The Upanishads and Indian Psychology: Exploring the ancient wisdom of the mind and consciousness

The term UPANISHAD means ‘Sit near the teacher to gain knowledge.’ The other meaning of the Upanishad includes ‘Secret knowledge.’

The Upanishads are a series of philosophical works in the Hindu religion. The UPANISHADS are a set of ancient Hindu texts that contains dense and complex teaching on the nature of Reality, the Self, and God. It offers profound insights into what it means to be human and connected to the universe and our inner self.

There are over 200 UPANISHADS, out of which 108 Upanishads are well known. 10 Upanishads are considered the most significant: Isha, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, and Brinhadaranyaka.

The basic teachings of the Upanishads are how to find true happiness. Therefore, for those who feel that they have everything in life, and yet there is some vacuum somewhere and something missing; for every such person, it would be very useful to start the study of the Upanishads.

The Upanishads are secret and sacred messages found within the Vedas. They are composed between 800-300 BCE. The teaching of the Upanishads is concerned with Brahman, Karma, and the Atman.

Upanishads say that human life is completely fulfilled with the realization of Atman.

The states of Consciousness

Consciousness(Chaitanya) vests not in the body or the mind but in the ‘self’. Pure consciousness is not an attribute of the Mind. It is beyond Mind, being independent of it. Consciousness is an attribute of the Pure Self or the Ultimate Reality.

Consciousness pervades the entire cosmos and is differentiated in the universe only in degrees, influenced by the three Gunas – Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas.

Upanishads discovered three distinct states of mind

  • Wakeful State – Jagrat
  • Dream State – Svapna
  • Deep Sleep State – Susupti

Among the list of 108 Upanishads, Mandukya Upanishad explains four states of the soul.

  1. The waking state – Vaisvanara
    • In the waking state we are bound by the fetters of sense-perception and desire, cognise external objects.
  2. The Dream State – Taijasa
    • In a dream state, we have greater freedom as the self makes a world of its own, out of the materials of the waking world
    • In the dream state, we take the dream images of delight and oppressional as real, we produce them out of ourselves.
  3. The Dreamless Sleep – Prajna
    • The self is liberated from the empirical world. Full of bliss and enjoys bliss.
  4. The State of Spiritual Consciousness – Turiya
    • Turiya do not cognise the internal object, do not cognise the external object, not cognises both of them, not a mass of cognition, not cognitive, not non-cognitive.
    • It is unseen
    • Incapable of being spoken
    • Unthinkable
    • Unnameable
    • The essence of the knowledge of oneself

Brhadaranyaka Upanishad

There are just two states of a person – The state of being in this world and the state of being in the other world. There us an intermediate third state, that of being in sleep (dream)

The self moves from one state to another like a large fish moving along both banks of a river.

The self is by nature, eternal, free, enlightened, and pure.

There are three states of consciousness in Brhadaranyaka Upanishad

  • Wakeful State
  • Dream State
  • Deep Sleep State

Generalization about the States of Consciousness

  1. There are three states of mind
    • The wakeful
    • The dream
    • The deep sleep
  2. The self moves from one state to another and returns back
    • Eg; Wakeful to dream, dream to deep sleep, deep sleep to dream again, and dream to a wakeful state. This is one complete cycle.
  3. About Dream State
    • In dream, we have the reproduction of the wakeful experience
    • The objects and events seen in the dream have no real existence. There are only the projection of the mind
    • Dreams are creative also. Sometimes we experience in dreams, which has not been experienced before
    • The dreaming self is subject to pleasure and pain, which is not real
    • The bodily defects do not occur in dreams. A lame person will walk, a deaf will hear, and a one-eyed person will seem to have both eyes in a dream. The reverse also is true. A healthy person may find himself ill in a dream.
  4. About Deep Sleep
    • In deep sleep, the self withdraws from the body and rests in the space within the heart. It restrains all the senses and the mind
    • The self glides into the arteries and becomes one with the heart.
    • The state is in a state of peace free from desire
    • The self is in a state of bliss. The self is united with its own self and enjoys pure delight.

