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III.2. Consciousness and Mind in the Vedic Tradition

Part III.2

Consciousness and Mind in the Vedic Tradition

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Brain, Mind and Consciousness

 

������ Three interrelated aspects of intelligence exist that we can examine as human beings. The first is the brain, the physical organ of intelligence subject to outer surgical and biochemical forms of examination. Such brain research has allowed scientists to map out the brain and its various functions with great precision and great curative or corrective powers for mental dysfunctions.

 

The second is the mind, the conditioned awareness that operates through the brain as its instrumentality. The mind is subtler than the brain and can access higher levels of awareness beyond the physical. Actually, we all primarily experience the mind, not the brain. We live in the realm of our senses with little feeling of our internal bodily organs. The mind has various functions like thought, emotion, ego, sensation and memory. It can not only reflect physical realities but can infer the laws behind physical appearances and speculate about what transcends physical reality.

 

The third factor of intelligence is consciousness or an unconditioned awareness beyond both body and mind. Yogis claim to experience this and most people can sense or infer it through the mind as our inherent intuition of the eternal. Consciousness is usually defined as immortal and infinite, not limited to any organ or instrument, physical or subtle. It is a universal principle pervading the entire world of nature, not as simply expressed in embodied creatures.

 

I would also introduce a fourth factor, prana or the life-force, both as an individual and as a cosmic principle. If there is a universal consciousness there must also be a universal life-force for its manifestation. I have avoided using the term �God� for consciousness as a universal principle because the term is often defined in terms of faith or emotion and is commonly confused with personal experience or historical revelation.

 

In addition, apart from pure consciousness can be inferred a �cosmic intelligence� or cosmic mind as the ground of the laws of the universe, whereas consciousness itself transcends time and space. We could call consciousness and cosmic intelligence the �immanent� and �transcendent� aspects of consciousness, with the mind as the �individualized� aspect of consciousness.

 

Modern science focuses on the brain and has tried, though unsuccessfully, to define the mind in terms of brain function, as if the mind did not exist before birth or persist after death, and its functions were identical with that of the brain. The mind, being the subtlest and most inward part of our embodied nature, is not easy to examine on an outer level, any more than inner concerns like art, philosophy or religion can be reduced to a scientific formula or experiment.

 

The Vedic tradition defines the mind as having four functions as reason (buddhi), sensation-emotion (manas), ego (ahamkara), and memory-feeling (chitta), and as connected to prana, which in turn is connected to the physical body. These functions have been described in great detail in traditional texts and it is possible to see how they are functioning in each person.

 

Vedic science calls the mind the �subtle body� (sukshma or linga sharira) and considers it capable of surviving death and reincarnating into a new body, along with a subliminal core of memories and tendencies (karmas and samskaras). These samskaras make up the karmic code of the individual, which is more important than the outer physical genetic code in determining individual behavior and destiny. Vedic practices, like Yoga and rituals, aim at changing this karmic code from something restrictive to something enlightening, and ultimately freeing us from it altogether so that we can reclaim our original nature as pure consciousness.

 

Vedic science regards the deepest core of the mind, what could be called the soul (jiva) as the entity that reincarnates as part of a higher evolution of consciousness. However, it holds that this jiva and the universal consciousness are not accessible to the ordinary human mind but require rigorous spiritual and meditation practices (sadhana) that can take many years in order to really experience. Such sadhana requires purifying the mind and putting it in a silent, calm or one-pointed focus, which eventually allows it to perceive the underlying universal consciousness. For this purpose it requires an energization of prana to raise the mind to a higher level of functioning.

 

Questions

 

Relative to modern science this view raises some questions. A number of physicists have speculated about consciousness as the ground of all physical laws and as necessary to explain the workings of the universe, which depends upon and is altered by its observer. However, if a universal consciousness exists, there must be a universal life-force as well. This would mean that the mind, sense organs and sensory capacities are universal factors like light or sound and would, in various forms, be found in different creatures throughout the universe, as well as being generally available, like interstellar dust, in cosmic space. Similarly, there would be a cosmic intelligence as a ground of the laws of nature, as its causal principle. It would not be a question merely of consciousness and physical reality but of various intermediate principles between the two such as the tattvas of Vedic thought (as in the Samkhya system of philosophy). Clearly there is much more in the universe that modern science is only suspecting but that Vedic science has long known and explored.

