Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Advaita and Modern Knowledge: Chapter 8 — excerpts

Knowledge and ignorance are different. Only that which is done with knowledge, faith and meditation, that alone becomes more powerful. This truly is the proximate exposition of this very letter Om.

Chandogya Upanishad 1.1.10

The scientific analysis of the world, depending not just on logical analysis but on observation and experiments, has thrown up a whole new dimension of our existence. The old religious and metaphysical theories have been thrown into ferment and only the more rigorous ones can survive now. In fact, the further development of science is likely to challenge most other metaphysical theories. Among the different metaphysical positions, only one can be true, and ultimately we will be led into accepting that position which is in conformity with both logic and scientific knowledge.

The whole gamut of philosophy has been covered well through the ages, and there seems hardly any gap in theory. The result is a confusing mass, with often different theories being united at one point and virulently opposed at some other point. It is in fact often difficult to differentiate one theory from the other, or to remember all the subtle details in them.

Faced with the mass of metaphysical theories, we may ask, why should we not believe our initial view of the world, as a real existence, and be satisfied with it? Why should we ask questions like whether the world is real or not? A candle exists, burns and dissipates as smoke and ash. Granted that the candle is impermanent, but why should we consider its reality or unreality? It is certainly real as long as it exists and even after it dissipates, the smoke and ash are real as long as they exist. Again, it is true that we do not know everything about the world; when we see a flower, for example, we cannot know all the details and merely form a partial impression of it. Similarly, all other people form a partial impression of it and do not know it in totality, and nor do all the impressions match, since it varies with the person who is observing it. Granted that we all have relative knowledge only of the flower, but it does not mean that the flower itself has only relative reality. It is only because we do not have perfect faculties that we do not see the flower in its full reality, but it can still have one.. Although our knowledge of the world is partial, it is still a world that is real in itself and there is no reason to doubt it or to look for something beyond it.

This is the common sense view, and it is the view of modern pantheism, or scientific pantheism, which gained wide currency in the nineteenth century following the new advancements in science. This is in fact a qualified monoism position, and is virtually identical with Jainism. Most other religions including Taoism and Tantricism can also be considered to be qualified monoistic views. They are of course all different in some subtle ways, but the common belief that ties them is that this world is real and a part of a larger Reality, and this Reality as a whole is eternal, infinite and many–sided and is the goal of our spiritual quest. There is no higher reality apart from this Universe. This Infinite Reality of the Universe has no will and is not a creator. It simply exists, and our known world is a part of this existence.

Scientific Pantheism has no place for souls or any other such enigmatic phenomena. There is some difference though in the understanding of different pantheist schools, and some see a primal difference between mind and matter. Some schools again consider matter as the primary element, and make the mind only a function of matter, whole some consider mind to be the primary element and make matter a function of it.

Pantheism was given a firm base by the new scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century, and became a kind of new, scientific religion. The physics of Newton and other discoveries of that period depicted a grand harmonic universe in which everything had its own place and importance. Other theories like the theory of evolution again led to a mechanistic interpretation of life and our role in the world. All this leads to the conception that the universe is the ultimate reality and there is nothing above the universe. The universe itself then becomes the object of worship. The spiritual quest in pantheism is to become one with the beauty and majesty of the universe. The goal is to seek for this beauty everywhere in nature and to cultivate a deep sense of reverence and even a mystical experience in contact with this beauty.

However, nature worship by itself cannot be the end of our spiritual quest. It is not difficult to see the deep sense of reverence that a scene from nature might evoke, but to take this as the goal of religion seems to be going too far. Nature is hardly all beauty and kindness, and nor does it always evoke an ‘overwhelming sense of power and beauty’. Such a religion does not take us very far beyond an idealistic worship of beauty. It cannot give us any of the things like spiritual strength and a higher ideal that we seek from a religion. Also on the practical side is the actual worshipping of nature. The wonders of nature are grand indeed , but it is rather naive to see only the grandness and not the wantonness of nature. A rainbow might seem very grand and beautiful, but when once we see it as nothing more than the diffraction of sunlight by raindrops, it is difficult to get spiritual exaltation from it. So also we would scarcely feel the beauty of nature in the forests if we think of the cruelty of animals and insects to each other.

The pantheistic position, along with all other qualified monoistic positions, came to be totally contradicted by modern science. When we examine the world logically, we find the world cannot be explained as complete in itself and instead we arrive at a theory of some common basis for all phenomena in this world. Relativity suggests that there is no absolute time or space, and also that all qualities of a body like mass, length, speed, etc. are relative. Quantum physics again has showed us that all things, mass, energy, etc. are interrelated, and by themselves do not have any absolute existence.

All this suggests logically that there is some constant which connects everything together. Hence it would not be enough to know this world alone but we should try to know this basis beyond the world. Hence, with the progress of science, pantheism lost its initial appeal for the rational mind.

