On Preaching to Scientists and Scholars
By Sadaputa dasa
This write-up is not intended as a criticism of the preaching efforts of any particular devotees. I am sure that all devotees involved in preaching to scientists and scholars are doing their best to promulgate the philosophy of Krsna Consciousness. However, there are certain general issues that are of great importance. Inevitably, the discussion of these general issues involves illustrations taken from the preaching work of particular individuals. I hope that these individuals will forgive me for any offenses that I may commit in an effort to clarify some important points regarding our preaching strategy.
I. Issues involving science.
When Galileo began his pioneering scientific work, did he set up an Institute with an advisory board of prestigious Aristotelian scholars, learned Jesuits, pompous prelates, and eminent Bishops and Cardinals? Well, no. He was connected with an society of like-minded researchers called the Academy of the Lynxes, and he received funding from the powerful Medici family. If he had burdened himself with a board of people who were hostile to his basic program of research, he never could have made any scientific progress. As we all know, his researches eventually got him in trouble with the accepted intellectual authorities of his day, and he was tried for heresy by the Church. Science came into sharp conflict with the prevailing world view of the Church, but by making a convincing case, science eventually triumphed.
Today, the Catholic Church has responded to this by creating a Pontifical Academy of Sciences staffed by a host of scientific luminaries, including several Nobel laureates. The Academy discusses current scientific issues from a mainstream scientific viewpoint, and it recently proclaimed that, “We are convinced that masses of evidence render the application of the concept of evolution to man and the other primates beyond serious dispute.” Meanwhile, Catholics continue to believe in such things as the miracles of Jesus Christ, which are part of a world view completely alien to the mechanistic, evolutionary world view of modern science.
For those who are ignorant of the issues, or who are able to enter into a dissociative state of double-think, this contradictory situation may be tolerable. But for thoughtful, well-educated people, it leads ultimately to one conclusion: science is right, religion is wrong, and there is no God in any traditional sense of that term. To see this, consider the following words of Ernan McMullin, a professor in the Dept. of Philosophy at Notre Dame University and a Catholic priest:
“If we set aside natural theology, if we are unable to identify a distinctively “psychic” agency operating through the evolutionary records of earth, we may in the end lack an argument for God’s existence that would convince a science-minded generation. The obverse of a [totally] transcendent God is a universe with no “gaps,” a universe where there are no barriers to complete scientific explanation… if Nature is complete in its own order, if there are no barriers to the reach of science, does not belief in a Creator drop away as superfluous?” (McMullin, 1987, p. 82)
I should stress that McMullin is not just talking academically about other people’s ideas. He is confronting a serious crisis in his own religious faith. In line with modern science, he -does- set aside natural theology (i.e. arguments against evolution and in favor of creation). He -is unable to identify any “psychic” agency in Nature, and he -does think that Nature is complete in its own order, i.e. it is not an integral part of a larger subtle and spiritual reality. So what can he conclude? Answer: There is no God.
The Catholic position is one of hopeless compromise leading inevitably to atheism. But what about ISKCON? Leaders of ISKCON will staunchly deny that ISKCON could ever fall into a similar position of compromise. But in spite of these denials, there is abundant evidence indicating that this is gradually happening. Perhaps it is even happening in ISKCON faster than it happened in the Catholic Church.
The quote from McMullin was taken from “Synthesis of Science and Religion, Critical Essays and Dialogues,” published by the Bhaktivedanta Institute. This book contains a foreword by the eminent Nobel laureate George Wald. Here are three statements that Wald made in that foreword: (1) “I feel myself to be deeply religious, for example; yet there is nothing “supernatural” in my scheme of things. For me to reach the supernatural, I should have to believe that we had exhausted nature, and we have not nor ever will.” (2) “Benedict Spinoza… ended by equating God with Nature, insisting, however, that we shall never go beyond a very limited conceptualization of either. I accept that position entirely, though I–as I believe was also true for Einstein–use the term God only as a metaphor.” (3) “The point of ritual is not to inform, but to assert a unity of those practicing the ritual, at times to create or produce the illusion of such a unity. ‘We are this and not that,’ the ritual insists; for it is important for it to declare its difference from others as its own unity. Unity for what? For action of one kind or another, if only the actions needed to maintain and perpetuate those practicing the ritual.” (Wald, 1987, p. xv)
To put it briefly: there is nothing supernatural, God is just a metaphor, and worship of God is nothing but rituals that create social cohesion in the worshiping group.
