The Operation and Nature of the Senses of Perception

When we examine the operation of sense perception, we generally treat the senses as extensions of the mind.  Whether it is sight, hearing, smell, taste or touch, we recognise the senses as receiving the impressions of the material world, translating them into nervous impulses which are routed to the brain, where the mental interpretation of what was experienced takes place.  Sense perception can break down at any stage of this process and in such cases we diagnose someone as being blind, deaf etc.  Some Western psychologists, studying the issue, have pointed out that we do not have a direct experience of the material world as the process involves several steps of translation of whatever impinged upon the senses into a form of electrical-chemical energy into some understanding in the mind.  Yet there are experiences that seem to transcend the action of the physical senses, and even those that go beyond the conscious experience in the mind, which lead us to appreciate that this basic understanding is severely limited and incomplete.

The Kena Upanishad took up the relation of the senses and the mind, and the wider context of experiencing life in the world.  Verses 6 and 7 directly take up the question of sense perception in its true sense:

“That which sees not with the eye, that by which one sees the eye’s seeings, know That to be the Brahman and not this which men follow after here.  That which hears not with the ear, that by which the ear’s hearing is heard, know That to be the Brahman and not this which men follow after here.”

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “Sense, however, is not or does not appear to be fundamental; it is only an instrumentation of Mind using the nervous system.  It is not even a pure mental functioning, but depends so much upon the currents of the Life-force, upon its electric energy vibrating up and down the nerves, that in the Upanishads the senses are called Pranas, powers or functionings of the Life-force.  It is true that Mind turns these nervous impressions when communicated to it into mental values, but the sense-action itself seems to be rather nervous than mental.  In any case there would, at first sight, appear to be no warrant in reason for attributing a Sense of the sense to that which is not embodied, to a supramental consciousness which has no need of any such instrumentation.”

“But this is not the last word about sense; this is only its outward appearance behind which we must penetrate. … In its functioning, if we analyse that thoroughly, we see that it is the contact of the mind with an eidolon of Matter, — whether that eidolon be of a vibration of sound, a light-image of form, a volley of earth-particles giving the sense of odour, an impression of rasa or sap that gives the sense of taste, or that direct sense of disturbance of our nervous being which we call touch.  … the mind operates upon Matter not directly, but through the Life-force; that is its instrument of communication and the Life-force, being in us a nervous energy and not anything material, can seize on Matter only through nervous impressions of form, through contactual images, as it were, which create corresponding values in the energy-consciousness called int he Upanishads the Prana.  Mind takes these up and replies to them with corresponding mental values, mental impressions of form, so that the thing sensed comes to us after a triple process of translation, first the material eidolon, secondly the nervous or energy-image, third the image reproduced in stuff of mind.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Kena Upanishad and analysis, pg. 102, 142-155

4 thoughts on “The Operation and Nature of the Senses of Perception

  1. I have a doubt. It can be easily seen in Aurobindo’s writings that they evolve over time. But instead of taking to one aspect, he ventured into many different branches of wisdom. Savitri was his most refined work. But what about Upanishads and Slveda explanations for example? Because he did not evolve them (coming back to re edit after his own evolution), can we take his statements at a previous date prior to 1945, say, as the grand truth? Just need to know your view.

  2. Much of Sri Aurobindo’s work was written during the period from 1914 through 1920. Not all of it was revised. He has explained the process of how the material was produced through him, not “by” him. At the same time, the idea of anything being a grand or final truth to be accepted by those who read it would likely not have found favor with him. The process of development for each individual involves personal growth and engagement with those writings which speak to one’s present phase of development and need is part of that growth process. Reading the most advanced work and trying to engage with it prior to the point where one is oneself adequately prepared to receive and process it internally is less valuable, potentially, than reading a less advanced work which however suits the need of the moment for the seeker. Sri Aurobindo spent considerable time focusing on ancient writings such as the Veda, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita which, arguably, do not represent the most advanced concepts available today. During this study, he differentiated between timeless insights and those that were bound by the limits of expression of the time. He also pointed out that many “modern” ideas are only now rediscovering what the ancient Rishis had already known. I have seen individuals who try to read Savitri and find that it is something that they are not yet ready for, only to return to it years later and find that it speaks to them.

    • Thanks for the explanation. Though I do not discriminate between advanced or lesser stage in regard to wisdom, I wanted to know how opinion on his works. I think you kind of pointed it. I appreciate your insight. Of course, a deer of his cadet, nothing more is expected than the works being emanated “through him” than “By Him”.

      I’m regard to Savitri, I feel that most of the people approach it in an analytic fashion which has limitation of mind. Aurobindo, just like any Sage of Veda/Purana, weaved the realization in the garb of mythalogical key. One should approach it exactly the way we approach a VEDA – by dissolving the mind. I have had many beautiful moments with Savitri in this way.

      Anyways, when was this blog started and who maintains this? May I know? Just curious. I am pursuing my doctorate in Physics and in the rest of the time I dig deep into scriptural mines and hence the curiosity 🙂

  3. the blog was started in 2009, initially as a way for me to deepen my relationship to and understanding of what Sri Aurobindo wrote. Having spent decades studying the works, i recognized that it really needed a much slower and deeper process which meant, to me, going through the works essentially one paragraph at a time, systematically and internalizing what i could and finding ways to express it to clarify the result. I was encouraged to share these blog posts, and over time found many others who appreciated the approach, so it has been just about 10 years now, starting with The Life Divine and now focusing on The Upanishads, with other major writings in between, all archived and available on this site. As a long-time student of Sri Aurobindo’s yoga, I try to devote time every day to the process. I am the editor in chief at Lotus Press which was founded in order to make Sri Aurobindo’s vision accessible in the West, and which has grown to provide texts on Ayurveda, Hatha Yoga, Reiki and related subjects as well as publishing the major writings of Sri Aurobindo in the USA. I also have been responsible for a non-profit organization Institute for Wholistic Education which has sponsored classes, and other activities over the years. Currently my wife Karuna and I reside in Honolulu Hawaii. Santosh Krinsky

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