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Beyond the Tao of Physics

Fritjof Capra’s bestseller points to apparent parallels between Eastern mysticism and the new physics. But there’s more in the Vedic version than is dreamt of in Capra’s philosophy.

Over the past six or seven years I’ve met many people, mostly college students, who’ve read Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, a bestseller about the apparent parallels between Eastern mysticism and modern physics. Capra, a high-energy physicist with a long-standing interest in Eastern philosophy, finds it significant that physicists’ descriptions of the paradoxical subatomic reality they seem to have discovered echo the descriptions of reality given by the mystics of various traditions, namely, the Vedic tradition of India, the Buddhist tradition, and the Taoist tradition of China. He cites the following two references to typify the kind of agreement he sees between the Oriental and the Occidental world views. The first is from Robert Oppenheimer’s Science and the Common Understanding:

If we ask, for instance, whether the position of (he electron remains the same, we must say ‘no’; if we ask whether the electron’s position changes with time, we must say ‘no’; if we ask whether the electron is at rest, we must say ‘no’; if we ask whether it is in motion, we must say ‘no.’

Next, turning to the Eastern tradition, he cites a translation of the Isha Upanishad, Mantra Five:

It moves. It moves not.
It is far, and It is near.
It is within all this,
And It is outside of all this.

In general, Capra’s thesis seems sensible, though I’m sure sticklers for details would take exception to his lumping together Vedic mysticism. Buddhism, and Taoism, as if all three shared the same conclusions. Anyway, details notwithstanding, Capra’s attempt to describe quantum physics as a too (a way of knowing ultimate reality) on a par with Eastern mysticism has been hailed by some as the long- awaited marriage of science with religion. Some enthusiasts say it heralds a change in the West from a scientific world view to a spiritual one. This, I’ve been told, augurs well for the Krishna consciousness movement, because the devotees may then get the recognition they deserve for having been on the right path all along.

People I’ve spoken with are usually surprised to find out that Capra’s understanding of the most popular texts on Vedic mysticism, the Bhagavad-gita and the Upanishads, differs markedly from the Krishna conscious understanding. This revelation has led me into some lengthy discussions with a few of Capra’s readers. One encounter I had with a student, in which we minutely went over all the fine points of translation and interpretation, lasted almost five hours. In the end, the student agreed that Capra had unwittingly adopted some of the most common misconceptions about the Vedic teachings, consequently presenting an incomplete description. More importantly, the student was convinced that Krishna consciousness presents the full conclusion and that it leads further into ultimate reality than the tao of physics.

Capra’s Version

To single out Capra for his failure to understand the Vedic tradition would be unfair, for he is not alone. His impersonalistic interpretation is similar to many other misinterpretations and speculative conceptions of ultimate reality common in the West. Most readers, then, will glimpse the familiar within the tenets of Capra’s philosophy, which is but a recent variation on a very old theme.

Capra’s understanding of the Vedic view is that the varieties of things and events in this world are but different manifestations of the same ultimate impersonal reality, the same ultimate substance. This ultimate reality, called Brahman and sometimes referred to in the West as “the white light,” permeates everything and everywhere, ebbing and flowing in what Capra describes as “the cosmic dance of subatomic energy.” It is a reality devoid of variety. Capra quotes the Katha Upanishad (3.15):

What is soulless, touchless, formless,
Likewise tasteless, constant, odorless,
Without beginning, without end, higher than
the great, stable—
By discovering That, one is liberated from
the mouth of death.

He also quotes from the Bhagavad-gita (13.12): “Brahman, supreme, beginning-less, beyond what is and what is not.”

And the Chandogya Upanishad (6.9.4.): “That which is the finest essence—this whole world has that as its soul. That is reality. That is Atman. That art thou.”

The goal of Vedic mysticism, according to Capra, is to break free from karmic bondage to this world; to break free from the illusion that this world of form and events is reality; to merge into eternal oneness with Brahman; to become one with the cosmic dance. This experience Capra touts as the very essence of the Vedic ideal:

To be free from the spell of maya, to break the bonds of karma, means to realize that all the phenomena we perceive with our senses are part of the same reality. It means to experience, concretely and personally, that everything, including ourself, is Brahman.

