"One may gain political and social independence, but if one is a slave to his passions and desires, one cannot feel the pure joy of real freedom." - Swami Vivekananda












PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | April 2005  





            Science in Religion


      Dr. Saibal Gupta


     I 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.

     My 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?


     The Origins of Religion and Science

     Religion 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.

     Philosophy 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.

     This 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.


     The Emirical Validity of Religious Experience

     All 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?

     Swami 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.

     The 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

     This 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.


     The Means to Knowledge


     There 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.

     The Scientific Framework of Sankhya and Vedanta

     There 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)

     A 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 .

     The 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 the universe.

     The 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.


     The Advaita and Dvaita Experiences


     Let 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.

     Sri 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.

     The 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.


     The Evolution of Life and Consciousness

     In 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.

     If 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.

     Can 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.

     Let 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 ionic form.



     The 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.

     I 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. ~




     1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.126.
     2. Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind (London: Vintage, 1995), 418-9.
     3. CW, 1.129.




International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015









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