Devdutt PattanaikGuest Author

Does Hinduism have anything to say about mind, perception and cognition?

By | Devdutt Pattanaik | Indian Author

Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism give as much value to cognition as Judaism, Christianity and Islam give to commandments. This can be seen as the fundamental difference between the two. The former speak about how we perceive the world, and how we can change our perception of the world; the latter speaks of how we are supposed to behave in the world. The word “spirituality”, which is about self-discovery leans towards the former, and the word “religion”, which is about social engineering leans towards the latter.

European, American and left-wing academicians have tried very hard to contort Hinduism as a “commandment” religion – with commandments coming from Vedas, Gita, Manusmriti, which creates the “caste system”. This is why they believe new commandments like reservation policy will annihilate the caste system, when, in fact, it does the very opposite, further entrenching it.

Cognition is the process by which we make sense of the world: the act of sensing, perceiving, that leads to various emotions, ideas, thoughts emerging in our mind about the external world [Credit:].

Right-wing radicals who oppose them, rather ironically, simply seek a new set of commandments that allows them (they are mostly “upper” caste men) to stay in a dominant position. In doing so, they are structurally aligned to the western reading of Hinduism, more about commandments than cognition.

First, what is cognition? It is the process by which we make sense of the world: the act of sensing, perceiving, that leads to various emotions, ideas, thoughts emerging in our mind about the external world. Different words are used for cognition in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain scriptures – such as chitta, prana, jiva and aatma, often interchangeably. There is an obsession with these words in Indian thought. And it is a distinguishing feature of Indian philosophy. At the heart of this is value placed on the observer and the observed, that which sees, and that which is seen, perceiver and perceived, seer and seen, mind and matter, dehi and deha.

Cognitive science is rapidly emerging as a field of study in modern science in universities around the world. However, this was not always the case. The mind was not as important as matter in the early days of science. In fact, 19th century society was built on ideas such as objectivity, hence engineering, where there is hardly any value placed on perception. Perception was a bad word. Emotions and subjectivity were seen as inferior. However, in recent times, more and more people are valuing the role of perceptions, emotions and subjectivity in the creative and cultural process, hence engineering mindset is slowly being replaced by design mindset, which takes into account emotions, and subjectivity. Hence, the value being placed increasingly on cognitive sciences, the systematic study of how we become aware of the world around us. This has led many scientists to appreciate ancient Indian thought.

Ancient Indians differentiated between nature (prakriti) and culture (sanskriti). Both prakriti and sanskriti are realms of shape (aakar) and design (akruti) around us. However, prakriti is the default design, while sanskriti is design indicative of human intervention, the presence of dehi. The extent of cultural refinement is the indicator of the extent of human awareness. Refinement was achieved through rites of passage (sanskar) such as upbringing, education, marriage, social obligations, funeral rites that distinguish us from animals. Sanskar, the word, reveals human desire to give design (aakar) to the default natural world of life and death (samsara, or sansar).

The mind was not as important as matter in the early days of science [Credit:].

Refined language (Sanskrit) was supposed to indicate a human (manava) with an expanded mind (brah-mana) as against someone who was still elemental and so spoke organic languages (prakrit) of the marketplace. This is why Rama is impressed to see Hanuman, a creature of the forest (vanar), speaking chaste Sanskrit. Yet, the reverse is not true. Ramayana warns us that language alone is not indicative of refinement; for Ravana speaks chaste Sanskrit and is a scholar of Vedas (ved-acharya), yet behaves like a brute, when he abducts another man’s wife and gives greater value to his desires over a woman’s will.

The word for refinement (sanskriti, often pronounced as samskriti) is a combination of two words “sama” and “akriti”. Sama draws attention to the musical sama, the end and beginning of musical cycle, the return to the first note, indicating how refinement has a lot to do with cyclical thinking, coming back to the origin. We see this sound in words like equanimity (sama-chitta), dialogue (sama-vada), unravelling (sama-adhi). For, refinement involves uncrumpling of the mind from a state of nervousness that makes us self-serving (aham) to the state of confidence that makes us unconditionally generous (aatma). In the state of aham, we are like animals, seeking domination, and being territorial. In the state of aatma, we seek to rise out of animal instincts: we give, rather than grab; we receive rather than take; we appreciate the finiteness of existence yet infinity of the world.

