Introductory Note

An apology is scarcely needed for undertaking a translation of Sankara Acharya’s celebrated Synopsis of Vedantism entitled “Atmanatma Vivekah.” This little treatise, within a small compass, fully sets forth the scope and purpose of the Vedanta philosophy. It has been a matter of no little wonder, considering the authorship of this pamphlet and its own intrinsic merits, that a translation of it has not already been executed by some competent scholar. The present translation, though pretending to no scholarship, is dutifully literal, excepting, however, the omission of a few lines relating to the etymology of the words Sarira and Deha, and one or two other things which, though interesting in themselves, have no direct bearing on the main subject of treatment—TR.


Nothing is Spirit which can be the object of consciousness. To one possessed of right discrimination, the Spirit is the subject of knowledge. This right discrimination of Spirit and Not-spirit is set forth in millions of treatises.

This discrimination of Spirit and Not-spirit is given below:

Q. Whence comes pain to the Spirit?

A. By reason of its taking a body. It is said in the Sruti:1 “Not in this (state of existence) is there cessation of pleasure and pain of a living thing possessed of a body.”

Q. By what is produced this taking of a body?

A. By Karma.2

Q. Why does it become so by Karma?

A. By desire and the rest (i.e., the passions).

Q. By what are desire and the rest produced?

A. By egotism.

Q. By what again is egotism produced?

A. By want of right discrimination.

Q. By what is this want of right discrimination produced?

A. By ignorance.

Q. Is ignorance produced by anything?

A. No, by nothing. Ignorance is without beginning and ineffable by reason of its being the intermingling of the real (sat) and the unreal (asat).3 It is a something embodying the three qualities4 and is said to be opposed to Wisdom, inasmuch as it produces the concept “I am ignorant.” The Sruti says, “(Ignorance) is the power of the Deity and is enshrouded by its own qualities.”5

The origin of pain can thus be traced to ignorance and it will not cease until ignorance is entirely dispelled, which will be only when the identity of the Self with Brahma (the Universal Spirit) is fully realized.6 Anticipating the contention that the eternal acts (i.e., those enjoined by the Vedas) are proper, and would therefore lead to the destruction of ignorance, it is said that ignorance cannot be dispelled by Karma (religious exercises).

Q. Why is it so?

A. By reason of the absence of logical opposition between ignorance and act. Therefore it is clear that Ignorance can only be removed by Wisdom.

Q. How can this Wisdom be acquired?

A. By discussion—by discussing the nature of Spirit and Non-Spirit.

Q. Who are worthy of engaging in such discussion?

A. Those who have acquired the four qualifications.

Q. What are the four qualifications?

A. (1) True discrimination of permanent and impermanent things. (2) Indifference to the enjoyment of the fruits of one’s actions both here and hereafter. (3) Possession of Sama and the other five qualities. (4) An intense desire of becoming liberated (from conditional existence).

(1.) Q. What is the right discrimination of permanent and impermanent things?

A. Certainty as to the Material Universe being false and illusive, and Brahman being the only reality.

(2.) Indifference to the enjoyment of the fruits of one’s actions in this world is to have the same amount of disinclination for the enjoyment of worldly objects of desire (such as garland of flowers, sandal-wood paste, women and the like) beyond those absolutely necessary for the preservation of life, as one has for vomited food, etc. The same amount of disinclination to enjoyment in the society of Rambha, Urvasi, and other celestial nymphs in the higher spheres of life beginning with Svarga loka and ending with Brahma loka.7

(3.) Q. What are the six qualities beginning with Sama?

A. Sama, dama, uparati, titiksha, samadhana and sraddha.

Sama is the repression of the inward sense called Manas—i.e., not allowing it to engage in any other thing but Sravana (listening to what the sages say about the Spirit), Manana (reflecting on it), Nididhyasana (meditating on the same). Dama is the repression of the external senses.

Q. What are the external senses?

A. The five organs of perception and the five bodily organs for the performance of external acts. Restraining these from all other things but sravana and the rest, is dama.

