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  Volume 4 - Issue 11 NOVEMBER 2006
 
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MUSINGS FROM PRASANTHI NILAYAM
CONCERNING THE VEDAS - 10

THE GLORY OF CONSCIOUSNESS –
Through the eyes of Modern Scientists and Vedic Seers

By Prof. G Venkataraman

Previous Articles In The Same Series
Concerning the Vedas 01
Concerning the Vedas 02
Concerning the Vedas 03
Concerning the Vedas 04
Concerning the Vedas 05
Concerning the Vedas 06
Concerning the Vedas 07
Concerning the Vedas 08
Concerning the Vedas 09


Loving Sai Ram, and greetings from Prashanti Nilayam. This is the tenth talk in the series, Veda Walkthrough, an effort of mine to communicate to you the spirit that pervades the Vedas. It is also my last talk in this series. Today, I would like to take you far away from life, mantras and all that, and try to say something about Awareness and Consciousness.

You might have heard the phrase, Sat, Chit, Ananda. It means roughly, Truth, Consciousness, and Bliss. That is how God is sometimes described. In other words, at the Abstract and Absolute level, God is also described as Pure Consciousness or Absolute Consciousness. Now what exactly is this Consciousness? What has it got to do, if at all, with Creation? What does science have to say, if anything, about this Consciousness? These are some of the questions that I would like to address in this talk. Before I do, I must make it perfectly clear that there is no need whatsoever to know the answer to these questions if one wants to merge with God. Our bhakti would in no way be enhanced if we know something about these aspects. On the other hand, it does help us to appreciate how deep was the understanding of the ancient Seers, who were in quest of God. I feel that in this day and age, when people are always asking all sorts of questions, it might be useful to put Creation itself against the background of Pure Consciousness or Absolute Consciousness, as God is sometimes referred to. That, you might say, is my motivation for this talk.

Matter and Energy

I shall start by stating a fact that I am sure you are already aware of, namely that our Universe is made up of two entities – matter and energy. Matter is tangible; we can touch it and see it. Sometimes when the material object is too small to be seen with the naked eye, we can see it using an optical microscope or even an electron microscope. Matter has mass which can be measured. Energy, on the other hand, is intangible when it is latent. It becomes manifest only when it changes its form.

For example, a rock sitting on top of a mountain has a lot of potential energy; every high school student knows this. However, nobody can see this energy, although one can calculate how much gravitational potential energy the rock on the mountaintop has. Nevertheless, if the rock is pushed down, the potential energy gets converted into kinetic energy and the effects of this transformation can be seen and measured.

 

Similarly, it is often said that a lot of energy is locked up within an atom. Indeed. But atomic energy that is latent cannot be seen. However, when the energy that is locked up in the atom is released, then the effects generated by that release can be seen

 

By the way, this is what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I am mentioning all this just to convey that until about a hundred years ago, physicists used to think that matter is matter and energy is energy and that these two are distinct. All that changed in 1905, and the man who changed this view of matter and energy was Einstein.

E = mc 2 – Matter and Energy are the Same

Albert Einstein was at that time a young man of about twenty-three. He was employed in the Swiss Patent Office, and since his official work was not heavy, Einstein spent a lot of time investigating many knotty problems of physics. He published three epoch-making papers that year, which is why the year 2005 has been designated by the UN as the International Year of Physics.

One of the three seminal papers Einstein wrote then is on the Special Theory of Relativity, one offshoot of which is the equation E = mc 2. This equation has since become so famous that even the general public knows of it. The equation is very simple but it discloses a profound truth. As Einstein himself said in a public lecture, this equation says that both what we call matter and what we call energy are the same thing! There is a unity underlying the apparent duality. It is amazing that God reminds us of universality even in the world of physics.

Prof. Albert Einstein
 

Insentient and Sentient Matter

OK, there is matter and energy in the Universe and though they might appear to be distinct entities, they are really one and the same thing. Further, matter can be converted into energy and energy can be converted into matter. So what? That is the point I wish to take up next, but before I do that I ought to draw your attention to a fact you already know, namely that matter in the Universe can be of two distinct types: insentient and sentient. Insentient means no life, and sentient means having life.

