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Articles from Pre-1998 Issues 

Spirituality and the Scientific Temper

by Prof. A. N. Dhar

As I see it, there is not any basic or sharp opposition between what spirituality essentially is and what science stands for. It is quite tenable to conceive of a fair degree of compatibility between the two - the scientific temper is not alien to spirituality nor is a scientist necessarily an atheist or a person with an unspiritual outlook. To an appreciable extent, science and spirituality can be seen to have a common aim - promotion of human values and welfare of mankind in general. Just as disinterested curiosity for the unknown marks the scientific temper, a fervent quest for Truth is often a strong motivation for the spiritual seeker. However, it is evident to all that science is not enough. Its practical applications may serve human needs, make life comfortable and enable man to achieve longevity through control on diseases. But too much dependence, as we have seen, on machines and other scientific gadgets, have made life mechanical, not to speak of the havoc wrought on the earth through the abuse of science.

Coming to the precise domain of science as a systematic body of knowledge, its investigations are mostly confined to the physical universe, the world of sensory experience. How does the scientist go about his work? He observes facts and phenomena, analyses them and then arrives at theories and laws. Old theories may be discarded in favour of new ones as research advances and the boundaries of knowledge expand. Scientific research, on the whole, is a well- coordinated activity, a collective endeavour, not just an individual achievement. That is what Newton meant to convey when he observed, "We stand on the shoulders of other giants". Again, the efforts of scientists are result - oriented, scientific experimentation produces concrete results. Miracles of science are about us today in every walk of life, staring us in the eye.

What about spirituality? The spiritual seeker, by choice, grapples with eternal questions. He has an intense urge to understand the mystery of life and death; for him life is not absurd or just the result of an accident. He is concerned with Truth as the ultimate cause, the secret of secrets. It is in this vein that the poet Coventry Patmore of the mid-Victorian period characterizes mysticism (a substitute term for spirituality based on direct experience of the Divine) as "The science of ultimates". Life for the Yogi or mystic has meaning and purpose; he neither discards reason nor trusts it wholly. However, he trusts his own intuition and finer perceptions because of their spontaneity and authenticity. Drawn to Truth by an inner compulsive urge, he does not rest content until he apprehends the Reality behind appearances or his indwelling Self. Thus he too is an explorer, an earnest seeker engaged in a life-long pursuit of the Divine. Invariably, the spiritual aspirant has to approach a Master for help and guidance. In spite of some initial difficulties and hurdles, he finds the Guru who takes him under his spiritual care.

Faith in God and the Guru are the essential prerequisites for a seeker's success in the spiritual path. It is on the solid foundation of faith that he raises the superstructure of sadhana involving a vigorous exercise of all his mental powers of "memory, understanding and will" (as the Christian mystic Ignatius Loyola characterizes a "spiritual exercise"). Until at least a sadhak gets established in meditation, he does not discard reason at any point; the onward experience "transcends but does not contradict reason". To the last, the sadhak remains thoroughly discriminative and mentally alert. The Raja Yogi, as the Gita and the Upanishads testify, proceeds on the spiritual path steadily, with extreme care and deterrnination. He watches the behaviour of his mind with the alertness and patience of a scientist handling very sophisticated equipment in the laboratory.

What is strictly called Kundalini Yoga (on which several treatises in English are now available) is as systematic as a technical science and has as such attracted considerable attention in India and abroad. There is a technique of meditation also stressed in Patanjili's Yoga Sastra In this and other forms of Yoga, it is very likely that the experience valies slightly from one individual practitioner to another. To that extent, meditation on the Divine is fine art too. At the same time, it is a systematic discipline with a scientific bias. Success in Yoga calls for a vigorous and sustained effort as it does in a scientific pursuit.

An aspirant's spiritual growth certainly derives nourishment from a congenial social ethos and from a culture conducive to his upbringing. However, what he achieves ultimately depends on his individual talent. This also demands that the society permit him to explore Truth in the way he chooses and give him freedom to profess what he considers true in relation to the Divine or the physical world. His opinions may be unorthodox and may not conform to the establishment, freedom is as important in the realm of spilituality as in that of sciences.

Spirituality essentially aims at man's inward transformation, culminating in realization of the Self. The process involves cleansing of "the doors of perception", enabling the aspirant to see the Divine as the indwelling spirit, inhabiting "a blade of grass", the stars above and "all that we behold". The truly spilitual persons provides the best example of a noble human being, moral to the "nth degree" and "divine" to the core. Such a person is the friend of all, a well-wisher of the whole world. The true scientist, likewise, pursues knowledge both for its own sake and for the welfare of mankind. We cannot blame him outright for how his research findings and theories are exploited by those who wield political power.

A pertinent question that needs to be answered regarding spirituality is: what is the relevance and significance of the sidhis or powers that some spiritual Masters are credited with? The sastras do mention such things and we cannot dismiss them as mere "superstition". However, what is "esoteric" about them may ultimately be within the reach of science itself (as its boundaries expand), but attaching undue significancc to them is perhaps not desirable for the aspirant. They would only distract his attention from what he should prize most-his inward illumination. Of course, the real spiritual miracles that great Masters perform are actually "unseen" a mere 'look' or a 'touch' works wonders in terms of the spiritual awakening of the seeker who is thus blessed. The accomplished Masters, if and when at all they utilize sidhis, do so selectively and discreetly out of compassion for true devotees. They do not do it for winning "applause".

Great sidhas, such as Bhagawan Gopi NathJi (as we have seen and known him) or the rishis of yore, have been spiritual scientists and seers in their own right. An outstanding and classic example of a great spiritual Master and an equally great disciple that comes to my mind is that of Sri Rama Krishna Parmhamsa and Swami Vivekananda. When the inquisitive, agnostic - like Vivekananda asked the Thakur "Have you seen God?", quick came the latter's reply "Yes, I have seen Him as I see You". The assertive and confident tone of the Master here, the 'spiritual scientist' of note, at once set at rest the honest doubts of the young aspirant Narendra. He immediately recognized the Guru he had been in search of. The encounter between them was a union of two great spiritual personalities. Sn Ram Krishna, the great Bhakta of Mother Kali, in fact, behaved like a true scientist in experimenting with faiths like Christianity and Islam, and in adopting several Gurus including Bhairawi and Totapuri. As for Vivekananda, we can say that he proved himself to be an epitome of the best that we find in the eastern religions and western thought.

To conclude, the boundaries of science and spirituality do overlap: the scientist's intuition, at times, goads him on and steers his empirical investigations in the right direction. So do the thrilling accounts of the universe, given in science fiction and in works like the scientist James Jeans' 'Mysterious Universe' sometimes awaken in the inquisitive reader "a sense of wonder". Such accounts may inspire the potential seeker in the 'qualified' reader, whose perception is fine, and awaken the 'sleeping' Kundalini in him. That is what exactly happened when Sri Rama Krishna was struck by the beauty of a host of swans flying high up in the sky. He was instantly thrown into a trance-like state. There is an much of compatibility between the fine arts (including poetry and music) and spirituality as there is between pure science and the Religion of man (transcending creeds and dogmas). Swami Vivekanand rightly visualized the future possibility of science coming close to religion and vice versa; extremes, he said, will eventually meet. The spiritual scientist should no longer be a myth but a reality in the future, however distant.
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