The Infinity Foundation Lecture
at Vedanta Conference 2000
Science and the Spiritual Vision:
A Hindu Perspective
by V.V. Raman, PhD
The Legacy of Ancient India
Since very remote times, India has been a land where religion and the spiritual quest have flourished in a grand way. As Swami Vivekananda, the eloquent exponent of Hinduism to the modern world put it, this is the land where “wisdom made its home before it went into any other country, the same India whose influx of spirituality is represented on the material plane, by rolling rivers like oceans, where the eternal Himalayas, rising tier above tier, look as it were into the very mysteries of heaven…. Here first sprang inquiries into the nature of Man and into the internal world. Here first arose the doctrines of the immortality of the soul, the existence of a supervising God , an immanent God in nature and in man, and here the highest ideals of religion and philosophy have attained their culminating points.”
There in the distant past, sages meditated serenely on the banks of sacred rivers, and acquired spiritual insights which they articulated in sublime Sanskrit meters. These came to be called the Vedas: treasure-chests of spiritual nuggets, which have served as the scriptural pillars of the Hindu world for well over three millennia now.
The Vedas and Other Hindu Scriptures
Vedic hymns are more than magnificent poetic visions. They personify the primordial principles of fire, water, air and earth as gods and deities that sustain life here below. A Rig Vedic hymn (X: 83) refers to the Creator as “the only One, bearing different names.” The Vedas extol that One God for His multiple manifestations: “Millions are in Thy million. Thou art a billion in Thyself,” it says in a verse in the Atharva Veda (XIII: 4). The Vedas express the view that beneath and beyond the brute forces that are apparent at the perceived levels, there is a subtle order, a guiding intelligence, a silent harmony, an eternal law (ritu) which “caused to shine what shone not, and lighted up the dawns (Rig Veda VI:39).” In the fair form of ritu are many splendid beauties (Rig Veda IV: 23.9).
The fountainhead of science is wonderment by the human spirit, and the Vedas are scientific in their wonderment. But they are also imbued with a sense of reverence which makes them deeply religious. They are religious again when they incorporate supernatural elements in their cosmogony.
Here and there, Vedic verses also express a cautious skepticism which is scientific at its core. Thus, a hymn of Creation (Rig Veda X: 129) closes with the lines*,
- Who really knows, and who can swear,
How Creation arose, when or where!
Even Gods came after Creation’s day,
Who really knows, who can say
- When and how did Creation start!
Did He do it? Or, did He not?
Only He up there knows, maybe;
Perhaps not, not even He.
Thus, the Vedas are among the first embodiment in human culture of a synthesis of science and spirituality.
Later Hindu writings, especially the Upanishads and the Brahmasûtras, which enshrine some of the doctrinal foundations of the Hindu tradition, are also amalgams of science and spirituality: They too speak precisely and in causative terms about the phenomenal world, they too propound theories of cosmology, physiology, and psychology. And they never falter in their insistence on an undergirding spiritual substratum (brahman) of which this ephemeral world of experience is but a passing manifestation. Brahman, declares the Taittirîya Upanishad (3.1), is the origin of everything, and unto which everything ultimately returns.
Science, Religion Spirituality
The link between the Hindu spiritual perspective and science lies in that both are ardent quests. The greatest minds of the ages have striven to explain the wonders of nature and of the phenomenal world. Why does the sun rise and set, why does the moon wax and wane? How do stars shine? What makes the rainbow multihued? Such are the questions explored by science. Science seeks explanations of natural phenoena.
There are also other questions that intrigue the human mind: Why did the world and Man come to be? What should be our role towards one another and toward the world of Nature? How should we envision our Creator? These are among the questions that traditional religions have tried to answer. Religion seeks meaning and purpose in human existence.
And finally, there is the mystery of mysteries: human consciousness, this subtle splendor that seems to light up the cold expanse of silent space. For, in truth, it is consciousness that breathes life into inert infinity. All the light and beauty, all the grandeur and majesty of the universe are reflected only in the human spirit. There would be no equations for elliptical orbits, no reckoning of space or time, no SU-3 or standard model, if there was only mute matter and no measuring mind in the cosmos.
It is on the nature of this experiencing entity, this Self that is all too real within each one of us, yet unfathomable through ordinary modes: it is on this that Hindu spirituality probed and proclaimed.