There is a specific reason why I am making this distinction. An entity with life is aware that it exists. To make the point clear, let me consider a stone and, say, a frog. The stone exists – you and I can see it but the stone does not know it exists. You might say that this is an utterly trivial statement. How on earth can a stone know it exists? It does not have life! Yes, that is true, but the point is that the frog, which has life, knows it exists, it is aware of its existence. The frog has self-awareness while the stone does not, and that is the point I am trying to make.

Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is a remarkable gift that living beings possess and we humans never even think of it. We take it so much for granted that we hardly realize that we possess the remarkable gift of self-awareness. You might say, “OK, living beings have self-awareness; so what?” Let me take up that point next.

The question now is: “Wherefrom did this self-awareness come? Is it related to matter or to energy? Can it be described by any equation of physics?

 

Did it suddenly pop up from nowhere when life first appeared on earth, or has it been latent in the Universe in some mysterious form right from the time the Universe came into existence?” I must tell you at this juncture that few scientists publicly discuss such issues. A handful of scientists have no doubt wondered about such issues, but the mainstream, that is to say 99.9999% of the scientists simply ignore such questions. They know they cannot get any definitive answers and cannot publish any papers on this topic in the standard scientific journals. Since these are days of “publish or perish,” most scientists leave such questions severely alone. However, the questions remain and I wish to consider them and air some views about them.

The first thing I would like to point out in this context is that self-awareness is part of our ability to have experiences. Many things we know come to us from experience. Let us take a simple thing like taste. Taste, you will agree, is a matter of experience. We are able to have the experience of taste because the Blessed Lord has been kind enough to give us taste buds. Let us say that we put a small piece of sugar in the mouth. It would, of course, taste sweet. Everyone in the world irrespective of race and religion would swear that sugar is sweet. You might argue, what is the surprise in that? I am not saying there is anything surprising about sugar being sweet, but have you ever wondered whether what you experience about sugar tasting sweet is the same thing as what X or Y experiences?

Experience: Internal and Subjective

There is an important point here. Experience is internal to a person and as a result, there is no way of comparing the experiences of two persons on an objective basis. It is true science can analyze sugar, describe the molecular structure, and all that, but there is no meter or measuring instrument that science can ever come up with for measuring the experience of sweetness. It is the same with self-awareness. Science can say whether an entity is dead or alive but it cannot ever deal with any subjective experience.

We need not condemn or criticize science for that; that is the way it is presently structured. However, practitioners of science should not feel high and mighty and look down upon people who wish to consider metaphysics. That feeling of condescension is totally unwarranted but, unfortunately, is present in many modern upstarts. Such arrogance flows from ego and is not the hallmark of a true scholar who is always quite humble.

 

A Mysterious Something Beyond Matter and Energy

OK, so what is the point I have made with all these words? Just this. Firstly, there are things that go beyond matter and energy. Secondly, these subjects relate to domains beyond space and time, which is the domain of science. I hope you agree with my submissions. What next?

Well, here is my next point. Let us ask: where did all the matter we see around us and all the energy that presently fills the Universe come from? No problem in answering that question because science tells us that all this came from the initial Big Bang that gave birth to the Universe. I suppose you have heard of the Big Bang; I have mentioned it in some of my talks. For the present let me say that the term Big Bang is used to describe the event that signaled the birth of our Universe about fourteen billion years ago, give or take a couple of billion years.

Matter and energy now in the Universe can be tracked back all the way to the Big Bang. What about the mysterious entity that confers on us the capacity for self-awareness, and also grants us the ability to have experiences associated with the senses, that is, the ability to have the experience of sight, sound, taste, feeling and smell? Is there a mysterious Something beyond matter and energy that confers the ability to have internal experiences? Wherefrom did this ability come? Did it pre-exist the Big Bang or did it sort of evolve as species evolved? If so, how did this thing beyond matter and energy originate during the life-evolution process? Many questions there!

I should, at this juncture, point out that science too is faced with some basic questions of a similar nature. Today, there is hardly any scientist worth the name who doubts the fact that our Universe originated in the so-called Big Bang about fourteen or so billion years ago. It is also agreed that space and time came into existence along with the Big Bang. This immediately raises questions like: “Where did the Universe draw the big reserve of energy it started off with? Does our Universe have a ‘mother’, from which it was born?” These are questions that are being actively considered by some cosmologists and there are also some theories concerning this question.

