Clarity in consciousness theory

It has been more than 6 months since I last posted on this blog. This period involved crises at a personal level, a lot of reading, some shift in opinions from those expressed earlier and overall, a very useful experience in life. I am grateful to have faced these challenges and for the opportunities to learn.

During this period, I felt the need to organize my knowledge so as to avoid returning to the same points repeatedly and getting muddled. As a consequence, I restart my return to blogging on this portal with a criticism of selected points in an article by a neuroscientist that I happened to read recently and which are representative of comments made by others in this discipline. I am using this criticism as a way of expressing my state of mind. The old me is still around as will be evidenced by the reference at the end to Rabindranath Tagore. Some things still haven’t changed.

The link to this article is:

Anil Seth, the author of this article, is professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex, and co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. In his article whose link is provided above, he discusses his perspective on the challenges in consciousness.

There are problems with this article that are widespread in neuroscience studies and emanate from a particular lack in understanding.

Problem 1: (Direct Quote) This is an intriguing and powerful proposal, but it comes at the cost of admitting that consciousness could be present everywhere and in everything, a philosophical view known as panpsychism.

Why is admitting panpsychism a cost? The process of science must be clear whether it wants to dabble with metaphysics or not. What would be the cost to science if panpsychism turns out to be true?

Problem 2: The author repeatedly uses the word “measurement” in relation to consciousness.

Consciousness cannot be measured. What the scientist measures is electrical signature of the brain or some other signature that is an outcome of the processes in the brain. Nobody is measuring consciousness. There are no dimensions or units of consciousness.

The scientist measures the signature in the physical correlate (the nervous system) of consciousness or of mental activity.

Can science ever figure out consciousness?

Success appears extremely unlikely. The nervous system and its signature are available only to consciousness. An entity, that is not conscious, would not be able to entertain the concept of “neuron”. All truths of science are true to the human consciousness only. Attempts to explain consciousness away end up explaining the process of scientific investigation away because the latter is an activity supported and understood by the former.

All so-called physical events are known only as mental events. This is because all human knowledge is mental. It is impossible to talk about knowledge while not acknowledging that the knowledge belongs to or exists in a state of consciousness or the mind. Even a sophisticated alien race may not be able to make head or tail of all our science, logic or mathematics, as much as animals and birds have difficulties.

Just as our senses have evolved for survival, our logic too must have evolved for survival and not for the investigation of truth. This must be the reason we find the discoveries in relativistic physics or quantum physics counter-intuitive.

Scientists like Stephen Hawking have pointed out that questions like “Where does the universe exist?” or “When did the universe originate?” are not valid questions. Our ability to frame a question does not make it valid.

Likewise, our ability to frame statements does not make them valid.

Consciousness is not a thing or object – like other objects – to be studied in similar manner by science. The best science can do is study the signature of consciousness on things or objects that can be studied.

Saying that the brain and the mind are the same is nonsensical if one does not define what “same” means. Is it “same” as a one-rupee coin is the same as another one-rupee coin? In what sense are they same? Are “brain” and “mind” the same forms of knowledge? The brain is known to the mind. The mind is known on account of its existence.

Forms of neutral monism and even dualism that posit the existence of mind and matter separately or in a unified configuration make a basic error. Mind and matter are not categories available to the same vantage point. The conscious mind is itself the vantage point in which matter, even the brain with all its neurons, is recognized. There is no other way of knowing other than through the conscious mind. A vantage point outside the mind, which knows the mind in the same way as it knows matter, is not available to us.

The existence of the conscious mind has to be acknowledged to entertain knowledge of matter and its properties.

It is not disagreed that some physical reality can exist independent of the mind. Our mind itself reveals that the universe existed before we, conscious minds, came around. The key thing to appreciate is that scientific knowledge is not independent or absolute. It belongs to the human conscious mind and and is about the physical reality in as much as it is revealed to the former through direct perception or through analysis.

Thinkers like Daniel Dennett, drawing from the theory of evolution, seem to consider that consciousness emerged in relation to its utility in survival and the level of consciousness developed over time. The octopus is sort of conscious. We are more conscious than the octopus is.

While I do not have a direct problem with the idea of more pronounced expressions of consciousness over the course of evolution, Dennett is making assertions about certain things he has no way of knowing.

It is as much possible that the brain creates consciousness, more / greater quality of it, through the course of evolution as much as it is possible that consciousness is fundamental to reality and the brain just filters or modifies it. The latter consideration is more plausible since there exists no clear way of explaining the existence of consciousness by merely analyzing neuronal activity. Basically, we need to come to terms with the difference between explaining the existence of something as opposed to explaining what that something correlates with.

It must be noted that I entertain no doubts that science will discover more and more about the physical correlates of mental activity. But, it appears impossible, in principle, to explain consciousness as it is. Any explanation or even description of consciousness – say information, integration, etc. – are merely concepts available to the conscious human mind itself. It must be recognized that consciousness is unique and is nothing like what science has dealt with.

Until that is made abundantly clear, both scientists and media reports will keep getting excited about things that they cannot even know.  However, their childish desire to succeed in proving naturalism, materialism or physicalism seems to repeatedly draw them away from this clarity.

The great thinker, Rabindranath Tagore (who is present in almost every post on this blog), expresses the above beautifully in his conversation with Albert Einstein:

Science has proved that the table as a solid object is an appearance and therefore that which the human mind perceives as a table would not exist if that mind were naught. At the same time it must be admitted that the fact, that the ultimate physical reality is nothing but a multitude of separate revolving centres of electric force, also belongs to the human mind. … In any case, if there be any Truth absolutely unrelated to humanity then for us it is absolutely non-existing.

