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Gaudiya Vaishnavism in the modern world. Dealing with the varieties of challenges we face as practicing Gaudiyas amidst Western culture.

Creationism and science in Vaishnava-theology - Facing evolution, Big Bang and the rest



Madhava - Thu, 25 Nov 2004 00:54:33 +0530
Reflecting on the conflicts of science and religion, it seems increasingly evident that the reactions of many among the Vaishnava-community on issues such as the theory of Big Bang, the concept of evolution and so forth, stem from Christian creationism rather than our own theology and scriptures.

Take, for example, the idea that species were not created all at once by god, but rather evolved over millions of years into their present form. The main challenge to the faithful here is not the method in which the species came about, but the absence of God as the creator in the theory, as god is he who created all species as they are, and popped in the humans in the last ten thounsand years or so. The question deserving our attention is: Do the Vaishnavas view God as the creator like Christians do?

The simple answer to this is an emphatic no. The Vaishnava-theology does not conceive of Vishnu as the hands-on manager of the creation of species. Hence, to say that "God created heaven and earth" and all that jazz is strictly speaking incorrect. Vishnu is regarded as the indirect cause of the details of the creation inasmuch as direct involvement is concerned. Whether he is behind the specs of the design is anyone's guess, but he is certainly not the hands-on manager in the manifestation of the species.

Bhagavata 3.10.14 describes nine phases of creation, which are enumerated below. Please note that the word "sarga", translated as "creation", is not the equivalent of creation ex nihilo, but is rather the reshaping of the existing sum-total of substance.

The Nine Phases of Sarga

1) The manifestation of the mahat-tattva, the great sum-total of ingredients, which at this point exists in an undifferentiated, homogeneous state. This phase of mahat-tattva is often known as pradhAna.
2) The manifestation of the sense of identities (ahamaH), patterns (jŮAna) and ingredients (dravya). At this stage, the homogeneous sum-total of substance starts becoming differentiated into various elements.
3) The sequential manifestation of the five subtle aspects, the inherent qualities of the five primary elements, namely zabda-sparza-rUpa-rasa-gandha (sound, touch, form, taste, scent) appear, and along with them the corresponding elements, namely space, gas, energy, liquid and solid matter.
4) The manifestation of comprehension and activity.
5) In confluence with vaikArika (sattva), the manifestation of the devas, or the functional deities, of which mind is said to be the central.
6) In confluence with tamas, the manifestation of the principle of delusion.

These six phases contain the creation of the ingredients of which the universe is sown together. All of this is said to be affected by Vishnu through his glancing over the elements of the univere that are transiting from homogeneity to specified manifestations.

The subsequent three creations are said to be brought in place by Brahma, the secondary creator who manifests from the being of Vishnu, a deity sharing of Vishnu's creative ability, and an avatar of the quality of rajas, or the driving principle that keeps all things in motion.

7) The manifestation of immovable entities, the varieties of fauna such as trees and plants that share a very low level of awareness.
8) The manifestation of the animal species that act primarily by instinct without inner consideration of right and wrong.
9) The manifestation of the human species.

The three abovementioned creations, in addition to the creation of the deities, are said to be vaikRta (modified, altered, transformed), while the others are prAkRta (natural). Note carefully that there are three distinct stages in the vaikRta-sarga, the species appear in sequence -- not all at once. Not being thoroughly familiar with the premises on which the version of the Bhagavata is based, I am a bit mystified over the use of the word vaikRta, which wouldn't take a large strech of imagination to translate into "evolved".

The narration of Brahma's creations in the 12th chapter of the same skandha is primarily concerned with the creation of various actuating principles of the cosmos, so they are not as relevant here when we contrast the traditional course of creation with modern science. At the end of the chapter, Brahma realizes that the efficient means for ensuring the continuation of the species, and primarily humans, is the presence of male and female who procreate through union.

Collectively, the aspect of creation attributed to Brahma is known as the secondary creation. More on the primary creation in the next post.
Madhava - Thu, 25 Nov 2004 00:57:12 +0530
Big Bang, the arch-rival of God -- right? Well, for the Christian creationists, yes. For the Vaishnavas? Hardly.

