Advaita-vādīs offer authoritative quotations:
yo vijñane tiṣṭhan — “It is that which is situated within consciousness.” (Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 5.7.22)
vijñānam yajnam tanute — “Consciousness performs sacrifice.” (Taittriya Upaniṣad, 2.5.1)
jñāna-svarūpa — “Its intrinsic form is consciousness.” (Visnu Purāna, 1.2.6)
Referring to these statements, they claim that ātmā is the intrinsic form of consciousness (jñāna-svarūpa), not a distinct entity possessing consciousness (jñāta). In other words, it is consciousness, but somehow does not inherently possess consciousness. They propose that ātmā can possess consciousness only when it acquires the aid of a psychic apparatus (antaḥkarana). They therefore conclude that knowership (jñātṛtva) is merely a superimposition on ātmā.
When confronted with scriptural statements that present a different view, like, “ātmā is self-luminous,” they define “self-luminous” with only its secondary meaning (“that ātmā can illuminate for itself, not for others), and exclude the primary meaning (“that ātmā illuminates itself), saying, “If consciousness is an object of cognition, it is no better than any other object of cognition, which renders it inert.”
Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī rejects these arguments on the basis of scriptural statements which describe the ātmā as an entity both composed of consciousness and possessing self-knowledge. In his Sarva-samvādīni commentary on Paramātmā Sandarbha he cites:
vijñātāram are kena vijāniyāt — “By what can the knower be known?” (Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 2.4.14)
na hi vijñāturvijñāterviparilopo vidyate ‘vināśitvāt— “The knowledge of the knower is never lost.” (Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 4.3.30)
Other scriptural statements describing ātmā as vijñāna, as quoted above in the Advaita-vāda argument, specify that ātmā is composed of sentience, and do not contradict the logic that a thing which is sentience is sentient.
Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī refers to an argument presented by Śrī Rāmānujācārya in his commentary of Vedānta Sūtra, “Śrī-bhasya.” He quotes jānātyeva ayam puruṣaḥ, (“this puruṣa [ātmā] certainly knows”) to affirm that ātmā is composed of sentience (jñāna svarūpa) and therefore is intrinsically sentient (jñātṛtva).
The Vaiśeṣikas — followers of the Indian school of logic — contend that ātmā cannot have consciousness as its inherent characteristic (jñāna-svarūpa) because this would mean it must be omniscient. They come to this dilemma only because they consider the individual ātmā to be omnipresent. Their logic is, “A substance composed of consciousness, and present everywhere, must have knowledge of everything.” However, the idea that the ātmā is individually omnipresent is not in conformity with scriptures, which describe ātmā as collectively omnipresent but individually minute and localized.
“The ātmā is atomically minute…” states Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad (2.1.9)
Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad (4.4.2) describes that the ātmā exits in the body after death and moves to the higher planets. Similarly, Kauṣītakī Upaniṣad states, “They leave this planet and go to the moon planet and from there they return again.” Movement is impossible for an entity that is present everywhere. Therefore, descriptions of the ātmā’s movement verify scriptural descriptions of it as minute and localized.
Since the word jñāna is so often used to describe ātmā, it would not be good to conclude a discussion of ātmā without discussing the meaning of this word. In this article we tended to translate jñāna as consciousness. The various meaning of the word jñāna can be found in a previous article on this topic: What is Jnana?
The characteristic of jñāna — artha-prakāśaka: to illuminate things — is found in both the substrate of jñāna (the ātmā) and jñāna itself (the characteristic of ātmā). The former reveals itself and the latter reveals objects. One may ask, “How can ātma both be the source of jñāna and jñāna itself?” A flame provides a ready analogy. The flame and its luminosity are both luminous, yet the flame is the source of illumination and luminosity is its quality. The flame illuminates itself, and its luminosity illumines itself as well as other objects. Thus ātmā is often compared to a flame, because it is the source of consciousness and possesses the quality of knowledge.
Knowledge cannot know itself, despite being able to illuminate itself and other things. Ātmā, however, exists by itself, for itself (pratyak), and the knowledge it possess as a quality also exists for ātmā’s sake (parāk). Ātmā is conscious and has consciousness, but jñāna is inert, yet not exactly like material objects such as a book — it is illuminated by the consciousness of the ātmā.
Knowledge is relational, implying a subject to which it belongs and an object to which it refers. It can be noted here that the subject experiencing and generating knowledge is not exactly the ātmā, but a conditional projection of it, a “conditional self.” Knowledge of external objects arises when the consciousness of ātmā reflects from the mind (the seat of the “conditional consciousness”), shines through the senses, and comes in contact with external objects.
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