This article was written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is reproduced here with his kind permission:
One of the facilities we take for granted is space or what is known in Sanskrit as Ākāśa. It is said to have emanated first from Brahman/ Ātman according to the the taittirīya upaniṣad–”ātmanaḥ ākāśassambhūtaḥ”. As per Sāṁkhyas, ākāśa emanated as a gross principle from the śabda tanmātra. At the time of the Big Bang the singularity started expanding like a balloon creating its own space, it is said.
We know the importance of space when flying budget economy class. My neighbor, a burly young man keeps his massive arm on the slender common armrest and I travel with no elbow room. Then the person in front reclines fully giving me less room to move my body and with my computer on the floor I have very little leg room. I have difficulty placing my oversized hand luggage in the overhead cabin. One realizes the value of space.
The word Ākāśa means space. It is derived from the root kāś, say, to manifest, and the prefix ‘Ā’ would indicate ‘up to’ the end (ā samantāt). So ākāśa would mean that which manifests up to the end or end of the Universe. Srī Krṣṇamacārya said “ākāśate avakāśate iti ākāśah”, avakāśa is explained below. He used the term avakāśa which usually means time but here it is used as meaning a facilitator.
So ākāśa is that which extends up to the end of the universe but also facilitates the existence of various objects in the universe, in fact the whole universe. It is so vast that the distance between a distant star and a rock star on earth measures in countless number of light years, as per scientists, and we accept it without batting an eyelid. There is another word based on ‘kāś’ which is “prakāśa” which many yogis are familiar with. Prakāśa is illumination and is associated with the quality of satwa. So there are three beautiful words derived from ‘kāś’ – space, time and light (ākāśa,avakāśa and prakāśa).
The vast expanse of space around and the small space I occupy make up what is called ākāśa or more specifically as bhūtākāśa or physical space. In the physical world there are five bhūtas(elements) led by the all pervading ākāśa. Most of the Indian darśanas recognize five elements or bhūtās and all objects are made out of these including the bodies of the various beings. According to Samkhyas, the bhūtākāśa is evolved from purest form of sound or “śabda tanmātra”. Tanmātra literally means that alone (tat+mātra). The other tanmātras produce the other elements. The ‘rupa tanmātra’ or the light particle produces the element or bhūta called agni or fire. The rasa tanmātra pertaining to taste produces water or ‘ap’ element’. The ‘sparśa tanmātra’ pertaining to touch is responsible for the evolution of the air principle, and the prithvi element is said to have evolved out of ‘gandha tanmātra’ or smell tatwa.
The universe according to this simple model is made up of the five elements and the process by which various things are produced is called pancīkaraṇa or action of the five. Our objective world thus has objects made in this manner— trillions upon trillions of tons of matter and trillions upon trillions of BTUs of energy. Some speculate that except ākāśa, the others actually represent the physical forms of nature, like vayu, the gaseous stage, ap or water the liquid state, prithvī the solid state and then rūpa producing agni or fire the energy aspect of the universe. The vaiśeṣikas aver that the universe is made out of four different kinds of paramānus or absolute particles or atoms of earth, water, fire and air.
Objects alone cannot make up the world, there are subjects to experience these objects and these subjects must among other things have indriyas or senses and life and must also have unwavering awareness or consciousness to experience the objects. So the subtle body made up of the 11 indriyas, the intellect and ego forms the template for the subject. The subtle body carries the un-worked out, residual bundle of karmas and the vāsanās to act as a member of a particular species. This subtle body(suksma śarira) transmigrates and starts a new life first by acquiring a body made up of inputs from the parents called mātru-pitrujā śarira or parental or genetic body. This body once formed slowly develops a more visible and viable bhūta śarira or bhautika śarira or physical body with the help of and by ingesting the five bhūtās from the outside world. All these take place in the bhūtākasa or physical space. Now we have objects and then subjects to experience them. For more on these line please read the Sāṁkhya Kārikā.
