(Interactive session on 20.5.2015)
Keynote address by Dr. Kushal Shah
(Other participant speakers: Mr. Jyotirmay Bhattacharyya, Mr. Ashok Kr. Sengupta, Mr. Niharendu Bhattacharya & Dr. Suhas Majumdar)
Anchor : Mr. Asim Banerjee
Introduction and concluding remarks by A. K. Raha [Opening song – Mr. Basudeb Shandilya]
Vedanta can be called the science of consciousness just as physics is the science of the matter. Vedanta that postulates Brahman or ‘Pure Consciousness’ as the ultimate cause of the macro-cosmic and micro-cosmic universes, is apparently incompatible with physics that deals with the phenomenal world of matter and laws of the nature, having very little to do with consciousness. Thus in other words, if Vedanta says that Pure Consciousness is the cause of the material world, quantum physicists contend just the opposite. How then is it possible to understand Vedanta through physics?
The Prakriti or the nature, however, has an important role in Vedanta as it explains the expansion of the phenomenal world at both macro-cosmic and micro-cosmic levels. Like physics, Vedanta also describes the nature as Jara or insentient. Mind, intellect and ego being derivatives of insentient Prakriti or the nature are also insentient, according to vedanta. As to the question how the insentient mind, intellect and ego or ‘I’ consciousness became sentient, the explanation of Vedanta is that when those attributes of the nature reflect upon the Chit (consciousness) of the Purusha (the Soul), the Purusha becomes sentient. In the words of Swami Vivekananda, one of the greatest Vedantists of recent time, “According to Vedanta the three fundamental factors of consciousness are, I exist, I know and I am blessed.” When that supreme awareness gets transmitted into a mortal entity in this phenomenal world, the consciousness becomes a compound or a product of the nature, conditioned by dimensionally limited mind, intelligence and egoism.
Even though physics does not dwell upon consciousness as a phenomenon, physicists are generally inclined to look upon consciousness as a product of the nature. As to how the nature produces consciousness, not much light has been shed by physicists. Primarily for this reason, the adjective ‘accidental’ is used by quantum physicists like Stephen Hawking to qualify consciousness as a byproduct of the nature, describing it as an ‘accidental byproduct’. Does this limited similarity between Vedanta and physics in regard to ‘consciousness’ in the phenomenal world make their relationship symbiotic? Perhaps not. But can the fundamental difference between Vedanta and physics, as explained above, stand on the way of understanding various concepts of Vedanta through the lens of physics? Our theme addresses the above poser as to how a physicist understands and interprets various Vedantic concepts.
Science Vs. Spirituality
Science and spirituality have had a tumultuous love-hate relationship for the past few centuries. The first sign of trouble emerged when Copernicus declared that the sun is the center of the solar system and not the earth. Galileo’s discoveries further added fuel to the fire and life has never been easy after that. Though the fight between these two human endeavours in the west is out in the open, we in India still try hard to push it under the carpet. Seldom do we realize that dirt under the carpet smells much worse than when it is out in the open. Oh yes, Vedanta surely has no problem with evolution or the heliocentric view, but some of us seem to feel threatened by science itself. Many otherwise well-meaning people often claim that ancient Indians knew everything and western scientists are only re-inventing the wheel. The technology of aircrafts and atom bombs was all known to them and may be they also used iPads (poor Steve!)! The current fascination among some Vedantins is to prove that ancient Indians also knew all about dark matter and God particle.
Despite all this tumult, some Vedantins have genuinely made sincere efforts to bring together the spiritual and scientific pursuit. Vivekananda probably was the first one to start this effort. But unfortunately, modern science was in its infancy during his time. His efforts in this direction have been quite fruitful and several educated people in India at least don’t see science as being opposed to spirituality. But a serious lacuna still exists in the current understanding. The argument through which the relationship between science and spirituality is explained consists mainly of two points:
- Science is about ‘how’ and spirituality is about ‘why’
- Science is about ‘matter’ and spirituality is about ‘spirit’
We would like to put forth some ideas, which show that both the above views are quite limited in scope, if not altogether wrong.
