SWAMI VIVEKANANDA WAS a humanist par excellence. However, unlike many other humanists his humanism was rooted in spirituality. A humanist is interested in all matters that concern humanity and judges everything by its human significance. Swami Vivekananda was no exception and he naturally had an immense interest in science, which has been occupying a dominant position in human thought for the last three centuries. Thus, it is relevant to examine and discuss Swamiji’s attitude towards and opinion about science and its developments.
Scope and Limitations of Science
What did Swamiji understand by science? He clearly saw that the primary object of science is to solve the mystery of the universe. In Swamiji’s time, broadly speaking, the Cartesian tradition of keeping the mind firmly outside the ambit of science and the Newtonian paradigm of the physical sciences were still reigning supreme. In conformity with that, Swamiji observed that science attempted to solve the mystery of the universe by studying the external world objectively. The raw data used in this exercise were procured through sense perception, and the methods employed for analysing such data were based on human reasoning, which is rooted in the conscious mind. Swamiji discerned that scientific explanations were generally characterized by two overarching principles: (i) The particular was explained in terms of the general, and the general in terms of the universal; (ii) the explanation of an event or process was always sought in the nature of the things involved and not by bringing in an agent external to them.
This of course was in sharp contrast with the theological explanations advanced by theistic religions that accorded divine will and intervention crucial roles in determining the course of natural processes. Swamiji appreciated these two principles and thought that there is no reason why these should not be extended to the fi eld of religion as well (2.329,3.423). In fact, one reason of his espousal of Advaitic philosophy, particularly in the West, was that it conforms to these principles. However, Swamiji observed that while explaining a natural process by formulating a scientific law in accordance with these principles, one must remember two features common to all such laws.
Firstly, one must assume that nature invariably repeats itself according to certain habits and one must have the opportunity of observing several such repetitions. In other words, the postulate of ‘uniformity of nature’ has to be taken for granted (1.9). Hume’s paradox states that one cannot logically deduce the principle of uniformity of nature—that the future will always resemble the past cannot be deduced by extending the experience of past observations to the present, since that would mean ‘begging the question’ or referring to one’s own assertion to prove the assertion. Also human reasoning is liable to be vitiated by error for various reasons. Swamiji was fully aware of these chinks in the armour of science. That is why, commenting on the inviolability of scientific laws, he remarked: ‘No amount of reasoning can demonstrate it; it can only make it probable, and there it rests. The highest demonstration of reasoning that we have in any branch of knowledge can only make a fact probable, and nothing further. The most demonstrable facts of physical science are only probabilities and not facts yet’ (4.167).
The second thing to remember about science is that a scientific law does not really exist in nature. Swamiji pointed out that a law represents our ‘expectation that a particular phenomenon will be followed by another, and that the series will repeat itself. Really speaking, therefore, the law does not exist in nature’ (1.95). He adds that ‘Law is the method, the manner in which our mind grasps a series of phenomena; it is all in the mind. Certain phenomena, happening one after another or together, and followed by the conviction of the regularity of their occurrence—thus enabling our minds to grasp the method of the whole series—constitute what we call law (ibid.).
Because of these inherent features of a scientific law, we can never say that such a law represents an absolute truth. Swamiji warned: ‘We must not let law become a superstition, a something inevitable, to which we must submit’ (8.18). In this connection we are reminded of Sri Ramakrishna’s refusal to accept the inviolability of natural laws, as reported by Swami Saradananda. In the course of a discussion about the efficacy of lightning conductors placed up high to protect a building against lightning, he cited instances of violation of the general rule.
Apart from the above two features, Swamiji noted that limitations of all scientific laws also arise due to two more fundamental reasons, of which the fi rst one has been partly conceded to by modern science, while the second remains and will possibly remain outside the ambit of science in the foreseeable future. As mentioned earlier scientific laws are reasoned out of sense data by the conscious mind. On the basis of the transcendental truths enunciated by Sankhya and Yoga psychology, Swamiji asserted: ‘Consciousness is only the surface of the mental ocean.’ And elsewhere he said that our conscious mind ‘is but a drop in the mighty ocean of subconscious mind’ (6.28).
