Self-Knowledge is Not Intellectual

A common criticism leveled at Vedanta is that its appeal is purely intellectual; that it stresses analysis yet neglects experience, emphasizes ideas but ignores emotions, appeals to the head at the expense of the heart.

Contrary to such notions, Vedanta does not dismiss emotions or the heart. In fact, coming in touch with them is a natural consequences of aligning yourself with the Truth by gaining accurate knowledge of Reality.

By doing so, you effectively subtract experiences born of ignorance or misconceptions about your true identity, the nature of the Universe, and God.

Furthermore, Vedanta neither denounces nor disregards experience, but states that its value lies not in the experience of being liberated, but in the knowledge to be learned from analysis of your previously unexamined or inaccurately assessed experience.

This process is wonderfully demonstrated in pancha-kosha prakriya (analysis of the five sheaths or bodies of experience) — and the avastha-traya prakriya (analysis of the three states of experience).

Both of these inquiries use Vedanta's basic teaching method called adhyaropa-apavada, which means superimposition and negation.

You start out by acknowledge that your entire life is really made up of a consecutive series of three major states (waking, dream, sleep).

And your body-mind is made up of five sheaths (layers).

  1. The physical body layer. Made of bone, flesh, blood, tissue, etc.
  2. Physiological functions layer. Such as digestion, circulation, etc.
  3. Emotions layer. Produces experiences which we call: love, agitation, doubt, sorrow, joy, etc.
  4. And the intellect layer. Responsible for rational, reasoning, analysis.
  5. The unconscious mind layer. Where your potential habits, personality traits flow from.

These five sheaths and three states are superimposed (adhyaropa) on “I” (the conscious being).

Thus “I” erroneously identifies with them.

For example, “I am intelligent, ignorant, happy, doubtful, concerned”. These experiences belong to one of the five sheaths. And all are experienced in the Waking state, which too is a superimposition on you.

Therefore to help reveal the pure Self, the five sheaths and three states are deconstructed and negated (apavada) — until all layers are seen to actually resolve into the final reality which can't be further negated; being you (Consciousness). 

Consequence of this is freedom from carrying emotional loads belonging to one of the five sheaths.

So again, it's erroneous to state Vedanta lacks emotion or heart. Far as emotion or experience is concerned — it's certainly one of permanent relief knowing you are free of anything that happens in the three states, and any phenomena attached to the five sheaths.

The Analysis of the Five Sheaths

The analysis of the five sheaths (pancha-kosha-prakriya) comes from the Taittiriya Upanishad.

Just as the sheath of a knife covers the knife’s blade, so there apparently exist five coverings or layers that enwrap the Self.

The analysis of these “sheaths,” therefore, is essentially an inquiry into their reality and progressive negation of each.


The analysis begins with a consideration of the anamaya-kosha, the food sheath or gross body.

We tend to strongly identify with our physical body.

We show incessant concern – to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the individual – for its safety and comfort.

We say it is fat or thin, tall or short, white or black, male or female, beautiful or ugly, coordinated or clumsy, etc.

We make statements such as, “I broke my ankle,” “I am cold,” “I need a massage,” “Don’t touch me,” etc.

The physical body, however, is nothing more than five elements, and is itself basically an inert meat tube.

One look at a corpse reveals that unless illumined/enlivened by a Conscious being, the gross body is no more sentient than a wooden chair, a microwave oven, or the hardware of a portable computer.

Moreover, the gross body is undergoing constant change.

Traversing the universal life cycle and, thus, undergoing the successive stages of birth, growth, maturity, decline, and death.

It appears first as a baby-body, then that of an infant, child, youth, adult, old-person, and eventually a corpse. 

It's characterized by innumerable fluctuations in health and sensory experience.

Which of these can be said to be the “real” person?

Topping off the matter is the modern scientific discovery that each and every cell in the body is replaced within a seven-year time span, which verifies the fact that the individual literally occupies several completely different gross bodies over the course of a lifetime.

Given that, according to Vedanta, “real” is defined as that which cannot be negated or that which does not change.  It is therefore obvious that the gross body cannot constitute the true self.


