Q.520 Perception and the witness

Q: How can the mind perceive something which is outside of time, when the mind itself is caught in time like a prisoner? Perception in itself is a movement in time so how can mind even claim to perceive the concept of Brahman and say that Brahman is eternal?

A: The mind cannot perceive anything ‘outside of time’. As you say, perception occurs within time (and space). And, more to the point, that which you perceive is also within time and space. Thus, you can never perceive Brahman. But conceptions are not quite the same. The concept itself is in the mind, which is also limited. But what is conceived is not limited. You can conceive of a unicorn with no problem at all, even though you also know that they do not really exist. Scientists also conceived of black holes, long before any proof was found for their existence – and still no one has ‘really’ perceived such a thing.

But perhaps the simplest way of thinking about it is to consider deeply who you actually are. It is possible to eliminate body, sense organs, mind, and anything else that you can think of as ‘not I’. But it is not possible to eliminate the one who is doing this. There has to be an ‘ultimate subject’ after everything else has been eliminated. That is who you really are and that is Brahman.

Q: Thanks for your wonderful answer, it took me a few days to meditate on it but I see your point. However I have two more doubts regarding the mind and I’m hoping you will be able to answer them as well.

1) Is the sākṣhī consciousness a construct of the brain like the mind? How does it become all-pervasive and separate from the brain/mind?

2) How and why is the mind considered as jaḍa or inert ? 

It is easy for me to understand that the body is jaḍa but how can I apply logical reasoning with regards to the sūkṣma śarīra?

A: The ‘witness’ is a difficult concept to grasp because it does not have the dualistic connotations of the word as normally used; i.e. it is not seeing and mentally reporting on events or things. It is not a thinking or perceiving entity. It is the word we give to the Consciousness ‘behind’ the mind. Thus, it is still active in deep sleep, when the mind is inactive, and is why we can say with certainty that ‘I know that I did not know anything in deep sleep’. It is ‘who I really am’ but only ‘functions’ through a mind (and hence we do not know what someone else is thinking!). It is that which ‘gives life to’ the mind and body, which are otherwise inert.

I’ve written around 5000 words on ‘witness’ in my forthcoming book ‘Confusions in Advaita Vedanta: Knowledge, Experience and Enlightenment’ or you can read all about it in ‘A-U-M: Awakening to Reality’, where it is equated to turīya of the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad.

7 thoughts on “Q.520 Perception and the witness

  1. Re:” ‘witness’ is a difficult concept to grasp”

    Using language non-conceptually: ‘Brahman transcends time, transcends all concepts… being and becoming, substance and process… is imperceptible, inconceivable, and inexpressible…experience of reality is through total transcendence of language and thought [the Upanishadic seers and Shankara] are primarily mystics whose chief goal is bringing about spiritual transformation… [mysticism: experience of reality and not talk about reality]. ‘Reality and Myticism’, R. Puligandla’.
    Cf. https://www.quora.com/Is-linguistic-confusion-the-source-of-many-of-the-traditional-problems-of-metaphysics-and-natural-philosophy?__nsrc__=4

    • Martin, this is, in my opinion, a good description of the term “knowledge” as used by Dennis. Needless to add, I think Wittgenstein’s most useful contribution was to enjoin silence. As is David Mermin’s admonition re: QM – SHUT UP AND CALCULATE. Thanks for the link.
      Lastly, in his later writings Wittgenstein abandoned his earlier hope that logical analysis was the best tool for eliminating pseudo-problems and instead concentrated on the use and misuse of words in ordinary language. He provides a series of thought experiments to help break philosophers of certain bad habits, especially their tendency to assume that there is something essential in terms like “knowing” or “believing”. Wittgenstein pounds away at the idea that these words refer to some “secret inner mental event” and tries to show that a term’s meaning is just its use in a socially-sanctioned situation (and is almost always accompanied by action).

      • Shishya,

        I have no objections to the quoted extracts (below) but could I ask that, when you post a video link, you also give a one-sentence summary of the contents and indicate the duration. This enables visitors to decide whether or not they want to bother.

        Best wishes,

  2. Hi Martin,

    I would have to disagree with the claim that Shankara was a ‘mystic’, I’m afraid. On the contrary, I would say that he always tried to interpret scriptures in a manner that accords with reason. It is teachers such as Ramakrishna that could reasonably be called mystics. In fact, I would also object to the phrase ‘spiritual transformation’. Shankara’s aim was to enable us to see what is ALREADY the case; not to ‘change’ anything.

    Best wishes,

  3. For an interesting discussion of the dialectical relationship between mysticism and scriptural exegesis as exemplified in Shankara’s writings see ‘Mystical identity and Scriptural Justification’ by Shlomo Biderman found in Steven Katz’ ‘Mysticism and Sacred Scripture’ (pp. 68-86). Biderman’s entire chapter is available online at book.google.com. by searching ‘Sankara mystic’ under ‘Books’.

    • Dennis, I am posting the first 2 paragraphs from Rick’s link above. Please delete if necessary. I find Biderman’s “scale” – scripture to mysticism – useful in locating Shankara at the scripture end and my favourite philosopher, heh, heh, at the mysticism end.
      The role of scripture in religious traditions is often surrounded with a certain aura of ambiguity. Sometimes the ambiguity may even lead to a seeming paradox. In mono-theistic creeds, such a paradox results from the need to adhere to two seemingly contradictory claims about the authority of scripture. According to one claim, the existence and nature of God are necessary requirements for the very validity of scripture.
      According to the other claim, the belief in God’s existence stems from the testimony of scripture. To put this paradox in a somewhat more technical way, the existence of God is justified by scripture and the authority of scripture is justified by God.
      At first glance it may seem that when we move away from the public space of scripture into the more private, secluded space of the mystic, we free ourselves from the yoke of certain theological assumptions that prevail within “institutional” religions,and therefore free ourselves as well from the sometimes disturbing paradox. The
      horizon of the mystic seems too accommodating to be clouded by mere paradoxes.There are, after all, countless ways in which mystics feel, experience, act, and react.
      Correspondingly, there are countless ways in which mystics may react to the existence and meaning of various scriptures. Indeed, one can easily detect a whole spectrum of mystical responses to scripture. Some mystics may declare themselves to be ardent
      followers of scripture, whether literally or spiritually. Other mystics may feel assured that their mystical experiences allow them to belittle the importance of the sacred texts of their tradition, viewing them as subsidiary in molding their religious outlook—some may see scriptures as merely relative, while others may (passively or actively) ignore them, and still others may even oppose them.

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