What is Consciousness?

Dr. Swami Satyamurti Saraswati, PhD (Belfast)

This is the introductory article to a series exploring man's consciousness through the breath, the ancient science of swara yoga. Swara yoga techniques are virtually unknown and unpublished. India has kept them a closely guarded secret. Swara yoga is the way to have a fuller understanding of your past, to experience the present more deeply and to know what will happen in the future, by studying your breath.

It has been said that the highest study of man is man. The recent revival in the study of the different aspects of man's consciousness is now reaching a peak. Eminent scientists, psychologists and para-psychologists are giving forth their findings and their views on that multifaceted and most neglected aspect of our existence, our consciousness.

New models are being presented by the leading figures in the field to explain the 'modus operandi' of the individual's pattern of awareness,' and many new and unprecedented questions have been raised by all those connected with this field be they scientists, yoga practitioners, meditators, students, philosophers, para-psychologists or simply people who want to gain a clearer understanding of their own existence.

Kirlian photography

One of the discoveries which is still provoking interest among the investigators is Kirlian photography. It was observed that when an object is placed between the plates of an apparatus generating high voltage electricity, pulsed at a certain frequency, and a photograph is taken, it is possible to see streaked emanations coming from the object. The most vivid emanations come from living things: plants, flowers, leaves and of course human subjects. The emanations are constantly changing and are sensitive to the emotions of the person being photographed. The photograph taken of the subject's fingers when he was relaxed show smooth and steady flare patterns, whereas when he was tense or anxious the flare patterns were irregular and jagged. If the subject was told to feel anger the flare patterns changed; if he was told to feel happy they again changed. Exactly what is captured on the Kirlian photograph is still being discussed by some, but it is generally agreed that the human body emits a type of radiation or energy which is real, physical, measurable, and is intimately linked with the individual's mind and consciousness.


The science of biofeedback is described as a 'method of feeding back into the system under study, the results of its previous performance'. If a person wants to learn how to relax, the biofeedback machine presents him with an audible tone of his heartbeat or a picture on a screen. As the person begins to relax he hears his heartbeat become slower so that he learns to associate that sign of relaxation with whatever he did to produce it. With proper training it is possible for him to know exactly how to relax when the instrumentation is not present. Thus the individual is able to control his mind and involuntary body systems in a way previously thought to be impossible. The biofeedback system has been successfully used to help people recognize their brain rhythms as a guide towards meditation.

Both Kirlian photography and biofeedback give us clues as to the nature of our consciousness but they do not tell us exactly what it is. For this we have to turn to the realm of modern research called particle physics, that branch of science which deals with the discovery and formulation of laws for the infinitesimally small, sub-atomic constituents of the atom.

Particle physics

In particle physics, research scientists have shown that all phenomena originate and exist in a field or matrix, not independently but as parts of an undifferentiated whole, each part linked to every other part. According to William Thirring:

  • "The field exists always and everywhere, it can never be removed. It is the carrier of all material phenomena... Being and fading (of particles) are merely forms of motion of the field."*1

Everything without exception is composed of electrons, protons, neutrons, photons and a few score of lesser known sub-atomic particles. The nature of these particles is such that it is mathematically provable that they are inter-connected. Your chair, table, bed, clock, clothes, and you yourself are connected one with the other because your fundamental nature is the same. All consist of electrons, protons and neutrons, and are part of an omnipresent and interpenetrating field. This is the conclusion of the physicists who study the behaviour of the minute particles of the atom and it supports the experience of yogis.

Thus the view of the physicists has changed from outward exploration to an investigation of the internal structure of consciousness. This is especially true of a profound branch of physics - quantum theory.

Quantum theory

Quantum theory is the detailed study of infinitesimally small particles or packets of energy. According to one scientist, Dr. Eugene P. Wigner:

  • "It is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum theory in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness."*2

These particles have a very small mass. Some have no mass at all, only a charge. Some have no mass and no charge but only a degree of spin. The lifetime (between the appearance and disappearance) of the particles is often of the order of one hundredth millionth of a second, and they are travelling at the speed of light- 186,000 miles a second! The difficulty in measuring and categorizing them can be imagined.

Physicists now realize that the consciousness of the experimenter and the experiment itself are intrinsically linked. An experimenter can no longer be called an impartial observer, an outsider; he must be considered as a participator in his experiment because his consciousness is materially involved. This was demonstrated when a team of atomic physicists were able to virtually 'manufacture' some atomic particles simply because their minds and consciousness were so permeated by the concept.

Now we are coming a little closer to defining consciousness. We may say that consciousness is like an ever-present field which is permeating and permeated by all things which have an individual awareness, and that this field of consciousness is the carrier of all the mental functions of the individual. Moreover, the field is in constant motion, yet, like the field of the physicists, it does not move. The Isha Upanishad describes most clearly the nature of the field of consciousness when it says:

  • "It moves. It moves not. It is far. It is near. It is within all this, and it is outside of all this." (Ch. 5)

Thus our consciousness, by which we experience time and space, heat and cold, and the full range of sensory data, is intimately linked with an ever-present field which extends everywhere. According to physics, the science closest to the yogic way of thinking, it is scientifically incorrect to speak about matter (objects) existing within a field, since particle physics has shown that they are one and the same. To quote Einstein:

  • "We may therefore regard matter as being constituted by the regions of space in which the field is extremely intense... There is no place in this new kind of physics both for the field and matter, for the field is the only reality."*3

Merely substitute the word 'consciousness' for 'field' and this is precisely what yoga considers man's consciousness to be. Yoga, like physics, deals with the systematic exploration of the field of consciousness not externally but internally.


According to yogis our consciousness is separated into three components and ultimately a fourth which transcends the other three. The ancient scriptures abound with references to these states and the Mandukyopanishad describes them thus:

  • "The self (atman) is Brahman, the following are his four aspects: The first aspect is the waking state, the awareness of external things, the terrain of Vaisvanara... his enjoyment lies in the visible objects of the world." (v.3)

This is jagriti, the waking state of the individual, called by Jung and other psychologists the conscious mind.

  • "The dreaming state is the second aspect, over which Taijasa rules... the objects he enjoys are invisible." (v.4)

This is swapna, the subconscious state, the world of subtle dimensions, individual memories and samskaras (the mental seeds of all our thoughts, words and deeds).

  • "The third aspect is deep dreamless sleep, lying beyond desire. Prajna is the lord of this territory. He abides in deep sleep in which all things have vanished, and he enjoys bliss. Prajna lies at the gateway to the dreaming and waking states." (v.5)

This is Sushupti, the causal dimension, the cosmic collective samskara and memory, called by Jung the unconscious mind.

  • "Turiya, lord of the fourth aspect according to the wise, remains unaware of the external, intermediate and internal worlds. He lies beyond both consciousness and unconsciousness, where sight cannot penetrate, nor thought, which is indescribable, bearing no relation to anything. Turiya enjoys pure awareness and experiences peace, bliss and non-duality. He is none other than atman. Realize him." (v.7)

Turiya is the fourth transcendental state beyond opposites. It represents cosmic consciousness, free of all fetters.

Thus we find on our exploration of consciousness that ultimately the scientists and yogis are on the same journey but are using different vehicles, different modes of introspection, to arrive at the same conclusion.


*1. W. Thirring, 'Urbaus der materie', Almanach der Osterreichischen, Akademie der Wissenschaften, vol. 118 (1968) p. 160.
*2. E.P. Wigner, 'Symmetries and Reflections', Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1970, p. 172.
*3. A. Einstein, 'The Philosophical Impact of Contemporary Physics', Van Nostrand, Princeton, N.J., 1961, p. 139.