By Swami Satswarupananda
It is the Sphinx’s riddle: What is consciousness? It is something we take for granted and make use of every moment of our lives, without which we are not what we think ourselves to be, and yet when we want to know it more deeply, it eludes us. When we know it, our life’s aim is fulfilled, we are free from all anxieties, all troubles.
We make use of words like knowledge, consciousness, awareness, intuition, almost as synonyms. Etymology, so far as abstract things are concerned, does not help us much. Usage takes us a long way, but leaves us short of the destination. Philosophical books, with their various arguments and conclusions, confuse us. All this because they try to explain that which is at the root of all explanations, and nothing can explain itself by itself. Any argument or explanation, talk or discussion, from start to finish, is all consciousness. Neither in dreams nor in the waking state are we free of it even for a split moment. Being always in and surrounded by it, how can we say what it is? For a thing to be known, it must be put in front of us. Being everywhere under all conditions, in and around us as well as in and around other things and beings, it cannot be known, except in bits, leaving out an almost infinite part of it, thus giving us the uncomfortable feeling that what little we know does not authorize us to assert we have known it. Still, no one, once they start thinking about it, can ever remain satisfied with a piecemeal knowledge of it.
We shall try to approach the problem from the Upanishadic point of view, and see how far the ancient rishis succeeded in their attempts at unravelling the mystery of consciousness. But as we have to put their thoughts and words into English, we have to add notes on the Sanskrit words and phrases the rishis have used, and to their English equivalents as well.
Chith is the word the seers have used to indicate that which we mean by ‘consciousness’. The nearest translation of this Sanskrit word, especially as it is used in the Upanishads, is contained in what Sir John Woodrofe says: ‘It is a feeling-consciousness.’ Explaining this compound word will lead us deep into its content. Sir John has evidently not used ‘feeling’ to distinguish it from ‘thinking’ and ‘willing’, which, on the face of it, would be absurd—both ‘thinking’ and ‘willing’ are modes of consciousness and, therefore, consciousness per se. But ‘thinking’ and ‘willing’ include an element of ‘activeness’ which is absent in the connotation of chith. Again, the English words ‘knowledge’ and ‘awareness’ have the same distinction in their implications. When we say ‘we know’ we mean we exerted ourselves, as a result of which we know. But when we say ‘we are conscious of it’ we do not mean we have put forth any energy for being conscious of it. But that does not debar the entry of exertion altogether; we might have exerted previously, the result of which, at the present moment, is our being ‘conscious of it’. In order to bring out this subtle distinction, Sir John has added ‘feeling’ to consciousness’. Chith is never active; it is never an agent of any kind of activity. It simply is, and it is by its mere presence that ‘we know’, ‘we are conscious of ’.
Why have the rishis laid so much emphasis on this passivity of chith, we may ask. It is because in our passive conditions alone are we aware that we know, or are conscious of, anything. In other words, in the passive state we are consciousness itself. At other times we deal with various things—with objects—to such an extent that we forget we are acting consciously, deliberately. Even when we appear to be inactive, not engaged in any particular work, sitting idle, our mind or consciousness is full of ideas or concepts—which, again, are objects—to the detriment of the awareness of consciousness itself. We have to make a little effort to drive out all objects and feel the presence of consciousness—to feel our feeling, so to say. When the mind is thus made vacant, we get to know that our mind is consciousness; sat, our ultimate nature, our being, is also chith, consciousness.
It may be urged that here also there is activity—activity in driving out the objects that cover consciousness. True, but this activity is needed only to drive out things that are not consciousness, and not in ‘knowing’ consciousness. Our idea is not to deny activity but only to note its absence in the essence of consciousness. Activity forces itself on our consciousness from all sides. To deny that would be sheer madness. In eliminating the objects that cover consciousness we are not producing consciousness but only clearing the encrustation overlaying it—when the covering is removed the thing covered is not produced afresh, only its presence is revealed. So activity does not enter into the constitution or nature of consciousness, which is a homogeneous entity and not a compound. Consciousness is consciousness alone; no attribute, no activity is admissible therein.
Is Matter Independent of Consciousness?
