Science and Vedanta (Part 3)

P1030147_hdr_OnonePart 3 of a 3-part essay by Dr. K. Sadananda, AchArya at Chinmaya Mission, Washington.

(read part 2)

What is Absolute Reality?

Vedanta defines the absolute reality as that which can never be negated at any time, trikAla abhAditam satyam. As an example, let us analyze a chair made of wood. Is that chair really real (satyasya satyam) or only transactionally real? When I dismantle the chair or break it into pieces, it is no more a chair. What was there before and what is there now is only wood. Hence wood is more real than chair. Chair is only a name for a form of wood arranged in some fashion to serve some purpose, and gets negated when the form is destroyed. I can do this without breaking the chair into pieces. I can cognitively say that there is really no chair there but what is there is only wood currently in the form of a chair. Chair is only transactionally real but not really real; and what is more real than chair is wood, the material cause for the chair.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says every object is nothing but just a name for a form with some function (nAama, rUpa and kriya); and it has no substantiality of its own. For example, if one looks at the wood carefully, it is just an assemblage of organic fibers; and there is really no wood there. Thus chair is dismissed and wood is considered as more real and then wood is dismissed and organic fibers are considered as more real. Organic fibers in turn are an assemblage of molecules which are just the assemblage of atoms, which in turn are assemblage of electrons, protons and neutrons, etc. At each level the name and form or nAma rUpa resolves into something else which is much more real than the previous state. The search for fundamental particles is still going on. In essence, we still do not know what chair really is as one form resolves into the next form. Vedanta says there is no real material substantive for any object. However, in these investigations what remains non-negatable that seems to fulfil the definition of the absolutely real is that which is present all the time, and without which no investigation of any object is possible. That non-negatable one is the very inquirer, who is a conscious entity, without whom no investigation of reality can take place.

Vedanta says I negate the whole waking world when I go to the dream state, and negate both waking and dream states, when I go to the deep-sleep state, and negate that state when I am awake. Each state negates the other. However, I can negate each state but cannot negate my own presence in each state. The states can change but I remain changeless. I play the role of a waker in the waking state, dreamer in the dream state and deep-sleeper in the deep-sleep state. The roles that I play keep changing, but ‘I’ remains the same, like an actor who is playing different roles in different scenes. Vedanta says I am the only one in the universe who is absolutely real; where ‘I am’ should be understood as a pure existent-conscious entity, and not the role that I play in each state. Thus each role has relative reality in that state but I am the absolute reality independent of any state or experience in any state. I am the subject, the conscious entity that cannot be objectified. Hence I cannot know myself as an object of my inquiry, since I am the subject in all objective knowledge.

The analysis of the perception discussed above shows that I am that light of consciousness that illumines every thought, and which is the locus of the objects that I perceive. In the waking state, the waking world of plurality forms the object of my knowledge; in the dream state, the dream world of plurality forms the object of my knowledge; and in the deep-sleep state the homogeneous absence of knower-known duality forms the object of my knowledge, and which also expresses as absence of any suffering or as reflected happiness.

Recognition of Myself

 While I play the role of waker in the waking state, and dreamer in the dream state and deep sleeper in the deep-sleep state, and I am neither a waker nor a dreamer nor deep sleeper since they are only roles in each state. Then who am I that is independent of the roles that I play? This forms the fundamental inquiry and Vedanta says I am pure existence-consciousness, which is limitless, and which is pure happiness since any limitation cause unhappiness. I can only experience the three states, waking, dream and deep-sleep states, where I am playing the roles of waker, dreamer and deep-sleeper. As long as I am in the BMI (body, mind, Intellect), I cannot but play the roles. I have to discover my true nature by negating the superficial roles that I am playing, while still playing, by claiming ‘neti, neti’ or ‘not this and not this’, since any ‘this’ is only name, form and function. Thus I arrive at the truth that I am pure existence-consciousness-limitless (sat-chit-ananda).

