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The Atma Bodha

Classic Scriptures

by Shankaracharya

Translated by Jan Esmann
Commentary by Jan Esmann
UNFINISHED - See the complete commentary in my book Kundalini Tantra

1. This treatise about the Self is for those who are free of sin and full of peace; it is for those who are free from passions and desirous of liberation.

Some misguided translators translate this verse so that the treatise is intended only for ascetics as if Shankara mean that knowledge of the Self is possible for ascetics only. Anyone can desire liberation, no matter if they have practiced austerities or not. And Self-realization is not a reward for austerities, nor are austerities required to reach it. And anyone can reach liberation, no matter whether they have purified themselves or not. It is true that a certain peace and calm is required to do practices for diving into the Absolute. But on the other hand it is true that the Absolute is prior to, and undisturbed of, agitation and a troubled heart. No one can be free of cravings, since cravings are a result of the body taking care of itself, but you can merge awareness with the Self, which is prior to cravings, and ultimately this is Self-realization. So it is strange if Shankara should mean that freedom from cravings is a prerequisite for Self-realization, since such freedom only comes after Self-realization. It is likely that what is meant in this rather old-school description is the characteristics of a good student within the monastic tradition of Shankaracharya and his time. However, it also points to the fact that people who are in complete identification with the mind and body, who are agitated and who live their life solely for gratification, are probably not going to get much from this text and will also have a harder time reaching Self-realization. Shankaracharya answers all this in the next verse.

2. Compared to other methods, knowledge is the only means of liberation; just as cooking can not be accomplished without fire. There is no liberation without knowledge.

Shankara answers the doubts that arouse from his first verse and makes it clear that doing austerities for purification, etc., is not the way to Self-realization. The only direct means to Self-realization is to aquire knowledge of the Self. Now, since the Self is prior to consciousness, any secondhand knowledge of the Self will be wrong knowledge, therefore the only direct means to Self-realization is to practice merging with the Self repeatedly.

3. Because they are not mutually contradictory action can not eliminate ignorance. Only knowledge destroys ignorance just as darkness is dispelled by light.

This verse underscores the previous verse and explains why any form of discipline can not lead to Self-realization. The reason is that any discipline is a form of action and action is not within the nature of the Self in the same way as knowledge is. Thus the only means to Self-realization is to bring awareness out of the field of action and into that pure being prior to the I that acts. This pure being is the Self. The means to Self-realization is knowledge of the Self and knowledge of the Self is only aquired by repeatedly stepping out of the field of action (doing) and into oneness with the Self.

4. Out of ignorance does the Self appear divided. When that ignorance is gone the Self shines forth just as the sun shines when the clouds are dispelled.

Ignorance is basically of the nature of confusing not-Self with Self. Since this confusion can aquire an infinite number of varieties, one can never gain Self-realization by trying to remove, or purify, not-Self. Such an attempt will go on forever and never reach the Self. Shankara makes it clear once more that Self-realization is aquired by the Self revealing itself by itself. This is the same as what is meant when stating that Self-realization is aquired through knowledge of the Self gained by merging awareness with the Self repeatedly. It makes no difference if you say awareness merges with Self, or Self reveals itself by swallowing up awareness. It is the same.

5. The soul (jivatman), infected with ignorance, is purified by the application of knowledge. After having achieved purity knowledge itself disappears, just as the ground kataka-nut settles down in water after purifying it.

This verse refers to the small self, for the Self is not in need of purification, nor is the Self stained. Awareness is caught in a self-referential field of thoughts, emotions, experiences and desires, generating a personality, a small self. Awareness then commits the fallacy of identifying itself with this complex, or in other words: of confusing non-Self with Self. Initially practice of any kind will be within this sphere of non-Self, but when awareness merges with Self, awareness becomes free of false identifications and aquires knowledge of the Self by being the Self. Of course, knowledge of the Self does not consist in aquiring data. It is a matter of awareness first becomming aware of itself, then of awareness and Self collapsing into One Pure Being free of all identification-structures. With repated Oneness of Self and awareness, the identification-structures gradually break down. This break down is called "purification". In reality there is nothing to purify and there is no dirt to remove. There is only confusion of Self with non-Self, and innumerable identifications.

6. The worldly cycle of life and reincarnation is indeed like a dream. It is full of contradictions such as desire and aversion. It appears real as long as the dream lasts, but unreal in the awakened state.

