Advaitam and Science

OM, Purnamata purnamitam purnat purnamutachyate, purnasya purnamataye purnamevavasishyate – Bri.Up V.i.1


                                                                    THE SEER AND THE SEEN

Advaita Vedanta is a profound spiritual study.  There are four Mahavakyas(statements) taken from different Upanisads, which are the essence of Advaitam.  One of them is “TAT TVAM ASI” meaning “You are That”.  This mahavakya from Chandogya Upanisad  conceptualises the whole of Advaita Philosophy in three words.  It implies that, the individual is not different from Brahman.

The Universe can be explained as the relationship between, the subject and the object.  In other words it is the relationship between the Purusha(spirit) and the Prakriti(matter).  In layman parlance, it can be explained as the relationship between an individual and the external objects.  In Advaita philosophy, this relationship is called as the “seer and the seen”.  It can also be called as the “observer and the observed”, the “perceiver and the perceived”, and so on.  This concept is the basic of Advaita vedanta.  When this concept is clear, it will be helpful to understand Advaitam to the core and this article is a humble effort to make this concept clear.

Knowledge means, the knowledge of the observer, and the knowledge of the observed, world.  What we observe may be different, but the observer is one.  This concept is analysed extensively in the prestigious work of Sri Adi Shankara, “Drig Drishya Viveka”.  It is also explained in the thirteenth chapter of Bhagavad Gita.

Advaita philosophy is not a philosophy exclusively for the ascetics.  Its deep ideas and principles when followed, will help to ease the life of any common man.  The Rishis always find truths and facts, which are universally applicable and solve the problems of all, regardless of the caste, creed, gender, religion.  Advaita philosophy helps us to understand our life.

Any person will view the world according to his own experiences.  Unfortunately, most of his experiences are misinterpreted.  Many a time, the belief of a person, will contradict with the reality.  An example for this is, we all have watched the sunset, but in fact, the sun never sets.  It is the rotation of the earth, which makes the sun appear as moving.  A person who is not aware of this scientific fact, misinterprets his experience.  Ignorance leads to misinterpretation.  Like this, most of the experiences in a person’s life are misinterpreted, which leads to confusion and problem.  A valuable life, which is meant to experience and enjoy, will pass on with pain and suffering.  Advaita philosophy helps a person to understand his experiences, in the correct manner.  This understanding will help a person to interact with the world in a better way.  The world remains the same, only our interaction with the world changes.  Knowledge destroys illusion and misinterpretation.

Advaita philosophy believes that, the world is the manifestation of the non-dual infinite Brahman.  The world we view is Brahman, but, it is very difficult to accept this fact, without a deep and clear understanding of Advaita philosophy.  The concepts and theories of Advaita philosophy will help a person to understand and accept this fact.

Advaita philosophy is understood by the sruti(scriptures), yukti(reasoning) and anubhava(experience).  A person should analyse his own experiences to understand himself, and the world.  When a person analysis his experience, he will be able to find the fact, that the observer is always different from the observed.  This implies that, the experiencer is different from the experiences(anubhava).  Only Advaita philosophy has the boldness to say that, the experiences of a person are external.  Adi shankara has made this bold and complicated fact clear in his work “Drig Drishya Viveka”.

The world looks different, because it is manifest with different forms and ideas.  We observe and experience the world with the five sense organs(eye, ear, nose, tongue, skin) in our body.  Here the most prominent sense organ, eye, is taken for explanation.  This is applicable to all other organs.  A single pair of eye observes the different forms.  The observer is the eye, and the observed is the world.

The organ eye also has its own qualities like blindness, dullness, sharpness etc.  The quality of the organ also merges with the image (for example, dull image).  The different qualities of the organ and the images of the external world is cognised by the mind, which is one.  In this context, the mind is the observer; organs and experiences of the world are the observed.  The mind, which is the observer, analyses the different observed images.  An example of the eyesight makes this point more clear.  The cornea in the eye takes widely diverging rays of light and bends them through the pupil.  The lens in the back of the pupil helps to focus light at the back of the eye, retina.  The nerve cells in the retina change the light rays into electrical impulses and pass them through the optic nerve to the brain, where an image is perceived.  Philosophy says, the image of the object perceived by the brain, becomes an impression on the mind.  We do not see the object directly.  We directly see the image of the object, in the mind.  We do not see the world, which is not in our mind.  A single mind perceives the variety of images.

