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The Ontology of the Jīva – Part 4

Advaita-vādīs raise an objection to this necessity of accepting illuminating power (dharma-bhūta jñāna) as a quality possessed by ātmā: “Consciousness (jñāna) cannot be the shelter of another consciousness (jñāna). So, how can the conscious self possess the quality of consciousness (jñāna)?” The sense of this objection is that an attribute does not have attributes. Attributes inhere in a substance, not to another attribute. For example, sweetness is inherent to sugar but sweetness itself is devoid of any attributes.”

We ask: Do you say this out of logic, or because of some statement from the Śruti?

If the objection is based on logic, we reply that it is not illogical for consciousness to be a quality sheltered within a conscious subject. In common experience we all see that consciousness always exists as an attribute of somebody. Consciousness is always possessed by a conscious object. We never experience that consciousness exists independently, not sheltered within a conscious being. So if you insist that ātmā is consciousness by nature (jñāna svarūpa) and it cannot possess consciousness because attribute cannot have another attribute then this very logic will dictate that ātmā, which is mere consciousness in your opinion and thus an attribute, must be sheltered within some other conscious entity.

If the objection is instead based on a Śruti statement, we reply that Śruti itself establishes that consciousness (jñāna) is the shelter of consciousness (jñāna). For example, in statements such as, “The conscious self is the doer and the knower” (karta boddha vijñāna ātmā, Prasnopanisad 4.9). The word ‘knower’ signifies that the conscious self (vijñāna) possesses knowledge (jñāna). Ātmā here can refer to the individual self or to the Lord. When it refers to the individual self, it means that ātmā has the potential to be the agent and knower and that he has consciousness. When it refers to the Lord, it means that the Lord is the agent, the knower and a conscious being.

Advaita-vādīs raise a different objection:

“The previous verse (SB 3.25.6) said that the ātmā, who is beyond prakṛti, considers the activities performed by the guṇas of nature as his own. This makes it clear that the conscious living entity is himself not the doer but merely imagines the deeds done by the conscious guṇas to be his own. Indeed this is proper, because here, as well as in other places in the scriptures, ātmā is spoken of as non-doer and only the guṇas are described as the agents of all activities.

“For example, in the Katha Upanishad, after stating that ātmā is devoid of all material qualities, such as birth and death, the agency behind activities such as killing is also negated. ‘If the killer thinks that he kills; If the victim thinks that he is killed, neither of them understand. The ātmā neither kills nor gets killed.’ (KU 2.19)  The purport of this mantra is that such a person does not understand ātmā. This is echoed in Bhagavad Gītā by the Lord Himself who describes the ātmā as devoid of doership, and says that thinking of oneself as a doer is a prideful delusion.

prakṛteḥ kriyamāṇāniguṇaiḥ karmāṇi sarvaśaḥ.
ṅkāra-vimūḍhātmākartāham iti manyate.

All actions are performed by the senses made of prakṛti. One whose mind is deluded through egoism thinks, “I am the doer.”

nānyaṁ guṇebhyaḥ kartāraṁyadā draṣṭānupaśyati.
ś ca paraṁ vettimad-bhāvaṁ so ‘dhigacchati.

When a person of discrimination sees no other agent than the guṇas of material nature and knows himself beyond the guṇas, then he attains My nature.”


prakṛtiṁ puruṣaṁ caivaviddhy anādī ubhāv api.
ārāṁś ca guṇāṁś caivaviddhi prakṛti-sambhavān.

Know that both prakṛti and puruṣa are beginningless. And know that all modifications as well as the objects consisting of material guṇas are born of material nature.

“Therefore, we say that puruṣa (ātmā) only has enjoyership. Doership belongs to prakṛti.”

We reply:

The conclusion drawn from the above references cannot be valid, because it blatantly contradicts the section on “agency of ātmā” (Kartā Adikarana) of Vedanta Sūtra. The Sūtras of this section clearly establish ātmā, not the guṇas of prakṛti, as the agent of actions. Sūtra 2.4.33 is especially profound. It says, “The self is the doer, otherwise the scripture have no meaning or purpose.”

