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Sunday, December 6, 2020

Adi Sankara's analysis of Self


Although I have read several of Adi Sankara’s works, some of them in Sanskrit, I never organized them into topics like Swami Atmananda did several years ago (Sankara’s Teachings in His Own Words) and Keshava Menon has done recently (Adi Sankaracharya). From these sources I learnt that Adi Sankara dealt with the subject of Self from four points of view. They are Knower (keshtragna),  inner organs (antahkarana), ego (aham) and living entity (jivan).

This understanding of Adi Sankara’s ideas triggered some thoughts based on my own reading of other texts and also meditations on this topic.

Immediately it became clear that he was discussing meta awareness in kshetragna, which is mental reality and always present, even when we are asleep. This is “me”, the reflexive pronoun, relating to the nominative pronoun “I” and uniquely human.

Antahkarana or the inner organ is the material  "I" made of elements and alive, capable of awareness of objects. A famous poem says

Mano buddhi ahankarah chitthaam Karanam antaram

Samshaya nischaya kurva smaranaa vishaya abhi

Translated into English, this means that Antahkarana is made of mind (manas), intelligence (buddhi), ego (ahankarah) and chitta (memory and reflection). The poet himself equated chitta to memory which is necessary to stitch together one’s life experiences into a coherent self or I. Other scholars also equate chitta to reflection, remembering, and attention.

Aham or ego is just that. It is a mental construct based on the functions of the material antahkarana or inner organ, which relates all experiences into a coherent whole. I is a nominative pronoun. It is the psychological self.

Finally, jivan is individualized life with awareness. It can be called self, but specific to the individual. It is also called the soul in the western systems. In essence jivan  is Atman, only individualized and ignorant of its identity, because of  its immersion in the outer world and its inherent problem of splitting reality into subject and object. This is the ego-centered, ego-centric I.

Adi Sankara says that antahkarana (mind and its functions) is an attribute of Jivan. Looking at the outer world through the senses and the mind it fails to recognize its innermost core which is atman.

Jivan can experience the Atman, says Adi Sankara if it can remove the veil. Atman is the ultimate consciousness which is the basis of all other levels of awareness, including that of jivan. Ramana says that you can get a glimpse of this inner light for a fleeting moment when you wake up from deep sleep. That is when you are just aware that you are awake but without any other perceptions or memories in the mind. He calls it “transient I”.

Atman is not an attribute of consciousness but is the basis of consciousness itself. Without Atman, there can be no jivan. And, according to Badrayana’s and Adi Sankara’s interpretation of the Upanishads, atman is brahman.

Our idea of the outer world is a combination of the subject and the object. In every observation and experience of an object (this includes our own thoughts), a subject is inherent. That is so in the world of phenomenon.

But once we remove the ignorance (avidya) and see the pervasiveness and identity of the Atman in everything, there is Pure Subject. That cannot be logically argued out. It has to be experienced.

What is avidya? (nescience or spiritual ignorance). If knowing the Self (atman) is true knowledge, our knowledge of the world is avidya. It is so because in this empirical knowledge pure, unified, global knowledge is split up into subject, object, and knowledge.

Adi Sankara uses the word maya in relation to the creative power of brahman and avidya in relation to our understanding of atman.

Our understanding of the world is true at one level. It is empirical and therefore practical. This is mithya, true at one level but false at another level.

 We have to jump from this empirical knowledge to another plane at which there is only One, absolute knowledge without separation of knower, known and knowledge. So says Adi Sankara. At that stage, atman is brahman.

Hope I have understood Adi Sankara correctly!

But what is the use of just understanding? 

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