States of Consciousness – 2, 3, 4 and 1/2?

Okay, here is your starter for 10 – your time starts now! (If you’re not familiar with this phrase, it relates to the quiz show ‘University challenge’, which was on British television for many years.)

The question is: how many states of consciousness are there?

I can almost see your mind tripping up and reading that question again. Surely, you will say, there are three states of consciousness – waking, dreaming and deep sleep. What can I possibly mean by querying this? Well, actually, depending upon how you answer this question, the number of states of consciousness could be two, three or five (or 4 ½) or you could argue that the very question is misconceived!

It is true that most of the scriptures refer to 3 states. If you have read my book ‘A-U-M: Awakening to Reality’, you will know that it refers to jAgrat, svapna and suShupti. These three states are mithyA and the reality underlying them is called turIya. In the tattva bodha (attributed to Shankara), the question is asked: avasthAtrayaM kim? – What are the three states? Admittedly, this is a somewhat leading question but the answer is given: jAgratsvapnasuShuptyavasthAH – they are the waking, dream and deep sleep states. And it goes on to explain each in turn.

But most seekers will be well aware by now of the practice of adhyAropa-apavAda. Whenever we are told that X is the Advaitin’s answer to a particular question, it is quite likely that, when we look into the question more deeply, we will be given a different answer. There is one answer for the beginner and one for the advanced student. (And maybe several in-between ones, too!)

So where do the other possible answers come from?

The answers ‘2’ or ‘invalid’ are given by one of the great champions of Shankara – Shri Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati (SSSS) in his book pa~nchapAdikA chintAmani, written in Kannada but translated (or freely rendered) into English by his pupil D. B. Gangolli in the very-difficult-to-obtain book (because only 1000 copies were printed in 1986) ‘The Magic Jewel of Intuition (The Tri-basic Method of Cognizing the Self)’. This is a fascinating book, although one which is not easy-to-read, since the book was not edited and Shri Gangolli’s command of the English language was not brilliant.

In answering the question ‘How many states?’, he first points out that we should consider all the possibilities if the answer is to be final. Accordingly, he mentions wishful thinking, intoxication, insanity, fainting, delirium, sleep-walking, coma, semi-consciousness (just waking up but not yet quite made it – we all recognize this!), unconsciousness, hypnotic trance, samAdhi, mokSha and death. We could argue that these other states are not like waking, dream or deep sleep so ought to be examined.

His first point is that we do see people in the above conditions but, since we see them from the waking state only, those conditions can be subsumed into that state. If something belongs to the world, then it belongs to the waking state, since the two go together. If there is a state in which there is no knowledge of the world then it is equivalent to the deep sleep state. In fact, we could argue that there are only two states – one in which we experience something external and one in which we do not. Then, waking and dream collapse into a single state and deep sleep is the second state. Wishful thinking and madness would then belong to the first state; deep sleep, unconsciousness, samAdhi and any other state in which there is no consciousness of anything external belong to the second state.

Death, he says, is not really a state at all. Our waking state sees other people die but we have no data concerning our own death at this time, so cannot reasonably consider it at all. For seekers, the same applies to mokSha, by definition. And we cannot conceive of any experience other than ‘with external knowledge’ and ‘without external knowledge’.

He then goes on to point out that we cannot describe any sort of ‘relationship’ between the states, because in order for there to be any sense of one being a cause, and another being an effect, they would have to exist within a common time frame. This they clearly do not, since a dream may encompass years of experience, yet we may return to the waking state to find that only minutes of waking time have elapsed. There is no common time frame in which the concept of causality could have meaning. Therefore, there is no question of any relationships between the states. Rather it is the case that the non-dual reality ‘appears’ as the states and each state is nothing but the entire reality. Accordingly, it is the world that appears in the state and not vice versa.

Furthermore, the very idea that there are three states is one that is formed from the vantage point of the waking state. Since it has already been pointed out that the states cannot have any cause-effect relationship because they do not share common time or space, it makes no sense to speak of a ‘number’ of states at all. We cannot, from the waking state, justly speak of other states at all in relation to ourselves. And, as pointed out above, the supposed states of other people are all part of our waking world only.

He also uses the rope-snake metaphor to conclude that the three states are not really there at all. The rope might be misperceived as a snake, a stream of water or a crack in the ground. When it is seen as one, it is not simultaneously seen as another and, when the reality of the rope is realized, none of the others are seen. Similarly, we are never simultaneously awake and asleep and, on enlightenment, we see everything as Brahman. Accordingly, the very notion of counting the number of states is something that only has relevance in the waking state.

vyAsa, on the other hand, in the Brahma Sutra  effectively answers ‘5’ to this question (or at least 4 ½! – see below). The states are: waking, dreaming, deep sleep, coma and death. BS III.2.10 considers whether coma (referred to as ‘swoon’, mUrchA) is justified as being a separate state or not. The commentary below comes principally from the talks of Swami Paramarthananda, which are based on the bhAShya of Shankara. The argument is that coma cannot be considered to be the same as the waking state because, in it, we do not experience any external world. Similarly, it cannot be the same as the dreaming state because we do not experience any internal world. Finally, it cannot be the same as the deep sleep state for several reasons. Sleep is a natural process and its cause is both natural and healthy. We feel happy and refreshed when we come out of a deep sleep. None of these apply to a coma – when we go into a coma, we call for a doctor! In fact, we may well call for a doctor if we cannot go to sleep! I.e. we are worried by the presence of coma but the absence of sleep.

Even the appearance of the person differs. In deep sleep, the features and body will be relaxed, whereas in a coma or faint, the whole body maybe in spasm with labored breathing etc and the eyes may be open. We can usually awaken the sleeping person quite easily, whereas it may well prove impossible to awaken someone from a coma. Finally, everyone goes to sleep on a regular basis (some more than others) whereas, for most people, unconsciousness is not at all a regular occurrence and is usually caused by some external event, such as a blow to the head.

The question is also asked as to whether mUrchA could be included in the state of death (mAraNa). The answer to this is also ‘no’. Although we may be unconscious, activities of heart, lungs and brain still continue albeit perhaps at a reduced rate. In death, these all cease completely, never to be resumed in that body. And, it is quite normal for the jIva to resume life in the same body, even after a prolonged, comatose state. After mAraNam, however the jIva returns to life in a new body (if you believed my article on reincarnation). And, if the jIva returns to the same body, the state cannot have been the same as death, because of the very definition of the word.

The actual sutra is मुग्धेऽर्द्धसम्पत्तिः परिशेषात् – mugdhe.arddhasampattiH parisheShAt, which is translated by Swami Sivananda: In a swoon (in him who is senseless) there is half union on account of this remaining (as the only alternative left, as the only possible hypothesis). So vyAsa concludes that this state is effectively half deep-sleep and half death, i.e. it is half-union with Brahman. It can be considered as the doorway to death. If there is remaining prArabdha karma, then the person will return to consciousness; if not he will die. Shankara concludes that it is a valid state, although it only happens occasionally but, since it is a mixture of the two states of deep sleep and death, it cannot be considered as a separate fifth state.