Krishna Dharma is a Vaishnava Priest and scholar. In this interview he responds to questions about Hinduism, Vedic scriptures and science.
My name is Krishna Dharma, a Vaishnava Priest and author, and I have been asked to explain how Hinduism sits with science. As some of you may know Hinduism has various branches and I personally belong to the branch known as Vaishnavism, which is essentially the monotheistic strand of the faith. My scriptures are called the Vedas, ancient Sanskrit writings comprising a wealth of both material and spiritual knowledge. You may have heard of the Bhagavad-gita, sometimes known as the ‘Hindu Bible’, and this is my main guide in life. I was born and raised in Christianity but for the last 35 years have been a worshipper of Krishna, a Sanskrit name of God meaning the ‘all attractive person’. A radical switch from my Christian roots some might say, but I have seen increasingly over the years that there is much in common between the major faiths. I guess though that’s a discussion for another time and another website. For now let’s stick with the science question and see what my faith has to say.
What are we talking about?
For me the starting point in any discussion always has to be definitions, just what do we mean by science, and indeed by religion? So let’s use the dictionary definitions and go from there. The Oxford dictionary defines science as “…the systematic study of the natural and physical world through observation and experiment.” I think that more or less sums it up. There shouldn’t be too much debate there, especially from students who are always doing experiments in science (although perhaps not always with the hoped for observations).
What about religion? Here the dictionary says, “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” That also sounds about right to me. My faith is certainly about worshipping a personal God and he is most definitely superhuman, but more about that later.
From those definitions one might wonder where religion and science could ever meet—one studying the natural world and the other the supernatural which defies observation and experiment—but in Hinduism this has never been a problem. For us the natural and supernatural are both aspects of one ultimate truth and both are understood by the same process of learning. Science and religion studied together? Aren’t they meant to be at loggerheads? Well, let’s see.
How do we get knowledge?
The most obvious common ground between the two is that both seek knowledge. Science aims to know about nature and religion about God. In the Vedas then the first consideration is the process by which we acquire knowledge, or epistemology as it is known by those who know big words. This is generally the crux of the conflict between the two. Religious believers are often accused by scientists of believing whatever they like, with no evidence or proof, while in contrast it is claimed that scientific knowledge is objectively acquired by observation and experiment. I would take issue with this assertion as the Vedas describe a detailed methodology for acquiring spiritual knowledge, which does indeed depend upon verification by evidence and even observation to some degree.
Before we go there though let’s examine the process by which we get scientific knowledge. Take experiments. These are about direct experience, either seeking to make discoveries, test hypotheses or demonstrate a known fact (hopefully). Data is gathered and conclusions are drawn. In Vedic epistemology this is accepted as a valid way of finding things out, and it is known, unsurprisingly, as ‘direct perception’, i.e. knowledge gathered by our senses. However, you may be surprised to know that we consider it the least reliable process. The reason for this is that our senses are fallible. We are always liable to misinterpret what we see. Ten people witnessing the same event are likely to give ten at least slightly different accounts. Try asking the police.
A good example is the sun, which appears as a small object in the sky, smaller than a coin. That’s as much as our immediate perception tells us. However, as we all know, it is in fact over a thousand times larger than the earth planet. So how do we know this if we cannot see it for ourselves? Quite simply by accepting knowledge from an authority we trust, in this case that most trustworthy of sources, our teachers. We learn so many things in the classroom that we have not and probably will never personally verify by sense perception. Fancy a trip to the sun? Acceptance of authority or aural reception as it is known in Hinduism is therefore an accepted means of acquiring knowledge, and the Vedas actually say it is the best means. But of course it depends upon having access to a reliable source.
Who can we trust?
Here one might argue that even though we may not have seen the evidence supporting scientific theories and knowledge, someone else has and that’s good enough. Okay, but we are still left having to trust that authority, and the Vedas point out that as well as our limited and fallible sense perception, we have a couple of other problems. These are the tendency to make mistakes and to cheat others, and I think it is fair to say science has not been aloof from either. So however we look at it we have to accept that scientific knowledge is not perfect, it’s just the best we can do given the various constraints.
