By Swami Shraddhananda
Coming to the United States from India in 1957, Swami Shraddhananda was head of the Vedanta Society in Sacramento from 1970 until his death in 1996. He was the author of Seeing God Everywhere and Story of an Epoch as well as many articles published in both English and Bengali journals. “Inner Light” is found in Seeing God Everywhere.
What is the function of light? To reveal objects covered by darkness, and to illumine areas that are hidden. When we bring light into a dark room, we at once see everything in the room.
We often metaphorically assign light’s function to mental and moral levels. We speak, for example, of the light of conscience. When the mind is troubled and cannot decide what is right or wrong, we say that a kind of darkness has blocked the mind. We need an inner light to show us the way. We call it conscience. Like light, it dispels the shadows of confusion and promotes clear action. Similarly, we could say that love is a light. When a person is lonely and has no one to care for him or her, life is really dark. But if someone appears who can understand and care for this person, the darkness disappears. Having new hope and joy, the world at once becomes meaningful with the light of love.
We could also speak of the light of compassion, the light of truth, the light of peace, and the light of knowledge. In each case a particular difficulty that can be compared to darkness is lifted and a positive experience of hope, joy, and fulfillment comes into being. These inner lights are more powerful than physical light. My world may be dark with regard to material possessions, yet my life may be shining in joy and peace because of the moral and spiritual light that has been kindled within me.
The most important inner light is the light of Consciousness. The Upanishads call it our true Self. It is the central light in the core of our being and it illumines all experience—including that of physical light. Even though we experience Consciousness all the time, it is very difficult to understand its real nature. Consciousness is the true essence of all existence. It has neither beginning nor end. It is eternal, infinite, and ever shining. What we call physical light—the light of the sun or of the moon, lightning’s light, the light of the stars—all these lights are “illumined” (that is, these lights are known) by our inmost light—Consciousness.
Vedanta classifies normal experience into three levels of consciousness: waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. When we are awake, consciousness is always associated with some object—a sight, a sound, a smell, a thought, or an emotion. Anything we know—externally or internally—first has to be experienced through consciousness. When we look into the mind, we see a ceaseless stream of consciousness or “experience” in continual motion. We sometimes refer to it as objective consciousness since it is related to objects.
When we dream a similar thing happens, but in a different way: when we dream, there are links of knowledge and experience just as in the waking state; but when we come back to the waking state, we see that those experiences were not real. The most absurd things happened which we somehow accepted in dreams as real. But so long as the dream lasted, it seemed as true as the waking state.
Who is the dreamer? It cannot be the waking mind. How can the rational, waking mind, which knows the pros and cons of everything, be fooled by the incoherent occurrences of the dream state? It seems that when we go into the dream state, another mind is functioning, and that dream-mind is also rational—on the dream level. The dream-mind is a great creator and can add the appearance of reality to ideas. The ideas that emerge from the dream-mind are objective realities just as in the waking state.
In deep sleep there is also the light of Consciousness. Deep sleep is an experience of peace and tranquillity. We do not have objective experiences in sleep as we have in the waking or dream states. We not only forget our bodies when we dream, we also forget our worries, anxieties, duties, and responsibilities. This periodic forgetfulness of the waking identity is extremely necessary, not only for our bodies but for our minds as well. The mind’s incessant movement—as we experience it in the waking and dream states—is a tiresome burden. We need relief from it. Sleep gives us relief; it is a pause from “knowing.”
In sleep we completely forget everything. We are not conscious of the body, mind, ego, or of the past or the future or anything else. When we return to the waking state, we say to ourselves, “Oh, what a wonderful sleep I had! I wish I could have slept two hours longer!”
We do not scrutinize and analyze our sleep experiences deeply. In a naive way we say, “Oh, my sleep was so peaceful. I was so relaxed.” We do not ask: What was this “I”? Was this the waking “I”? The waking “I” always needs an objective experience: sight, sound, smell, and so on. It is intensely busy. The dreaming “I” also needs either the “objects” of memories from waking, or those of its own creation. In deep sleep there is neither the waking “I” nor the dreaming “I.” It is another phase of the personality. Recalling the sleep experience, we know that we did not vanish during that interval. In this phase of consciousness we had no objective knowledge as we do in the waking or dream states; there was an implicit awareness of self-existence and peace without the mediation of what we usually call the mind.
