Towards a Sankarite Approach to Consciousness Studies

Towards a Sankarite Approach to Consciousness Studies:
A discussion in the context of recent interdisciplinary scientific perspectives*
by Sangeetha Menon
(National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bangalore 560 012)

*The second and revised draft of this paper is forthcoming in
Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research,Vol.18. No.1(2000)


Briefing the trends and specific methodologies of the current scientific perspectives on consciousness studies, this paper examines, compares and suggests a Sankarite approach to the ‘hard problem’ introduced by David Chalmers and discussed by many analysts. The paper argues that there need to be an inevitable recognition of the first-person methodologies so as to comprehend the non-reducibility of I-consciousness. Specific references are made to the Advaitic understanding of intentional consciousness, the experience-experiencer nexus (in the Adhyasa Bhasya of Sankaracarya) and the possible resolution of the divide.

The third-person-account definitions attributed to consciousness range from the perspectives of artificial intelligence to neuroscience and sociology. The binding problem of consciousness posits the discussion about various field theories and models of self. A holistic approach to consciousness is definitely promising to articulate its tangible representations whether it be sociological or quantum mechanical. Since the multilevel complexity of consciousness is also being widely appreciated, the problematic brings forth time and again the necessity to check the suitability and adequacy of the methodology employed. In this paper I try to present a methodological shift in consciousness studies, based on the ontology developed by Adi Sankaracarya.


Brain research and brain scanning technology have revolutionized, along with the growing interest in the ‘mysticism’ of quantum mechanics, our understanding of consciousness 1 and cognitive processes. This “decade of the brain” with remarkable developments debating about the elusiveness and non-elusiveness of consciousness might bring a breakthrough even for sociocultural enterprises. Since the discussion is centered on the very nature of ‘humanhood’, discourses are having fewer and fewer specialised and secluded argumentations. Life, death, mind, soul and other so called metaphysical ‘jargon’ are of inevitable interest to the neuroscientist as well as the social anthropologist.

Though we might be phenomenologically aware of what consciousness is very often the third person definitions of consciousness alienate something from us which is otherwise so clear and near to our moment to moment feelings. I consider this as both advantageous and disadvantageous for debating on a subject like consciousness. The advantage is in filtering out myths construed about the human mind throughout centuries of human civilization. And the disadvantage lies in the academic objectification of our very subjectivity which involves multilevel complexities. Nevertheless consciousness invites challenging discourses because of its connections with ramified definitions as well as with the personal subjectivity of the analyst.

Over the past few years a number of authors have come up with a variety of view points , making it possible to thematise consciousness and have a constructive dialogue. In this paper though I will be referring to a few recent authors the topic of my presentation will focus on the ‘neo-reductionistic’ 2 trends introduced by David J. Chalmers (1995) 3, in the context of which a Sankarite approach to consciousness will be discussed.

  1. Understanding the ‘Hard Problem’

Astonishing Hypotheses

In order to confront the ‘binding problem’ 4 two major camps have come up with their ‘astonishing hypotheses’, widening the frontiers of reductionism. Francis Crick expounds an epiphenomenalistic approach which starts with one aspect of consciousness [the visual] to try and find out how it functions, using experimental procedures( Crick,1994) 5. In his book ‘The Astonishing Hypothesis’ Crick speculates that by the end of this century consciousness may be reduced to its neural correlate. In ‘Shadows of the Mind’ Roger Penrose (Penrose,1995) 6 draws a triangle of three worlds (which he holds as cyclic rather than linear and hence different from the Popperian ‘worlds’)such as the physical world rooted in mathematics, mental world rooted in physical structures and a third world of Platonic truths. Penrose also disbelieves that consciousness can be rooted in anything outside physical reality 7. He with Stuart Hameroff proposes that consciousness arise from processes of quantum coherence taking place in the microtubules(protein structures) in neurons.

Non-reductionism or ‘Neo-reductionism’ ?

