An Indian Mystic in the Wild Wild West of Consciousness
Imagine a gathering of hundreds of the world’s leading minds in consciousness research today and then discovering that only two were there representing India’s ancient wisdom traditions. Well it happened and one was Deepak Chopra and the other was me.
On 14 September 2020, over a thousand of the world’s leading neuroscientists, philosophers, computer scientists, and psychologists came together for 5 days in Tucson, well virtual Tucson this year in the age of COVID-19, at the University of Arizona in the United States for the much-acclaimed “The Science of Consciousness” (TSC) conference. Every two years, this conference brings together an extraordinary gathering of minds to discuss the frontiers of consciousness research. Hosted by the pioneer in consciousness-research Stuart Hammerhoff, this gathering has become the go-to event for almost 30 years. The catchphrase “The Hard Problem of Consciousness” was coined by David Chalmers at TSC 1995 and queries whether the brain produces consciousness or does it exist in everything across the universe. Unusually for such a scientific gathering, the conference also regularly invites fringe consciousness teachers from the edges in non-dualism, mysticism, spirituality, parapsychology, and art. This year they chose to include me as one of those, and that too only one of six people of Indian origin presenting at the conference, out of over 200 presenters and panelists.
Now, I am not your regular Indian spiritual teacher. No Swami, Baba, Sri Sri, Sri, or Ji here. I am just an accidental mystic at the threshold of science, Indian wisdom, and experiential transformations. I started life as an architect in London, then became a creative designer, a digital media producer (2 Webby’s to my name), a speaker (TED and TEDx), and a documentary filmmaker in New York and New Delhi. My film, “The Quantum Indians” on Bose, Raman, and Saha was awarded the National Film Award in 2014 and I also made the official MEA and UN film for the first International Day of Yoga in 2015. However, I have always lived a parallel secret life. Since 1998, I have been an explorer and quester on the secretive byways and higher pathways of India’s wisdom traditions taking deep initiations into Kriya Yoga, Kundalini Shakti Tantra, Sri Vidya, Trika, and Raja Yoga. It all started in my early thirties when a few hallucinogenic experiments in London convinced me that there was a whole other reality to discover hidden within human consciousness and I wanted to find it again for myself without artificial, organic, or chemical means. I had not been raised in India, nor was I very Hindu in my outlook so it was a pleasant surprise to me that my quest led me to Sanatani wisdom. When my family and I moved to India in 2007 to raise our child, my quest went deeper and now I teach about this path to thousands on The Shift Network, at my own online academy, and via my videos on Youtube. So here I was, 22 years after this quest began, speaking to the leading consciousness scientists of the World about Turiya, Tantra, and the cosmic dance of Shiva and Shakti.
The conference was a feast of disruptive ideas, outlandish new theories, and eccentric geniuses presenting their discoveries. Scientists from Google presented the future of quantum computing and AI, Carlo Rovelli dismantled time to show how we are conscious because of it, the Nobel laureate Edvard Moser gave the keynote about his new research into spatial and time-based mind-mapping. Jay Sanguinetti of the University of Arizona showed us how sound technology and brain stimulation could induce mindfulness meditative states. Popular youtube phenomenon Don Hoffman spoke about how consciousness was like a desktop full of icons and how everything was an illusion. Andrew Weill, Dennis Mckenna, and Michael Pollan spoke about the healing and therapeutic properties of psychedelics like DMT, LSD, and Psilocybin. Japan-based Indian scientist Bandopadhya spoke about the vibrating principles and resonance that determines consciousness at the quantum level in the brain’s microtubules. Roger Penrose spoke about pre-conscious quantum intelligence that seems to have been there at the start of the Universe — Brahman? And Deepak Chopra spoke about the possibility of an intelligent universe and us evolving teleologically towards a super meta-human state as Sri Aurobindo had predicted. By the end of it, we were all quite overwhelmed with the knowledge and completely inspired at the syncretic potential of where all this could take us (humans). But, I was quite saddened by the lack of our Indian presence at TSC 2020.
