Tagore, Einstein and Quantum Mechanics – The Upanishad Connection
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 19 Sep 2020 4 Comments

The 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics was jointly given to the Austrian-Irish physicist Erwin Schrodinger and British physicist Paul Dirac “for the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory”. This great scientific recognition has relevance to India’s philosophy of Vedanta, as stated in the Upanishads. It is fascinating to know what some of the great European Physicists thought about Hinduism.


On July 14, 1930, Albert Einstein welcomed the Indian philosopher, musician, and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore to his home on the outskirts of Berlin. The two proceeded to have one of the most stimulating, intellectually riveting conversations in history, exploring the age-old-friction between science and religion. Science and the Indian Tradition: When Einstein met Tagore (Source: Public Library, Berlin) recounts a broader discussion of the intellectual renaissance that swept India in the early twentieth century, germinating a curious osmosis of Indian traditions and secular Western scientific doctrine.


The following excerpt from one of the Einstein-Tagore conversations dances between previously examined definitions of science, beauty, consciousness and philosophy in a masterful manner, elucidating the most fundamental questions of human existence.


EINSTEIN: Do you believe in the Divine as isolated from the world?


TAGORE: Not isolated. The infinite personality of Man comprehends the Universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the Truth of the Universe is human Truth.


I have taken a scientific fact to explain this - Matter is composed of protons and electrons, with gaps between them; but matter may seem to be solid. Similarly humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their interconnection of human relationship, which gives living unity to man’s world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner, it is a human universe. I have pursued this thought through art, literature and the religious consciousness of man.


EINSTEIN: There are two different conceptions about the nature of the universe: (1) The world as a unity dependent on humanity. (2) The world as a reality independent of the human factor.


TAGORE: When our universe is in harmony with Man, the eternal, we know it as Truth, we feel it as beauty.


EINSTEIN: This is the purely human conception of the universe.


TAGORE: There can be no other conception. This world is a human world - the scientific view of it is also that of the scientific man. There is some standard of reason and enjoyment which gives it Truth, the standard of the Eternal Man whose experiences are through our experiences.


EINSTEIN: This is a realization of the human entity.


TAGORE: Yes, one eternal entity. We have to realize it through our emotions and activities. We realized the Supreme Man who has no individual limitations through our limitations. Science is concerned with that which is not confined to individuals; it is the impersonal human world of Truths. Religion realizes these Truths and links them up with our deeper needs; our individual consciousness of Truth gains universal significance. Religion applies values to Truth, and we know this Truth as good through our own harmony with it.


EINSTEIN: Truth, then, or Beauty is not independent of Man?




EINSTEIN: If there would be no human beings any more, the Apollo of Belvedere would no longer be beautiful.




EINSTEIN: I agree with regard to this conception of Beauty, but not with regard to Truth.


TAGORE: Why not? Truth is realized through man.


EINSTEIN: I cannot prove that my conception is right, but that is my religion.


TAGORE: Beauty is in the ideal of perfect harmony which is in the Universal Being; Truth the perfect comprehension of the Universal Mind. We individuals approach it through our own mistakes and blunders, through our accumulated experiences, through our illumined consciousness - how, otherwise, can we know Truth?


EINSTEIN: I cannot prove scientifically that Truth must be conceived as a Truth that is valid independent of humanity; but I believe it firmly. I believe, for instance, that the Pythagorean theorem in geometry states something that is approximately true, independent of the existence of man. Anyway, if there is a reality independent of man, there is also a Truth relative to this reality; and in the same way the negation of the first engenders a negation of the existence of the latter.


TAGORE: Truth, which is one with the Universal Being, must essentially be human, otherwise whatever we individuals realize as true can never be called truth – at least the Truth which is described as scientific and which only can be reached through the process of logic, in other words, by an organ of thoughts which is human. According to Indian Philosophy there is Brahman, the absolute Truth, which cannot be conceived by the isolation of the individual mind or described by words but can only be realized by completely merging the individual in its infinity. But such a Truth cannot belong to Science. The nature of Truth which we are discussing is an appearance – that is to say, what appears to be true to the human mind and therefore is human, and may be called maya or illusion.


