Science and Religion The Quest for Synthesis
by Ravindra Swarupa Dasa
All human knowledge, be it “religious” or “scientific,” must ascend toward the Absolute Truth.
The following is Part II of a paper presented at the World Congress for the Synthesis of Science and Religion, held January 9-12, 1986, in Bombay. The paper was originally entitled ‘The Contribution of Bhagavata-dharma Toward a ‘Scientific Religion’ and a ‘Religious Science.’ ”
INTRODUCTORY NOTE: This has been the argument so far: According to the analysis of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and His followers, the Vedic literature presents the development of human knowledge, in its gradual ascent toward the Absolute Truth, as a process made of three steps or phases. These three phases exemplify the classical dialectical pattern of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
The first phase—called karma—embodies a culture of mastery of technique for the domination and control of nature. The second, antithetical phase—that of jnana—embodies the rejection of the world and a turn toward a negative or void absolute. Although jnana is a reaction against karma, it still shares common presuppositions with it; as a result, jnana fails to attain the full Absolute. This fullness is realized in bhakti, the final phase, in which the Absolute becomes revealed as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, possessing nonmundane name, form, qualities, and relations. The concept of the Absolute as having in a non- contradictory way simultaneous form and formlessness (i.e., spiritual form and no material form) synthesizes the affirmation of karma and the negation of jnana by raising—sublating—both to a higher platform. Similarly, the phenomenal world, misused and misperceived in karma, rejected and denied in jnana, returns in bhakti, radiantly revealed in its true feature as the divine energy of the Supreme.
This tripartite progression is not a feature of “religion” or “Hinduism” but of human knowledge as such; therefore it is exemplified in history, both Eastern and Western. In India the phase of karma found concrete historical embodiment in the culture of yajna, or sacrifice, whereby technical specialists sought through the mastery of their technique to gain control over material nature. The culture of Vedic yajna is thus recognizable to us as a form of science, even though the science is different from today’s. In time, excesses and disappointments in the culture of karma engendered the antithetical stage of jnana in the form of the Buddhist reaction.
Now we turn to the parallels in modern Western history.
I would now like to put forward the thesis that what we are presently witnessing in the spiritual development of Western civilization is the transition—or, rather, the attempt at a transition—from karma to jnana. On the one side, there is growing disappointment with the culture of technique. On the other side, science itself has encountered absolute limits to its knowledge and has been forced to admit the unknowable and incalculable—“absolute chance”—into its reckonings; has encountered at the origin of all things something beyond all thought and utterance, something of infinitesimal size and infinite mass; has penetrated to a region in which the phenomenal world dissolves into insubstantiality, flux, irreality.
The speculations of Eastern mysticism early intrigued physicists like Schroedinger, and now a whole library of popular literature, beginning with The Tao of Physics, surveys the void or negative absolute of jnana as a possible meeting ground of science and religion, East and West. This development according to my paradigm, is quite natural. In modern times a highly developed culture of technique encounters its own limits, turns against itself in disappointment and even disgust, and seeks to go to a higher phase. Such a culture will naturally find congenial the reflections of an older civilization where the same process had long ago taken place.
We must be aware, however, that our contemporary attempt at transition from karma to jnana is not a brand-new endeavor even for the West. Rather, it has determined the agenda for most Western intellectual, cultural, and even political life for the last three centuries, and we have to see the present as a continuation of the past. In the eighteenth century, the culture of karma—its goals, its vision of man and his prospects, its view of nature and man’s relation to nature, its program for the future—became established at the heart of European civilization. This, of course, is the Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment vision of man and nature as both fully intelligible and controllable by reason and rational activity has dominated Western culture to this day. But as Isaiah Berlin has shown, there was an almost immediate reaction to this Enlightenment vision, a counter-Enlightenment, which matured into the Romantic movement. The Romantic revolt embodied an effort to move to the platform of jnana, and a survey of the major components of the Romantic vision—idealism, mysticism, monism, relativism, organicism, anti-rationalism, etc.—will show the characteristics of the culture of jnana.
The attempted transition from karma to jnana of the last century failed disastrously, however, and we need now to examine the reasons for that failure and the compelling lesson it has for us today.
