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Deep sleep awareness

Deep sleep awareness
by Shashikala Padaki

posted June 3, 2003

Sponsored by the Infinity Foundation

This article aims to investigate the implications of an individual’s deep sleep awareness (susupti) according to Ramanuja the Visistadvaita philosopher of Hinduism. There are three sections in this article: the brief introduction to Ramanuja, the traditional view of deep sleep awareness in Indian philosophy, and Ramanuja’s understanding of the deep sleep awareness, which differs from the Advaita position.

In the Upanisads susupti, the deep sleep or dreamless sleep awareness of the individual is given systematic place, particularly in the Vedantasutras. The meaning of the term ‘susupti‘ becomes diversified under various commentators due to their inner belief and their understanding. The 8th century Advaitin Sankara (influenced by his teacher Goudapada,) analysed the experience of susupti in his philosophy. Sankara claimed that there is only one absolute reality, such as ‘pure consciousness’. In other words, Advaita believed that there is no real existence of the individual and so its experience of the material world is illusory. In his analysis of the individual’s deep sleep awareness Sankara highlights individual’s position not being able to experience ‘I’. According to Sankara, the Advaitin, during the state of deep sleep, there is unity of the self that he claims is ‘pure consciousness’. Ramanuja challenges the existence of pure consciousness, on the basis of his analysis of ‘susupti‘; Ramanuja’s aim is to show that the notion of ‘I’ persists not only in the state of deep sleep but also in the state of mukti, the freedom. However, this paper mainly focuses on the aspect of deep sleep awareness alone.

Ramanuja’s understanding of deep sleep awareness or consciousness i.e., susupti is my concern for several reasons. First, the recent debate on ‘dreamless sleep’, in which scientists, psychologists and neurologists have participated, appears to continue or ignore the Hindu debate from long ago concerning the nature of the individual self. Second, his understanding of the nature of the self or atman, that supports his philosophical doctrines, is important to know how Ramanuja establishes his theory of the self to support his doctrines of the reality. For Ramanuja, the world and the individual selves have real existence along with the Supreme Self, in contrast to Advaita philosophy of Sankara, for whom the absolute reality is ‘pure consciousness’ with out the second; and the phenomenal world and plurality of the selves are an illusion.

The brief introduction to Ramanuja:

Ramanuja1 who was born at Sriperumbudur to a Tamil couple Bhudevi and Asuri Kesava Perumal is considered to be ‘the greatest champion of theism in India’2. He was influenced by the Tamil Alvars and is the successor of ‘acarya‘ (teacher) Yamuna, and the great disciple of Mahapurna who himself was disciple of Yamuna, and the founder of the Visistadvaita philosophy that is said to be a ‘religious and philosophical tradition which upholds the full reality of a personal God, the real existence of individual selves and the objective reality of the physical world’.3 Ramanuja’s school is distinguished from other forms of Vaisnavism, such as Gaudiya-vaisnava and Madva. For Visistadvaita ‘Sri‘, the wife of the Lord Narayana or Visnu, is the very embodiment of divine grace. She mediates between the individual self and the Supreme Self. ‘Sri’ is considered to be the first teacher (adi guru) from whom the guru tradition descends; and hence named as ‘Srivaisnavism‘. S.M.S. Chari points out that ‘Srivaisnavism, the oldest monotheistic religion of India having its roots in the Vedas and Upanisads, has passed through several stages of development before it was expounded by Ramanuja as a full fledged theological system with a strong philosophical basis’.4

Ramanuja was a realist for whom, all sentient beings and all non-sentient beings of the material world are understood to be real along with Isvara, the Supreme Being. His position claims to bring unity or oneness among the individual selves, the material world and Isvara or Brahman. In fact Ramanuja says all individual selves and the world constitute the body of Brahman. Ramanuja’s unique theory of the nature of the individual self, atman, is that atman is essentially aware of itself, and aware of other things because of its relation with consciousness. Atman and consciousness are different to each other, but there is a relation between them, which Ramanuja says, makes them inseparable. Ramanuja’s understanding is that atman has consciousness as its essential nature and as an attribute as well. While atman is aware of itself, in its embodied status it also undergoes various states of consciousness, such as, waking, dreaming and deep sleep. He believes that the individual’s experience of the various states is, due to the functioning attributive consciousness of the self.

