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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

What is mind? How do we know it exists?


Dear Friends, I am breaking the sequence of my blog-posts because I have an important personal idea to share with you. Since the entire purpose of these blogs is “to share”, and this one appears to be important I am breaking the flow. It is not original by any means, but a sudden realization of connections of ideas from reading several classics , my own experience as a physician and meditations. 

More important.  I request you to please share your thoughts and criticisms of this idea. Based on your comments I wish to share this with a wider audience.  Thank you. Balu

The way human mind works has fascinated me from the day I entered clinical medicine. I tried to understand the paths my physician-teachers took to arrive at a diagnosis based on incomplete data. I have been thinking about the way I think, and others think about common issues and about difficult diagnostic and management problems. Human mind is special, unique, intriguing and an enigma.

My other interest in meditation and in the realms our mind can take us into during deep-looking and silence has taken me to another level of fascination with the human mind.

I keep my focus on the human mind. Animals and plants have a mind of their own too. But I do not know about them, certainly not at a “first person” level.

After many years of reading and thinking about the mind, I had an insight recently which I wish to share. This came out of reflecting on several books I have been reading recently about Rg Veda, Satapata Brahmana and the Upanishads.

Vedic texts say that before “creating”, Prajapati “desired”. In the west also, according to Genesis, the God said: “Let there be light”, an expression of desire. Desire is born in the mind. But what is mind? What does it do? It wants, feels, thinks, wills and acts. To do its functions, it has to be awake and aware. Awakening comes before anything else. But what was there before awakening, before the first thought?

That is the enigma. That is why Yagnavalkya asked: “How can you know That (capital T) by which you know?”  That is what Vasishta meant when he advised: “Let go of that (small t) by which you are trying to let go.”

Everything exists in this world whether we humans are here or not. But nothing exists if there is no mind to apprehend it. This last statement was driven home by my observation of people with dementia and Alzheimer.

So, what is the idea I wish to share? Nothing in nature points to the existence of the mind, except the mind itself.

 Nature points to the existence of space, air, fire and light, water and elements of this planet and of the universe. But nothing in nature points to the existence of the mind, except the mind itself. The “mind-born” rishis recognized that the existence of the universe is “a secondary and derivative fact with respect to the existence of the mind” as pointed out by Roberto Calasso in his book with the title Ka.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Vedic Gods as Symbols (Sri Aurobindo) Part 1



In his book on the Vedas, Sri Aurobindo points out that the Vedas are books of esoteric symbols and spiritual formulae, which mask themselves as a collection of ritual poems. It appears that the Seers (Rishis) sought to conceal their knowledge from the unfit. What they concealed from the common and the ignorant is revealed to the initiates and the well-prepared in the form of symbols and divine figures.

 This is not peculiar to the Vedic tradition. In Christianity and Buddhism there are different levels of teachings to suit the needs of the seekers. The Sermon on the Mount starts with the words “AND seeing the multitudes, he went up into the mountain:  and when he had sat down, his disciples came unto him.” This is interpreted by a scholar to mean that whereas Jesus taught many “tribes”, he reserved his highest teachings for those who were spiritually ready. Buddha gave simple instructions to the lay followers and difficult ones to the initiates.

 The Vedic mantras carry an inner message which is, at once, physical, psychological and universal. Only when the concealed meanings of the symbols and figures are deciphered that hidden spiritual, psychological ideas are visible. 

Sri Aurobindo points out the example of a statement in the Rg Veda which says that “Sarama by the path of the Truth discovers the herds.” But who is Sarama? What is Truth with a capital T? And what does the word “herd” indicate?

 Sarama refers to a dog, a female dog. A hound to be specific. This sentence makes no sense unless we can figure out what Sarama and herd stand for. Sri Aurobindo helps us by explaining that Sarama stands for intuition. With this understanding, the original sentence means that “Intuition (sarama) by way of the Truth arrives at the hidden illuminations (herd).” It is clearer but  needs further explanation. Human mind searches for the hidden Sat-chit-Ananda using the Divine Light with the help of Truth (represented by Surya) and its intuition.

