Sankara describes the witness consciousness of the jnani

Adi Shankara

Adi Sankara gives expression in six verses to the wise person's conviction about his true nature as sat chit ananda (as described in the scriptures and revealed by a competent Acharya) and how as the pure witness consciousness, the jnani disowns all relationship with the pluralistic unreal creation (anatma mitya prapancha).

There are two basic laws in Vedanta:

  1. The experiencer is different from all that is experienced; and
  2. The attributes of all experienced objects belong to the objects and not to the experiencer.

Applying these two rules, I discover that I am different from all that I experience, which include the external world of objects and also my own body-mind complex, including thoughts in the form of desire, emotion and even knowledge. The scriptures call the experiencer (referred to as “I,” the Self) as Atma and all that is different from the Self (Atma) as anatma.

Nature of Atma

The next step is to understand the nature of Atma (myself) and here also the scriptures reveal through mahavakya vichara that I am none other than Brahman or paramatma of the nature of sat chit and ananda. A Vedantic seeker, when exposing himself to this teaching at two levels (after duly qualifying himself through karma yoga and upasana yoga which help to refine and purify the mind) (mala nivartti) gets a clear vision of what he is not and what he actually is at the absolute (paramarthika) level, though he may, using his body-mind complex, continue to conduct all vyavahara relating to his day-to-day life.

In line with the teaching received, the wise person reveals in the first three lines of each of these six verses what he is not, while in the fourth line (which is the same in all the verses) he claims himself in reality to be the Atma of the nature of pure, existence, consciousness and bliss and, therefore, only of auspiciousness. (Chidananda rupaha Sivoham Sivoham).

A Word of Caution

A word of caution is necessary in this regard. There are references in the verses saying that as a pure self, the concepts such as punya / papa, mantra (sacred names of the Lord / Teertham (Pilgrimage), the scriptures and rituals are not relevant to the wise person. It has to be carefully understood that at the empirical level (vyavakarika level), adherence to dharma with a lifestyle of values and ethics is absolutely essential even for the jnani. Though the scriptures declare that the injunctions and prohibitions in the sastras do not apply to a wise person, it is to be recognised that because of his long years of pursuit of karma yoga and upasana yoga before taking to jnana yoga and gaining jnanam, he has a strong dharma vasana which will instinctively and spontaneously help him maintain dharma particularly as he will be a role model for the society.

Clear knowledge about one's real nature is gained by scriptural study under the guidance of a guru, a process involving what is known as sravanam, mananam and nididhyasanam. Sravanam involves receiving the scriptural teaching from the guru and grasping it after guru upadesa and due vichara (avarana nivrti) (pramana asambava nivrti). Mananam is the stage where the teaching received is reflected upon and possible doubts regarding the validity of the teaching in the light of apparently contradictory life experiences so far are resolved by cogent reasoning.

Final Stage

The third and final stage is nididhyasanam, when one, by taking to meditation, constantly dwells on the doubtless knowledge already gained with a view to assimilating and internalising the teaching. This can also be done by remaining in touch with the teaching by way of repeated sravanam, interaction with fellow seekers, discussion with the teacher or even sharing the teaching with others. This will ensure that the teaching can be accessed at any time to deal with difficult life situations where one has to contend with disturbing emotions or intellectual challenges.

This exercise will also help to remove habitual tendencies (viparita bhavana) nurtured for long periods of time because of strong identification with the body-mind complex and attachment to anatma prapancha. It is here that the verses in this text will be highly useful in that these help in recalling and abiding in my real nature as revealed by the teaching, when the verses are repeated mentally. Even after one is well established in Self- knowledge, bringing the contents of these verses to the mind will assist in maintaining the continued abidance in the Self, ensuring that there is no slip-up to anatma notions.

The Six Verses

In the very first verse, Sankaracharya negates as anatma the entire subtle body (sukshma sarira) (consisting of the inner instrument-antakarnam, made up of mind, intellect, memory and the ”I” notion–ego and sense organs of knowledge–eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin) (“mano buddhi, ahankara, chittani, naham, nacha srotra, jihve, nacha grana netra”). This is based on the simple logic that I am different from whatever I experience or am aware of. As subtle body alone is responsible for all our emotional problems (the gross body cannot function without the subtle body, and the causal body is dormant and can cause no problem), this has been taken up for negation to start with.

Negation of Senses: The wise person, therefore, claims he is not the antakarnam or the five sense organs of knowledge. He further declares that he is not any of the five elements, space, air, fire, water and earth (pancha bhutani) and the entire external world made up of the five elements (bhuta prapancha) as these are also subject to his experience. This negation will help the seeker to deal with all problems (emotional and intellectual) in day-to-day life in an objective manner without undue stress. The verse concludes with the wise person claiming that he is all auspiciousness, being of the nature of pure consciousness and bliss.

The second verse talks about negation of the entire physical body made up of pancha pranas, and the pancha kosas (annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya and anandamaya) and all the sense organs of action (speech, hand, leg, the excretory organ and the reproductive organ). The wise man says that he is none of these, as these are available for his objectification and awareness.

In the third verse, Sankara disowns all notions, such as likes, dislikes, greed / delusion, arrogance / jealousy as these belong to the mind, being its attributes or characteristics.

Also, for him the commonly known goals of life (dharma, artha, kama and moksha) are not relevant. As the jnani has transcended the body, he is not tainted by impurities, such as raga/dvesha, lobha / moha, madha / matsarya. As he has gained Self-knowledge, he is not affected by Self-ignorance and, therefore, he has transcended bondage. Therefore, as a liberated person, he no longer needs to pursue the goals of dharma and moksha as well, though he may continue to perform duties relevant to his ashrama in the interest of the society at large (loka sangraham). The jnani continues his description of himself in the fourth verse by saying that he is not affected by punya / papa and suka / dukha (pleasure / pain).

He also states that he does not have to take any longer to religious practices, such as mantra japa or pilgirimage and undertake scriptural study or perform rituals as he has followed these disciplines as the sadhaka long ago and now enjoys a purified mind capable of abiding in the Self. He claims that he has transcended the triad (triputi) of enjoyer, the object of enjoyment and the act of enjoyment, as he has no notions of doership / enjoyership (kartrutva, bhoktrutva nisheda).

He ends up by saying in the final line that he remains as the Pure Consciousness which is auspicious.

Neither Birth, nor Death

The fifth verse depicts a very highly evolved appreciation of the true nature of a wise person who claims that being pure, existence, consciousness, there is no birth or death for him. Being non-dual, there is no association for him in the form of parents, relatives or friends. In his liberated state he does not have a guru or a sishya. He is thus asanga, anadi, nitya, advaita chaitanyam, the only reality in the entire universe and the source of all auspiciousness.

The text concludes with the sixth and final verse where the wise person reiterates that he is nitya, sudhha, nirvikara, satya, budha, mukta, sarvagata atma (eternal, pure, formelss, existence, consciousness Self pervading everything including all the senses and, therefore, only the most auspicious in the creation).

While this is only an articulation of a wise man of the knowledge he has gained, these verses can be highly useful also for seekers in pursuit of jnanam in that reflection on the contents of the verses will be a great sadhana helping them to understand and appreciate and later on assimilate the scriptural teaching.

(This article has been reprinted, with due permission, from the August 2016 issue of Tattvaloka. A treasure trove of India’s spiritual wisdom, presented in English for contemporary audience, Tattvaloka is published under the guidance of Jagadguru Sankaracharya of Sri Sharada Peetham, Sringeri. For a complimentary copy of Tattvaloka and for subscribing to it from the UK, please contact nsundar100@hotmail.com, or, phone 07802782659.)