The Thesis of Hindu Spirituality
What is propounded is not regarded as theology; nor philosophy, nor metaphysics. Rather, it is affirmed as the discovery of something grand and glorious beneath and beyond our perceptually acquired impressions of the phenomenal world.
This recognition is very different from the scientific description of the world. It has naught to do with gravitation or electromagnetism, it is not about leptons or hadrons. Rather, it is the revelation that there is a higher category of reality to which our normal modes of perception are not attuned. It is a dimension of reality that is as real to the spiritual aspirant as Hilbert space and Lie groups are to the mathematician. Prayer and meditation are ardent efforts to communicate with that loftier realm.
The Hindu spiritual view also underscores the relative nature of the intellectual mode. It reminds us that thinking mind and critical analysis reveal but one aspect of Reality: its phenomenal component. Spiritual awareness enables one to see that while the logical-rational mode is necessary for the comprehension and fruitful manipulation of sensorially perceived phenomena, it is utterly ineffective, may even be a detriment, in the discernment of the transcendental realm. It is not by chewing and tasting that one understands the molecular components or the energy content of the food one consumes.
This point must be emphasized in discussions on the relationship between science and spirituality. When die-hard materialists categorically declare that there is nihil ultra, nothing beyond gross matter, it is like saying there is nothing more to good food than color and spice, taste and smell. They ignore the fact that there is in fact much more to human experience than the causal and the spatio-temporally localizable. How can one ignore intangible entities like thought and value, meaning and aesthetic delight which cannot be reduced to fermions and bosons?
For the materialist, insubstantial thoughts, in so far as they are associated with the human body, may still be regarded as physical in their roots. It is often asserted that these are described emergent properties of the brain. But in the Hindu framework, thespiritual undercurrent of the physical universe is beyond human presence on our planet.
Justification of the Thesis
One may ask, on what basis can this be affirmed? To answer this, let us consider a corresponding question in the world of science: On what basis does one declare that there are planets called Neptune and Pluto, that there are microbes and chromosomes? We need instruments like the telescope and the microscope to unravel their existence, to become aware of aspects of gross physical reality which are not immediately perceivable. Moreover, the instruments will have to be well calibrated, their lenses must be cleaned and polished too. Furthermore, the observer must be trained in their handling. A mere novice, looking though the tube, may mistake a galaxy for a smudge in the eye-piece.
So too, declare the spiritual masters, in order to acquire the vision with which one can gain awareness of transcendental Reality, one needs to develop and sharpen other potentials of the human frame. This is the goal of spiritual initiation and exercises.
Objectivity in Science
Post-sixteenth century science’s concern, and its oft-stressed strength, lies in its avowed objectivity. Galilean-Newtonian science seeks to know how the world would function whether or not the human mind happens to be in it. It is, in a sense, a rebellion against the subjectivist and anthropocentric world views of ancient science. It is based on the conviction that the observing mind can not only study the course and contents of the phenomenal world, but can gain a true understanding of it only by keeping itself away from whatever transpires out there. It is somewhat like studying child-behavior using a TV camera rather than by direct observation which is sure to affect that behavior and thus interfere with the matter that is being studied.
In the Western tradition, this point of departure of classical science was articulated by Descartes when he distinguished between res extensa: the external physical world, and res cogitans: the internal grasping world of mind. Long before Descartes, the Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy had propounded somewhat a dichotomy between prakriti (mindless Nature) and purusha (the experiencing principle). One might say in the terminology of the Hindu epistemology that science is a serious and systematic attempt to fathom the intricacies of prakriti without a purusha. But it is good to remember that such a prakriti is as irrelevant as encyclopedias in the bottom of the sea. The universe prior to the emergence of the human (or similar) minds would be a thoughtless wilderness, where chunks of matter arise, whirl around, and get transformed in routine rhythms for eons and boring eons in a cosmic waste-land.
Admirable and productive as it is, a purely objective apprehension of the world cannot be reached even in principle, since science is based on concepts which arise in the human mind. Science is condemned to explore and explain only from within the confines of the human cerebrum and cerebellum. In science, what one means by objectivity is that descriptions ought to be independent of the specific human minds which articulate them. Scientific propositions demand criteria of universality which are based on independent experimentation, logical modes, and communicability. With all that, one cannot get away from the fact that scientific objectivity is essentially collective subjectivity.
