Shabda Pramana: Enlightenment through Words in Advaita Vedanta: Presenting a Dialogue


  1. Page 1
    1. Introduction
    2. What is Enlightenment in Advaita Vedanta
    3. Why Knowledge and Not Action is a Means of Knowing Self/Brahman?
    4. Shabda/Words of Sruti/Upanishads as the Only Means of Knowledge
      1. Six Means of Knowledge/Pramanas
      2. No Scope of Any of the Pramanas Except Shabda/Word of Sruti to Reveal Brahman
      3. The Claim of Authority of Srutis/Upanishads Rests on Universally Verifiable Experience
    5. The Process of Enlightenment in Advaita Vedanta
  2. Page 2
    1. Dialogue Between Teacher and Student Where Self is Revealed to the Student
    2. Conclusion: Even Liberation Happens in Ignorance


For almost any individual, the word Enlightenment would conjure up an image of a person sitting in a meditative posture doing meditation. This is not entirely without basis as almost all systems or paths that promise enlightenment prescribe some form of yoga/action to ‘attain’ enlightenment. For every system, action is a means of enlightenment. But Advaita Vedanta stands apart from all these systems. It is the only system that declares that knowledge and not action is a means to liberation.

One of the meanings of the word Upanishads is “sitting down near”, referring to the student sitting down near the teacher while receiving spiritual knowledge. So the picture here is not of a person meditating but of a seeker listening to the words from a teacher.

In this article I am going to elaborate a bit about this unique method of enlightenment in Shankara Advaita Vedanta and share a dialogue between me and my student in my NEEV Advaita Study Group who gets enlightened during the dialogue.

What is Enlightenment in Advaita Vedanta

Enlightenment according to the true tradition of Gaudapada – Shankara Advaita Vedanta is to have an intuitive knowledge of the ultimate non-dual reality called Brahman/Self which is eternal and formless, referred to as Sat-Chit-Ananda or eternal Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. It is to know oneself and the world as Brahman/Self/Witness beyond the perishable body/mind/intellect.

Why Knowledge and Not Action is a Means of Knowing Self/Brahman?

Brahman/Self is the ultimate and only reality as taught by the Upanishads/Srutis. For an extended discussion on Upanishads as Srutis please see my article “Shankara: Not The Founder of Advaita Vedanta But A Link in the Timeless Tradition” If Brahman is the only reality, and it is eternal and formless, if this is what we all are, then how do we see this plural world? How do I see myself as an individual with a perishable body? Again, the srutis tell us that this plural world of phenomena which includes our body/mind/intellect is born out of a basic metaphysical error called avidya/ignorance. When we misperceive something, we project something else upon it. The stock example provided in Advaita is that of a snake misperceived on a coiled rope in twilight. Because of ignorance/wrong knowledge we come to see a snake on the rope. In the same way because of a fundamental metaphysical ignorance we come to see a plural world of subjects and objects; a world of duality superimposed on Brahman like a snake on the rope. Thus, although we are eternal Existence-Consciousness-Bliss, a body and world is superimposed on the non-dual reality. Because we identify with our body and this world as real, we are subject to all its painful dualities of birth and death, pain and pleasure, right and wrong and good and evil.

Just like no amount of beating the snake on the rope with a stick is going to free us from the fear and suffering produced by the snake, in the same way no amount of action can free us from the ignorance we have about the true nature of reality. The only way we can get freed from all fear is to shine a light on the object that is appearing as a snake and discern it’s true nature to be a rope rather than a snake. It is ultimately the knowledge that it was a rope and not a snake that frees us from fear and all suffering.

The other important aspect that stands out in this example to show that knowledge and not action is a means of liberation from suffering is that the throughout the incident of mistaking the rope as a snake, and finally coming to know the rope as the rope, there was absolutely no change in the status of the rope: the rope remained a rope. There was no production of rope at any instant. No new entity was created. In the same way Enlightenment in Advaita does not involve any action because nothing new needs to be created. Only the ignorance of nature of reality has to be removed. Advaita is not talking about becoming a new kind of person or attainment of a new kind of experience or state. It is not talking of any transformation of any kind. Why? Because Brahman, the ultimate reality is already self-existent at all times. It is always the same and changeless because it is formless. There is no transformation ever happening in Brahman. All transformations are happening in the plural world which is a product of ignorance. So action is possible only in the pluralistic world which is superimposed on Brahman through ignorance. How can there be any action possible in a non-dual, partless, formless reality? When we are seeing a movie on the screen, all action is being perceived against the changeless, action less background of the screen.

