Ancient Wisdom, Modern Questions: Vedantic Perspectives in Consciousness Studies

A man must have not only faith, but intellectual faith too.

~ Swami Vivekananda


Once St. Augustine was asked to define time and he replied, “If you do not ask me what time is, then I know. If asked, I know not!” He could very well have been speaking of consciousness. There are some things we cannot speak of, simply because we do not know enough about them. And there are other things which we feel we are very familiar with, and yet, when asked, we are entirely unable to give a satisfactory account. To the latter category belong things like time, space, matter, mind, love, self, and consciousness. One reason why we find it so difficult to adequately define them is that we formally define a concept with concepts that are yet more fundamental, and when we come to the most fundamental concepts of all (like time, space, matter, consciousness, etc.) we are left without the conceptual bricks with which to construct formal definitions. And from a subjective point of view, at least, what could be more fundamental than consciousness itself? That is why it is so difficult to say what consciousness is, although it is the very warp and woof of all experience.

Perhaps it is this very difficulty in defining the field that has inhibited the scientific study of consciousness till recent times. Interest in consciousness studies has picked up considerable pace in the last quarter of the twentieth century. And with this increasingly vigorous scientific investigation has come the awareness that consciousness has been of abiding interest to the philosophies and spiritual traditions of world civilizations since ancient times. Today consciousness studies is truly mutlidisciplinary – brain science,  computer science, psychology, linguistics, philosophy and spirituality are all collaborating in what may be the grandest and most fascinating quests that humanity has ever engaged in – the quest for ourselves.

Indian philosophy has had a deep and enduring interest in consciousness. It seems that Heidegger held the philosophy of consciousness to be an entirely western project – in this, he was most certainly entirely wrong! In fact, the English word ‘consciousness’ has no Greek equivalent. The Greeks did not probably have a fully developed concept of consciousness. Investigations into consciousness are found in the most ancient of texts – the Vedas. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the philosophical investigation of consciousness was a prime concern of Indian philosophers long before the dawn of civilization in the West!

Each school of Indian philosophy, each darsana, has as its goal and raison d’etre the attainment of release of the subject from worldly suffering, termed variously as apavarga, kaivalya, nirvana, moksa. These schools are concerned with the emancipation of the subject, and subjectivity being associated with consciousness, consciousness becomes a fundamental concern for all these schools. Or as Chakravarthi puts it, ‘…subjectivity requiring consciousness, consciousness is an unavoidable factor in any soteriology.’

Further, many of these schools made knowledge an essential part of their project of obtaining final release for the subject. Ignorance was regarded as the root cause of bondage, and when knowledge removes ignorance, bondage is destroyed.  The relationship between knowledge and release then became another issue of vital concern, and knowledge being inextricably linked with consciousness, a theory of consciousness became an indispensable precursor to epistemology. Even among schools as diverse as Nyaya realists and Yogacara idealists, Samkhya dualism and Madhyamaka absolutism (nihilism?), we find a common central concern – consciousness. But it is to Advaita Vedanta that we must turn to find a philosophy of consciousness, par excellence.

In Advaita Vedanta, consciousness is identical with being itself, it is the ground and possibility of all knowledge, and finally, the source of all value – bliss – in life. Consciousness is thus the focus of advaitic metaphysics, epistemology and axiology.  There is no philosophy found in all the civilizations known to human history which has invested consciousness with such ultimate significance as has Advaita Vedanta.

The plan and purpose of this paper may be mentioned in brief. First, the central philosophical problem in consciousness studies, the so called ‘hard problem’ will be considered. Next, we shall review the fundamental tenets of Advaita Vedanta. This will be done primarily by reading a key passage from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad with the commentary by Sankaracarya. Finally, we shall see if this ancient philosophy of Advaita Vedanta can help us with the ‘hard problem’ of modern consciousness studies.

The Hard Problem

The so called Hard Problem (Chalmers 1995) of consciousness is the problem of explaining the relationship between the objective physical world and our subjective conscious experience. It seems to be difficult to satisfactorily explain conscious subjective experience in purely objective physical terms, say in terms of brain activities. Such explanations (of subjective experiences as the firing of neurons in the brain for example) always seem to leave out an essential ingredient of experience – that it feels a certain way to the subject having that experience. There is something ineffable about the subjective nature of conscious experience.

