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Many people believe that the things that science is currently discovering were known to Vedic philosophers and sages in the past. This notion is false because the concepts of matter in Vedic philosophy are radically different from those in modern science. This post discusses the issue from the standpoint of just one idea—that of space. A number of other differences in the Vedic theory of matter follow from this difference, and this difference must be grasped to understand Vedic cosmology too.

The Scientific Conception of Space

In the scientific view of space, there are three things—a dimension (e.g. X, Y, Z—the three axes of a coordinate frame), a value (i.e. how much “distance” in that direction), and a direction (positive or negative) on each of the dimensions—i.e. forward or backward. Thus, we can write a position in space as {15, 10, 5}, where the numbers 15, 10, and 5 are positive values and the order of these numbers denotes X, Y, Z. In short, space in science is defined by three ideas—dimension, distance, and direction—and this comprises the box view of space.

In this view, we can name any point by any number, as long as you consistently rename all the points. For example, we can move our coordinate system to the right, and {15, 10, 5} will become {10, 10, 5}. Einstein claimed that if we do this consistently over all of the space, then nobody can notice any difference because all the laws will remain the same.

Encoding Meanings in Space

Now, we have a practical problem. Suppose you want to draw a graph that compares the age of people against their income. Let’s say, the X-axis is the “age of a person” and the Y-axis is the “income of the person”. This graph is drawn in space, but you suddenly start giving the dimensions meanings—e.g. age and income. As you draw new types of graphs—e.g. the education level against their income level—you again give spatial dimensions new meanings.

Science claims that these meanings of dimensions have no reality—they are only in our imagination but have no real existence. This idea is consistently extended to all of nature, and since nothing in space can be given meaning, none of the objects can be given any meaning. Thus you create a world devoid of meaning—everything we say in our everyday language (table, chair, person, country, society, right, wrong, etc.) is basically meaningless in science because we cannot give meanings to distances, dimensions, and directions in space.

Śrimad Bhāgavatam’s Conception of Space

SB is different because everything is an expression of a deeper meaning. There is no meaningless reality. The technical term used in SB is artha which indicates a meaning and a purpose. Everything is called padārtha which literally signifies “a meaningful and purposeful part”. The purpose is whatever a thing can be best used for. The meaning, if it is different from the purpose, is the non-best use, although quite useful in a given context. For instance, the best use of food is eating. But in some cases, food can also be used for playing. Therefore, the purpose of food is eating and the non-best use, which can be contextually assigned to food in some cases, is playing.

The statement “food is not meant for playing” indicates that there is an intended use. The statement “food is not a toy” recognizes that we can play with food, but we should not. And yet, if we are not hungry, then the non-best use is also possible.

In short, there isn’t some “particle” which you call “table” and another “particle” which you call “chair”. Rather, objectively, there is a table and a chair. We may or may not perceive it correctly, but these meanings exist. This is called “subtle matter” which exists as an idea. We can observe a particular table, but we cannot observe the idea “table” using the senses; we can see the idea using the mind. The mind is thus called the sixth sense, which perceives ideas such as table and chair.

There is also a distinction between gross and subtle reality. Gross reality is what we can perceive with our senses, such as taste, smell, touch, sound, and sight. Subtle reality is that which combines such sensations into a singular entity such as food or toy. The properties are the diversity and the “object” (i.e., food or toy) is the unity. To produce any food or toy, we must have a purpose, to begin with. That purpose expands into an idea, which is a specific type of food or toy. That idea then expands into specific sensations. Hence, the purpose and idea are subtle reality and sensations are gross reality. This nomenclature is just for convenience. Factually, the idea is a “gross” reality for the purpose, and the sensations are a “gross” reality for the idea.

Thereby, a particular table is the expression of the idea called “table”. The idea precedes the thing and defines it. All things are meaningful because they are derived from ideas. We cannot speak about an object devoid of a type because each object is an expression of a type—e.g. a table is the manifestation of the idea called “table”. In common parlance, we say that the “design” of the table must exist before the table exists.

In science, we maintain a difference between object and type: the types are denoted by dimensions, and the objects are denoted by types. The quantity of a property (e.g. mass) is measured by the distance along some dimension, while the dimension is the type. In the simplest case of position in space, we say that the dimension is X-axis and the distance is 10. Objects are therefore expressed as numbers (10) and types are expressed as dimensions (X-axis).

In SB, higher levels of matter are dimensions, and lower levels of matter are values. For example, “table” is the dimension, and “kitchen table” is a value of that dimension. The kitchen table is defined in relation to the idea “table”. Thus, when we describe something as a “kitchen table”, we have derived it from the idea “table”. The idea “table” must be invoked in order to call something a “kitchen table” and therefore we cannot speak of material objects without invoking the ideas from which they are derived. We might also say that each table “includes” the subtle idea of “table”, although that idea of “table” is not physically inside it.

