The Nature and Location of Consciousness
by Swami Krishnananda


The principle maintained in the philosophy of Yoga is that consciousness is unlimited. This is a very important point that we have to remember at the very beginning. Here, when we encounter the definition or meaning of consciousness, we are likely to face several difficulties: What is consciousness? Where is it situated? What is its origin? How is it related to us? And what is its final importance?

The history of philosophy has been a long record of varieties of definitions and answers to this great question. Endless definitions have been provided by various thinkers and philosophers throughout the history of thought. One of the insurmountable difficulties faced in this connection is the habituated feeling that consciousness is inside the body. We can never forget that this is the fact. Where is your consciousness? “It is inside me; it cannot be anywhere else.” Of course, we are prepared to concede that consciousness is inside everybody else also, but that does not help the matter. Though we do agree that consciousness is inside every person, that it is inside a person is very important to remember.

When we say it is inside, what do we actually mean? Water is inside a bucket; fruits are inside a basket; we are all inside a room. Do we mean that consciousness is inside us in this sense? That which is inside in the examples cited is totally different from that within which it is located. The fruits are not the basket; the people are not the room, and so on.

Going along this analogy, it would mean that consciousness is not the body, because we say it is inside the body. Or, are you prepared to say that it is the body itself? If you say that perhaps consciousness is not inside in the sense explained, that it is inseparable from the body, then inseparableness also involves a kind of relation. Two brothers in a family may be inseparables, as partners in a business. Husband and wife may be inseparables, socially. But, in spite of the fact that they are inseparables, they are not one person; they are not identical.

So, in view of this problem, you will find that you cannot easily decipher the location of consciousness. When you think, you will agree that it is consciousness that is responsible for thinking. Who is thinking? Is it your body that is thinking, or is there something else that you think is thinking? You, as an intelligent, educated person, may not agree that the body is thinking, because when you say a person is coming, you do not mean that a body is coming. You mean something else in the concept of a person coming, for instance.

“I shall speak to you.” When you make statements like this, who exactly is making this statement? Is this body speaking? Any application of common sense will not permit the idea that the body is speaking. Who is speaking when you speak? “I am speaking.” What do you mean by this “I am speaking”? Who are you? You may scratch your head one hundred times without coming to a definite conclusion.

It has been held by certain thinkers who are affiliated to a materialist doctrine that there is a certain unavoidable relationship between body and consciousness, because the body, also, is conscious. When you prick the body with a needle, you will know that the body is pricked. If the consciousness is not vitally related to the body, organically, so to speak, consciousness cannot feel the prick.

Here, one may feel that one cannot separate consciousness from the body. The doctrine known as epiphenomenalism, or the theory that consciousness is a function of the organism of a person, has led to the conclusion that consciousness is perhaps an emanation from the bodily individuality, as fire emanates from a matchstick. It is an exudation, an emanation, a kind of product arising as an effect of the physical organism, and this is the reason why no one can feel that oneself is a consciousness; there is always an insistent feeling that one is a body only. Any kind of theoretical argument against this assumption does not cut ice. There is an intense fondness for the body. It is taken care of as identical with one's own self: It is me, and I cannot be different from what I appear to be.

If, on this assumption, we go back to our question of where consciousness is located, we would not be able to give a correct and final answer. If it is true that consciousness, for the purpose of our present argument, is accepted to be inside the body only, whatever be its relation to the body, then it cannot be outside the body.

It was pointed out last time that if the consciousness is only inside the body, there would be no means of knowing that there are things outside the body. It is this peculiar situation of it being necessary for consciousness to know that there are things outside it also, that takes us beyond the original concept of the inwardness of consciousness, as located in the body. There seems to be something very strange about this operation, not as it appears to be for all ordinary commonsense thinking.

How do we know that there is an object outside us? There have been various theories – realistic, and idealistic, and various other approaches – which tell us how we come to know that there is an object outside us. Often, it is said that the objects, as they really are, are never known by us. The objects are known by us only as they appear to our mind or consciousness. This is to say that we have a descriptive knowledge of the behaviour of objects, but we do not come directly in contact with the objects as they are in themselves.

A difference has been noticed between what people call the primary qualities of an object and its secondary qualities. The secondary qualities are the descriptive characteristics by which we apprehend the nature of an object. That is to say, the way in which an object reacts to the sense organs is the secondary quality. But the reaction of an object upon the senses cannot necessarily be considered as the nature of the object itself. Something may produce a reaction for reasons other than what the thing itself is. So, the nature of a reaction cannot be the definition of the object as it is.

The true nature of the object is supposed to be constituted of what are known as primary qualities. Here we have another problem which has been pointed out vigorously by idealistic thinkers. If only the secondary qualities are available for cognition to the sense organs, and the mind and the intellect only play second fiddle to the operations of the senses, how will we come to know that there are things called primary qualities? In other words, how do we know that things exist at all, except in the sense of a reaction produced by them in a representative manner, not as a direct contact with the object? There is no means, it is said, of really coming in contact with the essence of an object.