Uparati is the abstaining on principle from engaging in any of the acts and ceremonies enjoined by the shastras. Otherwise, it is the state of the mind which is always engaged in Sravana and the rest, without ever diverging from them.

Titiksha (literally the desire to leave) is the bearing with indifference all opposites (such as pleasure and pain, heat and cold, etc.). Otherwise, it is the showing of forbearance to a person one is capable of punishing.

Whenever a mind, engaged in Sravana and the rest, wanders to any worldly object of desire, and, finding it worthless, returns to the performance of the three exercises—such returning is called samadhana.

Sraddha is an intensely strong faith in the utterances of one’s guru and of the Vedanta philosophy.

(4.) An intense desire for liberation is called mumukshatva.

Those who possess these four qualifications, are worthy of engaging in discussions as to the nature of Spirit and Not-Spirit, and, like Brahmacharins, they have no other duty (but such discussion). It is not, however, at all improper for householders to engage in such discussions; but, on the contrary, such a course is highly meritorious. For it is said—Whoever, with due reverence, engages in the discussion of subjects treated of in Vedanta philosophy and does proper service to his guru, reaps happy fruits. Discussion as to the nature of Spirit and Not-Spirit is therefore a duty.

Q. What is Spirit?

A. It is that principle which enters into the composition of man and is not included in the three bodies, and which is distinct from the five sheaths (Koshas), being sat (existence),8 chit (consciousness),9 and ananda (bliss),10 and witness of the three states.

Q. What are the three bodies?

A. The gross (sthula), the subtle (sukshma), and the causal (karana).

Q. What is the gross body?

A. That which is the effect of the Mahabhutas (primordial subtle elements) differentiated into the five gross ones (Panchikrita),11 is born of Karma and subject to the six changes beginning with birth.12 It is said:

What is produced by the (subtle) elements differentiated into the five gross ones, is acquired by Karma, and is the measure of pleasure and pain, is called the body (sarira) par excellence.

Q. What is the subtle body?

A. It is the effect of the elements not differentiated into five and having seventeen characteristic marks (lingas).

Q. What are the seventeen?

A. The five channels of knowledge (Jnanendriyas), the five organs of action, the five vital airs, beginning with prana, and manas and buddhi.

Q. What are the Jnandendriyas?

A. [Spiritual] Ear, skin, eye, tongue and nose.

Q. What is the ear?

A. That channel of knowledge which transcends the [physical] ear, is limited by the auricular orifice, on which the akas depends, and which is capable of taking cognisance of sound.

Q. The skin?

A. That which transcends the skin, on which the skin depends, and which extends from head to foot, and has the power of perceiving heat and cold.

Q. The eye?

A. That which transcends the ocular orb, on which the orb depends, which is situated to the front of the black iris and has the power of cognising forms.

Q. The tongue?

A. That which transcends the tongue, and can perceive taste.

Q. The nose?

A. That which transcends the nose, and has the power of smelling.

Q. What are the organs of action?

A. The organ of speech (vach), hands, feet, etc.

Q. What is vach?

A. That which transcends speech, in which speech resides, and which is located in eight different centres13 and has the power of speech.

Q. What are the eight centres?

A. Breast, throat, head, upper and nether lips, palate ligature (frænum), binding the tongue to the lower jaw and tongue.

Q. What is the organ of the hands?

A. That which transcends the hands, on which the palms depend, and which has the power of giving and taking. . . . (The other organs are similarly described.)

Q. What is the antahkarana?14

A. Manas, buddhi, chitta and ahankara form it. The seat of the manas is the root of the throat, of buddhi the face, of chitta the umbilicus, and of ahankara the breast. The functions of these four components of antahkarana are respectively doubt, certainty, retention and egotism.

