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Ruminations on Vedic Philosophy

Reason and Faith

In the Srimad Bhagavatam, a Vedic literature widely regarded as the culmination of Vedanta (which is in itself considered the conclusion of all knowledge), Sage Kapila elaborates the Sāńkhya theory of material nature to his mother Devahuti and concludes (SB 3.32.32):

Philosophical research culminates in understanding the Supreme Personality of Godhead. After achieving this understanding, when one becomes free from the material modes of nature, he attains the stage of devotional service. Either by devotional service directly or by philosophical research, one has to find the same destination, which is the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

This is a remarkable conclusion, because no serious scientist today believes they will discover God through an analysis of material nature. In fact, no one believes that by understanding the real laws of nature, we can be free of those laws.

We go to the university to learn about the laws of nature, not to become free of them. The above verse can thus be paraphrased as the following scientific proposition: A true understanding of the laws of nature will free you from the laws, or the cycle of cause and effect.

The scientific notion that the laws of nature apply to everything in the universe is false in the Vedic view. The laws of nature can be overcome by those who truly know the laws. The laws hold sway over you only so long as you are ignorant of the laws. This freedom from the laws of nature is therefore the real (and unstated) goal of all knowledge.

By formulating laws that cannot be overcome, and treating these as the final state of affairs in nature, science has created the illusion that we are here produced and bound by the laws of nature, incapable of getting out of them.

The real difference between science and religion is that the former accepts our current predicament as the final state of affairs while the latter wants to transcend this predicament. Science concludes that we yearn to know reality only to find out how it binds us. Religion concludes that we yearn to know reality to transcend it.

Before they differ in their ideas, science and religion differ in their values. The shift in our thinking cannot arise only from a shift in the theories; the shift also needs people who would value those ideas. While the ideas can be rationally understood and demonstrated to be superior, the values simply have to be chosen. This requires us to answer the question: Do we want to transcend our current predicament?

The acquisition of true knowledge serves not merely to satisfy the intellectual curiosity about the nature of reality. True jnana, the Sanskrit for knowledge, also has transcendence as the need underlying its search. That need makes the search for jnana a far greater personal prerogative than the satisfaction of intellectual curiosities.

In the Vedic view, one acquires knowledge because knowledge will set you free. By knowing the laws of nature, you can transcend the laws. In fact, the knowledge of the laws is incomplete unless you have transcended them. By that standard, the knowledge of natural laws in current science is incomplete; science only tells us how we can use the laws, but not how we can get out of them.

The central goal for both science and religion is the same according to Vedic philosophy—transcending the laws of nature. This goal can be achieved through devotion (bhakti) or through reason (jnana). Science and religion therefore differ in their methods but have a common goal.

Of course, the ability to transcend the laws of nature itself implies a different notion about the laws. The laws of nature cannot be mechanical forces. They must rather be laws of meaning and choice. Such laws entail a different notion of matter and its laws. This notion about natural laws is useful scientifically in so far as science is defined as the manipulation of matter. But this notion is also relevant to the ultimate goals of transcending the laws of nature.

Manipulating matter and transcending matter seem two contradictory goals today. These instead belong to a continuum in Vedic philosophy.

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9 thoughts on “Reason and Faith

  1. Fascinating read. What I enjoyed the most is the opposition between manipulating the laws of nature and transcending them. That was very inspirational.

  2. I do not know to what extent your articles seek to accurately represent the philosophy of Gaudiya Vedanta, but from the Gaudiya perspective one cannot transcend the laws of nature through jnana because jnana itself is material in that it is manifestation of sattva guna. Only if jnana is mixed with nirguna bhakti will it lead to transcendence, even if that ideal within transcendence is nirvisesh Brahman.

    1. I disagree with your comment that “jnana itself is material”. Jnana is not material. The term “jnana” is currently misunderstood either as mental speculation, or the impersonal aspirations of the philosophers. These distortions of real knowledge are not even theoretically correct. Real jnana is what Krishna imparted to Arjuna, Uddhava, or Brahma. This jnana is free of the material modes of nature, and Absolute Truth is itself referred to as “jnanam-advayam” (SB 5.12.11) which means it is free from duality. That same jnana is understood in three ways – Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan. There is no mixing of material modes in either case. The quoted verse is also unequivocal in its conclusion that philosophical research culminates in knowledge of Supreme Personality of Godhead.

      The stark demarcation between jnana and bhakti is a recent creation by impersonalists. What they called bhakti, is – in their stated opinions – itself a creation of the material modes. This so-called bhakti is a ladder you discard after reaching your goal. So, accepting that distinction is laden with numerous problems which impersonalists are never able to resolve. Many devotees are also living under the legacy of that divide: quite like you they also assert that bhakti is superior, because there is a difference with jnana. Both positions are wrong, because that distinction is itself false.

      Nevertheless, we can make a distinction between jnana and vijnana: the former is an abstract and theoretical understanding of truth while the latter is a detailed and direct understanding of the same truth. The example often quoted is seeing the forest vs. seeing the trees. Abstract knowledge is not material or false, although it is not as direct and detailed.

      1. The point I have raised is that you have said that either by jnana or by bhakti one can transcend the laws of nature. There is no doubt transcendental knowledge in bhakti. Indeed, bhakti is the highest knowledge (raja vidya). However, when you distinguish the two as you have as the different methods of spiritual pursuit you implicitly make the claim that one can attain transcendence without bhakti. This contradicts the siddhanta of Gaudiya Vedanta.

        The classical path of jnana is distinct from the path of bhakti and it identifies jnana with sattva guna, as does the Gita. This path is one under the influence of sattva guna that cannot reach transcendence. The path of karma is under the influence or raja guna and as such neither can it result in transcendence. On the other hand, bhakti is nirguna, and thus the path of bhakti leads to transcendence of the gunas. If we mix it with karma it will lead to jnana, and it we mix it with jnana it will lead to a particular experience of transcendence.

      2. You have also identified jnana with “reason.” Thus you state that either by devotion or by reason one can attain transcendence. Then in your reply to me you equate knowledge/reason with transcendence/nirguna. To say that reason is nirguna is not correct. Typically reason is thought to be inconclusive unto itself—tarko pratisthanat. And reasoning as to the conclusion of sastra leads to bhakti. Bhakti is clearly nirguna being constituted of Krsna’s svarupa-sakti. Reason is not so.

        Surely Krsna imparted knowledge to Uddhava, etc. But the knowledge he imparted includes the understand that only by bhakti can one attain him in any respect. Krsna imparted the knowledge of bhakti.

    2. To further expand on my previous comment, there isn’t a material truth separate from spiritual truth. There is just one thing – truth. Material “knowledge” is not knowledge; i.e., it is not true. Therefore, it is called maya or that which is false. There may be semblances of truth in this maya but such partial truths are also partial falsities. They are maya and not jnana.

  3. No serious scientist today believes they will discover God because serious scientists realize the concept of god is simply a discredited lingering cultural legacy from past eras dominated by ignornace and superstition. Reason often finds itself willingly relegated into psychological subservience so that the gullible can take refuge from the world as it is found to be and instead revel in the delusional comfort of anthropocentric vanity about the way the world was imaged to be thousands of years ago.

  4. “Science concludes that we yearn to know reality only to find out how it
    binds us. Religion concludes that we yearn to know reality to transcend
    it.” profound statement 🙂

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