By Hari Parayana Dasa
People tend to ignore the logical consequences of belief in materialism.
The Ramayana recounts how Lord Rama was banished to the forest on the desires of his stepmother Kaikeyi. Lord Rama’s younger brother Bharata was away at the time of the banishment. On returning to Ayodhya, Bharata was devastated to find his beloved brother in exile and a vacant throne waiting for him. Instead of occupying the throne and enjoying kingly pleasures, Bharata immediately left Ayodhya in search of Lord Rama. On finally meeting Him, Bharata begged Lord Rama to return. When Lord Rama refused, Bharata carried Lord Rama’s sandals back to Ayodhya on his head, put them on the throne, and ruled the kingdom as Lord Rama’s servant. What a wonderful illustration of a truth we can all attest to: Relationships with our loved ones are more valuable than any materialistic pleasure.
Why do relationships satisfy us in ways the best material pleasures cannot? In the scientific worldview one answer is that relationships are an evolutionary feature of living organisms. Birds of a feather flock together to preserve, protect, and propagate their kind. Therefore the happiness derived from relationships is basically a set of chemical signals in the brain that are present because we are molecularly programmed to act in a certain way. Conversely, the Vedic tradition teaches us that the experience of happiness is a nonmaterial process of the soul; the body is only a machine and therefore incapable of feeling emotions. We derive happiness in relationships because as souls we are intrinsically “programmed” to love others. That is our essential quality. While in the evolutionary view love is a symptom of a selfish desire to survive and propagate one’s kind, the Vedic tradition explains that a key symptom of love is the desire to unselfishly serve others.
The scientific and spiritual views of an emotion (love) that is a defining aspect of human experience are diametrically opposed to each other. In one view, love is a material emotion originating in the molecules in the brain; in the other, love is the nonmaterial essence of a nonmaterial entity, the soul. Which version is correct? It is not possible to settle this question with the scientific (empiric) method. This is because the scientific method requires empirical measurement of the soul, which is described as invisible and inconceivable (Bhagavad-gita 2.25). It is possible to directly realize the soul (Gita 9.2) if one has faith in the process of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service (Gita 9.3). This realization necessarily requires practice (sadhana) and faith (shraddha), and only the sincere practitioner (sadhaka) can gradually perceive the truth. That perception is a necessarily subjective experience. Conversely, we pride ourselves on the scientific advances achieved in understanding the molecular composition of life, but we have no satisfactory explanation for why, as machines, we are conscious—and able to choose to disbelieve that we are machines. The trouble is that waiting for an empirical explanation for our conscious experience is a luxury we can’t afford. Our time in this body is quickly eroding. And there are reasons to think that such an explanation may never come.1
Molecules or Souls
In dealing with the most important questions of our everyday life, then, unless we are enlightened spiritualists we are faced with a conscious choice: to choose the view that we are only machines made of atoms/molecules, or to choose the view that we are something more, that we are spiritual (nonmaterial).
Choosing to accept that we are only material has perceived advantages. In this view we are not accountable to any transcendent law or lawgiver for our actions, so maximizing our pursuit of material happiness can become the primary goal of our lives. But how many people who accept that they are only atoms and molecules actually live that principle? Can they remind themselves continuously that their relationships are meaningless, that their cherished memories are just signals in the brain, and that their life has no purpose? It would be impossible to function in such a way. The materialist could argue that living with such contradictions is an evolutionary feature: Evolution has naturally endowed human beings with the ability to ignore higher questions of existence and focus on survival and proliferation. But for a thoughtful person whose time is not completely consumed with materialistic affairs, such a contradiction must necessarily cause discomfort, and raise questions again and again. Am I really only matter? Are my relationships really meaningless? Do I really not exist? Any coherent framework for interpreting our everyday experience and for conducting ourselves in the world necessarily requires answers to these questions, but the current scientific view simply does not have any useful answers.
Such questions occupy peripheral realms of scientific research, such as the highly speculative research on consciousness,2 as well as the research on reincarnation and near-death experiences conducted at the University of Virginia.3 But they occupy center stage in the Vedic body of knowledge, which deserves our attention because it contains logical, non-sectarian, useful answers.
The Gita’s Three Postulates
As an example, consider the answers to the above questions in the Bhagavad-gita. The Gita could be viewed as a logical theory (much like a scientific theory) with three postulates. First, the Gita explains that each of us is an eternal living entity different from our body. Bhagavad-gita 2.13, for example, captures the distinction with words such as deha (body) and dehi (the owner of the body), and 13.3 refers to kshetra (the field of the body) and kshetrajna (the knower or proprietor of the field). Second, we are discrete parts of the supreme person, Krishna (15.7). And third, we are each very dear to Krishna in our unique relationship with Him, just as Arjuna is very dear to Him as a friend (18.65). The entire philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita can be thought to logically flow from these three postulates.
Importantly, the Bhagavad-gita has clear answers for the daunting questions above that have vexed scientists and philosophers for a long time. For example, because we are not material, we do not derive much joy from material objects in this world (5.22). The prospect of death, old age, and disease (13.9) is terrifying because we are eternal and these are foreign to our real identity. We have the propensity to act independently and to enjoy (13.22) because Krishna is the supremely independent and supremely joyful person (13.23) who enjoys with His devotees. We have a natural desire to love others and to derive happiness from relationships because others are also parts of the original person, Krishna (6.29). We search for our lost love in this world, but the fleeting material bodies we inhabit force us to face the prospect of broken relationships through the influence of death (1.31) or, what may be worse, the influence of time.
How are the answers in the Bhagavad-gita useful to us in our everyday life? When we start performing the experiment of bhakti-yoga, we can discover the power of the process. We become liberated quickly from the tormenting tyranny of our baser senses and become peaceful. The living philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita gradually helps us perceive the truth about the fleeting nature of the material world and proves to us how badly we fit into it. If we perform the experiment under the guidance of devotees who, by studying the philosophy and practicing it, have explored the depths of the ocean of bhakti-yoga, we avoid common mistakes that could cause the experiment to fail. And if we persevere with the experiment, then we can realize Krishna. What can possibly be a better goal for our temporary existence in this world than this?
Sadly the word spiritual raises the hackles of many educated people today, and especially of scientists (although this was not so in the past—Isaac Newton, for example, comes to mind). Science is only concerned with reality, goes the refrain. But reality need not be confined to what we can sense, nor does it have to be a prisoner to our capacity for logical reasoning. In any case, if our very existence is in doubt, then what is the meaning of the word reality?
Why are we so dismissive of basic questions about our own selves? Can the perfectly logical answers offered to us in the Vedic literature be potentially correct? Why not explore the possibility? If not, what harm can our exploration do to us if the alternative is that we don’t exist at all? It is better than living an anxious life wasted in self-degrading material pursuits.
1. Thompson R. L, Mechanistic and Non-mechanistic Science, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1989
2. Crick F., and Koch C., “A framework for consciousness”, Nat Neurosci. 2003 Feb 6(2):119–26