Q.450 Witness – mind or Brahman?

Q: Talks that I have been listening to use the terms ‘witness’, ‘eternal witness’ and other synonyms. Is pure consciousness or Brahman this ‘Ultimate Witness’? If so, obviously, it can’t witness unless there’s a manifesting medium to do so, correct? But ‘to witness’ implies duality. Also, it is often said that Brahman is transcendent or beyond the body-mind, and something other than the mithyA universe. So that means, again, that it can witness everything.

How do you reconcile the fact that knowledge is in the mind with Brahman being the witness beyond and apart from it? And how does this fit in with non-duality – there can’t be two things?

A: The effective explanation is ‘adhyAropa-apavAda’. The reality is that there is only non-dual Brahman or Consciousness. You begin with the conviction that the world is real, you are your body etc. Advaita gradually disabuses you of such notions by use of prakriyA-s (teaching ‘ploys’) such as analysis of the states of consciousness, cause and effect, real and unreal, seer and seen. Each of these takes you a little further in understanding. But, once the particular example has served its purpose, it is discarded. Analogy and metaphor can only take one so far; they are means to an end. Metaphors to illustrate this are leaving the boat behind once you have crossed the river, and letting go of the pole in pole vaulting before you go over the bar.

So, your understanding begins with falsity, ignorance, body, objects and progresses to an appreciation of pAramArthika reality, the opposite extreme of the ignorance – Self-knowledge spectrum. In between you have ideas such as Ishvara and mAyA, karma and reincarnation. Even further towards the ‘reality’ end of the spectrum, you have the concept of witness-consciousness. It’s just a process of successive sublation of the ideas until you reach the final understanding that there is only Consciousness.

If you are talking about Brahman as the non-dual reality, then there cannot be anything else for it to witness or know. It is satyam, not mithyA, and there cannot be any ‘manifesting media’ or ‘mithyA manifestation’ that is not Brahman.

Only the mithyA mind can ‘know’ things objectively. The best that you could say about Brahman in this regard is that it is ‘Knowledge’. (But again that is a mithyA concept in the mind!)

12 thoughts on “Q.450 Witness – mind or Brahman?

  1. Dear Dennis,
    The post will clear the confusion surrounding witness-consciousness which is common. I was no exception. Gradually I have got rid of it on understanding that Advaita teaching is in stages and from a standpoint. The ultimate reality that there is only non-dual Brahman is from the Brahman standpoint. Though the stage of witness- consciousness is almost at the end of the ‘spectrum’, yet it is from empirical world viewpoint and hence the language of duality creeps in and It is referred to as witness- not because It is witnessing.

  2. Some Thoughts and Questions on Free Will
    Posted on January 11, 2014 by Dennis
    Dennis on January 13, 2014 at 15:55 said:
    …The bottom line is that ‘things happen’ (which may or may not involve this body that I call ‘mine’) but all I can do is witness them. I agree that we do not choose to follow Advaita either or have any involvement in whether or not we become enlightened. But, as I think I explained in the five-part series, things still have their lawful effect. Once your ‘head is in the tigers mouth’ as the popular saying has it, you will inevitably continue to read this stuff, ask questions and receive answers and move inexorably towards Self-knowledge. No choice. (You don’t ‘experience non-duality, incidentally – not ever!) Once you have Self-knowledge, you will also eventually cease to identify with the body.

    What difference will it make to ‘you’? Which ‘you’ is that, then? It makes no difference at all to brahman (which is who you really are) because there is ONLY brahman in reality – no world, no individuals. You can call it what you like from the vantage point of the (non-existent) world or individual.

    What a wonderful first paragraph, and what a disappointing second paragraph, why then does Brahman stick in my craw?


  3. Shishya,

    It is not appropriate to post a comment on a thread from 7 years ago against a totally different post!

    But to answer your question using a metaphor that I don’t particularly like: does the movie screen care whether a romcom or a horror movie is being shown?


