Absolute and Relative Space

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Introduction and Overview

Hierarchical space brings a problem of having to reconcile a hierarchy in an observer with the hierarchy of the different planetary systems in the universe. The problem is that every living being in the universe has a morality, ego, intelligence, mind, senses, properties, and sense objects, but these living entities are also situated at different levels of a universal conceptual hierarchy. Hence, the word “eye” denotes abstract ideas in higher planets and contingent ideas in the lower planets. How can “eye” mean two different things? Isn’t there a universal definition of “seeing” as the process by which we absorb light and gather color and form?

The answer is that the person in a higher planet can “see” what the person in the lower planet can only “think”. For example, the person on a higher planet can “see” our mind, just like we see tables and chairs. And for them, our thoughts have color, shape, and size. However, the higher living entities cannot see what we see—i.e. they don’t see our tables and chairs. This article discusses how different living entities are situated on different parts of the universal space, creating their own personal relative spaces. Each person’s mind, intellect, senses, make a relative space, in which they experience completely different things.

Space Defined by Counting

We are familiar with the ability to renumber locations in space. If you are standing in a group of people, and you are asked to count them, then some will start counting with themselves, others will count themselves last, while some other people will count from a chosen location (e.g. left or right) and count themselves as part of going from one end to another. This arbitrary counting, however, doesn’t apply to an individual’s cognition comprised of mahattattva, ego, intellect, mind, senses, properties, and sense objects,  because we have to begin from mahattattva and end with sense objects. Each soul is the “root” of their personal tree, but there is a universal tree with its own “root” as well.

The root of the material tree is a form of God called Karanodakaśāyī Vishnu and He is the origin of the absolute space; He is the soul of the entire material creation. Each universe, similarly, has a soul called Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu with a subtle body comprised of all the material elements. Each of these material elements also has a predominating deity such as Vasudeva (for mahattattva), Saṅkarṣaṇa (for ego), Pradyumna (for intellect), and Aniruddha (for the mind). These deities are “souls” for a body of one element each. These forms also have specific locations in the universe, which means that there are different starting points for mahattattva, ego, intellect, and mind, on the universal tree.

These starting points, however, are not necessarily the starting points of the individual living being’s morality, ego, intellect, mind, senses, properties, and sense objects. Rather, different living beings in the universe can have their body that begins and ends at different locations. Some living being can have their “body” stretched over the upper parts of the universal tree, while others have their body confined to the lower parts of the tree. Their bodies may also be stretched over different extents on the material tree, some larger and others smaller. Each living entity, therefore, has a different span of control and a different level of control over the universe. Just as there are germs and bacteria inside our bodies, similarly, our bodies are also much smaller parts of the larger parts like planets.

The extent and the level of the space that you consider your “body” constitutes your relative space. Another living entity’s body can stretch to larger swaths, and span at a different level of the material space. As a result, there are infinite such relative spaces contained inside a single absolute space. However, each relative space has a direction in the tree from top to bottom. Our relative spaces are only stretched or shrunk (i.e. scaled) to different extents and placed at different levels of hierarchy in the tree.

How Demigods Control Our Lives

Our material bodies and minds are also trees (they are small parts of the universal tree). Parts of my body—e.g. my eyes are one branch of my bodily tree. Similarly, your eyes are one branch of your bodily tree. But there is a person called Surya (the Sun demigod) for whom our eyes (senses) are objects of vision (sense-objects) and his consciousness spans over the branches of our eyes. Similarly, the two nostrils in your body and my body are two branches on our relative trees. But there are two demigods called Ashwini Kumara for whom our nostrils (senses) are objects of smell (sense-objects) and their consciousness spans over the branches of our sense of smell. Every part of our body is, therefore, also part of other living experiences. When the experiences of a living entity are spanned over those of the experiences of many other living entities, the living entity is called a demigod. In other cases, when these experiences are smaller and not shared with others, they are considered normal living entities. The living entities called bacteria, viruses, etc. may live in my body but we don’t share the experiences because my consciousness operates at an abstract level (relative to the viruses and bacteria) and not at the molecular and atomic levels. Each soul is afforded greater or smaller control over the material world, by allowing them access to greater or smaller parts of the material tree.

