There seems to be a great disparity when it comes to the definition of Consciousness in the western and eastern schools.

Now, in India, according to Advaita Vedanta(non-dualistic school of philosophy which says everyone is one and the same not in terms of body, mind and all, but in terms of who we are), we use the term to mean the source in all of us, that is, it is the who we are. And Absolute Truth is termed - Existence, Consciousness and Bliss.

  1. Existence because it alone exists.
  2. Consciousness because it cannot be expressed in other words.
  3. Bliss because when you are in that state of awareness, you are Bliss and not the one who experiences it.

It should be borne in mind that these terms are mutually related. It is how one proceeds to realize Consciousness as himself in the Advaita Vedanta style. Like practicing meditation or any mode of enquiry which leads to it. Now, what I want is how the term is defined in the best manner possible. What are its characteristics(so to speak) or rather how it pervades all of creation and stimulates the behavior of living beings.

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    Hello sir. :) Just so you know, the title question is far too broad to be asked on this site; the amount of literature on consciousness is immense such that you can't reasonably expect someone to summarize it all here. The body reads like you want to start a discussion, also something we do not (cannot) allow. You can head over to chat and I'm sure people will have something to offer you, but discussions aren't allowed here nor at they suited for the Q&A format. Please ask a specific, focused question or this will have to be closed. :(
    – stoicfury
    May 6, 2012 at 20:36
  • With due respects, I must say, many of the questions asked here have a stupendous amount of literature behind them.:)But that hasn't stopped people from asking such questions. And if you think this should head for chat, fine. But, I maintain this was just another question which should be answered in terms of its definition. :) May 7, 2012 at 5:00
  • I think my concern here is basically with the vagueness and generality of the question. Keep in mind great questions ask very specifically about particular problems encountered in the study of philosophy. It might help if you could reformulate this in terms of your study of a particular thinker or work. In other words, the educational value should be self-evident; questions must be more than discussion prompts and provide a narrow and clearly-delimited scope. We often ask users to tell us about their motivation and context to help with this: what are you reading/studying? What have you found?
    – Joseph Weissman
    May 8, 2012 at 23:58
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    @AbhishekIyer The problem isn't the amount of literature behind a question but how much you can expect an answer to summarize. Focused questions are the key. I have retitled your question with what I gather you seem to be looking for. If this is what you are looking for, the body of your question could still be refined but at least it's more clear what you're after.
    – stoicfury
    May 9, 2012 at 15:37
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    In Advaita vedanta, it is defined at "chitsakti"- a combination of intelligence (chit) and force (sakti). When it is manifested as intelligence that has a force, it is called chit and is called shakti in the converse. This is the definition (or rather paraphrase of the definition) given by Jagadguru Chandrasekhara Bharati- Sankaracharya of Sringeri
    – moonstar
    Jul 13, 2012 at 11:19

3 Answers 3


There's not much more us guys here can offer, until you refine the question. Since you are asking about the nature of consciousness, and not bliss or existence, we can bracket those parts for now, which leaves us with:

Consciousness because it cannot be expressed in otherwords

Now, superficially, this appears to say absolutely nothing. There may be a philosophical thought lurking behind the surface here somewhere, but you're going to have to draw it out for us.

If the question remains "What do you think of the view of consciousness stated in the quote above?" my answer is "Not much."


Since the question was reformulated a bit, I thought I would flesh out my answer in terms of the new portion, the question of how consciousness "pervades all of creation and stimulates the behavior of living beings."

The short answer, for the vast majority of Western philosophers, is "it doesn't." All sentient beings, by definition, possess consciousness, but this does not mean that they all partake of (the same) consciousness, or that consciousness as such pervades all conscious beings. What's more, for many philosophers-- let's say Husserl, and those that follow him-- each individual consciousness is radically unknowable by any other consciousness. There is literally no way that anyone else can have direct access to my thoughts. Furthermore, for many philosophers-- let's say those influenced by Freud, to begin with-- no individual consciousness is completely transparent to itself. In other words, there is literally no way that I can be fully aware of the contents of my own consciousness.

Finally, as to the question of how consciousness "stimulates the behavior of living beings"-- this is largely, but not universally, accepted; there are some who argue that consciousness is purely epiphenomenal, and has no causal role in behavior.

  • A valid objection. I want the term Consciousness defined in the best manner possible. I have presented the Eastern view. I just wanted to know how others define it. May 7, 2012 at 6:41
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    @AbhishekIyer: That's far from "the Eastern view" (as if one existed.) There is an enormous Buddhist literature (for example) on consciousness which gets into a very sophisticated phenomenological investigation of the nature of consciousness, and in no way resembles a statement of the type "We call this banana a 'banana' because we could not call it anything else." May 7, 2012 at 6:45
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    @AbhishekIyer: I'm not attempting to "refute" one; I'm attempting to comment on the one I thought you asked us to comment on. If you want me to present an alternate view of consciousness, I thought I did-- the Buddhist view (although certainly we can go on to refine that quite a bit; if that's what you are looking for, I'd recommend Dan Lusthaus's book "Buddhist Phenomenology", which is a very solid analysis of the Yogācāra view of Xuanzang.) May 7, 2012 at 7:04
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    Oh, sorry: what I meant was "as if one existed"-- that there are many, many different Eastern views of consciousness, of which Śankara's is but one. May 7, 2012 at 7:16
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    Asking for community member's "take" on an open question really isn't what this site is for, @Abhishek -- you may want to review our FAQ to get a sense of our scope
    – Joseph Weissman
    May 9, 2012 at 14:56

Good question, not too wide, not too specific in my opinion.

