Consciousness, Ego and Self-knowledge

Introduction
Verse 3.42 of the Bhagavad Gita says that the sense organs are superior to the gross body, the mind is superior to the sense organs, the intellect is superior to the mind and the Atma is superior to the intellect. Superiority also refers to subtlety.  Our interest is in the mind, the intellect and finally in the Atma.  There are five fundamental elements called panchabhutas.  They are space, air, earth, water and fire.  The subtle body is made of panchbhutas in their primary or nascent forms.  When the panchabhutas undergo a process of compounding among themselves, the gross or physical body emerges. The mind and the intellect belong to the category of subtle body, i.e., made of the five elements in primary form.  The Atma is beyond the panchabhutas because It is not a thing or physical entity.

Consciousness
We all know that we are a conscious entity. We also feel so.  We are also certain that consciousness is different from the gross body. However we are not so sure whether the consciousness is different from the mind because consciousness ordinarily gets mixed up with the mind.  Vedanta says that the consciousness is different from the mind. It is based on the axiom that the subject (observer) is different from the object (observed). This is Seer-Seen discrimination (Drg Drisya Viveka).

If we intently watch the mind then it is revealed that there is ‘something’ which observes the mind. The ‘something’ is the observer or witness and the mind is the observed or the witnessed. Therefore, the ‘something’ is different from the mind.  Further probing reveals that that this ‘something’ is none other than consciousness.  (I have put ‘something’ within inverted comma because consciousness is a not a thing.)

As the observer or witness is attribute-free, it follows that  there is  one  consciousness in the sense that the consciousness  of a person X is not different from the consciousness of person Y. Many will doubt this because as a conscious entity, X is different from the conscious entity Y. The doubt is unfounded if it is appreciated that consciousness is different from the manifested consciousness.  A conscious entity X is consciousness manifested in mind body X. Manifested consciousness (es) will be different. But the consciousness, the observer, is the same for every conscious entity.

It is like electricity which is same for every gadget but manifested differently.  It is better to call it Pure Consciousness. During meditation, when the mind shifts its focus from itself towards Witness, there is an intuition of pure I or I-ness in the background Witness. This intuition comes by sustained meditative practice. The Witness is called Self (to distinguish from self) because the Witness is the original ‘I’ (capital I to distinguish from small i).  Whereas mind and body undergo change,the ‘I’-sense is changeless from birth to death.  Vedanta claims that the I-sense is unique and is the common factor among all of us.  There may be many persons in a room but there is only one Self. The Self is also called Atma. The Pure Consciousness, the Witness, the Self and the Atma are interchangeable in the present context.  As there is only one Pure Consciousness, It is unlimited and infinite. The mind-body duo is subject to change but Pure Consciousness remains unchanged.  In this sense, our true and intrinsic nature, the ‘constant companion’, is Pure Consciousness.

Ego
There is a relationship between the consciousness and the mind. For the sake of simplicity, the mind will be taken to include the intellect as they are made of the same stuff though their functions are different. The Pure Consciousness and the mind are different but are mixed up in day to day living because of their apparent closeness. Closeness arises because the mind is subtle. The closeness leads to mutual super-imposition much like a hot iron rod in which there is super-imposition of heat and iron rod ;consequently, the hot iron rod is perceived as one entity.

Due to superimposition, the mind appropriates the ‘l’ of the Pure Consciousness, the Witness. Alongside, Pure Consciousness is identified with the mind and the finiteness of the mind is transferred to the Pure Consciousness, which causes loss of Its infiniteness.

The mind with the borrowed ‘I’ is ‘i’, ego or self. It is to be noted that the ego or self or ‘i’ is not infinite whereas original ‘I’ is unlimited. Action is done by the mind-body and not by ‘I’ which is the Witness of action. However, due to superimposition, action is attributed to the Pure Consciousness, the Witness whereby the notion that ‘I (its locus is the Witness) do the action’ arises. In this state, ego is in full play. It can be seen that ego is a function of mind and has no existence of its own. Its i-sense is borrowed from the Witness – the locus of the original infinite ‘I’. The ego is an illusion but because of ignorance we are deluded.