Hindu spirituality grants such collective subjectivity, but regards it as illusory. By this, we mean two things: First, that the physical phenomenal world, such as it appears, is a consequence of the constraints and characteristics of the human mind. Secondly, and more importantly, even the experience of individuality, of the I-ness that takes us through life’s journey, is a grand illusion. It is important to be clear about this notion of mâyâ which is a tenet of Hindu spirituality. What it means is that one of the characteristics of the human brain is to respond to the external whatever-it-is in convenient projections. However, though these are as useful as maps to guide us through a territory, they are no more real and are to be mistaken for what they project.
Classical world, quantum world, and ultimate state
At the macroscopic level of objects at our normal scales of experience and the astronomical, a bifurcation between subject and object is not only useful but indispensable for a coherent description of the world. At the microcosmic level, however, such separations become impossible in practice and in principle. No electron can be observed without impinging on its intrinsic state. Deep down in the world of atoms and fundamental particles, at the level of the ultimate bricks of the material universe, there is a nebulous overlapping of entities that cannot be resolved into utterly independent units. Everything seems to be inextricably connected to everything else. Thus we see that a second difficulty with objectivity arises from our probes into the microcosm. Quantum physics has brought into focus the intrinsic intertwining of subject and object, of the observer and the observed. In this process, it has, in effect, revealed that there are levels of Reality.
The thesis of Hindu spirituality is that there is yet another level of Reality at which all is fused into a universal One. For gaining a deeper understanding of the nature and complexity of the prakriti, years of serious and disciplined study of mathematics and physics are required. Likewise, a meaningful transformation into the higher realm where prakriti and purusha merge, normally calls for sophisticated spiritual practices, though in a few instances they are known to have come as a flash without any effort.
Moreover, those who have experienced this ultimate interconnectedness of the conscious self with the perceived world, that is to say those who have had the mystical experience, maintain that the brain-generated impression of multiplicity is a veil that covers a seamless cosmic wholeness.
Science (sc) & Spirituality (sp): Differences
Indeed, it is important to note that there are important differences. Let us consider some of these:
- (a) Collective vs individual: Unlike scientific knowledge, spiritual insights are not the result of collective activity, although they could be corroborative. Each seeker chooses his or her own path, and comes upon varying aspects of the beyond which is kaleidoscopic in its multi-splendor. This vision, extended to the global arena, opens up our hearts and minds to diversity. And it leads to the much-needed enlightenment that not only tolerates but also respects other cultural traditions and validates the religious experiences of others as well. As a Vedic seer put it, “the one essence, the wise call by many names.”
- (b) Goals and tools: The goal of science is to describe and explain the phenomenal world; the goal of the spiritual quest is to apprehend its inner essence. The brochure in the museum may tell us which paintings are in which halls, but the joy to be derived from a masterpiece is of an altogether different category. Spiritual vision is based on anubhava, on profound personal experience which cannot be transferred from individual to individual any more than one’s tooth-ache. The author of a Yajur Vedic verse declared,
I have known this Mighty Being
Effulgent as the Sun beyond darkness.
- It is like the aesthetic delight from art and music. This knowledge does not arise from experiments with external tools, but from introspection.
(c) Quantitative vs qualitative: Then again, science analyzes every detail of all that is changing and ephemeral, as also the unchanging quantitative features in the phenomenal world. Spiritual quest is concerned with the unchangeable qualitative principle that under-girds the universe. It seeks, indeed longs for, what is permanent and eternal, that which does not change, rather than its changing physical manifestations. It defines Reality as that which is not subject to any change:
satyetiti yad-rûpena yannid-citâm
tad-rûpam na vya-bhi-carati tat-satyam.
- For the spiritual seeker, what is permanent and immutable is Reality, whereas science is primarily concerned with the specific ways in which unchanging principles give rise to the changing aspects of perceived phenomena.
(d) Different dimensions: Spirituality is revelatory of a reality beyond the physical world of sensory perceptions. It unveils a dimension of Reality that transcends spatial-temporal and causal categorizations. By its very nature, this dimension is not something that can be conceptually grasped, logically analyzed, or verbally articulated. The Upanishadic seers had clearly recognized the differences between sensory perception, logical analysis, and intuitive apprehension. Transcendent reality can be grasped only in its totality, not in its piece-meal subdivisions.