There are some aspects of the theory of Big Bang I'd like to look at. Please don't take me wrong, I am not a person who is set out to "prove" the validity of anything. Rather, I am looking at these as peculiar parallels.

There is the concept of initial homogeneity, as in the "that which exploded", in which the entropy (disorderment of elements) began to increase, bringing about form and variety in the cosmos. The concept of an initial homogeneous state called pradhAna, in which the elements are in a homogeneous, dormant state, is also there. The burst for expansion is effected by the glance of Vishnu, after which the laws of nature, treated as the governing principles of sattva, rajas and tamas in the version of the Bhagavata, bring about entropy and begin forming the universe as we know it.

The initial homogeneity, in which all of space-time was together in a spot of infinite density, there was virtually no effect of time, as there was no motion. The Vaishnavas envision this primordial sumtotal as activating with the influence of Vishnu agitating its balance in his aspect of kAla (time). (BhP 3.26.17) Further, he effects the unfolding from this equilibrium from two separate spheres, namely from without as the time-factor and from within as the antaryAmin, the in-dwelling preserver and upholder of all existence.

As the elements begin to differentiate, and the mahat-tattva enters its active state, it is described as swallowing the darkness present at the time of dissolution, bursting forth with its splendid effulgence (BhP 3.26.20). Thereafter, the elements begin to differentiate, beginning with the presence of space, a virtual non-element, which accommodates all the "substantial" elements. Space is followed by the appearance of the variety of gassy substances ("air") and energy ("fire"), which interact and bring about liquid and solid substances.

Again, I do not find this at all incompatible the theory of Big Bang, though the sequence of energy and gas would have to be reversed to correspond to the current theory of how the events unfolded at the dawn of creation, given that the principles are remarkably similar. That detail, I believe, should not cause a major crisis of faith in anyone.

All things considered, I am at loss over why there is such a vehement need to vehemently oppose the theories on Big Bang and the evolution of species. Though as Vaishnavas we certainly needn't believe in them, as after all, they are theories -- not a religion! -- I do not see why we should go out of our way to attempt to discredit or challenge them either. The theories have little impact on our religion, and do not pose a de facto threat to our concept of theism, unless processed through the head of a committed atheist. Science is not about theism or atheism, or about the propagation of either of the two. Science should not be about the propagation of anything for its own sake, it should be about research and discovery.
braja - Thu, 25 Nov 2004 02:19:59 +0530
Ya know, sometimes people are greatly influenced by strong preaching (on topics the speaker is not educated on). Take this little thread that was recently on alt.religion.vaisnava, talk.origins, and alt.talk.creationism. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's teachings were never presented so well. crying.gif
Audarya-lila dasa - Thu, 25 Nov 2004 05:05:14 +0530
Madhava,

The issue isn't the mechanism of origin of species or how the universe developed or any other physical theory - the issue is one of atheism or agnosticism versus theism. For most scientists the thought of God or proving the existence of God by citing the fact that there are forces, histories etc. in the natural world which are currently beyond the capability of science to thoroughly explain is a ludicrous idea. Most scientists have a firm grounding in the physical sciences and are dedicated to explaining the world as we know it in terms of observable facts. A scientist would no more accept the notion that God exists just because someone says so than they would a scientific theory that was untestable.

I think the problem with many people is that they don't recognize that arguments based on unknowns and waving a wand and saying therefore God... are not acceptable to most thinking people.

Many scientists believe that all phenomena can be explained based on physical principles, including the phenomena of consciousness. The various states of consciousness that the mystic experiences would then be just various physical states of the brain/body induced by the practices the mystic participates in.

Rationalism/reductionism leads to agnosticism and atheism. It is a reliance on the mind and senses to understand experience. What of that which is beyond the mind and senses? For the agnostic such a question has no meaning - the thought being that all aspects of our experience can be explained rationally. What is beyond the abililty of science and current understanding to explain is not proof of the existence of God - rather it is only proof that we have yet to explain it rationally.

Since the soul and God are concepts and not obserable facts the scientist will simply accept such concepts as mythology or attribute these ideas to pre-rational thought. Without objective evidence what we have is subjective experience that cannot be verified or confirmed and therefore not acceptable in terms of truth.

