The Four Tiers of Reality

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Introduction and Overview

The soul in Vedic texts comprises sat, chit, and ananda—i.e. consciousness or relation to things, the search for meaning, and the search for happiness. The search for meaning creates a personality—i.e. how others know you. The search for happiness creates an individuality—i.e. what kinds of pleasures one enjoys. The relationship to the world also creates our identity in the form of roles such as parent, child, employee, citizen, etc. These three types of identities create many conflicts, because what you enjoy may not be meaningful, and what is meaningful may not be enjoyable. Similarly, what your role demands may not be meaningful or enjoyable, but what is enjoyable and meaningful may be contrary to our duties. We all know that we need both meaning and happiness, and we want to do it consistent with our duties.

The conflict between these forms of identity is resolved by choice. The resolution is that sometimes we prioritize meaning over happiness and duty, at other times we prioritize happiness over meaning and duty, and sometimes duty over meaning and happiness. This article discusses the implications of these categories, the nature of the conflict between them, and how they are resolved.

Individuality vs. Personality vs. Identity

The word personality has its origins in the Greek word persona which was a mask that actors wore in a Greek drama to create an “appearance” or “character” that was visibly distinct from that of the other actors. The word individuality, on the other hand, represents what you are by yourself, even when you are not wearing a mask for others.

In Vedic philosophy, these terms can be nuanced with the notion of chit and ananda. The term chit denotes all the knowledge and activity and is comprised of concepts. Due to these concepts, we have different kinds of minds and bodies. The term ananda denotes all the pleasure and is comprised of desires. Due to these desires, we enjoy different kinds of concepts. We can say that the chit of the soul is its personality while the ananda of the soul is its individuality. The reason is that the desires of the soul (and the pleasure created from them) are always internal due to which the same meaning can seem pleasurable to one person, and painful to another. The body of the soul, on the other hand, represents the public or external face of the person to others; by this body, we know the soul as a unique personality.

There are hence two kinds of self-knowledge: (a) how I want to enjoy, and (b) how I want to know. Consciousness is awareness of the self, to create self-knowledge. But there are two kinds of self-knowledge—individuality and personality—or ananda and chit.

Beyond these two, there is also an identity created due to our relations to the world. For instance, we have roles and duties, such as being parent or child, employee or employer, citizen or ruler, husband or wife, etc. They produce a relational identity.

The Quest for Meaning and Happiness

The quest for meaning arises from our need to define who we are; we create a person who has preferences in knowledge, beauty, renunciation, fame, wealth, and power. We might want one or more of these, and how they are combined to produce personal values constitutes our personality. Once we decide how we want to know ourselves, we generally go about realizing that inner picture of the self in the external world. The higher the type of meaning we seek in our lives, the larger is the purpose we create for ourselves. As Marx said, a man knows himself through his work, by our work we create our portraits, which is how we define who we are in the eyes of others.

Quite separate from the need to know oneself, is the need to be happy. Happiness follows the realization of some type of knowledge, beauty, renunciation, power, fame, and wealth. However, it is the desire for happiness that drives us towards these pursuits in the first place. If a person is happy without wealth, he or she might not seek wealth, even though wealth is respected by others. Similarly, if one is happy without knowledge, he or she might not seek that knowledge, even though others value this knowledge.

Of course, when we have the knowledge or wealth, we also want to share it with others, if only to project our personality into the world and to be recognized by others. This projection and recognition involve relationships, the third aspect of the soul called sat or relationship, which acts like the choice of the role in which a person wants to interact with other persons. The fact is that pleasure, knowledge, and relationships all involve choices, and therefore they are all forms of consciousness. However, they are by themselves inadequate to create an experience that comes about when some concept is exchanged through a relationship in order to create pleasure. All three are simultaneously present in all experiences, and yet they are different features of the experience.

The Choice of Meaning, Happiness, and Duty

Pleasure is created upon the fulfillment of a desire. The desire is fulfilled when we give or take meanings. And the exchange of meanings involves a relationship. If the relationship is fixed, then the other persons may not exactly relish the meanings we exchange with them. Which means that they may not reciprocate with us in the way we expect to enjoy. This creates tension in our life: Should we give others what we want to give them? Or, should we give others what they want to receive? If we do for others what we want to do for them, but different from what they want for themselves, then the relationship would be unstable, and the happiness fleeting. Conversely, if we just do what others want us to do, but different from what we actually want to do, then too the relationship would be temporary and the happiness momentary. Temporariness and change are therefore outcomes of mismatches in relationships where only one of the two parties involved in an exchange can be satisfied, which means the dissatisfied party wants to exit sooner than later.

