Prashant Sharma psharma at BUPHY.BU.EDU
Sun Apr 19 02:15:31 CDT 1998

Parisi & Watson wrote:

> [...]
> Nisargadatta writes (paraphrased) that only 'I-am' is certain; 'I am
> this or that' is inference. We begin with the 'I' which is the Witness
> or Subject, and all other objects of our experience are just that:
> objects, rather than subjects. Since not only our bodies, but also our
> minds, thoughts, and feelings are experienced by us as objects of our
> awareness, they are fundamentally different from the 'I'. From this he
> concludes, not only that we are not our bodies or minds, which are mere
> objects of the experience of the 'I', but also that we are not in the
> world, but the world is in us. Since we know anything only by
> experiencing it as part of the contents of our field of consciousness,
> and since the field of consciousness is not the 'I' but is rather
> perceived by and contained in it, the 'external' world exists only by
> virtue of the 'I'. Therefore only the 'I' is real, being unitary and
> without attributes or action; all else is transitory and ephemeral,
> being only passing contents of the experience of the 'I', which is the
> substrate of all Being.
> My reservations about Advaita begin here, for the simple reason that all
> of the above remains equally true even if we assume for the sake of
> argument that the Western view is correct, and consciousness is a
> biological function of the physical organism. Descartes pointed out
> three hundred years ago that only 'I am' or 'I exist' is certain, and
> that all else is possibly mistaken inference. So the basic impulse
> behind Advaita has been aired in the West (obviously much later than in
> India), but without drawing the same conclusions.


>  It may be objected, "We are not talking about the mind, since the mind
> is not the 'I', but rather is experienced by the 'I'. We are talking
> about consciousness itself. The mind is a portion of the contents of
> that consciousness." Obviously there must be a valid distinction between
> medium and contents; when I change my mind about something, I don't
> thereby become a different person (although it could be argued that I am
> a changed person). But here again, the same distinction is valid under
> the materialist view, however without ascribing to the medium a
> radically different nature than everything else in the world.
> Consciousness, instead of being a totally different substance, is seen
> as the high level result of extremely complex and intertwined organic
> functions interacting both with each other and with the rest of the
> world. There is still an important distinction between medium and
> contents, despite the fact that the medium is in a sense also part of
> the contents.
> Beyond these considerations, there is a mountain of evidence that not
> only the mind, but also consciousness itself is affected by changes in
> the physical organism. It's a well known fact that certain drugs can
> produce altered states of consciousness, ranging from the terrifying to
> the quasi religious. We also know that various kinds of damage to the
> brain, both from injury and disease, can not only affect the way we
> experience the world, but also the quality of our own sense of self. And
> last but not least, damage to the nervous system can destroy the
> capability even to sustain consciousness itself. Why would this direct
> dependency, which anyone can easily demonstrate with a hammer, exist if
> consciousness were prior to the physical organism?

  That the immediate sense of self awareness  is a biological product is
not being denied by Advaita VedAnta.  What it does deny is that this
consciusness is some absolute eternal entity.  The Self, to which intellect
points, is not a biological product at all. This is best appreciated (IMO)
by reading the BrhadAraNyaka Upanishad, especially the dialogue between the
sage yAjnavalkya and his wife MaitreyI. When MaitreyI asks if she can ever
be immortal, the sage points out the meaningless nature of the question.
In replying to MaitreyI's question regarding the nature of the eternal
Self, the sage proceeds by first giving examples that are illustrative of
unification or dissolution .  In so doing he shows that the universe is
nothing but Brahman.  Finally the sage describes the Self in the following
way : "As a lump of salt thrown into water only dissolves into water and
none of it can be picked up, but water everywhere acquires a saline taste,
so this endless reality is only homogeneous intelligence.  On account of
the bodily elements, the self stands out seperately, and as soon as these
are destroyed, its seperate existence is also destroyed.  After attaining
isolation it has no particular consciousness".
     Further light is shed on the nature of Self in the debates between
yAjnavalkya and gArgI, UddyAlaka and other sages.  In all these debates the
Self is defined by denying it attributes.

> Why? Because the same
>   premises can support multiple conclusions. It's a given that we can perceive.
> We can  observe our thoughts and feelings in an uninvolved, detached way. But
>   under the so-called materialist (a misnomer) assumptions, these facts
>   would obviously remain. Does the fact that a camera can take a picture
>   of itself via a mirror prove that it has some essence that can't be
>   photographed? Similarly, even if consciousness is a biological function,
>   we would not only admit, but would also expect that the mind would be
>   capable, not only of perceiving external objects, but also of
>   experiencing its own workings, at least in a partial and superficial
>   way. In other words, the mind may not know or perceive 'how' the mind
>   works, but we would still expect it to experience directly 'that' it
>   works, even in the materialist view.
      Can the mind desist from asking the question "how " it works? It
cannot.  Therefore, how  can the materialist view point be correct if it
cannot answer all the questions?  Advaita VedAnta  promises to answer all
questions that the mind raises in such a way that all the questions are
'burned' in its brightness -- they are answered once and for all and never
arise again.  Therefore, it is the only truth.

Prashant Sharma.

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