Shankara differentiates what might be called ‘ordinary’ or ‘intellectual’ knowledge (j~nAna) from ‘transformative’ knowledge (vij~nAna). The knowledge becomes transforming – i.e. making it efficacious in conveying the status of jIvanmukti – when the gaining of it has been preceded by successful sAdhana chatuShTaya sampatti. In his bhAShya on muNDaka upaniShad 2.2.8, he says:
“Wise, discriminatory people (dhIrA) see through vij~nAna; vij~nAna is a special (vishihtena) knowledge (j~nAna), born out of the teaching of shAstra and AchArya (shAstra AchArya upadesha janitam), and received in a specially prepared mind, born (udbhutena) out of total detachment (vairAgya), having control of inner and outer organs (shama and dama), and which is therefore capable of upAsanA to begin with and later of nididhyAsana which together are called meditation (dhyAna). Through such a vij~nAna, wise people realize that the nature of the Atman (Atmatatvam) is non-different from the nature of Brahman (brahmatatvam)…” (Ref. 10)
‘Who am I?’ in communication
Who are we speaking of when we use the words ‘I’ and ‘you’ in writing and speech?
Since we are Advaitins, there are actually three possibilities:
- ‘I’ could mean Atman/Brahman, if used from the ‘as if’ pAramArthika viewpoint;
- ‘I’ could mean the reflected Consciousness (chidAbhAsa);
- ‘I’ could mean the usually understood ‘named person’.
If I am speaking to a relatively new seeker, 1) is a distinct possibility. A teacher will often make ‘absolute’ statements, whether or not directly quoting from scriptures. ‘aham brahmAsmi’ – ‘I am Brahman’ is an obvious example. But this is relevant only in a teaching context. One should never use this meaning in ordinary conversation! There is really no need tacitly to acknowledge that we are aware of the truth, even while we have to speak of mundane topics. Although not using the word ‘I’, Neo-advaitin teachers in particular were often prone to use expressions such as ‘there was pain in the body’ instead of ‘I had a pain’. This way of talking even had a name – the ‘Lucknow syndrome’, so-named because one of the first satsang-style teachers, Sri Poonja, lived and taught in Lucknow in India. It was used to convey to the listener the (assumed) fact that the speaker knew that they were not the body. But (for me at least) it came across as an affectation.
If I am talking about Advaita with a knowledgeable seeker, 2) is also quite likely. But it is unlikely that it would be used without acknowledging ‘chidAbhAsa’ at some point so as to avoid possible misunderstanding.
If I am talking to a ‘normal’ person, who is ignorant of Advaita, then I will certainly mean option 3).
In the context of an on-line discussion, where many of the readers will not be participants but observers (after the event), it really only makes sense to use the third option: ‘I’ means the named person who is writing. When ‘I’ speak to ‘you’ or when I write the word ‘I’ in a post to an on-line discussion, I cannot be Atman/Brahman. The pAramArthika Atman/Brahman is non-dual. It is neither actor nor enjoyer. It does not do anything. It does not speak and it does not write. If I do want ‘I’ to mean Brahman, I need to add additional words to make this obvious. E.g. I might write that it is ‘as if’ Brahman. As noted earlier, this means that it is a teaching trope only and not meant to be taken literally.
The chidAbhAsa concept is a metaphor to explain how it can be that I am really Atman/Brahman and yet appear to be a conscious, embodied, independent entity. It relates the appearance to the reality. But I am not a metaphor. Similarly, when I address ‘you’, I am speaking/writing to the named individual ‘you’. I would scarcely have the temerity to write to Brahman (and what would be the point?)! And, again, it would not be meaningful to address a metaphor. See the ‘Who am I?’ section below for an example of how this is used.
Accordingly, when using the word ‘I’ in a communication, it is only really meaningful when it relates to an (apparently) independent entity A speaking or writing etc. to another (apparently) independent entity B. B doesn’t know in advance what A is going to say or write. All of this is empirically familiar and obvious. There is no need to complicate things unnecessarily. Occam’s razor reigns supreme!
- When person A gains Self-knowledge, he/she then knows that, in reality, he/she is Brahman. He/she also knows that person B is Brahman, the world is Brahman, and everything is Brahman. But B probably still does not know this. I.e. it is the person who gains Self-knowledge.
- When A gains Self-knowledge, A simultaneously knows that he/she is free (or has mokSha/mukti). A was already free but did not previously realize this. Thus, liberation is not ‘gained’, it is ‘realized already to be the case’. You cannot ‘gain’ what you already have. Therefore, mokSha can only be a ‘phalam’ in a figurative sense, even if it is described as a phalam in shruti.
- There may be a time gap between gaining Self-knowledge and becoming a j~nAna niShThA or jIvanmukta. This is because there may be pratibandha-s associated with the prArabdha that still have to be worked out before the body-mind dies. The destruction of the pratibandha-s is synonymous with the gaining of j~nAna phalam.