Factors of Personality

According to Upanishads, the essence of human personality is Atman, which is the same as Brahman. Atman, in conjunction with gross and subtle bodies, becomes subject to the experience of pleasure and pain. It is engrossed in five types of sheaths (Kosa)

  1. Annamaya Kosa – Material sheath
  2. Pranamaya Kosa – Vital sheath
  3. Manomaya Kosa – Mental sheath
  4. Vijnanmaya Kosa – Intellectual sheath
  5. Anandamaya Kosa – Spiritual sheath
  • The first sheath- the person consists of the essence of food. The gross physical body is the product of food
  • The second sheath – different from and within it is the self that consists of life. The breath is the life of all beings.
  • The third sheath – different from and within it is the self consisting of the mind
  • The fourth sheath – different from and within it is the self consisting of intellect, which directs all deeds.
  • The fifth sheath – different from and within that which consists of intellect is the self consisting of bliss

The self is manifested as the ego or the jivatman in these five koshas or sheaths. The true self is beyond five sheaths.

Mental Function

AS Upanishads discuss human personality as a whole, there is no separate account of mental functioning.

The Concept of mind in Upanishads are

  • Manas- Mind
  • Prajna- Wisdom
  • Vijnana- Consciousness
  • Sankalpa- Subconscious Mind
  • Citta- State of mind

The hierarchy of mental functions is given below

  1. The five sensory organs (Jnanendriya) and the five motor organs (Karmendriya)
  2. Manas or perceiving mind, the coordinating organs of perception
  3. Buddhi or vijnana, intellect, the higher organ of thought, discrimination, reasoning, and intelligence
  4. Ahankara, is the self-sense, the organ of the personal ego.
  5. Citta, the subconscious mind, the storehouse of past impression
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Reference from Indian psychology by safaya
Mental function in Aitareya Upanishad

It discuss that the whole universe is guided by an intelligent force. The intelligence works in human beings the mind and assumes the following forms

  • Consciousness (Sanjnanam)
  • Judgment (ajnanam)
  • Ideation (Vijnanam)
  • Wisdom (Medha)
  • Insight (Drstir)
  • Steadfastness (Dhrtir)
  • Opinion (Matir)
  • Thoughtfulness (Manisa)
  • Impulse (Jutih)
  • Memory (Smrtih)
  • Volition (Samkalpah)
  • Purpose (Kratur)
  • Will to live (Asuh)
  • Desire (Kamo)
  • Self-Control (Vasa)
Mental Function in Brhadaranyaka Upanishad
  • Desire- Kamah
  • Detemination- Samkalpah
  • Doubt- Vicikitsa
  • Faith- Sraddha
  • Lack of faith- Asraddha
  • Steadfastness- Dhrtir
  • Lack of Steadfastness- Adhrtir
  • Shame- Hrir
  • Intellect- Dhir
  • Fear- Bhir

Higher Mental Powers and Yoga

The Upanishads suggest that beyond the present conscious state, there is a higher state, a superconscious state, in which the devotee transcends the limitations of his earthly, etheric, mental intellectual beatific sheaths, in which he has the vision of the entire universe, and in which he discovers through his divine eye of the unity of the universe.

The self is not to be sought through the senses. People who seek the self close their eyes to the phenomenal variety and turn inward to the nonmental reality. In this state of introversion the five senses ceases, the intellect`does not stir, one become undisturbed and that is the state of yoga.

The spiritual powers can be attained through meditation. He who meditates on Brahman becomes endowed with splendour. He gets unlimited freedom. Auspicious sounds will hasten to him and delight him. His rivals perish. To him there is no darkness, there is neither day nor night. He is neither male or female. He verily becomes fearless.

Self-realization is the ultimate goal of life. The significance of mediation is emphasised over and over again as an instrument of attaining bliss. Mediatation is directed to the highest being within and to the outer objects. When the mind is dissolved, bliss results.


Yoga is a system of controlling thoughts. The practice of yoga has been explained in Sveta-Svatara Upanishad. According to this scripture- the wise man crosses by the boat of Brahman the fearful dangerous stream by

  • Holding the body steady with the three upper parts ( Chest, neck, and head) erect.
  • Causing the senses and the mind to enter into the heart.
  • Repressing his breath, breathing through the nostrils with diminished breath.

The effects of Yoga are

  • There is no longer sickness, old age or death.
  • Lightness, healthiness, steadiness, clearness of complexion, pleasantness of voice, the sweetness of odor and slight excretion are its results
  • The embodied one sees clearly the real nature of the self, as in a clean mirror and thus he is released from all fetters.

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