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Seer-Seen Discrimination

Seer-Seen Discrimination
by Vikram S


This article is an attempt to explain the principles of discrimination of the seer and the seen. This is the main theme of the book Drig Drishya Viveka. This article also briefly deals with a few related topics like difference between life and consciousness and the nature of the empirical embodied individual. However, the book Drig Drishya Viveka also contains many other topics (including description of the practice of meditation) which are not discussed in this article.

Traditionally, most scriptures begin with an prayer verse offering salutations to the spiritual teacher and God because when we remember the great saints and tune our minds to their thoughts, we also become logical, clear, and systematic in our thinking. However, in the text Drig Drishya Viveka, there is no mention of a particular teacher or God in the first verse; the invocation is done by remembrance of the Self as Witness.

Types of Discrimination Mentioned in Hindu Scriptures

Discrimination means separation. To discriminate, we need at least two different things. All living beings do some sort of discrimination all the time. For example, plants discriminate between sunshine and shade, and animals know what food to eat. However, only human beings can do certain special types of discriminations.

The scriptures discuss only the discriminations special to human beings. These are again divided into two categories: those relating to dharma (moral values and right conduct) and those relating to spiritual inquiry into the nature of the absolute Truth. The first category includes discrimination between (1) the means and the goal, (2) the part and the whole, and (3) the good and the pleasant. The purpose of practicing these discriminations is to live a life based on good moral values and noble ideals.

The second category includes discrimination between (1) seer and seen, (2) the Self and the non-Self, (3) the substratum (existence) and the superimposed (world of names and forms), and (4) the permanent (existence) and the ephemeral (ever-changing world of names and forms). The purpose of practicing these discriminations is to know the Self and get liberated from all bondage caused by the world of relativity.

Qualified Student for Spiritual Inquiry

A materialist (a person who is totally ignorant of the spiritual Truth and considers only that which is seen to be real) does not have any desire to know about the unseen Self or God and therefore does not want to study the scriptures. One who has realized the absolute Truth has no need to study or practice discrimination as there is no problem of bondage for such a person. The qualified student to undertake this inquiry is a spiritual person, one who seeks to know the Self and get liberated from bondage of the material world. Spiritual people can be divided into three types: (1) those who want to get liberation, (2) spiritual seekers who have been practicing religious exercises like chanting the Lord’s name, worship of God, observing religious vows, pilgrimages, meditation, etc., and (3) those who want to know about the unseen force controlling the world. Sometimes, even people who start studying the scriptures out of idle curiosity may later become serious spiritual seekers. The first step in spiritual progress is the auspicious desire to know about the unseen Self or God.

Necessity of Seer-Seen Discrimination

When two entities are similar, discrimination becomes more difficult, for example, it is difficult to separate sago and white stones. Discrimination is also not possible when we do not know that there is a second entity. Problems caused because of not knowing the differences between two entities can be solved only by proper discrimination. For example, if a person thinks that she or he is the distorted reflection in a mirror and suffers due to it, the only solution is proper discrimination between the actual person and the reflected image. Due to ignorance we think we are the body and suffer. We are in fact the Seer of the body, and the limitations of the body cannot affect us if we properly discriminate between the Self, the Seer, and the body, the seen.

Practice of Seer-Seen Discrimination

The complete technique of seer-discrimination is given in the first verse of the text Drig Drishya Viveka. The translation of the verse (by Swami Tejomayananda) is given below.

“The eye is the seer and form (and color) the seen. That (eye) is the seen and mind is (its) seer. The Witness alone is the seer of thoughts in the mind and never the seen.”

EYE: Here, the word “eye” means this sense organ of vision, and not the physical structure consisting of sclera, cornea, retina, etc. The word “eye” is used to represent all sense organs, that is, the sense organs of vision, hearing, feeling, tasting, and smelling. The singular form is used to refer to the sense organs because the faculty of perception is only one. Although, physically we have two eyes, the eyes are controlled by one single sense organ of vision.

SEER: The one who sees or knows. The subject of the action of seeing. The word “seer” can be taken to represent eye, the seer (of forms and color); ear, hearer (of sounds); nose, smeller (of smells); tongue, taster (of tastes); skin, feeler (of touch perceptions); mind, feeler (of emotions); intellect, thinker (of thoughts); and Self, the Witness of all thoughts.

The real Seer is the Self alone. The sense organs and mind are considered seers only in a relative sense.

SEEN: The object of the action of seeing or knowing. This term represents all that is seen, heard, felt, smelt, tasted, thought, and known. In reality, the Self is the only Seer, and everything else is seen.