‘Who am I?’ in thinking
The situation is rather different when it comes to thinking. I do not have to convey anything to anyone else. The ‘thinking I’ is always going to be the intellect – buddhi animated by Consciousness; ‘I’ the chidAbhAsa ego. The problem lies in the extent to which the issues are understood by this intellect. I may, for example, say ‘I am Brahman’ without realizing that this is just a thought in the mind. I need to have a deep understanding of some key aspects of Advaita; not just ones such as chidAbhAsa but also the difference between paramArtha and vyavahAra.
I have said on a number of occasions that I do not believe that vivekachUDAmaNi was written by Shankara – there are several aspects that contradict what Shankara has said elsewhere in texts that are agreed were almost certainly written by him. Nevertheless, it is certain that the author of vivekachUDAmaNi was a brilliant teacher. He uses the various metaphors from shruti to explain the teaching of Advaita in a lucid manner. If a seeker is only able to study one text, there is good reason to make it this one. One does not have to be an advanced seeker to appreciate the material but even advanced seekers are likely to learn something by studying it.
A significant portion of the text is devoted to the pa~ncha kosha teaching from Taittiriya Upanishad, and it has to be said that it is explained much better in vivekachUDAmaNi than in the Upanishad or in Shankara’s bhAShya for that Upanishad. From around verse 184 to around 206, the author addresses the topic of vij~nAnamaya kosha – the ‘intellect’ sheath, otherwise known as buddhi. It is here that the discriminative faculties operate and here that the ahaMkAra notion of ‘I’ appears, since it is here that the metaphorical operation of chidAbhAsa takes place and the reflection (pratibimba) of the original Consciousness (bimba = Atman/Brahman) occurs.
So it is not surprising that the question ‘who am I?’ should be answered (by the unenlightened seeker): ‘I am the buddhi’, or at least ‘I am the (decision-making component of the) mind. It is vij~nAnamaya kosha that feels, sees and hears (verse 185); it is the doer and the enjoyer (186), the ‘owner’ of the three avasthA-s (waking, dreaming and deep-sleep) as well as the experiencer of pleasure and pain (187). It is effectively the intellect that is the jIva. In the metaphor of the five sheaths, this is because it receives the ‘light’ of Consciousness directly, whereas the lower sheaths are only ‘illuminated’ by the reflected light from buddhi. The jIvAtman is essentially reflected Consciousness in a vij~nAnamaya kosha. Consciousness is one but reflections are many, just as the sun is reflected in all of the puddles after heavy rain.
The interesting thing is that neither the mind on its own, nor Consciousness on its own can say ‘I’. The body-mind on its own is inert and can do nothing. Consciousness on its own (paramAtman) is satyam j~nAnam anantam brahma but does not (and cannot) act. There is nothing else – it is perfect and complete. Accordingly ‘I’ cannot be either intellect or Consciousness on its own. Action at the level of the world only becomes possible when Consciousness is reflected in the intellect – the jIvAtman. Then it becomes possible to say ‘I’. Accordingly, ‘I’ has to be a ‘mixture’ of Consciousness and intellect. [Note that I am using the word ‘mixture’ in order to convey the idea. There cannot be a ‘mixture’, since ‘Consciousness’ is the term we are using to refer to the pAramArthika, non-dual reality and ‘intellect’ or ‘mind’ are terms firmly in the realm of vyavahAra. It is not possible for satyam and mithyA to ‘combine’ in any way. C.f. in the rope-snake metaphor, the mithyA snake is an erroneous superimposition on the satyam rope; there is no ‘mixture’ of rope and snake. This point must be borne in mind in the remainder of this section.]
This state of affairs is illustrated in the Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.1 – 3 by the metaphor of the two birds in the tree. Here, jIvAtmA and paramAtman are clearly differentiated. paramAtman, all pervading, manifests in the mind as jIvAtman, which is not all-pervading. One bird (the jIvAtman) is attracted by the fruits on the tree and indulges itself (does karma, gains phalam and is bound by saMsAra), while the other (paramAtman) sits there watching and does not eat anything. The tree is the body; ripening fruits are the karmaphala resulting from past action.
Atman manifested in the limited mind (chidAbhAsa) is called jIvAtman – a ‘mixture’ of jIva and Atman, both literally in the word and metaphorically in the empirical world. The unlimited, all-pervading Atman is called paramAtman to differentiate. It is the presence of Atman that enables action, enjoyment, witnessing etc, even though Atman itself does nothing. We figuratively refer to it as the ‘witness’.
Shankara’s commentary states that “on this tree, ‘Atmeshvarau’ (Atma and Ishvara) are perched like two birds”. He actually uses the word ‘Ishvara’ here, rather than paramAtman. And he uses a metaphor to explain how jIvAtman is ‘empowered’ by paramAtman: “Just like a king who, by his mere presence, is able to direct or prompt his people to do the work, so also the very presence of paramAtman activates jIvAtman as well as the universe.” (Ref. 10)
Mantra 3.1.2 says that our grief and samsara continue as long as we remain seduced by the fruit of the tree. Once we realize that we are the satyam Atman and not the mithyA jIva in this jIvAtman ‘mixture’, the ‘glories of the paramAtman are ours’.