Interestingly, ancient Indian sages have also speculated on some of these issues and have spelt out their model, if I might call it that. In essence, it all started with what I have referred to earlier as Absolute Consciousness. Remember that Absolute Consciousness is just another name for God, and this particular name focuses on an aspect of current interest to us.

The Big Bang – The One Became the Many

Let us for a moment agree that everything started off from Absolute Consciousness. What happened then? Vedanta has given a broad-brush outline of how One became many – that is, the essence of Creation. Absolute Consciousness represents the ultimate Oneness. From this Oneness, by coming down many steps, diversification that is characteristic of Creation eventually emerged. I shall not say anything more on this – anyway, the details are quite sketchy. But this much I can do, and that is to refer to Aurobindo who remarked that the energy of Primal Consciousness cascaded many steps before the Universe was created.

If I were to put that in words close to science, I would say that a part of the infinite energy latent and resident in Absolute Consciousness went through many steps of transformation before the energy deposit for the Big Bang became available. I don’t know for sure what precisely Aurobindo meant but my own surmise is that this cascading of energy down many steps may perhaps be compared to potential energy becoming kinetic energy and then heat energy. Once the tiny bit of energy that peeled off from the latent energy of Absolute Consciousness became available for the Big Bang, the Big Bang occurred and thereafter the Universe evolved the way science has described for us.

 
   
Sri Aurobindo

I want you to appreciate an important point here. Vedanta does not in any way contradict modern science, especially the latter’s reconstruct of the origin of the Universe and its subsequent evolution. As far as the scenario preceding the Big Bang is concerned, scientists are still speculating and I am not sure if any of these speculations can ever be proved. That means that if scientists dismiss Vedanta’s picture of the pre-Big Bang scenario as mere speculation, then they are doing no better.

Consciousness is beyond Matter and Energy

I wonder whether you have been able to catch what I have been trying to drive at all along. Basically it is this: Firstly, there is in living beings a unique capacity called Consciousness. Secondly, this Consciousness is not the same stuff as matter and energy. Thirdly, Consciousness must have been present right from the time our Universe came into existence as some kind of a cosmic background. There are a few other points I would like to make about Consciousness and its role in evolution, but before that, I would like to address one important question.

 

You might ask, “Is there any scientific proof concerning the existence of Consciousness?” In other words, is Consciousness in any manner accessible to science? The answer is yes. It all goes back to a man called Robert Jahn of Princeton University in America, who got involved in the scientific investigation of paranormal phenomena, almost by accident. This is how he himself describes it:

"My formal training is that of an engineer and applied physicist, and the bulk of my research has been concerned with aerospace science. In 1978, I was requested by one of our very best students to supervise a study of psychic phenomena. Although I had no previous experience, professional or personal, I agreed. My initial oversight role in this project led to a degree of personal involvement with it, and that to a growing bemusement, to the extent that by the time the student graduated, I was persuaded that this was a legitimate field for a high technologist to study and that I would enjoy continuing to do so."

So that was how Robert Jahn began to study paranormal phenomena. Jahn, though interested in the subject, started off as a skeptic. However, he said to himself, “Let me not dismiss it just because I personally do not believe in this stuff. Instead, I shall try out some experiments and let the experiments decide for me.” Jahn must be congratulated for his bold and objective attitude.

Mr. Robert Jahn
   

Scientific Experiments in Consciousness

To cut a long story short, Jahn started his experiments and found, much to his surprise, that there seemed to be something besides matter and energy. Jahn was not too eager to accept his findings and so he made his subsequent experiments more and more rigorous, with tight controls and all that, and every time he was confronted with the same finding. Slowly and reluctantly, Jahn came to accept that mind and matter could interact and he hypothesized that this interaction occurred via Consciousness. I shall come to that a little later, but for now, let me give you a glimpse of Jahn’s experiments.

