Material vs. Spiritual Realism

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Introduction and Overview

Vedic vs. Western Notions of Realism

There is a sense in which Vedic philosophy is realist—a soul moves in a space of meaning-states called childhood, youth, and old age (higher) and hungry, thirsty, lusty (lower). All these states are fixed and eternal, but the soul’s connection to these states is temporary.

This sense of realism is different than Western material realism which upholds that object move in a material space and time, and if the soul exists, then it is carried in the body. Descartes for instance believed that the soul is somewhere in the brain. Thereby, the body moves according to material realism and the soul (if it exists) moves along.

Confusions in the Vedic Notion of Realism

The issue of realism is considerably complicated by the use of seemingly material realist analogies in Vedic texts such as (a) the soul is a passenger on the chariot of the body, (b) the soul rides on a material machine, and (c) the soul is situated in the heart. All these analogies seem to talk about moving with the body, rather than moving from one body to another.

Owing to such analogies, many people think that any rejection of material realism is (a) contrary to commonsense, (b) contrary to Vedic texts, and (c) identical to impersonalism and voidism, which are antirealist in some sense. Of course, if we accept material realism, then we cannot solve the soul-body interaction problem. The materialist would say: Whatever is in the brain or heart, is a part of the brain or heart, so it must also be material. Thus, accepting material realism leads to the annulment of soul-body distinction and of the soul.

I will discuss the resolution of this problem in two parts. The first part discusses the failures of material realism in Western science and philosophy, and how they have led to antirealist positions. The second part discusses how spiritual realism is established in Vedic philosophy, but the rejection of material realism is not impersonalism or voidism. We need to become convinced that material realism is false before we try to understand spiritual realism.

Two Notions of Inside and Outside

To make a long story short, we need to redefine the meaning of “inside” and “outside”. The soul is “inside” the body in the sense that the body can control the soul. And the soul is “outside” the body in the sense that the soul can control the body. So, when the body controls the soul, then the material realist analogies like a passenger on the chariot, riding on the material machine, or being situated in the heart are true. However, because the soul can control the body, therefore, when the soul is able to contril the body, then it is outside the body and always moves from one body to another. There is hence no contradiction between the two.

This definition of “inside” and “outside” is consistent with the rest of Vedic philosophy. For instance, the soul is a part of God in the sense that God controls the soul. Everything, including the soul, is “inside” God due to this control. Similarly, as we will see, something is “outside” us if we cannot control those things. Material realism is based on the inability to control.

The body controls the soul by throwing the soul from one body to another. Since the body throws the soul, therefore, the body controls the soul, and the soul is inside the body. However, because the soul moves from one body to another and its identity is not changed by this throwing, hence, it is none of the bodies and not in any of the bodies. Accordingly, the body can be called prakṣepātmikā or the “throwing potency” because it throws the soul from one state to another. The body can also be called āvaraṇātmikā or the “covering potency” because it is a covering of the soul and the soul is temporarily inside the covering of some body.

Illustration Through An Example

We can imagine toothpaste inside a tube. The tube is squeezed, and the toothpaste is pushed out, but then it enters another tube, which then squeezes the paste into yet another tube. The tube is separate from the paste, but the paste is also inside some tube temporarily, squeezed by the tube, and pushed forward from one tube to another by the squeezing of the tube.

The person squeezing the tube is God, in the form of Time. The tube is material energy or Prakṛti. And the soul is the paste in the tube. Thereby, the tubes are not moving, however, the paste is moving from one tube to another. If the successive tubes are similar to each other, then we call that the movement of the body as it looks like incremental change. But if the new tube is quite different from the previous one, then it is called rebirth. However, in both cases, the mechanism of the movement of the paste from tube to tube is the same. Material life is getting squeezed like paste inside some tube. And spiritual life is finding that tube that doesn’t squeeze the paste because there is no need to push the paste to another tube.

Part I – The Failures of Material Realism

Antirealism in Greek Philosophy

The problem of realism in Greek philosophy goes back to Socratic times. Socrates presented an allegory of cavemen who see shadows projected on cave walls cast by things or people behind them. Since they cannot see those things behind them, they cannot know the nature of reality. They can only try to infer the nature of reality from the shadows, but all those inferences are most likely false. A modern upgrade to that Socratic allegory would be the projection of a movie on a screen by a projector behind us. Whatever you see on the screen is not real, although there is something that creates shadows.

This kind of antirealism does not assert the absence of reality. It just says that what we think is real is actually not real. For example, in the case of a movie projector, there is a reality—the projector—but the dialogues we hear, or the people we see in the movie, are not real. They are illusions created by the projector. Therefore, this anti-realism is opposed to material realism but not to realism per se.

