Yep, you guessed it, an article from a yoga website is going to reveal to you one of the most sought after riddles of existence: What is consciousness?
It necessitates a systematic comprehension of the reality of our senses, the reality of our environment, and the reality of the interactions between these two phenomena.
It’s an extremely complicated but fascinating subject, and I for one practice yoga and meditation in the abstract pursuit of this knowledge.
In this article we’ll give an overview of the spiritual schools of thought on consciousness: Hinduism and Buddhism. In keeping with a yogic theme, we’ll cover the below:
- The Main Concepts Of Consciousness Theory
- The Etymology Of Consciousness
- What Is Consciousness? The Hindu Perspective
- What Is Consciousness? The Buddhist Perspective
The Main Concepts Of Consciousness Theory
I’ve found that plausible inquiries into consciousness generally revolve around three main concepts:
- The concept of awareness within us as individual sentient beings.
- The ability to make decisions and develop insights with this awareness.
- The notion that consciousness is the energy that precedes and provides a backdrop in which matter manifests.
I will refer to these concepts throughout the article.
Scientific approaches tend to formulate theories around the first concept, and so focus on the apparatus of consciousness as the beginning and the end of the inquiry. Meaning, our mind and body create the phenomenon of consciousness.
You could call this reductionist, but it’s really only semantics that puts a barrier between scientific explanation and spiritual interpretation.
Philosophical approaches tend to theorize based on concept two, and so make inroads into the position of the observer in relation to the world.“I think, therefore I am”, declared Descartes, in his painfully human quest for knowledge. Is he not speculating on what it means to exist and be conscious?
Spiritual approaches tend to loop back to concept three: that the energy of consciousness is the stage on which everything else happens.
The Bible stipulates: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
In the Upanishads, there is an expression “thou art that” or “tat tvam asi”. Meaning non-duality, that Brahman (the ultimate self) and Atman (the individual self) are one as the silver glints in the mother-of-pearl.
Basically, that consciousness is a phenomenon of divine awareness within the vehicle of your body, and exists outside of the earthly or mundane constraints of time and space.
Could these age-old quotes be a reference to consciousness, thought, or intention, manifested as a divine word with provenance in this reality?
The Etymology Of Consciousness
The term “consciousness” finds its origins in Latin, stemming from the amalgamation of two Latin elements: “con-” and “scire.”
Please note that this is just an etymological review of the word itself.
- “Con-” (prefix): In Latin, “con-” means “with” or “together.” It indicates a sense of unity or association.
- “Scire” (verb): “Scire” in Latin means “to know” or “to understand.”
The fusion of these two elements gives birth to “conscientia” in Latin, which translates to “consciousness” or “knowledge shared with others.”
Originally, this term denoted a person’s awareness of their own thoughts and actions.
However, over time, its scope broadened to include the more comprehensive notion of the awareness of oneself, and your interaction with the world around you.
So therefore, the term “consciousness” was eventually integrated into the English language in around the 17th century and has since been employed to describe the state of being awake and aware, as well as the overall perception of the world and oneself.
What is consciousness? The Hindu Perspective
Consciousness holds a pivotal position within Hindu philosophy, as it comprehends reality through the lenses of “brahman” or “atman” (commonly translated as the self).
Within this philosophical framework, consciousness emerges as the fundamental hallmark of the self.
One of the primary modern commentaries in Hindu scripture is the Advaita Vedanta.
In the realm of Advaita Vedanta, consciousness is classified into distinct categories:
- Absolute consciousness (brahma-caitanya)
- Cosmic consciousness (isvara-caitanya)
- Individual consciousness (jīva-caitanya)
- Indwelling consciousness (sāksi-caitanya).
It is crucial to understand that these differentiations are all a part of the same tapestry of Hindu comprehension and do not independently define the true essence of consciousness, which, at its core, is singular and non-dual.
Advaita Vedanta expounds that there exists a fundamental force underlying the universe, even more subtle than energy (prana), known as absolute consciousness.
