The traditional view is that turIya is the non-dual, unconditioned consciousness (e.g. see Guadapada's Mandukya Karika). Sri Ramana refers to it as Pure Consciousness. It is the Atman. As it is "unconditioned consciousness", it is nirguNa brahman, which is also referred to as the parabrahman.
Gaudapada explains that the three states of consciousness namely waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep (deep sleep) are characterized by two things:
- "non-apprehension of reality"
- "mis-apprehension of reality".
"Reality" standing for turIya-Atman-Brahman. turIya is not a fourth state but rather the unconditioned consciousness which is the substratum for all three states. It is the one without a second, with no thing to know it and no other for it to know.
Non-apprehension of Atman is the cause of ignorance. Mis-apprehension is the resultant effect which leads us to see ourselves and the world as other than we are - pure consciousness.
For example, in the rope and snake analogy often used in Vedanta, non-apprehension of the rope is the cause of ignorance as to its true nature. Because of this non-apprehension we mistake it for a snake (mis-apprehension). As soon as we realize it is a really a rope, the snake disappears for it had no real existence apart from the rope, its substratum. In the same way, because we are ignorant of our true nature, we mistakenly identify ourselves with the body mind and see a separate world of objects. The sages tell us that when we recognize our true nature, turIya, then the duality of 'me' and 'other' (ego and world) disappears and non dual brahman is directly 'experienced' as alone existing.
In his Mandukya Karika, Sri Gaudapada gives us a handy way of looking at turIya and the three states and which summarizes what is said above. Each may be characterized as follows:
turIya (Atman): non-apprehension of duality;
praj~nA (deep sleep): non-apprehension of Reality and of duality;
taijasa (dream state): non-apprehension of and misapprehension of Reality;
vishva (waking state): non-apprehension of and misapprehension of Reality.
As far as I know, turyatita is not referred to in the major Upanishads. However, some of the minor Upanishads refer to five states: vishva, taijasa, praj~nA, turIya and turyatita. For example:
II.4. There are five AvasthA-s (states): jAgrat (waking), svapna (dreaming), suShupti (dreamless sleeping), the turIya (fourth) and turyatita (that beyond the fourth)...
II.5. The Yogin is one that has realised Brahman that is all-full beyond turIya.
(from "Mandala Brahmana Upanishad", Translated by K. Narayanasvami Aiyar)
5. There is nothing other than Brahman of the five padas (i.e. the turyatita)…
(from "Para-Brahma Upanishad", Translated by Prof. A. A. Ramanathan)
Sri Ramana Maharshi also refers to turyatita in a few places, though he normally explains the traditional view. The way I understand this is that the reference to turyatita has more to do with meditation practice than with the traditional view of metaphysics. Certain types of samAdhi (e.g. kevala nirvikalpa) don't really fit easily into the 3 states. It seems kevala nirvikalpa samAdhi certainly isn't the 'waking' or 'dream' state, and it also doesn't quite equate with 'deep sleep' for the latter is characterized by 'non-apprehension' of Reality. Nor does it quite equate with direct realization of Atman and therefore liberation, as it is a temporary state.
Another reason for five states, rather than four, is due to the stage of establishing oneself in the Witness State and recognizing that 'I am' is not any of the other three states. Perhaps here, the term 'turIya' is used to stand for the fourth state as the Witness State. However, the spiritual aspirant has yet to realize herself as the non-dual Brahman - a fifth 'state' (so called). Hence this latter stage is referred to as turyatita, beyond the fourth (turIya). Sri Ramana says as much when asked, "Why is the Self described both as the fourth state (turIya) and beyond the fourth state (turyatita)?" He replies:
"turIya means that which is the fourth. The experiencers (jIva-s) of the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep, known as vishva, taijasa and praj~nA, who wander successively in these three states, are not the Self. It is with the object of making this clear, namely that the Self is that which is different from them and which is the witness of these states, that it is called the fourth (turIya). When this is known, the three experiencers disappear and the idea that the Self is a witness, that it is the fourth, also disappears. That is why the Self is described as beyond the fourth (turyatita)."
(from, "Spiritual Instruction" no. 8.)
Apart from one or two passages like the above, Sri Ramana generally refers to turIya in the traditional way, as follows:
D.: What is turiya?
M.: There are three states only, the waking, dream and sleep. turIya is not a fourth one; it is what underlies these three. But people do not readily understand it. Therefore it is said that this is the fourth state and the only Reality. In fact it is not apart from anything, for it forms the substratum of all happenings; it is the only Truth; it is your very Being. The three states appear as fleeting phenomena on it and then sink into it alone. Therefore they are unreal.
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