The experimenter himself takes the place of test tubes and microscopes
in the scientific search for the Absolute Truth.
By Sadaputa Dasa
More than meets the eye. With the aid of the electron microscope (and other scientific instruments and procedures), scientists have charted the invisible world of atoms, electrons, electromagnetic fields, and so on. Their discoveries provide us with knowledge that transforms our vision of the physical world around us. But do such discoveries rule out a nonphysical (spiritual) existence? By the systematic procedures of bhakti-yoga we can make a scientific discovery of our spiritual self-the effulgent soul dwelling in the heart.
This address was given at a symposium sponsored by the American Hindu Mission at the Sheraton Crossgate in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in October 1983.
Today the tendency is widespread among people all over the world to think that religion means nothing but sentiment and blind faith. In the past, people would turn to religion to find real knowledge and real guidance for their lives. But the development of modern science has led people to think that religion is outmoded and that religious writings are merely some old scriptures representing the views of people from the medieval period who might have had some interesting insights into life but who really didn’t have true knowledge. Nowadays, people think science is the source of true knowledge. So what I would like to do is show that bhakti-yoga, the systematic practice of devotional service to God, is a science and should be considered scientific.
Modern science has two primary features: theories and a systematic experimental approach for proving the theories. For example, if you look at the science of chemistry, you’ll find an extensive technical literature describing such things as atoms, electrons, electromagnetic fields, spin, valence, and so forth. These are all theoretical concepts. But these concepts don’t simply exist in a vacuum. You also have a set of experiments that will show you the relevance of the theoretical concepts. In other words, by using the concepts and the experiments you can obtainverifiable knowledge.
An important aspect of science, therefore, is that anyone should be able to obtain predictable results by correctly performing the experiments. And it is because science can consistently deliver such practical results that it has become so prominent in the world today.
The truly significant contributions of modern science have come in the realm of physics and chemistry; everything else more or less rests on that structure. And physics and chemistry are devoted entirely to the study of inanimate matter.Of course, these studies have been very successful. We have the theory of the atom, the theory of the electron, and so on. But unfortunately, our natural human tendency is to assume that if something is successful, it must be perfect and universal. Let’s look at some implications of this assumption.
Physics and chemistry describe the world in terms of electrons, protons, electrical fields, and various other such phenomena. If you think this system of ideas is universal, you’ll conclude that nothing but electrons, protons, electrical fields, and so on exist. Your next conclusion will be that life itself is but matter and that life has arisen by nothing more than the interactions of atoms, according to the laws and theories of physics.
These conclusions are unscientific extrapolations of modern scientific findings. The worst result of such conclusions is that they rule out any genuine religion. If we are nothing but electrons, atoms, and so forth, operating according to impersonal physical laws, what is the question of a spiritual dimension to life or of any sort of spiritual attainment? If I am simply a combination of electrons and protons, what is the question of God realization? What kind of God realization can electrons and protons have? Thus modern science’s unfortunate, unscientific conclusion that life comes from matter has led to widespread irreligion. It has actually led to the abandonment of the idea that religion has any real significance.
Here I would like to point out that the ancient system of bhakti-yoga is a spiritual system that is actually scientific. Of course, nowadays people generally think only new ideas are really of value and old ideas must be bad simply because they’re old. That is the spirit of the times—but it is incorrect. The scientific system of bhakti-yoga actually provides a much more complete picture of reality than does the system of modern physics.
As I said, a scientific system consists of theory along with experimental practice; so I will first outline the theoretical side of bhakti-yoga. Books such as the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam, as well as other Vedic scriptures, outline the theoretical basis for the world view of bhakti-yoga. Two main theoretical principles of this world view are extremely significant. The first is that each person is an eternal spiritual entity, a conscious living being, or self, within the body. (In Sanskrit this spiritual entity is called the jivatma.)
In modern science, on the other hand, we have the idea that a person is the bodily machine, and that’s it. In other words, the body is a biochemical mechanism, and if one understands all the chemistry of that mechanism, one has understood everything about the person. That’s the guiding principle of modern science.
The Bhagavad-gita, of course, agrees that the body is a machine. The Gita describes the human body as a mechanism (yantra) constructed from matter (maya). But the Bhagavad-gita also states that there is a completely nonmechanistic entity—the jivatma, or spirit soul—who dwells within the bodily mechanism and who is the conscious perceiver. According to the Bhagavad-gita, the bodily machine is never actually alive; it is an insentient mechanism. The soul within the body is the conscious perceiver, the life principle, the one who animates the body.
