Ancient texts teach us a way to comprehend the mysteries of mind, describing four fundamental states of consciousness

By Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami

The popular view of Hinduism portrays a religion centered around ceremonies drawn from the ancient Vedas and Agamas, rites meant to invoke the presence of Divinity through different Deities. That description, however, disregards Hinduism’s deeper teachings, such as its ancient insights regarding the mind’s four states of consciousness.

The oldest writing that contains the states of mind is the Chandogya Upanishad, variously dated around the 8th to 6th century bce. Many people are amazed to learn that over 2,500 years ago, India’s rishis were revealing insights on the states of consciousness experienced by human beings. The same ideas are expanded on in 12 verses of the Mandukya Upanishad, dated around seven centuries later.

These four modes of mind, called avasta in Sanskrit, are: jagrat (or vaishvanara), wakefulness; svapna (or taijasa), dreaming; sushupti (or prajna), deep sleep; and turiya, “the fourth,” superconsciousness or samadhi.

A Wikipedia contributor makes this comment on these teachings from the Upanishads: “Distinctions in types of awareness appear in the ancient thought of India, influenced by Hinduism. A central idea of the Upanishads is the distinction between a person’s transient, mundane self and their eternal, unchanging soul. Divergent Hindu doctrines, and Buddhism, have challenged this hierarchy of selves, but have all emphasized the importance of reaching higher awareness. Yoga is a range of techniques used in pursuit of this goal.”

Let’s look at each of these four states in more detail. In the waking state the atman, or soul, has a limited sense of self and is conscious of and experiences external objects. In the dreaming state, the atman has the same limited sense of self while being conscious of and experiencing his mental landscape and the astral world. In deep sleep, awareness of objects is absent, some of the limited self-sense is overcome and a deeper peace is experienced. In the fourth state, the atman abides in its full spiritual nature. Then the individual is omnipresent, without any sense of something existing apart from him. We can think of this as living in a house with three rooms: one for wakefulness, one for dreaming and a third for deep sleep. As long as we remain in the house, our consciousness is limited. However, if we step outside, we can remove this limitation and experience ourselves as omnipresent consciousness.

The first two verses of Mandukya Upanishad (translation by Swami Nikhilananda) present this idea of oneness in terms of atma, Brahman and Aum.

1.  Aum, the word, is all this [i.e. the whole universe]. A clear explanation of it is as follows: All that is past, present and future is, indeed, Aum. And whatever else there is, beyond the threefold division of time—that also is truly Aum.

2. All this is, indeed, Brahman. This Atman is Brahman. This same Atman has four quarters (padas). The statement “This Atman is Brahman” (“Ayam atma Brahma” in Sanskrit) is one of the four Mahavakya, great statements, of the Upanishads, declaring the oneness of Atman and Brahman.

Reaching Turiya with Aum

The Mundaka Upanishad states that Aum can be used as a means of realizing this oneness. “Aum is the bow; the Atman is the arrow; Brahman is said to be the mark. It is to be struck by an undistracted mind. Then the Atman becomes one with Brahman, as the arrow with the target.” Certainly one way of utilizing Aum as a bow is through its repetition as a mantra, a practice of japa yoga. My Gurudeva, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, explains this practice in the “Cognizantability” resource section of his book Merging with Siva. “The Seventieth Aphorism: To aid in the depolarization and transmutation of creative forces, certain mantras are chanted. These logically concentrate the conscious mind, harmonize its subconscious and magnetize the brain. This draws the creative forces from the instinctive to the intellectual and superconscious regions.”

“The Seventy-First Aphorism: The letters A-U-M, when correctly chanted, transmute the instinctive to the intellectual, and the instinctive-intellectual to the superconscious. Direct cognition will then be attained.”

Gurudeva commented on this aphorism: “Aum is the universal mantra which can be performed safely by the initiated and the uninitiated alike, under any condition, in any circumstance, whether the body is clean or dirty. It will heighten consciousness by harmonizing the physical with the mental and spiritual when chanted correctly.”

Gurudeva explained that for the repetition of Aum to be effective as a mantra, it must be pronounced correctly. The first syllable is A, pronounced as the English word “awe,” but prolonged: “aaa.” The second syllable is U, as in “roof,” pronounced “oo,” but prolonged: “ooo.” The third syllable is M, pronounced “mm” with the front teeth gently touching and the sound prolonged: “mmmm.” Each repetition is sounded for about seven seconds, with two seconds on A, two seconds on U and three seconds on M, with a silence of about two seconds before the next repetition. The three syllables are run together: AAUUMM (silence), AAUUMM (silence), AAUUMM (silence). On the first syllable, A, we feel the solar plexus and chest vibrating. On the second syllable, U, the throat vibrates. The third syllable, M, vibrates the top of the head.

The Mandukya Upanishad (verses 9-12) draws a clear correlation between the “quarters” of Aum and the four modes of consciousness, supporting Gurudeva’s teaching of using the parts of Aum to move to more subtle levels of being.

9. Vaishvanara Atman, whose sphere of activity is the waking state, is A, the first letter [of Aum], on account of his all-pervasiveness or on account of his being the first. He who knows this obtains all desires and becomes first [among the great]. 10. Taijasa Atman, whose sphere of activity is the dream state, is U, the second letter [of Aum], on account of his superiority or intermediateness. He who knows this attains a superior knowledge, receives equal treatment from all, and finds in his family no one ignorant of Brahman.

11. Prajna Atman, whose sphere is deep sleep, is M, the third letter [of Aum], because both are the measure and also because in them all become one. He who knows this is able to measure all and also comprehends all within himself. 12. The Fourth [Turiya] is without parts and without relationship; It is the cessation of phenomena; It is all good and nondual. This Aum is verily Atman. He who knows this merges his self and Atman—yea, he who knows this. (Without parts means without sound. Turiya is the soundless Aum.)

In Cognizantability, when Gurudeva mentions moving from the instinctive to the intellectual mind, he is speaking of raising our state of consciousness. For example, fear is a negative emotion that we can rise above through a few minutes of chanting Aum. We can move from an agitated state of mind to a peaceful one in the same way. Anger can be transmuted into forgiveness as well—all through the power of Aum. If an individual is in a negative state of consciousness, he can move to a positive state. Chanting the mantra Aum is only one of many practices that Hinduism gives us for accomplishing this.

Gurudeva points out elsewhere in Merging with Siva: “Generally people take problems too personally by identifying closely with them. When they experience anger, they are angry. When they experience bliss, they are blissful. The mystic identifies with the experiencer instead of the experience. He sees himself as pure awareness that travels in the mind. When he is in San Francisco, he is not San Francisco. Similarly, when he is in anger, he is not anger. He says to himself, ‘I am pure energy. I am the spiritual energy that floods through mind and body. I am not the body, the mind or the emotions. I am not the thoughts I think or the experiences I experience.’ Thus, he molds a new identity of himself as a free being who can travel anywhere in the mind. Such a person is always at the top of the mountain.

“We have to examine this concept of who we are. When we begin to totally feel all right about ourself, the meaning of the word ‘I’ begins to change. ‘I’ no longer means the body of us. ‘I’ means energy, awareness and willpower. Soon we gain the total truth that we are living in the body, but we are not the body we live in. Examine the word ‘I,’ and honestly see what it means to you.”