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By Swami Harshananda


Religious view of life accords great importance to the mind since both abhyu-daya (worldly prosperity) and niśśreyasa (spiritual progress) depend upon its condition. An impure mind binds the soul to transmigratory existence whereas a pure mind leads to mokṣa or liberation (Amrta-bindu Upanisad 2).

While recognizing the importance of the mind as a distinguishing unique feature of human beings, the Hindu scriptures and the various systems of Hindu philosophy have given different views about its content, nature and function. A study of the mind, therefore, will not only be interesting but also useful in one’s personal life of spiritual evolution.

What the Mind is

  • The Chāndogya Upaniṣad (6.6.5) declares that the mind is ‘annamaya,’ made up of the subtle essence of food. It also asserts that purity of food conduces to purity of mind (ibid 7.26.2).
  • The Brhadāranyaka Upanisad (1.2.1) describes the mind as having been produced from īśvara or Hiraṇyagarbha (Creator). It also declares, though indirectly, that the soul or the Self (ātman) knows the external world through the mind (vide 1.5.3).
  • Sāñkhya and the Yoga systems consider the mind as a product evolved from the insentient prakṛti, a direct product from ahaṅkāra (the ego-principle) and hence made up of the three guṇas— sattva, rajas and tamas. It is also, therefore, jaḍa or insentient but can reflect the consciousness of the puruṣa or the ātman (the soul).
  • Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika schools consider the manas or the mind as one of the dravyas (fundamental or basic realities) out of which the world is eventually created. It acts as a link between the soul and the sense-organs by which the external objects are known.
  • Certain cults of Saivism and Sāktāism (tantras) advocate the theory that mind is a limitation or a modification of pure consciousness.

As regards the size of the mind, some systems like Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika hold it as aṇu (atomic) while others (Advaita Vedānta) consider it as vibhu (all-pervading).

Importance of the Mind

The ultimate purpose of human life is to attain mokṣa or liberation from transmigratory existence. This is possible only when sādhanā or spiritual practice is undertaken as per the dictates of the scriptures. Sādhanā consists mainly in purifying the mind through proper personal morality, social ethics and religions observances. When the mind becomes completely pure, the ātman inside is automatically revealed.

Impurities of the mind are of three types: basic impurity due to its being a product of the three guṇas (sattva, rajas and tamas); impurities carried over from the previous lives, technically called ‘samskāras’; impurities due to the sins and evils committed in this life.

The third one can be offset by the performance of prāyaścittas or expiatory rites prescribed in the holy books as also by experiencing the suffering brought about by them. The second has to be counteracted by trying hard to cultivate the opposite, good, tendencies. When these are carried out, along with nididhyāsana or meditation on oneself as the pure ātman (ultimately one with Brahman) or any aspect of God, the rājāsik and the tāmasik contents of the mind gradually get attenuated and the sāttvik part gets predominance. When this process is completed, realisation can come in a flash.

Mind and the Ātman

Most of the philosophical systems consider the mind either as an upādhi (limiting adjunct) or as a quality of the jīvātman (the individual soul). It is through the mind that the jīvātman knows the external world or gets internal experiences.

Functions of the Mind

There are several ways of looking at the functions of the mind. Works on Vedānta generally define the mind as ‘antahkaraṇa’ (the inner organ) and state that it has four aspects: manas (general thinking and cognition); buddhi (discriminative faculty); ahankāra (ego-sense); citta (mind-stuff, responsible for memory).

According to another view it has three qualities or functions or modifications:

  1. jñānātmaka (cognitive)
  2. āvegātmaka (emotional)
  3. prayatnātmaka (volitional)

Cognition, again, can produce either pramā (true knowledge) or bhrama (false knowledge). The latter includes samśaya or doubt also.

Pramā or true knowledge can be produced by six ways out of which pratyakṣa (direct perception), anumāna (inference) and āptavākya (verbal testimony of reliable persons) are universally accepted. Sabda or Sruti or Āgama is an extension of the last, as applied to things beyond the ken of the senses.

The emotional functions of the mind can be listed as follows: sukha (pleasure or happiness), duhkha (pain or unhappiness), icchā (desire) and dveṣa (hatred).

Many other kinds of emotions are also recognised, such as bhaya (fear), hāsya (laughter), vismaya (wonder) and so on.

Vedāntic works often mention three states of consciousness with a view to proving that the ātman (the soul) is the pure spirit beyond them. These three states—all of the mind—are jāgrat (waking state), svapna (dream state) and suṣupti (deep-sleep state).

Extra-sensory Perceptions

Besides these states of the mind normally experienced by all, there is another, the extra-ordinary or the extrasensory perception. Highly evolved spiritual persons have attained these states like clairvoyance, clairaudience and so on, which have been described in the standard treatises of yoga like the Yogasutras of Patañjali (200 B. C.) (vide 3.16-55). However these have been considered as obstacles to the final emancipation since they tempt the sādhaka to misuse them.


The main purpose behind the study of the mind is to facilitate its ultimate purification leading to the realisation of the ātman or the Self. Though there are differences of opinion regarding its nature, the processes of purification are almost universally accepted.


  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore