Neuroscience and Karma ► Introduction

Posted: 24.06.2015

The scope of the wisdom buried in the ancient literature produced by the Jain savants is unlimited. Without this literature, the treasure of India's unique heritage is bound to remain incomplete and truncated. Students of Jainology unanimously admit that many problems of human interest would remain unresolved in the absence of the study of this literature. It is, however, to be regretted that the interpretation, in modern scientific terms, of this vast treasure is only in its initial stage and is even now in a scrappy and haphazard form.

The chasm between Religion/Philosophy and Science is both deep and well-established. This is because the scientific mind does not accept anything that cannot be experimentally proved while the religious mind needs no proof for anything laid down in the sacred canonical books. The chasm has, unfortunately, prevented each of them to be benefited by a constructive study of the other side of the chasm. The present work is an humble attempt to build a small bridge, to transcend the chasm. The inspiration for the attempt has come from the encouraging results of the Yogakshem year in developing an integrated personality.

Development of an Integrated Personality

On 21st February 1989, a unique festival - Festival of Wisdom - was started under the spiritual guidance of by Acharya Tulsi at Ladnun, a small township in the state of Rajasthan. The main purpose of the year-long program and celebrations, called Prajñā Parva - was development of an integrated personality.

In India, science has never been able to completely subjugate the religious sensitivities unlike in Western countries. Mysticism and transcendence remain as important as (sometimes even more) rationality, logic and sensible perceptions. Here, man's personality is not entirely denatured by the scientific objectivity nor has sacredness been taken away by its rationality. In fact, science, inspite of its spectacular achievements, has never been able to attract religious personalities and never had a chance to become a new religion here, as it did in the West.

On the other hand, dogmatic beliefs and the very definiteness of the answers given by religious scholars cause scientific-minded modem young men to view them with suspicion and skepticism if not with utter disbelief. It is essential to satisfy the skeptic by scientific methodology and convince them about the superiority of wisdom above superfluous knowledge.

Science will not, because it cannot, answer all the questions of great interest to human mind and for human welfare. But science has made tremendous progress during the last hundred years in the fields of psychology, endocrinology and neuroscience. Neuroscientists have carefully and precisely mapped out centres of pain and pleasure, besides identifying the limbic system in the brain which is the seat of our emotions. Discovery of the centres of anger and aggression by electric stimulation has clarified hitherto mysterious significance of self-generated anger in canonical literature. In short, science can show us methods and methodology for expanding and elucidating the secrets of much ancient wisdom contained in the sacred canons. In other words, the synthesis of the ancient wisdom and modern scientific knowledge can help us to integrate the spiritual insight with the scientific approach for creating a spiritual-cum-scientific personality. This is exactly what the festival of wisdom aimed at. This work is an humble effort to continue the task of development of an integrated personality which was started in prajñā parva.

Karmavāda - The Doctrine of Karman[1]

Karman and rebirth are the two most important presuppositions of almost all schools of Indian Philosophy. Karmavāda - the doctrine of karman - had to compete with a number of other doctrines - Kālavāda (the supremacy of time),Niyativāda (the supremacy of determinism) etc. about creation and events. The Jain philosophers accorded proper place to other doctrines while installing Karmavāda in the supreme position, as the ultimate determinant of the course of events. Even time (kāla), nature (svabhāva) and determinism (niyati) are finally determined by karman and there is no such thing as fortuitism.

The common ground among the different systems is the belief in the intrinsic purity of the soul and its capacity to recover its pure nature, by following a course of philosophical enlightenment, austerities and moral discipline. Also, there is general agreement regarding the nature of fruition, that is, virtuous or moral actions will fructify into enjoyment, while sinful and immoral ones will fructify in suffering. A significant difference is in the necessity of an external agency, suchas God. The Jain doctrine emphasizes that the impurity of the soul itself determines the nature, quantity, duration and intensity of the karman at the time of bondage and eliminates the necessity of an external agency. More significant differences are, however, in the nature and pathways of ultimate emancipation. However, here again, there is remarkable unity that all systems accept nescience (avidyā) or (moha) as the fundamental hindrance to emancipation. It deludes the soul and diverts its interests in the world process, leading to the cycle of rebirths. The common aim of all the Indian religions is to show the ways and means to destroy nescience.

Unorthodox view of Karman

At this point, we would like to clarify that the present work is neither a religious nor a moral treatise and it does not, therefore, aim to discuss the methods of destroying the karman. Its object is, rather, to view karman from a novel angle - not the transcendental angle but an empirical angle - and to explain the importance of the role of karman in producing our mental states and behavioural patterns in scientific terms. The orthodox view, generally, depicts the karman as a villain - an enemy. All our actions, good and bad, are attributed to karman but there is hardly any attempt to explain how karman makes us do what we do.

Now the doctrine of karman teaches us that pleasures and pain, urges and impulses, emotions and passions, our thoughts, speech and our actions are result of karman. At the same time, researches in neuroscience have established that there are reference standards in our brain which not only regulate our breathing, nourishment and sleep but also influence our emotions, wants, desires, our satisfaction and revulsion, our longings and our fears. Thus there is an indisputable connection between the modus operandi of karman and brain-function.

Let us, for instance, see how anger is produced. Jain āgamas[2] (canonical texts) teach us that the passion-quartet - anger, arrogance, deceit and greed - are:

  1. self-generated
  2. provoked by others
  3. both self-generated and provoked by others
  4. generated due to the fruition of a specific karman without any external cause.

Neuroscience has established that there are centres of anger as well as peace in our limbic system. Dr. Jose Delgado's experiments with E S B (electric stimulation of brain) has revealed that an animal (bull) can be made either fighting-mad or totally docile by stimulating (by remote control) different points of limbic system. Thus neuroscience not only explains but expands and clarifies what is rather vaguely stated in āgamas.

And so we think that it is appropriate to synchronize the presentations of modern scientific facts with ancient philosophical wisdom. "In the history of human thinking" says Werner Heisenberg, the physicist-philosopher, "new, interesting and the most fruitful developments frequently take place when two different lines of thought-lines, having their roots in quite different parts of human culture, in different times, or religious traditions - meet and mutually interact."[3] It is, however, a most difficult task. The writer may "either succeed in being intelligible by offering only superficial aspects of the problem and thus arousing in the reader the deceptive illusion of comprehension or give an account in such a fashion that the reader is unable to follow the exposition and becomes discouraged to follow any further".[4]

A brief resume of the "Doctrine of Karman " is given as Prologue I, to assist those readers who have little acquaintance with this subject. Those who are familiar with it may skip it altogether. Similarly salient features of the structure and function of brain is given as Prologue II, which we hope, will be appreciated by those readers who had no opportunity to gain knowledge in this direction. A glossary of scientific terms as well as technical philosophical words is given at the end.

We are not sure whether we have succeeded in making this presentation both readable and intelligible. The readers who honour us by reading our humble effort have to decide for themselves.

In compiling this book, we have derived much assistance from various treatises on Neuroscience and Jain Philosophy.

  1. Programs of the Brain by J.Z. Young, F.R.S.
  2. The Brain: Mystery of Matter and Mind by Jack Fincher.
  3. Studies in Jain Philosophy by Dr. Nath Mai Tatia, M.A., D. Litt.
  4. Illuminator of Jain Tenets (Jain Siddhānt Dīpikā) by Acharya Tulsi.
  5. Doctrine of Karman in Jain Philosophy by Helmuth Von Glassenhapp.

We are extremely grateful to Acharya Shri Tulsi and Yuvacharya Shri Mahaprajna who have been the main source of inspiration, and but for their blessings and encouragement, the present work would not have been accomplished.

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