Krishna (Spring in Kulu), 1930 – Nicholas Roerich – [Public Domain] WikiArt

Without me here, to know experience, 
how could this experience be?

~ Aitareya Upanishad, I,3,11


It happened long ago, during a morning stroll behind my house. I was contemplating my deep sadness and my desire to change, when a simple intuition came uninvited. I felt that it was possible to change and I had the power to initiate it. I felt that this change, this cure for my unhappiness was to be found in myself. I felt that it was all happening here, in this me-presence, and that the necessary tools were all provided in me. No reliance on any external authority. It was the intuition, not that I-the little me with its conditioning could do it, but that there is an inward process for accessing this change, this seeming transformation, in other words, happiness. And this process could be implemented, carried out through the tools of thinking, logic, understanding, which are my natural inclination. I had just discovered the very nature of the path of knowledge.

So I’d like today to make an attempt at better understanding this path of knowledge which has been named ‘Jñāna’ in the tradition of India. It is an interesting word which shows the family ties with many of our European languages. In Sanskrit, the word means ‘knowledge’, the root ‘Jñā’ being close to our English word ‘know’, or the Greek ‘gnosis’, the French ‘connaître’, all words that convey the idea of ‘knowledge’. Jñāna is one of the three main pathways towards realising our true nature, namely the path of knowledge, which involves the process of thinking, the path of love, ‘Bhakti’ in India, which involves feeling, and the tantric path, which involves the senses and thereby the so-called external world. It seems to me that there is some value in understanding the nature of each pathways and seeing how they can blend in our daily living and Sadhana.

For now, let’s put ourselves in the skin of this young man strolling behind his house and present the steps that would be representative of the path of knowledge. Jñāna gives something to do to the mind, involves thought, logic, and investigation, at least to a certain extent. It is answering simple questions as to the nature of reality, separating what is untrue and unreal in ourselves from what is true and real, unmasking our false identities that act like a veil in knowing our true self. Jñāna is the very process by which these false identities are being recognised and seen, giving thereby way to the realisation of our true and only identity, the Self or consciousness.


Milarepa, the One Who Harkened, 1925 – Nicholas Roerich – Photograph: [Public Domain] WikiArt

Meditation is the disentangling of awareness from its own activity.”
~ Rupert Spira


In Classical Advaita, this process consists of four main attitudes, the ‘Four Pillars of Knowledge’, the first one being ‘discrimination’, or discernment. Our spiritual work is to discover not what we think we are, what we appear to be, but what we are truly, hidden behind, or mixed with, our daily experiences and our false identities. So what is it that the mind can do? How can thought participate when, let’s face the facts, it has itself, in the first place, put ourselves in this erroneous situation? This is where we have to be careful and be reminded of an essential truth. Rupert Spira warns: “There is nothing the mind can do to find or know awareness, for the mind is a limitation of the very awareness for which it is in search. Anything the mind does is simply more of its own veiling activity.” Therefore, the mind can point, invite, grapple with its own nature and activity, but never itself initiate, let alone create, the reality of consciousness.

Let’s be honest, we all seem to know who we are, but did we ever look? Let’s ask the mind to do this simple thing, to look inwards for the little self, the person we feel and assume we are. When we look carefully, do we find anything? This simple exercice points to the non-existence, the illusory nature of our little, separate self. Rupert Spira calls it ‘the ghost in the system’. The other thing the mind can do is, through a process of questioning, track down everything that is not essentially me. In India, it is called ‘Neti Neti’, not this, not this. What am I truly, in reality? Not my thoughts, for they are unstable, coming and going. Not my feelings, for the same reason. Not my body. Through self-questioning, through the now famous question initiated by Ramana Maharshi: “Who am I?”, we point to the thing that remains beyond all our false identifications, the objectless Self. This is a question for the mind. Here, it can use all its creativity, refine the questions, invite tactfully: (in Rupert Spira’s formulation), “Am I aware?” or “What aspect of my experience never appears or disappears? What is it that knows or is aware of my experience? Is what I essentially am harmed or stained by the current experience?”


