Sat-chit-ananda is a common theme in many Indian teachings, and is usually translated as truth-consciousness-bliss, or something along similar lines. It is often interpreted as some experience or state of consciousness to be attained. And a lot of spiritual literature reinforces this, leading people to look for, or hope for, some exceptional new experience. But if you go back to the Upanishads and Vedantic teachings where it first appears, you find that sat-chit-ananda is a description of the true Self, of the “I” that is the knower of all experience – that “by which all things are known.”
The Sanskrit word “sat” means “true essence” or “that which never changes.” It is actually the present participle of the verb “to be”, so could be more literally translated as “being”, or “that which is”. The quality of “I-ness” is ever-present and unchanging. My ego, personality, my beliefs and views, and other personal characteristic may change over time, but the sense of “I” that is aware of them never changes. In that respect I am the same “I” that knew my experiences yesterday, last year, and as far back as I can remember. It is my true essence. When I stop identifying with my thinking and other mental qualities, and drop back into the Self, I find that familiar sense of “I am.” Not I am this or that, but simply “I am.” More accurately, since there is no longer a sense of individual identity, simply “am”. Or, as I like to put, “am-ing”, which is the first-person experience of “being.”
“Chit” means consciousness, that which is aware. The Self—the unchanging ever-present “I”—is the knower of all experience. I am consciousness.
“Ananda” has often been translated as bliss, but this may have done a disservice to contemporary understandings Indian spirituality. In the West the word “bliss” conjures up notions of some extreme happiness, or euphoric state. This translation probably came about because early Western translators of Eastern texts had little personal experience of these states, but were doing the best they could from their own cultural understanding. Now that more of us are tasting what past teachers were pointing towards, we can have a new, and much more helpful, appreciation of the term.
The word “ananda” stems from a-nanda. “Nanda” means contentment or satisfaction, nothing more is needed. The prefix “ã” (the long “ã” as in “part”, rather the short “a” as in “pat”) is used as to denote strong emphasis. So ananda means great contentment. The prefix “ã” can also mean “return to”. In this rendering, “ananda” is the contentment that comes from returning to our true nature. This is in line with most people’s experience. When resting in the Self, we experience a deep inner stillness, a peace that passeth all understanding, a great contentment, an unconditional natural ease in which nothing more needs to be added, there are no desires for anything else, and no striving to be anywhere else, or anyone else. It is a coming home. We may indeed call it bliss, but it is a quiet, still bliss, not the ecstatic happiness we normally associate with the term.
Thus sat-chit-ananda is not about reaching some new exotic state of consciousness, but recognizing that which you already are, but were not noticing because your attention was on the phenomena arising in consciousness, rather than the “I” that is aware of all that arises.