What exactly is Jnana (knowledge) according to Shankara and Gaudapada and the scriptures? | Advaita Vedanta | Mandukya Upanishad and Karika

It is said that the suffering can only end when the Self is realised, and that the Self can only be realised through Jnana, which means ‘knowledge’. This ‘knowledge’ is tantamount to and synonymous with liberation itself. So, what is this Jnana? Often the word is not clearly defined in vedanta scriptures so the exact meaning of the word is lost. Many people think that jnana refers to knowledge in the intellect or mind, but this is an incorrect understanding.

For those of you who are familiar with the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, you will know that Sri Ramana makes the meaning clear for us: Jnana is just another word for the Self. The Self ‘knows’ itself by Its-Self. Jnana just means being the Self, devoid of objects or any arising phenomena.

However, what do the traditional scriptures say? Well, as usual, they same the same as Sri Ramana. Jnana just means Being Self, devoid of all arising phenomenal objects. In Gaudapada’s masterpiece, his commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad also known as Mandukya Karika or Gaudapada Karika, the entirely of Vedanta is unfolded and explained. We also have Shankara’s commentary on Gaudapada’s writing to guide us further.

Gaudapada’s Karika and Shankara’s commentary on Gaudapada

One other advantage about using Shankara’s commentary on Gaudapada’ Karika is that whilst the same teachings are often given in shorter simpler texts written by Shankara (ie. the prakarana granthas or ‘instruction manuals’), some people (usually those who disagree with the teachings of these shorter texts!) debate whether or not Shankara actually wrote the shorter texts. Whilst most scholars still think that it is highly likley that Shankara did write these prakarana granthas, there is enough of a minority who disagree.

However this is not the case with Shankara’s commentary on Gaudapada Karika – there is almost universal agreement that this is clearly an authentic work of Shankara’s. In the quotes below I have used the translation from Swami Gambhirananda taken from the book ‘Eight Upanishads with the commentary of Sankaracarya’, which is one of the more literal translations available. This does make it slightly harder to read at times, but it means the meaning, once deciphered, is generally clearer.

Gaudapada’s Karika is composed of four chapters. In the first two chapters Gaudapada relentlessly drives home the point that all phenomenal arisings in the waking state are utterly illusory, just like in a dream all objects in the waking state are projected imaginings, and are a product of Maya. This includes all subtle objects such as knowledge in the intellect, which is said to be more Maya. ie. knowledge in the intellect and ignorance are both ignorance and illusion. In Shankara’s commentary he agrees with this and further supplements Gaudapada’s reasoning (see chapter 2 verses 1-19 and verses 31-36 of Gaudapada’s Karika and Shankara’s commentary for this).

In fact in verse 2.5 Gaudapada encourages the seeker to consider the waking and dream states to be a single dream state rather that two distinct states called waking and dream, with Shankara again agreeing in his commentary on this verse. This is why the Self is said to be beyond both knowledge and ignorance.

Knowledge vs experience

Note that some people contrast intellectual knowledge with experience, stating that intellectual knowledge is what is needed rather than experiences, which come and go. However, note that according to Gaudapada’s framework, intellectual knowledge is just a subtype or class of experience, as it too comes and goes and is subject to change, hence all intellectual knowledge ultimately is just maya or dream-like illusion. It should be obvious to us if we discern – what is ordinarily called knowledge, ie. knowledge in the mind or intellect, is actually just a form or type of experience!

Jnana defined

So back to Jnana. How does Gaudapada define this? How does Shankara define this? We see a definition in Chapter 3 verse 33, as follows:

33. They say that the non-conceptual knowledge (Jnanam), which is birthless, is non-different from the knowable (Brahman). The knowledge that has Brahman for its content is birthless and everlasting. The Birthless is known by the Birthless.

Shankara starts his commentary on this verse as follows:

The knowers of Brahman say that absolute Jnanam, knowledge, which is akalpakam, devoid of all imagination (non-conceptual), and is therefore ajam, birthless…

We can see that here both Gaudapada and Shankara are stating that the nature of Jnana is basically the same as the Self, as follows:

-It is non-conceptual, ie. not of the intellect or mind. The work Gaudapada uses is akalpakam, which means without kalpas or without thought/concepts/imaginings. Earlier in Gaudapada Karika Gaudapada has in several successive verses driven home the point that the entire waking state is born of imagination (kalpa), so to state that Jnana is akalpalkam means that is it without any dream or waking state objects whatsoever. Shankara in his commentary has taken this meaning of the word kalpa to mean ‘imaginings’ in this sense.

