Hindu Perspectives

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Hinduism is the oldest of the major world religions, and also apparently one of the most accepting of modern science and technology. It provides a central place to consciousness in its approach to reality, which explains why it has appealed both to scientists looking for a role of observers in physics and biology and also to those who have been critical of standard science for its emphasis on mechanistic explanations.

The origins of Hinduism are not found in a single individual, and its texts go back to antiquity in India. Within the tradition, it is called the Sanātana Dharma or Vedic Dharma (sanātana meaning eternal, veda meaning knowledge); the term Hindu originally referred to the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. The various sects of Hinduism take the Vedas (second millennium b.c.e., or perhaps a bit earlier), which are collections of hymns, to be their canonical texts. But the Vedas are difficult to understand, and for practical reasons, most Hindus rely on later texts such as the Upanishads, the Bhagavad G tā, and the Epics (first millennium b.c.e.), Sūtras, Āgamas, Shāstras, Purānas (whose time frames range from centuries b.c.e. to texts as late as about 1000 c.e.) for guidance.

Hinduism takes phenomenal reality to be a projection of God (Brahman), who is both transcendent and immanent. In its transcendent form, Brahman is beyond any attributes; in its immanent form it may be visualized in many different ways, leading to a multiplicity of representations. The evolution of the universe is by laws (rita), yet sentient beings have freedom. The law of karma constrains ordinary action, but a realized person is free.

The Vedic texts claim that language cannot describe reality completely, although its mystery may be experienced fully. Knowledge is classified in two ways: the lower or dual; and the higher or unified. The lower knowledge, which describes the objective world, is obtained using logic and it is accessible by language. The higher knowledge concerns the experiencing self and is beyond ordinary language. The seemingly irreconcilable worlds of the material and the conscious are aspects of the same transcendental reality. Hinduism is supportive of all scientific exploration, believing that at its end one becomes aware of its limitations and the need to reach the mystery of the experiencing self. From a personal perspective, Hinduism is concerned with techniques that make self-transformation possible. Hinduism thus endorses both science and technology although not necessarily in their modern forms or for distinctly modern reasons.

Hinduism approaches the world in an ecological sense. Not only humans, but also animals, are conceived as sentient and, therefore, deserving of compassion. The Hindu approach to reality is through jnāna (intuitive understanding) that includes subjective and objective knowledge, value and fact, and consciousness and reality. Jnāna presupposes jijnāsā, a reaching out to understand, that leads to a spark of illumination. Jnāna requires the ethics of the individual as an indispensable condition for knowledge, which thus is not value free. Search for truth is a value orientation.

Historical Background

The history of early Hinduism is tied to the history of India. Its chronological time frame is provided by the archaeological record that has been traced, in an unbroken tradition, to about 8000 b.c.e. Prior to this are records of rock paintings believed to be considerably older. The earliest textual source is the Rigveda, which is a compilation of very ancient material. The astronomical references in the Vedic books recall events of the third or the fourth millennium b.c.e. and earlier. The recent discovery that Sarasvati, the preeminent river of the Rigvedic times, went dry around 1900 b.c.e. due to tectonic upheavals suggests that portions of the Rigveda were written prior to this epoch. According to traditional history, the Rigveda was written before 3100 b.c.e.

The other Vedic texts of the Yajurveda, the Sāmaveda, and the Atharvaveda borrow heavily from the Rigveda. The Brahmanas are prose works that describe the Vedic ritual, and the Upanishads address philosophical issues. Ethical questions are directly addressed in the Sūtra literature, the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata, the Purānas, and the commentaries on these texts that have been written from time to time. Since the medieval times, the Bhagavad G tā and the Rāmāyana have influenced millions, including Mahatma Gandhi.

Outside India, in the second millennium b.c.e., the ruling Mitannis in West Asia worshiped Vedic gods. The religion of Iran before Zoroastrianism was Vedic. Hindu religion spread to various countries in Southeast Asia in the first millennium b.c.e. and the largest Hindu temple in the world is found in Cambodia. In the twentieth century, Vedanta and Yoga have spread the popularity of Hinduism to Europe and North America.