Chalmers distinguishes between this hard problem and ‘easy problems’ of consciousness. The easy problems concern the objective study of the brain. The matter for investigation here is how the brain causes the wide variety of cognitive, affective and conative activities of humans (and other creatures too). It involves mapping brain states with observed or reported behaviour. Of course, these problems are easy only in a philosophical sense – practically speaking, neuroscientists have to work very hard indeed, using ever more sophisticated technology (fMRI is in fashion now), to solve the so-called ‘easy’ problems of consciousness. Take the example of pain – it can be understood as a state that is typically caused by bodily damage, and which makes us want to avoid further damage. Neuroscientists can then show how A-fibre and C-fibre transmissions occur during pain, and presumably, cause the pain sensations. Similarly, objective studies can be made for vision, hearing, attention, language, memory and so many other areas of conscious activity. But none of this actually explains the subjective feelings involved. These are ‘easy problems’ – the hard problem is to explain the feelings themselves – where do they come from? Why does pain feel like something?

Scientist Roger Penrose begins his well known book, The Emperor’s New Mind, with a little story. A child confronts a super ‘intelligent’ computer, touted to have knowledge enough to answer all possible questions, with a very simple question,’What is it like to be a computer?’. The computer founders, unable to even comprehend the question, let alone answer it. Yet it is a question any human, even a child, can understand easily. This story dramatically points to the nature of the hard problem.

To understand the hard problem better we must first distinguish between two components/aspects of conscious experience – the subjective feelings and the objective features. The philosopher Thomas Nagel made this significant point in his now famous paper, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ Bats fly about with the help of a sophisticated version of sonar – echo-location. Nagel asks – imagine if we were bats – what would this experience be like? Would we hear many sounds echoing from objects? Probably not. Just as our experience of vision is of objects and not of light waves (though, technically, all that our eyes receive is light), bats would presumably be aware of objects, not sounds. What this would be like is beyond our imagination. The point is that it is impossible for human beings to grasp the exact quality of bat-experience. There is something like ‘being a bat’ which no amount of objective description or imaginative effort can quite recreate. All the scientific knowledge about the physiology and neurology of bats cannot help us experience ‘being a bat’— the way a bat experiences it subjectively. Nagel’s thought experiment strongly argues against a strictly objective view of consciousness.

There is a gap between the descriptions of science and our personal experience. The philosopher Joseph Levine calls this the ‘explanatory gap’. According to Benjamin Libet, ‘ There is an unexplained gap between the category of physical phenomena and the category of subjective phenomena.’ V R Ramachandran author of the popular book, Phantoms in the Brain, says that,’… despite two hundred years of research, the most basic questions about the human mind… remain unanswered, as does the really big question, What is consciousness?’


The hard problem is the modern variation on an older philosophical debate. Descartes’ cogito ergo sum led to the mind-body dualism which persisted in western thought well into the twentieth century. Descartes, and probably most of his contemporaries, firmly believed in the existence of two very different, but interacting, realms – the realm of the mind (or spirit or soul) and the realm of matter. Subjective experience was attributed to the first realm. But, then the question was how such very different realms, mind and matter, could interact. Mind versus Matter debates were popular giving rise to quips like, ‘What is matter? Never mind! What is mind? No matter!’ Bishop Berkeley offered a radical solution – idealism. He simply denied the existence of a material world, reducing all to mind. Esse est percipi – Existence is perception. All that we experience is mind itself, there being no mind-independent reality ‘out there’. The mind-matter interaction problem disappears, there being no matter at all!

It is worth noting here that Advaita Vedanta has sometimes been presented as an ancient version of Berkeley’s idealism. This is a misunderstanding of the Advaita position. Advaita, in common with other Indian darsanas, considers mind to be jada – insentient matter. In the empirical realm, the Advaita position is in fact akin to realism rather than idealism. In fact, Sankaracarya is vigorous in his critique of Vijnanavada, which takes a position very similar to Berkeley’s idealism.