A material entity (e.g. my sense of seeing) can be designated as another entity (e.g. the object of vision) for another living entity. There is one name for each entity in the universal tree, and this is the real position of that material entity. However, the demigods give each entity a name, in a relative coordinate system with themselves as the origin. We too give the same material entity a position in another coordinate system for which we are the origin. Thus, there is one absolute position for an entity and many relative positions.

Since my senses are sense objects for the demigods, through my senses I can satisfy the demigods, and the demigods can in turn modify my senses for material enjoyment. Once the sense has been modified, it can automatically obtain sense objects, and therefore the action by the demigod’s senses first acts on our senses (as their sense objects) and then can be extended to the sense objects (for our senses). The demigods thus control our senses by making them capable of working correctly, and we then control the material objects using these senses. This entails a hierarchy of material control.

Material improvement through demigod worship was the main purpose of the erstwhile prevalent Vedic ritual science where the worship of hundreds of demigods was prescribed for material wellness. Over time, the worship of these demigods spread to all parts of the world, and called “pagan worship”. Some cultures (e.g. Greeks, Romans, and Vikings) even invented their own pagan gods, while others modified the received knowledge in various ways. Vedic texts describe that there are 330,000,000 demigods, spanning different parts of the material tree. Some demigods can be worshiped for a more abstract control over our material life (because that demigod is higher), while another demigod can be worshiped for more fine-grained control over our material life (because that demigod is lower).

Absolute and Relative Worship

A school of Vedic philosophy called Pūrva Mimānsa was earlier focused on the science of such material manipulation. These philosophers were attempting to understand and describe how the structure of language can be used to affect and alter the structure of the world. There was an extraordinary emphasis on the study of meanings, grammar, mantra, and the different demigods who control different aspects of our lives. The goal of this study was to obtain control over our material existence, by influencing those demigods who have even greater control. However, since all these controls pertained to different relative spaces overlaid on a single universal space, such a study had many limitations.

In the last two millennia, many Acharyas (beginning with Shankarāchārya) have moved the Vedic society away from demigod worship (which involves a relative view of material space) to worship of God (which involves the absolute view of the material space). Interestingly, this also coincided with the rejection of pagan worship in other religions such as Christianity and Islam. Some of these religions, however, took this rejection of paganism too far, decrying the very existence of such pagan gods as heresy, which is false. The idea is simple: we can have many different designations in this world, defined by many different demigods, but all these designations, in turn, depend on an absolute universal destination in relation to God. Therefore, we cannot deny the existence of relative designations, although we can prefer absolute designations over relative ones.

The absolute designation in the material world is that given in relation to the origin of the material creation—Karanodakaśāyī Viṣṇu—or the absolute material space. As we jump from one branch of the tree to another (transmigrating from body to body) there is only one way to understand our relationship to the rest of the world, which is to keep track of our relationship to the origin of the absolute space. To end the cycle of this transmigration, we also have to fix our relationship to God, whereby we are always situated on a particular branch of the universal tree. Therefore, both to comprehend the nature of journey as well as to end our journey, we must understand our position on the absolute space in relation to Karanodakaśāyī Viṣṇu rather than relative spaces in relation to demigods.

Absolute and Relative Space in Modern Science

Modern science following Einstein’s relativity rejected the idea of absolute space. This rejection, however, should be seen in the light of the fact that space in modern science is the container of meaningless particles. These particles have no form, which means that they cannot symbolize any meaning. There is no sense of direction in space, which means that there are no “higher” or “lower” (abstract and detailed) meanings. A world devoid of meaning is also devoid of judgment, intention, and morals. Scientifically, a world without meaning suffers from the Matter Distribution Problem in which you can spread a bottle of ink on paper in many ways but you have no way of deciding which of these ink-spreads is real because the total ink is conserved in all spreads. To decide which of the spreads is real, we need to know the meaning of a spread and choose a meaning. The solution to such problems of distribution requires the existence of meaning and choice in nature.

