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world. The lower knowledge is analytical and it


Consciousness in Ancient India represents standard sciences (stra) with its many
branches. In addition, darana represents philosophy
where the problem of self is taken together with some
S UBHASH K AK aspect of outer reality. There is a complementarity
between the higher and the lower, each being necessary
The Vedic texts from ancient India (approx. 30001000 to define the other. This complementarity mirrors the
BCE) claim to be tmavidy, science of self or one between mind and body.
consciousness science. The most ancient of these is
the cryptic R. gveda. But prose commentaries, called the
Brhmanas and the Upanishads that appeared in the Recursive Reality and Mind
centuries following the Vedas, provide a framework to The Vedic texts present a tripartite and recursive view
decode its narrative, establishing its central concern of the world. The universe, viewed as three regions of
with consciousness. earth, space, and sky, is mirrored in the physical body,
Until recently, the question of consciousness was the breath ( prna), and mind. This connection is a
considered to lie outside of the scope of science and, consequence of a binding (bandhu) between various
consequently, the Indian texts on the subject were not inner and outer phenomena.
properly examined. Scientific attitudes toward con- The universe is understood to be a living organism
sciousness have changed due to the recent advances in and therefore subject to cycles of life and death. The
neuroscience and because modern physics and com- universe evolves according to cosmic law. Since it
puter science must confront the question of the cannot arise out of nothing, the universe must be
observer. infinitely old. Since it must evolve, there are cycles of
In the Vedic view, reality is unitary at the deepest level chaos and order or creation and destruction.
since otherwise there would be chaos. This reality is In the Vedic discourse, the cognitive centers are
called Brahman (neuter gender). Brahman engenders called the devas, deities or gods, or luminous loci. Thus
and, paradoxically, transcends the mind/matter split. It is the Atharvaveda calls the human body the city of the
identical to consciousness at the cosmic scale and it devas. Each deva reflects primordial consciousness and
informs individual minds. Turning focus to the very one can access the mystery of consciousness through
nature of the mind provides insight about consciousness. any of these.

Limitations of Language Mind in Indian Philosophy (Darsana)


Since language is linear, whereas the unfolding of The six systems of Indian philosophy are paired
the universe takes place in a multitude of dimen- together in three complementary groups: logic (Nyya)
sions, language is limited in its ability to describe and physics (Vaieshika); cosmology (Smkhya) and
reality. Because of this limitation, reality can only psychology (Yoga); and language (Mimms) and
be experienced and never described fully. All descrip- reality (Vednta). Although these philosophical schools
tions of the universe lead to logical paradox, and were formalized in the post-Vedic age, we find the basis
Brahman is the category transcending all oppositions. of these ideas in the Vedic texts. In each of these, the
Vedic ritual is a symbolic retelling of this worldview. question of the experiencing self is included.
Knowledge is classified in two ways: the higher or The objective of the Nyya is anvkshiki, or critical
unified, and the lower or dual. The higher knowledge inquiry. Its beginnings go into the Vedic period, but its
concerns the perceiving subject (consciousness), first systematic elucidation is given by Gautama in his
whereas the lower knowledge concerns objects. The Nyya Stra (third century BCE). The text begins with
higher knowledge can be arrived at only through the nature of doubt and the means of proof, considering
intuition and meditation on the paradoxes of the outer the nature of self, body, senses and their objects,
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2 Consciousness in Ancient India

