What is consciousness?

The first thing to know about consciousness is that no definition of it can ever be satisfactory. We may attempt to define consciousness by describing its nature (e.g., consciousness as unchanging, attributeless, actionless, etc.), or by using an analogy (e.g., consciousness as space or light), or by saying what it’s not (e.g., consciousness as not your body, mind or thoughts), but we can never say what consciousness actually is because consciousness is not an object, gross or subtle. So, from Vedanta’s point of view, consciousness cannot be known by the conventional means of gaining knowledge such as perception or inference, it can only be known through the knowledge given in scripture, such as the Upanishads. In the Bhagavad Gita, this knowledge is referred to as “secret” because it is counterintuitive and even once revealed, difficult to grasp without the right preparation and guide.

“Consciousness” is a term that, historically, humans have struggled to define. Dictionaries have attempted to define it as:

  • “Awareness or perception of an inward psychological or spiritual fact” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary)

  • “the state of understanding and realizing something” (Cambridge Dictionary)

  • “The state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings.” (Oxford Living Dictionary)

The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us that the word “consciousness” is often used by philosophers to denote knowledge in general, intentionality, introspection, and phenomenal experience, while brain scientist and writer, Christof Koch describes it as:

…everything you experience. It is the tune stuck in your head, the sweetness of chocolate mousse, the throbbing pain of a toothache, the fierce love for your child and the bitter knowledge that eventually all feelings will end.

But as a whole, most attempts to define consciousness are too limiting and often criticized by philosophers and scientists as being too vague. In other words, a general theory—let alone a definition—of consciousness has yet to be agreed on. As British psychologist and writer, Stuart Sutherland wrote in the Macmillan Dictionary of Psychology:

The term is impossible to define except in terms that are unintelligible without a grasp of what consciousness means. Many fall into the trap of equating consciousness with self-consciousness—to be conscious it is only necessary to be aware of the external world. Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it has evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.

Wikipedia seems to conclude based on its various sources:

Many philosophers have argued that consciousness is a unitary concept that is understood intuitively by the majority of people in spite of the difficulty in defining it. Others, though, have argued that the level of disagreement about the meaning of the word indicates that it either means different things to different people (for instance, the objective versus subjective aspects of consciousness), or else it encompasses a variety of distinct meanings with no simple element in common.

Vedanta would agree that consciousness is understood intuitively. Nobody needs to tell you that you are conscious! In fact, that we are conscious is the one thing we can absolutely be certain of. However, Vedanta would argue that the mind and its functions are too often confused with the “subjective aspects of consciousness,” and would further add that there can never be any “objective aspect of consciousness” because consciousness cannot be objectified.

It’s important to note the distinction between how science and Vedanta view consciousness. Science tries to describe consciousness, in part, to explain the nature and processes of the natural world, while Vedanta aims to explain consciousness in order to remove a sense of limitation. The objectives are different. But there are also other key differences, for example, science and philosophy seem to say that only matter exists, while Vedanta says that ultimately, there is only consciousness.

Vedanta has no problem with science as a means for understanding duality (the idea that objects exist apart from consciousness) and the natural world, but would say that science’s attempt to find consciousness within duality is an effort made in vain. However much scientists search for the root of consciousness in the brain and other matter, they will never find it for the same reason a camera can never find itself in the photograph. Scientists will never find the source of consciousness because they can only ever verify their observations based on knowledge from the senses. Like the camera trying to find itself in the photograph, until scientists realize that what they are looking for is who/what they are, their search for consciousness will be forever elusive.

And yet, it’s a bit ironic that science has now reached a point where certain fundamental mysteries of the universe cannot be resolved without considering consciousness as a factor. This might one day compel science to admit that the knowledge they are seeking has already been rigorously debated and known about for thousands of years, long before any scientific instruments. Astrophysicist, Adam Frank makes the point that as our scientific discoveries become more profound, we can no longer ignore how we find ourselves at the center of every experience as knowers of experience, and that it’s this subjective perspective that must be taken seriously by science if we want to consider the biggest issues currently facing it.

