA WHICH IS INDISTINGUISHABLE FROM THE VIRTUES as stated above, they are very dear to me.
    Sankara: Therefore this nectar which is indistinguishable from the virtues has to be diligently sought for by one who is a seeker of Liberation.

    These virtues (detachment, desirelessness, equanimity, etc) are an inevitable consequence of truly assimilating advaita. But in order to assimilate advaita, you need to have a level of these virtues already. Cause and effect are indistinguishable; the path is the goal.

  11. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that saMnyAsa was not advocated by Shankara. It was clearly one of his key teachings, though it was of course closely bound up with the then-current society. One cannot help wondering if he would still advocate it in today’s society…

    However, I am still looking for actual quotes from Shankara and from Swami’s D or P (on the same scriptural text) which are contradictory. Until someone can provide examples of these, rather than a third person merely stating that this is so, I am unable to give the theory any credence.

    Venkat’s statement that “I find it (Swami D’s cómmentary) rather insipid, compared to the beauty of the original Sruti and Sankara’s commentary” is fine, and praiseworthy, for one who happens to be able to read Sanskrit. But the clarity, understandability and, dare I say, accuracy of the modern commentators is without parallel for this seeker who cannot read the original!

  12. Dennis

    On your point re whether Sankara would advocate renunciation / sannyasa in today’s society . . . Given its highly materialistic, narcissistic and self-absorbed nature, surely renunciation is more necessary than ever?

    And if your point is that in Sankara’s time the culture was such that it would have looked after sannyasins. Perhaps. But I somehow don’t think Sankara’s strong recommendations on this was based on some shrewd calculation on the ability of a sannyasin to survive. Just as Ramana’s renunciation when he left home at 17 without any plans, was unlikely to have been based on any assessment of his likelihood of survival.

    The whole point is that a jnani, has let go of bodily attachment, and how / whether the body lives is no longer of concern. S/he lives by what comes by chance as BG says.

    Or Shankara’s commentary from Yajnavalkya’s teaching of Maitreyi, Brhad 4.5.15:

    “The Self is the last word of it all, arrived at by the process one ‘not this, not this’, and nothing else is perceived either through reasoning or through scriptural statement, therefore the knowledge of this Self by the process of ‘not this, not this’, and the renunciation of everything are the ONLY means of attaining immortality . . . The discussion of the knowledge of Brahman, culminating in renunciation, is finished. This much is the instruction, this is the teaching of the Vedas, this is the ultimate goal, this is the end of what a man should do to achieve his highest good”.

    You can’t get much more unambiguous than that!

  13. Quoting BG 6.1 and 6.2, and also 18.2 Ramesam gives the translation that says that (all) thoughts are to be renounced. I consulted three different versions of the Gita and they all use the expressions variously as, ‘personal intention’, ‘intention of fruits’, or ‘fruits of acts’ instead of ‘thoughts’. One who knows Sanskrit can dispute as to the accuracy of a particular English translation of a term, but it seems evident that ‘thought/s’ is not the same as ‘intentional thoughts’ or ‘fruits of acts’. I am a little perplexed at this, whether it is important or not.

    Further down in his comment Ramesam writes: ‘Having given up all *intentions*, how does the body that thus far housed the seeker live? BG tells:’ OK.

  14. Hi Martin,

    Sorry for the confusion created in translating the concept behind the word “samkalpa.”

    “samkalpa” is a thought, in general.
    In the context of the specific verses we are discussing, it refers to “Intention.”

    The online Free Dic gives the meaning of “Intention” as a resolute mental determination with an anticipated outcome that is intended or that guides one’s planned actions.

    So, I would suggest “intention” suits here in these verses of Gita.

    The Gita translations I gave in my earlier comment were adopted by me from the work of Alladi Mahadeva Sastri (First Edition 1897).

    For a comparison, I am giving below the translation by both Alladi and Swami Gambhirananda for the key Sanskrit words of our interest.

    Both Alladi’s and Gambhirananda’s works are available online as free pdfs.

    1. Verse 6.1 : अनाश्रितः कर्म फलं कार्यं कर्म करोति यः । स संन्यासी …

    (anAsritaH karma phalaM kAryaM karma karoti yaH, saH samnyAsi).

    Alladi Mahadeva Sastri (First Edition 1897) : He who, without depending on the fruits of action, performs his bounden duty, he is a samnyAsi.
    Swami Gambhirananda (Project Gutenberg): He who performs an action which is his duty, without depending on the result of action, he is a monk …

    [My Note:
    A samnyAsi (Renunciate) is said to be one whose actions are not dependent on or a function of the likely results of the action.
    IOW, a samnyAsi does not a priori “intend” to achieve a particular result from his actions. He acts without a motive or a preset ‘objective.’ A samnyAsi is thus unconcerned with failure or success of the result of the action.]

    2. Verse 6.2: न हि असंन्यस्त सङ्कल्प: …

    (na hi asamnyasta samkalpaH).

    Alladi Mahadeva Sastri (First Edition 1897) : has not renounced thoughts
    Swami Gambhirananda (Project Gutenberg): has not given up expectations

    3. Verse 6.4: सर्व सङ्कल्प संन्यासी …

    (sarva samkalpa samnyAsI).

    Alladi Mahadeva Sastri (First Edition 1897) : renouncing all thoughts
    Swami Gambhirananda (Project Gutenberg): has given up thought about everything

    [My Note:
    Shankara says in his bhAshya: The words ” renouncing all thoughts” imply that all desires as well as all actions should be renounced. For, all desires spring from thoughts.]

    4. Verse 18.2:
    काम्यानां कर्मणां न्यासं संन्यासं

    ((kAMnyAnAM karmaNAM nyAsaM).

    Alladi Mahadeva Sastri (First Edition 1897) : ‘samnyasa ‘ [is] the renouncement of interested works
    Swami Gambhirananda (Project Gutenberg): samnyAsa [is] the giving up of actions done with a desire for reward.

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