The Ignorance that Isn’t – 4/8

Part 3/8

7.  Self is The Knower of All Experiences:

Any feelings, like joys or sorrows, that we experience are not what we are. They are experienced by us. Everything is known by that one no-thing thing which is the Knower (Knowingness). It is we who experience even birth and death. After all, death does not experience its death, nor does birth experience its birth. Whatever experiences the birth and death cannot Itself be born. Nor can it die. Once we are able to clearly discriminate and understand this truth, we will stop identifying ourselves with the wrong entities like the body. Knowing clearly who we are, and abiding as that Knowledge is liberation from ignorance. Liberation is not something that we attain in some heavenly abode, a remote Vaikunta or Kailasha. Nor it is to be attained sometime in the future. It is right here and right now.

There is no separate self within us waiting to be liberated. Liberation is our very nature. Joys and sorrows are not our nature. That which comes (Agama) and goes (apAya) is not what we are. That which we perceive is not us. We perceive a thing only if it is different from us. What is inherent to us, what we are, namely the Self, cannot be perceived, nor is It something we can add on to nor can be gotten rid of. We are It, space-like, all-pervasive, formless, and blemishless.

There is no samsAra for the one who is liberated. Scriptures and spiritual practices are of no use for a liberated individual. samsAra will continue for people who are still deluded by ignorance. samsAra will not impact the liberated being.

8.  Self is never in Bondage: 

Knowingness and ignorance are like illumination and darkness. Darkness cannot exist in light. So also, ignorance cannot be present in the Self which by Its very nature is Knowingness. As ignorance cannot exist in the Self, there is neither bondage nor liberation for the Self. Nothing can stick to AtmA nor does It undergo any change.

Can we assume at all that the Self has to “attain” liberation getting rid of Its bondage? Shankara examines the various logical possibilities of this question in his commentary at the verse 13.2, Bhagavad-Gita. He observes that it is not possible for both bondage and liberation to have co-existed in the Self to begin with so that It could get rid of the former and retain the latter. To say that bondage and liberation co-existed in the Self would be like saying that one is standing still and also moving at the same time. An obvious impossibility.

The other possibility is that the Self is in bondage to start with and is looking for liberation. But Atma is only a witness. The witness cannot have either bondage or liberation. Further, if bondage were to have preceded liberation, it would mean that bondage has no beginning, but has an end after the liberation is obtained. It would also imply that liberation has a beginning but has no end; and, bondage which has no beginning has an end. This would take us to an illogical situation that bondage will continue forever and Liberation will disappear just as suddenly as it appeared because whatever has a beginning will have an end, and whatever has no beginning will never end!

Moreover, anything that has a beginning and an end cannot be the Self. That which is Real must be eternal, without a beginning or an end. Atma, which Itself is the Reality, does not have a beginning, a middle, or an end. It is unborn and immortal. It is Pure Beingness Itself.

An ignorant individual runs after actions that produce specific desired results. Actions and results are not-Self. The seeker on the Knowledge path does not look for material gains. He is unconcerned with the do’s and don’ts of the scriptures dealing with the ritualistic actions (karma). His interest is in the Self only. Driven by fear and insecurity, it is the ignorant individuals who take recourse to astrology, rituals, worship etc. Knowledge of the Self is secondary for them.

Shankara says that only one among a million will be interested and qualified to follow the path of Knowledge. Out of those few who are interested and qualified, only a few with a mature and ripened mind would be able to overcome their likes and dislikes, and thus be ready to renounce the material world and attain the Self.

Karma is of two types — shAstra vihita (actions prescribed by scripture) and laukika (actions done as per natural instincts). The laukika karma arises as a result of the prArabhdha, the carry-forward effect of the past actions (genetic, epigenetic and memetic) and includes all activities that are naturally required for the sustenance of life, such as eating, clothing, breathing, speaking, moving, attending to natural calls and so on. Even a liberated individual has to perform them. What a Knower (jnAni) has to renounce are the shAstra vihita karmas. A jnAni is one who has realized the truth declared by the mahAvakyas – tat tvam asi (You are that, 6.8.7, chAndogya upanishad), aham brahmAsmi (I Am brahman, 1.4.10, brihadAraNyaka upanishad), ayam AtmA brahma (This Self is brahman, 1.2, mANDUkya upanishad), pragyAnam brahma (Absolute Knowledge is brahman, (alternate translation is Consciousness is brahman)” 3.3, aitareya upanishad).

The path of Knowledge is not for those who are swayed by likes and dislikes, nor for those who are deeply attached to karma. Ritualists, worshipers, yogis, and others attached to worldly objects get caught up in the vicious cycle of performing karmas and reaping the results there of. Karmic actions originate in ignorance. Only after several life times, one among a million may cultivate a desire for Self-Knowledge and follow the path of Knowledge.

The Supreme Self is one without a second. There is not a trace of avidyA nor of any of its byproducts in the Supreme Self. The causal body, which is the source of ignorance (avidyA), drives the individual to perform actions in accordance with his karmic vAsanA-s (tendencies / impressions). However, like the waters in a mirage that do not muddy the earth, actions performed in avidyA (ignorance) do not touch the formless and undifferentiated Supreme Self.

