Nirvāṇa Ṣaṭkam: Six Verses on Liberation

Among the various methods of reasoning in Vedanta, the neti neti krama is an important one. It helps delineate the nature of the Self by pointing out what it is not. A well-known poem that uses this approach of ‘Not this, not this’ is the Nirvāṇa Ṣaṭkam. While the popular belief is that these six verses were composed by Śaṅkara, scholars like G C Pande and Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati have opined that it is unlikely because several words used in this stotra have not been used regularly in his commentaries and other writings. It might have been attributed to Śaṅkara, not unlike several later works, including the Bhaja-govindam.

The poet methodically negates the various physical and mental aspects of life as an identity of the Self, concluding at the end of every verse that the true Self is formless bliss alone. This line – cidānandarūpaḥ śivo’haṃ śivo’ham – is used as a refrain, a return to the theme. In six pithy verses, the poet describes the abstract by using concrete examples. When we take a look at these examples, we also get a glimpse into the thought process of the ancient Indians and how they methodically categorized everything that they saw around them.

Verse 1

The first verse negates the antaḥ-karaṇas, jñānendriyas, and pañcabhūtas. The four antaḥ-karaṇas (‘inner causes’) are: ahaṅkāra (ego, I-ness), buddhi (intellect), manas (mind, thought), and citta (memory, conscience). The five jñānendriyas (sense organs) are eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. The pañcabhūtas (five elements) are space, earth, fire, air, and water.

मनोबुद्ध्यहङ्कारचित्तानि नाहं
न च श्रोत्रजिह्वे न च घ्राणनेत्रे ।
न च व्योमभूमिर्न तेजो न वायु-
श्चिदानन्दरूपः शिवोऽहं शिवोऽहम् ।१।

I am not mind, intellect, ego, or memory
Ears, tongue, nose, eyes – these I am not
Not space, earth, fire, nor air am I
I am consciousness, bliss, purity alone!

Verse 2

In this verse, the poet negates other material identifications with the Self. The prāṇa (life-force, vital breath), the pañcavāyus, the saptadhātus, the pañcakośas, and karmendriyas are shown as separate from the true Self. The pañcavāyus (five breaths) are: prāṇa (digestive breath or in-breath), apāna (the excretory breath or the out-breath), udāna (upward breath that creates sound), samāna (all-pervading breath that balances all the breaths), and vyāna (diffused breath that maintains the shape of the body). The saptadhātus (seven building blocks of the body) are: rasa (plasma), rakta (blood), māṃsa (muscle), medas (fat), asthi (bone), majjā (marrow), and śukra (semen) / śoṇita (egg, ovum). The pañcakośas (five realms or layers of the body-mind) are: annamayakośa (realm of matter), prāṇamayakośa (realm of vitality), manomayakośa (realm of mind), vijñānamayakośa (realm of wisdom), and ānandamayakośa (realm of bliss). The five karmendriyas (organs of action) are mouth, hands, feet, genitals, and anus.

न च प्राणसंज्ञो न वै पञ्चवायुः
न वा सप्तधातुर्न वा पञ्चकोशः ।
न वाक्पाणिपादौ न चोपस्थपायू
चिदानन्दरूपः शिवोऽहं शिवोऽहम् ।२।

I am not prāṇa nor do I run the body
I am not the seven building block nor the five layers
Neither speech nor limbs nor genitals am I
I am consciousness, bliss, purity alone

Verse 3

In this verse, the poet moves from the material aspects to the intellectual and emotional aspects. The ari-ṣaḍ-varga and the four puruṣārthas are shown to be different from the Self. The ari-ṣaḍ-varga (the group of six enemies) are: kāma (lust), krodha (anger), lobha (greed), moha (delusion), mada (arrogance), and mātsarya (jealousy). In this verse, the poet uses dveṣa (hatred) instead of krodha and uses rāga (passion, desire) instead of kāma. The four puruṣārthas (goals of human life) are: dharma (sustainability principle, universal law), artha (wealth, means to fulfil desires), kāma (desire), and mokṣa (liberation, lasting bliss).

न मे द्वेषरागौ न मे लोभमोहौ
मदो नैव मे नैव मात्सर्यभावः ।
न धर्मो न चार्थो न कामो न मोक्ष-
श्चिदानन्दरूपः शिवोऽहं शिवोऽहम् ।३।

I have no hatred nor passion, greed nor delusion
Neither arrogance nor jealousy have I
I seek not dharma, wealth, desire, nor release
I am consciousness, bliss, purity alone

Verse 4

This is perhaps the finest of the six verses where the poet gives us a beautiful view into the Advaita tattva – the essence of non-duality. The verse begins by saying that the Self is neither puṇya nor pāpa. The word puṇya has no exact equivalent in English; it is the opposite of pāpa (sin). Then the poet goes on to say, “I am not the food. I am not the edible. I am not the eater.” This basically means: “I am not the experience-giver. I am not the experience. I am not the one who experiences.” The purging of these distinctions leads one to pure bliss.

न पुण्यं न पापं न सौख्यं न दुःखं
न मन्त्रो न तीर्थं न वेदा न यज्ञाः ।
अहं भोजनं नैव भोज्यं न भोक्ता
चिदानन्दरूपः शिवोऽहं शिवोऽहम् ।४।

I am free of merit or sin, joy or sorrow
I have no mantras to recite, no pilgrimage to make
no scriptures to read, or rituals to perform
I am neither the food nor the edible nor the eater
I am consciousness, bliss, purity alone

Verse 5

Humans are social animals but when it comes to liberation, there cannot be a group package. Each individual has to realize the truths for himself or herself. This verse deals with those aspects of an individual’s life that binds him or her to the society and the world.

न मे मृत्युशङ्का न मे जातिभेदः
पिता नैव मे नैव माता न जन्म ।
न बन्धुर्न मित्रं गुरुर्नैव शिष्य-
श्चिदानन्दरूपः शिवोऽहं शिवोऽहम् ।५।

I have no doubt of death, no distinctions of caste
I have neither father nor mother; I was never born!
Relatives, friends, teachers, students I have none
I am consciousness, bliss, purity alone

Verse 6

The poet has slowly moved from the material plane to the emotional and intellectual plane to the societal one. The final verse is a fitting crescendo to the poem, culminating into a nameless name and a formless form. When ignorance is finally exhausted and all other possibilities are eliminated what remains is the true Self.

अहं निर्विकल्पो निराकाररूपो
विभुत्वाच्च सर्वत्र सर्वेन्द्रियाणाम् ।
न चासङ्गतं नैव मुक्तिर्न बन्ध-
श्चिदानन्दरूपः शिवोऽहं शिवोऽहम् ।६।

I am free from thoughts
Formless is my only form
I am the force behind all sense organs
Neither attached to anything
nor free from everything,
all-inclusive I am
I am consciousness, bliss, purity alone

Thanks to Shashi Kiran B N for reviewing the work, suggesting changes, and copyediting the Sanskrit verses.



Hari is a writer, translator, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, Carnatic music, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has worked on books like The New Bhagavad-Gita, Your Dharma and Mine, Srishti, and Foggy Fool's Farrago.

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