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Vedanta deals with all three states of consciousness: waking, dream and
deep sleep. This approach is a radical departure from Western philosophy, which
deals only with waking consciousness and assigns dream and deep sleep to the
province of psychology, a soft science whose data is widely regarded as
inconclusive and arguable, i.e. opinion not fact.
It requires more than a little effort for the Western mindset to overcome
this prejudice and treat dream and deep sleep as essential components of
experience. The tendency to dismiss all except the waking state as unreal is very
strong. Dreams may be considered significant as indicators of desires and
emotions that, for one reason or another, we suppress in the waking state, and
some schools of psychotherapy treat dreams with a modicum of seriousness.
Deep sleep, however, is given no significance. It is considered necessary to
physical and mental well-being, for reasons that are not entirely made clear, but
little inquiry is made concerning its nature.
When we come to study Vedanta, we tend to be perplexed initially by the
attention given to dream and especially to deep sleep. We can, without too much
difficulty, appreciate that there is no great divide between dreaming and waking
consciousness. Some close attention and analysis make it plain that the subjectobject relationship in dream and waking is the same. In both states the perceiving
subject experiences people, things and emotions as objects. The waking state,
though epistemologically the same as dream, seems comparatively real because
of the enduring quality of the objects of perception. But we know that the objects
we seem to experience in the waking state are not permanent and will, like the
objects in dream, eventually dissolve. Most of the great lyric poetry of the West
takes the sorrow of this impermanence as its theme. (Think of Keats Ode to a
We can also come rather quickly to the realization that what we experience
in both dream and waking are not objects but thoughts. The variety of sense data
collected by our physical organs is collated by the mind into a single impression

that appears to have originated in the external object and that possesses a unity
of its own. But that unity is merely superimposed on the object by the synthesis
of the mind. And the mind is thought. So the continuity ascribed to waking and
dream objects is a purely mental phenomenon. But from what source does the
mind, which is merely a series of thoughts, derive its sense of continuity?
Vedanta explains that the mind is awareness, and that awareness is the
same in both dream and waking. Thoughts come and go, and we ascribe thoughts
to objects, but objects cannot produce thoughts, as they are insentient, and that
which is insentient cannot be the author of that which is sentient. You can only
give what youve got. So thoughts depend upon awareness, not upon objects. And
on what does awareness depend?
Awareness cannot be the product of objects, as weve established, nor can
it be the product of thought, which is itself dependent upon awareness.
Awareness cannot depend upon anything. It is the substratum of all thought,
which means it is the substratum of objective perceptions: the sum and substance
of all knowledge. It is knowledge itself: pure and self-luminous. It lights up both
the waking and dream states. To posit something beyond awareness leads to
absurdity: it is to say that we derive our awareness from something of which we
are not aware. Are we aware of anything of which we are not aware? So far, so
good. Dream and waking experience are accounted for. But what about deep
The general assumption about deep sleep is that it is a condition in which
we lose all consciousness. It is a blank mystery: how we arrive at it and how we
return from it appear to defy explanation, at least in the Western understanding
of consciousness. But we know that deep sleep feels wonderful. How do we know
this? We remember having experienced deep sleep. We say, I slept well and
didnt dream. So we know that the general assumption that deep sleep equals a
loss of consciousness must be wrong. We, meaning awareness, recall deep sleep
because awareness remained during the experience. So the same awareness that
recalls our waking and dream experiences also recalls deep sleep.

But the quality of awareness in deep sleep appears markedly different from
the quality of awareness in the dream and waking states. The difference is that in
dream and waking we experience subject-object duality; in deep sleep, that
duality is absent. And that absence feels wonderful. This is why the ancient seers
of India who carefully analyzed the deep-sleep state called it anandamaya kosa
the sheath of bliss.
Now the question arises: if deep sleep is an experience of the bliss of nonduality, should not the aim of Vedanta be the mastery of this state, so that it can
be summoned at will and made permanent? As Vedanta is a means of knowledge
for overcoming the delusion and misery of duality, this would seem to be a valid
conclusion. Yet, we find the texts of Vedanta urging those who seek the highest
truth to reject the bliss of deep sleep, which is called nirvikalpa Samadhi by the
yogis. The difference between deep sleep and nirvikalpa Samadhi is that the yogi
undergoes rigorous practices so that he can enter this Samadhi at will, while the
ordinary man can only enter deep sleep when it occurs naturally, that is, outside
the control of his will.
What does Vedanta have against the bliss of deep sleep/ nirvikalpa
Samadhi? Just this: it does not remove ignorance, which gives rise to the duality
of the dream and waking states.
Why do we not stay in deep sleep, even though it feels far better than the
dream and waking states? (No one would call dream and waking anandamaya
kosa the sheath of bliss.) Dream and waking states bring pain and pleasure, but
mostly pain. They are states in which we are deluded into thinking that our
happiness is in objects (and thoughts and emotions are objects as much as
external things). So we pursue those objects, sometimes experiencing pleasure,
which doesnt last, and returning again and again to a state of unfulfilled desire,
which produces pain, which we try to alleviate by pursuing objects again, with the
same disappointing result, ad infinitum. Its called the wheel of samsara.
When we enjoy the bliss of deep sleep, we experience a temporary
cessation of this mad chase after objects. The wheel of samsara seems to stop
turning and we enjoy a period of rest. But then, we awake. Why? Because we

