"Sound Vibration and Its Manifestations" (SB 3.12.47)
Modern science considers sound vibration as mechanical waves. Vedic literature presents a definition that appears to transcend that by considering matter manifesting from energy identified with sound. Thompson examines the Puranic concept of sound by using three examples drawn from contemporary natural science – quantum mechanics, virtual reality, and the workings of the inner ear. He proposes that information expressed via a Vedic understanding of sound, may be fundamental to the manifestation of the cosmos.
TRANSCRIPT: Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 3, Chapter 12, Text 47. “Sound and Its Manifestations.” Alachua - 1995-12-27 / (523)
So, the translation:
Brahma's soul was manifested as the touch alphabets, his body as the vowels, his senses as the sibilant alphabets, his strength as the intermediate alphabets and his sensual activities as the seven notes of music.
So, this is a very interesting description of Lord Brahma. So, we've seen that Lord Brahma is the incarnation of spiritual sound. So, in some sense his body is manifested from sound. And this sound is related to human communication because we have here a description of how the Sanskrit alphabet corresponds to different aspects of Brahma or the manifestation of Lord Brahma. So, of course we hear from the Vedic literature that sound is the ultimate source of the material manifestation.
Now, if you consider modern science, the idea of sound that you find there is that sound is a vibration of matter. So according to this idea, matter comes first and sound is a byproduct of matter. But the Vedic conception is that matter is a byproduct of sound. So sound has to come first. So what is that sound? What is the nature of it? Our current materialistic conception of sound is that it's a vibration. But that very term presumes that there's something to vibrate, and you think of that as matter which is vibrating. So it seems that there's something, some characteristic of sound that comes before matter and in fact produces matter. But then again, we do have vibrations in matter.
So, suppose you produce sound by vibrating matter, musical instruments do that. For example, you have a tightly stretched string, you pluck that certainly it swings back and forth. You can even see it doing that and that produces a sound. So when we think that that is sound, that is surely produced by vibration of matter, but then how does that relate to the sound that comes before matter? That becomes an interesting question.
So curiously enough, the physicists have an idea of a kind of vibration that produces matter. This is the whole topic of what's called the quantum theory, quantum mechanics. So they talk about waves and they talk about matter in the classical sense in which you have objects with a position in space, and a velocity, and mass and so on and so forth. Interestingly enough, this has created a problem which is called in physics: the problem of wave-particle duality. How can something be a wave and at the same time be made up of particles of substance? Actually, nobody has ever been able to figure it out.
Somebody commented recently regarding this, that at one level you have quantum mechanics. At another level you have classical mechanics, which is the physics of what we can see. And in between, oh, excuse me, I used the wrong terms there. At one level you have quantum physics, the other level you have classical physics, and in between you have metaphysics. So, it seems that metaphysics is needed to link two parts of physics, which is a rather curious state of affairs.
And actually it's true, people have said all kinds of things about how to put together quantum physics and classical physics and nobody has been able to get out of the realm of metaphysics in their efforts to do that. So it's quite puzzling. In any case, quantum physics talks about waves which are not oscillations of some prior substance. Instead, those waves are supposed to account for the existence of substance. So, that puzzle exists even in modern physics.
So the Vedic literature is saying that everything is manifested from sound. At one level, you have the Sankhya philosophy as presented in the Bhagavatam, which states that the gross elements beginning with ether are manifested from the vibration of sound. But this is said to be sound within false ego in ignorance. So the basic breakdown of the material manifestation according to the Sankhya philosophy is that initially you have pradhana. Within pradhana, there comes the manifestation of false ego at the point when pradhana is converted into mahat-tattva. False ego subdivides into three categories: goodness, passion and ignorance. And then within false ego in ignorance, you have the manifestation of sound vibration. And from that, ether is generated – but ether is space. So all matter as we know it is existing within space. And in fact, matter is said to be produced from ether.
So first you have sound creating space and then space, interestingly enough, creates touch. It's interesting that some of the letters here are called touch alphabets. The word sparsa refers to touch. Perhaps though there's nothing too mysterious there because you touch parts of your mouth together when you make those letters. For example, let's see – kha or gha. So that may be what is meant there by touch alphabets. But in any case from ether, which is manifest from sound, touch is generated and from this comes air which manifests the property of touch. Of course we know that you can feel air pushing against you.
So, the next transformation produces, actually, visual form, interestingly enough. And from that there comes light or radiation. Actually it's interesting, the concept of fire as a material element seems to correspond very nicely to electromagnetism in physics. In fact, I once asked Srila Prabhupada, what magnetism would correspond to and he immediately said, fire, which I thought was interesting. But according to modern science, magnetism is connected with light and heat in general with the radiant energy that's associated with fire.
Another use of the term fire is in reference to the fire of digestion. But of course, normally people don't have the flame within their stomach. Although I hear that Madhvacharya did. He had a tremendous power of digestion. But, certainly in one's stomach there is fire in the sense of electromagnetic activity that breaks down different food substances. In the technical sense that you have in modern chemistry, that's also a kind of fire. In chemistry they use the word exothermic reaction for that, namely a reaction that releases heat and heat is electromagnetic energy.
