Some Problems in the Hinduism and Science Dialogue

Some Problems in the Hinduism and Science Dialogue

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The great learning and sophistication one finds in ancient and medieval Sanskrit literature is readily apparent to those who have studied it.  However, one wishes the same proclivity for distinctions and precision of thought could be brought into the contemporary scholarship on Hinduism and science.  Having looked at the Puranas, Upanishads and philosophical schools such as Yoga, Sankhya, and Vaishesika one is left questioning the authenticity and origin of some of contemporary Hindu philosophy and theology.

The problems with lack of specificity of tradition are intensified by the fact that many contemporary Hindus claim to represent all of ‘Hinduism’ in general. However, it is well known among scholars of South Asian religion that the word ‘Hinduism’ is a term of convenience-a blanket name for a wide variety of religious practices, beliefs and worldviews that some times have little common ground beyond their Indian origins.  Ironically, Hinduism is not an indigenous word to any of the traditions it labels (it was used by Muslims to indicate those who live on the other side of the ‘Sindu River’), and in many ways it is not suited for these traditions.  Yet in some ways it is not unlike the word ‘Christianity,’ which can denote groups of people as diverse as the contemplative monks of Mount Athos or Televangelists in Alabama.  The difference is that by and large Christians are careful-at least when writing for an academic readership-to acknowledge which tradition they claim to represent, which authority structures they accept or do not accept, and so on.  At the very least one can know if a writer is Protestant, Catholic, or an adherent of another Christian tradition.  This has not been the case with many Hindu scholars in recent discussion with science.  We simply do not know where some Hindus are coming from-theologically speaking-and yet some claim to represent the tradition as a whole.  And the fact is that if one studies the ancient traditions in India there were some significant, yet subtle differences between them.  Nevertheless, Hinduism is represented as and undifferentiated whole by some contemporary Hindus.

For instance V. V. Raman wrote in the December 2003 issue of Zygon: ‘In the world of Hindu spirituality, brahman is not a He or She that prescribes or proscribes behavior or a principle that is compassionate to the suffering or considerate to the repugnant but a mute substratum of cosmic awareness…transcendence is the subtle backdrop of the physical universe…Except at the mythopoetic level it [Hindu spirituality] does not anthropomorphize it [i.e. brahman]. ‘  Such a comment completely ignores the extensive Puranic literature in which Brahman is clearly equated-on a philosophical, not mythological level-with a personal God, some times Vishnu, Shiva, Rama, the Goddess or Krishna.  In the Bhagavata-Gita, probably the most authoritative Hindu book, Krishna argues that He is a person, the foundation of Brahman and the very essences of Brahman itself (e.g., BG 14.27).  Moreover, a number of India’s greatest theologians-such as Ramanuja, Madhva and Abhina-argue for a personal conception of the highest reality.  I am not saying ‘Hinduism is a personalistic religion,’ rather that there is substantive evidence for personalism in traditional literature, just as there are great works that argue for a transpersonal or impersonal conception of the highest reality.

In a similar vein as Raman, Paul Utukuru (or Gopal Rao) wrote in Science & Theology (July/August 2003) that all Hindu religious practice is aimed at ‘being able to declare that “I and the Father are one,” as Jesus did or “I am that, you are that and all this is that,” as the ancient Hindu Rishis did.’  Aside from being extremely insensitive to how Christians might feel about a Hindu identifying him/herself as the Christian God, Utukuru is again ignoring entire sections of the Hindu tradition that do not agree with him at all.  Utukuru characterizes all Hinduism as non-dualistic, but this is simply not the case. Also in Science & Theology (May 2004), in an article entitled ‘Hinduism and science linked at their roots,’ Gaonkar Sadharam is quoted as saying Hinduism teaches that ‘A perfect action arises out of the moment itself and is not judged as being good or bad.  Hinduism does not engage in such dualities.’  Perhaps Sadharama has a more subtle point to make that the editors of Science & Theology did not include; from the article itself, we simply do not know.  Nevertheless, the Mahabharata, Ramayana, the Dharma-shastras, the Vedas, the extensive ethical and moral texts found in the Vedantic discourses, Puranas and Upanishads (i.e. the canonical foundation of Hinduism) argue virously about right and wrong at times.  It would seem highly problematic to have a religious tradition that makes no distinctions between good and bad, let alone the fact that many Hindu texts truly do make such distinctions (e.g., the entire 16th chapter of BG, wherein Krsna clearly distinguishes the good from the bad [i.e. sets up dualities], and urges Arjuna to cultivate goodness).

