Knowledge-Stance: Jñāna-Niṣṭhā


Following on Right Knowledge of the identity of the true Self and Brahman, Śaṅkara presents two more means to release, though they are really stages in clarity of Knowledge: (1) saṃnyāsa or casting away action, (2) what he calls jñāna-niṣṭhā, or Standing on Knowledge. Strictly speaking, they are both corollaries, natural results, of Right Knowledge; but he often treats them separately.

Saṃnyāsa has been discussed already; it is the inner living realization that the Self does not act. In the case of those who have already fulfilled their role, it is reflected outwardly in withdrawal from active life; for others, sattvic action of the body-mind complex (not the Self), continues as long as life lasts.

Now look at what Śaṅkara says about jñāna-niṣṭhā. Jñāna means knowledge: it comes from jñā, a remote relative of the English ‘know’. Niṣṭhā comes from a verb sthā, to stand firmly. The sense is, that the Brahman-Knowledge has to be under the feet as well as in the head. As several Upaniṣad-s say, it must give strength. While it is in the head alone, it is still only an idea, one among many.

Sometimes jñāna-niṣṭhā is translated ‘devotion to knowledge’. However, devotion is usually towards what one is not, or has not; devotion to the king is felt by subjects, not by the king himself. Śaṅkara’s Gītā commentary does not use jñāna-niṣṭhā to mean a yearning for Knowledge. Rather it is total immersion in Knowledge already attained. Niṣṭhā usually means firm establishment: Brahma-niṣṭhā refers to a spiritual teacher established in Brahman; japa-niṣṭhā is one constantly engaged in japa or repetition of a mantra; tapo-niṣṭhā is one wholly taken up with tapas, austerity-meditation. It must be remembered that phrases like ‘establishment of Knowledge’ are tentative. It is not that the Knowledge itself becomes dim or wavers; but that it seems to be dimmed, as the sun seems to be dimmed by clouds, or seems to waver when reflected in a rippling stream, or seems to move along above a runner.

Jñāna-niṣṭhā is taking a firm stand on Knowledge. It is not a search for some new purely intellectual insight; it is not affirming an idea or theoretical notion. Sometimes Śaṅkara calls it samyag-darśana-niṣṭā, establishing right vision, or ātma-darśana-niṣṭhā, establishing vision of Self. These words are very strong in Śaṅkara’s vocabulary: they mean direct awareness, as immediate as a sense experience. They never mean an idea unsupported by experience.

What would it be in practice, this Jñāna-niṣṭhā, standing on Knowledge or Knowledge-stance? An example has been given previously about air travel. There are intelligent and well informed people who will not travel by air. Friends show them the figures, which they agree are convincing: yet they continue to refuse. They have correct knowledge, but illusion persists, at least for a time. If they make the effort to think it through again and again, the illusion weakens and finally drops away. They can then stand on their knowledge, and go by air when they need to.

In the case of Brahman-Knowledge, Śaṅkara often lists stages. In his commentary to V.12 he gives them as (1) karma-yoga, (2) purification of the inner being, (3) attainment of Knowledge (jñāna-prāpti), (4) Casting Off Action (saṃnyāsa), (5) jñāna-niṣṭhā or Knowledge-stance, and finally (6) Freedom (mokṣa). Sometimes he abbreviates the list. Either Casting Off Action, or alternatively jñāna-niṣṭhā, can stand for both of them taken together. Sometimes he says simply: ‘Knowledge is the means to Freedom.’ This is not a contradiction of the full list: the rest is implied. In the same way, a potential refugee might be told: ‘We’ll be waiting at the frontier; all you have to do is get there.’ It is not quite all; for instance, he must arrive secretly. But that is implied.

Again, when Śaṅkara says, as he so frequently does: ‘Knowledge is the means to freedom’, or ‘Knowledge is the cause of Freedom’, Knowledge here has its basic meaning: absolutely clear Knowledge free from memory-shadows of illusion. The words for ‘means’ (upāya) and ‘cause’ (kāraṇa) are the ordinary ones for something that brings about something else. Knowledge, in so far as it is still a mental conviction mixed up with memories of other things, is not itself Freedom. But when it has completely destroyed the world-illusions, it is the means to instant Freedom. Finally it will have destroyed itself too, as an idea.

The opponent repeatedly objects: ‘If Knowledge is the means to Freedom, why the mention of stages like Casting Off Action, and Standing On Knowledge? Knowledge alone should produce the Freedom.’

His reply, given in a number of places, is, that these are Knowledge. They may be needed because it can happen that past involvements with the world, entered into before Knowledge arose, have left traces in the depths of the mind which can disturb the pure stream of Knowledge. Even after enlightenment by Knowledge, the mind of a sage may be affected by them. Jñāna-niṣṭhā, standing on Knowledge, is the effort to restore the natural clear stream of Self-Knowledge.

‘Oh,’ says the opponent triumphantly, ‘then the man of Knowledge is subject to disturbances from the world just like an ordinary man. He is not free at all. So how could one have confidence in the process of Self-realization as a means to freedom? If he too has to make efforts at jñāna-niṣṭhā, he cannot have realized his true Self, which he is supposed to have done already. He must be still subject to illusions.’

The argument is strong, and Śaṅkara gives it in its full force in order to meet it convincingly. First of all, his answer may be summarized:

Even after attainment of Knowledge, the mind may be disturbed by vivid memories of passionate worldly associations. But though they disturb, they are known to be unreal. The effort of jñāna-niṣṭhā is not to produce or reinforce Knowledge, but to dissipate memories of the unreal which in some cases may persist for a time.

