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State Prior to Consciousness
Vivek: Dear Ram, I am having trouble understanding what Nisargadatta Maharaj meant when he said the Absolute is the state prior to Consciousness or prior to sat chit ananda.
Ram: If Maharaj said this, he was wrong. Because someone knows they are consciousness does not make them a proper guru. Consciousness is not a state and reality is non-dual consciousness, so there are no states. I think it was a translator’s error. I think what Maharaj meant was that prior to reflected consciousness, the subtle body, which people think of as themselves and as conscious – although it is actually an inert reflection – is pure consciousness, or the “absolute.” The language in this statement is completely experiential. The self, consciousness, is presented as a state. The implication is that the seeker has to transcend consciousness to get to the absolute. But there is only the absolute if by this word he means consciousness, so no transcendence is possible.
There is a slight error in your question because awareness and consciousness are the nature of the self. In other words, they are synonyms. What I think you mean is that consciousness is self-aware, that it needs no media other than itself to know itself. It is its own means of knowledge. You know yourself with yourself alone. If you think you don’t then you need another means to strip away your ignorance. Vedanta is such a means.
Vivek: If awareness is the only tool you have to understand the contents of consciousness, how can one be aware of the absolute?
Ram: You cannot be aware of the absolute, because you are the absolute. There is no other possibility, because reality is consciousness. Awareness is self-aware, there is no one other than it to understand it. “Absolute” is a very bad word to indicate consciousness because it implies a relationship with something other than itself. It implies relative. Insofar as the world exists, it is relative to consciousness in the sense that it is consciousness appearing to be something other than what it is, i.e. relative. The essence of liberation is understanding the relationship between the absolute and the relative. Better terms are satya, awareness, and mithya, reflected awareness.
Vivek: Also, does the Absolute exist in deep sleep?
Ram: It depends on what you mean by “in.” Consciousness – let’s forget the word “absolute,” as it is misleading – is non-dual, so nothing exists in it and it exists independent of everything. Deep sleep is consciousness experiencing itself through a subtle vritti (thought) called prajna, the sleeper. Deep sleep is in consciousness – you – in the sense that it is known by you, not by Vivek, although Vivek can infer its existence when the sleeper entity becomes the waking state entity. It is not possible to sleep without consciousness. Read my commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad at my website.
Vivek: My teacher instructed me not to lose the presence, or the I AM. What do you think of this instruction?
Ram: With all due respect, your teacher has a funny idea about the presence, or the I AM. How can you lose yourself? He is laboring under the spell of the myth of experiential enlightenment, typical of the Neo-Advaitins. The self is not something to be gained or lost. If you can gain or lose it, it is not real. Moksa is the hard and fast understanding “I am consciousness/awareness.” It destroys the idea of oneself as an experiencing entity, someone who can gain or lose anything. This person seems to think that the experiencer is actually conscious, that it is a conscious doer. It isn’t. As I said above, it is only an inert reflection of awareness. So how is it going to hold onto anything?
Vivek: I look forward to meeting you.
~ Best regards, Ram