Modern scientific discoveries have been a sort of victory for Advaitism and Buddhism. The Advaitists, as well as the Buddhists, described the world as having only an ill–defined, blurred reality. Ideas like absolute time, absolute space, determinative laws of cause and effect, change, and so forth were all seen to be logically inconsistent. Hence such ideas could not be true. But if they were false, then the true reality of the world was one where such ideas did not apply. Thus the world did not have such things as absolute time, space, and determinative laws of cause and effect, and hence was an ill–defined world. This was how the ancient seers of the Upanishads had decrypted the world in the meditative insights, and hence it was also supported by knowledge gathered in meditation, which in Hinduism is of supreme importance.

This idea, that the world is in reality an ill–defined, nebulous world, was a cornerstone of Advaitism and Buddhism, and had always attracted much criticism from other philosophies. It was considered a play of words, or an impractical and improvable thesis. Early Western philosophers were quick to see in this a typical Indian attitude of navel gazing and slothfulness. The world around us seems "solid" and real, and we find it almost impossible to believe that it is some kind of a blurred, amorphous shadow only. But now modern scientific discoveries have also uncovered just such a view of the world. It is interesting that, while no amount of logic or reason can convince opposing philosophers, very few would doubt an observation by a scientist. With all the strength of arguments at its command, the view of the unreality of the world remained at best a fringe view for thousands of years, but within a few years of scientists also declaring the same, the idea has come to be widely accepted.

The first suggestion that our ideas of "classical" reality described by Newton and others, in which a solidly real world existed in an absolute time and space, were wrong was given by the theory of relativity. Einstein showed that there was in fact no absolute time and space, and so a vital part of our belief in traditional dualistic and qualified monistic metaphysics fell through. No object in the universe has absolute mass, length, breadth, or speed. Whenever we describe an object as having a certain mass or a certain length, that mass or length is true only for that observation. It is not universally true. Another observation would give a different mass and length, and yet both these different figures for mass or length would be equally true; we cannot consider either of them as being absolutely true and the other as a deceptive figure. The body thus does not have any absolute mass or an absolute length; all figures for its mass or length are only relatively true. This also applies to its breadth, speed, and so on. Similarly, the laws of physics such as Newton’s laws of motion are also not absolute and do not work in every sphere. They are true only in certain circumstances (e.g., when the speed of the bodies is much less than light in Newton’s laws)

Next, quantum physics showed that not just time and space, but matter and energy themselves were also blurred and did not have absolute realities. It showed that the quantum particles did not have a well–defined reality; particles were shown to have properties of both matter and energy at the same time, which is mutually contradictory. A particle is not considered to have fixed existence at any point of space and time, but rather has a fuzzy existence. The Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle showed that when we measure the speed of a particle, we cannot know its position, and when we measure the position, we cannot know the speed.

This is not just because our instruments are clumsy and we cannot measure without knocking or disturbing the particles. In fact, the uncertainty holds even for theoretical and mathematical calculations. This is because the particle by itself does not have an absolute form; it depends on how the reaction is analyzed. We cannot pinpoint a point of space or time where a particle exists; we can only give a statistical account of the probability of its existence at a certain point.

For example, in an orbit of an electron around a nucleus, the electron is not considered to be a definite particle whizzing around the nucleus but rather an amorphous, diffuse existence that exists simultaneously at all points of the orbit, different areas having different probabilities of its existence. Because of the "fuzziness" of these particles, the laws deducing their interactions are also fuzzy. We can never pinpoint the exact result of any interaction; we can only give a range of results with different probabilities, any of which may occur without there being any apparent predilection for a particular outcome. Experiments showed that the laws of mechanics were by nature random in the quantum world, and hence there was no determinative law of cause and effect. Thus quantum physics has also shown that all existence has an ill-defined, approximate reality, which does not have any absolute to it.

Such a concept at the same time effectively rules out qualified monism, like pantheism and Jainism, where the world is considered to have a dynamic, harmonious reality in space and time. Quantum physics describes one aspect of the universe, the tiniest parts, and says it does not have absolute reality. Special relativity examines another part, the world of very fast movement, and says the world is not absolutely real in that aspect also. Advaita (and Buddhism) goes much further than this. Advaita predicts that, similarly, the world in every aspect will turn out to have only a hazy and non–absolute reality. The world that we see around us, although appearing at first as a harmonious reality, is in actual fact a non&ndashabsolute, non&ndashdefined reality only, and as science explores further and further into the world, it will find this determinism –this reality –dissolving into unreality everywhere. This is what Advaita would predict for the development of science.

