The following excerpt is from a blog by a student who attended one of Devamrita Swami’s talks at Melbourne University. It raises a common objection to the existence of spiritual reality.
“Reincarnation is a really common part of Vedic and Sramanic religions (Buddhism, Jainism, Sihkism, and Hinduism, which is broadly speaking the heading that ISKCON falls under), which holds no water with me. Unsurprisingly, reincarnation faces many of the same philosophical problems as heaven.
“The biggest one is that it requires a soul…This is essentially the same as classic Western dualism, at least as far as I can see. The idea is that our physical bodies are really only one aspect of ourselves. When we die, our soul/atman carries on and with it our identity, in some sense at least.
“This is the sense in which we are reincarnated – our bodies don’t move on, just this atman. There are many questions that this raises: how does it relate to the body? How does it relate to the mind?…
“…if my body and my atman do have a causal relationship (that is, that one can cause changes in the other), they must have some common ground. Descartes thought this connection was in the pituitary gland, but that doesn’t really solve the problem. How can the physical and the spiritual interact?”1
A Response by Sachi Dulal
Most of us live our lives under the influence of the thesis that our thoughts, ideas, and emotions have causal power. Every self-help book that has been written is based upon this principle: By changing our intentions we change our behaviour. The heinous crimes of a despotic dictator would surely cease to move us to indignation if we learnt that factors beyond his control entirely predetermined his behaviour. Yet this was the claim of classical physics—the worldview that achieved prominence during the seventeenth century due to the work of Sir Isaac Newton. Pol Pot could hardly help himself from murdering thousands of his fellow Cambodians, because the interactions of microscopic mechanical elements in his brain completely determined his actions. The upshot: Human beings are mechanical robots. Our thoughts, feelings, and ideas are causally inert and cannot influence our behaviour.
More than eight decades of cumulative evidence in quantum mechanics have long since falsified this central claim of mechanistic determinism.2 But the fact that the materialistic precepts of classical physics still hold sway in the general intellectual milieu is hardly surprising to anyone familiar with the trails of human thought. Evidence rarely changes our paradigm—we see what we want to see.
In responding to this student’s questions, I will briefly highlight the evidence for reincarnation before addressing the deeper issue at hand: How can the physical and the spiritual interact?
The Evidence for Reincarnation
Doctors at the University of Virginia Medical Centre have uncovered some of the best evidence for reincarnation. For the past forty-five years they have conducted exhaustive investigations into young children’s reports of past life memories. The pioneering founder of this work, the late Canadian psychiatrist Ian Stevenson (1918-2007), served as head of the Division of Personality Studies at the University of Virginia. With the scientific community his target audience, Stevenson spent forty-five years investigating cases of small children who claimed to remember previous lives. Stevenson complained that these cases were reported so frequently that his staff could not keep up with them.
In almost 3000 cases collected from every continent that they did manage to keep up with, Stevenson was able to confirm the existence of a deceased person who corresponded with a particular child’s memories. The staggering details of these memories allowed Stevenson to track down the identity of the child’s previous birth and confirm the details. On some occasions he was able to take children to the exact location they talked about—where his investigation had already uncovered a person who lived and died exactly as the children described. The children effortlessly made their way through a foreign neighborhood, and correctly identified their previous house, possessions, relatives, and friends.
For Stevenson, the cases that provided the strongest empirical evidence for reincarnation were ones involving biological correlation. To demonstrate this conviction, he published Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects, a mammoth work of more than 2200 pages, which detailed 225 cases in which children who seemed to remember a previous life had birthmarks or birth defects that corresponded to features from the life of the “previous personality.”
Stevenson’s impeccable academic reputation for meticulously detailed research has been difficult to ignore, and scientific periodicals such as the American Journal of Psychiatry, the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, and the International Journal of Comparative Sociology have published his work. Even the American Medical Association, undisputed in size, influence, and tradition stated in its journal that Stevenson had “painstakingly and unemotionally collected a detailed series of cases in which the evidence for reincarnation is difficult to understand on any other grounds…He has placed on record a large amount of data that cannot be ignored.”3 Dr. Jim B. Tucker, a child psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, is now directing research into children’s reports of past-life memories at the Division of Personality Studies. In his book Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives he explores the various features of this worldwide phenomenon, describing a number of such cases from around the world. At the end of the book, Tucker concludes:
“Our cases contribute to the evidence that consciousness can survive death in at least some situations, and this is surely a more important finding than any specific ones that we may discern. This means that each of us is more than just a physical body. We have a consciousness as well that is capable of surviving the death of that body. If we change the terminology from consciousness to spirit, then we can say that we all have a spiritual component along with our physical bodies.”4
In his 1995 publication, The Demon-Haunted World, eminent cosmologist Carl Sagan wrote, “At the time of this writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers, (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images ‘projected’ at them, and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.”5 Given Sagan’s materialistic convictions, the remark is gracious. It will not be impudent of you to observe that there are other kinds of evidence worthy of serious study, the most important of which—our own self.