When we comprehend the above fact, we know consciousness to be something that is not only unlimited but also something that cannot be limited by any effort of man or nature, for consciousness is involved in all our efforts, in all limited persons and things. There can be no experience without its involvement—it is anubhava, experience, itself. Do we then deny the existence of matter as an entity distinct from consciousness, different from it? We say that the so-called Kantian thing-in-itself, that unknown and unknowable thing, that axiomatic truth without which the universe cannot be explained, is not so very axiomatic or unavoidable as to necessarily be taken for granted. At best we can say that it may or may not exist. The entire universe can very well be explained without it, provided we understand consciousness properly. The experience of our dream state has been explained in terms of consciousness alone. There all things and acts, subjects and objects, are made up of consciousness alone; and yet a full drama is enacted as vividly as in the waking state. If that is possible, why can it not be done for the waking state as well? As long as the dream lasts, there is interplay of consciousness and matter, which, on coming out of the dream, we know to be merely a fabrication of consciousness. It cannot be argued that dream objects are images of real material objects of the waking state, for that would involve a petition principii. We are discussing if matter exists apart from consciousness and are not entitled to take its existence for granted.
All our amorphous objections will vanish if we view consciousness not in the narrow sense in which it is generally conceived but in the sense that Vedanta suggests: as something that expresses itself as both the matter and consciousness we are familiar with. This means that consciousness appears as matter when it is an object of thought or experience and as the ordinary consciousness of our every-day life when it is the subject, the thinking and understanding principle. Moreover, if we but try a little to grasp it, we see that in it rests and plays—bobbing up and down, as it were—everything that is experienced. And what is outside it? We are not entitled to say anything on this matter; nay, we cannot even formulate this question logically, for the formulation itself involves consciousness. So chith, the real consciousness, the primary consciousness of Vedanta, appears both as matter and as conventional consciousness: vyavaharika chith. This real chith is sath-chith, existence-consciousness, while our empirical consciousness is a chitta-vritti, mode of consciousness, a mixture of the subject and the object. For the same reason even the limited subject is a vritti, a mode of consciousness.
Do we not actually see that all our mundane objects of thought appear as matter? For example, all the ‘first person singulars’—the experiencing beings—experience themselves as consciousness or modes of it; and the same first person singulars, when viewed by others, are seen as bodies. In fact, we ourselves, when we look at ‘us’, take ourselves to be bodies; but when we reason, consider things a little deeply, look inwards, we perceive ourselves as mind or consciousness. If we are observant and reason carefully, we shall find that during a very large portion of our lives we are consciousness; only when we are engaged in some physical work do we forget ourselves and identify ourselves with our bodies. When we think, reason, feel, plan, or even sit idle, we are consciousness; bodily exercises force us out of ourselves to what we call the material plane, which again is upheld by consciousness. It is for this reason that in Vedanta the jada, insentient, is equated with the vishaya, object: all objects are material, all matter is objective. Conversely, all subjects are constituted by conventional consciousness. Sat-chith, the real primary consciousness, is the bedrock supporting all planes of existence.
Permanence and Unceasing Change
So much for the reason why such great emphasis is laid on the passivity of chith. Standing on the bed-rock of consciousness, and thus being sure of our own position in the investigation, we can go on testing, on the touchstone of reason, the existence and value of other objects, and even that of the touchstone itself. If we are ourselves shaky, if we are nothing but helpless changefulness—being one thing this moment and another the next—what faith can one place in the conclusions we draw? In such a situation all knowledge acquired by human labour over the millennia will be in jeopardy. Even for the establishment of relativity something permanent needs to be assumed. When the assumption is questioned we land in an infinite regress. The entire framework of logic, or the laws of thought or consciousness, is based on an integral substance with unshaken and unshakable permanence at its centre. Rather, everywhere—from the centre to the nowhere-to-be-found periphery—there runs an immovable permanence engaged in a mad dance of restless appearances. Acharya Shankara in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita states ‘Of the unreal there is no being; the real has no non-existence. The nature of both these, indeed, has been realized by the seers of Truth.’