The descriptions of reality in quantum physics and in Advaitism and Buddhism are startlingly similar. The basic idea of quantum physics is that classical ideas such as matter and energy, which we use normally to describe the world around us, are inappropriate to describe the world in actuality, and that the world cannot be classified by these ideas. The same philosophy is also ascribed to in both Advaitism and Buddhism. In the Upanishads, the true reality, the absolute in this case, is described as "not this, not this." The idea here is that no classical idea is sufficient or adequate to describe the reality. The Buddha describes the reality of the world in this way: "Of this world, it cannot be said either that it ‘exists,’ ‘not exists,’ ‘both exists and not exists’ and ‘neither exists nor not exists.’" This conveys in a figurative sense virtually the same sense of reality that quantum physicists seek to communicate. The sutras of these ancient religions and the explanations of modern sciences have now come a full circle. Whereas they were once considered opposed to each other, new synergies are being discovered between science and these ancient religions.

What was the place whereon he took his station? What was it that supported him?
He who hath eyes mouth arms and feet on all sides,
He, the Sole God, producing earth and heaven,
weldeth them, with his arms as wings.
What was the tree, what wood in sooth did it produce,
from which they fashioned out the earth and heaven?

Rig Veda 10.81

The origin of the universe is another important question that needs to be resolved. In Advaita, the origin and dissolution of the universe is said to happen as a cycle, during a ‘day’ of Brahman, the universe goes through its cycle of creation and dissolution, and following each day there is a ‘night’ of Brahman, when everything remains in an unmanifested state. During the cycle of manifestation, the universe first goes through ‘nivritti’ or creation, which is compared to an enlarging circle, like the enlarging circle of ripples in a pond. This is completely analogous to the ‘big bang’ theory of the origin of the universe. Then it goes through ‘pravritti’, which is the same circle closing in. The universe then dissolves completely and Brahman remains in a state of unmanifestedness for an equal length of time, after which the cycle begins again.

Modern science also says the same thing, only it does not support this repeated and endless cycles of creation and resolution. But the very fact that the cycle has occurred once indicates that it occurs repeatedly in a circle. Scientists studying the big bang are always trying to determine the first moment of creation but there cannot be any such moment.

Before the first beginning of the big bang, when there was the first step of manifestation, there must have been a moment of inequilibrium that gave rise to creation. If there was no inequilibrium in the system, then it would not have been disturbed at all and there would have been no beginning of the universe. Again, before this first moment of inequilibrium, there must have been another moment of inequilibrium or the first moment could not have begun anew in a stable system. Arguing in this way, we can show that there must be have always been a continuous cycle of creation and resolution.

The next question is why it occurs, why should the universe go through this cycle at all. Here the Advaitists show their supreme naturalism, because in Advaita the cycle is not a willed or directed cycle but occurs naturally. The Absolute of Advaita is not a willed God, nor does it direct the world. The Brahman is not affected by these cycles, since there is no real change in it and the manifested universe does not have an absolute reality. It only shows some inconstant properties due to actions of the upadhis. During the cycle of nonmanifestation, the upadhis do not disappear, because otherwise the creation would not have appeared again. Instead the upadhis remain in a dormant state, and begin creation again at the time of manifestation.

Advaita proposes a most scientific understanding of the universe in that maya or the nature of the world as it exists, is not ascribed to a supernatural cause. There is no higher power or intelligence which has made the world in this way. The universe evolving in this way is said to be a part of the natural cycle of Brahman, Brahman simply goes through this cycle thorough the aeons. Hence Brahman here is not a being, it is the ground of all that exists, and this universe passes through cycles of creation and dissolution because of its own nature, it neither wills it itself nor is there anything else outside of it to make it go through the cycles.

One such cycle of evolution is called a day of Brahman. Such a day is said to equal 4320 million years, or 4 billion human years. This estimate is the same as the estimated age of the universe upto 10 years ago, although at present the universe is said to be about 10 – 12 billion years old. This is followed by the ‘night’ of Brahman, or ‘pralay’, of an equal length, when the Brahman remains in an unmanifested form. Then another day of evolution begins. The Buddhist view of the origin of the universe is different. For them, the universe has always existed in this state of ‘dependant arising’ (Pratitya–samutpada). This position is the same as the ‘steady state’ theory of the universe.

The essential difference between the Buddhist and the Advaitic views can be seen as the difference between a digital and an analogue world. "Digital" is, for example, the flow of time in a digital watch, with the time in figures, where changes in time occur in jumps or multiples. "Analogue" is the flow in a watch with hands, where there is continuous steady flow. In Buddhism, everything is seen to be composed of discontinuous, discrete particles. Even the flow of time is seen as merely a stream of discontinuous moments, which add together. Consciousness also is a stream of individual flashes of thoughts and sensations. In Advaitism, on the other hand, there is a steady flow of time and space; the universe is a seamless whole and is connected in entirety, not in itself but because of the presence of an absolute behind it.

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Index / Introduction / Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Biblio

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