Here we come to the great prescription of a sutra in the system of Patanjali, who accepts this distinction of the primary qualities or essence of an object as it is, and the object as it appears to us. In deep meditation, which is the principal subject of Yoga, we seem to be coming in contact with the object of meditation in some way. But, in what way do we come in contact with the object of meditation? The sutra of Patanjali is very definite in its conclusion that what we know as an object is only a mixture of certain characteristics foisted upon the object by our perceptual or cognitional faculties.

What does this mean? We cannot decipher a particular object unless it has a nomenclature, a name. Only if an object is designated by a particular description called name, we can know what that object is. This is one point.

The second point is, apart from the name or the verbal description of an object that is necessary in order that we may locate the object, there is also, in our mind, an idea of what the object is. We cannot know the object, except in the manner in which we are able to entertain an idea about the object. We have an idea that a tree is tall. We cannot conceive the tree as flat, or as only a stub. In a similar manner, we have a particular idea of every other thing in the world.

The Yoga System points out that our idea of the object cannot be regarded as an ultimately correct description of the object, because it is already stated that the so-called object, of which we have an idea, is known only through descriptive characteristics according to the capacity of the sense organs to cognise or perceive the object.

There is, therefore, the mental quality foisted upon the object on one hand, and the name or verbal designation is also another aspect which is foisted upon the object. But, what is the object by itself?

Here, we go to the fundamental metaphysics of Yoga. For all practical purposes, we may take it for granted that the philosophy of the Samkhya, with much of which the Vedanta also agrees, is the basis of the Yoga doctrine. Yoga is the practical application of the deduction arrived at through the philosophical investigations of the Samkhya, which in basic principles does not differ much from the Vedanta. The Samkhya is a word which means, actually, a method of enumeration of the categories of reality. To understand what these categories are, we can use an illustration by common example.

There is an object called a hard stone or granite. We take for granted that this granite is exactly as it appears to the sense organs. But, by investigation we can know that this hard, impenetrable object called granite is constituted of little particles. We can break the stone into minute elements so small that we may not be able to visualise them with our naked eyes. Such invisible constituents we call the particles of matter seem to constitute the visible object we call the solid stone. Invisible constituents become visible objects. These particles can be divided further into more and more minute components until they become indistinguishable from the basic components of all things in the world. Material or non-material, things in general have basically a uniform characteristic of material constitution, and they tend to become ubiquitous in their nature at the end, so that the fundamental essence of these objects seems to be a uniformly distributed essence. This essence, being the basic reality of the so-called varieties of things, makes us conclude that there is a unity at the back of the apprehended duality and multiplicity of objects.

The stages by which we dissect an object and enter into its basic components are actually the categories of the Samkhya, which leads finally to a principle which is not capable of further dissection. We can dissect or reduce to basic components a thing that is distinguishable from another object. That which is indistinguishable cannot be so subjected to dissection or further analysis.

There is a point where all analyses cease. That point is the all-pervading nature of the fundamental essence of the objects. The Samkhya calls this fundamental ubiquitous material essence as Prakriti. The word Prakriti, though it appears very vigorously in the Samkhya philosophy, appears also in Vedantic scriptures like the Bhagavadgita, Mahabharata, Manusmritti, etc. They differ in certain matters which are not our concern at the present moment.

This all-pervading universal basic indistinguishable essence of material existence is Prakriti. It is the ultimate objectivity of all things. It is best described as objectivity, and not an object. Objectivity is a characteristic and an object is a thing, as we conceive it. Inasmuch as our body, which is material in its nature, also is subject to reduction to its fundamentals in the manner we do other objects, it may mean that we, as physical existences, so-called, are also inseparable in our basic material essence from this ubiquitous Prakriti, so that we cannot stand outside Prakriti as physical embodiments.

Now, inasmuch as this all-pervading physical essence, which is called Prakriti or the matrix of all things, includes even the individualising physical part of even the observer of all things, we may have to concede here that an observer of this material content is not so individualised as it appears in common sense perception of objects by our so-called individuality, because here in the reduction of all materials into this fundamental, material, all-pervading essence, our so-called individual bodily essence necessary for perception externally also gets melted down into this all-pervading material essence.

Then, who becomes conscious that there is a Prakriti? It is not possible that any individualised centre of consciousness can apprehend this all-pervasive material content. That which apprehends an all-pervading thing cannot be finitely located somewhere, because finitude contradicts the all-pervadingness of the object. Hence, the Samkhya concludes by the very force of logic that the knower of this ubiquitous material essence should also be ubiquitous. That is to say, the knowing consciousness cannot be located in any particular centre, because if that had been the case, there would be nobody to know that there is a universal material content.

Today in modern physics, for instance, we are told that everything is cosmic universal energy, space-time continuum, etc. How does anyone comprehend this all-pervading, ubiquitous space-time complex? That comprehending principle, which is the consciousness, cannot be located in one place only, and then conclude that the thing that is known is all-pervading. That would be a logical contradiction. So, the Samkhya is forced to accept a knower who is equal in its capacity to the nature of the object known as Prakriti. That is to say, the consciousness that knows this fundamental, material, all-pervading substance should also be all-pervading. This consciousness that apprehends this universal material essence is called Purusha, which should not be identified with man or a human essence. It is a metaphysical definition given to the consciousness which is supposed to know that there is a universally distributed material essence. Consciousness cannot be identified with matter because there is a total dissimilarity between consciousness and matter. Matter does not know itself. Consciousness knows itself. This is the distinction between objectivity and pure subjectivity. This subjectivity, so-called, is also, as we have to remember, a universally spread-out unlimited consciousness; so, according to the Samkhya, Purusha is infinite, all-pervading, and the Prakriti that is known by it also is all-pervading.