The second sheath given consideration is the pranamaya kosha, the “energy” body comprised of five physiological systems. They are…

  1. Prana, which governs respiration.
  2. Apana, which governs excretion.
  3. Samana, which governs digestion and assimilation.
  4. Vyana, which governs circulation.
  5. Udana, which is responsible for both the initiation of thought and the ejection of the subtle body (your mind) from the gross at the time of death.

These five physiological functions maintain the sound functioning of and thereby sustain the gross physical body.

Identified with this sheath, we say that we are hungry and thirsty, short of breath, suffer from indigestion, are constipated, etc.

As was the case with the character of the gross body, these conditions are constantly changing – arising, intensifying, lingering, and subsiding. The “energy” body, therefore, cannot be who one is.

Manomaya kosha

The third sheath considered is the manomaya kosha, the emotional body or what Vedanta calls the mind.

Identified with this sheath, we say we feel happy, sad, frustrated, mad, jealous, nervous, excited or apathetic.

Because the emotions are in a continuous state of flux and, moreover, because their spontaneous arising is completely beyond the individual’s control — this body as well lacks the stability necessary to comprehensively define one’s identity.

Vijnanamaya kosha

The fourth sheath up for consideration is the vijnanamaya kosha, the ideational body that consists of the intellect (thoughts), the ego (sense of individuality), and the chitta (informational memory).

Identified with this sheath we say that we think this, believe that, did this, enjoyed that, know these things and remember a host of others.

Due to its ever-changing and unpredictable character, this body is as incapable of defining one’s fundamental being as the others.

Anandamaya kosha

The fifth and last sheath available for consideration is the anandamaya kosha, the bliss body.

Identified with this sheath we say we feel completely at peace or totally content. This is the body we enter whenever a desire is fulfilled and also in the thought-free state characteristic of nirvikalpa samadhi and, more familiarly, deep sleep.

Due to its impermanent nature, even the seeming stability of this transcendental state does not qualify as the essential nature of one’s real self.


The analysis of the five sheaths demonstrates that none of the superimposed platforms (adhyaropa) that one takes – to a greater or lesser degree – to be oneself.

They are subject to negation (apavada) and are, thus, nothing more than impermanent objects appearing in Awareness (or Consciousness as both Awareness/Consciousness are synonymous words in Vedanta).

Though they seem to be discrete entities/experiences; they are objective phenomena depending on Awareness for their existence.

Take Awareness away, and none of these phenomena will be known.

And what is Awareness? You are. Show me one time when you are not Aware. (Deep sleep and coma doesn't count as they too can be explained; although beyond scope of this article).

Awareness, therefore, is the one invariable factor that is the substratum of all bodies and the experiences associated with them.

The Analysis of the Three States

The analysis of the three states of consciousness (avastha-traya-prakriya) comes from the Mandukya Upanishad and is considered the most profound of all the prakriyas, or methods of inquiry.

Similar to the analysis of the five sheaths, herein the assumed reality of each of the three universally familiar states of experience (adhyaropa) is examined and logically deconstructed, negated, and resolved (apavada) into the attributeless, but ever-present substratum – pure Awareness – that is common to them all.

Waking State

The analysis begins with a consideration of the waking state of consciousness.

The apparent individual that experiences this state, the “waker” as it were, is referred to in Sanskrit as vishwa, or the experiencer of objects.

In this state, the individual seems surrounded by a dualistic world with innumerable separate and/or autonomous objects.

The assumed reality of this world is based partly on its apparent physical density and partly on its continuity despite the brief hiatuses one takes from it while sleeping or other non-waking states.

Despite its convincing nature, however, this state does not qualify as reality for the simple reason that neither the state itself nor the individual navigating his or her way through it, is permanent.

Though it is commonly assumed that the waker is real, a careful consideration and honest assessment of one’s own experience reveals that both the waker and his or her world disappears in both the dream and dreamless sleep states.

Dream State

The next state considered is the dream state.

This state is virtually identical with the experience of the waking state except you are not constrained by the same degree of limitation as endured by the waker.

In other words, the dreamer perceives, feels, thinks, and interacts with objects and others just as the waker does — though his or her perceptions can take on a surrealistic or psychedelic character and may be capable of actions, such as flying or superhuman feats of strength, that lie beyond the normal range of human possibility.

