The Relational Nature of Consciousness

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Introduction and Overview

Vedic texts describe the self in three words, namely, sat, chit, and ānanda. The chit is the knower and known, sat is knowing, and ānanda is the happiness derived from the knower knowing the known. What we call ‘consciousness’ is the process of knowing that operates under the knower’s happiness. We can also use the terms ‘relation’, ‘cognition, and ‘emotion’ to describe these three aspects. The enjoyer is the emotion, the enjoyed is the cognition, and the enjoying is their mutual relation. Then, what we call ‘consciousness’ is the relationship between the knower and the known. I will use this article to delve into the different kinds of relations. The study of these relationships constitutes the “science” of consciousness.

The Problem of Material Reduction

The modern “scientific” study of consciousness is a euphemism for trying to explain consciousness based on some material objects and their forces. The problem is that the force of an object acts on other objects rather than on itself. If knowledge is the byproduct of force, then to know onself, and call that “I”, the force of an object must act on itself. Since all forces tend to push or pull something else, therefore, when a force acts on itself, it must push or pull itself. This self-acting force will now cause something to move by itself. If the self-acting force causes something to accelerate or decelerate, then it will gain or lose energy and the law of conservation of energy would be falsified.

This problem is encountered while speaking about self-acting forces in graviation. For instance, if different parts of a galaxy pull themselves toward each other, then it will cause the galaxy to collapse onto itself. As the galaxy begins shrinking, the mass gets more concentrated and the distance between masses begins to reduce. The result of shrinking distances and concentrating masses is an increasing gravitational force which accelerates the pace of shrinking and concentrating. Ultimately, either the total mass is still the same but the total energy has become infinite, or the energy transforms into mass and we get infinite mass with the same energy, or both mass and energy become infinite.

If we uphold the conservation of energy, then the law of gravitational force must be voided at small distances. Otherwise, if law of gravitational force is upheld, then the law of conservation of energy must be voided. Both laws cannot be true simultaneously. Self-force creates a contradiction between two laws such that only one of the two laws could be true. Thereby, of self-action causes the laws of this action to break down. This is then the problem of materialist reduction of consciousness: It can either be inconsistent or incomplete.

An Alternative Science of Consciousness

Vedic philosophy doesn’t think in this way. When the self wants to know itself, a picture of the self is manifest from the self, consciousness connects to this picture, and the picture is then reflected back into consciousness. However, since that picture was previously produced from the self, therefore, reflection of the picture within the self isn’t the addition of anything new. It is simply the recognition and realization of what was already in the self. When the self produces a picture of the self, the self is not reduced. When the picture is reflected back into the self, the self is not increased. The self remains the self, and yet, it acquires knowledge of itself without the self becoming infinite.

In the alternative science of consciousness, reality is modeled as mind and thought rather than as object and force. The object and force model results in infinities. But the mind and thought model does not. This alternative is succintly summarized in the Īśopaniṣad as follows: “That is complete, this is complete, from the complete comes the complete, but after removing the complete from the complete, the balance is complete.” We can understand this in terms of mind and thought. The mind is the first complete. It manifests a picture of itself, which is the second complete. After manifesting the picture, the self remains complete. If the picture merges back into the self, then the second complete disappears but the first complete does not increase. If the two completes are called “energy”, then “energy” neither increases nor decreases.

We can do a consistent and complete science of consciousness with this model, and then we can extend it to study matter. In that science, there is a center of a galaxy which is a knower. The expanse of the galaxy is a picture of the self manifest from the knower to become a known. If the galaxy collapses on itself, then known picture collapses back into the self, without producing an infinity. If the galaxy then explodes, it is just the self expanding itself into a picture of the self to become the known. The galaxy and the universe can thereby expand, to create an ever-increasing detailed picture of the self, without decreasing energy. The same galaxy and the universe can also collapse, to create an ever-decreasing abstract picture of the self, without increasing energy. The expanding or collapsing universe now becomes a self expanding from itself or collapsing into itself. Neither presents a paradox. Hence the model of mind and thought remains consistent and complete.

The Description of Reality as Knowledge

All over Vedic texts, we find the whole of reality being described as Jñāna or knowledge. This knowledge can be divided into three parts, namely, the knower, the known, and the knowing. These three parts can also be merged back into knowledge. The knowledge can also be summarized or detailed. If summarized knowledge is detailed, then the summarized knower, known, and knowing expands into multiple knowers, knowns, and knowings. If detailed knowledge is summarized, then multiple knowers, knowns, and knowings collapsed inot one knower, known, and knowing.

The fact that they prior existed as part of ‘knowledge’ is oneness or non-differentiated nature called Param-Brahman. But since they have separated, there are numerous knowers, knowns, and relationships of knowing. However, these separated knowers, knowns, and knowings are not truly separable from the original knower just like a thought cannot be separated from the thinker. At the point of thinking, the thought seems separate from the thinker. However, that is just appearance rather than reality. The separation exists as phenomena and non-separation exists as reality.

