“You are not the body, nor is the body yours; you are not the doer nor the enjoyer. You are Consciousness itself, the eternal Witness, and free. Go about happily.” ~ Ashtavakra Gita, Chap. 15, verse 4
In this statement is contained the essence of Advaita Vedanta. In this essay, I will defend the following claim of Advaita Vedanta: You Are Not Your Body.
I do not proclaim to be an expert on Advaita Vedanta whatsoever. I am merely stating in my own limited words what I have learned from listening to the lectures of Swami Sarvapriyananda, who I am indebted to for all the wisdom and knowledge he has shared with the world for free on YouTube.
But what is the argument? Why should anyone believe that you are not the body? Or the doer or enjoyer? How can I not be the doer? Am I not doing something right now by typing this sentence on my laptop?
Here is the argument, simply put:
You are not the body. Hold out your hand and look at it. You will notice immediately in your experience that your experience is structured in the following way: there is a subject and an object. You are the subject and the hand is the object. You are experiencing the hand as an object in your awareness. How could this be otherwise? Does it make any sense to say you are the hand? Is your hand looking at you or are you looking at your hand? You are clearly looking at your hand. You are experiencing your hand but your hand is not experiencing you.
Thus there is a difference between you as the subject and your hand as an object.
The claim of Advaita Vedanta is that if you carefully inquire into the nature of your normal, everyday consciousness you will find that all your experiences are structured in this way: there is always a subject and an object that we are aware of.
Reply from the Materialist
Ahh! But the materialist might say: it is the brain that sees the hand and the brain is part of the body, so this thought experiment does not disprove that we are the body.
But let’s examine this claim further. Is it true that the subject of experience is the brain, which is part of the body? Does this claim stand up to the facts of experience?
Suppose you were put under local anesthesia and a surgeon cut off the top of your skull and you could look into a mirror and see your brain. So now your brain is the object of your experience. Who is experiencing the brain?
The materialist will say: “the brain is experiencing itself.” Ahh, sure. But when you look at your brain in the mirror, you see your brain as an object. You can point it out. You can count it, saying “that is one brain, over there.” You can describe your brain and give it properties like wet, squishy, weighs 3lbs, etc.
So the brain is an object, clearly. And you are aware of your brain as an object. But in the mirror, do you see awareness? Can you point at awareness and say, “There it is! There is awareness!” Can you count awareness as a discrete thing? Can you weigh it or measure it? No! Can you observe the “subject” qua subject? No. When you look at the brain as an object of experience, the “subject” will always evade your investigation.
For suppose you “found” awareness in the brain, perhaps in the neocortex or something. You would then be aware of your awareness as an object. But who is aware of your awareness as an object? That experience itself would require another subject to experience the awareness as an “object,” leading to an infinite regress of awareness.
So, clearly, the facts of experience show that all our everyday experience is structured in terms of a subject and an object. And moreover, the subject can never be made into an object, otherwise, how would you be aware of that object? Without awareness, you would not have any experience of it, and if you have no experience of it, can you really say it exists?
According to this argument, we have shown that you are not the physical body. The body is an object of awareness but it is not you the subject who experiences the body as an object. So “you” are distinct from the body as an object of awareness. It seems as if “you” are the subject, not the object, which is aware of objects but not itself another object.
But if you are not the body, then perhaps you are the mind. What is the mind? Your thoughts, feelings, intellect, feelings, emotions, sensations, dreams, introspection, memories, reflections, anticipation, desires, etc. The mind is the entire realm of the “mental.” Perhaps you are the Mind, which houses all these mental contents.
You are not the mind either
But if you are not the body, then perhaps you are the mind. What is the mind? Your thoughts, feelings, intellect, feelings, emotions, sensations, dreams, introspections, memories, reflections, anticipation, imagination, desires, etc. The mind is the entire realm of the “mental.” Perhaps then you are the mind, which houses all these mental contents.
But let us apply the same argument about the body to the mind. Suppose a thought comes into your mind. You are aware of the thought. As such, the thought becomes an object of experience. As such, that experience seems to also be structured in terms of subject and object. The thought is the object and you are the subject who experiences the thought.
