The following article is based on a presentation made during the
Second International Conference on Integral Psychology,
held at Pondicherry (India), 4-7 January 2001.
The text has been published in:
Cornelissen, Matthijs (Ed.) (2001) Consciousness and Its Transformation. Pondicherry: SAICE.

Samjnana, ajnana, vijnana, prajnana


From the beginning of time man has been preoccupied with the phenomenon of Consciousness. His understanding has found its expression in the religious and ritualistic texts.

The Aitareya Brahmana 25. 7 depicts Vedic ritual, agnihotra , as consisting of three priests: hotar , adhvaryu , and udgatar , reciting texts from Rig , Yajur and Sama Vedas , corresponding to the three spheres of the Sacrifice: earth, air and heaven, respectively. The fourth one— brahman , who is silent during the performance, observing all the actions as well as listening to all words uttered by the priests. His function is to be a witness of all what is happening and in case of some imperfection in action or in speech to cure and correct it in his mind, praya-citta .

When the performance of sacrifice is over, and dakshina , the money and wealth are distributed to the priests, the half of it is given to hotar , adhvaryu and udgatar , and the other half—to brahman alone. So, the one who does practically nothing,— says the Aitereya Brahmana in dispute— gets the same part of dakshina as the three priests who are reciting and performing all the sacrifice. Why is it so?

The Aitereya Brahmana 25. 8, 9 text then explains that the first three priests represent vac , speech, which belongs to the earth, of which according to other Vedic texts, agni is an essence ( Chandogya Upanishad etc.); and the brahman priest represents manas , Mind, which belongs to the heaven, of which surya is the essence. And by this Speech and Mind, earth and heaven, the space in between—prana , life-energy, is created, which belongs to antariksha , the middle world, of which vayu is the essence. Therefore, says the text, this vayu pavamana is yajna .

This kind of general scheme is very important for us, for we may better understand what was symbolised by the sacrifice. So, it was seen as a kind of tension between two polarities, as an energetic field created in between. One is agni , the pole from below, and another is surya , the pole from above.

The same structure remains in reciting sacred texts, svadhyaya , where the reader of the text, which he knows perfectly by heart, utters it, so to say, in a mechanic way, while another part of him, manas , is observing the flow of the words. Being detached from the active formation of the text it becomes simply a witness of the text. So these are the conditions for the sacrificial action to take place, where the altar of the sacrifice is already a reader himself or, to be more precise, his life: prana . In this way he becomes one with all levels of consciousness: heaven, earth and the space in between.

Here we shall give a scheme, which is to help us to imagine how the Word may relate to the Form (Sanskrit terms are taken from the ancient Indian grammatical tradition, Bhartrihari's Vakyapadiya ):


There are two realities, which seem to be different, interconnected into one complex objective-subjective reality of the consciousness in its double status of knowledge (the perceptive reality) and that of power (the objective reality).

On the highest level of consciousness, where the power and knowledge are one, there is no difference between the form and word realities. The idea-force, the idea-vibration is one for the word and the object. The semantic of both is one and the same. So the meaning of the objective thing “book” and the meaning of the objective word “a book” are same.

It is on the level of formations (mental and vital planes), that we see the expressed and expressive elements split in their different shapes: a thought-sound (a word) and a thought-image (a form) have different shapes; and on the material plane the word and the object are absolutely separate things.

This scheme is meant to help us to approach the subject. It is only a scheme, and should be understood only as such.

The hearing and sight, shrotram and cakshus , together with the speech and mind, vac and manas , were considered by the Upanishads as four pillars on which brahma-catushpad , “the Spirit on four legs”, is established firmly in the world ( Chandogya Upanishad , Brihadaranyaka Upanishad ) as prana , life energy. It is with a help of these nama and rupa , name and form, that Brahman, the Creator, could enter into his creation (Shatapatha Brahmana ). In the Vedas these nama and rupa are also presented in terms of shruti and drishti , (compare also: cit-tapas , Consciousness-Power, in the Puranas).

So, we live, breathe, work, sleep, eat in our living space which is, according to the Vedic seers, created by the interaction of two realities: the Mind and the Word, Seeing and Hearing, Form and Name. And indeed if we deeply observe the phenomenon of life in terms of consciousness, we will find it expressed in the double status of consciousness as power (creating any form, object of sense) and the consciousness as knowledge, perceiving this form (the sense itself).

There are four operative functions of the consciousness in the Vedantic tradition: samjnana , ajnana , vijnana and prajnana , which are defining consciousness as an interaction of Knowledge and Power, Name and Form.


Everything begins with vibration or movement, the original kshobha or disturbance. If there is no movement of the conscious being, it can only know its own pure static existence. Without vibration or movement of being in consciousness there can be no act of knowledge and therefore sense; without vibration or movement of being in force there can be no object of sense. Movement of conscious being as knowledge becoming sensible of itself as movement of force, in other words the knowledge separating itself from its own working to watch that and take it into itself again by feeling,—this is the basis of universal Samjnana. This is true both of our internal and external operations.              Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, p.195-96


So here Sri Aurobindo gives his definition of what is samjnana , “as essential sense”.


