Turiya : The Fourth State of Consciousness & End of Suffering

Introduction

As normal human beings going about our daily lives, chasing dreams, getting happy, or grieving over life’s inscrutable experiences, we are all aware of three states of consciousness – waking, dream sleep and deep sleep. They are so much a part and parcel of our lives, so much taken for granted, we can hardly imagine a treasure concealed by these three states. However, for a person who has devoted himself to solving life’s paradoxes – life’s dualities of birth and death, pain and pleasure, peace and suffering – the careful study of these very, taken for granted, three states of consciousness, lies a fourth state. This fourth state of consciousness has the answer to all the riddles of a self inquirer. In Advaita Vedanta, this fourth state of consciousness is called Turiya or the Eternal Self/ Witness/ Consciousness. I wrote about my insight into the Self/Witness/Consciousness in my article “Self inquiry and insight into one’s true nature in Advaita”

Mandukya Upanishad of Vedanta: A Testament to it’s power in Self Inquiry

The fourth state of Consciousness is mentioned in the Mandukya Upanishad of Vedanta school. In my own journey of self inquiry, it was the most important Upanishad that lead me to the insight into the fourth state of consciousness – Turiya/Eternal Self/ Witness/Consciousness. An insight into this state spells the end of the active seeking kind of self inquiry, even though, it is the shortest of all the Upanishads. It is listed as number 6 in the Muktikā canon of 108 Upanishads. The fact that this Upanishad proved to be the most significant text for my own journey of Self inquiry through Advaita is not quite surprising

Historically, the Muktika canon, which is part of a dialogue between Rama and Hanuman of Ramayana, underscores its power in self inquiry. Rama proposes to teach Vedanta to Hanumana, saying

“Even by reading one verse of them [any Upanishad] with devotion, one gets the status of union with me, hard to get even by sages.”

Hanuman enquires about the different kinds of “liberation” (Mukti, hence the name of the Upanishad) and the following dialogue ensues.

Rama : The only real type [of liberation] is Kaivalya

Hanumana: But by what means is the Kaivalya kind of Moksha got?

Rama: The Mandukya is enough; if knowledge is not got from it, then study the Ten Upanishads. Getting knowledge very soon, you will reach my abode. If certainty is not got even then, study the 32 Upanishads and stop. If desiring Moksha without the body, read the 108 Upanishads. Hear their order.

Mandukya Upanishad as a text for Self inquiry and ending suffering in Advaita Vedanta

The main purpose of self inquiry is the permanent end of suffering. Through various stages in one’s journey of self inquiry, one reaches the understanding that the root cause of suffering is that one takes oneself to be this limited mind-body-intellect as one’s self. This apparatus of mind-body-intellect is constantly changing, constantly subject to the dualities of pains and pleasures and experiences birth and death.

For an inquirer, death is a very great paradox of life. I have written about this in detail in my article “Self Inquiry: Have you questioned death” Briefly, death puts a big question mark to all our projects of life. What is the point of all our chasing of dreams and achievements when they all end in death? Not only that, just a step further comes up the big existential question, “What is the point and meaning of whole of life and living, if all has to end one day in death?”

Well, the answer to all these questions is found in the Upanishads. The Mandukya Upanishad, in particular, is the favorite book for the student of Advaita Vedanta, as it relies totally on rational self inquiry. In it’s twelve, terse, prose paragraphs, Mandukya Upanishad reveals the secret of life that resolves all suffering and paradoxes facing a human being. The meanings of the twelve verses are unpacked by a commentary by Gaudapada who authored Mandukya Karika. The founder of Advaita Vedanta – Shankaracharya, was Gaudapada’s disciple’s disciple.

Advaita Vedanta, a school of non-dual self inquiry, that I follow, leads a seeker to the state of Turiya/Eternal Witness which is unborn, undying and partless. According to it, our true Self is not what we take to be – the mind-body-intellect complex. Instead; our true Self is Turiya/Eternal Witness of the mind-body-intellect, also the Eternal Witness of the entire universe. Because of beginningless ignorance we have identified ourselves with the mortal, limited and changing – body-mind-intellect. The truth is that we are immortal – unborn, undying and unchanging.

