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The Ontology of the Jīva – Part 3
Articles by Satyanarayana Dasa

The Ontology of the Jīva – Part 3

 Verse Six

evaṁ parābhidhyānena
ṛtvaṁ prakṛteḥ pumān
karmasu kriyam
ṇair ātmāni manyate

Prakṛti is the entity that carries out material activities, but the ātmā thinks that the deeds done by prakṛti’s guṇas are his own deeds, because he completely absorbs his self identification in her.

Evam (“in this way”) refers to ātmā’s condition, described in previous verses, of having forgotten his true nature due to infatuation with prakṛti. Parābhidhyānena (completely absorbing his concentration in another being) indicates that the self (pumān) completely identifies with a being other than himself, prakṛti. This is why he thinks (manyate) that the deeds carried out by her qualities (guṇas) are actually his own deeds (ātmāni).

The conclusion is that the position of being an agent of material actions is not within the inherent nature of the self, ātmā-svarūpa. Rather it is merely a conception arising from his identification with prakṛti’s guṇa (sattva, rajas and tamas). The meaning is that all actions happen in the mind-body complex made of material nature but the self identifies with them as his own.

Verse Seven

tad asya saṁsṛtir bandha
āra-tantryaṁ ca tat-kṛtam
bhavaty akartur
ākṣiṇo nirvṛtātmāna

Because of this misconception, the jīva falls into the cycle of birth and death called samsara, and becomes bound. Even though the jīva is not the doer – he is the master, the witness, and blissful by nature – he thus becomes dependent.

As described in the previous verses, ātmā attains the association of prakṛti’s guṇas and becomes bound within them due to his extreme identification with them. The current verse adds that this leads the ātmā into birth and death, which makes him dependent on prakṛti and controlled by karma. This shows that the ātmā in this world is not constitutionally or intrinsically bound to prakṛti. The ātmā’s bondage is an acquired condition, not an inherent one.

To make this very clear, Lord Kapila also describes the constitutional nature of ātmā when not bound by prakṛti: The ātmā is inherently uninvolved with selfish material deeds (akartu), is an independent master (īśasya), is clear-sighted and unbewildered (sākṣiṇa), and exists blissfully without needs (nirvṛtātmāna).

 The word akartu (lit. non-doer) does not imply that ātmā is not the shelter of will or efforts, for there can be no action by the mind-body complex without the presence of ātmā. It means that ātmā is devoid of common material deeds, such as walking, etc. This is made clear by the next word, īśasya (lit. of the controller), which stipulates that ātmā is not inherently controlled by karma. The next word, sākṣiṇah (lit. of the witness) also makes this clear by stipulating that ātmā “has eyes” (sa-akṣi) and thus clear vision, and thus knowledge (which shows that ātmā possesses knowledge as an attribute, jñāna-gunaka). Indeed, the meaning of being a witness is to experience something directly. Thus the natural state of the ātmā is to directly witness reality. Knowledge of reality is therefore his inherent attribute (thus he can be described as jñāna-guṇaka).

The final word describing the inherent nature of ātmā is nirvṛtātmāna. This word stipulates that ātmā is intrinsically conscious by nature (thus he is described as jñāna svarüpa). This word is a compound of nirvṛta and ātmā. Examining the word nirvṛta will be helpful. This word is based on the root vṛ, joined to the prefix nir- and the suffix -kta.  The root vr means to cover, but when used with prefix nir it means to be happy, unobstructed. The suffix kta (which is usually applied in the sense of past perfect) has been applied on nirvr to convey the sense of “nature.”  Thus the word means, “One whose nature is ānanda, blissful.”

There is a statement from Śruti to support that ātmā is inherently blissful and free of worries by nature: nirvana māyā eva ayam ātmā (“This self is verily blissful”). Bliss is a sense of comfortable feeling. Naturally, if ātmā is independent and uncontrolled by karma (as stipulated by the term īśaya) then it has no worries and is blissful – for it has no contact with beginningless good and bad karma and instead has the eight natural qualities such as apahata pāpma, as described in Cāndogya Upanishad: ya ātmā apahatapapma vijaro vimrtyur visoko avijighatso apipasah  satyakamah  satyasankalpah (8.7.1) which says that the pure self is free from sin, old age, death, grief, hunger, thirst; and his desire and will are fulfilled.

