What exactly is “Self-Knowledge”?

There is a lot of earnest discussion, here and elsewhere, on self-knowledge, self-realisation. But what exactly is it? What does knowing that ‘I am Brahman’ actually mean, when Brahman cannot be known?

For all the words that have been written by Sankara: on creation, on satyam / jnanam / anantman, on ‘tat twam asi’, on knowledge rather than action – what is the essence of it all?

Surely the essence is this, and this only. Self-Knowledge is the utter dis-identification with the not-Self, the most difficult of which is the body-mind.

And That (which remains, which cannot be defined) is the ananda, the peace, of a jivanmukta.

The sruti is the means of knowledge, in that it points this out. Sruti is said to be the only means of knowledge, because normal sense perceptions and reasoning would not inevitably lead to this very radical self-challenge: I am not what I fundamentally believe that I am.

The seeker hears it, mulls over it, develops the conviction that it is true that s/he is NOT the body-mind, and lives on the strength of it. And in so doing that habitual body/mind – identification is dissolved. Hence why desirelessness is both a path to and a fruit of knowledge – if there is no body/mind identification, then what desires can there be?

And sruti tells us that utter desirelessness is the cause of the highest joy.

9 thoughts on “What exactly is “Self-Knowledge”?

  1. I pretty much agree with that, Venkat!! (Worthy of two exclamation marks?) I might quibble a bit over the precise wording here and there but, really, no problems!


    Best wishes,

  2. Dear Venkat,

    A very simple, clean and elegant presentation on Self-knowledge.
    Thank you.

    Although you have rightly underlined the importance of ‘desirelessness’, a little glitch peeps over when we come to the sentence: “The seeker hears it, mulls over it, develops the conviction that it is true that s/he is NOT the body-mind, and lives on the strength of it.”

    The above sentence combined with the word jIvanmukta is very pleasing to the modern Non-dual teacher in the West. An interpretation is given to say that by attaining an understanding of the Non-dual Self-knowledge, one can lead a fully misery-free life (living liberation) – “the ananda, the peace, of a jivanmukta,” as you put it – in this world.

    I am afraid what the scriptures say is different! 🙁

    The former seeker who successfully attains Self-knowledge (i.e. kRitakRityaH), will himself/herself be brahman, vide 3.2.9, muNDaka – brahma veda brahmaiva bahavati.
    S/he is TOTALLY detached from any body (i.e. s/he is disembodied – ashrIratAhi Atmanah swarUpam अशरीरता हि आत्मनः स्वरूपम् । — Shankara at 8.3.4, chAndogya).

    However, the gross body of the former seeker along with a burnt-out-rope-like mind which functions as the inner organ for that body, continues to live; because it is the effect of the past karmic load that has already begun to yield its fruits (i.e. prArabdha). Like an arrow that was already shot cannot be stopped midway until its inertial forces are expended, the body will live its shelf life and when it dies all the other bodies also merge with their fundamental elements as 6.14.2, 6.15.1, chAndogya etc. tell us.

    Thus, the body that lives after the former seeker whom it housed is liberated has no claimant as owner to it. It lives purely by its instinctual knowledge (i.e. vAsanA-s expressed in the form of a mind that helps in its living).

    Further, as Shankara says at 6.15.2,

    विद्वांस्तु शास्त्राचार्योपदेशजनितज्ञानदीपप्रकाशितं सद्ब्रह्मात्मानं प्रविश्य न आवर्तते इत्येष सत्सम्पत्तिक्रमः ।

    Meaning: Whereas, the man with Knowledge, having entered into Being – Brahman – Self-illumined by the lamp of Knowledge derived from the teaching of Teachers and Scriptures, never again returns to Birth; this being his manner of merging into Being. (Translation: Dr. G N Jha).

    So the true purpose and fulfillment of the attainment of Self-knowledge is being OUT of the samsAra – the endless cycle of births and deaths – a fact Shankara repeats at other bhAShya-s also – and not for leading a life “on the strength of it” in the current illusory world that gets engendered because of ‘ignorance.’

