What is Meditation?

Meditation is a contemplative practice common in all major religions. The goal of meditation has been disentangling one's self from the externals. Thus, serenity and tranquility of mind, absolving obessesive thoughts, regulating one's emotions, etc. are the characteristics of meditation practices. In recent years, meditation research has attracted considerable attention in broader neuroscientific and cognitive science communities. Buddhist meditations like Samatha, Vipassana, Loving-Kindness, etc. have been extensively studied showing their neural underpinnings associated with handling anxiety, stress, depression and other mental health issues.

In essence, meditation is a straightforward practice that can be performed in any location without the need for special equipment or workout attire. The individual starts by adopting a comfortable posture, avoiding excessive tension or looseness, and cultivating a sincere wish for personal transformation, the well-being of others, and the relief of their suffering. Subsequently, the practitioner focuses on calming the mind, which tends to be disrupted by incessant inner chatter. Achieving mastery over the mind involves breaking free from automatic mental conditioning and resolving inner confusion.

However, rich and diverse culture and philosophy of India has produced several other kinds of meditation practices, particularly those emphasing Bhakti (devotion). One of the primary features of such meditation is something called "Nama-Sankirtan", i.e., loud chanting and listening of mantras and names of the Almighty. This is sometimes associated with dance performances. Other forms includes "Japa" or silent chanting of names of the Almighty. However, these kinds of meditations are strikingly different from Buddhist meditations wherein negation of thoughts and emotions takes precedence. On the otherhand, the latter forms of meditations is more saturated with self-less emotions for the Almighty, the characteristics of Bhakti.

Meditation and Neuroscience

Neuroscientists have delineated four stages within the cognitive cycle of the meditation process, attempting to sustain attention on breathing. These stages include: an occurrence of the mind wandering, a point of recognizing the distraction, a period of redirecting attention, and a return to concentrated focus. Each of the four phases engages specific brain networks. In the initial stage of the cycle, when a distraction arises, there is heightened activity in the broad default-mode network (DMN). This network comprises regions such as the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, precuneus, inferior parietal lobe, and lateral temporal cortex. The DMN is recognized for its activation during mind wandering and its general involvement in constructing and revising internal models of the world derived from long-term memories related to oneself or others.

The second stage, the awareness of a distraction, is associated with the activity of other brain regions, including the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex, forming part of the salience network. This network is believed to play a crucial role in determining which stimuli merit attention. In this phase, its activity may facilitate the redirection of the mind away from distractions. The third phase involves additional areas, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the lateral inferior parietal lobe, which participate in orienting attention. Finally, in the fourth and concluding phase, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, responsible for monitoring attention, maintains a heightened level of activity as the meditator's focus remains directed towards an object, such as the breath.

Researchers noticed varying activity patterns based on a practitioner's level of experience. Seasoned meditators with over 10,000 hours of practice exhibited heightened activity in attention-related brain regions compared to beginners. Interestingly, the most proficient meditators displayed less activation than those with less experience. Advanced meditators seem to attain a level of expertise that allows them to achieve a focused state of mind with reduced effort. These outcomes mirror the proficiency seen in expert musicians and athletes who can engage in the "flow" of their performances with minimal feelings of exerted control.

The brain undergoes transformations through a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. For instance, the brain region responsible for coordinating a violinist's finger movements expands as mastery of the instrument is achieved. A comparable phenomenon seems to occur during meditation. While the external environment remains unchanged, the meditator modulates mental states to attain a form of inner enrichment, an encounter that influences both brain functioning and its physical structure.

Biomarkers for active vs passive meditation

There has been many neuro-scientific studies on Buddhist kind of meditation and the associated bio-markers. However, for most part, these meditations are not immersed in active emotions, a hall mark for meditation practices in Bhakti traditions. Thus, it is important to take up study the nature of mind-wandering and sustained attention imbued with deep emotions. Our current ongoing studies attempts to uncover this.

What is Space of Mental State?

In our ordinary perception, the dynamics of gross objects are modelled using classical and quantum laws. The mathematical descriptors in that model assume ontological equivalence with the the real objects. Thus, the reality is equated with the model. However, the process of perception involves sensory information from the external object getting processed in complicated neural strcuture of brain. However, we do not know how neural representation leads to experience and generation of meaning is not understood.

