Consciousness of Self and Not-self in Buddhism and Hinduism

Buddha, the Founder of Buddhism

By Jayaram V

Summary: Similarities and differences in the consciousness theories of Buddhism and Hinduism with regard to the pure Self and the not-self.

Ancient Indian seers were pioneers in the study of human consciousness. As early as 1000 BCE they developed several contemplative and mindfulness techniques to study consciousness and understand its powers and potentials to improve one’s life, knowledge and intelligence or manifest one’s desires or open communication channels with gods and supernatural beings or resolve human suffering. They tried to harness the powers of the mind to manifest reality and fulfill their desires for peace and happiness.

In this essay, we present a comparative review of the consciousness of sentient beings in Buddhism and Hinduism, and how they are similar and dissimilar and despite their similarities they are still attuned to their respective beliefs and practices and the methods they use for self-purification and liberation. Here are a few important differences and similarities between these two great traditions.

1. As far as consciousness is considered, Hinduism presents a dualistic philosophy. It recognizes two types of entities in sentient beings and thereby two types consciousness in them. They are known as the pure Self and the not-self. The Bhagavadgita identifies them as higher nature and lower nature.

2. The higher nature is represented by the eternal Self whose essence is pure consciousness. According to the Vedas it is eternal, fixed, indestructible, self-existent, self-knowing, omniscient and all-pervading. In Hindu scriptures it is described as the knower, enjoyer, witness or seer.

3. The lower nature is represented by the mind and body or the physical self which is made up of the tattvas of Prakriti. It is impure and popularly known as the not-self. It is the objective consciousness which we experience in a state of duality.

4. Since it arises from the mind and body, it is also known as natural consciousness. Just as the tattvas of Nature, it is impure, impermanent and unstable, and goes by many names, but most popularly as citta (chitta).

5. Citta is not just mind consciousness only, which arises from the brain. It refers to the totality of mind-body awareness or consciousness which is infused with dynamism (chit-shakti) and self-awareness or ego-awareness, and which arises in the sentient beings due to the activity of various organs in the body, including the senses, the mind (manas), the ego (aham) and intelligence (buddhi).

6. The Self is its support, because it exists only so long as the Self exists in the body. Hence, unlike the pure consciousness of the Self, it is dependent and subject to impermanence.

7. Chitta includes all the real or imagined thoughts, sensations, perceptions, feelings, emotions, past life impressions, desires, attachments, memorial knowledge and natural intelligence which the beings experience.

8. Collectively, they represent the objective reality, which beings experience in wakeful and dream states.

9. In contrast, the pure consciousness of the Self is subjective, transcendental, nondual, and beyond the mind and senses. It is experienced only in the state of oneness or in Samadhi when the mind and body are at rest.

10. The pure consciousness remains enveloped by the impure consciousness of the jiva (not-self) and experienced only by those who transcend their minds and bodies and attain liberation.

11. Hinduism considers that the duality between the Self and the not-self is permanent, and thereby the duality between the two types of consciousness they represent. They can never be merged or united.

12. Although, liberation is portrayed as union (yoga) of the mind with the Self, in reality there is no union. In liberation, a yogi transcends the not-self and silences its consciousness, and in a state of tranquil sameness realizes his essential nature as eternal, indestructible and infinite, pure consciousness.

13. Hence, liberation should be understood as oneness or aloneness which arises from the absence of the not-self in which one remembers or realizes or returns to one’s true nature.

14. Buddhism acknowledges only one type of consciousness, the consciousness of the not-self (anatma) or the mind and body.

15. Unlike Hinduism, Buddhism does not believe in the existence of a permanent and indestructible Self or atma. It holds that everything, including consciousness is subject to change, impermanence, decay and destruction.

16. For the Buddhists, the not-self-consciousness is everything where all the Buddhas, all the gods and goddesses, demons, heavens and hells, knowledge and discernment, whatever happened, is happening or may happen are hidden.

17. The so-called Self is also a part of the not-self-consciousness only. Just as the not-self, it is also impure, changeable and subject to death, decay and destruction.

18. According to Buddhism, consciousness is a construct made up of several wholesome and unwholesome parts or aggregates, which arise from the activities of the senses when they come into contact with sense objects.

19. The Buddha identified them as forms, feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications and awareness of things, conditions and properties.

20. Hinduism regards the not-self-consciousness as unreal, impure and destructible. Buddhism regards it as real, but impure and destructible.

21. According to Buddhism all the causes, which are responsible for the suffering, bondage and rebirth of a jiva, exist in it, so also the means to achieve liberation and experience peace and freedom from suffering.

22. Therefore, by knowing the causes of impermanence and instability of the not-self-consciousness and suppressing its modifications, one can become skillful, wholesome and enlightened to escape from suffering and samsara.

23. Hindu spiritual practices are meant to purify the impure objective consciousness of the not-self and suppress its modifications and instability so that one can abide in the consciousness of the Self and experience oneness or self-absorption.

