Ritam "Yoga and Science"

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Ritam
August 2004

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Yoga and Science

By Sergei Tretiakov



This article has started with the idea of giving a scientific assessment of Sri Aurobindo’s statements related to science (as recorded in the Evening Talks by A. B. Purani). This attempt constitutes the first part of the article. In the second part, I will try to understand the value and meaning of science from the spiritual or yogic point of view. Many topics mentioned below may require lengthy explanations and special detailed treatment but here I am able just to touch them. This is only a sketch, a tentative analysis.

I

The talks in the section I am referring to (Evening Talks by Sri Aurobindo; recorded by Purani, Pondicherry, p. 73-87) are provoked by some echo of the theory of relativity, i.e. probably by the book speculating (scientifically, correctly or erroneously) on the Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Sri Aurobindo was not talking to scientists: disciples rarely could satisfactorily answer his questions when he tried to elucidate their statements and make the scientific picture clear – there was a lack of scientific clarity in their minds. And probably the aim of Sri Aurobindo was to clarify their mental difficulties in a broader sense. So instead of answering questions raised by science – which I would prefer – he had to deal with the mental problems of disciples related to their yoga. But still it is possible to take Sri Aurobindo’s statements as they are and try to recreate his dialogue with the science. What could science say about the validity of his statements? What could he say about the validity of statements made by science?

We know that Sri Aurobindo did not get a scientific education. He did not study physics, chemistry or biology and seemingly did not know mathematics either. Can yogic knowledge provide for this deficiency? Or would he talk nonsense from the scientific point of view? Or, conversely, would he say something of enlightening value for modern science? I have chosen a few statements (about spacetime, vacuum, scientific laws) which are easy to interpret technically or which had their correspondences in the later development of science.

1. Space-time in the theory of relativity

All happenings (events) of the physical world in the theory of relativity are represented as points in 4-dimensional space-time (three dimensions of space: “where”, and one of time: “when” this event happened). In a mathematical apparatus of the theory, the time-dimension (or time-coordinate) is hardly distinguished from space-coordinates and, essentially, it is relegated to being an additional dimension of space. Some properties of time familiar to us in everyday life, such as irreversibility and direction, are not to be found in this scientific picture – which very successfully describes gravitation using this basis. Are these properties just illusions of our human experience?

Sri Aurobindo: Time cannot be relegated to the position of a mere dimension of space, it is independent in its nature; time and space can be called the fundamental dual dimension of the Brahman.[1]

Irreversibility and particular direction of time, “the arrow of time”[2], is exactly the point where the modern chaos theory – the theory describing complex systems in states far from equilibrium – differs from the treatment of time by classical physics and by the theory of relativity. Time is considered to be fundamentally different from space and the treatment of time in classical physics and in the theory of relativity to be unsatisfactory. It would not be so forty years back – before the appearance of these new theories working with new classes of more complex objects – but now we can happily say that Sri Aurobindo’s views on time if interpreted in this sense are scientifically justified.

Disciple: He [Einstein] has also shown that time is an indispensable factor in measurement of dimensions of an object.
Sri Aurobindo: Movement is absolutely necessary to feel time. When an object is stationary the considerations of time does not enter in measuring the dimensions unless you move it to some other point.[3]

Surprisingly Sri Aurobindo corrects here the disciple’s misrepresentation of Einstein’s views. According to the theory of relativity, when the object is at rest, considerations of time (i.e. simultaneity of events as you have to record the positions of the ends of a rod simultaneously to measure its length) are not coming into consideration; these measurements of mass and length give you “rest mass” and “rest length” which are in fact absolute and not relative. Only in case of a moving object its length diminishes and its mass increases as compared to the rest length and rest mass.

Sri Aurobindo: Really speaking, one has to know space as the extension of being and time as an extension of energy.[4]

Energy and time are paired in physics: from isotropy of time, the law of conservation of energy can be derived and in quantum mechanics, time and energy are complimentary variables.

2. Vacuum

Classical physics took vacuum as a volume in absence of all particles and waves. Since “ether” – an all-pervading medium – was banished from physics in the beginning of the 20th century, light was considered to be travelling through the “empty space”; there is nothing between the stars, for example, but light needs nothing to travel there.

