Play of Consciousness

Who are we? Why are we here? Are we free? If yes, what is the source of our freedom?

Science tells us we are machines, and looking from it our freedom is an illusion. In science there is no place for the spirit.

We are sure that there is something real to our inner world.

But ordinary science cannot reveal to us the nature of consciousness. This is because science can only tell us of the laws of objects which are expressed in language. With language we can only speak of objects.

But Consciousness is not an object.

It is the searchlight with which we see objects in our inner or outer spaces or through the medium of the senses. Consciousness is the perceiving subject.

Science, through its study of the brain in the search of the source of awareness can only reveal its limitations. It can show that the brain is like a machine but it cannot create a machine that is like the brain.

We face paradoxes; science has reached its limits.

That is where the 1200-year old Śiva Sūtra comes in. Vasugupta saw the Sūtra in a dream. A great classic of the Vedic tradition, it speaks to the mystery of consciousness.

The universal and the individual

Our phenomenal knowledge can only be in terms of the associations of the outer world. But the associations in themselves need something to bind them together. The binding is the mātṛkā, the womb of elementary sounds or phonemes associated with the resonances of the mind, which are components of the spoken language. It is the binding that makes it possible to understand words or symbols when they are strung together. Since the mind is able to comprehend the whole, that is the sentence or larger expressions, the phonemes themselvess cannot be used for comprehension. Since they lack the binding of the mātṛkā, computers cannot understand language.

Universal consciousness, as a unity, is Śiva or Bhairava. Śiva makes it possible for the material associations of the physical world to have meaning. The domain of the union of Śiva and the phenomenal world is an astonishing mystery.

The Ṛgveda speaks of two birds are sitting on a tree where one of them eats the sweet fruit and the other looks on without eating; one of the birds is the Universal Consciousness, the other the Individual Consciousness. In truth, there is only one bird; the other is just the image of the first as reflected in the fruit!

Although we cannot explain consciousness using science, we can intuitively grasp it. Our root consciousness — Śiva, Prakāśa, Cit — is what makes it possible to comprehend reality. It is the self-shining Light (Prakāśa) both creates the world and makes it understandable.

Consciousness has free will (svātantrya) and its reflection on itself is vimarśa, which represents the Goddess Śakti, or Creation. We can also say that the Light of Consciousness illuminates the associations in the mind by the power of the will or icchā śakti. The process of reflection is bliss (ānanda) and it is equivalent to vimarśa and svātantrya.

Awareness requires the idea of succession of cognitions or saṃvit (संवित्) that is “awareness-reality”; so another name for consciousness is saṃvitti. The awareness (saṃvit) occurs across the unfoldment of time (samaya) and, therefore, the mystery of Śiva can be resolved through meditation on samaya, where Śiva (Prakāśa or Light) and Śakti (Vimarśa or Knowledge) are one. Indeed, this forms the basis of a powerful spiritual practice called Samayācāra समयाचार.


Given these are universal principles, why isn’t everyone a genius? Because the lamp of consciousness is obscured by coverings created by habits and saṃskāras, by education and culture. To obtain knowledge, one must remove these coverings of the mind. Sometimes, some light streams in spontaneously through a crack into the mind, and that can be a life-changing epiphany.

The creativity of the mind springs from direct light pratibhā, प्रतिभा, and although this intuition springs from outside the mind, it is eventually manifested in terms of a sequence, krama, associated with time and space. This sequence is represented in terms of conceptual schema or sacred images.

The Self (Śiva) is shown as a dot, bindu, in the center of artistic maṇḍalas, where the rest of the diagram denotes evolutes of Śaktī in expansion. But how does the process begin? In the individual it starts with desire, which can operate at many different levels, not just the personal. In this unfolding, Śiva is addressed as Kāmeśvara, and together with Śaktī the conjoined form is Kāmakalā.

The individual who wishes to be creaative must become a yogi, and move the focus away from the gross elements, that constitute the body, to pure sensations (tanmātra), then to the senses, and finally to the source of awareness. The yogi endeavors to reach the fourth state (turīya) beyond the ordinary states of waking, dreaming, and deep sleep; turīya is the real source of creativity.

There is a paradox in yogic practice that people pay little attention to. While its purpose is to unite one’s personal self with universal consciousness, the union promised by yoga can only be achieved by disuniting oneself from the earlier self. It is the act (kriya) of removing traces (vāsanā) of discrete perceptions (vikalpa) born out of misconceptions (impurities, mala), which contract consciousness.

The bound and the free

The cranial vault has no light: it’s totally dark and there is no projection of images in the theatre of the mind. Yet the sensory information is bound (paś = to bind) in our perception, and we can say that the binding, pāśa, is the working of Śiva.

