Monday, November 12, 2012


Dr. Chilakamarthi Durga Prasada Rao

Each of the major religions and philosophies of the world speaks, often in symbolic terms, about states of consciousness other than those of our ordinary consciousness. According to these teachings, we have the potential to experience qualitatively different levels of perception, awareness and orientation towards ourselves, others and the universe. The first two of these distinct realms of consciousness – sleep and waking consciousness – constitute the normal human condition, our day to day experience. Higher states of being correlate with fine and subtle levels of reality. In this article the nature of different levels of consciousness in general and Witness Consciousness in particular, are discussed from the perspective of Advaita -Vedanta. Before entering into the subject the necessity of study of these levels of consciousness is presented hereunder.
It is a natural tendency of every living being to desire happiness and avoid misery. They therefore strive towards that end to the maximum possible extent. But on close observation and personal experience, it is seen that the happiness we acquire in day to day life is subjected to gradation. More over it is always accompanied by some elements of misery. We can even say that there is no pleasure in this world which is not mixed with misery. And the pleasure we get by possessing something will certainly cause misery when we loose it. Even though the joy of heavenly sojourn is pure and not effected by any element of misery, it is also not everlasting.

This being so, it is imperative on the part of the wise to opt for the permanent and absolute happiness. Through the experience of seers and saints, it is known that man can get real and absolute happiness on the realization of his own true nature and it alone is to be the sole aim of human life and there is no higher purpose of human existence than knowing one’s own self. The Sastras assert that a man who knows Brahman will achieve the highest good ब्रह्मविदाप्नोति परम् (Brahmavidapnoti param).


All the Upanishads not only establish the Uniqueness of Atman but also assert that nothing other than It exists. सर्वं खल्विदं ब्रह्न नेह नानास्ति किंचन (Sarvam khalvidam Brahma neha nanasti kinchana) means that the entire universe is nothing but Brahman and there is no plurality in It. Brahman, is the universal spirit and the supreme reality. It is self-effulgent. Being self- luminous it illuminates everything.

न तत्र सुर्यो भाति न चन्द्रतारकं
नेमा विद्युतो भान्ति कुतोयमग्नि:
तमेव भान्तमनुभाति सर्वं
तस्य भासा: सर्वमिदं विभाति

(Na tatra suryo bhati na chandratarakam
Nema vidyuto bhanti kutoyamagnih
Tameva Bhantamanubhati sarvam
Tasya bhasah savvamidam vibhati).

Translation: There the Sun shines not, nor the moon, nor the stars, nor even these lightning flashes; all these shine only after He shines; it is only through His luminosity that all this shines.

The entire creation is the result of movement in consciousness. According to Sankara there is an intelligent principle behind the manifest world which alone can account for the design and purpose of the universe and it is none other than Brahman Itself. Brahman is pure consciousness and it is self-effulgent. It is the light which manifests all objects and all relations between the objects. It is the primordial source of the universe comprising the worlds, the objects in them and the senses and the mind. It has neither inside nor outside and it is a mere mass of knowledge. Brahman, the supreme self is manifested as Atman, the inner self of all beings. It is neither limited in space and time nor governed by the law of causality. Though it is one and without a second it appears as many to the ignorant. It is the subtle agent that animates the mind, sense organs etc and acquires the characteristics of a knower, knowledge and the known.
Matter, the manifestation of chaitanya at a lower level, can neither know itself nor any thing else. It comes under the known category. Mind, a comparatively higher level of the manifestation of chaitanya can know matter but it cannot know itself. It is both knower and known. Atman, being the highest level of chaitanya not only knows itself but also every thing else. There is no seer, no hearer, no knower other than Itself. However, It can not be known because a knower of all can not be known by gross mind or senses. He is to be known only by the refined mind after being instructed by a competent and erudite teacher.
तद्विज्ञानार्थं स गुरुमेवाभिगच्छेत्
समित्पाणि: श्रोत्रियं ब्रह्म निष्ठम्

(Tadvijananartham sa gurumevabhigacchet
Samitpanih shrotriyam brahmanishtham)


Though the un-manifested consciousness is pure, the manifested consciousness at different levels is impure to different degrees as it is associated with Maya or Avidya. As already stated, we experience three states in our day-to-day life. They are waking state, dreaming state and deep sleep.

