Where Science and Spirituality Converge

Battle lines are being drawn and verbal salvos flying as many scientists, educators, and parents fight to keep Intelligent Design out of our elementary and high schools. Yet those with deep religious convictions insist that their views on the creation of the world be taught alongside the Darwinian model of evolution. Lawsuits have been launched and top politicians are being drawn into the fray. But where does that leave the rest of us?

The fields of religion and science have been at odds in the West since Copernicus suggested that the earth circled the sun. But in the East the division between science and spirituality never occurred. The sages and scientists of ancient India weren’t competitors; in fact, they were often one and the same. In spite of how supercharged today’s debate between science and spirituality may seem, the disconnect is not inevitable. The sages tell us there is an intelligent force inherent in nature, underlying all matter, and that yoga can provide the missing link that ties science and religion together.

The sages tells us there is an intelligent force inherent in nature, underlying all matter, and that yoga can provide the missing link that ties science and religion together.

Westerners may be surprised to learn that ancient India had its own school of scientific materialism, Lokayata, meaning “this physical world is all that exists.” It was one of the major darshanas or “viewpoints” of Indian culture. The Brihaspati Sutra, the most famous book of this tradition, written around 600 bce, maintains that seeing is believing and that the only sure knowledge we have is that which our senses provide us. Everything we perceive, it tells us, is made up of some combination of the four states of matter: earth, water, fire, and air. Even our own awareness is nothing more than a temporary product of the physical processes of our body. The Lokayatas explain this by saying if you mix ground betel, lime, and areca nut, you’ll create something that didn’t initially appear in these three ingredients: the color red. Just so, they say, the components of our material body combine in such a way as to create our experience of consciousness. At death, when these components break down, our self-awareness simply vanishes.

But who combined all these components in such a complex and coherent way that life became possible in the first place? “Who paints the peacock’s tail? Who teaches the bird to sing? There is no cause other than nature itself,” claim the Lokayatas in the Sarva Siddhanta Samgraha. Many centuries later Charles Darwin echoed this sentiment.

Originally, the Lokayatas sustained a formidable presence in Indian history and were frequently referred to in Hindu and Buddhist texts, including the Bhagavad Gita. But their influence gradually waned, and today they’re hardly even remembered. What undermined their arguments?

The Chhandogya Upanishad tells the story of two students, Indra and Virochana, who approached their renowned guru, hoping to learn the highest truth. Their teacher advised them to look at their reflections in a bowl of water. “That body you see there is the reality,” he taught. “That’s who you are.” Virochana returned home, satisfied that his physical body and the material universe it functions in are the whole of reality. But Indra didn’t buy it. Year after year he continued to serve the guru, asking over and over for the real truth about the soul.

There is a serene intelligence inside you that exists in and of itself, independent of matter, always joyous and free. You are that pure, tranquil, non-material intelligence itself.

Finally the teacher relented and shared the sacred tradition with his determined student. “The wind doesn’t have a physical body, nor does the lightning or thunder, yet they are completely real,” he said. “There is a serene intelligence inside you that exists in and of itself, independent of matter, always joyous and free. Sometimes it puts on a physical body, but when it directs its mind, like a divine eye, back onto itself, it recognizes itself as unborn, undying awareness. You are not your body, Indra, any more than you are the coat or shirt you have also put on. You are that pure, tranquil, non-material intelligence itself.”

The name of that teacher was Prajapati, the same name given to the divine intelligence that created the world! The Upanishad is slyly hinting here that it’s easy to mistake the material world for the whole of reality, as Virochana did. But if we continue to search further, with patience and determination, we will find a deeper, more comprehensive truth.

India has long been the land of siddhas, advanced yogic adepts. And these masters uniformly rejected the idea that the universe is nothing more than the random permutations of matter. Materialists such as the Lokayatas could make a case against greedy, corrupt priests or self-deluded, would-be psychics, but siddhas couldn’t be dismissed so easily. Again and again people saw them perform miracles that couldn’t be explained away. And given a choice between the strident claims of the Lokayatas versus the siddhas’ testimony about higher dimensions of consciousness, the people of India decided to trust the spiritual masters. The adepts, after all, offered sincere and committed students such as Indra a host of techniques through which they could scientifically test their claims and experience higher orders of reality for themselves. As a philosophical school, Lokayata gradually lost its foothold in India until Europeans reintroduced the materialistic paradigm a few centuries ago.

Yoga adepts such as Patanjali had a sophisticated view of nature that rivals the best work of today's theoretical physicists. They saw the universe as an infinite, homogeneous field of energy.

What, then, specifically is the yogic view on science and the development of life? Yogis divide science into two classes: apara and para. Apara vidya means the science of the world that is apparent to our senses. Para vidya means the science of the ultimate, that which is changeless, eternal, and accessible not to our senses but to the higher powers of the human mind. Western science, however, rejects para vidya. Why? It isn’t due to the scientific methodology itself, as much of the inner exploration that yogis practice is entirely scientific. It has mainly to do with European history.