It appears that the eye is the seer of the forms and colors. However, it cannot function without the mind, and is not really the seer. It is also in reality seen, but with respect to the action of perception of names and forms, we can say that the eye is an instrument for the mind. The mind is an instrument for the Self, the real Seer.

MIND: The mind is a flow of thoughts. The sense organs are controlled by the mind. Although, the term mind usually refers to the faculty of feeling emotions and the term intellect refers to the faculty of thinking ideas, here the term “mind” should be understood to include intellect, memory, and ego or I-thought (that is, “I think,” “I decide,” and “I remember”).

WITNESS: The ultimate Seer which sees without the help of any other entity. The Self alone is the Witness.

Principles of Seer-Seen Discrimination

Some principles are used to discriminate between the seer and the seen. The first principle, that is, the seer is always different from the seen, is the fundamental principle using which other principles can be derived. In this article, I have tried to logically explain these principles. I have also analyzed some instances where our experience seems to contradict these principles and tried to show how these principles are always valid. After stating the principle, I have given an application of the principle using the example, “I see a book.” Then, I have analyzed the logic and tried to answer objections.

1. The seer is always different from the seen.
“When I see a book, I am different from the book, and I can never become the book.” The real seer is always different from the seen. The action of seeing requires a subject, the seer, and an object, the seen. The relationship between them is the action called seeing. Just as a line is possible only when there are at least two distinct points, the action of seeing is possible only when the seer and seen are distinct.

2. The seer can see the seen, but the seen cannot see the seer.
“While I can see a book, the book cannot see me.” If the seen also sees the seer, the distinction between seer and seen would be lost; this contradicts the logic that the seer is always different from the seen (principle 1) because two entities can be really different from one another only if they are always distinct.

If someone says “my eye sees your eye, and your eye sees my eye; therefore the seen can also see the seer,” this is not correct. “My mind sees your eye through my eye, and your mind sees my eye through your eye.” The eye has no capacity to see anything without the mind. The eye is only an instrument of the mind.

3. The seer cannot see itself (as an object); the seen cannot see itself.
“I cannot see myself; the book cannot see itself.” The seer cannot see itself (as an object) because if the seer sees itself, the seer would then become the seen and this would contradict the logic that the seer is always different from the seen (principle 1). Similarly, as the seen cannot become the seer, the seen cannot see itself.

Forms and colors cannot know the eye. The eye cannot know the mind. The mind cannot know the Self (principle 2). A doubt might arise, “If the seen cannot see the seer and the seer cannot see itself, how do we know that there is a seer?” Materialists conclude that there is nothing other than the seen. However, this conclusion is not logical because when, for example, I see forms and colors, it proves not only that there are objects in front of me but also that the eye is there to see them. In fact, the object seen may be real or an illusion; but without the seer, seeing is impossible. The Self never becomes an object of seeing, but It is the subject without which no seeing is possible. The philosopher Rene Descartes reasoned “conito ergo sum, (I think, therefore, I am).” According to him, the idea “I exist” is an inference from the fact that I think (that is, I see my thoughts). However, in Vedanta, the fact of my existence is an axiomatic truth and not a logical inference.

4. One and the same thing cannot be the seer and the seen.
“I am the seer and cannot be also the seen; the book is seen and cannot be also the seer.” If one and the same thing is both the seer and the seen, then the distinction between the seer and the seen would be lost, and this contradicts the logic that the seer is always different from the seen (principle 1).

Although we say that the eye is seer with respect to forms and colors and seen with respect to the mind, in reality eye is never the seer. The eye is an instrument for the mind and its real status is that of seen and not seer. Similarly, the mind is also, in reality, seen and never the seer. The Self alone is the Seer.

5. The seer is conscious; the seen are inert.
“I am conscious; the book is inert.” The seen cannot see the seer (principle 2), and the seen cannot see itself (principle 3). Therefore, the seen is inert. The seer is the only conscious entity. The eye and mind are inert, and they never really become the seer. However, the eye and the mind may act as instruments through which the actual seer, the Self, sees.

If the Self is not of the nature of consciousness, it would require a second consciousness to illumine it; the second consciousness would require a third consciousness, and so on. This would result in regress ad infinitum. Therefore, we conclude that the Self is of the nature of consciousness; It can illumine itself, and It can illumine others without any aid.

