Vedic Model of Reality: A Scientific Perspective

Summary: The Vedic ‘technologies’ of Jyotish, Ayurveda and Vastu are all underpinned by the ‘Vedic Model of Reality’. The following article examines this model in the light of modern science. It presents the case that there are close parallels between the Vedic Model and modern Scientific Models. (An additional article examines the Vedic Model of Reality as seen from the perspectives of literature and philosophy).

Sections in this article:

Models of Reality

Vedic Reality and Modern Neuroscience

Perceptions of Reality Depend on our State of Consciousness

Interconnectedness of Life and the Cosmos in Vedic Reality

Vedic Reality and Modern Physics

Mathematics and Vedic Reality

Models of Reality

 ‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.’ A. Einstein [1]

When I use the term ‘model’ it is in the scientific sense of the word. The model is not reality itself. It is just an abstract construction that helps our understanding and comprehension of reality. Models are used a lot in science and, as new experimental evidence comes to light, they are updated accordingly.

For me, who has a quantitative background in the physical sciences, the ‘Vedic Model of Reality’ has a certain underlying charm and completeness. What follows is a description of this model seen through ‘the window of science’. (An additional article examines the Vedic Model as seen ‘through the window of literature and philosophy’)

However, it is not necessary to believe in this viewpoint in order to experience the benefits of any of the Vedic ‘technologies’. Just like Yoga, the Vedic ‘Sciences’ of Ayurveda (Vedic Healthcare), Jyotish (Karmic Engineering)  and Vastu (Life Supporting Living Spaces) all bring practical benefits – completely regardless of our belief system, our race, religion or culture. This knowledge is for everyone!

Although different proponents of the Vedic system may have varying perspectives on its underlying philosophy, most would agree on the common core principles which I have set out below. Each point gives only a single facet of the ‘Vedic Model of Reality’. In order to gain a more holistic appreciation we need to take into account many facets – some of which may even seem contradictory and paradoxical!

The Vedas encourage us to ask fundamental questions about who we are and about the ultimate nature of reality. A good example of this is in the classical Vedic text ‘Yoga Vashishta’. This is in the form of a dialog between the fully enlightened sage Vashishta and the young prince Rama who is enquiring about the nature of reality.

‘You should, either through yourself, or with the aid of the exalted ones, be ceaselessly engaged in the pursuit of this gentle enquiry: ‘Who am I?’ ‘What is this universe?’ It is this true enquiry alone that generates higher knowledge (of the ultimate reality)’. [2]

So, according to the Yoga Vashishta, we can gain an insight into the nature of reality simply by repeatedly asking the questions: ‘Who am I’? ‘What is this universe? Modern day cosmologists, particle physicists and neuroscientists at the leading edge of their field would all agree with this ancient wisdom!

In effect, Rama was asking: Am I my memory, my ego, my experience, my knowledge, my senses, or my self-perception? What is there about me that changes and what remains changeless? Is reality something outside of my consciousness or have I merely constructed a model of reality that enables me to function and survive in the world?

These are profound questions and finding the answers can be profoundly difficult too.

Surprisingly, modern science can actually provide some perspective on these questions. There are in fact many similarities between the ancient Vedic model and modern scientific ones. These similarities are discussed in the following sections.

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Vedic Reality and Modern Neuroscience

The Vedic Model of Reality corresponds closely with the findings from modern Neuroscience.

Modern neuroscience suggests that the richly textured world we perceive around us is just an illusion – something constructed in our heads. Vedic Science agrees!

‘What is reality? Reality is a figment of your imagination. Who hasn’t woken up breathless from a nightmare? Neuro-chemical impulses that fire when we’re dreaming, visualising, imagining, are indistinguishable from those when we actually experience the event. How can we know what’s real and what isn’t?’ D. Eagleman [3]

Our brain has never seen the outside world, but somehow we experience it. The real world has no smell, tastes, sounds and no ‘colour’. The brain takes in information and sifts through it to build patterns that are the ‘multi-sensory display’ that becomes our reality. The eyes merely convert energy into electro-chemical signals that are fed to some of the hundred billion neurons in our brain. Each fires about 200 times per second, sending signals to 1000 other neurons. The brain therefore merely synchronises the results of computations arising from our senses and then creates our perceived reality.

