Paramatma

Supersoul & Paramatma

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The Supersoul within all living entities

The Supersoul, or Paramatma, is a partial representation of the Supreme Person who oversees and sanctions all that goes on within the material world. Paramatma is within each atom and each living entity, accompanying the individual atma (soul) throughout each of our lifetimes in material bodies, and helping us fulfill our individual destinies and desires.

In the Thirteenth Chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna explains how He, as the Supersoul, simultaneously exists in the hearts of all beings as the well-wishing friend of everyone, the witness to all activities, the maintainer of all things, and the supreme controller within the universe.

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The 'Supersoul bird' and the 'individual soul bird'

The Upanishads give an allegory explaining our relationship to the Supersoul. Two birds are sitting in a tree. One bird is anxiously eating the tree's fruits, while other bird is calmly watching him. We're the anxious bird, and the witness bird is the Supersoul, or Superself.

We can perceive the presence of the Supersoul as the action of intelligence. When we can identify objects when they come into view, make plans and follow through with them, and understand the difference between matter and spirit – we're receiving guidance from the Supersoul. As Srila Prabhupada says in his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam, 2.2.35:

"Every living being has his intelligence, and this intelligence, being the direction of some higher authority, is just like a father giving direction to his son. The higher authority, who is present and residing within every individual living being, is the Superself."

The top painting shows how Krishna is present in every living entity. The middle painting ("Read More" view) illustrates the Upanishads' allegory of Supersoul and the individual soul as two birds.

Inklings Of The Psychic Commons

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Carl Jung’s descriptions of a “collective unconscious” are strikingly similar to ancient Vedic descriptions of the Supersoul.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home!

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone.
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

As a student at the Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio. from 1956 to 1964, I sang this hymn many times. From fourth grade on we all had to attend morning and afternoon services in the school chapel. Grade by grade, in alphabetical order by name, we twice daily filled the pews, fourth graders up front by the stage and lectern, eighth graders in back beneath the organ loft. In five years of chapel services I gradually progressed from low-man-on-the-totem-pole status in the front row to a position with far greater prestige and a much better view about thirty feet back, all the while sitting, alphabetically, between classmates Roland Crawford and Skip Fazio. As we rose again and again, opening our worn hymnals to sing verses hinting at peace and permanence. Skip’s peach fuzz turned into stubble, Roland’s voice dropped an octave, and I grew at least a foot.

I believed in God, the almighty white-haired patriarch in whose honor the chapel services were held, and I didn’t want to begrudge Him the daily offerings of hymns and prayers. But over the years the words “A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone” nourished in me an inkling that there was something higher and more powerful than even God-on-High. If God’s evenings lasted a thousand ages, that meant He lived a lot longer than I. But it also meant that His evenings—and therefore His days, years, and life—eventually ended. If He was enjoying Himself, maybe time passed too quickly, like it always does when you’re having a good time. And if He wasn’t enjoying Himself—if angelic harp music and schoolboy hymns bored Him—then what was the advantage of His longevity? In any case, time, the all-pervasive, impersonal force that was sweeping me through Hawken and through life, was apparently sweeping God too.

Coincidentally, while I was serving my pew term in Cleveland, Carl Gustav Jung, then in his eighties, was at home in Zurich, Switzerland, composing his autobiography. Writing of his own school days, Jung, the great psychologist who broke with Sigmund Freud to found the school of analytic psychology, revealed that he too had early on developed an impersonal inkling. Jung recalled picking up a book in his father’s library and reading that God was a “personality to be conceived of after the analogy of the human ego: the unique, utterly supramundane ego who embraces the entire cosmos.”

God a personality? Jung wouldn’t buy it. Ego and personality, he reasoned, were by nature limited and fault- ridden. If God is unlimited, if He is everything and therefore spread out everywhere, then how can He have a personality? And if He is perfect, then how dare we endow Him with an ego? Schoolboy Jung had experienced that his own ego was “vain, self-seeking, defiant, in need of love, covetous, unjust, sensitive, lazy, irresponsible,” and subject to “errors, moods, emotions, passions, and sins.” Certainly, he thought, the Supreme must be egoless.

