Any mention of the word “Tantra” in polite society is likely to elicit a mixture of fear, disgust and ridicule. However, this is because we’ve lost the ability to appreciate what these traditions really represent – extraordinary insights into the working of the nervous system, as seen from a first-person perspective. The Tantras are thus are among the purest expressions of the biocentric, subjectivist outlook that undergirds all of Indic thought. A resurgence of scientific interest in Tantra could potentially bring about revolutionary changes in medicine and technology, while also challenging the fundamentals of the modern understanding of Indic culture.
The talk covers these aspects: –
1. An overall overview of overlaps between Tantra and neuroscience, with a little intro to everything – nadis, chakras, consciousness, mudras, mantras and what neurological processes they may relate to.
2. The concept of the “Inner touch” in the work of Abhinavagupta – how that relates to a novel area of neuroscience called “interoception”, the means by which the brain senses the inner condition of the body.
3. The stages of speech in the Vedas and Tantra, how that corresponds to modern speech stages.
4. The Kashmiri Shaivite idea of memory, and how that compares to the modern understanding of memory.
5. Prakasha – Vimarsha and modern ideas of consciousness.
About Speaker: –
Anand Venkatraman is a neurologist based in Boston. A native of Chennai, he is an MBBS graduate of AIIMS New Delhi, and currently pursuing specialized training at the hospitals of Harvard Medical School. View More…
Yoga is not really something that builds up like a biceps and stuff right. Yoga, you focus on like really this part of your body. The Indian answer though was to approach this complex system from the inside, because they always assume thought that, it was easier understood from the interior perspective than being experienced as an outsider. So that’s why, I think Sadhguru may be named this kind of his program Inner Engineering, because really it is what he is doing, he is internally kind of engineering these complicated neural circuits. If these techniques can be used for recovering from diseases like stroke, theoretically you should also be able to use them for enhancing normal people, which I think is what they were devised for in the first place, I think these practices were all aimed at kind of improving, who are already healthy into like something better.
Thank you, guys. Thank you for all coming here. So this is my talk ‘Interpreting Tantra as Subjective Neuroscience’. That’s my name and I am a medical doctor. I did my medical school from here AIIMS in New Delhi and currently a Neurocritical Care fellow, which is like a super specialization within Neurology at Harvard in Boston.
So a little bit about my background. I am from Chennai. I spent a few years of my life growing up in Qatar and I did my medical school from AIIMS like I said. I went to the US, I did a couple of years of neurology research at Northwestern in Chicago and then I did my neurology residency at the University of Alabama and now I am currently doing super specialization at Harvard. So apart from this, I also, you know, I had actually represented the country at the international biology Olympiad in Beijing. I don’t put it up here to kind of tout my own horn. It was primarily because I want to make it very clear that I have really been marinated and germinated in the Western scientific tradition and that is really the viewpoint that, I take in approaching this subject, like how kids, when their mom and dad tell them one thing and the teacher tells them another thing, usually they listen to what the teacher says. So in a similar way, I think for me, the western scientific biology tradition is my teacher. So like my viewpoint is still really very based on that.
So this talk is essentially going to be like a third person looking into Tantra and Kundalini Yoga and all that. So I don’t consider myself too much of an insider to these traditions even though I have been doing Sadhana for like six months or so, by still kind of see myself as a scientist trying to explore this from Western derived scientific lens.
So this picture, I essentially put up there because I want to kind of use it as a metaphor for each new generation of human beings, when they come in, they basically look out at everything that’s out there and the parents, the culture created by all the generations that came before them, basically explained how to approach what they see. Now the standard approach especially in the West, like through the telescope they see all these stars, planets and stuff and they focus on what is out there. But I think what is unique about the Indian tradition, I believe the other speaker later in the evening today, is also going to touch upon this, is that Indians thought that, this is not the most important or the first or the primary thing that we see, when we look out through the telescope, that is our human body what we actually see, is the inside of the telescope right. like that is the first thing, the instrument itself, the lenses, the barrel in which it is contained and that really filters the signal coming from outside and then we only perceive what the instrument is filtered and sent to us.
So essentially as human beings, we are really conditioned by this body, brain, the eyes and stuff that we are given. So what we perceive off the external environment is really a refraction or a reflection through everything that separates the observer in the back from what’s out there and so about this talk, just a little brief summary. It’s going to be a very bird’s-eye overview of something which I consider a very important stream of Indian thought. I am not going to give you like an exhaustive evidence list of all these various studies and stuff. I was looking at one of the Facebook posts about the talk and I think there was a discussion there like, Are bai isme kya huva, kuch idea hai and somebody was like most likely fMRI studies ke bhare me kuch discussion hoga and then like haha shayadh. So that’s not going to be this. I will have a little bit of fMRI stuff. But I mean, I am really, not really interested in treating this as a talk, to neurologists which I have given, but I don’t think you guys would be interested.
So most of this is going to be a lot of hypotheses, I am going to discuss a mode of most of my theorizing and like thought process and just kind of get your feedback on them, a lot of circumstantial evidence and see, what you, you guys think as well. I think this asked me to define Tantra. I am really not going to get into that because it’s kind of a vague thing. Honestly everything in Indian thought is similar in many ways. I think each stream really just emphasizes a few things and this emphasizes a few other things. So it’s really hard to say that ye ye isme he or vo vo usme he, everything has everything, this is just like a few things, it’s kind of like, when you see it, you’ll know it, but it’s very hard to put into words, what precisely Tantra is. But it’s similar to the concepts of Kundalini Yoga, a lot of mantra, Shastra and all that. And, a lot of times Tantra is, sometimes away with sex. So this is nothing about sex, is purely a science-based, very rational talk. The goal as I said is to trigger conversation among people who seem to have similar interests and get some constructive criticism, because again like this is not something I get to discuss with my friends and colleagues very often because like very few people have these interests. So, like the fact that there’s 20 people here, 30 people here, who are actually very interested in this topic, is a great resource for me, to get my own thinking correct, all right.
