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Upanishads and the Universe
By Hiranmay Karlekar
August 22 2003

In his absorbing book Uncommon Wisdom: Conversations-with Remarkable People, Fritzof Capra, talks of an after-dinner conversation in Berkeley, the United States, among him, his wife Jacqueline, the designer of the Bell helicopter, Arthur Young, his wife, Ruth, the head of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories and an outstanding physicist, Dr Geoffrey Chew, his wife Denyse. The subject was the notion of certainty in science. As Chew showed that the successive examples of scientific facts presented by Young were really approximate notions, Young cried out in frustration, "Look, here are absolute facts. There are six people sitting around this table right now and this is absolutely true." Chew said, smiling gently at Denyse, who was pregnant then, "I don't know Arthur. Who can tell precisely where one person begins and the other ends?" 

Wrote the English poet, John Donne, "No man is an island, entire of itself; / Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main./ Any man's death diminishes me because / I am involved in mankind; and therefore/ Never send to know for whom the/ bell tolls; it tolls for thee." 

Geoffrey Chew, and John Donne spoke of interconnectedness of human beings. The Upanishad's propounded the concept of an inter-connected world as a part of an inter-connected cosmos. The common presence of the Brahman or the Universal Consciousness linked all things, animate and inanimate. It created and put itself into everything which, as a result, was its manifestation and, therefore, sacred and had to be treated according to the principles of Dharma. 

Says the Isha Upanishad, "He who sees all beings in the self, and the / self in all beings, hates none/ To the illumined soul, the self is all./ 

"For he who sees everywhere oneness, how/ Can there be delusion or grief?" (Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester). 

The Brahman, unborn and deathless, invisible, without colour and formless, one and without a second, was present in human beings as the Atman or the individual self, whose attributes were identical to those of the Brahman. More, the essence of the Atman and all other things was the same. Thus in the Chandogya Upanishad, the sage Uddaloka Aruni asks his son, Svetaketu Aruneya, to bring the fruit of a banyan (nyayagrodha) tree. He then makes him get the seeds out by breaking the fruit, and break the seeds into invisible parts, and says, 

"Good lad, on this subtle part-the/ subtle part you do not see-rests the great banyan tree. Good lad, have faith.

"This subtle part is what all this has as self. It is the truth; it is the self. You are that Svetaketu." (Translated by Valeric J Roebuck). 

Earlier, Uddaloka Aruni had talked of "this great tree" pervaded "by the life, by the self" that stood "happy, ever drinking", and added, "When separated from the life, it dies, but the life does not die. This subtle part is what all this has as self. It is truth. It is the self."(Roebuck). 

If the self, that is life, identical with the Brahman of which it is a part, is consciousness, are these subtle parts repositories of consciousness? Is consciousness life? Is life the common presence in cosmos? If so, where do inanimate objects, obviously a part of the cosmos, fit? Is life inherent in matter? The Upanishadic concept of the all-pervasiveness and nature of Brahman was intuitive. The sages whose wisdom the Upanishad's embody, had neither the accumulated corpus of knowledge nor the analytical tools and equipment for observation and experimentation that scientists the 18th century onwards had at their disposal. The question arises: To what extent is their intuitive vision borne out by modern science, which originated in the West in the post-Renaissance period? 

The seventeenth century saw the demolition of the concept of a living universe, that was based on the application of Aristotelian system of logic to Christian theology, within an epistemic framework that has historically come to be known as the scholastic, and that had subordinated the temporal to the spiritual, reason to faith. What took its place was the Newtonian idea of a mechanistic, law-governed universe that functioned eternally according to its own gravitation-based dynamics and had nothing to do with any kind of divine or spiritual entity. So great was the prestige of Isaac Newton, whose landmark discoveries of the working of nature led to its emergence, and so much in harmony with it was with the post-Renaissance humanist Weltanschauung with its emphasis on the supremacy of reason and relegation of the spiritual and religious, that it influenced thinking in almost every sphere of knowledge, the most striking example being the Marxian emphasis on the inexorable laws of a dialectically unfolding history. 

It took its first major knock when the second law of thermodynamics, enunciated in the 19th century by Rudolph Clausius and Lord Kelvin, stated that there was an inexorable loss of thermal energy in the universe as disorders measured in terms of entropy had a natural tendency to increase in closed systems. There was, therefore, an inexorable, movement towards "death" from loss of heat. Another knock came in 1897 when Joseph John Thompson discovered a fundamental particle smaller than the atom, called it the electron, and inaugurated the chapter of particle physics. Niels Bohr's theory of Complimentarity showed that a phenomenon could be viewed in two mutually exclusive ways, both valid in their own terms. Max Planck showed that like matter, energy existed in particles or packets or quanta, and Louis de Broglie that sub-atomic particles-even atoms-could sometimes behave as waves. Erwin Schroedinger mathematically proved the existence of De Broglie's waves and that electrons were a kind of matter waves-and Max Born that what Schroedinger showed was not an electron but its statistically possible location because some electrons could go through a barrier, some could not. And then Werner Heisenberg's famous Uncertainty Principle showed that the exact position and the precise location of an electron could not be simultaneously determined, nor could one be certain where an electron would go if hit. Albert Einstein doubtless rejected the Uncertainty Principle but his Theory of Relativity viewed space and time as a continuum and implied that the universe looked different from different places. 

Whatever the differences among the scientists, the tumultuous developments of 1920s shook the foundations of Newtonian physics, which believed that all physical phenomena could be reduced to solid material particles. The solid particles are now seen to turn, at the sub-atomic level, into wave-like patterns of probabilities of inter-connections among parts of a unified whole. If this leads one back to the Upanishadic concept of an interlinked universe, a new dimension has been added to the discourse by Ilya Prigogine, the well known physicist and Islabelle Stengers, a chemist, philosopher and historian of science, who show, in their book Order out of Chaos that while some parts of the universe may operate as separate, closed systems of the Newtonian type, most parts-particularly biological and social systems-function as open ones exchanging energy and matter with their environment. Besides, all systems have subsystems which are constantly fluctuating and sometimes reach a "bifurcation point" when they disintegrate into "chaos" or reorganise themselves into new, higher levels of order, and it is impossible to predict which course it will take. 

Prigogine and Stenger's efforts to include social and biological systems into the study of the universe indicates that the latter is a living whole which cannot be understood in terms of physics alone, that scientists are a part of the phenomenon they observe. This is in keeping with the holistic approach which has gained an irreversible momentum with the coming of age of the life and environmental sciences which posit a living, interlinked and interdependent world where life is latent in all matter. We are again back to the Upanishads according to which life of the atman pervades everything.




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