Thus two twentieth-century thinkers—one from Cleveland, one from Zurich—came to question the supremacy of God-the-person by way of experiencing the flaws of man-the-person. How could anyone propose, both Jung and I wondered, that personality and supreme perfection are compatible?
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In answering this question, India’s time-honored Vedic literature discloses that Jung and I fell into the same impersonal trap.

I fell, I now realize, by mistakenly accepting the old- man conception of God and by consequently overlooking scriptural references to God’s immortality. If God ages, I figured. He must die also. To this inkling Vedic authorities reply that although the Supreme Person is the original being and therefore the oldest of all. He never ages. The Brahma-samhita states, adyam purana-purusham nava-yauvanam ca: God lives eternally; not as a white-haired patriarch but as a fresh blooming youth. Time can neither age Him nor deteriorate His transcendental abode. He is time, the Bhagavad-gita says. And other Vedic texts corroborate: time is the energy of the Supreme Person that sweeps the entire cosmic manifestation along to ultimate destruction. Meanwhile the Supreme Person Himself remains aloof, enjoying transcendental pastimes with His pure devotees.

But although God is a person—an active enjoyer like us—we shouldn’t think that His character and personality are like ours in every respect. This was Jung’s mistake—or one of them, anyway. While Jung rightly observed that our personalities are always limited and our characters often unsavory, he wrongly concluded that God’s personality would have to be the same. To refute this notion, the Srimad-Bhagavatam, which is the topmost of the Vedic texts, describes at great length the unlimited attributes and activities of God-the-person. asserting that the spiritual character of God is spotlessly free from the negative qualities our own egos presently generate. Our personalities are sometimes repugnant, but God- the-person, or, to use Srila Prabhupada’s terminology, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is known as “Krishna,” or “the all-attractive one.”

Krishna is everything and spread out everywhere in the sense that everything is His energy, as heat and light are energies of the sun. The elements that make up our bodies and the rest of the universe are Krishna’s material energy, while we ourselves—the individuals who animate these bodies—are eternally part of Krishna’s spiritual energy. Everything—within and beyond our experience—emanates from Krishna.

Despite the pervasiveness of His energies, however, Krishna remains a person. If you ripped this page from the magazine, tore it to pieces, and threw it all over the room, the page would no longer be available for your edification. That’s because the page is material. Krishna, however, distributes Himself all over by His “pieces” (His various energies) yet remains personally available, shining like the sun. That’s because Krishna is the perfect, omnipotent, completely spiritual Personality of Godhead. He is, as Jung should have gleaned while reading his father’s book, “unique” and “utterly supramundane.” The Vedic literatures warn us not to rely solely on our experience and logic to understand Him.

Our own personalities are always limited, as Jung correctly observed. But they are vain, self-seeking, and in so many other ways a pain in the neck only when we forget that we are eternal parts of Krishna, and that our natural function is consequently to cooperatively serve and satisfy Him. Satisfying Krishna results in our own satisfaction, just as feeding the stomach nourishes all parts of the body. But in forgetfulness of Krishna’s supremacy we vainly think ourselves supreme, falsely identify with our temporary material bodies, and seek only to satisfy our own bodily senses. This self-seeking mentality puts us at odds not only with each other but with Krishna Himself as well. In such an unnatural state of affairs our original Krishna conscious personalities show deformed and ugly faces. We should not, therefore, compare our present personalities to God’s personality point for point, since such a comparison will naturally lead us to doubt, as Jung and I doubted, that the Supreme has a personality at all.

I wouldn’t label Jung “impersonal” in the usual sense of that word. He was a jovial, affable man who gave full attention to the personal lives of his patients. In his writings he championed the cause of the individual over what he considered the mass-mindedness of modern societies, which reduce us individuals to a pile of statistics. Nor did Jung fail to acknowledge the important role ego plays in an individual’s psychic maturation. He even flatly refused to formulate a fixed theory to explain the human psyche, because he felt that a single theory could never do justice to everyone. Theories had to be chosen and adjusted to fiteach individual. What worked for you might be detrimental to me.

