The Conscious mind: understandings from the exotic east
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The Conscious mind: understandings from the exotic east

Our understanding of the mind is heavily based on western literature. Modern academia raises the question of replicability of the major chunk of research in behavioral sciences, most of which were generalized into a global population-based on University student samples, primarily from the US. As this lack of representation and convenient disregard for cross-cultural differences is being increasingly questioned, it is important to remember how the East has influenced a major chunk of western thought – From Jung and Esalen institute to Kabat zin’s mindfulness.

In this article, a few concepts in Indian philosophy, regarding the psyche is listed. These concepts though rooted in Hinduism and the Vedas, are largely secular and can be understood and critiqued from a neutral standpoint.

Indian Philosophy is a very broad branch of knowledge, a unique perspective from the east. There is a general consensus with regards to classifying Indian Philosophy to six primary schools of thought. All these schools touch upon the human psyche and the experience of consciousness. They are usually cited as 3 dualities, namely

  1. Nyaya and Vaiseshika;
  2. Yoga and Samkhya,
  3. Vedanta and Mimamsa.

As per the Nyaya school, the sensation-perception process comprises of 4 components,

  • pramāta or the subject.
  • prameya or the object/ premises.
  • pramiti or cognition.
  • pramana or nature of knowledge.

The manas is atomic and caters to a single sense organ at a time. Eyes, nose, tongue, ears, and skin with their corresponding sensations color, smell, taste, sound, and touch are linked to the five elements Fire(light), Earth, Water, Ether, and Air, respectively.

The Vaiseshika school identifies nine basic elements: ether, space, and time are continuous, the four elements, namely Fire, Water, Earth and Elements, and two types of mind- an omnipresent one and one with the individual.

According to the Samkhya and Yoga schools, the mind is conceptualized as comprising five components. They are:

  • manas or the lowest stage that captures and gathers the sensations.
  • Ahamkara or the sense of “I” ness.
  • Buddhi or the intellect.
  • Chitta or the memory store.
  • Atman or the supreme self.

The Mimamsa school addresses the aspects of language and grammar, while Vedanta school addresses some of the abstract ideas regarding reality.

Some Important terms

There are certain crucial concepts in Indian Philosophy that, like the yin and yang are often cited together. There are many such conflicting, yet compromising dualities. However, two such major dualities are discussed below.

  1. Prakriti and Purusha: Purusha and Prakriti constitute the idea of consciousness and the matter respectively. It is not that Prakriti emanates from Purusha. But rather Purusha animates Prakriti, Purusha makes Prakriti come alive. Purusha is the conscious and Prakriti is the transient unconscious.
  2. Brahman and Atman: Atman refers to the individual soul while Brahman refers to the cosmic soul. Understanding the essence of Atman, help us reduce the disparity of “you” and “I”. Then we ingrain the concept of “Vasudaiva kudumbakam”, which roughly translates into the fact that the entire world is my family. It is then, that we connect and be one with the higher energy, the Brahman. This idea complements the idea of Aham Brahmasmi.


According to the Mandukya Upanishad, there are four stages of consciousness, namely:

  1. Jagrat or the waking state, which is outward knowing, gross, and universal. This corresponds to the gross body.
  2. Svapna or the dream state, where it is inward knowing and subtle. This corresponds to the subtle body.
  3. Sushupti or the deep sleep where the consciousness is an inner controller and the source of all. This is the causal body.
  4. Turiya or the pure consciousness, which gives the experience of infiniteness and non-discrimination.

The 4 Mahakavyas about consciousness

  1. Prajnanam Brahma ( Consciousness is Brahman) Aitareya Upanishad.
  2. Aham Brahmasmi ( I am Brahman) Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
  3. Tat Tvam Asi ( That thou art) Chandogya Upanishad.
  4. Ayam Atma Brahma (This Atman is Brahman) Mandukya Upanishad.

According to Vedic theory, consciousness is manifested in 5 stages. It proposes that the self or Atman is covered by the 5 sheaths or Kosha, just like the layers of an onion. The five layers are:

  1. Annamaya kosha: This is the sheath pertaining to the physical aspects. It is nourished by food. A wise man recognizes that his self is separate from the transient body, skin, flesh, bones, and filth.
  2. Pranamaya kosha: This is the sheath of energy. It binds together the body and mind. One of the physical manifestations of Prana is breath.
  3. Manomaya kosha: It is the sheath of the manas or the mind. “I” and “mine” arise out of this sheath. The power of manas is that it creates the bondages like attachments for one. But manas is required for one’s liberation from such bondages too.
  4. Vignanamaya kosha: This is the sheath of Buddhi or intellect. This layer encompasses dreams and waking states, joy, and sorrow. In other words, despite Jnana or knowledge, it is subject to the Samsara or the mortal, worldly affairs.
  5. Anandamaya kosha: This is the sheath of bliss. It manifests in deep, dreamless sleep. It is a reflection of the Atman. It is beauty, and it is bliss.

There is a vague similarity between the Vedic model and the theory of a hierarchy of needs proposed by Abraham Maslow. Both theories begin from the basic, physical aspects of human beings. In the second kosha, Prana, being the life force, contrasts with death, hints at the safety and security needs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The Manomaya kosha and it’s referenced to bondages form a vague parallel to Maslow’s 3rd need, love, and belonging. The vignanamaya kosha is about knowledge and samsara. It is about the evaluation of what happens around us. Maslow’s 4th need corresponds to the evaluation of ourselves, in other words, esteem needs. In Anandamaya kosha and Self-actualization stage, bliss and higher state of being are cited.

This indicates how much the thoughts blend and complement each other. An integrated approach through which science marries philosophy can bring about huge practical implications as the mindfulness movement indicates, where the concept of mindfulness is heavily rooted in Eastern philosophy. But sadly, Indian perspectives are less discussed in academia which makes it liable to be misunderstood and manipulated. But as examples from the past indicate, it always benefits the seeker to integrate the Eastern and Western thoughts into his understanding rather than weighing on which one is better.

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