H.G. Matsyavatar Das

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The Psychic Structure of the Universe

By Prof. Marco Ferrini (Matsyavatara Dasa)

What is the structure of the universe? What are life and consciousness? A mere combination of atoms and molecules? Are living creatures enlivened by a spiritual essence? If yes, is that true only for man or for all living manifestations? These are eternal questions, for both science and religion.

The highest minds of Western science have understood the great value but also the limits of experimental knowledge and have indicated that there are two ways of understanding: besides the scientific-deductive method, there is intuition, accessed through contemplation.

Vedic rishis have conducted their research starting from the very same mechanism of understanding: the investigation in the deepest self leads to a level of consciousness where perception realizes a unified vision of the various levels of reality, enabling us to understand the fundamental laws of universe.

The tale of cosmogony told by Vedic texts describes in three stages the explosion of a seed: germination, expansion and finally disintegration - or in other words: creation, maintenance and dissolution. Understanding the nature of Vedic cosmogony is itself a journey where we witness an invisible seed1 expand while differentiating itself in cosmic space, to the point of its dissolution.

Just like the human being is a combination of physical body, mind and spirit, so according to Yoga and Samkhya philosophy, the entire manifested world is nothing but a thought created by the Cosmic Mind crystallized in energy and matter, created with the purpose of allowing the realization of the person. The transformation of energy into matter and matter into energy, according to the formulae revealed to the West by Einstein over one hundred years ago, and the most recent discoveries of quantum physics, describe through a Western scientific language the identical great realizations of the Vedic sages. The universe is therefore expanding consciousness, a project realized by the thought of the Cosmic Mind.

The Vedantic paradigm recognizes two categories of knowledge: the knowledge of matter and its components, like atoms and quarks (the bodies) and the knowledge of spirit (the knower of the body or field of activity). The first category studies what is changing, temporary and external to the self, while the second category studies what is unchangeable, eternal, transcendent -- the self.

In the last analysis however, according to Vedic psychology there is no real dichotomy between matter and spirit, as they both originate from the the same supreme consciousness, pervading the entire universe (virat, the cosmic body) and animating all matter (prakriti), just like individual consciousness pervades the entire body of any species. The world is therefore a tight net of correlations: the subject is connected to the object, spirit to matter, beings among themselves and each one of them to the supreme Being, individual bodies to the cosmic body, individual minds to the universal mind.

The thorough understanding of these tight correspondences and correlations between micro and macrocosm, constitutes an unavoidable premise to the penetration of reality and the attainment of a full realization of the self, through the development of an organic and integrated world view. Vedic works in fact teach that each individual’s well being necessarily depends on his own level of harmony with the macrocosmic dimension, the divine source of all energies.

Samkhya philosophy describes the process leading to the manifestation of the phenomenal worlds, starting from the interaction of prakriti and purusha. In fact, the dynamic activity of the universe is due to the interaction between spirit and matter, purusha and prakriti. Their contact is necessary because spirit is inactive without matter and matter is blind without spirit. They are observed as consciousness and non-consciousness, subject and object, knower and known. The entire process of creation is an act of gradual evolution and development from one element to the next, until the attainment of the variety of nature as we know it.

Especially in the Upanishads we find the description of the stages of a process that can be described as psychic involution or development in matter, depending on the perspective of observation. For the sake of clarity we will call it evolution, a concept that cannot be equated to the Darwinian concept of evolution of the species.

Rather, it is a thickening, an increasing materialization, that brings the elements to become perceivable by the senses. This development characterizes the path of whatever is manifested, and goes from an implicit stage to the full actuation of one's own expressed reality, perceivable by the set of senses. This implicit stage is not perceptible by the senses, and is only attainable through intuition in the so-called extrasensorial perceptions, those faculties that develop at higher consciousness or superconsciousness levels.

Samkhya philosophy describes potential elements, fundamentals of the so called subtle manifestation defined as tanmatras. As a rule they are not perceivable but can be deduced by means of inference. They represent potential elements, archetypes, and correspond to the fundamentals of sound (shabda), touch (sparsha), form (rupa), taste (rasa) and smell (gandha).

From this potential energy, through a process of extroversion, the following develop: the sense of hearing, the sense of touch, the sense of sight, the sense of taste and the sense of smell, and then the respective organs of perception -- ear, skin, eye, tongue and nose, and ultimately also the five bhutas, or ether, air (the gaseous elements), fire (the warm and radiant elements), water (the liquid elements) and earth (the solid elements).