In order to acquire prestige through association with a famous Nobel laureate, the editors of this book found it necessary to place expressions of the Nobel laureate’s atheistic views in the very beginning of the book, thus setting the tone for the entire volume. This may seem harmless enough if it happens once, but why should it happen only once? It is an example of a general principle: If you want to gain prestige by associating yourself with an eminent scientist or scholar, you must pay the price of publicly promoting his views and agreeing not to publicly disagree with those views.
One might say: “All right. We will agree not to disagree with eminent scholars. After all, ‘cultivating academics is a delicate exercise in tolerance, maturity, and subtle steadfastness.’ But we certainly won’t wind up in the position of Father McMullin.”
Hopefully not. But consider the following statement from the paper “Quantum Epistemology–A View from Gaudiya Vaisnava Vedanta,” presented by Ravi Gomatam (Rasaraja dasa) at a convention of the American Philosophical Association: “…we hold that QM [quantum mechanics] provides a complete description of physical reality. The semantic content of the traffic signal (‘stop/go’) is beyond explication by physical laws, but the light itself works according to physical laws. The semantic content can be understood by studying the intent of the traffic department. Similarly, physical reality itself works according to causally complete physical laws.” (Gomatam, draft, p. 20)
I am sorry to take this statement from a draft of Gomatam’s paper, but I mention it because of its serious implications. He says that quantum mechanics provides a “complete” description of physical reality. This means that everything that happens in the world that we see, happens in accordance with the theoretical calculations of quantum mechanics. Anything that violates those calculations is ruled out: such things do not happen.
Many phenomena mentioned in the Vedic literatures fall in this category of things ruled out by the laws of physics. To pick one basic example, consider reincarnation. When a soul plus subtle body takes birth in a gross body, the karmic tendencies of that conditioned soul become manifest as gross, measurable activities (like Mozart’s music or Hitler’s politics, for example). These gross physical activities are “caused” by the soul, the subtle body, the karma carried by the subtle body, and the Supersoul. Quantum mechanics says nothing about this, and the calculations of quantum mechanics do not predict these gross physical effects. Putting it succinctly, if the laws of quantum mechanics are causally complete, then there is no transmigration of souls.
But Gomatam’s statement might be defended as follows: “Doesn’t he say that the meaning, the semantic content, of nature is provided by the higher consciousness of God? Isn’t it good that he is able to say this to scholars and scientists in a way that is acceptable to them?”
No. It is not good. He is not introducing a new idea. He is introducing the same old idea that Ernan McMullin was discussing, the idea that Nature is complete in its own order. As McMullin pointed out, this idea brings us to the point where belief in a Creator drops away as superfluous.
The idea that God gives meaning to things but does not contravene the “causally complete” laws of physics is a favorite among atheistic scientists. For example, Steven J. Gould harps on this point regularly in his essays and book reviews. In a book review in “Scientific American”, Gould recently said, “Science treats factual reality, while religion struggles with human morality.” He argues that God doesn’t “cause” things to happen in the factual world–this is done by the laws of physics and the evolutionary processes that take place according to those laws. What God does is give semantic content to life. God provides meaning and moral values.
This idea is used to argue that there is no conflict between science and religion. As Pope John Paul II said to the Pontifical Academy, “The collaboration between religion and modern science is to the advantage of both, without in any way violating their respective autonomy.”
The problem is that there is actually a big conflict between religion and science. Science strictly rules out the supernatural phenomena that play such an important role in religious scriptures. Science also requires an evolutionary–not supernatural–explanation of the origin of behavior relating to semantic content and moral values.
Any scientifically trained person who wants to take religion seriously must confront this conflict sooner or later. This includes all scientists and scholars that we may wish to cultivate and all students who might become devotees as a result of our preaching. What are these people going to think about the stark contradictions between the world views of science and religion? It boils down to the question: What is the truth?
