by Ravi Khanna
“Science & Spirituality in Modern India”
Feb. 5 – 7, 2006
The Big Picture for the Science of Consciousness
The western study of consciousness has progressed very rapidly in the last century but it is still stuck in the mould of mind – body dualism. This is best brought out in the words of a recent Time magazine quote ….
“If you close your eyes and think about it for a while, as philosophers have done for centuries, the world of the mind seems very different from the one inhabited by our bodies. The psychic space inside our heads is infinite and ethereal; it seems obvious that it must be made of different stuff than all the other organs. Cut into the body, and blood pours forth. But slice into the brain, and thoughts and emotions don’t spill out onto the operating table. Love and anger can’t be collected in a test tube to be weighed and measured.
René Descartes, the great 17th century French mathematician and philosopher, enshrined this metaphysical divide in what came to be known in Western philosophy as mind-body dualism. Many Eastern mystical traditions, contemplating the same inner space, have come to the opposite conclusion. They teach that the mind and body belong to an indivisible continuum.”
What constitutes this ‘indivisible continuum’ ? We are going to look at this in terms of the Vedas in this paper. As we will see, this leads us to the larger picture of consciousness as it is presented in the east and we will compare this with the western contemporary concepts of Multiple Universes or Multiverses and the theory of Infinities. Both these western scientific developments that have emerged in the last century also push the mind towards the ‘Big picture’.
IS THE MIND AN ‘EMERGENT’ PROPERTY OF MATTER ?
William James (1842 – 1910), the father of American Psychology observed that Consciousness is not a ‘thing’ but a ‘process’. In the last century the western study of neurobiology, its chemical processes and imaging techniques have undergone phenomenal advances carrying this ‘study of processes’ to cognitive sciences. The brain was studied using sophisticated EEG (Electro Encelograph) and MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines to map the visual cortex, language areas, auditory lobes, the relation of fear to amygdala and so on and so forth . But where exactly does the Consciousness reside in the cerebellum ? …. in the hippocampus or cerebrum – there are no easy answers !
So we come to what David J. Chalmers calls the ‘HARD PROBLEM’  …. “ The Hard Problem is the question of how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience. This puzzle involves the inner aspect of thought and perception : the way things feel for the subject. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations, such as that of vivid blue. Or think of the ineffable sound of a distant oboe, the agony of intense pain, the sparkle of happiness or the meditative quality of a moment lost in thought. All are part of what I call consciousness. It is these phenomena that pose the real mystery of the mind.”In a serious attempt to address this ‘Hard Problem’ His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been holding a series of Mind & Life talks with eminent western scientists every two years since October 1987 . The challenge has been to trace the advent of consciousness into the human mind from the progression of matter and its evolution. Some of the interesting features of these and other related writings are as follows:-
‘It is the closure of a primitive membrane into a “vesicle” that represents a discrete transition from non-life to life.’ (Harold Morowitz)
The chemistry of this crucial process is surprisingly simple and common. It is based on the electric polarity of water. Because of this polarity, certain molecules are hydrophilic (attracted by water), while others are hydrophobic (repelled by water). A third kind of molecules are those of fatty and oily substances, known as lipids. They are elongated carbon structures with one hydrophilic and one hydrophobic end. (See Picture)
When these lipids come in contact with water, they spontaneously form various structures. For example, they may form a mono-molecular film spreading over the water surface or alternatively they may form an even more complex double layer of molecules with water on both sides, as shown in the Picture. These single or double layers can form droplets, which are the membrane-bounded vesicles. These double-layered greasy membranes show a surprising number of properties similar to contemporary cellular membranes. They restrict the number of molecules that can enter the vesicle, transform solar energy into electrical energy and even collect phosphate compounds inside their structure.
Lipid vesicles, then, are the ideal candidates for the protocells out of which the living cells evolved.
This was the first semi-permeable boundary between the “outside” and the “inside”; the first distinction between self and non-self.
