Pseudoscience & Religion

The Rebels Who Challenged The Law Of Karma

This is Part – IV of Dr. Kamath’s series on Heretics, Rebels and Revolutionaries. Read Part III here. Dr. Kamath’s previous series on The Truth About The Bhagavad Gita can be found here.

Heretics, Rebels, Reformers And Revolutionaries: IV

In this article, we will study how three heterodox rebels put forward their own theories to counter the Law of Karma, which was the basis of decadence of Brahmanism.

Pakuda Katyayana: We Are All Made Up Of Atoms

Pakuda Katyayana was one of the seven well-known heterodox thinkers of 6th century B. C. He put forward a theory known as Anuvada (Atomism). Very little is known of this man’s personal life or his overall philosophy. Apparently he was obsessed with getting to “the root of things.” He theorized that man is made up of seven eternal elements, which are nothing but atoms (“that which cannot be split”): four basic elements, namely fire, air, earth, water, (which Charvakas also believed made up the body), pleasure and pain (Dwandwam, which Upanishadist considered as the main function of mind -likes and dislikes, pleasure and pain, gain and loss), and the soul (which Brahmins and Upanishadists called Atman). Buddhist text Samannaphala Suttanta describes Katyayana’s, response to the question put to him by king Ajatashatru: “What is the fruit of the contemplative life, visible here and now?”

Pakuda Katyayana said to king Ajatashatru:

The following seven things are neither made nor commanded to be made, neither created nor caused to be created, they are barren, steadfast as a mountain peak, as a pillar firmly fixed. They move not, neither do they vary, they trench not one upon another nor avail aught as to ease (pleasure) or pain or both. And what are the seven? The four elements: earth, water, fire, and air; and ease (pleasure) and pain, and the soul as a seventh. So there is neither slayer nor causer of slaying, hearer or speaker, knower or explainer. When one with a sharp sword cleaves a head in twain no one thereby deprives any one of life, a sword has only penetrated into the interval between seven elementary substances.

Anuvada Countered The Law Of Karma

Even though Katyayana admitted to existence of soul, he claimed that the soul was not affected by the action of the body as claimed by Brahmanism. This being the case, performing “good works” such as Yajna to obtain heaven after death and pleasure and power in the next life, or fearing hell for not performing one’s Varna-designated duty, was utter fraud. Nor was it necessary to indulge in Upanishadists’ Yoga to avoid Dwandwam (BG: 2: 44-45) since experiencing pain and pleasure was an essential part of being a human. Nor was it necessary to perform action without Dwandwam (of gain and loss) to avoid earning Karmaphalam (BG: 2:38), as neither gain nor loss of Karmaphalam affected the soul. The problem with Katyayana’s theory was that it did not address the issue the consequences -Karmaphalam – of one’s action here on earth. If he did, the literature on his thinking on this is lost.

Buddhist React

Because of Katyayana’s claim that the seven elements making up man are eternal and they survive in the form of atoms after one’s death, Buddhists referred to his teaching as Eternalism. The Buddha who was present at this discussion was put off by the irrelevance of Katyayana’s answer to the question:

“Thus, when asked about a fruit of the contemplative life, visible here and now, Pakudha Kaccayana answered with non-relatedness (irrelevance). Just as if a person, when asked about a mango, were to answer with a breadfruit; or, when asked about a breadfruit, were to answer with a mango. In the same way, when asked about a fruit of the contemplative life, visible here and now, Pakudha Kaccayana answered with non-relatedness. The thought occurred to me: ‘How can anyone like me think of disparaging a priest or contemplative living in his realm?’ Yet I neither delighted in Pakudha Kaccayana’s words nor did I protest against them. Neither delighting nor protesting, I was dissatisfied. Without expressing dissatisfaction, without accepting his teaching, without adopting it, I got up from my seat and left.”

Brahmanism Makes Anuvadism Obsolete

Like they did the Aajivikas, Brahmins and Upanishadists neutralized most of Anuvada by incorporating its basic tenets or countering them in the Bhagavad Gita, or offering more attractive alternatives. Basically what they said to Pakuda Katyayana was that there was nothing special about his theory.

