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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Atman and Meta-cognition are the same


The title is a bold statement. I am a novice. What credentials do I have to make such a sweeping statement? Nothing; except I have been reading and thinking deeply about this topic. Now, I find that passages I read recently in Book 12, Sections 240 and 241 of the Maha Bharatha seem to support that statement. These passages and the preceding ones establish that the following Sanskrit words are used interchangeably: sakshi, keshtragna, hrdaya and atman. The English translation uses the word Soul (sometimes, Self) for all of them.
It is said that mind (manas) “creates objects”. The mind itself is defined as of two varieties – one which is the receiver of information from sense organs and another higher one which makes perceptions out of them. Higher than mind is adhishtana, or understanding. This is also called buddhi ( Mahat becomes Buddhi immediately after emerges out of Prakriti, according to Samkhya).  Buddhi is often mistaken for soul, because it creates ideas of subjects and concepts within itself. Then, there is the witness (sakshi), which is translated to be soul. Soul is only a witness, but because of its association with the mental faculty (buddhi) it is mistaken for the soul. Buddhi also gets arrogant not knowing that there is a faculty behind it.
Universe is “creation” of this higher mind or buddhi, says the passage. This view is similar to that of Buddhist teachings. The passage also indicates that when this buddhi creates ideas within itself, it is called the mind, the higher one. When it desires something it is called ahamkara.
Then there is the “heart” which indicates what is agreeable and what is not. This is also called the soul or the self.
In the next passage atman (translated to soul or self) is said to present itself to our understanding as chit (consciousness) with knowledge as its attribute. Chit is also called perishable understanding. Atman is also called achetanabuddhi or understanding without consciousness. If so, atman is meta-awareness of our consciousness, witness of the witness. A later statement says that this (atman or soul) is identical with Brahman (which has no sex, not a he or a she or an it) and that evidence for the soul is provided by the soul itself. “That Brahman is the ultimate mystery and the highest knowledge”, says Vyasa in his dialogue with Suka and as narrated by Bhishma.
To me, all of these passages indicate that translation of several Sanskrit words into one English word is part of the problem. These Sanskrit words include sakshi, ksehtragna, chit and atman. They denote the same entity. The functions of  sakshi, ksehtragna, chit and  atman as described in these passages are the same as that of what modern neuroscience will call metacognition, awareness of awareness. And, then we are told that the jiva-soul or jivatman is the same as the Supreme Soul or Paramatman. This will be Brahman.
There is still the question of a possible support for this meta-awareness or soul or atman. If we reason backwards, is there one universal source of atman? That source will then be Brahman. In other words, there is no reason to let go of the idea of an ultimate Brahman. But, atman is meta-cognition arising out of the functioning of our brains. Neuroscientists know even the part of the brain which is related to this meta-awareness.
Buddha said the same thing. The idea of atman or self (lower self) is a product of the brain and is impermanent. It is not a non-material entity occupying the body.
I will add one more suggestion. Godel proved in mathematical theorems, that in any system there must be truths that cannot be proven from within the system. Those truths can only be known by looking from outside the system. If we use this as an analogy (analogies are not strong proofs), we humans cannot “know” from inside our system whether a statement such as “God exists” or “There is no God” can be proven or disproven.

If so, there are two positions one can take. One is that of Blaise Pascal called Pascal’s Wager (see the post on Pascal, May 1, 2016) or that of Buddha.  I like Buddha’s teaching better. He would rather that we spend our time by learning how to live this life better than thinking about unanswerable questions such as “How did this Universe start?” or “Is the body a vehicle for soul or atman”?

The problem is that these arguments prove only the intellectual capacity, verbal skills, the speed of thinking and debating skills of the discussants. They do not answer the question convincingly. We can only silence our chatter and surrender to that Mystery. Those are paths of Yoga and Bhakti suggested by our ancestors.
Personally, I like the humility expressed in the Nasadiya Sukta of Rg Veda (see post on March 21, 2010)        which says that we do not and cannot know.

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