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Hindu Cosmology and Modern Science: Some Remarks


Ian Watson

Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Summer, 1973). © World Wisdom, Inc.


EVERY philosophy, as a wisdom-system (that is, metaphysic) has a cluster of doctrines which in one sense define it. Indian thought, especially Hindu Vedanta, has, not one, but several sets of variously related clusters, according to whether the system is expressing itself as epistemology, ontology, cosmology, soteriology, anthropology—or whatever. And there are more—but these will do.

A number of these may be familiar, but one or two will likely be strangers. 'Epistemology' (Logos of Epistemé) is no doubt familiar as "the theory of knowledge"; "ontology" (Logos of Ontos), perhaps as the Existentialist-cum-Phenomenologist "study of being" (roughly what Aristotelians have wrongly taken "metaphysics" as a whole to be [1]); and "anthropology" (Logos of Anthropos), as "a study of the nature of persons", usually, though wholly misleading, called "philosophical psychology" or "philosophy of mind". But—"cosmology"? "soteriology"? These, unless we are historians of science or theologians, are not terms with which we are very likely to be very familiar—leastwise, not as bits or branches of "philosophy".


By "cosmology" is meant, the quest for wisdom and truth about the cosmos, as a whole—the Logos of Kosmos. This quest relates in some sense to that espoused by modern science. But, because of a certain general difference in approach, because, that is, Hindu Vedanta is what I will term "principial" and not "materialist-individualist", it employs different techniques in its effort to articulate, and to teach, an adequate understanding of the supposed largely observable cosmos. Moreover, it admits different, indeed more areas to count as, authentically, the subject-matter to be accommodated by any such "understanding". It includes, for instance, what in the West is known derisively as "the Occult" (i.e., "the hidden")—astrology, palmistry, necromancy, psychomancy, and so on.

Generally speaking, the intentions of Indian Cosmology and of modern science in the West are roughly identical: both seek an explanation, descriptive where possible, of the basics of the more or less observable cosmos. But because there exist differences elsewhere in the general metaphysics, how these general intentions are carried through differs in kind from one approach to the other. For modern science, the quest, on at least many understandings of this discipline from within it, is for basic particles, or anyway, components, on the assumption that these basics must be—usually "physical", though, if we accept "psychology", on some understandings occasionally "mental", stuff somehow, usually, though not necessarily, assumed to be observable. Hindu Cosmology is, on the other hand, a quest for basic principles, thought of as real, though non-substantial (i.e., non-stuffist, whether the stuff be physical or mental), sources, occasions, grounds, or (perhaps best) ultimate explanations of all substantial (or, stuff)—manifestation; this latter being then considered only seemingly or relatively real.

Indeed, I believe a largely ignored vast importance of Hindu Vedanta is that, if properly interpreted, it can offer a viable alternative to modern science as an explanatory-system of the ultimate nature of the cosmos. To do this, one vital beginning will be a proper interpretation of the doctrine of the gunas, as "principial non-substantial basics", or, as the name implies, "principial properties (or qualities)" which, at a highly ultimate level, determine the behavioural-tendencies (vasanas) inherent in all subsequent manifestations. Their influence, in other words, is wholly responsible for all behaviour, said 'behaviour' simply being their manifest expression. Put simply, and in Western terms, this doctrine is, at a certain high, though not wholly ultimate level, descriptive of the basics explanatory of the behaviour of all things.

The gunas are, of course, threefold: Sattva, or the Light Principle, whose influence or manifest expression is latent in what, in the West, we would call "the tendency" to behave upward; that is, towards the most fulfilling or ultimate expression of the nature of the being in question, which, in the case of persons' [2] will be a conscious realization of one's person (jivâtma) at its best, most wholly developed or fulfilled. Secondly, Tamas, or the Darkness Principle, whose influence or manifest expression is latent in the tendency to behave downward, or away from this ultimate, or most fulfilling realization: and thirdly, Rajas, or the Light-Darkness Principle, whose influence, as manifest expression, results in the vascillation between fulfilling, improving, or developing movement, and non-fulfilling (or &c) movement, known only too well to us all.