Q. How are the five vital airs,15 beginning with prana, named?

A. Prana, apana, vyana, udana and samana. Their locations are said to be: of prana the breast, of apana the fundamentum, of samana the umbilicus, of udana the throat, and vyana is spread all over the body. Functions of these are: prana goes out, apana descends, udana ascends, samana reduces the food eaten into an undistinguishable state, and vyana circulates all over the body. Of these five vital airs there are five sub-airs—namely, naga, kurma, krikara, devadatta and dhananjaya. Functions of these are: eructations produced by naga, kurma opens the eye, dhananjaya assimilates food, devadatta causes yawning, and krikara produces appetite—this is said by those versed in Yoga.

The presiding powers (or macrocosmic analogues) of the five channels of knowledge and the others are dik (akas) and the rest. Dik, vata (air), arka (sun), pracheta (water), Aswini, bahni (fire), Indra, Upendra, Mrityu (death), Chandra (moon), Brahmā, Rudra, and Kshetrajnesvara,16 which is the great Creator and cause of everything. These are the presiding powers of ear, and the others in the order in which they occur.

All these taken together form the linga sarira.17 It is also said in the Shastras:

The five vital airs, manas, buddhi, and the ten organs form the subtle body, which arises from the subtle elements, undifferentiated into the five gross ones, and which is the means of the perception of pleasure and pain.

Q. What is the Karana sarira?18

A. It is ignorance [of different monads] (avidya), which is the cause of the other two bodies, and which is without beginning [in the present manvantara],19 ineffable, reflection [of Brahma] and productive of the concept of non-identity between self and Brahma. It is also said:

“Without a beginning, ineffable avidya is called the upadhi (vehicle)—karana (cause). Know the Spirit to be truly different from the three upadhis—i.e., bodies.”

Q. What is Not-Spirit?

A. It is the three bodies [described above], which are impermanent, inanimate (jada), essentially painful and subject to congregation and segregation.

Q. What is impermanent?

A. That which does not exist in one and the same state in the three divisions of time [namely, present, past and future.]

Q. What is inanimate (jada)?

A. That which cannot distinguish between the objects of its own cognition and the objects of the cognition of others. . . .

Q. What are the three states (mentioned above as those of which the Spirit is witness)?

A. Wakefulness (jagrata), dreaming (svapna), and the state of dreamless slumber (sushupti).

Q. What is the state of wakefulness?

A. That in which objects are known through the avenue of [physical] senses.

Q. Of dreaming?

A. That in which objects are perceived by reason of desires resulting from impressions produced during wakefulness.

Q. What is the state of dreamless slumber?

A. That in which there is an utter absence of the perception of objects.

The indwelling of the notion of “I” in the gross body during wakefulness is visva (world of objects),20 in subtle body during dreaming is taijas (magnetic fire), and in the causal body during dreamless slumber is prajna (One Life).

Q. What are the five sheaths?

A. Annamaya, Pranamaya, Manomaya, Vjjnanamaya, and Anandamaya.21

Annamaya is related to anna22 (food), Pranamaya of prana (life), Manomaya of manas, Vijnanamaya of vijnana (finite perception), Anandamaya of ananda (illusive bliss).

Q. What is the Annamaya sheath?

A. The gross body.

Q. Why?

A. The food eaten by father and mother is transformed into semen and blood, the combination of which is transformed into the shape of a body. It wraps up like a sheath and hence so called. It is the transformation of food and wraps up the spirit like a sheath—it shows the spirit which is infinite as finite, which is without the six changes, beginning with birth as subject to those changes, which is without the three kinds of pain23 as liable to them. It conceals the spirit as the sheath conceals the sword, the husk the grain, or the womb the fœtus.

Q. What is the next sheath?

A. The combination of the five organs of action, and the five vital airs form the Pranamaya sheath.

By the manifestation of prana, the spirit which is speechless appears as the speaker, which is never the giver as the giver, which never moves as in motion, which is devoid of hunger and thirst as hungry and thirsty.

