According to the Chandogya Upanishad, when Prajapati announced that all worlds and all desires would be his who understood "the Self which is free from sin, free from old age, from death and grief, from hunger and thirst," great numbers of gods and men came to him for instruction. But this knowledge does not come quickly, as two young students discovered. They had studied 32 years before Prajapati gave them his attention. Telling them to look into a pan of water, he asked them to describe what they saw. "We see ourselves," they replied, "even to our fingernails and hair."
"That is the Self," the Master explained. "That is the immortal, the fearless. That is Brahma!"
Delighted, the disciples, believing they had discovered the Self that is free from sin, old age, death and grief, hunger and thirst, departed to spread the teaching that the body is to be adorned, made happy, and worshiped. But before they had gone far, one of them paused, realizing this could not be true: the Self does not become blind when the body becomes blind, nor does it perish when the body dies. Confused, he returned and continued to study until eventually he had a fuller understanding of the ultimate Self or atman, and with this obtained knowledge of "all worlds and all desires."
What were the teachings that brought him this knowledge? Undoubtedly they included teachings now recorded in the Vedas and Upanishads that give insights into the wondrous and complex nature of our souls, that is, of our psychological make-up of which our bodies are but a reflection, as our souls are reflections and expressions of our true Self (atman). It is this true Self, they tell us, which enlivens, invigorates, gives health, awareness, pattern, and direction to every part of our spiritual, psychological, and physical natures — even to our "fingernails and hair."
These ancient writings explain further that this Self is the source of our consciousness which, rising and falling through the levels of our being, enables us to be aware during our diverse daytime activities, during lofty meditative experiences, and even during our dreams. In Sanskrit these levels of consciousness are referred to as jagrat, the waking state; svapna, from svap, "to sleep, to dream"; and sushupti, a deep sleeping state, referring to the higher awareness our spiritual soul experiences when our bodies are sound asleep. During the day, when our attention is focused on personal affairs, family matters, social events, or business, our consciousness is in the jagrat state — a condition filled with illusions and misconceptions created by our sense perceptions. The svapna state is also filled with illusions — those born of our mental confusions and prejudices. Such distortions can bring nightmares, but on occasions when "light" shines through, we are blessed with insights and visions of beauty. As for the sushupti state: this is a time when the spiritual self leaves to pursue its own activities in the realms where truth and virtue exist in greater fullness. What it experiences during this time is so intense and lofty that our brain-minds are able to record little except perhaps a sense of the surpassing peace and joy enjoyed therein.
Disciples were encouraged and trained to purify and discipline their natures so they could become aware of these higher experiences and remember on waking even what transpired in the fourth or turiya state of consciousness. This is a state of supreme enlightenment when the mysteries of human and cosmic life are as an open book. H. P. Blavatsky indicates a way to attain this illumination in her Voice of the Silence (statements in parentheses are from her footnotes):
Three Halls, O conqueror of Mara, will bring thee through three states (Jagrat, Svapna, Sushupti) into the fourth (Turiya) and thence into the seven worlds, the worlds of Rest Eternal.
If thou would'st learn their names, then hearken, and remember.
The name of the first Hall is IGNORANCE — Avidya. It is the Hall in which thou saw'st the light, in which thou livest and shalt die. (The phenomenal World of Senses and of terrestrial consciousness — only.)
The name of Hall the second is the Hall of Learning. In it thy Soul will find the blossoms of life, but under every flower a serpent coiled. (The astral region, the Psychic World of supersensuous perceptions and of deceptive sights. . . . No blossom picked in those regions has ever yet been brought down on earth without its serpent coiled around the stem. It is the world of the Great Illusion.)
The name of the third Hall is Wisdom, beyond which stretch the shoreless waters of AKSHARA, the indestructible Fount of Omniscience. (The region of the full Spiritual Consciousness beyond which there is no longer danger for him who has reached it.)
If thou would'st cross the first Hall safely, let not thy mind mistake the fires of lust that burn therein for the Sunlight of life.
