The Final Paradox – ahaṃ brahmāsmi

Shankara’s explanation in Bhagavad Gita bhāṣya 2.21

[Note that this is a ‘stand-alone’ article which nevertheless supplements the material asking ‘Who am I?’ in the pratibandha posts beginning It provides a response to Venkat’s challenge at]

Reality is non-dual. All Advaitins know that this is the teaching, even if they have not yet succeeded in reconciling this with the appearance of the world and their own apparent individuality.

The Self does not act. The jñānī knows this. The well-known statement in Bhagavad Gita 5.8-9 tells us that: The balanced person who knows the truth thinks: ‘I do nothing at all; it is only the senses relating to their sense objects,’ even whilst seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping, breathing, speaking, excreting or grasping; even just opening or closing the eyes. It is all simply the ‘play of the guṇa-s’, name and changing form, like the movement of waves on the surface of the ocean – all is always only water.

This radical, ultimate truth is expressed in the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad. Mantra 7 states that:

This (consciousness) is known as the ‘fourth’. (It is) neither (the knower of) the internal (world), nor the external. Neither (is it the knower of) both. (And it is) not (just) a ‘mass’ of consciousness. (It is) not consciousness (in the empirical sense of conscious ‘of’) nor (is it) unconsciousness. (It is) imperceptible, transaction-less, not ‘graspable’, un-inferable, unthinkable, and indescribable. (It is) the essential ‘I’-experience. (It is) the negation of the experience of all plurality of the universe. (It is) pure, tranquility, and non-dual. This is the Self. This is to be understood. (My translation from ‘A-U-M: Awakening to Reality’ – read extract.)

The adjectives used negate all possibilities of ‘access’ to Brahman. We cannot perceive it, ‘grasp’ it, think or speak about it, because it has no characteristics and is avyavahāryam – unavailable for any transactions. It cannot act or ‘do’ anything. It is akartṛ – not a ‘doer’; and abhoktṛ – not an ‘enjoyer’. And, although we do not always follow this through, not being a ‘doer’ means that it is also not a ‘knower’ – it is apramātā. The act of knowing entails a change from a position of ignorance to one of knowledge. Brahman being changeless (akriya) cannot, therefore, do this. Which is fine, isn’t it?

Well, as long as we clearly distinguish between paramārtha and vyavahāra, there is no problem. Everything in vyavahāra appears to be dualistic but is really mithyā, so that is OK. There are no ‘things’ in paramārtha; there is only Brahman. And that is OK.

But one of the principal mahāvākya-s in shruti is ‘aham brahmāsmi’ – I am Brahman. If I realize this to be true, and thereby become a jñānī, I can make this statement truthfully – can’t I?

The paradox is: when I make this statement, who am I who is saying and thinking this? I cannot be Brahman because, as we have just established, Brahman cannot be a ‘knower’. But if it is the jIva speaking, surely all that can be said is ‘aham buddhi’ – I am the intellect of the jIva that knows this?

The non-action of ātman is addressed in Bhagavad Gītā 2.19 – 21 (rewording verses from the Kaṭhopaniṣad) in the context of Arjuna’s reluctance to participate in the war about to be fought between his relatives. It should be remembered throughout this that the battle with its killing is just a metaphor for our own lives with all of the associated trials and tribulations, so that ‘killing’ could be any ‘action’. BG 2.19 says:

The one who thinks this (Self) to be the killer and the one who thinks of it as the killed, both do not know. This (Self) does not kill; nor is it killed.

The ātman is neither a doer nor the object of any action. The ajñānī does not know this and still thinks that he or she acts; the jñānī knows that ‘I am not the doer’, even whilst still performing actions.

BG 2.20 goes on to expound the sentiments of the Māñḍūkya:

This (Self) is never born, nor does it die. It is not that, having been, it ceases to exist again. It is unborn, eternal, undergoes no change whatsoever, and is ever new. When the body is destroyed, the Self is not destroyed.

The Self is ajaḥ – unborn; nityaḥ – eternal; śāśvataḥ – constant, perpetual, ‘undecaying’. The body is said to be jāyate (born), asti (exists), vardhate (grows), vipariṇamate (modifies), apakṣīyate (declines) and vinaśyati (dies). I.e. it is very much subject to change (vikāravān). The ātman is none of these.

In BG 2.21, Kṛṣna then asks Arjuna, once you know this to be so, namely that the Self is changeless in this way, how and whom does such a person ‘kill’ or whom does he ‘cause’ to kill? Once you know that the Self is avināśinam (indestructible), nityam (eternal), ajam (birthless) and avyayam (undecaying), how could you kill someone yourself or cause someone else to kill?

BG 2.19 established that ātman was not a doer and BG 2.20 explained that this is because ātman is changeless and ‘doing’ of any kind would involve a change from one state (before the action) to another (after the action).

Shankara’s pūrvapakṣin then claims that the jñānī is different from this changeless Self. viduśaḥ avikriyād ātmana anyatvāt – the ‘knower of ātman’ is not the same as ātman.  Although ātman is changeless and therefore cannot be a doer-enjoyer, this does not apply to the jñānī. So how can Kṛśna say that the person cannot kill? It does not follow.

Also, (sthāṇuṃ avikriyaṃ viditavataḥ) if a person sees and therefore ‘knows’ of the existence of a rock, and that rock is of course changeless/actionless, it does not follow that the person also is changeless/actionless. [sthāṇu – anything stationary or fixed; avikriya – unchangeable, invariable; vidita – known, understood; karma na sambhavati no possibility of action.]  