This is Lord Kapila’s description of the nature of the pure living being free from any contact with prakṛti, having the nature of consciousness and having consciousness as his attribute, while endowed with the above stated eight qualities as part of his svarūpa. So, it is understood that the very nature of ātmā is unlimited, uncontracted, pure consciousness. But this consciousness can be covered by ignorance and become subject to karma. Karma forces consciousness to contract into various types of bodies, from Brahma to grass. When ātmā enters these various bodies, his consciousness becomes limited accordingly. Ignorantly identifying with that particular body, the conditioned ātmā instigates activities related to it. As a result, he becomes subject to karma and must experience pleasure and suffering, and continue to be implicated in the flow of the material world.

A doubt may arise:

“Ātmā is said to be conscious by nature and self-luminous (jñāna svarūpa and svayam prakasa). But when he identifies with a particular body, he is darkened by ignorance. What happens to his quality of self-luminosity? It appears to be lost. If the self-luminosity still existed, it would seem impossible for ātmā to be in darkness regarding his true self-identity. Thus it would not be possible for him to identify with any material form. If the self-luminosity is lost, his very nature of an eternal entity is destroyed.”

We reply:

That is not true. Ātmā has two types of jñāna, namely svarūpa-bhūta and dharma-bhūta. The first is the intrinsic nature, i.e. the nature of being consciousness, the second is the quality of possessing awareness and knowledge. The first one has no content in it except the sense of “I”. It is subjective consciousness. The second one is related to objects outside the self. It is objective awareness. The conscious, self-illuminating nature of the ātmā (jñāna-svarūpa) is not lost. The nature of the ātmā is eternally to be full of brilliant consciousness. But the attribute of being able to use that luminous consciousness to illuminate objects (dharma-bhūta-jñāna) is covered. The attribute is covered and contracted, not the intrinsic nature which sprouts the attribute.

A further doubt arises:

“OK, so you accept the loss of the attribute of knowledge, dharma-bhūta-jñāna. The question we ask is: How does ātmā lose this attribute? There seem to be only two possible implications. Either the illuminating power is obstructed by ignorance, or it is extinguished altogether. In either case the attribute of being self-illuminating is destroyed. Since this attribute is accepted as eternal, this raises a logical fallacy because something eternal cannot be destroyed.”

We reply:

Consciousness (jñāna) as an attribute of ātmā is intrinsic and therefore eternal, but we accept that it can expand or contract in a real sense. The sentient knowledge of the self is not “destroyed,” it merely undergoes change in the form of expansion and contraction, by the influence of karma. The illusion of identifying oneself with a body needs a conscious base. Therefore, we see that self-illumination still exists in the ignorant ātmā – but to a contracted extent – as the basis for the experience of illusion. The ātmā illuminates himself, there is no need of any other consciousness to reveal him. Only inert objects need another agent to illuminate them. So, even in ignorance the ātmā retains his nature of self-illumination. But his knowledge about being eternal (etc.) is lost, and thus illusion is produced. Loss here means the illumination or light is removed. Such illumination or light is not exactly within the nature of ātmā. It is more precisely a quality of dharma-bhūta-jñāna called prasara (lit. expansion). In other words, dharma-bhūta-jñāna possesses light which naturally spreads all around. This spreading is called prasara or expansion. The prasara can become contracted (saṅkoca) by karma. That is called conditioning or limitation. Thus ātmā never loses the attribute of dharma-bhūta-jñāna.  Expansion is not the same as lack of contraction. It is a positive entity itself which removes the contracting covering on the ātmā’s light, thus destroying illusion.

In summary, the ātmā inherently and eternally possesses the attribute of sentience, jñāna, and eternally possesses the constitution of consciousness. But the ability for these to shine can be expanded or contracted by the function of dharma-bhūta-jñāna.

Advaita-vāda, however, cannot answer this question about the loss of ātmā’s illuminating power. It says that ātmā is consciousness itself, without qualities. Thus it says that the illumination of consciousness cannot be a quality of the ātmā, it must be intrinsic to the ātmā himself. Therefore the loss of illuminating power and subsequent illusion of the jīva is an unsolvable conundrum for them. In their paradigm, it amounts to the destruction of an eternal entity – a logical impossibility.



  • DHANANJAYADAS March 9, 2014

    Hare Krishna,

    So then what is the intrinsic qualities of the atma and how does it relate to the material body it occupies and what is the relationship of the atma to the karma.

    • malati March 13, 2014

      Haribol, we will soon publish an article on the qualities of the jiva based on Paramatma Sandarbha, entitled “The Self and Free Will in the Caitanya Sampradaya.” So kindly wait for that since it deals with these questions.

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