So, you have the production of fire, and visual form is produced in connection with that. Then you have further transformations producing taste, and then water, and then finally aroma, and then earth. So in each case, the gross element is preceded by what is called tan-matra, or the sense object corresponding to that element.
It's also pointed out that all of the elements known to our experience are mixed. So air, for example, is a mixture of earth, air, fire, water and ether. It's not the pure element air and so on and so forth. So all of these different elements are generated from sound, at the root. So Brahma is said to be a manifestation of sound. So in one sense that is saying that Lord Brahma is at the root of the material manifestation. As a result, Brahma is able to control everything. If you control the root cause of things, then you have the highest level of control. So, Brahma is able to do that.
Now of course, another interesting feature of this verse and the purport is that these different manifestations of sound are associated with alphabets and notes of music and so forth, that we associate with human life. So in one sense, what this is saying is that communication through sound is very fundamental. In one sense that comes before the gross manifestation of material elements.
Again, this reverses the modern scientific concept, which would say that you start with gross matter and when gross matter is combined into suitable forms, then you have alphabets being created and so on and so forth. And then you have communication taking place, communication being the transfer of information between different material structures that are formed out of the original gross matter. So, the Vedic conception completely turns that around and it says that communication of information through sound comes first and the gross matter is a byproduct of that.
It's interesting, by the way, that the currently popular idea of a virtual reality could be said to reflect this concept. If you think that a virtual reality is basically a program run on a computer in which there are sensory interface devices that enable that program to provide experiences for some human subject. For example, one way of doing this is the person wears goggles which have little TV screens situated in them, and the person also wears earphones, and their hand is encased in what is called a data glove, and so on. So this interface connects their senses with the display being generated by the computer and it also enables them to, through their active senses, to modify what is going on within the computer. So the result of this is that the person experiences themselves as being in some kind of computer generated environment in which they can do different things.
For example, I understand you can actually practice tennis now in a computer. Somebody who watches you will find this to be quite amusing. You're just swinging your hand like this, but actually you're experiencing that you're hitting a tennis ball and it's rebounding in different ways, but that's completely generated within the computer. But the point that I was coming to is that the computer program begins with symbols which are being manipulated. And as a result of manipulation of symbols, a world is generated in which you can apparently experience gross objects like tennis balls. But the tennis balls don't really exist. There's nothing there but the symbols being manipulated within the device. So that's an analogy, but it would appear that at some level, communication and information expressed through sound is fundamental to the manifestation of the universe.
Then you come to the point that the universe is said to be an illusion. Srila Prabhupada, of course makes the interesting point here: “The material manifestation is therefore called illusion in the proper sense of the term.” So this leads to some interesting questions.
Of course, the Srimad-Bhagavatam begins with this concept of illusion. For example, in the invocation of the Srimad-Bhagavatam there's the statement:
I meditate upon Lord Sri Krsna because He is the Absolute Truth and the primeval cause of all causes of the creation, sustenance and destruction of the manifested universes. He is directly and indirectly conscious of all manifestations and He is independent because there is no cause beyond Him. It is He only who first imparted the Vedic knowledge into the heart of Brahmaji, the original living entity. By Him even the great sages and demigods are placed into illusion, as one is bewildered by the illusory representations of water seen in fire, or land seen on water. Only because of Him do the material universes, temporarily manifested by the reactions of the three modes of nature, appear factual, although they are unreal.
So this is an interesting idea that the manifestation of the universe is not real. In some sense all of these material manifestations are actually nothing other than the fundamental cause which underlies them. But that fundamental cause is purely spiritual. However, we only see the manifestation. We don't see the fundamental cause and thus we're in illusion. So this virtual reality analogy illustrates that because in that analogy, the fundamental cause would, say, be the computer. But the person who is in the virtual reality is experiencing this world that doesn't exist, actually, but which is being produced by the computer. So he experiences the world, which doesn't exist, and he doesn't experience the computer, which does exist. So that's the nature of illusion.
So, this brings one to another curious point. These sounds are referred to here by Srila Prabhupada as spiritual sound. So, then we again have this material sound, which seems to be a vibration in gross matter. So again, what is the relationship between the material sound and the spiritual sound? Srila Prabhupada points out that the Vedas are spiritual sound, but they are symbolically represented with letters that are known to us materially. So one can understand how letters can represent sounds and if you look at a book, the letters by themselves are just ink on paper.
For example, if you look at a book written in some alphabet that is unknown to you, then all you see are some shapes in ink on paper and you have no idea of any sound. But one could ask, what about, let us say, sound represented on a magnetic tape in a tape recorder. How does that relate to actual sound? Does it relate to sound in the same way perhaps that letters do?
