Yoga and the Future Science of Consciousness
book chapter in Wider Horizons: Explorations in Science and Human Experience
Ravi Ravindra, 1999
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Koham kathamidam cheti sam≈saµramalamaµtatam pravichaµryam prayatnena praµjñena sahasaµdhunaµ
Who am I? Whence is this widespread cosmic flux?
These, the wise should inquire into diligently,
Soon –nay, now.
—Mahopanishad IV, 21
Am I primarily a body which has, in response to accidental material forces and laws, produced a mind and a sense of self which can think and which has both self-consciousness and consciousness of other people and things? Or am I essentially something else –variously called spirit, soul, self, Brahman, God, the Buddha Mind, the Very Person– who has taken on a body (including the mind) as an instrument for the purpose of action, love and delight in the world? Does the body have the consciousness or does consciousness have the body? Can the body exist without consciousness, and can consciousness exist without bodily functions?
It is quite clear on which side of these questions lie the responses of yoga and all other spiritual disciplines. The responses of our contemporary science are on the other side. This should hardly come as any surprise, for the very basic assumptions and procedures of modern science preclude knowing anything which is above the level of the mind in the hierarchy of the levels of consciousness.1
One of the fundamental assertions in the theory and discipline of yoga is that the true knower is not the mind. The real knower –called Purusha, the Very Person– knows through the mind, not with the mind.2 It is useful to recall a remark of William Blake in this context: “I see not with the eyes but through the eyes.” What is at issue is a hierarchy of levels of being and therefore of consciousness within a person, and a question about the nature of the person. It is for this reason that in every spiritual tradition, the question ‘Who am I?,’ or some variant on it, is considered the fundamental human question. As a contemporary Zen master in Korea, Chulwoong Sunim, simply said to me, ‘Who am I ?’ is the most essential and comprehensive koan.
It is also a basic question about the nature of the cosmos for we are not apart from it, nor can we have any certainty about the nature and validity of what we know about the cosmos without having some clarity of what in us knows and how. The Psalmist asks in the Bible (Psalm 8):
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
The moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
A very important heuristic principle in modern science interferes with the knowledge of a radically different and higher level. This principle enters as the Copernican Principle in Astronomy and Cosmology and as the Principle of Uniformitarianism in Geology and Biology, one to do with space and the other with time. According to the former, any point in the universe can be taken to be the centre, for in each direction the universe on the large is homogeneous and isotropic. The latter principle says essentially that the same laws and forces have operated in the past as in the present. Neither of these principles have anything to say about levels of consciousness. But in practice one consequence of these principles has been a denial of a radical difference not only in terms of regions of space and time, but also in terms of levels of being among humans. One of the important aspects of modern science, starting with the great scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, has been a scientifically very successful idea that the materials and laws on other planets and galaxies, and in the past and future times, can be studied in terms of the laws, materials and forces available to us now on the earth. But, almost by implication and quite subtly, this notion has done away with the analogical and symbolic modes of thinking according to which a fully developed person could mirror internally the various levels of the external cosmos.
A Science of Consciousness Requires Transformed Scientists
When the ancients and even the medieval thinkers in Europe, China or India –in their sciences of alchemy, astronomy and cosmology– spoke of different planets having different materials and different laws, at least in part it meant that various levels of being or consciousness have different laws. From this perspective higher consciousness cannot be understood in terms of, or by, a lower consciousness. The subtler and higher aspects of the cosmos can be understood only by the subtler and higher levels within humans. True knowledge is obtained by participation and fusion of the knower with the object of study, and the scientist is required to become higher in order to understand higher things. As St. Paul said, things of the mind can be understood by the mind; things of the spirit by the spirit. The ancient Indian texts say that only by becoming Brahman can one know Brahman. The Gandharva Tantra says that “no one who is not himself divine can successfully worship divinity.” For Parmenides and for Plotinus “to be and to know are one and the same.”3