The opposition between religion and science is a modern phenomenon and a critical problem for humanity.
The following is Part I of a paper presented at the World Congress for the Synthesis of Science and Religion, held January 9-12, 1986, in Bombay. The paper was originally entitled "The Contribution of Bhagavata-dharma Toward a 'Scientific Religion' and a 'Religious Science.' "
In the Bhagavad-gita (15.15), Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, says vedais ca sarvair aham eva vedyah. The usual English renderings go something like "By all the Vedas I alone am to be known." Such translations properly take the first word, vedaih, as denoting that collection of venerable Sanskrit works held authoritative by the ancient civilization of India. So we can correctly understand Krsna's assertion in this way: If you study the Vedic texts thoroughly and carefully, you will discover that He, the Supreme Person, is directly or indirectly the only subject taught
Although our understanding thus stated is correct, it falls short of expressing the intended meaning. The text, however, offers a clue to its full understanding in the deliberate resonance between the first and last words: vedaih and vedyah. They are, of course, cognates, both derived from the root vid, "to know." The word vedasimply means "knowledge," and the writings that expound knowledge are, therefore, called Veda. Thus, the full meaning of Krsna's statement is better conveyed in this way: "By all processes of knowledge, I alone am to be known." And, considering that the Sanskrit vid has the same sense as the Latin scire, we can also convey Krsna's intention with these words: "All science is just a searching after Me."
Here, then, we have two renderings: "By all the Vedas I alone am to be known," and "By all processes of knowledge all science I am to be known." There is much to be noted about the difference between them. The second, to us today, is a far more powerful, and probably far more interesting. assertion. The first falls short of conveying as much to us, for we automatically think of the Vedas as writings of a particular kind, namely "scripture," relevant only to an activity of a particular kind, namely "religion," and specifically to a religion of a particular kind, namely "Hinduism."
But clearly those who first learned and taught Bhagavad-gita did not understand themselves to be dealing with "scripture of the Hindu religion." In their context, theVedas were simply repositories of knowledge, a comprehensive encyclopedia of all ascertained truth. In our modern context, they have become "scripture" which means something else. Similarly, for Krsna and Arjuna, to follow the Vedas was not to "practice a religion," as we understand the expression, but rather to live life so as to realize one's full human potential in thought in feeling, and in action.
Today we think of "religion" as a specialized kind of enterprise, set over against the rest of human life, a kind of addendum or extra in human culture. The development of this concept of religion is a product of modern secularization, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith has shown. The modern West has been formed by secularization, that process which has sought to convey more and more natural and human territory from the jurisdiction of the divine and annex it firmly to the sovereign operation of autonomous human reason and enterprise.
In a secular culture there can be much "religion," but, by common consent, religion is kept in its place and does not intrude itself into the central societal concerns, such as the pursuit of knowledge or wealth. It is relatively common, for example, to hear a scientist make this pronouncement: "Yes, I believe in God, but as a scientist I cannot consider that." This epitomizes secularization.
I think those of us gathered here to explore possibilities for the synthesis of science and religion recognize that the present estrangement between them constitutes a critical problem for the modern world. Indeed, this problem, in various guises, can be seen as the central quandary of Western culture since the Renaissance. Science sundered from religion is blind, unable to guide human life according to ultimate ends; religion sundered from science is lame, incapable of conveying its vision into the thick of our actual commerce with the world.
The religion and science of modernity, conceived in mutual disjunction, embodied in separate institutions, and grown to conscious self-definition over against one another, have both emerged historically as handicapped and unwholesome caricatures of the whole they ought to be: the single human enterprise we may call either a truly religious science or a truly scientific religion.
To appreciate the meaning, therefore, of Krsna's Bhagavad-gita statement, we have to try to overcome our secularized consciousness and think ourselves back into a culture that possessed the unity we now lack. To us, the questions of the final conclusion of the Vedas and the final conclusion of science are different kinds of questions and have no bearing on each other. I would like to explore the possibility that they have a great deal to do with each other and suggest a way in which theBhagavad-gita may make an important contribution to our quest for synthesis.
We have before us two ways of understanding Krsna's statement, according to whether we take vedaih as referring to the beliefs of a particular religious tradition or to the human quest for knowledge as such. Taking this disjunction as the starting place, I will first explore what Krsna is claiming in reference to the Vedic tradition and then see how that may bear upon the universal quest
I will use the words "veda" and "Vedic" to refer not just to the four seminal works that go by that name (the Rg, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas), but also to the vast and diverse supplementary literature that has grown up around them. Those who profess adherence to the Vedas comprise a large and bewildering array of traditions. These traditions developed into highly sophisticated, and often quite specialized, schools of thought each with its ancient lineage of illustrious teachers; its own arsenal of special practices and techniques, in which students, through intense cultivation. frequently attain stunning virtuosity; each with its own formidable library of commentaries, commentaries on commentaries, and so on, much of which, presupposing a knowledgeable reader, is composed with great compression in extremely technical, specialized vocabulary, and so remains virtually unintelligible to the uninitiated.
