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February - March 2006


Modern Science and Ancient Eastern Wisdom

by Hemant Patel

In order to understand the parallels between Modern Science and Eastern Mysticism it is first necessary to understand the seventeenth century philosophy of Rene Descartes on nature and the classical physics of Isaac Newton.

Rene Descartes based his view of nature on a fundamental division between mind (res cogitans) and matter (res extensa) This extreme formulation of the spirit/matter dualism allowed scientists to treat matter as dead and completely separate from live beings. The material world was seen as a multitude of different objects assembled in a huge machine. Isaac Newton constructed his mechanics on the philosophy of Descartes and made it the foundation of classical physics. According to Newton all physical phenomena took place on a three dimensional absolute space - always at rest and unchangeable. All changes in the physical world were, therefore, attributed to a separate dimension called time. Time was seen as absolute, having no connection with the material world and flowing smoothly from the past, through the present to the future.

The Newtonian model of the universe was paralleled by the image of a monarchical God who ruled the world from above by imposing his divine law on it. In Newton’s view, God had created in the beginning, the material particles, the forces between them and the fundamental laws of motion and then set into motion the entire universe and it has continued to run ever since, like a machine, governed by his eternal and immutable laws. All that happened in the world, therefore, had a definite cause and effect pattern. The future of any part of the system could – in principle – be predicted with absolute certainty if all its details were known. The sub-atomic level of matter was seen as the exclusive domain of God and, therefore, not subject to further scientific analysis.

The philosophy of Descartes had great influence on the thought process of individuals in those days and that thinking pattern is perceived even today. Descartes famous sentence ‘Cogito ergo sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I exist’- has led individuals to equate their identity solely with their mind, instead of their whole organism. As a consequence of this division, most individuals are aware of themselves as isolated egos existing ‘inside’ their bodies. The mind has been separated from the body and given the futile task of controlling it, thus causing an apparent conflict between the conscious will and the involuntary instincts. Each individual has been split up further into a large number of compartments, according to his or her activities, talents, feelings, religious beliefs, etc., which are engaged in endless conflicts generating continuous metaphysical confusion and frustration.

This inner fragmentation mirrors our view of the world ‘outside’. The natural environment is treated as a multitude of separate objects and events only to be exploited by different interest groups. The fragmented view is further extended to society that is split into different nations, races, religious and political groups. The belief that all these fragments – within us, in our environment and in our society – are really separate can be seen as the essential reason for the present series of social, political, ecological and cultural crises. It has alienated us from nature and from our fellow human beings. It has brought a grossly unjust distribution of natural resources creating economic and political disorder, an ever escalating wave of violence, both spontaneous and institutionalised, and an ugly, polluted environment in which life has often become physically and mentally unhealthy.

It is fascinating to see how modern science, which had its origins in the ‘Cartesian’ philosophy and the Newtonian physics, now attempts to overcome the fragmentation of our thought process and lead us back to the idea of ‘Universal Unity’ as expressed by the ancient Eastern philosophers.

The birth of modern science was the result of an extraordinary intellectual feat of one man – Albert Einstein. Einstein strongly believed in nature’s inherent harmony and his deepest concern throughout his scientific life was to find a unified foundation of physics. His quest led him to formulate the Relativity theory and the Quantum theory. These theories, which form the bedrock of modern science, have brought about a radical revision of the classical worldview.

According to the theory of Relativity, space is not three-dimensional and time is not a separate entity. Both are intimately connected and form a four-dimensional continuum, ‘space-time’. One cannot, therefore, talk about space without talking about time and vice versa. Furthermore, there is no universal flow of time as Newton believed. Different observers will order events differently in time if they move with different velocities to the observed events. For example, two events that are seen as occurring simultaneously by one observer may occur in different temporal sequences for other observers. All measurements and descriptions involving space and time, therefore, relate to the observer’s own experience with the environment and lose their absolute significance. For example, a glass half full of water can also be described as a glass half empty. Both views, although diametrically opposite, are correct. All arguments in our daily lives, therefore, are based on personal experiences that have no fundamental basis.

According to the Quantum theory, matter is never quiescent, but always is a state of motion. Macroscopically, the material objects around us may seem passive and inert, but when we magnify such a ‘dead’ piece of stone or metal we see that it is full of activity. The closer we look at it the more alive it appears. All the material objects in our environment are made of atoms which link up with each other in various ways to form an enormous variety of molecular structures. These structures are not rigid and motionless, but oscillate according to their temperature and in harmony with the thermal vibrations of their environment. In the vibrating atoms the electrons are bound to the atomic nuclei by strong nuclear forces and when confined to a minute volume they race about with unimaginable velocities.

