Does Consciousness Evolve?
The Answer of the Vedanta
Theosophical Quarterly, January, 1915
To the question, Does Consciousness Evolve? the Vedanta answers, yes, and no. Personal consciousness evolves, from childhood to maturity, from surface sense-perception to the deeper levels of mental and moral life. But there is also the Divine Consciousness, which is perfect, complete, already embracing all things. We cannot say that it evolves; for what can be added to the All?
By the Vedanta, we mean, I think, the sum of the rivers of wisdom which rise in the Upanishads, and flow through books like the Bhagavad Gita into the reservoir of the Brahma Sutras, made level and watertight by the Commentary of Shankaracharya.
In that sum of wisdom, there are two great words, Atma and Brahma. The first, Atma, is Self, as we know it, first, in the selfhood of our everyday life, but with the thought of a deeper and more real Self above and within. The second, Brahma, is the ultimate sum of Being, the Eternal, the Divine Consciousness. And the central message of the Vedanta is the announcement that the two are one. The Real Self in us is the Divine Self; or, to put it the other way, God is the Supreme Self of all beings.
But in our ordinary lives we are in no wise conscious of this oneness. We are far indeed from knowing and realizing that we ourselves, as regards our inmost and most real selfhood, are not only at one with the Divine Consciousness, but are in very deed one with that Divine Consciousness; and not one with a part of it only, but one with the All, with the ultimate sum of the Eternal.
Beginning with the ordinary consciousness of every day life, we are to grow, step by step, to a realization of ourselves as the very Divinity of the Supreme. We do not become that; by progressive steps we come to realize that we already are that. This progressive realization, therefore, is our development. We may compare it to the consciousness of a man coming gradually from sleep to full waking. Therefore it is called Bodha, “awakening,” and one who has attained to its perfection is a Buddha, “an awakened one.”
One of the most valuable things in the Vedanta is the definition of the stages of this progress development, this gradual awakening of consciousness, beginning with the ordinary personal consciousness of everyday life. This part of the Vedanta, and perhaps it is the most vital part, is already fully developed and very beautifully set forth in the oldest Upanishads. Thus, in the Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad:
“The Spirit of man has two dwelling-places: this world and the other world. The borderland between them is the third, the realm of dreams. While he lingers in the borderland, the Spirit of man beholds both his dwellings: both this world and the other world. And according as his advance is in the other world, gaining that advance, the Spirit of man sees evils or delights.
“When the Spirit of man enters into rest, drawing his material from this all-containing world, felling the wood himself and himself building the dwelling, the Spirit of man enters into dream, through his own shining, through his own light.
“There are no chariots there, nor steeds for chariots, nor roadways. The Spirit of man makes himself chariots, steeds for chariots and roadways. Nor are any delights there, nor joys and rejoicings. The Spirit of man makes for himself delights and joys and rejoicings. There are no lotus ponds there, nor lakes and rivers. The Spirit of man makes for himself lotus ponds, lakes and rivers. For the Spirit of man is Creator.”
A very charming expression of the psychology of dreams, with a suggestion of a deeper consciousness beyond dreams. The belief that dreams are made up of the stuff of waking impressions, is very directly taught a little later in the same passage: “Dream is a province of waking. For whatever he sees while awake, the same he sees in dream.” The Prashna Upanishad puts the same thing in a slightly different way, also adding the vital thought of the something beyond: “The bright one, mind, in dreams enjoys greatness. The seen, as seen he beholds again. What was heard, as heard he hears again. And what was enjoyed by the other powers, he enjoys again by the other powers. The seen and the unseen, heard and unheard, enjoyed and unenjoyed, real and unreal, he sees it all; as All he sees it.”
We have thus in both Upanishads the suggestion that into the world of dreams, which we may call the psychical consciousness, there enters, besides a reviewing of the images of things seen during waking, another element; an element coming, not from beneath, not from waking consciousness, but from above, from a deeper consciousness at the other side of dreams. And it is in the description of this third consciousness, perhaps, that we find the most original and valuable contribution of the Vedanta; because this third consciousness is the meeting-place of the personal and the universal, the human and the Divine.