Jahn performed many experiments, but the most important of them was concerned with mind-machine interaction. Here is a brief description of that experiment. Jahn first built a machine called the Random Event Generator. This machine basically produces a series of time pulses occurring at random instants of time. There are rigorous tests to check if the output of the machine is truly random or not. Having built the machine, Jahn then had a volunteer sit for a considerable period of time before the Random Event Generator and constantly think: “Hey machine, stop being random, stop being random…”

You would think this is a pretty crazy thing to do. But Jahn’s idea was this. If the person is willfully trying to change the behavior of the machine by sheer thought process, would the machine respond? The scientist in him told him it would not; but the investigator in him said wait for the result before deciding.

Mind Over Machine

So what did Robert Jahn find? He found that many volunteers who were highly focused did manage to disturb the machine and make it depart from its usual random behavior. It took a long time for Jahn to be convinced about this, but when he was, he started devoting all his time to the interaction of the mind with matter. After decades of intensive research, Jahn came to the conclusion that Consciousness was a field, rather like the electromagnetic field, and the gravitational field very familiar to physicists. Jahn also published many papers on what he describes as the quantum theory of the Consciousness field.

How much acceptance is there of Jahn’s idea in the scientific community? Not much, I am afraid. To start with, not many have bothered to study his writings. Among those who have, the friends of Jahn shake their head and mutter, “Poor Robert, whatever happened to him? Why is he wasting his time doing this kind of research instead of the kind he is so good at?” The others who know him but are not so kindly disposed say something to the effect, “This guy Robert Jahn, he has gone bananas!” The neutral community severely attacks his experiments as lacking in rigor in statistical analysis and dismisses it as pseudo-science, or junk science.

By the way, many experiments, even in mainstream physics, have been buried on the ground of lack of statistical rigor. Often, especially when it comes to unconventional areas, many an experiment is laid to rest with the obituary, “Here lies a victim of pseudo-science, who died due to lack of statistical rigor.” But all this has not stopped a few brave researchers from following the lead of Jahn to conduct their own studies, and many have, with their own variations of Jahn’s experiments, concluded that there is such a thing as Consciousness.

I suppose that all this might sound amusing to believers in Consciousness. After all, have we not seen people getting cured from near-death illness through sheer prayer? How can prayer that originates in the subtle mind and even more subtle heart affect the biochemistry of a sick body? There must be some mind-matter interaction. I believe, as does Jahn, that this interaction occurs through the intervention of the Consciousness field.

The Emergence of Quantum Mechanics

Are there any signatures in the real physical world of the presence of this Consciousness that belong to mainstream physics? I believe there is a very strong one, and that is what I shall now refer to. Between 1925 and 1930, physics went through a great revolutionary period when an entirely new basis for physics was discovered. I am referring to the discovery of quantum mechanics. Prior to quantum mechanics, we had what is called classical mechanics, to which Newton gave a start.

Classical mechanics is essentially deterministic. If a bullet is fired with a certain velocity and in a particular direction, we can, using the rules of classical mechanics, calculate accurately the entire trajectory of the bullet. For about three hundred years or so, classical mechanics went from success to success. But when the atom and its structure were discovered in the early part of the twentieth century, it was found that classical mechanics did not deliver the goods in the atomic domain. The results calculated using classical mechanics were drastically different from what experiments showed, and it seemed as if a new mechanics was needed, especially in the microscopic world of atoms.

 
 
Sir Isaac Newton
And in a few short years, brilliant minds came up with precisely what was needed, and an entirely new set of rules; to put it differently, quantum mechanics had been discovered.

 

Bohr and Einstein: Relativity vs. Quantum Mechanics

At first people were greatly thrilled by this new mechanics because it worked so wonderfully well. At that stage, quantum mechanics was simply regarded as a remarkable new tool; few bothered about what exactly it meant. But there were some who ventured beyond working rules and wondered about the philosophy underlying the new mechanics. The two prominent scientists in this group were Niels Bohr of Denmark and Albert Einstein. Bohr gave brilliant interpretations while Einstein kept on shaking his head in disagreement.

