Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda 
Snapshot
  • . . .and that is why Indians cannot have the luxury of using their past to self-perpetuate the delusions of ancient glory. They instead need to utilise it to create a new future.

Professor Makarand R Paranjape’s three-part series on Swami Vivekananda and Science is a thought-provoking feast for the Indic mind. It was tempting to take off from what Prof Paranjape has written and hence this article.

A Marxist Science Exhibition

When India was awakening to the horrors of the Emergency, an exhibition was being crafted and installed in New Delhi by the Indira Gandhi government. Conceived by physicist-educationist Rais Ahmed, given shape by molecular biologist PM Bhargava, financed by the NCERT and blessed by Prof Nurul Hasan who was Education Minister, the exhibition was named Method of Science (MoSE).

A look into the choice and depiction of the MoSE panels shows a disturbing pattern. The exhibition had a section titled “21 landmarks in the history of the method of science and its applications”. These 21 panels were presented with a clever caveat: “What is presented here is not a display of landmarks in the history of science but landmarks in the history of the method of science”. It was 1975. Thomas Kuhn had published his landmark Structure of the Scientific Revolution in 1962. Karl Popper’s Logic of Scientific Discovery had been published in English in 1959. These milestones in the method of science found no mention in the 21 “landmarks”. Instead it had panels on Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin.

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This prompts one to ask the question, what exactly was the contribution of Lenin to the method of science.

In 1908, he was a political exile when he came up with the work Materialism and Empirio-criticism. In this book, Lenin gave his verdict on some leading scientists and philosophers of science of his time like Alexander Bogdanov, Pierre Duhem and Henri Poincaré.

Let us take the case of Pierre Duhem. He was a physicist and a philosopher of science. In his book The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, he considered the laws of physics as “neither true nor false but approximate” because they are “symbolic”, picturing the reality “in a more or less precise, a more or less detailed manner”. Lenin found that statement as containing “the beginning of the falsity.” The later developments in physics revealed that Duhem had actually touched the heart of a problem that physicists would debate passionately in the coming decades. For example, Louis de Broglie, one of the founding fathers of the new physics and famous for his equation of particle wavelength, saw the work of Duhem as “a beautiful and great work where physicists of today can still find numerous topics worthy of reflection and study.”

Then there was Ernst Mach. Mach called his philosophical method universal phenomenology. Lenin employed a vivid religious imagery against the scientist: “The philosophy of the scientist Mach is to science what the kiss of the Christian Judas was to Christ.” A.V. Vasil’ev was a mathematician at Kazan University in Russia. His book series New Ideas in Mathematics, when translated from Russian into English, carried an introduction by philosopher Bertrand Russell. Vasil’ev discovered the Machian influence on the development of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity: “From Mach, Einstein had received a solid grounding in epistemological arguments in favour of a fusion of physics and geometry as a unitary system of scientific operation, and, in general, of the ‘anthropomorphic’—or subjective—nature of the reality physicists considered their main target of inquiry.”

Lenin (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)  Lenin (Hulton Archive/Getty Images) 

Lenin, after passing all these verdicts on the men of science, made what can be considered as perhaps the most important pronouncement on how science should progress:

“One school of natural scientists in one branch of natural science has slid into a reactionary philosophy, being unable to rise directly and at once from metaphysical materialism to dialectical materialism. This step is being made, and will be made, by modern physics; but it is making for the only true method and the only true philosophy of natural science not directly, but by zigzags, not consciously but instinctively, not clearly perceiving its ‘final goal’, but drawing closer to it gropingly, hesitatingly, and sometimes even with its back turned to it.” (Emphases added)

These words of Lenin would have a tremendous impact on the history of the evolution of sciences in the Soviet Union. Often commissars took upon themselves the work of seeing whether a particular new development in science was in alignment with “the Theory”. During the Stalinist era, this resulted in the notorious Lysenko episode (agrobiologist Trofim Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetics and falsified data to curry favour with Stalin with disastrous results for the Soviet Union’s agricultural sector) which unleashed a Marxist inquisition on geneticists. Physicists too suffered censorship though their essential roles in the Soviet bomb projects made them survive. Stalin famously declared that the physicists could be killed later after they had served their purpose in making the bombs.