Are you the mind then? Well, if the thought is an object of experience there must be a subject of experience who experiences the thought. The thought appears before your consciousness. It enters into your consciousness. And then it fades away. And you are the experiencer or subject who experiences these thoughts coming and going. But can the thought itself be the subject? Can the mind be the subject?
That does not make sense! Are you aware of the thought or is the thought aware of you? Clearly, it is you who are aware of the thought and not the other way around. And as different thoughts come into and out of existence, all with different contents, you remain ever the same subject experiencing the thoughts.
How can that be? Does it not feel like sometimes you are thinking thoughts in a frenetic way and sometimes in a calm way? Does it not feel like you as a subject are constantly changing?
Let’s analyze this deeper. When you think your thoughts in a frenetic way, you are aware of a feeling of frenzy. But that feeling of frenzy becomes an object. And as we have seen, all objects of experience require a subject of experience. And when you think thoughts in a calm way, you are aware of a feeling of calmness. But are you yourself calmness? Or are you just aware of a feeling of calmness? Surely it is the latter.
Thus, as feelings come and go, as thoughts come and go, as desires come and go, as sensations come and go, all these mental states become objects of awareness. And as an object of awareness, there must be a subject that is aware. You are that subject.
Thus, according to Advaita Vedanta, the surprising conclusion of this line of reasoning is that you are not your body and you are also not even your mind!
In the West, where we are so used to the prevailing dogmas of psychology, therapy, and neuroscience, we are used to identifying ourselves with our thoughts and feelings, if not our body itself if we are materialists. But according to Vedanta, this is a mistake. You are not your body or your mind. You are the subject in which and through which the mind and body appear as objects to your awareness.
So if you are not the body or the mind or the doer or the enjoyer, what are you? According to Advaita Vedanta, You are Pure Consciousness itself, independent of any content or object of experience. Vedanta calls this Witness Consciousness. It is Pure insofar as it subsists in its own shining light of Awareness independent of any content of consciousness.
Moreover, all the bodily and mental phenomena in the entire universe we can simply call Nature. Advaita Vedanta says you are not that.
The Vedic term for Nature in this sense is Prakriti. In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna says,
“Who sees all action
Alone by Prakriti.
That man sees truly:
The Atman is actless.”
The Atman is You, your inner Self. It is your True Self. It is Who You Really Are. But Sri Krishna is saying that all action is done by Nature, not by The Self, which is actless. Thus, at the ultimate level “You” are not the doer of your deeds. “You” are not the generator of your thoughts or feelings. All these are performed by Nature.
But You, at the Ultimate level of Reality, are completely and utterly set apart from Nature. All you are is the Pure Witness Consciousness who is aware of Nature. But you are not Nature. You are not your mind, nor are you your body.
And is this just a pure philosophical exercise? No! For the instant you realize that You, as you really and truly are, are not Nature, you will be free. Liberated. Enlightened. You will experience true bliss. At least that is the claim of the Upanishads.
This bliss is not a “feeling of bliss,” as a feeling is in the realm of the mind, which is an object, which is in the realm of Nature. The bliss is resting in the knowledge that you are self-contained and Pure as the Witness Consciousness completely separate from Nature, complete and whole and perfect in itself, One with the Absolute, all-pervasive, unlimited, and thus without any lack whatsoever.
Thou Art That
But wait, there is more! Advaita Vedanta goes further and says this True Self of yours, this Atman, is the same as Brahman, which literally translates as “Vastness.” Brahman is the Absolute. It is the Ultimate Principle of Reality, unlimited, eternal, unchanging, infinite, perfect, whole, absolutely One in itself, universal, complete. What is this Absolute? It is Pure Existence itself, which is Pure Consciousness itself. As a totality it is Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.
Remember that line of reasoning where we determined that You are not any object of experience but in fact the Pure Subject, the Pure Consciousness independent of Nature? According to Advaita Vedanta this Self of yours, this Pure Consciousness of yours is not limited to you as an individual little ego or personality.
No, this True Self of yours is the Atman, which is identical to Brahman, which is universal and impersonal, infinite and absolutely One with everything, in everything and everything in it.
