I have always wondered as to the relevance of the brain in yogic experience. What role does the brain play in yogic visions and experiences? I will discuss this question. It will necessarily be speculative since I do not have the definitive answer to the question posed above. I will give quotes from the Gita, Upanishad and Vivekananda's writings to describe the Yogic experience and I will then post my thoughts.
I give below an exerpt from Gita's eleventh chapter:
If, O Lord, Thou thinkest me worthy of experiencing that immutable form of Thine, then deign to reveal the same to me, O Thou Master of all Yoga! (Gita11.4)
Sri Krishna replies:
Behold, O Partha. My manifold forms in their hundreds and thousands all divine and all of varied hues and shapes. (Gita 11.5)
Behold the Adityas and the Vasus, the Rudras and the Asvins, and the Maruts likewise – behold these marvels unseen by any before, O scion of Bharata's clan! (Gita 11.6)
O conqueror of sleep! Behold here and now the whole of this universe of conscious and unconscious entities as also anything else you desire to experience – all abiding as a unity in My body. (Gita 11.7)
You cannot have an experience of Me merely with your physical eye. I therefore give you the power of divine vision. Behold with that My power as the Lord of all. (Gita 11.8)
Two things leap to the mind of a reader after reading the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna in the Gita. The first point is that not all Yogic experience is of the not-I kind. Arjuna retains his ego when he sees Virat or the Vishwarupa (world vision). The retaining of the ego would suggest that Arjuna's brain was working when he was shown this vision.
This would be a good point to digress on the nature of Yogic experience. It is widely believed that Yogic experience transcends the ego. This belief is in fact not completely true. Only the highest Advaitic experience leads to the transcending of the ego or leads to the not-I experience. The not-I experience
implies the total abolition of the difference between the subject and object or between the Yogi and Brahman.
Vaishnava Acharyas have in fact denied any not-I experience. Thus, while Shankaracharya interprets the familiar Upanishadic Maha Vakya, "TAT TWAM ASI", as "That art thou", Madhvacharya denies that the Maha Vakya is TAT TWAM ASI. He reads it as "ATAT TWAM ASI" or "That are not thou"! Madhavcharya's reading implies the impossibility of the not-I experience since the difference between Brahman or Vishnu and Jiva is eternal.
Let us now come back to the issue being discussed. The second point is that Arjuna will need divine vision to see the Virat form of Isvara. The physical eye will not do. This raises the following question: Is Arjuna's physical brain taking part in the activity of the divine vision? It would seem that the physical brain is not being used to see Virat since the physical eye can not see the vision. So we have a first rate puzzle here. Let us now see what the Upanishads say about the matter.
I give below an exerpt from Prasna Upanishad
Then Kausalya Asvaiayana asked: 'Sir, whence is that Prana (spirit) born? How does it come into this body? And how does it abide, after it has divided itself? How does it go out? How does it support what is without, and how what is within?'
He replied: 'You ask questions most difficult, but you are very fond of Brahman, therefore I shall tell it to you.
This Prana is born of the Atman. Like the shadow thrown on a man, this (the prana) is spread out over it (the Brahman). By the work of the mind does it come into this body.
As a king commands officials, saying to them: Rule these villages or those, so does that Prana dispose the other pranas, each for their separate work.
The Apana (the down-breathing) in the organs of excretion and generation; the Prana himself dwells in eye and ear, passing through mouth and nose. In the middle is the Samana (the on breathing); it carries what has been sacrificed as food equally (over the body), and the seven lights proceed from it.
The Atman is in the heart. There are the 101 arteries, and in each of them there are a hundred (smaller veins), and for each of these branches there are 72,000. In these the Vyana (the backbreathing) moves.
Through one of them, the Udana (the outbreathing) leads (us) upwards to the good world by good work, to the bad world by bad work, to the world of men by both.
The sun rises as the external Prana, for it assists the Prana in the eye. The deity that exists in the earth, is there in support of man's Apana (down-breathing). The ether between (sun and earth) is the Samana (on-breathing), the air is Vyana (back-breathing).
