Published On: Sat, Mar 18th, 2017

Yoga, where science meets spirituality by Murli Manohar Joshi | The Tribune

The word yoga first occurred in the Rig Veda. That it was being practised in India since the very dawn of civilisation is clear from the excavation of Indus Valley sites. Figurines in various yoga postures have been found in these excavations. It was Patanjali (500 BC) who first provided the philosophy, the science and the grammar of this wonderful subject through the famous text Patanjali Yoga-Sutra. In modern times though there have been several interpretations of this dictionary of yoga, to my mind the best is the treatise written by Yogacharya BKS Iyengar. After his personal experience of the system, Iyengar also devised a unique method of providing variations suitable for those who were unable to go through the rigours of the postures prescribed for a normal healthy person. His entire approach to yoga was to make the postures readily accessible even to the  differently abled. His system is known world wide as Iyengar Yoga.Yoga was taken to the west by several Indian gurus. Several centres were started where people practised and realised the beneficial effects of yoga, mostly as a readily accessible health regime leading to physical fitness.

More than physical health

Yoga not only improves physical fitness but is something much more, it is beyond physical health. The human persona is not only a body but is also a mind, an intellect and a soul. Yoga attempts to harmonise all of them. As a result, one possesses a healthy body, a sharp intellect and an unflickering or focused mind which is capable of realising the unity between “i,” generally known as personal consciousness, and “I,” the universal consciousness. In fact,  yoga means to join and its ultimate goal is to experience the unity of the individual consciousness with the universal consciousness and then to realise that both are not different. In this sense, yoga essentially teaches us to recognise the fundamental unity between human being and the humankind and also between us and the environment and ultimately to recognise a total interconnectedness of every thing with everything. The essence of this realisation is to experience that “All is one”.The Western rational mind was not ready to accept that such a relationship can be an objective, verifiable experience within the framework of mechanistic world-view. The experiences of eastern yogis were thought as mystic bordering on some sort of hallucinations. Till the middle of the 20th  century, yoga in the West was only a physical health regime.Several scientists in the West became interested in investigating the relationship between religious experiences and brain function. They designed highly sophisticated experiments to monitor the brain activity of a yoga practitioner at the most intense and mystical moments of his experience to shed some light on the mysterious connection between human consciousness and the persistent and peculiar human urge to connect with something larger than ourselves.Neurologists Andrew Newberg and Eugene D ‘Acquili, offer an explanation that is at once profound and simple and scientifically precise: The religious (spiritual) impulse is rooted in the biology of the brain. This revolutionary conclusion was arrived at by Newberg and Eugene after a long-term investigation of brain function and behaviour and serious studies of meditating Eastern meditators and Franciscan nuns at prayer. What they discovered was that intensely focused spiritual contemplation triggers an alteration in the activity of the brain that leads us to perceive transcendent religious experiences as solid and tangibly real. In other words, the sensation that Buddhists call “oneness with the Universe, and the Franciscans attribute to the palpable presence of God is not a delusion or a manifestation of wishful thinking but rather a chain of neurological events that can be objectively observed, recorded and actually photographed.Newberg and Eugene say that “the unescapable conclusion is that God is hardwired into the human brain”. Besides scientific readings, they also looked for descriptions of the mystical components of the world religions and mythologies. They also looked for a relationship between the emergence of ritual behaviour and the evolution of human brain science. They found that the results indicated the emergence of a meaningful pattern that suggested “that spiritual experience at its very root is intimately connected with human biology. That biology in some way compels the spiritual urge”. Some of the western authors like Evelyn Underhill have stated that mysticism or yogic experience in its pure form is the science of ultimate, the science of union with Absolute and nothing else. This state of union is described as attainment of a “unitary state”. Also, the true nature of reality can only be experienced through a direct yogic (mystical) encounter or through the experience of reaching a unitary state or unitary continuum.  It is indeed interesting to note that many western authors are now saying, “Each great religion has a similar origin where the spiritual awakening of its founders to God, the divine, the absolute, the spirit, Tao, the boundless awareness. The same is found in the experience of the rishis in India (samadhi); the Buddha in his experience of Enlightenment, in Moses the patriarchs, and prophets of the Biblical tradition in the inner realisation by Jesus of the relationship with his father, in Prophet Mohammed’s revelation regarding the experience of Allah and the declaration of the Vedantic rishi that “Sarvamidam Khalu Brahmam,” or “All is One”. Science, as is popularly known, is based on a foundational assumption that “all that is real can be verified by scientific measurements, therefore, what cannot be verified by science is not really real”. But Einstein as far back as 1938 had stated that scientific interpretations of the physical world may not be as reliable as rational materialists would like to believe.

