Projecting Consciousness

In “Vedic Vision of Consciousness and Reality,”[1] Satya Prakash Singh raises some interesting questions about the nature of consciousness. In short, Singh raises the possibility that reality may not be quite exactly as our consciousness presents it to us, and that things may actually exist which our consciousness is not designed to reveal to us. One of the main arguments Singh puts forth is the idea that the subject-object dichotomy is merely an illusion manufactured by our consciousness. For Singh, perception is the result of a kind of “intermingling” of the subject and the object: “What happens in the event of intermingling is that by way of transcribing the stimulus into the object of perception, it is actually the consciousness which comes to assume the form of the object which otherwise in itself remains imperceptible to us” (Singh, 15). As a result of this “intermingling” caused by our consciousness, our understanding of reality is in a sense distorted, such that we cannot expect that what we perceive as “real” is strictly the same as what is actually out there. Our perception, then, although extremely convincing, is unreliable, since what we consider “real” is actually a projection of our own consciousness onto the outside world. This projection is so convincing that we can hardly doubt the reality of the image that our consciousness presents to us: “Though a sheer projection of conscious, our percept, however, is felt as very much existing there outside us in all its material concreteness and tangibility” (Singh, 15). It is as if we were perpetually sitting in front of a movie screen, watching a fictitious story but at the same time being caught in the moment and believing it to be real.

For Singh, it is telling of the nature of consciousness that, within the subject-object dichotomy, consciousness places the subject in the center and the object in the periphery. To illustrate his point, Singh imagines a world without human consciousness. In such a world, there would be no subjects, only objects: “Had consciousness not been there, as on earth prior to the emergence of conscious beings, for instance, there would have been only the objective world without anyone even to feel it as such” (Singh, 15). It is only with the advent of consciousness that the notion of “subject” comes to be, the key distinction between subject and object being the relative position of each, the subject being in the center and the object in the periphery: “As soon as consciousness emerges from within the same objective expanse, the whole scenario gets divided into the subject and the object with the former placing itself in the centre and considering the latter as the periphery” (Singh, 15). The subject, we might say, from its central position has a perspective that the object lacks, and this sense of perspective is the defining characteristic of the subject. But for Singh, that the subject-object dichotomy should coincide with the emergence of consciousness and the convenient placement of the subject at the center of it suggests that the dichotomy is not real, that it is manufactured by consciousness. Our consciousness determines that there should be subjects and objects, but in the final analysis there might very well be neither. Similarly, in a movie there is usually a central role and supporting roles, and during the projection of the movie on the screen, viewers will tend to place themselves within the perspective of the central character. In this analogy, the projector assumes the role of consciousness by projecting an instance of the subject-object dichotomy onto the screen. When the movie is over, the previously displayed subject-object dichotomy disappears and all that is left is a motionless projector and a blank screen. In this way, the projection of the movie plays a trick on the viewer of the same kind as the one consciousness continuously plays on us all.

If consciousness is fooling us into thinking in terms of subjects and objects, then what can we know about the nature of consciousness itself? For Singh, conscious is something which exists but that is not constrained by ordinary physical limitations. Consciousness, for example, acts like a beam of light, except that it can travel anywhere in no time at all: “To travel from one point in space to another, howsoever distant, [consciousness] does not require to touch anyone of the points lying between them. It jumps to the desired point outright in a single flight of attention” (Singh, 10). Also, consciousness, unlike a beam a light, is capable of going back in time: “While the physical light cannot be turned to the past, consciousness can re-live the past to any extent” (Singh, 10). And consciousness is different from physical energy in another very important respect – it has purpose: “Another distinguishing feature of consciousness is its end-orientedness as against the purposelessness of the physical energy in itself” (Singh, 12).

But for Bina Gupta in “The Advaita Notion of Saksin (Witness-Consciousness): Its Anticipations in the Upanishads and Gaudapada,”[2] our ability to comprehend the “witness-consciousness” or “the self”  in empirical terms is fundamentally limited: “if one thinks one knows the self and can describe it as an object perceived in the ordinary world, then he does not know it” (Gupta, 20). For Gupta, the self “is different from objects that are known: it is the pure element of awareness in all knowing; it can never become an object” (Gupta, 21). The self, then, is not something we can know per se, since the self is the vehicle of knowledge as such. Furthermore, like Singh, Gupta considers the perceived duality and multiplicity of the phenomenal world as a misapprehension of reality. For Gupta, “knowledge of duality is only a conditional and temporary feature of finite lives” (Gupta, 27). The phenomenon of deep sleep, where the self ceases to project duality and multiplicity onto the world, suggests that a pure, undifferentiated consciousness, a non-dual witness, underlies the waking consciousness of external objects: “Deep sleep demonstrates that something permanent, unchanging, and foundational to all experiences must be present even when the consciousness of external objects is not present” (Gupta, 27). Empirical knowledge, then, is only a shallow form of knowledge, and there is a deeper form of consciousness always at work behind it, a non-dual metaphysical constant referred to as the pure self, which provides the necessary framework within which the subject-object dichotomy that characterizes all knowledge of the material world can subsequently take hold. As Gupta explains, “The experientially variable can only be isolated against an invariable background. Without an invariable consciousness, there can be no objects” (Gupta, 32). For Gupta, this invariable consciousness, this pure self, exists in its own right, although it is effectively concealed by the experientially variable.

What then, one might ask, is the ontological status of objects? For Gupta, both the subject and the object are real when considered jointly, insomuch as they both motion towards the same reality, but neither is real in its own right because the distinction between subject and object is a misapprehension of reality. For Gupta, “That which is known must be at least as real as that which knows, because both the knower and the known, the subject and the object, are superimpositions on the same reality” (Gupta, 48).

[1] Singh, Satya Prakash (2004). Vedic Vision of Consciousness and Reality, in: History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization, Vol. XII, Part 3 (D.P. Chattopadhyaya, ed.). New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

[2] Gupta, Bina (1998). The Disinterested Witness: A Fragment of Advaita Vedanta Phenomenology. Illinois: Northwestern University Press.


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