Academic narratives of Hinduism emphasize issues related to social hierarchy, customs, and sectarian divisions around the worship of Vishnu, Shiva, and the Goddess. In reality, the social classes are not rigid, and most Hindus worship all the deities, although they might personally be more devoted to one or another. To understand why Hindus do not find it troubling to be devoted to more than one deity, it is necessary to examine the common thread of Vedic cosmology running through the tradition.

VEDIC COSMOLOGY. Briefly the Vedic texts present a tripartite and recursive view of the world. The universe is viewed as three regions of earth, space, and sky that in the human being are mirrored in the physical body, breath (prāna), and mind. The processes in these regions are connected as the consequence of a binding (bandhu) between various inner and outer phenomena. At one level, it means awareness that certain biological cycles, such as menstruation, have the same period as the moon. At another level, equations are postulated, such as the 360 bones of the infant (which fuse into the 206 bones of the adult) that correspond to the number of days in the civil year.

The connection between the outer and inner cosmos is seen most strikingly in the use of the number 108 in Indian religious and artistic expression. Elementary geometrical reasoning establishes that this number is the approximate distance from the earth to the sun and the moon in sun and moon diameters, respectively. The diameter of the sun is also approximately 108 times the diameter of the earth, but that fact is not likely to have been known to the Vedic sages. The number of dance poses given in the Nātya Shāstra is 108, as is the number of beads in a rosary. The distance between the body and the inner sun is also 108, which to span, symbolically, one uses 108 names of the deity in worship. The number of weak points in the body in Āyurveda, the Hindu medicine system, is 107, because in a chain 108 units long, the number of weak points would be one less.

The Vedas are primarily concerned about universal laws related to the inner self (adhyātma vidyā) that are true for all times. The Hindu experience is thus not contingent on a particular account of history, or an event that cannot be replicated. Complementing the Veda, which is the heard revelation (shruti), is the remembered tradition (smriti). As custom, smriti is considered appropriate for time and location and thus subject to change. This has allowed Hinduism to adapt to change over the millenniums.

VISHNU, SHIVA, AND THE GODDESS. Although the principles of Hinduism may appear very abstract, in practice Hindus relate to a personal deity much like followers of other religions. When viewed as the ethical principle, Brahman is Vishnu; as the inner Self, it is Shiva; and seen as the energy of Nature, it is the Goddess. Although at one level Vishnu and Shiva are the Preserver and the Destroyer; at another level, due to recursion, both Vishnu and Shiva, as well as the Goddess, are each the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer. Furthermore each god has a goddess as consort, emphasizing the complementarity of the two. Shiva and the Goddess are also viewed as a single deity, as half of a whole, called Ardhanār shvara, and Vishnu and Shiva as a single deity called Harihara.

Hinduism and Science

In Hinduism, the dividing line between objective sciences and adhyātma vidyā (spiritual knowledge) is the logical or linguistic paradox. Logical argument and rational proof using Nyāya is the way to obtain correct knowledge. But where paradox (paroksha) begins, one must let go of linguistic associations to experience paradox-free, deeper knowledge.

Nyāya's beginnings go back to the Vedic period, but its first systematic elucidation is Akshapāda Gotama's Nyāya Sūtra, dated to the third century b.c.e. Its text begins with the nature of doubt and the means of proof, and it considers the nature of self, body, senses, and their objects, cognition and mind.

The Nyāya system supposes that human beings are constructed to seek truth. Their minds are not empty slates; the very constitution of the mind provides some knowledge of the nature of the world. The four pramānas through which correct knowledge is acquired are pratyaksha, or direct perception; anumāna, or inference; upamāna, or analogy; and shabda, or verbal testimony. Four factors are involved in direct perception: the senses, their objects, the contact of the senses and the objects, and the cognition produced by this contact. The mind mediates between the self and the senses. When the mind is in contact with one sensory organ, it cannot be in contact with another. It is therefore said to be atomic in dimension. It is because of the nature of the mind that one's experiences are essentially linear, although quick succession of impressions may give the appearance of simultaneity.

