Year : 2021 | Volume
: 9 | Issue : 2 | Page : 53--58
Consciousness in Indian philosophy and modern physics
Melukote Krishnamurthy Sridhar1, HR Nagendra2,
1 Division of Yoga and Spirituality, SVYASA (Deemed to be University), Bangalore, Karnataka, India
2 Chancellor, SVYASA, Deemed to be University, Bangalore, Karnataka, India
Prof. Melukote Krishnamurthy Sridhar
Former Dean, Division of Yoga - Spirituality, SVYASA, Deemed to be University, Bengaluru, Karnataka
This paper makes an explorative journey into the concept of consciousness (prajna) as explained in the Indian philosophy (both orthodox and heterodox) and modern physics. The paper explains about knowledge domains in the traditions and their distinctive features, different connotations, and denotations of consciousness, the different methods being used in explaining consciousness. The current scientific analyses of consciousness from the stand point of theoretical and quantum physics are discussed here and compared with the concept of consciousness in the Indian philosophical traditions.
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Sridhar MK, Nagendra H R. Consciousness in Indian philosophy and modern physics.Int J Yoga - Philosop Psychol Parapsychol 2021;9:53-58
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Sridhar MK, Nagendra H R. Consciousness in Indian philosophy and modern physics. Int J Yoga - Philosop Psychol Parapsychol [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 Jul 3 ];9:53-58
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Consciousness in Indian Philosophy
According to Nyaya and Vaisheshika philosophies, there are seven kinds of ultimate realities (padartha). They are substance (dravya), quality (guna) action or motion (karma), genus or universality (samanya), specialty (vishesha) inherence (samavaya), and negation (abhava). The substances are nine in number. They are earth (prithvi), water (apaha), air (vayu), fire (tejas), and ether (akasha) which are objective elements (as we can perceive them by our senses) along with time (kala), space (dik), mind (manas), and self (atman). The self is the basis and substratum of consciousness and experience but in reality it is unconscious by nature. The self becomes consciousness when it is associated with the mind. Birth means the association of the self with body and death means the dissociation of self from the body. The self is eternal. The existence of self is proved by the theory of causation (karanavada). God (Ishvara) becomes the efficient cause of the world. In this school, consciousness becomes an accidental property of the self. It is not the inherent nature of the self. Hence, ultimate liberation of an individual is devoid of consciousness.
Samkhya philosophy consists of two ultimate realities. They are self (purusha) and primordial nature (prakriti). Prakriti consists of three attributes (guna-s), namely sattva, rajas, and tamas which are in a state of equilibrium; in a state of disequilibrium, these results in evolution. The first product in evolution is cosmic intelligence (buddhi). Ego or self and senses are also evolutes of primordial nature (prakriti) and they get manifested based on the predominance of three guna-s.
In Samkhya philosophy, manas evolves as a sattva aspect of attributes or guna-s. It evolves with the five organs of perception (ears, eyes, nose, tongue, and skin) and five organs of motion (hands, feet, mouth, excretion, and reproduction). The subtle or atomic parts of the sense perception evolve with the tamas aspect of three attributes. The combination of these with the help of rajas becomes an aspect of manas itself. The manas also carries out the order of will (iccha) and becomes an instrument in the actions of an individual. The intelligence (buddhi) consists of all the three guna-s and it acts upon the individual. According to Vijnanabhikshu, buddhi is the storehouse of all sub-consciousness impressions. Purusha is the unchanging principle of intelligence and conscious whose inherent nature is pure consciousness. Prakriti gets associated with Purusha and illumines and appears to be intelligent. This Purusha is pure (shuddha), enlightened or conscious (buddha), and liberated (mukta).
Yoga philosophy deals with the control of thought waves of the citta (Yogahachittavrittinirodhaha I Patanjali Yoga SutraI. i). Citta is made of three components, namely manas, buddhi, and ahamkara. Manas receives impressions gathered by sense organs (indriyas) from the external world. Buddhi is the discriminative faculty which classifies those recorded impressions and reacts to them. Ahamakara is the ego sense which claims these impressions as its own and stores them as individual knowledge. Even according to Yoga, citta is unconscious and it only reflects the consciousness of the self or Purusha. Thus, the knowledge received as a result of our experience with the outside world is only an experience of sense organs, manas, buddhi (determinative faculty according to Swami Vivekananda) and egoism and the self is not associated with it. The ignorance of one's own existence brings misery as a result of egoism and prevents a person from experiencing a glimpse of consciousness (Yoga sutra [Y. S.] II 3–5.). The wavering manas has to be controlled but there will be pain-bearing obstructions (klesha).