Consciousness simplified

In the Mandukya Upanishad, it’s written that consciousness is:

…not that which is conscious of the subjective inner world, nor that which is conscious of the objective outer world, nor that which is conscious of both, nor that which is a mass of consciousness. It is not simple consciousness nor is it unconsciousness. It is unperceived, unrelated, incomprehensible, uninferable, unthinkable, and indescribable.…(7)

For most of us, such verses don’t leave us much the wiser. So, we must first define consciousness in a way that is succinct, easy to grasp and doesn’t leave our head spinning. Vedanta typically starts by defining consciousness simply as the knower. It should be obvious that if you are the knower, you can’t be that which is known. Most people identify themselves as whatever they are currently thinking. But if your thoughts are that which is known by you, then you must not be your thoughts! The same applies to the body: if the body is known by me, then surely it cannot be me.

Another way to define consciousness is by simply calling it the witness. We might ask, what is it that watched you in your mother’s womb, be born, grow up, go to school, get your first job, find a partner, settle down, buy a house, etc. And what is it that will watch you grow old, retire, become frail and take your last breath? The witness, as Vedanta suggests, is that which was there when the lights came on and will still be there when the lights go out!

Another common definition is consciousness as the illuminating principle. Light is a common metaphor for consciousness that not only suggests revealing or making something “knowable,” but also vivifying the very instrument of knowledge (i.e., the body-mind). We all know that consciousness is required for a body to autonomously operate. We can immediately tell a body with consciousness versus one without, even from several feet away. So consciousness not only is the knower and witness, but the “power” that operates the software and hardware.

And while all such definitions have the unwanted effect of objectifying that which cannot be objectified, they at least put us in the ballpark. Through them, we can begin to gain an understanding that consciousness is apart from what we normally associate consciousness with (mostly the body-mind) and that consciousness operates on a different order from everything else.

Consciousness as the ultimate subject

Probably the best way to describe consciousness is to simply call it the subject. The subject can’t be the object, and consciousness is unique in that it’s the one subject that never becomes an object. Because of this, we can say that consciousness is the ultimate subject. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad recognizes the difficulty of knowing consciousness as the subject when it states:

You cannot see that which is the witness of vision. You cannot hear that which is the hearer of hearing. You cannot think of that which is the thinker of thought. You cannot know that which is the knower of knowledge… (3.4.2)

Just like fire which cannot burn or illumine itself, we cannot know that which is “the knower of knowledge” because we are that which we seek to know. That which we cannot know can’t be the senses or the mind because it’s what comes before the senses and the mind. For example, the eye may be thought of as the perceiver of the changing phenomena of the outer world, the mind as the perceiver of the changing conditions of the organ of vision, and consciousness as the perceiver of the changing states of the mind. However, nothing precedes consciousness or is the perceiver of consciousness because consciousness is the unchanging substrate and the fundamental perceiver of all experience (which means we have two more definitions for consciousness).

In scripture, consciousness is often described as inescapable, ever-present, omnipresent, formless, actionless, all-pervading, immutable, and subtler than the subtlest. One example of “the subtlest” is space, which consciousness is often compared with. Space has all of the qualities described above. Space, like consciousness, serves as a sort of capsule in which objects seem to come out of space and eventually merge back into it. Space also appears to be the point where an object is no longer divisible (you can only divide an object to the point where all that is left is space). Vedanta takes it a step further by saying all objects, including space, come out of and merge back into consciousness. Furthermore, consciousness, not space (which would be considered another object), is actually the furthest any object can be divided. No-thing doesn’t equal a void, it equals consciousness. The void, as it turns out, is only another object to be conscious of.

Consciousness is more subtle than space and therefore, more difficult for us to comprehend. Vedanta has a unique formula for defining consciousness by discriminating between what’s real and what’s not. “Real,” or what’s absolutely true, is that which is always present, never changes and can never be denied. Real is also indivisible and is independent of any other factors. Consciousness meets all these requirements while objects don’t. Objects are apparently real because they have staying power and appear substantial for a time. But on closer examination all objects are ephemeral, made up of other parts, dependent on other objects and conditions, and are constantly changing into something else. So, consciousness could be easily defined as that which is always present and never changes. As shown, we might be able to deny all objects but the one thing we can’t deny is consciousness—that we are having this experience.