Now Shankara apparently diverges from the teaching of the Māñḍūkya and elsewhere. He says that the man of knowledge is one with the Self; i.e. the jñānī – the ‘knower’ of the Self is ātman and therefore it is effectively brahman that is the knower. Swami Gambhirananda translates it as follows:

As on account of the lack of knowledge of the distinction between the Self and the modifications of the intellect, the Self, though verily immutable, is imagined through ignorance to be the perceiver of objects like sound etc. presented by the intellect etc., in this very way, the Self, which in reality is immutable, is said to be the ‘knower’ because of its association with the knowledge of the distinction between the Self and non-Self, which (knowledge) is a modification of the intellect and is unreal by nature.                                                                                  

The dṛgdṛṣa-viveka prakriyā already mentioned negates all of the things that we might think that ‘I am’, including body and mind and I say that I am the Self. The knowledge ‘I am Brahman’ is also a ‘modification of the intellect’ and I cannot be that either. Although knowing that the Self is changeless, I still have to ‘say’ that the Self is the knower of this truth. If I don’t do this, I end up with the ridiculous conclusion that anātman is the knower of ātman! Consequently, ātman has to be a knower.

The mechanism to explain how this can come about requires the postulation of the chidābhāsa. We have to say that it is the ātman-buddhi complex that has the ‘knowing’ property. I, the ātman, give consciousness to the instrument of the intellect. Although I am changeless, this enables me to be a ‘knower’. Then, the buddhi shines with the ‘reflected’ Consciousness, in the way that the moon shines with the reflected light of the sun. Thus, I effectively become a knower through the instrumentality of the buddhi.

Shankara says (Sastry translation):

Now, for instance, the Self, while remaining immutable, is, by reason of His not being distinguished from intellectual states (buddhi-vṛtti-s), imagined, through ignorance, to be the percipient of objects, such as sound, perceived by the intellect and other means.

Shankara says that the ātman alone is the changeless knower – asaṃhataḥ ātmā eva. Ātman eva (indeed, truly) (is) asaṃhata – unconnected (with the body-mind) vidvan (wise man, one who knows) avikriya (changless).

This enables Shankara to then say that, since ātman does not act and the jñānī is the same as ātman, therefore the jñānī does not act. viduṣaḥ ātmatvāt – the wise one (enlightened man) is identical with the Self, na dēhādi-saṁghātasya vidvattā – because the aggregate of the body(-mind) can never become enlightened; vidvān avikriya iti – therefore the wise man is changeless, and karmāsambhavād, karma-s (i.e. action of any kind) do not appear (i.e. is not possible).

When we say Atman is not a knower, that is a pAramArthika statement and goes along with ajAti vAda. If we are speaking of the vyAvahArika realization that ‘I am Brahman’, we have to say that Atman IS the knower, with buddhi being the instrument of knowledge.

When we speak of a ‘knower’, whether j~nAnI or aj~nAnI, it has to be reflected Consciousness functioning through the mind. (See posts on chidAbhAsa – and and discussion at and

So I, Atman, use the intellect in order to gain ALL knowledge, including the knowledge that ‘I am Brahman’. I (Atman) connect with the mithyA buddhi and acquire a mithyA vyAvahArika knower status. I am thus able to gain the knowledge  that I, the vyAvahArika knower am really (the non-knower), pAramArthika Brahman. This mithyA knowledge gives mithyA mokSha and freedom from mithyA saMsAra.

The difference between the j~nAnI and the aj~nAnI is that the former knows that all this (knower-knowledge-known) is mithyA whereas the latter believes it to be real. So it could be said that the aj~nAnI is a ‘real’ knower (from his point of view), whereas the j~nAnI is a ‘mithyA’ knower.

All Advaitins (and particularly those who have read SSSS – Sri Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati) know that the teaching of Advaita proceeds via the technique of adhyāropa-apavāda – attribution followed by later retraction. There are many prakriyā-s used in the teaching to explain the concepts. These are the devices such as dṛgdṛṣa-viveka (seer-seen discrimination) and pañca-kośa (five sheaths). A metaphorical or analogous idea is introduced and then dropped, once the intention is clear. It is Wittgenstein’s metaphor of throwing away the ladder once we have climbed up.

All of the teaching of Advaita is only a mechanism for bringing us to the final understanding. None of it is ‘true’ in the real meaning of the word. And there is no reason at all why one should not use prakriyA-s that, at face value, appear to contradict one another.

It is the failure to appreciate all of this that is, I suggest, at the heart of the explanation as to why some people claim, in respect of those who profess to be ‘enlightened’, that their realization is ‘only intellectual’; that they still need to ‘experience’ Brahman before they can genuinely claim to be jñānī-s. They understand that, when someone says ‘I am Brahman’, it is the jIva who is speaking and their buddhi that has the understanding. How, they ask, can this be the real thing? The jIva has somehow to ‘become’ Brahman before the statement can be considered to be true.

But, as has been explained before, since there is only Brahman, we must already be Brahman. The ajñānī is Brahman but does not know it; the jñānī is Brahman and does know it. No ‘experience’ is ever relevant; it is simply a matter of knowledge and understanding. The instrument for this is the mind.

Shankara says later in the same bhāṣya (Gambhirananda translation), referring to Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4.4.19:

The mind that is purified by the instructions of the scriptures and the teacher, control of the body and organs, etc. becomes the instrument for realizing the Self.