There is hence an inside to outside movement which tries to shape the others in my image through a relationship. And there is an outside to inside movement that tries to shape me in the image of others. The images I shape, and the images in which I am shaped, must be the images that give me happiness, or we will seek different images through different relationships. The irony of all relationships is that we are capable of doing things that we don’t enjoy for some time, in the hope that we will get what we want eventually. We are prepared to sacrifice our happiness for some time and continue working for others in the hope that they will reciprocate, but that reciprocation may never happen.

When we prioritize other’s happiness, two kinds of reasons may be involved. First, the sacrifice may be an act of compromising one’s happiness in the hope that the other person will also make a similar compromise in the future for our needs. Second, the sacrifice may be an act of renunciation of one’s pleasure in the belief that my duty necessitates such forfeiture and if I am diligent in my duties I would eventually be rewarded. Both these reasons eventually involve a sacrifice of pleasure in the short term for pleasure in the longer run. In that sense, pleasure is the ultimate aim for every living entity. Nevertheless, at the point at which we make a sacrifice, we are indeed compromising or renouncing for someone else, which means that we have prioritized our duty or responsibility over happiness.

The Nature of Free Will

The contradiction is that sometimes we are prepared to compromise our happiness to fulfill our duties and responsibilities, and at other times we are not. The ability to endure pain and suffering in order to fulfill our duties (perceived or demanded) is called dharma due to which we undertake pains to serve others (society, nation, humanity, and so forth). Conversely, the need to avoid pain and enjoy life might entail dereliction of duties in some cases, due to which we think about the self over the others. Free will emerges as the arbitrator between duty and happiness: sometimes we prefer duty over happiness, and at other times we prefer happiness over duty.

For example, a teacher has to take on a superior position in society in order to teach, and to fulfill this role, the teacher is required to sometimes chastise the students as a matter of duty, which, of course, the students may not like. If therefore, the students were asked to rate the teacher, the teacher may not get a good rating. This raises a question: Should the teacher be honest and scold the students even if they don’t appreciate her? Or should the teacher be dishonest and coddle the students to get their appreciation?

This is a familiar dilemma for everyone. We are routinely faced with choices that involve various kinds of conflicts. In fact, many choices can be reduced to a simple question: Should I do the right thing or the easy thing? The “easy thing” is that which leads to happiness, even though it might not constitute our duty. The “right thing” is that which involves the duties, but may not lead to happiness. If the right thing is also the easy thing, then the choice is not required: you can do the easy or the right thing, and since they are the same, you do not have to choose between them. The choice becomes necessary when the easy thing is not the right thing; then you have to choose between them.

Choices become necessary when we are placed in adverse situations where we are forced to opt either for keeping ourselves happy or performing our righteous duties. Since nobody wants adverse situations, we are looking for situations and relationships where the right thing is also the easy thing. The role of choice is that we seek situations devoid of dilemmas. But if dilemmas cannot be avoided, we try to trade off one against the other. In the longer run, we try to reverse the tradeoff and produce a balance between them. Ideally, we want to be in situations where such dilemmas and conflicts can be avoided, and a decision to tradeoff, balance, or reversal is avoided.

Could Free Will Be An Illusion?

Since the demands for meaning or happiness or duties exert great pressure on us, some people deny the possibility of choice. They claim that circumstances force us into situations where we have no alternatives. For example, if you desperately need money, you might have to compromise your morals, and you might then say that this compromise was forced by circumstances. Conversely, your convictions might be too strong, and you end up fighting and burning your bridges with everyone, and you can claim that this outcome was simply forced by your natural personality traits. This kind of argument is now used by materialists to claim that we have no choice because there is a rational reason (either meaning or happiness or duty) due to which I can justify, and therefore explain, my action.

This argument is true because our choices are indeed forced by the needs for happiness, meaning, and duties. The state we are in right now is the product of numerous past actions, and we cannot whimsically wish it away. However, this argument is false because we still have the choice to prioritize between meaning, happiness, and duties. As a teacher, you might prefer higher moral standards of providing honest feedback even though this leads to a lower reward. You might also decide to increase the reward by lowering the moral standards and providing dishonest appreciation. What do you prefer? You want to be diligent in your duties or desire happiness? Your choice doesn’t disappear.

The choice always exists but it could exist as the selection between one of the three compulsions or of the situation that resolves their tension. The definitions of these compulsions also vary over time and as long as these are changing, no situation guarantees permanent happiness or dutifulness, or meaningfulness. To exercise your choice means to find reconciliation, either by prioritizing one over the other, or balancing them by prioritizing one after another. Of course, if they are consistent then you don’t have to choose.