A powerful teaching tool for learning abstract concepts such as consciousness is the use of a metaphor or analogy. Below are some of the more common ones Vedanta uses to help describe consciousness:

Consciousness as clay or gold

The clay and the pot is a popular analogy used to describe how all forms reside in consciousness. From clay, a potter is able to make various objects such as plates, saucers, cups, bowls, etc. Each object appears to take on its own uniqueness. However, while the pot depends on the clay for its existence, the clay doesn’t depend on the pot. The clay is independent of the pot. Furthermore, the pot may be broken and its function nullified, but the clay still remains. So, one is the truth or the essence of the object, while the other is name and form. One is “real” while the other is only apparently real.

Gold is used as a similar metaphor. Shown a gold jeweler’s assortment of gold pieces, most people will perceive bracelets, rings and necklaces, but the wise just see gold. Similarly, what is suggested is that the world and all its objects is really just consciousness “shaped” into various forms. This seems improbable until you are reminded that when you dream you don’t know you’re in a dream. It’s not until you awaken that you actually know you were in a dream. The point isn’t that we’re all dreaming, but that everything, ultimately, is just “consciousness in motion”; a play of the senses.

Consciousness as the ocean/water

The ocean and the wave is also a very common analogy. Similar to the clay and the pot, the wave is just name and form. It might make us laugh to hear analogies about a wave comparing itself to other waves, or a wave becoming fearful upon approaching the shore. What makes this parable silly, of course, is by the fact that we all know waves are just water. In other words, the wave’s fear of being different, inadequate, or incomplete isn’t justified and only shows its ignorance regarding its identity. Similarly, once we know the truth about who/what we are, life is more comedy than tragedy because, as the wise say, nothing is really happening here in spite of all the meaning we try to layer onto it.

The ocean is another great metaphor for consciousness. As already mentioned, the wave erroneously believes that it is apart from the ocean; unique and separate. It forms opinions about its own wave-ness and that of other waves and begins to make comparisons. It suffers because it believes its identity to be tied with its size and shape when in truth, it is the whole vast ocean (somewhere there must be a children’s book that illustrates this better!). The ocean is also used as an analogy to explain how in karmic theory, the enlightened are not born again into a new life, but instead “merge” with consciousness, like a river flowing into the great ocean.

Consciousness as electricity

The more modern analogy of consciousness as electricity is used to show the nature of consciousness as actionless. Like the previous example, actionless consciousness plays its role by its presence alone. The analogy of consciousness as electricity also depicts consciousness as an independent factor that lends sentiency, thus, allowing the knowing-instrument to know. If we use a computer as an example, we might compare the hardware to our body, the software to our mind, and the electricity to consciousness. Without electricity, of course, the computer is just inert material. Only with all three operating together do we get a virtual desktop experience. Vedanta traditionally teaches in a way where certain concepts are temporary accepted and then, later tossed out in order to reveal a greater truth. In this example, it is shown that consciousness isn’t actually the knower, consciousness is simply that which makes the knower’s knowing possible. So, Vedanta suggests you aren’t the software either!

Consciousness as a movie screen

Consciousness as a movie screen is, of course, a modern analogy that works well to show that consciousness operates on a different order of reality from the world. What happens on the movie screen, never effects the screen. We might perceive entire worlds being destroyed in great flashes of heat and flying debris, but the screen is left untouched. The immutability of the screen is also a metaphor for what seems like the passing of time. The body grows older, the mind becomes weaker but consciousness remains as the unchanged steady constant. To consciousness, life and the world is literally just a passing show.

Consciousness as light

This is a favorite and widely used analogy. We might imagine that each of us is a pot with holes that carries a great lantern. Swami Tadatmananda explains how the “light” works in conjunction with our sense organs to gain knowledge:

This light of Consciousness is like the lamp placed in the belly of a pot. The pot is pierced with many holes. The light streams out from the pot. If something is near the pot, it is illumined. But it is illumined only if it is in the stream of the light coming out of the pot. In the same way, if something is in the way of your eye, it is illumined. If it is behind you, it would not get illumined. So it has to be within the scope of these beams of light. The beams of light leaving our eyes, leaving our ears, leaving out of our senses going out in the world, contacting the sense objects and returning the knowledge of the sense objects to us. This is the concept of sense perception. This means the source of Consciousness is within us. If I am aware of the things outside, there must be some means for my Consciousness to contact the external object and return with the knowledge of that object.

