"The Glaring Omission of Consciousness" (SB 10.3.12)
Modern science has constructed a highly sophisticated model of the universe strictly in terms of matter. Yet the Srimad-Bhagavatam also offers complex descriptions of the cosmos, albeit while drawing from a perspective considered higher dimensional and spiritual. Thompson offers a critique of material analyses aspiring to capture reality in toto, with specific concern to “the glaring omission of consciousness.”
TRANSCRIPT: Srimad Bhagavatam, Canto 10, Chapter 3, Text 12. “The Glaring Omission of Consciousness.” San Diego - 1986-03-06 / (116)
O Mahārāja Parīkṣit, descendant of King Bharata, Vasudeva could understand that this child was the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Nārāyaṇa. Having concluded this without a doubt, he became fearless. Bowing down with folded hands and concentrating his attention, he began to offer prayers to the child, who illuminated His birthplace by His natural influence.
Please repeat. O Mahārāja Parīkṣit, descendant of King Bharata.
Audience: O Mahārāja Parīkṣit, descendant of King Bharata.
RLT: Vasudeva could understand that this child was the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Nārāyaṇa.
Aud: Vasudeva could understand that this child was the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Nārāyaṇa.
RLT: Having concluded this without a doubt.
Aud: Having concluded this without a doubt.
RLT: He became fearless.
Aud: He became fearless.
RLT: Bowing down with folded hands.
Aud: Bowing down with folded hands.
RLT: And concentrating his attention.
Aud: And concentrating his attention.
RLT: He began to offer prayers to the child.
Aud: He began to offer prayers to the child.
RLT: Who illuminated his birthplace by his natural influence.
Aud: Who illuminated his birthplace by his natural influence.
RLT: Purport by Srila Prabhupada:
Struck with such great wonder, Vasudeva now concentrated his attention on the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Understanding the influence of the Supreme Lord, he was surely fearless, since he understood that the Lord had appeared to give him protection (gata-bhīḥprabhāva-vit). Understanding that the Supreme Personality of Godhead was present, He appropriately offered prayers as follows.
cakṣur unmīlitaṁ yena
tasmai śrī-gurave namah
śrī-caitanya-mano-'bhīṣṭaṁ sthāpitaṁ yena bhū-tale
svayaṁ rūpaḥ kadā mahyaṁ dadāti sva-padāntikam
So the translation again:
O Mahārāja Parīkṣit, descendant of King Bharata, Vasudeva could understand that this child was the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Nārāyaṇa. Having concluded this without a doubt, he became fearless. Bowing down with folded hands and concentrating his attention, he began to offer prayers to the child who illuminated his birthplace by his natural influence.
So, Krsna has now made his appearance before Vasudeva and Devaki, and Vasudeva was immediately relieved of his fear of Kamsa because he recognized that this was actually the Supreme Personality of Godhead who had personally appeared before him. So he then begins to pray to the Lord. And as one typically finds in these prayers made by the great devotees and sages, these prayers typically begin with a description of the transcendental position of the Supreme Personality of Godhead because there's always the danger that one can mistake the Supreme Personality of Godhead, when he appears in the material world, as some kind of material personality.
Of course, there are various different schools of thought which claim this in various ways. They’re the out and out atheists or mudhas, who simply have an extremely dull intellect. And to them, even if they actually saw an incarnation of the Supreme Lord, they wouldn't have any idea what they were seeing. They would just take that as an ordinary human being. And then there are those who are ashurabhavamasritam, who have a definite desire to deny the existence of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and they exert their efforts to devise atheistic philosophies in order to annihilate the Supreme Lord. They're unable to annihilate God through their physical prowess by somehow going out and destroying him. So they try to kill God by philosophy and so, this is very prevalent within the material world.
Actually, there have occasionally been individuals who aspire to kill God physically. One of these was, well there was Hiranyaksa and Hiranyakasipu who actually felt that they had sufficient prowess to do this, but generally the idea is to destroy God by philosophy. And these philosophical speculations begin with the idea that everything that can be perceived must be material by nature. So, if some personality appears within the material world, then this also must be a material manifestation. So people will try and argue that when Krsna appeared or when Lord Ramacandra appeared and so on, these somehow were material manifestations.