Remember that paśu (domesticated animals) are bound, paśum aśvyam gavyam (RV 5.61.5), and can be pulled by even a child. Humans are paśu for they too are led by simple stories like that of paradise or revolution or glory.

This explains why paśya is “to see” and Paśupati is another name of Śiva, for the binding of sense-impressions comes from consciousness, which also provides capacity for freedom.

Rudra-Śiva is called the ‘best of physicians’, bheṣaja śiromaṇi (शिरोमणि) or Vaidyanātha (RV 2.33.4). The eight names of Śiva given in Śivapurāṇa 1.20 are Hara (Destroyer), Maheśvara (Great Lord), Śambhu (Source of Bliss), Śūlapāṇi (carrier of Triśūla त्रिशूल), Pinākin (Archer), Śiva, Paśupati (Lord of beings), and Mahādeva (Great God).

Of these, the triśūla signifies the overarching connections between the three aspects of reality, that is body, mind, and consciousness, as well as the three guṇas. Śiva as Pinākin, the archer, sends out the flaming arrow that shines light in the dark chamber of the mind.

Śiva must also be seen as the complement to Viṣṇu, the pervader. If Viṣṇu is the universal order then Śiva is dynamic change. Taken together, they are a unity called Harihara.

The great sage Yājñavalkya in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad speaks of the eleven Rudras as different aspects of consciousness. These eleven find systematic representation in the categories of Kashmir Śaivism, by getting added to the 25 tattvas of Sāṅkhya for the total of 36. We see, it all goes back to the Vedas.

On language

Let us return to the mind. It can be in states that do not provide clarity. But if mind is the problem, it is also the only instrument that one has. The practitioner must leverage the perceptions of the mind, which are recounted in language, to transcend its limitations. Also since the mind is situated in the body, one must also address bodily states so as to be calm and focused.

Innate knowledge emerges from the mind, which is the mantra. It leads to the knowledge of the reality that lies beyond material associations.

Sound is made meaningful by strings of words. But what about the meaning of elementary sounds? This meaning is grasped as one opens the crack between the universal and the individual. The phonemes of the language are the womb, mātṛkā, that when joined with insight helps one to go beyond surface assocations.

The individual is transformed into a state where light of knowledge shows new pathways.

Detachment from associations is the key to the knowledge of the Self or the Universal Being. Be an outsider. By separating the senses from the source of consciousness, it becomes possible to reach to the heart of the Self.

Could meditation on Consciousness have led the ṛṣis to insights that remain beyond the pale of our current understanding of the nature of reality?

The Śiva Sūtra deals with questions such as: How do the senses emerge in the emergence of the mind? Could there be more senses than we possess?

The stories of Śiva are a retelling of the astonishing insights of the science of consciousness. We can enjoy the dance of Śiva.

The Śiva Sūtra has three movements:

  • The first movement is about universal consciousness (Śiva)
  • The second movement is about the emergence of innate knowledge (Śakti)
  • The third movement is about self-transformation (the individual)

These movements begin with the question of who we are.

We couldn’t be just our life-history, our memories, and our desires and aspirations. A lot of that is the accident of our birth and our social experience.

When we strip off layer upon layer of the social self, we come to the essential being. The process of the stripping of the social self is painful but it is liberating.

It is this process that transforms the individual. It is this process that is the greatest sacrifice.

The Śiva Sūtra requires instruction by a master. Without that it is like talking of the fast moving current in the middle of a raging river from a distance, when the only way to experience the force of the current is to be in it.

The Śiva Sūtra

  1. Śāmbhavopāya, Śiva’s View or the Path of Śiva
  2. 1.1 Consciousness is the self. चैतन्यमात्मा॥१॥

1.2 (Ordinary) knowledge consists of associations. ज्ञानं बन्धः॥२॥

1.3 Emanations of the source are embodied activity. योनिवर्गः कलाशरीरम्॥३॥

1.4 The ground of knowledge is mātṛkā (the elemental sounds). ज्ञानाधिष्ठानं मातृका॥४॥

1.5 The upsurge (of consciousness) is Bhairava. उद्यमो भैरवः॥५॥

1.6 By union with the energy centers one withdraws from the universe. शक्तिचक्रसन्धाने विश्वसंहारः॥६॥

1.7 Even during waking, sleep, and deep sleep one can experience the fourth state (transcending ordinary consciousness). जाग्रत्स्वप्नसुषुप्तभेदे तुर्याभोगसम्भवः॥७॥