Here is one description, or rather indication, of it, very simple and direct, from the Prashna Upanishad:
“When he is wrapt by the radiance, the bright one no longer sees dreams. Then within him that bliss arises. And, dear, as the birds come to rest in the tree, so all this comes to rest in the higher Self.”
Fuller, and even more eloquent is the picture of the third consciousness in the Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad, in the section from which we have already taken the very vivid description of the realm of dreams:
“When he has taken his pleasure in the waking world, moving to and fro and beholding good and evil, the Spirit of man returns again by the same path, hurrying back to dreamland.
“As a great fish swims along one bank of the river, and then along the other bank, first the eastern and then the western, so the Spirit of man moves through both worlds, the waking world and the dream world.
“Then as a falcon or an eagle, flying to and fro in the open sky and growing weary, folds his wings and sinks to rest, so of a truth the Spirit of man hastens to that world where, finding rest, he desires no desire and dreams no dream.
“And whatever he has dreamed, as that he was slain or oppressed, crushed by an elephant or fallen into an abyss, or whatever fear he beheld in the waking world, he knows now that it was from unwisdom. Like a god, like a king, he knows he is the All. This is his highest world.
“This is his highest joy. He has passed beyond all evil. This is his fearless form. And as one who is wrapt in the arms of the beloved knows naught of what is without or within, so the Spirit of man, wrapt round by the Soul of Inspiration, knows naught of what is without or within. This is his perfect being. He has won his desire. The Soul is his desire. He is beyond desire. He has left sorrow behind.
“Here the father is father no more; nor the mother a mother; nor the worlds, worlds; here the scriptures are no longer scriptures; the thief is a thief no more; nor the murderer a murderer; nor the outcast an outcast; nor the baseborn, baseborn; the pilgrim is pilgrim no longer; nor the saint a saint. For the Spirit of man is not followed by good, he is not followed by evil. He has crossed over all the sorrows of the heart.”
We cannot but be touched by the beauty and inspiration of a passage such as that. The Chhandogya, which is, after the Brihad Aranyaka, the greatest of the older Upanishads, has a charming expression of the same thought of the third consciousness:
“As the honey-makers, dear, gather the honey from many a tree, and weld the nectars together in a single nectar; and as they find no separateness there, nor say: Of that tree, I am the nectar, of that tree I am the nectar. Thus indeed, dear, all these beings, when they reach the Real, know not, nor say: We have reached the Real.”
Are we to hold, then, that, in this deeper consciousness, individuality is lost? We have one answer from experience: We all go to sleep, and “lose consciousness,” as we say. But we wake again in the morning, not to a brand new being, but to the old, familiar consciousness of ourselves as ourselves; or, as the Chhandogya more fancifully puts it:
“Thus indeed, dear, all these beings, when they reach the Real, know not, nor say: We have reached the Real. But whatever they are here, whether tiger or lion or wolf or boar or worm or moth or gnat or fly, that they become again. And this Soul is the Self of all that is, this is the Real, this is the Self. That thou art, O Shvetaketu!”
Following the same line, the Brihad Aranyaka dwells more fully and steadily on the problem of the preservation of identity, in the deeper consciousness which lies beyond dream: In this third consciousness,
“The Spirit sees not; yet seeing not, he sees. For the energy that dwelt in sight cannot cease, because it is everlasting. But there is no other besides the Spirit, or separate from him, for him to see . . .
“The Spirit speaks not; yet speaking not, he speaks. For the energy that dwelt in speech cannot cease, because it is everlasting. But there is nothing else besides the Spirit, or separate from him, for him to speak to. . . .
“The Spirit thinks not; yet thinking not, he thinks. For the energy that dwelt in thinking cannot cease, because it is everlasting. But there is nothing else besides the Spirit, or separate from him, for him to think of . . .
“The Spirit knows not; yet knowing not, he knows. For the energy that dwelt in knowing cannot cease, because it is everlasting. But there is nothing else besides the Spirit, or separate from him, for him to know.
“For only where there is separation may one see another, may one touch another, may one hear another, may one think of another, may one know another. But the one Seer is undivided, like pure water. This, O king, is the world of the Eternal. This is the highest path. This is the highest treasure. This is the highest world. This is the highest bliss. All beings live on the fragments of that bliss.”
