What is a jivanmukta’s experience? (Part 3)

In BGB 18.48, Sankara concludes that in jivanmukti, when avidya is no more, logically there can be no action.

“The One Existence, the sole Reality, is by avidya, imagined variously, as so many things undergoing production, destruction and the like changes, like an actor on the stage . . . [Action] is ascribed to the Self through avidya, and it has therefore been said that no ignorant man (avidvan) can renounce action entirely even for a moment (iii. 5). On the other hand, he who knows the Self is able to renounce action entirely, inasmuch as avidya has been expelled by vidya or wisdom ; for, there can be no residue left of what is ascribed by avidya. Indeed, no residue is left of the second moon created by the false vision of the timira-affected eye, even after the removal of timira” – A.M.Sastry

“it is only the one entity called Existence that is imagined variously through ignorance to be possessed of the states of origination, destruction, etc. like an actor (on a stage) . . . An unenlightened person is incapable of totally renouncing actions even for a moment (cf. 3.5). The enlightened person, on the other hand, can indeed totally renounce actions when ignorance has been dispelled through Illumination; for it is illogical that there can (then) remain any trace of what has been superimposed through ignorance. Indeed, no trace remains of the two moons, etc. superimposed by the vision affected by (the disease called) timira when the disease is cured” – Gambhirananda

“Reality is one only, which like an actor, plays numberless roles, assuming attributes like appearance and disappearance due to nescience . . . Through nescience it [action] is superimposed on the Self. The ignorant man cannot wholly give it up. But the wise man, once nescience is dispelled through knowledge can indeed do so; for there is no residue for an ignorantly precipitated superimposition. The double moon, seen with the diseased eye, is not seen once the disease is cured” – A.G.Krishna Warrier

8 thoughts on “What is a jivanmukta’s experience? (Part 3)

  1. Dear Venkat,

    If you read BG 5.7 – 13 (app), you will understand this topic better. No-one ever acts. Normally we are attached to actions and believe that ‘I’ am acting. Whilst that is the case, we are effectively ‘bound’ by our actions. With Self-knowledge, comes the realization of the truth about action. I renounce the attachment and am thenceforth unaffected by them. ‘The knower of truth thinks “I do nothing at all”.’ And ‘he is not tainted even when acting’.

    Whilst there is a body, action necessarily continues, whether the ‘inhabitant’ of that body is ajñānī. jñānī or jīvanmukta. It is the attitude to the action that changes.

    Best wishes,

  2. Hi Dennis,

    I fear that you have misunderstood the purpose of BG Chapter 5. In it, Arjuna is asking Krishna, which is better karma yoga or karma sannyasa. Krishna has already determined that Arjuna is not yet ripe for the path of jnana nishta – devotion to knowledge – therefore he exhorts Arjuna to action, without concern for the fruits of action, and remembering that it is not ‘he’ that acts.

    Sankara makes all this clear in the introduction to chp 5. If you read the BG as a whole it is essentially saying that most (all?) have to take to the path of karma yoga, in order to purify the mind (= becoming more detached, desireless, egoless). Then only is s/he ready for knowledge. Once knowledge is gained then s/he must be devoted to such knowledge (ie direct a stream of continuous attention to the inner Self, Brahman) accompanied inevitably with renunciation of all actions, except for the bare maintenance of the body.

    From Sankara’s intro to chp 5:

    (Objection) :-Karma·Yoga is also taught here and there in the sections treating of the real nature of the Self, e.g., in ii.18, 31, 47, etc. How, then, can Karma-Yoga be said to be impossible for a man who has realised the Self?

    (Answer) : – It is so, because there is an opposition between right knowledge and illusory knowledge as well as between their effects. In iii.3 it is said that the Sankhyas who have realised the true nature of the Self apply themselves to devotion in the path of wisdom – ever dwelling in the actionless Self-as distinguished from devotion in the path of action which is intended for those who have not realised the Self. The man who has realised the Self has no longer any object to gain, since he has achieved all. In iii.17 it is said that be has no more duties to perform. In such passages as iii.4 and v.6 Karma-Yoga is enjoined as an accessory to the acquisition of the knowledge of the Self, WHILE IN VI.3 IT IS SAID THAT THE MAN WHO HAS OBTAINED RIGHT KNOWLEDGE HAS NO LONGER ANYTHING TO DO WITH KARMA·YOGA. FURTHER, IN IV.21 ALL ACTION IS DENIED TO HIM EXCEPT THAT WHICH IS REQUIRED FOR BODILY MAINTENANCE; and even with reference to such acts of hearing and seeing as may be required for mere bodily maintenance, the man who knows the true nature of the Self is directed in v.8 always to meditate with a concentrated mind on the idea that ‘it is not I that do it’.

    I would also suggest that you revisit BGB 2.21, where Sankara is faced with an opponent like you, that says only mental renunciation of acts is meant. He is again unambiguous here:



  3. Dear Venkat,

    I’m only interested in the single specific suggestion that a jIvanmukta does not act. My point is that, from the pAramArthika perspective no one ever acts. From the vyAvahArika perspective, ALL jIva-s act, whether or not enlightened, whether or not they have gained j~nAnaphalam.