  4. Shishya,

    Here’s my 2c for what you ask about Free Will:

    You know well that we live in a time-space causational world. Therefore, if I see a set of effects [B] – including the body-mind I have now – which we may call as suffering or happiness, satisfaction or dissatisfaction, there must have been a set of causes [A] for it. The causes may be known (in memory from recent past) or unknown (distant past – genetic and memetic memory). No god or anyone dabbles with the consequences of your actions and only you have the proprietary rights to reap the results, as the BG says.

    Whether recent or distant past, the cause has already happened. It is like a bullet shot from a gun, known or unknown to you. You cannot stop the bullet in between its course. It has to hit its target and then it will come to a stop. So what you call as “your present” is recognized by you too late – after the arrow has been shot. What can you do? There is no choice for you now. After all, it was you who shot that bullet in the past.

    But now on for the next course of action, you HAVE Free Will and a Choice.
    Shankara says at 1.1.2 and 1.1.4, BSB:
    “An act to be performed becomes what it is through human effort. Worldly or Vedic activities may or may not be undertaken, or they may be dealt with otherwise; as for instance, a man can walk, ride, proceed otherwise, or need not move at all.” You have this choice even for thinking too, not merely physical actions.

    kaTha Upanishad clearly tells you the choice you have at 1.2.1 and 1.2.2: There are always two things that bind a man – the Pleasurables and the Preferables. “The intelligent one selects the electable in preference to the delectable; the non-intelligent one selects the delectable for the sake of growth and protection (of the body etc.).”

    Choosing the Pleasurables leads one on the path to ever unfolding and unending cycles of birth and death and their related consequences. Choosing the Preferables leads one on the path of implosion of the world and to one’s own true native original Source.


    • Ramesam, thank you for your detailed reply. I have more to say and will in due course but for now, Einstein:

      I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer’s words: ‘Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,’ accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.
      I thought Dennis was expressing an Einstein-like attitude in his answer to the question, especially the last sentence in the above quote.

      It seems to me that Pratityasamutpada is a much more reasonable axiom than the utterly inaccessible notion of Brahman.

      From wikipedia:

      Ontological principle

      According to Peter Harvey, Pratityasamutpada is an ontological principle; that is, a theory to explain the nature and relations of being, becoming, existence and ultimate reality. Buddhism asserts that there is nothing independent, except nirvana.[23][note 3] All physical and mental states depend on and arise from other pre-existing states, and in turn from them arise other dependent states while they cease.[39] The ‘dependent arisings’ have a causal conditioning, and thus Pratityasamutpada is the Buddhist belief that causality is the basis of ontology, not a creator God nor the ontological Vedic concept called universal Self (Brahman) nor any other ‘transcendent creative principle’.[40][41]

      The Pratītyasamutpāda ontological principle in Buddhism is applied not only to explain the nature and existence of matter and empirically observed phenomenon, but also to the nature and existence of life.[42] In abstract form, it states: “That being, this comes to be; from the arising of that, this arises; that being absent, this is not; from the cessation of that, this ceases.”[23] There is no ‘first cause’ from which all beings arose.[43]

  5. Forgot to add this quote attributed to the Buddha:
    ‘Let us put aside questions of the Beginning and the End.’ he says, ‘I will teach you the Dhamma: that being thus, this comes to be. From the coming to be of that, this airses. That being absent, this does not happen. From the cessation of that, this ceases.’ ‘He who sees the paṭiccasamuppāda sees the Dhamma, and he who sees the Dhamma, sees the paṭiccasamuppāda.’

  6. Edward Conze in:

    Buddhist Thought in India
    ‘The non-apprehension of a self-essential to a religious life along Buddhist lines, is greatly cheapened when it is turned into a philo-sophical statement proclaiming that the self does not exist’ (p.130).
    The disease of “philosophizing” afflicted everyone it seems, Buddhist, Advaitin, Jain, Ajivika, Charvaka, etc, etc.

    As the good British doctor in India said:

    “In the tropics, if you encounter philosophy suspect malaria.”


