Sri Ramakrishna was born in 1836 in an obscure village of Bengal. His story is too well known to be repeated here. He came, he practiced all sorts of spiritual practices, had innumerable spiritual experiences, saw the reality from many points of view and, in 1886, he passed away, leaving behind a small band of disciples in the trusted hands of Narendra Nath whom we have come to know as Swami Vivekananda. To Swamiji fell the task of trying to interpret that life to the world at large. His was the vision that that life was not a private life but had been lived for all mankind and must somehow be understood and interpreted.
Against what philosophical backdrop could the experiences of that life best be viewed? Against what map could the journeys of that life best be traced? A philosophy, like a map or a system of physics, is either true or false according as it corresponds or does not correspond to fact. This question does not arise with respect to religions. A religion is simply a path, and about a path one does not ask whether it is true or false but only, "Will it take me to the goal?" Sri Ramakrishna showed in his own life that innumerable religious practices, courses of Sadhana in great profusion, lead to the same goal. Swamiji’s task was to find a philosophical backdrop against which we could best understand that fact, and against which we coula best understand the tremendous renunciation of that life. Swami Vivekananda saw that the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta made the best fit with the experiences and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna.
Not that each of Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings can be taken as pointing directly to Advaita. Not at all. He spoke to many people from many points of view. But what Swamiji saw was that in scaling the heights of spiritual realization many vistas unfold themselves before the eyes of the climber. The reality is one, but the views are many. The mountain may be one, but the trails are many. What is the nature of the reality that underlies these sublime vistas? And what is the nature of the screen through which we see it which accounts for the proliferation of our points of view and our descriptions? Swamiji saw that the nature of the reality (Brahman) and the nature of the screen (Maya) as described by the Advaita Vedantins constituted our best map — our best philosophical backdrop. But when we study the sayings of Sri Ramakrishna, we do not find him recommending what is usually understood as the practice of Advaita Vedanta. Rather, we find him cautioning his listeners that so long as one has body consciousness one should not say "I am He." It is in spite of these cautions that we find Swamiji teaching Advaita Vedanta broadcast not only all over India but in America and Europe as well, because he saw that except on the basis of Advaita Vedanta it would be impossible for us to understand the beauty and significance of Sri Ramakrishna’s life. Clarity, at this point, demands a sharp discrimination between Advaita Vedanta as a map and the practices which naturally follow from an understanding of that map.
To understand that the nature of the reality is one and undivided and that our sense of separation between the perceiver and the perceived is simply an apparition arising through the Gunas, is to understand Advaita Vedanta as a map. Constantly to meditate in the mind that the perceiver is real and the perceived is nothing is simply one of several practices which naturally follow from an understanding of that map. We call it, "I, I monism." This practice is embodied in the refrain of Shankara’s Nirvanashatakam, "Chidananda rupah Shivoham, Shivoham." ("I am of the nature of consciousness-bliss, I am Shiva, I am Shiva.") But when Sri Ramakrishna heard this refrain he would quietly add at the end "Tuhu, Tuhu. ("Thou, Thou.") We call this "Thou Thou monism." Constantly to meditate in the mind that Thou art all is as much a practice of monism as the other and follows from the same map. Likewise, Swamiji’s worship of Daridra Narayana follows from the same map. "All this is Brahman." It was Advaita Vedanta as a map that Swamiji taught. He was not so fussy about which road one chose. The map is one, but the roads are many. Girish Chandra Ghosh said that Mahamaya could not catch two souls, Nag Mahashaya and Swami Vivekananda. She didn’t have a net big enough to hold Swamiji nor one with a fine enough mesh to catch Nag. Teaching in what we call the West, that is in America and Europe Swamiji had a special problem — how to present the map against the cultural background of his listeners. Westerners think science. In Europe and America people think and act against the background of science. Science is their map. They do not think and act against the background of philosophy as people do in India. For thousands of years the Indian mind has lived and thought philosophy. In India Swamiji found a language ready-made for handling philosophical ideas. There is no language on the face of the earth even comparable to Sanskrit in its competence to handle philosophical concepts. Swamiji found himself translating and re-translating from Sanskrit to English. In English there is no word for Vivartavada (the doctrine that the first cause is apparitional). Parinama (transformation) is understood but not Vivarta. There is no word for Brahman, for Atman, for Maya or for the Gunas. It is not just that the words are absent; the ideas are also absent.
In the West Swamiji found it necessary to connect his map of Advaita Vedanta with the map of European science. I have avoided the term "modern science," which is the term Swamiji would have used because what we now call modern science was not yet born. It is an important point, and I shall return to it l It was clear to Swamiji, as it should be to anyone, that when the Vedantic cosmologists spoke of the Panchamahabhutas (the five great elements), perceivable by our five senses of perception, they were talking physics. And Swamiji tried again and again to translate the terms Akasha, Vayu, Tejas, Ap and Prithivi to English. Again and again he failed partly because of his inadequate training in physics and physiology and partly because of the inadequacy of the science of his day. It is easy, now, to translate those terms to English as I shall subsequently show. The important point to note here is that the physics of Swamiji’s day could never have been squared with Advaita Vedanta. The physics wasn’t ready. The physics of Swamiji’s day was what we now call "classical physics. It was the physics of real particles with real mass and real energy moving through real space in real time. It was the map that underlay the materialistic world view of Victorian England. It was the physics of Newtonian mechanics and Euclidean geometry, and it was the crowning glory of centuries of careful investigation. That physics was free of all internal inconsistencies, and it had only one defect. It did not correspond to fact. At every step the physicist must ask the real world if his physics is true, and by the end of the last century it was becoming clearer and clearer that the answer was no. What we now call modern science, or more properly modern physics, can be said to have been born in 1905 with the publication of two papers by Albert Einstein. From those two papers there gradually arose a completely new understanding of the nature of the reality which underlies the map of Western science. Slowly the map has changed. Classical physics has given way to relativity theory and quantum mechanics. Our old notions of time, space and causation were wrong. The new map, based on relativity theory and quantum mechanics, arose from a new understanding of the relation of space to time and from. A new understanding of causation — a new understanding of the nature of the necessary interaction, in physical measurement between the perceiver and the perceived, or rather, between the instrument of perception and the thing perceived.
From this new understanding has come a sea-change in our physics on the basis of which it is now easy to square it with Advaita Vedanta. Swamiji said that science and religion would meet and shake hands.
That time has come.
1. Ashish, Thu Jun 26 08:48:37 2003
I read your article. It's wonderful. I have some suggestions too, regarding the connection between quantum (modern) physics and Vedanta. You are right the time has come when vedanta should be reinterpreted in modern scientific language. It's pure sciece, but only problem is that it is written in old language.
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