Prabhupāda’s Three Big Ideas on Science
Much has been said about Prabhupāda’s visionary leadership and scholarship in bringing India’s authentic culture, civilization, philosophy, and practice to the Western world. But very little is said about his vision for the future of the world as seen through the lens of science. In this post, I will try to capture his three big ideas (as I understand them), in the reverse order of greatness (from my perspective).
Table of Contents
Scientific people the world over shy away from religion. They think that religion is based on faith, while science is based on reason and observation, so religion has nothing to say about the natural world.
The most charitable opinion about religion among scientists is that religion pertains to the soul and God, while science pertains to matter, so, religion would have almost nothing to say on scientific matters. The charitable opinions accept that religion is about a world beyond this one, and science is about this world, so religion must largely be irrelevant to the endeavors of the study of the natural world.
Religions too, by and large, conform to this view imputed upon them by science. Most religious people believe that by its difference in goals (the other world, rather than this world), religion should not want to involve with science. By the difference in methodology (faith, as opposed to reason and experience), religion is incapable of involving with science, even if it wanted to. And by a difference in subject matter (soul and God, rather than matter), religion cannot involve itself with science.
The most charitable view of this engagement with science, in the minds of religious people, is that it is a waste of time. That we must be preoccupied with transcendence, and not with the mundane world.
Thus, both science and religion largely agree upon each other’s roles in our lives. Science, it is generally accepted, will determine the public sphere which must be conducted using reason and observation. Religion, on the other hand, can determine the private sphere, such as marriage, property inheritance, and one’s method and style of worship based on their beliefs. This private-public separation was the “peace deal” brokered between Christianity and science, at the rise of European Enlightenment. It led to the separation of the Church from the state, the separation of mind and body in our lives, and the institutional separation of religion and science—science owns the body and religion owns the mind. Thereafter, it is religious heresy if you question the scriptures based on scientific evidence, and it is scientific heresy if you bring matters of soul and God, or other religious ideas, within science.
In the last 50 years, there have been some attempts to revise this “peace deal” between Christianity and science by saying that it did not include the Eastern religions, so we might look East and revise the peace deal. But all revisionist attempts have failed due to two reasons: (1) Christianity had undermined the Eastern religious systems through colonization, and they do not want a revision, and (2) scientists steeped in their conventional thinking are unable to grasp the significance of Eastern ideas. For example, even as the value of meditation and breath control is accepted today, it is not mainstream science. Medical schools don’t teach meditation and breath control; they teach anatomy, surgery, and drugs. Most people take to such alternatives only if the mainstream things are not working for them.
Krishna Consciousness is a Science
The situation was not better at Prabhupāda’s time, and although hippies were experimenting with psychedelic drugs, claiming that there was more to this world than what we are taught through modern science and religions, everyone knew that their long-term effects were generally very harmful.
So, to wean away people from these habits, to give them an alternative culture and philosophy, was itself a huge step. Others would not dare to pick up the gloves and prepare for a conflict with science.
And yet, Prabhupāda was not afraid to challenge the Moon landings, saying that the Moon was a heavenly planet, so you cannot go there in the present body. He was not afraid to challenge evolution, or the idea that humans have evolved from apes, or that life was comprised of chemicals. None of the yogis dared to challenge mainstream Western culture. They were merely trying to “fit in”, trying to mix whatever they knew with Western psychology, and a more “secular” Westernized practice of yoga. But Prabhupāda ridiculed everything that he found to be inconsistent with Krishna consciousness.
To his disciples, he so often would say “Krishna consciousness is a science” meaning that it was amenable to rational inquiry, and that religion without a profound understanding was merely sentiment—hinting at the fact that this wasn’t yet another faith-based religion. That it had to be understood, and those who understood it were superior to those who did not. This idea has a history in the fact that bhakti or devotion to God has been criticized in India as sentimentalism. The impersonal philosophers have argued that they are superior to the devotees because the devotees are engaged in sentimental worship. This criticism is not very different from the one used by science against religion in the West; we just need to substitute “faith” with “sentimentalism”. But for Prabhupāda, devotion was “scientific”. Indeed, he would invite intelligent people to study, understand, and analyze religion.
He wasn’t merely saying that we should study science to answer their questions. He was saying that scientists should study our religion. I cannot find a single instance in the entire recorded history after the advent of science where a religious person would invite a scientist to analyze the scriptures. The religious people already know that their books will not stand the scrutiny of a scientific inquiry. But Prabhupāda was confident that a sincere and unbiased inquiry would affirm the scriptural truth.
Many people offer platitudes about religion being a science, but never do anything about it. Prabhupāda set up a “Bhaktivedānta Institute” to present the “science of Krishna consciousness”. One of its goals was to teach scriptural knowledge in a “scientific manner”. In his own words, “the content would not be different from the temples, but the presentation would be scientific”. One of the educational programs that Prabhupāda approved for the Institute was the offering of Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate degrees based on Bhagavad-Gita, Śrīmad Bhagavatam, and Chaitanya Charitamrita, respectively.
The nature of material elements, the transmigration of the soul, the process of transition to heavenly planets, the laws of morality or karma, the structure of the universe, the nature of the soul and God, the different forms of God, and how some love of God is superior to others were all “scientific” topics. Chaitanya Charitamrita—as it describes the highest aspects of God’s person—was not outside scientific education. Rather, it was to be the subject of scientific research during a Ph.D. program. Barring Prabhupāda, I don’t know of anyone who thinks that the soul and God are “scientific” topics.
Thus, everything from material elements to God’s personality is a scientific topic. This is such a radical idea, that I don’t know of anyone who is able to ingest, let alone digest, assimilate, circulate, and transform it into an expression. Personally, I think it is a testimony to Prabhupāda’s extent of God realization. Only a person who sees something intimately can claim it to be amenable scientifically—i.e. experience and reason.
For example, for a long time prior to the advent of modern medicine, it was thought that the human body cannot be studied scientifically. The human body was a “living force” and it was only a chance detection of Uric Acid synthesis that changed people’s mind—if the urine from the body has the same chemical that we can synthesize in the lab, then life can also be studied scientifically. Similarly, Galileo and Newton were able to formulate theories after they observed planets though a telescope. Before that, the “heavens” were beyond the reach of anybody’s understanding or rational inquiry.
Therefore, intimacy with the object of study is essential to claim that it can be studied scientifically. And the person who makes such claims is necessarily intimate. Others, who are distant from a subject, can only accept it on faith, and say that it cannot be studied scientifically, because they are distant from it. In a sense, one’s ability to perform this scientific study of God requires intimacy with the object of study. It isn’t outside science, but it is outside science for those who don’t know the subject intimately.
Use Science to Prove God
Most religious people are comfortable just seeking peace with the scientist. They don’t want the scientist accusing them of being irrational or sentimental. Some cultures and religions also want to co-opt modern science by either saying that they invented parts of it, or they created the conditions of freedom and choice that culminated in scientific inquiry, or that they had invented things that others used to invent other things, or that many scientists in the past were also highly religious people.
Prabhupāda had no such insecurities. He did not seek a scientist’s approval. He did not need to justify what good may or may not have happened in the past. He would nod approvingly if a scientist would appreciate God’s role in the creation, but then he wasn’t content with it. He would turn around and say: If you are intelligent, if you have some knowledge, then use it to prove God using your science. In other words, it wasn’t enough to appreciate God in front of a devotee; it had to be proven, demonstrated, and upheld in the public’s eye, and being able to do that was the proof of that person’s intellect.
The subtext of that exhortation was that if you cannot use science to prove God, then you are not truly a scientist. You are not very bright and intelligent, and you don’t truly understand nature’s working. Unlike most religious people who are uncomfortable with science, and seek peace, approval, and recognition from a scientist, Prabhupāda would make his position the standard for approving the scientist. If you can prove God using science, then you are a scientist and your knowledge is valid, otherwise not.
