Three States of Consciousness

Contributions from The Advaita Ashrama, Culcutta

The following article explains: Gross, Subtle and Causal Body

Microcosm and Macrocosm

Vishva, Taijas, Prajna

Akshara, Hiranyagarbha, Virat


Three States of Consciousness

By S.S.Raghavachar, M.A.

Dept. of Philosophy, University of Mysore, India

(This article was written on 28-01-1962)


Human experience passes through three states, Waking, Dream and Deep-sleep. These three must be studied closely and their distinctive characteristics noted.

In Waking, there is the experience of the solid external world through sense-perception.

In Dream, senses do not function. The impressions deposited in the mind by previous experiences are revivified and shaped into the likeness of waking itself. The internal perception by the mind of these revivified impressions lodged within itself, as if they are realities of the waking state itself, is dream.

In Deep-sleep, neither the senses function nor the mind functions. The self withdraws into itself as it were, but there is no self-understanding. The self is covered by a primeval ignorance from which spring all wakings, and dreams. This ignorance covers the self in all its states, but it does not set up the presentation of the non-self in the deep-sleep as it does in the waking and dream 

This analysis of the states brings out the threefold nature of embodiment. In the waking state the self is embodied in what is called the gross body consisting of the five gross elements and their modifications. In the Vedic philosophy of nature, at least three stages are discernible.

In the first stage, as represented by the Chandogya Upanisad, three elements, namely, Fire, Water and Earth are posited.

In the second stage, as represented, for instance, in the Taittiriya Upanisad, there is the addition of Air and Space. Further on, the empirical fact that these elements are not to be found in their pure and unmixed state and that they are clearly independent substances is not much of a demonstrated scientific truth must have led to the explanation that the five elements are pure and independent only in their subtle state, while as found empirically they are mixed up a great deal.

Each empirically given gross element has within it, according to this view, all the other elements also. For instance, in the gross Earth, half of it consists of pure earth and the other half consists of the other four pure elements. This process of the composition of the gross elements is what is called Panchikaranam.

[Note: ‘Panchikarana’ The fivefold combination which the five subtle rudimentary elements have to undergo to become gross ones.]

Experience of these elements and their products through sense-perception is characteristic of waking life. In the dream-state the embodiment is said to be subtle. The body of the dream-self, in the first place, contains the five organs of knowledge and the five organs of action, which are ten in all and are called Indriyas (organs).

[Note: The five organs of knowledge are Tongue (taste), Nostrils (smell), Ears (sound), Eyes (vision) and Skin (touch). The five organs of action are Tongue (speech), Hands, Feet, organ of Excretion and the Generative organ.]

It also contains the five vital breaths called Pranas. [Note: The five Pranas are Prana, Apana, Vyana, Udana and Samana. See page ‘Prana-Apana-Vyana’ column on the left.]

It has the internal sense, (Antahkarana) consisting of intellect (Buddhi), mind (Manas), and ego-sense (Ahamkara) and the faculty of contemplation (Chitta). It also contains the five subtle elements. In addition to these five factors, i.e., organs of knowledge, organs of action, vital breath, internal sense and the subtle elements, it also has their foundation Avidya, Kama and Karma. These eight factors (according to Varttika of Sri Suresvara) constitute the subtle body of the self.

Seventeen-fold Subtle Body

According to another enumeration, the subtle body consists of seventeen factors. They are the ten organs of knowledge and action, the five vital breaths, the intellect and the mind. This is the analysis of the subtle body as decisively given in some works like Sankshepa Shariraka (3-20).

The Panchikarana of Sri Sankaracharya enumerates the five subtle elements, the five breaths, the ten Indriyas, Manas and Buddhi as constituting the seventeen-fold subtle body.

In deep-sleep the body of the self is said to be causal, meaning that it is the seed of the subtle and the gross bodies and that it is the pure unactualised potentiality of the body. It consists of the original Nescience (ignorance) from which spring the phenomenal manifestations of the dream and waking worlds.

This nescience is not the negation of the native consciousness of the Atman (self), for it must itself subsist in the presence of that consciousness, even as a cloud, however much it may conceal the Sun, owes its being to the Sun. Moreover, it covers and does not annihilate the self-effulgence of the Atman. This nescience truly defies definition, analysis and description.

It is neither real nor unreal. Nor is it both real and unreal. It is neither one nor many, nor one and many. It is neither simple nor composite, nor both. All that can be positively asserted about it is that it is subject to termination by only the knowledge of the identity of Brahman and Atman. The problem of explaining it does not arise when one is unaware of the Atman. When he comes to be aware of the Atman, the ignorance has disappeared and does not exist enough to call for an explanation.

It is only the co-existence of the clear awareness of the Atman and ignorance concerning it that would raise a problem. But that co-existence is impossible. Hence the nature of the primeval nescience is inexplicable. But it positively disappears when we awake to reality. This ignorance is the causal body operating by itself in the state of deep-sleep. Thus the Atman is encased in a threefold body.