The Vedas are likened by their adherents to the kalpa-vrksa, the celestial tree that liberally produces any sort of fruit desired, and this bountiful proliferation of diverse Vedic schools, in intense pursuit of specialized ends. shows the aptness of the metaphor. At the same time, all schools considered it axiomatic that the Vedasultimately taught a single siddhanta, i.e., final end or purpose. This state of affairs a multiplicity of variant traditions with a shared conviction of ultimate unity naturally led the thinkers of ancient India to engage in the exercise that has become so vital to the fate of the world today: to analyze diverse world views comparatively and adjudicate among them.
Viewed in this light the Bhagavad-gita can be seen as an essay in comparative religion bearing in mind that the word religion here is systematically misleading. TheBhagavad-gita itself uses the word dharma, which has been translated as "truth," "religion," "duty," "path," "righteousness," and so on. In its broadest sense, dharmadenotes a way or form of life that possesses its own integrity and validity by virtue of being centered on truth.
As we have seen, out of the Vedas there had emerged a variety of schools, each with powerful and persuasive advocates of its own dharma. In the Bhagavad-gitaKrsna surveys them: the practice of Vedic ritualistic yajna, or sacrifice; the disinterested performance of worldly duties; the propitiation of various devatas, or controlling demigods; the attainment of trance of self-realization through physiological mastery, sensory withdrawal, and mental concentration; the ascent to absolute consciousness through philosophical discrimination and world-renunciation these are some of the main ones.
In essence, the Bhagavad-gita acknowledges the truth and validity of the various Vedic dharmas, yet at the same time holds that the particular knowledge and realization offered in each dharma attains to its completion in Krsna (vedais ca sarvair aham eva vedyah). Since all Vedic dharmas are thus but various indirect ways to Him. Krsna accordingly offers Arjuna the opportunity to make a short work of it and come directly to the final end. Sarva-dharman parityajya;, He instructs: "Just abandon all other dharmas"; mam ekam saranam vraja "and come to Me alone for shelter" (18.66). In this way, Bhagavad-gita teaches that the ultimatedharma is unalloyed loving service to the supreme personal feature of the Absolute Truth.
Now, a deep study of the way the Bhagavad-gita reaches its conclusions, as undertaken by teachers of the Bhagavata school of Caitanya Mahaprabhu, brings to light a certain paradigm of human spiritual and poetic development as a dialectical process consisting of three principal phases or moments. I shall call these three phases (or spiritual platforms) karma, jnana, and bhakti.
Karma, in this context denotes those rationally organized activities aimed at acquiring "the good things of life" for ourselves and those we identify with ourselves. Thus, we labor to gain secure and continuous possession and enjoyment of health and vitality: of land and goods and money; of grace, charm, and beauty, both animate and inanimate; of love, honor, and repute; and the like.
The section of the Vedas called the karma-kanda provides for such ends. Central to this enterprise was an extremely highly developed activity of the sort now referred to as "ritual" in particular, the yajna, or sacrifice. The Vedic yajna was an elaborate and painstaking endeavor in which the learned and expert performers (rtvij), working according to the Vedic paradigm (tantra), had to arrange correctly the detailed paraphernalia (prtag-dravya) at precisely the proper place (desa), and, at the right time (kala), build the fire (agni) and conduct the sacrifice itself (kratu),carrying out all the prescribed procedures (dharma) and reciting the correct verbal formulae (mantra) with perfect precision. If and only if everything were flawlessly executed according to most exacting standards of correctness, then the benefits for which the sacrifice was performed would accrue to the patron the sponsor of the sacrifice (yajamana).
It is easy to see how the form of life that centered itself upon the Vedic yajnabecame a cult of technique. For mastery of technique was the key to power. By constructing a microcosmic image of the cosmos, and duplicating in fine the act of creation, the properly performed yajna gathered, condensed, and localized the power of the cosmos itself and so put this power into the hands of those adept at technique. Those who mastered yajna mastered the cosmos. This ethos of mastery through technique attained explicit expression in the writings of the Karma-mimamsa,the philosophical school that took yajna as the prime Vedic dharma.
Now, in the mantras recited at sacrifice. the names of various devatas controlling demigods are invoked, and it would seem that these mantrassummoned the favor of the gods, and the sacrifice achieved its results by propitiating them. Not so, claims the Karma-mimamsa. The mantras and the procedures are potent in and of themselves, and they evoke the gods in order to compel them or their specific powers. Indeed, the gods themselves are sustained by the power of sacrifice. As for a supreme God, the Karma-mimamsa school either denies His existence or declares His irrelevance.
Thinking of this way of life as a "religion," using terms such as "rite," "ritual," "ritual act" etc., impedes our comprehension of what is going on. But if we can view it on its own terms, then we see at once that essentially the same form of life is reincarnated, as it were, today in the culture of science and science-centered humanism.