Choices in Matter and in Transcendence

The soul is said to lie in between a material world and a transcendent world and is called taṭasthā-śakti or “marginal” energy because it lies “on the shore” between the realms of spirit and matter. The material world is similarly called bahiranga-śakti or external energy, while the spiritual world is called antaranga-śakti or internal energy.

The primary difference between material and transcendent reality is that meaning, happiness, and dutifulness are contradictory quests in matter, while these are mutually consistent quests in transcendence. This changes the nature of choice in these two kinds of realities: (a) in matter, the choice is how we have to resolve the contradiction by prioritizing one over the other, while (b) in transcendence, the choice is the selection of a consistent relationship which do not create contradictions (so they don’t have to be resolved through prioritization).

The material and spiritual consciousness, therefore, are not identical—even though they are both involved in choices—because the nature of choice varies in the two cases. The material choices are like the see-saw balance that keeps shifting from side to side because there is always some contradiction, arising from the continual changes. The spiritual choice is that of a situation in which duties, meanings, and pleasures are consistent, and this consistency removes the cause of change. Note that if you are perfectly happy doing your duty, you would never want the situation to change, and nobody else would expect such a change because your actions constitute your duties. Therefore, when the role is chosen appropriately such that one’s duties are also one’s pleasures, then the performance of duties itself becomes permanent happiness.

The Three Modes of Material Nature

The distinction between sat, chit, and ananda is reflected in the material world as sattva-guna, rajo-guna, and tamo-guna. The dutiful role which puts us in a relation to the world is called sattva-guna. The quest for meaning—which appears as knowledge, understanding, activity, judgment and the quest for perfection is called rajo-guna. Finally, the quest for happiness—which appears as selfishness, hedonism, egoism—is manifest as tamo-guna. The unique property of the material world is that these three modes are always in conflict. This means that the material condition always forces a choice upon us by which we try to prioritize between them or try to balance them.

For example, if you seek meaning in life, then you might often undergo suffering to attain it. Owing to this, any attempt to make life meaningful involves hard work, rejection from others, conflicts, and many unhappy situations in which the person may doubt the quest for meaning itself. Conversely, if you are seeking happiness, then you must sacrifice your character. You must be prepared to please others, and do what they want you to do so that you can look good in their eyes and be rewarded by acceptance, love, and appreciation. As you walk down this path, you find that you have made so many compromises that you may be loved by others, but you hate yourself.

Balancing the Modes of Material Nature

The Vedas describe a process by which living beings can balance conflict demands by yajña or sacrifices which connects their meaning and happiness to the performance of duties toward higher living entities. These higher living entities reward the performance of yajña by providing meaning and happiness. Through such reciprocation, the demigod’s life becomes dutiful and our life meaningful and happy. This process is called yajña and it is a method to balance conflicts in the material world when they are otherwise contradictory.

Yajña is the basis of all society in Vedic philosophy because through yajña we can lead a peaceful life. When society foregoes yajña, then its members deal with conflicts in their lives. We can see that today there is practically no yajña and everyone is conflicted.

However, the material yajña system is not perfect because it can give rise to discrepancies. For example, if I perform my duty, but I don’t receive meaning and happiness in return, then the result is an imbalance. The law of nature compensates for these imbalances, which is called karma. Karma is the entitlement to receive different roles where we can fulfill our desires for meaning and happiness.

The Law of Karma

We can understand the creation of entitlements using financial accounting. Just like if you give someone a loan, your accountant will tell you to add two entries—in your expense and asset columns (for the lender, the loan is an asset although it is also counted as an expense—i.e. it has been given away). Similarly, for the person who is receiving the loan, two entries have to made in the income and liability columns (for the borrower, the loan is an income but also a liability—i.e. to be returned).

Modern science sees only causes and effects, which is like seeing expense and income in a monetary transaction: the money is given by one person (cause) and it is received by another person (effect). The Vedic view also sees two other categories—assets and liabilities—which are not visible money, but the entitlements to receive and return the money. These entitlements cannot be measured by the senses, and therefore they lie in an unmanifest form from where they are converted into a manifest form—i.e. real visible money—by the action of time.

Karma acts after a delay which creates cyclic loops. For example, if you are able to easily borrow money, then lots of people purchase commodities and the market sees price inflation. But as you go on borrowing, the interest rates go high, which causes the money supply to shrink, which causes people to reduce purchasing, which causes the prices to deflate. So the system undergoes periodic cycles of inflation and deflation because we return money after a delay. These cyclic loops appear as the transmigration of the soul through different kinds of bodies.