The Soul is Not the Mind
In his first book, A Treatise of Human Nature, Scottish philosopher David Hume narrated his experience of trying to discover his self. Looking within, Hume reported witnessing a collection of sensations, images, emotions, and thoughts—a collection in a perpetual state of flux. Failing to discover an enduring entity within all that he witnessed, Hume declared that the idea of an unchanging self was a chimera, a palliative fantasy meant to relieve the anxieties of philosophical toddlers. If you happen to belong to the camp of toddlers then don’t fret. Help is at hand. Krishna scholar Ravindra Swarupa Dasa argues how:
How could Hume have missed himself? Was he being willfully obtuse? Imagine him conducting an inventory of his mental contents, like an auctioneer appraising the contents of an estate up for sale. He walks through each room, examining each object. Picking it up, setting it down. Looking for something in particular. “Is this myself? Is this? Is this?” After an exhaustive search, he reports—truthfully enough—that he didn’t find it.
But who is looking? Who is inspecting this memory, this joy, this love, this fear, this regret, this ambition, this or that train of thought? David, you could not find your self in all that because none of that, taken separately or all together, is your self. The self is not the seen but the seer, not the experience but the experiencer. You are not even David Hume, but rather the experiencer of being David Hume…we are no more to be identified with our minds than with our bodies. The mind belongs to the category of the not-self as much as the body does. Both mind and body are material, the former being merely finer or subtler than the latter. Vedic seers know this, but Western philosophers have conflated the spiritual and the mental; “mind” and “soul” are synonymous. David Hume discovered in the Treatise that the mind was not the self, but he drew a false conclusion: there was no self, no soul, at all.6
The Vedic solution to the mind-body problem begins with a clear demarcation between ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness.’ The soul is not the mind. The Vedic texts indicate that mind is a subtle material element and is not the source of consciousness. Rather, consciousness is the energy of the soul. From the ancient Krishna perspective, many philosophers misidentify the contents of consciousness —the transformations of the physical and the mental—with consciousness itself. But the Vedic texts hold that consciousness is the ground of all content—whether physiological, psychological, or combinations of both.
Having brought the soul in from the cold, we might as well invite Krishna, the Supreme Soul, in too—an invitation made all the more necessary to understand how the physical and the spiritual interact. As the source of all energies, Krishna is all-pervading in space and time, yet, is simultaneously transcendental to space and time. In the Bhagavad-gita (9.4 and 9.5), Krishna explains His simultaneous immanence and transcendence:
By Me, in My unmanifested form, this entire universe is pervaded. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them. (Italics added) And yet everything that is created does not rest in Me. Behold My mystic opulence! Although I am the maintainer of all living entities and although I am everywhere, I am not a part of this cosmic manifestation, for My Self is the very source of creation.Krishna’s all-pervading presence in the material realm is known in Sanskrit as the Paramatma or the Supersoul—the presence of the Supreme, the Complete Whole, within the finite. The Upanishads describe the role of the Supersoul:
“The one Supreme Lord lives hidden inside all created things. He pervades all matter and sits within the hearts of all living beings. As the indwelling Supersoul, He supervises their material activities. Thus, while having no material qualities Himself, He is the unique witness and giver of consciousness.”7
“Two companion birds sit together in the shelter of the same tree. One of them is relishing the taste of the tree’s berries, while the other refrains from eating and instead watches over His friend.”8
Krishna, as the Supersoul, resides in everything, from subatomic entities to the universe as a whole, but material conditions do not affect Him. In the Upanishadic analogy quoted above, the two birds are the soul and the Supersoul. The tree is the body, and the tastes of the berries are the varieties of sensual pleasure born of the body that are available to the soul in the material cosmos. Paramatma, the Supersoul, is the watching bird, the detached observer, who witnesses the activities of embodied souls and supplies them with the knowledge, memory, and forgetfulness they need to enact their desires.
