Hinduism and science are in every way compatible. Both are similarly systematic; the only difference is that science deals with the material, whereas Hinduism deals with the divine. Whereas the material is perceptible or at least detectible, the divine is neither—in fact, it is not even inferable. Because Hinduism deals with what cannot be proven by material means, it requires faith. Hence, ‘religion’ is synonymous with ‘faith.’
In this way, at least with Hinduism, religion can be considered just an extension of science. Sometimes Westerners assume that human logic can be used to understand everything, but they don’t account for what is beyond logic. In fact, in my opinion, the idea that humans are capable of understanding everything is speciesism. Of course, this is no reason to halt scientific endeavors, but we should at least keep our minds open to the idea that there is something beyond us, even if that something (Brahman) is independent of what we study in science.
Actually, that independence is key to the compatibility of science and religion. When religion promulgates laws of nature, it is likely that these laws, if proven by science to be erroneous, will alienate science from religion. (*cough, cough* Creationism) But on the other hand, when religion promulgates laws such as “God empowers the laws of nature,” then any scientific discoveries will just enhance our understanding of what God empowers. If you will, Hinduism is the why and how behind the what of science. With this logic, science and religion don’t have to be opposing schools of thought.
What exactly is beyond science? For one, Vedanta tells us that creation is one part mrityu loka and three parts amrita loka, and that beyond both is the loka of the Supreme. In perspective, science will always be limited to mrityu loka. What’s more, of the three parts of mrityu loka—bhu loka, bhuva loka, and swarga loka—the study of science is limited to almost exclusively the grossest one, bhu loka. Note that this system of lokas does not imply that amrita loka is a physical place, but rather a different realm of experience undefinable by “place” as we understand the word. The realm of science and the upper lokas are independent, just as electromagnetic waves can overlap space without clashing with it.
Another way to describe the realms beyond is through the layers of the self, which parallel the progression of the lokas. This can be done through the three bodies: the sthula sarira (gross body), the suksma sarira (the subtle body), and the karana sarira (the causal body). In this system, science is limited to the sthula sarira. Or, another way to define the layers of the self is through the five koshas, which parallel the three sariras. The annamaya kosha (material sheath) is the sthula sarira; the pranamaya kosha (the sheath of prana, the vital life-force), the manomaya kosha (the sheath of the mind), and the vijnanamaya kosha (the sheath of special knowledge and intuitive intellect) all are part of the suksma sarira; and the anandamaya kosha (sheath of bliss) parallels the karana sarira. In this system, science is limited to the annamaya kosha. To science’s credit, science does venture a little into mana (mind) and buddhi (intellect) in the subtle body to describe human behavior and feelings, but material science is limited to the brain. Just as the mana (mind) is a tool to the atman (soul), and just as the senses (indriyas) are tools to the brain, the brain is just a tool to the mind. Yet science can’t define what is beyond the brain.
There are many other parallels between science and Hinduism. The Big Bang Theory? Hinduism describes creation as the manifestation of the gross from the subtle in the first half of Brahmachakra, which mirrors the Big Bang Theory. Evolution? Hinduism describes the development of life forms throughout the yugas, from fish to animal to human—in fact, the ten main incarnations of Vishnu demonstrate this progression. Furthermore, the four yugas (Vedic eras) themselves with their respective predominant gunas (goodness, passion, or ignorance) can just be considered symbolic of the evolution of the qualities of the self. If anything, science was late quantifying many phenomena of the universe that the Vedas described so long ago.
What about climate change? Hinduism describes the degeneration of humanity through the four yugas, and we are currently in the last of the four. Certainly, abuse of Bhu (Earth) can be part of that decline in dharma (righteousness), as dharma calls for the protection of Earth. We see the law of karma: human greed through the exploitation of Earth is coming back at us, not as a punishment from God, but as an inevitable result of our actions. What’s more, Hinduism adapts to the times by telling us not what we should do (ex. use more resources) but rather how we should do whatever secular studies tell us is best (ex. with the wellbeing of all life in mind). Secular studies without doubt indicate that we must take action to inhibit global warming, and verified facts should not be up for debate.