Now, of course, in the West, the tendency will be to say that these were just ordinary human beings who were deified, just as the Roman emperors used to be deified. Different Roman emperors would pass decrees saying that they had to be worshipped as God. For example, Nero was worshiped as God and so forth. And apparently, this was quite common in the ancient Mediterranean region. So the scholars will say that, well, a similar thing happened in India and, these were just ordinary human beings.
Then there are the philosophers such as Sankaracarya and his followers who will give a much more sophisticated analysis. These philosophers actually recognize the extraordinary powers that were exhibited by Krsna and other incarnations. And so they don't try to say that these personalities were just ordinary human beings, but they will argue that, for example, Krsna is a manifestation of the material mode of goodness in a pure form but still, this is a material manifestation. So they will try to argue in this way.
So for this reason, all the great devotee's and great sages and so on when they pray to the Lord, you'll see that practically always, they begin by presenting an analysis of the actual position of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. And this essentially is done to counteract the propaganda of the atheist, because this propaganda is so widespread and so extensive that the devotees of the Lord are always having to fight against it. So, even though a devotee may have a very, actually intimate relationship with the Supreme Lord on the level of transcendental rasa, still, you'll find that the devotees are always, spelling out these elementary points concerning the nature of the Lord. So in this verse today, I was reminded of another verse in the Bhagavatam that I was reading recently because the word, sva-rociṣā is used here to refer to the effulgence of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. It said that Krsna actually was lighting up the room by his presence. So, it's translated here as the brilliance of his personal beauty.
So, the other day I gave a class on the brahmajyoti and various devotees had some questions about that. Let's see if I can find this here. I thought that I would expand a little bit further on that. Interesting that I just located this, but now... So, and this is in the Second Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam. What's happening here is that Narada Muni took birth from Lord Brahma as one of his mental sons. Lord Brahma actually has the power to manifest a complete living being from his mind. This gives some ideas to the nature of the mind. We can visualize things within our minds, but the images remain simply insubstantial. And if we actually want to manifest something in physical form, we have to start moving matter around with our hands. It's the only way we can do it; but Brahma's mind was so powerful that he could actually generate forms by thinking of them. And you can just imagine how dangerous that would be if we were endowed with that ability. We'd be manifesting all kinds of horrendous things all the time.
Actually, Brahma himself occasionally was somewhat perplexed by the power of his own mind. For example, once he was gazing into a pond at his own reflection, and he was beginning to sort of admire himself. And so as soon as he did this, immediately from his mind there manifested a whole category of demigods called Kinnaras who are specifically endowed with musical abilities so that they could glorify Lord Brahma, and they immediately began composing songs and singing them so as to glorify Brahma.
So, Brahma had created various mental sons. Actually, these creations were a manifestation through Brahma of the power of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Brahma himself didn't understand how it was happening, and this is described in various places. Initially, when he first awoke to consciousness within the material universe, he found himself within a vast empty space filled with darkness, sitting on this lotus flower. And initially, he recognized just by intuition that he had the role of the creator within the material universe. However, he didn't know how to go about it. And it's described that initially Brahma engaged in an empiric investigation to try and figure out his situation. So, he recognized that he was sitting on this lotus flower and that that was his origin and that that, in turn, must have originated from something else because it had a stem which was going somewhere. So, he tried to follow the stem, and he was unable to trace out the origin of that stem. And this is interesting by the way because we will see pictures in the Bhagavatam in which it's very clear where the stem is coming from, because there's the lotus flower and there's the stem emerging from the navel of Garbhodakasayi Visnu. So, it seems pretty clear.
So one might ask why Brahma was having trouble understanding where the stem came from. So, it seems that these paintings are being made by Krsna’s mercy for our enlightenment, but actually even the senses of Brahma were not sufficient to reveal Garbhodakasayi Visnu. So this shows that you see, when we look at one of those paintings, we may tend to think well, all of these different elements of the picture are there, one above the other. There’s the lotus flower and the stem, and then there's Garbhodakasayi Visnu and Sesa Naga. So, why couldn't Brahma see it? But it seems that it's not quite as simple as that.