 The Vedic gods (deities or devas) are names, powers, personalities of the One Supreme Godhead. They represent some essential force of the Divine Being that manifests as functions of the One in the many of the Cosmos. “They manifest the cosmos and are manifest in it.” These gods are personification of abstract ideas and physical aspects of Nature, but they are also connections to realities. They represent goals one should aspire to realize during this life. This is where metaphors and mythologies come in.

 Mythologies represent the “wisdom of life as related to specific culture at a specific time.” Joseph Campbell calls myths as “clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.” They give meaning to the experiences in our lives. Myths represent the collective consciousness of the tribe, society or civilization. They help lead the individual to spiritual consciousness.

 Joseph Campbell assigns four functions to myths. The first is its reference to the mystery of this universe and life. Mythological stories are based on the understanding of these mysteries in the collective consciousness of societies. The second function is the cosmological dimension, trying to explain physical phenomena such as cyclic nature of seasons and lives. This is the area of interest to science.

 The third function is sociologic which sets the rules for relating to others in the society and with the society and with Nature. This will differ from region to region depending on local geography, climate, flora and the fauna.  In this time of globalization this aspect is not represented in any of the myths. The old mythologies are outdated, and we are in urgent need of a new world-myth. And finally, myths have an educational function, teaching us how to live in this complex world. Maha Bharata is the best example. So are the Vedas, if only we understand what all those Gods and stories represent. 

 One other point. The gods of the Vedas were the earliest. They were replaced by the gods of the Puranas. The myths referred to briefly in the Vedas were elaborated and replaced by those in the Puranas. This is particularly true of myths of creations.

 Early mythologies relate man to nature since they originated when man was a nomad. These were overlaid by later mythologies of settled societies and temples of worship. All of them are full of metaphors. A metaphor is a symbol that stands for something else. For example, a bird and a snake stand for freedom from earthly existence – one because it flies into space and the other because it gets rid of its skin. Metaphors have one meaning by denotation and another by connotation. When deciphered this way, every myth in every religion is helpful to understand this universe and ourselves, one way or another. But when religions get stuck with their own metaphors, interpreting them as facts and the followers also get stuck, spiritual growth is stifled.

 Every plant, bird and animal spoke their hidden messages to the mystics of ancient India. Every river and every mountain became a connection to the flow of time and ascent to divine knowledge. For example, river Ganga and the Milky way; Mount Meru and the Himalayas. The spiritual journey to higher wisdom was a pilgrimage or a battle and needed a whole army of benevolent gods. They fed the gods through sacrifices so gods can give a reliable source of food and animals for future sacrifices.

All the puranas document the noble ideals and the passions of human beings. They document the injustices and sufferings of life in this planet. They also give us ways of overcoming them and attain bliss in this world.  Joseph Campbell pints out that we have to control the savage in us by overcoming the passions in us. That is what most of the heroes in mythological stories do. And further, “These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage…..”  

The “inner thresholds of passage” are the rites of passage (called Samskaras in India) such as the Sacred Thread ceremony among the Hindus, Confirmation and Baptism in Christianity, Bar and Bat Mitzvah in the Jewish tradition. They initiate the child into adulthood. They are organized and formalized for the adult protector to tell the child: “you are ready to take adult life; here is how you find your inner bliss and your inner destiny.” In myths this was what the mother meant when she told her son either “I do not know your father” as Jabala told her son Satyakama in Chandogya Upanishad or “Go find your father” as when Athena told her son Telemachus in Odyssey.

The best examples for support of this understanding of symbols and myths are seen in Maha Bharata and the Vedic gods. The battle between the Devas and the Asuras or between the Kauravas and the Pandavas represent our internal flights, the conflict for the possession of the worlds of the heaven, earth and the mid-world (antariksha) and for the liberation of the body and life of the human from mortality to immortality.

