In the introduction to the Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, Śrīla Prabhupāda writes, “The subject of the Bhagavad-gītā entails the comprehension of five basic truths. First of all the science of God is explained, and then the constitutional position of the living entities, jīvas. Prakriti (material nature) and time (the duration of existence of the whole universe or the manifestation of material nature) and karma (activity) are also discussed.” He further writes, “Those belonging to some sectarian faith will wrongly consider that sanātana-dharma is also sectarian, but if we go deeply into the matter and consider it in the light of modern science, it is possible for us to see that sanātana-dharma is the business of all the people of the world – nay, of all the living entities of the universe.” (Emphasis mine). This post discusses just how the above five categories constitute the sum and substance of what we might call “Vedic science”. The post concludes with a comparison with Newton’s laws which started modern science and shows that similar to Newton’s three laws, a different set of three natural laws exist in Vedic science.
Table of Contents
- 1 The Problem of Free Will and Morality
- 2 Two Models of Natural Causality
- 3 Addressing the Free Will Problem Scientifically
- 4 The Law of Universal Events
- 5 The Creation of Space and Time
- 6 The Evolution of Individual Trajectories
- 7 Three Energies in the Material World
- 8 The Inversion of Spirit in Matter
- 9 The Drama Analogy
- 10 Three Enmeshed Material Trees
- 11 The Scientific Theory of Karma
- 12 What is Vedic Science, Really?
- 13 The Mathematical Development of Vedic Science
The Problem of Free Will and Morality
It is well known that free will creates many problems for science because it introduces the idea that I can change the world simply by willing, and since that change cannot be predicted, permitting its existence breaks the predictive usefulness of science. A lesser known fact is that free will also creates moral problems because once I change something in the material world, I am not just changing it for myself, but for everyone else, forever; as the original cause of this change, I, therefore, become responsible for everything that happens hereafter—even beyond my death.
Perhaps the least understood aspect of free will is that by making choices, I reduce the possibilities for others to choose; in what way are you morally responsible if no matter what I do I am reducing your options? I earlier wrote a book—Moral Materialism—to just address the questions surrounding free will. Given that this question is dominantly asked by agnostics and atheists, the book deals with this question scientifically (and without referencing Vedic knowledge). In this post, I will survey some of the salient ideas in that book and connect them to Vedic philosophy (which I did not do in the book).
Two Models of Natural Causality
One of the central themes in Moral Materialism is that scientific predictions can be broken down into two parts: (a) the prediction of events, and (b) the prediction of trajectories. This is how the universe is modeled in some classical field theories such as the General Theory of Relativity, where the theory postulates the universe as comprised of events, and matter is distributed over events.
But this is not how the universe is modeled in Newton’s physics, where the theory postulates particles rather than events, and the events are produced by a mathematical law. Most people—if they think of the world as Newton’s physics—fail to see why an alternative model is needed. The reason is that material particles can split and join, and a law meant for immutable particles cannot deal with particle mutation. To describe particle mutation, we need to describe the universe as a whole.
There are hence two models of natural causality even within classical physics—(a) that describes the universe as a collection of particles such as that the laws are written for each particle, not for the whole universe, and (2) that describes the universe as some total matter and energy which can be divided into many parts, and the laws are written for the total energy rather than the individual particles.
The latter model defines all the events in the universe and then distributes matter over the events. You can think of this universe as points and the theory of nature joins these points into trajectories. This is an interesting model because it is deterministic in events but indeterministic in trajectories: you can connect the points by different lines; that, however, changes trajectories and not events.
Addressing the Free Will Problem Scientifically
The above model illustrates how a scientific theory can reconcile free will and determinism: the universe is deterministic in the events, but indeterministic in the trajectories. Thus, what will happen is fixed, but who will do it is not. In one scenario, observer A goes over events X and Y. In another scenario, another observer B goes over events X and Y. If we look at the world as events—i.e. X and Y—then the world is unchanged. But if we look at it as trajectories—i.e. A and B—then it has changed.
The result of this approach is that we have two kinds of laws in nature. First, the law that predicts the events—i.e. what will happen. Second, the law that predicts the trajectories—i.e. who will do it.
