The Technology of Transcendence

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Where does the quest for technology end and the quest for transcendence begin?

Human society has always felt the urges to pursue advancement of knowledge, make fresh discoveries, and disseminate the knowledge gained. In bygone cultures guided by sagacious leaders, people were encouraged to satisfy such urges not through unending innovations and electronic wizardry, but through exploration of the spiritual dimension of life.

We are living in a time dominated by the scientific revolution. This so-called revolution is part of a greater revolution – the revolving of wheel of time throughout the centuries. Just as the locations on the rim of a wheel rise and fall as the wheel turns, patterns of thought and development rise and fall with the passage of time. The current materialistic worldview will decline in time, as another worldview rises to take its place.

The convenience and masterful craftwork of modern technology have already been achieved many times in the past, although in different forms. The basic trend is perennially coming and going. And each time human society reaches a pinnacle of material development, the satisfaction felt by the people is limited and temporary, the convenience overestimated. Such is the nature of illusion.

Slow Down, Look Around

While it is understandable that we seek comforts to improve our living conditions, the drive for external comforts should be tempered by an awareness of the everlasting comfort gained through reestablishing ourselves in a constant mood of loving service to the supreme soul of all souls, Krishna. Such a disposition of mind is meant to be attained by all of our individual and collective efforts. It is the responsibility of leaders in the fields of science and technology to acknowledge this truth, and to integrate awareness of our transcendental origin as eternal spiritual souls into their respective companies’ missions.

There is a purpose underlying the human energy and intelligence with which we’ve been supplied. A child becomes obsessed with make-believe games (nowadays primarily videogames), and later abandons such imaginary play when he or she comes to realize the more urgent matters of life. Likewise, all human beings are meant to contemplate the purpose of their various endeavors, such as feverishly trying to control resources, to develop science and technology, to expedite communication and travel, and so on. Toward what end? A life of ease?

A supreme intelligence has already made many arrangements for our protection, nourishment, and leisure time. We need only to understand our part as custodians of this planet. Then, in our free time, we can let our wandering minds be guided by the words of Krishna and His representatives.

Let us take time to observe Krishna’s brilliance: The sun distills the salt-preserved waters of the oceans and transports them as floating mammoths to the tops of mountains, where they are stored year-round as ice, providing refreshing rapids that course through valleys and plains. By digging wells, we access mineral-rich waterways under the earth’s surface. Animals and insects live in ecological harmony with the earth and provide favorable conditions. For example, the earthworm, simply by moving about and eating, enriches soil by incorporating detritus, thus preparing suitable ground for agriculture. Through nature, God kindly provides for our needs. We need only understand and appreciate the arrangement. If we are ungrateful, and fail to treat Mother Nature with respect, she will respond by keeping our necessities out of reach.

Almost every one of us has that nagging voice inside: “Technology is our protection from exhausting labor. Isn’t it a grueling life to live off the land, depending on the fruits of the earth?” It can be. And technology does help. But many of our modern technological discoveries have deleterious effects, on the natural environment, other creatures, or our own bodily and mental health. Pesticides, gas-guzzling vehicles, electric lights . . . the list goes on and on. In ancient times, before the current age of mechanized comforts, it was common for cultured men to start a fire simply by chanting mantras. Evidence of this can be found throughout the Mahabharata and other Vedic texts. While such effective mantra-chanting may not be easy to rediscover, a faithful attitude toward the revealed scriptures will purify our intelligence for discovering more eco-friendly technologies. Technological development should be balanced with a healthy spirit of service to God and respect for His creation.

In fact, the more we can appreciate the purposeful design in Mother Nature, the less we will feel impelled to make “improvements” on the natural, simple way of life recommended in scriptures promoting human goodness and transcendental awareness. It is simply a matter of appreciation. For the wise, there is more pleasure in glorifying the magnificence of the all-pervasive Supreme Intelligence than in fanciful technological undertakings.

