“Matter or object is related to spirit or subject; and the subject or spirit is equally related to the object or matter. If there were no object. there would be no subject; and if there were no subject; and if there were no subject, there would be no object. For on either side alone nothing could be achieved”
Kaushitaki Upanishad, III, 8.
Spirit and Matter
Spirit and matter have always been subjects for discussion in science, philosophy and religion. The great thinkers of all countries have tried their best to understand the true meanings of these two terms and to establish their mutual relation. The two words have various synonyms, such as ego and non-ego, subject and object, mind and matter.
Scientists and philosophers have advanced many theories from time to time to explain their ideas and conceptions about them and have arrived at different conclusions. Some say that spirit or mind or ego is the cause of matter, while others reverse the relation and believe that matter is the cause of spirit or mind or ego.
These conclusions have given foundation to the various explanations of the universe, which can be classified under three heads,—the spiritualistic or idealistic, the materialistic, and the monistic theories.
The spiritualistic or idealistic theory claims that spirit or mind is the creator of matter and energy, hence of all material objects; and it denies the existence of matter as distinct and separate from the mode or condition of spirit or mind. The materialistic theory, on the contrary, maintains that matter produces spirit, mind, ego or subject.
There have been many idealistic or spiritualistic philosophers in different countries at different times. In India, Greece, Germany, and England have arisen a number of idealists like Bishop Berkeley, who have denied the existence of the external world and also of matter as an entity separate from mental ideas.
Modem Christian Science, which teaches that there is no such thing as matter but that everything is mind, has been built upon this idealistic doctrine of Bishop Berkeley and other philosophers of the same school. In America it is new, because the nation is new. America has not yet produced any great idealistic philosopher.
The materialistic theory of the universe, on the other hand, is maintained by a large majority of the scientists, physicists, chemists, medical practitioners and the evolutionists of the present time. They try to deduce everything from matter, and claim that it is the cause of mind, ego or spirit.
Although there are thousands and millions of people all over the world who advocate this theory and call themselves materialists, still very few can define the term matter and give a clear idea of what they understand by it.
“What is matter? Has anybody ever seen matter? This question can be asked of the materialists. Do we see matter? No. We see color. Is color the same as matter? No. It is a quality. Where does it exist? An uneducated man may think that the color of a flower, as perceived, exists in the flower.
But the physiologists explain that the color which is perceived does not exist as such in the flower, but that it is a sensation caused by a certain order of vibrations coming in contact with our consciousness through the medium of the optic nerves.
This may seem strange, but it is true. The perception of color is a compound effect produced by vibrations of ether, which, entering through the eyes, create another set of vibrations in the brain cells; and these vibrations, when translated by the conscious entity, are called sensations.
Color, therefore, is the result of the blending of the objective and subjective elements. It is the product of the combination of that which comes from the outside world and that which is given by the subjective or mental activities.
Thus we can understand that color does not rest in the flower; but it depends upon the retina, optic nerves and brain cells as well, so it cannot be the same as matter. Similarly we may ask: Is sound which we hear the same as matter?
No it is the result of a certain kind of vibration plus the conscious activity of the mind. If you go to sleep, the vibration of sound will enter through your ears and be carried through the auditory nerves into the brain cells, but you will not hear it, because the percipient mind is not there to translate the vibration into the sensation of sound.
Sound, therefore, is not the same as matter. In the same manner it can be shown that the other senses do not give us any information about that which we call matter. Then we ask: what is matter? John Stewart Mill defines matter as the “permanent possibility of sensation,” and mind as the “permanent possibility of feeling.” Are we better off after hearing this definition? On the contrary, it is more confusing.
The whole difficulty lies in the word “possibility.” It means, matter is that which permanently makes sensation possible, and mind or spirit is that which permanently makes feeling possible; or, in other words
matter is that which can be permanently felt or perceived, that which is the object of feeling; and spirit is that which can permanently feel or perceive, that which is the subject of feeling.
That which permanently makes sensation possible can never be revealed by the senses, for the senses are no more than open doors for our sensations.
