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In the introduction to the Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, Śrīla Prabhupāda writes, “The subject of the Bhagavad-gītā entails the comprehension of five basic truths. First of all the science of God is explained, and then the constitutional position of the living entities, jīvas. Prakriti (material nature) and time (the duration of the existence of the whole universe or the manifestation of material nature) and karma (activity) are also discussed.” He further writes, “Those belonging to some sectarian faith will wrongly consider that sanātana-dharma is also sectarian, but if we go deeper into the matter and consider it in the light of modern science, it is possible for us to see that sanātana-dharma is the business of all the people of the world – nay, of all the living entities of the universe.” (Emphasis mine). This post discusses just how the above five categories constitute the sum and substance of what we might call “Vedic science”. The post concludes with a comparison with Newton’s laws which started modern science and shows that similar to Newton’s three laws, a different set of three natural laws exist in Vedic science.

The Problem of Free Will and Morality

To understand Vedic science, we have to understand the nature of free will because the science of matter and spirit in Vedic texts is concerned with choice and responsibility. Just as modern material science builds laws of motion of material particles, similarly, Vedic science describes the motion of the soul through a world of matter, which exists as possibilities. The soul converts the possibility into an experience through a choice. Therefore, the law of nature concerns the action of choice and its consequences. The same world is thus described empirically and rationally quite like current science, although by utilizing the metaphysics of choices, possibilities, and responsibilities rather than the metaphysics of particles, waves, forces, physical properties, and motion. Vedic science offers a radically different explanation of the same experience, which is not just empirical and rational, but also consistent with the existence of the soul and God.

To understand this description, we must grasp the problems of choice and responsibility, because the solution to these problems opens the doors to a new kind of description of our ordinary experiences. It is well known that free will creates many problems for science because it introduces the idea that I can change the world simply by willing, and since that change cannot be predicted, permitting its existence breaks the predictive usefulness of science. A lesser-known fact is that free will also creates moral problems because once I change something in the material world, I am not just changing it for myself, but for everyone else, forever; as the original cause of this change, I, therefore, become responsible for everything that happens hereafter—even beyond my death.

Perhaps the least understood aspect of free will is that by making choices, I reduce the possibilities for others to choose; in what way are you morally responsible if no matter what I do I am reducing your options? I earlier wrote a book—Moral Materialismto just address the questions surrounding free will. Given that this question is dominantly asked by agnostics and atheists, the book deals with this question scientifically (without referencing Vedic texts). In this post, I will survey some of the salient ideas in that book and connect them to Vedic philosophy (which I did not do in the book).

Two Models of Natural Causality

One of the central themes in Moral Materialism is that scientific predictions can be divided into two parts: (a) the prediction of events, and (b) the prediction of trajectories. This is how the universe is modeled in classical field theories such as the General Theory of Relativity, where the theory postulates the universe as comprised of events, and matter is distributed over events. The events create the phenomena, and the matter distribution creates the causal explanation of that phenomena. Once these events and causal explanations have been created, there must be some objects or observers passing over these events which construct trajectories or the succession of events.

Classical field theories, however, present a problem of indeterminism because, for a given set of events, the matter distributions can be different, and for some given matter distributions the trajectories could vary. This means that the empirical content of the universe as a whole (all the events) can be fixed, but the causal explanation of those events and the individual experiences can vary. There are hence different causal explanations of the same events. Similarly, there are different observers’ experiences corresponding to the events in the universe and their causal explanations.

Newton’s physics does not begin with the separation of particles and events. Rather, material properties are real, they are associated with immutable particles, and events are produced deterministically through particle motion, governed by mathematical laws. Most people—influenced by Newton’s physics—fail to see why an alternative model is needed. The reason is that material properties can split and join, and law meant for immutable properties and particles cannot deal with particle and property mutation. We need the ability to allow for a redistribution of matter which means some particles can be created by splitting, while other particles would be annihilated by joining. In this universe where particles are created and destroyed, we cannot use Newton’s mechanics, because this mechanics works only with a fixed number of particles with fixed possessed properties and becomes indeterministic if the particles are created and destroyed, or if material properties are mutated from one particle to another. To recover determinism in such a universe, we have to separate events from matter distribution, and then the matter distribution from the particles that possess these material properties. The net result would be that we would be dealing with three kinds of categories—(1) events or phenomena, (2) material properties or causal explanations of these phenomena, and (3) particles or trajectories that connect a succession of events and material properties.

