Consciousness: Indian Thought

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Indian Thought

There is enormous diversity among the various traditions of classical Indian philosophy concerning the nature of consciousness and the place of humanity in the cosmos, but there are a number of presuppositions that are shared by many of India's great thinkers. Most classical Indian philosophical schools agree, for example, that living beings are reborn over and over again in a beginningless cycle (samsara ) and that one's present situation is determined by past actions (karma ). The final goal of most of these systems is also the same: liberation (moksa ) from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

Brahmanical Systems

In the Brahmanical systems, karmic actions are closely related to one's social duty (dharma ), which is determined by the endogamous group (varna ) into which one is born. Morality is not individual, but collective, and in making decisions one is not expected to decide for oneself what is and is not moral; rather, one determines what people of one's type ought to do in particular situations, and one group's morality might differ significantly from another's. For example, while killing is characterized as immoral for most groups, it is the duty of a member of the warrior caste (ksatriya ) to slay enemies in a just war. The tension between the demands of dharma and the dictates of conventional morality is highlighted in the Song of God (Bhagavad Gita) in which the warrior Arjuna balks at the idea that in an immanent battle he will be required to kill relatives and teacherspeople with whom he has intimate karmic obligationsand he decides to escape his dharma by becoming a world renouncer (samnyasin ). The god Krishna informs him that this is not a viable option and that it would lead to ridicule from his fellow ksatriya s in this life and negative karmic consequences in future lives.


The Bhagavad Gita upholds a notion that is found in most Brahmanical systems: that every being has a permanent, unchanging essence or soul (atman ) that transmigrates from life to life, appropriating bodies and life situations that are directly concordant with past karma. According to the Upanishads, however, the atman is not directly affected by the vicissitudes of one's rebirths; although in some texts it is described as being pure consciousness, it is not directly aware of, or affected by, change. It moves from body to body, but the individual is normally unaware of it. All beings have an intellect (buddhi ), which when trained leads one toward direct understanding of the atman, but actual perception of it is the result of yogic training, in which one learns to control the senses and look within, differentiating the apparently real phenomena of perception and the truly real atman.

The search for the atman figures prominently in several Upanishads. In the Katha Upanishad, for example, a Brahman boy named Naciketas asks Yama, the lord of death, to reveal the truth of what becomes of the individual after the body dies. Yama first tests him to see if he is psychologically ready to learn the truth and, after Naciketas rejects offers of riches and fame as merely transitory, Yama decides that he has no interest in the material world and tells him of the eternal, unchanging atman. At the culmination of his speech, Yama pronounces the famous "great statement" (mahavakya ), "You are that" (tat tvam asi ), indicating that the individual atman is the same as the ultimate reality, referred to as Brahman. Brahman is described in the Upanishads as pure being (sat ); it never changes, and it is the sole reality. All the phenomena of existence are merely projections of Brahman, and when a sage learns to perceive reality as it is, everything other than Brahman is revealed as illusion.

According to the Katha Upanishad, the sufferings of ordinary beings are due to their lack of control over their senses (indriya ). Yama states that the intellect is like the reins of a chariot, which the charioteer uses to control his horses. The horses are compared to the senses. Without the restraint of a firm charioteer, the horses will run rampant, just as unrestrained senses pursue fleeting sense objects. A skilled charioteer gains control over his horses in the same way that a yogi restrains his senses through meditation. The chariot is compared to the body, which is motivated to pursue attractive things by unrestrained senses but attains a state of peace through meditative practice. The atman is like a passenger who travels along with the chariot, but exercises no control over it. Liberation is attained by those who directly perceive the atman. When one recognizes that individual existence is merely illusion, all sense of separateness from Brahman is transcended, and the individual atman is merged with it, like a wave that is absorbed into the ocean.

The world of appearances.

In the Non-dualist (Advaita ) Vedanta system of shankara (c. 8th century c.e.), the world of appearances is said to be merely the sport of Brahman (brahmalila ). Brahman projects the illusion of ordinary reality for its own enjoyment, but ultimately none of it is real. On the conventional level, phenomena operate according to laws, and so conventionally shankara accepts the validity of direct perception (pratyaksa ). From the ultimate perspective the multiplicity of appearance is false, however, and so in seeking the truth one should learn to overlook the evidence of one's senses and initially rely on the Vedic scriptures (of which the Upanishads are a part), which reveal the way things really are. Scriptural statements are later confirmed by introspective meditation.

