As the ātman is situated in its own self during deep sleep and nothing else, i.e. it does not identify with anything external like the mind or body, one can intuit a number of intrinsic properties of the ātman through an analysis of deep sleep.
In the Tattva Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva Goswami offers four different arguments for inferring the presence of the ātman in the body. He repeatedly revisits these arguments in the Bhagavat Sandarbha and particularly in the Paramātma Sandarbha. Of these, the argument from deep sleep is probably the most common in Vedāntic schools of thought. It appears in the Bhāgavatam, and also in other scriptures like the Upanīṣads.
The three states of consciousness in the body. There are three states of consciousness when in the body: the waking state, the dream state and deep sleep.
In the waking state, one perceives the body, the senses, the mind and so on. In the dream state during sleep, the mind is active and there is perception, but of imagined objects. The mind is disconnected from the senses, and so the person is unaware of the body.
Deep sleep or dreamless sleep is a fascinating phenomenon where the person loses all awareness. Upon waking from deep sleep, one recalls that one knew nothing during deep sleep. In the state of dreamless sleep, the ātman loses contact with the mind. As a result, there is perception of nothing because the ātman cannot perceive anything without the mind. As happiness and distress is a state of mind, naturally one has experience of neither happiness nor distress.
It is possible to recall the experience of nothing. Upon waking, one might make the following statement, “I did not know anything”. This statement shows a knowledge or perception of the experience of nothing. We will analyze how this information is cognized.
As we have seen many times before, the ātman is incapable of perception or knowing without the mind. The statement, “[I] did not know anything”, is a type of cognition or perception which must occur in the mind, and such cognition occurs when there is a vṛtti or modification of the mind. As such, the mind must record a vṛtti corresponding to the information: “there was no experience of anything”. Indeed, the mind is capable of recording a vṛtti of non-experience; akin to how one might close one’s eyes, not see anything, and then recall that one saw nothing. This is evident in Patañjali’s Yoga-sūtra 1.6, which accepts nidrā or deep sleep as a citta-vṛtti.
In deep sleep, the mind and the senses are considered to be disconnected from the ātman which prevents cognition of any sensory information. The mind continues to make a vṛtti of the experience of nothing (experience of abhāva). When the person awakens, the ātman reconnects with the mind, and perceives this vṛtti. He/she then concludes, “I experienced nothing”.
Another property that can be inferred from deep sleep is the fact that the ātman does not store knowledge inside of it. If it did, the ātman would not be able to recall the experience of ‘nothing’. That the ātman depends on something external to it- the mind, for any perception or knowing to occur- is clearly obvious from deep sleep. Its intrinsic nature is to have the capacity to know, but that capacity cannot be actualized without reconnecting with the mind, which is obvious from the recall of the experience of nothing upon waking. Thus the quality of ‘cit’ commonly translated as ‘knowledge’ is not intrinsic to the ātman. Śrī Jīva’s extraordinary genius lies in such analysis, which enabled his systematic exposition of the intrinsic qualities of the ātman in the Paramātma Sandarbha.
Lack of misery is an intrinsic property of the ātman. Another type of statement is typical after awakening from deep sleep: “I slept happily”. No matter how much one may be burdened by anxiety, that anxiety is forgotten in deep sleep. A person in severe pain forgets it. This is common experience.
Śrī Jīva Goswami interprets the statement, “I slept happily”, as suggesting a fundamental and intrinsic property of the jīva: the absence of misery. By the word “intrinsic”, we mean that this quality cannot be separated from the ātman. The mind perceives the absence of misery, although not the presence of bliss because the latter implies content- the positive experience of an event like eating ice-cream. Contentless experience necessarily means absence of misery (misery is an experience filled with content such as pain). Eternal happiness with content in it can only be experienced by the practice of bhakti in which one experiences Bhagavān. This bliss is not intrinsic to the ātman, because if it were, the ātman would experience Bhagavān in deep sleep; no such experience is recalled upon waking. Therefore, prema or ānanda is not intrinsic to the ātman.
Opposing interpretations of deep sleep. Because deep sleep involves a disconnection from the mind even, it has some features of Patañjali’s yoga-samadhi in which there are no vṛttis. It is no surprise then that deep sleep has been extensively analyzed by the Advaitins; it has also been analyzed by the Buddhists. The Buddhists conclude from the lack of perception of nothing in deep sleep that nothing exists other than the mind (which is material). The Advaitins conclude that nothing exists which has I-ness, because for I-ness to exist, there has to be you-ness. What exists is consciousness alone, but this consciousness is content-less, and there is no one and nothing to perceive. For “I” to exist, there must be “you”. If there is no “you”, there is no purpose for the existence of “I”. Therefore, the ātman exists, but it cannot perceive anything, being pure consciousness itself, but not possessing consciousness (i.e. not possessing the sense of “I”).
The statement “I knew nothing” suggests that “I-ness” is intrinsic to the ātman. Śrī Jīva Goswami does not accept either of the above ideas, but interprets deep sleep as suggesting the existence of the “I-ness” of the ātman. His argument is as follows: when we wake up, we might make the statement, “I slept happily and I knew nothing”. Above, we have already seen how this statement, analyzed separately, indicates two intrinsic properties of the ātman – the absence of knowledge and the absence of bliss.
In the statement, “I knew nothing”, there is implied a loss of any material “I-ness” or ego, which is typically expressed in words like “I am Indian”, or “I am a woman”. And yet, there is no loss of the word “I“. “I” is the subject of the sentence, and unless there was an “I” separate from the material “I”, there is no possibility of making a statement “I knew nothing”. We have to keep in mind that upon disconnection with the mind, all cognition is lost, but still one recalls the word “I” in the sentence, “I knew nothing”
Therefore, Śrī Jīva concludes- there is real “I-consciousness” in the ātman which is the referent of the pronoun “I”, and there is the material or bodily “I”, which is part of the mind. These are two different ahaṅkāras. Upon waking up, the real “I” is super-imposed on the bodily “I”, and the statement is made, “I did not know anything”. This super-imposition is called hṛdaya-granthi, and is the basis of material life. It is amazing that one loses one’s material identity every night. But unfortunately, upon waking, one becomes bound again. This shows that deep sleep is not the same state as liberation.
1. When disconnected from the mind, the pure ātman [i.e. the ātman disconnected from the mind and senses] does not experience anything.
2. In this state, however, it retains its “I-ness”, whose referent is the ātman itself.
3. The mind does not experience anything because it is disconnected from the ātman, but continues to record the vṛtti corresponding to the experience of ‘nothing’.
4. When the pure ātman reconnects with the mind on awakening, it imposes its intrinsic or pure “I-ness” onto the material “I-ness” which allows it to perceive the vṛtti in point 3, and recall “I experienced nothing”.