Ramanuja has an interesting discussion on ‘consciousness’ in his text called Sribhasyam, his commentary on the Vedantasutras. Ramanuja in the Mahabhapurva-paksa5 portion of the text puts forward the Advaita view first, and then discusses ‘deep sleep’ awareness. This discussion is in the form of a debate with his opponent Sankara. Ramanuja’s understanding of consciousness is necessary to deal with his understanding of ‘deep sleep’ or dreamless sleep awareness.

Ramanuja’s understanding of consciousness differs from Sankara’s view of ‘pure consciousness’ For Sankara jivatma, the individual self’s consciousness is identical with consciousness of paramatman, i.e., Isvara or Brahman. This can be demonstrated by analyzing individual’s deep sleep awareness where the individual losing sense of “I” temporarily become one with the absolute without the second. Ramanuja distinguishes consciousness into two types: substantive consciousness and attributive consciousness, dharmijnana and dharmabhutajnana respectively. Why Ramanuja distinguishes consciousness in this way is quite clear when his philosophical doctrines are examined. Ramanuja’s aim is to support his theory of the self and its relation to consciousness. If an individual self is aware of itself it is because of the essential nature of the Self. The essential nature of the self, for Ramanuja is substantive consciousness. The self, apart from its own awareness or knowledge, has other knowledge including knowledge of the possible states of consciousness because of the self’s attributive consciousness. Ramanuja provides a special character to this attributive consciousness, i.e., to expand and contract. The attributive consciousness with its ability of expansion goes to the object, fetches the knowledge and with its ability of contraction comes back to the self and provides the knowledge. Further, Ramanuja characterizes the attributive consciousness of the self as neither ‘sentient’ (cetan) like the self, nor ‘insentient’ (jada) like the material world. It has both characters. While it makes the “self-knowing self” to be knowledgeable of others, it does not know itself. Therefore, the relationship between the substantive and attributive consciousness is such that they are not one and the same but they are inseparable. This special character of the substantive and attributive consciousness plays an important role in Ramanuja’s awareness of the deep sleep awareness.

The traditional View of Deep sleep awareness in Indian Philosophy:

Often after a wonderful sleep, we feel very good, experience lightness, freshness, and relief of relieving the stress of our body and mind. While deep sleep has its own value, its experience is different to any other experiences of this world. Generally people concerned with any experience are aware of that experience; experience of an object or even experience itself might become an object to the people involved. In most of our experiences there is an awareness of subject-object dichotomy and we, the individual selves, have a subjective experience of with the objective world and thereby the experience of multiplicity. While the experiences of our waking and dream states allow us to have subjective awareness of something, deep sleep awareness is different. It seems there exists neither subjective, nor objective awareness. Is it not a sort of ignorance of the individual? Going beyond the physiology, the philosophers concern is to extract arguments for a theory of the self from the discussion of deep sleep.

The Vedantic concept of ‘susupti6 as analysed by the Indian philosophers in their inquiry into the individual self’s nature, seems to be interesting. Considering the nature of dreamless sleep, it interrupts waking awareness, with regard to our awareness having a particular body. Despite of the interruption, always there is a continuity that should be our philosophical concern. This continuity is responsible for the awareness of being the same experiencing subject even after deep sleep. In other words, because of this apparent continual factor we are able to return back to be aware of the phenomenal world as we awake from sleep. Although, like all other time, even in our deep sleep we are undergoing change in our body mind complex, ‘our body retains an essential continuity and identity and thus makes it possible for us to note that, at least to the extent that we are beings with a body, we are the same beings even after an interruption of a few hours in our awareness of having a or this body’.7

Dreamless sleep is characterized by the suspension of the awareness that we think persists right throughout the wakeful state. It seems in the stage of deep sleep there is a break in an individual’s awareness.8 It is very clear when an individual is not aware of sometime and express ‘I don’t know, I was sleeping’. However, ‘dreamless sleep’ should also be an experience that is experienced by the individual, otherwise the person in his post-sleep would not utter sincerely, ‘I was asleep’. Though there is undeniable difference between deep sleep and waking, there is some thing common which connects these two, the awareness of waking and sleep. In both, the subject who possesses the knowledge is same. Therefore, ‘the experience of sleep seems to be lacking in this self-awareness’.9 For instance, in my waking experience ‘I’ am the subject who is aware of different experiences. Even in my dream ‘I’ am the one who experiences the objects of the dream. But that particular experience of ‘sleep’ is not mine in my sleep needs to be explained.

The Advaita explanation is that the ‘undifferentiated, distinctionless nature of sleep experience demonstrates the true non-dual nature of the consciousness that persists throughout, and remains unaffected by, all three phenomenal states’ of waking, dreaming and deep sleep.10 The experience of the continuity of the individuality from waking, dreaming, deep sleep and back to the waking is because of the active mind that recalls memory of the individual. Sankara declares that the experience of the state of deep-sleep is a glimpse of the self’s real nature, where there exists no ‘I’, no ego. The term ‘I’ connotes different meanings to the philosophers. “I” signifies ‘ego’ the antahkarana, understood as the false self of the Advaita view. However Ramanuja took a different position, for him there exists ‘ahambava‘, the sense of ‘I’ in deep-sleep. Therefore he disagrees with Sankara. For Ramanuja, ‘individual awareness is the essential nature of consciousness’.11 According to him ‘atman‘, the individual self is always aware itself, because substantive consciousness is its essential nature. If there were not the essential nature of atman, then one’s self, atman would become non-eternal. But atman is eternal, and so, for Ramanuja, atman has individuality and that individuality of the atman exists throughout deep sleep in the form of ‘I’.

Ramanuja’s understanding of the deep sleep awareness:

For Ramanuja, Advaitin’s those two justifications of the existence of pure awareness or consciousness and non-existing ‘I’ awareness are contradictory, because if nothing is known in a state that means it would become an unconscious state. ‘All states of experience, as Ramanuja points out, have for their object something that is marked by some characteristics’.12 Vedanta Desika on behalf of Visistadvaita position, raises a question regarding deep sleep ‘whether or not there is any experience in that state?’ and says ‘if there be any experience, it will present itself as qualified by attributes; if there be no experience, what is it that manifests itself as indeterminate?’13 For Ramanuja self-consciousness is the essential and inseparable feature of consciousness. Self is a conscious subject, which never loses its selfhood i.e., ‘Ahampratyaya‘. Ramanuja, though it is not obvious, does not agree that the concept of ‘asmad‘ is not present in deep sleep. Therefore, says Ahampratyaya is present even in deep sleep, however hazy it may be but it does not diminish.14 The subjective ‘I’ is not clear, Ramanuja says, for it is covered by the quality of darkness i.e., tamas, one of the characters of prakrti, the nature. However, it is well established by Ramanuja that the individual self’, the conscious subject ‘asmadpratyaya‘ is the awareness of the sense of ‘I’.

How Ramanuja proves that there is awareness of ‘I’ in the deep sleep but not pure consciousness is important in Visistadvaita philosophy. Ramanuja’s opponent had already said that the self is eternal but not individual, because individuality exists as a result of superimposition. Therefore the individuality of the self that causes multiplicity is false notion and it can be replaced by the right knowledge of the self. As a result, individual self or jivatmanemerges in the ultimate self, Paramatman i.e., Brahman. Consequently, in Sankara, there is no possibility forever lasting individuality, such as ‘I’ that would distinguish from the other. Ramanuja’s first criticism is concerning the ‘egoity’, which, for Ramanuja, is not the superimposed self. Ramanuja argues, if it were so (the illusory superimposed self), it would be known during deep sleep as ‘I am consciousness’ or ‘I am awareness’, but that is not the case. ‘This should clearly prove that self is a subject of consciousness. The one and unitary consciousness cannot be divided into two parts of ‘I’-ness and ‘consciousness’, the one being held illusory and the other as the only reality.’15Seksena thinks Ramanuja’s criticism is true and irrelevant as well. It is true because, if there is empirical consciousness it should involve the duality of subject and object; this phenomenal consciousness, such as, ‘I am conscious’ should not be denied by those who uphold distinctionless consciousness. It is our experience that the expression ‘ I am conscious’ is meant of something, as there is the ‘subject – object’ relationship that is already accepted in the phenomenal world of experience. However, this distinction is not final; it is accepted by all Indian philosophers that the empirical knowledge reveals trinity of ‘known, knower, and knowledge’.