In the twentieth century, the tide turned firmly against idealism. Advances in science strengthened the explanatory power of the scientific materialist paradigm. All our mental life and subjective experiences are identical with, or an epiphenomenon of, the brain. There is no need to posit an entirely separate special realm of mind/spirit/soul to explain consciousness. Consciousness is simply a product of the changing states of the brain. Matter is the only reality, consciousness can be reductively explained as a product of matter, science seems to proclaim. This is a kind of monism – a materialistic monism, where matter is the one and only reality. Many neuroscientists and philosophers expect advances in brain science to ultimately explain how the brain can produce consciousness. The major hurdle they have to confront is the hard problem.

Incidentally, the Advaita position can be viewed as a mirror image of modern scientific materialistic monism. Swami Vivekananda once made this remarkable observation,

I am a materialist in a certain sense, because I believe that there is only One. That is what the materialist wants you to believe; only he calls it matter and I call it God. The materialists admit that out of this matter all hope, and religion, and everything have come. I say, all these have come out of Brahman.

We may add that the Advaita position has the added advantage (over scientific materialistic monism) of offering a radical solution to the hard problem of consciousness.

At the risk of oversimplification, one may thus summarise the present state of affairs in consciousness studies – the scientific materialist seeks to explain consciousness in terms of matter (brain states) but is unable explain subjective experiences (the hard problem). Various dualist approaches seek to address the hard problem by positing that consciousness is something special, irreducible to brain states, and attributing subjective experiences to this special type of phenomenon. But then they have to explain how this unique irreducible consciousness can interact with matter, specifically, with the brain. Consciousness studies seem to be caught between the Scylla of the hard problem and the Charybdis of the mind-body interaction problem.

At this point, we shall turn to a very ancient text and try to understand the profound philosophy that it propounds, with a view towards new answers to the hard problem and the related mind-body interaction problem.

Katama Atma – Which is the Self?

In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, that is among the most ancient of the Upanisads, we find a dialogue between Janaka, King of Videha, and the sage, Yajnavalkya, on consciousness and the self. When this dialogue, remarkable in itself, is read with the extensive commentary on it by Sankaracarya, we find, at source, as it were, almost all the central tenets of the Advaita Vedanta conception of consciousness.

The king asks the sage the following question – ‘What serves as light for a man?’ Yajnavalkya answers that the sun serves as light for all the activities of man. When the sun sets, moonlight takes its places and serves man in all his activities. Upon being pressed further, Yajnavalkya ventures that fire can serve as light when there is no moonlight or sunlight. When the sunlight and the moonlight are not there, and the light of the fire is absent, speech serves as the ‘light’ by which man performs his activities. Finally, when the sunlight and the moonlight are not there, fire is extinguished, and speech is hushed, what serves as the light? At this point, Yajnavalkya answers that the Self of man serves as the light. Then arises the question, ‘What is this Self?’—katama atmeti.

Katama Atmeti; yo ayam vijnanamayah pranesu hrdyantarjyotih purusah;

sa samanah sannubhau lokavanusancarati, dhyayativa lelayativa;

sa hi svapno bhutvemam lokamatikramati mrtyo rupani. (Brh. Up. 4.3.7)

Janaka: ‘Which is the Self?’

Yajnavalkya: ‘This infinite entity(Purusa), that is identified with the intellect and is in the midst of the organs, the (self-effulgent) light within the heart(intellect). Assuming the likeness (of the intellect), it moves between the two worlds; it thinks, as it were, and shakes, as it were. Being identified with dream, it transcends this world – the forms of death (ignorance etc.).’

Here light (jyoti) means that which helps us to know something. Speech (or sound) or odour, or indeed any sensory input can help us in knowing something of the external world and so they qualify as ‘light’. When all such external lights are unavailable (and there is no external sensory input as in dreams or artificial sensory deprivation environments), it is the consciousness of the Self (atmajyoti) that is the only guide. Now Janaka’s question Katama atma iti is an attempt to locate this atmajyoti – which one of these – body, sense organs, organs of action, mind, intellect – is the atmajyoti? The question is quite subtle. In each of the earlier cases, the jyoti – sun, moon, fire and speech – was of the same nature as the objects they revealed, i.e., all were jada – insentient, material. But this atmajyoti is quite different from the objects it helps reveal. It is not material, it is pure consciousness. This pure consciousness, which is the Self (Atman), is reflected in the antahkarana (in the buddhi to be precise). What we experience as consciousness in daily life, and what consciousness studies is actually investigating, is this empirical consciousness. This empirical consciousness is technically called chidabhasa, and is identified with the buddhi. This is the jivatman, the individual who designates himself as ‘I’. This ‘I’ then identifies himself with the rest of the body-organ-mind complex. Sankaracarya comments,

