Theories of Mind and Consciousness

Theories of Mind and Consciousness

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Indic Visions in an Age of Science by Varadaraja V. Raman
(New York, NY: Metanexus, 2011).


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Science is an attempt to understand and interpret the world of experience. In this context, two fundamental questions arise: First, who or what is it that tries to understand and interpret. Human beings, of course. But what aspect of human beings? The eyes see, the ears hear, the nose smells, the tongue tastes, and the skin feels, but it is the mind that thinks, analyses, understands and explains. This leads us to a second set of questions which are more difficult to grapple with. What is this mind? What is its innate nature? How does it arise? What are its limits? What is its scope? Such questions have been raised since time immemorial. In this lecture I will consider some of the answers of Indic thinkers to these questions.

The subject matter of science may be broadly divided into two categories. To the first belongs all that we see and touch and hold. These constitute the external, so-called objective world. In the second category are elements of the internal world of thought, reflection, feelings and inner experience. The 16th century Galilean-Cartesian worldview was that whereas the first category of knowledge could be explored through scientific methodology, subjective experiences are beyond the scope of such exploration. This bifurcation of the world into external things and experienced things is regarded by many to have been an error, and is sometimes held responsible for all the turmoil in scientific-technological civilization.

More perhaps than in any other field, Indic thinkers investigated and reflected upon mind and consciousness. There have been many healthy debates among scholars and saintly personages in India on the interpretations that could be given to the original texts on these matters. From these discussions arose different philosophical schools in India. In some instances, they gave rise to religious sects on the basis of differing spiritual frameworks on the nature of consciousness. These schools of Hindu thought may be regarded as propounding different theories and insights based on observation and analysis. They have been applied in a variety of practical contexts.

The non-identity of mind and consciousness

In the framework of modern science, there is no distinction between mind and consciousness: both are emergent properties of the brain. In classical Hindu theories, mind is different from consciousness. The mind has a material aspect which is super-subtle in its substantiality. The mind is seen as the instrument through which consciousness perceives physical reality.

The eyes, the ears, the nose and the tongue are instruments. The centers in the brain that perceive sight, sound, smell, and sate, are regarded as the organs (indriyas) of perception. To these is linked the mind (manas) which experiences it all.

Thus the mind creates a world of reality with all its aesthetic, pleasurable, and painful features. We experience the phenomenal world through our senses, and we enjoy and suffer what there is through the mind. In other words, it is the mind that creates reality for consciousness. This is not solipsism, but a recognition that when the mind ceases to function, there will be no physical reality for consciousness. As Erwin Schrˆdinger noted, “Every man’s world picture is and always remains a construct of his mind, and cannot be proved to have any other existence.”

The pro-active mind

The mind is a dynamic entity that uses the sense organs and illumines the world around, somewhat like a torchlight. It is fueled by desire which is the root cause of most aspects of perceived reality. It will cease to function when it is deprived of its fuel, and that means when it has cut off all desires. This may happen either by the arrest of brain activity or by complete detachment. Such detachment is recommended in Hindu and Buddhist teachings as the means for experiencing pure consciousness. Its goal is not to curb all human activity, but to provide a framework in which greed and addiction are curbed, and it becomes easier to cope with inevitable losses.

In this view, mind acts as a searchlight that detects features of the world which are invisible to the mindless body, or to a living person whose mind is inactive. The mind grasps the world, as it were, rather than merely receiving information about it. It is like a fishnet rather than a boat into which the fish jump.

This point of view has a significant impact on our concepts of truth and the search for it. For it implies that the apprehension of truth is not unlike the appreciation of art: Not everyone may concur on the beauty or ugliness of a work of art. Just as beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, truth often lies in the mind of the seeker. This is a profound insight, even if it seems to contradict the standard criteria of objectivity. It provides an explanation for the perennial, and often unbridgeable, differences of opinion among well-meaning and clear-minded thinkers on many important issues.

It is important to distinguish between facts as such and our awareness of it. The existence part of the physical world is trivial in that it could be there whether or not we are there. On the other hand, the incorporation of existence in the human mind is what constitutes knowledge. And here, the individual mind plays a paramount role. No two minds grasp the same incontrovertible fact in identical ways. From this perspective, therefore, differences of opinions are essentially differences in modes of grasping (grahana), and consequently differences in interpretations. This theory is relevant and obvious in aesthetic and literary criticism, but it can also be of more practical value: It allows and enables one to grant that other minds, i.e. other people, can grasp the same situation or set of facts in a quite different way. This view of the mind is helpful in coping with controversial positions in sympathetic ways.