EINSTEIN: So according to your conception, which may be the Indian conception, it is not the illusion of the individual, but of humanity as a whole.


TAGORE: The species also belongs to a unity, to humanity. Therefore the entire human mind realizes Truth; the Indian or the European mind meet in a common realization.


EINSTEIN: The word species is used in German for all human beings, as a matter of fact, even the apes and the frogs would belong to it.


TAGORE: In science we go through the discipline of eliminating the personal limitations of our individual minds and thus reach that comprehension of Truth which is in the mind of the Universal Man.


EINSTEIN: The problem begins whether Truth is independent of our consciousness.


TAGORE: What we call truth lies in the rational harmony between the subjective and objective aspects of reality, both of which belong to the super-personal man.


EINSTEIN: Even in our everyday life we feel compelled to ascribe a reality independent of man to the objects we use. We do this to connect the experiences of our senses in a reasonable way. For instance, if nobody is in this house, yet that table remains where it is.


TAGORE: Yes, it remains outside the individual mind, but not the universal mind. The table which I perceive is perceptible by the same kind of consciousness which I possess.


EINSTEIN: If nobody would be in the house the table would exist all the same - but this is already illegitimate from your point of view - because we cannot explain what it means that the table is there, independently of us. Our natural point of view in regard to the existence of truth apart from humanity cannot be explained or proved, but it is a belief which nobody can lack - no primitive beings even. We attribute to Truth a super-human objectivity; it is indispensable for us, this reality which is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind - though we cannot say what it means.


TAGORE: Science has proved that the table as a solid object is an appearance and therefore that which the human mind perceives as a table would not exist if that mind were naught. At the same time it must be admitted that the fact that the ultimate physical reality is nothing but a multitude of separate revolving centres of electric force, also belongs to the human mind.


In the apprehension of Truth there is an eternal conflict between the universal human mind and the same mind confined in the individual. The perpetual process of reconciliation is being carried on in our science, philosophy, in our ethics. In any case, if there be any Truth absolutely unrelated to humanity then for us it is absolutely non-existing.


It is not difficult to imagine a mind to which the sequence of things happens not in space but only in time like the sequence of notes in music. For such a mind such conception of reality is akin to the musical reality in which Pythagorean geometry can have no meaning. There is the reality of paper, infinitely different from the reality of literature. For the kind of mind possessed by the moth which eats that paper literature is absolutely non-existent, yet for Man’s mind literature has a greater value of Truth than the paper itself. In a similar manner if there be some Truth which has no sensuous or rational relation to the human mind, it will ever remain as nothing so long as we remain human beings.


EINSTEIN: Then I am more religious than you are!


TAGORE: My religion is in the reconciliation of the Super-personal Man, the universal human spirit, in my own individual being.




Quantum physics is one of the most remarkable developments of the 20th century. Until the early 1900s or so, Isaac Newton’s laws of motion dominated the study of the physical universe. They were later ‘upgraded’, for the most part, by Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity, and together, they could satisfactorily explain almost all physical phenomena. These classical theories formed the bedrock on which the entire superstructure of physics rested.


But, later in the 1900s, physicists found that subatomic particles like electrons could behave in ways that defied the predictions of classical physics. To explain this behaviour, they formulated the theories and principles of quantum mechanics – together a set of natural laws that could predict the behaviour of electrons and other subatomic particles very well.


Some of the more well-known among these physicists were Niels Bohr (Danish), Erwin Schrödinger (Austrian) and Werner Heisenberg (German). He was the first (post-Second World War) president of the Alexander von Humboldt Research Foundation, Federal Republic of Germany. However, these physicists and others would soon find that the newcomer, namely, quantum mechanics, while opening new theoretical and technological vistas, also made some strange predictions. For example, it allowed electrons to tunnel through walls, particles to exist simultaneously in two places at once, black holes to evaporate, and information to be exchanged between observers faster than light. In a picturesque manner, Schrodinger explained a cat could be in a dead as well as in an alive form!


