The word jnāna has the common meaning of ‘knowledge’. However, in Sanskrit usage, the word jnāna carries different meanings depending on the context. Here we examine these meanings, and how they apply to the ātmā.
The word jnāna can have the following meanings (Śrī Babaji’s commentary on the Paramatma Sandarbha, page 184):
1. jnaptir jnānam
Here jnānam carries the meaning of contentless awareness. This awareness exists in the ātmā, in the state of deep sleep for example where there is no content-knowledge, or after liberation in Brahman where there is no mind to hold any content. Naturally, this meaning has nothing to do with the common meaning of jnāna as ‘knowledge’.
2. jnāyate anena iti jnānam
jnānam here means knowledge by which an object is known. Here, the word implies content-knowledge, and generally can be taken to mean the relationship between a word and its object (vācya-vācaka sambandha).
For example, when one sees a cow, one recalls the relationship of the word cow with the object cow, and then there is cognition or knowledge. If the knowledge of the relation between the word and the object is absent, such as if one has never seen a cow before, there is still perception of the object with its qualities. This is also a type of knowledge.
All content knowledge exists in the moment when it is perceived in the mind. Once the moment passes, i.e. the object is out of one’s perception, there is no more knowledge per se, only stored information in the memory which can later be recalled. The stored information has the name saṁskāra, and is distinct from jnānam.
3. jnānam asti asminn iti jnānam
The person who knows or cognizes an object can also be called jnānam. In this meaning, jnānam refers to a person who possesses knowledge.
What definition of jnāna applies to the ātmā?
If we strip away the mind, senses, intelligence etc. from the ātmā, such that it is reduced to itself alone, what kind of knowledge does it possess? Some say that the ātmā is full of content-knowledge such as knowledge of the Vedas. Others (the Advaitavādis) say that the ātmā cannot possess knowledge with content, but is only conscious- i.e. not inert. In the Paramātmā Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva Goswami analyzes the properties of the ātmā, including what type of meaning of the word jnānam applies to the pure ātmā; we summarize his explanation below.
First, the ātmā cannot be modified in anyway (it is avyaya, see 2nd chapter of Bhagavad Gita). If any new knowledge or information ‘entered’ the ātmā, this would modify it, and therefore it follows that the ātmā cannot know anything ‘new’. And yet, there is obviously cognition in us all the time! Who is the knower in a child who learns Math or language?
All knowledge with content or information is a modification of the mind
Śrī Jīva explains that knowledge is a mano-vṛtti, or modification of the mind. Therefore, it remains external to the ātmā. Perception occurs in the mind, which is external to the ātmā, but it cannot occur unless the ātmā is present; the mind is conscious because of the ātmā in the body, and knows because the ātmā has the śakti or potency to know (jnātṛtva in Śrī Jīva’s terminology).
The Advaitavādis do not accept that the ātmā has the capacity to know anything. Their definition of consciousness is that the ātmā is not inert- they negate inertness, but do not accept the ātmā as a knower. In Śrī Jīva’s view, the ātmā cannot know anything without the mind even though it has the capacity to know, and the mind cannot know anything without the ātmā because the mind does not have any capacity to know being inert, and therefore perception occurs only when these two combine together. The perception of content knowledge occurs in the mind, and therefore the ātmā remains unmodified. All knowledge is ultimately a modification of the mind, which is external to the ātmā.
When words like jnāna-svarūpa or cid-ātmaka are used for the ātmā, they imply that it is conscious of itself, and can know things external to itself (when combined with the mind). Thus, consciousness is a quality possessed by the ātmā, like the rose possesses the red color. It is therefore erroneous to think that the ātmā is ‘full of knowledge and bliss’, because the ātmā cannot store any information with content in it. All information remains external to the ātmā.
Of the above three meanings of jnānam, the third definition applies to the ātmā when it is conjoined to the mind-body complex, the second definition refers to the modifications of the mind, and the first definition applies to the ātmā’s contentless awareness when it is in a state like deep sleep.