There is here a suggestion, which we shall presently follow up, that the third consciousness is something more than the deep rest beyond dreams, in which we take refuge from the strife and weariness of the day, to awake full of its essence, refreshed, in the morning; that it is, in fact, not only within, to be reached by rising through the realm of dream; but also beyond, to be reached by an orderly progression and development beginning with the ordinary everyday consciousness of our personalities, and going forward through steadily rising stages of mental, moral and spiritual growth: a goal of human perfection, or, perhaps we should say, of divine perfection, to be attained by human beings. The essence of that perfection is, that we shall realize our oneness with the Divine Consciousness, our selfhood in the Supreme Self of all beings.
Of the nature and quality of that Divine Consciousness, which we are destined to attain, the Upanishads have much to say, that is of great beauty. But we must turn aside from it for the present, to consider the matter from another side.
In the passages quoted, there is a clear indication of an evolution, a development, from our ordinary everyday consciousness to the Divine Consciousness of ultimate Being. What, then, is it that develops? Is it consciousness? Or is it the vesture of consciousness, or, perhaps, a succession of vestures?
A recurrent phrase in one of the passages suggests an analogy which may help us: “the energy that dwells in sight, speech, thinking, knowing, cannot cease, because it is everlasting.” Here is something very like the modern doctrine of the Conservation of Energy, as it was taught, let us say, twenty years ago: the thought that Force is a definite sum-total, eternally the same, from which nothing can be taken, to which nothing can be added; just as the sum total of matter was thought of as a constant, which could not be added to or diminished.
With this conception there went, nevertheless, a clear idea of evolution, of development, involving both force and matter; whether it was the evolution of cosmic or of organic forms, developing worlds, or developing forms of plant and animal life. Into these forms, whether cosmic or organic, was gathered a definite part of the great sum-total of substance and energy; and that definite part did grow, from the nebula to the star, from the egg to the chick, from the seed to the tree. Would it be true, then, to say that force and substance grow, when the star, the chick, the tree, grow? Yes, and no. The vesture, the form, into which both force and substance enter, grows; and, as the full grown world, or bird, or oak, that form, that vesture, holds more, both of force and substance, than did the nebular nucleus, the egg, the seed.
So is it, in the view of the Vedanta, if I rightly understand it, with the problem of the growth, the evolution, of consciousness. What develops, is not the abstract, ultimate Consciousness, just as it is not ultimate Matter or Force, as conceived by the doctrine of Conservation. What develops, is the form, the vesture in which consciousness is embodied; so that the consciousness of the sage contains a far larger measure of the Divine Consciousness than does the consciousness of the infant; than did the consciousness of the sage himself, when he was a baby, to take the simple case which is offered us by all our experience. More of the ultimate Consciousness is now embodied in him than when he was a baby. He is a larger incarnation of the mind and will of God.
The vestures of consciousness, in their ascending degrees, are described in several of the Upanishads, notably in the Mandukya.
They are the physical, the psychic and the causal bodies; corresponding to waking consciousness, dream, and the third consciousness which lies beyond dream. The consciousness of the ordinary waking self is revealed in the physical body; the consciousness of the dream self is revealed in the psychic body; the consciousness of the spiritual self is revealed in the causal body.
The ordinary waking consciousness of the physical self rests, of course, on the perceptions of the five senses, sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, gathered together and governed by two subjective powers, which the Vedanta calls Manas and Buddhi. The meaning of Manas varies between feeling and thinking, but its essence seems to be, that it receives the reports of the senses and combines them, reporting to Buddhi, which pronounces judgments on the grouped pictures thus formed and presented to it. Buddhi thus contains something of intuition, something of will. It is the “inner determiner.”
The whole of this complex of the senses, Manas and Buddhi is suffused with consciousness, thus forming the self of ordinary waking life. The essence of the ultimate Consciousness is present in the physical man down to the finger-tips; just as the essence of the ultimate Force and Matter are present; but not in their ultimate, abstract form; in such a form, rather, as is made possible by the character of the organic structure, the containing vesture.