Finally, Capra regards Vedic mysticism’s personal conception of God, with His name, form, paraphernalia, entourage, and so on, as “manifestations of the same divine reality, reflecting different aspects of the infinite, omnipresent, and—ultimately—incomprehensible Brahman.”

The Vedic Version

As I’ve already indicated, the impersonal interpretation of the Vedic philosophy is not entirely wrong. But it is incomplete. The Vedic literature does describe an impersonal Brahman existence, but not as the ultimate level of reality. The Bhagavad-gita, Upanishads, and other Vedic texts describe Brahman as the level between this mundane world and the ultimate personal reality. In the fourteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna says, brahmano hi pratishthaham: “I am the basis of the impersonal Brahman.”

Elsewhere in the Gita He says, “There is no truth superior to Me” (7.7); “Yet there is another unmanifest nature, which is eternal and is transcendental to this manifested and unmanifested matter” (8.20); nd “I am the source of both the spiritual and material worlds” (10.8).

In the Upanishads also, we find these statements about existence beyond Brahman:

O my Lord, O primeval philosopher, maintainer of the universe, destination of the pure devotees … please remove the effulgence of Your transcendental rays so that I can see Your form of bliss. (Isha Upanishad, Mantra 16) Lord Govinda [Krishna] is beyond the duality of the material world, and He is nondifferent from His form, which is eternal and full of bliss and knowledge. (Gopala-tapani Upanishad) Of all eternals, there is one who is the chief eternal. Of all conscious living entities, there is one who is the chief conscious entity. That supreme living being, the Personality of Godhead, maintains the others and fulfills their desires according to their needs. (Katha Upanishad, 2.2.13)

In addition to these verses, there aremany more that mention the paravyoma, a reality beyond the Brahman realm. Some passages give detailed descriptions of the things and events there. Take for example these verses from the fifth chapter of the Brahma-samhita (29, 33, 40):

I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, the first progenitor, who is tending cows yielding all desires among abodes built with spiritual gems, and who is surrounded by millions of wish-fulfilling trees. He is always served with great reverence and affection by hundreds of thousands of lakshmis [goddesses of fortune], or gopis [transcendental milkmaids].

I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who is adept at playing on His flute, who has eyes like blooming lotus petals, whose head is bedecked with a peacock’s feather, whose figure of beauty is tinged with the hue of blue clouds, and whose unique loveliness is charming millions of Cupids.

I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, round whose neck is swinging a garland of flowers beautified with the moon locket, whose two hands are adorned with the flute and jeweled ornaments, who always revels in pastimes of love, and whose graceful threefold-bending form is eternally manifest.

I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who eternally sees, maintains, and manifests the infinite universes, both spiritual and mundane. His transcendental form is full of bliss, truth, and substantiality, and is thus full of the most dazzling splendor. Each of the limbs of that transcendental figure possesses in itself the full- fledged functions of all the organs.

I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who is inaccessible to the Vedas, but who is obtainable by pure unalloyed devotion of the soul. He is without a second, not subject to decay, and without a beginning. His form is endless, He is the beginning, and He is the eternal supreme being, yet He is a person possessing the beauty of blooming youth.

I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who is endowed with great power. The glowing effulgence of His transcendental form is the impersonal Brahman, which is absolute, complete, and unlimited and which displays the varieties of countless planets, with their different opulences, in millions and millions of universes.

These stanzas clearly describe a reality different from the gross world of our senses, and from the subtle world of Capra’s cosmic dance. They describe a realm of variegated, nondeteriorating spiritual elements and gems, a realm beyond the Brahman liberation so highly regarded by the impersonalists, a realm that can be attained only by unalloyed devotion of the soul for the Supreme Soul. The Bhagavad- gita describes these devoted souls as the topmost mystics.

