The Self is Not Negatable

Namaste Ted,

Hope all is well with you. I have two questions for you:


One of the basic prakriyas Vedanta students are led through is the distinction between the knower and the known. As part of this teaching it is stated that whatever you experience cannot be you. The reason being that experiences are known and when you say “I know… XYZ” you are putting XYZ on one side and “I” on the other. “I”, of course, being the Consciousness/Awareness that is illumining the activities of the mind.

All good.

Of course, later we come full circle and understand that what we experience is in fact just a projection caused by Maya with the ontological status of mithya. Since any mithya requires satyam (i.e., Atma/Brahman) we discover that the entire projected universe of experiences is none other than the “I”. So what we experience is in fact not really separate.

I fully understand how when learning Vedanta we overturn certain positions that are taken provisionally to lead the student out of ignorance. However, in this case I’m wondering if the initial claim “you can’t be what you experience” is actually logically faulty. We know it isn’t true in the final analysis but it is defended vigorously at the beginning of the teaching.

What is going on here?

Ted: The truth is that reality is non-dual and, thus, we are what we experience. However, the dualistic appearance of the manifestation does not lend itself to this conclusion via perception. Therefore, we have to make a logical analysis of our experience to discover its essential nature.


The reason Vedanta takes such a hard line concerning the idea that you cannot be what you experience is in order to break the mind’s tendency to define objects in terms of their qualities (e.g., heat and light are the essential characteristics of fire; wetness and clarity are the essential characteristics of water). Since limitless conscious existence (i.e., the self/atma) has no qualities, Vedanta stresses the fact that awareness-as-such cannot be defined in terms of perceivable or conceivable phenomena. That is, just as clay cannot be defined as any particular object into which it is shaped or even the entire host of all clay objects, so limitless conscious existence cannot be defined as any particular experience/object or even the collective of all experiences/objects, for it is the “substanceless substance” that is both the material of which they are made and the “arena” in which they appear.


The two most important reasons that Vedanta stresses the non-objective nature of limitless conscious existence are (1) to break the apparent individual’s identification with and attachment to the body-mind-sense complex, and (2) to nullify the mind’s tendency to define the self or “enlightenment” in terms of a psycho-emotional state.

Tobias: 2)

When we think of Vedanta as a means of knowledge we are told that the criteria to be a means of knowledge is that it reveals something unique that is not contradicted by any other means of knowledge. However, there must be another hidden criteria. If there weren’t wouldn’t positions like solipsism also meet that definition? I think what sets Vedanta apart is that one is able to personally discover that they are Atma. Awareness is core to my being and when thought about properly that becomes a way to validate what Vedanta is saying. I can’t validate solipsism in the same way.


Ted: Vedanta doesn’t positively validate awareness as the self. It simply negates all objective phenomena. Thus, we are left to understand that the substrate of conscious being is the fundamental reality/self.


The validation of solipsism would depend on proving that a particular point of view (i.e., the perspective/perception of a particular individual) is the only reality.

Tobias: Does this make sense? I’m thinking about this because modern thinkers typically look for positive confirming evidence to believe something. Like if I claim there is a dog in my basement a scientist can go into the basement and test. Vedanta as a means of knowledge of course isn’t experientially testable in the same way since it makes claims about the nature of experience itself. That said, is Vedanta falsifiable in your view? I personally can’t conceive of any evidence that could be encountered that would falsify it. That being the case how can we argue against the normal rules of modern logic that discount non-falsifiable claims?


Ted: The normal rules of logic pertain to the verification of objective phenomena. Vedanta is not falsifiable because the “object” to which it points is unlike any other object. Vedanta refers to awareness as vastu, a term which means “thing” but not in the usual sense. Vastu is what we might call “the one real thing.” It is that “thing” that is not a thing, but rather the “substanceless substance” that is the substrate of all things. It is limitless conscious existence. Vastu is non-negatable because negating limitless conscious existence would leave nothing. This “nothing” would not refer to the “no thing-ness” of limitless conscious existence, which vastu is, but rather to “nothing”, which would equate with non-existence. The ramification of this conclusion is that non-existence would then be the fundamental reality. If non-existence were the fundamental reality, however, then nothing (including limitless conscious existence “itself”) could have ever come to be because something cannot come out of nothing.