The kaTha Upanishad compares the path of Knowledge to a razor’s edge.

क्षुरस्य धारा निशिता दुरत्यया दुर्गं पथस्तत्कवयो वदन्ति  —  1.3.14, kaTha Upanishad.

The path of Knowledge is like walking on the sharp edge of a knife – a single false or wavering step, the seeker is sure to lose his way.

(To Continue …. Part – 5/8)

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

  1. ‘It is we who experience even birth and death.’ – Ramesam.

    I would say that what goes by the name of ‘death’ is never a subjective experience, only a third-person observation. Equally, one does not experience going into unconsciousness just at the time of falling into deep sleep. Further, Consciousness does not, cannot, experience death.

    [‘There is doubt concerning a man who has departed. Some say, “He is”, and others say, “He is not”. Taught by you (Yama, god of death), I would know this.]

    • Thanks Martin for the observations.

      It is quite true from the Vedantic sense when you observe, “I would say that what goes by the name of ‘death’ is never a subjective experience.” In fact, that is the logic Shankara too adopts in arguing that ‘birth and death’ do not truly exist. Their appearance is merely an “AbhAsa.” But the point of discussion at the present context in the essay is different.

      We have to agree that the body dies. Verse 2.28, BG says explicitly that all that is born will die. So the question that comes up is who is it that “knows” the event.

      You have not pointed out anything objectionable with respect to the sentence which says “[joys and sorrows] are experienced by us.” [The English word “experienced” is a bit tricky, I admit. I used it in the sense of “known.”]

      If we can accept the usage that “joys and sorrows are experienced (known),” there need not be any problem with a sentence that is similarly constructed replacing “joys and sorrows” with “birth and death.”


  2. Really useful series, Ramesam!

    I have to admit that I do seem to have a mental block when it comes to talking about brahman being ‘knowingness’ and ‘beingness’. Chambers defines the first as ‘The quality of being knowing or intelligent’. We can talk about Ishvara being sarvaj~na, but we have to take it back when we go to paramArtha. ‘Consciousness’ (with a capital ‘C’) doesn’t seem to suffer from this sort of problem to the same degree. Why not stick to that?

    You have even translated praj~nAnam brahma as ‘Knowledge is brahman’. Never seen this before. It is always (?) given as ‘Consciousness is Brahman’ – and makes far more sense (to me). (After all, ‘Ignorance’ has to be brahman as well, doesn’t it, since sarvam khalvidam brahma.)

  3. Thank you Dennis for the kind comments.

    The main concern that you express, as I understand, is about my preferred translation into English the two words “brahman” and “prajnAnam.”

    Let me at the outset agree that I am not a linguistic expert, nor English is my native language. Hence, I have no fixations with any of the words. I will happily change the wording if the chosen word could correctly connote the “intended” meaning of the original text.

    Regarding translating “brahman” as “Consciousness”:

    I submitted that the popular translation of brahman as “Consciousness-Existence” does not capture appropriately the meaning of “satyam-jnAnam.” The word ‘existence’ etymologically implies that something is “standing out (against the background)” and ‘Consciousness’ tends to reify brahman.

    Obviously, you are not convinced by this argument. However, I appeal that you may please reconsider your stand especially because some of the modern English speaking teachers of Non-duality appear to prefer a different word than Consciousness. Do you think Awareness would be better?

    Regarding prjnAnam brahma:

    I am aware that Swami Gambhirananda translates it as “Consciousness is brahman.”

    You had already suggested that brahman should be translated as “Consciousness.” Accepting that, one would then have to translate “prjnAnam brahma” as ‘Consciousness is Consciousness.’

    I am sure you will agree that such a statement does not convey any new information and, in addition, is quite confusing and meaningless to the reader.

    As you are aware, the aitareya mantra just before the one where the mahA vAkya appears, defines and explains what “prajnAna” is. The mantra says:

    यदेतत् हृदयं मनश्च, एतत् संज्ञानमाज्ञानं विज्ञानं प्रज्ञानं मेधा दृष्टिर्धृतिर्मतिर्मनीषा जूतिः स्मृतिः सङ्कल्पः क्रतुरसु कामो वश इति, सर्वाण्येवैतानि प्रज्ञानस्य नामधेयानि भवन्ति || 3.1.2 ||

    yadetat hṛdayaṃ manaśca, etat saṃjñānamājñānaṃ vijñānaṃ prajñānaṃ medhā dṛṣṭirdhṛtirmatirmanīṣā jūtiḥ smṛtiḥ saṅkalpaḥ kraturasu kāmo vaśa iti, sarvāṇyevaitāni prajñānasya nāmadheyāni bhavanti.

    Meaning: That which is Heart and Manas consists of perception, understanding, worldly knowledge, inner knowledge, prudence, sight, mental firmness, intellect, conception, impulse, memory, resolve, determination, reflection, wish and will. All these are verily synonyms of absolute knowledge.
    (Translation by Karthik Sreedharan, India Divine).

