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
- The Problem of Free Will and Morality
- Two Models of Natural Causality
- Addressing the Free Will Problem Scientifically
- The Law of Universal Events
- The Creation of Space and Time
- The Evolution of Individual Trajectories
- Three Energies in the Material World
- The Inversion of Spirit in Matter
- The Drama Analogy
- Three Enmeshed Material Trees
- The Scientific Theory of Karma
- What is Vedic Science, Really?
- The Mathematical Development of Vedic Science
The Problem of Free Will and Morality
To understand Vedic science, we have to understand the nature of free will because the science of matter and spirit in Vedic texts is concerned with choice and responsibility. Just as modern material science builds laws of motion of material particles, similarly, Vedic science describes the motion of the soul through a world of matter, which exists as possibilities. The soul converts the possibility into an experience through a choice. Therefore, the law of nature concerns the action of choice and its consequences. The same world is thus described empirically and rationally quite like current science, although by utilizing the metaphysics of choices, possibilities, and responsibilities rather than the metaphysics of particles, waves, forces, physical properties, and motion. Vedic science offers a radically different explanation of the same experience, which is not just empirical and rational, but also consistent with the existence of soul and God.
To understand this description, we must grasp the problems of choice and responsibility, because the solution to these problems open the doors to a new kind of description of our ordinary experiences. 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 divided into two parts: (a) the prediction of events, and (b) the prediction of trajectories. This is how the universe is modeled in 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. The distribution of matter over events creates trajectories, which means some objects pass over one set of events versus another set of events. Classical field theories present a problem of indeterminism because for a given set of events, the trajectories joining them could vary. This means that the empirical content of the universe as a whole (all the events) can be fixed, but my individual experiences can vary as different observers connect the dots of events in space-time through different trajectories.
Newton’s physics does not begin with the separation of particles and events. Rather, the particles are real and events are produced deterministically through particle motion, governed by mathematical laws. Most people—influenced by 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 the ability to allow for a redistribution of matter which means some particles can be created by splitting, while other particles would be annihilated by joining. In this universe where particles are created and destroyed, we cannot use Newton’s mechanics, because this mechanics works only with a fixed number of particles and become indeterministic if the particles are created and destroyed. To recover determinism in such a universe, we have to separate events from particles, such that the events are deterministic whereas the particles can be indeterministic.
There are hence two models of natural causality even within the realms of classical physical thinking—(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 for 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 in space-time such that the theory of nature joins these points into trajectories. This is an interesting model because it is deterministic in events (what will happen) but indeterministic in trajectories (who will do it).
We could say that there are infinite explanations of the same empirical content or events. Each explanation involves a different story that involves different trajectories. Each story connects the same dots (events) thereby giving the events new meanings. Meanings in this case emerge from how the dots are connected, and these can vary without changing the events, which means that meanings are underdetermined by the observations.
Addressing the Free Will Problem Scientifically
The above model illustrates how a scientific theory can reconcile free will and determinism: the universe can be 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 other words, we can separate the laws of event prediction from the laws of experience prediction. There can be an objective theory that says what will happen in the coming ages, without fixing what I will do. However, there would be a second theory that will predict my trajectory based on my choices and their consequences.
The separation of these two theories cannot be overemphasized because if the events are not fixed then each individual is morally culpable for their actions forever and those actions then encroach on everyone’s free will forever thereby rendering the moral system biased towards those who come early in time and unfair to those who come later. This creates a problem of morality even if it could solve the problem of prediction. Conversely, if the fixing of events fixes the actors then there could never be any morality. The problem of morality is therefore not merely a philosophical issue. Rather, the problem cuts into the heart of a physical theory as the separation between objects and events.
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 existence or sat as the universe as a whole is manifest from His existence. The places inside each of the universes are produced from His chit or knowledge and become conceptual locations (or “where” they happen in the universe) denoting the meaning of each of these locations relative to God (each universe is expanded as an inverted tree of meanings). The time when these events occur (or “when” they happen) is created from ananda or God’s pleasure. This means that the universe exists statically as His knowledge and dynamically as His pleasure.
Indeed, the Vedic texts describe two forms of God—one Who creates the space of all possibilities and the other Who creates all the changes and exists as time. They are not separate “gods”. Rather they are different aspects of the same person as space and time. God thus enters Vedic science as the manifestor of all possibilities and changes. The possibilities are eternal, but they are converted into an event by time. Therefore, the past, present, and future exist always as possibilities, but they are not observable. Time too is eternal and connects the succession of the events into an event history.
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.
At this stage, the universe 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 agrees for a universe to be created, all that is possible (inside the universe) and all that is impossible (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 creates the various universes) is called Karanodakaśāyī Viṣṇu.
Once the set of possible events has been defined, this set is divided into numerous individual alternatives, as a tree grows into branches and leaves. The universe as a whole is the outline of what is possible, and exists as an abstract concept that individuates one universe from another. The divisions inside that set are the individual possibilities produced as details from the abstraction. 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 the cause of this division into individual possibilities is a form of God called Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu who enters each universe. Once the space inside the universe has been created, the universal tree of possibilities has been produced. But the possibilities have to be converted into reality one by one. The order in which the branches become manifest one after another is called time—which constitutes the ananda tendency to seek pleasure—and represented by a form of God called Saṅkarṣaṇa. His desire for pleasure selects the different meaningful possibilities (i.e. branches) and causes them to manifest one by one. 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 desires it.
