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Science and Indian Thought

John Smith

It may seem strange that Vedanta, which possesses the most ancient scriptures of the world, should have been teaching since the dawn of history truths about the universe which science is only now discovering. However, even the following random observations may suffice to show the truth of this, and in some cases indicate what science is yet to discover. But the genuine scientist is more concerned with being scientific than with anyone science, and this is where Vedanta comes in, for we shall see how it is essentially scientific, and is in a sense the fulfilment of science.

There are two important reservations that stand in the background of the remarks that follow. The first is that all this ancient knowledge about the universe and psychology, much of it systematically formulated by the great sage Kapila about 1000 BCE but known long before, came as a by-product of superconscious experience; it came as intuition. Like all spiritual truths, it does not contradict reason but fulfills it. Furthermore, it can be arrived at by reason, but the certainty that it is true, so long as the universe retains for us a relative reality, only comes from intuition or apperception, and not reason.

The second reservation is that Vedanta on its highest level states that all that exists is Brahman, there is nothing but Brahman. When perceived through the five senses it appears to be tangible matter. When perceived only by the mind, It appears to be ideas, which are very subtle matter; but when apperceived in the highest state of superconsciousness, it is what It is. Space, time, and causation, says Advaita, are just the  means whereby our minds, which are themselves maya, break down into manageable lumps this timeless, motionless, non-dual infinite Existence. So long as we appear to continue in this super-dream, so long will birth and death, science and so forth, have a relative reality.

Out of Instinct Through Reason To Intuition

In reason and in science we try to find one law to explain many similar occurrences. For instance, we formulate the law of gravitation to explain the fall of apples. Then we try to include this in a still more general law, and in doing so we seek for the explanation within the nature of the thing itself. First some supernatural being pulls down the apple. Then it is the law of gravitation, which is more internal. Finally, in the continuum of Relativity Theory, gravitational forces also disappear. This is the last stage, the most internal, where there is only one entity–the nature of existence.

These processes constitute reason, and they can be reduced to seeking unity in diversity. This is what science does, and its criterion of truth is experience. Does it work? Is what science asks of any theory. Does it fit in with what we observe?

The entire structure of science is thus founded on an instinctive sense of unity. This instinct concerning the truth of oneness is at the base of all reason. Swami Vivekananda has clearly demonstrated that instinct is involved reason. And reason, we have seen, is the search for one. Then what is intuition? It is being one. In instinct the One is heavily veiled; there is only a subconscious urge. In reason It consciously seeks itself. And in intuition or apperception It finds itself. Instinct, reason and intuition are thus oneness in different stages of evolution.

Presently we shall see how the foregoing remarks open up the possibility of being entirely scientific. Meanwhile a glance at a few of the ancient discoveries which derived from intuition may suggest future developments in science.

Creation: Ancient and Modern

The instinct for unity from which all science stems gives rise to two secondary principles, which are also taken for granted by modern science, but which were consciously recognized in ancient India:

  1. Existence cannot come from non-existence
  2. Nature is uniform [one-form].

The first means  that something cannot come out of nothing, and so everything must have a cause. Vedanta never held that the universe was “created”, that is, that it came out of nothing. From the fact of oneness the ancient sages arrived at the truth that the effect is the cause in another form.  The cause is the unmanifested or potential state,  for instance at death the gross body reverts to its constituent elements. Here is stated science’s law of conservation.

Then came the teaching of evolution and involution. The seed evolves as the tree, which involves as the seed. All existence was found to proceed in cycles. After growth comes decay; after the wave comes the hollow.

What is the highest manifestation we perceive in the universe? It is intelligence, the old philosophers of India said. They could not agree that intelligence, which is subtle, could come from non-intelligent gross matter. It would have been a case of something coming out of nothing. But to say that the subtle manifests as the gross, to say that intelligence manifests least in inanimate  nature, more in the animal kingdom, and  more still in the human being–that seemed rational to them.

This gross universe is the evolution of the subtle universe, they said. And the subtle has evolved through Cosmic Ego from Cosmic Intelligence. Our minds are, as it were,sparks of a cosmic mind. Intelligence itself  is matter also, only very subtle, and is evolved from Primordial Substance, Prakriti.

Holding nature to be uniform as the modern scientists do, they concluded that what occurs  with the tree must also occur with the universe. This universe must have come from a very subtle seed universe. After a very long period it will involve. Matter and energy will resolve into Cosmic Intelligence, which in its turn  will resolve into Primordial Substance, only to evolve again in the next cycle.  Here it should be mentioned that the Sankhya philosophy postulates  Purusha [the Self] and the Primordial  Substance [Prakriti], only to evolve again in the  next cycle. Naturally the scientist will ask, from what does Prakriti come? To call it the uncaused Cause will not satisfy him. T%his is where non-dualism [Advaita] steps in and, without getting into the difficulties of Buddhist philosophy, resolves the problem. Vedanta calls the fundamental idea as Sphota, the subtle essence of the universe. The Lord first becomes conditioned as the Sphota, and then evolves Himself out as the yet more concrete sensible universe.

Some years ago a scientist was explaining the origins of the universe  in this way:
“In those earliest moments….almost everything was radiation. Until the universe was five minutes old its temperature would appear to have been at least a thousand million degrees, so high that matter would almost wholly convert itself to radiation. But by the end of half an hour   this temperature would have fallen sufficiently for matter to become dominant, and for radiation increasingly to turn into protons and neutrons. Within an hour or so the genesis of the elements, light and heavy, would be practically complete.”

Here the main affinity with Vedanta is that mass and energy are forms of the same thing: this was demonstrated anew by Einstein. As already mentioned, Indian cosmology says that matter [akasha] and energy [prana] have evolved from Cosmic Intelligence. This modern account describing the universe as being originally concentrated in a very small region reminds one of the idea of an involved or seed universe, but to say more might be to read into the Sankhya cosmology ideas that are not there.

In contrast  to the more orthodox cosmogony, there is the theory of continuous creation. According to this, everything evolves from hydrogen, the simplest element. In the Sun and the normal stars hydrogen is being converted into helium with a consequent radiation of energy, and it is this that runs the universe. Where does the hydrogen come from? Well, it does not come from anywhere, says Hoyle, one of the exponents of the theory, it simply appears. He admits that this is a very strange idea, but it works.

Here we see the Indian conception of akasha, subtle matter after it has become distinct from energy.From akasha all gross matter evolves. But Vedanta cannot agree that something comes out of nothing, even though this theory requires the creation of only one atom in the course of about a year in a volume equal to St Paul’s Cathedral. Naturally scientific instruments cannot be expected to detect the subtle background material from which the gross atoms evolve.


John Smith wrote this article in 1955. This is the first part of the two-part article, originally published in the Vedanta magazine. 

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