Regarding the seven elements Pakuda mentioned, they said their system has them all and more. Upanishadists used modified Sankhya as the weapon against Anuvada:

BG: 13: 5-6: The (five) great elements (fire, water, air, wind and ether), Ahamkara (egoism, the sense of self), Buddhi (intellect), the un-manifested (soul), the ten senses (five sensory organs and five organs of action), five objects of senses (heat, sound, light, etc.), desire and hatred, pleasure and pain, the aggregate, intelligence and firmness -the Kshetra (Field) has been thus briefly described with its modifications.

Regarding the indestructible nature of seven elements, they said that the Atman was indestructible and eternal, but the body, though made up of various elements, was destructible. Obviously, to simple-minded people, this seemed obvious:

BG: 2:17: Know that to be verily indestructible by which all this is pervaded. None can effect the destruction of the Immutable.

BG: 2:23: Weapons do not cleave the Atman, fire burns It not, water wets It not, wind dries It not.

However, they claimed that the body, made up of various elements suffers death:

BG: 2:18: The bodies into which the eternal, indestructible and immeasurable Atman resides are said to have an end.

They agreed with Katyayana that:

BG: 2:19: He who holds Atman as slayer and he who considers It as the slain, both of them are ignorant. It slays not, nor is It slain. Atman is neither born nor does it die. Coming to being and ceasing to be do not take in It. Unborn, eternal, constant and ancient. It is not killed when the body is slain.

However, they declared that Atman carries with it the Karmaphalam to its next birth (BG: 6: 41-44).

Regarding pleasure and pain, Upanishadists declared them as impermanent, and they are caused by the mind’s attachment to sense objects, and hence they are the cause of loss of steadiness of mind. Hence one must avoid them by resorting to Yoga.

BG: 2:14-15: The contacts of the Senses with their objects create feelings of heat and cold, of pain and pleasure (Dwandwam). They come and go and are impermanent. Bear with them patiently. That man is fitted for immortality, whom Dwandwam do not torment (when he acts), who is balanced in pain and pleasure, and is steadfast.

Upanishadists kept hammering this theme throughout the Upanishadic part of the Bhagavad Gita (BG: 2:45; 3:34; 5:3). They even declared that the Supreme Purusha (Brahman) was even smaller than the atom (anor aneeyaamsam) and yet made up of inconceivable form (BG: 8:9). Thus using Sankhya and Yoga, Upanishadists smashed the Katyayana’s theory of Atomism to smithereens.debate

Poorana Kashyapa: Man Who Invented Law Of Akarma!

Poorana Kashyapa, a contemporary of the Buddha, was an ascetic who was obviously outraged by the negative consequences of the Law of Karma here on earth. His real goal was to show that the Brahmanism’s obsession with sacrificial rites based on the Law of Karma was just a fraud. Since Brahmanism claimed two types of Karma -good deeds and bad- Kashyapa decided to reject both. However, he reacted in the extreme and developed a theory known as Akriyavada -Theory of Inaction. He might as well have called it Law of Akarma. He said that there is no such thing as gaining Punyam (merit) by good works such as Yajna (sacrificial rites) and Dana (charity, gift giving), nor incurring Papam (sin) by indulging in evil acts as claimed by Brahmanism. Furthermore, he declared that moral values, noble virtues and control of common human weaknesses such as greed do not earn one merit. However, in the process, he came across as a person who did not believe in morality whatsoever. Therefore, his opponents labeled Akriyavada as Amoralism. Here is his rhetorical response to the question put to him by Ajatashatru, “What is the fruit of the contemplative life, visible here and now?” Samannaphala Suttanta:

Purana Kassapa said to King Ajatasattu:

To him who acts, O King, or causes another- to act, to him who mutilates or causes another to mutilate, to him who punishes or causes another to punish, to him who causes grief or torment, to him who trembles or causes others to tremble, to him who kills a living creature, who takes what is not given, who breaks into houses, who commits robbery or highway robbery, or adultery, or who speaks lies, to him thus acting there is no guilt (sin). If with a discus with an edge sharp as a razor he should make all the living creatures on the earth one heap, one mass, of flesh, there would be no guilt (sin) thence resulting, no increase of guilt (sin) would ensue. Were he to go along the south bank of the Ganges striking and slaying, mutilating and having men mutilated, oppressing and having men oppressed, there would be no guilt (sin) thence resulting, no increase of guilt (sin) would ensue. Were he to go along the north bank of the Ganges giving alms, and ordering gifts to be given, offering sacrifices or causing them to be offered, there would be no merit (Punyam) thence resulting, no increase of merit. In generosity, in self-mastery, in control of the senses, in speaking truth there is neither merit, nor increase of merit.

