Lecture Six: Witnesses 6.2

6.2 Intransitive experience


The Upaniṣads are collection of texts, sometimes in verse but often in prose, closely associated with the Vedas, and often referred to as Vedanta (‘the end of Vedas,’ indicating that they close the Vedas, or that they indicate their intended goal). Although dating these works is difficult, and their compilation extends over many centuries, Western scholars usually accept that some of the oldest Upaniṣads (like the Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad and the Chāndogya Upaniṣad) are likely to have been composed in the seventh or sixth century BCE. Nonetheless, the composition of the Upaniṣads continued for a much longer period. Scholars singled out a narrow group of twelve ‘classical’ Upaniṣads that were composed until the third or second centuries BCE. But various sects and groups produced new Upaniṣads almost up to the modern period, and this extended group consists of 108 texts. For present purposes, we shall focus on the older classical texts.

The classical Upaniṣads are included among the Brāhmaṇas and the Āraṇyakas collections preserved by different schools of reciters of the Vedas. The Brāhmaṇas are collections aimed at elucidating the meanings and performances of rituals, often including speculations about their interpretation. Āraṇyakas offer similar materials, although more closely addressed to forest-dwellers intent at cultivating a more ascetic life. The Upaniṣads arise out of these reflections and are often conceived as a way of developing a more internalized and spiritualized interpretation of Vedic rituals, in which physical acts and performances are interpreted in an increasingly subtle way and potentially replaced by appropriate cognitive performances.

There is clearly both a large degree of continuity and discontinuity between the Upaniṣads and the earlier Vedic scriptures. The very term upaniṣad means ‘connection’ and mostly indicates a secret or hidden connection between apparently different elements, which the author or authors of the text aim to disclose. In taking this approach, the Upaniṣads build upon and develop the principle of homology that is already at play in the older hymns of the Ṛg-veda, while also steering it towards a broader and more abstract cosmological and ontological view.[1]

From the point of view of our current discussion, we could account for both continuity and discontinuity by saying that the Upaniṣads include an attempt to provide a different solution to the paradox of mastery, based on a shift from the content of visionary experience to the cognitive quality of that experience, which is identified in a discovery of the fundamental unity that underpins all experience in general. My experience is different from your experience or from the experience of another animal because of what we experience. At a more basic level, though, the fact that we all experience something is the same for all those who are open to experience. If we thus put anything that pertains to content aside, we shall also put aside all possible ways of discerning between ‘me’ and ‘you’ and ‘others.’ What remains is absolute unity, which is necessarily eternal, unchanging, and completely free from uncertainty.

The Upaniṣads often repeats that brahman is ātman. Older seers conceived of brahman as the vital breath, which is both sound and word, both meaning and vision, through which they both received and articulated their visionary insight. Brahman is thus reality in its disclosure, the very fact that there is an experience of reality. The term does not occur frequently in the older hymns, but in the Upaniṣads it indicates the essence of an individual, which might be identified in physical terms. This essence is in turn regarded as the same in all beings. Everything is one in brahman, and because of this universal unity, the notion also takes on a cosmological dimension. The meaning of ātman is not fixed, and in different texts it seems to come closer to either bodily or cognitive elements. Sometimes bodily and cognitive dimensions merge in identifying ātman with the vital breath, which is considered both a bodily energetic aspect that keeps the individual alive, and the source of intelligence and cognition (see e.g. Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad, III, transl. Olivelle 1996, 215-220). From a grammatical point of view, ātman can also function as a first-person reflective pronoun, meaning ‘self.’ Searching for ātman, I search for myself. The equation between brahman and ātman might be translated as follows: the fact that there is experience (brahman), this is what I am (ātman). However, the Upaniṣads do not proclaim this equation in a dogmatic way, but rather present it as a topic for investigation, and its actual meaning as something to be discovered through disciplined reflections and practices.

One way of establishing the equation between brahman and ātman consists in searching for an ultimate principle that underpins all experience and eventually finding that one always reaches the same point. Let us begin from the side of brahman.

In Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad, II.1-3 we encounter a dialogue between Ajātaśatru, king of Kāsi,[2] and a brahmin, named Dṛpta-Bālāki. Ajātaśatru quickly takes the lead in showing what the real nature of brahman is. His interlocutor begins by pointing out several cosmic elements (the sun, the moon, the lightening and so forth) that he takes to be brahman. In each case, Ajātaśatru replies that he does not venerate that entity as brahman. The interlocutor then shifts to personal elements (a reflection in the mirror, sound, hearing, shadow, the body), and again Ajātaśatru states that brahman cannot truly be identified with any of these aspects.