All that we can predicate of matter is that it causes sensations. When we try to know its nature per se, or any particulars concerning it, our senses do not help us.
The eyes are only instrumental in perceiving the sensation of color, the ears of sound, nostrils of odor. Our perception of the external world is limited by these sense powers, and all sensations are either direct or indirect results of our sense activities.
Although we know that matter is something which exists in space and time and causes various sensations, still we cannot see or touch it. That which corresponds to the name “matter” will always remain intangible.
We may touch a chair, a piece of wood or gold, but we cannot touch matter by itself. This is very curious. Gold or stone is not matter, but it is that which is produced by matter. Matter appears as wood or stone.
It may be interesting to know the history of the term matter. This word is derived from the Latin materies, meaning “stuff,” and it was originally used in the sense of the solid wood of a tree or a timber for building.
Gradually a generalized concept was formed which meant anything substantial out of which some other thing was fashioned. When a wooden statue was made, the form was distinguished from the substance wood or materies. Here it was still wood.
But when a statue was made of stone or metal it was still called materies. Thus the name materies signified the substance out of which something was shaped or fashioned. Gradually when the question arose,
“What was the substance out of which this world was made ?”
the answer was materies or matter. So the word matter docs not mean any definite thing. It is used for that unknown substance out of which the known objects of perception are formed. Here ends the literal and real meaning of the term.
Matter can be used in the sense of any unknown substance which lies at the bottom or foundation of some form or object. For instance, in our ordinary conversation we use this word in such expressions as “What is the matter?” “It does not matter,” “Important matter,” “Decaying matter.”
In science and philosophy, however, matter is that unknown substance out of which all phenomenal forms are fashioned. It is beyond sense perception, yet it underlies all the objects of the universe. It is not the same as space or time, but it fills space, manifests itself in time, and cannot be limited by the category of causality.
All these ideas are included in the meaning of the term matter. When we think of that substance of which the universe is the appearance, we
imagine that it is vast, immense, marvelous and possessed of wonderful powers, which are constantly changing. But what is matter? Is it one or many? It is one. We cannot say that it is many.
Herbert Spencer says:
“Our conception of matter, reduced to its simplest shape, is that of coexistent positions that offer resistance, as contrasted with our conception of space in which the coexistent positions offer no resistance.”
(First Principles, p. 140.) Let us understand the difference between space and matter. Space is extension offering no resistance, but that which offers resistance and lies in space is matter. He also states:
“Of these two inseparable elements, the resistance is primary and the extension is secondary.”
As, for example, when we touch something it resists, then we have an idea of resistance; but when we spread our hand that feeling of resistance extends also in space. Herbert Spencer says again: “Our experience of force is that out of which the idea of matter is built up. . . . That which opposes our muscular energy is immediately present to consciousness in the terms of force. Hence forces, standing in a certain correlation in space, form the whole content of matter.” Furthermore, he adds:
“Matter and motion, as we know them, are differently conditioned manifestations of force. They are the concretes built up from the contents of various mental relations.”
In order to feel resistance there must be present one who feels; and then the force that is felt is the primary cause which gives rise to the conception of matter.
Again, matter has not been created by anybody. No one has ever seen, nor can anyone imagine the creation of matter out of nothing or its total annihilation. According to modem science, matter in its true nature is a substance uncreatable and indestructible, that is, it was neither created out of nothing nor can it go back into nothing.
There are various other definitions of matter.
Some physicists say that matter is
“whatever possesses the property of gravitative attraction.”
But still this does not tell us its true nature. We can only say that there is some substance which responds to attractions. Ernst Haeckel, again, defines matter as
“infinitely extended substance, and spirit as all-embracing energy of thought.”
