Dreams: Glimpsing the All Illuminating Illumination

Article of the Month - Jul 2012

This article by Nitin Kumar

(Viewed 27397 times since Jul 2012)

An individual experiences the three states of wakefulness, dream and deep sleep. A baby in the womb lies in deep sleep for about twelve hours, dreams for about nine hours and is awake for about three hours.

Yoga Nidra Meditation – The Sleep of The Sages (A Conscious Exploration of Wakefulness, Dreaming and Deep Sleep)

As age advances sleep decreases. Out of these three states, the specialty of the wakeful state is that in it we transact with the outer world using our sense organs. Also, in contrast to the other two states, our eyes are open while we are awake. Hence this state is also called ‘Netrasthana’ in Sanskrit, meaning ‘placed in the eye’.

The Light (Jyoti) Illuminating Our Worldly Transactions

No transaction is possible without a light. What is the light which is necessary for our activities in the state of wakefulness? In daytime it is the sun; in the sun’s absence during night it is the moon and the stars; and when they are both absent, it is Agni, i.e. fire.

What is the Dream State?

Vedanta analyzes the dream state to bring out the nature of the light illuminating our dreams. When Vedanta discusses the world or its creation, the purpose is not to unearth the physics behind it, but rather to make us understand that the world in its essential nature (Swarupa) is nothing but the Supreme Soul Brahman Itself. Similarly, the discussion of dreams is not to understand the psychology of it, but only the intrinsic nature of the light (Jyoti) illuminating it.

Chandogya Upanishad with the Commentary of Shankaracharya

During our waking state, our senses act through our gross body and conduct transactions. In due course, the Jiva becomes tired by this (Shankaracharya’s Commentary on Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.1). Then the Jiva leaves his position in the eyes (Netra-sthana), and descends to the heart. The organs of knowledge (Jnana-Indriyas), namely the power to see, hear, smell, taste and touch, all leave their locations in the gross body, and enter the mind (manas). This mind (with the organs of knowledge inside it), enters into the heart. Thus the transactions with the outside world come to a stop. However, the mind does not stop its functions (Prashna Upanishad 4.2). This is the dream state (Swapna).

The experience of dreams is the state where the sense organs (Indriyas) are resting, but the mind continues to experience without resting (Mahabharata Moksha dharma 275.24). However, the vital airs (Prana) animating the body do not leave their places and hence they continue to protect the physical (gross) body as they do when we are awake (Prashna Upanishad 4.3-4). That is why a sleeping body does not appear like an inauspicious corpse, but continues to be auspicious.

Prashna Upanishad (An Old and Rare Book)

During dreams, the mind continues to supply from inwards the awareness to the Jiva, according to the residual desires (Vasanas) contained in the mind. These awarenesses are only vibrations of the mind without any external stimuli. However, in contrast to the waking state, when we are dreaming, everything is made up of our Vasanas. For example, though actually the body is sleeping here, in our dreams we may find our body walking somewhere else. Indriyas are resting here, but active in the dream; Breathing is regular here, but we may find ourselves gasping in a dream. Whatever we see in our dreams has no physical (gross) component to it, i.e. the content of the dream world is only the Vasana experienced inwardly in the mind of the dreamer (Shankaracharya’s Commentary on the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.10).

The Dream World

All transactions in the world make their appearances in our dreams. There is a whole world there. There are chariots, horses to pull them and also roads to drive them through. However, they are only visible to the dreamer, not to others. Here the world is not objective like the Akasha etc. seen in the world which is a creation of God (Shankaracharya’s Commentary on the Brahma Sutras 3.2.4). The dream world is false, there is not even a trace of objectivity in it. The content of the dream world is only the mental modifications of the sleeper, and not made up of the five primary elements (Pancha-Mahabhuta) created by God, which are the basic building blocks of the physical world, and which are experienced by all (Brahma Sutra 3.2.3).

Panch Mahabhuta Tatwa and Sharira: Five Gross Elements and Living Beings (According To The Indian Philosophy)

Also, most importantly, the dreamer is untouched by the Paap (Sin) and Punya (Merit)) he performs in his dreams. This is because the mind during sleep is independent and out of the dreamer’s direct control. In dream one only sees the Punya and Paap, he does not actually do them (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.15). Not only this, even the pleasure and pain experienced in the dream state are only Vasanas. The transactions which took place in the outer world are seen in dreams by the dreamer staying within the body (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 2.1.18). That is why the Vedas describe the dream world as the creation of the Jiva. There are no chariots there, no horses and no roads. But he creates the chariots, horses and the roads (Br.U. 4.3.10).

