Why Is There I Rather Than It?

Ontology of the Subject in the Upaniṣads

by Marta Kudelska (Author) Rafał Szklarski (Revision)
©2021 Monographs 286 Pages
Open Access


The book explores one of the most important problems in Indian philosophical thought: the subject in its particular relation to the world. In what sense does the subject exist? How does it constitute the world? The analysis hinges on Sanskrit sources, mainly the Upanis. ads. However, it goes beyond the question of the subject. The book discusses the concept of how the subject establishes the world, which – in this cognitive perspective – becomes simultaneously recognised and deformed. Overcoming these deformations becomes a specific soteriological path.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface to the English edition
  • Table of contents
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Nāsadīya Sūkta – the hymn of creation
  • 3. Cosmogony of the Upaniṣads
  • 4. Māṇḍūkya-kārika – translation of the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad and the commentary of Gauḍapāda
  • 5. Ātman – the absolute being as the source and principle of reality
  • 6. Aham – the universal “I,” the primordial form of an absolute being
  • 7. Puruṣa – the archetype of God
  • 8. Sākṣin – the observer and the principle of subjectivity
  • 9. Antaryāmin – the inner controller, the immanent nature of the absolute being
  • 10. Jīva – the individual soul
  • 11. Functions and roles of the cognitive organ
  • 1. Citta – the internal cognitive organ
  • 2. Buddhi – the illuminating power of empirical consciousness
  • 3. Ahaṃkāra – the acting self, the organ creating the empirical self
  • 4. Manas – the mind, the broadly defined cognitive-emotional domain
  • 12. Bhūtātman – “the elemental soul,” the ethical operating subject. Pracodayitā – “the instigator”
  • 13. Buddhist terminology in the Maitrī Upaniṣad
  • 14. Why is there I rather than it?
  • References
  • Index

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The title of this book: “Why is there I rather than it?” brings to mind obvious associations with Leibniz’s famous question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” However, the analysis presented in this book aspires to be more than just a commentary to this sentence. Rather, we shall turn to Indian philosophers in order to show that assumed the existence of an absolute reality – sat – as the concept of sufficient reason.1 We will focus primarily on excerpts from the classic Upaniṣads, interpreted from the perspective of Advaita Vedānta, the doctrine of “non-duality.” According to the school’s interpretation, only the absolute being – sat – exists, while the empirical reality, as being only its representation, is considered to have a lower ontological status. The sat dimension is an extra-empirical one that cannot be adequately defined or categorised. The most common technical terms used in the philosophical language of the Hindus for the absolute being are ātman (when we assume the subjective perspective) and brahman (when we assume the perspective of describing reality in its omnipotent totality). According to Advaita, there is a complete identity between ātman and brahman, so one can say it represents a radical monism. Therefore, there is no ontological – or, more precisely, metaphysical2 – difference between the absolute and the empirical dimension; rather, it is an epistemic valuation. As we will try to show, the absolute being is not only a pure, complete existence and consciousness but also a principle of subjectivity. Indian thinkers attributed the status of existence only to the subjective reality and considered the empirical reality to be active and existent not because of itself, but because of the existence ←11 | 12→of the subject.3 That is why the subject, whose essence – according to Advaita – is extra-empirical, is a sufficient reason justifying the experience, and thus the existence, of the presented reality.4 By the nature of things, we perceive empirical reality in its objective dimension, which, therefore, assumes the existence of a subject. Elucidation of this statement will be one of the main points of focus for the following chapters of the book.

Another idea which we would like to illustrate with the śruti texts interpreted from the perspective of Advaita Vedānta is the conviction of an entirely nirguṇic character of the absolute being. No attributes (guṇa) belong per essentiam to the absolute; the description of its reality is entirely apophatic. In the philosophical sense, all representations experienced as independent, empirical entities, are merely forms, or reflections existing only because of that which is unconditional. In the religious context, these subtle characters are mostly attributed with divine status, and they are experienced by worshippers as identical to the supreme being, and are worshipped as God (Iśvara, Puruṣa). According to the earliest Upaniṣads and their Advaita commentary, all theistic interpretations5 are ←12 | 13→secondary, because the supreme reality is beyond any judgment or personification. But although the transcendental dimension is extra-empirical, it does not mean that it does not exist. On the contrary, it is the only one to be pronounced as existing in an absolute sense –  sat.

