[Advaita-l] Whan is a Pot a Pot?

ShankarPll at aol.com ShankarPll at aol.com
Sun Jan 30 10:20:52 CST 2005

When is a Pot a Pot? 
The Vyavaharika Pot: 
In this post I should like to explore the subjective  reality of our symbolic 
vyavaharika pot and by analogy that the perception of  all Prakritic objects 
is subjective, without explicitly resorting to the  conventional Advaitic 
epistemological techniques (Adhyasa) i.e. of  subject-object and object-subject 
Why does the perception of the Vyavaharika pot differ  between individuals? 
At the simplest level we may associate such perceptual  differences with 
genetic differences or neurological defects. Science itself  gives us the clues to 
this – it tells us that object-visualisation is not a  homogeneous proposition 
Each brain, after all, has some hundred million neurons  (brain nerve cells), 
each of which have up to ten thousand connection points  where information 
exchange occurs (synapses). The permutations involved are  astronomical. (In fact 
a scientist may even propose that the definition of the  self is contained in 
nature of these synaptic interactions). 
Does every living creature view this pot in an identical  way? Our answer of 
course must be unequivocally negative. In additional to the  variations 
identified above we know that there are some thirty visualisation  areas at the back 
of a human brain. A neurologist might argue that the precise  interaction of 
these visualisation areas defines perception as we understand it.  After all, 
science tells us now that the object visualisation process is not  about 
retinal imaging (followed by the conveyance of the data to the visual  cortex) but 
that the process is far more abstruse. To be specific, neurologists  suggest 
that this process entail transformations into “symbolic  representations”. 
Further, it is also now commonly held that perceptual beliefs  are also 
representational. From this it is a short step to say all experience is  
representational. Given that representational transformations are subjective  this suggests 
to me is that the notion of  a homogeneous perception of reality is a  
If one accepts this then our humble pot may indeed be  viewed uniquely by 
each individual. And of course we should not limit the  exercise to the human 
species – creatures with genetically poor eyesight (e.g.  an elephant) or 
genetically superior eyesight (in relation to the human species)  should view our pot 
differently. And what about the spatio-textual dynamics of  the pot?  We 
know, for example that  there are species of fish that can see millions of 
colours. Human beings are  limited in their sensory organs. 
Let us extend this further. Our universe is a rather  large place. Modern 
cosmology suggests that up to 50% of all star-systems have  planetary formations –
 some proportion of which may have life and some  proportion of that will be 
Intelligent life. The question that we need to raise  here concerns the nature 
of the visualisation process that optometry evolved  under alien conditions. 
Specifically how will an alien life-form “image” our  pot. I should suggest 
that even if we were able to translate such alien  optometric perception for 
human analysis we should not necessarily be able to  perceive the “alien” pot. 
Spatio-temporal characteristics of objects, its  textures and colours etc may 
vary substantially between species. If this to be  applied to all objects then 
even in the vyavahirika universe our understanding  of even basic 
epistemological constants may be open to question. Note that this  is not to deny its 
ontological “reality” at this stage but simply to question  whether there is an 
objective nature to this “reality”  - even in an experiential universe.  
All of which still operate at one level but there are  many other perceptual 
dynamics at work.  One of these relates to the fact that emotional connection 
or  disconnection affects our perception. Some years ago, in the course of a  
conversation at work, one of my colleagues expressed her profound abhorrence 
for  grass i.e. the plant of the Graminae family - beloved of cattle etc. Now 
she did  not suffer from grass-pollen induced hay-fever but her associated 
loathing  stemmed from traumatic events in her childhood, in Communist Eastern 
Europe,  when she was forced to work in the fields. These events had coloured the 
 perception of the common plant. This was a rational person who had come to 
terms  with her experiences in every other sense. Why is this relevant? The 
point is  surely that our “pot” is not simply defined by language context nor by 
its  spatio-temporal characteristics alone but also by its “emotional history
”– it  may be viewed with sadness, or amusement or anger or some other 
emotion. (To  take this to the extreme, we know from neurologists that damage to the 
links  from the amygdala to the limbic system lead to a condition in which 
there is  emotional disconnection - leading to another "strange" reality).  
Smelling the Colour of the Pot:
Let us imagine a hypothetical universe where human  visualisation was 
monochromatic. In such circumstances we could not conceive of  colour, except in the 
abstract. Does that mean the human experience in this  monochromatic universe 
is less real? In fact in such a universe the likelihood  would be that colour 
visualisation would be treated as a  defect. 