Taking on board Ishvarakrishna’s Sankhya philosophy, Ravi Ravindra wrote in a recent article posted widely on science and religion web pages:  ‘The arising of thoughts and emotions is a part of the play of Prakriti, and watching this play with complete equanimity, without being disturbed, belongs to Purusha. Without the presence of the seeing Purusha, Prakriti is blind, lost in agitated movement and action; but Purusha needs Prakriti for purposive activity.  Alert without agitation, a centered-self without being self-centered, a sage does nothing, nothing of his own or for himself, but everything is accomplished.’  Ravindra goes on to compare this model with Western science.  Although almost all Hindu schools use Sankhya in some manner or another, throughout Ravindra’s article we are led to believe that Ishvarakrishna’s particular Sankhya represents is Hinduism.  Isvarakrishna is just one thinker in a very diverse philosophical tradition, and his Sankhya is just one of many Sankhyas.  Critical scholarship should recognize the diversity of views often lumped under the term Hinduism.

Taking a different approach, Rajiv Malhotra argues that Western intellectuals systematically undermine the Indic traditions.  Scholars, he argues, subvert the integrity of Indic religions by interpreting them with their own Western categories, or an ‘Abrahamic lens.’  Unlike the above authors, Malhotra argues for a strict dichotomy between Abrahamic and Indian religions.  In Problematizing God’s Interventions in History, he writes:  ‘The Indic and Abrahamic traditions are best understood by the different [emphasis in original] ways by which they arrive at their understanding of ultimate reality (found at: <A target=_TOP HREF=””></A>).’  For him, Indian religions are premised on the belief ‘that humans have infinite potential…and the view of man being essentially sat-chit-ananda, the Supreme Being in limited form, with the built-in capability to achieve self-realization,’ whereas the ‘the Abrahamic religions-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-emphasize that the infinite gap of knowledge between man and God can only be bridged when God initiates a dialogue with man.’  Whereas Indic religions are analogous to a free-market capitalism because the locus of realization is the individual, he believes the West ‘top-down institutionalized religions became obsessed with history-centrism and cannons…this could be compared with a Soviet style controlled economy.’ Malhotra holds ‘conflict’ interpretation of the relation of science and religion:  ‘Having lost in its fight against science in Europe a few centuries ago, Judeo-Christian theologians are now busy repackaging their Grand Narratives in science-compliant ways.’  He argues there cannot and will not be any contradiction between science and religion in the Indic religions because they do not posit divine or ‘extra-natural’ interventions.  I believe the Hindu theological issues are far more complex than this, as I have argued in my article ‘God and the World,’ in the ISKCON Communications Journal.  Although Malhotra attacks Western scholars for not understanding Hinduism, one wonders if he really understands how Abrahamic theologians have attempted to relate their theology with science.  His characterizatoin of the ‘conflict’ model between the Judeo-Christian religions and science has been shown as more of a myth than a historical reality by historians such as John Headley Brooke.

Whatever the case, it is evident that Malhotra is making extremely broad statements that span over thousands of years of philosophical and theological reflection by hundreds of varied thinkers.  The exceptions to each of his claims are great, but a detailed analysis takes us way beyond the scope of this essay.   For our purposes it is important to note that in all of his thirty-three pages of discussion on Indic religions, not one traditional source material is directly quoted from.  His interpretation of the Indic religions is devoid of historical and textual justification; we can only make rough inferences as to which tradition within Hinduism he represents and we have no way of knowing he actually represents the Hindu textual tradition.