The most important function of all subjects and objects is that the subject experiences through the senses and the objects submit to experiences of the subjects. It is an incessant activity going on all the time– but generally we do not give any thought to how it happens. Yes the object is in front of me and I see it, hear it, feel it, what is there to analyze? If an outside object has to be known, first the objects or its image should be grasped by an appropriate sense and should be synthesized by a central agency, a CPU. The Sāṁkhya and Yogis call these three principles as triputi–the object as grāhya, the appropriate sense as grahana and the center or the mind/citta that finally grasps and holds it as the grahītā. But it is not sufficient for the grahītā to merely grasp it, it has to analyze it, add a personal color to it.
Of course the object per se is not grasped. One of the early darśanas suggests that when the mind is focused and the sense is directed towards the object the Atman or the Self momentarily goes out, grasps the image of the object returns and experiences it.
But the more common explanation is on these lines. When photons of visible light strike the atoms and molecules(objects) surrounding us, some are absorbed, and some bounce off and scatter at different angles and different wavelengths. Our eyes receive these bouncing photons and they strike molecules in our retinas. This causes chemical reactions which create tiny electric signals in the optic nerve. And the electric signals traverse to the brain, somewhere in the back of it, where the signals are processed by a small chip of the brain and that is where we see the object, say the scientists.
Similarly the sound waves created by the objects vibrate our eardrums which excite the auditory nerves whose signals then reach a section below the mid-brain where they are processed and we hear the sound, and so the other sensations. The objects remain where they are and the photons, sound waves, heavy smell molecules excite the senses and we experience them. Of course they are coordinated in the brain and we get a composite picture which arises moment after moment. The Sāṁkhyas will say that the coordinated experience in the brain is analyzed by the buddhi or the intellect, the ahaṁkāra adds emotional color as likes and dislikes to the experience and we get a total experience pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent. This happens moment after moment.
The general wisdom is that at one moment when you are engaged with the outside world, signals go to our brain and then the brain processes them and we experience them momentarily. Then the next moment there is another set of signals bombarding the various senses and we have another experience and we have successive experiences like this.
So when I am idly looking out of my rented 12th story balcony and watching the cars and pedestrians pass by one moment I receive signals from the outside world, and mind interprets them, next moment I receive another bunch of signals from the same outside world, and my brain interprets them, a succession or a krama of snapshots. And we are pretty satisfied with this scientific explanation.
But then it is only part of the story. My mind will have to show the contents of what it has interpreted, like my TV which has received signals through the cable. It has to project it on the screen so that I can see it. If there is no projection there is no TV show. So the old yogis went one step further and explained the next step in the sequence of how we see or experience by postulating two principles, one the space produced by the mind and then the projection of the processed signals for the subject to see, to experience.
Two Yogis stand out in this step. One is Vaśiṣta who talks about the space of the citta called citta ākāśa and the contents of it called cittavritti by the other beloved Yogi, Patanjali. Citta, or the brain, after processing the information can not, as you can see, project it obviously back in the physical space or bhutākāśa , but only in this citta ākāśa or mind space. Of course the same space, the cittākāśa, is used by the citta to project other vrittis or its activities like dreams (vikalpavritti), remembering, and others as listed by Patanjali in his Yogasūtras. So what we see is not the physical space and physical objects but the mental projection of the colored objects in mental space and this mental space is completely beyond the huge physical space.
What we see is like watching a TV show, we do not per se see anything, any object, but only the converted projection. Even all those people who are paying hundreds of dollars to watch a football match carry their own TV in their heads and see the custom made images in the mental space a la a television show. So we may say that we see everything only in the mental space and do not have a direct experience of the physical space (bhūtākāśa) and the various objects in it. We observe the world, the brain interprets it and projects it as a vritti in the cittākāśa. Then next moment the senses grasp a different set of stimuli, the brain processes them and projects it for the subject to experience.
This explanation is a bit more, one step more elaborate than merely saying the brain interprets the signals. There is a stream of stimuli from the outside world, processed by the mind and projected in the mental space which we experience we may say. And there is more to it, there are further steps.