    We should also bear in mind the very 2nd pre-requisite before a seeker is accepted into the Advaita fold – utter dispassion and disinterest in the comforts of a life here in this life or the next. That being the initial condition of initiation, how can leading a life of Ananda in the phantasmagoric world be the goal of a Self-realized individual?


  3. Dear Ramesam,

    “Lives on the strength of it” applies to the seeker. The following sentence reads “And in so doing, the habitual body-mind identification is dissolved”. As you say, totally detached. I don’t think we disagree?

    Brihad Up Bhasya 3.5.1:
    “Therefore the knower of Brahman [here Sankara means the one who has understood the purport of the scriptures], after renouncing desires, should try to live upon the strength which comes of knowledge . . . Strength is the total elimination of the vision of objects by Self-knowledge; hence the knower of Brahman [the seeker] should try to live upon that strength . . . After having known all about scholarship and strength, which respectively mean Self-knowledge and elimination of ideas of the non-Self . . . he becomes a knower of Brahman, accomplishes his task. Therefore he is a Brahmana, for THEN his status as a knower of Brahman is LITERALLY true”

    On bliss, please recall the Brhad bhasya 4.3.33 on the Yajnavalkya-Janaka dialogue:

    “Vedic erudition and sinlessness are common to the lower planes too; hence they are not regarded as means to the attainment of the succeeding kinds of joy. For this the absence of desire is understood to be the means, since it admits of degrees of renunciation. This supreme bliss is known to be the experience of the Vedic scholar who is free from desire. The sense pleasures of this world and the great joys of heaven are not worth one-sixteenth part of the bliss that comes of the cessation of desire”.

    Also recall that this joy, this supreme bliss he talks of, he compares earlier to that which is there in deep sleep, where there are no desires, as there is no second thing.

  4. Dear Venkat,

    I have no dispute at all with what you say.

    Perhaps, you too must have noted that my comment refers to the projection of the Non-dual seekers in the West (as I have come across mainly in NE, NW USA and also some of the Non-dual fora at the FB) to imply or indicate that living the life of a jIvanmukta is itself the goal of seeking Non-dual Self-realization. My point is that the end goal of the Vedantic teaching is to be a mukta from the samsAra.

    Secondly, I was referring to a kRitakRitya (totally fulfilled) Self-realized individual in my above comment. What you are referring to is some one who is still a seeker who has had the realization – perhaps more like what Gaudapada refers to at 2.36-37, GK – “He should have this body and Atman as his support and depend on chances, i.e. he should be satisfied with those things for his physical wants, that chance brings to him.”


  5. Dear Ramesam,

    Why do you have to spoil things – Venakat and I were agreeing! 😉

    You refer to MuNdaka 3.2.9 (again?) and the knower of Brahman ‘becoming’ Brahman. This is not what it means. Everyone is already Brahman so how could they become it? It was Bhartriprapancha who believed in not being to start with and ‘becoming’. jīva is the name we give to ‘ignorant Brahman’!

    Go back to the tenth man metaphor to understand what ‘becoming’ actually means.

    Best wishes,

  6. No, Not at all, Dennis.
    I am NOT spoiling the agreement between you and Venkat.
    I was trying to clarify the point I was making! 🙁

    Re: your observation that “Everyone is already Brahman so how could they become it?,” I guess this was discussed already several times in these columns. Shankara himself also used the expression “to become” at several places. He explained that unless and until the fact that we are “already brahman” is im-mediately realized, it is of no purpose. (for example, see 4.4.6, brihat – “Having been Brahman, he becomes Brahman”). Hence, he said, the usage ‘become’ implies that “realization” (his term).

    Should we have to repeat that all over again?
    [A quick check revealed that this ‘become/merge’ was discussed in July 2019!!!]


  7. Anyway, before we digress, the point I would like to highlight is that the ultimate purpose of the Upanishadic teaching is not jIvanmukti but mukti from samsAra — the cycles of births and deaths.


  8. Yes, Ramesam – I KNOW we have discussed it before. That is why I was surprised that you were raising it again!

    I agree with your last point regarding jIvanmukti.

    Best wishes,

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