Does Consciousness Survive Death?

Death and disintegration

by Jayaram V

What is consciousness? How consciousness is created? Does it exist without a supporting body? Can consciousness be recreated or transferred from one source to another? Does consciousness survives death? These and other questions, we will try to explore briefly in the following discussion.

Consciousness is the sum of thoughts, memories, desires, feelings, ideas, and opinions arising from perception, experience, imagination, reason, or belief. This definition may not be scientific and may not cover all aspects of consciousness, but it is sufficient for our discussion.

Consciousness has both general and specific aspects. The general aspects are found in all humans, but there are some aspects that are specific to each individual. Based upon the common aspects, you can draw valid conclusions about personality, behavior and human psychology. Such knowledge is useful to understand others and deal with them.

However, aspects of consciousness that are specific to individuals are shaped by genetic composition, experience, knowledge, awareness, and circumstances of each person. They cannot be known easily without knowing the person or the circumstances, which makes the study of consciousness rather difficult. Some aspects of consciousness are also specific to groups and communities as people are influenced by social, cultural, geographic, linguistic, or economic factors that govern their lives.

Human consciousness is amorphous, indefinable, changeable, intangible, and subject to state. According to the Upanishads, the four main states of human consciousness are the wakeful state, the dream state, the deep sleep state and the transcendental state. There can be further states within each of them. Nothing can be known about the last two except in a state of self-absorption. Just like any other part in the body, human consciousness is also subject to wear and tear, change, destruction, and modifications. People who suffer from head injuries experience partial or complete loss of memory and consciousness, which shows that human consciousness has a physical dimension and depends upon the body for its existence.

The Vedic seers were one of the earliest in the history of human civilization to probe into the nature of consciousness. They internalized the Vedic rituals and devised many Yogic meditative practices to study consciousness both subjectively and objectively to explore the hidden powers and potencies of the mind and use them for human welfare and self-transformation. Their methods and knowledge were subsequently refined further by numerous schools of philosophy, and ascetic and monastic traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism. Their main emphasis, in doing so, was to look beyond the mind to see whether reality was a product of the mind, or existed on its own without the mind and the senses. They also tried to overcome the limitations of the mind to see the world with better clarity and awareness. The following analysis of human consciousness is based upon the major concepts found in the Hindu scriptures and its various schools of philosophy about Self (Purusha) and Nature (Prakriti).

Types of consciousness

Is consciousness a product of the brain, the body and senses only, or is there something more to it? Can consciousness exist without the body? Does it survive death? Can it be recreated or transferred into another mind or body? We do not have exact answers to these questions. However, from the study of Hindu scriptures, such as the Vedas, the Tantras, the Sutras and the Gitas, we can conclude that consciousness has numerous forms and states, and each of the states may represent a world in itself or a specific deity of the macrocosm. We cannot know all the states without corresponding purity and prior preparation. The nature of consciousness can be known only in a state of detachment where all the senses are fully withdrawn, and when the mind itself is under control.

Hindu scriptures suggest that consciousness has two universal states and both of them exist not only in humans but all creation. One is universal, passive, eternal, stateless, without modifications, indivisible, and pure. The other is with qualities, dualities, states, conditions, modes, modifications, and dynamism. The source of the first one is Brahman (God) himself in his highest state. The source of the second is Nature (Prakriti) in its dynamic and differentiated state. The former gives rise to soul consciousness or pure consciousness, whereas the latter results in individualized ego consciousness. Since it arises due to the activity of ego (aham), which is an aspect of Nature, we may also call it ego consciousness.

The ego consciousness is also referred in the scriptures as chitta, which is not just the mind consciousness, but the whole body and mind consciousness, which is subject to modifications (vrittis) and responsible for several mental afflictions (klesas), restlessness and instability. The consciousness that inhabits the body and creates body awareness is infused with the power and dynamism of Nature. Hence, it is known as chit-shakti (consciousness + power or dynamic consciousness). Because of that, human consciousness has dynamism, duality, movements and modifications. In contrast, pure consciousness is without the qualities and modes of Nature. Hence, it is the center of peace and stability. You cannot reach it when you are caught in ego consciousness and its numerous modifications, desires, and attachments. Pure consciousness is infused with the power of truth or purity (sat), and bliss (ananda). Hence, it is also known as sacchidananda (sat+chit+ananda). The following table lists the differences between the two.