So let’s look at this slide. So this is a standard slide that a lot of people would see, when they try to understand the essentials of Indian metaphysics. This is mostly Samkhya derived, but like a lot of Indian metaphysical systems are derived from Samkhya, so like Purusha, Prakriti and you know Mahat or Buddhi, and then like elements come out cognitive senses. I think the common tendency is to think of this as some sort of physics, like people, like I have read stuff where they compare the Higgs Boson to one of these things, you compare like membrane theory or string theory to some part of this, which I think, it’s like a strange way to approach this because I think most of these philosophical concepts were based around this kind of rule, that the Indians adopted and Yatha Brahmande Tatha Pinde. I think their entire thought process about the world and themselves was based around the sign of axiom, like whatever was outside was also with him and I don’t know, if this axiom is true, like scientifically it doesn’t make sense. But that was kind of their thinking. So maybe it is true. I am open to a discussion about it.
So, I think this slide, actually conveys the message of the previous Samkhya slide in a better more easy-to-understand way, at least in the way that I understand it. I feel like these guys were not really making theories about physics, they weren’t saying like first this particle was there, then this particle came, then this came, that came, they were really describing their own cognitive processes, like they found like at the back of the all the cognitive processing was this pure consciousness, and then from there in gradual stages other senses, other experiences came out. So, they basically were describing this evolution, from the primordial kind of content free consciousness into everything that was in the world and then like the goal of Yoga was to go backwards and ascend back towards that primordial consciousness.
So, now the problem when you are doing like such sort of analysis of the cognitive system is that, there’s just so much stuff going on like their sounds, light, like there’s so many people moving around you. It’s very difficult for you to really get a grasp of how to handle a complex system like this, because it’s always changing and there are just so many variables. So the question is like everybody, I assume every human being with an interest in this stuff, has to deal with how do you study and control system with so many variables.
So western answer was always to look harder at what was out there. So they saw like these planets out there and comets out there and they were like, let’s study it in more and more detail and try to block out, whatever is being contributed by this portion of our cognitive apparatus and then we will have this objective viewpoint of what really the object out there is, where so that’s kind of where all the stuff that I deal with that the neurologist comes from. This is like a functional MRI like that guy was commenting on Facebook, this is an EEG. It’s being like brainwave activities, this is neurosurgery which is like the apex of this approach to the nervous system, really just you treat it as a piece of meat and then you would do surgeries upon it and then you I treated just like any other object.
The Indian answer though was to approach this complex system from the inside because they always assume, thought that, it was easier understood from the interior perspective than being experienced as an outsider. So that’s why I think Sadhguru may be named this kind of his program, Inner Engineering because really it is what he is doing. He is internally kind of engineering these complicated neural circuits. So there’s another metaphorical example. So basically, this is the western system, they are basically looking at the brain from a third-person. Indian system, you don’t look with your eyes, you close your eyes, you look with your third eye, essentially look inwards and that really is kind of the gist of what this talk is about, because I am saying that, what the Western approach found in kind of science terms, can in some ways be correlated, what the Indian approach finds from the inner terms. Obviously they are not going to be the same thing, because like you are not going to be exposed to every element of your mechanism, when you see it from the inside, at the same time when you look at it from the outside, you would missing out a lot of things, that are coming from the inside.
Again, similar metaphor like, this is a volcano. So western approach. you look at it from the outside, liberal mountain and all this stuff smoke coming out. Indian approach… you look right, there you look out from the eye of the volcano on them and that’s the view that you get. There is no saying that one is superior to the other. I think they’re both very important approaches. Even in India there have been like third-person objective approaches as well and in the west, there have been some approaches from the first persons, but it’s just like the broad and outline.
The reason I think this is timely, this talk in particular is that, a few weeks ago I actually read this article on this science journal called aeoll. So, it was written by three people, two western physicists and one western philosopher and they said that, there is this blind spot in the standard western approach to science, which is that, we forget the place of the first-person human experience. So, the science as we say, it stands does not really address that issue at all. For example, like the classical example, that the western scientific and philosophical traditions give is this. This is a rose, if somebody had colorblindness for red color, so they couldn’t see the red color. How would you describe a rose to them; you can describe the shape, you can describe the smell, but how would you convey to them what redness is. It is essentially impossible, if you don’t have the ability to appreciate redness, no amount of text or talk can really convince you what redness is, because it is just something which is only experienceable, it cannot be communicated, and they call this Qualia, it’s essentially non-communicable experiential states figure and I think a lot of all these things they describe in Tantra, Kundalini Yoga and all are descriptions of the Qualia universe.
So, let’s discuss a few of these insights, that western and Indian neuroscientist have obtained. So, the first one, of course, for all neurologists, neuroscientists is an analysis of consciousness. So, I am a neurocritical care fellow. So is essentially like a coma doctor because the vast majority of our patients are in ICU and they’re comatose. Coma is a disorder of consciousness. So you would lose consciousness. So, we need an easy way to study consciousness. So there’s this encyclopedia, that actually defined consciousness or at least recommended that we analyze consciousness in this way and this is actually the standard neurological approach to analyzing consciousness, a multi-faceted concept that has two dimensions – arousal or wakefulness. So that’s like you’re awake, asleep.
So that’s the dimension that goes up and down in this axis, arousal and awareness which is like the content of consciousness. So, when you are awake, there are many things you can be aware of, that water bottle, you can be aware of a certain taste, a certain smell. So they say like consciousness, you can really assess along these two axis. But this was done by a very famous neurologist named, Stephen Laureys, it’s in the encyclopedia of neuroscience. So, based on this understanding, this is a very standard approach the neurologists used to understanding consciousness. So, the x-axis is wakefulness or arousal, y-axis is awareness or the content of consciousness.
So as you can see bottom left, where there’s no arousal, no awareness is coma or death. So and top right is like when you’re both aware and awake and that’s conscious wakefulness. In some cases, like in sometimes in seizures, sometimes in some damage to your brain, you can be left with just arousal or just awareness but those are specialized conditions. In a seizure, sometimes like a person will blank out, so he’s aroused but he is no longer aware of what’s around him. So it’s a very fascinating way of analyzing and it’s proven to be very effective.