Ramanuja’s criticism is irrelevant, because in the meaning of pure consciousness, you cannot say ‘I am consciousness’. The reason is that the pure consciousness is without subject and object; there can be only the subject-less and objectless self. Seksena reminds that there is no identification of these concepts in Advaita, with jiva the one which is still undergoing the experience of modifications.16 Nevertheless, in Ramanuja there is no need of even discussing such consciousness, for the self cannot be apart of its awareness as ‘I’. Ramanuja’s understanding is that self is not the knowledge but the subject of that knowledge. He does not hesitate to ask questions which are based on our phenomenal experience; whatever appears to the self is in the form of ‘I’, hence, even consciousness is granted in the form of ‘I’. By all means, Ramanuja concludes, jiva’s inner-self is constituted of ‘I’17 but not ‘pure consciousness’ of Sankara.

The second criticism, Ramanuja makes is on Sankara’s distinction itself between the self and egoity, the sense of ‘I’, for Ramanuja thinks, Sankara’s argument (through this distinction,) might even lead one to think that the unconscious internal organ, i.e., ‘antahkarana‘, can possess the character of a knowing-subject. Ramanuja recalls Sankara’s view – ‘egoity or the character of a knower involves action and consequently change, it could not belong to the unchanging consciousness. Action and change must be the property of limited consciousness and hence the qualities of ‘kartr‘ or agent, and ‘jnatr‘ or knower must belong to the ego or the jiva’, the lower principle of consciousness’.18

Ramanuja says the non-intelligent ahankara or antahkarana could not become a knower. Ahankara is unconscious and there is no way the knowledge could become the agency of knowledge. Even the theory of egoity ‘as a reflection of the pure self’ as it is expounded by his opponent Sankara is possible. Consequently, it is asked, how the reflection of intelligence is imagined to take place? Ramanuja purposefully twists his question. Whether consciousness becomes reflection of ahankara or ahankara becomes reflection of consciousness? For Ramanuja neither of these is impossible to become a knower; in the former alternative, the quality of being a knower is not allowed to consciousness; and in the latter, consciousness being non-intelligent cannot reflect ahamkara, the sense of ‘I’ which forms self of jiva in Ramanuja.

The next step is that Ramanuja criticizes ‘Sankara’s notion of a ‘saksi-conscious-ness’, a form in which the ego-less consciousness is supposed to exist in deep sleep’.19
Sankara’s notion of ‘witness’ or saksin is that the ‘ego-less’ consciousness exists in deep sleep where because of the temporary union of jivatman and paramatman occurs. Ramanuja disagrees with Sankara’s view of there is no ‘I awareness’ during the deep sleep; for Ramanuja there is not such consciousness in which ego does not exist, both concepts, the ‘saksin‘ and ‘ego’, are identical. Therefore Ramanuja would like to clarify what does ‘saksin‘ mean. Saksitvam20 is knower-hood itself; indeed it is not possible without knowing something, like an object. Therefore, for him, saksi is not mere knowledge or consciousness, but is the knower.