In "neurogeometry," an interdisciplinary field exploring how our brains process the visual world through geometric structures. Alessandro Sarti and Giovanna Citti, leading figures in this domain, have delved into its principles, revealing the intricate link between brain architecture and perceived geometric forms. Our perceptions, memories, and dreams abound with geometric motifs. Within the neurogeometrical framework, we uncover a profound symbiosis between the brain's neural networks and the pervasive geometric patterns shaping our experiences.

In his book, "The Geometry of Meaning: Semantics Based on Conceptual Spaces," Peter Gärdenfors proposes that our comprehension of the world is organized through conceptual spaces. These spaces offer a geometric framework for our thoughts, enabling us to traverse the intricate landscape of concepts and ideas. The notion of the "geometry of thought," as envisioned by Gärdenfors, represents an exploration into the architecture of human cognition. It ventures into the intricate pathways of the mind, where concepts transcend abstract notions, inhabiting a multi-dimensional space where semantic meaning is conveyed through distances and directions.

Samkhya system emphasises a new type of causality based on the meaning, rather than the physical property as customarily considered in modern science. The ontology it conceives are real, nested and hierarchical. Thus, the abstract space that holds the ontologies is sometimes termed as semantic space or perceptual space. In this nested and hierarchical abstractions of meanings or semantics, the lower levels are built out of higher abstractions. Thus, the study of perception essentially involves all levels of meanings together. Our current attempts involve exploring neural imprints of this semantic causality in case of meditation and mind-wandering.

What is Perception?

As our sensory receptors continually gather information from the surroundings, it is the interpretation of this information that shapes our interactions with the world. Perception encompasses the organization, interpretation, and conscious experience of sensory information. It incorporates both bottom-up and top-down processing. Bottom-up processing acknowledges that perceptions are constructed based on sensory input. Conversely, the interpretation of these sensations is influenced by our existing knowledge, experiences, and thoughts, a phenomenon known as top-down processing.

Perception in Modern Science

The neuroscientific basis of perception refers to the study of how the nervous system, particularly the brain, processes and interprets sensory information from the environment. Perception involves the organization and interpretation of sensory inputs, such as visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile stimuli. Neuroscientists explore the intricate neural processes that underlie our ability to perceive and make sense of the world around us.

Key components of the neuroscientific basis of perception include sensory receptors, neural pathways, and various brain regions dedicated to specific aspects of perception. Sensory receptors detect external stimuli and convert them into electrical signals, which are then transmitted through neural pathways to specific areas of the brain for processing. Different sensory modalities are associated with distinct brain regions; for example, the visual cortex is responsible for processing visual information, while the auditory cortex handles auditory stimuli.

Neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to reorganize itself in response to experience, plays a crucial role in shaping perception. Through learning and repeated exposure, neural connections are strengthened or weakened, influencing how the brain processes and interprets sensory information. Additionally, top-down processing, which involves higher-level cognitive factors like expectations, attention, and memory, also contributes to the neuroscientific basis of perception. However, the fundamental question related to how neural percept translates to subjective or phenomenonal awareness points to the hard problem of consciousness.

According to Alan Saks and Gary Johns, there are three components to perception: the perceiver, the target, and the environment. It is important to see when one of these is obstructed, whether brain can lead to similar percept in some certain cases. Our current endeavours are focused on a so-called tacto-visual perception wherein the subjects are blind-folded and yet, they are able to have close to normal visual perception. We are looking for cognitive bio-markers for such a case.

Perception in Samkhya

In Samkhya philosophy, Tanmatras are subtle elements representing the primordial essences of the five gross elements—Akasha (space), Vayu (air), Tejas (fire), Jala (water), and Prithvi (earth). The pancha-mahabhutas are not to be confused with their literal meanings. They represent the abstract space that holds the corresponding Tanmatras. These Tanmatras serve as the foundational components of the material world, existing in a refined state before manifesting as the gross elements. The five Tanmatras are Shabda (Sound), Sparsha (Touch), Rupa (Form), Rasa (Taste), and Gandha (Smell), corresponding to the senses of hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell, respectively. According to Samkhya, the interplay of these Tanmatras with the senses, mind, and intellect results in the perception of the external world. For instance, the Tanmatra of Sound interacts with the sense of hearing and the mind, giving rise to the perception of sound.