In fact, Bohr and Einstein had public debates in many conferences, with Bohr vigorously arguing in support of quantum mechanics and Einstein stoutly opposing it. Now why on earth did Einstein have such strong misgivings about quantum mechanics, especially when it worked so beautifully to explain things that classical mechanics failed to? There was a deep philosophical reason behind Einstein’s objections

You see, quantum mechanics implied that events happened not in a deterministic manner, as classical theory demanded, but in a probabilistic manner. This idea was totally unacceptable to Einstein. It is interesting that Einstein dethroned Newtonian mechanics, which was classical. But in a sense, even Einstein’s relativistic mechanics was classical, being an extension of Newton’s mechanics. It did not therefore have any room for random behavior. So strong was Einstein’s objection that he and his good friend Niels Bohr argued vehemently over many years.

Einstein would start by describing an imaginary experiment – he used the German word gedanken experiment, a word that has since become a part of physics vocabulary. Einstein would describe the experiment and argue how it violated quantum mechanics. Bohr would then get up, clear his throat, and say, “Ah, but you see Professor, you have overlooked this point.” Bohr would then go on to show that Einstein’s reasoning was flawed, and that therefore his objections were not correct. At one point Einstein simply brushed aside all of Bohr’s objections with the words, “God does not play dice,” meaning quantum mechanics cannot really be true.

This went on for about three years, until in a famous encounter Einstein came up with yet another gedanken experiment, the mother of them all. This one looked iron clad and invincible. So it seemed, till Niels Bohr got up and pointed out a subtle but fatal flaw.

Einstein was demolished. He had to yield but was not convinced about the credibility of quantum mechanics. He agreed that quantum mechanics appeared to work and was perhaps a good set of working rules, but not the ultimate truth. Echoing his feelings, Einstein said, “Subtle is the Lord but malicious He is not.” This saying of Einstein as well as the other one about God not playing dice are often quoted, and in fact, in Princeton, the saying “Subtle is the Lord…” is, I believe, engraved in a prominent place.

By the way, I should also mention that though they had strong differences of opinion on scientific matters, Einstein and Bohr were good friends. I recall attending a lecture by Bohr in Bombay in 1959, when Bohr talked about his debate with his friend Einstein. Bohr was well over seventy, and we could hardly make out what he said. There was the strong accent of Bohr, and to make matters worse, the hall acoustics was terrible. Also, I did not know much about quantum mechanics then and what Bohr said went way above my head. But this I do remember – at one point, Bohr broke down and started to sob. It seemed as if he was upset about having to vanquish his dear friend in an argument. Mind you, this debate was then 30 years old and yet Bohr could not bear to think of the hurt he had caused Einstein.

 
 
Prof. Einstein and Bohr

Physics and Vedanta

Now why am I mentioning all this? What connection does it have with Vedanta? That is what I shall consider next. You see, Einstein was not entirely done. The Einstein-Bohr debates took place just before 1930 or so. Soon after that, Hitler came to power in Germany and Einstein, being a Jew, left for America because Jews had no place in Hitler’s Germany. Einstein went to Princeton, and there in 1936, he published a paper in which he proposed yet another gedanken experiment, which revealed a major internal contradiction in quantum mechanics.

 

In Denmark, Bohr saw this paper and thought deeply about it. He then wrote a paper rebutting Einstein’s paper, which, by the way, is referred to by physicists as the EPR paper, because along with Einstein there were two other authors – Podolsky and Rosen. This time, Einstein did not concede the debate. Why? Because if one took Bohr seriously, it meant that relativity would be violated and that signals could travel with infinite speed. But that was impossible, and so Einstein politely said, “Sorry Bohr, this is unacceptable. Don’t tell me that signals can travel faster than light. You know that is impossible. How then do you expect me to accept this argument?”

Bohr’s point was, “I know there is a problem there but I am convinced quantum mechanics is true and Nature must be having a mysterious mechanism for taking care of your objection.”

Experiments Point to Global Connectivity

There matters stood until the seventies. People had almost forgotten the debate and only philosophers worried about it. But then one fine day, thanks to remarkable advances in technology, many scientists, particularly in France, began to actually conduct experiments that were once considered to be just thought, or gedanken experiments. And what did they find? They found that Bohr was indeed right. In other words, notwithstanding Einstein’s firm faith in relativity coming to the rescue, quantum mechanics did work.

