Monday, January 24, 2011

Universe and Vedanta

Generally, I avoid stating that we have discovered everything a million years ago. It is all in the Vedas and Upanishads. It runs into an awkward look from a skeptic and does nothing but increases the disrespect for our ancient texts. I have found the syndrome, though, not only prevalent in India but, among many civilizations, who are struggling behind in the current world order. Actually, we had some wonderful discoveries ages ago. But, to overstate that at every opportunity seems childish. Thus, as said, I try to avoid that. However, this case was different.

Any thinking mind I came across, wonders about the origin of the universe. I studied that superficially in excellent books like Big Bang and One two three infinity. To state it simply, there are several contending theories about the origin. Big bang theory came to be generally accepted because of the large number of evidences it provides over other contending theories such as steady state theory.

The big bang theory states the universe came to existense at a point around 13.7 billion years ago (wiki link). The theory got considerable support from circumstantial evidences, of course, because no one was present then to report it live. There are evidences like galaxies shifting apart at incredible speed (indicating that some process of expansion happened and continues). There are abundance of primordial periodic-table elements, which can be generated by a nucleosynthesis. More strikingly, the amount of these elements observed can be closely matched against the predictions of big bang model. Finally, there are proofs of cosmic microwave radiation, which resulted from the giant explosion in the young universe creation phase. The scientist duo, who had recorded the presence of this microwave radiation, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, were awarded nobel prize for it.

Naturally, the question comes as what was "before" the big bang and what will be "after" ? Scientists came up with a model for the end - called "big crunch" theory. During this big crunch the universe will reverse the current expansion process and crush itself to a singular black hole, where the notion of space and time will disappear.

Recently, another theory encompassing the big bang and big crunch drew my attention. Scientifically, it is called Conformal Cyclic Cosmology (wiki link). This states that there is not one but, infinite number of big bang and big crunches happen in sequence. The universe expands, contracts and expands again - repeatedly. This is considered now, a radical new perspective, put forward by noted theoretical physicist Roger Penrose. This is the point, where I could not but notice the striking similarity with some ancient Indian texts.

I will quote from Swami Vivekananda's Lahore lecture on Vedanta (complete lecture here)

"To go back to our preliminaries. There are first two things to be understood — one, the psychological aspect common to all the Vedantic schools, and the other, the cosmological aspect. I will first take up the latter. Today we find wonderful discoveries of modern science coming upon us like bolts from the blue, opening our eyes to marvels we never dreamt of. But many of these are only re-discoveries of what had been found ages ago. It was only the other day that modern science found that even in the midst of the variety of forces there is unity. It has just discovered that what it calls heat, magnetism, electricity, and so forth, are all convertible into one unit force, and as such, it expresses all these by one name, whatever you may choose to call it. But this has been done even in the Samhita; old and ancient as it is, in it we meet with this very idea of force I was referring to. All the forces, whether you call them gravitation, or attraction, or repulsion, whether expressing themselves as heat, or electricity, or magnetism, are nothing but the variations of that unit energy. Whether they express themselves as thought, reflected from Antahkarana, the inner organs of man, or as action from an external organ, the unit from which they spring is what is called Prâna. Again, what is Prana? Prana is Spandana or vibration. When all this universe shall have resolved back into its primal state, what becomes of this infinite force? Do they think that it becomes extinct? Of course not. If it became extinct, what would be the cause of the next wave, because the motion is going in wave forms, rising, falling, rising again, falling again? Here is the word Srishti, which expresses the universe. Mark that the word does not mean creation. I am helpless in talking English; I have to translate the Sanskrit words as best as I can. It is Srishti, projection. At the end of a cycle, everything becomes finer and finer and is resolved back into the primal state from which it sprang, and there it remains for a time quiescent, ready to spring forth again. That is Srishti, projection. And what becomes of all these forces, the Pranas? They are resolved back into the primal Prana, and this Prana becomes almost motionless — not entirely motionless; and that is what is described in the Vedic Sukta: "It vibrated without vibrations" — Ânidavâtam. There are many technical phrases in the Upanishads difficult to understand. For instance, take this word Vâta; many times it means air and many times motion, and often people confuse one with the other. We must guard against that. And what becomes of what you call matter? The forces permeate all matter; they all dissolve into Âkâsha, from which they again come out; this Akasha is the primal matter. Whether you translate it as ether or anything else, the idea is that this Akasha is the primal form of matter. This Akasha vibrates under the action of Prana, and when the next Srishti is coming up, as the vibration becomes quicker, the Akasha is lashed into all these wave forms which we call suns, moons, and systems.

We read again: यदिदं किंच जगत् सर्व प्राण एजति निःसृतम् — "Everything in this universe has been projected, Prana vibrating." You must mark the word Ejati, because it comes from Eja — to vibrate. Nihsritam — projected. Yadidam Kincha — whatever in this universe.

It must be stated that the understanding of cosmology dawned purely by realization as both reasoning (it was maintained that tarka i.e. logic is apratistha i.e. inconclusive, something Gödel proved later) and observation (we did not build any space telescope back then) fails in that aspect. One can only admire the mental giants of that age, who conceived, that there could be a point beyond time and space.

The sloka quoted by Swami Vivekananda originally appeared in Katha Upanishad of Yajur Veda. In the link here, the original and the translation can be obtained. The sloka (यदिदं किंच जगत् सर्व प्राण एजति निःसृतम्) is in part 7, paragraph 3, part II, canto III.

The image is taken from here. The arrow points to our nearest black hole SN1979C.


  1. Honestly, this sounds too much like the following argument - "we, the indians discovered aeroplane and atom bomb 4000 years ago - what do you think pushpak rath and brahmastra were?"

    On a somewhat related note, there are frequent claims like 'Indians knew of pythagoras theorem 200 years before pythagoras and binomial theorem 1000 years before newton' - what gets overlooked here is the lack of rigor - the rigor applied by euclid to get to pythagoras theorem from a few axioms. Obviously it took undoubted genius for an ancient Indian mathematician to thinkg of the pythagoras theorem by looking at a few right angled triangles - but the fact is that mathematics before euclid and physics before newton was like pre-genetic taxonomy - making a few observations and trying to discover patterns.

    In the same vein, some conclusions of vedanta (or native american system of thought, or Plato, or confucius - or whatever else) may look similar to the latest theories advanced by physics - however, that does not mean that they are of same intellectual level. What gets missed in these arguments is 1. the overlooking of rigor and 2. the selective highlighting of the agreements while ignoring the much more numerous and much more obvious disagreements.

    There is no Indian or european or Australian aboriginial way of getting knowlege - there is the only one way - and in our timeline, that happened to evolve in Reneissance europe and midwifed by islam's golden age. let's be candid about this. The ancient civilizations achieved many things - but they were taxonomy and/or technology, not real science.

    Sorry if this sounds too harsh :(

  2. @Somdev Sen - This is partly what I wrote in the opening sentences. About material things, I generally avoid these kind of claims though, Panini's grammar, Sushruta's surgical methods are recognized to be works of top-notch intellect.
    However, I disagree that the only way to gain knowledge is by what Reneissance taught. You are completely overlooking the power of a trained mind, which involved no less rigor than what science claims. Just calling something science does not make it science. If you follow the most advanced theories of any scientific field, it contains a number of beliefs, assumptions and axioms (e.g. Hilbert problems and Gödel). Intellect fail to gauge many things, limited by the capacity of human mind. Unfortunately, this is hardly debatable and provable. You are not harsh, many people think like this. Let us meet someday and quarrel our hearts out of it. Till then, believe that ancient Indians were morons and Vedanta contributed nothing to European Thought-process (perhaps you should google about the latter).

    Another note, for knowledge to be gained from nature, there is no method that is in our timeline or in their timeline.

  3. Let us agree to disagree till we meet and quarrel :)

    However, one point here - NO ONE was/is saying ancient Indians were morons. What is instead being told is that ancient India contributed much more to World's knowledge than Vedanta, Gita and Tripitak. Why are we so obsessed with the spiritual and philosophical things which are not debatable and provable? Deep down, ask yourself - does it come from an admission that "well, we cannot compete with the other cultures as far as material progress and science is concerned - so let's claim our USP in spirituality"?

    I think there can be a hundred articles over the internet with this basic message - that modern science is proving what our Rishis told 2000 years back. There is not a single one which shows what a tremendous achievement Paninian grammar was. Or, the great achievements in Metallurgy or Pharmacopea or Surgery. Even within Philosophy, Sanskrit has the largest collection of atheistic literature among all classical languages. We had voices 1500 years back who asked - "if the animals sacrificed in Yagna goes straight to heaven, why don't you sacrifice your own father"? This is as much as our heritage as Vedanta is - but unfortunately we don't treat them as such. Amartya Sen's "The argumentative Indian" is a wonderful reference to the this "other India" that has largely been forgotten.

    Digressing, this is the same mentality with which we simplify and filter out the lives and messages of great Indians. To take just the most baffling of examples - we believe Rabindranth to start and end with "tomar holo shuru" and "tomai keno di-i ni aamar sakol shunyo kore" and claim that we are rooted in heritage while conveniently forgetting Shriniketan and all he told/did towards material advancement.

    And finally, a defence - I think the standard, popular conclusion from Godel's Theorem that "Science cannot prove everything" is horribly wrong - but that's a separate discussion. And only 5 of the 23 problems stated by Hilbert in 1900 stands completely unresolved today. This is called progress - something which any spiritual philosophy can never achieve once it is stated and codified in a holy book.

  4. @Somdev,
    To start with the last point. Gödel's theorem shows that something need to be assumed to begin with and those assumptions cannot be proved within that confinement. That's where Hilbert's grand idea of creating a rock-solid base for Mathematics failed.
    Spirituality is not "the other thing" that ancient India achieved. It was a economic powerhouse for centuries, we know that. The beauty of philosophy is that builds a thought process permeating centuries. This is the reason, perhaps why, icons of materialism/science bowed down to eastern spirituality. We cannot compete with other cultures - that is a fact for merely last 2-3 centuries. In these arguments, one should not be myopic.
    You should know well that unlike the semitic religions, Indian philosophy never held something as a "holy book" and each book was challenged repeatedly. Amartya Sen remembers challenging the argument of Gita in the Argumentative Indian. That's what makes a vibrant, questioned process. The development was never arrested in a holy book. This is perhaps what you admire so much about modern science - right ? Now, if you take the example of Galileo or Socrates - science was arrested by many things including, limitations of our mental capacity and prejudices. Even now, do you know that challenges to Big Bang theory or the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem or the fact that Homeopathy may have a scientific footing - is ignored by leading scientists to serve vested interests. It is not all white and pure there, either.
    Spirituality, like science, requires rigorous training and culminates in some experience. The difference is, spirituality is way more subtle than science. You can teach science to a class I student but, trying to explain why one should be compassionate or why one should speak truth - there is no way but, to punish them. Science ignores humanity completely, unfortunately.