The frustration and despair produced by disillusionment with the culture of karma will, if circumstances do not promote further growth, engender nihilism: the perception of a void that annihilates—renders meaningless—all endeavor and value. Here the culture of karma reaches its terminus. The very beginning of the culture of jnana, on the other side. as presented in the most naturalistic of Buddhist traditions, is shunya, void. This void also annihilates all worldly endeavor and value, but the former, the “profane void,” as it were, is a threat, and the latter, the “sacred void,” is a succor. Thus, transcendence becomes first intelligible to materially exhausted karmis as shunya, void—or as the cognitively identical nirvishesha Brahman, i.e., the Absolute Truth void of all names, form, quality, activity, or relation.
Progress occurs when people can somehow ford the gap between the profane and the sacred void. But in the European attempt of the last century, nihilism was never overcome. It remained a persistent factor. For this reason, transcendence was never fully trusted; indeed, it was significantly depicted in the literature of the time as manifesting a furious, demonic energy, as possessing a kind of mindless malevolence—as in Schopenhauer’s Will and Melville’s white whale.
Transcendence remained a threat, and the attempt at jnana failed, simply because the European jnana was not joined with vairagya, renunciation. In this we see the most telling difference between the paradigms operating in the Vedic and Western environments. In the Vedic milieu the enjoyment of the goods of life was regulated within the culture of karma, so that the tendency to excess was held in restraint The temperature of material life was not allowed to become feverish. As a result when jnana developed, the necessary accompanying vairagya—the renunciation of material desires—was feasible.
In modern European civilization, on the other hand, the culture of karma embodied no internal mechanism to restrict and regulate desires. That task was assigned to “religion,” which the culture of karma itself rendered irrelevant When the culture of karma encountered its limits, the voracity and tenacity of Western material aspirations put renunciation out of reach. Consequently, transcendence appeared as hostile and life- threatening, and nihilism remained as an insurmountable obstacle.
In these circumstances, the worst features of karma and jnana combine to reinforce each other. Sometimes the “absolute” is manifest: terrible, malevolent all- devouring, compelling one’s abasement and debasement before it. Yet at the same time. emptiness looms everywhere, engendering ontological panic and terror. The insubstantial fabric of the unreal world floats without foundation or support a myth or dream, but one is still driven by an unrelenting urge to master it and enjoy it All truth is myth; reality itself is malleable to the imagination of the strong. The absolute erupts through everywhere, but only he who surrenders to its ferocious demands embodies in his own person its indomitable energies, and so becomes the master of the world.
In this way, the failed jnana of the West breeds demonic forms of faith—the most outstanding instance, of course, being the Nazi movement in Germany.
Once again, the West is essaying the same transition. The sixties’ counterculture in America was a dramatic irruption by the culture of jnana. Nearly all of its central ideals and doctrines were expressed centuries ago in the original counter-Enlightenment. The counterculture has grown up and settled down to steady work in the so-called “Aquarian conspiracy,” and the secular humanist tradition, bearing the torch of the Enlightenment has gone on the offensive. What is happening now is thus the continuation of an old cultural dynamic. Once again the void or undifferentiated absolute is being proffered as the solution to our difficulties.
I do not see much hope for progress, however. According to my analysis, if jnana is to be successful, it must be accompanied by vairagya, renunciation. Yet little, if any, renunciation seems to have been manifest in the counterculture and in those who continue its work. Indeed, the debased forms of jnana inaugurated by the counterculture have already produced several notable instances of demonic faith. All the proponents of the Eastern form of jnana who have come proselytizing in the West have removed or minimized the demands of vairagya to suit the palate of Western consumers. If my analysis is correct, this is practically a criminal act.
Therefore, there is not much prospect for real progress in the present culture of jnana in the West. On the contrary, we are in great danger—mortal danger—of repeating the horrific mistakes of the past. Hope for progress must lie elsewhere.
According to the paradigm I am presenting, jnana is not the ultimate but the penultimate stage of spiritual development. According to the Bhagavad-gita, if jnana is properly cultivated to maturity, it undergoes a further transformation into bhakti (Bg. 7.19). If we can understand this point, then perhaps we might see a way out of our impasse.
