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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Hinduism & Science

By Kelli Bunner

I. Hindu Creation Stories

There is no one Hindu creation story. Numerous cosmogonies can be found in almost all of the important Hindu scriptures. A Hindu maxim states that “Truth is One; the sages call it by different names” (Rig Veda 1:164:46). This axiom helps to explain how it is possible for Hindus to simultaneously embrace so many different versions of creation. Hindus tend to see metaphors in these creation myths for philosophical and spiritual truths. The Encyclopedia of Religion article on Cosmogony classifies cosmogonic myths into six categories. Within the Hindu tradition, there are creation stories that fall under each of those categories. Of all of the ways that one may conceive of universal origins, the Hindu mind has entertained them all.

One of the most sublime accounts of creation occurs in the Rig Veda 10:129. It ponders the mystery of origins and offers more questions than answers.

Who really knows, and who can swear,
How creation came, when or where!
Even gods came after creation’s day,
Who really knows, who can truly say
When and how did creation start?
Did He do it? Or did He not?
Only He, up there, knows, maybe;
Or perhaps, not even He.

To find such an admission of ignorance in an ancient religious text is somewhat shocking. This well-known hymn has set a precedent for open-mindedness toward theories of the universe’s origins, whether they are set forth by other religions or by scientists. The many other creation stories in the Hindu tradition may be seen as metaphors which convey, not absolute truth, but practical paradigms for conceiving of one’s purpose in life and one’s connection to the universe and other life forms within it.

One hymn4 from the Rig Veda tells how the universe was created from the cosmic being, Purusha, who is described as having a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, and a thousand feet. From Purusha’s mouth, arms, thighs, and feet came the four classes of Hindu society respectively. It is easy to see how this is a metaphor describing the various social duties of the different classes. Each one has a prescribed place in the universal order and the imagery of the Cosmic Man serves to give the society a common vision of the social structure.

The Chandogya Upanishad 3:19:1-4 relates how the world was nonexistent, became existent, and then became an egg. After a year, the egg broke open and a silver part and a gold part emerged. The silver part became the earth and the golden part became the sky. The various parts of the egg became the features of the heavens and earth. The sun, which in this myth is equated with Brahman, was born from the egg along with all beings who arose. In this myth, there is no explanation of what caused the egg to form, and there does not seem to be any conscious entity who caused it to come about. It seems to have just happened. Many see in this an analogy to the Big Bang. In the egg was contained all of the elements that would become the matter of the universe, and it seems to come about quite on its own, without a conscious will desiring it to happen.

In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad the primordial being, after realizing he was alone, created a woman from his body. From their union humans were born. After this the woman hid from the man by taking the form of a cow. But he came as a bull and from their union, cattle were born. She then hid as a mare, but he came as a stallion, and from that union, all one-hoofed animals were born. This went on for each of the various animals for which there is a male and female, down to the ants. Verse I:4:5 says, “He knew, I indeed am this creation for I produced all this. Therefore, he became the creation. He who knows this as such comes to be in that creation of his.” This cosmogony illustrates the idea that all creatures, from humans down to tiny insects, come from the same source. Even more, all share the divinity of their creator. God pervades creation. This is a fundamental Hindu belief. It may even be more appropriate to refer to the universe as a projection of the Supreme than as a creation.

In some myths, creation is said to come from being, and in others, from non-being. The Chandogya Upanishad itself describes creation in both of these ways. Both beliefs are perfectly Hindu. The Westerner may look at this and feel confounded or frustrated. “Which way is it?” he may ask, “It can’t be both ways! A divine revelation should have it only one way.” Of course, the Bible also gives more than one account of creation, but many Christians are inclined to deny this, whereas Hindus would more readily acknowledge variations in the accounts of origins in their tradition. The Hindu might be said to allow a certain amount of cognitive dissonance on these issues, but this is perhaps because the scriptures are not too concerned with putting forth a scientific theory. Rather, they offer multiple ways of viewing the cosmos in order to provide conceptual frameworks. In reality, as the Rig Veda says, “Who really knows, and who can swear, how creation came, when or where!”

In a sense, we decide the meaning and purpose of our lives. It may be that meaning and purpose are not inherent in the universe. If that is the case, it does not mean that we cannot imbue our lives with the meanings we choose. The cosmogonies are a way of illustrating a particular purpose, a way of conceptualizing a culture’s goals and the means to a fulfilled life. A case in point is the creation stories which involve a primordial sacrifice. Sacrifice was a fundamental aspect of Hindu society in Vedic times, and it remains so in some form to this day. Making offerings to the deities, and/or to the ancestors is so essential to life as it is conceived by most Hindus, that it is only natural to think about beginnings in terms of a sacrifice.

