Saturday, August 15, 2009



Unlike in the Western tradition, Hinduism sees no conflict between science and spirituality. Vedanta sees a clash of dharmas rather than a clash of civilizations.

Navaratna S. Rajaram

Edited and modified by Shree Vinekar
Editor’s note: This is a timely message on Shri Krishna janmashtami of 2009.
A striking feature of European and now American society is the conflict between new knowledge and old beliefs. This is particularly the case with scientific advances that are seen to threaten long held beliefs. Galileo’s persecution by the Church and the hostility to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution are only two examples. This hostility is not a thing of the past is clear from the fact that there are several Fundamentalist groups in the U.S. that want to stop the teaching of evolution in school. Several states have passed laws that something called ‘Creation Science,’ based on the Bible, should be taught in public schools along with Darwin’s theory.

This conflict between empirical knowledge (including science) and religious beliefs has never emerged in India. This is because Hinduism and its offshoots like Buddhism are not essentially based on beliefs but soundly rest on the exploration of the mind and soul. “Accept nothing on my authority,” said the Buddha. “Think, and be a lamp unto yourself.”

The Gayatri mantra, considered the greatest of all teachings of the Vedas says "dhiyo yo nah prachodayat," meaning “Inspire our intellect.” (see "Dhee: The Essence of Hinduness" Part I and Part II by Shree Vinekar, on and )

There is no appeal to blind faith in any of this or anywhere in Vedanta. In fact it is a rejection of blind faith. Further, the Vedas are "apaurusheya," meaning they do not rest on the authority of any human. Everything in Vedas rests on its own merit and not on the authority of any prophet. It is the same with science. We honor Newton and Einstein as great sages because of their discoveries and not the other way. It is the same with great spiritual teachers like Krishna. Krishna is great because his teachings are great. At the same time, in the Indian or Hindu tradition the teachings of these sages can be rejected or modified if new knowledge comes to light. Krishna himself urges Arjuna to ask questions and get satisfactory answers and not accept anything coming from a teacher including himself on face value.

This means, as in science, Indian spirituality attaches the greatest importance to freedom of thinking. That is the meaning of the Gayatri mantra. Further, where natural science looks at the material world, the scope of Vedanta is the human and spiritual world. Because of this enlightened approach we can study human conflicts and human factors that are beyond the reach of science and also beyond the reach of Western humanities. This can be illustrated by contrasting the Western and the Vedantic approaches to human conflicts.

Clash of civilizations and clash of Dharma and Adharma during Yuga Sandhi

Samuel Huntington in his well-known book "Clash of Civilizations" envisions a world in which clashes occur between civilizations. His analysis is mainly geopolitical and does not take into consideration of innate human tendencies or gunas. Vedanta, however, sees the world differently. Different ages are dominated by different gunas— sattva, rajas and tamas. In the Hindu cosmic theory, since the beginning of the present historical cycle, the world has seen ages (epochs) or yugas, dominated by these gunas, with sattva declining from Krita Yuga to Kali Yuga. According to this theory, we are now poised at the end of the yuga cycle, passing through a yuga sandhi (ending of one yuga and emergence of a new yugasandhi stands for “joining”) as we enter a new cycle of yugas.

A Yuga Sandhi is always violent and full of turmoil it is observed. It is a period of conflict between light and darkness: between enlightenment and ignorance, between spirituality and excessive materialism. It is important to realize that no one can live without basic material comforts; the problem arises when the desire for material needs overwhelms people and leads to the despoliation of the world and the people in it. What is needed is balance. When the balance is completely upset we land in a different yuga. For that we need to go through a Yuga Sandhi. This is what the world is going through at the present time.

