Union Minister Dr Harshavardhan recently found himself making completely avoidable claims
  • The relation between science, religion and Indic-culture

The date was 10 February 1986, and the time was 6:16 pm. In the Nagaraja temple grounds of Nagerkovil, the function for welcoming the third Sar Sanghachalak (all India leader) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) began promptly as announced. Earlier, the RSS route march had started exactly at 4:44 pm as announced. Deoras or Balasaheb Deoras, as he was called, began his speech.

Madhukar Dattatreya Deoras - the third Sarsanghachalak of RSS addressing the cadre: Picture-courtesy: mitaanexpress.com Madhukar Dattatreya Deoras - the third Sarsanghachalak of RSS addressing the cadre: Picture-courtesy: mitaanexpress.com

‘This is the age of science’, he told the audience. ‘And science challenges the very existence of God’, he continued, and then he asked, ‘In this age should we fight over one true God, one true book, the one last prophet and the only begotten son of God?’

No extolling of ‘Eastern’ spirituality over ‘Western’ science. No batting for theism over atheism. In fact, he sounded more rational in a holistic sense than most pseudo-rationalists we have been made to suffer. His address appealed to the atheist in me. It never offended those who believed and yet it carried the message of reason and real spirituality.

Madukar Dattareya Deoras (1915-1996) defined the vision for Sangh from 1973 to 1994. Going through his addresses, one finds a vision that he had bequeathed on the present day Hindutvaites.

But, are the Hindutvaites of today worthy of that vision?


Today, we see an obsession with the infallibility of old scriptures in the Hindutvaites, even those in very responsible positions like the union minister for science and technology. The minister recently stated that according to Stephen Hawking, the Vedas contain an equation superior to Einstein’s E=mc^2. Anyone who is familiar with the books of Hawking, which he had written for the common public, knows where Hawking stands with respect to scriptures of any faith.

As I have mentioned earlier, the cosmology Hawking unveiled, definitely resonates with the Hindu-Buddhist worldview. Michio Kaku has written about how the picture of multiverse harmonises our conflicting origin myths well in a way that the genesis of Bible becomes but one in many of the universe cycles coming in and out of the Vedic Brahman or the Buddhist Nirvana. But that does not mean, not in the remotest least, that our Vedic seers knew about string theory, Hilbert Space and Hawking radiation.

Balasaheb Deoras was clear with regard to the relation of the ancient sacred texts and modern science. He did not mince words as to what attitudes Hindus should evolve with respect to their ancient sacred texts in relation to the discoveries of modern science. In a remarkable anticipation of some of the fallacies to be committed by modern day Hindutva enthusiasts, the third Sar Sanghachalak said :

For the Hindu Sanghatanists this is a delicate and difficult issue since we are immensely proud of our Dharma and our Sanskriti. It is true that we have a lot of things of which we can be justly proud. The philosophy and values of life of this land have received the highest acclamation of the thinkers the world over as an invaluable contribution to peace and progress of humanity itself. ... However, it is clear that even while cherishing this pride it would not do to think that all that is old is gold. Puraanamityev na saadhu sarvam. ... There are many stories recounted in the ancient texts and Puranas. But do we accept them all as literally true? ... But should we, in order to affirm our devotion to our old religious texts, incorporate this story in the school text books to explain to the children why the eclipses take ‘place? We are bound to give in text books only what is scientific and factual.
Deoras speech at the Vasant Vyakhyanmala, Pune 1974 (emphasis added)

So, why suddenly do we have this juvenile wish to validate Vedic and spiritual literature of India with modern science? And worse, why are we now developing this tendency to validate modern science and its discoveries with statements taken out of context from Hindu scriptures? When this new attitude, which is both harmful and negative, is questioned, then one is charged with being servile to the white-skinned.

On the other side, we have superficial pop understanding of Indian culture and science. A good example is provided by pop-mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik in the following tweet:

Opposite of sacred is not science but secular. But the etymological roots of science reveal something really interesting. Science comes from the Latin root ‘scire’ - ‘to know’ which in turn comes from the PIE root *skei- 'to cut, split' (which in turn makes “shit” an etymological cousin of “science”) Science is also intimately associated with the word consciousness as the latter too derives from ‘scire’ - thus consciousness is ‘knowing with’.

In Indic tradition, two forms of knowledge are clearly identified - Vidya and Avidya. Both are essential for the well being, and quest for truth, of humanity. A confrontational compartmentalisation results in humanity entering into the darkness. On the other hand, through a complementary harmony of both, humanity can attain immortality.