How and Why
How means ‘in what way or manner, by what means’. And why means ‘for what reason or purpose’. If we think about these deeply, it turns out that both science and spirituality are about how and not so much about why. In fact, most of the answers to the why questions turn to be actually answering the how. A popular question in science is ‘why does the sky appear blue?’ and we say ‘shorter wavelengths are scattered more’. This is actually the ‘way or manner’ through which the sky appears blue, and so an answer to how and not why. If we really pressed hard on asking why, we would most often never get an answer. Similarly, spirituality is mostly about the way in which one should live in order to purify oneself. So, it is also about how and not about why. Of course, we may say that spirituality also tells us the purpose of life, which is God realisation. But this answer would not be acceptable by all. The purpose of one person’s life may be God realisation, but may not be the purpose of another person’s life.
Matter and Spirit
Usually matter is defined as ‘physical substance in general, as distinct from mind and spirit’ but it can also mean ‘a subject or situation under consideration’. The first definition of matter was probably applicable few centuries back, but modern science has shown that there are no rigid boundaries between physical substance and mind. So, now when we talk even of science, we need to use the second definition of matter and here science and spirituality have lots of common ground. Science is about physical substance, mind, and everything else that is a part of the observable universe. Here observable does not just mean visible, but encompasses everything that is a part of prakriti! This is a very important concept and needs to be understood clearly. If you agree that spirituality is also about how and not about why, you will agree that spirituality is also about things that belong to prakriti only. In this context, there is only a subtle difference between science and spirituality: Scientists have no desire to go beyond prakriti, but spiritual aspirants do. This is however not a major difference since our Vedas also say that in order to go beyond prakriti it is also important to give up the desire for moksha. So who knows, scientists are probably better prepared for liberation!!
Now that we understand that there is not a very major difference between spirituality and science, can they help each other? Can a scientist benefit by being spiritual and can a spiritual aspirant benefit by pursuing science? The answer is a resounding yes! Pursuing the spiritual path has lots of benefits for people in all walks of life. We will not go into this further for now and would like to focus on the other aspect: benefit of science to a spiritual aspirant. Vedanta says that the spiritual path can be followed in four ways: Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga and Jnana Yoga. The interesting point is that the scientific pursuit can help one in pursuing spirituality through any one of these four paths. A scientist interested in Karma Yoga can develop new technology to solve various social problems. The scientific pursuit can be very helpful in developing concentration powers thereby helping in pursuit of Raja Yoga. A study of mathematics can help one in realizing the limitations of logic thereby preparing one for Bhakti Yoga. In fact, many mathematicians are actually very religious!
Science and Jnana Yoga
In simple words, Jnana Yoga consists of a systematic approach to acquire a deep understanding of the nature of this world and the Self. Science also aims to acquire a deep understanding of the nature of this world. So, there is a strong overlap. So, can the scientific pursuit also help in following the path of Jnana Yoga? Most people would intuitively answer yes, and that’s absolutely correct. It may sound counter-intuitive, but the biggest obstacle to the pursuit of Jnana is lack of faith in one’s own logical conclusions. One may logically feel that this world is transitory, but if one does not have faith in this view, one cannot progress spiritually. Interestingly, science can provide this required faith. The biggest strength of science is that the validity of various scientific theories does not depend on subjective experience but mathematical logic and objective experimentation. So, now if we can connect the various philosophical truths of Vedanta to the scientific concepts, we can instantly remove many of our doubts. Not just this, forming these connections also helps us in understanding Vedantic concepts in a much better way. Also, Vedanta is quite silent on many issues of grave importance, probably because this knowledge is not directly required for enlightenment. However, for those who are interested, science can help a lot in bridging the gaps. The question is: why should such connections exist between scientific concepts and Vedanta? One reason is that both are making a serious attempt at understanding prakriti and the only difference is in the approach and language used. So, drawing these connections is only like translating a document from one language into another. Also, if we believe that the physical world is only a reflection of the subtle world, it is but natural for strong analogies to be present between these.
Let us now take up a few Vedantic concepts and see how science can help us in understanding them better.