Prominent among non-reductionistic theories is that which is held by David Chalmers. He aptly introduces his theory of ‘hard’ and ‘easy problems’ by the note that “there is nothing we know about more directly than consciousness, but it is extraordinarily hard to reconcile it with everything else we know.” 8 According to Chalmers “the study of consciousness has to distinguish between ‘easy problems’ and ‘hard problem’ and it is with the ‘hard problem’ that the central mystery [of consciousness] lies.” 9 ‘Easy problems’ can come well under the domain of cognitive psychology and neuroscience since they involve the correlating of neuronal mechanisms/physical processes and cognitive functions. We can even expect, says Chalmers, to know how the brain integrates information from different sources and use this information to control behavior. But the ‘hard problem’ is hard since we are no where near the answer for how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective/conscious experience. Chalmers defends this distinction also with the help of a thought experiment, devised by Frank Jackson, of an expert neuroscientist knowing nearly everything about color vision but herself colorblind. 10

How hard is the ‘hard problem’?

Chalmers places the ‘hard problem’ within ‘the puzzle of conscious experience’. If we agree that the problem of consciousness is basically the problem of ‘I’ having a continuos experience in spite of ‘my’ knowledge/ignorance about the causal connections, the puzzle becomes that of the conscious experiencer rather than of the experience. To the question whether emphasis on conscious experiencer will add anything new to the existing problem, the answer is a firm ‘yes’. The ‘hard problem’ gets harder when it comes to the experiencer who has the conscious experience. Hence the question ‘who is having the conscious experience?’ is more significant than ‘what is it like to have a conscious experience?’ Despite the personal and subjective nature of consciousness a reducibility is possible in the realm of ‘I-consciousness’ which speaks more about its pervasive oneness than pluralistic existence. And also a simple “Theory of Everything” having a set of physical laws and another set of psychophysical laws can eventually explain only the apparent schisms evident in any experience. The problem becomes complex when the relation between the experience and the experiencer is asked for. It is plausible that the Theory of Everything will have to belong to another level of existence, since it has to stand distinct yet abridge physical processes and conscious experiences. An approach to consciousness by way of a non-reductionistic divide of ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ problems is more of physical than phenomenological import. If it is a problem of devising a theory to link the mechanism and its cognitive function, then non-reductionism initiated will have to remain rigid indirectly begging the first question.

I will argue that in an approach favouring three levels of reality such as (i)physical process leading to experience, (ii)experience of having a conscious experience and (iii)fundamental laws linking the former two levels, the ‘hardness’ of consciousness will have to be always backed up by non-subjective theories compartmentalizing the problem of consciousness in three
closed linear systems. Functional and operational descriptions of material systems are not readily translatable into properties owing to irreducible complexities. It is known that different complex systems manifest utterly different behavior. To make it more difficult, there cannot be one to one simulation of properties and behaviors at various levels. It is agreed upon by many that we ‘choose’ to see. Manifest properties depend upon the observables we choose to look at. Another difficulty making it harder will be to account for the reversibility of physical processes and conscious experience as Chalmers himself suggests. Can a physical process lead to a conscious experience or can a conscious experience simulate corresponding physical structures? This brings back the ancient puzzle whether the egg or the chicken is first. Hence it will be unbecoming for this neo-reductionistic approach to claim that it will “one day [may] resolve the greatest mystery of the mind”. 11

Classifying Mind and Consciousness

Both non-reductionistic and reductionistic approaches seem to equate consciousness with mind. Often there is less classification of the mental and the conscious. Consciousness is essentially subjective. But if this subjectiveness is inferred from the “subjects’ descriptions of their experiences” 12 it will be a description of their personal identities, images and sociocultural histories which are built up in the course of living. Since these descriptions vary from person to person subjectivity becomes contextual. To avoid the circularity, we have to contend that it is the mind which correlates with what we might call awareness, and awareness is only one side of the picture. As Chalmers correctly says “awareness is objective and physical, whereas consciousness is not.” 13

In eastern thought this historic self or karmic self is indicated by a larger term called ‘mind’. Mind is borne out of self awareness built up by a totality of subjective experiences. Consciousness, since it is considered ubiquitous in existence, has to be more than the sociocultural implications of mind. If Chalmers takes the stand that ‘subjective experience seems to emerge from a physical process’ and does not deny that ‘consciousness arises from the brain’, the mystery about consciousness will go back to ‘easy problems’ to be solved. This being so, there is no reason for the ‘hard problem’ to remain isolated. Still the distinction becomes relevant if by introducing ‘consciousness’ Chalmers means to imply mind and its functions. The discussion over consciousness as a transpersonal or transmental phenomenon will have to focus its attention on the experiencer or “I-ness” 14 who experiences a conscious experience. The division of ‘easy’ and ‘hard problem’ has to replace ‘consciousness’ by ‘mind’. Because the major difficulty in understanding consciousness is not in many having many conscious experiences but in many having a similar notion of I-ness. If we take the position that there is nothing more to I-ness than its historicity then consciousness can be discussed as epiphenomenal or soteriological. How ever neo-reductionists will be reluctant to accept this.

