The modern scientific study of matter arose out of the mind-body duality created by Descartes, who wanted to separate the endeavors of the Church (i.e. religion) from those of a rational-empirical inquiry (i.e. science). Similar kinds of dualities have existed in Vedic philosophy too. For example, in Advaita philosophy, Brahman is conscious but matter or māyā is jada or inert. Many Vaishnava philosophical systems also distinguish between soul and matter as chit and achit or conscious and non-conscious. However, these doctrines go contrary to the timeless traditions of treating matter as Sakti, Durga, Devi, etc. In light of these contradictions, we must reconsider the idea that matter is non-conscious.
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Material Energy is Divine
In the Bhagavad-Gita, Lord Kṛṣṇa makes several seemingly contradictory statements (emphasis mine):
bhūmir āpo ’nalo vāyuḥ
khaṁ mano buddhir eva ca
ahaṅkāra itīyaṁ me
bhinnā prakṛtir aṣṭadhā
Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence, and false ego – all together these eight constitute My separated energies.
apareyam itas tv anyāṁ
prakṛtiṁ viddhi me parām
yayedaṁ dhāryate jagat
Besides these, O mighty-armed Arjuna, there is another, superior energy of Mine, which comprises the living entities who are exploiting the resources of this material, inferior nature.
ahaṁ kṛtsnasya jagataḥ
prabhavaḥ pralayas tathā
It is to be understood that these (matter and spirit) are the source of all embodied beings. I am the whole, the origin of the world and similarly (or thereafter) the destruction.
daivī hy eṣā guṇa-mayī
mama māyā duratyayā
mām eva ye prapadyante
māyām etāṁ taranti te
This divine energy of Mine, consisting of the three modes of material nature, is difficult to overcome. But those who have surrendered unto Me can easily cross beyond it.
The following is the quick summary of the above four verses which lead to the contradiction:
- Material energy is called bhinnā prakṛtir or “separated nature” (BG 7.4)
- The soul is called para prakriti (superior) and matter is called aparā prakriti (BG 7.5)
- Lord Krishna says that He is the whole truth, the cause of both matter and the soul (BG 7.6)
- Finally, the material energy is called divine, but also the cause of bondage (BG 7.14)
Thus, both matter and soul are part of God (the whole truth), but matter is “separated”. Matter is initially called inferior (and the soul is called superior) and then matter is also called “divine”.
Flaws in the Matter-Consciousness Distinction
How can matter be a part of God, and yet be referred to as separated nature? How can matter be inferior and yet divine? This problem has never been addressed satisfactorily. Since the goal of life is to transcend the material world, therefore, the “separated” and “inferior” doctrines are given importance, whereas the “part of God” and “divine” claims are ignored even in many personalist philosophies. The preference for the former types of claims leads to the familiar distinction between chit (conscious) and achit (non-conscious), and this starts mimicking the mind-body duality of Western philosophy.
However, all such discussion about mind-body dualism, or the differences between matter and consciousness, fail to explain the interaction between the two and ultimately prove to be fruitless. The conscious vs. non-conscious doctrines are also false because the material energy is personified as Durga or Sakti, and the Shakta system is a legitimate part of the Vedic tradition. Calling the material energy non-conscious creates a serious problem, because matter is depersonalized and impersonalized.
Hence, whether we adopt a scientific or a theistic approach, the stark distinction between chit and achit proves detrimental. It is scientifically problematic because we cannot conceive of a process of interaction between two disparate kinds of entities. And it is problematic from a religious perspective because in religion matter is indeed personalized, rather than depersonalized or impersonalized.
The correct approach would be to recognize a single category, but this category cannot be matter (in the sense that it is understood in modern science). That category must be consciousness. However, within this category, there can be distinctions between three kinds of consciousness—matter, soul, and God. Therefore, after renouncing the debates about how ‘consciousness’ is different from ‘matter’ we must discuss about the different types of consciousness. From the statements in the Bhagavad-Gita, there is a ‘whole’ consciousness, which has two kinds of parts—one superior and the other inferior, one assimilated and the other separated, one that causes bondage and the other that is liberated.