This view can foster ideological tolerance. Unanimity is achieved when the minds in a group are formed in like manner so that when they confront a situation their apprehension of it will be similar. This explains the like-mindedness of people brought up in the same tradition and culture, or subjected to the same news media.

The three aspects of citta

There is an elaborate theory in the Samkhya system that explains how physical reality emerges. It involves numerous categories into whose details I will not go here.

Suffice it to say that in Indic theory, what we normally call the mind is the bottom-most part of a three layered structure called citta which is often translated as pure consciousness. The union of citta with the essence of the universe, known as sat, leads to supreme bliss or ananda. This triple union is called sat-chit-ananda: a term that is sometimes used to refer to the Divine Principle.

Mind itself is known as manas, and it deals with the data of sense perceptions. These are acted upon by another faculty, called buddhi which makes imprints of individuality or ahamkara (I-maker) on the whole process. All these are part of what is called citta or mind-stuff.

Thus Hindu psychologists categorized the different activities of mental processes, deriving from the fact that three elements are involved here: thought, assimilation of thought, and reflection on the thought. As you listen to a speaker or read a book, your manas is at work. As you assimilate what you are hearing or reading, your ahamk‚ra is at work. And when you agree or disagree with what you hear or read, your buddhi is at work. Citta is like the overall process of reading, understanding, and evaluating.

In the spiritual context, all these take on different connotations. Here buddhi refers to enlightened understanding of the nature of perceived reality. It means the capacity for discrimination, or recognizing reality from illusion. One who has refined this capacity to its full potential becomes a Buddha.

One mode of attaining wisdom or the faculty of buddhi is by spiritual quest. But there is a verse in the Bhagavad Gita (X:10) which says that those who persistently revel in lauding the Divine, attain the buddhi-faculty by which they can attain the Divine. This may be interpreted to mean that those who are given to spiritual pursuits can make the enlightened discrimination between what is of longer and more profound significance and what has only ephemeral and trivial value. At the secular level, this verse from the Gita could be taken to mean that those who are fully committed to the pursuit of a discipline will surely attain its highest levels.

We see here a framework which makes a meaningful synthesis of how the mind works and its meaningful practice. Unlike with questions relating to the origin of the universe or the nature of matter, in matters that touch our lives, unless there is a link between theory and practice, the theory is of little relevance or significance.


This brings us to what is perhaps India’s greatest contribution to applied science in this regard: namely, the sophisticated system of physical and mental exercises known as yoga. The etymology of term conjures up harmony and synthesis, for the word is derived from a root meaning union, since its purpose is to unite the individual with the cosmic levels of existence. This essentially Indic discovery is also a technique for harnessing the potential of mind and consciousness.

It was once deemed by outsiders to be a local, not to say weird, cultural practice. In the modern world, however, it has attained a universality that can only be compared to that of the technologically fruitful worldview of modern science. To call modern science Western is as partial a truth as the statement that yoga is Hindu. True, the yoga system has its roots in India, in the writings of PataÒjali and in the works of countless practitioners, just as electromagnetic theory had its origins in the writings of James Clerk Maxwell and in the works of other physicists like Heinrich Hertz. But the insights and knowledge acquired by the original investigators belong to all humankind. Such discoveries transcend national, cultural, and religious barriers.

There is a whole range in the variety of yogic postures. They involve body and mind. The originators of the system devised 84 asanas or sitting postures for the spiritual exercises. In our own times, there are several masters who have developed their own systems, each associated with one or more mantras.

The yoga system was one of the first to recognize the connection between bodily function and altered mental states. Breathing is a physiological function that is both voluntary and involuntary. It is at the very basis of life, and also of consciousness. Deprived of the oxygen furnished by breath, the brain quickly loses awareness. Breathing is thus a far more powerful process than one normally imagines. Indic thinkers discovered this truth, and developed techniques for harnessing the power implicit in the process. Regulated four-phased breathing, involving inhalation, exhalation, retention of air in the lungs, and keeping the lungs airless for a while, is known as prananayama, and it plays a central role in yogic practice.

There is no doubt as to the efficacy of yogic exercise. Writing in 1937, the psychologist K. T. Behanan who spent time in an ashram in India made the following observation: “I have had the privilege of watching at close range the daily lives of more than a half-dozen yogins for over a period of one year. I can testify without any reservation that they were the happiest personalities I have known. Their serenity was contagious and in their presence I felt always that I was dealing with people who held great ‘power’ in reserve. If the saying ‘radiant personality’ means anything, it should be applied to them.” Since these words were written, there have been several scientific studies of the effects of yogic practice, as well as of the therapeutic value of yoga in ailments ranging from asthma and depression to insomnia and memory loss.

The theory underlying yoga is complex. It presupposes a spiritual component in human existence. The attitude of the individual to life is as important as the motions and postures of specific exercises. A yogi is one whose thoughts, actions and attitudes are governed by the awareness of the spiritual dimension of the world. To be a scientist, it is more important to weigh facts and reasoning than to work in a laboratory. Likewise, one may derive the benefits of yoga by engaging in modest meditation, as long as one does not forget one’s link with the cosmic substratum.

The five functions of citta

In the yoga framework, citta is the overarching principle of consciousness, Citta is constantly subjected to a vortex of modifications, known as vrittis. These are at the basis of right notion, misconception, fancy, sleep and memory. All our conscious experiences are roots in these modifications of the mind-stuff. Because of the vrittis the mind is constantly in a state of flux. Yoga is meant to bring the turbulent citta to a state of calmness.

In yoga, the practitioner’s aim is not to control bodily functions in order to perform a feat or to experience a thrill. The ultimate goal is to erase individual consciousness altogether and be transformed into a state of bliss in oneness with the Whole. Deep probes into the submerged caverns of human consciousness lead, according to experienced practitioners, to mystic delights of unsurpassed intensity. That is why yoga has been described as the technology of ecstasy.

There are several levels of mystical experience. The joyous response of a loving parent to a giggling offspring, the enchanted walk of the nature poet through autumnal woods, the recognition of a new pulsar by a radio-astronomer: All these may be regarded as uplifting mystical experiences of varying intensity. But they are not what the yogic mystical experience is said to be in its essence. The ecstasy of the yogi who has attained the pinnacle is said to be of a different order, both in quality and in intensity. At a more modest level, yoga can provide the practitioner with an inner peace that eludes many people in the restless hustle that is part of everyday life.

Levels of awareness

There is a fund of knowledge and information that we acquire over a period of time. But unbeknownst to us are countless other matters that are occurring in the world, and in the universe, of which it is simply impossible for any one individual to become fully aware. Reality, for each of us, is essentially that which is brought to our cognition, directly or indirectly, through our normal modes of perception.

Then again, all our knowledge and awareness recede into temporary oblivion when we fall asleep. In this context, the Mandukya Upanishads offers an interesting insight into the modes in which the human mind develops its awareness of the world. It tells us that the brain can be in one of three possible states of awareness: the waking, the dreaming, and in deep dreamless sleep. In the waking state we interact with the world through our sensory faculties, experiencing pain and pleasure suffering and joy. In the dream state, our experiences are not concrete, for what we feel are not material things. They are abstract, subtle, and unsubstantial, yet they create the impression of being just as real. In this state, the brain is not bereft of the deep desires with which it is most often inflicted, for it can still experience some pseudo enjoyments. In the deepest level of sleep, the brain loses its individuality. All barriers between knower and known are dissolved. Somewhat as in the microcosm where measurer and the measured merge inseparably, there is some sort of merger between the separated consciousness and Totality. Yet this is still a state of ignorance, in that the experiencing self is not aware that it is but a part of the Whole.

Now there is a fourth stage beyond all this. It is known as turiya; it is the purest state of awareness. Here, consciousness transcends causal and spatio-temporal categories, as it merges with the Ultimate. This does not happen with all brains, but only with some. This is what constitutes spiritual enlightenment at its highest. Turiya-yoga, which the Siddhas are said to have practiced, promises such experiences. It is clear that the sages who spoke of turiya were speaking from direct knowledge.

