Understanding The Vedic Model Of The Mind

Source: – Subhash Kak / Swarajya Magazine


The mind may be viewed to be constituted by five basic components: manas, ahamkara, citta, buddhi and atman.

The Vedic theory of consciousness probably suggests a process of evolution, wherein there is an urge to evolve into higher forms, which have a better grasp of the nature of the universe.

This is the second of a two-part essay on the Vedic theory of consciousness and the process of evolution.

One Vedic model of the mind is expressed by the famous metaphor of the chariot in the Katha Upanisad and the Bhagavad-Gıta. A person is compared to a chariot that is pulled in different directions by the horses yoked to it, with the horses representing the senses. The mind is the driver who holds the reins, but next to the mind sits the master of the chariot – the true observer, the self, who represents a universal unity. Without this self no coherent behaviour is possible.

In the Taittirıya Upanisad 2.7, an individual is represented in terms of five different sheaths or levels that enclose the individual’s self (Figure 3). These levels, shown in an ascending order, are:

• The physical body (annamaya kosa)

• Energy sheath (pranamaya kosa)

• Mental sheath (manomaya kosa)

• Intellect sheath (vijnanamaya kosa)

• Bliss sheath (anandamaya kosa)

These sheaths are defined at increasingly finer levels. At the highest level is the Self. It is significant that ananda is placed higher than the intellect. This is a recognition of the fact that eventually meaning is communicated by associations which are extra-logical.

The energy that underlies physical and mental processes is prana. One may look at an individual at three different levels. At the lowest level is the physical body, at the next higher level is the energy system at work, and at the next higher level are the thoughts. Since the three levels are interrelated, the energy situation may be changed by inputs either at the physical level or at the mental level. When the energy state is agitated and restless, it is characterised by rajas; when it is dull and lethargic, it is characterised by tamas. The state of equilibrium and balance is termed sattva.

Prana, or energy, is described as the currency, or the medium of exchange, of the psychophysiological system. The higher three levels are often lumped together and called the mind.

The key notion is that each higher level represents characteristics that are emergent on the ground of the previous level. In this theory, mind is an emergent entity, but this emergence requires the presence of the Self.

The mind may be viewed to be constituted by five basic components: manas, ahamkara, citta, buddhi and atman, which cannot be reduced to gross elements.

Manas is the lower mind which collects sense impressions. Its perceptions shift from moment to moment. This sensory-motor mind obtains its inputs from the senses of hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell. Each of these senses may be taken to be governed by a separate agent.

Ahamkara is the sense of I-ness that associates perceptions to a subjective centre and thus creates “personal” experiences.

Once sensory impressions have been related to I-ness by ahamkara, their evaluation and resulting decisions are arrived at by buddhi, the intellect. Manas, ahamkara and buddhi are collectively called the “internal instruments” (antahkarana) of the mind.

Next we come to citta, which is the memory bank of the mind. These memories constitute the foundation on which the rest of the mind operates. But citta is not merely a passive depository. The organisation of the new impressions throws up instinctual or primitive urges that create diverse emotional states.

This mental complex surrounds the innermost aspect of consciousness, which is called atman; it is of course the same as the self or the brahman. Atman is considered to be beyond a finite enumeration of categories.

Hierarchical Levels

As we have said before, the state of mind is mediated by the pranic energy. This energy, at its highest level, is concentrated at certain points in the body. In the Tantras seven, eight or nine primary points of focus, which are called cakras, are described. It has been argued by some that the beginnings of this system go right back to Vedic times, as the Atharvaveda 10.2.31-2 describes the body as being eight-wheeled and nine-doored (astacakra navadvara devanam puryodhya). Their positions appear to be areas in the brain which map to different points on the spinal cord. The lowest one is located at the bottom of the vertebral column (muladhara cakra). The next cakra is a few inches higher at the reproductive organs (svadhisthana cakra). The third cakra (manipura cakra) is at the solar plexus. The heart region is the anahata cakra. The throat has the fifth locus called the visuddhi cakra. Between the eyebrows is the ajna cakra. At the crown of the head is the sahasrara cakra.

It may be assumed that the stimulation of these cakras in a proper way leads to the development of certain connections in the brain that make it easier for the I-ness to experience the Self. In other words, the cakras are points of basic focus inside the brain that lead to the explication of the cognitive process.

Universal Categories

If the categories of the mind are taken to arise from the recognition of shadow mental images, then how are these categories associated with a single “agent”, and how does the mind bootstrap these shadow categories to find the nature of reality?

Answers to these questions were developed within the frameworks of Vaisnavism as well as Saivism.