At this point, Ajātaśatru introduces his own view by discussing the case of sleep and dreamless sleep, which is also based on a certain physiological account of what happens to vital functions in these states. The upshot is that during dreamless sleep, the conscious principle within a person is no longer aware of any object (neither external sensory inputs, nor internally produced dreamlike images). In that state, the person is still alive, but their life is detached from any sort of positive characteristic, action, or quality. This is interpreted as pointing towards a completely non-differentiated principle, which cannot be removed without destroying life altogether, and yet which is not identical with any phenomenal feature of life. This inner non-differentiated core is the true brahman. In the end of their conversation, Ajātaśatru reiterates this point with the formula néti néti (literally ‘not …, not …’), meaning that brahman can be known only indirectly by progressively moving beyond any degree of differentiation and diversity.

Let us now take the side of ātman. Just after this dialogue (II.4), the Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad introduces a different exchange, this time between the brahmin sage Yājñavalkya and his wife, Maitreyī. Yājñavalkya invites Maitreyī to concentrate on the self (ātman) as the means to gain ultimate knowledge. All phenomenal realities in their diversity (here mentioned as priestly power, royal power, worlds, gods, beings, and the Whole itself) are nothing but this same self. To illustrate this point, Yājñavalkya offers a series of similes, in which the self is introduced as the point of convergence for the diversity of phenomenal reality. The result is that the self plays a function analogous to that of brahman in the previous dialogue.

One might be tempted to interpret brahman as an ontological principle, and ātman as something more akin to a sentient principle (like a soul, or a consciousness). However, the Upaniṣads do not support this dichotomy. On the one hand, any ultimate ontological principle is conceived as endowed with a certain form of sentience and consciousness, hence it cannot be interpreted or even experienced as purely inert and unaware universal ‘stuff.’ On the other hand, the true nature of sentiency is not to perceive this or that object, but simply to be percipient in an intransitive way. Intransitive consciousness is thus the point where brahman and ātman meet because it is a reality that entails a conscious presence (and not sheer ontological presence), but this consciousness is not shaped or qualified through any further differentiation nor aims at knowing anything (hence it cannot be individualized as my personal consciousness nor belonging to someone else in particular).

Continuing with his explanation to Maitreyī, Yājñavalkya outlines the seemingly non-sentient nature of the self (which is also a point made by Ajātaśatru by comparing the experience of brahman with the state of dreamless sleep):

‘In the same way this Immense Being has no limit or boundary and is a single mass of perception. It arises out of and together with these beings and disappears after them—so I say, after death there is no awareness.’

After Yājñavalkya said this, Maitreyī exclaimed: ‘Now, sir, you have totally confused me by saying ‘after death there is no awareness.’ He replied:

‘Look, I haven’t said anything confusing; this body, you see, has the capacity to perceive. For when there is a duality of some kind, then the one can smell the other, the one can see the other, the one can hear the other, the one can greet the other, the one can think of the other, and the one can perceive the other. When, however, the Whole has become one’s very self (ātman), then who is there for one to smell and by what means? Who is there for one to see and by what means? Who is there for one to hear and by what means? Who is there for one to greet and by what means? Who is there for one to think of and by what means? Who is there for one to perceive and by what means?

By what means can one perceive him by means of whom one perceives this whole world? Look—by what means can one perceive the perceiver?’ (Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad II.4, transl. Olivelle 1996, 30)

The self is a perceiving principle, but this principle is intransitive in its essence, it does not have an object, nor should it have one. In this respect, the self is akin to dreamless consciousness. However, Yājñavalkya also suggests that after the breaking up of the body (and assuming that there is no further rebirth), this consciousness is not percipient of any particular object. Perception of various sensory objects depends on the bodily framework and its diversity. When this framework no longer exists, the perception of diversity ends. Maitreyī’s puzzlement arguably arises from the fact that she interprets this point as entailing that awareness ceases with death, because perception of diversity ceases. But Yājñavalkya’s clarification shows that what ceases with death is this perception of diversity or (as the later Advaita school would say) duality between cognizing and cognized. The self is what allows for the cognition of objects but does not depend on any specific object. Hence, when objects are no longer reachable through the senses (because of death, but also as happens during dreamless sleep), the self somehow returns to its original intransitive condition. This sheds light on the sort of consciousness that is identified as brahman: a non-dual or intransitive consciousness, which cognizes nothing because in it there is no distinction between consciousness and object, and hence no ‘thing’ or ‘object’ to be cognized.