Self- knowledge
We perceive ourselves as one conscious entity on account of superimposition between the Pure Consciousness and the mind. The Pure Consciousness, which we really are, is pushed to the periphery and It loses the pre-eminent position. The superimposition is not removed physically. It is obvious that the superimposition is due to ignorance. An ignorant person erroneously thinks that a hot iron rod is one entity. A person who has the knowledge that the iron rod and heat are different is not prone to the error. Similarly the knowledge to remove superimposition is that our true nature is Pure Consciousness though due to superimposition, It is identified with the mind.

When superimposition is removed and identification of Pure Consciousness with the mind disappears, then ‘I’ is restored back from the mind to its original location, i.e. the Witness, the Self. As the mind becomes devoid of ‘I’, ‘i’ also disappears meaning thereby that there is no ego, there is no self. The Self rests as It is – pristine.

There dawns realization that our true nature is Pure Consciousness. This is Self-knowledge, the goal of spirituality. In simple terms, spirituality is the journey from small ‘i’ to capital ‘I’. The journey is not in space, it is right here within each of us. The summit is Enlightenment. Vedanta prescribes the road map for the spiritual journey. It is shravana, manana and nididhyasana. Shravana means listening to scriptures from the teacher, manana means contemplation on what has been listened to and nidhidhyasana is meditation on vedantic proclamations. The journey may be long, yet we ought to embark on it. It is full of curiosity and enjoyable.

5 thoughts on “Consciousness, Ego and Self-knowledge

  1. Hi Bimal,

    Great post, thank you! I would like to make a couple of (provocative; devil’s advocate) points if I may, the aim being to promote discussion and clarify any issues.

    You say: “The ‘something’ is the observer or witness and the mind is the observed or the witnessed. Therefore, the ‘something’ is different from the mind”.

    The mind is conceived in Advaita as having several different functions. Thus, manas might retrieve data from chitta in order to mentally ‘debate’ a question; buddhi would consider points from manas in order to reach a decision. In each case, one function is effectively the ‘subject’ and another function the ‘object’, yet all are still in the mind. So why does the ‘witness’ have to be different?

    You say that: “As the observer or witness is attribute-free, it follows that there is one consciousness in the sense that the consciousness of a person X is not different from the consciousness of person Y.” And you go on to say: “Manifested consciousness (es) will be different. But the consciousness, the observer, is the same for every conscious entity.”

    Where is your evidence that the ‘witness is attribute-free’? And why does ‘it follow that there is one consciousness’? You are now equating the one Consciousness with the observer but should you not rather equate the manifest consciousness with the observer? If it were the former and not the latter, how do you explain that X is not aware of Y’s thoughts and actions?

    The pratibimba theory tells us that the conscious aspect of mind – chidAbhAsa – is effectively a ‘reflection’ of the ‘real’ (bimba) Consciousness. Consciousness itself does not ‘do’ anything. This would have to include perceiving, thinking, deciding… and witnessing. So isn’t the ‘witness consciousness’ effectively a part of mind? This is still seer-seen discrimination but the ‘witness’ is the last step we can make – there is no seer of the witness.

    It then follows that this ‘witness’ is different for each jIva. There are many minds and therefore many ‘reflections’ of Consciousness. The consciousness, the observer, is NOT the same for every conscious entity.

    You conclude that: “The Pure Consciousness, the Witness, the Self and the Atma are interchangeable in the present context.”

    I suggest that it is the Pure Consciousness, the Self and the Atma which are interchangeable, while the witness is an individual aspect that, whilst it is the ‘animating’ principle as far as the jIva is concerned, is necessarily different for each jIva.

    The witness is a ‘mixture’ if you like of pure Consciousness and inert mind. In order to realize the truth, it is not that I have to simply appreciate the existence of the witness. Yes, I do have to do that, but then I have to mentally negate the inert ‘mind’ part of the witness and realize that I am the pure Consciousness, Brahman.