Even if we don’t want to face this issue, each prospective college-educated devotee will have to face it. It will become very difficult for such neophyte devotees if they see that ISKCON has a policy (tacit or explicit) of agreeing not to publicly disagree with scientists and scholars.
Thus far, I have spoken in general about science and religion. However, all of the remarks that I have made apply to Vaisnavism and to the Vedic literature as a whole. There are obvious contradictions between the Vedic world view and the modern scientific world view. The question is: What is actually true and what is false?
Srila Prabhupada wanted us to challenge the scientists and scholars. He was quite uncompromising about this, as we can see from his conversation with the physicist Gregory Benford. However, it might be argued that we are not in a position to challenge the scientists. Their position is strongly supported by evidence and arguments, and we have practically nothing to offer in opposition to it. If we oppose the scientists simply on the basis of religious scriptures, then we will become known as foolish, ignorant creationists. Therefore, we should follow a policy of appeasing the scientists, recognizing our own helplessness, and simply depend on Krsna to change their hearts.
Actually, it is possible to challenge the scientists, as Srila Prabhupada wanted us to do. There exists a vast amount of evidence that supports the Vedic world view and contradicts the modern scientific world view. All we have to do is systematically gather this evidence and present it in a scholarly way.
For example, Drutakarma Prabhu and I have written a 900 page book giving extensive evidence showing that human beings have been present on the earth for millions of years, a conclusion that agrees with the Vedas and disagrees with modern science. Before we did this work, we had no idea that this evidence existed. But it was there, waiting to be used to support the Vedic world view.
We have also done extensive research into psychical phenomena and related fields of study. There is a vast amount of evidence there that strongly supports the Vedic world view and is contrary to modern science.
Someone might object: This evidence is disreputable and we will be disreputable if we mention it. The answer is: Of course, it’s disreputable. It’s disreputable because it disagrees with established science. Anything which goes against established scholarly authority will be branded as disreputable, but this does not mean that it isn’t true. Keep in mind that Galileo was certainly considered disreputable by the church authorities.
There are many fields of study in which extensive evidence supporting the Vedic world view can be gathered. These include archeology, anthropology, history, astronomy, cosmology, molecular biology, evolutionary studies, physics, psychology, neurophysiology, parapsychology, and ufology (which, contrary to common prejudice, is not a kooky subject).
To make our case in these fields a great deal of work is necessary. This work cannot be done by one or two people working independently with uncertain funding. A well-funded, secure research institute is needed that can support a large number of devotee scholars. This institute must be dedicated to the task of putting together the case for the reality of the Vedic world view. It cannot be hobbled by the presence of a board of scientific advisors who are fundamentally opposed to its goals. Nor can it flourish if its own leaders are opposed to the goal of openly facing the conflict between science and the Vedic world view and carrying out vigorous research to resolve this conflict in favor of the Vedic picture.
One might say that what we need is a Vedic university. This is a laudable goal, but before we can really present things properly in a Vedic university, we must do the research needed to solidly establish the truth of the Vedic world view. If we don’t do this, then our university courses will fall into the pitfalls of compromise or dogmatism. At the very least, a strong research institute must be an integral part of a Vedic university project.
It might be objected that at the present time, very little of the research that I am proposing has actually been carried out. Therefore we cannot realistically make plans depending on such research. The answer is that to correct this deficiency, we need a strong research institute now. If we don’t establish such an institute soon, then the needed research will not be done–at least not in our lifetimes.
The following argument might be made: Today the world view of science is solidly established and highly respected. Therefore, what we should do is show that in ancient India, people knew many important things that have recently been discovered by science. That is, we should show that the ancient Indians were really very scientific in the modern sense.
We can point to some things along these lines. For example, in the Mahabharata it is recognized that the moon causes tides. However, in the vast body of Vedic literature there are relatively few items of this kind. Basically, the world view of the Vedic literature is very different from that of modern science.
The modern scientific view is based on the idea that nature works mechanically. Nature is made up of little mechanical parts, and all phenomena occur through the interaction of these parts. In the early days of science, these parts were the “billiard ball atoms.” Today they are quantum waves, but the basic idea is the same.
