Volume 7 - Issue 07
July 2009
Other Articles

By Prof. G. Venkataraman

The Heady Journey to Infinity

In Quest of Infinity
Where is Infinity in this quest?

Loving Sai Ram and greetings from Prashanti Nilayam. I am sure many of you would be wondering where is this Infinity to which I am supposed to be leading you? More than two years have passed, during which time we have wandered all over the Cosmos, peering into stars and even inside the atom, the nucleus and what not. We have also had a brief tutorial on Quantum Mechanics, and that mysterious thing called quantum entanglement; but no sight of any Infinity yet!

All this must be making you wonder whether I know what I am doing, or am I merely misleading you and taking you for one mighty big ride on an absolutely random trail!? Let me assure that I am not doing anything of that kind. If, however, you are getting some kind of a worry like that, it only means that this mysterious Infinity that we are in quest of is really at the end of a very subtle road; and soon I expect to bring you face to face with it; thereafter, I shall leave you all alone - to ponder over it!

On that note of assurance, let me pick up from where we broke off last time. If you recall, I ended with a reference to Prof. Robert Jahn’s experiments, consciousness, and all that. That discussion came after some earlier references to Einstein, the EPR paradox, and the strange experiments that confirmed that there definitely appeared to be some mysterious and intangible connectivity underlying the “seen” as well as the “experienced” physical universe. What I was trying to do in the process was to connect quantum entanglement with consciousness in some manner or the other. To be strictly correct, I was not primarily trying to do that; I was merely bringing to your notice what many others have already done or said. In other words, I was just recalling a bit of little-known scientific history.

At the end of it all, we have the following questions:

  1. Are the foundations of Quantum Mechanics really telling us something about the existence of Consciousness?   
  2. Is quantum entanglement the same as Consciousness?
  3. By the way, does the word Consciousness mean the same thing to physicists [that is to say, those who believe in Consciousness] and to scholars of Vedanta?
  4. In Vedanta, the words Atma and [Pure] Consciousness are used synonymously. Is Physics indirectly telling us that the Atma is for real?
  5. But then, Physics can tell us only about what is in Creation, whereas the Atma transcends Creation. So what is the connection, if any, between what physicists are talking about, and what Vedantins lecture on?

Nobel Laureate Declares a ‘Universe of Consciousness’

These are some of the issues we shall now take a close look at. Let me start with a couple of quotes from very eminent scientists. Here is what Prof. George Wald of Harvard, who won the Nobel Prize, says:

In Quest of Infinity
Prof. George Wald

It came to me quite lately, as a new and extraordinary idea, both tempting and repellent, since it shocked my scientific sensibilities. Then I realised with some embarrassment that many others had been there before – not only mystics, over past millennia, but also a few most thoughtful physicists quite recently.

It is the view that, just the contrary of consciousness appearing as a late outgrowth of evolution of life on this and other planets, that this universe breeds life and consciousness because Consciousness is its source, because the stuff of this Universe is ultimately mind-stuff. What we recognise as the material of the Universe, the Universe of space-time and elementary particles and energies is actually an Avatar, the materialisation of Primal Consciousness.

In that case, there is no waiting for Consciousness to arise. It is always there, at the beginning and at the end. What we wait for in the evolution of life is only the culminating Avatar, the emergence of self-conscious bodies that can articulate Consciousness, that can give it a voice, a culture, literature and art, and science.

I hope you read that quote carefully. In this, the hard-core, no-nonsense Harvard Nobelist essentially says, “I don’t like to say it, but it appears that the Universe really came out of [Pure] Consciousness. In other words, Consciousness is the Mother of the Universe, and the Big Bang is nothing but the Cosmic birth pang!” That is essentially what his words boil down to. Please store that away for we shall come back to that later.

Next, I would like to point out, that more than fifty years ago, Erwin Schroedinger, one of the founders of Quantum Mechanics [remember him?], studied Vedanta thoroughly and concluded that the Atma was the Ultimate Reality. I mean, that is absolutely stunning!

There are many more who could be cited for lending support to the Vedantic idea of Consciousness being the Primordial Entity, but that is really not required. What is important is to recognise that many giants of Science, despite their natural tendency to dismiss anything beyond Science [which Consciousness undoubtedly is], have, reluctantly though, conceded that 1) Consciousness exists, and 2) it is Primordial. Let us store this away for the moment, and get back to our discussion.

Materialism and the Growth of Consciousness

I shall now run through the Creation scenario as different people might view it. I start with what the strictly factual type of person would view it as. His view is captured in Fig 1.