1.8 (Sensory) knowledge is obtained in the waking state. ज्ञानं जाग्रत्॥८॥

1.9 Dreaming is free ranging of thoughts. स्वप्नो विकल्पाः॥९॥

1.10 Deep sleep is māyā, the (state of) delusion. अविवेको मायासौषुप्तम्॥१०॥

1.11 The experiencer of the three states is the lord of the senses. त्रितयभोक्ता वीरेशः॥११॥

1.12 The stages of the union are astonishing, vismaya. विस्मयो योगभूमिकाः ॥१२॥

1.13 The power of the will is the playful Umā. इच्छाशक्तिरुमा कुमारी॥१३॥

1.14 The observed is embodied. दृश्यं शरीरम्॥१४॥

1.15 By fixing the mind on its core one can comprehend the perceivable and emptiness. हृदये चित्तसङ्घट्टाद्दृश्यस्वापदर्शनम्॥१५॥

1.16 Or by contemplating the pure principle one is free of the power that binds animal instincts. शुद्धतत्त्वसन्धानाद्वापशुशक्तिः॥१६॥

1.17 Right discernment is the knowledge of the self. वितर्क आत्मज्ञानम्॥१७॥

1.18 The bliss of the sight is the joy of samādhi. लोकानन्दः समाधिसुखम्॥१८॥

1.19 The body emerges when the energies unite. शक्तिसन्धाने शरीरोत्पत्तिः॥१९॥

1.20 Elements united and elements separated and the universe is assembled. भूतसन्धानभूतपृथक्त्वविश्वसङ्घट्टाः॥२०॥

1.21 Pure knowledge leads to a mastery of the wheel (of energies). शुद्धविद्योदयाच्चक्रेशत्वसिद्धिः॥२१॥

1.22 The great lake (of space-time) is experienced through the power of mantra. महाह्रदानुसन्धानान्मन्त्रवीर्यानुभवः॥२२॥

2 Śāktopāya, the Process, the path of Śakti

2.1 The mind is a measure, mantra. चित्तं मन्त्रः॥१॥

2.2 Effort leads to attainment. प्रयत्नः साधकः॥२॥

2.3 The secret of mantra is the being of the body of knowledge. विद्याशरीरसत्ता मन्त्ररहस्यम्॥३॥

2.4 The emergence of the mind in the womb is like a dream based on inferior knowledge. गर्भे चित्तविकासोऽविशिष्टविद्यास्वप्नः॥४॥

2.5 When the knowledge of one’s self arises, one moves in the Sky of Consciousness — — Śiva’s state. विद्यासमुत्थाने स्वाभाविके खेचरी शिवावस्था॥५॥

2.6 The guru is the means. गुरुरुपायः॥६॥

2.7 The awakening of the wheel of mātṛkā (the elemental sounds). मातृकाचक्रसम्बोधः॥७॥

2.8 The body is the oblation. शरीरं हविः॥८॥

2.9 The food is knowledge. ज्ञानमन्नम्॥९॥

2.10 With the extinction of knowledge emerges the vision of emptiness.

विद्यासंहारे तदुत्थस्वप्नदर्शनम्॥१०॥

3 Āṇavopāya, the Individual’s Means

3.1 The mind is the self. आत्मा चित्तम्॥१॥

3.2 (Material) knowledge is bondage (association). ज्ञानं बन्धः॥२॥

3.3 Māyā is the lack of discernment of the principles of transformation (kalā). कलादीनां तत्त्वानामविवेको माया॥३॥

3.4 The transformation is stopped in the body. शरीरे संहारः कलानाम्॥४॥

3.5 The quieting of the vital channels, the mastery of the elements, the withdrawal from the elements, and the separation of the elements. नाडीसंहारभूतजयभूतकैवल्यभूतपृथक्त्वानि॥५॥

3.6 Perfection is through the veil of delusion. मोहावरणात्सिद्धिः॥६॥

3.7 Overcoming delusion while enjoying the world innate knowledge is obtained. मोहजयादनन्ताभोगात्सहजविद्याजयः॥७॥

3.8 Waking is the second ray (of consciousness). जाग्रद्द्वितीयकरः॥८॥

3.9 The self is the actor. नर्तक आत्मा॥९॥

3.10 The inner self is the stage. रङ्गोऽन्तरात्मा॥१०॥

3.11 The senses are the spectators. प्रेक्षकाणीन्द्रियाणि॥११॥

3.12 The pure state is achieved by the power of the intellect. धीवशात्सत्त्वसिद्धिः॥१२॥

3.13 Freedom (creativity) is achieved. सिद्धः स्वतन्त्रभावः॥१३॥

3.14 As here so elsewhere. यथा तत्र तथान्यत्र॥१४॥

3.15 Emission (of consciousness) is the way of nature and so what is not external is seen as external. विसर्गस्वाभाव्याद् अबहिः स्थितेस्तत्स्थितिः॥१५॥