These principial basics are, in other words, advanced as explanatory of all behaviour in a way which, in some at least helpful degree, parallels that which in science is meant by (for instance), "ultimate particles having velocity and mass, or perhaps velocity only"; or perhaps more closely, notions such as "directed energies" or "directed drives", considered in some way to be substantial. Whether, on the other hand, these "principial basics" are ad hoc, or anyway, any less ad hoc than these things are in modern science, rests with appropriate investigation. And this involves investigating, and therefore entering that "beyond situation", said to result in that appropriately odd experience on the basis of which the Rsis who advance these doctrines have done so. I will however not at this point say more about this doctrine: for here is not the relevant place. It is after all meant only as an illustration of the more general point that, in order to understand how Hindu Vedanta can offer a viable alternative to modern science as an ultimate explanatory-system, it is, in the very beginning, of vital importance to recognize the difference between the "principial" approach of the former, and the "substantial" or "stuffast" approach of the latter.


That the ultimate cosmic-bits, or basics, must be "physical stuff"[3], as modern science usually says, is a simple assumption, to some extent based upon an earlier, epistemological assumption that knowledge can only be of individuals, or particulars, at least in the sense that any knowledge-claim is true (or false) in virtue of its application (or not), to, or its being about, some individual, or cluster of them. There may be a sense in which a law is "knowledge": but always only because it applies ultimately in some way to a certain cluster of possible or actual individuals or particulars.

To isolate knowledge on the basis of this assumption, and in this way, is of course to isolate it usually to sense-organ using perception, or, on occasion, also to what vaguely is called "discursive reasoning" when, as happens of course very rarely amongst scientists, [4] the possibility of a priori knowledge is admitted.

And if, as Hindu Vedanta does, the above is recognized not merely to be an assumption, but also rejected on the grounds that some other approach to knowledge can be advanced which is demonstrably prior, in the sense of, more adequate to disclosure of the nature of reality, and hence of the explanatory basics in question, then there is virtually no problem whatever in doing the switch, and abandoning the model and approach of modern science entirely. "Entirely" as ultimate, that is: for the approach would naturally remain a highly useful operational intermediary. Whilst the methods of modern science may, on this understanding, not give ultimate information, they may well furnish most useful information for the ontological level of the subject-matter of their single manifestation form—that is, for that level at which this subject-matter (that of observable and/or thinkable individuals) is real. An understanding of the cosmos, even of reality, [5] as if it were "substantially physical" or, as we often say "material", is clearly of great assistance when, as often, we are forced to approach and deal with it as if it were.

Nonetheless, this possibility of substituting the world-approach, or (perhaps better) reality-approach of Hindu Vedanta for that of modern science is part of the reason for the contemporary interest, among a certain significant Western minority, in this wisdom tradition. For it at least offers the prospect of a metaphysically rigorous alternative to one illusion from which many consider themselves long since disabused. I speak of the possibility of a materialist-science interpreting the cosmos such that good sense can be made of, and an adequate programme outlined for, self-development--for, that is, the betterment of persons, and of humanity.


But of course—that there is this alternative is one thing: investigating it is wholly another. And, speaking finally, whether it is a more adequate approach to the nature of the explanatory basics of the cosmos than that of modern science will, as above, be wholly determined only by engaging in those activities on the basis of which the Rsis who advance it claim it to be so. And whilst I will not at this point go into the details of the activities in question, quite as there are in science two general ways of examining truth claims, so are there here—doing the activities in question (dhyana, &c), quite as one might do science to assess it; and accepting as evidence for the suggested truth the fact that certain appropriately revealing consequences follow if one does accept, and live in terms of, these claims, so far as they can be applied to one's living as principles in this way.

What of course happens these days is this: that the findings of modern science are accepted by most on spec, that is, on grounds of their being advanced by authorities in the field; whereas, the findings of those who claim to present evidence demonstrating the lack of ultimacy about science are not accepted at all. And this is no more than sheer bias in favour of one authority over another; bias, moreover, which does not stop short of dismissing the findings of the latter without in the slightest examining them in ways appropriate at all. No bias could go further—and indeed, none these days does.

[1] I have in mind writers like Theophrastus, whose wholly Aristotelian interpretation of Aristotle has been transmitted to us with the title, "Metaphysics". It is too little recognized that Aristotle himself likely never used the word "metaphysics".

[2] I refer of course to jivatma.

[3] I here mean to include 'stuff' such as magnetic fields', 'radio waves' ; indeed, 'energy' generally.

[4] I naturally exclude the mathematicians—or at least, the "pure" ones.

[5] By "reality" I mean, either the Ultimate Itself, or, if speaking of the cosmos only, the sum of explanatory basics whose more basic explanation is "the Ultimate", being Its initial, or nearly initial, self-expression.

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