God Exists In the Material Universe

Vedas describe that a form of God called Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu is present in everything in the universe–including the atoms. Once atoms are understood as symbolic expressions of ideas, then this form of God can be understood as the elementary concept from which all other ideas are derived. In speaking of an idea we must include Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu, quite like in speaking of a “large black kitchen table” we must include “table”. Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu is in all things in a very specific sense: we must include Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu in order to completely describe that thing. He is, however, not physically inside that thing.

Indeed, there is a unique “place” in the universe—Svetadvipa—where Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu resides, which means that He has a “location” inside in the material space of the universe and that location is different from the locations of all the other individual objects.

Thus, when it is said that Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu is “inside” the atom, this doesn’t mean that He is physically inside, but that we must include the idea of Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu in order to describe the atom fully, quite like we must include the idea “table” to describe “large black kitchen table”. The meaning of saying that Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu is in the atom is that to obtain complete knowledge of the atom (as the representation of an idea) we must understand Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu as the most primordial idea from which all other ideas are derived, just like to understand “large black kitchen table” we must understand “table”. Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu is in everything and yet not in anything.

Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu is sometimes called Aniruddha and He represents the mind (Pradyumna represents intelligence, Saṅkarṣaṇa represents the ego, and Vasudeva represents the moral sense). All the varied minds, intellects, egos, and moral senses are manifested from a primordial mind, intellect, ego, and moral sense. the primordial reality is a person, and an idea-like reality is produced from that person as His creation. Since the mind is the repository of ideas, therefore, Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu is the origin of the Platonic world of ideas.

To understand this hierarchy, we can extend the previous example of food and toy. There is a purpose behind both of these. But there is an even deeper moral value system behind the purpose. The value of food is survival and the value of toys is entertainment. If the survival value is fulfilled but the entertainment value is not, then the food will be used as a toy. Or, we might gobble food quickly because we are eager to play with other toys and survival is just a means to enable playing. Values are given higher and lower priorities by consciousness and by changing this priority, something can just be food or both food and toys or just a toy. Therefore, choice selects values, which then select a purpose, which then selects ideas which then select sensations. Without consciousness, the world cannot exist.

Each padārtha or meaningful and purposeful part is an atom. Sensations, concepts, purposes, judgments, and morals are all atoms. They have been produced from the senses, minds, intellects, egos, and moral senses. Anything that can be sensed has all the deeper properties, including consciousness, making it a person. Depending on the type of atom, there is also a Supreme Person who has created that atom. The situation can be summarized through a tripartite distinction between owner, vehicle, and passenger. Some form of the Supreme Person is the owner, creator, and controller of an atom. The atom is also a vehicle, in which a passenger (an individual consciousness) is traveling. The passenger tries to control the vehicle, and there are some freedoms available. But ultimately, the Supreme Person is the controller.

Atoms, therefore, are also padārtha and a form of Viṣṇu is “in” the atom because to describe and understand the meanings represented by that atom, we must understand the root of the meanings. The atom is not an “independent” particle. Rather, the atom’s meaning is defined in relation to another atom, whose meaning is defined in relation to another atom, and so forth, all the way to Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu. Atomic phenomena present great problems to scientists because they are treating them as independent physical particle when it is actually an idea in relation to the root of ideas.

The Tree Geometry of the Universe

To understand how the idea “table” is inside each table and yet not in any table, we need a new conception of space. This new kind of space is described as a tree. The fruit on the tree is “large black kitchen table”, the twig is “black kitchen table”, the branch is “kitchen table”, and the trunk is “table”. From “table” we derive “kitchen table”, from “kitchen table” we derive “black kitchen table”, and from “black kitchen table” we derive “large black kitchen table”.

Thus the fruits are growing on the twigs, the twigs on the branch, the branch on the trunk, and everything is growing from the root. The nodes of the tree form a hierarchy emanating from a root—God. To know any fruit of the tree, we must know the entire chain from root to fruit. In that sense, we cannot know material objects correctly without knowing the relation between the object and God, because God is the root of the tree. This is not “religion” in the conventional sense of faith. It is a fact about the manner in which material space is described.

Everything is connected to God, not by our religious belief, but because that is the structure of space in which atoms are ideas whose meaning is defined in relation to God.

The idea called “table” also has a location in space, which is different from the locations of individual tables. The individual tables are connected to the idea “table” just like fruit is connected to the branch, the branch to the trunk, and the trunk to the root. Similarly, the mind of each living being is connected to Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu in the sense that all ideas must originally emanate from Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu, Who is said to be the root of all the ideas. However, an individual table is also within the idea table because that idea table is like a class of things and individual tables are its members. Since the class existed before the members, therefore, the individual table depends on the class but the class does not depend on the members. Even though we can speak about both, we generally cannot separate one from the other.