After studying these various definitions, we learn that matter is that substance of the universe which makes up the objective world, or that which can be perceived by the senses and cognized by the mind. It is always objective, and spirit or mind is always subjective, always the perceiver or cognizer of matter, the knower of the object. Now we can understand the difference,—spirit is the perceiver and knower, while matter is that which is perceived, sensed and known. The one is the subject and the other is the object. These two exist in relation to each other. The objective world or matter forms only one-half, while the other half is the subjective world
or spirit. Therefore, the materialistic theory, which admits the existence of the object and denies the existence of spirit or mind or the subject, is onesided and imperfect. It ignores the fact that matter or object can only exist as related to the subject.
The materialistic theory is a logical blunder, because it is based upon a confusion between object and subject. It asserts that matter is objective, but at the same time it tries to show that it is also the cause of the subject, which can never be. "A" can never become "non-A."
Materialism begins with the idea that matter is objective, and ends in attempting to prove that this objective something has become the subjective mind, spirit or ego. It first takes for granted that matter is that which is perceived, or the cause of sensations, then it gradually claims to show that it produces that which feels the sensations, which is self-contradictor}’ and absurd.
As materialism is onesided and imperfect, so is the spiritualistic or idealistic theory of
the world, which denies the existence of matter or object, and says that everything is mind. The theory of modem Christian Science,— that all is mind and that there is no matter, is as erroneous as the materialistic theory Spirit or mind or ego, which is always the subject, can exist as perceiver or knower so long as there is an object of perception and of knowledge. If we admit the existence of one, that of the other is implied.
Therefore, Goethe was correct in saying: “Matter cannot exist and be operative without spirit or spirit without matter.”
The universal substance appears as possessing these two attributes of subject and object, of spirit, mind or ego and matter or non-ego. They are like the two modes of the one eternal substance, which is unknown and unknowable existence. It was called “Substantia” by Spinoza. Herbert Spencer calls it the “Unknowable.” It is the same as “Ding an sich,” or the transcendental thing-in-itself of Kant; Plato named it the “Good.”
It is the “Over-Soul” of Emerson; while in Vedanta it is called “Brahman,” the absolute substance of the universe, the infinite and eternal source of matter and mind, of object and subject. This substance is not many but one.
All varieties of phenomena have come out of this one source, Brahman, and into it they will be reduced at the time of dissolution. It is the universal energy the mother or producer of all forces.
We know that all forces are related to one another and that they are, as modem science explains, the manifestations of the same eternal energy or the infinite substance.
From this one source all mental and physical phenomena and material forces have come into existence, and have evolved into various forms and shapes. This is monism. The monistic thinkers of the present age, like Ernst Haeckel and others, admit this one eternal substance as the source of mind, matter and all forces. They also accept the great truth which has always been taught by Vedanta that
“From that infinite substance or Brahman, the Absolute Being, have evolved life-force or Prana, mind, all the mental activities, and the sense powers, which are included in the meaning of the term “spirit” or subject on the one hand, and, on the other, space or ether, and all gaseous, liquid and solid objects which are understood by matter!”
Matter in its simplest state can be reduced to the same infinite substance Brahman, which forms the background of mind or spirit. Therefore, Vedanta teaches that the eternal substance is both the material and the efficient cause of the universe. Although it is one, still it appears as many by its inscrutable power known in Vedanta as “Maya.”
This world is not made up of dead matter alone. It is not the product of the combination of those minute particles called atoms. Until lately the western physicists, chemists and other materialists believed that these atoms were indivisible units floating in the infinite space, attracting and repelling one another, mechanically producing the elements of nature and creating the phenomenal world.
But now, through the application of electricity, J. J. Thomson, the great English scientist, has proved that the so-called indivisible atoms can be subdivided into still finer electrons, which are nothing but the force-centers of the ancient Hindu scientist.
If atoms are made up of electrons, and electrons are but force-centers, where do they exist? They exist in that primordial ocean of infinite substance or Brahman, the receptacle of the eternal energy which is in turn the mother of all forces.
Thus, we can understand how matter and force are related to the one substance or Brahman. The objective side of that substance appears as matter, and the subjective side as spirit.
I have already said that it is a scientific truth that matter is indestructible and uncreatable; so is force.
Matter and force can be transformed into various manifestations, but can never be destroyed.
