Opening Our Minds To The Scientific Gita
Dr Raj Gopalaswamy speaking about his book Open Our Minds to Unleash the CPU of Who We Are asserts there is no parallel in the world to Vedantic thinking. He believes that the “core teaching of Advaita (or Dvaita, Vishishtadvaita or other schools of thought) where the individual Consciousness (Ātmā) and the universal Consciousness (Brahman) are either united or related to one another – is definitely not seen anywhere and cannot be compared with any work outside of Vedānta!” Despite this great contribution to our understanding of Consciousness, India is yet to find a leading place as one of the greatest contributors to World philosophical thought, and that is where Raj Gopalaswamy wants to direct his work.
Please also view this interview of Shri Nitin Sridhar with Dr Gopalaswamy:
What made you choose your title, is it implying our minds are bounded and not free?
Yes, we let our minds be bounded and closeted by our five senses.
The choice of name was a very quick process! I was thinking of a couple of names after finishing the manuscript and felt that OM is something that we all feel is elusive and “distant”, whereas it should be just the opposite. And Opening our Minds has the same elusive nature that we ascribe to ourselves. We find it hard to open our minds to what The Gītā and The Upaniṣads have to offer, to learn about ourselves, our Self. So, by bringing a scientific perspective to The Gītā, I’m requesting that we Open our Minds to this eternal teaching. While we open our minds for 12 to 18+ years of scientific or worldly teachings (of mere Māyā!) in our lives, why can’t we Open our Minds to The Gītā that can help us tremendously with those 18+ years, and throughout life?
भूमिरापोऽनलो वायु: खं मनो बुद्धिरेव च |
अहङ्कार इतीयं मे भिन्ना प्रकृतिरष्टधा ||
(Ch 7 verse 4)
Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intellect, and ego—all together these eight constitute My separated material energies. Krishna is all of the above. How can we get people of today to understand the immense knowledge our sages had of all of life?
Note: these are purely my thoughts and opinions and may come across as (moderately) liberal to many. I strongly believe such a movement is needed.
We need to do three things, (a) address adults of all ages, regardless of caste, gender, race, religion, etc., (b) include our ancient philosophy in all schools’ curricula, and (c) talk purely of the science, philosophy, logic, and the wisdom of our sages without getting into institutionalized religion and causing lots of confusion.
Krishna’s teachings in this verse talk about the aspects of the anĀtmā, that which is manifest or unmanifest, but ultimately is not real. He is essentially talking about creation of the material energies that we experience on a daily basis, formed of the basic elements of the periodic table, as well as the more subtle energies of the mind, intellect, and ego. As the entities become more subtle, they also become more “veiled” or unmanifest, but can be experienced. And at the end, there needs to be realization that the Self (i.e., the Ātman, or Brahman) is the real creator of all of these energies, which are short-lived, and therefore, do not have real existence. The Self alone is the only existence. There is such deep insight embedded in these verses.
Our sages developed such insight without access to all the technology we have today. This was mainly from pure observations of Nature, conducting experiments on themselves including thought experiments, and arriving at the Ultimate Truth. The scientific underpinnings behind all of this observation, hypothesis, proof and disproof, and conclusiveness are beautiful. The way to make people understand the teachings is to continuously communicate them to people of all ages.
लोकान्समाहर्तुमिह प्रवृत्त: |
ऋतेऽपि त्वां न भविष्यन्ति सर्वे
येऽवस्थिता: प्रत्यनीकेषु योधा:
(Ch 11, verse 32)
I am powerful Time, the source of destruction that comes forth to annihilate the worlds. Even without your participation, the warriors arrayed in the opposing army shall stop existing. Says Oppenheimer famously, and now on in theatres. Many western scientists have been inspired by the The Gītā. Why do you think this is so?
With all this talk of Time and Krishna claiming that he is Time itself, destroyer of worlds (meaning everything is born and perishes in time), the very principle that The Gītā discusses (of the limitless Awareness, Self or Ātmā) is timeless. Which is exactly why everyone that comes across this masterpiece of human intellect and tries to understand the true principles and values in it are captivated and entrapped in its glory and timelessness.
