It is easily recognized that when we are awake both the body and mind are active. Their activities include not only performing karma, but also experiencing its fruits. In the dream state however, the physical body is inactive and only the mind functions. Both the waking and dream states are tiring for the jiva. So as a bird flying for a long time in the sky gets tired and returns to its own nest for rest; after the hard work in the wakeful state and dreams, the jiva too enters into deep sleep (sushupti). Here he is totally free from tiresomeness (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.19; Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.2). In deep sleep there is no desire for anything, nor are there are any dreams (Mandukya Upanishad 5).
In the waking and dream states, we do not know anything about what another person is experiencing. The only way to know his experience is to ask him. For e.g. a doctor can know the details of his patient’s pain: where it is located, whether it is increasing or decreasing etc, only after the patient informs the doctor himself. Similarly, a patient’s dream experiences also can be known by the doctor only by asking him.
On the other hand however, to understand the experience of deep sleep of another person, we do not have to ask him. As soon as somebody says that he had a sound sleep we are able to understand his experience, without asking him at all. This is very perplexing, why is it so?
We have to ask the other person’s waking and dream experiences because we are different from him in these two states. However, if anybody’s deep sleep experience is understood by us even without asking, it automatically shows that during deep sleep there is no difference at all between us; I am himself. In other words, it is clear that I exist in everybody’s deep sleep.
In the waking state, we experience the world through our sense organs and mind, which are different for each individual. In dreams however, the sense organs are inactive and only the mind functions. Therefore, whether it be the waking or dream state, it is through the sense organs and mind that we experience the world. But since these instruments vary from individual to individual, the experiences received through them are also different, varying with each personality. Thus in these two states we can know the other’s experience only when he tells us himself.
In sushupti however, we are embraced by everyone’s indweller God, and everything becomes One. Just like a man embraced by his dear wife does not know anything within or without, the jiva in God’s embrace has become one with everything (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.21). Therefore, the apparent difference that is found in the waking and dream states between himself and others is completely absent in deep sleep; one is all alone. In other words: he is himself in everybody else. In this way the atman who appears to be different in different creatures when we are awake, loses the apparent distinctions and stays undisturbed in deep sleep. This is precisely the reason why we do not need to ask others to know their experience of deep sleep. It is already known without asking.
Thus we realize that no differences exist at all from one to another when the conditioning adjuncts (upadhis) like the body, sense organs and mind etc are dropped in deep sleep. According to the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad: ‘In deep sleep, there is no distinction of child or adult, king or beggar, educated or uneducated, man or woman....everyone has the same state of happiness’ (2.1.19). The word happiness in this shloka is qualified by an adjective ‘ati-ghani’, meaning an Ananda in which grief is totally destroyed. That is why there is no trace of dukha in sushupti. It is pure unalloyed sukha (Ananda). I is a state free from desire, and free from paap and punya. This is the state of Abhaya (fearlessness): Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.2.20.
However this Ananda terminates with the termination of deep sleep. The oneness which resulted from the disconnection of the instruments (body, senses, mind) is gone the moment a connection is established with them as soon as we wake up. This is because our attachment to the body, nurtured over several births, is still intact. The Upanishads describe what happens using the following imagery: ‘One who had lost kingship becomes king again, one who had lost poverty gets it back again. Similarly a tiger or a lion or a wolf or a worm or a butterfly or a mosquito becomes what it was, immediately after returning from deep sleep (Chandogya Upanishad 6.9.3).
The Ananda experienced by us in deep sleep is Paramananda, i.e. there is no happiness equal to it and certainly none greater than it. ‘Here the jiva is transparent like water, he is alone without a second and therefore is free from fear. This is Paramatman. It is the highest destination for the jiva, his highest treasure, his highest world and his highest happiness’ Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (4.3.32).
It is difficult for people to understand this description of deep sleep given by the scriptures. We fail to have faith in these words because we have always been accustomed to obtaining sukha only through an effort, and here is a state which gives us the maximum happiness precisely because there is the absence of any effort.
Generally the experience of deep sleep is taken very lightly and the following
objections are raised: How can it be called the state of maximum happiness?
In fact, it cannot be called happiness at all since we obtain happiness only
by interacting with various objects (vishayas), but there is no object at all
in deep sleep. Actually, deep sleep is not a positive experience at all, the
happiness there signifying only the absence of grief rather than the presence
of sukha per se.
Reply: To understand the answer to all these queries, let us assume that happiness indeed is the result of our interaction with external objects. However, we do know that our happiness terminates after we have been in contact with an object for quite some time. If it be true that our sukha results from contact with various objects, then how are these two to be reconciled? Why should happiness terminate when still in contact with the object? Or at the very least, why doesn’t the desire to come into contact with the object arise again soon after the termination of happiness?
The non believer would answer these questions as follows: ‘There is no question of reconciliation here, because that is the nature of the process. The only meaningful pursuit in life is to extend the duration of the pleasure by some means. All efforts should be directed only towards that end.’
This however is not correct. Suppose that one is deprived of sleep, food and pleasurable objects for a long time and then all of them are simultaneously offered to him. It is known that the first thing he would seek would be sleep, then food and then the pleasures from outside objects. Even in the case where pleasurable objects are in good supply and one is deprived only of the pleasure of sleep, he would give up everything and take pills to get sleep. If there is obstruction for sleep, one would reject one’s wife or children or wealth. Therefore, it is clear that the pleasure from outside objects, the pleasure from food and the pleasure of sleep are in an increasing order. Hence, sleep is not merely the absence of grief, but also the greatest happiness.
Thus we see that the all compassionate God is everyday giving us an experience to understand our oneness with Him. We would not deserve to be called human beings if we did not stop to ponder on this profound aspect of our daily life, realizing that such a union is not mere speculation, but something which falls well within the ambit of our experience.
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.
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