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Vedanta as the synthesis of Science and Religion
By Swami Ranganathananda, Ramakrishna Math:
Extracts (abridged)

The spirit of enquiry finds expression in any department of scientific study in the gathering of relevant facts and their rational interpretation. The practice of religion is nothing but a ceaseless quest after the facts of the inner life. A dispassionate study of these facts constitutes the science of religion which seeks to unravel the mystery of our inner being- the lights that guide us and the laws that mould us


If 'man, the known', constituted of his body and its environing world, is the subject of study of the natural sciences, 'man. the unknown' is the subject of study of the science of religion. The synthesis of both these sciences is the high function of philosophy as understood in India. It is this function which Vedanta has performed in this country (India), ever since the time of the Upanishads. Exercising a pervasive and effective influence on our national thought and culture, Vedanta has spared us not only the fruitless opposition of reason to faith and vice versa, but also the more dangerous manifestation of this opposition in the form of intolerance, persecution, and suppression of opinion.

The need for a Vedantic approach to science and religion is insistent today when both have shed their respective prejudices and come closer to each other, imbued with the passion to serve man and save his civilisation. It is only such a synthesis of philosophy which blends in itself the flavour of the faith of religion and the reason of science that can reconstruct modern man, by restoring to him the integrity of his being and the unity

The 'Within' and the 'Without' of Nature

Explaining this Indian approach to religion and the cause of the misunderstanding between science and religion, Swami Vivekananda said:

"Religion deals with the truths of the metaphysical world, just as chemistry and the other natural sciences deal with the truth of the physical world. The book one must read to learn chemistry is the book of (external) nature. The book from which to learn religion is your own mind and heart. The sage is often ignorant of physical science, because he reads the wrong book - the book within and the scientist is too often is ignorant of religion, because he, too, reads the wrong book - the book without".

The practice of religion is a ceaseless quest after the facts of a man's inner life, at the innermost depth of which it finds the truth of God, which it defines as infinite existence, infinite knowledge, and infinite bliss, the Sat-Chit-Ananda Brahman it comes across, at the intermediate depths, and all higher values which find expression in man's ethical, moral, and aesthetic experiences. A dispassionate study of these facts constitutes the science of religion, the science of art of the spiritual life.

It is the eternal glory of Vedanta that the great thinkers of the Upanishads grappled with these questions: What is this universe? What is man? What is his destiny? Long ago they discovered that the universe of experience consists of two broad categories, the subjective and the objective. It is important to remember that this idea is basic to an understanding of Vedanta and to an understanding of whither science is going today. Now, when we apply this classification to the whole universe, we get the corollary that modern science is the study of only one of the two categories, namely, the objective field. But modern science is also trying to understand the subjective field.

Psychology is one such science. But Western psychology has suffered from too great a dominance by psychology . By resorting to time and space methodology, we get a knowledge of the 'without' of things, but not of their 'within'. Much of psychology in the West is behaviouristic psychology: it is a study of the human mind through the study of human behaviour.

But Western psychologists have also tried to break from this kind of limitation and have developed, through psycho-analysis, the beginning of what is called depth psychology. This is just the beginning of a great movement in modern psychology which, if continued steadily and penetratingly, will bring it to the truth of the real nature of man which Vedanta reached ages ago in India - the eternal, undying Self of man, the Atman.

Vedanta and modern science are close to each other in spirit and temper. They are close to each other in their objectives and in very many of their conclusions as well. Even in the cosmology of the physical universe, we find so many points of contact. The fundamental position in the cosmology of both science and Vedanta is what Swami Vivekananda calls the postulate of a self-evolving cause. Vedanta says that there is one self-evolving cause, Brahman, behind the universe. Science says that behind this universe there is one self-evolving cause, the background material, in the words of astronomer Fred Hoyle.

Both believe in the theory of a cosmic evolution. There are a number of such similarities. The truths expounded in the Upanishads are impersonal, Apauruseya, not deriving sanction from any person. Scientific truths are similarly impersonal, objective, not deriving sanction from any person. Because they are impersonal, they are universal, and provide a clear insight into the nature of the world. That is science.

When we study the development of science during the last hundred years, we can trace the higher reaches of science slowly appearing on the horizon, and trace also the slow emergence of a non-materialistic outlook in science.

In countless ways, every department of physical science today is extending the bounds of mans knowledge of fundamental unity behind the manifold diversities of the universe. Physical science started with the exploration of the mysteries of external nature; but at the farthest end of this search, it finds itself face to face with the mystery of man, of his mind and consciousness, the deepest mystery of all.

The philosophies of the East, particularly the Vedanta of India,  directly faced this mystery of man, more than five thousand years ago, by initiating the exploration of the internal world and carrying it through to its depths. And, today, we witness a steady convergence of these two indirect and direct approaches in the steady emergence of a common philosophy of the one behind the many.