Note here that he refers to sacrifices performed along the north bank of the Ganges and atrocities perpetrated by people along its south bank. Obviously Kashyapa was referring to Brahmanic people and non-Brahmanic people. If Kashyapa truly believed in Amoralism, he would not have become outraged by Brahmins’ immoral behavior in the matter of Kamya Karma and animal sacrifices. Obviously, his goal was to prove that the Law of Karma was a fraud. Poorana Kashyapa’s obsession to prove that actions did not earn one Papam or Punyam (which affected one’s afterlife) blinded him to the fact that there are serious negative consequences to one’s immoral actions here on earth. Perhaps the only person who listened with delight to this outrageous philosophy was king Ajatashatru who came to power in 491 B. C. by murdering his father Bimbisara in cold blood. Nothing could have been more soothing to his ears than these reassuring words of Poorana Kashyapa that he would not go to hell for parricide!

The Buddha, the man of moderation in everything, who was a witness to this extremist diatribe of Poorana Kashyapa, reacted exactly as he did to Pakuda Katyayana’s response as described above. Buddhist texts indicate that Kashyapa claimed he was omniscient. He is said to have committed suicide by drowning, perhaps driven to this extreme action by the futility of it all.

Upanishadists React In The Bhagavad Gita

Regarding Akriyavadin’s claim that neither good deeds nor bad earn one any Karmaphalam, Upanishadists disagreed in the Bhagavad Gita and said that all acts earn Karmaphalam with sole exception of selfless Yajna performed to propitiate Vedic gods (BG: 3:9), but one could avoid earning any Karmaphalam by developing indifference to fruits while acting:

BG: 2:50-51: The one fixed in equanimity of mind (being unconcerned with gain or loss) frees himself in this life from (Karmaphalam of) good deeds as well as bad; therefore, devote yourself to Yoga. Work done skillfully (= which avoids Karmaphalam) is verily Yoga. The wise, imbued with evenness of mind, renouncing the fruits of their actions, freed from the fetters of births, verily go to the stainless state (attain Nirvana).

Upanishadists went on to declare that to the one who is totally fixed on Atman by means of Yoga there was no need to perform any action at all (karya na vidyate), as such a person has nothing to gain by his action, nor lose anything by his inaction. And he does not have to depend on anyone (such as priests or gods) for anything. (BG: 3:17-18).

Furthermore, Upanishadists countered Kashyapa’s argument by claiming that merits of good deeds are carried to one’s next life:

BG: 6: 40-41: Neither in this world nor in the next is there is destruction for doer of good deeds. He never comes to grief. Having attained to the worlds of the righteous and having lived there for countless years, he who falls from Yoga is reborn in the house of the pure and prosperous.

Not surprisingly Bhagavatas condemned Kashyapa’s philosophy of Amoralism as demonic (BG: 16:6-8) and condemned its practitioners to rebirth in the wombs of demons (BG: 16:19-20)! Poorana Kashyapa’s extremist philosophy of Amoralism thus drowned in the ocean of Samsara.

Sanjaya Belatthaputta: The Man Who Said, “One Can Never Know For Sure”

Sanjaya Belattaputta was an agnostic philosopher. He, too, was a contemporary of the Buddha. The fundamental assertion of his philosophy was that one could never be certain about anything. In Samannaphala Suttanta the Buddha recalls his encounter with Sanjaya:

“Another time I approached Sañjaya Belatthaputta and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings and courtesies, I sat to one side. As I was sitting there I asked him: ‘Venerable Sañjaya, there are these common craftsmen… They live off the fruits of their crafts, visible in the here and now… Is it possible, venerable sir, to point out a similar fruit of the contemplative life, visible in the here and now?’

“When this was said, Sañjaya Belatthaputta said to me, ‘If you ask me if there exists another world [after death], if I thought that there exists another world, would I declare that to you? I don’t think so. I don’t think in that way. I don’t think otherwise. I don’t think not. I don’t think not not. If you asked me if there isn’t another world… both is and isn’t… neither is nor isn’t… if there are beings who transmigrate… if there aren’t… both are and aren’t… neither are nor aren’t… if the Tathagata exists after death… doesn’t… both… neither exists nor doesn’t exist after death, would I declare that to you? I don’t think so. I don’t think in that way. I don’t think otherwise. I don’t think not. I don’t think not not.’

