General anesthesia and Advaita Vedanta

It is sometimes said that Advaita Vedanta began with Gaudapada’s commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad.

It is from this Upanishad and commentary that we get the doctrine of the three states (waking, dream, and sleep) and turiya, the fourth.

Whether Advaita really began with Gaudapada’s commentary, I don’t know. I’m not an intellectual historian. But there’s no doubt that this text played a crucial role in Advaita’s evolution.

Adi Shankara, the most important Advaitin philosopher, said that this Upanishad and commentary contain “the quintessence of the substance of the entire philosophy of Vedanta.”

Gaudapada was the teacher of Shankara’s teacher.

In his commentary on Gaudapada’s commentary, Shankara wrote:

(Objection)—Consciousness is seen to change (disappear) in deep sleep.

(Reply)—No, the state of deep sleep is a matter of experience. For the Śruti says, “Knowledge of the Knower is never absent.”

Much of Shankara’s writing is in this form of an imaginary debate. The reply states Shankara’s views.

Let’s hear Shankara’s opinion again:

The state of deep sleep is a matter of experience. For the Śruti says, “Knowledge of the Knower is never absent.”

We can all testify from experience, at least potentially, that the first sentence is true. I’ll explain why I say this in a moment.

But I’ve also experienced something else that had never yet happened to anyone on earth when Shankara wrote those words in the 9th century: general anesthesia in an operating room. One moment I was counting backwards from ten, like the anesthesiologist told me, and the next moment I was in the recovery room. According to the clock several hours had passed, but there was no experience of it.

Deep sleep and general anesthesia are very different. The reason I said we can all potentially testify that we are conscious during sleep is because once you’ve had general anesthesia — at least general anesthesia with the drugs used on me — you can see by comparison that you are conscious during sleep. If you don’t believe me, call your friendly neighborhood anesthesiologist and give it a whirl.

(Objection)—Freddie, you were conscious while anesthetized but your memory was disabled by the drug so you don’t remember.

(Reply)—Maybe, but how can you prove that?

If I wasn’t conscious during those hours — and I don’t believe I was — then it’s not true as a matter of experience that “Knowledge of the Knower is never absent.”

That Knowing Knower is Brahman.

I wonder, if general anesthesia had existed in 9th century India and Shankara had received it, would Advaita Vedanta be different?

Irrelevant fact

The Maharaja of Mysore mentioned in the foreword of the book linked below, Sri Krishnaraja Wadiyar Bahadur IV, is the same Maharaja whose prime minister hired Maurice Frydman, the co-author of I Am That, and brought him to India.

Further reading

The Mandukya Upanishad with Gaudapada’s Karika and Shankara’s Bhasya, tr. Swami Nikhilananda

Conscious Sleep by Freddie Yam

5 thoughts to “General anesthesia and Advaita Vedanta”

  1. Hi Freddie.
    There seems to be some sort of missunderstanding here.

    Pure Consciousness is unbroken.
    There can never be truly unconsciousness.
    What happened was that the idea you have of yourself (person) is a limited state of consciousness.
    That person was blacked out during anesthesia. But consciousness remained conscious. It always does.

    How did your heart kept beating?
    How did you keep breathing while totally unconscious during anesthesia?
    There was a subtler consciousness that was aware of all those processes. The issue is just that you think you are not that 🙂 but infact you are that subtlest of subtle consciousness.

    To whom did the total-black-out appear? Who experienced it?
    It was your present limited idea you have of yourself. Not your true Self.
    It is the same as fainting. The person becomes unconscious and has no experience of passage of time or memory or whatsoever.

    Actually your experiences of conscious sleep were not exactly conscious deep sleep. It was simply a mind-awake body-asleep state.

    In true conscious deep sleep – there is no experience of time or of any ‘you’ who is conscious of being conscious during deep sleep. The thought ‘Oh, I am sleeping but conscious of it!’ will not appear.

    It is more actually like you are an infinite vastness of bliss that is aware of being an infinite vastness of bliss. There is no I or you.
    This is akin to Nirvikalpa Samadhi (formless absorption).

    Conclusion: There can never be unconsciousness. Pure Consciousness is unbroken and always aware of itself.
    If unconsciousness is experienced, ask to whom was it experienced and you will know that it was to you, the limited consciousness you believe to be (ego-person).
    That belief of being a finite consciousness must vanish so that Infinite unbroken Awareness can be recognized as one’s True Self. Ever-shinning, ever-perfect!