Once knowledge has divided into many knowers, knowns, and knowings, each knower can know infinite other knowns through the relation of knowing. Each knower can also produce more knowns from itself, just like a mind manifests thoughts. Finally, some knowns can collapse back into the knower just like thoughts merge back into the thinker. The merged thought hasn’t disappeared. The expanded thought hasn’t appeared. They are all eternally real. However, they are manifest or unmanifest. The technical Sanskrit terms are vyakta and avyakta respectively.

Self-Awareness and World-Awareness

I will devote the rest of this article to the relationships of knowing. Let’s start with the intuition about observations. Suppose you are observing an apple. The apple is the known, you are the knower, and what we call ‘consciousness’ is the relation between the two. In this relationship, there is always aboutness—we say that my experience is about the apple. This aboutness (Franz Brentano called this ‘intentionality’) creates the simultaneous sense in which you and the apple are distinct (i.e., real) and yet inseparable (as part of knowledge). The existence of ‘knowledge’ requires that there be a knower, a known, and a knowing. Since this knowledge exists, therefore, we cannot separate the knower, the known, and the knowing. And yet, despite this inseparability, we cannot equate the knower to the known to the knowing.

Thus, consciousness creates a relation between the knower and the known, and these relations come in many varieties. One such relation is that of self-awareness, in which the knower, the known, and the knowing are the same thing, and this process can be understood if we say that there is knowledge of the self, but it is comprised of three aspects—the knower, the known, and the knowing. Thus, sat, chit, and ānanda are three components of self-awareness. Similarly, when we are aware of an apple, then the knower, the known, and the knowing still exist, but they are not the same thing; you are the knower, the apple is the known, and the relation between the two is knowing.

In this way, we can describe both self-consciousness and world-consciousness by the same three principles. And this means that if we study the world as experience or observation, then the theory of world-experience can also be used to understand self-experience, or the “I-ness”. As a result, separate theories for the soul and matter are not needed, if we have the correct theory of experience.

Scientific Modeling of Relationships

Let us now briefly turn to how relationships can be modeled in science. Modern mathematics models these relationships as functions. In set theory, these functions are classified into three broad categories, called injective, surjective, and bijective relationships. A relation R: A → B is called injective if every element of B has at most one corresponding element in A. Similarly, a relation R: A → B is called surjective if every element of B has at least one corresponding element in A. If a relation is both injective and surjective, then every element in B has one and only one corresponding element in A, and it is called bijective. Typically, an injective relation entails that B is bigger than A. A surjective relation means that A is bigger than B. And a bijective relationship means that both of these sets are equal-sized.

Vedic philosophy replaces big, small, and equal, with superior, inferior and equal. The notions of big and small are quantitative, and the notions of inferior and superior are qualitative. A relationship of superiority S: A → B means that A is superior to B. A exerts control over B, therefore, in some sense, it is ‘bigger’ than B. And yet, it is not physical bigness that we are talking about. Likewise, a relationship of inferiority I: A → B means that A is inferior to B. B exerts control over A, therefore, in some sense, it is ‘bigger’ than A. The relationship of equality E: A ↔ B means that A and B exert control over each other, so they are not superior or inferior to each other.

Different Classes of Relationships

Now, let’s consider some examples. The relation of superiority exists in the parent-child and boss-subordinate interactions. The parent is in control of the child, and the boss is in control of the subordinate. Therefore, when they are conscious of the other thing, the consciousness is also of being a parent or a boss. As a result, we now no longer describe consciousness merely as some ‘awareness’ but in terms of a type. The relation of inferiority can be grasped by seeing the same thing from the perspective of the child or the subordinate.

The relationship of equality is seen between friends; they can control each other, so they are not mutually superior or inferior. Therefore, we say that friendship is a relation of equality. It is also a bidirectional relationship, similar to the bijective relations between two sets.

Mistaking Equality as Identity

This sense of ‘equality’ leads to a problem if the equality is interpreted as identity. In the case of knower and known, a sense of equality can lead to the knower identifying itself with the known. We can call this the identity relation, in which two things that are equal to each other are considered to be identical to each other.

This relation appears when the soul perceives the body and then finding that everything in the soul can exist in the body, and everything in the body can exist in the soul, sees a relationship of equality. Very quickly, however, this equality relation becomes the identity relation and we start saying that “I am the body”, “I am in love”, “I am in pain”, “I am a man”, “I am a woman”, “I am hurt”, “I am old”, “I am young”, “I am rich”, “I am poor”, and so on.

Each of these is an attribute of the body. The soul is observing this body quite like the body is observing the apple. But while observing the apple, the relationship is that of superiority—“I can control, own, eat, or throw the apple”. However, while observing the body, the relationship is that of equality. The relation between body and soul is quite like a bijective relationship but it is not identity. There are indeed two separate things—the body and the soul—which have a one-to-one bijective relationship. However, when the bijective relationship is misinterpreted as the identity relation, then the illusion of the soul being the body arises.

Factually, the soul also has a bijective relationship to itself, and this bijective relation is also the identity relation, in the sense that there is the knower, the known, and the knowing, and these are the aspects of the same thing—the soul. Hence, there is a basis for converting the bijective relation to an identity relation, and that basis exists in the case of self-awareness. If that identity relation is mistakenly applied to the body, then the soul identifies with the body, as equality is interpreted as identity.

