Mind occupies a significant place in the teaching of Vedanta philosophy.
All the talk of liberation pertains to the mind only. Maîtri Upanishad (VI-34-11) holds mind to be central for the liberation or bondage of human beings. amRitabindu Upanishad (mantra 2) makes it further clear stating that “the mind engrossed in objects of senses leads to bondage but the same mind free from attachment to objects leads to liberation.”
But what is this mind?
Chandogya Upanishad, 6. 5. 1 says: “The food that is eaten becomes divided into three parts. The grossest part becomes excreta. The medium constituent becomes flesh. The subtlest part becomes mind (antaHkaraNam)”.
Swami Satprakashananda, who established the Vedanta Society in St. Louis, USA, says, “mind is something distinct from the physical body on one hand and the spiritual Self on the other.”
Rupert Spira makes things, however, much simpler. He says mind is the current thought.
Though some may opine differently, a majority of Neuroscientists today consider the “mind” to be what the brain does. The brain works essentially in electromagnetic and chemical fields. The electro-chemical fields give us scope to read and record brain’s activity. These records can be calibrated and interpreted to know your thoughts. Thus we can capture and map your mind. This has been done successfully under laboratory conditions. Scientists could even know what your decision is going to be (say, press a red or green button) by about seven seconds even before you yourself are aware of your decision! Let me hasten to add that it does not mean that scientists are capable of mind-reading. Far from that. Nevertheless, we have reasonable confidence on the approach we have in understanding what “mind” is and to declare that mind is not an ethereal diaphanous something made up of an unknown mindstuff. Science, in its true spirit of inquiry, does also not rule out the possibility of discovering in future other as yet unknown force fields acting on the brain.
If it is agreed that mind is the activity of the brain, there must be a biological reason for the mind to be.
The function of the heart is to pump blood — impure blood to the lungs and the purified blood back to the different parts of the body. The gastro-intestinal tract digests and assimilates the food, thus providing the energy needed by the body. Likewise, the mind-brain system has the duty to protect and help perpetuate the body-organism by anticipating the possible threats in the environment and also prime the organism to take advantage of opportunities for food and mate.
Weight by weight, brain is the most energy expensive organ in our body. Hence it learnt quite a few tricks to economize on the use of energy through time and energy saving shortcuts. It even switches itself (in some parts) off for some hours in a day. We call that ‘sleep.’
Let me digress here slightly to point out a fallacy we believe in.
We never identify ourselves with what our heart or the stomach does. We are not the blood pressure or blood in the heart. We are not the acidity or the gastric juice from the stomach. But funnily we identify and consider ourselves to be what the brain does (i.e. mind = the thoughts). There is no reason for this misidentification.
In fact what I call as “I” is a thought. This thought comprises primarily information of autobiographic nature. In effect, “I” is like a shorthand symbol. We may view (though not strictly in scientific terms) that “I” is a code word for my personality related information.
We may have another code word, say, “red.” It means that the photosensitive cells in our eyes are impinged upon by photons of 650 nm. A color blind person lacks the sensitivity for these wavelengths of light. He/she will not see any “red” color. Code “red” does not carry any significance for him. He sees only some shade of gray.
But one can make through a suitable device, the 650 nm light to produce a characteristic sound different from that of, say, 450 nm light wave. By wearing this device, the color blind person can get habituated to describe that he sees “red” color whenever he “hears” the 650 nm signal though he may never know how exactly you see “red.” Thus the code word “red” for him refers to a specific sound to which his ear is accustomed to.(Click for details).
Extending this logic, we may, for all practical purposes, call the thoughts (either verbal or in images) to be information codes. So whatever or whoever truly “I” am, I cannot be a “thought”, an activity seen in the brain!
Now coming back to our discussion on the mind.
Like the Morse code ticking in the telegraphic stations of the bygone era, the activity of the brain (read thoughts) goes on non-stop 24/7 collecting and processing information from the environment and assessing it in terms of the safety and security of the body-organism. Most of this activity takes place below the radar of our conscious awareness. Our brains have acquired in the biological evolution the ability of collecting and coding the information as thoughts through the replicators called genes and memes. In the typical style of Darwinian evolution, there is an excess of the thoughts produced and only select few are actually used by the organism.
The first and foremost tool in the survival kit acquired in evolution by all creatures is the tactic of “fight or flight.” It is up to the brain to assess whether the animal has to take flight or stand up and fight out a threatening situation faced by it.
The mind has to first grasp the observed situation before it can assess its pros and cons. But it cannot draw any meaningful conclusion out of an observation made through the senses unless the mind positions itself aloof as a distinct observer from what is observed. Thus a separation gets built up between itself and what is observed as an ‘object’. This process may be described as ‘Objectification.’
Objectification contributes certain physicality to the entities observed by the mind. We may call this process as “Reification.” Reification helps the organism in assessing its own ability to overpower the perceived threat. (It does not matter whether the threatening stimulus comes from sources that are external or internal to the body). Reification also reinforces the mind in its own belief in its separate and individual existence.
Suppose the organism is unable to stand up to the threat. The obvious thing to do is to take flight and save its skin. If the organism is, however, so weak-kneed or has developed cold-feet even to run, the best thing for its own safety is to play possum. A clever or more modern way of doing it is to ‘surrender’. Man being extremely fragile and weak in standing against the natural hazards and wild creatures, he quickly learnt the survival trick of deifying them and surrender to them by paying obeisance. This process can be described as “Deification.”
So to ‘reify or deify’ is the mantra that our mind has learnt as the modified form of the natural mechanism of ‘fight or flight’ syndrome in the game of survival.
The best example for reification is the very entity we call ‘mind’. ‘Mind’ is sometimes talked about as if it is an object (container) rather than a (thought) process. Some of the philosophers had even postulated a mental body, mental plane, mental world etc. made up of supposedly subtle “mindstuff.”
The example for deification is our habit of worshipping many of the natural elements attributing godly forms and supernatural qualities to them.
The most curious example for deification, however, is the Goddess ‘Maya’. Maya or illusion is nothing but an explanatory artifact used to explain the creation (see Gaudapada Karika, IV – 58 and Sankara’s commentary there on). Some authors compare maya to the operator ‘plus’ sign in an equation like Brahman plus thought is the world. Thus it has only a symbolical value. But look at the way ‘Maya’ is deified in Vivekachudamani, verse 108. She is described as “the power of the Lord. She is without a beginning, is made up of the three gunas, and is superior to the effects (it produces). She can be inferred only by clear intellect, from the effects. It is She who brings forth this whole universe.”
Vedanta tenaciously points out the processes of objectification and reification by the mind and exhorts us to transcend it.
Religion, however, welcomed and even took advantage of “Deification” to build complex faith based belief systems.