Gravity, Kalpana Chawla & Vedanta

I recently understood the gravity of weightlessness.

Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney is a movie that stays with you for a long time. Depicting a world without oxygen, it comes like a breath of fresh air to the audience fed on mindless sequels. An audio -visual treat that allows you to experience space like never before. The audio track makes you hear the sound of silence in space.  The photography makes you experience infinity through a contrasting imagery of man, earth and space. The camera work literally sucks you into the movie along with the protagonist, making you experience weightlessness. Along with Sandra Bullock, you too are lost in the vastness of space searching for the limits of limitlessness.

 A must watch, must own movie. Prepare to immerse yourself. Often times there will be no seer nor seen.

 And now from some Vedanta.

The teaching methodology of Vedanta is based on negation. (Neti-Neti or not this not this) to establish your true nature. One of the concepts the teaching employs is the theory of Pancha Kosha or the Five sheaths.

I am extracting and editing from Sivananda’s commentary on this topic below.

…..“Man identifies himself, on account of delusion and ignorance, with the five Koshas or sheaths, the Annamaya, Pranamaya, Manomaya, Vijnanamaya, Anandamaya and thinks that he himself is subject to the various changes. He identifies himself with the Annamaya Kosha or the physical body and when the physical body is burnt, he thinks himself burnt. The body is a product of five elements. It is entirely distinct from the real Self. He identifies himself with the Pranamaya Kosha and thinks ‘I am hungry, I am thirsty, I did this action.’ The Pranamaya Kosha is quite foreign to the real Self. He identifies himself with the Manomaya Kosha and regards himself as the thinker and thinks ‘I am angry, I am lustful, I am greedy.’ The Manomaya Kosha is entirely distinct from the real Self of man. He identifies himself with the Vijnanamaya Kosha and regards himself as the cogniser and thinks ‘I am intelligent, I know everything, I am the enjoyer.’ He identifies himself with the Anandamaya Kosha and feels ‘I am happy.’ Both the Vijnanamaya and the Anandamaya Koshas are quite foreign to the real Self of man.”

……“Just as there is a set of five vessels, one within the other, just as there are the layers of an onion, so also are these Koshas lying one within the other. There is the singlet close to the body. Over this there is the shirt, over the shirt there is the waist-coat, over the waist-coat there is the coat, over the coat there is the over-coat. Even so the Atman is enveloped by these five sheaths.”

…“Man naturally identifies himself with the Koshas. His intellect becomes pure through meditation. He develops the faculty of true discrimination between the real and the unreal, between the permanent and the impermanent. When he acquires this faculty of discrimination, he abandons the first Kosha and recedes to the one next behind. He resolves by meditation each Kosha into what is behind it, till he reaches the innermost Atman behind the Koshas and then holds on to that Atman alone. Step by step he abandons one Kosha after another and dissolves all of them and eventually attains knowledge of unity with Brahman and becomes liberated from the round of births and deaths.”

The above teachings, together the concept of gross, subtle and causal body is important to understand who we truly are and what we are not.

Kalpana Chawla

As I was watching Gravity, I was reminded of Kalpana Chawla (1961-2003), Indo American astronaut and the first Indian woman in space. She first flew on the Space Shuttle in 1997. She died on her second mission in 2003. On her first mission, she logged in more than 370 hours in space, travelling over 10 million miles and completed 252 orbits around earth. I remembered what she said about weightlessness in an interview to a reporter. Relevant extract is given below:

Q. When you were first free from the clutches of gravity after lift-off, can you describe the physical and mental feeling?

A. When you lift off the pressure is supposed to be maximum. But actually it was very benign. Very enjoyable. But as soon as the engines cut off and you get to zero gravity, you felt as if you were being pushed off your seat. You feel disoriented. You don’t feel aligned with anything. I felt for a few good hours that I was falling. In fact, you are in a free fall- that’s what zero gravity is all about. But the first few hours, the workload was so much that it was hard to realize the magic of the experience. But afterwards the feeling was literally out of this world.

Q. What is the strangest thing about being in zero gravity?

A. One of the strangest things is that when I was about to sleep, I realised I was only aware of my thoughts. Because you are weightless you don’t feel your legs or your body. In a sense then, you are just your intelligence. It’s amazing you can’t feel anything but your consciousness.

(Read more at: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/i-really-feel-responsible-for-the-earth-now-says-kalpana-chawla/1/263143.html)

When I first read it way back in 1998, I did not give this too much importance. However in 2003 when she was tragically killed, I did recall her interview with a bit more sense of inquiry (as by that time I had begun my study of Vedanta). I remember mentioning to a friend that it was probably due to her Indian background that she came up with some thing so profound.

2013, when I was watching Gravity and experiencing cinematic weightlessness, Kalpana Chawla’s profundity suddenly hit me. (Going back to Gravity (I love this film) it was like the floating debris hitting the satellite!).