The Mandukya Upanishad along with the Mandukya Karika brings home to the seeker this bewildering point through a very rational process of self inquiry. The truth of our immortality is hidden in plain sight. It is available for all of us to see, if we wish to, because the nature of truth is that it never ceases to exist. The difference between truth and suffering is just this. Suffering may not have a beginning but it has an end because it is not real. Truth, on the other hand, being real, has no beginning and no ending, therefore it never ceases to exist even when it is superimposed by suffering.

Turiya – Fourth State of Consciousness : Not an Additional State (Nirvikalpa Samadhi etc.)

Every human being, as I noted in the beginning, is aware of three states of consciousness – the waking state, dream sleep state and deep sleep state. But what every human being is not aware of is that all these three states are actually superimpositions on a fourth state of consciousness which is called Turiya/Eternal Witness. The reader should however not be confused by these numbers to believe that there are four different kinds of consciousness. As I go along, the reader shall understand that there is fundamentally only one consciousness, which appears as the three states of waking, dream sleep and deep sleep. The number four does not represent a numerical quantity but a modality. The fourth state of consciousness is the substrate of the other three states of consciousness, not something in addition to the other three states. It subsists in all the three states. One can imagine it as a screen over which the other three states of consciousness roll over like a movie. A movie, which is a changing set of images, cannot be viewed without a changeless background. Turiya is the changeless background over which the three states of waking, dreamless sleep and deep sleep appear to be projected as changing entities.

This is something important to understand as we go along. There are schools of Yoga who interpret Turiya to be a state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi, a special state of objectless consciousness. This is not how it is taken in Advaita Vedanta. Nirvikalpa Samadhi is a special state of objectless consciousness reached in meditation. It’s uniqueness lies in the fact that there it is a state of awareness where there is no thought. The mind is held in abeyance and one comes to see after the samadhi has subsided that one did not exist as a mind-body-intellect at that time. The samadhi gives one a proof that one is actually not the mind-body-intellect.

However, notwithstanding the uniqueness of this samadhi, the fact is that it is an experience that one goes in and comes out of. So essentially, it is no different from the other states of waking, dream sleep and deep sleep. Turiya/Awareness/Consciousness in Advaita is that which is never absent at any time. It is just concealed from us because of ignorance. Once an inquirer gets an insight into it’s existence, it stands revealed.

Self Inquiry/Analysis into Three States of Sleep, Dream Sleep and Deep Sleep

Advaita Vedanta, is a school of Vedanta which teaches that all suffering can come to an end by a rational process of examining the nature of suffering which leads to a supra-rational insight that we are not the body/mind/intellect that was born and that is going to die. It does not posit any God or Creator or any system of belief. It also does not require the inquirer to practice any act like chanting, meditation, concentration, pranayama, yoga etc. It is therefore also called the direct path to liberation. (It sounds as a cool deal but let me inform the reader that it is acknowledged as the toughest path in the Bhagavad Gita)The Mandukya Upanishad (MKU) along with the Mandukya Karika (MK), therefore is a favourite for Advaita Vedanta. There is no talk of any God or Creator or practice. Even when it does talk of God, it talks only provisionally and not as some deity or personal God. The God of MKU and MK is nothing but Maya – a power of illusion that projects a phenomenal world which only apparently exists. The only thing that MKU does is to analyze the three states of waking, dream sleep and deep sleep to reveal that they do not and cannot exist without Turiya/Eternal Witness or Eternal Consciousness and that these three states are fundamentally unreal and non-existent. It reaches the baffling and stupendous conclusion that Turiya/Eternal Self/Witness/Consciousness is the only thing that exists.

With the aid of MKU and MU, the analysis of the three states of waking, dream sleep and deep sleep we realize the following. I am not going into quoting and making comments on MK and MKU, rather rendering the concepts in them into a format that is elaborate and yet simple for a reader to assimilate.