Absolute consciousness is a description of concept three I mentioned in the introduction, and refers to an unchanging, eternal energy of divine consciousness that is a true, ultimate reality.
This force embodies the essence of satcitananda: absolute existence (sat), pure consciousness (cit), and bliss (ananda).
In simpler terms, this force of pure being is self-aware and characterized by an intrinsic state of loving consciousness, blissful and united.
Stay with me here… all components of this world as we perceive them are but just appearances or superimpositions of a pure consciousness, or Brahman.
The Snake And The Rope
Shankara illustrated the timeless analogy of the snake and the rope in explanation: Imagine walking along a dimly lit road at night, and you spot what appears to be a snake.
But as you draw closer and shine a torch upon it, the truth reveals itself – it was never a snake, just a rope all along.
Likewise, the entire universe, in all its appearances, is an overlay upon the ultimate reality of Brahman – the eternal rope.
There exists no causal connection between this illusory world and the true essence of Brahman, just as there is none between the snake and the rope.
Cosmic consciousness is an extension of this absolute consciousness, which explains that consciousness is a God, or Brahman, inhabiting or being united with maya: the illusory universe.
That brings us to our own consciousness: human consciousness.
This is a foray into consciousness as a false identification with the body and mind. Such as when we are walking, we think “I am walking”. When we are aging, we think “I am aging”.
Hinduism tells us that this is an ego-based identification that frames consciousness as relevant to the apparatus: our body and mind. It states that there is truth in this, but only within the wider framework laid out.
This category is relevant to concept one laid out in the introduction, and harbors lots of similarities with scientific and psychological approaches.
The fourth category, the indwelling consciousness, is reference to the observing consciousness that can recognize its separation from the body and mind.
It stipulates a more spiritual and realized comprehension of one’s sentience than the mere decision-making capabilities laid out in concept two. This lends itself to a description of an experiential understanding of consciousness, in relation to the absolute, cosmic, and individual.
What is consciousness? The Buddhist Perspective
The Buddha taught us that consciousness is ephemeral and always continuing. The primarily accepted Buddhist theory on consciousness is the four layers of consciousness.
These four layers are:
- Mind consciousness
- Sense consciousness
- Store consciousness
The Buddha’s approach with his spiritual teaching is in fact very practical and scientific. In relation to consciousness, a lot of the exposition is relevant to the apparatus of the mind and body.
Let’s dive into the explanations of each layer.
Mind consciousness represents the primary form of consciousness, consuming a significant portion of our energy. It encompasses our active awareness, responsible for making judgments and formulating plans.
This aspect of consciousness is also the source of worries and analytical thinking. When referring to mind consciousness, we inevitably include body consciousness, as the functioning of mind consciousness relies on the brain.
The body and mind are inherently interconnected facets of the same entity. Both the body and consciousness need each other to exist.
The next tier of consciousness is sense consciousness, arising from our five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. These senses are often referred to as “gates” or “doors” since they serve as entry points for all perceived objects into our consciousness.
Sense consciousness invariably involves three key components:
- the sense organ (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin);
- the sensory object (such as the form we see or the sound we hear);
- our subjective experience of what we perceive through seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching.
This aspect of consciousness is about the accumulation of experience and information, and its ongoing preservation.
It’s the backdrop of data that creates our reality, or consciousness, and is relevant to concept two in the introduction.
Store consciousness in Buddhism is also the storehouse of our notions of craving and aversion, and helps conjure up the fourth layer of consciousness manas, which is our ego identification with self.
Manas consciousness is rooted in the notion of an independent self, the firm belief in a distinct individual identity. This consciousness gives rise to a profound sense of “I am,” an innate feeling and instinct deeply embedded in store consciousness.
It is not a perspective adopted by the mind consciousness. Instead, within the profound layers of store consciousness, lies the persistent notion of a self that exists separately from other elements.
The role of manas is to tightly cling to store consciousness, perceiving it as an isolated and distinct self.
We hope you have gained a bit of understanding into the riddle of consciousness by reading this article. If you’d like to explore further, why not check out our other articles: