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Mahatma Gandhi as Scientist

By ananthu at December 13, 2004 12:54 AM

On the face of it, Gandhi and Science seem poles apart, and therefore the proposition that Mahatma Gandhi was a scientist seems preposterous. But before we dismiss this proposition out of hand, let us examine a fundamental question:

What is science?

In its essence, Science is the quest for truth. What is the nature of this world in which we live, and what are the laws that govern its functioning? The unraveling of this fundamental question is at the heart of true science.

Gandhi was a devoted seeker of Truth, and his quarrel was not with science, but with the direction that modern science has taken – a direction that he felt took humanity away from the pursuit of real Truth, away from an understanding of the deepest laws that govern the universe in which we live. He voiced this idea in the following words:

“Modern science is replete with illustrations of the seemingly impossible having become possible within living memory. But the victories of physical science would be nothing against the victory of the Science of Life, which is summed up in Love which is the Law of our Being.”

Gandhi was here contrasting physical science with Science of Life. Physical science refers to the study of matter – primarily physics and chemistry. Modern science is based on the tremendous progress made in these two fundamental branches of learning. All other streams of modern science base themselves on the models and methods developed in these two branches. The study of life in modern universities – whether through botany, or biology, or physiology, or allopathic medicine, or anatomy - essentially consists of the study of the physical and chemical properties of the building blocks (e.g., RNA and DNA molecules) that constitute the physical bodies of the living beings. As Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize winner regarded as the father of modern biology and co-author of the Double Helix theory, put it:

“The aim of the modern movement in biology is in fact to explain all biology in terms of physics and chemistry.”

Implicit in this approach to the study of life are two basic assumptions:
1. Life begins with birth and ends with death, and so a study of our bodies is sufficient for the study of life.
2. These bodies can be studied by examining the properties of its constituents (body organs, RNA&DNA molecules etc.) and when the properties of the parts so studied are put together, they reveal the nature of the whole.

It is this materialistic-cum- reductionistic approach that Gandhi objected to. For one thing, he felt that the study of the whole can never be accomplished by a study of the parts – it is the whole that subsumes the parts, not the other way round. More important, he was convinced that the bodily existence should never be equated with life – in fact, that the truth is just the opposite. In reality, our life force (whose fundamental nature transcends space and time) is entombed at birth in the body, and gets real freedom only when it manages to free itself from the body’s bondage. Most of us feel, as Hemingway put it, that ‘life is a light between two darknesses’, but Gandhi looked at it just the other way around - bodily existence is a darkness that hides the Truth, the Life and the Light. The correct approach to the Science of Life, he was convinced, lies in overcoming our identification with this physical body. When that is done, we also see the true Purpose of life here on earth – purification of the mind such that we merge back into our source, the Creator.

His conviction was a very deep one, borne out of his spiritual experience. He had himself overcome his slavery to the body’s senses and achieved what the mystics refer to as ‘dying while living’. As he emphasized, it is a state that anyone can aspire to. The secret (or technique) lies in quietening the mind. Anyone who can quieten the surface waves of the ocean of our inner being can see deep down inside, and that is the only way to see Life, and constitutes the route to a real Science of Life. Having done that, he could discover the fundamental Law that governs our existence, and therefore had gained insights into the true Science of Life.

This brings me to the essential difference between the Life Sciences as taught in our universities and the Science of Life that Gandhi was referring to. The former is based on laboratory studies and experiments in the world ‘out there’. We use our bodily senses to record data, and our intellect to analyze this data, whereas Gandhi’s Science of Life is based on experiments within oneself, using the non-physical sensory perception abilities that are present in every human being, but remain latent as long as the mind is restless. With the help of these non-physical senses, each one of us can come in contact with subtler matter - forces and entities that are all around us all the time, but whose presence is invisible to us in the ordinary condition, i.e., when the mind is not at rest.

When the mind becomes absolutely still, the ability to see the life force that forms the essence of our being, and of others, is awakened in us, and this is the basis of the Science of Life that Gandhi was referring to. In other words, he was referring to a Science that is gained by enhancing our direct perception abilities, rather than a science that acquires its knowledge base using indirect perception. For instance, all our knowledge of cosmic rays, gamma rays, radio waves etc. comes from laboratory experiments in which we see the effect of these phenomena at the visual level – e.g., the patterns created in the cathode ray tubes at the time of cosmic showers. However, we never get to see these phenomena directly, as we can for instance a mountain or a table, because these phenomena occupy a range in the electromagnetic spectrum that is outside the range of ‘visible light’. Our normal vision, even of the person with 20-20 sight, is confined to a very minuscule portion of the electromagnetic phenomena already known to science, and the general assumption is that our direct perception abilities can never be enhanced beyond that. Even though we know that other living beings (dogs, cats, monkeys etc.) can see and hear things which we cannot, we take it for granted that we can never reach those levels. Therefore, no one in our universities thinks of learning about life by enhancing our direct perception abilities and bringing it to that level where we can see life.

It is this assumption that Gandhi, like the mystics of all cultures and traditions, had questioned, for he had himself been able to overcome the limitation of the bodily senses. When Dr. Sushila Nayyar had taken his urine sample during one of his fasts, analyzed it and discovered a high level of Keytone, and was alarmed that life was ebbing out from him, he had merely smiled and asked her, ”Does your Science know everything?”. Unlike her, he could see the life force within, and knew that he was not nearing death – as subsequent events confirmed, he was right, and she was wrong. Similarly, when Dr.B.C.Roy had wanted him to switch to a particular diet because he wanted Gandhi’s weight to go up by a certain number of pounds ‘within a week’, he told the eminent doctor, ’if that is what you want, come back after a week’ and the weighing scale showed he had accomplished that without changing his diet one wee bit! Gandhi could see the life force within himself and in others, which is what made him a scientist par excellence, superior in a very fundamental way to those who do well in science as taught in our universities.

Fortunately, many scientists are themselves discovering the limitations of their approach. Interestingly, the initiative for this new trend has come from some physicists themselves, even though it is the model of physics that the other streams, including the life sciences, are trying to emulate. Robert Oppenheimer, when asked to deliver the Presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1956, warned that:

“The worst of all possible misunderstandings would occur if psychology should be influenced to model itself after a physics which is not there any more, which has been quite outdated.”

Oppenheimer was referring to the discoveries made by physicists in the form of Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics. Their effort to understand the fundamental nature of matter, space and time had led them to the fantastic conclusion that these did not exist at all, but were illusions created by the perceptions of the human mind. As Max Planck, after whom the famous Planck’s Constant in Qunatum Theory has been named, put it:

“ As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear-headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as the result of my research about the atoms, this much:

“There is no matter as such!

“ All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particles of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together… We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter.”

Max Planck was a famous physicist whose equations are given great prominence in modern textbooks. And yet, his above statement about the real nature of matter has not been given any importance. Why is that the case? Erwin Schroedinger, another physicist who made a great contribution to Quantum Mechanics, attributed this attitude to the ‘cultural milieu’ that exists in the Western world today, wherein anything to do with mysticism or reincarnation is dismissed as either ‘blasphemous’ or ‘lunatic’. He did not hesitate to use ancient Indian terminology to put across his conclusions:

“The only possible inference from [my efforts to integrate biology with my quantum physics] is, I think, that I – I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt “I” – am the person, if any, who controls the “motions of the atoms” according to the Laws of Nature.

“Within a cultural milieu (‘Kultukreis’) where certain conceptions (which once had or still have a wider meaning amongst other peoples) have been limited and specialized, it is daring to give to this conclusion the simple wording that it requires. In Christian terminology to say ‘Hence I am God Almighty’ sounds both blasphemous and lunatic. But please disregard these connotations for the moment and consider whether the above inference is not the closest a biologist can get to proving God and immortality at one stroke.

“ In itself, the insight is not new. The earliest records, to my knowledge, date back some 2500 years or more. 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.

“Again, the mystics of many centuries, independently, yet in perfect harmony with each other (somewhat like the particles in an ideal gas) have described, each of them, the unique experience of his or her life in terms that can be condensed in the phrase: DEUS FACTUS SUM (I have become God).

“Allow me a few further comments. Consciousness is never experienced in the plural, only in the singular… Consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown…there is only one thing and that, what seems to be plurality, is merely a series of different aspects of this one thing, produced by a deception (the Indian MAYA). The same illusion is produced in a gallery of mirrors, and in the same way Gaurishanker and Mt Everest turned out to be the same peak, seen from different valleys.”

Schroedinger was not alone in the above conclusion. He was joined by practically all the leading physicists – including Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg etc. -who contributed to quantum mechanics. Oppenheimer put the same conclusion in the following words:

“The general notions about human understanding which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of, or new. Even in our own culture they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom.”

The real reason why our academia ignores these important conclusions of modern physics, or finds these notions ‘lunatic’ and ‘blasphemous’ as Schroedinger feared the reaction would be to his ideas, lies in the fact that we have shut out the spiritual side from our lives – precisely the point made by Gandhi. The well-known scientist Sir Arthur Eddington suggested that the modern scientist should in fact overcome this distaste for the spiritual if he is to do justice to the findings of modern physics:

“The physicist-philosopher of the twentieth century must look beyond physics to the borderland of the material and spiritual worlds. For religion has become possible for a man of science mainly because the philosophical trend of scientific thought has been startlingly redirected by the discoveries of men like Einstein, Heisenberg and Bohr in the field of relativity and quantum physics.”

As Eddington points out, this great revolution in our perception of the world has come about not only through quantum mechanics (wherein Schroedinger, Planck, Heisenberg etc. made significant contributions), but also through Relativity Theory whose main pillar was Einstein. The foundations of Relativity lie in a revolutionary concept of space and time. In Einstein’s vision, these two fundamental entities - which constitute the stage on which the drama of our life enfolds – are seen as illusions. As Einstein once wrote to a dear friend:

“For a convinced physicist, the distinction between past, present and future is an illusion, though a stubborn one.”

Louis de Broglie, another of the eminent physicists of that time, explained the implications of this in the following words:

“In space-time, everything which for each of us constitutes the past, the present and the future is given en bloc…Each observer, as his time passes, discovers, so to speak, new slices of space-time, which appear to him as successive aspects of the material world, though in reality the ensemble of events constituting space-time exist prior to his knowledge of them.”

As de Broglie states above, the ‘flow’ of time as seen in Einstein’s Relativity is an illusion, meant only to take us through the drama or experience of life, wherein each event appears to follow the other, whereas in reality it is all pre-determined. That which gives rise to this drama – true Reality or Truth - is accessible only at levels of consciousness where we rise above the space-time confinement. Is it really possible for ordinary human beings to reach such levels of consciousness? The famous psychologist Carl Rogers not only asserted that it is possible for us to do so, but termed this process the most exciting challenge to the human mind:

“Perhaps in the coming generation of younger psychologists, hopefully unencumbered by university prohibitions and resistances, there may be a few who will dare to investigate the possibility that there is a lawful reality which is not open to our five senses; a reality in which present, past and future are intermingled; in which space is not a barrier and time has disappeared; a reality which can be perceived and known only when we are passively receptive, rather than actively bent on knowing. It is one of the most exciting challenges posed to psychology.”

It is this reality that Gandhi had termed Truth – a reality that transcends the barriers of space and time that put severe limitations on our ability to see Life. He had, in effect, risen to higher levels of consciousness that William James, another famous psychologist of our times, had insisted surround our day-to-day existence:

“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”

Therefore, Gandhi’s Truth emanated from a higher level of consciousness, which sometimes seems ‘irrational’ to us because we confine ourselves to the limits of normal space and time. By breaking these limits, Gandhi had managed to see Life is ways we cannot do so in our usual state, and had also grasped the vision from which modern science’s Relativity and Quantum theories originate. This vision is referred to by Einstein in the following words:

“ The cosmic religious experience is the strongest and noblest mainspring of scientific research….

“During that vision, in a clarified and unified view of the universe, I saw the pattern and integration of all things….

“And that is when peace came, and that is when conviction came, and with these things came an almighty calm that nothing could ever shake again.”

What is the path to this vision? Gandhi had used the sthithaprgya terminology of the Gita. Einstein describes the same concept in the following words, which contain an echo of the same sthithapragya :

“Where the world ceases to be the stage for personal hopes and desires, where we, as free human beings, behold it in wonder, to question and to contemplate, there we enter the realm of art and science. If we trace out what we behold and experience through the language of logic, we are doing science; if we show it in forms whose inter-relationships are not accessible to our conscious thought but are intuitively recognized as meaningful, we are doing art.”

Louis Pasteur described the same thing thus:

“The Greeks bequeathed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language – the word ‘enthusiasm’ – en theos – a god within. The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who bears a god within. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.”

The processes described by Einstein and Louis Pasteur is the one Gandhi followed to access his Truth – first, removing ‘personal hopes and desires’ from his consciousness (as he put it, ’our greatest enemy is not the foreigner [but] our own desires’), thus waking up the ‘god within’, and thereby getting in touch with the realm of the infinite wherein ‘space is not a barrier and time has disappeared’. This is what qualifies him to be called a true scientist of the highest order. By doing so, he had discovered for himself the Unity behind this façade of multiplicity that we encounter in this world, a Unity pointed to by the recent discoveries of Quantum Mechanics and described in the following words by the well-known scientist James Jeans:

“As it is with light and electricity, so it may be with life; the phenomena may be individuals carrying on separate existences in space and time, while in the deeper reality beyond space and time we may all be members of one body.”

It is this realization of Unity behind apparent diversity that formed the basis of Gandhi’s non-violence. His philosophy was based therefore not on a moral or emotional appeal to the goodness in man, but on a scientific discovery of the fundamental Law that governs the entire universe. Einstein too arrived at a definition of human being that echoes this Law, reflecting the nature of Space and Time which formed the basis of his Theory of Relativity:

“ A human being is part of the whole, called by us “universe”, a part limited in space and time. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest; a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

The above definition of a human being, and the goal of our life on earth, seems so much like a statement by Gandhi – yet, it has come from the pen of Einstein, and uses the same notions of Space and Time that form the core of his Relativity Theory. It indicates the commonality of their world-view, and the Law of Love or Non-Violence as the foundation of the ultimate Law which governs the entire universe – the inanimate as well as the animate parts of it. Gandhi’s understanding and personal experience of this ultimate Law of Life entitles him to be called a great scientist.

Let me end on a personal note. Way back in 1971, when I was formulating my first ideas regarding ‘alternative’ economics as applicable to India’s taxation policies, I had used the adjective Gandhian to describe the model I was working on. I had then shared these thoughts with L.C.Jain, for whom I had developed a great respect, and I still remember his reaction:

“You might call Gandhi as having been knowledgable in anything else, but surely not in economics.”

It has been fascinating to watch how since then the same L.C.Jain has changed his stance, and gained fame as one of the country’s most eminent Gandhian economists, having served our Planning Commission in that capacity. An open mind, and a deep desire to get to the root of real economics, has enabled him to recognize the economic genius in Gandhi. He has also been helped by the growing realization in the economic fraternity - starting with Galbraith, Myrdal and Schumacher - that modern economic theories have not been able to deliver the desired goods.

Most scientists today would react to the suggestion that Gandhi was a scientist in the same manner that L.C.Jain had reacted in 1971 to the idea of Gandhi being an economist. But I do believe that as the limitations of modern science become apparent in solving the problems of the modern world, especially those relating to environment and ecology, there will be a transformation in the thinking of those scientists who remain as open-minded as L.C.Jain was, and wish to get to the root of the Truth that science is supposed to investigate. They might also be helped by the foundations for a great revolution that the likes of Einstein, Schroedinger, Heisenberg and Niels Bohr have left behind

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