There have been a number of scientific studies on what is called NDE: near death experience. According to Raymond Moody, a respected expert in the field, this is generally an extremely positive experience, involving a sense of absolute peace while moving through a brightly illuminated tunnel. It also includes looking at one’s own body from the outside. Some believe that these reports of NDE provide ample proof for life after death, while others interpret them as manifestations of a brain that is at the tail end of its active state.

Modern scientific studies have revealed that there are at least two stages in sleep: One is the rapid eye movement or REM cycles which occur several times when we dream. The other is the non-rapid eye movement or NREM stage with which sleep starts. During these phases different types of brain activities are known to occur. It is interesting that Indic thinkers of ancient times already recognized different phases of sleep, and interpreted them as stages of awareness. This translates in the current paradigm into different types of brain activity. The insight of Hindu thinkers was in considering the sleep state as another mode of awareness, suggesting that awareness is a function of the type of processes in the brain. In other words, the dichotomy between sleep and wakefulness is, in fact, a transition from one phase to another.

Conception and personhood

From the merger of a microscopic sperm and egg in the darkness of the fallopian tube arises an entity that gradually acquires self-awareness and an identity all its own. This embodied consciousness reflects and rejoices, creates and communicates, and engages in countless activities for a brief time-span. Then, after its final breath, its non-physical attributes vanish from the visible world. No thinking mind can remain unimpressed by this remarkable phenomenon which, as far as we know, is unlike any other in this grand universe. If anything is mystery, human consciousness is.

Four centuries of modern science have thrown much light on the physical basis of this uncommon wonder which may have parallels in other pockets in a universe studded with billions of stars and planetary systems. Some day we may explain consciousness in terms of neurons, microtubules, or other matter-based principles. But, as of now, consciousness continues to be a fantastic anomaly in the mindless morass of mass-energy: It may be an aspect of transcendence in the universe.

Each one of us carries within a totality that is more than the sum of our body’s material substrate. Many of the atoms and molecules that make up our anatomy at this hour were not part of us not so long ago. Millions of microorganisms thrive and perish in our saliva and alimentary canal. With all that, there is a subtle self that has been illumining every one of us, something that etches the identity of a separate existence even within a hugely interconnected whole. This self has been with us since the first utterance of I and me, and it will be part of us until the dusk of life when, gradually or suddenly, our individual memories will falter and fade away for good.

We cannot deny the biochemical basis in the persistence of personhood. Some day, silicon configurations in plastic casings may acquire feelings and emotions, mimicking the heaves and exhilarations of the human heart. Computers create music today; they may be enjoying it tomorrow. But this is not sufficient proof that there is nothing beyond matter and energy in space and time.

From the perspective of science nature appears to be no more than a tangible manifestation of matter and energy. However, the laws of nature which organize and sustain it cannot be located here or there or anywhere: they pervade the entire span of spread-out space and ceaseless time. From the Indic perspective, consciousness is implicit in these laws, for it is the intangible principle that breathes order in the universe, and life into inert matter.

The Copernican revolution displaced our earth from the center of the universe. Science has been enormously successful in exploring the entire physical span of the universe from the far-from-visible microcosm to faint and farthermost specks in the vast expanse. And science may be right in regarding consciousness as just another among the countless occurrences in the stretch of time since the first creative bang.

But we will be missing the point if we don’t see the role of consciousness in the unfolding of cosmic history. Science has displaced our habitat from center stage, but not dethroned human consciousness from the center of the perceived world. Like invisible air and earth-binding gravity, we take it for granted because it is with us all the time. Consciousness deserves more than passing mention in any serious commentary on the universe, for it is consciousness that has lit up the universe with beauty and color, and infused it with meaning and understanding. Until the last decades of the twentieth century, science did not inquire about the consciousness.

Tat tvam asi

However, already in ages past, Indic visionaries probed into the roots of consciousness, and they came of with some fascinating views on it. They arrived at the startling conclusion that human consciousness is but a pale echo of something far more magnificent. Expressed through the pithy aphorism, tat tvam asi: Thou art That, the Hindu vision is that every conscious entity is a spark from an underlying effulgence, and can flash a radiance as its source alone can.

This capacity for awareness and experience, for logical analysis and joyful interaction is an intangible component in the fleeting persistence of Homo sapience. This is the essence of what we call the human spirit. Just as there is more to a flower than soil and tree-branch, so in the Hindu view, the spirit is more than neural network, heartbeat and vital breath, though these are what create and sustain it here below.