Therefore, how can conclusions arrived at with the help of the conscious mind cover the whole truth? More explicitly, in a lecture entitled ‘Maya and Illusion’ in his Jnana Yoga, Swamiji said that ‘the [conscious] mind is limited, that it cannot go beyond certain limits—beyond time, space and causation. … Every attempt to solve the laws of causation, time, and space would be futile, because the very attempt would have to be made by taking for granted the existence of these three’ (2.90–1). The ancient Rishis delved deep into their minds and intuitively discovered truths that go far beyond those that have been grasped so far by science. In modern times the importance of the subconscious or unconscious part of the mind was brought out by psychologists like Freud, Jung, and others in the first half of the twentieth century, well aft er Swamiji’s passing away. But even then intuitive reasoning still has to depend upon the prop of conscious ratiocination to make its findings generally acceptable.
The second limitation of science noted by Swamiji is metaphysical. According to Vedantic cosmogony, the material as well as efficient cause of the universe is Brahman, which is of the nature of pure consciousness, which has no habitat and is not directed to any object or idea. A part of Brahman is projected as the universe of our experience. Swamiji raised this question: ‘The sense universe is, as it were, only one portion, one bit of that infinite spiritual universe projected into the plane of sense consciousness. How can this little bit of projection be explained, be understood without knowing that which is beyond?’ (3.2).
Thus, according to Swamiji, we can never hope to reach any ultimate solution to the mystery of nature; not to speak of the mystery of human existence, through science, which is limited to objective observation of external nature—attempts in this direction are doomed to failure by their very nature. Incidentally, about two decades after Swamiji’s passing away, quantum theory was developed by Bohr (1885–1962), Schrödinger (1887–1961), Heisenberg (1901–1976), and others. It was then that scientists realized that the consciousness of the observer had to be invariably taken into account while interpreting the effect of objectively observed sense data on the behaviour of sub-atomic particles. Furthermore, in more recent times some theoretical physicists like Roger Penrose (b.1931) have articulated the need for expanding the scope of science if it is to explain the workings of the human mind.
Value of Scientific Research
The above discussion must not lead us to form the impression that Swamiji regarded scientific research as valueless. Swamiji was a firm believer in the Upanishadic dictum that states that there are two kinds of knowledge: the higher and the lower. Generally speaking, the pursuit of both transcendental and secular knowledge is essential—the latter because it leads to the sharpening of the mind and the enhancing of the discriminatory capacity of the aspirant. More specifically, Swamiji valued scientific research because through it a person seeks to arrive at truth. In a lecture entitled ‘Vedanta as a Factor in Civilisation’, given in England, Swamiji observed: ‘It is too often believed that a person in his progress towards perfection passes from error to truth. …But no error can lead to truth. The soul passing through its different stages goes from truth to truth, and each stage is true; it goes from lower truth to higher truth.’
Although Swamiji observed this in the context of the search for spiritual truth, there is no reason why the pursuit of scientific truth cannot be regarded as a lower rung in the ascent towards the ultimate truth. In fact, this is supported by what he said on two other occasions: ‘The mind works through various stages to attain its fuller development. First, it lays hold of the concrete, and only gradually deals with abstractions’ (5.193). And, ‘If we push enquiry far enough in the world of perception, we must reach a plane beyond perception. … We feel the limited character of reason, yet it does bring us to a plane where we get a glimpse of something beyond’ (8.20).
Swamiji accorded scientific research the same place of honour as the pursuit of spirituality. In fact, he regarded science as a kind of religion. While emphasizing the need for developing a fellow-feeling among different types of religion, Swamiji identified branches of science as ‘expressions of religion whose heads, as it were, are penetrating more into the secrets of heaven though their feet are clinging to earth’, and then made his statement explicit by noting that by this he meant ‘the so-called materialistic sciences’ (2.68–9).
