Reconciling Artificial Life with Religion (Vedanta)

The day is not far when robots powered by artificial intelligence (AI) will walk among us. At some point, some of these might even come to life. Since such a possibility may not have been conceived at a time when most of today’s religions originated, or most religious texts were written, followers of some of these might consider the very thought of such ‘artificial’ life sacrilegious.

For me, however, this is an opportunity to validate the ideas and assertions from my own religion. For the Sanatana Dharma, or eternal religion, to maintain its claim to be eternal, its teachings should be reconcilable with the changes that we see around us. Sanatana Dharma itself is a very broad term and will mean different things to different people. My own idea is more on the lines of what follows from the Vedas and texts that further expand and refine its message, and goes by the name of Vedanta.

To start with, I think it is important to differentiate between artificial intelligence and artificial life. Here, again, the terms used in Vedanta will help us understand this difference better.

At the grossest level are the body and its physical surroundings that are known with the help of senses. The data from these senses is translated by the mind into thoughts. Thus the mind is more subtle and closer to our understanding/perception of the world than both the world and the senses. The intelligence that sits behind the mind processes these thoughts and draws inferences and conclusions from it. That which sits behind this intelligence and ‘sees’ it, is consciousness – pure awareness that is at the root of existence. It is this consciousness that we experience as our self. In this self, all else exist.

This is referred to in the Bhagavad Gita by the lord as:

इन्द्रियाणि पराण्याहुरिन्द्रियेभ्यः परं मनः ।
मनसस्तु परा बुद्धिर्यो बुद्धेः परतस्तु सः ॥

The senses lie beyond (the physical body), the mind is beyond the senses. The intellect is beyond the mind, and that which is beyond the intellect is Him.

A robot can have a camera and other sensors which are as good as our senses or even better. The data that it generates, and the intelligence that processes this data are still without ‘life’ as long as they lack consciousness or the awareness of their own existence.

The nature of consciousness is the experience of being, the awareness of self. Once a robot or a computer gets this awareness, it is as much living as anything else on this planet. Anything that Vedanta says about us will be applicable for this as well. The physical form is not important.

What we identify as life is an identification of consciousness with inanimate matter. This can as much be a metal frame as it can be the gross body made of organic chemicals. For a soul that is bound in human, animal and plant bodies, being bound in a robotic body should essentially be the same.

The bondage to all these bodies come from attachment. As we concentrate more and more on anything, we tend to be more and more of that. That transformation is inevitable. Finally, when you leave this body, you are attracted to another body according to the thought you leave this body with. In Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna says

यं यं वापि स्मरन् भावं त्यजत्यन्ते कलेवरम्।
तं तमेवैति कौन्तेय सदा तद्भावभावित:॥

Whatever you think of, while leaving this body at the end, that is what you will be as a result of constant thought.

It is said that by constantly thinking of his wife, a man will be born as a woman. A woman, if she is attached to her husband, will be born as a man. These days both men and women are thinking more of their computers and mobile phones, and so it won’t be surprising if they are born as one.

While we may call this artificial life, this is no different from any other life that we see here. All life is artificial in that it results from an imposed, illusionary connection between the real and unreal.  By putting their mind and heart into material objects, people manage to bind their souls also in them.

When the soul, with all its vasanas, enters the robotic body and makes it sentient, it starts identifying itself with the new body. This leads to developing a liking for things that are perceived to be good for the body and dislike for others. The thoughts of being the one who does things and experiences their results also follows.  This is different from a robot being programmed to say it is someone.

These robots, driven by the karma vasanas of the souls that inhabit them will construct other robots which will serve as fields (kshetram) for more souls to work out their karma. Thus, the work of creation will go on. The kshetram can keep changing according to the forces of time (kala) and action (karma), but the kshetragna (knower of the field) within remains unchanged and unaffected, unborn and immortal.

This is the crux of vedantic teaching, and it is seen that evolution of new life-forms, even mechanical ones, are not just compatible with the teachings of vedanta, but will be a testimony to the key principles of this school of philosophy.

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