Laws: Ancient Science and Religion

Laws: Ancient Science and Religion

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Laws, as we understand the term in everyday parlance, are constraints to which all the members of a group or nation are subject.  Restrictions on individual actions and behavior have existed in all cultures and societies, if not always with rigidity, at least as custom. When stated and written down more formally, these become the statutory laws of the land. Breaking such a law could lead to prescribed penalties, should the culprit be caught.

Laws, in the sense of injunctions and rules prescribing good and proscribing hurtful behavior constitute what may be called moral laws. Moral laws have been there in all religious traditions and cultural settings. Punishment for dereliction in disobeying a moral law is assured in religious systems, one way or another, one day or another. The Westminister Confession of Faith says in a nutshell, albeit with reference to a particular religious tradition, what most religious systems believe: “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity, to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.” The Rig Veda says: “Sweet blows the breeze for him who lives by Law, rivers for him pour sweets. So, as we live by Law, may the plants be sweet to us!.” Zoroaster said in the Avesta: “Those who shall give hearing and reverence (to God’s words) shall attain unto Perfection and immortality by the deeds of good spirit of the Lord of Wisdom!” In the Holy Qu’ran we read: “Why, is he better who founds his building upon the fear of God and His good pleasure, or he who founds his building upon the brink of a crumbling bank that will tumble with him into the fire of hell? God does not guide the people of the evil-doers.”

The question that arises is: Are there also laws to which the phenomenal world is subject? Yes, says science, and also ancient wisdom. What this implies is that nature or the inanimate world also functions in accordance with rules and regulations.

Though this idea has taken on specific interpretations in the world of modern science, it is not altogether new.  Lao-tzu in ancient China spoke of the Tao: the Way which is the principle of harmony in the world of nature. The Tao is present in mountain and meadow, in sun and star, in wind and water and everywhere. It is the source of peace and harmony, and ought to be emulated by human beings. The core idea is that “Things change, but the laws underlying the changes remain unchanged. If one understands these laws and regulated one’s actions in conformity with them, one can turn everything to one’s advantage.”

Hindu wisdom spoke of rita  as the regulating principle that keeps the universe going. Here, Man is also placed in the Cosmic Order, and he is expected to be in harmony with it. In Vedic mythopoesy, Varuna “represents the inner reality of things, higher truth (rita), and order in their transcendent aspects, beyond the understanding of man. His absolute power is felt during the night and in all that is mysterious while man-made laws, represented by Mitra, rule the day.”

In ancient Greek mythological tradition, as per Hesiod, its first poet, chaos was in the vast emptiness, pervaded by darkness (Erebus) and night (Nyx). These two primordial principles engendered upper air (Aether) and day (Hemera). The ancient Greeks contrasted Chaos with the Cosmos that is the world, disorder with the order that reigns. In the Buddhist tradition one speaks of dhamma-dhâtu which is the so-called Law-doctrine. This is taken to be the reality behind being and non-being. It is said that this is all-inclusive, even as the earth’s rotation happens day and night.

Sometimes, such universal order implied a balance. The principle of balance  in turn gave rise to the notion of justice and moral law also. The injunction to give “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe,” such as we read in the Bible may be seen as a transformation into the ethical plane of this universal balance.

Likewise, we read in the Qur’an: “We shall set up scales of justice for the Day of Judgment, so that not a soul will be dealt with unjustly in the least.” The Arabic word for scales in mîzân which is also taken to be an eternal and essential feature of Heaven. The concept of mîzân played a role in the theoretical framework of Arab alchemy.

We see that the ancient visions of laws that govern the world were general rather than particular, holistic in their descriptions rather that specific in their explanations. They recognized an overarching framework under which the totality functioned, but they did not give the details which made each part function.

Religions maintain that moral laws are of Divine origin, and that human beings are endowed with the capacity to innately recognize them. One of the consequences of modern science has been to challenge this view. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, philosophers began to argue that moral laws arose  from practical utilitarian considerations. This idea has been gaining popularity and support from fields like evolutionary psychology.