By Pravrajika Brahmaprana
Wandering mendicants greet each other: ‘Om. Is your vision clear?’ ‘Om’ is a salutation to the indwelling divinity, or Atman, within all beings. ‘Is your vision clear?’ is a sober reminder: Are we seeing the world as it truly is or, rather, as it appears to be? The vision that comes from spiritual insight completely transforms the perception of who we are, what this world is, and what our relationship to it is. A person who has such insight is known in Sanskrit as a rishi, or ‘seer’.
The Upanishads say that Brahman, the ultimate reality, is pure consciousness (prajñānam brahma). But, so long as this empirical world of multiplicity exists for us, consciousness remains a mere philosophical concept with different categories.
Categories of Consciousness
According to Advaita Vedanta, these different categories of consciousness are classified as absolute consciousness (brahma-caitanya), cosmic consciousness (īśvara-caitanya), individual consciousness (jīva-caitanya), and indwelling consciousness (sāksi-caitanya). However, all these distinctions are due to limiting adjuncts (upādhis) and are not intrinsic to the true nature of consciousness, which is by itself one and non-dual. Advaita Vedanta says that there is a substratum of this universe, even finer than energy (prāna), called brahma-caitanya. The very nature of this substratum is sat-cit-ānanda: absolute existence (sat), pure consciousness (cit), and bliss (ānanda). In other words, pure being is Self-aware and is of the nature of pure conscious-ness and bliss, or ‘loving consciousnesses.
The natural question that arises is: How did absolute consciousness—undivided, unmoved, and unchanging—become this world of multiplicity and change? The great seer and philosopher Shankaracharya resolved this paradox with his theory of superimposition, vivartavāda. From the ultimate standpoint, absolute consciousness did not become this world; it only appears to have done so. Shankara gave the classic example of the snake and the rope:
We see a snake on the road at night, but as we approach the snake and flash a torch on it, we realize that it is actually a rope.
This snake-universe is a superimposition upon the rope-Brahman. There is no more causal relationship between this world-appearance and Brahman than there is between the snake and the rope. However, the universe has no existence apart from Brahman, just as the snake has no existence apart from the rope.
Since it is possible for a rope to be mistaken for a snake, it is also possible for something to apparently exist without being real. Advaita Vedanta states that this world is and is not. By is not, it is not suggested that the world is an illusion without a basis, a shadow without substance, or a void. It means that the world as it appears to us is unreal because this world-appearance has no absolute existence. But for a rsi whose vision is clear, the world is ever real because it is, essentially, nothing less than Brahman mistaken as a world of matter. This cosmic superimposition of the unreal on the real is due to maya, which literally means ‘that which measures the immeasurable’. To show its twin faculty of concealing the reality and projecting the apparent, maya is often compared to a veil, a cloud, or a screen, as well as a magician’s trick.
Advaita Vedanta is not mere philosophical speculation or theory; it has direct experience as its basis as well as ultimate proof. To lift the veil of maya, Advaita Vedanta exhorts the spiritual seeker to take the testimony of the scriptures (Vedas) and illumined souls, use reason, reflection, and meditation, and attain direct experience. These are the compasses, maps, and sails needed to steer successfully to the highest union with Brahman. One must transcend the effects of maya in order to know the nature of its cause.
How does a knower of Brahman perceive this world-appearance which is and is not? Swami Shivananda, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, one day disclosed the answer to his attendant, who noticed how the swami reverently saluted all who entered his room, regardless of their social position or spiritual stature. ‘When somebody approaches me,’ the swami conceded, ‘first of all I see that particular effulgent form of God through which He reveals Himself in that particular personality. The persons themselves appear indistinctly like shadowy beings, while the divine aspect itself appears vivid and living. That’s why I make my obeisance. The divine forms disappear after my salutation, and then only can I see the human figures distinctly and recognize them as well.’ One day, Swami Shivananda even saluted a cat, explaining afterwards to his attendant that he first saw Brahman as pure consciousness at play in all forms, including the cat’s, and then recognized the difference as only in name .
