(The article was originally published in Indian Express on September 2, 2023 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)
Was it right for the ISRO’s Chandrayaan-3 scientists’ team to visit temples? Wasn’t it against the scientific temper expected of them? Social media was agog with animated debates over these questions. It is a healthy debate. In the West, scientific inquiry acquired pre-eminence in the Enlightenment era when conformist Semitic religions insisted on the inscrutability of the revelations in holy scriptures.
Paradoxically, all scientific knowledge is based on approximation and uncertainty. The core doctrine of science has been that the universe is a “lawful” entity. Scientists believe that those laws can be revealed only through continuous scientific exploration. They do not consider any scientific goal as the final reality. Thus, conformist religion and recusant science were at loggerheads leading to the rise of concepts like scientific rationalism and secularism in the West.
In this conflict between religion and reason, Enlightenment scholars upheld science and rationality as superior to religious orthodoxy. Einstein, who saw science and spirituality as complementary, insisted that “the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge”. Arguing that science should be the source of spirituality, renowned American cosmologist Carl Sagan called for a new religion to emerge “sooner or later”, that looked at the universe “as revealed by modern science”.
But in India, a profound Dharmic order evolved over millennia, based on the conception — Jnanam Vignana Sahitam — meaning, spiritual knowledge backed up by science. In fact, Hinduism’s most modern philosopher-monk, Swami Vivekananda boldly asserted that a religion that cannot stand up to the scrutiny of scientific investigation was “useless, unworthy superstition; the sooner it goes the better”.
That Dharmic tradition is not faith-based. It asks one to be a seeker, not a mere believer. Scepticism, not submission, is at the root of religious inquiry. That is not essentially a religious tradition as understood in the West, but rather a spiritual quest. While religions in the West insisted on one God, Hindu spiritualism inferred “only God” — whatever is there, is divine. The omnipresence of divinity became a matter of reverence and experience, exploring which the Hindus created many symbols in the form of godheads and religious institutions like temples.
Scientific pursuit too is a form of seeking and exploration. Yet, it has stuck to the surface level so far. It has succeeded in understanding that the particles that make up charcoal also make a human. However, it is yet to find an answer to how the life force that differentiates the living from the non-living is created. The Dharmic traditions continually explored this cosmic reality in a manner most compatible with scientific knowledge. Their spiritual quest for an inward and outward exploratory process led to the invention of many advanced concepts about the physical world as well, that the later day scientists appropriated as their own. For example, Encyclopaedia Britannica states that the Pythagoras theorem “is mentioned in the Baudhayana Sulba-sutra of India, which was written between 800 and 400 BCE. Nevertheless, the theorem came to be credited to Pythagoras”.
In his book Vital Dust (1995), Nobel laureate and Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve raises a profound question about the “meaning” of the universe. He doesn’t see it in the physical world outside. Instead, “truth, beauty, goodness and love” reflect the meaning of the universe, he avers. These innate human values are not quantifiable by scientific tools. They are manifestations of thought, mind and life.
Spirituality explores these values by delving deep into the human mind and consciousness, and creates an awareness higher than self-awareness. It connects individual humans with wider humanity and the entire creation.
As scientific exploration progresses and man reaches the Moon and Mars, he should overcome the complex of superiority and desire to conquer nature. Otherwise, humans will end up as a “cosmic accident” rather than a “cosmic imperative”. That’s where a look within and beyond becomes crucial.
Rationalism and scientific temper are important. But they have limitations. One of the most rationalist leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru, became an ardent devotee of Ananda Mayi Ma in his later years and used to visit her abode in Dehradun many times. “I have been attracted towards the Advaita (non-dualist) philosophy. The diversity and fullness of nature stir me and produce a harmony of the spirit”, Nehru wrote. He added, “Some kind of ethical approach to life has a strong appeal for me, though it would be difficult for me to justify it logically”.
Responding to criticism over his temple visit, ISRO Chairman S Somanath said, beautifully: “I am an explorer. I explore the Moon. I explore the inner space. For the outer, I do science, for the inner I come to temples.”
The PM’s decision to name the Chandrayaan-3 landing site “Shiv Shakti” too was criticised by some who found fault with a religion-specific name being given to it. All the planets were named after Greco-Roman gods and goddesses. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Neptune — were all Roman gods. The Moon was named after another Roman goddess called Luna. Americans named their space mission after the Greek god of archery, Apollo. Soviets used the word Sputnik, which meant a companion or spouse in Russian. The Chinese called their spacecraft “Chang’e”, the Moon Goddess in Chinese mythology. Shiv-Shakti is indeed more than a religious symbol. It represents the duality of the cosmic energy, masculine and feminine — Yin and Yang — harmony which is essential for maintaining balance in the universe.
The Indian tradition believes that scientific and spiritual quests are not incompatible. They should appreciate each other. Vivekananda said in a lighter vein that the sages are often ignorant of physical science because they read the wrong book — the book within, and the scientists are too often ignorant of religion, because they too read the wrong book — the book outside.