-It is birthless and everlasting; and what is birthless and everlasting apart from the Self?

-It is known by itself (the birthless is known by the birthless), ie. it is the Self that ‘knows’ the Self by Its-Self. Here I have put the word ‘know’ in quotes as it is not knowledge in the normal sense, as knowledge in the mind is necessarily conceptual, but here we are speaking of or pointing to a non-conceptual ‘knowledge’, the word ‘knowledge’ being used for want of a better word to describe something that is essentially beyond description.

Later in his commentary on the same verse Shankara writes:

By that unborn knowledge, which is the very nature of the Self, is known – It knows by Itself – the birthless reality, which is the Self. The idea being conveyed is that the Self being ever a homogenous mass of Consciousness, like the sun that is by nature a constant light, does not depend on any other knowledge (for Its revelation).

Again, we can see that idea is that the nature of Self is Knowledge/Jnana, in the same way the nature of the sun is to shine.

The word ‘homogenous’ means without any variation whatsoever, ie. without any subtle or gross objects arising in the consciousness.

No phenomenal arisings in the Self/in Jnana

Shankara continues his commentary on Gaudapada’s Karika verse 3.33, commenting that with Self-realisation all ideation has been driven out of the mind, and that there are no external objects of perception present either. The mind becomes still, and the still mind is no-mind – it is verily the Self, Jnana:

It has been said that when the mind is divested of ideation by virtue of the realisation of Truth that is Brahman, and when there is an absence of external objects (of perception), it becomes tranquil, controlled, and withdrawn, like fire that has no fuel. And it has further been said that when the mind thus ceases to be mind, duality also disappears.

Gaudapada and Shankara have already stated that Jnana is akalpakam. Shankara explains in his commentary that this word akalpakam means that it is devoid of all imagination. It should be noted that in Chapter 2 Gaudapada has said that everything that arises in both the waking and dream states is due to imagination (kalpa), eg. in verses 2.10-2.12, so it should be clear that by stating Jnana is akalpakam it means it is without any objects.

In his commentary on verse 3.33 above, Shankara is stating that realisation occurs when the phenomenal arisings, gross and subtle, have all ceased to arise, duality disappears, ie. Jnana is attained, or the Self has been realised. He is building on the previous two verses from Gaudapada, 3.31 and 3.32 which have already established this:

3.31 All this that there is – together with all that move or does not move – is perceived by the mind (and therefore all is is but the mind); for when the mind ceases to be the mind, duality is no longer perceived.

3.32 When the Truth of Atman has been realised, the mind ceases to think; then the mind attains the state of not being the mind. In the absence of things to be perceived, it becomes a non-perceiver.

You will also see that Jnana is being equated with a still mind – a mind that is no longer active – and a still mind that never moves again is no longer the mind – it is the Self. Again, for those of you who are familiar with Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teaching, he has already made all of this clear to us. For those of you who are not convinced, we have Shankara’s commentary on these verses to make it all the clearer for us:

Shankara’s commentary on verse 3.31:

This duality as a whole, that is mano-drsyam, perceived by the mind; is nothing but the mind, which is itself imagined – this is the proposition [Tom: ie. meaning of the verse]. For duality endures so long as the mind does, and disappears with the disappearance of the mind.

For when the mind ceases to be mind when, like the illusory snake disappearing in the rope, the mind’s activity stops through the practice of discriminating insight and detachment, or when the mind gets absorbed in the state of sleep, duality is not perceived. From this non-existence is proved the unreality of duality. This is the purport. How does the mind cease to be the mind? This is being answered [in the next verse and commentary]:

We can see that Shankara is equating the mind with Maya and with ignorance , something that is commonly done in vedanta texts – eg. in Shankara’s Vivekachudamani. Shankara states that it is the mind that projects all of duality (as per Chapter’s 1 and 2 of Gaudapada’s Karika which states the same), and that duality ceases when the mind ceases. Shankara states that through discrimination (viveka) and detachment (vairagya) the mind’s activity stops, and so it is the still or unmoving mind that is the result of viveka and vairagya, which is exactly the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi. When the mind is no longer active, duality is not perceived, Shankara’s states, like in deep sleep.