It is not difficult to imagine a mind to which the sequence of things happens not in space but only in time like the sequence of notes in music. For such a mind such conception of reality is akin to the musical reality in which Pythagorean geometry can have no meaning. There is the reality of paper, infinitely different from the reality of literature. For the kind of mind possessed by the moth which eats that paper literature is absolutely non-existent, yet for Man’s mind literature has a greater value of Truth than the paper itself. In a similar manner if there be some Truth which has no sensuous or rational relation to the human mind, it will ever remain as nothing so long as we remain human beings.


Enlightened Leadership

Is an enlightened society possible or is it merely a daydream? Is it truly possible to come out of the conditioning of  mind and behave responsibly in large numbers?

Creating enlightened societies requires enlightened leadership. It is not possible to grow lotuses on desert land. The circumstances must be changed in order that several people see the value in waking up and becoming mindful of their thoughts, emotions and perceptions.

One of the key drivers of behavior is the reward system. What do we reward in today’s society? We have created this myth that each person is unique and special, and sold an illusion to an entire generation of children. We have made it necessary that for one to be valued, one will have to stand out of the crowd.

It is straightforward to see that such views only bolster the false-ego. The false-ego demands that it is accorded a status of superiority. It has a desire to always be right and engages in activities that enhance its image. Encouraging people, right from their childhood, to actively preserve and nurture their self-image only ends up cranking up the false-ego.

As a consequence of overgrown false-egos, there is frequent conflict. An entire generation is raised without being taught what it means to compromise, to listen, to understand, to reconcile, what it means to live in harmony with other people.

It is clear that the society must begin to acknowledge, if not reward, the activities of those who find ways of promoting harmony and understanding in the society. Leadership is the art of enhancing awareness in societies, in families and at the workplace. It is not merely clinging on to power or trying to look superior to others.

Leaders are those who enable their teams or groups to manifest the inner strength and beauty of their souls. Innovation and freshness are possible every moment of our lives if we stop acting out of our conditioned mental patterns at the drop of the hat. It is impossible for any society or organization to grow without its people growing.

Leadership is all about love. One, who cannot love, cannot lead. Realizing one’s capabilities and finding their use in improving the lives of others, one leads out of love. Such leadership is not about exhibiting one’s greatness over others. Leading with love is a form of service, a form of fulfilling the capabilities invested by God in us.

How do we create such leaders in our midst who can transform the way we live today?

The secret stories of a fish-pond

I was at the theme park yesterday organized for fun at the workplace. After taking a few rides for the sake of colleagues, I was wandering around to see if there was something suited for me.

Soon enough, I came across a fish pond with brilliantly colored fish: red, golden, orange, shades of black and grey. It was a sight to behold. Being a park for thrill, there were not many people at the pond and it was quiet. I sat myself by the pond and spent close to two hours watching fish.

I had not known before that watching a fish-pond could be an opportunity for meditation. The fish-pond spoke different stories.

First, the fish, like us, is life. Here were forms of life that kept running into each other all the time. Though the pond was somewhat big, it was limited and the fish could easily traverse the pond several times  in a day. However, none of the fish seemed bored about running into each other or traversing the same pond. Some of the fish were very active and leaped outside water (I don’t know why). It is probably because fish are such organisms that they accept the current condition and are not looking for thrill or excitement, taking life one moment at a time – the present. Outside, there were humans visiting different avenues to thrill themselves bored with their ordinary lives. I couldn’t help smiling at that thought and the pond-keeper must have thought me weird for smiling without apparent reason.

Then the time came to feed and the keeper threw food into the pond.  The fish that were closest rushed to the spot where the feed had landed to grab a snack. Instantly, all the fish in the pond rushed to the same spot though the food had already been consumed. It is not clear that they actually realized the presence of food. They must be taking the activity shown by their neighbors to infer it. The fish, which had consumed already and left the scene, must have noticed that the activity of their friends and inferred there must more food. They hurried back to the same spot. This set off a seemingly endless flurry of activity with the fish rushing to the spot, leaving it and returning back in a hurry. After some time, they must have realized that there is no food and it is simply fruitless activity. The pond went all quiet.

I was amazed by this sight. It was very much like the working of the mind. The mind is always receptive to drama. Once one thought latches on to drama, a host of other thoughts get agitated. And, they keep feeding off each other to keep the mental agitation going for a while. Then, the mind decides there is nothing interesting left and decides to await the next source of distraction.

In a way, this event in the pond was not very different from what was going on in the minds of people around. They were rushing from one ride to another. Some wanted once more! of the same ride until they felt they had exhausted the experience of thrill in it. Once again, I couldn’t help but smile.

I also noticed that some fish were taking some brief rest at the bottom of the pond, but other fish bumped into them and then they all got agitated. It was like putting a thought to rest only to find it agitated by some event.

At this point, it began to drizzle and the cool breeze carried droplets of rain onto one’s face. I sat by the pond watching the fish, watching the rain create small ripples in it, the fish swimming in and out of those ripples, the trees and shrubs around the pond laughing for having been tickled by the breeze, the water droplets descending and bounding from the graceful leaves as if they were ballet dancers, the sky clearing its throat in thunders. In the words of JK, one couldn’t tell how time flew.

For someone, who falls short of relating to adventure and thrill, the visit was not so bad after all.

Can fun be enforced?

This is a personal account: of a situation I face presently.

I found work during the 2008-2009 economic recession and things were bad then. Staffing was not always optimal and there was the unspoken expectation in most of business to get more done with less.  This should have been the worst part of my life, right?

Instead, I have some of the best memories from this part of my life. It was hard but it was hard for all of us. We worked together, accommodating, understanding each other, knowing that our personal differences should not lead us to failure during such an important time. We did not party, hangout with each other or complain about our bosses over coffee. We just clicked!