Daivic and the Asuric

Seen from this Vedantic perspective, what we witness around us is no clash of civilizations, but a clash of values or dharmas. This is an age-old conflict, between the material and the spiritual. Most evil in the world is due to excessive desire for the material. This tendency is called the Asuric by the ancients. The spiritual or the trait that seeks harmony is called Daivic. We may call Daivic as divine and the Asuric as demonic (for convenience of approximation for presentation of these concepts in English). Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita describes the Asuric traits as follows:

“The Asuric (demonic) traits are ignorance, deceitfulness, excessive pride, unrestrained ego, harshness, and rough speech. People with predominantly Asuric traits know not when to act and when to desist from action. They believe in nothing, have neither truth nor purity. They live only by desire. Driven by desire and unsupported by beliefs these souls without enlightenment, with their terrible acts can destroy the world. With their insatiable greed, drunk with vanity and ego and sunk in ignorance they hold on to doctrines of falsehood bringing misery to life. Immersed in endless worries that only death can end, they know nothing beyond self-indulgence without limit. They think only of accumulating wealth through wrongful means. In the folly of their ignorance they think: ‘I got this today, I have that much more to get. I have so much now but I’ll get more. I have killed that enemy, but I have more yet to kill. I am the lord of all I survey; I am fruitful, strong and happy. I am rich and noble, and have no equal.’ ”

It is not hard to see that the world today is in thrall to Asuric forces, but it was not always so. There were ages when Daivic tendencies ruled the planet. Krishna describes them as follows:

“Fearlessness, purity, courage in seeking knowledge, generosity, restraint, learning, uprightness, gentleness, honesty, loyalty, compassion for the living, humility, fortitude and absence of excess pride—these are the virtues of the Daivic. The Daivic leads to freedom and the Asuric to bondage.”

The three gunas

The Vedantic view is that there are three fundamental tendencies (or gunas) that control nature and therefore the history of any era. These tendencies are also found in the humans. These are: sattva (light, knowledge, or purity), rajas (power or aggression) and tamas (darkness or ignorance). Any combination of these determines the history of an epoch (yuga). Particularly dangerous is the combination of tamas and rajas— aggression driven by ignorance. This is what we may call fanaticism. Tamas sees sattva or light of knowledge as the enemy, figuratively speaking. They are antithetical or opposite forces. The goal of Tamas is to destroy sattva and plunge the world into a Dark Age. This has happened many times in history. This is what forces of fanaticism are trying to do to the world today. The rule of Taliban in Afghanistan was an example of bringing darkness by a combination of rajas and tamas— force and ignorance. So was Nazism. Defeating Hitler was not enough; the tamasic root of Nazism had to be eradicated. It is the same with any fanaticism.

This combination of tamas with rajas is the great enemy of civilizations and civility in humans. This is also what ancient sages of India like Krishna warned against. It is important to note that tamas cannot always be conquered by sattva. This means force or rajas must be employed, but employed judiciously. The ignorance of a child can be cured by education, but not the ignorance of a hardened fanatic. It can only be eradicated through force. It is a great error to believe that fanatics bent on plunging the world in darkness will respond to a gentle message. Deluded people sometimes project passive resistance as sattva or ‘spiritual force’. But any kind of passivity in the face of evil is in actuality only tamas.

Sri Aurobindo, one of modern India’s greatest yogis said:

“The sword of the warrior is as necessary to the fulfillment of justice as the holiness of the saint. To maintain justice and to prevent the strong from despoiling and the weak from being oppressed is the function for which the Kshatriya Dharma (the swadharma of Arjuna) was created. Therefore, says Krishna in the Mahabharata, God created battle and armor, the sword, the bow and the dagger.”

Krishna also tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Whenever dharma sinks and adharma raises its head, O Bharata Prince, I create myself upon this earth. In age upon every age, I manifest myself to destroy the evildoers and protect the good, and establish the dharma.” In symbolic terms it means that ethical leaders who combine force of personality with wisdom are needed in times of crisis. Abraham Lincoln was one such leader, as was Sardar Patel. There was steel in them, but also wisdom and compassion, a combination of sattva and rajas.

