Swami Vivekananda - A Vedantic Scientist
by Swami Brahmeshananda
Through an inscrutable law, the East and the West offer two fields of activity, one mainly in the domain of spirit, and the other largely in the domain of matter, for the glorious consummation of the ideal to which all humanity has been moving. Both ideals are necessary for the progress of humanity.
Swami Vivekananda was well-qualified to suggest ways of striking a balance between, and to create a healthy synthesis of Western science and Eastern philosophy. He was the product of Indian culture, and was brought up in a religious atmosphere. As a young student he studied Western philosophy, which did not satisfy his thirst for truth. He did not want diagrams of truth. He wanted to experience it. In this state of mind, as a skeptic and agnostic and yet a true seeker of truth, he met Sri Ramakrishna who represented traditional India with its spiritual perspective, its asceticism and realisation, the India of the Upanishads.
Swami Vivekananda, then Narendra, came to Sri Ramakrishna with all the doubts and skepticism of the modern age, unwilling to accept even the highest truths of religion without verification. The result of their contact was the birth of a new philosophy, a new religious outlook on life, in which India's ancient spiritual perspective was heightened, widened and strengthened to include modern learning. The intense activity of the West was to be combined with the deep meditation of the East. Asceticism and withdrawal were to be supplemented by work and service to others. From the merging of the two currents a new religion, the faith of glorious tomorrow, was born in which nothing was denied, all was fulfillment.
Religion not Unscientific
In an attempt to reconcile Western science and Eastern philosophy, especially Vedanta, Swami Vivekananda first of all tried to show that the religious way of looking at the universe was not unscientific. He showed that the two principles fundamental to all scientific inquiry are satisfied by Advaita Vedanta. First, the particular is explained by the general, the general by the more general, till the universal is reached. Second, explanation of a thing must come from within the thing and not from outside. An extension of this principle is the law of evolution, that the effect is nothing but the cause in another form, that all potentialities of the effect are present in the cause, that the whole creation is an evolution and not creation.
Swami Vivekananda showed that the Brahman of Vedanta fulfills the above-mentioned two principles of knowledge in as much as it is the last generalization out of which everything else arises. It is the highest and the ultimate cause, as well as the lowest and the most distant of effects in a series of evolution.
The third principle or conclusion of science which tallies with Vedanta is the essential unity of things. Swami Vivekananda showed that we are all one, mentally, spiritually and physically, a conclusion at which modern sub-atomic physics is arriving after almost a century. The universe is an ocean of matter, in which we are like whirlpools. The matter that is in my body may have been in you a few years ago, or in the sun or in a planet, always in a continuous state of flux. So with thoughts. Coming to a further generalization, the essence of matter and thought is their potentiality in spirit, which too must be one. The proud man is told that he is the same as the worm. The grand teaching of oneness is a great lesson because we are glad to be made one with higher beings but nobody wants to be made one with lower ones. Swami Vivekananda also showed that like any science, religion also has its own methods and procedures, its own premises and conclusions based on reason and experience.
The science of yoga is based on observable experience which can be verified by anyone. In yoga, the object of observation is the mind itself, and the instrument of observation too is the concentrated, purified and trained mind. It is a documented science with details fully worked out. Religious inquiry, following the internal path, using instruments and methods appropriate to its own field, testing its findings by reason, and verifying its reasoning by experience, is a science in its own right.
Criticism of Material Science
Swami Vivekananda critically examined the mechanical and evolutionary theories and found them inadequate and unsatisfactory. He was of the firm opinion that no system or philosophy based purely on materialistic or utilitarian ideas can explain the whole of human existence or provide answers to all our problems.
Swami Vivekananda showed that the theory of evolution was incomplete because evolution presupposes an involution. Something cannot come out of nothing. We can get from a machine only that much amount of energy which we put into it. If a man is an evolution of a mollusc, then the perfect man, the Buddha man, the Christ man, must be involved in the mollusc. Our struggle for higher life shows that we have been degraded from higher states. Another point of controversy which Swami Vivekananda took up was whether the aggregate of materials we call 'body' is the cause of the manifestation of force we call 'thought'? Taking the position that thought is simply the outcome of adjustment of the parts of the machine called body leaves the question unanswered. What makes the body? What force combines the molecules into the body form? To say that the force called 'soul' is the outcome of body is to put the cart before the horse. The cause is always finer than the effect. That theory must be accepted which explains most facts, if not all, without contradicting most of the theories already existing. It is more logical to say that the force which takes up the matter and forms the body is the same which manifests through the body.
Neither can force evolve out of matter. Rather, it is possible to demonstrate that what we call matter does not exist at all. It is only a certain state of force. Solidity, hardness, or any other state of matter can be proved to be the result of motion. Increased vortex motion imparted to fluids gives them the force of solids. A mass of air in vortex motion like a tornado becomes solid-like and by its impact breaks or cuts through solids. A spider's web, if it could be moved at almost infinite velocity, could be as strong as an iron chain.
In USA, Swami Vivekananda had occasion to discuss metaphysical questions with the so-called free thinkers, materialists, agnostics, atheists, and rationalists. He showed them that the very idea of matter was a metaphysical conception, that it was metaphysics upon which ultimately rested the very basis of their materialism, and that their innumerable laws had no outside existence apart from the human mind. Hence man can never truly know the nature of the external world apart from categories of time and space. The sense perceptions and the ideas which man forms from them are not free from a large quota of subjectivity. Western savants having failed to establish the existence of self apart from objective consciousness have failed to come to a final conclusion regarding ultimate reality. Western science alone cannot answer the most vital questions of life and being.
Swami Vivekananda moved beyond criticizing science and showed its complementarity with spirituality. Both are attempts to seek the explanation of things through an exploration of the nature of the things themselves. The former deals, by definition, with the material universe, so called; the latter deals with the subtle realm of the mind in which the universe is perceived and known, and delves far deeper into the nature of things. In this sense, religion, as Swami Vivekananda saw it, was an extension of science. Just as matter and mind could be said to form a continuum, so the disciplines of science and religion could be said to form a continuum of man's exploration of the same reality. His effort was to show that the external world and the internal world are not separate, that the gross melts into the fine and physics into metaphysics.
Swami Brahmeshananda is the head of the Ram Krishna Mission
in Chandigarh, Source: Conference on Science and Spirituality in
Modern India, February 5-7, 2006; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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