The Body-Mind Problem
The French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes, speculated that human beings possess a non-physical mind that directs the actions of their bodies. Descartes went on to propose that matter has the properties of extension and location in space, but mind does not. Consequently, many people have rejected the Cartesian duality of mind and matter because it is impossible to see how an entity with no spatial properties could interact with something located in a particular position in space. However, a “nonphysical entity,” as mathematician and Vedic scholar Richard Thompson pointed out “does not have to be devoid of all physical properties. We have tried to formally define what is meant by ‘nonphysical’ by…the idea of numerical indescribability. We say that an entity is numerically indescribable if significant features of the entity cannot be represented in numbers. Yet this does not imply that the entity cannot have any measurable properties at all. Consciousness provides our archetypal example of numerical indescribability.”9 Indeed, according to the Vedic version, the conscious self is localized within the body. The Mundaka Upanishad (3.1.9) states thus:
“The conscious self is atomic in size and can be perceived by perfect intelligence. This atomic self is floating in the five kinds of air [prana, apana, vyana, samana, and udana], is situated within the [region of the] heart, and spreads its influence all over the body of the embodied living being. When the self is purified from the contamination of the five kinds of air, its spiritual influence is exhibited.”
Nicolas Malebranche and Arnold Geulincx, two of the principal followers of Cartesian philosophy, developed a model of how mind and matter, two distinct entities, could interact. They did this through the philosophical principle of occasionalism. Philosopher David Ray Griffin writes:
“According to this doctrine, on the occasion of my hand’s being on a hot stove, God causes my mind to feel pain, which leads me to decide to move my hand. My mind, unfortunately, cannot cause my body to move any more than my body could cause my mind to feel pain. On the occasion of my deciding to move my hand, accordingly, God obliges, moving it for me. All apparent interaction between mind and body is said to require this constant supernatural intervention.” 10
The Vedic model of consciousness-mind-body interaction is similar to the one proposed by Malebranche and Geulincx. Philosopher of science and author of Human Devolution, Michael Cremo explains:
In the Vedic model, mind (a subtle kind of matter) is placed along with ordinary matter on one side of the Cartesian divide. The soul, a unit of pure consciousness, is placed on the other side. The question still arises, how can any connection between the soul (consciousness) and matter in its two forms (ordinary matter and the subtle material mind) be established? The key is the Supersoul. The Supersoul is the ultimate source of the souls of living beings as well as the mind element and ordinary matter. The Supersoul monitors the desires and intentions of the souls of living beings and causes mind and matter to transform in response to those desires. The Vedic model also incorporates the property dualism of Spinoza, who proposed that there is actually only one substance, spirit, that is perceived differently according to its application, just as electricity can be used to heat or cool. The Supersoul possesses a spiritual potency which it can deploy in different ways. The spiritual potency when deployed to cover the original spiritual consciousness of the individual soul is known as matter. But the same potency can be changed back to its original spiritual form by the Supersoul. 11Sentient beings inhabit bodies composed of many atoms, each with soul and Supersoul. But in this condition the manifestation of the soul’s consciousness is heavily obscured. However, the bodies of living beings also contain a dominant soul-Supersoul pair which is the soul and Supersoul not of a single atom but of the complete organism, giving the organism as a whole a developed individual consciousness connected to the universal consciousness of God.
“Explanatory power,” mathematician John C. Lennox has observed, “is just as important, if not a more important criterion for the validity of a scientific theory, than simplicity. Sometimes simpler theories have been discarded because they did not have sufficient explanatory power. It was, after all, Einstein who said: ‘Explanations should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.’” 12
How much explanatory power, then, does the Vedic model of consciousness-mind-body interaction have?
Dean Radin, senior scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and many other researchers have proposed that living systems participate in a reality which includes both upward and downward causation—one in which states of matter can influence states of consciousness and vice versa. Radin suggests that a model of this system “might place quantum or subquantum physics at the bottom and a ‘spirit’ or ‘superspirit’ at the top.” 13 In his book The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena, Radin describes what an adequate physical theory of living systems might look like:
The theory will have to explain how information can be obtained at great distances unbound by the usual limitations of space or time…Such a theory must also explain not only how one can get information from a distance in space or time, but also how one can get particular information…The theory must account for why we are not overwhelmed with information all the time…The theory must also explain how random processes can be tweaked by mental intention…The theory of psi should explain phenomena associated with evidence suggesting that something may survive bodily death. These phenomena include apparitions, hauntings, out-of-body experiences (OBE), and near death experiences (NDE)…The theory may need to account for poltergeist phenomena, which provide the primary evidence for large-scale mind-matter interaction effects. 14Michael Cremo has explained:
