A Centennial Meditation
With the support of Vedic knowledge, Srila Prabhupada challenged society's blind allegiance to modern science.
ON A WARM, SUNNY, dry December morning, my taxi driver turned from the raucous, acrid main roads of New Delhi into the calm, spacious, tree-lined avenues of Chanakya Puri, the capital city's international quarter. As we entered the garden-bordered driveway to the stately Taj Palace hotel, I pinned my conference badge on the lapel of my dark blue suit jacket. A uniformed and turbaned hotel employee with a great moustache opened the door. I stepped out and paid my fare in rupees to the driver. I was in New Delhi for the World Archeological Congress.
The conference room was decorated in muted royal style, reminiscent of a bygone era of Moghul opulence. Dimmed chandeliers cast a golden glow. I sat among the archeologists, waiting my turn to speak. After a brief introduction by the section chairman, and a respectful smattering of applause, I stepped to the podium. My opening humor drew some chuckles. Then, identifying myself as a member of the Bhaktivedanta Institute, the science studies branch of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, I began to read my paper "Puranic Time and the Archeological Record."
I looked into the eyes of the assembled scientists, and for the next twenty minutes argued politely but forcefully against the Darwinian view that humans evolved fairly recently from apes. The actual evidence, I said, favored the Puranic idea that humans have been present on this planet since the beginning of creation. In other words, human history extends throughout vast cycles of cosmic time, each lasting hundreds of millions of years. As I was speaking, I remembered my spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who decades earlier in this same city had begun the work I was now helping him carry out.
Prabhupada's First Book
In 1959, Srila Prabhupada was living in a small room above a Krsna temple in the old, crowded Chippiwada district of Delhi. At that time he wrote a slender book called Easy Journey to Other Planets. Srila Prabhupada would later publish dozens of volumes of writings, including his monumental translation of the Bhagavata Purana, or Srimad-Bhagavatam, but Easy Journey to Other Planets was his first book. And, significantly, he placed these words on the first page: "Dedicated to the scientists of the world, with the blessings of His Divine Grace Sri Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Goswami Maharaja, my spiritual master."
Although he dedicated his book to the scientists of the world, Srila Prabhupada did not shrink from challenging some of their most cherished conclusions about life and the universe.
For example, he wrote, "Krsna says in the Bhagavad-gita that hundreds of thousands of years ago the Gita was spoken to the presiding deity of the sun, who delivered the knowledge to his son Manu, from whom the present generation of man has descended. Manu, in his turn, delivered this transcendental knowledge to his son King Iksvaku, who is the forefather of the dynasty in which the Personality of Godhead appeared."
The idea that humans on this earth are part of a larger community of humanlike beings populating the universe certainly contradicts the idea that we humans evolved on this planet by random evolutionary processes. So also does the idea that humans of an advanced level of civilization, such as King Iksvaku, lived on this planet hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Srila Prabhupada realized that the accounts of life and the universe found in the ancient Vedic texts were in fundamental conflict with the accounts of modern science. His courage in directly addressing this conflict, his refusal to quietly avoid it, represents one of Srila Prabhupada's great contributions. This contribution is especially worthy of remembrance during this year, the one hundredth anniversary of Srila Prabhupada's birth.
No Postdated Checks
Srila Prabhupada was prepared to give scientists credit for anything they could actually accomplish. But he would not give them credit for assertions they could not practically demonstrate. For example, scientists are fond of asserting that life arose on earth by chemical combination. In response to such claims, Srila Prabhupada argued that no one has observed life arising spontaneously from chemical combination in nature. Nor have scientists produced life by combining chemicals in their laboratories. Faced with protests that great progress has been made and that life would indeed soon be produced in laboratories, Srila Prabhupada refused to accept from materialistic scientists these "postdated checks."
Turning from the origin of life to the origin of species, Srila Prabhupada rejected Darwin's proposal that one species transforms into another. There is evolution, he said, but it is the evolution of the soul through various forms of life, all created by Krsna. In any city, he reasoned, there are varieties of houses and apartments. According to one's means, one obtains a certain dwelling. Similarly, God has created millions of species, and according to a soul's karma the soul occupies first one kind of body, then another. The kinds of bodies, once manifested by the arrangement of the Lord, do not transform. If one species does transform into another, Srila Prabhupada asked, why do we not see this occurring today?
In Easy Journey to Other Planets, Prabhupada examined the concept of antimatter. According to nuclear scientists, both matter and antimatter are destructible. But if something were truly antimaterial, said Srila Prabhupada, it should not be subject to destruction, as are the antimaterial particles observed by scientists in their atom smashers. Truly antimaterial entities are described in the Vedas, he went on to say. The soul, for example, is an ever existing particle of consciousness, emanating from the supreme conscious being, Krsna.
