Ashtavakra Samhita, Chapter 2, Verse 15

Ashtavakra and King Janaka

Translation and Commentary by Jayaram V


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Verse 15

jnaanam jneyam thathaa jnaathaa thrithayam naasthi vaasthavam
ajnanaad bhathi yathredam so’aham asmi niranjanaah


Knowledge, the knowable, and the knower, these three do not exist in reality. I am that spotless Self in which this triad appears because of ignorance.


The triple division of knowledge.

Jnanam means knowledge. Jneyam means the object of knowing. Jnata is the knower. All the three elements exist in our consciousness. They are the three basic aspects of our knowing. In addition, you should also consider the faculties of knowing namely the mind and the senses which represent the knower only.

All these are part of our knowing and active in our consciousness. Take one of them out, and knowledge or knowing does not arise. This is true with regard to all mental or perceptual knowledge, which arises from and depends upon the triple division of the knower, the known and the faculties of knowing. They are also particular to each person and relative to his awareness and what he already knows.

The problem with worldly knowledge

Worldly knowledge or perceptual knowledge which arises from the activity of the mind and senses and mixed up with the influence of ego, has several limitations. It is like an image that appears in a mirror, which is covered with a thick layer of dust and a few clear patches here and there. Thus, in your wakeful state you will never see the complete picture of what you experience. Much of it remains hidden, distorted or discolored. You see a few fragments or reality and build your own version of it partly with your imagination and partly with your memory and logic.

Since it is a projection of the mind with its impurities and defects, the knowledge it stores is also not completely reliable to ascertain the truths of the world. What is knowledge to you may be ignorance to another. For example, a child may believe that the earth is flat. For him it is knowledge. He arrives at the conclusions based upon his observation. He believes that he has right knowledge, but others know that his knowledge is flawed. This is true about almost everyone. Our knowledge is mixed up with confusion and imperfection because it is projected by our limited abilities and awareness.

When knowledge becomes an object and a worldly possession

The triple division of knowing arises as a natural expediency because we live in an objective world which is subject to duality, diversity and division of opposites. To make sense of the world, we have to categorize, conceptualize, compare and contrast the objects with which our senses interact. They cannot be grasped without a subject and the means of grasping it.

We live in an objective world and what we experience here is a world of objects. Confusion and delusion arise when we forget this fundamental truth. In this world everything that you know is an object. Your knowledge is an object. Technically, the knowledge that you gain through the scriptures is also an object. The words are objects. Your mind and body are objects. Speech is an object. Breath is an object. Unless they are objects, you cannot grasp any of them through your senses or know them or understand them.

The mind objectifies everything to know it and make sense of it. This is the truth, which you must always, firmly remember so that you are not deluded by your knowledge or the authority of it. The very idea of Maya arises from this. The world is a projection of God and it appears to you as a projection of your mind or an objectification. You are an object to others and others are an object to you. So is the case with everything else. God is an object. (Hence, the God that you know is NOT  the true God). Devotion is an object. Every action, mechanism or process is also an object, including the act of worship.

All concepts, ideas or thoughts such as heaven, gods, devotion, love, compassion, liberation, rebirth, etc., are objects only for the human mind. They may exist in your consciousness as images, impressions, thoughts, ideas, feelings or emotions, but in reality they are but objectified entities. You cannot make sense of them unless you objectify them either mentally or physically. Even what we consider abstract phenomena are grasped by our minds as objects only.

The limitations of objective knowledge

Since everything becomes objectified in our mind and since it is essentially driven by desires, delusion and attachments, ascertaining truth becomes so difficult in our world. Everyone does not view the objective realities of the world in the same manner. Hence, we arrive at different conclusions and accept them as true. The human mind does not assimilate information without filtering it and categorizing it or conceptualizing it. It means any knowledge that does not fit into its framework will likely be forgotten, discarded or distorted. We cannot grasp the essence of things, but only their names, forms and distinguishing features. We learn according to our interest, desires, and expectations, which are in turn influenced by the predominance of gunas.

Thus, our knowing or cognition is a limited mechanism. It remains confined to the perceptible world and limited or controlled by a number of factors such as ignorance, desires, interest, curiosity, ownership, dominance, and control. For example, we learn about things only if we are interested, if we have a desire to know, if we are ignorant, if we want to prove ourselves, if we want to control and dominate others or if we have some other purpose, desire or reason.

If you want to be a doctor, you learn science. If you want to be an artist, you may learn fine arts. If you have passion for something, you become interested in knowing it. In many instances, ignorance is also the basis of our knowing. We try to know what we do not know, what we partially know or what we imperfectly know. If we already know something, we may not be interested in further knowing it, but we may use for some worldly or spiritual purpose.

Objectification in the guru chela relationship

Even our spiritual practice is an objectified effort which is mostly driven by desires. People treat their gurus as objects and worship them for personal favors, appreciation, approval or acceptance, instead of using their teachings to transform themselves. Their words become objects in their consciousness and become altered and colored overtime by their own thoughts, desires and modes of Nature whereby they lose their power and purity.