Before we discuss whether Ramanuja’s understanding makes any sense, let us examine the difference between saksin and jiva-as-bhokta (witnesser and enjoyer). The saksin is an unaffected and indifferent witness, knows but not the actual participant, therefore not affected by vicissitudes of the situation but is necessitated by the changing modes of vrtties, the actual active agents. In contrast to this, bhokta is the actual participator and the affected, active modes of consciousness; is the ego-hood that cannot explain the phenomenal conscious without the assumption of saksi conscious behind. Ramanuja’s approach is that he overlooks the unempirical root of the empirical super structure, similar to the attention taking winner and the looser of a game while the umpire of the game is unaffected.21 If there were no difference between jiva and saksisaksi would become an observer of something other than itself making a duality of the knower and known a permanent state. Therefore ‘sarvajnata‘ the state of all knowledge, would be impossible. However, imperfect jiva, only after completely knowing everything without anything left to know outside itself, becomes saksi.

As we have examined earlier, for Ramanuja, within an individual, there are two types of awareness or consciousness, the substantive and attributive or dharmi jnana and dharmabhuta jnana; they share the same substratum underneath. Ramanuja’s logic and reason to establish atman as ‘I’ is unique. An individual jiva or self as jivatman has its awareness as ‘I’ because of the ever-existing atman. Ramanuja develops special relation between the ‘substantive and attributive’ consciousness of an individual. One’s awareness of these kinds is analogized to the lamp and its light. Without illumination there is no lamp, and without lamp there is no illumination; the lamp and its light are not ‘one and the same’ but they have inseparable relation. Similarly one’s substantive and attributive awareness are not one and the same, but they have inseparable relation. Like lamp and its effulgence atman, the self and consciousness are inseparable. Atman while is awareness it also has consciousness.

According to the ability of the function of the attributive consciousness the individual jiva acquires the knowledge other than itself. The attributive consciousness always works for the other, here in an individual, works for the individual jiva. An individual’s knowledge other than itself is because of the function of the attributive awareness. Therefore an individual’s awareness of the knowledge of the waking, dreaming and deep sleep is different.

During the deep sleep, one’s attributive consciousness is not in function, it is in contraction. Hence, jiva has not got other knowledge than itself. Jiva is aware of itself but without dharmabhuta-jnana, the attributive consciousness in action, we seem to not have the experience of ‘I’ at that time. If there were not ‘I’, the same subject in pre-sleep, during sleep and post-sleep, the individual would not recognize the things after sleep that those are experienced earlier i.e., before sleep. Therefore the awareness of ‘I’ as particularized awareness exists even during the deep sleep, for self-luminous atman persists in deep sleep in the form of ‘I’.22


The analysis of the concept of ‘deep sleep’ (susupti) in Vedanta is undertaken in order to inquire into the nature of the self. Sankara draws his non-dual theory of atman as pure consciousness by analysing the phenomenal experience of susupti. For Ramanuja the individual self ‘atman‘ is part of the whole i.e., Brahman; such is the relation between the part and the whole. In other words, the individual jivatman, even after attainment of mukti, the final freedom from samsara, the empirical world, maintains its individuality. Ramanuja, by distinguishing one’s consciousness or awareness into two types of substantive and attributive consciousness, accessing the expanding and contracting ability to the attributive consciousness, concludes that qualified non-duality is the nature of the atman. Ramanuja’s establishes through the analysis of deep sleep awareness that throughout deep sleep, one’s individuality exists in the form of ‘I’. Then, why this ‘I’ has not clear manifestation during deep sleep? Ramanuja says, it is because the attributive consciousness is not in action so the ‘I’, is not clear, but the knower ‘I’ exists in the sleep, through one’s self-awareness, because of dharmi jnana i.e., the substantive consciousness. Obviously, Ramanuja links deep sleep analysis not only to claim individual self, atman survives in the form of ‘I’, but also atman as a knowing self, but not knowledge of the Advaita. Hence he concludes – there does not exist so-called pure Consciousness or pure Awareness, but the one who has the awareness, i.e., the knower in the form of ‘I’.

It is clear that both Visistadvaita and Advaita agree that the Self must be what is innermost (pratyak). Their disagreement is about ‘what is innermost’? For Advaita simple Awareness is innermost, the meaning of the word ‘I’ implies this simple Awareness. For Visistadvaita, the knowing subject expresses the meaning of the word “I”.


