THE CONCEPT OF CONSCIOUSNESS has become very important in today’s studies and research. Philosophers, cognitive scientists, psychoanalysts, and neurobiologists, who study the mind and brain, find themselves in a vast field with many labyrinths. This is an exciting time for humanity, for new discoveries are giving new insights into what humanity really is. Many philosophers, psychologists, and scientists have taken a reductionist approach to explain consciousness, while Indian philosophers, with a few exceptions, have taken an anti-reductionist approach. Interestingly, for the great philosopher Swami Vivekananda, it is super-consciousness and not consciousness that is the most important thing to understand. Hence, there arises the need to discuss the problem of consciousness against the backdrop of what Swamiji taught.
Whether attributes like thinking, feeling, willing, and perceiving, which are typical of the conscious mind, can be legitimately assigned to machines like computers has been strongly debated by diff erent philosophers and cognitive scientists. Some of those who champion artifi cial intelligence (AI) hold that consciousness occurs as a function of living tissues in the brain, and such functions can be reproduced in computing machines. On the other hand, some argue that consciousness is a distinct entity not identifi able with anything physical or mechanical. In other words, while the advocates of AI take the reductionist stand, the critics of AI take the anti-reductionist one. No doubt consciousness, as a by-product of matter, has received serious blows from recent developments in the field of science itself. Reductionists and others are also vexed with the problem of how objective phenomena can produce subjective experiences.
For Indian philosophers and metaphysi- cians, consciousness is the svarupa, real nature or essence, of human beings. This consciousness is called the Atman, which is neither physical nor mechanical but is Satchidananda, existence-consciousness-bliss. Therefore, consciousness cannot be reduced to physical states. Sankhya philosophers, Vedantists, Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, and Sri Aurobindo all agree upon the non-reductionist view of consciousness. Their knowledge comes from direct experience.
An ordinary person thinks her or his consciousness is limited to the brain or the mind. Swamiji speaks of an infinite consciousness: ‘Man is an infinite circle whose circumference is nowhere, but the centre is located in one spot; and God is an infinite circle whose circumference is nowhere, but whose centre is everywhere. … Man can become like God and acquire control over the whole universe if he multiplies his centre of self-consciousness.’1 Hence, he said:‘Consciousness, therefore is the chief thing to understand’ (ibid.).
The Self-evident Ontological Truth
According to Swamiji, the awareness of consciousness is the most self-evident among all the truths. Philosophers like René Descartes concluded that the self-evident ‘I think, therefore I am’ was the foundation for all ontological and epistemological considerations. But that is just the starting point! Swamiji says: ‘When you think of yourself as body, you forget that you are a mind, and when you think yourself as mind, you will forget the body. There is only one thing, that you are’ (2.31). He continues: ‘Life is such a wonderful reality that you cannot for a moment forget it. You may as well doubt that you exist. This is the first fact of consciousness—I am. Who can imagine a state of things which never existed? It is the most self-evident of all truths’ (2.32). From these statements of Swamiji we can derive the existence of consciousness as the foundational axiom of all our epistemological and metaphysical thinking.
But the above thesis does not stop here, for consciousness has many levels. ‘In my own body, and in all our bodies, we must all admit that we are conscious of very little of the body, and of the greater part of it we are unconscious. Yet it exists. Nobody is ever conscious of his brain’ (4.195). If ordinary waking consciousness is not coexistent with our existence, then it must be something that is only at the peripheral level of our being! Swamiji says: ‘Consciousness is only the surface of the mental ocean, and within its depths are stored up all our experiences’ (1.9). Explaining this fact he says: ‘I am now speaking English. It is not my mother tongue, in fact, no words of my mother tongue are now present in my consciousness; but let me try to bring them up, and they rush in’ (ibid.).
If consciousness is only the name of the surface level of the mind, then it necessarily presupposes that there is something else that is at a much deeper level of being. Swamiji says: ‘Consciousness is a mere film between two oceans, the subconscious and the superconscious’ (8.276).
From Consciousness to Superconsciousness
Swamiji could see how people in the future are going to struggle to know what is called consciousness, which after all is only the starting point in the real search for Truth! Swamiji says: ‘I could not believe my own ears when I heard Western people talking so much of consciousness! Consciousness? What does consciousness matter! Why, it is nothing as compared with unfathomable depths of the subconscious and the heights of the superconscious!’ (Ibid.).
