The Mind in the Dream State

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Fourth Question, Verses 5-6: “Now the Mind in dream revelleth in the glory of his imaginings.  All that it has seen it seemeth to see over again, and of all that it hath heard it repeateth the hearing: yea, all that it hath felt and thought and known in many lands and in various regions, these it liveth over again in its dreaming.  What it hath seen and what it hath not seen, what it hath heard and what it hath not heard, what it hath known and what it hath not known, what is and what is not, all, all it seeth: for the Mind is the Universe.  But when he is overwhelmed with light, then Mind, the God, dreameth no longer: then in this body he hath felicity.”

There are different types of dreams.  Some of them represent sensory and life experiences from the waking consciousness that are being regurgitated and processed by the subconscious mind once the focus and control of the waking consciousness have been suppressed through sleep.  These may be snippets of experience thrown together in a somewhat chaotic fashion, or they may present themselves in what appears to be an organised manner.   Other dreams go beyond the actual experience of the dreamer in the waking world, to let the mind range free beyond its normal boundaries of ego: as the Upanishad notes “the Mind is the Universe.”

Western dream researchers, such as Freud and Jung, described multiple types of dreams as well.  C. G. Jung, in particular, considered dreams to open the door to the “collective unconscious”, providing access to virtually everything in the universe.  This would agree well with the Upanishadic statement.

The nature of consciousness is One and Universal.  When the mind is freed from the shackles of the ego-consciousness, it has access to the universal consciousness and can range everywhere.  This experience is one that can take place in the dream state and this brings forth knowledge about people, places, things, and events about which the waking consciousness has no specific knowledge.  Problem-solving can take place in this state as well.  This is also the basis of various forms of prophetic dreams.

Beyond the dream state there is a state of concentrated light and power.  The term used here tejas, has been translated elsewhere as “light and power” by Sri Aurobindo.  This experience of a mass of light can overwhelm the mind and it no longer is triggered to jump but is drawn in, concentrated and illuminated.  This is a state of bliss where the mind no longer seeks anything, but basks in the radiance of the One.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315


The Status of Deep Sleep and Oneness with the Eternal

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Fourth Question, Verses 7-11:  “”O fair son, as birds wing towards their resting tree, so do all these depart into the Supreme Spirit:  Earth and the inner things of earth: water and the inner things of water: light and the inner things of light: air and the inner things of air: ether and the inner things of ether: the eye and its seeings: the ear and its hearings: smell and the objects of smell: taste and the objects of taste: the skin and the objects of touch: speech and the things to be spoken: the two hands and their takings: the organ of pleasure and its enjoyings: the anus and its excretions: the feet and their goings: the mind and its feelings: the intelligence and what it understandeth: the sense of Ego and that which is felt to be Ego: the conscious heart and that of which it is conscious: light and what it lightens: Life and the things it maintaineth. For this that seeth and toucheth, heareth, smelleth, tasteth, feeleth, understandeth, acteth, is the reasoning self, the Male within.  This too departeth into the Higher Self which is Imperishable.  He that knoweth the shadowless, colourless, bodiless, luminous and imperishable Spirit, attaineth to the Imperishable, even to the Most High.  O fair son, he knoweth the All and becometh the All.  Whereof this is the Scripture: He, O fair son, that knoweth the Imperishable into whom the understanding self departeth, and all the Gods, and the life-breaths and the elements, he knoweth the Universe!’ ”

The Rishi describes the state of deep sleep as one in which all of the senses, objects of senses and powers of awareness are withdrawn from the outer world and focused on the Supreme.  The “Male” within is a translation of the term Purusha, elsewhere described by Sri Aurobindo as the witness consciousness or as the Knower within, with an understanding that the “Female” is the power of Nature in action.  The status of deep sleep is then transitioned into a discussion of the status of attaining knowledge of the Eternal.  This knowledge is a knowledge by identity, which means “he knoweth the All and becometh the All.”  This status implies that he knows the Eternal, Immutable Self beyond the manifestation, as well as the entire manifested universe.  The state of deep sleep is thus used as a means of describing the withdrawal of the conscious awareness from the Many in order to merge with the One, and as a metaphor for the merging of the consciousness into the One in the fourth state of consciousness, called turiya.


Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

The Fivefold Pranas and the Sacrificial Fires

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Question 4, Verses 3-4: “But the fires of the breath keep watch in that sleeping city.  The lower breath is the householder’s fire and the breath pervasor the fire of the Lares that burneth to the southward.  The main breath is the orient fire of the sacrifice: and even as the eastern fire taketh its fuel from the western, so in the slumber of a man the main breath taketh from the lower.  But the medial breath is the priest, the sacrificant: for he equaliseth the offering of the inbreaeth and the offering of the outbreath.  The Mind is the giver of the sacrifice and the upper breath is the fruit of the sacrifice, for it taketh the sacrificer day by day into the presence of the Eternal.”

There is a symbolic meaning to each of the types of sacrificial fire used in the vedic sacrifices.  Here the Rishi is drawing a correspondence between each of the 5 primary “breaths” and the various sacrificial fires, showing the parallel once again between the inner and the outer.  It is not easily possible to determine the exact intention of the Rishi here beyond symbolic correspondences.  The same prana responsible for carrying the soul from birth to birth, udana, is here said to carry the mind to the Eternal during deep sleep.

While the individual sleeps, life goes on.  The pranas remain active, or “keep watch” as the Rishi declares.  The active external functioning may be reduced, but the basic internal functions of respiration, circulation, internal organ functionality and some observation of certain senses continue and allow the body to undertake repairs and maintenance, provide rest to the body and the mind, while at the same time allowing the active conscious intelligence to disassociate itself from the external world temporarily.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

The Question of Consciousness in the States of Sleep and Dream

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Fourth Question, Verses 1-2:  “Then Gargya of the Solar race asked him: ‘Lord, what are they that slumber in this Existing and what that keep vigil?  Who is this god who seeth dreams or whose is this felicity?  Into whom do all they vanish?’  To him answered the Rishi Pippalada: ‘O Gargya, as are the rays of the sun in its setting, for they retire and all become one in yonder circle of splendour, but when he riseth again once more they walk abroad, so all the man becometh one in the highest god, even the mind.  Then indeed this being seeth not, neither heareth, nor doth he smell, nor taste, nor touch, nor speaketh he aught, nor taketh in or giveth out, nor cometh nor goeth: he feeleth not any felicity.  Then they say of him, ‘He sleepeth.’ ‘ ”

The fourth question raises the question of the various states of consciousness, waking, dream, and sleep and the superconscient state of consciousness which resides in the Brahman.  When an individual is awake he experiences the material universe through the operation of the senses and the mind.  When he sleeps, he does not respond generally to the sense impressions, although it is quite certain that at least the senses of hearing and touch remain somewhat active.  This explains why a sleeper can be awakened with an alarm clock or by physical touch or shaking of the body, or by internal pressure for a need for evacuation.  Where does the conscious awareness go and what does the sleeper actually experience? 

During the dream state, who is awake and experiencing the dreams?  We tend to experience dreams as quite real and participate in them and interact with the events in the dreams.  We do not, however, tend to remember all dreams, and those that are remembered primarily occur just before waking.   Some have developed the skill of “lucid dreaming” where they can be both conscious and dreaming concurrently.   With respect to stimuli from the outside world, there does not appear to be a direct link between sensory impressions received by a sleeper and the ability to convert this into a remembered event.

There are different stages of sleep which differ in the depth of withdrawal from response to sensory impressions.  REM sleep is a status in which dreaming takes place.  Light sleep is closest to the waking conscious state and the sleeper is most responsive to sounds.  Deep sleep has the least responsiveness and it is thereby quite clear that the consciousness that identifies with the waking personality is elsewhere.

We may additionally look at states of coma, trance, near death experience, out of body experience, as well as the various states of Samadhi,  to help understand what is “conscious” and where that conscious entity goes at times when it withdraws from active interaction with the external world.

