Saturday, May 16, 2009


Does it matter whether it is physical pain or psychological sorrow? It is a pain, a suffering. Advaita does not end "suffering." Advaita ends the "sufferer" in you (i.e. a distinct 'entity' and the sense of 'embodiment' engendered by coalescing perceptions).

What is the probability of success of ending the 'sufferer' in you by Advaita? Based on Bhagavad-Gita Sloka 3, Chapter VII, Prof. Sobottka estimates it to be <1 in a billion! JK expresses in his dialogs with a few Buddhists that there is nothing like 'my suffering' or 'her suffering'. What there is, is just 'suffering', 'anger' etc. Suffering becomes mine only when my thoughts start reacting to it and claim ownership to it. He does not say why suffering should exist at all. Sanatana Dharma too does not explain the fundamental questions of "Why?". The simple answer provided is that suffering is timeless and it works as per the 'Law of Nature' (Niyati in Sanskrit). "Faith" can, however, redeem suffering as Dr. Herb Benson established several decades ago and substantiated by a large amount of later research. Faith is the key factor in the working of placebos. Faith helps in the production of the necessary endorphins, opioids and canabonoids in the brain and they in turn help in alleviating the pain. This is the secret behind the healing by Swamis, Saints, monks and holy people. (See below for a one-page write up of mine on "Pain, Suffering and Placebo" originally published in Consecration, 2005, p: 19).

Negative beliefs, called nocebos, have been proved to act negatively with deleterious effects on the human body.

Neuroscientist Prof. C. deCharms of Omneuron says that "you can control your brain to control your pain." He designed a 'Real Time fMRI Machine' lying in which a patient with chronic pain can see the pathways of neuronal firing in his/her brain and modify the firing consciously (taking help of a few cues provided) so that he/she is relieved of the pain. Patients reported 44% - 64% reduction in their chronic pain in clinical trials by this method.

(See here a 3-min demo lecture of his.)


By Dr. Vemuri Ramesam

“It’s a miracle. The holy ash given by the Great Baba cured my unbearable pain!”
“An affectionate touch and a wave of hand by Mata Sri; that’s all; my asthma is gone!”
“The Swami sprinkled holy water and my colic cramps disappeared!”
“The intense gaze of my Guru rid me of my chronic depression!”

 Very often we come across people making such excited statements and strange claims. They make us wonder if they could be true. It was about a half a century ago that Dr. H.K. Beecher of USA reported the “Placebo effect”, by which a third of the patients got better from a mere illusion of the treatment. It has ever since intrigued scientists how a “placebo” – an inert pill not containing any medicine, but for the confidence and suggestion of the doctor – can cure patients. A study in 1993 concluded that sometimes the effects of a placebo may go up to 70 per cent. During 1994 in Houston, even faked surgeries on the knee for arthritis relieved the patients from pain. Patients suffering pain after wisdom-tooth extraction got just as much relief from a fake application of ultrasound. Fifty two percent of the colitis patients treated with placebo showed less inflammation in their intestines. There are a few controversies too regarding some of the placebo studies. Questions on the statistical rigor and possible biases because of the financial and other vested interests of drug firms and health administrators in some of those studies were also raised. However, placebos do seem to work. Drug companies now as a rule test the efficacy of a new drug against a placebo before marketing it.

It is not always known how the placebos work – whether it is the natural waxing and waning of the diseases or unknown remissions or because of the autosuggestion of the patient himself/herself. It also appears that the placebo effect does not interfere with the body’s ability to sense the pain but instead affects how the brain modulates its interpretation to the pain signals. Modern studies using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), PET scans of the brain’s activity and neurochemistry are throwing new light o the effect of the placebos.

Psychology has a major role in the feeling of pain. Unless the brain pays attention, pain is not felt. A mother so very often diverts her child’s attention with a toy or music when the child is crying with pain. There are some very painful procedures that have to be carried out on patients with severe burns. Such patients did not feel pain when their attention was diverted using virtual 3-D games, which the patients played while undergoing the procedures. Dr. H.G. Hoffman who recently carried out the work says, “Human attention is like a spotlight, allowing us to select some information to process and to ignore everything else.”

At the University of Michigan an fMRI study was done on the brains of volunteers exposed to painful electric shocks. In some cases the teachers told the participants (falsely) that a pain-relieving cream had been applied to their skin. When these subjects were given electric shocks, they reported less pain. Their fMRI pictures exhibited increased brain activity in the prefrontal cortex and decreased activity in pain-sensing regions like the thalamus. Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, Neurologist of California, describes the interesting case of a patient who laughs when pricked with a sharp needle. The patients feels the prick. Yet it tickles him rather than hurt. Dr. Ramachandran also describes the pain experienced by patients in a phantom limb that’s not really there (removed surgically). He could study from such cases the information pathways of nerves that convey the sense of pain from the organ to the brain.

Recent advances in Neurochemistry are offering further understanding about pain and pleasure circuits in the brain. Our ancients knew the pleasure inducing chemicals like marijuana, bhang and others. It is known that our brain produces similar compounds to mitigate pain.

