By Jamuna Rangachari
Both science and spirituality rely on, and benefit from, the mental attitude that is widely known as ‘scientific temper’.
Amma, how did this happen?’ asked my daughter as she looked in amazement at the lentils which had started sprouting in the bowl. After I explained the process, she wanted to try it on her own. She soaked the lentils, drained them after a few hours, and then kept looking at the bowl to see the progress. The emergence of sprouts in ‘her’ bowl was a great moment of truth to her. She had begun to understand the wonders of creation!
This sense of wonder and curiosity that we all are born with is the first essential ingredient of a scientific temper. As Albert Einstein put it, ‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.’
Most of us are, unfortunately, as good as dead. As we grow older we replace our naturalness with so-called ‘normalcy’ by clogging our minds. We mistake data or information for truth, and hence become more and more ‘conditioned’ which essentially means less scientific.
Defining Scientific Temper
What is a scientific temper? It is not really the knowledge of a particular subject or theorems and laws that define such a temper. Not all people with knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology or any other subject can be called ‘scientific’.
A scientific temper refers to an open, questioning, seeking mind. A mind that seeks truth and accepts it when proven. A mind that is ready to consider that an alternative viewpoint could have merit. A mind that is curious to understand the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of life while accepting that all questions may not be fully answerable. The defining characteristics of a scientific mindset are curiosity, logical ability, objectivity, criticality, emphasis on empirical evidence, open-mindedness, the ability to discern fact from hypothesis, ability to recognize self-limitation, and an interest in new developments.
It is this attitude which is the seed of all progressive thought. Marcus Aurelius, ages ago, pointed this out when he said, ‘Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under your observation in life.’
Continuing with my daughter’s foray into discovery, after her initial curiosity, she realized what is necessary for the blooming of the plant (which needed logical ability, objectivity, criticality), she tried it out herself (emphasis on empirical evidence), and then was eager to understand all processes of nature. Some were understood totally, some jotted down as ‘shall ask someone later’ and some as ‘we don’t know yet’ (which displayed open-mindedness, ability to discern fact from hypothesis, ability to recognize self-limitation and an interest in new developments).
Science itself has evolved due to this sense of wonder. In fact, the term ‘scientific temper’ was coined because science as a subject took shape out of man’s curiosity about nature, the wonders of creation and the origin of the universe.
Isn’t that equally true of spirituality? It is, indeed.
‘Who am I? Where did I come from? Where do I fit in, in this vast cosmos?’ are the questions that trigger all spiritual journeys. Both science and spirituality seek truth, both encourage experimentation and both are concerned with understanding the reality of creation and the cosmos. As Einstein said, ‘My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds.’
Why then are the paths of science and spirituality considered diverse? The reasons are many but perhaps, the most important one is the tendency to confuse blind belief and dogma with spirituality. Often, we are mired in the outer layers of religion, which comprise rituals, customs and doctrines that exist due to social or historical reasons. Going to a place of worship on a particular day, wearing a particular garment or talisman or reciting a prayer in a specific language or style is considered ‘religion’ by most of us.
If we examine the psychological basis of this phenomenon, we would realize that our motives are often flawed in religious practice. Explaining transactional analysis in his book, I’m OK, You’re OK, Dr Thomas Harris lucidly explains the three distinct aspects in our personality – parent, child and adult. A ‘parent’ acts dogmatically based on what has been told to him by people in authority, a ‘child’ acts due to feelings of rejection or inadequacy, while an ‘adult’ acts rationally after self-examination, self-exploration and experimentation.
Most of our perceptions of religion are due to a ‘parent’ or ‘child’ perspective. We follow rituals and customs either because we have been told to do so by people in authority, or because we are afraid that something negative will happen if we don’t.
However, by focusing on this outer layer, we not only encourage an unscientific and obscurantist mindset but deviate from the essence, the innermost core of all faiths, the quest of God. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘The religion that is afraid of science dishonors God and commits suicide.’
