Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Mystery - Part 2

Rarely Asked Questions
Bimal Prasad

Bimal Behari Prasad (60) is a government servant in the Government of India. As a student of Advaita, he also works for the cause of Advaita.




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3. We are Consciousness

Q4: Why do sages say that we are not what we see?

Answer: It is generally held that we are mind and body. This is not true. This misconception will be clear if we give attention to what we say; for example, ‘my mind is not working’ or ‘I have a headache’. When we say that my mind is not working, it means that I am different from mind. Similarly when I say that I have a headache, it means that I am different from the body, i.e. the head. It is clear that we are something more than the body and mind but we do not know what this something is.


Q5: It is strange that we do not know what we are. How do we solve this riddle?

Answer: What we really are has been the matter of debate and discussion in the fields of religion, philosophy, and psychology. It is now gradually believed that beyond the mind and the body is Consciousness.


Q6: What is special or peculiar about Consciousness?

Answer: At the most fundamental level everything is formless Consciousness. However, before understanding Consciousness, we need to examine the roles of our body and mind in the scheme of things. What is needed is to find out the distinction between Consciousness on the one hand and the mind and body on the other.


Q7: Is there any method to understand this distinction?

Answer: There are different ways in which it can be done. One approach is to distinguish between subject and object. In other words, it is distinguishing between ‘seer’ and ‘seen’. This is our common experience but its significance is rarely appreciated. The underlying principle is that the subject cannot be the object. The ‘seer’ cannot be the ‘seen’.


It is an undeniable fact that Consciousness is ever present in any perception. It is the light under which one is able to perceive every conceivable thing: be it thought or any tangible thing; form or formless. Yet we find ourselves wanting in knowing the exact nature and source of Consciousness. The method of distinguishing the ‘seer’ from the ‘seen’ is quite effective. For example, I see the kite, therefore, I am not the kite; when the kite flies, I do not fly; when the kite falls down, I do not fall down.


The seer or the subject is independent of the seen or the object. This principle, if extended, has enormous implications. We as normal human beings do not identify ourselves with the objects of perception, which are external to our bodies. The sense organs which are the instruments of perception for external things are also used to perceive or experience our bodies. Thus, the sense organs are the ‘seers’ and the body is the ‘seen’.


Taking the distinction further, the sense organs are the objects of perception to the mind: the mind knows whether the eyes are short-sighted or long-sighted as the mind can objectify the eyes as a known object. When the mind is the subject and eye is the object, what happens is that Consciousness is identified with the mind and the mind perceives the sense organs and also uses the sense organs as instruments of knowledge. Notwithstanding this, Consciousness and mind are different; Consciousness is reflected in the mind which enables the mind to see or know. We call it conscious mind.


It is worthwhile to note that Consciousness itself does not see or know. A blind man loses his sight, not the conscious mind. The conscious mind also uses the sense organs as instruments of knowledge to know the body or external things. Now we are inching towards an area so far not ventured into. Therefore, take a pause and assimilate all that has been said above.


Further probing reveals that the mind is also an object of knowledge in which the thoughts, moods and emotions are known. In this methodology anything that can be objectified is separated from the subject. On completion of the process, what alone remains as the final subject or seer is Consciousness.


Is consciousness an object of any other thing? ‘No’ is the emphatic answer. Consciousness is its own subject. Everything else is an object of Consciousness, rises and falls (therefore transient) within Consciousness. ‘Seer, ‘Seen’ and ‘Seeing’ become one with Consciousness. The recognition of the distinction between the unchanging Consciousness and the transitory modifications of the body, mind, and sense organs is the most important step. Until this is clearly conceptualized, Consciousness is identified with them and is not recognized as something in its own right. This phenomenon is called super-imposition.


Q8: How does the identification of Consciousness with mind happen?

Answer: When two things occupy the same place at the same time and the nature of each is unknown, the two appear to be one. An illustration of this is the red-hot iron rod. For a person who has no prior knowledge of iron and fire separately, characteristics of the one will get mixed with those of the other, and he will perceive a hot rod as a single entity. When he knows them separately, then even when mixed, he will not be prey to the folly of super-imposition.