24. Liberation is attained by cultivating detachment and withdrawing oneself from the not-self-consciousness and abiding in the pure consciousness of the Self.

25. According to Buddhism, Nirvana is attained when one abides in the unified awareness of the not-self with unwavering concentration, cultivating sameness and equanimity on the Eightfold Path and abandoning all mental activity.

26. The Buddhists therefore focus upon cultivating the Buddha mind and body through righteous living and contemplative practices and enter the tranquil and subtle states (jhanas) of awareness and mental absorption (samadhi) in which they can practically experience and see for themselves the truths the Buddha taught and the true implications of attraction and aversion and craving for sense objects.

27. Thus, for the Buddhists, consciousness is where all the truths are hidden. For the humans consciousness is all that is there to explore, understand and practically test the Four Noble Truths and the importance of the Eightfold Path or the Middle Way.

28. It is in the consciousness only thrive all the Buddhas, all the gods and goddesses, demons, heavens and hells, discernment and knowledge of all past and future events including one’s past and future lives.

29. Therefore, by observing one’s own consciousness and knowing the causes of its impermanence and instability or its modifications, one can become peaceful, contended, enlightened and free.

30. Accordingly, for the Buddhists consciousness is the only reality where the beings come into existence and subside into nothingness or nonexistence. It is where suffering arises and where suffering is resolved. It is where one becomes and unbecomes. Where consciousness is, one is, where consciousness is not, one is not.

31. For the Hindus, the pure consciousness of the Self is the absolute reality. It alone matters. It is the highest goal and the supreme reality, by knowing which nothing else needs to be known and by attaining which nothing else need to be attained.

32. Therefore, it recommends that one has to transcend the impure consciousness of the not-self by practicing self-purification through various yogas such as karma yoga or jnana yoga or bhakti yoga or atma-samyama yoga.

33. When one abides in the consciousness of the pure-self by these methods, one returns to the original nature or the higher nature and becomes eternal, self-existent, all-knowing and all-pervading.

34. According to Hinduism the true controller and lord (Isvara) of the mind and body or the field of Prakriti is Purusha or the eternal Self. He exerts his control or influence through intelligence (buddhi) where his pure intelligence (prajna) is radiated, mirrored or reflected.

35. Buddhists believe that the true controller of the mind or the not-self-consciousness is intelligence (buddhi). However, it is wholesome and effective only when it purified on the Eightfold Path in three concurrent and continuous stages.

36. When one cultivates virtues (sila) perfects meditative and mindfulness practices and attains superior wisdom (prajna) by overcoming the impurities of consciousness, one experiences mental absorption (samadhi). When consciousness is pure and illuminated by the light of discerning intelligence, the truths of the Dharma, suffering and its resolution become self-evident.

37. Although the Hindu theory of consciousness is fundamentally dualistic and acknowledges two types of consciousness, within this framework, there are further variations.

38. For example, Advaita Vedanta holds that consciousness is fundamentally nondualistic and the apparent duality between the pure consciousness of the Self and of the not-self is an illusion.

39. The not-self is a temporary formation or projection. It is unreal or illusory. Because of delusion, beings mistake it for real. When it is dissolved, only the pure consciousness of the Self remains, without a second. Thus, the ultimate reality is always nondual.

40. The Dvaita schools hold that the duality between the Self and the not-self is real and permanent. The individual Self is permanent while the not-self is impermanent and subject to death and decay.

41. The school identifies three types of consciousness in each being, instead of two. They are the consciousness of the not-self, the pure Self and the Supreme Self.

42. In liberation, the liberated self (mukta) departs from the body and travels to the eternal world of Brahman (the Supreme Self) where it stays forever.

43. The Vishistadvaita School, which is a variation of the Advaita also recognizes three entities in each being. However, they hold that the difference or the duality between the individual Self and the Supreme Self is notional, which persists even after the jivas attain liberation.

44. The liberated souls (muktas) who enter the supreme consciousness of Brahman, enjoy oneness with him internally, while remaining as individual souls.


Thus, one can see that in both Hinduism and Buddhism, consciousness is viewed as a problem as well as an opportunity to know oneself, resolve suffering and achieve liberation from the cycle of births and deaths (samsara). Consciousness is the key to overcome the impurities of the mind and body such as ignorance, delusion, egoism, craving, etc. and attain superior wisdom. Consciousness is the also key to harness the powers of the mind and attain psychic powers of supernatural powers.

The whole of the mantra tradition is meant to augment the power of the human mind by reaching out to the realms that exist beyond its reach and acquire extraordinary powers to communicate with hidden realms. Hindu and Buddhist monks and philosophers focused upon exploring the inner worlds of human consciousness to unravel the mysteries of existence and the mysteries concerning their own births and deaths. The believed that consciousness was the key to know oneself and the secrets of one’s existence.

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