The Ignorance that Isn’t – 3/8

Part 2/8

5.  Discriminating the Self (Atma) from the not-Self (anAtma):

That which cannot perceive, but can become an object of perception is anAtma (not-Self). For example, our body is inert. It has no sense of “I am.” It cannot perceive anything. But our consciousness can perceive the body. Just as we perceive body and mind, we also perceive joys and sorrow, likes and dislikes.  The polar pairs of opposites like joy and sorrow, are also a result of our ignorance. Consciousness Itself is untouched by them.

Consciousness alone is Atma. Everything else in the world is insentient. Not only inanimate objects such as chairs and tables, but also our bodies, life-force, and senses are insentient. Movement does not imply sentience. Wind moves, but wind is insentient. The air around us, the light that travels through space, and the five fundamental elements are insentient. Only Awareness that can feel “I AM” is sentient. Every object is known to our Awareness, but no object is aware of its own being-ness. A tiny spark of Awareness that is aware of all the objects is within every one of us. It is the Inner-Self (pratyagAtma).

Consciousness which is the subject “I,” perceives everything. It is the very “seeing.” Before we consume the betel (Scientific name: Piper betel) leaf, we fold the leaf, and firmly grasping it, we pull out its midrib to separate the thick veins from the edible soft leaf. In a similar way, we must firmly grasp on to the Self and distinguish it from all that is not-Self, as suggested at the mantra 2.6.17, kaTha upanishad. If we fail to discriminate between Atma and anAtma, the object and the subject get mixed up, and chaos ensues!

Shankara makes an interesting observation with respect to the objects which constitute the not-Self.  He says that which is not-Self can either be accepted and possessed by us, or rejected and discarded. For example, we may either embrace the joys and sorrows or reject them. Doer-ship (kartRitva), experiencer-ship (bhOktRitva), samsAra (the cycle of births and deaths), do not exist in Reality. We merely superimpose these concepts on the formless Self. We attribute qualities of the subject, Consciousness, onto the objects we perceive because of our inability (or weakness) to discern them as not-Self due to our ignorance (avidyA). Another example for the manifestation of our ignorance is our attribution of blackness to deep space (or blue color to the sky)! It is the ignorance that emboldens us in ascribing imaginary descriptors to formless entities. Neither the space is dark nor the sky is blue!

We think that a ‘me’ exists within us. The ‘me’ is also a result of our superimposition. What really exists is brahman. When the Supreme Self is Itself our Inner-Self, there is no scope for ignorance to exist within us. A separate self (jIva) too does not really exist. Its apparitional existence is merely a product of our ignorance. Consciousness Itself is untainted and unaffected by our imaginary super-impositions like the illusory water in a mirage does not wet the sands.

6.  Getting Rid of Ignorance:

All said and done, we do experience a world. We do admit that there is ignorance within us. Our interest is to be free from the cycle of births and deaths (samsAra) which is the result of ignorance.

Shankara at this juncture helps us to examine the concept of ignorance with a fine comb. He says that ignorance can manifest in three ways:

  • it makes a thing to appear as something different than what it actually is;
  • it creates indecision and doubt in us;
  • it completely conceals the Self, our true nature.

In short, ignorance affects the way we grasp (understand) a precept.  For example, what actually exists may be a rope only. We may perceive it to be a snake. Or we may not be able to decide whether it is a rope or a snake. The third possibility is that we may be totally oblivious to what is being seen. These three states of the mind correspond to our waking, dreaming, and deep-sleep states. We have a mistaken perception in the waking state. Instead of seeing the Reality as Existence-Consciousness, we see various objects – the bodies of our spouses and children, people and houses, vehicles and roads, joys and sorrows etc.  We see multiplicity and heterogeneity and not Oneness of Beingness-Knowingness.

The principal tool with which we perceive and understand the world around us is our mind. It is not pure Consciousness. It manifests as a thought-modification and is illuminated by the Consciousness. It projects names and forms onto the indivisible Consciousness. The superimposed names and forms is what we refer to as our awake world.

The dream state is a state of uncertainty. We are neither fully awake nor fully asleep in this state. The deep sleep state represents a stupor – we are oblivious to everything, including ourselves and the world around us. Root ignorance (nescience) is causal for the appearance of all the three states, hiding the Reality from us.

Though we are under the sway of ignorance in all the three states of awake, dream and deep sleep, Shankara encouragingly says that it is not a helpless situation. If we can stand as mere observers and stop identifying ourselves with everything that ignorance projects on to our Consciousness, then ignorance will not affect us in any way.

Things appear to us to be different from what they really are either due to a lack of proper illumination or due to defective vision. Just as darkness gets dispelled through proper illumination revealing the objects covered by it, ignorance can be dispelled through discrimination.