Modern physics thus pictures the universe not as passive and inert, but as alive, dancing and in vibrating motion, whose rhythmic patterns are determined by the molecular, atomic and nuclear structures of all matters within it. Since motion and change are the essential properties of all matter, the forces causing the motion are not outside matter, as in the classical Newtonian view, but are an intrinsic property of matter. An atomic particle is full of energy that gives it motion and motion is inextricably linked with time. Einstein demonstrated the energy content of a particle by the famous equation e = mc2, where the amount of energy contained in a particle equals the particle mass, m, times c2, the square of the speed of light

In parallel with Einstein’s modern science, the ancient philosophers of the East saw the universe as one inseparable entity, intrinsically dynamic - ever in motion, alive, organic, spiritual and material at the same time. Thus the Eastern image of the Divine is not that of a ruler who directs the world from above, but of a principle that controls everything from within:

He who dwelling in all things,
Yet is other than all thing,
Whom all things do not know,
Whose body all things are,
Who controls all things from within –
He is your soul, the Inner Controller,
The Immortal

In ordinary life we are not aware of the ‘Universal Oneness’ of all things but divide the world into separate objects and events. This division is, of course, useful and necessary to cope with our everyday environment, but it is not a fundamental feature of reality. It is an abstraction devised by our discriminating and categorizing intellect. To believe that our abstract concepts of separate ‘things’ and ‘events’ are realities of nature is an illusion. Hindus and Buddhists tell us that this illusion is based on avidya or ignorance, produced by a mind under the spell of maya.

Maya does not mean that the world is an illusion, as is often wrongly stated. The illusion merely lies in our point of view if we think that the shapes and structures, things and events around us are realities of nature instead of realizing that they are concepts of our measuring and categorizing minds. In the Hindu view of nature, all forms are relative, fluid and ever changing maya, conjured up by the ‘Great Magician’ of the divine play. The world of maya changes continuously, because the divine play referred to as lila, changes all the time. The force behind the divine play or lila is the force of Karma.

Karma is the active principle of the play, the total universe in action, where everything is dynamically connected with everything else, as Krishna says:

Karma is the force of creation, wherefrom all things have their life... If I did not engage in action, these worlds would perish.

The meaning of Karma, like that of maya, has been brought down from its original cosmic level to the human level where it has acquired a psychological sense. As long as our view of the world is fragmented, as long as we are under the spell of maya and think that we are separate from our environment and can act independently, we are bound by Karma. Being free from the bond of Karma means to realize the unity and harmony of all nature, including ourselves, and to act accordingly. In other words, it means having a proactive attitude towards nature rather than being subject to its forces and slavishly responding to it. The Bhagavad-Gita is very clear on this point:

All actions take place in time by the interweaving of the forces of nature,but man lost in selfish delusion thinks that he himself is the actor. But man who knows the relation between the forces of Nature and actions, sees how some forces of nature work upon other forces of Nature, and becomes not their slave….

Following the law of Karma, the question that is constantly being asked by us in our daily lives is ‘What course of action should I take in a given situation?’ People apply all sorts of standards - social, political, religious, moral, ethical, witchcraft, astrology and anything to satisfy their ego - to answer this pertinent question. The best answer probably lies in the teachings of Don Juan -

Any path is only a path and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you…. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question… Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t it is of no use.

In the great battle of Mahabharata, Lord Krishna, disguised as Arjuna’s charioteer, drives the chariot right between the two armies and in this dramatic setting of the battlefield he starts to revel to Arjuna the most profound truths of Hinduism. As the Lord speaks, the realistic background of the war between the two families soon fades away and it becomes clear that the battle of Arjuna is actually the spiritual battle of human nature, the battle of the warrior in search of enlightenment. Krishna himself advises Arjuna:

Kill therefore with the sword of wisdom the doubt born of ignorance that lies in thy heart. Be one in self-harmony in Yoga, and arise, great warrior, arise.

The basis of Krishna’s spiritual instruction is the idea that the multitude of things and events around us are but different manifestations of the same ultimate reality. This reality is called Brahman - the ultimate reality, the ‘soul’, or inner essence, of all things. It is infinite, unborn, imperishable and beyond all concepts. It cannot be comprehended by the intellect, nor can it be adequately described in words.

Yet people want to talk about this reality and the Hindu sages with their characteristic penchant for myth have pictured Brahman as divine and talk about it in mythological language. The various aspects of the Divine have been given names of the various gods worshipped by the Hindus but the scriptures make it clear that all these gods are but reflections of the one ultimate reality.

The principle aim of the Eastern mystical tradition, therefore, is to gain direct experience of the Brahman. This is done through meditation. The Sanskrit term for meditation – Samadhi – means literally ‘mental equilibrium’. It refers to the balanced and tranquil state of mind in which the basic unity of the universe is experienced.

Entering into the Samadhi of purity, one obtains all penetrating insight that enables one to become conscious of the absolute oneness of the universe.