We might also compare consciousness with the sun, which shines on the activities of the world but doesn’t participate in them. This again, shows how consciousness is actionless. Consciousness is simply the illuminating factor that makes objects known. If I hold up my hand and ask you what you see, you’ll say, “your hand” without ever recognizing the light that illuminates the hand. Similarly, we take consciousness for granted when we talk of perceiving objects.

The metaphor of light can become very poetic when it’s shown that consciousness is the “light of lights,” meaning the light in you is the light in me—the same light that has shined for all eternity. Whether awake, sleeping or dreaming, the light always shines. Before the body is born and after the body dies—still it shines. I, as the light, shine before all objects.

The metaphor of light also shows how, as individuals, we are reflections of original consciousness. If we reflect the sun in a mirror, we don’t say the mirror is the sun because the mirror is only the reflecting medium. Likewise, the reflection itself is not the sun, either. In the same way, these body-minds—which are just inert matter with no life of their own—are each considered separate reflecting mediums of the original light of consciousness. Next, we need to consider the quality of the reflecting mediums. A reflecting medium is only as good as its size and ability to reflect. A small dull mirror is not going to reflect as much light as a large shiny one. Unfortunately, for the individual, the mirror is small and dull due to various limitations. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the appearance of an individual is only a distortion of original consciousness. One individual may appear to have different qualities than another, but both are original consciousness distorted by a different reflecting medium. As an individual, the key is to not identify with the distorted reflection because that isn’t who/what you are. What you are is the light, not the mirror or its reflection. If I look at myself in the mirror and think, “What an ugly face!” I need to remind myself it’s only a distorted version of me and that the outward form of imperfection is due to the reflection, not the real me (original consciousness).

Scientists believe they are closer to finding the origin of consciousness in the brain, but the only thing they’re finding is a reflection of consciousness. Again, a reflection of the sun isn’t the sun. The scientists are naively pointing at the mirror and saying, “Look, we’ve located the sun!”

Consciousness as the Self

Vedanta has a method for showing that which conceals our true Self, as pure consciousness, called “the teaching of the five sheaths.” This method of negation is common in Vedanta which, as a tradition, prefers to describe itself as a means for removing ignorance rather than a means for gaining knowledge.

The five sheaths are presented from grossest to most subtle and figuratively speaking, are situated within each like an onion so that the most subtle of the sheaths is that which is most hidden. They are called “sheaths” because they “hide” the truth about consciousness being our true identity.

The first sheath is the physical body. Vedanta shows we cannot be the body because if that were the case we would be able to choose, for example, to never get sick, grow old or die. It is called the “food sheath” because the body is formed and maintained via the nutrients it receives from food.

Next, is the vital sheath which is our physiology or life-force. We cannot be that which runs the body because otherwise we would be constantly occupied making sure our blood is circulating, nerve system is operating, food is digesting and other bodily functions working.

Third, we inquire about the mind sheath. Neither are we the mind because if we were, we would be able to control our thoughts and always know what we’re about to think. As everyone knows, the mind has a mind of its own.

The fourth sheath is the intellect—that which calculates, strategizes and reveals solutions. We can’t be the intellect either, because if we were it would always remain sharp, even when we feel tired, ill or have ingested certain substances (i.e., medication, alcohol, or recreational drugs).

Lastly, is the bliss sheath. It’s a bit more complicated, but it mostly represents the pleasure from deep sleep when the mind is dormant and there is the absence of any pain or suffering. It is also briefly experienced when one comes in contact with an agreeable or desirable object. We can’t be the bliss sheath because otherwise we would be able to choose to always be happy/blissful.

Upon analyzing the five sheaths, the conclusion is I can’t be any of them, not only for the reasons already listed, but because they are all found to be objects known to me. And because they are known to me and are not me (the subject), I can’t claim to have absolute control over them. After all, I don’t do the body and its physiology. I don’t do my involuntary thoughts or any of the intellect’s revelations, and I don’t do blissful sleep. Although it seems I influence each, in reality they all just happen by a power unbeknownst to me.

As we peel back the onion of personhood more and more, we find that the only thing we can be certain about is that we are conscious, or consciousness—the Self. Thus, Vedanta equates consciousness to that which is our true essence and identity. Not only is consciousness all that has been aforementioned, consciousness is me—my one true identity.