Two Inadequacies facing ‘hard problem’

Dualistic theories begin from the fundamental query about the intermediate connections between neurobiological processes and conscious states. Quite interestingly, even if causal relations are spelt out, that will not suffix to the reducibility of consciousness, since the problem is obviously more ontological than causal. I might have the knowledge of the physical processes leading to my interest in dance , but that will not answer why I am interested in dance. As John Searle says(and I agree with him whole heartedly),”…you can get a causal reduction of pain to neuron firings but not an ontological reduction. That is, you can give a complete causal account of why we feel pain, but that does not show that pains do not really exist.” 15 The contemporary debates on the ‘hard problem’ face two inadequacies in the coinage of the problem itself.

The very first inadequacy is in framing up a definition for consciousness. It is often debated whether or not we should bring ‘unconscious’ and other states also into the gambit of consciousness. Possibly for the initial convenience it offers, limiting consciousness to conscious experiences has been the dominant trend. According to John Searle (Searle,1995), “consciousness refers to those states of sentience and awareness that typically begin when we begin from a dreamless sleep and continue until we go to sleep again, or fall into a coma or die or otherwise become ‘unconscious’.” 16 Searle ignores two major states such as dream and deep sleep which are unarguably connected with conscious waking states. To reduce the purview of consciousness to cognitive functions and behavioral patterns in the waking state gives rather a semantic advantage than comprehensiveness. It helps us with a hidden epistemology to judge knowledge by the normality of the waking state and a metaphysic placing the real versus the dreamed or imaginal. The reductionistic definition of consciousness in terms of the waking state engenders segregated importance to respective functions like pain or pleasure, which leads to the second inadequacy of not foreseeing the contiguity of the experiencer or I-ness. It is known that the identification of a physical locus for pain or pleasure need not be sufficient for their description since these functions overlap other levels like the dream or the imaginal. In a conscious experience like ‘I feel pain’ or ‘I feel pleasure’ consciousness gains significance by way of the ‘I’ or the experiencer. So it is more important to discuss the unitary I-ness which experiences the phenomenon of pain, pleasure etc. which by themselves are mere descriptive biological functions of a living system. Discrete functions like pain, pleasure etc. gain meaning/demand explanation when they accrue to a unitary, continuing I-ness.

  1. Redefining the ‘Hard Problem’

    Current discussions on the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness set the stage as to why/how discrete and segregated physical processes might give unitary experiences. This contention, as I argued earlier, suffers flaw in adequately understanding the ‘hard problem’. Based on my previous arguments I propose that there is a ‘harder problem’ within the ‘hard problem’ which makes the problem really hard. The hard fact is of why/how different conscious experiences accrue to a substrating and continuos I-ness. Unless the study of consciousness gives adequate attention to the ‘harder problem’ within the ‘hard problem’ we will have to restrict our search within narrow parameters.

The ‘harder problem’ demands a methodological shift or an ‘adequate epistemology’ as Willis Harman 17 puts it. The adequate epistemology, in its gambit, has to integrate three worlds(with due acknowledgment to Popper and Penrose)such as:

(i) the physical world of physical processes/mechanisms,
(ii)the phenomenological world of corresponding cognitive/behavioral
functions and
(iii) the ontological world of I-ness/experiencehood.

Much of the analysis stops with the second level and as a result explains mind and the mental in the guise of consciousness. This beckons unavoidable semantic confusion between two similar major terms(mind and consciousness). The immediate offshoot of this non-discrimination is the attempt to causally reduce something which is very much ontological. Somewhere we have to sympathise with the idea that knowledge of causal connections are trivial as far as the ontology of consciousness is concerned. Otherwise in spite of amazing neurobiological developments we will have to remain wherever we had started. Inadequate and parochial understanding of the problem of consciousness has therefore resulted in inadequate methodologies. But in no way it is to be taken that these methodologies are of no advantage at all. They might very well throw much light on the intricate complexities of the human, both biological and cultural. However to believe that the door will lead towards understanding the ontology of consciousness too will be blindfolding oneself.

