By Drutakarma Dasa
An allegory from the Srimad-Bhagavatam sheds light on the mind/body connection.
This article was originally presented at ‘Toward a Science of Consciousness,’ an international conference attended by leading scientists, physicians, philosophers, and other scholars, and hosted by the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Is There A Conscious Self distinct from the physical mechanism of the body? Is there a mind distinct from the brain? Those who answer yes to such questions are called dualists, and they are rare in contemporary science and philosophy.
Dualistic solutions to the mind/body problem are perhaps hampered by, among other things, inadequate analogies and allegories on the topic in Western thought. Whether we turn to Plato’s cave, to the formulations of Descartes, or to the proverbial little green man in the brain, there is apparently not enough substance to inspire the modern researcher of consciousness to seriously consider dualism. But if we turn to chapters 25-29 of Canto Four in the Bhagavata Purana, or Srimad-Bhagavatam, a Sanskrit text from India, we’ll find the elaborate allegory of the City of Nine Gates. The sophistication of this allegory challenges modern researchers to take a second look at dualism.
The central character in the allegory is a king named Puranjana. The Sanskrit word puran-jana means ‘one who enjoys in a body.’ So the king’s name hints at soul/body dualism. King Puranjana originally existed as a spirit soul in a purely spiritual realm in relationship with a supreme conscious being, God.
Materialists may oppose the introduction of this transcendental realm, which exists outside the material universe knowable by science. But even the materialist cosmology of modern science incorporates a ‘transcendental’ realm, that is to say, a realm that exists beyond the universe knowable by science, and from which that universe emerged at the time of the Big Bang. This transcendental reality, existing beyond time, space, and matter, is called the quantum mechanical vacuum and is pictured as a pure energy field in which particles appear and instantly disappear. From this sea of virtual particles some expand and continue to exist. According to many cosmologists, our universe is one such expansion.
So both the Bhagavata Purana and the Big Bang cosmology of modern science point to an eternal transcendental existence from which our universe of matter, with its features of time and space, arises. Now, which version of ultimate reality better explains the variegated reality of our experience’ Modern cosmologists and other theorists have a great deal of difficulty in coaxing enough variety from the rather smooth and featureless universe that, according to theory, expands from the quantum mechanical vacuum. The origin of consciousness also poses a difficult problem. In light of this, an ultimate reality that is itself conscious and variegated might offer a solution.
Having departed from the spiritual world, by misuse of independence, King Puranjana journeys through the material world, accompanied by Avijnata Sakha (‘the unknown friend’). The Unknown Friend corresponds to the Supersoul expansion of God. When Puranjana leaves God and the spiritual world, his memory of them becomes covered. But unknown to Puranjana, God accompanies him on his journey through the material world. According to the Bhagavata Purana, God accompanies all spirit souls in the material world as their Unknown Friend, who observes and sanctions their activities.
In the Western world, mind/brain dualism is identified with French philosopher Rene Descartes, who posited the existence of (1) matter extended in space and (2) mind existing outside space. Cartesian dualism is characterized by an interaction between mind and matter, but explaining how this interaction takes place has proved problematic for advocates of the Cartesian model. For example, how are impressions transmitted from the realm of matter to the completely different realm of mind’ Descartes thought the connection between mind and matter occurred in the pineal gland in the brain, an answer most scientists today reject.
According to the Bhagavata Purana, both matter and the souls in the material world are energies of God, and as such both have a single spiritual source. The philosophy of the Bhagavata Purana is thus both dualist and monist simultaneously. The interactions of matter and the soul in the material world are mediated by the Supersoul, who exists inside each material atom and also accompanies each spirit soul. By the arrangement of the Supersoul, impressions of material experience can be channeled to the soul. How this takes place is the subject of the allegory of Puranjana.
Having left the spiritual world, Puranjana, accompanied by Avijnata Sakha (the Supersoul), wanders through the material world. He wants to find a suitable place to enjoy himself. In other words, he searches for a suitable kind of body to inhabit. He tries many kinds of bodies on many planets.
Here we note that each species of life consists of a soul inhabiting a particular kind of body. In this respect, the Bhagavata Purana account differs from that of Descartes, who held that only humans have souls. For Descartes, animals were simply automatons. If one concedes that animals, with all their signs of life and consciousness, are simply automatons, then why not human beings as well’ The Bhagavata Purana model avoids this weakness of Descartes’s system.
The Attractive city
Eventually Puranjana comes to a place called Nava Dvara Pura, the City of Nine Gates. He finds it quite attractive. The City of Nine Gates represents the male human body, with its nine openings’two eyes, two nostrils, two ears, the mouth, the anus, and the genital opening. As Puranjana wanders through the gardens of the city, he encounters an extremely beautiful woman. Puranjana is attracted to her, and she is attracted to him. She becomes his queen.