The experience of these different states of awareness has been a subject of interest for humanity for many thousands of years.  The nature of consciousness, the true inhabitant of the being, and the relation of the mind and the sense organs to the true Existent all come into focus with this review.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

The Subtle Energetic Body and the Flow of Prana in Life and Death

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Third Question, Verses 6-7:  “The Spirit in the heart abideth, and in the heart there are one hundred and one nerves, and each nerve hath a hundred branch-nerves and each branch-nerve hath seventy-two thousand sub-branch-nerves: through these the breath pervasor moveth.  Of these many there is one by which the upper breath departeth that by virtue taketh to the heaven of virtue, by sin to the hell of sin, and by mingled sin and righteousness back to the world of men restoreth.”

These verses make it clear that the term “breath” is used in an entirely different sense than the normal usage in the English language.  Prana, while it is translated generally as “breath” is the life-force of the universe and when it acts in the human body, it is not solely as the operation of breathing, but as all the energetic activities of the body, that it functions.  The breath pervasor (vyana), circulates the subtle energy of life throughout the body, not just as blood but as energetic force.  The Rishis understood a subtle energetic body which had various centers through which energy was received and channeled, which are called chakras, as well as the channels through which these energies are distributed, called nadis.  Western anatomy and physiology have not recognised these channels, but serious practitioners of yoga and meditation are able to not only recognise, but open, and utilise these energies in their spiritual development.

The Rishis also held that the Atman was “seated in the heart”.  This, again, is not the physical heart, but the subtle heart center where all the nerves/channels come together.  The Atman, the Spirit embodied, is the controller of the life and its actions.

The channel that controls the departure of the life from the body is called the sushumna, and this channel extends from the base of the spine through the top of the head.  The movement of the energy at the time of death is governed by the focus of the individual and expressed through the prana known as udana.  For those focused on virtuous life and actions, the departure from the body takes them to a heaven of virtue.  Those who focus on dissipation and ‘sin’ go to a ‘hell’ of suffering.  And those who have a mixed focus wind up reborn in the human world.  It must be noted here that “sin” and “virtue” as concepts do not mean the same thing as we might assume when using the English terms.  We can generally understand that life-focus that is primarily clear, untroubled and open-hearted will lead to the heavens of virtue; that which is dark and troubled, unsettled and disturbed, greedy, lustful and seeking sensual enjoyment, will lead to a place of suffering.  Most human beings, having a mixture of these varying energetic directions, wind up reborn to work through the unresolved issues.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

Relating the 5 Pranas in the Individual to the Universal Pranic Energies and the Processes of Rebirth

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Third Question, Verses 8-12:  “The Sun is the main breath outside this body, for it cherisheth the eye in its rising.  The divinity in the earth, she attracteth the lower breath of man, and the ether between is the medial breath: air is the breath pervasor.  Light, the primal energy, is the upper breath: therefore when the light and heat in a man hath dwindled, his senses retire into the mind and with these he departeth into another birth.  Whatsoever be the mind of a man, with that mind he seeketh refuge with the breath when he dieth, and the breath and the upper breath lead him with the Spirit within him to the world of his imaginings.  The wise man that knoweth thus of the breath, his progeny wasteth not and he becometh immortal.  Whereof this is the Scripture:  By knowing the origin of the Breath, his coming and his staying and his lordship in the five provinces, likewise his relation to the Spirit, one stall taste immortality.”

The Upanishad here makes the correspondences between the universal and the individual, with respect to the operation of the Prana, the active energy of the universe.  This links up the earlier discussion about the universal life-force and its detailed operations within the individual being, and now goes back to translate the fivefold primary functional subdivisions of Prana as operative in the body to their corresponding action in the universe.  The “doctrine of signatures” identifies correspondences in Nature with functions in the human being.  Thus the sun is seen as corresponding to the primary energy of Prana, through its initial activating force and its relation to the eye.  Similarly, the Apana, the lower breath, corresponds to the earth-energy.  Ether represents the functioning of the Samana.  Air represents the energy we identify as the Vyana.  Udana, which is the energy which moves the life-force from one existence through rebirth into another is identified with the force that takes up the Prana as it readies itself to depart the body.