Now the neuroscience, very advanced neuroscience literature has kind of gone beyond this two access model, to kind of have a more fine-grained view. But most neurologists still really swear by this. Interesting thing for me as an Indian is that somebody in India had come up with something very similar. This is Acharya Abhinavgupta, if any of you have an experience of Kashmir Saivism is like very famous. Of course, lived about a thousand years ago. He wrote some really fantastic stuff which, I think if understood through a neurological lens, it’s just really a mind-blowing. So, he described the ultimate reality which of course was pure consciousness, he says one component of that ultimate reality was ‘Prakash’ and that was the light of consciousness. It was unchanging, indivisible changeless and he said it’s like a smooth mirror and he says the other component is ‘Vimarsha’, which is basically a reflection and he says through the Vimarsha, you become aware of what is out there and the Vimarsha would be of various objects, it could be of emotions, so and I feel like this is very, very strikingly similar to this concept of arousal and awareness because they just seem to be describing it from two different perspectives and it could be a coincidence that somebody came up with this thousand years ago and now modern neurologist use the same thing, but it is more likely that they are both describing a same phenomenon, just happened to happen at two different time points.
And the second aspect of consciousness which I will describe further in this, is within Vimarsha, how Vimarsha was generated?
So, the standard approach and western thought always say that the mind is independent of the body. This is Rene Descartes. So he came up with this ‘cogito ergo sum’. So “I think therefore I” and so there dualism was always – anything mental is one, and anything physical is the other, the body is different. So they had this very clear-cut line separating these two spheres. But over the last 40-50 years, there has been this new approach coming up in the West in neuroscience literature of Embodied Cognition. So where they start to wonder, if the body is not really that separate from your mental processes is. So they start wondering if there’s components of the body that contribute to mental processing and one very famous one was this thing, called the Somatic Markers Hypothesis. So basically, it says that emotionally charged events, when you experience them, they produce some body changes. These body changes, they are remembered in some structures in the nervous system and then, these structures in the nervous system which maintain the traces of those events, they draw upon these when in future, you have to make some decisions or do some behaviors, and I actually got to work with the writer of this book, who came up with the hypothesis – Antonio Damacio. I spent a few months in his labs, a huge lab, is wonderful.
So he basically titled his book Descartes’ Error. So he thought that this concept of the mind being independent of the body was false. So, his very kind of simple and elegant way of proving that, the mind and body are not independent was this thing, called the Iowa Gambling Task. So this was a computer game, where you had these four decks of cards, like playing cards and the person had to like click at random, like you got like a 20, 30 tries, each deck had cards which were both positive or negative. So some card would give you money, some cards would take away money from you, and each deck had different proportions of the gain and debit card. So like some decks if you kept clicking, you would probably make more money, some decks we kept leaving you would probably lose more money.
So the fascinating thing here was that, in normal people when your cursor hovered over like decks, a deck see was the bad deck, your skin would start sweating and sure start showing evidence of stress. The fascinating thing there was like, this was long before the person himself was able to say that the C deck is the bad deck. So, clearly this proves that the body was showing changes, there are parts of the brain body, which knew that this was the bad deck, before the person’s conscious mental processes could say that this was the bad deck. So this was wonderful and this led to a lot of debate and discussion and it’s spawned a very interesting new field and as a result of research that has come out of that, there’s been a resurgence of interest in this concept called Interoception, which is like the internal sense of the body, how the body’s various internal states are communicated to the brain. This is published in a very prestigious journal. It says its intersections and after a nadi system, that represents all aspects of the physiological condition of the body might provide a foundation for subjective feelings, emotions, self-awareness and I think from our perspective again, what’s fascinating is that, somebody in 2016 from the, one of the New York hospitals, I believe, published this, the “subtle body is an Interoceptive map of central nervous system function and meditative mind-brain-body integration”, a subtle body basically they said it had something to do with how the body was being mapped in the sensory nervous system.
So this is kind of how the brain sensory cortex looks. So this is called the primary sensory cortex. So these body parts that are made over here is basically in that part of the brain, this part of the body sensory input is being mapped and this is only one part of the brain, where the sensations are mapped but this is the most prominent part. So as you can see, there is like very disproportionate mapping right, like the hand is so big, the tongue and face are so big, the trunk, leg, foot, everything is very small. This is because obviously you have much more fine sensation in your fingertips and your face. Then you do in the back of, your back of your, where your hand or actually in your back. So this is called the Sensory Homunculus. It is a imagination of what the body would look like, if each body part was resized according to the amount of space devoted to it, in the sensory cortex. So as you can see the hands are very big because you sense it very well, the tongue is very big and other parts of the body are very small, because you don’t really spend that much brainpower processing sensation from there, so think about this. So the previous paper I said subtle body could be an Interoceptive map.
So, we know that in all our traditions, there this concept of sūkṣma śarīra. So, it’s the sūkṣma śarīra, really a representation of how the brain is viewing the body and this is not, I am not saying, this is equal to that figure because this figure is limited to external sensation as you can see, like you know, you don’t have anything for like heart, intestine. Those sensations also, a transmitted or brain. But this is a one, like only one sensory modality. So the sūkṣma śarīra, I would say is probably a more complex, more data rich, representation of the body. But in principle, I think they are on the right track and I think the sooner it really is how the brain really views the body.
So and again the reading my favorite Indian writer, Abhinavagupta. There’s some very suggestive evidence that this line of reasoning is probably accurate. So Abhinavagupta, that his works, he ranked all the various bodily senses in a hierarchy and of course for him, like the hierarchy means the best is to be like closest to pure consciousness. So, he says the inner touch is the most subtle of all the senses and in India like if it’s more subtle is very good. If it’s gross cool like, it’s okay, but like you want to be very special, it needs to be very subtle. So he says the inner touch is the most subtle of all the senses and he says it’s the closest to pure consciousness, which is, what is like, his kind of goal of all this practice was go to pure consciousness and this is a map of something called the Brainstem, which is kind of, in the back of the brain. It is the most important part of the brain, kind of called the lizard brain, is very old, and that’s where all the structures which support consciousness live.
So what’s interesting here is that I actually load a review paper on the brainstem, like how it works and emotions, what’s interesting here is that the interoceptive system which is like the sensations from the internal organs and heart and all that, they actually project very closely to the structures in the brainstem which support consciousness and arousal and this is not true for other senses like vision or hearing. They are all traveled through that area, but they don’t project as much to those consciousness supporting structures, which is a very fascinating. Did Abhinavagupta at that time through his internal perception kind of, work out this close relationship between these two-part, kind of structures? It could be, and off course Abhinavagupta that as you know is not just a Philosopher, he is also a very big aesthetics guy. He is like written a lot of stuff on art or art of appreciation and his big idea of course that we still talk about is Rasa, which is basically he, he termed it like the way you appreciate an artistic experience and this was an article from several years ago, which is like very prominent in the humanities literature, the aesthetic and the religious Rasasvada and Brahma svada and Kashmir Saivism.
