The Mind. Kena Upanishad – Commentary by Sri Aurobindo

If the Upanishads were no more than philosophical speculations, it would be enough in commenting upon them to state the general thought of a passage and develop its implications in modern language and its bearing upon the ideas we now hold, for if they only expressed in their ancient language general conclusions of psychological experience, which are still easily accessible and familiar, nothing would be gained by any minute emphasis on the wording of our Vedantic texts. But these great writings are not the record of ideas; they are a record of experiences;   and those experiences, psychological and spiritual, are a& remote from the superficial psychology of ordinary men as are the experiments and conclusions of Science from the ordinary observation of the peasant driving his plough through a soil only superficially known or the sailor of old guiding his bark by the few stars important to his rudimentary navigation. Every word in the Upanishads arises out of a depth of psychological experience and observation we no longer possess and is a key to spiritual truths which we can no longer attain except by discipline of a painful difficulty. Therefore each word, as we proceed, must be given its due importance. We must consider its place in the thought and discover the ideas of which it was the spoken symbol.
The opening phrase of the Kena Upanishad, keneṣitam patati preṣitam manaḥ, is an example of this constant necessity. The sage is describing not the mind in its entirety, but that action of it which he has found the most characteristic and impor­tant, that which, besides, leads up directly to the question of the secret source of all mental .action, its president and impelling power. The central idea and common experience of this action is expressed by the word patati, falls. Motion forward and settling upon an object are the very nature of mind when it acts.
Our modern conception of mind is different; while acknowledging its action of movement and forward attention, we are apt to regard its essential and common action to be rather receptivity of objects than research of objects. The scientific explanation of mental activity helps to confirm this notion. Fixing its eye on the nervous system and the brain, the physical channels of thought, Physiology insists on the double action of the afferent and the efferent nerves as constituting the action of thought. An object falls on the sense-organs, —instead of mind falling on the object, — the afferent nerves carry the impact to the brain cells, their matter undergoes modification, the trans-filaments respond to the shock, a message — the will of the cell-republic — returns through the efferent nerves and that action of perception, — whether of an object or the idea of an object or the idea of an idea, which is the essence of thinking — is accomplished. What else the mind does is merely the internal modification of the  grey matter of the brain and the ceaseless activity of its filaments with the store of perceptions and ideas already amassed by these miraculous bits of organised matter. These movements of the bodily machine are all according to Physiology. But it has been necessary to…. The theory of thought-waves or vibrations created by those animalcular.-.in order to account for the results of thought.
However widely and submissively (though) this theory has been received by a hypnotised world, the Vedantist is bound to challenge it. His research has fixed not only on the physiological action, the movement of the bodily machine, but on the psychological action, its movement of the force that holds the machine, — not only on what the mind does, but on what it omits to do. His observation supported by that careful analysis and isolation in experiment of the separate mental constituents, has led him to a quite different conclusion. He upholds the wisdom of the sage in the phrase patati manaḥ. An image falls on the eye, — admittedly, the mere falling of an image on the eye will not constitute mental perception, — the mind has to give it attention; for it is not the eye that sees, it is the mind that sees through the eye as an instrument, just as it is not the telescope that sees an otherwise invisible sun, but the astronomer behind the telescope who sees. Therefore, physical reception of images is not sight; physical reception of sounds is not hearing. For how many sights and sounds besiege us, fall on our retina, touch the tympanum of the ear, yet are to our waking thought non-existent! If the body were really a self-sufficient machine, this could not happen. The impact must be admitted, the message must rush through the afferent nerve, the cells must receive the shock, the modification, the response must occur. A self-sufficient machine has no choice of action or non-action; unless it is out of order, it must do its work. But here we see there is a choice, a selection, an ample power of refusal. The practical researches of the Yogins have shown besides that the power of refusal can be (is) absolute, that something in us has a sovereign and many-sided faculty of selection or total prohibition of perception or thought, can even determine how if at all it shall respond, can even see without the eye and hear without the ear. Even European hypnotism points to  similar phenomena. The matter cannot be settled by the rough and. ready conclusions of impatient physiology eager to take a short cut to Truth and interpret the world in the light of its first astonished discoveries.