The Vedic world view is based on the idea that life is the fundamental basis of all reality, and the original life is Krsna. This is the fundamental point that Srila Prabhupada emphasized. In more detail, the Vedic view is that living form starts on the spiritual level. From spiritual living form, subtle living form is produced, and from this, gross living form is produced.
This basic Vedic picture is supported by a vast body of evidence from psychical research, ufology, anthropology, subtle energy medicine, and so on. Many books have been written about all this material, and one might ask: What will we contribute by talking about it? The answer is that the Vedic literatures provide a systematic philosophical framework that enables us to understand all this evidence. This is a key contribution that the Vedic literature has to offer. Thus far, people dealing with these subjects have largely been groping in the dark, and they have not been able to put together a satisfying theoretical explanation of the phenomena they are studying. Nor have they been able to relate these phenomena to fundamental spiritual issues. However, the Vedic literature can remedy this deficiency.
The Vedic literature can help us understand the laws governing subtle and spiritual forms of energy. The scientific idea that natural phenomena obey laws is not wrong. However, the laws of physics as they are known today represent only a very incomplete understanding of the actual laws of nature.
II. Issues involving Indology. Indology is a field of academic research that is related to history, the study of religion, and the scientific fields of archeology and linguistics. Indology deals directly with the Vedic literatures, and it attempts to explain their historical development. It is based on the scientific presuppositions that (1) everything happens according to the accepted laws of physics and (2) everything has come about by historical, evolutionary processes obeying these laws. There are very strong contradictions between the Vaisnava understanding of the Vedic literatures and the understanding developed by the Indologists.
Recently, Steven Rosen (Satyaraja dasa) has published an important book containing interviews with prominent Indologists and students of Vaisnavism. This is entitled “Vaisnavism: Contemporary Scholars Discuss the Gaudiya Tradition.” Some of the same issues that I discussed above also arise in connection with this book. Since these are important issues that will come up repeatedly in the future, I will make some comments about them here. The aim is to address the general issues, not to criticize Satyaraja’s work. I will proceed by quoting some extracts from the book and then making some comments about them.
Michael Witzel is chairman of the Department of Sanskrit and Indian studies at Harvard University. Here he comments on the historical development of the concept of Visnu:
“Visnu, you know, is even mentioned in the Rg Veda. So it goes back to the earliest texts. Now, the problem is this: in those texts he is considered a minor Vedic god whose basic feat is that he took three steps….
“To simplify this very complex issue, let us just say that Visnu undergoes a long development or unfolding, if you will, and by the time you get to latter-day Vaisnavism, of course, he is identified with the supreme god. Now a practitioner might say that this truth was there all along, but you cannot really get that from the Vedic texts proper. You would need a “guru” who reads the tradition in a particular way, perhaps.
“From a strictly scholarly point of view, however, Visnu goes through a transformation, from what is perceived as a minor god to the all-important divinity one sees today in the practice of Vaisnavism. One can debate this subject from various angles of vision. But if you are going by modern scholarship, particularly in terms of inner textual and philological evidence, you would have to concede this point. In any case, Visnu is there in the earliest part of the Veda, and that cannot be ignored.” (Rosen, 1992, pp. 23-24)
Comment: If we do concede Witzel’s point, then we abandon the authority of the Vedic sastras, accepting them as a product of historical processes of evolution. If we really do accept this, then we must conclude that Visnu is really fictitious. How then can we be devotees of Visnu? It is not possible.
In the book “Vaisnavism”, Witzel’s position is neither refuted nor seriously challenged. Witzel himself comes close to challenging it by pointing out the existence of a Vaisnava sect, the Vaikhanasa, that make use of texts related to the Yajur Veda. This is an interesting lead, but it means little by itself, and it needs to be followed up by further research.
My point is this: If we are going to publish and give prominence to the views of scholars such as Witzel, we must also be prepared to do the extensive research work needed to effectively refute their views. This requires a research institute of the kind that I outlined above. Witzel’s views represent the standard, mainstream position for Indologists. Since they are quite incompatible with Krsna consciousness, if we promulgate them and do not oppose them effectively, then we will ultimately have to give up Krsna consciousness. Of course, this has happened to a number of devotees in the past.