The protocells were the hotbed of a lot of molecular activity. Complex chains of linear polymers of carbon compounds gave rise to life-building amino acids, nucleotide and simple sugars. As the molecules became bigger their chemical reactions became ‘auto catalytic’ and cyclic i.e. the derivatives promoted further generation of themselves and related products. These hyper-cycles were possible due to accumulation of energy within the first cells and more complex protein, DNA and RNA structures arose. This is the very point at which non-sentient matter gives ‘life’ to sentient cell structures. The energy accumulation inside spherical protocells pushed the chemical reactions to ‘far from equilibrium’ levels of energy, thereby creating more complex structures called “dissipative structures” which have self-organizational capability. If we look at this in terms of systems development then, this higher level of self-generating capability is called ‘an autopoietic organization’:-
From dissipative structures and hypercycles emerged the chain of nucleotides, ribose, and phosphate that can both replicate itself and catalyze chemical reactions.
First, the molecular components of a cellular autopoietic unity must be dynamically related in a network of ongoing interactions. Today we know many of the specific chemical transformations in this network, and the biochemist collectively terms them “cell metabolism”. Interestingly, this cell metabolism produces components which make up the network of transformations that produced them. Some of these components form a boundary, a limit to this network of transformations. In morphologic terms, the structure that makes this cleavage in space possible is called a membrane. (Underlining by me) ….. What we have, then, is a unique situation as regards relations of chemical transformations: on the one hand, we see a network of dynamic transformations that produces its own components and that is essential for a boundary; on the other hand, we see a boundary that is essential for the operation of the network of transformations which produced it as a unity:…… The most striking feature of an autopoietic system is that it pulls itself by its own bootstraps and becomes distinct from its environment through its own dynamics, in such a way that both things are inseparable. Living beings are characterized by their autopoietic organization. They differ from each other in their structure, but they are alike in their organization. 
This controlled electron energy decrement is something not seen in the organic world. Something radically new has been added to the universe in this process. The kinds of abrupt shifts in the inorganic world like ionizing radiation, radioactivity etc. is actually destructive to living systems.
The evolution of photosynthesis is undoubtedly the most important single metabolic innovation in the history of life on the planet. It occurred not in plants, but in bacteria.
It is very clear from the above excerpts that inorganic matter over the 3 billion years or so of evolution has carried the complexity of bio-chemistry through varying layers of complexity. From the merging of electron probabilities in the benzene ‘p – bonds’, to the coming together of bio-chemical ‘hypercycles, to the structure of the first simple cell – the prokaryote, to the emergence of the first single-cell eukaryote with the ‘whip’, to the multicellular mammals there are different dimensions of emergent phenomena. H.J. Morowitz uses his expertise in Biology and Complexity to actually explain 28 steps of emergence for human evolution.
In terms of consciousness, the microtubules seem to play a pivotal role. They provide the first nervous impulse to dormant cells and are instrumental in their motility or ‘first movement’. At this point, they actually provide multiple functions to the single cell – ‘of skeleton, muscle system, legs, blood circulatory system and nervous system all rolled into one!’, as mentioned above. This is the point of sentient matter. The microtubule has the dimensions that are small enough and yet its structure is rigid enough to merge electron probabilities at the quantum level. This occurs not only along its tiny 24 nano-meter diameter but the confluence carries over its longer living length which is in milli-meters. The other interesting fact is the involution of the microtubules into some of the complex cells, the eukaryotes, to help them reproduce. This is the stage at which the complexity of life allows one structure to decay and another replica to replace its function. The microtubules are the very conduit that pull the DNA apart and help it duplicate. Again as, one becomes two, another sentient consciousness is birthed.
We have come to understand so far how the western ideas are sitting at the cutting edge of quantum ideas in an attempt to comprehend consciousness. But the study still has a reductionist flavor. We next turn to the east for solace. As the Dalai Lama exhorts us in his recent book – “A neuroscientist maybe can tell us whether a subject is dreaming, but can a neurobiological account explain the content of a dream?
