Devadatta Kīrtideva Aśvamitra

2. The common intuition or experience of existing and being conscious

The subject of this second chapter takes up some concepts previously presented in some contributions already published in this site[1]. It is simply the order of the arguments that has been changed with the aim of explaining in detail the doctrine of the primordial intuition of existing as it is experienced by all living things, especially human beings. The aim is also to explain how such intuition does not “automatically”[2] lead to the Liberation from ignorance despite being a universally shared intuition.

By saying “I exist”, one expresses the only absolute certainty that everyone experiences. In fact, the intuitive experience of existing, that is to say the consciousness of being existing, transcends and precedes any other knowledge[3]. For this reason, Śaṃkara strongly asserts that no one can deny to exist. Even if someone wishes to affirm his non-existence[4], the very existence-consciousness would be necessary in order to make such assumption. Obviously, the intuition of existing is based on the recognition that existence is factual, real and absolute. The existence of each being is the very Existence. For this reason, a śruti states that:

Ātman is stranger to no one, because it is self evident.[5]

At the same time another śruti declares that:

Brahman is known directly because It is the inner Self.[6]

In this second quotation there are two important intuitive assertions based on vedāntic logic and on the experience common to all conscious beings. The first one asserts that Brahman - which is Consciousness, Existence and Absolute Reality - is known directly, without any mediation or cognitive action. The second one ratifies that the direct intuition reveals the identity between Brahman and Ātman. However, the Upaniṣads do not provide such intuitive knowledge. In fact, to the objector asking:

Is Ātman not revealed by the agama (the śruti) and, before that, by the perception of the senses (pratyākṣa)

and by the other valid means of knowledge (pramāṇa)?

Śaṃkara firmly replies:

No, because Ātman is self evident![7]

This śaṃkarian clarification is extremely important and opportune because it denies that the intuition or the experience of existence depends on a means of contingent investigation such as the pramāṇas[8]. The prasiddha anubhava is in fact self-subsistent. Therefore,

One must accept that the Self is its own means of knowledge (svāpramāṇa[9]), which is directly knowable

by itself (svayamvedyatva).[10]

This means that intuition (anubhava) is of the same nature of the Ātman, that is to say it is the very Ātman[11]. While on one hand everyone is absolutely aware of his own existence, known “automatically”, on the other hand no one can know with absolute certainty the existence of the others. In fact, since  the sarvaloka prasiddhānubhava is non-dual by nature, the knowledge of things or of other persons necessarily entails the duality[12] of the knowing subject (jñātṛ) and the known object (jñeya). To perform a cognitive action towards a particular person as an object of knowledge, first we must forcibly see him, listen to him, touch him. Then, we mentally (manodatta) gather and elaborate all the data proceeding from the five senses and finally form an idea of him at the intellectual level[13]. Such intellectual knowledge is the result of the mediation of individual faculties, therefore it is an empirical knowledge[14]. Ultimately, the existence of the others is not the direct (anubhava) experience of the jñātṛ. This argument is applicable to every anātman, that is to say to all that is not the Self. In fact, even the components of one’s individuality, senses, prāṇas, mind and intellect are objects of Consciousness, as well as any object or person of the external world.

Let’s see now why all actions, including the cognitive ones, should be considered erroneous. In fact, the cognitive investigation (jñāpti) does not proceed from the Ātman, completely free from any action, but from the ego (aham or jīvātman). Since jñāpti is an action like any other, it has the aham, the producer of desires (kāma), as its starting point. The intellect reflects the desires of the ego like a mirror, transforming them into volitions (saṃkalpa). Subsequently, the mind plans these volitions and, through the prāṇas, puts the karmendriyas into action. Finally, these last faculties project the actions into the external world. This sequence of cause-effect relationships (kāraṇa-kārya saṃbhandha), which is concatenated at the individual level, represents the process of expansion of the aham towards the mama, i.e. from ego to “mine”. Any action, whatever its nature may be, is aimed at extending the sphere of individuality, at taking possession of “this” (idam) to expand the dominion of [15]. So great is the illusion that mama is one with the aham that one enjoys or suffers by reason of “mine”. A householder despairs when his house burns down or when a financial downturn decreases the value of his property.

