Science and the Sacred Wandering One Gathers Honey
by Ravi Ravindra
Departments of Physics and of Comparative Religion
Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada
As a young man I was a member of the Youth Hostels Association of India. Their motto used to be, and I imagine it still is, Charan vaµi madhu vindati (wandering one gathers honey). Only recently I re-encountered this in Abitareya Brauhmana (7.15.5) with delight. I would like to offer this paper to wanderers, travellers and path-makers all over the world.
Juxtaposition Without Conquest: One of the outstanding features of our age since the Second World War is that now a juxtaposition of two major cultures or worldviews does not necessarily mean that one of them has to be the victor and the other the vanquished. This is one of the important features of post-modernism in the West. The modernist project in the West, dearly beloved and strenuously pursued during the period from the European Renaissance to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and the Atomic incineration in Japan, was predicated on many assumptions and attitudes. Among these was the assumption – very much supported both by the Western intellectual tradition and by the major Western religion – that there is one expression of and one way to truth and that the West has it, religiously in the form of Christianity and epistemologically in the form of modern science. Since the Second World War it has been difficult for the Western intelligentsia to seriously hold this view. This may still be the case in ordinary mass psychology, but most of the intellectuals no longer subscribe to this attitude, certainly not as strongly as they used to. In liberal scientific circles it is fashionable now to acknowledge other ways of knowing; and in liberal Christian circles the official Church dogma Extra ecclesia nulla salus (Outside the Church there is no salvation) creates various degrees of embarrassment and is often denied and downplayed.
There are several reasons for this massive shift in attitude, some of which are consequences of inherent elements in the two Western institutions mentioned above, namely, science and Christianity. The amazing acceleration and increase in the means of transportation and communication brought about by modern science and technology has resulted in a large number of people from different cultures interacting with people from other cultures –businessmen, students, teachers, volunteers, immigrants, tourists, scholars.
Christianity has also in its activities contributed to the major attitudinal difference, more as an unintended consequence. Although very much an Asian religion in its origins, Christianity has for the last sixteen hundred years been culturally primarily associated with Western culture. The conversion of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century CE made Christianity very much an imperial religion. All the major Christian doctrines were established in the first seven Councils which were all convened by imperial initiative. The relationship of Christianity with the centres of power in Europe has continued for so long, including later the association of Christianity with the colonial powers of Europe, that a deep Eurocentricism and a sense of superiority adhere to Christian dogma and practice, including the conviction that no one can be saved without conversion to Christianity. The conversions themselves have resulted in a shift of religious demographics. Until 1920, more than 80% of all the Christians in the world were of European descent. Since 1980 however the majority of Christians in the world are of non-European descent. And a great many of the Christians now live in places where they are a religious minority. Coupled with a general decline of European colonialism, this has activated a dialogue of worldviews. About a decade ago, the World Council of [Christian] Churches was meeting in British Columbia, Canada. A television report on one of their open meetings was a particularly colourful spectacle, much of the colour being in the delegates present there from various ethnic groups.
However, the Eurocentricism, and the associated sense of superiority of the European races and culture, which has very much coloured Christian doctrine, does not seem to have yet suffered the fact of the shift in religious demographics. The late Paulos Mar Gregorios who was the Metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Delhi told me of an incident which illustrates this. Metropolitan Gregorios was a man of much substance: in addition to his religious qualifications he was a distinguished scholar. At one time he was the President of the Indian Philosophical Congress. He was also for some time the President of the World Council of [Christian] Churches. In this capacity he had an audience with the present Pope at the Vatican.
Metropolitan Gregorios asked the Pope what he thought was the reason for such a small percentage of Indians having converted to Christianity although it had been in India for so long. The Pope said to him the reason was that the Indian mind was not developed enough to understand the subtlety of thought of St. Gregory of Nyssa or of St. Thomas Aquinas. Somewhat taken aback Metropolitan Gregorios asked the Pope if he had read Shankara or Nagarjuna. He was immediately shown out of the room where the audience was taking place. I found the incident merely amusing because I did not find this surprising at all, but he had been much saddened by it, for the issue was more personal for him. As he said, he realized for the first time and first hand that every Indian Christian is considered to be a second class Christian in the Vatican. This was even more galling for him because he belonged to a branch of Christianity as ancient as any.
In due course, all this is bound to change. However strongly entrenched, such attitudes hardly represent the best of Christianity. Non-Western cultures of the world, and certainly India, have brought forth or have fostered quite distinct sorts of Christian understanding, resulting, in the case of India, from interactions between Hindu and Christian worldviews and theologies. Some people, such as Father Bede Griffiths, have set up Christian ashrams in India where they have tried to incorporate many distinctly Indian ceremonies and rituals. Many others have learned meditation in the context of Hinduism or Buddhism and have set up Christian ashrams in the West. However, the transformations needed are much deeper than these.
