Q.396 – Atman cannot be known

Q: Swami Paramarthananda makes the following comments in his talks on upadeSha sAhasrI:

Atma, though a knower of everything, is not a known object, because, if Atma were to be a known object it will need another Atma to know, leading to what is known as infinite regress (anavasta dosham).  Atma cannot be known by itself, because, to be known by itself, it has to become both the subject and the object, which is not possible as one and the same entity cannot function as subject and object simultaneously.

We cannot also say that one part of Atma can be known by another part, as Atma is by definition partless.  Thus, Atma is ever the knower but not known by others or by itself. 

No Proof Needed

As Atma is self-evident, its existence needs no proof.  That I am conscious is evident to me.  The very search for proof is possible because of my being conscious.  Thus, Atma is revealed as self-evident Witness Consciousness which illumines everything and which cannot be objectified by anything.  This Atma is my real nature.  All the known attributes belong to the known objects and cannot belong to the knower, Atma (consciousness).

Atma cannot know Atma (Atma cannot be known), but Atma is said to be self-evident ( I know I  am conscious). So does it mean, the self-evident Atma is due to the chidAbhAsa?

I know my face only because I can see my face in the mirror and recognize it. But my face can exist without the mirror and its reflection. Like the Tenth Man Story, he couldn’t know himself unless the guru told him.

Mind, which is acting like the mirror is only mithyA; its substratum is Brahman/Pure Consciousness only. So the self-evident quality is also mithyA.  When the body and mind are destroyed, there will be no chidAbhAsa; after that nothing can be said or known or thought or described. videha mukta will never say ” I am self evident, I am Pure Consciousness, I exist”

Although, ultimately, there is no videha mukti or liberation either because, since beginingless time, there is only brahman; body and mind are like golden ring and golden bangle.

Is this true?

A (Dennis): There is always a problem when trying to talk about absolute reality, because the reality is the non-dual brahman. ALL discussions, explanations, rationalizations etc take place in vyavahAra, which is dualistic and mithyA. chidAbhAsa is a metaphor, and a very useful one; it can ‘explain’ aspects which are otherwise difficult to rationalize. But the bottom line is that All those explanations etc have to be dropped in the end. This is why the key methodology of advaita is pointed out as being adhyAropa-apavAda.

Most of what you say looks ok but the answer to the question “So does it mean, the self-evident Atma is due to the chidabhasa?” is No. You can say ‘Atma is self-evident’, as in ‘I know I exist’. In reality, there is no such thing as chidAbhAsa because there is no world and no jIva. At the level of the empirical world, you can say ‘that the Atma is self-evident is realized by the intellect of the jIva. chidAbhAsa provides a sort-of-explanation for how this operates if one assumes a real world and jIva’.

4 thoughts on “Q.396 – Atman cannot be known

  1. ‘Atma, though a knower of everything, is not a known object’.

    Respectfully, the first part of that sentence written by Sw. Paramarthananda cannot be correct, unless it is meant as a provisional step towards the full understanding of knowledge and its associated concepts in Advaita Vedanta – pramatru, pramana, and prameya – a distinction which is itself dependent on avidya. Once intuition of Atman has arisen, that distinction what all it comports is annulled.

    Shankara, in his Gita Bhashya, 2.69, states, ‘The ultimate means of knowledge removes the knowership (Pramatrutwa) itself superimposed on Atman, and simultaneously with that removal it ceases to be a means of knowledge’.

    Cf. ‘When all has been reduced to the One Self, who is to see, what object, by what means?’ – Br. Up. 4.5.15

  2. I would say that it is correct at the level of empirical reality. ‘I’ am the knower of everything but I cannot know myself in any objective sense. Of course, from an ‘as if’ pAramArthika standpoint, brahman is neither knower nor known (nor means of knowledge, as you point out).

    But, as we have ponted out before, ALL teaching is mithyA in the final analysis. So ANY teaching is provisional in an adhyAropa-apavAda sense.

  3. Yes, I take your point; but there is what can only be called ‘real understanding’ (or realization?) and which is not a doctrine but rather the point or end, or result, of any philosophical or spiritual doctrine (e.g. shruti). It is not sublatable, not transferable to another though it can be expressed by words with some difficulty being purely subjective (or non-dual) — it can be resumed as: ‘awarenes (which is the same as consciousness) being aware of itself, ‘knowing’ itself’. Sw. P does not cover this aspect, presumably because it is not something teachable, only a result.

  4. Knowing that ‘I am (brahman)’ is what I think we are talking about here. You can call this ‘knowing oneself’ if you like but it is not objective knowledge. It is direct realization (anubhAva) – neither knowledge nor experience. So I would still maintain that Swami P is correct in saying that Atma is not a known object. The fact of this is teachable – this is the essemce of the shruti – but I agree that the anubhAva itself is not teachable; it is, as you say, the end result of the teaching.

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