Of all the objects in the Universe in the physical space or bhūtākāśa, the brain or citta is a unique thing; even though it is a physical object it produces its vrittis in a space or ākāśa that is not physical. So after processing all the information the brain projects the information for us to see not in the physical plane but in the citta space. So what we see is not in the physical plane,… sorry for the repetition, nay, repetitions. And that is all we see. We firmly believe that what we see is actually in the physical space even as it is in some other space which can not be located in the physical space. The huge universe we see in the citta ākāśa, including all the various objects like you and even I are seen in the citta ākāśa only even as we intuitively accept them as something in the physical space. So we do not experience any physical space or physical objects at all, because looking at our brain we do not see the universe it contains. What we experience, well, is an illusion (Maya). We do not see or experience the physical world and there is no way to ascertain (anirvacaniya) the existence of physical space (bhūtākāśa) and a physical universe in it.
So we see only the citta ākāśa or mental space and not any physical space. Now this leads to an anomalous situation. If I experience only the projections of the brain, then where do I get all the signals from? It leads to a paradoxical state in which the mind projects what it receives through the senses but then we see only what it projects. My citta projects what I see but what I see is what my citta projects in the mental space in the first place and then it can not be the outer space at the same time.. It is untenable. That is the lacuna in this widespread view but it is a viparyaya.
Then how do we see all the successive activities supposed to be taking place in the physical space? The view that we get a stream of stimuli from the outside world and we see the outside world in the mind space is not tenable. Is it like the dream where the mind not only projects the signals it has received but also manufactures its own activities? It is not like a succession of snapshots but a video show. There is no logical explanation about how we see the objects in the outside world. Where are the signals coming from when what all I see is only my mental projection or cittavritti?
Further if there is no physical space that I can directly experience, then who is it that experiences what I experience now? If there is no physical space or bhūtākāśa that can be identified, then neither my physical body nor my physical brain can also be identified in the physical space. Patanjali in his YS, refers to an entity called puruṣa as the observer of ‘what I feel I experience now’ including me the physical me. The puruṣa has the essential ingredient to know, which is, consciousness, unwavering consciousness.
So the entity with which Patanjali hints I should identify as my ‘Self” is the one that keeps observing the cittavrittis taking place in the citta ākāśa or the mind space. It takes in , in addition to the myriad objects in the physical and mental space, another entity, a subject to tango. That is duality(dvaita)–subject and object– in the classical usage. We have seen that the physical body in the physical space and the various vrittis about oneself (ahamkāra and asmitā vrittis) in the cittākāśa or mind space do not constitute the Self because all these are objects either in the assumed physical space or in the mind space and are objects or vrittis experienced. But the essential aspect of a subject is unwavering awareness or consciousness called ‘cit’. Cit is the subject.
The words citta and cit come from the same root, cit(cint) to be conscious of. Cit is consciousness or awareness while citta indicates something that masquerades as having consciousness, my brain. My brain or citta is in the physical space, a physical entity and has no consciousness per se but appears to have consciousness. Cit has several synonyms like ātman, puruṣa and others. This consciousness or puruṣa, according to Patanjali, experiences whatever is presented by citta in the cittākāśa or mind space as a cittavritti and yoga is to make the cittākāśa a very pleasant place (sukha = agreeable space) and ultimately empty it(nirodha).
But some philosophers like vedāntins the advaitins aver that since the citta ākāśa is a product of a physical object called citta or the brain which is in the physical space and which we are able to experience only in the mental plane, it itself is not real.. So the citta ākāśa also has no independent legs to stand on. The citta ākāsa (a product of a physical entity called citta or brain) also is subservient to the space of the consciousness called cidākāśa, space of consciousness. So everything that we experience takes place in the space of consciousness. But it is however just an appearance like the objects seen in mental space. They give several examples to indicate that— like the space inside a mirror (an appearance and not real), the space produced in the head during dreams, or the space and objects created by a magician or the worlds created by a Mahāyogi like Viśwāmitra when he created the illusion of a whole heaven for Triśanku. So in the cid ākāśa which itself is an illusion created in the cit or absolute consciousness, the entire universe appears to be created.
