Q.347 – Stone Consciousness

Q: Can you explain how it is possible that anything lifeless, for example a stone, a corpse or space,  does not have consciousness. Yet all of this is consciousness.

A (Shuka): The svarūpa (intrinsic nature) of fire is both heat and light. However, when it expresses through water (when water is heated), only the heat principle is expressed (water does not glow, but becomes hot); however when it expresses through an iron ball (when an iron ball is heated), both heat and light principles are expressed (the iron ball both glows and is hot). This is the limitation of the upādhī (medium) through which fire expresses, and is not reflective of the true nature of fire. So also, Brahman whose svarūpa is existence, consciousness and limitlessness, expresses only its existential principle when reflected through the upādhi-s such as stone, whereas it expresses both existential and conscious principles when expressed through a living being, and as īśvara (God), it expresses in all dimensions of its svarūpa.  

A (Ramesam): The answer lies in the fact that though the same word “consciousness” is used in both the statements, its meaning is different in each situation.

When one says that a “lifeless thing does not have consciousness”, ‘consciousness’ refers to one’s cognitive capacity at an individual level – in other words, it is the personal consciousness. When one says that “All of this is Consciousness”, the word refers to the “Universal Consciousness” which does not belong to any individual. It is customary to capitalize the universal Consciousness, in order to show explicitly this distinction. 

Further, there is a subtle and significant technical difference in the usage of this word in Advaita philosophy.  The equivalent words in the Advaita lingo are ‘chidabhAsa’ for the personal consciousness and Brahman for the Universal Consciousness. An explanation of these terms follows:

Universal Consciousness or Brahman:

Here the word Consciousness (capitalized) is a pointer to that indescribable quality or capability of knowing ‘things’ in the world, including your own body and mind. It is not about what you know or the content of your knowledge. It is simply the attributeless awareness or ability to “know” anything, like a sensor is able to ‘detect’ things irrespective of what it is that is captured.

For example, if you consider the TV antenna, it hardly matters to the antenna what program it is, whether happy or sad, a funeral or a marriage, what language the program is in, whether it is a song or a sorrowful lament, whether it is in color or black and white, it just receives (senses) it. It is not affected or bothered by the program nor does it use its judgment or preference to acting as a gateway to choose, to condemn or to commend any program. Brahman or Consciousness is akin to the antenna.

Awareness or knowingness, a basic ability ‘to know’, has to precede all things that are known or that can ever be known. In other words, such a knowing capability has to “pre-exist” before knowing any object.  At its most fundamental level, it can be shown that it has to be the qualityless and unlimited ‘beingness’ itself. That is to say that ‘beingness’ assumes or molds itself to appear in the shape or form of a perceived object. Hence It is also given the name as “Existence.”

‘Existence’ has the freedom to appear in any form, size, shape, extent and so on, like gold that can be shaped into any ornament. Moreover, it is not constrained in its appearance by any delimiting conditions or dimensions of size, shape etc. Hence it is unlimited. So it gets the name as “Infiniteness.”

The three qualities we talked above (knowingness-beingness-infiniteness) actually point out to Its nature and cannot be taken to be Its descriptors, i.e. qualities possessed by it. These qualities are intrinsic to It. So the three terms, Knowingness-Beingness-Infiniteness, are hyphenated and are considered to be one word. [It is like saying in chemistry that gold is shiny, malleable and inert (not chemically reacting) metal. These are all its qualities and not what gold is made up of. All these characteristics point out to one and the same substance.]

Some authors present Consciousness as the fundamental building block of all things. Such a formulation may be correct in one sense; but it gives the wrong impression that Brahman forms the basic constituent unit of everything as if Brahman is an entity that can be objectified at an ultra microscopic scale. 

It looks to me to be far easier to wrap our mind around the statement that “Brahman permeates all things, including the living or non-living” through a process of analysis as given below.

All things that are perceived can be grouped into three distinct categories. These three, in common parlance, are:

(i)  Invisible diaphanous Mind; (ii) Our Body that gives a form to us; and (iii) A World which consists of multiple objects; or simply,

Mind – Body – World  …………………………… (Step  1).

Mind, body and the world look very physical with clear definable borders between them. But we do not actually perceive any mind or a body or an object in the world. We actually experience only thoughts or imaginations which we take to be our mind; we experience some sensations, the summation of which we call our body; and we receive sensory perceptions which are cumulatively interpreted by us to be objects in the world existing outside the body.

Therefore, going a step back into what is experienced by us, we can say that what we experience are not mind, body and a world but:

Thoughts/ Images – Sensations – Perceptions   ……………………………  (Step 2).

As we move to Step 2 from Step 1, we can see that the three actual experienced entities that give raise to a mind, body and the world do not have dense marked boundaries between them. The solid boundaries attain fuzziness.