Inter-pilgrim Rather Than Inter-faith Dialogue: These days when I visit my family in the city of Chandigarh, I hardly meet a person who does not have a relative, at most one removed, who has not been to one or another Western country. Dialogue of worldviews is not merely an academic matter for discussion in learned assemblies. When people brought up in very different cultures, with different religious and musical backgrounds, whisper to each other sweet nothings in intimate embraces, much non-verbal and direct dialogue of worldviews takes place. A great deal of such dialogue is now going on, especially in large urban centres all over the globe. In the felicitous words of Shakespeare, “in the marriage of true minds let me not admit impediment.” Certainly the impediment of either the presence of words or their absence.
And the products of such dialogues include scholarly cross-cultural and comparative studies of many kinds as well as literature, films, theatre, music which is not bound by one geographical or national boundary or influence. Many examples of very fruitful cross-cultural experimentation in the arts can be given. Above all, an increasing number of children of different ethnic and cultural parentage, often highly beautiful and intelligent, are by their very existence culture jammers and embodiments of worldviews in dialogue.
Culture is not imbibed only from books. The festivals celebrated in one’s family, the music in the background, the myths and legends, the food one eats and much more embody a culture. We all know of the musical dialogues between Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankara, and the attempts of Peter Brook to portray the intricacies of the Mahabharata in theatre. These days the Governor General of Canada is a woman of Chinese origin; and the premier of the Province of British Columbia last year was an immigrant from Punjab. It was amusing to see a couple of years ago in the financial section of a Canadian newspaper a photograph of the CEO’s of two large airlines which had just decided to merge, United Airlines and U.S. Air. Both the CEO’s were of Indian origin. I gather the people of Indian origin in North America now constitute the wealthiest minority on a per capita basis. All these people are engaged in a dialogue of worldviews, not necessarily under such a title, but in their daily activities. There are more and more interactions at various levels between people coming from quite different cultural backgrounds. They may not be self-consciously engaging in dialogue, but exchange and dialogue take place in any case.
I myself have now lived longer in the Western world than in India. For many years now I have largely thought and expressed myself in a Western language. Also, for years I was trained in Physics which surely has been the Western yoga of knowledge par excellence, and I am married into Christianity and the Western culture. I sometimes ask my friends, or organizers of the symposia where I am sometimes invited to represent the East, what makes me an Easterner. I am happy enough to be an Indian or an Easterner, but what makes me an Easterner? Place of birth? Skin colour? Certain philosophical or religious inclinations?
The reason for raising such a simple question is that most of the symposia concerned with East-West worldviews or interfaith dialogues seem to me to be too much bound by the past, and do not appreciate the dynamic nature of cultures and religions. If you have never seriously met someone from another culture or religion, interfaith or inter-cultural conversation is obviously a good idea. But I wish to suggest as strongly as I can that interfaith dialogues are at best a preliminary stage of human to human dialogue and can even be an impediment to a deeper understanding. Similarly a dialogue of cultures and worldviews can fix these faiths and cultures into the entities that they were. In fact these cultures and religions are alive and dynamic and are undergoing large and serious transformations right now. An inter-pilgrim dialogue, which is of necessity somewhat trans-cultural, trans-religious and trans-disciplinary, is needed to move into a future of a larger comprehension. We don’t need to stunt the growth or prevent a radical reformulation of the traditions by insisting on everyone declaring their adherence to one or another version of the past. Every major spiritual teacher, especially the really revolutionary ones like the Buddha and Krishna and the Christ, pointed out both the great call carried in the subtle core of the traditions as well as the betrayal(a word which comes from the same root as tradition) of the real living heart of the Sacred by them. To fix the other, or myself, in some past mould and thus to deny the possibility of a wholly unexpected radical transformation is surely a sin against the Holy Spirit: treating the other as an object rather than a person, an ‘it’ and not as a ‘Thou.’
I am also the father of children nourished by two great cultures; they are double breeds. They willy-nilly carry on a dialogue of worldviews in their cells. They, and so many of their friends who are in and out of our home, are more and more transnational and transcultural in their attitudes, tastes and perspectives. They are not convinced of the necessity of denying the great wisdom and practices of other religions because of an adherence to some exclusivist dogma of one or another religion. They can take delight in and be nourished by not only the two cultures of their parents but even others because they are not wholly hemmed in by the conditioning of one particular culture. Freedom of movement from one position to another, from one language to another, bears the seeds of movement without position – a dance of delight, a taste of Brahman, the Vastness.
Shadows of the Sun: As long as we speak in terms of defined identities and engage in inter-faith or inter-cultural dialogues, we add to the entrenchment of the ‘faiths’ and ‘traditions’ of the past and interfere with their dynamic transformations which alone bespeak of the life and vitality of the traditions. Here I will take an illustration of two of the very subtle insights, one of India and the other of the Biblical tradition, to indicate how the past formulations of these insights, possibly their highest insights, have produced their shadows.