The process involved then revolves around the focus, intensity and direction of the energy of the being which guides the life-force in its departure and subsequent taking up of a new form in a new life.  The Atman has gathered various experiences and built an energetic unit that has momentum, what we generally call “karma” that shows the direction in which the Atman will next organize a body and line of action.  The options of a world of virtue, a world of suffering, or a mixed world of human life combining both joy and suffering were covered in a prior segment of this Upanishad.

The soul who recognises these truths and identifies with the Atman, transcends the experience of an individual body or life, and thus, “tastes immortality.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

Prana Operates in the Human Being Through Separate Sub-Prana Motions, Part 1

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Third Question, Verses 4-5: “As an Emperor commandeth his officers, and he sayeth to one, ‘Govern for me these villages,’ and to another, “Govern for me these others,’ so this breath, the Life, appointeth the other breaths each in his province.  In the anus and the organ of pleasure is the lower breath, and in the eyes and the ears, the mouth and the nose, the main breath itself is seated: but the medial breath is in the middle.  This is he that equally distributeth the burnt offering of food: for from this are the seven fires born.”

The universal Life-Force, when it operates in the individual human being, has created subsidiary movements of energy, of which there are five primary and innumerable secondary motions.  The five primary are called prana, apana, samana, udana and vyana.  Briefly, Prana, at the individual level, is considered the main breath, operative in the upper regions that govern respiration and other primary sensory functions.  Apana is the lower breath, operating various forms of elimination functions.  Samana operates through the central part of the being, distributing the pranic force through the body and its internal organs, which provides digestion and nourishment to the physical body and its actions.  The seven fires referenced in these verses represent the sense organs, 2 eyes, 2 ears, 2 nostrils and the mouth, governing sight, hearing, smell and taste, according to traditional commentators.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

The Source of the Life-Energy

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Third Question, Verses 1-3:  “Then the Koshalan, the son of Ashwala, asked him: ‘Lord, whence is this Life born?  How cometh it into this body or how standeth by self-division?  By what departeth, or how maintaineth the outward and how the inward spiritual?’  To him answered the Rishi Pippalada: ‘Many and difficult things thou askest: but because thou art very holy, therefore will I tell thee.  Of the Spirit is this breath of Life born: even as a shadow is cast by a man, so is this Life extended in the Spirit and by the action of the Mind it entereth into this body.”

There has been a long-running debate between those who consider themselves to be “Creationists” and those who call themselves “Darwinists” as to the source and origin of life.  The Creationists for the most part have been self-identified Christians who describe an external all-powerful, all-knowing God as fashioning a number of creatures, finally the human being, and endowing them with the spark of life.  The Darwinists have, by and large, decided that life could have arisen purely from material forces interacting in a random fashion, combining elements and material forces such as heat and light, and thereby, given enough time, being able to create the vast diversity of life, without the necessity of a creator God of any sort.  The debate, of course, has not been limited to these two self-identified views, and has spanned across the entire world, and throughout human existence, with creation stories arising in every culture.

Recently some Western researchers have attempted to bridge this gap by pointing out that the complexity, subtle interactivity, and symbiotic development implies an intelligence behind the creation, while the actual process could take place through an evolutionary process.

Sri Aurobindo describes an involution of consciousness from pure Existence-Consciousness-Bliss, Sat-Chit-Ananda, into the density of Matter and a subsequent evolution of Life, Mind, and Supermind.

