Science and Spirituality: A Hindu Perspective

The topic of Science and Religion has, of late, attracted world-wide attention. For instance, The Templeton Foundation has been very active in arranging workshops on the subject in various universities, inviting participation of scholars from all over the world, and also in rendering financial assistance for the introduction of courses at the university level. I was invited to present a Hindu perspective at a workshop on The Integration of Heart and Mind held at the University of Toronto in July 1999.

The principal objective of the workshop was to promote healthy discussions between the votaries of science and the broad spectrum of Christian theologians, ranging all the way from the evangelists who strictly adhere to Biblical literalism, to those who did not hesitate to deviate from such rigid orthodox interpretations. Physicists were considered to be the standard bearers for all other scientists, presumably because they were more open to acknowledging the spiritual dimension than, for example, the biologists who subscribe to the theory of evolution due to Darwin as opposed to creationism. The workshop had also a token representation from other faiths, which explained my presence.

In India, there have also been several conferences held on the subject of Science and Religion under various titles: synthesis of science and religion; scientist and the rishi ( Rishi is a sage or a sage-poet who has attained a high degree of self-realization, or at least, one leading a life completely devoted to the attainment of the spiritual goal); Science and Religion, etc. I had an opportunity to attend one in a series of conferences held under the auspices of the National Institute of Advancement of Science, Bangalore. In the absence of any un-resolvable controversies between Science and Religion from the Hindu perspective, these conferences have been more directed towards determining ways in which scientific education could enrich the understanding of Hindu philosophy.

The book is divided into three parts, the first provides a discussion of some basic paradigms of science and vedic philosophy, as well as the concepts that bridge the two. The second, provide coverage of several major Vedic theories, and the third, provides a discussion of on science and spirituality. Chapter 1 contains a brief discussion of some paradigms of science. We recall some of these ideas at appropriate places in later discussions to serve as a bridge to the understanding of philosophical concepts. Chapter 2 is devoted to a brief introduction to the Vedas and the Vedic philosophy.

Some basic concepts of science and Vedic philosophy are condensed in Chapters 3 and 4. We have also included a section on Art and Spirituality to make these chapters as comprehensive as possible. Each section can be read independently of the others and because of this manner of exposition, there is some inevitable overlap of ideas; however, some repetition is deemed advantageous for the uninitiated reader. The sections are grouped under three headings: a) Vedic Philosophy; b)Science and Vedic Philosophy: Some Bridging Concepts; and c) Art and Spirituality.

Even those who are well versed in Indian philosophy have found these materials illuminating, and they can be read with a basic understanding of the previous chapters.

Chapters 5, ?? and ?? deal with four metaphysical theories within the Vedic fold and are intended to provide an overall understanding of the vast subject.

Sankhya and Yoga are taken together in Chapter 5 because of their kindred relationship.

Chapter 6 is on non-dualism due to ˜Sam˙ kara, which is sometimes referred to as an absolutistic model for realizing the supreme reality, and Chapter 7 is on theistic models due to R¯am¯anuja and Madhva in the tradition of devotion and abject surrender to the Lord. Since these chapters appeal only to those who are looking for an in-depth understanding of Vedic philosophy, it is advisable to skip them at least on the first reading of the text. The novelty of the treatment, however, is to make these treatises accessible to those who have not undergone classical education characteristic of traditional studies on the Vedas.

Chapter 8 is a free-wheeling discussion on science and spirituality and points to the need for a greater understanding between different faiths based on some universal concepts underlying sanatanadharma without even a remote suggestion of the necessity for converting from one faith to another. We expect the majority of the readers to be interested in reading Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4 and 8 at least on the first round.

The book is concerned with highlighting spirituality that underlies Vedic philosophy in order to portray its Universality; discussion of Vedic religion is outside the scope of this book. It is my fond hope that this special approach will serve to illustrate the manner in which Vedic philosophy resolves the seeming conflict between science and religion, as well as provide a basis for promoting a healthy inter-faith dialogue from the common platform of spirituality.

