Consciousness, Self as the Unchanging Witness3 min read


Reality in the personality of man is called Self or Atman. Reality in the universe is called Brahman. In man the reality is pure Consciousness. The succession of events in time is registered in human consciousness; but consciousness cannot be called one of them. I am writing on this piece of paper, but the paper is not one of the letters or wards or ideas which I inscribe on it.

Man is not a part of nature. Nature changes in him constantly.

Man looks back on the past, he recognises the present and he infers the future. The consciousness in him is a unity, which does not change, while nature is changing all the time. My muscles are animated by the vital principle; they expand and contract; but the vital principle is fixed. Evolution, in the scientific sense, has a definite place in time. It is in the “before” and “after” – time – that evolution works. Man seeks to know evolution and its meaning, he is not an entity in time. Now can there be any evolution at all if man is taken as a member of the evolving universe? The perception of change and succession implies a conscious principle not subject to change and which is not included in the process of succession. As man knows history he cannot be wholly historical. If man is an ever-changing entity in the constantly changing universe, then he cannot have a knowledge of the changing world. Prospero knowingly produced his magic, in the island, but his magic could never know Prospero nor the object he had in view in the creation of his magic.

A significant statement of Shri Shankara in his great commentary on the Vyas Suttras, 11,2.28, demolishes the arguments which try to prove that man is a detail of* nature: “Two ideas which occupy different moments of time and pass away as soon as they have become objects of consciousness cannot apprehend or be apprehended by each other.

An absolute unchangeable Self is implied because of its equal connection with the past, the present and the future;”

Lord Haldane, in his book ‘The Reign of Relativity’, page 151, says: “A living being that knows seems to belong to an order quite different in kind from that of one that merely lives without knowing”. We all possess a knowledge of change; this shows that at the same time we are possessors of Eternity.
T H Green almost quotes Shankara in his statement: “The relation of events to each other, as in time, implies their equal presence to a subject which is not in time.”

Both Kant and Green, in the analysis of change, offer illuminating commentaries on Shri Shankara’s theory of perception. In his monumental work, Naishkarmya Siddhi, Sureshwaracharya, one of the greatest thinkers of the world, says: “Self is non-successional witness (Akarman Drik) of the passing modes of Buddhi; it is the Buddhi which changes with the different acts of knowledge, and not the Self, which sees the past, the present and the future simultaneously. …. The Self is therefore unchanging and eternal.”

T H. Green voices the same fact with great eloquence in his works and speaks like a student of Shankara. The Self being a witness of the dream world is not included in the dream. The dream vanishes but the Self survives, unaffected, untouched.

The term “mind” is used in Western philosophy in so many different ways. Sometimes it means sensibility, sometimes the principle of cognition, and so forth. This is a cause of great confusion. In the Adwaita philosophy the Self is used with one clear-cut meaning. Let us remember that nothing which changes is Self or Consciousness. The mind constantly changes and is not the Self. Man is, in the ultimate analysis of the personality, pure Consciousness and as such is not a detail of nature; nor is the Self subject to the process of evolution. Consciousness cannot be cut into bits. It is neither memory nor one of the three states of waking, dreaming or dreamless sleep.