You are just your intelligence! You can’t feel anything but your consciousness!

Experiencing weightlessness in space, without gravity, she unpeeled three layers of “annamaya kosha”, “pranamaya kosha” and “manomayakosha”. In other words she was halfway through the understanding of the Pancha Kosha. I read her biography. Her husband used to read the Gita, but she was more into Ayn Rand. There was nothing in her background to suggest that one day she would come up with such profundity after experiencing weightlessness. But she did. In other words,her experience did not have any bias of a previous knowledge of Vedanta. (If I was in her place and somebody asked me how felt, I would have probably replied “Aham Brahmasmi” ! 🙂 ) Thus through her experience and the movie, I  vicariously experienced weightlessness and in the process understood more about my Pancha Koshas.

It must be remembered though that the teaching of Vedanta is not about an ‘experience’ but removal of ignorance through knowledge. The theory of Pancha Kosha is not a something to experience physically but to understand what we are and what we are not. Having said that, if weightlessness can make you experience that you are just your intelligence, I think it is well worth building an antigravity chamber for students of Vedanta to reflect over the teachings of Pancha Kosha. Or even indulge in space travel (when Richard Branson launches his space travel airlines 🙂 ). For no distance is long enough to travel, if you can reach the portals of the ‘Atman’.

Om Tat Sat.

9 thoughts on “Gravity, Kalpana Chawla & Vedanta

  1. Gravity is one of the “perfect” services offered by nature. 24×7, every day for more than a billion years, it is constant at each place and keeps us going in every sense. Gravity, in that sense , is permanent and truth. Experiencing Zero Gravity as an expression of intelligence is denying the permanence of the reality of gravity. Every space has its own permanence: zero gravity in space and gravity on Earth. Our consciousness is complete at both places. The truth (Brahman) is everywhere and needs of experienced in the myriad forms it offers itself.

  2. Interesting observations!

    Shows how a scientifically trained mind can also ultimately lead to the same sort of ‘understanding’ as the upanishads because what underlines both is an “unbiased method of Inquiry.”

    1. Some ‘seekers’ experiment with ‘Desensitization Chambers” (commercially available) to reach a state of being free from all sensory inputs hoping that it would be a samadhi. But what they arrive at may not be different from ‘deep sleep.’ (Pl see: http://beyond-advaita.blogspot.com/2011/07/sensory-deprivation-tank-and-induced.html).

    2. The comment on experience of weightlessness reminds one on how ‘vacuum energy in space’ is experienced: “This vacuum energy is experienced in a strange way by a traveler in space. If the spaceship he or she is in is at rest or uniform motion, he would feel that he is in a vacuum space. But the moment the space ship speeds up, he will feel he is passing through a hot bath of particles!”
    (Pl see: http://advaita-academy.org/blogs/ramesam/Future-Physics-%E2%80%93-Will-It-Be-Advaita-like-%E2%80%93-Part-3.ashx)

    • Well, the Vedantic implication of the point at # 2 above, (though feels like a bit ‘stretched’, is this: Often in Vedanta teaching, still air is compared to Brahman and a waft of breeze to mind. Air when imbued with motion is breeze. Thus Brahman in movement is mind. Still air can neither be seen nor felt. But air in motion is ‘experienced’ through touch. Similarly, the vacuum energy is ‘experienced’ only in movement (accelerated or decelerated). So also Brahman can never be ‘experienced.’ It is mind that gives the sense of experiencing.

  3. If knowledge is also recombining what we already know / are exposed to; as opposed to it being only novel (in any sense) then you my friend are adding knowledge to the world. I am truly enjoying these posts that put the everyday (film) into the context of the eternal (Vedanta). I was wondering if you could do more with the idea of “falling” – in the context of the earth, we fall ‘down’ – what does falling mean (as Ms. Chawla says) when there is no down or up. When cardinal directions lose relevance, how do we decide on reference points? One minor pedantic point is that I had to read the word “seer” in paragraph 2 twice to get the meaning – since I thought you meant seer as in a venerated person and only re-reading it clarified to me that you meant observer.

  4. Great movie and an even greater post Baba. I saw this post a few weeks and thought i must read it and it skipped my mind. Watched the movie just now and came back to read it 🙂

    A tad bit wiser than a few hours ago !

    Dhanyosmi !!!

  5. Yes, watching the film did give the feeling of the vastness of the Universe, the Void, the Brahma. The Macrocosm and the Microcosm is indeed the same. Anyway, coming to the point of “antigravity chambers”, I was also reminded of the 99.99% soundproof (Anechoic) chamber where the only sound one can hear is one’s own beating of the heart and the blood flowing through the blood vessels! Wow! That would be some experience as well. It is officially the Quietest Place on Earth. In fact, one person has meditated in the chamber and remained in it the longest – an hour! All others wanted out within a few minutes!

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