Material energy (prakriti) is composed of the five bhutas or physical elemets just described (ether, air, fire, water and earth) and the three subtle elements composing the psychic structure of the individual beings and that of the Universe: manas, buddhi and ahamkara (mind, intelligence and false conception of self).

The gross physical elements derive from the tanmatra as follows: from the sound tanmatra (shabdatanmatra) the akasha is produced -- the element of ether-space that originates from the interaction between sound and its object and reveals the characteristics of the sounds perceivable by the ear, exactly because the perception of space is connected to the hearing apparatus2.

From the touch tanmatra (sparshatanmatra), combined with the one of sound, the air-wind element is produced (vayu, air), with the attributes of sound and touch: it can also be perceived by hearing, but it is specifically detected by touch.

From the color tanmatra (rupatanmatra) mixed with the ones of sound and touch, the light-fire element develops (agni, light or fire), having properties of sound, touch and color; it can be perceived by hearing and touch, but it is specifically detected by sight.

From the taste tanmatra (rasatanmatra) mixed with the preceding three, the liquid-water element is produced (apa), having properties of sound, touch, color and taste; it can be perceived by hearing, touch and sight, but it is specifically detected by taste.

Finally, from the smell tanmatra (gandhatanmatra) mixed with the preceding four, the solid-earth element is produced (gandha, earth), having properties of sound, touch, color, taste and smell; it can be perceived by hearing, touch, sight and taste, but it is specifically detected by smell.

The combinations of atoms that we find in nature are further transformations of these five elements, the result of processes with several stages of elaboration, reaction and synthesis.

It is therefore from the imperceptible, the subtle, archetypal elements that physical bodies and organs are created; it is the sense function or faculty which develops the sense organ and finishes it to perfection.

Sense organs are energy transducers: they are stimulated by an external energetic source and transmit it to nervous centres. They are channels through which coded information passes, directed to mind and intelligence. Physiologically, once these sense stimuli reach the nervous centres in the cerebral cortex, the connection to the rest of the physical body is activated.

Samkhya teaches that every tangible physical structure which is perceivable by the senses, derives from a subtler reality, from an imperceptible psychic structure, substratum to all things. The subtle body composes a mental framing against which the physical body is sketched and structured. Startlingly but evidently, this concept recalls one of the most advanced hypothesis in modern physics: that of the so called implicit order. In Vedic literature in fact, introspection and mystical intuition are pictured as the major instruments to grasp transcendent reality, beyond the reach of the human senses and logic, capable of revealing only the epidermic strata of reality (this perception is defined pratyasksha and is on the psycho-physical plane). What is perceivable to the great majority of people is the superficial level of existence, defined by Bohm as explicit or revealed order. Underneath it is the implicit or concealed order, origin to all objects and appearances of the physical world.3.

Indian thought and specifically vaishnava Vedanta explain that consciousness reigns above matter, in micro and macrocosm. The individual body is subject to individual consciousness4, just like the cosmic body, the universe, is pervaded and sustained by the cosmic Consciousness. The individual consciousness is part of the cosmic Consciousness. Therefore, the Upanishads state: “It [Brahman]5 is far yet close; it is inside and outside all things”6, or “You are That [Brahman]”7; from this we can gather that the spiritual essence sustains and pervades all things, that the individual self is originated from the cosmic Self8 (as His expansion) and is indissolubly connected to It by an eternal relationship9.

Mystics of all traditions and all times have always seen and described some sort of unity, and interactive and interdependent relation among all cosmic components. Such a conception is surprisingly met and harmonized by the most recent scientific discoveries, especially in the field of quantum physics, pointing to a substantial interconnection of all natural elements and to the overcoming of the supposed separation between observed system (object) and observing system (subject). Through his general theory of relativity, Einstein had already demonstrated that space and time are not separate entities but are harmoniously connected within a wider set, a four-dimensional continuum made of matter, energy, space and time. And eminent representative of modern subatomic physics have gone yet further. Bohm, for example, has stated that everything that exists in the universe is a continuum: things belong to an undivided set, though they possess peculiar qualities.

Vedic texts offer the great opportunity of taking to this fascinating journey of knowledge within ourselves and outside, as they investigate the different dimensions of reality, spotting interactions, connections and correspondences. Not only do they explore the physical universe, defining the fundamental principles of Vedic cosmogony and eschatology, they describe the universe of interior experience, providing in-depth explanations on the different states of consciousness of the being and on the human personality in its multiple components: perception, instinct, thought, imagination, will, emotion, intellect, intuition, spirit.

