Science in Religion
Dr. Saibal Gupta
have chosen this title 'Science in Religion' because the two
entities are no longer in opposition today, and I want to
discuss that as best as I can. This closeness has an important
bearing on the human personality in this new century, irrespective
of religious, professional, cultural and intellectual inclinations
and achievements. I am neither a monk nor a pure scientist.
But this knowledge will have significance for humanity if
ordinary people like me understand some of it at their level.
passport of medicine allowed me to travel, live and mix with
the common people in many countries. What struck me most was
the essential goodness of humanity and that the manifestation
of goodness was considered godliness in every culture. There
was, of course, evil too, but this evil was always trying
to justify itself, thereby making it a quality of goodness-less
goodness or absence of goodness. Goodness never needed to
justify itself. Why should there be goodness in humanity unless
it felt that goodness in the universe around, even when material
circumstances were hostile to life?
Origins of Religion and Science
or God-perception in some form is as old as humanity. The
reason for this does not lie in human inability to explain
the natural phenomena of the material world, as scientific
materialism would want us to believe, but in the greatest
natural phenomenon of his own self. Humans therefore became
curious about their own origin, about the origin of the universe
- which included all living and non-living objects - and their
inter-relationship. They wanted to discover the rationale
behind all this, something real and unchanging beyond the
apparent chaos. The most intense rational search went on in
the extreme north of India and adjoining Central Asia thousands
of years ago. They found that some people pondering over all
this and immersed in contemplation developed mental capacities
beyond that of ordinary men. They seemed to have gone beyond
the limitations of time and space imposed on the imagination
and intelligence of man. There was no apparent rationality
in this and no route chart. These people, albeit few, seemed
to have risen to a level of consciousness beyond the level
of human intelligence and human misery. This was called God-perception.
The character attributes and personalities of these individuals
were described and they were found to be the same in every
religion. Some few of them did come down to our level and
preach the essence of their perception, but many did not.
in its widest etymological sense means 'love of knowledge'.
It tries to know things that immediately and remotely concern
man and his environment. In that sense science is also a philosophy
and actually rose out of it in both the East and in the West.
In the west different lines of enquiry branched out to pursue
different developments but in India religion, philosophy,
science, psychology and ethics were all mingled together in
a composite world view and their individual development was
pursued within this composite whole.
fragmentation of knowledge in the West has given rise to a
fragmentation of personality of the individual even though
there has been great development within individual branches.
This fragmentation has worried many thinkers in modern times
from C P Snow (The Two Cultures) to Fritjof Capra (The
Tao of Physics) and many others, and there has been a
search for an integrated universal personality in recent times.
Is such integration rational and conducive to continued intellectual
development or against it? Since Indian philosophy and religion
has traditionally taken an integral approach it will be pertinent
to judge the question against this background.
Emirical Validity of Religious Experience
modern religions rose on the background of God-perception.
To quote Swami Vivekananda: 'Thus it is clear that all the
religions of the world have been built upon that one universal
and adamantine foundation of all our knowledge-direct experience.
The teachers all saw God; they all saw their own souls, they
saw their future, they saw their eternity, and what they saw
they preached.'1 But the problem of mankind is how to keep
on believing the teachings of one man, though he might have
had the direct experience and based his teachings on the language
and culture of his times, unless there is access to the fountainhead
of that knowledge and experience; for all words become stale
with time. Moreover, if the route of access is not rational
and charted out, how can man, through thousands of years,
follow and verify those experiences and translate them into
his life in a changing culture?
Vivekananda has given an emphatic answer to the first problem:
'If there has been one experience in the world in any particular
branch of knowledge, it absolutely follows that that experience
has been possible millions of times before, and will be repeated
eternally. Uniformity is the rigorous law of nature; what
once happened can happen always.' (1.127) In India the belief
has always been strong that the way is always open for the
seeker to this, the highest attainment of life, and it is
open not only to the high intellectuals of science, arts,
music and philosophy but to every human being in this world.
next problem is a rational explanation and a route chart.
Rationality has many aspects but basically it is a matter
of the interrelationship between the self, the soul or the
conscious entity, and the external material world. I see,
I smell, I taste, I hear, I touch - therefore it is there.
I perceive, I reason, I infer - and thereby I know. All this
is perfectly logical. But who is this 'I'? All sensations,
all reasoning and all inferences are subject to change like
the external material world, but the 'I' is always there.