    Hence, prajnAna stands to refer to absolute knowledge (or Knowledge).

    Prof. Max Muller too translated “prajnAnam brahma” as ‘Knowledge is brahman.’
    Dr. H. Ramamoorthy in his book, The Song of Ribhu (2000), translated the vAkya as ‘Knowledge is brahman.’

    Some other authors, e.g. Aurabindo, translated as “Wisdom is brahman.” So did Shri S. Sitarama Sastri in 1923 in his volume on the Shankara bhAShya translation of aitareya and taittirIya Upanishads.

    Monier Williams dictionary translated “prjnAna” as “knowledge , wisdom , intelligence , discrimination.”

    One website ( translates “prjnAm brahma” as “brahman is intelligence.”

    One can easily see that the translation given by Swami Gambhirananda is not present uniformly everywhere.

    However, in deference to your suggestion, I changed the text to read as “Absolute Knowledge is brahman (alternate translation is Consciousness is brahman)”

    Trust it will meet with your approval.

    Finally, it is perhaps time that we should have an International Meeting sponsored by some interested agencies and institutions to standardise the Advaita terminology in English.


  4. Dennis,

    You made another significant comment.
    You say, parenthetically, “After all, ‘Ignorance’ has to be brahman as well, doesn’t it, since sarvam khalvidam brahma.”

    That assumption may work for or in specific teaching methods.
    However, if it were to be really true, one can never get rid of ignorance just as one cannot get rid of brahman! 😉

    Moreover, it goes against the very theme of these articles which go to argue that “ignorance” does not truly exist!

    If you kindly recall, you yourself stated in your article on “Ignorance – not so obvious” that “A new word ‘ignorance’ was introduced to refer to the state of ‘not knowing’ but then, because the word became so much a part of everyday usage, we started to think that there was an actual thing called ‘ignorance’. ”

    You also conceded by admitting that “I said in ‘Back to the Truth’ that it is ‘ignorance of our true nature’ that is the reason for saMsAra. What I should perhaps really say, to avoid this confusion, is that it is ‘failure to recognize our true nature’ that is the reason.”

    Shankara is unequivocal at several places in BSB about his stand on “ignorance.” For example, At 2.1.22, sUtra bhAShya, Shankara observes:

    “अविद्याप्रत्युपस्थापितनामरूपकृतकार्यकरणसङ्घातोपाध्यविवेककृता हि भ्रान्तिर्हिताकरणादिलक्षणः संसारः, न तु परमार्थतोऽस्तीत्यसकृदवोचाम — जन्ममरणच्छेदनभेदनाद्यभिमानवत् ;

    Meaning: We have stated more than once that the mundane existence, characterized by the non-accomplishment of beneficial results etc., is an error arising from the non-recognition of the difference (from the self) of the limiting adjunct constituted by the assemblage of body and senses which are a creation of name and form called up by ignorance. It does not exist in reality. This (false notion) is of a piece with the notions that one has birth, death, injury, wound etc.” (Translation: Sw Gambhirananda).


  5. Hi Ramesam,

    Thanks for the extended, thougtful response!

    Regarding ‘Knowingness’, I did say that it was a ‘mental block’ on my part. (I initially used the phrase ‘hang-up’!) But I think that many seekers would have difficulty dissociating anything to do with the stem ‘know’ from duality. The knower-knowing-known combination is so intrinsic to our way of thinking.

    In contrast, the use of the word ‘Consciousness’ (with capital ‘C’) is so common amongst writers of Advaita these days that equating this with non-dual Brahman is much less of a problem. (My feeling is that ‘awareness’, capitalized or not, has some of the same connotations as ‘knowing’, strongly implying that one must be aware of ‘something’.)

    My comment on ‘ignorance’ was a bit frivolous and you are right to take exception. But your initial response is a bit frivolous also isn’t it? The way that I put it was meaning that ignorance, just like every other gross or subtle ‘thing’, is mithyA. Hence it doesn’t come or go away; it is just name and form imposed upon Brahman by the (frivolous) mind.

    Best wishes,

  6. Just read the following from Nisargadatta on this topic:

    Actually no one is realised, there is only pure knowledge. It is only for reasons of communication that we say a person is realised. The knowledge has realised that it is knowledge. I am not the body, I am not the words; when knowledge recognises this it is called Self-Realisation.

  7. Venkat,

    As you yourself know well, such statements as those quoted by you are absolutely true, but unhelpful to a seeker. S/he is still having the idea that s/he is the body-mind, and therefore, s/he feels that s/he has to do something about it.

    You have been kind to post another quote of Maharaj at Part – 6/8. And that very aptly answers the dilemma of the seeker. The quote says:

    “Don’t talk about liberation, talk about yourself, what you are. When you understand that, both knowledge and ignorance disappear. You only require knowledge, so long as the ignorance is there.”

    So the seeker has to be able to first know who s/he is and where s/he is locating himself/herself as the dialog referred to at Part – 6/8 says.

    Thank you for these pithy quotes from Nisargadatta.


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