So, for Abhinavagupta the rasa was the taste of an experience, he specifically used this term Rasa, and he says it was at the border between the conceptual world and the concept free ultimate reality or pure consciousness; that was the border – Rasa. That’s why it was so important to him and he says if you went to a show an art exhibition, unless that experience of rasa was felt and legacy got the taste of that art, it wasn’t really like you hadn’t really like experienced it. It wasn’t enough you just went there and kind of went through the motions. It’s something had to happen which you felt like, you were tasting it and again another very fascinating aspect in terms of the inner touch and taste is that, there is this area in the back of the brain called the nucleus of the Tracts solitary or the NTS, where sensory inputs are integrated. The two major sensory inputs are from the body and taste. So it’s very strange like, these sensory inputs of all the various ones could be vision, could be hearing, could be smell., none of those are involved, but taste, and the bodily inputs, the inner touch and taste he rasa and the inner touch are kind of concentrated here, and it’s not just here, from this point onwards everywhere the body maps the internal sensations. It also maps tastes.
So there is this place called the Insula, which is higher up in the body, high, higher up in the brain, where again taste and internal body sensations are clubbed together and they have a joint representations, there was just paper from 2015, a common gustatory and interceptive representation in the human mid Insula. So it’s well known. So I think, it’s just again odd coincidence, there’s no way to prove with certainty, but I think it’s an interesting thought and if it’s possible that somebody like Abhinavagupta, we are like very fine ways of analyzing his own conscious thought process, maybe he was able to tell that there was some sort of close relationship between tastes, internal sensation and consciousness.
Other coincidences and of course there is a thing called the Nadi system, which this, I think is something that most of you guys may already be aware of. So there are two Nadis, like Ida-Nadi and Pingala-Nadi, at least there’s many others, Sushumna and all that but for our purposes these two were well described, they run from the base of your spine all the way to middle of your head and Ida-adi is the cooling relaxing one, Pingala is the activating and warming one. What is strange to me as a neurologist is that, this is very strangely similar to these two components of what is called the Autonomic Nervous System, which also run in this kind of pathway from the brain to the bottom of the spine and they have this thing called the ‘Parasympathetic’, which is cooling and relaxing and the ‘Sympathetic’ which is supposed to be warming and activating. So, the Parasympathetic is mostly meant for you to relax and eat and digest your food. Sympathetic is supposed to be for like if you see a predator, you want to run away, you want to escape from it, and of course, then after the Nadi’s, you go on to the Chakra system, which I am not really getting into because I have some interesting ideas of how they might correlate to neurological processes. But I am not really built they have left them yet. So I don’t want to speak something without at least some circumstantial evidence in its favor.
Coming back to the Nadi’s, the Nadi’s were suppose to be controlled through breathing, so that if you inhale through the left nostril, you’re supposed to activate your Ida-Nadi and like cool down, inhale through your right nostril, you’re supposed to activate the Pingala Nadi and you’re supposed like activate and warm yourselves. So there’s some kind of beginning evidence in scientific literature that there is actually this pattern, that if you have certain alternating nostril breathing, you can have changes in your autonomic nervous system. Right now, most of these are not published in very high-grade journals, it’s not a huge field of research, whether it’s interesting that people are starting to find some evidence that this is true.
There was this article for instance, ‘Assessment of the Effects of Pranayama on Parasympathetic Nervous System’, that was here, this Hemisphere specific EEG related to alternate nostril breathing and these are all like reasonably respected foreign journals. They are not specifically only like people who do yoga will publish in there. Then again there’s this paper which I actually saw a few months ago, very fascinating which says breathing is a fundamental rhythm of brain function and this paper actually was published purely from non-Indian countries. I don’t think any people of Indian origin in that author list either and they basically said that, somehow there’s some correlation between breathing in and out and like some rhythms they are able to detect in the brains cortex, like electrical rhythms, the functioning.
So, I think what was most fascinating, is that I happened to find this paragraph in this English translation of Yoga Vasishta, relationship in Prana and Manas which are very close in the body is like the driver and his chariot, when the Prana acts, the Manas reacts. So when you want high achievement, of high mind control, you want to really control and master Prana. I think it’s fascinating that people had come up with some similar ideas so long ago, but I don’t think the bridge has been made between these two approaches because in this paper, I think this may be like one throwaway line, says ‘there’s some evidence from Indian tradition of Yoga that breathing may be related to mental function’. But they don’t really like extensively cite any of these works. But, I think, is sad because if this is true that means these guys actually did figure out this very crucial and important relationship and breathing, of course, was not the only technology that the Tantric and Yoga practitioners had to manipulate the nervous system. They had this mantra, which was of course sound repetition Yantra, which was visualizing geometrical patterns, Chakra and Mudra and Asana, of course, various postures and gestures and most importantly, Hatha Yoga was also a very important tool for this.
We, I think these days we are exposed to a lot more of questions like this, especially if you live like me, live in the West, is yoga a sport, Yoga is often clashed with athletics people say that, me tho jim jatha hum tho yoga kyom karum. So, and in the US especially I think it’s like all the girls do yoga, all the guys go like weightlifting. So, it’s considered equivalent activities or they do Pilates. So what the odd thing here is that yoga is not really something that builds up like a biceps and stuff. Yoga, you focus on really this part of your body, you are not focusing on all these other things, as much you want to really hit what do you have the core, the trunk, like look at these pictures and tell me, if you can figure out which of these pairs is the boss. There’s one gorillas, just like two cartoon characters, two monkeys and just two stick figures. So really in the stick figure picture, there’s so little collateral information, that you have been provided is really just the shape and the way the person is holding his body and you’re able to tell immediately to any, any and all of us probably in any stabilization, that there’s something about the way the person stands and holds his trunk and his head that gives you an insight into the mental state. So that’s why I was very fascinated when I started reading this article in this magazine called ‘The Atlantic’. Why one neuroscientist started blasting his core. So there was basically a discussion of an article that had been published in a very prestigious science journal called PNAS, ‘the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’.