Even within the realms of classical physical thinking, there are two kinds of laws—(1) that describes the evolution of material particles with fixed properties, which are called dynamical laws of nature, and (2) that describe the universe as the sum total of matter and energy which are called the conservation laws. However, when we distinguish the particles from their properties, then the conservation laws hold, but the dynamical laws don’t. The dynamical laws are then replaced by the combination of two separate things—(1) the objects, particles, or trajectories, and (2) the events over which these trajectories are constructed. Dynamical change now represents the trajectories that join a given set of events. This model of the universe is deterministic in events (what will happen) but indeterministic in trajectories (who will do it).

We could say that there are infinite explanations of the same empirical content or events. Each explanation involves a different story that involves different trajectories. Each story connects the same dots (events) but each observer experiences a different personal story.

Addressing the Free Will Problem Scientifically

The above model illustrates how a scientific theory can reconcile free will and determinism: the universe can be deterministic in the events, but indeterministic in the trajectories. Thus, what will happen is fixed, but who will do it is not. In one scenario, observer A goes over events X and Y. In another scenario, observer B goes over events X and Y. If we look at the world as events—i.e. X and Y—then the world is unchanged. But if we look at it as trajectories—i.e. A and B—then it has changed.

The result of this approach is that we have three kinds of dynamical laws in nature. First, the law that predicts the events—i.e. what will happen. Second, the law that predicts the trajectories—i.e. who will do it. And the third, that predicts how it will be done. In other words, we can separate the laws of event prediction from the laws of experience prediction from the laws of matter distribution over the events and experiences. There can be an objective theory that says what will happen in the coming ages, without fixing what I will do. However, there would be a second theory that will predict my trajectory based on my choices and their consequences. There will also be a third theory that provides different material and causal explanations of the same events (and hence the observer’s experiences).

The separation of these three theories cannot be overemphasized because if the events are not fixed then each individual is morally culpable for their actions forever and those actions then encroach on everyone’s free will forever thereby rendering the moral system biased towards those who come early in time and unfair to those who come later. This creates a problem of morality even if it could solve the problem of prediction. Conversely, if the fixing of events fixes the actors then there could never be any morality because our actions are already predicted by the laws of nature so there is no choice, and without a choice, there can be no responsibility. Finally, the separation between the events and material properties is necessitated because the conservation of material properties only deals with matter in the aggregate rather than as individual objects/observers/trajectories or events from which the trajectories are built. The problem of morality is therefore not merely a philosophical issue. Rather, the problem cuts into the heart of a physical theory as the separation between objects and events.

The Law of Universal Events

The term kāla denotes the passing of day and night, seasons, years, chaturyugi, manavantara, up to the manifestation and annihilation of the universe—each constituting ever longer cycles. These cycles fix the events during different times and places. Each event occurs within a particular universe and these universes are identified as different domains of meaning. The event, therefore, has a type associated with the identity of the universe (as compared to other universes). This is “what” happens, the location in space is “where” it occurs, and the instance in time is “when” it happens. The terms “what”, “where”, and “when” represent the prediction of the events in the universe.

These three questions are related to the three aspects of a universal consciousness (called sat-chit-ānanda), or God. The universe (or “what” happens) represents God’s existence or sat as the universe as a whole is manifest from His existence. The places inside each of the universes are produced from His chit or knowledge and become conceptual locations (or “where” they happen in the universe) denoting the meaning of each of these locations relative to God (each universe is expanded as an inverted tree of meanings). The time when these events occur (or “when” they happen) is created from ananda or God’s pleasure. The universe exists statically as His knowledge and dynamically as His pleasure.

Indeed, the Vedic texts describe two forms of God—one Who creates the space of all possibilities and the other Who creates all the changes and exists as time. They are not separate “gods”. They are different aspects of the same person as space and time. God thus enters Vedic science as the manifestor of all possibilities and changes. The possibilities are eternal, but they are converted into an event by time. Therefore, the past, present, and future exist always as possibilities, but they are not observable. Time too is eternal and connects the succession of the events into an event history. This history is the evolution of the universe of events, not that of actors.

The Creation of Space and Time

The universe is first defined as a possibility of “what” can happen. God’s consciousness is unlimited and He can know far beyond the material universe. The material universe is, however, a limited portion of everything that God can know, and it is defined as a limitation on God’s consciousness that focuses His attention on a specific set of possibilities. This set is the first stage of matter called pradhāna.

At this stage, the universe exists as a proposal of experience. If this proposal is accepted, then the universe can proceed. God’s approval is needed for this. His consciousness—or glancing at the proposal—is the act of granting approval. Thus when He agrees for a universe to be created, all that is possible (inside the universe) and all that is impossible (outside of it) is defined. The limits on what is possible constitute the boundary of conscious experience in that universe. Once the limits are defined, a “set” of possibilities has been created. The form of God who delineates the boundaries of each universe (and thereby creates the various universes) is called Karanodakaśāyī Viṣṇu.

