In the fifteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita empirical life is likened to an inverted tree, its roots above and its branches spreading out below. From the context it is clear that the tree is not being used here simply as an example of a living thing, but is meant to represent the way in which experience comes to us. The trunk of the tree is the mind (buddhi) which is pictured as sending out its branches into the world of the senses, bringing to the individual soul the blossoms of good and evil action and the fruits of pleasure and pain. It is a curiously apt image, and still more so when it is remembered that the nervous system, which is its physical counterpart, is very like an inverted tree.
Like the tree growing from the seed, the physical body grows from a single cell and, as it grows, the nerves grow out from the inverted trunk of the spinal cord, each branching out to ramify all over the body in smaller and yet smaller filaments. It is through these nerves, sensory and motor, that man both makes contact with the sense-objects and enters the world of outer action. This is true not only of those senses, like touch, temperature-sense and taste, which tell him of the things in contact with parts of his own body surface, but also of the other senses, like hearing, vision and smell, which bring him information of things at a distance from his body. According to Shri Shankara’s Commentary, the roots of the tree are the latent impressions or vasanas which appear as desires and aversions in the mind of man and lead him to action. Through eating the fruits of this tree, the sense-impressions, the soul experiences pleasure and pain and comes to know good and evil.
This may be a poetic image, figurative and not literal, but poetry is the art of evoking significant associations by means of words. Its method of conveying truth is by awakening men to the profound harmony of design in nature and what Whitehead called “The inner-relatedness of things” which, as he says, can never be safely ignored.
What sort of information do the senses give us about reality ? They each tell us about the qualities which are their peculiar province. Touch, for instance, tells us of the qualities of hardness or softness, roughness or smoothness, roundness or squareness; temperature sense, tells us about hotness and coldness; pain sensation distinguishes for us burning or aching, sharpness or bluntness; sight distinguishes colour and shape; hearing, pitch and timbre. And each of these senses also tell us about the strength or weakness of these sensations.
All experience of the world comes to us through sensation. So all experience of this kind must be made up of these three elements, quality, shape and intensity. This is all that there is in sense-data. But this is not all that there is about our picture of the sense world. For us the world is made up not of sensations and their qualities and strengths, but of objects and their attributes. It is the world of objects which we see as having colour, form, hardness, softness, and the rest. And it is our strongest everyday conviction that these are real objects and that their qualities, on the other hand, are in some sense accidental. There is the table, for instance; it “happens to be” a brown table, but if we painted it, or rubbed off the stain, it would still (in our opinion) be the self-same table and would “happen to be” some other colour instead, just as we may happen to be in evening dress, or in a dressing gown or a bathing costume at different times.
So we have a series of real objects, things of substance, with accidental qualities, which are no essential part of those objects. And this view is reinforced by language—for we distinguish clearly between things—which we indicate by nouns—and their incidental qualities, which we indicate by adjectives.
This is all very well when we only change one quality at a time. But it becomes very difficult if we change all the qualities, and ask what then is the real thing-in-itself without any of the incidental properties? Because it is not clear that anything at all remains; while if it does remain there is every reason to say that we can know nothing at all whatsoever about it or its nature. We shall then have removed from it the only kind of thing— qualities and their form—which the senses can give us information about, and there is no other way of knowing objects except through the senses. You may say: “But we are surely left with the hard core of substance or matter, out of which the object is made”.
It may be thought that the atoms and molecules, since these are not sensible anyway, provide just what we are looking for to give substance to the unknown and unknowable object. There would be some hope of this being so, were it not that when we tried to find out what the atoms themselves are made of, they turn out in the first place to be largely made up of empty space, but worse, even the little sub-atomic particles (the protons, neutrons and electrons) are not made of matter, but of energy—and energy is not something substantial.
It is an activity or force, like burning, or moving, and there is nothing else there, which possesses that energy. It is like a burning fire devoid of fuel. So science has rendered the world literally “an insubstantial pageant” by destroying the basis of our belief in the substance out of which the world is made. It can offer us instead only the notion that the world is created out of a play of energy. And energy, like the qualities of sense objects, is an attribute, not a thing.
We are driven back to the view then that perhaps there are only qualities, making up our experience of the world. Perhaps the world can be more adequately described by dispensing with nouns altogether and using only adjectives and words to describe the spatial and temporal relationship and arrangement of qualities. But even this view leads to a paradox, because qualities are always changing. Every time we look at a scene outside, the sun has moved slightly, the clouds have thickened or cleared, the light is different; and hence the colours are slightly different too. Every time we move the perspective changes, and hence the shape of things is altered.
What is it then that gives continuity to the world of things? There must be something which justifies and gives rise to our experience of abiding objects. It is clear when one thinks about it, what it is. It is the fact that the qualities which we sense are structured. We recognise the familiar pattern of colour and shape in the street, and know when we see a red circle transected by a black bar “There is an Underground Station”. But by a precisely similar process of pattern recognition, we recognise all objects, as a recurring pattern, not because the pattern is always identical, but because it is always similar, and such dissimilarities as there are obey what we come to know about the laws of perspective, and so forth.
This is why in the philosophy of Yoga the world is held to be made up of name and form.
The universe, undifferentiated at first, because differentiated by name and form as it is even today, so that it is said: *He has such a name, such a shape . .. The Self entered in but is not seen because when seen he is incomplete(Brihad. 1, 4, 7).
The world is threefold, made up of name, shape and action. Speech is the source of all names, which all arise from it, the eye is the source of all shapes, and the body is the source of all action.’ (1, 6, 1-3). (Here we can take the eye as standing for all the senses).