The qualities of the mind, in the form of different desires, doubt, belief, and disbelief, firmness, fear etc. are revealed by non-dual consciousness.  There must be an observer to observe the different mental activities.  The observer is the consciousness and the observed is the mind.  Consciousness, which is the observer, does not have any qualities and there is no observer, to observe the consciousness.  The chain of observation stops with consciousness.

(Consciousness in philosophy is different from the medical term conscious.  Medical term ‘conscious’ means, aware of the surrounding.  Philosophical consciousness has a deep meaning and the whole effort of Advaita vedanta is to understand that consciousness).

“Rupam drishyam lochanam drig, tad drishyam drig tu manasam; drishya dhivrittayah sakshi, drig eva na tu drishyate”   

                                                                                                                                                                             Drig drishya viveka(verse 1)

“Form is observed, eye is the observer.  That(eye) is the observed, mind is the observer.  Mental activities are observed, witness is the observer.  But that observer is not observed”.

A person may feel, that the experiences (thoughts and emotions) are his own.  Advaitam says that the experiences are external.  The nature and quality of the mind is explained in Verse 6 of Drig drishya viveka.

“cicchaya veshato budau bhanam dhis tu dvidha sthita; ekahankritir anya syad antahkarana rupini”

“Manifest in the mind, consciousness shines being reflected.  Mind is two-fold; one aspect is ahamkara(ego), the other is antahkarana(mind)”

Mind has two aspects –

1.     Ahamkara(ego)

2.     Antahkarana(mind)

Both ahamkara and antahkarana are vrittis(thoughts).  Ahamkara is the pure thought of “I”(aham).  Ego in advaitam is not pride; It is the basic identification of a person and it is a vritti(thought).  Ahamkara is not consciousness either.

Antahkarana(mind) is the experiences of a person.  In vedanta, the experiences are called reflected consciousness.  The experiences in the form of impressions are insentient, until they are illumined by consciousness.  This fact can be explained by the two important theories of  Advaita philosophy.  They are

1.   Pratibhimba vada(reflection theory)

2.   Avaccheda vada(limitation theory)

Pratibhimba vada is explained by an example.

When sunlight falls on a bucket filled with water, the water reflects the sunlight.  The reflection depends on the purity and the ripples present in the water.  If there are ripples in the water, then the reflection will not be perfect.  In the same sense, the sunlight is compared to the consciousness, the bucket is compared to the body, and the water is compared to the mind.  Consciousness illumines the mind, and the mind reflects consciousness.  This is called “reflected consciousness “.  The ripples (thoughts) present in the mind affect the reflection of the consciousness by the mind.  This is called the reflection theory.

Avaccheda vada is explained by an example.

Space is unlimited and does not have a form, but inside a pot, the space is limited by the pot.  When the pot is broken, the space inside the pot becomes infinite.  The pot is superimposed on   space.  Here, the pot is compared to the mind, space is compared to consciousness.  Mind is superimposed on consciousness.  The infinite consciousness is limited by the mind.  Mind is full of experiences, when the experiences merge in infinity, the mind becomes infinite.  This is called the limitation theory.

As explained before, ahamkara(ego) is the pure “I” feeling.  Whereas, the reflected consciousness(experiences) is anthakarana.  When ego is identified or connected with reflected consciousness, we have the feeling that ‘I am experiencing’.

“chayahankarayor alkyam taptayah pindavan matam”

“Identification of ego with reflected consciousness is like a glowing hot iron ball”.

(The heat is not inherent in the iron ball.  When it is heated, the iron ball acquires heat and it glows like fire).

The ego and the experiences of our life are separate, but when we identify ego(I sense) with experience, then it will become ‘ I experience’ meaning ‘my experience’.  For an example, sadness is our experience.  When we identify this experience with ego, we feel ‘I am feeling sad’.  Yogis do not identify ego with their experiences(eg Karma yogis).  Karma yogis do their duties (karma) without identifying themselves with the results of their karma.  This is explained in Bhagavad Gita as “Thy right is to work only,but never with its fruits;  let not the fruits of action be thy motive, nor let thy attachment be to inaction” BH.GITA(2,47).  When we identify ego(“I” sense) with the experience(result) of our duty, then the result will affect us.  It is a wrong identification and it is a problem.

Another identification of the ego is with the consciousness(witness).  Ego is the only vritti(thought), which is connected with the consciousness.