  • The universe as a real external entity with multiple subjects and objects occurs only in the waking state of consciousness. Here one is aware of oneself as a body-mind-intellect self. There is a hard duality between self/subject and other objects.
  • In the dream state of consciousness the entire universe which was outside of us is now within us. Here one is no longer aware of one’s body. The dreamer/ a single subject, which is just our mind, creates the entire universe which seems as real as the universe in the waking state. The subject-object duality is still there but less dualistic. Subject and object are now in the same plane like the mirror and the image in it. It is clear that here the subject has created the objects, in fact the entire universe. The mind has created the universe.
  • The dream state shows that time and space of the waking state are not objective realities independent of mind; as in this state, time and space of waking state are compressed. The dream state shows that the body is a projection of the mind because the body does not exist at all in the dream state. Also the body is not a real entity as it does not exist in the dream state. The body exists in the mind, not the other way around.
  • Finally the dream state shows that the self identity we hold on to in our waking state is also changing. For example, in my dreams, till date, I dream of myself as being a student in my school days. When I get up, paraphrasing Zhuangzi, the Taoist sage, I may ask, “Am I the man dreaming myself to be the school student or am I the school student dreaming myself to be the man?”
  • In the deep sleep state – mind, body, universe, space and time – all vanish. One is aware of nothing or no-thing. Paradoxically and precisely because of this, this state holds the key to the riddle of our suffering.
  • The deep sleep state reveals that mind is also not a real entity as it does not exist in the deep sleep state. Here there is no mind, there is no universe, no time and space. So the sleep state is the originator of mind, body, universe, time and space. Since there is no subject and no object in deep sleep, the subject-object duality completely vanishes. So even the subject-object duality which is present in our waking state is not a reality as it does not exist in the sleep state. Since there is no mind, there is no thought, no universe and no suffering, sleep is a state of no experience, yet bliss – a state free of all suffering. A beleaugered king, a beggar, a sick man, a worried man, a dying man, all are freed from suffering of every kind in sleep.
  • Though body, mind, intellect, universe, time and space all come to an end, something still exists. What is it? After one wakes up from deep sleep, one has the memory of having slept well, of a feeling of refreshment. Also one is aware that during sleep one saw no-thing. There was an awareness operating even when everything else had subsided; the awareness of having slept well and of having seen no-thing/no-objects which is available as a memory in the waking state. This background awareness, which is conscious of even the sleep state is Turiya/Awareness/Consciousness (Please note I am using the terms Consciousness and Awareness synonymously)

Conclusions of Analysis into the three states – Understanding Turiya and Maya

For a mind which is tuned to self inquiry, all this analysis would point to the following stupendous conclusions