This level of realization stems from a great Upanishadic truth: ‘From pure consciousness, which is of the nature of absolute bliss, all beings arise, by it are they sustained, and it they reenter at death.’ For those of us who possess ordinary human consciousness, however, only the world-appearance of name and form is manifest to the mind and senses. In our ignorance, we see the cat, not Brahman.
The second type of consciousness in Advaita Vedanta is called īśvara-caitanya, or Brahman united with maya as the Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer of this universe. With the purpose of explaining what īśvara-caitanya is, Brahman may be called the ultimate cause of the universe because, due to maya, the world-appearance is superimposed upon it. But Brahman can neither transform itself into the world nor create it, since that which is absolute reality, by definition, must transcend action and change. Therefore, Vedanta introduces the creative principle of Ishvara—Brahman united with maya—to explain the process of this universe’s creation, preservation, and dissolution, which is without beginning and without end. Ishvara is God with attributes. The personal God, according to Swami Vivekananda, is the highest reading of the Absolute by the human mind.
‘Are there two Gods then,’ we may ask, ‘one absolute and one personal?’ ‘No,’ Vedanta says, ‘Brahman appears as Ishvara when viewed through maya.’ ‘But,’ we persist, ‘what then is the difference between Ishvara and an ordinary human being?’ According to Vedanta, Ishvara is the wielder of maya—all-free, all-powerful, and all-knowing—whereas human beings are subject to maya because their freedom, power, and knowledge are limited. Human beings can become one with Ishvara, but they can never be individually the same as Ishvara.
This brings us to the third type of consciousness in Vedanta: human consciousness, or jīva-caitanya. The superimposition of the ego-idea upon pure consciousness is the individual’s first plunge into the whirlpool of maya. Vedanta says that the lie of separateness—the claim that ‘I am I (the lower I)’—is the initial act that produces the chain reaction of further superimposition and entanglement. Considering ourselves ‘individuals’ implies considering everything as ‘individual’. This attitude inexorably superimposes a world of multiplicity upon the one, undivided reality.
Initially, the ego-idea identifies itself with the body and mind, and with their attributes and actions. Instinctively we say: ‘I am young’, ‘I am short’, or ‘I am talking’. As the ego-idea reaches further out to claim external objects and conditions as its own, we find ourselves thinking and saying such things as: ‘I am an American’, or This property is mine’. As our superimpositions multiply, so do our extraordinary personal claims, such as ‘We are sending troops to the Balkans’, or ‘I carry health insurance’. Thus, the human ego continues to enlarge itself until it becomes identified with every known object in its universe, while the higher Self remains the detached witness to all these foolish shenanigans. At the same time, the Self makes them all possible by providing the mind with the light of consciousness, without which maya could not exist. In short, it is due to maya that we become identified with a psychophysical being—the shadow of our real Self.
‘Who am I?’ we may then ask. ‘What is my real nature? Like the world around me, am I a mixture of Brahman and maya—the real and the apparent, divine and human consciousness, Atman and jīva-caitanya?’ A passage in the Mundaka Upanishad describes the relationship of our true Self with the empirical self (jīva-caitanya):
Like two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, the individual self and the immortal Self are perched on the branches of the self-same tree. The former tastes of the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the latter, tasting of neither, calmly observes.
The individual self, deluded by forgetfulness of his identity with the divine Self, bewildered by his ego, grieves and is sad. But when he recognizes the worshipful Lord as his own true Self, and beholds His glory, he grieves no more. The state of one’s spiritual development does not matter; Vedanta upholds the real nature of every human being as the luminous Self, which is associated with the mind as the onlooker, or witness (sāksi-caitanya).