In the Upanishads, the universe is observed and understood in constant relation to the individual; the analysis of the relation between macrocosm and microcosm thus gains a pre-eminent psychological connotation and opens up to a vision of reality founded on a deep interrelation between self and Super-self, infinitesimal Brahman and supreme Brahman, within the frame of a peculiar characterization and conception of time and space.

The Upanishadic rishi precisely aims at unveiling the tight net of correlations connecting the world of things to that of consciousness10, object to subject, macrocosm to microcosm, by merging the multiplicity of the real to its unique source and pointing to Brahman, the supreme Spirit, as the ultimate essence sustaining everything, basis and unifying factor for the multitude of things and events we can observe.

Experimental sciences offer an important contribution in the field of perception, by providing sophisticated instruments of observation and research. Modern scientific research (specifically quantum physics) has already demonstrated that the observation of reality and reality itself depend also on the consciousness of the observer, on the viewpoint he has developed. For a thorough and reliable exploration, the study of the object need therefore be accompanied and preceded by the study of the subject, by the analysis of his psycho-physical apparatus, in order to understand the nature of his deep self.

Generally the Westerner tends to focus his attention outside himself, and therefore, although he has become expert in analysing with precision and completeness the phenomena of objective reality, still remains quite ignorant in the study of his own self and of his inner reality.

In this regard, Hindovedic texts offer an inestimable heritage of knowledge that can integrate the acquisition of today's objective disciplines with a science that is extremely ancient and yet surprisingly modern. They explain in depth the dynamics of the inner world, of which external reality usually is a projection, by using an effective method, successfully tested for thousands of years, for the development of the perceptive instruments and the elevation of consciousness. In fact, ancient Indian culture and specifically Yoga tradition offers the most ancient school of psychology, capably describing the nature and functions of the psyche with accuracy, using a scientific system and specific language, and in such detail that even modern psychology will be greatly benefited.

According to the Vedas the mind is an object rather than a subject; it is the “filter” used by the conditioned being to see the world. Defined as “internal sense”11, the mind has a key role in determining the quality of existence for every individual, because it is the operative centre which directs every action. The quality of mental health determines the quality of perception, and hence the quality of behaviour and life, too. Vedic literature explains that neither time nor space are absolute realities, since they are lived individually according to specific modalities. Phenomena like old age, death, relationships between people, and between people and things are therefore connected to subjective states of consciousness.

Hindovedic psychology does not reduce the science of psychology to neuro-physiology as is the tendency of some modern psychology schools12. This they do generally by negating the specific reality of the psyche in relationship to the reality of the body, and equating the cognition product with a structure that can be reduced to the activity of the nervous system. This then is considered to correspond to physical and biological laws, which are constructible according to objective and experimental parameters. According to Hindovedic psychology the psychic objects (ideas, thoughts, images, emotions, feelings, etc) are not less real and tangible than physical ones. They are characterized by their own structure and function and can be studied through a methodology that is different from the methods used for tangible bodies and consists mainly in the epistemological method named pratyaksha13 and based on sense perception.

Modern schools of psychology do not interpret the individual psychic process in a theoretical environment based on materialistic-positivistic duality, but Hindovedic psychological science is different because it recognizes the existence of a reality beyond the body and the mind - the living force, or the conscious subject - who is experiencing the acts of seeing, thinking, feeling etc, through the psychological and physical instruments.

This deep and unchangeable me, situated beyond space and time, simply defined as the self by the ancient sages, is the real reference point of the cognitive experience. This self is described, in different contexts, with the definitions of atman, purusha or jiva; all these names indicate the living entity: the spiritual self, or the real subject of perception, who is capable to give light to the intellect, vitality and consciousness to the body.

In Indian psychology, the mind (just like the body) is constituted of material energy (prakriti), that has a particular and more subtle nature than the gross physical elements. Western psychology on the other hand identifies the mind (when its specific structure is recognized) as the subject of cognitive experience, and gives no consideration to the existence of an unchangeable self (spirit soul) as the place of consciousness and the “centre of gravity” of the personality.

Atman, being a pure spiritual principle, is beyond time and space so in its ontological essence it cannot undergo any form of limitation or conditioning. It is like a “spiritual monad” possessing the qualities identical to those of Brahman though not to such extent.

