In the Beginning was Consciousness

~Seyyed Hossein Nasr 

One alone is the Dawn beaming over all this.
It is the One that severally becomes all this.
    Rg-Veda, VIII, 58:2

The nameless [Tao] is the beginning of Heaven and Earth,
 The named [Tao] is the mother of ten thousand things.
    Tao Te Ching, ch.1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
 and the Word was God.
    Gospel of John, 1:1

But His command, when He intendeth a thing, is only that He saith 
unto it: “Be!” and it is.
    Quran, 36:81 

When we turn to the sacred scriptures of various religions, we discover that in every case the origin of the cosmos and of man is identified as a Reality which is conscious and in fact constitutes con­sciousness understood on the highest level as absolute Consciousness, which is transcendent and yet the source of all consciousness in the cosmic realm including our own. Furthermore the “in the beginning” is understood not only as belonging to the past but also to the present moment which is the eternal now. That is why “in the beginning” must also be understood as “in principle” as the Latin translation of the opening verse of the Gospel of John asserts, “in principia erat verbum.” Whether we speak of Allah who commands things to be and they are, or the Tao, or the Word by which all things were made, or Brahman, we are speaking of Consciousness of an ever-living and present and this truth is made especially explicit in Hinduism where the principial Reality which is the source of all things is described as at once Being, Consciousness and Ecstasy. Nor is this unanimity of vision of the Origin of all things as identified with consciousness confined to sacred scriptures. Both Oriental and traditional Western philoso­phers speak of the same truth. The tò Agathon of Plato is not only the Supreme Good but also supreme awareness of the Good, and nous or intellect, so central to Greek philosophy, is of course inseparable from consciousness. Islamic philosophers consider being to be inseparable from knowledge and therefore awareness, and consider cosmic levels of existence also to be levels of knowledge and awareness. As for Hin­duism, in its worldview the existence of a thing, even a rock, is also a state of consciousness.

One can then assert safely that in the traditional world there was unanimity concerning the priority of consciousness in relation to what we call “matter” today. The Reality which is seen by all these traditional religions and philosophies to be the origin of things both temporally and in principle is also Supreme Consciousness and can only be reached when human beings are able to elevate their own level of consciousness. Even in Buddhism, which does not speak of an objective Supreme Reality and of cosmogenesis as understood in the Abrahamic and Iranian religions as well as Hinduism, nirvana is the supreme state of consciousness and Buddhahood is also inseparable from consciousness. The only exception to this unanimous traditional view in the old days was to be found in certain anti-metaphysical philosophies of the late Antiquity accompanying the death throes of Hellenistic and Roman civilizations and in certain marginal schools of ancient India which were thoroughly rejected by the mainstream orthodox schools of Hindu thought.

The privilege of denying the primacy of consciousness wholesale remained for the modern world, especially with the advent of the materialistic and scientistic philosophies which came to the fore after the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century. Furthermore, this trans­formation did not take place until the modern idea of matter, not to be confused with its understanding in Greek philosophy and science, was developed with Descartes and Galileo. By taking away from corporeal existence all its qualitative aspects and reducing it to pure quantity, these men, followed by many others, created a worldview in which there was such a thing as pure inert matter divorced totally from life and consciousness but somehow mysteriously known by the knowing subject or the mind. Cartesian bifurcation created a dualism between mind and matter which has dominated Western thought since the 17th century, a dualism which has led many to choose the primacy of matter over mind and the establishment of the view that in the beginning was matter and not consciousness, even if some still hold to a deistic conception of a Creator God.

The prevalence of this supposedly scientific materialism, which, however, is not all borne out by science as science and not pseudotheology or philosophy, gained momentum in the 19th century with the evolutionary theory of Darwin which itself is an ideology in sup­port of this so-called materialism and also based on it. The penetra­tion of the view that all things begin with matter which then evolves into life and later consciousness into the worldview of the general public in the West has been such that despite the total rejection of the classical view of matter in modern quantum mechanics, there still lingers in the public arena reliance upon a materialistic perspective which reduces ultimately all things to “matter.” This reductionism has become part and parcel of the modern and even post-modern mindset. People believe that it is possible to understand a thing only through analysis and the breaking up of that thing to its “fundamental” parts which are material. They are led to believe that the whole is nothing more than the sum of its parts and physicists continue to search for the ultimate particles or building blocks of the universe which the less sophisticated public envisages as minute billiard balls which are then accumulated together to create all the beings of the universe. In such a perspective based on materialistic reductionism both life and consciousness are seen as epiphenomena of material factors whether they be matter or energy. The whole rapport between consciousness and corporeal existence is thus reversed.

In traditional cosmologies Pure Consciousness, that is also Pure Being, descends, while remaining Itself transcendent vis-à-vis Its manifestations, through various levels of the cosmic hierarchy to reach the physical world whereas in the modern reductionist view things ascend from the primordial cosmic soup. Even if certain individual scientists believe that a conscious and intelligent Being brought about the Big Bang and originated the cosmos, consciousness plays no role in the so-called evolution of the cosmos from the early aggregate of molecules to the appearance of human beings on the planet. In the traditional world view, human beings have descended from a higher realm of being and consciousness, whereas according to the modernist perspective so prevalent in present day society, they have ascended from below. These are two diametrically opposed points of view, one based on the primacy of consciousness and the other on the primacy of unconscious and blind material agents, forces, and processes.

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