Bewildered by this nonsense, the Buddha must have scratched his spinning head before he said,

“Thus, when asked about a fruit of the contemplative life, visible here and now, Sañjaya Belatthaputta answered with evasion. Just as if a person, when asked about a mango, were to answer with a breadfruit; or, when asked about a breadfruit, were to answer with a mango: In the same way, when asked about a fruit of the contemplative life, visible here and now, Sañjaya Belatthaputta answered with evasion. The thought occurred to me: ‘This – among these priests and contemplatives – is the most foolish and confused of all. How can he, when asked about a fruit of the contemplative life, visible here and now, answer with evasion?’ Still the thought occurred to me: ‘How can anyone like me think of disparaging a priest or contemplative living in his realm?’ Yet I neither delighted in Sañjaya Belatthaputta’s words nor did I protest against them. Neither delighting nor protesting, I was dissatisfied. Without expressing dissatisfaction, without accepting his teaching, without adopting it, I got up from my seat and left.

Brahmanism did not think this agnostic philosophy was worth countering. They just ignored it and hoped it would die a natural death. However, two thousand and five hundred years after his death, Belatthaputta’ s philosophy is very much alive and well in modern India. The practitioners of this philosophy are known as politicians.

(To be continued)

About the author

Prabhakar Kamath

Dr. Prabhakar Kamath, is a psychiatrist currently practicing in the U.S. He is the author of Servants, Not Masters: A Guide for Consumer Activists in India (1987) and Is Your Balloon About To Pop?: Owner’s Manual for the Stressed Mind.

Links to all articles in Dr. Kamath's earlier series on Heretics, Rebels, Reformers and Revolutionaries can be found here. Dr. Kamath' series on The Truth About The Bhagavad Gita can be found here.

18 Comments

  • Fascinating reading, Dr Kamath, as usual! Reading about Kashyapa, I couldn’t help but think of the fallacious argument most often put forward by theists even now, that if you do not believe in god, you are automatically amoral! No wonder the poor chap chose to end his life rather than live amidst such morons! 🙂

  • I agree with Bharat Bhushan that politicians of modern India do not at all believe in the Law of Karma though most of them are of Brahmanic leanings. They indulge in plenty of dastardly acts and they think that they can propitiate various gods with bribes and cancel out their Karma!

    I am trying to grasp the true meaning of your statement: To me Karma is like making a resolution or will and then see its working. Nothing more, nothing less. Please elaborate a little.:)

  • A correction. The statement attributed to the Buddha in the above article was actually made by king Ajatashatru who narrated it to the Buddha. The real story is that Ajatashatru had conversation with six of seven Samurai and relates his experiences to the Buddha. I regret the mistake.

  • To ordinary person like me,Karmyoga appears a strange,startling and unintelligible doctrine.We are told that it is our obligation,our right to work but to the fruit thereof we never have a right.I think that a man’s right to the fruit of his labour is fundamental and unquestionable.A desire to achieve certain results is the mother of progress.Desirelessness is the mother of stagnation.All inventors,research workers,explorers work with motive or objective and are interested in results.Nothing was ever achieved by objectless endeavour.In the absence of desire,we would still have been jumping from tree to tree without shedding our tails and still walking on all fours.

    • No man does anything without expecting results/rewards. But then it is simply ‘karma’. The yoga part consists in applying your mind in deliberation i.e.’samkalpa’, design and implementation yet, not being diverted or distracted by imagined/feared consequences. This is ‘Akarma’, action that does not ‘bind’ you! This is correct endeavor with clear cut motive but without passion or obsession. Note: pain is unavoidable not suffering!

  • The doctrine of karma in the form of retribution for ‘evils’ done – as developed by a variety of promoters (mostly Indian but also now New Age) are attempts to get around the charge that, if God exists and created the universe, then ‘he’ personally created all evil. This fundamentalist idea of divine punishment (and reward) puts the burden of ‘evil’ on humankind alone as being the creators of evil (and of good) through thoughts and actions. It has its counterpart in the absurd Christian doctrine of ‘original sin’, which would assert that everyone, without exception, is a sinner.

    This doctrine is held by Sathya Sai Baba, that human actions (karma) are the sole causes of all evil and further of all that happens to us and the world, whether good or bad. Meanwhile he claims that he, as God and the creator and absolute ruler of the laws of karma, is above and beyond karma – and he claims to be that same God!