But did Swamiji value scientific research merely as an exercise that benefitted only the researcher? Was he indifferent to its findings? Anyone acquainted with his writings—especially his discourses on Raja Yoga and Jnana Yoga, his conversations with disciples like Sharatchandra Chakrabarty and Haripada Mitra, and his life and activities in the West as detailed by Marie Louise Burke—knows that the answer to these questions is in the negative. Swamiji’s interest in
scientific findings had its roots in his faith in the truths of Vedanta apprehended through direct transcendental realization. He sought to see how far the conclusions of objective science could reflect those truths. What is more, on the basis of his Vedantic insight, Swamiji occasionally threw certain hints and made certain prognostications about the workings of nature, some of which surprisingly have been confirmed by scientists of those days and those who came later.
Before going into Swamiji’s evaluation of the findings of science, as available towards the end of the nineteenth century, we first put forth in a nutshell the Vedantic ideas about the origin of the universe and the workings of nature. Advaita Vedanta proclaims that behind the empirical world of our experience, as also behind all that is beyond our sensual and mental experience, there is only one Reality, which it calls Brahman. It is said that Brahman is fundamentally in a state of equilibrium and is of the nature of existence, knowledge, and bliss absolute. Brahman is totally unaffected by the temporary, imperfect, and afflictive things of the relative world. An inscrutable power called maya seemingly disturbs the equilibrium of Brahman. This maya, which is supposed to be nature, apparently works on Brahman in the form of time, space, and causation and projects the world we experience, which is constituted of diverse entities—non-living things, living beings, ideas, and all the natural processes that work on and through them. The entities of the world are, so to say, Brahman caught and bound in the web of maya. The processes of nature represent the striving of these entities to free themselves and regain their lost equilibrium and basic unity.
The above conclusions of Vedanta have been directly apprehended and substantiated by innumerable seers from time immemorial. Swamiji, inspired by Sri Ramakrishna, himself verified these conclusions and took up the mission of proclaiming the central idea of Vedanta—the essential oneness and divinity of all existence—for the benefit of the whole humanity. His interest in the findings of science arose as part of this mission. He clearly saw that the end and aim of all science is to discover the unity that underlies all the entities and processes of nature. He gave expression to the Vedantic truths in a form that would be easily intelligible to the modern scientific mind and on many occasions endeavoured to show how the discoveries of science tend to conform to these.
Swamiji’s Reading of Scientific Truths
Swamiji accepted the account of the origin and evolution of the world as offered by the philosophical systems of Sankhya and Vedanta. However, while synthesizing and presenting the principles of these systems, he simplified them to make them easily understood. According to him, the manifestation of the universe through the play of maya on Brahman takes place through the appearance of finer entities in two principal stages. The first entity to appear is Mahat, which Swamiji identified with the cosmic mind. Then Mahat bifurcates into two sub-entities: akasha, which is the basic and finest form of matter, and prana, which is the basic and subtlest form of energy. Prana then works on akasha and gives rise to whatever has form: non-living things, mountains, oceans, planets, stars, bodies of living beings, everything. Prana itself diversifies into all forms of energy, including the thought energy of higher animals and especially of human beings. Swamiji’s scientific insights into the workings of various aspects of nature are rooted mainly in these basic Vedantic principles. We will discus them under four heads: (i) the cosmos, (ii) the physical universe, (iii) life, and (iv) the mind; and will try to relate his conclusions to the findings of modern science.
Before embarking on our discussion, we make two general remarks about the character of Swamiji’s scientific insights. Firstly, it will be seen that, although in some cases Swamiji’s conclusions have been confirmed by later scientific research, the route through which he arrived at those conclusions are often based on intuitive and metaphysical reasoning, which is naturally quite distinct from the hypothetico-deductive arguments advanced by scientists on the strength of experiments and observations. Secondly, we must not expect that Swamiji’s observations on the workings of nature would be proved true by every minute detail of later scientific findings. As Swamiji himself observed in the course of a discourse on jnana yoga, an illumined person knows the essence of the universe but he or she may not know all the external variations through which that essence gets manifested in the phenomenal world: ‘He knows the clay itself, but has not had experience of every shape it may be wrought into. … He would have to attain more relative knowledge just as we do, though on account of his immense power, he would learn it far more quickly’ (8.16–7).