Experience has meaning or gains meaning only in the context of the experiencer. This proposition is well accepted for its immediacy in our personal lives, in spite of being an a priori idea. It is equally important, for this reason, to bring forth mystical traditions of meditation and self realization into the circle of the debate. But the difficulty with mystical traditions is that quite often intuitive arguments are presented without prior clarification of the epistemology followed. Thus we are frequently met with the juxtaposition of structural explanations and ontological explanations of consciousness. Naturally this results in incompatible and diverging dialogues. To have a common platform where different traditions can debate, respective methodologies need to define their epistemic and ontological concerns. Essentially the dialogue between structural approaches(to which I would like to include some of the non-reductionistic trends discussed earlier)and mystical traditions will be centered on respective methodologies and categories. In the interface we might be able to churn out deeper definitions for the problem of consciousness per se.

III. Towards a Sankarite Approach to Consciousness

Adi Sankaracarya’s approach to consciousness, taking epistemological and ontological theses in hand, allows reductionism on certain accounts and non-reductionism on certain other accounts. Though for easy introduction his philosophy can be described as nondualistic, nondualism demands an in-depth examination so as to understand its intricate implications. Sankaracarya gives due significance to ‘experience’ but at the same time in the background builds up a foundational theory of experiencer by extending his phenomenology to three states of experience. He lays out epistemological routes holding a strong but rare methodology which also leads to the explication of his ontology. In contrast to other Brahmanical schools, Sankaracarya’s Advaita declares the ontology defined as ‘something-which-is-already-there’. This ‘something-which-is-already-there’ is designated by Acarya variously as aham, bodha, cit, and the famous atman and brahman. It will be easier for immediate comparison to equate these designations with today’s much debated ‘consciousness’ though the perspective behind that term is quite different.

Epistemological Routes

Sankaracarya uses three distinct categories, along with his adherence to Sabda, to explicate cognitive functions as well as the role of consciousness. The cognitive mechanism involves

i) a subject who knows (pramata caitanya),
ii) the process of knowledge (pramana caitanya) and
iii) the object known (visaya caitanya).

These three categories are involved in the cognitive mechanism starting from the sensory level to the final conceptual level. It is interesting to note that Sankaracarya, having foreseen the difficulty in explaining the ‘experience’ of non-reals which might not have an immediate object referent (like ‘I feel pain’), judiciously employs a multifunctional term called antahkarana, which receives and arranges sense data. The antahkarana assumes different functions in conjunction with different trans-cognitive entities, which are classified under the name vrtti (the neural correlates?). Vrtti reveals various objects and is of four different kinds such as samkalpa (pre-decisive state), niscaya (decisive state) 18, garva (self-consciousness) and smarana (remembrance). Antahkarana, with these four modifications, might take up the role of manas (mind), buddhi (discriminative understanding), ahamkara (ego) 19 and citta (attention) respectively. The existentiality (sat) and reflectability (cit) of Atma (pure consciousness) unites with the buddhi to give rise to the experience ‘I know’ 20. The cognitive mechanism explained, includes the process of sensation, perceptualisation and conceptualisation. Sensation and conceptualization together helps the ahamkara to ‘see’ the form (rupa) of the object which is already defined (nama) perceptually. The reality of I-ness 21 is explained further: Acarya contends that mind and senses are of the nature of name and form 22 and are material.

According to Acarya’s explanation of the cognitive mechanism ahamkara (which can be roughly translated as ‘ego’) is also a modification of the ‘internal organ’. It implies that ahamkara can be still reduced to its primary material correlate (pancabhuta). Still a piece of knowledge is phenomenologically verifiable by ahamkara in the form of ‘I know’. Sankaracarya employs the theory of representationism by two methods of ‘reflection’ and ‘proximity’ to explain both the phenomenological transformation of a nonconscious material entity (ahamkara)as well as to maintain a definite dualistic position so as to highlight the distinctive nature of consciousness. He says that modifications of antahkarana are pervaded by the reflection of consciousness, as they come to exist 23. Using the case of a jewel, and a lamp, Acarya distinguishes the nature of consciousness from that of modifications. Just as a jewel differs in color due to the proximity of
colored objects, consciousness appears according to the different modifications associated with it 24. Pure I-ness never undergoes modification and intellect is never endowed with knowledge 25. Vrtti-s are manifested, known and endowed with existence by consciousness which is immediately known and different from them, like the lamp illumining other objects 26. An agent, a means of knowledge and an object are necessary in the experience of the knower, knowledge and known. In order to avoid a regress ad infinitum it cannot be said that each of these three can prove its own existence. The agency of the agent exhausted in proving its own existence will not be available to prove that of the means of knowledge and the object at the same time 27. What is intended to be governed by the action of an agent is the object of that action. Therefore the object depends on the agent and not on consciousness which is other than it. Sankaracarya delineates consciousness from any functional role.