Physicists of the first quarter of the twentieth century, faced with the challenge of the revolutionary discoveries of relativity and quantum physics, turned into bold philosophical thinkers, initiating the development of reason of physics into Buddhi or philosophical Reason, by transforming it into a critique , not only of the observed sense-data of the physical world, but also of man the observer. Starting with Eddington, Jeans, Max Planck, Einstein, Shrodinger, Niels Bohr, Heisenberg, and other great creators of twentieth-century physics, this philosophical trend has grown through the last five decades, culminating in The Tao of Physics of Berkeley University Physics Professor, Dr.Fritjof Capra.

Concluding his Space, Time and Gravitation, Eddington hinted at the emergence of the mystery of man from the study of the mystery of physical nature:

"The theory of relativity has passed in review the whole subject-matter of physics. It has unified the great laws which, by the precision of their formulation and the exactness of their application, have won the proud place in human knowledge which physical science holds today. And yet, in regard to the nature of things, this knowledge is only an empty shell- a form of symbols. It is knowledge of structural form, and not knowledge of content. All through the physical world runs that unknown content, which must surely be the stuff of our consciousness.

Here is a hint of aspects deep within the world of physics, and yet unattainable by the methods of physics. And, moreover, we have found that, where science has progressed the farthest, the mind has but regained from nature that which the mind has put into nature. We have found a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories, one after another, to account for its origin. At last, we have succeeded in reconstructing the creature that made the footprint. And lo! It is our own."

Hints such as these, given by the earlier philosopher-scientists, have developed into positive affirmations in Dr.Capra. The very title of his book: The Tao of Physics, is significant in this connection, apart from the masterly and fascinating exposition he gives, in the course of the book, of his main thesis that:

"the basic elements of the Eastern world-view are also those of the world-view emerging from modern physics,"

and that:

"Eastern thought, and more generally, mystical thought, provide a consistent and relevant philosophical background to the theories of contemporary science."

Noting that, through the two centuries of association with the philosophy of materialism and the contemporary reaction against the ravages wrought by over-technology, the image of science in the eyes of modern man has suffered much damage, Capra seeks to restore the image of pure science as the discipline in the pursuit of truth and human excellence, not in opposition but in tune with the spiritual heritage of man, and more especially, of the spiritual heritage of the East:

Capra writes:

"This book aims at improving the image of science by showing that there is an essential harmony between the spirit of Eastern wisdom and Western science. It attempts to suggest that modern physics goes far beyond technology, that the wayor Tao-of physics can be a path with a heart, a way to spiritual knowledge and self-realisation."

Echoing the voice of Vedanta and all mystical thought that the fundamental search for reality takes man beyond the senses and the sensory world of phenomena, Capra says:

"On this journey to the world of the infinitely small, the most important step, from a philosophical point of view, was the first one: the step into the world of atoms. Probing inside the atom and investigating its structure, science transcended the limits of our sensory imagination. From this point on, it could no longer rely with absolute certainty on logic and common sense. Atomic physics provided the scientists with the first glimpses of the essential nature of things. Like the mystics, physicists were now dealing with a non-sensory experience of reality and, like the mystics, they had to face the paradoxical aspects of this experience. From then on, therefore, the models and images of modern physics became akin to those of Eastern philosophy."

Referring to the basic unity of the universe, as upheld in Eastern mysticism and modern physics, Capra says:

"The most important characteristic of the Eastern world-view- one could almost say the essence of it- is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events. The Eastern traditions constantly refer to this ultimate indivisible reality, which manifests itself in all things, and of which all things are parts. It is called Brahman in Hinduism, similarly in the faith based on Vedic and Puranic concept Taoism and Buddhism it is called Tao and Dharmakaya respectively"

"The basic oneness of the universe is not only the central characteristic of the mystical experience, but is also one of the most important revelations of modern physics. It becomes apparent at the atomic level, and manifests itself more and more as one penetrates deeper into matter, down into the realm of sub-atomic particles. The unity of all things and events will be a recurring theme throughout our comparison of modern physics and the Eastern philosophy."

Both speak of reality as transcending space, time, and causality. Referring to this kinship, Dr.Capra says:

"The space-time of relativistic physics is a similar timeless space of a higher dimension. All events in it are interconnected, but the connections are not causal. Particle interactions can be interpreted in terms of cause and effect only when the space-time diagrams are read in a definite direction, e.g., from the bottom to the top. When they are taken as four dimensional patterns without any definite direction of time attached to them, there is no before and no after, and thus no causation".

"Similarly, the Eastern mystics assert that, in transcending time, they also transcend the world of cause and effect. Like our ordinary notions of space and time, causation is an idea which is limited to a certain experience of the world and has to be abandoned when this experience is extended. In the words of Swami Vivekananda (Jnana Yoga):

Time, space, and causation are like the glass through which the Absolute is seen. In the Absolute there is neither time, space, nor causation. Swami Vivekananda

Capra continues:

"The Eastern spiritual traditions show their followers various ways of going beyond the ordinary experience of time and of freeing themselves from the chain of cause and effect- from the bondage of Karma, as the Hindus  say. It has therefore been said that Eastern mysticism is a liberation from time. The same may be said of relativistic physics."

