The Monk Who Saw Religion Through The Prism Of Science
Vivekananda believed that Religion should be subjected to scientific methods of investigation.
The third and concluding part of our series on the Swami and his views on science.
When it comes to the relationship between science and spirituality, the prevalent view among most sceptical and materialistic scientists regards spiritual wisdom and religious scriptures not just as non-science, but as essentially nonsense. Naturally, Swami Vivekananda’s or any other religious figure’s views on science would be suspect, unless and until they are corroborated by “hard” data. For a typical proponent of such an “anti”-view, we might turn to Richard Dawkins who considers religion as delusion made up of a “fixed false belief”.
A tempting, but arguably disappointing “middle ground” seemed to be offered by the celebrated evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002). To avoid conflict between science and religion, he proposed a clear demarcation of each domain, labeling them both with the impressive sounding term “magesteria” to legitimate their separate but apparently equal spheres. These magesteria, separate fields of authority, do not overlap, as indicated by the principle commonly known as NOMA, or “non-overlapping magisteria.” In the essay that popularised the expression, “Non Overlapping Magisteria”, Gould writes:
“The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.”
Gould was harking back to well-known traditional distinctions between practical knowledge, which helps us understand and manipulate matter, and spiritual wisdom, which helps us know ourselves or God. In Vedic terms, this would be apara (limited, worldly) vs para (unlimited, transcendent); vidya (knowledge) or vyavaharika (empirical, practical) vs adhyatmika (spiritual, non-material) knowledge.
To make his proposal more complex, Gould postulated a no man’s land between the two magisteria, but he also acknowledged that there could be areas of inquiry which did not have a clear no man’s land, citing evolutionary facts and moral arguments as clear examples. He also pleaded for “a respectful, even loving concord between our magisteria—the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.”
Gould was a strong proponent of respectful argument among scientists and religious teachers. “Here, I believe, lies the greatest strength and necessity of NOMA, the non-overlapping magisteria of science and religion. NOMA permits—indeed enjoins—the prospect of respectful discourse, of constant input from both magisteria toward the common goal of wisdom. If human beings are anything special, we are the creatures that must ponder and talk.”
Gould’s proposition may be considered firmly to emanate from the world of science. Unfortunately, his views, though cited by scientists, are often misrepresented. Dawkins, for instance, disagrees with Gould’s principle of NOMA. In an interview to Time magazine, he famously said: “I think that Gould’s separate compartments was a purely political ploy to win middle-of-the-road religious people to the science camp. But it’s a very empty idea. There are plenty of places where religion does not keep off the scientific turf. Any belief in miracles is flat contradictory not just to the facts of science but to the spirit of science.”
Prominent scientists at the forefront of this exercise today propound that religion is opposed to inquiry and clouds the mind of those who, if they were only willing to be guided by reason, would agree to the conclusions supported by the overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence and reject the blind adherence to revealed authority that characterises religious belief. Moreover, science is silent on issues such as salvation or afterlife, but religion often ventures into areas pertaining to physics, cosmology, or biology, where science has established itself as the most reliable source of what is true or possible. Even so, scientific “narratives” are also subject to and share similar limitations as other narratives, whether these are in the humanities or social studies. As Stanley Fish points out, “with respect to a single demand—the demand that the methodological procedures of an enterprise be tethered to the world of fact in a manner unmediated by assumptions—science and religion are in the same condition of not being able to meet it (as are history, anthropology, political science, sociology, psychology and all the rest).”
Consciousness as Missing Link?
There are, moreover, areas where the two, science and spirituality, do seem to overlap. One of these is consciousness studies. Vivekananda made numerous references to the word “consciousness” in his lectures. Notably, he used three categories: sub-consciousness, consciousness, and super-consciousness:
“You must remember that the first manifestation of this Prakriti in the cosmos is what the Sânkhya calls Mahat. We may call it intelligence—the great principle, its literal meaning. The first change in Prakriti is this intelligence; I would not translate it by self-consciousness, because that would be wrong. Consciousness is only a part of this intelligence. Mahat is universal. It covers all the grounds of sub-consciousness, consciousness and super-consciousness; so any one state of consciousness, as applied to this Mahat, would not be sufficient… The substance Mahat changes into the grosser matter called egoism.”
In contrast, a majority of the researchers in this field seem to be of the view that consciousness is in the brain.
The main drawback of this approach is that it relies almost completely on the means to analyse a “conscious experience” rather than make any attempt to answer the question, “Who is having this conscious experience?”