To extend the immutability of consciousness and mutability of the internal organ to the dream state, Acarya introduces ‘memory’. It is the same intellect which is modified differently in the waking state, which takes up various modifications in the dream state too. Thus the dream objects are seen and remembered later 28. Consciousness witnesses modifications as it pervades them in both waking and dream state 29.

Separating the I-ness

Sankaracarya explains I-ness experienced from two different contexts, one which involves dualistic interpretations and the other reductionistic. It is also presumed by Acarya that I-ness involves three phases through which it gets defined. The first phase is the intentional phase, which directs a self-consciousness towards an object, expressed as ahamkara. Ahamkara leads to the second phase which includes a variety of agenthoods according to the object of experience. It is in this phase that I-ness gets defined as the ‘Intentor’ so as to have specific interactions, of which a few instances can be ‘I am dumb’, ‘I am happy’, I am sad’ etc. In this phase I-ness is the custodian of personal choices, desires, ambitions etc 30. The second phase involves the identification of I-ness with one’s thought patterns and emergence of two intricate and foundational subjective experiences of definite ‘I-ness’ (I am this) and ‘mine-ness’ (this is mine). Though the first and second phase are heirarchical, the temporal gap between these two being almost irrecognisable, the intentional phase and the intentor phase are simultaneously experienced in any experience.

Despite identification with specific objects, ‘I-ness’ seem to also possess the power to reflect, introspect and make itself available for other objects. This evidences that apart from phenomenological subjectiveness, I-ness is accompanied by another transempirical subjectiveness which does not identify with any object of experience. This justifies how the agenthood exhausted in one experience is made available for another.

There has to exist, in the cognitive field, a distinction between the duals, object of experience and subject of experience(which includes aforesaid three phases of I-ness). Since Acarya has already described the antahkarana as material and as that which modifies into various objects, there has to be a second immutable entity which is non-causal. The object of experience is always distinct from the experiencer of experience. The knower/seer is that of a totally different nature from that of the known/seen 31. The subjectness (asmad) and objectness (yusmad) which are phenomenologically separated as the experiencer (visayi) and experience (visaya) are of contradictory nature and hence one can never become the other 31. There is a basic duality of experience which cannot be relegated to even an emergent status. Here Sankaracarya is a non-reductionist in his cognitive and phenomenological analysis.

Ontology Defined

Acarya holds that consciousness is dynamic in that it entails differentiation and integration of experiences. The level of differentiation could be explained by cognitive functions and further conceptualisation. But to understand the functions of integration third person accounts are not sufficient. The ‘transcendence’ of I-ness from cognitive to experiential level has to be contextualised in an ontological field where subjectiveness or I-consciousness is placed in its pure form. Sankaracarya substantiates the third and ontological phase of I-ness with the help of Sabda pramana. He attempts a categorical explanation concurrently using specific terms via negativa, which indicates his adherence to not any single semantic position. Sabda is often employed as a translinguistic tool.

So as to define the ontology of I-ness Sankaracarya takes epistemological as well as phenomenological routes. Along with, he maintains a distinct methodology which first analyses and then resolves different phases of I-ness into a level which he depicts as acausal and apodeictic.

In the ‘Laghu vakyavrtti’ Acarya elaborates three states of consciousness 33. The physical body or bodily I-ness (sthula sarira) is the first presentation of I-ness. There after comes the subtle body (suksma sarira) of latent attitudes, motor and sense organs, vital airs, intellect and mind. There is the third causal body which is the I-ness identified with physical and subtle bodies in its abstractness. Curiously he holds the deep sleep state as devoid of any cognitive activity but possessing I-ness nearest to its pure form. In the waking state the cognitive organ (antahkarana/buddhi) modifies and assumes form of objects represented by it. With the theory of waking state experiences Sankaracarya leaves the existence or non-existence of the
real-world-of-objects-there to be debated from a different perspective 32. Nevertheless dream state experience is explained with a subjectivistic tenor. Dream objects too are modifications of the intellect. But their reality belongs to an enfolded subjective state of suksma sarira. In deep sleep antahkarana remains without any modification, for the I-ness alone to be ‘experienced’.