If there is splendor in the perceived world and pattern in its functioning, and if it can all result in the grand experiences of life and thought, then even prior to the advent of humans, there must have been an experiencing principle of a vastly superior order. This Cosmic Experiencer or Brahman spans the full range in space and time. Just as the expanse of water in the seas is scattered on land in ponds and lakes and cups and bottles, all-pervading Brahman finds expression in countless life forms. We are miniature lights. We have emanated from that primordial splendor, like photons from a glorious galactic core, destined for the terrestrial experience for a brief span on the eternal time line, only to re-merge with that from which we sprang.

Is this poetic imagery, scientific hypothesis, or perhaps the ultimate Truth? One may not know for certain. But if it be poetry, let us remember that poetry and prayer are for the human spirit what the telescope and the microscope are for human eyes. Lenses enable us to discern entities beyond our normal cognition, and profound poetry is a response of the spirit to that which is not fathomed through logic and reason. Poetry brings home to us, indeed it forces us to reckon the world of experience, not in terms of sense data and charts and proofs, but in subtle and holistic ways. It reveals meaning and majesty in the universe, which lie in a realm beyond the plane of rigid rationality. Poetry is mystic experience verbalized.

The Hindu spiritual vision thus paints individual consciousness on a cosmic canvass. It recognizes the transience of us all as separate entities, yet incorporates us into the infinity that encompasses us. It does not rule out the possibility of other manifestations of Brahman, sublime and subtle, carbon or silicon-based, elsewhere amidst the stellar billions. It recognizes the role of matter, and the limits of the mind, but sees subtle spirit at the core of it all. It does not speak of rewards and punishments in anthropocentric terms, nor of a He-God communicating in local languages. Yet, it regards the religious expressions of humanity as echoes of the Universal Spirit, even as volcanic outbursts reveal submerged forces of far greater magnitude.

Ignoring for a moment the tenets of mechanistic-materialist science, and reflecting in the realm of poetic visions, it is fair to say that there is something sublime in regarding every conscious being as a spark from a cosmic Whole. It is an elevating thought to be told that we are part of that from which the universe sprang, and in that grand vision, every fellow human becomes yet another spark from the same source. When such a worldview is internalized, what an outpouring of caring and compassion, love and respect it would exude towards others!

It is no less interesting in this context to reflect upon the findings of physics by which we are made up ultimately of carbon atoms and the atoms of other heavier elements which were synthesized in the core of supernovae, which prompted Carl Sagan to say poetically and literally that we are made of star-dust. But even more precisely, all the matter making our bodies emerged from the primordial Big Bang of which present day cosmologists speak. This, no doubt, is our physical make-up. In the Indic vision, aside from the material component of the universe, there is also a spiritual substratum which too emerged, through modes we are unable to fully fathom, from that same pristine creative principle.

A view of science and religion

The quest for transcendence is not just thirst for a fantasy. Even as a heliotrope is drawn to light, the evolved brain may be reaching out for the transcendence that made it conscious. The thirst for transcendence is the yearning of the human spirit to remember its own pre-physical origins. Such is the Hindu view of consciousness.

When we look deeper into this mythopoesy, if that is all it is, we come to a most elegant explanation of what science and religion are all about. Brahman, the spiritual ground-stuff, subdivides itself into purusha, the cosmic consciousness person, and prakriti, the world of Nature. These are the experiencer and the experienced, not unlike the res cogens and res extensa of Descartes. Prakriti now bifurcates into animate and the inanimate realms with only a fuzzy dividing line separating the two. On the other hand, purusha with its thousand heads separates out into countless jivasor individual units of consciousness which fuse into the mind and body of the animate branch of prakriti. The conscience jivas endeavor to recognize their source, namely Brahman through the modes of religion and spirituality.

Aside from the faint memory of its sublime source, the jivas also recognizes the multi-faced manifestations of the stupendous prakriti surrounding it, and it makes an effort to unravel these. And it is this endeavor that constitutes science.

It is therefore not surprising that every culture of the human family has sought to connect with the Cosmos, and thus has formulated religious frameworks, and they have also erected explanatory structures to understand the phenomenal world through their various scientific frameworks.