The scripture is full of so many statements like, “One desiring to go to heaven should do sacrifice.” and, “One desiring liberation should worship Brahman.” These statements are meaningless if the entity performing the action is not the same as the person enjoying the result of the action. The fruit of an action cannot be meaningfully rewarded to an entity who did not perform the action. Thus it is said in the Jaimini Sūtra, “The result of śāstra goes to the one who performs the action.”

Furthermore, if ātmā is not the doer of deeds, it is essentially inert. An inert entity cannot be the recipient of instructions. Śāstra is called “śāstra” because it instructs (saśānāt śāstram). Instructions are given by creating awareness for knowledge. Such awareness is impossible for the inert objects of pradhana or prakṛti. Śāstra has no use, no purpose unless the recipient of the instruction is a non-inert entity capable of initiating action.

The opponent quotes references saying the self is not the doer. We quote references saying the self is the doer. How can we reconcile these apparently diametric statements?

We can reconcile the statements by understanding that they are focused on different topics.

The Kartā Adhikarana of Vedānta Sūtra talks about doership in terms of presiding over the body. It states that this doership belongs to the self, ātmā.

The verse from Katha Upanishad (“The ātmā neither kills nor gets killed”) is on the topic of the self’s eternality. The verse is spoken not to deny the agency of the self but to establish the eternality of ātmā.

The verses from Bhagavad Gītā must be understood in the context of the whole Gītā. The verses quoted state that deeds done within the realm of prakṛti are carried out via the guṇa of prakṛti. The ātmā itself cannot intrinsically perform such deeds, only through integration with prakṛti’s guṇa is it possible. This is why it is said that the guṇas are the most essential element in the doership of deeds within prakṛti. This does not negate the importance of ātmā as the ultimate support of the deed.

Therefore, after stating in BG 13.20 (as quoted by the opponent) that all actions occur in prakṛti, the Gītā explains the statement in the next two verses. First it establishes that the ātmā (puruṣa) also has a causal role:


kārya-kāraṇa-kartṛtvehetuḥ prakṛtir ucyate.
puruṣaḥ sukha-duḥkh
ānāṁbhoktṛtve hetur ucyate

Prakṛti is said to be the cause of the body and senses. Puruṣa is said to be the cause in the experience of happiness and misery.”

Then it clarifies that the ātmā’s (puruṣa’s) presence within prakṛti is the ultimate cause of enjoying the phenomenal activities facilitated by the guṇas:


puruṣaḥ prakṛti-stho hi           bhuṅkte prakṛti-jān guṇān.
kāraṇaṁ guṇa-saṅgo ‘sya sad-asad-yoni-janmasu

Being situated in matter (prakṛti), the living entity (puruṣa / ātmā) experiences objects (guṇas) born of material nature. The cause of his high and low births is his attachment to the guṇas.”

 Later on, in the eighteenth chapter, the Gītā makes it still clearer. First, it clarifies that there are five factors in any action:

adhiṣṭhānaṁ tathā kartā   karaṇaṁ ca pṛthag-vidham
āś ca pṛthak ceṣṭā   daivaṁ caivātra paṣcamam

“These five are the seat of action (the body), the agent (the living entity who identifies with the body), the various senses, the different and various types of efforts (movements of the life airs in the body) and daiva (fate or Paramātmā) which is the fifth cause.”


śarīra-vāṅ-manobhir yat   karma prārabhate nara
āyyaṁ vā viparītaṁ vā   paṣcaite tasya hetava

 Whatever action, whether righteous or illegal, a person performs by means of body, speech or mind, is the result of these five causes.”


tatraiva sati kartāram   ātmāna kevala tu ya
śyaty akta-buddhitvān   na sa paŚyati durmati

In spite of this, one who considers only oneself as the agent, because of impure intelligence, is foolish and blind.”

 In conclusion, there are five doers involved in every phenomenal deed. To consider the ātmā as the only doer is foolish. This understanding resolves the apparent contradiction between the references presented by the opponent and the references we provided. It is clear that the pure self is conscious by nature and has agency and enjoyership in a potential state which become manifest in its association with a material body while it is conditioned by karma.