Now crops up an important question: If consciousness is really passive, inactive, and ubiquitous, and is the only thing that exists, how is it that we find forces and activities all around us, right down to the seeming quiet of the proton in the atomic nucleus? How does one explain the existence of the force that has built up this universe and is still building, breaking, and rebuilding it?
Science has shown us how relative forces are generated—one from the other—and how even the most innocent-looking ingredients of the atomic nucleus are full of energy. Again, we need no lesson in psychology to be convinced that even in our internal world there is a perpetual movement of thoughts and ideas, of emotions and volitions. So, in or out, forces and movements are everywhere—acting, reacting, coalescing, and interchanging. But the ‘where’ of it has not been pushed to the ultimate point. We can go further and say, with the cumulative experience of the entire thinking humanity, that all these movements occur in, around, and with objects, but never in the subject. The deeper we dive into the subject, the quieter is our experience; and when the rock bottom of consciousness is reached, there is absolute calm. What conclusion can we draw from this phenomenon? Is not the consciousness that comprises the subject as well as the object either both passive and active—involving rest and motion—or neither of them? As the latter alternative contradicts our experience of rest and motion in all the effects we deal with every moment of our lives, their causes must also contain both; so the former alternative alone is rational. Therefore, consciousness is passive and active, static and dynamic. But the more we try to understand it as it is, apart from its adjuncts, the more passive it appears. And when we are busy with objects we forget all about it, and it disappears from our view. Hence, consciousness of consciousness—that is, self-consciousness—is bound to be passive, or else we do not have it at all; as we said, it disappears! But ‘consciousness of consciousness’ is an absurdity, for it will lead to ‘consciousness of consciousness of consciousness’ ad infinitum. Therefore, consciousness and self-consciousness are not two things but one; consciousness is always conscious of itself. In every conception—that is, the act of forming a concept—consciousness knows itself as well as the object. The Kena Upanishad asserts: ‘Brahman, or Consciousness, is truly known when it is known with every state of consciousness.’
Passivity and activity are our views of consciousness as we look at it in relation to the subject and the object. What it is in itself we, its products, cannot say. Here, ‘we’ means our personalities comprising our body, mind, and other related entities. But for all practical purposes, for our experience, vyavahara, we have to admit both the subject and the object. When the veracity of experience is doubted or negated, we have no right to utter a word or think a thought. Vedanta admits it but gives the highest place to depth-consciousness, calling it intuition, the experience beyond all experiences involving a subject-object relationship. This is called paramarthika-satta, ultimate being. The word paramarthika is made up of two terms: parama, meaning ‘supreme’, and artha, which has two meanings—‘entity’ and ‘purpose’ or ‘goal’. When artha is taken to mean ‘entity’ the compound denotes ‘supreme entity’, that beyond which no experience is possible; and when it is taken to mean ‘purpose’ or ‘goal of life’ the compound means ‘ultimate end of life’. What is this ultimate end? Gaining absolute freedom: our birthright, our ultimate nature. When one is truly identified with that all pervading lone consciousness, all obstacles, fears, and anxieties cease, since all the elements that obstruct, terrorize, and make one anxious are engulfed by one’s self, the basic intuition. Only then can one laugh at all dangers or threats, like the gymnosophist who, when threatened with death by Alexander told him to his face: ‘Monarch of this tiny world, you never told a greater lie in your life! You to kill me, the all-pervading entity, devoid altogether of all touch of duality!’
Be that as it may, when we are in quest of the nature of this unique consciousness or intuition we cannot take only one side of our experience and ignore the other, accept passivity alone to be its ultimate nature and reject activity or the entire objective world consisting of ceaseless activity. Nor can we relegate the latter to a secondary place. Both are equally important, equally necessary for explaining our experiences and the universe, the objects of our adventure. The philosopher’s quest for the mythical stone, the adventurer’s urge for grasping the whole Truth, the nature of Reality, is perennially insistent; they can never have rest, peace, or freedom without satisfying themselves fully about the nature of the integral Reality.
As there are two kinds of experiences—that of pure consciousness in the depths of our being and that of the objective world full of dynamic forces—that range from our inner sense organ, the mind, to the utmost reaches of the spatial universe, we must admit that both passivity and activity constitute the ultimate Reality. What appears as an effect must necessarily be potentially present or involved in the cause.
