A paradigm shift is usually associated to a dramatic change in the way we view things around us, and how we relate to them. Such a significant change occurs when we find that a socially or scientifically accepted theory is insufficient to describe certain phenomena we experience. In order to explain them, we come up with newer, more refined theories in an attempt to rationalize these anomalies. In this regard, the mystery of consciousness and its origin have always eluded a complete, rational, socially accepted scientific theory .The intention of this article is to bring this fundamental subject into focus and analyze it in the light of ancient Vedic scriptures which provide us a wealth of knowledge about this elusive subject. They provide us a framework where we can categorize different states and levels of consciousness along with their symptoms, and hence we can attempt to explain the existing phenomena using this information. This approach is a top to bottom deductive method as opposed to the bottom to top inductive method usually adopted in modern scientific undertakings. It will also help us map our position in the multitude of life forms in nature, so that we understand our real potential. Equipped with this awareness, we can effectively chart out a plan to practice a way of life which channelizes our mental and spiritual energies, to raise our collective consciousness to the next level and beyond.
What is consciousness? In the simplest terms, it is the indispensable component that differentiates an inert lump of earth from a living, breathing and procreating living being. It can also be thought in terms of awareness of the surroundings where you live, or an acknowledgement of your relationship with the environment and other living beings, or being cognizant of the changes that you go through and the changes that you cause to take place. It may not be limited to these basic symptoms of life, but as we carefully analyze all forms of life around us including ourselves, gradually we find some common features across all of them, and some features which differentiate them from each other. In fact, it may be an infinite iterative process, because in this case the end and means both are the same: consciousness. To fully understand your current level of consciousness, you need to reach a higher level of consciousness. Then again to fathom your new level, you need to keep pushing yourself to higher and higher levels. Does this have an end? Is there an absolute level of consciousness, to which everything else is relative?
“A problem cannot be solved from the same level consciousness, which created it in the first place.”
- Dr. Albert Einstein
So let us try to solve this question, by attempting to reach the next level. The most fundamental axiom of Vedic knowledge is the awareness that an individual is not the body but a spirit soul. He is an entity who has no birth or death, because he always existed and will always exist.
na tv evaham jatu nasam
na tvam neme janadhipah
na caiva na bhavisyamah
sarve vayam atah param
(Bhagavad Gita 2.12)
“Never was there a time when I (Lord Krishna) did not exist, nor you (Arjuna), nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.”
dehino 'smin yatha dehe
kaumaram yauvanam jara
dhiras tatra na muhyati
(Bhagavad Gita 2.13)
“As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.”
So we see that the first shift in consciousness occurs when we understand that our existence is not limited to the short lifespan between a single birth and death, but it is a series of births and deaths of the material body, whereas the soul in all these bodies is the same entity. Seen from the point of view of eternity, this awareness has very deep implications on the way we lead our current life and the decisions that we make before committing ourselves to a particular course of action. It also has a deep impact on the value system that guides our everyday interactions and choices.
“Development of our consciousness and our destiny depend on the values that we hold sacred in our lives.”
- HH Radhanath Swami
If we think that this is the only lifetime we have, then we might compromise on some moral codes for the sake of enjoyment, without worrying for the reactions of such actions. This new paradigm also to some extent explains why certain people are born with certain traits, talents and inclinations. It may explain the prodigious children who start showing their genius at a very early stage, and also the phenomenon of people being born with disability. According to the new paradigm, these anomalies can be attributed to a “carry over” effect from the previous life. It can be explained in terms of an action-reaction duality of not just this present lifetime, but a complex web of actions and reactions accrued over many previous lifetimes including the current one.
yam yam vapi smaran bhavam
tyajaty ante kalevaram
tam tam evaiti kaunteya
(Bhagavad Gita 8.6)
“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, O son of Kuntī, that state he will attain without fail.”
The next shift in paradigm occurs when we realize that all living beings have the same underlying essence of life in them, despite external variations in their bodies. What is this underlying essence which unites all living entities? To understand this, let us analyze the activities that are common to both humans and other forms of life.
