The Body-Mind-Complex and Its Knower
In the non-dual philosophy, we frequently come across two terms – the observer and the observed (or seer and the seen) whenever there is a discussion on perception of things. One natural corollary is that the observer is at a higher level of reality and the observed is at a lower level of reality. We observe all objects around us, both animate and inanimate. In addition, we cognize our own feelings of love, hate anger, frustration, ambition and a host of other feelings. All these come under the category of the observed. Observing ourselves more closely, we also cognize our five senses, (the sense of sight, touch etc.) and finally observe the mind which is said to be observing everything else. The whole of body-mind-complex (BMC) becomes the object i.e. knowable, and the observer is something apart from that, which is again our own self.
The above discussion becomes relevant to know the nature of the self. Which part of the self is the knower and which part of the self is the known/observed? Which part is real and which is unreal? Which part is the illuminator and which part is illumined? These are relevant questions to attain the ultimate benefit from Vedanta – freedom from grief and freedom from fear. Vedanta declares that there is no other remedy to grief than understanding of the self. A fatalist might say that the present grief is due to some past misdeed in a previous birth. Another may say that the defect in vaastu or feng shui of the house is responsible for the misery. Another may prescribe a particular mantra or a ritual. A non-dual philosopher would not care to dispute or disagree with such explanations but he would say that the real cause of grief is a wrong understanding of the self. A proper understanding would enable a person to know what is self and what is non-self and about what to worry and what not to worry.
In the first paragraph we noticed that within what we call our self we find an observer and the observed. We noticed that the BMC is the observed and the knower is the self. Chapter 13 of the Gita uses two words for this – kShetra (field) and the kShetraj~na (the knower of the field). The same terms are used by Shankara in the commentary on Mundaka Upanishad (3-1). The ‘field-knower’ is the observer and ‘field’ is the observed. We can also notice the connotations of the word ‘field’. It is a farm land where we can cultivate anything we want, good or bad, dharma or adharma and reap good results or bad results. Human body is such field, and that is why it is called karma-bhoomi i.e. the field of action, where on has the freedom to do either good or bad and reap results accordingly.
In this context the vedantins study two things: the characteristics of the field, which is knowable (j~neya dharma) and the characteristics of the knower (j~nAtRRi dharma). The properties of the knowable i.e. the BMC are – to be subject to happiness, anger, hate, ambition and so on. There are other properties like going through various stages of life, growing up, getting old and dying. We are sure that these are the properties of the BMC, but in day to day parlance we attribute it to the jIva, the individual soul that the ‘jIva is born’ or ‘jIva is dead’. All the Upanishads say that Consciousness is untouched by any of the infirmities which the BMC might have (feelings like love and hate or stages like youth and old age). Consciousness is one and the same whether we call it jIva, or kShetraj~na or Ishwara. It cannot be sullied by any type of bondage or doership.
How then, can we explain the fact that there is a field-knower who resides in the body unsullied by any of its feelings of happiness and misery? Here advaita comes up with the postulation of the concept of avidyA i.e. ignorance. It is one of the most fundamental or axiomatic concepts accepted in advaita. It is because of avidyA that one attributes the properties of the BMC on the self, which is the consciousness principle in the body. This attribution of one’s properties on the other is called adhyAsa (literally ‘superimposition’) due to ignorance (avidyA). If consciousness were to be identified with the BMC, it would imply that Brahman would be a samsArI, a transmigrating entity, like the BMC (strictly speaking, a part of it transmigrates, because the body falls). This is not acceptable to any school of thought. The only explanation that can be given is that somehow the immutable Brahman uses its mAyA and makes the world manifest. It (Brahman is referred to as ‘It’ as It is in neuter gender) pervades the created beings and resides as the illuminator without getting affected by the properties of the BMC. The BMC minus the body is technically called antaHkaraNa which is actually illuminated by the Brahman.
What type of supervision can we envisage for this Brahman which resides as an observer (sAkShi)? Advaita says that the so called observer does not really observe anything. It is not as though It observes all the activities of the BMC which is illumined by It. We may take the example of the mythological character called Chitragupta, the assistant Lord Yama (the lord of the nether world) who is said to observe all the good and bad deeds of a human being and put him up for trial on the doomsday. Islam talks of two fariShtAs who always sit on the two shoulders of persons; and while one notes down all the good deeds, the other notes down all the bad deeds. The observer or sAkShi does none of these. It simply illuminates the field. Its role is that of a fireball, which imparts heat to the bodies it comes into contact. We attribute some action to it saying – ‘the fireball burns’.
While it is so, the Mundaka Upanishad (3-1-1) tells of two birds, perched on one tree, wherein one bird eats the fruit while the other does not eat. (The fruit mentioned here is the result of one’s actions – karma phalam and the tree is the human body, which, like a tree, can be broken). This mantra provides a great opportunity for the dualist to propound that there are two separate entities jIva and Brahman. Human mind is more comfortable with the idea of a god sitting above taking care of our destinies. We are not comfortable when we are told that the jIva and Brahman are simply two apparent stages of the same Brahman (not really two stages). The apparent distinction is due to the fact that Brahman is delimited to the BMC in the form of jIva, the individual self.
Are there three entities – the BMC, the knower and the sAkShi? If there were to be three entities, we would be slipping further deep into dualism. The so called division is only a prakriyA – a paradigm to explain different levels of experience. If the individual self is identifying itself with the antaHkaraNa, it is called the jIva. This situation is due to avidyA or ignorance. If this ignorance is removed by proper analysis of the self, the same jIva is no longer jIva. It is non-different from Ishwara. The terms witness consciousness and Ishwara refer to the same Brahman. It is one and the only one consciousness which is differently called under different conditions.
All the above discussion is to tell us that we are not the delimited self called the body-mind-complex but we are the same all-pervading Consciousness. Consciousness is not ‘located’ in the body like fruits in a basket (Shankara says kunde badarANIva) but it is the BMC which is located in the consciousness. We are not what we think we are, and this idea is expected to engender detachment. This is what can lead to happiness, which we discussed above.
The above is a brief summary of a rather difficult passage from the Shankara’s commentary on the Gita. Students who are desirous to know further are advised to see the commentary on verse 13-2, and also to the mantra 3-2-1 of mundaka Upanishad and also the commentary under 1-2-11 of the brahma sUtra.