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It is here that the depiction of the brilliant physicist John Desmond Bernal in MoSE acquires an ideological rather than scientific significance. The MoSE panel on Bernal informed the audience that Bernal made the “first statement of the intimate relationship between science and society”. The statement is incorrect. Five years before Bernal, in 1934, Julian Huxley had written Scientific Research and Social Needs, where he saw science as a social activity which itself demands scientific study. So why did MoSE glorify Bernal?

Like an influential section of British scientists of that time which includes Huxley and JBS Haldane, Bernal was impressed by his Soviet tour so much that he wrote in his work The Social Function of Science :

It is to Marxism that we owe the consciousness of the hitherto analyzed driving force of scientific advance and it will be through the practical achievements of Marxism that this consciousness can become embodied in the organization of science for the benefit of mankind.

But what distinguishes Bernal from other initial admirers of Marxism among the scientific community was his unflinching support to Lysenko, the pseudo-scientist, and to the Marxist inquisition on genuine geneticists. Many scientists were put in jail. Nikolai Vavilov became a martyr for science in Marxist prisons, undergoing humiliations which even Galileo never had to face before the Church. Initial enthusiastic supporters of Marxism among scientists like Haldane and Huxley were shocked by the ideological fundamentalism of Soviet regime. But Bernal defended the Soviet regime on the ground that Lysenko was pursuing a proletarian science and purging bourgeois science:

In the past there has been one science. Because modern science was part of the origin and development of capitalism, it was necessarily the production of bourgeois thinkers and steeped in bourgeois ideology. It is only now in the Soviet Union with the new generation of scientific workers that it is possible to build a socialist science.

In other words, the entire exercise of MoSE was an attempt to hardsell Marxist propaganda in the name of science and at the expense of Indian tax payer money.

An Indic exhibition is needed

That brings us to the question: What about a real MoSE in tune with Indic knowledge systems, which is free from such ideological fundamentalism and epistemological as well as ontological mono-vision? (Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Ontology is the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being.) Einstein had famously spoken about reciprocal relationship of epistemology and science:

Epistemology without contact with science becomes an empty scheme. Science without epistemology is—insofar as it is thinkable at all—primitive and muddled.

Epistemology not only provides tools and frameworks for exploration but in an interesting way also provides frameworks and visions to enjoy the implications of science. However, the problem may arise when the discovery of science may have negative implication for a specific form of philosophy. For example, natural theology, seeing the world as a handicraft of a creator God, may provide an impetus to science to look into the mechanisms the creator has put inside the organisms. However, when Darwinian science reveals evolution as the work of a “blind watchmaker”, then natural theology runs into problems. At its crudest level, to retain power, it would attempt pseudo-sciences like “Intelligent Design”.

Albert Einstein (Central Press/Getty Images) Albert Einstein (Central Press/Getty Images)

Indian culture is unique here. Here, as Prof Paranjape has pointed out, you have a saint who could say that all that is found untrue in religion in the light of science and reason should go. He did not want science to come to religion, “gropingly, hesitatingly, and sometimes even with its back turned to it” as Lenin declared, making Soviet science a disaster and a human tragedy. Instead, in the works of Swami Vivekananda, we find a passage, very striking, in which he gently proposes how science may evolve in future:

Take anything before you, the most material thing—take one of the most material sciences, as chemistry or physics, astronomy or biology—study it, push the study forward and forward, and the gross forms will begin to melt and become finer and finer, until they come to a point where you are bound to make a tremendous leap from these material things into the immaterial. The gross melts into the fine, physics into metaphysics, in every department of knowledge.