Participatory universe

The question became very important when scientists wanted to experiment with the measurements of fundamental particles. In 1927, Werner Heisenberg finally showed through his epoch-making discovery that not only the electron picture is a blurred one but also the electron itself is not knowable or accurately measurable through any possible scientific experiments. It leads ultimately to the concept of a “Participatory Universe,” where observer and observed become one.  Perhaps the most remarkable intellectual achievement of the 20th century was quantum theory, which is at the basis of our understanding of chemistry, biology, and physics and, consequently, it is at the basis of the century’s astonishing technological advances. One of the two creators of this theory was Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961). In an autobiographical essay, he explains that his discovery of quantum mechanics was an attempt to give form to central ideas of Vedanta which, in this indirect sense, has played a role in the birth of the subject. In 1925, before his revolutionary theory was complete, Erwin Schrödinger wrote: “This life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of this entire existence, but in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance. This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula which is yet really so simple and so clear: tat tvam asi, this is you. Or, again, in such words as “I am in the East and the West, I am above and below, I am this entire world.” Schrödinger’s book, What is Life? (1944), also used Vedic ideas. The book became instantly famous although it was criticised by some for its emphasis on Indian ideas. Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the DNA code, credited this book for key insights that led him to this revolutionary discovery. According to his biographer Walter Moore, there is a clear continuity between Schrödinger’s understanding of Vedanta and his research:The unity and continuity of Vedanta are reflected in the unity and continuity of wave mechanics. In 1925, the world view of physics was a model of a great machine composed of separable interacting material particles. During the next few years, Schrödinger and Heisenberg and their followers created a universe based on superimposed inseparable waves of probability amplitudes. This new view would be entirely consistent with the Vedantic concept of “All is One”. In a famous essay on determinism and free will, Schrödinger  expressed very clearly the sense that consciousness is a unity, arguing that this “Insight is not new… From the early great Upanishads the recognition Atman=Brahman (the personal self equals the omnipresent, all-comprehending eternal self) was in Indian thought considered, far from being blasphemous, to represent the quintessence of deepest insight into the happenings of the world. The striving of all the scholars of Vedanta was, after having learnt to pronounce with their lips, really to assimilate in their minds this grandest of all thoughts.”

Quantum basis of consciousness

In recent years, it has been suggested that the secrets of consciousness have a quantum basis.  When physicists tried to understand the sub-atomic world, serious problems confronted them. Classical mechanics failed to explain the motion of sub-atomic articles and experiments in the domain of the particles resulted in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, according to which “efforts to discover ultimate reality through experiments were meaningless, and also that the common division of the world in to subject and object, inner world and outer world, body and soul was no longer adequate.” As a consequence, in sub-atomic world, the observer becomes a “participator”. This leads to the notion of a participatory universe quite close to the yogic view. In the later half of the 20th century, J.S. Bell, a leading  physicist at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research while explaining the paradoxical results of a famous thought experiment, had proposed what is known as Bell’s theorem: “At a deep and fundamental level the separate parts of the Universe are connected in an intimate and immediate way.” Thus reiterating the yogic concept of a holistic Universe, where science and spirituality appear to be converging. This convergence can lead to a better understanding of human relationships. A synthesis of science and spirituality will create to a peaceful, egalitarian inclusive, nonviolent and progressive world. Certainly our planet will become a better place to live.

The writer is a former Union Minister and Professor of Physics  

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