How Can The Witness Be Identical With The Supreme Reality?

A keen disciple is speaking with his guru. It seems odd to the disciple that the witness of any jiva could somehow also be the same as the Ultimate Reality. So, in Vichara Mana Mala (“Jewel Garland of Inquiry” as translated by Sri Ramana Maharshi), the disciple asks, “How is it possible for even the witness, who is manifold and limited on account of the multiplicity of jivas [personal consciousnesses], to be identical with Brahman who is one?”

What a great question! Suppose you’re in seated meditation and suppose you begin to “take your stand as the witness” (in Sri Atmananda’s words). Due to ignorance, you may certainly believe that your being with witness does, and perhaps also must remain, limited. After all, isn’t this jiva’s witness (necessarily?) different from that one’s? Since there are many, how can they be one?

The guru replies, “Just as the space in a pot which is manifold and limited is not different from, and in fact is, the same as total space (mahakasa), [so] the witness who is manifold and limited is not different from Brahman but is Brahman. It is therefore possible for it to be identical with Brahman. Therefore know ‘I am Brahman.'”

Consider the space within a pot or within any container for that matter. That space is but an arbitrarily delimited form of the infinite space or void (mahakasa). Removing the pot but keeping that “bit” of space, do you find any difference between that bit and the total space? Or has all of it always been one substance?

We are, of course, using analogical reasoning. Just as a bit of space is no different from total space, so an artificially bounded witness is no different from the total witness. Even this analogy may strike you as imperfect, though, since the guru, from what I gather, is not suggesting that there is a part:whole relationship at play here. Instead, he is seeking to point to (a) a form:formlessness relationship as well as to (b) the arbitrary and ultimately non-existent “boundary” between particular witness and supreme witness. In reality, there is only the supreme witness who is one and who has never been anything but one. Without form, there is only formlessness.

It can be ascertained that the disciple’s astute question comes from the finite mind, which cannot fathom boundlessness and which thus resorts to its own categories like part:whole, before and after, here and there, and so on.

The guru, then, is seeking to point the disciple to what is prior to all such (mental) categories and therefore before the emergence of all forms. The conclusion–“Therefore know ‘I am Brahman'”–is actually a spur to practice: use “higher reasoning” to quell the most pressing of the mind’s doubts so that the mind can more readily sink back into the Heart where it is clear that “I am Brahman.” Here is true peace.