    While many very bad things are caused or sustained by humans, not God… it is ridiculous in the extreme to claim, as Sai Baba does, that all natural disasters are also caused by human actions. He includes earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and much more (see http://www.saibaba-x.org.uk/3/saigeol.htm)! He regards all diseases and accidents as the result of ‘bad’ actions by people, which therefore require ‘karmic’ reactions or ‘automatic retribution’ for ‘sins’ of some kind or another.

    It is here that the doctrine of karma in Sai Baba’s version falls down completely, and thus also the entire edifice of ideas built upon including all the confused and conflicting views on good and evil on which so much empty religious moralizing relies. In fact, such ideas lack any true compassion, let alone proven understanding of real causes, for he makes all who suffer deserving of it and ignores that anyone who suffers can be free of responsibility for it. Fortunately, all of enlightened and concerned humanity sees this as pre-scientific nonsense and brute religious fundamentalism – primitive superstition which is bound to wither away more and more as humanity progresses!
    Amazingly, Sai Baba’s doctrine is used by devotees to justify the most repulsive (and criminal) sexual abuses of which Sai Baba stands so widely and credibly accused.
    See: http://www.saibaba-x.org.uk/6/Defence_of_Sai_Baba_sexual_abuses.htm

  • The original karmic actions themselves cannot bring about the proper results at some future time; neither can super sensuous, non-intelligent qualities like adrsta—an unseen force being the metaphysical link between work and its result—by themselves mediate the appropriate, justly deserved pleasure and pain. The fruits,then, must be administered through the action of a conscious agent, namely, a supreme being (Ishvara).

    A human’s karmic acts result in merits and demerits. Since unconscious things generally do not move except when caused by an agent (for example, the axe moves only when swung by an agent), and since the law of karma is an unintelligent and unconscious law, Sankara argues there must be a conscious supreme Being who knows the merits and demerits which persons have earned by their actions, and who functions as an instrumental cause in helping individuals reap their appropriate fruits.

    Taking that to Quantum level, It wonders that Somehow Unconscious things are moving itself. In form of Fluctuations Can be argued that they support Each other. But Since when this started most Importantly How It started.

    • Sankara argues that there “must be a conscious supreme Being”
      There is just as much reason to argue that there must NOT be such a being.
      The doctrine of karma as ordained by a higher power is simply a rationalization to support the (forlorn and unproven) hope that good actions will eventually receive their reward and bad actions the opposite. Because it is patently not the case that rewards follow good acts – and set-backs follow bad acts – in real life, those with a vested interest in remaining intermediaries between people and the imagined Big Daddy pushed rewards and retributions into the beyond and made him responsible.
      This is at best called escapism. The last sentence in Singh’s comment is a completely vague and unintelligible mess, both grammatically and ideologically

      • ‘Sankara argues that there “must be a conscious supreme Being”’, not in the context of ‘karma’ which relate to mundane acts considered ‘Mythya’ or notions due to conditioned perceptions. According to Vedanta, there is neither good or bad deeds in that both ‘bind’ the individual. Vedanta in short turns away from notions of ‘evil’ that only go to conditioning of the mind and our effort must be to gain wisdom that transcends the phenomenal. Even evolution from ‘big bang’ onward is just phenomena caused by ‘imprints'(read information) of prior developmental acts.

  • Intended actions create prarabdh for the doer.All intentios pertain to mind-thought.Therefore intended actions will create a chain of concomitant reactions/consequences at physical/gross level.Thought and mind is important i.e. everything is mind,everything is thought.But on a different higher plane they dont matter .Its all contraptions of mind or as a modern language will express games of mind.

    • Everything is not mind and/or thought, because mind itself is increasingly and overwhelmingly shown by neurological research to be brain-dependent and NOT the reverse.
      This ‘mentalism’ and transcendentalism which make consciousness ultimately the agency of everything is based on assumptions which the development of the sciences has progressively and to a rapidly increasing and expanding extent have weakened through their discoveries which further validate the opposite assumption, physicalism.
      India has suffered more and longer than probably any other culture from this negation of realism and empiricism, and the underlying religious speculation (and self-contradictory philosophy) of advaita (for example nothing is real, all is appearance, everything is nothing and nothing is everything). Its adherents are under the delusion of hope and faith that they can eventually become unified with this imaginary and inherited construct: this nothing that is everything.