Puranjana, as we have seen, represents the conscious self. The beautiful woman represents buddhi, intelligence. According to the philosophy of the Bhagavata Purana, intelligence is a subtle material energy with discriminatory capabilities like those manifested by artificial intelligence machines. The attraction between King Puranjana and the queen (between the conscious self and the intelligence) is the root of embodied consciousness. The king, it should be noted, has distinct conscious selfhood, with nonmaterial sensory capability, but this capability becomes dormant when he begins his relationship with the queen.
The queen (the subtle material element called intelligence) allows Puranjana (the conscious self) to enjoy the City of Nine Gates (the gross physical body). Employing a computer analogy, we might say Puranjana represents the user, the City of Nine Gates the computer hardware, and the queen the software that allows the user to interface with the hardware and use it for practical purposes.
The queen is not alone, however, but is accompanied by eleven bodyguards and a serpent with five heads. The bodyguards comprise the mind and the ten senses. The ten senses are made up of five knowledge-acquiring senses and five working senses. The five knowledge-acquiring senses are the senses of sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch. The five working senses are those of walking, grasping, speaking, reproduction, and evacuation. All ten senses are grouped around the mind and are considered servants of the mind. Each of these servants has hundreds of wives. The wives represent desires for material experience, and the senses act under their pressure.
Senses and Sense Organ
According to the philosophy of the Bhagavata Purana, the senses are different from the physical sense organs. The senses, along with mind and intelligence, are part of the invisible subtle material covering of the soul. The physical organs of sensation (eyes, nose, tongue, ears, skin, legs, arms, mouth, anus, and genitals) are part of the visible gross physical body.
The distinction between subtle senses and physical sense organs is important and offers consciousness researchers a valuable conceptual tool. Let us consider, for example, the problem of phantom limbs. Persons whose legs or arms have been amputated often report that they distinctly feel the missing limb, and even experience quite distinct sensations, such as twinges of pain or itching. The City of Nine Gates allegory provides an explanation for this mysterious phenomenon. Let’s take the case of someone whose arm has been amputated but who still feels the presence of the arm. The arm is one of the working senses. It is composed of two elements, the subtle grasping sense and the physical organ of the arm and hand. Amputation removes the physical organ through which the subtle sense operates, but the subtle sense itself remains, and therefore its presence may be mentally perceived.
Since the subtle sense is material, it may be able to act upon gross physical matter without going through the related physical sense organ. This model may therefore explain some of the phenomena reported in connection with ghosts and apparitions, and in connection with mediums, particularly the mysterious movement of physical objects. This model may also explain how persons are able to experience sense data during near-death experiences when the physical sense organs are incapacitated because of anesthesia or shock.
The senses are compared to attendants of the queen. They serve her by bringing information and performing activity. Together they comprise the array of material intelligence and sensory capabilities, all formed from subtle but nevertheless material energy. They combinedly manufacture a sense of self, with which the king becomes entranced and falsely identifies.
The body itself, the City of Nine Gates, is made of gross material energy, of the kind that can be manipulated by ordinary physics and chemistry. The body is powered by five subtle airs, listed in the AyurVeda, the Vedic medical science, as prana, apana, vyana, samana, and udana. In the Puranjana allegory the five airs, comprising the vital force, are represented by a five-headed serpent.
In the allegory, Puranjana asks about the identity and origin of the queen and her attendants. The queen replies,
O best of human beings, I do not know who has begotten me. I cannot speak to you perfectly about this. Nor do I know the names or the origins of the associates with me. O great hero, we only know that we are existing in this place. We do not know what will come after. Indeed, we are so foolish that we do not care to understand who has created this beautiful place for our residence.
My dear gentleman, all these men and women with me are known as my friends, and the snake, who always remains awake, protects this city even during my sleeping hours. So much I know. I do not know anything beyond this. You have somehow or other come here. This is certainly a great fortune for me. I wish all auspicious things for you. You have a great desire to satisfy your senses, and all my friends and I shall try our best in all respects to fulfill your desires. I have just arranged this city of nine gates for you so that you can have all kinds of sense gratification. You may live here for one hundred years, and everything for your sense gratification will be supplied.
The king’s questioning the queen represents the self’s asking material intelligence for the answers to ultimate questions. The answers provided by the queen, as well as her fundamental attitude, reflect those of modern science, which prides itself on avoidance of certain questions and the tentativeness of whatever answers it may provide. “I cannot speak to you perfectly about this. … We only know that we are existing in this place.” Essentially, the queen provides a monist, materialist answer to the king’s questions about his situation.