Consciousness as existence

Lastly, is consciousness as existence. Existence is pure being. Existence is the “I am” when I say “I am a man,” “I am a father,” I am a son,” etc. As already shown with the teaching on the five sheaths, I cannot be anything other than “I am” because only “I am” constitutes absolute reality. As individuals, nobody must tell us we are conscious because it is already obvious that “I am.” Take away everything you identify with—including the five sheaths—and “I am” is what remains. Consciousness, as being, always exists without a past or future because it is that which is outside of time and space. The “I am” when you are one year old is the same “I am” when you are one-hundred, and will be the same “I am” after the body-mind has quit.

The is-ness of our everyday contact with objects is also existence. For example, it’s an illusion that existence of an object belongs to the object. When we see a mountain we say the mountain exists. But the mountain doesn’t exist as something the mountain does. Instead, we should say “existence mountains” because existence is the subject for every object, not the object itself. Thus, existence pervades all objects. The nature of existence is six-fold:

  • Existence is not a part, product or property of the object

  • Existence is not limited by the boundaries of objects

  • Existence survives even without objects

  • Existence is only experienced in association with an object

  • Existence has no divisions

  • Existence alone is pure consciousness

Similarly, we could say about the nature of consciousness:

  • Consciousness is not a part, product or property of the body

  • Consciousness is an independent factor that lends sentiency to the body

  • Consciousness is not limited by the boundaries of the body; it is all pervading like space.

  • Consciousness continues to exist even after the body dissolves; it is separate from objects and operates in a different order than the body

  • Consciousness is only conscious when there is something to be conscious of. Without a body, pure consciousness is not accessible for transaction.

How can consciousness be the same for everyone?

Scripture shows us that consciousness is the one appearing as the many. But how can that be when we all appear to be so different? As already proven: you are not the person, you are the Self. Thus, Vedanta’s ultimate conclusion is I am not the apparent doer/enjoyer who does actions in order to enjoy the results, I am the ordinary Self—“that without a second.” The Self doesn’t come in different sizes, shapes or colors. There are no big Selves, little Selves or better or worse Selves. There is only the Self (singular). You might ask, how can consciousness be the same for everyone? Using again the metaphor of consciousness as light, imagine billions of buckets of water with each bucket representing an individual. Each bucket has a different style, shape and color. There are tall buckets and wide buckets. Buckets made of plastic and others made of steel. Buckets with lots of water and with only a little. Now imagine the sun in a cloudless sky reflecting its image down on each bucket of water. When we look across the billions of buckets, we see what appears to be many suns. The “you” you think you are are that reflection, but your true essence is the original source—the sun.

Where did consciousness come from and when did it begin?

Once examined, such questions are moot, because (1) consciousness isn’t an object with a beginning and an end and (2) even if it were an object, that would mean it would be limited and (3) would require a substrate. If consciousness came from something else, we would next need to inquire where that something else came from, and then, where that something else's substrate came from, ad infinitum. It’s for this reason that consciousness is said to be “the causeless cause.” It has no origin. Neither could consciousness have begun at a certain time. This again, assumes that consciousness is an object or event—which it’s not. This is also why it’s so difficult to wrap our heads around consciousness. These minds are only built to know something through objectification. Just as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad asks, how are we to perceive that which cannot be perceived? Thus, we can only truly define consciousness using the negative—stating which it is not. Nevertheless, Vedanta still uses terms such as the Self, atman and Brahman in order to redirect our identity toward that which is true. Otherwise, we find ourselves like a vessel adrift in a great empty ocean without anywhere to drop anchor.

The benefits of understanding consciousness

It should be obvious by now that Vedanta sees consciousness much more broadly than simply “the state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings,” and that the benefits of having a spiritual understanding of consciousness go far beyond science and philosophy’s, comparably, elementary and superficial attempts to define it. By approaching it from several different viewpoints, not only does Vedanta’s definition of consciousness reveal the essence of who you are but it also negates the pesky doer—that which can never be satisfied and whose death is imminent. By reorienting my identification with consciousness rather than with the body-mind, I am able to live content knowing that my true nature is that which is whole, complete, limitless, unchanging and eternal. As a result, existential issues become easier to manage or are thrown out altogether, and life becomes appreciated for what it is—a very brief but amazing cosmic experience. Thus, obtaining the right knowledge regarding consciousness can become a means to freedom—in fact, the only means to absolute freedom.