    BG 5.8-9 makes the point that a j~nAnI knows this to be so (irrespective of the content of the rest of Ch. 5 or, indeed, of the entire Gita.

    Best wishes,

  4. Hi Dennis,

    Yes that is what it says in the last para above, repeated below – he acts only for the bare maintenance of the body, and the rest of the time he maintains a constant stream of thought on the inner Self. Without desire, there is no cause for other action, apart from devotion to the Self. Hence why Sankara says he becomes a paramahamsa sannyasin

    “all action is denied to him except that which is required for bodily maintenance; and even with reference to such acts of hearing and seeing as may be required for mere bodily maintenance, the man who knows the true nature of the Self is directed in v.8 always to meditate with a concentrated mind on the idea that ‘it is not I that do it’.”


    • PS. See also Mandukyakarika bhasya 2.37:

      “having given up all desire for external objects and having embraced the highest kind of formal renunciation . . . WHENEVER, PERCHANCE, IMPELLED BY THE NEED OF EATING ETC., ONE THINKS OF ONESELF AS “I” BY FORGETTING THE REALITY OF THE SELF THAT IS ONE’S SUPPORT, one’s place of abode, and that is by nature unchanging like the sky, then the changing body becomes his support. And he should depend entirely on strips of cloth, coverings, and food that come to him by chance for the maintenance of the body.”

  5. Dear Venkat,

    You agree then, that “From the vyAvahArika perspective, ALL jIva-s act, whether or not enlightened, whether or not they have gained j~nAnaphalam.”?

    This is the only point I have been making from the beginning. I wouldn’t dream of entering into a discussion about saMnyAsa with you. 😉

    Best wishes,

  6. Dear Dennis,

    That is not an easy question – especially because I find Sankara to be rather obtuse in articulating the relationship between (and implied experience of) jnana, jnana nishta (+ renunciation), jivanmukti / sadyomukti / videhamukti – arguably even karma yoga as per our earlier exchange on BG Chp 5.

    I recall a sloka in BG, which is along the lines that the Self does not act, the jiva cannot act (because it is non-existent) and so it is nature that acts. As you know, Sankara often talks about a jivanmukta’s utter disidentification with the body-mind (like the shedding of a snake’s skin).

    So I would conclude that Sankara can be interpreted at the least to mean that the ego-thought, which is a construct, for a jivamukta is non-existent or barely existent (like a burnt rope), and thus there are no desires and therefore only minimal actions, for the bare maintenance of the body (driven by nature). For such a one, he does not have to remind himself that it is ‘not I that acts’. because the I thought itself is absent. So it is only for others that the body appears to act.

    At the other end of the spectrum. there are numerous quotes across Sankara’s commentaries (including those set out in this series of ‘What is a jivanmukta’s experience’ posts) that suggest the removal of avidya – which is everything that is superimposed onto Brahman – necessarily means the illusion ends, as in deep sleep.


  7. Dear Venkat,

    Aargh! I just made a long comment on your response but wasn’t logged in and it has now completely disappeared! A warning to everyone (and especially to myself!).

    I agree that Shankara does not appear to discuss this topic anywhere, which does suggest that he does not consider it to be a significant one.

    As far as I can determine, the only place he mentions the word in any bhAShya is BGB 6.27, where he says:

    brahma bhūtaṁ jīvan-muktam, ‘bhrahmaiva sarvam’ iti ēvaṁ niścayavantaṁ
    brahma bhūtam akalmaṣaṁ adharmādi-varjita

    I am not able to analyze this (I suspect that Ramesam may do this!) but my understanding is as follows:

    When one makes the (fully accepted) realization that ‘I am Brahman’ (i.e. following any nididhyAsana that may have been necessary after gaining Self-knowledge), this is a ‘claim’ rather than any ‘change’. (I.e. one does not ‘become’ Brahman, since one is always Brahman, whether knowing it or not.)

    So nothing changes outwardly and the rest of humanity may not even notice any difference. If they should recognize that something is different, they now call this person a jIvanmukta.

    A good way of thinking about this is the mirror metaphor of chidAbhAsa. I do not see my real self when I look in the mirror, only a reflection. I can never see my real self. So the attitude here is that, looking at my reflection, I ‘claim’ that I am my real self, now simply reflected in the mirror.

    Similarly, I (as jIvanmukta), claim that I am Brahman, now simply ‘reflected’ in this body-mind.

    I can’t remember now what else I wrote, so that will have to do!

    Best wishes,

    P.S. It just occurs to me, looking through what you wrote, that one does have to be a bit careful when using the BG as source material, because there is a lot of stuff in there relating to SAMkhya rather than Advaita (e.g. guNa related). The notion of prakRRiti ‘acting’, rather than puruSha is SAMkhya. Can all get very confusing, as I doscovered when I attended SES 25+ years ago.

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