Consciousness According to Hinduism and Buddhism

Buddha and Shiva

Buddha and Shiva

by Jayaram V

Summary: A comparative study of the meaning and significance of consciousness in Hinduism and Buddhism and how the theories regarding consciousness influence their beliefs and practices.

In both Hinduism and Buddhism, consciousness refers to the totality of mind-body awareness in which the mind, the senses and intelligence play an important role. In these Dharma traditions the emphasis is upon contemplative and self-purification practices to overcome its impurities, modifications and afflictions to control it and experience peace and tranquility. In both of them, the emphasis is upon the purification and transformation of consciousness to achieve spiritual goals.

However, they fundamentally differ about how they interpret consciousness and view its relation to the person or the being who experiences it. Hinduism acknowledges two fundamental types of consciousness, one the pure consciousness of the Self which is permanent and fixed and the other the impure consciousness of the mind and body which is the impermanent and unstable. Buddhism acknowledges only one type of consciousness, the consciousness of the not-self (anatma) or the mind and body. It does not believe in the existence of a permanent and indestructible Self or atma.

In the following discussion, we try to understand what consciousness means in these two traditions, and how their beliefs about it influences their principles and practices to overcome its impurities and instability to attain permanent liberation from suffering and bondage to samsara.

The Hindu view of consciousness

Hinduism recognizes the fundamental duality of consciousness which manifests in the beings (jivas). It recognizes two types of consciousness, especially in the sentient beings. One is the pure, self-existent, subjective and eternal consciousness of the Self and the other is the impure, impermanent, objective and dependent consciousness of the not-self or of the mind and body or the physical self. The latter refers to the totality of mind-body awareness, not just the mental awareness which arises from the activity of the brain. We may consider it natural consciousness because it arises entirely in the field of Prakriti (the physical self or beingness) due to the activities of the tattvas (parts of Nature). It represents the objective reality in contrast to the subjective consciousness of the Self which exists eternally and independently by itself and does not arise from the mind and body.

The objective reality which arises from the consciousness of the mind and body reflects the world, and, just as the world, it is impermanent and unstable. It goes by many names, but most popularly as citta (chitta). Citta refers to the totality of the awareness which arises in the sentient beings due to the activity of the various organs in them, including the senses, the mind (manas), the ego (aham) and intelligence (buddhi). It includes all the real or imagined thoughts, sensations, perceptions, feelings, emotions, knowledge and intelligence which the beings experience. Collectively, they represent the objective reality, which beings experience in wakeful and dream states.

In contrast, the consciousness of the Self exists eternally and independently. It is self-knowing as well as all-knowing (sarvajna). In Hindu scriptures it is described as the knower, the enjoyer, the witness or the seer since he witnesses and enjoys the not-self reality or consciousness which envelops him and conceals him. Thus, the Self is the enjoyer (bhokta) while the not-self is the consumed, enjoyed or experienced (bhakta) entity. In the Bhagavadgita they are distinguished as the knower of the field (Kshetrajna) and the field (Kshetra) or as Purusha and Prakriti respectively. This is the fundamental duality of all creation from the highest Purusha to the lowest creature. Without them, neither beingness nor consciousness nor creation is possible.

In each jiva, the not-self reality (beingness and consciousness) forms around the Self as a formation or projection or a cloud of impurities around the Self. Due to the influence of Maya, sentient beings mistake the objective consciousness of mind and body as their true consciousness and suffer from egoism, desires and delusion, whereby they engage in desire-ridden actions and become bound to the cycle of births and deaths due to karma. When they overcome the impurities of their minds and bodies and abide in the pure consciousness of the Self, renouncing the impure consciousness of the not-self and all objectivity which arise in it, they attain liberation.

The Buddhist view of consciousness

Just as Hinduism, Buddhism believes in karma and rebirth and acknowledges the duality of the knower and the known or the experiencer and the experienced. However, it does not believe in a permanent and infinite Self or in a creator God. According to it, the duality between the knower and the known is superficial.

The knower or the enjoyer is an impermanent Self and part of the mind and body awareness only since there is only one type of consciousness, the consciousness of the not-Self. The so-called Self is but the being (jiva) who is subject to suffering, karma, births and rebirths. It is neither pure nor permanent nor indestructible. It is but an illusion or formation which arises from the not-self due to the association of several aggregates.