The pain-bearing obstructions are ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and clinging to life (avidya asmita–raga-dveshabhiniveshaahkleshaaha I (Y. S. II.3).
Ignorance is the productive field of all these that follow, whether they are dormant, attenuated, overpowered, or expanded Avidyaakshetramuttareshaamprasupta-tanu-vichhinnodaaraanaam I (Y. S. II.4).
Ignorance is taking the noneternal, the impure, the painful, and the non-self for the eternal, the pure, the happy, and the atman of self (respectively) – (Anityaassuchi–dukkhaanaatmasu-nityashuchisukhaatmakhyaatiravidyaa I).
His knowledge is of the sevenfold highest ground (Tasyasaptadhaapraantabhumihiprajnaa I.
It is only an instrument of perception and experience and it reflects consciousness whereas Purusha is the suffer as a result of citta vrittis. The aim of Yoga is to remove all obstacles, ignorance, and causes of suffering leading to highest knowledge (paravidya). This knowledge is of seven stages. They are (1) realization that what is to be known is known, (2) absence of all pains, (3) attainment of full knowledge and experiencing transcendental consciousness (samadhi), (4) attainment of end of all duty through discrimination, (5) freedom from activities of citta, (6) freedom from mental impressions (samskara) and attributes (guna), and (7) establishing in one's own self or union with the atman.
According to the Upanishads, manas cannot be treated as consciousness, as the consciousness or self exists even without as explained in an enchanting dialogue between Indra and Prajapati (Chandogya Up. xi. i. x. 2). Brahman is also called prajnana. It is a mark or sign for consciousness. Any person endowed with this consciousness is called prajnanaghana. The Upanishads say that one should not only know and understand Brahman but also experience Brahman. Then, he verily becomes Brahman itself (Brahmavid brahmaivabhavati I).
Mandukyopanishad which is one of the smallest among the Upanishads describes four states of consciousness. They are the waking state (jagrat), dream state (svapnam), deep sleep state (sushupti), and fourth state (turiya). Turiya is a state in which there is no subjective or objective experience. There is no intermediate experience between the two. The experience is beyond senses, understanding, and all expressions. In a fascinating story of Indra and Prajapati in the Chandogya Upanishad, Indra learns about the three states of consciousness (Cha. Up. VIII. vii. 1–5, ix .1–2, ix .1–2, xii. 1). People experience the first three states everyday which are ordinary in nature. Turiya is called the highest state or supreme state of consciousness or the fourth state which can be experienced only through hard practice and introspection. The first three states of consciousness are dissolved in turiya. Upanishads declare that it is a state of knowledge and liberation and also as the supreme goal of spiritual life. The experience of Turiya frees oneself from ignorance (avidya), shackles of birth, death, and rebirth. The spiritual aspirant after sustained effort gets spiritual freedom.
According to Tantric texts, there are seven energy centers of consciousness. The seventh is located in the brain; these energy centers are called cakras. Through the regular practice of Kundalini Yoga and arousal of the centers of cakras, one has to reach the seventh, called sahasrara and there occurs the mystic union with the supreme reality. At that stage, one attains transcendental consciousness (Samadhi). According to Sri Ramakrishna, one should rise above six energy centers to get merged in divine consciousness. At that level, one seems to feel its warmth. When one rises to this plane, one attains samadhi that is the transcendental consciousness in which one realizes oneness with God.
Robert Beshara while dwelling upon the imaginary seven cakras of the body concludes that by balancing anahata mode of consciousness, one can experience health, peace, and happiness, within and without.
Purva Mimamsa philosophers do not accept God who is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient and they are silent on that matter. For them, attainment of heaven is the main objective in life. Carvakas as absolute materialists do not believe in the existence of the consciousness or soul.