 

Relative to the relationship between the brain and the mind, there are distinctions between the impairment of the brain and the impairment of intelligence that we can easily observe. When a genius has a stroke, the brain is damaged but their intelligence is not always reduced, only the ability to communicate it. Similarly, there are people with well physically developed or large brains that are not particularly intelligent. When a great yogi meditates there would be changes in the brain chemistry that should be to some extent measurable, but his does not mean his experience is measured, any more than the movement of a man is understood by the movement of his shadow.

 

On a deeper level, the question arises whether the approach of modern science is appropriate to consciousness or whether an alternative approach is required, that of the inner science of Yoga. Science approaches the mind through measurement and technology, through extending the range of our sensory instruments. Yogic science regards this outer approach as inherently limited and ultimately illusory (Maya) because each system of measurement (Maya also means measurement) creates its own bias, measuring some aspects but not the whole, which in its totality and essence must remain immeasurable. Yoga uses the methods of meditation to turn the mind itself into an instrument to perceive consciousness directly, which it holds can occur once the mind is detached from the field of the senses (nirvishaya manas). This inward turning of the mind is the essence of the yogic spiritual quest. It has its logic, rationality and experiments but in the mind itself, not externally.

 

Vedic Science Revalidated

 

In the Vedic view, we live in a conscious universe. Consciousness exists not only as an individual factor in living beings, but also as a cosmic factor in the forces and objects of nature, including the planets and stars. Through our individual consciousness we can access this universal consciousness and its wisdom, grace and power, just as a child can call on and gain the help of its parents. This understanding affords us an entirely different relationship with the universe, not as an external object but as part of oneself. Such a vision can totally transform our culture and our species and bring about a new interaction between our species and the greater world.

 

There is much ground for a new dialogue between Vedic (yogic) Science and modern science as between the inner and outer aspects of science. Vedic science holds that our intelligence (buddhi) can not only discriminate the names, forms and numbers of external reality, but, turned within, can discriminate the eternal aspect of consciousness from these outer factors. This internal discrimination, viveka, is said to be the means of liberation and transcendence.

 

If this yogic approach is valid, then Vedic sciences including Vedanta (the way of Self-realization), Ayurveda (pranic or energetic medicine), Jyotish (Vedic astronomy and astrology) and Vastu (Vedic science of architecture and directional influences) can have a scientific basis through such factors as universal consciousness, cosmic intelligence and the universal life-force. The Vedas offer us a science and technology to access this universal consciousness and life-force, just as we can use electricity or solar power with the help of modern science. These are important concerns for determining the real meaning of our existence. We can no longer define life in terms of chemical forces alone. We must recognize subtler levels of reality than matter or energy up to pure consciousness itself.

 

Spiritual and Material Sciences

 

India has developed and preserved this science of consciousness since times immemorial as its great heritage, with living traditions and great modern teachers like Ramana Maharshi, Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. Though India has been slower than the West to develop science and technology, this has been more a circumstance of political instability owing to foreign invasions, not any religious hostility to the open pursuit of knowledge which has always been honored in the country.

 

As India has probably more scientists than any other country in the world today, it has the best position among countries to integrate the spiritual and material sciences. This will probably be its most important contribution to humanity in the coming decades. To this end, its scientists need to be willing to engage in the disciplines of yogic science and the practice of meditation so that they can really contact the consciousness behind the universe. Similarly, its yogis need to reformulate their teachings in clear, modern and experimental terms so that the yogic way of knowledge can gain credibility as a scientific, not simply religious pursuit.

 

Humanity needs to develop its heritage both of spiritual and material sciences. The spiritual sciences provide the view of consciousness that enable us to use the material sciences�and the awesome forces they can release�in a truly humane and sensitive way for the entire world. We must once more recognize the consciousness at the ground of all being and all existence everywhere, in the animate and the inanimate. This is not a matter of more information, but a different view of life in which we learn the art of looking within.

 

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