Q. What is the third sheath?

A. It is the five (subtle) organs of sense (jnanendriya) and manas.

By the manifestation of this sheath (vikara) the spirit which is devoid of doubt appears as doubting, devoid of grief and delusion as grieved and deluded, devoid of sight as seeing.

Q. What is the Vijnanamaya sheath?

A. [The essence of] the five organs of sense form this sheath in combination with buddhi.

Q. Why is this sheath called the jiva (personal ego), which by reason of its thinking itself the actor, enjoyer, etc., goes to the other loka and comes back to this?24

A. It wraps up and shows the spirit which never acts as the actor, which never cognises as conscious, which has no concept of certainty as being certain, which is never evil or inanimate as being both.

Q. What is the Anandamaya sheath?

A. It is the antahkarana, wherein ignorance predominates, and which produces gratification, enjoyment, etc. It wraps up and shows the spirit, which is void of desire, enjoyment and fruition, as having them, which has no conditioned happiness as being possessed thereof.

Q. Why is the spirit said to be different from the three bodies?

A. That which is truth cannot be untruth, knowledge ignorance, bliss misery, or vice versa.

Q. Why is it called the witness of the three states?

A. Being the master of the three states, it is the knowledge of the three states, as existing in the present, past and future.25

Q. How is the spirit different from the five sheaths?

A. This is being illustrated by an example: “This is my cow,” “this is my calf,” “this is my son or daughter,” “this is my wife,” “this is my anandamaya sheath,” and so on26—the spirit can never be connected with these concepts; it is different from and witness of them all. For it is said in the Upanishad: [The spirit is] “naught of sound, of touch, of form, or colour, of taste, or of smell; it is everlasting, having no beginning or end, superior [in order of subjectivity] to Prakriti (differentiated matter); whoever correctly understands it as such attains mukti (liberation).” The spirit has also been called (above) sat, chit, and ananda.

Q. What is meant by its being sat (presence)?

A. Existing unchanged in the three divisions of time and uninfluenced by anything else.

Q. What by being chit (consciousness)?

A. Manifesting itself without depending upon anything else, and containing the germ of everything in itself.

Q. What by being ananda (bliss)?

A. The ne plus ultra of bliss.

Whoever knows without doubt and apprehension of its being otherwise, the self as being one with Brahma or spirit, which is eternal, non-dual and unconditioned, attains moksha (liberation from conditioned existence.)

[Note: some of the following notes were expanded from the original serialized edition when reprinted in Five Years of Theosophy, 1885; we give the expanded versions. All notes are by the translator except Note 13, which is by H. P. Blavatsky.]

1. Chandogya Upanishad.

2. This word it is impossible to translate. It means the doing of a thing for the attainment of an object of worldly desire.

3. This word, as used in Vedantic works, is generally misunderstood. It does not mean the negation of everything; it means “that which does not exhibit the truth,” the “illusory.”

4. Satva (goodness), Rajas (foulness), and Tamas (darkness) are the three qualities; pleasure, pain and indifference considered as objective principles.

5. Chandogya Upanishad.

6. This portion has been condensed from the original.

7. These include the whole range of Rupa loka (the world of forms) in Buddhistic esoteric philosophy.

8. This stands for Purusha.

9. This stands for Prakriti, cosmic matter, irrespective of the state we perceive it to be in.

10. Bliss is Maya or Sakti, it is the creative energy producing changes of state in Prakriti. Says the Sruti (Taittiriya Upanishad): “Verily from Bliss are all these bhutas (elements) born, and being born by it they live, and they return and enter into Bliss.”

11. The five subtle elements thus produce the gross ones: each of the five is divided into eight parts, four of those parts and one part of each of the others enter into combination, and the result is the gross element corresponding with the subtle element, whose parts predominate in the composition.

12. These six changes are: birth, death, existence in time, growth, decay, and undergoing change of substance (parinam) as milk is changed into whey.