Pure ConsciousnessEgo Consciousness
Stateless, Pure, eternal, without qualities, without duality, indestructible, indivisible, independent, all pervading, stable, the same in all, passive, witness, subjective. With states, impure, not eternal, with qualities, with duality, destructible, divisible, dependent, exists in embodied beings, unstable, different in each, active, witnessed, objective.

The basis of ego consciousness

One of the commonly held beliefs of Hinduism is that consciousness is a projection of the higher aspects of Nature that are present in the human body. Collectively, they are called the internal organ (antah-karana). The internal organ can be compared to the mind in the modern, scientific sense, and to brain consciousness in an abstract sense. It is made up of four essential components: the senses, the lower mind (manas), the self-sense (ego), and the higher mind or intelligence (buddhi).

The inputs for the ego, the lower and higher minds come from the five sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin) and their functional potencies (tanmatras), namely seeing the forms, hearing the sounds, smelling the smells, tasting the tastes, and feeling the touch. They create the basis for the ego consciousness and the illusion of experience, awareness, duality, and individuality (aham or anava). It is sustained by desire-ridden actions, the triple gunas (sattva, rajas, and tamas), and the activity of senses, and gathers strength as one becomes increasingly involved with the sense-world and forms numerous attachments and relationships with it. It is responsible for the bondage of the individual beings to the mortal existence and their suffering and afflictions.

Hindu scriptures draw a clear distinction between the ordinary mind (manas) and the thinking mind (buddhi). The ordinary mind or the lower mind is considered a mere receptacle of thoughts, memories, feelings, etc., that float into it from the external world. Each thought or idea is an object as well a form of energy. The Mahat, or the universal Nature is filled with them. They enter the human consciousness according to the person, his or desires, receptivity, attachments, and state of mind. Thus, the ordinary mind is a mere receptacle of thought forms, which does not create anything anew, but passively receives from the universe preexisting thought-forms and stores them as its own. We can understand the process by seeing how the mind stores the images of numerous objects found in the world as mental copies and reuses them. The scriptures therefore compare it to a lake (mind-lake or manasa-sarovar) with an undulating surface.

The higher mind (buddhi) is responsible for thinking, reasoning, and discerning intelligence (vivekam). It gives you an insight into the nature of things and helps you solve problems and make sense of the world. However, since it is subject to the influence of the ego, it does not effectively function in all and becomes subject to the impurities of the gunas, egoism, desires and attachments. It leads to irrationality, extremism, ignorance, indiscretion, and delusion.

Consciousness and existence

Various schools of Hindu philosophy discuss consciousness in great detail to suggest how reality can be perceived or should be perceived and how to experience peace and inner stability. They recognize the problem of human mind and the consciousness it produces. In Creation, the human consciousness is a replica of the universal consciousness. It has all the elements and dimensions as the other. It is the inner space (akasa), in the depths of which is the deeper realty of the eternal, pure consciousness. However to know them all, one has to go beyond the mind and learn to look at the mind (internal organ) with detachment and dispassion. The following are a few important observations about consciousness that are found in the Hindu scriptures.

1. Individual (ego) consciousness arises in the embodied beings due to the activity of the building blocks (tattvas) of Nature. It is chiefly responsible for bondage, delusions and suffering.

2. There can be many levels in individualized consciousness, depending upon the presence or absence of senses, the number of active senses present in a being, the level and purity of intelligence, the activity of the gunas and the purity or impurity of the body and consciousness itself. In this regard, Karma also plays an important role.

3. Individualized consciousness is subject to modifications (vrittis) due to the activity of the senses and the influence of desires and attachments. It is responsible for mental instability, afflictions, aging, sickness, death and rebirth. However, through practice one can temporarily become free from it by suppressing the modifications and experiencing wholesome silence and self-absorption (samadhi).