Again Capra says:

"Subsequent to the emergence of the field concept, physicists have attempted to unify the various fields into a single fundamental field which would incorporate all physical phenomena. Einstein, in particular, spent the last years of his life searching for such a unified field. The Brahman of the Hindus, like the Dharmakaya of the Buddhists, and the Tao of the Taoists, can be seen, perhaps, as the ultimate unified field, from which spring not only the phenomena studied in physics, but all other phenomena as well"

"In the Eastern view, the reality underlying all phenomena is beyond all forms and defies all description and specification. It is, therefore, often said to be formless, empty, or void. But this emptiness is not to be taken for mere nothingness. It is, on the contrary, the essence of all forms and the source of all life. Thus the Upanishads say (Chandogya Upanishad, 4-10-4):

Brahman is life, Brahman is joy.
Brahman is the void.
Joy ,verily, that is the same as the void.
The void, verily, that is the same as joy".

Atomic physics is confronted with the problem of consciousness through the datum of the observer or to use the new, and more meaningful term coined by physicist John Wheeler, participator. Accordingly, Dr.Capra says:

"In modern physics, the question of consciousness has arisen in connection with the observation of atomic phenomena. Quantum theory has made it clear that these phenomena can only be understood as links in a chain of processes, the end of which lies in the consciousness of the human observer. In the words of Eugene Wigner (Symmetries and Reflections- Scientific Essays):

It was not possible to formulate the laws (of quantum theory) in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness. Eugene Wigner

Dr.Capra continues:

"The pragmatic formulation of quantum theory used by the scientists in their work does not refer to their consciousness explicitly. Wigner and other physicists have argued, however, that the explicit inclusion of human consciousness may be an essential aspect of future theories of matter."

"Such a development would open exciting possibilities for a direct interaction between physics and Eastern mysticism. The understanding of ones consciousness and its relation to the rest of the universe is the starting point of all mystical experience. If physicists really want to include the nature of human consciousness in their realm of research, a study of Eastern ideas may well provide them with stimulating new viewpoints."

Referring to spiritual kinship between modern science and ancient Vedanta, Swami Vivekananda said in his speech at the Parliament of Religions held at Chicago in 1893:

"Manifestation, and not creation, is the word of science today, and the Hindu is only glad that what he has been cherishing in his bosom for ages is going to be taught in more forcible language, and with further light, from the latest conclusions of science."

Confirming this view of Swami Vivekananda, that the physicist and the mystic reach the truth of unity, though following different approaches, Dr.Capra says:

"In contrast to the mystic, the physicist begins his inquiry into the essential nature of things by studying the material world. Penetrating into ever deeper realms of matter, he has become aware of the essential unity of all things and events. More than that, he has also learnt that he himself and his consciousness are an integral part of this unity. Thus the mystic and the physicist arrive at the same conclusion; one starting from the inner realm, the other from the outer world. The harmony between their views confirms the ancient Indian wisdom that Brahman, the ultimate reality, is identical to Atman, the reality within."

Conclusion

Understood in this light, there is no conflict between science and religion, between the physical sciences and the science of spirituality. Both have the identical aim of discovering truth and helping man to grow physically, mentally, and spiritually, and achieve fulfilment. But each by itself is insufficient and helpless. They have been tried separately with unsatisfactory results. The older civilisations took guidance mostly from religion; their achievements were partial and limited. Modern civilisation relies solely on science; its achievements also have turned out to be partial and limited.

The combination today, of the spiritual energies of these two complementary disciplines in the life of man will produce fully integrated human beings, and thus help to evolve a complete human civilisation, for which the world is ripe and waiting. This is the most outstanding contribution of Swami Vivekananda to human thought today. This synthetic vision of his finds lucid expression in a brief but comprehensive testament of his Vedantic conviction:

" Each soul is potentially divine.

The goal of life is to manifest this divinity within by controlling nature, external (through physical sciences, technology, and socio-political processes) and internal (through ethical, aesthetic, and religious processes):

Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy-by one, or more, or all of these-and be free.

This is the whole of religion. Doctrines or dogmas or rituals or books or temples or forms, are but secondary details." -Swami Vivekananda

This science and technique for realising the true glory of man, followed with scientific thoroughness and detachment by the sages of the Upanishads, and revalidated by a succession of spiritual experimenters down the ages from Buddha to Ramakrishna, is glowingly revealed in one of the immortal verses of the Svetasvatara Upanishad:

"Hear, ye children of immortal bliss, even ye that reside in higher spheres! I have found the Ancient One, who is beyond all darkness, all delusion; knowing Him alone, you shall be saved from death over again."

 

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