We may go one step further and say that passivity and activity are not two different, far less opposite, entities; the difference is one of degree, much like the difference between darkness and light. Most of the so-called contradictory terms and concepts—heat and cold, ease and disease, moral and immoral—belong to this group. And ‘degree’ is a matter of human convention; in reality, human intelligence has cut into pieces, for convenience of measurement, what is actually a continuous flow. So passivity and activity are two conventional terms indicative of the two extremes of a single continuum.
Evolution of Consciousness
As we live in a world of conventions, our explanation of things, of acts and facts, must also be conventional. This is what the Vedantins indicate by the expression vyavaharika satya, conventional truth. Hence, though intuition or basic consciousness is one homogeneous ‘force-substance’, it appears and acts as many, a fact testified by your experience. How this is brought about has been shown by scientists through the theory of evolution. But this is an explanation from the point of view of matter. How the bricks of the universe, the subatomic particles, have slowly built up the exceedingly beautiful universe is now known to a very large section of humankind. It is an extremely slow process that began when there was no one to observe and will continue when there will be no one to adore or weep. But from the point of view of consciousness it is a different story altogether, somewhat similar to the biblical Creation story: ‘And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.’ But in the Bible the Lord had to utter one word to create one thing, then another word to create another thing, and so on. This means Creation took some time, however little, to come to the state we are in. Whereas from the point of view of consciousness the one appears as many in an instant—the entire universe with its unimaginable varieties of things, of processes and finished products, appears in the twinkle of an eye. From the almost unconscious deep sleep, through light dreamless sleep, to the waking state, if one tries to observe carefully, one will find how from one homogeneous consciousness of being alone we wake up to this maddening multiplicity. If we have developed sufficient control over our mind, we can give it the suggestion, before falling asleep, that it should try to observe the change that occurs when we pass from the deep-sleep condition to the dream state. Then we shall fnd that here also, from the unity of being, comes the dream multiplicity all of a sudden. In both the above cases it is a sudden change: unity suddenly bursts forth into multiplicity. No intervening process is involved in it: that which was appearing as one—that too, a vague one—appears as many the next moment. But we have no doubt that it is the same I-consciousness, the observer, that persists all through.
The Strata of Consciousness
The above phenomena of deep sleep, dream, and waking state lead us to assert that: (i) There are varying strata of consciousness giving us different kinds of experience. (ii) One stratum appears to be absolutely homogeneous. No, we cannot even say that, for appearance needs two things: the thing appearing and the person to whom it appears. But this state is a vivid experience of something that positively exists. The word ‘experience’ also confuses us in the same way. In fact, there is no word to express this state adequately; yet it is a positive something and the basis of everything else. (iii) In all other strata there is the experience of a subject, the knower, and of an object, the known. But the subject permeating the objects is always one, whether the object be one or many. All objects are held together by the subject, whose ‘appearance’ means annihilation of the entire object-world; the opposite, however, is not true. This annihilation does not necessarily mean that the objective world goes out of existence. It simply means that there remains no informer to say whether the world of objects exists or not. Someone has to testify to the existence of things. In the absence of such a person, who will say that such-and-such a thing exists? (iv) Though at any particular moment there might be only one object present in our mind, the objective world, as such, is a multiplicity: objects are discrete and distinct, one from another. They are held together and utilized by the subject.