Therefore, the idea of absolute space in modern science (which allowed only one distribution of matter, and hence rejected the role of choice in matter distribution) is quite different from that in a semantic science (which allows many distributions, although not arbitrary and meaningless distributions). Moreover, semantic science doesn’t reject the possibilities of relative spaces. In fact, as mentioned above, it is indeed possible to build a science entirely based on relative space considerations. The fact that this science works may even appear to provide empirical confirmation for the idea of relative spaces. That confirmation, however, doesn’t refute the truth of the absolute space.

When space is conceived as a flat and linear box of dimensions, then different relative spaces are mutually contradictory because science measures position and time, and the result of this measurement is a number; as you change the coordinate system, you get contradictory numbers. However, when space is conceived as a tree, then different relative spaces constitute a definition of where a person’s morality begins and where their sense objects end, which is quite different from the underlying absolute positions.

The situation is similar to when you construct your house. There is a material land already present. But you start calling some part of that land your bedroom, another part your kitchen, another part your living room, study, etc. Similarly, bees make a hive inside your home. What the bees consider their home is a corner of your home. And yet inside the hive, you can expect to see the structure of an entire city with social classes such as queen bees, worker bees, etc. Thus, material energy already has an absolute meaning in relation to God. However, the living entity also gives this matter a new kind of meaning of his own accord. The same matter is given diverse meanings by different living beings.

Free Will in an Overlapping World

What I call my “mind” can also be the leg, hand, eyes, mouth, stomach, ears, hair, or the skin of other living beings. My mind can thus become an object for another living entity. Under such a situation, it would seem that I have no control over my mind because someone else is controlling it. But these conclusions are imperfect because even the other living entities can claim to suffer from the same problem of not having control.

So, who is truly in control? The answer has many parts. First, nature is killing many birds with the same stone: the same event can be a thought in one person’s mind, a sensation in another person’s eyes, and an object for someone else. Second, karma is selected by time, and many instances of karma are simultaneously fructifying. Third, the consciousness of the soul is focused on a part of the tree by prāna, and this can be changed.

The key factor concerning free will is that the lower parts of the relative trees are governed by karma and the higher parts by guna. In simple terms, this means we can change our interpretations of the world—giving the same situation new meanings—even when we are not able to change the world itself. Our happiness depends on positive interpretations; for instance, people can stay happy even in bad situations or become unhappy even in good situations. Karma is also produced due to the combination of bodily state and mental state (no karma if the mind is not involved in bodily action, and no karma when the mental thought exists but the bodily action doesn’t). Therefore, by changing the mental state while enacting the same physical states (e.g. doing our duties) we can end karma.

What Is It Like To Be a Bacterium?

Thomas Nagel wrote a famous paper describing how each of us perceives the world in our own unique manner, and this uniqueness indicates individuality. But can we know how a living entity experiences the world, without being in that body? Can we know what the bacteria inside our body are thinking? Or, what the nature of a demigod’s pleasure is? The answer depends on where the living being is situated on the material tree. Just because I see a dog close to me, doesn’t mean that the dog and I are thinking similarly. Just because there are bacteria in my body doesn’t mean that we must feel the same emotions.

Each living entity takes some combination of material modes as the starting point for their material existence, and this starting point becomes their moral values. The starting point may be a small twig on a large tree from an absolute standpoint, but, for that living being, that twig is itself the root. Such a living entity remains unaware of the material reality that precedes its supposed root. The successive branches emanating from this fictional root then become the ego, intellect, mind, senses, properties, and sense objects of the living being. There is an absolute reality and there are many relative realities.

There is an absolute definition of morality, ego, intellect, mind, senses, properties, and sense objects, in relation to God. There are many relative definitions of these terms in relation to the living entities. In other words, there is an absolute definition of what it means to perceive, to think, to judge, to desire, and to enjoy, in relation to God. And there are many imaginary definitions of these activities in relation to the living entities.

For example, a material scientist can study an enzyme and treat it as a sense object. The same enzyme may be the sense from the standpoint of the bacteria. Indeed, when biologists study biological cells, they employ very creative terminology involving human analogous terms. For example, the boundary of a cell opens up to admit some food particles but doesn’t open up to admit waste. The cell has to distinguish between food and waste, and this involves a process of “recognition” analogous to our sense perception. Following this, there can be actions such as opening the door on the boundary, which are analogous to our opening our mouths. The difference is that a biologist would also be describing this entire process as a chemical reaction. Therefore a molecule from the standpoint of a cell can behave as a sense, or even as the mind. However, the same molecule behaves as a sense object from the perspective of a human.

