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Dialogue On Non Duality With Dr Ramesam Vemuri
Interview by Paula Marvelly
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  • PM.

    Before the Big Bang, what existed and how did the present shape of the world come about?


    Perhaps it is first essential to know what we understand by the words ‘Big Bang’ before proceeding to know what was there prior to it.

    The words ‘Big Bang’ give us an impression of a huge explosion. So we want to know what it was that exploded. The fact is there was no explosion, no Bang!

    The name ‘Big Bang’ was coined in a derisive sense by Professor Fred Hoyle to a concept that opposed his own theory about the universe. The amusing thing is that the name Big Bang stuck to this concept, but it was Hoyle’s theory that was discarded!

    So the Big Bang was essentially a concept. It was a concept derived based on Einstein’s theories. If we work back in time, the size of the universe, using Einstein’s equations, we end up with an extremely small, extremely heavy and extremely hot point, which appears to have expanded into the universe we have today by gradual cooling. The Big Bang in a way refers to this rate of expansion of the universe.

    Though this theory has been able to explain a lot of physical phenomena associated with the universe, physicists have been always very uncomfortable with this theory when it comes to describing the properties of that point source, which is supposed to have expanded. The technical name for the point source is ‘singularity’. No known physical laws are applicable here; that is to say that meaningless infinities are obtained as answers if we try to estimate the physical parameters at singularity. 

    Further, the theory was unable to explain the shape of the universe. Therefore, physicists have always been on the lookout for a more convincing theory. Alan Guth in the eighties thought of a very rapid phase of expansion immediately preceding the Big Bang, and this was described as the ‘inflationary’ phase of the universe.    Assumption of an inflationary phase could explain certain features of the universe – the shape, the graininess, and so on.

    So what existed before the Big Bang was inflation. Though this concept of inflation has got a wider acceptance amongst physicists, doubts are still being raised if it really did happen. Some of the objections for the theory of inflation are: ‘Highly improbable conditions are required to start inflation. Worse, inflation goes on eternally, producing infinitely many outcomes, so the theory makes no firm observational predictions.’

    Now, if we reframe your question to what it was that ‘inflated’, we have no definitive answers. Steinhardt from Princeton and Turok from Cambridge, who is now at Perimeter Institute in Canada, came up with a theory that matter cannot be compressed infinitely to a point; in other words, singularities cannot exist in nature.  After reaching a certain minimum size, it will rebounce and begin again to expand.  So they conceived that our universe expanded from a pre-existing minimum size universe. This gives the possibility of alternate expansions and contractions of the universe. This is christened as ‘cyclic model’ of the origin of the universe. Later on, they reformed the theory extending the concepts from ‘String Theory’. And they said that our universe is a 4-dimensional Brane floating in 5-D space and colliding with another Brane once in a trillion years. Brane is a fancy name for ‘membrane’ – an imaginary object or surface of 0 to 9 number of dimensions in String Theory. 

    Because of the fact that the cyclic model is so much in resemblance with what the Eastern religions conceived of about the universe – repeated creations and dissolutions – this theory received some criticism as being influenced by religious thought. There are other theories also based on the ‘strings’ that postulate multiple universes or multiverse.    

    Michio Kaku compares the multiverse to a bubble bath. Each bubble represents a universe. ‘There are multiple universes bubbling, colliding and budding off each other all the time,’ he conceives. One big advantage of a multiverse concept is that it solves the problem of why the laws of physics in our universe seem to be fine-tuned to allow life and us sitting comfortably here. ‘If you change the mass of the proton, the charge on the electron, or any of an array of other constants, we’d all be dead.’ Why is this so? Did someone create this special universe for us? ‘The multiverse explains the problem without resorting to the supernatural. If there are infinite universes, each one can have different physical laws, and some of them will have those that are just right for us.

    Then there is a suggestion that the universe is made up of Planck-size, space-time atoms, which keep on coming together, form universes, break up and bounce off. However, it did not get much acceptance. More recently a lone physicist came up with an idea of the application of Lie groups to answer the origin of the universe.

    Whatever may be the theory, what we have to appreciate is that they are all basically conjectures, concepts. All concepts are thoughts. We may have more faith in a particular concept because it satisfies certain logical and other predictive criteria we may have set as a priori conditions. As Robert M. Pirsig said in his famous book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, ‘The ancients had their ghosts to explain things and we have atoms now!’ or something to that effect.

    Therefore, if the Big Bang is a concept, what could exist prior to this concept? Will it not be another concept, devised and designed through some logic that you feel comfortable to be with and convincing at a given point of time?

    The ancient sages also conceived of different models to explain the origin of the universe. Some of these look pretty unconvincing and even hilarious to us. But the point to be remembered is that the sages too in the end said that the whole issue of a universe being there at all, or someone creating a universe, itself is a ‘conception’; simply, an imagination. No ‘thing’, including a universe, is actually ever there. These are the Nondualists of ajativada, ‘nothing is ever born’ school.

    I may say in passing that the latest view of theoretical physicists is that space and time are not truly properties of the universe at a fundamental level. The space and time emerge somehow ‘like food between the stove and dining table.’ Of course, I should admit that the physics and math involved is far too beyond me. But these concepts are quite nearer to what Vedanta says.

    Recently, I heard David Christian’s talk at TED. He tells the tale of the entire universe in 15 minutes, from the Big Bang 13 billion years ago to present day, albeit in a different context.

  • PM.

    Why did the universe come into being?