This recognition need not, indeed should not, undervalue the importance of the ordinarily perceived levels of reality. If one derides the ephemeral world, or rejects its relevance, zest for life will diminish, and search for solutions to everyday problems will be jeopardized. This may be good for individuals , but it can be disastrous for a community. To meditate at specific times is elevating, but to do it uninterruptedly and indefinitely could only emaciate the body and lead to physical death.
Science and Spirituality in Hindu Society
In classical India, scientific investigators went about their business, producing technology, charting planets and stars, creating mathematics, and speculating on the nature of matter. But the saints and sages were engaged in meditation and contemplation. People went to them, not to learn physics or cosmology, but for spiritual enlightenment. It was left to scholars like us to expound and analyze the insights the rishis.
Value of Hindu Spirituality
Overwhelmed by the successes of science and the raw power of technology n the modern world, many Hindus are tempted to pay scant respect to the exaltation of other-worldly perspectives that is not uncommon in Hindu sermons. It is true that to an extent advances in the material dimensions of science and technology have been somewhat slowed down, if not arrested, by excessive preoccupation with the hereafter.
But we should remember that there is an glow in the eyes of even the most down-trodden in Indian society that is hard to find among the marginalized of the world, and this has much to do with their world picture. There is an inner peace in the Hindu heart even in the face of acute hardships, and this is due in no small measure to the spiritual framework of Hindu culture. There is something magical in the Hindu world-view that feeds strength and hope in situations of utter despair.
Then again, magnificent art and sculpture, lofty literature and rapturous dance, gloriously music and picturesque tales have all been inspired by the visions of Hindu spirituality. It is hard to find another culture where epics and music, poetry and symbols have shaped and nourished an entire civilization to such dynamic creativity.
Hindu spirituality is also at the root of the remarkable resilience that has been a unique feature of Indian civilization. Few other peoples have survived so well the continuous onslaught of alien intruders many of whom were interested not only in plundering the victims, but no less in replacing their culture. The invaders were successful in their plundering, but they failed dismally in their attempts to uproot Hindu culture. Instead, they transformed it for the better. Credit goes to Hindu spirituality.
Quite unexpectedly in a way, and yet not surprisingly in another way, Hindu spiritual insights have become very relevant in the context of current science.
Hindu Spirituality and Quantum Physics
First let me talk about modern physics and spirituality: There have been numerous efforts by scholars in all religious traditions to demonstrate that in their respective sacred books lie implicit some of the findings and theories of science. Up until the twentieth century, the claims were to the effect that the scriptures expressed in poetic and metaphorical terms some of the basic results of empirical science. Christian scholars have been doing this with respect to the Bible, as Hindus with respect to the Vedas.
What is interesting is that since the rise of quantum physics, a great number of serious scientists, not just philosophers or religious apologists, but physicists who had contributed to the emergence and development of the quantum physics, began to see in the spiritual revelations of Hindu rishis, glimmers of their own discoveries of the mysteries of the microcosm. From Erwin Schrödinger to Eugene Wigner and David Bohm, many perceptive physicists have seen more than mere parallels between the collapse of the quantum mechanical wave function and the intertwining of purusha and prakriti. Though in the process, as George Sudharshan has noted, Buddhism and Vedanta, Samkhya and Taoism are often lumped together under the simple, not to say simplistic, rubric of Eastern mysticism, what is interesting here is that thinkers outside of a tradition are recognizing the relevance of an alien tradition in their interpretations of science. This is surely a matter of some significance, for it reflects as much the open-mindedness of the thinkers as the intrinsic truth-content of the matters interpreted.
A number of modern commentators hold the view that, even with its mutually opposing positions as to the identity or distinctions between jîvâtman and paramâtman, and other conflicting and debatable metaphysical assertions, Hindu philosophy has at its core certain profound insights into the nature of ultimate Reality and of the human experience. Its basic tenets do not simply subtend a speculative system, any more than that Maxwell’s equations are mere mathematics. Rather, Hindu seers are telling us something that is not only meaningful, but revelatory about cosmos and consciousness. They were not building a system of thought, but unveiling a not-so-apparent dimension of the universe. Their assertions were not just doodles on the mental plane: they arose rather from experiential certitudes resulting from sustained experimentation with the subtlest centers of the inscrutable Self. Their words and wisdom are to be taken, therefore, not as magnificent mytho-poesy, but as findings about the translucent aspects of the physical universe, exactly as twentieth century science, after persistent probing into the heart of matter and energy, after countless decades of search and reflection, has erected its framework of fundamental reality.