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 which can be enjoyed. The universe is similarly created by first defining an octave, then defining the 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 just like a bird that can sit on a branch, but he doesn’t determine the existence of the branch itself. Rather, the soul sits on the branch on when the branch exists. The soul also jumps from branch to branch, each time experiencing a new part of the universe, and this jumping is called transmigration rather than motion. We can thus envision two kinds of changes. The first change involves the appearance and disappearance of different branches of the tree. The second change involves the bird jumping from one branch to another. These two changes correspond to the two kinds of laws mentioned above, pertaining to the events and trajectories. The production of different branches is the events. The bird jumping from one branch to another is the trajectory that joins the different events.
The process of transmigration from one branch to another is the same whether for bodies within a lifetime, or between lives. The difference is one of magnitude rather than principle. The bird is capable of making a jump to a branch just adjacent to the current branch or to a branch farther away. The result of either kind of jump 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 jumps to another branch of the tree. To our gross material vision, this jumping is not visible, because vision involves a bird sitting on branch interacting with another branch. If the soul jumps to a new branch, and that branch is not interacting with some of the other branches, then those birds cannot know of this change. Some birds think that a new person is born, while other birds think that the old person has died. And yet, the fact is that the soul has simply jumped from one branch to another.
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 is created due to desires produced 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 personality of the ātma produced from varieties of meanings which create the mind and body of the soul. 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 a personality comprised of meanings a person seeks, which makes his life meaningful; these meanings are produced from kriya-śakti.
The answer to “how” we go through the life experience involves the succession of branches and interactions with other branches. On each branch, the person sees oneself in a role or relationship with other branches which is called bhūti-śakti. The successive events are the mechanism of our experience, but the person who moves through these events and the reason he or she moves are different from the mechanism. From a scientific standpoint, the succession of events constitutes the empirical predictions of events. But these predictions involve a choice for pleasure, a person who makes the choice, and the moral consequences of those choice. In that respect, we cannot understand the mechanism simply through the event succession; we have to also understand that the succession involves a continuity of the same person, who seeks happiness in life.
The Inversion of Spirit in Matter
In the material world, choice 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, bhūti-śakti (choice or decision making) is higher than kriya-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 kriya-śakti (meaning), followed by bhūti-śakti (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 in matter 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.
The Drama Analogy
The kriya-śakti (meaning), māyā-śakti (happiness), and bhūti-śakti (choice or decision making) are the three main energies of the soul. The kriya-śakti produces the various actors in a drama, the māyā-śakti produces the pleasures of acting, and the bhūti-śakti produces various dramatic roles. Thus, an actor plays a role and enjoys the action.
In the stage drama, the playwright conceives of some characters which interact with other characters. Once the characters have been conceived, the playwright adds dialogues to the characters. The final play is an outcome of combining the dialogues and the characters. This combination of the character and the dialogues constitutes the drama, which is the domain of the playwright. To enact the play, the director of the play has to pick some qualified actors. Their qualification is the bodily and mental capabilities in the actors, which acts as the criteria for selecting specific actors. However, the actors themselves have to not just be qualified to play a role but must also desire the role.
Through this analogy we can understand the role of the three energies mentioned above. The bhūti-śakti is the drama written by the playwright. The kriya-śakti is the activity of the director who selects some actors and casts them in the play. Finally, the māyā-śakti is the individual actor who chooses and agrees to be directed in a role because he or she desires and enjoys it. An actor may be qualified to play a particular role, but may not desire it. Conversely, the actor may desire a role but may not be qualified for it. The combination of qualification and desire allows different actors to enact the same play, which is analogous to the same set of events being connected by different trajectories.
Three Enmeshed Material Trees
While the bhūti-śakti (choice), kriya-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 the sat, chit, and ananda features of the soul, respectively.
Practical observation shows that every part of the body—e.g. skin—combines the three energies. For example, every part of the skin can interact with different objects, and we can be individually conscious of all these interactions. Similarly, the skin produces sensations such as heat. Finally, the pain or pleasure of the heat on the skin has a location on the skin. The sensation, the pleasure, and the interaction are all in the same place, so we cannot consider them as parts of a single tree because that would necessitate them having different locations. Nevertheless, we cannot also equate the interaction with the sensation, or the sensation with the pleasure, which means that they are different.
How the three kinds of energies combine to create the material experience, why they are higher and lower relative to each other, 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 as separate hierarchies, 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 that 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 soul becomes free of all reactions, we have to understand moral versus immoral actions, and this is achieved by seeing the world as an accounting system involving the exchange of meaning and happiness, not just material objects. 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 an encompassing description of the world ranging from atomic objects to the cosmos, 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 are produced from choices.
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 essence of the Vedic material. Every aspect of this description is scientific, just not the modern science. An 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 unfamiliar with this knowledge, it is helpful to compare the three natural laws above to the three laws 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 by which the universe 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, but the action and reaction act on different objects. The third law of nature in Vedic philosophy speaks about action-and-reaction, although based on the meaning and morality and the reaction is the consequence of an actor’s actions.
While modern science and Vedic science are chalk and cheese, the above comparison can help us see why Vedic descriptions have analogous laws, although these laws are based on the acceptance of soul and God, rather than their rejection in classical 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 radical ideology that is totally unprecedented in modern thinking.