Now the question rises: If the one half of the world or objective matter and force be uncreatable and indestructible, then what is the nature of spirit? Is it creatable and destructible? If the objective half of the universe be uncreatable and indestructible, how can the other half, the subjective mind or spirit, be creatable and destructible? That is impossible.
Spirit or mind in its simplest form is equally uncreated and indestructible. If matter or object be eternal, then the spirit or subject must also be eternal to make it possible for the object to be eternal. Who will know that matter and force are eternal, if the spirit or subject be not equally eternal?
This point has been overlooked by most of the eminent thinkers and scientists of different countries. The eternality of matter and force or energy presupposes the eternality of spirit or mind. If the one falls, both will disappear.
Therefore the ultimate analysis of spirit and matter shows thai both are uncreatable indestructible and eternal. If the one pole of a magnet be eternal, the other pole must necessarily be eternal. Furthermore, the neutral point where both meet must also be eternal.
This universe is like a gigantic magnet, one pole of which is matter, and the other is spirit, while the neutral point is the absolute substance. For this reason these three, matter, spirit, and Brahman are eternal.is the property of everything within the realm of time and space.
In Vedanta, spirit is called the Atman, the cognizer, the perceiver and the subject. It is our true Self. It existed in the eternal past and will continue to exist in the eternal future. Nothing can destroy it. The phenomenal world, which is the object of sense perception, may change from one form into another, but the Atman or Self will never change. It is absolutely unchangeable. "Weapons cannot pierce it, water cannot moisten it, fire cannot burn it, nor can the air dry it." It is indissoluble, immutable and immortal substance. It is not destroyed at the time of death. Death
All objects that have form are subject to death. Birth is followed by death. That which is born must die. Our body will die, because it had its birth and exists in space and time. But the Atman or spirit cannot die, because it was never born and is beyond space and time. If you try to think of the birth of your spirit, you will never be able to find an absolute beginning; therefore, Atman is beginningless and endless. Everything which can be perceived by our senses will change and pass away, while the Atman or spirit will remain forever.
Here it may be asked whether spirit is one or many? The same question may be asked of matter. Is matter one or many? We have seen that matter as objective substance is one, although it appears as many on account of its manifestations within space and time. Similarly, says Vedanta, there is one eternal Spirit or Subject of the universe, of which the individual spirits or egos are but so many
manifestations. They are but parts of one stupendous whole or universal spirit or God. God is the eternal Subject or Knower of the world. He is the cosmic Ego, the sum-total of all individual spirits or egos and more.
He is the one Infinite Being, the eternal ocean, which contains so many eddies or souls. The cosmic Ego or God is the first-born Lord of the universe. He is the first and highest manifestation of the Absolute Substance or Brahman.
He is the material and the efficient cause of all phenomena. He is the projector of evolution. He differentiates subject from object, spirit or ego from matter or non-ego.
In Him everything exists, through Him all beings live, and into Him they return in the end. He is more powerful than all the individual spirits together. We possess small powers; as our knowledge is limited so are our powers; but God is the one substance whose power is unlimited. He dwells everywhere. He forms the background of our individual spirit and possesses eternal knowledge. He is the Soul of our souls. We should meditate on Him and worship Him; then we shall understand he relation between spirit and matter.
“He is the one Eternal Being in the midst of all non-eternal forms and names. He is the one Source of intelligence in the midst of insentient matter. He makes that one substance appear as many and fulfills all desires dwelling within the hearts of all creatures. Whosoever realizes Him in his soul attains to eternal bliss even in this life.”
“The infinite and eternal truth, Brahman, Pervades the whole universe, the visible and invisible. If the visible be taken away, ( if the perceptible phenomena be destroyed) that which will be left is the infinite.” May we realize the Infinite in this life; may we attain to that truth and enjoy peace forever.
“Peace, peace, peace to all living creatures.”
THE LOTUS FEET
BHAGAVAN SRI RAMAKRISHNA
My Divine Guru
THE BLISS OF SELF-KNOWLEDGE
Self Knowledge by Swami Abhendanada published 1905