Not the Doer – Q.338

Q: It seems like a contradiction to me to say that we are the observer and not the doer and, at the same time, suggest that we can do something such as paying attention. I encounter this “apparent contradiction” often when I read about Advaita. If there is no doer, why are there suggestions as to how to remove ignorance, for example? Who would remove the ignorance if there is no doer?

 – Is it that in the dualistic world it appears as if there is a doer and therefore we act “as if”, even though we might know that there is no doer?

– If we realize that there is no doer but we act “as if”, is it like playing our part in a “game”?

– If the ignorance is removed, “who” apperceives the truth?

A (Ramesam): This question conceals within itself the much deeper conundrum of free will versus destiny. One can find scriptural statements that exhort a man to make effort in the pursuit of the ordained goal of liberation and also statements that categorically declare that it’s all in the hands of ‘Grace’ to get liberated. Volumes are written and discussed on the problem of Free Will vs. Destiny in the modern version of this debate resulting in compatibilism as a compromise.

 Advaitic texts like Yogavaasishta clearly weigh on the side of the existence of human effort. Sankara says in his commentary on Brahma Sutras that the highest human goal set by all the Upanishads is the realization of Oneness of ‘self’ and Brahman and the Upanishads do spell out several guidelines on achieving it. But at the same time, it is also clarified that liberation is not a result of ‘something being done.’

 The easiest way out of this paradox is to understand that a man should take all such actions that facilitate and do not hinder the dawn of liberation – sort of keep himself/herself in readiness and fitness. He cannot demand liberation as a right because he fulfilled certain stipulated conditions.  And what is the prime action he should take? The one word answer is ‘vairagya.’ Vairagya is a beautiful Sanskrit word that stands for dispassion, detachment (or rather non-attachment because one is never attached to anything to begin with, if one has a full understanding of Vedanta), sacrifice, abjuration, renunciation etc. etc. all combined.  When you have given up everything like that, you would have anyway given up the desire for liberation too!!

 Metaphorically speaking let the Sunshine come in by leaving the doors and windows open – do not obstruct by shutting the doors; nor should you decorate with curtains. Be ever ready and leave it to happen by itself.

 The crux of the matter actually lies in the fact that free will and choice exist for one who thinks that he is a separate self (individual). Consequently the “struggle” for achieving Union with the Universal Self (which, in other words, is nothing but ‘suffering’) also will exist for the separate self. Once the falsity of ‘separate self’ is understood without an iota of doubt left, what remains will be the nameless, attributeless, formless Brahman. No-thing needs to be done anymore nor would any ‘person’ be there to do or apperceive anything. In fact, ‘suffering’ is the red flag that goads you to wake up to this Truth.

A (Sitara): As long as there is identification with the doer, we are better off doing what helps us to overcome this identification. As we are anyway doing, why not do the best thing possible, i.e. develop maturity, meditate, pray, inquire, study, etc.?

 ‘Is it that in the dualistic world it appears as if there is a doer and therefore we act “as if”, even though we might know that there is no doer?’


 ‘If we realize that there is no doer but we act “as if”, is it like playing our part in a “game”?’

Yes, except that this can be considered another doing.

 ‘Who would remove the ignorance if there is no doer?’

Removing the ignorance is a doing done by a doer. From the point of view of consciousness there is no ignorance to be removed.

 ‘If the ignorance is removed, “who” apperceives the truth?’

No-one. When ignorance is removed what remains is truth. If you want you could say, truth apperceives itself but this admits the notion that truth is apperceived as an object. Whereas truth in fact is the only ‘thing’ that cannot be objectified but is both at the same time, subject and object. If this is not true of your ‘truth’, you have found something else, not truth.

 ‘we are the observer and not the doer’

This still is a bit of a provisional truth. Knowing oneself as the observer is closer to truth than being identified with the doer but there is more to know. The observer is still caught in a subject-object-relationship. He has realized himself as the ultimate subject, yes, but there obviously is something ‘out there’ to be observed. As long as the observed is not fully recognized as one with the observer there is still a notion of duality. This refers to what I said above: truth, i.e. consciousness, ultimately is neither object nor subject but both at the same time.

A (Peter): The key thing to note here is that the doer status and knower status exist at two different levels of reality, the former in dream and the latter in waking. In dream, a dream ‘I’ goes through many experiences and ‘does’ a lot to deal with them. On waking, the waker sees that the dream universe was born from his own creative imagination and that his dream persona’s sense of doership is not true after all – even though it seemed very real during the dream.