The Shortcomings of Science
According to materialistic science, the soul is a mythological concept. Consciousness is simply the result of chemical interactions in the brain. Srila Prabhupada often challenged this idea. The soul, he proposed, is the source of consciousness. If the soul is present in the body, the body displays consciousness. If the soul leaves the body, consciousness disappears. If, as the materialistic scientists claim, consciousness comes from chemicals, they should demonstrate this by injecting chemicals into a dead body and thus restoring its consciousness.
In discussing the origin of the universe, most materialistic scientists favor some version of the "big bang" theory. According to this theory, an infinitely small and dense particle of matter suddenly expanded into the universe as we know it. Srila Prabhupada questioned how such a process could produce all the signs of order and design we can observe in the universe. He upheld the Vedic account of creation, in which creation unfolds under the supervision of the Supreme Lord and subordinate demigods like Brahma.
The Vedic universe, quite apart from its origin, differs structurally from the universe depicted by modern science. Many of the structural features of the Vedic universe, such as Mt. Meru, a huge mountain rising from a plane in the center of the universe, simply aren't visible to modern scientific investigators. But Srila Prabhupada suggested that there may be much that is beyond the range of the senses of ordinary humans. To illustrate this point, Srila Prabhupada often repeated the story of the frog in the well. Because the frog was confined to the well, the frog's The Vedic universe, quite apart from its origin, differs structurally from the universe depicted by modern science. Many of the structural features of the Vedic universe, such as Mount Meru, a huge mountain rising from a plane in the center of the universe, simply aren't visible to modern scientific investigators. But Srila Prabhupada suggested that there may be much that is beyond the range of the senses of ordinary humans. To illustrate this point, Prabhupada often repeated the story of the frog in the well. Because the frog was confined to the well, the frog's perceptions were limited. When told of the existence of the ocean, the frog, who had seen only the small amount of water in his well, could not imagine such a thing.
So beyond pointing out the shortcomings of specific scientific theories about the origin of life and the universe, Srila Prabhupada also offered an epistemological critique of the entire scientific method. The scientific method is empirical. Citing Vedic sources, Srila Prabhupada observed that knowledge acquired by empirical methods is infected with four defects: mistakes, cheating, illusion, and imperfect senses.
The best way to acquire knowledge, Srila Prabhupada said, is to accept knowledge from a person beyond the defects of the empirical method. That person is the Supreme Lord, who has given us perfect knowledge in His words, as recorded in theVedas and transmitted by chains of bona fide spiritual masters.
In Easy Journey to Other Planets, Srila Prabhupada repeats the essence of such true knowledge, given by the Lord Himself: "Lord Krsna instructs that all the planets within the material universe are destroyed at the end of 4,300,000 ´ 1,000 ´ 2 ´ 30 ´ 12 ´ 100 solar years … The living entity, however, is constitutionally an antimaterial particle. But unless he elevates himself to the region of the antimaterial worlds by cultivation of antimaterial activities, he is destroyed materially at the annihilation of the material worlds and is subject to take rebirth in a material shape with the rebirth of a new material universe. In other words, he is subject to the pains of repeated births and deaths.
"Only those living entities who take to the loving service of the Personality of Godhead during the manifested stage of material life are undoubtedly transferred to the antimaterial worlds after quitting the material body. Immortality is obtained only by those who return to Godhead by practice of antimaterial activities."
Ultimately, Prabhupada opposed the conclusions of materialistic scientists because those conclusions discourage people from taking up antimaterial activities that can deliver one from the cycle of birth and death. Misguided by scientific teachings that deny or downplay the existence of God and the soul, people engage in material activities that keep one in ignorance of one's true spiritual identity and keep one from returning to one's original spiritual home.
In 1960, when Srila Prabhupada published Easy Journey to Other Planets, he was alone. He would not remain so for long. In 1965 he journeyed to the United States, arriving in New York, and founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. He trained his followers in the basic teachings and practices of devotion to Krsna. By the 1970s his movement had grown considerably, and its activities had become more varied.
In 1971, Srila Prabhupada began to converse on scientific topics with Thoudam Damodar Singh, a graduate student in biochemistry who had become attracted to Prabhupada's teachings. The young scientist later became a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, and received the name Svarupa Damodara Dasa. In conversations with Svarupa Damodara and others, Srila Prabhupada outlined his critique of modern science and asked his scientifically trained followers to develop it in detail. Svarupa Damodara (now Bhaktisvarupa Damodara Swami) responded positively, and in 1975 he and other disciples founded the Bhaktivedanta Institute. Srila Prabhupada wanted the Institute members to challenge erroneous scientific teachings and intelligently present the correct Vedic ones.