We may think we see the world as it is, but the world we see is very different from the world a bat ‘hears’ (by constructing a 3D model from its echo-location system)! Our eyes only respond to a very small part of the electro-magnetic spectrum. Bees see a very different world as they can detect ultra-violet light and we can’t. Our ears only hear sounds between a frequency range of 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. So we miss the ‘sub-sonic’ communications from whales and the high frequencies that dogs and cats can detect. So our reality is limited to perceiving only a very small part of the physical world that human senses have evolved to detect.

What then is reality? From a neuroscience point of view it is simply whatever our brains tell us it is. Reality is something created inside our head, it’s really just a load of electrochemical signals that are packaged, sorted, matched with previous sensory inputs, processed, distributed and finally rendered in a form that is of use to us.

A famous neuroscientist said this of our constructed reality:

Instead of reality being passively recorded by the brain, it is actively constructed by it’ [4]

From a neuroscience point of view we don’t perceive objects as they are; rather we perceive them as we are! [5]

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Perceptions of Reality Depend on our State of Consciousness

The Vedic Model of Reality takes into account that the reality we perceive is different in different states of consciousness. There is considerable evidence to support this.

The Vedic concept of consciousness was succinctly described by one author as follows:

‘Consciousness at the human level is essentially in the nature of self-luminosity. It shines by its own intrinsic light; as it reveals objects it also reveals itself as the knowing function’ H. Chaudhuri [6]

The whole subject of consciousness relates to our perceptions of reality. Change our state of consciousness and we perceive things very differently. We may even perceive who we are, very differently too!

Most people are familiar with three states of consciousness: deep sleep, dreaming and our normal waking state. However, the Vedic Masters clearly identify four additional states of awareness beyond our waking state. Some individuals may even have briefly glimpsed these higher states of consciousness at some time in their lives, often with profound effects.

We also know that a few people at the top of their profession say they have experienced almost a ‘flow state’ of consciousness – a state without rational thought, but with heightened awareness. In this state the task at hand gets performed almost effortlessly and with perfection. The person merely ‘witnessing’ the actions as they happen, rather than being the ‘doer’

Vedic Masters explain that when we are in these higher states, our perception of reality changes. They say ‘knowledge of reality is different in different states of consciousness’. This is profoundly significant!

For a few individuals these higher states of consciousness can occur naturally. In others, through repeated practice of yoga, pranayama and meditation (perhaps over many lifetimes) the heightened awareness associated with these states develops. Our direct perception of reality changes in these states. So does our perception of who we really are!

Many mystics, poets and artists have been inspired by these elevated states. When ordinary people experience them it often completely changes how they view what they thought was the ‘objective’ world.

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Vedic Reality – Interconnectedness of Life and the Cosmos

The Vedic Model of Reality suggests there is an innate connection between all living beings and matter in the universe.

‘We have a genetic kinship with all life on earth, an atomic kinship to all matter in the cosmos. So when I look at the universe I feel large because I remind myself that not only are we living in this universe, the universe is living within us.’ N. de Grasse Tyson, American Astrophysicist [7]

From the perspective of modern biology there is a dramatic similarity between our DNA and that of other animals. For example, the similarity between human and gorilla DNA is about 98% (exact figure depends on how you do the calculations).  The similarity between human and chicken DNA is a remarkable 60%!

We are therefore all made up of much the same stuff, organised in much the same way (at least in all vertebrates). There are many common elements running through our skeletal, circulatory, nervous and digestive systems.

From the perspective of modern physics all the atoms (apart from hydrogen) in our body and in the earth were forged in the nuclear fusion furnaces of the early stars, only to be spewed out into space (by red giants or super-novae) before coalescing to form our own  solar system some 4.5 billion years ago. In this sense we are all literally star dust!

‘Especially awe inspiring is the fact that any single brain, including yours, is made up of atoms that were forged in the hearts of countless, far-flung stars billions of years ago. These particles drifted for eons and light-years until gravity and change brought them together here, now. These atoms now form a conglomerate- your brain- that can not only ponder the very stars that gave it birth but can also think about its own ability to think and wonder about its own ability to wonder. With the arrival of humans, it has been said, the universe has suddenly become conscious of itself. This truly is the greatest mystery of all.’ V.S. Ramachandran [8]

The ancient Buddhist texts used the analogy of ‘Indra’s Net’ to describe their model of reality and the interconnectedness of all things. The Vedic Model is in broad agreement:

‘The Net of Indra is a profound and subtle metaphor for the structure of reality. Imagine a vast net; at each crossing point there is a jewel; each jewel is perfectly clear and reflects all the other jewels in the net, the way two mirrors placed opposite each other will reflect an image ad infinitum. The jewel in this metaphor stands for an individual being, or an individual consciousness, or a cell or an atom. Every jewel is intimately connected with all other jewels in the universe, and a change in one jewel means a change, however slight, in every other jewel.’ [9]

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Vedic Reality and Modern Physics

There are interesting parallels between the descriptions of the reality of nature as seen by modern science and the descriptions ‘seen’ by the Vedic seers many thousands of years ago. It as though both groups are describing different sides of the same fabric of space, time, matter and energy.