Description of the Gates
The Bhagavata Purana then provides a more detailed description of the nine gates of the city inhabited by the king and queen. Seven gates are on the surface (two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and a mouth), and two gates are subterranean (anus and genitals).
Five gates face east. The first two gates on the eastern side are called Khadyota (“glowworm”) and Avirmukhi (“torchlight”). To see, the king exits these two gates and goes to the city called Vibhrajita (“clear vision”). On this journey he is accompanied by his friend Dyuman (the sun, the ruler of the subtle visual sense).
In other words, the king encounters qualia by sensory contact through the physical gates of the body. Qualia are secondary properties of objects, such as color. In consciousness studies, the question of how we perceive qualia is a much debated topic. Do they exist in their own right, in the objects with which they are identified, or do they exist only in our own minds’ According to the Bhagavata Purana system, qualia, such as colors, exist as subtle sense objects. They have a reality of their own and are not simply produced within the mind.
That the king goes out through the gates of the eyes to contact subtle sense objects in a city of visual impressions suggests that the seeing process is not simply one of passive reception, but may involve an active process of image acquisition (as in sonar or radar). This may explain such phenomena as traveling clairvoyance, whereby a subject can mentally journey to a particular location, beyond the range of the physical sense organs, and then accurately report visual impressions. This model could also explain visual sensations reported during out-of-body experiences. The exact relationships between the physical sense organs, the subtle senses, and the subtle sense objects are not easily understood, but could perhaps be clarified by experimental work based on the overall model of the City of Nine Gates.
In the eastern part of King Puranjana’s city there are, in addition to the eyes, two gates called Nalini and Nalini, representing the nostrils. The king goes through these two gates with a friend called Avadhuta (representing breathing airs) to the town of Saurabha (“odor”). The last gate on the eastern side is Mukhya (“mouth”), through which the king goes with two friends to the towns of taste sensation and nourishment.
Through the two gates on the northern and southern sides (the ears), the king goes to places where different kinds of sound are heard. Through the gates on the western side of the city, the king goes to the towns where sensations of evacuation and sexual pleasure are experienced. During his journeys, the king takes help from two blind men, Nirvak and Peshaskrit, who represent the arms and legs.
In all his activities, the king follows the lead of the queen. In other words, the conscious self in the material world becomes conditioned by material intelligence. The Bhagavata Purana says,
When the queen drank liquor, King Puranjana also engaged in drinking. When the queen dined, he used to dine with her, and when she chewed, King Puranjana used to chew along with her.
When the queen sang, he also sang, and when the queen laughed, he also laughed. When the queen talked loosely, he also talked loosely, and when the queen walked, the king walked behind her.
When the queen would stand still, the king would also stand still, and when the queen would lie down in bed, he would also follow and lie down with her.
When the queen sat, he would also sit, and when the queen heard something, he would follow her to hear the same thing.
When the queen saw something, the king would also look at it, and when the queen smelled something, the king would follow her to smell the same thing.
When the queen touched something, the king would also touch it, and when the dear queen was lamenting, the poor king also had to follow her in lamentation. In the same way, when the queen felt enjoyment, he also enjoyed, and when the queen was satisfied, the king also felt satisfaction.
As noted above, an important question that arises concerning dualist solutions to the mind/body question is how a nonmaterial conscious mind interacts with material sense objects. In this model, there is an answer to this question. As seen above, the interaction is based on illusory identification.
To understand the nature of this illusory identification, we first need to readjust the familiar mind/body dualism to a triadic conception incorporating (1) a nonmaterial conscious self, (2) a subtle material body formed of mind and intelligence, and (3) a physical body composed of gross matter.
In this model, the mind is a subtle material substance, associated with material intelligence. Mind is at the center of the subtle senses, which are in turn connected to the physical sense organs, which bring to the mind sense data in the form of subtle sense objects.
Here yet another question arises. In consciousness studies one is faced with the problem of how the various kinds of sense data are presented in an integrated fashion. Even various elements of the visual sense, such as the perception of color, movement, and form, are located in different parts of the brain. Sounds are processed in other parts of the brain. How are all these elements combined’
In the Bhagavata Purana model, the integrating function is performed by the mind, which receives sensory inputs from the subtle senses grouped around it. The mind is not, however, conscious. So the mind might be compared to multimedia computer software capable of integrating audio and visual materials into a single display, making use of a variety of inputs and source materials. The material intelligence, represented by the queen, directs the living entity’s consciousness to the integrated display of sense data. Intelligence, as a subtle material energy, is not itself conscious, but it mimics the behavior of consciousness. So the intelligence attracts the attention of the conscious self, causing the self to identify with it, just as we identify with the image of an actor on a movie screen.