Once the set of possible events has been defined, it is divided into individual alternatives, as a tree grows into branches and leaves. The universe is the outline of what is possible and exists as an abstract concept that individuates one universe from another. The divisions inside that set are the individual possibilities produced as details from the abstraction. These divisions create the locations in the universe by defining a metric distance between possibilities, which gives us the ability to distinguish the alternatives. Distinguishing is our ability to see one type of concept from another, and it creates a “space”. Space is a tree of meanings from abstractions at the root, and details as the fruits. Thus, the universe is one big meaning (the root). From this meaning, many branches of the universe are created as minute details.

God’s consciousness or sat defines the limits of the universe, God’s meaning-seeking tendency called chit creates the space inside the universe and the cause of this division into individual possibilities is a form of God called Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu who enters each universe. Once the space inside the universe has been created, the universal tree of possibilities has been produced. But the possibilities have to be converted into reality one by one. The order in which the branches become manifest one after another is called time—which constitutes the ananda tendency to seek pleasure—and represented by a form of God called Saṅkarṣaṇa. His desire for pleasure selects the different meaningful possibilities (i.e. branches) and causes them to manifest one by one. In other words, the reason that a branch appears is that God looks at it. Time is, therefore, the act of selecting some meaningful possibility to occur because God desires it.

We can understand the universal creation through the analogy of music. The universe as a whole is like a musical octave. The higher and lower locations inside the octave are like the higher and lower notes in the scale. And these notes are played one by one to produce a musical composition that can be enjoyed. The universe is similarly created by first defining an octave, then defining the notes, and then playing them. Different forms of God are involved in picking the octave, the musical notes within it, and playing the notes.

The Evolution of Individual Trajectories

The events in the universe do not depend on any soul. The soul is just like a bird that can sit on a branch, but it doesn’t determine the existence of the branch itself. Rather, the soul sits on the branch when the branch exists. The soul also jumps from branch to branch, experiencing a new part of the universe, and this is called transmigration rather than motion. We can thus envision two kinds of changes. The first change involves the appearance and disappearance of branches of the tree. The second change involves the bird jumping from one branch to another. These two correspond to matter and trajectories. When matter interacts with other matter, events are created. The production of interactions is the events. The bird jumping from one branch to another is the trajectory that joins the different events.

The process of transmigration from one branch to another is the same whether for bodies within a lifetime or between lives. The difference is one of magnitude rather than principle. The bird is capable of making a jump to a branch just adjacent to the current branch or to a branch farther away. The result of either kind of jump is that the body is changed. This change is visible as the changes through a soul’s journey through a mother’s womb, into childhood, and towards youth. It is noteworthy that a branch without sub-branches is a separate branch; while it looks to have added some leaves, it exists on its own as a complete possibility. Therefore, even when a child is growing into youth, the body is not growing. Rather the old body is discarded and a new body is accepted. Since all the bodies (childhood, youth, and old age) exist simultaneously as meanings or possibilities, the soul is simply jumping from one body (or branch of the tree) to another.

At the time of death too, the soul jumps to another branch of the tree. To our gross material vision, this jumping is not visible, because vision involves a bird sitting on a branch interacting with another branch. If the soul jumps to a new branch, and that branch is not interacting with some of the other branches, then those birds cannot know of this change. Some birds think that a new person is born, while other birds think that the old person has died. And yet, the fact is that the soul has simply jumped from one branch to another.

The succession of bodies through which the soul jumps constitutes its trajectory. Just as modern science explains the trajectories (of motion), similarly, Vedic science also explains the succession of bodies (not motion). This explanation—like the explanation of the universe as a whole—also has three parts based on the three aspects of the soul, i.e., sat (consciousness), chit (meaning), and ananda (pleasure). However, these three aspects now answer the “why”, “how” and “who” questions (the questions of “what”, “where”, and “when” have already been answered by God’s sat-chit-ananda).

Three Energies in the Material World

The answer to “why” we go through life is the quest for happiness. The answer to “who” is going through the life experience is the personality of the ātma produced from varieties of meanings that create the mind and body of the soul. The answer to “how” we go through the life experience involves the succession of branches and interactions with other branches.

The successive events are the mechanism of our experience, but the person who moves through these events and the reason he or she moves are different from the mechanism. From a scientific standpoint, the succession of events constitutes the empirical predictions of events. But these predictions involve a choice for pleasure, a person who makes the choice, and the moral consequences of those choices. We cannot understand the mechanism through the event succession; we have to understand that it involves a person, who seeks happiness in life.

