The Witness Consciousness – Sakshi8 min read

Many people must have had the experience of stopping the alarum clock in the morning and then immediately falling asleep again and being caught up in a harassing dream. One is desperately trying to get to work on time and everything is going wrong. First one finds oneself half-dressed in the middle of the street, then the train is late, then it goes in completely the wrong direction. The situation is becoming desperate, when suddenly a faint awareness begins to dawn that this is not real, and gradually the mind extricates itself from the dream tangle to face the waking situation that one is late. Here we have a clear perception of the transition from the dream state to the waking state, and when we begin to consider how that perception is made possible we are faced with a deep philosophical problem.

There are, in fact, three states of consciousness which are universally experienced, together with the transitions between those states : waking, dream and deep sleep. We are all convinced that we pass through these states. But how do we know ? What is it that experiences them as modifications of the same mind ? You may say “ the mind itself ”, but surely this is self-contradictory. The mind is always in one or other of the three states, and since the states come in succession they cannot know each other. And if the mind is changing from one form to another, it is meaningless to say that it also remains the same, which is what is implied of an entity which is able to unify differences. The mind, in either the waking or the dream state, acts as a unity in regard to the objects it perceives. But it cannot do so in regard to its own states.

It must be admitted, then, that the mind does not perceive and unify its own states, but that something else does, something which pervades and yet transcends all three states. This the Advaita Vedantins call Sakshi, the Witness-Consciousness.

Now let us consider the common experience of memory. Memory is the act of mentally reliving an experience which has passed. Since the original experience is no longer before the mind, it must be admitted that it is retained in a subtle form and later revived. In every act of memory there are therefore three factors—the original experience, its subtle impression and its revival in the form of memory. These three modifications of the mind occur at different points of time and therefore they cannot be aware of each other. Yet there is something that recognizes the causal relationship between them. We know that we are remembering our own experiences, not somebody else’s.

What is it that reveals experience, impression and memory as forms of the same mind ? It must be something which is outside time, change and causation—the eternal, immutable Witness-Consciousness, Sakshi. It is by virtue of this consciousness that we are able to determine the advisability of engaging in or avoiding various activities, having previously experienced the cause-effect relationship between the activity and the pleasure or pain which follows it. Were it not for the transcendent Witness-Consciousness we would not be aware of the invariable connection between the two.

There is yet another indication of the presence of Sakshi, the experience which the Vedantins call “ stream-cognition ”. Suppose one looks at a rose for a short time in complete absorption. Afterwards one remembers : “ For several minutes I was conscious of the beauty of that rose and nothing else ”. In other words, there were four factors involved in the experience—the consciousness of:

(a) the rose,

(b) the ego perceiving it,

(c)a period of time in which the perception persisted,

and (d) ignorance of any other object.

How can we explain the unity of these four factors in the one experience ? The mind cannot account for it, as it was engaged solely in perceiving the rose, or, to express it in Vedantic terms, it was during that period transformed into the form of the rose. Yet the fact remains that something revealed and related the experience of the rose to the ego perceiving it, the length of time during which it was perceived and the awareness that nothing else was cognized during that period. Therefore we are again led to the conclusion that there is a conscious principle in man which transcends the mind, yet reveals and unifies all its operations. Being the witness of time, change and multiplicity, it is itself eternal, immortal, non-dual. Sakshi is the ‘only reality—the Self (Atman) of man, the Brahman of the universe.

This can be understood more clearly if it is remembered that Sakshi alone is svayamprakasha—self-luminous—the revealer of all things but revealed by none. The sun is luminous, but not self-luminous, since it is revealed by a higher light, that of the mental consciousness. And the mind itself, as has been shown, requires the light of Sakshi to reveal and unite its states and modifications. The mental consciousness is not self- revealed. Although the mind, in co-operation with the senses, possesses the power of knowledge, of sight, and so forth, yet Sakshi is described as “ the Knower of knowledge, the Witness of vision”.

In his commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Shri Shankara explains that there are two kinds of vision, ordinary and real. The ordinary vision, that of the mind connected with the eye, is an act, and as such it has a beginning and an end. It is also coloured by the objects which it perceives. But the real vision is the eternal vision of the Self —Sakshi, the self-luminous, immortal consciousness which reveals the beginning and end of the intermittent consciousness of the mind and is not touched by any of its changes. It is like the sun, that shines alike on palaces and hovels with no diminution of its splendour. What reveals the Self ? It is self-revealed.

This does not mean that it objectifies itself, which would imply a division in it, but that it is the ultimate light, which is not only the revealer but also the ground and support of all that exists. For since it is the only self-luminous entity, it follows that it is the only self-existent Reality. Nothing else can be said to have independent existence, since the whole universe, physical and mental, depends for its manifestation on this ultimate light of consciousness. “ It shining, everything else shines ; this universe shines by its light ”. (Katha Upanishad). The scientist Jeans was approaching this truth when he reflected : “ The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine ”.

Why do we all perceive a common external world ? Because the same consciousness supports and illumines both our individual selves and it. The unenlightened man feels convinced that his consciousness is limited and separate from that of other people, but this is because he has forgotten that he is Sakshi, the Witness, and has become identified with something witnessed—his own reflection in the limited mind. The moon reveals all, including its own bright reflection in a little pool, but the light from the reflected moon, although essentially one with its source, has a very limited radius. So the mind’s power of revealing is not universal, but extends only to the particular objects to which it is directed ; other objects, though existent, are not known in the case of any particular individual without contact with his mind. Yet here again, an analysis of our experience indicates the all-revealing light of Sakshi. The Advaitins point out that we are aware not only of the known, but also of the unknown.

It cannot be held that we merely infer the previous unknownness of an object after it has become known. If this were the case, then we would never be impelled to take steps to remove our lack of knowledge. But the reverse is true—we adjust our position, focus our attention, take up special instruments in order to remove our ignorance. No matter how extensive our knowledge may be, we are still convinced that there is something more to be known.

Therefore it must be admitted that we are aware of the unknown, but not by means of the mind and the senses for their function is to produce knowledge. It is Sakshi which reveals both the mental knowledge and the unknownness, or ignorance, of what is not illumined by the mind. If the mind had no reflected light, then all would be revealed as unknown, including the mind itself, and this is in fact what happens in deep sleep, for then the mind withdraws so completely into itself that it no longer reflects the light of Sakshi. In deep sleep, all is unknown, but the Knower remains.

It is not that there is no experience—the eternal light of the Witness still shines, revealing only massed ignorance, and at the same time imprinting a trace of its infinite glory on the sleeping mind, which will remember it as bliss when it awakes. Gradually the mind unfolds from sleep, and as it does so it again reflects the light from Sakshi. The ego makes its appearance once more, and so do the objects around it, as it envelops them in turn with its light.

It will be seen from the foregoing that the Advaitins regard ignorance not merely as absence of knowledge but as a positive principle of nescience, called maya, of which we are all aware and which prevents us from realising the truth of our own immortal, infinite, ever-blissful Self.

Maya is universal, but its stronghold for the individual is his own mind, and it is at that point that he must break through it. For in the mind is the reflected ray of the immortal Self, and through meditation it can be withdrawn to find identity with its source, Sakshi.

When this practice has been preceded by the discipline of constantly taking the stand of the Witness, in disidentification from the mental consciousness and indifference to its moods, it finally leads to the highest realization which gives liberation in this life.