Moreover, if the primary focus is on understanding neural responses, then a definition such as, “Consciousness refers to those states of sentience and awareness that typically begin when we begin from a dreamless sleep and continue until we go to sleep again, or fall into a coma or die or otherwise become ‘unconscious’” (J. Searle, “The Mystery of Consciousness”, The New York Review, November 2, 1995) is logical. But Vivekananda, following Indian spiritual and philosophical traditions, clearly stated that there are two other domains, one that is needed to understand dream and sleep or svapna and nidra (termed sub-conscious) and the other to study the level above individual egoism or samâdhi (termed super-conscious) that has to be included in any discussion of consciousness. Moreover, Vivekananda was very clear that the experience in the dream state is at a lower plane of existence (because it primarily arises from avidyâ, ignorance) than the experience during samâdhi. He also maintained that “when a man goes into samâdhi, if he goes into it a fool, he comes out a sage.” It is almost impossible for science today to corroborate or disprove this hypothesis. Moreover, though scientists are mapping the brain of subjects during meditation to understand changes in activity in various parts of the brain, the question, “what is the entity that remains unchanged before, during, and after meditation and tells the experiencer of these experiences” is unanswerable by present scientific methods. Many researchers have posited further analysis of Vedantic insights to make advances in this field. Vivekananda viewed cosmology and consciousness as a continuum, unlike modern science’s attempts to compartmentalise these two subjects in very different realms.
In any case, it is clear that Vivekananda anticipates by nearly a hundred years the efforts of other religious figures such as the Dalai Lama to open up spiritual phenomena to scientific examination, thereby enriching both domains. Science today has access to powerful brain imaging tools that can provide neurobiological correlates when subjects try to reach their own mind through meditation. According to Crick, Koch, and others, certain 35-75 hertz neural oscillations in the cerebral cortex seem to be correlated with awareness in a number of different modalities and a mechanism of binding (synchronisation of separately represented pieces of information) has been hypothesised. Davidson’s work with Tibetan Buddhists has demonstrated the ability of Lamas with many years of meditative practices (>10,000 hours) to have a higher ratio of gamma-band oscillatory rhythm to slow oscillatory rhythm compared to the controls (no meditative experience). According to the subsequent findings, gleaned from scans of each monk’s brain during meditation, an increase in activity was found around the frontal region of the brain, in which attention on specific tasks are processed; on the other hand, a decrease in activity was found around the area at the back of the brain, where one’s processing of orientation and spatial awareness occur.
These studies show a definite and measurable causal correlations between meditation and certain kinds of brain activity, which may impact both neurosciences and meditation practices.
In the burgeoning field of study described as science and religion, there have been several attempts to formulate, even before Gould, a comprehensive taxonomy of the relationship between the two. One of the most respected scholars in the field, Ian Barbour, evolved over time the framework of conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. When it comes to India’s recent interaction with science, we see instances of all four types of response, with a fifth, that of “cooperation” also added. While the spiritualist side is usually ready for a dialogue with scientists, hoping thereby to vindicate their age-old beliefs and new findings, the scientists have been less enthusiastic, afraid of being branded as “superstitious” or “non-scientific.” From dialogue to integration is thus a distant dream, but some sort of cooperation between the two, especially for the larger benefit of society, is seen as desirable.
Such, for instance, is the view of former Indian president and aerospace engineer A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. In all conversations on science and spirituality in the Indian context, the name of Vivekananda figures prominently. It was Vivekananda who, in his whole-hearted endorsement of the scientific approach, set the tone for other spiritual figures in modern India. According to scholars like D.I. Gosling, it was this atmosphere of the co-dependent arising of modern science and spirituality in late 19th century India, that gave Indian science of that period its unique flavour: “What has always been the most distinctive feature of Indian science is a form of integral thought, a kind of intuitive ability to hold together ideas which have elsewhere remained unrelated.”
In so far as we can extrapolate from his writings, it is clear that Vivekananda wished to “scienticise” religion, thus going contrary to the NOMA hypothesis. In an important “Reason and Religion” lecture given in London on 18 November 1896, he states:
The physical sciences are better equipped now than formerly, and religions have become less and less equipped… Believing certain things because an organised body of priests tells him to believe, believing because it is written in certain books, believing because his people like him to believe, the modern man knows to be impossible for him.
… The question is: Is there a way out? To put it in a more concrete form: Is religion to justify itself by the discoveries of reason, through which every other science justifies itself? Are the same methods of investigation, which we apply to sciences and knowledge outside, to be applied to the science of Religion? In my opinion this must be so, and I am also of opinion that the sooner it is done the better. If a religion is destroyed by such investigations, it was then all the time useless, unworthy superstition; and the sooner it goes the better. I am thoroughly convinced that its destruction would be the best thing that could happen.
