States of Consciousness

By Dr. Vinay P

Materialism has its root in the involvement in material elements and being engrossed in as the highest end. This is one of the primary stages of a man’s thinking and reaction in society. A man who is materialistic in his thinking worries about the gain of wealth, material prosperity and physical well being. On the other hand, spiritualist is deep-seated in the concern towards Consciousness. It is the highest virtue in a man’s evolution. In fact, the very term “Spiritual” is to have a leaning towards the spirit or consciousness.[1] All philosophies and religions of the world primarily concentrate upon the musing or contemplation on the spirit i.e., consciousness.

Indian Philosophy treats the subject of consciousness both in its intrinsic nature as well as by its manifestation. Consciousness as an experience is dealt with. Along with this, varies ‘forms’ or ‘states’ have also been dealt with. Any intangible thing can be understood in these two ways. As an example, one can understand “Space” in these two ways. Space, by its very nature, is infinite and encompasses all things of the world. It is present everywhere without any beginning or end. However, one may not be able to think about an infinite space. It is tiresome to think about an abstract concept. Hence, there may be need of understanding the same with reference to something. A delimited state is much simpler to understand it.

A person sitting inside a room has a “Space” within the four walls of a room. Theoretically, it is the same space which is infinite and even outside the four walls of the room. However, one can move, jump, run around and speak of the dimensions within the room and refer to the same as the “Room-Space”. Similarly, consciousness in its own nature may be too complex to be thought of. However, we can more easily think of the manifestations or presence of consciousness in three states.[2]

The Upanishads, particularly the Mandukya, deals in great detail about the three states of consciousness. They are refereed to as:

  1. Jāgṛt-avasthā: The Wakeful State of Consciousness
  2. Svapna-avasthā: The Dream State of Consciousness
  3. Suṣupti-avasthā: The Deep-Sleep State of Consciousness
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Jāgt-avasthā: The Wakeful State of Consciousness

A man walks around the street and buys groceries. He feels happy. He steps on a thorn and feels hurt and sad. Sitting in park, leaning on a fence, he day-dreams. He goes to sleep in the end of the day. The Consciousness experiences all these in the Wakeful State termed as “Jāgṛt-avasthā”. This refers to the alert state of the consciousness where it takes stimulus or input from external objects of the real world. The divinity that is immanent in consciousness is termed as “Vaiśvānara”.[3] It refers to the divinity which is the inner immanent of the consciousness and not the mere self-oriented consciousness. The name “Vaiśvānara” is quite significant. It literally refers to “the one where all beings reside and who is the indweller in all beings”. The Jāgṛt-avasthā has its sway in the gross objects in the wakeful state.[4] The Māṇḍukya Upaniṣad makes an interesting observation. It this state of Jāgṛt-avasthā, the consciousness or even the immanent Vaiśvānara is outward in awareness. Gross objects such as the house, street, car and the room are all gross objects which are external and outward. These objects are cognized by consciousness by its external orientation towards gross elements. Two roles of the immanent consciousness is noted in the Māṇḍukya Upaniṣad. One aspect is that it enjoys or relishes with reference to gross objects which are tangible.[5] Another observable feature of immanent consciousness is that it is outward or external-oriented. To understand this with an example, we may note the counter-part state of the dream. In the dream-state, the consciousness is internal pondering upon the inner impressions of the mind. Whereas in the wakeful state, it is outward towards car, street, building and others which are external realities. Hence, the immanent spirit of the Jāgṛt-avasthā is termed as “Bahiḥ Prajñaḥ” or “the consciousness which is outward”.[6]


Svapna-avasthā: The Dream State of Consciousness

This state is the dream-state of consciousness. In this state, consciousness is engrossed into impressions of the mind. To comprehend with an example; a man who works in a zoo spends all his days with the flora and fauna most diversified. His mind, in the waking state is involved fully in these aspects of nature. This naturally creates a strong impression in his mind. The strong impressions that one gains in his waking state are termed as “Samskaras”. Literally, “Samskara” refers to the residue impression in the mind. After this, the man sleeps and his consciousness enters the dream-state. In his dream-state, a recollection and flare of imagination happens with the ingredients of the “Samskaras” or the impressions in the mind. These are latent till the dawn of dream-state. At the outbreak of the dream-state, the latent impressions or “Samskaras” come to the forefront and a world of dream-experience happens. This state of immanent consciousness is termed as “Taijasa”.[7] It is the impressions that are collected during the waking state alone that are brought to the forefront during the Dream State called Svapna-avasthā.