Almost a decade hence, we now face a phenomenon: the culture of aggressively promoting happiness at work. The motivation for this happens to be making the workplace more fun and to promote team-bonding.

For people like me, who are happy by default, this is slowly becoming a challenge to deal with. From bearing labels like joy-killers to fielding questions like what is wrong with you?, it appears that you cannot just stay away from participating in these fun activities.

Answers like, ‘I find work fun as it is and derive satisfaction from my career’ are met with unbelieving eyes. Most team-bonding exercises involve pointless competition. Most fun-outings are conducted in meticulously managed spaces like theme-parks or artificial resorts. If I wanted to be happy outside, I would walk to a forest or go up a hill or sit by a lake quietly – alone or with similar-minded people. Somehow, theme-parks, circuses and resorts fail to make me happy. In fact, I end up feeling a little sad that humanity has to seek after such artificial avenues, that work has to be stressful from which one has to get away once a while to feel normal. However, it is not easy (nor is it right) to state this view bluntly and openly.

Introspective questions like ‘What is stopping this present moment at work – with yourself and these people around you – from being a source of contentment and happiness?’ are extremely powerful but cannot be easily asked. It can be construed very rude and as spiritual people, we must understand that situation also.

There are instances of people doing such fun things not because they enjoy it but because they do not want to be seen as abnormal or only because their boss is also doing it and they don’t to rub their boss the wrong way by staying away.

Some people confide about how they feel uncomfortable about such events or even guilty. If they are having a fun moment, they might as well share that moment with close friends or family, not with office colleagues. It complicates their life that they do not share such moments with near and dear ones.

From my personal experience, I have not noticed that fun events promote better understanding between members of the team. What is understood about each other is usually not relevant to the function of the team. One is more likely to understand the other by working with the other person in an aware manner, understanding strengths and weaknesses and learning how to click as a team. Just like how honeymoons and vacations cannot save marriages, like how pampering kids with attention and cash does them no good, doing such fun events without being aware and attentive while working cannot yield intended results.

As much as it would be wrong to generalize that such managed fun events would promote happiness of all employees, it would be wrong to generalize that such events are utterly useless. It is quite possible that there are those among us who need such events and derive comfort from these events.

This means having to acknowledge that there is more than one way to be happy and that no particular way is best suited for all.

Which takes us to the truth that we can put off happiness waiting for some event to happen, but we can never enjoy happiness fully until we realize it as part of our natural state of being. It can be liberating to be happy without having to grasp at or long for a single new thing, by accepting fully our current state of life.

For those of us who like to find happiness in the quiet or are generally happy, for those of us who think along spiritual lines, this challenge is also an opportunity for learning and understanding. It is a time for creative communication. The worst thing we can do here is to think of others as being crass or spiritually inferior. We must be alive to the need for happiness that lies in every human being and treat the condition with respect. Actions speak louder than words; the way we go about our work and live our lives, the kind of people we turn out to be speak louder than explanations, reasoning and arguments. The fulfillment of a spiritual life lies in its ability to spread happiness to others, just as a flower that enlivens its surrounding with its fragrance.

With the spotlight on us, we have not just the opportunity, but the necessity to live authentically and in that way, we must be grateful for this challenge.


In the last post, the nature of non-dual awareness leading to bhakti was discussed. A question arises as to why this awareness is necessary.

What is Brahman-consciousness?

It is the recognition that the boundaries we draw between one and the other are artificial. We are all appearances of the Brahman in matter, energy and spirit. We live in the Brahman. Where else could we live? The Vedic sage would announce, The Brahman is my home.

Some say that we are parts of the Brahman. But, one must be very careful about what ‘part’ means. We are not individual pieces brought together to constitute a whole. Since we are conscious entities disposed to identify and work with objects, we divide the world into the several. This is an artifact of the mind. Are there several objects? No. What we regard as several things are several expressions or appearances of one Brahman. The Brahman is not a thing to be constituted by parts or discerned through them.

Brahman-consciousness is the realization of kinship with everything there is. The hand does not poke the eye when the hand and the eye are from the same body. There is kinship between them. But the hand pokes the eye of another because of an absence of the sense of kinship.

The legal system and our sense of justice have largely become corrupted by the fancies of selfishness. Anything that harms me must be put down as violently as possible, and we can legalize it as long as a large number of us agree that it is right.  Nations try to cultivate brute strength. They are all vying with each other to become more powerful, each with their own judgements of right and wrong. The greatest folly is being enacted in front of our eyes where we think that matters of truth and ethics can be settled by a display of might.

It has been the case in history that the more spiritual a civilization, the less inclined it becomes in cultivating physical might or sophisticated weaponry. The absence of external might is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. However, history tells us about how peaceful and civilized peoples have been run over by those with a thirst for power or wealth. In India, during the invasions of medieval times, we listen with a shudder to some spiritually blind poet extolling his master for exterminating a thousand saints and monks who were a distraction to his ‘noble’ pursuits. There are distasteful jokes about some saint or monk being tricked by a ‘clever’ fellow. When we pause to look around at the impact of all this cleverness, there is only pain, distrust, wounds, revenge, resentment and grieving. The world has been pillaged of her wealth to make some pretty cash for investors. Weapon business is good because it provides employment and promotes the economy. Birds can be grown in horrifying conditions and fattened for food. These are the expressions of our moral consciousness today. We may look down upon those incarcerated as sinners, but we ourselves, by our collective unconsciousness, are participants in nurturing this environment of violence.