From India, we take the insistence of all the sages on the oneness of all there is. This is one of the fundamental truths of Sanatana Dharma, a more appropriate label for the Indian tradition, from the Rig Veda through Gautama Buddha, Mahavira, Nagarjuna, Shankara, Kabir, Nanak, Ramakrishna to Ramana in our own times. Sometimes this insight is expressed in a stark and transpersonal manner, such as Shankara’s realization that all is Brahman and therefore Brahman satya jagat mithya (Brahman is truth, the world, if seen apart from It, is false) and sometimes in more personal terms such as in the Bhagavad Gita that all there is is Krishna. In spite of the differences in the formulations over several thousand years, the degree of realization and embodiment of this essential truth marks the degree of largeness of being and wisdom of a sage. Attachment to an exclusive traditional formulation in terms of oneness has mitigated against the recognition of uniqueness of each individual manifestation. In the realm of encountering other religions, an abstract commitment to the essential unity of all religions in the Indian mind has not often permitted a detailed study of and enjoyment of the wondrous and quite remarkably different manifestations of various religions.
It is often claimed by well-meaning liberal Hindus that Christianity is the same as the Bhaktimarga of Hinduism and leads to the same truth. A practical implication is that very few Hindus have ever made a detailed and serious study of Christianity or of any other religion. There are happy exceptions, but very few in the long history of the encounter of India with non-Indian religions. Can a person, or a religion or a culture, be satisfied and feel acknowledged, if they are told that they are all essentially Divine, or lead to Divinity, and that therefore there is no need to engage with their particularity? In an analogy to be found in the Chandogya Upanishad (6.1.4), and much quoted and admired by the Vedantists, it is said that clay alone is real, while its modifications are only names arising from speech. However true this statement may be at the mountain peak of consciousness, a vantage point vouchsafed to very few persons in human history, is it not here below a facile and destructive dismissal of all art, uniqueness, and individuality? Is an exquisite Chinese vase the same as a lump of clay?
From the Biblical traditions we could take the very subtle and powerful enunciation of monotheism in the Jewish Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). This has had an enormous impact on Christianity and Islam as well. Monotheism is often considered by pious people and scholars in the West to be the acme of religious understanding. But no other religious notion has had a more pernicious consequence in creating bigotry and fanaticism than monotheism. ‘Monotheism’ everywhere has resulted in ‘My-theism’ leading to warfare against other people’s religious forms. No one would say that there is one God and it is not my God but yours. The late Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz once said:
“We owe to monotheism many marvelous things, from cathedrals to mosques. But we also owe to it hatred and oppression. The roots of the worst sins of Western civilization – the Crusades, colonialism, totalitarianism – can be traced to the monotheistic mindset… For a pagan, it was rather absurd that one people and one faith could monopolize the truth.”1
Octavio Paz (who was appointed the Mexican ambassador to India in the sixties, a position which he regarded highly important both in his life and in his work as witnessed in various books written during his stay In India, especially The Grammarian Monkey and East Slope) could not be unmindful of the fact that beautiful sacred buildings could hardly be said to be exclusively related with monotheism – witness the marvelous temples of the ‘polytheistic’ and trans-theistic Hindus and Buddhists. Many of these temples were destroyed by the monotheistic fervor which views every other religion’s sacred images and buildings with lack of respect or even hatred.
The subtlety of understanding which insists that the Ultimate cannot be captured in any image or form cannot be sustained by the mind unprepared to live without crutches of form, colour and name. Every religion has idols; it is only other peoples’ idols the monotheists find troublesome, not their own. All scriptures, theologies, liturgies, no less than images and idols, are particular expressions of religious understandings. Mental idols are more pernicious than idols made of wood and stone because they cannot be so easily seen or seen through. Here, largely owing to shortage of time and space, I would simply quote the distinguished scholar of religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith (with whom I was privileged to teach a course on Religions of India many years ago):
“For Christians to think that Christianity is true, or final, or salvific, is a form of idolatry … Our conclusion, then, is this. In comparative perspective, one sees that ‘idolatry’ is not a notion that clarifies other religious practices or other outlooks than one’s own; yet it can indeed clarify with some exactitude one’s own religious stance, if one has previously been victim of the misapprehension that the divine is to be fully identified with or within one’s own forms. Christians have been wrong in thinking that Hindus are formally idolaters. We would do well, on the other hand, to recognize that we Christians have substantially been idolaters, insofar as we have mistaken for God, or as universally final, the particular forms of Christian life or thought.””Christianity – for some, Christian theology – has been our idol.”
“It has had both the spiritual efficacy of ‘idols’ in the good sense, and serious limitations of idolatry in the bad sense.”2
If we keep hanging on to ‘faiths’ frozen in some past formulations, we certainly make them into idols in the pejorative sense of this word. Then it is difficult to see how one would reconcile the insistence on the oneness of all there is with the uniqueness of each manifestation, and the clarity of knowing that the Ultimate is beyond any forms whatsoever and the generosity that sees the Divine in all forms and celebrates image making as an aid to seeing the Divine. Inter-pilgrim exchanges are different by nature. Much can be exchanged on the mountain slope when one pauses with pilgrims from different directions for refreshment and for learning the dangers which lie on the journey ahead. It is only the actual voyagers on the spiritual paths, the sages and saints in all the traditions, who simultaneously experience the oneness and uniqueness of each creature, and who stress the ineffability of what they have experienced on the mountain peak while being grateful for all the images, forms, icons, scriptures, prayers and rosaries they used as helpful aids on their journeys.