Antirealism in Empiricist Philosophy

Similar opposition to material realism appeared at the dawn of science, and it drew a distinction between primary properties (length, mass, energy, momentum, etc.) and secondary properties (color, taste, smell, touch, sound, etc.). This distinction stated that everyone is hallucinating because all sense perceptions are unreal. The reality behind those perceptions is completely unlike perceptions.

Many early philosophers, including David Hume and George Berkeley, argued against this antirealism. Berkeley for instance said that we can never assert the realism of primary properties, because even when you conduct a measurement—e.g., of weight—you are not observing weight; you are simply observing the movement of a pointer on a scale. David Hume then said that even if you assert the realism of primary properties, you cannot establish causal necessity between two events. Without that necessity, you can never say that any of the primary properties are the causes of appearances.

Thus, we can distinguish between two kinds of antirealism in the modern era: (a) the claim that everything we see is an illusion because all secondary properties are false, and (b) the claim that the assertion of primary properties is also false because we never perceive them, nor can we assert causal necessity even if we postulate their existence. Those postulates will forever remain unconfirmable.

Antirealism in Modern Physics

Then there were four big waves of anti-realism in science that followed one after another.

Antirealism in Classical Mechanics

The first wave arose in Newton’s mechanics where mass, energy, momentum, and angular momentum are conserved, however, the total number of particles is not conserved. This meant that only properties are real, and objects are not real. Whatever is not conserved (i.e., eternal) cannot be called real. Therefore, if you think that the world is particles with properties like mass, then you are making a false claim, because particles are not real. Instead, some properties temporarily coagulate for reasons that we don’t understand. That coagulation of properties is euphemistically called a particle, but because particles are not conserved, therefore, we cannot call them real. The coagulation of properties is simply a fact, which has no explanation in current science. But let’s not dwell too much on that problem.

Antirealism in Classical Thermodynamics

The second wave arose in thermodynamics in trying to explain the irreversibility in the conversion between heat and work. Thermodynamics says that, over time, heat becomes less convertible to work. But how do we know that energy is not disappearing? You might say: Well, because it gets converted to heat and we can measure that using a thermometer. But a thermometer is also doing work—expanding the mercury—so detecting the presence of heat also requires converting heat to work. If we say that we cannot convert heat to work, then we also cannot detect it using a thermometer. Now, there is no evidence for the existence of energy. The honest answer to this problem would be to say that energy, momentum, angular momentum, etc. are not conserved, but that would destroy physics.

Therefore, Boltzmann used a trick to say that the energy gets dispersed. Recall from classical mechanics where physical properties can coagulate or disperse. If we say that energy disperses over time, then we can solve two problems—(a) we don’t get any work, and (b) we don’t detect an increase in temperature. But this claim is empirically indistinguishable from energy not being conserved. The fact is that the reality of all physical properties ended with thermodynamics, but the situation was salvaged by Boltzmann using an unverifiable premise that energy disperses and becomes undetectable.

Antirealism in Relativity Theory

The third wave arose in relativity theory which demonstrated how classical conceptions like distance and duration were not objective realities; they were tied to an observer, and hence each observer could measure a different length and time. This destroyed the idea that space and time were objectively real. Now, we were only left with one property—energy—assuming you buy into Boltzmann’s solution to the problem of energy not being measurable. This energy could split and combine in many ways creating fictions called trajectories. As those trajectories intersected, then the fiction called a location in space and a moment in time was created. Those fictions were collectively called space and time.

Antirealism in Quantum Mechanics

The fourth wave arose in quantum mechanics which demonstrated that even as we claim the reality of physical properties, their existence does not simultaneously produce an effect, and hence cannot be detected. All this energy exists as a potential, and it manifests into different events one after another. In thermodynamics, some energy disperses gradually and becomes permanently undetectable. In quantum mechanics, even when it has not permanently disappeared, its presence is often not detectable.

Summary of Antirealisms in Physics

In short, classical mechanics destroyed the idea of particles. Relativity destroyed the idea of space and time. And quantum mechanics and thermodynamics destroyed the idea of physical properties in different ways. You still have observations—but all the methods used to explain them are unreal. You either find a different way of explaining them, or you accept that there is no physical reality.