If thou would'st cross the second safely, stop not the fragrance of its stupefying blossoms to inhale. If freed thou would'st be from the Karmic chains, seek not for thy Guru in those Mayavic regions. . . .
Seek for him who is to give thee birth, in the Hall of Wisdom, the Hall which lies beyond, wherein all shadows are unknown, and where the light of truth shines with unfading glory.
. . .
If through the Hall of Wisdom, thou would'st reach the Vale of Bliss, Disciple, close fast thy senses against the great dire heresy of separateness that weans thee from the rest. . . .
'Tis only then thou canst become a "Walker of the Sky" who treads the winds above the waves, whose step touches not the waters. — pp. 5-9, 75-6
Another approach to the nature of consciousness describes three gunas, modes or qualities through which consciousness is expressed and which, alas, hold our souls bound to this plane of existence. The Bhagavad-Gita lists these qualities, which are inherent in all beings and things, as tamas, indifference, inertia, ignorance and thus, darkness; rajas, passion and desire; and sattva, goodness, truthfulness, thus illumination. It explains:
The understanding which knows action and non-action, what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, what is to be feared and what is not to be feared, what binds and what frees the soul (that understanding), O Partha (Arjuna), is of the nature of "goodness" [Sattva].
That by which one knows in a mistaken way the right and the wrong, what ought to be done and what ought not to be done — that understanding, O Partha, is of the nature of "passion" [Rajas].
That which, enveloped in darkness, conceives as right what is wrong and sees all things in a perverted way (contrary to the truth), that understanding, O Partha, is of the nature of "dullness" [Tamas]. — 18:30-2 (Radhakrishnan trans.)
A human being in whom tamas predominates is surrounded by a cloak of darkness because typically he is lazy, self-centered, deluded, his discordant thoughts and actions bringing suffering to himself and others. A person in whom rajas is dominant is cloaked in an aura clouded with his passions and desires and, although he might be clever, creative, even heroic at times, he will be held back from advancement if he is centered too much on himself, on possessions and personal gains. One in whom sattva predominates is surrounded by a radiant halo that reflects his virtuous, wise, and compassionate nature. His dedication to the welfare of others brings peace and stability to every situation. But even he, if he is too much attached to what is noble, beautiful, and true, will be blocked from rising into higher realms. (Cf. Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India, p. 231.)
As we are aware, our consciousness continually rises and falls through these levels and conditions. When asleep we are in the tamasic condition; when awake and active, in rajas; and when we are thinking and working for others, or wrapped in spiritual contemplation, we are in the sattvic state. However, these qualities seldom exist singly. Their interaction adds variety to our lives, not only creating challenges for us to meet but tending to balance, strengthen, and/or neutralize the influence that one or the other guna exerts. These qualities also apply to all beings throughout the cosmos, from the divine to the microcosmic.
What is the value and purpose of these intricate and interesting teachings? They can help us understand the nature, movement, and function of our manifold being, and give us the incentive and tools by which we can improve our lives and hasten our evolution. By freeing ourselves from attachments and then by sublimating these qualities within our nature — transforming tamas into tranquillity, rajas into compassionate action, and sattva into divine altruism — we raise our focus of awareness from jagrat to svapna to sushupti and enter the realms of turiya. However, this goal is not quickly attained. Obstacles arise. The hindrances of ignorance, egotism, and attachments test our resolve and hold us captive in this world of illusion. But we can overcome. We can become one with "the Self which is free from sin, free from old age, from death and grief." Our whole nature will then be so spiritual that the worlds and desires we sought to attain will be ours to bless and uplift.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2002; copyright © 2002 Theosophical University Press)
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Whatever plane our consciousness may be acting in, both we and the things belonging to that plane are, for the time being, our only realities. As we rise in the scale of development we perceive that during the stages through which we have passed we mistook shadows for realities, and the upward progress of the Ego is a series of progressive awakenings, each advance bringing with it the idea that now, at last, we have reached "reality"; but only when we shall have reached the absolute Consciousness, and blended our own with it, shall we be free from the delusions produced by Maya [illusion]. — H. P. Blavatsky