Perceiving the Source

“Still,” one may argue, “without the comforts provided by modern developments in heating, cooling, transportation, running water, and so on, we would be greatly inconvenienced. Life is just more livable this way.” Understood. I’m not saying, “Immediately throw out your heater and water-filtration system.” The danger is not in using technology, but in mistaking it as the actual provider of what we need. Srila Prabhupada writes, “One should simply try to understand that the splendor of the sun, the splendor of the moon, and the splendor of electricity or fire are coming from the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In such a conception of life, the beginning of Krishna consciousness, lies a great deal of advancement for the conditioned soul in this material world.” (Gita 15.12, Purport) Without recognizing the presence of the Supreme in the energies we utilize, our “comfort” and “convenience” will inevitably lead us to yet another uncomfortable and inconvenient condition of life, sooner or later.

Does technology have the power to distract us from the true goal of our lives? Yes, but not if one is trained in proper knowledge. Technology is merely a tool. It is not an enemy of the transcendentalist. However, engagement in technological development devoid of a sense of ultimate purpose is detrimental inasmuch as it is a waste of valuable time. The famous hero of the Mahabharata Sri Arjuna once said, “I have the very same Gandiva bow, the same arrows, the same chariot drawn by the same horses, and I use them as the same Arjuna to whom all the kings offered their due respects. But in the absence of Lord Krishna, all of them, at a moment’s notice, have become null and void. It is exactly like . . . sowing seeds on barren land. (Bhagavatam 1.15.21)

Srila Prabhupada comments in his purport to this verse:

All energies and powers are derived from the supreme source, Lord Krishna, and they act as long as He desires and cease to function as soon as He withdraws. All electrical energies are received from the powerhouse, and as soon as the powerhouse stops supplying energy, the bulbs are of no use. In a moment’s time such energies can be generated or withdrawn by the supreme will of the Lord. Material civilization without the blessing of the Lord is child’s play only. As long as the parents allow the child to play, it is all right. As soon as the parents withdraw, the child has to stop.

One may argue further: “The mystique and wonder of technological wizardry is attractive in and of itself. Science for the sake of science.” But why toil needlessly? Perfectly fascinating creations abound in the natural world. Our intellectual appetite can be satisfied by thoughtful observations of nature’s marvels. For example, the human hand is firm at the core (bone) but is wrapped by flesh and nerves to create the optimal instrument. Neither too rigid, like the claws of a beaver, nor too soft, like the flapping arms of a seal, such a hand is perfect for human activities. Could our own attempts at creation of life forms ever be so perfect?

Another example: Flying at six hundred miles per hour, we feel little movement while aboard a plane. Certainly, this is the fruit of carefully applied intelligence and much hard work. Still, even the most advanced airliner will jerk and produce awkward sounds in certain conditions. Modern astronomers tell us that the earth orbits the sun at an average speed of 67,000 miles per hour. Yet, no mechanical jerking or noises. Just smooth sailing. Talk about “state of the art”! But how many of us appreciate, or even acknowledge, such technology?

A consummate technologist will carefully study nature working around him. Through contemplation and increasing appreciation, one will come to admit that no human being could ever develop such subtle and marvelous technology as what has always been around us. In fact, as we learn to appreciate the highly refined technologies surrounding us at every step, we will be enamored of the vast intelligence beyond us. In his book Living Philosophies, Albert Einstein said about such a feeling, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead – his eyes are closed.”

Productivity: Material and Spiritual

Despite the much-advertised merits of technological development, the obsession with constant innovation tends to bedazzle the minds of people who are devoid of teleological* insight into the nature of the universe, and beyond. Just consider: Is it more important to know how to use a car or how the car was made? Cars were not invented to engage people in making cars. The purpose of the car is to facilitate travel, not merely to encumber us with the production of mechanical parts. Similarly, human existence is not meant for imitating the creative functions of the universe by creating life in laboratories or developing “innovative” sources of energy like nuclear power plants. Human life is a critical juncture along the evolutionary path, a chance to choose the path of liberation by reviving our dormant God consciousness. The question, then, is how to engage our human energy in awakening our full potential?

As one’s gaze lifts past the measurable mechanisms within nature, one begins to conceive of the existence of spirit, the unseen animating force all around us. Interestingly, Vedic etiology** reveals that matter is generated from spirit.

vishnu-shaktih para prokta
kshetra-jnakhya tatha para
avidya-karma-samjnanya
tritiya shaktir ishyate

According to this statement in the Vishnu Purana (6.7.61), matter is a form of energy emanating from the spiritual body of the supreme conscious entity, Sri Vishnu, an expansion of Krishna. In other words, matter is produced by spirit. But spirit, unlike matter, is not subject to permutations and transformations. It is an eternal, unchanging substance. Although existing everywhere, and although we ourselves are made of that very substance, it remains hidden from our sight.