6. The seer is one; the seen are many.
“I am one; I can see many books.” If there is more than one seer (say S1 and S2), who sees the seers? If another seer (say S3) sees both these seers (S1 and S2), the original seers (S1 and S2) would become seen contradicting the logic that one and the same thing cannot be both the seer and the seen (principle 4). If no one sees the seers (S1 and S2), how do we know that there is more than one seer? Further, the seer is of the nature of consciousness (principle 5), and consciousness can have no difference because it is free from qualities. Qualities can be there only when there is a substratum for them to exist. Consciousness can never become an object, and therefore, it cannot have any qualities. Perception of objects is possible only when objects are conditioned by time and space, (that is, they have boundaries). The very concept of boundary requires at least two entities. Thus, the seen are many.

An objection might be raised that eye is the seer of forms and colors and ear the seer (hearer) of sounds; therefore, there are as many seers as the types of perceptions possible (form and color, sound, smell, taste, etc.) However, this objection is not valid because from the standpoint of the eye, it is the only seer. The eye cannot know ear, etc. Eye, ear, nose, etc., are various instruments through which the mind sees.

From the standpoint of the mind, it is the only seer. The knowledge that “I am seeing the same person who is talking to me” is a result of correlation of data from the eye and the ear by the mind, and this is possible only when the same mind sees (knows) both eye (vision) and ear (hearing). However, the mind does not see and hear at the same time. When the mind is receiving data from the eye, it does not receive data from the ear. Rapid alteration from seeing to hearing gives us a feeling of continuity of perception while, in fact, we do not see while we hear, and we do not hear while we see. (This can be compared to cinema where projection of about 20 pictures on the screen gives us the illusion of continuity while, in fact, the individual films are discontinuous.) The mind itself is a flow of thoughts, and all thoughts are illumined by the Self which is one.

The eye, ear, nose, skin, and tongue are actually seen and they can never become the seer. The real seer, the Self, is only one.

7. The seer is not affected by the seen.
“I am not affected by the book that I see.” The seer is the witness of all changes and is not affected by the seen.

The eye does not change its color when it sees objects which are of various colors. Although, we sometimes say that what we see affects the mind, in reality what we see does not as such affect the mind. The mind gets emotionally affected only due to past memory which might be stimulated by the act of seeing. The seen objects are not the direct cause of this subjective reaction of the mind. A person can be aware of conditions of the eye, like blindness or impaired vision without the mind itself becoming impaired.

8. The seer is changeless (with respect to the seen); the seen are changeable.
“I am changeless; the book I see is changeable.” The seer is of the nature of consciousness (principle 5). Consciousness has no change. Change is death of one state (condition) and birth of another. Birth is the last moment of prior nonexistence of an object. (For example, a pot was nonexistent (not there condition) until it was made. The last moment of this beginingless prior nonexistence is the birth of the pot.) Death is first moment of posterior nonexistence of an object (For example, the pot will become nonexistent (not there condition) when it is broken. The first moment of this endless posterior nonexistence is the death of the pot.) The knower of birth must know both prior nonexistence and existence of an object. The knower of death must know both existence and posterior nonexistence of an object. No entity can know its own nonexistence. (No one can say “I know that I am not there.”) Therefore, there cannot be any change (birth or death) for the knower of change. Thus, the seer is changeless with respect to the seen. The seen are inert, and so, they are conditioned by space and time. Therefore, the seen are changeable.

If someone says, “My eye sees the changing objects outside and also sees changes in its own condition like impaired vision, etc.,” this is not correct. The eye is changeless with respect to the changing forms and colors seen by it. Eye itself never knows about changes in its condition; the mind knows changes of the eye.

Even the argument that mind knows the changes in its own condition is not correct. Thoughts, including the thought “I know”, are inert because they are seen (principle 5). Further, there is only one thought at one moment. Therefore, one thought does not know another. One can say, “I was unhappy yesterday, and now I am happy,” although the thoughts have changed only because there is no change for “I, the knower of my mind.” The Self alone is the real Seer and never changes. The Self illumines our states of waking, dream, and deep sleep (dreamless sleep) without Itself undergoing any change.

9. The seen has qualities (attributes); the seer has no qualities (attributes).
“The books seen by me has qualities (like color, form, etc.), but I have no qualities.” Quality or attribute of an entity is something which can be separated from the entity, while nature is something which cannot be separated from the entity. For example, for a blue cotton cloth, blue is its attribute (the color of the cloth can be changed by bleaching and dyeing it again) while cotton is its nature (the cloth will not remain if cotton is removed). As the seer is one (principle 6) and of the nature of consciousness (principle 5), It is attributeless. The seen are many (principle 6) and changeable (principle 9). Therefore, the seen objects have attributes or qualities.

