How can we study nonmaterial aspects of reality when we’re living in a world of matter?
By Sadaputa Dasa
Two distinctly different visions of reality come together in this illustration. The dual elliptical patterns depict one of the energy states of a hydrogen atom, as conceived according to quantum physics, a mechanistic system that describes matter in terms of numbers. But according to the nonmechanistic science set forth in the Vedic literature, at the ‘heart of every atom is Lord Visnu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. the creator and sustainer of all. Since He is beyond measurement. He can’t be understood merely through numerical descriptions.
SADAPUTA DASA studied at the State University of New York and Syracuse University and later received a National Science Fellowship. He went on to complete his Ph. D. in mathematics at Cornell, specializing in probability theory and statistical mechanics.
Modern mechanistic science rests on the premise that reality is ultimately reducible to a simple set of mathematical equations. In a forthcoming book entitled Mechanistic and Nonmechanistic Science, Sadaputa dasa shows that such a view fails to account for two important aspects of reality: consciousness, and complex biological form. (He has raised these points in Back to Godhead, Vol. 15, Nos. 9 and 10, and Vol. 16, Nos. 1 and 5.) Here, in the first of a series of articles excerpted from the conclusion of the book, Sadaputa describes how an alternative, nonmechanistic model can be verified through the science of bhakti-yoga. He begins with a summary of the essential features of this model.
The world view of Bhagavad-gita is based on the postulate that conscious personality is the ultimate basis of reality. In this view there are two fundamental categories of conscious beings. The first category has a single member: the unique Supreme Person, Krsna, who is the primordial cause of all causes and who is directly conscious of all phenomena. The second category consists of the innumerable localized conscious beings, or jivatmas. The jivatmas are irreducible conscious persons, qualitatively the same as the Supreme Person. Yet they differ from the Supreme in that they are minute and dependent whereas He is unlimited and fully independent.
We find a consistent picture of the phenomena of life in the philosophy of Bhagavad-gita. This philosophy accounts for the origin and maintenance of the complex forms of living organisms, it clarifies the nature of individual consciousness, and it explains the relationship between the conscious self and the body. The objection may be raised, however, that even though this philosophy may provide interesting speculative solutions to certain fundamental scientific problems, it cannot be proved by the standard empirical methods of investigation.
We agree with this statement. The two categories of conscious beings mentioned in Bhagavad-gita lie almost entirely outside the purview of empirical investigation, which is based on reason and ordinary sense perception. Our conscious awareness does include direct perception of itself, but apart from this our ordinary senses provide us information only about the configuration of material bodies. Through reason, introspection, and ordinary sense perception, we can infer that consciousness must arise from some entity distinct from matter as we know it, but these means cannot bring us to a truly satisfactory understanding of what this entity is.
One could make similar remarks about the problem of proving the existence of a supreme conscious being. Many philosophers and scientists have argued that the physical complexity of living organisms is evidence for the existence of an intelligent creator. This is indeed a reasonable explanation of biological form—far more reasonable than that put forth by scientists of the evolutionary persuasion, who are still groping for a workable mechanistic explanation. Yet observations of biological form convey by themselves no clear picture of the creator, and it is indeed hard to see how a finite number of observations made within a limited region of space and time could prove very much about the nature of an unlimited eternal being.
Arguments for the existence of God that rely on the evidence of nature usually rest indirectly on a preconceived idea of God derived from other sources. These arguments may show that such a conception of God is consistent with the facts of nature, but what these facts actually entail is at best an idea of God so vague and general as to be practically useless.
So, if we cannot establish our alternative model of reality by standard empirical methods, how can we establish it?
The key to verifying our model is provided by the unique nonmechanistic features of the model itself. According to Bhagavad-gita, the natural senses of the jivatma are not limited merely to picking up information from the sensory apparatus of a particular material body. Indeed, when a jivatma is so limited he is considered to be in an abnormal condition. He is like a person who has become so engrossed in watching a television program that he has forgotten about his own existence and has accepted the flickering, two-dimensional image on the screen as the all in all. Thus preoccupied with the fascinating show presented by the bodily senses, the embodied jivatma becomes oblivious of his higher cognitive faculties, which normally enable him to directly perceive both other jivatmas and the Supreme Person.