What vaishnavas certainly have in common with Christians and any other religious sect is the 'belief' in a God who can intervene and even do things which would definitely fall into the 'physically' impossible in terms of proven principles of physics are concerned. Gaudiya literature both recent (Chaitanya's era for sure) and remote is filled with 'miracles' that could not possibly happen according to scientific principles.

So what is the issue? A rationalist will never accept any statement which goes against proven physical principles whether it be related to the origin of species, the history of the universe, or to deities and saints.

Why do you think it is said that the madhyama adhikari runs the very real risk of ending up as an athiest? I think it has to do with 'sorting' things out in the mind. Too much reliance on the mind and it's ability to sort out what is real from the unreal what is rational from the irrational can definitely leave one who is lacking genuine spiritual experience disillusioned regarding what is in religious texts.

There is no doubt that to be vital and relevant in today's world a theology cannot remain stagnant and vigorously cling to outdated myths and understandings of the past. The teachings must resonate with and take into account current information that wasn't known at the time of writing the ancient texts. Otherwise most thinking people will simply disregard the ideas as myths and hopelessly tied to man's pre-rational state. Why does it matter? Because in order to get people to investigate and experiement with their own consciousness they must find something that resonates with their understanding and if too much of what is presented is hopelessly flawed and tied to myth which is simply put, archaic, they will not be able to get past that to the point of trying to find out if the teachings truly do point to a method of uncovering truly meaningful experiences and to a fuller life.


Anyway - I have to get out of here.

Guara Hari Bol!

Audarya-lila dasa
DharmaChakra - Thu, 25 Nov 2004 05:20:11 +0530
QUOTE(Madhava @ Nov 24 2004, 03:27 PM)
All things considered, I am at loss over why there is such a vehement need to vehemently oppose the theories on Big Bang and the evolution of species. Though as Vaishnavas we certainly needn't believe in them, as after all, they are theories -- not a religion! -- I do not see why we should go out of our way to attempt to discredit or challenge them either. The theories have little impact on our religion, and do not pose a de facto threat to our concept of theism, unless processed through the head of a committed atheist. Science is not about theism or atheism, or about the propagation of either of the two. Science should not be about the propagation of anything for its own sake, it should be about research and discovery.


Amen... err... Q.E.D. err.. you get the idea biggrin.gif More on this when I get a second.
Madhava - Thu, 25 Nov 2004 05:50:25 +0530
QUOTE(Audarya-lila dasa @ Nov 25 2004, 12:35 AM)
The issue isn't the mechanism of origin of species or how the universe developed or any other physical theory - the issue is one of atheism or agnosticism versus theism.† For most scientists the thought of God or proving the existence of God by citing the fact that there are forces, histories etc. in the natural world which are currently beyond the capability of science to thoroughly explain is a ludicrous idea.

Pardon my scepticism, but I wonder if you have any sources to cite on the claim above. Often I feel we are talking about nothing but a vigilante trial and judgement of the rascal scientists.

You boil the issue down to atheism or agnosticism versus theism. I have to wonder, though, how well you can bundle atheism and agnosticism. The former, inasmuch as it insists that there is, and can be no god, is irrational and unscientific. One may legitimately be an agnostic and be unconcerned over the matter of god's existence, but insisting on the non-existence of god is as illogical as insisting on god's existence, given that the matter is objectively unproven.

If you push the issue, I wonder how many scientists you would find, who would insist that there can be no god, and that there absolutely is no god, and that is for certain.


Regarding:

QUOTE
Many scientists believe that all phenomena can be explained based on physical principles, including the phenomena of consciousness. The various states of consciousness that the mystic experiences would then be just various physical states of the brain/body induced by the practices the mystic participates in.

Indeed, thus some believe, and that is a theory. As far as I am aware of, there has been no conclusive research on the matter. I do not see why we should consider theories much of a threat. The question worth our attention is, are there conclusive studies that effectively disprove god's existence? Are there any such theories in sight that are about to be confirmed?

Certainly individual theological constructs may fall in the course of scientific research (such as the dogma of the world's being created a couple of millenia ago), but this isn't anything new -- religions have set out to disprove other religions' doctrines, and within religions sects have quarreled and sought to disprove each others' interpretations since millennia. Diverse theologies, finite attempts to define the infinite, will come and go in the course of time. Even if we are to insist on absolute individuals, the definitions will be finite inasmuch as the medium of expression is finite, and inasmuch as the audience's capacity to comprehend the definition is limited.

