In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Consciousness and Cognition

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Introductory Works
  • Classical Systems
  • Consciousness in Upanishads and Vedanta
  • Consciousness in Yoga Traditions and Yogavasishta
  • Consciousness and the Self in Kashmir Saivism
  • Consciousness in Buddhism
  • Hindu Philosophy and the Science of Consciousness
  • Indian Epistemology and Philosophy Of Mind
  • Focusing on the Self and the Body
  • Indian Psychology

Hinduism Consciousness and Cognition
Sangeetha Menon
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0171


The concepts of consciousness and cognition are central to Hindu philosophy. The major concepts that are related to the discussion on consciousness and cognition in Hindu philosophy are epistemological aspects such as the process of knowing and perceiving; means of knowledge; emotions; self and personal identity; the mind-body problem; the body; linguistic and phenomenological inputs; and health and well-being. A major sub-discipline that represents the discussions on consciousness and cognition based on Hindu philosophy is called Indian psychology. In Hindu metaphysics, epistemology, and psychology, there are detailed discussions on the process of knowledge, means of knowledge, and, most importantly, knowledge about the person who knows. One of the central topics of discussion for all schools of Hindu philosophy is the mind. While the discussions about the mind lead to ways of knowing and the nature of cognition, consciousness is often considered as an entity that relates to the nature of the self, indicating a continuity of identity. What is significant is that often the Hindu schools distinguish between the concepts of mind and consciousness, and also the processes of knowing and being. On one side, the philosophical discussions in the classical systems are connected with mechanisms involved in perceptual knowledge, and determining the veracity of what is known. And on the other, there is in-depth analysis of the mind of the knower that involves different states of consciousness. What is noteworthy about Hindu philosophical systems is that mostly the distinction of consciousness is made from what is material and what is mental. The dominant approach is to consider consciousness as a distinct entity that plays a role in determining the function and content of consciousness. The realist schools like Nyaya consider consciousness in the light of analyzing substance but, unlike Cartesian dualism, accord only substantiality and extension but not physicality. Schools such as Visistadvaita regard consciousness as a property of the self, and postulate non-identity between the self and consciousness. Many schools of the Hindu darsana systems are founded on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahmasutra, which are together called Prasthanatreyi. All these three foundational texts delve into nuanced analysis of consciousness, at the same time distinguishing it from the process of cognizing. An important concept that is present in these texts of Hindu philosophy is the self. Discussions about consciousness and cognition are incomplete without understanding the self and personal identity. Such a scenario, which is prevalent in the current discussions in consciousness studies, can be cited in the several-centuries-old classical systems of Hindu philosophy as well. Because of the primacy of the concept of the self in understanding the processes of knowing and being, the philosophy that emerges also has implications for understanding mental health and well-being of the person. Thus Indian psychology is an important offshoot of consciousness studies within Indian philosophy. Another central contribution of Hindu philosophy, in the context of its theories on consciousness and cognition, is to the current interest in cognitive neuroscience. Concepts underlying Yoga and meditation can shed light on understanding the nature of brain functioning during waking and sleep states, and also contribute to theorizing healing and better life quality.

General Overviews

The general overviews on consciousness and cognition in Hindu philosophy are spread across books that are dedicated to various classical traditions (both orthodox and heterodox systems of philosophy); edited volumes; journal papers; and also monographs. Some of the works that deal with the subject of Indian philosophy in general also contain specific chapters that are focused on aspects of consciousness and cognition. Chatterjee 1998 has some important chapters that are central to understanding consciousness and cognition. In this edited volume, the third (by Richard De Smet) and seventh (by J. N. Mohanty) chapters discuss two pertinent ideas: the Indian view of the person, and intentionality. Though the seventh chapter is not specifically on Indian systems, it gives an elaborate background for understanding the mind-body problem, and the sense of “I.” The tenth chapter on embodiment and the thirteenth chapter on Buddhist notion of nothingness also provide an overview of concepts related to consciousness and self. While Chennakesavan 1954 gives a general account of the concept of consciousness in Indian philosophy with some comparative references in Western philosophy, another early author of consciousness in Indian thought is Atreya 1985. While almost all of Indian philosophy, classical and modern, has some references for consciousness, three philosophers of modern India are important to be noted for their original thoughts on mind and consciousness. Ramana Maharshi in his philosophical poems and verses engages in a method that emphasizes enquiry into the self, and the origin of the questioner (Upadesasara). According to Sri Aurobindo, as presented in Sri Aurobindo Ashram 1977, the philosophy of integral yoga takes one beyond the “overmind” to the planes of “the supermind” or “unity-consciousness.” Krishnamurti 1996 is another modern Indian philosopher who discusses several ideas relating to consciousness, awareness, and self, particularly in the context of understanding human freedom.

  • Atreya, Jagat Prakash. Mind and Its Functions in Indian Thought. New Delhi: Classical Publishing Company, 1985.

    Gives an overview of mind and its functions in the systems of Indian philosophy, including Jainism and other heterodox systems.

  • Chatterjee, Margaret, ed. Contemporary Indian Philosophy: Second Series. Delhi: Motlilal Banarsidass, 1998.

    Has specific chapters that discuss aspects of consciousness and cognition, including the Indian view of the person, intentionality, mind-body problem, and embodiment. The first Indian edition; first published in 1974 (London and New York: Allen & Unwin).

  • Chennakesavan, Sarasvati. “Mind and Consciousness: A Comparison of Indian and Western Views.” Philosophical Quarterly (India) 26 (1954): 247–252.

    One of the earliest academic papers published on Hindu concept of mind and consciousness.

  • Krishnamurti, J. Total Freedom: The Essential Krishnamurti. New York: Harper One, 1996.

    A collection of noted talks and writings by J. Krishnamurti, discussing freedom, life, mind, etc.

  • Maharshi, Ramana. Upadesasara. New York: Arunachala Ashrama.

    The online source for one of the important poetic texts by Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi, which engages in an analysis of what is the self by negating the body, senses, mind, and breath.

  • Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, 1977.

    A comprehensive source for the writings of Ari Aurobindo, which gives a free download of the volumes.

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