The Nyāya attacks the Buddhist idea that no knowledge is certain by pointing out that this statement itself contradicts the claim by its certainty. One can check whether cognitions apply to reality by determining if they lead to successful action. Valid knowledge leads to successful action, unlike erroneous knowledge.

The evolution of the universe is ordained by cosmic law. Because it cannot arise out of nothing, the universe must be infinitely old. Because it must evolve, there are cycles of chaos and order or creation and destruction.

According to the atomic doctrine of Kanāda, there are nine classes of substances: ether, space, and time that are continuous; four elementary substances (or particles) called earth, air, water, and fire that are atomic; and two kinds of mind, one omnipresent and another that is the individual. The conscious subject is separate from the material reality but is, nevertheless, able to direct its own evolution.

The Mahābhārata and the Purānas address the question of creation. It is said that humans arose at the end of a chain, at the beginning of which were plants and various kind of animals. In Vedic evolution the urge to evolve into higher forms is taken to be inherent in nature. A system of evolution from inanimate to progressively higher life is a consequence of the different proportions of the three basic attributes of sattva, rajas, and tamas, which represent transparence, activity, and inertia, respectively. In its undeveloped state, cosmic matter has these qualities in equilibrium. As the world evolves, one or another of these becomes preponderant in different objects or beings, giving specific character to each.

Unlike the Abrahamic religions, whose eschatology is centered on the dead rising to the heavens, Hindu visions of the end of the world are naturalistic. For example, the Mahābhārata (Shānti Parva, Chapter 233) speaks of how a dozen suns will begin to burn when the time comes for universal dissolution a few billion years in the future. First all things mobile and immobile on Earth will disappear merging into the elements, making it, shorn of trees and plants, look as naked as a tortoise shell. Next Earth will melt, and then vaporize and become heat and wind. Then wind will be transformed into space, with its attribute of unheard or unuttered sound. Finally space will withdraw into Mind, ultimately merging into Consciousness, which is the origin of reality.

In Vedic discourse, the cognitive centers of the mind are called devas, deities or gods, or luminous loci. The Atharvaveda calls the human body the City of Devas. The number of devas is variously given, the most extravagant estimates are 3.3 million. All devas are taken to embody the same light of consciousness. The mind consists of discrete agents, although it retains a unity. Because each deva reflects primordial consciousness, one can access the mystery of consciousness through any of them.

When the cognitive centers nearer the sense-organs are viewed in anthropomorphic terms, they are called rishis, sages. The Yajurveda declares that seven sages reside within the body. The texts also divide the capacities of the mind into various dichotomies, such as high and low, left and right, and masculine and feminine.

MEDICINE. Āyurveda operates in the context that humanity's essential nature is the ātman, or Self, which is self-luminous, the source of all power and joy. Actions that aid in the manifestation of the divinity of the soul are beneficial and moral, and those that obstruct it are harmful and immoral. The Āyurvedic physician must help humans and nonhumans in their physical and mental health so that they can fulfill their quest for knowledge.

Āyurveda builds upon the tripartite Vedic approach to the world. Health is maintained through a balance between the three basic humors (dosha) of wind (vāta), fire (pitta), and water (kapha). Each of these humors has five varieties. Although literally meaning air, bile, and phlegm, the doshas stand for larger principles. The imbalance of these elements leads to illness. The predominance of one or the other leads to different psychological profiles. Charaka and Sushruta are two famous early physicians, and the beginnings of their compendiums have been dated to seventh century b.c.e.. According to Charaka, health and disease are not predetermined and life may be prolonged by human effort. For Sushruta, the purpose of medicine is to cure the diseases of the sick, protect the healthy, and prolong life. Indian surgery was quite advanced, even before 300 b.c.e.. The medical system tells much about the Indian approach to science. There was emphasis on observation and experimentation. The normal length of training appears to have been seven years. Before graduation, the students had to pass a test. Physicians were expected to learn through texts, direct observation, and inference. In addition, they attended meetings where knowledge was exchanged and were enjoined to obtain unusual remedies from herdsmen and forest-dwellers.

