Our experiences and dreamless sleep (sushupti).19 min read

According to the Advaita Vedanta, whose most learned and brilliant exponent was the first Shankaracharya, all our experiences from the cradle to the grave take place in one of the three states of waking (jagrat), dreaming (svapna) and dreamless sleep (sushupti). These states correspond to the facts established by our own introspection and are not likely to be seriously disputed. We are all conscious of ‘ waking up ’ in the morning, and when we fall asleep at night our mind may or may not remain active in projecting dream images to engage our attention; and we know of no fourth state apart from these three.

In Western philosophy and psychology much has  been written about the functioning of the mind in the waking and dreaming states, but comparatively little attention has been paid to the state of dreamless sleep. The latter is in every sense fundamental, according to the Vedanta, and a great deal is recorded about it in the Upanishads and the classical writers. This article will attempt to give some idea of the traditional conception of sushupti, using the classical definitions as well as touching on one or two of the related problems which are discussed in the commentaries of Shri Shankaracharya.

Relation of dreamless sleep and the causal body

When the sun reflects in a small pool of water, the reflection appears to ‘ move ’ when the surface of the water is ruffled by the wind. In much the same way, man is conceived to be God (Brahman) reflecting in a small pool of nescience (avidya and the reflection (called jiva) appears to be ‘ active ’ owing to the seeming movement of avidya. The small pool of avidya in which Brahman is reflected as jiva can be analysed into three bodies (shariras); these are the karana sharira (causal body), sukshma sharira (subtle body) and sthula sharira (physical body).

The karana sharira is the most subtle and innermost of the three bodies. It is like the hydrogen and oxygen in the pool of water. It is the cause of the other two bodies, and contains within itself all the latent impressions (vasanas) which fructify in the actions and condition the experiences of the individual man.

The sukshma sharira is roughly the mind or personality ; it is like the water which manifests when hydrogen and oxygen combine under certain conditions.

The sthula sharira is the physical body, corresponding to water in its gross form as ice.

The three bodies act as veils hiding the real nature of jiva as Brahman from himself, for the reason that the jiva wrongly identifies himself with these reflecting media (upadhis) thinking “ I am the body ”, “I am the mind ”, and “ I am the unconscious”.

There is a close correspondence between the three bodies and the three states. Waking is associated with the physical body, which in that state is most active. Dream is linked with the subtle, or mental, body. Sushupti is the characteristic state of the causalbody.

It is a general thesis of Vedanta that the characteristics of the microcosm are reproduced in the cycles and subcycles of the macrocosm. The cosmic causal body is the undifferentiated condition of avidya known as the Avyakta, whose characteristic state is pralaya (cosmic dissolution), when the universes are withdrawn and no manifestation takes place : this is the cosmic dreamless sleep. Other analogous manifestations of sushupti are night-time (in the cycle of 24 hours) and winter (in the seasonal cycle). Each of them shares the main features of sushupti, namely that diversity is absent although it contains within itself in seed form the potentialities which later give rise to manifold effects.

As the state from which the other two states spring forth, dreamless sleep is the most fundamental, and it is symbolised as such in the upper curve of the sign OM. According to Shri Shankara, the changing condition of anything can never be the natural condition because it will depend on external agencies which cause the change. As the unchanging condition of the mind, dreamless sleep is a more natural condition than the waking and dreaming states.

“ Sushupti is the natural state”, he writes, ” Immutability is the true condition of things, for that is independent of external forces. Modification is not the true state, as it is dependent on external causes. . . . The perception in waking and dreaming moments is a modification of the original state. That state of a thing which is independent of external causes is its true  condition, and that state of a thing which is dependent upon external causes is not its true condition ; for this state cannot subsist in the absence of the external cause. Therefore, sushupti being the natural condition, there is no modification there, as in waking or dreaming’ (Commentary on Taittiriya Upanishad 11.8.1.)

Definitions of dreamless sleep

A simple definition of sushupti is therefore that it is the psychological, or ‘ experiential ’, aspect of the causal body. It is the experience of the total karma of the individual in its seed form, unlike the dreaming and waking experiences .   which are the experiences of small parts of the karma which  have ‘ sprouted.The holy Rishi Yajnavalkya refers to this body composed of karma in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

In the classification of the five sheaths (koshas) enclosing they/w, the causal body is identified with the ‘ bliss sheath ‘ (anandamaya kosha). It is therefore to be expected that dreamless sleep is the happiest condition of man, happiness in the other two states always being tainted or overlaid by some anxiety or sense of strain. As Shri Shankara writes in Vivekachudamini 208 :

“ The bliss sheath has its fullest play during sushupti, while in the dreaming and waking states it has only a partial manifestation, occasioned by the sight of pleasing objects and so forth.”

