The Ascent of the Spirit
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 7: The Crisis of Consciousness - I

One can conceive anything but the finitude of consciousness. It is impossible to imagine that consciousness can be limited by anything external to it. In fact, the concept of there being something external to consciousness is itself an unwarranted intervention of a total impossibility, for that which is external to consciousness has also to become a content of consciousness; else, there could not be even a consciousness that there is something external to consciousness. It is also not possible that what is alien to consciousness in character can be its content, for the content of consciousness has to be related to consciousness in order to become its content at all. Now, this relation between the content and consciousness is again a questionable proposition, inasmuch as any relation between consciousness and its content should again be related to consciousness in some way or the other. It is impossible to hold the notion of anything which is unrelated to consciousness, also what is not a content of consciousness or what is dissimilar to consciousness in character. That which is dissimilar to consciousness would be an ‘external’ to consciousness, which means to say that this so-called ‘external’ has to be brought in relation to consciousness in order that it may become a content of consciousness. The outcome of this analysis would naturally be that (1) the content of consciousness should be similar to consciousness in character in order that it may bear some sort of a relation to consciousness; (2) the relation of the content to consciousness should also have some sort of a connection to consciousness, that is, the relation itself should be related to consciousness. If this relation is regarded as external to consciousness, the initial problem would once again crop up, namely, the problem of the relation of an external to consciousness. Under these circumstances, it would be untenable to hold that anything that consciousness knows can either be unrelated to it or be dissimilar to it in character. Inasmuch as anything perceivable or conceivable has to become a content of consciousness, it would mean that the comprehensiveness of consciousness would be so vast that it should include within its gamut the whole of existence. Is existence, then, a content of consciousness? If so, this content, namely, existence, would have to be related to consciousness in a similarity of character. Existence must be consciousness and consciousness must be existence. (sattaiva bodho, bodha eva cha satta.)

If existence and consciousness have to be one and the same, how do we explain the anxiety of consciousness to desire objects which have an existence of their own? If the objects of the world have no existence of their own, it would be impossible for consciousness to desire them. On the other hand, if they have an existence of their own, what is the relation of this existence to the existence of consciousness which desires them? Are these objects external to consciousness, or are they involved in the very constitution of consciousness? On the second alternative, it would follow that it would be meaningless for consciousness to desire objects, because they are supposed to be already involved in its very structure. But, if they are not so involved, the desire of consciousness for the objects would be understandable. And if the existence of objects is not involved in consciousness, it would also mean that this existence is bereft of all consciousness; not only that, this existence would be an external to consciousness. But we have already seen that a total externality to consciousness is inconceivable, and is an indefensible position. Hence it has to be concluded that the desire of consciousness for objects outside is a peculiar kind of error that seems to have crept into it, and there would be no justification for consciousness in desiring objects at all.

Though this is the logical analysis of the whole position, the involvement of consciousness in a desire for objects is so much taken for granted that it may be said for all practical purposes that the desire of consciousness is inseparable from the desiring consciousness. Desire, in fact, is a mode of consciousness itself, a mode characterised by what may be called a spatio-temporal externalisation, notwithstanding the fact that such an externalisation is ruled out on logical grounds, as we have already seen.

The practical involvement of consciousness in a desire for objects is the problem of man, in spite of the logical grounds which do not permit the possibility of consciousness desiring anything at all. The cosmological theories of the Upanishads as well as those propounded in the standard philosophies in the world make out that though consciousness cannot be regarded as finite,—that is, it has to be infinite,—the notion of finitude has entered it by a mystery,—a mystery to consciousness itself. In this mysterious descent of consciousness from infinitude to finitude, an awful catastrophe might be said to have taken place. And it is this. Since consciousness has to be accepted to be infinite, the existence of objects external to it would be conceivable only on the acceptance of there having taken place a division of consciousness within itself, though this dividing factor itself cannot be outside consciousness. Nonetheless, the concession to this division is the explanation of human life in everyone of its aspects, for life’s processes cannot be explained without such division between the subject and the object. These processes of life have therefore to be ‘conditions’ of consciousness, processes within itself,—a veritable history of consciousness.

The processes of life are, broadly speaking, those which are studied in the fields of politics, world-history, sociology, ethics, economics, aesthetics, psychology, biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy. Everything connected with man can be said to be comprehended within this outline of the framework of life’s activity. But all thishas to be ‘related’ to consciousness; else, they would not exist even as subjects of study or objects of experience. The problem of man is therefore the problem of consciousness. The study of man is the study of consciousness.