Shiva, the destroyer god, prepares the way for creation by removing the old and useless elements. Destruction is necessary for creation, and death is necessary for rebirth. This is the Indian view of sacrifice – that killing is necessary for the sustenance of physical life. We live by consuming other life forms, and the decaying life fertilizes the soil for new life. Everything is in constant transition from one form or stage to another. Death gives way to life. This is one explanation of the Hindu view that the world begins by a great sacrifice. Also illustrating this idea is that life begins from a destructive flood.

Other Hindu creation stories tell of how the world is created from a primeval sea, a primeval ocean of milk, through tapas (asceticism), through the thought of the unborn Brahman, the dream of Vishnu, and through sound. In all of these creation stories, a literal interpretation would entirely miss the intended point. The value of the stories should not be judged by determining how much they are in agreement or conflict with modern scientific theories, but on how well they depict a vision for living a productive, spiritual, and satisfactory life.

II. Hindu Cosmology

Religious cosmologies describe the world metaphorically in the way that it appears to the human being. They are man-centered. If I wished to depict my view of the world, I might say that it began in 1975 in Philippi, WV, the time and place where I was born. I might depict my hometown as disproportionately large compared to the rest of the world. This would not be a scientifically accurate view, but it would effectively illustrate my view. I do not wish to imply that all Hindus make such a distinction or that there are no Hindus who take a literal view of the scriptural accounts of cosmology. There are some Hindus who would insist on a literal account and would therefore likely run into conflict with science.

The Vishnu Purana details an elaborate “map” of the cosmos, in which India, here called Jambudvipa (Rose-Apple Island), is the center continent. In the center of Jambudvipa is Mount Meru, which is said to be the abode of Brahma and other deities. There are oceans of various substances separating the islands, the last of which separates the last island from the “golden realm” which is the end of the universe. At the outer edge of the golden realm is a mountain separating the world from the non-world. This whole universe is inside of a cosmic egg and beyond it is darkness and unmixed elements. This describes the universe “horizontally” but the Purana also describes it “vertically” elaborating on various heavens and hells. The possible interpretations of this cosmological depiction are many. It has been interpreted as a map of the inner world, elucidating stages of meditation, where Mount Meru, at the center, is the one-pointed focus of the mind which can lead to spiritual enlightenment.

Like Carl Sagan, Hindus tend to think in terms of 'billions and billions.' A prayer is recited daily which reminds the Hindu that our universe is “one among billions of other universes floating in the great expanse of cosmic water.” There is no “young-earth” debate among Hindus. The age of the universe in Hindu sources is said to be 19.252 billion years, which is not far off from modern astronomy, which postulates 12 to 19 billion years. Hindus have a cyclical view of the universe which closely resembles the oscillating universe model. The Prashasta Pada describes its vision of how things take shape after a period of dissolution:

After a cycle of universal dissolution, the Supreme Being decides to recreate the cosmos so that we souls can experience
worlds of shape and solidity. Very subtle atoms begin to combine, eventually generating a cosmic wind that blows heavier
and heavier atoms together. Souls depending on their karma earned in previous world systems, spontaneously draw to themselves
atoms that coalesce into an appropriate body.

In the modern debate between an oscillating and finite model of the universe, it is clear that Hindus would most likely support the oscillating model. It is interesting to note that Christians often tend to support the finite model, and therefore in this scientific debate, Christians and Hindus would usually be on opposite sides. Such a conflict arises when both Christians and Hindus insist on a literal interpretation of their respective scriptures. Notice here that according to the majority opinion in current science, Christians would be right about teaching a finite universe, but wrong about holding to a young earth, whereas Hindus would be right about an old earth, but wrong about an oscillating universe. For this reason, I do not believe it is wise for Hindus to celebrate certain scientific discoveries that seem to be a vindication of a literal interpretation of the scriptures. What is most important is to keep an open mind, and to search for the spiritual meaning of the scriptural teachings.

III. The Hindu Science of Mind and Body

Hindus see physical matter as a manifestation or product of consciousness whereas in modern science, consciousness is a product of the physical brain. This has implications for psychology. A western psychiatrist might look for the cause of depression, for example, and find that in depressed people, particular chemicals in the brain are out of balance. He would therefore conclude that the depression is caused by the imbalance of the brain’s chemicals, and that it can be corrected with medication that will balance those chemicals. The Hindu however would be more inclined to conclude that it is the depression which has caused the chemical imbalance. In order to treat the depression, another cause must be sought. Treating that cause of the depression and alleviating it will then result in the balancing of the chemicals. This does not mean that Hindus would necessarily be opposed to taking prescription medications for depression.