7. As long as the world appears true it is like believing the shine of the oyster shell is silver. This goes on as long as Brahman, the substratum of all, is not known.

"Brahman" is the unmanifest, absolute beingness.
In both these verses Shankara describes the difference in how the world, the mind and the I are understood before and after Self-realization. The analogy to dream and awake is not as good as it seems, because when awakening the dream goes away, however, when achieving Self-realization, the world does not go away. Self-realization is actually not awakening from a dream, even in a metaphorical sense, it is realizing who you are and have always been prior to anything in consciousness. This means that Self-realization is independent of consciousness and also that consciousness will remain largely unchanged after Self-realization. So will the world. However, in ignorance one lives in a realm of false identification and believes the identifications to be real. After Selfrealizaion one becomes free from identifications and sees the identities as unreal. In this sense Self-realization is an awakening from a dream that one took to be real while ignorant. But where the allegory is right on target is that before Self-realization, one believed the I AM-ness to be real, after Self-realization I-ness and I AM-ness is clearly understood to be the primal illusions separating awareness from Self. In Self-realization awareness has merged with Self, and now I-ness and I AM-ness are looked upon from the pure being prior to them. In this situation the identity, ego, mind, feelings, souls, etc. are no longer seen as the truth about oneself, and in that sense a dream has ended.

8. The pure being and consciousness of Atman are forever sewn together. All multifarious creatures are made in and of Vishnu just as bracelets are made of gold.

Atman: this can mean both self and Self. Here it means Self.
Vishnu: While Vishnu is a personified god, Vishnu here means the all-pervading aspect of the absolute.

9. Just as the all-pervading space is different from the various forms, so [Atman] is different from the various forms. If the forms disappear, Atman remains.

10. Due to association even various coatings like caste, family and social status, etc., are superimposed on the Atman; just like taste and color is superimposed on water, and like grease floats on water.

11. The dense body composed of the five elements is the result of actions in past lives. It is the place where pleasure and pain is encountered.

12. The subtle body is the means of experience; it did not originate from the five elements but goes beyond them. It consists of 5 vital currents, 10 organs, mind and discernment.

10 organs: 5 organs of knowledge (senses) and 5 organs of action.

13. Ignorance, without beginning and indescribable, is of the causal body. One must realize that the Atman is different from the three bodies.

I-ness (and I AM-ness) is the primal cause of all such ignorance. I-ness is prior to the "I", so is I AM-ness, yet both constitute the foundation of all ignorance. The "I" is relatively describable, but I-ness is impossible to describe. However, I will give it a try: I-ness and I AM-ness constitute the so called causal body, but in reality it is not a body as such, but a sense of being an observer or a witness, which means an subtle awareness distinct from others. It is called causal because it causes all other forms of ignorance to arise and in particular causes the sense of being. This sense of being is the I AM-ness, and it is inseperable from I-ness which is what senses being. It is prior to being something, so at this level there is a sense of being nobody, or in other words being an unmanifest being made up of pure awareness, hence it is indescribable. Yet it is not Self-realization.

14. The pure Atman seems to borrow the qualities of the five sheaths it identifies with; just as a crystal takes on the color of blue cloth, etc. [upon which it is placed].

As soon as I AM-ness arises, there will arise a sense of being this or that; thus the pure Atman, whose unmanifest being has contracted to the sense of "I", begins to identify with the objects of awareness.

15. One must separate the Atman from the veils and destroy the connection, just as one separates the rice grain from the chaff.

Disidentification is an unavoidable and essential part of the spiritual path. One realizes more and more that one is not the personality, the body, etc. It is, however, a widely overlooked part of spiritual life.

16. Although the Atman is omnipresent, He does not shine forth everywhere. The Atman can only shine forth, clear as a crystal, in the discriminative awareness [buddhi].

Pure awareness can fold in on itself and realize itself as pure being, the Atman. Though various forms in consciousness are essentially only consciousness, Atman does not shine forth in these objects. It is only when awareness becomes aware of itself that Atman shines forth.

17. One should realize that the Atman, like a king, is always distinct from the body, senses, mind and intellect; all of which, along with their movements, constitute nature.

Here we are once more reminded to disidentify.

18. As the moon appears to move when the clouds move, it seems to people without discernment that the Atman is active when the senses are active.