Antirealism in Modern Philosophy

While all this antirealism was going on in physics, philosophers were creating their own antirealism. For instance, they said there is no meaning to properties like pressure and temperature other than the instrument that is used to measure them, and that instrument is arbitrarily chosen by us. This was called Operationalism. Then, looking at the fact that any data can be interpreted in many ways, philosophers stated that we can never be sure about the truth of any theory. A theory can only be falsified, but never verified. Finally, tired of all these problems of realism in science, philosophers advanced the idea that a scientific theory is not about reality or truth; it is just a model for predictions, which can be revised at any time and can stake no claim to knowing the nature of truth or reality despite its success.

Antirealism of Geometrical Entities

Meanwhile, mathematicians were struggling with their own problems of realism in the case of numbers and geometry. We cannot define a point denoted by a number unless we can completely define the number. Since we can never completely define an irrational number (it has infinite digits), therefore, we cannot define any point in space represented by irrational numbers. These irrational numbers are exponentially more numerous than rational numbers, so we cannot simply ignore them. Since all irrational numbers were traditionally created via geometrical constructions, hence, a point in space has no existence. Rather, that point arises by the intersection of straight lines—the simplest construction.

But what gives us the authority to say that lines are fundamentally real? It could also be said that lines are created by the intersection of surfaces. Then, what gives us the right to say that surfaces are real? We could also say that three-dimensional shapes are real. We might go back to the idea of Platonic solids, acknowledging basic shapes in nature. We could say that by the intersection of shapes, we get surfaces. By the intersection of surfaces, we get lines. By the intersection of those lines, we get points. So, a point, line, and surface are not real. However, the problem is that we have no basis to assert that space is three-dimensional. So, the three-dimensional shapes could be defined by the intersection of higher-dimensional shapes. Once you say that points are not real, then the smallest thing is not real. When you start postulating bigger things, there is no limit to how complex or big that thing has to be. The net result is that even though you can talk about anything, you cannot say that anything is real.

Antirealism in Number Theory

Then, Gödel dealt an even more severe blow to the capacity to talk about the world. Geometry had assumed that if we can construct something, then it exists in some sense, and a statement that says that such a thing exists is true. All that is true is not necessarily real, because points can exist, but they are not real. However, at least we can say that such and such point exists in our observation or experience, and the sentence that makes that claim is true. Gödel’s Incompleteness took away that ability when he showed that a sentence that exists—and can be logically proven—may be asserting a false claim.

The root cause of that problem is that words have multiple meanings. For example, consider the three statements: (a) I am nobody, (b) nobody is great, and (c) therefore, I am great. You can prove the third statement based on the first two statements, but the third statement contradicts the second statement. Therefore, even when you have proven things logically and mathematically, they might not be true.

To eliminate this problem, you have to fix the meaning of each word. And to do that, you must forbid one of the following two statements: “I am nobody” or “nobody is great” as something meaningful. By forbidding statements, you lose the ability to say and know everything that can be said and known. That is called the incompleteness of mathematics. It is the only way to avoid logical contradictions.

Gödel’s incompleteness means that we cannot know the complete truth about numbers, and hence about anything else. Since everything uses numbers, therefore, every theory of science is incomplete. You could still believe in claims that cannot be proven, and Gödel was a believer—he believed that there is a Platonic world of forms that have to be grasped intuitively rather than through proof. However, if we use the mathematical standards of proof, then infinite claims are unprovable and hence unreal.

Antirealism in Computing Theory

Once you start forbidding statements, then you realize that there are infinite questions that can never be answered. One such question is the capacity to predict what a program will do. It might draw a circle, or triangle, or a sphere, but we cannot know what it will do—unless we execute the program. We need the ability to predict the outcomes before we use something. But if we forbid that question itself, then we have forbidden the inquiry into whether a program is good or malicious. Then, we have forbidden the inquiry into whether creating such a program is morally right or wrong. The net result is that you tell everyone to stop asking all these questions because they will lead you to logical contradictions.

There are further antirealist theories, such as the idea that the world we see is a computer simulation. Even though you think that something is heavy or big, it is not actually heavy or big; it is the result of a number produced by a simulation. Then you can ask: Who created the computer and wrote the simulation software? And the answer is: Whatever question you ask, and whatever answer you get, is produced by the simulation. It appears in your mind because your mind is a simulation. So, if such questions are appearing in your mind, followed by some answers, it doesn’t mean that they are true. Whether you ask the question, whether you get an answer, whether you debate the question and answer, and whether you judge some question or answer to be true, right, or good, is all simulation. Even the idea that we are simulated by a computer is an idea planted by the computer simulation. Hence, think and do whatever comes to your mind, because you cannot do anything otherwise.

