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Consciousness and Matter

A moment of reflection, on what Consciousness and Matter are, and what does Hindu Philosophy, especially Bhagavad Gita say about it.

This week, I lost a good friend. One moment he was alive, and his heart was beating. The next, it had stopped. All the machines of modern science could not restore the heartbeat or the brain to function. Life – that quintessential thing that differentiates itself from death, had left the body, and it was final. There is a whole cascade of consequences to be responsible for in this terrestrial realm. But where has he gone, and what is his future? Was my friend just a physical body, or was he much more the subtle phenomena unavailable to the human senses i.e. spirit, mind, psyche, memory, knowledge, desires, hopes, dreams, aspirations, joy, and sorrow?

Hindu thought at its essence revolves around the relationship between two phenomena that constitutes existence as we human beings perceive and experience in our everyday reality i.e. consciousness and matter. Variably called Purusha and Prakriti[1], Kshetrajnah and Kshetra[2], or in English, the Subject and Object, the Knower and the Known or the Observer and the Observed, the central question seems to be “Are there two fundamental primordial entities here or is there only one?”. The multiplicity of phenomena that we perceive and experience, seem to be built out of the fundamental building blocks of consciousness and matter. Interestingly, contemporary Physics is also looking for a “Unified Field Theory” (also called a “Theory of Everything”), that explains seemingly disparate forces observable in the universe i.e. gravitational, electromagnetic, nuclear, and so on. We may notice in passing the use of the word “Field” emerging from Physics which is often also the word used to represent the Sanskrit Kshetra. It has become common knowledge now, that all material objects and phenomena that we observe, and that are observable, are built out of the building blocks of swirling atoms, molecules, electrons, protons and other energy waves. Everything is constructed i.e. assembled out of something else which constitutes it. We may call this the field of matter or the material field i.e. the Kshetra or Prakriti, as a totality, for the time being. Yet, Physics does not even begin to touch the domain of Purusha.

The Knower of this Field of Matter, the Kshetrajnah, the Purusha, however, seems to belong to an entirely different order of reality, perhaps even inaccessible to the methods of Science. We might ask, without the Kshetrajnah, does the Kshetra really exist? In other words, without the Subject, the one who knows the varied objects, the one who can objectify (and therefore name, analyze, inquire into and so on) all these objects in this universe, is there any object here at all? Besides, are there many Subjects here, or only one? Our everyday experience seems to suggest that there are a great many discrete subjects here as there are many varied objects. Yet they are all constituted by only two things i.e. consciousness and matter. Just as there is only one electricity, that makes the fan, the microwave, the washing machine, the refrigerator and the light bulb “come alive” in their unique expressions, and it makes no sense to speak of a plurality of electricities, so too, can we really speak of consciousness in the plural or is it really only one? Moreover, consciousness is everywhere, only to a greater and lesser degree, it seems. The plants exhibit consciousness, and so do a variety of animals, birds and inspects – in fact, this world seems to be alive with it. And if consciousness were to leave the body, that seems to be the end of life. Yet, even the earth which is seemingly inert, throws up vegetation, trees and forests, which are not! Consciousness seems to be the difference between what is alive, and what is not, while pervading both at the same time.

Krishna says, “this entire world is pervaded by me” (Maya Tatam Idam Sarvam Jagat)[3]; “All Beings have their being in me” (Matsthani Sarva Bhutani)[4] just as the “Vast air, which goes everywhere always exists in space” (Mahan Vayu Sarvatragah Nityam Akashastitah)[5]. This example sets up the relationship between space and all things that exist within it, as analogous to all beings that exist within consciousness. Without space, nothing can exist within it. At the same time, space does not require anything to exist – it exists on its own, whether or not there are any objects within space. Space both pervades all objects that exist within it and transcends all objects at the same time. So too, all beings exist in this singular consciousness, and come alive due to “My presiding presence” (Maya’dhyakshena)[6], says Krishna definitively; And just as the objects within space do not have any discernible effect on space itself, so too, all the activity and experience i.e. creation, dissolution, birth, death, growth, desire, pursuit, accomplishment, success, failure, loss, grief and sorrow, that consciousness makes possible has no effect, indeed has no connection with it (asaktam tesu karmasu)[7]. Consciousness presides, pervades, and makes possible all the beings and objects within it, including space and time and this universe as we know it - indeed what can exist or be known to exist if consciousness did not exist? And Consciousness and the material field belong to two orders of Reality, just as Space and the objects that exist within space enjoy different orders of reality.

Whereas the Sankhya system of thought postulated that Prakriti is Pradhana and there were perhaps many Purushas here, Krishna resolves this saying that the material field is entirely within his control (prakritim svam avastabhya)[8] even as he creates this universe again an again (visrjami punah punah)[9] through the power of Prakriti (prakrtervasat)[10] and returns them all back to it, at the end of the cycle of creation (prakritim yanti mamikam kalpaksaye)[11], before he begins the cycle all over again (Kalpadau Visrjamyaham)[12]. The one Brahman emerging into two – Purusha and Prakriti is the great cosmic mystery. What is the process by which this Prakriti (the field of matter) emerges from Purusha (the field of consciousness)? What is the power (Maya Shakti) that makes this emergence possible? How does it resolve back into Purusha and re-emerge again? Or do they ever remain separate, as parallel Realities, having once emerged into two? Can we human beings ever fully comprehend these mysteries? Or do we just have to take Krishna’s word for it, and settle for Shankara’s commentary? Hindu studies as a field, engages these questions fully, and enters into the Hindu texts, for their various perspectives on these questions. Both science and history seem to entirely sidestep them.

My friend has left one realm and has entered another, but he lives on in the memory of all those who were touched by him.

End Notes: 

[1] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 13, Verse 1

[2] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 13, Verse 2

[3] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 9, Verse 4

[4] Ibid

[5] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 9, Verse 6

[6] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 9, Verse 10

[7] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 9, Verse 9

[8] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 9, Verse 8

[9] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 9, Verse 8

[10] Ibid

[11] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 9, Verse 7

[12] Ibid

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