So, why ego is the the producer of desire? The answer is that, in reality, the aham has the presentiment of not being perfect, autonomous, complete and free. Therefore, it burns with all sorts of desires in the attempt to make up these limitations (bandha). By producing desires (kāmakāra) it becomes an agent (kartṛ) that seeks to extend its individuality (mamakāra) to the external objects by expanding the range of its own limitations to the multiple results of action (karmaphala). In spite of its partial and temporary satisfaction, the ego will soon realize that it has only moved the boundaries of its limitation a little further. It will then become again dissatisfied and desire to plunge even further into the empirical world. Death itself is not able to extinguish this thirst, and the ego will thus be forced to seek other bodies in order to satisfy new desires with renewed karma, remaining in this way perpetually prisoner of saṃsāra.

So far, we have noted that the primordial intuition of existing as consciousness is the universally shared experience of being the Ātman, i.e. Brahman. This direct experience is indisputable because it does not rely on any contingent “proof”:

It cannot be said that Brahman does not exist, nor can it be realised even though it is known from the śruti as the all-pervasive entity beyond worldly qualities, as different from all things belonging to these four classes, viz. those

that can be produced, and as occurring in its own context and hence not forming a part of anything else

because that Brahman is called the Self in the text: “This is the Ātman which has been described

as neti neti”[16] and because the Self cannot be denied in as much as

it is the Self even of one who would deny it.”[17]

However, only few reflect on the primordial experience expressed by the statement: “I am”. Had everyone or many done so, the jīvan muktas would be very frequent. On the contrary, most people complete this statement by saying, “I am so and so”. This “I” is only apparently equal to that of the previous statement, because with “so and so” one describes it as an object. The Ātman exists and is conscious, but can never become object of anything. To be a describable object (padārtha), is required a subject that describes it; therefore the “I” of the second statement cannot be the Ātman. Therefore, this “I” is the aham thought by the individual mind (antaḥkāraṇa) as an object of cogitation and described through some limitative attributes: that is to say the “so and so”. Why does the mind create this idea of aham? Because the mind by its nature does not accept to be incapable of conceiving the Ātman as the object of a cognitive action. Hence, it imagines a pseudo-ātman projected onto the Self as an appearance devoid of reality, with the purpose of considering Ātman as one of its objects. In reality, this is only a pale reflection of the Ātman, devoid of true existence.

Hence, being constantly in contact with the conscious self, the ego appears to be conscious, like a transparent

crystal that appears red when leaning against a red flower. Therefore, two words (pada) are attributed

to the Self: the feeling of “I” and that of “mine”, as appearances of the Self

and of the things referred to its appearance.[18]

This explains why, even if everyone experiences the intuition of existing and of being conscious, only very few adopt the renunciation (saṃnyāsa) to “be so and so”.

As already explained, the jīvatman, or aham, has the presentiment of not being the Ātman. The daily experience of the suffering, to which it is constantly subjected, provides such evidence. For this reason, the aham is mistakenly lead to flee from suffering by making up its limited nature. To achieve this, it extends its selfish possession to the farthest reaches of the manifested world. At this point, it would be necessary to understand whether there is any relationship between Ātman and jīvātman in order to proceed in our argument.

We must, therefore, base our reasoning on a statement of Śaṃkara that sets the question in correct terms:


The jīva [the ego] is only an appearance of the real sun, like the reflection (ābhāsa) of the sun in the water.

Once the water is removed, this reflection returns to the sun, which is its origin

and to which it remains identical.[19]

This synthetic statement demonstrates that the aham-reflection is only an appearance, while the Ātman-sun is the only reality[20]. This is sufficient to establish that no relationship exists between the two. Even if an hypothetical relationship were possible, both the jīvātman and the Ātman would have to be mutually relative and, therefore, dependent. However, the Ātman is the absolute. Consequently, such relativity must be excluded.