Thus perception, reflection and elaboration of data is enabled by this function of atman, whose main attributes include consciousness and which utilizes the mind as its organ of action. Mind, therefore, is not a reality having its own independent existence: it is not a subject but rather an object. Unlike the spiritual self whose intrinsic nature remains always unchanged, consciousness can be altered by the substances or psychophysical forces, but can not be explained in materialistic terms as if a biochemical product. It produces biochemistry and not vice versa.

Consciousness uses the mind like an organ of action The classic texts on Yoga, and in general on the Hindovedic tradition, emphatically state that a human being must learn to manage and utilize the psychic instrument, take full control of it and direct it in order to facilitate the acquisition of the deepest possible knowledge of oneself and the world.

In order to properly utilize and even to cure the mind, we must first of all know it deeply, understanding its structure, functioning, extraordinary faculties and limitations. To do that, the essential thing is not identifying with it. When the subject misidentifies his own psycho-physical instruments of thought and action as the self, he thus loses awareness of his own original individuality, who is spiritual in nature. As a consequence, the being becomes more and more alienated from his real self, and enters in a state of deep confusion and depression.

Hindovedic literature explains the psychological mechanism that misidentifies consciousness with the sum total of one's psychic contents and with the body, manifesting the ahamkara, the sense of ego or the reflected and conditioned consciousness.

The ahamkara constitutes the first stage of the personality splitting, and subsequently the field of consciousness becomes isolated and limited to the body and mind, thereby losing its original integrity14.

Since these two are constantly changing - the body being characterized by a continuous flow and turnover of atoms, the psyche being characterized by a “river” of thoughts15, an endless sequel of vritti or mind changes - the individual who is a victim of ahamkara identifies himself with a transitory and fleeting personality that is subject to continued oscillations, which inevitably become a source of suffering.

However, the Vaishnava Vedanta teaches that the ego produced by ahamkara should not be denied or removed, but rather de-conditioned and controlled by the self, so that instead of acting as a barrier it can become a bridge between the individual and his original identity of pure consciousness.

Without re-harmonizing the individual being with the supreme Being, the individual mind with the Cosmic Mind, the finite intelligence with the Infinite Intelligence, we cannot attain a perception of the self and the world that is correct and including all the anthropologic and existential components: the physical, the psychic and the metaphysic. The dynamic and harmonic integration of these three dimensions of being is a fundamental prerequisite to re-establish a global state of health at all levels.

In the Hindovedic traditional understanding, the study of the mind cannot be separated from the study of the self16; in facts the psychic component and even the physical component can only be effectively and permanently healed in the context of the development of a deep awareness or spiritual consciousness.

In such process of research and evolution, great importance is to be attributed to the correct comprehension of the dynamics of perception, the nature and function of psychophysical instruments through which we can experience the phenomenal world. Perception is a complex phenomenon, fundamental for our consideration, as it determines the quality of life.

As we know from ancient Vedic science, each aggregate of matter has a certain psychic charge (pratyaya). Matter in fact, although in a way inert, lacking its own will, is pervaded by powerful energies (gunas), the structuring forces of physical universe. These energies are inherent to nature and are called in Sanskrit tamas, rajas and sattva17, each of them determining differently the nature of things.

The psychic charge present in every object stimulates the sense organs of the observer and through them it enters the mental sphere of the individual, thus generating waves or subtle rays of psychic energy, vritti. Sense organs prove to be the primary energy transducers through which psychic streams of objects reach first sense faculties (jnana indriya), and from there penetrate the mental sphere, manas, the seat of extroverted functions and gathering of the data collected by means of senses from the outer world.

Vrittis however, do not stop at the manas level, but proceed beyond, reaching further psychic levels: ahamkara, the platform of the historical ego, and subsequently, the platform of the intellect or buddhi, meant for processing and analysing the data received by manas. Still, the stimulus doesn’t come to a halt at the buddhi level, as it proceeds down to the unconscious psychic plane, karmashaya.

What sort of objects inhabit the unconscious? Various impressions or traces of memory called samskaras, representing bits of perceptions or past experiences. Samskaras form psychic traces, vasanas, the source of tendencies or mental automatisms, extremely difficult to eradicate, as they are rooted at the unconscious level.

According to universal psychic laws, the impressions in the unconscious memory agglomerate and join other impressions of similar nature, thus forming the so-called complexes and influencing the emotional state, thoughts and conceptions of life, up to determining character formation and individual personality.

These unconscious psychic contents re-emerge reinforced in consciousness, through the so-called returning vrittis, especially in moments when the ego is weakened, taken by surprise, fear or other strong emotions.

