Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Conference on Spirituality and the Science of Consciousness

Interesting conference of “Spirituality and the Science of Consciousness” in Kolkata at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture. This is the second time I have come here, both times in the somewhat awkward position of being Swami Veda Bharati’s representative and thus more or less as an observer and student.

Last year I was somewhat aware of the rather odd cultural disconnect that I felt in the surroundings of an ersatz Western institution, reproducing in me memories of aspects of my old Jesuit-run high school, like the auditorium and refectory. The use of English language and European dress in a milieu that was 95% Bengali also seemed somewhat strange. Also, the aging and somewhat eccentric nature of much of the audience was particularly evident.

This year, however, I was more conscious of other aspects of the Ramakrishna Mission. First of all, the institution seems to be very well run. Things are clean, on-time; staff is polite and helpful, etc. But more particularly I was thinking about the very nature of the conference itself. Over the past 8 years, the mission has held five such “international conferences” on the subject of consciousness, with slightly differing themes. International because a number of the speakers do come from outside India or from non-Bengali speaking parts of India, and use the English medium to write or communicate their findings.

This year’s two-day conference had a grand total of 23 speakers, from a number of different fields, including a few very skeptical scientists, presenting a rather wide range of views. Swami Atmapriyananda, who I believe is the rector of the Belur Math’s “deemed” university, gave a rather eloquent summing up at the end by refering to the passages of the Upanishads that talk about the “dearness of the self.” He said that though the scientists and different spiritual seekers from different schools may have differing points of view, and though we may come to no conclusions, still there is great joy to be had by inquiring into the nature of the self, or consciousness itself.

Roughly speaking, the speakers at the conference could be divided into three categories. There were the scientists who were involved in studying consciousness from some point of view or another. Then there were spiritual practitioners and philosphers who were interacting with the scientific research in some way, and finally those who simply summarized the point of view of a particular school of thought.

Both last year and this, I remarked on the absence of any representative from any Vaishnava school, what to speak of Chaitanya Vaishnavism, which seemed to be an oversight. I went and spoke to Swami Sarvabhutananda, the director of the RMIC, and he simply said he could not find anybody. I told him that I would supply him with a list of people so that the oversight would not take place again.

But then I had to think about whom I could recommend. What representative of Gaudiya Vaishnavism could speak to the subject? Satya Narayan Dasji is really the only one I could think of, though there are probably some within and without Iskcon who could do so.

A cursory look at the Ramakrishna Mission bookstore shows a rather wide variety of books from translations and commentaries of Sruti and Smriti texts, to historical texts discussing the founders of the RKM as well as scholarly studies of various aspects of community, society and spirituality. Overall, the scope is much wider than one would expect to find in a typical Gaudiya Math or Iskcon bookstore.

The value given to education and a Western approach to study, or at least an interaction with Western rationalism, is a feature that has to be admired. Though the RKM sannyasis who spoke—Swami Prabhananda, Swami Sarvabhutananda, Swami Bhajanananda, Swami Atmapriyananda and Swami Sarvapriyananda all showed remarkable erudition, and all defended the Advaita position, they were all quite competent in dealing with the issues under examination in the conference. And it must be remembered that whatever the Vaishnavas’ disagreements with them, as Vedantists we are allied with the Mayavadis in our acceptance of the irreducibility of consciousness.

I think it would be worthwhile sharing some of the material that was discussed and will try to find time over the next couple of days to summarize some of it.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

...and all defended the Advaita position, they were all quite competent in dealing with the issues under examination in the conference...

You cannot cross the same river twice.

You cannot see the same mirror reflection twice.

You cannot find even the same snowflake twice, yet some people insist the nature of all is motionless, and always same.

All because someone, sometimes, told some new lie that makes all who accept it freeze imagination and live all the same lives.

Oh, how pitiful and lame.

Zvonimir said...

The value given to education and a Western approach to study, or at least an interaction with Western rationalism, is a feature that has to be admired. Though the RKM sannyasis who spoke—Swami Prabhananda, Swami Sarvabhutananda, Swami Bhajanananda, Swami Atmapriyananda and Swami Sarvapriyananda all showed remarkable erudition, and all defended the Advaita position, they were all quite competent in dealing with the issues under examination in the conference. And it must be remembered that whatever the Vaishnavas’ disagreements with them, as Vedantists we are allied with the Mayavadis in our acceptance of the irreducibility of consciousness.

It's somehow odd to see someone embracing Western approach to study, like those gentlemen, yet failing to see the best accomplishments in West are based on process theology and the process of evolution (species, thought, idea, etc.), both based on conclusions coming from both Western and (today we can broaden it) universal syllogism.