Jung’s adjustability makes it difficult not only to label him “impersonal” but to label him anything. Nevertheless, beginning with his childhood aversion to the idea of God-the-person, it is possible to trace an impersonalistic thread through the tapestry of his life’s work. That thread is particularly evident in one of Jung’s most intriguing and controversial concepts—something he called “the collective unconscious.”

It even sounds impersonal. And not so terribly intriguing either. “Collective” suggests the opposite of “private” or “individual.” And unconscious? While a person may sometimes fall unconscious, he or she is least interesting or personable that way. “Collective unconscious” could suitably describe the ambiance of an enormous one-room flophouse, or of a mass grave.

However, just as the Vedic literature warns us not to use mundane logic to judge the Personality of Godhead, so Jung cautions that the collective unconscious is beyond our ordinary sensual and intellectual experience. It is a powerful dynamic entity. In fact, although Jung never says that God and the collective unconscious are one and the same, he does closely identify them. Psychologically speaking, man’s experience of one is indistinguishable from his experience of the other.

To me that sounds unclear, and Jung is certainly hard to decipher at times. Some of his critics accuse him of obscurity, while Jung’s admirers express the same idea euphemistically when they say he is “mystical” or “rich in suggestion.” And Jung himself explains, “I have no definite convictions—not about anything, really… . [But] in spite of all uncertainties, I feel a solidity underlying all existence. ...”

So the collective unconscious is, for certain, a Godlike “solidity underlying all existence.” It is also—a little more tangibly, I’d say—our common heritage. Jung accepted the theory of evolution and felt that as a result of evolutionary development we all have a lot in common not only physically, but psychically as well. Evolution has given you and me a heart, a stomach, a head, a neck, ten fingers, etc. We also have egos, those conscious streams of “I am” that wend their way through our days and years from early childhood to old age. And we both have subconscious minds, whose depths harbor repressed or long- ignored desires and memories, and in whose shallows, just deep enough to keep our conscious shores litter-free, information more pertinent to our daily lives treads water, ready for quick recall.

To have these things in common doesn’t mean, of course, that we literally share them, as town dwellers, for instance, used to share the town commons to graze their livestock. Your stomach won’t digest what I eat, nor does my mind mull over your inner thoughts. Although our physical and psychic anatomies are identical, we have different stomachs and minds, different hearts, and, most important, different egos. We are distinct individuals.

Jung conceived of the collective unconscious, however, as something we do literally share. It is a town commons of the psyche deep within our beings, a hidden primordial psychic field on which all humanity stands and from which we all receive guidance and inspiration. Conscious egos, Jung said, are relatively recent evolutionary arrivals. They arose from the collective unconscious as plants grow from a rhizome.

Jung gave the collective unconscious credit for the back stage control of almost everything we think and do. He maintained that while our egos, with their personal wills, have an important part to play in life, we have mistakenly crowned them monarchs of our psychic territories, unaware to what degree the ego is carried along by an impersonal force beyond its grasp. That force flows from our psychic commons, from “the one psyche which embraces us all.”

Which is not just intriguing, but pretty spooky, if you ask me. I have always thought of myself as an ego, as that little old stream of conscious “I am.” I’ll concede that my “I am” is carried along by another force—a force that back at Hawken I had identified as time. But time, however mysterious, is something external that acts upon me, whereas the collective unconscious, according to Jung, is me. It’s part of my own self, and of your self too. In fact, Jung defines “self “ as a union, an integration, of the conscious, personal realm and the unconscious, impersonal realm of the psyche.

That’s an awful lot of integration. First of all, we’re integrated with each other already in that we’re an outgrowth of the same “rhizome.” Secondly, since that rhizome is closely identified with God, we’re already integrated with Him too. And thirdly, the self itself, said Jung, is also nearly identical with God, or as Jung murkily puts it, with the God-image in the human psyche.

Follow? Let me summarize: our almost-God selves are an integration of the conscious/personal with our almost-God rhizome.

With all due respect, this is just plain mixed up. Take Jung’s adjustability, add a generous dollop of uncertainty, blend everything with a gallon or two of obscurity, and you’ve got an exasperatingly convoluted, richly-suggestive Jungian goo. Here a Jungian might remind me that Jung never claimed to have a clear theoretical framework. He called his work “a circumambulation of unknown factors.” A Jungian might also point out that the collective unconscious, being in many respects the opposite of consciousness, is by nature irrational and therefore difficult, even impossible, to define or describe. Upon introduction to our antithetical psychic partner, we chauvinistic egos are bound to feel befuddled and threatened.