For example, the twenty-five categories of Samkhya form the substratum of the classification in Saivism. Samkhya assumes that non-material entities have their own existence.

The material elements (bhuta) are represented by earth, water, fire, air and ether. Paralleling them are five subtle elements (tanmatra), represented by smell, taste, form, touch and sound; five organs of action (karmendriya), represented by reproduction, excretion, locomotion, grasping and speech; five organs of cognition (jnanendriya), related to smell, taste, vision, touch and hearing; the inner instrument (antahkarana) being mind, ego and intellect; inherent nature (prakrti); and consciousness (purusa).

These categories define the structure of the physical world and of conscious agents and their minds. Saivism enumerates further categories related to consciousness, but we shall not speak of them here.

The Vedic theory of consciousness may also be taken to suggest a process of evolution. In this evolutionary model, the higher animals have a greater capacity to grasp the nature of the universe. The urge to evolve into higher forms is taken to be inherent in nature. A system of an evolution from inanimate to progressively higher life is clearly spelt out in the system of Samkhya. At the mythological level, this is represented by an ascent of Visnu through the forms of fish, tortoise, boar, man-lion, the dwarf into man.


Sattva, rajas and tamas are the three original attributes. These act and dwell in the bodies of all creatures. The jıvatman, called ksetrajna, enjoys and endorses the actions of these three attributes. He, however, transcends them and they cannot touch him. Having created them himself, he is above them all. At dissolution, earth, which is the refuge of the universe, merges into water, water disappears into light, light into wind, wind into space and space into mind. Mind is a great being, and it disappears into unmanifest prakrti. Unmanifest prakrti disappears into inactive purusa. There is nothing higher than purusa, which is eternal. There is nothing among mobile and immobile things in the universe that is immutable, except Vasudeva, the eternal purusa. Endued with great power, Vasudeva is the soul of all creatures.

–Mahabharata, Santi Parva, 340

A Vaisnava enlargement of the Vedic theory of the mind is provided by the Pancaratra tradition. Here Vasudeva or Krsna represent the ground-stuff of reality. Vasudeva is also called ksetrajna, the knower of the field.

ksetrajnam. capi mam. viddhi

sarvaksetresu bharata

ksetraksetrajnayor jnanam

yat taj jnanam matam mama

Know also that I am the knower in all fields, O Bharata, and only the knowledge of the field and its knower do I regard as true knowledge.

–BG 13.2

From Vasudeva develops Sankarsana at the beginning of time; this is identified with Sesa and with prakrti. Next arises Pradyumna, who is identified with manas, or mind. Lastly, we have Aniruddha, who is ahamkara (Figure 5). Thence evolve the three gunas.

This model makes an interesting departure from the kosa model. Each intermediate levels is identified with a god. Sankarsana is the same as Balarama, Krsna’s brother, while Pradyumna is his son and Aniruddha is his grandson. The idea is to suggest an individuality to each of the stages of the expansion of the mind.

Actually, the idea of multiplicity, as emerging from a fundamental unity, permeates the entire Vedic literature. This is how the Vedic gods emerge in the Rgveda. Bhagavad Gıta 15.16-17 speaks of the three-fold purusa. In the words of Sri Aurobindo:

Kshara Purusha is the Self reflecting the changes and movements of Nature, participating in them, immersed in the consciousness of the movement and seeming in it to be born and die, increase and diminish, progress and change. Atman, as the Kshara, enjoys change and division and duality; controls secretly its own changes but seems to be controlled by them; enjoys the oppositions of pleasure and pain, good and bad, but appears to be their victim; possesses and upholds the action of Nature, by which it seems to be created. For, always and inalienably, the Self is Ishwara, the Lord.

Akshara Purusha is the Self, standing back from the changes and movements of Nature, calm, pure, impartial, indifferent, watching them and not participating, above them as on a summit, not immersed in these Waters. This calm Self is the sky that never moves and changes looking down upon the waters that are never at rest. The Akshara is the hidden freedom of the Kshara.

Para Purusha or Purushottama is the Self containing and enjoying both the stillness and the movement, but conditioned and limited by neither of them. It is the Lord, Brahman, the All, the Indefinable and Unknowable.

Consciousness and imagination

We have spoken of the interconnectedness between the observer and the observed based on a tripartite approach to the universe. Beyond the three categories lies the transcendental “fourth”. Three kinds of motion are alluded to in the Vedic books: these are the translational motion, sound and light, which are taken to be “equivalent” to earth, air and sky. The fourth motion is assigned to consciousness; and this is considered to be infinite in speed.