Let us now consider a few other definitions of sushupti, from which will emerge an idea of its salient characteristics :

(a) “ As a hawk or a falcon flying in the sky becomes tired, and stretching its wings, is bound for its nest, so does this infinite being  run for this state where falling asleep he craves no desires and sees no dreams.” (Brihadaranyaka 4.3.19).

(b) “ In this state a father is no father, a mother no mother, the worlds no worlds, the gods no gods, the Vedas no Vedas. . . He is then beyond all the woes of his heart (mind).”
(Brihadaranyaka. 4.3.22.).

(c) “ When it {the individual soul) becomes fast asleep—when it does not know anything—it comes back along the 72000 nerves called Hita, which extend from the heart to the pericardium, and remains in the pericardium. As a baby, or an Emperor, or a noble Brahmin lives, having attained the acme of bliss, so does it remain.” (Brihadaranyaka. 2.1.19).

(In their natural condition the wishes of a small baby, and of an Emperor are not thwarted and a Brahmin can contentedly follow his own pursuits of learning undisturbed, and so they are quoted as illustrations of the highest types of happiness normally recognisable in the world)

(d) ” That is the state of dreamless sleep wherein the sleeper does not desire (imagine) anything and does not see any dream. The third quarter is the Prajna whose sphere is this sushupti, who is a mass of consciousness gathered in (prajnanaghana), who is all bliss, who experiences bliss (anandabhuk) and who is the way to awareness of the dreaming and waking objects (chetomukha).” ( Mandukya 5).

(e) “ Dreamless sleep is the cessation of all kinds of perception, in which the mind remains in a subtle, seed-like form. The test of this is the universal verdict that ‘ I did not know anything then ‘”(Vivekachudamini 121).

(f) “ What is called dreamless sleep, darkness (tamas) or ignorance (ajnana), is the seed of the waking and dream states. It is completely destroyed by the fire of Self-knowledge like a burnt seed that does not germinate ” (Upadeshasahasri 17.26).

(g) “ (The teacher Prajapati said) ‘ That which is in deep sleep, at perfect rest, seeing no dreams,—that is the Self, that is the Immortal, the Fearless, that is Brahman.(The pupil) Indra went away satisfied in his heart, but before he reached the Devas (i.e. his home) he saw this difficulty. He thought “ In truth he does not rightly know himself as ‘ this is I ’, nor does he know these beings. Therefore he has reached utter annihilation, and I see no good in this” (Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.1.).

These definitions give us certain indications about the quality of sushupti as an experience. It conies about owing to fatigue and to the desire of the mind to find a refuge from the troubles which afflict it in the two more active states (see (a) above). The fact that no duality is present in dreamless sleep points to its being a happier condition than the waking and dream states in which duality is manifest. This is confirmed by the Shruti passages which speak of the experience of joy in deep sleep (see ([c) and (d) above). At the same time, since the mind is reduced to its causal seed form and no perceptions involving subject/object relationship occur (see (b\ (e) and (f) above), ignorance—‘ I know nothing — is also a main feature of sushupti.                                                                       Introspection bears out the statements of Shruti: the deep sleeper sums up his experience on waking in the words : I was so happy ; I knew nothing then ”. (cf. Panchadasi XI.59*)

The nature of happiness in dreamless sleep

We are led to ask : What is the nature of this happiness in dreamless sleep ? ” and also What happens to the jiva in dreamless sleep ? ”. The two questions are closely related but they can be separately analysed on the basis that the former is primarily concerned with the limiting adjunct’ (upadhi) of the mind, which gives every experience its quality ’, whereas the latter is about the reflection of Brahman in the upadhi.

Turning to the first question, we are at once struck by the apparently self-contradictory nature of the deep sleep experience. It is a state of the highest joy, and also of the darkest ignorance in the sense that the jiva knows nothing whatsoever. This strange dichotomy is due to the predominance of the opposing gunas of sattva and tamas in the upadhi while rajas is temporarily in abeyance. It is clear, incidentally, that the quality of dreamless sleep can vary with the relative proportions of sattva and tamas just as much as the quality of the waking and dream experiences can alter with the shifting balance of the gunas. To indicate the sattvic yet non-manifesting condition of the antah- karana, Shri Shankara refers to the mind in dreamless sleep being like fire in a log of wood ’ (commentary on Prashna 4.6.) or like fire in a heated lump of iron’.