While there is no activity of the gross body in the dream state, from the point of view of the activity of the mind, there is no difference between the actual world (Jagat) and the dream world. However, the world created by God puts a leash on the mind during our waking state, where external objects pull us towards them. But, since the sense organs are inactive during dreams, the leash of the external world is snapped and the mind has a free play. The wakeful world created by God is well ordered through place, time and causal connections. This is not so the case with the world of dreams (Brahma Sutra 3.2.3). The dream world is totally false. There is no order there with regard to space-time and causality. What is a man now, becomes a tree the next moment; and the tree an animal. Dreams are only a recall of the memory of what has happened in the waking world. There is no rule that one should see only what one has seen earlier. One can add his own imagination to the memory of what was seen in the waking state. However, what is impossible even to imagine, can never be seen in a dream.

Dreams: A Junction of This World and That World

Though dream experience is largely a memory recall of the transactions done in the waking state, sometimes something special may also be seen according to one’s knowledge, actions and previous experiences (including past lives). These may include seeing other worlds where one has to go after death. One does not directly experience the pleasures and pains of these other worlds in one’s dreams, rather one simply sees them. Therefore, the dream world is sometimes described as a junction between this world and the next (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.9). Not only that, one can foresee in dreams even the future events of one’s life. For example, one who never thinks about women, when he sees one in his dreams, can be assured that his desired endeavors will bear fruit (Chandogya Upanishad 5.2.8).

Dream and Reality

Seeing a dark person with black teeth indicates the dreamer’s death (Aitreya Aranyaka 3.2.4). The woman and the dark man with black teeth are of course mental forms; however, the success of one’s Karma or one’s impending death foretold by the dreams are real, not false (Brahma Sutra 3.2.4).

Who Creates Our Dreams?

This question arises because different Upanishads seem to give different statements in this regard. The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad indicates that the Jiva (individual soul) is himself the creator of his dreams. ‘He creates the chariots, the horses and the roads for himself’ (Br.U.4.3.10).

However, the Katha Upanishad says that God is the one who creates our dreams. ‘When all are sleeping, the One who is awake creating different sights in the dream is the divine Brahman’ (Katha Upanishad 2.2.8).

Katha Upanishad (Set of 2 Volumes) (An Old and Rare Book)

Further, the Prashna Upanishad attributes the creation of dreams to the mind: ‘During dreams, all the senses merge in the great mind. This mind experiences the grandeur of dreams’ (Prashna Upanishad 4.5).

Therefore, the three texts give three different versions as to who is the creator of dreams. Remember however that we all know the Vedas contain no contradictions (See Exotic India Article of the Month September 2010). Thus we will see how Shri Shankaracharya has reconciled these apparently differing statements about the creator of our dreams.

The Answer:

The creator of his dreams is indeed the Jiva himself because it is clearly said that he ‘creates for himself’ (Brhadaranyaka). None of the other two quotes explicitly use the word ‘creates.’ This is logically correct also because it is only the Jiva’s Vasana that appears as the dream world.

The World is a Dream: Discourses on Saint Paltu

Objection: But the Jiva sometimes gets undesirable dreams also. How can he be the creator if he has no control over his dreams?

Resolution: Yes, of course. Jiva does not have control because it is God who shows up his dreams as per his Vasana.

Doubt: Then we have to say that God is the creator?

Reply: That is not right. Suppose one eats too much and gets a stomach ache; nobody says that it is the Vaishnavara (fire in the body which is responsible for digestion, and which is a form of God, Bhagavad Gita: 15.14) which is responsible for this pain. They say that the individual has caused it himself. It is true that he does not want this pain. He has no control over it either; but still he is himself responsible for it. He has no control over it after he has over-eaten. Had he control while eating, he would not have had the pain at all.

Further Doubt: How then does the Prashna Upanishad attribute the creation of dreams to the mind?

Resolution: It is because the Jiva experiences dreams using the instrument of his mind. For example, when rice is being pounded, even though there is someone responsible for the pounding, we say that "this pestle pounds well". Thus, the responsibility for the dream world is attributed to the mind even though it acts as a mere instrument, while it is the Jiva who is actually the creator of dreams. The Vedas adopt the style of direct teaching from the Guru to disciple; the Guru uses the words according to the situation. One who cannot understand this may think that it could be a contradiction.

Does the Jyoti Illuminating Our Dreams Belong to the Body?

