Consciousness is a confusing word because it has two valid and interrelated, but quite distinct, meanings. In ordinary language, and in neurophysiology, consciousness means awareness – when so used in writing, consciousness begins with a small ‘c’, unless it is the first word in a sentence. In spiritual literature, Consciousness (spelt with a capital ‘C’) means an awareness that is much wider, deeper and higher than ordinary human awareness. Although there is a superficial resemblance between the two meanings, and therefore also a justification, the difference is enormous.
If we go back to the times when the material universe did not exist, the only ‘thing’ that existed was God. God was a non-material entity, but was everywhere (omnipresent), all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-knowing (omniscient). According to the spiritual philosophy called Vedanta, when God chose to manifest in a material form, the result was the creation of the material universe. Since the material creation is just another form of the all-knowing or supremely conscious God, the Supreme Consciousness of the Creator is hidden in all creation. However, different forms of creation express the Supreme Consciousness to varying degrees. Non-living things express so little of it that they seem unconscious. Primitive forms of life express a little more of it. Animals with a mind express still more of it. Human beings, by far, express more of it than any other animal. But even human consciousness is only a very small fraction of the Supreme Consciousness. However, human consciousness is unique in having the capability of undergoing remarkable growth over a lifetime. Thus, a human being need not die with the same level of consciousness with which he is born. Yoga and other similar disciplines accelerate the growth of consciousness. A few rare individuals grow so much in consciousness in a lifetime that their consciousness approaches Supreme Consciousness itself. Such a person lives with a sort of double vision. Like everybody else, he is aware of what he can see or hear. In addition, he is aware of the Spirit of the Divine within everything animate and inanimate. His awareness includes also the unseen hand of the Divine behind all happenings. All his outer actions are also moulded by this higher, wider and deeper awareness, or as Sri Aurobindo says, he acquires the nature of the Divine. The consciousness of this person may be spelt with a capital ‘C’. Apparently just a change from ‘c’ to ‘C’, and yet what a great difference it is!
(From a work in progress: Timeless Wisdom in Small Doses)