We can take recourse to intuition as in mathematics, the instrument
of science, as suggested by Theaetetus in the Platonic dialogues.
Does the 'I' work there too? As Sir Roger Penrose, the famous
mathematician and physicist of our times, has written, 'the
arguments from Godel's theorem serve to illustrate the deeply
mysterious nature of our mathematical perceptions. We do not
just "calculate", in order to form these perceptions,
but something else is profoundly involved-something that would
be impossible without the very conscious awareness that is,
after all, what the world of perceptions is all about.'2
line taken from his book Shadows of the Mind can very
well be a line from one of the Upanishads. Baruch Spinoza,
the seventeenthcentury Jewish philosopher from Amsterdam,
said that every individual is an expression of something infinitely
bigger. Man should see himself in the background of this eternity
in order to achieve true happiness and contentment. It is
our passions - lust and ambition - that prevent us from achieving
this happiness. A Vedantist would say that when you get rid
of those, what remains is God, the God in you, the same as
the God of the universe. Einstein has written that he cannot
believe in a personal God creating the world and handing out
rewards and retribution, but can believe in Spinoza's God.
But all these can be discounted and have been discounted as
personal, subjective opinions of undisputedly great people
that have not been proved objectively. There is no route chart
to go to places they are talking about and verify their statements.
In Indian philosophy these routes were found and recorded.
Means to Knowledge
are definite ways for obtaining knowledge about the Truth:
one by having direct perception of the Truth, called tattvasakshatkara;
another through rational analysis of the nature of Truth.
The knowledge gained by direct vision of Truth or Truth-revelation
is looked upon as superior to all other means, and also infallible.
The Vedic seers had direct vision of Truth, which they articulated
in words to convey to those who could not have that vision.
They are called Shruti, because they have been passed from
teachers to students through oral instructions. The Shrutis
of Indian philosophy remain unaltered and supreme whereas
Smritis are later works putting forth new interpretations
in different ages. But discursive thought can also go very
far and is important as a starting point for people like us.
All Indian philosophies are religious philosophies and they
do not constitute a monolithic system. Unlike Western philosophy
these have not emerged successively from the works of different
authors; they developed almost simultaneously as different
schools since antiquity.
Scientific Framework of Sankhya and Vedanta
is not enough space to go into the different philosophies
in detail. But since this discussion is on 'Science in Religion'
or the relationship of objectively derived facts of the material
world and the soul and psyche, it is pertinent to mention
the philosophy of Sankhya that starts from its theory of cosmogenesis
and works downwards to the atomic level to prove that the
entire cosmos is a single integrated whole. Other philosophies
modify these principles here and there but are basically founded
on this solid bedrock of reason. The Sankhya epistemology
accepts three means to valid knowledge: perception, inference
and valid testimony. In Swami Vivekananda's words: 'In acquiring
knowledge we make use of generalizations, and generalization
is based upon observation. We first observe facts, then generalize,
and then draw conclusions or principles. The knowledge of
the mind, of the internal nature of man, of thought, can never
be had until we have first the power of observing the facts
that are going on within.' (3)
scientist will object that no knowledge can be verified without
experimental proof. The entire Sankhya doctrine is based on
experimentation with the mind. This experimentation is done
through different systems of Yoga, and one needs a teacher
to instruct which system of Yoga will be appropriate for each
individual, and to guide him or her through the experiences
obtained therefrom. The three gunas posited by the Sankhya
system through whose imbalance and interactions the universe
comes into existence are sattva, rajas and tamas. It is difficult
to translate these terms into English but, roughly speaking,
steadiness, expansion and contraction or indifference, or
maybe sublimation, activity and retrogression in different
spheres are reasonable equivalents. From this imbalance come
the five organs of perception, the five organs of action and
the five elements that constitute the material universe by
a mechanism of interaction between energy (as wave motion)
and matter .
Vedanta philosophy is the closest approximation to the perception
of the unitary non-dual universe obtained by the sages, and
is accepted as the supreme philosophy. It accepts the structure
of Sankhya with some modification to account for the presence
of the soul in the material world. Thus, in Vedanta, the equivalent
of the conscious entity, Purusha, is Brahman and of the material
Prakriti, Shakti. But together they constitute a single reality
- Brahman being inert and Shakti its active manifestation.