I can’t swallow these explanations either. There’s something insidious about them. I haven’t yet accepted the collective unconscious as my psychic partner, and look at what Jung is asking me to do.He’s suggesting that I integrate my long-separated psychic neighborhood, making room for this total stranger, this foreigner from the other side—the unconscious side—of the psychic tracks. Jung even has the nerve to suggest that this spooky stranger was here first, that he’s God, and that the neighborhood really belongs to him. The newcomer is not only God, he’s me and you too. How can you say such things in public and not expect to encounter nasty backlash from upstanding, well-bred conscious egos like myself ? No wonder Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious, when understood at all, is controversial.

But vitriol aside, the idea of a collective unconscious has a unique charm and urgency. It is at least an attempt to provide a meeting ground for a world fractured by divergent social, political, and religious interests. It gives us an inkling of our primeval brotherhood, a brotherhood still much touted by religious leaders but buried for all practical purposes by sectarian feuding. It offers us a clue how to sublimate our selfish, ego-centered ambitions by recognizing a central collective entity, a greater impersonal self. Largely on the basis of the collective unconscious, Jung called for a potent, nonsectarian faith to counteract the pseudo religions and fanatical political ideologies of this age.

The big trouble with Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious is that his schoolboy mistrust of personality influences it so heavily. Otherwise, the Vedic literatures confirm that two selves dwell in our bodies. One self is the conscious ego, and the other is known to Vedic authorities as the Superself, or Supersoul. The Supersoul is collective in that “it” is within each and every body. But “it” is far from unconscious or impersonal. On the contrary, the Supersoul is a personal expansion of the eternal, all-cognizant, all-perfect Personality of Godhead, Krishna.

Here again we run into the same question Jung raised as a child: How can God be everywhere—in this case in everyone’s body—and still be a person? And again the answer is that Krishna, unlike us, is unlimited and omnipotent. He does as He likes. More specifically, the Vedic literature explains that Krishna expands Himself into an unlimited number of spiritual personalities identical with Him. The Supersoul is one such expansion. As the sun, shining down at noon, falls upon the heads of millions of people yet remains one, so Lord Krishna in His Supersoul expansion shines into the hearts of all living entities in all species of life yet remains one person. While both you and your body are Krishna’s energy, the Supersoul is Krishna’s very self.

The Supersoul could be called unconscious only in the sense that we are currently unconscious, or ignorant, of Him, and in the sense that His consciousness is not defective like ours. Forgetting the Supersoul, or Krishna, is in fact our greatest defect, because in so doing we also forget our own eternal, spiritual selves. Our forgetful friend Jung, for example, proposed that our conscious selves are Johnny-come-latelys on the psychic scene, outgrowths of the collective rhizome.

Yes, the Vedic literature says, we are outgrowths of Krishna in that we are His energy, yet we are eternal—that is, without beginning or end. Krishna is eternal, and we are eternally individual fragments of Him. Krishna is the eternal sun, and we are the sunshine. Although the sun and the sunshine exist simultaneously, one is the origin of the other. According to the Bhagavad-gita, there was never a time when Krishna and ourselves did not exist, nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.

In the Gita Krishna also states that He (as Supersoul) is situated in our hearts, supplying us with memory, knowledge, and forgetfulness. In other words, Krishna, not the collective unconscious, directs all our psychic activities. Without memory and knowledge we can’t think or do anything, and without forgetfulness of our eternal life with Krishna we can’t strut about in this temporary world imagining ourselves supreme and independent. So, according to our particular desires, Krishna equips us with intelligence as He sees fit.

The Supersoul directs not only human beings but animals as well. Whenever even rudimentary intelligence is evident, the source is Krishna, and the receptacle, or secondary source, is one of His eternal, individual parts. For example, the Supersoul gives bees the intelligence to construct a hive, collect nectar from flowers, produce and store the honey, and so on. Bees, ants, whales, human beings—all get their instinctual, mental, or intellectual powers from Krishna, who is seated in our hearts (or, you could say, in the depths of our psyches) as the Supersoul.