There are different levels of, you might say, different dimensions or different planes of reality within the total manifestation of the universe. And personalities who are equipped with different sensory powers are able to see different things. So, Lord Brahma has very powerful senses and he was able to see this lotus flower and the stem and so forth, but his senses were not so powerful that he could perceive the form of Garbhodakasayi Visnu. Garbhodakasayi Visnu was inaccessible to him. So this is something we should consider if we're ever bewildered by some of the statements in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, because there are many descriptions of things that we don't see. For example, it's described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam that there's a mountain 800,000 miles high situated within this vicinity somewhere. So, that's fairly large, you'd think it would be quite conspicuous, but we don't see it. In fact, we have no idea how we would go about seeing such a thing, but we should consider that after all, Lord Brahma couldn't see Garbhodakasayi Visnu either.
So, this Narada Muni had taken birth from Lord Brahma as his son. So in a previous life, Narada Muni had acquired perfection as a devotee of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Actually, the story behind that is that in a still earlier life – Narada Muni had been a Gandharva. What was his name?
RLT: No, I don't think... I come up with something like Upabarhaṇa, I'm not sure. But in any case, he was a Gandharva living within the heavenly planets. So the Gandharvas are extremely musical by nature, but they tend to be sort of heavenly playboys. So, this particular Gandharva had sort of become involved in the association of women. He was extremely beautiful and had a great singing voice and so he was accustomed to singing songs in the company of various women who were his great admirers. And so in this way, he would enjoy himself.
So it's described that at one point the Prajapatis, or rulers of the demigods, had arranged for the sankirtan of the holy name of the Lord to take place there in the heavenly planets. It's interesting, this takes place there also. So, people were singing, glorifying the Supreme Personality of Godhead and this Narada – well he wasn't Narada yet – this personality began singing songs, glorifying the heroic exploits of the demigods in a somewhat intoxicated state surrounded by various female admirers.
So the demigods who were conducting the Hari kirtan became somewhat offended and so they cursed him that he would have to take birth as a śūdra. And so, sure enough, he took birth as a śūdra. He was the son of a maidservant and his father was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps his father had died or gone off or something like that. But he acquired the association of some Bhaktivedantas, some great devotees of the Lord, who were being served by this woman who was acting as a maidservant. So, in the course of associating with these great sages, this young boy was able to perform some service for them, and it's described that he also was able to partake of the remnants of their food. And so the seed of devotional service was actually planted in his heart. And later on, these sages departed and also his mother was killed by a snake bite, and he found himself a homeless orphan. But at this point, due to the influence of these great sages, he was able to renounce all material ambitions and he began to travel about seeking spiritual development.
So he became a wandering mendicant and he was practising meditation on the Lord within the heart, and eventually, he acquired perfection in this meditation. So in his next life, he took birth as the son of Brahma and that was nearly 2 billion years ago. So it gives you the idea of the timescale that we're talking about here.
So, he had in his previous life become a devotee, but in this life, of course, initially he was in a somewhat bewildered state, having just become manifest. He knew that Brahma was his father and he had observed the activities of Brahma. So he began to inquire from him as to the nature of the absolute truth. And actually, he approached Brahma in a very diplomatic way, saying that it was clear that Brahma was the creator of this material universe. And he could certainly see that Brahma had manifested very great powers in this regard. But still, he wondered whether or not there was something higher than Brahma because he could observe that Brahma engaged in meditation. So if he engaged in meditation, then that indicated there must be something higher than him.
So Brahma answered him that in fact, there is someone higher than me, namely Krsna, and he began to describe Krsna to Narada Muni. So, he was saying here to Narada Muni that "I create after the Lord's creation by his personal effulgence, known as the brahmajyoti just as when the sun manifests its fire, the moon, the firmament, the influential planets, and the twinkling stars also manifest their brightness." So this was one of Brahma's statements, which is what I’d referred to before. So the interesting thing is this word sva-rociṣā is used here for the effulgence of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. It's the same word that is used in this verse we read today.