More interesting was the theory of Heisenberg, known as “The Uncertainty Principle”, which states that the more precisely the position of some a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum in the universe can be predicted from initial conditions and vice versa. Heisenberg’s theory comes close to Indian thought based on Upanishads, or “Maya” or “Mithya”, terms frequently used in the Bhagavad Gita.  


Until the very end of his life, Einstein never agreed with Heisenberg, in fact, he personally disliked Heisenberg, possibly because until then Einstein thought he was unchallengeable on his relativity theory. Later developments showed that Einstein was wrong. His theory said that no particle can travel faster than light; this was disproved by the India-born Prof. George Sudarshan who worked in the University of Texas, Austin, USA. Sudarshan proposed that his discovery Tachyon can travel faster than light. He was nominated for a Nobel nine times for this unique discovery and for formulating the Glauber-Sudarshan P representation, yet denied, a testimony to the bias of the “entrenched Nobel lobby”. 


George Sudarshan and Roy J. Glauber were jointly nominated for the Nobel, yet the Nobel was given only to the latter. Sudarshan later stated on record that Glauber lifted his ideas and work to project himself, something that often happens in science.


The most shameful theft in scientific history is that of the X-ray photo of a crystal of Rosalind Franklin, the brilliant British X-ray crystallographer, whose photo was stolen by her superior Maurice Wilkins and passed on to James Watson and Francis Crick who were then trying to decode the DNA. The Nobel for decoding the DNA was given to the three, while Rosalind had died of cancer, at the young age of 37. Without this photograph, taken by Rosalind’s student Gosling, this epoch- making discovery in science could never have taken place.


This was a crucial moment in history, when physics was in a state of major upheaval. The familiar classical picture of reality was being disrupted by one that seemed to be too crazy to be true, even as it explained numerous experimental observations that the former could not. Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Heisenberg and others were deeply troubled by its implications. They discovered that their notion that the world we see is not reality itself but a projection onto our consciousness wasn’t completely new. In the ancient Indian texts, the Upanishads, they found echoes of their theories and a philosophical foundation to ensure they would no longer be cast adrift by the implications of quantum mechanics.


A strange world


Quantum physics took shape through several counterintuitive discoveries regarding the inconsistent behaviour of light. James Maxwell showed in 1865 that light could be modelled as electromagnetic waves. In 1905, Albert Einstein published his paper on the photoelectric effect, where he proposed that light is composed of tiny massless particles called photons. Louis de Broglie, a French aristocrat, unified these views in 1924 with a bold suggestion that all matter exhibits wave-like behaviour. This proposition, known as the wave-particle duality, opened up a Pandora’s box of arguments that challenged the nature of reality, even its very existence.


According to classical physics, microscopic particles like electrons are solid spherical balls of matter. Quantum physics says that rather than being in one place, an electron is located in a diffuse cloud of probabilities. If you try to observe the electron, there is a higher probability that you will find it in a denser region of the cloud than a sparser region. This cloud is represented mathematically by the wave function. And at the heart of quantum physics is an equation that governs how a wave function evolves as time passes. Erwin Schrödinger arrived at it in 1926; it’s called the Schrödinger’s equation.


Science writers revel in portraying the tension between the reality described by quantum physics and the reality we perceive through our senses. Since macroscopic objects like trees and cars are composed of microscopic particles like atoms and molecules, which in turn also behave like waves, macroscopic objects should also behave like waves. But this is not what we experience.


When does something stop behaving like a wave and start behaving like a piece of matter, an object composed strictly of particles? Surprisingly, this happens when we observe it. Or think we “observe” it. Do we need greater proof to conclude the uniqueness of Indian thought?


In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Srishti (creation) is explained at the outset: “The world first existed as seed, which as it grew and developed took on names and forms. As a razor in its case, or as fire in the wood, so dwells the self, the Lord of the Universe, in all forms, even to the tips of the fingers. Yet, the ignorant do not know Him who remains hidden behind the names and forms”.

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