Friday, 7 April 2017

The Monk Who Saw Religion Through The Prism Of Science - 3

"Scientific" Religion?

In the burgeoning field of study described as science and religion, there have been several attempts to formulate, even before Gould, a comprehensive taxonomy of the relationship between the two. One of the most respected scholars in the field, Ian Barbour, evolved over time the framework of conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. When it comes to India's recent interaction with science, we see instances of all four types of response, with a fifth, that of "cooperation" also added. While the spiritualist side is usually ready for a dialogue with scientists, hoping thereby to vindicate their age-old beliefs and new findings, the scientists have been less enthusiastic, afraid of being branded as "superstitious" or "non-scientific." From dialogue to integration is thus a distant dream, but some sort of cooperation between the two, especially for the larger benefit of society, is seen as desirable.

Such, for instance, is the view of former Indian president and aerospace engineer A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. In all conversations on science and spirituality in the Indian context, the name of Vivekananda figures prominently. It was Vivekananda who, in his whole-hearted endorsement of the scientific approach, set the tone for other spiritual figures in modern India. According to scholars like D.I. Gosling, it was this atmosphere of the co-dependent arising of modern science and spirituality in late 19th century India, that gave Indian science of that period its unique flavour: "What has always been the most distinctive feature of Indian science is a form of integral thought, a kind of intuitive ability to hold together ideas which have elsewhere remained unrelated."

In so far as we can extrapolate from his writings, it is clear that Vivekananda wished to "scienticise" religion, thus going contrary to the NOMA hypothesis. In an important "Reason and Religion" lecture given in London on 18 November 1896, he states:

The physical sciences are better equipped now than formerly, and religions have become less and less equipped… Believing certain things because an organised body of priests tells him to believe, believing because it is written in certain books, believing because his people like him to believe, the modern man knows to be impossible for him.

… The question is: Is there a way out? To put it in a more concrete form: Is religion to justify itself by the discoveries of reason, through which every other science justifies itself? Are the same methods of investigation, which we apply to sciences and knowledge outside, to be applied to the science of Religion? In my opinion this must be so, and I am also of opinion that the sooner it is done the better. If a religion is destroyed by such investigations, it was then all the time useless, unworthy superstition; and the sooner it goes the better. I am thoroughly convinced that its destruction would be the best thing that could happen.
From a man of religion, a monk in fact representing a certain order and belonging to an ancient tradition, this is a statement of extraordinary boldness and self-confidence.


Vivekananda does not wish to preserve a religion which is no longer "true", whose beliefs are easily disproved by discoveries in the sciences, which maintains its hold on its flock only through dogma, superstition, or fear. Vivekananda demands of religion an internal consistency and external, empirical proof. He wants religion to submit itself to the most rigorous interrogation before belief ensues. To what extent can religion be considered another type of science is not clear, nor can we be certain that this is the best or most productive way to understand religion.

Indeed, we may see Vivekananda's attempt to explain religion in terms of science as both a strategic defense of religion in a world dominated by science and an attempt to focus on the more rational aspects of faith.
Before closing, it would appropriate to briefly point out that an assessment of Vivekananda's contribution to growth of modern science cannot be confined to a study of his writings. The latter may be somewhat bounded by time and context, but his personality, dynamic and boundless as it was, was perhaps even more influential.

On the way to the Parliament of Religions in July 1893, Vivekananda met Jamsetji Tata on board the steamship Empress of India from Yokohama to Vancouver. In his Complete Works there is no mention of this meeting nor of any communication between Vivekananda and Jamsetji. Our only source is the letter Jamsetji wrote to Vivekananda on 23 November 1898 more than five years later, a copy of which is in the archives of Indian Institute of Science. Jamsetji was already a prominent industrialist and businessman, while Vivekananda was a virtually unknown monk. Jamsetji was on his way to the US to acquire the technical knowhow to make steel in India, something that the British steelmakers did not want to part with.

Exactly what transpired between the two great Indians, one a leading tycoon, the other a spiritual visionary, is a matter of speculation. Did Vivekananda suggest to Jamsetji that an Institute of Science (IISc) should be set up? Certainly Jamsetji's letter does not say so. Indeed, as B.V. Subbarayappa's painstaking history of IISc shows, the idea was mooted as early as 1892, the year before Jamsetji and Vivekananda met. But after the Parliament of Religions and his triumphant return to India, Vivekananda became a national figure. Jamsetji did not forget their meeting, but went on to ask for Vivekananda's help in promoting science in India by harnessing the energies of asceticism and tradition for this cause: "I know not who would make a more fitting general of such a campaign than Vivekananda. Do you think you would care to apply yourself to the mission of galvanising into life our traditions in this respect?" Tata asks Vivekananda to write a "fiery pamphlet rousing our people in this matter"; he even agrees to "cheerfully defray all the expenses of publication". Vivekananda did not write such a pamphlet, but the publication that he had started, Prabuddha Bharata, issued an editorial the following year, in April 1899, lauding and endorsing Jamsetji's project: "We are not aware if any project at once so opportune and so far-reaching in its beneficent effects was ever mooted in India, as that of the Post-graduate Research University of Mr Tata. The scheme grasps the vital point of weakness in our national well-being with a clearness of vision and tightness of grip, the masterliness of which is only equalled by the munificence of the gift with which it is ushered to the public. ...Mr. Tata's scheme paves the path of placing into the hands of Indians this knowledge of Nature—the preserver and the destroyer...—that by having the knowledge, they might have power over her and be successful in the struggle for existence… We repeat: No idea more potent for good to the whole nation has seen the light of day in Modern India. Let the whole nation therefore, forgetful of class or sect interests, join in making it a success."

At Vivekananda's behest, his key disciples, Nivedita and, later, Josephine Macleod also met Jamsetji. As a tribute to his contribution, a statue of Vivekananda proudly stands in the main building of IISc.

It is clear therefore that Vivekananda not only supported the foundation of IISc, but also welcomed the spread of modern scientific education and research in our country. From our earlier account it is evident that his support of modern science was not only for its manifold material benefits to a backward and underdeveloped India, but also for its capacity to understand and appreciate truth, which to him was also the goal of spirituality. The Institute finally began to function only in 1911, seven years after Jamsetji's and nine years after Vivekananda's death. Today if India is one of the few nations in which the Constitution itself enjoins upon each citizen to cultivate and promote the scientific spirit, it is not only because Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, was a votary of modern science. Much before him there were many others, including spiritual leaders and men of religion such as Vivekananda, who also welcomed the spread of modern science in India.


Article by Makarand Paranjape  Apr 04, 2017                   

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