The state of being aware, either of something external or internal. In sentient beings, it is the concomitant of thoughts, feelings and sensations. The word “consciousness” is ordinarily associated with common waking consciousness. But the latter is only one type of consciousness. The difficulty in defining what really is consciousness has long been recognized by the early pioneers of psychology, such as William James and Sigmund Freud. James wrote in his Varieties of Religious Experience:
Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question, — for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness.
Today, various modes of consciousness other than normal waking consciousness are recognized, such as dream state, dreamless sleep, hypnosis, hypnagogic state, drug-induced state, mystical states, enlightenment, intuition, and other forms of supramental states.
With the advent of behaviorism, consciousness took a back seat and its existence was even questioned. Behaviorism considers as valid only those which can be observed and measured. Hence such things as intentions, consciousness, thoughts, and similar subjective experiences were not given as much validity as observable behavior.
Eastern religions and philosophies distinguish between consciousness and vehicles of consciousness. Thus purusa as pure consciousness perceives through prakrti, or material essence. This is a view shared by theosophical writers. Thus, Helena P. BLAVATSKY wrote: “While Consciousness is not a thing per se, Mind is distinctly — in its Manvantaric functions at least — an Entity” (CW X:325).
In theosophy, consciousness is derived from two primordial principles: the spiritual principle, and the material vehicles through which such a principle acts. They are equivalent to Parama-Purusa and Mulaprakti. The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett states:
- The one and chief attribute of the universal spiritual principle — the unconscious but ever active life-giver — is to expand and shed; that of the universal material principle to gather in and fecundate. Unconscious and non-existing when separated, they become consciousness and life when brought together. (ML, p. 118)
Thus, apart from Absolute Consciousness, which Blavatsky considers as unconsciousness, consciousness implies limitations and qualifications. It needs an object to be conscious of, and an entity to be conscious of the object (SD I:56).
Prior to the manifestation of the cosmos, the primordial state of consciousness is called chidakasa, consciousness in akasa or primordial space. Its emergence is in seven degrees. The first is coeval with the first and second unmanifested Logoi. At this stage it is still latent. Then when manifestation or differentiation occurs, the latent consciousness becomes MAHAT, or COSMIC IDEATION (CW X:360). What follows are the manifestations of consciousness in the lower planes of nature.
Consciousness in human and sentient beings results from the perceptive faculties awakened in the different levels or planes of nature. A stone has consciousness on its own level, but not of a kind that human beings are capable of.
Everything in the Universe, throughout all its kingdoms, is CONSCIOUS: i.e., endowed with a consciousness of its own kind and on its own plane of perception. We men must remember that because we do not perceive any signs — which we can recognise — of consciousness, say, in stones, we have no right to say that no consciousness exists there. There is no such thing as either “dead” or “blind” matter, as there is no “Blind” or “Unconscious” Law. (SD I:274)
In human beings, there are seven states of consciousness corresponding to the different principles, from physical body to Atma (see HUMAN CONSTITUTION). Blavatsky states that the special organ of consciousness in living people is the brain, located in the aura of the pineal gland. At variance with the common assumption that consciousness can only perceive one object at a time, she states that human consciousness can simultaneously “receive no less than seven distinct impressions, and even pass them into memory” (CW XIII:28).
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