My unplanned and unintended forays into the esoteric continue to give me some stimulating rewards. The latest is Sakshi Chaitanya or witness consciousness. It is an ancient Indian idea about a form of consciousness that is described as a "self-illuminated reality" which is witness to all the conscious and unconscious states of the empirical mind.
While looking for some more literature about Bhartrhari, regarded as one of the most original philosophers of language and religion of India who lived between 450 and 510 C.E., I chanced upon Gorakshnath, one of those intriguing personages of ancient Indian history whose existence might feel like a fable rather than real.
I first became aware of Gorakshnath while filming my documentary ‘Gandhi’s Song’ about the 15th century poet-philosopher Narsinh Mehta around Junagadh in Gujarat. Mount Girnar, around which Junagadh exists, is among the sites associated with Gorakshnath. It was considered as a favorite haunt of Gorakshnath. Of course, I have not gone into any serious historical research to establish the veracity of any of this but if generational memory of the people in the region is any indication, he is not an altogether inconceivable presence.
I did hear about Gorakshnath frequently while loafing around the foothills of Girnar, where Mehta composed some of his finest philosophical poetry. While searching for literature about him on the Internet, I came across a 1962 book titled ‘Philosophy of Gorakshnath with Goraksha –Vacana-Sangraha’ by Akshay Kumar Banerjea. It hardly surprised me to find that the book was first published by Mahant Dig Vijai Nath Trust in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh.
Gorakshnath is regarded as a great scholar, with some calling him a “Mahayogi.” The body of scholarly literature flowing from him and attributed to him is large. Much of it deals with Yoga generally and the state of Samadhi particularly. Of course, while I may not necessarily be interested in all that, I am certainly drawn to the sheer cerebral aspects of his rumination.
One of them was the concept of Sakshi Chaitanya or witness consciousness, which is regarded as the " soul of the psycho-physical organism", a changeless mind.
Let me go off on a tangent here a bit before I forget. Raghupati Sahay, better known as Firaq Gorakhpuri, arguably one of the greatest poets and language scholars of India whose poetry is considered to be of the same level as Ghalib, was born in Gorakhpur too.
Coming back to witness consciousness, what I am stimulated by is not so much whether it has a basis in science—although it is widely believed even here in the West that it does—but the sheer fact that over a millennium and a half ago there were those who were so deeply immersed in such profoundly esoteric ideas. I am not as much concerned with the rational or even scientific underpinnings of these ideas—although many of them have been later found to be credible—but the fact that there were minds who were willing to take these leaps.
I have just begun reading literature about witness consciousness and am quite captivated by the idea of a changeless mind that sits atop, as it were, over our everyday empirical mind that helps navigate through life. At some point soon, I will elaborate on some of these ideas and see if they have anything in common with the latest idea in neuroscience as propounded by scientists such as Anil Seth, a professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex. Among the things that Prof. Seth talks about is the human brain hallucinating reality.
Banerjea argues in his book that, “Without assuming the existence of such an
underlying Witness-Consciousness (Sakshi-Caitanya), the phenomena of the
conscious and sub-conscious and unconscious mind and what is called the
empirical consciousness (Vritti-Caitanya) cannot be rationally accounted
for.” (Incidentally, I spell Caitanya as Chaitanya, the popularly used version.)
Finally, about the illustration for the post. While doing my ritual morning surfing of the art world, I came across a ring about the sculptor Anish Kapoor on Sotheby’s website. It features Kapoor’s work titled ‘Water Ring’ circa 2007 which will be auctioned on June 15. The ring is quite a piece which prompted me to do my own version. His is an actual ring while mine just an artwork.
Water Ring by Anish Kapoor