‘I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose’ J.B.S. Haldane [10]

The Vedic Model of Reality is more ‘Quantum’ than ‘Newtonian’. It is therefore more concerned with fields and information rather than planetary ‘billiard balls’.  Modern physics and cosmology involve mind bending concepts that are very different to the ‘applied science’ most of us came across in high school. At the most fundamental level, science is searching for a ‘theory of everything’

Just like modern physics the Vedic Model of Reality doesn’t seem to agree with our common sense, everyday view of the world around us. However, physics has revealed a far from common sense view of matter at the atomic level [11]. Here, much to our initial surprise, atoms were found to be mainly empty space and what we thought of as particles (electrons) orbiting the central atomic nucleus in a planetary model were better described as quantum mechanical wave functions. Journey further in to the sub-atomic realm of the nucleus and our descriptions of reality at these levels seem even more bizarre! What then is the nature of reality on this truly minute scale?

One fully enlightened Vedic Scholar [12] suggested that from the Vedic perspective, we are all ‘hollow and empty’. From the perspective of modern physics this is indeed true. The atoms in our bodies are mainly (99.9999%) empty space!

 As we expand our horizons to the vast reaches of the universe we also meet strange and unfamiliar concepts such as dark matter, dark energy, black holes and even the Big Bang itself. Again, what is the nature of reality on this truly cosmic scale?

Many thousands of years ago the Vedic Seers viewed the whole universe as filled with a field of energy and information. You, me, all the animals, plants, planets, solar systems, stars, galaxies and super clusters of galaxies are in this field. The field is in us and we are in the field.

Going even further, the Vedic Model of reality suggests we are the very field itself. That is our true nature: infinite and immortal.

A key Vedic text on this subject is the Ashtavakra Gita [13]. It is a core text illuminating the non-dual philosophy of Advaita Vedanta and it concerns the nature of the ultimate reality. Even the chapter headings of this work are inspiring (to quote just a few: ‘Vision of the Self as the All-pervading Witness’: ‘Marvel of the Infinite Self Beyond Nature’: ‘Self in All and All in the Self’: ‘Self as Pure and Radiant Intelligence’).

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Mathematics and Vedic Reality

Recent attempts to understand the nature of reality have focussed on the relationship between mathematics and physics. Of course we all know that maths is used to describe the physical laws of our universe. However, one eminent cosmologist has gone one step further and proposed that our reality is not only described by mathematics: it is mathematics! Both at the very smallest level of the fundamental ‘particles’ that make up the atomic nucleus, and at the very largest level of parallel universes, he argues that we only have mathematical structures as the ultimate reality (The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis – ‘MUH’)!

His views are astonishingly close to the Vedic Model (as expressed in Advaita Vedanta) that I quote a number of them here:

The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH) implies that the flow of time is an illusion, as is change’.

‘The MUH implies that creation and destruction are illusions, since they involve change’.

‘The MUH implies that it’s not only spacetime that is a mathematical structure, but also all the stuff therein, including the particles that we’re made of. Mathematically, this stuff seems to correspond to ‘fields’: numbers at each point in spacetime that encode what’s there’.

‘The MUH implies that you’re a self-aware substructure that is part of the mathematical structure. In Einstein’s theory of gravity, you’re a remarkably complex braid-like structure in spacetime, whose intricate pattern corresponds to information processing and self-awareness’.