Dr. H. Daniel Smith is a professor of religion at Syracuse University. Here he comments on the Ramayana:
Dr. Smith: Aranya-kanda. That’s when you enter into what I call a kind of Walt Disney world–truly another world altogether… Steven Rosen: [laughter] I see. Dr. Smith: What I mean is that in it there are talking birds, and talking animals, and demons, and witches, and all sorts of wondrous, wonderful things. Steven Rosen: Seems like Walt Disney would be envious of some of these things. Dr. Smith: Well, I think he certainly missed the boat by not making it into an animated spectacle… (Rosen, 1992, p. 34)
Comment: A devotee might regard Smith’s statements as being somewhat offensive. But what can we say in response to them? One response is to simply laugh, say, “I see,” and roll with the punches. After all, do we ourselves really believe in a world full of talking birds, talking animals, demons, and witches? If we do, how could we rationally defend such a belief in a conversation with intelligent people?
Answer: It is necessary to really make to case for Srila Prabhupada’s position on the nature of life. Grossly embodied life comes from subtly embodied life, which in turn comes from spiritual life. The big picture regarding life is very remarkable indeed, but it can be backed up by vast amounts of evidence. We can gather together this evidence and make a case for the reality of the Vedic world. We can argue reasonably that the Vedic world is the real world. But to do this, we must have a well-funded research team dedicated to carrying out this task.
Note, by the way, that S.P. Hinduja liked the movie “Ghost”. This movie presented a world that included ghosts, psychic powers, Yamaduta-like evil spirits, and an effulgent heavenly realm. This is somewhat like the Vedic world, and I presume that this is why Hinduja liked the movie. To show the scientific validity of the Vedic world view, we have to make a solid, empirical case for the “wondrous, wonderful things” contained in that world view. We can then show how the Vedic philosophy gives a coherent, rational explanation of these wondrous things, even though official science is completely in the dark about them. This can be systematically done, and Hinduja is in a position to fund this effort.
Now Dr. Smith lays it on the line: Dr. Smith: Well, to get right down to basics, it has to do with how one understands the word “avatara”, more specifically, in what sense, if any, the “avatara” of Rama was historical. If so, when? If so, where?
Steven Rosen: They say Treta yuga.
Dr. Smith: That’s the answer given. And the literalists can even give a date, in July or something of such-and-such a year. And that’s fine for the believer–but it’s only one of several possible perspectives. You see, it’s that literalist commitment to the historicity of it, just like Christians are absolutely committed to the historicity of Jesus, that is at the crux of the matter.
Steven Rosen: Right.
Dr. Smith: Just as many Christians affirm that Jesus really did exist in Jerusalem in the year One, also many Hindus say with the Ramayana: Rama really did exist and he lived in Ayodhya, and when he went, he went out to Lanka, and there he fought and defeated Ravana and laid low all the Raksasa hosts. Now that’s a real tight bind that people put themselves in. Whereas on the other hand, another way of dealing with it, is to say that it is all a myth. Now please don’t misunderstand me: this view doesn’t necessarily hold that the story is fictional; what it says is that the Ramayana is telling a story that doesn’t have to be taken literally on all counts, and that it is basically a story, if nothing else, that tells us quite a bit about human nature.
Steven Rosen: And some believers take it like that?
Dr. Smith: Oh, indeed. Quite a few Hindus share that perspective–not many but there are definitely those who do. For example, how do college educated Hindus deal with it? Well some, to be sure, just go back to their childhoods, saying, “Oh Rama. Bless Rama.” Others, however, “do” try to think in terms of mythic meaning, and try to probe for deep, psychological references in their own experiences.” (Rosen, 1992, p. 42.)
Comment: Note the attempt to soften the blow: A myth is not necessarily fictional, it’s just a story that doesn’t have to be taken literally and that tells us something about human nature.
A fundamental point is that you cannot be a devotee of Rama if you think that He is not a real historical figure. But this does raise the issues of when and where. We have to face these issues, especially if we are going to publish books and journals in which Smith’s views are respectfully presented as scholarly and prestigious.