Regressing further and looking at the processes responsible for what is experienced as Step 2, we can understand that the actual operative processes to be:

Thinking – Sensing – Perceiving   …………………………………. (Step 3).

At this level, it becomes clearer that the rigid borders demarcating one process from another are already fading and the boundaries between them become hazy. The marked distinction between any of those loses solidity.  Pushing further, we can see that the three processes have one and the same common element behind them. And that is:

Knowing     …………………………..  (Step 4).

Thus we can see that the multiplicity of objects – living and non-living as well – is actually a manifestation or a modulation of one single entity viz. Knowingness which is also known by other names like Awareness; Consciousness; Brahman etc.

In summary, when you see (or hear/smell/touch/taste) a thing or an object, you do not really perceive the ‘thing’ – living or dead. What you know in your experience is really the ‘seeing’ (or perceiving) only. So what you know is only your seeing. But if you again carefully analyze, you do not know any object from merely ‘seeing’. It is, prior to giving a name to it, what you know is just a sensation. Strictly speaking, you do not know any sensation also, because, the word ‘sensation’ is a name given by you. What you know is in actuality is, only your ‘knowingness’ which is the most intimate thing to you. It is this Consciousness or Knowingness or Brahman that is taking the shape of all objects  – living and non-living.

Personal consciousness or chidabhAsa:

Normally, when we see an object, we assume ourselves to be the ‘knower’ as the ‘me’ confined within the body-mind here and consider the ‘object’ is out there separate and external to me. The parameter that relates ‘me,’ the knower, to the ‘object’, the known, is supposed to be the activity of perceiving.

The ‘knowability’ (= the knowing capacity) of a ‘me’ is obviously not infinite and is limited to a given body-mind. This limited ‘knowingness’ is called consciousness (lower case ‘c’). There are several models developed to explain the origin of ‘consciousness’ from ‘Consciousness’ and are beyond the scope of the answer here. For all practical purposes we may understand for the present that the ‘consciousness’ of an individual is like the ‘reflected’ illumination of Self-effulgent Consciousness within the mind of the individual person.

A (Meenakshi): All is consciousness. All is brahman. The whole is me. Consciousness is an indicatory term used to make the student understand the truth. Brahman as such, cannot be named. The words Consciousness, Existence etc are used to imply a particular standpoint. They are not attributes.

A corpse does not have consciousness. The all pervading self is present throughout. There is nowhere where the WHOLE is not. It pervades a corpse also. 

 In the case of a living being, there exists a mind medium which is a subtle instrument that has the ability to become sentient in the presence of this self. It becomes an active thinking mind owing to the self. Mind as such is inert. Blessed by the self, it functions. Hence, the self can be understood to be present in a living being by the very functioning of the mind medium. The Kena Upanishad talks about how the self is to be known as that which is behind all thoughts.

 In the case of a corpse, the mind medium is no longer present. The subtle body leaves the gross body after death. In the absence of the mind, the all pervading self is not reflected in the mind (do not take is as literal reflection). Hence, the corpse cannot be conscious.

  If anything HAS consciousness, then that consciousness is just an attribute, a relative reality. The mind HAVING consciousness is also the sentiency that the mind has obtained. The self is free from the attributes of the sentient mind. The mind does not enliven the consciousness. It is the other way round.

 All of this, including the corpse and inert world of rocks and mud is also consciousness. How do we understand this seeming conflict? We need to shift our focus to the Existence aspect of the self. All the ‘is-ness’ that is, is the self. The tree ‘is’, the rock ‘is, the living being ‘is’, the table ‘is’, the dead body ‘is’. The ‘is-ness’ which is the basis of all is Brahman. 

 Hence, to arrive at Brahman, we shift our attention at the Consciousness aspect when we talk of thoughts, mind etc and when we talk of ‘is-ness’ we are shifting our attention to the Existence aspect. There is no conflict between consciousness and existence. They are two different ways of looking at the same thing. 

A (Dennis): There are a couple of aspects that need to be understood here. First of all, you seem to be confusing Consciousness (the non-dual reality) with consciousness (being aware of self and an external world). It is best to use ‘awareness’ for the latter so as to avoid confusion. (But don’t forget that Nisargadatta uses these two terms the other way round!)

So the simple answer is that there is only Consciousness – every seeming thing is only name and form of Consciousness; even a stone. But in order for something to manifest consciousness (be aware of things), it has to be able to ‘reflect’ Consciousness. This concept of reflecting Consciousness is called chidAbhAsa and it is key to understanding your problem. To understand it correctly, you need quite a bit of explanation since it is quite tricky. Rather than try to do this quickly (and inadequately) here, please read the essay I wrote on the subject for Advaita Academy – http://advaita-academy.org/talks/The-Real-I-verses-the-Presumed-I—An-Examination-of-chidAbhAsa.ashx with the follow-up blog at http://advaita-academy.org/blogs/DennisWaite/Continuing-Reflections-%28on-reflections%29.ashx.