The Prashna Upanishad takes up the issue and attributes the Atman, the Spirit, as the source of Prana, the Life-Force of the universe.  The Spirit is all-encompassing, and acts as the source, field and substance of all that exists.  There is no separate “creator-God”, but there is a vast universal intelligence.  The entry of the life-force into the body is an action of the consciousness that has the capacity to fragment and divide into forms.  The Upanishad calls it “Mind” but in today’s language we would differentiate between “mind” and “supermind”, with the first being more limited, and the latter being the universal power of the transformation of Spirit into forms, while concurrently holding the unity of the Spirit in its awareness.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

The Preeminence of Prana in Supporting and Upholding the Being

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Chapter 2, Verses 3-13:  “Then answered Breath, their mightiest: ‘Yield not unto delusion: I dividing myself into this fivefold support this harp of God, I am its preserver.’  But they believed him not.  Therefore offended he rose up, he was issuing out from the body.  But when the Breath goeth out, then go all the others with him, and when the Breath abideth all the others abide: therefore as bees with the king-bee:  when he goeth out all go out with him, and when he abideth all abide, even so was it with Speech and Mind and Sight and Hearing: then were they well-pleased and hymned the Breath to adore him.  ‘Lo, this is he that is Fire and the Sun that burneth, Rain and Indra and Earth and Air, Matter and Deity, Form and Formless, and Immortality.  As the spokes meet in the nave of a wheel, so are all things in the Breath established, the Rig-Veda and the Sama, and Sacrifice and Brahminhood and Kshatriyahood.  As the Eternal Father thou movest in the womb and art born in the likeness of the parents.  To thee, O Life, the world of creatures offer the burnt offering, who by the breaths abidest.  Of all the Gods thou art the strongest and fiercest and to the fathers thou art the first oblation: thou art the truth and virtue of the sages and thou art Atharvan among the sons of Angiras.  Thou art Indra, O Breath, by the splendour and energy and Rudra because thou preservest: thou walkest in the welkin as the Sun, that imperial lustre.  When thou, O Brath, rainest, thy creatures stand all joy because there shall be grain to the heart’s desire.  Thou art, O Breath, the unpurified and thou art Fire, the only purity, the devourer of all and the lord of existences.  We are the givers to thee of thy eating: for thou, O Matarishwan, art our Father.  That body of thine which is established in the speech, sight and hearing, and in the mind is extended, that make propitious: O Life, go not out from our midst!  For all this Universe, yea, all that is established in the heavens to the Breath is subject: guard us as a mother watcheth over her little children: give us fortune and beauty, give us Wisdom.’ ”

When any of the specific powers of perception or action begin to feel like they are supreme, it is important to remember that it was Prana, the Universal Energy, taking up, informing and controlling Matter, that creates all existence and life.  The Rishi here is explaining at great length the concepts set forth in the response to the first question, taking it from the universal formulation to the individual.  If the Life-Breath departs from the body, then the individual dies and the material form returns to its constituent elements.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315

The Powers That Support Human Existence

Sri Aurobindo translates Prashna Upanishad, Second Question, Verses 1-2:  “Then the Bhargava, the Vidarbhan, asked him: ‘Lord, how many Gods maintain this creature, and how many illumine it, and which of these again is the mightiest?’  To him answered the Rishi Pippalada:  ‘These are the Gods, even Ether and Wind and Fire and Water and Earth and Speech and Mind and Sight and Hearing.  These nine illumine the creature: therefore they vaunted themselves, ‘We, even we, support this harp of God and we are the preservers.’ ”

The second question shifts the focus to the human being and questions what the powers are that act in and illlumine the human being.  The term “gods” in the Vedic sense represents universal forces active in the creation.  The Rishi thus begins by enumerating earth, water, fire, air and ether, the 5 “elements” that underlie the entire creation.  He then moves to the powers that act specifically within each individual, “speech, mind, sight and hearing” as powers that illumine the being.

The image of the “harp of God” shows that the human being is an instrument of the manifestation, which originates and is controlled by the Divine Spirit in its expression.  The action of fragmentation and individuation that is the key to the multiplicity of the manifestation leads to the sense of the ego, at work even within these powers.  Thus, each of the powers claims precedence in terms of creating and preserving the life of the individual beings in the world.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Prashna Upanishad, pp.297-315