Scientists will in fact admit that their theories cannot be proven, but they can be falsified. This is because they depend upon induction, which means formulating conclusions based upon observations. The trouble with this is that no matter how many observations you make that all concur, you cannot logically say that the next one will not be entirely opposed to all the others. The famous example here is the statement that ‘all ravens are black’. We have seen many ravens and they have all been black, but there is no logical reason to assume that we shall never see a white one, or one with purple and green polka dots for that matter. So we cannot definitely assert that all ravens are black without fear of contradiction.
We do indeed see that as new data is gathered old theories are challenged and changed. For example the Newton’s Theory of Mechanics, which for two hundred years had much success explaining experimental facts and even predicting new ones, such as the planet Neptune. However it did eventually hit problems and was falsified by new data, being replaced by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. This has yet to be falsified, but it has certainly been challenged and there is no reason to suppose that it might not be superseded in time.
In the same way there is no reason to assume that other theories currently accepted may not be falsified in the fullness of time. For example Evolution and the Big Bang, which for many are the cornerstones of an atheistic worldview. Who is to say these will still be accepted even fifty years from now? Scientific discoveries and knowledge are in constant flux and always have been.
Therefore Vedic epistemology says that superior to both direct experience and induction is hearing from an authority. As repugnant as it may sometimes be, we have to accept authority all the time if we want to make progress in life. But again it must be trustworthy. If for example I want to get to Oxford and have no idea where it is, I need to ask someone. Naturally I would look for a person who I think is likely to know, an Oxford don say, or I could read a map written by trustworthy cartographers, or use a Satnav perhaps (they never let you down). Of course, if you don’t want to put your trust in anyone then you can strike out and hope for the best, but it might take a long time to get there.
Our knowledge will always be suspect though if we have heard it from a person who acquired it by the fallible processes of direct perception and induction. To get perfect knowledge we need to approach the perfect source, or someone who has received knowledge from that source. For me this means the supreme authority of God. Who better to tell us about the world and everything within it than the person from whom it has all come? Just like if we want to know how to operate a piece of machinery a good idea is to read the manufacturer’s instructions (which of course most of us don’t), so in the same way we should go to God to find out about the universe he created.
What God, one might ask? There are so many religions and scriptures all claiming to be right and all disagreeing it seems, so where does that leave us? Well again, this is probably a discussion for another place and time, but at least the principle of finding a perfect source for perfect knowledge is, I would suggest, a sound one. How and where we find that source is another question, but for sure it is none of us.
For me there are some simple scientific arguments that suggest the existence of God, whatever name you give him. For example from Einstein (for the time being) we know that all matter can be reduced to energy. But surely this begs a question. From where does this energy emanate? Energy always has its energetic source; ask any householder facing ever increasing energy bills from the supplier. We do not see energy in this world appearing randomly, it is generated. If you feel heat you know there is a heater or, now and again, the sun is out. When there is light we know there is a bulb or some other light source somewhere. So just where is the immense energy of the entire universe emanating from? Could God be a spectacularly huge generator? Hmm, probably not.
Or take laws. To its credit science has discovered certain universal laws, but who is the lawmaker and indeed upholder? In our experience laws do not make and keep themselves, they are made by legislators and they require enforcing. Without law enforcement agencies there would soon be chaos. So who keeps the laws of the universe working? Why can’t we break them? And why do they not randomly change themselves? Who is to say that they should not?