With the rise of Christianity in the 4th century, political authorities set out to eradicate pagan beliefs and practices from the European landscape. Scientific inquiry, championed by pagan thinkers, came under fire—literally. Throughout the Dark Ages, those who engaged in scientific research were in danger of being burned at the stake. The Renaissance made open exploration of nature’s laws possible once again, but the rift that formed between science and religion still has not healed. Even now many scientists consider the exploration of spiritual realities to be the domain of theology. They say that this type of investigation is “unscientific.”

The split between science and spirituality never manifested in the East where philosophers and sages (including the Lokayatas) have always been honored. In India, inquiring minds continued to consider non-material experiences, such as psychic phenomena and mystical epiphanies, to be just as valid subjects for research as physical objects, such as atoms and galaxies. While Western scientists went on to develop the steam engine and electrical power, Indian scientists mastered inner states of consciousness and explored the powers and insights that came with them.

Yoga adepts such as Patanjali, who composed the Yoga Sutra in 200 bce, had a sophisticated view of nature that rivals the best work of today’s theoretical physicists. They saw the universe as an infinite, homogeneous field of energy called mulaprakriti. Three forces, they found, operated within this field: kinetic energy or motion (rajas), inertia (tamas), and stabilizing equilibrium (sattva). When these three forces balanced each other perfectly, the universe subsided into a potential, or nonmanifest, phase (avyakta). When kinetic energy propelled them out of balance, however, the vast field of infinite energy assumed grosser forms, ultimately coagulating into the type of energy we call physical matter (prakriti).

The yogis claimed that physical matter can neither perceive itself nor organize itself into conscious entities.

Ancient yogic theory is compatible with modern physics. But there is one critical difference: The yogis claimed that physical matter can neither perceive itself nor organize itself into conscious entities. On its own, they said, matter can never be anything more than energies and atoms drifting unknown through the void. It is purusha, spirit, that perceives matter, and in so doing, organizes it into a living, evolving cosmos.

Do you remember the experiment our teachers led us through in grade school where we’d sprinkle iron filings on a sheet of paper, then wave a magnet beneath it? Instantly the iron filings would assemble along the magnetic lines of force. Yogis claim that spirit has a similar spontaneous effect on energy. The “glance” of spirit, they say, transforms inorganic chemistry into organic life. Prana, or the life force, the mediator between spirit and matter, flashes into existence when spirit “attends” to matter.

Physicists are hot on the trail of a “theory of everything” that would unite the force of gravity with the three other universal forces they’ve discovered. The ancient yogis engaged in a similar quest. Could prakriti (matter/energy) and purusha (spirit) be unified in a higher synthesis? Plunging into deeper and deeper states of awareness, the yogis confirmed that indeed this was possible, and that, in fact, “This vast, eternal reality is pure intelligence alone” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.12). The Lokayatas had arrived at the opposite conclusion. They looked around themselves and decided, “All that exists is matter.” The sages looked inside themselves and discovered, “All that exists is consciousness.”

The yoga masters speak of reality as vijnanaghana, “a solid mass of intelligence.” Sometimes they call it adamantine or “diamond-like.” They mean it is completely homogeneous; it is self-existent (it always existed), and nothing else exists anywhere. Energy has its own inherent power, just as heat is an inherent property of fire.

When the sages asked themselves, “Why did spirit create the cosmos?” the answer was, “It is its lila.” Lila means a game, like the natural, spontaneous play of a young child who, out of pure exuberance, simply raises her arm and throws a ball into the air. From the perspective of her parents (or let’s say the Lokayatas), the throw may seem random. But from her own perspective (or that of the yogis) it is a free and spontaneous, conscious, creative act.

So is there a divine intelligence that, out of its own brimming bliss and creative power, has created our universe? Or are there only atoms and the void? Materialists feel that they alone are brave enough to face the Godless emptiness of eternity and the oblivion of death. There’s no question that they’re brave. The question—and it’s a big question—is whether they’re right.

The most famous philosopher in the Western tradition, Socrates of Athens, was put to death in 399 bce. In the last few hours of his life he grappled with the mystery of whether spirit really exists, and whether there actually is life after death. The great thinker finally had to admit that reason can never supply a definitive answer. “But I believe beyond reason there is something more,” he finally concluded. “The soul’s intuitive knowledge of itself, that hints at an answer.” In India the yogis also extended their inquiry beyond the limits of logic to the soul’s own inherent self-knowledge, and concluded that materialists (such as Virochana) may have searched honestly for an answer, but perhaps just not deeply enough.

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Linda Johnsen

Linda Johnsen, MS, is the author of numerous books including Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece and Meditation Is Boring? Her most recent book is Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Practice. Visit... Read more>>