Although my target reader is one who is generally interested in the broad topic of science, philosophy and spirituality from the Vedic perspective, I also have a special audience in mind because of my own background as a person of Indian origin living in North America for more than four decades. Based on my contacts with people of similar background, I believe this text would be of special interest to them. What I say next in support of this observation might appear as a digression, but, hopefully, it will not detract from the broader appeal of the book.

Indians living abroad have to deal not only with routine matters like professional opportunities and financial well-being but must also wrestle with the deepseated concerns that arise from their anxiety to retain at least a significant part of their Indianness, which they obviously relish with a great deal of nostalgia. Moreover, they know in their heart of hearts that such an identity is absolutely essential for remaining a recognizable part of the cultural mosaic of these western countries.

The problem, therefore, is to find skillful ways of maintaining the essential aspects of their immigrant culture, while at the same time to remain part of the social fabric of the countries of their adaptation.

While living in India, many of the first generation immigrants developed an appreciation of their distinctive culture, not through formal instruction, but through osmosis. They were seldom challenged to justify their views on important matters, thus never having to bestow serious thought upon matters relating to their heritage. As immigrants, however, they found themselves in the rather unenviable position of having to explain the rationale for their patterns of thought and modes of behavior to their own children, who are brought up in these countries, as well
as to the society at large which, cannot be expected to have an understanding of their religious and cultural history. This difficulty severely strains the majority of the immigrants, who either are not used to intellectual inquiry or do not have the time and patience for what they consider esoteric matters. Children, however much they might want to explain away their parents’ shortcomings, are the first ones to observe that the older generation are in no position to provide satisfactory answers to questions, raised in all earnestness, about Indian heritage.

Living in societies with an entirely different cultural ambience, parents cannot afford to lament over the lapse of the authoritarian model which governs, or at least used to govern until lately, the Indian family structure, which had once shielded them from such embarrassment. Within more contemporary family setting, they cannot easily brush aside the questions their children pose, particularly since the parents, ardently wish their children to inherit the essential values of their own rich heritage they have brought with them. This inherent conflict places them on
the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, they want to make sure that the younger generation imbibe their cultural values, but on the other, most of them do not have a clear idea about what they want their children to inherit. While their drive to better their educational and financial prospects, which brought them to these countries in the first place, is still alive, nevertheless, it is eclipsed by their desire to seek a deeper meaning to their lives and indeed to those of their posterity. Thus, living a completely integrated life becomes their chief concern.

On introspection, we find that of all the factors that have shaped our cultural identity, our Hindu religion is the major determinant in establishing our special way of life. Untutored as we are about the essential teachings of the religion, we doggedly cling to the traditional practices of the faith with little or no appeal to reason, as if they provide the only glue to the society that we have left behind.

Very soon, delusion sets in due to the realization that such practices cannot easily be transplanted to these countries because of differences in environment and, more so, because of a lack of enthusiasm from the younger generation. On deeper inquiry, we start to look for those fundamental aspects of our culture which are invariant with respect to environmental conditions so that they have a real chance of taking root in our new habitats.

The realization gradually sets in that the Hindu religion cannot be successfully practiced without a proper understanding of its underlying philosophy, particularly outside of India because of the absence of the weight of its tradition and the scarcity of knowledgeable people who can serve as guides. However, pursuing the analysis based on our new experience, we suddenly see some light for the resolution of our dilemma because of the conviction that if Hindu philosophy has an intrinsic universal appeal, as it professes to have, then it is the element of spirituality that provides the much sought-after portability of values. My discussions with the university students of Indian origin at the University of Waterloo were along these lines, and the questions they raised greatly helped me to clarify my own thinking on science and religion and many allied topics. In particular, I found that the paradigms of science were extremely useful in making contact with students with a good university education. This conceptual framework is reflected in the development of this book, which is perhaps its novelty.