In order to present the above-mentioned problems in a coherent way, we will devote most of this book to the analysis of how the concept of the subject is constructed in the classical Upaniṣads. This will allow us to show which concepts refer to the subject as the principle of subjectivity, which are its most fundamental representations, and which ones play – especially as the philosophical debate in India develops – an increasingly well-defined role of cognitive instruments. In addition to the hermeneutical analysis of excerpts from the Upaniṣads, where we shall attempt to discuss some passages through cross-references to others, we will also address the commentaries, especially those belonging to the earliest Advaita Vedānta tradition, namely those of Gauḍapāda and Śaṅkara. The analysis of the concept of the subject will be presented in the context of anthropological, metaphysical and sometimes also existential considerations. An exploration of the thus outlined subject of inquiry, especially concerning classical Indian thought, is impossible without references to cosmological concepts. Therefore, before we proceed to present and, wherever possible, organise various notions related to the concept of subject in the Upaniṣads, we will first analyse the hymn of the 10th mandala of the Ṛgveda, the Nāsadīya Sūkta (Hymn of Creation) which is fundamental to any further deliberations.

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We will be referring both to the earliest Vedic texts, as well as to their classical commentaries that established the Advaita Vedānta school. These texts are approximately 1,500 years apart. The analysis of the already fully conscious philosophical assumptions of Advaita is carried out based on the canonical Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad (4th–3rd century BC) and its classic commentary by Gaudapada (6th century AD) included in his work Māṇḍūkya Kārikā. It is Gaudapada’s work that initiates the Brahmanical philosophical school of Advaita Vedānta, “non-duality.” It represents a particular kind of monism that declares only the absolute dimension of reality (ātman) as existing – sat. At the same time, the empirical world is described as sat (existing) as well as asat (non-existent) and anirvacanīya (non-predicable in any category). As we shall see, the fundamental challenge that arises is how to explain the relationship between the absolute, unconditioned, unchanging eternal being (analogous to the Parmenides’ being) and the world of multiplicity, variability and diversity that is perceived in experience. In the Advaita school, which, like any other Indian system, is ultimately a soteriology, the main focus is on the analysis of the cognitive act itself. This is due to the erroneous imposition of the objective reality onto the subjective one that the empirical world emerges, which results in a burdensome entanglement in saṃsāra. Liberation (mokṣa) is understood as a result of direct recognition, as an insight into the true and, therefore, genuine nature of reality.

Only pure consciousness – sat – can be said to truly exist. However, we cannot claim that its manifestations or correlates do not exist, because they emerge from it; their sensibility is conditioned by the self-contained being, so they both “exist and do not exist.” In this way, we do not prejudge their metaphysical character, but we describe them with regard to the very process of cognition. After the reduction, pure awareness remains as a residuum, while the real world itself practically disappears out of sight, and only the meanings of the world, the meanings of things remain. We will be seeking such solutions in the texts of śruti, in the Upaniṣads.

All the Brahmanical darśanas, while constructing the framework of their philosophical systems, refer to concepts either already formed or not yet fully presented in the canon of śruti. This theory is an openly adopted assumption within the Indian tradition, verified during critical philosophical research. But, as it is commonly known, the conclusions of individual schools often differ radically as far as ontological assumptions are concerned, although they often refer to the same texts or even the same passages. Therefore, it will be extremely important to thoroughly examine the texts of the śruti, mainly the Upaniṣads, as the culmination and summary of the considerations contained in the Vedic canon.

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The subsequent chapters will explore the understanding and application of various concepts referring to the subject of consciousness which is active and responsible for both the migration in saṃsāra as well as being an instrument of liberation. Some of the deliberations will refer to the totally understood subject, while other terms will indicate a subject limited to certain functions, certain spheres of activity or certain attitudes that do not manifest themselves at all levels of consciousness.

Based on these considerations, we shall also try to demonstrate the primordiality of the notion of subject in relation to the object in cosmogonic, metaphysical, epistemic and, of course, soteriological order. All questions, being an impulse for such analyses, can only arise in a human being understood as a seeking subject, and being fully justified by the individual. All statements included in the Indian texts are based on introspective experience, on the study of conditions of behaviour and perception of reality, which is present in the meditation procedures of a given practitioner. When describing the procedures for reaching the source and principle of reality, and the cognitive subject, the Upaniṣads often resort to a method that we may call “pre-phenomenological.” For it turns out that subsequent levels of reduction apply to an object which ultimately appears to be a pure subject – ātman. The object in question happens to be what is the most basic in the researched subject, i.e. consciousness – one from which consecutive noemata emerge, and which by its nature and at its source is directed only at oneself. The process of cognition of this consciousness is a process of selfrecognition. By studying the conditions for the manifestation of the world, we discover the conditions of our own being, which turns out to be a conscious and self-conscious one. Investigating, experiencing is, therefore, a certain way or a model of life. The experiencing subject is constituted through experience while its originality is established through final, unmediated experience. At this point, we may recall Edmund Husserl’s statement found in the first volume of Ideas that the constitution of the subject, in this case ātman, the cognitive subject, contains all descriptions of consciousness.