    Science has no answer as far as the ‘why’ question goes. No apparent ‘purpose’ is obvious and evolutionary biologists would like to say it is just ‘blind’ – no specific objective or goal to be attained.

    The undiluted and unadulterated Advaitic view is that the universe is just an imagination, a fantasy. One may imagine a universe as per one’s own predilections and then one sees only such a universe. We have very interesting stories about the various types of universes imagined by different characters, fictitious or real, in Yogavaasishta to illustrate this point, for example.

    In spite of the fact that the universe is purely imaginary, still we do perceive something solid out there, transact within it and identify our ‘life’ with it. Even if we say that the ‘how’ of the universe is answered to be no more than a ‘thought process’, why should it still be what it is?

    Vedanta has no single or precise answer for ‘why’.  Several explanatory ‘artefacts’ are built and each person may accept what he/she feels comfortable with as per his/her taste! A young intelligent correspondent of mine once asked me the same question. When I tried to list down the various explanations we come across in the scriptures, I found as many as 15-20 answers! Maya, an indefinable power of delusion; leela, a divine play; karma, the effect of past action; avidya, ignoring the present; chidabhasa, the first thought of a ‘me’; and ownership and doership claims etc., etc., are all example of such artefacts. 

    Western science admits that it is an ‘explanatory gap’ – we have no tangible mechanisms to explain the arising of matter from Consciousness.

    The bottom line, as per Vedanta, is that there is truly neither a creation nor a universe out there. What you see is like a dream, a castle in the air. Therefore, what does it matter what explanation is offered for ‘why’ of the universe? 

    The true answer lies in the fact that it is a groping, a searching ‘mind’ that wants an answer. This search for an answer comes out of: either (1) a desire to have better control, for whatever reason, for prediction; or (2) an investigative ‘curiosity’ to know what is involved in all this to be whatever that is.

    Expressed differently, it is the mind searching for the reasons and explanations for the ‘why’ of the universe. The driver for this searching and groping is a ‘sense of lack’ felt within the mind – its inability to abide fully with what IS. The sense of lack is a gnawing feel of incompleteness, it is a sense of ‘void to be filled’ that pushes one to probe. 

    In other words, it is an effort to escape from what IS, a failure to be fully happy with what IS. So Vedanta exhorts us to look into this ‘feel of void’ and provides pointers towards the what IS. If one is immersed fully with what IS, one is with IT, there is no one separate from what IS in order to even raise a question. This is the True Knowledge, not an accumulative type of knowledge that an expert acquires through practice and continuous experience. 

    In fact, one has to shed all the ‘known’ in order to understand this True Knowledge, which is beyond the capability of the mind. Then the mind and its constant groping to fill an imaginary ‘void’ will end right then and there.

  • PM.

    For many centuries, Classical Newtonian Physics defined the laws of the universe. Could you explain in a nutshell Newtonian Physics?


    From the moment we wake up in the morning until we retire to bed again, all our movements and actions are based on an implicit assumption we make but are not at all aware of. The assumption is my toothbrush is still there in the bathroom across the hallway where I left it last night, the road to the office and the office itself are exactly as I know them to be.

    I take it for granted that space and time are absolute, and I function within this unchanging framework. Newton too developed his physics of bodies based on this assumption. He calculated the motions of heavenly bodies and their mutually attractive forces, assuming that they move in a rigid frame of space and an irreversible time axis. He also discovered that there was an instantly operating attractive force between two bodies. He called it gravity. He regretted his inability to understand how gravity is produced.

    The physical laws thus developed gave us an immense confidence to determine the position of a body after the lapse of a given amount of time if we knew the initial conditions. We could trace the path of its movement and position at any time and other parameters like its speed, direction of movement, etc. This led us to think that all processes in nature are quite deterministic and some physicists arrogated themselves to declare that if we specify certain parameters, they can determine the outcome at any future date. This basic determinism underlies Newtonian Physics.

    The important point we may note is that people like to be sure of what they have to face in the world. We would like to avoid the problem of ‘uncertain futures’, which is a characteristic of the real world in order to save our life and limb. So we automatically fall for the deterministic systems. Consequently, Newtonian Physics satisfactorily held the ground for over two and half centuries.

  • PM.

    Then another set of physical laws was established called Quantum Physics. Why was that so and how are these laws different from Newtonian Physics?


    As the physicists moved from large sized bodies to very small size entities, like atoms and subatomic particles, in their research studies, the inadequacies of Newtonian Physics became apparent. In addition, it was also discovered at that time that a hot body did not lose its heat energy by radiation according to any known formula. The heat energy seemed to be radiated in fixed amounts of packets. Each packet of energy is called a quantum. 

    In a broad sense, the physical laws developed around this ‘quantum’, together with the laws governing the physics of small particles like atoms and subatomic particles, constitute Quantum Physics. A surprising thing found with these laws is that they are not deterministic. We can at best give only a probabilistic estimate of an outcome – whether we talk of the position or path or speed of movement of an energy packet or a particle.

    It is a very uncomfortable situation for man not to be sure of things. Einstein didn’t like it and some physicists even today like Nobel Laureate Dr. Legget do not like it in its current form.

    View Dr Quantum's take on the Double Slit Experiment.

  • PM.

    How does Quantum Physics or modern Physics in general relate to Vedanta in answering the question about universe?


    At one time or other, all sensitive people start inquiring about the nature of things introspectively. During ancient times in India, the questions were ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is this world around me?’ etc. Trained by our Western education, we are habituated to look to the world outside of us first. The order of the questioning is thus changed when asking about the world first and then later about ‘me’. But it does not matter in which order the questions are raised. 