A theory based on the Vedic model of the cosmos, could account for all of the above. Matter, mind, and individual spirits emanate from God. God enters into each atom and accompanies each individual spirit as the Supersoul, or Paramatma. The Supersoul, by definition, is present in all phases of time and space, and is simultaneously beyond time and space. The Supersoul is also all knowing. Therefore, through the medium of the Supersoul, knowledge can be transmitted from one spirit to another beyond the usual limits of time and space. There are many examples of this in the Vedic literature. The Bhagavad-gita (15.15) says that it is from the Supersoul that each individual soul gets memory, knowledge, and forgetfulness. The Supersoul can therefore control the kind and amount of information that comes to each individual soul, whether through normal or paranormal means. Since the Supersoul is present in each atom of matter and is at the same time aware of conscious intentions, it is possible for the Supersoul to produce the effects associated with random number generators. Responding to the desires of experimenters and the intentions of subjects, the Supersoul could cause more ones or zeros to come up in the course of the experiments. The Vedic model, which posits the existence of an eternal conscious self (atma), would explain evidence for survival of bodily death. According to the Vedic model, the eternal conscious self, if it does not return to the spiritual level of reality, remains in the material world covered by a subtle mental body. This mental body is composed of a subtle material element (mind) that can, by the agency of Supersoul, affect ordinary matter. This would explain poltergeist effects and apparitions. The mental body also includes a subtle sensory apparatus, capable of operating without the assistance of the ordinary bodily sense organs. This would explain the visual perceptions that subjects report during out-of-body experiences. 15The mental body described in the Vedic texts actually consists of three elements—mind, intelligence and false ego—the most subtle material element, which acts as the interface between consciousness and matter. Readers wishing to acquaint themselves with the entirety of the self-mind-body interaction described in the Vedic texts may turn to the pages of Human Devolution where Michael Cremo draws upon the ancient spiritual encyclopedia Shrimad Bhagavatam to depict a more thorough version. The detailed version provides an even more subtle and refined model of self-mind-body interaction in the environment of a multilevel cosmos, divided principally into regions of gross matter, subtle matter, and spirit. It also allows one to integrate evidence from the entire gamut of human experience, including humanity’s wisdom traditions, into an exhaustive synthesis, offering fruitful lines of research confirming and refining a complex model of self-mind-body interaction.
The explanatory potential of the Krishna model has not gone unnoticed. “The possibility that this ancient way of viewing Nature might be useful in science,” distinguished quantum physicist Henry P. Stapp has remarked, “arises in the context of contemporary efforts to understand the empirically observed correlations between conscious processes and brain processes.” 16 Noting that modern science’s concepts of mind and matter constrain such efforts, Stapp finds it helpful that the self-mind-body triad described in the Krishna ontology, more technically known as the Gaudiya Vaishnava Vedanta (GVV) ontology, clearly distinguishes between the knower and the known:
“GVV accommodates these ideas in a straight-forward way by making a clear distinction between the subjective conscious knower, the spiritual ‘I’, and a mental realm that contains certain things that he can know directly. This mental realm, in contrast to the Cartesian realm of mind, is material: it is constructed out of a subtle kind of matter. The introduction of this second material level, mind, provides…a basis for coherently extending the mathematical methods of the physical science from the gross physical world into the realm of mind, while leaving intact the knower, or self.” 17
Overall, Stapp considered GVV ontology to be “internally consistent and compatible with the available scientific data.” 18
1 The entire blog entry can be found at http://whitedevilsophistry.com/tag/devamrita-swami/
2 For an elaborate discussion of this topic see Henry P. Stapp, Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer 2nd Ed. (Heidelberg: Springer, 2011).
3 Journal of the American Medical Association, 1 December 1975, as quoted in Cranston and Williams, Reincarnation, x.
4 Jim B. Tucker, Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006), 229.
5 Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (New York: Random House, 1995), 302.
6 Article first published in Back to Godhead magazine in 1991; Available at: http://soithappens.com/2008/11/18/pointing/
7 Shvetashvatara (6.11), Gopala-tapani (Uttara 97), and Brahma (4.1) Upanishads.
8 Shvetashvatara Upanishad (4.6), Mundaka Upanishad (3.1.1-2)
9 Richard L. Thompson, Mechanistic and Nonmechanistic Science: An Investigation into the Nature of Consciousness and Form (The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1981), 44-45.
10 David Ray Griffin, Parapsychology, Philosophy and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 105.
11 Michael A. Cremo, Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwin’s Theory (Torchlight Publishing, 2003), 240-241.
12 John C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2007), 173.
13 Dean L. Radin, The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena (San Francisco: Harper Edge, 1997), 261.
14 Ibid., 278-280.
15 Michael A. Cremo, Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwin’s Theory (Torchlight Publishing, 2003), 239-240.
16 Henry P. Stapp, A Report on the Gaudiya Vaishnava Vedanta Form of Vedic Ontology (Berkeley: Bhaktivedanta Institute, 1994), 1.
17 Ibid., 9.
18 Ibid., 3.