Vedic myths refer to the flight or ascent of the human mind from dark and finite consciousness to the brilliant light of the infinite. According to Sri Aurobindo,  this is the message of the Vedas. 
(to be continued)

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Vignana Darshana - Scientific Philosophy


The Sanskrit word darshana means “point of view”, somewhat similar to the word Philosophy in English. I chose this name because I remembered a book called Sarva Darshana Sangraha written sometime between the 14 or the 15th century. The title means a “Compendium of Points of view”. This book elaborates on 16 different philosophical points of view existent at that time in history of India. This book did not include Vedanta and many more. Scientific point of view was not there, of course. I gave the name Vignana Darshana to this aspect of philosophy, since science is also a point of view. It is a philosophical system with its own rules of inquiry.

The eastern traditions did not emphasize empiricism as much as the western tradition did. Science and its methodology are very much products of the western civilization. Its basic rules were established by Aristotle, Newton, Galileo, Bacon and others. The prime requirements are that the chosen topic be studied in an objective manner, that the methods are transparent and open, the knowledge is available to anyone and the studies reproducible. In its never-ending quest for obtaining reliable knowledge about the universe and the laws of Nature, the human mind uses science and scientific methods as its tools. 

 Scientific investigation requires critical thinking in addition to imagination, creativity and ability to see beyond what is apparent. Critical thinking associated with analytical thinking help study the universe by deconstructing complex events. Imaginative thinking helps develop hypothesis. It also helps develop experiments and tools to test the hypothesis. Systems thinking is needed to study complex phenomena and emergent properties such as in biology, climatology, and ecology.  

Initially, a problem is identified and, its components are clearly defined. The problem gets looked at from different angles. Published literature is reviewed carefully to understand the current state of knowledge and to make sure the problem has not been answered already.  Gaps in knowledge are identified and the currently identified problem is examined in this context. The problem is broken down into manageable and measurable, but meaningful questions. A primary question is identified and stated clearly.  Possible answers to the question are generated. A testable hypothesis is generated for each of the possible answers. It is indeed best to generate several competing hypotheses to be tested (Chamberlain 1965). Newer methods and tools may have to be developed to test each hypothesis. Or, methods already published in the literature may be used, if appropriate.  It may be necessary to collaborate with more than one expert in appropriate fields to plan and conduct the experiments. 

Data is collected, collated, documented, analyzed using appropriate statistical tools. A specific conclusion is reached which should be strictly based on available, analyzed data and supporting evidence. It should be clear that the conclusion is valid only under the conditions prevalent in the test conditions. They can be extrapolated to some extent, but not without danger. For example, a physiological observation made in a rat may not be applicable to humans. A treatment method which works well in a 45 year-old woman from USA may not be directly applicable to treat a 11 year old girl in Greece. 

It should also be clear that the conclusion reached is valid only until contrary evidence is obtained. The conclusion reached often opens other avenues or raise more questions and becomes a springboard for more inquiry. 

What are some of the mental disciplines needed during the process of scientific thinking? Non-attachment to one’s favored ideas, intellectual honesty, attention to details, ability to be precise in observation and documentation, and willingness to follow the facts wherever they lead are the primary requirements. One should focus and be prepared to pursue to any depth and be able to accept criticism.   Imagination is an essential criterion. But imagination has to be tempered with evidence, self-criticism and impartial judgment.

Generating a hypothesis is the most important initial intellectual activity. The hypothesis has to be amenable to testing and capable of answering the specific question or the problem which initiated the research project in the first place. It should be falsifiable. (“A theory is not a theory until can be disproved” Platt 1964) It is indeed preferable to generate several hypotheses from the outset (Chamberlin 1965). This will promote thoroughness by looking at all possible explanations for a phenomenon and the design of investigations along several lines. It is also a good antidote to “the dangers of parental affection for a favorite theory” (Platt 1964).

