"The only way to get beyond death is to give up the love of life". - Swami Vivekananda













PRABUDDHA BHARATABioethics for Science and Technology: a Hindu Perspective  





            Bioethics for Science and Technology: a Hindu Perspective




        Swami Jitatmananda



     (Continued from the previous issue)

     Struggle for Existence Is Not the Way to Higher Evolution

     The dualistic world of Newton slowly separated mind from matter and gradually brought the vision of a world where there is separation of man from man, man from God, and in the long run, nation from nation. Darwin's ideas of struggle for existence and survival of the fittest combined with the Newtonian vision of a dualistic universe; and civilization emerged 'red in tooth and claw'.

     During his stay in Europe in 1895, Swami Vivekananda foresaw the dark future of the Western civilization based on the new theories of struggle for existence and scientific materialism. He prophesied a bloody future for the West, and the prophecy came true through the two World Wars, where the discoveries of science were used for mutual destruction. Ethics encourages mutual love and service. Humanity saw in the actions of applied science a flouting of ethics.

     When the World Trade Centre fell to a devastating aircraft attack on 11 September 2001, with the instant death of several thousand innocent people, the world realized like the citizens of Denmark in Shakespeare's Hamlet: 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.' 'All they that take the sword, shall perish with the sword,' said Jesus Christ. Such acts of historic destruction invite, as Swami Vivekananda called it, 'the vengeance of history'.

     During his extensive research on the evolution of flowers with ornate orchids, Darwin reached the concept of co-evolution, and verified that flowers and insects affect one another. Karl Zimmer in his latest book Evolution writes, 'Not long after Darwin finished his Origin of Species he discovered just how drastically flowers and insects could affect one another.' (1) This was the new concept known as co-evolution.

     If plant evolution depends on such sophisticated cooperation between plant life and animal life, will not higher human evolution need more sophisticated, well-thought-out cooperation between humans and other life forms in the environment?

     Contradicting Darwin's idea of struggle for existence for higher evolution, Swami Vivekananda explained the Hindu idea of higher evolution through conscious choice and thought power, in his interpretation of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras:

     Competitions for life or sex-gratification are only momentary, unnecessary, extraneous efforts, caused by ignorance. Even when all competition has ceased, this perfect nature behind will make us go forward until everyone has become perfect. Therefore there is no reason to believe that competition is necessary to progress. In the animal the man was suppressed, but as soon as the door was opened, out rushed man. So in man there is the potential god, kept in by the locks and bars of ignorance. When knowledge breaks these bars, the God becomes manifest. (2)

     Nobel physicist Erwin Schrodinger says that for ensuring the selection of a species for survival 'the behaviour' and the 'habits of life' are of 'outstanding importance and decisive influence'. Without these, Schrodinger argues, the origin of species could not be understood. And what are behaviour and habits? They are products of our thoughts and volitions, both products of human consciousness. So a conscious struggle against the old state of existence plays the most important role in human evolution. Schrodinger writes:

     If this is granted, it follows that consciousness and discord with one's own self are inseparably linked up, even that they must, as it were, be proportional to each other. This sounds a paradox, but the wisest of all times and peoples have testified to confirm it. Men and women for whom this world was lit in an unusually bright light of awareness, and who by life and word have, more than others, formed and transformed that work of art which we call humanity, testify by speech and writing or even by their very lives that more than others have they been torn by the pangs of inner discord. Let this be a consolation to him who also suffers from it. Without it nothing enduring has ever been begotten. (3)

     Through strong organizing principles, life moves with the power of thought to progressively higher organizational levels. Abraham Maslow said that if one has to learn running, one better follow Olympic runners. If one has to find what is the highest human evolution, one should look to a Christ, Buddha or Ramakrishna.

     Patanjali's Yoga Sutras have prescribed two conditions for evolution. First, the change or evolution of one species into another occurs by the infilling of nature (Jatyantara parinamah prakrityapurat, 4.2), which means, evolution happens when the incompleteness felt by the organism is completed by new additions to it, which are the expressions of its own inherent potential. Small fish chased by bigger hungry ones may have developed wings, and by becoming birds evaded the jaws of death. Second, Patanjali says, a new environment brings out the organism's hidden desires which can be fulfilled in that environment (Tatas tad vipaka anugunanam eva abhivyaktir vasananam, 4.8). No knowledge of life or genes will be complete unless it takes note of both the external environment and the internal hidden possibilities of the living organism itself.