Maybe this is the place to give a definition to consciousness first of all. Conscious means a state of being aware, which comes from the Latin base word scire (sciō) meaning "to know" or "knowledge". Other derived words from scire are science and conscience. On the other side Greek counterpart for the verb "to know" is gnosis, which has a very probable root on Sanskrit word jnana (gñāna). I'm lifting this up to show that traced meaning of the word we use here has a pretty mystical background. And perhaps by this reason, we give consciousness a very mysterious meaning, like a magic soup that is flowing in us, our brains or in the world around us. I'd like to take a different point and view the mystery of the word coming partly from the "everlasting and doomed" efforts to define something that has no clear objective by limited and mixed words AND stubborn way we want to maintain the mystery for the word. Mystery itself is kept because of three reasons:

  1. we experience ourselves as a self-conscious persons (strong)

  2. religious and cultural teachings coming from the environment where we live in (medium)

  3. philosophical discussions about definitions that becomes pointless by the nature of logic based on language (weak)

I will go little deeper only to the first point. 2nd is the burden we get away pretty easily by education and 3rd is not so important thou it could raise a whole new topic to explain and prove what I mean with it.

First case relates to mind, soul, Spirit and awareness topic. Until it is empirically proved that conscious exists outside of the person (brains) itself, there are no reasons assume otherwise. Its true there are a lot of stories in west (mediums, clairvoyance, OBE, afterlife experiences and so forth) and east (sadhus and yogis, meditation and monks) that gives interesting material for research, plus modern theories on quantum field gives new dimensions, but we still stick on open questions. No definite proofs has been provided that soul, spirit, mind or consciousness exists but in our body only.

I say in our body, because I cannot deny that we experience consciousness, being aware of self (I am) nevertheless. Explanation for this comes from purely biological perspective. Sensory (five senses) system attached to a complicated electro-chemical neural network memory called brains gives an illusion of self-awareness by recursive and predictive signal transmission.

Inner talk, imagining, day and night dreams, all are reflections of memory signaling back and forward on brain and sensory system interface. This is nicely explained on Jeff Hawkins's On Intelligence book, chapter 7 "Consciousness and Creativity". Topic is blogged on: http://brianandrewsauthor.com/2012/02/08/on-intelligence/ for example. In a way western and eastern mystics, that say the world and (some dare even to say) also the very self itself is Maya (illusion), are correct. They may add some other extensions to the fact, like oneness and bliss that can be experienced in spite of Maya. But they are not really proof of conscious being other than single mind product in a single person body.

Now from this point of view answer to your question is: the characteristics of consciousness are subjective, memory dependant, temporal and changing, illusive, yet developing to some extend we don't really know yet.

And yes, the word consciousness is very fundamental and practical to discuss on topic like this. It would be almost impossible to replace it with other descriptive word and still maintain focus and be understandable.


The definition of consciousness is easy when one first knows what it is not:

Unconscious might refer to:

In physiology:

  • unconsciousness, the lack of consciousness or responsiveness to people and other environmental stimuli

In psychology:

  • Unconscious mind, the mind operating well outside the attention of the conscious mind as defined by Sigmund Freud and others
  • unconscious, an altered state of consciousness with limited conscious awareness
  • not conscious

As unconscious people still respond to a pin prick by bleeding, the response must not be automatic. Therefore, consciousness is indicated by responding to external stimuli through free will.

Free will uses feedback loops of consciousness to determine its actions. The sum of knowledge and wisdom derived from it can be said to be the soul of a being.

Plants and zygotes are collectives of self-modifying cells. They sense and feel, and with memory they track changes, and they react to external stimuli through action (not just passive reaction), which i call conscious, but free will also requires choice of multiple options in memory.

Thermostats are aware of the external factor of temperature, and act to regulate it according to their built-in intelligence. They are conscious, but do not have an ego.

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    But aren't you just trading one undefined term ("consciousness") for another one ("free will")? Does a sunflower have free will when it turns toward the sun? May 7, 2012 at 11:21
  • Consciousness is part of free will; one should be conscious of multiple options in order to choose. Plants are interesting objects of study, as they are self-sustaining beings yet are very different from mobile forms of life. I would say that a sunflower appears to choose where to grow, just like other lifeforms choose where to go. May 7, 2012 at 11:29
  • Interesting. Most philosophers do not envision plants as conscious. I agree that consciousness is a part of free will; however, this makes defining consciousness in terms of free will a circular definition. May 7, 2012 at 12:47
  • Will is intent by consciousness/awareness/the portion of soul most mysterious. May 7, 2012 at 14:03
  • I didn't downvote, but I think the problem may be that you are defining consciousness as responding to free will, and then defining will as intent by consciousness. This doesn't really move things forward much toward an answer as to "What is consciousness?" May 7, 2012 at 14:21

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