Intellect and Reality

nanda chandran vpcnk at HOTMAIL.COM
Thu Jan 31 23:13:35 CST 2002

This was written in response to Ram Chandran's question on the Advaitin list
regarding validity of the intellect in Advaita.


Dear Ram, I wanted to come back to the question posed by you yesterday
regarding the validity of intellect/knowledge when pitted against reality.

All spiritual teachers/schools of philosophy in India are unanimous that
reality is beyond the grasp of the intellect.

The following may be considered as the reasons for such a view :

1.      What we know of an object is only its attributes and its uses to our
practical life ie for an apple we can say it has seeds/flesh/skin and that
it can be eaten. But what it is in itself – its nature – is beyond our
grasp. The truth of an apple is what it is in itself and not what our
intellect makes of it. Reality is a thing. It is not an idea. The Self is
generally defined as something apart from the mind, body and senses – so
whatever our intellect makes of it, still the Self is something apart from
it and in that sense, reality is beyond the intellect.
2.      Even as can be observed in the analysis of the three states of waking,
dream and deep sleep, while the mind is active in the first two, it is
inactive in the third state. In the state of deep sleep consciousness exists
in itself as is proven by the presentation continuum which survives deep
sleep and thus sustains our individual identity. What this shows is that
while the body, senses and mind exists only in dependence on the underlying
consciousness, consciousness exists in itself. The function of the mind is
primarily objective in nature. Even as fire cannot burn itself nor the sword
cut itself, neither can the mind know itself subjectively. When it cannot
even know itself, how can it know that which powers it?

So what’s the utility of the intellect in spiritual practice?

Man is essentially a thinking being. For the normal man during the waking
and the dream state, there’s no point in time when the mind is not at work
either interpreting the data received from the senses or churning out
thoughts one after another. Simply put - to live is to think.

Vedaanta shows that there’s an unchanging substratum in our being –
consciousness in itself - which is proved in deep sleep. It is because of
this permanent consciousness that we wake up as the same person who went to
sleep – it is what sustains our identity through the states of waking, dream
and deep sleep.

But again we do not directly experience this consciousness-in-itself. All we
know of consciousness is only through its manifestation through the senses,
mind and body. But we can inferentially prove the existence of consciousness
as a thing apart from the senses, mind and body – because if consciousness
belonged to the body, mind or senses and didn’t exist apart from them in
itself, then there cannot be cases like paralysis or loss of the function of
the senses or coma where even though the physical organ – sense organs, body
and brain – is present, still they are unable to perform their functions.
Thus the existence of consciousness in itself is only proved through
inferential reasoning and not experience.

Of the three states, any effort towards salvation is only possible during
the waking state for in both the dream and deep sleep we do not have full
control of our psycho/physical faculties. But nobody can do anything with
the body or senses alone. As conscious beings (here consciousness means
mind-consciousness) the mind forms a major component of our being. So any
meaningful search for our true identity necessarily involves the mind/brain.

The consciousness-in-itself is an essential part of our identity. Since we
seek to move away from the changing (senses, body and mind), the unchanging
consciousness-in-itself being the permanent represents salvation. But still
this unchanging entity is intricately woven into our psycho/physical being
that it is very hard to identify by itself.

Neti, neti is the process by which you try to separate the
consciousness-in-itself from the psycho/physical faculties. Though you
cannot know the Self using the intellect, still you can know what it isn’t –
ie all the parts of our identity which are not the consciousness-in-itself
are identified and negated. But even here the intellect can help only till
the level of the mind/brain for the consciousness-in-itself is a thing in
itself apart from the mind/brain. Liberation is not intellectually knowing
reality (which anyway is impossible as explained above), but trying to be
the consciousness-in-itself (brahmavid brahmaiva bhavati – here the
“knowing” refers to being the consciousness in itself, whose nature is pure
knowledge). Since our goal is to be the consciousness-in-itself, the final
utility of the intellect would only be to realize its own limitations and
then subside (chitta vritti nirodah) so that that which is left – the
consciousness-in-itself – can abide in itself.

So the neutralization of the mind forms an essential part of all spiritual
practice. This can be achieved in many ways :
1.      Control of the mind using single pointed concentration as taught by
classical Yoga.
2.      The classical Advaita path of neti, neti or the subject verses the object
approach where the ego after negating all that’s not itself tries to reduce
itself to its utmost bareness. The point to note in this approach is that
such a path is not absolute because the Ego even in its barest form is still
a compound of the mind and consciousness and “knowing” in this stage would
still mean the use of the intellect which revels in the duality of the
subject and object. Though this process is highly effective what needs to be
understood is that such a process cannot by itself lead to consciousness
abiding in itself ie one cannot say that “I will remain as the non-dual
consciousness after negating everything that is not me” - because as long as
the “I” exists the mind will still exist in its barest form and you’ll still
be a compounded entity and not the thing-in-itself. At this stage for
non-dual consciousness to abide in itself all knowing itself (the mind)
should be abandoned – that’s what Shankara means by the “merging the mind
with reality” and that in the final moment liberation is only possible by
divine grace ie self-effort by itself cannot fetch liberation.
3.      Using the intellect to understand its own relativity and weaken its
position in our psycho/physical being (the negative logic of the Maadhyamika
and some Advaitins like Gaudapaada, Sri Harsha etc). Both this path as well
as the path of neti, neti imply self-effort where we do the discrimination –
intellectual or psycho/physical. But as long as the ego exists, which
implies that the mind too exists there cannot be the state of
consciousness-in-itself. So in both these paths abandoning of the will
(letting go of the mind) is inevitable. When the mind is abandoned
consciousness will shine by itself (svaprakaasha).
4.      But is intellectual or psycho/physical discrimination as per neti, neti
necessary at all? Can’t we abandon the psycho/physical being at the start
itself? That’s the logic on which Bhakti operates, where the attempt to
abandon the will or the ego by which the mind operates is made right at the
initial stages itself.

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