So, they use this technique called Trans-neuronal Rabies Virus transport. So, basically the Rabies virus, it travels from one neuron to another neurons. or nerve cell to nerve cell. So, if you put it in one neuron here, you can trace where the neuron projects, because then it’s obviously it’s being transmitted one way together. So, what they found very fascinatingly was that the adrenal medulla which is kind of over here, which produces like adrenal lean, which is, the sympathetic activity stress things, that there was top-down control from the brain on the medulla and that control was coming purely from its trunk representation. So that part of the brain which controls movement of the trunk was also the part of the brain that strongly controlled the activity of the adrenal medulla, which I think is a very interesting preliminary evidence that there’s something about this part of the body that really correlates with your stress level and your mental state.
And as you guys, probably all know with all these technologies, Hatha yoga, Pranayama, Mantra, Mudra., they always recommended that we do very sustained practice like they called it Sadhana and you want to do it for a very long time. So, my premise is that these work because of Neuroplasticity, sustained exposure can change the neural wiring and so, I don’t think it’s magic or luck or anything like that. So, I think that’s why these things are amenable to a scientific understanding because if this is the claim that you do certain things over and over and over and you will see a certain effect. Then it is clearly, obviously, some rational thing that is being done. It may not be possible for current scientific tools to pick up, what is happening late because we have a very coarse view of the nervous system right now. It’s like you have a magnifying glass and you’re trying to look at Milky Way. So, you can see something but you can’t really see much. So then the question comes has there been any proof that they are effective and here I will try to not go, you guys, too much.
There’s first some evidence, that there’s effect on the brain’s electrical activity, there was this one British study, which showed that the EEG shows increased activity in the gamma range. When people from different meditative traditions are compared to normal controls, interesting that even with the course tools we have available to find out and this was only true for advanced practitioners, though not for beginners and then brain structure also changes. So, the previous one was electrical activity and in structure.
So, there was this article recently in Scientific American. A neuroscientist exposes the Sanskrit effect. So a bunch of guys had kind of scanned brains of people doing Vedic chanting and they found that there were some changes in stroke cognitive functioning associated structures. It’s interesting at the same time, I don’t know how revolutionary it would be because think about any brain activity that you do, will change your brain, that’s how the brain works. But what is I think fascinating here is that this activity in particular is able to produce changes which are detectable by course tools like MRI. That is an interesting aspect for sure.
Another MRI study compared Hatha yoga versus controls. It looked at whole brain gray matter and usually there is a significant decline in age. After you’re about thirty years old, your brain gray matter starts declining, is just natural aging, but they did not see the same kind of decline in the yoga group. So this is just the kind of the money figure from that paper and they also found that more the duration that the person had practiced Yoga, there was an increase in the cortical gray matter. So again providing evidence for this idea that sustained sadhana is what is essential. You can’t just do it like one day, two days and see expect to see too much a benefit.
Then, there’s another 2014 study from Massachusetts General, that’s where I work. But I wasn’t involved in this paper. They found the fluid intelligence declined slower and aging yoga and meditation practitioners, So again structural changes, IQ changes, electrical activity changes., all of that. There is some evidence that these mind-based practices are affecting them and of course there’s also evidence of the brains response to stress, itself changes. There was this study which compared Hatha Yoga was stretching yoga group, had better executive function is like making quick decisions on the fly. You have many things you want to deal with and you have to make a decision and you can’t allow yourself to be influenced by whatever emotional cues or other things but the interesting thing for me was that it was mediated by something called lower salivary cortisol, cortisol as his enzyme which is away this hormone, which is a stress hormone.
So, the reason… they had better executive function was. they had lower salivary cortisol and it was not lower salivary cortisol at baseline. So it was not like chalthe firthe, there is less cortisol, it was less cortisol when the person was subjected to some stress. So really what it was doing is, it was controlling or kind of reducing the amount of stress, that the person would experience, in response to some bad situation. Similar evidence from a different kind of technological approach that one was salivary cortisol, this one was something called an event related potential study, which is like an EEG study, look at brainwaves. So they gave two successive stimuli like, two sounds maybe and then you had to see, how good you were at identifying both sounds.
Sometimes they would come very close together, so you had to be able to her that’s their is their if one was there, one was that sort of thing. So they are says something called event-related potentials which is the EEG brain change that happens when something salient happens like, when you’re sitting there and ting sound comes, you can see a spike in your EEG which suggests that your brain is recognized in the second act for it. So what they found was that people who did a lot of meditation, this was mostly based on mindful and meditation, they were better at the identification of the second stimulus and the mechanism of this improvement was because the amplitude of the response to the first stimulus was less. So similar to that salivary cortisol thing that I was saying, the reason they were better at responding to the second stimulus was because their brain didn’t get asked perturbed in response to the first stimulus. Again it controls the fluctuations in your cognitive process, that very complicated is figure, but this is kind of the gist of that figure okay.
So another thing which I think as Indians and especially as Hindus we are often prone to thinking is that, they are all similar processes and it arises from perhaps the kind of the religious homogeneity that we envision and we say that Ye practice, wo practice, Ye dharma, wo pal, everything is all ultimately leading to the same path. But initial belief, for example, was that all these meditative ritual practices cause relaxation. That’s why people was, like you seem very stressed or blood pressure higher, why don’t you meditate or do yoga. But now we actually know that some practices can actually cause activation and they can cause energization.
You might think that what is the point, you’re already stressed or why do you want to go more, more stress, more activity. So but, then they also found that those practices which cause, that cause the dramatic improvement and cognitive performance. So, I think about it, when you have an exam, you don’t necessarily do yoga, you drink coffee because you want to stay awake and you want to be a very sharp. That’s kind of what these guys found and then this is other… very fascinating paper from 2014. It was a meta-analysis of various studies of brain imaging. This signaling the neural mechanisms involved in Hinduism and Buddhism related meditations. Now again, the standard approach here is, all these things are really in the same process, but it’s not true, at least based on this study. They actually found that there was significant differences and mainly I think the differences come from at least these guys, also costly at the same thing the main reason, these differences exist is because the metaphysics of Hinduism and Buddhism are very different.