Arguments regarding valid means of knowledge (pramana ) figure prominently in intersectarian disputes among Indian philosophers. Most schools of classical Indian philosophy accept the primacy of direct perception, as well as inference (anumana ) based on sense experience. For shankara, however, the evidence of the senses is false, and so ultimately only scriptural testimony (sabda ) is valid. The scriptures themselves require no validation, because they "are like the sun which reveals itself while revealing colors." The Vedas are part of the very fabric of reality and are eternally true. They have no author (apauruseya ) and are directly perceived by "seers" (rsi ), who reveal them, but do not alter their content.

The Nyaya schoolwhich like Vedanta is regarded as one of the six "orthodox" (astika ) traditions of Brahmanical philosophytakes issue with several of these ideas. According to Nyaya, it is ridiculous to claim that the Vedic texts have no author; instead, the Naiyayikas hold that they are composed by God, who is omniscient. God's position as the being who knows all things serves to validate the truth of Vedic statements. In addition, God is also the author of the medical texts of the ayurveda, and the fact of their effectiveness serves as an analogical proof that Vedic statements that cannot be verified by ordinary humans are also true. They are further corroborated by the testimony of trustworthy persons (apta ), and so ordinary humans can accept them with confidence.

Like the Advaita Vedantins, the Naiyayikas assert the existence of an eternal atman, which is the locus of each individual's karma, but unlike shankara, they claim that the atman is able to acquire knowledge, feeling, and volition. It is not the sort of spiritual entity postulated by Advaita Vedanta, and each atman has its own mind (manas ), which is connected with it until it reaches liberation. At that point, the atman becomes completely liberated from everything, including mind. The path to liberation for Nyaya begins with reasoning, which brings correct knowledge.

In common with other Indian classical philosophical systems, the Nyaya asserts that living beings are caught up in transmigration as a result of ignorance (avidya ), which manifests in the form of mistaken ideas. Correct reasoning, guided by scripture, is an essential prerequisite for liberation. It eliminates wrong ideas and reveals the truth of things, and thus serves to overcome ignorance. One does not engage in argument for its own sake; correct reasoning leads to certainty, and is in accord with Vedic statements. On this basis, one can engage in introspective meditation, by means of which one is able to directly validate the truth of scripture. Liberation in this system is not conceived of as bliss, as in some other Indian traditions, but rather as absence of pain. Bliss requires its opposite, but in the liberated state one transcends all qualities and dichotomies. In liberation the atman is separated from the physical bodyand all other physicalityand attains a state of absolute neutrality.

Buddhist Systems

The Buddhists, while accepting the notions of karma, samsara, and moksa (or nirvana in common Buddhist parlance), reject many of the core assumptions of the Naiyayikas, as well as important doctrines of the Upanishads and Advaita Vedanta. One of the cornerstones of Indian Buddhist schools is the doctrine of "no-self" (anatman ), which rejects the Brahmanical belief in a permanent, unchanging soul. The Buddhists rely mainly on the pramanas of direct perception and inference, and reject the atman as a conceptual construct that is unfindable either by the senses or by reasoning. The Buddha pointed out that the central reality of all existence is change. All phenomena come into being as a result of causes and conditions, they change in every moment, and eventually they pass away. If there were some disembodied, unchanging entity, it would have no relation to any individual, and because it lies beyond the world of the senses it could never be perceived.

Epistomological tradition.

The "Epistemological" (Pramana) tradition, whose most influential exponent was Dharmakirti (c. 530600), further contends that an unchanging entity would have no causal efficacy, and so it would be entirely unrelated to the world. Dharmakirti's approach is pragmatic and empirical: he asserts that there is no point in discussing things that can never be verified by sense experience and that have no impact on the physical world. In his pragmatist system, all statements and cognitions are subject to falsifiability: a statement is true only as long as subsequent perceptions and analysis do not show it to be false. In addition, Dharmakirti believes that there is no point in discussing merely theoretical topics (such as the atman) and that an essential test of validity is the possibility of effective activity (artha-kriya ). Practical application is one of the conditions of valid knowledge. In his system, statements become true through a process of verification: they must be able to withstand subsequent analysis and be corroborated by relevant perceptions. Those that meet this test may be accepted as true, while others (even statements contained in Buddhist scriptures) should be rejected.