  7. Conze is not decrying the philosophic enterprise as such but only the one-sided dogmatic philosophizing of ‘lesser minds’ who fail to see statements such as ‘the self exists’ or ‘the self does not exist’ in the context of the discussion. According to Conze, if these lesser minds do not take into account the compassionate intention of the Buddha, who was out to help, not to make theories, they will not consider what is being asked, what are the needs of the questioner and his or her mental level, what is liable to be misunderstood, etc. In fact, Conze sites Candrakirti, a philosopher but certainly not a lesser mind, who he says has ‘well shown that under certain circumstances it may be useful to teach that there is a self, under others that there is none, under others again that there is neither a self nor a not-self’, and who understands that these statements are circumscribed by their context of ‘salvational practices’ and outside it they lose their significance.

  8. Thanks, Rick.

    “… In fact, Conze sites Candrakirti, a philosopher but certainly not a lesser mind, who he says has ‘well shown that under certain circumstances it may be useful to teach that there is a self, under others that there is none, under others again that there is neither a self nor a not-self’, and who understands that these statements are circumscribed by their context of ‘salvational practices’ and outside it they lose their significance.”

    Even Nagarjuna accepted the method of adhyaropa-apavada.

    Invoking the tired old snake-in-rope analogy, unless the student knows what a rope is, and that it is harmless, he is not going to “progress” even a inch.

    It seems to me you can’t negate and sublate-into Brahman-the-incomprehensible, so why not just continue with negation, negate Brahman and leave it there, stopping thought.


    • Who would ‘negate Brahman’? Who would ‘stop thought’? Brahman is that which is left after negating EVERYTHING, including your concept of Brahman!

      The rope-snake metaphor can be used to help others understand NOW. It matters not one jot how old it is!

  9. https://hegel.net/en/sublation.htm
    The meaning of “sublation” as translation of “Aufhebung”

    One central term of Hegel, the German word “Aufhebung,” is usually translated as “sublation” into English.

    In fact, the word “sublation” appeared in the 19th century English literature , only after Hegel and the Hegel School began using “Aufhebung” and translators needed an equivalent. “Aufhebung,” depending on context, was being used to mean simple negation, affirmation, or a simultaneous affirmation/negation. English translators looked to Latin (many English scientific words have Latin roots) and found the word “sublatus” (to take or carry away or lift up); the Latin “sublatus” then became “sublation” in English.

    Why did the translators associate “lifting” or “taking away” with the abstract ideas of negation and affirmation?

    The entire flow of meaning from the original German word “Aufhebung” arises from its basic associative picture, which in German involves simply lifting something from a lower place to a higher place, such as from the floor or ground into your hand.

    However, thinking about this process can bring to mind certain associations and inferences when the word is used:

    A. Something lifted from its ground has been thereby taken away. A legal ban may be “lifted” and thus may in effect be done away with (negated).

    B. On the other hand, something lifted up may in fact be preserved (saved) for later use. Physically or even spiritually someone may “lift up” a person who has fallen and save him from impending destruction. Here we have affirmation.

    C. The picture of something being raised to a higher level can be abstracted and then applied to intellectual constructs. Someone might say, “Let’s take this thesis to a higher level.” This actually happens. For instance, it is now commonly said among physicists that classical (Newtonian) physics has been “sublated” by or within relativistic (Einsteinian) physics. In other words, it has simultaneously been negated (superseded or supplanted) and affirmed (confirmed to be valid, but only within a wider, relativistic context that was not suspected by Newton).

    Thus, an older thesis may be done away with (negated) but preserved in part, namely that part that has been shown to be reasonable. A new or wider understanding has emerged from a critique of the old. The “sublation” of a concept or thesis in its broadest conception has reformed its implicit assumptions (and even its antitheses) by both preserving and negating them in a higher thought that includes the truth of subsidiary or partial aspects.

    The aspects A and B are explicit mentioned by Hegel himself, while his pupil and Hegelian Professor of Philosophy J.E. Erdmann was the first one to explicit mention all three aspects in his comment of 1841….

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