Sat-Chit-Ananda

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In this essay, we discuss the idea of Sat-Chit-Ananda. Our attempt is to discuss these lofty findings of the philosophers of Sanatana Dharma based on verifiable personal experience and inferences from first principles. This is a philosophical enquiry and separate from both religion and science. However, parallels to both science and religion are highlighted wherever we are aware of them.

There are three kinds of questions we seem to be most concerned with. These are well characterised by the question words — What, Who, and Why. These broadly relate to the three key branches of philosophy:

Some common instantiations of these questions are:

In this essay, we will discuss the Vedantic answers to parts of these questions and their implications in our lives.

1. What?

A what question can be thought of as finding a cause for an effect. For instance, we can ask ‘What is the light coming from this screen?’ The light is the effect and we seek its cause. As we know, the cause here are photons emanating from the light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in the screen.

Such “cause hunting” seeks causes by going back in time (for example, you see light because photons left the screen a very short while back) or by decomposing objects into constituents (for example, you see light because the screen contains LEDs).

Clearly, cause of one effect is itself the effect of another cause. For example, you see light because photons left the screen a very short while back, because of jumps in electrons between orbital states. Again, this can be done both by going back in time (like with electron jumping), or by decomposing into components (for example, what are LEDs made up of).

So a what question asks for a cause of an effect, or differently stated we invoke a function CAUSE(effect). We can ask a series of such questions essentially chaining our functions as CAUSE(CAUSE(CAUSE… (effect))).

With such ‘cause hunting’, what is the farthest we can travel?

Moving back in time, the farthest we know is the hypothesis of a big bang about 13.8 billion years ago when we had an infinitely dense, infinitely hot point from which the entire universe has expanded. Naturally, we question what happened before this? Stephen Hawking’s famous no boundary proposal suggests that “Events before the Big Bang are simply not defined, because there’s no way one could measure what happened at them”. Proving and disproving these hypotheses is ongoing work. There are also cyclic (as opposed to linear) theories such as the one by Roger Penrose.

Moving on into decomposition, the dominant theory is the standard model which identifies matter as composed of elementary particles and identifies the four forces acting on matter. The last identified elementary particles— the Higgs Boson — was discovered just this decade. While the standard model is the most consistent theory as of today, there are unexplained phenomena such as unifying gravity with the other forces, or explaining the accelerating expansion of the universe with a fundamental particle for dark matter.

In conclusion, science continues to make progress in expanding our knowledge about the cause-effect relationship by going to almost the start of time and the subtlest of particles and forces. However, these are evolving ideas that continue to be refined as new evidence emerges.

Quite separate from the endeavour of the sciences, and in no way conflicting these findings, the Vedantic sages focused on the asymptotic philosophical explanation of the cause-effect relationship. In particular, they asked ‘What is the primal cause — the cause that caused it all and itself was causeless’. Or in our function notation, what is x such that CAUSE(x) = x?

The sages proposed the answer as ‘existence’ or ‘सत् / sat’. The proposal is not a thing, a being, or an idea existing, but existence itself. What could the cause of existence be? Whatever it may be, it cannot exist for it would causally precede existence. Thus, existence is causeless and is the ground reality underlying everything that is.

Three properties of existence are of importance to us:

Thus existence is singular, timeless, and omnipresent. When things transform — such as a photon in flight colliding with your retina — their properties change, but the underlying existence remains unaffected. Also, existence is not an additional property of a thing — like the heat of a hot potato — instead, it pervades everything that is. And more subtly, existence is not the word that is dependent on our language, but instead our language exists due to existence.

What are the implications of such as philosophical asymptote to us? The objects that we see, taste, touch, smell, and hear have one underlying reality — existence. Though there is apparent multiplicity that we observe, there is unity underneath it all. This is similar to how myriad images that can be displayed in the screen have one underlying substratum of LEDs. Thus, existence is the substantial reality of the universe — the one in many.

