We look into the expositions from ancient India as also the modern presentations of awareness from a spiritual point of view. The idea is to deepen our understanding of how consciousness functions so that we can look at life from expansive perspectives. That would take one away from the inclination to fall a prey to such ego-driven activities as personal salvation.
In Sanatana Dharma, the ancient Indian spiritual development, a lot of attention was given to the matter of awareness and universal consciousness. They talked about the evolution of consciousness in human beings on this planet, characterized by expanding awareness. Three levels of awareness were recognized, namely, Dvaita, Visishtadvaita and Advaita. These Sanskrit words are translated respectively as Dualism, Qualified Non-dualism and Non-dualism. These are explained below.
Dualism is the state of awareness in which the ‘I’ is felt as separate from everything else. Thus, there is the “I here, God there” attitude. Division as the experiencer and the experienced, the achiever and the achieved etc are endemic to this awareness. Suffering in the form of grief, fear, anger and the like are inevitable as long as the dualistic awareness governs the psychology.
The Qualified Non-dualism is an intermediate state between Dualism and Non-dualism. This marks a more evolved state than the dualistic awareness. The actuality of Non-dualism is recognized here as the ultimate truth but the awareness is still not sufficiently advanced to be in that state. The level of awareness here moves people to be satwic – the Sanskrit word for empathic and righteous living.
Non-dualistic awareness is the state of consciousness in which the individual consciousness merges with the universal consciousness and so evolution reaches its culmination. The false impression of being a separate entity is washed away forever. That is the state of enlightenment attributed to the Buddha and Buddha-like people. When Jesus Christ said, “I and my Father in Heaven are one”, the implication was that of Non-dualism in the ultimate awareness.
An interesting issue here is that people who go through a near death experience (NDE) give expression to the state of mind that tallies with the explanation of the qualified non-dual state (Visihstadvaita). That is, they feel they are one with Divinity but, at the same time, sense the fact of them being separate. The episode of Evelyn vH (nderf.org) is a case in point. Evelyn says, “While out of my body I felt free, as though I had no boundaries. It seemed that I was part of everything and everything was part of me, as though we melted together and were one, but I was still a separate entity. It just doesn’t make any sense when I try to describe it.”
As yet another case, Victor Solow explains in his NDE (Reader’s Digest, October 1974) that during his experience there was this indescribable stillness and quiet in which the ‘I’ was part of a harmonious whole.
In modern times, we have heard of J. Krishnamurti exhorting us to understand the power of chioceless awareness. Eckhart Tolle talks about an aliveness which is a matter of intense awareness in the Now. The Masters say that in the culmination of the evolution, the bliss arises as a result of the consciousness being aware of itself. There is no duality as the knower and the known, the enjoyer and the enjoyed etc.
Now, the question is: How do all these help us in our practical life?
First of all, we see corroboration of the scriptural expositions in the profound impact of a near death experience. Most of those who go through the NDE have never been exposed to the explanations of awareness in Sanatana Dharma. Thus, the messages from NDE vindicate the truth behind the awareness levels explained in the ancient scriptures. The understanding of the evolution of awareness in human beings makes us treat people with respect because all are evolving and taking part in the vast scheme of things. There is the sensing of the fact that we are all co-passengers on the journey towards Divinity. We take help from those who have gone ahead of us and assist those who are behind us. No one is condemned. The deeper our awareness, the more empathic we become towards our fellow-beings. We understand our spiritual responsibility and so will not be wrapped up in such self-centered activities as personal salvation. That is why Nisragadatta Maharaj says that the lust for heaven is no different from the lust for the woman.