‘Why Does Consciousness Think That It Is Something Other Than Itself?’

This is word-for-word the question posed to Sri Atmananda on October 13, 1951.

His reply:

This is a question very often asked. Now, examining the question itself, we find that it is asked from the position that such an identification exists. And this question has also conceded the existence of body, senses and mind, besides that of Consciousness transcending all these.

Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda: Volume I, p. 143.

Atmananda, of course, will reject this assumption: the body, senses, and mind do not exist. They do not exist in the sense that they have only a “derived existence”: their temporary existence depends upon Consciousness. Furthermore, they do not exist in that they are, in fact, nothing other than Consciousness. As a result, no such identification is possible.

Consciousness and everything other than Consciousness exist in two different planes. When we look from the plane of Consciousness, we find there is nothing other than Consciousness, and there this question cannot arise.

Ibid, p. 144.

Talk of “two different planes” is a teaching tool. It is not meant literally (just as the discrimination between the unreal and the Real is not meant literally or finally). Granting this provisional distinction, we “look from the plane of Consciousness” and here only see Consciousness. For Consciousness, there can only be Consciousness just as for a black hole there can only be a black hole (or just as for a hammer there can only be hammer-ables).

When looked at from the mind’s plane and conceding the existence of both world and Consciousness, it has been proved that Consciousness can be there only as a witness. The witness witnesses only perceptions, and not objects. It has also been proved that perception is nothing other than Consciousness itself. For this reason also, the world is an illusion and the question cannot arise.

Ibid, p. 144.

Assume that the mind–and so the mind’s plane–exists. Sadhana demonstrates that Consciousness shows up as the witness of mind and of “world.” But then further investigation reveals that, for the witness, the world is reducible to sense perceptions (seeing, touching, smelling, hearing, and tasting). Hence, what ceases to make sense is the positing of physical objects. But then perception, it can be understood through inquiry, appears to the witness, arises in the witness, has its arising made possible by the witness, and subsides into the witness. This is to say that the perception, via the “full court press” of the witness, is left with nothing else to be but Consciousness. But without any objects, there can be no witness. The witness, accordingly, sinks back into Pure Consciousness.

The world thus being shown to be an illusion, the question cannot arise.

In short:

The question cannot arise in Consciousness, since the world is not there. Nor can it arise in the mind’s plane, since you cannot drag down Consciousness to the mind’s level and make it part of the apparent world.

Ibid, p. 144.

But since these are our only two options–to wit, the plane of Consciousness and that of the mind–and since the inquiry has shown that the question cannot arise on either plane, it follows that the question cannot arise.

The question, again: “Why does Consciousness think that it is something other than itself?” It does not. The question quite simply cannot arise.

In other words, just be Consciousness and thus just be Peace.

An Ego Is A Mistaken Identification With Some Object

Ego = Ignorance

According to the nondual teaching, suffering is the result of ego, and ego is itself ignorance.

And what is this fictitious entity called “an ego”? One simple way to define an ego is to say, with Wei Wu Wei, that the I mistakenly identifies itself with some object. (This is akin to Ramana’s account of egoity in terms of “I am this.”) Notice that the question was: “And what is an ego?” The indefinite article is key because there are a number of illusory beliefs, each of which is concerned with an ego.

And what are some basic mistaken identifications?

  • I am the body.
    • Specifically: I am the enjoyer of pleasures and avoider of pains. Also, I am the doer behind deeds.
  • I am the senses.
    • Specifically: I am the separate entity involved in, yet also behind, the act of seeing, hearing, touching, etc.
  • I am the mind.
    • Specifically: I am the thinker of thoughts and the feeler of feelings.
  • I am any samskara.

Following the Way of Detachment, one understands that the I is separate from the body, senses, mind, and samskaras. 


One easy way of disidentifying with the body, senses, mind, and samskaras is to take your stand–and to abide more firmly so–as the witness. This does two things at once:

  • First, it removes ignorance, and the removal of ignorance just is knowledge.
  • Second, it dissolves suffering since, again, suffering is due to ignorance.

Waves Are Only Water: On The Dissolution Of The Subtle Duality Between Witnessing And Arisings

A Subtle Duality

On the Direct Path, there can–and Greg Goode notes this both in his Standing as Awareness and in his Direct Path: A User’s Guide–be the understanding that (1) there is Witnessing Awareness, which is none other than the background of all experience, as well as (2) arisings (touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, smelling, sensing, desiring, thinking, feeling, etc.). And, for a time, it can seem as if arisings are arising to Witnessing Awareness as well as in the space of Witnessing Awareness.