This then raised a deep philosophical question. Einstein said that if quantum mechanics works then it means that signals can travel faster than light; but that is not possible. However, scientists had now demonstrated that quantum mechanics was working even in the EPR experiment. Did that imply something was traveling faster than light; did this mean that relativity was out? The pundits thought about it all and finally said, “Not quite. There is actually no signal traveling and so there is no question of any violation of relativity. What was happening in the French experiments was a strange and subtle connectivity that linked everything on a global scale. If one ignored this global connectivity and looked at things piecemeal, then one would have to invoke signals traveling and all that; but if one kept subtle global connections in mind, then there is really no contradiction with relativity.”

This is what the experts concluded after examining every argument. Let me restate their findings because they are very important. Basically, the quantum philosophers were now saying: “Listen folks, if we ignore the subtle global connectivity, then it would seem like relativity is being violated in the EPR experiment. That is because the apparatus of the experiment appears to be made of distinct pieces and signals which would have to travel from one distinct entity to another at a speed exceeding that of light. But if we bring global connectivity into the picture, then there is one and only one entity, and so there is no need for any signals to travel, and hence also no violation of relativity. Quantum mechanics is thus safe, and Einstein’s apprehensions are all misplaced.”

The Only Individual is the Whole Universe

I know all this might sound a bit mysterious at this point, but please bear with me for a moment. Meanwhile, listen to what Gary Zukov says in his book, The Dancing Wu Li Masters:

The philosophical implications of quantum mechanics is that all things in our Universe [including us] that appear to exist independently are actually parts of one all-encompassing organic pattern…

 
 
Mr. Gary Zukov

Prof. Chew of California puts it more crisply:

The only individual is the whole Universe!

If you think about it, this is an amazing statement coming from a physicist. What Chew is saying is that there are not many but just One! And this Oneness is conferred upon entities that our senses perceive as many, by a mysterious Something that appears to be beyond space and time. Quantum mechanics would fail if there were a real disconnect, because then relativity would come into the picture and scuttle quantum mechanics.

However, there appears to be a subtle underlying oneness, thanks to which there is no disconnect. Relativity thus does not enter the picture and quantum mechanics works fine.

All this is a hand-waving explanation, no doubt, but it conveys the gist of the rigorous argument. Even if you have not followed all that I have said, just keep this in mind: The most philosophical part of modern science is telling us that what we normally perceive as distinct and many is really just One! For normal purposes, we might treat these as distinct entities different from each other, but at a grand and global level they are all apparently different manifestations of only One. The so-called different pieces of this One actually have an underlying universal connectivity. And there is Something beyond space and time that confers this connectivity.

God Must Be Beyond Space and Time

Now why is this Something that confers oneness, beyond space and time? Because if it were bound by space and time, it would have to respect relativity. But this mysterious Something seems to be exempt from relativity, which can happen only if it is beyond space and time.

This is a remarkable finding of modern science, and yet very few people seem to be bothered about its philosophical foundations. I maintain that this mysterious Something that bestows the universal connectivity of Oneness is nothing but what we call Consciousness. And clearly, Consciousness is beyond space and time.

This raises many questions like: “Was there Consciousness all along right from the birth of the Universe or did it manifest only when living beings came into existence?” According to me, the answer is simple. Consciousness has always been there, indeed even before the birth of the Universe. And, according to Vedanta, the Universe actually originated from Primal Consciousness.

The Role of Consciousness in Evolution

OK, so what role did Consciousness play, if at all, during the evolution of the Universe? I believe that right from the moment of the Big Bang, Consciousness was like an invisible backdrop against which all evolution took place. This prompts the question, “Does that mean that inert matter has Consciousness?” I would think that the French experiments that settled the EPR issue suggest that inert matter also is pervaded by Consciousness – remember EPR refers to the problems posed by Einstein in 1936.

Devotees might at this point recall the famous story of the weeping saris. No doubt Hislop has narrated this story, but I shall quote for you Swami’s version of the same incident. This is what Swami says:

I asked that a hundred saris be brought so that I could select some for distribution to the women workers at Anantapur who were helping to build the Sathya Sai College there. I selected 96 and asked them to return four to the shop. Later when I passed the table on which the four discarded saris were kept, it was noticed that the cardboard box which contained the four saris was dripping tears! They were weeping that they could not get appreciation from Me. Hislop was standing by the side of the table. Yes, they had shed tears!

