Ātmā is nitya-nirmala, ever pure. This means it never mixes with the qualities (gunas) of matter (prakṛti), it is always distinct from matter, factually untouched by it. This is evident from a statement in Bhāgavata Purāna (5.11.12): “The pure self witnesses the activities of the impure mind.”
Ātmā is nitya-nirmala, ever pure. This means it never mixes with the qualities (guṇas) of matter (prakṛti), it is always distinct from matter, factually untouched by it. This is evident from a statement in Bhāgavata Purāna (5.11.12): “The pure self witnesses the activities of the impure mind.”
The same verse states that ātmā has the ability to know (jñātṛtva), without any assistance from or connection to matter. This term, (jñātṛ) means “knower,” “possessor of knowledge.” The suffix (-tva) is much like the English suffixes -ness or -ship, because it indicates an essential characteristic. Thus the whole word, jñātṛtva, means “knowership” — having the essential attribute of a knower.
The sage Jāmātṛ says that ātmā has the qualities of knowership, doership, and enjoyership (“jñātṛtva-kartṛtva-bhoktṛtva-nija-dharmakaḥ”). The body is insentient. It becomes sentient only due to connection with ātmā. Although it is an inert and insentient object, it inherits knowership, doership, and enjoyership because it is related to ātmā. Bhāgavata Purāna (6.16.24) expresses this: “The body, senses, life air, mind and intelligence – all these can perform work because they are infused by its [ātmā’s] potency. Agency (knowership, doership and enjoyership) is not a natural attribute of the body.”
According to Śrī Kṛṣṇa action depends upon five causes:
“O mighty-armed, know from Me the five causes necessary for the accomplishment of all works. They are described in the Vedānta scriptures which explain how to destroy karma. These five are the seat of action (the body), the agent (the living entity who identifies with the body), the various senses, the different and various types of efforts and daiva. Whatever action, whether righteous or illegal, a person performs by means of body, speech or mind, is the result of these five causes which is the fifth cause.” (Gītā 18.13-15)
Śrī Viśvanātha comments that:
• The “location” is the body.
• The “doer” is ahaṅkara, which forms a knot between the ātmā and the inert matter of the body.
• The “instruments” are the sense organs.
• The “endeavors” are the bodily movements, which are actuated by “airs” such as prāṇa and apāna.
• “Providence” is the immanent being, the inner impeller of all.
When Viśvanātha says that the doer is ahaṅkara, he means ahaṅkara which has been energized by the ātmā, because the material body cannot function by itself. Thus the source of doership originates from ātmā and not from material ahaṅkara. To make this more clear, Śrī Baladeva has explicitly commented that the “doer” is the conditioned ātmā.
Action happens by the cooperation of these five factors, but because action happens in matter and via a body made of matter, matter (prakṛti) is often described as the cause of agency. This is simply because so many of the factors of action are aspects of matter. As the popular adage states, “A thing becomes known by its most prominent components” (ādhikyena vyapdeśā bhavanti). This is why Śrīmad Bhāgavatam (3.26.8) states, “Matter (which composes the body, senses and providence) is known as the cause of deeds. Spirit, which is superior to matter, is known as the enjoyer of the happiness and misery the deeds produce.”
The fact remains that the original source of doership is the ātmā. Enjoyership cannot be rooted in matter, because matter is insentient. Only a conscious being can enjoy or suffer. Enjoyership is a form of awareness, and so must be rooted in the ātmā.
The jīva has doership and enjoyership as his essential nature, yet in his conditioned state these characteristics manifest only through the material body, mind and sense organs. Therefore, sometimes jīva is called the non-doer and prakṛti the doer, as in the following verses of Bhāgavata Purāna (3.26.6-7):
“Because of absorption in the other (prakṛti), the jīva considers himself the doer of actions which are performed by the guṇas. That misconception results in bondage, birth and death, and dependence on prakṛti, of the jīva, who is actually not the doer but only the witness, who has a form of bliss and is superior to prakṛti.”
Here it is clear that bondage is a result of considering oneself the only doer. Bondage is not part of the svarūpa of jīva. Saying that the jīva is not the only doer (akartuh) does not deny that he is the source of doership. The phrase, ‘by absorption in the other [prakṛti]’ (parābhidhyānena), signifies that ātmā has doership as its inherent characteristic, by which it performs the act of absorbing itself in prakṛti. Jīva is called “non-doer” only in relation to the he is the source of doership. The phrase, ‘by absorption in the other [prakṛti]’ (parābhidhyānena), signifies that ātmā has doership as its inherent characteristic, by which it performs the act of absorbing itself in prakṛti. Jīva is called “non-doer” only in relation to the physical actions which happen through the body and senses. “Of the master” (īśasya) means that jīva is a master, and not really under the control of prakṛti’s karma. That he is the “witness” (sākṣiṇaḥ) indicates that he is conscious (jñāna-svarūpa) and possesses consciousness (jñāna-guṇaka). That he is “blissful by nature” (nirvṛtātmāna) means that jīva is not touched by any suffering; all experiences of pain and pleasure are external to the svarūpa of jīva.
Vedānta Sūtra (2.3.31) says that jīva, not prakṛti, is the doer, because if this was not accepted, the instructions of the scriptures would be futile (“kartā śāstrārthavattvāt”). The injunctions of the scriptures such as: “Let the person who desire heaven perform sacrifice” are meaningless if the person performing the action is not the same person enjoying result. All injunctions of scriptures would be meaningless if their enactor was insentient (prakṛti).
Because ātmā is the doer of actions (kartā), it is naturally the enjoyer of the result of those actions (bhoktā). “Bhoga” is the experience of pleasure or pain, which is simply a state of acquired knowledge (mano-vṛtti jñāna). Pleasure is a favorable state of the mind and pain is an unfavorable state. Since jīva is the sentient substratum which experiences these states of mind, he is regarded as the bhoktā or enjoyer, although the experience itself happens only in the mind. Thus although ātmā is the doer and enjoyer, action and enjoyment do not affect the ātmā. This is the meaning to the above-cited statement of Bṛhad Āraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4.3.15): “The puruṣa is untouched.”
Thus we understand that ātmā has the potential to know, act, and enjoy. In the conditioned state these abilities manifest only through a material body. The body, being material, is inert and insentient, and thus cannot have its own potential to know, act, or enjoy, so it cannot be the root source of those powers.
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