Srila Prabhupada's vision for giving spiritual knowledge through science was variegated. He wanted members of the Bhaktivedanta Institute to lecture boldly at colleges and universities, stage debates, organize conferences, set up educational institutions, publish books and journals, build museums and planetariums. In his personal exchanges with scientists, sometimes he boldly challenged, sometimes he manifested tolerance and kindness. As it has not been possible for any single follower of Srila Prabhupada to encompass all of his moods and strategies, different followers have concentrated on different aspects of his vision. But they are all acting for one purpose to carry on Srila Prabhupada's work of establishing the truth about reality for the welfare of the entire world.
Drutakarma Dasa (Michael A. Cremo) is a member of the Bhaktivedanta Institute, specializing in the history and philosophy of science. His recent books include Forbidden Archeology (written with Richard L. Thompson) and Divine Nature: A Spiritual Perspective on the Environmental Crisis (written with Mukunda Goswami). He has been one of the editors of Back to Godhead since 1977.
Vastly Different Views
In a foreword to Forbidden Archeology, by Drutakarma Dasa and Sadaputa Dasa, sociologist Pierce J. Flynn, of California State University at San Marcos, noted the unique perspective from which the authors spoke: "The authors admit to their own sense of place in a knowledge universe with contours derived from personal experience with Vedic philosophy, religious perception, and Indian cosmology. Their intriguing discourse on the 'Evidence for Advanced Culture in Distant Ages' is light years from 'normal' Western science, and yet provokes a cohesion of probative thought. In my view, it is just this openness of subjective positioning that makes Forbidden Archeology an original and important contribution to postmodern scholarly studies now being done in sociology, anthropology, archeology, and the history of science and ideas."
In 1995 at an interdisciplinary conference on Science and Culture sponsored by Kentucky State University, Drutakarma Dasa gave a paper in which he told more about the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition that had inspired the writing of the book. In particular, he spoke of the history of the encounter between Gaudiya Vaisnavism and Western science during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The following is an excerpt.
In The Nineteenth century, India's British rulers offered Western education to Indian intellectuals. The goal was to create a cadre of English-speaking and English-thinking Indians to assist them in the British program of military, political, economic, religious, and cultural domination. This educational program successfully induced many Indian intellectuals to abandon their traditional culture and wisdom for Western modes of science and theology.
The program even made its mark on Gaudiya Vaisnavism, the line of Krsna devotees that traces back to Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. But in the middle of the nineteenth century, Kedarnatha Dutta (1838-1914), an English-speaking magistrate in the colonial administration, became interested in Gaudiya Vaisnavism. After his initiation by a Gaudiya Vaisnava guru, he inaugurated a revival of Gaudiya Vaisnavism among the intelligent classes, in Bengal and throughout India.
The central goal of Gaudiya Vaisnavism is cultivation of bhakti, or devotion, to Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The bhakti school also incorporates a strong philosophical tradition, grounded in a literal, yet by no means naive, reading of the Vedic and Puranic texts, including their accounts of history and cosmogony. Kedarnatha Dutta, later known by the title Bhaktivinoda Thakura, communicated Gaudiya Vaisnava teachings not only to his Indian contemporaries but also to the worldwide community of intellectuals. He reached the latter by publishing several works in English, among them Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu: His Life and Precepts, which appeared in 1896.
In the early twentieth century, Bhaktivinoda Thakura's son Bimala Prasada Dutta, later known as Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura (1874-1936), carried on the work of his father, expanding Gaudiya Vaisnavism in India and sending a few disciples to England and Germany. The European expeditions did not, however, yield any permanent results, and the missionaries returned home.
In 1922, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, then known as Abhay Charan De, met Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura in Calcutta, India. A recent graduate of Scottish Churches College in Calcutta and a follower of Gandhi, Prabhupada was somewhat skeptical of this very traditional guru. But he found himself won over by Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati's sharp intelligence and spiritual purity. At this first meeting, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati requested Prabhupada to spread the Gaudiya Vaisnava teachings throughout the world, especially in English. In 1933 Prabhupada became the formal disciple of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, and in 1936, the year of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta's death, Prabhupada received a letter from him renewing his request that Prabhupada teach in the West. In 1965, at the age of 69, Prabhupada came to New York City, where a year later he started ISKCON, the institutional vehicle through which the teachings of Gaudiya Vaisnavism were to spread quickly around the world.
Among these teachings are those connected with the origin of life and the universe. To scientifically establish these teachings, Srila Prabhupada in 1975 organized the Bhaktivedanta Institute. He envisioned the introduction of Gaudiya Vaisnava teachings on the origin of life and the universe as a direct confrontation with prevailing Western scientific ideas, such as Darwinian evolution.
My own involvement in the Bhaktivedanta Institute, as a Western convert to Gaudiya Vaisnavism, can thus be seen in the historical context of the larger cultural interaction between Western science and an Asian Indian knowledge tradition with vastly different views on natural history.