The intellect, being transparent and next to the self, easily catches the reflection of the light of the self (the pure consciousness). Therefore even wise men happen to identify themselves with it first; next comes the Manas, which catches the reflection of the self through the intellect; then the organs, through contact with the Manas; and lastly the body, through the organs. Thus the self successively illumines with its own light the entire aggregate of body and organs. It is therefore that all people identify themselves with the body and organs and their modifications indefinitely according to their discrimination.

Being thus identified with the body-organ-mind complex, the empirical consciousness carries on all activities in the waking and dream states. Incidentally, this explains why empirical consciousness is not found in deep sleep. Since the intellect, the reflecting medium, is not found manifest in deep sleep, the reflection chidabhasa (empirical consciousness) too is not found in that state. But Advaita holds that pure consciousness persists in deep sleep too. Pure consciousness is unchanging, eternal, different from the body-organ-mind (and by extension the entire external universe), unlimited by time and space. Empirical consciousness is changing, transient, identified with body-organ-mind complex and located (and limited) in time and space. Swami Vivekananda remarks,

Now we see that the body, the external shape, has no light as its own essence, is not self – luminous, and cannot know itself; neither can the mind. Why not? Because the mind waxes and wanes, because it is vigorous at one time and weak at another, because it can be acted upon by anything and everything. Therefore the light which shines through the mind is not its own. Whose is it then? It must belong to that which has it as its own essence, and as such, can never decay or die, never become stronger or weaker; it is self – luminous, it is luminosity itself. It cannot be that the soul knows, it is  knowledge. It cannot be that the soul has existence, but it is  existence. It cannot be that the soul is happy, it is happiness itself. That which is happy has borrowed its happiness; that which has knowledge has received its knowledge; and that which has relative existence has only a reflected existence. Wherever there are qualities these qualities have been reflected upon the substance, but the soul has not knowledge, existence, and blessedness as its qualities, they are the essence of the soul.

The two terms dhyayativa lelayativa are crucial. Dhyayati iva means ‘meditates as it were’ – generalising we may say ‘knows as it were’.  Lelayati iva means ‘shakes, as it were’ which generalised stands for ‘acts, as it were’. In other words, empirical knowledge and action cannot be ultimately predicated to the Self (pure consciousness), but only to the empirical consciousness, chidabhasa. The iva ‘as if’ makes these two terms for the Advaitic interpretation of the scripture.

The dream experience, svapnam, is entirely in the mind and the physical body and external world of the waking state are not there. Consciousness transcends the physical body, and it is the light which illumines dreams (since external lights are not there). The term imam lokam, literally this world, refers to the body.

Several key features of the Advaita theory of consciousness emerge from this text and its commentary. Pure consciousness is the Self and the Self is pure consciousness. Consciousness is independent of the body and it transcends the mind too. It gets identified with the body and mind and thereby, acts as if it is a knower and doer.

Discriminating consciousness from the mind raises a new question—How is empirical knowledge possible?

Pure consciousness is ever effulgent and never changing. Therefore all objects of knowledge should always remain illumined! We should be able to know everything all the time. But this is not how we have knowledge. Our knowledge is episodic, always changing, and it is knowledge of specific objects, not of all objects. How can Advaita explain this?