Now consider the hypothetical circumstance in which the  human brain has been 
re-engineered with synesthetic qualities. (The condition  synesthesia is one 
where the sufferer mixes up the senses so that, for example,  the colour red 
is C Sharp and so forth). Professor Ramachandran suggests that  number-colour 
synesthesia occurs because the area of the brain where visual  graphemes of 
numbers are represented is proximate to the area colours are  analysed. The 
propinquity increases the possibility of mix-up). Our hypothetical  genetic 
experiment with a “super brain” in which we deliberately cross-wire  sensory areas 
would lead to circumstances in which we could smell sights, touch  sounds and 
so forth. (Remember theoretically we could have sorts of sensory  
permutations). Our pot then could, under specific conditions, have the texture  and taste 
of a red and the smell of C sharp! Is this enhanced synesthetic  reality more 
My argument would be that these hypothetical universes  are not illusory, 
they have a cognitive “reality” so that they are not unreal  (asat) and nor can 
they cannot be reduced to shunya. Indeed the epistemic  connection between 
this cognitive reality and externality is relevant to  investigate. The answers, 
it seems to me, lie in the bounds of  mithya. 
The other point to be made is that is we are not far off  the day when it 
will be possible to genetically alter a human brain such that  these “defects” 
are deliberately in-built. If we take the hypothetical situation  where, in 
some distant future, the human race consists of persons with such  altered organs 
their reality would be different from “ours”. (By the way we probably need 
to consider the  “reality” of humanness  - since nine  out of every ten cells 
in the human body are either bacterial or viral – we are,  as some one once 
put it, 90% alien!) 
Mistaking the Pot for a  Hat: 
In an asylum the sane man is  abnormal. 
So if we extend the case to neurological “defects” the  range of  “abnormal”
 views of  reality increase exponentially. To illustrate, consider the case 
study from the  title of Oliver Sachs’s “The Man who mistook his wife for a  
Dr P, was a musician and painter of distinction and a  teacher but develops 
the condition visual agnosia. Dr P, Professor Sachs informs  us, was unable to 
see faces and saw faces where there were none to see. This led  to Magoo-like 
adventures  - he would  pat fire hydrants and parking meters in the streets 
and enter into conversations  with door knobs. He could not even distinguish his 
foot from his shoe. His  inability to recognise topological features 
manifested itself in the incident  that titled Sach’s book. The specific circumstances 
of which were that Sachs  shows his patient a cover of a copy of the National 
Geographic with pictures of  an unbroken expanse of sand dunes and asks him 
to describe its  physiognomy: 
“What do you see here, I asked? 
“ I see a river”, he said. “And a little guest-house with  its terrace on 
the water. People are dining out on the terrace. I see coloured  parasols here 
and there…” 
“I must have looked aghast, but he seemed to think he had  done rather well. 
There was a hint of a smile on his face. He also appeared to  have decided 
that the examination was over, and started to look for his hat. He  reached out 
his hand, and took hold of his wife’s head, tried to lift it off, to  put it 
on. He had apparently mistaken his wife for a hat! His wife looked as if  she 
was used to such things”. P.9-10, Sachs, “The man who mistook his wife for a  
Hat”(1985), Picador Press. 
The case of Christina (“the disembodied lady”) from the  same book is also 
relevant. This was a lady who could not conceive of her body –  she had lost 
her “body-ego” as a result of sensory neuritis (of the spinal and  cranial 
Neurological defect’s aside, strange perceptual traits  are applicable to the 
highly intelligent but “neurologically normal”. Thus, for  example, extreme 
absent-mindedness - Einstein (forgetting where he lived) or  Hilbert (not 
realising what he had for breakfast over the many years) or Von  Neumann (who did 
not know where his kitchen was) and so forth. 
The point of all this is that realities are subjective in  nature, and 
therefore one can talk about the pliability of experiential reality.  Where parts of 
the brain are damaged they can create “strange” realities and the  situation 
according to Sachs is equally true of neurological “excesses”. To use  a 
systems perspective on this, one could say that these situations are  
non-equilibrating – i.e. there is a fundamental lack of balance in the organic  
structure. Excess growth of one area in the brain is at the cost of  non-development 
However, if we extend the logic to  broadly equilibrating examples where 
there is over-development of lobal  functionality (frontal, temporal, parietal or 
occipital) the consequence may be  equally strange “realities”. The 
apocryphal (?) story of the explanation John  Von Neuman, one of the great figures of 
twentieth century mathematics, provided  of his car crash at the infamous “Von 
Neuman corner” in Princeton comes to  mind: 
“ I was proceeding down the road. The trees on the right  were passing me in 
orderly fashion at 6o miles an hour. Suddenly one of them  stepped in my path. 
Boom!” – The legend of John Von Neumann (P.R  Halmos). 
If such variation of perception exists within the human  species, what 
variances can one expect from our hypothetical alien or from a  genetically 
engineered human brain? For some the Pot is a snake or a rope or  even, as per Dr P, 
one’s wife! Notwithstanding the fact that Evolutionists might  argue that this 
is an impossibility, the construction of a line of reasoning  that the pot is 
only a relative object and that its "relationality" is governed  by a host of 
variables (including that of the parochial definition of human  neurological “
normality”) has some legitimacy.  