The dynamic nature of the universe can be observed in the minute world of atoms and nuclei as well as in the vast cosmos. Through a powerful telescope we observe the universe in ceaseless motion. Rotating clouds of hydrogen gas contract to form stars, heating up in the process until they become burning fires in the sky. When they have reached that stage, they still continue to rotate, some ejecting material into space that spirals outwards and condenses into planets circling around the star. After billions of years, when most of its hydrogen fuel is used up, a star expands, and then contracts again in the final gravitational collapse. This collapse may involve gigantic explosions, and may even turn the star into a black hole. All these activities – the formation of stars out of interstellar gas clouds, their contraction and subsequent expansion, and their final collapse - can actually be observed somewhere in the skies.

The idea of a periodically expanding and contracting universe, involving a time scale and space of enormous proportions has been well understood and described in the Hindu myth of lila –

One becoming the many and the many returning into the One.

The Hindu sages pictured the universe as periodically expanding and contracting and gave the name Kalpa to the unimaginable time span between the beginning and the end of one creation.

In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna describes the rhythmic play of creation in the following words:

At the end of the night of time all things return to my nature; and
when the new day of time begins I bring them again into light.

Thus through my nature I bring forth all creations and this rolls around in the circle of time. But I am not bound by the vast work of creation.

I am and I watch the drama of works.

I watch and in its work of creation nature brings forth all that moves and moves not: and thus the revolutions of the world go round.

According to the Quantum field theory all interactions between constituents of matter take place through emission and absorptions of virtual particles. These subatomic particles do not exist as isolated entities but as integral parts of an inseparable network of interactions. These interactions involve a ceaseless flow of energy, manifesting as the exchange of particles; a dynamic interplay on which particles are created and destroyed without end in continual variation of energy patterns.

More than that, the dance of creation and destruction is the very basis of existence of matter. The interactions of particles give rise to the stable structures that build up the material world, which again do not remain static, but oscillate in rhythmic movements. The whole universe is thus engaged in an endless motion and activity, in a continual cosmic dance of energy.

All things are aggregations of atoms that dance and by their movements produce sounds. When the rhythm of the dance changes, the sound it produces also changes. Each atom perpetually sings it song, and the sound, at every moment, creates dense and subtle forms.

The similarity of this view to that of modern physics becomes particularly striking when we remember that sound is a wave with certain frequency which changes when the sound does, and that particles are also waves with frequencies proportional to their energies. Accordingly, in the Field theory, each particle does indeed ‘perpetually sing its song’, producing rhythmic patterns of energy (the virtual particles) in ‘dense and subtle forms’.

The Eastern mystics have a dynamic view of the universe similar to the modern physics and consequently it is not surprising that they, too, have used the image of the dance to convey their intuition of nature. The metaphor of the cosmic dance has found its most profound and beautiful expression in Hinduism in the image of the dancing god Shiva.

In the night of Brahman, Nature is inert, and cannot dance till Shiva wills it: He rises from his rapture, and dancing sends through inert matter pulsing waves of awakening sound, and so matter also dances, appearing as a glory round him. Dancing, He sustains its manifold phenomena. In the fullness of time, still dancing, He destroys all forms and names by fire and gives new rest.

The Dance of Shiva symbolizes not only the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction, but also the daily rhythm of birth and death that is seen in Hindu mysticism as the basis of all existence. At the same time, Shiva reminds us that the manifold forms in the world are maya – not fundamental, but illusory and ever-changing – as he keeps creating and dissolving them in the ceaseless flow of his dance. As Heinrich Zimmer has put it

His gesture wild and full of grace precipitate the cosmic illusion; his flying arms and legs and the swaying of his torso produce the continuous creation-destruction of the universe, death exactly balancing birth, annihilation the end of every coming-forth.

Lord Shiva, the Lord of all dancers, is seen dancing within a circle, symbolising eternal universe - without the beginning or end. The upper right hand of the god holds a drum to symbolise the primal sound of creation. The upper left bears a tongue of flame, the element of destruction. The balance of the two hands represents the dynamic balance of creation and destruction in the universe, accentuated further by the Dancer’s calm and detached face in the centre of the two hands, in which the polarity of creation and destruction is dissolved and transcended.

The second right hand is raised in the sign of ‘do not fear’, symbolising maintenance, protection and peace, while the remaining left hand points down to uplifted foot that symbolises release from the spell of maya.

Lord Shiva is pictured as dancing on a demon - the symbol of human ignorance - implying that we must first conquer our own ignorance before liberation can be attained.

Taking as a bow the great weapon of the Upanishad, One should put upon it an arrow sharpened by meditation.Stretching it with a thought directed to the essence of That, Penetrate that Imperishable as the mark, my friend.
The Upanishads

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