Since no experiment in modern science is sufficiently sensitive to give any direct evidence of the soul, most scientists dismiss this concept. And people in general follow the scientists. Most people today accept that life is just chemistry because they have a general distrust of old systems of thought and because the scientists have never found any direct evidence of the soul. Certainly no chemical experiment is going to give you any evidence for the existence of the soul. Nor will an electron microscope ever show you the soul. The magnifying power is insufficient, assuming even that the soul interacts with electrons, which is highly doubtful.
We should, however, at least recognize that the techniques of physics and chemistry do not rule out the possibility of a spiritual entity within the body. This understanding is very important, because sometimes a negative scientific finding will block our intellectual or spiritual progress. People tend to think, “Well, the matter is settled. There’s no soul in the body; we might as well forget about that.” But the matter is far from settled. Again, we should fully realize that no experiment within the corpus of modern physical science rules out the existence of the soul within the body.
The second important principle of the theoretical system of bhakti-yoga is that behind the material universe is a supremely intelligent being. This is a traditional idea of many religions, but bhakti-yoga, as we shall see, provides a systematic method of knowing this Supreme Being.
This principle of a Supreme Being is, of course, antithetical to modern science. Science as it exists today—that is, modern physical science—has tended to progressively exclude the idea of God. At the Darwin Centennial in 1959, Julian Huxley said that Darwin’s theory of evolution has excluded the idea of God from all rational discussion.
Unfortunately, modern science, contrary to many statements you will hear, is not fully objective. Objectivity is spoken of as an important trait for a scientist to have, yet there’s a certain tendentious character to the pronouncements of some prominent scientists who seem quite eager to eliminate God from the picture. In fact, science has become a tool of the philosophy of materialism. Because modern science has enjoyed its greatest success in the sphere of applied technology and the advancement of materialistic culture, the materialists have said, “Look. Just see what success you can have by concentrating on matter and excluding these old religious ideas.” So materialists have used science to support their materialistic world view, although science per se doesn’t support such a world view.
Nevertheless, scientists all over the world are trying to stamp out religion on the basis of scientific findings, and the Darwinian theory of evolution is one of the main tools. The idea behind the theory of evolution is that we don’t need to invoke a supremely intelligent creator to explain the phenomenon of life. Darwin’s theory of evolution maintains that life has come about purely by physical processes; it’s simply a matter of electrons and protons interacting with one another and gradually coming together to form more and more complicated forms, until finally—here we are, thinking about the whole thing. I don’t have time to discuss this theory in detail, but I will say that it is a prime example of a nonscientific addition to the body of scientific knowledge. No one has ever explained how atoms can come together to form human beings—or even bacteria, for that matter. Darwinian evolution is completely empty speculation.
So, the element of a supremely intelligent creator is another fundamental principle of bhakti-yoga. But there is even more than this. The Bhagavad-gita teaches that this superintelligent being, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is all-pervading, situated in the heart of everyone as the Supersoul (Paramatma). What this means, then, is that we are not separated from God. Some traditional religious doctrines say that God exists, that He created everything, but that He is extremely far away. The bhakti-yoga system, however, teaches that God is immediately accessible to us and is, in fact, providing the intelligence by which we direct our day-to-day activities.
An interesting illustration of this fact is the phenomenon of inspiration. Many prominent artists and scientists have recognized that it wasn’t by their own power or intelligence that they were able to make their great discoveries. Karl Gauss, a prominent mathematician of the nineteenth century, in describing how he solved a certain extremely difficult mathematical problem, says: “I succeeded not on account of my painful efforts but by the grace of God. Like a sudden flash of lightning, the riddle happened to be solved. I myself cannot say what connected what I previously knew with what made my success possible.”
In other words, Gauss admits that the answer to his problem was just given to him; all of a sudden it just appeared in his consciousness, and he knew the answer. And he gave the credit to God. He realized that the information was imparted to him from a higher intelligence.
Many other people have recognized this phenomenon, and it’s an essential principle of bhakti-yoga—that God is directly relating with us, even at this very moment. In our day-to-day lives, we tend not to think about God, except perhaps theoretically. But bhakti-yoga teaches that God is very much present always.
