Science and spirituality - Case for a Constructive Synergy
by Makarand Paranjape
August 6 and 9, 1945. For the first time in human history, atom bombs were used in warfare. 1,20,000 people, over 95 per cent civilians, were killed instantly; twice as many died later. By bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States not only unleashed the terrifying specter of nuclear annihilation, but also seemed to pose an unprecedented challenge to the incipient global peace movement led by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave.
The latter, it is recorded, went into a period of silence and deep reflection over the horrors of what had transpired. His close friends and confidants waited anxiously for some word from the sage that might offer a glimmer of hope or sanity amidst the terrible devastation wrought by scientific invention and human ingenuity. After all, many of the free world's most talented scientists and technologists had worked day and night in the Manhattan project at Los Alamos to create this Frankenstein.
Indeed, throughout the rise of modern science in Europe, there was a growing, if lurking fear, that some day this new source of power would turn on its creators to destroy them. This fear was expressed in a large volume of imaginative literature that was critical of science, the most famous example of which was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), perhaps, the first 'science fiction' novel.
One reason for this fear was that the rise of science in Europe was marked by a bitter and bloody struggle with religious authority. That latter tried its utmost to retain its monopoly over truth, silencing and neutralizing opponents to uphold its dogmas, but had gradually to yield to the incontrovertible proofs that the former offered. Nowadays, there is an attempt to reinterpret this historical conflict by showing how, for instance, some Jesuit priests used the domes and towers of their cathedrals as astronomical observatories.
On the whole, however, as the famous examples of Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Halley, Darwin, Hubble, even Bertrand Russell show, organized Christianity has usually opposed scientific progress. No wonder that even today there rages a battle in the US over whether or not to teach evolution in state-funded schools. Most religious leaders in the West have also come out against cloning and some other forms of scientific research.
In other words, the basic fear in dogmatic religions and their adherents was that science in being Godless, materialistic, and arrogant would not just destroy their belief systems, but also, ultimately, bring down the wrath of an angry God upon those who dared to pry into His secrets.
As opposed to this, one might argue that the rise of modern science in India during the 19th century was marked by not so much opposition from spiritual leaders, but curiosity, wonder, even open endorsement. Swami Vivekananda, for instance, went on record to argue that modern science would only prove the ancient wisdom of Vedanta which held that matter and spirit were one and the same. In his first publications, he actually called Raja Yoga a science. In more recent times, the Dalai Lama has often said that Buddhism had much in common with modern science in that both are based on rationality and experimentation.
Because of this lack of conflict, there is sometimes the contrary tendency among Indian thinkers to completely collapse the distinctions between science and spirituality. For example, Osho Rajneesh said that spirituality was a very incorrect word for the quest that has been going on in India for millennia. According to him, a better phrase would be 'inner science'. So for Osho there is only 'outer science', the study of matter that the so-called scientists do, and inner science that yogis and jnanis have been practicing for years.
On the other hand, most practicing scientists in India hesitate to say much about spirituality. They say that it is outside the domain of the work they do. Science, as such, is a strictly adhered to methodology which does not allow 'knowledge' found by other methods to be considered valid. There may be some frontier areas like consciousness research where neurology, cognition studies, psychology, linguistics, yoga, meditation, and so on might converge, but by and large, 'hard' science continues to be indifferent to the entire domain of the spiritual quest. Even quantum and sub-atomic physics, much as they seem to endorse Vedantic, Taoist or other ideas of Eastern spiritual traditions, must finally express in the language of mathematics to be acceptable as science.
Moreover, several practicing Indian scientists with the notable exception of Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose were utterly skeptical of spiritual gurus and ideas. It is said that C.V. Raman was critical both of Gandhi and Vinoba, believing that they would take the country backwards with their anti-modernist thoughts. Several technologists and engineers too thought of Gandhi's ideas as opposing progress and development. The story goes, however, that Raman's wife continued to be devoted to both Gandhi and Vinoba in spite of her husband. More recently, Dr Jayant Narlikar has written against the irrationalism of many so-called spiritual beliefs including astrology and vaastu. Similarly, rationalists have often challenged godmen to 'prove' their powers of materialization in laboratory conditions.
