The Four States of Consciousness

The Four States of Consciousness—Beyond the Waking State

Mandukya Upanishad is the source of the Hindu revelations about the Four States of Consciousness and defines these states as waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and turya (the fourth state, which is the state of enlightenment). The great yogi Shankaracharya said that this Upanishad, together with Gaudapada’s commentary on it, “contains the epitome of the substance of the importance of Vedanta.”

In general, all Western science starts from the reference of a waking state of consciousness. Here, sleep and dreams have appeared as psycho­physical phenomena to be analyzed from the standpoint of the waking consciousness. All the other states—dream, deep sleep, etc.—are analyzed from this perspective. Indeed, we perceive the phenomenal world only in one state of consciousness—the waking state. Moreover, it is not perceived by our entire being. It follows that philosophies based on the observation of external facts alone are bound to be incomplete, because parts—both related to the perceiver and the perceived—are missing.

The Vision of Advaita Vedanta

Advaita Vedanta (the vision of non-duality) affirms that the waking consciousness is just a relative, not absolute, point of reference. The waking state is not the ultimate, absolute reality. The dream and deep sleep states are a second and third dimension of Pure Consciousness. Thus, we can more easily understand the relative character of wakefulness. Here Pure Consciousness, as revealed in turya, is the real continuous reference. Ramana Maharshi and many other sages affirmed that turya is the background of all the other states of consciousness. They further attested that it can be revealed more easily in the moments of transition between one common state of consciousness and another.

Ramana affirmed: “… for the ajnani (ignorant human being) the standard of reality is the waking state, whereas for the jnani (realized being) the standard of reality is reality itself. This reality of pure consciousness is eternal by its nature and therefore subsists equally during what you call waking, dreaming, and sleep.”

Ramana proceeded to metaphorically express that the condition of a jnani is eternal and is reflected in wakefulness, dreams, and deep sleep: “To him who is one with that [Supreme] Reality there is neither the mind nor its three states and, therefore, neither introversion nor extroversion. His is the ever-waking state, because he is awake to the eternal Self; his is the ever-dreaming state, because to him the world is no better than a repeatedly presented dream phenomenon; his is the ever-sleeping state, because he is at all times without the ‘body-am-I’ consciousness.”

1. Wakefulness—Jagrat

In this state, atman (the Supreme Self) is mainly mis-identified with annamaya kosha (the “sheath composed of food”—the physical body). Thus, the jiva (soul) travels in objectivity and becomes an object itself, mostly ignoring its subjective consciousness. In the waking state, the jiva is caught up with objects (both external and internal) and loses the awareness of its true nature as pure “subject.”

2. Dreaming—Svapna

The dream state is the state in which the Supreme Self is mainly misidentified with pranamaya kosha (the “sheath composed of life force”) and manomaya kosha (the “sheath composed of mind”). Thus, the jiva travels in the cognitive world (the imaginative world of dreams), becomes one with that realm, and loses the consciousness of atman (pure subjectivity). Sometimes while in svapna, atman is misidentified with vijnanamaya kosha (the “sheath composed of intellectual knowledge and understanding”) and then there are lucid dreams. In the dream state, the jiva is caught up with internal objects and loses sight of its true nature as pure “subject.”

3. Deep Sleep—Sushupti

In deep sleep, the Supreme Self is mainly misidentified with anandamaya kosha (the “sheath composed of bliss”—the causal body). The soul travels in a subjective world without being conscious of it, and becomes one with that unconscious subjectivity. Because this state is related to a body, it still has a fine veil of an objective character, but the content of the experience is just bliss. In deep sleep, the jiva is free from objects but has not yet transcended itself.

4. Turya

Turya is the state in which there is no identification with any of the koshas. Instead, there is perfect, pure awareness of Awareness. Thus, there are no incorrect identifications, and avidya (ignorance) vanishes. Only when turya appears do we realize that the seemingly solid physical world in which we live is also like a dream. It is the revelation of the background of the other three states of consciousness (waking, dreaming, and deep sleep).

Beyond the Fourth…

While yogis speak of the Four States of Consciousness, turyatita is considered the fifth. Meaning “beyond the fourth,” it represents the final term of this hierarchy of existence, and is not part of the series. It is, rather, a completely new perspective that transcends and integrates the other three states, being incommensurable with them. Turya (the fourth state) and turyatita are identical in content. We refer to turya when we speak about a transitory condition that appears in some special moments and then goes away, while turyatita is Pure Existence itself. It is the eternal turya in which distinctions between the states of waking, dreaming, and deep sleep dissolve and are embraced in the unique background of Awareness—the pure bliss consciousness in which the entire objective world (the Universe, the body, etc.) is not separated from the Self. A jnani (realized sage) in turyatita never loses the awareness of Awareness.