Thus, according to Buddhism, the not-self is the only reality and the consciousness which manifests in it is the only consciousness. All the causes, which are responsible for the suffering and bondage of the jiva, exist in it and by resolving them one can escape from suffering and samsara. Since the not-self is impermanent, one can dissolve the entire consciousness into nothingness by practicing Dharma on the Eightfold Path and attain Nirvana or the pure and indistinguishable state of nothingness or emptiness which is free from formations, objectivity and movements.

The Buddhists therefore focus upon cultivating the Buddha mind and body through righteous conduct and contemplative practices and enter the tranquil and subtle states (jhanas) of mental awareness and absorption where they can discern that the source of suffering as well its resolution, and all that one wants to experience or can experience, are within oneself. Thus, consciousness is 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. By observing it and knowing the causes of its impermanence and instability or modifications, one can become peaceful, contended, enlightened and free.

Consciousness according to Dvaita and Advaita

From the above it is apparent that Buddhism is a nondualistic philosophy which acknowledges the existence of only one reality, which is the objective reality or the not-self reality. In contrast, Hinduism is fundamentally a dualistic philosophy, which acknowledges the fundamental and eternal duality between the pure consciousness of the eternal Self and the impure consciousness of the impermanent not-self or of the jiva. Due to ignorance and delusion, beings may perceive only the latter, but in each sentient being (jiva), these two selves exist as two eternal and distinct realities. However, being a composite religion of numerous philosophies and approaches, within Hinduism you will find two basic variations to this fundamental theory of consciousness. They are presented below

Advaita or nondualism

Advaita holds that the supreme, absolute reality is nondual. Brahman or the Self alone is real. The objective reality of the not-self which arises from the Self as a projection or superimposition or reflection is unreal and illusory. Due to delusion people mistake it as real and fail to realize their pure nature. By detaching oneself from the consciousness of the not-self and entering the pure consciousness of the Self one can experience the nondual state of the Self and become free.

Thus, just as Buddhism, Advaita acknowledges the nondual nature of consciousness. However, its nondual philosophy is fundamentally different from that of Buddhism. While Buddhism acknowledges the objective consciousness of the not-self as the only reality, Advaita acknowledges the subjective and pure consciousness of the Self as the only reality.

Further, the apparent duality between the Self and the not-self or the experiencer and the experienced is an illusion due to the influence of Maya. Because of that, beings mistakenly acknowledge the not-self as real and thereby suffer from bondage and suffering. When they overcome their ignorance, they realize that the Self alone is real and abide in the oneness of the pure Self.

Dvaita or dualism

The Dvaita schools of Hinduism believe that the dualities which we experience and which exist in creation are real and permanent. They cannot be resolved into oneness by any means. The duality between the not-self as well as the Self and between the individual Self and the Supreme Self is also permanent and real. In liberation, one may enter the supreme consciousness of God and become internally connected to it through one’s own pure consciousness, but never becomes dissolved in it.

Thus, the Dvaita schools recognize not two but three types of consciousness in each, the consciousness of the mind and body (not-self), the pure consciousness of the individual Self (Atman) and the pure and absolute consciousness of the Supreme Self (Brahman). We may also call them the sentient consciousness, the spiritual consciousness and the God consciousness.

While the individual Self (Atman) is the enjoyer and seer of the not-self reality and consciousness, the Supreme Self is the witness and enjoyer of both. In liberation, the mind-body consciousness becomes completely dissolved, while the duality between the pure consciousness of the liberated Self (mukta) and the pure and absolute consciousness of the Supreme Self persists forever.

The Vishistadvaita School, which is a variation of the Advaita school, proposes qualified nondualism, which has elements of both Dvaita and Advaita. According to it although Brahman represents the absolute and supreme reality, the consciousness of the Self is also real and permanent. It is not the same as the reality of the Supreme Self, but slightly different. There is a notional or functional duality between the two, and that notional duality persists even after the jivas attain liberation. The liberated beings enter the supreme consciousness of Brahman, but continue to exist as liberated souls (muktas), enjoying the same consciousness of Brahman.

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