How Could the Body be the Self?

a woman seated in meditation

The Aparokṣānubhūti or “Immediate Awareness” is often taught as a classic primer of Advaita (non-dual) Vedānta philosophy. Although it is attributed to the early eighth century philosopher and teacher Śaṅkarācārya, it was more likely written in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, partly in response to the growth of haṭha yoga. Its first ninety-nine verses teach a traditional Advaitic method, which the commentator explains is for the superior or what I will call the A student, while the remaining forty-five verses incorporate a unique version of rāja yoga, including a fifteen-part system, for the mediocre or B student. The text focuses on the fundamental misunderstanding of mistaking the body for the self, just as in the classical example, one might mistake a rope in the road for a snake at night and act out of fear, because one’s vision is clouded by darkness. In other words, it explores the ways in which we get caught up in a false perception of reality, and how we can correct that by recognizing the self as formless, changeless, and eternal. This is done with the help of practices that teach us to see through illusion, which are eventually let go of when we attain pure awareness.

The text begins with a detailed description of the traditional Vedāntic prerequisites that are necessary for the A student. These fourfold conditions (which actually turn out to be nine) are detachment, discernment, the six treasures (tranquility, restraint, withdrawal, endurance, faith, and deep meditation) and finally, desire for liberation.[note] vairāgya, viveka, śama, dama, uparati, titiksā, śraddhā, samādhāna, and mumukṣutā.[/note] In order to be a superior student one clearly already has to have done some work! The following verse then explains the basic aim of Advaita. In Sanskrit, the prefix “a” is used for negation, so the word a-dvaita literally means “non-dualism” (not-two), and its goal is to fully comprehend this underlying state.

ukta-sādhana-yuktena vicāraḥ puruṣeṇa hi |

kartavyo jñāna-siddhyartham ātmanaḥ śubham icchatā || 10 ||

Indeed, by a person who is yoked,

To the means that were spoken of,

Inquiry is to be undertaken for the purpose of attaining understanding of the self,

With the desire for ultimate happiness.

ukta-sādhana-yuktena = by a person who is yoked to the means that were spoken of (tatpuruṣa compound, inst. sg.); vicāraḥ = inquiry (masc. nom. sg.); puruṣena = by a person (masc. inst. sg.); hi = indeed (indeclinable); kartavyaḥ = to be undertaken (gerundive, masc. nom. sg.);

jñāna-siddhyartham = for the purpose of attaining understanding (tatpuruṣa compound, indeclinable); ātmanaḥ = of the self (masc. gen. sg.); śubham = ultimate happiness (neut. acc. sg.); icchatā = with the desire (fem. inst. sg.)

Note the word yukta – from the root yuj which also gives us yoga – means that one must be continuously engaged in these prerequisites since they are practices (sādhana). The verse then tells us that the purpose is the attainment of understanding of the self; in other words, as the main commentary explains, “for the arising of the awareness of the oneness of the self and brahman.” This is the ultimate realization of Advaita – that the individual self (ātman) is the same as the universal self (brahman).[note]brahmātmaikya-bodhodbhavanāya[/note] It then says that one should do this with the desire for the highest happiness, which means the ultimate human aim of liberation (mokṣa). 

The majority of the following verses highlight the difference between this supreme understanding (jñāna), and its opposite, mis-understanding (a-jñāna). Understanding is said to arise only through the practice of inquiry (vicāra). And misunderstanding involves the misidentification of mistaking the body for the self, as explained for example, in this verse:

ātmā viniṣkalo hyeko deho bahubhir āvṛtaḥ |

tayor aikyaṃ prapaśyanti kim ajñānam ataḥ param || 17 ||

The self is indeed one, without parts, 

While the body is covered by many.

They see oneness of these two.  

What is misunderstanding, but this?