    The ancient Indian sages deflected these questions to investigate the reason for sorrow and misery in the world. Because, in the final analysis, they felt that if one were to be perpetually happy, no questions would have ever been asked. The root cause for any questioning was identified to be sorrow and so they went about finding an answer to resolve the sorrow. They realized that any amount of external examination would not eradicate sorrow and lead one to eternal happiness.  

    So they exhorted that we first should know what or who we are. If one pursues this inquiry rigorously to know what or who we are, we arrive at a surprisingly counterintuitive finding that there is ‘nothing’ at all! This realization is considered to be Knowledge with a capital letter. All other knowledge gained through experience, learning, experiment, thinking, etc., is accumulative, memory based and makes one a scholar and expert. It does not help, however, in the amelioration of sorrow. Knowledge with a capital K is known as True Self-Knowledge. One who understands this, internalizes it and ceaselessly is in that Knowledge is called the Knower of Self, or atmavit. The Chandogya Upanishad says, ‘Tarati sokam atmavit’ (Ch. Up. (7.1.3)),  ‘A Knower of Self transcends sorrow.’ 

    Commenting on the fourth sutra, tattu samanvayat, of the Brahma Sutras, in the first pada of the first adhyaya, Shankara says that the most common import of all the Upanishads is to establish that ‘realization of Oneness of Self and Brahman is the highest human goal’. He further says that this realization becomes an accomplished fact when there is a total ‘eradication of sorrow’. Saving oneself from death and sorrow of the world, thus, happen to be the prime motivator for Self-Enquiry in several of the ancient Indian texts, for example the Vivekachudamani (verses 36-40).

    So the ancient sages did not pay much attention to the issues of the external world or the formulae governing various components within it.

    It looks to me that the predominant motivational factor differs in answering the fundamental questions of ‘what is this world around me’ and ‘who am I?’ in science and Advaita.

    We are well aware that when we talk of the universe, our findings pertain to a minuscule portion of the entire universe – hardly four percent of it responds to electromagnetic waves, for example. There is an enormous amount of universe about which we hardly know anything at the present time. But the very fact that we know that so much universe remains unintelligible to us itself is an amazing achievement of science.

    Basic scientific research is taken up, more often than not, in order to understand the nature and natural processes with a sense of wonder. Redemption of sorrow is a by-product in science. For religion, the prime driver is redemption of sorrow.

    We may say in the end, saving oneself from death and sorrow of the world is the common theme in religion and science.

    All of this is okay, but how come we still come across some intriguing questions regarding determinism and Classical Physics, or probability and Quantum Physics? Is the world really bifurcated in that way – with some things obeying Newtonian laws and others Quantum laws?

    To answer such questions, we should probe them at a more fundamental level rather than being lost in what is observed or seen. What is observed may be deterministic or probabilistic, a wave or a particle, local effects or distant quantum entanglement, so let us not worry with the observation and the names we ascribe to what is observed. 

    Some clever guys even create new words and phrases when they are lost to explain certain dualities observed by them; then they go in search of those entities, which they created through their sheer imagination. Because they failed to know whether an electron is a wave or a particle, some create a new word ‘wavicle’ and believe a wavicle exists with dual form, each form superimposed on the other. But what would happen if you search for a wavicle? Can you ever find one? It is much better to admit that we don’t really know what an electron is ontologically.

    This will bring us to appreciate that our knowledge and thought processes – or the mind in one word – are inadequate to really understand the nature of things. But mind is the only tool we have at our disposal. And therefore, we had better examine the mind first and know its limitations, rather than being lost in a byzantine labyrinth of concepts, formulas, their contradictions and reconciliations and so on, the stories that the mind creates.

  • PM.

    So how does the mind function in our understanding of the universe?


    The peculiar thing about the mind is that it is never capable of knowing what is ‘out there’. We never realize this limitation of the mind!  We take it for granted that what we observe is wholesome and real. But that is NOT true!

    The mind after all depends on the five senses to get information from the external world. The five senses are like instruments that the mind puts to use. These instruments are not designed to receive signals continuously. If a signal bombards them continuously, they become insensitive to it and ignore it totally. The technical name for this is referred to as ‘adaptation by the brain cells’. They behave as if there is no signal at all reaching them! 

    Secondly, often times it so happens that incomplete information is gathered by these senses or there are gaps in the information received by them. The brain fills these gaps with data in order to present a continuous stream of information. This filler information could be correct or incorrect.

    Still more surprising is the fact that we do not often see what exactly is out there. We anticipate a thing and continuously go on correcting the anticipation by the sensory signal received through the senses. That is to say we tend to see our expectation. In other words, we see things even before we really perceive what exactly is out there!

    I expect that the effect of a particular action I take will have a certain limited range of influence. I cannot expect that if I change the spin of an electron here, its long lost friend now existing, say, in the Andromeda galaxy should be affected. But in some observations, I do see convincingly that it does get affected. What to do? So a brilliant chap talks of hidden variables; another an implicate order connecting all electrons and imagines advanced waves of information reaching the other electron. Some other man disputes it using a different logic. In the meanwhile, ordinary folk become confused and confounded.

    So the first thing to do is to examine and re-examine our devices and their limitations before we embark on the information gathered by these apparatus – in our case the mind, the only tool at our disposal.