Theory of Bondage and Liberation

The process of liberation is freedom from this illusion, and it means that we look upon the body like the body sees the apple. This is the relation of superiority in which I am in control of the body. This liberated soul stops identifying with the body and gains control over it.

If the soul identifies with the body, it comes under the inferiority relationship in which the body demands food and the soul says “I am hungry”; the body demands sleep, and the soul says “I am sleepy”. Thus, the process of material entanglement involves the conversion of the superiority relation to a relationship of equality, which then becomes the inferiority relation, and by identifying with the body, the body gains complete control over the soul. Now, the materialist, under this inferiority relationship says: There is nothing other than the body.

The process of liberation is therefore very simple, and yet subtle: (1) I am not controlled by the body, (2) I am not identical to the body, and (3) I am the controller of this body. We transform the relationship between soul and body from inferiority and equality to the relationship of superiority. In that condition, we have an identity relation to the self, and this process is called self-realization.

Three Types of Consciousness

The idea that we are controlled by the body is called ‘materialism’. The idea that I am identical to the body (and there is no soul apart from the body) is called Buddhism. And the idea that I am identical to myself, and nothing else exists (other than the self) is called self-realization.

Thus, just based on the ideas of superiority, inferiority, and equality we can identify three kinds of consciousness—the materialist consciousness, the voidism consciousness, and the self-consciousness.

The materialist says that there is indeed consciousness, but it is produced from the body, or that consciousness is an effect or epiphenomena of material interactions. The voidist says that there is no such thing as body and consciousness; there is just conscious experience and we call that the body. The materialist is a realist, while the voidist is an idealist. In materialism, if you stop experiencing, the world still exists. In voidism, the end of the experience is the end of the world. Therefore, the voidist tries to end experience, which is called the end of reality.

The “Neither” Type of Consciousness

Vedic philosophy goes beyond these three states and identifies two more types of consciousness, which are paradoxical in nature.

The first type of consciousness is that which constitutes the neither superior, nor inferior, nor equal relationship. This relation is sometimes called śānta or “silent appreciation”. For example, the liberated soul, after gaining self-awareness and distinction from the body, directs its awareness toward God—the source of everything. He doesn’t consider himself equal to God, or inferior to God, or superior to God. He merely acknowledges the existence of God as the source of everything. Just as a fan might appreciate a great person, without saying that I’m equal to that person, that I’m a subordinate to that person, or I am superior to that person, similarly, in this state, God’s existence is recognized, somewhat dispassionately. This recognition of God—from a distance, and silently—constitutes the Brahman realization.

Then there are many other types of relationships that vary upon the neither superior, nor inferior, nor equal relationships, but they are not as distant as the silent appreciation. We can compare these to the relationships between citizens, neighbors, colleagues, and distant relatives.

For example, the sālokya liberation is just like the affection between two citizens, but living far off. The sāmipya liberation is like being neighbors. The sārsti liberation is just like being professional colleagues. And the sārupya liberation is just like being distant relatives. In these relations, there is more affection than silent appreciation. But there is an absence of intimate relationships like those of lovers, friends, parents, or servants. Finally, there is also a relationship of equality which is confused as identity. In this relation, the soul merges into God and loses its identity. This is called the sāyujya-mukti. All these types of relationships are considered mukti or liberation from matter.

The “Both” Type of Consciousness

Then, there is a second type of paradoxical consciousness, which is simultaneously superior, inferior, and equal. This kind of relationship is one of romantic love between the Lord and His devotees. The lovers control each other, the lovers are controlled by each other, and the lovers are equal to each other. So, each lover is superior, inferior, and equal, and they are simultaneously superior, inferior, and equal.

Apart from this, there are relationships of superiority, inferiority, and equality, in which the simultaneity of the previous (romantic love) is absent. These are pure relations of superiority, inferiority, and equality. The relationship of superiority makes the soul a parent of the Lord. The relationship of inferiority makes the soul a servant of the Lord. And the relationship of equality makes the soul a friend of the Lord.

What is the Science of Consciousness?

Thus, immense variety in relationships is created from the basic three types of relationships as superior, inferior, and equal. The study of this variety is the “science” of consciousness. A true “theory” of consciousness requires a discussion of superior, inferior, and equal relationships which are about control rather than merely size or quantity, as the relations of injection, surjection, and bijection are in mathematics.

Unlike the physical and quantitative relationships of mathematics, the qualitative relationships create roles of lovers, parent-child, master-servant, friend, colleague, neighbor, distant fan, citizen, etc. Each role creates patterns of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. In the material world, the concept of duty (or dharma) arises from the roles, which depend on the relationships. When someone indulges in unacceptable behaviors, there is karma, and the laws of nature then change the relationships—e.g., put us from a position of power and control, into a relationship where we lose the power of control. Thus, the description of relationships, roles, duties, and laws of behavior form a continuum of a new kind of science that lies beyond modern science, but it can be rational based on everyone’s experience of these phenomena.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Relational Nature of Consciousness," in Shabda Journal, January 8, 2021,