The Meeting Of Vedic Philosophy And Cognitive Science

Subhash Kak

Oct 22, 2016, 07:32 PM | Updated 07:29 PM IST

An Indian manuscript (SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)
An Indian manuscript (SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Between the classical and the quantum worlds lies metaphysics, the domain of philosophers and religious adepts for centuries.
  • This domain has shrunk as science has investigated new fields. Some scientists believe that all of metaphysics would eventually yield to scientific logic.
  • This is a first of a two-part essay on the Vedic theory of consciousness and the process of evolution.

    There are two spirits in the world: the perishable and the imperishable. Perishable are all beings; the unchanging is the imperishable. But the highest spirit is another; it is called the supreme self, who, entering the three worlds as the eternal lord, supports them. (Bhagavad-Gita 15.16-17)

    The world exists because consciousness is, and the world is the body of consciousness. There is no division, no difference, no distinction. Hence the universe can be said to be both real and unreal: real because of the reality of consciousness which is its own reality, and unreal because the universe does not exist as universe, independent of consciousness. (Yoga-Vasistha, Chapter 3)

    Science And Self

    Mainstream science deals with the exploration of the large and the small. Over the last few centuries, two fundamental theories have emerged: (i) classical physics, which describes the properties of gross matter; and (ii) quantum physics, which deals with the microworld.

    Between the classical and the quantum worlds lies metaphysics, the domain of philosophers and religious adepts for centuries. This domain has shrunk as science has investigated new fields. Some scientists believe that all of metaphysics would eventually yield to scientific logic.

    Scientific theories leave no room for free will. How do we have the capacity to make choices? How does awareness, or consciousness, emerge out of inert matter? If free will is not merely an epiphenomenon, then how does the circle of causality get broken by consciousness?

    If the brain-machine is conscious, why can't silicon-machines be likewise conscious? These and other questions in neurophysiology, physics, and computer science have brought the issue of the nature of the observer centre-stage in the discussions of modern science.

    Will the development of a theory of consciousness only rearrange the relative placement of the three circles? Or will it require a fundamental revolution in science? The question of the relative placement of the three circles is an important one, because there is a significant difference between classical logic and quantum logic.

    According to classical logic, we can only speak in terms of presence or absence of attributes; this is the familiar common-sensical logic of the material world. On the other hand, quantum logic is non-binary; according to it we can speak in terms of a superposition of attributes. Thus a photon can be simultaneously polarised in two different directions, or an electron can be simultaneously present in a variety of places! This is what Richard Feynman, one of the great quantum physicists of our times, had to say about the foundations of his subject:

    There was a time when the newspapers said that only 12 men understood the theory of relativity. I do not believe there ever was such a time. There might have been a time when only one man did, because he was the only guy who caught on, before he wrote his paper. But after people read the paper, a lot of people understood the theory of relativity in some way or other, certainly more than 12. On the other hand, I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.

    The difficulty in understanding quantum mechanics arises when interpretations based on classical logic are used. So if we must abandon old-fashioned either/or logic and the resultant or accompanying materialism in visualising the physical world, why do we insist on using such an interpretation in examining phenomena of the mind?

    It is important to recognise that quantum or simultaneous logic did not first arise in the human imagination with the development of quantum physics. Much of the ancient mystical writings are informed by it. For example, the story of Krishna dancing simultaneously with the gopis is in accordance with such a logic.

    There are three main views on the nature of metaphysics:

    1. Metaphysics = classical logic. Human behaviour will turn out to be completely describable by classical logic. Consciousness will be seen as an emergent phenomenon, somehow related to the complexity of the human brain. This is the orthodox view of reductionist science, but recent research mitigates against this view.
    2. Metaphysics = quantum/classical logic. The neural activity in the brain is held together by a quantum field that endows consciousness with a unity. This makes the brain a hybrid quantum/classical machine. It also suggests that computers will never have consciousness since they do not work on quantum logic. “The heart of metaphysics is quantum logic" is the view that has been espoused by many prominent contemporary scientists.

    Metaphysics cannot be reduced. Current science cannot explain consciousness. Because, if it could, then consciousness would be reduced to a “mechanical” response and we would all be zombies! Reality is fundamentally paradoxical. In order to include consciousness, a new science will have to be created.

    Although, current scientific research on consciousness comprises of programmes on each of the above three views, new experimental findings seem to rule out the first view.

    Consciousness may be a recent concern of modern science, but it is described as the ultimate mystery in ancient Indian texts and its study is lauded as the highest science. Books such as Yoga-Vasistha and Tripura-Rahasya claim to describe the nature of consciousness. Similar claims are made by various works on Yoga, the Upanishads, and the earlier Vedic texts. It is fascinating that the concerns of the ancient and the most modern appear to converge.

