Vedanta & Modern Physics: Why The Marriage Of Spirituality And Science Is Difficult
The language of science is actually mathematics, with precise sounding equations and fixity of meaning.
The language of spirituality, on the other hand, is poetic, reveling in figurative language, open to a hundred different interpretations.
It is impossible, therefore, to collapse the one into the other.
WE HAVE SEEN (“The Swami’s Double Helix”, Swarajya, February 2017) how for Swami Vivekananda both science and religion were quests for underlying unity. Speaking of the relationship between them, he had hinted as early as in his 19 September 1893 address at the Parliament of World Religions that “the latest discoveries of science seem like echoes” of “the high spiritual flights of the Vedanta philosophy.” In the same speech, he goes on to say, “Science has proved to me that physical individuality is a delusion, that really my body is one little continuously changing body in an unbroken ocean of matter; and Advaita (unity) is the necessary conclusion with my other counterpart, soul.” The truths of Vedanta would be justified by modern science; this was Vivekananda’s dream: “Manifestation, and not creation, is the word of science today.”
No wonder, of the different ways of conceptualising Vivekananda’s relation-ship with modern science, perhaps the most common and popular is to regard him as the foundational figure of a new “holistic” science that integrates modern science and ancient spiritual wisdom. A consistently energetic proponent of such a view is Swami Jitatmananda. Jitatmananda, following in the footsteps of predecessors such Swami Ranganathananda, who also worked in the field of science and spirituality, documents how the Swami anticipates modern Physics. Supported by an adoring laity who regard Vivekananda as a “spiritual” scientist, such a view gains support from the well-documented influence of ancient Eastern philosophy, including Vedanta, on a continuous line of front-ranking physicists including Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, Neils Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, David Bohm, Eugene Paul Wigner and Ilya Prigogine. Schrödinger’s “Vedantic” reflections are oft-quoted in this context:
“Looking and thinking in that manner you may suddenly come to see, in a flash, the profound rightness of the basic conviction in Vedanta: it is not possible that this unity of knowledge, feeling and choice which you call your own should have sprung into being from nothingness at a given moment not so long ago; rather this knowledge, feeling and choice are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically one in all men, nay in all sensitive beings... This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula which is yet re-ally so simple and so clear: Tat tvam asi, this is you.”
Of the many attempts to synthesise Vedanta and modern science, John L. Dobson’s well-informed monograph has not received serious attention. Dobson, himself associated with the Vedanta Society of San Francisco and Hollywood for several years, was asked in 1949 by Swami Ashokananda, a senior monk of the Ramakrishna Order, to reconcile Vedanta and modern physics. Thirty years later, Dobson wrote a series of articles meant for Prabuddha Bharata, which were later collected in a book, Advaita Vedanta and Modern Science (Chicago: Vivekananda Vedanta Society, 1983). Dobson goes back to the roots of Greek and Hindu philosophical thought to try to work out a grand synthesis. He considers modern science to be an offshoot of the former, arguing that there is a missing link that Eastern thought can supply to solve the puzzle of causation. Dobson’s work stresses the interdependency and collaboration between Advaita Vedanta and modern science, bringing us back, once again, to the heart of Vivekananda’s scientific interests.
COSMOLOGICAL SPECULATIONS Vivekananda, as Dobson knew, was deeply concerned with issues of cosmology, especially the origin of this universe:
“The Sanskrit word for creation (srishti), properly translated, should be projection and not creation. For the word ‘creation’ in the English language has un-happily got that fearful, that most crude idea of something coming out of nothing, creation out of non-entity, non-existence becoming existence, which, of course, I would not insult you by asking you to believe.”
But this immediately raises numerous age-old questions, best summarised in the beautiful hymn of the Nâsadîya Sûkta for the Rig Veda (X.129).
In his lecture “The Cosmos: The Macrocosm”, delivered in New York on 19 January 1896, Vivekananda himself rendered these lines as:
“Whence is this? When there was neither aught nor naught, and darkness was hidden in darkness, who projected this universe? How? Who knows the secret?”
Vivekananda’s answer was as follows:
“Nothing can be created out of nothing. Everything exists through eternity, and will exist through eternity.… This involution and evolution is going on throughout the whole of can be mathematically demonstrated. If the law of conservation of energy is true, you cannot get anything out of a machine nature.… That can be mathematically demonstrated. If the law of conservation of energy is true, you cannot get anything out of a machine unless you put it in there first.… There cannot be added in the economy of this universe one particle of matter or one foot-pound of force, nor can one particle of matter or one foot-pound of force be taken out.”