Since duality is absent and joy is experienced, it would be tempting to assume that sushupti is the supreme condition of Ananda i.e., the liberated state of a jnani. This view is discussed at length and discarded as invalid by Shri Shankara in his commentary on the Vedanta Sutras. 1.1.12—19. Dreamless sleep is a definite experience during which the jiva is still 4 tied ’ to the antahkarana, albeit in its causal state ; he feels 4 I am happy ’ and not, as the jnani does,

I am Bliss Itself ‘. This was the lesson which Prajapati wished Indr a to learn (see (g) above). Shri Shankara makes the point clear in his commentary on Vedanta Sutras 3.2.9 :

“ As we have repeatedly explained, Brahman itself is on account of its connection with limiting adjuncts (upadhis) metaphorically called ‘ jiva’.Hence the phenomenal existence of one jiva lasts as long as it continues to be bound by one set of upadhis, and the phenomenal existence of another jiva again lasts as long as it continues to be bound by another set of upadhis. Each set of upadhis continues through the state of sushupti as well as of waking; in the former it is like a seed, in the latter like a fully- developed plant”.

It would, of course, contradict our normal experience and strain our credulity to suggest that we attain God- vision in deep sleep every night, and lose it when we wake up in the morning. And if this were so, all of us would be jnanis but jnana would be worth very little. As shown by the quotation from the Chhandogya Upanishad ((g) above) this was not the conclusion of the old masters of Vedanta. Their final view is given in a later verse of the same Upanishad (Chhandogya 8.3.2.) :

“ Just as people who do not know the place walk again and again over the treasure of gold hidden underground and do not find it, even so all creatures here go day after day into this world of Brahman and do not find it, being carried away by untruth ”

The condition of ignorance in deep sleep, though total, is not accompanied by delusion. Nor is it that thtjiva has lapsed into ‘ unconsciousness ’ and lost its powers of knowing. There is continuity of awareness, but nothing to be aware of. An important verse of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad explains (4.3.23.) :

“ That it does not see in that state is because, although seeing then, it does not see ; for the vision of the witness can never be lost, because it is immortal. But there is not that second thing separate from it which it can see ”

While Brahman is not recognised owing to the veiling (tmar ana) produced by tamas in the causal body, there is an absence of projection (vikshepa) creating false beliefs about the nature of Brahman, which is typical of the waking and dream states. This absence of vikshepa> which means absence of all duality and a fortiori of all sorrow and suffering, is the negative aspect of the happiness experienced in dreamless sleep ; Shri Shankara draws attention to it in the following passage :

“The mind being free from the troubles consequent upon its action of imagining the variety of subject and object is, so far, in bliss. We say ‘ so far * for this bliss is not absolute ; it is like that negative condition of happiness which implies freedom from unhappiness ”   (Commentary on (1d) above).

Elsewhere he defines this happiness as samprasada (the state of highest serenity) which is due to being free from the cares attendant on the innumerable activities of the body and sense-organs in the waking state and which are only partially alleviated in dream. (Commentary on Brihadaranyaka 4-3-I5)-

We can also trace, however, a positive feeling of joy as an element in the experience of sushupti, which is the effect of the sattva in the causal body. The jiva fails to know Brahman because it is dazzled by its light and majesty. A verse of the Prashna Upanishad tells us :.

” When it is overpowered with light, then this mind sees no dreams ; thus then, the bliss arises in this body.” (4.6.).

As has been said, the Shruti and the holy commentator warn against confusing this bliss with the Ananda which is God-realization. To seek it consciously is condemned in verse 12 of the Isha Upanishad, and in a subsequent verse the Rishi prays that this ‘ golden disk ’ which ‘ covers the entrance of the Reality ’ should be removed.

He further prays : ‘ Withdraw thy rays and lessen thy light’ and this has been explained by Professor Shastri to mean “ May the vrittis of the mind be quietened and the dazzling reflection in the causal body be weakened so that I may penetrate to the Brahman behind ”. The ‘ dazzling reflection ’ may be indicative of the blissful experience of either sushupti or savikalpa samadhi. Both are vrittis characterised by unity and the absence of duality in the form ‘ I perceive this’.  But whereas sushupti is complete relaxation of the mental process and the diffusion of attention par excellence, savikalpa samadhi marks the highest degree of concentration attainable. Rajas and tamas gunas are in abeyance in savikalpa samadhi and sattva holds the field ; in sushupti, sattva is balanced by tamas guna. The distinction between these two states can be suggested by the analogy of the rich variety of colours disappearing either in a brilliance of light or owing to the onset of darkness.

What happens to the jiva in dreamless sleep ?

The old Acharyas of Vedanta held the fact of the continuity of personality in dreamless sleep to be indisputable and the difficulty was to explain, to borrow a phrase of Professor Lacombe’s, the precise nature of ‘ this psychological pause which is not at the same time an ontological break (une coupure ontologique;. The subject is discussed at length in Vedanta Sutras 3.2.7-9.

Note : Nirvikalpa samadhi is not a vritti but a synonym for the Reality beyond the mind which is also indicated by the terms Jnanam, moksha etc.