One may wonder if future pilgrims nourished in the global culture would still feel constrained to label themselves as Hindus or Christians. Even if they do, they will be Hindus and Christians of very different sorts from the ones in the past. Lest we should think this is all too romantic, we have already had models of such with great beings (mahatmas) with large perspectives: J. Krishnamurti, Shri Aurobindo, Thomas Merton, Father Thomas Berry, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, to name only a few. Roaming in many landscapes, physical and cultural, one can gather much insight.
Looking at Ganga and Jordan from an Aeroplane: We can count on, or at least hope, that the holdback religions will give way to world spirituality and world theology. I am occasionally criticized by reviewers who are offended by what they regard to be ‘spilling Ganges water into the Jordan.’ It is certainly true that my eyes have been affected by the light reflected from the Ganga. It is also true that the world I live in now and most of the people I encounter have been more influenced by teachings either spoken loudly or whispered on the banks of the Jordan. If the ancient texts are going to have contemporary relevance, both the Ganga and the Jordan will have to be kept simultaneously in view. I could not have arrived where I am now without flying over many rivers, including the Ganga and the Jordan. A view from an aeroplane surely does reveal different aspects of our planet than does the view from a camel by the Jordan or from a bullock cart by the Ganga.
It surprises me that so many people who are convinced of the universal and objective nature of scientific knowledge work so diligently to find in the latest discoveries of the sciences an exclusive vindication of statements in the Vedas or in the Qur’an or of dogmas accepted by the Church Councils at some stage in history. That we are Hindus or Jews or Christians largely depends on where we happened to have been born. It is extremely difficult to believe that truth suddenly changes across a border defined by a river or a mountain range which correspond to political boundaries of past or present empires. I do not have any rigorous data about this, but I imagine that easily 98% or even more people in the world sooner or later – especially at the time of marriages or funerals – revert to the religion which they inherited from their forefathers, with minor variations on the theme. This is quite understandable for, just like the ordinary languages, much of our emotional-religious language is acquired in early childhood and we make sense of the deeper religious aspirations with the aid of these acquired categories of feeling and thought. It is very likely that people who vehemently adhere to one creed or dogma would equally vehemently adhere to another if they had been born in another religious context. The recognition that others exist, as thinking, feeling and autonomous beings sometimes engaged with ultimate concerns, is a step towards freedom from self-occupation and self-importance, a step of crucial import in spiritual awakening.
Attunement to the spiritual dimension surely is an attunement to a quality of vibration, not exclusively to a particular form of the instrument producing the vibration. It has not been easy for some to accept that one can have a transfusion of blood from those whose skin colour is different from their own. It is much harder to allow the possibility of spiritual nourishment underneath religious and racial skins. In my own case, I was born a Hindu. There is much that is good and wise in the Hindu tradition. I am certain I could have been dealt a worse heritage. But the Hindus do not have and cannot have a monopoly on Truth or Wisdom or Insight. One wishes to and strives to grow up, a part of which is to develop a connection with a level of unitive consciousness indicated by the remark of Maharishi Ramana, “There are no others.” This is not an elimination of others in self-occupation, but seeing through the otherness in a integrative perception. It will sadden me if I am merely a Hindu at my death, restricted to my own selfhood defined by contingencies of history or geography. The past is always with us and in us, but future vision needs to be based on some ability to fly with freedom from the past.
“Sir,” answered the woman, “I can see you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you people claim that Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship God.” Jesus told her, “Believe me, woman, an hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… Yet an hour is coming, and is already here, when those who are real worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth. Indeed, it is just such worshippers the Father seeks. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and truth.” (John 4:19-24).
In spiritual matters what is most relevant is how the quality of the person is affected by whatever theology or philosophy or ritual one finds helpful. The person cannot be left out of these concerns, neither oneself nor others. Inter-faith dialogues are good and possibly helpful, inter-pilgrim dialogues are likely to be much more fruitful. We need to be careful not to fix these faiths and the faithful in them. Surely the important thing is to see and to relate with the person behind the faith. It is not they are Jews and we are Jains, it is more that some of us have a Jewish background and heritage and some others of us have a Jain formation. At our best, we would wish to be related to the Ultimate or to God who all our sages say is neither Jewish nor Jain. If we are permanently restricted to relate to each other only as a Hindu to a Christian, and not as a person to a person, I wonder if we can ever relate as a person to the Person.