To ascertain the level of immediacy in a given experience, it is essential to discriminate whether the intended object or the I-ness intending the object is experienced first. The consciousings of objects which arise out of five sense organs is mediately known since they depend upon intervening factors. But the I-ness is immediately known 35. It is possible to conceive of my I-ness without the aid of a prior object, when it is impossible and absurd to conceive of an object without a prior I-consciousness. Otherwise the question will be left imploring the spatiotemporality of the object — ‘to whom does the object appear’/ ‘what is that which is experienced’. It is held that I-consciousness can never be an object of experience and hence can never change or modify. It cannot be selected for either experience or non-experience 36. The specific object of experience of a specific I-ness (such as a thought of a thinker) can be objectified (in terms of reflection), thereby negating and reducing the thought along with the thinker (agent as well as act) into another specific I-ness. But pure I-ness disallows any objectification. This also shows that in any experience what is given is pure I-consciousness.

Ontology Experienced

The ontological thesis of Acarya upholds I-consciousness as ‘something-which-is-already-there’. “It is there across, above, below, full, existence, knowledge, bliss, non-dual, infinite, eternal and one.” 37 This thesis could be subjected to skepticism and criticized as ad hoc rationalization for not being soteriological. It is also one of the reasons why consciousness described by Acarya is often mistook as niskriya (inactive) in its literal sense. The notion of maya too has invited a lot of misconceptions about it, the major one implying a passive homogeneity to pure consciousness. The main argument behind such misconceptions can be traced back to a monistic labeling of Advaita.

Sankaracarya interprets the linguistic discourse of Sabda as a transformative tool which can precipitate as well as transcend the known functions of a “word meaning”. Sabda is used as a translinguistic tool ‘not to create knowledge but to eliminate false knowledge’. This is because pure I-ness needs no other consciousness to make itself known, its nature being consciousness 38. As per Acarya Sabda becomes valid by merely removing the characteristics attributed to Atma, and not by making known what is unknown 39. It was seen that any cognitive act takes place via vrtti or modification of the cognitive organ. The Upanisadic mahavakyas create an akhandakaravrtti (a vrtti which mediates specific I-ness and I-consciousness, hence akhanda/impartite) which ensues a transcendence of its own semantic function. It is summarized that since pure I-ness is of the nature of pure consciousness, it needs no other consciousness to be known 40. He who knows the pervasiveness of consciousness never ceases to exist and is never an agent since he ‘gives up’ the notion of agency of being a knower of pure consciousness (pure I-ness) too 41. Also because pure consciousness never becomes non-existent and is not capable of being produced by the act of an agent 42. The pure I (Atma) cannot be accepted or rejected by itself or others, nor does it accept or reject anyone else 43.

In his exegetical method, Acarya draws up five stages so as to understand the phenomenological as well as non-phenomenological factors involved in an experience. A simple version of these stages could be

Stage1—- I,
Stage2—- It,
Stage3—- It is experienced by me,
Stage4—- ‘It’ that which is experienced and ‘I’ who experience ‘It’ are
not opposed to each other,
Stage5—- ‘It’ is resolved in ‘I’ and ‘I’ alone remains.

There is an initial separation of I-ness and object of I-ness. The pure I-ness is distinct from the body, sense organs, mind, intellect and their functions, it being a witness of these 44. Here Sankaracarya takes a non-reductionistic stand in holding that any experience to be possible should have an agent (specific I-ness) and a corresponding object. An experience is intelligible only in terms of these duals. It is also said that it is the antahkarana which modifies into the means of knowledge (karanam), object of knowledge (karma), the agent (karta) and the act (kriya) 45. The object of experience as well as the agent of the specific experience are both modifications of antahkarana. But these material evolutes gain a phenomenological meaning of being ‘experienced’ and ‘experiencing’ because of the non-conditional proximity of consciousness. The object experienced and the specific agent/experiencer of that object are relative and co-existent. One has meaning only in terms of the other, and one cannot become the other. The dualism implied here is obvious.

