The Search for Truth in Science and Vedanta

May 04, 2014

This speech was delivered on Inaugural Function of HSRC on 27th April 2009 by Dr. S. R. Pandya. Dr. Pandya is a renowned Theoretical Nuclear Physicist, Honorary Professor & Former Director, Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, India.

I am very grateful to be given this opportunity to visit this beautiful Center, an abode of peace and spirituality and to be able to participate in this celebration. When I was invited to come here, I was somewhat hesitant. I have little acquaintance with religion and spirituality. I was born as a son of a professor of Physics (Incidentally, my father taught at the MTB Science College here for more than 30 years). I was educated and trained as a scientist and by profession; I have been a scientist all my life. I have also been convinced for many years that science and religion are not contradictory. Our society stands on the twin great pillars of religion and science. They run parallel to each other. They ask and search for answers to the same deep, fundamental philosophical questions. Their paths, their methodology and their technologies may differ, indeed they do differ widely. But the goals are the same mountain peaks. Often the results of their quest are amazingly similar.

Let me elaborate on this, "Kena Upanishad" is one of our major Upanishads. Many of you may be familiar with it. In the very first mantra the Rushi asks four very fundamental questions. Each question begins with the word "Kena" or "by whom". Hence the name of this Upanishads.

The first mantra runs like this:
केनेषितं पततत प्रेषितं मनः
केन प्राणः प्रथममः प्ररैततत ुक्तः
केनेषितां वाचामममां वदन्तत
चक्षक श्रोत्रं क देवो ुकनन््त

Of course many learned pandits have commented on this mantra and its interpretation. But I, as one familiar with the quest of modern science wish to offer you my own interpretation.

The first question concerns the working and perhaps the very purpose of the mind or to stretch a little, of consciousness. This certainly is the frontier area of research for scientists today. It involves physicists, biologists, psychologists and even mathematicians and information science. The wording of the question is some three thousand years old and appropriate to that age. But I hope my interpretation is more appropriate to our age. The second question concerns an equally deep problem. It is about the origin and functioning of life itself. This is also a problem of great interest to modern science, as you all know. The third question is about the speech. I interpret the word "speech" as basically communication not only between humans but also between all forms of life. How do we communicate is the subject of the science of linguistics which again attracts many computer scientists, biologists and psychologist.

Communication between men and machines is a frontier area of research. Finally the last question talks about eyes and ears. This again I interpret as a mode of acquiring information or cognition. How do we know? We want knowledge of the external world and how it impacts our senses and through our senses our brain and mind. The development of quantum theory in the last century has brought to the fore the question of the relationship between the observed system and the observer. I do not go into any details here. I only wish to emphasize the point that scientists (natural philosophers) and religious philosophers follow similar paths of inquiry.

The answer to these questions occupies the rest of the "Kena Upanishad". Basically, if I understand correctly, it says that behind all these objects and processes, there is a single universal element to understand which Rushis and Scientists struggle alike and knowing, which releases one from all bonds. The element is almost incomprehensible and to describe it one has to use lots of "not this", "not that" etc.

I find the answer given in the "Nirvan Ashtakam" most beautiful.
अहं तनषविकल्पः तनराकाररूपः
षवभकर्वुािप्ु सवित्र सवेन्तिुाणाम्
सदा मे समत्वं न मकन््तनि बतधः
चचदानतदरूपः मिवोऽहं मिवोऽहं

Whatever this "element" is, it is the only one. It has no form or shape or taste or smell. It is inaccessible to our normal senses. It is universal everywhere. There is no place or time where it is not.

I will again try to draw a parallel with modern science and the conclusion it has reached. During the last four centuries, science has studied the structure of matter and of the radiant energy down to the deepest level possible. It has arrived at a truly amazing conclusion. All the matter we see and experience in our universe in its billions of different forms, is made up of only a few different kinds of atoms, about a hundred different kinds of atoms. You, I and the most distant stars and galaxies are all made of the same few atoms. Is this not an echo of - that thou art? In the last century, scientists have gone even deeper into the atomic structure. I will spare you the details. We find that the ultimate constituents, the building blocks of the universe are only a few elementary particles, called quarks and leptons. There is nothing else in the universe. Helping these particles to interact with each other and make more complex forms of matter are just four different types of forces. Radiant energy is only an expression: of one of these forces- the electromagnetic fields.

The implications of this wonderful basic unity underlying all things in nature are equally breathtaking‘. I believe that once we realize this all-pervading element of unity in nature and accept it fully, this provides the foundation for all morality and ethics in our society. This is what supports and integrates man and nature. The basic percepts of truth and non-violence follow from this unity. If everyone is part of me and I am a part of every one, how can there be violence amongst us? How can I lie or cheat anyone, when I realize that I am cheating myself only? This is truly the essence of "Dharma”.

Science is today a powerful force in our society. We see its influence everywhere, what has made science so powerful? Let me tell you that the strength and progress of science is largely due to the fact that scientific methodology is based on the principles of truth and nonviolence. Scientists do not go to war because they have different views or beliefs. One can find many instances in history where scientific disputes are settled by arguments, calculations or experiments done independently by third parties and results accepted amicably. In scientific papers one present's truth and only truth. Any fraud is quickly discovered and eliminated ruthlessly. Here indeed is a lesson our society can learn from science.

When scientists examine the properties of these fundamental building blocks of nature, a truly amazing and incompressible face of reality is revealed. Of course, these elementary particles have no substantial form or shape, but also they are nothing like anything that we can express in everyday language. There are no words in our language to describe what they are, because our language can only describe what we see and experience in everyday life. If you ask, "Where is this electron?" an experiment can locate it as here or there. But when you are not looking at it, it can be anywhere. In fact quantum theory tells us that it is everywhere in the universe, all at the same time! Does it remind you of षवभकर्वुािप्ु सवित्र ॽ In the quantum world a cat can be dead and alive at the same time, if no one is looking! I cannot go into more details here. I only want to say that basic entities constituents of the universe are not only inaccessible to our senses but also indescribable in our language.

I have only tried to draw some parallels between discoveries of science and revelations of our ancient Rishis. It would not be true to say that they have reached identical conclusions. But I find the similarity in some fundamental concepts very interesting and worth exploring.

-  Dr. S. R. Pandya