In Quest of Infinity In Quest of Infinity In Quest of Infinity

FIGURE 1: This figure shows a schematic of the timeline according to a person who merely “reports” known, observed and verified facts. For him time would start with the Big Bang, whereupon the Baby Universe would come into existence. Slowly, over billions of years, matter would aggregate into stars, and after that there would be many generations of stars, clustering into galaxies and so forth.

During this process that takes place all over the Cosmos, in one corner, what we call our Solar system in due course is born. This solar system would have planets, one of which would of course be the Earth. On this Earth, about four or so billion years ago, life in its most primitive form would appear. How and why? No one knows but life does appear. It then evolves through a whole series of species of increasing complexity. What drives this evolution?

Maybe, that happened as described by Charles Darwin. Finally, almost as the end point of the evolution of species, humans appear. Like lower species they too have this amazing capacity for “awareness” but in humans, this “awareness” is very special. This episode of “In Quest of Infinity” is in a sense all about that!

The scenario described in Fig. 1 is but the start of the story, giving as it does just the headlines. From our present point of view, the centre of interest is this “awareness”, the capacity for being Conscious. The question arises: “What exactly is this Consciousness? What does being conscious mean?” This is a non-trivial question, and understandably, different people deal with it quite differently.

Let us start with hard-core scientists [read non-believers!]. They, typified by Francis Crick who along with James Watson discovered the double-helix structure of the DNA and created history, would say: “There is nothing very special about this consciousness business. It is just a rather spectacular capability of the brain, which though wonderful and all that, is nothing but a meat-machine!” Notice that – the brain is nothing but a meat machine! Technically they might be right, but according to me it borders on sheer irreverence to summarily dismiss this great gift of God in such a casual manner.

Anyway, that is View-Point # 1, which is the one most scientists and “intellectuals” swear by these days. You ask them, “But listen, there are all these complex emotions, feelings etc. They cannot come out of a meat machine, can they?” They would reply without a trace of any emotion, “Over thousands of years, the brain gets increasingly hardwired due to experiences accumulated. So if you see someone hurt and rush to help, it is all the result of ancestral experience passed on to you via the genes which then hardwire your brain to do certain things automatically.

That’s all; what’s so great about it? Just a bit of embedded programming!” One thing that must be mentioned in this context is that according to this school of thinking, there is no such thing as a Subtle Mind, independent of the brain. The Mind that philosophers and spiritualists talk of is pure nonsense, invented by these unscientific thinkers to suit their fancy and their crazy and unsubstantiated theories! This rough schema in Fig. 2 captures this viewpoint.

In Quest of Infinity In Quest of Infinity In Quest of Infinity

FIGURE 2: This schematic is meant to show View-Point #1 regarding how “awareness’ or the capacity for being conscious evolved amongst the living species.

The Psychological Approach to Human Consciousness

In Quest of Infinity
Is the brain simply a "meat machine"!?

From physicists, chemists, biologists and the like, we now move on to psychiatrists and philosophers. This group is not at all uncomfortable about discussing the Mind, especially the human mind. In fact, if I may say so, if psychiatrists deny the Mind, they would be out of business!

They are quite comfortable not only with the idea of the Mind, but also of Consciousness; indeed, they use this word quite often, especially the psychiatrists. I should stress here that when these people use the word Mind, a good percentage of them accept the Mind as an entity distinct from the brain and which stands apart. That is an important point.

OK, in that case, where did this Mind suddenly pop up from, during the evolution of species? That question is not often asked. However, I have seen one much-acclaimed book entitled The Conscious Mind by David J Chalmers, in which the author definitely says that Mind emerged as humans evolved.

Summarising the two view-points discussed above, hard-core scientists are firm in their belief that there is no such thing as the Mind, separate from the brain, while psychologists and some philosophers are prepared to agree that there is such a thing as a Mind that is distinct from the brain; however, this Mind did not exist when life first appeared and it is entirely a product of evolution. They totally side step the intriguing question as to how a very subtle entity called the Mind emerged out of something entirely material, namely the brain.

Experiencing the Indefinable Atma

I hope what I have said thus far is clear enough. Let us turn now to the Vedantic point of view where Consciousness not only plays a key role but is at the very heart of the entire discussion. Here, we have to deal with the following issues:

  • What is the connection, if any, between Consciousness and the Big Bang?
  • Did the Mind exist before the Big Bang or did it emerge only after Creation was ordained?
  • What is the connection/relationship, if any, between the Mind and Consciousness?