Interpreting evidence requires knowledge of the subject and of the methodology used to collect data, an eye for unexpected data and an ability to think about unexplained observations (Beveridge, 1957).  Platt (1964) redefines inductive inference of Francis Bacon as “strong inference” and opines that this is equivalent to the use of syllogism in deductive reasoning. He suggests that the following steps be applied formally, explicitly and regularly to every problem in science: 1.devising alternate hypothesis (noted earlier as multiple hypotheses); 2.devising a crucial experiment (or several of them) with alternative possible outcomes, each of which will, as nearly as possible, exclude one or more of the hypotheses; 3. Carry out the experiment so as to get a clean result and 4. Recycling the procedure, making sub-hypotheses or subsequent hypotheses to refine the possibilities that remain. Generation of multiple hypothesis and the use of strong inference make for the strongest thinking process in science.

Science gives us the tools to get as close to truth as possible. These are: objectivity, measurements, insistence of reproducibility of results, acceptance and invitation of criticism and ability to self-correct. When an exception is found to an existing hypothesis, a new level of understanding is reached and, a new hypothesis is generated to account for the recently identified fact that contradicts the original hypothesis. This confuses the general public who thinks that science is unreliable because it keeps changing. Science is humble to the extent it admits that given the current data, this is as close to truth as it can get. It does not accept authority, and is not afraid of criticism; indeed, it welcomes.               

Conclusions reached by scientific methods can be verified. In addition, knowledge generated in one area of science can be applied to other areas. Finally, science does not have all the answers, nor does it profess to have them. Science cannot solve all the human problems which require changes in human behavior. Science cannot give absolute answers with absolute guarantee.

I wish to conclude this essay with a summary of an editorial by Professor Ismail Serageldin of the historical Alexandria Library of Alexandria, Egypt on the values of science (Science Vol 322: page 1127, 2011). He points out that the values needed for an open, democratic society are the same values that science demands.

    First, Truth, only absolute truth. This can come from anyone who can back up the conclusions with evidence, and not imagination, wishful thinking or “manufactured-data”.

    “Science is open to all regardless of nationality, race, religion or sex”.

    Modern scientific work is team work. “Contributions are also cumulative”. No superstar can claim he or she did all the work. It is routine to see a listing of all the collaborators and contributors and supporters at the end of any scientific article or talk in the field of biology and medicine. It is that democratic and transparent.

    “Science requires the freedom to think, to challenge, to imagine the unimagined. It cannot function within the arbitrary limits of convention, nor can it flourish if it is forced to shy away from challenging the accepted. Science advances by overthrowing an existing paradigm or substantially expanding or modifying it. Thus there is a certain constructive subversiveness built into the scientific enterprise……. This constant renewal and advancement of our scientific understanding is a central feature of the scientific enterprise. It requires a tolerant engagement with the contrarian view that is grounded in disputes arbitrated by the rules of evidence and rationality”.

    “Science demands rationality and promotes civility in discourse.”

Is scientific enterprise perfect? No. Are scientists beyond all human failings such as vanity, self-promotion, fabrication of data? Most of the time, “YES”. There have been violations, of course. But the scientific community does not tolerate them. “Truth and honor are of the utmost importance”.

Dr. Serageldin quotes Jacob Bronowski and points out that all the values and requirements of science as described in earlier paragraphs are what civilized, democratic societies need. The scientific enterprise adopts all these values with exceptional vigor.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Common Themes and Common Names

Swami Tyagisananda summarizes common names and common definitions of terms from the Bhakthi literature in Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. They are given as footnotes in his book on Narada Bhakthi Sutra (5th Edition, 1972. Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai).

According to the Swamiji, the word God cannot be defined. God cannot be described either because by doing so we bring Him to the level of an object of knowledge. All descriptions can only be relative to the spiritual development of the person talking about his or her God.  God is one’s personal view of a spiritual Truth and the God of another is a different view of the same truth from another viewpoint.

In the words of the mystics, who have merged with their chosen Supreme Source, “When a man becomes annihilated from his attributes, he attains perfect subsistence. He is neither far nor near, neither stranger nor intimate, neither sober nor intoxicated, neither separated nor united; he has no name, brand or mark”. A Sufi poet says: “I am the Truth, I am He Whom I love, and He Whom I love is I”. He quotes Prophet Mohammed’s words “inni-an-Allahu la illaha Ana” meaning “verily I, even I, am God, and there is none else”. These words are the same as those of Isiah (page 56).