To the question, “The involution of what?” he answers with one word, “God”. God here, however, is no anthropomorphic deity, but refers to “that involved intelligence” that is “uncoiling itself”:
“Call it by any other name, it is absolutely certain that in the beginning there is that infinite cosmic intelligence.”
The entire cosmological process, therefore, is one of involution-evolution: “At the beginning that intelligence becomes involved, and in the end that intelligence gets evolved. The sum total of the intelligence displayed in the universe must, therefore, be the involved universal intelligence unfolding itself.” We should be careful not to confuse Vivekananda’s definition of “universal intelligence” with the present controversy regarding “intelligent design”: the former is ontological whereas the latter is disguised theology, requiring an active agent to regulate evolution.
The question of the building blocks of this universe, however, still remains. Today, this question is the holy grail of physicists trying to develop a theory of everything (ToE) beyond the so-called “standard model”. This theory of everything would fully explain each and every known and observable physical phenomenon, reconciling gravity with electromagnetic, strong, and weak forces. But to arrive there, several theoretical and experimental challenges would have to be overcome. Moves in this direction include supersymmetry, string theory, quantum gravity, and dark matter physics. For Vivekananda, the whole universe was composed of two materials, Âkâsha and Prâna, which may roughly be considered as ancient equivalents, at least to the Swami, of matter and energy.
Âkâsha is “the omnipresent all-pene-trating existence”. Everything that has form, everything that is the result of the compounds, is evolved out of this Âkâsha. It is the Âkâsha that becomes the air, that becomes the liquids, that becomes the solids; it is the Âkâsha that becomes the sun, the earth, the moon, the stars, the comets; it is the Âkâsha that becomes the body, the animal body, the planets, every form that we see, everything that can be sensed, everything that exists.
But what is it that activates this manifestation, setting into motion the ever-expanding, ever-multiplying process?
“By what power is this manufactured into this universe?”
“By the power of Prâna. Just as Âkâsha is the infinite omnipresent mate-rial of this universe, so is this Prâna the infinite omnipresent manifesting power of this universe. At the beginning and at the end of a cycle everything becomes Âkâsha, and all the forces that are in the universe resolve back into the Prâna.…
It is the Prâna that is manifesting as motion; it is the Prâna that is manifest-ing as gravitation, as magnetism. It is the Prâna that is manifesting as the actions of the body, as the nerve currents, as thought force. From thought, down to the lowest physical force, everything is but the manifestation of Prâna. The sum total of all force in the universe, mental or physical when resolved back to its original state, is called Prâna.”
From such passages, one can find remarkable similarities between Vivekananda’s thoughts and those of modern philosopher-cosmologists such as John Wheeler and Martin Rees, especially the concept of “the big crunch” and the idea of a “multiverse”. One cannot overemphasise that Vivekananda expressed these thoughts in 1895, 10 years before the much-celebrated set of papers of Albert Einstein was published, heralding a new age in Physics.
VIVEKANANDA AND TESLA
A tangible link between such ideas and the real world of science was the engineer-inventor Nikola Tesla. Years before Vivekananda’s visit to the US, the Hungarian-born Tesla had already made several path-breaking discoveries. For instance, arc lighting (1886), alternating current power generation, motors, and transmission systems (1888), and the Tesla coil transformer (1891). In January and February 1896, he most likely attended Vivekananda’s lectures in Hard-man Hall or Madison Square Garden, New York, as Vivekananda later mentioned in an address at Kumbakonam:
“I have myself been told by some of the best scientific minds of the day how wonder-fully rational the conclusions of Vedanta are. I know one of them personally, who scarcely has time to eat his meal or go out of his laboratory, but who yet would stand by the hour to attend my lectures on the Vedanta; for, as he expresses it, they are so scientific, they so exactly harmonise with the aspirations of the age and with the conclusions to which modern science is coming at the present time.”
Tesla was practically living in his Houston Street Laboratory in New York at that time, and fits Vivekananda’s description of the scientist mentioned above. They did meet at the Corbins’ house (a mansion on Fifth Avenue, New York City) for dinner on February 5, 1896, and Vivekananda almost certainly ex-plained Sânkhyâ cosmology to Tesla and asked him questions, for we know of the letter from Tesla to Vivekananda dated February 8, 1896:
“As it would be difficult to answer your questions by letter and as I wish to have the pleasure of meeting you again I would suggest a visit to my laboratory 45 East Houston Street any day next week you find convenient.”
They agreed to meet, as Vivekananda wrote in a letter to E.T. Sturdy dated 13 February 1896, recollecting the manner of their earlier encounter, following a performance of Isiel by the famous French artiste, Madame Sarah Bernhardt:
“Madame spying me in the audience wanted to have an interview with me. A swell family of my acquaintance arranged the affair. There were besides Madame, M. Morrel, the celebrated singer, also the great electrician Tesla. Madame is a very scholarly lady and has studied up the metaphysics a good deal. M. Morrel was being interested, but Mr Tesla was charmed to hear about the Vedantic Prâna and Âkâsha and the Kalpas, which according to him are the only theories modern science can entertain.”
