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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Hinduism and Science

Hinduism and Science

By Narayana Bhat, PhD

“The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavor in art and science.” 

–     Albert Einstein

 

Hinduism has no centralized ecclesiastical authority. So it is impossible to get an official position on science or any other issue. Hinduism, despite the fact that it is not based on pedantic dogmas, is a metaphysical way of life. Science, on the other hand, is non-metaphysical. Does it make sense to relate the two? Central to both science and spirituality is the seeking of truth and grasping the essential nature of reality.  Vedanta, the scientific and theological doctrine of Hinduism, explains that in principle there is no conflict between science and Hinduism. In fact, the two fields are complementary. This is because of the understanding that the domain of each realm is well-defined.

From the perspective of Bhagavad Gita, it is fair to say that modern science is simply a highly detailed analysis of the laws of the visible Brahman, i.e. the visible universe we are familiar with while spirituality is the study of the invisible, attributeless, all pervading Brahman and so, in this sense, there is no conflict between the Gita and science. Gita also reiterates that physical reality and spiritual reality are ultimately inseparable, and therefore, any study of one that omits the presence of the other will create a false or incomplete body of knowledge. The connection is obvious if you consider that the Brahman is truth and pursuit of truth is science. Therefore even such non-physical sciences as psychology, biology, or the medical sciences must include at least the premise that at the heart of reality there is a spiritual foundation, and even though we may not be equipped to see it at this point, it is there nonetheless and must be accounted for. Thus from a Hindu perspective, modern science is a legitimate, but incomplete, step towards knowing and understanding reality.

From a modern scientific perspective, Hinduism goes too far in its assumption of what constitutes the foundations of reality and the means of knowing this reality. The relationship between Hinduism and science is, therefore, mixed. On the one hand, the basic approach of science can be accepted, but when it comes to the acceptance of metaphysical elements of reality the Gita and the Vedas embrace these principles as essential to the pursuit of truth, current science cannot.

“There is no religion higher than truth”. 

The goal of science is a complete understanding of the fundamental principles underlying the physical universe in all its diverse forms. Spirituality is the awakening of the wisdom concerning how effectively we relate to each other and to the world. Science seeks to enlighten our minds while spirituality seeks to awaken our hearts. Each is necessary for a full fruition of the other. Although some may consider science to be antagonistic or contradictory to ones religion and spirituality the truth is that compulsive attachment to particular doctrines and dogmas are inimical to both science and to a deeper realization of spirituality.

The vast area of philosophical enquiry known as epistemology is an enquiry into knowledge and many authors also call it as the theory of knowledge. In scientific approach to knowledge, an empirical logic based on experiments, observations and inferences is fundamental. In Vedanta this process is called aroha-pantha or jnana marga, ascending path/process or the bottom-up process. But this process has its own limitations. This scientific process can, at most, indicate about the existence of God. It cannot lead to the deeper knowledge of God. This is because of the fact that our senses have four inherent limitations. Hence, scientific knowledge based on one’s intellect and sense perception is incomplete and the spiritual knowledge provides the deeper knowledge for the existence of God. Vedantic epistemology stresses the acquisition of knowledge mainly from three different ways: pratyaksa (sense perception), anumana (inference) and sabda (revealed knowledge).

In Hindu scriptures, the intricate relationship between science and Hindu way of life is advocated in several places. One can see that science and spirituality are integrated. It is mentioned in the 40th chapter of the Yajurveda known as Eesaavaasya Upanishad that “use the scientific knowledge for solving the problems in our life and use the spiritual knowledge for attaining immortality through philosophical outlook”:

Avidyayaa mruthyum theerthwaa vidyayaa amruthamasnuthe.

“Into blinding darkness enter those who worship ignorance and into greater darkness those who worship knowledge alone”.

The Brahman is present in everything, in smaller than the smallest (in the atoms) and bigger than the biggest (in the universe) and also present as the jeevaathma in all living beings:

Anoraneeyaan mahato maheeyaan aatma guhaayaam nihithosya jantho,

says Mahanaraayana Upanishad. One can see pure science in this explanation: The revolution of electrons and the spinning of the nuclei in atoms, the rotation and revolution of earth, the solar system, the galaxy, and so on are all guided from within the system and this force which gives the energy and guidance for their movement is known as Brahman or Brahma Chaitanyam.

Hinduism emphasizes the importance of verification of truth through personal experience. It regards the external world as a great illusion, but does not discourage those who want to study it in order to realize the nature of external reality. It is not averse to scientific pursuit of knowledge, so long as it is in harmony with the spiritual aims of man. Therefore in ancient India a number of subjects other than religion were taught to students as a part of their occupational study or even general study. These included subjects such as mathematics, medicine, metallurgy, music, art of warfare, sculpting, temple building, commerce, pottery, weaving and so on. Since the occupations were based upon castes (varna), children were initiated into the secrets of their traditional vocations from a very early age. Further the scriptures strongly advocate scientific approach while practicing the religious advices.