From the foregoing discussion it is evident that no form of action cannot be the means to liberation in Advaita Vedanta because of the following

  1. Action is a product of ignorance. It means that only after ignorance has projected a plural word of subjects and objects on a formless, non-dual reality of Brahman, does the actor and action arise. Brahman as a reality is state prior to arising of the actor
  2. Action is used for the following purposes : creation, modification, attainment and purification. Because of the eternally self existent nature of non-dual Brahman it neither needs to be created, nor can it be modified, attained or purified. So action is useless

Shabda/Words of Sruti/Upanishads as the Only Means of Knowledge

To gain knowledge we require a means. For example to know colour we need the eyes as the means. Now we shall discuss how the words of the Sruti/Upanishads, handled by a teacher, who is himself/herself a knower of Brahman can be the only direct means of knowing Brahman and getting enlightened. It could either be the spoken word or the written word.

Six Means of Knowledge/Pramanas

“Pramana” means “valid means of knowledge”. There are various means by which correct knowledge is obtained. While the number of pramanas varies widely from system to system, many ancient and medieval Indian texts identify six pramanas as correct means of accurate knowledge and to truths: Three central pramanas which are almost universally accepted, are perception (Sanskrit pratyakṣa), inference (anumāna), and “word”, meaning the testimony of past or present reliable experts (Śabda); and more contentious ones are comparison and analogy (upamāna), postulation, derivation from circumstances (arthāpatti), and non-perception, negative/cognitive proof (anupalabdhi). Pratyakṣa (direct perception).

All these Pramana are used in day to day life. All that we see, hear and perceive by senses are called as “Pratyaksha”. “The water exist, because I can see it, and I can drink it” comes under Pratyaksha. “There is a smoke which I can see, so definitely there must be fire or factory somewhere”- comes under Anumana/Inference. “Similar to Cow, even Yaks provide milk” or “Unlike Tigers, Elephant has tusks”- these come under Upamana or Comparison. Similarly statements like “John who went to Himalayas says it is very Cold”- comes under Verbal Testimony.

No Scope of Any of the Pramanas Except Shabda/Word of Sruti to Reveal Brahman

All the six pramanas can be basically grouped under two pramanas: pratyaksha (perception) and shabda (verbal testimony); because the pramanas of anumana (inference), upamana (comparison), arthapatti (postulation) and anuplabdhi (negative proof) are all based on the senses like pratyaksha (perception).

From our discussion about the nature of Brahman in the previous section it would have become clear that Brahman cannot be an object of perception. As Shankara says,

This principle is not within the scope of perception, as it does not have form or colour or any other perceptible attribute. And it cannot be the object of inference or the other means of empirical knowledge either, as it does not have any property to serve as an inferential sign or to provide any of the other prerequisites of an inference”. (Bs. Bh.II.i.6)

So all means of knowledge based on the senses are eliminated in one stroke as a means of knowing Brahman. Hence, we are left with only Shabda or verbal testimony as the means. We are told that not the verbal testimony of any individual but only that of Sruti can be considered to be the means to know the supersensible entity called Brahman. But why the Shruti?

This is because the Shrutis/Upanishads are not of human origin. I have discussed this topic in detail here – Non-human Origin of Srutis. It is an important contention of both Advaita Vedanta and Purva-Mimamsa that the Vedas are eternal, uncreated, and authorless (apaurusheya). The claim for the infallibility of these texts follows directly from this contention. Knowledge of the Absolute first manifests at the beginning of a world-period in the mind of Hiranyagarbha or Brahma, who has received the Veda from the supreme Lord. Hence, at highest level Veda is not just “means” to attain The Highest Knowledge but “Is” the Highest Knowledge itself. Brahman is described as “Satya”, “Jnana” and “Ananta”. Brahman is “Knowledge itself” and hence, it is Brahman who is source of all Knowledge. It is in this sense that, Vedas are described as “Apaurusheya”. The method, carried on continuously by a succession of Teachers beginning with Brahma, has even come down to certain Teachers of modern times.

