Science and Consciousness

(This article was originally published in ‘Yoga International’ magazine Aug-2011. I don’t think the magazine exists any longer, which is why no link is provided.)

During the past few years, an increasing number of scientists have claimed insight into the nondual nature of reality. These claims, however, ignore a fundamental truth: Consciousness falls outside the scope of scientific investigation. Therefore, by their very nature, such claims cannot be valid.

There has always been a degree of animosity between science and spirituality. The Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo over his insistence that the Earth was not the center of the universe comes to mind, as does the current debate between Creationists and those preferring the more down-to-earth tenets of Darwinian evolution. It is encouraging, therefore, to see the growing number of books and articles written by scientists on the subject of nonduality. There is even an annual conference with the title “Science and Nonduality,” thus making it possible to explore these two avenues of knowledge in the same forum.

Paradoxically, both the power and the ultimate shortcoming of science as a tool for investigating the nature of reality lie in its objectivity. The scientific method of empirical observation and subsequent reasoning is something it shares with Vedanta, along with the acceptance of findings from those who have gone before (providing these findings do not contradict more recent discoveries).

Science has made a significant contribution to persuading people to consider that the world may not be as it initially appears to our limited organs of perception. At one end of the scale, the scanning electron microscope looks into the supposed solidity of the matter beneath our fingertips. At the other extreme, the Hubble telescope peers toward infinity into the swirling clouds of galaxies invisible to the naked eye. ‘Reality’ is far more subtle than everyday experience would have us believe. The hardness of the table on which I write is due to irrevocable laws regarding the spin of electrons and their sharing of orbitals around atoms. Massive energy sources in the universe result from entire galaxies being sucked into black holes. Our own senses are quite inadequate for the job of explaining the behavior of the world around us, whereas science seemingly can. Continue reading

Q. 433 Seeking ‘nondual experiences’

Q: For the better part of four decades, I was on the hunt for spiritual experiences that would ‘expand my consciousness.’ I now realize and understand that only Self-Knowledge can provide lasting peace, and any experience is something that comes and goes in time and therefore can never be a permanent condition. However, I still find it very difficult to drop the search for a Big Bang event, after which I can safely say: “Ok, now I am enlightened for sure.”

What is confusing about this is that there are so many teachers who seem to have a pretty clear grasp of nondual teaching and still speak in terms of what happened during their awakening or enlightenment event. Francis Lucille, for example, talks about his experience in Eternity Now. (“For a few moments, the pure I-thought seemed to vacillate, just as the flame of an oil lamp running out of fuel, then vanished. At that precise moment, the immortal background of Presence revealed itself in all its splendor.”) Franklin Merrell-Wolff provides an amazingly clear description of the ‘Recognition’ events that happened to him after studying Shankara. Ken Wilber talks of having been consciously aware for 11 straight days, even through deep sleep, etc. Clearly, Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj both went through Big Bang type spiritual awakenings, and of course, there are numerous other similar reports by various sages and gurus. Continue reading

Two questions answered in Quora

Is soul different from consciousness?

I agree with the responders here that equate both concepts – soul and consciousness – which in themselves are just pointers to what is real/reality. Reality can only be one, not multiple; thus, to make a distinction between soul and consciousness, or between spirit and matter, God and the world (or ‘I’), experience and knowledge  – or between Brahman and Atman – is either provisional (an intermediate doctrine or teaching) or confusing and limiting.

Another polarity which is ultimately unreal (only verbal or conceptual) from an unitary or metaphysical perspective is singularity/multiplicity. Language has its rights, but in this rarefied realm I would also equate spirituality with metaphysics, knowing full well the risks or misunderstandings that it can lead to. Continue reading

Is there Rebirth?

Deep in the remote thick jungles of Dandaka, there was a tribal village called Bhrashtakshi. It is said that two moons appear in the sky of that village. Ask any villager, child or adult and they can easily show the two moons when the sky is clear – one a little right to the other, same size but a little less bright.  All their songs and school books have been singing of the two moons for generations. The moon-pair is worshiped as the Goddesses of the Twins. People pray to these Goddesses to beget children.