Prabhupāda was so confident of his position that one time he quoted a Bengali proverb, which says: “Using your mortar and pestle, I’m going to break your teeth”. In short, we can use science to disprove its materialism, atheism, evolutionism, determinism, etc., those very things that seem to give modern science its “teeth” against religious claims. This is a big idea, because nobody that I know of, has had the audacity to say that science can be overhauled using religious ideas. Also, nobody that I know of, believes that God’s existence can be proven from purely rational and empirical science.
The best current argument in support of this idea is the Fine-Tuning Design Argument, and it claims that the constants of nature (such as the Planck’s constant, Boltzmann’s constant, speed of light, Gravitational constant, etc.) are so finely tuned for life to arise, that they must have been tuned by God. But according to Sāñkhya philosophy, all these constants operate on physical properties such as mass, charge, temperature, etc. which aren’t real; the real properties are taste, touch, sound, sight, and smell. Similarly, the idea that the world is governed by mathematical laws is also false because it is governed by demigods. Whatever order we see in nature is because these governors are responsible and rational, rather than freewheeling, whimsical, autocratic, or arbitrary rulers. If we reject the Fine-Tuning Design Argument (which, by the way, is widely accepted to be the best argument for God’s existence in modern science), then the idea that science can be used to prove God’s existence would turn out to be a false claim.
Again, this is where intimacy with a subject is important. Prabhupāda had such a deep understanding of matter that he would write things like: (a) forms exist in the ether from which the gross world springs, (b) the planets are hanging off the pole star through “ropes of wind”, (c) with the advancement of science we will one day be able to communicate with Vaikunṭha, (d) space and time are correlative terms (i.e. they cannot be truly separated), and (e) space and time were related to atomism.
I did not understand any of these things when I began studying this subject. But today I understand how everything that Prabhupāda wrote about matter is scientifically accurate. There is an ether or absolute space, different from relative space, but it is the space of possibilities, which comprises ‘forms’ from which the observations spring. This is the world that is poorly studied in atomic theory. The world of observations spring from this ether because of interactions between the possibilities due to prana (which Prabhupāda also notes in his purport on these forms). The cause of the changes in this ether is time, so prana moves due to time, and the problems of this change are such that space cannot exist without time, and time cannot exist without space, so they are ‘correlative’ terms. If this interaction is properly understood, then the relativistic space and its properties such as length contraction and time dilation are easily explained. Prabhupāda had the vision to use terms like “Causal Time” which is different from “parametric time”, because causality is not in matter but in time, as a result of which all the mathematical laws of nature are false, because they are the laws of matter causing change, when the change is caused by time. Prabhupāda had sophisticated terms like “modes of nature” for the three guna of prakriti, and this is a radical scientific idea that nature cannot be known completely in a single observation; it must be known alternately through different perspectives, and each perspective is a different mode of knowing. This means that in each situation we will observe some limited facts, and provide a limited interpretation, but ultimately, we will be unable to reconcile these interpretations in a conventional logic. He had sophisticated counterintuitive logics to explain this problem, such as God is everything, but everything is not God—a blatant violation of the principle of identity in logic.
Again, Prabhupāda believed that God will emerge out of science, because he knew matter better than any scientist on the planet. He saw things that nobody is seeing and based on what he was seeing, he was writing his purports explaining these complex ideas and telling his followers to present them. Only a person who intimately knows the nature of matter can say that even if you study matter deeply, you will come to the same conclusion. He would say: Go on studying deeper, deeper, and ultimately you will find God. In short, you don’t have to go to the other world to know what God is. You can also go deeper in this world, and by going deeper you will find the same truth as you find in the other world.
This is, of course, a very profound idea in Vedic philosophy, namely, that God is not just transcendent; He is also immanent. The transcendent form of God is called Bhagavan, and His immanent form is called Paramātma. These two forms are related as an idea is related to its symbol or representation. But nobody that I know of, truly believes that we can find God by studying matter. Prabhupāda did. He wasn’t teaching anything anomalous. He was just teaching a deep realization about matter.