A seeker can see them as a single entity (non-dualism or Advaita),
a dual entity (dualism or Dvaita) or as dual entities that
are essentially similar (qualified non-dualism or Vishishtadvaita).
This initial undivided reality, or - to use a term from the
general theory of relativity - singularity, divides and subdivides
to manifest the universe in which all its constituents have
a little bit of Brahman, or the conscious Principle, and the
material of Shakti, that acts as maya, or a veil of illusion
to cover the conscious Principle. Thus even the smallest subatomic
particle can be said to have a minute presence of the conscious
Principle - a concept that science would have laughed at even
two decades back, but is not likely to do now. This is how
the universe, from the smallest subatomic particle to the
galaxies as also the life and the human mind contained therein,
comes into being. This theory was propounded long before the
Big Bang theory of George Gamow. It also suggests that the
expanding universe will contract at the limit of expansion
bringing about its eventual dissolution, but that the seeds
will remain in Shakti, and that these will eventually recreate
sequence of manifestation posited by Vedanta is slightly at
variance from that of the Sankhyas. In the manifestation of
the material world prana, or the actualizing force,
and akasha, or space, appear first. In the interaction
of these two, great energy is generated, and this leads to
the production of air, water and other material elements,
and through this interaction of energy and matter creation
continues. Energy and matter vibrate and interact in the form
of the three gunas, the entire universe being a mass of vibrations
and wave motions with different levels of energy alternating
between construction and destruction. Two parallel concepts
from modern physics and cosmology come to mind: the remarkable
insights provided by high-energy physics about the first three
minutes in the life of the manifest universe following the
Big Bang (described elegantly in The First Three Minutes,
a book written by Steven Weinberg), and the String Theory
of the universe.
Advaita and Dvaita Experiences
us examine the meaning and implication of this Advaita, Qualified
Advaita and Dvaita not only in the domain of religion, religious
thinking, and cosmology but also in the domain of positive
psychology and action. With Advaita perception an individual
sees himself one with God and therefore one with the universe.
This position is not compatible with survival as he sees everything
and everybody as a part of himself and so cannot act. Those
that continue to live, do so in Qualified Advaita or even
Dvaita. But they keep the awareness of the universality of
non-dualism and can bring great benefit to mankind. Sri Ramakrishna
used to say to his disciples, 'Tie Advaita to the corner of
your cloth and keep on working.' This Advaitic perception
then determines one's behaviour and action. Such individuals
cannot do anything except that which is for the greater benefit
of all, since they have a vision beyond their own individual
self. A politician becomes a rajarshi or 'the philosopher
king' of Plato. Through his actions he works for the benefit
of mankind, since he sees the image of divinity in everything.
Ramakrishna instructed most of his disciples in Qualified
Advaita. He instructed the devotees in Qualified Advaita or
Dvaita. Dvaita is the path of devotion to a personal God.
If the devotee progresses mentally towards his personal image
of God through love, devotion and renunciation, he ultimately
realizes his unity with the Godhead, the Advaita state. Very
often the devotee wants to stay in the dualistic stage in
love for his image of God because this is a very sweet and
fulfilling existence. In relation to the material world most
of us are dualists, for we see ourselves as separate from
the world around us. Therefore, for most of us, when we turn
to God, dualistic appreciation of a personal God comes naturally.
Devotion to Him is comforting and fulfilling, and it alters
drastically our relation to the external world. Without that
transformation our life remains fragmented, particularly when
we try to intellectually interpret the external world and
put our ego before everything else. But ultimately, both reason
and devotion need to merge, or else the seeker is likely to
be deflected into the wrong paths of bigotry, idolatry, self-hypnotism,
miracle- mongering, fundamentalism or mass hysteria.
West habitually describes the Eastern religious experiences
as mystical, as if they were something mysterious and otherworldly.
Nothing can be far from the truth. God is real and so are
the ways to reach Him according to one's psychological make-up.
Renunciation is absolute only for the final perception of
Advaita. For everything else renunciation is relative, primarily
mental, and must flow naturally in the course of things. A
flower loses its beautiful petals on fruition and nobody mourns
it. But tearing down the petals can never bring it to fruition.
In contemporary Western philosophy a lot is said about the
integrated universal outlook and personality but even there
some term this spirituality as mystical. Spirituality defines
not only an individual's relationship with God, but also with
the entire material world. There is enough evidence to show
that all of this corroborates the postulates of the physical
sciences and gels with scientific culture.