Jung’s outstanding accomplishment was to understand that a higher authority governs our psychic activities. Phenomena such as the sudden inspiration of an artist or a scientist, the predictive powers of a psychic, as well as Jung’s own visions and premonitions, helped to convince him that this higher authority exists. In addition, recurrent themes in myths and ideologies throughout human history led Jung to conclude that unseen psychic molds and channels—which he called “archetypes of the collective unconscious”—have always directed man’s consciousness.

Equally outstanding, however, was Jung’s inability to grasp that this unseen authority is a person. The collective unconscious, Jung discovered, serves as a witness, a guide, a governor, a regulator, a knower—even as a friend. Are these not personal qualities? And if consciousness, intelligence, and rationality are the accouterments of ego in this world, then couldn’t Jung at least suspect that the director of intelligence and consciousness has an ego?

No, he couldn’t. Throughout Jung’s life his fear of personality and ego robbed him of a fuller understanding of the psyche.

Both psychic selves—the self and the Superself—are persons, Lord Krishna explains, and we can understand their respective positions only through devotional service:

To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me. To show them special mercy, I, dwelling in their hearts, destroy with the shining lamp of knowledge the darkness born of ignorance.

People who fear personality are especially averse to the supreme personality. Krishna obliges such people by supplying them with forgetfulness of Him, or by revealing Himself to them only as “a solidity underlying all existence.”

On the other hand, those who have lent an impartial ear to the Vedic accounts of Krishna’s wonderful transcendental character have nothing to fear. They fully devote themselves to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, carefully following the direction of the Vedic literature and of Krishna’s representatives. To these devotees Krishna is eager to reveal Himself as the Supersoul in their hearts and to destroy with the brilliance of transcendental knowledge the darkness causing us to falsely identify our eternally perfect egos with our temporary and fault-ridden bodies.

As for little old vitriolic me, the Supersoul poses no threat. I am happy to recognize that He is in charge of my psychic neighborhood. After all, He is not a stranger but my long-forgotten friend and master from the other side—the supremely conscious side—of the psychic tracks. And yes, the Supersoul is God. He was in the neighborhood first. And the perfection of my self is to integrate with Him by constantly endeavoring to please Him with my service.

But no, Supersoul and I are not the same person. He is God; I am His servant. And there’s no threat of my being displaced, or replaced, or blended into some divinely obscure goo. The Supersoul and ourselves exist eternally, and the all- attractive opportunity we now have to awaken our loving relationships with Him is the true basis for the potent, nonsectarian faith Jung was seeking.

The collective unconscious, while intriguing, was not in the least bit lovable.

Reality, Life, and Quantum Mechanics

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In recent years the idea that life can be reduced to chemistry and physics has become very prominent in the life sciences. According to this idea, all living organisms, including human beings, are simply aggregates of molecules interacting in accordance with chemical and physical laws. This conception of life has found particular emphasis in the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology, where the study of DNA, RNA, and the processes of protein synthesis have lent credence to the picture of the living cell as a molecular machine.

What are the molecules that combine together to make this machine, and what is really known of the laws governing their interaction? For the answers to these questions we must turn to physics, and in particular to the quantum theory, which provides the basis for the present understanding of atoms and molecules. However, we find ironically that modern physics presents a description of molecules that seriously undermines the mechanical picture developed by the molecular biologists. While the biologists have attempted to reduce life to the interaction of inanimate entities, the physicists have developed a conception of inanimate entities that necessitates the presence of life—the life of a conscious observer. We will briefly describe this development and indicate some of its implications for our understanding of the nature of reality, and in particular the nature of life.

