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Articles from Pre-1998 Issues 

Spirituality and the Scientific Temper

by Soni Kachroo

Spirituality is a term that means many things to many people, to some it means devotion to spiritual things and to some others it signifies the mystical and the religious ways. However, in its broadest scope, it embodies certain postulated virtues, philosophical speculation, ethical and moral attitudes, and the belief that spiritual existence is more important than material existence. It stresses belief in transcendental entities, in religious and moral ideas in terms of which our fathers could rationalize their feelings. We talk of our present age as a spiritually impoverished one in which we act not in terms of postulated divinities, virtues and goodness but in terms of mundane realities like the 'right to happiness' and the 'right to a better material life'. We justify our feelings and actions by an appeal to human welfare; we are doubtful regarding some supposed absolute good. Instead we believe that what is good is so in itself. Many of the ideas which our forefathers accepted without questions are now rejected outright by us.

Our pre-occupation in contemporary times is with the humanitarian idea of universal welfare, the upliftment of material life and social well-being. We aim to fight for progress, for social prosperity. We look at a thing pragmatically and have less time to occupy our minds with philosophical postulations about the mystical; we have little time to ponder on the belief that the knowledge of God and of the real truth may be reached through meditation or spiritual insight, independently of reasons and the senses. If there are truths beyond human understanding, they are better left to themselves for the moment; instead, we should concentrate on the immediate problem of human weal and woe.

If we strip spirituality of its mantle of the mystical and look at its ethical and moral relevance, we are on better terms with it then. Judged in this light there is no conflict between spirituality and the 'scientific temper'. It is, in fact, the interaction between man's soul in quest of the good and man's actions in that direction that has resulted in an ever-widening horizon of human endeavour.

We cannot drive away an attack of indigestion or migraine by 'talking' to it; we have to do something more than merely talking about it. We have to take some medicines. We cannot fight Aids or Cancer ( to name a few killers only) by merely sitting up, closing our eyes and meditating. We did so in the past and died in good numbers and in quick time. Let us remember that God gave us grain but we have to make the furrow; God has sent us flax but we must make the spindle. Well, the man who made this instrument for the furrow or who made the spindle was the man with the scientific temper. It is a long-long way from the earliest and the simplest tool to the modern computer controlling giant machines, but it is a story of man's restless soul in pursuit of happiness; it is a story of how his scientific temper guides his pursuit of knowledge.

Imagine a world where everybody sits up, gazes at the stars, meditates with legs locked, occasionally waiting or reciting a few lines of sublimity. Could it be possible for such a monk-infested world to have even a simple tincture iodine for a cut, let alone special medicines for serious diseases? What I want to emphasize is that progress is unthinkable without the scientific temper. We have progressed far in many fields of human activity and the horizon is ever-widening. The scientific temper is pervasive in all fields and everywhere there is a climate of research and enquiry. The modern age is aptly called the age of science. The only fly in the ointment is the misconception that the scientific temper is at logger-heads with ethics and morals. It is wrong to judge things in such a fashion because then we fail to see the real connection at is there between spirituality and science. It is actually ethical and moral considerations that prompt a scientist to spend weary hours in finding a new drug, a new cure, a new machine. Wasn't Louis Pasteur, who spent a whole life finding cures for agonizing and deadly diseases a truly Spilitual person? How many million lives have been saved by the pioneers in the field of medicine.

There are, of course, abuses of our scientific achievements and it is against these abuses that we have to wage a moral and a spiritual struggle. No scientific innention is bad at its original source; it is only later that the politician turns it into an instrument of wickedness. If the scientists discoveries are utilized by those who wield power to terrorize man we wrongly infer that the scientific approach has led us to such a sorry pass. It is the politician's lust for power, his evil designs to dominate others, that distorts human discovery into a nightmare. And paradoxically enough it is the scientists themselves who warn the world about these abuses. It is the scientists who try to inject into us all ethical a moral and a spiritual discipline. Thus the scientific spirit cannot be in opposition to the moral and the ethical spirit.

But at the same time it is true that the world today has become a funny place; we boast of the universal spread of education and enlightenment, yet there is an astonishing spread of ignorance and helplessness. To quote G. B. Shaw, "there are millions of workers, none of them are able to make anything, none of them knowing what to do until somebody tells them, none of them having the least notion of how it is that they find people paying them money with which to buy things in the shops" there is a universal ignorance of how things are made and done while at the same time things are made and done on a gigantic scale. It only shows that we have to pay a price for our material progress. We have only to narrow down the gap between our scientific temper and our spiritual perceptions. It is really not necessary nor really possible for every man to know everything. What really matters is the ability to utilize the native power that gives us the power to act, the power to go on acting ceaselessly. Our world is a world of actions in which ideas are so very important. And ideas become our guiding stars. It is true that feelings are equally important but they go on changing all the time. An idea, however, persists and it leads to actions which it is our duty to perform. The man with the scientific temper is motivated by ideas and these ideas concern human happiness and welfare. Spirituality too is concerned with human happiness and welfare.
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