In early Vedic scriptures, the words consciousness (aatma), emotions (chitta), indriya (senses) and life (jiva) are used inter-changeably. Even today, exact meanings remain elusive. But all forms of enquiry (mimansa) began by understanding life and the living body. What distinguishes the inorganic (ajiva, or achit) from organic (jiva, chit), the elemental (bhuta) from life forms that are mobile, that is animals (chara), and life forms that are immobile, that is plants (achara). In a Vedic pancha-yagna, we are asked to be cognisant of all forms of existence: the elemental, the living (fixed, moving, realised), even the dead. We are asked to be aware of the self (jiva-aatma), the other (para-aatma) and the cosmic (param-aatma).

Hunger distinguishes the living from the non-living. Jiva seeks food and so need sense organs (gyan indriya) and action organs (karma indriya). Fear is obvious in animals more than plants as prey avoid being consumed by predators. Neither the fixed tree (achara) nor the moving animal (chara) wants to be consumed (bali). Yet both yearn for food (bhoga). Thus, life feeds on life (jivo jivatsya jivanam) as stated in the Bhagavata Purana. This creates the law of the jungle (matsya nyaya) taking shape where the mighty feed on the meek. Hunger and fear distinguishes the organic from the inorganic. Hunger and fear is what creates the animal and plant kingdoms of nature. It is what creates the herd, the hive and the pack. It is what creates the food chain and the pecking order. The observer (rishi) thus appreciates the diversity of nature and the cognitive principles underlying it. This nature when domesticated and controlled and improved upon creates culture.

Culture is all about domesticating fire (yagna-sthala), domesticating water using ponds (kunda) and pots (kumbha), domesticating the plants (kshetra), domesticating the animals (vahana) and domesticating humans (dharma) such that they reject the law of the jungle, and use their strength to protect the weak, and their wealth to feed the hungry. Only when we have excess resources, when we are well-fed and secure, do we seek to nourish our other senses with song and dance and entertainment. And through them seek meaning about the deeper issues of life.

Culture is all about domesticating fire, domesticating water using ponds and pots, domesticating plants, domesticating animals and domesticating humans [Credit: photo].

Rig Veda introduces us to our mind (brah-mana), Sama Veda introduces us to the domesticating process as it distinguishes between forest (aranya) and settelment (grama), Yajur Veda introduces us to relationship as it focuses on yagna, the “exchange” ritual where something is given (svaha) to the gods in the hope that they will give us what we desire (tathastu). Europeans called this “exchange” sacrifice, resulting in a total misunderstanding of this fundamental human ritual, for the past 200 years. Any economist will tell you that exchange creates a fair society based on reciprocity; sacrifice simply leads to exploitation. Atharva Veda spoke of daily mundane life with codes of conduct and spells to attract fortune and be rid of misfortune. The fifth Veda was Natya-shastra, of stories, songs, art and performances, of aesthetic experiences (rasa) and emotional churning (bhava) that makes us truly cultured.

All conversations of rasa, bhava and indriya where sensations are registered, and chitta where emotions are churned, take us to the body. And traditionally, Indians visualised the body as a series of layers or sheaths or circles (kosha) such as anna-kosha (circle of flesh), prana-kosha (circle of breath), indriya-kosha (circle of senses), chitta-kosha (circle of emotions), buddhi-kosha (circle of intelligence). Body being seen as a series of concentric realms maps itself to the various activites of yoga that seeks to uncrumple the mind (chitta-vritti-nirodha).

What we refer to in English as spirit and soul, and which perhaps under increasingly Islamic and Christian influence of the last 1,000 years, we identified as God [Credit:].

Here the body is seen as having a physical layer (sthula sharira) and a psychological layer (sukshma sharira) and an external “karmic” layer of the world around us (karana sharira) full of objects and relationships, some that we call our own (mine) and some that we do not call our own (not mine, yours, his, hers, theirs). Deep within, and far beyond, is the aatma, the formless (nirakar) and attribute-less (nirgun) conceptual reality that we refer to in English as spirit and soul, and which perhaps under increasingly Islamic and Christian influence of the last 1,000 years, we identified as God.