Where the image is not seen, the sound is not heard, it is because the mind does not settle on its object — na patati. But we must first go farther and inquire what it is that works in the afferent and efferent nerves and ensures the attention of the nerves. It is not, we have seen, mere physical shock, a simple vibration of the bodily matter in the nerve. For, if it were, atten­tion to every impact would be automatically and inevitably assured. The Vedantins say that the nerve system is an immensely intricate organised apparatus for the action of life in the body; what moves in them is prāṇa, the life principle, materialised, aerial (vāyavya) in its nature and therefore invisible to the eye, but sufficiently capable of self-adaptation both to the life of matter and the life of mind to form the meeting-place or bridge of the two principles. But action of this life-principle is not sufficient in itself to create thought, for if it were mind could be organised in vegetable as readily as in animal life. It is only when prana has developed a sufficient intensity of movement to form a medium for the rapid activities of mind and mind, at last possessed of a physical instrument, has poured itself into the life-movement and taken possession of it, that thought becomes possible. That which moves in the nerve system is the life-current penetrated and provided with the habitual movement of mind. When the movement of mind is involved in the life-movement, as it usually is in all forms, there is no response of mental knowledge to any contact or impression. For just as even in the metal there is life, so even in the metal there is mind; but it is latent, involved, its action secret, — unconscious, as we say, and confined to a passive reception into matter of the mind-forms created by these impacts. This will become clearer as we penetrate deeper into the mysteries of mind; we shall see that even though the clod, stone and tree do not think, they have in them the secret matrix of mind and in that matrix forms are stored which can be translated into mental symbols, into perception, idea and word. But it is only as the life-currents gain in  intensity and rapidity and subtlety, making the body of things less durable but more capable of work, that mind-action becomes increasingly possible and once manifested more and more minutely and intricately effective. For body and life here are the pratiṣṭhā, the basis of mind. A point, however, comes at which mind has got in life all that it needs for its higher development, and from that time it goes on enlarging itself and its activities out of all proportions to the farther organisation of its bodily and vital instruments or even without any such farther organisation in the lower man.
But even in the highest forms here in this material world, matter being the basis, life an intermediary and mind the third result, the normal rule is that matter and life (where life is expressed) shall always be active, mind only exceptionally active in the body. In other words, the ordinary action of mind is subconscious and receptive, as in the stone, clod and tree. The image that touches the eye, the sound that touches the ear is immediately taken in by the mind-informed life, the mind-informed and life-informed matter and becomes a part of the experience of Brahman in that system. Not only does it create a vibration in body, a stream of movement in life but also an impression in mind. This is inevitable, because mind, life and matter are one. Where one is, the others are, manifest or latent, involved or evolved, supraliminal active or subliminally active. The sword which has struck in the battle, retains in itself the mental impression of the stroke, the striker and the stricken and that ancient event can be read centuries afterwards by the Yogin who has trained himself to translate its mind-forms into the active language of mind. Thus every thing that occurs around us leaves on us its secret stamp and impression. That this is so, the recent discoveries of European psychology have begun to prove and from the ordinary point of view, it is one of the most amazing and stupendous facts of existence; but from the Vedantist’s it is the most simple, natural and inevitable. This survival of all experience in a mighty and lasting record, is not confined to such impressions as are conveyed to the brain through the senses, but extends to all that can in any way come to the mind, — to distant events, to past states of existence and old occurrences in which our present senses had no part, to the experiences garnered in dream and in dreamless sleep, to the activities that take place during the apparent unconsciousness or disturbed consciousness of slumber, delirium, anaesthesia and trance. Unconsciousness is an error: cessation of awareness is a delusion.
It is for this reason that the phenomenon on which the sage lays stress as the one thing important and effective in mental action and in the waking state here, is not its receptiveness, but its outgoing force—patati. In sense-activity we can distinguish three kinds of action — first, when the impact is received subconsciously and there is no message by the mind in the life current to the brain, — even if the life current itself carry the message — secondly, when the mind, aware of an impact, that is to say, falls on its object, but merely with the sensory part of itself and not with the understanding part; thirdly, when it falls on the object with both the sensory and understanding parts of itself. In the first case, there is no act of mental knowledge, no attention of eye or mind, as when we pass, absorbed in thought, through a scene of Nature, yet have seen nothing, been aware of nothing. In the second there is an act of sensory knowledge. The mind in the eye attends and observes, however slightly; the thing is perceived but not conceived or only partly conceived, as when the maidservant going about her work, listens to the Hebrew of her master, hearing all, but distinguishing and understanding nothing, not really attending except through the ear alone. In the third there is true mental perception and conception or the attempt at perception and conception, and only the last movement comes within the description given by the sage — iṣitam preṣitam patati manas. But we must observe that in all these cases somebody is attending, something is both aware and understands. The man, unconscious under an anaesthetic drug in an operation, can in hypnosis when his deeper faculties are released, remember and relate accurately everything that occurred to him in his state of supposed unconsciousness. The maidservant, thrown into an abnormal condition, can remember every word of her master’s Hebrew discourse and repeat in perfect order and without a single error sentences in the language she did not understand. And, it may surely be predicted, one day we shall find that the thing our  minds strove so hard to attend to and fathom, this passage in a new language, that new and unclassed phenomenon, was per­fectly perceived, perfectly understood, automatically, infallibly, by something within us which either could not or did not convey its knowledge to the mind. We were only trying to make operative on the level of mind, a knowledge we already in some recess of our being perfectly possessed.
In this fact appears all the significance of the sage’s sentence about the mind.
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