To answer this question, Advaita Vedanta introduces the concept of vritti jnana. A vritti is a modification of the antahkarana, and the antahkarana is simply the upadhi or limiting adjunct of the Atman. The vrittis have specific contents which constitute the contents of our various knowledge episodes. The vritti is illumined by the light of the chidabhasa, the empirical consciousness which pervades the antahkarana (and which in turn is a reflection of pure consciousness in the antahkarana), and this illumination of the vritti constitutes empirical knowledge (vritti jnana). Pure consciousness itself is called swarupa jnana to distinguish it from vritti jnana. Or, to put in other terms, the Self which is pure consciousness, gets reflected in the mind (as chidabhasa) and illumines the modifications of the mind and this is what constitutes empirical knowledge. The vrittis, modifications of the mind, rise and subside but consciousness shines eternally illumining all these knowledge episodes (or the lack of them, as in deep sleep). Regarding consciousness and empirical knowledge, Sanakaracarya says, ‘There are two visions, one eternal and invisible and the other transitory and visible …Through that unfailing eternal vision, which is identical with It and is called the self-effulgent light, the Self always sees the other, transitory vision in the dream and waking states, as idea and perception respectively, and becomes the seer of sight….’

Advaita Perspectives on the Hard Problem

The theory of consciousness advanced here has a distinct advantage in that it longer has to contend with the mind-body interaction problem. Mind (antahkarana) is held to be a form of matter; subtle matter, but matter nevertheless. Hence, mind can influence the body and vice versa. Both being matter, there can be no objection in principle.

While this is a step forward, it creates a new problem too. The antahkarana is matter, how can it interact with consciousness which is so very different from it? The standard answer is that the antahkarana can reflect consciousness because it has a predominance of sattwa guna which makes it pure and superfine. But this won’t do – because sattwa guna, no matter how pure and fine, is still matter. According to the Advaita’s own doctrines, Atman is the true subject, chit, eternal, unchanging and all pervasive, while the antahkarana is objective, jada, ever changing and limited in space and time. How could two such diametrically opposite entities interact in any way? A material mirror can reflect material light – but how can a material antahkarana even reflect the immaterial Atman?

Thus, the mind-body interaction problem morphs into the consciousness-matter interaction problem. We now have to explain how consciousness, which has been discriminated (shown to be separate) from mental phenomena, can interact with mind (which is now regarded as matter)! This problem arose in the Samkhya and Yoga philosophies too. Paul Hacker, an eminent German Indologist, writes

This Samkhya theory has one advantage over the traditional Western notion of soul(mind). There is no split between the body and the soul (mind), in so far as the soul (mind) is the Inner Sense (antahkarana)….But if there was no split between body and soul (mind), there was the idea of another split which proved much more fatal than the differentiation of body and soul (mind) has ever been… The Vedanta theory of the self is greatly indebted to the Samkhya.

(Words in italics have been inserted in the text above to link it to terms used in the present discourse)

Hacker is obviously referring to the split between consciousness and matter (Purusa and Prakriti in Samkhya). But the split is perhaps not that ‘fatal’ as Hacker terms it. In fact, the split proves to be very useful, for, in order to resolve it, the Advaitin gets an opportunity to bring in adhyasa – superimposition – a key concept. It is an istapatti – a desired objection, in the parlance of ancient Indian dialectics. Mircea Eliade makes an astute observation on the difficulties of Purusa-Prakriti interaction –

It is nevertheless true that Samkhya’s position on this point is difficult to maintain. Hence, in order to avoid this paradox of a Self absolutely devoid of contact with nature and yet, in its own despite, the author of the human drama, Buddhism has entirely done away the ‘soul-spirit’, understood as an irreducible spiritual unity, and has replaced it by ‘states of consciousness.’ Vedanta, on the contrary, seeking to avoid the difficulty of the relations between the soul and the universe, denies the reality of the universe and regards it as maya, illusion. Samkhya and Yoga have been unwilling to deny ontological reality either to Spirit or to Substance. Hence Samkhya has been attacked, principally because of this doctrine, by both Vedanta and Buddhism.

Sankaracarya makes this problem the linchpin of Advaita. He begins his principal work, the Brahma Sutra bhashya, with a statement which is a philosophical tour de force in itself:

It being an established fact that the object (matter) and the subject (consciousness), that are… by nature as contradictory as light and darkness, cannot logically have any identity… the superimposition of matter and its attributes on consciousness… should be impossible.

The opening proposition of the bhashya can be read as a statement of the consciousness-matter interaction problem as well as a proposed solution.