 The dream character could well tell himself or herself to be alert, to pay attention. This makes perfect sense from the dream character’s perspective. But from the waker’s perspective what the dreamer does or doesn’t do is totally irrelevant. That’s the advaita perspective. In the Gītā we are told that the scriptures have as much usefulness to the self-knower as has a tiny reservoir that is covered over by flood water. So also, to the knower of self, there is no more doer to do or enjoyer to enjoy or disciple to pay attention.

 In one’s dream the dream doer may take up dream practices, dream studies, worship, pray, etc. The dream ignorance is thereby removed – one thin layer at a time. Yet on waking, all the problems that existed in the dream and all the efforts made to overcome them in the dream are as nothing.

 Similarly, from the perspective of one identified with the mind-body amalgam, the covering ‘dream of māyā’ can be rendered less disturbing if one adopts a karma yoga lifestyle. The waking-dream mind, becomes refined by waking-dream karma yoga and upasana practices and as a result of being exposed to true waking-dream knowledge of Reality by a qualified waking-dream teacher, it starts to become thinned. How come? Because that is the law associated with these sorts of practices.

 Then what happens is that, even though the activities of eating, sleeping, walking, grasping, opening and shutting the eyes, etc continue, it is clear that these actions are not of the nature of consciousness, but of the nature of matter. Who or what acts in that case? The gunas of māyā act on the gunas of māyā – that’s the law of matter: it is in a constant state of interaction and change. Self does not interact or change, just as the cinema screen does not interact or change or commit atrocities or love or die, despite what is projected on it. Screen and projected image are two different levels of reality.

 And finally, no one ‘apperceives the truth’: it’s just that the mistaken notions that cover it are removed. (One footnote here: if you use the word ‘truth’ to mean truth ABOUT the self, then you get into a muddle. If, however, you use the word Truth as intended by Vedanta – that which exists beginninglessly, endlessly, changelessly – then you understand that Truth is Self, and Self cannot be an object of knowledge).

A (Dennis): You are quite right. The fact of the matter has to be that, if we are being ‘true’ to the non-dual nature of reality, we could never say anything at all. Who could say what to whom when there is no differentiation?

In practice, what we try to do is point to that reality from the dualistic world of transactions. This is where we start from – we are ignorant of the truth. This ignorance is very much in the dualistic mind of the dualistic individual. And the only way to ‘apperceive’ the truth is via the ‘explanations’ of scriptures and teachers. This, in turn, necessitates saying things which cannot be literally true but which have to be taken as intermediate truths, if you like, in order to progress in understanding until able to make the final leap of realization.

You just have to get into the habit of appreciating from which viewpoint you are speaking (thinking). From the standpoint of the empirical world, we cannot help but act. We are constantly breathing, circulating blood etc; we have to eat and drink to maintain the body, and move about in order to achieve these. And I (the individual jIva) think and speak, trying to get the mind to understand and dissolve its ignorance. All of this is actually happening from the vyAvahArika view. And, most of the time, it is definitely not a game!

But in reality, there is only brahman, non-dual consciousness if you like. There are no individuals doing anything at all; no actions and no objects upon which to act.

So what is happening here is that we are, for all practical purposes, living in a dualistic universe but trying to understand and appreciate the non-dual reality in our minds. If you want the crude analogy, we seem to be individual waves in a huge and constantly threatening ocean. But in reality there is only ever water.

One thought on “Not the Doer – Q.338

  1. Shankara’s own comments on doership (and the ‘scope for personal exertion’), as taken from the empirical domain, are as follows:

    “He who would follow the teaching should, at the very commencement, rise above the sway of affection and aversion. For, what we speak of as the nature (prakriti) of a person draws him to its course only through attraction and aversion. He then neglects his own duties and sets about doing those of others. When, on the other hand, a person restrains these feelings by means of their enemy (viveka jnana or right knowledge), then he will become mindful of the teaching only, no longer subject to his own nature. Wherefore, let none come under the sway of these two; for, they are his adversaries, obstacles to his progress in the right path, like thieves on the road.” (Bh.G.B., III.33-34)

    Shankara defines ‘own nature’ (prakriti) as the samskara (the latent self-productive impression of the past acts of dharma and adharma) manifesting itself at the commencement of the present birth, from which even the man of knowledge is not free.

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