4. The individualized consciousness completely perishes at the time of death, except for a few lasting impressions, memories, and dominant desires which are carried forward to the next birth. In other words, a little of the individualized consciousness survives the body and remains either in this world as a ghost copy or travels to the next world as a casual body to become the seed for the next birth. Breath (prana) plays an important role in this transition.

5. The scriptures give the impression that it is possible to transfer consciousness from one person to another and from one source to another through spiritual practice. There are said to be instances where spiritual masters were able to transfer their consciousness to their chosen disciples and hastened their spiritual progress and liberation. According to some accounts, divinities may also internally awaken in chosen people and elevate their consciousness to prepare them for specific tasks. Tantric texts suggest that the possession of a person's body by a spirit or a deity for any reason, or transference of a spirit into another body through ritual methods (parakaya pravesam) can result in the transfer of consciousness. Such descriptions also allude to the idea that consciousness can exist in an individualized state and retain past memories even after death.

6. Theoretically, we know that it is possible to transfer consciousness to other people, through physical means such as hypnosis, teaching, conditioning, and communication. Such transfer may be considered crude and ineffective, nevertheless, it is possible.

7. As stated before, the Vedic seers believed that higher than the individualized consciousness, and very different from it in purity and composition, was the universal consciousness, which they described as transcendental, eternal, indivisible, indistinguishable, indestructible, complete and free from modifications. They believed that it was independent, all knowing, all pervading, infinite, and present in all as their very essence or Self. Its existence or nonexistence cannot objectively or mentally be proved. One should accept it as true because the Vedas, which are the word of God, say so.

8. The seers also suggested that through dispassion, self-control, and detachment it was possible to detach oneself from one's consciousness and passively observe it as a witness. They believed that the universe was also pervaded by the same witness consciousness, which was also all knowing.

Pure consciousness in the micro and macrocosms

In the Indian spiritual tradition, there are four divergent approaches, schools, or theories about the universal consciousness or pure consciousness, with a number of intermediary theories and concepts. They are stated below.

1. One is that the universal consciousness is the innermost reality or the center of human consciousness. It exists not only at the universal level as an independent entity and controller of all, but also in all beings as their very center and inner Lord. If you strip all the modifications and components of the individual consciousness, what remains in the end is the one eternal, indivisible, supreme consciousness. That one eternal consciousness alone is true. The rest is an illusion. When one realizes it, one becomes liberated. This is the school of non-dualism.

2. According to the second theory, the universal consciousness is present in all beings as their very Self. However, it is not exactly the same as the consciousness of the Supreme Being. It is either very different or somewhat different or notionally different. When a being attains liberation, the liberated Self continues to exist as an independent, eternal, and free entity. This is the view of the schools of dualism and qualified dualism.

3. The third view is that there is no eternal, universal consciousness at all in existence operating as the controller and supreme Lord. Consciousness exists only in beings in their natural as well as pristine states. They remain bound to existence as long as their minds and bodies are impure, and they are oblivious to the existence of their pure soul consciousness. If they can suppress the modifications of their minds and bodies and free themselves from desires, they can extinguish the suffering caused by the afflictions of their minds and enter into an indistinguishable, and indefinable state of all knowing, aloneness (Kaivalya), which is their true state. This is the view held by Jainism and the Yoga and Samkhya schools of Hinduism.

4. The fourth school of thought holds that there is no such thing as eternal, indestructible, indivisible consciousness. Consciousness is a mere association of the aggregates of thoughts, ideas, desires, feelings, and states, which are also objects. They are held together loosely because of desires and attachments around a notional individuality which is but an illusion. It is impermanent and indestructible, although it may survive death and continue into future lives. If you can calm the mind and disintegrate those aggregates into their natural elemental states, what remains is an emptiness or a stateless state of Nirvana. When you reach it, your individuality is fully extinguished, and you become free from modifications, and death and rebirth. This is the opinion held by Buddhism and some materialistic schools of Hinduism.

Thus, we can see that various schools of Hinduism approach the subject of consciousness from different perspectives and present different views.

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