Without denying the authority of the above authors or negating their ability to reinterpret Hinduism, I wish to point out that such authors represent their own views of Hinduism, but by no means do they represent the whole of it.  In fact what they package as ‘Hinduism’ is largely ‘Neo-Vedanta,’ a very recent development that attempts to merge a wide spectrum of Indian theological and philosophical thought into one undifferentiated whole.  The lack of traditional authority structures-wherein one distinguishes between lineages-is a feature of Neo-Vedanta.  There are, however, other ways of approaching a comparison between Hinduism and science than the authors mentioned above.  An excellent example is Anindita N. Balslev, who has written widely on Indian cosmology and conceptions of time.  She discusses the differences among the various traditions in Indian religions, paying close attention to details, philosophical nuances and the uniqueness found in the different texts.  T. R. R. Iyengar, in his book Hinduism and Scientific Quest, is also very careful to specify where and when a particular belief is coming from.

There are many good, even great, Hindu scientists.  However, it often seems as if the Sanskrit texts do not enrich their understanding of Hinduism.  For hundreds of years, Indian gurus of different schools, such as Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta, Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita Vedanta, Saivism (of several varieties), Sankhya, and orthodox Brahmanism, propounded particular lines of thought and practice among their disciples.  Disciples were required to learn and internalize a distinctive view of all aspects of reality, a view that invariably differed in fundamental ways from other schools regarding true nature of Brahman, Prakriti (nature) and the self.  Any serious attempt at comparing Hinduism and science must acknowledge with which Hindu school or text(s) one is comparing science.

I am all for innovation, for allowing an ancient tradition to evolve and grow with the ebb and flow of modernity.  I think Western scientists can benefit by looking at the notions of dharma, karma, guna (quality) and sadhana (spiritual practice) from the perspective of the people who used these concepts thousands of years ago in India, and then further benefit by seeing how these concepts illuminate modern science.  However, Hindu scholars should realize that there is no essential Hinduism, that whatever their view is, it is only one of many. There is no essentialist ‘Hindu worldview’ or ‘Hindu theology’ to which one can compare Darwinism or quantum mechanics.  This is not to say there are not some common elements in all schools, such as the use of the Sanskrit language, acceptance of the Veda as a scriptural authority, belief in reincarnation, karma and other such things we are so familiar with nowadays.  However, it has become a simple fact of history that the traditional guru-disciple lineages have lost much of their former influence in the development of Hindu theology, and we are left with a sort of ‘cut-and-paste Hinduism’…one takes a little from here and a little from there, and lumps it all together as one’s own tailor-made ‘Hindu’ worldview.  This practice does no justice to any particular guru-disciple lineage; rather it becomes a semblance of some or many schools.  Aside from this solution I have mentioned, scholars of Hinduism such as Julius Lipner have argued that the definition of Hinduism should not have any specific beliefs or doctrines attached to it.  Rather, Hinduism should be recognized as ‘polycentric,’ meaning it has many centers of authority, belief and practice.

The relationship of Hinduism and science is part the much larger question of how Hinduism is defined.  Religious studies scholars are aware of this.  The Journal of the American Academy of Religion (December 2000) dedicated an entire issue to answering the question of ‘who speaks for Hinduism’?  I am suggesting that Hindus let their texts speak for Hinduism.  Scholars who identify themselves as Hindu and wish to make significant contributions to the religion-science discourse can do better at identifying their own theological and textual heritage (if any at all) within Hinduism as an integral component of their intellectual rigor.  Perhaps an upshot of this is that Hindu theology needs to move beyond the term ‘Hinduism,’ which is not an indigenous label, by recognizing the diversity of views and traditions subsumed under this term.