SCIENTIFIC IMAGINATION AND MODERN SCIENCE. A remarkable aspect of Indian literature is its scientific speculation. The epic Mahābhārata mentions embryo transplantation, multiple births from the same fetus, battle with extraterrestrials who are wearing airtight suits, and weapons that can destroy the world. The Rāmāyana mentions air travel. The medieval Bhāgavata Purāna has episodes describing how the passage of time can be different for different observers.

Conflict between science and religion has often arisen as a result of creation and end-of-the-world myths. Hindu views on these issues emerged from rational thought and are similar to some scientific views. Erwin Schrödinger, the cocreator of quantum theory, claimed to have been inspired by the Hindu mystical view of the identity of Brahman and the individual Self in his proposal of the quantum universal function that is a superposition of all possibilities. In fact, some philosophers of science see the evolution of quantum theory to be consistent with Vedānta. But because the bases for such beliefs in Hinduism and in modern science are quite different, it could also be argued that such relations are specious.

Hindu Ethics

The Vedas have many passages enjoining ethical behavior. The contemporary Hindu most often consults the Epics, Purānas, and the Bhagavad G tā for such lessons. The Bhagavad G tā is about the crisis facing Arjuna, hero of the Pandavas, as he confronts his relatives, the Kauravas, on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Overcome by despair at the thought of killing his kinsmen in battle, Arjuna lays down his arms. But his charioteer Krishna, who is an incarnation of Vishnu, argues that Arjuna should do his duty and do battle. The human soul is not different from the universal soul and, thus, is immortal. When duties are performed without attachment to success or failure, one is not stained by action. Krishna teaches Arjuna the essence of karma yoga (yoga of works), jnāna yoga (yoga of knowledge), and bhakti yoga (yoga of devotion). He also teaches that the human being has a free will that permits him to make intelligent choices, which have a bearing on his karma. Using the battlefield of Kurukshetra as a symbol of life's struggles, the lessons of this text can be applied to everyday situations.

Elaboration of the social code is found in the Mahābhārata. The four great aims of human life are dharma or righteousness, artha or wealth, kāma or enjoyment, and moksha or spiritual liberation. Life runs through four stages: studentship, householdership, forest dwelling, and wandering ascetic. Society was divided into four classes: the teacher or brahmin, the warrior or kshatriya, the trader or vaishya, and the worker shūdra. These four were born from the head, the arms, the thighs, and the feet of purusha, the primal man. In reality, the aims of life run somewhat concurrently, and likewise, each individual, having the same purusha within, has attributes of each of the four classes.

Patanjali's Yoga Sūtra speaks of a system of eight limbs of which the first two emphasize moral and ethical preparation: moral restraint (yama), which includes to do no harm, truthfulness, to refrain from stealing, chastity, and to avoid envy; and discipline (niyama), which includes purity, contentment, asceticism, self-study, and devotion to the Lord. The remaining limbs prepare the individual for a mystical union with the Self: posture, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and absorption. Thus ethical behavior is essential to prepare the individual to receive knowledge. This discipline connects the physical body to the energy sheath, which is the subtle body that envelops it.

Like the Yoga Sūtra, the law book of Gautama lists the following practices for a virtuous person: compassion for all beings, patience, contentedness, purity, earnest endeavor, good thoughts, freedom from greed, and freedom from envy.

Although its diverse texts point to corresponding diversity in practice, a common theme running in the various Hindu traditions is harmony in society and nature, necessitating obligations of different kinds. Humankind is enjoined with the stewardship of nature and a special responsibility towards animals that is symbolically represented in the veneration for the cow, the origins of which veneration rest in the central role of the animal in the economy of the village and because the Sanskrit for "cow" also means "Earth." These attitudes explain why vegetarianism is extolled in many Hindu communities.