    A question may be raised as to why our mind behaves the way it does, almost misleading us and showing a false picture of the world. That is because you are putting the mind to a job for which it is not really meant or trained. Just like any other body part of ours, mind is there essentially to protect the body-organism. So it learned some tricks to give instructions to the other organs for quickly reacting to save the body in case of threats. It is not trained to indefinitely wait for the collection of full data followed by a thorough evaluation of the information collected and then make a completely rational decision. It has to act quickly to save the organism from a threat based even on incomplete and partial data. 

    One of the best methods to save oneself from a difficult situation, or equally when one has to exploit an opportunity for one’s own benefit, is to be able to foresee or at least anticipate what is going to happen in the near future. This knowledge will obviously improve our preparedness when we face the actual situation.

    Hence our brain has acquired over millennia of years of evolution an ability to discover patterns of occurrence even in purely unrelated events. This is a life-saving mechanism. Let me illustrate this with an example. Suppose you see a few irregular yellow patches in a bush. This pattern of yellow patches may belong to a tiger. Well, run to save yourself. Later on you may discover that the yellow patches were not that of a tiger. It doesn’t matter; you have not harmed yourself, except mockery maybe by a friend. But suppose in the very first instance you did not run and it really happens to be a tiger. You would have become its dinner! Statistically, such a cautious approach is called to err on the side of a false positive, which is much safer. Our brain developed to be wary of many such false positives. We tend to see a ghost where there is none.

    Another thing is the brain, which is the seat of the mind, is a highly energy-expensive organ. The more the brain is kept in usage, the more energy it needs. The brain alone – only about two per cent of your body weight – consumes 20 percent of the energy you get from your food. The rest of the whole body – 98 percent – has to make do with the balance of 80 percent. 

    So the brain is also designed to conserve energy by developing short cuts for decision making. This was well suited for our great-great ancestors for their life in the wilderness, but we find it inconvenient in the present day of secure living conditions.  Our environment has changed much faster than our brain’s way of functioning. In effect, it is like you are trying to get a stereophonic effect using an old phonograph machine.

    The mind serves a limited purpose; let it do its job of protecting the body-organism.  Mind is nothing but what the brain does. It is very much like the stomach extracting the energy from food gathered from outside and providing it to all the parts of the body. Instead of that, some people think that there is an animal called mind. They postulate that it is made of some subtle mind stuff, imagine mental sheaths and mental worlds and so on, wherein it functions. They attribute some ethereal character to it.

    Under the influence of such handed-down knowledge embedded in us, we claim ownership of the mind and try to fictitiously imagine we are its controllers. Thereby we end up tying ourselves in knots. Traditional Advaitins cannot escape their responsibility in the spread of this sort of false imagination.

  • PM.

    How does the theory of superimposition in Quantum Physics relate to theory of superimposition in Advaita Vedanta?


    The concept of superimposition in Quantum Physics is just that – a concept. It is a good example of what I am speaking about.

    We devised the concept of superimposition to explain to ourselves some observed phenomena because the observed things did not seem to fit into the simple cause-effect relationship for which our mind is accustomed to. Let me explain a little.

    Unlike in deterministic Classical Physics where there is always a single outcome, in probabilistic Quantum Physics, several possibilities of outcomes are possible or at least it so appears. If I leave my toothbrush in the bathroom, I may find it there only when I look for it next morning or half may be there or even a quarter, and some of it may be even be on the moon. All possibilities exist as per Quantum Physics. But I do normally find my toothbrush only where I happened to leave it. How should I explain this to myself if Quantum Physics is correct? So I reason it out that the toothbrush can exist in several places at the same time and when I actually look for it, it suddenly gathers itself to one place.

    In fact it was Dr. Schrödinger who reined in diverse quantum phenomena into a single equation so that the physics of small particles is amenable for calculations of an outcome. To his surprise, he found that he could express an outcome using his equations only in terms of certain probabilities, like the way in which we find the weather predictions – 50 per cent chance of rain or storm or whatever.

    Half in ridicule, he designed a thought experiment wherein a cat locked up in a box could be dead or alive, depending upon a random event of the release of a poisonous gas. You will not naturally know whether the cat is dead or alive until you open up the box and see. Before opening the box, it could be a dead cat or a living cat sitting there in the box. This thought experiment is famously known as Schrodinger’s Cat.

    So the cat before opening the box could be in two states and our opening and looking will show up only one of the states. These two states are supposed to be occurring together, superimposed, at the same time. An electron can have infinite states superimposed, its behaviour finally settling down to only one state when observed or measured.

    The superimposition in Advaita, though undoubtedly it is also a concept, has totally a different connotation to my mind.

    The superimposition in Advaita refers to a defective worldview. That is to say, instead of perceiving what exactly is present out there, we have a mistaken view of what is there. The famous example is the mistaken view of a rope to be a snake under dim light. What is there is only a rope. Rope is the reality. But we see a snake, which is illusory, which truly does not exist. Advaitins explain this as the superimposition of a snake on the rope. What truly ontologically exists there is Brahman, or a nameless tat, but we see a world.

    Whereas Quantum Physics has no clue how to find out what exactly is there when an electron appears to be in several superimposed states, Advaita offers a way to arrive at the Truth of what exactly exists, i.e. to see the rope instead of the snake. The technique offered by Advaita is called apavAda. It consists of a step-by-step negation or sublation, through repeated questioning and negating each stage as neti, neti, not this, not this, until no more negation is possible. Whatever is the remnant, the residual, That is Brahman.

  • PM.

    But what about Superstring Theory? I thought it was the final, watertight theory explaining the nature of reality? Could you explain what it is?