Light is the Udana (out-breathing), and therefore he whose light has gone out comes to a new birth with his senses absorbed in the mind.
Whatever his thought (at the time of death) with that he goes back to Prana, and the Prana, united with light, together with the Atman leads on to the world, as deserved.
He who, thus knowing, knows Prana, his offspring does not perish, and he becomes immortal. Thus says the Sloka:
He who has known the origin, the entry, the place, the fivefold distribution, and the internal state of the Prana, obtains immortality, yes, obtains immortality. '
Prasna Upanishad has been given this name because it deals with six questions (prasna). The text describes the heart as the seat of the Atman. It claims that there are 101 nadis (arteries) in the heart and that whoever "goes through one of them, the Udana (the outbreathing) leads (us) upwards to the good world". This raises several questions. Is this heart the physical heart?
Are these 101 arteries physical in nature?
Which is the artery that leads a man upwards to the good world?
The answers to these questions are given by Vivekananda in his exposition on Raj Yoga quoted above. Moreover the Upanishadic text does not tell us anything about the physical brain at all!
Vivekanada on Raja Yoga
I give below Vivekananda's exposition of the inner workings of an Yogi.
THE PSYCHIC PRANA
According to the Yogis, there are two nerve currents in the spinal column, called Pingalâ and Idâ, and a hollow canal called Sushumnâ running through the spinal cord. At the lower end of the hollow canal is what the Yogis call the "Lotus of the Kundalini". They describe it as triangular in form in which, in the symbolical language of the Yogis, there is a power called the Kundalini, coiled up. When that Kundalini awakes, it tries to force a passage through this hollow canal, and as it rises step by step, as it were, layer after layer
of the mind becomes open and all the different visions and wonderful powers come to the Yogi. When it reaches the brain, the Yogi is perfectly detached from the body and mind; the soul finds itself free.
We know that the spinal cord is composed in a peculiar manner. If we take the figure eight horizontally (¥) there are two parts which are connected in the middle. Suppose you add eight after eight, piled one on top of the other, that will represent the spinal cord. The left is the Ida, the right Pingala, and that hollow canal which runs through the centre of the spinal cord is the Sushumna. Where the spinal cord ends in some of the lumbar vertebrae, a fine fibre issues downwards, and the canal runs up even within that fibre, only much
finer. The canal is closed at the lower end, which is situated near what is called the sacral plexus, which, according to modern physiology, is triangular in form. The different plexuses that have their centres in the spinal canal can very well stand for the different "lotuses" of the Yogi.
The Yogi conceives of several centres, beginning with the Mulâdhâra, the basic, and ending with the Sahasrâra, the thousand-petalled Lotus in the brain. So, if we take these different plexuses as representing these lotuses, the idea of the Yogi can be understood very easily in the language of modern physiology. We know there are two sorts of actions in these nerve currents, one afferent, the other efferent; one sensory and the other motor; one centripetal, and the other centrifugal. One carries the sensations to the brain, and the other from the brain to the outer body. These vibrations are all connected with the brain in the long run.
Several other facts we have to remember, in order to clear the way for the explanation which is to come. This spinal cord, at the brain, ends in a sort of bulb, in the medulla, which is not attached to the brain, but floats in a fluid in the brain, so that if there be a blow on the head the force of that blow will be dissipated in the fluid, and will not hurt the bulb. This is an important fact to remember.
Secondly, we have also to know that, of all the centres, we have particularly to remember three, the Muladhara (the basic), the Sahasrara (the thousand-petalled lotus of the brain) and the Manipura (the lotus of the navel).
Next we shall take one fact from physics. We all hear of electricity and various other forces connected with it. What electricity is no one knows, but so far as it is known, it is a sort of motion. There are various other motions in the universe; what is the difference between them and electricity? Suppose this table moves ? that the molecules which compose this table are moving in different directions; if they are all made to move in the same direction, it will be through electricity. Electric motion makes the molecules of a body move in the same direction. If all the air molecules in a room are made to move in the same direction, it will make a gigantic battery of electricity of the room. Another point from physiology we must remember, that the centre
which regulates the respiratory system, the breathing system, has a sort of controlling action over the system of nerve currents.
Now we shall see why breathing is practised. In the first place, from rhythmical breathing comes a tendency of all the molecules in the body to move in the same direction. When mind changes into will, the nerve currents change into a motion similar to electricity, because the nerves have been proved to show polarity under the action of electric currents. This shows that when the will is transformed into the nerve currents, it is changed into something like electricity. When all the motions of the body have become perfectly
rhythmical, the body has, as it were, become a gigantic battery of will. This tremendous will is exactly what the Yogi wants. This is, therefore, a physiological explanation of the breathing exercise. It tends to bring a
rhythmic action in the body, and helps us, through the respiratory centre, to control the other centres. The aim of Prânâyâma here is to rouse the coiled-up power in the Muladhara, called the Kundalini.
Everything that we see, or imagine, or dream, we have to perceive in space. This is the ordinary space, called the Mahâkâsha, or elemental space. When a Yogi reads the thoughts of other men, or perceives supersensuous objects he sees them in another sort of space called the Chittâkâsha, the mental space. When perception has become objectless, and the soul shines in its own nature, it is called the Chidâkâsha, or knowledge space. When the Kundalini is aroused, and enters the canal of the Sushumna, all the perceptions are in the mental space. When it has reached that end of the canal which opens out into the brain, the objectless perception is in the knowledge space. Taking the analogy of electricity, we find that man can send a current only along a wire, (The reader should remember that this was spoken before the discovery of wireless telegraphy. ? Ed.) but nature requires no wires to send her tremendous currents. This proves that the wire is not really necessary, but that only our inability to dispense with it compels us to use it.
Similarly, all the sensations and motions of the body are being sent into the brain, and sent out of it, through these wires of nerve fibres. The columns of sensory and motor fibres in the spinal cord are the Ida and Pingala of the Yogis. They are the main channels through which the afferent and efferent currents travel. But why should not the mind send news without any wire, or react without any wire? We see this is done in nature. The Yogi says, if you can do that, you have got rid of the bondage of matter. How to do it? If you
can make the current pass through the Sushumna, the canal in the middle of the spinal column, you have solved the problem. The mind has made this network of the nervous system, and has to break it, so that no wires will be required to work through. Then alone will all knowledge come to us ? no more bondage of
body; that is why it is so important that we should get control of that Sushumna. If we can send the mental current through the hollow canal without any nerve fibres to act as wires, the Yogi says, the problem is solved, and he also says it can be done.
This Sushumna is in ordinary persons closed up at the lower extremity; no action comes through it. The Yogi proposes a practice by which it can be opened, and the nerve currents made to travel through. When a sensation is carried to a centre, the centre reacts. This reaction, in the case of automatic centres, is followed by motion; in the case of conscious centres it is followed first by perception, and secondly by motion. All perception is the reaction to action from outside. How, then, do perceptions in dreams arise?
There is then no action from outside. The sensory motions, therefore, are coiled up somewhere. For instance, I see a city; the perception of that city is from the reaction to the sensations brought from outside objects comprising that city. That is to say, a certain motion in the brain molecules has been set up by the motion in the incarrying nerves, which again are set in motion by external objects in the city. Now, even after a long time I can remember the city. This memory is exactly the same phenomenon, only it is in a milder form. But whence is the action that sets up even the milder form of similar vibrations in the brain? Not certainly from the primary sensations. Therefore it must be that the sensations are coiled up somewhere, and they, by their acting, bring out the mild reaction which we call dream perception.
Now the centre where all these residual sensations are, as it were, stored up, is called the Muladhara, the root receptacle, and the coiled-up energy of action is Kundalini, "the coiled up". It is very probable that the residual motor energy is also stored up in the same centre, as, after deep study or meditation on external objects, the part of the body where the Muladhara centre is situated (probably the sacral plexus) gets heated. Now, if this coiled-up energy be roused and made active, and then consciously made to travel up the Sushumna canal, as it acts upon centre after centre, a tremendous reaction will set in. When a minute portion of energy travels along a nerve fibre and causes reaction from centres, the perception is either dream or imagination. But when by the power of long internal meditation the vast mass of energy stored up travels along the Sushumna, and strikes the centres, the reaction is tremendous, immensely superior to the reaction of dream or imagination, immensely more intense than the reaction of sense-perception. It is super-sensuous perception. And when it reaches the metropolis of all sensations, the brain, the whole brain, as it were, reacts, and the result is the full blaze of illumination, the perception of the Self. As this Kundalini force travels from centre to centre, layer after layer of the mind, as it were, opens up, and this universe is perceived by the Yogi in its fine, or causal form. Then alone the causes of this universe, both as sensation and reaction, are known as they are, and hence comes all knowledge. The causes being known, the knowledge of the effects is sure to follow.
Thus the rousing of the Kundalini is the one and only way to attaining Divine Wisdom, superconscious perception, realisation of the spirit. The rousing may come in various ways, through love for God, through the mercy of perfected sages, or through the power of the analytic will of the philosopher. Wherever
there was any manifestation of what is ordinarily called supernatural power or wisdom, there a little current of Kundalini must have found its way into the Sushumna. Only, in the vast majority of such cases, people had ignorantly stumbled on some practice which set free a minute portion of the coiled-up Kundalini. All worship, consciously or unconsciously, leads to this end. The man who thinks that he is receiving response to his prayers does not know that the fulfilment comes from his own nature, that he has succeeded by the mental attitude of prayer in waking up a bit of this infinite power which is coiled up within himself. What, thus, men ignorantly worship under various names, through fear and tribulation, the Yogi declares to the world to be the real power coiled up in every being, the mother of eternal happiness, if we but know how to approach her. And Râja-Yoga is the science of religion, the rationale of all worship, all prayers, forms, ceremonies, and miracles.
THE CONTROL OF PSYCHIC PRANA
We have now to deal with the exercises in Prânâyâma. We have seen that the first step, according to the Yogis, is to control the motion of the lungs. What we want to do is to feel the finer motions that are going on in the body. Our minds have become externalised, and have lost sight of the fine motions inside. If we can begin to feel them, we can begin to control them. These nerve currents go on all over the body, bringing life and vitality to every muscle, but we do not feel them. The Yogi says we can learn to do so. How? By taking up and controlling the motion of the lungs; when we have done that for a sufficient length of time, we shall be able to control the finer motions.
We now come to the exercises in Pranayama. Sit upright; the body must be kept straight. The spinal cord, although not attached to the vertebral column, is yet inside of it. If you sit crookedly you disturb this spinal cord, so let it be free. Any time that you sit crookedly and try to meditate you do yourself an injury. The three parts of the body, the chest, the neck, and the head, must be always held straight in one line. You will find that by a little practice this will come to you as easy as breathing. The second thing is to get control of the nerves. We have said that the nerve centre that controls the respiratory organs has a sort of controlling effect on the other nerves, and rhythmical breathing is, therefore, necessary. The breathing that we generally use should not be called breathing at all. It is very irregular.
Then there are some natural differences of breathing between men and women. The first lesson is just to breathe in a measured way, in and out. That will harmonise the system. When you have practiced this for some time, you will do well to join to it the repetition of some word as "Om," or any other sacred word. In India we use certain symbolical words instead of counting one, two, three, four. That is why I advise you to join the mental repetition of the "Om," or some other sacred word to the Pranayama. Let the word flow in and out with the breath, rhythmically, harmoniously, and you will find the whole body is becoming rhythmical. Then you will learn what rest is. Compared with it, sleep is not rest. Once this rest comes the most tired nerves will be calmed down, and you will find that you have never before really rested.
The first effect of this practice is perceived in the change of expression of one's face; harsh lines disappear; with calm thought calmness comes over the face. Next comes beautiful voice. I never saw a Yogi with a croaking voice. These signs come after a few months' practice. After practicing the above mentioned breathing for a few days, you should take up a higher one. Slowly fill the lungs with breath through the Idâ, the left nostril, and at the same time concentrate the mind on the nerve current. You are, as it were, sending
the nerve current down the spinal column, and striking violently on the last plexus, the basic lotus which is triangular in form, the seat of the Kundalini. Then hold the current there for some tune. Imagine that you are
slowly drawing that nerve current with the breath through the other side, the Pingalâ, then slowly throw it out through the right nostril. This you will find a little difficult to practice. The easiest way is to stop the right
nostril with the thumb, and then slowly draw in the breath through the left; then close both nostrils with thumb and forefinger, and imagine that you are sending that current down, and striking the base of the Sushumnâ; then take the thumb off, and let the breath out through the right nostril. Next inhale slowly through that nostril, keeping the other closed by the forefinger, then close both, as before. The way the Hindus practice this would be very difficult for this country, because they do it from their childhood, and their
lungs are prepared for it. Here it is well to begin with four seconds, and slowly increase. Draw in four seconds, hold in sixteen seconds, then throw out in eight seconds. This makes one Pranayama. At the same time think of the basic lotus, triangular in form; concentrate the mind on that centre. The imagination can help you a great deal. The next breathing is slowly drawing the breath in, and then immediately throwing it out slowly, and then stopping the breath out, using the same numbers. The only difference is that in the
first case the breath was held in, and in the second, held out. This last is the easier one. The breathing in which you hold the breath in the lungs must not be practiced too much. Do it only four times in the morning, and four times in the evening. Then you can slowly increase the time and number. You will find that you have the power to do so, and that you take pleasure in it. So very carefully and cautiously increase as you feel that you have the power, to six instead of four. It may injure you if you practice it irregularly.
Of the three processes for the purification of the nerves, described above, the first and the last are neither difficult nor dangerous. The more you practice the first one the calmer you will be. Just think of "Om," and you can practice even while you are sitting at your work. You will be all the better for it. Some day, if you practice hard, the Kundalini will be aroused. For those who practice once or twice a day, just a little calmness of the body and mind will come, and beautiful voice; only for those who can go on further with
it will Kundalini be aroused, and the whole of nature will begin to change, and the book of knowledge will open. No more will you need to go to books for knowledge; your own mind will have become your book, containing infinite knowledge. I have already spoken of the Ida and Pingala currents, flowing through either side of the spinal column, and also of the Sushumna, the passage through the centre of the spinal cord. These three are present in every animal; whatever being has a spinal column has these three lines of
action. But the Yogis claim that in an ordinary man the Sushumna is closed; its action is not evident while that of the other two is carrying power to different parts of the body.
The Yogi alone has the Sushumna open. When this Sushumna current opens, and begins to rise, we get beyond the sense, our minds become supersensuous, superconscious ? we get beyond even the intellect, where reasoning cannot reach. To open that Sushumna is the prime object of the Yogi. According to
him, along this Sushumna are ranged these centres, or, in more figurative language, these lotuses, as they are called. The lowest one is at the lower end of the spinal cord, and is called Mulâdhâra, the next higher is called Svâdhishthâna, the third Manipura, the fourth Anâhata, the fifth Vishuddha, the sixth Âjnâ and the last, which is in the brain, is the Sahasrâra, or "the thousand-petalled". Of these we have to take cognition just now of two centres only, the lowest, the Muladhara, and the highest, the Sahasrara. All energy
has to be taken up from its seat in the Muladhara and brought to the Sahasrara. The Yogis claim that of all the energies that are in the human body the highest is what they call "Ojas". Now this Ojas is stored up in the brain, and the more Ojas is in a man's head, the more powerful he is, the more intellectual, the more spiritually strong. One man may speak beautiful language and beautiful thoughts, but they, do not impress people; another man speaks neither beautiful language nor beautiful thoughts, yet his words charm.
