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Atman: Ajneya or Vijneya

The question is whether the Atman is knowable (Vijneya) or unknowable (Ajneya). There are statements in the Veda which say that Atman is unknowable (Yasyamatam tasyamatam, achintyam, etc.). There are also other statements in the Veda that say that Atman is knowable (Drishyatetvagraya Buddhya, Atma va are Drishtavah) These are two contradictory sets of statements. How can these two statements be correlated? The Advaita philosophers treat this problem in the following way: They say that Atman is unknowable (Ajneya) to ordinary people who are ignorant and who have superimposed idea of self on their body (dehatmabuddhi). These ordinary people think that Atman is the body. To such people the Atman is unknowable. However to scholars, equipped with a sharp intellect and analysis, the Atman is knowable (Vijneya). It is revealed as the knower (Jnata). Thus the Advaita philosophers achieve the correlation (Samanvaya) of the above two statements.

As far as this applies to Atman (individual soul), I agree with it. The Atman is indeed not known to ordinary people. The Atman, which is awareness, is a very subtle form of energy, flowing through the nervous system. It is too subtle to be analyzed and detected by ignorant people. Today due to the advancement in science, we are able to analyze that awareness is a form of energy, which can be even seen through sophisticated instruments. However, in ancient Vedic times, science was not at all developed the way it is today. That was the time when people thought that the Rahu and Ketu were swallowing Moon and Sun. But today science revealed that the shadow of earth falling on Moon and the shadow of the Moon falling on the earth are the reasons for the eclipse of Moon and Sun respectively. People were not at all aware of awareness as nervous energy. For those people, even identifying the existence of awareness was a big discovery. For the majority of such people it can be said that awareness was unknowable. In those times very few scholars were able to recognize this awareness as said in the Veda (Drishyate tvagraya buddhya sukshmaya sukshma darshibhih). It means that the Atman can be known only with an extremely sharp and subtle intellect by concentrated analysis. It is also told in the Gita as Pashyanti Jnana Chakshushah, which means that only through deep analysis (Jnana) can the awareness be seen. Thus all this is completely agreed upon as far as it relates to Atman, which is the soul, in view of the under developed science at that time.

However, there are Vedic statements that use the word Atman in the sense of Brahman (God). Now the question is: how can one prove that Atman, in the sense of God, is both unknowable and knowable? From the point of the Swarupa or inherent characteristic, the Atman (Brahman) is unknowable. This is because Gods inherent nature can never be known (Ajneya) as per the words of Yama in Veda. However from the point of knowing His existence, He is knowable (Vijneya) in the same words of Yama. You must note that the same Yama gave these two staements and hence there should not be any contradiction. In other words, it can be known that He exists, but His nature or characteristics can never be known. His existence should be known. Otherwise, one may think that God does not exist. However, if it is said that He exists, one may think that He is known. Therefore the Yama says that He cannot be known (Yasyamatam Tasyamatam). In other words, it should be known that He exists (AstityevopalabdhavayahVeda) as per the same Yama, but His nature or characteristics can never be known. Thus we see that, Atman in the sense of God too is both Ajneya and Vijneya simultaneously.

Thus when it is said that Atman is both knowable and unknowable, the statement is valid for both meanings of the word Atman (soul and God). The same statement, having multiple meanings is not uncommon. Even in poetry, we find that the same verse can have different meanings (shlesha) when interpreted differently. Then it is no surprise that the Veda, which is the word of God, may have even a hundred meanings. Thus the concept that Atman is simultaneously knowable and unknowable, is applicable to both the soul as well as Brahman (God).

After correlating the above two sets of contradictory Vedic statements, the third point is that there are Vedic statements which say that Atman means only Brahman (Ayam Atma Brahma). Now this statement can be interpreted in several different ways. In one interpretation, one should note the use of the word Ayam which means this. The statement says This Atman is God. It does not say that every Atman (every individual soul) is God. If that were so, the word Ayam (this) would have been replaced by words like Sarvopi (every) or Kashchidapi (any). Thus the statement refers to a particular soul who is God. It refers to a human incarnation like Lord Krishna. However, if you take the sense in another way and say that he (the soul) is Brahman as in the case of other two Maha Vakayas (I am Brahman and You are Brahman), then also we have no objection in the correlation. In such sense we will analyze the meaning of the word Brahman and since the word Brahaman means any greatest item in a category, the soul is the greatest or Brahman in the entire creation. Now in this sense even the fourth Maha Vakya can be correlated in your sense. Your sense is that the word Prajnanam means simple

awareness. I agree to your wrong sense also even though the word Prajnanam stands only for best knowledge in the right sense. The simple awareness is greatest among all the forms of energy since it has a special unique property of the phenomenon of knowing and hence even the simple awareness (Soul) can be called as Brahman. When we take Prajnanam (Spiritual Knowledge) as the best knowledge, it is greatest among all the other branches of knowledge and hence can be called as Brahman. Thus, even the greatest knowledge cannot be the characterstic of Brahman(God) and thus Brahman (God) remains unknowable by its characterstic. This will make the statement of Yama always alive.

Written by His Holiness Shri Datta Swami website address: e-mail address: Jai Guru Datta