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Saturday, October 22, 2022

Can we build further on Advaita concept?

 On deep reflection, Advaita philosophy seems incomplete to me. The reason is that it deals ONLY with consciousness (pragnana). What about life? What about that awareness which makes us aware that “we know” and that “we do not know”? Is consciousness the same as self-awareness, or awareness of awareness (meta awareness) or both?

With our present knowledge, we do not know what consciousness is and what makes it possible. It is not equivalent to or synonymous with brain or mind. We do not know how a physical structure comes with a capacity to be aware of itself. That is why it is called the “hard problem” by neuroscientists.

Is there only one common universal thing called “consciousness” which occupies several minds or are there several individual consciousnesses in individual bodies? How does that state of being conscious leads to self-awareness and the idea of “self”?

Advaita says that there is only one called Atman (self-awareness, a sense of Self) and that it manifests in several bodies as consciousness. It goes on to say that we think Atman is many by misidentifying with the consciousness of individual physical bodies. Advaita also says that there is a universal awareness on which the individualized atman rests and that is Brahman.

But Samkhya says that there are as many atmans or “self”s as there are bodies.

Once you accept that “consciousness” is of one living organism (jivan) and is composed of subject, object, and the process of “knowing”, and that self-awareness or meta-awareness is what is referred to as Atman, or self or soul, it is appropriate to use an analogy to explain “the one” showing up as many. That analogy is that of naming diseases.

When physicians diagnose typhoid or Lyme disease, these entities are not just floating in the air in concrete forms. They are expressions we created to describe a set of observations in a human body. Diseases need a physical body to manifest and get named.

When someone has fever, rash, delirium, low blood counts and a positive blood culture for the typhoid bacteria, we diagnose the person as having typhoid. When someone – some living “body” – suffers from a swollen joint, a specific kind of rash following a tick bite, we designate it as Lyme disease. Typhoid and Lyme disease will have the same general characteristics irrespective of the individual body in which they manifest.

I like to look at this awareness called Atman or “self” or “soul” or meta-awareness using the example of naming diseases. For consciousness to appear, there must be a body with LIFE. Life is the first mystery. If there is no life, we will not even discuss Consciousness. Consciousness is potential and needs a body to manifest. To a living body it becomes inherent.

We recognize a disease only when it manifests in a physical body. Diseases affect only a few.

Consciousness is universal in all living entities with a functioning neural system and is recognized in association with a physical living body. Individual consciousness is multiple.

What we call Atman is awareness of this awareness. This also “appears” to be multiple since it is associated with individual consciousness. “It is not so” says Advaita Vedanta. Advaita also says that the special awareness called Brahman on which atman rests and atman are the same, but we do not recognize that "oneness" due to our ignorance. 

Advaita means “non-dual" or “no two”. It says that the individualized consciousness and its associated Atman are relative truths.  Brahman is the only ultimate truth. What appears to be Atman is indeed Brahman. We misidentify our individual consciousness (pragnana) with Atman, Self. We do not recognize that Atman is the same as Brahman, the Ultimate Truth. In summary, there is only one atman which appears to be many, and Brahman and Atman are the same in different planes.

To explain these contradictions, Adi Sankara coined the concept of mithya for relative truth and maya for the appearance of many when there is only one.

Adi Sankara, who postulated these ideas also says that what Vedas (sruti) say must agree with reality we experience. “Just because Vedas say that “fire does not burn”, it does not make it true”.

What I see in this world of relative truth and experience are physical objects. Consciousness is “ethereal”, non-concrete and is about something, including itself. Even if I can remove my spiritual ignorance and see everything as ONE and even if they are only manifestations in my Consciousness, where did they come from?  

Here is where I come to my “gut-feelings”. Consciousness is only one level of explaining the Universe. We still have to look at the mystery of life itself. We have also to look at the root of roots (I used plural in full awareness), which is called ஆதிமூலம் in Tamizh language.

Ha, the mystery of life! How do inanimate particles and aggregate matter become animate? The same metaphor I used earlier to understand consciousness can be applied to “life” too. Life is a potential. Life is based on exchange of energy between two bodies. For potential life to get actualized, it needs a body, a form. Without a body where is life? Without life, the body is “dead meat” as rudely pointed out by Nisargadatta Maharaj. After a living body comes consciousness.

Consciousness can be interpreted to mean information or data in modern language. This requires a support, which is material in nature. And as Seth Lloyd pointed out “to do anything requires energy. To specify what is done requires information”. Information rests on or carried on particles and data in the micro-world (quantum world?) and on physical objects in the macro-world. For consciousness to manifest, a “living body” is needed just as diseases do. Body, life, and consciousness go together.

Consciousness is non-concrete and needs a support (ashraya, in Sanskrit) or a vehicle, a living body - for manifestation. That applies to the meta-consciousness too which leads to the concept of Brahman, the Root of roots?  Either Brahman is a combination of Matter, Energy and Consciousness or the trio came out of that One Root.

Brahman, as Brahman is understood currently, is Universal, Self-generated and Illuminator of all things. Why not consider Brahman as composite. Using Samkhya terminology, why not consider Brahman as a composite of Prakriti (matter), Purusha (energy) and Mahat (knowledge)? The First Principle of this Universe must have had all these three components. This still begs the question. What was there before? Why?

Nasadiya Suktam (Rg Veda 10: 129) said it best: “Who is there who can explain how the Sat (the manifest) developed and from whom? Who knows for sure? Even the gods came only after the sat came into being. Then, who is to know from where it came?”     

 These are mysteries to appreciate, admire and surrender to in humility. I do. However, I hope it is not considered too arrogant to realign old thoughts with newer understanding of the universe and of the human mind. If we do not, what is the use of having been endowed with new knowledge and this glorious gift called mind?

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