As and when religions do their job of insisting on the primacy of the person over any system – theological, metaphysical, economic or political – they are naturally occupied with the cultivation of wise and compassionate people. When such people engage in science, or any other activity, they are naturally concerned for the welfare of all beings, including the earth – not only as generalizations, but also in concrete relationships. As we draw inspiration and instruction from the wise sages and prophets of the past, we shall not be occupied with only our personal salvation, but also for the enlightenment of those who will welcome the dawn with song when we are no longer here. The development of a comprehensive person, one who is closer and closer to the First Person Universal, less ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’ and more as ‘I AM,’ is a calling of all religions, so that we can awaken from the dead, as St. Paul beautifully said (Ephesians 4:13), to “mature manhood, measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ.”
However, dogmatic churches and institutions have a strong hold and much vested interest in preventing a free flow of ideas. Many years ago I had written a book called The Yoga of the Christ.3 This was a loving look at the Gospel According to St. John, and somewhat to my surprise it was translated into several languages. I had such a pitiful request from the Greek publisher to allow him to change the title, for as he said, “The Orthodox Church will have our publishing house burned down if we published a book with a title containing both ‘Yoga’ and ‘Christ.'”
There are signs everywhere of pilgrims on the spiritual paths, and even cultures on the large finding something of value in the other – not only because the other is much like us in many aspects and at many levels, but precisely because the other is different from us, a unique manifestation of the spirit, and can teach us perspectives which have been excluded by our specific cultural conditioning. At a cultural level, the turning of the East to the West has been going on for some time and hardly needs to be elaborated in the context of India. But there is also a serious turning in the West to the East, felicitously expressed in the title of a book by Harvey Cox, Turning East.
I can give an example from a personal experience. In 1963, while a graduate student in Physics at the University of Toronto, I was involved with a few friends in organizing a symposium on various aspects of religion. We had many well-known scholars, some of whom – such as Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Fry and Emile Fackenheim later became great luminaries in a variety of fields. Given our limited budget, we could not invite speakers from outside the Toronto-Boston-Montreal zone. However, this is not a negligible region from the point of view of intellectual competence. But we could not find anyone willing and able to speak about mysticism. It was very difficult to find in the bookstores anything about or by any of the many very great mystics in Christianity, not to speak of other religions. A minister of one of the large Protestant sects in Toronto even went so far as to say, “Mysticism has nothing to do with Christianity.” When I had the temerity to mention the names of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avilla, Meister Eckhart and several others, he blurted out something which he immediately wished to retract, “If mysticism exists in Christianity, it is just a Catholic heresy.” Nowadays, one cannot go to any religion oriented bookstore in Toronto or any other city in the Western world, including in the small bookstore in the basement of the church whose minister had offered the above insight, which is not chock-full of books on mystics and mysticism. There has been a marked shift in interest towards inner spiritual experiences. In the process, no doubt aided by the exposure of some Western pilgrims to the Eastern traditions, there has been a joyous discovery or re-discovery of the inner dimensions of Christianity.
The Lame and the Blind: “It is no exaggeration to say,” remarked A. N. Whitehead, “that the future course of history depends on the decision of this generation as to the relations between religion and science.” The future travellers would also have to be very careful what sort of religion and what sort of science they are going to try to relate. It is my expectation that Indian scientists and scholars of religion, even more so the sages, will have a great deal to contribute to an understanding of a sane relationship between science and religion. Here, after some preliminary remarks, I shall discuss only one issue in order to show that science-religion relationship cannot be understood without a great deal of clarity about religion itself, as well as about science.
One can imagine that science simply means knowledge, as it does etymologically, and that any reasonable and systematic study of phenomena is science. It is easy to forget that there are certain basic presuppositions of scientific inquiry in the modern (post-sixteenth century) world, essentially derived from a particular stage in the European and Christian philosophical and religious history, which set modern science apart not only from the sciences of China and India but also from the ancient European sciences. These presuppositions involve the very essence of what makes any culture distinctive from another, namely issues dealing with the place and meaning of human beings in the cosmos, the nature and aim of knowledge, the relevance and importance of external experiments and internal experiences as providing data and evidence, the value and significance of faith in the development of science, and the like. Since the East – with all the immense variety derived from the ancient, vast and at times mighty cultures of Egypt, Persia, India, China, Korea, and Japan, and now comprising nearly three fifths of the human race – has several very different perspectives on all of these basic questions, it is not surprising that the Eastern views of science are also very different from the Western view, in spite of the fact there is something basically trans-national and trans-cultural about science. In part, it is an acknowledgment of the importance of science and technology in the modern world that there are different perspectives on them, for it is only on relatively unimportant matters that people can easily agree.
It is not very easy to come to an agreement on what a phenomenon is, and certainly not on what is reasonable, and therefore on what science is. For example, a question can be raised whether a systematic internal investigation of various subtle energies in the human body is a scientific study. Is Yoga a science? The hesitation of the Western intellectuals in agreeing with this is understandable, because science is not just any reasonable and systematic study of phenomenon, as one may be tempted to think. It is a particular kind of study which is based on identifiable philosophical assumptions and worldviews and which requires external evidence, independent of the level of spiritual development of the researcher and subject to repeatability, prediction and control.