We can be certain that “Ignorance” is not inherent to us. If it were to be, ignorance would be our very nature and we would never be able to get rid of it. It looks, as though, ignorance had come about suddenly out of nowhere! In fact, ignorance has no reason to be. It is something that we assume to be present in us without verification. It is merely imagined.

If ignorance cannot be with us, where else could it be?  It may exist in the apparatus we use for our perception. Mind, our principal tool for perceiving is very conducive to ignorance. When things appear blurry due to a defect in the eye, the problem lies in the eye and not with the man. Ignorance arises in us when we identify ourselves with the faulty instrument and attribute its defect to ourselves. Just as when the defect in the eye is removed healthy vision gets restored to the eye, once our falsely imagined ignorance is removed, Knowledge rises within us. If the mind is pure, our pure nature will shine. Knowledge Itself does not undergo any change. It remains ever pure and blemish-less.

The individual, the seer, is the subject. He is the Knowledge Itself and not the instrument of knowledge.  Likes and dislikes, good and bad appear and disappear in the mind. We, as the subject, are untouched by them. Ignorance can associate only with the instruments (mind and senses) and not the Self. 

(To Continue  … Part – 4/8)

4 thoughts on “The Ignorance that Isn’t – 3/8

  1. Hi Ramesam,

    Some really well-expressed ideas here. The middle section clearly explains how things are. The beginning, though, has great potential to mislead. And the concluding remarks left me with questions (which may of course be answered later).

    Consciousness does not (on its own) ‘perceive the body’. Consciousness is non-dual and does not do anything. If there was a body to be perceived, there would be at least two things. For the same reason, it is not meaningful to say that Consciousness is ‘untouched by them’ (joy and sorrow).

    “A tiny spark of Awareness… is within every one of us.” No. Consciousness is part-less. ‘We’ are within Consciousness; not the other way around.

    “once our falsely imagined ignorance is removed, Knowledge rises within us. If the mind is pure, our pure nature will shine. Knowledge Itself does not undergo any change. It remains ever pure and blemish-less.” This implies that all that we need to do is purify the mind – by karma, upASana, aShTA~Nga yoga or whatever – and the knowledge will be there. But it is not like that, is it? We have to listen to the guru unfold the scriptures and ask questions to clarify doubts. The fact that ‘I am Brahman’ is never going to just ‘occur’ to us, no matter how clear the mind might be. It is not the same as removing the cataract and automatically being able to see.

    Best wishes,

  2. Dear Dennis,

    Thanks for your time and well-considered inputs.

    I am tempted to say that the comments you make are valid and are coming from a person who is already quite knowledgeable of the Advaita doctrine.

    But the essay here is structured to address someone who is still identified with his/her body and thinks that it is she who is suffering or is joyful when the body is in pain or in comfort.

    For example, you say, “it is not meaningful to say that Consciousness is ‘untouched by them’ (joy and sorrow).”

    But the fact is that the moment one knows that she is joyful or unhappy, clearly at that moment there are two things – the detector who knows the joy or sorrow and the object known (joy or sorrow). The author is pointing out that the ‘knower’ is actually unaffected (untouched) by the object known – much like space which is not affected or touched by the objects in it. I do not think there is any logical inconsistency or violation of Advaita in such a statement.

    Please consider this: You say that “If there was a body to be perceived, there would be at least two things,” which in your opinion violates the Oneness of Advaita.
    But a little later, you yourself write that ” ‘We’ are within Consciousness …” as though there are two – a “We” and “Consciousness”!
    Is the incongruence in your own statements not obvious? IMHO, we have to take all such statements as part of a developing argument.

    Next you observe that “Consciousness is part-less,” when it is said that “A tiny spark of Awareness… is within every one of us.”
    But you know well that Krishna himself says at 6.29 BG “The Self is abiding in all beings.” The allusion to a spark comes from mantra 2.1.1, muNDaka upanishad.

    Next you observe that “We have to listen to the guru unfold the scriptures and ask questions to clarify doubts.” That is very true when the seeker’s mind is still with the blemish of ignorance, that is to say, still busy with object-oriented modulations (viShayAkara vRitti-s). Once it is absolutely Pure, the viShayAkara vRitti-s would have ended and it would be of “the nature of brahman” (the so-called AtmAkAra vRitti) which is equivalent to be as brahman. The trigger could be, as you say, the teaching that the seeker hears as a shabda.

    As you rightly anticipated, the details of the issue come up in the subsequent parts of the Series.

    Before closing, I may be allowed to submit that the argument in the essay develops closely following Shankara’s own commentary at 13.2, BG.


  3. All fair points, Ramesam. Of course, everything that we can say about Brahman must be taken back in the end. All teaching has to approach the truth from the starting point of the seeker. So one should really wait until the end before overly criticizing the beginning! I guess that, in my present ‘Confusions’ mind, I am looking for problems. My apologies!

    Best wishes,

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