Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Teaching of Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon
Prakriya 3 - I am consciousness

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Note that the following commentary is provided by Ananda Wood, a disciple of the sage Atmananda Krishna Menon (1883 - 1959). The material is not copyrighted and may be freely used by any true seeker. It is extracted from a discussion, led by Ananda, on the Advaitin Egroup during Nov - Dec 2003 and the text for the complete discussion may be downloaded by members.

The analysis of three states is just a prakriya. It's just one way of investigating truth. It starts with three ordinary statements: 'I am awake'; 'I dreamed'; 'I slept soundly, where no dreams appeared.' All these statements start with the word 'I'. What is that common 'I', which is implied to know our experiences of waking, dream and sleep? This is an implication that we often make. But what exactly does it mean? What truth is there in it? That's what this prakriya investigates, as it examines the three states.

For some who are intellectually inclined, there can be a problem with this three-state prakriya, when it comes to deep sleep. The problem is that deep sleep can seem distant and inaccessible, to the waking mind that examines it. So some would rather investigate the waking state, by asking there reflectively for an underlying truth that our waking perceptions and interpretations each express. That results in a different prakriya, which proceeds through three levels of knowing.

The three levels are those of body, mind and consciousness. They correspond of course to waking, dream and deep sleep. Instead of reflecting from the waking state through dreams into deep sleep, this second prakriya reflects from perceiving body through conceiving mind to knowing consciousness.

What is that consciousness, which is expressed in each living act of mind and body? It is the knowing of that self which is present always, throughout experience. That's what self truly is, in each one of us, beneath our different personalities. It is that self which does not part with anyone, not even for a moment. Its knowing is no physical or mental act, which self starts doing at some time and stops doing later on. Consciousness is not a put on act that later can be taken off. Instead, it is the very being of the self, exactly what self always is.

In truth, the self is consciousness, whose very being is to know. It knows itself, shining by its own light. All appearances are known by their reflection of its self-illumination. We know them only when they come into attention, where they are lit by consciousness. But then, how can that consciousness be known?

Consciousness is not an object that is known. Instead, it is just that which knows. It is thus known in identity, as one's own self, by realizing one's own true identity with it. That is the only way in which it can be known.

As a matter of ingrained habit, we think of consciousness as an activity of body, sense and mind. Hence what we take for consciousness appears confused with a great complexity of physical and sensual and mental actions.

In every one of us, consciousness is actually experienced in the singular, as one's own self. But when a person looks through mind and body, at a world that seems outside, it there appears that consciousness is different and changing - in different persons, different creatures and their varied faculties. Or, if a person looks through mind alone, into the mental process of conception, it then appears that consciousness is made up from a passing sequence of perceptions, thoughts and feelings.

Thus, in itself, consciousness is quite distinct from the differing and changing appearances that we habitually confuse with it. As it is experienced directly, at the inmost core of each individual's experience, it is pure self - utterly impersonal and impartial, beyond all difference and change. That is the inmost, undeniable experience that we share in common, deep within each one of us. Yet, very strangely, that undeniable experience is ignored and somehow covered up, by the vast majority of people in the world.

It gets ignored because of a confusion that mixes self with body, sense and mind. For this produces a mistaken show of physical and sensual and mental actions, which are deceptively confused with the clear and unaffected light of consciousness. As people identify themselves with different bodies and with changing minds, they mistake themselves as jivas or persons, who are disparate and uncertain mixtures, made up of knowing self confused with improperly known objects.

Such persons take an ignorantly made-up stand, upon divided and uncertain ground, built artificially from alien things. Accordingly, experiences seem partial and appear divided by our personalities, as people get unhappily conflicted in their seeming selves.

But where confusion ceases, as in deep sleep or in moments of impartial clarity, there personality dissolves and self stands on its own, shining by itself as happiness and peace. Thus, pure happiness and unaffected peace can be seen to shine out in deep sleep, as manifesting aspects of the self's true nature.

