This is the second part in a four-part series about the important contributions of Kashmir to Indian culture. It describes at length the significant influence of a profound book from Kashmir, Yoga Vasishtha, over Indian philosophical and scientific thought.
Another book from Kashmir which has had enduring influence over Indian thought is the Yoga Vasishtha (YV). Professing to be a book of instruction on the nature of consciousness, it has many fascinating passages on time, space, matter and cognition. They are significant not only in telling us about thinking in Kashmir, they summarise Indian ideas of physics, available to us through a variety of sources that are not widely known outside scholarly circles. Starting with a position that seeks to unify space, time, matter, and consciousness, an argument is made for relativity of space and time, cyclic and recursively defined universes, and a non-anthropocentric view.
Within the Indian tradition it is believed that reality transcends the separate categories of space, time, matter, and observation. In this function, called Brahman, inhere all categories including knowledge. The conditioned mind can, by “tuning’’ in to Brahman, obtain knowledge, although it can only be expressed in terms of the associations already experienced by the mind. In this tradition, scientific knowledge describes as much aspects of outer reality as the topography of the mindscape. Connections (bandhu) between the outer and the inner are assumed: we can comprehend reality only because we are already equipped to do so. In other words, innate, primitive, a priori ideas give rational organisation to our fragmentary sensations.
The Yoga-Vasishtha (YV) is over 29,000 verses long, and it is traditionally attributed to Valmiki, author of the epic Ramayana, which is over two thousand years old. But scholars believe it was composed in the early centuries in Kashmir. The historian of philosophy, Dasgupta dated it about the sixth century AD on the basis that one of its verses appears to be copied from one of Kalidasa’s plays, considering Kalidasa to have lived around the fifth century. But new theories support the view that the traditional date of Kalidasa is 50 BC. This means that the estimates regarding the age of YV are further muddled and it is possible that this text could be 2000 years old.
YV may be viewed as a book of philosophy or as a philosophical novel. It describes the instruction given by Vasishtha to Rama of the Ramayana. Its premise may be termed radical idealism and it is couched in a fashion that has many parallels with the notion of a participatory universe, where the actions of the conscious agents have a bearing on future evolution.
Its most interesting passages from the scientific point of view relate to the description of the nature of space, time, matter, and consciousness. It should be emphasised that the YV ideas do not stand in isolation. Similar ideas are to be found in the earlier Vedic books.
At its deepest level the Vedic conception is to view reality in a unitary manner; at the next level one may speak of the dichotomy of mind and matter. Ideas similar to those found in YV are also encountered in the Puranic and Tantric literature. But the clarity and directness with which these ideas are described in YV is unique.
Roughly speaking, the Vedic system speaks of an interconnectedness between the observer and the observed. The Vedic system of knowledge is based on a tripartite approach to the universe where connections exist in triples in categories of one group and across groups: sky, atmosphere, earth; object, medium, subject; future, present, past; and so on. Beyond the triples lies the transcendental “fourth’’.
Three kinds of motion are alluded to in the Vedic books: these are the translational motion, sound, and light which are taken to be “equivalent’’ to earth, air, and sky. The fourth motion is assigned to consciousness; and this is considered to be infinite in speed.
It is most interesting that the books in this Indian tradition speak about the relativity of time and space in a variety of ways. The Puranas speak of countless universes, time flowing at different rates for different observers and so on. Universes defined recursively are described in the famous episode of Indra and the ants in Brahmavaivarta Purana, the Mahabharata, and elsewhere. These flights of imagination are to be traced to more than a straightforward generalisation of the motions of the planets into a cyclic universe. They must be viewed in the background of an amazingly sophisticated tradition of cognitive and analytical thought.
The YV argues that whereas physical nature is taken to be analysable it is defined only in relation to observers. Consciousness is considered a more fundamental category. But YV is not written as a systematic text. Its narrative jumps between various levels: psychological, biological, and physical, as is traditional in Indian texts. Not surprisingly, given the Vedic emphasis on rta, YV accepts the idea that laws are intrinsic to the universe. But do these laws remain constant? There is some suggestion that the laws of nature in an unfolding universe also evolve.
According to YV, new information does not emerge out of the inanimate world but it is a result of the exchange between mind and matter. It accepts consciousness as a kind of fundamental field that pervades the whole universe. One might speculate that the parallels between YV and some recent ideas of physics are a result of the degree of abstraction that is common to both; or one might assert that the parallels are a reflection of the inherent structure of the mind.
It appears that the Kashmiri understanding of physics was informed not only by astronomy and terrestrial experiments but also by speculative thought and by meditation on the nature of consciousness. Unfettered by either geocentric or anthropocentric views, this understanding unified the physics of the small with that of the large within a framework that included metaphysics. YV ideas do not represent a break with the older Vedic thought; they are an amplification of the basic themes informed by advances in the unfolding understanding of the astronomy and other physical sciences.
This was a framework consisting of innumerable worlds (solar systems), where time and space were continuous, matter was atomic, and consciousness was atomic, yet derived from an all-pervasive unity. The material atoms were defined first by their subtle form, called tanmatra, which was visualised as a potential, from which emerged the gross atoms. A central notion in this system was that all descriptions of reality are circumscribed by paradox. The universe was seen as dynamic, going through ceaseless change.
This essay has been taken from Kashmir and its People: Studies in the Evolution of Kashmiri Society. M.K. Kaw (ed.), A.P.H., New Delhi, 2004.
To Be Continued