Consciousness, can the Self be known?4 min read

The Upanishad teaches that the reality behind all phenomena is one with the Self of man ; and it also teaches that this reality, is beyond the range of the mind. “You cannot see the seer of seeing, you cannot understand the understander of understanding,” says the great sage Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Yet the whole aim and abject of Vedanta is the attainment of Self-knowledge. This apparent difficulty in the philosophy has confounded many Western interpreters of Vedanta, such as Professor Deussen, but Shri Shankara’s view is quite clear and quite explicit as the following article will show.                                                                                    

There is no room for universal agnosticism in the philosophy of Advaita nor is there anything to warrant the view that the ultimate Reality is a void. The expression “ Neti, neti ”, “ not this, not this,” does not negate the Self. It is to establish the universal sovereignty of the self-revealed (svayam siddha) Atman, in the intellectual realm, that it is put above the realm of reason.

To be reasoned about, to be conceived or perceived, an entity must be taken as an object, abiding in the relational world. Self is not an object ; neither, in the strict epistemological sense, is it a subject. Shri Shankara calls it Nirvishesha, attributeless and non-relational, and it is such. If it is reduced to an object to be acquired into, then we may ask, who is the enquirer and what is his nature ? Such a mental attitude will be absurd.

He who accepts uncritically the exposition of Deussen, that Atman is unknown and unknowable and that the philosophy of Advaita is universal agnosticism, falls into a great error. Kant’s “ thing-in-itself ”, which is placed before the mind, is not the Atman of the Upanishad. The sage Yajnavalkya is not an agnostic. Deussen has failed to do justice to the sage of the Upanishad. All that is meant is that the Self cannot be known as an object. Shri Shankara uses such terms as Chaitanya (conscious), Atmajyothi in reference to Atman. The fact is that the Absolute of Vedanta is knowledge par excellence and far from being unknowable. It is called the “ light of light It is itself its own light.

It is also a fallacy to think that the Self, though revealing everything, keeps us ignorant of itself and unaware of its own nature ; or that it requires the aid of a higher faculty of the mystic ecstasy, or the Samadhi of Patanjali, to be revealed. Atman is ever-known, ever-perceived ; it reveals the absence of the objects of perception, or of the instrument of cognition, the mind. Self-experience precedes all other experience. All knowledge of objects is pre-supposed in the self-illumined Atman. Kant’s dictum that thought moves in a circle may be valid ; but the thought is encompassed in the Self as are the waves in water.

Self-knowledge (Atmajnana) is called by Shri Shankara “ Aparoksha ”, direct revelation of the all-revealer. Its indirect knowledge is never negated. “ The support of ‘ I ’ is evident (in every experience),” says Shri Shankara.

Atman is not revealed in a particular state of the mind. The sun is dimly revealed through the clouds, and fully revealed when the clouds are not there to obscure it. But it is ever-revealed, even when the clouds obscure it. It is not a state of ecstasy which reveals the Self ; it is the dictum of the holy Veda, like Tat Tvam Asi (That Thou Art), conveyed by a loving and competent teacher, well- reasoned by the disciple, which reveals the Self as Sat Chit Ananda (Existence, Consciousness, Bliss). Selfknowledge is a revelation of that which is ever-revealed, although imperfectly grasped owing to the unripe state of the mind.

A man who—(supposing for the sake of argument)—is wholly in love with the planets, cannot recognise the sun, whose light reveals them. So an empiricist, ever-infatuated with the passing, though dreamlike, Sansara, cannot perceive the light which reveals the objects and the mind as well. The Western pandits who lack ‘sattvic intellect’ conclude that Brahman is unknown and unknowable, as already remarked. We know space only in its conditioned form as the space within the jar, the space within the house, or the sky-space. But a knowledge of the Absolute space is implied in a perception of all conditioned space. This applies equally to a knowledge of the Absolute of the Upanishad.

Another difficulty which perplexes Deussen and others is:

How can the Self be known by meditation, because it is formless and the mind cannot meditate on the formless ? Cognition assumes the form of the object cognized. When the object is formless, its cognition is impossible.

To this objection, Shri Shankara replied by saying that the Self being essentially the conscious principle within us, it is invariably comprehended in association with all objects of perception. The’ great Acharya says : “ The Self is not something that has to be known as a distant object of knowledge. It is self-evident, easily recognized very near, and forms our very essence.”