At which point, the question naturally arises, “How is this subtle duality dissolved?”

In Atmananda Tattwa Samhita (1991), we find a most elegant reply. For analytical purposes, I divide Atmananda’s reply into three cases.

Waves And Water

In all cases, what is clear is that waves–feelings, for instance–are only water (namely, the right Absolute).

Case 1: Waves Arise No More

For the jnani, waves, as apparently separate arisings, arise no more.


[W]aves may subside entirely, entirely subside: water, water, water, water…. (p. 172)


[W]hen you transcend mind in that manner, leaving body and mind as parts of the world in which you live and move, well, there you come to the ultimate Reality there; and then there is absolutely no wave—there is only water and water and water alone.  (p. 173)

Case 2: Waves Arise Yet Immediately Subside

For the jnani, waves arise, as apparently separate arisings, arise but immediately subside.

Though Atmananda does not discuss this case explicitly, it’s important to add it for the purposes of being comprehensive. True, the matter of “immediate” (Case 2) and “gradual” (Case 3) presupposes the existence of time, and the jnani is beyond space and time. Still, we must understand that the teaching is offered to the disciple who, “on the Way,” doesn’t yet grasp all of this and therefore is still using the mind to comprehend what is ultimately beyond the mind.

Case 3: Waves Arise And Gradually Subside

For the jnani, waves, as apparently separate arisings, arise and gradually subside, but never is there the mistake of taking the waves to be anything but water.

The sense-organ operates, but the Truth ever prevails:

[E]ven though you see waves, of course there is something telling you from behind that it is water. (p. 172)

You have grasped the essence of the distinction between asat (unreal) and sat (Real):

Still you use your sense-organs and mind. All right. If you are using your sense-organs and mind, or, in other words, if you are still using the eye-organ—well, the waves are there. Of course, they may appear as waves, the water may appear as waves, but you see, you feel there is a something behind telling you that, even though it appears as waves, it is water. The wave, the wave part is unreal. The wave part is unreal. The reality or the substance of it is nothing but water. (pp. 173-4)

You are established as the water, and thus you abide in the water part:

Or, even if the waves do not subside, it is the water part that you direct attention to, and the waves are as good as dead or subsided. (pp. 172-3)

In All Three Cases…

In all three cases, there is no need to do anything to the apparent waves:

[W]hen that Knowledge is deep-rooted within you, there is absolutely no necessity for you to make the waves subside. (p. 174)

Daoists would heartily agree.

Unreal Causation In Advaita Vedanta

In his fantastic book The Method of Early Advaita Vedanta: A Study of Gaudapada, Sankara, Suresvara and Padmapada (2008), Michael Comans discusses perhaps the most basic question concerning the relationship between the One and the many in the thought of Advaita Vedanta.

The puzzle comes, in part, from the nondual position that Brahman is both the efficient cause and the material cause of all manifestation. An efficient cause alone is not hard to explain in traditional Catholic theology: God created creation; accordingly, the transcendent is, and remains, ontologically different from the immanent. Additionally, garden variety material causes are, on their own, also easy to grasp: the material cause of the clay pot is clay; the material cause of the ocean waves is water.

One more wrinkle: Brahman is indivisible and therefore changeless while manifestation is apparently divisible and thus changeable. How, then, can Brahman be both efficient cause and material cause, be both changeless while–somehow–undergoing alteration?

For, writes Comans, “if Brahman is the material cause, then, as in the case of the clay, some sort of alteration of Brahman must nevertheless occur. And if Brahman undergoes any sort of transformation a number of difficulties arise” (p. 193).

Comans goes on to present us with just some of those difficulties:

If Brahman has parts it is conceivable that one part could transform while another part remains unchanged. But if Brahman has parts, Brahman would be a composite entity, and would thereby be subject to disintegration. Moreover we know that Brahman is without parts from the sruti texts [above all, from The Upanishads] that negate attributes, such as: “Partless, actionless, peaceful, faultless, without taint” (SvU 6.19). Therefore Brahman must be without parts. But there is a difficulty here also for if Brahman is without parts Brahman must undergo transformation in its entirety, and that goes against the sruti which repeatedly says that Brahman is without change. Furthermore, if Brahman transform in its entirety into the world it would amount to saying that Brahman as such would cease to exist, for there would be be no Brahman apart from the world, and the sruti teachings that Brahman is to be known would prove meaningless, because the world can be known without any effort on one’s part, merely by looking. Thus the teaching that Brahman is the material cause that transforms is fraught with difficulty. (p. 193)

To summarize:

1. Either Brahman has parts or it does not.

2. If it has parts, then it would be corruptible; but such, so long as Brahman is the Absolute, is impossible.

3. But if Brahman is partless, then transcendence would collapse into immanence with the result that there would be no Absolute as such.