In Vedic philosophy, these two laws are called kāla and guna—the former represents what will happen, and the latter who will do it; the universe as the collection of events is fixed and you can write the future just as you can describe the past; however, your personal trajectory is not predetermined.
The Law of Universal Events
The term kāla denotes the passing of day and night, seasons, years, chaturyugi, manavantara, up to the manifestation and annihilation of the universe—each constituting ever longer cycles. These cycles fix the events or occurrences during different times and places. Each event occurs within a particular universe and these universes are identified as different domains of meaning. The event, therefore, has a type associated with the identity of the universe (as compared to other universes). This is “what” happens, the location in space is “where” it occurs, and the instance in time is “when” it happens. The terms “what”, “where”, and “when” represent the prediction of the events in the universe.
These three questions are related to the three aspects of a universal consciousness or God. The universe (or “what” happens) represents God’s consciousness as He is aware of all possibilities. The places these events occur (or “where” they happen within the universe) represents the meaning of events relative to God (each universe is created as an inverted tree of meanings). The time when these events occur (or “when” they happen) constitutes God’s pleasure—the order of events creates pleasure.
The Creation of Space and Time
The universe is first defined as a possibility of “what” can happen. God’s consciousness is unlimited and He can know far beyond the material universe. The material universe is, however, a limited portion of everything that God can know, and it is defined as a limitation on God’s consciousness which focuses His attention on a specific set of possibilities. This set is the first stage of matter called pradhāna.
The world exists not as objects, but as a proposal of experience. If this proposal is accepted, then the universe can proceed. God’s approval is needed for this. His consciousness—or glancing at the proposal—is the act of granting approval. Thus when He has agreed for a universe to be created, all that is possible (i.e. inside the universe) and all that is impossible (i.e. outside of it) is defined. The limits on what is possible constitute the boundary of conscious experience in that universe. Once the limits are defined, a “set” of possibilities has been created. The form of God who delineates the boundaries of each universe (and thereby creating the various universes) is called Karanodakaśāyī Viṣṇu.
Once the set of possible events has been defined, this set is divided into numerous individual alternatives. The set is the outline of what is possible, and the divisions inside that set are the individual possibilities. These divisions create the locations in the universe by defining a metric distance between possibilities, which gives us the ability to distinguish the alternatives. Distinguishing is our ability to see things separate from each other, and it creates a “space”. Space is a tree of meanings from abstractions at the root, and details as the fruits. Thus, the universe as a whole is one big meaning (the root). From this meaning, many branches of the universe are created as minute details.
God’s consciousness or sat defines the limits of the universe, God’s meaning seeking tendency called chit creates the space inside the universe and we can distinguish possibilities in the universe. The space inside the universe is created by Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu who enters each universe.
The space now exists as a tree of possibilities: each alternative is a branch of the tree. But, all the branches are not manifest. They exist as possibilities to be realized one by one—i.e. the branches have to grow one by one. The order in which the branches will grow is called time—which constitutes the ananda tendency to seek pleasure—and represented by a form of God called Saṅkarṣaṇa or time. His desire for pleasure selects the different meaningful possibilities (i.e. branches) and causes them to manifest. In other words, the reason that a branch appears is because God looks at it. Time is, therefore, the act of selecting some meaningful possibility to occur because God seeks pleasure.
We can understand the universal creation through the analogy of music. The universe as a whole is like a musical octave. The higher and lower locations inside the octave are like the higher and lower notes in the scale. And these notes are played one by one to produce a musical composition. The universe is similarly created by first defining an octave, then defining notes, and then playing them. Different forms of God are involved in picking the octave, the musical notes within it, and playing the notes.
The Evolution of Individual Trajectories
The events in the universe do not depend on any soul. The soul is a bird that can sit on a branch, but he doesn’t determine the existence of the branch itself. The soul jumps from branch to branch, each time experiencing a new part of the universe, and this jumping is called transmigration rather than motion.