13. The secret commentaries say seven; for it does not separate the lips into the “upper” and “nether” lips. And, it adds to the seven centres the seven passages in the head connected with, and affected by, vach—namely, the mouth, the two eyes, the two nostrils and the two ears. “The left ear, eye and nostril being the messengers of the right side of the head; the right ear, eye and nostril, those of the left side.” Now this is purely scientific. The latest discoveries and conclusions of modern physiology have shown that the power or the faculty of human speech is located in the third frontal cavity of the left hemisphere of the brain. On the other hand, it is a well known fact that the nerve tissues inter-cross each other (decussate) in the brain in such a way that the motions of our left extremities are governed by the right hemisphere, while the motions of our right limbs are subject to the left hemisphere of the brain. [H. P. Blavatsky]

14. A flood of light will be thrown on the text by the note of a learned occultist, who says: “Antahkarana is the path of communication between soul and body, entirely disconnected with the former, existing with, belonging to, and dying with the body.” This path is well traced in the text.

15. These vitals airs and sub-airs are forces which harmonize the interior man with his surroundings, by adjusting the relations of the body to external objects. They are the five allotropic modifications of life.

16. The principle of intellect (Buddhi) in the macrocosm. For further explanation of this term, see Sankara’s commentaries on the Brahma Sutras.

17. Linga means that which conveys meaning, characteristic mark.

18. Mr Subba Row understands it in exactly the same way. See The Theosophist, Vol. IV, p. 249 [“Prakriti and Purusha”]. See also in this connection an editorial note in the same number of that journal, p. 255, running thus:

“This Karana sarira is often mistaken by the uninitiated for Linga sarira (e.g. Sridhara Swami in his commentaries on the Bhagavat gita), and since it is described as the inner rudimentary or latent embryo of the body—confounded with it.” [H.P.B.]

I am under the impression that I follow the best authorities in regarding Karana sarira as surviving in devachan, and when the proper time comes, furnishing the monad with the other two bodies, of which it embodies the causal germs.

19. It must not be supposed that avidya is here confounded with prakriti. What is meant by avidya being without beginning, is that it forms no link in the Karmic chain leading to succession of births and deaths, it is evolved by a law embodied in prakriti itself. Avidya is ignorance or matter as related to distinct monads, whereas the ignorance mentioned before is cosmic ignorance, or maya-Avidya begins and ends with this manvantara. Maya is eternal. The Vedanta philosophy of the school of Sankara regards the universe as consisting of one substance, Brahman (the one ego, the highest abstraction of subjectivity from our standpoint), having an infinity of attributes, or modes of manifestation from which it is only logically separable. These attributes or modes in their collectivity form Prakriti (the abstract objectivity). It is evident that Brahman per se does not admit of any description other than “I am that I am.” Whereas Prakriti is composed of an infinite number of differentiations of itself. In the universe, therefore, the only principle which is indifferentiable is this “I am that I am,” and the manifold modes of manifestation can only exist in reference to it. The eternal ignorance consists in this, that as there is but one substantive, but numberless adjectives, each adjective is capable of designating the All. Viewed in time the most permanent object or mood of the great knower at any moment represents the knower, and in a sense binds it with limitations. In fact, time itself is one of these infinite moods, and so is space. The only progress in Nature is the realization of moods unrealized before.

20. That is to say, by mistaking the gross body for self, the consciousness of external objects is produced.

21. This subject is also treated of by the author in the Atmabodha and has been admirable expounded in this journal [The Theosophist] for July last, p. 255, q. v.

22. This word also means the earth in Sanskrit.

23. The three kinds of pain are:

Adhibhautika, i.e., from external objects, e.g., from thieves, wild animals, etc.

Adhidaivika, i.e., from elements, e.g., thunder, etc.

Adhyatmika, i.e., from within one’s self, e.g., head-ache, etc.

See Sankhya Karika, Gaudapada’s commentary on the opening Sloka.

24. That is to say, flits from birth to birth.

25. It is the stable basis upon which the three states arise and disappear.

26. The “heresy of individuality,” or attavada of the Buddhists.