Ramanuja, Sribhasyam: Sarirakamimamsabhasyam (Critical Edition), The Academy of Sanskrit Research, Melkote, 1985.

Yamunacharya, M, Ramanuja’s Teachings in his own words, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1983.

Chari, S.M.S. Philosophy and Theistic Mysticism of the Alvars, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1997.

Chari, Srinivasa, Advaita & Visistadvaita: a Study based on Vedanta Desika’s Satadusani, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1999.

Dubey, S. P, Rudolf Otto and Hinduism, Bharatiya Vidya Prakashan, Varanasi, 1969.

Indich, W.M. Consciousness in Advaita Vedanta, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1995.

Lipner, J. The Face of Truth – A study of Meaning and Metaphysics in the Vedantic Theology of Ramanuja, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1986.

Micheal Comans, ‘Later Vedanta’, Companion Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy‘ edtrs. Brain Carr and Indira Mahalingam, Routledge, 1997

Radhakrishnan, S. The Principal Upanisads, An imprint of Harper Collins Publishers India, New Delhi, 1953

Sharma R. K, ‘Dreamless Sleep and Some Related Philosophical Issues‘, Philosophy East & West Volume 51, No 2 April 2001, pp. 210-231.

Seksena, S.K. Nature of consciousness in Hindu Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1971.

Srinivasachari, P.N. The Philosophy of Visistadvaita, The Adyar Library And Research Centre, Madras, 1978.

Swami Gambhirananda, Mandukya Upanisad, (trans. with the commentary of Sankaracarya), Advaita Ashrama Publication, Mayavati, Himalayas, 1990.


1. Yamunacharya, M. Ramanuja’s Teachings in his own words, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1983, p.4.; Ramanuja lived 1017 A.D – 1137A.D, 120 years.

2. Dubey, S. P, Rudolf Otto and Hinduism, Bharatiya Vidya Prakashan, Varanasi, 1969, p.66.

3. Micheal Comans, ‘Later Vedanta’, Companion Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy‘ edtrs. Brain Carr and Indira Mahalingam, Routledge, 1997, p.215.

4. Chari, S.M.S. Philosophy and Theistic Mysticism of the Alvars, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1997, intro.

5. ‘Mahapurva-paksa‘ is great objection

6. Ma.Up. I.10; Br. Up. IV.3.19,

7. Ramesh Kumar Sharma, ‘Dreamless Sleep and Some Related Philosophical Issues‘, Philosophy East & West Volume 51, No 2 April 2001, pp. 210-231, p. 214.

8. Ramesh Kumar Sharma, 2001, p. 212.

9. Ramesh Kumar Sharma, 2001, p. 211.

10. W.M. Indich, Consciousness in Advaita Vedanta, motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1995, p. 97.

11. W.M Indich,. 1995, p. 98.

12. Srinivasa Chari, Advaita & Visistadvaita, 1999, p.45

13. Srinivasa Chari, Advaita & Visistadvaita, 1999, p.45.

14. S.K Seksena,. Nature of consciousness in Hindu Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidas. Delhi, 1971, p.118; Sribhasya, 1.1.1. ‘Ahampratyaya siddho hi asmadarthah‘. ‘Susuptavapi nahanm bhava vigamah‘.

15. S.K. Seksena, 1971, p.118.

16. S.K. Seksena, 1971, p. 119.

17. Sribhasya, 1.1.1. ‘Ahamartha eva pratyagatma na jnapti matram‘.

18. S.K. Seksena, 1971, p. 119; Sribhasya, 2.3.40.

19. S.K. Seksena, 1971, p.121.

20. Sribhasya, 1.1.1; “Saksitvam ca saksat jnatrtvam eva, na hi ajanatah saksitvam, jnata eva saksi na jnana matram“.

21. S.K. Seksena, 1971, p.122.

22. J. Lipner, The Face of Truth – A study of Meaning and Metaphysics in the Vedantic Theology of Ramanuja, State University of New York Press, Albany,

Shashikala Padaki
School of Social and International studies
Deakin University, Australia