Sankaracarya sets up the impossibility of interaction between consciousness and matter by noting how absolutely different they are (as different as light and darkness – tamah prakasavat viruddha svabhava) and then frankly admits that, in fact, they do appear to interact all the time in our daily transactions. That which ought to be impossible and yet appears can only be false. To the question as to how two absolutely different entities can apparently interact in this impossible fashion, Sanakaracarya proposes the following solution – we are to understand that one is a superimposition upon the other. Thus the body (and more crucially, the mind) is superimposed on consciousness and the world on Brahman. Such superimposition is a consequence of ignorance (of the nature of Self) and it can be sublated by true knowledge of the Self. This sublation leads to moksa, freedom, which is the central concern of Advaita Vedanta.

From the concept of superimposition the Advaitin derives this corollary – that which is superimposed must be false, the ground of superimposition must be real. Body-mind and the whole external world are mithya while Atman (Brahman) alone is real – Brahma satyam, jagat mithya. The term Advaita, non-dualism, is now justified since there is no second reality besides consciousness. Or, to put it differently, the two – the world (jagat) and the individual (jiva) have no existence apart from Consciousness – hence Advaita, ‘not-two-ism’. The true nature of the jiva and jagat is Brahman. We are that Brahman, each one of us. This is expressed by the famous Vedantic mahavakya Tat Tvam Asi (That Thou Art).

This would translate into our discourse as – consciousness is the sole reality, matter (the whole material universe not excluding our bodies, life and even mind which is subtle matter) is a superimposition. That which is superimposed is false. Hence the whole panoply of matter is false – it has no reality apart from the ground of superimposition, consciousness itself. A radical unity (identity to be precise) between the universe, the individual and consciousness is discovered. And this is what Advaita calls God. ‘…we find that the idea of God in the Advaita is this Oneness’

Now we see how this world view can lead to a way out of the consciousness-matter deadlock. Consciousness itself projects matter, matter evolves into worlds, bodies and finally, minds which can reflect consciousness (which is then experienced as empirical consciousness, chidabhasa). And these minds (and organs, bodies and the external universe) are superimposed upon consciousness. The empirical consciousness with its superimposed adjuncts (mind, sense organs) gets empirical knowledge of the world and feels itself to be a knower (jnata), an agent (karta) and enjoyer (bhokta). The subjective aspect of experience which brain science is unable to pin down and which is the main stumbling block to scientific materialistic monism, is due to consciousness itself, the atmajyoti Yajnavalkya speaks of, whose very nature it is to subjectively illumine everything. The highly problematic interaction of the subjective and objective, though not explained or accounted for by the theory of adhyasa, superimposition, is seen in an entirely new perspective in which consciousness is put at the centre stage as the one and only absolute reality.

The Greek and the Brahmin

Swami Vivekananda narrated the following anecdote during one of his lectures in London.

I remember a story told by Prof. Max Muller in one of his books, an old Greek story, of how a Brahmin visited Socrates in Athens. The Brahmin asked, “What is the highest knowledge?” And Socrates answered, “To know man is the end and aim of all knowledge.” “But how can you know man without knowing God?” replied the Brahmin.

Replace man with ’empirical consciousness’ and God with ‘pure consciousness’ and the point of the anecdote (as well as this paper) becomes obvious.

The problem of consciousness studies at the present juncture is that it does not seem to recognize the possibility of pure consciousness. It is interested in the consciousness manifestation in daily transactions – empirical consciousness. Since this empirical consciousness is a reflection of pure consciousness in the Advaitic parlance, we cannot formulate a satisfactory theory of consciousness if we limit ourselves to empirical consciousness and discount the very possibility of pure consciousness. By admitting pure consciousness, a powerful solution to the intractable hard problem of consciousness may perhaps be found, the Gordian knot could finally be untied.

I may make bold to say that the only religion which agrees with, and even goes a little further than modern researches, both on physical and moral lines is the Advaita, and that is why it appeals to modern scientists so much. They find that the old dualistic theories are not enough for them, do not satisfy their necessities. A man must have not only faith, but intellectual faith too.  ​ — Swami Vivekananda