There could of course be many other supplementary questions, but to begin, the above set is quite adequate. The best way of getting started is by noting that in Vedanta, Pure Consciousness and Atma are just two names for the same Supreme Entity. This entity can and exists all by itself, and is timeless, which is another way of saying it is Eternal.

In Quest of Infinity
The experience of Pure Consciousness is via Compassion and Pure Love

We all think with our Minds, and using the Mind alone, it is absolutely impossible to have even the faintest idea of what this Atma or Pure Consciousness means. Indeed, that is why the Vedas described the Atma as beyond words and even thought.

At this point, it is useful to note that operationally, Time has meaning only when there is change. When nothing changes, which is true of the Atma, and when it is an indefinable oneness, it is clearly beyond all description. But there is one way of cognising this Atma, and that is through experience. That experience is not through the senses or even the Mind, but via the “Heart”.

We all know the physical heart since it is so vital for life to survive. One can have a person who is brain dead, but if the physical heart stops functioning, then that is it! OK, but what about this thing called “Heart” which is supposed to allow us to cognise the existence of the Atma? And by the way, how on earth do we know we have actually experienced this Atma?

I am sure most readers of H2H would know that the word Heart in Spirituality connotes something very different from the physical heart, which, as a cynic once described it, is nothing but an amazing pump! Thus, this cynic never used the phrase “heart attack”, preferring instead the description “pump failure”! That is because for this person, Heart did not mean the seat of Compassion and Pure Love; in other words, as Swami often tells us, the Spiritual Heart is ‘the seat of God within’.   

Enough of this minor digression and let us get back to Consciousness, the Big Bang, and the possible connection between these two. Earlier, we discussed two viewpoints into which Spirituality did not enter. Let us now enlarge our view and consider how a Vedantin would describe it all. This is roughly how he would put it:

The Vedantin Explains Consciousness et al

“Listen you guys! Let us start with what Krishna declares in the Gita. He says right in the beginning that He is the Atma and so is every human being. Further, everything came from the Atma, which includes Creation, Physical Universe, call it what you will.”

Question: “Krishna says we are all the Atma. He also says that the Universe was born out of the Atma. That means, I am born out of myself! Something is wonky in all this! What’s going on?”

To answer this question, let us first take a look at Fig. 3.

FIGURE 3: The background screen in (a) is a symbolic representation of the Infinite and Eternal Atma/Pure Consciousness. As far as this part of the figure is concerned, there is no Time; that is because the Atma is Eternal and beyond Time. Now take a look at (b). We see here the background once more, but superposed on it is a timeline that shows the Big Bang, the emergence of inanimate matter, etc. At one point, we have the solar system taking birth, the earth being formed, and so on.

In (c), we see this portion enlarged, and in this magnified representation, we see the emergence of life, the subsequent evolution of the various species, and finally the emergence of human beings. Don’t forget that in this figure, the Timeline “floats” on a “background”. That “background” is all important, because it imperceptibly influences and indeed directs evolution! More discussion about all this can be found in the main text.

In Quest of Infinity
Prof. G. Venkataraman's book

OK, have you absorbed what is in Fig 3? If so, let us discuss some details relating to it. The basic point we have to understand is that everything that happens after the Big Bang takes place against a background of Pure Consciousness, which hangs around all the time, though unseen and imperceptible. That is the important and crucial point of our entire story.

Please note that after the Universe is born, the Atma which is the “Mother” does not cut off or walk away! Rather, it is present all the time everywhere, meaning in every corner of the Universe and in even the tiniest atom, nurturing everything in a manner appropriate.

Question: “How exactly does Pure Consciousness or the Atma nurse its baby,
namely, everything in the Universe?”

That is an interesting question. Truly speaking, that calls for a long answer, which clearly is not possible here. If you are interested, and we hope you are, then you should read the book Conversation Between God and Man where you can find some of the answers you are looking for. We offer you alongside, a picture of the cover. Where to get the book? Well, visit the Radiosai or H2H website (h2hsai.org), it will soon be there!

After that plug for one of our Sai Blossom products [!], let us try to understand in brief the question we started with in this issue, namely, wherefrom do humans acquire a Conscience, and what has it to do with “awareness”, as psychologists, etc., understand it? The following conclusions may be drawn:

The Atmic ‘Background’

Everything - the evolution of inanimate matter, the first emergence of life, the evolution of living species into more and more complex entities, and the growth of brain power as species evolve further and further - all these take place against an all-pervading, constant, and invisible “background” called the Atma or Pure Consciousness.