This implies that the subsequent stages of the world’s manifestation are constituted by a conscious subject. The subject intentionally directs itself towards its own constructs, at the same time pointing out that the intention of recognising, and also to some extent to constitute, is contained in its deeper layer. In doing so, consciousness, during the search for its “core,” repeatedly moves in circles until it gradually reaches the point where the subject, or consciousness, is intentionally directed at itself only. In the cosmogonic system, we begin with the principle of subjectivity, to finally recognise in the soteriological sequence the existence of pure subject only, one whose name is “I.” The presented reality, which one might ←15 | 16→refer to as “it,” is no longer the subject of experience. Therefore, there is “I” rather than “it.” And only sat, understood as the principal of subjectivity and consciousness, exists in an absolute way.

Numerous conversations with our colleagues, friends and students have assisted us greatly in writing this book. Without them we might have missed many topics, whose analysis became an integral part of this work. Thank you all very much. But above all, we would like to thank Professor Beata Szymańska. Without our long conversations on philosophy, and without her support, this book could not have been written at all. Thank you, Beata.

1 “So far we have been speaking simply as natural scientists; now we must rise to metaphysics and make use of the great, but not commonly used, principle that nothing takes place without a sufficient reason; in other words, that nothing occurs for which it would be impossible for someone who has enough knowledge of things to give a reason adequate to determine why the thing is as it is and not otherwise. This principle having been stated, the first question which we have a right to ask will be, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ For nothing is simpler and easier than something. Further, assuming that things must exist, it must be possible to give a reason why they should exist as they do and not otherwise.” G.W. Leibniz, The Principles of Nature and of Grace, Based on Reason, Philosophical Papers and Letters, ed. and trans. L. E. Loemker, 2nd ed., D. Reidel, Dordrecht 1969, pp. 638–9.

2 W. Stróżewski provides an excellent analysis of the concepts of metaphysics/ontology in his book Ontologia, Aureus, Znak, Kraków 2003, pp. 19–23.

3 “Thus the sense commonly expressed in speaking of being is reversed. The being which is first for us is second in itself; i.e., it is what it is, only in ‘relation’ to the first. <But it is> not as though there were a blind regularity such that the ordo et connexio rerum necessarily conformed to the ordo et connexio idearum. Reality, the reality of the physical thing taken singly and the reality of the whole world, lacks self-sufficiency in virtue of its essence (in our strict sense of the word). Reality is not in itself something absolute which becomes tied secondarily to something else; rather, in the absolute sense, it is nothing at all; it has no ‘absolute essence’ whatever; it has the essentiality of something which, of necessity, is only intentional, only an object of consciousness, something presented [Vorstelliges] in the manner peculiar to consciousness, something apparent ‘as apparent.’ ” E. Husserl, Ideas pertaining to a pure phenomenology and to a phenomenological philosophy, trans. F. Kersten, Boston, Martinus Nijhof Publishers 1983, Vol. I, II.50.94, p. 112.

4 “The question ‘Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?’ is first in rank for us as the broadest, as the deepest, and finally as the most originary question. The question is the broadest in scope. It comes to a halt at no being of any kind whatsoever. The question embraces all that is, and that means not only what is now present at hand in the broadest sense, but also what has previously been and what will be in the future. The domain of this question is limited only by what simply is not and never is: by Nothing.” M. Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. G. Fried, R. Polt, Yale University Press 2000, p. 2.

5 With regard to the philosophical concepts developed in India, we describe them using categories created within the European cultural circle. This entails numerous misunderstandings. The majority of what leads to misrepresentations is due to the use of the term “theism.” As we know, in our cultural circle this is a term derived from the Greek word theos. In the Christian interpretation, which in this respect has had a great influence on the entire European philosophical thought, theos is understood as God the Creator, who through creatio ex nihilo called the world into existence. Thus God is identical with an absolute being. In this sense, the concept of God does not exist in the systems that emerged in the Indian Subcontinent. Usually it is assumed that reality is eternal, and some Creator or Manager is merely its guardian or guarantor of rights. That is why the notion of the absolute is not synonymous with God, but with the non-determined dimension of reality, understood as its principle. This, however, does not mean that these systems rejected the notion of transcendence as an object of mystical experience. But this experience is non-theistic in the sense that it presupposes the existence of a “higher” level, which is the principle and the source of everything that is perceived as existing. Only in this context do we use the term “theism” with regard to the philosophical concepts of India. At this point, it can be noted that in the philosophical-religious texts of India there is the term deva – “deity,” “luminous,” which originates from the same Indo-European core as theos. Devas, however, are commonly presented as emanations or representations of the absolute being.