What is Bhagavata Samkhya?

The Samkhya tradition holds a significant position in the intellectual history of India, being one of the oldest and most influential. Its foundational concepts, including prakriti, purusa, buddhi, ahamkara, manas, and the three gunas, have provided the conceptual framework shaping much of Indian philosophical thought. This framework influenced not only the classical Samkhya itself but also played a crucial role in the development of classical formulations (sutras) in Yoga, Vedanta, various traditions of Buddhist philosophy, and meditation.

It is interesting to note that the antiquity of the Samkhya system traces back to a much older period compared to the classical Samkhya which is often seen as atheistic. The Samkhya system described in Bhagavat Purana is a theistic Samkhya system described by Sage Kapila, the son mother Devahuti and Kardama muni. This is often termed as Bhagavat Samkhya.

Beyond philosophical discourse, the impact of Samkhya extended to broader cultural domains. It left a profound mark on fields such as law, medicine, ancient science, mathematics, logic, cosmology, and ritual. Across centuries, Samkhya's intellectual perspective permeated various aspects of Indian culture, contributing significantly to its rich and diverse heritage of India.

Literary contributions of Gaudiya Acharyas

Generally, the followers of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu are known as Gaudiya Vaishnavas, belonging to the Madhva sampradaya in the lineage of Madhavendra Puri. Although Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu did not personally write any books, his followers have left behind prolific literary works. The six gosvamis of Vrindavan, headed by Srila Rupa and Srila Sanatan, produced many works describing unalloyed devotion to Lord Krishna. The Vedanta philosophy systematized by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was later expounded by Srila Jiva Gosvami as Achintya-Bheda-Abheda (simultaneously one and different) philosophy in his six-volume master piece work, Bhagavat Sandarbha. Other prominent figures include Srila Vishwanath Chakravarty, who authored the celebrated Sarartha Darsini commentary on Srimad Bhagavatam. His student, Srila Baladev Vidya Bhushan, wrote the Gaudiya commentary on Vedanta Sutra, also known as Govinda Bhasya.

One interesting feature of Gaudiya teachers, such as Srila Narottam Das Thakur and Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur, among others, is that they disseminated the core teachings of Vedanta in colloquial language to reach out to the masses. Particularly during the colonial period, the tradition was highly corrupted due to a lack of authentic education and ill practices. In this period, Bhaktivinoda Thakur and his capable son, Bhakti Siddhanta Sarasvati Thakur, took pains to contextualize the teachings in the face of the evolving society towards modernity. Later, Srila Prabhupad disseminated the Vedantic tradition in English.

Our current study focuses on the survey of the philosophical foundation of the contextualization of Gaudiya Vaishnavism during the colonial period to embrace modernity and its later ramifications.

Socio-cultural impact of Srimad Bhagavatam

The Srimad Bhagavatam stands as a revered scripture, playing a pivotal role in uniting the diverse cultural tapestry of India. Its influence is profound across various domains. Religiously, it serves as a unifying force within Hinduism, fostering devotion to Lord Krishna and creating a cohesive religious identity that transcends regional and sectarian differences. Culturally, the scripture's narratives, ethical teachings, and philosophical insights contribute to the integration of diverse cultural practices, fostering a shared understanding among the people. Artistically, the stories from the Srimad Bhagavatam inspire a myriad of expressions, from classical dance to visual arts, creating a shared cultural heritage that resonates across India. Philosophically, its emphasis on devotion has provided a common ground for different philosophical traditions, contributing to a sense of shared understanding and purpose. These cultural, religious, and philosophical aspects have led to the celebration of festivals like Janmashtami across India, creating a collective experience that unites people in joyous festivities. In literature, its verses inspire poets and scholars, contributing to a shared literary heritage that transcends regional and linguistic boundaries, while its ethical teachings influence the collective conscience of the Indian people. In summary, the Srimad Bhagavatam stands as a beacon of unity in India, weaving together the diverse threads of religion, culture, art, philosophy, festivals, literature, and ethics into a rich and harmonious tapestry that reflects the cultural heritage of the nation.