The Similarity Between Matter and Consciousness
Before we discuss the differences between these three kinds of consciousness, we must understand their similarity. The similarity is that all consciousness exists in three modes. There are many names by which these modes are called, but for sake of simplicity here, I will call these the universal, individual, and contextual modes. The universal mode represents concepts, and the original concept is ‘knowledge’. Knowledge further divides into a ‘knower’ and a ‘known’. The knower then divides into the ability to value, intend, judge, interpret, and perceive. Each of these then further divide into the abilities to hear, touch, see, taste, and smell. And then each of these concepts divides into many further subparts. Corresponding to these abilities in the knower, are the possibilities of knowing these things, which means that there are values, intentions, judgments, meanings, and sensations (which then have five parts). Collectively, all these concepts—beginning with the concept of ‘knowledge’—constitute what we can call the ‘universals’ in the sense that everyone intuitively understands these things.
The second mode of consciousness is the individuality, which means that there are many instances of knowers and knowns, and each universal concept of knowing is instantiated into many individuals. These individuals are also qualitatively different by their personalities of likes and dislikes. When nature is depersonalized or impersonalized, then, these distinctions between individuals are not accepted. We just accept that there are universals and they have many instances of the universals, but these individuals are identical. For example, in modern science, we accept that there is a universal property called ‘mass’, and this property exists as individual particles. The particle, however, has no personality, like or dislike. It acts according to predefined laws of nature and is hence achit or non-conscious.
The third mode of consciousness is contextuality, which means that the many instances of the universals relate to each other and interact with each other. This interaction is called “force” if matter is depersonalized, and it is called “knowledge” and “activity” in the case of consciousness. The difference is that under “force” everything interacts with everything simultaneously, and under conscious interactions, the knowledge and activity is limited to certain limited number of individuals. Such limited and occasional interactions are also observed in atomic theory, but because science grew out of the idea that everything moves due to force, and the force is exerted by every individual or every other individual, therefore, the limited and occasional interactions present unresolved problems.
In one sense, the three modes are recognized even in matter—(1) there are concepts, (2) there are individuals, and (3) there are interactions. In another sense, the main problem is that the individual is stripped of all personality; the knower is modeled just like the known; and the interactions are universalized rather than contextualized. Stark differences between matter and consciousness appear due to the flawed conceptions of universality, individuality, and contextuality. The claim that matter is achit means that matter is only the known, but not the knower. When two particles interact, it is not because one particle “knows” about the other, but because the particle experiences a force.
This force is like the ability in consciousness to act, but the action is different from knowledge. The difference is that a conscious observer knows about the world, formulates goals, and then acts according to the goals. If there is no knowledge, or if there is no goal, then there is also no action.
This problem is not merely philosophy; it has a profound scientific counterpart in the inability to determine the distribution of energy in the universe. Just as you can divide the water in a bucket into innumerable buckets in innumerable ways, similarly, the total energy in the universe can be divided into planets, stars, and galaxies in innumerable ways—consistent with the laws of nature. In short, science is incapable of predicting which of the innumerable distributions of energy is real. Even if a distribution is given at the present, the future distributions of matter or energy are in principle unpredictable.
To overcome such incompleteness, we must say that matter too has a purpose—it presents itself as one of the innumerable possible distributions. That purpose necessitates knowing—before a distribution is selected, it must exist conceptually for it to be chosen. And the conceptual existence requires an occasional and selective relation—we can pick one out of the many possibilities by a relation to that possibility. Now, change occurs because a possibility is picked from the collection of all possibilities.
The knowing of the possibilities requires a knower. The ability to choose one of the many possibilities requires a relation to that possibility. And the decision of which possibility is chosen requires a goal. In short, the solution to the problems of prediction in science is that matter is a type of consciousness. That similarity would collapse the stark mind-body or chit-achit divides. We would now say that matter is also a type of consciousness, and the difference between matter and consciousness would have to be conceived as different types of consciousness. On the other hand, if we don’t accept this similarity, then we have no way of completing scientific predictions. We can keep saying that consciousness organizes energy into a world, but how matter interacts with consciousness will remain unresolved.