If this be so, if spiritual probing via yogic discipline do lead to insights about the nature of one realm of reality, while scientific peelings of the layers of matter via experimental ingenuities and mathematical structures take us to the deep-down details of that another realm, then one could expect the two lines of quest complement, if not converge, somewhat as travelers by jet planes and ocean liners may ultimately arrive at different destinations in the same country.
Conceptual quagmire in quantum physics and Hindu spirituality: This, in the view some, is precisely what has been happening in recent decades. The epistemological quagmire into which quantum physics has been sliding turns topsy-turvy our common-sense pictures of a solid substantial world of cause and law, of rigid particles and conserved quantities, of smooth-flowing time and three dimensional space. As we delve deeper into the remote recesses of atoms and nuclei, funny things begin to happen. Mathematical clouds of probability take over, electrons seem to know, information is transmitted instantaneously, everything seems to be interconnected. In the depths of black holes and in the singularities of quarks, space and time and physical laws themselves get warped and dissolved. Weird things are indeed transpiring in the microcosm.
Now one begins to wonder if those rishis of ancient India had not after all tumbled upon some profound truths about the unperceived world which, because of their very nature, cannot be expressed adequately even in sacred Sanskrit. They were perhaps quite right in insisting that in the stark denuded aspect, bereft of matter and mind, there is a level of reality that only pure consciousness can experience, and pure consciousness can only experience, not convey. Could it be that now, at long last, after countless tortuous turns of experimentation, mathematics and microscopes, we are slowly beginning to get a glimpse of what the sages were speaking about?
This is the reason why in our own times some physicists and philosophers of the quantum world are drawn to ancient wisdom. This is what has led to John Wheeler’s idea of the collocality of planiverses, to Henry Stapp’s consciousness-configurations in the quantum mechanics, to Alex Comfort’s notion of the phenomenal world as eigenstates of Om, and to Amit Goswami’s provocative notion of a self-aware universe. It would seem that there is much to be gained if the yogic quest, stripped of its mumble-jumble, and no-nonsense empirical science, freed from its rationalistic straight-jacket and model-building obsession about what can and cannot be, combine forces in unscrambling the deeper mysteries of the world of experience.
Psychology and consciousness
When one considers sciences of the mind and sources and of human knowledge, and the grounds of consciousness, Hindu insights become very relevant. In the fields of psychology and epistemology, some of the visions Hindu spirituality become enormously relevant. Many modern theories in psychology have been influenced by, and in some instances, they have even incorporated, a number of Hindu insights into the nature of the human mind. One detects in the works of Carl Jung and Ken Wilber, for example, some reformulations of Hindu insights.
Hindu spirituality is also coming into modern science because science has reached a stage when it is probing into the very core of human consciousness. The science of the past few centuries, with all its wondrous accomplishments, has been like the tip of an iceberg exposed to the elements. For much of science is but the patterned perception of the phenomenal world at the level of the intellect. But just as underneath the tip of an iceberg is a sizeable mass, indeed the much more solid and gigantic fraction of the total mass, the intellect is but the superstructure of consciousness. Even as the submerged block is in the surrounding sea, the occult consciousness is part of a grander one, and it is this dimension that science is trying to unravel with its methodological and conceptual tools of neuroscience. Hindu experimentalists have been probing into that mystery for ages now, through other modes and means, to be sure. No religion or system of thought, no science until now, had delved into the complexities of consciousness such as Hindu ascetics have been doing through sophisticated yogic disciplines.
The human body is a puny entity, confined to a planetary speck in the vast stretches of the Cosmos. To all appearances, this minuscule bundle of mind and matter emerged barely a couple of million years ago, through the slow silence of immutable physico-chemical laws, acting in harmony and at random too, for if the mystery of life can be tracked down to molecular bonds, no calculation could have predicted the countless chance factors that brought them into play. It was the most sublime manifestation of the chaos principle in action. Or was it perhaps a carefully conceived confluence of causal links? No one can be sure. But if we trust our thermodynamics, the spark of life may last for a few billion years, and then be snuffed off to be gone for ever.