The Claim of Authority of Srutis/Upanishads Rests on Universally Verifiable Experience

Because the Srutis/Upanishads in the hands of a qualified teacher are the only means of knowing Brahman it does not mean that they reveal something utterly unknown to human experience. In fact Brahman being our own essential nature is not completely unknown. Thus, as Shankara says in his Brahmasutra Bhashya introduction,

“The Self is not absolutely beyond apprehension, because it is apprehended as the content of the concept ‘I’, and because the Self, opposed to the non-Self, is well known in the world as an immediately perceived (i.e. self-revealing) entity.”

“Besides, the existence of Brahman is well known from the fact of Its being the Self of all; for everyone feels that his Self exists, and he never feels, ‘I do not exist’. Had there been no general recognition of the existence of Self, everyone would have felt, ‘I do not exist’. And that Self is Brahman.” (Bs. Bh. 2.3.7)

The problem is that eve though Self is known it is known in a general way with the superimposition on it. We know the shape of the snake as the shape of the rope, so the rope is not entirely unknown even when we perceive a snake on it. Similarly, the two quotes above show that we already know Self as existence and consciousness, i.e. as a self-revealed entity. Even when there is the error of supposing the body, senses and organs to be the Self, this self-luminous principle remains the inmost principle of all, superior to all through being immediately self-evident. For we have the Upanishadic text,

‘That which is immediately evident is the Absolute, that is the Self, interior to all” (Brhad.III.iv.1).

Since Brahman is a self revealing entity, the work of the srutis is not to reveal Brahman but to remove the ignorance that superimposes a plural universe on Brahman. So as Shankara says,

“If you object that, if the Absolute is not an object of knowledge, it cannot be known through the Veda, we reply that this is not so. For the aim of the Veda here-is to put an end to distinctions imagined through Ignorance. The Veda does not aim to expound the Absolute as if it were an object characterizable as this or that. What, then, does it do? What it does is to eliminate distinctions such as those of knower, knowledge and known which ere imagined through Ignorance. And it does so by teaching that the Absolute, because it is the inmost Self, is not an object of knowledge.” (Bs. Bh. 1.i.4)

Ultimately the work of the srutis is to negate all that is not Brahman. When all superimpositions on Brahman are negated the luminosity of Brahman is revealed. The work of any means of knowledge is to reveal its object. So as Shankara says,

“In the enquiry into the nature of Brahman, it is not merely Srutis etc. alone that are the valid means of knowledge, as is the case in the enquiry into the nature of Dharma (religious duty), but also Srutis etc. and direct intuition and the like are here the valid means according to the applicability of these. For knowledge of Brahman has to culminate in intuition, and relates to an existent entity.” (Bs. Bh. 1-1-2).

The Srutis do not exercise any authority in place where their evidence is contradicted by other means of knowledge like perception, inference etc. This goes on to show that Srutis are not contradicting science. On the contrary they support science and reveal reality that reality which is beyond the realm of scientific understanding. As Shankara says,

“Nor are the Śrutis supposed to have authority in matters which are contradicted by other means of knowledge, as for instance if they said, ‘Fire is cold and wets things.’ If, however, a passage is ascertained to have the meaning given by the Śrutis, then the evidence of the other means of knowledge must be held to be fallacious. For instance, the ignorant think of fire-fly as fire, or of the sky as a blue surface; these are perceptions no doubt, but when the evidence of the other means of knowledge regarding them has been definitely known to be true, the perceptions of the ignorant, although they are definite experiences, prove to be fallacious. Therefore, the authority of the Vedas being inviolable, a Vedic passage must be taken exactly in the sense that it is tested to bear, and not according to the ingenuity of the human mind. The sun does not cease to reveal objects because of the ingenuity of the human mind; similarly the Vedic passages cannot be made to give up their meaning. Therefore, it is proved that work does not lead to liberation. Hence, the present section is introduced to show that the results of work are within the pale of relative existence.” (Br. Bh. 3.iii.1)

So just like the results of science are open to verification and validation to anyone who is willing to follow the procedure of study and experiment, in the same way the ultimate reality of Brahman is verifiable and open to validation by anyone who undertakes the study of teachings of srutis under a qualified teacher. I have written an article pertaining to this “Faith vs Reason in the Spiritual Science of Advaita”