To begin, let us consider how modern physics uses quantum mechanics to describe atoms and molecules. In popular books these are often depicted as three-dimensional shapes; but this is misleading. In fact, quantum mechanics provides no natural description of three-dimensional objects in space. In quantum mechanics all natural phenomena are described by means of a mathematical construct called the wave function. The wave function can be represented as a three-dimensional arrangement only for a very simple system. For example, we can represent the hydrogen atom three-dimensionally if we regard the nucleus as a fixed point and only the electron as an active entity. However, the wave function for the helium atom (with two electrons) requires six dimensions, and that for the carbon atom (with six electrons) requires eighteen dimensions. In general, the wave function for an entity composed of n particles requires 3n dimensions. So, if we tried to quantum- mechanically represent the complex molecules found in living organisms, we would require wave functions involving many thousands of geometric dimensions.

Actually, it is a mistake to think of the wave function as a model of objective reality. Rather, we should understand it to be only a store of information about the results of observations that could be made by a particular observer. In quantum mechanics there is a system of computational procedures called “observables,” which one can apply to the wave function to predict the expected results of corresponding observations. The wave functions and observables can be reformulated mathematically in many different ways, the only requirement being that for each observation all the reformulations yield the same predicted value. Thus modern physics deals only with observations, whereas nineteenth century physics dealt with arrangements of matter in space.

In this connection Werner Heisenberg pointed out, “The conception of the objective reality of the elementary particles has thus evaporated ... into the transparent clarity of a mathematics that represents no longer the behavior of the elementary particles but rather our knowledge of this behavior.” (Italics added.) It has not been possible to regard this “knowledge” as a representation of actual entities, in which symbolic expressions correspond in a one-to- one relationship to what actually exists.

One feature of this “knowledge” is that it inevitably possesses some ambiguity. The famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that the degree of uncertainty in either the position or the momentum of an electron must be at least as great as a specific small quantity. Thus we cannot conceive of the electron as a definite object with a definite position and momentum; we are limited to speaking simply of observations of “position of an electron” or “momentum of an electron,” and we cannot think of the electron separately from the observer and his measuring apparatus.

Ambiguities and Paradoxes

According to the quantum theory, natural processes can amplify atomic ambiguity without limit. To illustrate such amplification, Erwin Schrodinger conceived his famous “cat paradox,” which we will describe here in a slightly modified form. Suppose someone attaches a bomb to a railroad track and then connects the bomb to a Geiger counter so that the decay of a radioactive atom will cause it to explode. We then have a scenario in which, say, the 5 P.M. express train will derail if the atom decays within a certain period, and it will not derail if it doesn’t. Suppose we can describe the entire scene, including the train and its passengers, by quantum mechanics (this is a big assumption). The quantum theory would then predict that at 5:01 the wave function describes a train that is both derailed and not derailed! (See Fig. 1.) The quantum mechanical ambiguity in the state of the atom has become enormously amplified, and the “knowledge” represented by the wave function has become ambiguous on a large scale.

The situation of the 5 P.M. express is a source of difficulty if we try to interpret the quantum theory as a description of objective reality. The wave function at 5:01 describes the passengers on the train as simultaneously experiencing the derailment of the train and its normal functioning. Since no one ever actually has such an experience, there must be some deficiency in the theory.

In practice physicists try to remedy this deficiency by redefining the wave function whenever it develops a degree of ambiguity that entails impossible experiences for an observer. It has not been possible to justify this redefinition in terms of either physical forces or any other natural principle of causation. Rather, the wave function is said to be redefined by absolute chance. In our train example, we would have to choose a new wave function that either unambiguously represents a derailed train, or unambiguously represents a normal train. We would have to make this choice before any observer might perceive an impossible ambiguity, but we could attribute the choice to no natural cause other than pure chance.

Much controversy has arisen over this process of redefinition, and we will not attempt to do justice to this issue here. We can conclude, however, that the only sensible way to interpret the quantum theory is as a system of knowledge about observations. It has not been possible to interpret the theory as a description of actual entities existing in space. Furthermore, we can conclude that the knowledge conveyed by the theory is inherently uncertain and sometimes in need of revisions that cannot be determined by any known principles.

Strictly speaking, then, we cannot describe the world on the basis of quantum theory without positing a region that contains the observer and that cannot be described by the theory. Some physicists have proposed that the boundary of this region should be drawn at the point where atomic ambiguities first become amplified to the macroscopic level. Others, such as John von Neumann, have tried to reduce this region to zero, and thus they have been forced to posit a nonphysical observer whom von Neumann called the “abstract ego.” In either case, difficulties and paradoxes arise, and the theory does not give an adequate account of the observer.

