Consciousness – such a common word yet so grossly misunderstood.
Who am I? Where did I come from?
What does it mean to be conscious?
When we speak, who is dictating from inside?
These are some questions that have evaded the human intellect for time immemorial. Every day we wake up with these questions bubbling inside us. We go to sleep nursing the same query while gazing with hope towards the next day.
Understanding consciousness is like trying to define the word definition. Many scholars and great thinkers have attempted to explain this phenomenon since humans have existed. Whether it be western thinkers like Plato, Socrates, and Euclid, or Eastern ones like Aryabhata, Kalhan, and Nagarjuna; everyone has their own theory of what it means to be conscious of your surroundings and what exactly differentiates us, humans, from other animals.
In this article, we will discuss how this ever-alluding topic has been explained and pondered upon in the world-famous Indian epics known as the Vedas.
Before getting into the thick of things let us understand what exactly Vedas are. Contrary to popular beliefs these famous treatises on knowledge are not limited to a particular religion or community and in essence, are not religious texts. There are a total of four main books and thousands of ancillary ones which are collectively known by the name of Vedas. The names of these four collections are Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda.
Out of these Rigveda is the oldest, having been written around 1500-1200 BCE. Although Rigveda or the “The Knowledge of Verses” mentions several entities who are worshipped as Hindu deities today, the Rigveda in itself is more of a ritualistic guide than a religious epic like Ramayana or Mahabharata. It teaches its readers various Sanatan Dharma rituals and practices like worshipping the elements, performing yagyas, and making sacrifices to the aforementioned entities. It also contains the names of the deities and their deeds but in a strictly historical and anthropological format rather than a religious format like the Bible or the Qur’an.
Rigveda teaches its readers various Sanatan Dharma rituals and practices like worshipping the elements, performing yagyas, and making sacrifices to the Vedic entities.
Now let me tell you how the Vedas are structured because contrary to popular beliefs they are not entirely independent in themselves. All four Vedas are further sub divided into four divisions – Samhitas (original chants and incantations), the Aranyakas (text on rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices), the Brahmanas (commentaries on the original text), and the Upanishads (texts discussing meditation, philosophy, and spiritual knowledge). Samhita is the one part that people identify as being the main Veda as it contains a high-level translation of the original text. Other parts include Upanishads which comprise a deeper discourse on the metaphysical and intellectual contents and Aranyakas which are a way of explaining the knowledge of Vedas in a story or fictional format. From these, the Puranas take form but that is a discussion for another time.
Though the concept of consciousness is mentioned briefly in the Samhitas of the oldest two Vedas i.e. Rigveda and Yajurveda, the topic is discussed in detail in the Isha Upanishad and Mandukaya Upanishad. Isha is one of the 18 main Upanishads and is a part of the Shukla Yajurveda or the Black Yajurveda. The term black here pertains to the parts of Yajurveda that are not normally read or written and hence are restricted for advanced readers.
Isha Upanishad attributes all forms of pleasure as well as pain to the concept of self -swayam- or in other words the conscious element inside our ever indulgent mind. It says that just like it is necessary to first drown in the sea to learn swimming; in the same way, to let go of the Maya or illusion of desires around us, we first need to wade through the river of pleasure unscathed so as to reach the ocean of knowledge.
Another Upanishad which exclusively discusses the concept of self is the Mandukaya Upanishad, a part of Atharvaveda. Referring to consciousness in a strictly metaphysical way, Mandukaya Upanishad in its beej shloka -main verse- differentiates between the different states of consciousness. It says that there are three primary states of consciousness – waking state, dreaming or subconscious state, and the state of Shunya or deep sleep. It then goes on to define the concept of self or pure consciousness, as Turiyam or the fourth one. The fourth state of consciousness is what remains when we remove the three aforementioned states. And this is where it gets tricky. So let me explain this through an example.
Let’s assume that there is a creature so evasive that nobody has ever seen it. As soon as anybody tries to observe it disappears altogether. Then how do we know it exists in the first place? We acknowledge its presence by the pieces of evidence it leaves behind by affecting its surroundings. We accept that the evasive creature was around us because we can see the remnants of animals it has eaten or the footsteps it has left or by the destruction it left in its wake.
Similarly, Turiyam is the energy that powers the three primary states of consciousness. Just like light shines through a glass pane, this pure consciousness, or what Rigveda calls Chaitanyam shines through the mind and helps in the functioning of our body. It makes its presence felt through the mind and the body. But it is neither mind nor the body in the way that the torch gives us light but is not light.
Chaitanyam or Turiyam enables the mind and body to function but is not dependent on the body to exist. It also exists apart from them. Without the body and mind, consciousness exists but it can’t be experienced just like light can’t be perceived until it is reflected by something.
I know the concept is difficult to grasp but we have to understand that it is not a simple theory, to begin with. Even the followers of Advaita and Vedanta ideologies who are taught these concepts are first made aware of other basic concepts before getting on to such complex conjectures. Nonetheless, it is one of many examples which show that Vedas are an assortment of such deep and unparalleled knowledge that we can’t even begin to fathom. We must pay attention to such deep pools of knowledge and stop dismissing them as mythical whims of our ancestors.
Vedas are the legacy of India and the Sanatan Dharma. They are pure knowledge which in itself is never positive or negative. It is how we use the knowledge which makes it good or evil.