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How Swami Vivekananda intertwined the faith-faith dialogue with the science-religion dialogue

Why would Swami Vivekananda’s views on science be of contemporary interest? He was not a scientist. And what was considered as science in his times little resembles what we understand by it today. The building blocks of our current understanding of the world are fundamentally at variance with the Newtonian, mechanistic paradigm that prevailed in the 19th century. Yet a critical analysis of current debates in science and religion leaves one without any doubt that Vivekananda’s insights can play a significant role even today.

I am grateful to Professor Sukalyan Sengupta of the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth for starting me on this investigation. Subsequently, we co-authored an augmented treatment of the issue published as “Swami Vivekananda and the Integration of Science and Religion in Future” in Vivekananda as the Turning Point: The Rise of a New Spiritual Wave (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 2013).

Vivekananda, a monk who established a new religious order in the name of his guru, Sri Ramakrishna, achieved international renown as a teacher of Vedanta and Hindu spirituality. But he was also deeply involved in science. The word “science” appears in his Complete Works over 300 times, giving us some idea of its importance in his life and thought.

The double helix

While the Swami’s interest in science is well known, few have noted how he also made it one of his life’s missions to open a dialogue between science and religion. It is as the progenitor of such a dialogue that he should be recognised in addition to his foretelling, if not inspiring, developments in modern physics. What makes his role in the science-religion conversation particularly worth examining is the manner in which he intertwined it with one of his other major preoccupations, a dialogue between religions.

It is by seeing these two interventions in mutually interconnected and coherent ways that we may better appreciate how unique and significant his impact was. Perhaps no one else so combined and intertwined like a double helix these two priorities—the faith-faith and the science-religion dialogues—as Vivekananda did. That is because Vivekananda regarded religion in its purest sense as a kind of science, an uncompromising pursuit of truth. His impassioned call to end religious intolerance and fanaticism at the end of his first, pathbreaking address at the Parliament of World Religions left no one in doubt of his intentions:

“I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”

For Vivekananda, the axis of both dialogues, between different religions and faith-communities on the one hand, and between religion and science on the other, was the struggle between truth and dogma.

Method in religion and science

He considered the scientific method as a legitimate way to discover reliable knowledge, especially about the external, material world. By the same token, he considered the time-tested experimental and experiential methods of spirituality, such as the four yogas, as valid ways to discover truths about ourselves and the higher realms of consciousness: “Yoga is the science that teaches us to bring the Chitta under control from the state of change.” But he was also aware of the difficulties in positing a “science of religion”:

“There is this great difficulty: In external sciences the object is (comparatively easy to observe). The instruments of analysis are rigid; and both are external. But in the analysis of the mind the object and the instruments of analysis are the same thing…The subject and the object become one…”

This non-dual, trance-like state of samadhi, which he not only witnessed in his master, Ramakrishna, but also experienced himself, was to him the ultimate proof of the truth of the wisdom traditions that religions symbolised, when stripped of their organised creed and rituals.

(See “Swami Vivekananda’s use of science as an analogy for the attainment of moksa” by Anantanand Rambachan, Philosophy East & West 40.3 [July 1990]. Rambachan, however, takes a critical view of Vivekananda’s epistemological claims for the experience of samadhi.)

In his class notes on “Religion and Science”, Vivekananda went so far as to say, “Experience is the only source of knowledge.” But the valorising of experience over authority was only one of the several approaches that he adopted to make religious experience accountable, verifiable, experimental, and thus closer to the methodology of modern science. Vivekananda also believed that just as science had a method, so did religion: “All science has its particular methods; so has the science of religion.”
Just as religion over a period of time degenerated into superstition and false beliefs, science too had its own share of distortions and false accretions. As he put it quite bluntly in his lecture “The Cosmos: The Microcosm”, delivered in New York on 26 January 1896, “In place of ancient superstitions they have erected modern superstitions, in place of the old Popes of religion they have installed modern Popes of science.”

That these were his considered opinions, held over several years, is attested by K. Sundarama Iyer’s reminiscences of the Swami’s visit to Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, in December1892, before embarking on his voyages aboard. Vivekananda was reported to have said, “If religion has its superstitions science has its superstitions too.”
His criticism of the “superstitions” of science actually led him to the idea that scientific hypotheses were subject to repeated testing before they were established:
“But I must ask you to bear in mind that, as there is religious superstition, so also there is a superstition in the matter of science. …As soon as a great scientist’s name, like Darwin or Huxley, is cited, we follow blindly. It is the fashion of the day. Ninety-nine per cent of what we call scientific knowledge is mere theories. …Just as we should be careful with the priests, so we should be with the scientists. Begin with disbelief. Analyse, test, prove everything, and then take it.”

Here, Vivekananda is citing a characteristic of science, which later came to be known as “falsifiability.” A scientific theory is considered true only till it is not falsified; once better explanations and knowledge is produced, older ideas and beliefs are discarded. If religion were to follow the same course, it might not only be more rational, but more accountable to truth, which, according to Vivekananda, would its only fail-safe standard.

Common Cause

Both science and religion, thus understood, might serve the common cause of truth and service of humanity. For Vivekananda, purely materialistic science alone would not lead to human progress or elevation. In his letter of 28 April 1897 to Mary Hale, he said:
“Material science can only give worldly prosperity, whilst spiritual science is for eternal life. …the foolery of materialism leads to competition and undue ambition and ultimate death, individual and national.”

The two pursuits needed to be balanced to produce true well-being.
Not only were both science and religion quests for truth, they also had a common objective. They were in search of the underlying unity beneath and beyond the appearance of diversities: “the final unity which is alike the goal of science and religion,” would also bring all progress to an end.”

The difference between the two was that religion proceeded from the belief that this unity was in God or the Self, while science tried to arrive at it through the discovery of the nature of the physical universe. In one of his “Inspired Talks” on 14 July 1896 (as recorded by Sara Ellen Waldo), he said, “Modern science has really made the foundations of religion strong. That the whole universe is one is scientifically demonstrable. What the metaphysicians call ‘being,’ the physicist calls ‘matter,’ but there is no real fight between the two, for both are one.”

(To be continued)