Dr. Mechoulam discovered in 1992 a fatty acid produced in the brain that mimics marijuana. He named it “anandamide” after the Sanskrit word ananda meaning “bliss.” Later more chemicals were identified. Work with mice in Germany indicates that such chemicals help in ending bad feelings and pain triggered by memories. There is mounting evidence now that people suffering from depression respond well to a placebo.

Endorphins are chemicals that reduce pain and give us a sense of pleasure. Exercise or some of the foods we eat can produce endorphins in our brain. Scientists from Germany demonstrated in 2008 for the first time that “increased release of endorphins in certain areas of the athletes’ brains during a two-hour jogging session. Body’s own opiates are produced in the same areas of the brain which are involved in the expression of pain.”  Feel-good hormones are released during exercise, a good conversation, and many other aspects of life that give humans pleasure. Researchers at the Rutgers University reported in June 2008 that the feel-good hormones in our brain do not just make us feel good, but also play roles in regulating the stress response and improving resistance to disease. A survey by Dr. Jon Tilburt in 2008 showed that most doctors in the USA prescribed medicines as placebos to their patients.

A recent study using brain scans showed that the prefrontal cortex could inhibit the passage of pain signals. Prefrontal cortex is the area of our higher brain functions. Meditation/relaxation influences its activity. From all these studies we can conclude that we definitely have in us some keys to control our pain and suffering.

Now we can see some convincing linkages between the above findings and the statements and claims of people mentioned at the beginning of this article. Sure enough, the holy water, the ash, the touch and an assuring word all work for in the amelioration of our vexing chronic pains and problems of suffering possibly as placebos. The word placebo means: “I shall please.” These holy men are able to please and inspire us to help ourselves. As long as they can maintain their humility and not exploit the gullible, the holy men have a social value to that extent. That is ingrained in our Eastern tradition, a part of our rubric. We should remember, however, that the placebos work in general in 30 to 40 per cent of the cases. Serious cases of illness do always require medical care.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


(Adopted from my talk on 2 March 2009 at Osmania University, Hyderabad, India)

Eradication of Sorrow and Advaita:

At some stage or other, every sensible man faces the fundamental questions like:
Who am I? What is this world around? How did it come about?

Many ancient Indian Advaitic texts start off the process of Self-inquiry with these fundamental questions (e.g. Aparokshanubhuti, verse 12). It is also usually presented in those texts that ‘suffering and pain’ are the primary causes for such an enquiry (e.g. Bhagavad-Gita takes off with the scene of the psychological pain and despondency of Arjun to whom Lord Krishna teaches Self-knowledge. Gautam Buddha’s Four-fold Path too emphasizes the need to understand the existence and nuances of ‘sorrow’).

A direct answer to the fundamental questions raised at the beginning gets thus deflected towards finding "ways and means" of ‘redemption of sorrow, pain, suffering or misery in the worldly life’ (e.g. Vivekachudamani (Verses 36-40)).

The most common import of all Upanishads is to point out the highest human goal to be the realization of Oneness (Advaita) of ‘self’ and Brahman. Sankara (vide his Commentary on the 4th Sutra, first pada of first adhyaya of Brahma Sutras (tattu samanvayAt)) says that this realization becomes an accomplished fact when there is a total “Eradication of Sorrow.”


A sense of ‘self’ is just an artifact. We acquired ‘self’ as a useful tool in evolution in order to help us in the protection and preservation of the body organism. If ‘me’ vs. other separation is absent, this body will not know whether it is feeding this mouth or the dog there when this body is feeling hungry, needs energy input.

So the sense of ‘self’ gives us a separate identity.

The identity provides:
continuity in time,
a coherence to my experiences,
ownership for my possessions including my limbs and body and
doership for my actions.

Our sense of ‘self’ emanates from our perceptions.
We all experience our body to be part of ourselves. It is a fundamental aspect of ‘self’ awareness. How strong is your internal image of your own ‘self’? This can be found out by a small experiment (known as ‘Rubber hand illusion’). Seat yourself in a chair. Place a rubber hand in your front near to the real hand. Conceal the real hand behind a cardboard screen. Ask your friend to brush the real hand and the rubber hand at the same time. In about 10 – 12 secs you feel the rubber hand is yours. On the top of it your brain begins to disown your own real hand. The temperature in the real hand drops down!
Such a perceptual phenomenon does not happen just for a limb. It can happen to your entire body. Swedish scientists proved two months ago that healthy volunteers could indeed experience other people's bodies as their own through manipulation of their perceptions. A sort of parakaya pravesha you can say!

Suppose you don’t get any sensory input at all. Then you cannot even think you have a body. It happens to you all the time in your deep sleep.

Dr. Goldberg of Israel showed that we might lose our sense of self completely under some conditions of threat for survival.

Lesions in brain may make a patient deny part of his own body like a lady who described a paralyzed hand lying beside her as not hers. This is known as anasognosia. Some persons under certain pathological conditions do not perceive their own bodies. So they claim that they are dead because they do not have a body. This is known as Cotard’s syndrome.