    We have mentioned that intriguing parallels between the insights of the early Vedic theory of consciousness and those of quantum mechanics. One way to view this is in terms of where the mind is informed by quantum logic but can only express itself in terms of classical logic.

    This would explain why it was possible for the Vedic sages to have intuitively grasped the quantum aspects of reality and yet they could only speak about it in hints, suggestions and paradoxes, for ordinary language is inadequate for this purpose. According to the Vedic view, awareness is the reaction that the brain provides to an underlying illuminating or awareness principle that is the self. This approach allows one to separate questions of the tools of awareness, such as vision, hearing and the mind, from the subject who obtains this awareness. The subject is the conscious self, who is taken to be a reservoir of infinite potential.

    But the actual capabilities of the subject are determined by the physical organisation of the brain. The brain may be compared to a mirror. Self-awareness is an emergent phenomenon that is grounded on the self and the associations stored in the brain.

    This is why people are enjoined to cultivate detachment so that they can get closer to the self. The reality of consciousness is evident not only from the fact that responses are different in sleepwalking and awake states but from the considerable experimentation with split brain patients. Recent results in neuroscience indicate that it takes about eight-tenths of a second for the readiness potential to build up in the brain before voluntary action begins.

    Other research suggests that the mind extrapolates back in time by about half a second the occurrence of certain events. Consciousness is definitely not an epiphenomenon. It is well known that Schrodinger's development of quantum mechanics was inspired, in part, by Vedanta. His debt to the Vedic views is expressed in an essay he wrote in 1925 before he created his quantum theory:

    This life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of this entire existence, but is in a certain sense the “whole”; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance. This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula which is yet really so simple and so clear: tat tvam asi, this is you. Or, again, in such words as “I am in the east and the west. I am above and below, I am this entire world.”

    Schrodinger used Vedic ideas also in his immensely influential book What is Life? (1965) that played a significant role in the development of modern biology. According to his biographer Walter Moore, there is a clear continuity between Schrodinger’s understanding of Vedanta and his research:

    The unity and continuity of Vedanta are reflected in the unity and continuity of wave mechanics. In 1925, the world view of physics was a model of a great machine composed of separable interacting material particles. During the next few years, Schrodinger and Heisenberg and their followers created a universe based on superimposed inseparable waves of probability amplitudes. This new view would be entirely consistent with the Vedantic concept of All in One.

    Although the quantum revolution in science took place more than 70 years ago, its ideas, as mentioned before, are not well understood by psychologists or scholars of religion who continue to use classical logic almost exclusively.

    But such an approach had led to a state of crisis in psychology. Oliver Sacks in his book The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and other works has shown how it is essential to take into account the notion of self to explain many puzzling aspects of neuroscience. According to the distinguished Canadian psychologist Melzack:

    The field of psychology is in a state of crisis. We are no closer now to understanding the most fundamental problems of psychology than we were when psychology became a science a hundred years ago. Each of us is aware of being a unique “self”, different from other people and the world around us. But the nature of the “self”, which is central to all psychology, has no physiological basis in any contemporary theory and continues to elude us. The concept of “mind” is as perplexing as ever... There is a profusion of little theories - theories of vision, pain, behaviour-modification, and so forth - but no broad unifying concepts... Cognitive psychology has recently been proclaimed as the revolutionary concept which will lead us away from the sterility of behaviourism. The freedom to talk about major psychological topics such as awareness and perceptual illusions does, indeed, represent a great advance over behaviourism. But on closer examination, cognitive psychology turns out to be little more than the psychology of William James published in 1890; some neuroscience and computer technology have been stirred in with the old psychological ingredients, but there have been no important conceptual advances... We are adrift, without the anchor of neuropsychological theory, in a sea of facts - and practically drowning in them. We desperately need new concepts, new approaches.

    Psychologists like Melzack believe that the reductionist approaches to the mind do not work. This is another reason why quantum theories of the mind have been examined by psychologists also. Owing to the similarities of the new ideas with the old Vedic views on consciousness, scientists are wondering if the Vedic tradition can provide clues on how to proceed beyond the current difficulties. Since the Vedic ideas on consciousness were developed greatly in the Saiva tradition, an examination of the Saiva texts from this perspective has begun. But consciousness was also a fundamental part of Vaisnava thought, although this fact is not very widely known.

    In this essay, I review some main points of the “science of consciousness" in the Vedas and the later Vaisnava literature. My review includes a discussion of Pancharatra and Acintya Bhedabheda of Sri Caitanya.