Summary of Antirealist Ideas

Let us summarize the various kinds of antirealist theories and what they say:

  1. There is some reality, but it cannot be known by reason and observation
  2. While everything we see is a hallucination, we might know reality by speculation
  3. Whatever we know by speculation can never be rationally or empirically guaranteed
  4. Yes, we understand, but let’s speculate anyway, and we’ll see what we get
  5. Speculation: The world is space and time, particles and waves, and their properties
  6. Observations show that particles and waves are not real things as they are not conserved
  7. Irreversibility takes out the reality of energy, momentum, and angular momentum
  8. Observations show that space and time are not objectively real things
  9. Observations show that there is no “hard” reality because everything is a potential
  10. There is no meaning to any property other than arbitrarily chosen instruments
  11. There is no truth or reality in any theory other than the current pragmatic usefulness
  12. Numbers and points are not real things, because they depend on lines
  13. We don’t know what is real because we can’t define the highest dimensional space
  14. We cannot ask all the questions because they will lead us to logical contradictions
  15. There are infinite unanswered questions due to the problem of contradictions
  16. Let’s not worry about that problem because it is a simulation anyway

Realism appeared briefly in Platonism when he said that there is another world of ideal forms, of which the present world is a poor reflection, but Plato could never define any ideal form. Then Aristotle threw away Platonism and introduced a new realism in which four substances—earth, water, fire, and air—and geometrical forms are real. Then, physicists threw out the reality of earth, water, fire, and air, and mathematicians threw out the reality of geometry because they could not find any solid foundation.

There is no scientific or philosophical theory that justifies realism. That doesn’t mean the absence of reality. But it means that it is not to be found in these philosophies and sciences.

Part II – The Basis of Spiritual Realism

The Perceptual Problems of Realism

Even if we set aside all these problems, and take a classical realist stance, there are still serious issues in establishing realism based on our perception. Let’s suppose a person is seeing an apple—i.e., properties like red and round. These are pictures in his mind. So, how can we say that they are real—i.e., outside the mind? Most people respond by saying that another person can see the same thing, and because we are mutually exclusive, therefore, their ability to see what we see means that it is outside both persons.

Note the irony. We are establishing the reality of an apple by presupposing the reality of persons. If the second person is real, then the apple is real. If that second person is simply an image in my mind, then the apple is also an image in my mind. The fact is that we cannot establish realism like this.

Solipsism in Western philosophy and certain forms of impersonalism in the Vedic tradition take this view. They say: The idea that there is another person, or a world of things, is a metaphysical claim. For those who might not know, metaphysics is often used as a bad word in philosophy, quite like the unspeakable four-letter words. To call something metaphysical is a philosopher’s use of four-letter words.

Realism Based on Free Will

We establish realism by suffering. If we were always satisfied, then we could say that everything is in my consciousness, and there is no external reality because everything conforms to my will and I’m creating my experience willingly just to remain satisfied. However, if things work against our will, then we are compelled to say that there must be an external reality that is forcing me to suffer, against my will.

Therefore, if we enter a world where there is no suffering, then we could say: Everything is happening exactly how I want, which is giving me satisfaction, therefore, everything is being created due to my will, and in accordance to my will, hence everything is within me. Now, there is no need for realism.

Realism appears in the material world because we are suffering, which is against our will, so we cannot claim that I’m creating this suffering. Rather, we must say that it is forced upon me externally. To explain suffering, we must assume a real world, and we use that assumption to explain enjoyment too.

Another type of realism appears when an image appears in my consciousness, which I have not willed, and says: “Do this”. If I do it, then I automatically become happy. The command “Do this” is not caused by my will, and yet it causes my happiness. So, I cannot say that things are happening according to my will, but they are giving me happiness. Therefore, they must originate outside my consciousness, and hence there is a reality. Now, external reality is justified not by suffering but by happiness.

In both cases of suffering and happiness, what establishes realism is that things happen without my will. They may be against my will and cause suffering, or they may be compatible with my will and cause happiness. Therefore, realism depends on unwilled happiness and suffering. If instead everything happens according to my will, then there is no need for realism. In Vedic philosophy, there is such a realm called the Brahman, in which the soul is self-absorbed and there is no external world.

Many Levels of Reality

Once we define external reality by the fact that we cannot control it, or that it operates against our will, or without our will, then we get a new way to construct many levels of realism. For example, we have greater control of will over some body as compared to other bodies, therefore, the body that we can control more by our will is our body, and the bodies that we cannot control by our will are other bodies. Our identification with some body as “my body” is based on this ability to control that body. We are also attached to a body to the extent that we think we can control it. If we become convinced that we cannot control the body, then we will stop identifying with the body. Sickness is a good example of this.