19. Just as men work by the light of the sun, so the actions of the body, the senses, the mind and the discriminating understanding are supported by the consciousness of the Atman.

How does this fit with the two previous slokas? The Self is ever uninvolved. Yet the cognitive power that appears to belong to the mind is really the Self. Thus the discriminating understanding is supported by the Self.

20. The body and the senses do the bidding of the gunas. But from lack of discernment it is ascribed to the pure being of the Atman, just as the blue is ascribed to the heaven.

The gunas are the three constituent dynamic principles of nature and relative consciousness. Here we are told that the Self is merely a passive witness to everything, and that it is really the gunas that cause things to happen. This is one of the problems of Vedanta: it can not explain the connection between the relative and the absolute. This connection is explained by introducing Shakti: The relative then becomes the play of Shakti, which essentially is a play of consciousness, of the Self.

21. Just as ripples on the water may erroneously seem to be a dancing moon reflected in the water, so because of ignorance the role of doership belonging to the veils of the mind are erroneously ascribed to the Atman.

Again we are told the Self is merely a witness to everything.

22. Attachment, desire, pleasure, pain, etc. exist as long as the discerning mind is present. They are not experienced in deep sleep when the discerning mind is not present, hence they are only of the mind and not of the Atman.

This is not a good example. The same logic would also imply that since awareness, knowledge and bliss are not present in deep sleep, they are not essential qualities of the Self, however, they are indeed the essential qualities of the Self. Shankaracharya remedies this flaw in the next sloka.

23. Just as luminosity belongs to the sun, coldness to water and heat to fire, so eternal and pure awareness, knowledge and bliss belong to the Atman.

After having dealt with what the Self is not, Shankaracharya now mentions what the Self is: awareness, knowledge and bliss.

24. The notion "I know" arises from the lack of discernment between the distinctive awareness [buddhi], the knowledge and the awareness aspect of the Atman.

This is very important to understand, especially with respect to one's meditations. Here awareness has two meanings: first the distinctive mind, buddhi, then the pure awareness of the Self. Knowledge seems to lie inbetween these two. The Self is neither buddhi nor the knowledge. The Self is pure awareness. The Self can not be captured in knowledge about the Self, only by being the Self. When one merely knows something about the Self, it is surely not Self-realization but mere mind-stuff.

25. The Atman never changes and is not the consciousness of the discriminating awareness [buddhi]. But the ego in us is misled into believing he is himself the seer and the knower.

In Vedanta, the Self is understood to be totally passive. This is, however, only one aspect of the Self: the Shiva aspect, or the aspect of pure being. The other aspect, Shakti, is the dynamic aspect of the Self. But in the progressively deeper and deeper levels of realization, that Shankaracharya is taking us through, it is quite in place here to ignore Shakti and state that the Atman is an unchanging witness to the cognitions of the discerning mind (buddhi). He is here speaking of the witnessing consciousness that arises prior to Self-realization.

26. Just as a rope can fearfully be mistaken for a snake, so the Atman can fearfully be mistaken for the ego. But one becomes fearless again when realizing: "I am the supreme Atman, not the individuality".

27. Just as a lamp illumines a jar, so the Atman illumines the discriminative mind and the senses, etc. The Atman itself is not illumined by these forms.

While the mind can not illumnate the Self, the Self illuminates the mind. It is important to understand that the Self can not be reaced or realized through the mind.

28. Just as a lighted lamp does not need another light for its light to shine, so the Atman, which is pure consciousness itself, does not need another consciousness to realize itself.

This is worth contemplating. The Self realizes itself by itself. Nothing is needed.

29. When, by the process of applying the scriptural statement "not this, not this" all the conditionings are negated, then realise that the individual self is one with the supreme Self; just as the great Vedas state.

This is the first pointer about what one can do to get Self-realized. First one must understand the previous verses and reject all identifications. This is also the first time Shankaracharya takes us to the actual state of Self-realization, where, as he says, all the conditionings are negated. The method advised is to reject all identifications and this method can only lead to first the witnessing state and second to plain Self-realization. In other words, only to the void kind of realization, devoid of the bliss of Shakti.

30. [Identification with] the visible world and the body, etc., arises from ignorance which is as transient as a bubble. Through discrimination you should purely realize "I am Brahman".

Ignorance is not solid, it is as transient as a bubble. Getting realized does not mean you have to change in any way, you just have to get out of illusions that are "as transient as a bubble."

