What is Svapna?
Svapna is a Sanskrit term for dream. It encompasses both the content of the dream and the relationship of that content to the ordinary world. In Sanskrit literature, dreams are a valid form of knowledge and an expression of reality, broadly speaking.
Some of the earliest references to dreaming in Hindu literature are found in the Upaniṣads where consciousness is understood to have four possible stages: waking (jāgrat), dreaming (svapna), dreamless sleep (suṣupti), and the fourth, absorbed consciousness or total unification with God (turīya, which also aligned with samādhi). (Praśna U 4.5) Much of Vedantic literature reflects upon the first, jāgrat, the waking state of consciousness and the ways in which it can transform into the fourth state of turīya or samādhi. Ordinary awareness is often compared to the dreamstate in order to show that the world is not limited to what is perceived and that objects seen as real can be as fleeting as those that appear in a dream.
The fourth century text, Yogasūtras, lists svapna as one method for attaining mental stability.
In turn, the ninth century text, Yogavāsiṣṭha explores ordinary consciousness as a state that fluctuates between the real and unreal, just as an individual oscillates between waking states and dream states. In narrative after narrative the characters in the Yogavāsiśṭha dream dreams within dreams, spiraling away from any grasp of seeing the waking state as more real than the dream.
The Tibetan Buddhist practice of svapna-darśana, Dream Yoga, similarly draws upon the transitional states between waking and dreaming as a space of insight. In that intermediate space, the mind is less rigid than it is in the waking state and is therefore more open to perceiving complex ideas about reality (like emptiness and interdependence).
Contemporary practices of Yoga Nidrā draw upon these earlier traditions as a form of meditation that occurs at the edge of sleep. And, like the Tibetan svapna-darśana, it also encourages the practitioner to strive towards attaining a conscious mind while sleeping, also termed satya-svapna, or “true dreaming.” This is a state akin to lucid dreaming, where the body and the waking world exist in a continuum with the dream state.
In Indian philosophy dreams arise from consciousness, yet they also create consciousness, such that there is no exact distinction between dreams and reality. Svapna, the dreamstate, expands ordinary consciousness in ways that can offer insight into how we live and into how we understand our place within the greater cosmos.
The Yoga Sūtras of Pataṇjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary. Edwin F. Bryant. New York, North Point Press, 2009.
Dreams, Illusion and Other Realities. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep. Tenzin Wanglyn Rinpoche. New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1998.
Birch, Jason, and Jacqueline Hargreaves. “Yoganidrā: An Understanding of History and Context,” https://www.theluminescent.org/2015/01/yoganidra.html
Hayashi, Keijin. “The Term ‘True Dream’ (satya-svapna) in the Buddhist Epistemological Tradition.” Journal of Indian Philosophy, vol. 29, no. 5/6, 2001, pp. 559–574. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23496883.