(i) The Cosmos · Swamiji presented the theory of creation and dissolution of the universe, as presented in the ancient Indian scriptures, in a logical way and harmonized it with modern knowledge. He pointed out that everything in nature is created and gets dissolved in a cyclic way. A plant comes out of the seed, grows to become a gigantic tree, and then dies leaving other seeds to produce new trees. A bird springs from an egg, lives its life, and then dies leaving other eggs, future birds. The vapour rises from the ocean, is changed into rain drops that fall into the ocean, and are again converted into vapour. Huge mountains are pounded into sand by the action of glaciers, the sand is deposited on the seabed layer after layer, and after ages hardens into a rocky mountain. Swamiji sets up the premise that creation and dissolution must follow the same plan at macrocosmic and microcosmic levels, and on the basis of instances such as the above, reaches the conclusion that at the beginning all things in the universe are in their fine causal form. In the course of time these evolve into their gross effect, which constitutes our phenomenal universe. Further, on the basis of the Sankhya principle that the effect is already present in the cause, he argues that Brahman, the cause of the universe, must be of the nature of intelligence or pure consciousness, as intelligence is already found in the higher animals on the earth. Through the play of maya Brahman evolves into the universe, which for a period remains in the phenomenal form and then dissolves back into Brahman. This whole process constitutes a kalpa, cycle, as it is termed in the Indian scriptures. The sequence of successive cycles goes on ad infinitum. Since time itself is subordinate to maya, one cannot raise questions about the beginning and end of the sequence.
In Swamiji’s time scientists generally believed in an eternally static universe. Although following the formulation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1915, the Russian cosmologist Alexander Friedmann (1888–1925) had raised doubts about this belief and suggested alternative scenarios involving a non-static universe. Concrete experimental evidence in support of a gradually expanding universe became available only in 1929, after Edwin Hubbl (1889–1953) came out with his observations on the recession of distant galaxies.
The idea of an expanding universe gave a boost to the Big Bang theory of the origin and evolution of the universe. According to this theory, the universe as represented by matter, space, and time—the general theory of relativity states that the three are inseparably connected—originated abruptly with a big bang and since then has been progressively expanding. The theory as such does not say anything conclusive about the eventual fate of the universe, but cyclic variants have been suggested—one of them maintains that aft er a long period the process of expansion gets reversed and the contraction of the universe ultimately results in a ‘big crunch’. Thus a cyclic
process consisting of a succession of expansions followed by contractions continues through time. John Wheeler (1911–2008) has been one of the principal proponents of this cyclic theory and has sought to smooth out the singularities or kinks associated with the turning points where contraction changes into expansion.8 Although none of these proposals have been firmly established yet, the similarity of this cyclic theory with the Sankhya principle elaborated by Swamiji is obvious.
That space is inextricably linked up with time has been recognized after Einstein’s formulation of the special theory of relativity in 1905. One of the main tenets of that theory is that we can think of and measure space and time only relative to a particular frame of reference, to a particular observer—the concepts of absolute space and time are vacuous. This has now been generally accepted by scientists. But in Swamiji’s time, as noted earlier, under the Newtonian paradigm absolute space and absolute time dominated the scientific thought world. Yet Swamiji clearly stated that space and time, being aspects of maya, cannot but be relative: ‘Time begins with mind, space also is in the mind. Causation cannot stand without time. Without the idea of succession there cannot be any idea of causation. Time, space and causation, therefore, are in the mind.’9 In Swamiji’s Raja Yoga also we find him observing this: ‘What is time? An increase of speed, an increase of struggle, is able to bridge the gulf of time. Th at which naturally takes a long time to accomplish can be shortened by the intensity of action’ (1.156).
