A scientist looks at Hinduism
by N S Rajaram on 09 Aug 2018 11 Comments

Like many Hindus I often find myself at a loss when called upon to explain to others what Hinduism is. I find this problem of Hindu identity to be particularly acute among Indians living in the West, and other ‘Westernized’ Hindus. What is Hinduism? Is it the observance of festivals like Diwali and rituals like the daily sandhya-vandana? Is it reverence for the Vedas as the word of God, belief in the message of the Bhagavad Gita, or is it universal tolerance? And this word tolerance - does it include unlimited tolerance of evil? Is it total pacifism, a belief that nothing is worth defending or worth fighting for? Is it some or all of these?


When faced with these questions I find that the major difficulty that a modem Hindu faces in defining Hinduism to others stems from his difficulty in defining it to himself. This is especially the case with the ‘educated Hindu’ who has unconsciously acquired the habit of looking at himself and his civilization through Christian eyes. As a result his reaction is invariably defensive and he mumbles something like ‘essential truth in all religions’ or sarva dharma samatva or some such equally meaningless platitude.


But this habit - of measuring something with alien values - is a very serious limitation if anyone wants to understand what Hinduism is really about. I am speaking here not of the historic hostility of the missionary to Hinduism which has always tried to show it in the worst light possible. The problem runs deeper; the vision and vocabulary of a revealed religion like Christianity or Islam are fundamentally unsuited to describing Hinduism, for Hinduism is an evolved and not a revealed religion. It is also pluralistic, while Christianity and Islam are exclusivist - for they acknowledge no beliefs other than their own as legitimate.


The problem that I see in this is not just lack of sympathy: it is the severe limitation of the concept of religion as the revelations of a book or a prophet found in creeds like Christianity and Islam. Trying to understand Hinduism in terms of a revealed belief system or creed is like trying to understand Quantum Mechanics through Newton’s Laws of Motion. It just cannot be done. One must try to understand Hinduism on its own terms, and not in terms of the internal and external features borrowed from other (exclusivist) creeds. In this article, that is what I shall try to do in as simple a fashion as possible.


But first I would like to make it clear that I approach this task as a student of science and not as a theologian or true believer. Though born into a Hindu Family, I am not by any means a devout Hindu. Most people do not consider me a practicing Hindu at all. My interest in Hinduism stems from my work in the history and philosophy of science. Recent research has shown that mathematics, especially geometry, has origins in some Vedic practices that go back to before 3000 BC. Many of us including scientific luminaries like Oppenheimer and Schrodinger have looked to Vedanta to explain issues in Quantum Physics.


I also discovered that the concept of mathematical proof could be traced to some yogic principles described in a famous work known as the Yogasutra written by the legendary Patanjali. This greatly intrigued me: the most rational of the rational sciences have religious and mystical roots! It will no doubt come as a surprise to many readers to learn that ‘rational thinking’, something we all prize so highly, has mystical roots. Both Patanjali and the Greek Pythagoras were mystics, and yet they laid the foundation for the rational processes on which our own civilization depends. This is what made me look deeper into the religious thoughts of the Hindus and the ancient Greeks. What I have to say here about Hinduism is the result of that search. I will try to make it as simple as possible, in terms of seven basic features as I found them in my research into history and philosophy of science.


Hinduism has no historical beginning


The Rigveda, the oldest of the Hindu scriptures is stated to be eternal and that it always existed. Speaking as a scientist I find that claim hard to accept. There must have been a time in the history of the world when what is contained in the Rigveda did not exist. But there is no period in time, which we can definitely point to and say: “That is when the Rigveda began to be composed.” In the 19th century, European scholars and Indologists like Max Muller tried to fill 1200 BC as the date of composition of the Vedas. But this was tied to their Biblical belief according to which the world was created at 9:00 AM on 23 October 4004 BC and the Biblical Flood took place in 2448 BC. This was just a superstition, but history books continue to use the date 1200 BC for the Vedas though science has discredited it.


The truth however is quite different: Vedic civilization in India can be traced at least to 7000 BC in archaeological remains. The last Ice Age ended more than 10,000 years ago, and we cannot even say if the Rigveda is pre- or post- Ice Age. There are places in the Rigveda where we find descriptions that seem like eyewitness accounts of the cracking of ice caps. The famous Vedic legend of the solar God Indra killing Vritra or ‘the coverer’ refers probably to this phenomenon.


The main point is, unlike Christianity and Islam, which are historical religions, we cannot find a specific date or even a century or millennium when Hinduism began. More fundamentally, unlike Christianity and Islam, which are historical religions, we cannot trace the founding of Hinduism to a historical person or a historical era. Christianity cannot exist without Christ, nor Islam without Muhammad, but no such historical person exists in Hinduism about whom one can say: ‘Without him, Hinduism cannot exist.’


In other words, Christianity and Islam are paurusheya religions, while Hinduism is apaurusheya. Christianity is the religion founded by a purusha called Jesus Christ, while Muhammad is the purusha of Islam. There is no such purusha of Hinduism. (‘Paurusheya’ is a derivative of purusha’-- Sanskrit word for a man.)


No Prophets or Clergy


Islam and Christianity deny direct access to divinity. It can only be through a human medium called Prophet or Messiah. This makes them monopolistic and mediumistic. Hinduism on the other hand allows the devout to choose his own object of worship (Ishta Deva) and the mode of worship. Hence Hinduism has no clergy to define and enforce rules of worship.


This absence of intermediary to God is probably the most significant difference between Hinduism and prophetic religions like Islam and Christianity. This results in the agents of this human intermediary called the clergy becoming all powerful in the name God. The priesthood in Hinduism provide service on request and provide guidance. They do not exercise authority. So it is a serious error to say all religions are same. They emphatically are not, even apart from the teachings of Hinduism and prophetic religions.


Dr. Navaratna Rajaram is a mathematical scientist with several years of experience in teaching and research in US academia and high technology industry, including NASA. His last position was as professor of science and philosophy at the University of Massachusetts. He is currently an independent researcher and writer based in Bangalore and Boston, USA

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