• 20 Jul, 2024

Some Thoughts on Shunya

Some Thoughts on Shunya

An exploration of the idea of shunya, or zero, in science, mathematics and philosophy


The Sanskrit word, shunya, has various shades of meaning, mainly depending upon the contexture of use. The five principal concepts are:

1) Numerical: Zero; Cipher.
2) Spatial: Space; Vacuum
3) Cosmological: Nothing(ness); Emptiness
4) Material: Barrenness; Aridity.
5) Spiritual: Void; Non-existence.

The Numerical Concept

Zero is the starting-point of any scale from which positive and negative quantities are reckoned, whether they be numbers or distances or temperatures. The arithmetical symbol—the figure 0—denotes no amount but is used to occupy the vacant place in decimal numeration.

In nearly all spiritual experience, when the self is erased, nothing remains. Before attaining that state of enlightenment—namely, the realization that all is not the conscious self—a latent divine energy manifests itself imperceptibly to the wise and showing its colours to the uninitiated. In both cases, it is absolutely necessary to start by believing in “nothing”; like the zero, which itself, has no value, but, when combined with something else, has infinite value.

Just as mathematics begins with the nothingness of zero as the origin, so also philosophical pursuits ought to commence with the thought of the nothingness of the self. When this concept becomes a part of an individual’s way of life, all self-imposed limitations fall away. Then alone is one’s original nature discovered.

Swami Anandashram looked upon zero as a unique number. He used to say humorously: “Zero plus zero is equal to zero. Zero minus zero also equals zero!”  He would explain mystically: “Zero is the symbol of Anadi-ananta; without beginning and without end. It is a state of perfection. To some it represents absolute nothing; to others, comprehensive totality.”

The Spatial Concept

In the beginning, there was neither non-existence nor existence; there was no sphere of light nor realm of space; just vacuum. Only a source of Vital Energy pulsated spontaneously in that vacuum. All else was in suspense, in calm, in silence. All was motionless and still.

Gradually, rays of energies radiated in all directions. The stream of life came into being, with spirit within and matter without. Whence did everything emerge? Whence originated creation? Or was it evolution? Was it pre-planned or otherwise?

That which surveys all from the centre of space—That perhaps knows, or perhaps knows not!

The Cosmological Concept

First of all, there was nothingness everywhere. Everything was vague and amorphous. Anything which did exist was embryonic and formless. All was dormant but developable. Even the vast expanse of space was empty.

Then, there was a violent explosion of Pure Energy. And a minuscular part of that Energy was converted into matter. That matter which was light and clear drifted up to become heaven; that which was heavy and turbid solidified to become earth. It was very easy for the light, clear matter to form a harmonious blend, but extremely difficult for the heavy, turbid matter to coalesce. Therefore, traditionally, heaven was the first to come into being, and earth assumed shape later.

When heaven and earth were joined in emptiness, and all was unwrought simplicity, then, the whole system of things came into existence. This was the Great Oneness. All things issued from this Oneness but all evolved differently.

The Material Concept

All manifested things, when analysed and examined critically, are found to lack continuous form or unchanging substance. All is Mind, and all is Shunya. When it is said that the mind is shunya, what is meant is that it is empty of the meditations of objects, not devoid of objects. Objects in the mind there are in plenty, but they are memories or thoughts or ideas of objects. These mind-pictures must not be mistaken for “real” external objects; that would be delusion.

Shunya aptly described the essential nature of all things. As regards anything, it has been remarked that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”. That whole is something new in nature—new in itself and new in its impact on other things. That whole cannot be defined by any of its parts. In the concept and impact of that whole, there is an absence of the concept or impact of any part, “form” part or “quality” part. This truth applies to the largest thing as well as to the smallest; it applies to the biggest material complex and also to an electron. Thus, there are no basic wholes or ultimate particles, but there is only infinite divisibility.

Again, however small a “whole”, there are still parts; yet, that “whole” has character-nature and impact-nature which cannot or need not be found in any part. Because of this, the whole cannot be known or defined or communicated or even conceived in terms of any part. Its nature is, therefore, empty of any notion or notions related to its part or parts. Its seeming reality is but a mere illusion.

To some, such a thought is quixotic; to others, it is incomprehensible; to yet others, it is astonishing. That is because it is indeed difficult to conceive of and focus on Infinity. Most people prefer to think of and gaze upon “something”, albeit a mind-projected thing. Hence, the thought of gods and goddesses, and of sages and saints. To such persons, the barrenness of life is a bizarre idea, a mirage or a mental delusion. They hunger for some “object” which may or may not even exist!

The Spiritual Concept

To the illumined wise, shunya is a supreme thought, a supreme state. It denotes the Void, a sense of “no-thing” as quite different from “nothing-ness”. It is the absence of all predications because anything said about shunya is either too little or too much. However, as in the case of all concepts, shunya has a two-fold appearance to the mind: positive and negative. The former represents change or the eternal flux of becoming, whereas the latter symbolizes permanence or stagnation.

When these two aspects of the Void are correctly comprehended, what is divine is understood by what is human. And, without undergoing any essential change, each seems to be supernal: thought not perfectly so in this life, yet still in a manner which can neither be described nor even conceived. One forgets oneself, one is no longer conscious of the self, one loses identity in the Divine—in that Great Void—even as a drop of water which merges in a vast ocean.

The true nature of one’s self is comparable to shunya: it is not something additional to the object seen by the eye or known by the mind. Such addition to it would only be another part. The discovery of one’s true self is, therefore, not merely the discovery of another part of the self—unknown and unnoticed before—but is “that” of which this complex of parts is the embodiment. It is “that” which has no parts.

He who is wise knows the reality of himself and what he sees; he knows what is imperfect knowing and imperfect seeing; and, most importantly, he knows what is perfect knowing and prefect seeing. That is why Reality is void of everything as well as nothing. Although both are “real”, they are perfectly so. Hence, the Void is not one and the many. It is non-separate: devoid of separates and separateness. In other words, Reality contains both the somethings and the nothings; that is the sumum bonum.

In the “space of mind”, mental pictures can be handled easily, arranged and rearranged. If these mental pictures are also “void”, it is because one of them, by occupying space in the mind, voids others. Each is what it is because it excludes the rest. Thus, the perfect void, which is fundamental, stamps its character on all that is.

Contemplation is the voiding of the mind, or “Operation Void”. This Void avoids matter—reality as well as mind-reality. Words and thoughts cannot reach into this, consciousness can, knowing can. The signs of the dawn of inward and spiritual grace are: first, doubt as to what Void is; then, faith that Void exists; finally, perseverance in quest of the Void.

To sum up, one is reminded of the delightful Latin phrase obscurum per obscures, that is, explaining the obscure by means of the more obscure!

 The late Dr. Gopal S. Hattiangdi, Scientist Emeritus, is the author of twenty-eight books, some of which are available on https://www.chitrapurebooks.com.

Image: NASA




Gopal S Hattiangdi

Dr Gopal Hattiangdi (1921-2003) belonged to that rare category of intellectual explorers who, having applied his mind first to diverse aspects of chemistry and other natural sciences, and then to Hindu philosophy, created a rich brew of thought that impacted a wide spectrum of people.

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