The stage of jnana is not complete knowledge. It is a reactionary stage, antithetical to karma, and therefore bound to it, as the negation of a proposition is bound to the proposition. It seeks the absolute through negation of relative names, forms, qualities, and so on, yet these negations, being opposites, are themselves therefore relative and, as such, fall short of disclosing the absolute. In both thought and action, jnana rejects the world of objects, names, senses, desires, and activities, but what is denied continues to haunt it like a familiar ghost—just as. in Sankaracarya’s metaphysics, the world, which strictly speaking does not exist, still haunts the ontology. Is discursive thought that denies the reality of discursive thought real or unreal?
For jnana to be successful and attain the unitary knowledge it seeks, it must also overcome the opposition between affirmation and negation, between name and form, quality and relation, and the denial of them: between action and the cessation of action; between, indeed, karma and jnana. There are statements to this effect in the literature of jnana itself, but the solution is not explicated; it is usually presented as a final, mystifying, mind-blowing paradox, its resolution beyond any expressible content
If, for example, the thesis (karma) is “form,” then the antithesis (jnana) is “formless.” How do we overcome this duality, this opposition? What do we seek that has form and is formless at the same time?
The resolution is disclosed on the platform of bhakti. At this stage knowledge of the absolute attains completion, and beyond the undifferentiated light, there is revealed within transcendence a supreme entity of spiritual variegatedness—the manifest Absolute Truth, the Personality of Godhead. This disclosure of transcendental or spiritual form unites the opposition of form and formlessness: there is form but no form, i.e., no material form.
Synthesis is achieved by dissolving the common assumption of the first two stages. For both the karmi and the jnani, “form” means “material form,” so that the locution “spiritual form” is perceived as self-contradictory. The assumption implicit in jnana that name, form, attribute, relation, and activity are by definition material illustrates how jnana is tied to the phenomenal world and united with karma.
Neither karma nor jnana has access to transcendental form, for neither the perceptions of material senses nor the negation of them can apprehend it But when, in relationship with the supreme person, spiritual senses are manifest by acting in devotion, transcendental form becomes cognizable.
Bhakti sublates both karma and jnana, fusing action and inaction, form and formlessness. The world, denied in jnana, returns in bhakti, but in a wholly transfigured manner; it is not the profane world enjoyed by the karmi or renounced by the jnani. In both cases, the world is unrelated to the Supreme, but the bhakta sees the world as intrinsically related, as energy to the energetic source, as one with God and yet different from Him at the same time. God and God’s energies constitute the whole Absolute Truth, a unity that includes, not excludes, diversity.
A person on the platform of jnana becomes eligible for bhakti if, by becoming sufficiently distanced from the world, he loses his material conceptions of form, activity, and individuality, and if, further, he gains humility, abandoning his own aspirations toward supremacy. Both karma and jnana are averse to acknowledging personal subordination to a supreme individual. The philosophies of both remove God from the ontology, or at least demote Him, for a categorically supreme individual interferes with the aspirations of the practitioner.
Here I will end my presentation of the paradigm of karma, jnana, and bhakti. I hope to have made as least a prima facie case for the plausibility of the paradigm. I am persuaded that this is what Krishna meant when He said: vedaish ca sarvair aham eva vedyah. I have tried to show how, among those who let themselves be guided by the Vedas, the human aspiration toward knowledge and well- being follows the path from karma to jnana to bhakti. Being fully cognizant of the entire process, the leaders of Vedic culture created an environment that fostered and encouraged such development
Yet we see the same paradigm manifesting itself in the modern West, within the enterprise we call not religion but science. Since the identical paradigm is at work, we can see that our categorical separation of religion and science, our secularized understanding, is inadequate to reality.
According to my analysis, to rectify the Western situation, one would somehow have to introduce a powerful impetus to restraint in the practices of karma, and to austerity and renunciation in the practices of jnana. That to us, these elements strike the note of “religion” should not now be seen as a valid theoretical objection, but it is a serious practical one. The fact is that such a wholesale reformation of society, working up from karma to jnana, is impossible.