Ego identified with consciousness is also a wrong identification, because ego is a vritti(thought), and consciousness is not a vritti.  The identification of ego and consciousness is natural, and it is due to karma and ignorance.

“ahankarasya tadatmyam cicchaya deha sakshibhih; sahajam karmajam bhrantijanyam cha trividham kramat”(verse 8)

“Identification of the ego with the reflected consciousness, body and witness is natural, due to karmas, and due to ignorance – each of these respectively”.

Knowledge destroys the identification of ego with consciousness, and it destroys karma.

The identification of ego with the reflected consciousness makes the body sentient.

In deep sleep, ego does not manifest.  There is no identification with the body and the world.

In dream, ego partially manifests.  Ego identifies with the impressions in the mind, and not the body.

In the waking state, ego manifests completely.  Ego identifies with the reflected consciousness, body and world.

We have to analyse that, why and how does this identification occur?  The answer is, it is due to “MAYA”.  Maya is not mere illusion.  Maya has two powers.

1.  AVARANA SHAKTI(obscuring, veiling, concealing power)

2.  VIKSHEPA SHAKTI(projecting power)

 Sri Adi shankara’s famous example of the ‘snake and rope’ explains this concept.  In dim light, a rope appears like a snake.  In bright light, the real rope is revealed.  It is a very simple example, but it explains the ‘concealing and projecting’ concept.  The first is, the obscuring or veiling of the original rope.  The next is, the projection of the non reality, snake. The snake does not exist, it is only an illusion. When the real is obscured, unreal appears.  When Brahman is obscured, the mind and its identification appear.  This example is an individual experience(microcosm).

It can be applied at the universal level(macrocosm).  The whole universe is the manifestation of Brahman.  When Brahman is concealed, the universe in name and form is projected.  In other words, the universe is projected by concealing Brahman.  Universe is an appearance.  Just like foam and bubbles in the ocean, the name and form manifest from Brahman.

“Shakti dvayamhi mayaya vikshepa-avritti-rupakam; Vikshepa-shaktir lingadibrahmandantam jagat srijet”(verse 13)

“Maya has two powers, projecting and veiling; The power of projection creates the world – from subtle body to the universe”

The inner difference between the consciousness and the mental activities, as well as the external difference between the consciousness and the world are concealed, and it is due to ignorance.  Worldly life is due to this concealing power.  Reflected consciousness is superimposed on the wittness(consciousness).  It is Brahman(consciousness), which appears in the form of mind(reflected consciousness).  When the obscuring power disappears, the projection in the form of appearance disappears.  In this context disappearance means, the world of appearance will not disappear from our sight. Instead, when maya is understood, our interaction with the world and our beliefs will change in a positive manner.  For example, when we view the open sky in day light, it is blue in colour.  The sky is colourless, but it appears in blue, due to Rayleigh scattering.  The shorter wavelength light(blue) from sun, is absorbed by the gas molecules in the atmosphere.  The molecules reflect the absorbed blue light in different directions.  It gets scattered all over the sky, and gives a blue appearance to the sky.  The sky appears the same, but the understanding of this scientific fact, dispels our ignorance about the colour of the sky.  Like this, the understanding of maya, dispels our ignorance that the universe in name and form are different from Brahman.  Modification is for the world and not for Brahman.  When the ignorance is dispelled, one can realise that, the observer(seer) is Brahman and the observed(seen) is the world.


  1. Bhanu

    After attempting for many years, I understood this concept today. Thank you .

  2. Vishwanath Washimkar

    Very easily explained

  3. Raman

    I dont understand this “seer and seen” concept. Physically an object, say a tree, is there and the seer, me, is here. Physically we are separate. All other concepts are psychological created by mind. That’s my humble view.

    • Sumanaghosal

      You have to go to the subtle level.. not only in the name and form level . Actually you both are made up of hydrogen, oxijen, carbon dioxide etc etc .. only difference is you have intelligence and plants are self-sufficient

  4. sathishkumar P

    Article provides Excellent step by step understanding

  5. Sita Raman Choudhary

    The author of Drig Drishya Viveka was perhaps Vidyaranya not Adi Shankar.

  6. Lipsa

    Very well made an effort to explain. Can we connect .. pl help with your co-ordinates. Await and thank you.

  7. Anjana Singhal

    Very well explained, but it is still not crystal clear in my head. I believe it will take time to really comprehend this in my every day life. But I wait for that transformation. Thank you.


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