Srimadbhagavatam states:

kamasya nendriyapritirlabho jiveta yavata

jivasya tattvajignasa nartho yasceha karmabhih

“Life’s desires should never be directed toward sense gratification. One should desire only a healthy life, or self-preservation, since a human being is meant for inquiry about the Absolute Truth. Nothing else should be the goal for one’s works.”

The ability to inquire about the ultimate truth of life makes the human being uniquely different from all other forms of life. Thus Vedanta emphasizes that the primary subject matter of the human form of life is to inquire about the science of Absolute Truth, God.

A strong advice to follow scientific spirit in everyday life is clear from the following:

Saakshaat anubhavayat prashno nashruto na gurudarshita

Lokaanaam upakaaraaya eka sarvam pradarshitaam

Meaning: whatever you are following or doing should have sound scientific experience. Don’t do it blindly just because your ancestors have done it. Do your own scientific analysis:

Shaastram pramaanamityuchate.

Whatever you do there should a sound scientific basis, underlying the synergy between scientific inquiry and spiritual philosophy. In the Bhagavat Gita interestingly, Lord Krishna after giving Arjuna all the relevant Knowledge and finally advices:

Itite jnaanamaakhyaatham guhyaad guhyataram maya

 vimrishyetat asheshena yetha icchasi tatha kuru

Concluding the essential teachings of the entire Srimad Bhagavad-Gita, the Supreme Lord Krishna declares that the most confidential and esoteric wisdom has been disclosed by Him in this treatise revealing how the jiva or embodied being attains eternal communion with the Supreme Lord which is the purpose and goal of human existence.

Lord Krishna then instructs Arjuna, “After examining the teachings thoroughly and considering carefully resolve as per your wish the manner in which they are to be implemented into reality”, giving him the full freedom to reject them if he so wishes,

underlining the strong message that nobody should accept any advice blindly without review.

The Mundaka Upanishad says, “two kinds of wisdom have to be acquired: thus the Knowers of Brahman have declared. These are the lower and the higher.”  Hinduism teaches that jñana (knowledge) is fruitless if it does not lead to bhakti (devotion).  The story is told that Sri Adi Shankaracharya was strolling one day when he stumbled upon an elderly man who was diligently learning the Sanskrit grammar.  The old man explained that he was nearing the end of his life and he had decided to devote the rest of his time to studying the religious texts, which required the learning of Sanskrit.  Shankaracharya then uttered the words of what has now become a very popular Hindu devotional song, the Bhaja Govindam.  It begins, “Worship God, just worship God, you fool!  When the end comes finally, all your knowledge of grammar and syntax will not protect you.”  Science is considered a lower knowledge, and primacy is placed instead upon that type of knowledge which leads to salvation.  Nevertheless, the acquisition of “lower knowledge” can be a legitimate endeavor, so long as one does not lose sight of the ultimate goal. 

Some Hindus consider it part of one’s dharma to engage in scientific activity.  Science is, after all, one of the ways in which one may come to learn the true nature of reality.  Hindus accept different ways of approaching and describing the truth.  Hindus therefore tend to view science and religion as two sides of the same coin.  Swami Sadasiva Tirtha expresses this opinion when he says, “One observes a natural phenomenon.  Whether one calls it wind or the wind god (Vayu), the phenomenon is the same.” A modern scientist might argue that there is a difference however between calling the phenomenon wind and calling it the wind god.  To say “wind god” seems to imply that there is consciousness in the wind and that it has a will of its own. 

Swami Vivekananda expresses a slightly different view that science and religion are independent in that they study different domains.  He points out the problems that can arise when one crosses over the border between science and religion without switching gears.

When we look at scientists who are credited with the most important ideas of our time we find mainly Greeks, Europeans, Americans listed. Yet western history seems to have been arbitrarily begun during the Greek era. In fact, when we extend the boundaries of history to view the longer span of history we find some amazing developments predating "modern" history originating in India more than 5,000 years ago. The ancient thinkers of India were not only scientists and mathematicians, but also deeply religious, esteemed saints of their time. Yet it seems that having a spiritual foundation not only brought out important discoveries still in use today, but these discoveries also were helpful without causing harm or destruction.

The relationship between science and religion can be determined by how the members of a particular religion view scriptures. And as might be expected, within Hinduism, there are conservative Hindu views, modern liberal views and everything in between.In general it may be said that Hindus are very tolerant of differences of opinion and less likely than other religions to find conflict between science and religion.

Part 1 of 3-part series.  Part 2 will be published on Jan 1, 2011 and Part 3 on Mar 1, 2011.

By Narayana Bhat, Ph.D.


Narayana Bhat
Narayana Bhat, PhD Mr. Bhat is a member of the Hindu Cultural Center of North Alabama, Huntsville, Alabama. Mr. Bhat will be writing for our Hindu Religion column on regular basis and will choose his topic from readers’ questions. Please send your questions and suggestions to Mr. Bhat at: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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