The problem is obvious. Anyone, who becomes spiritually aware, becomes perceived as weak. I am not spiritually mature by any stretch of imagination but a good number of wise souls have already judged that I am not ambitious because I am insane, incompetent and impotent. Spirituality is for the weak, they say.  In reality, it takes great strength to keep one’s courage and peace in midst of storm. The world is such that hurting another person comes more easily than understanding. Our superficial attractions are certainly a pleasure but only when they last. This is not naive pessimism, but the truth.

How can the external frailty and vulnerability of spiritual souls survive in an ambiance of hostility and closed-mindedness? The forces of spiritual blindness are exceptionally strong. An act of spiritual blindness can easily draw forth a response in equal measure and blind the other person too. It takes only a small spark of fire to burn down an entire store. It takes very little spiritual blindness to corrupt our hearts. Yet, in our world, acting unconsciously as a slave to mental patterns is more common than spiritual insight.

The only way for our deliverance lies in awakening in large numbers, leaders and peoples alike. Acts of violence, in their course of time, inevitably lead to pain. And this pain itself can become an opportunity to wake up. When one wakes up, one’s past self looks like a ghost.

An easier, less painful way to wake up, is Brahman-consciousness, a realization of kinship of oneself with everyone and everything else. It is a point of view where one is organically present in the All, always, naturally. In a sense, there is no real need to find reasons for cooperation or discover how we are dependent on each other for ordinary survival – this can surely be done, no doubt. The truth of our abiding in Brahman stands above all these concepts of the mind. Instead of individual success, we strive for collective harmony.

What does it mean to possess any object or thing in truth? Waving a piece of paper that several people have agreed to means nothing in truth. It is an expression of complete inversion of reality. In reality, we are at the mercy of everything – air, water, food, light, heat, etc. There is suffering when this reality in turned upside down and we behave as if they are at our mercy. We all belong to the Brahman, the Great, and live in it as aided by its conditions. There is no other possibility, no other truth.

As science progresses, technology evolves to put greater and greater intelligence and strength in machines, economy becomes an act of trickery. It is going to be so much easier to hire a robot to kill a human, however compassionate, and purchase the morality of that act with money. Our dull mass media would report, Extended intelligence capability engages with and diffuses target. Yup! That’s it! It may even be become a moment to celebration a ‘success’.

The choice rests before us. It has been there for a while but it won’t be around for long. We can either wake up now or decide to sleep forever.

Non-duality – Clarified

Non-duality has increasingly become a well known concept across the world. Several spiritually oriented people are interested in non-duality.  The oldest source of non-duality happens to be the teachings of Vedānta – the Upaniṣads and the Gītā.

Non-duality is usually taught in terms of not-two, not-even-two, not-even-one, etc. and the premise of non-duality is the realization of the complete oneness of everything.

The mind which divides, names and grasps is responsible for the perception of apparent multiplicity of objects. In reality, there is only one, the Brahman, which gets resolved by the conceptual mind into several. While the conceptual mind grasps the appearances of the Brahman, the mind that does not break down entities and comes in contact with the entirety of reality grasps the Brahman.

This situation leads to the distinction of the Absolute vs the Relative.  There is a view that the Relative is mostly an illusion and only the Absolute is real. This view is prone to  cause confusion. For example, if a tiger appears before a person, should a knower of Absolute sit quietly assuming the tiger is an illusion? Are poverty and suffering mere illusions that should not influence a knower of the Absolute?

Some teachers come back with the answer that the Relative has practical validity though it is not ultimately real. It can be honored for practical purposes. This answer greatly weakens the non-dual position. If the Relative is practical, it is clear that the Absolute is impractical. As practical concerns are more relevant due to their immediate effect, the Absolute gets relegated to a mere philosophical abstraction that is of no use at all. Knowing that there is such an Absolute becomes a mere intellectual position. The Absolute becomes a concept (ironically) that is incapable of providing any inspiration to the human condition since it is beyond all relations.  What is the use of knowledge without value?

However in most of Vaiṣṇava Vedānta, the above understanding of non-duality is strongly denied. The question first investigated is if the Ultimate Reality is something to be realized or is it beyond all knowledge and realization. If the Ultimate Reality is utterly beyond all forms of knowledge, realization and experience, it does not exist for the human condition. We would end up converting our system into a dogmatic religion where everything must be unquestioningly accepted whether they make sense or not. Since we are not such a religion of doctrines, it has to be accepted that the Brahman can be realized (as oneself).

Language is simply a way of naming things that we perceive, comprehend or understand. If the Brahman can be realized, then it can be named through language. That is how the names, Brahman, Viṣṇu or Kṛṣṇa  come to be used. As long as one realizes that the Brahman is like no other thing, there is no need to consider language as the source of illusion. It is all a matter of perspective.

In the Vaiṣṇava approach to Vedānta, the Brahman is known to be Absolute and the Ultimate Reality. However, though the Brahman is not relative, it is relatable. The Brahman that one relates to is not a lower form of Brahman. It is exactly the same Brahman Itself. The Brahman that one relates to is the Brahman realized in human condition. It is a distinct experience since it is not like the realization of a pot or a crow. Though the Brahman is transcendent, it is not a complete void, it is not zero. A description of the Brahman escapes words; this is not the same as saying the Brahman has no aspect to be described (and where description fails). These two are often confused.

The Brahman realized in the human condition is called God or Īśvara. Īśvara is non-different from the Brahman. For anyone born in the human condition, Īśvara is the only Brahman that can be known and experienced. God is not a mental construct, nor a fantasy or a myth. God is the blissful who resides in the deepest layers of consciousness. That is how God can be experienced no matter how deep a samādhi one gets into.

In Vaiṣṇava systems, one is not asked to become indifferent to the world and remove one’s mind of all concepts. It is recognized that conceptualization exists for a purpose and a person’s life would be one of misery if one were to keep switching between using concepts and not-using them from time to time.