Logical analysis also indicates that the happiness that I am seeking comes from myself only. Yet, I mistake myself, with the limited body, mind and intellect, as ‘I am this’, in each state, and suffer the consequence of that identification. Hence Vedanta, as a science of absolute truth, analyzes the fundamental human problem, and declares that by identifying myself with what I am not, I take myself to be mortal, ignorant and unhappy. Vedanta points out that, being pure existence, I am eternal or unchanging; being consciousness, I am pure knowledge (without qualifications) that we said is undefinable; and I am of the nature of pure happiness, since I am infinite or limitless or complete.

In all human pursuits, I am trying to solve these three problems: I do not want to be mortal, I do not want to be ignorant and I do not want to be unhappy. These cannot be solved by any pursuits. At the same time, I cannot give up the pursuits. The entire rat-race is fundamentally to achieve these three. In essence, I am trying to solve a problem where there is really no problem to begin with. And every effort to solve a problem-less problem has become a fundamental human problem. The only solution to this problem is to recognize that there is no problem to begin with, by claiming myself to be pure existence-consciousness-limitlessness or as Bri. Up says – aham brahmAsmi.

Hence Vedanta becomes the absolute science of reality, since it reveals the absolute truth that transcends time and space. Bhagavatpada Shankara says this in the following cryptic manner:

brahmasatyam, jagan mithyaa, jiivobrahmaiva naaparaH|
anena vedyam tat shaastram, iti Vedanta dindimaH||

In essence he says that: a) the absolute reality is Brahman or infinite, b) the world is only transactionally real and not absolutely real and c) I am that Brahman. That by which all these three can be known is the real science (tat shAstram) and this is what Vedanta declares.

Finally, Vedanta also says that knowing this one knows, in essence, everything. On the other hand, in the relative knowledge or in any objective science, strange it may sound, the more one knows the more ignorant one becomes. The reason is obvious. In the example of chair, we still trying to find out what chair really is; and this is true with any object in the universe. In any objective field of science, the more one inquires about the truth, the more it opens up with the result that I discover that what I know is very little compared to what I do not know. My ignorance grows more than my knowledge. My area of specialization becomes narrower and narrower, the more I enquire into the nature of reality. Thus my ignorance of the subject grows faster than my knowledge.

Every scientific paper ends with the statement that a lot more study is required to understand the problem. That is the nature of all objective sciences. On the other hand in Vedanta, a student asks his teacher – Sir, please teach me that knowledge knowing which I will know everything – kasminno bhagavo vijanaate sarvam idam vijnaatam bhavati. The teacher is happy to teach that absolute science of Vedanta, knowing which one feels that he knows the very essence of everything. Hence Vedanta forms the absolute science, while all other objective sciences reveal only relative truths. The Bri. Up says that all objective sciences come under the umbrella of avidyA or ignorance only, since the ignorance increases with knowledge in any given field. These objective sciences however play an important role in the transactional world for the proper transactions. However, considering these relative sciences as absolute, and the absolute science as a belief system, only reveals our ignorance.

10 thoughts on “Science and Vedanta (Part 3)

  1. The third part of this Series starts with the Vedantic definition of “Absolute Reality.”

    As Scientists, don’t we see a circularity in the logic of that definition? Space as well as time are the creatures in Absolute Reality (AR). In other words, AR is prior to space-time. How can one then define AR in terms of its own creature?

    At the Quora forum from where Martin sourced the basis for his Series of articles on Science and Philosophy, I argue that, no matter whether it is Science or Philosophy, the ultimate “Truth,” whatever it may be, is UNKNOWABLE !

    There is a very educative and entertaining Talk (Oct 2014) by Theoretical Physicist Sean Carroll with the title of “Death and Physics.” It touches on many issues relevant to the debate on Science and what can be known. His Talk is about 30 min (Total Video: 43:46 min)
    Link: //

    Quite worth your time, if you have the inclination.