Regarding Western scientists being inspired by The Gītā, this is only natural, as science itself (whether Western or Eastern) doesn’t care about the non-physical aspects of life and the universe. Science (and especially Western thinking) always delves into understanding how the physical world works and how we as humans can leverage this understanding to our own benefit, a selfish endeavor. But The Gītā goes beyond pure physical reality, and presents the True Reality, which cannot but be captivating, as it is an unknown. As Swami Dayananda used to say, man always desires only three things: immortality, knowledge and happiness – because that is our true nature. Everyone seeks for these, to be ‘whole’, inside and outside of ourselves; any deviations from our true nature results in a desire to return to our true nature, to the Self, the real “I” or sat-chit-ananda (Existence-Consciousness-Bliss). The Gītā directly addresses the knowledge part of the desire (and what’s more, it addresses all of them!). This is beautifully summarized by the Dalai Lama in response to a question from Dr. Bruce Greyson, the popular psychiatrist and author of “After”:
“Both Western science and [Eastern philosophy] are basically empirical disciplines. We both look at the evidence and make our conclusions based on the evidence itself. And if the evidence contradicts what you believe, then your beliefs are wrong, and you go where the evidence shows. But he said, the big difference is, Western scientists seem to try to pursue the truth about reality, in order to control it, to master the natural world. Whereas [Eastern philosophy] seeks to understand reality in order to live more harmoniously with it.”
Not just Physicists, but also Evolutionary behaviorists find it of interest. What do you refer to by the CPU of the mind?
There is no clear definition of “mind” in any dictionary. It could be a collection of neurons that help us make decisions. It could be electrical signals that somehow transmit from our sense organs and then “interpret” them to respond to external stimuli. And the list goes on. Vedānta has a very clear definition of the mind, which is made up of emotion or manas, intellect or buddhi, ego-creator (or ego as we inadequately call it in English) or ahankara, and memory or citta (pronounced chittha). The interaction of these four components of the mind to make decisions, respond to the physical and mental worlds make up the overall “mind” as we usually refer to it.
In my research and while listening to The Upaniṣads and The Gītā, I realized that all of Vedānta is concerned with thinking and thought, and how to overcome the samsara or strife, battles and wars happening within the mind. So, a little bit of curiosity and passion to understand the mind is all we need to get deeper into Vedānta, which reveals the Absolute Reality for us. CPU is the curiosity and passion to understand the real CPU that is the cause of all physical and non-physical reality: Brahman, the Self, and that the Self and Brahman are essentially the same. When we’re curious to understand the reason for samsara in The Gītā, we can get absolute freedom. Of course, this is Advaitic thinking but with realization all thinking merges at the end.
Just like in Carnatic music, one understands the Gita differently at different stages of life. In music, the lyrics take on new meanings as experiences mature us. Was this the case for you?
Absolutely. Throughout childhood and in my youth years I was always trying to find out and understand what was actually being said in the Vedas, Gītā and Upaniṣads. My understanding was quite rudimentary and over time, realization set in that there was a lot more to these than just “do your duty, don’t care about results,” the karma yoga part which is usually talked about.
As the years rolled by and I began to listen to more gurus and read and understand better, the experience got better, bigger and beautiful. Until I decided to dive fully into listening, thinking and meditating upon the teachings, and then write them down for my own understanding, and of course for interested readers. Everyone should try it! Its an absolute guarantee that we come out of it a very, very different person.
The Gītā is for Arjuna what the Yogavasishta was for Rama. How can we overcome our existential problems reading these texts?
I talk about the Great Five Fs in my book: faith and focus, leading to freedom, fearlessness, and fecundity (fertility) of thought. These are a direct result of a deep involvement and spending time listening to and reflecting on The Gītā’s verses. And most importantly, practicing them. Practicing even a fraction of these great teachings give us the benefits of faith, focus, freedom, fearlessness, and fecundity of thought. For me personally, fearlessness and focus have been the highlights so far.
Once you realize that the manifest universe is not actually real (though we need to transact and live our lives with a purpose), there is absolutely nothing to fear. The fear of death is not even a consideration anymore. The fear of public speaking slowly disappears. The fear of meeting and starting conversations with strangers vanishes. The fear of interacting and discussing varied topics with “eminent” personalities is not there anymore – they are all part of the same existence! At the same time, with meditation and reflection as prescribed in Chapter 6 and many other verses in The Gītā, you realize that focus gives tremendous clarity for whatever you put your mind to. For example, to complete a complex task at work (a new assignment you are challenged with), you could get much more productive by focusing on the top priorities without everyday distractions with smartphones, social media, etc. This is easier said than done, and by following the advice of Krishna, it becomes habitual to have focus on what we are out to accomplish.