But the compelling evidence of experience is that the human being is a good deal more than a biological entity. There is in each of us the magic of thought and feeling, the glory of art and music, the excitement of love and the ennobling of ideals. Then there is the penetrating power of the mind that can fathom the ultimate nature of the complex world, reach the very ends of the universe, and mathematize the microcosm. If all this is mere matter and energy, then one might as well say that a collection of Kalidasa’s plays is a mere heap of letters permuted in peculiar ways. The human sprit is the capacity for self-awareness, for joyful interaction, for religious ecstasy, and yes, for being touched by the awe in the face of the mysterium tremendum. The human sprit is the intangible in the fleeting persistence of Homo sapience. There is more to flower than soil and tree-branch, the spirit is more than neural network, more than heartbeat and vital breath.
Hindu Vision of cosmic consciousness
Let me reflect on the philosophical vision of Hindu spirituality. If there is splendor in the perceived world and pattern in its functioning, and if it can all result in the magnificent experiences of life and thought, then even prior to the advent of Man and Mind, there must have been an experiencing principle of an enormously superior order, spanning the cosmic range in space and time. This is the cosmic substratum, this is the Brahman of the Hindu vision. Just as the vast expanse of water in the seas is scattered all over land in ponds and lakes and rivers and bottles, the all-embracing Brahman finds expression in countless life-forms. In this breath-taking vision we are, one and all, miniature lights from the cosmic effulgence, destined for the terrestrial experience for a brief span on the eternal time line, only to re-merge with that from which we sprang.
Is this poetic imagery, is this scientific hypothesis, or is it perhaps the ultimate Truth? Whatever it be, only visionary spirits can even conceive it. And this much may be said of this world view: It paints the human experience on a cosmic canvass. It recognizes the transience and finitude of us all as individual entities, yet incorporates us into the infinity that encompasses us. It does not rule out the possibility of other manifestations of Brahman, sublime or subtle, carbon or silicon-based, elsewhere amidst the stellar billions. And it does not speak of rewards and punishments in anthropocentric terms, nor of a He-God communicating in local languages. Yet, it regards all religious expressions as echoes of the Universal spirit, even as volcanic outbursts here and there reveal submerged forces of far greater magnitude. The Hindu vision recognizes the role of matter, and the limits of the mind, and sees sublime spirit at the core of it all.
Where science and spirituality can lead us
Science unravels the patterns and connections giving rise to the phenomenal world. Hence it is enormously relevant and reliable in our grasp of the world in the context of logical consistency and reference systems. The recognition of the spirit enhances our awareness of the world of experience. It does this, not just in its finite framework of thought and logic, but in its transrational dimension of mystic merger with the transcendental. It is thus that science and spirituality are intertwined in the Hindu vision. Such a synthesis leads to a positive involvement with the world.
Rather than lead to an other-worldly pessimism which sometimes clouds the vision of those who look upon spirituality as a denial of the joy and affirmation of life, we need to take it as a revelation of the human potential for ever more glorious things. In the words of Sri Aurobindo, Man has first to affirm himself, “but also to evolve and finally to exceed himself; he has to enlarge his partial being into a complete being, his partial consciousness into an integral consciousness; he has to achieve mastery of his environment but also world-union and world harmony; he has to realize his individuality but also to enlarge it into a cosmic self and a universal and spiritual delight of existence.”
This is the message that an enlightened view of Hindu spirituality would offer to the scientific spirit of the modern world.
How our perception and appreciation of things change from era to era! There was a time when Hindu thought was regarded as exotic. Then some interesting philosophical perspectives were noted in it. Then one discovered the roots of religion in the Hindu world. Then one came upon occult wisdom in ancient Hindu thought. And finally, in the course of the twentieth century, one began to see parallels between Hindu worldviews and the latest theories of quantum physics. If these are not transformations in perception and appreciation, what is?
And yet, Hindu thoughts and insights haven’t really changed that much since ancient times. Only our understanding and appreciation of them have. So it is with everything: It is our perception of reality that we call the truth. Reality itself stays the same.