Again, it might help to ask briefly how these teachings relate to traditional advaita scriptures. On occasion, Shri Atmananda said that the vicara marga could be characterized by a single aphorism: 'Prajnyanam asmi' or 'I am consciousness.' One such occasion is reported by Nitya Tripta:

The path of the 'I'-thought ('Notes on Spiritual Discourses...', 11th October 1952, note number 298):

The ordinary man has the deep samskara ingrained in him that he is the body and that it is very, very insignificant, compared to the vast universe. Therefore the only possible mistake you are likely to be led into, while taking to the 'I'-thought, is the habitual samskara of the smallness attached to the 'I'.

This mistake is transcended by the contemplation of the aphorism 'Aham brahmasmi.' Brahman is the biggest imaginable conception of the human mind. The conception of bigness no doubt removes the idea of smallness. But the idea of bigness, which is also a limitation, remains over.

Ultimately, this idea of bigness has also to be removed by contemplating another aphorism: 'Prajnyanam asmi.' ('I am Consciousness.') Consciousness can never be considered to be either big or small. So you are automatically lifted beyond all opposites.

Here Shri Atmananda is saying that the mahavakya 'Aham brahmasmi' does not quite go all the way to non-duality. It leaves a samskara of 'bigness', which has to be removed by further contemplation. In a way, the same thing may be seen implied in a classic scheme of four mahavakyas that follow one after the other. Here is an interpretation of the scheme:

1. 'Tat tvam asi' or 'You are that.' This represents the guidance of a living teacher, essential to bring mere words and symbols to life, so that a disciple may come to living truth.

2. 'Aham brahmasmi' or 'I am complete reality.' This broadens ego's narrowness, in preparation for a non-dual realization that must come about through a knowing in identity.

3. 'Ayam atma brahma' or 'This self is all reality.' Here, the same thing is said as in the previous mahavakya, but in a way that is impersonal, using the phrase 'this self' instead of the word 'I'. For the 'I' may still have a sense of the personal in it - even after the broadening of ego's petty considerations.

4. 'Prajnyanam brahma' or 'Consciousness is all there is.' This finally establishes the true nature of the self, known purely in identity, as consciousness that is identical with everything that's known.

This is of course only one among many interpretations, of one among many schemes of mahavakyas. It's only meant as an illustration of how the scriptures may be related to the vicara marga. As a further illustration, a postscript is appended, with a translated passage from the Aitareya Upanishad, for those who might want to see how it describes the idea of self as consciousness. From this passage comes the aphorism: 'Prajnyanam brahma.'

From the Aitareya Upanishad

3.1.1 - 2
What is this that we contemplate as 'self'? Which is the self? That by which one sees, or that by which one hears, or that by which scents are smelled, or that by which speech is articulated, or that by which taste and tastelessness are told apart?

Or that which is this mind and this heart: perception, direction, discernment, consciousness, learning, vision, constancy, thought, consideration, motive, memory, imagination, purpose, life, desire, vitality?

All these are only attributed names of consciousness.

This is brahman, comprehending all reality. This is Indra, chief of gods. This is the creator, Lord Prajapati; all the gods; and all these five elements called 'earth', 'air', 'ether', 'waters', 'lights'; and these seeming complexes of minute things, and various seeds of different kinds; and egg-born creatures and those born of womb, and those born of heat and moisture, and those born from sprout; horses, cattle, humans, elephants, and whatever living thing, moving and flying; and that which stays in place.

All that is seen and led by consciousness, and is established in consciousness. The world is seen and led by consciousness. Consciousness is the foundation.

Consciousness is all there is.

By this self, as consciousness, he ascended from this world; and, attaining all desires in that place of light, became deathless, that became.


Further Observations

When a person tries to think of consciousness itself, with no content seen in it, that does leave a puzzled 'me'. The puzzlement gives rise to further questions.