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2.Nāsadīya Sūkta – the hymn of creation

The keystone of śruti, i.e of the Vedic Revelation, is a collection of 1028 hymns of the Ṛgveda, assembled in ten circles – maṇḍala. The hymns included in the most recent of them, the 10th maṇḍala, are particularly important to the entire Indian philosophy that followed. To a great extent, these hymns are dedicated primarily to the presentation of various cosmogonic and cosmological concepts. At a first glance these concepts may not seem to be fully consistent, although none of them actually supports the idea of creatio ex nihilo, so popular in the circle of European philosophy (especially that which stems from Christian thought). Usually they point to some existence or element, some arche, from which the empirical world emerged. It may be water, fiery heat (10.190), wind (10.168), non-existence (10.72), Golden Egg – Hiraṇyagarbha (10.121), or divine speech – Vāc (10. 125). The most famous cosmological hymns are the “Hymn of the Pre-man” – Puruṣasūkta (10.90) and the “Hymn of Creation” – Nāsadīya Sūkta (10.129). Puruṣasūkta depicts the creation of the world out of the puruṣa – the Macro-Anthropos, who sacrifices oneself to oneself. As a result of this sacrifice, the whole world is created, with the already formed, and thus divine order.6 This chapter is devoted to the analysis of the Nāsadīya hymn.

The hymns, as well as the entire canon of śruti, were considered by the Indian tradition to be of an authoritative character. Their infallibility was supposed to stem, inter alia, from the fact that they were not attributed to a human author. Their eternal content, as tradition has it, had been “seen” by inspired wise men – ṛṣi – and only then was it handed down and sung in a language accessible not only to the prophets.

For the majority of Indian thought, represented both by thinkers interested more in philosophical concerns as well as those focused on religious and theological considerations, the message of the hymns was an absolute foundation. The development of all later ideas can be seen as a direct reference, discussion, or commentary on the concepts already presented in the collections of hymns – saṃhitas. This is how the overlapping of successive parts of the śruti as well as further elaboration on their content in the subsequent darśanas – systematic syntheses of Brahmanical philosophy – should be interpreted.

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There are numerous translations and interpretations of Nāsadīya. For the English edition of this book we used the work of Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton, which of all the translations known to us corresponds to the greatest extent with our interpretation of the original. In our opinion, the crucial idea of the hymn is the differentiation between two dimensions of reality represented by two different verbs, more precisely, the transition from the state of existence (sat) to the state of being (bhava). Thus, the first dimension of reality (not in the sense of a temporal order, but in the absolute, original sense) will always be conveyed by the linguistic forms stemming from the root as – “to exist.” These might be substantival participles, for example sat – “existing,” or verbs, usually āsīt – “came to exist”; sometimes there is also a participle further specified by an active form of a verb, thanks to which the paradigm is strengthened. The term bhava denoting the second dimension of reality, is derived from the root bhū – “to be,” “to exist in the world,” and is in a way a conventional term. Generally, bhava refers to the reality that reveals its representational, objective and continually dynamic character. The discussion of detailed relationships between sat and bhava dimensions will be the subject of virtually all analyses and commentaries presented in this book. Due to the nature of these considerations, the following analysis will refer in more detail to the first stanzas of the hymn. When quoting fragments of the analysed works, we will use recognised English translations, which shall be marked in the footnotes. However, all our analyses and interpretations are based on the original texts, which is why the comments under the quoted fragment or verse may sometimes differ. Each time we seek to justify it. This is also true in the case of the analysed hymn.

nāsad āsīn no sad āsīd tadānim


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2021 (March)
sat – sufficient reason Advaita Vedānta subject constituting the world Māṇḍūkya Kārikā luminous reality erroneous perception
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 286 pp.

Biographical notes

Marta Kudelska (Author) Rafał Szklarski (Revision)

Marta Kudelska is a professor of philosophy and translator of Sanskrit philosophical texts. Her research interests revolve around fundamental metaphysical questions posed since ancient times in the philosophical thought of India, particularly within the Brahmanical tradition. In her research, she also deals with interreligious and cross-cultural dialogue and the reception of classical thought in the formation of contemporary social and cultural attitudes.


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