So Buddhist practices of course have been much better studied in the Western literature, primarily because I guess they are spread out all over the world and a lot of these like Tibetan Buddhist after the persecution in China, they moved to USA. So now they are easily available to, to scientists to study and usually science is like a very hard activity. So once two or three people have studied it, everybody else piles on. So once that initial barrier is crossed, it really gets a lot more attention. It’s easy because you are going keep citing, sightings and then people take it seriously. So, initial Buddhist meditation like early times, like Buddha time, was mostly focused on our mindfulness in breathing. These were derived from early yogic and Vedic streams and it’s very well documented. But the late stage which is Tibetan Buddhism which is called by Vajrayana, that is actually the tantric Buddhism and that is the stage which is being more studied now, because of the Dalai Lama and his other group people and this is actually very heavily influenced by Hindu Tantra and Shakti tradition.
So most of the you, you look at the Buddhist shrines in Tibet and stuff, they really look like Indian shrines, because there’s a lot of these goddesses Yantra, deities or the meditative practices are also like this. They say think of this goddess, think of this deity, visualize this, visualize that, and you feel like this is something I have seen in my neighborhood practice also. So, here is this fascinating thing. So they have done this study on meditative, meditators in Tibet. This is called the Tummo meditation, so they call this Tummo meditation. So they’re basically the practice was sold as something, you sit in the freezing weather in the snow, you wrap a wet cloth around yourself and then you do this meditative tummo practice and then the cloth dries itself, because of what I just elaborates because you are so hot. So that’s what people used to say and actually there is evidence for that.
So this study from combined study from Singapore and U.S. So they studied three or four practitioners of this and that y-axis is actually body temperature, so they raised a temperature like 36 to 38. 38 is actually a fever range. So if you came to a hospital in 38 temperature, we will get blood cultures and we will start you on antibiotics. You… nobody thinks that these things can be consciously manipulated, but these guys proved that it could be done. It’s fascinating and it has received a lot of attention in scientific circles as well as general humanity circles and you know people who are kind of interested in this sort of stuff.
What is interesting to us is that Tummo was actually called Chandaly Kriya. It was transmitted from India to Tibet. So really now everybody is interested in Tummo, Tummo big Wikipedia page about it. Chandaly Kriya nobody knows, there’s no nobody even Chandaly, the word itself nobody. Apparently, I searched for it. I was apparently, it’s a name of some Mahavidya goddess named Marathonvi, but that also half the name is there, half the name is not really like clearly documented. So I think this again is an example of digestion because you think Tibet,it’s kind of part of the Indian cultural sphere, but really you nobody in India knows what Tummo is and nobody in the rest of the world knows what Chandaly Kriya. So I think, it’s a sad thing, but I think, it’s like just proof that there are very interesting techniques which merit further investigation.
Personal anecdote on the efficacy of sadhana because like me just telling you about scientific studies, I don’t think it will be very interesting because like that guy on Facebook said “you know, yeah bazz fMRI studies ke bath karo’. I am not going do that. So I am going to tell you about my friend Dane. Dane… really you can think of him as my first guru, almost he was a nurse in my hospital, when I was doing residency in Alabama. So in 1986, Dane got diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, which is this immune system disease of your intestine; it causes kind of holes between your intestines, they kind of communicate which other. Your PC is leaked out that sort of thing, severe pain, a lot of alternating diarrhea constipation, diarrhea constipation. So that was when he got exposed to narcotics like opioids and stuff and then, he went into poly substance abuse from 1986 to 2013 major depression and he says he was stuck in this loop of negative thinking, where he was always ruminating about the past, worrying about what was going to happen in the future and this is what he looked like, during that period.
So that smile, kind of hides what he says, was a lot of pain that we experience at his body. You can see shows kind of the tell-tale signs of a high stress hormonal environment. Now this is Dane now this was like two years ago, three years ago. So he is down forty pounds, his off blood pressure meds, stopped all his drug use. He says mood is much better and he actually visited the Kumbh mela, last a couple months ago, he was here, he should put up all his face facebook photos and study and then went to Banaras also.
So Dane actually came to me, while I was on call in the hospital once. This is how all this I got started in interested in this field because he came to me once and said “can I tell you something, you are not sitting properly and you are not breathing properly and I thought he was crazy”. What is the meaning of there, sitting wherever you sit is sitting and wherever you breathe like I am breathing. How can I not be breathing properly, I am alive. So he said so, you should sit properly in the sense that you shouldn’t have this, what they call the sacral tilt, like somehow you hit like this and sometimes it like, this both of those are wrong. He says, “what you should do is there’s this bone in your buttock, which is kind of the tubercle and he says the weight should kind of fall directly on that and then he says you should try to keep your head, neck and trunk aligned as much as able and he says you should breathe properly, which he says, you should use your diaphragm. He says, mostly people breathe through here, but he says this is usually associated with stress, when you are exercising, you breathe with your chest.
So when you sitting and you are still breathing with your chest that really sends a subconscious message to your brain that you are under stress. So what he says, you should actually be with your belly if you go in and out like that. So it is difficult to do at first, but then when you start doing it, you start noticing that there is something which feels different when you do that, like a sound of sensation and he says ‘you should always try to create a space in time for practice chart, make a very small three to five minute practice every day. He actually is comes from this lineage of Himalayan, the Himalayan Institute I think it was started by Swami Rama. He is passed away now. But now there is a pundit Rajmani Tigunait. So he’s very deep into all this, he recently I think when he came for Kumba Mela, they gave him initiation into this, one of the Sreevidya bala mantha or something so.
So, anyway moving on to exploding future possibilities and I asked Dane permission to show this, this thing. so just in case you are wondering he is totally fine with me telling a story. so exploding some future possibilities, I think that’s what mostly interests me, because whatever has already been done, has already been done. I am more curious, what can happen in the next few words. I am only thirty years also, hopefully I have a fair amount of time. So first is my personal interest. So I am in the US. Now my hope is to India vapas ayenge and aspathal yahi banayenge, neuro focused hospitals, which hopefully I will be able to incorporate techniques targeted at strengthening neural networks through these practices and then personally my reading these are three people. I particularly want to explore more, Sri Aurobindo of course, there’s this person Kavyakantha Ganapati Muni, which I don’t think any people know of. He was an associate of Ramana Maharshi, passed away now. Of course, he was very deep into all these much, much more rational and kind of intellectual parts.