In the religions of Sanātana Dharma, this has significant implications. This philosophical idea of the one in many is encoded in religious practices of seeing divinity everywhere. We pray to the stone, the tree, the cow, the mother, the mountain, and everything else. The variety that we experience in the world is celebrated as expressions of the same divinity. Interestingly, the higher the variety of the celebrated divinity, the clearer is the vision of the singular substantial reality.

Notice how the approaches of the scientists and the Vedantic sages are very different in nature and effect. The scientists look for concrete and observable facts which change with access to better tools for observation (such as the Large Hadron Collider) and more facts (such as data from the farthest satellite Voyager I). On the other hand, the Vedantic sages explored timeless asymptotic principles within the laboratories of their own selves.

As lay persons, we seem not too bothered about the scientific details in the edges of time and space. This is because the world we experience within our lifetimes on earth seem to be well understood in existing scientific theories. On the other hand, the findings of the Vedantic sages on the primal cause of the universe deeply inform living practices of religions. Even for the agnostic or atheistic, the principle of the primal cause directly suggests an aesthetic universality to all that is.

2. Who?

Once we recognise that everything is pervaded by existence, the next important question is ‘Who sees this apparent diversity?’ Who knows, who experiences?

Just as the what question concerned the relationship between cause and effect, the who question concerns the relationship between subject and object. Every experience requires that a subject experience an object.

For instance, the text on the screen is viewed by the eyes. The text is the object, and eyes the subject. The eyes are quite intricate in themselves — regulating our pupils for brightness, the cornea for focus, saccades for attention, while batting the eyelids.

But we do not experience the text upside-down, flickering, and de-focussed as is output at the retina. It is further processed by our inner apparatus which we may term as the mind. So, the eyes (and their output) being the object, they are experienced by the subject the mind.

Similar, to our notation of CAUSE(effect), we can now write SUBJECT(object) to denote the subject that experiences a given object. And we can also chain together these functions as SUBJECT(SUBJECT(SUBJECT(object))).

How far can we go with this ‘subject-hunting’?

The scientific vocabulary here introduces consciousness — the ability of being sentient or aware. Though this self-awareness seems to be the most intimate of realities for us, there is limited scientific consensus or progress in the study of consciousness. Nevertheless, it is agreed that a healthy human due to mental faculties is conscious of experiences. I — the conscious being — am the subject of all objects experienced by me. In other words, our subject hunting ends with the self, I, endowed with the property of consciousness.

Clearly, this explanation is contingent on the detailed definition of consciousness and how it actually comes about. Unfortunately, scientific clarity is missing here. Indeed, one of the key open problems in science is the hard problem of consciousness which questions how first person phenomenal experiences or qualia emerges from physical non-sentient things. There seem to be two dominant attempts at solving this. The first view — the materialist view — considers consciousness is produced by the complex working of the brain. It is proposed that all experiences can be correlated on to neuronal activity. The other view considers ‘mentality’ as fundamental and quite separate from matter.

One may hazard the guess that the dominant scientific view today is that the notion of self or ‘I’ in a human being is an emergent property arising out of the highly sophisticated neuronal activity in the brain. In other words, ‘I’ am an unreal entity arising out of a wet organ of less than one-and-a-half kilograms.

This view is quite contrary to our day-to-day experience. If there is anything I am sure of, it is that I am. This echoes in the words of Descartes “I doubt everything, I doubt my body. The only thing that I don’t doubt is me as a subject.” If I doubt me as the subject, what else is there to be certain of? The entire universe experienced only through my doubted self, would also be doubted.

(This notion of unreal self may appear similar to the idea of ‘anātma’ in Buddhism. However, as argued by Subhash Kak, though a popular belief, this may not be the correct interpretation of the original teachings of the Buddha.)

We have to leave science in this unsatisfactory state, and turn to the Vedantic sages. Like in the case of the what question, here too, the sages focused not on the mechanics of ‘how’ things happen say in the brain of humans, but on the asymptotic and universal principles of the subject-object relationship outside the anthropomorphic setting. In particular, they probed the question ‘Who is the subject that is subjectless itself’? In other words, they sought a solution to the equation SUBJECT(x) = x.