Consciousness in Vedanta Philosophy
According to Advaita philosophy propounded by Adi Shankaracharya, consciousness alone is real (sat). It is of the nature of absolute existence (sat), knowledge (chit), and bliss (ananda). All other things are unreal (asat) or apparently real (sadasadvilakshana). In dreamless sleep, even the real selfpersists while the ego which we call ourselves as consciousness has become temporarily merged in ignorance (avidya) and has disappeared. When the illumined soul passes into transcendental consciousness (samadhi), the seeker realizes self as pure bliss (shuddhaanandaa), pure intelligence (shuddha chaitanya), and one without a second (advitiya). In this state of pure consciousness, all perceptions of duality and multiplicity end. There is no longer any sense of mine and yours. The external physical world (jagat) which has been superimposed (adhyasa) on Brahman has vanished, the self which is called atman, shines forth as the only one truth and Brahman, the ultimate reality of the universe. According to Swami Prabhavananda, transcendental consciousness (samadhi) cannot be investigated by scientific methods as those researches depend only on sensorial experiences and this is beyond sense perception. In the modern times, Sri Ramakrishna experienced this transcendental consciousness (samadhi) also called Turiya whenever he aspired for. To quote: “I see the truth directly; what need have I to philosophize? Isee how God has become this – he has become the individual being and the empirical world, there is nothing but he. This truth cannot be experienced until the heart is illumined. It is not a matter of philosophy, but of experience. Through the grace of God, the light must first shine in one's soul, when that comes to pass, one attains samadhi. Then, one comes back to the normal plain; one loses the material sense, one loses all attachments, to lust and gold. One then loves only, to hear and speak, the word of God.”
Ramanujacharya, who propounded Vishishtadvaita philosophy opines consciousness as an attribute and not a thing in itself. Further, he associates that with attributive consciousness (dharmabhutajnana) through which one experiences God. Although we are aware of our consciousness, we cannot experience it, as we are enveloped by ignorance at the individual level (avidya) and the worldly level (maya). Absolute consciousness is absolute knowledge by itself. Brahman becomes the source of all other kinds of knowledge which covers the knower (jnatru), the knowledge (jnana) and that which is known (jneya). Brahman goes beyond space, time, and causality. For Nimbarka, God is infinite and there are infinite ways to realize him. In his philosophy (Bhedhabhedha), Brahman has both absolute and relative aspects and it is both personal and impersonal. He is with attributes and without attributes. He can be attained by knowledge and devotion. According to Swami Prabhavananda, a transcendental state which is also called as samadhi, turiya, nirvana, kevala can be experienced by any serious spiritual seeker; this has been established from the Vedic age to the present. Finally, the sages and seers who experienced this transcendental consciousness emerge and start narrating their experiences not for their own sake, but for the good of their fellow beings.
The concept of nirvana in Buddhism relates to the total annihilation of ego which is the false self and it should be merged with the highest self which in turn is consciousness itself. Any person, who experiences this state, will go beyond the limitations of body, sense organs, mind, and unites with the ultimate consciousness or Parabrahman. The Nirvana and Turiya are neither theoretical nor conceptual aspects but they are beyond subject-object relationship, space, time, and causation. They can be attained by any serious spiritual seeker for which he should control his conscious and subconscious mind and practice physical, mental, and ethical disciplines.
In Jainism, a seeker has to attain perfect knowledge called kevala and free himself from the bonds of ignorance. This kevala is the knowledge of the soul equivalent to the transcendental knowledge of the Upanishads and the nirvana of the Buddhists.
Science–Religion–Spirituality (Science Spirituality Quest) debates and Seminars ###
Consciousness studies have gained great momentum in the past 25 years in the aftermath of Science–Religion–Spirituality debates, Science Spirituality Quest seminars and debates which are being actively participated by scientists, theologians, religious leaders, thinkers, researchers, and university students from all over the world. John Templeton Foundation, Philadelphia, USA, Center for Theology and Natural Sciences, Berkeley, USA, Oxford University, UK, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Science and Spirituality Research in India Trust (SSRIT (R), Bangalore, India, have organized several international seminars, talks, and surveys on these topics in many nations commendably thus bringing Nobel Laureates in Science, scientists, and research scholars from diversified domains of knowledge. According to these discussions, some in which Dr. Purushottama Bilimoria, Professor of Religious Studies, Deakin and Melbourne Universities, Australia, and the present author participated and learned that consciousness has two fundamental aspects, namely Being (called sad in Indic traditions) and Knowing (cit in Indic traditions). Manas becomes an instrument of knowing and also serves as an awareness aspect of consciousness from the epistemological sense. In the eastern tradition, the emphasis is on the aspect of Being whereas in the western tradition, Knowing aspect becomes important where consciousness becomes mind or state of mind. Initially, the writers in the West used both mind and consciousness interchangeably for conveying the same meaning which is diametrically opposite to Indian tradition. A few psychologists in the recent past have treated these two entities. For instance, Farthing tells that “consciousness is not the same as mind. Mind is the broader concept; it includes both conscious and unconscious mental processes.” The emphasis in the Indian spiritual tradition is to turn “inward.” Thus, consciousness becomes the only absolute reality in the nondualistic philosophy (Advaita) of Shankaracharya. Philosopher Ramakrishna Rao K says that “Even the schools of Buddhism recognize the existence of transcendental mental states and provide for nonintentional states of pure consciousness.”