With these basic benefits of just focus and fearlessness, the existential crisis of our being completely disappears. I do not think you will find solutions elsewhere to such problems of life.
New translations, interpretations of the Gita are released every year. As an author, what would you say about the Gita as a muse for new insights?
That it is one of the most effective how-to and self-improvement texts. And that it is one of the most scientific, philosophical and logical texts in existence – on existence, reality and what we are missing as a human species. It is staring us right in our faces, and we refuse to acknowledge this, because we think that it is a “religious” text of Hinduism. If we set that aside, Open our Minds just a little bit and listen to the teachings, it will be worth our time.
The only other point of import is that the entire Gītā presents the essence of all of the Principal Upaniṣads! So it is like going straight into the depths of these eternal teachings, for unbounded freedom and clarity of thinking, with focus and fearlessness that accompany faith.
I have always felt that The Gītā is a very advanced text, akin to studying the general theory of relativity or quantum theory, as it brings all The Upaniṣads into one succinct executive summary. It brings all of Vedānta into a glorious combination of action, inaction, focus, fearlessness, freedom and liberation, with such clarity of scientific thought, deep philosophical truths and logic. Therefore, yet another insight is to be ready to be swept away into this ocean, never to turn back; the only requirement is to dive into it with an Open Mind!
As an industry and science professional, in what areas of leadership have you seen a place for the Gītā.
This is a loaded question, and I’ll answer it with my limited knowledge. Almost every verse of The Gītā has lessons in leadership, behavior, and is worth deep intellectual reflection. I will go back to the Great Five Fs (faith, focus, fearlessness, freedom and fecundity of thought), and give specific examples of what I think are among the top leadership lessons.
First, leadership requires seeing the real truth and responding to situations based on that truth, rather than succumbing to biases we have in our minds (or delusions). Krishna advises Arjuna right at the beginning in Chapter 2, that he cries for what is not worth shedding a single tear for (i.e., the slaying of Bheeshma, Drona and other relatives, elders, and well-wishers). Seeing Truth for what it is and performing basic dharma demanded of us comes first, however tough a decision is. As karma yoga demands, we need to be free of attachment to outcomes and avoid the thinking of “because I believe or want something to be true, it must be true.” Therefore, one of the first lessons is in decision making with facts, getting inputs from everyone in the team, valuing team contributions, and avoiding all psychological biases we might have.
Second, being a leader requires the principle of how to be equanimous in responding to any situation – the quality of a sthithaprajnan. In any of our jobs, the company we keep, and everyday events, we will face micro-failures and micro-successes – these are judgements we make in our minds every moment of everyday. Everything comes down to how to respond consciously to each of these situations, moment to moment. Krishna’s explanations of how an equanimous person treats “good” and “bad” situations the same way, with equal importance or unimportance, without letting any emotions (of passion, desire, anger, greed, delusion, pride or jealousy) get the better of us, is a key lesson I’ve learnt in leadership. If we keep reminding ourselves that everything is temporary and constantly changing, and the only thing that is permanent is the Supreme Consciousness or Ātmā (the permanent kshetrajna is distinct from the temporary kshetra), we can easily let go of such situations and focus on real priorities (without emotion!). This quality of equanimity for interactions is one of the tenets of Conscious Leadership training, which the Institute of Indic Wisdom has developed frameworks for anyone to use.
Third (and definitely not the last), is the science of focus. We see too many ‘how-to’ books and articles on distractions (vikshepa) we have every day. As Krishna advises, even to the extent of what surface we should be sitting on to go silent, close our eyes and meditate, so should we practice. Once we absorb this skill of meditation to focus on one thought and travel the journey through the phases of our imagination – from fleeting and high-frequency thoughts to a few thoughts, down to just one, we begin to realize the power of focus, much more powerful than all other forces. From such focus comes the strength, freedom, and fearlessness to take on anything in life. With meditation and focus comes productivity and alignment of thoughts, words, and deeds – such a leader lives his/her life as the kshetrajna, the observer/knower of the field (kshetra).
Authors have made trans-civilizational comparisons of for instance Plato’s Republic and the Mahabharata. Can such comparisons be made at all with the Gita?