The inseparability of the concepts of time and space, according to Einstein’s special theory of relativity, can be seen easily by following the arguments of the German mathematician H Minkowski (1864–1909), who was one of the earliest interpreters of Einstein. Minkowski represented time as a fourth dimension over and above the three spatial dimensions. To see something from the point of view of an observer moving at a fixed velocity along a path in space implies to rotate the original axes so that the path of the observer becomes the new time axis. This means that two events that looked simultaneous and occurred at different places to an observer stationary with reference to the earlier axes, would appear as occurring at different times at places a shorter or wider distance apart, with reference to the new axes. It is interesting to note that Swamiji also conceded the intimate connection between time and space, but he reached that conclusion by a metaphysical argument. In the course of a discussion with his disciple Haripada Mitra, who was a forest offi cer at Belgaum and had a scientifi c bent of mind, he argued that, if we accept both time and space to be infi nite, then the two must be identical. For there cannot be two infinities; if there were, the existence of one would limit the span of the other.10
Einstein’s general theory of relativity explains the fact of gravitation by supposing that the space-time continuum is itself curved. Before the formulation of this theory in 1916, who had thought about the real world being curved? Surprisingly, however, in Swamiji’s writings we fi nd the enigmatic statement: ‘Th ere is no such thing as motion in a straight line. Every motion is in a circle. If you can take up a stone, and project it into space, and then live long enough, that stone, if it meets with no obstruction, will come back exactly to your hand. A straight line, infinitely projected, must end in a circle.’11 Note that Swamiji speaks here, in particular, of temporal processes and presents the idea of time as intimately associated with throwing and tracing the path of a stone and projecting a straight line in space.
(ii) The Physical Universe · As noted earlier, Swamiji’s Vedantic conclusion was that all matter evolved from one primal matter, akasha, and all energy or force out of one primal energy, prana, and the two, in their turn, were evolutes of a more basic entity, Mahat, the cosmic mind. Hence, Swamiji believed that matter and energy were inter convertible. In a lecture delivered in London he said: ‘From the fine elements they go to finer and more embracing elements, and from these particulars they come to one omni-present ether [akasha], and from that even they go to an all-embracing force or Prana; and through all this runs the principle, that one is not separate from the others. It is the very ether that exists in the higher form of Prana, or the higher form of Prana concretes, so to say, and becomes ether’ (2.329–30). He was eager to see whether this inter-convertibility of matter and energ y could be established by science. Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), one of the leading lights of science in the US during Swamiji’s time who attended some of his lectures, held out to Swamiji the hope that this interconvertibility could be demonstrated. In a letter dated 13 February 1896 Swamiji wrote to E T Sturdy that he was to go to Tesla’s lab to see his demonstration (5.101). As Marie Louise Burke writes, Tesla was unsuccessful in his project, and one and a half years later, in a lecture delivered in Lahore, we fi nd Swamiji observing : ‘There is the unity of force, Prana, there is the unity of matter, called Akasha. Is there any unity to be found among them again? Can they be melted into one? Our modern science is mute here, it has not yet found its way out.’12
Swamiji passed away in 1902. We know now that had Swamiji lived for three more years, he would have been thrilled to know that Einstein’s special theory of relativity supplied the unification he was so eagerly looking for. This theory tells us that energy has mass; the mass of a quantity of energy is obtained by dividing it by the square of the velocity of light in appropriate units. This finding was later on put to practice destructively in the creation of the atomic bomb and constructively for the generation of electrical energies from nuclear power plants. From another point of view, the identical nature of energy and matter was established when in the first quarter of the twentieth century the particulate form of energy was brought out in the quantum theory, and this was followed up by Louis de Broglie’s (1892–1987) counter-extension, which characterized matter by waves.