Rather than reacting and transacting with the usual empirical world (Isvara shrishti) and reacting to the subjective interpretation you superimposes upon it (jiva shrishti) as the waker does — the dreamer’s entire realm of experience is a figment appearing within his or her own mind and is, thus, completely the individual’s creation.

Intimate as this realm may be, however, its ephemeral nature precludes it from being one’s true self.

Deep Sleep

The final state given consideration is the deep or dreamless sleep state.

Here, one’s attention is focused neither on the “external” world of physical objects nor the “internal” world of subtle phenomena – i.e. thoughts, dreams, emotions – but seems to dissolve altogether in an attributeless and limitless “void.”

Many people take this apparent “nothingness” to be the Self and subsequently, under the mistaken impression that this thought-free state is the defining characteristic of “enlightenment” or self-realization, seek to repeat this “experienceless” experience.

They even use inspiration from deep sleep, and try to park themselves in some artificial thoughtless state in the Waking. Usually by means of savikalpa-samadhi. Those even deeper in logical absurdity invest decades to attain nirvikalpa-samadhi.

This apparent “nothingness,” however, is not actually nothing, for given the non-dual nature of reality – there actually is no such thing as nothing.

To the contrary, the “nothingness” state of deep-sleep is Awareness (you) appearing as an extremely subtle vritti, or thought, in the intellect.

Blissful and entrancing as the experience of this thought may be, like any other thought-object, it is impermanent. Hence, it is not real.


While the waker, dreamer, and deep sleeper as well as the worlds they appear to inhabit continuously shuffle in and out of existence — assiduous inquiry does reveal a “fourth factor,” as it is called in the Mandukya Upanishad, that remains a constant throughout all three states of experience.

This “fourth factor” is often misunderstood to be a transcendental state. Many seekers spend years, often a whole lifetime, striving to reach, experience, merge with, and ultimately become permanently established in this blissful “forth” realm.

All such attempts, however, are inevitably doomed to failure because all states are experiential and, therefore, no state is eternal.

What's more, any attempt to park oneself in some state, is an attempt made by the mind, which we have analyzed above to be impermanent. Another way to look at it, any attempt to attain, is done in the Waking state. Which too is impermanent as we've seen above.

Rather than a state, the “fourth factor” is quite simply the limitless, attributeless Awareness in which all three experiential states appear.

This “fourth factor” never fails to shine, never fades away, never forfeits its all-pervasive existence. It is the singular substratum of the apparent universe. It is the sole reality. It is the eternal Self.

Experience Resolves Into Awareness

In order for any experience to occur, two fundamental constituents are required:

  1. An entity inhabiting a body equipped with perceptive organs by which to accrue sensory data, and…
  2. An objective state or field of experience that provides the context for a subject-object interaction.

Analysis of both of these factors, however, reveals that the limited perceiver-feeler-thinker that one takes oneself to be is not real.

Though both the bodies/sheaths and the fields/states undeniably do exist and are experienceable —  three fundamental conditions (waking, dream, sleep) render them no more than apparent realities.

First, both the five sheaths and the three states of experience are impermanent. Meaning the objects are subject to mutability, change, and negation.

Second, the apparent individual associated with both the sheaths and the states are actually insentient aggregates of gross and subtle matter, which only appear to be sentient and functional when illumined by Awareness.

In simple terms, the mind-body-sense complex that seems to experience the various states of being is nothing more than an inert mechanism – somewhat like a super-computer – that is only capable of carrying out its programming when “energized” by Awareness.

Third, given that both the sheaths and the states are simply objects, neither can simultaneously assume the status of the Subject (Self) by whom it is observed.

Moreover, because apparent objects do not inhabit the same order of reality as the eternal Subject (Self), nothing perceivable or conceivable can qualify as real.

Meaning none of the unique names and forms manifesting within your Awareness, enjoy an independent existence. If Awareness is withdrawn, all these appearances cease to exist.

In this sense, these objects are only apparently or dependently real.

As we can see so far, inquiry into one’s own experience reveals that one cannot possibly be the apparent individual associated with either the five sheaths or the three states of experience.

In short, all objects and experience resolve into pure witnessing Awareness, the singular reality, the non-dual Self.