It is possible, however, to reform from the top down. That is the specific point Krishna makes in the Bhagavad- gita.
The Bhagavad-gita recognizes that the natural spiritual development from karma to jnana to bhakti is very slow and very difficult There are many ways to become baffled and deviated from the course. Thus, Krishna states that only after undergoing the trouble of many births does one who is actually wise—i.e., developed in jnana—surrender unto Him, saying, “Vasudeva [Krishna] is everything.” Such a great soul, Krishna says, is very rare (Bg. 7.19). Indeed, we have noted how, even under the protective shelter of Vedic culture, karma and jnana sometimes became spiritual dead ends.
Precisely for this reason, Krishna offers in the Bhagavad- gita the opportunity to come directly to bhakti—even if one is a failure at the proper execution of karma and jnana. You may abandon all other dharmas, Krishna says to Arjuna, and directly come to Me. This offer comes at the end of the Bhagavad-gita, after Krishna has demonstrated to Arjuna’s satisfaction that all the Vedas, all knowledge, all science is just a seeking after Him. I have tried to give some reasons for recognizing the plausibility of Krishna’s analysis.
In short, if we cannot reform Western culture from the bottom up, the Bhagavad-gita offers us the opportunity to do it from the top down. My own hope, therefore, for the prospects of humanity, is that sincere and thoughtful people, after giving serious reflection to the analysis of dharma in the Bhagavad-gita, will accept simply in principle, that all human endeavor aspires after bhakti. Such people will then be able to take advantage of Krishna’s offer in the Bhagavad- gita, in spite of their bafflement in karma and jnana. If bhakti is thus established, then as a matter of course, karma and jnana, included as they are in bhakti, will be rectified and reformed.
In the concluding paragraph of Novum Organum, Francis Bacon, that great harbinger of the Enlightenment makes this pregnant comment: “Man, by the fall, lost at once his state of innocence, and his empire over creation, both of which can be partially recovered even in this life, the first by religion and faith, the second by the arts and sciences.”
Defenders of Bacon are right when they say that Bacon did not envision the elimination of religion. Rather, as this statement shows, he saw the need for science and religion. Both are needed so that humanity may possess both power and innocence.
Bacon’s hope was unfulfilled. Rather, we have seen that since Bacon’s time humanity has purchased power at the expense of innocence, has established science by driving out religion. Indeed, the seed of this disaster was present in Bacon himself, who, for all his genuine piety, espoused the late medieval doctrine of double truth, i.e., one truth of science or natural reason, another truth of religion or scripture, neither related to the other. The process of secularization was founded upon this doctrine.
Science and religion were already estranged in Bacon, even though formal divorce proceedings had not been instigated. Yet the ideal of the union of power and innocence is compelling. That precisely, is what is lacking in the modern world—full of power but devoid of all innocence, or, more insidiously, exercising power in one sphere and innocence in another. We see power and innocence as antithetical; how can we unite them?
In terms of my paradigm, karma epitomizes power, and jnana innocence, the one controlling the world, the other withdrawing from it. As long as they remain in opposition or tension, we fail to reach our desired aim. For this reason, the state of jnana, even if obtained, is no solution to the problem. In bhakti, however, karma and jnana are synthesized, and action in the world by people wholly empty of desire or ambition, wholly renounced and yet immersed in social and natural commerce, is possible.
“I am situated in everyone’s heart,” Krishna tells Arjuna. The soul of the universe is the Supersoul in the heart of every living being. “From Me comes knowledge,” He continues (Bg. 15.15). Thus the Bhagavad-gita explains how, through bhakti, the intelligence of the embodied individual can receive direct guidance and instruction in all activities from the supreme intelligence within. The possibilities for science are immense, for that instructor is the one who lures us on as the single, unified elegant principle that contains and explains everything. If we are innocent, then—and only then—can we become truly powerful.