3.16 Attention to the seed. बीजावधानम्॥१६॥

3.17 Seated one sinks effortlessly into the lake (of consciousness). आसनस्थः सुखं ह्रदे निमज्जति॥१७॥

3.18 The measure of consciousness fashions the world. स्वमात्रानिर्माणमापादयति॥१८॥

3.19 As (limited) knowledge is transcended, birth is transcended. विद्याविनाशे जन्मविनाशः॥१९॥

3.20 Māheśvarī and other mothers (sources) of beings reside in the “k” sound elements. कवर्गादिषु माहेश्वर्याद्याः पशुमातरः॥२०॥

3.21 The fourth (state of consciousness) should be used to oil the (other) three (states of consciousness). त्रिषु चतुर्थं तैलवदासेच्यम्॥२१॥

3.22 Absorbed (in his nature), one penetrates (the phonemes) with one’s mind. मग्नः स्वचित्तेन प्रविशेत्॥२२॥

3.23 A balanced breathing leads to a balanced vision. प्राणसमाचारे समदर्शनम्॥२३॥

3.24 The lower plane arises in the center (of the phoneme). मध्येऽवरप्रसवः॥२४॥

3.25 What was destroyed rises again by the joining (sandhāne) of perceptions (svapratyaya) with the objects (mātrā) of experience. मात्रास्वप्रत्ययसन्धाने नष्टस्य पुनरुत्थानम्॥२५॥

3.26 He becomes like Śiva. शिवतुल्यो जायते॥२६॥

3.27 The activity of the body is the vow. शरीरवृत्तिर्व्रतम्॥२७॥

3.28 The recitation of the mantras is the discourse. कथा जपः॥२८॥

3.29 Self-knowledge is the gift. दानमात्मज्ञानम्॥२९॥

3.30 He who is established is the means and knowledge. योऽविपस्थो ज्ञाहेतुश्च॥३०॥

3.31 The universe is the aggregate of his powers. स्वशक्तिप्रचयोऽस्य विश्वम्॥३१॥

3.32 Persistence and absorption. स्थितिलयौ॥३२॥

3.33 Even when this (maintenance and dissolution) there is no break (anirāsaḥ, in awareness) due to the perceiving subjectivity. तत्प्रवृत्तावप्यनिरासः संवेत्तृभावात्॥३३॥

3.34 The feeling of pleasure and pain is external. सुखदुःखयोर्बहिर्मननम्॥३४॥

3.35 The one who is free of that is alone (with consciousness). तद्विमुक्तस्तु केवली॥३५॥

3.36 A mass of delusion the mind is subject to activity. मोहप्रतिसंहतस्तु कर्मात्मा॥३६॥

3.37 When separateness is gone, action can lead to creation. भेदतिरस्कारे सर्गान्तरकर्मत्वम्॥३७॥

3.38 The power to create is based on one’s own experience. करणशक्तिः स्वतोऽनुभवात्॥३८॥

3.39 That which precedes the three (states of consciousness) vitalizes them. त्रिपदाद्यनुप्राणनम्॥३९॥

3.40 The same stability of mind (should permeate) the body, senses and external world. चित्तस्थितिवच्छरीरकरणबाह्येषु॥४०॥

3.41 Craving leads to the extroversion of the inner process. अभिलाषाद्बहिर्गतिः संवाह्यस्य॥४१॥

3.42 When established in pure awareness, (the craving) is destroyed and the (empirical) individual ceases to exist. तदारूढप्रमितेस्तत्क्षयाज्जीवसङ्क्षयः॥४२॥

3.43 Although cloaked in the elements that are not free, like the Lord, one is supreme. भूतकञ्चुकी तदा विमुक्तो भूयः पतिसमः परः॥४३॥

3.44 The link with the vital breath is natural. नैसर्गिकः प्राणसम्बन्धः॥४४॥

3.45 Concentrating on the center within the nose, what use are the left and the right channels or suṣumnā? नासिकान्तर्मध्यसंयमात् किमत्र सव्यापसव्यसौषुम्नेषु॥४५॥

3.46 May (the individual) merge (in the Lord) once again. भूयः स्यात्प्रतिमीलनम्॥४६॥

ॐ तत् सत्

©Subhash Kak, 1999, 2018

Citation information:

Subhash Kak, The Śiva Sūtra: Play of Consciousness. Brahmavidyā: The Adyar Library Bulletin, Vol. 85, 2021



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