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I have recently received several questions about Sāñkhya. These include the differences between senses and organs, that between inert matter and a living body, how desires influence perception, how Sāñkhya elements could be understood in analogy to motion, and the relation between yoga and the control of senses and the mind. These are not tightly interconnected topics, but I found a way on how to weave the answers together into a progressive ‘random walk’.

The Property-Value Difference

Today we are accustomed to thinking that the five senses, which produce the sensations of sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell, are the five organs—namely, ears, skin, eyes, tongue, and nose. In Sāñkhya philosophy, a clear distinction between the body and the senses is made.

The body is comprised of the five elements called bhumi, apah, anala, vayu, and kham, which are loosely translated into English as Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether. Unfortunately, due to the overlap with everyday words by the same name, and the legacy of Greek elements by the same name, there is considerable confusion about what these elements are. The novelty in Sāñkhya comes from the fact that—unlike the Greek elements, which were just substances called by these names—in Sāñkhya they are described in relation to the five senses. The element Earth, for instance, is the objectification of the property of smell, Water is the objectification of taste, Fire is the objectification of sight, etc.

To understand this objectification, we need to distinguish between a property and its value. For example, in modern science, we speak about the property ‘mass’ and its value such as ’10 kilograms’. Similarly, in the case of sense perception, there is a difference between a property such as color, and its value such as blue. The property is called tanmātra and the value is called bhūta in Sāñkhya.

Sāñkhya and modern science are nearly identical in this respect; they postulate that the external world perceived by our senses has some properties and their respective values. However, in modern science, the physical properties need to be mapped to the properties which the observer can observe whereas in Sāñkhya, the perceived properties (taste, smell, color, etc.) are themselves objectively real.

The Body-Sense Difference

Once we understand the difference between tanmātra and bhūta or property and value, then we need to understand the difference between senses and the property or indriya and tanmātra. Each property is tied to a sense; for example, color is tied to seeing. Similarly, tone and pitch are tied to hearing, odor to smelling, etc. Likewise, each sense can detect many properties. For example, the sense of hearing can measure tone, pitch, and form. The sense of seeing can detect color, form, and size.

Inert matter (such as a table or chair) is tanmātra and bhūta, without senses. The senses are matter too—called indriya—which gives them the power of sensation. This principle applies even to measuring instruments, although the capacity of sensation in an instrument is considerably limited (often to just one type of sensation). For example, a kilogram is an instrument against which we measure mass, but the kilogram does not see or touch or smell.

The Problem of Qualia

Many philosophers of mind question modern materialism based on qualia or the qualitative feel of matter, such as the experience of color, taste, smell, and the experience of pain and pleasure. The debate arises because in science we model the world as physical properties rather than the properties by which we see, taste, touch, smell, or hear the world. So, we don’t say that a material object has taste or smell. We say that it has some mass and charge. Since the body is also comprised of this inert matter—i.e. tanmātra and bhūta—which are modeled as mass and charge, we find it very hard to explain how the world could be experienced as color, taste, smell, touch, sound, etc.

The short answer to this problem is that matter itself must be understood in terms of tanmātra and bhūta, following which we must postulate another kind of matter—indriya—that sees, tastes, touches, smells, etc. If the indriya is sight, then tanmātra is color or shape, and bhūta is blue or square. So, describing matter in a different way opens the door to the understanding of sensation.

Senses vs. Organs

Our organs comprise bhūta and tanmātra. They are like measuring instruments of modern science, except that they measure the tanmātra rather than physical properties. For instance, when the eyes see light, its color is represented as symbols of color codes—red, green, and blue—rather than mass, charge, energy, momentum, position, time, spin, or angular momentum. To understand how our body perceives, we need to change the material properties from physical properties to sensual properties or tanmātra and bhūta. However, this by itself would not be sufficient. We are also required to add to the properties and their values the senses by which they are perceived.

Unfortunately, the words used for the indriya are also used for organs. For example, the word chakśu is the instrument of seeing, and we translate it as ‘eyes’, which leads to the misunderstanding that the senses are the organs. However, during dreaming we don’t use the organs. Then how are we seeing? In Sāñkhya, we are seeing due to the indriya rather than the organs. So, even if the organ is not working, the senses are still working, and they can interact with bhūta and tanmātra directly.

Direct and Indirect Interaction

During the waking state, our senses interact with the brain’s representation of the external world. For example, there is a representation of color created by the organs and the brain. The senses interact with this representation, which then results in an indirect sensation of the world because it is mediated by the organs and the brain. This indirect interaction with the world constitutes our waking state.

During the dreaming state, however, the senses directly interact with the tanmātra and bhūta in the external world rather than the tanmātra and bhūta in the brain. So, the senses can directly attach to the external world, and that direct interaction—unmediated by the brain and the organs—constitutes the dreaming state. The senses can, for example, attach to bhūta and tanmātra beyond a person’s brain.