4. Alternatively (and this is not mentioned by Comans), if Brahman is partless, then no manifestation could ever come into being. But it certainly seems as if there is manifestation (about which more below as we come to unreal causation).

So, how can Brahman be said to be the efficient as well as the material cause of manifestation?

Sankara (alt. Shankara) argues, in what will become the position of early Advaita Vedanta, that “Brahman [in actuality] undergoes absolutely no alteration” (p. 194) and thus causation is unreal, transformation of Brahman merely apparent (vivarta).

What is Sankara’s argument for this conclusion? Comans quotes Sankara’s commentary on The Brahma Sutra:

No, because we maintain that this difference of aspects [i.e., one aspect undergoes transformation while another remains unchanged {Comans’ interpolation}] is constructed by Ignorance (avidya).

The Method of Early Advaita Vedanta, p. 195.

Sankara sounds quite Mahayana Buddhist in this respect as he unties the knot. Here, again, is Comans:

The way that Sankara can resolve the [apparent] contradiction that Brahman becomes the world [material cause] and yet somehow undergoes no change in the process [is partless, etc.] is to interpret the sruti as speaking from two levels, from the perspective of absolute reality (paramartha), as well as from the perspective of empirical reality (vyavahara).

Ibid, p. 196.

We need only to add back Sankara’s remark about ignorance to see how all this fits together. From the vantage point of the finite mind, it seems as if Brahman becomes the world and thus undergoes change. This–that is, the stance of conventional reality–is indeed ignorance, for it is not what the Sages report. From the no-vantage vantage point of ultimate reality (i.e., paramartha), there is no independently existing world undergoing change in the first place. Such, so far as it seemed to the apparently existing, apparently separate finite mind, is merely apparent.

In sum, there exists only the One Mind that, like a single membrane, abides in and as Itself even as it vibrates or shimmers forth in apparent forms that are nothing but Itself and even as such apparent forms sink or subside back into the One, Pristine Mind. Indeed, in the absence of the belief in and stance of the finite mind, it cannot even be said that there is the One Mind, or the many, or the One and the many, or silence or sound, or stillness or pulsation, or nonduality or duality.

This is the doctrine of unreal causation.

How Can A Changeless Reality Undergo Change?

One of the basic questions for nonduality in general and for Advaita Vedanta in particular is: “How can a changeless, partless Brahman undergo change?” The basic answer would take us deep into an account of unreal causation.

For now, let’s simply turn to Ananda Wood’s words from his Ways to Truth: A View of Hindu Tradition (2008):

The illumination of consciousness [i.e., the self-luminous nature of Consciousness] is not a changing act, which is put on at one time and taken off at another. No action needs to be put on, for consciousness to shine. It does not shine by any changing act, but just by being what it always is. It shining is thus changeless, and involves no movement in itself. Appearances are lit by its mere presence, as it stays unmoved within itself. (p. 153, my emphases)

The above concerns the nature of light, or luminosity. What about sound?

So also the vibration [the sound quality] of consciousness. As it bursts out into appearance or draws back in, it seems to change; but the change is only in appearance. Outwardly, a change appears; but in itself, consciousness remains unmoved and unaffected, just as it always is. As differing appearances keep getting manifested forth and drawn back in, each manifests the unchanged nature of consciousness. As the cycle keeps repeating, it is just a repetition of that unchanged nature, over and over again. (Ibid)

1. Brahman is self-luminous and self-vibrating. Mere appearances of changes can be explained by appealing to a vantage point of a finite mind. For a finite mind, Brahman appears to change, appears to throw forth light, appears to vibrate in space and time. But in the absence of this vantage point, there is only Brahman Itself as Itself.

2. The above paragraph lays out one light of thought. Another is that, of course, Brahman’s self-luminosity would shine, Its self-vibrating nature vibrate. But nothing changeable is required of self-luminosity to appear to throw off light just as the sun requires no further luminosity in order to shine. That’s what the sun does: self-shining, it shines forth. Or–in the case of vibration–imagine that a drum’s single membrane had a natural tendency to vibrate. Then nothing further would be required of the membrane in order for it to vibrate: self-vibrating, it would simply, “generously” vibrate forth. In neither case would the self-luminosity or self-vibratoriness need to undergo change. It would remain unchanged, “unmoved in itself” and by itself.