Expanding our perception
The Vedas offer detailed scientific answers to the above questions which can be verified, but not necessarily by the empiric method employed by science, that is to say by direct perception of quantifiable data. Nor can many of the Vedic descriptions of reality be easily conceptualised by the mind. However, a process is given by which we can expand our consciousness to enable a different kind of perception and understanding by which we can ultimately realise God and the true nature of his creation. It is a discipline requiring dedication and training, like any other. There are strict parameters, rules that must be followed and certain evidence that should be seen if one is properly practising, such as becoming more peaceful, happier within oneself and therefore less desirous of sensual enjoyments. Just like the saints we hear about. They are experiencing what the Bhagavad-gita calls the ‘higher taste’ of spiritual happiness and are thus able to remain aloof from what they realise is the lesser taste of worldly pleasure. This is one proof that one is progressing in spiritual knowledge and moving towards God.
In other words, you cannot believe and do whatever you like in the name of religion. Not at least if you want to get the desired result. You need to follow the proper instructions and traverse a carefully delineated path under the guidance of a person who has already made that journey.
Sometimes the Bhagavad Gita is called the ‘science of God’. Following its directions is not unlike a scientific experiment in that various conditions must be met, certain actions taken and a particular result expected. It goes beyond the empiric process in that the performer of the experiment must undergo personal changes, make behavioural adjustments and engage in spiritual practises, but it gives a result that no science experiment performed in the lab will ever achieve.
So what does God say in my religion? Well, in the Bhagavad Gita (spoken by Krishna) he not only gives knowledge about the material world, how it was created and how it runs etc, but he also explains why it is here in the first place, how we ended up here and where we really belong. He also extensively describes his own nature and how he can be known. These are not areas that science will ever fathom, nor does it even try, but surely these are the most important questions we need to ask.
Krishna begins by describing how we are eternal parts of the supreme eternal whole. This can be perceived by us all with a little introspection. First of all, we are plainly different from the bodies we inhabit, which undergo constant transformation while we remain the same person within. Even science tells us that our bodily cells renew every seven years or so. There is therefore no reason to assume that when the bodily cells cease to function we will cease to exist. Large numbers of them can in fact cease to work and we continue to live on as the very same person. Krishna therefore tells us that we are immortal souls, that when the body dies we continue to live in form after form until we attain self realisation.
As the Greek oracle proclaimed, ‘know thyself’, and this is the first instruction in the Gita. It tells us we are parts of the Supreme Spirit and therefore we have the same nature—not only of eternality, but also pure knowledge and bliss. There is evidence for this as well in that we can see how we are always aspiring to attain those three states. Take the first, eternality. We constantly strive to secure our ongoing existence, seeking good health, longevity and whatever security we can in what is, let’s face it, a rather insecure world. Knowledge is also constantly sought in so many ways, we want to know what is happening (such as all those desperately important FB updates), we want the news and don’t like to be in the dark. And of course everything we do is aimed at somehow increasing our happiness or decreasing our discomfort and suffering.
From this we can understand that we are trying to attain what is in fact our real nature. Like a fish out of water struggling to get back in it again, we too are trying to get back to where we belong. The Gita also tells us where that is, but I will save that for another time. I just wanted to present this as an example of using another type of evidence, namely personal experience and introspection, to support knowledge received from hearing.
This is really just a brief introduction to my faith and its perspective on science. It goes much further than this for, as I mentioned, the Vedas also deal directly with many branches of material science. Some of you may have heard of Vedic mathematics for example, which I have found to be a pretty amazing alternative to the Western system. There is also Ayurveda, quite well known these days, which deals with medicine and general health. Then there is knowledge on economics, politics, martial arts and so many other fields. All of it however is received from higher authority, with its origins in divinity. Material knowledge is given to enable us to live peacefully while we work on achieving spiritual understanding. The two are meant to go together.
Ultimately the real purpose of all knowledge is to solve our problems and attain happiness. But what is that knowledge that will bring a final end to all our problems? That is the great aim of science; finding a permanent solution to all of life’s difficulties, but without religion I don’t think it will ever get there. In Hinduism therefore the two must be married together. We therefore say that religion without science or philosophy is just sentiment, but also science or philosophy without religion is only speculation that will never arrive at a conclusion. No matter what theory we reach there will always be someone looking for that white raven to disprove it, and sooner or later they will find it.