First, what are the contents seen in consciousness? Seen through body, the contents are objects, in a world of bodied things. Through the body's senses, the contents are sensations, coming from the world. Through mind, the contents are thoughts and feelings, which the mind conceives.

These physical and sensual and mental contents are seen indirectly, when consciousness looks through faculties of mind and body that are different from itself. But then, what content is perceived directly, as consciousness looks at itself? As consciousness illuminates itself, what does it know immediately, by its self-knowing light? What is its content to itself?

Surely, that immediate content cannot be anything different from itself. That immediate content must be consciousness itself. Interpreted like this, it is quite right to say that there cannot be any consciousness devoid of content. For consciousness is always present to itself. Its immediate content is itself, in all experiences. In the experience of deep sleep, there are no physical or sensual or mental contents. No content is there seen indirectly, through body, sense or mind.

But what about the direct knowing of consciousness, as it illuminates itself? Can consciousness be present to itself, in the absence of body, sense and mind? Habitually, we assume that consciousness is a physical or sensual or mental activity. And then of course it seems that consciousness cannot be independent of body, sense or mind. It seems then that consciousness cannot be present in deep sleep, when body, sense and mind are absent.

But since you recognize that physical and sensual and mental activities are only appearances that come and go in consciousness, what could remain when all appearances have gone? When body, sense and mind and all their perceptions disappear, into what do these appearances dissolve? Do they dissolve into a negative nothing or blankness or absence, which after all requires the presence of body or senses or mind to perceive it? Or would there be just consciousness, present by itself, as its own content, when body, sense and mind have disappeared?

Why shouldn't consciousness itself remain, present to itself, when its passing contents disappear? If consciousness can thus remain, that shows it independent of body, sense and mind. Without it, none of them can appear; so each is dependent on it. Each one of them depends on it, though it does not depend on them. In other words, they are dependent appearances of its reality. In what they really are, each one of these appearances is utterly identical with consciousness. It is their one reality, which each one shows and which they show together. As they appear and disappear, it seems that they are limited by time and space. Each seems to be present in some limited location and to be absent elsewhere.

But this limitation is unreal. It does not apply to consciousness itself, which is the reality that's shown. For consciousness is the common principle of all experience, present at all times and everywhere, no matter what experience is known, no matter when or where.

So consciousness cannot appear or disappear. Its appearance would require a previous experience where consciousness was absent. Similarly, its disappearance would require a subsequent experience without consciousness. Such an 'experience without consciousness' is a contradiction in terms - a falsity of fiction that has been misleadingly constructed by the mind. So while appearances are perceived by body, sense and mind, their seeming limitations don't apply to consciousness, their one reality.

The limitations are a misperception, seen through the inadequate and partial reporting of body, sense and mind. These unreal limitations make it seem that there are appearances which disappear. But while they seem to come and go, what they are is consciousness itself. It is their unlimited reality, remaining fully present through each one of their appearances and disappearances.

That is a classical advaita position, which is unequivocally taken by modern interpreters like Ramana Maharshi and Shri Atmananda. From that position, deep sleep is interpreted as an experience where consciousness is shown as its own content. Deep sleep shows consciousness identical with what it contains, with what is known in it. What's there revealed is not contentless consciousness, but consciousness itself.

A further question rises here. If consciousness is independent of our limited bodies, our limited senses and our limited minds, then how can we know it actually, for what it is? In Shri Atmananda's teachings, the question is answered by a simple statement: 'I am consciousness.'

This statement is central to Shri Atmananda's approach. This is no inferior statement. Instead, it is the centre of the teaching. When it is said 'I am consciousness', the statement indicates a knowledge in identity. That is how consciousness is known. It's known by self-knowledge, as one's own true identity. It's only there that subject and object are dissolved, including any puzzled 'me'.

According to Shri Atmananda, the statement 'All is consciousness' does not go far enough. It leaves a taint of expanded mind, intuiting the 'all'. The content of consciousness is still indirectly perceived, as a vast and nebulous object. An expanded intuition is thereby left unexamined, surreptitiously assumed to be doing the perceiving. A final enquiry thus still remains, in order to find consciousness identical with self. Until that identity is reached, duality is not dissolved.