    Thanks for posting these articles, keep them coming!

    Om.

    1. Hi Infinito,

      Thanks to you too. 🙂

      This article is about the Mandukya Upanishad and the commentaries that Gaudapada and Shankara wrote about it.

      Very specifically, this article is about the word “experience” used by Shankara.

      You write, “Pure Consciousness is unbroken.”

      This is an assertion. Shankara is trying to prove the assertion with an empirical argument. The point of this article is to suggest that Shankara’s argument doesn’t apply to the state of general anesthesia.

      You write, “It is more actually like you are an infinite vastness of bliss that is aware of being an infinite vastness of bliss.”

      This matches the Upanishad exactly. It says, “The third quarter is Prajna, whose sphere is deep sleep, in whom all experiences become unified, who is, verily, a mass of consciousness, who is full of bliss and experiences bliss.”

      If you know this from your experience, you are a walking Upanishad and I encourage you to post here as much as possible. 🙂

      But those descriptions of sleep are descriptions of experience. There was no experience during general anesthesia. My experience was: now it’s 1 pm and now, an instant later, it’s 5 pm.

      Now, if you tell me, “I am Self-realized, and I can tell you from experience that after Self-Realization, you will have experience during general anesthesia,” I will listen very respectfully.

      In fact, that is the precise question that was uppermost in my mind while I wrote the article: do jnanis have experience during general anesthesia? But that’s a question of experience, not logic, not conceptual arguments.

      However I don’t think Shankara’s argument was directed to Self-realized people. They don’t need the argument. It was directed to people who are not Self-realized. He was telling non-realized people, in effect, “You always have experience 24 hours a day.” I pointed out in this article that this is not so.

      You write, “There was a subtler consciousness that was aware of all those processes.”

      My friend, how do you know this? I’m really asking you.

      Shankara says we know because we have experience during the states of waking, dream, and sleep (elsewhere, of course, he gives additional reasons).

      But there was no experience in the state of general anesthesia.

      Shankara refuted the objector’s argument by saying, “No, the state of deep sleep is a matter of experience.”

      I repeated his words “a matter of experience” twice and italicized them both times. What do you think he meant by them?

      Was the state that occurred to me during general anesthesia “a matter of experience”?

      There was no experience in that state. My experience was, “Now it’s 1 pm. Now, an instant later, it’s 5 pm.”

      There was no experience in that state. I only know it happened because afterward I looked at the clock and my mind inferred that the state had occurred. As far as my experience goes, the clock instantly jumped several hours ahead.

      This is unlike the three states discussed in the Mandukya Upanishad because we have experience during them.

      You asked, “Who experienced it [the total blackout]?”

      The premise of this question is mistaken because the blackout — the STATE of the blackout — wasn’t experienced.

      Knowing afterward that something must have occurred is not the same thing as experiencing it.

      You write, “How did your heart kept beating?
      How did you keep breathing while totally unconscious during anesthesia?”

      You are asking my mind to make an inference. Inferences are not experience. There was no experience of heart beats or breathing during that state.

  2. Hi Freddie, thanks for the answer.

    == “You write, “There was a subtler consciousness that was aware of all those processes.”
    My friend, how do you know this? I’m really asking you.” ==

    The body is inert. Everything is inert without consciousness there supporting it.
    If there was no consciousness whatsoever in the body, the body would die, like it happens when people die.

    Plus, there is a subtle consciousness even during what is normally called unconsciousness.
    It is just that is so subtle that it looks like you can’t be conscious of it. But That is you.
    As I said, you are simply unaware of that because of your belief in your limited consciousness (person).

    ==” repeated his words “a matter of experience” twice and italicized them both times. What do you think he meant by them?
    Was the state that occurred to me during general anesthesia “a matter of experience”?
    There was no experience in that state. My experience was, “Now it’s 1 pm. Now, an instant later, it’s 5 pm.”

    There was no experience in that state. I only know it happened because afterward I looked at the clock and my mind inferred that the state had occurred. As far as my experience goes, the clock instantly jumped several hours ahead.”==

    The worlds fail to convey what I’m really trying to express.
    Pure Consciousness is before time. It is before the beginning. It is beginningless.
    That is why there appears to be no-time. It is actually and experienceless experience.. actually it can’t really be called an experience because there’s no one to experience it, it simply Is and you are That (not the you you think you are).