Now a question might arise, Is the seer finite or infinite? The seer is in essence infinite; the seen are finite.
If the seer is finite, then the seer would become nonexistent at some place or time. This nonexistence of the seer should be seen by a second seer, which means that the original seer would become seen. This contradicts the logic that one and the same thing cannot be both the seer and the seen (principle 4).

However, the doubt remains, “If the seer is infinite, How can there be anything other than the seer for it to see?” In reality, the Self, the Seer, alone exists, and seen is only an illusion.

Shifting of Attention

The perception of objects is not, by itself, a problem. The perception of the world as real and as different from the Self is the cause of all our problems. The first step in the practice of discrimination is shifting of our attention from the seen to the Seer.

Just as while seeing a cinema, we are all the time seeing the screen, even while seeing the world of objects, emotions, and thoughts, we are really seeing the Self. A person who is ignorant of the screen may consider the various images projected on it to be real and may become frightened on seeing a scene of fire. However, if our attention is on the screen, we will not be affected by any of the images seen on it as we know that they are not real. The purpose of practice of seer-seen discrimination is to shift our attention from the seen objects to the Seer, the Self.

“Who Am I?”

The first principle of seer-seen discrimination is “the seer is always different from the seen.” I, the Seer, cannot be the body or mind. The body is an object of the sense organs. Although, the thoughts are subtler than objects, they are seen (perceived) by me as my thoughts. Therefore, I cannot be the mind, which is made up of thoughts. Further, I exist in the state of deep sleep without mind (thoughts). Then, Who am I?

Another approach to this question is whether the body is in the mind or the mind is in the body. Most Greek philosophers who analyzed this question stopped at what they categorized as the body-mind paradox. I know that my body is in a particular place and time. Space and time are only concepts of the mind. Now, the question arises, Where is the mind? The mind cannot be inside the body because the body is itself inside the mind. However, we all feel that we are the individual “inside” the body. Is the mind in the body or the body in the mind? The ancient sages of India reasoned that it is meaningless to say that the mind is in the body, and the body in the mind. There must be something beyond the body and the mind. The mind is in the Self. Our feeling that “I am in the body” is an illusion caused due to ignorance of our real nature. Just as I am not the body, I cannot be the mind because the mind is also seen, and I am the Seer.

As explained by Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi, the very inquiry “Who am I?” will lead us to understand the Self if consistently pursued. All that is seen – from the world of objects up to my own mind – cannot be I, the Seer. The practice of this inquiry into the nature of the Self will turn our attention inward. Now our attention is generally on the objects outside. However practice of this inquiry will shift our attention to the mind, and then from the mind to the I-thought, and finally from the I-thought to the Self.

NATURE OF THE SELF: The scriptures declare that the Self is of the nature of existence-consciousness-bliss. Existence expresses as the thought “I am.” Consciousness expresses as the thought “I know.” Bliss (happiness) expresses as the thought “May I always be.” The very fact that we want to live for ever shows that our nature is happiness and not sorrow.

LIFE AND CONSCIOUSNESS: The Self, which is of the nature of consciousness, is equally present in inert matter as well animal and human bodies. Then the question arises, “What is life?” Just as light is the manifestation of electricity in the bulb through the medium of the filament, we can say that life is the manifestation of Consciousness in the gross (physical) body through the medium of the subtle body (mind and sense organs). The Self is of the nature of consciousness, and is unaffected by death of the body, just as nothing happens to electricity when a bulb gets fused.

MUTUAL SUPERIMPOSITION OF CHARACTERISTICS: The Self, the Seer, alone is of the nature of consciousness. The Seer is infinite. The Seer cannot know itself as an object. As the Self, the Seer, is always distinct from the body and mind, which are seen, the idea “I am such and such a person” does not belong to the Self. Also, the body, mind, ego, etc., are inert and cannot say “I am such and such a person.” The question arises, “Who is the embodied individual?” This empirical embodied individual is an illusion created by mutual superimposition of characteristics of the Self and ego (I-thought). (There is also mutual superimposition of characteristics of the ego and body, which makes us say, “I am the body.”) An example given in the Vedantic scriptures for mutual superimposition of characteristics is that of red hot iron ball. Iron is black, heavy, round, and cold. Fire is red, weightless, formless, and hot. When an iron ball is in contact with fire for some time, it becomes red, heavy, round, and hot. The iron apparently takes redness and heat of fire, and fire apparently takes weight and shape of iron. However, this transfer of characteristics is only apparent, and once the iron ball is removed from fire, the iron ball will again become black and cold, and the fire will remain formless and weightless. Similarly, the existence and consciousness of the Self is apparently transferred to the ego, and identification with a name and form is apparently transferred to the Self. This results in the illusion, “I am a limited individual.”