31. Because I am different from the body, I am free from birth, old age, weakness, death, etc. And because I am not attached to the senses, I am free from sense impressions such as come from objects or sounds, etc.

Getting realized is not a matter of the body and something one matures into, nor is it anything that can be aquired through the senses. Again Shankaracharya describes the witnessing kind of realization found in plain Self-realization; only later does one begin to see the senses and the sense objects as the Self.

32. Because [I am] not the mind, I am free from sorrow, bondage, hatred and fear, etc. And I am indeed not the vital forces. It is also on authority of the sacred scriptures that [I am] radiant and not the mind.

Furthermore getting realized is not a matter of the mind, nor of the vital forces (prana).

33. Everything is born: The vital breaths, the mind, the senses; as well as ether, air, light, water, earth and all that upholds existence.

In fact getting realized has nothing to do with vital breaths or the elements that uphold existence. Getting realized is not an existential matter.

34. I am without attributes, without action, eternal, without mind fluctuations [nirvikalpa], spotless, chngeless, formless, forever liberated and pure.

First one should realize that the Self is absolutely nothing, it is void. There is no movement in the Self and it has no plurality what so ever.

35. Like space itself, I fill all things within and without. I am always the same in everything; perfect, unbound, pure and motionless.

The Self, being unmanifest, can be said to be omnipresent. Though this is strictly not true, since omnipresence would demand spatiality, and there is no such spatiality in the Self. Never the less Shankaracharya is now moving on to a higher level of realization, known as unity consciousness. In unity consciousness one realizes that the unmanifest Self underlies everything. The Tripura Rahasya says of this state: "Unless a man live in the ordinary life and check every incident as the projection of the Self, not swerving from the Self in any circumstances, he can not be said to be free from the handicap of ignorance." (XVII, 109).

36. I am indeed that transcendental Brahman which is eternal, pure, free, singular and indivisible; which is non-dual and infinite truth and knowledge.

After having studied what the Self is not, we are presented with some of the qualities of the Self.

37. Indeed, the constant awareness of "I am Brahman" takes away ignorance and mind fluctuations just as medicine cures diseases.

This is the second instruction: Now one should understand one's true identity, which is oneness with Brahman (the absolute). This is the means to move from plain Self-realization to unity consciousness.

38. Sit in a lonely place, free of passions and with controled senses, and meditate one-pointedly on the Atman, which is infinite and singular.

This is the third instruction: One should meditate one-pointedly on the Self.

39. Indeed one should meditate wholy on the Atman with a completely dissolved mind. Always see the Atman as as spotless as the ether [akasha].

This is the fourth instruction: The correct way to meditate on the Self is with no-mind. If one meditates with or within the mind, one will not reach the Self. Only when the mind is transcended can one realize the Self.

40. When one has realized the Atman, form, color, etc. [falls off]. Then one knows the highest goal and lives as an embodiment of perfect consciousness and bliss.

Up until now we have been instructed to meditate on the Self. What, then, is it like to realize the Self? It is utter freedom from any qualification. Furthermore it is pure, unmanifest consciousness and bliss.

41. In the supreme Atman, there are no such distinctions as the knower, the knowing and the known. One has realized pure being and bliss. That [realization] shines by itself from oneself.

This is important to understand. One's small self has fallen away, or rather there are no longer any identification with it.

42. When, from constant meditation on the joyous Self, the fire of knowledge is born, it burns up all ignorance as if it were fuel.

Now we are introduced to the essence of meditation: It is an often repeated diving into the joyous Self that dispells all ignorance. This contradicts the injunction of sloka 29, where rejection of identification was the means. This is because we are now dealing with a different state of consciousness. What is discussed is the means to move from the pure void-realization of basic Self-realization, to the blissful state of unity consciousness.

43. As darkeness is dispelled by the sun at dawn, so ignorance is removed when the Atman emerges.

There are layers of ignorance, but not until the time when the Self emerges, will root-ignorance be removed.

44. The Atman is always present, however this is not realized because of ignorance. When ignorance is destroyed one becomes radiant like a [shining] chain around ones neck.

What, then, is getting realized like? It is an interesting paradox that the Self is always present and one is really already realized, only one does not know it. Getting realized is getting rid of what one does not have (ignorance).