Vedanta advises spiritual seekers to coordinate and analyze these three experiences of waking, dreaming, and deep sleep, and from this, find out their real identity. A close examination of the three states gives us the insight that in the human personality there must be a common element in the waking, dreaming, and deep-sleep states.
This common element is the true perceiver of the experiences in these three states. In dream, a person does not remember the waking self; in deep sleep, both the waking and dream selves are obliterated. Yet we nevertheless feel an inexplicable continuity of identity throughout the three states.
This perceiver, the witness of the three states, is the inmost Light in us—the Light of eternal Consciousness. Vedanta scriptures repeatedly describe the glory of this Light, which is our true Self. The consciousness that we experience in our waking and dream states, and even that which underlies our deep sleep, is a distorted, broken consciousness. Our true Self is pure Consciousness—Consciousness without an objective content. It is not bound by time or space or natural laws. It is the most fundamental Reality in this world or any other.
The sixth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita prescribes a basic way to find this inner Light. Through the practice of concentration, we have to withdraw the mind from distracting thoughts and direct it to the Atman—the shining Self within us.
A little faith is necessary, because in the beginning, we have no idea how to reach this inner Light. But if we have patience, perseverance, and devotion to the ideal, the mind develops inwardness and transparency, and slowly becomes able to touch the spiritual Reality within.
Self-knowledge can also be attained by reflective reasoning, or vichara. The Kena Upanishad begins with this question: “Who is it that enables the mind to think, the prana to function, the ears to hear, the eyes to see?” The answer is found by discriminating between the “seer” and the “seen”—the changeless and the changing. The senses and the mind are in a constant state of motion, but the Self is the steady witness. Brain activity is possible only because of Consciousness, not vice versa. Consciousness is knowledge without any objective content. We are finally forced to see that all objective knowledge has its source in the Self—the inmost light of Consciousness.
In all periods of India’s spiritual history there have been men and women who have discovered the truth of the Self. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad we read the experience of the sage Vamadeva: “It was I who have become the sun and Manu.” This “I” is not the waking “I” or the dreaming “I,” but the true Self—the infinite Reality, eternal Consciousness, Existence, and Knowledge. Another sage proclaims in the Svetasvatara Upanishad:
Hear, O ye children of immortality, even gods and angels, I have discovered my true Self, that ancient, infinite Being within my heart, that Light of all lights beyond all darkness. By finding Him, one can conquer death. There is no other way.
Immortality is not a theological concept. It is not a state that we attain after death. It is a truth we can know here in this very life. We have to find for ourselves that we are really timeless and deathless. As long as the mind remains in maya, ignorance, we seem to be in a world of phenomena with beginnings and endings. But when we have discovered the changeless Truth, death loses its terror. The eternal light of Consciousness is indeed immortality. Whatever is, is in the Self; the Self is the totality of existence. The Taittiriya Upanishad says:
When a person finds existence and unity in the Self … then only is fear transcended. So long as there is the least idea of separation from Him, there is fear.
God is often described as light; He is the light of Consciousness. Who but a God of light could have created this universe of light? All created things are objects of knowledge; they shine in consciousness. Time, space, matter, energy, and life are, according to Vedanta, forms of the fundamental Reality that is Consciousness.
When we think of ourselves as material bodies, we are really small. We are constantly afraid of the impact of matter and energy. Our bodies are just little clods of earth. How insignificant they are compared to the vast outer universe! Similarly, when we look upon ourselves as psychological entities, we are obsessed by a sense of littleness and fear. The individual mind has very little capacity of understanding. It is always disturbed by tensions and passions. Naturally we feel insignificant and frustrated—how little we know compared to the vast accumulation of human knowledge! But when we see our true Self as all-embracing, pure Consciousness, the Light of all lights, our identity will then not limit itself to the body or the mind; we will become limitless. The world will not terrify us any more. We will attain the source of all knowledge.
The function of light is to reveal: any portion of knowledge is really a kind of light. The mind has innumerable dark chambers; those who have never studied biology have a region of darkness in the mind as far as biology is concerned. If they study that subject, the chamber will become more or less illumined. The knowledge of astronomy can similarly become another illumined chamber. All the knowledge we acquire is a sort of progressive, yet nonetheless partial, illumination of the mind.
But Self-knowledge is total illumination. As the Mundaka Upanishad declares, by knowing the Self nothing remains unknown to us. When we have reached the inmost Light, we shall know that there is no more darkness anywhere.