    There appear to be fundamentally four forces in nature – gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force.  When we discussed the origin of the universe, we talked about the backward projection in time of the evolution of the universe using Einstein’s equations. Such a projection in the case of the four forces should also be possible, unifying them into a single force.

    Physicists have been able to unify electric and magnetic forces into one – the electromagnetic force. From there it was relatively an easy step to join electromagnetism with the weak nuclear force – it was termed the electroweak force.  Then it took some time to unite it with the strong nuclear force. But to date, no way seems possible to be able to combine gravity with the rest of the three forces.  Gravity, though the weakest of them all, holds its independent position and defies to be melded with the rest, keeping its turf of influence to large sized bodies. When it comes to atomic and subatomic size particles, the known laws of gravity do not apply. This enigma of two distinct and disparate theories – one valid for large size bodies and the other to small particles – is an embarrassment to physics.

    Because gravity is so weak, some physicists have proposed that there may be more than the usual three space plus one time dimension in the universe, and gravity may be a force coming from the extra dimensions. They imagined as many as seven dimensions to the universe. Those theorists were ridiculed and one scientist even lost his position as a professor at a respected university because of this view he held.

    In the meanwhile, another set of physicists examined the inadequacies within the standard model proposed for the formation of matter, starting from quarks – particles smaller than electrons, protons, neutrons, etc. They suggested that what we perceive as solid matter might not be really solid at all. They visualized it as vibrations of ultra small strings. Just like the sounds of ‘do, re, mi, fa, so, la’ are produced by the vibration of a violin string, the subatomic particles are visualized as the produce of the vibrations of the ultra small strings that the physicists conceived of. 

    When they worked in this fashion, it was found that an ultra small particle that can be the fundamental particle for gravity could also be derived from the vibrations of the strings, just like the other particles of subatomic size. But the only problem was that the strings have to vibrate in as many as ten dimensions, in a way reviving the old concept of more than three space and one time dimensions. The biggest achievement of this thought process was that the physicists found a way to unify the four fundamental forces in nature using String Theory.

    Now, physicists had to face another embarrassment – an embarrassment of too many. There are as many as five ways of deriving various particles in nature. This is far too much for the precision-minded physicists, who would like it to be a simple unique way of doing it. Edward Witten, who is considered the most brilliant living physicist, then came up with the idea of an umbrella theory holding the five different versions of string theories. It is called the M-Theory, the choice for the meaning of M being left to you – it can stand for Master, Mother, whatever you want. The only thing is that it needed ten of space and one of time dimensions, making all together eleven dimensions. It predicts the existence of super heavy particles corresponding to all the known fundamental particles.

    The only comforting point for us in Superstring Theory is the basic assumption of ‘vibrations’ of the strings, producing the apparently solid matter just like sound is the result of a vibrating violin string. The Taittiriya Upanishad holds that the creation has come about by ‘vibration’. The mantra reads: ‘sah akamayata bahusyam prajayeya, spandena’ (6.2), ‘He, or It, thought, to become many, for creation, by vibration.’

    I would not bet that Superstring Theory is the ultimate theory to define the nature of reality. Over five years ago, I made some slides on the Science of Religion.  Whereas science was still trying to resurrect an all-pervading entity in the universe – once it had ether, now quintessence, cosmological constant, etc. – Indian philosophy has always been talking about an all-pervading Brahman.

    Science still talks separately of a Theory of Consciousness (TOC) and a Theory of Everything (TOE). As Professor Roger Penrose said, there cannot be a Theory of Universe (TOU) without the Theory of Consciousness being an integral part of it. 

    TOE + TOC → TOU

    But then again, the word ‘Consciousness’ may be misleading. The way we use it in science may be different from the way we use it in Advaita philosophy where we equate it to Brahman.

    So a real Theory of Everything has to be like ‘Tat’ of Vedanta.

  • PM.

    What about the recently discovered God particle? Perhaps this is evidence of an all-pervading entity in the universe?


    It is again one of those classic examples of misleading journalism trying to popularize science. At one time, journalists talked about a God gene in the days when scientists were finding a gene for each character or disease a human being suffers from. That was just sensationalizing. The God particle is one such misnomer, though it was a physicist who started it thus.

    When we talk of fundamental particles, we find that there are essentially two types of particles: one type are called fermions, that occupy space; and the other type are called bosons, which carry force. We know that each particle of matter that occupies space has a mass. And from Einstein’s famous equation, we know that mass is energy or a force, as it were. How does the particle get the force to give it a mass?  We do not know. So some physicists working on this problem suggested a fundamental particle that gives mass. Professor Higgs in the UK bet them all to get his name eponymously for this particle. Because it is connected to force, it is a boson type particle. It is known as Higg’s boson. The science journalists loved to call it the God particle.

    Professor Haisch and his colleagues think that matter obtains mass because of resistance to movement from the invisible energy in space. That means solidity, or mass, for matter is not intrinsic. It is an illusion. Professor Haisch’s theory, however, did not get much acceptance. The ongoing experiments at the Large Hadron Collider are expected to throw light on the existence of Higg’s boson. An unconfirmed report says that in April 2011, the LHC scientists did see some evidence in one of their experiments. Let us await these results.

  • PM.

    Returning to the subject of the mind and the brain, what is gamma wave synchrony and how does it tie in with our view of the world?


    You see, we are conscious of a world out there and we are also conscious that we are conscious. How does this happen? Where is the seat of consciousness? The ancient Indian sages postulated an invisible entity about the size of the digit of the thumb to be residing in the heart overseeing the bodily functions and also providing consciousness to a human being. 

