Meaning of anubhava

The Sanskrit term that is interpreted by many modern teachers as ‘experience’ is anubhava. And indeed ‘experience’ is one of the translations given by Monier-Williams, along with the expansion “knowledge gained from personal observation or experiment”. (Ref. 179) But words such as ‘understanding’ and ‘apprehension’ are also given and these are much closer to the intended meaning.

The idea that some sort of experience has to follow the gaining of ‘intellectual understanding’ sounds reasonable when we think of normal worldly knowledge versus experience of objects. Hearing about a foreign land is not at all the same as visiting it. Reading about the cultivation and physical appearance of a fruit is not the same as actually tasting it. Both these metaphors are used by those teachers who claim that ‘anubhava’ is necessary following knowledge gained from śravaņa-manana.

But the ‘object’ we are talking about here is ātman. And ātman is not a foreign land or a fruit; it is our essential nature now, even before we are told about it and accept it ‘intellectually’. We cannot ever not ‘experience’ it, because we are it. It is experienced as consciousness – without attributes, i.e. nirguņa. We do not have to look for any experience, simply remove the misconceptions that prevent us from recognizing and acknowledging this.

There is no ‘experience’ of Consciousness separate from ‘knowledge’. In fact, there is no ‘experience’ of ātman in any case, since ‘experience’ implies duality. We experience the world in empirical reality but we could never experience ātman in this way. This is why the teachers who say that anubhava is necessary probably also say that nirvikalpa samādhi is also necessary, on the grounds that normal experience entails duality whereas nirvikalpa samādhi does not. But this is untrue. Even when duality is not experienced, it remains in unmanifest form and returns on awakening or ‘coming out of’ samādhi.

Basically, says Swami Paramarthananda (Ref. 243), if someone claims that they have studied the scriptures sufficiently and now have knowledge of them but they now want gain ātma anubhava, this means that they have not studied the scriptures sufficiently!  ātma anubhava is the one thing that we do not need to seek, do sādhana-s or study scriptures in order to obtain – we already have it in all states of consciousness. Indeed, it is only because of ātma that we are able to experience anything at all. He says that, if you ask what you should do in order to obtain anubhava of Brahman, you should continue to do śravaņa-manana until you realize that you do not have to do anything. The words of scripture are effectively ‘introducing’ Brahman to you, rather than ‘describing’ Brahman. They are telling you about something you really already know but didn’t realize that you knew. Once you have genuinely understood and appreciated this, you also know that no new ‘experience’ is required at all. “Brahma jñāna is that knowledge which removes the desire for Brahma anubhava.

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