Another consequence of Vedantic cosmogony as presented by Swamiji is the unity of the different types of energy or force found in nature. According to Swamiji, all forms of natural force are variants of one basic force called prana. Physicists have identified four fundamental physical forces that are present in nature: the force of gravitation, the electromagnetic force, and two other forces called weak nuclear and strong nuclear forces, which are active in the atomic nucleus. Scientists have so far been able to establish that the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces are actually variants of a single force—this unification was achieved by Nobel laureates Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg in the third quarter of the twentieth century. Some theoretical progress towards further unification to subsume the strong nuclear force has also been made. However, the force of gravitation, as yet, stands isolated in the quartet. If and when all these four physical forces can be unified, we would take a giant step towards confirming Swamiji’s thesis of the unity of all forces. Maybe the very recent discovery of the ‘God particle’ or Higgs Boson is one step forward towards such a grand unifi cation. We have to remember, however, that even then the thought force that Swamiji had in mind as a variant of the primal prana would still remain elusive.
Swamiji himself identified electrical current with a kinetic energy of a sort. At that time the nature of electricity was not fully understood. However, Swamiji made this bold statement in his Raja Yoga, written around 1895: ‘What electricity is no one knows, but so far as it is known, it is a sort of motion. There are various other motions in the universe; what is the difference between them and electricity? … Electric motion makes the molecules of a body move in the same direction. If all the air molecules in a room are made to move in the same direction, it will make a gigantic battery of electricity of the room.’13 Through a series of experiments starting in 1897, the British physicist J J Th omson (1856–1940) discovered the negatively charged elementary particles called electrons and characterized electricity as a stream of electrons—the correct role of electrons in the build-up of an atom became known only in 1911, when Ernest Rutherford (1871–1937) came out with his determination of the structure of an atom. It is noteworthy that if we replace the word ‘molecules’ in the above statement of Swamiji by ‘electrons’, it would describe the nature of electricity fairly accurately.
There is another area of physics in which Swamiji, by purely metaphysical arguments, drew a conclusion that was later experimentally and theoretically verifi ed by physicists. At that time it was thought that light must require some kind of medium to travel through interstellar space, and it was hypothesized that an entity called ‘ether’, consisting of particles, permeated all space. In an article that appeared anonymously in the February 1895 issue of New York Medical Times, Swamiji pointed out that this supposition will leave various questions open:
There must be space between two particles of ether, however small; and what fills this interethereal space? …
Thus the theory of ether, or material particles in space, though accounting for the phenomena in space, cannot account for space itself. …
And, therefore, if there is anything which will explain this space, it must be something that comprehends in its infinite being the infinite space itself. And what is there that can comprehend even the infinite space but the Infinite Mind? (9.288–9).
As we know, the ether hypothesis had built-in paradoxes, as it could not explain why the motion of the earth through ether does not affect the relative velocity of light travelling in opposite directions, as was demonstrated by the Michelson-Morley experiment. The ether theory was finally laid to rest by the formulation of Einstein’s special theory of relativity, following which James Clerk Maxwell’s (1831–79) earlier characterization of light as a form of electromagnetic wave that needs no mechanical medium for its propagation was generally accepted.
(iii) Life · Vedanta declares the essential oneness and solidarity of all the entities in the universe. Can this be demonstrated scientifically? Coincidentally, around the time Swamiji was disseminating the message of Vedanta in the West and the East, a young physicist named Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858–1937) was performing experiments in his one-room laboratory in the Presidency College in Calcutta. With the help of innovative instruments he could record the electrical response of metal sheets, plants, and animals to mechanical, thermal, electrical, and chemical stimuli under varying conditions. Bose’s experiments showed that the response graphs of diverse types of entities under identical stimuli were very similar. It was also seen that metals, when subjected to prolonged stimuli, just like tissues of living beings, exhibit the phenomenon of fatigue. These results led Bose to postulate that there was no unbridgeable gap between insentient matter and sentient beings, plants and animals, regarding the response to stimuli. Swamiji was well aware and appreciative of the new grounds Bose was breaking through his research. In fact, in 1900 when Swamiji visited Paris during his second sojourn to the West, Bose was also there to make presentations at a scientific congress, and the two used to meet frequently. From the reports of others we know that Swamiji used to refer to Bose’s work in glowing terms.14
Although Bose’s findings about inorganic substances are yet to gain universal acceptance, his conclusion about the similarity of the behaviour of plant and animal tissues have been confirmed and extended by experiments performed with more sensitive instruments by a host of researchers in different countries. Bose’s epoch-making work, presented in the Royal Institution of London in the early twentieth century, caused considerable flutter in scientific circles. In recent years some psychologists and other scientists have postulated the presence of some kind of mentality and intelligence in all objects of the world and developed a theory of panpsychism.15
After the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, the theory of evolution through struggle for existence, competition, survival of the fittest, and natural selection captivated the minds of life scientists all over the world. However, Swamiji thought that the theory provided only a partial explanation of the evolution of life on earth. In his view, the driving force behind evolutionary change of one species into another is the urge of the Divine inherent in existence to unshackle its bondage and to manifest its intrinsic freedom. Commenting on an aphorism of Patanjali in his Raja Yoga, and elsewhere, he said that this manifestation occurs by itself as soon as the hindrances to it are removed.16 Competition, struggle for existence, and the rest are but incidental to this process and operative at lower stages of evolution only, when struggle is mainly at the physical level. At higher stages, when the struggle rises to the mental level, progress occurs mainly through education, self-cultivation, and self-sacrifice.