Engage with Scientists
Prabhupāda had a very peculiar idea about engaging with the scientific world. For example, at Harvard University, he asked: Where is the department of the soul? This is surprising because other religions have previously established academic institutions to study subjects other than the soul. For example, there are Pontifical Academies dedicated to natural sciences, social sciences, life sciences, etc. But Prabhupāda wasn’t talking about a department of economics, a department of biology, a department of physics, and so on. Just the department of the soul. This is a big idea because everything in Vedic philosophy is a soul. God is a soul, matter is a soul, and the individual living entity is a soul. If we can study the science of the soul, then we can influence every other department of knowledge.
The term ‘soul’ can be used specifically to indicate the living entity, as it is in most cases. But the ‘atmā’ is not merely the living entity. God is also an atmā, and the material energy and spiritual energies are also atmā. All these atmā have the same three fundamental qualities of sat, chit, and ananda. Owing to this fact, the Śuddhādvaita interpretation of Vedanta Sutra says that the soul and God are qualitatively identical. In short, if you know yourself, then you also understand God, matter, and vice versa. Therefore, the term atmā is also used generically to describe ‘consciousness’ or all living entities.
The soul is a monolith for mostly everyone. Nobody studies the details of this monolith. But the three aspects of the soul are the causes of everything that we see. Again, as I have tried to apply this idea, I have found that all complexities of nature can be explained in terms of these three ideas, which I call relation, cognition, and emotion. It doesn’t matter whether we are studying economics, or sociology, or psychology, or linguistics, or physics, or mathematics. These three aspects are sufficient to study every subject. And none of these aspects can be neglected in any study, therefore, they are also necessary.
Over the years, as I have applied Prabhupāda’s ideas to science, I have realized that the best way to describe matter is to describe it as a soul. The material nature, or prakriti, is a conscious person, and every ingredient in material nature—such as the mind, the senses, and their objects—is as much present in the spiritual world, and in God’s person, as they are present in this world. There is nothing called “matter”. Even the material energy is a form of consciousness. Matter and spirit are different only in the types of desires they harbor and not separate as “mind and matter” in Western thinking are.
All problems of modern academic inquiry arise when: (1) one or more of the aspects is neglected, or (2) when these aspects are impersonalized and depersonalized. For example, a soul relates to other souls through its consciousness or sat. But this relation also redefines the soul as a parent, child, brother, sister, employer, employee, etc. Similarly, the relation doesn’t exist universally; it is always invoked selectively both in a space and time sense—we relate to some entities in space, and we interact with these selected entities sometimes. Modern physics studies this relation as “physical force” and thereby universalizes it across space and time. As a result, it cannot explain how physical entities are “entangled” by a relation, how we are defined by our social connections, how our duties change as the contextual relations change, etc. Since the relation is universalized in physics, so it is also universalized in economics, sociology, and psychology. Linguistics cannot understand contextual meanings, and hence computers are Universal Turing Machines rather than Contextual Turing Machines. A simple problem of relationality pervades all of science.
Similar kinds of problems arise when the chit or the cognitive capacity and ananda or the emotive capacity are misunderstood. Modern science, for example assumes that all cognition must be of physical properties like mass and charge, rather than of taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight. Thus, we lose the ability to ascribe meanings to things, and a symbolic world of meanings is transformed into a world of physical objects. Likewise, when the ananda is not understood, then everything becomes purposeless. Then, nature has no goal, therefore, why our senses are attracted to their objects is inexplicable. If we cannot understand how sensual desire arises, then we cannot understand how to control the senses. As a result, we are reduced to animals and automatons who cannot but help enjoy recklessly.