However, the senses are still in contact with the brain and the organs, even though they are not being used for perception. Therefore, the movement of the senses—as they attach from one object to another—is reflected in the brain and the organs as well. As a result, during dreaming, even though the organs and the brain are not being used for perception, there is eye movement and brain activity. Sometimes a dreaming person may shout or talk, or move their head or limbs. Neuroscientists interpret this to mean that the brain is the cause of the dream, which creates a problem because using this explanation requires us to further explain why sleep triggers this hallucination.

The Existence of Dreams

In modern science, we give an extraordinary emphasis to the waking state and consider that to be the main source of scientific knowledge. In Sāñkhya, however, the waking state is considered the most inferior level of conscious experience. There are three other states—called dreaming, deep sleep, and transcendent—which are successively responsible for even higher forms of knowledge.

Now, some of you might say that sleeping is associated with ignorance and inertia. So, how can it be considered a superior state of consciousness? The short answer is that in the waking state, our perception is dependent on the body—i.e. the brain and the organs. So, it is very tempting to think (based on this waking state) that our perception is being produced by the brain and the bodily organs. This is indeed how modern science thinks. However, when you get into the dreaming state, you realize that you have perceptions even though you haven’t been using the bodily organs for perception. If dreams are understood, then we realize that our senses are different from the body.

So, the dreaming state is superior to the waking state because through dreams we acquire the first empirical insight that there is more to perception than the body (i.e. the brain and the organs). Trying to explain perception based on the body alone not only leads to the problem of qualia but also to the second serious issue that during dreams our organs are not actually being used.

The main issue with the idea of senses is that we cannot observe the senses using the senses, because what we see through the senses is bhūta and tanmātra and not the indriya. This leads us to the paradox that the things by which we see cannot themselves be seen. So, now we require another kind of instrument that can measure the indriya, just like the indriya measure bhūta and tanmātra. Such an instrument is called the manas or mind, which moves from one sense to another. Each sense can measure a different property, but the object is the combination of all these properties. So, to know all the properties, something must move the attention and then combine the sensations into an object concept. The mind is the instrument that combines all these sensations.

Three Aspects of the Senses

Our senses are not always interacting with the bhūta and tanmātra. Even though our eyes may be open, we might not see. Even though the sound may reach our ears, we might not hear. This leads to the question of how ‘attention’ is created. Apart from this silent discarding of sense data, there is active seeking of sensation. For example, we seek certain types of sounds, colors, tastes, smells, etc. This active seeking is due to our desires, and the senses have a hunger for sensation. Anyone who has tried to control the senses and the mind realizes that it is a very difficult process. Why should sense control be difficult if senses are only measuring instruments that observe the world?

Both the absence of attention when sensations could be present, and the active pursuit of sensations when they may not be present, require us to expand our understanding of senses and divide it into three parts, which correspond to the three tendencies of the soul—namely, sat, chit, and ananda. The chit is the easiest to understand; it represents the concept of sight and the activity of seeing (the chit is said to have knowledge and action components). The activity of seeing is a causal interaction between the organ and the external reality. The result of this interaction is the knowledge representation. We combine the two to say that chit involves knowledge and activity.

However, to perceive something, we must attach the sense to the tanmātra and the bhūta. We don’t see when the eyes are open because the sense doesn’t attach to the representation. Similarly, the senses may see, but the mind might put this sensation into the ‘background’ mode. For example, you may be vaguely aware of other voices while talking to someone in a crowded room.

Thus, due to the movement of the mind (over the different senses), we may ignore some sensations that exist in the world. Similarly, due to the motion of the senses, I may not hear someone’s voice because my ears are focusing on another person’s voice. The motion of the mind is different from the motion of the senses, but they produce similar kinds of effects. The motion of the senses over different sense perceivable bhūta and tanmātra represents sat or what we call ‘consciousness’. Similarly, the motion of the mind over the senses (which may themselves be moving over different bhūta and tanmātra) also constitutes ‘consciousness’. They are respectively the sat of the senses and of the mind.

Finally, the ananda of the senses is the hunger for sense perception due to which the senses are driven toward certain types of tanmātra and bhūta. So, the ananda or desire drives the sat or motion of consciousness, which results in a causal interaction (activity of chit) that creates a representation (knowledge of chit). We experience the knowledge, but the previous stages remain obscure.

The Transparency of Mental States

During the waking state, even though the senses interact with the representation of the external world in the brain, we don’t think we are seeing a picture of the world within the brain. We rather think that we are directly seeing the external world. This is called the transparency of mental states and leads to the question of why the map is experienced as the territory. The short answer is that the chit of sense attaches to the brain representation but the sat is still directed outwardly and establishes a connection to the external world.