This brings us to the fourth type of consciousness in Advaita Vedanta, sāksi-caitanya. The witness-self transcends the changing states of the mind, neither suffering nor enjoying the mental and physical conditions of human existence. After realizing the witness-self, an aspirant returns to normal consciousness with a transformed mind. Such a soul perceives itself and the universe through a mind composed of finer matter. Like a sheet of glass, through which sunlight can pass unobstructed, the mind in this state allows the light of consciousness to reach the body and its organs unimpeded. As the witness, one perceives one’s Self to be distinct from the body and mind, which are clearly recognized as objects of perception. One knows, beyond doubt, that it is the self-luminous Atman that governs one’s entire psycho-physical being. In the mystical language of the Kena Upanishad, the Self is realized as ‘the Ear of the ear, Mind of the mind, Speech of the speech … [as] also Breath of the breath, and Eye of the eye.’ This witness-self is known as the ‘inner controller’ (antaryāmin), and is beautifully described in the Katha Upanishad as the rider within a chariot-body. The charioteer is the intellect (buddhi), and the reins are the mind—endowed with volition and emotion. The senses, say the wise, are the horses; the roads they travel are the mazes of desire. The wise call the Self the enjoyer, when he is united with the body, the senses, and the mind.
Once the jiva identifies its real nature, the next step is to locate it. How and where does pure consciousness dwell within the body? The ancient Upanishads show us the precise location. ‘Within the city of Brahman, which is the body,’ the Chhandogya Upanishad discloses,
There is the heart, and within the heart, there is a little house. This house has the shape of a lotus, and within it dwells that which is to be sought after, inquired about, and realized. … Though old age comes to the body, the lotus of the heart does not grow old. At the death of the body, it does not die. The lotus of the heart, where Brahman exists in all his glory—that, and not the body, is the true city of Brahman.
Consciousness and the Psycho-physical System
Also in the Upanishads, we find the classic Vedantic model of the threefold body, or fivefold sheath, which elucidates the nature of the gross and subtle layers of consciousness that exist within our psycho-physical being. Vedanta explains that every human being is comprised of three bodies: the gross, the subtle, and the causal, which are the respective mediums of experience for our waking, dream, and dreamless sleep states. The gross body (annamaya kośa or ‘sheath of food’ is born; it grows, transforms, decays, and dies. The subtle and causal bodies are what reincarnate from birth to birth.
The subtle body is composed of the vital sheath (prānamaya kośa), mental sheath (manomaya kośa), and sheath of the intellect (vijñānamaya kośa). The vital sheath is the life force that operates the autonomic nervous system, thus controlling respiration (prāna), excretion (apāna), and digestion (samāna), and also various functions of the cerebro-spinal system such as exertion (vyāna) and growth. The vital sheath, moreover, mediates the soul’s departure from the body at the time of death (udāna). The manomaya kośa comprises the volitional, or deliberative mind, as well as the five organs of perception; whereas the vijñānamaya kośa (buddhi) is the cognitive or determinative mind, along with the five organs of perception.
Through the buddhi, or cognitive mind, all other faculties of the mind, whether volitional or emotional, receive their light. However, as already mentioned, the buddhi simply permits the passage of the light of the witness-self (sāksin) and thus appears to be self-luminous. Vedanta claims that though the buddhi is located in the heart within a tiny space (ākāśa) ‘about the size of a thumb’, the witness-self dwells even deeper within our being, within the buddhi itself. Therefore, the buddhi—only one step away from the witness-self—is still identified with the non-Self and asserts itself as the knower and the doer within the mental and vital sheaths, and functions as the empirical self that reincarnates.
Human cognition exemplifies how the various mental faculties function together within the mental and intelligence sheaths. According to Vedanta, cognition is a fourfold operation. First, the deliberative faculty of the mind (manas) asks: ‘What is this object?’ The memory (citta) attempts to recall similar objects. Then, the determinative faculty (buddhi) is able to ascertain: ‘It is a desk.’ Finally, the sense of egoism (ahamkāra) makes the association: ‘I am sitting at the desk.’ Throughout the cognitive process, however—whether we know it or not—the light of the Self, shining through the buddhi to the organs of perception, reveals everything that we experience. William M Indich, in his book Consciousness in Advaita Vedanta, explains: ‘In visual perception, then, Brahman intelligence reflected in mind is extended out along the medium of the organ of vision, which Advaitins claim is the nature of light (tejas) … contacts an object, assumes its form, and reveals it as known.’