Advaita vs. Dvaita
This is the million dollar question in Vedanta and people from both sides has fighting over it for centuries! One argument that is used to bridge this gap is that Advaita is a higher truth and Dvaita is lower. How would science view this? In science, Newton’s equation of motion is a good example of a lower truth with the higher truth being quantum mechanics (Schrodinger’s equation, for example). We can say this because one can derive Newton’s equation from Schrodinger’s equation by making some approximations. Can one derive Dvaita from Advaita by making some approximations? Well, not at all. It is like saying that gravity can be derived from quantum mechanics! So then how do we resolve this conflict? The difference between Advaita and Dvaita is like the difference between gravity and quantum mechanics. One describes the macroscopic universe and the other the microscopic. So, the conflict arises when each side claims that one of these theories applies to the whole universe. Well, it does not! It is strange but the macroscopic universe seems to have a very different behaviour than the microscopic! The macroscopic is not an average of the microscopic. Its a different beast altogether! It may be that the behaviour is essentially the same at both these extreme ends, but we see the difference because we perceive the world with our mind, which is quite limited in its perceptive capabilities. And that is why the difference between Advaita and Dvaita ceases when the individual mind merges in the cosmic mind.
These are considered to be the three gunas that make up all that exists in this world. The usual definition is that sattva is pure, rajas is excitable and tamas is indifferent. Again, its not very clear what exactly is meant by pure or indifferent? Science can be quite helpful here. In classical mechanics, there is a concept of order and chaos, two terms, which have become a part of common vocabulary. We could view sattva as order and tamas as chaos. Thinking of Devas (sattva) and Asuras (tamas) can help in accepting this analogy. What is rajas then? It is Newton’s third law of motion: every action has an equal and opposite reaction! It is this action-reaction which leads to activity, which is the basic function of rajas.
Creation of the world
Vedanta has very good explanations about many aspects of nature, but this is one aspect where it’s theories are quite insufficient. And here science can play a very significant role. Concepts like the big bang, oscillating universe, etc. can provide lots of insights into how the universe comes into existence in every cycle and then disappears again.
This is probably one of the most profound concepts in Vedanta and the least understood. And how can one understand it when it is a matter of experience! What is more profound about it is that there are some beings, who are able to come back to this universe even after having experienced that state. And the enigma is that though they have experienced it, they are not able to describe that state at all! Is there a parallel in science? Yes, black holes come quite close. Most particles that fall into a black hole never return. But Hawking radiation can escape from these objects. However, this radiation contains no information about the inside of the black hole!!!
One striking similarity between science and spirituality or, to be more precise, between physics and Vedanta is that the ultimate objective of both is to know the truth, although the approach differs. While physics looks for experimental and empirical proof or validation of each proposition, Vedantic postulates are often based on realization of the macro-cosmic and micro-cosmic truth by the sages through the medium of Yoga which is strictly outside the purview of physics. However, some such truth that Vedantins claimed to have realized millenniums ago now stand validated. The case in point is the truth postulated in Bhagvad Gita (8.17) as also Mahabharata several millenniums ago that earth time and space time are not to be calculated by a common standard or measure. The above truth came to be scientifically established in the 20th century only as the theory of relativity of time by Albert Einstein. The difference is that Einstein explained scientifically why space time differs from earth time, while such explanation was wanting in ancient texts. Another Vedantic postulate, sans validation that a physicist looks for, is that the time, mind, intellect and ego are derivatives of Prakriti or the nature. That time is a physical phenomenon is established in Physics. Neuro-biologists are also inclined to think that the diffrence between the mind and the matter is only superficial and that the brain particles such as neurons, electrons etc. substantially determine the level of intellect as also ego-centric thoughts.
However, the fact remains that the much talked about yogic vision of cosmic truth at both macro and micro levels clearly falls outside the ambit of a physicist, as of now. The day is not far off when quantum physicists like Stephen Hawking may enter into the domain of consciousness / mind, working on a hypothesis that man is pre-programmed by the nature as a biological machine. Parallel researches by neuro-biologists like Sir John Eccles, Robert Lanza etc. into the phenomenon of mind / consciousness may find validation in near future for the Vedantic postulate that consciousness is not necessarily body-centric and out-of-body experiences are a reality. Till the time we find scientific validation for Vedantic postulates, there is nothing wrong in treating those postulates as mere hypotheses. But scientific validation need not necessarily be confined to physical matrix.
Modern scientific researches aim at unraveling the ultimate mystery of all time, ‘the theory of everything’, which is still elusive. The Vedantins also sought to unravel the same mystery or the Ultimate Truth, which they called Brahman, knowing Whom there would be nothing left to know. Thus it would stand to logic to treat the theory of everything of quantum physics as the Brahman of Vedanta.