      • Even if we say that the mind is fully brain driven, we can’t ignore the fact that the brain is not a static thing.Throughout a human being’s life,certain protions of the brain get stronger/weaker as a result of constant inputs.Also, memory holds into it continous experiences, of people, places,sensations etc.

        Most new things that reach the brain reach the senses and the nuerological system first, whether, for example, we talk of a sunset at a beach, or a new song/re-listing of an old one, a new taste,a new surrounding etc. Some sensations such as hunger,sleepiness,thirst,weariness etc go even one step further and are generated in the body and transmitted to the brain via the nuerological network.

        Firstly,the senses and the entire body do not create any experiences, but signals. If the abdomen has a low ph, it simply signals it to the brain, but doesn’t create the word “acidity”.The brain recieves an acerbic sensation, but it still doesn’t creat the word “acidity”.It only refers to the available body of knowledge to match its sensation with an already defined condition.

        Just try having an entirely new sensation that you’ve never had before, and see if you can make out a classification for it while it’s on.Surely, once it’s over,one can refer to prior experiences and body of knowledge, of onself and of others and point out the exact word that describes the situation. Unless one finds such a description, he can’t say for sure what he felt. The body, brain and nuerons have done their job, but the person is still dumfounded in the absence of preexisting knowledge.Any discovery subsequently joins the bdoy of preexisting knowledge. Everything that we have an idea or opinion on is based on knowledge.

        All knowledge centers around “finding out”. Unless you have a “found out” description of any condition, you have no way of telling what exactly the condition or happening is.The brain might sense,record and project stuff, but there is a person to whom the knowledge occurs.

        This “person” is more than the sum of its parts.Dementia can cause a shift in the “person” despite the same body and largely the same brain.One could fill in all of Einstein’s research in a microchip, and maybe even add personality shades based on programming of responses. But we can’t recreate the “person”. It is this “person” that is the mind, not just organs clubbed together.

        It is this “mind” that discovers, reacts, feels, projects, visualizes. Whatever we call a “thing”, physical,abstract or imaginary, is a constrcut of this mind.For example, E=MC square has no meaning for a person unless he has a concept of energy, mass, the “=” sign,multiplication. squaring and so on. So knowledge is its own foundation, and happens to not the brain,body or the nervous system alone, but to the “person”.

        Everything that I describe is in context of my “person”.Even if I say “quarks”, the word has no meaning unless the “person” has recieved the meaning previously. Maybe one could get roasted in an aboriginal colony for speaking out the very word :-)Hence all that one can describe, imagine,recall or argue is within the realm of the mind.

  • Our most basic identity is not dependent on the body, which alters greatly from childhood to old age. It may not even depend much on others or the social roles and qualities with which our social identity is tied up. But our basic inner ‘I’ identity is not itself observable to others. Therefore people are identified by externals like bodily features, social characteristics and outward personality. This is not how a person experiences selfhood, of course. Underlying the idea of ‘personal integrity’ is a human urge to organise one’s experience and relate it emotionally and mentally to an idea of oneself. The word ‘oneself’ expresses the intuition of one self, which is thought to be a unitary and thus consistent whole. Where this is found not to be reasonable (in cases of schizophrenia, multiple personality, chronic amnesia etc.) it has mostly been assumed that harmonious development has been disturbed or arrested, causing cognitive derangement and partial or even full ‘loss of identity’.

    In contradiction to that view, the philosopher Julian Baggini (The Ego Trick: What Does It Mean To Be You? – Granta Books, 2011) has challenged traditional ‘common sense’ concept of personal identity. Against the belief in a ‘hard core’ of self it is held that we do not have – or experience – any stable, single, united self. We have no permanent identity because our entire psycho-physical personal existence is a dynamic and changing flow of bodily growth and decay, mental perceptions and memories. According to this, the belief in an ‘unchanging’ self – one always having the same identity – is a conception that has been developed and embodied in culture and languages and taken over during the socialization process. The interactive physical and social environments influence both body and mind, while the perception of oneself is also variable. People behave in different ways according to situations, not always showing the same character traits or responses. One who is truthful to most people may be deceptive or untruthful in other circumstances, so there is no unvarying self involved.