Interestingly, some later renowned thinkers on evolution like the palaeontologist Teilhardde Chardin (1881–1955) and the bio-scientist Julian Huxley (1887–1975) have taken a stand close to the view expressed by Swamiji. According to Teilhard de Chardin, there is an all-pervading consciousness in the universe, which is free and the source of all supra-physical or psychic energy. Evolution on earth is taking place by a progressive manifestation of this consciousness through ‘complexification’ of life. Evolution in the modern human being, dominated as it has been by the sphere of thought, is more psychosocial than biological. Huxley also is largely in agreement with this view.17 Even Richard Dawkins (b.1941), the hard-headed protagonist of evolution through propagation and mutation of genes, admits the importance of transmission of ideas—he coins the term meme to denote idea-units—such as those calling for development of ‘true altruism’ and ‘the capacity to simulate the future’ in human evolution.18
(iv) The Mind · Unlike the material monists of today, who try to explain everything in the universe in terms of objectively observable matter and identify mind with the neuronal activities of the brain, Swamiji asserted that the mind is distinct from the body. He observed: ‘The mind cannot be analysed by any external machine. Supposing you could look into my brain while I am thinking, you would only see certain molecules interchanged. You could not see thought, consciousness, ideas, images. You would simply see the mass of vibrations—chemical and physical changes. From this example we see this sort of analysis would not do.’19 It is to be noted that the same objection against material monism has been raised in recent times by researchers on consciousness like David John Chalmers (b.1966). Chalmers distinguishes between ‘the easy problem of consciousness’, which may be solved by tracking the activities of the brain cells, and ‘the hard problem of consciousness’, to solve which we have to account for qualia or subjective experiences like those of redness, sweetness, pain, and the like.20 Roger Penrose also has admitted that the problem of qualia cannot be solved by studying the mechanism of the activities in the brain with the currently available tools of science.21
Interestingly, as techniques of non-invasive observation of the inside of the brain developed in the latter half of the twentieth century, well-known neurophysiologists such as Wilder Penfield (1891–1976) and John Eccles (1903–97) experimentally reached the conclusion that the mind is a higher order entity which is distinct from but activates the physical brain.22
However, that Swamiji regarded the mind as distinct from the physical body does not mean that he accepted the mind to be non-material and free. Swamiji agreed with the Vedantic position that the mind also is a form of matter, though finer than sensually perceptible grossmatter. He maintained that just like everything else in nature, the mind also has its patterns of behaviour and is subject to laws. It is of utmost importance to study the science of the mind and understand these laws, since only in that way can we go beyond misery and attain true happiness.
Swamiji called psychology ‘the science of sciences’.23 Note that this observation was made at a time when Western scientists, led by persons like Gustav Fechner (1801–87), had just started breaking away from the Cartesian tradition of avoiding a discourse on mind and had started studying it scientifically. Swamiji, however, knew that in studying the mind we cannot obtain observations objectively as in the case of the traditional sciences and have to depend on first-person experiences—in recent years some psychologists influenced by Edmund Husserl’s (1859–1939) philosophy of phenomenology, have also recognized the importance of processing first-person experiences in the study of the mind.24 Further, Swamiji emphasized that collecting and processing such subjective experiences require considerable discipline and training on the part of the subject.