Every movement of his is powerful. That is the power of Ojas. Now in every man there is more or less of this Ojas stored up. All the forces that are working in the body in their highest become Ojas. You must remember
that it is only a question of transformation. The same force which is working outside as electricity or magnetism will become changed into inner force; the same forces that are working as muscular energy will be changed into Ojas. The Yogis say that that part of the human energy which is expressed as sex energy,
in sexual thought, when checked and controlled, easily becomes changed into Ojas, and as the Muladhara guides these, the Yogi pays particular attention to that centre. He tries to take up all his sexual energy and convert it into Ojas. It is only the chaste man or woman who can make the Ojas rise and store it in the brain; that is why chastity has always been considered the highest virtue. A man feels that if he is unchaste, spirituality goes away, he loses mental vigour and moral stamina. That is why in all the religious orders in
the world which have produced spiritual giants you will always find absolute chastity insisted upon. That is why the monks came into existence, giving up marriage. There must be perfect chastity in thought, word, and deed; without it the practice of Raja-Yoga is dangerous, and may lead to insanity. If people practice Raja-Yoga and at the same time lead an impure life, how can they expect to become Yogis?
Vivekananda makes it clear that the upward artery is the Sushumna nadi and that the heart in which the Atman resides is not the physical heart but is a lotus. Apparently there is a Kundalini shakti in man which has to be channeled upwards along the Sushsumna Nadi (just as Prasna Upanishad says) to the physical brain. It is here that Vivekananda makes the curious statement that
"When that Kundalini awakes, it tries to force a passage through this hollow canal, and as it rises step by step, as it were, layer after layer of the mind becomes open and all the different visions and wonderful powers come to the Yogi. When it reaches the brain, the Yogi is perfectly detached from the body and mind; the soul finds itself free".
So when the Kundalini shakti reaches the brain the Yogi becomes detached from the body and the mind. How can such a thing happen if the physical brain is still active? It also suggests that during Arjuna's vision of Virat, his Kundalini Shakti did not reach his brain. Vivekananda also talks of Ojas being stored up in the brain. This raises the following question.
What does Ojas do to the brain?
Does all this mean that the physical brain plays no part in yogic experience?
If the physical plays no part then what does Vivekananda mean when he says, "There must be perfect chastity in thought, word, and deed; without it the practice of Raja-Yoga is dangerous, and may lead to insanity."?
The puzzle in fact deepens.
A study of the three texts presented here reveals the puzzling aspect of the Yogic experience. It seems that the spiritual experience depends on taking the Kundalini Shakti up to the brain. It is not clear, however, that the physical brain takes any part in the Yogic experience! Nevertheless, one can not completely rule out the idea that the yogic experience is connected to our biology.
More posts by this author:
- Is it possible for an ordinary person to become enlightened without raising Kundalini?
- Experiences on the way to moksha
- The Nature of Brahman
- How does the prana-prathistha ritual convert a lifeless idol into a living murthi?
- Is religion too dangerous for the modern world? Should it be abandoned?
I did my school, college and parts of my University education in Kolkata. I got my M.Sc degree from Kolkata University. I went to USA in 1979 and got my M.S and Ph.D in Physics from University of Pittsburgh in 1984. I did my Post Doctorate in University of Southern California, Los Angeles and then worked as a Research Scientist in the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Space Sciences Center of University of Southern California. My scientific work includes heavy ion-atom scattering, multiphoton ionization and heliosphere data analysis of Pioneer 10/111 and Voyager 1/2 deep space spacecaft and analysis of solar extreme ultraviolet data obtained from SOHO spacecraft. I have been a National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration (NASA) Principal Investigator from 2002 – 2007. I have been a member of a NASA awards committee to decide allocation of money to different scientists. I have also refereed scientific articles submitted to Journal of Geophysical Research and Astrophysical Journal.