The sages proposed ‘pure consciousness’ or ‘ चित् / chit’ as the solution to this. The qualification ‘pure’ is added to distinguish it from the more common usage of the word consciousness as in the scientific literature. By pure consciousness, we do not mean the specific instance of consciousness in the brain of an ape or a whale, instead it refers to the core ability to be conscious, that is to subjectively participate in the subject-object relationship. In the rest of this article we will drop this qualification and use italics instead.

If consciousness had a subject, then this subject would be conscious of the object consciousness outside consciousness. This contradiction implies that consciousness is the subjectless subject. Like existence, consciousness is not a thing, a being, or an idea.

There are some properties of consciousness that are of deep importance to us:

Thus, there is a singular consciousness that is one with existence and pervades all conscious experience. Everything that I experience is experienced in and through consciousness. For instance, in a field when my sight reveals mangoes, trees, sky, and clouds, in essence my experiences only reveal consciousness.

We set out to answer the question ‘Who am I’. Based on the finding of the sages, we have: I am not the body, I am not the mind, I am not the intellect, I am not even the sense of ego. I am the consciousness that enables all experiences. The experiences change — from sweet to salty, from happy to sad— but consciousness remains ever unaffected. This is a significant leap for the sense of identity of an individual. I am not an individual that is born and dies, but am an unaffected consciousness experiencing this universe.

Even more significantly, since consciousness is one, all people, animals, plants, and other conscious beings are lit up by the same consciousness. Everything that is, is experienced in consciousness that is one. This is the key idea of the many in one.

Why then do we have different experiences? The experiences are different only as perceived in the minds which differ from individual to individual. When we see all that is as nothing but existence, there is indeed no difference. This lofty idea proclaims my membership to a cosmic unity. And from this cosmic unity, almost all of ethics can be derived.

We again notice the difference in approaches between the sciences and the sages. The asymptotic principles derived by the sages are directly of great relevance to us in our lives.

Unlike in the case of existence, for consciousness, the sages have something to directly contribute to the sciences. The definition of consciousness has been clearly stated by the sages as: Anything denoted as ‘that’ is not consciousness. In other words, anything that can be objectified is not consciousness. This contradicts the fundament of science which is to objectively study systems. Consciousness as defined here cannot be objectified. Yes, the electric impulses in the axons and the firings of the neurons can be studied, and perhaps over time correlated with experiences uttered in language, expressed in button presses, or tapped into by Neuralink probes. But none of these are consciousness, which remains unaffected and lights up all experiences.

A further analogy sharpens this difference between consciousness studies by science and the Vedantic sages. Consider the statement:

I enjoy coffee

The physicists and chemists would study the properties of coffee. The biologists and neuro-biologists would study how properties of the coffee affect the body and the brain. The psychologist would study how the self attributes preferences to oneself. But none of them study consciousness which is the property that makes this sentence possible.

More concretely imagine this text written by hand on a paper. The scientists would study the length of the text, its shape, and its size. However, consciousness is the very ink that makes possible this text. Thus while we may say that this sentence reveals coffee, enjoyment, or I — in reality it only reveals the ink. Indeed, any such written statement, irrespective of its content, only reveals the ink.

3. Why?

Once we have clarity on the what and who questions, we ask about why the world is as it is. Or more personally, ‘Why do I what I do?’

Like in the previous two questions, we formulate this question too as a relationship between two — desire and intent. Intent is something I want to do, and desire is why I want to do that. For instance, the intent of scrolling the screen is driven by the desire to read the rest of the content. Further, we can chain these questions and ask for the desire behind the intent of reading the rest of the content, and so on.

For a given intent, we seek the desire. With our function notation, this is written as DESIRE(intent). We can chain these functions to identify more basal desires as DESIRE(DESIRE(DESIRE(… intent))).

How far can we go with this ‘desire hunting’?

One of the most significant advances in sciences was Darwin’s theory of evolution, which clearly laid out how organisms evolve under pressure of survival of the fittest. Applied to our ‘why’ question, Darwin’s answer is that the most basic desire behind our intents is the desire to survive. This desire is imprinted throughout our bodies which are themselves products of evolution.