I become anger by a vibration of conscious force acting as nervous emotion and I feel the anger that I have become by another movement of conscious force acting as light of knowledge. I am conscious of my body because I have become the body; that the same force of conscious being which has made this form of itself, this presentation of its workings knows it in that form, in that presentation. I can know nothing except what I myself am; if I know others, it is because they are also myself, because my self has assumed these apparently alien presentations as well as that which is nearest to my own mental center. All sensation, all action of sense is thus the same in essence whether external of internal, physical of psychical. Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, p. 196


Vijnana is the original comprehensive consciousness which holds an image of things in its essence, totality and parts and properties; it is the original, spontaneous, true and complete view of it which belongs properly to the supermind and of which mind has only a shadow in the highest operations of the comprehensive intellect.

Prajnana is the consciousness which holds as image of things before it as an object with which it has to enter into relations and possess by apprehension and analytic and synthetic cognition.

Samjnana is the contact of consciousness with an image of things by which there is a sensible possession of it in its substance; if Prajnana can be described as the outgoing of apprehensive consciousness to possess its object in conscious energy, to know it, Samjnana can be described as the inbringing movement of apprehensive consciousness which draws the object placed before it back to itself so as to possess it in conscious substance, to feel it.

Ajnana is the operation by which consciousness dwells on an image of things so as to govern and possess it in power.

These four, therefore, are the basis of all conscious action.

...There are secret operations in us, in our subconscient and superconscient selves, which precede this action, but of these we are not aware in our surface being and therefore for us they do not exist. If we knew of them, our whole conscious functioning would be changed.              Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, pp. 188-89


Modern psychology has extended our knowledge and has admitted us to a truth which the ancients already knew but expressed in other language. We know now or we rediscover the truth that the conscious operation of mind is only a surface action. There is a much vaster and more potent subconscious mind which loses nothing of what the senses bring to it; it keeps all its wealth in an inexhaustible store of memory, akshitam shravah. The surface mind may pay no attention, still the subconscious mind attends, receives, treasures up with an infallible accuracy. The illiterate servant-girl hears daily her master reciting Hebrew in his study; the surface mind pays no attention to the unintelligible gibberish, but the subconscious mind hears, remembers and, when in an abnormal condition it comes up to the surface, reproduces those learned recitations with a portentous accuracy which the most correct and retentive scholar might envy. The man or mind has not heard because he did not attend; the greater man or mind within has heard because he always attends, or rather sub-tends, with an infinite capacity. So too a man put under an anaesthetic and operated upon has felt nothing; but release his subconscious mind by hypnosis and he will relate accurately every detail of the operation and its appropriate sufferings; for the stupor of the physical sense-organ could not prevent the larger mind within from observing and feeling.

Similarly we know that a large part of our physical action is instinctive and directed not by the surface but by the subconscious mind. And we know now that it is a mind that acts and not merely an ignorant nervous reaction from the brute physical brain. The subconscious mind in the catering insect knows the anatomy of the beetle it intends to immobilize and make a food for its young and it directs the sting accordingly, as unerringly as the most skilful surgeon, provided the mere limited surface mind with its groping and faltering nervous action does not get in the way and falsify the inner knowledge or the inner will-force.

These examples point us to the truth which Western psychology, hampered by past ignorance posing as scientific orthodoxy, still ignores or refuses to acknowledge. The Upanishads declare that the Mind in us is infinite; it knows not only what has been seen but what has not been seen, not only what has been heard but what has not been heard, not only what has been discriminated by thought but what has not been discriminated by thought... That conscious senses what has not been sensed by the surface mind has not learned by its acquisitive thought. That in the insect knows the anatomy of its victim; that in the man outwardly insensible not only feels and remembers the action of the surgeon's knife, but knows the appropriate reactions of suffering which were in physical body inhibited by the anaesthetic and therefore non-existent; that in the illiterate servant-girl heard and retained accurately the words of an unknown language and could, as Yogic experience knows, by a higher action of itself understand those superficially unintelligible sounds.

To return to the Vedantic words we have been using, there is a vaster action of the Sanjnana which is not limited by the action of the physical sense-organs; it was this which sensed perfectly and made its own through the ear the words of the unknown language, through the touch the movements of the unfelt surgeon's knife, through the sense-mind or sixth sense the exact location of the centres of locomotion in the beetle. There is also associated with it a corresponding vaster action of Prajnana, Ajnana and Vijnana not limited by the smaller apprehensive and comprehensive faculties of the external mind. It is this vaster Prajnana which perceived the proper relation of the words to each other, of the movement of the knife to the unfelt suffering of the nerves and of the successive relation in space of the articulations in the beetle's body. Such perception was inherent in the right reproduction of the words, the right narration of the sufferings, the right successive action of the sting. The Ajnana of Knowledge-Will organising all these actions was also vaster, not limited by the faltering force that governs the operations directed by the surface mind. And although in these examples the action of the vaster Vijnana is not so apparent, yet it was evidently there working through them and ensuring their co-ordination.


... Here we should note, first of all, that there is an action of the sense-mind which is superior to the particular action of the senses and is aware of things even without imagining them in forms of sight, sound, contact, but which also as a sort of subordinate operation, subordinate but necessary to completeness of presentation, does image in these forms.”              Sri Aurobindo, The Upansihads , pp. 192-93