Part XX – The Cognitive Process
Q: We have already defined consciousness as ‘infinite’ and as ‘Brahman’. ‘I’ am also of the nature of consciousness. Another identity relation - ‘I am Brahman’ - should follow. But the problem is, I am not infinite like Brahman, at least I do not feel like I am infinite. I will be deluded if I think I am infinite, while being finite. I am limited by this universe of objects all the time. In fact, I am limited by space, time and by other objects in the universe. That is my fundamental problem - the limitations that I experience all the time. And you say I am Brahman – how can that be? I am not the object – neti, neti – etc. that you mentioned before; I am not this and not this – and that is how I am supposed to arrive at myself. This means I am different from this and this. Being different from all this, this, and this, I am limited by all the objects, nay the whole world, since they are all different from me. At the same time you say I am Brahman, the all pervading infinite consciousness. There seems to be some internal contradiction here. Please explain.
A: We stated that the existence of an object ‘out there’ depends on the knowledge of its existence. Knowledge of the object, however, involves a knower (the conscious entity that I am), the object that is being known and the process of knowing (which involves a pramANa, the means of knowledge). Knowledge can only take places in the intellect. Let us examine closely the mechanics of how this knowledge takes place. Objects have attributes that can be measured by our five senses. Eyes can only see form and colors, nose the smell, tongue the taste, ears the sound and skin the texture (soft or hard etc). These are attributes only and not the substantive, which is the locus for these attributes. None of the senses can grasp the substantive of the object (substantive is the matter that the object is made up of).
Perception involves sense input to the mind. The mind gathers the input from the senses, integrates all the input and projects an image in the mind with all the attributes it has gathered (form, color, smell, texture, etc). This is the cognitive process that occurs in the mind. The cognized image is then compared with the previous images stored in the memory by the intellect. If there is match, then the object is recognized (re-cognized).
During the learning process, the mother shows a child a cow and says that is a cow. The child stores not only the image but also the name for that form or image. Next time when the mother shows another cow which has a different color, the child starts understanding the common features of the two cows (called jAti) as well as individual (vyakti) differences between the cows (e.g. one is black and the other white). That is how the knowledge of objects is gathered and stored in the memory bank. What is perceived are the attributes through the five sense inputs. An image is formed in the mind using the sense input. The image is stored in the memory along with a name associated with that image.
Thus we have a name and form (nAma and rUpa) associated with the stored image of an object. Next time when the child sees a cow, he immediately recognizes it as a cow, based on his memory. Mental images are nothing but thoughts in the mind. If someone says a word ‘cow’, immediately an image of a cow is brought in from the memory, even when there is no cow outside. The name cow and the image cow are now intimately associated with each other, as both are stored in memory. All are thoughts. What I think about myself is also images of myself as ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’ etc, which are again nothing but thoughts. This is also the form of my ego. What I project about myself in all my transactions is also the image of myself as I see myself, or sometimes how I want others to see myself.
All our transactions are at these image levels. This is all part of vyavahAra or the transactional self which is different from my true self. My true self is the consciousness that I am, because of which I am aware of all these transactions at the image level. Descartes’ statement ‘I think, therefore I am’ – is essentially the egotistical self that I am, which is related to the images of myself in the mind. The recollection of the image of a cow from the memory based on the word ‘cow’ is called pratyabhij~nA. I can only recollect what I have stored in my memory. What I store in my memory is based on the knowledge of the objects gathered through various means of knowledge (pramANa). Thus our life runs at this thought level all the time.
When I say the object is ‘out there’, it follows from the above description of the cognitive processes that there is an image of the object in the mind and that it is the image as ‘a thought’ that I am conscious of. When I perceive the object, it is important to note that I do not perceive the substantive of the object. vishiShTAdvaitins as well as dvaitins wrongly assume that one perceives the substantive too when the senses gather the attributes, since the attributes are inseparable from their locus. The mind makes an inferential statement which is established by experience that attributes cannot exist without a substantive. Therefore it is inferred from the image of the object as perceived through the senses that ‘there is an object out there with these attributes’. The reason we cannot also perceive the substantive is in tune with the Vedic assertion that the substantive is nothing but Brahman, since Brahman is the material cause for the universe and Brahman cannot be perceived. This is categorically stated again and again by Vedanta, that there is nothing (no thing) other than Brahman (neha nAnAsti ki~nchana), and in deed every thing is nothing but Brahman (sarvaM khalvidam brahma).
Proceed to the next essay.