The Inversion of Spirit in Matter

In the material world, choice represents sattva-guna and is, therefore, higher than rajo-guna which creates dharma and meaning, which is higher than tamo-guna that creates pleasure. By the same token, bhūti-śakti (choice or decision making) is higher than kriya-śakti (meaning), which is higher than māyā-śakti (happiness). The situation in the spiritual world is reversed because there māyā-śakti (happiness) is the highest, followed by kriya-śakti (meaning), followed by bhūti-śakti (consciousness). It is owing to this inversion, that the material world is considered an inverted reflection of the spiritual world—the ananda-chit-sat of spirituality becomes sat-chit-ananda in matter. It is also owing to this fact that sat or Brahman or consciousness lies “in-between” matter and spirit, and is therefore called the taṭasthā-śakti as opposed to antaranga-śakti and bahiranga-śakti.

Owing to the inversion, māyā-śakti is considered the highest in the spiritual world because it directs the soul’s pleasure. Conversely, māyā-śakti is considered the lowest tendency in the material world because it drives the soul towards material enjoyment. Why does material enjoyment debase while spiritual pleasure uplifts? The reason is that ananda-chit-sat in spirit is inverted as sat-chit-ananda in matter. The differences appear due to the inversion in matter and resolved once we understand the inversion.

Spiritually speaking, happiness is the highest desire—higher than meaning. Materially speaking, enjoyment is the lowest desire—lower than meaning. For this reason, in the material world, sacrifices, austerities, and renunciation of material pleasures to pursue higher meanings in life are definitely preferred. Conversely, in the spiritual world, the renunciation of aiśvarya (which appears in the material world as moral values, and in Vaikunṭha as knowledge, wealth, power, etc.) to find spiritual pleasures is certainly preferred. These apparent contradictions are based on inversion.

The Drama Analogy

In the stage drama, the playwright conceives some characters or roles and defines the dialogues between them. This combination of the character and the dialogues constitutes the drama, which is the domain of the playwright. To enact the play, the director of the play has to do the casting of the drama, where he identifies which actors are suitable for which characters. Finally, the play is enacted by the actors.

Through this analogy, we can understand the three categories mentioned above. The drama is all the events between the roles or characters. The suitability of someone to play a certain character is the matter distribution that can explain these events. Finally, there is a person who enacts the roles and the person can play more than one role, thereby connecting the events into his or her personal experience.

What is Vedic Science, Really?

Vedic science is an encompassing description of the world ranging from atomic objects to the cosmos, with the human body, society, planets, and planetary systems, in the middle. This science is based on the five fundamental principles that Śrīla Prabhupāda identifies in the introduction of the Bhagavad-Gita. Of these five, the following four are natural laws:

  • Kala or time, which defines the ages and the events that will happen in them,
  • Prakriti or the material energy, which produces the minds and bodies,
  • Guna or the desires of the living entity, by which it enjoys or suffers
  • Karma or the moral consequences which produce different relations or encounters.

In the above four, Prakriti and Guna are combined into a single category, although there is a subtle difference between them.

We have also discussed two types of consciousness that create the material world:

  • God, which answers the “what”, “when”, and “where” questions
  • Soul, which answers the “how”, “why”, and “who” questions

Every aspect of this description is scientific, just not modern science. An understanding of these five features constitutes the essence of Vedic science. The three kinds of natural laws (kala, guna, and karma) can be understood only after we understand sat, chit, and ananda of the soul and God. In that sense, this is a “theistic science” that relies heavily on a spiritual understanding.

For those unfamiliar with this knowledge, it is helpful to compare the three natural laws above to the three laws that Newton formulated at the beginning of modern science:

  • Newton’s first law states that a material object continues to move automatically unless hindered by a force. The first law of nature in Vedic philosophy is time by which the universe moves unhindered creating a succession of events regardless of which material object or observer participates in these events.
  • Newton’s second law states that the state changes in an object are governed by material forces. The second law of nature in Vedic philosophy is guna and the force in question is prāna which is used to move the soul (particle) forward. Unlike Newton’s forces, the force called prāna can be controlled by desires (these desires are material intentions, which can be controlled by free will).
  • Newton’s third law states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, but the action and reaction act on different objects. The third law of nature in Vedic philosophy speaks about action-and-reaction, although based on the meaning and morality and the reaction is the consequence of an actor’s actions.

While modern and Vedic sciences are chalk and cheese, the above comparison can help us see why Vedic descriptions have analogous laws, although these laws are based on the acceptance of soul and God, rather than their rejection in classical physics. The study of these laws constitutes the sum and substance of “Vedic science”.