Since it is impossible to conceive a real division of consciousness within itself, it is also not possible to imagine that there can be real ‘objects’ of consciousness. If there are no such real ‘objects’, the whole of life would be a drama played by consciousness within itself in the realm of its infinite compass. The alienation of the Infinite into the form of the universe is originally conceivable as the physical realm that is studied in the field of astronomy,—namely, the five elements of ether, air, fire, water and earth, simultaneously with the conception of the elemental constituents of molecules, atoms, electrons and the like, leading up to the ‘relativity’ of the cosmos as a space-time-continuum. This is the world studied in astro-physics as well as sub-atomic physics. Life is supposed to have manifested itself from this inorganic level gradually through the more organised levels of cellular formations, the various stages of the development of the plant kingdom, which are supposed to lead on further to the level of the animal and the human being. In a sense it is hardly possible for one to accept that the rise of man from the animal, the animal from the plant, and the plant from the mineral kingdom is really an advance in the process of evolution, unless we regard a evolution as a tendency towards greater and greater diversification and disintegration of consciousness. For, to mention only one instance, the instinct of the animal is nearer to reality than the intellect of man, in which case it would be difficult to imagine that the human intellect is superior to animal instinct, notwithstanding that the intellect is supposed to be endowed with the power of logical judgment not discoverable in the animal. But it is doubtful if the so-called logical faculty of man is an improvement upon instinct which is more akin to reality in its function. However, the fact that involuntary urges become more uncontrollable as life proceeds further on along this diversifying process should show that man is more distant from reality in his present level than life’s processes are in the preceding stages. Man has become more and more a foreigner to Nature so that he has now begun to feel that he has to ‘conquer’ Nature rather than be friendly with it by adjusting his life in harmony with its operative laws.

The rudimentary urge towards diversification, the tendency to the appearance of the One as the many, should be regarded as subtly present in the formations of the world of matter itself. Else, how could the plant kingdom be said to have been given rise to from the level of the mineral kingdom? And simultaneously with this urge for multiplication of the One into the many, there has to be accepted a parallel urge towards ‘self-integration’ and ‘self-perpetuation’. Why should this be so? Because, the diversification of the Infinite into the several individualities that are the subjects of empirical experience implies on the part of these individuals a simultaneous loss of connection with the Infinite, for consciousness of individuality and relationship with the Infinite are irreconcilable positions. Thus it should follow that right from the imperceptible urge for self-multiplication incipiently working as a latent force in the world of inorganic matter up to its final form reached through the various intermediary stages of self-multiplication there is a double activity of consciousness taking place at the same time side by side in the form of the irresistible urge to self-maintenance as an individual and also the equally uncontrollable urge to recover what has been lost by it by means of its alienation from the Infinite. What is the advantage that accrues to the individual by its self-affirmation? The advantage is a simple satisfaction of an assertion of ‘existence’ as identical with its ‘consciousness’. For, there cannot be a greater joy than the identification of existence and consciousness. In fact every act of any individual anywhere is an attempt to progress covertly or overtly towards the achievement of an identity of existence and consciousness which is the same as the experience of an immense delight. Now, does the individual achieve the desired satisfaction by identifying individual existence with individual consciousness? Yes, and no. Yes, because a modicum of existence identified with an iota of consciousness must bring some sort of a satisfaction, for the identity of existence and consciousness is joy. Hence it is that personality-worship, self-respect, social status, praise, name, fame and the like,—all forms of adoration of individuality,—bring such happiness to the individual that one would even sacrifice one’s life and stake one’s all for the sake of achieving this satisfaction, in short, what is crudely called as self-prestige of the individuality. But has this prestige any substance in it? No; because it is divested of relationship with the Infinite, and all substantiality is an approximation to the Infinite in some degree. Hence, the acquisition of the satisfaction by prestige, name, etc., or by means of any type of self-affirmation, is not going to be for the ‘good’ of the individual, for that which is good is approximation to the Infinite, though a mere act of self-affirmation may bring a pleasant sense and a mood of having achieved one’s aim. But the pleasant is different from the good (preyas is contradistinguished from sreyas).

It is this tension obtaining between the urge for self-affirmation on the one side and the longing to establish connection with the Infinite on the other that goes by the name of samsara or worldly existence. And this circumstance commences right from the rudimentary evolution of life from the plant kingdom itself, nay, we should say even much earlier in the stage of the very seed-urge potential at the mineral level. The tension continues, becomes worse as life evolves into more and more complex forms of greater types of diversification of the One into the many. But the drama is more beautiful to witness than to act. The individual, being involved in the dramatis personae in the cosmic enactment, cannot enjoy the act as a whole but suffers it as pressed into a confinement of itself into the partite consciousness of self-limitation into the mere part that it isolatedly plays in the universal drama. Even individualised living organisms are said to have been originally uni-cellular, and therefore uni-sexual, there being not in them that further travesty of affairs in the form of the bi-sexual urge seen in organisms more advanced in the process of self-diversification. The uni-cell splits itself into the bi-cell and struggles to reproduce itself by contact of its two parts with each other, thus showing that the sex-urge does not originate either from the male or the female but from the single totality which is prior to the division of the single cell into the two parts. Can we say that this is the reason why sex-urge is the most powerful of all the instincts in the individual? Perhaps it is so? There is a transcendent pressure exerted upon the male and the female which does not belong either to the male or the female independently. We seem to have come too far from the infinitude of consciousness which is inseparable from the infinitude of existence.

But we have to revert to another point from where we have to take our steps gradually through the historical process of evolution.