To note the reductionism advocated by Sankaracarya we have to delve into the various levels of I-consciousness keeping aside its cognitive content. The I-ness which is pervaded by the reflective consciousness is called the knower/agent of the act of knowing. Pure consciousness is distinct from these three(act, agent and means of act) 46. Different epistemic modes like ‘right knowledge’, ‘doubtful knowledge’ and ‘false knowledge’ are mutable. But they are all pervaded by pure consciousness 47. Pure consciousness manifests modifications without itself undergoing any change. Elaborating, Acarya says that undifferentiated consciousness– nirvikalpa caitanyam — presents itself in the interval between two modifications, when the preceding one has died out and another is yet to appear48. Differences in I-ness (specific I-ness’s) are due to modifications of the cognitive organ 49. Reductionism involves the specific I-ness and pure I-ness. It is not a segmental resolution of the specific I-ness into pure I-ness, since pure I-ness is already maintained as acausal. Through a method of adhyaropa apavada the modification is first discriminated and then negated. The analogy by which Acarya explains this ontological reductionism is that of the relationship between pot-space (ghatakasa) and vast-space (mahakasa). The pot-space is distinctly known. But it is also known that both pot-space and pot are modifications of the vast-space, and also that they are not opposed to each other. Though pot-space is a modification, it is not a modification by a constitutional change of the substance (parinama) but an apparent modification without undergoing any substantial change (vivarta). Hence pot-space is understood as vast-space and thus reduced to vast-space while it exists.

Reductionism is not on the line of resolving two contradictories, or resolving one into another, but by way of discriminative understanding (viveka jnana)of the duals as having a nonseparate relationship. Pure I-ness is other than the experienced. For there exists nothing other than pure I-ness 50. Reductionism is of the nature of nondualistic appreciation and not of causal ordering. If at all the real is asked for, it is the nonduality 51. In Acarya’s scheme of ontology, reductionism is secondary while non-reductionism (discriminating the nonduals) is primary. Had reductionism been introduced first, it will have to contend a plurality of reals, without ascertaining the nature of the real.

Resuming ‘hardness’ of Consciousness

Since consciousness is best known through one’s being conscious, I-consciousness has a major role in defining the parameters of ‘consciousness’, which is otherwise yet another cognitive term. Sankaracarya could be labeled neither a reductionist nor a non-reductionist. If not, both. He adheres to reductionism and non-reductionism from two different standpoints. At the same time he maintains a theory of consciousness, emerging from the tension between these two standpoints. The antahkarana undergoes modification and is subject to physical laws. But pure consciousness cannot be subjected to experimentation and (scientific or cultural) and prediction. Acarya emphasizes that phenomenological meaning of I-ness and ontological primacy of I-ness are not opposed to each other. They are nondual.

This description of a nondualistic trend in Sankaracarya’s theory of consciousness prima facie implies the texture of the methodology adopted. The current stand behind the division of ‘easy’ and ‘hard problem’ has either a strong experimental basis, or an extreme idealistic bent. Hence when on one hand tangible neural correlates of consciousness are searched for on the other hand mystical and transcendental dimensions of consciousness are glorified. The ‘hard problem’ finds itself harder not precisely because of the complexity of consciousness but because of the parameters already pre-defined. To comprehensively estimate the hardness of the ‘hard problem’ one has to discriminate as well as synthesize the two methodologies appropriated for the study of the experiencer and for the sensory content of experience. The task is not to arrive at reduced essential contents of experience but to trace, as far as possible, relations between manifold levels of experience. Eventually the division of ‘easy’ and ‘hard problem’ might become transfusional or even volatile.

The Chalmersian distinction of the problem has undoubtedly introduced a clear cut breakthrough in consciousness studies. Yet it is for ongoing research to count this breakthrough as a finality or an open ended pathway leading beyond.

IV: Conclusion 

In this paper I have attempted a presentation of the Sankarite approach to consciousness in the context of recent discussions based on Chalmersian ‘hard problem’. It is argued that the ‘hard problem’ need to take into account the primacy of conscious experiencer to conscious experience. Sankaracarya’s approach to consciousness is centered on the analysis of I-consciousness. Explaining the I-ness of I-consciousness Acarya develops a methodology to envisage both partite and impartite conceptions of consciousness according to realistic and idealistic trends. A non-dualistic appreciation of consciousness is also found to be contributing to the redefinition of the ‘hard problem’.