Though this position is very helpful to us in our practice of meditation, on a final logical analysis of the situation, we will observe a contradiction because two infinites cannot exist. We cannot have one infinite of consciousness knowing, and another infinite of material ubiquitousness. This is, as the Vedanta would point out, a defect of the Samkhya doctrine. If we are able to overlook this metaphysical defect of the basic deductions of the Samkhya as pointed out, and are not concerned with this problem metaphysically, we will have a practical guidance from this system of the categorisation of the evolution of this Prakriti into material form, which will be described gradually.

This all-pervading Purusha comes in contact with this ubiquitous material substance in some way, and we can only say “some way”, because exactly in what way it comes in contact, we cannot know. The usual example given by the Samkhya philosophy is that consciousness does not really come in contact with this material object, because they are dissimilar in nature. What happens is that the consciousness reflects within itself the presence of this ubiquitous material substance, as a crystal which is pure in itself, and has no colour by itself, can reflect the colour of an object such as a rose flower brought near it, and because of the proximity of this coloured object, the whole crystal may also look red.

In this manner, the Samkhya explains that consciousness – wrongly, we must say – begins to associate itself with the objects in the world and the basic Prakriti, universal matrix of things originally, and creates a wondrous universal situation. That objectified consciousness, which has arisen on account of this reflection of the ubiquitous material substance on the all-pervading consciousness, is the ultimate metaphysical reality of the Samkhya, called Cosmic Being, which knows Itself as all-pervading.

It knows Itself as all-pervading by coming in contact with this all-pervading ubiquitous substance of material essence, by getting reflected in Itself. Otherwise, the omnipotence or omnipresence or omniscience of this all-knowing consciousness cannot be explained, because in order that something may be omnipresent, there must be a field of ubiquitousness in which it operates as all-pervading. Or, to put it crudely, unless there is space, there cannot be the question of omnipresence. Presence everywhere – that is the meaning of omnipresence. The idea of everywhereness arises on account of the presence of space, because there is no such thing as everywhere, minus the idea of space. All-knowing means it is omniscient. Knowing all things means all things must exist in order that this omniscience may be possible. So is omnipotence, all power – all power means the capacity to exert its authority on things which are other than itself. It cannot exert authority on itself only.

This is a conceptual categorisation of the original manifestation of objectivity, according to the Samkhya philosophy. It calls this condition Mahat-tattva, the great knowing Logos, as religions would say. It is the original intelligence which knows all things. This idea of all things, omniscience, omnipotence arises on account of this so-called association of the otherwise infinitude of consciousness with this material ubiquitous substance.

The Samkhya goes down further, to the point where we are living now, by bringing into its operation another principle – namely, the self-assertive character of this omniscient, omnipotent Being. It is to be known clearly that there is a distinction between just that featureless all-pervadingness of the principle of omniscience, and the self-consciousness associated with this all-pervading essence. The omnipresent Being should know that it is omnipresent; otherwise, it would be just Being-as-such. This is a particular descent from the original stage of pure omnipresence or omniscience, wherein there is a universal self-consciousness of the fact of being omnipresent. “I am” is the feeling of this omnipresent Being. It is not the “I” of myself or yourself. It is a universal omnipotence and omnipresence asserting Itself, “I am”.

Religions tell us that God is the great “I am,” “I am what I am”, or “I am that I am”. God cannot be described by any other way than “He is”; and God can regard Himself as “I am”. There is no other possible definition available to this great “I”, which includes every other conceivable little dot of “I's”, like ourselves.

This self-consciousness attributed to this otherwise all-pervading omnipresence suddenly manifests itself in a threefold form. That threefold form is known in Vedantic language as the objective reality called adhibhuta, the subjective reality called adhyatma, and the divine superintending connection between the subjective side and the objective side known as adhidaiva. Here we are coming into certain very important practical issues in our daily attempt to enter into Yoga meditation. The world appears to be external to the knowing consciousness, and the knowing consciousness places itself as a subjective knower of this world that is outside, and for reasons well known, as has already been explained, this connection between the subjective knower and the objective world cannot be established unless there is a link between the subjective side and the objective side.

This is the reason why you cannot know what is happening between you and the object when perception takes place. Some invisible operation which is consciousness by itself seems to be operating, because the link between the knowing subject and the object cannot but be conscious. We need not go further into this subject because I have already touched upon it the other day.

Now, something happens by way of a further evolution from the adhibhuta or the objective side, from the adhyatma or the subjective side, and the adhidaiva or this superintending conscious principle. This is a very important subject which requires a detailed explanation so that you may understand what it means and how it is relevant to your Yoga practice. This matter I shall take up another time.