    Best wishes,
    Dennis

  2. Hi Dennis,
    Provocations are welcome. I have made four parts and answer them serially.
    Part 1
    You say: “The ‘something’ is the observer or witness and the mind is the observed or the witnessed. Therefore, the ‘something’ is different from the mind”.
    The mind is conceived in Advaita as having several different functions. Thus, manas might retrieve data from chitta in order to mentally ‘debate’ a question; buddhi would consider points from manas in order to reach a decision. In each case, one function is effectively the ‘subject’ and another function the ‘object’, yet all are still in the mind. So why does the ‘witness’ have to be different?

    Ans: When it is said that ‘something’ is the witness and mind is the witnessed, it also means that witness and witnessed are simultaneous, i.e., at the same time. The condition of simultaneity is not fulfilled when it is said that one function of the mind is witness (subject) and other function is witnessed (object).
    Part 2
    You say that: “As the observer or witness is attribute-free, it follows that there is one consciousness in the sense that the consciousness of a person X is not different from the consciousness of person Y.” And you go on to say: “Manifested consciousness (es) will be different. But the consciousness, the observer, is the same for every conscious entity.”
    Where is your evidence that the ‘witness is attribute-free’? And why does ‘it follow that there is one consciousness’? You are now equating the one Consciousness with the observer but should you not rather equate the manifest consciousness with the observer? If it were the former and not the latter, how do you explain that X is not aware of Y’s thoughts and actions?

    Ans: When it is said that witness of mind is attribute-free, witness referred to is the ultimate witness (Witness) because there is no witness of Witness. This Witness is the Pure Consciousness which is different from manifested consciousness X or manifested consciousness Y. X is different from Y. One manifested consciousness need not be aware of another manifested consciousness.
    Part 3
    The pratibimba theory tells us that the conscious aspect of mind – chidAbhAsa – is effectively a ‘reflection’ of the ‘real’ (bimba) Consciousness. Consciousness itself does not ‘do’ anything. This would have to include perceiving, thinking, deciding… and witnessing. So isn’t the ‘witness consciousness’ effectively a part of mind? This is still seer-seen discrimination but the ‘witness’ is the last step we can make – there is no seer of the witness.
    It then follows that this ‘witness’ is different for each jIva. There are many minds and therefore many ‘reflections’ of Consciousness. The consciousness, the observer, is NOT the same for every conscious entity.

    Ans: Reflected consciousness is Pure Consciousness reflected in the mind like the sun reflected in water. The reflected consciousness enables the mind to function. The function would include witnessing the sense organs, the body and the objective world. The relationship between the reflected consciousness and the mind is natural in the sense reflected consciousness is co-terminus with the mind. One cannot and need not try to remove the relationship. Yes, witness is different for each jIva. But this witness is the mind supported by the reflected consciousness. The ultimate witness (Witness) is beyond it.
    Part 4
    You conclude that: “The Pure Consciousness, the Witness, the Self and the Atma are interchangeable in the present context.”
    I suggest that it is the Pure Consciousness, the Self and the Atma which are interchangeable, while the witness is an individual aspect that, whilst it is the ‘animating’ principle as far as the jIva is concerned, is necessarily different for each jIva.
    The witness is a ‘mixture’ if you like of pure Consciousness and inert mind. In order to realize the truth, it is not that I have to simply appreciate the existence of the witness. Yes, I do have to do that, but then I have to mentally negate the inert ‘mind’ part of the witness and realize that I am the pure Consciousness, Brahman.

    Ans: I have suggested Witness (capital W) in the context of interchangeability and not witness which is at the level of mind supported by reflected consciousness. Scriptures do use the word sAkshi to refer to Pure Consciousness.
    Best wishes,
    Bimal

  3. Hi Bimal,

    I am still thinking about this but just so as not to keep you waiting too long, here are my thoughts at the moment:

    Part 1:
    Sorry, I don’t follow this. What has simultaneity to do with anything? If I drop my cake, it contacts the ground. The ground is struck by the cake. Do not these events occur simultaneously? Yet are not the two separate? (We could regard the cake as subject and the ground as object.) The question of whether seer and seen are simultaneous also depends upon your schema of interpretation, viz. idealism, representationalism or direct realism. (I am presently reading Chittaranjan Naik’s book on this and hence have picked up the jargon! I gather that the latter schema is the one that would be used by Advaita and I think this would say that the ‘witness’ functioning of the mind and witnessed aspect of the object ARE simultaneous, even if the object happens to be a star supposedly light-years away.) So my question still stands.