In the same letter, Vivekananda proceeds to sketch his ambitious plan to ensure that “Vedantic cosmology will be placed on the surest of foundations”:
“Now both Âkâsha and Prâna again are produced from the cosmic Mahat, the Universal Mind, the Brahmâ or Ishvara. Mr Tesla thinks he can demonstrate mathematically that force and matter are reducible to potential energy. I am to go and see him next week, to get this new mathematical demonstration. I am work-ing a good deal now upon the cosmology and eschatology of Vedanta. I clearly see their perfect unison with modern science, and the elucidation of the one will be followed by that of the other. I intend to write a book later on in the form of questions and answers. The first chapter will be on cosmology, showing the harmony between Vedantic theories and modern science.”
This is followed by an extraordinary diagrammatic representation (reproduced on the previous page).
Vivekananda wanted to “work all this out carefully”, explaining each step of the process of manifestation, from the highest levels of Brahman or the Absolute, to the lowest regions of matter.
Unfortunately, there is no record of this meeting between Vivekananda and Tesla; possibly it never took place. Nor did Vivekananda go on to write his book reconciling Advaita Vedanta with modern science. Vivekananda’s disappointment at the failure of this marriage between Vedantic cosmology and modern science (modern in the 1890s) is clear in his lecture in Lahore:
“There is the unity of force, Prâna; there is the unity of matter, called Âkâsha. Is there any unity to be found among them again? Can they be melted into one? Our modern science is mute here; it has not yet found its way out.”
Einstein’s landmark papers were published in 1905, three years after the death of Vivekananda. For the first time the interchangeability of matter and energy was considered possible. It is interest-ing to note that even as late as the 1930s, Tesla did not quite agree. When he was finally convinced of the famous Einstein equation E = mc2, he wrote a letter that remained unpublished in his lifetime, and was first brought to public knowledge by his biographer John J. O’Neill:
“Long ago he (man) recognised that all perceptible matter comes from a primary substance, or a tenuity beyond conception, filling all space, the Âkâsha or luminiferous ether, which is acted upon by the life-giving Prâna or creative force, calling into existence, in never-ending cycles, all things and phenomena. The primary substance, thrown into infinitesimal whirls of prodigious velocity, be-comes gross matter; the force subsiding, the motion ceases and matter disappears, reverting to the primary substance.”
It is amazing that 40 years after his meeting the Swami, Tesla remembered the Sanskrit terms Âkâsha and Prâna, which Vivekananda had used so extensively in his expositions of the unity between science and spirituality.
Modern Physics is busy grappling with the issues of expansion of this universe (the cosmological constant), the funda-mental particles that arose right after the Big Bang explosion, the “Unified Field Theory”, and so on. But the question alluded to indirectly by Vivekananda, namely, what gives rise to Âkâsha and Prâna, is even today considered “meta-physics” rather than “physics”. Moreover, the moment of “quantum mysticism” has also passed. Appropriated by New Age faddists, attempts to connect physics with Eastern philosophy have come to be regarded by most practicing scientists as pseudoscience or quackery. Despite brave attempts by the likes of Amit Goswami (The Self-aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World. New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1993), the desire to offer a Vedantic picture of the universe that also satisfies the truth-conditions and methodological demands of contemporary physics may be said to have largely failed.
Nevertheless, what we notice are interesting parallels in the manner in which the two sides conceptualise or imagine reality.
These parallels or resemblances are mostly metaphorical; they create the effect of narrative likeness. However, the two languages, that of science and spirituality, are distinct, with no possibility of overlap, at least at present.
The language of science, no matter how closely it may seem similar to that of spirituality, is actually mathematics, with precise sounding equations and fixity of meaning. The proof is through experimental verification; the theory must fit the data. The language of spirituality, on the other hand, is poetic, reveling in figurative language, open to a hundred different interpretations. It is impossible, therefore, to collapse the one into the other.
Vivekananda, in that sense, could not have anticipated the “unity” that the physicists were after in their pursuit of the theory of everything. But his speculations and assertions sound similar to the latter’s ideas and conceptualisations. That is the difficulty with those who make “scientific” claims on behalf of spirituality. Such claims are not sustain-able precisely because they fail the truth standards and demarcation protocols of science. At best, spiritual constructions of the universe sound similar to those of some scientists at times, but such similarities cannot be considered sufficient proof that spirituality is somehow “scientific”.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.