Here are some verses from our new translation of Guru Vachaka Kovai on the true nature of sleep. The verses themselves are in bold; supplementary comments by Bhagavan, added by the editors, are in roman; editorial comments are in italics.
The ignorance of forgetfulness which makes you say that the waking state is a state of illumination makes you [also] declare that sleep is a sheath [kosa] of ignorance. If the belief that the waking state is the illustrious and unique state of truth goes, then sleep will become, and shine as, pure non-dual reality.
Bhagavan: Destroying the waking state [and transforming it into] the ‘distinguished sleep’ [the state of waking-sleep] is subduing and destroying the sleep of delusion.
In the glorious state wherein the mind has died, even deep sleep will become God-consciousness. (Padamalai, p. 183, vv. 21, 22.)
Bhagavan: Again, sleep is said to be ajnana [ignorance]. That is only in relation to the wrong jnana [knowledge] prevalent in the wakeful state. The waking state is really ajnana [ignorance] and the sleep state is prajnana [full knowledge]. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 314)
Question: Sushupti [deep sleep] is often characterised as the state of ignorance.
Bhagavan: No, it is the pure state. There is full awareness in it and total ignorance in the waking state. It is said to be ajnana [ignorance] only in relation to the false jnana prevalent in jagrat [the waking state]. Really speaking jagrat [the waking state] is ajnana [ignorance] and sushupti [the sleep state] prajnana [wisdom]. If sushupti is not the real state where does the intense peace come from to the sleeper? It is everybody’s experience that nothing in jagrat can compare with the bliss and well-being derived from deep sleep, when the mind and the senses are absent. What does it all mean? It means that bliss comes only from inside ourselves and that it is most intense when we are free from thoughts and perceptions, which create the world and the body, that is, when we are in our pure being, which is Brahman, the Self. In other words, the being alone is bliss and the mental superimpositions are ignorance and, therefore, the cause of misery. That is why samadhi is also described as sushupti in jagrat [sleep in the waking state]; the blissful pure being which prevails in deep sleep is experienced in jagrat, when the mind and the senses are fully alert but inactive. (Guru Ramana, pp. 112-13)
The ego, the embryo [of manifestation] who suffers in the two states of waking and dream, imagining, ‘I am the one who sees’, is also the one who, by thinking, ‘I did not see anything in sleep’, loses his greatness and gets mentally perplexed.
Bhagavan: The same person sleeps, dreams and wakes up. The waking state is considered to be full of beautiful and interesting things. The absence of such experiences makes one say that the sleep state is dull. Before we proceed further let us make this point clear. Do you not admit that you exist in your sleep?
Question: Yes, I do.
Bhagavan: You are the same person that is now awake. Is it not so?
Bhagavan: So there is a continuity in the sleep and the waking states. What is that continuity? It is only the state of pure being.
There is a difference in the two states. What is that difference? The incidents, namely, the body, the world and the objects appear in the waking state but they disappear in sleep.
Question: But I am not aware in my sleep.
Bhagavan: True, there is no awareness of the body or of the world. But you must exist in your sleep in order to say now ‘I was not aware in my sleep’. Who says so now? It is the wakeful person. The sleeper cannot say so. That is to say, the individual who is now identifying the Self with the body says that such awareness did not exist in sleep.
Because you identify yourself with the body, you see the world around you and say that the waking state is filled with beautiful and interesting things. The sleep state appears dull because you were not there as an individual, and therefore these things were not. But what is the fact? There is the continuity of being in all the three states, but no continuity of the individual and the objects.( Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 609)
Through the destruction of the doltish ego, the triputis [seer, seeing and seen, and knower, knowing and known] that are based on it fade away and end, along with sakala [the waking and dream states]. The pure [suddha] state of daylight that [then] shines forever is Sivaratri [the night of Siva].
Sakala also implies states in which manifestation occurs. The pure state was explained in the first sentence of Guru Vachaka Kovai verse 265:
The pure state [suddha-nilai] exists and shines as unceasing pure being in the Heart [ullam] after the other thoughts that rise from oneself [vikshepa] and the Self-forgetfulness [avarana] that is the basis for their rising are fully destroyed.
Sakala, which comprises the waking and dream states, alternates with kevala, sleep. However, the three are actually states of the mind or ego, not of the Self. In sakala, the mind creates the states of waking and dream. Kevala is its state of dormancy in which it remains unaware of itself, the body or the world. When the ego dies, sakala and kevala both disappear, leaving the state of illumination that is referred to in the verse.
The daylight that shines in the night of Siva is a metaphor that indicates waking sleep, the state in which there is luminous and continuous Self-awareness even in the apparent darkness of physical sleep.