The Process of Enlightenment in Advaita Vedanta

Three practices of Jnana Yoga of Advaita Vedanta are : shravana (listening/reading), manana (reflection/reasoning/dialogue) and nidhidhyasana (contemplation). A seeker comes to Jnana Yoga only after gaining qualifications of viveka (discrimination between real and unreal), vairagya (dispassion), shad sampatti (six virtues for mind control) and mumukshutva (intense desire for liberation). These characteristics are developed by any of the traditional yogas : Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga or Raja Yoga. I follow the unique psycho-philosophical teachings of J Krishnamurti by which a person with an intellectual bent of mind can start off with Jnana Yoga from the start of the spiritual journey. Those interested in this method may read Stages of Self Inquiry page for details. Once these qualifications are adequately developed, the teacher who is himself/herself a knower of Brahman unfolds the teachings to the student, who diligently follows the three processes of shravana, mañana and nidhidhyasana. A very qualified student will get liberation by just shravana, the middle grade one through shravana and manana, and the grade beneath that has to do all three practices.

When the student is listening to the words of the teacher, then he/she is a knower for name’s sake. The very knower is told, “You are Brahman.” That means the knower has to give up the status, ‘I am a knower’. That knower, who has identified with the body-mind-sense complex, himself is dissolved in the wake of knowledge. As Shankara says,

“For the Self is not anything brought in to anyone as ‘something new, for it is self-established and self-manifest from the start. The Self does not depend on any means of knowledge to be known, since the means of knowledge depend fer their existence and power to operate on it. ‘They belong to it, and are only brought into play to establish objects of knowledge which (unlike the Self) are not yet established.” (Bs. Bh. II.iii.7)

In all other pramāṇa operations the knower continues to be the subject related to the object known. This is the difference between the śabda-pramāṇa revealing the fact ‘I am Brahman’ and all other pramāṇas. In the operation of all the other means of knowledge like perception, inference, presumption, etc., the knower retains himself and enjoys the pramāṇa-phala, the result of operating the pramāṇa. Here the knower sits relaxed, exposed to the teaching which resolves the knower as Brahman finally. Therefore, this pramāṇa is a different thing altogether. It has to be handled. That is why śraddhā becomes important here. You must have the buddhi, ‘I am letting the pramāṇa operate upon me.’ Just as you allow a surgeon to operate upon you because you have śraddhā in him, so too you require śraddhā to allow this pramāṇa to operate upon you.

Ātmā is already self-evident and it is alupta-dṛk, a seer that never ceases. It never even winks. It is always a witness. But it is a witness only with reference to whatever is seen. By itself, it is in the form of consciousness. This self-evident ātmā is Brahman. That is the teaching. Because of this teaching a vṛtti takes place in the mind which destroys ignorance and itself goes away. That vṛtti, ‘I am Brahman/Self/Eternal Witness’, is called ātmaikya-bodha or aparokṣa-jñāna. Sometimes the word anubhūti or anubhava also is used for the knowledge, but these words also indicate the immediate recognition of the Self as the result of the teaching. With this knowledge one gains freedom. I have discussed this in greater detail in my article “Self inquiry and insight into one’s true nature/Self in Advaita”. After this nothing needs to be done. For we see in the following quotes from Shankara

“In worldly experience we find that colour manifests as soon as there is contact between the visual organ and light. In the same way, Ignorance of the Absolute disappears. the moment that direct knowledge of it arises.” (Brhad.Bh.I.iv.10)

“All experience, whether secular or based on Vedic teaching, comes to an end in the case of the man of steady wisdom, in whom metaphysical discrimination has arisen. For his Ignorance has come to an end, end that experience was based on Ignorance…. For when there is knowledge, Ignorance dis-appears. It is like the abolition of the darkness of night when the sun rises.” (Bh.G.Bh.II.69)

“Immediately knowledge of the Self has been obtained, it puts an end to Ignorance. No process occupying time is admitted here. (Bs. .Bh.IV.i.2)”

Next page …………………

2 thoughts on “Shabda Pramana: Enlightenment through Words in Advaita Vedanta: Presenting a Dialogue

  1. Amazing conversation!.. I was always wondering about why self is not related to mukti and moksha!!

    Na Cha Sangatam Naiva Muktir Na Meya

    Na Dharmo Na Chartho Na Kamo Na Mokshah

    These two lines become clearer to me today. Many thanks sir.


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