As mentioned earlier we take ‘Space’ the bhūtākāśa for granted and consider it to be eternal. But most theories on the Universe subscribe to the view that space is created, in the ‘beginning’ there was no space. According to the most popular scientific theory, initially– the singularity, the origin of Universe was extremely hot and infinitely dense and with the big bang (not so violent bang or big) it created its own space which expanded and is still expanding creating its own space, unbounded space. The expansion allowed it to cool down and create matter leaving a lot of space within matter and without.
The Sāmkhyas with the Yogis in tandem, also believe that ākāśa is an evolute. The mūlaprakriti made up of the three gunas representing matter, energy and order undergoes 18 minute mutations(buddhi, ahamkara, manas, the 10 indriyas and 5 tanmātras) before bhūtākāśa or physical space gets evolved. However they were conscious of the need to take care of the the ‘subject’ (as distinguished from the objects) or pure consciousness which they call is puruṣa which does not evolve out of the atomic mūlaprakriti like this universe. This puruṣa entangles with the subtle body and becomes the individual, transmigrating being. The Vedantins basing their philosophy on the Upanishads, aver that the origin of the universe is not the inert prakriti or singularity but pure unadulterated atomic consciousness.
The duality(subject and object or citta and citta vritti) model of Sāmkhyas/Yogis is contested because of the lack or proper explanation about how cit and citta came together. Further Citta is a physical entity but the cittavritti happens in the non physical citta ākāśa and the observing purusha in on none of these. While scientific view implies that inert singularity plasma is the source of each and everything–matter, energy, life and consciousness (awareness), Sāmkhya and Yoga state that prakriti is the source of the universe including citta or brain but consciousness is significant and different from prakriti and inert matter is incapable of producing the nonchanging consciousness.
Vedanta say that Brahman/cit whose essential nature is consciousness (jnana) is the source of everything and upaniṣads say that ākāśa and the universe evolved out of it and several vedāntins interpret that bhūtākāśa or physical universe evolved out of It. The advaita vedantins demur and say just as sāmkhyās say consciousness cannot come out of prakriti or matter, matter also cannot come out of consciousness. What actually came out of the consciousness as per the upaniṣads is only an appearance of physical space and physical universe which is corroborated by the earlier discussion.
It is called Brahman because the huge universe evolved or grew out of it ( bruhi bruha vruddhau). Brahman comes from the root bruh to grow. According to taittirīya upaniṣad, ākāśa or space came out of Brahman and then the other four elements in succession. The five combined variously to form different objects of the universe. However there are different schools within the vedanta philosophy. While most schools consider the evolution of space and then the universe from Brahman to be real, Advaitins say that Brahman, according to the upaniṣads themselves, is pure consciousness and is immutable.
So the only way the universe could have evolved would be as an appearance and not really real. The space said to be created from Brahman (ātmanah ākāśah sambhūtah) would mean not a real creation and according to them the creation of even the consciousness space (cidākāśa) itself is an illusion and all the subsequent evolutes. Since Brahman is pure immutable consciousness it can not become inert and or produce changeable objects. This vaithatya vada of the advaitins (theory of Illusion of the universe we see) is corroborated by the discussion above.
The taittirīya upaniṣad says “…etasmāt ātmanah ākāśah s ambhūtah”. From the ātman or consciousness the ākāśa or space was created. It was created ,or more correctly, appeared to have been created within the cit but appears outside like the cittākāśa as we discussed earlier. So the bhūta ākāśa or physical space itself is known to us only as cittākāśa or space created by the brain which itself is the grand illusory space created in Itself by the Cit or Brahman or Atman or puruṣa the only one reality.
In other words:
We believe everything is happening in the physical space (bhūtaākāśa).
We experience it, however, in mind space (citta ākāśa).
But it all is just within the consciousness space (cit ākāśa), but appears without it.