Thursday, April 4, 2013

Hinduism Is Science-proof and a Scientific Way of Life

Hinduism Is Science-proof and a Scientific Way of Life

God is often a witness in court proceedings the world over. This is especially so when statements are made under oath with a hand on a holy book. But only in India, God can be both witness and litigant. That Ram Lalla filed a case claiming property in Ayodhya would have surprised secular societies elsewhere, but in India it is routine and unremarkable.

Hinduism Science Proof

From this it might be tempting to argue that Christianity is intrinsically rational while Hinduism is not. That is not strictly true. Both depend ultimately on faith and, indeed, this is true of all religions. If Christianity looks different today it is not because it is inherently more reasonable, but that science forced it to become so.

As Hinduism is an idol-centric religion, its core principles are of no consequence to science. Christianity is a creation-centric religion. This is why it had to oppose modern science which, too, is creation-centric. The latter has taken strong positions on how life began, how day became night, and how our beings are energised. This is what compelled science and religion to go on a collision course in the western world. From the 16th century onwards, they were like two monster trucks driving in opposite directions on a one-way street.

Here is an example of how an important Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, might regard modern science. There is a chapter of the Gita is entitled, Sankhya Yoga. The word "sankhya" means "counting," "enumeration," or "analysis." In the Gita there is a simple form of "analysis" that classifies matter into eight constituent elements: earth, water, fire, air, space, mind, intelligence and ego. This is essentially a periodic table and an excellent example of early science or what used to be called natural philosophy. Even before the Gita, Hindu thinkers had taken this theme of "counting" and developed it into one of the six traditional philosophies of ancient India called Saankhya. From the perspective of Bhagavad Gita, it is fair to say that modern science is simply a highly detailed analysis of matter and so, in this sense, there is no conflict between the Gita and science. Modern science is simply more of what ancient Hindu thinkers had been doing for millennia, but where the Gita would disagree with modern science is that modern science does not go far enough in its analysis of reality. Vedic "science" is not simply about the mere analysis of matter, but it also includes the analysis soul and God. In other words, it includes metaphysical reality as well as physical reality. The sankhya of the Gitatherefore includes an analysis of physical reality as well as a spiritual reality. At present, modern science only accepts physical reality as its domain of study, but the call from the Gita is that ordinary science should also explore the metaphysical dimensions of life and so become a complete form of sankhya. But an objection can be made that science does not need to include such metaphysical issues as the soul and God because philosophy and theology already do this. I think the answer from the Gita would be that physical reality and spiritual reality are ultimately inseparable, and therefore, any study of one that omits the presence of the other will create a false or incomplete body of knowledge. Therefore even such non physical sciences as psychology, biology, or the medical sciences must include at least the premise that at the heart of reality there is a spiritual foundation, and even though we may not be equipped to see it at this point, it is there nonetheless and must be accounted for.

Hinduism was spared all this. It worships divine heroes who step in and out of this world. They marry, procreate, win wars, and also have their share of losing. But at the end of the day they have the last word which is why their lives should be emulated. Hinduism makes no dogmatic declaration on how humans appeared on earth or on whether the sun is stationary or not. In India, our gods have never been challenged by science as they are not concerned about matters of creation.

This is why Hinduism has never felt the need to take on Newton, Galileo, Humphry Davy or Darwin, nor even Aryabhat or the Charvakyas. On the other hand, under science's onslaught, Christianity was in a doctrinal mess. It had invested a lot in Aristotle-proofing the Bible, but that was beginning to fall apart. Adam and Eve and Noah's Ark soon began to appear as fables for the credible. Even our positioning on earth was now more about gravity than God.

Over time there were just too many bullets for Christianity to dodge. The Lutheran-inspired Reformation of the 16th century helped religion to make peace with science, but only after the Bible retreated on some of its principles. From then on Christianity had to accommodate reason in order to survive, but Hinduism never faced such compulsions. As it was idol-centric in character, faith in India could proceed unchecked by science; in fact, the twain need never meet.

Creation-centric Christianity could not ignore science. This is probably why, in retrospect, it was possible in Europe for the Renaissance to grow into the Reformation and finally into the Enlightenment. Protestant clerics soon became quite enthusiastic about science and believed with Michael Faraday that the work of God was just like science: neither irrational nor petulant, but orderly and dependable. Pascal from the Catholic side echoed a similar sentiment when he said that the Christian religion is not contrary to reason and, if it were, "our religion would be absurd, laughed at".

Many of the most remarkable western figures of science in the 17th and 18th centuries were trained by men of religion in their initial years. Humphry Davy was taught science in school by a Reverend J C Coryton; Robert Boyle by his village parson; Francis Bacon by John Whitgift, later to become Archbishop of Canterbury; Newton lucked in getting his lessons at home from his stepfather who was a minister and so did Robert Hooke from his father who was a curate. These scientists could now go to church and laboratory without a schism in their souls.

Indian Renaissance not only came 300 years later, but instead of questioning tradition it went about perfecting the Vedas. Thus, while the European Renaissance set the stage for the conflict between science and religion, no such thing happened here. Neither Swami Dayanand, nor Swami Vivekanand, nor the Brahmo Samajis are remembered for emphasising the scientific traditions of India's past. Their most durable contribution is their skilful copy editing of Vedic texts.

This is why Hindus are not worried if their religion is "laughed at" by secularists. Ram Lalla can be a litigant as Hinduism's idol-centric nature protects it against physical and exact sciences. For this very reason though, Hinduism often runs afoul of history and the social sciences as these disciplines take issue with the idolised lifestyles of Hindu gods and goddesses, and with the veracity of their corporal presence on earth.

Interestingly, while Christianity clashed with the physical and exact sciences in the West, in India, Hinduism has been threatened only by history and the social sciences. This conflict quickly takes on a political dimension as every layperson has a view on what is a good life. Social sciences, history included, thus lack the persuasive capacities of the natural sciences. If certain political compulsions arise, sociologists and historians can also be cast as subversive anti-nationals.

Consequently, the Hindu faith remains unchallenged by reason and Ram Lalla might even win his case someday.

The writer is former professor, JNU.