  • spacer
    In Quest of Infinity
    The development of the brain can be seen as the increased and forceful manifestation of the Atma
    The development of the brain can itself be seen as the increased and forceful manifestation of the power of the Atma, even as the species evolved.
  • In other words, it is this “background force or field” call it what you will, that drives this evolution of “brain power”.
  • When humans emerged, the “background field” became particularly active. Why? Because, it was through humans that God intended the Atma to give full expression to its various potentialities, on the stage called the world. When it is all by itself, that is to say before Creation, the diverse powers and attributes of the Atma are all latent. However, it is only when there is a “platform” – and that platform is the world – that the Atma can express itself in a tangible fashion.
  • One of the attributes of the Atma is compassion. Can say a lion, show compassion? Perhaps in a rare instance, as in the famous case of Androcles, it could; otherwise, generally not; lions are not “designed” for that! However, humans have been specially tailored for this purpose by God Himself to live and act so that the Atma finds full expression through their actions, words etc. [Incidentally, that is why Swami often says: Jantuunam narajanmam durlabham, meaning roughly: Human birth is rare and precious!]
  • In other words, the Atma endows humans with special abilities where Consciousness and awareness are concerned. In particular, not only are humans able to be aware of what is going on around them [this sense of awareness is shared with lower beings and might be called external awareness], but, in addition, humans can “look” inside and become aware of an “Inner Force” which is often spoken of as the Conscience or the Indweller.
  • In short, while the “background” permeates every entity in Creation and remains immanent in it, humans have the special ability to cognise this unique presence of the Atma everywhere, including within themselves. This is the role the “background was actually “waiting to play”, if one might put it that way! And it took off, once humans appeared.

Understanding Our Conscious Universe

So, that is roughly what the expert in Vedanta would tell us. Are you able to appreciate the significance of this message from the expert? Perhaps not, since it is really quite heavy! So, as a wrap up of this issue, let me lay it out for you.

  • The Atma/Pure Consciousnes is the starting point of it all.
  • Basically it can and does exist all by itself. This is a state of incredible ONENESS, that we can never comprehend with our Minds. However, we can experience it, if we prepare ourselves adequately for that.
  • This aspect of the Atma is Eternal, beyond Time and Space, and “featureless”. By the way, the Atma is also called God; in Vedanta, this aspect of God is referred to as Niraakara Brahman [God without Form].
  • Featureless it might appear, but the Atma is latent with incredible and immense potentialities. This is rather like the “vacuum” of modern Quantum Mechanics; it is not “emptiness”; rather it is a state in which though nothing materially exists, there is infinite potentiality for throwing up a lot of things.
  • Creation is something that emerges from the Atma.
  • When Creation takes place, it is not as if the Atma in the sense described earlier ceases to exist, transforming into the Universe. Not at all; rather, it is like a mother giving birth to a baby. Before birth, there was only the mother [with the baby in the womb of course]. After birth, the mother is there plus the baby. It is the same here.
  • Is there any purpose behind Creation, or, as Stephen Weinberg put it, is the Universe without a purpose? Well, Steve may think so, but in Vedanta, the Universe came into existence so that the potentialities latent in the Atma could play out in a manifest form in many different ways.
  • For example, the beauty of the Atma [the Sundaram aspect for the technically minded] can be seen all over Nature.
  • The noblest qualities like Pure Love and Compassion are best exhibited by the human form, which is why there was a long and complex evolution process, slowly preparing the way for humans to take the stage.
  • It may be humans act out their part in a tiny planet that goes round a B-grade star called the Sun, which is but one of the billion or so stars in a galaxy called the Milky Way, which is one of the billion or so galaxies scattered across the sky!
  • Seen that way, our solar system, our planet and ourselves may seem utterly trivial! [It is good to feel that way since that can check our egos!]
  • Nevertheless, in this wide and huge cosmos, it is humans alone that can comprehend many things. They can understand that it is God who created the Universe [the monkey, for example, cannot do that, obviously!]; they can appreciate that the Universe exists with a purpose, i.e., as a platform where humans can show Pure Love, Selfless Sacrifice etc.
  • And above all, it is on this “tiny and insignificant planet” that God incarnates as an Avatar, enabling us to experience Bliss!

OK, all this is fine, but where is the much-promised Infinity? If that is your question, why don’t you try an answer yourself and write to us with your guesses? Perhaps we can begin the next issue, starting from there? What do you say?

See you again next month; till then, take care!

God bless, Jai Sai Ram.

(To be continued...)

Dear reader, how do you like this series? Please share your impressions about this article by writing to h2h@radiosai.org mentioning your name and country. Thank you for your time.

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