Why gurus fail to transform their followers is because gurus become objectified in the minds of their followers according to their desires and expectations. If a devotee is looking for miracles, the guru seems to be performing them. If a devotee is looking for a friend or a lover, the guru seems to be fitting into that role. This delusion is most common in many guru disciple relationships, which often lead to unhappy consequences to both the gurus and their followers, including a scandalous situation for the former. The same guru becomes differently objectified in the minds of his disciples according to their own projections, desires and expectations.

It is also why overtime the teachings of great beings, incarnations and saintly beings become distorted in our collective consciousness, resulting in conflicts and confusion as people grapple with their objectified knowledge according to their disposition, thinking and attitude. People create their own versions of masters and their knowledge in their minds and arrive at different conclusions. It happened in case of many Upanishadic seers, teacher traditions and founders of religions such as the Buddha, Jesus Christ and Mahavira. It is also why spiritual practice is so difficult in our world and why no religion or teacher tradition is free from distortion or division.

When knowledge is dangerous

Since in our world we objectify knowledge and use it as an object, we extend the idea of ownership to knowledge also. We treat it as a product or a commodity and use it accordingly as the means to further our interests. We deal with it, own it, discard it, transform it, barter it or give it away just as we do with any other object in the world, treating it is as a possession or object of ownership. The mind wants to hold it, cherish it and keep it, especially if it has some material value. Hence, we also see knowledge being used in the pursuit of desires or treated and traded like a commodity or product.

When knowledge becomes objectified and is treated like a material possession, it becomes a source of conflict, suffering, attachment, karma and bondage. Knowledge loses its transformative value or its purifying effect. It becomes a tool in the pursuit of selfish desires and ambitious goals. Therefore, it is important to know that in this world knowledge is a double edged sword. You can put it to both good and evil purposes. You can use it to arrest the formation of karma, or create more consequences for yourself.

It is true with regard to even spiritual knowledge. It does not necessarily liberate you or show you the path to eternal freedom. Instead, as stated in the Isa Upanishad it may do the opposite. It may lead those who are careless or selfish with their knowledge to the darkest hells (asurya lokas). Anyone who treats knowledge like an object and use it like a possession to perform desire-ridden actions is bound to incur sinful karma and suffer from the consequences. This is the truth which is repeatedly emphasized in the Upanishads as the consequence of pursuing the lower knowledge (avidya) or the knowledge of rituals and sacrifices (karmakanda).

Many people do not understand this truth about knowledge. They go to a guru, learn some discipline and store it away in their minds, without really putting it to practice. Their purpose is not to learn and progress on the path of liberation but to derive some gain or benefit from it such as mental satisfaction of just being spiritual. They may either talk about it or discuss it, but do not really practice it or exemplify it in their daily lives. They use that knowledge just as they keep any scripture, sculpture, painting or image of God in their drawing rooms. One should not put knowledge in the shelf of one’s mind to feed the ego. Knowledge is not a status symbol. One shall use it if it is found useful, or renounce it and move on if it is found inadequate. Hoarding knowledge without using it is the same as hoarding wealth that you do not need.

Transcendental knowledge

Since perceptual knowledge is flawed, and since as the formation of the mind and the senses it is subject to several limitations and fluctuations, the Vedic seers focused upon attaining the higher knowledge (vidya) or transcendental knowledge, which was not subject to such limitations or imperfections. If knowledge has to be pure and if it has to cease becoming an object, it must arise outside the domain of the mind of the senses or without their active participation.

In other words, knowledge has to become self-evident in a transcendental state of complete silence in which the mind and the senses are fully asleep. Our seers tried to enter that state through tapas, yoga and meditation. As Patanjali declares, the purpose of Yoga is to arrest the mind and stop its modifications so that it will enter into the restful mode of self-absorption in which it completely disappears, leaving the Self alone to shine by itself.

In the transcendental states, when the modifications of the mind (citta-vrittis) are put to complete rest, the duality of the knower and the known disappears, and only the knower remains, without the need or the desire to know. Since it is a state which is devoid of any objectivity, knowing arises from within as pure awareness, without desire, modifications, aim or purpose. This is the state which Ashtavakra speaks here. He speaks of the spotless or blemishless Self, which does not objectify reality or truth but contains all knowledge within itself as itself.

In the transcendental state the Self is aware without the need or the desire to know. In that state both the mind and the senses remain withdrawn and inactive. They do not participate in the experience of knowing. The transcendental Self alone remains, by itself. In that state one does not experience division or duality. One remains as the subjective Self, in the flower as the flower, in the tree as the tree, in the mountain as the mountain, in the body as the person and in the universe as the universe, without name and form and without the distinction of this and that. That universal oneness is the state of Brahman, which the Upanishads extol as the highest goal (Parandhama).

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