The ātmā’s consciousness is immutable

In a previous article, I discussed how the ātmā is immutable. This implies that no external information, whatever it may be, can enter into the pure ātmā. Otherwise, the ātmā becomes changed. How, then, does knowing occur at all? Who is the knower?

Śrī Jīva Goswami examines this question in the Tattva Sandarbha Anuccheda 53 where he analyzes the following verse from SB 11.3.38:

nātmā jajāna na mariṣyati naidhate’sau na kṣīyate savana-vid vyabhicāriṇāṁ hi
sarvatra śaśvad anapāyy upalabdhi-mātraṁ prāṇo yathendriya-balena vikalpitaṁ sat

Because it is the witness of the different states [childhood, youth, and so on] of the transient material body, this ātmā is without birth, growth, decay, or death. Although the ātmā is exclusively of the nature of consciousness, present everywhere, eternal, and invariable, it appears to assume various forms under the influence of sense perception and cognition, just as the vital force ( prāṇa ) within the body, although one, appears as if many in contact with the various senses. ( SB 11.3.38 )

Śrī Jīva Goswami explains that the pure ātmā is the witness of the various states of the changing body, like childhood, middle age or old age. The witness does not change even as the body changes (nahy avasthāvatāṁ draṣṭā tad-avastho bhavatīty arthaḥ).

He then poses the question:

niravasthaḥ ko’sāv ātmā – what is the nature of this unchanging ātmā?

The verse answers:

“upalabdhi-mātraṁ” jñānaika-rūpam – it is exclusively of the nature of consciousness

One might erroneously argue that the pure ātmā ‘understands’ or ‘observes’ somehow that its body changes with time. As I mentioned above, this violates the law of immutability of the pure ātmā. Śrī Jīva recognizes this objection as follows:

nanu, nīla-jñānaṁ naṣṭaṁ pīta-jñānaṁ jātam iti pratīter na jñānasyānapāyitvam ?

But how can consciousness be considered invariable ( anapāyī ), since conventional experience dictates that upon the disappearance of the cognition of something blue, there arises the cognition of something yellow?

This is the notion of the Buddhists. They think that consciousness changes from minute to minute with each cognition of a new object. Śrī Jīva explains that this idea is refuted by the verse quoted above. He writes:

tatrāha—“indriya-balena” iti | sad eva jñānam ekam indriya-balena vividhaṁ kalpitam | nīlādy-ākārā vṛttaya eva jāyante naśyanti ca, na jñānam iti bhāvaḥ | ayam āgamāpāyitad-avadhi-bhedena prathamas tarkaḥ | draṣṭṛ-dṛśya-bhedena dvitīyo’pi tarko jñeyaḥ | vyabhicāriṣv avasthā-vyabhicāre dṛṣṭāntaḥ—“prāṇo yathā” iti

Pippalāyana answers, “by the power of the senses” ( indriya-balena ), indicating that although consciousness is one and ever-present, the influence of the senses [of sense perceptions and cognitions] makes it appear variegated. In other words, it is not consciousness itself that appears and disappears; rather, what appears and disappears are the various mental modes ( vṛttis ) assuming the forms of cognitions of something blue and so on [i.e., it is only the content of consciousness that is variable and not primordial consciousness itself].

This then is the simple and beautiful solution offered by Śrī Jīva – there is a difference between cognition (manovṛttis) and consciousness (jñānam). Cognition is the formation of various mental modes ( vṛttis ) upon contact of the senses with the sense objects – such as upon contact of the eye with color. This cognition or vṛtti does not change the consciousness or jñānam of the ātmā. That remains unchanged and constant. Unfortunately, people think that word jñānam can only mean knowledge, and as such, they completely misunderstand the intrinsic nature of the ātmā.

Thus, all knowledge of any sort occurs in the mind alone. The knower is not the pure ātmā because it cannot change in any way. The knower is the composite being called the jīva. Important to note is that the perception in this composite being occurs due to the jñāna-śakti or the potential or capacity to know of the pure ātmā. Because the mind is inert and does not have such capacity. The ātmā is possessor of the jñāna-śakti, and its relation with this jñāna-śakti is of acintya bheda-abheda. Sri Babaji explains this with the analogy of a car battery and the car. The battery supplies the energy to make the car run, but the changes in the car do not affect the battery in any way.