Evolution of Life and Consciousness
contrast to physics, the biological sciences have remained
conservative regarding the origin of life in the universe.
Biology is mainly occupied with genomic research and biotechnology.
On the origin of life most biologists still believe that it
has no purpose, that it had a chance or accidental beginning,
and that the Darwinian evolution then took over. They refuse
to accept life as an integral part of the universe as this
will allow the unwanted entry of a Deity.
we look at biology from the evolutionary point of view we
shall find a continuous acceleration in the process of evolution,
as was pointed out by Julian Huxley (Evolution in Action,
1953) fifty years back; and that evolutionary process is still
active and manifest in the psychosocial evolution of man.
From the point of view of comparative anatomy there are two
organs wherein evolution has been almost linear, whereas in
the evolution of other body parts there has been progression
and regression; some parts have even become atavistic. The
frontal and fronto-parietal segments of the brain, have developed
in an almost linear fashion from the primitive brain, even
sacrificing the dominance of some of the somatic segments
like the olfactory and optic centres. This development of
the 'mind brain' has been paralleled by the development of
the heart from a one-chambered to two-, three-, and finally
a four-chambered organ. This structural development has led
to a functional improvement in the heart's capacity to supply
larger volumes of better oxygenated blood to the brain. To
ensure an adequate blood supply to this more specialized heart
an independent coronary circulation evolved as a later development;
but it is this specificity of the coronary circulation that
has made us vulnerable to heart attacks. Man is less efficient
than many forms of primitive life in terms of survival and
reproduction, if that is the aim of evolution. Environment
is the causative agent of evolution but man can now control
his environment. A higher consciousness also affects the sexual
and reproductive behaviour of man divesting it of its natural
periodicity and giving man a greater responsibility.
we not conclude from all this that evolution has so far been
in the direction of higher consciousness which can then take
charge of its own evolution, thus giving man a greater responsibility
for his own destiny? There are contrary viewpoints, but evolutionary
biology has already become a philosophy of human behaviour.
us now turn to the fundamentals of biology - the discovery
of the structure of DNA through X-ray crystallography. The
entire genome research is based on that foundation. But a
crystal (even if it be a DNA crystal) is not known to have
life. Yet, curiously enough, when a DNA crystal is implanted
inside a cell it replicates. Such behaviour is actually found
in viral DNA and RNA. So what is life? If we say it is DNA
or the cell body, that would be tantamount to saying that
the copper or iron rod or the acid in a battery is the electricity.
In fact Luigi Galvani discovered electricity by observing
the twitching of a frog muscle. It may be that life or consciousness
is an energy that is manifested by this chemical reaction
that we call a cell or a body, as is the case with heat or
electricity; after all, life also produces heat and electricity.
Our nuclear power stations are far from the days of Galvani
but in our understanding of life energy we are still in the
days of Galvani. The simile can be extended further because
although none of the constituents of a battery is electricity
in itself, the latter inheres in all of them in un-manifested
determinism of the external world is not affected if the divinity
is intrinsic to every particle in the universe and in every
living being, for then one need not invoke divine causality
but only observe a rational manifestation intimately connected
with our consciousness. If our consciousness rises to that
level we shall feel it; if not, let us be conscious of its
presence and pay our devotion in any way we like - to a cross,
a sickle moon, a shivalinga, a subatomic particle, a gene,
a note of music, a person we love - seeing the Eternal through
our object of reverence and love. It is our mind that makes
the world we live in. It is said that pure knowledge and pure
devotion merge in the end, a state I can only talk about but
do not yet know. Let us imagine that all of us realize that,
and then look at the world to find it become heaven, not out
there but right here. This is the aim of human life. Even
a minuscule drink of this nectar of bliss that has been kept
in this world for us makes us see the futility of the material
things we chase all our lives.
first heard Swami Ranganathananda, the present President of
the Ramakrishna Mission, as a sixteen-year-old honours student
of pure physiology. He told us that in scientific research
one has to reject one's pet theories and ideas when they are
proven wrong by new facts, and not mourn their loss. If you
remain attached to them you do not progress. The ability to
do that, to proceed from untruth to truth, giving up one's
attachments, is renunciation, or vairagya, without which there
is never any progress either in science or in religion. ~
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.126.
Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind (London: Vintage,