It is obvious from these examples that your sense of ‘self’ or “I” is not a firm entity and gets altered easily.

There is no identifiable entity we can call ‘self’ or a spot for self in the brain. There is no “You” in your head. “ ‘self’ is a post facto construct after the event, language dependent and is the result of confabulation by the left temporal lobe.” Our concept of ‘self’ is a fiction.

Perception – Reality Disconnect:

What the brain creates in our head is a map of what it perceives. It is not a replica of what exactly is ‘out there’ around. What we can infer today from Neuroscience is that our detector apparatus (comprising our senses and mind) is defective or inadequate to know exactly what is there around. Our perceptory and cognitive capabilities evolved mainly for the limited purpose of protecting and preserving the body organism.
There is an obvious disconnect between reality out there and the map in our heads.
Advaita tells us that our perception of the world around is an illusion and our sense of ‘self’ or I-consciousness is a fallacious non-entity (aabhaasa). That is what exactly what Neuroscience too tells us.


Our thoughts constitute our mind. It is not made up of any unintelligible diaphanous, ‘mindstuff’. We could detect and record thoughts as the electrical waves generated by our brain. We are able to harness those energy waves to do work for us. Paraplegics can move their wheel chairs just by their thoughts. Mattel is bringing out even Toys this year exploiting this principle.

Majority of Neuroscientists do not think mind is a separate entity from brain. Of course, there are a few of them talking about substance dualism, but that is certainly a dwindling minority.

Mind has been identified as the principal reason for happiness or unhappiness in man.
Vedanta laid considerable attention to one of our mind’s trait which may be called ‘Objectification.’ Mind cannot grasp or understand any observation, any percept, made by the senses unless it positions itself aloof as a distinct observer, as a separate entity, from what is observed. This basic lacuna of the mind gives an impression that mind has a separate and individual existence of its own having I-consciousness as its center. Vedanta tenaciously makes an effort to point out this limitation and strives to transcend it.

Religion, however, welcomed and took advantage of a related weakness of the mind which is complementary to the quality of individuation i.e. separation. While the tendency to ‘objectify’ can be called as “Reification”, the second quality can be termed as “Deification.” Reification and Deification can be viewed as the fallouts of the universal survival mechanism of ‘fight or flight’ that all living creatures have acquired from the very beginning of evolution of life on earth.

Let me explain this a bit.
In the face of a threat or danger, my mind has to assess whether I can fight it out or should run away from the threatening situation. This assessment does require the perceived thing to be assessed as a distinct object separate from me in order to measure my own ability in controlling the threat. If I am unable to stand up to the threat, the obvious thing to do for me is to take flight to save my skin. Suppose I have become so weak-kneed or have developed cold-feet even to run, what is to be done? The best thing then to do for my own safety is to play possum. A more modern and cleverer way of doing it is to ‘surrender’.

Man being so frail and weak in facing the natural hazards or wild creatures, he began to ‘surrender’ to the natural forces by worshipping them, by deifying them. So to ‘reify or deify’ is the mantra that our mind has learnt as the modified form of the natural mechanism of ‘fight or flight’ syndrome in the game of survival.

After all, we are using old machinery (i.e. our brain) which evolved for some other job (survival) to a new use (abstract thinking) for which it is not really designed. So man takes easily to religions (particularly theistic ones) as religions excel in the art of reification and deification.

Amelioration of Affliction and Advaita:

In order to be free of sorrow, Vedanta advises us to deny the claim of ownership and doership of our perceptions and actions. The world is not bothered by an individual who successfully denies the ownership and doership of the sensations; nor is such an individual bothered by the world. (“Yasmat na udvijate lokah lokat na udvijate ca yah” – BG XII -15).

Chandogyopanishad tells us that “Happiness and sorrow do not touch one who has become definitely unembodied” (Ch.VIII. xii.1).

Since embodiedness is the result of claiming ownership and doership of perceptions and subsequent false construct of individuation, it is established that the enlightened man has no embodiedness even while living. The amelioration of pain and suffering is thus brought about by ending inferred embodiedness, or the imaginary sufferer. The actual sorrow of the physical body is not alleviated by Advaita. All the greatest known Jivanmuktas or let us say their bodies, did suffer ghastly diseases, they aged and died.

John in his 2007 book “You Were Never Born” was very categorical about what sort of pain can be avoided by Advaita. While physical pain and sorrow are admittedly unavoidable in the relative world, 'advaita' can free the individual from 'psychological suffering'. ‘Psychological suffering’ for him is “emotional turbulence, doubts, worries, fears, concern about ‘myself’, what people think of ‘me’, the feeling of being a separate individual etc.” (p: 245). The key is about one's shifting the focus from a memory-based fictitious ‘persona’ of autobiographical 'self' to that very 'awareness' which 'awares' (for lack of a better word) within oneself (see my Book Review at:

I shall discuss the Neuronal Correlates in the Brain of a Jivanmukta in my next blog entry.