So, Srila Prabhupada points out in the purport that this sva-rociṣā is referring to the brahmajyoti which is the effulgence of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. So, what is being stated here is that Krsna potentially creates everything by the power of this brahmajyoti or sva-rociṣā, His personal effulgence. Sva here means his own in general, this word sva or as in svayam meaning his own and so forth. It means his own. So it's a personal reference. This is not a reference to something impersonal. So, it’s said that Krsna potentially creates through this personal effulgence.
So the idea is that through this agency, everything is set up in a potential form so that it can then manifest. Actually, in the philosophy of Aristotle, this idea of potentiality versus actuality was a very prominent feature. Aristotle had the idea that an object is endowed with certain potentiality so that's part of the reality of that object, even though those things are not manifest; and then an object will begin to manifest its particular potential and thus things will gradually take place. So, that's one aspect of the creation of the material universe that Krsna first sets things up on a potential level and then the actual physical manifestation takes place.
So in the creation, it's described that there are two phases called sarga and visarga. So in the sarga phase of creation, the different elements and so forth are manifested on a potential level and also, the different senses, sense organs and so forth are created. It's described that all of these things are created before Brahma actually appears, that is before the lotus flower becomes manifested and Brahma emerges from it and so forth. So for example, there's a description in the Second and Third Canto that first from Mahā-Visnu and then Garbhodakasayi Visnu, and then finally Ksirodakasayi Visnu. There's the manifestation of the universal form of the Lord or virat-purusa and as this universal form manifests within each material universe, different senses and sense organs become manifest, but there are no living beings yet. So, you might ask then well, how is it that these different sense organs are becoming manifest if there are no living beings there to have those senses?
But it's actually described that what happens is that there are the senses, the objects of perception, and the different material elements. And all of these are related together in an integrated way. So there's the description in Bhagavad-gita of Krsna's eight separated elements. And of these, there are three subtle elements, mind, intelligence and false ego, and then four [five] gross elements which are described as earth, air, fire, water, and ether.
So, in reading this kind of description, one might first get the impression that the Bhagavatam represents a primitive stage in the history of human civilization because here they're saying that the elements are earth, air, fire and water and after all, that's what the ancient Greeks believed. In fact, Aristotle taught that the elements were earth, air, fire, water, and ether and this was taught by the Arabs and Muslims in the Middle Ages. And then finally, this knowledge was again returned to Europe through Spain and so forth via the Arabs. And the Europeans again began to believe in the earth, air, fire, and water. But then with the scientific revolution, they realized that that was completely bogus. And they now know about the periodic table of the elements and the composition of the atom in terms of protons and electrons and neutrons and so forth. And they've gone on to quarks endowed with strangeness, color, and other interesting properties and so forth.
So, this description of the five elements, panca bhuta, is rather outmoded, but actually, if you look at that description in the Vedic literature, you will see that it has features which never made it to Greece or Europe. Specifically, it's described that the earth, air, fire, water and so forth correspond to objects of sensation, which are sort of psychological realities, and these, in turn, correspond to modes of perception and organs of perception.
For example, ether is connected with sound and sound, in turn, is connected with the sense of hearing. So in the manifestation of the elements in this potential phase of creation, first sound is manifested before even ether exists. Today we tend to think of sound as a vibration that passes through gross matter but the Vedic sound, that's an entirely different conception. One has to simply throw out the idea of sound as [break] ... in the condition state, it has to be interfaced with the material energy. So some kind of apparatus is needed for that. So apparently this is created first –this whole apparatus is put together on a potential level before there are any living entities there. So, this is what is being described in the creation when the creation of the material universe is described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. And these elements of ether, air, fire, water, and earth really are related to modes of sensation rather than simply being sort of crude ideas of the gross physical elements.