ātmā = the self (masc. nom. sg.); viniṣkalaḥ= without parts (masc. nom. sg.);hi = indeed (indeclinable);ekaḥ= one (masc. nom. sg.);dehaḥ= body (masc. nom. sg.);bahubhir= by many (neut. inst. sg.);āvṛtaḥ= covered (masc. nom. sg.); tayoḥ = of these two (pronoun, masc. gen. du.);aikyaṃ = oneness (neut. acc. sg.);prapaśyanti= they see (present, 3rd p. pl. pra√paś); kim = what (interrogative pronoun);ajñānam= misunderstanding (masc. acc. sg.);ataḥ param= but this (indeclinable)

One of the significant things about this text is its use of repetition. There are four other verses that share the final quarter with this verse. And much of the text is broken down in this way. A bit later, there are twelve verses that share the final line of “Similarly, one sees the body as the self, on account of misunderstanding.”[note]tad vad ātmani dehatvaṃ paāyaty ajñāna-yogataḥ[/note] The repetition speaks to the fact that these texts were originally taught through oral tradition and this text must have been intended to be passed down in that way. It also takes a lot of repetition to break through our conditioned ways of thinking. We are so accustomed to identifying with our bodies and to thinking that is who we really are, but as we all know that can cause us so much suffering. 

To explain what understanding really is, the text gives a classical definition:

brahmaivāhaṃ samaḥ śāntaḥ sac-cid-ānanda-lakṣaṇaḥ |

nāhaṃ deho hy asad-rūpo jñānam ity ucyate budhaiḥ || 24 ||

I am indeed brahman, constant, peaceful, 

With the characteristics of existence, consciousness, and bliss.

I am not the body, for its form is non-existence.

This is said to be understanding by the wise.

brahma= brahman, the Universal Self (neut. nom. sg.); eva = indeed, only (indeclinable);ahaṃ= I (pronoun, nom. sg.); samaḥ= constant, equal (masc. nom. sg.); śāntaḥ = peaceful (masc. nom. sg.);  sac-cid-ānanda-lakṣaṇaḥ= with the characteristics of existence, consciousness, and bliss (bahuvrīhi compound, masc. nom. sg.); na= not (indeclinable);ahaṃ= I (pronoun, nom. sg.);dehaḥ= body (masc. nom. sg.);hi= for, indeed (indeclinable);asad-rūpaḥ=whose form is non-existence (masc. nom. sg.); jñānam = understanding (masc. acc. sg.);iti(quotative particle); ucyate= it is said (passive, 3rd p. sg. √vac);budhaiḥ = by the wise (masc. inst. pl.)

The first quarter of this verse echoes the great sayings (mahāvākyas) of the Upaniṣads: I am indeed brahman (brahma eva aham). In traditional Advaitic thought, all one has to do is hear, reflect upon, and contemplate these sayings in order to attain realization. Another common saying is “I am that” (so ‘ham). There is then a series of verses ending with the inquiry, “How could the body be the self?”

ahaṃ vikāra-hīnas tu deho nityaṃ vikāravān |

iti pratīyate sākṣāt kathaṃ syād dehakaḥ pumān || 33 ||

I, [the self], am without change,

But the body is perpetually changing.

This is recognized with one’s own eyes.

How could the body be the self?

ahaṃ= I (pronoun, nom. sg.);vikāra-hīnaḥ= without change (masc. nom. sg.);tu= but (indeclinable); dehaḥ= body (masc. nom. sg.);nityaṃ= perpetually (indeclinable);vikāravān= changing, possessing change (masc. nom. sg.); iti(quotative particle);pratīyate= recognized (passive 3rd p. sg. pratii); sākṣāt = with one’s own eyes (indeclinable); kathaṃ= how (interrogative pronoun);syād = could (optative, 3rd p. sg. √as); dehakaḥ= body (masc. nom. sg.);pumān = self (masc. nom. sg.)

Over and over again we are reminded not to be confused, that the self is indeed beyond the body. We then get the Vedāntic equivalent of Virtual Reality, with the traditional examples of the illusoriness of the world.

yathā mṛdi ghaṭo nāma kanake kuṇḍalābhidhā |

śuktau hi rajata-khyātir jīva-śabdas tathā pare || 60 ||

Just as the name pot in clay, 

In gold there is the name earring,

Indeed, in silver there is the name pearl oyster,

So, too, in the supreme brahman there is the name individual soul.

yathā= just as (pronoun, indeclinable);mṛdi = in clay (fem. loc. sg.); ghaṭaḥ= pot (masc. nom. sg.); nāma = name (indeclinable);kanake= in gold (neut. loc. sg.); kuṇḍalābhidhā= having the name earring (bahuvrīhi compound, fem. nom. sg.);śuktau= in silver (fem. loc. sg.); hi= indeed (indeclinable);rajata-khyātir= having the name pearl oyster (bahuvrīhi compound, fem. nom. sg.); jīva-śabdas = having the name individual soul (bahuvrīhi compound, masc. nom. sg.);tathā = so, too (pronoun, indeclinable); pare= in the supreme brahman (neut. loc. sg.)

