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Metaphysics of Vedanta


by Akhandadhi Das





You might think that digital technologies, often considered a
product of ‘the West’, would hasten the divergence of Eastern and Western
philosophies. But within the study of Vedanta, an ancient Indian school of
thought, I see the opposite effect at work. Thanks to our growing familiarity
with computing, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), ‘modern’
societies are now better placed than ever to grasp the insights of this
tradition.





Vedanta
summarises the metaphysics of the Upanishads, a clutch of Sanskrit religious
texts, likely written between 800 and 500 BCE. They form the basis for the many
philosophical, spiritual and mystical traditions of the Indian sub-continent.
The Upanishads were also a source of inspiration for some modern scientists,
including Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, as they
struggled to comprehend quantum physics of the 20th century.





The
Vedantic quest for understanding begins from what it considers the logical
starting point: our own consciousness. How can we trust conclusions about what
we observe and analyse unless we understand what is doing the observation and
analysis? The progress of AI, neural nets and deep learning have inclined some
modern observers to claim that the human mind is merely an intricate organic
processing machine – and consciousness, if it exists at all, might simply be a
property that emerges from information complexity. However, this view fails to
explain intractable issues such as the subjective self and our experience of qualia, those aspects of
mental content such as ‘redness’ or ‘sweetness’ that we experience during
conscious awareness. Figuring out how matter can produce phenomenal
consciousness remains the so-called ‘hard problem’.





Vedanta offers a model to integrate subjective consciousness and
the information-processing systems of our body and brains. Its theory separates
the brain and the senses from the mind. But it also distinguishes the mind from
the function of consciousness, which it defines as the ability to experience
mental output. We’re familiar with this notion from our digital devices. A
camera, microphone or other sensors linked to a computer gather information
about the world, and convert the various forms of physical energy – light
waves, air pressure-waves and so forth – into digital data, just as our bodily
senses do. The central processing unit processes this data and produces
relevant outputs. The same is true of our brain. In both contexts, there seems
to be little scope for subjective experience to play a role within these
mechanisms.





While
computers can handle all sorts of processing without our help, we furnish them
with a screen as an interface between the machine and ourselves. Similarly,
Vedanta postulates that the conscious entity – something it terms the atma –
is the observer of the output of the mind. The atma possesses, and is said to
be composed of, the fundamental property of consciousness. The concept is
explored in many of the meditative practices of Eastern traditions.





You might think of the atma like this. Imagine
you’re watching a film in the cinema. It’s a thriller, and you’re anxious about
the lead character, trapped in a room. Suddenly, the door in the movie crashes
open and there stands… You jump, as if startled. But what is the real threat to
you, other than maybe spilling your popcorn? By suspending an awareness of your
body in the cinema, and identifying with the character on the screen, we are
allowing our emotional state to be manipulated. Vedanta suggests that the atma,
the conscious self, identifies with the physical world in a similar fashion.





This
idea can also be explored in the all-consuming realm of VR. On entering a game,
we might be asked to choose our character or avatar – originally a
Sanskrit word, aptly enough, meaning ‘one who descends from a higher
dimension’. In older texts, the term often refers to divine incarnations.
However, the etymology suits the gamer, as he or she chooses to descend from
‘normal’ reality and enter the VR world. Having specified our avatar’s gender,
bodily features, attributes and skills, next we learn how to control its limbs
and tools. Soon, our awareness diverts from our physical self to the VR
capabilities of the avatar.





In
Vedanta psychology, this is akin to the atma adopting the psychological
persona-self it calls the ahankara, or the ‘pseudo-ego’.
Instead of a detached conscious observer, we choose to define ourselves in
terms of our social connections and the physical characteristics of the body.
Thus, I come to believe in myself with reference to my gender, race, size, age
and so forth, along with the roles and responsibilities of family, work and
community. Conditioned by such identification, I indulge in the relevant
emotions – some happy, some challenging or distressing – produced by the
circumstances I witness myself undergoing.





Within
a VR game, our avatar represents a pale imitation of our actual self and its
entanglements. In our interactions with the avatar-selves of others, we might
reveal little about our true personality or feelings, and know correspondingly
little about others’. Indeed, encounters among avatars – particularly when
competitive or combative – are often vitriolic, seemingly unrestrained by
concern for the feelings of the people behind the avatars. Connections made
through online gaming aren’t a substitute for other relationships. Rather, as
researchers at Johns Hopkins University have noted,gamers with strong real-world social lives
are less likely to fall prey to gaming addiction and depression.





These
observations mirror the Vedantic claim that our ability to form meaningful
relationships is diminished by absorption in the ahankara, the pseudo-ego. The
more I regard myself as a physical entity requiring various forms of sensual
gratification, the more likely I am to objectify those who can satisfy my
desires, and to forge relationships based on mutual selfishness. But Vedanta
suggests that love should emanate from the deepest part of the self, not its
assumed persona. Love, it claims, is soul-to-soul experience. Interactions with
others on the basis of the ahankara offer only a parody of affection.





As
the atma, we remain the same subjective self throughout the whole of our life.
Our body, mentality and personality change dramatically – but throughout it
all, we know ourselves to be the constant observer. However, seeing everything
shift and give way around us, we suspect that we’re also subject to change,
ageing and heading for annihilation. Yoga, as systematised by Patanjali – an
author or authors, like ‘Homer’, who lived in the 2nd century BCE – is intended
to be a practical method for freeing the atma from relentless mental tribulation,
and to be properly situated in the reality of pure consciousness.





In
VR, we’re often called upon to do battle with evil forces, confronting jeopardy
and virtual mortality along the way. Despite our efforts, the inevitable almost
always happens: our avatar is killed. Game over. Gamers, especially
pathological gamers, are known to become deeply attached to their
avatars, and can suffer distress when their avatars are harmed. Fortunately,
we’re usually offered another chance: Do you want to play again?Sure
enough, we do. Perhaps we create a new avatar, someone more adept, based on the
lessons learned last time around. This mirrors the Vedantic concept of
reincarnation, specifically in its form of metempsychosis: the transmigration
of the conscious self into a new physical vehicle.





Some
commentators interpret Vedanta as suggesting that there is no real world, and
that all that exists is conscious awareness. However, a broader take on
Vedantic texts is more akin to VR. The VR world is wholly data, but it becomes
‘real’ when that information manifests itself to our senses as imagery and
sounds on the screen or through a headset. Similarly, for Vedanta, it is the
external world’s transitory manifestation as observable objects that makes it
less ‘real’ than the perpetual, unchanging nature of the consciousness that
observes it.





To the sages of old, immersing ourselves in the ephemeral world means allowing the atma to succumb to an illusion: the illusion that our consciousness is somehow part of an external scene, and must suffer or enjoy along with it. It’s amusing to think what Patanjali and the Vedantic fathers would make of VR: an illusion within an illusion, perhaps, but one that might help us to grasp the potency of their message.





This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.





Akhandadhi Das is a Vedanta philosopher and Vaishnava Hindu theologian. He is director of Buckland Hall, a conference and retreat centre in Wales, a member of the Science and Philosophy Initiative, and a broadcaster and advisor to the BBC on Indian philosophical and spiritual traditions.


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