The statement was made in 1896. It would be 29 years later and 23 years after the samadhi of Vivekananda, that Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg would come up with the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics which would disturb Einstein enough to make the statement that God would not play dice with the universe. Einstein would collaborate with physicists Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen to prove the incompleteness of Quantum Mechanics, which in turn would unveil stranger non-localised quantum phenomena. But all that would be in the future. Yet, this monk from a colonised world could predict the direction science would take in the next century, unlike Lenin who wanted science to be the handmaiden of his ideology.

Indian culture has the unique advantage of epistemological pluralism from the six Darshanas as well as from the Buddhist and Jain traditions. They can well become the epistemological tools and frameworks for Indian students of both science and arts to create what British scientist and writer CP Snow termed the “Third Culture”.

The caveat again is not to map the modern discoveries of science with the traditional imageries in a literal or fundamentalist sense. Shiva’s dance is not the knowledge of the dynamic picture of the sub-atomic particles or the cosmology of the oscillatory universe. Nevertheless, the imagery of the deity has the potential to deepen and expand itself into a dynamic metaphor of the knowledge in all these realms. Physicists Fritjof Capra, Carl Sagan and Illya Prigogine could use the dancing Shiva as a metaphor for reality in their respective realms of science. When will an Indic exhibition of science have such panels—not to sing praise of the past but to infuse in the youth the fire to probe into the mysteries of the universe?

Let us consider briefly three instances of how the Indic frameworks provide us ways to explore and view the problems and discoveries of science respectively.

Let us consider Satkaryavada, which is an integral part of both the Yoga and Vedanta schools in the six Darshanas and also present in the Samkhya school. The prevalence of this concept, which has been transmitted to the collective psyche of the people through various metaphors, proverbs and philosophical discussions, has made it very easy for the Indian mind to accept evolution. While in the West, bitter battles still rage between religious fundamentalists and science educationists, in India the problem is non-existent. The Indian mind accepts evolution naturally. Swami Vivekananda pointed out the relevance of Satkaryavada to biological evolution and said that evolution presupposes involution. Further, Vivekananda rejected British philosopher Herbert Spencer’s concept of social Darwinism and his interpretation of the survival of the fittest. He proposed “infilling of nature” (prakrtyapurat). Sri Aurobindo would literally sing evolution into his mystic English verses of Savitri, and he too would propose “rapid and sudden outbursts, outbreaks, as it were, of manifestation from the unmanifest”.

It is not hard to see how the views of Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo sync with the evolutionary mechanism of punctuated equilibrium suggested by the evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould. Again, care is to be taken here. It is not that Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo “discovered” or “knew” punctuated equilibrium before Gould. But they provided the Indian mind both a conceptual framework and a holistic scheme of things to view the concept when it came. That we the citizens of the socialist state, allured by non-Indic frameworks never bothered to use them is another matter.

Consider the following verses of Sri Aurobindo in Savitri. Can there be a better way to introduce an Indian student of any discipline of science and arts to the wonder of evolution than a panel depicting the phylogenetic tree of life with these verses?

If in the meaningless Void creation rose,

If from a bodiless Force Matter was born,

If Life could climb in the unconscious tree,

Its green delight break into emerald leaves

And its laughter of beauty blossom in the flower,

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If sense could wake in tissue, nerve and cell

And Thought seize the grey matter of the brain,

And soul peep from its secrecy through the flesh,

How shall the nameless Light not leap on men,

And unknown powers emerge from Nature’s sleep?

(Savitri, Canto IV:

The Dream Twilight of the Earthly Real)

Now let us consider Sayadvada of Jainism. In the place of a binary truth table, this system of philosophy provides the seven possible states of any instance of reality. A student of modern quantum mechanics who knows Sayadvada can grasp the mystery of quantum mechanics better. Haldane, the polymath biologist was so intrigued by this epistemological system that he attempted to create a “logical classification of animal behaviours” based on this Saptabangi model. Ever cautious, at the end of the paper, Haldane stated, “It is foolish to pretend that ancient philosophers anticipated all modern intellectual developments. And I believe that we, today, can do more honour to their memories by thinking for ourselves, as they did, than by devoting our lives to commentaries on them.” And then he said, “But if we do so, it is our duty to point out cases where it turns out that our own thought has run parallel to theirs. I was unaware of Bhadrabahu’s existence when I wrote the paper to which I refer. The fact that I reached a conclusion so like his own suggests that we may both have seen the same facet of many-splendoured truth.… If, on the other hand, the contemplation of one’s own mind, and that of the minds of animals, lead to similar results, such results are perhaps worthy of serious consideration.”

