The Indian Concept Of Consciousness

Today, we look at the mind as theorized and evidenced by modern psychology

What is the essence of ‘I’ ? What is the mind? Is there a deeper consciousness? Who are we in our real being? Are we beyond the endless stream of thoughts going on inside us? These have always been the prime questions that are the basis of the seeking of liberation and Self-realization in the ancient Indian tradition.

We focus on the subconscious mind, memory and past experiences as the measure of our mental state. Psychoanalysis usually consists of trying to understand our personal history, including uncovering hidden or repressed traumatic experiences that may inhibit our functioning in life. In most of current psychology, the personal mind is our real consciousness and somewhere in it our true self or identity can be found.

Modern Psychology with an emphasis on testing and experimentation regards consciousness as primarily self-consciousness, such as the ability to recognize ourselves in a mirror.

On this basis, modern science identifies consciousness with the mind and the mind with the brain. It seeks to control and alter mental and emotional functioning through altering brain chemistry with medication. It does not recognize consciousness as a spiritual or cosmic principle. It is a physical view of the mind. The Vedic view of the mind, however, is very different. It is based on meditation and inner experience, rather than outer experimentation. It tries to understand the mind through introspection or turning our awareness within, rather than by analyzing outer mental patterns. We are to observe the mind rather than follow its diktat. It focuses on the process of perception and how it conditions us, rather than to make us lie on a couch and examine our memories.

The Vedic texts approximated to date between 3000–1000 BC claim to be ātmavidyā, meaning the science of self’ or ‘science of consciousness’ . In subsequent centuries and millenium, the Brāhmanas and the Upanishads appeared as commentaries and independent works to give a framework to decode Vedic narrative and retained its connection with consciousness.

In the Vedic view, reality is unitary at the deepest level since otherwise there would be chaos. This reality is called Brahman (neuter gender).

Knowledge is classified in two ways: the higher or unified, and the lower or dual. The higher knowledge concerns the perceiving subject (consciousness), whereas the lower knowledge concerns objects. The higher knowledge can be arrived at only through intuition and meditation on the paradoxes of the outer world. The lower knowledge is analytical and it represents standard sciences (śāstra) with its many branches. In addition, darśana represents philosophy where the problem of self is taken together with some aspect of outer reality. There is a complementarity between the higher and the lower, each being necessary to define the other. This complementarity mirrors the one between mind and body.

The Vedic texts present a three tiered view of the world namely the earth, space, and sky, which is seen in terms of the physical body, the breath (prāna), and mind.

The six systems of Indian philosophy are paired together in three complementary groups:

· Loic or Nyāya and physics or Vaiśeshika

· Cosmology or Sāmkhya and psychology or Yoga; and

· Language or Mimāmsā and reality or Vedānta.

In each of these, the question of the experiencing the self is included.

The objective of the Nyāya is anvīkshiki, or critical inquiry. Its beginnings go into the Vedic period, but its first systematic elucidation is given by Gautama in his Nyāya Sūtra (third century BC). It explains the nature of doubt and the means of proof, considering the nature of self, body, senses and their objects, cognition, and mind. The Nyāya is also called pramāna śāstra or the science of correct /evidential knowledge.

Gautama mentions that four factors are involved in direct perception: the senses -indriyas, their objects- artha, the contact of the senses and the objects - sannikarsha, and the cognition produced by this contact- jnāna.

The five sense organs – eye, ear, nose, tongue, and skin with corresponding qualities of color, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Manas or mind mediates between the self and the senses. When the manas is in contact with one sense organ, it cannot be so with another. Objects have qualities which do not have their own existence. The color and class associated with an object are secondary to the substance. According to Gautama, direct perception is inexpressible. Things are not perceived as bearing a name. The conception of an object on hearing a name is not direct perception but learned cognition.

According to the atomic doctrine of Vaiśeshika ascribed to Kanāda, there are nine classes of substances: ether, space, and time that are continuous; four elementary substances (or particles) called earth, air, water, and fire that are atomic; and two kinds of mind, one omnipresent and another which is the individual.

The Sāmkhya and the Yoga systems take the mind as consisting of five components: manas, ahamkāra, chitta, buddhi, and ātman. Manas is the lower mind which collects sense impressions. Ahamkāra is the sense of I-ness that associates some perceptions to a subjective and personal experience. Once sensory impressions have been related to I-ness by ahamkāra, their evaluation and resulting decisions are arrived at by buddhi, the intellect. Chitta is the memory bank of the mind. These memories constitute the foundation on which the rest of the mind operates. This mental complex surrounds the innermost aspect of consciousness, which is ātman, the self.

Yoga psychology of Patanjali is a very sophisticated description of the nature of the human mind and its capacity. It makes a distinction between memory, states of awareness, and the fundamental entity of consciousness. It puts the analytical searchlight on mind processes with clarity and originality.

Mīmāmsā and Vedānta consider the analysis of language and reality, respectively. Mīmāmsā ideas became a part of the grammatical tradition and Vedānta became a vehicle to consider consciousness in the most abstract sense.

These questions of cognition, reality, abstraction are examined in the later Vedic tradition both within the frameworks of Vaishnavism and Shaivism. Of the latter tradition, the later Kashmir Shaivism of Vasugupta (AD 800) has in recent years received considerable attention (Shiva is itself a name for the absolute consciousness).

According to Sāmkhya, reality may be represented in terms of 25 categories. These categories form the substratum of the classification in Kashmir Shaivism. The Sāmkhya categories are:

1. Five elements of materiality - earth, water, fire, air, and ether

2. Five subtle elements - smell, taste, form, touch, and sound

3. Five organs of action - reproduction, excretion, locomotion, grasping, and speech

4. Five organs of cognition - smell, taste, vision, touch, and hearing

5. Three internal faculties - mind, ego, and intellect

6. Inherent nature - prakriti and consciousness -purusha

In the ancient Indian tradition, knowledge alone is said to bring about the liberation of consciousness, specifically self-knowledge or the knowledge of our true nature. Self-knowledge is the inner Being, the essence of awareness beyond thought and personal history. Though our thoughts are constantly changing, our inner Being remains the same.

Modern science similarly identifies mind and consciousness, equating the faculty of thinking with the power of awareness. It takes us back to the basic Cartesian dictum, “I think therefore I am” But the depth of Indian philosophy has declared “I am that I am”, implying that “I am that which is, that which was and that which will be.”

Our tradition of consciousness is without a parallel in the world. We must rediscover it.


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