In his major work, the Commentary on [Dignaga's] Compendium of Valid Cognition (Pramana-varttika ), Dharmakirti only accepts the pramana s of direct perception and inference, and rejects others that are accepted by the Naiyayikas, such as comparison (upamana ) and scriptural testimony. The former is unreliable because it is not based on direct experience, and the latter only convinces those who already accept the cited scriptures as normative. Dharmakirti asserts that any truth claim must be verifiable by analytical reasoning and direct perception. Direct perception is defined as being "free from conceptuality and incontrovertible." In his system, only the first moment of perception counts as direct perception, and subsequent moments are overlaid with conceptuality. They are not produced by cognition of a directly perceived sign, but instead are merely based on the initial perception and interpreted by the mind.

The epistemological tradition also claims that the nonexistence of the atman can be confirmed by developing a special cognitive capacity called "yogic direct perception" (yogipratyaksa ), which allows meditators to directly perceive truths that are hidden from ordinary beings. In most Indian philosophical traditions, there is a close link between meditative practice and philosophy, and the training regimens of the various schools begin with study of doctrine, which is reinforced by yoga. The paths of Indian philosophical/religious traditions are intended to ensure that meditators directly perceive the tenets of the system in which they are training, and philosophy is often a reflexive exercise that uses reasoning to argue for the insights gained in meditation. Doctrine is derived from practice, and those whose experiences differ from the tradition's doctrines are either brought into line or expelled (and sometimes they become founders of new schools).

Transmigration and liberation.

In rejecting the atman, the Buddhists were widely seen as being vulnerable on the question of what transmigrates from life to life. The Buddha is said to have taught that the belief in a permanent self is shared by all ordinary people, but despite its universality it is a false concept, and one that leads to grasping after material things and mistaken notions about reality. Those who seek liberation must overcome the innate belief in a self, and this requires meditative training. In searching for the atman through introspective meditation, Buddhists find that there is no enduring essence (either atman or Brahman), and that instead individuals are composites of five "aggregates" (skandha ): form, feelings, discriminations, consciousness, and compositional factors. The first refers to physical form, and the second comprises one's emotional responses to phenomena. These are discriminated into positive, negative, and neutral, and this process leads to desire for certain phenomena and aversion toward others. The aggregate of consciousness encompasses one's mental events and includes phenomena that are generally regarded as part of the unconscious in Western psychology. Compositional factors are other elements that are part of the innate sense of self, and mainly consist of karmic factors.

According to most Buddhist schools, consciousness is the aggregate that transmigrates from life to life. It is commonly described as being of the nature of "clear light" (prabhasvara ), and all defilements are said to be adventitious (agantuka ). One's volitional actions produce karmas, which move consciousness in certain directions and determine the nature of one's rebirth, but consciousness, unlike the atman, changes in every moment and is directly affected by the vicissitudes of one's life. Meditative training aims to remove mental defilements like anger, desire, and obscuration, while simultaneously cultivating good qualities like patience, morality, and wisdom.

In classical Indian philosophy, Buddhism was one of the main "heterodox" (nastika ) systems. The Buddhists rejected the authoritativeness of the Vedas and claimed that their own scriptures contained correct doctrines and the only truly effective path to liberation. They asserted that the core existential problem is suffering (duhkha ) and that it is caused by ignorance. Because beings misunderstand the true nature of reality, they make choices that lead to suffering and result in continuing transmigration. Since the problem is a cognitive one, the solution is also cognitive: liberation requires that one overcome mistaken ideas and acquire correct understanding. One of the most basic misconceptions, according to the Buddhists, is the notion of the atman. They assert that anyone who clings to a permanent self or to an ultimate reality (whether conceived as God or Brahman) will inevitably continue to transmigrate from life to life, and they hold that only those who free themselves from such false notions are able to attain liberation.

For all of the traditions discussed in this essay, the central concern of philosophy should be liberation. Indian philosophical texts commonly state in their introductions that the purpose of composition is to aid others in the pursuit of moksa, which indicates that philosophy is not viewed as an exercise in discussing semantic problems, but ideally should be a matter of profound concern for anyone seeking to comprehend reality as it is and thus attain the ultimate goal.

See also Cosmology: Asia ; Philosophy ; Religion: East and Southeast Asia .


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John Powers