In the first part of this article we have discussed Swami Vivekananda’s approach to the perception of reality, the pursuit of happiness and the conflict between evolution and the degeneration of man from the religion’s perspective. Now we will take a closer look on his elaborations on the mind-body-problem, the concept of the soul in Vedanta and its implications for individuality and morality.
Does consciousness arise from matter or the other way round?
Two major philosophies are based upon the proposed answer to the question what the fundamental quality of our existence is. Materialism says everything is made from physical particles. Mind and even consciousness are secondary qualities that arise from matter. Until now even among the proponents of this idea the question remains open how complex an organism has to be and what conditions must be met that “dead” matter suddenly produces a conscious mind. The other position is idealism which proposes that the fundamental quality is spirit or consciousness – or at least something immaterial.
Now in the 21st century it is not as easy as it once seemed to just assume all scientists were materialists and all religious approaches were idealist. There existed even Indian schools of philosophy and religion who were strictly materialist. And some modern physicists have a suspiciously idealist approach to their subject. Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg may be some of these. I remember a TV documentary where Heisenberg compared the materialist atom school of thought by Democritus with the philosophy of Plato who stated geometry was the fundamental quality of the universe. As a young researcher Plato’s ideas seemed absurd to Heisenberg, but later in his life he would admit that the universe really looked more like Plato’s geometry in the microscopic.
What modern physics tells us is: Matter when “zoomed in” is not full of a real thing per se but more a field of fundamental forces that follow certain rules and create the three-dimensional appearance of our world. Also quantum mechanics and those string theories that are currently discussed appear more like a set of rules to me, raw information that constitutes matter or energy on the larger scale. So maybe the materialists and idealists are no more far away from each other even without knowing it.
Vivekananda’s arguments is one of simplicity – similar to Ockham’s razor which states the easier approach that needs less assumptions should be preferred assuming everything else is equally plausible. Vivekananda says if matter creates consciousness, what kind of force or idea constitutes the structure of matter? There must be basically three entities: consciousness, matter, and this force that constitutes the rules and structure of matter. The idealistic approach requires only two entities: the spirit or immaterial that manifests the body which is basically the same entity as human consciousness. So he claims that idealism needs less entities. Of course this view is not undisputed – if it was, we would not be discussing, but I appreciate his way of reasoning.
Atman – the Soul
So what is this immaterial thing that creates the universe and manifests through the human body according to Advaita Vedanta? It is the soul – Atman in Sanskrit, a cognate to German “Atmen”, to breathe. Vivekananda tries to give a short description of this Atman and its qualities referring to the ancient Vedic texts. It has neither form nor shape, therefore it must be omnipresent as any form or shape would require a limit where the thing starts and ends. Time, space, and causation are in the mind – the Atman is beyond mind and therefore beyond space, time, and causation. What is beyond those properties of the universe, has to be infinite.
It is important to understand that mind and soul are not the same in this philosophy. The soul is infinite, the mind is a limited immaterial entity that arises from the soul and carries our thoughts. Our body is the entity that is manifested by the Atman in the material plane.
One is tempted to think that according to this philosophy everyone had a soul with a mind and with a body. Yet Vivekananda confronts the reader with a challenging idea: If the Atman is infinite, there cannot be two of it. If everything in your physical head is thought and sensed by your mind which is a product of the infinite and omnipresent soul – where would be the place for a second soul? The infinite cannot be divided. So Vivekananda concludes the Real Man is one and infinite – the omnipresent Atman. Thus the idea of separate souls and minds in the apparent man are only an illusion.
Every particle of the mind constantly changes, the thoughts we think are always changing. Our minds and bodies do not stay the same, but the Atman does as the infinite cannot change. Vivekananda encourages people to be aware of this unlimited self and not to believe in the false idea that we were bound and restricted.
The concept of one universal soul might scare people who are afraid lose their individuality. But is there individuality after all, a constant set of body, mind, personality? Those things are constantly changing. All molecules in the human body are replaced after about seven years. Your mind, your so-called personality, are steadily effected by emotions and events. You do not have the same mind as you had years ago, for sure. The only thing that remains is the one who watches. Or how Vivekananda calls him: “the eternal subject of everything, the eternal witness in this universe.” The subject stays the same, the objects which include your body and your mind are changing.
Again: Evolution or Degeneration of Man?
The discrepancy between the degeneration of man and the biological evolution that Vivekananda elaborated on in the first part of the chapter, can be solved by the following metaphor: The apparent man is only a dim – degenerated – reflection of the Real man; the apparent man is bound and finite, at least he thinks so. Suppose the Real man is hidden behind a screen and there is only a small hole – what is seen through this hole is the apparent man. Evolution increases the hole. You see more and more, you believe what you see is becoming more developed and complex. Yet it has always been there, perfect and infinite. Only the apparent manifestation seems to be increasing.
Be nice to others
What is the greatest moral implication of the concept of the Atman? It is the abnegation of egoism. If you are the universe and the universe is one, then there is a natural reason to do good to others. Only doing good to your body by harming others will damage your real self. So there is a good reason for true altruism. It is more than acting nicely because you hope others will reciprocate your doings. Harming others would mean to harm your real self. If you believe in the concept of Atman, you are inclined to behave well towards others – not because someone says so or gives you a lecture about good behavior. You do it because it is a logical implication.