Mount of five treasures (Two worlds), 1933 – Nicholas Roerich – [Public Domain] WikiArt

The mind should be made to rest in the Heart till the destruction of the ‘I-thought’ 
which is of the form of ignorance, residing in the Heart. This itself is jñāna.” 
~ Ramana Maharshi


The second attitude in Classical Advaita is the dispassionate indifference to the fruits, the non-attachment towards worldly objects and desires. Of course, this sounds very much like directions given for a more progressive path, but not only. In a more direct approach, it would sound like: How do you stay away from the entanglements of objective experience? It is by resting in the presence, inquiring into the nature of the Self. It is important to understand that happiness cannot be reached through objective experience. We have to make the decision to repeatedly go to what is true and real in our experience, where peace and happiness reside, instead of turning towards the objects of the senses. The senses and their objects are more appropriately used to celebrate a happiness that has already been secured and established through being one with our true self.

After having recognised the falsity of our many beliefs and identities through the negative ‘neti neti’ approach, it is now time for the mind to be a little more proactive and positive. We can easily notice that our new stand as consciousness, our newly acquired identity as presence, appears to be a fragile, unsteady one. We have so rehearsed being this little me-person that it keeps running back at every occasion to reassess its old position. This is where the mind can be useful. Once we are established in our Self, thought can help pointing towards its nature, noticing its qualities, in an effort to prevent reverting again towards objective experience. The nature of the Self is to be eternal, infinite, pure, unchanging, tranquil, empty, indestructible, all non-objective qualities that are difficult to experience. This is where thought can help, by pointing and questioning in an experiential way: Does awareness have an age? Does it have a gender? Does it have a limit? Is it bound by time? Is it affected by any content of experience? Is it coming and going? Am I Consciousness limited to my body? These questions act as a useful and powerful reminder and point to a reality which, though stable and indestructible, appears to be fragile and fleeting in our actual experience. They are like pushers. Go to the truth! Rest there! Feel it! Contemplate it! 


Blessed Soul (Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna), 1924 – Nicholas Roerich – [Public Domain] WikiArt

He whose undertakings are all devoid of desires and (selfish) purposes, 
and whose actions have been burnt by the fire of knowledge,—
him the wise call a sage
~ Bhagavad Gita, 4.19


The third pillar of knowledge in Classical Advaita is to emphasise six cardinal virtues. These virtues follow an implacable logic and are here to secure the path, so to say, to give it a frame in which it can be safe. The first virtue is ‘temperance’ and applies to the mind that needs to refrain producing new desires or negative fearful thinking. The mind should therefore ask itself: Where are you going? Is this desire, this craving, present to avoid uncomfortable feelings? Is it an escape from what is? Are you imagining a new reality? Does happiness reside in objective experience?

The second virtue is ’control’, restraint, and concerns the senses. Senses tend to push us outward, towards objects, or towards the body, reinforcing the belief in being a separate body-mind. So again, thought can act as a reminder, to redirect the senses towards their true home and origin: Am I-awareness the body and its senses? What are the senses – seeing, hearing, touching – made of? Where does sensory experience take place? Is there anything, in the senses, other than knowing?

’Renunciation’ in the objects of the senses is the third virtue. To renounce or withdraw does not mean that we suppress having objects of experience. That would be an impossible task. It rather points to seeing, or hearing objects from the true perspective of the self, and not from the illusory position of an outside world separate of ourselves. What is the nature of everything? What is a sound, a sight, a touch made of? Where does the world, a tree, or anything, borrow their reality from? Is there a difference in nature between a thought and a sound? These three last virtues, which are about the mind, the senses, and the objects of the senses cover the totality of experience. They help to delve into the real nature of experience, which is nothing but the infinite Self, or pure knowing.

The three other virtues emphasised by Classical Advaita are attitudinal. The fourth virtue is ’forbearance’, patience. Life can sometimes be overwhelming and the path to realisation doesn’t take place in an environment that is always safe, quiet, free of troubles. We need to stay away from the story, the troublesome happenings. The mind will have to be reminded: Is anything really happening? What is the difficulty of this experience apart from my own thoughts and feelings? Now, in this presence, is there any problem at all? Am I acting in a way that is the expression of truth, love, beauty? Where is the place of serenity in myself? We need to be careful here, because difficulties and hardships will tend to push us to believe in our separateness and adopt toxic behaviours that are here for the sole reason of numbing the suffering for a time.

