NIAS CONSCIOUSNESS STUDIES PROGRAMME
Origin and History
Bring scientists of eminence and proven leadership to NIAS to work on areas of interdisciplinary importance and pan-human influence – This was one of the expressions of the mission of Dr Raja Ramanna when he founded the National Institute of Advanced Studies in 1988, as an outcome of the vision shared with JRD Tata, the founder Chairman of NIAS. Prof BV Sreekantan, the former Director of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research was invited in 1992, by Dr Ramanna, to NIAS, to pursue his deep interests in consciousness, and set forward a research agenda that would bring disciplines together to ask and explore complex questions that impact human mind and life.
Through the next few years, Prof Sreekantan, collected available research material until then on consciousness, and also found that there are two disciplines that lie at the foundation of the mind boggling research on this area that was then at the budding stage internationally. These two disciplines were identified as science and philosophy. With his training and expertise in physics, and life-long interest in Indian philosophy, soon he identified these two as significant focal areas if one is interested to explore further questions on human mind. He also, during that time, found that a few journals have started addressing consciousness, and the prominent was the Journal of Consciousness Studies. The early nineties, in brief, was heralding a new interdisciplinary area of research in the international academic space – and this was consciousness studies.
Prof Sreekantan believed that “to understand the mind in terms of neural correlates and other observables, transcending some of the present ideas in physics and biology might be required”. He presented examples from established physics to show that even within the rigorous physical theories, some of the concepts that originated in common experience have been elevated to the transcended concept that is beyond human experience and intuition. It was at this time that Prof Sreekantan got further fascinated in the philosophy of Upanishads, Advaita Vedanta, and the Quantum vaccum, which raises fundamental questions about human mind, consciousness and the nature of reality itself.
In 1995 Prof Sangeetha Menon, through a meeting with Dr Raja Ramanna, was introduced to Prof Sreekantan. She was invited, after a formal process of interview, to join the Institute and initiate works that connect Indian philosophy to sciences in understanding consciousness. With her academic background in biology, philosophy and deep interest in psychology, Dr Sangeetha focused on developing an interdisciplinary framework, and outreach plans to understand consciousness.
The formal foundations of a dedicated team to research consciousness started with the collaborative work between Prof Sreekantan and Prof Sangeetha. It was during that time, that the interests in psychology and psychiatry inspired Dr RL Kapur also to parallelly explore questions on human behaviour and spiritual experiences. Soon, Dr Anindya Sinha joined the institute, through his introduction to the Institute with a lecture organised by Dr Sangeetha. Dr Anindya brought in another important element to understand consciousness – animal cognition and communication through primatological studies, and in particular with the focus on bonnet macaques.
While Dr Sangeetha and Prof Sreekantan started organising occasional lectures and discussion meetings forum at NIAS inviting scholars doing work in the allied areas of mind and consciousness, by 1998 they developed a proposal to organise the first national conference in India on the “scientific and philosophical studies on consciousness”. The goal was to bring together scholars from science and humanities from different institutions in India, to conceive and ask interdisciplinary questions in order to place the fundamental research problems in consciousness studies. This was a hallmark national conference at NIAS, held from 8-13 February 1999, and was funded by Dept. of Science and Technology, Dept. of Biotechnology, and Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research. Speakers included DP Chattopadhyay, PN Tandon, Roddam Narasimha, and others. Subsequently, an edited volume was published with full chapters on the subject areas discussed at the conference (NIAS, 1999 - ISBN 81-87663010).
This was the beginning of a very active research agenda with effective outreach tools of national and international conferences through the years. In 2002, the first international conference was organised titled “Science and Metaphysics” with support from Templeton Foundation, and Dept. of Science and Technology. The speakers included Obeid Siddqiui, In the same year an edited book volume was published with full chapters. A book review was published in the Current Science - www.iisc.ernet.in/currsci/oct252003/1226.pdf - and one of the comments from the reviewer was : “this collection is unique in bringing together thoughts and arguments, and also doubts from so many knowledge systems. There are many well-written and well-argued articles; some even convincing despite the difficulties in defining and defending relevant ideas. The editors deserve to be congratulated in putting together a well-structured document which I consider as a useful introduction to consciousness studies, and as a reference volume. It is more appropriate to classify this as resource book to which one likes to keep going back”.
These books, conferences, discussions, dialogues and related research work established the foundations of a strong research team in the frontier and new area of consciousness studies. A large variety of ideas and thoughts were compiled, and the team succeeded in bringing together the work of many serious scholars familiar with the writings on consciousness studies. This also is the uniqueness of the Programme that by participating in a global historic movement in creating a new field of consciousness studies, NIAS became the first institution in India to start an academic unit on consciousness studies with interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary focus.
The subsequent years saw the visits and stay of internationally reputed scholars at NIAS dialoguing on varied aspects of mind and consciousness and creating a launching pad for exciting questions in the field. The Programme also started expanding its extend of interest and scope, with the joining of bright young scholars and senior scientists as faculty members, adjunct faculty, and adjunct professors, marking varied avenues for collaborative work. They included Binoy V V and Nithin Nagaraj, who commenced their work in consciousness from the point of view of social cognition, autobiographical memory, & decision making; and complexity, computational neuroscience & information theory. The joining of scholars as Visiting professors and Collaborators like Sisir Roy, LM Patnaik et al. marked another channel opened for the Programme.
The Programme started taking doctoral students to work on unique and interdisciplinary areas in consciousness studies since 2008. Our doctoral scholars are Lakshmi Kuchibotla, Namitha Kumar, Sabina Sen, Shankar Rajaraman, Siddharth S Raghavan, and Aditi Khatpalia. Further, young students and enthusiasts joined as short term Research fellows and interns.