Bhakti teaches that in order to receive such knowledge and power, we must become humble, for the Supreme bestows these gifts only upon those who have become His innocent servants. As practitioners of karma and jnana, we have pursued mastery, seeking great achievement by our own efforts, in which we take much pride. Hence, we have acquired an aversion to servitude; we hesitate to recognize another as our categorical superior, and, admitting our failures, accept help from His hands. Yet we should reflect on how all our own great achievements in power and knowledge have brought us to the brink of our own destruction. Our situation could hardly be more critical. At this point, we should be grateful to accept any help we can get.
Modern Influences of The Enlightenment
The “Enlightenment” denotes a broad European social and intellectual movement that coincided roughly with the eighteenth century, giving that period the name the “Age of Reason.” It was centered in England and France, where groups of likeminded thinkers worked together on the task of freeing human society from what they saw as the accumulated errors and superstitions of the past, in order to recreate it entirely on a rational and scientific basis. Francis Hutcheson and David Hume, and later Edward Gibbon and Jeremy Bentham, developed Enlightenment ideas in Scotland and England. In France a group of thinkers known as the philosophers, of whom Voltaire and Rousseau are the most well known, united under the editorship of Diderot and D’Alembert to produce the Encyclopedic of 1751, the summa of Enlightenment ideas.
Enlightenment thinkers placed their faith in autonomous human reason. They believed that the method of Newtonian physics, based on measurement and mathematical operations, could alone give reliable knowledge. Profoundly inspired by the apparent success of Newton in opening nature to our understanding, they sought to extend his methods to all human concerns—but most of all to the ordering of human life in society. They thought that Newton’s laws revealed a universe that was neat, orderly, regulated, and rational through and through—like a gigantic mechanical clock in which everything fit smoothly and intelligibly together with no loose ends. Human societies were embedded within nature and part of it, yet human society, as they experienced it, was not like the universe: it was unruly, disordered, conflicted, and irrational.
Run by priests and kings whose authority derived from revelation and tradition and not scientific observation. society was, in a word. unenlightened. To overhaul human society, they thought we must extend Newton’s method from inanimate nature to human beings and their moral, social, and political behavior. This program will uncover all the natural mechanisms that operate human beings and give us the same control over human nature that Newton’s physics promised to give over inanimate nature.
In this way the Enlightenment propounded and initiated the cultural movement that enshrines the method of quantitative, empirical science as the only valid means of knowledge, seeks to extend the hegemony of science over all phenomena, and dismisses anything not accessible to the method of mechanistic science as nonexistent or insignificant
The “Counter-Enlightenment” refers to the effort of a number of thinkers, contemporary with the Enlightenment to criticize and attack Enlightenment rationalism and scientism. The German theologian and philosopher J. G. Hamman. for example, began as a follower of the Enlightenment but turned into one of its most vigorous critics. Emphasizing feeling over abstract thinking, sympathetic participation over detached observation, inspiration over analytic reasoning, he was a forerunner of the attitudes that characterized the Romantic movement
The Romanticism of the nineteenth century ran directly counter to the doctrines of the Enlightenment The individual. the unique, and the exotic were valued over the universal, the uniform. and the familiar. The Middle Ages even returned to favor, and the Renaissance was viewed as a “second Fall.” An interest in mysticism and mystical experience revived. and Oriental religions attracted students and admirers. Monistic, idealistic. and pantheistic philosophies proliferated. Nature was viewed as alive, as a seamlessly flowing organic whole. Science. with its piles of discrete measurement could only destroy and misrepresent: “We murder to dissect” as Wordsworth wrote.
The forces of both the Enlightenment and Counter- Enlightenment are with us today. In the field of psychology, for example, the Enlightenment spirit is embodied in “behavioral psychology,” which is dedicated to achieving reproducible results from controlled laboratory experiments on human and animal “subjects.” It uses careful measurement to produce quantified data and subjects them to statistical analysis. But the spirit of the Counter-Enlightenment continues on in what is now called “humanistic psychology,” which focuses on the emotional and spiritual concerns of people and is even open to recognizing religious experience as a major value in human life. Although both groups inhabit the field of psychology, they have little, if anything, to say to each other.
The unresolved conflict between these two cultural movements has determined much of the agenda of European history for the last three centuries. Both the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment are very much with us, but the shortcomings of both of them make progress unlikely. The stalemate will have to be broken by forces beyond the conflict.