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Consciousness in Deep Sleep, Science and Shastra

Question: I have heard that in the Gauḍīya sampradāya, the ātman is conscious as well as aware of itself. In Advaita Vedānta, the ātman is mere consciousness. Can you please explain how the ātman is aware of itself since in deep sleep we are the awareness (consciousness) but still not aware (conscious) of anything?

Answer: The problem with hearing is that you are not sure whether what you have heard is right, partly right, or wrong. When you pose a question, please refer to śāstra. This is my request. Otherwise, it becomes my responsibility to defend what you have heard. Or, it is better that you ask those from whom you hear these things.

Question: I apologize for not giving references. I read it in your short e-book called “The Self and Free Will in Chaitanya Samprayada.” I am quoting it here.

Ātmā possesses consciousness and is self-aware

Ātmā is not mere consciousness. It is an entity that possesses consciousness. It is consciousness itself, and it possesses consciousness. Therefore, it is described as “self-luminous” (svayam-prakāśa). Objects like a table or a book, for example, are not self-illuminating. They need to be illuminated by a light source before they can be seen. A light bulb, however, is self-illuminating, it illuminates itself as well as objects in its vicinity. But a light bulb is not aware of what it illuminates, because it is insentient, inert. Ātmā is not only self-illuminating but also self-aware. Ātmā illuminates itself and the body, and is conscious of the things it illuminates, including itself. For this reason, ātmā is called cid-rūpa, “sentient by nature.” Although self-luminous like a bulb, however, ātmā does not reveal the body to others, but only to itself. This concept of ātmā is in contrast to the notion of Advaita Vedānta, where ātmā is proclaimed to be mere consciousness, rather than possessing consciousness. In that school consciousness is only seen as the nature of ātmā, but not as its attribute.

How are we (the ātmā) self-aware in deep sleep? According to Advaitins, we are just pure awareness, not being aware of anything (in deep sleep). The ātmā is not aware of itself in Advaita Vedanta. How are we self-aware in deep sleep, according to the Gauḍīya sampradāya?

Answer: So your question is only about self-awareness in deep sleep. What about in the wakeful state? Are you not aware of yourself in the wakeful state? Do you need help of someone else to tell you that you exist? Certainly not. 

We are all aware of ourselves in the wakeful state. Therefore, we use the word “I” to refer to ourselves. This sense of “I” belongs to the ātmā. In the conditioned state, we identify with our body and mind, therefore, we also use the word “I” to refer to these. If the ātmā did not have the sense of “I,” it would not be able to identify with the body etc. To identify with something, first you have to have the sense of “I.” Otherwise, who is identifying with whom? This does not need deep philosophical knowledge. If we have the sense of “I” in the wakeful state, it should also be present in the state of deep sleep. There is no reason for it to disappear in deep sleep.

So the ātmā has a sense of “I” in deep sleep also but it is not aware of it because it is disconnected from everything. That is why when one wakes up, one only remembers, “I slept well.” Such remembrance is only possible if one has experienced it. Experience is not possible without the sense of “I.” And the sense of “I” is not possible without consciousness.

 

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Question: Why do our scriptures clash with the pratyakṣa pramāṇa of science? A few things seem similar but a major part of the śāstra is contrary to our direct experience. Can you elaborate on this?

Answer: To which direct experience are you referring specifically? Unless you refer to something specific, how can I answer you?

Question: Can you explain the 8.4 million species mentioned in the Purāṇas?

Answer: Very interesting question. Now can you tell me how it clashes with the pratyakṣa pramāṇa of science? Has science counted the total number of species all over the universe? I am not aware if this. Assuming that that they have done so, please give the number as per the pratyakaṣa pramāna of science.  When śāstra says there are 8.4 million species, you also need to consider if the definition of śāstra for species matches with that of science. My understanding is that they do not match. The word used by śāstra is yoni, which is loosely translated as species. But śastra says there are some 400 000 yoni of human beings. This certainly cannot pertain to “species”. What it really means is body types.

What I am most amazed is that you wrote: “A few things seem similar but a major part of the śāstra is contrary to our direct experience.” And when I asked you to list the contradictions, you came up with just one, and you did not give any proof of the contradiction. 

 

Discrepancies Between Shastra and Science

Question: A devotee scholar explained that when śāstra clashes with pratyaksa, we should accept modern science when it comes to descriptions of Vedic cosmology, and not be literal fanatics of śāstra. I am confused by this. Why should we accept the arguments of NASA for the moon landing and the shape of the Earth as absolute truth?

Answer: Yes, no need. But then you should be able to explain the visible phenomenon like the cycle of days and night, change of seasons, solar and lunar eclipses, etc. Moreover, we have the word Bhū-gola in Sanskrit, which means round earth.