From a man of religion, a monk in fact representing a certain order and belonging to an ancient tradition, this is a statement of extraordinary boldness and self-confidence.
Vivekananda does not wish to preserve a religion which is no longer “true”, whose beliefs are easily disproved by discoveries in the sciences, which maintains its hold on its flock only through dogma, superstition, or fear. Vivekananda demands of religion an internal consistency and external, empirical proof. He wants religion to submit itself to the most rigorous interrogation before belief ensues. To what extent can religion be considered another type of science is not clear, nor can we be certain that this is the best or most productive way to understand religion.
Indeed, we may see Vivekananda’s attempt to explain religion in terms of science as both a strategic defense of religion in a world dominated by science and an attempt to focus on the more rational aspects of faith.
Before closing, it would appropriate to briefly point out that an assessment of Vivekananda’s contribution to growth of modern science cannot be confined to a study of his writings. The latter may be somewhat bounded by time and context, but his personality, dynamic and boundless as it was, was perhaps even more influential.
On the way to the Parliament of Religions in July 1893, Vivekananda met Jamsetji Tata on board the steamship Empress of India from Yokohama to Vancouver. In his Complete Works there is no mention of this meeting nor of any communication between Vivekananda and Jamsetji. Our only source is the letter Jamsetji wrote to Vivekananda on 23 November 1898 more than five years later, a copy of which is in the archives of Indian Institute of Science. Jamsetji was already a prominent industrialist and businessman, while Vivekananda was a virtually unknown monk. Jamsetji was on his way to the US to acquire the technical knowhow to make steel in India, something that the British steelmakers did not want to part with.
Exactly what transpired between the two great Indians, one a leading tycoon, the other a spiritual visionary, is a matter of speculation. Did Vivekananda suggest to Jamsetji that an Institute of Science (IISc) should be set up? Certainly Jamsetji’s letter does not say so. Indeed, as B.V. Subbarayappa’s painstaking history of IISc shows, the idea was mooted as early as 1892, the year before Jamsetji and Vivekananda met. But after the Parliament of Religions and his triumphant return to India, Vivekananda became a national figure. Jamsetji did not forget their meeting, but went on to ask for Vivekananda’s help in promoting science in India by harnessing the energies of asceticism and tradition for this cause: “I know not who would make a more fitting general of such a campaign than Vivekananda. Do you think you would care to apply yourself to the mission of galvanising into life our traditions in this respect?” Tata asks Vivekananda to write a “fiery pamphlet rousing our people in this matter”; he even agrees to “cheerfully defray all the expenses of publication”. Vivekananda did not write such a pamphlet, but the publication that he had started, Prabuddha Bharata, issued an editorial the following year, in April 1899, lauding and endorsing Jamsetji’s project:
“We are not aware if any project at once so opportune and so far-reaching in its beneficent effects was ever mooted in India, as that of the Post-graduate Research University of Mr Tata. The scheme grasps the vital point of weakness in our national well-being with a clearness of vision and tightness of grip, the masterliness of which is only equalled by the munificence of the gift with which it is ushered to the public. ...Mr. Tata’s scheme paves the path of placing into the hands of Indians this knowledge of Nature—the preserver and the destroyer...—that by having the knowledge, they might have power over her and be successful in the struggle for existence… We repeat: No idea more potent for good to the whole nation has seen the light of day in Modern India. Let the whole nation therefore, forgetful of class or sect interests, join in making it a success.”
At Vivekananda’s behest, his key disciples, Nivedita and, later, Josephine Macleod also met Jamsetji. As a tribute to his contribution, a statue of Vivekananda proudly stands in the main building of IISc.
It is clear therefore that Vivekananda not only supported the foundation of IISc, but also welcomed the spread of modern scientific education and research in our country. From our earlier account it is evident that his support of modern science was not only for its manifold material benefits to a backward and underdeveloped India, but also for its capacity to understand and appreciate truth, which to him was also the goal of spirituality. The Institute finally began to function only in 1911, seven years after Jamsetji’s and nine years after Vivekananda’s death. Today if India is one of the few nations in which the Constitution itself enjoins upon each citizen to cultivate and promote the scientific spirit, it is not only because Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was a votary of modern science. Much before him there were many others, including spiritual leaders and men of religion such as Vivekananda, who also welcomed the spread of modern science in India.
Part 1: The Swami’s Double Helix
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