The philosopher and the scientist

Understanding reality and the interconnectedness of the universe

the vault of vishnu

There is an interesting story in the Srimad Bhagvatam about a king called Kakudmi. He had a beautiful daughter of marriageable age. Kakudmi travelled to Brahmaloka, Brahma’s plane of existence, to discuss potential suitors for his daughter. Brahma was busy so the king waited patiently. Then he bowed humbly before Brahma and presented his shortlist. But Brahma laughed instead. He explained to the king that time runs differently on different planes of existence. During the short time Kakudmi had waited, 116 million years had elapsed on earth. Is it possible that the rishis of India had a preliminary understanding of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity? Or the notion of time described in Interstellar?

Vedanta literally means ‘the end of the Vedas’. Vedanta is widely considered to be the fountainhead of spiritual philosophy. The rishis were keen to understand the reality of the universe, a reality that lay many layers beneath the maya (or illusion) of their lives. Modern-day quantum physicists are also telling us the same thing: that our ‘reality’ is created by the combination of ‘observer’ and ‘observed’. Our lives are the equivalent of a person looking at a map and claiming to know the underlying terrain. The map is not reality; the underlying terrain is. The point of departure between spirituality and science is this: one maintains that the underlying reality of the universe can only be understood through deep meditation thus leading to perception. It believes that when the rational mind is quietened, the intuitive mind awakes. Physics wants to understand that same underlying reality through experimentation and the rational mind.

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The word physics itself is derived from the Greek word physis coined by the sages of the Milesian School in the Ionian town of Miletus in the sixth century BCE. Milesians thought of physis as the endeavour of ‘seeing the essential nature of all things’. They believed that all matter was alive. They saw no distinction between animate and inanimate, spirit and matter. Milesians were much like the rishis of ancient India, seeing an overall oneness in everything.

Albert Einstein had demonstrated the inter-changeability of matter and energy through his equation E=mc2 in 1905. But after the discovery of the Higgs-Boson, scientists began realising that the entire universe is nothing but energy. All so-called particles can be converted into other particles. They can be fashioned from energy and can disappear into energy. Classical notions of separated objects are irrelevant. The whole universe is a moving web of indivisible energy arrangements.

Indian sages knew this. They knew that we live in an ocean of connected energy and consciousness. Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrödinger, the very pioneers of quantum theory, had read Vedanta. Heisenberg even said that quantum theory would not look ridiculous to people who had read Vedanta. Our sages did not have sophisticated laboratories or supercomputers but they had something else that was as powerful: perception. Perception is simply the ability to enter a deep state where one can experience the reality of the universe and realise how interconnected everything is. The Upanishads talk of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, the notion that the world is one family. But isn’t that actually pushing the idea that everyone and everything are related? That distinctions and separations are false?

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Modern physics gives us the notion of quantum entanglement. In an entangled system, two seemingly separate particles can behave as an inseparable whole and one constituent cannot be fully de+scribed without considering the other. But isn’t that precisely the notion of Shiva and Shakti or Yin and Yang? When Krishna spoke to Arjuna before the Mahabharata battle about one underlying reality called Brahman, interconnectedness is what he was referring to. It’s the same thing as Dharmakaya in Buddhism or Tao in Taoism.

All phenomena in the world are manifestations of a fundamental oneness. All things are interdependent and indivisible parts of a cosmic whole. This, then, is the key takeaway in science and spirituality: nothing is isolated. While quantum physics and Vedanta may seem poles apart, both are attempts to understand underlying reality. We refer to quantum physics as science and call Vedanta philosophy but they are one and the same.

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From Aristotle to the 19th century, the term natural philosophy was used instead of the word science. A good scientist has to be a philosopher and a good philosopher must also be a scientist. 

(Among India’s highest selling English fiction authors with two New York Times bestsellers, his latest novel is titled The Vault of Vishnu)

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