    Part 2:
    I agree. But you haven’t answered the question: If the Observer is the Pure Consciousness, and NOT the manifest consciousness, how do you explain that X is not aware of Y’s thoughts and actions?

    Parts 3 and 4:
    I had not appreciated that you were differentiating a ‘witness’ from a ‘Witness’ – sorry! I have not encountered this before. What is the Sanskrit term for the ‘witness’ function of mind? Can you provide any scriptural reference where this is explained? Is it not the case that what you are calling ‘witness’, with a small ‘w’, is actually ahaMkAra? Or ‘reflected Consciousness’, which amounts to the same thing? Is it not a contradiction in terms to talk about a non-dual Consciousness being a ‘witness’, which is dualistic by definition?

    Coincidentally, I am in the process of writing about this issue for my next book. The real Self, Consciousness if you like, does nothing; has no attributes etc. It can only ‘act’ if there is a mind through which the action can take place.

    In deep sleep, the mind is resolved so ‘I’ do not know anything. But, on awakening, ‘I’ know that I did not know anything whilst in deep sleep. That deep-sleep knowing must have been the witness, lacking a mind through which it might have known something. It is like the sun shining in deep space – there is nothing to reflect the light so it seems to be dark even though the light is there.

    Here is how I have concluded the section so far. (I could still add more depending on how this exchange proceeds!):

    “In normal, empirical life (vyavahAra), when I use the word ‘I’, I am referring to the ego, ahaMkAra, which is Consciousness identified with the functions of this particular mind. This is effectively the avachCheda vAda of the bhAmatI mentioned earlier. The (particular) mind acts as a limitation (upAdhi) on the pure Consciousness. We cannot exactly ‘drop’ this limitation (without dying) but the process can be appreciated and the reality of our true nature recognized. We say ‘neti, neti’ not just to all of the presumed objects in the world, and to our body and mind, but also to the ahaMkara ‘I’ that relates to this body-mind. The ‘I’ that is able to do this is the ‘witness’. But it must still be a function of the mind…”

    So I suppose my killer question is this: Since Consciousness does nothing, how can it be a Witness without the mind?

    Best wishes,
    Dennis

  4. I find this discussion, so far, rather confusing mostly due to the espousal by both Dennis and bimal of the pratibimba vada theory introduced by the Vivarana school. This leads to a possible confusion between Consciousness and Observer, on the one hand, and Witness and witness (bimal) on the other; also to the idea that ‘the witness is a “mixture” of pure Consciousness and inert mind’ (Dennis). —

    That there is a different witness for each jiva is accepted by both (?).

    I find it much easier to consider the Self or Atman as the one reality behind the knower, enjoyer, etc., and also as pervading every sense organ and, indeed, the universe itself: ‘It is the eye of the eye, mind of the mind, ear of the ear….’ (Ke1.2). Can this not be grasped intuitively?

    ‘I am the Witness Self; I am the basis of all experience; I am the light that makes experiences possible’. (Yoga Vasishta, 16th Discourse).

  5. Hi Martin, Welcome to the fray!

    I agree with your last 3 paras but have some problems with your first.

    I did mention avachCheda vAda in my last comment – I don’t think this helps. You are now using the term ‘Observer’ instead of Bimal’s ‘witness’ but what is this ‘Observer’? What is the Sanskrit term for this?

    My question was really referring to the notion that there is something that is still aware whilst we are in deep sleep. Obviously the Atman is still present and unaffected by the sleep of the jIva. But how can we ‘know’ that nothing was experienced in deep sleep when the mind that is the mechanism for knowing is resolved and Atman ‘on its own’ is akartA, abhoktA and therefore can ‘know’ nothing? It is only through the reflection in mind, or limitation of the mind, that we ‘know’ anything.

    Your Yoga Vasishta quote refers to ‘I’ as Atman, not ‘I’ as knower; pAramArthika I, not vyAvahArika I.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.