Further, Dr. K Ramakrishna Rao analyses the fundamental distinction between consciousness or spirit, mind, and brain and opines that consciousness is the knowledge side of the universe and becomes the foundation for all awareness. According to him, consciousness cannot be an aspect of mind, does not interact with mind or any other objects of physical universe.
Awareness becomes explicit for understanding consciousness, and sometimes, it may be subjective experience. One could understand this consciousness through a reductive approach but should have qualitative criteria. One should be aware of Knowing the reality and then experience the Being. Thus, Knowing and Being are the two sides of consciousness.
Consciousness According to Modern Physics
Classical physics with its deterministic principles were opposed to spirituality and the concept of God for a long time. However, with new thoughts from quantum mechanics put forth by Quantum Physicists such as Max Plank (1900), Werner Heisenberg (1927) Erwin Schrodinger (mid1920s), and new cosmology, there was a paradigm shift from Newtonian mechanics to spirituality and for a synergy among the two in the last few decades. At present, the new physicists are of the view that the primary elements of reality are present among various fields (for e.g. Quantum field) through space and time. “The common source which, having spawned the universe, is now present at the fabric of space throughout the universe, thereby governing the foundational aspects of at least everything physical. This source brings us amazingly close to the concept of immanence in western theology and Brahman in the Indic tradition” as opined by Bhaumik, the quantum physicist. The mathematician and physicist Roger Penrose opines that consciousness becomes a part of our universe, and physical theories which does not accommodate it, fails in genuinely describing the world. The theoretical physicist Eugene Paul Wigner put forth the argument that both thought process and consciousness are primary concepts and the knowledge we obtain about the external world is nothing but the content of our consciousness, and hence, any study of external world leads one to the content of consciousness and that is the ultimate reality. In this regard, theoretical physicist David Joseph Bohm while analyzing the nature of atom postulated that atom behaves as a particle and also as a wave and hence he coined the new word “Wavicle.” Hence mind and matter became indivisible. This new development in the field of new physics comprising quantum theory, cosmology, theology regarding the origin of universe, reality was called anthropic cosmological principle in which leading thinkers such as Stephen William Hawking, Roger Penrose, Wheeler, and others evinced great interest. The theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking opines that “.the anthropic principle can be given a precise formulation and seems to be essential when dealing with the origin of the universe.” Theoretical physicist Sreekantan while explaining vacuum and reality opines that emergence of life or consciousness was not an automatic consequence of several cosmological activities during Big Bang and there was some oneness or interconnectedness and this gives key to the origin of universe and reality. The theoretical physicist Albert Einstein finally held the view that “experience becomes the sole criterion of the physical reality on mathematical construction. However, the creative principle resides in mathematics. In a certain sense, therefore, I hold it true that pure thought can grasp reality as the ancients dreamed.”
Matter v/s Mind
Karan Singh while analyzing on the topic of Cosmology, Consciousness, and Technology in Indic Traditions says that the “Cartesian–Newtonian–Marxist paradigm of thought postulated an unbreakable dichotomy between matter and spirit. However, with the Einsteinian revolution and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, quantum mechanics and extragalactic cosmology, these subjects have changed considerably resulting in a convergence between science and spirituality.”
The striking difference between matter and mind upheld by the votaries of science all along the history and triumphant march of science slowly dissipated and crumbled with the exploration of quantum physics. Now, the smallest subnuclear particle known as resonance is described more as a happening and an event rather than a particle. According to physicist Capra, “a question regarding the building blocks of matter remains unanswered.”