Question:  Śrīmad Bhāgavata describes in Fifth Canto Bhūmaṇḍala, Jambūdvīpa and our position in Bhārata-varṣa. In Mahābhārata is described how Arjuna went through other varṣa of Jambūdvīpa and with Kṛṣṇa along the whole Bhūmaṇḍala. Are we supposed to think that all this is a myth?

Answer: No.

Question: My mindset as a devotee is to believe in śāstra, rather than in the explanations of scientists. Nowhere in śāstra is stated that we live on a spinning ball in a dark universe. Quite opposite, it is clearly stated that we live on the southern tip of Jambūdvīpa, in one of nine varṣas – Bhārata-varṣa.

Answer:  That is perfectly fine, but you must also describe where the other varṣas are. Where is the Jambū tree which has fruits of the size of an elephant? Where is the Jambu-nada, the river made from the juice of these Jambū fruits? Where are the oceans of milk and liquor? [ Devotees will be happy with the milk ocean and the nondevotees with the ocean of liquor !] Where is the Meru Mountain, which 80000 yojana high? You also must explain the process of day and night as well as the making of the seasons. All this need to be explained.

Question: Thinking that these descriptions are just realizations of elevated yogī’s and that our reality is that which NASA tells us is really destroying my faith. “This Bhāgavata Purāṇa is as brilliant as the sun, and it has arisen just after the departure of Lord Kṛṣṇa to His own abode, accompanied by religion, knowledge, etc. Persons who have lost their vision due to the dense darkness of ignorance in the Age of Kali shall get light from this Purāṇa. How should we, lost persons in the Age of Kali will get light from this Purāṇa if descriptions are not reality?” (SB 1.3.43)

Answer:  The above verse is talking about Śrīmad Bhāgavata giving light to those who have lost their vision out of ignorance. There is no mention about teaching astronomy. Kṛṣṇa did not come to teach cosmology. He came to establish dharma (Gītā 4.7, 4.8). I have not read anywhere that He comes to teach cosmology or astronomy. Thus the Bhāgavata, being a representative of Kṛṣṇa, has appeared to teach about dharma. If you want to learn cosmology from a book of dharma, you will be frustrated. It is like trying to learn quantum mechanics from a biology book. Vyāsa tells in SB 1.1.2, vedyaṁ vāstavam atra vastu, and in 1.1.3, pibata bhāgavataṁ rasam ālayam. Every śāstra describes its subject (viṣaya) and object to be achieved (prayojana) in the very beginning. We have to study that carefully and then read the śāstra, keeping these two things in mind. Vyāsa has mentioned these in the first three verses of the first chapter. To know more about these two subjects, please read verses 1.7.4 – 7, which describe the samādhi of Vyāsa. Śrīmad Bhāgavata is an explanation of Vyāsa’s experience in samādhi. To understand   this better, please read verses 2.10.1 and 2.10.2. Here the list of the ten topics described in Śrīmad Bhāgavata is given. Astronomy or cosmology are not included here. Moreover, the first nine topics are secondary. They are meant to explain only the tenth topic, which is Kṛṣṇa. The last quarter of verse 2.10.2 is noteworthy. It explains that these topics are described directly as well as indirectly (to put it in simple words). This means that not everything in Śrīmad Bhāgavata is a literal description.

This is made clearer in SB 12.3.14, especially with the words vaco-vibhūtīr na tu pāramārthyam. To get an idea of what Śrīmad Bhāgavata describes, consider SB 12.13.12, 12.13.18, 12.5.1. Was Parīkṣit bitten by a real snake or saṁsāra-sarpa—a snake in the form of saṁsāra (SB 12.13.21)? These are statements from the Bhāgavata itself.

Question: We are confused enough in this material world and thinking that Śrīmad Bhāgavata adds just more confusion is too much for me.

Answer: Śrīmad Bhāgavata is not adding confusion. But Śrīmad Bhāgavata is also not a storybook that you can read yourself in your leisure time and understand. It is the last work of Vyāsa, and it is the one that gave solace even to Him. There is a common saying among Sanskrit scholars, vidyāvatāṁ bhāgavate parīkṣā—one’s scholarship is tested if one can explain Śrīmad Bhāgavata. It is said to be an explanation of Vedanta-sūtraVedānta-sūtra is a brilliant work that gives the essence of Upaniṣads. It cannot be understood by self-study. Similarly, to understand the message of the Bhāgavata, one needs to study from a qualified teacher. Śrī Jiva Gosvāmi wrote Bhāgavat Sandarbha, a set of six books, just to explain the meaning of the Bhāgavata. Even his work needs further explanation. So the Bhāgavata is not adding confusion, but if we feel confused by it, then our approach to it is defective.