Jesus is quoted as saying: “I and my Father are one”.  “Optismum esse unire deo” which means “The best is to be one with God” says St.Paul (page 57).  “In this state of mystical ignorance, we plunge into the Divine Darkness and lose ourselves in Its life” is a quote from Erigena.  Averroes says that “It (the individual soul) becomes one with the Universal Spirit or is absorbed in it”. Eckhart is quoted as follows: “The soul in her hot pursuit of god becomes absorbed in Him and she herself is reduced to naught just as the sun will swallow up the dawn” (page 57).  Goethe’s famous lines read “By nothing godlike could the heart be won, were not the heart itself Divine’.

Speaking of the bliss felt in bhakthi, Narayaneeya says: “devotion to God , which is sweet in the beginning, in the middle and in the end gives the highest bliss”. Jesus says: “Enter thou into the joy of the Lord”.  Plotinus calls this state as “divinely ineffable harbor of repose”. Emerson says: “Every sweet has its sour, but the bliss of realization is above it”.

Looking for the root cause, the one Cosmic Principle from which this universe emerged, is called  Hiranyagarbha or Prana by the Upanishad. Aristotle calls it Primum mobile and Anaximander calls it Nous. Bruno and Spinoza called it the Natura naturans. The other designations are:  the Unknowable (Spencer), The Thing-in-itself (Kant), Oversoul (Emerson). These are philosophical concepts (pages 114-115).

The theists call that Promordial Principle as God, the Bare Pure One (Plotinus), Perfect Beauty (St.Augustine),  the Divine Wilderness (Eckhart), the Love that gives all things(Jacopone da Todi),  the Matchless Chalice and Sovereign Wine (Sufi), The Jehova (Jewish), the Zeus (Greek), Jupiter (Romans), the father in Heaven (Christians), Dharmakaya of the Buddhists, the Allah (Islam), Ahura Mazda (Zoroastrian) and Brahman, Paramatman, Isvara, Bhagavan , Purushottaman and the Ekam Sat of the Hindus(page 116).

Finally, Plutarch is quoted as saying (page 116): “One sun and one sky over all nations; and one Deity under many names”.  This is the same as the passage in Rg Veda 1: 164, 46: Truth is one; the learned call by many names”.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Mystery of Awareness


Is awareness an emergent property of the mind? Or, is it an inherent property? Emergent property is one which is exhibited by a complex system but not by the individual members of its component parts. Inherent property is an essential quality or ability of the person or thing.


To me, it appears that awareness is both. It is an emergent property, because individual neurons do not have that property and it is a property of a complex system of neurons and networks. It is inherent when viewed from the function of the brain.


In our awareness, we experience both bodily sensations and sensory inputs from outside. Bodily sensation includes both physical or externally induced and mental, such as feelings and emotions, which are generated internally. We are also aware of the fact that we are aware of that awareness. The awareness is called the substrate and the awareness of awareness is called the substrate consciousness by the Buddhist psychologists. One is physical. The other is metaphysical.


Whatever it is, what we observe in nature is not things in nature as they are, but mental images of those things which were observed, after modification and/or rearrangement by our emotions, prior knowledge and bias. This is the Buddhist’s point of view and the basis of Buddha’s teachings of knowing the true nature of things and dependent co-arising.


What if there is another universe where the life-forms have a different set of sensory modalities? Will their view of the universe be different from those of ours? Will their awareness be different?


The inner self seeks the bliss of knowing the three origins – that of the Universe, that of Life and that of Awareness. Not that we will ever be able to know. Therefore, the bliss is in the pursuit of that knowledge. How can we experience the bliss amidst so many distractions and noise? How can we experience the mystery going beyond the assertions of science which gives a more accurate picture of physical reality, but ignores values, emotions and intuitions? How can we go beyond theology which binds us to rituals and symbols developed for a bygone era?