Yes and no. First let’s talk about the “yes” part. Can we compare two or more sets of teachings that try to describe reality as we see or know it? Of course. As pointed out any number of comparisons can be drawn between Republic and Mahabharata, through different lenses – a small example being the whole approach to discussing a topic by taking sides and debating them. Another example can be the great Battle for Middle-Earth as penned by the great J. R. R. Tolkien, and the indomitable Mahabharata. The great stories of Greek mythology verses the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Perhaps the philosophical teachings of Republic and The Gītā, where (I was just reading) Plato actually called “Goodness is One.” So, for all intents and purposes, we could argue that these parallels make sense and talk about subtle differences between them, while extolling the inimitable factors that make each of the great works unique.
I’ll take a small digression here, as this is an important point. If we just Google for “greatest philosophers” and see what we get, we are bound to be amazed. Not a single thought leader from the Indian subcontinent! There is Laozi (or Lao-Tzu) from China, the only face I saw from the East when I ran the search. Why is this the case? Because our world history has been disproportionately portrayed, marketed, socialized and dominated by Western thinking. Now that the world is ‘flat’, this needs to change. Will stop here with the digression for now.
Now for the ‘no’ part, especially for The Gītā. The uniqueness of The Gītā lies in the expanse of topics that it addresses, broadly and deeply. Of course, I’m not well versed in all the great philosophical works ever written or passed down the ages, but I am familiar with some of the most recognized ones (a few come to mind – from earlier times: Patanjali, Vyasa, Vachaspati Mishra, Vedaranya, Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Schöpenhauer, Descartes, Nietzsche, Kant, Marx et al., and from recent times, from India and elsewhere: Freud, Jung, Popper, Hofstadter, Chalmers, Dennett, Hawkins, Radhakrishnan, Ramasubramanian, JK, Schrödinger, Bohm and many, many more, plus all the rishis and Swamis from India). If we study the thinking and the approach of all these great personalities, we find that none of them come close to the findings, insights and teachings of The Gītā. At the risk of repeating myself over and over, The Gītā is a monumental work with no parallels – for its scientific, logical, philosophical and practical foundations, teachings, insights, and ultimately a beautiful ‘how-to’ for life.
Delving deeper: for one, none of the thoughts, philosophies and approaches (whether spiritualistic, materialistic or everything in between) come close to the amount of information packed in each verse of The Gītā (starting with the practical, everyday karma yoga, then bhakti yoga, and the ultimate teachings of jnana yoga); they all appear to be mere drops into the ocean of knowledge, which really don’t do much to the ocean. Secondly, the verses are part of The Mahabharata, so we can place the timing at about 500 to 300 BCE, depending on whose projections we want to accept; the key point also being that the verses are supposedly not written by a single individual but may have been penned by several over time. While this can be a controversial topic to debate and whether Vyasa was one person or several (referring to compilers of The Gītā, The Upaniṣads, and The Brahma Sutras), the fact that The Gītā covers the essence of all Vedānta is like compressing all of the teachings of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and everyone else that followed in the Greek tradition, into one succinct summary – I’m not aware of any work of this nature.
Thirdly and to hit the nail on its head: the thinking of Vedānta does not have any identical parallels whatsoever in the history of mankind. The compilation of all the thinking of eminent rishis into The Upaniṣads and later taking shape as an executive summary in The Gītā doesn’t exist elsewhere, perhaps with an exception: Mahayana Buddhism, as pointed out by a fellow seeker and student of Swami Dayananda. Though I have only scratched the surface on this, it is fair to say that various other forms of Buddhism (Chan, Zen and Tibetan) also have similar perspectives as The Upaniṣads. What’s more, I have found interesting parallels in the thinking of Zhuangzi (e.g., The Butterfly’s Dream) and Lao-Tzu, but not to the extent of the sequence of logical thought, negation of physical and subtle existences and structure in the claims of The Upaniṣads.
The core teaching of Advaita (or Dvaita, Vishishtadvaita or other schools of thought) where the individual Consciousness (Ātmā) and the universal Consciousness (Brahman) are either united or related to one another – is definitely not seen anywhere and cannot be compared with any work outside of Vedānta! In fact, I’m not even sure the world has realized what it has been missing for thousands of years, completely oblivious to what has been right under our noses – a great science of that most subtle of entities: Consciousness, that controls the entire cycles of existence as we know it (outside of a few who have had the exposure to these Eternal Truths). When there is no realization that something like this exists, where is the question of comparison?
A humble note: I am a seeker of the Ultimate Truth, and not a Vedic scholar nor a philosopher. The above opinions are mine alone, and definitely not intended to offend or attack any individual(s) of their expertise. It could be argued that I’m not qualified to comment on such matters, and I welcome that feedback.
Om Tat Sat.
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April 26, 2022