  2. Dear Ramesam,

    Thanks for the interesting link. Is there any reference you can point me to that explains how consciousness (and thoughts / perceptions / feelings) arise from matter (i.e. the physics of atoms) vs the Vedantic position that matter ‘arises’ out of consciousness?


    • Dear Venkat,

      Thanks. Happy to note that you found the Carroll Talk interesting.

      Re: Consciousness arising our of matter:

      I am afraid I do not know any reference. The theories are still in a speculative stage. Most Scientists consider it as an emergent attribute like the ‘wetness’ of water arising when one gas (hydrogen) burns in another gas (oxygen).

      Re: Consciousness (as thoughts / perceptions / feelings):

      Ever since Francis Collins and Christoff Koch came up with their Astonishing Hypothesis, Neuroscientists ventured into the field of investigating ‘consciousness.’ In late nineties, Roger Penrose (Mathematician-Physicist) and Stuart Hameroff (Anesthesiologist) proposed their Orchestrated Objective Reduction theory of superposed states in the tubulin protein of the neuronal cell walls in the brain. These days there are more theories coming up like the “Phi” Model (Integrated Information) of Guilio Tononi and so on.

      You may have already watched the lecture of Donald Hoffman at the SAND 2014. I found his approach quite interesting.


  3. There was something that bugged me about Sean Carroll’s articulate presentation – and I think it was a certain level of smugness, conceptual arrogance that everything worth knowing was or would be solved by science. He comes across as if physicists are the new high priests of truth. So we need to go to them to unlock the secrets.

    That reminded me of a conversation between David Bohm and K:

    K: So knowledge is becoming the curse. You see, perception has nothing to do with knowledge. Truth and knowledge don’t go together; knowledge cannot contain the immensity of mystery.

    Dr B: Yes, I think if we start with a little child, he may place the mystery in some part that he doesn’t know. He could put it at the bottom of the ocean, or somewhere else outside, far away from where he is, and then he learns that people have been everywhere. Therefore the whole thing is made to appear non-existent.

    K: Yes. Everything becomes so superficial.

    Dr B: That’s the danger of our modern age, that it gives the appearance that we know more or less everything. At least that we have a general idea of the scheme, if not of the details.

    K: The other night I was listening to Bronowski, “The Ascent of Man”. He explains everything.

    Dr B: The original impulse was to penetrate into this mystery, that was the impulse of science. And somehow it has gone astray. It gives the appearance of explaining it.

    K: May I ask, do you as a trained scientist get the feeling of this mystery.

    Dr B: I think so, yes. But I’ve always had some of that, you see.

    K: But in talking now, do you get more of the intensity of it? Not because I feel intense, that’s a totally different thing, that then becomes influence and all that. But in talking about something we open a door.

    Dr B: Yes. I think that my particular conditioning has a great deal in it to resist this notion of mystery, although I think that science is now going in a wrong direction.

    K: But even the scientists admit that there is a mystery.

    Dr B: Yes, to some extent. The general view is that it could be eventually cleared up.

    K: Cleared up in the sense of explained away.

    Dr B: My own feeling is that every particular scientific explanation will be a certain part of this field of reality, and therefore will not clear away the mystery.

  4. As JK said, all ‘knowledge’ (accumulated information) is a curse. That is the ’cause’ in a way for bondage. That is the exhortation of our ancients too — to end the ‘known’ [(veda = knowledge, the known, + anta = end) = Vedanta] to be really ‘free’ (moksha). What remains then is the “Mystery” – an indicative word to say that whatever that may be, it is inexpressible.

    I guess, what David Bohm, as a Physicist, too was saying as much at the end of the conversation quoted by you. Hence both Science and Vedanta can take you that far and no further. The moth can reach the flame. It will never know the taste of the flame. That is why, IMHO, the ‘uber Truth’ is unknowable to man, whatever maybe the approach.

    I hold no brief for Sean Carroll. Still I may be allowed to say that he may not be talking from a position of arrogance; what he speaks maybe coming form a place of confidence.