So, the actual Vedic account is referring to something quite sophisticated; it's not a primitive account by any means. And it's referring to an area in which science thus far has not made any advancement because, in fact, the scientists cannot understand how consciousness relates with matter. In fact, when the modern scientific development took place, the very first thing that happened was that the possibility of understanding consciousness was eliminated because modern science is based on essentially, applying mathematics to nature, that is, describing everything in terms of numbers or in terms of geometry with points and lines and so forth. So, as soon as that approach was adopted to understanding nature, it became impossible to understand consciousness because, in fact, you can't understand consciousness in those terms.
So, this took place in the time of Galileo and then Descartes and so forth. Descartes tried initially to create a sort of dual picture in which he had consciousness existing on the one hand and matter described by geometry on the other hand, but he couldn't relate the two things to one another and so this created a dilemma which was never resolved. And finally, the philosophers said, “Well, look, this business of consciousness is just something we shouldn't even try to talk about. We may as well forget about it. Let's just talk about gross matter.” And so ever since that time, that's been the predominant trend in science, almost universal trend, one simply talks about gross matter.
So there’s no understanding in modern science of how you relate sensation and conscious awareness with these material elements – that's simply not there. But in the Vedic description of the elements, that's sort of the fundamental starting point. Everything is described in terms of the relation between the gross manifestations and the states of consciousness and the apparatus for perception and so forth. So, I'll just describe also this statement Srila Prabhupada made about seeds. He says here,
One should not expect the Lord to create like a blacksmith with a hammer and other instruments; the Lord creates by his potencies. He has his multifarious potencies (parāsya śaktir vividhaiva śrūyate). Just as the small seed of a banyan fruit has the potency to create a big banyan tree, the Lord disseminates all varieties of seeds by his potential brahmajyoti (sva-rociṣā) and the seeds are made to develop by the watering process with persons like Brahma. Brahma cannot create the seeds, but he can manifest the seed into a tree just as a gardener helps plants and orchards grow by the watering process.
So the idea is that these potential manifestations are first created by Krsna through the agency of sva-rociṣā, his personal effulgence. They exist in a potential form, so they're not really manifest but then Brahma is endowed with the power to cause these seeds to begin manifesting. So, the analogy of the seed is quite appropriate because in the seed there's also something in potential form, just like a banyan tree potentially is there within this tiny little seed. But if you plant it in the appropriate situation, then the whole tree will grow in due course of time. So similarly, Brahma is like the gardener and he's given these seeds through the action of Lord Krsna and then he plants them within the universe. And they then develop and he doesn't even understand how it happens, just as a human gardener, if he plants a seed for tomato, a tomato plant comes up – he doesn't know how it's happening, but he does have some knowledge of how you should water it and fertilize it and so forth so that it can grow properly. So that's the role of Brahma. So, what time is it?
Audience: After six.
RLT: Okay, I'll stop there. Are there any comments? Questions?
Question: Yeah. The followers of Sankaracarya are propounding that Krsna is actually a personification of the mode of goodness in a pure form – it seems like a contradiction to me. How can He be the personification of a material mode and be in a pure form at the same time?
Answer: Well, they say He's not in a pure form. He's just the purest thing around, but still not pure. This is their position. So yeah, which is a bit on the blasphemous from the side. Yeah?
Q: Now, what you're saying, you're saying that the brahmajyoti contains potentiality for material manifestation. Now, does the brahmajyoti always have that potentiality or did brahmajyoti become like empowered with that? Or was it always in there in the brahmajyoti?
A: Well, I suspect it's a matter of how potential you want to get, because since the brahmajyoti is Krsna's effulgence and Krsna always is endowed with all powers...
Q: But the thing is, the brahmajyoti is manifested in the spiritual world also, even when the material world is not.
A: So, yeah, it's like an instrument. Srila Prabhupada says that you couldn't expect Krsna to create with a hammer and tong. So, if you have a hammer and tong, say you're a blacksmith, sometimes you may not be making horseshoes and other times you may be doing it. So, when you're not making horseshoes, the hammer and tongs will simply have nothing about them that has anything to do with the horseshoes but when you are…
Q: Then if you say or should you say that the brahmajyoti is like the medium from which potentiality can be like sent forth?