    Sometimes it is called Nothingness. Because there is nothing. It’s beyond being empty, it’s beyond manifestation, time, space and so on. It’s not easy to convey it into words.

    ==”You asked, “Who experienced it [the total blackout]?”
    I think the premise of this question is mistaken because the blackout — the STATE of the blackout — wasn’t experienced.

    Knowing afterward that something must have occurred is not the same thing as experiencing it.”==

    Again, the consciousness you think yourself to be didn’t experience anything, because it was ABSENT during that “time” (the mind wasn’t there to register time or experiences). But the subtle background consciousness (let’s call it that..) was and is ALWAYS aware.
    It was not absent, it was also not “experiencing” it as you know it, it was simply being Nothingness, but aware of being Nothingness.. but not in the way one might think.
    It’s impossible to explain via words what is beyond them, what is beyond the mind.

    The mind creates time. What is beyond the mind is timeless. Do you agree that Consciousness is prior to the mind? The mind is actually the Consciousness appearing as dynamic-limited-consciousness so it can experience itself (dualism). To experience itself it needs time.
    The Pure unbounded Consciousness (non-dualism) is eternal and is not limited to time. It is Unborn.

    When one “loses” the ilusion of being this body/mind, one realizes that Is that Nothingness (Infinite, Unmanifested, The Absolute), always was and always will be.
    It is not “I” that “am” that “Nothingness”. It is that “Nothingness Is” or “Awareness Is” and “I” am That. But it’s not really I… I can’t possibly convey it via words, they are giving me troube :).
    It is beyond perception, non perception, beyond somethingness and nothingness, beyond fullness and emptiness.. it is just that words are not able to explain it. That’s why I simply calling it Nothingness.

    Let me also try to explain in another way:
    Nirvikalpa Samadhi/Objectless 8th Jhana are some of the names given to a formless absorption “experienced” during meditation (yogic meditation or buddhist)
    It is somehow similar to being aware during what is usually termed Unconsciousness (fainting, anesthesia, deep sleep [not the mind awake-body asleep that you termed “Conscious sleeping”], it is different)

    When one “experiences” it, there is no awareness of time. You close your eyes at 1pm, open them and its 5pm. There was no experience of time whatsoever. BUT there was an Awareness of Being, of Nothingness.. an Awareness of awareness “during” it.. it was not unconsciousness.
    It was just a blank, an unconsciousness, a no-experience to the one whom you think you are right now! It is not easy to explain 🙂 but I hope you get what I am trying to show.

    Om

  3. == “However I don’t think Shankara’s argument was directed to Self-realized people. They don’t need the argument. It was directed to people who are not Self-realized. He was telling non-realized people, in effect, “You always have experience 24 hours a day.” I pointed out in this article that this is not so.” ==

    I somehow missed this part.
    You will experience 24 hours a day as a person (non-realized) if you don’t sleep nor are lost in thought.

    If you sleep, you will experience deep-sleep. But it’s not you that experiences it. The person is absent from deep sleep, therefore there is no experience of deep sleep for the person.
    There is only the after-thought “Oh I was sleeping.” You may remember dreams, but you will not remember deep sleep, because the mind is absent there! It is the mind who makes the reports.

    Therefore, either through deep-sleep or anesthesia, the person will be absent (because the mind is not there).

    Anyway, if you look closer, you will see that even during normal waking hours, there might be times where you are lost in thought and completely unaware of being the person you think you are at that moment. You are completely in another world.
    Who is the one experiencing that lapse? The person suddenly “awakes up” from that thought and he/she’s like “wow, I was totally absent!”. Isn’t this similar to the “absent moment”? It is just shorter and slightly different. But one thing is certain, you are unaware of who you think you are at that exact moment!

    The point I’m making here is, who is the one aware of the person, aware of the lost-in-thought moment and aware of deep sleep or anethesia? It is no one in particular, it is the universal Consciousness, the “non-localized” awareness.

    I am That.
    You are That.
    🙂

    much love,
    Om

  4. I can’t edit my posts and forgot to say:

    The different between lost-in-thought absent moment and deep-sleep or anethesia is huge.
    One has mind (experience, dualism), the other has no-mind (non-experience, non-dualism).

    But in both the person is absent. That was what I wanted to say.

    Thanks
    Om

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