Sri Aurobindo: “Nothing” means what? If you say it is non-existence then nothing can pass through it; you empty a tube or vessel of the air or gas it contains and you say it is a vacuum. But how do you know there is nothing in it? … If “nothing” means nonexistence then if anything enters non-existence it becomes non-existence. … A ray can only arrive nowhere through nothing.[5]

Another comment on a different occasion:

If you say that matter is finite then there must besome medium which supports matter and which is infinite.[6]

By the second half of the 20th century, vacuum in physics became “well-populated”. The process started in the ‘30s with the theory of P.A.M. Dirac which stated that negative-energy electrons are present everywhere in space (and as they are everywhere they are not noticed) - but if you give them enough energy, then a pair of particles, normal electron (brought up from this negative state) and positron (anti-electron, the empty space left behind by the electron) are born. Events of this type are routinely observed by elementary particle physicists nowadays. Development of quantum electrodynamics and modern field theories (second half of the 20th century) presents us with the picture of vacuum vibrating with fields corresponding to all possible particles. These virtual particles are present everywhere and are affecting all the processes on the level of elementary particles and the properties of the real ones. This picture of “bubbling” and “alive” vacuum is at the very core of modern fundamental physics.

And still this densely packed vacuum and space time and matter – in other words the modern field theory and the theory of gravitation (general theory of relativity) resist attempts of researches to merge them into one unified theory – a quantum theory of gravitation.[7] So the questions: “What is space? What is mass? What is energy?”[8] are as relevant as ever in modern fundamental science.

3. Scientific law

All science stands on the concept of law. Most of the time in 18th–20th centuries the focus of science was on the quantitative law; other sciences were trying to follow the suit of physics, the most successful one.

Sri Aurobindo: Now with the law of numbers, it merely states the organisation of the physical part of the universe, and even there it gives knowledge of only a part. But, there is not merely a quantitative law of formation, but also a qualitative law, which is more important than the quantitative.[9]

This in an amusing way corresponds to the development of the modern theory of complex systems, systems which are too complex for the traditional qualitative methods of physics. These “complex” systems seem very simple in our everyday experience. Most real objects or situations are like that, but during the course of the development of modern physics, it was realised that to get a quantitative description of their behaviour was nearly impossible. So their properties have to be studied qualitatively e.g. studying their phase diagrams with topological methods.[10]

But the question about the nature of scientific law – though nowadays we speak more about theories, conceptual units, producing laws from within – this question is one of the central in understanding science. A law describes the behaviour of Nature under certain conditions and usually a law is the logical outcome of a theory, a conceptual whole, which is able to produce laws and even predict behaviour of Nature under new circumstances. Theory is a creation of mind and it exists in the mental realm, law is the interface of the theory with observable realities of the physical Nature. If there is no correspondence, the theory is modified or rejected if modification is impossible. Are these laws something eternal, fixed once and for all? Or are they evolving with the universe and changing when new powers are entering the manifestation?

Sri Aurobindo: An ordinary law merely means an equilibrium established by Nature; it means the balance of forces. It is merely a groove in which Nature is accustomed to work in order to produce certain results. But, if you change consciousness, the groove is also bound to change.[11]
All these ideas about the universe are based on the assumption that the Infinite can organise the universe only on these particular lines with which mankind is at present familiar. But that is purely an assumption.[12]

In modern science, where the idea of evolution, broken out of the confinements of biology came into physics as the theory of the Big Bang and the evolution of the universe, the question whether laws evolve or change is the pressing one.

Is a law something inevitable in this universe or it is just a habit? Does Nature change her habits? Most scientists are just studying her present ones – this is possible in physics. The habits (if they are really habits) of matter have been established for billions of years. But in areas of psychology and biology, where evolution is faster than in the realm of matter and the sphere of physics, these questions are difficult to ignore. There are reports, for example, that a behaviour once learned by a certain number of individuals is easier learned by other individuals later (formation of a new habit, which can later become instinctive). Advocates of evolutionary approach to laws such as Rupert Sheldrake[13] are challenging the existing static paradigm conceptually and experimentally.

4. Non-scientific statements – the example of time

One can comment scientifically only on a minority of statements by Sri Aurobindo related to science. Science has not yet caught up! As an illustration we can look at his comments on time. He says that time is not a physical entity, it is supraphysical and made of subtle elements[14]; that planes and states of consciousness other that physical have their own time and space; that time is an action of a force and can produce effects on its own[15], that time and space are created by an “Infinite with extension” as opposed to a self-gathered Infinite[16] and that time is consciousness in action working in eternity.