Similarly, we have more control over our thoughts than the process of digestion or circulation. Hence, circulation and digestion are more external than our thoughts. If you are an introspective person, and you have tried to control or change your emotions, thoughts, judgments, intentions, values, etc. then you can identify many layers of reality that are successively more external to the soul because we have lesser control over them. They are all lumped into something called the “mind” in Western philosophy because philosophers have not used the appropriate criteria for externality—namely, something is less external if I can control it more by my will, and more external if I can control it less by my will.

If we follow this introspective method of trying to gain control, which is what some yoga processes teach, then we can come to the same conclusion as Sāñkhya philosophy, which describes the layers of material realities that are successively “outer” to the previous reality. The inner reality is also called the “higher” reality, and the outer reality is also called the “lower” reality. Thus, the body is lower than the senses, the senses are lower than the mind, the mind lower than the intellect, and so on. This is not merely a theory or philosophy. It is amenable to empirical confirmation if we are introspective.

The Genesis of Material Realism

But remember, this conclusion depends on how much we are able to control our body and mind by our will. If we have no control, then we will not be able to distinguish between more and less control, and thereby not be able to distinguish between multiple layers of reality. By the loss of control, we will think that there is no soul, and by the absence of different extents of control, we will think there are no layers.

Materialism is effectively the total loss of control over emotions, thoughts, judgments, values, sensations, and actions. The materialist flattens this hierarchy from the soul to the gross body into the gross body. Why? Because he is unable to control any of the levels. His thoughts are as much out of his control as his digestion. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that thinking is different than digestion.

Once a person has lost all this control, it is very difficult to recover it. The Vedic system prescribes yoga processes to deal with this problem, and the general rule is that they begin from the outermost layer of the body, then into the senses, then into the mind, and so on, progressively deeper toward the soul. This is just like peeling an onion; you regulate the outer layer, and by regulation, you get some control over it. When you get control, then you can distinguish it from yourself. Then, you regulate the next inner layer, and by that, you get some control over it and distinguish it from yourself. Over time, as you get control over all these layers, then you can see the full hierarchy, and see yourself separate from the hierarchy.

But this process generally takes a long time. Most people, while performing this process, are not in control over their body, thoughts, emotions, etc. Their thinking is as much out of control as digestion. Therefore, if anyone says that the mind is “outside” the body, nobody will accept it. Why? Because the body is digestion and the mind is thinking, and they are equally out of the person’s control.

Such a person may also not understand Sāñkhya philosophy, or how there are many layers of existence that can be progressively more in control of the soul. How the mind is “higher” than the “body” or how the “ego” is higher than the “mind” is never experienced. Then, it is very hard to understand how the ego controls the thoughts, which then control the senses, which then control the body because they are not in control of the ego. Finally, how the mind is outside the body and how the ego is outside the mind—in the specific sense that the mind can control the body, and the ego can control the mind—is not understood. Then it should not surprise us if someone says: The soul is not outside the body; it is in the heart or in the brain, and like money is carried in the pocket, similarly, the brain or the heart carry the soul along.

Since a person has lost control over their ego, mind, senses, and body, therefore, he correlates the motion of external bodies as the cause of changes into his or her body, senses, mind, judgments, values, etc. This is the genesis of Locke’s tabula rasa thesis in which everything we do is based on what the world has taught us. Therefore, if we have some values, then they are society’s values. If we have some ideas, they are because society has taught us to think in that way. This is also the genesis of Newton’s physics in which a particle moves autonomously until another particle exerts a force on the particle. Now, there is no “internal” existence, because everything is “external”. Newton in fact collapsed a planet into a point particle! Why? Because there is no “inside”. If the planet can be collapsed into a point particle, then surely the human body can be collapsed similarly. Now, we are all point particles moving around in space, pushed by external forces acting on the particle. This externality of causation is called material realism—or that bodies are moving in space and time through push and pull.

In short, material realism arises due to the loss of free will, or the willing control over the ego, mind, senses, and the body. If such control is gained through yoga practice, then that realism can be rejected. But because regaining this control is hard, therefore, many yoga practitioners can also believe in material realism. This is where philosophy becomes important: It teaches us why that realism is false.

The Process of the Soul’s Movement

The Vedic texts describe how the soul is moving from one body to another using two processes called prakṣepātmikā or the “throwing potency” and āvaraṇātmikā or the “covering potency”. I have, in earlier articles, described this process as the tightening or loosening of the “ropes” that bind the soul. The material guna are also called “ropes”, the soul is described as an animal tied by the rope, and the Lord is the person tugging on the rope. You can imagine a dog tied by a leash. The master pulls on the leash, and the dog moves. When the master stops pulling, then the dog stops moving. Therefore, the soul is called an animal or paśu, and the master of the animal is called Paśupatī.