It was not only Haldane who was enamoured by the Saptabangi and Sayadvada. Bio-physicist Dr GN Ramachandran discovered the triple helical structure of collagen. Considered by both Linus Pauling and Francis Crick as a scientist of Nobel Prize calibre, he developed the famous “Ramachandran Plot” which is used in the investigation of peptides, the building blocks of proteins. He also developed a vector matrix based on Saptabangi. In his paper on Vedanta and modern epistemology, Dr Ramachandran pointed out in simple terms the relevance of Sayadvada and Saptabangi to the method of science:

For example, Newton’s Laws of Motion were taken to be the absolute basis for physics, and a nineteenth century scientist would have answered the question ‘Are Newton’s Laws absolutely valid?’ by a firm definite ‘yes’. But twentieth century physics found it necessary to modify it, and replace it by Einstein’s equations. In fact, nobody can say, even now, that Einstein’s equations are the last word, because newer observations and theories can make still further changes in them. In this sense, any theory (or any knowledge) derived from necessarily limited, incomplete, observation of facts, can never be absolutely true. This purely philosophical concept, which is obviously a very valid one in epistemology, was put in a practical form by the Jaina philosophers.

Saptabangi still awaits its integration into the science and arts education of the nation of its origin so that Indians can frame the questions of exploration in science and also experience the discoveries of science in new light.

Then there is Pratatyasamutpada, the dependent causation of the Buddhist school. “A substance does not exist in isolation,” says Nagarjuna, taking the example of the sprout: “For the sprout does not exist in the seed which is its cause; it does not exist in each one of earth, water, fire, wind and so forth, which are agreed to be its conditions; it does not exist in the combinations of conditions, nor in the combination of causes and conditions, and it does not exist as separate from these, free from causes and conditions.”

Perhaps Pratatyasamutpada provides one of the profoundest frameworks to understand the concept of co-evolution. Co-evolution was familiar to Darwin. He wrote about “how a flower and a bee might slowly become, either simultaneously or one after the other, modified and adapted in the most perfect manner to each other”. The term itself was coined only a century and five years after Darwin wrote those words in 1858. In 1964, Paul Ehrlich and Peter Raven studied plants eaten by butterfly larvae. They discovered the plants evolving chemicals to reduce the larvae attacks and larvae evolving resistance for the same chemicals. They termed it co-evolution. Since their paper ‘Butterflies and Plants: A Study in Co-evolution’, scientists, particularly ecologists and evolutionists, have recognised co-evolution as “one of the most important processes shaping biodiversity”.

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One wonders what example Nagarjuna would have given had he known co-evolution. Just comparing this statement of Gregory Bateson, one of the greatest systems thinkers of our times, with Nagarjuna’s statement shows the parallels: “The horse didn’t evolve, the field grass didn’t evolve. It is the relationship that evolved. The horse and the tundra with grassy plain are interlocked. It’s an evolution in which the grass needs the horse as much as the horse needs the grass.” Of course one can argue that Nagarjuna uses dependent causation only to prove the “empty” nature of all beings. However, the shifting of focus from the core of a thing to relations that bind, shape and define an entity is as important for science as studying an object in isolation.

So, to build on what Prof Paranjape has suggested in his three-part series, we Indians are in a unique position—to utilise our vast and ancient knowledge systems to create the fertile substratum for science and art to flourish. We do not have any maps before us except the faintly reflected light of our ancient past. We cannot have the luxury of using it to self-perpetuate the delusions of ancient glory. We urgently need to utilise it for the creation of a new future. As Sri Aurobindo said: “We do not belong to the past dawns but to the noons of the future.”

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