45. As one during a walk may erroneously mistake a tree stump for a man, so one may mistake the individual soul for Brahman; this error disappears when the true nature of the individual soul is realized.

Furthermore, when becomming realized, one no longer misidentifies the Self with anything else, as one did before.

46. Just as one gone astray [may return to the right path with right knowledge], so the ignorance of "I", "me" and "mine" is quickly dispelled with right knowledge.

47. The yogi of perfect realization sees the whole universe as the Self. He considers everything the Self in absolute wisdom.

Shankaracharya now speaks of perfect realization, implying there are imperfect kinds of realization. Indeed the void-consciousness of plain Self-realization is imperfect realization.

48. This world is verily the Atman, everything is Atman, nothing is different from Atman. Similarly pots are made of clay and remain clay despite being pots. Thus the wise sees everything as himself.

This is the state of unity consciousness. Up to verse 37 Shankaracharya has been talking about Self-realization, and in verse 37 to 46 about how one moves on to unity consciousness, now he talks about the state of unity consciousness.

49. He is liberated while alive and is one who knows "That", and has removed the veils of the gunas; he is filled up with existence, consciousness and bliss. It is similar to a catarpillar becomming a butterfly.

50. After having crossed the ocean of delusion and having slain passion and hatred, etc., the yogi dwells in peace and radiates the joy of the Self.

51. [The yogi] who abides in his Self, who is detached from fluctuating pleasures, is unmoved in the happiness of the Atman. He is like a light placed inside a pot: He shines inwardly.

52. Though the wise one lives within the conditionings he is detached as the clear sky and may behave like a fool, though he is all-knowing. He is as unbound as the wind.

There are no outward signs that tell if a person is realized or not.

53. Upon the destruction of the conditionings, the wise one is completely absorbed in Vishnu. Like water in water, air in air and fire in fire.

"Vishnu" here means the all-pervading aspect of the absolute, not the personified god

54. With that accomplished there is nothing left to achieve. With that happines, there is nothing more to enjoy. With that knowledge, there is nothing more to know. One must understand that is Brahman.

55. When having seen that, one need see no more. When having become that, one need not be reborn. When knowing that, one need know no more. That is Brahman and is what one must realize.

56. Realize that to be Brahman which is crosswise, up, down and full, which is existence-consciousness-bliss, and which is undivided, infinite, eternal and one.

"Crosswise, up, down and full": Omnipresent.

57. Realize that to be Brahman which is found by the Vedantic method of rejection and negation, which is non-dual, indivisable, blissful and One.

58. Though bliss is indivisible, Brahma and other gods enjoy a mere fraction of the supreme bliss in various degrees.

59. All objects are pervaded by Brahman, all activities are pervaded by Brahman; thus Brahman permeates everything as butter permeates milk.

60. Realize that to be Brahman which is neither fine nor coarse; neither short nor long; without birth or change; formless, colorless and without qualities.

61. Realize that to be Brahman which shines like the sun that illumines everything, but which is not illumined by anything.

62. Brahman pervades the whole world within and without with its luminance, like a glowing ball of iron in the fire.

63. Brahman is different from the world, yet there exists nothing that is not Brahman. Out of ignorance something else may seem to exist, like a mirrage.

64. Whatever is seen or heard is Brahman and nothing else. Viewed from the knowledge of truth, everything is Brahman: Non-dual existence-knowledge-bliss.

65. The omnipresent Atman which is existence and consciousness is only seen through the eye of wisdom. Anyone who looks through the eye of ignorance sees nothing, like the blind man sees not the sun.

66. Clarified by hearing etc., lit in the fire of knowledge, the soul is freed from all evil and shines of itself like gold.

67. Indeed the Atman, having risen in the space of the heart like the sun of wisdom, removes all ignorance, like the sun dispels darkness. Its shine is all-pervasive and all supportive and it makes everything glow.

Having just been informed Atman is omnipresent, it is strange we are now informed Atman arises in the heart. "Heart" is to be understood as a metaphor for the essential core of being.

68. He who gives up all activities, who worships the omnipresent Self in itself, who is not bound by time, place or direction, he enjoys eternal happiness and is free from confusion, cold, etc., he is omniscient, all-pervading and has finally achieved immortality.

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Thus concludes Atma-Bodha.

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Ramananda, swami (transl.): Tripura Rahasya
. World Wisdom, USA 2002 (1959).

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