Intransitive non-dual consciousness is one way brahman and ātman are identified, equated, and singled out as the ultimate non-differentiated reality. This view is also spelled out in several cosmogonic accounts, in which the phenomenal world and its diversity are derived from a principle that in the beginning there was no differentiation. For instance, the same Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad I.1.2 states:

‘In the beginning there was nothing here at all. Death alone covered this completely, as did hunger; for what is hunger but death? Then death made up his mind: ‘Let me equip myself with a body (ātman).’ (transl. Olivelle 1996, 7)

A little later (Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad I.4), an alternative account is also offered:

‘In the beginning this world was just a single body (ātman) shaped like a man. He looked around and saw nothing but himself. The first thing he said was, ‘Here I am!’ and from that the name ‘I’ came into being.’ (transl. Olivelle 1996, 13)

The chapter continues in a similar pattern that states that in the beginning this world was only brahman (I.4.10) and only ātman (I.4.17). In each case, differentiation arises out of a non-differentiated original reality, and often due to conative attitudes based on some form of need or desire (roughly in accordance with the Vedic hymn X.129 discussed in Lecture Five).

In a longer episode, the same Yājñavalkya engages in a debate with several other brahmins in front of Janaka, king of Videha.[3] During this debate, Yājñavalkya presents the self as the cognitive agent behind all cognitive faculties, which at the same time is distinct from these faculties: the seer is not seen in the act of seeing, and yet the seer is the real self who does the seeing (Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad III.4). He also goes through a similar negative enumeration like the one used by Ajātaśatru (III.7) and in a later episode (still presenting Yājñavalkya and king Janaka) he expounds the néti néti formula (IV.2.4). On yet another occasion, Yājñavalkya instructs Janaka on the fact that ātman is the inner source of ‘light’ or consciousness within a person, which is experienced during waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep. With regard to this last state, Yājñavalkya further clarifies:

‘Now, he does not see anything here; but although he does not see, he is quite capable of seeing, for it is impossible for the seer to lose his capacity to see, for it is indestructible. But there isn’t a second reality here that he could see as something distinct and separate from himself.’ (Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad IV.3, transl. Olivelle 1996, 61)

The same idea is iterated for the other sensory faculties, showing that the lack of awareness in dreamless sleep is due to a state of non-duality in which the fundamental cognitive principle (ātman) rests in its pristine state of non-differentiation. While remaining capable of perception and cognition, it does not have anything to perceive or cognize, mirroring in this respect the state of the primordial principle before the generation of the phenomenal world.

Yājñavalkya’s teaching might be the source of the view attributed to Ajātaśatru.[4] This teaching seems to be based on a negative mode of abstraction: by progressively removing markers of differentiation from the experience of reality, it is possible to arrive at the intuitive knowledge of some more fundamental and non-differentiated underpinning principle. This principle is then the ground of all differentiated reality, because it lies behind it and cannot be taken away without destroying that whole reality. This latter point is made explicit in Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad VI with the example of the breath as the most crucial among vital functions (taking into account that breath, prāṇa, is also equated with the self).

This view seems to have caused two worries. The first concerns our destiny after death. Dreamless sleep is already close enough to death and, as already pointed out, non-duality does resemble death in a way. What happens to the self after death? The Upaniṣads offer two options: either rebirth in the world of the forefathers, or ultimate liberation (e.g. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad VI.2). This twofold scheme is analogous in structure to the view that could plausibly enough be ascribed to the older Vedic hymns, in which one might differentiate between re-death that leads to the world of the forefathers, followed by re-birth among humans, versus the path of the seer (anticipated by the gods), who can become immortal.

However, we noticed in Lecture Five that the seer’s immortality is far from dreamless sleep. The seer’s experience is that of vision, and vision entails difference and action. The Upaniṣads seem to introduce a different account here, by equating immortality or freedom from rebirth with a contentless state; i.e., one that consists of only pure intransitive consciousness. Consider for instance the following statement (Kena Upaniṣad, I.2-4):

That which is the hearing behind hearing,

The thinking behind thinking,

The speech behind speech,

The sight behind sight—

It is also the breathing behind breathing—

Freed completely from these,

The wise becomes immortal,

When they depart from this world.