The process of transmigration is the same whether for bodies within a lifetime, or between lives. The difference is one of magnitude rather than principle. When a soul enters a new experience, it sits on some abstract part of the material tree, and due to the prāna, that event modifies their body (i.e. either the body is added, depleted, or modified). The result of experience is that the body is changed. This change is visible as the changes through a soul’s journey through a mother’s womb, into childhood, and towards youth. It is noteworthy that a branch without sub-branches is a separate branch; while it looks to have added some leaves, it exists on its own as a complete possibility. Therefore, even when a child is growing into youth, the body is not growing. Rather the old body is discarded and a new body is accepted. Since all the bodies (childhood, youth, and old age) exist simultaneously as meanings or possibilities, the soul is simply jumping from one body (or branch of the tree) to another.
At the time of death too, the soul simply jumps to another branch of the tree. That new branch is not necessarily “adjacent” to the old branch (recall from above that distance is defined by meaning) and therefore in jumping the bodies the soul enters a new kind of body. To our gross material vision, this jumping is not visible, but this is indeed the causal activity behind our perception.
The succession of bodies through which the soul jumps constitute its trajectory. Just as modern science explains the trajectories (of motion), similarly, a Vedic science too explains the succession of bodies (not motion). This explanation—just like the explanation of the universe as a whole—too has three parts based on the three aspects of the soul, i.e., sat (consciousness), chit (meaning), and ananda (pleasure). However, these three aspects now answer the “why”, “how” and “who” questions (the questions of “what”, “where”, and “when” have already been answered by God’s sat-chit-ananda).
Three Energies in the Material World
The answer to “why” we go through a life is the quest for happiness. This happiness is not innate to the soul but created by māyā-śakti in three stages. First, māyā-śakti makes the soul feel inadequate and insecure, which manifests as fear and anxiety. Second, to overcome this fear or anxiety, a desire is automatically produced. Third, if this desire is fulfilled, māyā-śakti creates a temporary feeling of happiness. Thus, a person goes from insecurity to desire to happiness and back to insecurity.
The answer to “who” is going through the life experience is the individuality of the ātma produced from varieties of meanings we seek. In the last post, we saw how the soul seeks happiness and meaning; the type of happiness sought is “why” the soul is in the world, and the type of meaning sought is “who” the soul is in this world. The “who” is defined by an individuality comprised of meanings a person seeks, which makes his life meaningful; these meanings are produced from bhūti-śakti.
The answer to “how” we go through the life experience is the prāna or kriya-śakti which operates under the control of conscious choices. As discussed previously, the prāna acts as a machine that operates unconsciously but it is the agency of consciousness which connects the soul to different branches one after another, and thereby transports it from one body to another.
The Inversion of Spirit in Matter
It’s noteworthy that in the material world, consciousness represents sattva-guna and is, therefore, higher than rajo-guna which creates dharma and meaning, which is higher than tamo-guna that creates pleasure. By the same token, kriya-śakti (choice or decision making) is higher than bhūti-śakti (meaning), which is higher than māyā-śakti (happiness). The situation in the spiritual world is reversed because there māyā-śakti (happiness) is the highest, followed by bhūti-śakti (meaning), followed by kriya-śakti (choice or consciousness). It is owing to this inversion, that the material world is considered an inverted reflection of the spiritual world—the ananda-chit-sat of spirituality becomes sat-chit-ananda in matter. It is also owing to this fact that sat or Brahman or consciousness lies “in between” matter and spirit, and is therefore called the taṭasthā-śakti as opposed to antaranga-śakti and bahiranga-śakti.
Owing to the inversion, māyā-śakti is considered the highest in the spiritual world because it directs the soul’s pleasure. Conversely, māyā-śakti is considered the lowest tendency in the material world because it drives the soul towards material enjoyment. Why does material enjoyment debase while spiritual pleasure uplift? The reason is that ananda-chit-sat in spirit is inverted as sat-chit-ananda in matter. The differences appear due to the inversion and resolved once we understand the inversion.