upti-avasthā: The Deep-Sleep State of Consciousness

The state of Suṣupti-avasthā is the state of Deep-Sleep which is bereft of all experiences of objects. The state of Suṣupti-avasthā is a deep and sublime state of consciousness where there is neither any experience of gross objects nor experience of subtle or impressions of mind. It is the state of dreamless sleep. The state of Suṣupti-avasthā is so deep that the seat of cognition or mind is relaxed and enters a “Nadi” or subtle portion of the brain in functionality. A person who reaches the state of Suṣupti-avasthā does not experience or “see” any objects such as the pot as he is not awake. At the same instance, he does not even have any dream as such, as the mind is incapable of recalling any latent impressions. Such a state is indeed rare, but is one of the important states of consciousness. However, it cannot be said that the mind is without any experience of time and happiness. After the awakening, the man recalls this experience and remarks; “I slept for quite a long time happily”. Two things may be noted in this recollection. One is the mentioning of time-factor. One notes that he had slept for a long time. This means that the experience of time did happen. Secondly, the experience of happiness. As one fees the state of happiness in the Suṣupti-avasthā, it is not a null state. Hence, the Suṣupti-avasthā is a dreamless state of sleep with positive experience of time, happiness and other all-time and intrinsic factors. This innate consciousness is termed as “Prājña”.


Several important features involved in the states of consciousness are the workings of the cognitive seats. The very approach of philosophers happen in two stages. One, in the examination of the outward reality. This provides enough stimulus for the knowledge to occur. This apart, once the stimulus is picked up by the sense-organs, it goes through the storage and interpretational part. This happens in the stages of Manas, Buddhi and Sakshi.

When a person drives a car across the streets, he may see and motel and a restaurant. These are external objects which provide stimulus or input. Once these are picked up, it is taken through the senses to that part of the cognitive seat which is the Manas. This Manas acts in multiple ways. It not only records the coming of the stimulus but also does things to store in the form of mental impressions. These mental impressions are termed as Samskaras.

Samskaras are the root cause for memory recall or remembrance. It is only by this Samskara that one recalls what he or she had learnt or seen. Without the postulation of Samskaras, one cannot explain the recall. Entire psychology resets on the role of Samskara. This is aided by the Manas.

The Buddhi is yet another aspect which happens at a still higher level. It is the decision-maker based on the data of the aspect of the Manas. In the previously seen example, one may look at a restaurant while moving on a car. The interpretation, is no doubt there in the Manas aspect. However, it is left to the aspect of the Buddhi to make a decision whether to stop by the restaurant or to move ahead. This role of Buddhi is entirely discretional and is reason-bound for most of the time. As with the example, the Buddhi may decide to stop the car and relish the delicious food of the restaurant. The Buddhi may even make a decision to attend to the more serious work at hand rather than stopping for food. This functioning of the Buddhi is also contextual. The Buddhi is also aided by previous impressions of the mind or the Samskaras. As with the example of the food, one may a bad experience of a bad taste in the restaurant. Hence, the Buddhi may make a inductive decision that the food may not be good even now. This may make the Buddhi to jump to the conclusion to move along in the car. Thus, Buddhi may be right or wrong at times.

The Sakshi is the foremost cognitive seat of knowledge, happiness, sorrow and all other traits of consciousness. It is simpler to understand it as the “knowledge of knowledge”, “knowledge of happiness”, “knowledge of sorrow” and alike. It is the very essence of the soul and not distinct from it at all. This Sakshi or the inner cognition is ever-alert and independent. It never goes with any error. In case of “knowledge of knowledge”, a person knows how to build a bridge. This cannot be false at all. The very fact that a person knows architecture makes it a sure-fact that he is “aware of it” i.e, Sakshi. Similarly, with the “knowledge of happiness”, “knowledge of sorrow” and alike. The moment a person is “happy”, he “knows that he is happy”. The moment a person is in “Sorrow”, he is aware of it. There is no moment where is person is happy and still not aware of it. This proves that the Sakshi is ever-present consciousness aspect, unerring, ever-alert, beyond destruction, which is in fact the very essence of the soul.

In all these three states of consciousness, we have an experience of “I”. In the wakeful state, we remark as “I saw a car”. The experience of “I” cannot be denied. In the dream state, one has the experience; “I saw an elephant in a dream”. There is no dream without the experience of “I”. Even in the Suṣupti-avasthā or the dreamless state of sleep, one recollects “I slept happily for long”. Even here, the experience of “I” is evident. Hence, the self or consciousness is an everlasting entity, eternal and ever-present as luminous[8] in all the three states of experience.


[1] “Relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things” – Meaning of the term “Spiritual” in Oxford Dictionary

[2] Turīya or the fourth state of consciousness shall be dealt with separately.

[3] “Vaiśvānaraḥ prathamaḥ pādaḥ” – Māṇḍukya Upaniṣad, I. 3

[4] “Jāgarita Sthānaḥ” – Māṇḍukya Upaniṣad, I. 3

[5] “Sthūla-bhuk” – Māṇḍukya Upaniṣad, I. 3

[6] Māṇḍukya Upaniṣad, I. 3, First Line

[7] See Māṇḍukya Upaniṣad

[8] See Svaprakasa concept