It is most interesting that the books in the Indian tradition speak about the relativity of time and space in a variety of ways. The medieval Puranas speak of countless universes, time flowing at different rates for different observers and so on.

The Mahabharata speaks of an embryo being divided into one hundred parts each becoming, after maturation in a separate pot, a healthy baby; this is how the Kaurava brothers were born. There is also mention of an embryo, conceived in one womb, being transferred to the womb of another woman from where it was born; the transferred embryo was Balarama, which explains why he was a brother to Krsna although he was born to Rohinı and not to Devakı.

There is a mention of space travellers wearing airtight suits in the Mahabharata, which may be classified as an early form of science fiction. According to the Sanskritist J A B van Buitenen, in the accounts in Book 3 called The Razing of Saubha and The War of the Yaksas:

The aerial city is nothing but an armed camp with flame-throwers and thundering cannon, no doubt a spaceship. The name of the demons is also revealing: they were Nivatakavacas, “clad in airtight armour,” which can hardly be anything but space suits.

The context of modern science fiction books is clear: it is the liberation of the earlier modes of thought by the revolutionary developments of the twentieth-century science and technology. But how did the imagination of the Indian texts emerge? Can it be viewed as arising from consciousness reflecting upon itself?

Universes defined recursively are described in the famous episode of Indra and the ants in the Brahmavaivarta Purana 4.47.100-160. These flights of imagination are to be traced to more than a straightforward generalisation of the motions of the planets into a cyclic universe. They must be viewed in the background of an amazingly sophisticated tradition of cognitive and analytical thought.

The Yoga-Vasistha (YV) is a Vaisnava text, over 29,000 verses long, traditionally attributed to Valmıki. He is the author of the Ramayana, which is over two thousand years old. But the internal evidence of the YV indicates that it was authored or compiled later. It has been dated variously as early as the sixth century CE or as late as the thirteenth or even the fourteenth century. Dasgupta dated it about the sixth century CE on the basis that one of its verses appears to be copied from one of Kalidasa’s plays considering Kalidasa to have lived around the fifth century. The traditional date of Kalidasa is 50 BC, and new arguments support this earlier date so that the estimates regarding the age of YV are further muddled.

YV may be viewed as a book of philosophy or as a philosophical novel. It describes the instruction given by Vasistha to Rama, the hero of the Ramayana. Its premise may be termed radical idealism, and it is couched in a fashion that has many parallels with the notion of a participatory universe argued by Wheeler and others. Its most interesting passages from the scientific point of view relate to the description of the nature of space, time, matter and consciousness. It should be emphasised that the ideas of YV do not stand in isolation. At its deepest level, the Vedic conception is to view reality in a non-dualist manner; at the next level one may speak of the dichotomy of mind and matter. Ideas similar to those found in YV are also encountered in the Puranic and Tantric literature.

YV has sometimes been taken to present an idealistic view of reality after the fashion of the Buddhist Vijnanavadins, who do not believe in the reality of the objective world. But this view is not really correct. We have seen how the Pancaratra takes the ground-stuff of reality to be Vasudeva, who is both mind and matter. Thus, we have the following assertions in the YV:

• The same infinite Self conceives within itself the duality of oneself and the other.

• The body can neither enjoy nor suffer. It is the mind alone that experiences.

• The intelligence which is other than Self-knowledge is what constitutes the mind.

• The absolute alone exists now and forever. When one thinks of it as a void, it is because of the feeling one has that it is not void; when one thinks of it as not-void, it is because there is a feeling that it is void.

• All fundamental elements continue to act on one another – as experiencer and experience – and the entire creation came into being like ripples on the surface of the ocean. And, they are interwoven and mixed up so effectively that they cannot be extricated from one another till cosmic dissolution.

• The entire universe is forever the same as the Consciousness that dwells in every atom.

• The five elements are the seed of which the world is the tree; and the eternal consciousness is the seed of the elements.

• Cosmic consciousness alone exists now and ever; in it are no worlds, no created beings. That consciousness reflected in itself appears to be creation.

• This consciousness is not knowable: when it wishes to become the knowable, it is known as the universe. Mind, intellect, egotism, the five great elements, and the world – the innumerable names and forms are all consciousness alone.

• Consciousness is pure, eternal and infinite: it does not arise nor cease to be. It is ever there in moving and unmoving creatures, in the sky, on the mountain and in fire and air.

• Millions of universes appear in the infinite consciousness like specks of dust in a beam of light. In one small atom, all the three worlds appear to be, with all their components like space, time, action, substance, day and night.