    The way in which the mind construes a fixed identity (or ego) was described phenomenologically and convincingly by Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1940s essay ‘The Transcendence of the Ego’. Wittgenstein is also illumining on the subject, also pointing out that – because we have substantive words (nouns) for self, ego etc., we are bewitched into the false notion that these (an many other such) words also represent something substantial. The self is a construction of the mind, and when one looks at the concept and our experience most carefully, one finds that the idea of an eternal self is just as false as that of an earth-centered universe and all that mental baggage handed down without due critical examination from such as Aristotle, Plato and others before them.
    Reply to Ashmant: The ‘person’ is not a stable or independent entity.
    The body is the common-sensical origin of identity on which the rest is built. Recent neuroscientific research shows that the self – expressed as feelings – is grounded in the way the brain stem to body coupling ‘maps’ the body, which is more stable (i.e. less often changing) than perception, thought, and other brain functions. Antonio Damasio (Professor of psychology, neuroscience and neurology. University of Southern California) has demonstrated this and wrote: “The management of the chemistries in out bodies operate within clear and quite narrow parameters, creating a sameness from day-to-day. There is a physiological, permanently maintained bond between the body-regulating parts of the brain and my own body. The brain stem – between the cerebral cortex and the spinal cord is where this occurs.

    • Robert,firstly,yes you’re correct that our identity to others is based on external characteristics.Also, the “person” keeps changing.Yes.

      But two things.We assimilate and process information based on our senses. Some people have sharper eyes,some have sharper ears.If the surface of our sensibilties have such a gamut of experiences to offer,can we deny the existence of deeper sensibilites with more varied experiences that go beyond the “person”? In the last post,I was talking about “mind” which we can see works not merely on a brain level as a separate factor, but on the entire working body,paramters and responses include.Can we deny the possibilty of us being aware of the crebral cortex itself just as it is aware of the body?

      Secondly,what can be an appropriate way of testing whether we do have have deeper layer of awareness? You can dissect the cerebral cortex or perform experiments on the body parmaters and the crebral cortex. But none of this would be a direct look within your own functioning.Mybe you can do further subdivision and formulate a theory on the inner workings of the cortex. But this would be an external observation meant to accept or reject an assumption, but not a direct seeing the way we see with our eyes.

      So the question is not the “I” as a concept. It is the “I” that runs within what is called “me”. I would have to observe my won working to know firsthand my “I”.I can’t teach hearing or seeing as a concept.It has to be done firsthand. Similarly, if my hypothesis is that deeper levels of self awareness exist, I might as well find them out within me.

      This is the whole crux of all spiritual practices.I’m not bothered with anyone cerebral cortex as a theory.If there’s anything to it,I’d better know for myself.No matter how much stats you collect about rodeos, riding a bull is a whole new bull game 🙂

  • It is instructive to study the work of Jean-Paul Sartre ‘Transcendence of the Ego’ along with ‘Being and Nothingness’. There you will find that in no way can any ‘I’ be perceived. It arises in reflective consciousness alone, that is – outside experience. Such penetrating phenomenology, including that of Merleau-Pony (The Phenomenology of Perception) and, of course, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work on the self, entirely demolishes the illusion of an ‘I’.
    That we experience phenomena consciously sui generis is a fact, but it does not supply any ego, I or self, which are all constructs (in reflective thought, not experienced facts) – simple or complex depending on the degree of language sophistication of the constructor. This obviously tears away the entire fundament of any superior entity of the nature of the Atma self and makes spirituality in that tradition the historical detritus of millennia of religious and ‘spiritual’ delusions of all kinds.
    As I see it, spirituality can properly have meaning only as the non-mystical practice of moral behaviour to the best of one’s ability. All the rest is therefore misleading talkm baseless claims.

  • “When one with a sharp sword cleaves a head in twain no one thereby deprives any one of life, a sword has only penetrated into the interval between seven elementary substances.”

    This is a piece of wisdom from Pakuda Katyayana, one of the rebels who challenged the law of Karma.
    Our bodies are made of basic elements, no doubt. But if we restrict ourselves to this limited logic, there is no difference between rocks and living beings hence it follows that cutting the head of somebody is just like cutting a rock.
    This line of thinking falsely assumes that a system can be understood by understanding (only) its lowest level components and ignores different levels that are emergent from them.
    King Ajatashatru should be admired for ignoring such rebels and going to the Buddha for real wisdom because what Katyayana says is really really convenient for a king. It justifies the killings that kings do.

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