The pathway to understanding Advaita (Mandukya Upanishad note) – Part 1

Sri Gurubhyo Namah adishankara-and-four-disciples

There is a famous mantra in the Mandukya Upanishad (7th mantra)

नान्तःप्रज्ञं नबहिःप्रज्ञं नोभयतःप्रज्ञं नप्रज्ञानघनं नप्रज्ञं नाप्रज्ञम् ।
अदृश्यमव्यवहार्यं अग्राह्यं अलक्षणं अचिन्त्यं अव्यपदेश्यं एकात्मप्रत्ययसारं प्रपञ्चोपशमं शान्तं शिवं अद्वैतं चतुर्थं मन्यन्ते स आत्मा स विज्ञेयः ॥

This mantra and the Kaarika on the Upanishad authored by Gaudapaadachaarya offers a sequential method of understanding Vedanta. This came up in a discussion with a friend and I am penning this down. This post is based on my listening live to lectures on Vedanta given by own teachers and mp3 audio lectures by Swami Paramarthananda. Any errors here are due to limitations in my understanding. This is just for my record mostly and to share with those to whom it may be of interest. That a live Guru is needed to understand Vedanta goes without saying.

With Pranams,


The seeker in Vedanta begins from his routine understanding of real duality (“There are really many things in this world, and I am one of the observers in this world who is part of it, participating in it, and I am located in space-time somewhere”). This is the usual understanding of most human beings. From such an understanding, the seeker is led to understand that, “There is but only one thing, that is I the Pure Consciousness. The world is available for experience and transaction but it has no reality separate from I the Pure Consciousness. Therefore duality is not real. Only Advaita Atma, which is I the Pure Consciousness, is Satyam, real”.

The Vedanta, the Upanishads, take the seeker through several steps to establish him in the latter understanding. The Mandukya Upanishad 7th Mantra can be seen as specifying those steps.

Step 1: From a participant observer to a Non-participating Witness

The first step is moving from a participating observer to a non-participating witness or Sakshi. The idea of a participating observer lies fundamentally as the knower, the pramaataa, in various states of experience including waking-world, dream-world, and the deep-sleep. The Pure Consciousness when seen through the mind in these states, gets called as the waking-knower-person Vishwa, the dreaming-knower-person Taijasa, and the sleeping-person Praajna. The Pure Consciousness is by itself associated with none of these states (and therefore is not Vishwa, Taijasa or Praajna) but it is that principle by which these knowers “know” the world. Like the electricity powering bulbs of various wattage, the existence of Pure Consciousness enables the mind to know all these states of experience. The sleeping-person, the dream-person, and the waking-person are mutually not existing at the same time, but this Pure Consciousness Atman which lies in the background remains unabatedly witnessing all the states of experience in the mind but it is unaffected by any of them. The changing mind goes through sleep, waking and dream but there is no change in this Witness Consciousness called Saakshi Atman.

The part of the mantra – नान्तःप्रज्ञं नबहिःप्रज्ञं नोभयतःप्रज्ञं नप्रज्ञानघनं नप्रज्ञं नाप्रज्ञम्  – and the word – एकात्मप्रत्ययसारं – reveals this Pure Consciousness as this Witness Saakshi, the continous existence consciousness principle, in and through these mental states.

Furthermore, the world is understood to be consisting of objects with properties, gunas, of different kinds. Any object seen in the world has properties, which are nothing but limitations of various kinds. Objects and properties always go together. The observer of the objects/properties is different from them. This observer is the Witness Saakshi Atma.

The part of the mantra – अदृश्यमव्यवहार्यं अग्राह्यं अलक्षणं अचिन्त्यं अव्यपदेश्यं – reveals that the Saakshi Atma is devoid of all kinds of properities. It is the Supreme Subject which cannot be objectified at any time. Thus being the ultimate subject, it is also devoid of any properties by which it can be mentally grasped or pointed to as an object.

Thus, in the first step, the seeker is led from a participant-observer in the world to a non-participating witness Saakshi. The word “world” now is defined as all that is witnessed, right from the physical universe, to the mental universe of thoughts and dreams, and as also the minds and bodies of oneself and others too. The seer of this world, is the Saakshi Atma who is not part of this world but merely its witness, devoid of properties and the ultimate subject. Thus now there are only two things that can be considered for further analysis – the first is the witnessed world consisting of all body-minds and other objects; the second is the Saakshi Atma.

Step 2: The witnessed world is dependent on the Saakshi Atma for its existence. This will be taken up in the next post.

Shri Krishnaarpanamastu.



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