A: That's the impression I have a reading this description. The impression I get is that this brahmajyoti is sort of like an instrument through which Krsna is present everywhere. And so when He wants, He can just manifest things through that. That's sort of the impression I get from this.
Q: Another question is that Lord Brahma has all these seeds, he doesn't know exactly how it all works but he plants the seeds. When you were mentioning that I couldn't help but think of [unclear] ...trying to understand what mystic powers are like, and yogis have these mystic powers, do they not actually understand that... they just have the power but they don't understand what’s behind the power?
A: Yeah, that's correct, I think. We even have examples. For example, Kardama Muni manifested by his yogic powers a flying city completely equipped with all amenities and so forth. And it's described there that he was surprised himself just to see it happen. And we have that experience also because the only difference between our powers and mystic powers is that since we have our powers, where we take it for granted that we have them. But our powers are also very mysterious, that is the things we can do. How is it that we can talk, for example, if you stop to think of it, that's an amazing thing. You want to say something and all these words come out arranged in a certain order and so forth. And even if I could figure out how it works, I couldn't figure that out fast enough to keep up with the necessary flow of words; and actually I don't know how it works.
Q: Another question is that since the Vedic conception [unclear] ...connected with the senses, this doesn't then negate the existence of the different elements. It doesn't negate the periodic chart.
A: Oh, it doesn't negate that.
Q: So all those different things that could be there then just break down, break down of... [unclear]
A: Yes. Like there are further subdivisions. Of course, another thing is the Bhagavatam is just giving a very general account. It's not giving technical details about different types of elements and so on, but indeed there are what, 10 different airs within the body. So those are 10 different types of air and so on. So the various elements, material elements, represent different specific subdivisions that then become manifested. And this may not be described in detail, but that's there.
Q: So then we could say that earth would mean something like carbon and water would mean something more like liquid substance?
A: Well, you see, that's what I think is precisely – that these terms don't mean. Obviously, earth has something to do with things that are solid and water has to do with liquids and so on. That's true enough but, what these terms really refer to are certain ways of perceiving. Earth is endowed with the property of odor and is connected with the sense of smell, which is not present in water, for example. Water is associated with the sense of taste and the sense of touch and the sense of form or vision and the sense of hearing, but not with a sense of smell. When you go to fire, you eliminate taste and it's connected with a sense of vision, the sense of touch and the sense of hearing and so forth. When you go to air, then you eliminate vision from those three. Ether is connected with the sense of hearing but not the other senses and so on.
So somehow what these things really are, is something connected with these modes of perception and the senses. The specific manifestations of carbon and so on, I think that's on a more detailed level that develops from these broader categories; and also the elements we're familiar with... just like water, Srila Prabhupada points out that none of these elements are pure. They're always mixed in with other things. So even pure water is not the real pure water, that is, it's a mixture of water and earth and air and so forth. There's just a predomination of certain elements over other elements.
This is something you have to consider when discussing, say, modern chemistry because they will say, well, water is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. You can have a glass of water, put two electrodes in it and invert test tubes above the electrodes and put a current through that with a battery. They do that in high school chemistry classes. And above, I forget which it is, the anode or the cathode, you get oxygen and above the other one you get hydrogen; then you can combine them and get water again. So they'll say, well, it seems that water then is a product of two kinds of air. So, well, all right... and fire. That's well and good, but there's more to it than that. There's just somehow the question of how the senses come in, which is a very important aspect of the whole thing.
Q: But mostly the modern conception is just separating it [unclear]
A: Well in the modern conception, the scientists, they want to reduce these elements down to first of all to atoms. Then they reduce the atoms down to electrons, protons, and neutrons and so on. And now, they want to reduce the protons down to quarks. And then they have a whole host of other things they discovered: mesons and this, that, and the other thing. And their idea is to find the ultimate little particles and say, okay, everything is made up of these little particles and they are just so, and so many of them and they're interacting, spinning around one another in some way and that's what everything is. That's the reality. But, they're leaving out other important aspects of the whole thing. Namely, this whole element of consciousness is a glaring omission from their picture of things, and that's a whole subject of course, obviously. Well, we should chant japa now. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.