I have a long list of people to acknowledge for helping me develop my own thinking on the subject of Vedic philosophy right from my student days. My initial interest in the fascinating subject was kindled by my professor D.S.Subbaramaiya, who taught mathematical physics with distinction in Central College, which is located in my home town of Bangalore. He was a research student of Dr. C.V.Raman, a Nobel Laureate in physics, at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, before entering the teaching profession. He later on became a full-time devotee of the
S˜am˙ karas tradition and was especially requested by His Holiness, the Jagadguru of the Sringeri monastery, to write a commentary in English on the Dakshinamurthystotram, which is a superb composition of Adi˜Sa ˙ mkara. This scholarly book, written by an ardent practitioner of the faith, has appeared in two volumes which are included in the list of references. His background in mathematical physics is very evident in the commentary. I had the privilege of maintaining contact with him throughout the years till his demise a few years ago.

My next acknowledgment is to the Ashtanga-yoga-mandiram in Bangalore. Its original preceptor ( who is now no more) is Srirangaguru, who is regarded by many of his disciples as not only a man who attained self-realization, but also as someone who successfully led others to attain a higher level of consciousness through his remarkable spiritual abilities and infinite compassion. Although he had very little formal education, his scriptural knowledge was encyclopedic, and he had the matching talent for clear articulation in the Kannada language. He never
asked for a dogmatic acceptance of his teachings, but instead emphasized the need for understanding them on the basis of experience. His divine spouse, who has also attained an exalted level of spiritual perfection, is now the titular head of the ashram. All the active work of the establishment is now done by the great master, Shri Rangapriya Swamiji, who, before becoming a renunciant, was a professor of Sanskrit at the National College, Bangalore. It was my good fortune to have come in contact with him twenty years ago, and I owe a great deal to him, even more than I can publicly acknowledge.

At Waterloo, there is a Brahmarishi Mission which was established eighteen years ago by Swami Brahmarishi Visvatma Bawra, who has his headquarters in Haryana, close to Chandigarh. The Swamiji used to visit Waterloo every year as part of his itinerary that included visits to his other centers in Canada, the US, UK, and some other countries till his demise two years ago. He was a great expositor of S¯a ˙ nkhya philosophy, and it was difficult not to be influenced by his remarkable presence. He also taught meditation as a matter of course just prior to
the commencement of his captivating lectures delivered in his native Hindi language with great flourish and embellishment. Needless to say, I have greatly benefited from my contact with him.
I do not profess to be an expert on Indian philosophy because my principal occupation has been that of a professor in the engineering faculty. Whatever I know with some degree of coherence, apart from what I have learnt from my numerous encounters with knowledgeable people, I owe chiefly to the books written by the late professor M. Hiriyanna, which I have cited in my list of references. I discovered very recently that he was very highly regarded for the depth and breadth of his scholarship and also for the precision and clarity with which he spoke and wrote.

He was a colleague of Dr. S.Radhakrishnan, the more popularly known Indian philosopher and later president of India, in the Maharaja’s College, Mysore. Since he belonged to an earlier generation, I never had the opportunity to meet him in person.

The list of people from whom I have gained an understanding of the broader subjects of science, philosophy and religion is too long to mention. In my own teaching of system theory at the University of Waterloo, I have also been greatly influenced by several Western philosophers. Most certainly, the scientists that I have listed in my reference pages and particularly the physicist and popular science writer Paul Davies, and the Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson, have influenced my decisions on the topics of Chapter 1. The challenge was to select a short list of scientific paradigms from a vast array of available ones which had direct relevance to the later development of the Vedic philosophy. The major milestones in scientific thought have undoubtedly resulted in pronounced shifts in our understanding the external universe; consequently, they provide deep insights into the study of the Vedic philosophy.

My my sincere thanks are due to New Age International, New Delhi, which published an earlier Indian edition of this book under the title, Science and Mysticism: The Essence of Vedic Philosophy. I also wish to thank my daughter Kalpana Sarathy and her husband Dr. Sriprakash Sarathy for their invaluable assistance in getting this greatly revised book published. I have also benefited from published critiques of my earlier edition and from the valuable comments I have received from several readers.

Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
January 10, 2003

Dr. H.K. Kesavan