The theme is continued in the next verse where it is explained that once the vasanas that caused the waking and dream states to manifest have been eradicated, the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep cease as alternating states of mind. When the mind has died, leaving only the light of the Self, sleep ceases to be a state of unconsciousness in which one is unaware of anything. Though the body will continue to sleep after the mind has died, the jnani will be fully aware of the Self at all times. There will no longer be a daily period of unconsciousness as the mind lies dormant.
If the beginningless, impure vasanas that remain as the cause for waking and dream leave and perish, the state of sleep [previously perceived as] void-like and dull, and which led us into a state of ignorance and suffering, will become the transcendent state of turiya.
Only in an intellect that has developed a desire for the waking state will the eminent state of deep sleep, which is all bliss, be classified as a state of ignorance: ‘I did not know anything during sleep.’ By failing to enquire into and realise the true experience that exists and shines in the same way forever, one becomes deluded and thinks, ‘I am the one who woke up’. If that powerful sheath of the intellect, the ignorance that is experienced in the waking state, is destroyed by the sword of vichara [that leads to the knowledge] ‘I am not the one who woke up’, then the eminent state of sleep will shine, remaining as pure bliss, its ignorance destroyed.
If the illumination that is awareness of your being exists so firmly that it remains unshaken until sleep overpowers you, then there will be no need to feel jaded and disheartened, lamenting, ‘Oh, the forgetfulness of nescient sleep has come and unsettled me!’
Bhagavan: The awareness is at present through antahkaranas [the mental faculties]. Prajnana [true or perfect knowledge] is always shining, even in sleep. If one is continuously aware in jagrat [the waking state], the awareness will continue in sleep also. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 481.)
Only if the other three avasthas truly existed could the state of waking sleep [jagrat-sushupti], the pure state of jnana, be termed ‘the fourth state’. Because the other three states become false in the presence of turiya, you should know that [turiya] itself is the sole and transcendental state.
Bhagavan: The turiya that pervades as the unique primal state when the three avasthas of waking, sleep and dream end, becoming false, is itself atita [the transcendental state]. (Padamalai, p. 184, v. 24.)
To those who experience waking, dream and sleep states, there is beyond these a state of waking sleep that is given the name of ‘the fourth state’ [turiya]. Because this fourth state alone exists, and because the other three do not really exist, know that turiya itself is atita [transcendent].
Whether the estimable state of turiya, true jnana, is described either as ‘the excellent sleep totally devoid of waking’ or as ‘the unique and unceasing waking that has nothing to do with forgetful sleep’, you should know that both descriptions are entirely appropriate.
Bhagavan: The state of the jnani … is neither sleep nor [the] waking state but intermediate between the two. There is the awareness of the waking state and the stillness of sleep. It is called jagrat-sushupti [waking sleep]. Call it wakeful sleep or sleeping wakefulness or sleepless waking or wakeless sleep. It is not the same as sleep or waking separately. It is atijagrat [beyond wakefulness] or atisushupti [beyond sleep]. It is the state of perfect awareness and perfect stillness combined. It lies between sleep and waking; it is also the interval between two successive thoughts. It is the source from which thoughts spring; we see that when we wake up from sleep. In other words thoughts have their origin in the stillness of sleep. The thoughts make all the difference between the stillness of sleep and the turmoil of waking. Go to the root of the thoughts and you reach the stillness of sleep. But you reach it in the full vigour of search, that is, with perfect awareness. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 609)
Question: What is the meaning of being in sleepless sleep?
Bhagavan: It is the jnani’s state. In sleep our ego is submerged and the sense organs are not active. The jnani’s ego has been killed and he does not indulge in any sense activities of his own accord or with the notion that he is the doer. So, he is in sleep. At the same time he is not unconscious as in sleep but fully awake in the Self; so his state is sleepless. This sleepless sleep, wakeful sleep, or whatever it may be called, is the turiya [fourth] state of the Self, on which as the screen all the three avasthas, the waking, dream and sleep, pass, leaving the screen unaffected. (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 21st November, 1945)
The state of waking sleep will arise through continuous enquiry in the form of self-questioning. Until this pervades and illumines both the waking and the dream states, you should practise that enquiry unceasingly.
You who are trapped in the powerful snare of the world, who are pierced by the sharp arrows of intense suffering, who are extremely frightened and agitated, and who are wandering in search of the wealth of supreme bliss! You should know that the sleep in which there is no loss of consciousness is indeed the happiness that never ends.
Only those who have established themselves in the lotus-like shrine of the Heart and who have settled in conscious sleep there, without dwelling in the sense objects that deceive those who trust them, have totally awakened to the world of liberation, the firmament of being-consciousness. The rest have entered the dense darkness, the false ignorance that is termed worldly knowledge, and have gone to sleep there.