Spiritually speaking, happiness is the highest desire—higher than meaning. Materially speaking, enjoyment is the lowest desire—lower than meaning. For this reason, in the material world, sacrifices, austerities, and renunciation of material pleasures to pursue higher meanings in life are definitely preferred. Conversely, in the spiritual world, the renunciation of aiśvarya (which appear in the material world as moral values, and in Vaikunṭha as knowledge, wealth, power, etc.) to find spiritual pleasures is certainly preferred. These apparent contradictions are based on the inversion.
Once we understand this inversion, we can see that prāna or the material kriya-śakti is the highest material energy compared to bhūti-śakti, which is higher than māyā śakti. As seen above, Karanodakaśāyī Viṣṇu creates the pradhāna by directing his glance or consciousness. Therefore the force called prāna is the agency that begins producing the material world, and is thus superior to the material meaning and pleasure.
The Drama Analogy
The bhūti-śakti (meaning), māyā-śakti (happiness), and kriya-śakti (choice or decision making) are the three main energies of the soul. The bhūti-śakti produces the various actors in a drama, the māyā-śakti produces the pleasures of acting, and the kriya-śakti produces various dramatic performances, or the trajectories of successive experiences. The fact that kriya-śakti is higher than bhūti-śakti, which is higher than māyā śakti, creates some important differences between the worldly drama and the stage drama.
In the stage drama, the playwright conceives of some characters which interact with other characters thereby producing various scenes. Once the scenes have been conceived, the playwright adds dialogues to the characters and the scenes. The final play is thus an outcome of combining the dialogues and the scenes. In the worldly drama, the characters and scenes are separate from the dialogues, and it is possible that a certain dialogue may be spoken in a different scene too. The utterance of a particular dialogue by a particular character is the free will of the actor who enacts the particular character. Owing to this free will, the actors are not bound by the circumstances—i.e. the scenes. They can also exercise their free will and do only what is expected out of their character or role. Similarly, some actors can use the opportunity of a character role play to utter dialogues which are not expected normally in the play. These two cases constitute good and bad activity.
The worldly drama, therefore, has a playwright who has written the dialogues but left the decisions about characters and actors. There is also a director of the play who creates the scenes by combining characters. Finally, there are actors who perform dialogues based on their understanding of the scene and character. This understanding is often wrong, which then creates consequences called karma. Because the dialogues are fixed, you can predict exactly what will happen. But you cannot predict who will do it—i.e. which character and which actor. The worldly drama is not exactly like the stage drama, but the analogy is powerful enough to express the key idea—and allowing a sufficiently clear distinction.
Three Enmeshed Material Trees
While the kriya-śakti (choice), bhūti-śakti (meaning) and māyā-śakti (happiness), are successively lower, these are not part of a single material tree in which choice is highest, followed by meaning, followed by pleasure. These are instead, three different material trees, rooted in sat, chit, and ananda, respectively.
Practical observation shows that every part of the body—e.g. skin—combines the three energies. For example, prāna is flowing to the skin through nerves, and this flow of prāna makes us conscious of the skin. Similarly, the skin is producing sensations such as heat. Finally, the pain or pleasure of the heat also has a location on the skin. The sensation, the pleasure, and the activity are all in the same place, but still, the activity is higher than the sensation, which is higher than the pleasure (or pain).
How three kinds of energies combine to create the material experience, why they are higher and lower, and how they produce to total reality of activity, sensation, and pleasure is a difficult aspect of Vedic philosophy. To grasp it we need to understand the nature of the soul (sat, chit, and ananda), the difference between meaning and pleasure, how their contradiction is resolved by consciousness, how pleasure, meaning, and activity exist in a hierarchical tree, and how each of these trees has its root directly in the three facets of the soul. By no means is this a walk in the park.
The Scientific Theory of Karma
When material objects have meaning, then directions of trajectories become indicators of morality, karma and future births. In current physical theories, some properties are denoted by vectors—as they have a quantity and a direction. A living entity’s step-by-step locations in space construct a trajectory which has a direction, and the trajectory, therefore, becomes a vector. The scientific law of moral consequences is that moral consequence is produced based on the vector direction of the trajectory in semantic space. As the direction of your life turns to the “center”, karma ceases to be created.