Ramana Maharshi was more of a, I guess, experiential kind of spiritual guy. He was his devotees Kavyakantha was a devotee of Ramana. But he wrote a lot more in a very intellectual and rational stuff and then there’s this guy Shankara Bharadwaj kandavalli. So I don’t know, who this person is, so I only read articles by him and but some of his insights just seem like really fascinating. So if you guys can track him down, I think you should call him for a talk, just stunning. I mean, of course, stunning mathlab, from my perspective, right as in neurologist, I find it stunning. But he is not a neurologist, his profile, I think it’s he has a profile on this Hindupedia, where he is done written a bunch of articles. He says, he’s interested in natural language processing and mathematical philosophy, I don’t know about that and of course, if these techniques can be used for recovering from diseases like stroke, theoretically you should also be able to use them for enhancing normal people, which I think is what they were devised for in the first place. I think these practices were all aimed at kind of improving who are already healthy into something better. So a few weeks ago, this article came out, ‘A Haven of Mindfulness in a Digital Maelstrom’. CALM is the first $1Billion meditation App. So again Western founders, Western company 1 billion dollars, based on mindfulness.
There’s this other article “History of Mindfulness From East to West”, from religion to science, kind of religion to science. Same technique, same practice, just stripped out of the few words and now it’s signs, one thing which supports my endeavor and I think all are endeavors is that this is not something new, this transmission of religion or tradition into scientific practices not like something which is kind of Dino, and it applies only in India.
Let me give you the story from China. In the 1960s, Chinese army was bogged down by malaria. So Mao Zedong set up this thing called project 523. He said you had to find a cure for this, I don’t want to lose all my men. Very expensive. So he sent this lady, young girl, Tu Youyou. She was 39 year old, she joined this project 523. She said she would like to investigate traditional Chinese medicine, which again is kind of their version of Ayurveda; very deep, very interesting practices. So she found this book called “Emergency Prescriptions” kept up one’s sleeve by some guy in the 4th century, and then in that, it said “A handful of qinghao immersed with 2 liters of water, wring out the juice and drink it all”. This was a treatment for persistent fever or something like that. So from this qinghao, which is this herb, Tu Youyou isolated this thing called Artemisinin. Artemisinin is a drug that she came up with and now Artemisinin is the first-line therapy for malaria. It’s like so good that you don’t want to give it really unless they are in a very highly resistant area because you are afraid that the bug will develop resistance to it because it’s such a effective drug and for these efforts she was awarded the Nobel Prize a few years ago. So clearly showing that, she had the will power and the intellect to actually sift through all this stuff. I am not saying everything in that book was good, but there was something there which actually did work. I think that’s kind of a template for how we should be approaching these kinds of our own endeavors.
And the other important thing quite apart from the material benefits of recovery from stroke or improving normal people or creating an app or something I think for me, from a kind of intellectual, kind of bath sheathe, kind of standpoint is whether this will help in standard people’s understanding of Indian thought, whether it will help in reinterpreting that, I know philosophically there are many different interpretations, but standard people I think still have a very concrete understanding of what, whatever a deity is or something. So for example I read this, I read a summary of this book by the great Subhash Kak, called the ‘Gods Within’, it got several decades ago, says mind conscious from the Vedic tradition, very basically, kind of made the point that maybe all these deities are essentially representations of cognitive processes rather than actual objects or something out there. So for example, we think of Saraswathi, is Saraswathi like somebody who’s there kind of flying in the sky, whom you pray to and she will kind of bless you or is Saraswathi like a metaphor for the neural mechanisms, which make learning possible, make memory possible, we know like there are many specific networks which improve learning and memory distributed throughout the brain. Could it be the Saraswathi was essentially the subjective perception of these structures going about their processing which would mean that, if you do Saraswathi Sadhana, maybe or somehow activating or improving connections in these structures and there are some hints, which I think suggest that this interpretation probably might be true.
So one is that like a lot of times, you see this kind of statement that the deity is the mantra, the deity has a mantra or and they said the mantra is the deity and then this Sankara Bharadwaj Kandavalli, whom I had mentioned earlier, he actually wrote this very interesting kind of description on one of his article. So he says the mantra syllables will determine whether the deity is faith fierce or benign. So, especially in the Shakta deities, some of them are ugra, some of them are very kind of, very pleasant. So I just took out this little paragraph from his work. The qualities of a Devata can be seen from the Beejas of the Devata. Each Matrika beejas, qualities can be seen in the attributes of the dhyana sloka. For instance, Bhuvaneswari was one of the shakti forms, is one of the most pleasant forms. This is because Bhuvaneshwari beeja has Maya beeja, which apparently scream and Maya beeja corresponds to Anandamaya kosa. So he says, she is bound to be a personification of bliss, because beeja has Maya Beej.
There is very interesting kind of a reverse engineering of what the deity is. I think a standard understanding would be that there is a deity and then you create Mantra about it or something, as a worship or something. But here he is saying that the mantra creates the deity and here, maybe I should increase the volume here a little bit. I am not sure it playing, but basically there is evidence that sound can trigger emotions. You guys heard that. So I can play it again with higher volume if possible, that was one of an upbeat sound, relatively upbeat, kind of a, low kind of, morose kind of sound and this is very well known in the Western musical tradition. These are chords with people build songs based, around a certain chord or series of chords whether, when they want to convey a happy emotion or a sad emotion similarly, that were we showed that sounds can convey emotion. This is a very interesting experiment actually popularized by one of our own great neurologists, V S Ramachandra. He… basically these two shapes, if I told you that one of them is called Kiki and one of them is called Bobo and you had to assign which one is well exactly and this holds true even if you give it to some tribes people in Africa, who have never been exposed to English or any Indo-European language; you do it in China everybody comes up with the same assignment of Kiki and Bobo.
So previous slides, sound is able to trigger emotion. Here the sound is able to trigger a shape. So all I gave you was the sound and you your brain somehow assign that this is the shape that should go there and this is the shape that you go with the other. So I think very good circumstantial evidence for what the mantra really is doing and the other kind of neurological concept that really ties in to this kind of understanding is this of Synesthesia. Synesthesia is something that is kind of gun coming under interest. Again in the neurology field, it is basically a phenomenon where certain people have this weird sensation when like two senses kind of blend together.