  • The mind-body-intellect cannot be one’s true self because they are changing entities in the three states. In deep sleep state they are entirely absent. Our sense of self is constant. It never changes. Even when one wakes up from sleep, one feels himself/herself to be the same unchanged self. If our true self was mind-body-intellect then this could not be the case, as these do not persist in all three states. Even in sleep there was a self which was aware of not seeing objects and which felt bliss/no suffering.
  • Since our sense of self is constant across the three states, it cannot be the body-mind-intellect with which we are identified because body-mind-intellect is completely absent in the deep sleep state. Which means that we have wrongly idetified our self with body-mind-intellect. In Advaita this wrong identification with our body-mind-intellect is called avidya.
  • Our true Self is that which exists in all three states. Now what exists in all three states? Is it not the background awareness or consciousness which witnesses all these three states. This background awareness/consciousness/witness is the only thing that exists at all moments at all times and is therefore our true Self. This true Self/Consciousness/Awareness is called Turiya in Mandukya Upanishad.
  • What is the nature of Turiya? It is eternal Existence-Consciousness(Witness)-Bliss or Sat-Chit-Ananda as they say in Advaita. How? While the three states of waking, dream sleep and deep sleep are changing and mutually exclusive to each other (meaning one state cannot exist in the presence of the other state and one state cancels the other state) it is only Turiya which exists in all three states. So it is eternal existence. Since it is aware of even the sleep state, where time and space is absent, it is beyond time and space and change. Also, Turiya is Aware or Conscious of all the three states so it is eternal consciousness. Finally Turiya is unchanging because it has no subject-object duality. Being beyond space and time, it is not made up of any parts. Since it has no parts, no change and therefore no experience, there is no suffering in it. Moreover after one wakes up, one is aware of the bliss of sleep caused by no experience. So Turiya is also eternal Bliss.
  • So our true Self is Turiya or Eternal Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. We are identified with the mortal mind-body-intellect as our self because of ignorance which conceals our true Self as Turiya in broad daylight. This power of ignorance is called Maya and this is the root causes us suffering.
  • Maya causes us to see ourselves as a body-mind-intellect apparatus which is born in a universe and which is going to die. Maya is the power that superimposes the mind-body-intellect and the resulting universe of space-time-objects on our true Self/Turiya which is Eternal-Consciousness-Bliss. Maya creates the universe and our mind and body where none exist in reality. It does so by it’s power of delusion. Just like we are deluded in seeing a rope to be a snake in the absence of light, we are deluded to see a universe of objective forms, by Maya, where none exists. The forms are nothing but Consciousness. But because due to ignorance we see an objective and real universe and ourselves as a limited being in this universe, we suffer with fears and desires.
  • Just like the snake on the rope cause fear and suffering, Maya causes us fear and suffering by projecting an objective individual and the universe. When we shine a light on the rope and see that it was not a snake, all fear and suffering is dispelled. In the same way Maya and suffering is dispelled by the light of Self -Knowledge gained through inquiry.
  • Maya is unreal becasue it ends by knowledge. A real thing can never end. The Self/Turiya is real because it never ends. It is unborn and undying. When the snake was seen on the rope and and when the rope was seen as a rope after the delusion of snake on it was removed, the rope remained unchanged. In the same way Turiya/Self remains unchanged as the three states of waking, dream sleep and deep sleep are projected on it cyclically or when Maya ceases.
  • Therefore we are the true Self/Turiya all the time. Even when delusion projects the snake on the rope, the rope was present as it was. After the delusion ended, the rope continues existing as it was. There was no production of a new Self or state. Only because of Maya we are thinking ourself to be the mind-body-intellect. Once the thought of Maya ends, we know ourself as Eternal Self/Turiya and suffering ends.
  • No amount of beating the snake on the rope with a stick can end our fear. Similarly, no amount of action can end suffering. Just as when we shine a torch on the rope and examine it closely we come to know of the delusion of snake and it ends, in the same way only knowledge of our true Self/Turiya through self inquiry can end suffering.

Conclusion

My intention in this article was to show how the study of analysis of the three states of waking, dream sleep and deep sleep as revealed in Mandukya Upanishad and Mandukya Karika can lead one to recognize our true Self as Turiya/True Self/ Eternal Existence-Consciousness – Bliss. This the way in which we can permanently end suffering. There are three steps involved here

  1. Sravana (Listening/Reading) – getting indirect knowledge of Self/Turiya
  2. Manana (Deep & Sustained Reflection) – getting an insight/direct knowledge of Self/Turiya
  3. Nidhidhyasana (Contemplation)– Abiding as Self/Turiya till the knowledge gets converted gradually into a full blown experiential realization of eternal existence-consciousness-bliss.

For those who are interested in the process of getting direct knowledge/insight into Turiya/Self, they may read the article “Self inquiry and insight into one’s true nature in Advaita”

I am aware that I haven’t given enough consideration to what is Maya, how it arises and how it operates? Since this requires a full length article, I shall write about it in my next one.

However, I hope that I have been able to fully explicate the meaning of Turiya and how it ends suffering permanently. In case the reader has any doubts, he/she may feel free to write back to me with doubts or questions.

5 thoughts on “Turiya : The Fourth State of Consciousness & End of Suffering

    1. Rishabh, thank you for your comment. Of course I can guide your inquiry. Can you please read my “Learn Advaita” page on my website and connect with me according to the details given there, after you find that you are fine with all that is mentoned there?

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