This is a subtle issue that arises due to atomic theory in which two material particles interact bidirectionally rather than unidirectionally. In classical physics, light is a wave that moves in one direction. In atomic theory, this wave is a particle, and this combination of wave and particle forces us to describe it as a stationary wave that has two components moving in opposite directions (it is no longer a wave spreading uniformly in space, but like a vibrating string that is confined to a finite location in space). We can say that while the bhūta and tanmātra are entering the eyes, the eyes are reaching out to the bhūta and tanmātra. The bidirectional interaction must occur simultaneously, which means that before the light can enter our eyes, there must be a relation between the eyes and the thing that is subsequently perceived.

In Vedic philosophy, it is said that first there is sambandha or relation, and then there is abhidheya or exchange. This abhidheya is cognition, but it is preceded by a relationship. The senses establish a relation to the external world and are outwardly drawn, following which there is an interaction between the external bhūta and tanmātra and the sense organs which creates a representation, that then results in a cognition. In a sense, we decide the thing we are going to know before we know it. Since the relation is direct but the cognition is indirect, the waking experience is not a precise understanding of the external world. The dreaming experience is far more precise.

The feeling of transparency during the waking state arises because our relationship is to the external world, so we think that we are knowing the external reality, even though what we actually perceive is the brain representation. In short, the sat is pointing externally and we can say that our consciousness is outwardly drawn, but the chit is focused within the brain and the cognition is based on that. During the dreaming experience, both the sat and the chit are drawn outwardly, so the feeling of transparency is more real in this case.

Many Kinds of Motion

Note how I have used the analogies of motion and applied them to the senses and the mind because there are many kinds of motions. Modern science studies motion in the external world. Sāñkhya, however, indicates how senses move from one bhūta and tanmātra to another and how the mind moves from one sense to another. To study these new kinds of motion—and create new sciences—we need to understand our perception. This science is relevant materially because it becomes possible to explore how the mind and senses can attach to unseen realities. The same science is relevant spiritually because by knowing the sensual/mental motion we can learn to stop it!

Sense control is difficult because lust resides in the senses. Each sense has an innate proclivity toward certain types of sensations. The mind also has a proclivity toward certain types of thoughts. The intellect prefers certain beliefs, the ego prefers certain goals, and the moral sense prefers certain moral values. All these biases or preferences are not under conscious control. Rather, they exist in the senses, mind, intellect, ego, and moral sense, and push consciousness toward different bhūta and tanmātra, and therefore the person is driven by this lust as if he or she lacks free will. Thereby, even though free will exists in this world, it is practically very difficult to see its effects because of material desires. These desires force us in different directions and are compared to horses pulling a chariot in different directions.

Sense and Mind Control

Many methods are described to obtain control over the senses. One method says that to control the senses, we must control the mind. If we focus the mind and make it steady, such that it stops moving over the different senses, then the senses will also stop moving—even though there is desire. This method forms the ashtanga-yoga process, but it is very hard to control the mind. In fact, the desires of the senses are so strong that they drag the mind as well. Due to these desires, it becomes hard to control the senses, or withdraw them from perception, because they are constantly seeking to unite with certain types of bhūta. And the sense motion then causes the mind to also move.

Another method called buddhi-yoga or jnana-yoga says that we should try to control the intellect and focus it only on that which is eternal and true, rather than which is ephemeral and false. We might note here that the senses obtain different sensations and the mind combines them together into an object. For instance, the sense of smell gathers odor and the sense of sight gathers color and shape and the mind combines them into a single object-concept of an apple. The intellect then judges if this concept is true based on its previous repository of beliefs. For instance, the senses might perceive some red, round, and sweet. The mind then combines them into an object. And the intellect then (through recall from memory) judges if the mental cognition is true. If we can control the intellect through knowledge, then it will reject the false ideas of the mind and focus the mind on the truth alone. As the mind is controlled, the senses are also controlled. But the problem is that the acquisition of knowledge is hindered by constant distractions produced by the senses and the mind. Therefore, acquiring firm knowledge—before we can use it to control the mind and the senses—becomes a long-drawn process and not always effective.

Finally, bhakti-yoga recognizes the existence of desires in the senses, mind, and intellect, and doesn’t profess us to discard them. It says that we should transform these desires from lust to love. Lust is selfish, and love is unselfish. When desires are selfish, they are frustrated because there is constant conflict between my desires and the desires of other individuals. If, however, the desires are unselfish, then this contradiction between various desires is resolved, and stability is produced. Thus, the mind and senses are focused because the desires are satisfied rather than frustrated. This is also sense and mind control but achieved by their transformation from lust to love.

The primary purpose of the Vedic descriptions is to attain this sense and mind control and engagement. But underlying this purpose is the understanding of different kinds of motions of the body, senses, mind, and intellect, which can also be scientifically studied.