Consciousness, Shri Shankara on the Adwaita theory4 min read

The Adwaita Theory

In his great commentary on the Prashna Upanishad, Shri Shankara defines and refutes successively the rival theories of Consciousness which were current at his time. His exposition reads as freshly to-day as at the time when he wrote it. These theories are defined as follows:-

1.Consciousness is born and destroyed every moment (Kshanika-vijnanavadins. )
2.The very reality of Consciousness is denied (Madhyamikas).
3.There is a permanent Self and Consciousness is its evanescent quality (Nyaya-Vaisheshikas).
4.Consciousness is the quality of matter (Charvakas).

Shri Shankaracharya expounds his Adwaitic theory of Consciousness on a polemical basis which, to an ordinary reader, not trained in Indian logic and epistemology, obscures his real meaning. The main features of the Adwaita theory of Consciousness may be defined here:-

The fundamental character of Knowledge or Consciousness is “there can be no object of knowledge without knowledge”. This ought to be accepted as a general rule. Its consequences are far-reaching. To attempt to prove something which is not known is absurdity. It amounts to saying that there is no eye though the form is apprehended. The essence of objects is changeability; but Consciousness, inasmuch as It witnesses all objects irrespective of their position in space and time, does not change. All objects, without exception, imply the ‘fact-of-being- known’. Even Non-existence (abhava) cannot be proved in the absence of knowledge. Panchadasi opens with a discussion showing that unchangeability is the essential character of Samvit or universal Consciousness.

The second feature of the Adwaita analysis of Consciousness is that Consciousness is always distinct from the object of Consciousness. Things cannot be identified with the Consciousness which makes them its object. This thesis is developed by Shri Shankaracharya with great dialectical force in his brilliant introduction to his commentary on the Sutras of Vyas Rishi. Two corollaries follow from this principle:

(a) that Consciousness cannot be its own object;
(b) that every object of Consciousness is material or unconscious.

These four cardinal points of the Adwaitic theory of Consciousness will remind a modern student of metaphysics of an influential school of thought known as the idealistic school. Kant’s analysis of knowledge leads to a recognised tenet of the idealistic theory of knowledge that Consciousness is the prius of reality. E. Caird in his book The Critical Philosophy of Kant, Vol. I, says that all things must be determined in relation to the conscious self: “This is the one condition we lay down for them a priori”, “The development of the post- Kantian idealism bears eloquent testimony to the vitality of the Adwaita position” says an eminent Indian thinker, attached to the University of Allahabad. T. H. Green and Lord Haldane hold views on the subject of Consciousness which are amplifications of the Adwaita theory of Consciousness.

It follows that Consciousness is the ultimate principle of revelation. The world of objects is meaningless but for Consciousness. It is the light which manifests all objects and also all relations between the objects. Chit, Samvit or Consciousness is non-relational and subject to no condition whatsoever. It is Absolute, Brahman, as Shri Shankara shows in his dialectics. We need not quote Shruti in support of this thesis, to the outside students.

The conclusion is summed up by Shri Shankaracharya in his commentary on the Kena Upanishad as follows: “It is the centre of the whole world comprising the objects, the senses and the mind and it has neither inside nor outside; it is therefore a mass of knowledge (chidghana)”.

Chit Absolute is described as SAKSHI (witness) SARVA PRATIA DARSHI (Seer of all objects and events). In the great work Naishkama Siddhi, that most brilliant disciple of Shri Shankara, Sureshwaracharya, says most eloquently: “The Self and the not-Self are established in the world through perception and other means of knowledge; but the not- Self is in every case established on the presupposition of the existence of the Self.” The same great and holy philosopher holds all objects to be Atman-pervaded. Every intelligible entity, matter, mind, electron, proton, etc., acquire a meaning only insofar as they stand in relation to the conscious Self. The Self must be presupposed by every knowable entity.

To avoid a misunderstanding into which the Western idealism often falls, let us remember that in the philosophy of Shri Shankara the doctrine of priority of Consciousness does not negate the empirical existence as a void or a dream; it is compatible with a realistic belief in an independent world (Vyavahar Satta).

Let us also remark that the philosophy of Shri Shankara is not easy to understand and that thinkers like Deussen, Dasgupta, and others, have failed to grasp its real meaning. Those who think too much of their intellect and have not learned to approach it with the humility of a student will miss the point, in the Adwaita philosophy.