The idea here, which stems from the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, is that all of these things that we become so attached to in the world are just manifestations. So, a potter may make a pot out of clay, but ultimately it is just clay: at any point one could dissolve it back into its original form. Similarly, an earring is fashioned out of gold, but at any point one could melt it back to its original form. And the ultimate idea here is that that is true of all creation as well: all individual existence evolves out of brahman and ultimately, through understanding, it can be dissolved back into it. We can see through this illusion to understand our real nature.

If you have reached this point and still have not attained realization, never fear. Beginning with Verse 100, the text then gives an alternative method for the B student, elaborating a set of fifteen parts (aṅgas) culminating in absorption (samādhi), which include a redefined version of Patañjali’s eight limbs (aṣṭāṅga), that you may be familiar with, given in the Yogasūtra. The key to this redefinition is the assertion that these parts are all to be practiced for the purpose of contemplation (nididhyāsana). The traditional Vedāntic three-fold path to liberation and the realization of brahman, consists of hearing, reflection, and contemplation[note]śravana, manana, and nididhyāsana[/note], and originated in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad: “Indeed it is the Self, O Maitreyī, that is to be seen, to be heard about, to be reflected on, to be contemplated. By seeing, hearing, reflecting, and contemplating of the Self, all this is known.”[note]Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad 2.4.5, 4.5.6: ātmā vā are draṣṭavyaḥ śrotavyo mantavyo nididhyāsitavyo maitreyi | ātmano vā are darśanena śravaṇena matyā vijñānenedaṃ sarvaṃ viditam [/note] What is unique about this text is that it takes this fundamental concept of contemplation and broadens its meaning, allowing it to incorporate other practices. This allows Yoga to become incorporated into Advaita.

tri-pañcāṅgānyatho vakṣye pūrvoktasya hi labdhaye |

taiśca sarvaiḥ sadā kāryaṃ nididhyāsanam eva tu || 100 ||

Now, indeed, for the attainment of what was spoken of previously,

I will explain the fifteen parts.

And yet by means of all of these,

Contemplation, alone, is always to be practiced.

tri-pañcāṅgāni= fifteen parts (neut. acc. pl.); atho= now(indeclinable); vakṣye= I will explain (future 1st p. sg. √vac); pūrvoktasya = of what was spoken of previously (tatpuruṣa compound, masc./neut. gen. sg.);hi = indeed (indeclinable);labdhaye= for the attainment (masc./neut. dat. sg.);taiḥ= by means of these (pronoun, masc./neut. inst. pl.); ca= and (indeclinable);sarvaiḥ = by all (pronoun, masc./neut. inst. pl.);sadā= always (indeclinable); kāryaṃ = to be practiced (neut. nom. sg.);nididhyāsanam= contemplation (neut. nom. sg.);eva= alone (indeclinable);tu= yet (indeclinable)

The text then goes through the different parts, reinterpreting them. For example, it takes the first limb of restraint (yama), which Patañjali elaborates as the five-fold practices of non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy, and non-grasping[note]YS 2.32: ahiṃsā-satyāsteya-brahmacaryāparigrahā yamāḥ [/note] and says instead that it is the realization that “Everything is brahman.”

sarvaṃ brahmeti vijñānād indriya-grāma-saṃyamaḥ |

yamo ’yam iti saṃprokto ‘bhyasanīyo muhur muhuḥ || 104 ||

From the realization that “Everything is brahman,”

There is the control of the collection of senses.

This is declared to be yama, restraint,

To be practiced again and again.

sarvaṃ= everything (neut. nom. sg.);brahma= brahman (neut. nom. sg.); iti(quotative particle);vijñānād= from the realization (neut. abl. sg.);indriya-grāma-saṃyamaḥ= the control of the collection of senses (tatpuruṣa compound, masc. nom. sg.); yamaḥ= restraint (masc. nom. sg.);ayam= this (pronoun, masc. nom. sg.);iti(quotative particle);saṃproktaḥ = declared (past passive participle, masc. nom. sg.);abhyasanīyaḥ= to be practiced (masc. nom. sg.);muhur muhuḥ= again and again (indeclinable)

The text similarly defines each step, in terms of the Advaitic realization. Even posture (āsana) is defined as one in which one can contemplate brahman. As another example, let’s look at one of the additional parts: dṛṣṭi or gaze.

dṛṣṭiṃ jñāna-mayīṃ kṛtvā paśyed brahma-mayaṃ jagat |

sā dṛṣṭiḥ paramodārā na nāsāgrāv alokinī || 116 ||

Having made one’s gaze full of knowledge,

One should see the universe as full of brahman.