Not all scientists are averse to talking about their spiritual beliefs. One of India's greatest living scientists, Professor C.N.R. Rao, is a notable example. When I met him in his office at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, of which he is the founder-director, Professor Rao said, "Both science and spirituality are two instances of an enduring human quest for truth. That their methods, objects, and instruments of seeking knowledge are different does not make them inherently incompatible." Professor Rao, the only Indian winner of the Dan David prize, which is considered of equal prestige to a Nobel Prize and certainly worth as much monetarily, added that he is not shy to speak of his belief in God either.
"I am not shy to say that I believe in God," said Professor Rao. "But I don't believe in superstitions or omens. As Albert Einstein said, without a personal philosophy and a religious bent of mind, it is impossible to live. Only insecure and shallow persons question this. The uncertainties of the world, the way things happen and the way Nature works, demand a certain attitude. I think there are things which are beyond simple rationale. Everything cannot be explained away. This is true of love, beauty and music. I am not ashamed of going to temples. In fact, I go to the sacred shrines of all religions. I believe in God in a different way. I believe in a God who is all powerful. He is so powerful, omnipotent and omnipresent that it is impossible to describe him. For this reason, people worship him in different forms. It is very important to have God to have a way of life, to have guidelines for ourselves, to live in this world. This is why the theory of karma is also very useful, because believing in the next life is helpful to lead a good life and be a good person in this life. I feel that one should not be confused in this matter. I think that it is faith in God that has helped me."
On the whole there is a truce, sometimes comfortable, sometimes uneasy, between science and spirituality in India. Usually, the spiritualists will say that there is no conflict between the two, while practicing scientists will remain silent or disagree. What most people who consider them to be separate domains will however agree to is that both are necessary for human well-being and progress. As Albert Einstein famously remarked, "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."
Religion and culture have been the repository and source of values, while science and technology have the capacity to improve human life and living conditions. For a world of the future both must go hand in hand, creating a constructive synergy. A deeper understanding of the relationship between science and spirituality has a great potential to change the way we live and manipulate the material resources of our planet. The future, thus, pressures us to refashion our realities so that terrestrial existence is secured and humanity evolves to greater heights of harmony and happiness. But for this to happen, both science and spirituality will have to collaborate in an unprecedented manner, achieving a synergy for the overall service of our species and of all those who share this habitat with us.
India is a fertile, even unique, ground for such an exploration, especially as we move into the information age while at the same time being in the midst of what some have called a spiritual efflorescence. Particularly of interest to such a project are issues concerning the interface between spirituality and technology, including the use of new media for the traditional purposes of yoga and spiritual development.
At this moment a group of scholars, scientists, and academicians are working together on precisely such a project. They plan to investigate both the content of the dialog between science and spirituality in modern India and its form. By examining the documents, statements, positions, and possibilities of this encounter, they wish to shed light on the content of the dialog. But not stopping there, the purpose is also to address the modalities, methodologies, and technologies involved in the interaction.
This will necessarily be a multi-disciplinary endeavor in which disciplines like history, literary criticism, sociology, and scientific and technological studies will intersect. The efforts will culminate in a conference on Science and Spirituality in Modern India to be held in New Delhi from February 5-7, 2006, bringing together experts from JNU, IIT, AIIMS, NISTADS, and other institutions, along with foreign scholars.
To return to Vinoba's response to the catastrophe of the atom bomb, after his silence and meditation, he emerged to make his famous declaration, "The days of party politics and denominational religion are coming to an end. Now dawns the new age of science and spirituality." Indeed, more than anything else, it is our capacity through the exercise of modern science and technology having driven us to the unprecedented precipice of self-annihilation that also forces us to make take the next evolutionary leap. Such a leap will have to combine both spiritual wisdom and scientific knowledge to make our earth a better place for all.
Source: Conference on Science and Spirituality in Modern India,
February 5-7, 2006; email: email@example.com
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