These considerations and difficulties, involving the nature of reason and the specific rationality underlying scientific procedures, are germane to the extremely important question of the relationship of science and Spirit. Of course, it is even more difficult to clearly define what Spirit is. However, one remark may be made here: traditional knowledge asserts that Spirit is higher than and prior to body-mind, sometimes for simplicity called only body. Even though the various spiritual traditions may express it differently, they can all understand and endorse the essence of ‘In the beginning was the Spirit.’
As between different religions, so between religion and science. We need to search for the best aspirations and the most universal truths of both. There is a remark of Einstein that “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”4 This sounds so congenial and heart-warming that one is inclined to accept it with enthusiasm. But a look at this and a parallel remark of Ishvarakrishna in the Samkhyakarika from the second century BCE reveals some quite interesting contrasts between the Eastern and Western perspectives on knowledge and science. In speaking about Purusha and Prakriti – which we may translate as Spirit and Nature – Ishvarakrishna says, “Purusha without Prakriti is lame, Prakriti without Purusha is blind.”
The two statements are so widely separated in time, space and cultures – and so clearly from independent and seminal minds – that we should celebrate the happy similarity, but if we look at the two statements closely, we shall discover a whole world of difference. Whatever else we understand by the metaphors of ‘blind’ and ‘lame’, we certainly associate insight, clarity, light, illumination with the opposite of being blind. All the great teachers say in one way or another that we have eyes but we do not see, and that we have ears but we do not hear. To see clearly is a mark of wisdom. Being lame, on the other hand, implies inability to act, lack of will, incapacity, lack of movement and of involvement.
Therefore we can understand Einstein to say that vision – insight, wisdom, clarity, illumination – comes from science, but motivation, action, will and emotion come from religion. For Ishvarakrishna, on the other hand, insight (prajñau), knowledge (jñauna), wisdom and enlightenment (bodhi) belong to Purusha. Action, movement and emotion, the whole realm of gross and subtle nature, belong to Prakriti.
We would all agree, including Einstein if he were here and willing to engage with us using the same language, that the whole realm of science has to do with Prakriti which literally means ‘Nature,’ which is what the natural sciences try to study. Religion on the other hand is understood to deal with the Spirit and with what is supernatural. This raises some interesting questions about what we understand by science and by religion and of our expectations of these two, and about the contrasts in the views of the East and of the West.
How do we reconcile these two similar sounding statements from two very great minds? A paradox can lead us to conclude that only one side must be right and the other wrong. This kind of conclusion may be warranted in matters involving ordinary contradictions, but a profound paradox does not provide a contradiction to be removed by choosing one side or the other. Such paradoxes often remind us about the limitations of language, logic and thought when it concerns really important things. Niels Bohr used to say that the opposite of a great truth is another very great truth.
In the East, the basic diagnosis of the human situation is that our whole predicament arises from ignorance (avidyau). The root cause of all our difficulties is ignorance. From that arises, according to Vedanta, the confusion between the Self and the non-Self, or between nitya (eternal) and anitya (transient) and a clinging to the world of anitya. Thus arise fear and fantasy and dukkha (suffering), mauyau (illusion), asmitau (egoism). Gautama Buddha, Shankara, Patañjali and all other great teachers of India have regarded the root of all our problems to be ignorance. If we know rightly, right action will naturally follow. If insight leads to and controls action and guides it, then there is right order – both internally and externally. In other words, when Purusha – consciousness, spirit, seeing (which is the sole function of Purusha the Seer, according to Patañjali) – sees and leads Prakriti, there is awakening, enlightenment, freedom, moksha, nirvana, and the like. Otherwise, a person is bound by dukkha, mauyau, asmitau and kleshas (obstacles).
In the Western Biblical religions, the situation is quite different. The basic human problem is not regarded to be ignorance, but rather self-will. In general, from the Biblical point of view, to say that we are waiting to engage in right action until we know rightly is mere self-justification. God has revealed what needs to be known; we know what the right action is. Our problem is that we do not want to obey the commandments and undertake right action. We want to follow and act according to our own self-will, rather than God’s will. “Nothing burneth in hell except self-will,” says Theologia Germanica (chapt. 34). The whole choiceless agony of the cross – the way of the Christ – is in his last words in the Garden of Gethsamane: “If it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Yet, not my will, but thine be done” (Mark 14:36).
In the East, in order to remedy the general human situation the need is for true knowledge because right knowledge leads to right action. In the West, the need is for right action – in obedience to the will of God; that is the definition of faith according to St. Paul – for right action leads to right knowledge. When Vivekananda speaks of bringing science and religion together, for him, unlike for Einstein, science has to do with the dimension of action, and yoga with that of true perception and insight.