Dr. Sulochan, M.D., happened to go as a Health worker to that village. She was surprised to detect everyone had a double vision. Further investigations showed congenital issues and also deficiencies in their nutrition. But the villagers were not convinced. They were sure it was all a play by the powers of the City to take over their ancient properties. Their ancestors always said that there had been two moons in their sky. How can the knowledge coming from their forefathers be wrong? They have their texts to prove the two moons in their sky. They have seen and lived with two moons for centuries. It’s a huge huge conspiracy, resolved the Village elders – the City dwellers want to steal their moons. Continue reading

Advaita Vedanta

A) Advaita Vedanta can be called a mystical path, a spirituality, science of reality, or a combination of both (which I prefer). It can be called nonduality or ‘Monism’ (preferably the first): monism because it takes reality as being One (“without a second”). Nonduality because – though reality is one in essence or ultimately – it presents itself as apparently two: purusha-prakriti, Self- not self, sat-asat, subject-object, Atman-brahman. That apparent dichotomy, as stated, is reducible to the one reality which can be called variously ‘pure consciousness’, ‘the absolute’, ‘sat-chit-ananda’ (being-consciousness-bliss)… the unnamable. Words – language – are secondary, needed to express what is in itself inexpressible. What is inexpressible can be/is a (self) realization of ‘what is’  (anubhava) arrived at by intuition and (Vedantic) reasoning. Continue reading

jIvanmukti – An Illustrative Case

The highly revered Sringeri Pitham in India, as is well-known to all, is the sterling center devoutly upholding, preserving, maintaining and propagating the Shankara Advaita. The unbroken succession of the Pontiffs right from the time Shankara established the Matha to date has many a jIvanmukta in its line embellishing the holy precincts of the Ashram. Their exemplary lives illustrate the way one attains liberation while in life (jIvanmukti) and provide answers to many of the doubts a seeker may have in his/her quest to freedom from the bondage in samsAra. Continue reading

Vedanta the Solution – Part 48

VEDĀNTA the solution to our fundamental problem by D. Venugopal

Part 48 concludes the explanation of the mahAvAkyatat tvam asi‘ by a detailed analysis of the mechanism by which the contradictory mithyA aspects of Ishvara and jIva are given up, leaving the satyam oneness of brahman.

There is a complete Contents List, to which links are added as each new part appears.

Q. 432 ‘Definition’ of brahman

Q: So brahman is, ‘by definition’, that which is beyond mind, conceptualization, understanding etc. If one takes this seriously, not just metaphorically/allegorically, how can one validly say anything at all about brahman? E.g. Brahman is: unchanging, timeless, attribute-less.

If it’s unknowable, how can we know these attribute-less attributes about it? We are told that Brahman is real; we are Brahman. But if we can’t know Brahman, how can we know it is real or that we are it? Does it ultimately all come down to believing the conclusions and insights of the scriptures?

A: Brahman is not anything ‘by definition’, because we cannot define it.

It is true that you cannot, strictly speaking, say anything at all about it. All of these statements from the scriptures are simply pointers. You know what those words mean so that your mind can gain some insight. Ultimately, the accumulation of insights enables the mind to make that catastrophic (in mathematical terms) ‘rearrangement’ that we call enlightenment. The problem is simply that all concepts and objects are ‘known’ so cannot be Atman-brahman. Atman is the ‘knower’ and there would have to be another knower to know it. Since there is only brahman in reality, there cannot be anything else to know it.

But Atman is not something that is not known. Indeed it is known more intimately than any concept-object because we are the Atman. And the Atman is neither an object nor a concept. Here is what Sureshvara says (naiShkarmya siddhi III.47 – 48):

“Because the Self is of the form of constant awareness, it requires no second means of knowledge to reveal it; because it is without sound or other attributes it is beyond the sphere of doubt. The Self cannot be known through the empirical means of knowledge such as perception, etc, which are but phlegm coughed up by the thirst for life. Indeed, it is not a possible object of empirical cognition, since it is the innermost Self and since it exists for its own sake.”