The Mithya pot
There may be a valid argument to suggest that all humans  suffer from these “
defects” and that, in the end, it is only a matter of degree  that separates 
the strange from the norm. If this is the case then there is a  sense in which 
Vyavaharika merges with Pratibhasika.  
One can deny the “existence” of the pot but I do not see  how you can deny 
the existence of its underlying substratum - (i.e. I personally  don’t 
understand how the pot could be reduced to Shunya) but it seems to me that  its common 
definition only relates to a specific neurological state. Perhaps one  could 
argue that a greater “mithya" reality is an aggregate of all vyavaharika  “
realities” and that a hypothetical intellectual ability to aggregate (and  
dis-aggregate) the plurality is another way of expressing the state of infinite  
that we commonly refer to as Samadhi.   
It is at the extremes of hypothesis that we can explore  the boundaries of 
vyavaharika Before we do this let us briefly describe the  Hindu concept of 
cosmic time: 1 human year = 360 days; 1 human year = 1 day in  the life of Deva’s; 
366 Deva days = 1 Deva year; 12,000 = 1 Chatur Yuga; 1000  Chatur yuga’s = 1 
day of Brahma (and similar amount for each night); 360 days  and nights = 1 
year of Brahma. Brahma lives for 100 of His years, after which He  sleeps for a 
similar amount of time.  In total we are talking of several billion years. 
Thus the universe has  continual existence – the waking state and sleeping state 
having been  interspersed in this continuum for all eternity.  
This for me intuitively corresponds to Jagrat, Swapna and  Susupati states. 
(Though I do not remember any specific Puranas referring to  Brahma’s Swapna). 
Thus, presumably if a transcendent mind is taken back, through  yogic 
practice, to a state before any specific beginning (into a Susupati state)  such a 
mind conceives a state of apparent nothing. However, perhaps if the mind  is 
taken back further (into the previous Jagrat) it sees a state of apparent  
consciousness and so on. Logic then suggests that this is a part of a continuum  
superimposed on an eternal consciousness with Turiya enveloping all the  states. 
(By the way, modern medical research tells us that the”  natural” state, as 
it were, is sleep. The waking state is brought forth by a  bio-chemical 
reaction in the hypothalamus. Thus sleeping sickness (encephalitis  lethargica) may 
be attributed to damage/ defect to the hypothalamus).  
The Akshayapatra of  Pots: 
“The solution to the problem of the self won't be a  straightforward 
empirical one. It may instead require a radical shift in  perspective, the sort of 
thing that Einstein did when he rejected the assumption  that things can move at 
arbitrarily high velocities. When we finally achieve  such a shift in 
perspective, we may be in for a big surprise and find that the  answer was staring at 
us all along… but there are curious parallels between this  idea and the Hindu 
philosophical view that there is no essential difference  between self and 
others or that the self is an illusion”. V.S Ramachandran,  Reith Lectures – 
Neuroscience – the New Philosophy. 
In modern science as well as human nature causality is  king. That human 
nature puts causality on a pedestal is not surprising. A  fundamental aspect of 
human nature appears to be the search for certainty. The  evolutionist argues 
that it is the survival instinct that propagates the desire  for certainty - Re: 
Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene etc). But we know from  scientific evidence 
and common sense that each individual interprets his or her  environment 
using the recursive patterns in experience as the means of  self-validating the 
sense-making process to create  “certainty”. 
However, the arrogance is such that science suggests that  evolutionary, 
causal processes can explain “everything”. Therein, Dawkin's  argues that even 
God and spirituality may be reduced to bio-chemical reactions  in the brain and 
Hawkins that there really is a “theory of everything” in the  “visible” 
I believe that Truth lies beyond the veil of  reductionism.  In systemic 
terms the  scientific temperament tends to perceive the universe as part of a 
general  equilibrium, which gives science the assurance of certainty. 
Paradoxically,  however, I feel that that the solutions to the questions that science 
addresses  will also point to the inadequacy of the partial equilibrium models 
(where most  of the variables that govern the “reality” are held constant and 
unknown) from  which the empirical answers are currently procured. 
I cannot conclude this post without reference to perhaps  the most famous 
representation of our pot – that with five holes and a burning  lamp inside. Its 
holes may be of varying size (and the light that illumes its  external objects 
may be, prima facie, subject to an interdependency with all its  cavities) 
but it is the prakasha eternal. And when the question arises of  whether one’s 
pot is empty or full, the optimist in me says that the pot is  always full, 
even though it isn’t there! 
Aum Namo  Shivaya

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