Yoga and Science, from East to West and from West to East

6. Hinduism and the Scientific Paradigm: Quantum Physics compared with Vedanta, from Erwin Schrödinger to Fritjof Capra; Robert Oppenheimer, the military-industrial complex, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The pertinent chapter from Goldberg (American Veda, pp. 282-308) will be the basis of our conversation on these themes. Keep in mind that America was born from the Enlightenment and was formed, culturally and spiritually, in the 19th century; hence Rationalism and Romanticism are blended in America’s spirit. You can find in Emerson and the Transcendentalists both the affirmation of reason over religious dogma and ritualism and the fascination with Asia as a font of wisdom and a way of deeper communion with Nature (capital ‘N’ intended).

There is something deeply Romantic about the Autobiography of a Yogi (the miracles, the psychic powers of gurus, the apparitions of Divine Mother, etc.), while at the same time Yogananda and many other gurus like him insisted that yoga be understood as a science and its spiritual fruits as the repeatable outcome of experimentation. The AY is perhaps the first book that brings into the presentation of yoga in the West what Thomas Kuhn and Fritjof Capra later called “new-paradigm science,” that is, a new, scientific world-view no longer predicated on the assumption that the universe is constituted and functions like a machine, the metaphor that underlay the thought of Descartes and Newton. In 1946, the AY cited two recently-published popularizations of the new (non-materialist, non-mechanistic) scientific paradigm: Arthur Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World and James Jeans’ The Mysterious Universe (AY 1972, pp. 313-314).

Goldberg (p. 282) refers to two of the founders of the new paradigm: Werner Heisenberg, whose work in the 1920s introduced the ‘uncertainty principle’; and Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems of 1931; their scientific hypotheses undermined the ideological certitudes of mathematically-expressed science as the only way to truth. Of course, Swami Vivekananda (well before Yogananda) had conversations with Lord Kelvin and Nikola Tesla, who in his later years did extensive reading in Hinduism. Nobel Prize winner Erwin Schrödinger also delved into Vedanta philosophy. Aside from these personal anecdotes, can we find something intrinsic to Vedanta, Buddhism, and yoga philosophy — a model of spiritual realities — that is more amenable to scientific models than is Christianity? Are the Abrahamic religions, with the biblical doctrine of creatio ex nihilo sui et subiecti, inherently less amenable to dialogue with science than are the Dharmic traditions?

Questions: Robert Oppenheimer was deeply involved in the military-industrial complex — how does this connect with the ahimsa/satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi? Oppenheimer read and even quoted the Bhagavad-Gita, on seeing the first atomic explosion in the Nevada desert: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Yet does not this shift of context — from the great theophany of the Gita, ch. 11, to the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki — show a fundamental misunderstanding of the text? Does the Shiva Nataraja, dancing before the CERN in Geneva, indeed depict the triumph of modern physics over ignorance, or is it there only in contraposition to the eternal Adonai of Genesis, who said, “Fiat!”, and saw it was all good?

[See my dialogue with Fritjof Capra and David Steindl-Rast in Belonging to the Universe (London: Penguin, 1992): Capra revisits his Christian roots after The Tao of Physics.]

About ashramdiary

Thomas Matus, who blogs this Ashram Diary, was born 1940 in Hollywood, California. Academics: A.B. in music from Occidental College (Los Angeles); S.T.L. in ecumenical theology from Athenaeum Anselmianum (Rome, Italy); Ph.D. in comparative mysticism from Fordham University (New York). Initiated into Kriya Yoga (by direct disciples of Paramahansa Yogananda) in 1958. Became a Catholic in 1960 and entered New Camaldoli Hermitage (Big Sur, California) as a novice monk in 1962. Lived for more than 30 years at the Monastery of Camaldoli in Italy. Traveled to India some 20 times; made frequent retreats at Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) in southern India. Was in Brazil, off and on, from 1999 to 2006. Now back in California, he lives at the Hermitage in Big Sur and Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, California. See:
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