· Eating (source of energy, may vary from something as simple as sunlight, to as complex as 100 varieties of cooked food)
· Sleeping (the biological activity where the living being rejuvenates the entire body. Even and plants and lower forms of animals do sleep! )
· Mating (procreating to produce offspring)
· Defending (The basic survival instinct of a living entity to protect itself and its dependants, may vary from a simple cell wall in bacteria to sophisticated guided missiles and atomic weapons of mass destruction).
This analysis has been mentioned in one of the most widely read histories of the ancient world, The Mahabharata :
samanyam etat pasubhir naranam
“Among humans and all other life forms: Eating, sleeping, mating and defending are common activities”.
Further, all living entities undergo the same cycle of birth, old age, disease and death. According to the Bhagavad Gita, All living entities from the highest planet to the lowest planet in the universe have to undergo this cycle and no one is exempt from it.
punar avartino 'rjuna
mam upetya tu kaunteya
punar janma na vidyate
(Bhagavad Gita 8.16)
“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kuntī, never takes birth again.”
The essence in all these living entities is the imperishable soul, which does not undergo mutation or change even when the body changes. The essential characteristic of this soul is truth, knowledge, and bliss. This is codified as Sat-Chit-Ananda in Vedic teachings, meaning the real, enduring fundamental essence of all life. In the ancient Brahmanical teachings the terms sat,chit, ananda, were used to signify the state of what one may call the Absolute: sat meaning "pure being"; chit, "pure thought"; ananda, "bliss," and these three words were compounded assachchidananda. Now the next question arises: if all living entities have the same underlying essence and they undergo the same cycle of birth and death then what differentiates us from the other species? What is our special place in the myriad variety of life forms which thrive on this planet?
The answer to this leads us to the next paradigm : The human form of life is a connecting bridge between the lower forms of consciousness (plants and animals) towards the higher forms of super-consciousness and beyond, towards the supreme absolute truth. The Vedantic philosophy urges our intellect with the aphorism: Athato Brahma Jignyasa. “Now that you have this human form, you must inquire about the absolute truth”. If we accept this statement as it is, then we must also accept the simple truth that the goal of our life is to inquire about the absolute truth and lead our lives in a way which enhances our consciousness towards this supreme goal. What differentiates us from the other forms of life is the ability to reason, the ability to intelligently analyze our surroundings and ascertain our position in the infinite creation. The Vedic classification of consciousness puts us at the center of the hierarchy. Interestingly, evolution is also implied in vedic teachings, but not the evolution of material bodies (from animal to human), but an evolution in consciousness.
· Avrit (The covered consciousness of plants and lower forms of life)
· Sancucit (The shrunken consciousness of animals)
· Mukulit (The budding consciousness of humans)
· Vikasit (The mature consciousness of higher forms of living entities and demi-gods which control the universe)
· Purna Vikasit (The completely mature and pure form of consciousness which is the basis of the entire creation, which is changeless and immutable.)
It is important to note that despite all our scientific knowledge and all our technological advancement, we have still not been able to move from the budding stage to the mature stage of consciousness. This flaw in our civilization is basically because we have given undue importance to material advancement and totally neglected our higher duty as humans, which is to cultivate our consciousness and move to the next level in evolution. We have made progress, but unfortunately in the wrong direction. We have guided missiles, but misguided men driving them. As a result of this fundamental flaw in our collective conscience, what we are experiencing is a large scale discord between man and nature and an ecological tipping point of disaster. It is almost as if we are sitting on a time bomb, which is ticking away furiously, and which may explode anytime without any prior notice.
The entire system of Vedic civilization is designed so that gradually the human being can develop his consciousness and connect himself to the absolute through this revealed knowledge of scriptures. Through this endeavor he can slowly free himself from the duality of birth and death and the misery of old age and disease. The ultimate goal in this system is to attain a position which is non-mutable, which is eternal and which is beyond all duality. Having attained such a state the person becomes fully satisfied and blissful. On the other hand if we use our intelligence and reasoning power only to carry out the less important propensities of eating, sleeping, mating and defending, then we are wasting the human potential, which can lead us to higher states of existence, beyond duality and misery. The path has been enunciated for us very clearly and unambiguously. To rise up the ladder of spiritual evolution or fall down is completely our own choice. And we may not be as lucky next time to get this human form again, so it is better to make hay while the sun shines!