Instead, the mind of relations is asked to relate to the Brahman. When the mind is purified of anger, desire, etc. it can not only see itself but also recognize something deeper in awareness, the Witnessing Self. The mind is then asked to relate favorably to the Self.

Another view in Vaiṣṇava systems is to equate the mind with the brain, and its function. The mind is insentient and devoid of consciousness though it is capable of interacting with the latter. It is the individual self or jīva who is recognized to be the conscious entity. Ego belongs to the jīva, not the mind. The mind binds and conditions the conscious experience of the jīva. The one to whom thoughts occur, who participates in action is the jīva. The mind and the body are drivers and enablers of action. But, agency is ascribed to the jīva due to the notion that agency can only be attributed to a sentient entity. Though the jīva is an agent, it is a helpless agent for the most part driven by impulses, the workings of the mind (sub-conscious), the state of the body and other circumstances. However, all is not lost and the jīva has the opportunity for liberation. Liberation comes by directing the mind to the Supreme Self within oneself. When the mind becomes very quiet and awareness is heightened, one realizes the Supreme Self. Hence, the Upaniṣads which say The Brahman is beyond the grasp of speech or intellect, also say By the pure mind, one knows the Brahman. 

Unlike other non-dual traditions, the Vaiṣṇava approach to Vedānta does not proclaim the demise or disappearance of the jīva after realization of Brahman. There is only a shift in awareness. Instead of the light of awareness being concentrated around the ego, awareness now extends into its greater depths and discovers the Brahman. The jīva continues to exist though it is not experienced as a separate entity. The only experience is as the Divine to which the jīva becomes transparent. The loss is not of entity but of identity. The jīva is not experienced separately to lead to the notion of an entity with independent identity. Instead it is identified with the Brahman. Some ‘gurus’ commit offences after realization. This is because they deceived themselves that the jīva would die once realization was achieved. Yet, it persisted. Since it was ignored, its morality fell apart leading to indiscretion.

Instead of complete internal absorption and withdrawal from all action, the Vaiṣṇava approach is to draw out the Divine into the field of play – the universe. The jīva submits to the Brahman and becomes an accessory to Divine action. One’s mind and senses are surrendered to the Brahman’s disposal with the clear realization: All this is of the Brahman and so am I.

The Vaiṣṇava resolution of reality is not on the basis of presence or absence of relations but on independence. Brahman is the only independent real. The jīva and the universe are conditional reals (not unreal, not illusions). Theistic versions of Vaiṣṇavism employ these ideas to great effect.

The relatable nature of the Brahman leads to the Brahman being experienced as the guide, as the father, as the mother. The independence of the Brahman set against the conditional existence of other reals leads to the idea of subservience of the soul to God. The complete actualization of the soul in its being accessory to the Divine creates the notion of the soul as a servant of God. The sweetness and bliss of the Self allow the cultivation of devotional love, and experiences of God as a sweet child or God as the lover. These are not to be ridiculed or laughed at. These are human responses to deep engagement with the Divine.

At the same time, one must be wary of these theistic manifestations of principle. Excessive externalization can lead to blindness of the fact that the Brahman is not outside but within, that the Brahman is not the other but oneself.

Spirituality walks on a very thin line that separates an indifferent, inert, impractical understanding of non-duality and full-blown dualism that takes us back to square one. The Vaiṣṇava stance rests on this thin line. The jīva is not denied or dissipated but actualized by allowing it to lose itself in the awareness of Brahman.

It must be noted that the modern understanding of non-duality – even in the aggressively self-denying spheres – is slowly coming out of inertness and inaction in order to appeal to all walks of life and all cultures, not just the extreme ascetics of India. The emphasis is less on inaction or self-denial, and more on waking up. It is a good sign that some go even to the extent of teaching people how to love, how to solve disputes and how to relate with one another. It should be obvious that without this empowering understanding of non-duality, spirituality cannot inspire morality and uplift the human condition.

Surrender – clarified

The principle of surrender exists in almost all spiritual traditions. Surrender is the way of acceptance and provides purity to the mind. In the Śrīvaiṣṇava tradition, it goes by the name of prapatti.

This essay will seek to clarify a basic misconception about surrender in modern Śrīvaiṣṇavism, and for that reason, this article would specifically talk to a narrow audience.

Somehow, it has come to be understood in some of our circles that surrender implies inaction. One shall not perform any action in one’s own interest if one has surrendered. This misunderstanding comes from the complex nature of surrender.

Prapatti or surrender is not an excuse for abandoning one’s spiritual practice. Surrender, by itself, does not replace any other discipline. It is part of a larger discipline that leads to the realization of the Supreme Self.

The common notion is that once one has surrendered, grace will begin to act and take over. This would lead to liberation and nothing else needs to be done. Through this understanding some folks go to the extent of abandoning all spiritual discipline. Some even go to the extent of criticizing those who are committed to some spiritual discipline.

Here, I will show that not only is individual effort / discipline significant but also that it is absolutely necessary to go along with prapatti.

Prapatti is understood not to have any restriction with respect to the fruits it can deliver. It has no phala niyama. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that a student performs prapatti in order to do well in an important exam. Should the student put individual effort to study or should he/she not?

If the student understands personal efforts in achieving the goal to be obstacles to prapatti and refrains from studying, the prapatti will definitely not succeed and the student would miserably fail in the exam. Prapatti or surrender only removes the anxiety of the student and lets him/her come intimate with the study – to study with focused attention without getting too anxious of the reward. The student abandons the worry of succeeding or failing, and channels complete focus and energy into the effort. This is the true principle of surrender. Surrender is not the state of complete inaction; it is the state of maximum action.