The practice of yajna is science an archaic science, but science nonetheless i.e., an enterprise centrally concerned with acquiring mastery of practical techniques for the direct control and domination of nature for human benefit. This is not to minimize differences, of course. But the performer of the sacrifice, the rtvij, is far more like today's scientist than today's priest. We should understand, for example, that when the rtvij took great pains to observe what we call "ritual purity," he was, in his own mind, establishing the required mental preconditions for the efficacy of hismantras. Even though we may not believe that thought can act on matter over distance (unless we are persuaded by some experiments in psychical research), the acts of the rtvij are still intelligible to us as "establishing controlled laboratory conditions."
Another interesting feature of this Vedic tradition is how the fascination or obsession with the power of technique gave rise to the depersonalization or disenchantment of the world. Technique cannot give direct mastery if there are higher controlling beings God or the gods who stand in the way. Therefore God or the gods are denied if not written out of the ontology, then denied the effective exercise of any controlling power. In this, of course, we see anticipated the exact process that accompanied the rise of modern science in Europe.
The stage of spiritual development I call karma rises out of the natural need to maintain our physical well-being; and in every culture karmic activity is present It is endemic to human life.
Yet there are times when the karmic ethos attains particularly full development, and a cult of technical power over nature dominates human culture, defining the means and ends of life. The karmic ethos then attains full and coherent historical self-expression, and is thus epitomized as in the Vedic karma-kanda tradition and in the culture of natural science in the West.
When the cultivation of karma attains such complete development, in individuals or in cultures, it tends in time to engender a reaction or counterculture. This antithetical moment I call jnana.
The reaction springs from acute disappointment in technique. When one possesses all the goods provided by technique and yet remains unsatisfied and unfulfilled, he realizes that "the good things of life" are not good enough and what is good enough is beyond technique.
Now, such disappointment can and often does produce sterile and unproductive pessimism or cynicism, but within the cult of technique there also develops an impetus toward knowledge knowledge not merely for control but for its own sake, and where this has become prominent, the encounter with the limits of technique is fruitful.
Those within the culture of technique who become drawn to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake inevitably find themselves engaged in a search for first or ultimate principles; for the one that engenders or contains the many; for the single, elegant law that explains everything explicable, and so on. They become preoccupied, in short, with the Absolute Truth. This truth has its own compelling fascination for the researcher, and when he approaches that truth, he encounters a limit, a barrier, which,in principle, his knowledge cannot breach. He realizes that what lies beyond the barrier, of which he cannot in principle speak but must remain silent, is the final goal of his quest.
The simultaneous encounter of the limit of technique on two fronts in providing both knowledge and well-being gives the strongest impetus to the formation of a culture of jnana. As the antithetical phase to world-mastering karma, jnanabecomes a search for transcendence conceived as world negating. In the noetic realm, transcendence is indicated by means of negation, by the systematic elimination of all concepts and categories of phenomenal existence which means, ultimately, of all language, all thought itself. Western theology knows this pursuit as the via negativa, or apophatic theology. In the jnana-kanda section of the Vedas, the procedure is characterized as neti neti, i.e., "not this, not that."
In the realm of value, jnana expresses its opposition to karma through the culture of renunciation a thoroughgoing rejection of the world, its activities, and its supposed goods. Thus, in both the noetic and the valuative realms, rejection or negation is the keynote.
In the Sanskrit literature of this tradition, knowledge (i.e.. the via negativa) and renunciation are wed into a single frequently encountered compound: jnana-vairagya. Those who engaged in the intense cultivation of jnana-vairagya testify to an eventual dissolution of phenomenal selfhood and a breaking through phenomenal existence into a transcendent state, which, although strictly beyond description, is spoken of as a total merging into absolute existence and consciousness, a unity without diversity or distinction. This state, being absolute, is the sole reality; there is no other existence beside it, to relate to it. Thus, the phenomenal world is denied in philosophy, it is eliminated altogether from the ontology or granted a kind of illusory, provisional semi-existence.
The theory of illusion, in its most extreme form. sees not only the gods but also God. i.e., the Supreme Person, as products of illusion, to be employed or tolerated in practice as convenient fictions. Indeed, valid objects of worship, all ultimately factitious, can be arbitrarily many, and one's own self, any favored controlling demigod, or the cosmos itself can serve.
Another impetus toward the formation of jnana is provided by a culture ofkarma that has fallen into gross excess and abuse. Thus in India, the eventual corruption of the Vedic karma-kanda cult of sacrifice provoked the most radical development of jnana in the form of the Buddhist reaction. Rejecting the Vedasaltogether, the Buddha inaugurated a tradition that has produced the world's most thoroughgoing negative theology. This extreme form of jnana eventually worked its way back into Vedic tradition through Sankaracarya.
(To be continued.)
The second part of this essay will show how the West itself has for the last two centuries been undergoing an attempt at moving from the culture of karma to the culture of jnana. In the West, the historical establishment of a culture ofkarma is known to us under the name of the "Enlightenment." The "counter-Enlightenment" and the ensuing "Romantic movement" exemplify, in reaction, a culture of jnana. Both cultures are still struggling fruitlessly with each other today. An analysis of the spiritual conditions of the West shows why progress does not take place. However, the final stage of bhakti has been introduced from the outside; and it can be embraced directly, in spite of the failed karmaand jnana of the West. This will resolve the pathological split between religion and science in our time.