Altruism in the Spiritual World

The liberation out of this cycle of transmigration is that we only have income and expense without an asset or liability. In other words, the money is given not as a loan but as a donation. In such a system, you are giving meanings, but you are not expecting happiness in return. The accounting system is based on voluntary gifts—without an expectation of a return. For example, everyone can gift others meaning, because that charity of meaning makes their own lives meaningful. Similarly, everyone can receive happiness from others, because these gifts are offered due to love and appreciation. Everyone can perform their duties because by that a peaceful society is created.

The spiritual system works because nobody asks: Why should I give if I’m not guaranteed to get a return? The problem of choice arises only when we want a return on our investment. If nobody is expecting a return, but everyone is receiving a lot of investment, then they can keep investing the previously received investment back to the investor. We give because our lives get meaning due to giving, and we are performing our duty of giving. We take it because it is offered as an act of love and appreciation. We are not giving because we expect something in return. And we are not taking it because it was previously owed. When the concept of a return and entitlement is given up, the choice becomes free: we don’t have to deal with the contradiction between duty, meaning, and happiness, because we don’t expect a return!

Karma disappears because karma keeps track of assets and liabilities when our actions are viewed as loans rather than donations. Accordingly, time does not cause transmigration because the loops of time are created due to delays in return. If there is no return, and no expectation of return, then the cyclic effect of time (loops in nature) also disappears. Due to the disappearance of karma and the cycle of transmigration of bodies, the ātma obtains eternal life. The spiritual world and the material world are both rational and scientific. However, the difference between the two is that we have opposite kinds of rationalities: altruism and business. The material world is the rationality of business—e.g. you give loans and you collect loans. Morality in this world is doing the business honestly—i.e. not cheating and keeping good accounts. In the spiritual world, rationality is altruism where you don’t even maintain an account and no morals are needed.

This altruistic reality is called ahaituki or “causeless” because there is no business reason.

Three Parts of the Spiritual Reality

The first part is called Brahman in which the living entity is neither giving nor taking. It is consciousness in relation to itself. That is, there is a possibility for the living entity to be conscious of others, but in this state, the living entity is only conscious of itself. There is no individuality and personality and hence no choices. Without individuality and personality, each soul thinks that only he exists, and he exists eternally so nothing has to be chosen. One can never get out of a relationship with oneself, and one can never become unaware of one’s own existence. Therefore, the state called Brahman is self-awareness, but not other-awareness. This state is considered a “spiritual suicide”, not because one actually dies, but because he renounces relationship, personality, and individuality.

The second part is where the living beings give meanings without expecting happiness or meaning in return. These meanings are six-fold (knowledge, beauty, renunciation, wealth, fame, and power) and they are called the six aishvarya or opulences. This realm of altruism is called Vaikunṭha and it dominates in the six opulences. These give consciousness a personality, which defines the various ways in which they can serve other living beings.

The third part is where the living beings are giving happiness to each other through some act of love and appreciation. This love is offered through six kinds of māyā-śakti (self-satisfaction, and adoration, service, friendship, parenthood, and romance toward others). In this realm, the living entity continues to offer each other pleasures, and yet the difference is that the pleasure is what the other person desires, not necessarily what I want to offer. The individuality of the ātma is therefore constructed not due to one’s own pleasure but due to the collective pleasure of other beings. This realm is called Goloka.

The Material World is One-Fourth of Reality

In Vedic texts, the material world is comprised of three modes of nature. Similarly, the soul is comprised of three aspects called sat, chit, and ananda, or consciousness, meaning, and happiness. In this article, we discussed how dutifulness, meaning, and happiness are often contradictory, and the resolution of this contradiction constitutes our choice in the material world. We also talked about how there is another spiritual realm in which consciousness or choice doesn’t have to deal with the contradiction between meaning and happiness—this realm is therefore said to be free of “duality”.

The realm of non-duality has three parts, while the realm of duality is just one. Together the total reality is four parts, of which duality—or the material world—is only one-fourth. The study of the nature of the “self” as comprised of sat, chit, and ananda, is the basis for all four parts of reality. Based on these three aspects, we can study the material world of duality. And based on these same three aspects we can understand the three kinds of non-dual realities. The material and the spiritual realities, therefore, have a common foundation in the three features of the Absolute Truth called sat-chit-ananda.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Four Tiers of Reality," in Shabda Journal, March 23, 2017,