This analogy, however, doesn’t fully explain the process of movement, although it is not incorrect. The more complete understanding is that the material covering squeezes the soul and then shows an alternative state. That squeezing is prakṣepātmikā and showing the alternative is āvaraṇātmikā. That alternative is simply a possibility but because the soul is squeezed in the present state, therefore, it is desperate to get out of the situation, and it quickly accepts the alternative, thinking that it will be better. We can also say that the squeezing is like a tight leash and the alternative is like a loose leash. To get out of the tight leash state, the soul willingly accepts the movement to the loose leash state. But it is not will that is voluntarily coming out of the soul. It is rather the coercion of nature, accepted by the soul.

Therefore, we can say that the material energy is controlling the soul. And we can say that it is the soul that ultimately acquiesces to this pressure, so the soul is moving based on its will or acceptance.

Hence, Lord Krishna states that everything is being done by Prakṛti and the soul falsely thinks of itself as the doer. This is because the Prakṛti has forced the alternative. And yet, if the soul was not willing, then it could not be assigned any responsibility for its actions. Therefore, the complete understanding is that the soul is not the doer but it is the approver.

The statements that (a) the soul is moving on the chariot, (b) the soul is riding the machine of material nature, and (c) the soul is in the heart, arise because the soul approves what is forced upon it. The material nature compels the soul, and the soul acquiesces. By coming under the control of material nature, the soul comes “inside” that nature. However, because the soul can disapprove, and the Prakṛti will not be able to force the soul, therefore, the soul can control the movement of the chariot through a hierarchy of charioteer, reins, whip, etc.

As noted earlier, we can compare this process to the toothpaste, the tube, and the squeezing of the tube. Time is the person squeezing the tube, material energy is the tube that contains the toothpaste, and the result of that squeezing is that the soul is pushed into another tube by its acquiescence. However, if the soul does not acquiesce, then the soul can remain in a fixed tube for a very long time.

How the Material Energy Moves the Soul

With this background, we can go even deeper into how material energy squeezes the soul. As you can probably tell, it is not a physical squeezing. The process of squeezing is called māyā or “that which is not”. This is the deepest covering of the soul and is identical to prakṣepātmikā. The Tantra scriptures identify these as five kinds of limitations called kañchuka. These limitations are those of place, time, ability, knowledge, and liking. The limitation of the place says: I’m stuck to this place, society, country, or institution, and I’m not able to get out of it. The limitation of time says: I’m stuck to this era, and forced by things happening at this time, and have no control over things. The limitation of ability says: I have so few abilities that I’m not competent or capable of what is expected of me. The limitation of knowledge says: I am ignorant and not capable of understanding many things. Finally, the limitation of liking says: Even if I tried to acquire ability, knowledge, or tried to get out of this place and time, I may not like the new place and time, or it will be so hard to get new abilities and knowledge that I will not be able to bear the pain, difficulty, hardship, and the humiliating process of change.

Basically, the function of māyā is to make the soul feel emasculated, and then gain control over the soul. Thereby, the soul feels worthless, insignificant, and powerless, and is forced to accept whatever māyā tells it. This results in endless suffering and the illusion of the soul. The illusion is that there is no other way than to go on suffering in this way. And this illusion arises because the soul is emasculated to an extent that it feels it cannot do anything about it. Therefore, māyā is described as abnegation, illusion, and suffering. They are the same thing. Even the most powerful, rich, famous people always feel insecure internally because māyā constantly emasculates them from within.

When this pressure of māyā reaches its limit, then the soul becomes angry. He says: I am not useless, worthless, or insignificant. I will prove that I am great, worthy, and invincible. Then, āvaraṇātmikā says: Here are the options that you could use to prove your greatness. Due to its anger, the soul forgets that such proposals have been entertained in the past and they have not worked permanently. The anger, frustration, and pressure from māyā compel the soul to accept those proposals. And by that acceptance, the soul moves into another body, which is another entrapping tube for the toothpaste, which means that it will squeeze the soul again, and then force it into the next situation.

How Yoga Stops the Soul’s Movement

The essence of all yoga systems is to stop the squeezing. By that, the throwing is also stopped. For example, if you can relax the body and mind, then you will stop feeling squeezed in any situation. Then, you will also not feel compelled to move to a new situation.