The Difference Between Matter and Consciousness
Once we get past the stark differences between matter and consciousness and acknowledge that each of them has the same basic capacities of knowing, acting, individuality, and relations, then we can talk about their differences. The basic difference lies in their personality which leads to differences in free will.
To understand this idea, think of the relation between a master and a servant. For the moment, let’s suppose that the servant is faithful to the master, and does precisely as the master desires. By subordinating his will to the master, the servant acts out of its own will, and yet, we can say that that servant has no free will because everything is working according to the will of the master. The crucial difference is that the master can simply indicate what must be done, and the competent servant knows how to achieve that goal. The knowledge of the master would now be described as “what must be done” and the knowledge of the servant would now indicate “how it must be done”. Assuming for the moment that there is only one master and one servant, the “who” is also determined—the master determines what must be achieved, and the servant determines how it must be achieved.
The material energy is thus described as a “servant” of God. Since this material energy does precisely what the master desires, therefore, in one sense we can say that matter has no free will or personality. When this idea is extended, then it is incorrectly said that matter is “inert”—i.e. it even doesn’t have the capacity of knowing. Matter is now reduced to known things, which act according to ‘natural laws’. This depersonalization of matter is based on a mistaken idea of free will as “independence”.
Vedic philosophy however describes matter as “dependent” on God, and yet “separated” from God. The dependence is that God’s free will decides what will happen, and the separation is that how things will happen is independently decided by the material energy. Now, some people might say that if matter has free will, then each time we conduct an experiment, the process of achieving a result would change. For example—if a particle needs to move from point A to B, then due to choices it must follow a different path each time. But this is a flawed notion of choice. Choice doesn’t mean irresponsibility. There are always good, better, and best ways of doing things. The best method of motion is that particles should follow the “shortest path” between two points, although any path can in principle be used.
The laws of classical physics are framed in terms of “least action principles” which is a mathematical statement of the use of the “shortest path”. In all philosophical and scientific explanations, we assume Occam’s Razor—i.e. that the simplest answer is the best answer. Why should the shortest and simplest path be always followed when any arbitrary path or complicated explanation will also do? Modern science assumes such principles of optimality, simplicity, and parsimony. But there are no a priori reasons for supposing that these are indeed true. The reason such assumptions work is because nature is itself defined as the principles of optimality, simplicity, and parsimony. When these principles are accepted as the personality of material energy, then the choices are determined by that personality.
As a system gets more complex, the same principles can be applied in many ways. For example, think of a carpenter who has been given some wood, nails, and a hammer to craft some chairs. Clearly, the carpenter needs more tools—e.g. a saw—to effectively build chairs. But in principle, the chairs can also be built with limited tools. The carpenter can decide if he wants to spend some time building the best tools, and then use them to build the best chairs, or build the chairs with the currently available tools. If lots of chairs must be built, then effective tools are clearly the more optimal solution. But if few chairs need to be built, then using the current tools is the most optimal trajectory. Therefore, the definition of optimality involves a choice: (a) focus on the short-term, or (b) focus on the long-term. Too much long-term focus means the short-term would be very suboptimal. And too much short-term focus means that the long-term would be very suboptimal. The choice in nature is how the long- and short-term goals are balanced. There are many ways of creating this balance, and that is the choice in matter. Each such choice creates different matter distributions.
Finally, the choice in the soul is which situation he wants to participate in, subject to its qualification to participate. This choice doesn’t change what will happen, or how it will happen, but only who will do what.
Three Types of Consciousness
When matter is treated as something inert, then either the question of what, who, and how is left to the observer (e.g. the soul), which begs the question of why the soul suffers in this world if it has all the control over matter. Alternately, if all the questions are reduced to the study of matter, then two problems are created: (1) there is no deterministic theory that is also complete, and (2) even if such a theory existed, we would be permanently condemned to enjoy or suffer with no hope of changing our life or destiny. Finally, if God is the controller of the world, then the soul’s suffering is due to God.