Thus, for Shri Atmananda, intuition is no answer to the limitations of intellect and mind. Intuition is no more than a subtler form of mind. The subtlety can make it even more misleading, when it comes through ego. The only proper answer comes from genuine enquiry, motivated by a love of truth. As the enquiry gets genuine, love brings the truth itself to take charge of the enquiry. Then the enquiry proceeds through 'vidya-vritti' or 'higher reason'. That is no longer mind expressing ego, but rather truth itself, appearing in the form of form of penetrating questions and discerning reason.


In Shri Atmananda's teaching, 'I am consciousness' is knowing in identity, which is the only actual experience that anyone ever has, in any state. All else is not actually experienced, but just superimposed by misleading imagination and its false pretence. That knowing in identity is the "direct (non-objective) knowledge" that you speak of. It is fully present in deep sleep, shining by itself.

The perceptions, thoughts and feelings of waking and dream states are not really an obstacle at any time. They don't show anything but self-illuminating consciousness. All acts of perception, thought and feeling are illuminated by that self-shining light. Each one of them shows that same light.

Consciousness is never actually obscured or covered up, but only seems to be. Any obscurity or covering is quite unreal. It's a mistaken seeming, seen through false perspective. The false perspective comes from wrongly imagining that knowing is a physical or sensual or mental activity that's done by body, sense or mind.

It's only such activities that come and go -- as each appears sometimes revealed, and disappears at other times when it get covered up by other things. Through all of these activities, the self- illuminating light of consciousness continues knowing perfectly, quite unobscured and unaffected by the presence or the absence of activity.


According to Shri Atmananda, 'beginningless ignorance' is a lower level concept. It is meant to explain the world, as in Shri Shankara's maya theory. Advaita proper is not meant for such theoretical explanation, but only for an uncompromising enquiry back into truth, beneath the unrealities of seeming world.

For this enquiry, Shri Atmananda took an extreme advaita position that there really is no ignorance, no real covering of consciousness - - neither by waking nor by dream appearances, nor by their absence in deep sleep. Consciousness is not in truth obscured by perceptions, thoughts and feelings, nor by their disappearance. It only seems obscured from the false perspective of physical or mental ego, which falsely identifies the knowing self with body, sense and mind, thus confusing consciousness with physical and sensual and mental activities.

It's from this false perspective that deep sleep seems dark and blank and empty, when what there shines is uncompromised reality, true knowledge and unfailing happiness.

All that's needed is to correct the perspective; not to improve, nor to prevent perceptions, thoughts or feelings, nor to avoid what is perceived or thought or felt in the world. In the end, it's the perspective that needs purifying, not the world.

That clearing of perspective is the special work of the witness prakriya, which is the next sub-topic for discussion.

prakriyA-s in this Section:
Atmananda Krishna Menon home page.
1.  Universal and Individual - the 'cosmological' and 'direct' paths.
2.  The three states - enquiry from everyday experience.
3.  'I am consciousness' ('Prajnyanam asmi') - reflection back into the 'I'.
4.  Witness of thoughts - change and the changeless.
     -- Consciousness and Enlightenment
     -- Memory
     -- Higher and Lower Reason
     -- Knowing
     -- Further Comments on Deep Sleep
5.  All objects point to consciousness - 'Existence has the chair.'
6.  Happiness - not in objects or the mind, but coming from the real 'I'.
     -- Love and Devotion
7.  The background - where all experiences arise, abide and subside.
8.  Merging back - 'Sleep in consciousness.'
     -- Some Questions
Ananda has provided an updated version of these essays May 2007 and this may be downloaded as a PDF file (251k); it has a linked Table of Contents and a glossary (unlinked).
"Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda" now available for download - see 'modern books'.
Selected discourses from Shri Atmananda
Page last updated: 07-Jul-2012