Hindus differentiate between mind and consciousness. The mind is a supersubtle material which is used by the consciousness to perceive physical reality. Mind (manas) is the lowest level of the 3-layered consciousness (citta). The practice of yoga aims to calm the mind, which is otherwise in constant flux, thereby enabling the citta to unite with pure being (sat) and leading to the ultimate bliss (ananda). While the body and mind are instruments of knowledge, they need to be quieted in order to arrive at true knowing. The mind is seen as a mediator between subject and object, and it cannot by itself truly experience the object as it is in itself. Hindu spiritual practices therefore attempt to still the mind to enable true knowledge.13 It is assumed that the rishis (seers) of the tradition successfully attained that true vision.

IV. Hindu Attitudes Toward Modern Science

The Mundaka Upanishad says, “two kinds of knowledge have to be acquired: thus the Knowers of Brahman have declared. These are the lower and the higher.” Hinduism teaches that j├▒ana (knowledge) is fruitless if it does not lead to bhakti (devotion). The story is told that Sri Adi Shankaracharya was strolling one day when he stumbled upon an elderly man who was diligently learning the Sanskrit grammar. The old man explained that he was nearing the end of his life and he had decided to devote the rest of his time to studying the religious texts, which required the learning of Sanskrit. Shankaracharya then uttered the words of what has now become a very popular Hindu devotional song, the Bhaja Govindam. It begins, “Worship God, just worship God, you fool! When the end comes finally, all your knowledge of grammar and syntax will not protect you.” Science is considered a lower knowledge, and primacy is placed instead upon that type of knowledge which leads to salvation. Nevertheless, the acquisition of “lower knowledge” can be a legitimate endeavor, so long as one does not lose sight of the ultimate goal.

P. Venugopala Rao is a Hindu scientist who considers it part of one’s dharma to engage in scientific activity. Science is, after all, one of the ways in which one may come to learn the true nature of reality. Hindus accept different ways of approaching and describing the truth. Hindus therefore tend to view science and religion as two sides of the same coin. Swami Sada Shiva Tirtha expresses this opinion when he says, “One observes a natural phenomenon. Whether one calls it wind or the wind god (Vayu), the phenomenon is the same.” A modern scientist might argue that there is a difference however between calling the phenomenon wind and calling it the wind god. To say “wind god” seems to imply that there is consciousness in the wind and that it has a will of its own. However, Hinduism makes a distinction between our perception of a phenomenon and the real nature of the phenomenon. The mind cannot truly know the thing-in-itself. To put this in Kantian terms, we can know the phenomenon but not the noumenon. It is believed that the sages have been able to transcend the mind with its limited perception and arrive at true knowledge of the thing-in-itself, in particular, of the universe, the Atman, and Brahman. But how should the sages describe such transcendental knowledge to those of us who have not shared their vision? This usually entails the use of metaphor. The all-pervading Brahman is present in the wind, and therefore one may metaphorically speak of a wind god. All the gods of Hinduism are seen as manifestations of the one Supreme God.

Swami Vivekananda expresses the view that science and religion are independent in that they study different domains. He points out the problems that can arise when one crosses over the border between science and religion without switching gears.

Religion deals with the truths of the metaphysical world, just as chemistry and the other natural sciences deal with the truth of the physical world.
The book one must read to learn chemistry is the book of (external) nature. The book from which to learn religion is your own mind and heart.
The sage is often ignorant of physical science, because he reads the wrong book – the book within and the scientist is too often ignorant of
religion, because he, too, reads the wrong book – the book without.

Some Hindus believe that there are references in the ancient scriptures to highly technological inventions which would rival our modern ones. The list includes airplanes and other flying machines which could travel to other planets and even other universes. The ancients supposedly had a method for making the airplanes appear invisible by the use of the sun and wind force. They also are said to have known about nuclear physics, computer science, genetics, atomic theory, and so on. India has indeed brought the world many useful technological advances and scientific ideas, such as the concept of zero and expertise in metallurgy. Swami Sada Shiva Tirtha points out that in the ancient Hindu scriptures, the inventions were used to promote peace and prosperity and caused no harm or destruction to the earth, and that this can be instructive for our modern-day use of technology.

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