Assuming that the Mind is an emergent property of matter leaves a huge explanatory gap. How do we explain the emergence of Consciousness? What marks the transition from non-sentient to sentient beings? We must ‘emerge’ from the complexity of the descriptive process to understand the ‘mystery’ of Life.”
THE EASTERN MIND
The Vedic concept of consciousness does not dissect the brain and matter into its material constituents. It looks for the ‘spirit of the matter’. It treats the nervous system as ‘continuous’ with a ‘Higher consciousness’ ; the Unknown – this is the cidākāśa of Yoga Vasisṭha or the Brahmn of the Upanishads.
cittākāśam cidākāśam ākāśam ca trtīyakam,
dvābhyām śūnyataram viddhi cidākāśam varānane (10)
O Līlā, there are three types of space – the psychological space, the physical space, and the infinite space of consciousness. Of these the infinite space of consciousness is the most subtle and the other two find expanse in it.
The word ‘space’ is not an adequate translation of the word ākāśh – it is more like “dimension”. There is an unfolding process of these dimensions by the chaitanya or our self-awareness. As the child grows it becomes aware of its cittākāśa, the psychological dimension and understands the limitation of its skin as the boundary between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’. The mind folds back and looks at the bhūtākāśa, the physical dimension that includes the elements in the external reality. The intellect discerns patterns, nomenclates them, learns linguistics and semiotic gestures thus building a repertoire of ‘higher’ awareness. Let us look at some later śhlökas explaining this (Y.V.III.97.16 & 17):-
sabāhya abhyanta atho yaḥ satta asatta avbodhakaḥ,
vyāpī samasta bhūtānāṁ cidākāśa sa ucyate (16)
sarva bhūthitaḥ shreṣṭho yaḥ kālkalnātmakaḥ,
yena admātataṁ sarvaṁ cittākāśaḥ sa ucyate (17)
The infinite space of undivided consciousness (cid ākāśa) is that which exists in all inside and outside, as the pure witness of that which is in substance or only as a vaporous intent. The finite space of divided consciousness (citta ākāśa) is that which creates the divisions of time, which pervades all beings and which has spread out the other spheres in immense vacuity.
The text then explains that both the psychological and physical dimensions are subjugated to the infinite space of undivided consciousness – “In fact, the others do not exist, and this division of consciousness into three is arbitrarily suggested only while instructing the ignorant. The enlightened one knows that there is only one reality”.
Thus the (cid ākāśa), the infinite space of undivided consciousness is the multidimensional field of Brahmn, the Unknown of the Vedas.
The Aitareya Āraṇyaka  is one of the oldest Vedic texts and at II.4.1 the Hymn of Creation commences which is also the Upanishad with the same name and is contained in the next “three” sections of the Āranyaka viz. from II.4 to II.6. It is here that the following śhlöka explains the entry of the ‘drop’ or ‘spark’ of the Unknown into the head of the new born fetus:-
Ait. Ar. II.4.3 & Ait. Up. I.3.12 
sa etam eva sīmānaṁ vidāryaitayā dvārā prāpadyata, sa eṣā vidṛtir nāma dvāḥ, tad etan nāndanam ; tasya traya āvasathās trayāḥ svapnāḥ,
ayam āvasatho’yam āvasatho’yam āvasatha iti (12)
After opening the very end of the head (simānam) , by that way he entered. This is the opening known as (vidriti) . This is the pleasing (naandanam). For that there are three abodes; three kinds of dreams as: this is the abode; this is the abode; this is the abode.Sīmānam comes from the noun sīme which means boundary or the parting of the hair. Vidriti means the central fissure between the two hemispheres of the brain. See the attached figure that shows the top view of the brain. As we can see this ‘central fissure’ is the abode of ‘three’ chakras viz. the bindu chakra, which is the eighth (this is often overlooked in the popular books on meditation and yoga – it is the ‘hidden’ one), sahasrār chakra – the seventh and the ājna chakra – the sixth.