This Upanishadic model of the fivefold sheath maintains that consciousness does not originate in the brain—nor even in the mind, for that matter, because the mind merely passes on the light of consciousness. The brain, the mind, and the body are merely physical mediums for the expression of consciousness. Moreover, the Yoga-Vedanta system of psychology asserts that thought, which is a specific type of consciousness, is a function of the mind, not the brain. ‘In the Vedantic view the mind is not a process;’ Swami Satprakashananda summarizes, ‘nor is it a function, or a state, or an attribute of something else. It is a positive substance, though not ultimately real. It has definite functions and states. It is one of the products of primordial nature, the potential cause of the universe, called prakrti or māyā, which has no consciousness inherent in it’ .
Yoga-Vedanta uphold the premise that one’s own consciousness—disciplined and refined through the path of yoga—is the clearest and most reliable lens for perceiving and grasping the nature of human and transcendental consciousness. For thousands of years mind and consciousness have been primary subjects of introspective investigation. Consequently, the rsis were able to develop sophisticated techniques for tracing the origin and nature of consciousness, which have been handed down from guru to disciple to the present day.
Approaches to Consciousness
How, then, can we attain pure consciousness, the light of the Atman, by which we obtain the clearest perception of reality? Shankara, the Advaita Vedantin, prescribes the four traditional methods (sādhana catustaya) that, when perfected, mark the qualifications of a rsi:
discrimination between the eternal and non-eternal;
renunciation of the tendency towards sensual enjoyment;
cultivation of the six treasures (tranquility, self-control, mental poise, forbearance, faith, and self-surrender); and
desire for liberation. Though all four qualifications work together as methods for refining, stabilizing, and elevating one’s mind, for the sake of brevity, we will focus only on the first two.
Vedanta scriptures exhort aspirants to first hear the truth, then contemplate it, and finally meditate upon it (śravana, manana, and nididhyāsana). To incorporate this technique into spiritual practice, Swami Turiyananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, once taught a young monastic how to study the Bhagavad-Gita: ‘Take one verse at a time, meditate on its meaning, and live the verse for a week before going on to the next verse.’ By studying an entire scripture in this way, an aspirant refines and deepens the faculty of introspection, imbibes the spiritual truth of the passage, and thus activates and sustains a spiritual current of thought throughout the day. By developing subtlety of mind, one unleashes the powers of the mind.
To strengthen and unsheathe the buddhi from its weakening and covering delusions forged through many lives, the aspirant, under the guidance of a qualified teacher, also practices the method of negating all impermanent, unreal phenomena superimposed on the supreme reality (neti neti ātmā). Beginning with gross phenomena and gradually proceeding to more subtle elements, the aspirant, through logic and willpower, peels back the several layers of superimposition (adhyāropa) veiling the underlying reality of Atman-Brahman, and gradually renounces them all, both physically and mentally. This is a process that involves two steps: by negating the attributes of the non-Self, one unfolds the essential nature of the Self, or Atman; and by negating the conditions and qualities of the relative world, one discovers the nature of Brahman. Sri Ramakrishna demonstrated in his life the unconscious effects of this practice when steadfastly performed in a conscious and uncompromising way. ‘When I meditated under the bel-tree,’ Sri Ramakrishna confided to his disciple M, ‘I used to see various visions clearly. One day I saw in front of me money, a shawl, a tray of sandesh, and two women. I asked my mind, “Mind, do you want any of these?” I saw the sandesh to be mere filth. One of the women had a big ring in her nose. I could see their inside and outside—entrails, filth, bone, fresh, and blood. The mind did not want any of these—money, shawl, sweets or women. It remained fixed … [on] God.’
Self-inquiry (ātma vicāra) is the technique of probing into the nature of the seer and the seen to end the identification between the subject and the object (drg-drśya-viveka); of rigorously analyzing the three states of consciousness (waking, dream, and dreamless sleep) in order to gain insight into that which is common to them, the witness-self; and of methodically examining the threefold body and fivefold sheath in order to renounce one’s outer coverings and trace one’s ‘I-consciousness’ back to its source, the Self. These spiritual disciplines demand the utmost clarity of intellect and willpower—the sword of discrimination being ever unsheathed to pierce the subtle delusions of the conscious, subconscious, and even unconscious mind. ‘The discipline of negation must be practiced without intermission’, stipulates Swami Nikhilananda in his comprehensive ‘Introduction’ to Shankara’s Self-Knowledge (Ātmabodha), ‘as long as even a dreamlike perception of the universe and the finite soul remains, and as long as identification with the body is not totally wiped out. Neither sleep nor concern about secular matters nor attachment to sense-objects should be given the slightest opportunity to let one forget the nature of the real Self.’