Prabhupāda’s idea of engaging with scientists was about explaining the nature of the soul, and how they can study their subjects better by applying the ideas about the soul in their universities and their departments. He wasn’t thinking that his followers would be the only change agents in the world. Rather, if the right ideas were mainstreamed in academia, then the academics can advance the cause of Krishna consciousness, without being directly affiliated with the Krishna consciousness movement. In effect, the knowledge was not limited to some institutions that he had initiated. These institutions were only catalysts for kickstarting the socializing process, but every department of education in the world can also take these ideas for advancing the understanding of economics, sociology, psychology, biology, physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Such pragmatic things must exist in this world. But who is going to do the right type of economics, sociology, psychology, biology, physics, chemistry, and mathematics? Unless people know how to do these subjects, they will only produce misleading theories.
And thus arose the mechanism of going from college to college, university to university, conference to conference, where other people talk their stuff, and the devotees will present the ‘atmā paradigm’ of sociology, psychology, biology, physics, chemistry, and mathematics. You cannot obviously go to an academic conference and talk about religion. You will be kicked out of the conference, and never invited again. You must talk about the subject for which the conference is meant. And that entails presenting the same technical subject in a new way, creating new insights, and reformulating the subject.
The Execution Fails the Vision
Ultimately, the ideas are only as good as the execution. But the ideas are better than the current execution because they can be used to improve the execution. Each of Prabhupāda’s big ideas about science have never seen the light of the day. In my writing, I have tried to implement each of these three ideas, but with very limited success, partly because the ideas are so big that they are not understood, not popularized, and generally not adopted due to other prevailing ideas which arise only because people are not intimate with God, not intimate with Nature, and not intimate with themselves.
If either of these intimacies were established, one of these three visions will naturally become powerful. If we become intimate with God, then we can say that Krishna consciousness is a science. If we become intimate with Nature, then we can say that science can be used to prove God. And if we become intimate with ourselves, then we can transform the system of education with an ‘atmā paradigm’.
There is a profound science that lies ahead of us, but we don’t think it is a science because we are not intimate with God, Nature, or the self. We are wasting our time with superficial trivialities, and thereby wasting our lives. If you happen to read this long post, please consider becoming intimate with God, Nature, or yourself, and understand the subject so deeply that you can say: “this is a science”. It doesn’t matter which one of the three you understand first, because if you understand one of them, then you will understand all of them. It is not possible that you understand one subject and not the others.
A devotee of the Lord therefore knows the Lord, Nature, and the self perfectly. A perfect scientist will also know Nature, himself, and God perfectly. And a meditator who has understood the self perfectly, will also understand the Lord and Nature perfectly. These are non-negotiable standards. And we can also use them to judge the quality of a devotee, a scientist, or a meditator. If they fail any of these three tests, then they fail all the tests. And if they pursue any of these properly, they will find all of them. Hence, each process—whether it is jnana-yoga, karma-yoga, dhyana-yoga, or bhakti-yoga—is perfect. But some process is more suitable for some people, while another process is suitable for others. The result of these processes is the same—a perfect understanding of the Lord, the self, and Nature. If any of these three are not perfectly understood, then the process has failed, or remains incomplete.
Of course, the general recommendation of Vedic scriptures is to practice all of them with bhakti-yoga as the focus because God is the source of both the soul and Nature. God is also the source of the spiritual world. Therefore, extraordinary progress is made when God is understood. The process of bhakti-yoga is also simple because God becomes our guide, mentor, and the inspiration within the heart.
But we must understand that the goal is the perfect understanding of God, Nature, and the self. It is not merely the understanding of the self without God, or God without the self and Nature, or any of these exclusionary pretentious ideas, which are propagated by those who are neither close to God, nor self, nor Nature. If we have clarity on the goal, and the methods to achieve that goal, then we can progress.
If we can understand Prabhupāda’s grand vision for science, and how science arises with intimacy, and increases intimacy, then we can see that his is not a sectarian vision. It includes everything and everyone, and it is meant for everything and everyone. I therefore request the readers to make this their priority, and teach this knowledge as a science, and not as a faith or sentimentality.