At least on this score Einstein very much belongs to the Biblical Tradition and it is not surprising that he should place religion on the side of action, movement, motivation and the like. Insight for him belongs on the side of science, a study of the dance of Prakriti, and itself is a part of Prakriti. For Ishvarakrishna, insight is obtained through the practical spiritual discipline of yoga. Following the usual practice, we can extend the usage of yoga to include any spiritual path. which can happily include science as a spiritual path for those who undertake it with that motivation. Then one would say that in science and spirituality we have two different kinds of knowledge or insight, not knowledge on one side and faith on the other, except in quite esoteric sense of faith which is subtle and worthy. There is one kind of knowledge in the sciences and another kind in spiritual disciplines such as Yoga, Sufism, Zen, or Prayer of the Heart. However, the nature of insight, of knowledge, and of the related perceptions, in the domain of science is quite different from that in the realm of spirituality. One can take examples from the actual practice of science and the practice of spirituality; but these cannot be pursued here in detail.5
The purpose of all spiritual disciplines – which are not the same as religions – is to relate us with the spiritual (which is to say non-prakriti, non-material, including subtle material) dimensions. This tuning into the subtler dimensions is possible only by cleansing our ordinary perceptions, and by quieting the mind. The requirement of meditation as well as of any serious prayer is to be present with stillness and a silence of the body, mind and the emotions, so that one might hear a rose petal fall, the sound of the thoughts arising, and the silence between thoughts. The arising of thoughts and emotions is a part of the play of Prakriti, and watching this play with complete equanimity, without being disturbed, belongs to Purusha. Without the presence of the seeing Purusha, Prakriti is blind, lost in agitated movement and action; but Purusha needs Prakriti for purposive activity. Alert without agitation, a centred-self without being self-centred, a sage does nothing, nothing of his own or for himself, but everything is accomplished. As Christ said, “I am not myself the source of the words I speak: it is the Father who dwells in me doing His own work” (John 14:10). Elsewhere, the scripture says, “The Lord shall fight for you; what you need is to be still” (Exodus 14:14).
The core of all spiritual practice is freedom from the selfish, isolated and isolating ego so that one can see more and more clearly and be related with all more and more lovingly and selflessly. There can be no significance to insight, wisdom or truth unless it expresses itself in love and compassion. The sages in all the great traditions have said, in myriad ways, that Love is a fundamental quality of the cosmos. Not only a quality but a basic constituent of Ultimate Reality. The Rig Veda (X,129.4) says, “In the Beginning arose Love.” And the New Testament affirms: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” (1 John 4:16) . The search for this great Love at the very heart of the cosmos is both the beginning and the end of the spiritual paths, expressed as service, mercy, compassion and ultimately as oneness with all other beings. In the very last canto of the Paradisio in theDivine Comedy Dante expresses his vision of the highest heaven:
There my will and desire
Were one with Love;
The love that moves
The sun and the other stars.
The great traditions, in wondrously different ways, have maintained that the Highest Reality – variously labeled ‘God,’ ‘First principle,’ ‘Original Mind,’ Brahman (literally, The Vastness) or simply ‘That’ – is Truth and is Love. In our own days, Mahatma Gandhi maintained, almost like a practical spiritual equation, less to be preached and more to be lived, that God = Truth = Love. Theologia Germanica (chapter 31) says, “As God is simple goodness, inner knowledge and light, he is at the same time also our will, love, righteousness and truth, the innermost of all virtues.”
The realization of this truth, vouchsafed to the most insightful sages in all lands and cultures, is not something that can be abstracted, bracketed or packaged. This insight needs to be continually regained, lived and celebrated. Only when and wherever this realization is made concrete, is there an abundant life of the Spirit. Spiritual disciplines are all concerned with integration and wholeness; above all with the integration of Truth and Love. Love is required to know Truth, and knowledge of Truth is expressed by love. “The knower of truth loves me ardently,” says Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (7:17) but also, “Only through constant love can I be known and seen as I really am, and entered into” (11:54). I believe it was Meister Eckhart who said, “What we receive in contemplation, we give out in love.” A more contemporary remark is by Archimandrite Vasileios of Mount Athos: “For if our truth is not revealed in love, then it is false. And if our love does not flow from the truth, then it is not lasting.”6
Of course, the search for Love can become merely a personal wish for comfort and security, just as the search for Truth can become largely a technological manipulation of nature in the service of the military or of industry – of fear and greed. Whenever truth and love are separated from each other, the result is sentimentality or dry intellectualism in which knowledge is divorced from compassion. Partiality always carries seeds of violence and fear in it. Thus in the name of ‘our loving God’ many people have been killed, and many destructive weapons have been developed by a commitment to ‘pure knowledge.’ But such is not the best of humanity – in science or in religion. Integrated human beings in every culture and in every age have searched for both Truth and Love, insight and responsibility, wisdom and compassion. Above the mind, the soul seeks the whole, and is thus able to connect with wisdom and compassion.
How should we now recast the statement of Einstein or of Ishvarakrishna? Should we say, for example, that ‘Insight without compassionate action is lame, and that compassion without wisdom is blind?’ After all, all the sages have said that true insight naturally flowers into compassion and love, like the fragrance of a rose. To say that a Buddha – one who is discerning – is without compassion is an oxymoron.