    To the extent my knowledge goes, the ancient scriptures did not talk of neurons or equivalent units or the working of the brain. They did, however, talk of nerves. They conceived the nerves to be the conduits of not only the life-forces but also food and other material. They said that all these nerves join in the heart. The Western philosophers, however, use consciousness in a different way. They thought of a soul.  Perhaps it was Descartes who identified the pineal gland in the brain as representing the soul.

    Modern day science discovered different frequencies of electromagnetic waves emanating out of the brain. The frequencies varied depending upon the activity state of the brain: one frequency when we are focused; another when we are in deep sleep; a third when we are fully awake and active. These frequencies and characteristics of the waves were markedly different in each condition. Essentially it looked like our brain operates in electromagnetic fields and these fields are related to consciousness. Particularly after the work of Francis Crick, researchers began to find some visible correlates for Consciousness. 

    One of the ideas presented is that when the neurons from different parts of the brain synchronously spike in their activity, we feel conscious of an object. Whether it is the case that the synchronous pulsing within the neurons engenders consciousness in our brain may or may not be so; however, the fact remains that the frequency of over 30 cycles per second em waves measured on the scalp do indicate consciousness.  This frequency is called the gamma frequency, its range being 30–90, usually around 40 cycles per second. If it is around 8–12, it is called alpha; 12–30 beta; 1–4 delta and so on. 

    So the cumulative frequency of the em field measured in an electroencephalogram (EEG) at about 40 Hz indicating synchronization from different lobes of the brain is gamma synchrony.

    A study of the gamma synchrony is being pursued in modern neuroscience to see how it reflects meditative states of the brain and if there are any cognizable differences in a brain with long-term practice in meditation, like monks for example,  compared to unmeditating control subjects, for example, ordinary college students.

    A more technical write up on gamma wave synchrony will be posted at my blog in May 2011: beyond-advaita.blogspot.com

  • PM.

    Can you explain the nature of the mind of a jivanmukta and its characteristics?


    This is a simple but a very profound question that cannot be replied in a few sentences.

    We have to first understand whom we refer to as a jivanmukta. Then there is the controversy raised by a few people who hold that a jivanmukta would not have a mind at all and hence there is no question of the nature of his/her mind.

    The teachings of many of the modern day swamis too do not help; they only contribute to confound the problem.

    Even if we talk of a jivanmukta as one who does not have a sense of a separate ‘self’, psychologists would want you to define which particular self – one that talks of an ID or that which gives embodiment, or one that locates him in space-time. These different ‘selves’ have different connotations in the activity of the brain.

    Yogavaasishta is a scripture attributed to Sage Valmiki. We do not know who the real author was, but one thing appears to me clearly. The author, whoever he was, did not have any other agenda except bringing out clarity on Advaita Vedanta without any worry about social integration and re-establishment of an order, unlike some eighth century or later saints and acharyas. Yogavaasishta discusses the problem of the ‘mind’ of a jivanmukta extensively. 

    A jivanmukta, or one who is liberated right in this life, is an individual ‘in whom a separate sense of “self” has collapsed.’ His body may still be able to retain its natural awareness to orient itself in time and space – he will still catch a train at the fixed hour at a particular station – retain memory to reach back his home but he will not have the sense of ‘doership’ or agency of action – I am doing – or ‘ownership’ – this is my body. The body lacks the sense that it is observing something out there, separated from itself in space and time. Actions seem to happen to it. Life lives the body rather than he living a life.

    Scriptures describe him as amanska, ‘without a mind’. This does not mean ‘mindless’ but the absence of the sort of mind we are familiar with – judging things with the polar pairs of words, having a self-protecting and self-preserving ‘me’ at the center.  A jivanmukta’s mind is described as free from all blemish. Such a mind is Consciousness itself, with maybe some extremely minor traces of past impressions remaining. Such a mind is compared to a burnt-out rope – the shape of the rope is retained but not its features of strength, tenacity to hold, etc.

  • PM.

    What are the benefits of meditation on the mind?


    As we understand, mind is what the brain does. But as Neuroscience found out, the pulsing of the neurons as the brain acts has a feed forward and feed backward effect. The em field produced by the activity of the neurons affects the brain. Consequently, what we do mentally has an effect on the brain.

    In fact, our scriptures hold that what we do mentally is much more forceful and effective than physical performance. Manasa Puja, or silent worship within our mind, is held far superior to pompous and ostentatious prayers. The mental worship in a way is meditation. Even in athletics and other sports, the candidates are asked to rehearse first mentally the subtleties of every fine move before they perform physically. I learnt a lot of my driving more by thinking before I got into a driver’s seat in a car.

    It is important to mention in this context that as per Advaita Vedanta, meditation is not something you ‘do’, but that’s what you ‘are’, a point Rupert Spira often makes.  This is an involved statement and for the present we shall skip it. We shall discuss ‘meditation’ in a more generic sense as normally understood to be something that you do for the purposes of this discussion.

    Extensive scientific research is going on regarding the effects of different types of meditation on the brain. The general finding is that meditation has the same effect as exercise has on the muscle. Meditation changes not only the functioning but also the physical structure of the brain, in the same way in which music does. I had a short article on ‘Effect of Meditation on the Brain’ in the small book, Religion Demystified: Understanding Life’s Mysteries in terms of Latest Scientific Findings, 2008.