As the Ashtavakra Gita puts it,
“You pervade this universe and this universe exists in you. You are really Pure Consciousness by nature. Do not be small-minded.” ~ Chap. 1, verse 16
But you might ask, how can I be so vast? How can I pervade the universe? How can I be Brahman and One with everything? How can I be the Universal Pure Consciousness which is the substrate for all of Nature? Do I not experience myself being limited to this particular body-mind complex? Do I not perceive myself to be individually localized to this particular chair in this particular room in this particular house in this particular neighborhood?
Advaita Vedanta grants that yes, we all experience ourselves as limited in this way. But what Advaita says is that this is just an appearance. It is just an illusion.
It is as if a wave or a bit of foam in the ocean thinks to itself, “I am separate from the ocean!” But we all know the wave or bit of foam is not separate from the ocean. It is the ocean wiggling itself in a particular way. It is the ocean manifesting itself in the form of waves and foam and bubbles. But ultimately what is real is the substrate of the ocean: water. The wave is nothing apart from ocean water. It is the ocean water merely manifesting itself as a wave. But there is no separate “thing” or reality called “wave.” The wave is just the very same ocean wiggling itself in different ways.
Similarly, our individual body-mind complexes, and ultimately all of Nature, are just Brahman or Pure Consciousness manifesting itself in particular ways. But ultimately we as individuals are nothing apart from Pure Consciousness. It is only Maya or ignorance that clouds this truth.
As the Ashtavakra Gita says,
“Burn down the forest of ignorance with the fire of the conviction ‘I am the One, and Pure Consciousness’, and be free from grief and be happy.” ~ Chap. 1, text 9
But if I am not the doer, if I am not the mind, if all of Nature is but an illusion or appearance, does that mean I have no reason to be ethical? No reason to improve myself or practice spiritual discipline? That I have no ego or personality and that once I realize this truth I will simply melt away into an amorphous oceanic feeling of bliss where the world will cease to have any meaning or distinction, with the human world of ethics having no meaning?
Yes and no, depending on how you look at it.
On an ultimate level, yes: All Is One. All is Brahman, which strictly speaking admits of no differences of any kind whatsoever.
But on the relative or transactional level, no. If you see a visual illusion, like how a straight strick suddenly becomes bent when placed in water, even if you know it is an illusion, you will still keep seeing the illusion because this is how our brains function cognitively.
Similarly, knowing that all of Nature is but an appearance or illusion as a manifestation of Brahman does not suddenly make Nature disappear into an oceanic goo of undifferentiated bliss. We still see rocks and trees and cars and tables. We still feel ourselves to be living in these body-mind complexes. Knowing something is an illusion doesn’t necessarily make that illusion stop appearing as an illusion.
And as is often the case, even if we have an intellectual understanding that I am Atman, I am Brahman, All Is One, etc., it is quite another thing to turn that intellectual understanding into a lived reality that frees us from suffering. Yes, yes, I am Brahman and all that, but I still have to pay the bills. My body still has aches and pains and gets sick. I still feel grief over the loss of loved ones. I still have a temper and act and think in selfish ways.
Truly enlightened beings experience all these transactional illusions just as anyone else. But their deep internalization of the Ultimate Truth becomes a lived reality in such a way that they are able to rest easy in the knowledge that they are truly just the Pure Witness Consciousness that stands apart from the suffering of the world, and it is in this deeply internalized knowledge that they become deeply content and fulfilled in a way that leads to freedom, liberation, and a lack of suffering. They might experience pain but they do not suffer from the ignorance associated with identifying their True Self with this pain, for they know they are the Pure Witness Consciousness set apart from all of Nature.
And far from this process of Self-inquiry or Self-realization or God-realization making us stop caring about helping our fellow humans, understanding that we are all united in the Pure Oneness of Consciousness makes it easier to love our fellow humans and care about their suffering, for we see at once the shining inner divinity of all living beings, and indeed, the inner divinity of all of Nature, for Nature itself is One with Pure Divinity, With God the Absolute.
As Swami Vivekananda says,
“Be Grateful to the Man you help, think of Him as God. Is it not a great privilege to be allowed to worship God by helping our fellow men?”