Today matter is at crossroads in the new light of quantum physics and new physics. These elementary particles can be interpreted as waves or particles. Scientists have grappled with this formidable problem of deciding whether light was just a stream of discrete minutest particles called photons or nothing but a continuous wave function. It was a gnawing problem as the experimental evidence indicated that in some situations, light behaved as if it was made up of particles, while in some cases, it behaved as if it was a wave function. As both aspects of this scientific dichotomy had a validity, scientists decided to define the phenomenon of light as a “wavicle” which meant that light was comprised of two contrary aspects, namely waves and particles. According to Bell, real particles exist but they follow strange orders. Physicist Fred Alan Wolf calls such activities of particles as “psychic phenomena.” Thinkers and scientists such as Michael Coleman Talbot (1992), biologist Rupert Sheldrake (1981), and Capra are advocating inter-actionism which emphasize that mind or ego, soul, psyche, spirit or conscious self somehow interacts with the body or matter through brain. Hence, there is a paradigm shift from the Newtonian division of matter and mind to the inseparable interconnectedness between matter and mind. Swami Vivekananda had remarked in the World Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893 as under: “Thus it is through multiplicity and duality that the ultimate unity is reached. Religion can go no further. This is the goal of all science.” Dr. Paul Charles William Davies, physicist at the university of Adelaide, writing on the matter of nature and mystery of consciousness, concludes that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the universe, connected in a deep and still mysterious way to the laws of nature.
The theoretical nuclear physicist Amit Goswami while discussing Quantum Physics, our origins and God, says that “in Newtonian physics, objects are determined things, but in quantum physics, objects are possibilities from which consciousness chooses.” While discussing about quantum physics and consciousness, he puts forth the concept that “quantum possibilities are possibilities of consciousness itself” and coins a new phrase, namely “Quantum Consciousness” which pervades the entire universe which is akin to Brahman consciousness advocated by Shankaracharya.
Dr. Roger Penrose, Rouse Ball Professor of mathematics, physicist at Oxford and a friend of Stephen. W Hawking, while discussing the phenomenon of consciousness, in the context of researches in artificial intelligence, Turing computer machines, computability, and nature of physical reality says thus:
“Consciousness seems to me to be such an important phenomenon that I simply cannot believe that it is something just accidentally conjured up by a complicated computation. It is the phenomenon whereby the universe governed by laws that do not allow consciousness is no universe at all. I would even say that all the mathematical descriptions of the universe that have been given so far must fail this criterion it is only phenomenon of consciousness that can.”
In the end, he raises following questions:
What happens to each of our streams of consciousness after we die? Where was it before each of us was born? Might we become or have been someone else? Why are we here? Why is there a universe at all in which we actually exist? These are puzzles that tend to come with the awakening of awareness in any one of us and no doubt with the awakening of genuine self-awareness within which every creature or other entity, it first came and suggests that for an answer to such questions, a theory of consciousness would be needed.
The Vivekachudamani (a philosophical poem) of Shankaracharya (verses 126–133 and 427–430) summarizes the concept of four states of consciousness, namely waking (jagrut), dream (svapnam), deep sleep (sushupti), and trance (turiya) states, subject and object relationships, combination of subjectivity and objectivity termed “omnijective” by Michael ColemanTalbot and consciousness beyond space time continuum.
The Neuropsychologist Roger Wolcott Sperry while discovering the contemporary debates on Science and Religion informs that this shift from a causal determinacy that is purely physical to one that includes conscious, subjective forces that supersedes the physical makes all the differences when it comes to using the truths of sciences as criteria of ethical values.
According to Amit Goswami, when a person understands the meaning of quantum physics clearly, then it “becomes clear that consciousness cannot be a mere phenomenon of the brain. Furthermore, there is no need to undermine mind and other internal objects as epiphenomena of the brain and body. Instead, quantum physics and all sciences must be based on monistic idealism: consciousness is the ground of all being, in which matter, mind, and other internal objects exist as possibilities.”
Nagendra in his article titled “Layers of consciousness” analyses the biological systems involved with prana beyond the functioning of DNA and RNA molecules and opines that with the availability of various electronic gadgets such as FMRI, PET, and polysomnography and analysis of brain, there is a possibility of “existence of consciousness as an independent intelligent creative entity governing the process of brain.” The author elaborates on several causal and subtle layers of consciousness mentioned in Indian philosophies such as (1) Annamaya kosha, (2) Pranamaya kosha, (3) Manomaya kosha, (4) Vijnanamaya kosha, and (5) Anandamaya kosha and further says that beyond these layers, there is an unchanging reality of pure consciousness from which the entire creation has emerged.
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