In addition, we cannot expect the quantum theory to give an adequate description of the gross behavior of living beings, even if we disregard their role as possible observers of events. The problem of ambiguity in the quantum theory suggests that it may be seriously incomplete, even as a description of the behavior of inanimate matter. What, then, to speak of the quantum theory’s description of the measurable behavior of living organisms? Even without undertaking the formidable calculations required to generate such a description, we can anticipate that it, too, will be inadequate.

Needed: a New Theory of Physics

From the above discussion, we can see the need for a new theory of physics—one resolving both the problem of ambiguity and that of the observer’s role. One prominent physicist, Eugene Wigner, has suggested that such a theory should directly take life into account. He has proposed that many of the principles, entities, and laws involved with life are presently unknown because they do not play a highly significant role in the nonliving phenomena on which the present theory is based.

In making this proposal, Wigner has also pointed out another deficiency of the quantum theory, one that must be shared by all purely mathematical descriptions of natural phenomena. This deficiency is the failure of the theory to give any account of consciousness. As Wigner points out, our knowledge of our consciousness is primary, and our knowledge of all other things is the content of our consciousness. Thus consciousness exists, even though the arrays of numbers appearing in mathematical theories say nothing about it. A theory that truly accounts for life must deal with consciousness, and this means that the theory cannot be exclusively quantitative in nature.

Let us briefly describe how the Bhagavad-gita gives an outline for such a theory. Although the conceptions presented in the Bhagavad-gita are not at all compatible with the mechanistic worldview presently favored in the life sciences, they take on new relevance when we consider the dilemmas faced by modern physics.

Insights into the Enigmas

The Bhagavad-gita (18.61)describes the living organism as follows:

ishvarah sarva-bhutanam
hrid-deshe ’rjuna tishthati
bhramayan sarva-bhutani
yantrarudhani mayaya

This verse describes the organism as a machine (yantra) made of material energy, and to this degree the verse agrees with the mechanistic views of the biologists. However, it further says that the conscious self rides in this machine as a passenger, and that the machine is being directed by the Supreme Lord in His aspect as material controller (ishvarah), also known as paramatma. Elsewhere the Bhagavad-gita describes the paramatma as all-pervading and as the source of all material senses and qualities (Bg. 13.14-15). The paramatma directs the material apparatus through laws (summarily described as the modes of material nature) that are ultimately psychological in character.

In a very general way, the paramatma corresponds to the natural laws of the physicists, which are regarded as invariant in time and space and as the ultimate causal principles underlying all material phenomena. However, the paramatma possesses all-pervading consciousness, as well as unlimited qualities, and is thus not susceptible to complete description in mathematical terms.

The psychological modes by which the paramatma directs nature may be susceptible to quantitative description to some extent. These modes of nature correspond to the higher laws and entities Wigner felt would be necessary in any adequate theory of life. In the limiting case involving only inanimate matter, these higher laws should approximate the natural laws physicists have deduced from their observations of matter. However, in cases involving living beings, we may expect to find many phenomena that obey higher psychological laws but that defy explanation within the existing theories of physics.

By adjusting the actions of the material energy in accordance with both the modes of nature and the desires of the individual conscious living entities, the paramatma acts as the intermediary between these beings and the observable phenomena of nature. Thus the Bhagavad-gita provides a framework for understanding the nature of the observer and the nature of the observer’s interaction with matter. We can see that this is quite relevant to modern physics if we recall that the quantum theory is essentially a description of observations, and that the theory’s account of the observer and the process of observation is beset with serious difficulties.

At present we may find it extremely difficult to bridge the gap between the Bhagavad-gita’s description of the paramatma and the known laws of physics. Yet it is important to realize that modern scientific knowledge by no means rules out the possibility that both nature and the living beings have attributes lying far beyond the scope of our present theories. By remaining open to conceptions of life much broader than the limited mechanistic view, scientists will lose nothing. Rather, they may gain a deeper insight into both the perplexing enigmas of modern physics and the profound view of life presented in the Bhagavad-gita.