In the previous post, I described how karma involves a bookkeeping system similar to financial accounting in which we don’t just deal in causes and effects but also in assets and liabilities. Such a system constitutes a description of the observer going around in circles—lending and borrowing. While it is not immoral, it is also not a system that can free one from the cycle of action and reaction. Nevertheless, before we can understand how the atma becomes free of all reactions, we have to understand what we mean by moral and immoral actions, and this is achieved by seeing the world as an accounting system involving the exchange of meaning and happiness, not just matter. Financial accounting is an example of how such systems already exist at present and the ideas of assets and liabilities that are created in the past but manifested in the future can be understood.
What is Vedic Science, Really?
Vedic science is a very tight, interlinked, and broad-based description of the world ranging from atomic objects to the cosmos as a whole, with the human body, society, planets, and planetary systems, in the middle. This science is based on the five fundamental principles that Śrīla Prabhupāda identifies in the introduction of the Bhagavad-Gita. Of these five, the following three are natural laws:
- Kala or time, which defines the ages and the events that will happen in them,
- Guna or the three śakti, and how they create the mind and body of the soul,
- Karma or the moral consequences which create roles for the soul to act.
We have also discussed two types of consciousness that create the material world:
- God, which answers the “what”, “when”, and “where” questions
- Soul, which answers the “how”, “why”, and “who” questions
Put together, this is the sum and substance of the Vedic description of the material world. Every aspect of this description is scientific, just not the modern material science. A full understanding of these five features constitutes the essence of Vedic science. The three kinds of natural laws (kala, guna, and karma) can be understood only after we understand sat, chit, and ananda of the soul and God. In that sense, this is a “theistic science” that relies heavily on a spiritual understanding.
For those who are unfamiliar with this knowledge, it is helpful to compare the three natural laws above to the three laws of nature that Newton formulated at the beginning of modern science:
- Newton’s first law states that a material object continues to move automatically unless hindered by a force. The first law of nature in Vedic philosophy is time and the law says that the universe as a whole (not individual objects) moves unhindered creating a succession of events regardless of which material object or observer participates in these events.
- Newton’s second law states that the state changes in an object are governed by material forces. The second law of nature in Vedic philosophy is guna and the force in question is prāna which is used to move the soul (particle) forward. Unlike Newton’s forces, the force called prāna can be controlled by free will.
- Newton’s third law states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This third law of nature in Vedic philosophy also speaks about action-and-reaction, although based on the meaning and morality rather than simply push-and-pull. Also, the karma is not always created; in fact, ending the cycle of karma creation is called “liberation” from matter.
While modern science and Vedic science are chalk and cheese, the above comparison will help us see why Vedic science too has laws, although these laws are far more nuanced and sophisticated than those in Newton’s physics. The study of these laws constitutes the sum and substance of “Vedic science”.
The Mathematical Development of Vedic Science
Each of the three laws above can be systematized into mathematical and computationally predictive theories and models, and this is the kind of work that lies ahead of us at present.
- A theory of hierarchical space and time will predict the periodic creation and destruction of events, which can be used to describe the universe as events, including, the rise and fall of civilizations and societies, the appearance and disappearances of species, wars, earthquakes, changing seasons, etc.
- A theory of semantic reasoning that will describe how a living being make decisions by applying the goal of meaning and pleasure on the opportunities available, and thereby moves from one state to another. Often the goals are modified through outcomes of actions. Such a theory represents the description of the evolution of a living entity as seen from the perspective of that living entity.
- A theory of moral judgments is the relation between a living being’s choices and the role or situation in which these choices are made. It involves the study of the ideal, not just the real and how the gap between the real and the ideal produces a consequence which then limits the choices. These consequences (called karma) are created by our actions, but manifested due to the periodicity of time.
As seen earlier, such a theory depends on a ternary logic built from the three modes of nature, not the bi-stable logic currently in use in all modern science. This revision will describe the universe as a set of opposites without creating a logical contradiction. The new logic constructs a new theory of numbers, space and time, material reality, perception, choices, and moral consequences. At each step, we can see the common thread of choice, meaning, and pleasure—i.e. sat, chit, and ananda—but at each step, we can see a new way of thinking that is totally unprecedented in modern thinking.