In SB cosmology, the universe is a tree, and planets in this tree are like trunks, branches, and fruits. The lower planet is defined in relation to the higher planet, just like the “kitchen table” is defined in relation to the “table”. When the lower planet is destroyed, the higher planet is still preserved, which is just like saying that even if the “kitchen table” doesn’t exist, the idea called the “table” still exists.

Names and Forms in Space

We must understand that an ordinary table is not a “substance”. That object is, in fact, the words by which we describe it correctly. For example, if we say “large black kitchen table”, we are providing a description of an object. The object table is nothing other than a complete description of that object. The atoms in the table are the words that comprise its full description. Thus, for example, “large”, “black”, “kitchen” and “table” are atoms of the “large black kitchen table”. These atoms are arranged hierarchically in a tree-like space, and therefore there is a specific order in which these atoms must appear in observation to express this object.

Those who are familiar with the problems in modern atomic theory will recall that the present atomic theory is not able to predict the order of atomic objects. This is analogous to saying that we have the words “large”, “black”, “kitchen” and “table”, but we don’t know whether we are talking about a “large kitchen”, a “black kitchen”, a “black table”, or a “large table”. To predict the order of atomic objects, we must know the structure of space because that structure essentially defines the order in which the words will appear, and therefore how the macroscopic object is built up from atoms, and observation of that object reveals the object’s description.

Thus, an object is its true and complete description. The constituents of an object are “words”, the object is a big “sentence” built of words, and the order of words in this sentence is the structure of space. All this is described very cryptically in SB as the idea that the whole world is “sound”, and that “sound” is a property of an “ether”. Based on the above, we can see that the “ether” is not flat like space is treated in modern science as straight-line dimensions. Rather this “ether” is a tree with higher and lower nodes. The nodes on the tree are words, and if we traverse from root to leaves, we can obtain a complete description of a material object, and that description is that object.

Naming and Meaning in Śrimad Bhāgavatam

Those who are familiar with the Western philosophy of language will know about the historical conflicts and debates between the notions of naming and meaning. I will not get into that debate here, but to summarize it quickly, the conclusion of the philosophers has been that anything can be called by any name, or that there is no relation between a name and a meaning. Shakespeare summarized it best when he said: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. The idea underlying this claim is that the name rose and the thing rose are two different entities. We can thus call the thing rose by any name—e.g. sore—and it should smell the same. Language and reality, therefore, have no innate connection. Rather, we make that connection.

In SB, this idea is flatly rejected because the properties of a thing are the names by which we call that thing. In other words, there is no difference between a name and its meaning, in some universal linguistic system represented by Sanskrit, which represents an absolute reference frame for naming all things. We can, of course, give alternative names to things, which happen in other languages. These arbitrary names are relative reference frames. The general property of a relative reference frame is that (a) it is incomplete, namely, that it cannot represent everything, (b) it can elongate or shorten the distance between things, (c) it will take longer or shorter to traverse in one relative frame than another, and (d) the mere introduction of what was left out of the frame will create contradictions in the sense that all other positions have to be changed to accommodate it. These problems do not arise in the absolute reference frame of Sanskrit names. We can call Sanskrit a natural language and other languages man-made languages. Some man-made languages are closer to Sanskrit, while others are not. That “distance” between languages represents how much a language is capable of representing the whole of reality.

Thus, when we say “large black kitchen table”—in a natural language—then that thing we are describing would include these words. In simple terms, this means that we cannot call a thing by an arbitrary name because arbitrary names will not identify the properties of objects correctly. Each object has a set of properties, which are sounds, which are described by definite words, and the sequence of the words is the object’s name, and that name represents all the properties and therefore the object itself.

Here is another example to understand this idea. Suppose we are speaking about different classes of people such as barbers, carpenters, gardeners, etc. These people also have names, which identify instances of these classes. In the everyday world, we claim that class and instance are different, and therefore a barber can be called Mr. Carpenter, or a carpenter can be called Mr. Gardener. When the name denotes the property, then a barber must have the name, Mr. Barber, a carpenter must be called Mr. Carpenter, a gardener must be called Mr. Gardener, etc.

The type of the person (carpenter vs. barber) and the instance of that type (Mr. Carpenter vs. Mr. Barber) are different in modern science, but they are identical in SB science because space is Ether whose property is sound. It means that if you call someone Mr. Barber, it is implied that he is a barber. Or you call someone Mr. Carpenter and it is implied that he is a carpenter.