“Who Am I, The Individual?”

Although the scriptures state that in reality, I, the Self, am of the nature of absolute existence, consciousness, and bliss, the question remains, “Who am I, the empirical embodied individual, who transacts with the world, does actions and enjoys the results of actions, is born and dies?” This empirical embodied individual is comprised of the many factors. Firstly, there is the Witness, the pure Consciousness-Existence, without which nothing can exist. However, the reflection of this Consciousness alone gives sentiency to the mind, and the mind can function only through a physical body. This can be symbolically represented as below:

Witness –> reflection of Consciousness + subtle body (mind and sense organs) + gross body (the anatomical structure) = empirical embodied individual.

Ignorance of Reality

Ignorance of reality is the fundamental problem because of which we consider ourselves to be the embodied individual rather than the pure Self. Ignorance has two aspects: veiling power and projecting power. The distinction between the Seer (the Self) and the seen (body, mind, and ego) is veiled by the veiling power of ignorance. It also veils the distinction between the world of names and forms and the substratum (Existence-Consciousness). The projecting power of ignorance creates the world (from the ego up to the material objects). The functioning of the two powers of ignorance can be explained using the example of snake-rope superimposition. We may mistake a piece of rope lying along a semidark sidewalk for a snake. The idea of snake is superimposed on the rope. This is possible only when there is both the veiling of the knowledge of the substratum (rope) and projection of the superimposed (snake). Similarly, superimposition of the world on the Self takes place because of ignorance of the substratum (Self) and projection of names and forms.

State of Self-Realiziation

Once the Self is realized, the ignorance becomes falsified. Although, a realized person may continue to perceive the world of names and forms, they are perceived only as an illusion (this can be compared to someone who knows that the mirage waters in the desert is an illusion and never runs after them to quench the thirst). The ego of a realized person is also only apparent (like a burnt-up rope which has the form of a rope but no capacity to tie anything).

Steps to Self-Realization

A person becomes eligible for study of the scriptures by practicing good values and acquiring purity of mind and sharpness of the intellect. Such a qualified student should study the scriptures under the direct guidance of a spiritual teacher. The student should independently reflect upon the scriptures as taught by the teacher. Once all the doubts are cleared, the student should contemplate on the Truth.

Even after having understood “I am not the body but the pure Self,” we may continue to feel that we are the body. This feeling remains because our identification with the body is very strong. Meditation is the practice of asserting “I am the pure Self” by which the identification with the body is totally destroyed.

After realization of the Self, there is no possibility of coming back to ignorance. Once the state of Self-realization is attained, the is no need to study the scriptures or practice meditation.


I have tried to describe the principles in the practice of seer-seen discrimination as I have understood them. The constant practice of this discrimination will shift our attention from the objects of the world to the Self. However, knowledge of the Self is not got by mere intellectual understanding.

We do not know our own real nature. Therefore, study of the scriptures is necessary to know that we are the pure Self. Even after listening to the scriptures from a teacher, doubts may remain. These doubts get clarified only when we independently think about we have understood from listening to the teacher. Even after intellectual understanding, the feeling that “I am a limited embodied individual” might continue. This can be removed only by meditation.

Note: This article was first published in the annual souvenir of Sandeepany Vidyamandir, Coimbatore in August 2000. I wish to thank the Acharyaji (teacher-in-charge), Br. Samahita Chaitanya for permitting me to make this essay available to everyone interested in the subject.


I offer this article at the holy feet of Pujya Gurudeva, Swami Chinmayananda, and my Acharyaji, Pujya Brahmachari Samahita Chaitanya. The article is based on my reflections on the text Drig Drishya Viveka of Bhagavan Shri Shankaracharya as explained by Pujya Swamini Vimalananda Amma and the commentary of Pujya Guruji Swami Tejomayananda on this text (published by Chinmaya Mission). I also referred the translation and notes on this text by Swami Nikhilanandna of Sri Ramakrishana Mission (published by Advaita Ashrama). I wish to express my gratitude to the entire lineage of spiritual teachers and disciples beginning from Lord Shiva and continuing through Bhagavan Shri Shankaracharya up to my own Acharyaji. I specially wish to mention that I would not have been able to study and understand the scriptures if not for my Acharyaji, who also totally helped me with writing this article. However, the responsibility for errors in this article, if any, is entirely mine.