Shankara’s commentary on verse 3.32:

The Truth that is Self…The Truth of the Self which follows from the instruction of the scriptures and teacher, when as a consequence of that, there remains nothing to be thought of, and the mind does not think – as fire does not burn in the absence of combustible things. At that time it attains the state of ceasing to be the mind. In the absence of things to be perceived, that mind becomes free from all illusion of perceptions. This is the idea.

Again, we see that Shankara is stating that the practice of viveka and vairagya (discrimination and renunciation) leads to the mind becoming still and this gives rise to realisation of Truth that is Self. Thereafter the mind stops thinking ‘as fire does not burn in the absence of combustible things’.

He, like Ramana, states that the mind feeds on sense objects or ‘things perceived’. In the ‘absence of things to be perceived‘, the mind no longer has any food or fuel and so burns out. This gives us the imagery of the flame of mind/egotism being extinguished, ie. nirvana, which literally means extinguishment (of a flame or fire).

Deep Sleep vs Stillness of Mind (Samadhi)

We have already covered 3.33 above. The next two verses, verse 3.34 and 3.35 explain the difference between the still or controlled mind and Deep Sleep – it is important note this only has to be done as Gaudapada has explained (and Shankara has agreed) that there are no gross or subtle objects present when the mind is stilled/controlled.

The natural question is therefore what is the difference between the Still Mind and Deep Sleep? If there were objects present when the mind is still, why the need to point out the difference between the Still Mind and Deep Sleep? Or surely the response would simply be that when the mind is controlled, objects are still or can still be present. However this is not the explaination given by Gaudapada, and Shankara is even stronger in his commentary.

I will not go into these verses here, as we are straying from the essence of this post, but you are welcome to look them up yourself. Sri Ramana Maharshi has given his own explanation of the difference between the still mind and deep sleep which you can read here if you wish, and you will find that it is essentially the same explanation given by both Gaudapada and Shankara.

A Practical Method for Self-Realisation

Thereafter next few verses carry on along similar lines reiterating similar points – you can find some of them here.

Finally Gaudapada ends chapter three in a marvellous crescendo by describing a practical method to attain liberation for those who remain stuck in Maya (Shankara in his commentary states that the method is for those who remain unliberated and fearful), which you can read on this link below.

You will see that Gaudapada is stating that the means to liberation is to control, or make still, the mind. We can infer that this is also the way to Jnana. He then outlines a method on how to still the mind, pointing out what the still mind is and what it isn’t:

Advaita Vedanta: Gaudapada’s Method (Mandukya Upanishad Karika)

Another definition of Jnana by Shankara

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, verse 4.4.20, states the following:

20. It [Brahman] should be realised in one form only, (for) It is unknowable and eternal. The Self is taintless, beyond the (subtle) ether, birthless, infinite and constant.

Here we can see that the Upanishad is stating that Brahman is unknowable. So what of Self-Knowledge or knowledge of Brahman that is so often spoken about? Shankara explains this contradiction in him commentary on this verse:

The knowledge of Brahman too means only the cessation of the identification with extraneous things (such as the body). The relation of identity with It [Brahman] has not to be directly established, for it is already there. Everybody always has that identity with It, but it appears to be related to something else. Therefore the scriptures do not enjoin that identity with Brahman should be established, but that the false identification with things other than That should stop. When the identification with other things is gone, that identity with one’s own Self which is natural, becomes isolated; this is expressed by the statement that the Self is known. In Itself It is unknowable – not comprehended through any means. Hence both statements are consistent.

We can see that Shankara is stating that Brahman is indeed unknowable, and that Jnana, or knowledge, only signifies the cessation of identification with extraneous things, ie. loss of identification with objects, specifically the body-mind. We do not need to affirm our identity as Brahman, as we already are and always have been and always will be Brahman. Any affirmation of Brahman would simply be on the level of thought or concepts, and so it would be Maya, or more ignorance. But once the false identification has been removed, then the Self naturally shines as itself, and this lack of wrong-knowledge, or lack of wrongly identifying as the body-mind, is what is called ‘Jnana’ or ‘knowledge’.

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