The eight-fold path of yoga was a systematic journey from outside to inside, from social body through physical body into psychological body as revealed by the steps of yoga such as yama (relationship discipline), niyama (self-discipline), aasana (posture discipline), pranayama (breath training), pratyahara (sense discipline), dharana (mind expansion to develop perspective), dhayna (mind contraction to develop focus) and finally samadhi (mind discipline to let go of things having realised the self does not does seek property). Thus, everything is connected.

But what distinguishes humans from the rest of nature? This question is key to Indian thought. The oldest Indian philosophy is known as enumeration (sankhya, or samkhya). It lists basic categories of the world. It distinguishes humanity (purusha) from nature (prakriti). Under prakriti, it lists the non-congitive (bhuta) and all constitutes of cognition (indriya, chitta, buddhi, manas). What is purusha then? It is identified with the formless (nirakara) attribute-less (nirguna): aatma, brahman. Buddha rejected this category. He focussed on emptiness (shunya). Shankar saw aatma is everything, completeness (purna) or infinity (ananta). This remains the fundamental difference between Buddhism and Hinduism.

The eight-fold path of yoga was a systematic journey from outside to inside, from social body through physical body into psychological body [Credit:].

But Vedanta’s quest for the essence of humanity through negation (neti-neti, not this, not that) is complemented by Tantra’s quest through affirmation (iti-iti, this too, that too). Tantra notices that there is a pattern within diversity. From creatures (microbes) with senses without emotions, to creatures (lower animals) with senses and emotions, but not intelligence, to creatures (higher animals) with senses and emotions and intelligence, but not imagination, and finally creatures (humans) with senses, emotions, intelligence and imagination. It acknowledges that in humans, you have something that no other animal has – the ability to conceptualise abstract thoughts, analyse, hypothesise and create knowledge that is transmitted over generations. Thus over generations, a family of chimpanzees does not change much, but a family of humans does change, because of the transmission of conceptualised knowledge. And all this happens because of imagination. Human birth (manushya-yoni) is special.

It is significant that imagination is not given much value in either philosophical as well as scientific conversations. Until recent times, imagination was a bad word. But rooted in imagination is humanity. In fact, in ancient Tantra, we realise siddha (magical powers) is about seeking things that we can only imagine – ability to fly, walk on water, change size and shape and weight at will, and attract, manipulate and dominate everything around us.

Classically, in tribal society, knowledge systems tend to tilt towards stagnation. In non-tribal societies, there is a shift towards development. In Bhagavata Purana, the wild self-absorbed king Vena’s body is churned. Two things emerge, the tribal (nishadha) who goes to the forest and the dharma-establishing king (Prithu) who governs a society based on varna-ashrama-dharma, four-fold division of society (acknowledgement of political and economic hierarchy in social groups) and phase of life (acknowledgement of social dynamism through old age and death). This is different form modern society where development means improving material reality rather than psychological reality.

Today development is all about things rather than thoughts, about creating effectiveness and efficiency in the world around us, rather than about becoming caring and compassionate. Science is geared to removing hunger and fear by creating more food and weapons, but it has not been able to eliminate either hunger or war, as it does not consider the mind important. This is where “dharma” played a key role.

At this point it is important to return to the earlier point of difference between cognition and commandment. The West saw, and continues to see, caste in terms of commandment. But the scriptures saw caste in terms of cognition. While the westernised mind believes policy changes will annihilate caste, Indian wisdom believes only expansion of mind/cognition/awareness/consciousness will end the need for hierarchies.

Purity (shuddhi) is not removing impurities outside in the world of matter; it is removing impurities in the world of the mind. Impure crumpled minds seek purity outside, hence practice untouchability and see menstruation as dirty. Purified un-crumpled expanded refined minds see purity everywhere, and do not see brahmin as superior to shudra, or men as superior to women, or heterosexuals as superior to homosexuals, or cis-gendered people as superior to trans-gendered people. He who moves out of limited reality (mithya) towards limitless reality (satya), is free even when alive (jiva-mukta).

Republished with permission and originally published at

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