It follows that if we are to verify our alternative model of reality, we must find a way to reawaken the full cognitive capacity of the conscious self. Here we shall outline a practical method for doing this, known as the process of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. We shall present this process as a method of obtaining reliable knowledge about aspects of reality inaccessible by traditional methods of scientific research. We should note, however, that bhakti-yoga is not simply a method of obtaining knowledge. Rather, it is a means whereby each individual conscious self can attain the ultimate goal of his existence.
The Process of Bhakti-yoga
The process of bhakti-yoga involves reawakening the relationship between the individual conscious self (the jivatma) and the Supreme Person, Krsna. Krsna accompanies each embodied jivatma as the Supersoul, and He directs the material body of the jivatma in accordance with the jivatma’s desires and past fruitive activities, or karma. This means that a relationship always exists between the jivatma and the Supreme Person, but the jivatma in the materially embodied state is not conscious of this relationship, which is consequently one-sided. Not being directly aware of the Lord, the embodied jivatma either ignores Him or appeals to Him as a vaguely conceived supplier of material needs.
The fundamental postulate of bhakti-yoga is that this is a stunted relationship, an abnormal state of affairs. Since the jivatma and Krsna are qualitatively the same, there is a natural symmetry between their respective personal characteristics and tendencies. In Bhagavad-gita (5.29) Krsna states that He is constitutionally the dearmost friend of all other conscious beings, and that He is always concerned for their welfare. Similarly, the jivatma has a natural tendency to care for the happiness and well-being of Krsna, and in a state of pure consciousness the jivatma serves Krsna without desire for personal profit. In this state a reciprocal loving relationship develops between the jivatma and Krsna. One secondary consequence of this relationship is that the jivatma, by directly coming in contact with the Supreme Person, also comes in touch with the source of all knowledge.
As previously mentioned, the goal of bhakti-yoga is to purify a person’s consciousness so that he reawakens his natural relationship with the Supreme. One can do this by performing practical devotional service to Krsna. Just as a lame person can regain his ability to walk by practicing walking, a person in material consciousness can revive his relationship of loving service to Krsna by actually practicing such service. A person can do this by establishing an initial link that enables him to serve Krsna through his physical and mental activities. Establishing this link involves a number of important considerations, which we shall discuss briefly.
First let’s consider how a person’s inner attitudes bear on his chances for success in the search for knowledge. The world view of modern science rests on the idea that nature is a product of impersonal processes lying within the reach of human understanding. Following this idea, many scientists look upon nature as a passive object of conquest and exploitation, and they use the power of their minds and senses to try to forcibly extract nature’s secrets. The theories of modern science are consonant with a domineering and aggressive attitude, and one could argue that the development of these theories has been strongly influenced by a desire to accommodate such an attitude.
In contrast, bhakti-yoga is based on the idea that nature is the product of a supreme intelligence lying beyond the understanding of the human mind. A bhakti-yogi does not try to dominate this intelligence; rather, he cooperates with it. He knows it is not possible for him to acquire real knowledge about Krsna by the power of his limited mind. The key to bhakti-yoga is that by the mercy of Krsna such knowledge is readily available to a person who approaches Krsna with a sincerely favorable attitude.
The quality of this attitude is indicated in the following statement, spoken by Krsna to Arjuna in Bhagavad-gita (18.65):
Always think of Me and become My devotee. Worship Me and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are My very dear friend.
If a person maintains an inimical or aggressive attitude toward the Absolute Truth and regards it as a field of conquest for his mind, he will have to depend completely on his ordinary sensory and mental powers in his search for knowledge. But if one adopts a genuinely agreeable and favorable attitude toward the Absolute, then, by the mercy of the Absolute, one’s internal and external circumstances will gradually be adjusted so that absolute knowledge becomes accessible” to him. The essential element is the change in attitude. In the beginning a person may have only the vaguest conception of the Absolute Truth, but if he adopts a truly favorable attitude toward the Absolute he will eventually be able to reciprocate personally with the Absolute in a relationship of love and trust.
This brings us to our second consideration. If a person is initially limited to his ordinary bodily senses as sources of information, how can he take the first step toward obtaining transcendental knowledge? Also, if one’s ultimate objective is to serve the transcendental Supreme Person, how can he do this when his activities are limited to the manipulation of matter? The answer to these questions is that Krsna can reciprocate with an embodied jivatma in two important ways: internally as the all-pervading Supersoul, and externally through the agency of another embodied person who is already connected with Krsna in a transcendental relationship.