Attributeless Awareness is Not an Experience

Perhaps the reason many people dismiss Vedanta as merely intellectual is because the “object” of its focus (Awareness) – is not an object and is, therefore, not objectively experienceable.

Awareness is both attributeless and all-pervasive, and thus has neither characteristics nor boundaries by which it could be identified and distinguished as a separate objective entity.

Because perception and inference, the fundamental means of knowledge with which human beings have been equipped, require objects to function, they are incapable of capturing an experience of Awareness.

The underlying irony of this circumstance, is that life is actually an unbroken experience of Awareness. This fact is easily overlooked, however, because no particular experiential epiphany or discrete state can comprehensively define Awareness or differentiate it from “ordinary” experience.

The bottom line is that because Awareness is neither a gross nor subtle entity, it cannot be objectively experienced.

Awareness can nevertheless be known because it is self-evident. Simply put, one knows awareness because one is awareness. As we said before, when are you NOT aware!

It is the very Awareness in which all experiences and knowledge takes place. Without YOU, what is there to say about any experience!

For the Intellect, But NOT Intellectual-Knowledge

Because the knowledge that sets the individual free takes place in the intellect, we do say that Vedanta is for the intellect.

Still, it would be incorrect to conclude that this fact makes Vedanta merely a matter of intellectual conjecture.

Because intellectual-knowledge is marked by a collection of ideas whose validity is sustained by experimentation and argument and whose existence is maintained by memory. Meaning, if one gotten dementia tomorrow, all the intellectual-knowledge would disappear instantly.

Furthermore, intellectual-knowledge is subject to revision when research yields new discoveries.

Whereas Vedanta is neither a scientific theory nor a philosophical hypothesis.

It is not an intellectual argument cooked up by human beings.

It is revealed knowledge based on the logical analysis of the meditative insights and experiences of thousands of rishis, or seers/knowers of the truth, over the millennia.

While the inquiries were conducted, the wisdom “contained within”  is eternally self-existent and self-evident knowledge that cannot be negated from any standpoint. Unlike intellectual-knowledge that's subject to change per further research.

Can't Forget “I am”

Moreover, due to the ever-present and all-pervasive nature of Awareness, memory is not required in order to retain the knowledge of the Self. 

One can forget something that isn’t always present, but one cannot forget oneself because awareness is the single invariable factor; the witness of all experience. One that we all effortlessly recognize as self-evident and ever-available, “I am, I am, I am, etc”.

The only reason one is aware of experience is because one is the Awareness in which all experience seemingly takes place.

Rope-Snake Analogy

We can think of this in terms of the traditional Vedantic anecdote of the weary traveler who mistakenly takes a rope to be a snake.

Though initially captivated, consumed, and consequently terrified by his erroneous vision of the snake — once the traveler realizes that the serpent is simply a rope, he doesn’t have to “try hard” or put forth a great deal of effort in order to remember this revealed fact.

Once ignorance is removed, the illusion or misapprehension vanishes and thereafter both the traveler’s knowledge is true to the experience (IE: he sees the rope for what it actually is) — and his experience is true to the knowledge (IE: because he sees a rope, he is no longer riddled with fear).

Experience and Knowledge are One, Seen from Different Standpoint

Here again, we are faced with the implication that experience and knowledge are essentially one. 

What we “know” is what we experience. What we experience is what we “know.”

Awareness is Beyond Knowledge and Experience

Ultimately, Awareness is beyond both experience and knowledge, for both are nothing more than objects appearing within its scope.

In this sense, neither experience nor knowledge is real.

Experience provides the basis for inquiry.

Inquiry leads to knowledge.

Knowledge reveals the truth.

And, as the saying goes, the truth is what sets you free.

Wrong Notion about Enlightenment 

Regarding the issue of liberation, an ill-begotten belief is that enlightenment is experiential rather than a matter of understanding.

This idea comes from false conclusion that enlightenment can be transmitted. Or a guru can give it to you through a look, a touch, a word, or by will.

Knowledge, however, is not an object.

And the Self is not some “thing” that can be moved from here to there or transferred from one person to another.

One can only “obtain” or “attain” that which one already possesses by understanding that one already has it.

The realization of one’s inherent nature, therefore, is a matter of insight rather than acquisition. An understanding to be meticulously taught, rather than an experience to be mystically transmitted.