Sight does not reach there;

Neither does thinking or speech.

We don’t know, we can’t perceive,

How one would point it out.


Which one cannot express by speech,

by which speech itself is expressed—

Learn that that alone is brahman,

and not what they here venerate. (transl. Olivelle 1996, 227)

These verses show the impossibility of objectifying brahman, which is not a content of cognition (a visible object, a thought, and so forth) but that in virtue of which cognition can take place. This entails that to know and understand brahman one needs to forego any dualist form of cognition, and reach a point of complete intransitiveness, in which awareness is non-dual and no longer turned to any object. In this condition there is no vision; and yet, this experience, because of its intransitiveness, is the actual tasting of the true nature of brahman. Reaching this experience ensures that one will become immortal after death. But it is also made clear that this form of immortality has little to do with the sort of heroic agency enjoyed by the older Vedic gods and seers. The immortality of brahman is empty of any specific content or action, and thus cannot be imagined at all, nor expressed in language. Given these properties, it is also likely that it can be fully experienced only after death, since for as long as the self remains connected with the body, some degree of differentiation and duality will be a part of experience.

The impossibility of expressing the real nature of brahman through language is perhaps the most striking departure of the Upaniṣad from the earlier Vedic view, in which the seer was empowered precisely by his ability to say, to sing, to tell the truth (even if only through riddles). Now words have to fade away completely, and truth can emerge through silence only. Notice that this departure is deliberate and critically emphasized in the last verse quoted above, which entails an explicit denigration of those who content themselves with simply reciting the hymns. This polemic against outward rituals and orthopraxis is recurrent throughout the Upaniṣads, and at some point (Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad, I.1-2, transl. Olivelle 1996, 268-270) it is explicitly framed in terms of a contrast between the sage devoted to a life of renunciation and withdrawal versus those devoted to ritual and sacrifice. In this scheme, even the knowledge of the Vedas is presented as inferior to the knowledge of brahman.

However, despite appearances, the intransitive state of immortality is also repeatedly equated with supreme bliss (cf. e.g. Taittirīya Upaniṣad, II.8, transl. Olivelle 1996, 188-189). The cosmological views discussed in this context reinforce the suggestion that it is desire that is responsible for bringing forth the world and generating differentiation. Hence, rebirth is dependent upon a desire for being reborn in one’s own community, and this desire is what makes one’s condition in the world of the forefathers ultimately temporary. At some point, the deceased one will desire to be reborn again in their community, and will then take a new human body. But the sage, who has tasted in this life the bliss of brahman, has extinguished the desire for taking human form and after death will simply go back to brahman forever (which lacks any form). The Upaniṣads reinterpret the older scheme of rebirth and the possibility of immortality, by now presenting rebirth as a somewhat inferior option available for those who do not really know brahman, and rather defending a view of immortality as a mystical union with brahman in a perpetual experience of bliss, which is an intransitive experience devoid of any experiential content.

There is also another concern that surfaces at least once: is this state of non-duality actually desirable? Can it really be said to be blissful? At the end of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, we encounter the (going to be) god Indra as a student of the creator god Prajāpati, who instructs Indra and others about the true nature of self and brahman. Prajāpati’s instructions are gradual and very slow. He lets  his students ruminate on a certain view until they realize that that view is not entirely tenable, and so are urged to move to something deeper and more accurate. For instance, at some point Indra has a doubt: if the self becomes what the body is, it should also die when the body dies. Prajāpati then further instructs him that the self should be seen as the one who dreams and is not really affected by what happens in dreams. And yet, after some pondering, Indra sees another problem: from the point of view of the self, dreams look real, and the self takes them at face value. Prajāpati takes then Indra one step further, showing that the real self is found in dreamless sleep:

‘When one is fast asleep, totally collected and serene, and sees no dreams—that is the self; that is the immortal; that is the one free from fear; that is brahman.’Indra then left, his heart content. But even before he had reached the gods, he saw this danger: ‘But this self as just explained, you see, does not perceive itself fully as, ‘I am this’; it does not even know any of these beings here. It has become completely annihilated. I see nothing worthwhile in this.’ (Chāndogya Upaniṣad VIII.11, transl. Olivelle 1996, 174)