The second part of the śaṃkarian statement must be considered as the expression of two different points of view. According to the first, when the water, the reflection plane, disappears, the reflection returns to the source that had projected it onto the water surface. Here, the apparent phenomenon is described as if the reflection had been produced by the sun, beamed through space as solar ray reaching eventually the surface of the water. Once the water dried up, the reflection under the form of another ray would then make the trip back to the sun and reintegrate into it. This is an empirical point of view (vyāvahārika dṛṣṭi); because, in order to illustrate it, one has to resort to mutual causal relations and to the time and space conditions. Following this illusory explanation, we create a temporary spatial separation between the ray and the sun, an apparent interval of separate existence of the reflection. Sun, ray, and reflection enter each other in the same causal relationship attributed to the triad of cognitive action: knower, knowledge, and known[21]. This first perspective is certainly wrong, although it may be useful within the limits of an analytic investigation. The second perspective, which corresponds to the conclusion of the aforementioned statement of Śaṃkara, represents the correct point of view, that of the absolute where the reflection “remains identical” to the sun. In other words, it remains as it had always been. This statement liberates from any erroneous idea about a temporarily separated existence of the ray and the reflection from the sun. Therefore, following the vedāntic logic, the jīvātman is never other then the Ātman, being the Ātman itself. On the contrary, from an empirical standpoint, if we consider the jīvātman as an independent entity, we inevitably affirm its absolute unreality. For this reason, the ego can be considered satasat, existing and non-existing, depending on the point of view that is assumed.

Since Vedānta, as a way of knowledge (jñāna mārga), is taught to those who are still ignorant, it is useful to initially set up the teaching (upadeśa) from a point of view that, although erroneous, the disciple is more inclined to accept and understand. Therefore, the guru initially bases his upadeśa on the vyāvahārika point of view. Following the practice of the neti neti this empirical view will then be denied and corrected. The metaphysical point of view (pāramārthika dṛṣṭi) would eventually prevail of the empirical one. In this fashion, the empirical vision and the absolute one are both employed in the Vedānta vicāra method, respectively as adhyāropa and apavāda. Indeed, the empirical view is an erroneous knowledge (mithyā or avidyā) and not an absolute ignorance, as some proponents of the doctrine of the mūla avidyā maintain. Only the Brahmātman is absolute. Therefore, even in avidyā there must be a glimpse of truth, however distorted this may be. Otherwise, anyone who is immersed in avidyā would not have the opportunity to acquire any knowledge. Therefore, false knowledge can be used initially as an instrument of real knowledge, only to be permanently abandoned by the Consciousness-Knowledge afterwards.

At this point, in the direct method (sākṣāt sādhana) this argumentation can be presented from yet another slightly different angle. This is a difficult point to grasp, which requires a deep manana. The qualified disciple must be capable of the greatest intellectual flexibility in order to integrate the following citation into the arguments so far exposed:

When the guru explains to the disciple the mahāvākya” you are That”, does such “you” refer to the Ātman or to the anātman? To answer the question, some preliminary considerations must be added. As already said,

the existence of the ego finds its basis on the real Ātman, as its reflected image. One can describe

the own “self” as follows: “I am so and so”. In this statement, “I” concerns the real “I”, namely

the Self, since it simply affirms its existence. Instead, “so and so” are the attributes,

the functions and the activities overlapping with the individual “I” and

determining its apparent existence. As already anticipated,

when the disciple receives a mahāvākya from a guru

of Vedānta, he has not yet used the neti neti

discrimination, and, therefore,  is unable

to discern which “I” refers to the

“you” (tva). Therefore, for the

disciple, that “I” appears

as both the nature of the

Self and the non-Self (Ātmanātman bhava).

In other words, he still confuses the real

with the apparent and vice versa”,[22]

until the dazzling Ātman anubhava emerges.