In a like manner, Consciousness, once differentiated from its objects of identification, is easily recognized amidst them. Until then, it appears as one with the body-mind complex. We need to understand the super-imposition, which confuses Consciousness with the other: mind, body and external objects. Confusing the mind with Consciousness is most common. We are not even aware of this confusion; it is a habit which has become second nature.


Q9: What causes the identification?

Answer: As can be seen, the mind makes the mistake of super-imposition because of ignorance. On gaining Self-knowledge, in spite of still experiencing the multiplicity, the individual nature of each is recognized, as is evident in the illustration of the red-hot iron rod.


Q10: Is it possible to know the nature and attributes of Consciousness?

Answer: Consciousness is not an object of perception. As it cannot be objectified, it is unknown. Here, ‘unknown’ means more than what we can know. The scriptures say: neti, neti, meaning, not this, not this. Though the nature of Consciousness is not completely known, the methodology of seer and seen dichotomy enables us at least to have an insight that consciousness is the ultimate subject. Everything else is dependent on it. Consciousness does not need another consciousness to illumine it, just as the sun does not need a second source of light. It is self-luminous. It is important to note that we do not need to experience Consciousness because it is substratum of all experiences. It is ever present in the act of ‘seeing’.


Q11: It seems that Consciousness is the ultimate subject of a person X. Is it same for a person Y?

Answer: Consciousness cannot be defined by objects of perception. If I am conscious of my body, I cannot describe Consciousness in terms of the body. If I am conscious of my mind, I cannot describe Consciousness in terms of mind. We are now reaching another vital stage: distinguishing all objects of perception from Consciousness, what remains is the undifferentiated Consciousness. This is because on removing all limitations, i.e. the objects with which it is confused, what remains is the One Consciousness.


The Consciousness which is the constant seer for X is the same Consciousness which is the constant seer for Y. Why not term it ‘Pure Consciousness’? It is also called Self; capital S to distinguish from self. In other words, there is only one Self with respect to all objects. There may be more than one person in a room, yet there are not two Selves. The Self is unique. It has no copy. What a profound revelation! We are really saying something which is so very true but rarely acknowledged. Skeptics would say that it is all in the realm of metaphysics. Nonetheless, the Truth is not dependent on classifications of physics and metaphysics.


Q12: It is explained that the substratum of everything is Consciousness. How is the Consciousness the same as bliss?

Answer: Consciousness is limitless and infinite. Psychologically this is akin to bliss (ananda). Infinite (ananta) is also bliss (ananda).


Q13: Do mystics have experience of Consciousness?

Answer: In the book “The Upanishads”, Eknath Easwaran has given an exotic description. Consciousness though beyond the known world of our five senses is available to a seeker. He has to look beyond the five senses. Yet, we are content to stay where we are; we are even afraid to venture into the unknown. Contrary to this, the mystics are not content to accept that their mundane existence is all that there is. They are curious and restless to know first-hand what lies beyond. This is true of adventurers of every kind. But such adventures are limited to the material world howsoever daring they may be.


Compare this with the idea of exploring Consciousness: the real purpose is not so much to know the unknown as to know the knower. They have realized the Truth. Such mystics are found in every age and every culture. Quite understandably, they have not cared to stamp their names to their experience. They are beyond all names and forms. We know of them through the snapshots they have handed down to us from time to time which are codified in scriptures and are priceless possessions of humanity. Though pithy and concise, they kindle our curiosity and invite us to visit the place. Different mystics have taken different routes to reach the summit. Therefore, the snapshots of their journeys may be different. But the summit, the Truth, is same. More importantly, they continue to live in the material world safe and sound and as enlightened persons; they have gained the supreme knowledge (Brahmavidya). They are the knowledge personified.

Go to Part 3


Page last updated: 19-Mar-2016