Quest for Knowledge
Self-realisation can come through self-examination and self-exploration alone. True spirituality, a quest for truth powered by a desire to know one’s higher self, definitely requires a thinking mind. As Swami Vivekananda said in his lecture called Practical Vedanta delivered in London in 1896, ‘What we want is progress, development, realisation. No theories ever made men higher. No amount of books can help us to become purer. The only power is in realisation, and that lies in ourselves and comes from thinking. Let men think. A clod of earth never thinks; but it remains only a lump of earth. The glory of man is that he is a thinking being. It is the nature of man to think and therein he differs from animals.’
Ancient education was, in fact, geared towards inspiring this spirit of inquiry. The meaning of the Sanskrit word for student: ‘vidyarthi’ consists of ‘arthi’, seeker, of ‘vidya’, knowledge, symbolizing the fact that the role of the teacher or guru is to inspire the student to seek knowledge.
The young Nachiketa, fired by this spirit of inquiry, was puzzled that his father was giving away useless cows at a sacrifice. To him, sacrifice meant giving up what one loved. ‘Who will you give me away to?’ he asked, and was rebuked by his father who replied, ‘To Yama, the God of death.’ Undaunted, Nachiketa embarked on a long journey, seeking the eternal truth from Yama. He waited for three days in the abode of Yama who, pleased with his patience, granted him three boons.
The first boon Nachiketa asked for was that his father receive him without acrimony, the second, the knowledge of a practice that would make him worthy of living in the heavens, and the third and most important, atmajnan – knowledge of the Self. Yama tried hard to dissuade him from this third boon, offering many worldly rewards instead, but Nachiketa was firm. The first boon symbolizes the need for harmonizing our relationships before we attain enlightenment, the second is the first step on the spiritual journey, and the third is the ultimate truth. This courageous, metaphysical quest is detailed in the Katha Upanishad and young Nachiketa remains an eternal metaphor of a true seeker.
Great prophets, whether Jesus, Buddha, Guru Nanak, Mohammed, or Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and others, have risen above blind belief and dogma, seeking and finding the ultimate truth through self-exploration and self-examination.
There is a key difference, however, in the quest of science and spirituality. Dr Jayant Narlikar, in his article in the book, Creeds of Our Times (compiled by The Foundation for Universal Responsibility of the Dalai Lama) brings out this difference by giving the example of Krishna’s interaction with Arjuna when he recited the Bhagavad Gita to him. While showing Arjuna his Universal Form, Krishna told him, ‘Neither by the Vedas, (nor by) sacrifices nor by study nor by gifts nor by ceremonial rites nor by severe austerities can I with this form be seen in the world of men by anyone else but thee, O hero of the Kurus!’
As Dr Narlikar points out, only Arjuna had been privileged to see the universal form. No scientist can get away by saying, ‘Only I have seen the proton decay, others cannot see it happen.’ Similarly, telling my daughter, ‘Only I can make the lentils sprout. Nobody else can,’ would not be a scientific response.
Science insists on objectivity, on the repeatability of its experiments, on the validity of these on a universal scale. Thus if one claims to have had a mystical experience, one should be able to know how one can have it again. Not only this, one should be able to tell others how they can have it. The process must be replicable universally. This is not really true in spirituality. In a spiritual endeavor, the merit and faith of the seeker and the sincerity of his quest is an essential component. While his inspiration could come from many sources, the path he carves out is uniquely his own. While on his journey, it is essential that he distills the essence of spirituality and also respects all other seekers seeking the same goal though they may follow a different route.
Quoting Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda said in his lecture called ‘My Master’ in New York in 1896, ‘This is the message of Sri Ramakrishna to the modern world: ‘Do not care for doctrines, do not care for dogmas, or sects, or churches, or temples; they count for little compared with the essence of existence in each man, which is spirituality; and the more this is developed in a man, the more powerful is he for good. Earn that first, acquire that, and criticize no one, for all doctrines and creeds have some good in them…’
To pursue spirituality scientifically, it is necessary to recognize that while objective truth has its place in the physical domain, ‘subjective truth’ that can be verified and validated by direct experience alone is necessary to gain insight into the higher levels of consciousness. Science can grow in this area only if it removes the shackles of pure objectivity to include subjectivity too.
Let us then pursue the eternal truth in the true scientific spirit; with the wonder of a child, the courage and single-mindedness of Nachiketa, the keen analysis of Swami Vivekananda and the humble reverence of Einstein, learning from the experiences of other seekers while charting our own paths.
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