Between Matter and Spirit
by Navin Jani
As a college student, I can’t help but notice that it’s rather difficult to find a class on ghosts in the course catalog. Equally rare are course titles such as “Psychic Powers 101” or “Biology Lab on Alien Life Forms.” In fact, there appears to be almost no mainstream scholarly study of any kind of paranormal phenomena. Why is academia so reluctant to rigorously probe this increasingly undeniable aspect of reality? Perhaps it’s because scholars think there are only two ways to understand such things as ghosts: Either they simply don’t exist and are attributable to hoax, hallucination, and human error. Or they exist but are completely different from anything else we know and understand, and so they are a complete mystery. Neither view leaves much room for academic research or university-level instruction. This stalemate may have something to do with how we understand the mind.
Since the time of Descartes, Western philosophy has wrestled with what is known as the “mind-body problem.” Is the mind merely an “emergent” property of the physical body that really has no existence of its own, as many modern philosophers would maintain? Or is the mind something completely different from matter, as the Cartesians (the followers of Descartes) would have us believe? To those who view mind as identical with matter, conscious experience must be accepted as a sort of illusion and altogether disregarded as an object of scientific inquiry. On the other hand, to those who subscribe to the second view (known as Cartesian dualism), the mind certainly exists but is more or less inscrutable. While the activities of the body must conform to the laws of physics, the mind is apparently unfettered by these laws. Whatever their differences, both views place the mind firmly beyond practical understanding and examination. And in the end, neither is intellectually satisfying or academically elegant.
The Vedic literature of ancient India presents a third option. Sri Krishna, in the Bhagavad-gita, explains to His friend Arjuna that mind, intelligence, and false ego are three of His eight material energies. Together they compose the subtle body, while His five other material energies (earth, water, air, fire, and ether) make up the gross, or physical, body. This concept of the “subtle body,” as the combined mind, intelligence, and false ego, is the Vedic analogue to the “mind” in Western philosophy. Understood in this way, the mind is not completely transcendental to the laws that govern matter, yet neither is it subject to quite the same laws as the body. That is to say, the activities of the mind can be measured and predicted, but modern mainstream science has neither the tools nor the theoretical knowledge base with which to do this.
So here we have three ways of conceiving the mind: as completely identical with matter (Modern Model), as completely opposed to matter (Cartesian Model), and as subtle matter between gross matter and pure spirit (Vedic Model).
Another way to understand the difference between these three models is to look at whom they point to as the actual self. The Modern Model indicates the body itself as the self, with no separate or higher extraneous entity. The Cartesian Model points to the mind as the self, with the body serving as a vehicle. The Vedic Model describes the self as a completely spiritual entity, who occupies, or is temporarily covered by, both the subtle and gross bodies. The Vedic Model opens up opportunities for research into the workings of the subtle realm that are all but precluded by the other two models. Let’s take a look at how this might be so.
Psychic abilities, such as the ability to read minds (telepathy) or to move objects with the mind (telekinesis), are currently relegated to the fringes of academic investigation. And it’s no wonder. Given current choices, we can either follow the Modern Model and simply deny the existence of psychic powers, even in the face of countless anecdotes and other evidence to the contrary, or we can follow the Cartesian Model and accept the existence of such abilities but not be able to explain them any better than simply calling them “miracles.” If we follow the Vedic Model, however, and understand the mind as just another type of matter, we can at least accept in theory that interactions between the mind and the physical realm are possible. All that remains is to experiment and determine what kind of laws regulate the activities of the mind (the subtle body), and how they differ from the laws that affect the gross body. The Vedic literature can of course help this exploration by providing a theoretical framework.
If the mind is just another type of body through which a person can act, is it possible that some people have only this kind of body, without the usual physical counterpart? This is precisely how the literature of ancient India explains ghosts—another phenomenon that the Vedic Model of the mind can demystify. The Modern Model simply rules out the possibility of ghosts completely. They can’t be perceived by traditional means, so they don’t exist. The Cartesian Model, as an alternative, acknowledges an intangible reality beyond the body, so it has no problem accounting for ghosts in theory. In practice, however, ghosts must remain beyond rational scrutiny because the intangible reality they are a part of has nothing in common with matter. And matter, after all, is all our research instruments and scientific methods are prepared to handle. Here, again, the Vedic Model breaks open new ground. Ghosts can be understood as living entities who have a mind, or subtle body, but no physical form, or gross body. Such a view helps dispel the cloud of fear and mystery that otherwise surrounds these living beings. We can take comfort in the fact that, far from being magical or mythical, ghosts are not fundamentally different from you or me. They merely exist in another material state, which is yet to be fully understood by the scientific establishment.
If beings exactly like us can exist without the need for an external physical body that we can directly perceive, could there be other kinds of embodied beings beyond our sensual perception? The Vedic literature answers with an emphatic yes: The other planets of the universe are populated, but by beings with more advanced consciousness, and correspondingly more advanced bodies. The Modern Model attributes UFO sightings and other evidence of alien beings to forgery and figments of the imagination. The Cartesian Model relegates these entities to the angelic realm.
The Vedic Model, in contrast, supports a more positive and productive approach by simply extending the domain of the subtle body. Sentient life forms on other planets are understood to have, according to their status, either no gross bodies and only subtle bodies, or more refined gross bodies that exhibit characteristics akin to our subtle bodies. For example, many of them can fly and change shape at will, feats we humans can accomplish only in our thoughts and dreams (i.e., the realm of the mind/subtle body). Nevertheless, their bodies are still matter. These more sophisticated beings are not exempt, therefore, from the limitations that affect other materially embodied entities, including death. Nor are they precluded from interacting with more gross forms of matter (like our bodies). So human beings do not seek to make contact with aliens in vain. Armed with such a conception, our search for extra-terrestrial intelligence merely needs to be upgraded with a new set of tools that go beyond the five traditional senses. They are indeed out there, and they can, in fact, be communicated with. We merely need to take advantage of the Vedic literature and refine our process.
Beyond the Mind
It’s well and good to figure out the workings of the mind with the help of the Vedic Model, but, one might ask, what of the soul? Krishna does, after all, speak of a superior energy of His beyond the eight material energies and unaffected by material laws. Having accepted the Vedic Model of the mind, one would surely want to explore the nature of this actual spiritual self in addition to understanding the temporary subtle and gross bodies. The Vedas urge us, in fact, to do just that. For those ready for that ultimate journey, the Vedas also provide the requisite knowledge and practical processes. But before our colleges and universities tackle such an ambitious subject, perhaps they should start by studying that realm which lies between the physical world we understand so well and the spiritual reality that transcends our understanding. Perhaps the scientific community should delve into this subtle arena of the mind and broaden its understanding to include such phenomena as psychic powers, ghosts, and life on other planets. This pursuit would give knowledge that could be used to improve our material life on this planet, as well as provide a bridge for moving towards an understanding of our spiritual life beyond this mundane realm. In the mean time, I’ll be scanning the course catalog…waiting.