Many thanks to Swami Bodhananda, my spiritual guide, and Prof.B.V. Sreekantan for valuable discussions towards this paper.

Notes and References

  1. A cognate term like consciousness, which has been clustering religious and ethical
    meanings apart from philosophical and psychological implications since the time of Greek
    and Vedic thought, now seems to be of serious interest to a score of new disciplines.
  2. A dualistic variation of classical reductionism
  3. See David Chalmers, “The Puzzle of Conscious Experience”,Scientific American, December

    4. Binding problem is how different neuronal inputs are integrated and synchronized to give a
    single conscious experience.

  4. Francis Crick,The Astonishing Hypothesis: the scientific search for the soul, London: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
  5. Roger Penrose,The Emperor’s New Mindand Shadows of the Mind, Vintage Editions, 1995 & 1998.
  6. “Editor’s Introduction”,Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol.1, No.1, 1994, pg.24.
  7. “The puzzle of conscious experience”,Scientific American, December 1995,pg.62.

9., 10. Ibid. pg.3.

  1. ” The Puzzle of Conscious Experience”,Scientific American, December 1995, pg.68.
  2. Ibid. pg.65.
  3. Ibid. pg.66.
  4. I use the term ‘I-ness’ to define the pre-experiential subjectivity and ‘I-consciousness’ to denote pure ‘I-ness’ without reference to specific experience.
  5. John Searle, “The Mystery of Consciousness”,The New York Review, November 2,1995, pg.63.
  6. Ibid. pg.60.
  7. Willis Harman, The Scientific Exploration of Consciousness:Towards an Adequate
    Epistemology.The Journal of Consciousness Studiesvol.1,No.1,1994,p.140.
  8. Upadesasahasri 16.21:samkalpadhyavasayau tu manobuddhayoryadha kramat
  9. ‘Ego’ is to be differentiated from ‘I-ness’ which is further explained.
  10. Atmabodha 25:atmanah saccidamsasca buddhervrttiriti dvayam
    samyojya cavivekena janamiti pravartate
  11. See foot note no.14
  12. Upadesasahasri 1.22:manasca indriyani namarupatmaka
  13. Ibid 5.4:caitanya pratibimbena vyaptah bodhohi jayate
  14. Ibid 18.122:adhibhedadhyadha bhedo maneravagatestadha
  15. Atmabodha 26:atmano vikriya nasti buddherbodho na jatviti
  16. Upadesasahasri 18.123:pradhanam grahanam siddhih pratyayanamihanyata
    aparoksyattadevoktamanumanam pradipavat
  17. Ibid 18.131:atmano grahane chapi trayanamiha sambhavad atmanyasaktakartrtvam na syatkaranakarmanoh
  18. Ibid 14.5
  19. Ibid 14.6:drastrtvam ca drsestadvyaptih syaddhiya udbhave
  20. Upadesasahasri 17.36,37
  21. Ibid 15.4:drstuscanyadbhaveddrsyam
  22. Brahmasutra Adhyasa Bhasya:asmad yusmad pratyayagocarayoh visaya visayino
    tamaprakasavat viruddhasvabhavayo
  23. Laghuvakyavrtti 4:jagrasvapnayoreva bodhabhasavidambana suptau tu tallaye suddhabodho jadyam prakaseyet
  24. See ‘Ontology Experienced’.
  25. Upadesasahasri 17.40:vyavadhanadi paroksyam lokadrsteranatmanah drsteratmasvarupatvatpratyaksam brahmatatsmrtam
  26. Ibid 17.42:visayatvam vikaritvam nanatvam va nahisyate na hyeyo napyupadeya atma nanyeva va tatah
  27. Atmabodha 56
  28. Ibid 29:svabodhe nanyabodhecca bodahrupatayatmanah
  29. Sankara Bhasya of Bhagavad Gita 2.18,
  30. Upadesasahasri 17.41
  31. Ibid 12.13
  32. Ibid 12.15
  33. Ibid 17.83
  34. Atmabodha 18
  35. Upadesasahasri 4.3
  36. Ibid 18.120
  37. Atmabodha 62:svayamantarbahyavyapyabhasayan
  38. Laghuvakyavrtti 11
  39. Upadesasahasri 18.121
  40. Atmabodha 63:jagadvilaksanam brahma brahmanofnyanna kincana
  41. Sankaracarya’s Bhasya on Mandukya Karika 3.19