In my other post, I explained that mind sciences is at the core of the Yogic world view and can be considered the organizing principle for the Indian civilization. Various Dharmic schools (including Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism), Sanskrit, Yoga, meditation, Pranayaam and Ayurveda were all developed to create an ecosystem for exploring the mind. Needless to say this is not generally appreciated, not even by Hindu Indians, forget the rest of the world. I myself didn’t appreciate this until a few years back when I was still an IBCD!
One of the reasons is the systematic decoupling of the Indian mind sciences from Hinduism and, consequently, India. RM’s talk in this earlier post (India’s (unacknowledged) contributions to Mind Sciences by Rajiv Malhotra) presents numerous examples of famous westerners indulging in this appropriation and digestion. They are all from recent times (last 100 years); some are around today. I think I have found one more which can be added to that list — David Chalmers, a professor of philosophy and a cognitive scientist in NYU and Australia.
I came across this episode of NPR’s TED Radio Hour titled the Unknown Brain. Last segment of the show is on the below TED talk by Chalmers. With over 600,000 views, this is one of the most popular TED talks. Watch it before reading further –
Amazing, isn’t it?! It could hardly have been grander. With his following two “crazy” ideas, Chalmers is sketching the outlines of the next scientific revolution which might well be much more fundamental than quantum mechanics and relativity combined (!):
Idea 1: consciousness is fundamental – in the same sense as space, time, mass and charge are; he calls it his “postulate”.
Idea 2: consciousness is universal – everything is conscious, even the rocks. There is even a word for it — panpsychism!
I was stunned when I heard this talk, and not at all by the grandness of his vision or the originality of his ideas. Even a casual reader of Vedanta would recognize the ideas as the core tenets of the Vedanta, as I explain in the other post using references to a talk by Sadhguru. In fact these ideas would not be novel to any one who knows about the philosophies of any of the Indian-origin Dharmic traditions. Still, all that Chalmers says about the eastern connection is a casual side comment – these ideas are not all that alien to people from the eastern traditions. But an unsuspecting viewer might not pick it up and may well get the impression that these are radical new ideas and that Chalmers has pioneered them!
At this point, you may say – all right, he is not crediting the source adequately. Why is this such a big deal? A friend of mine actually said this to me. And he is certainly not the JNU-type with any allergy to anything Hindu. He is just confused! In other words – my target audience!
Ok, so what is the big deal? For starters, using an idea without crediting the source is considered academic misconduct. Chalmers, being a professor, ought to know this. Perhaps he is not aware of the Vedic philosophy? Possible, but unlikely. He is a philosophy professor, after all! So yes, I do suspect that he has plagiarized from Indian thinkers, but I can’t make that claim just based on a 15 min video. I am raising a red flag, just like RM raised a red flag for Wendy Doniger, Sheldon Pollock, Devdutt Pattanaik and many more. Readers should investigate further. But certainly, if Chalmers ever applies for a patent for a product (say a new “mindfulness” app!) based on these not-really-that-crazy ideas, I hope the patent office considers Vedic mind sciences as prior art. (Related – Dr Mashelkar on The Turmeric Patent Battle and KSRI, Chennai)
Now, whether or not Chalmers has plagiarized from Indian thinkers or is “inspired” by them is not really my main concern. Ignoring the ethics of all this, look at this from the point of view of the end-user — a layman who has no exposure to this stuff but is curious about meditation, brain, mind, etc. I happen to be in that category. Recently, I have been listening to an (authentic) lectures series on Patanjali’s Yog Sutra, the master text for meditation. And I am completely awe struck by the depth, sophistication and rigor of it. Patanjali, unlike Chalmers, is not iffy about things. He does not use words like “postulate” or “crazy” to describe his theories, presumably just to be safe, in case he turns out to be wrong later! Patanjali has developed the whole thing from theory to application. And by the way, Yog Sutra is just one of the many Hindu theories of the mind.
My point is that, not only is Chalmers not original, his formulation is likely also crude. So, a new student would be well advised to refer to authentic Hindu material along side Chalmers and see which makes more sense. For me, Patanjali’s Yog Sutra is the real deal. Why would you go for something like scotch when scotch is available; or, since it is mango season now, why go for any other mango when Indian mangoes are available?! RM has often commented – the digested versions of Indian traditions are invariably inferior to the original. And it is not always due to an ulterior motive. For a westerner, it may just be due to a lack of context.
Now, let us change the point of view to that of a nation or civilization. Imagine a TED talk which starts with these words: Imagine if we could cure diseases without any chemical drugs or surgery .. just by poking on your skin with micro needles. We call this technology micropoking! And it continues for 15 min without any mention of accupunture or China. Anyone, even an IBCD, would smell something fishy. The fact that people do not associate meditation with Hinduism, in the same way as they associate accupunture with China, or, for that matter, burger with the US, shows how India has squandered its greatest soft power. Even today, in India, Vedic mind sciences are not given enough attention in school curriculum nor in medical training. The centers of excellence in mind sciences are all in the west and that is were most the innovation (new apps, courses, etc) is also happening. The situation is very much like that of yoga 25-30 years ago. India had nearly lost the adhikaar on Yoga till PM Modi intervened a few years back. Different matter that the intervention may be too little and too late. Ayurveda and meditation are fast heading in that direction.
Finally, I think I should make a disclaimer which should really not be necessary for those who know me or those who have read the rest of this blog. But then, this is on the internet and people have short attention spans! Some of you might be asking – so, you think all of modern neuroscience — fMRI based brain mapping, human-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, moon shot projects like BRIAN — are all pointless? I never said that. And I don’t think so. But I am asserting that the Vedic mind sciences are useful and have relevance today. The object of study for both the Hindu rishis and modern neuroscience is the same – the human mind. The two approaches have to be complementary, not at conflict with each other.
[Proof reading TODO: using Hindu, Vedic, Yogic and Dharmic interchangeably. Sort out and standardize the terminology.]
- Very nice (and short!) video on the Hindu formulation of consciousness by Swami Sarvapriyananda of Ramakrishna Mission.