In vedAnta, teaching is given out in an indirect manner. Consciousness is subtle and not an object of perception; it is not available for perception or objective cognition. In the beginning, the student is much habituated to the dualistic world and cannot comprehend non-dualism. Hence, teachers take support of this very dualistic world to make him arrive at the truth.
Though advaita vedAnta talks about the world being unreal; yet for catering to the unprepared mind of the student, teachers introduce the topic of "creation of the world". As the student improves his understanding and clarity, this creation is negated as being just a seeming reality. Just as the dream world ‘as though’ exists, but disappears on waking; so also this world that we see, has no substantiality of its own. It borrows its existence from consciousness, the Atma.
One of the common analogies that teachers give from the material world we know, is light. Here, we will look into some of the aspects which are common between light and consciousness.
1. nirAkAra – Formless
Both are devoid of forms. Only an object can have a form. Consciousness being the very subject, it is formless. It is due to the consciousness that all forms are cognized. Light also has no form. We see it in our daily lives. We light up a room. The light pervades the whole room without any form as such.
2. nirvikalpa – Divisionless
Consciousness is uniform and homogenous. It cannot be broken into parts. All the divisions happen only at the material level. Consciousness is a non material entity that is divisionless. Light is also divisionless. One cannot divide the light in a room. Furniture etc can be divided but not the light.
3. nirmala – Taintless
Consciousness is nityashuddha (ever- pure). All impurities belong to objects. Atma, the consciousness is attribute-less and the attributes and properties of objects do not taint it. Same is the case with light. Neither the fragrance of the flowers, nor any bad odour can taint the light in the room.
4. nissIma – Limitless
This consciousness, Atma, is limitless. Anything with a limitation becomes an object of perception. Atma is infinite, ananta. Light is also limitless (relatively). We see that when an astronaut goes out in space, there is pitch darkness everywhere, but we can see the astronaut and the spacecraft clearly. This is so, because pure light cannot be perceived without a medium. In the presence of an object, it is known. This light is perceived in the place where the astronaut and spacecraft are.
This light is limitless like space (again this is in a relative sense, because space and light are also mithyA(unreal), hence enjoy only dependent existence)
5. nissanga- Associationless
Atma, consciousness being free from attributes, pure, non-dual and all pervasive, it is associationless. Association can happen if there is something other than consciousness. There is only non-dual Atma. Rest all is mithyA(unreal). Hence Atma is associationless; the objective universe is temporary, seemingly appearing. Light also is associationless. It has nothing to do with what it illumines.
Due to these similarities, it is quite possible that an aspirant might equate consciousness to some kind of light or energy. Examples should be taken in the right spirit and should not be stretched too far. One should not say "Consciousness is like light; I saw a light in meditation; so, I have seen Atma." This is absurd. Atma cannot be ‘seen’ since it is not an object. It has to be known and cognized as the core of one’s own being. One should also not start imagining Atma as a ball of fire emanating energy.
There are many places in the scriptures where Atma is indicated by the words which mean ‘self illuming’ or ‘nature of light; for e.g. ‘svayamprabha’(self illumining) ‘svayamprakasha’(self illumining), ‘jyothisvarUpa’ (nature of light) etc. If Atma is not a blazing ball of fire or a packet of energy; why is Atma called a light innumerable number of times in the scriptures. That’s a good question which has a simple answer.
What is light?
That, in the presence of which objects are visible and in the absence of which the objects are not visible is light. So, it is the principle due to which one is able to see an object. In that sense, the eyes are ‘light’, because, due to the eyes, I see. In the absence of eyes, I cannot see. The ears are light; since due to the ears I can hear and in the absence of ears I cannot hear. So, ears are light with respect to the hearing world; meaning ears are ‘light’ to perceive sound. Nose is ‘light’ with respect to the smelling world. I can smell in the presence of nose and cannot smell in the absence of nose. So, nose is the ‘light’ to perceive smell. In a nutshell, all the five organs are light to perceive their corresponding objects. The mind is the ‘light’ to know, since in the presence of the mind, I know my surrounding and in the absence of mind (sleep, swoon etc) I do not know my surroundings.
Consciousness is the light of all lights. This does not mean consciousness is 100000 watt bulb!!! It only means that in the presence of consciousness, and due to the consciousness alone all these ‘lights’, that is, all these organs are functioning. Otherwise, the organs mind, etc are inert; they being the product of five elements. These organs, acquire sentiency and the ability to function only due to the backing of the Atma. This is the import. In other words, it is this consciousness which enlivens them and gives them the status of ‘lights’.
So, then, consciousness is called light in the sense of being an illuminator and witnessing principle. In its presence, the world manifests, in its presence the world is sustained and in its presence is it destroyed. In its presence do the organs and mind function. The fact that all this is happening with the organs and is also known, is because of Atma. Does this Atma need another light? No. It is non-dual and all-pervasive illumining principle. Here, illumining is not an action done by Atma. It only means that in the presence of Atma , everything is cognized. If there is another light needed to know this Atma, then Atma would no longer be non-dual and real.
In the presence of Atma, one knows what one knows, and one knows what one does not know. What a lightless light!!!