Through this remarkable incident, Swami taught Hislop that even so-called insentient or inanimate matter has Consciousness or awareness. This brings me to the central point about the role of Consciousness in evolution. I believe the following:

  • Right from the moment our Universe was born, Consciousness was always present as a backdrop or background, whatever you wish to call it.
  • Space and time expanded against this subtle, primordial, invisible backdrop. In a sense, this is like the ether of classical physics, which, by the way, is a concept discarded over a century ago. I am mentioning the ether merely as an analogy for the benefit of those who have studied classical physics.
  • The ether of classical physics was supposed to be weightless and penetrate everything in the Universe – it was all pervading. I believe that description is eminently applicable to the backdrop of Consciousness pervading the Universe.
  • It must here be noted that though space and time as we know them came into existence only when the Universe we live in was born, Consciousness was always there, is and will always be. That is why Consciousness is regarded as the Abstract Form of God. The Vedas state this via the declaration: Prajnanam Brahma.
  • Evolution takes place against the backdrop of the curtain of Consciousness that pervades the Universe. When I say evolution, I mean both the evolution of the entire physical Universe as well as the evolution of living beings on our earth, which has been going on for about three to three and half billion years. For comparison, our earth is about four and a half billion years old while the Universe itself is about fourteen and a half billion years old.
  • Now on the earth, we have both living and non-living beings or insentient and sentient matter. Consciousness pervades all; there is no exception.

Passive and Active Consciousness

 

However, there is an important corollary that I must add. Consciousness does not manifest in equal measure in all the entities on earth. What this means is the following. Firstly, Consciousness appears to manifest in one of two possible states, the passive state and the active state. In the so-called insentient materials or entities, Consciousness is present in the passive state, while in the sentient beings it is present in the active state. I must add that no book on Vedanta makes such a statement; this observation is based on my own reflections and my training as a physicist. It is what we in the trade would refer to as a plausible model.

Based on this model, I submit that life manifests when Consciousness in a being makes a transition from a passive state to an active state. Take a seed. It may be lying around for a long time. But when planted and watered, somehow, most mysteriously, life manifests. Again, take a fetus in a mother’s womb. For the first few weeks, it is just a growth inside the mother. But then, some time later, the fetus mysteriously starts having a life of its own, distinct from that of the mother.


What causes the transition of Consciousness in the fetus from the passive to the active state? I do not know, but I would not be surprised if it is associated with some kind of crossing of a threshold. There is a critical point, crossing which Consciousness appears to “fire” and become active. By the way, nature has any number of examples of such thresholds.

For example, when water is cooled to a temperature below 0 Celsius, it becomes ice. Warm the ice, and when the temperature becomes 0 degrees, ice melts into liquid water. I would imagine the appearance of life in an insentient piece of matter happens when some threshold is crossed. I do not know what that threshold is, but as a physicist, I believe it is plausible to think of such a threshold-crossing. Death would be a threshold-crossing in the reverse direction.

 

Climbing the Ladder of Consciousness

Next, the question of “how much” of this Consciousness is present in the various living beings, and what exactly it does. Here again, I shall offer a plausible picture. I believe that amongst living creatures, the role of Consciousness increases, even as their sense organs evolve and develop. What I mean is the following: In the lowest form of living creatures, there are no eyes, ears, etc., the way we know them. Yet, these creatures do have some sense of awareness they exist, and of the external world surrounding them; that is how they adjust to their environment. In such creatures, I would imagine, the manifestation of active Consciousness would be at a low level.

Let us now go up the evolution ladder and come to say monkeys, from which we all are supposed to be descended. I would say that active Consciousness in monkeys would be fairly high, but restricted to just the cognition of the external world.

The Capacity of Human Consciousness: Awareness of the Creator

We now come to human beings. Here, Consciousness really blossoms. You see, in the case of animals, their capacity for being conscious is restricted to the awareness of the external world. This capacity to be aware of the external world is needed for survival, and that is why God has given that capacity. Humans too have that capacity, for they too need to survive. But thanks to the power of the human brain, which, incidentally, is also a blessing of God, humans can not only see and experience the external world, but can even manipulate it. For example, man explores for oil that is underground and then pumps it out, sometimes even from under the sea.
 