What we think of and call objects are in terms of actual experience, characteristically repeating forms and patterns (rupa) presented to us in the sense data, and these forms are structures made up of qualities. What gives continuity and identity to an object is that it recurs and persists, but this sense of continuity and identity is emphasized by the way we look at things and describe them, because the names to which they are attached by us change less than the appearances which they describe.
For example, the number of different ways in which the word ‘cat’ can be pronounced or written is very much more restricted than the number of different kinds of cat there are, and even than the number of different ways in which one may see or hear a particular cat at different times and recognize it as the same cat. When throwing a boot out of the window on a black night in the direction of the cat, one may have seen nothing at all, only recognising its presence by a characteristic caterwauling, but one can be said to have clearly perceived the existence of the object ‘cat’ there nonetheless.
In language and thought we recognise the similarities and differences between the patterns of qualities in our sense-data and classify closely similar patterns as different examples of the same class. In this way, we habitually ignore small differences in the pattern and say that they are all examples of ‘so-and-so’ and we give it a name. No oak tree is exactly like any other, but we notice the similarities between them and their difference from willows, and we say: “These are all oak trees”, and we can specify their general pattern or constellation of qualities which we will expect to see in order to recognize a tree as being an oak.
The similarities exist objectively as forms; but they are recognised mentally and classified by means of a common name, and by giving the same name to a group of slightly different but similar forms we make them seem even more alike than they are, for though the sound of the word differs when different people use it, and it is not exactly the same even when the same person uses it on two different occasions, it is much more the same than the different objects which it describes. Similarly when we recognise the same object at different times or from different angles, we are doing exactly the same kind of thing.
What we see is slightly different, but we recognise it as the same by describing it by name “Good heavens! That’s old Jones over there in a top hat!” There is an objective similarity (though not identity) of form—the qualities we perceive are similar and their structural arrangement in space is similar, but it is the name, which expresses identity. On the other hand, if the same object seen from an unfamiliar aspect is not recognised, we may give it another name. This happened, for instance, in the case of Mount Everest, when approached from the Chinese side. It was thought to be another mountain and called Gauri Shankar. This shows that identity of structure or form has an existence independent of the names used to express it.
The process of recognition is therefore one of recognizing the invariable in the variable, known in the classics of Vedanta as anvaya and vyatireka. When we say “This man is that same Devadatta I saw formerly” we ignore the differences of time and place and other incidentals and concentrate only on the similarities. But supposing there is no other identity in Devadatta or any other object than a structural similarity of form, made up of a bundle of compresent qualities, we have to admit that this is no real identity at all but only an approximate identity. There are many objects whose qualities are such that we cannot be sure in which class they belong.
Besides these qualities change continually and you cannot specify absolutely what qualities are essential to the object. We recognise this in the way we think about qualities as accidental—as redness being something which the table just happens to have. So we must conclude so far that objects have no absolute identity or individuality; and this applies to people as much as to things. They have only an empirical identity.
We must cut short the discussion of this interesting and important topic, because we have not yet come to the hub of the whole problem. If the world is “insubstantial” and consists only of patterns of qualities masquerading as objects made up of forms with names attached, what of ourselves ? Are we any more real? Is this the whole story. It is clear that other people are for us just as much “objects” as the inanimate things around us. It is only through sense experience that we come to know them and they are recognizable to us because of their particular form and qualities. We may go beyond the physical form—the white beard, glasses or wrinkled face by which we recognize casual acquaintances, and recognize mental qualities such as generosity, kindness, timidity, or irritability as characteristic of this man or that, but these are still qualities, changeable and insubstantial.
What we need to know is whether there is another element in man; and in our own experience we have a clear indication that there is. There are many who doubt the existence of a Supreme Being. There are many—like Berkeley and Parmenides—who doubt the existence of matter. But there are none—and there will be none—who say “I am not”. We are all certain that we exist, though not certain what we are. The self is called the ‘footprint’ of Reality because it indicates the track which we must follow in our investigation. By investigation into its nature —by determining what this “I” is which asks the question— one is led to a knowledge of reality.
Personality comes from the word persona, which meant originally an actor’s mask, and hence derivatively, the character in a play. But if the objects of experience are insubstantial, there must be substance in the experiencer. Unreality* or partial reality, can only exist on the basis of reality, of absolute reality. The mind may not be able to describe in words what that reality is or to conceptualise it, because what it can describe and think about, is what it can make an object—the sense data and its qualities, the ‘objects’ with their names and forms. But there is an absolute element in the mind which transcends the mental experience; and it is Paramatman—the Supreme Self.
That element in experience is called in the XII Chapter of the Gita the Imperishable and it is said by Shri Shankara that it is not manifest to the empirical organs of knowledge because only that which is perceptible to the senses can be thought of by the mind. (Bhashya 3-4).
The secret of Yoga is given in Chapter XV of the Gita. This tree of the mind and senses which binds the soul within the realm of the gunas is to be cut down by the sword of dis- passion—by liberating oneself from dependence on the pairs of opposites which are the qualities:— .
- “Then the Goal should be sought in that Supreme Self from which streamed forth the ancient current—this illusory Tree of Sansara.”
- “The ear, the eye and the touch, the taste and smell, using these and the mind (manas), he enjoys the sense objects”.
- “Him who … is conjoined with the qualities (gunas), the deluded perceive not; they see, who possess the eye of knowledge.”
- “Those who strive, endued with Yoga, perceive Him dwelling in the self; while those of unrefined self, even through striving, devoid of wisdom, perceive Him not.”
What is the experience of one who has made this discovery? Listen to this verse of Harischandra, a great poet, mystic and Yogi:
From every pore of my body issues the cry ‘I am God!’ O Harischandra, who can describe what the wise feel? From a drop, he has become the ocean,
He is the tree, the branches and the leaves.