The Shruti mentions three resting places of the jiva in dreamless sleep—the nadis or arteries (e.g. Chhandogya 8.6.3.), puritat or pericardium (e.g.(r) above) and Brahman (e.g. Chhandogya 6.8.1.) These are not alternative resting-places, but are all descriptive of one process. The nadis give on to the pericardium, the pericardium surrounds the heart ’ and Brahman is said to rest within the space (akasha) within the heart. For example, Brihadaranyaka 4.4.22. affirms : In the space within the heart lies the Controller of all, the Lord of all, the Ruler of all ”. Thus, if the jiva rests in Brahman within the space within the heart, it will also rest within the pericardium and the nadis which radiate outwards from the heart.

The real significance of these statements is not, however, physiological. It is clear from many passages in Shri Shankara’s commentaries that the heart ’ means not the physical heart but the buddhi (intellect).

“ The heart is the lotus-shaped lump of flesh, but being the seat of the internal organ buddhi, it refers to that by a metonymy as when we speak of ‘ cries from the chairs ’ meaning from the persons occupying them ” [Commentary on Brihadaranyaka 4.3.22.).

The point is that in dreamless sleep the jiva is identified with the space within the heart i.e. it is no other than Brahman reflecting in the innermost sheath of bliss (anand- amaya kosha) also known as the causal body (karana sharira).

It is not intended to suggest that the jiva becomes ’.  Brahman in sushupti; this, after all, would have no mor$ meaning than saying that the reflection of the sun which is easily recognisable in the water of a river 4 becomes 9 the sun at the source of the river, where it is not clearly distinguishable in the glacier. In his commentary on Vedanta Sutras 3.2.7. Shri Shankara reminds his readers that the jiva is always identical with Brahman and as such we cannot suppose it to go anywhere or to be subject to change ; changes take place only in the upadhi. The jiva so to say follows the movements of the upadhi (the mind) just as the reflection of the sun follows the movements of the water.

In the Upanishads, Brahman is likened to infinite space (akasha). Although space is one and indivisible, it is possible to distinguish the outer space, the inner mental space and the space within the heart’. These correspond to the ‘ spaces ’ in which take place all the waking, dream and dreamless sleep experiences of the jiva.

In the Aitareya Upanishad 1.3.12. Brahman is described as first creating the world and then ‘ entering in to his creation. In particular, he creates man and enters in as the jiva of each individual, in which capacity he experiences waking, dream and dreamless sleep. Commenting on this verse Shri Shankara explains :

“ There are three resting places of Him who thus created and entered his creation as the individual soul (jiva) as a king enters a city—they are the right eye during the waking state, the inner mind during the dreaming state and the space within the heart (hridayakasha) during dreamless sleep.”

This shows that the references in Shruti to the identity of jiva and Brahman in deep sleep are to the jiva being the same as “ Brahman in the space within the heart” i.e., Brahman reflected in the casual body.

Lessons taught by dreamless sleep

In his commentary on Vedanta Sutras 3.2.7. Shri Shankara also implies that the aim of these same Shruti passages is to inculcate the knowledge of the identity of jiva and Brahman.

“ We do want to prove that Brahman is the resting place of the jiva in the state of dreamless sleep ; that is a knowledge which has its own uses, namely the ascertainment of Brahman being the Self of the jiva, and the jiva being essentially non-connected with the worlds which appear in the waking and dream states.”

The state of sushupti which occurs so regularly, usually at least once every 24 hours, shows up the unreality of duality which, if it were real, would not be subject to appearance and disappearance but would persist the whole time, just as heat invariably accompanies fire and we do not find that it fails to do so under certain conditions or at certain times. Duality, which is absent in sushupti, is thus demonstrably unreal and unconnected with the experiencer of the three states of waking, dream and dreamless sleep. For the same reason, the individual soul which persists as the experiencer is seen to be independent of the three states, which do not persist and are constantly giving way one to the other : the Shruti uses the illustration of the great fish swimming in a river, now touching one bank and now the other, to describe the jiva moving from one state to another but remaining essentially independent of all three.

But sushupti does more than demonstrate the unreality of duality, it hints at the nature of Brahman in a practical way every day by showing that the refuge from care and sorrow, as well as true satisfaction and joy, are to be found in the non-dual, the formless, the unchanging and not in the manifold waking and dream worlds of changing forms. Moreover this experience is open to all, and in experiencing it King and beggar become one.

Although the jivas ‘ going day by day into this world of Brahman do not find it, being carried away by untruth ’, and this same ‘ untruth ’ in the form of seed-karma causes them to wake up once more and experience duality, the lesson eventually impresses itself by sheer repetition even on the dullards, who are thereby set on the path of finding the world of Brahman—the ‘ golden treasure ’ hidden beneath their personalities.