Willing-consciousness and the Objective World
The multiplicity referred to above is the experience of the ordinary busy person. Thinkers, scientists, and philosophers, however, see in this objective world not mere multiplicity but unity as well. Their thoughts lead them to accept unity in diversity and diversity in unity in the entire world of objects, internal or external. They have observed that underlying diversity there is a unity throughout. Through all growth and transformation something stands out—some substance, force, or substance-force that abides as the identity of the thing undergoing change. John is John as long as he lives, in spite of all the changes his body and mind undergo throughout the fifty years of his life. Man is man, not an ass, as long as one man survives. A living being is a living being, not a clod of earth, as long as life lasts. It is sometimes difficult to define these unities—leading on to one ground unity—but if we are to live and act we have to admit the existence of such unities. Diversity, however, is so aggressively obvious that it needs no elaboration. We are entitled to extend this conclusion of thinking men to all strata of consciousness—the superconscious or the subconscious, the dream state or the waking—wherever there is a subject-object dichotomy. Through all dual spheres runs this scheme of unity in diversity and diversity in unity. This vision can well be extended to the point where consciousness is a distinction without a difference, the same entity looked at from two standpoints—as it is in itself and as it stands in relation to the manifested world, or, more precisely, as ‘feeling-consciousness’ and ‘willing-consciousness’. Even in the state of thought or idea, when the manifested realities are yet to be, they exist, inasmuch as without this admission objective willing becomes useless. A thing that does not exist cannot be thought of, cannot be willed into existence. But this existence is potential existence, even as the existence of the tree is, in the seed, potential.
The Upanishads have recorded the creative urge in no uncertain terms: Bahu syam, prajayeya; I shall be many, I shall create.’ Such passages had at first been relegated to a secondary place and later dismissed as fiction. But truth will perhaps be served better and the main purpose of the scriptures—to show humans the path of liberation—will be more adequately fulfilled if they are given as much importance as other Vedantic statements. This will to create, sisriksha, on the part of the basic consciousness has been expressed in various ways throughout the Hindu scriptures, from the most ancient days to modern times. In fact, it is a major scriptural theme, compared to which ‘the way to liberation, moksha,’ occupies an insignifcant part. And the reason is not hard to find: moksha is sought afer by only a rare handful of people. So, in understanding the ultimate Truth, the phase of ‘willing-consciousness’ must be accepted; otherwise its integrality will be abridged. This understanding has come to modern Hindus in an unbroken tradition stretching back over several millennia.
Liberating Unity of Being
It must, at the same time, be admitted that no amount of roaming about or diving deep into the analysis and synthesis of ‘willing-consciousness’ will give humans moksha. As long as duality, or plurality, even a shadow of it, lasts, there is no liberation; the little self, narrow and egoistic, will not leave us. It is only the direct experience of the ‘unity of being’, of that homogeneous all-pervading consciousness, that will release humans abidingly from the bondage of the world, from the sense of exclusiveness and otherness pervading one’s personality. Only having had that abiding, neverceasing sense of unity with the whole universe can one be absolutely free, since the objects that bind or give trouble—nay, even bondages and troubles themselves—are felt, in that condition, as one’s very being, as the ‘feeling-consciousness’. This ‘feeling-consciousness’ is unshaken and unshakable, a mere observer consciousness, never taking any part in any of the whirling activities of the world but which, as the ‘willing-consciousness’, is unceasingly creating the force that makes the universe, is the source and the sustenance of all discrete things, from the smallest to the most enormous.
Again, it cannot be said that, inasmuch as it has parts, consciousness is a compound and must share the fate of all compound entities: destruction. That holds good in the case of material things only. It cannot be predicated of consciousness. Do we not see every moment of our lives that the many thoughts, feelings, and urges bobbing up and down in our mind are nothing but consciousness? But do any of them die or get destroyed? They abide even when all discrete material things vanish into their source—the so-called ultimate homogeneous force or energy. We have used the word ‘part’ in the context of consciousness, but the connotation is not the same as in relation to a material thing. Matter can be cut or torn, not so consciousness. Leaving aside the basic consciousness, the active or willing-consciousness remains the same unruffled, unmoving consciousness, in spite of its innumerable modes and manners; it neither increases nor decreases, and yet produces a bewildering multitude of ideas and emotions, all the while retaining its command over them—even as the earth remains but earth though the shapes and sizes of earthenware appears, changes, and vanishes.
To kill or destroy requires two. Consciousness is singular, infinite in all respects, within and beyond time and space. Who can destroy it or make it change in a manner other than its own? Abiding peace is attained only when this thoroughly reasoned posture of the identity of ‘feeling-consciousness’ and ‘willing-consciousness’ has become a permanent experience in life under all circumstances. And this is the goal of life as well as the paramarthika satya, ultimate Truth.
- Originally published by Prabuddha Bharata August, 2009 Edition. Reprinted with permission.