Any true reconciliation of science and spirituality is not found in a coexistence of abstractions. Spiritual truth – unlike the scientific one – is always a matter of direct perception which is whole and precisely because of that reveals ‘Minute Particulars’ in the sense of William Blake or Patañjali who says in Yoga Sutras (1:49), “The knowledge based on inference and testimony is different from direct knowledge [obtained in the higher states of consciousness] because it pertains to a particular object.” This is why, the Biblical traditions have tenaciously held to the experience of God who is a Unique Person – or Purusha Vishesha in the language of Yoga Sutras (1: 24). It may even be that in still higher states of consciousness, perception shifts from that of minute particulars embedded in wholeness to that of Undifferentiated Oneness so that what remains is Pure Seeing without any thing seen apart from it. Whatever be the experience in these exalted states on the mountain top as it were, spiritual vision always remains a matter of direct perception.
Einstein’s own view of God is not based on an I-Thou encounter of concrete and minute particulars. He finds it impossible to reconcile science and faith in a personal God. He says, for example,
The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God…. In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up the source of fear and hope which in the past placed such a vast power in the hands of priests. In their labours they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True and the Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure, a more difficult but an incomparably more worthy task.7
Whatever difficulties Einstein may find with the notion of a personal God, spiritual perception is not of the same kind as a philosophic or scientific generalization or abstraction. Pascal is truer to the Biblical understanding of God whose experience led him to forever keep on his person the declaration ‘God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – not of the philosophers and scholars’ because for him God is a matter of experience, not an inference from a philosophical proposition or a scientific hypothesis.
Both the direct spiritual super-sensuous perceptions and reasoned scientific theorizing and experimentation, and corresponding philosophic abstractions, can in principle reside in the same person – however rare the actual instances of this may be. It is in the soul of the same whole person that a reconciliation needs to take place – so that there can be purposive action without self-centredness, individuality without egoism, and oneness with the all without loss of uniqueness.
Coming back to our paradox, could we say that ‘Religion without scientific knowledge is ineffective, but science without spiritual perception is insignificant’?
Above all, more than to any form whatsoever, scientific or religious, we must turn or return to the presence of the Mystery. Let me bring again a quote from Einstein:
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science… To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of true religiousness.8
Let us not conclude for the conclusion or the Truth is in Vastness beyond all formulations and forms. In being alive to the search one is alive. Openness to the Sacred always calls for sacrifice, primarily of one’s smallness, which is buttressed by an exclusive identification with a particular religion or nation or creed. A person who occupies neither this place nor that – physically or intellectually – may be uneasy, but this is the price of being free and in movement.
The only one realization which is needed is that there is a subtle world, and that I am seen from that world. My existence now, here, is in the light of the subtler world. To realize the presence of the subtle world and to live in the light of that vision requires a continual impartial re-visiting of oneself, which in its turn requires a sacrificing of self-occupation. What is needed is the bringing of the religious mind (which is by definition quiet, compassionate, comprehensive and innocent) to bear on all matters. Not only to science, but also to technology, arts, government, education and other affairs.
And the religious mind – which is the mind which is suffused with a sense of the Sacred – is cultivated in an individual soul. It is not a matter of bringing knowledge systems or abstractions, such as science and religion or theology, together. What is needed is a cultivation of a religious mind. Without a transformation in the quality of the academic mind, the same old parochial and fragmented mind will write histories and commentaries in the science-religion arena rather than on other subjects. A transformation of the inquirers is needed. Unless the researchers are transformed, not much will be gained by a change in the field of their inquiries.
The new paradigm is always the perennial one. It is possible to have a level of consciousness-conscience that sees the uniqueness of each being as well as their oneness with the All. This is largely a matter of metaphysical and spiritual transformation which requires an on-going sacrificing of one’s smallness – even more in the heart than in the mind. The new forms will naturally be different. Truth has no history; expressions of Truth do. The new dawn, when we will no longer be there to look at it with the usual eyes, will bring a new song and a new word. But the Essential Word shall abide, often heard in the silence between words.
1 Los Angeles Times “Global Viewpoint” Interview by Editor Nathan Gardels with Harvard Prof. Samuel Huntington, author of Clash of Civilizations.
2 Wilfred Cantwell Smith, “Idolatry in Comparative Perspective”, in John Hick and Paul F. Knitter, eds. The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, U.S.A., 1987; pp. 553-68.
3 R. Ravindra, The Yoga of the Christ, Element Books, England, 1990; re-issued in 1998 by Inner Traditions International in U.S.A. under a misleading title of Christ the Yogi.
4 In his essay called “Science and Religion” in Ideas and Opinions, Crown Publishers, New York, 1954, p. 46.
5 Some of these issues are discussed in more detail in my Science and the Sacred, Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Chennai, India, and Wheaton, Illinois, U.S.A.
6 Hymn of Entry ; trans. Elizabeth Briere; St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 1984, p. 26.
7 “Science and Religion,” op. cit.
8 Ideas and Opinions, op. cit.