In my talk, I explored the magical pre-conscious state we call the Turiya or the fourth state of consciousness in Vedanta, Yoga, and Shaivism and how it can be achieved through contemplation, breath, mantra, yantras, and attention-focussing to transform consciousness and our very reality. I put forward the thesis that Indian rishis, munis, shramanas, sadhus, tantrics, and yogis were actually early incarnations of the same people that were gathered here in virtual Tucson: neuroscientists, philosophers, and psychologists. Indian Upanishads, Shastras, Epics, Puranas, Agamas, and stories are encoded with deep explorations of consciousness. For example, in the Mahabharata, the 5 Pandavas represent our 5 senses, the 5 elements, and the 5 chakras along our spine and Krishna represents our third eye-opening to cosmic consciousness in the pineal gland while the 100 Kauravas represent the world of sensory experiences and distractions that take us away from the spiritual path. I then demonstrated how the Shiva agamas and most importantly the greatest work of Kashmir Shaivism, the 112 dharnas of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, were actually a technical and esoteric manual for entering the Turiya state of consciousness and a set of tools to learn to work with the preconscious mind. I explained how Bhairav was the threshold between fully expanded human consciousness and the vast non-dual conscious singularity that all this research was seeking. As a result, I now have an invitation to partner with a lab to explore the neural effects of Turiya states of meditation techniques using mantras, kriya breathing, and yantras and see if we can help more people to find mental peace and transcendental observation states.
All this made me think again. Why were there so few Indians here with me on this journey? Why do we not go into advanced basic scientific research, psychology, neuroscience, or philosophy? We are great at making the software once the theories have been discovered and then managing the companies that make the applications but why can’t we influence the research and thinking going on in consciousness labs around the world. Our spiritual and religious leaders cannot speak the modern global language of science, psychology, or mathematics and our scientists seem not to be interested in the philosophy of consciousness. This reiterated what I had learned 7 years ago when I made my film “The Quantum Indians” on Bose, Raman, and Saha and discovered that since Raman’s Nobel Prize in 1928, no Indian had been awarded a Nobel while working in India. Indians have had to go overseas to succeed in research. Although Silicon Valley today is filled with Indian tech CEOs, managers, programmers, and developers, so few Indians are at the cutting edge of research, science, or invention. If you look at our history, Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, JD Krishnamurti, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Iyengar were equally at ease with Yogis as with scientists or politicians or artists and they could speak intelligently with all those worlds. The age of those great teachers is gone. Today our mystics and religious leaders and politicians are very defensive about Indian wisdom and traditions and chauvinistic in their outlooks about their imagined superiority rather than influencing the new revolutions underway in science and philosophy like their educated predecessors had done. This made me really sad.
As I came away with my own discoveries and revitalized focus, I felt we had a more important job to do. To lift the consciousness of young Indians again as Swami Vivekananda had done back in the 1890s, to realize that one can be mystical, scientific, progressive, and philosophical all at the same time and still make and be a change in the world. Our ancients were great students of the human mind and human consciousness and yet were able to stare in awe at the numinous universe they beheld. We should learn from them to continuously examine where we have come from, where we are going, and who we really are. This was the ideal of the Upanishads and is the same ideal of Science today and we need to be a part of that dialogue. We really need to discover ourselves again and step forward and make a contribution to the new dialogues in science and philosophy.
Else, as Stewart Brand the founder of the Long Now Foundation once aptly put it, “once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.” There can be nothing worse than being irrelevant and screaming from the sidelines while living an unexamined life. It is time to wake up India and become truly conscious.
Raja Choudhury is a National Film Award-winning Indian documentary filmmaker, TED and TEDx speaker, and teacher of Indian consciousness, wisdom, practices, and principles on The Shift Network and A Thousand Suns Academy. His next film for US Public TV is called America’s First Guru and tells the story of Swami Vivekananda’s great journey to America and how he transformed the West. Raja lives in New Delhi and speaks and teaches all over the World.