Hinduism also ascribes a syllable to divinity: AUM. AUM, commonly seen as Om, has three parts–the opening of the mouth (A), the shaping of the lips (U), and the closing of the mouth (M)–that have been used to represent many aspects of the self. The three parts can mean the three main states of being: awake, in deep sleep, and in dream or the REM stage of sleep, a progression that matches our modern understanding of neuroscience. (Again, Hinduism reveals a limit of science as it describes a fourth, immeasurable state, called turiya.) AUM also has many other meanings, a few of which include the three deities of the universe (Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protector, and Mahesh the Destroyer), the three-fold knowledge (Rig Veda, Sama Veda, asand Yajur Veda), the three aspects of the world (Bhu loka, Bhuva loka, and Swarga loka), and the three stages of time (past, present, and future). But most significantly in my opinion is AUM’s place in describing the universe. AUM represents the cycle of creation, the manifestations of the gross from the subtle and then the return back to the gross in Brahmachakra. The opening of the mouth is the beginning of manifestation, the shaping of the lips is the concentration of energy (tapas) that drives the progress of creation, and the closing of the mouth is the end. If you weren’t a fan of using these terms to describe the progression of the universe, you could consider Brahmachakra as symbolic of the spiritual evolution of the self–the vyashti (individual) aspect of what seems to be in samashti (collective) terms. But you don’t have to. Once again, science has confirmed what seems to be a mystical and perhaps symbolic concept given by Vedanta. How? Magnetic loops and visible vibrations reducating from solar activity (Vedanta associates AUM with the sun and light) have been captured by NASA in 2010 and 2013 and converted to sound waves audible to humans. The resulting sound? A deep, continuous AUM.
Hinduism also describes (in Sanskrit) five “elements” (Panchabhuta) of material nature. For years these have been translated poorly as “water, earth, fire, air, and ether (the sky or heavens),” which seems to oppose the scientific discovery of over one hundred chemical elements in the last many centuries. But looking closer, with a quick fix to this misinterpretation of the Vedas, Hinduism can be compatible with chemistry, as well. The five bhutas of material nature are actually prithvi, or solid (not necessarily earth); jal or apas, or liquid (not necessarily water); vayu, or gas (any form of air); agni, or energy (not necessarily fire); and akasha, or space (not necessarily “the heavens”). Although this system is not quite the periodic table and doesn’t describe the exchanges between these bhutas, if you look around it seems everything manifest in the universe can fall into one of these five categories: solid, liquid, gas, energy, and space.
As we delve further into science, mechanics in particular, we can see more parallels between faith and science. For one, the law of karma is essentially the same as Newton’s third law: all actions have a reaction. Our actions come back to us. The fruits of action that we receive are not necessarily rewards for punya (dharmic action) or punishment for papa (adharmic action, sin). They’re just ineluctable parts of the process of action, just like a wall pushing back on you is an ineluctable part of you pushing on a wall.
For another example, Hinduism in general, and even parts of this blog, emphasizes the distinction between the divine and the material. One (of many) ways to define that distinction is through the terms prakriti (unmanifest material nature) and purusha (the soul, sometimes in its samashti or collective aspect). We are actually parts of purusha, but attribute the action of our bodies, which are part of prakriti, to ourselves, because ahamkara (ego) causes us to associate with material individual forms. But regardless of our perception, prakriti performs all actions in the universe, while purusha, while remaining untainted by material flaw, empowers and authorizes all of these actions. In this way, prakriti and purusha are inseparable, like the north and south poles of a magnet. You can’t have only north, or only south, and no matter how you cut your magnet, it will always have a north and a south. In terms of physics, work (change in energy) done on a system can only occur with both force and distance, just as all action can only occur with purusha and prakriti. Purusha is the enabling force, and prakriti is the distance over which the force is applied. In this way, work is done as the universe progresses.
I will give one last connection between Vedanta and physics by revisiting Newton’s three laws and relating them to causality. If you’re not familiar with them, Newton’s three laws are that
- Objects can only accelerate when acted on by unbalanced forces
- Acceleration is directly related with force and inversely related with mass (F = ma), and
- All actions are accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction.
In terms of causality:
- Whenever an effect is seen, a cause must be inferred; an effect can never be without cause. In this case, jagat (the world, all of creation) is a manifestation, an effect, of the sankalpa (will) of Brahman (the nirguna, formless and subtle, aspect of God), Who is the Supreme Cause—the parameshti karana sarira. So jagat cannot exist without God, its Cause.
- The effect is nothing more than a cause in a different form (an accelerating object is equal to the force applied on the object). In this case jagat is just purusha limiting itself to one form—and the reverse process, the transcendence of jagat into purusha, is done by yoga abhyasa.
- In order to remove the effect, all that is required is the removal of the cause. In this case, jagat is dependent entirely on the Ishvara that controls and sustains it, so without that support jagat cannot function or even exist. In fact, without God, nothing can exist.
In conclusion, science in all of its branches are beautiful and perhaps the apex of human accomplishment. Getting closer to understanding the truth of the universe, of physical, chemical, cosmological, and biological phenomena, can never hurt us. It might seem annoying to the scientific community for religious people to dismiss science, but that is not the goal of Hinduism, nor of Hindus. There is no scorn, no antagonism; only appreciation and thirst for more. And among many religions, Hinduism never had to be amended to embrace science.