It is interesting to note, as Ravindra-svarupa dasa, a frequent contributor to BACK TO GODHEAD, points out in a scholarly essay, “The Devotee and the Deity: Living a Personalistic Theology,”* [*Published in Gods of Flesh/ Gods of Stone: The Embodiment of Divinity in India, eds. Joanne Punzo Waghorne and Norman Cutler(Chambersburg, PA: Anima, 1985).] the three levels of reality described in Vedic mysticism correspond to the three- part dialectical pattern of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis employed in Western philosophy. With the mundane world of form as the thesis and the formless Brahman as its antithesis, a third and final stage of synthesis is indicated. This synthesis would logically necessitate the integration of form and the formless, a feat any materialistic mind would find absurd and paradoxical. Even in their wildest speculations, impersonalists cannot reconcile the contradictory feature of being simultaneously with and without form. Yet the Vedic literature regards the synthesis of form and formless as a tangible accomplishment.

Ravindra-svarupa explains how this synthesis works:

It is not necessary to regard the union of “form” and “formless” as intractable mystification without utterable content. Let us be more precise about the beginning and define form explicitly as “material form.” Thus, its negation, formless, means “no material form.” Now we can see our way clear to the final synthesis, the affirmation that sublates the negation: “spiritual form.” This is the higher unity of “form” and “formless”: there is form but no [material] form.

The verses of Brahma-samhita describe this realm of higher unity, and its concrete and personal realization is the goal and essence of Vedic mysticism.
Why Impersonalists Are Thwarted

“But,” you may well ask, “if this is all on the level, why would scholars and scientists of the caliber of a Fritjof Capra interpret the Vedic tradition in an impersonalistic way?” The answer is that they do not study the subject matter in an authorized way. Either they hear explanations from some self-styled guru who puts forward his speculations as realized truths, or they try on their own to understand the apparently contradictory statements of the Vedic texts. This leads to interesting conjecture, but little else.

The prescription of the Vedic literature itself is that the serious student of spiritual life should approach a bona fide guru as the first step in gaining Vedic knowledge. A bona fide guru is one who comes in disciplic succession from the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself and who teaches by his example how to execute spiritual life.

In Bhagavad-gita (4.34) the Supreme Lord, Krishna, advises,

Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth.

The same advice is given in the Mundaka Upanishad(1.2.l2):

To learn the transcendental science, one must approach a bona fide spiritual master in disciplic succession, who is fixed in the Absolute Truth.

Similarly, the Svetashvatara Upanishad (6.23) states,

Only unto those great souls who simultaneously have implicit faith in both the Lord and the spiritual master are all imports of Vedic knowledge automatically revealed.

The impersonalists’ practice of quoting the Vedic literature as authority with regard to ultimate reality and not heeding its advice to approach a genuine guru in disciplic succession is likened to a patient’s taking medicine without following the instructions on the label. If you have to take a particular medicine, you should not do so according to your whim, or according to another’s whim. You should take it according to the directions on the label or according to the directions of a qualified physician. Similarly, the Vedic prescription for understanding ultimate reality must be followed if one is to understand the Vedic message.

Without the guidance of a bona fide guru, one is compelled to speculate about the meaning of Vedic statements that apparently contradict each other, such as sometimes describing the ultimate reality as having form and at other times as being formless. With nothing but their mundane experience to go on, impersonalistic speculators mistakenly assume that all the Vedic references to variegated things and events pertain only to this world, never to transcendence. Thus they have no choice but to interpret the descriptions of ultimate reality—Krishna, His abode, and so forth—as allegorical, or as products of the impersonal Brahman.

This unfortunate mistake is not made by those who take shelter of a bona fide spiritual master. The bona fide spiritual master not only clears up problems in the proper philosophical understanding of Vedic mysticism, but he also elevates the sincere disciple to the platform of full experiential realization of the highest reality, the Absolute Truth, Lord Sri Krishna and His associates.

Of course, it may serve our purpose momentarily to forego accepting a bona fide guru, as the impersonalists do, and to interpret the Vedic tradition in our own way. But that will be of no value in the long run. The knowledge in the Vedic literature is intended to guide us out of the temporary material world, back home, back to Godhead, back to the variegated and eternal spiritual sky, which lies far beyond the impersonal Brahman and far beyond the reach of the too of physics.