What are thoughts? – 2.1

A Brief History

Throughout history, humans have attempted to understand the nature of thoughts, thinking, mind, heart, and brain.

The Edwin Smith Papyrus of Egypt from c. 1600 BCE is the earliest found documentation of such an attempt. It contains descriptions of the brain and its functions albeit speculative.

It is in Indian Philosophy that the pursuit gains serious consideration and gathers momentum.

The Chandogya Upanishad (600 BCE) describes the mind as an object distinct from the soul. In it, when Narada tells Sanatkumara that he has a thirst for knowledge, Sanatkumara says,

Before satisfying one’s thirst for knowledge, one has to know about the mind…

When Narada expresses further desire to know about the mind, Sanatkumara tells him that to know about the mind one needs to have devotion and before one can have devotion one has to have faith and has to know about concentration, for which, one has to know about happiness as concentration comes only in the pursuit of happiness. When Narada tells he wishes to know about happiness, Sanatkumara tells him the following:

Happiness lies in greatness. You will have to know about greatness. Greatness is that in which nothing can be seen, heard or known. It is immortality, it is the brahman. He is above and below, to the front and behind, to the north and the south. I am the brahman. I am he…Learned ones realize that it is from the atman that one derives the breath of life, hope, memory, sky, energy, water…meditation, emotion, resolution, the mind, speech, names, the mantras and all actions.

These earlier Upanishadic perspectives interpreted thoughts along with everything else as being given by some unitary entity. It further goes on to tell that,

in the physical body exists the heart in which the Brahman resides in minute form. The heart is like the sky, heaven and earth, fire and wind, the sun and the moon, lightning and the stars. Everything in the body is in the heart.

The Katha Upanishad describes the brain as the charioteer and the physical body as the chariot with the atman being the owner and mind the bridle. It talks about the need to pacify the mind without which, the intelligence remains without consciousness.

Describing Brahman, the Katha Upanishad says,

It is through the mind that one can visualize the brahman.

This type of thinking is of Advaita Philosophy which asserts there is only One entity in existence and perceiving otherwise is illusion. The reason things seem elusive and otherwise are due to ignorance and this is due to- Thoughts.

Thoughts are entities that hinder this natural connection of the mind and the brahman.

When there is contemplation of the non-dual Self, then all thoughts vanish and one is established in that Supreme Reality, says Ramana Maharshi, an Advaita monk of the 20th Century.

His philosophy revolves around the concept of Self which is both- every individual’s identity and the only thing in existence. The Self alone is real and there is no other consciousness to know it, for it is consciousness. The distinction between God and Soul too is not real and to know the Self is to be the self. Consciousness is existence.  Mind is only a name for thoughts of which ‘I’ is the support. Mind is truly nothing else but the thought ‘I’.

This way, the Vedic systems of thinking describe thoughts as things that create a perception of duality or diversity in an otherwise uniform existence with only a single entity. Thoughts, therefore, are something to control and eventually destroy. They arise due to the contact with the world with senses.


Buddhism has a general point of view that the thoughts themselves are part of consciousness and are thinkers.

Buddha himself had mentioned various types of consciousness, evolving from sense bases. For instance, visual consciousness arises because of eyes and forms. For them, the concept of contact is significant. Contact being the conjunction of the sense organs with the sensed object. It leads to the birth of feelings.

It is feeling that experiences the desirable or undesirable fruits of an action done. Besides this mental state there is no soul or any other agent to experience the result of an action.

Entire Buddhist thinking is described as follows:

Dependence or cessation of:

  1. Ignorance leads to Conditioning activities
  2. Conditioning activities leads to Relinking Consciousness
  3. Relinking Consciousness leads to Mind and Matter
  4. Mind and Matter leads to Six Sphere of Senses
  5. Six Sphere of Senses leads to Contact
  6. Contact leads to feelings
  7. Feelings lead to Craving
  8. Craving leads to Grasping
  9. Grasping leads to Actions
  10. Actions leads to Birth
  11. Birth leads to decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair.

For them, the mind consists of 52 mental states among which feelings and perception are distinct. The remaining 50 are collectively called volitional activities. Among them, volition or citana is the most important factor. All these psychic states arise in consciousness.

Now, in regards to thoughts, they have a concept called ‘thought-moments’ which are time-limit of consciousness:

There is no moment when one does not experience a particular kind of consciousness, hanging on to some object whether physical or mental. Time limit of such consciousness is called thought-moment. Each thought moment is followed by another.

Consciousness consists of 3 separate instants: genesis, static/development, cessation/dissolution. Each new consciousness is in a state of flow, like a stream, which once gone never returns again.  This consciousness flow occurs without any interruption. Death too, is simply an event for them during which the final thought moment of a life conditions another thought-moment in the subsequent life.

This way the Buddhists look at thoughts as incessant instances in mind which ought to be eventually shut down or extinguished (nibbana).

To be continued…