While the evolutionary pressure plays out in long time horizons and is grounded in biology, we as individuals experience desires in much shorter time horizons. In psychology, several ideas have been considered to understand our desires. Behaviourism claimed that all behaviour (in our case desires observable externally) are conditioned by external stimuli. Psychoanalysis championed by Freud focuses on the sub-conscious mind, but made contentious claims that desires are heavily shaped by early childhood experiences. Humanism as exemplified by Maslow’s hierarchy focuses on the needs of humans spanning physical, psychological, and self-actualisation needs. This has further been expanded into the developing area of positive psychology, for instance in the work of Seligman where he identifies positive emotions, engagement, relationship, meaning, and accomplishments as being the desires that drive us. More recently, there is recognition of mindfulness or flow as being a desirable state.

While the scientific methods through innumerable studies of people and animals have identified different frameworks, they still remain far from being conclusive. Again, in contrast to this attempt at ‘systematisation’, the Vedantic sages take a very different approach. The sages realised that all desires are either about acquiring something new (योग / yoga) or preserving something already acquired (क्षेम / kshema). With this insight, they sought for that desire which is not the intent of any other desire. That is, the solution to the equation DESIRE(x) = x, or the ‘desire-less desire’.

They proposed completeness as the solution to this equation. The corresponding word is आनन्द / ananda, which is normally translated as happiness or bliss. These words usually refer to a state of the mind and have dualities — such as sadness for happiness. Hence, we prefer the word completeness in the context of this essay. There can be no other desire that intends completeness for what else is there to acquire or preserve beyond the state of being truly complete.

Every desire experienced in the world is in essence a partial attempt at completeness. This is a subtle point that highlights the deep insight of the sages. They recognised that every desire — noble or otherwise — is at its core selfish. That is, every desire loops back to the self in trying to acquire something new or to preserve something already acquired. For some cases, this is quite clear: I eat sugar because I experience a high because I get pleasure. For some other cases, the sequence is longer: I write articles because I would like to influence people because I would like to promote the civilisational ideas because I identify myself as Indian and because I would like to preserve my Indianness.

The key principle is that every desire is a partial attempt at completeness which loops back to the self — the self that we had already identified as consciousness — the consciousness which we had found to be pervaded by existence. This establishes the unity of existence-consciousness-completeness or (सत्-चित्-आनन्द / sat-chit-ananda). These are not three things that are together, or even three properties of one thing. They are all one — the all pervasive existence, the self-effulgent consciousness, and the enlivening completeness.

Again, what is the import of this philosophical ideal of completeness in our lives? It is perhaps the most practical of ideas on how to live. Most of us live our lives driven and often enslaved by our desires of acquiring physical comfort, monetary wealth, societal fame, peace, and wisdom. However, the sages tell us that all that we desire is completeness, which most significantly, is already our true nature. I — the conscious self — am always complete (पूर्ण /purna). Each experience of a desire being met externally (such as eating a sweet) is not because happiness is in the objects of the world (such as the sweet). But instead, it is because each such experience reduces my mental agitations and clarifies to me my true self, if only partially and temporarily.

I-myself right now am complete and thus desire-less. But I do not experience this because I continue to associate with the body-mind-intellect rather than consciousness and consequently I continue to experience a world of plurality in place of the singular existence.

This indeed is amongst the loftiest findings of the sages — that only existence-consciousness-completeness is real. Everything else is a mere appearance that is pervaded by existence, lit up by consciousness, and enlivened by completeness. Why does anything happen in this appearance? All that happens is driven by the singular desire of completeness, that is, a return to the un-manifested real state of existence-consciousness-completeness.

While this cosmic manifestation and un-manifestation plays out, Vedanta implores us an individuals to walk on our own path towards completeness, here and now. And this is to be achieved not by prayer to God, or service to mankind, or control of the mind and breath. Instead, it is to be done only by waking up to the knowledge of our real self by self-enquiry. However, all these discovered systems of religion are most useful in preparing the ground for discovering our true nature.

Om. Peace, peace, peace.

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