[1] Cf. Svāmī Satcidānandendra Sarasvatī, Le cinque gemme dell’Advaita; Maitreyī, Conoscenza vedāntica e conoscenze empiriche; Gian Giuseppe Filippi, Il Serpente e la Corda, in

[2] We would like to clarify that “automatic”, term that in modern times has assumed a mechanistic inflection in line with modern mentality, in reality means “what is effect of itself”. Which is as good as affirming that the effect and the cause are one thing only.

[3] Since you exist you can know. This reverses the silly Cartesian postulate cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). A stone, although really existing, cannot know: this demonstrates the priority of existing on knowing.

[4] As it was affirmed by the anātmakavādin Buddhists.

[5] Brahma Sūtra Śaṃkara Bhāṣya (BSŚBh), II.3.7.

[6] Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (BU), III.4.1

[7] Bhagavad Gītā Śaṃkara Bhāṣya (BhGŚBh), II.18

[8] The śruti as well is an empirical pramāṇa, in this case called śābda, the “word”. However, even if it must be considered as the highest pramāṇa (antya pramāṇa), the śruti cannot teach the absolute.  It only focuses it as the supreme goal.

[9] “Which is self knowable”; sometimes it can be freely translated as the “supreme pramāṇa”. In fact,  the term pramāṇa is used here in a transposed sense, as in this case it cannot be an instrument of empirical knowledge.

[10] Śaṃkara, Upadeśa Sāhasrī (US) XVIII.203.

[11] Therefore, one shall never confuse the intuition with what is intuited. The latter, being an object of knowledge, is only a reflection of the true intuition, a modification of the mind (mānasa vṛtti). Especially in the pātañjala yoga, those modifications that are only ideas or thoughts and not intuitions are often mistaken with the anubhava.

[12] It goes without saying that duality is the source of multiplicity. Thus, the subject-object relationship is the origin of the whole manifold world (vaiśvarūpya prapañca).

[13] To carry out such a cognitive action it is necessary to use the valid means of knowledge available by nature to all individuals. For this reason, the jñātṛ is also a pramātṛ.

[14] Vedānta teaches that the five sense faculties, directly taking the form of external objects, experience a sensory intuition called pratyakṣānubhava. Similarly, the instinctive sympathy or dislike arising in the mind from a sensorial information, is considered a mental intuition or mānasa pratyakṣa (or vedanānubhava). Finally, even the sudden idea that an object elaborated by the mind can be useful or harmful is considered to be an intuition of the buddhi, known as pratyaya anubhava. Evidently, these intuitions or immediate experiences are only partial and temporary anubhavas (aṃśānubhava, anityānubhava), reflections of the authentic metaphysical intuition or illumination (prakāśi anubhāva). We would like to underline here that it is wrong to overestimate the scope of intellectual intuition (pratyaya anubhava) and to confuse it with the intuition of the reality of the Ātman, the anuṣatyānubodha.

[15] This happens to the single individuality (social or economic affirmation, honours, public recognitions, etc.), as well as, to the collective one (social, scientific achievements, territorial and space conquests, etc.).

[16] BU III.9.26.

[17] BSŚBh I.1.4.

[18] US XVIII.27.

[19] BhGŚBh XV. 7. This means that the reflection has no real existence; once the real existence of the rope is ascertained, it becomes evident that the snake never existed.

[20] The reader will recall that, in an individual, the plan of reflection is represented by his intellect (buddhi) This doctrine of the reflection (ābhāsavāda) has an equivalent also in the universal domain (adhidaiva). In this case the reflection is represented by Hiraṇyagarbha, the plan of reflection is represented by the universal Buddhi, and the source of the reflection by the very Brahman. However, in Vedānta the distinction between microcosm  and macrocosm still belongs to the domain of illusion.

[21] See Maitreyī, Conoscenze empiriche e Conoscenza vedāntica, G.G. Filippi, Il Serpente e la Corda,

[22] G.G. Filippi, Il Serpente e la Corda,