Question: Other varṣas are physically located north of Bhārata-varṣa. Great personalities as described in Śrīmad Bhāgavata and Mahābhārata traveled to other varṣas of Kimpuruṣa, Harivarṣa, Ketumāla, and others. This is not what we could perceive with our limited senses. Modern science could not prove the recordable curvature of the Earth, spinning of the Earth, landing on the Moon, etc. And why do high-speed jets never need to adjust their craft for curvature? There is no direct chain of evidence or observation. My understanding is that the descriptions and dimensions in the cosmology section of Śrīmad Bhāgavata are factual but beyond human logic.

Answer: When I asked where the other varṣas are, I did not expect a citation from śāstra but to hear from you where they are physically located. After all, with the inventions of airplanes and spacecraft, we know a lot about physical reality.

Why are neither Bhārata-varṣa nor the other varṣas visible, although it seems Arjuna went there? We know that north of Bhārata are the Himalayas, which are visible, and north of the Himalayas is China. This is also visible. Where is China in the picture provided by you? And where do the invisible varṣa begin? I mean, we have some visible parts, so where exactly does the invisible one begin? Is it right after the Himalayas? If yes, why is China not described in your picture? If no, then is China part of Bhārata-varṣa? If not, whose part is it?

But in any case, you have made an important statement, “This is not what we could perceive with our limited senses.” So this is what carries the solution to the discrepancy between the descriptions of śāstra and science.

Question: I heard the cosmological descriptions given in the Purāṇas are ādhidaivika, but you also mention on your website that the Bhāgavata Purāṇa contains kāvya. Therefore, parts of it could be literary devices. Is there some reference from the ācāryas or the Bhāgavata, where Purāṇic cosmology is labeled “ādhidaivika“?

Answer: There is no statement in the Bhāgavata per se. There is no label given to it. It is understood by pāriśeṣa-nyāya—or the principle of the remainder. The description is certainly not ādhibhautika, because it does not match our experience. Ādhibhautika is what we can experience with our senses. It can also not be wrong, because the Bhāgavata is pramāṇa—that which gives authentic knowledge. This being the case, we are left with the choice that either it is ādhidaivika, subtle, or ādhyātmika, spiritual. It cannot be ādhyātmika because it is part of the material world. So by the principle of the remainder, it can only be ādhidaivika.

Śrīmad Bhāgavata indeed describes objects at these three levels, and it describes things indirectly, as understood from verses such as SB 2.10.2. The description of the universe found in the Fifth Canto is the understanding through yogic vision. It is the understanding of sages like Śukadeva, and not of ordinary people like us. This is confirmed by Patañjali in Yoga-sūtra (3.26) bhuvana-jñānaṁ sūrye saṁyamāt, “By doing saṁyama on the Sun, the yogī gets knowledge of the structure of the universe.” Here the word saṁyama refers to dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi, the last three limbs of Āṣṭāṅga Yoga. Vyāsa writes an elaborate explanation of this sūtra similar to the description found in the Fifth Canto. This proves that the description of the Bhāgavata is not cognizable to our ordinary sense perception. Therefore, I do not consider the Bhagavata’s description to be wrong nor that of modern science. They belong to two different spheres.                                                                                                                                                                      

Souls and Cells

Question: What happens at the time of conception? How does an ātmā choose a sperm or an egg cell? Does each sperm cell have an ātmā?

Answer: There are certain mysteries in this universe, which are not known to human beings. Karma, birth, and death are three such mysteries. These mysteries are under the control of Paramātmā, who is the regulator of this universe. How karma gets attached to a particular jīva and how it unfolds in future lives is not known to human beings. They will never be able to have complete understanding of these mysteries, even though science is presently trying hard to understand them.

The mechanism of birth and death, that is, how a particular ātmā takes a particular body, and how a particular ātmā gets a new birth after death, are two major mysteries about life. They can only be known by the sages. There are some hints of these mysteries in śāstra, but there is no detailed explanation available. 

The answer to your questions is hinted at in a Bhāgavata verse spoken by Śrī Kapila. (SB 3.31.1)

karmaṇā daiva-netreṇa jantur dehopapattaye

striyāḥ praviṣṭa udaraṁ puṁso retaḥ-kaṇāśrayaḥ

“By the action of daiva or Īśvara/Paramātmā, the impeller, a particular living being, taking shelter of the sperm of a man, enters into the womb of a woman for accepting a body.”

The important words to be noted in this verse are karmaṇā daiva-netreṇa. Karmaṇā means by action, daiva refers to Paramātmā, and netreṇa means “under the guidance” or “being impelled.” So the meaning of this verse is that an ātmā enters into the womb being attached to the sperm of the man. It is not that the ātmā, which is inside the sperm, takes the human body, but a specific ātmā is attracted to the sperm cell, being impelled by Paramātmā. This ātmā may enter inside the womb even without the sperm, if Paramātmā so wills. There are many stories about kings who had no progeny and then performed a yajña or whose wives were given a specific fruit to eat and then became pregnant. In the 6th chapter of the Ninth Canto, we find such a story about King Yuvanāśva: 

This king married one hundred wives, but he had no sons, and therefore he entered the forest. In the forest, the sages performed a sacrifice known as Indra-yajña on his behalf. Once, however, the king became so thirsty in the forest that he drank the water kept for performing yajña. Consequently, after some time, a son came forth from the right side of his abdomen (SB 9.6.25–30).