We experience consciousness in waking state and we are aware of it. In this state external objects determine the content of our consciousness. It is the state in which mind and sensory organs act as channels for consciousness to flow out and take the shape of the objects under observation. Similarly we are aware of dreaming. Dream consciousness is made up of the same stuff as the waking consciousness, except that its content is not empirically real but a reflection of occurrences experienced in waking state. It is illusory in the sense that, on waking, one realizes the unreality of what is experienced in the dream.
Even though we are not apparently conscious of any experience whatsoever in deep sleep we become aware of the joy we experienced in deep sleep the moment we wake up and reflect upon it. This clearly shows that we are animated by consciousness of the self during that state also. This deep sleep state is characterised by the total absence of all distinctions together with the awareness of the subject and object and the distinction between the two. Apart from these three there is one more state, Turiya, the fourth one, which is neither conscious of the internal world, nor conscious of the external world, nor conscious of both the worlds, nor a mass of consciousness , nor simple consciousness, nor unconsciousness, which is unseen beyond empirical determination, beyond the grasp of the mind, un-demonstrable, unthinkable, indescribable and of the nature of the consciousness alone where all phenomena cease to exist and which remains unchanging, peaceful, auspicious and non dual. The first three states are mutually exclusive in that each exists in its own right to the exclusion of the other two while the forth is the conscious background against which every thing that happens in the three states occurs. It is as if a witness {Sakshin} to all that happens in our conscious life.


The concept of Atman as Sakshin is allegorically expressed in the Mundakopanishad. Atman, albeit one in nature, is described as possessing a dual character. Firstly, there the supreme consciousness – through association with the mind and the senses – engages in actions, thereby reaping their sweet and bitter results as Jiva. Secondly there is the consciousness which remains aloof as a pure spectator or witness. (Sakshin) and who is in essence none other than Jivasakshin identified with Brahman.
द्वा सुपर्णा सयुजा सखाया
समानं व्R क्षं परिषस्वजाते
तयोरन्य: पिप्पलं स्वाद्वत्ति
(Dva suparna sayuja sakhaya
Samanam vriksham parishasvajate
Tayoranyah pippalam svadvatti
Anashnnannyo abhichakashit)

Translation: Two birds, companions and always united, Cling to the self – same tree. One eats the sweet Pippala – fruit, the other looks on without eating.

Here the former refers to the Jivatma, who eats the diverse fruits of many flavours, and consequently experiences the pleasures and pains of life. The latter, who looks on without eating is the Sakshin or Atman, always one with Brahman, ever untouched by Maya in which Jiva is engulfed. He is, at the same time, the controller of both the individual soul and the body and is also the detached witness of their activities. [Swami Nikhilananda on Mundakopanishad-3/1/1]

Swetaswara Upnishad went one step further by stating that the Atman as Sakshin. It regards Him as the supreme deity or consciousness which being all by itself governs the entire Universe. The verse goes like this.
एको देव: सर्वभूतेषु गूढ:
सर्वव्यापी सर्वभूतान्तरात्मा
कर्माध्यक्ष: सर्वभूताधिवास:
साक्षी चेता केवलो निर्गुणश्च
Translation: The one resplendent God is hidden in all beings, all pervading, the inmost self of all creatures, The overseer of all karmas, Dwelling in all beings.

He is the witness [Sakshin], the knower, the Absolute, free from all attributes.{S.U 6/11} Chitsukharya, who established the nature of Atman as Sakshin explains in his magnum opus ‘ Tattvapradipika’ that the self shining nature of Atman as Sakshin, can not be denied because the Shruti says that Atman is self luminous. The sloka runs as follows:

त्स्वयं ज्योतिरिति श्रुते:
आत्मन: स्वप्रकाशत्वं
को निवारयितुं क्षम:
{ Chidrupatvadkarmatvat
Svayam jyotiriti shruteh
Atmanah svaprakashatvam
Ko nivarayitum kshamah }
{ Tattvapradipika }

Unlike other branches of knowledge, this knowledge can be acquired through Sadhana on the instruction of a preceptor who has had the experience of supreme reality and that is why it is said in the Mundakopanishad:

Tadvijnartham sa gurumevabhigacchet
Samitpanih shrotriyam brahmanishtham

The same idea is found in the Gita also:

तद्विद्धि प्रणिपातेन परिप्रश्नेन सॆवया
उपदेक्ष्यन्ति ते ज्ञानं ज्ञानिन: तत्त्वदर्शिन:

{Tadviddhi pranipatena
pariprashnena sevaya
upadekshyanti te jnanam
jnaninah tattvadarshinah.}
{ Bhagavadgita- IV-34}
The Advaita-Vedanta tradition has thus conceived the Sakshichaitanya as the highest level of spiritual consciousness attainable in this life.


  1. Bhagavadgita
  2. Brihadaranyakopanishad.
  3. Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
  4. Kathopanishad.
  5. Mandukyopanishad translated by Swami Nikhilananda.
  6. Mundakopanishad.
  7. Swetaswataropanishad.
  8. Tattvapradipika


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