To elaborate, in the eastern context, a ‘point’ cannot be ‘zero-dimensional’. On the contrary, it is a concentrated microcosmic unit that unfolds to reveal all dimensions. It is like the enfolded string of the Unified field theory of physics today. Kalātattvakośa  elaborates on bindu giving citations from various Sanskrit texts as follows :-
According to modern geometry the point is the minutest unit with which a line is drawn. The point is indivisible and without length and breadth. When we think of bindu as the minutest unity we are reminded of the concept of paramānu ( Vaiśesika defines paramānu as : mūrtatve sati niravayavah : being limited, it is without any body part ).
In Yogabhāsya of Vyāsa we find that a substance when reduced to its minutest unit is called paramānu , and in the same way the minutest time unit is called ksana. But bindu is neither a time unit like ksana nor a space unit like anu. It is a unit of consciousness , and at the same time becomes body of the material world.
It reminds me of T. S. Eliots’ poem ‘Four Quartets’ in which he refers to a ‘still point’ that is ‘more than a fixity’. I quote from the First Quartet called ‘Burnt Norton’ :-
“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
In essence this bindu is a drop of incessant energy which has enfolded vibration but it is ‘non-sound’ or anāhat. That is also the name of the fourth, the heart-chakra. It resonates to a Universal Hum and in Aitareya Āranyaka I.3.1 while explaining the beginning of the offspring from ‘hmm’ , the rishī says “the word is masculine and its cadence feminine…. Again with regard to his (the offspring’s) beginning with the word ‘hmm’, the word is the discrimination of divine and human speech”. This should be understood as the first spurt of soundless prāna from the bodhi chakra to the anāhat or heart chakra inciting the first heartbeat in the womb, the first breath. Thus, in the vedic sense, the seat of cidākāśa, the infinite dimension of undivided consciousness is the hrdya or the heart, although, the antenna is the bindu chakra. The breath or vāyu rises from the lower chakrās to the throat, the seat of the fifth chakra – the viśuddhi chakra, to merge with the prāna from the heartbeat. This first cry is the pranav and is often used synonymously with the sound of ‘aum’ in vedic literature. However, they are different, the former is symbolic of evolution and the latter of the involution of prānic energy. When the conch shell is blown in vedic rituals it is this pranav that is magnified and when we chant inwardly it is the nasal sound of ‘aum’ that resonates in our cranial cavity.
So, in the Vedic essence, the spark of the soul survives death and sits in the marīchi – the Multiverse Level II, where all intentions are feasible. A region way beyond our direct senses but yet inextricably linked to our minds through our desires, the swapna. And here the antic waits its turn to re-incarnate…….
The final release can be achieved if we access the turīya in the mind, and this can ‘transport’ the soul to the Unknown region, ambh, ruled by the Brahmn.
THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE VEDAS
Each region has its own body of knowledge and it is called the Veda. The first svar or vowel ‘a’ stands for Atharva Veda that explains the mysteries of the ambh. The second vowel and the third vowel ‘i’ and ‘u’ combine to give Yaju Veda for the ‘ya’ semi-vowel contains the ‘i’ sound. The knowledge of marīchi is in the Yaju – śukla (light) and the mar is expounded upon in the Yaju – krisna (dark). The fourth vowel is ‘ṛ’ (pronounced ‘ri’) and the richa of Rig Veda are replete with the rhythms of the visible universe, āpo. The Sām Veda is to do with sva, the mind and contains that which feeds the inner self.
This then is the big picture of Consciousness. I have tried to trace its scientific basis from matter to mind and looked at the equivalent concepts in the Vedas and the Upanishads. I can see the convergence and the amalgamation of these two lines of intense human endeavor into a new theory of dimensions.
(The table at the end summarizes this talk).