Thus the unconscious plays an extremely important part in our life. Our “I”, acting mainly on the rational basis, has very little force when compared to the unconscious and its titanic power.

Vedic literature explains that at the moment of death the spiritual being or atman transmigrates from one physical matrix to another (yoni) on board the subtle psychic body (sukshma sarira,) where innumerable unconscious impressions accumulated during the existence of the individual, are stored. These impressions determine not only the quality of the previous life, but also the destiny of the being, the nature of the next physical body and natural predispositions otherwise unexplainable, inborn talents or congenital psychopathologies. At the moment of birth, the deep mind looks nothing like a tabula rasa, rather like an encoding with innumerable recordings.

According to Vedanta vaishnava the different forms of psychic conditionings and sufferings deriving from this encoding (illnesses, anxieties, failures) are not inevitable. As a matter of fact neither physical nor mental body, constitute the real identity of the being, they are just instruments at the disposal of the self and not necessarily its cages. Through the Yoga science, the individual can learn how to make positive experiences in the world, managing to filter and select at his best the impressions before they reach the unconscious memory. Besides, it is possible to gradually recover all the psychic material lying in karmashaya and transform it in such a way that it could become propaedeutic to our evolutional progress, to the rediscovery of our deep identity, the comprehension of the fundamental laws of the psychophysical universe, the development of a harmonic relationship with ourselves, with others, with macrocosm and reality around us.







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1 It is precisely avyakta (non manifested).

2 The perception of directions in space is a function of the inner ear; sound is also perceived through a vibration of the space contained within the ear (see M. Piantelli, Lo hinduismo. Testi e dottrine, in Storia delle Religioni, ed. G. Filoramo, Editori Laterza, 1996).

3 Cfr. Michael Talbot, All is One, 1997.

4 Cfr. Bhagavadgita XIII.34: Descendant from Bharata, as the sun lights the universe all by itself, so the owner of the field [the atman] lights [with its conscience] the entire field [body]. Author’s translation.

5 The Spirit, the Absolute, supreme Reality (Paramatma), transcendent Truth (Paramtattva). The term Brahman is morphologically derived from the sanscrit root brih, meaning ‘to grow, to expand’, and it indicates the all-pervading spiritual essence, infinitely vast, without limits.

6 Isha Upanishad mantra V.

7 Cfr. Chandogya Upanishad VI.11.3.

8 Cfr. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad V.1.1: “[There are] that complete [Brahman] and this complete [jiva]; this complete [jiva] springs from that complete [Brahman]. Taking this complete [jiva] from that complete [Brahman], the complete stays [thus].”

9 Bhagavadgita XV.7.

10 Cfr. M. Talbot, All is one, 1997: I believe we have since time overcome, in particle physics, the concept of passive structure of the universe, I believe we are in a domain where the interaction of consciousness with the environment is verified on a primary scale and we are thus creating reality, under all the reasonable definitions this term can imply.

11 See Bhagavata Purana III.26.14.

12 See for example Watson's Behaviourism (in the chapter Contemporary Schools of Psychology and Their Contribution).

13 This subject will be further elaborated in the chapter Methods of Indian Psychology.

14 In this case the individual, completely identified with a distorted and partial vision on himself, unable to perceive anything else, is not even capable of realizing his own conditioning and the fragmentation of his own awareness. This state of consciousness is typical in the most serious mental conditions, like psychosis.

15 According to Bohm, consciousness constitutes a perfect example of undivided and flowing movment, the ebb and flow that cannot be clearly defined, but from which thoughts and ideas spring up to the surface. These products of the psyche are in a sense similar to the ripples or whirlpools produced in a running stream and, exactly like the whirling flow of a stream, some of them can repeat themselves and persist in a more or less constant way, while others are evanescent and disappear as quickly as they appeared. This tendency to crystallize in fixed and rigid patterns is also observed in the thought vortexes (ideas and opinions) which sometimes tend to become sclerotized in the consciousness.

16 It is interesting to note that in the Western tradition the term psychology originally meant ‘science of the soul’ (from the Greek psykhĂ© ‘soul’, related to psykho ‘breathe, blow’).

17Sattva-guna is the force which takes up; it implies ‘equilibrium, harmony, lightness, luminosity’. Rajoguna is the force working in expansion; it generates ‘dynamism, frenetic activity, creativity’. Tamo-guna is the force pulling down, it produces ‘inertia, lethargy, disorder’. 

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