Just as in the above case, in the domain of spirituality too, one cannot bypass the disciplines taught in different texts by different masters using prapatti or surrender. I have no worry. Hence, no discipline is necessary. has become a common utterance. Or, some others do not know what they are supposed to do ‘after surrender’ and invent some rituals by themselves to avoid appearing to do the established discipline while also keeping in touch with some part of it.

Surrender teaches us that worry or anxiety is not the motivation for action. I have no worry, hence I act with discipline. As long as there is worry, the discipline is degraded as something that one must get over as soon as possible to obtain a different result. It fuels the ego instead of subduing it.

But in surrender, one acts in the discipline leaving the result to God. One is not anxious – self-evaluating, judging at every step but letting go and allowing the discipline to work with grace to produce its result on its own terms.

A famous verse in Muṇḍaka Upaniṣat goes like this:

The Self cannot be attained by instruction, or by intelligence, or through much listening (to different teachings). It is attained by one who is chosen by the Self. To that person, the Self reveals its true form.

While it is correct to understand that this verse establishes the role of grace, just look at the very next verse in the same text which is not quoted quite as often.

The Self cannot be attained without strength (in efforts), or by negligence (in discipline), or through austerities without intent. He who truly tries by established methods, he understands and enters the light of Brahman.

The above verses are not contradictory and must be understood correctly. Grace and individual effort are complementary, and are unopposed to one another. The Gītā explains the way of right action which invites grace. Grace is the force behind the inner transformation effected by the Self which underlies the ego. Grace is said to be causeless because of the understanding that what is in the effect must be present equally in the cause. Since grace is exceedingly beautiful and there is no end to its transformative power, there is nothing the individual could have done to elicit the power of grace. The individual only sets the stage for grace to operate by acting in the right way, by following the right discipline (not by utter inaction).

This understanding can easily resolve the division in Śrīvaiṣṇavism today. Sādhana is not a dangerous term. Of course, the Supreme Brahman is the real means, being the support and source of all. But, this is a deep understanding which cannot be oversimplified to a point where it demands total inaction from the individual and completely discredits the value of individual effort/discipline to a point where it is blatantly illogical.

Therefore, fight!

Spirituality is not the process of going idle. And, no other text does justice to this point like Śrīmad-Bhagavad-Gītā.

Lord Kṛṣṇa calls for spiritual fight, tasmād-yuddhyasva bhārata. [Bhārata! Therefore, fight!]  The knower of dharma does not abandon everything and retire to the forest. Dharma is not for the faint-hearted. One does not engage in dharma to discover some new peace or tranquility. I want to be peaceful. I need something to work for me. Let me try dharma.  – this is not the right approach to dharma. Dharma does bring peace, it does create a better world. But, one must not cling to these rewards selfishly. By doing so, one loses those rewards.

As a world, we have numbed ourselves to the problems that take place in front of our eyes. Those who desire material rewards go on executing their project of seeking at any cost. Those of us who desire spiritual well-being worry about our own peace, our own dharma. We want to find a way to escape the suffering of the world, to remove ourselves from the turmoil.

The legend-maker Vyāsa beautifully converts a story of war into a story of the inner dynamics of human existence. In this, he paints the mindset of two types of people: Duryodhana and Arjuna. The former seeks to solve his problems by amassing wealth at any cost, by causing pain to others. He is greedy and his father (moral guide) has gone blind to his transgressions. He has come unhinged from his being and is unmindful of the impact of his actions. On the other side is Arjuna, who is spiritually oriented.

In the Mahābhārata, there comes a stage when both Duryodhana and Arjuna decide to seek help in their fight. Both approach Kṛṣṇa at exactly the same time. Kṛṣṇa announces that He Himself will not fight but will only aid them in one of two ways: (1) He will provide His huge army and resources to one of the sides (2) He will give Himself to the other side but only in a non-combat role. He asks the cousins to choose. Duryodhana chooses the military might of Kṛṣṇa while Arjuna chooses Kṛṣṇa Himself. The message of the story is that while one prefers materialistic defenses, the other takes a spiritual route and wants to remain connected with the Self.

The war that Duryodhana and Arjuna wage is the war we wage everyday in our lives. It is the perpetual conflict and trouble of existence. The greedy and unmindful would like to win at any cost and gain victory. But, the spiritually oriented, like Arjuna, prefer to retire to obscurity. Faced with the challenge of the world, Arjuna prefers to leave it. Kṛṣṇa chides him, These opponents will call you a coward! Powerful unmindful people take the note of reconciliation and understanding adopted by the wise as weakness, and inflicting more pain. They would attribute their success to their immense abilities and the failure of others to their impotence. Even death is better than being shamed by the wicked! Kṛṣṇa tries to play the mind of Arjuna with first-order arguments before delving into the depths of spiritual life. It is an important spiritual practice not to be judgmental. But, one has to recognize problems where they are. It is not okay to walk by non-judgmentally whren violence is wrought, when there are those suffering in pain in front of our eyes.

William Wordsworth reveals to us a very high ideal,

Never to blend our pleasure or our pride

With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels.

It does not take a great genius to dismiss this ideal as exaggerated or impractical. It takes a genius to realize the ideal to whatever extent possible and to awaken the world to its collective suffering.

It is tempting to let it all go and retire, to avoid contact with a troublesome world, to worry only about oneself, to have lofty internal goals. It would be nice to avoid conflict. But, the dynamics of the world do not lend themselves to this expectation.

The pain of a spiritual person is immense. It is a pain to watch before one’s eyes, the lives of people, who have the opportunity for a better life, ruin themselves in the so-called pursuit of happiness. It is a pain to watch innocent children being introduced to the world with images of strife in an environment that treats violence as normal.