As seen by ancient Indian sages like Krishna and Vyasa, evil in the world is due to the rise of Asuric tendencies driven by a combination of tamas and rajas. The way to rid the world of evil is to fight it with Daivic forces made up of a combination of sattva and rajas. Indian records give several examples. Beginning with a pure sattva period known as Krita Yuga, we have come to the end of Kali Yuga, the age of evil of a special kind called theocracy, where tamas is presented as spirituality and religion, which enslaves people rather than liberates them depriving them of their freedom of thinking. Five thousand years ago, at the end of Dwapara Yuga, India faced a similar threat that exploded into the Kali Yuga. At that juncture, at the Dwapara-Kali yuga-sandhi, Krishna warned the world of its dangers and told his followers what needed to be done: "evil must be fought and destroyed."


By allowing materialism to run rampant we may now have reached the end of our journey, but a question remains: how relevant is Krishna’s 5000-year old message today as we enter another yuga-sandhi? My own view, derived from the Gita, Sri Aurobindo, the Upanishads and the Mahabharata is that the Vedantic approach, which was the worldview thousands of years ago, is still relevant today. Whatever the propogated merits of prophets and their prophecies, the Vedantic wisdom is eternal.

We no longer live in the Vedantic milieu of Krishna and his contemporaries—an age in which Vedanta offered a rational and balanced way of looking at the world. To them Vedanta and the Vedantic world-view was a description of reality, part of their everyday thinking, much as science is to us today. Vedanta shaped their worldview just as science has shaped ours. This allowed them to combine human affairs and spiritual vision into a true synthesis. We have lost this. It is the source of much of our problem. We adopt purely material approaches to what really are problems of the spirit.

This is illustrated by looking at great ancient figures like Krishna. He was a great teacher and a great warrior for a just cause. We now have great warriors, full of rajas, but the world needs to recognize what it is they should really be fighting— tamas. War between two tamasic military forces will not lead to emergence of sattva. The message of the Gita is Vedanta and Krishna is the sage who embodies Vedic (and Vedantic) wisdom at all levels. Our goal should be not merely worshipping him as an icon or idol but following or by internalizing his teachings to attain spiritual and intellectual freedom, protect such freedom at all costs, and apply the teachings in action without distorting Krishna's message to mean that he preached non-violence and passvity. Devotion, wrongly applied, results in tamasic blind spots and inner slavery. This is what we call fanaticism, which has made much of the world vulnerable to outer slavery eventually leading to inner slavery and vice versa. The Vedantic way is to encourage the Swami Bhava (mastery and leadership), not the Dasyu Bhava (mental slavery). The Teacher is to be emulated, not blindly worshipped. Ultimately, the enemy is tamas.

The teacher can only be a guide, but the effort has to come from within everyone of us. This is what the great Brihadaranyaka Upanishad means when it says: "tamaso ma jyotirgamaya"— “Lead us from darkness to light.”

Let us next move on to later times especially the present. We no longer live in a Vedantic milieu. We don’t look at the world with Vedantic eyes as Krishna and Vyasa did. Most of us calling ourselves ‘rational’ do not see the world in Daivic and Asuric terms. With that we have lost the rational basis for spirituality that our ancestors possessed. Some modern sages like Sri Aurobindo had retained a vestige of it. This allowed them to see the forces of violence and ignorance engulfing the world. Vyasa and Krishna knew also the cause of such evil spreading in the world and where it would lead: the combination of tamas and rajas would try to overwhelm the world and plunge it into a Dark Age. And they told us also how to fight it— with a combination of sattva and rajas, or righteous force.

This is what we are seeing today in the war against terror— a combination of evil rajas and tamas ranged against civilization striving to provide harmoneous and peaceful coexistance for the entire humanity by providing means to exist and thrive. It is no clash of civilizations but a clash between Daivic and Asuric forces. For civilization to survive, the Daivic forces—sattva and rajas—must combine to defeat the Asuric combination of tamas and rajas.

The Vedantic message is clear: a change of yuga comes about when the Asuric forces gain prominence in the world, as at the present time. This is caused by the combination of tamas and rajas. The lesson is also clear: sattva by itself or rajas by itself cannot defeat the Asuric forces. The two have to combine to overcome tamas and bring light, knowledge, prosperity and peace to the world. This is the message of Vedanta as summarized by Krishna.
Dr. N.S. Rajaram is a scientist and historian who has written extensively about ancient India.

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