All the ratiocinations that the reductionists are indulging in are only superfluous, for they are only scratching the surface with their intelligence and AI. The deeper levels of consciousness cannot be discovered by logic and reason. Consciousness has a transcendent metaphysical realm. ‘The field of religion is beyond our senses, beyond even our consciousness. … Consciousness is only one of the many planes in which we work; you will have to transcend the field of consciousness, to go beyond the senses, approach nearer and nearer to your own centre, and as you do that, you will approach nearer and nearer to God. … It is supersensuous, superconscious’ (1.415).
To reach superconsciousness humans have to take a long journey, an inward journey, from the unconscious to the conscious, and ultimately to the superconscious. The first step in the journey is the control of the unconscious. It may seem strange that we have to control the unconscious mind. This step in the process is indispensable, for the cause of the unconscious is the conscious mind. The unconscious thoughts are the submerged millions of our old conscious thoughts. Therefore, after first controlling the unconscious one has to go beyond the conscious. Swamiji says: ‘This is the first part of the study, the control of the unconscious. The next is to go beyond the conscious. Just as unconscious work is beneath consciousness, so there is another work which is above consciousness. When this superconscious state is reached, man becomes free and divine; death becomes immortality. …That is the goal, the infi nite realm of the superconscious’ (2.35).
The above process of moving upwards from the unconscious to the conscious and then the superconscious is a process of evolution. The process of evolution for billions of years slowly pushes life higher and higher. Nobody can dispute the fact of evolution, but Swamiji went one step further to complete the whole picture: he explained that evolution is the counterpart of involution. He says: ‘The whole of this life which slowly manifests itself evolves itself from the protoplasm to the perfected human being—the incarnation of God on earth—the whole of this series is but one life’ (2.228). What was involved in the beginning ? God! Th is supreme consciousness is slowly uncoiling itself and evolving as life, mind, body, senses, universe, and everything.
Epistemological Issues of Consciousness
Having discussed the logical necessity of evolution with involution, Swamiji probes into the question of the ‘knowledge’ of the superconscious. Philosophically, it is a truism that a metaphysical account is followed by its corresponding epistemological aspect. As a true philosopher, Swamiji also follows this principle. His definition of knowledge is wonderful: ‘Knowledge is pigeonholing a new impression with old ones, recognizing a new impression. What is meant by recognition? Finding associations with similar impressions that one already has. Nothing further is meant by knowledge’ (2.448).
If knowledge means fi nding associations, then knowledge is limited, for we can never know the whole of anything. Every second the mind is overrun with thousands of sensations, and in order for it not to be overwhelmed, the mind only selectively deals with a part of the sensations to convert them into perception. Th us, what we know at any moment is only a small part of the universe. ‘This bit of the universe, cut off by our consciousness, is a startling new thing. …Th erefore, we are struggling with it’ (2.449). Besides, we know neither the subconscious nor the superconscious.
According to Vedanta, the svarupa of every human being is Satchidananda. Real existence is limitless and knows no change. Real knowledge is not what we know, nor is it intuition, reason, or instinct, it is vijnana, which is limitless and transcendental. Real bliss is not consciousness of the objects, or the body, or the mind, it is limitless, absolute.
The real knowledge is that which is beyond all differentiation. Swamiji beautifully expresses this idea: ‘All difference is due to time, space, and causation. These are the the Atman. ‘The material universe is the result of the limited consciousness of man. When man becomes conscious of his divinity, all matter, all nature, as we know it, will cease to exist’ (6.97).
In order to reach superconsciousness, one has to make constant efforts in subduing one’s thoughts. Swamiji says: ‘Meditation means the mind is turned back upon itself. The mind stops all the [thought-waves] and the world stops. Your consciousness expands’ (4.235). Again: ‘What we call extraordinary, superconscious inspiration is only the result of a higher development of ordinary consciousness, gained by long and continued effort. The difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary is merely one of degree in manifestation. Conscious efforts lead the way to superconscious illumination’ (4.436–7).
It becomes evident from Swami Vivekananda’s penetrating insight that the Truth, which philosophers, psychologists, neurologists, and other cognitive scientists should seek, is not consciousness but superconsciousness! Again, this search should never be a form of ‘knowing’ but realizing. All the eff orts in understanding the nature of consciousness cannot neglect or reject the many other levels that we are unaware of. For just as the subconscious affects the conscious mind, so also does the superconscious state. Today efforts are directed only to knowing the surface truths of consciousness, and that too with limited intellectual reasoning. Hence, to find an answer to the vexing problems of consciousness, including the gap between the objective world and the subjective experiences, one should dive deep into the superconsciousness. It is only by seeing things from the vantage point of superconsciousness that we can realize that consciousness is palpable in the whole universe.
(Source: Prabuddha Bharatha January 2013)
1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.33.