But humans beings score over animals in another important respect also. Unlike animals, they can see inside; they have this special capacity. It is a different matter that not all make use of this ability, but the fact is that human beings do have this blessing.

What does this looking inside mean? It means being able to resonate with the Heart and develop feelings of love, compassion and forbearance. It means being able to realize that behind Creation there is a Creator. Human beings alone have this ability to be conscious of the Creator. That is why Swami often tells us that human birth is a rare blessing. Of course, it ceases to be a blessing if one insists on being a slave to the senses.

I hope I have managed to convey to you that as the Universe evolved, and as living beings on earth evolved, so has the visible manifestation of Consciousness. This is the right place for me to quote George Wald, a Harvard scientist who won the Nobel Prize. He says:

The idea came to me quite lately, as a new and extraordinary idea, both tempting and repellent, since it shocked my scientific sensibilities. Then I realized with some embarrassment that many others had been there before, not only mystics, but also a few most thoughtful physicists.

Scientist George Wald
   

It is the view that this Universe breeds life and Consciousness because Consciousness is its source, because the Universe is ultimately made of this mind-stuff. What we recognise as the material Universe, the Universe of space-time and elementary particles and energies, is actually an Avatar, the materialisation of Primal Consciousness. In that case, there is no waiting for Consciousness to arise. It is always there, at the beginning and at the end. What we wait for in the evolution of life is only the culminating Avatar, the emergence of self-conscious bodies that can articulate Consciousness, that can give it a voice, a culture, literature and art and science.

This is an amazing statement, coming from a Harvard Nobelist. Erwin Schrodinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, also finally ended up with Advaitam. So you see, Primal Consciousness that the ancient Rishis cognized in their meditations is where serious thinkers of modern times also end up. This is another way of saying that God is the Ultimate Reality, and that great thinkers of all ages have accepted that.

Life Endows Earth with Beauty and Diversity

In passing, I have to draw your attention to an important fact that most of us miss. You know, this Universe is vast. It holds billions of stars like our Sun, and has plenty of empty space to spare. Among these billions and billions of stars, only a very tiny fraction of stars have planets; and of this tiny fraction, an even tinier fraction may have a planet like our earth, suitable for supporting life. In other words, if life exists elsewhere in the Universe, it must be a very rare occurrence.

 
 
Nobelist Erwin Schrodinger

Now why am I mentioning this? For a good reason. You see, if you compare a dead planet like Mars with the earth, you would find an incredible variety on earth which you would not find in any other planet in the solar system or, for that matter, on any planet anywhere, not having life. It is only life that endows earth with so much beauty and diversity.

Just look at the plants and trees – what a wonderful variety we have, from the grass to redwood trees! And then take the fishes, birds and animals; what a wonderful and colorful variety there is! Have you ever seen pictures of coral formations under the sea? How wonderful they are!

The Glory of the Manifestation of Consciousness

Wherever we look, there is a special beauty not found on planets without life. There is a wonderful glory of the manifestation of Consciousness, or God, everywhere on this living earth, and this is what George Wald refers to as the Avatar. And the crowning glory is the human being who has the special capacity to recognize God. But, alas, man often does not bother to recognize either the presence of God all around him or the presence of God within him. That is why God the Formless has to don a human form and educate man as He is doing right now.

I hope I have motivated you to spend sometime contemplating on this thing called Consciousness and see in the larger perspective what our Vedic seers always saw. Such a perception is more necessary now than ever before, considering the dangers facing humanity and the planet earth.

I think I have said enough. Let me remind you once again, this is the last and concluding talk in my long series entitled The Veda Walkthrough. I have been doing musings for over two years now, and this is the first time I have attempted a long series like this. I do hope it has been of some use to you.

That’s all I have to say for the present, and I thank you for being with me throughout this Walkthrough. I hope it benefited you as much as it did me.

God Bless and Jai Sai Ram.

 

 


 

 
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Vol 4 Issue 11 - NOVEMBER 2006
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