They enter into blinding darkness who venerate avidya (alone); into still greater darkness they enter who immerse themselves in vidya (alone). ... One who knows both vidya and avidya, crosses over death through avidya and realizes immortality through vidya
Isha Upanishad : verses 9 and 11

Adi Shankara in his commentary on the Gaudapada’s Karika of Mandukya Upanishad finds Maya and Avidya as distinct but inseparable. Prof. Som Raj Gupta of Delhi University explains:

Māyā (Sankara) equates with names and forms set up by avidyā. Avidyā he frequently calls superimposition of the unreal onto the real and of the real onto the unreal. The unreal comprises names and forms and the real is the ground onto which they are superimposed. This means avidyā and māyā are inseparable. The framework of the world which expresses my way of looking at things is avidyā, all the phenomena revealed in that framework, that worldly context, are of the nature of māyā.
The Word Speaks to the Faustian Man Vol-2, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1991 p.200

And in Vivekachudmani (‘Crest-Jewel of Discrimination) ascribed to Adi Shankara, Maya is described as the ‘one named undifferentiated (avyaktanamni); power of the Divine; that which has no beginning; Avidya; constituting the three qualities; superior power; can be inferred only by those with clear intelligence through the effects she produces; and through her the entire dynamic universe is produced;’ (verse 108) And then Maya is further described thus:

She is neither existent nor non-existent - not falling into the binary; she is neither fractional nor non-fractional - not falling into the binary; neither made up of components nor an indivisible whole - not falling into the binary; She is the wonder of the mightiest kind and she cannot be contained in the definitions of the words. 
Vivekachudmani verse: 109

If one wants a commentary on the cryptic observation of Adi Shankara that Maya can be ‘can be inferred only by those with clear intelligence through the effects she produces’ (Karyaanumeya Sudhiyavayeva) then one needs to read what mathematician philosopher Bertrand Russell has to say about how knowledge of physics leads to the unveiling of what he calls 'naive realism':

We all start from naive realism, i.e., the doctrine that things are what they seem. We think that grass is green, that stones are hard, and that snow is cold. But physics assures us that the greenness of grass, the hardness of stones, and the coldness of snow are not the greenness, hardness, and coldness that we know in our own experience, but something very different. The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself. ... Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false. Therefore naive realism, if true, is false; therefore is false. And therefore the behaviourist, when he thinks he is recording observations about the outer world, is really recording observations about what is happening in him.
An Inquiry Into Meaning and Truth: The William James Lectures, 1940, Harvard University’, Allen & Unwin (1956)

In the ‘1000 names of the Divine Feminine’, Sri Lalitha Sahasranama (SLS), this aspect is brought out again and it is shown that Avidya and Maya are means to understand the physical universe which in itself becomes sacred by realising them as part of the divine feminine. She is called the ‘root nature’ (Mulaprakrithi); ‘undifferentiated’ (Avyakta); She of both differentiated-manifested as well as the undifferentiated-unmanifest form (Vyaktaavyakta swaroopini); She who permeates all existence (Viyaapini); She who forms the variety of existence (Vivithakara)’

These are the names which come in a sequence from names 391 to 401 - as if almost narrating the sequence of how the physical universe has come into existence through high poetry. Then 402nd name links this sequence to the Isavasya Upanishad: ‘She whose form is Vidya-Avidya (Vidyaavidya swaroopini)‘. Understanding Maya is then very much needed to see beyond the veil; and it can be done only through good cultivation of the intellect that can infer Maya through the cause-effect chain; science does exactly that.

Right in front of me is the book,The Nature of Space and Time. It is actually the debate on cosmology between mathematician Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking held in 1994 at the Isaac Newton institute for Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge. Michael Atiyah in his foreword remembers that some sixty years before the Penrose-Hawking debate, there was the famous debate between Bohr and Einstein about the foundations of quantum mechanics and goes onto point out that ‘in a sense the debate between Penrose and Hawking is continuation of that earlier argument, with Penrose playing the role of Einstein and Hawking that of Bohr.’

The collision of worldviews of two great minds throws up very interesting quotes. Earlier, Einstein had said that God does not play dice with the universe. Here, Hawking refers to the ‘intrinsic gravitational entropy’ and says that this introduces ‘an extra level of unpredictability over and above the uncertainty associated with the quantum theory’. Then Hawking goes onto make the famous quote that counters Einstein:

So Einstein was wrong when he said ‘God does not play dice’. Consideration of black holes suggests, not only that God does play dice, but that he sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they cannot be seen. 

