God of the Closing Gaps
India has been successful in closing gaps between science and philosophy.
WHY SHOULD AN educated European read a book that delves into the relationship between science and the Indian tradition? Science, with all its shiny accomplishments, and Indian tradition, with all its gurus and gods, seem uncomfortable and incompatible bedfellows.
Yet two of the greatest and most imaginative minds that ever graced this planet, representing the pinnacle of the two halves of the science/tradition equation, did meet four times, and discovered much common ground. And those discussions between Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore in 1930 are only a peg on which many more substantial and varied historical encounters between Indian thought and science can be hung. This is exactly what I have tried to bring out in my book.
The Indian tradition, correctly spelled out in terms of its cultural and geographical meaning, includes a variety of traditions, each based on the history and contemporary experience of a community. The most prominent of them is the Hindu tradition – not ‘Hinduism’, because there is no such monolithic entity (and my book never uses the term except as a quote) – which is a richly endowed family of traditions, a unity-in-diversity, with a philosophical dividing line between its most famous interpreters, Shankara and Ramanuja, more extensive than any that separate most other traditions from one another. Hindus in India are the majority; and yet there are more Muslims there than in the whole of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
India contains significant Jain, Sikh and Buddhist communities, but the Christians are particularly interesting because they arrived long before they reached the northern European countries from where most people believe Christianity was exported by missionaries. Kerala’s churchgoing Christians number more than half the population of Britain, and in North-East India one entire state (Nagaland – close to the Burmese border) is populated almost entirely by Roman Catholics and Baptists.
Neither science nor the Indian tradition is by any means monolithic, and in my book I have tried to bring out some of the internal dialogues within each. Science conventionally assumes a sharp subject/object demarcation for the sake of accuracy and replication; but could science be more ‘intuitive’? If so, how? Might the philosophical ideas of Michael Polanyi or Arthur Koestler be of relevance here?
There have been and still are many Hindu and Muslim scientists whose scientific work is shaped by their philosophical and religious beliefs. Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858–1937) was fascinated by the way in which the physical and biological sciences of the 19th century were being drawn together. He investigated the possibility of pain in plants. Other notable Hindu scientists include S. N. Bose, who collaborated with Einstein, Nobel prizewinner C. V. Raman, and the astrophysicist J. V. Narlikar, who worked with Fred Hoyle. Muslim scientists include Nobel prizewinner Abdus Salam from Pakistan, whose collaborative work with Steven Weinberg gave rise to the Standard Model of elementary particles.
The Indian Christian tradition has yet to produce scientists of such calibre, but there has been some profound philosophical and theological thinking about ways in which Christianity can be expressed more holistically: that is, in terms of the gaps between God, humanity and Nature, which are less than in conventional Western thought. Such a continuum between divine and human life and between humanity and Nature, is much more environmentally friendly and conducive to understanding certain recent discoveries in modern science, and also in bringing different traditions together. Important work in this area was carried out by Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (1861–1907), a good friend of Tagore, who interpreted Christian theology within the context of Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta. His views challenge the entire philosophical basis of cerebral Eurocentric theology! Not surprisingly, he was shunned by the Roman Catholic Church of his day, but he is now revered for opening up new avenues for dialogue between the various traditions.
As I have said in my book, “All religions have important things to say about what it means to be human, and considerable common ground exists between them. But they need to dialogue more effectively with the scientists whose new discoveries are forcing the pace of change. And within that dialogue representatives of the non-Western world must be invited to play a greater role.” •
Science and the Indian Tradition: when Einstein met Tagore, Routledge, New York and London, 2007, £20.00