The solution to this problem is not to avoid seeing it, but to try and transform it. Success is not guaranteed. Kṛṣṇa says, You may win, or you may lose. But, what does it matter to a spiritual person like you? With equanimity, finding contentment only in the Self, face up to your challenge. 

We like the simple assurances of law or of common-place religion that announce, The righteous will survive and triumph. The wicked will be destroyed. But, we all know deep down that real life is more complicated than that. The teaching of Kṛṣṇa is not a shortcut to success or happiness.

What is the use of trying to transform oneself and the world if victory is not guaranteed? Why not give ourselves to the hopelessness of the world and become party to avarice? Or, why not remain noble but remain out of touch with the world, letting it hurtle to its doom?

Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna, Only by acts of sacrifice, Arjuna, is this world sustained. Hence, do not cease to engage in such action. 

It is not by acts of seeking, of aggrandizing ourselves that we make the world a better place. It is a convenient lie we tell ourselves while we weep in the depths of our own hearts. It is by true acts of sacrifice that the world transforms. Sacrifice is sacred action. It is the art of acting without greed, without perpetual seeking, with dedication, with love. For one who has gained the Self, what higher reward lies to be gained through action, what greater treasure is risked being lost?

No, no. It is not courageous to steal, to hurt, to shoot, to abuse, to make wealth for oneself, to succeed by twisting the law. These are the acts of profound cowardice, of extreme anxiety, of constant fear, of obsessive need to avoid any form of defeat.

Kṛṣṇa states this clearly, One, who consumes for oneself, only consumes grave sin. 

It is in sacrifice that we work with attention, and in closeness to nature. By being close to nature and in harmony with her, we receive her boons. Through enlightened action, we again transform her boons in ways that find harmony with her. This is a perpetual cycle without which the world will not sustain.

While inner transformation is the first and last step of spiritual progress, it has no value without external transformation. What is the use of a light that shines alone in a closed room. It takes courage to invite all the troubles of the world into oneself, feel them and transform them without letting them distort oneself. Nay, it is the final act in courage. Good people are nice, but they fulfill their presence when they are also courageous.

Stopping abuse

This is the age of great awakening. It is also the age of profound darkness. It is the age where we are coming to understand the value of life. It is also the age when we are finding how to exploit life outside or inside the scope of law.

The more we enact laws, the more we understand the insufficiency of laws to cure the human condition. For those of us who were born much after the world wars, the people and leaders who led to the war appeared distant and abnormal. It appeared foolish. For those of us who were born in the post-colonialism, post-slavery era, these ideas appeared silly too and we were distant from those times.

But, the recent wars in the Middle East have shaken all of us. In our own times, we have seen children being killed. In our own times, we have seen the most cruel exploitation of women. In our own times, we have borne witness to horrifying accounts of torture.

By what kind of law do we prevent such violence against our own?

While one has to salute those fighting legal battles to bring the miscreants to justice, it appears that their efforts alone would be insufficient.

As one explores the human condition, one understands that the roots of abuse lie at a much deeper level. It all starts with self-abuse. How would you feel if you were humiliated, disrespected on a continuous basis and dragged without dignity from one slavish task to another? We would feel bad, wouldn’t we? We would want to find a way to escape this situation. But, when the self inflicts this violence upon itself, it simply fails to see it.

An unexamined life is a life of abuse, self-abuse. Feeling for oneself is more important  than and is the root of feeling for others. Just as only a wealthy person is able to donate to charity which helps poor people and an educated person able to teach others to remove their ignorance, only a person who has come out of self-abuse can work towards preventing abuse to others.

In the western world, mindfulness has become a big movement despite its detractors and skeptics. It allows an examined life. It awakens us to how we are abusing ourselves, pushing ourselves to danger. Though some may contest the correctness of the name ‘mindfulness’, there is no problem as long as it is well understood. In mindfulness, one acknowledges the nature of the mind as being dissipated and fickle. It keeps grasping or creating one thing after another. The mind is a beautiful tool as long as it is an instrument. When it ceases to be and becomes a master, it wrecks havoc with our lives. The disciplines that teach us to control and starve the mind do not work because that does not sit well with the nature of the mind. The mind is always eager for something. Stopping it is committing violence against it. One cannot solve the problem of abuse by abusing the mind. Instead, one must come to an understanding of the mind itself. We allow the mind to have some support on which it can rest while we explore deeply. The mind is assigned the task of watching the breath, looking at the body condition or anything else that is suitable to us. In this way, the mind is not controlled. It is not starved. It is given a task to keep it busy.

When the mind is thus focused, one gets the opportunity to shift to a different kind of awareness. The result of mindfulness is not mindfulness itself but the transition to a different kind of awareness. It is a state of awareness that does not judge, that does not cling but only observes with clarity. In this state, one can watch, bear witness to, the self being dragged in different directions at the level of the mind. One can bear witness to the absurdity of some of our passions and certainties, our likes and dislikes. Some of us call this deepest sense of awareness, God, but it doesn’t really matter what you want to call it. Nowadays, it appears that the less we invoke the name ‘God’, the better it is.

It is in understanding how we abuse ourselves to the vagaries of the mind that we find both the way and the opportunity for universal compassion. We realize the human condition across the world and discover ways to cure the condition. Acting from this deeper sense of awareness is superior to acting from the level of the mind because in this former state is understanding, lack of selfish desire or some other form of insanity.

Awakening to the nature of the mind, we awaken to the immediate and grave dangers of leaving it unchecked. We realize that the solution is not to control the mind – it will fight back with a vengeance – but to understand and learn to live with it. The mind is like a child that will throw tantrums and misbehave when no one is watching. The key is to watch it and let it behave.