Gross, Subtle and Causal Body

The three states and the three bodies are relative to the self. We can speak of three selves from the empirical standpoint in relation to the states and bodies.

The self as embodied in the gross body and undergoing the experiences of waking is called VISHVA.

The self as encased in the subtle body and undergoing dream-experiences is the TAIJASA.

The self as resting in the causal body in the state of deep-sleep is the PRAJNA.

This is the terminology to be adopted when we take an individualistic or Microcosmic point of view. But if we adopt the Macrocosmic point of view and regard the totality of being, the Cosmic Self or the Deity can be said to maintain itself in three planes of phenomenal manifestation.

In its primordial plane as associated with Maya or cosmic self-concealment it is AKSHARA.

As enfolded in the cosmic totality of subtle bodies and dream-state, it is Sutratman or HIRANYAGARBHA.

In relation to the totality of the gross universe as revealed to waking consciousness, the cosmic spirit is said to be VIRAT. (pronounced Viraat).

Thus there are three phases of the individual self corresponding to the three planes of the phenomenal appearance of the universal spirit.


PRANAVA or the syllable AUM consists of three component elements. They are A, U and M.

The Mandukya Upanisad initiated the tradition of regarding the three sound elements of AUM as corresponding to and as signifying the phases of the self conditioned by the three bodies, and as manifesting itself in the three phenomenal states.

A signifies the VIRAT in the Macrocosm and the VISHVA in the Microcosm.

U represents HIRANYAGARBHA in the Macrocosm and TAIJASA in the Microcosm.

M signifies PRAJNA in the Microcosm and AKSHARA or ISVARA in the Macrocosm.

[Note: VIRAT: The Consciousness associated with the aggregate of all gross bodies.

VISHVA: The Consciousness which identifies itself with the individual gross body and the waking state. HIRANYAGARBHA: The subtle objective totality. TAIJASA: The Consciousness associated with the dream state and the subtle body. PRAJNA: The Consciousness associated with the deep-sleep state and the causal body or ignorance.

AKSHAR(ATMA): The indestructible (spirit). ISVARA: The great cause of the universe, the Pure Consciousness associated with its own power called MAYA.] 

This fusion of the particular and cosmic standpoints is insisted upon and we are to see in the three constituents of AUM the signification of the three phases of the one integral spirit.

Thus the whole universe is viewed in three levels, the causal, the subtle and the gross. The spirit which is the ultimate reality, appears conditioned by these. Now the philosophical problem for man is to ascend to the apprehension of the real as transcending the conditions in which it is seemingly embodied.

The spiritual problem is to release oneself from these limiting conditions and to realise one’s identity with the Ultimate Principle. The symbol AUM is maintained to contain the direction for developing this transcendent integrality of knowledge and life.

The first sound-constituent of AUM, namely A represents the gross point of view. It connotes the native realism and pluralism of common sense. 

From this we ought to move on to the level of thought represented by U. U signifies the understanding of the world as the projection of the universe by the Spirit itself. The point of view is found on the dream-experience and its philosophy may be described as Dynamic Idealism. Spirit, through the instrumentality of mind, sets up within itself the entire cosmos. When this standpoint reaches maturity, we must pass beyond it.

The next stage is represented by M. The diversity of presentation conjured up in the dream-world is nothing real. It is a projection of the unreal. Such projection is founded upon the non-apprehension of the real. The realisation of this fact of radical non-apprehension is promoted by the consideration of the experience of deep-sleep.

We dream because we are asleep. The worlds taken as real in waking is really of the same status as dream world and the pre-supposition of such comic dreaming is the failure to see that the Atman is the sole reality.

This failure is most clearly illustrated in deep-sleep. We must pass into the frame of thought according to which our empirical life which is in reality a dream, is due to our being asleep to spirit, the fundamental substance of our being. We are most asleep when we fancy ourselves most awake. Even as the chanting of the sacred Pranava (AUM) culminates in the serenity of silence after the final sound M, the philosophic contemplation of man’s experience in its entirety must pass after the consideration of the state of deep-sleep into the unconditioned effulgence of the pure and transcendent Self.

The seed of phenomenal life namely ignorance most strikingly present in sleep must be destroyed and the sleeper must wake up to the infinite reality of the spiritual essence. This ultimate self-affirmation is the goal of contemplation. The agnosticism of sleep must be burnt up in this transcendent self-realisation.

Following the Pranava (AUM) in all its phases, and to its farthest merger in silence, one must review the spirit’s manifestation in the three states and up to its embodiment in the Nescience-body and pass beyond even that causal sheath into the utter freedom of its absolute illumination. An analysis of man’s three states does thus fulfil itself in the vision of his Divine essence in all the glory of its “stateless” eternity.

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