Ramprasad, the Bengali poet-saint, wrote a song which Sri Ramakrishna used to sing, demonstrating how discrimination, when properly performed, enables the aspirant to retain the witness consciousness throughout the three states of consciousness:
Once for all, this time, I have thoroughly understood;
From One who knows it well, I have learnt the secret of bhāva.
A man has come to me from a country where there is no night,
And now I cannot distinguish day from night any longer;
Rituals and devotions have all grown profitless for me.
My sleep is broken; how can I slumber any more?
For now I am wide awake in the sleeplessness of yoga.
O Divine Mother, made one with thee in yoga-sleep at last,
My slumber I have lulled to sleep for evermore.
The discrimination and renunciation of a spiritual aspirant is tested through the practice of karma yoga. In the field of selfless action one attempts to drive home the non-dual Vedanta perception of reality through dedicated action and, in doing so, learns how much the Advaita Vedanta ideal is actually instilled and reflected in one’s unconscious habits and reactions. Seclusion can be a safe haven for a practitioner of Vedanta—in it one feels comfortable with one’s own spiritual prowess—but in the field of action, shortcomings and weaknesses quickly manifest and are, therefore, easier to detect and eradicate. For this reason, including the practice of karma yoga in one’s daily life is more beneficial than limiting one’s spiritual disciplines to only study and meditation. At the same time, the practice of karma yoga unaccompanied by regular meditation quickly deteriorates into mere meritorious acts of karma.
Advaitic meditations vary according to the temperament and capacity of the aspirant. With repeated practice, Self-inquiry (ātma-vicāra) advances to a meditative state. The practice of constant self-awareness—witnessing each state of consciousness—is the pratibodha technique of mindfulness, known also as vipaśyana. Its roots can be found in the Kena Upanishad: ‘Brahman is known when It is realized in every state of the mind; for by such Knowledge one attains Immortality’ (pratibodha viditam matam). Behind all thought and action is the witness-self, which also becomes manifest to the aspirant who, when sufficiently advanced, can at will sustain the interval between two thoughts.
In the Upanishads, there are symbolic Advaitic meditations known as vidyās, which train the mind of the aspirant to search beneath the coverings of various external objects—such as honey (madhu), the sun (āditya), and fire (pañcāgni)—their common spiritual core. In these meditation techniques, which focus on the relationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm, the practitioners attempt to identify their own centre of consciousness with Saguna Brahman (Brahman with attributes). For example, the madhu vidyā—meditation on honey, or sweetness, or bliss—begins: This earth is honey for all beings, and all beings are honey for this earth. The intelligent, immortal being, the soul of this earth, and the intelligent, immortal being, the soul of the individual being—each is honey to the other. Brahman is the soul in each; he indeed is the Self in all. He is all.’
Each successive step of the madhu vidyā meditation on water, fire, air, sun, space, moon, lightning, thunder, ether, law, truth, the human race, and the Self as madhu—focuses on the correlation between these respective elements, expanded to their universal aspects, and the Self within every being and the whole of creation. The intrinsic thread running through all is Atman-Brahman, the culmination of the vidyā or meditation. Sri Ramakrishna disclosed some of the meditations he had learned from his teacher of Vedanta, Tota Puri:
Nangtā [Tota Puri] used to tell me how a jnāni meditates: Everywhere there is water; all the regions above and below are filled with water; man, like a fish, is swimming joyously in that water. In real meditation you will actually see all this. Take the case of the infinite ocean. There is no limit to its water. Suppose a pot is immersed in it: there is water both inside and outside the pot. The jnāni sees that both inside and outside there is nothing but Paramātman. Then what is this pot? It is ‘I-consciousness. Because of the pot the water appears to be divided into two parts; because of the pot you seem to perceive an inside and an outside. One feels that way as long as this pot of ‘I’ exists. When the ‘I’ disappears, what is remains. That cannot be described in words. Do you know another way a jnāni meditates? Think of infinite ākāśa and a bird flying there, joyfully spreading its wings. Tree is the Cidākāśa and Ātman is the bird. The bird is not imprisoned in a cage; it flies in the Cidākāśa. Its joy is limitless.