• The universe exists in infinite consciousness. Infinite consciousness is unmanifest, though omnipresent, even as space, existing everywhere, is manifest.

• The manifestation of the omnipotence of infinite consciousness enters into an alliance with time, space and causation. Thence arise infinite names and forms.

• The Lord who is infinite consciousness is the silent but alert witness of this cosmic dance. He is not different from the dancer (the cosmic natural order) and the dance (the happenings).

The paradox of the separation and yet the identity of the observer and the observed were later expressed as the bhedabheda doctrine of Bhaskara of the tenth century, who held that the brahman and the world, the principles of unity and multiplicity, were both eternal and metaphysical truths. Caitanya’s metaphysics goes somewhat beyond it and has been called acintya bhedabheda by Jıva Goswamı.

According to it, Krsna is inconceivably (acintya) and simultaneously one with and different from his manifestations. The inconceivability of this metaphysics is in the concept of simultaneous union and separation, but it is so only if classical logic is used. A beautiful representation of this subtle logic is the rasa-lıla.

In the rasa dance, the jewel-like gopıs link their arms together, forming a necklace of pearls around the sapphire of Krsna, who is dancing in the middle of the group with Radha. In order to share himself with all the gopıs, Krsna produces expansions of his own form, such that a Krsna-sapphire becomes faceted between each gopı-pearl of this necklace of love, the rasa-mandala.

Krsna is rasa aesthetic experience, and he is rasika, the greatest connoisseur of aesthetic experience. Radha is the outpouring of this internal unity of rasa and rasika… In the eternal function of lıla, or divine play, Krsna fully tastes himself through his primal energy, Radha. Radha gives life to Krsna as energy brings the energetic source to life. As sugarcane cannot taste itself, similarly the tasting of the Absolute (rasa) necessitates such a dynamic, non-dual Absolute. The effect of the Absolute tasting itself through its essential saktis is the creation of the phenomenal world and all souls’ apparent relationship with it. When the Absolute (Krsna) relates with the phenomenal world, this act of grace attracts all souls to unite with him, enter his divine play and experience rasa beyond the confines of the phenomenal world.

Concluding Remarks

Let us return to mainstream science. Quantum mechanics has thrown up a multitude of paradoxes that cannot be understood in the framework of reductionist physics. For example, we have nonlocal effects that can propagate instantaneously over enormous distances. Another famous example is the Wheeler delayed-choice experiment, according to which our decisions now can alter the remote past. These effects establish that the idea of an objective reality, visualised in terms of material objects, is invalid. What we need is a theory that incorporates the subjective and the objective in a comprehensive whole. Current research suggests that such a theory will be based fundamentally on quantum physics, but it will go beyond it in its comprehensiveness.

Vaisnava metaphysics confronts the question of objective and subjective reality directly. It presents its resolution in terms of a paradoxical unity between consciousness and the material world. The details of the cognitive structure, which may be termed Vaisnava Tantra, belong to esoteric traditions and are not well known in the academic world. Let it also be said that Saiva metaphysics is similar to Vaisnava metaphysics, although there are some differences in emphasis. Saiva Tantra, likewise, has parallels with Vaisnava Tantra. The image of Harihara symbolises this identity.

An important corollary of the notion that consciousness has an existence of its own is that creativity need not be a result of only “mechanical” thought. Artists and scientists speak of flashes of intuition where, mysteriously, without conscious thought a previous problem is surmounted. Likewise, students of scientific creativity accept that conceptual advances do not appear in any rational manner. Might not then one accept the claim of the great, self-taught mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920), that his theorems were revealed to him in his dreams by the goddess Namagiri? This claim, so persistently made by Ramanujan, has generally been dismissed by his biographers. Were Ramanujan’s astonishing discoveries instrumented by the autonomously creative potential of consciousness represented to him by the image of Namagiri? If that be the case, then the marvellous imagination shown in the Yoga-Vasistha and other Indian texts becomes easier to comprehend.

To conclude, the Vaisnava approach to reality is a systematic analysis that distinguishes the domain of the material from that of the agent, who is Vasudeva. It is in complete opposition to the materialist position which regards consciousness as emerging from the material ground. But the materialist position cannot explain how this emergent entity, mysteriously, makes a break in the cycle of cause and effect. Why do we suddenly obtain the sentient from the insentient? On the other hand, the Vaisnava position declares the universe, in the form of Vasudeva, to be sentient and considers the materiality of the ksara purusa to be a part of the divine play (lıla) of Krsna.

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The Meeting Of Vedic Philosophy And Cognitive Science

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