In the mantra chanting process, the soul takes shelter of the Lord and feels protected by Him. By the remembrance of the Lord, he stops feeling the squeeze of the mind, body, and circumstances. Even if there is a squeeze, there is no acquiescence. Thus Lord Krishna says that the yogi tolerates hot and cold as mere sensations produced by the interaction of the senses with the world. These sensations cannot do anything to the soul because the soul is eternal. However, by creating the impression that the soul is being hurt, the material energy forces the soul to change its current state. Therefore, if you are feeling hot, and you get up to switch on a fan, this is because material energy is pushing you. In the perfectional state, when the soul is perfectly devoted to the Lord, it stops feeling the squeezing of material nature. The consciousness is fixed on the Lord, and anything else happening in the world doesn’t matter. Such a soul becomes inactive in the sense that it is not pushed by the material squeezing. However, if the Lord says: “Do this”, then the soul is immediately active. Basically, one goes from tight rope to lose rope to no rope to being voluntarily bound by the rope of love. This is the path of perfection in the yoga system.

If the soul is surrendered to the Lord, then in response to the instigations of māyā, it says: I’m actually ignorant, incapable, bound by time, place, and circumstance, suffering in so many ways, but I beg the Lord to place me as one of the dust particles on His lotus feet. There is no anger or sense of inferiority and then the desire to prove one’s superiority. There is instead humility. This humility is not just prostrating the body. It is the prostration of the soul. If māyā cannot instigate anger in the soul, then it cannot force the soul to move.

Therefore, Vaishnava Acharyas teach that one must simply conquer pride, anger, aggression, frustration, feeling of superiority, greatness, worthiness, and invincibility, and surrender to the Lord. If we surrender to the Lord, then māyā cannot touch us.

Material Realism in Christian Thinking

Even as Christianity asserted the reality of the world as God’s creation, there is no understanding of how the material energy controls the soul, how it forces to move the soul from one body to another, and how the soul can be liberated from this condition. The philosophers who have no control over their emotions, thoughts, judgments, sensations, and the body, then stated that the soul is carried in the body like money in one’s pocket. And anyone who is in the same situation as these philosophers believes that this is just commonsense.

However, this commonsense idea has been going on for over two millennia and nobody is able to explain how the soul exists in the body. The Cartesian mind-body dualism itself is going on for many centuries, and nobody is able to solve the problem. So, there is no use in calling it commonsense if we cannot overcome the flaws of that commonsense, which then lead to the rejection of the commonsense.

Spiritual Realism in Vedic Philosophy

We have to find that understanding in which these flaws can be overcome, and accept it as the most rational solution. This transcendence can be established by direct observation through the practice of yoga. And this understanding is also presented in the Vedic texts.

Hence, by rational argument, we can show that science has never been able to establish material realism. Then, we can show that there is an alternative spiritual realism in which the soul moves from one body to another. Then, we can show how this spiritual realism leads to false material realism when the soul loses control. Then we can show how both being in control and not in control are presented in Vedic texts. Finally, we can experience the in-control situation by practicing yoga. So, there is a rational and empirical rejection of material realism and rational, empirical, and scriptural confirmation of spiritual realism. If anyone is seriously inclined to understand, there is ample knowledge.

Under this spiritual realism, whatever we experience as hard, hot, rough, sweet, bitter, smooth, etc. is real because it is outside our control. However, it is inside another consciousness called Prakṛti because She is in control. For example, when we cannot control our digestion, it is not happening randomly. It is occurring under the control of Prakṛti. And because that situation is forced upon us, therefore, we are under the control of Prakṛti, and inside Prakṛti. If we become free of the control of Prakṛti and are not forced, then we are outside Prakṛti.

Spiritual realism means changing the meaning of the words “inside” and “outside”. What is inside me? That which I control. What is outside me? That which I don’t control. When am I inside matter? When matter controls me. When am I outside matter? When matter doesn’t control me. Thereby, even if we see the Lord in front of us, we are “inside” the Lord, because “inside” means that the Lord controls us by His will.

In material realist ideas of “inside” and “outside”, there is force only upon things that are “outside” a thing and no force on things that are “inside”, either because there is no “inside” or because if we try to describe that “inside”, we run into infinities (this is a separate topic, but to note it in passing, the self-force of a particle becomes infinite). In spiritual realist ideas, there is a force on things only if they are “inside”, and no force if they are “outside”. Hence, Prakṛti controls us if we are “inside” Prakṛti but doesn’t control us if we are “outside” Prakṛti.

If we can accept this alternative idea of control, causation, inside, and outside, then there is a spiritual science that applies to matter as well as the soul. However, if we are conditioned by the material realist ideas of “inside” and “outside” then we cannot understand spiritual realism. However, then, we also cannot establish any other kind of realism, including modern scientific material realism.