‘The movielike subjective reality that you’re perceiving right now exists only in your head, as part of your brain’s reality model, and it includes not merely edited highlights of here and now, but also a selection of pre-recorded distant and past events, giving the illusion that time flows’ M. Tegmark [14]

On the subject of the relationship between reality and mathematics, the respected Nobel physicist Stephen Hawking once asked a profound question:

 ‘What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?  [15]

From the Vedic perspective, scholars would suggest the answer is given by the Vedic concept ‘Brahman’: the creative, all-pervading field of ‘consciousness’, intelligence, information, life force and energy. It is not that we are just in Brahman and Brahman is in us, but that we are Brahman! But most of us simply don’t know it. It is said that the clouds of ignorance hide the true nature of reality and that we are trapped in the illusion of body consciousness, the flow of time and the physical world by ‘Maya’ [16]. Although this reality cannot be adequately described by the intellect it can, according to the Vedas, be experienced in a fully self-realized person, one in ‘Brahman Consciousness’. Such elevated souls are very rare on this planet at this time in Kali Yuga. But they do exist! And I have met some.

I think a fitting end to this article is to quote the short phrases or Maha Vakyas [17]  that embody the key concepts of the Vedic Model of Reality. However, as a living saint once told me ‘knowing them intellectually and fully experiencing them is a completely different matter’!

‘Aham Brahmasmi’: I am Brahman

‘Ayamatma Brahma’: The Self (or the Soul) is Brahman

‘Tat Tvam Asi’: That thou art

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Footnotes

[1] A. Einstein, quoted from ‘Forbes.com: ‘Quotes: Thoughts On The Business Of Life’ 

[2] Yoga Vasishta is a major text expounding a perspective on reality known as ‘Advaita Vedanta’ i.e. ‘the whole world of things is the object of mind’. This philosophy was promoted throughout India by Adi Shankara in the 8th century.

[3] D Eagleman, quoted from Veronica Walsh’s CBT Blog, Dublin, Ireland:

[4] D. Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, (Canongate Books, April 2012, ISBN-10: 1847679404)

[5] Much of this section was précised from a UK BBC 4 TV documentary series on neuroscience and consciousness

[6] Haridas Chaudhuri, The Evolution of Integral Consciousness (Quest Books ,January 1978, ISBN-10: 0835604942)

[7] Neil deGrasse Tyson is an American astrophysicist. Since 1996, he has been Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City, USA

[8] V.S. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human (Windmill Books, April 2012,  ISBN-10: 0099537591)

[9] Stephen Mitchell, The Enlightened Mind, (HarperPerennial; Reprint edition: April 1993, ISBN -10: 0060923202)

[10] J.B.S. Haldane Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927), p. 286, quoted from Wikipedia

[11] At the atomic level the description of reality is best dealt with by quantum mechanics. This view does not seem to ‘make sense’ as we have no direct sensory experience at this level of functioning of the laws of nature

[12] Discourse by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Art of Living Ashram, Bangalore, India

[13] The Ashtavakra Gita is a text in the form of a dialogue between  King Janaka and the Sage Ashtavakra about the nature of reality. It is a core text on the non-dual philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. It concerns the ultimate reality as structured within our own consciousness. This work was greatly respected by outstanding spiritual luminaries such as, Swami Vivekananda and Ramana Maharshi. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a fully enlightened living saint has published a commentary on this work.

[14] M. Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality (Allen Lane, Jan. 2014, ISBN-10: 1846144760) pp. 318

[15] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam,  Mar. 1989,  ISBN-10: 0553176986)

[16] Maya: (Sanskrit: ‘magic’ or ‘illusion’). Encyclopaedia Britannica reports that ‘Maya is a fundamental concept in the Advaita (Nondualist) school of Vedanta. Maya originally denoted the magic power with which the divine can make human beings believe in what actually turns out to be an illusion’!

[17] Quoted from a resource on Shodhganga (an academic resource of theses and dissertations submitted to Indian universities): Pdf file cached on Google:  ‘The highest aim of all these Mahavakyas is to show the identity between the individual self and the Absolute. Here the first Mahavakya is taken for discussion for the better understanding of the relation between the individual Self and the Absolute. In the first Mahavakya, we see that it shows the direct identity between the individual Self and the Absolute. In the statement ‘Tat Tvam Asi ’, here ‘Tat’ stands for the Absolute and ‘Tvam’ stands for the individual Soul. Sankara also thinks that the realization of Brahman is possible in and through the realization of one’s own Self. According to him, the Absolute is omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, but It is remote. It is only through right knowledge that the remoteness of the Absolute (That) goes and the limitations of the individual Self (Thou) are left out. Thus the Absolute which is ‘That’ is realized to be identical with the inner Self which is denoted by the word ‘Thou’

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