Here is Steven Rosen’s response to Dr. Smith’s remarks:
Steven Rosen: So you’re not questioning the story’s veracity–on some level you see it as true. But you would say that we should look more deeply at its implications. The how, where, and when are secondary considerations. But it’s the deeper aspect that is to be considered important. Well, there’s certainly truth to that. But I wonder how much of it is just resignation: “We can’t possibly, at this time, find the answers to the how, where and when questions. So we’re going to say the story can’t be understood in that context. Rather, it is to be understood in terms of its deeper implications. So it is not a subject for historians.”
Comment: Steven Rosen does not say, much less convincingly argue, that Lord Ramacandra really did exist historically. He accepts that the “how, where, and when are secondary considerations.” Of course, Smith is saying that we definitely should not regard Rama as a real historical figure. That would put us in a real tight bind, indeed.
Now we turn to the Bhagavata-purana. Clifford Hospital teaches at Queen’s University at Kingston in Canada, and he has been Principal of the Theological College since 1983. Here he discusses the date of the Bhagavatam:
Steven Rosen: And it [the Bhagavatam] predates Vopadeva?
Dr. Hospital: Oh yes. Absolutely. On a separate note, though, what’s interesting about their [J.A.B. van Buitenen’s and Friedholm Hardy’s] work is that they do a detailed analysis about the relation between certain parts of the Bhagavata and the South Indian Alvar tradition. I think they make a very good case for what people have long suspected: that many of the ideas of the Bhagavata are coming out of the South Indian tradition.
And I suppose the way the theory goes, then, is that the full blossoming of the Gaudiya tradition really comes through the contact that Caitanya had had in the South when he had gone there and brought back a version of the Krsna-karnamrta, which, as you know, is a South Indian text.
Steven Rosen: And Brahma Samhita.
Dr. Hospital: Right. And there are a few verses in the Bhagavatam (11.5.38-40), which van Buitenen describes as “a post factum prophecy,” and in which there is reference to “devotees of Narayana in great numbers everywhere in Tamil country…” (Rosen, 1992, p. 71.)
Comment: Dr. Hospital is “very favorable” towards Krsna Consciousness. Yet he accepts that the Bhagavatam was written recently, perhaps under the influence of the medieval Alvar tradition. Let’s face it: this means that the Bhagavatam is not what it purports to be, namely a 5,000-year-old sastra compiled by Srila Vyasadeva. In other words the Bhagavatam is a pious fraud. What implications does this conclusion have for a devotee’s spiritual life?
Note that “post factum prophecy” means a prophecy made after the events occurred, i.e. a phony prophecy.
What should we do about this? Should we all pretend that there is no problem, and agree tacitly to ignore the issue? Clearly, the trend in ISKCON is to publish statements by scholars like Hospital in order to enhance ISKCON’s prestige. This means that such statements will presented to devotees as respectable and prestigious. As time goes on, we can expect to see more and more of this. If we say nothing to counter these prestigious statements, and simply act so as to enhance their respectability within ISKCON, then they are bound to have a subversive effect on the faith of devotees. The only way devotees will be able to retain a semblance of Krsna Consciousness is by splitting their minds into two mutually exclusive halves–one for respectable, scholarly, intellectual thinking, and the other for narrow-minded, glassy-eyed, dogmatic fundamentalism.
But what choice do we have? Isn’t it true that we don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to contending with scholars and scientists? Isn’t it true that they have logic, reason, and evidence entirely on their side? Isn’t our choice limited to (1) agreeing not to openly disagree while cultivating the scholars and thereby gaining a respectable status as enlightened religious thinkers, and (2) being justly scorned and rejected as ignorant fundamentalist Yahoos lying somewhere between the Creationists and the Flat Earth Society?
If Krsna Consciousness is right and the mundane scholars are wrong, then this can be demonstrated rationally, so that an intelligent, unbiased person can accept it. However, to do this, it is necessary to do a lot of careful scholarly work. This means that we need an institution in which this work can be carried out. This institution requires funding to provide for the needs of many full-time scholars. And these scholars must be free to pursue Krsna Conscious objectives. They cannot make progress under the yoke of a board of advisors made up of prestigious mundane scholars that fundamentally oppose their goals. Nor can they make progress under the direction of a devotee management dedicated to “agreeing not to disagree” with the scholars.