Another reason is that all forms of perception are directed outwards, so that we could never ‘perceive’ the Self. And, since inference is itself based upon perception, we cannot infer the Self either.

So, yes, you are effectively right that, when it comes down to topics such as this, the scriptures are the final, indeed the only, authority. But it is not exactly ‘faith’ as this word is normally understood. The scriptures do not ask us to believe in anything that is unbelievable. That we are the Atman is effectively self-evident. What the scriptures tell us is that this Atman is Brahman.

* Note that I have posted a series of four articles, entitled ‘What is brahman?’ that discusses this whole subject and explains the two ways in which we can talk about brahman – svarUpa and taTastha lakShaNa-s, intrinsic and incidental definitions. The articles begins here:


Q. 431 Emergence vs. Consciousness

Q: In Advaita one learns to ‘unravel’ objects: table as wood, wood as cells, cells as molecules, molecules as atoms, atoms as subatomic particles, etc. (neti neti!) all the way down. What Advaita says ‘lies at the bottom’ is Brahman, the oneness from which all apparent objects of form manifest.

What seems just as (if not more) intuitively plausible to me is that what lies at the bottom is: a few primal emergent ‘rules’. Perhaps even just one rule: attraction/repulsion. Electrons are attracted to protons and repelled by other electrons giving way to atoms, atoms are attracted to other atoms giving way to molecules, and so on, all the way up to the forms we know and love.

In this view of reality, there is no top-level overarching ‘organizational’ principle: Consciousness. There is instead a vast web of ‘stuff’ that arises from a few simple low-level emergent rules. As with all emergent systems, the application of these rules, once sufficiently complex, creates a system that seems to have an overarching top-level intelligence/intentionality/organizational principle, but in reality doesn’t.

So, friends: Who wins? Emergence or Consciousness? Or is it a non-zero-sum game: Are emergence and Consciousness not mutually exclusive?

A (Dennis): If you have read my articles about science and its views, you will know that I do not regard it very highly when it comes to consciousness and reality!

The ‘unraveling’ is an explanation of the concept of mithyA and provides an intuitively reasonable explanation as to why all ‘things’ are just name and form of brahman. If you try to turn this around you are then tacitly assuming that the empirical reality has some absolute reality, which it doesn’t (unless you are just accepting that ‘everything is brahman’). Or you are just attempting to use science to ‘explain’ Ishvara. Because Advaita would call your ‘fundamental laws’ or ‘primary emergent rules’ Ishvara. Ishvara is both intelligent and material cause for the (apparent) creation. In reality, of course, there has never been any creation. Both the ocean (universe) and the wave (individual) are always only water.

States of Consciousness – 2, 3, 4 and 1/2?

Okay, here is your starter for 10 – your time starts now! (If you’re not familiar with this phrase, it relates to the quiz show ‘University challenge’, which was on British television for many years.)

The question is: how many states of consciousness are there?

I can almost see your mind tripping up and reading that question again. Surely, you will say, there are three states of consciousness – waking, dreaming and deep sleep. What can I possibly mean by querying this? Well, actually, depending upon how you answer this question, the number of states of consciousness could be two, three or five (or 4 ½) or you could argue that the very question is misconceived!

It is true that most of the scriptures refer to 3 states. If you have read my book ‘A-U-M: Awakening to Reality’, you will know that it refers to jAgrat, svapna and suShupti. These three states are mithyA and the reality underlying them is called turIya. In the tattva bodha (attributed to Shankara), the question is asked: avasthAtrayaM kim? – What are the three states? Admittedly, this is a somewhat leading question but the answer is given: jAgratsvapnasuShuptyavasthAH – they are the waking, dream and deep sleep states. And it goes on to explain each in turn. Continue reading