The earth is smaller than a speck of dust in the cosmos, so what do our lives mean? And while our senses guide us, how much can we trust them?

The first big problem is that of the body, our own and that of the physical universe. And what lies beyond the solar system and the stars?

The second big problem is that of change. Everything is in flux, so the images we form of ourselves and that of the universe can best be a snapshot, a frozen moment of time? The mystery of time.

And then this: The brain is pitch dark. There is no light in it even when we look at things. There is no evidence for the naïve idea that somehow the image impinging on the retina is projected at the back of the head.

The third big problem is that of awareness and consciousness. We know we are conscious and our self-knowledge rests in our consciousness, but we don’t know what it means.

Trying to make sense of what our life means we must first confront the problems of the body (B), transformation and change (T), and consciousness (C). The right understanding is one where the intuitions related to B, T, and C are in harmony.

This is quite similar to good health where at each systemic level there is balance between aggregation, change, and higher purpose. (Note 1)

We pull up memories from somewhere inside our heads. This is not an exact process for the remembering is a little different each time. Memories are not only rehashes of what was experienced; more memories are generated in the mind. The sense of ownership of the memories is the ego. Since memories are not precise, and there are others that are imagined, we need intelligence to separate “good” memories from others that are made-up. All this complicates our reasoning.

To find answers to these three existential problems we go to college, find teachers and spiritual masters, or join a religious group for comfort.

The academy

You rush off to college and enroll in this course or the other. You will find many brilliant people there, and that’s the place to go to learn about the world through its many academic disciplines.

But these disciplines exist in silos and as a rule academics lack an overarching understanding of the nature of reality. Many professors can only speak discipline-related jargon.

Everyone has heard the story of the elephant and six blind man. The one who feels the trunk says it is thick snake, the second one who feels the ear says it is kind of a fan, the third whose hand is on the leg calls it a tree-trunk, the fourth who is feeling its side says it is a wall, the fifth who is holding the tail calls it a rope, and finally the one feeling the tusk says it’s kind of a spear.

Imagine now that each of these is represented by an academic discipline with its own peer-reviewed journals, where the professors mark their academic progress by the number of citations of the papers by others in their discipline, and academic leadership is measured by how aggressively you name-call holders of other views. (Note 2)

The chances you will find a professor who is able to teach you about the three big questions is at best slim, and most likely impossible.

I know of many bright young people who went to the best colleges and emerged from there with clouded minds, as angry individuals intolerant of views other than their own.

Wisdom communities

If not the academy, what about a wisdom community?

But where to turn for that? Religion?

But many religions are only about conceptions of the body in this world and life in paradise, together with injunctions on what to wear, what to eat, who to socialize with and even what to think and believe? In other words, they are mostly B (but only grudgingly, because they reject much of academic science), with perhaps a dash of T, and literally no C. They don’t address the big questions.


Philosophy was traditionally the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. It dealt with big questions, but no more. Western philosophy now is about the foundations of academic subjects related to social, economic, scientific and logical problems, which are important in their own right but barely scratch the surface as far as our inquiry is concerned.

Academic philosophy’s sub-disciplines relate to evolution of knowledge and mind, but these approaches are body-centric, an attempt to provide machine-paradigm explanations that appeal to randomness and complexity, an approach that doesn’t take one very far.

The Veda

The Veda speaks of the natural laws of the universe in the conception of Vishnu (Viṣṇu), who is aggregation of not the physical and biological laws but also the moral ones that make the world go (B).

Transformation and change caused by swirling energies is Shakti (Śakti), a name that stands for embodiments both at the personal and the cosmic levels (T).

And, finally, consciousness that endows one with freedom and will is called Shiva (Śiva) (C).

Natural Law can be ascertained by studying Shakti. But it is a study where as more is known, what remains is the shadow, and as one bends down to catch its end, it only gets longer.

The word for light in Sanskrit is div, which is the root from which words such as divinity and deva emerge. The word “God” itself is from the Sanskrit “sva-tava” (self-powered) which through Avestan and Persian became “Khoda” (Sanskrit sv- become Persian kh- as in the word for Sun changing from svara to khar) and then the German “Gott”. God is divinity that is self-luminescent.

When anthropomorphized, gods and the goddesses are shown as having four arms that represent cardinal directions; there are other aspects that point to their cosmic forms, such as the sun and the moon as eyes. Since the workings can only be through embodiment, both Vishnu and Shiva each have a consort, the Goddess.

In symbolic form, Shiva is a pillar, an image inspired, no doubt, by the cosmic axis around which all stars revolve (a reflection of the spinning of Earth), and the psychological axis in our minds that lets us believe we are the same individual even as we change physically and in our memories.

There are many practices that facilitate the search for the inner light. The individual body, and materiality in the large, that is Shakti, is one way to find them. Shiva influences the world through observation, without intervening directly in any physical process. This is analogous to what in science is called the Quantum Zeno Effect.

The practices of Veda, which are collectively the disciplines of Yoga, concern self-knowledge. What practice to do depends on the individual’s temperament and life-experience.

The duality we confront in life is B-T at one level and T-C at another level.

The gods reside in the sky of our minds, which opens up the fascinating architecture associated with our psychological being. The Vedic gods provide insights on the nature of Self and put one in touch with capacities that lead to creativity (Note 2).

So how many lights? We can use the mind’s eye to count the lights that illuminate the inner sky and help us separate the main current of the inner flow from the eddies near the shores. But to do that one needs to learn this way of seeing.


  1. In Ayurveda these are the three doshas of kapha, pitta, and vata, which map to the abstractions related to the elements water, fire, and air. They may also be mapped to the Sāṅkhya guṇas of tamas, rajas, and sattva.
  2. See The Big Scandal of Indology.
  3. On the Gods Within.

सुभाष काक. Author, scientist.

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