The need to stop abuse in this world is urgent. While on the one hand, we dream of exploring space, integrating with machines, etc. it is not necessary that our next step of evolution should either by shaped by external nature or by machines. It can happen at the level of consciousness and here lies the way to a creating a more dignified and free life for all of us – a way of life where you don’t have to lose for me to win.

The Fruit of Knowledge

There is this well known Biblical (Genesis) legend about the tree of knowledge whose fruits were forbidden to Adam and Eve by God.  Tempted by the snake, Adam and Eve consume the fruit and are banished from the Garden of Eden.

This story carries with it the serious question as to why God would forbid man access to knowledge and those who do not accept the Christian faith have taken several shots at it (search the internet!).  Was God an advocate of ignorance regarding good and evil?

I will try to approach this legend from the viewpoint of a Vedānta, so as to render it meaningful.

The fruit of knowledge has to be intellectual or rational knowledge. Right-wrong, good-evil, etc. constitute conceptual frameworks in which the world is divided into by the intellect for the purpose of reasoning and making sense. Apparently, most animals and other forms of life have no such clear conception. As long as one does not lead one’s life solely through the prism of these concepts, it is almost like heaven and there is peace. One does not find a brooding deer or a chronically depressed duck or even a monkey lost in thought about its future.

Thinking occurs at an unprecedented and unique level in humans. Our strength of conceptual thought is unparalleled in the known forms of life. While this provides us a higher relative intelligence, it is also the end of heaven.

When the human mind forms the conception of what is good and what is bad, when it understands death and suffering, it develops deep anxiety.  The anxious mind is the farthest from heaven. The mind suffers untold misery for imaginary problems. A lot of our suffering is caused simply by the state of our minds than due to outside problems.

Even outside problems, leaving aside natural disasters, are caused due to the human mind acting in anxiety. Anxiety leads to fear, and fear creates the sense of separation. Separation pits oneself against the rest of the world and lays the seeds of conflict. Survival has to be ensured at any cost. The short term rewards over-weigh long term well-being.

What else can explain the violence committed by man against man without feeling? What else can explain the unhealthy hunger for power, success and money? Today, extreme poverty lives as neighbor-next-door to extreme prosperity. There is a blindness in the accumulation of power and riches, a blindness that refuses to notice the suffering endured by all of life. This blindness will lead to the extinction of life on earth through the path of maximum pain.

The minds that are consumed by this blindness are not foolish. If they were dull, we can all take it easy. However, the human intellect is powerful. It discovers brilliant reasons and invents sophisticated devices for causing harm. The latest technology is generally available for warfare or for one or the other form of money making (not wealth creation, not value addition, just money making). Today, when our intelligence is unparalleled, so are our fears and our insecurities. The world is in a state of turmoil.

In the parlance of Vedānta, this form of pure intellectualism that fuels greed and creates anxiety is not considered real knowledge at all. It is respected only to a certain degree. During the peak of Vedānta in ancient India, the rich and wealthy did not consider themselves fulfilled in terms of their understanding even after immense professional success. They sought the knowledge that liberates the human from pettiness, from the bondage of necessity in this existence. The knowledge that liberates is the knowledge that erases the lines between oneself and others. It is the knowledge of unity and harmony.

Until life reached the status of the human, specifically the thinking human, life on earth proceeded with no concept of good or bad. Life blossomed and also suffered, but it suffered without having to also suffer the suffering. Once humans attained the knowledge that produces anxiety, it became important to keep its consequences under check. It is precisely due to this that we need the knowledge of harmony that removes anxiety and broadens our perspective. Arriving at this stage through intellectual thought is dangerous for what intellectualism builds through its sheer brilliance, it is capable of destroying too. Every violent mob has its reasons. Can we not discover theories for hate?

We will get nowhere digging in the shallow pit of the human. Humanity is not just the noble side of man. A human does not become an animal when he tortures a fellow human for having a different opinion. No animal has ever been found torturing a member of its own species for such flimsy reasons. No tiger burnt its own kind at the stake or subjected its rival to slow death with the intention of maximizing pain. When humans commit such horrifying acts of violence, they are not being a beast, they are being patently human. Just that.

Therefore, the goal of Vedānta is to allow the human to transcend oneself, to go beyond the human impulse and find community with the universe. The medicine of the religion of Vedānta is not humanity but spirituality. It does not want us to utterly disregard the world or ignore all concepts. The goal is to reconcile this inevitable human condition with the knowledge of unity and harmony.  Specifically, the Vaiṣnava understanding of Vedānta does not demand complete asceticism or a march to the forest. It calls for action but one in which the human intellect is subordinated to a greater, harmonizing principle – the Brahman.  Śrīmad-Bhagavad-Gītā teaches that detachment does not imply inaction. The call is for enlightened action.

I have a feeling that most religions did get this point. However, they seem to have grossly lost grasp of what it means to subordinate the human condition to the divine. Instead of transcending the human condition and attaining divinity, preachers and followers alike decided that it was alright to do anything as long as it is done in the name of God. Instead of uplifting the human condition to the state of divinity, they – in all good faith, of course – administered a lethal blow to any such redemption by subordinating the institution and message of the divine to the whims and troubles of the human mind. The divine became a glorified excuse for human transgressions.

It is time to change. It is easy because each of us need change only one person: oneself. Given our current condition, it is imperative that this is urgently necessary when survival instincts have dulled the human mind and let lusty greed rule.

Folks! We face a curious point in history when humanity stands to be defeated in one of two ways: by its utter destruction at the hands of spiritual blindness or by its transcendence to a state that can only be called magical in comparison to what is today. Unfortunately, there is no other choice.