That gaze is the most exalted,

Not the one that looks at the tip of the nose.

dṛṣṭiṃ= gaze (fem. acc. sg.); jñāna-mayīṃ = full of knowledge (tatpuruṣa compound, fem. acc. sg.);kṛtvā = having made (gerund √kṛ)paśyet = one should see (optative, 3rd p. sg. √dṛś);brahma-mayaṃ= full of brahman (tatpuruṣa compound, neut. nom. sg.); jagat = the universe (neut. nom. sg.); = that (pronoun, fem. nom. sg.); dṛṣṭiḥ= gaze (fem. nom. sg.);paramodārā = most exalted (karmadhāraya compound, fem. nom. sg.);na= not (indeclinable); nāsāgrāv = at the tip of the nose (neut. loc. sg.);alokinī = one that looks (fem. nom. sg.)

Again, as with every other limb, he defines it in terms of brahman. However, here he takes the additional step of contrasting that with the gaze that looks at the tip of the nose – something you may be familiar with as nāsāgra dṛṣṭi! This is interesting (and there are other verses that echo this in various ways), because it indicates that there were more physical practices being done at this time, and part of the intention of this text was to counter that, by teaching a more internal practice of looking inwards, rather than at an external point.

At the very end, the text concedes though, and adds that for one whom the methods in this text still have not worked – the C student – it can be combined with haṭha yoga

ebhir aṅgaiḥ samā-yuktī rāja-yoga udāhṛtaḥ |

kiñcit pakva-kaṣāyāṇaṃ haṭha-yogena saṃyutaḥ || 143 ||

Rāja yoga has been described,

Together with these parts.

For those whose afflictions have been only partly burnt,

It can be joined together with haṭha yoga.

ebhiḥ= with these (pronoun, masc. inst. sg.);aṅgaiḥ= with parts (masc. inst. sg.);samā-yuktī = together with (fem. nom. sg.); rāja-yogaḥ = (masc. nom. sg.);udāhṛtaḥ= described (past passive participle √udāhṛ, masc. nom. sg.); kiñcit= partly (indeclinable);pakva-kaṣāyāṇaṃ = for those whose afflictions have been burnt (bahuvrīhi compound, masc. gen. pl.);haṭha-yogena= with haṭha yoga (masc. inst. sg.);saṃyutaḥ= joined (past passive participle, masc. nom. sg.)

The words he uses here literally means for those whose afflictions (kaṣaya is another word for kleśa, meaning things like attraction, etc.) have been partially cooked or burnt (pakva). Of course, what is called haṭha yoga, however you define it, is the closest thing to what most of us practice today, so the majority of us (no matter how fancy or focused our āsana practice is), would fit into this category. But if we practice for long enough, our body starts to age, and we have to make peace with that. Eventually, if we want to keep doing it, we have to let go of some of the attachment to the physical form. Perhaps if we follow this text, we can learn to do our Yoga practice with the intention of seeing beyond the body to our true self. 

Over time, the philosophy of Advaita Vedānta has been greatly expanded from its original understanding, best known through its definition by Śaṅkara. By attributing this text to him, it gives credence to the ideas introduced in this text. The understanding of Neo-Vedānta, “New Vedānta,” propounded by Swami Vivekananda among others, has led to Advaita being seen as an umbrella for other Indian philosophies in modern times, and this exchange of ideas has occurred in both directions. Ask most contemporary practitioners of yoga what the word means, and they will say “union,” which is much more of an Advaitic understanding than a yogic one. Yoga, as defined by Patañjali, is a dualistic system, whose ultimate realization is the separation (kaivalya) of spirit (puruṣa) from matter (prakṛti). But separation and isolation is not such an appealing philosophy and the prevailing understanding of yoga has shown this to be true. Most of modern yoga is done with the Advaitic intention of oneness, even if its practitioners don’t know it! And though the boundaries have become so blurry over time that we accept the integration of these two systems without even questioning it, it is important to realize what a huge leap it originally was to incorporate dualistic yoga into the non-dualistic system of Advaita. The Aparokṣānubhūti is an important piece in helping to understand this.