have no choice in the matter. Deep sleep is disrupted by the forces that drew us
into this particular life and that drive us from one experience to the next, despite
our desire to remain in bliss. This occurs because deep sleep is only a brief
suspension of subject-object duality in which the seeds of our desires remain
dormant but ready to sprout, which they do when we pass again into the dream
and waking states. The cycle repeats itself day after day.
This is why deep sleep is called the causal body, for it retains those
tendencies which will later manifest in duality. So we cannot really describe deep
sleep as the absence of duality so much as its suspension. Ignorance does not
disappear in deep sleep; it simply stops manifesting as subject-object duality. The
absence of this duality produces bliss, but not self-knowledge. This has important
implications for those who are pursuing truth.
It is in its analysis of deep sleep that Vedanta separates itself most
decisively from yoga. The yogi pursues the bliss of deep sleep through the
mastery of nirvikalpa Samadhi. In this, yoga makes the mistake of equating the
experience of bliss with the freedom of self-knowledge. But as we must wake up
from deep sleep, the yogi must also eventually leave the state of Samadhi, for it is
just that a state an experience that comes and goes. So even if the yogi is
able to produce Samadhi, he cannot make it permanent for the same reason that
deep sleep is not permanent: the seeds of ignorance, which make us believe
happiness is in objects, remain and will move us to act, thus perpetuating the
pleasure/pain cycle f duality. It is only when the seeds of ignorance are destroyed
by self-knowledge that the pleasure-pain cycle of duality comes to an end.
Nirvikalpa Samadhi requires tremendous effort over a long period of
practice. The yogi pursuing this Samadhi makes some fundamental and mistaken
assumptions. The chief one is that the mind must be controlled if one is to
overcome the misery and delusion of duality. The mind is seen as separate from
awareness and the enemy of self-knowledge. Thoughts then have to be
suppressed by various means, as prescribed in the Yoga Sutras and other texts,
until the mind becomes perfectly quiet.

But as noted earlier, the mind is a series of thoughts, and thoughts do not
depend on objects but on consciousness itself. Yoga prescribes an ascetic
withdrawal of the mind from objects on the assumption that objects produce
thoughts. Vedanta teaches that it is the other way around: thought, that is,
consciousness, produces objects. In fact, consciousness produces all that exists,
even that which seems to exist, for delusion itself requires a substratum. The
delusion of the snake cannot appear without the rope.
So the yogi, in wresting the mind from objects and then suppressing
thought is, in effect, trying to manage consciousness itself. But sooner or later
such tremendous effort must be relaxed, just as a contracted muscle must sooner
or later be relaxed, and then thought will resume.
When Vedanta texts commend Samadhi, they are not referring to the
nirvikalpa Samadhi of the yogis. They are referring to the mind in a state of
equilibrium in which it neither runs after objects in duality, nor deadens itself in a
yogic trance. This Samadhi is achieved through discrimination and dispassion;
through realizing that happiness is neither in objects, nor in the suppression of
desire for objects; that happiness is the natural condition of awareness and that
we are awareness, pure and simple. This is sometimes called asparsha yoga the
yoga without relationship, that is, without subject-object perceptions.
In Vedanta, desires are neither indulged in nor beaten back: they are
examined. And this examination proves plainly that objects appear in awareness,
are made of awareness, seemingly dissolve in awareness. But awareness neither
arises, objectifies itself, nor disappears. It simply is. What the mind imagines it is
seeing and experiencing then are not objects, internal or external, but its very
Self: timeless, unchanging awareness appearing as the world and the mind. Its a
grand show to be enjoyed, not a combat with ones own nature to be fought.
The mind is not the enemy, but an ally. In a famous description that
continues to give fresh insight, Ramana Maharshi talked about self-inquiry, i.e.
the examination of thought, as a thorn used to remove another thorn. At the end
of the process, both thorns thoughts and the inquiry into their true nature can
be discarded. One does not keep inquiring after the answer has been understood.

One then rests in the truth, contented. Thoughts can continue indeed, will
continue but they will no longer delude the observer of the thoughts.
On a final note, Vedanta makes the useful distinction of two types of
delusional thought: veiling thought and projecting thought. Projecting thought
(vikshepa) stimulates desire by misidentifying the bliss of pure awareness with the
acquisition of external objects. Thus begins the mad chase for money, power, sex
and the myriad of things that appear in awareness. But projecting thought would
not occur without veiling thought (avarana). Veiling thought conceals our true
nature. It makes us think we are the limited body/mind and that our only chance
for happiness lies in satisfying our carnal, emotional and intellectual desires.
In deep sleep, the projecting thought subsides, as the mind becomes
quiescent; but the veiling thought is still present. In deep sleep, we experience
the bliss of the absence of projections, but we still do not know that that bliss is
our very nature. We identify it with a state, and that state comes and goes, like all
phenomena. Vedanta is the means of knowledge that goes to the root of our
delusion and misery. It destroys the veiling thought, and in doing so, it neutralizes
the projecting thought, which can no longer cause us to chase objects. This is
freedom. This is the true and lasting Samadhi.