If the mind is not a correlate of the body, how, in the first place, is it acquired by a person? The Vedantic view is that the mind generally continues to exist after the destruction of the body and takes birth in a new body—the mind of a person is acquired from a previous birth. Independent existence and transmission of the mind may not look too absurd if we remember that according to modern physics force-fields may exist and get propagated in space without a material medium. Admittedly, most Western scientists, including even those like Erwin Schrödinger and Julian Huxley who are sympathetic to Vedantic ideas, find it difficult to accept the theory of rebirth. Swamiji knew the difficulty and citing the inborn instincts of living beings, like the chicken’s fear of the hawk and the duckling’s love of water, pinpointed the issue by stating that if we agree that instincts are the result of past experience, then the question is ‘whether that experience be longs to a particular soul, or to the body simply, whether this experience which comes to the duck is the duck’s forefathers’ experience, or the duck’s own experience.’25 Since modern science tells that an offspring gets its body only from its parents, if we accept that the mind is not a correlate of the body determined by the genes, how shall we justify the position that our instincts come from our forefathers? Of course, Swamiji knew transcendentally that rebirth is a fact of nature and clearly stated: ‘The law governing the functions of the human mind is called the law of Karma’ (8.244).
To conclude we reiterate an important concept discussed earlier: the mission of Swamiji’s life was to uplift humanity in general and the Indian masses in particular by disseminating the ideal of oneness of all existence. His interest in science arose because he saw that it can help to fulfil that mission, by rationally establishing in a present-day language the unity that runs through all nature. This is borne out by his proclamation that the ideal of oneness ‘is the one great life-giving idea which the world wants from us today, and which the mute masses of India want for their uplifting, for none can regenerate this land of ours without the practical application and effective operation of this ideal of the oneness of things’ (3.189).
The author thanks Swamis Atmapriyananda and Divyasukhananda for providing suggestions for the article.
(Source: Prabuddha Bharatha January 2013)
1. See The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, I–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.90–I.
2. See Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play, trans. Swami Chetanananda (St Louis: Vedanta Society of St Louis, 2003), 634.
3. Complete Works, I.9.
4. See Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind (London: Oxford University, 1994),I2 .
5. See Mundaka Upanishad, I.I.4.
6. Complete Works, I.385.
7. See Complete Works, I.I47–8, 2.263–5, 3.400–I, and 5.I0I–2.
8. For an account of the Big Bang theory and its cyclic extensions see Paul Davies, The Mind of God: The Scientic Basis for a Rational World (New York: Penguin, 1993), Chapter 2.
9. Complete Works, 2.78.
10 . His Eastern and Western Admirers, Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2004), 38, 50 .
11. Complete Works, I.I96.
12. Marie Louise Burke, Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries, 6 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, I985), 3.504. Also Complete Works, 3.400.
13. Complete Works, I.I6I.
14. See His Eastern and Western Disciples, The Life of Swami Vivekananda, 2 vols (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2008), 2.538.
15. See Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, ed. David John Chalmers (New York: Oxford University, 2002), 247.
16. See Complete Works, I.292, 5.277–9; 7.I5I–5.
17. See Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper, 1959), to which Julian Huxley adds a long introductory preface.
18. See Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene(London: Oxford University, I989), 200–I.
19. Complete Works, 7.43I.
20 . See Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 247.
21. See Shadows of the Mind, 15–6, 42–4, 420.
22. See Swami Ranganathananda, Neurology and What Lies Beyond (Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1996), 2–6, and Michael Talbot, Beyond the Quantum (New York: Bantam, 1988), I03–7.
23. Complete Works, 6.28.
24. See D J Chalmers, ‘Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness’, Consciousness Studies, 2/3 (1995), 200–I9.
25. Complete Works, I.240.