Such a person is known as a guru, or spiritual master. In Bhagavad-gita (4.34) Krsna describes the guru as follows:
Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth.
Since the guru is in direct contact with Krsna. he can act as Krsna’s representative. Through the medium of the spoken and written word, the guru can make information about Krsna available, and he can also accept service on behalf of Krsna. The system of bhakti-yoga teaches that one can begin to serve Krsna by accepting a genuine guru, hearing from him about Krsna, and rendering service to him. Krsna accepts service to the guru as direct service to Himself, and He reciprocates by enlightening the servitor with the knowledge he needs to advance further on the path of bhakti-yoga.
The process of bhakti-yoga is summed up in the following statement from the Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, the most authoritative book dealing with the life and teachings of the great saint and incarnation Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu:
Krsna is situated in everyone’s heart as caitya-guru, the spiritual master within. When He is kind to some fortunate conditioned soul. He personally gives that person lessons in how to progress in devotional service, instructing the person as the Supersoul within and the spiritual master without. [Cc. Madhya-lila 22.48]
At first the aspiring candidate depends almost entirely on the guidance supplied to him externally through the spiritual master. By serving the spiritual master, however, the candidate establishes his link with Krsna and gradually awakens his own natural relationship with Him.
Faith, Subjectivity, and Verifiability
At this point we should make a few observations about the role of faith in bhakti-yoga. It is often said that religion is based either on subjective experiences that cannot be verified by others or on received doctrines that cannot be verified at all. Therefore, the charge goes, religion is a matter of blind faith. But this charge does not apply to the process of bhakti-yoga, for bhakti-yoga is based on verifiable observation. True, a person using ordinary sense perception cannot verify the realizations attained by someone practicing bhakti-yoga. But these realizations can be verified by other persons who are also able to exercise their higher sensory capacities.
We can establish this point with the analogy of two seeing persons observing a sunset in the presence of a congenitally blind person. The seeing persons are able to discuss what they see, and each feels confident that both he and the other person really are witnessing a sunset. If necessary, they can confirm this conclusion by consulting other seeing persons. In contrast, the congenitally blind person cannot verify the existence of the sunset, and he is probably unable to form a realistic conception of what it would be like to see it. He can either accept the existence of sunsets on blind faith, reject their existence with equal blindness, or declare himself an agnostic.
One might say that it is unfair for a few people to lay claim to knowledge that can be obtained only by methods unavailable to people in general. But this charge is actually more applicable to certain fields of modern science than to bhakti-yoga. For example, physicists use multimillion-dollar particle accelerators and elaborate techniques of mathematical analysis to demonstrate the existence of certain “fundamental” particles. The common man has neither access to such expensive equipment nor the knowledge needed to use it properly. Since these assets are difficult to acquire, the common man has no choice but to accept the physicists’ findings on faith. Nonetheless, the physicists are confident that they can verify one another’s observations, and they would not accept the charge that their conclusions are invalid because they cannot be checked by laymen.
For a given class of observations to be considered objective, the general rule is that a group of responsible people must be able to verify them. These people must agree on a clear theoretical understanding of what observations are to be expected and how they are to be interpreted. Modern physics is based on such a group of experts, and the same can be said of the process of bhakti-yoga. The system of bhakti-yoga is maintained and propagated by a disciplic succession of teachers, or gurus, who have reached a high platform of personal realization. These teachers adhere to a standard body of knowledge contained in books such as Bhagavad-gita, and their conclusions and conduct can be checked by the larger community of realized persons, or sadhus. Qualified sadhus can discuss and evaluate the higher realizations of bhakti-yoga just as readily as expert physicists can discuss and evaluate the findings of experimental physics.
Since bhakti-yoga is based on verifiable observation, it is dependent neither on blind faith nor on speculative arguments. Yet any difficult undertaking requires faith, and the process of bhakti-yoga is no exception. For example, before studying modern chemistry the prospective student must have faith that the many experiments on which the subject is based, actually work. He cannot know in advance that they will work, but without faith that they will he would not be motivated to carry out the arduous labor needed to master the subject. Normally, the student will begin with a certain amount of initial faith, and this faith will grow as he acquires more and more practical experience. The same gradual development of faith occurs in bhakti-yoga.
(Next month we shall continue by discussing why control of the senses is a necessary experimental condition in the science of bhakti-yoga.)