As it is fashionable to think these days that Śrī Baladeva contradicts all that I have written above, I decided to include his commentary on this part of the Tattva Sandarbha below. He agrees that the consciousness of the ātmā is eternal, and only modifications of the mind (vṛtti) occur when a ‘cognition’ takes place. My translation is below:

na jajāneti jāyate’sti vardhate vipariṇamate’pakṣīyate naśyati ca iti bhāva-vikārāḥ ṣaṭ paṭhitāḥ | te jīvasya na santi iti samudāyārthaḥ | nanu nīla-jñānam ity-ādi jñāna-rūpam ātmavastu jñātṛ bhavati prakāśa-vastu sūryaḥ prakāśayitā yathā | tataś ca svarūpānubandhitvāj jñānaṁ tasya nityam, tasyendriya-praṇālyā nīlādi-niṣṭhā yā viṣayatā vṛtti-pada-vācyā saiva nīlādyapagame naśyatīti ||53||

The verse na jajāna.. indicates the six changes of the nature of an object: jāyate’sti vardhate vipariṇamate’pakṣīyate naśyati – he is born, persists in between, grows, changes, decays and gets destroyed. These do not apply to the jīva – this is the overall meaning of these verses. But isn’t the ātmā, whose essence is jñāna or consciousness, the knower of jñāna or cognition of blue color, etc., just as the sun, an illuminating substance, acts as an illuminator? Because the six changes do not apply to the ātmā, the consciousness of the ātmā is eternal as it is part of its svarūpa. What is destroyed when the blue color is no longer present, is the objectness (viṣayatā) [of cognition] situated in the blue color etc., which is indicated by the word vṛtti, and which is [conveyed through] its sense-channel.


  1. The ātmā’s consciousness is unchangeable because the the ātmā is immutable.

2. All cognitions are modifications of the mind (vṛtti).

3. These cognitions form and die from moment to moment, but the ātmā’s consciousness remains unchanged.

4. The ātmā’s jñāna-śakti makes the vṛttis in the mind triggered by the senses possible. The mind does not possess jñāna-śakti.

5. The relation between the ātmā and its jñāna-śakti is acintya bheda-abheda.

6. The knower is the composite being called the jīva. The pure ātmā knows nothing.

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11 replies »

  1. It is the jnana/consciousness present as an attribute of the ātmā. It reveals things outside itself to the jīva.

    This verse is cited by Baladeva for the existence of such a jñāna:

    yathā na kriyate jyotsnā mala-prakṣālanān maṇeḥ, doṣa-prahāṇān na jñānam ātmanaḥ kriyate tathā, yathodapāna-khananāt kriyate na jalāntaram, sad eva nīyate vyaktim asataḥ sambhavaḥ kutaḥ, tathā heya-guṇa-dhvaṁsād avabodhādayo guṇāḥ, prakāśyante na janyante nityā evātmano hi te (Viṣṇu-dharma Purāṇa, 100.55-57),

    “Just as a jewel’s light is not created by cleansing it from dirt, a living entity’s consciousness is not created by removing material contamination. Just as water is not produced by digging a well, only an existent being becomes manifest. How can a non-existent being be brought into existence? Similarly, after negative qualities have been destroyed, qualities like consciousness are merely revealed, and not produced, for they are eternal attributes of the soul.”

    A site says this about the characteristics of dharma-bhūta-jñāna(as per Vishishtadvaitins):

    1. The dharmabhutajñāna is ‘ajaḍa’.[1]
    2. It illuminates itself and other objects.
    3. It always exists for another.
    4. It never prevails for itself.
    5. It illuminates the objects for the conscious subject.
    6. It is an attribute for the conscious subject.
    7. The dharmabhutajñāna is eternal and all-pervasive in the case of īśvara, the nityasuris (eternally illumined souls) and the liberated souls.
    8. In the case of the jīvātman (the soul in bondage) it is contracted or obscured.
    9. When the jīvātman realizes the beatific form of the Divine through the yogas of karma, jñāna and bhakti, his dharmabhutajñāna also expands to infinity and becomes perfect.

    • Jnana-sakti is like the capacity of a battery. The current of the battery when connected to a circuit, is jnana-sakti manifesting as what we call
      consciousness (contentless) that is infused in the mind – this is also called ‘jnana’. The vrttis formed in the mind when the senses come in contact with the sense objects, is like the information on the screen that shows navigation on the dashboard in modern cars.

      Now, I tend to use jnana sakti interchangeably with jnana sometimes. I should be more careful I guess. Sakti means capacity or potential. Jnana means to know. So a capacity to know, or cognitive capacity, is jnana-sakti. One who has jnana-sakti, has jnatrtva, lit. the quality of knowership. I also tend to use jnatrtva interchangeably with jnana-sakti.

      Based on what you wrote, dharmabhuta jnana seems to correspond to the vrttis in the mind, which are enabled by the atma’s consciousness.

  2. Thanks. Another question I’d like to ask is how does Bhagavan/Paramatma know things other than himself/antarnga shakti? Since his mind, jnanendriyas and karmendriyas etc. are all part of His svarupa. So if information is recieved in his mind, then there would be change in the mind and hence change in his svarupa as well?

  3. The relation between the ātmā and its jñāna-śakti is acintya bheda-abheda

    How it is “acintya bheda-abheda” if it’s inherent quality of ātmā ?

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