Perhaps the erroneous notion that enlightenment can be transmitted is rooted in limitation of language.

Since this revelation is triggered by one’s exposure to teachings imparted by another apparent entity, it is referred to in terms of “transference”. Thereby some misunderstand the implications of “transference”.

To reiterate, the knowledge itself is not an object moving from one person to another.

Rather, one person (called a guru) simply shows the other that which the other already IS.

Just as a math teacher, for instance, cannot simply hit a student on the head with a calculus textbook and instantaneously imbue the student with a complete understanding — similarly no guru’s tap, touch, hit, or hug can impart permanent peace and happiness, nor can it instill one with knowledge and unshakeable conviction of one’s true identity.

This knowledge has to be taught.

And only when the student has fully assimilated the understanding has the so-called “transmission” taken place.


Finally, once Vedanta has done the trick, one is not left with a bunch of ideas or a store of information one needs to remember.

Because as we've previously established, one can forget something that is not always present. But one cannot forget one’s own ever-present Self.

In the wake of self-realization, therefore, experience and knowledge are both discarded, and what remains is simply oneself, which is neither an intellectual theory nor a psycho-physical experience. But the sole reality, the singular “I” that ever is.

Finished Reading? Test Your Knowledge

  1. What is the criticism often leveled at Vedanta?
  2. What is the process of pancha-kosha prakriya?
  3. What is the basic teaching method used in the inquiries of pancha-kosha prakriya and avastha-traya prakriya?
  4. What are the five sheaths or layers of the body-mind according to Vedanta?
  5. What is the consequence of deconstructing and negating the five sheaths and three states according to Vedanta?
  6. According to Vedanta, what is defined as “real”?
  7. What is the fourth sheath considered in Vedanta?
  8. What is the anandamaya kosha?
  9. Why can't any of the five sheaths define one's fundamental being?
  10. What is the physical body according to the text?
  11. What is the substratum of all bodies and experiences associated with them?
  12. What is the analysis of the three states of consciousness called?
  13. What is the Sanskrit term for the experiencer of objects in the waking state?
  14. What is the assumed reality of the dream state?
  15. What is the deep or dreamless sleep state?
  16. What is the “fourth factor” mentioned in the Mandukya Upanishad?
  17. Why are attempts to reach a transcendental state doomed to failure?
  18. What are the two fundamental constituents required for any experience to occur?
  19. What is the knowledge that sets the individual free?
  20. What is the difference between intellectual-knowledge and Vedanta?
  21. Can a guru's touch impart permanent peace and happiness?



  1. Very clear and conclusive demonstration of the non dual nature of reality.
    Vedanta is difficult to grasp because there is no subject matter.
    There is only subject.
    Subject matter implies duality. Subject, the fourth state, that which is beyond must be non dual as there would need to be another subject seperate from it to recognise it if it were not.
    Immediately we are caught in the jaws of infinite regression.
    Awareness is!

    1. In other words:

      How do we know that Turiya is non-dual? How do prove in our experience that “I am” without division?

      WAKING STATE: There is self, and presence of all 3 bodies: Gross/Subtle/Causal. Hmm, maybe self is the gross body! However, dream state shows self cannot be the gross body…

      DREAM STATE: There is self, and presence of Subtle/Causal. Gross body is absent from standpoint of dream, but self is very much present to witness it’s wonders. Thus self cannot be the gross body. Hmm, maybe self is the Subtle body! However, deep sleep shows self cannot be subtle body…

      DEEP SLEEP: Upon waking, we say “I slept happily, yet knew nothing!”. The “slept happily” isn’t referring to our dreams. And “knew nothing” implies there was no experience; meaning Subtle-body was unavailable. If I were the Subtle-body (mind), then I would go out of existence during deep sleep, thereby upon waking could not report, “I slept happily, and knew nothing”.

      In conclusion, recognition of 3 states, means they were unable to chop me up into parts. Meaning I remained without division (non-dual), despite division of states.

      POSSIBLE OBJECTION (which I won’t cover here, but someone can attempt to answer): How do we prove that I (turiya) don’t need causal-body to exist? Because deep sleep only demonstrated that I don’t need Subtle-body to Be. However, someone can argue and say, “You need Causal body to exist!”. How would you counter this?