In reality, Sri Aurobindo never comments on science in scientific terms or from the realm of science. Instead he brings out things in the yogic experience which correspond to it. He is speaking about facts, but these are not as a rule facts objectively verified; rather these are certitudes of the inner experience and should be verified by yogic methods. It is not possible to make scientific sense where he is speaking about Brahman, Infinity and Consciousness: science is not dealing with these things and these statements go beyond its scope. But it is a statement of reality. What are the differences between scientific and yogic ways of knowing reality?

II

5. Science and Yoga

Science is an incarnation of the main driving force of the present civilisation – the old world, the normal non-yogic and non-supramentally transformed world, the only world known to most of us. The authority of science is high, its effectiveness convincing, its at least partial firm grasp of reality is undeniable. Its mental honesty (clarity of methods and transparency of conclusions) is alluring. It is a wonderful and exciting intellectual game. Learning the rules of the game and the knowledge of the famous playing of its great masters strike us with its beauty.

There is another side to science: its effectiveness relies on its limited and limiting methods of study and criteria of knowledge which results in an incomplete and distorted picture of the world. One can mention also its intellectual arrogance, its blind impetus, its merger with or rather servitude to industry, business and ruthless ruling forces of the modern world. But still the characteristics mentioned above stand and their appeal to the high elements of the human nature always draws to it creative and open people.

What is common between science and in yoga? Both are studies of reality. Can they work together? What is the essential difference? Sri Aurobindo explains some of it in the Talks.[17]

We can say that the knowledge of yoga is unifying and direct (and not confined to one plane only) and that of science is detailed and derivative, harnessing mostly the elemental inert and unconscious forces of the physical plane. The question of Science versus Yoga can be better understood as a question about the nature of knowledge. Let us try to make it more clear by interrogating both:

What is the true object of knowledge?

  • Science: Objective world and its principles.
  • Yoga: The One, the Divine.

What is the right method of knowledge?

  • Science: Meticulous objective observations, guided by theories and themselves guiding the development of theories. Reason and experiment are the supreme judges.
  • Yoga: Meticulous observations, discernment, purification of experiences. Opening up to the reality and identification with it. Intuition, enlightenment. Constant development and constant qualitative change of methods of knowledge. “Enlightened common sense” and “super-reason” as a guide for the beginning.

Another useful distinction between occult knowledge and spiritual (yogic) knowledge can be made. Spiritual knowledge is the knowledge enlightened by its central aim, the One, the Supreme, the Divine. All other things are known as the manifestations of the Divine, as the powers essentially belonging to the Divine; all tasks and all practical details of this knowledge have their meaning only as related to the manifestation of the Divine will in the world. Occult knowledge is the knowledge of the powers, forces, objects, beings in the world and the ability to utilise this knowledge effectively. This knowledge is related to physical, vital, mental and overmental planes; it is hidden from humanity as a whole, but known to a few. This knowledge and the powers which it gives can be an aim in itself. There it differs from spiritual knowledge, and is open to misuse and corruption. Modern science can be seen then as an enormously developed field of occult knowledge of the physical plane, using powers proper to this plane and getting impressive results. But this knowledge is subject to limitations and mistakes (in particular because of deficiencies its attitude and methods) and open to egoistic distortion and misuse.

What could be the steps for the transformation of science, if this is possible? Overcoming the subject-object paradigm, taking the position of oneness with the world, accepting that consciousness is the main actor and is present everywhere; being able to overcome the egoistic limitations of the being which at present is shut in itself and separated from the world, get to know universal forces directly, as powers of consciousness and as beings.

But basically for the transformation of science there are only two things needed: the change in aspiration – turning to the Divine – and a corresponding opening towards new methods.




  1. Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, p.83
  2. Prigogine I. and Stengers I. (1984) Order out of Chaos
  3. Evening Talks... p.83
  4. Evening Talks... p.83
  5. Evening Talks... p.86
  6. Evening Talks... p.86
  7. See Steven Weinberg (1992) Dreams of a Final Theory and Roger Penrose (1999) The Emperor’s New Mind
  8. Evening Talks... p. 86-87
  9. Evening Talks... p.75
  10. Fritjof Capra (1996) The Web of Life
  11. Evening Talks... p.76
  12. Evening Talks... p.74
  13. Rupert Sheldrake (1989) The Presence of the Past
  14. Evening Talks... p.79
  15. Evening Talks... p.81
  16. Evening Talks... p.72
  17. Evening Talks... p.75-76