Another interesting story relates the birth of sage Jamadagni, the father of Paraśurāma:

There was a king named Kuśāmba, whose son Gādhi had a daughter named Satyavatī. Satyavatī was married to sage Ṛcīka. Once Satyavatī and her mother both requested Ṛcīka to bless them with a son. Ṛcīka took two pots of rice cooked in milk and empowered them with mantra. In one pot of sweet rice, he infused brāhmaṇa potency, and in the other, he infused kṣatriya potency, because he was a brāhmaṇa himself and wanted a son with brāhminical character for his wife Satyavatī. As her mother was a queen, he wanted a kṣatriya son to be born to her. Therefore, he made two separate pots for them. However, when Satyavatī brought the pot for her mother, the mother thought that the sage Ṛcīka favored his own wife and must have given a special pot of sweet rice to her. Therefore, she asked the daughter to exchange the pots. The daughter, being obedient to her mother and being ignorant of her husband’s intentions, gave her own pot to her mother and ate the sweet rice meant for her mother. 

As an outcome, Satyavatī and her mother both became pregnant. As the pregnancy advanced, Ṛcīka Muni could sense that the face of Satyavatī carried the radiance of kṣatriya potency. Upon inquiry, she innocently told her husband that she exchanged the pot with her mother. Hearing this Ṛcīka was upset and said that a kṣatriya son would be born to her. Satyavatī did not like that and begged her husband for a solution Being thus implored, Ṛcīka said that she would have a brāhmaṇa son, but her grandson would be of kṣatriya character. By the grace of sage Ṛcīka, Jamadagni, who had brāhminical character, was born to her. However, his son Parasurāma had the nature of a kṣatriya. Satyavatī’s mother, on the other hand, gave birth to Viśvāmitra who did very severe penances and acquired the status of a brāhma-ṛṣi. 

Another such incident is related in the Rāmāyaṇa with King Daśaratha:

As King Daśaratha was originally unable to have children, he reached out to the gods by performing an Aśvamedha, a horse sacrifice, and asked them to bestow a child upon him. King Daśaratha gained this magical substance that would ultimately lead to the birth of his sons.All three of his wives received portions of it. Instructed to divide the potion between his wives, King Daśaratha gave half to Kauśalyā due to her seniority, and the other half to Kaikeyīdue to his fondness for her. Unfortunately, this did not leave any for Sumitrā which caused Kauśalyā and Kaikeyī to each give her half of their portions. As Sumitrā technically received two servings, she bore two sons. Kauśalyā bore Rāma, Sumitrā bore twins, Lakṣmaṇa, and Śatrughna, and Kaikeyī bore Bharata.

 Although Lord Rāma is Bhagavān Himself and does not depend on such technicalities, still the stories convey the point that it is not just the semen that carries the soul. Similarly, there are stories that kings would do yajña to get a child (putreṣṭiyajña). One such example is King Drupada, who did such a yajña to get a son to kill Droṇācārya. As an outcome of this, Drṣṭadyumna and Draupadī were born from the fire of the yajña. Another example is Vṛtrāsura, who was Viśvāmitra’s son. He came out from the fire to kill Indra. 

From the above stories, you should understand that a separate ātmā takes shelter of a specific sperm and then combines with the ovum to become a zygote.

Question: If all cells have souls, when a sperm and an egg cell combine, what happens to the soul in the egg cell? [As the body gets the soul from the sperm].

Answer: The soul of the sperm and the ovum remain together in the zygote. The presiding soul of the body also remains there, separate from these souls. 

Question: Also, as the zygote divides to form the embryo and then the full body, by what program or mechanism do new souls get into the newly formed cells? Which of these daughter cells has the original soul (from the sperm)?

Answer: The new souls that come into the cells may come from the food eaten by the mother. None of the daughter cells have the original soul, which is separate.

Question: How does the master soul end up in the praṇavāyu area (near the heart), given that it was originally in a cell?

Answer: It was originally not in a cell, but outside, and it is already with praṇavāyu because every conditioned soul is attached to a subtle body, which contains the praṇavāyu. This is hinted at by Kṛṣṇa in Gītā 15.8–10. In fact, in 15.11, he also says that only yogīs can see this and not ordinary people. 

Question: Since the souls in individual cells suffer or enjoy according to the karma of the main soul, are these souls karmically linked somehow?

Answer: Yes, they are linked and therefore they end up together in the body provided by the main ātmā.