  2. Causal body exists within me as a component of the Pancha Kosha.
    Therefore it exists within space and time as the anandamaya sheath.
    This means it is a component of manifest reality and so cannot witness itself.
    For it to be known, it must be witnessed by something other than itself.
    That which witnesses it must be independent of it and aware of its existence.
    It must also sit outside the three states and be beyond their influence or modification.
    This must be conscious/awareness as otherwise our condition of deep sleep could not be reported.
    Since the condition of deep sleep is known to I, the independent witness, it cannot depend upon the causal body.

    1. “That which witnesses it must be independent of it and aware of its existence. It must also sit outside the three states and be beyond their influence or modification.”

      Good. Let’s expand upon this…

      To demonstrate that Awareness is independent of Causal Body…

      ANSWER 1: Yesterday I was self-evident to myself. Yet Causal body was producing a different life then it is today. However today I am equally self-evident to myself. Hence there is an invariable “I”, and variable Causal Body. Two distinct principles. Same logic for tomorrow.

      ANSWER 2: In nirvikalpa-samadhi (attained by yogic practices), there is absence of subtle-body, just like in deep sleep. Yet, “I” am fully alive to my fullness. Meaning I can’t be causal body, as being identified with Causal body = ignorance and darkness just like in deep sleep.

      ANSWER 3: Since effect always inheres attributes of its cause, it means, since 4 sheaths are changing, then their cause (IE: Causal Body) must also be changing. And to recognise a changing factor, there must be an unchanging factor (I am, I am, I am, etc).

      ANSWER 4: To remember a state of nothing-ness/peace/relaxation (ie: Causal body) upon waking, implies I have experienced it. Experiencer can never be the experienced. Hence I am not Causal body.

      OBJECTION: If subtle-body was unavailable in Deep sleep, then how can there be remembrance if it upon waking? Self has no power to remember as it’s attribute-less Awareness.

      ANSWER: Yes, the subtle-body is resolved in Causal during sleep. However a subtle form of memory (citta called Abhava Vrtti) is still available during deep sleep. This citta records absolutely nothing. Upon waking, citta continues to record. However, in reference to having recorded NOTHING, and contrasting that with continuing to record SOMETHING, there is ability to say “I slept and knew nothing”, or better stated, “In presence of I, there was experience of nothing, of ignorance of not even knowing myself, nor the world”.

      If interested in Abhava-vrtti:

      Vedanta identifies four types of Vrttis (modes of cognition) that correspond to different ways in which the mind engages with and understands the world:

      1) Jnana Vrtti: The mode of cognition that deals with knowledge, understanding, or acquiring information about existing objects or concepts.

      2) Iccha Vrtti: The mode of cognition that pertains to desire, longing, or craving for objects or experiences.

      3) Kriya Vrtti: The mode of cognition that relates to action, implementation, or expressing one’s thoughts and intentions through activity.

      4) Abhava Vrtti: The mode of cognition that deals with the absence or non-existence of objects or concepts.

  3. Hi Andre,
    Thank you for all the knowledge you share. I have a question. What is the attitude with which the seeking of knowledge through many texts is viewed in Advaita? Would a teacher think, “Why do you have to do so much to realize such a fundamental fact about your own existence? ” or would it be viewed as an aspiration to understand or study the truth?

    1. Ideally, student comes to class. And let’s the teacher take them by the hand, from start to end. This category is rare. As adult ego has complications; one being “I can do this on my own!”, or one has an idea of what a teacher should look like, etc.

      Not realizing a teacher can show more in 1 hour, then 15 years of self-study. A blind spot can’t see a blind spot.

      So the ideal attitude of Adhikari (a qualified seeker of Truth), as mentioned in Tattva Bodha, is shraddha (faith or trust in the teacher guiding him/her through the text).

    2. Having to do anything to attain Self-knowledge stems from the competency of the seeker. If the seeker is of very pure mind, even a casual hearing of a Mahāvākya will cause the dawn of knowledge. If the mind is impure, lots of preparatory work is needed. Several births even.

      In reality, nothing needs be done, for one is ever the Self. But such empirical knowledge is not enough to counter anādi-avidyā, beginning-less ignorance.

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