And as we come to a close, we see an interesting twist also. Roger Penrose makes the following observation:

At the beginning of this debate Stephen said that he thinks that he is a positivist, whereas I am a Platonist. ... If one compares this debate with the famous debate of Bohr and Einstein, some seventy years ago, I should think that Stephen plays the role of Bohr, whereas I play Einstein’s role! For Einstein argued that there should exist something like a real world, not necessarily represented by a wave function, whereas Bohr stressed that the wave function does not describe a ‘real’ microworld but only ‘knowledge’ that is useful for making predictions. 
Hawking & Penrose, ‘The Nature of Space and Time’, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp.134-5

One has to note here that the spiritual realm of Einstein that permeates his physics is derived from the monism of Spinoza which in turn is rooted in the Judaic mysticism. Bohr, on the other hand, was rooted in the wisdom of the ‘East’ in a typical ‘Eastern manner’ in the sense, John Wheeler, the disciple of Niels Bohr, revealed how his ‘wonder mentor’ Bohr ‘had gone into deep into the Upanishads - more he told me in the questions - than in the answers’. (Wheeler, 2006).

Thus, studying the physical universe, its origin, structure and function is in Hindu culture as much a valid sadhana as any other spiritual pursuit. It may not be an accident then that every great scientist in history had the feeling of the sacred. From Isa Upanishad to Adi Shankara, the psychology of scientific discovery has been handed over to us. So, it does not matter what cosmology you unveil through the equations, the need to unveil, the pursuit and the discovery are coming from the same source - the need to discover the Truth and the discovery leads to an illumination both inner and outer.

This is very clearly brought out by the famous theoretical physicist E George Sudarshan. After pointing out that the very first name in the ‘thousand names of Vishnu’ (Vishnu Sahasranama) is Viswam - the universe, the physicist explains:

The openness of scientists in the moment of discovery is one of impersonal knowledge manifesting itself within, rather than one of discovering something outside oneself. This particular point deserves emphasis because many scientists are very careful to avoid any talk about the role of their personal experience in their discoveries. ... In the Hindu tradition, however, personal experience is the ultimate authority with regard to all things. ... Within my tradition, much emphasis is placed on the moment of discovery. Such insights need not be earth-shaking. They could be something quite trivial or small, but nonetheless they involve discovery.
George Sudarshan, ‘One quest, one knowledge’ in ‘Science and the Spiritual Quest’ (Ed. Richardson et al), Routledge, 2002

George Sudarshan points out further to the radically different conceptualisation of the Divine between the Christian-Islamic religions and the Hindu Dharma. There, the God, 'a benevolent sustaining agency' is 'a powerul Creator'. So, this God has to be approached with 'fear and trembling'. But Hinduism is different.

The vibrant spiritual tradition belonging to my part of the world, namely the Hinduism of central and south Asia, believes instead that God manifests Himself, or Herself, in many ways and in many contexts. My tradition affirms that any spiritual search, whether academic or not, is bound to lead to God. Within Hinduism, there is nothing which is not sacred. God is not an isolated event, something separate from the universe. God is the universe. Yes, God is more than the universe, but He is the universe.

So the physicist concludes:

In my own life, I have been privileged to experience the joy and ecstasy of discovery in both the scientific and spiritual domains. In such moments, the distinction between scientific and spiritual paths vanishes for me. ... In the Hindu tradition, then, the spiritual quest is in fact not distinct from the scientific, aesthetic or, for that matter, any academic pursuit.

So, it is neither the binary bifurcation pop-mythologists seek nor juvenile pride some Hindutvaites take, which are the needs of the hour. Indic knowledge system have evolved through millennia, a way of looking at reality which constantly aims to go beyond the appearances. Every seeker chooses a path and pushes on. She comes to a discovery, which in turn is a moment of unveiling, where, through Avidya, she crosses death and realises the freedom of immortality. Inculcating this spark and the desire for its quest should be the aim of education, whether it is art or science. In an educational system that has already been ruined by the cultural illiteracy of Nehruvian Hindu-phobia and the tyranny of socialist mediocrity, Hindutvaites need to bring in real solutions, the freshness and openness of Vedantic approach perhaps, and should not themselves become yet another problem.

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