Therefore, we must reject the extremes of (1) matter being inert and under control of consciousness, (2) matter being fully determined leaving no room for choice, and (3) matter being controlled by God leaving no room for the prospect of independence in the soul. We must also reject the duality of matter and consciousness as two fundamentally different types of things, because that presents the problem of their interaction.
The correct solution is that the soul, matter, and God are all consciousness, but they are also different personalities—which means that they are not just individuals, but the nature of their choices is different. God’s choices determine what will happen (i.e. the goals), matter’s choices determine how it will happen (i.e. the trajectory to the goals), and the soul’s choices are who will participate (i.e. which person walks on which trajectory to which goal). The question of what will happen is ‘superior’ to the question of ‘who’ will do it, which is again superior to the question of ‘how’ it will be done.
This idea is described in the Bhagavad-Gita as the soul sitting on a chariot: the chariot is going to a destination, and the soul decides to sit on that chariot. A train would be a better example, as trains have a fixed destination (whereas chariots do not) but we can also work with the chariot example if we understand that the soul changes chariots one after another, which is like saying that the person changes trains to reach a destination.
When we understand that matter is also consciousness, then we can accept the idea that matter is “divine”. When we accept the idea that the question of who is superior to the question of how, then we can understand why matter is “inferior” and the soul is “superior”. Since the soul is often stuck to the chariot because alternative chariots are not available, therefore, we can understand how matter is the cause of “bondage”. And when we understand that the question of what leads to the other questions of who and how, then we can say that God is superior to both matter and soul and is the cause of both.
Thus, the descriptions in the Bhagavad-Gita about matter being the cause of “bondage” and “inferior” to the soul are not contradictory to matter being “divine” energy and therefore a “part of God”. However, unless the nature of consciousness and choice is clarified, these claims seem contradictory.
The Differences Between Material and Spiritual Worlds
The above said differences between matter, soul, and God are not the only differences. One prominent difference between matter and spirit is that the material world is always conflicted and competitive whereas the spiritual world is always reconciled and cooperative. Hence, Durga is the mistress of war, Lakshmi is the mistress of prosperity, and Radha is the mistress of love. They are all called Sakti, and they are all persons—hence they are all conscious beings. But there are significant differences in their personalities, and the worlds they create are also the worlds of conflict, prosperity, and love.
The mistress of war is the “separated” or “external” energy, while the mistress of love is the “integrated” or “internal” energy. This is not a very difficult idea; we fight wars with those whom we consider different from us, and we love those whom we consider to be part of us.
And yet, they are all divine and part of God, although the mistress of love is superior to the mistress of prosperity, and the mistress of prosperity is superior to the mistress of war. This superiority and inferiority is defined relative to the nature of God Himself. God prefers His loving nature to His opulence to His propensity for war. Love, opulence, and war are abilities in God, but He prefers one ability over another. Why? There is no answer to this question. This is the nature of God and defines His persona. We can theoretically argue about how love is better than war, but some people might prefer war over love. We can theoretically argue that a life of love lived in a hut is better than an loveless life lived in a palace, but some people prefer the palace to love. The judgment is therefore reserved to God’s preference, and since His preference determines superior and inferior, therefore, ultimately, all notions of superiority and inferiority, divine and demonic, bondage and freedom, etc. are simply based on the preference, choice, or the persona of Krishna.
The important lesson from this description is that the differences between matter and consciousness are not as stark and severe as are often made out to be (in all systems of philosophy). God is capable of both love and war, but love is superior to war. Krishna displays these aspects when He engages in loving relationships and creates wars. Just as love and war are His aspects, similarly, material and spiritual natures are also His energies. The correct understanding of matter is not that one is chit and the other achit. They are both chit. And yet, the chit of love is superior to the chit of war. Hence, any description of matter that begins with the idea that matter is unconscious is patently false. And yet, since such ideas are pervasive, we must exercise caution in understanding the nature of matter. Matter and soul are both consciousness, but they are also different types of consciousness.