     Genetic Science Needs a New Orientation

     What is a gene? In a 2003 publication, physicist Fritjof Capra writes:

     All we can say about genes is that they are continuous or discontinuous DNA segments whose precise structures and specific functions are determined by the dynamics of the epigenetic network and may change with changing circumstances.

     The gene industry began in the 1960s when property rights were given to plant breeders for new varieties of flowers through genetic engineering. In 1980, the US Supreme Court gave the landmark decision that genetically modified micro-organisms could be patented. This led a group of scientists from harmless patenting of life to 'monopolization of life' through advanced biotechnology researches resulting in market monopolies. New threats were perceived. In the book Genetic Engineering - Dream or Nightmare? geneticist Mao Wan Ho writes that the emergence of 'new viruses and antibiotic resistance in the past decade may well be connected with the large-scale commercialization of genetic engineering during the period'. (4)

     Moreover, Capra writes that it has been experimentally confirmed that 'gene expression depends on the genetic and cellular environment and can change when genes are put into a new environment. The situation is unlikely to change until geneticists begin to go beyond genes and focus on the complex organization of the cell as a whole'. Dr Candace Pert, a director of the National Institute of Mental Health, USA, after her successful experiments, prefers to say that the DNA belongs equally to mind and body. She uses the term body-mind. (5) 'Transferring the genes into a new environment and exciting them to do their jobs has, so far, proved too difficult a task for molecular geneticists,' writes David Weatherall, Director, Institute of Molecular Medicine, Oxford University. The final picture of gene functioning comes from 'the complex regulatory dynamics of the cell as a whole,' writes science historian Fox Keller. According to Keller, in the absence of the knowledge of the whole background of life, the dream of gene development or gene repairing for diseases 'recedes further into the future'. (6)

     Hindu Ethics for Medical Science

     Medical intervention is sought for immediate alleviation of suffering as well as for long-term gains. Those procedures which yield more lasting results must be preferred. But facilities and possibilities for medical intervention to prolong and improve the quality of life are not equally available to all. According to a recent World Bank report, in spite of an optimistic estimate of economic growth, 600 million people in the developing countries were trapped in absolute poverty in the year 2000. This is defined as a condition of life so characterized by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, high infant mortality, and low life expectancy as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency. Under these appalling conditions, can a few privileged individuals (or nations) be allowed to enjoy excessive use of medical facilities for modifying their life process to make it more pleasurable, when a fraction of the amount of money so spent can prevent thousands of infants from death due to malnutrition and dehydration? (7)

     Termination of pregnancy by medically induced abortion to prevent the birth of a viable child poses a number of socio-ethical problems. It is not generally encouraged in orthodox cultures and communities, and is considered sinful. It can be resorted to on strictly medical grounds, for example, if childbirth threatens the mother's life. Only recently has abortion been legalized in India (251), and that to stem the inordinate population explosion threatening global economy. Killing of the foetus in the mother's womb, bhrunahatya, is a great sin according to Hinduism.

     Indian culture teaches not only an ideal way of life but also the ideal manner of death. In fact, a devout person in India prepares throughout his life for an ideal, peaceful death as described in the scriptures. (253)

     The modern scientific view has often emphasized the dignity of the individual and his right to take decisions for himself. Indian culture, however, lays greater stress on the role of society in decision making in health care. Interference in the process of birth in the form of prevention of conception, abortion or genetic engineering is not encouraged in the Indian tradition. Sex as a source of pleasure apart from conception, too, is not appreciated. Sex is legitimately allowed only for the birth of a child. Sex for pleasure alone is considered a far too inferior and unworthy attitude. In this connection it may be mentioned that the only foolproof method of prevention of AIDS (which has been officially advocated by experts in India) is abstinence from sex - something which the Hindu and Indian culture normally accepts. (260-1)

     Hinduism even experimentally developed a science for the birth of good children. A mother desiring a God-fearing child listens to stories of saints and sages, and spends her days of pregnancy in devotional activities. Another mother seeking a warrior child engages in listening to and reading stories of wars and warriors, and so on.

     According to the Jaina tradition, the foetus of Lord Mahavira was taken out before his birth from the body of a miserly brahmin mother and transplanted into the womb of a generous queen.