Self-inquiry culminates in the intuitive knowledge revealed by the four Vedic aphorisms (mahāvākyas) stated in the Upanishads: ‘That thou art’ (tat-tvam-asi); ‘I am Brahman’ (aham brahmāsmi); ‘Pure Consciousness is Brahman’ (prajñānam brahma); and This Self is Brahman’ (ayam-ātmā brahma). Each of the ten Vedantic monastic orders founded by Shankaracharya is associated with one of these Vedic dictums, which is transmitted from guru to disciple at the time of sannyasa. Before that, the novice undergoes years of rigorous spiritual training to purify the mind, in order that it may be receptive to these higher truths. At the time of sannyasa, when the guru utters one of the mahāvākyas, the disciple is then better able to receive the realization of truth that the mantra imparts. ‘The Self … is to be known,’ Yajnavalkya exhorts his wife Maitreyi in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, ‘Hear about it, reflect upon it, meditate upon it. By knowing the Self, my beloved, through hearing, refection, and meditation, one comes to know all things.’By uninterrupted meditation on these great Vedic dictums, desires are obliterated, and we receive the highest realization of pure consciousness, known as nirvikalpa samādhi. The mind’s refection of pure consciousness reverts back to its source of light, the Self-luminous Brahman, just as our face, when reflected in a broken mirror, reverts back to our face itself. Subject and object—pure consciousness and perceived consciousness—become one. At last we discover that the ocean of pure consciousness that we had thought was outside ourselves is, in reality, within. We are by nature Brahman—eternal, free, ever-blissful—the One-without-a-second.
Comparison between Mind and Consciousness in Western Psychology and Advaita Vedanta
The fundamental difference between Western and Eastern psychology is that the former does not, and the latter does differentiate Mind from Consciousness. On the contrary Western psychology interprets Mind in terms of Consciousness, that is Consciousness is the distinctive character of Mind. Where Mind and Consciousness are used as equivalents the one of the other, ordinary experience is of course meant and not pure Cit or supreme unconditioned Consciousness. The Western ‘Mind’ is something for which there is no adequate Sanskrit equivalent since the notions are different. When I speak of Mind in Vedanta I refer to what is explained later as the ‘Inner Instrument’ (Antahkarana) as distinguished from the ‘outer instruments’ (Bāhyakarana) or senses on the one hand, and on the other hand from Consciousness of which both mind and senses are instruments.
The term Mind bears a narrower as well as a wider meaning in the sāstras. Thus in the saying ‘from where speech together with mind (Manas) withdraws failing to reach’ (referring to Brahman) the word Manas (mind) is evidently used for the whole ‘Inner Instrument’. In strictly philosophical literature however, the term Manas is almost always used in a defined sense so that it cannot be translated into ‘Mind’ as understood by Western psychologists. It is only then one function of the inner instrument. Indian ‘Mind’ is distinguished from Western Mind in this that the former as such is not Consciousness but a material force enveloping Consciousness, the two in association producing the Consciousness-unconsciousness of Western Mind. Pure Consciousness (Cit) is not an attribute of Mind. It is beyond Mind being independent of it. It is immanent in Mind and is the source of its illumination and apparent Consciousness. …
According to the Vedanta … Cit is pure consciousness Itself. Mind is a real or apparent negation or limitation or determination of that. Mind in fact, in itself, that is considered as apart from Cit (from which in fact it is never separate) is an unconscious force which in varying degree obscures and limits consciousness, such limitation being the condition of all finite experience. Cit is thus Consciousness. Mind is Consciousness plus Unconsciousness, the intermingled Consciousness- unconsciousness which we see in all finite being.