Rejection of Material Ontologies

What is “outside” my consciousness is not “stuff”, “substance”, “object”, etc. It is also a conscious state of a superior personality who has the power to control us. Those conscious states are produced by the will of a superior personality, and they are inside that consciousness.

The material realist says that what is outside my consciousness is outside consciousness per se. It is objective in the sense that it exists independent of all observers. The world then has to be observed from a third-person perspective. But the spiritual realist says that what is outside my consciousness is inside another consciousness. I cannot control your mind, so it is outside my control, but it may be inside your conscious control. Then there are things that neither of us control, but they are under the control of a superior personality, so they are inside their consciousness. Therefore, the world has to always be understood from a first-person perspective. It may not be my perspective, but it is the perspective of another person or a superior personality who controls everything by their will. By converting all third-person thinking into first-person thinking, we don’t become solipsists, impersonalists, or idealists (i.e., the world is an idea only in my mind) because we accept that it is always an experience, idea, or meaning in the mind of a superior personality, and it is almost always outside my control.

Material realism is tantamount to saying that nobody controls the world. The world is working on its own due to mathematical laws. This idea is also called Deism in which God made the world and then left it to operate on its own. Thereby, the world is outside God’s control, and that gives each scientist the freedom to start speculating on the mathematical laws of nature, formulate constants of nature, and if you are a theist, then call those laws “God’s intelligent design”. This so-called “design” is rejected in Vedic philosophy because we reject Deism.

The world is not operating independently of the Lord. It is directly under His control and supervision. However, because the Lord is not irrational, whimsical, capricious, or illogical, therefore, His will is also rational, scientific, and moral. We can use our logic and reason to understand the order in nature, and by that, we are studying Lord’s will. The irony is that even Deists and Christian design theorists will say the same thing: We are studying God’s will. And that is why the next important distinction has to be made: The world is inside the Lord.

Lord Krishna showed mother Yashoda the universe inside His mouth. So, mother Yashoda is inside the universe which is inside the Lord, and that mother is also holding the Lord forcibly by her arms, showing Him a stick, and scolding Him. Similarly, the Dāmōdarāṣṭakaṁ states that the entire universe is inside the belly of the Lord. And a rope, which is a part of that universe, has now bound the Lord’s belly. So, the Lord is controlling the rope, and the rope is controlling the Lord. The rope is inside the Lord, and the Lord is inside the rope. This is because of love. The rope is a devotee of the Lord, and He has agreed to be bound by the rope. But if we are not devotees, then the Lord controls us. In both cases, everything is under the Lord’s control. But if there is love, then the Lord also comes under the control of that which He controls. Hence, the preliminary step is to understand how the universe is inside the Lord. It may be within His mouth or within His belly; those are different understandings and require a deeper discussion. But the high-level description is that the universe is inside the Lord.

Therefore, instead of rejecting hard, hot, rough, sweet, bitter, smooth, etc., as illusions of our experience (as modern science does), we have to accept them as real—outside and not in our control. However, they are not “stuff”, “substance”, “object”, etc. They are conscious states produced by the will of a superior personality, and they are inside the consciousness of that personality. Likewise, instead of saying that the world is particles, with properties like energy and momentum, moving in an empty space according to some mathematical laws, we have to reject that idea because science can never prove the reality of these things, and every step leads to more antirealism.

When we are studying hard, hot, rough, sweet, bitter, smooth, etc., then we are studying our mother. We are not studying “stuff”, “substance” or “object”. If you cannot get over the impersonalist ideas of modern science, then due to the mind-body problem, you will reject the soul and then reject God. After all these rejections, you will find that even the body is not real. Thereby, you end up in nihilism.

The rejection of material realism is not impersonalism. Rather, reducing the mother to a collection of particles is impersonalism. And when that reduction fails, then we get nihilism and voidism. Therefore, if one begins in material realism then the progressive conclusion is impersonalism and voidism. But if we begin by rejecting material realism then we get to personalism, and thereby to spiritual realism.

Matter is also consciousness, which controls us. Then the soul is consciousness which is controlled by matter. And matter controls the soul under the direction of God, which is also consciousness. So, everything is consciousness, but due to differences in the qualities of consciousness, they are different. In one sense, Vedic philosophy is monism—because there is only consciousness. Then, it is dualism—because there is matter and soul. Then, it is trialism—because there is matter, soul, and God. And finally, matter and soul are parts of God, therefore, there is just God. Being part of God, or being “inside” God, means that God controls them. He is the Supreme Person.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Material vs. Spiritual Realism," in Shabda Journal, December 23, 2021,