Is it possible to reach into that invisible dimension of spirit? The Vedic wisdom responds boldly: Yes, spirit can be directly perceived – through sound. Sound bridges the worlds of material energy and spiritual energy. It is the medium through which the deepest reaches of our consciousness are brought to light.

Getting Tuned In

Sound has greater power to conceal or reveal reality than any other sensory input. For example, I may look at a human cell under a microscope and assume it to be something like a gelatinous globule that absorbs or repels different substances. But when I hear from a biology professor about the intricate components contained within the cell, and the complex synchronized events taking place inside, I will be wonderstruck. “I had no idea there could be such sophistication in what appears to be a shapeless lump!” What my eyes and mind told me was only a superficial, and even misleading, depiction. Before going to the laboratory, every student sits in the classroom to hear about the observations of previous scientists. When students are equipped with the knowledge of what to look for, they gradually adapt their power of perception. In other words, in the pursuit of higher knowledge, hearing is seeing.

For the student of transcendence, it is spiritually edifying sound – known as shabda-brahma – that upgrades one’s vision. The serious student gradually comes to perceive how all energies of the universe are connected with Sri Krishna, the root of all existence.

The elusive magic, wonder, and joy we seek in life can indeed be had through technology. But first we would do well to expand our understanding of technology to include the purification of consciousness by sound. This is the end goal of the technological pursuit – the complete refinement of consciousness, by which all phenomena and noumena can be clearly understood. The Mundaka Upanishad (1.3) states, yasmin vijnate sarvam evam vijnatam bhavati: “If one can understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead, one can understand everything else.” The method for developing cognitive awareness of the Supreme is technically known as upanishad, or that vision gained by “sitting near” (upa: near; nishad: sitting) the spiritual master.

When one hears directly from the mouth of one whose consciousness is attuned to the all-pervasive supreme consciousness, the effect is purifying. The words of such a person are not ordinary vibrations; they are surcharged with transcendental cognition of our spiritual origin. Just as the direct rays of the sun can purify an unsanitary place, so hearing the spiritually energized words of a self-realized soul can purify a person’s sullied consciousness. Sri Krishna, the source and knower of all Vedic science, confirms this: “When a diseased eye is treated with medicinal ointment it gradually recovers its power to see. Similarly, as a conscious living entity cleanses himself of material contamination by hearing and chanting the pious narrations of My glories, he regains his ability to see Me, the Absolute Truth, in My subtle spiritual form.” (Bhagavatam 11.14.26)

A qualified student of the Absolute Truth enters a superior dimension of reality even while in the world of matter, a refinement of consciousness wrought through the hearing process. When the penetrating force of shabda-brahma overrides our mind’s fixation on the superficial, the mind is conquered and subdued. Then the mind will reveal, rather than cover, the actual nature of reality. We will gradually develop steady awareness of our own true nature as a servant of that Supreme Person sustaining our very life energy.

As demonstrated by the prior example of the cellular biology students, our consciousness becomes attuned to what we hear about. Technology is meant to improve our living conditions. It should also serve to relieve us of ignorance. But how many people are achieving a sense of wholeness or inner peace in the widening streams of information generated by modern technology? The true benefit of technology will be realized when it is used responsibly to disseminate shabda-brahma, providing wide access to the sublime messages received from the transcendental plane and recorded in the Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam, and similar transcendental literature.

By hearing from such authentic sources of knowledge, we are tuned in to the higher frequency of spiritual truth. Our faith in a sublime reality is nurtured, impelling us to seek out direct experience of the Absolute Truth. That very longing to connect with the eternal source of our being, an all-blissful person possessing unlimited attractive attributes, will steer us onto the path of transcendence, a path independent of the state of worldly technology.

*Teleology is the use of design or purpose as an explanation of natural phenomena.
**Etiology is the study of causation or origination.

About the Author: 

Dvijamani Gaura Dasa

Dvijamani Gaura Dasa, a disciple of His Grace Sankarshana Dasa Adhikari, joined ISKCON in 2008 after earning a degree in international politics from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He serves as the temple commander at ISKCON Orlando and assists in local college outreach programs and sankirtana activities.