    Vedic Cosmology

    Vedic science is based on a theory of bandhu (equivalences) between the adhidaivika, the adhibhautika, and the adhyatmika, or the astronomical, the terrestrial, and the cognitive. The modern field of biological cycles has established that the astronomical periods get expressed in a variety of biological processes. Similarly, it is being argued that the only reason we can make sense of the universe is because our cognitive systems are “programmed" to do so!

    What is remarkable about Vedic science is that it goes beyond an examination of the outer reality (apara) and examines the cognitive process and consciousness. We see this in the early emphasis on para, or the knowledge of the self. However, para knowledge, by its very nature, lies beyond ordinary discourse and so symbols and metaphors (pratika) were used for it. The overarching entity was named brahman. Chandogya Upanishad speaks of prana, manas, aditya, akasa and so on as symbols of brahman. Kaustaki Upanishad says that brahman is to be sought in consciousness (prajna) and presents the equation: prana = prajna. Chandogya Upanishad 4.10.5 presents prana = ka (ananda) = kha (akasa). Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.3 presents two forms of brahman:

    One material and the other immaterial. In the outer world, the sky and the (cosmic) wind are immaterial whereas in the body prana and akasa (luminous space) are immaterial. The essence of what is immaterial in the space is the purus.a in the sun whereas what is immaterial in the body is the purusa in the right eye. Brahman is defined as neti neti, not this nor that, and as satyasya satyam, the essence of existence.

    Elsewhere brahman is defined as truth, knowledge, and bliss (satyam, prajna, ananda) or as saccidananda (sat, cit, ananda), meaning existence, consciousness, and bliss. Brahman is also defined in terms of opposites such as sat and asat, or existence and non-existence and so on, or in negatives as being time free, space free, and independent of causality. In other words, the principle of brahman is used to denote an essential unity of things.

    Since the physical universe is apprehended by consciousness the latter is rooted in unity.

    Mundaka Upanishad 1.1.3 says that the atman is that with the knowledge of which the entire universe becomes known." Further on brahman is defined as being beyond all descriptions, as that which cannot be seen, nor seized, which has no family and no class, no eyes no ears, no hands no feet, the eternal, the omnipresent and imperishable." This provides justification for the axiom: ‘aham brahma asmi’. (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10).

    Beyond such a broad identification of purusha or brahman as the essence of reality, one needs to look at Tantra to provide us a structural framework for cognition. For example, the Vedic gods are cognitive centres and Vedic myths define relationships between these centres.

    Tantra in Vedic Texts

    Tantra may be viewed as a theory of the structure of consciousness. We encounter details of such a theory only in the literature from the medieval times. These medieval texts speak of a continuity with early traditions and we find evidence for the existence of Tantra in the Vedic books, if the earliest interpretations of the Brahmanas and of Yaska are used.

    The theory of the equivalences bandhu implies that the structure of consciousness is synchronised with the outer reality. It appears certain that Vedic Tantra used planets, the sun, and the moon as internal categories to describe the nature of the mind. But the task of interpreting the Vedic texts from this point of view has just begun.

    Below is a quick summary of the Tantric or yogic concepts that we come across in early Vedic texts.

    The Rigveda places great emphasis on Vac, the Word. Thus hymn 10.71 is dedicated to Brihaspati, the lord of the sacred mantra, where the knowledge of the origin and secrets of Vac is described. What is significant here is the comparison with Brihaspati who likewise guides the planets and the sun and the moon on their divine courses.

    In hymn 10.125 Vac is glorified as the supreme power that supports Varuna and Mitra, bears Indra and Agni, and pervades heaven and earth. Elsewhere “the gods created Vac, which all kinds of animals speak" (8.100.11); “Brahman expanded as large as the Word" (10.114.8). Aitareya Brahmana 4.21.1 proclaims: brahmavai vak, brahman is the Word. Atharvaveda 4.1.5 divinises Vac as Brihaspati; in 19.9.3 Vac is called “most exalted goddess, sharpened by brahman."

    Says Chandogya Upanishad 2.23 says:

    Prajapati brooded over the worlds. From the worlds issued forth the three-fold knowledge. Brooding on it arose the syllables: bhur, bhuvah, svar.. He brooded over them; therefrom arose the name om, (omkara). As leaves are held together by the stalk, so all the words merge into omkara. The sound om is the whole universe.

    Chandogya Upanishad 2.22 says that the inner nature of the vowels (svara) is Indra, that of sibilants (usman) is Prajapati, and that of the consonants (sparsa) is Mrtyu.

    Taittiriya Upanishad 1.8 says that “om is brahman." Mandukya Upanishad begins by saying:

    “Hari is om. This syllable is this whole. The past, the present, the future, everything is just the phoneme om."