Of course, when you play the tape, due to some electronic arrangement, air is caused to vibrate, actually, because of the pattern of magnetic fields on the tape that is translated by the electronic apparatus into movements of a little membrane, which pushes the air back and forth. Then the idea is when the air is pushed back and forth, that propagates through your eardrum, which is another little membrane. So that's pushed back and forth. And then oddly enough there are three bones which move back and forth and another membrane is made to move. And then, behind that membrane is a coiled tube, looks sort of like a snail shell, called the cochlea. And in there there's another membrane called the basilar membrane. So then that moves, and there are nerve cells there which apparently are stimulated by the movement of that membrane. So then they send little electronic impulses which travel down the axons of those nerve cells. So, at each point you'd have some physical thing happening. So where do you get the sound that we actually hear? This is the question, and how does that relate to the physical manifestation?
Actually, no one in the world of science has ever been able to answer this question. One way to see the problem is if you consider the nerve impulses coming from the cochlea in the ear, those are electrical impulses running down the axons and they somehow correspond to sound. But then you can go to other neurons within the brain and nerve impulses are moving down the axons. But let's say these neurons are connected to the eye, so somehow those nerve impulses correspond to seeing. But they’re just nerve impulses. The nerve impulses going down the axons from the eye are just as much nerve impulses as the ones going down the axons from the ear. There's no inherent difference between the nerve impulses in the one case or in the other. But in the one case you have vision and in the other case you have sound. So how does it happen? It's a complete mystery to modern science. As a result, different scientists try to explain it away. But I won't go into that whole topic. But the problem is there.
So one way of looking at this, which is... and of course one can apply this to the holy name, consider that. Suppose you had a tape recorder, which is recording the maha-mantra. So we know the holy name of Krsna is non different from Krsna. Now, if you have Hare Krsna written in letters on a piece of paper, in what sense is that the holy name? It would seem that this is the symbolical representation with letters that Srila Prabhupada is pointing out here. But let us say the tape recorder vibrates the sound. In what sense is that the holy name? But then you hear the sound and this mysterious thing happens in which somehow or other you have hearing coming into manifestation. So at that point, perhaps you have the holy name.
One way of looking at it is that the actual pure holy name is Krsna himself. So, if the shadow holy name of the material manifestation is vibrated, then if Krsna wishes He can manifest the pure holy name, which is non different from Himself within the consciousness of the individual. But this takes place entirely on the spiritual platform. But then again, as Srila Prabhupada points out, ultimately everything is spiritual. So even the tape recorder, which is made of matter, is actually made of sound vibration, which is ultimately spiritual sound. So anyway, those are some observations about sound vibration. Any questions or comments? Yeah, Murlivadaka?
Question: You're saying that the holy name as written is a symbolic representation, that it’s not Krsna, because then my question would be, are those combinations of color, that Puskara very nicely put on canvas, are they also symbolic representations, or are they Krsna? And why would they be any more Krsna than the holy name?
Answer: Well, yes, you have the problem of symbolic representations. Just to illustrate the problem, suppose one were to bring in a board on which a series of shapes were placed. There might be, let's say a square, a triangle, a circle – different shapes like that. Now, is that the holy name of Krsna? Well, someone could have assigned sound values to those shapes and declared the shapes to be an alphabet. You can do that after all. After all, what is there about the shape of the letter "A", for example, that is correspondent… that corresponds to the sound "Ah"? You could have various shapes corresponding to that and in fact, in different alphabets you do have different shapes representing that sound. So, suppose somebody came in with this board and this person had the idea that these particular shapes are letters corresponding to sounds that make up Krsna. But let's say on the other hand that the person didn't have that idea. In that case, would these just be shapes? In fact, let's see.
If you take K–R–S–N–A with the little diacritical dots, those are all different. You don't have duplication of letters there. So imagine seeing five different shapes arranged in a row somewhere. Those could be taken to be letters of an alphabet representing the name Krsna. So is it true that anywhere, any place where you have five shapes, that corresponds to Krsna or is the holy name? Let's see.
So to answer that… of course, in one sense it's true that any five shapes you have anywhere, or three or four or whatever the number may be, do in fact equal Krsna, because ultimately everything is Krsna. But in that case, you could say, well, the ceiling is Krsna and the wall is Krsna and so on and so forth. You don't even have to go so far as to consider Puskara’s painting. You could consider simply the frame, which also must be Krsna. And that's true, but then as far as communication with our consciousness is concerned, it would seem that certain material manifestations are symbolical representations that remind us of Krsna. And ultimately it would be Krsna's reciprocation with us from within that would make that a direct experience of Krsna. That's what I was proposing. Yeah?
Q: If you’re a pure devotee, all you ever see is Krsna, right?.
A: Right. Murli has a rejoinder!.
Q: Let's say the holy name... Let's say I don’t speak Engish, and I hear the vibration “Hare Krsna.” Is it our philosophy that that sound vibration… [unclear]
A: Well, we do have information concerning ajnata-sukriti. [break] There are a lot of words ending with rama – Cyclorama and so on and so forth. So would that have a purifying effect on the individual? Apparently so.
A: Yeah. So there is an effect. So that would seem to indicate then that... But what is the situation behind that effect? Is it that Krsna is choosing to benedict the persons who come in contact with Him in that way? Perhaps that's how the linkage is being arranged.