So you see all these things, like alphabets are associated with colors, numbers, sometimes eyes red with color, sometimes they are located with associate with positions, sometimes you see three and it’s always like here like in your mind. So it’s a very strange phenomenon, we don’t know why it happens, maybe it has something to do with, sometimes this color and this alphabets fibers are traveling together or there’s some leakage of signals from one to the other; we don’t know why it happens. But I think this is a phenomenon that is being very well documented and there is actually some interesting research going on including at my own Hospital and I think from a Tantric perspective what is fascinating is this book, that I actually found in this kind of bookstore in Chennai. There is this place called Giri traders, where they sell a lot of these enough old-school kind of books. This is just like an old dusty book that I found, maybe last year called Dyananubhoothi, like experiences in Dhyana, by Srividya Kulagaraja, Swami Nadananda Tirtha, is a Namboothiri from Kerala, who’s now settled. I think in a marshal or something.
So it’s basically 250 pages of things like this, abstract paintings that he came up with when he meditated upon that mantra may Om Hreemkara mrugavaahanayai Namah. I guess is this visualization flashed in front of his head and there is something else for something else. It’s nothing is like there’s no more text or anything the whole book is only paintings of what visions came to him when he meditated. I was fascinating, just interesting how this kind of thing has received no attention at all. It was just lying in some dusty corner and nobody really thought it was worth digging further. But I am gratified to note that in the humanities literature there is some evidence of interest especially in the West.
I read this article by this very talented writer, a resounding field of visualized self-awareness the generation of Synesthetic consciousness in the Sri Yantra rituals of Nityasodasikarnava Tantra and another one, who’s this person actually I work with Kerry Martins Skora. A day in the life of an Aesthetic Tantrika from Synesthetic Garden to Lucid Dreaming and Spaciousness. So really those guys are starting to take some interest in the neuroscience literature and I think it’s hopefully the start of something which unravels this kind of mystery. Here again for our personal intellectual curiosity is a table of these various beeja mantras. So the one thing that stands out when you read of, read all these beeja mantras – Om, Shrim, Hrim, Krim. So the profusion of certain syllables like M, R, Ee, O, Oo., but not much how come there’s no Beeja Mantra like chuchu, chuchu, cuckoo, cuckoo something like that. The certain sounds and certain sound patterns which seem to predominate and some which seem to totally ignored and again same thing with these Gayatris is, you read some of these Sadhana books.
All these, generally it’s just one Gayatri Mantra, there is some Gayatri for each deity. This is for Narasimha Gayatri apparently “Om Narasimhaya Vidmahe, Vajranakhaya Dheemahe, Tanno Narasimha Prachodayat”. I think there’s a Durga Gayatri, this is a Agni Gayatri. So, all of these, you see, there’s some similarities, there like three lines, they have certain words which are stable and certain words which are changing. So you visualize this, in this manner like red lines are stable, the blue things are kind of unique to this one red lines stable, blue things unique to this one red lines stable, triangles unique to this one. So this really seems to be some sort of structure in which few things are kept constant and some few things are being fiddled around with, and to me, as a biologist and a neuroscientist I think this brings to mind a lot of things which I find in my day-to-day work, is like these are some neurotransmitters. So the body and evolution in general is very conservative because it doesn’t have resources to expand upon developing new, new structures for everything.
So once you find something that works, usually just make small adjustments and usually that will suffice to provide different effects. So basically, you see here these three molecules, they have different effects in the brain, but they all have a very similar structure like you almost the left side of all of them is pretty much the same. It’s only that right corner which seems to be fluctuating. Same thing you can see in these two proteins like hemoglobin and chlorophyll; very similar structures just a few kind of iron changed around here, in there like Iron, is there anymore lawmagnesium is there in chlorophyll and they do different processes, but similar processes, like they bind oxygen and do things like that. So I think based on the circumstantial evidence like these hints, we should be able to kind of formulate a hypothesis and this is, of course, a scientific method really. You make some observations, you see that there are some weird patterns and you start making some theories about those patterns, make a prediction, then you see if there’s an evidence and then you test and then you see again. So I think what my hypothesis would be that maybe all these Mantras, Mudras etc are some form of inward communication, usually communication your things like coming from inside and your community is somebody outside. But these practices were supposed to be done in private or obviously there’s nobody is looking at you. So I think they might primarily meant to communicate from the conscious level to unconscious structures within the nervous system and this conserved structure perform the basics of the delivery process and the modifications are for specific targeting to maybe for each Devata that’s a specific target.
And my last part of the talk is that these are interesting, but at the same time none of this is going to be effective without this phenomenon which apparently is called Supaatrata. This is actually my guru and he told me, who teaches me, the Durga Sapta sadhana, that I do, he said do this. Supaatrata is basically the ability to receive something and unless you have that, it will not really make any impact upon you, which to me initially sounded like kind of strange and it read about this guy. I don’t know if you guys have heard of him, his name is U G Krishnamurti. He was a contemporary of Jiddu Krishnamurti like famous philosophers both of Indian origin. So when he went to Ramana Maharishi and said this thing called enlightenment or moksha ‘can you give it to me’. So Ramana Maharishi said I can give it to you, but can you take it, so and this guy apparently got like very upset, how he could say something like that. But then when you think about it, it seems like there’s a lot of truth hidden in that, like I think the most simple example for people like us is this cup of coffee, like you know a lot of other addicted to it. I myself am, I go there spend a lot of money on these Starbucks and all these things when you give the same coffee to a baby or a child he will spit it out, but you give it to an adult, who’s fond of this, they really like seek out various specific flavors even if there’s no sugar or anything they kind of appreciate all these subtle notes which the baby just did not appreciate, you just spit it out.
So clearly the coffee has not changed, what has changed is the cognitive structure which has been processing and receiving the signals from the coffee. So I basically would like to leave you with something which illustrates this principle of Supaatrata. So this is kind of this wall sort of things small ten into ten inch which is hanging in my house in the puja room in Chennai. My cousins had got it when they went to the Shirdi Sai Baba temple, three four years ago. When I got it, I don’t really know what to make of it, was just like one of the various things.But from my perspective now, after learning all this other stuff about Tantra and neuroscience, I feel like this is a very condensed representation of some really tremendous insights about the nervous system. With each civilization you can say, the United States is known for putting a man on the moon or China is known for the great wall. I think this is really the crowning glory of our people and I think it’s a high time that we dug into it in a very scientific manner and try to really understand all the stuff that they were trying to tell us.
Thank you, and that’s my email address, if you guys want to contact me.