PROSPECTS. Because Hinduism makes a distinction between higher and lower knowledge, it has no direct conflict with science, although it would take issue with technologies that do not promote social good. In the Hindu approach, logic and rationality is the means of obtaining outer knowledge that complements the inner science of the self. Hinduism does not contest scientific accounts of creation; in fact, its own accounts of creation and destruction are very similar. The appeal to a cycle of births helps the Hindu find order in events that might otherwise appear chaotic and unjust.

Hinduism recognizes that at one level all creatures are part of a food chain, in which the big fish eats the small. But this physical aspect of life represents the animal self. Hinduism's task is to raise the individual beyond the animal self to a state in which one appreciates the interconnectedness of reality and develops compassion for all beings. Nonviolence is lauded as the highest principle, with the acknowledgement that the real world has violence in it that reflects the level of the development of society.

Regarding the unborn, the Garbha Upanishad claims that the subtle body enters the embryo in the seventh month. Although Hindu law books condemn abortion, the early-twenty-first-century Hindu is likely to defer to the scientist in determining when the fetus is viable. Because the individual is not just the physical body but also the subtle body, cloning the physical body is not problematic. For similar reasons, Hindus are not opposed to stem cell research.

Because Hinduism acknowledges that animals are sentient like humans; it is opposed to the unnecessary medical testing of drugs and procedures on animals. Hindus have opposed genetic modification to crops in advanced countries with the major motivation of greater productivity, because it disrupts farming in the poorer countries and makes it likely that these farmers will become dependent on expensive patented seeds controlled by inaccessible corporations.

In medical practice, the Hindu approach stresses a holistic view to therapy that acknowledges connections between mind and body, which is part of the reason of the increasing popularity of Yoga and Ayurveda. But it is not clear yet to what extent these disciplines will be incorporated in mainstream medicine.

Many Hindus—and this included Mahatma Gandhi—are critical of those technologies that dehumanize the person, treating a human being as a mere cog in a machine, as happens to be the case in certain manufacturing processes. This is why Gandhi praised small-scale industry and urged for self-sufficiency in the village. Hindus believe that science and technology must be harnessed in a manner that furthers humanity's inherent quest for self-knowledge. Because individuals are defined not in isolation, but through their interactions with other persons, this quest cannot ignore the larger good of society, and requires ethical preparation on the part of the individual.


SEE ALSO Buddhist Perspectives;Indian Perspectives.


Bose, D. M.; S. N. Sen; and B. V. Subbarayappa, eds. (1971). A Concise History of Science in India. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy. Presents a good overview of Indian science.

Crawford, S. Cromwell. (1994). Dilemmas of Life and Death: Hindu Ethics in North American Context. Albany: State University of New York Press. Deals with questions of Hinduism and ethics in North America.

Kak, Subhash. (2001). The Wishing Tree: The Presence and Promise of India. New Delhi: Munshiram Monoharlal. This collection of essays deals with lesser known aspects of Hindu culture and science.

Kak, Subhash. (2002). The Gods Within: Mind, Consciousness, and the Vedic Tradition. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal. Presents the Hindu view of how the Gods constitute the firmament of the inner space.

Klostermaier, Klaus K. (1994). A Survey of Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York Press. This is a comprehensive text dealing with the history and practice of Hinduism in its various sects.

Klostermaier, Klaus K. (1998). A Short Introduction to Hinduism. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. A very accessible introduction to Hinduism.

Moore, Walter J. (1992). Schrödinger: Life and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. An excellent resource for the connections between Vedanta Hinduism and modern physics.

Pande, Gobind C., ed. (2001). Life, Thought, and Culture in India. New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilizations. This text covers the period 600 b.c.e. to 300 c.e. in the more than 80 volumes of the PHISPC series on History of Philosophy, Science, and Culture of India of which Professor D.P. Chattopadhyaya is the general editor.

Subbarayappa, B. V., and S. R. N. Murthy, eds. Scientific Heritage of India. Bangalore, India: The Mythic Society. Presents articles on different scientific contributions of India.

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