The fifth of these virtues is ‘faith’, faith in the guru, the teaching, the presence itself. Of course, it does not need to be blind faith. Gurus are not present to be followed, but to dissipate questions, misunderstandings, and false identities through their sheer presence, and our questions. A good teacher will always point back to presence, will dissipate the question in understanding. Rupert Spira gives here a beautiful description: “Nothing new is given by the teacher. The question contains the answer, in fact it arises out of the true answer. If this were not the case, if we did not already know the answer, how would we recognize it when we hear it? From where would that ‘Yes’ that we feel when we understand something come from?

The last virtue is ‘focus’, and points again relentlessly to the importance of resting in the pure presence that we are. This is a repetition of the five first virtues. We are, we become, we see, according to what we think and understand. Where we put or project our attention is of the utmost importance. So what is the safest place to be? Where are we going to focus our attention? Am I now reinforcing my false beliefs and identities, or am I gently leading my thoughts and attention towards what in me is true and always present? Remind yourself again and again to go to the truth, to rest in the infinite presence of your Self!


Buddha the Winner, 1925 – Nicholas Roerich – [Public Domain] WikiArt

You come to it through earnestness.”
~ Nisargadatta Maharaj 


We now come to the fourth and last pillar of knowledge as stated in Classical Advaita, and it can be chewed down to one single word ‘fervour’, or drive, longing. Nisargadatta used the word ‘earnestness’: “How do you go about finding anything? By keeping your mind and heart in it. Interest, there must be and steady remembrance. To remember what needs to be remembered is the secret of success. You come to it through earnestness.” Jñāna, the path of knowledge, is often presented as a long and arduous one, and it is of no surprise that this intense desire and one-pointedness, this profound yearning, in other words this love of truth, should come as the foremost quality in our search. Here the mind might be a little puzzled since this quality is something that cannot be cultivated and often comes as a grace. But isn’t this longing more likely to appear and be strengthened in proportion with our coming nearer to abide in the true Self. 

We have come to the end of our journey on the path of knowledge. Jñana can appear to many to be dry, intellectual, arduous, lacking heart, a concern that was expressed by Ramana Maharshi: “Be careful of being stuck in the mind, to be intellectual, to see understanding as an intellectual process, to reinforce the mind by focusing, being the seeker, the understander.” But understanding need not be a mental process, an acquisition. What is important in the moment of understanding is the opening, and the opening is the source, the knower who is already fully established. True knowledge is a fire, not a process in time. And it is experienced as love. This is where the two paths of love and knowledge meet. Swami Abhayananda expresses it beautifully: “It is only when one reaches to a level of nonverbal sweetness, high above the bustling commerce of the mind, above the conniving of the intellect, and the self-involvement of the soul, that the two paths become single, ‘oned’ in a common stream of upward-flowing joy which knows no separation, knows no duality of kind or purpose.” We will always tend to emphasise the path that suits our particular mindset, even though practise shows that we can be nourished by a portion of these three pathways. Going deeper in our journey and understanding, we will come to see that in Truth, the three paths of love, knowledge, and the world are one and equal. They become the natural state, in which all pathways are redundant.



Text by Alain Joly

Paintings by Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947)



Read about the two other pathways towards accessing our true nature:
Bhakti, the Song of Love
Tantra, the Song of Life


Read the beautiful page on The Culturium, Robert Adams: Silence of the Heart

Read Nicholas Roerich: Beautiful Unity on The Culturium, and his quest of truth and beauty…

– ‘Presence‘, Vol. I & II – by Rupert Spira – (Non-Duality Press)
– ‘I Am That’ – by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj – (Chetana Pvt.Ltd)
– ‘The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi’ – (Sophia Perennis et Universalis)

Jnana Yoga (Wikipedia)
Nicholas Roerich (Wikipedia)
The Mystic’s Vision (Swami Abhayananda)
Rupert Spira
Ramana Maharshi (Wikipedia)
Nisargadatta Maharaj (Wikipedia)


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2 thoughts on “Jñāna, the Song of the Self

  1. How lovely and inspiring to read your text, I now have more insight in the system, so to speak, in classical Advaita. I love how you connect the three paths mentioned, ‘in the end’. I will come back reading here!
    And you certainly show now, that you did find what you glimpsed long ago on that stroll. The power within to change…
    Looking forward to meeting you at Buckland!


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