    What psychologists and psychiatrists describe as cognitive behavioral therapy, and its variations, can be seen as a form of meditation. Sharon Begley published a book on how training your mind changes the brain in 2007. It is evident that our brain is not like a rigid printed-circuit board. It is highly placid with labile neuronal connections and genesis of new neurons. Andrew Newberg in his book, How God Changes Your Brain, in 2009, showed that, ‘Not only do prayer and spiritual practice reduce stress and anxiety, but just twelve minutes of meditation per day may slow down the aging process.’ He even goes to the extent of saying that, ‘Intense prayer and meditation permanently change numerous structures and functions in the brain, altering your values and the way you perceive reality.’ In effect, thinking itself has the capacity to change the brain and body, beyond the genetic blue print.

    We have the case of a Buddhist diabetic monk who by sheer meditation for about a year could heal his gangrene affected rotting leg, which doctors advised him to get amputated to save his life!

    Recent published scientific research findings suggest that meditation is useful in modulating pain, being stronger than even drugs; helps in rational, rather than emotional, decision-making process; boosts brain connectivity; enhances attention; reduces depression; provides continuous mental state of happiness; and so on.

  • PM.

    Meditation is an active process, which suggests a conscious decision on the part of the individual to act. How does that tie in with the concept of having free will?


    As long as you think that you are a separate person here, distinctly removed from a world out there, and think that you have freedom to make a choice, hoping that alternatives exist, there is free will for you.

    Once you ‘realize’ that a separate ‘you’ restricted to the body-mind in you is fictitious and imaginary i.e. a ‘you’ does not exist, then there are no alternatives available to exercise a choice. Whatever happens is the only thing that happens – good or bad, no judgments made, no preferences, no rejections. In such a situation, there is no free will because obviously, there is no one to exercise a choice. All things are allowed as they arise to no one.

  • PM.

    One thing that has always fascinated me is that here in the West we say, drawing on Réné Descartes’ famous dictum: ‘I think, therefore I am.’ In the East, and in particular in Advaita Vedanta, it is the other way around: ‘I am, therefore I think.’ Can you expand on this? And what or who, therefore, am I?


    Descartes was the one who made a systematic effort to understand Consciousness. In the process, he established a legacy that was found useful to reduce the bossism of the Church and its diktat on scientific research of the day, but which is proving today to be a big impediment. The mindset developed under this hypothesis of the separation of mind and matter, to be dealt with by philosophy and science respectively, means many philosophers still resist the forays of science into issues related to the mind and Consciousness!

    Descartes recognized his own existence from the fact that he was conscious and was able to think. Thus, the very foundation for his existence was ‘thinking’.

    In Advaita, it is simply ‘I’. One alone, there is no second, (‘ekam eva advitiyam’, Chandogya Upanishad (6.2.1)). This ‘I’ is a shorthand for both Consciousness and Beingness. It is not two separate words ‘I’ and ‘am’. In other words, Consciousness and Beingness are only one; different expressions of the same ‘one and only’ thing. This Beingness-Consciousness, as one word, has nothing to do with thinking nor does it depend on thinking or any other activity for its existence. This Beingness-Consciousness does NOT think or do anything at all. It is immutable, eternal, beyond time-space.

    Thinking happens only when this Beingness-Consciousness is ignored. As Peter Dziuban would put it, ignoring Being-Consciousness is in a way thinking. That means that we just forget being abiding in this Beingness-Consciousness.

    Thus, thinking begins with the coming of ignorance; or thought is the first sign of ignoring. No harm is done by this thought. After the first thought occurs, however, another thought begins with a claim of ownership and doership – this is my thought and I am thinking.

    Actually, if you carefully observe yourself, a thought occurs first. Then the claim: ‘I thought so’ happens. With that claim of ‘my thought’, action happens as per the thought and a claim of doership comes into being: I am the author of this action. Let us take a simple example. A thought comes: drink tea. I claim ownership and say, ‘I want to drink tea.’ Then making tea happens and I say, ‘I made the tea.’

    Thoughts are never under our control. I can never pre-decide that at so-and-so time I shall get so-and-so thought. Nor can I ever be without a thought. Thoughts are as natural as breathing. In fact, these two are linked. Therefore, some persons control their thinking by control of the breath; however, any of these breath control exercises have no relevance to an understanding of Advaita.

    Therefore, if we understand Advaita correctly, it is not about thought control. It is about the realization that at that moment there is nothing else than that very thought. At that moment, there is no other to realize anything. Remember ekameva advitiyam. So that very thought is Beingness-Consciousness at that moment. Or ‘I’ and thought are one.

    There is another little twist here. We talked about thought. Thought is by the mind in the mind. There are also bodily sensations – visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile and gustatory – and perception of a world. Though we receive these signals through the different senses, it is the mind behind the senses that gives meaning to them. This meaning happens in the mind. In the absence of a meaning, they are just sensations.  We feel that we detect these sensations in our brain. But you can never experience your own brain – I do not mean an image of a brain, or the name of it, or an idea of a brain – but the raw experience of your own brain. In other words, all sensations are detected somewhere in no specific space.

    So what has actually happened are a bunch of sensations which are felt at no place and we interpret the sensations with a meaning, assign them a name and objectify them as separate entities existing in the world. Then we begin to claim some of these sensations as mine, and some others as not mine. A ‘me’ comes into being with the ensemble of sensations claimed as mine, and that subset of sensations serves as my attributes and define me with a ‘body’.

    One of the attributes I identify for myself is my existence or ‘i am’. This ‘i’, which has come about by this process of claiming ownership to some of the sensations, is the ‘i’ with which we are familiar. This ‘i’ is not the same as the shorthand ‘I’ we had for Beingness-Consciousness with which we began our discussion. This is an apology for ‘I’, an abhasa, a fallacious entity. The fallacious entity is the one which thinks ‘i am and therefore, i think.’

