Science and Spirituality

In a May 22, 2004 article in the Hindu (Calling India’s freethinkers), Meera Nanda contends that “drawing clear distinctions between science and religion is crucial in India.” Obviously only with reference to Hinduism.

After reading the article, I was profoundly perplexed. I am not a stranger to either science or Hinduism having studied them both. Born and educated in America I had experienced first hand, the exciting developments in modern science right from the time when science departments in American universities were starting to “experiment” with bringing arts and humanities, including spirituality, to bear on science. Universities were opening separate “experimental colleges” where one could study yoga, astrology, ayurveda, etc. as well as biology, physics, and other natural sciences. In fact, I took an experimental college biology course at San Francisco State (public) University where students could do science projects involving art, poetry, music, essays, which were spiritually uplifting. We also went on field trips to the ecological reserves and to the Stanford Linear Accelerator. We were allowed to go inside the accelerator and were told how it splits the atom. All these were inspiring.

Concurrent with an avid interest in science, which has never ebbed, I was also an ardent seeker of self knowledge. In the early-seventies I found what I was looking for in Vedanta. Having heard Swami Chinmayananda on a radio interview, I decided to attend his talk series at the UC Medical Center in San Francisco. From then onwards my interest in Vedanta has continued to grow. In America I had spent several years studying at a traditional Vedanta gurukulam where Swami Dayananda Saraswati was the teacher. Then, in order to deepen my study of Hinduism, I moved to India four years ago. I wanted to discover what kind of a culture could provide nourishment to the profound wisdom waiting to be discovered in Vedanta. Having gotten immersed in the riches of this spiritual culture I feel that every day is a wonder with still much more to discover about myself, the world, and Ishvara.

Naturally, when I read Meera Nanda’s article, I thought that she must not have had any well-informed access to modern science. And I was equally surprised that she knows so little about the Vedas and particularly about Vedanta.

Ms Nanda complains that Hindu apologists “draw wild parallels and equivalence between just about any shloka from the Vedas and the laws of quantum mechanics and other branches of modern science.”

The following quotes are not from the Vedas, but from the world’s leading scientists speaking on the topic of Hinduism/spirituality/religion and its connection to science.

Werner Karl Heisenberg (1901-1976), German theoretical physicist, best known for his Uncertainty Principle for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, said: “Physical science has now become planetary and draws into its fold an increasing number of non-westerners who find in its new vision of the universe many elements that are quick to note, one cannot always distinguish between statements made by eastern metaphysics based on mystical insight, and the pronouncements of modern physics based on observations, experiments and mathematical calculations.”

Dr. Carl Sagan, (1934-1996) famous astrophysicist, in his book, Cosmos, says: “The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond to those of modern scientific cosmology.” Describing the Nataraja, Lord Shiva in the form of cosmic dancer, he says: “These profound and lovely images are, I like to imagine, a kind of premonition of modern astronomical ideas.” Sagan continues, “A millennium before Europeans were willing to divest themselves of the Biblical idea that the world was a few thousand years old, the Mayans were thinking of millions and the Hindus billions.”

In the television series “Cosmos”, he acknowledges that of all the world’s philosophies and religions those originating in India are remarkably consistent with contemporary scenarios of space, time and existence.

Erwin Schroedinger (1887-1961), Austrian theoretical physicist, best known for his discovery of wave mechanics, which won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1933, wished to see: “Some blood transfusion from the East to the West” to save Western science from spiritual anemia.”

“In all the world,” writes Schroedinger in his book, My View of the World (chapter iv), “there is no kind of framework within which we can find consciousness in the plural; this is simply something we construct because of the temporal plurality of individuals, but it is a false construction….The only solution to this conflict insofar as any is available to us at all lies in the ancient wisdom of the Upanishad.”

Julius Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) was a theoretical physicist and the Supervising Scientist for the Manhattan Project, the developer of the atomic bomb. He studied Sanskrit with Professor Arthur W Ryder (1877-1938) at Berkeley. He called the Gita “the most beautiful philosophical song existing in any known tongue.”

Christian Century magazine (May 15, 1963 p. 647) asked Oppenheimer to list the ten books that “did most to shape your vocational attitude and philosophy of life.” Two of the ten works that Oppenheimer claimed as most influential were Indian, The Bhagavad Gita and Bhartrihari’s Satakatrayam, and a third, The Waste Land by T S Eliot, alluded to the Hindu Scriptures.

Oppenheimer wrote: “The general notions about human understanding… which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of or new. Even in our own culture they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find [in modern physics] is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom.”

These are a few quotes from among the scientists who are freethinkers. The amount of current scientific papers and books available on this topic is mind-boggling. For example, many more quotes from current leading scientists are available on the Science and the Spiritual Quest web site, – a program of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley, California.

“For seven years the Science and the Spiritual Quest program has involved over 120 distinguished senior scientists in dialogue at the intersections of science and spirituality. In conferences and workshops around the world, SSQ has demonstrated that scientists of Nobel caliber can also be people of faith, and that those who are not traditionally religious can offer insights of great value to religion.”

“Ask any scientist what lies at the core of her work, you will learn that it is not the experimental test of the hypothesis – although that is where most of the time and money of science go. It is the idea, the mechanism, the insight that justifies all the rest of the work of science. The moment of insight that reveals the new idea, where an instant before there was just fog, is the moment when the unknown first retreats before the creativity of the scientist. Here, then, is the first door into the unknowable: where does scientific insight come from? Surely from someplace currently unknown. Let us consider the possibility that scientific insight, like religious revelation, comes from an intrinsically unknowable place.” Robert Elliot Pollack, Professor of Biological Sciences and Director, Center for the Study of Science and Religion at Columbia University.

Clearly, Meera Nanda has projected an imaginary world that is quite different from the natural world that exists. Even if it were possible “to achieve a society that has internalised the principle of separation between science and spirituality,” nobody would be able to live happily in such a world. All previous experiments of societies toward that end have failed dismally.

Everything Meera Nanda said about separating science and religion would make India go against the very trend that its ancient wisdom has inspired throughout the world’s scientific community.

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