There are three cases of inner disturbance to consider: the untrained man of the world, the karma-yogin who is training, and the Knower. Of these, the untrained man of the world, and the karma-yogin who is training, see the world as real. Both of them are upset by its changes. But the karma-yogin is making efforts to purify and still his inner being, and is beginning to have glimpses of the Lord behind the worldly appearances. He soon recovers his balance, whereas the man of the world merely tries to manipulate it to improve his personal situation.

Their minds throw up disturbances based on impressions of passionate entanglements of the past: ‘If I had done that, I should have been rich now’, ‘that was delightful, and perhaps it could happen again’, ‘that was a terrible threat, and how can I avoid it?’ ‘Oh, this world …’. The yogin tries to calm his mind, especially by devotion to God. He tries to see the divine hand in what happens; he goes into meditation to discover what his own role should be.

The man of Knowledge was just like the others before he attained it. He has come to know, now, that the threats and promises, hope and despair, were all based on unreal things, and were unreal themselves. They were stage props in the cosmic drama. Still, they recur, spontaneously remembered like scenes from a play seen formerly, known to be unreal, yet still with some power to move. The obstructions and disturbances are cleared away by effort: they are unreal, unreal, unreal. But there is no effort in the Knowledge itself. This is a key point to remember when looking at Śaṅkara’s brief definitions of jñāna-niṣṭhā. For example, he says: ‘jñāna-niṣṭhā is an intent effort to establish a continuous current of the idea of the transcendent Self’. It does not mean forcibly reviving and continuously reinforcing the Knowledge-current; it is a shorthand phrase for removing obstructions and distractions to that current which flows on naturally after Knowledge has been attained.

Again and again the point comes up: how can there be any real obstruction by what is known to be unreal? Again and again the Gītā itself says that there can:

II.60 The impetuous senses rush off with the mind of an aspirant even though he knows them for what they are.

III.39 By this, in the forms of desire, is obscured the Knowledge of even the one who knows;

It is his constant enemy, and an insatiable fire.

While the body lasts, upheld by the impetus of past actions done before God-realization, there is a shadow-centre of personality remaining. As long as it still finds itself disturbed by past memories, it practises jñāna-niṣṭhā.

There are accounts of jñāna-niṣṭhā practice in a number of Gītā passages. Typical is XVIII.51–53:

51 With purified mind fixed in yoga, and firmly self-controlled,

Throwing off sense-objects like sound, and putting away desire and aversion,

52 Living alone, eating little, restraining speech and body and mind,

Ever engaged in one-pointed meditation on the Self, cultivating dispassion,

53 Without I-ness, straining, pride, desire, anger, possessiveness, – Free, unselfish, calm – he is ready to become Brahman.

Other passages are II.55–72, V.16–29. The central themes are: throwing away ties of the world, thus allowing the natural current of Self-realization to continue.

In some passages there are references to jñāna-niṣṭhā practised by those shadow-selves still seemingly strongly involved in the world by past unillumined actions and promises. V.8, 9 and 13 describe them as walking and talking, and in fact performing ‘all actions’. But the seeming doer is to meditate in samādhi: ‘I do nothing at all.’ His samādhi, practised in the solitude of meditation, spreads out over the whole life.

jñāna-niṣṭhā is often called by Śaṅkara the supreme devotion to God: it is the devotion of the Knower. VII.16 speaks of four kinds of virtuous men who worship the Lord: one in danger, the seeker of worldly success, the seeker of Knowledge, and the Knower. Of them the Knower, practising yoga and devoted to the Lord alone, is highest:

VII.18 All of them are noble, but the Knower I declare to be my very Self;

Set in yoga, he turns to Me alone as the supreme goal.

Śaṅkara explains this as the supreme devotion (bhakti), as compared with the devotion of the other three, for whom the Lord is apart from themselves. He says that this Knower, set in yoga, is centred on the thought ‘I myself am the Lord, I am none else’. In this way he strives to reach the Lord, concludes the great commentator.

One can feel it to be inconsistent, indeed absurd. How can one who already knows he is the Lord yet strive to reach the Lord? How can one have devotion to oneself? (This critical point is discussed at great length, in the Indian intellectual style, in Śaṅkara’s commentary to XIII.2, but the intricacies there are not much help to a Western reader unfamiliar with the classical Indian logic and philosophical systems.)

Another account of jñāna-niṣṭhā practice has been given in the extracts from the end of Chapter XII of the Gītā. It refers continually to devotion to the Lord. The devotion here is not to a Lord separate from Self; it is the fourth kind of devotion, called in the Gītā ‘supreme devotion’, which is worship of the Lord as the Self. The key Upaniṣadic phrase, so often quoted by Śaṅkara as the core of the teachings, is: ‘As the Self alone one should worship him.’ He is said to be within as well as without, though words are beginning to cease to apply. The Gītā passage begins:

XII.13 He who hates none, but is friendly and compassionate to all;

Free from selfishness and I-ness, indifferent to pain and pleasure, patient,

14 That yogin who is always content, who is firmly self-controlled,

Whose mind and intellect are fixed on Me in devotion, he is dear to Me.

15 Before whom the world does not tremble, and who does not tremble before the world;

Free from thrill, haste, fear and fever, he is dear to Me.

16 Unconcerned, pure, capable, indifferent, undisturbed, Abandoning all undertakings, in devotion to Me, he is dear to Me.

Samnyāsa – Throwing Off Action