    It is the fallacious ‘i’, which sees the world separate from itself. It is its selective claim of ownership to some of the sensations-thoughts-perceptions, factually a unitary single experience out of which are created a world out there and a ‘me’ in here by fragmentation. 

    The moment this ownership claim is given up, all of what remains is the sum total experience without a claimant or ‘seer’. Thus Advaita is not about giving up thoughts/sensations/perceptions but it is about just dropping the claim of ownership, or vairagya.

    Let us look at the whole thing in a different way. I know I am conscious. No external proof is required for this fact. I know I exist. This also is an uncontestable fact requiring no outside evidence. But we cannot really separate out ‘existence’ and ‘Consciousness’ and find two distinct animals. They are both one and the same only. It is the same thing for which we gave the shorthand name of ‘I’.

    I normally think I am confined to and within the body and the world is out there distant from the body. But the unrealized fact is I perceive my body too just as I perceive the world out there. So body or the world are both perceptions and it is only the claim of ownership that has separated my body and the world. Without the claim of ownership, which is nothing but another thought arising, it is all one perception – no difference as body and world. Just at the very moment the perception of the world is there, we have the sensations of the body – the butt on the seat, hand on the keyboard – and we also have the thoughts in the mind. In other words, we are conscious of all these things at the same time. So the sum total experience of thoughts, sensations, and perceptions is really one single experience arising in an undifferentiated unitary Consciousness.

    And how do I say that I am conscious? Because I have the experience of percepts – thoughts, sensations and perceptions. So the percepts in a way tell me that I am conscious. Putting it in a different way, I become aware of my being conscious only when a percept arises. Therefore, any percept is my consciousness only arising at that point of time assuming for itself a limited form and an ID with a distinct name.

    Thus what I call the body, the world and consciousness are all One entity, Consciousness-Beingness.

  • PM.

    So then, what is the Big Crunch and what will exist beyond it?


    Aha, this question is much like the first one and, therefore, we are coming full circle!

    One of the significant finding in astrophysics nearly a decade and half ago was that not only is the universe expanding, but it is doing so at an alarmingly fast rate. ‘Before this discovery, the forecast was surprisingly simple. If the gravitational pull of all the matter in the cosmos was strong enough to rein in expansion — like the Earth’s pull on a rocket that can’t quite reach escape velocity — the universe would eventually come crashing in on itself.’ This is described dramatically as the Big Crunch. This is something like the Big Bang expansion reversing itself. So the Big Crunch would have happened only if the expanding universe is held back in its tracks. 

    If the expansion continues, the end of the universe will depend on the rate and change in this expansion strength. If the expansion rate is too high, the universe may become so rarefied and cold, it could be a Big Freeze. If the energy pushing the universe becomes too strong within a short time, the whole of the universe and every atom will rip off, resulting in a Big Rip. So what comes after the Big Crunch will depend on how the universe ends.

    Another view is that none of the above scenarios may happen, if the concept of multiverse holds good. It may after all be a Big Collision, one of the bubble universes colliding with ours. But as Elizabeth Quill writes recently, ‘Imagining the death of the observable universe as the ultimate end may be just as naïve as imagining that the destruction of the Earth, for that matter, means the end of all life in the galaxy. There might be much more out there. Even if the bubble occupied by people bursts, other universes could live long and prosper.’

  • PM.

    Finally, one could argue that Vedanta is a science of the mind, no more or less valid than science per se. Vedanta is, after all, only a means to an end, a pramana; it's not the end in itself. Can science ever be a pramana, a means of knowledge?


    Well, I would like to put before you three points:

    One: the Cartesian Dichotomy – science for material things and philosophy for the mind – is an outdated view. The mind-matter continuity is being increasingly realized. Science is now investigating mind and Consciousness, re-examining the world more as a virtual entity rather than as a solid reality. Dr. B Whitworth, an Australian Physicist pointed out a couple of years ago the virtual reality of the world we are living in. Dr. J. Barbour, a theoretical Physicist talks of the illusory nature of time.  Their papers remind one of the statements in Vedanta.

    Two: the method of science is not merely about ‘reductionism’ as some people seem to suggest. Science is also about the ‘big picture’ – old continental drift, now plate tectonics; discovery of virus-spreading pandemics in Indonesia, Africa etc.; the jump from DNA to the genome; the link from atom smashing to the origins of the universe; relating local perturbation to the theories of chaos and global complexity integrating systems and subsystems of modern-day Systems Biology; etc., etc. would never have happened. As you yourself are well aware, the demarcation of subject-object – observer is no more a remote entity, s/he is a participant in experiments – has vanished in Quantum Physics.

    Three: Science is still a ‘developing Upanishad’. Every significant research paper is ‘breaking news’. The last word is not yet said. So have patience, continue with the ‘wonder of enquiry’, which is the True Spirit of Science, as Professor Feynman says it: ‘I wonder; I wonder why; I wonder why I wonder why.’

    [Interview conducted Spring 2011]



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About Dr Ramesam Vemuri

Dr. Vemuri's current interests include research in the border areas of Physics and Metaphysics. He published several articles in this area. He rendered into English a few philosophical works. He also authored the book, Religion Demystified: Understanding Life's Mysteries in terms of Latest Scientific Findings.

Website: ramesam.tripod.com
Blog: beyond-advaita.blogspot.com