     A sage was chanting holy texts in the presence of his pregnant wife. On hearing the chant, the foetus in the womb of the lady spoke from inside that the intonations were not correct. This enraged the sage. He cursed his son in the womb that since he had a crooked mind, his body too would become crooked. The story goes that the child was born with eight deformities. He became the great and intellectually brilliant sage Ashtavakra.

     Arjuna, the great hero of the Mahabharata war, had a prodigious son, Abhimanyu. While still in the womb, Abhimanyu had learnt a special military secret that his father described to his mother. But since the mother fell asleep and did not listen to the whole secret, Abhimanyu too obtained only a partial knowledge. With the help of this knowledge he was able to break and enter the special army formation of the enemy called chakravyuha. But due to incomplete knowledge, he could not come out of it and was killed.

     Ashwatthama, another hero from the Mahabharata, out of intense hatred for the righteous Pandavas, fired the deadly and infallible weapon brahmastra to destroy the embryo of Parikshit, the lone successor to the Pandavas. The embryo was saved by Sri Krishna, God incarnate. Ashwatthama was cursed with extreme suffering for an infinite period of time with an open, painful wound on the forehead.

     Mythologically, Brahma stands for the intellect. Brahmastra, therefore, means the weapon or instrument obtained as a gift of the intellect. The legend of Ashwatthama is thus symbolic of the use of intelligence for the destruction of the embryo or foetus, which is considered an unpardonable sin. The legends show that although it is possible to modify the foetus in the womb, it is not free from danger. Respect for life in the mother's womb and offering better intellectual and spiritual environment to the expectant mother-these two are the basic ethics of Hinduism. (262, 271)


     Science has opened two avenues for us: power and knowledge. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Human beings are generally more drawn to the power aspect of science brought about by the technological revolution. In the glare of technology we have sometimes lost sight of the knowledge aspect of science, which alone encourages holistic ethics and elevates us from the snares and pulls of a purely individualistic, self-centred existence, and unites us with the whole of mankind.

     Technologically advanced societies, both in the East and in the West, are in the grip of a deep socio-ethical turbulence. Americans, forty-eight per cent of whom use guns, have found themselves in a sort of 'gun civilization' (Time, 10 December 1992). Ethical problems are knocking even at the doors of the biggest political power. Seven thousand crime records and 15000 crime enquiries were made every day in 1997 in the city of St Petersburg alone (Asiaweek, 10 October 1997). Science and technology have enriched external life in a thousand ways, but in many places have created more and more of vacuum in internal life because of confused ethical values.

     Prof Maurice H Wilkins, who shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962 with Francis Crick and James Watson, revealed in an interview held in Bombay in January 1986 that most scientists shy away from the political, psychological, spiritual, and other dimensions of their work. Normally, the whole question of these other dimensions is pushed out of the scene. Stephen Hawking, for instance, feels the need for a supervising God who must decide on what happens at the edge of universe. Yet Hawking's God is only a causal and logical principle. 'There would not be a connection with morality,' he pointed out. (8)

     On the contrary, in 1979, Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg expressed an idea that is in consonance with the language of mystics, and tragedians like Sophocles or Shakespeare. He said, 'The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.' (9) That is true knowledge which makes one free from the fetters of animal impulses and makes for divinity (sa vidya ya vimuktaye), teaches Hinduism. This is echoed in Einstein's celebrated statement:

     The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms-this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center [of] true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of devoutly religious men. (10)


     1.Karl Zimmer, Evolution (Arrow Books, 2003), 230.
     2. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.293.
     3. Erwin Schrodinger, What is Life (Cambridge University, 1967), 100-1.
     4. Fritjof Capra, The Hidden Connection (London: Flamingo, 2003), 154, 175, 141.
     5. Deepak Chopra, Quantum Healing (New York: Bantam, 1981), 71.
     6. The Hidden Connection, 142, 141, 71, 150, 157.
     7. Swami Brahmeshananda, Health, Medicine and Religion (Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2004), 248-9.
     8. Renee Weber, Dialogues with Scientists and Sages-The Search for Unity (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), 209.
     9. Heinz Pagels, The Cosmic Code (New York: Bantam, 1983), 278.
     10. Dialogues with Scientists and Sages, 203.




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









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