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.
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.
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.
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.