The psychic body, the next in the series, is the body of dreams; of mind-pictures, that is, regarded by the dreaming consciousness. The Spirit of man is Creator, so far as the splendid power to paint mind pictures goes; whether these mind pictures be direct copies, color photographs, from nature, or composite pictures, made up of elements selected from many color photographs. The power to paint these pictures, to view them, to brood on them, is his; to put, indeed, such life and vigor into them, that they may become either an inspiration or an obsession. The power to view them, too, either framed in the things of waking life, when we are awake; or without their frames, when we go to sleep and dream.
Then natural man may thereupon take brush and colors, and copy these mind-pictures on canvas or, if it should so happen, on the walls of a limestone cavern; or he may take sounds and embody the mind pictures in words, and call them Hamlet or Marguerite. So, from this power of psychic life, arises art.
Science also; for what is a scientific generalization, but a composite mind photograph, expressed in words? What is a scientific law, but the same composite picture lit up by Buddhi, the determining power; seen, as we might say, in the light of the Divine Mind?
Science and art and history. If we look deeper, sin also. For we may so charge ourselves with mind pictures, let us say, of the energy of sex, that they obsess us, driving us utterly from Nature’s clean and wholesome laws. Or we may so overload our minds with pictures of self-assertion and self-preservation, that they lose their natural use, and become obsessing egotism, ambition, cruelty, pride.
So with the development of the psychic man and his creative power, with the embodiment of consciousness in the psychic vesture, comes free creative power, the possibility of glory and of shame.
This is the vesture, the Vedanta, I think, would say, which, is the field of all mental, emotional and imaginative power, while we are yet in the body. It is the subjective nature. And when the physical body falls away in death, the psychic vesture is the dwelling place of our consciousness. It is the psychic man thus constituted, who is active in the whole range of experiences, well known to ancient India, which are now the burning questions of our psychical research.
Of the next vesture, the causal body, less is said; but enough to let us see that it is the dwelling place of a much higher quality of consciousness, a consciousness much nearer to the Divine Mind and Will.
If we take what is said of Buddhi, as representative, first in the physical and then in the psychical man, of intuition and will, and regard this moral determining power as the pressure of the causal upon the psychic and physical; or, if you will, as the representative of the causal in the psychic and physical, we shall have, perhaps, a clue to the splendor of that high consciousness, when fully developed in its own vesture, the causal body. We shall see in it a consciousness resting in continuous inspiration, wide spiritual vision and spiritual power; a consciousness drawing its riches direct from the supreme inner source, the Divine Self of all beings.
The psychical man, therefore, is the field of our art, our science, our human, as opposed to our animal life. In the same way, we may say that the causal man is the field of our divine energies, making possible, in its full development, the supreme miracle of the incarnate divine Man, who visibly wields the powers of Divinity.
The Mandukya Upanishad suggests yet another, a fourth degree of consciousness; but it is so far above us, it so completely transcends our experience, that it is described only by negativing all limitations. We can only say that it is infinite Being, infinite Wisdom, infinite Bliss. It is the consciousness which is that final liberation, Nirvana, by the vision of which India has been inspired for milleniums. It is the consciousness of the Divine Man, no longer incarnate, but risen, ascended, re-become one with the Father. It is the consciousness of the very being of God.
This, then, it would seem, is the answer of the Vedanta to our question concerning the evolution of consciousness; an answer, both yes and no.
The Divine Consciousness, the ultimate Being, does not develop, any more than Space develops. Space, indeed, is one of the standing similes of that Consciousness which, like the vast room of the Universe, is omnipresent and eternal.
But while Consciousness does not develop, its vestures do develop; first, under natural law, as in the birth and growth of the physical man, culmination of so much precedent birth and growth; then in the psychical man, under the laws of mental and emotional growth, touched from above by moral and spiritual law, and suffused by creative power, by free will, the power which makes for glory or for shame; thirdly, under spiritual law, in the causal man, where free creative will has become one with the Divine Will, and we share the views and purposes of God. Thereafter the man, in our sense, is man no longer; knowing himself at last as Divine Mind, Divine Will, not other than the eternal Being of God Himself.