So, the existence of the soul and a supremely intelligent, immanent being are two fundamental principles of the system of bhakti-yoga. And, as with the physical sciences, certain experimental procedures can confirm these theoretical principles.
In bhakti-yoga, the basic experimental procedures lead to realized knowledge of God. This is possible because we are all spiritual entities. If we were just material systems made of electrons, protons, and so on. God realization would be out of the question. After all, what can electrons and protons realize about a supreme spiritual being? But because our nature is inherently spiritual, in principle we can have knowledge of God, who is entirely spiritual. It’s a question of one spiritual entity obtaining knowledge of another.
Bhakti-yoga consists of procedures specifically designed to awaken our direct spiritual perception of God, and in many ways these procedures are analogous to those you would find in, say, the science of physics. For example, in the Millikin oil-drop experiment, which measures the charge on an electron, one first of all has to adjust the conditions of the experiment very carefully. There can’t be any vibration running through the room. Then one has to precisely follow each step to accurately measure the electron’s charge.
Likewise, in bhakti-yoga one must follow certain regulative principles—no eating of meat or taking of intoxicants, for example—and also perform certain procedures, such as chanting the name of God for a certain period each day. Then one can get realized knowledge of the object of study. In a physics experiment, the object of study is some inanimate object or entity, such as an electron. But in bhakti-yoga the object of study is the perceiver himself, the jivatma, and ultimately the Supreme Soul, the Paramatma dwelling in the heart. So by practicing bhakti-yoga one can come to perceive the soul and
Now superficially, devotional service may seem merely a material activity that one performs with his various bodily senses. But if we look at devotional service from a theoretical perspective, we can understand what happens when someone begins to serve God. The Supreme Lord, Krsna, wants very much to reestablish His relationship with the individual spiritual souls. They, however, know nothing of this relationship because they’re covered by the illusion generated from the material energy. Krsna has therefore arranged things so that if a spirit soul, working through proper channels, serves Him, then Krsna, acting through the devotee’s heart, will reveal spiritual knowledge to that person. There is a reciprocation.
By referring to the theoretical tenets of bhakti-yoga, we can understand how this reciprocation takes place, at least in principle; whereas by using mere material concepts, such as those in physics or chemistry, we couldn’t begin to understand.
So, there is a large and consistent theoretical basis to bhakti-yoga, and if one carefully follows the devotional process, these theoretical statements are confirmed. The process works. I’ll read a verse from the Srimad-Bhagavatam illustrating this point. This is the seventh verse of Chapter Two, First Canto: “By rendering devotional service to the Personality of Godhead, Krsna, one immediately acquires both causeless knowledge and detachment from the world.” Now, this is ample evidence that one who practices devotional service to Lord Krsna acquires causeless knowledge and detachment. If you follow the procedures of bhakti-yoga properly, you get results.
What this amountsto, then, is that when a person practices bhakti-yoga and gets results, he can understand them in terms of the theoretical concepts of the system, and if he continues practicing and gets more and more results, he gradually develops faith that bhakti-yoga is actually scientific.
This process is entirely analogousto what happens in a science such as chemistry. Suppose a person initially doesn’t know about chemistry. Maybe he doubts that chemistry really is a valid subject. If he takes a course in chemistry, he’ll hear all kinds of theory—electrons, orbitals, and so on—which sound to him like so much gobbledygook. But if he performs the experiments and thinks carefully in terms of the theory, he’ll eventually say, “Aha! This works! I know these ideas have some value, because if I apply them systematically, I get the predicted results.” And if over a period of years he performs more and more advanced experiments, he’ll gradually become completely convinced that chemistry is a real science.
The message I’m trying to convey here this evening is simply that bhakti-yoga is a science in precisely this sense—that there are theoretical principles as well as systematic procedures, and if a person does the procedures carefully, then, through experience, he will gradually come to realize that bhakti-yoga works.
Of course, bhakti-yoga is fundamentally different from physical science, because in bhakti-yoga one is not studying inanimate matter but attaining spiritual realization. But bhakti-yoga is not just a sentimental religious system people are supposed to accept merely on faith; it is a system that produces tangible results when one carries out the procedures in the prescribed way. And in this sense bhakti-yoga is completely scientific.
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.