In his reply to this worry, Prajāpati’s seems to be bluffing:

‘One who has a body is in the grip of joy and sorrow, and there is no freedom from joy and sorrow for one who has a body. Joy and sorrow, however, do not affect one who has no body. […] This deeply serene one, after he rises up from this body and reaches the highest light, emerges in his own true appearance. He is the highest person. He roams about there, laughing, playing, and enjoying himself with women, carriages, or relatives, without remembering the appendage that is this body. The lifebreath is yoked to this body, as a draught animal to a cart.’ (Chāndogya Upaniṣad VIII.12, transl. Olivelle 1996, 175)

Taking Prajāpati’s answer at face value, it means that for as long as the self is yoked to a body, it cannot be truly free from sorrow. Only after death, when the lifebreath is released from the body and merges into its primal element or source, does it become free. At that point, the self realizes its happiness and (surprisingly) becomes again capable of enjoying various heavenly objects.

It is unclear whether Prajāpati’s answer should be taken at face value. Perhaps it provides only the best possible answer addressed to someone like Indra, who is still not able to understand how non-duality would differ from a sheer annihilation of experience. From this point of view, Prajāpati simply states that there is nothing to fear in that condition, and that it will be supremely enjoyable as if one would enjoy heavenly objects.

In summary, it can be said that the view that emerges from several of the older Upaniṣads is that beyond all phenomenal differences it is possible to identify one unique ontological principle, not differentiated in itself, and yet equally present and common to all reality. This is also the very same principle that underpins all cognitive processes, although it does not have any specific object of cognition. Being non-dual in itself, when bodily cognitive structures are removed, this principle remains non-cognizant, like a person in deep dreamless sleep. Despite appearances, this condition should be regarded as blissful. Several sages in the Upaniṣads back up this view with the analogy of the stages of consciousness during waking and dreaming states, and tend to connect it with physiological considerations. However, it would be problematic to claim that this view is somehow derived as a generalization from these considerations alone. More likely, the sages based their teaching on a specific method of contemplation. After all, since Vedic time, brahman is closely associated with a form of mental discipline that yields insight into reality, and the Upaniṣads seem to assert that this insight has to do with the fundamentally unitarian principle behind all reality. It is time to look more closely at the sort of practice that might have formed the experiential background of these claims.

  1. For an overview of several paradigms in which this idea is spelled out, see Joel Brereton, ‘The Upanishads’ (1990). Brereton focuses on five paradigms in particular: ‘(1) the correlation of different aspects of reality to one another; (2) the emergence of the world from a single reality and its resolution back into it; (3) a hierarchy which leads ultimately to the foundation of all things; (4) a paradoxical coincidence of things which are ordinarily understood to exclude or oppose one another; and (5) a cycle which encompasses the processes of life and the world.’ For a perhaps more philosophical treatment of the same topic, see also Jonardon Ganeri, The Concealed Art of the Soul: Theories of the Self and Practices of Truth in Indian Ethics and Epistemology (2006), chapter 1.
  2. The kingdom of Kāsi (or Kashi) is one of the ancient kingdoms of India, located in the North-East of the subcontinent. Its capital is Varanasi, on the Ganges. Even today, the city remains one of the most important religious centers of India. In ancient times, Kashi was renowned for the production of precious goods, including cotton and silks fabrics. For instance, to express his sophistication and taste for luxury when he was young, the Buddha mentions that he used only wood, cloths, and garments from Kashi (AN 3.39). Varanasi (also known as Benares) is the place where the Buddha is traditionally recorded having delivered his first public speech (SN 56.11)
  3. Another ancient Indian kingdom, Videha was located in the North-East of the subcontinent (easter than Kashi), partially overlapping with toady’s Bihar and eastern Nepal.
  4. There is a complex social game going on behind these attributions, which has to do with the potential rivalry between the warrior caste of Kings and that of brahmins. One might want to stress that that warrior-Kings derived their superior knowledge from the most instructed brahmins, although not all brahmins are necessarily the wisest; in turn, this might just be a witness of some sort of competition among brahmins to gain the favor of the various kings, or to signal that a doctrine is not strictly orthodox from a brahmin point of view (hence it is attributed to a representative of another caste). For present purposes, we can leave aside this historical controversy.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Tragedy of the Self Copyright © 2023 by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.