  5. Addressing your last point first, the confidence is that of a high priest that has faith in his knowledge, to answer everything. But no humility – and therefore a closed mind. And certainly not in keeping with vedanta, as the end of knowledge!

    Agree with the gist of your comments though. The Oracle of Delphi pronounced Socrates as the wisest of Greeks. Why? Because he believed and said “One thing only I know. And that is that I know nothing”.

    How is one to know that by which all this is known?

  6. Just a point of clarification here – vedAnta does not mean ‘end of knowledge’ as some have said; it simply means the concluding portion of the Vedas as opposed to veda pUrva, the preceding or former part. vedAnta is also known as j~nAna kANDa, while the veda pUrva is known as karma kANDa. The latter part is the province of the uttara mImAMsaka philosophers (dvaita, advaita and visiShTAdvaita); the former of the pUrva mImAMsa philosophy of Jaimini.


  7. Dear Dennis,

    What you say is correct in a general sense. But, we have from Bhagavad-Gita:

    traigunya vishayAH vedAH nistraiguNyo bhava arjuna — II-45

    Meaning: The Vedas are concerned with the subject matter of the three guNa-s (the known). You should transcend them, Arjuna.

    Therefore, from an Advaita philosophical perspective, one can say that the “known” has to end, i.e. to say that the duality of knower-known (subject-object) has to cease.

    I think JK too, in his speeches, used to talk of Vedanta to mean ‘ending of the known.’ He also used to talk more often of ’emptying the mind’ — to be free of the ‘known,’ because the object (the percept) arises only with the ‘perceiver’ (a sense of separate self, a ‘me’)) arising.


  8. Dear Ramesam,

    Fair enough. But there are some who are attached to the idea that the mind somehow has to die before mokSha can be ‘gained’ and who do not accept that ‘enlightenment’ is an event in the mind, akhaNDAkAra vRRitti. Self-knowledge is still ‘knowledge’, so that we do not want to end knowledge altogether!

    Best wishes,

  9. I think that the two (intermediate, partial, or provisional?) conclusions that Dennis and Ramesam arrived at – the ‘end of the Vedas’ (D), and the ‘ending of the mind’ (R) – can be reconciled, both having a parcel of truth and particular (contextual) locations in the scriptures. But there is something else that interests me, namely, ‘mystery’, and ‘the unknowable’ reality. Ramesam alludes to both in his Jan.11.15 post:

    Ramesam: “’Mystery’ – an indicative word to say that whatever that may be, it is inexpressible…. Hence both Science and Vedanta can take you that far and no further. The moth can reach the flame. It will never know the taste of the flame. That is why, IMHO, the ‘uber Truth’ is unknowable to man, whatever maybe the approach.”

    I think, certainly, that Ramesam is correct, but that there is a missing link here: religion and what it contributes – to the truth itself and to salvation (moksha). A truth that is finally ineffable and inexpressible, consistent with Ramesam’s description, hence “mysterious” (from muo: ‘closed eyes or mouth’). Can it not be said that science, philosophy, and religion form a continuum? If so, the role of religion cannot be alone concerned with action, duties, and rituals (karma-kanda), but with something else besides, which can be left out inadvertently: love (devotion), virtue (dharma), and beauty (contemplation). Love of sacred images, music or recitation (hymns, japa) and dance, and contemplation of nature and of the silent source of all Being.

    Thus, one can move – in a natural way, and I would say, or suggest, in that order – from science to philosophy to the core of religion and religious values: Science points to the transcendent, philosophy clears the ground, and mysticism – prajna/anubhava – reaches the end. This is the unitary
    vision, and man can afford it if he follows the right way with dedication.

    The philosopher Plato ultimately placed Value above Being, knowledge becoming dependent on love, at whose centre is the love of that which “inspires the mind… allured by the Good and drawn to it… which in turn gives “wings” to the soul”.

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