Above we have read about the light (Jyoti) facilitating our transactions when we are awake. There the illumination comes from the sun, moon etc. But in the dreams there is no scope for any of them to operate. The Katha Upanishad says:

‘The sun does not shine there. The moon, the stars, the lightning do not shine there. Nor does fire’ (KaU 2.2.15).

Philosophy of DREAMS

However, in the dream state too the Jiva gets all the awarenesses just as he does when he is awake. What is the Jyoti for them? It is certainly not from the outside. It has to be only from inside. The question is: Is this Jyoti connected with the body or something different? According to one view this light is of our body. How do we say that our body has the capacity to generate a Jyoti? Because of the fact that when one rubs ones eyes one sees stars inside. Similarly, the Jyoti in dreams too is related to the body. This is the view of those who do not believe in the Vedas.

The Light Illuminating Our Dreams is Not of the Body

The above view however is wrong. The reason is as follows: One who had seen something with his physical eyes in the wakeful state, sees the same again in a dream even after becoming blind. Therefore the seer must be someone who is different from the eyes. Previously what was seen with the eyes is now seen without the eyes. Therefore, this Jyoti does not belong to the eyes, i.e. it is not connected with the body.

Meaning of Dreams (Tamil)

Objection by the Atheist (Non-Believer in the Vedas): Not like that. What we meant was that whatever is seen by the sense organs when we are awake is recorded in the mind as Vasana. This Vasana itself shows up as objects in dreams. Therefore the mind now plays two roles – as the seen object and also as the seer. Therefore the light in which we see the dreams (Swapna-Jyoti), is of the mind, which we know is related to the body.

Reply by Vedantin: In that case it is agreed by you that the seer is different from the eyes. Further if you say that the mind is the seer of dreams, what then is the instrument through which it sees the dream? For example, in the waking state it is our eyes which serve as instruments to view the world. We have already seen that they cannot serve as instruments for us to see dreams. If we take the mind as the seer of dreams, then it will require an instrument other than itself to see the dream. However, no such instrument exists. (Brahma Sutra 2.3.38)

In fact, it is but our common experience that the mind (and everything else) is absent when we are in deep sleep (Sushupti). Therefore, the true seer is the one who is different from the mind, and witnesses the mind’s absence during deep sleep.

Therefore, the light illuminating our dreams does not belong to the mind either.

The Light Illuminating Our Dreams is that of the Atman (Soul)

This much is now decided: The Jyoti in dreams must be of one who is even beyond the mind. This is the Atman. Who is he? It is the one who is witnessing the absence of everything including the mind when we are in deep sleep.

The Transformational Power of Dreaming (Discovering The Wishes of The Soul)

Though it is difficult to apprehend him, nobody doubts his existence. Therefore he shines in his own Jyoti, not by someone else’s. This is the Atman’s self-illuminating nature (Swayam-Jyotishtava), which is its essential nature (Swarupa).

Conclusion: The Facility with Dreams

Everybody knows the existence of the Atman, because no one can deny the ‘I’ in oneself. However, we are too used to viewing the Atman through the lens of certain conditioning adjuncts (Upadhis), superimposing the nature of these Upadhis on ourselves. For example, if the body is male one thinks he is a man, if female, he thinks he is a woman. Both man and woman are Himself, but He is neither a man or a woman. Therefore, in order to understand the Self-Illuminating (Swayam-Jyotishtava) of the Atman, he is to be freed from the outside lights and the lights of the Upadhis. What has been done in the dream state is precisely this. It is through the dream state that we get introduced to the soul’s self-illuminating nature. Though this Jyoti is same Jyoti which illuminates the waking state also, its pure and unalloyed nature remains unrecognized there in the humdrum of the external Jyotis. In our dreams this humdrum is suppressed and therefore its recognition becomes easy. Indeed, our countless salutations to our Atman, who by gracing us with the dream state, removes our darkness with its light, baring itself as the ‘One, Pure Illumination’, illuminating all other illuminations.


This article is based almost entirely on the teachings of Param Pujya Swami Paramanand Bharati Ji. However, any errors are entirely the author's own.

References & Further Reading:

  • Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Vedanta Prabodh Varanasi, 2010
  • Goyandka, Shri Harikrishnadas. Translation of Shankaracharya's Commentary on the Eleven Upanishads (Hindi): Gorakhpur, 2006.
  • Gupta Som Raj. Upanisads with the Commentary of Sankaracarya, Five Volumes Delhi
  • Goyandka, Shri Harikrishnadas. Shrimad Bhagavad Gita (Translation of Shankaracharya's Commentary into Hindi): Gorakhpur, 2006.

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