There is an interesting anecdote worth mentioning here. It was narrated to me by a palm-reader friend recently. He was reading the palm of a person named Dasaratha Das and he said: You will have three wives, just like Dasaratha, and the third wife will give you a lot of trouble. The palm reader did not know about this person’s multiple affairs, but upon hearing it, Dasaratha Das got very upset because it was all true. This is the implication of the naming-meaning connection. The name itself signifies meaning.

That is the import of saying that reality is sound—because the name (Mr. Barber) is the meaning (barber). By knowing the sound (name) we know the object (properties). When names are different from meanings, then you can call anything by any name. In SB, the object itself is the sound, and therefore the name (sound) describes all the properties. Therefore, a rose by a different name would not smell as sweet. The real rose has an objectively real name, which represents how it smells. If you change the name, the smell will change.

Many people change their names for numerological and astrological reasons. They believe (correctly) that by changing their names, they will change their life. This is true, and its scientific basis is that the name is the property; if you change the name, you change the property.

The Science of Śrimad Bhāgavatam

In summary, Vedic and scientific spaces are different. Scientific space is a box, and Vedic space is a tree. But underlying this difference is another difference in how names and meanings, or values and dimensions in space are treated. The import of matter being a word is that the names signify properties. Thus, all of us have a “real” name defined by our nature. And then we might have an imaginary name given by our parents or society. All names are not equally good; some names are actually denoting our true properties, while other names are either complete illusions or might be just like calling food a toy (i.e., something that represents the partial truth).

A tall man can have the name Mr. Short, which is contrary to the property of the man, similarly, in the material world, we often don’t know the true nature of matter, and we call it by various names, and by employing these names, the reality becomes illusory. In one of his many songs, Narottama Das Thakur writes: “ghuśuka saṃsāra nāma, patita-udhāra shyām, nija-dāsa karo giridhar”, which means, “O Lord Giridhar, by destroying the worldly names, free this fallen soul, and make me Your servant”. The false names of this world are the many false designations by which we are called by and with which we identify. A devotee prays that the Lord may destroy all these false names, and then assign him a true name, which will be a servant of the Lord serving Him in some unique capacity. The capacity in which he serves is His true name. All other names are ultimately false, although they might be temporarily realized like calling food a toy.

If we start calling an honest person Mr. Dishonest, then over time we will find that a person becomes dishonest. This is how media propaganda works—the first step in propaganda is to give something a new name. As that name is used repeatedly, the perception of people about that thing changes, and over time, the object being perceived conforms to the perception. In effect, propaganda becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The basis of this change is that names are meanings; if we use a wrong name, then we will get the wrong meaning. But over time, if we apply that meaning to something, then we will find that the original meaning itself changes.

This might seem very depressing to many people, but this same fact is also the basis of true knowledge. If we start calling the things in the world for what they truly are, then over time they start behaving just as their names indicate. That is also how mantra science works: We designate a thing with a different name, and that thing thereafter follows the properties of that name. This is how we ”establish” the deities in the temples—we designate a stone or wood to be a “symbol” of a person by giving a name, and thereafter that wood or stone behaves just like the deity person. The secret to creating that deity is using the proper process of naming a piece of wood or stone by a name.

The Practice of Bhāgavatam Science

Under the material illusion, we call something by one name, although it is actually another property—and this naming-meaning difference in our terminology is an illusion.

People in this world are called by names such as “leader”, “man”, “woman”, “Indian”, “American”, etc. By calling ourselves by these names we acquire the material properties because the name is the material property. If these names were destroyed, the properties will also be destroyed. The māyāvādi view is that once these names are destroyed, then we cannot identify anything, and all individuation is lost. The Vaishnava position is that there is a true name for each person, which denotes their true properties. The material names are also denoting material properties, so in that sense, there is no difference in principle between matter and spirit. The difference is that we are not those material properties. We need to be called by a pure name, to recover that pure property, in order to become that pure person—and that is spirituality.

The principles of material science and spirituality are quite similar in this respect, namely, that both sciences are based on the idea that a name’s meaning is individual. The deity is not material because the idea it represents is not material. We cannot see that idea, quite like we cannot see the idea “table” inside a table, but we can still see the shape of the table. However, just as the idea “table” can be perceived by the mind, similarly, the idea denoted by the deity can be perceived when the necessary perceptual faculties (eyes anointed by the love of God)—are developed. The import is that there are some material ideas and some non-material ideas. In both cases, the idea, name, and thing are identical. However, we may not perceive the identity between name, thing, and idea.

At present, we think that the name Mr. Barber is different from the concept of “barber”, which is, in turn, different from the person who shaves people. In other words, we think we are living in a flat space in which names, meanings, and individuals are different. If this misconception about space were corrected, we will recognize that names, meanings, and individuals are the same, and that will form the basis of a new material science based on Śrimad Bhāgavatam using which we can transform material objects (i.e. properties) simply by calling them by different names.