The materialists conclude that there is nothing called a mind; there are only molecules and reactions, although they can’t help but use terms such as “observing”, “recognizing”, “admitting”, analogously to our senses and mind. There is actually no contradiction between these uses because the so-called “mind” or “sense” isn’t a unique material category. Rather, what we call a digestive enzyme from a human standpoint can also be the mind of the bacterium. Molecules are meanings too. While the human being is not contemplating these meanings, the bacterium is. The difference emerges because the human mind is placed higher in the tree, and for this mind, an enzyme is a sense object. Conversely, the bacterium is placed lower in the universal tree, and for it, the enzyme is the sense. Accordingly, this “sense” will have even smaller “sense objects”.

While humans cannot perceive the molecular reactions, the bacteria can, because their senses are different than our senses. By their senses, they can perform acts in the body that our medicines (which are not live cultures) cannot. In one sense, such acts are nothing but chemical reactions. In another sense, they involve a living being with senses and mind. The bacterium has a mind too; it just doesn’t think the same thoughts.

Mind-Body Distinction Refuted

This understanding of hierarchy in the material world is important because for many centuries we have debated the mind-body problem in Western philosophy. We think there is some unique substance called the “mind”. As scientists study matter, they come up with the finding that there are only molecules! So, they claim that there is no mind.

Both positions are false when we draw the conceptual hierarchy. First, there is no substance called the mind; there are atomic objects which represent meanings. As you go higher up the tree, you get abstract meanings. As you lower down the tree, you get detailed meanings. Whether this meaning constitutes your ego, intellect, mind, or sensation depends on where you are situated on the tree. Second, molecules are meanings too. Just because you see molecules doesn’t mean there is no mind. In fact, given all the problems in atomic theory, we have to describe the molecules as symbols of meanings.

There is only one material world comprised of the three modes of nature in Sāńkhya. But the same world becomes different things for different living beings. The impersonalists falsely claim that the entire world is an illusion when there is indeed a real material tree. The tree is not the illusion, but calling some part of the tree as our mind, intellect, ego, etc. is the illusion because for someone else that same thing may be senses, properties, and objects. The relative designations are false, but the absolute designation is true. In other words, to know something, we have to know it in relation to God. This knowledge represents the position (and name and concept) in relation to the root—God.

Vedānta vs. Māyāvāda Distinction

Vaishnava Acharyas such as Jiva Goswami have thus rejected the idea that the material world is false because they argue that the material world is connected to God and anything in relation to God should not be considered an illusion. They talk about the position in the absolute space as the reality while rejecting the position in the relative space as a temporary illusion. The fact that every part of the material tree can be understood and used in relation to God means that it is not an illusion. All the illusion is in our consciousness (which imagines a relative space by arbitrarily choosing some part of the tree as our personal body and mind) while the material world is completely real. This is a radical position in Vedānta where the material world is real and the illusion is in the soul. There is hence no “external” māyā which is forcing us to be in illusion, although there is external material energy which negates God to create material objects.

The illusion is the jiva thinking that the material world is his body and mind. Most interpretations of Vedānta consider māyā to be the material energy that creates the material world, and this view leads to the conclusion that we must reject the material world in order to get out of the illusion. However, this is not the view of the Vaishnava Acharyas such as Jiva Goswami, who don’t consider the material world to be the source of illusion. They rather consider the illusion to be inside the jiva: it is a spiritual disease, rather than a material disease. So long as we keep thinking that the illusion is a material disease, we live under the impression that if we discard matter the disease would be cured. If instead, we understand that illusion is a spiritual disease then the solution is not to discard matter but to discard the idea that the material world is my body and mind.

There is a distinction between giving up the body and mind, versus giving up the belief that this is my body and mind. That is all the difference between māyāvāda and Vedānta.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Absolute and Relative Space," in Shabda Journal, March 8, 2017, https://journal.shabda.co/2017/03/08/absolute-and-relative-space/.