cognition, and mind. The Nyya is also called pramna mental complex surrounds the innermost aspect of
stra or the science of correct knowledge. Knowing is consciousness, which is tman, the self.
based on four conditions: Yoga psychology of Patanjali is a very sophisticated
description of the nature of the human mind and its
1. The subject or the pramtri
capacity. It makes a distinction between memory, states
2. The object or the prameya to which the process of
of awareness, and the fundamental entity of con-
cognition is directed
sciousness. It puts the analytical searchlight on mind
3. The cognition or the pramiti
processes with clarity and originality.
4. The nature of knowledge or the pramna
Mmms and Vednta consider the analysis of
Gautama mentions that four factors are involved language and reality, respectively. Mmms ideas
in direct perception: the senses (indriyas), their objects became a part of the grammatical tradition and
(artha), the contact of the senses and the objects Vednta became a vehicle to consider consciousness
(sannikarsha), and the cognition produced by this in the most abstract sense.
contact ( jnna). The five sense organs eye, ear, nose,
tongue, and skin have the five elements light, ether,
Parallels with Cognitive Science
earth, water, and air as their field, with corresponding
There are intriguing parallels between the insights of
qualities of color, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
the early Vedic theory of consciousness and those of
Manas or mind mediates between the self and the
quantum mechanics and neuroscience. To express
senses. When the manas is in contact with one sense
Vedic ideas in modern terms, one might say that
organ, it cannot be so with another. It is therefore said
individual minds emerge out of the reflection that the
to be atomic in dimension. It is because of the nature of
brain provides to the underlying illuminating con-
the mind that our experiences are essentially linear,
sciousness. Therefore, senses of awareness, such as
although the quick succession of impressions may give
vision and hearing, may be separated from the person
the appearance of simultaneity.
who obtains this awareness.
Objects have qualities which do not have their own
The human brain represents the clearest structure to
existence. The color and class associated with an object
focus the self, which is why humans are able to perform
are secondary to the substance. According to Gautama,
in ways that other animals cannot. Self-awareness is an
direct perception is inexpressible. Things are not
emergent phenomenon which is grounded on the self
perceived as bearing a name. The conception of an
and the associations stored in the brain.
object on hearing a name is not direct perception but
From a modern scientific viewpoint, living systems
verbal cognition.
are dynamic structures, defined by their interaction
According to the atomic doctrine of Vaieshika
with their environment. Living systems may also be
ascribed to Kanda, there are nine classes of sub-
defined recursively in terms of living subsystems.
stances: ether, space, and time that are continuous; four
Thus, for ants, one may consider their society, an ant
elementary substances (or particles) called earth, air,
colony, as a living superorganism; in turn, the ants
water, and fire that are atomic; and two kinds of mind,
subsystems are also living. Such a recursive definition
one omnipresent and another which is the individual.
appears basic to all life. Machines, on the other hand,
The conscious subject is separate from the material
are based on networking of elements that create a well-
reality but he is, nevertheless, able to direct its
defined computing procedure, but they lack a recursive
evolution.
self-definition.
The Smkhya and the Yoga systems take the mind
The Vedic system, which was an earlier attempt to
as consisting of five components: manas, ahamkra,
unify knowledge, was confronted by paradoxes similar
chitta, buddhi, and tman. Manas is the lower mind
to that of contemporary science. It is noteworthy that
which collects sense impressions. Ahamkra is the
Schrdinger, the co-creator of quantum theory, admit-
sense of I-ness that associates some perceptions to a
ted to having been inspired by the Vedic texts.
subjective and personal experience. Once sensory
According to his biographer Walter Moore, there is a
impressions have been related to I-ness by ahamkra,
clear continuity between Schrdingers understanding
their evaluation and resulting decisions are arrived at
of Vednta and his research:
by buddhi, the intellect. Chitta is the memory bank of
the mind. These memories constitute the foundation on The unity and continuity of Vedanta are reflected
which the rest of the mind operates. But chitta is not in the unity and continuity of wave mechanics. In
merely a passive instrument. The organization of the 1925, the world view of physics was a model of a
new impressions throws up instinctual or primitive great machine composed of separable interacting
urges which create different emotional states. This material particles. During the next few years,
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Consciousness in Ancient India 3

Schrdinger and Heisenberg and their followers The first 25 categories relate to an everyday classifica-
created a universe based on superimposed insepa- tion of reality. The next 11 categories characterize
rable waves of probability amplitudes. This new different aspects of consciousness that are to be
view would be entirely consistent with the understood in a sense different to that of mental
Au1 Vedantic concept of All in One (Moore 1989: 173). capacities (categories 2123). One of these mental
capacities is akin to artificial intelligence, which is
The similarity between the Vedic system and quantum
geared to finding patterns and deciding between
mechanics and the fact that quantum mechanical
hypotheses. On the other hand, categories 2636 deal
models of consciousness are being attempted leads us
with interrelationships in space and time between these
to ask how far the Vedic thinkers took their classifica-
patterns and deeper levels of comprehension and
tory models of consciousness. We find both hierarchi-
awareness.
cal and distributed cognitive centers listed in the Vedic
Deterministic science cannot explain free will. If
texts.
consciousness is seen as emerging from the ground of
the classical world, then scientific laws again remain
Further Universal Categories incomplete. On the other hand, we do not know why
If the categories of the mind arise from pattern the brain-machine has awareness whereas computers
recognition of shadow mental images, then how are never will. Nor do we understand the mechanisms
these categories associated with a single agent, and behind psychoneuroimmunology or the astonishing
how does the mind bootstrap these shadow categories abilities of savants.
to find the nature of reality? The Indian approaches to consciousness seem to
These questions are examined in the later Vedic have anticipated many difficulties of contemporary
tradition both within the frameworks of Vaishnavism science. The classificatory systems developed in the
and Shaivism. Of the latter tradition, the later Kashmir Indian tradition define categories, such as that of
Shaivism of Vasugupta (AD 800) has in recent years universal experience, that can be seen to explain the C
received considerable attention (Shiva is the name for complementary nature of human experience. These
the absolute consciousness). categories clearly assign a central role to selectivity, or
According to Smkhya, reality may be represented in context, and change. The Vedic system takes the mind
terms of 25 categories. These categories form the to be emergent on the ground of the brain, but this
substratum of the classification in Kashmir Shaivism. emergence is contingent on the principle of conscious-
The Smkhya categories are: ness.
The ancient Indian texts of consciousness were long
1. Five elements of materiality, represented by earth, limited to philosophical analysis alone, remaining an
water, fire, air, and ether unexplored frontier in the history of science. Further
2. Five subtle elements, represented by smell, taste, advances in a scientific understanding of mind will lead
form, touch, and sound to a better appreciation of these texts.
3. Five organs of action, represented by reproduction,
excretion, locomotion, grasping, and speech
4. Five organs of cognition, related to smell, taste, References
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(purusha) Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Kak, Subhash. The Three Languages of the Brain: Quantum,
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4 Consciousness in Ancient India

Moore, Walter. Schrdinger: Life and Thought. Cambridge: Sacks, Oliver. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. New
Cambridge University Press, 1989. York: HarperCollins, 1985.
Pribram, Karl. The Implicate Brain. Quantum Implications.
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