Hinduism and Contemporary Science
Religion and science are often thought to be at odds with one another. What is the relation between Hinduism and contemporary science? Is there a conflict between devout Hindus and those who embrace scientific hypotheses?
Hindu scriptures recognize two types of knowledge: lower and higher. Knowledge of the rites and rituals and scholarly study of scripture is considered lower knowledge; higher knowledge is the knowledge of atman and Brahman gained through personal experience or self-realization. Of the two, higher knowledge is true, because it liberates the individual from the cycles of births and deaths. Scientific knowledge is of the lower kind.
The relationship between Hinduism and science is not easy to describe. Since Hinduism does not have a central ecclesiastical authority, as the Catholic Church does, it is difficult to get any official verdict on any position that might be controversial, such as evolution, capital punishment, abortion, stem-cell research, birth control, or human cloning.
Hindu spiritual leaders offered their unanimous opinion on human cloning to former president Bill Clinton. “It is our wish to inform the President that Hinduism neither condones nor condemns the march of science. If done with divine intent and consciousness, it may benefit and if done in the service of selfishness, greed and power, it may bring severe negative karmic consequence. The simple rule is this: cause no injury to others and let dharma — the law of good conduct and harmony with the universe and its many forces and creatures — be the guide for all such explorations. It is a sin to tinker with God's work.”
Individual Hindu groups (sampradayas) may have official positions determined by a guru, but in general there are no large organizations that speak for major segments of the Hindu population. Consequently, one can only address the relationship between Hinduism and science in the most general terms.
Hinduism, like Judaism and Christianity, is a metaphysical system. Science, on the other hand, is nonmetaphysical and accepts no divine or “outside the system” source. Shukavak N. Dasa pointed out in his article “Hinduism and Science” that there are three different groups of Hindus.
Conservatives believe the Vedas are the literal truth.
Liberals believe the Vedas should not be taken literally; scientific explanation trumps the Vedas if there is a reasoned argument.
The majority of Hindus believe the Vedas are true, but can be reinterpreted when they come into conflict with science.
All three approaches fall within theology, hermeneutics, or interpretation of sacred writing. From the perspective of the Bhagavad Gita, it is fair to say that modern science is simply a highly detailed analysis of matter and, in this sense, there is no conflict between the Gita and science.
The view that the Rig Veda and other religious texts contain so-called secret or vague references to modern ideas such as particle theory, quantum mechanics, and string theory is a misleading attempt to link science and religion. It is not possible to read such theories into the Vedas in the hopes that faith may justify actions.
Hinduism as Near to Science
There are some Hindu stories that border on the scientific realm. For example, in Hinduism there is no one creation story; numerous cosmogonies can be found in all important Hindu scriptures. Hindus tend to see metaphors in these creation myths for philosophical and spiritual truths; some stories might be conflicting, but they do not confuse Hindus because “Truth is one; the sages call it by different names.” (Rig Veda 1:164:46).
One of the most sublime accounts of creation occurs in the Rig Veda 10:129. It ponders the mystery of origins and offers more questions than answers. Many other creation stories in the Hindu tradition may be seen as metaphors that convey not absolute truth, but practical paradigms for conceiving of a person's purpose in life and their connections to the universe and other life forms within it.
One hymn from the Rig Veda tells how the universe was created from the cosmic being, or purusha, who is described as having a thousand heads, eyes, and feet. The Brahmin was said to have emerged from the mouth of the divine being, the warrior from his arms, the ordinary people from his thighs, and the servants from his feet. It is easy to see how this is a metaphor describing the various social duties of the different classes.
The Chandogya Upanishad 3:19:104 relates how the world was nonexistent, became existent, and then became an egg. After a year, the egg broke open and a silver part and a gold part emerged. The silver part became the Earth and the gold part became the sky. The various parts of the egg became the features of the heavens and the Earth. Many see in this an analogy to the Big Bang Theory.
In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, the primordial being, after realizing he was alone, created a woman from his body. From their union humans were born. After this, the woman hid from the man by taking the form of a cow, but he appeared as a bull, and from their union cattle were born. She then hid as a mare, but he came as a stallion, and from their union all one-hoofed animals were born. This went on for each of the various animals, down to the ants. This cosmology illustrates that all creatures, from humans to tiny insects, come from the same source.
In some myths, creation is said to come from being, and in others, from nonbeing. The Chandogya Upanishad itself describes creation in both ways.
Indian Cosmology or the Order of the Universe
The Vishnu Purana details an elaborate map of the cosmos in which India, here called Jambudvipa (Rose-Apple Island), is the center continent. In the center of Jambudvipa is Mount Meru, said to be the abode of Brahman and other deities.
There are oceans of different substances separating the islands, the last of which separates the last island from the “golden realm,” which is the end of the universe. This describes the universe horizontally, but the Purana also describes it vertically, elaborating on various heavens and hells.
Hindus see physical matter as a manifestation or product of consciousness, whereas in modern science consciousness is a product of the physical brain. Hindus differentiate between mind and consciousness; the mind is a supersubtle material used by the consciousness to perceive physical reality. Hindu scientists consider it their duty to engage in scientific activity. Science is, after all, one of the ways in which a person may come to learn the true nature of reality.