By identification with material intelligence, which is in turn connected to the mind’s integrated display of sense data, consciousness is connected with the sense data. This connection is not direct. The indirect connection of the conscious self with gross matter arises from the self’s false identification with the action of a subtle material energy, intelligence. The extremely subtle material element that connects the conscious self with material intelligence is called ahankara, or false ego. The whole system is set up and directed by the Supersoul.
According to the Bhagavata Purana picture, the conscious self originally experiences nonmaterial sense objects through nonmaterial senses. This takes place in the spiritual world, with God. But having turned from this original situation, the self is placed in a material body in the material world. Identifying with this artificial situation, the self forgets its own nature and that of God. But God remains with the self as the Supersoul, the Unknown Friend. If the self tires of the artificial material reality and desires to return to its original position, the Unknown Friend will reawaken the original spiritual senses of the self and reconnect them with their spiritual sense objects.
The whole system therefore resembles a computer-generated virtual reality. In virtual-reality systems, the user’s normal sensory inputs are replaced by computer-generated displays. But just as a person can turn off the virtual- reality display and return to normal sensory experience, so the conscious self in the artificial sensory environment of the material world can return to its original spiritual sensory experience.
Attacked by Time
In the Bhagavata Puranaallegory, King Puranjana and his queen enjoy life for some time in the City of Nine Gates. Eventually, however, the City of Nine Gates comes under attack by a king named Candavega. Candavega represents time, and his name literally means “very swiftly passing away.” Candavega commands an army of 360 male Gandharva soldiers and their 360 female companions. Together these represent the days and nights of the year. When Candavega’s army attacks, the five-headed serpent (the vital force) tries to defend the City of Nine Gates. The serpent fights the attackers for one hundred years but eventually becomes weak, his weakness causing anxiety for the king and his associates. Finally, the attacking soldiers overwhelm the defenders and set the City of Nine Gates ablaze. As it becomes obvious that the battle is being lost, King Puranjana is overcome with anxious thoughts of his wife and his relatives and associates. Then the commander of the invading forces arrests the king and takes him away along with his followers, including the five-headed serpent. As soon as they are gone, the attackers destroy the City of Nine Gates, smashing it to dust. Even as he is being led away, the king cannot remember his Unknown Friend, the Supersoul. Instead, he thinks only of his wife, the queen. He then takes another birth, this time as a woman.
In this part of the allegory, we see how the conscious self, accompanied by the mind, intelligence, and subtle senses, leaves the gross physical body. When they leave, the gross physical body disintegrates. The conscious self then receives another gross physical body. The kind of body received depends on the condition of the subtle material body, composed of mind, intelligence, and subtle senses. The subtle material body is the template upon which the gross physical body is constructed. This model allows one to account for reports of past-life memories. In the Bhagavata Purana model, the mind is the storehouse of memory from past lives.
In his next life, King Puranjana becomes Vaidarbhi, the daughter of King Vidarbha. When grown, Vaidarbhi becomes the queen of King Malayadhvaja. At the end of his life, Malayadhvaja retires to the forest and takes up the process of mystic yoga. The Bhagavata Purana (4.28.40) informs us, “King Malayadhvaja attained perfect knowledge by being able to distinguish the Supersoul from the individual soul. The individual soul is localized, whereas the Supersoul is all-pervasive. He became perfect in knowledge that the material body is not the soul but that the soul is the witness of the material body.” In this state of higher awareness, Malayadhvaja, following the yoga process, deliberately leaves his material body and achieves liberation from material existence.
Queen Vaidarbhi (formerly King Puranjana) is overwhelmed with grief at her husband’s departure. At this point, King Puranjana’s Unknown Friend (the Supersoul) appears before Vaidarbhi as a brahmana sage. The brahmana says to Vaidarbhi, “My dear friend, even though you cannot immediately recognize Me, can’t you remember that in the past you had a very intimate friend’ Unfortunately, you gave up My company and accepted a position as enjoyer of this material world. … You were simply captivated in this body of nine gates.” The brahmana then instructs Vaidarbhi further about her original position as a purely spiritual self in the spiritual world.
I have extracted only the principal elements of the City of Nine Gates allegory. The complete account is much more detailed and allows one to make an even more subtle and refined model of self/mind/body interaction. This model does not fit easily into present categories of the mind/body debate. Although dualist, it partakes also of idealism and monism. It does, however, allow one to integrate many categories of evidence from normal and paranormal science, as well as evidence from humanity’s wisdom traditions, into a rich synthesis, providing fruitful lines of research confirming and refining a complex dualist model of mind/body interaction.