In his 'Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture', Jaroslav Pelikan reveals how the image of Jesus created by each successive epoch -- from rabbi in the first century to liberator in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries -- is a key to understanding the temper and values of that age. Or looking at it another way, how each age shaped the image of Jesus. We see Jesus much differently today than a first century Jew would have. And of course, such an approach allows us to observe and analyse word 'Jesus' from many different perspectives.

Perhaps as a Westerner I see a Vedantic thought as evolution of understanding of the world as history progresses, starting from bronze-age polytheism, influencing Buddhism, then Sankara's advaita monotheism, further into more complex avenues of thought explored by Ramanuja, Madhva, Vallabha and even further Chaitanya.

But Indians somehow fail to see that each consecutive iteration brings forward a more comprehensive and better outlook on reality (and that the outlook on reality is best description what reality truly is -- a process), comparable to, for example, universes described by Ptolemy, Kepler, Newton and Einstein -- each one superseding the other, retaining some ideas of the previous model in one sense but always revealing something fundamentally new.

So, are gentlemen at Ramakrishna Mission really doing anything new, even by allegedly using Western methods? Sadly, not at all. And that's the sad truth of almost all Eastern views, including wider Vaishnaism and all forms of Buddhism -- figuratively, they only change shirts sometimes, but not taking a shower beforehand. They see their doctrines immutable in time, although mutations, as a visible side-effect of evolution, is the fundamental principle of life. It's almost like they reset the time line at certain stage of their liking and stick with it.

Sadly, this is all very far from any kind of rationalism indeed. Quite the opposite.

Jagat said...

Dear Zvonimir,

All ideas are simply being repackaged. Materialistic monism, which sees consciousness as a product of matter, is far from being a new idea. It is simply that science has given the true believers of “promissory materialism” a new elan.

What I was appreciating in the RKM was their engagement with the ideas. You should not make the mistake of thinking that Advaita is static, though its basic premise or insight may be.

I don't know enough about process theology to really speak to your point, but my inclination is to think that in the broad lines of the dialectic thought, general tendencies are pretty well defined. Meaning that nothing is really new.

Where consciousness itself and the interaction of science and theology on this issue is concerned, I am a neophyte, but the extremes of materialist or spiritual monism both present problems that are recognized by all but the most obtuse in both camps.

As far as consciousness studies amongst Vaishnavas is concerned, the Bhaktivedanta Institute seems to be the best on offer in this particular realm. But I don’t know what kind of work the BI is doing these days.

Zvonimir said...

As far as consciousness studies amongst Vaishnavas is concerned, the Bhaktivedanta Institute seems to be the best on offer in this particular realm. But I don’t know what kind of work the BI is doing these days.

I'd be interested to see that too. They used to be at strange odds with Western science, sometimes beyond stubbornness and neck deep in the waters of literalism (impossible to construct Vedic planetarium being a perfect example). However, I find a great bond between the philosophy of acintya bhedabheda and modern scientific thought.

If one just sits down quietly and free the mind of preconceptions, the vast number of evidence supporting their natural link is almost overwhelming, leaving ideas like advaita in the dust of evolutionary past.

I'm not sure if you have noted, but URK book deals with this too, briefly in pages 84/85, 92/93, etc., showing not only natural evolution and better understanding of acintya bhedabheda is possible, but is both directly and indirectly confirmed. Both Steve and myself go in that direction, quite strongly.

So I think we have partially spotted the problem -- if you a priori ignore something as irrelevant, like modern medical, philosophical and scientific insights, you cannot see possibilities. State of denial is a widespread phenomenon among GVs and that's why no one can find any interest or enthusiasm to represent its thought in such conferences.

And that would be a good example of process theology, which naturally brings forth another caveat -- once you go forward and explore, you inevitably change. Using Heraclitus' metaphor, that wouldn't be the same GV as it was today, or centuries ago. It would assume much more of a universal character and appeal.

Hesitant Iconoclast said...

Interesting post. If I could, I'd help you with selecting a few names in and out of ISKCON to recommend to them for the next conference.

However, I've been engaged in my own journey to find out what exactly are the religious (Vaishnava?) positions on consciousness and it's function? And more importantly, do they have anything to contribute to current scientific understandings of consciousness? From my own readings of the scriptures I haven't come across anything of real use. The Upanishads make some interesting remarks here and there, but the subject doesn't seem to have been discussed in depth given that the text quickly relates all things to Brahman.

I've also wondered what someone such as Satyanarayan das would have to constribute to such a discussion. In ISKCON I expect Steven Rosen (Satyaraja) would be the obvious choice, but in my interactions with him so far he seems to take very much the party line that science is evil and only spirituality has all the answers.

So, generally speaking, I have been quite disappointed in my search thus far, which is leading me to think that 'spiritual' conferences to discuss scientific processes like consciousness are of little or no use. It's nice to know that the RK folks attempt to do so though. I can certainly agree with Swami Atmapriyananda's comment.