    Maitrayana Upanisad speaks of a six-limbed sadanga yoga. In 6.18 these are called pranayama, pratyahara, dhyana, dharana, tarka and samadhi. In 6.21 is explained how susumna, going upward from the heart to the brahmarandhra, serving as the passage of the prana, is divided at the palate.

    Saunaka's Rigvidhana describes tapas and yoga. Thus during Upanishadic times, not only was an equivalence of the universe and the body, in its structural forms, proclaimed but that the details of the structural equivalence were also described.

    A Recursive System of Knowledge

    Once one sees that the Vedic knowledge was defined in a recursive fashion, it becomes easy to see Vedanta, Tantra and Yoga, as well as Vedic ritual as different aspects of the same system.

    In this system the equivalences are sometimes defined only by number, as in the equivalences of 360 days of the civil year to the 360 bones of the body. The equivalences between the 72,000 nadis in the human body and one third the number of muhurtas in 20 years, or that of 21 organs in the middle body and the number signifying the earth are of a similar nature. At other times the equivalences are more metaphorical: the eyes are the sun and the moon, likewise one can speak of the planets (graha) inside the body; nevertheless, here a numerical connection in terms of planet periods and body processes might have been meant.

    This recursion worked for other concepts as well. The recursion was also seen in abstract terms. Thus agnihotra, the fire ritual, was replaced by prana-agnihotra. The fires of the altar have the parallel in the fires inside the body. The Chandogya Upanishad 3.17 describes how this abstraction was taught by Ghora Angirasa to Devakiputra Krishna.

    A sacrifice yajna is a recursive system: any given level is based on a transcendence of the lower level. This is to be seen not only in life but also within the mind, which was viewed as a hierarchical system with systems of the gross body, prana, manas, vijnana, and ananda. In analysis a dynamic balance between three fundamental categories was postulated. Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.5 speaks of a balance between red, white, and black made conscious by the purusa; this is repeated in the rajas, sattva, and tamas of prakrti in Samkhya.

    Clearly, the regions of atmosphere, sky, and earth correspond to these three. In Vedic society also there is mention of an original single class that divides into the three class of brahmana, rajanya and vaisya. The altars are made in five layers to represent the three regions and the two intermediate spaces where atmosphere and earth and also atmosphere and sky meet.

    Paralleling this later a fourth class of shudra was added to the societal classes to represent the new “foundation" against which the other classes were defined; the fifth class of “sages", who transcend all class categories, was described only indirectly. The texts themselves do not speak with this directness about the parallels but these are easy enough to infer.

    The Brihadaranyak Upanishad 1.2.2 speaks of three primary constituents. Later, as with the expansion of the altar from three to five layers, we come across five primary elements (pancabhutas) earth, water, fire, air, and ether. The three humours (dosas or dhatus), viz. vata, pitta, and kapha in the human body likewise define a basic tripartite model. But each of these dhatus is taken to have five types.

    The equivalence between the adhidaivika, the adhibhautika, and the adhyatmika are represented in terms of the designs of the fire altars. This is the reason the Vedic gods could represent either the stars and the planets as well as the psycho-physiological centres within the body, or even the bricks in the altar. The correct interpretation can only be obtained from the context. As a description of the psycho-physiological structure, Vedic knowledge could be of relevance to the emerging science of consciousness. New theories propose that consciousness is characterised by oscillations of 40 cycles per second inside the brain. But oscillations in themselves do not explain how consciousness arises and even if this theory were correct, the oscillations might just be a result rather than the cause. Oscillation is represented in the later Tantras represented as sakti or as spanda.

    The philosophical systems that arose in India early on were meant to help one to find clues to the nature of consciousness. It was recognised that a complementarity existed between different approaches to reality, presenting contradictory perspectives.

    That is why philosophies of logic (Nyaya) and physics (Vaisesika), cosmology and self (Samkhya) and psychology (Yoga), and language (Mimamsa) and reality (Vedanta) were grouped together in pairs. The system of Samkhya considered a representation of matter and mind in different enumerative categories. The actual analysis of the physical world was continued outside of the cognitive tradition of Samkhya in the sister system of Vaisesika, which deals with further characteristics of the gross elements. The atomic doctrine of Vaisesika can be seen to be an extension of the method of counting in terms of categories and relationships.

    The reality in itself was taken to be complex, continuous and beyond logical explanation. However, its representation in terms of the gross elements like space, mass (earth), energy (fire) and so on that are cognitively apprehendable, can be analysed in discrete categories leading to atomicity. The cosmology of Samkhya is really a reflection of the development of the mind, represented in cognitive categories.

    To be continued…

    Subhash Kak is Regents professor of electrical and computer engineering at Oklahoma State University and a vedic scholar.

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