The ultimate ontological question of "why" will remain forever, regardless of science and religion with their respective attempts to explore the matter. Speaking of "why", I believe there is a substantial difference between the "why" of religion and the "why" of science, as the "why" of science seeks to discover the links in the chain of "hows" to understand "why" things happen, while religion seeks the ultimate "why" for all action and inaction in the cosmos, regardless of their shape.

I fail to see how the study of the chain of actions in the cosmos would ever come to the point of disproving the existence of the "ultimate why", as it is not within their field of study to begin with inasmuch as we think of the potential god as a transcendent entity. However if in the course of their work they do meet a door they knock upon with a big label, "The Ultimate Why", and a blue fellow with four arms comes to answer the call, then that would certainly be interesting.
Perumal - Thu, 25 Nov 2004 08:11:03 +0530
QUOTE(Madhava @ Nov 25 2004, 12:20 AM)
The question worth our attention is, are there conclusive studies that effectively disprove god's existence? Are there any such theories in sight that are about to be confirmed?


Buddha said people should seek their own liberation and should not be concerned about whether God exists or doesn't exist. If someone has no faith... they can follow that path.

God cannot be known by means of argument or logic, or science. He can be known only when He chooses to reveal himself to someone.

Katha Upanishad:
When taught by a man of inferior understanding, this Atman cannot be truly known, even though frequently thought upon. There is no way (to know It) unless it is taught by another (an illumined teacher), for it is subtler than the subtle and beyond argument. O Dearest, this Atman cannot be attained by argument; It is truly known only when taught by another (a wise teacher). O Nachiketas, thou hast attained It. Thou art fixed in Truth. May we ever, find a questioner like thee. Knowledge of the Atman or Self cannot be attained when it is taught by those who themselves lack in real understanding of It; and who therefore, having no definite conviction of their own, differ among themselves as to its nature and existence. Only he who has been able to perceive the Self directly, through the unfoldment of his higher nature, can proclaim what It actually is; and his words alone carry weight and bring illumination. It is too subtle to be reached by argument. This secret regarding the Hereafter cannot be known through reasoning or mere intellectualism. It is to be attained only in a state of consciousness which transcends the boundary line of reason.
Mina - Thu, 25 Nov 2004 08:16:39 +0530
The waters often get muddied in these types of discussions. First of all, a scientist is not really concerned with the why of any phenomenon, only in how to accurately describe it and determine a chain of cause and effect. A theologian on the other hand is very much concerned with questions about purpose of life and reasons for the status quo of this world.

If we start expecting our scientists to defend a theology, then we will end up right back where we started before science evolved into a real discipline, and don't forget that that process took many centuries. If science is to be useful to us at all, then a laissez faire approach is necessary. Otherwise, we run the risk that our medicines will not cure us, our environmental cleanup and protection measures will be fruitless, our psychiatric patients will be subjected to various tortures to cast out the 'evil spirits', our governments will all be run by totalitarian despots that supposedly have the 'divine right of kings' and one race will be considered superior to all others.

The whole religious right movement in America is kind of scarey. If you ever have a conversation with one of their zealots (as I have), then you cannot help but become alarmed. If they have their way, progress will be halted and society will take an ominous backward slide.

It is my opinion that once we stop the process of inquiry, and scientific research is an integral part of that process, then we lose our humility and our hearts will inevitably be hardened.
Audarya-lila dasa - Thu, 25 Nov 2004 13:26:05 +0530
Other than the fact that I work in the field of biochemistry and I deal with science and scientists on a daily basis I have to say that my view is still subjective since I have never done a formal study and as is the case with all such generalizations one would expect to find quite a variety of individuals who work in the scientific field and that each would have a unique perspective on life. Still, as I do have formal education in the physical sciences and I do interact with scientists on a daily basis as part of my career, I do think that I at least can give a more accurate assessment than someone sitting on the sidelines. I'm not sure where you got the idea that I think scientists are rascals. Quite the contrary - they are people like anyone else. There are many scientists who are deeply spiritual and who adhere to all sorts of religious beliefs.

You may be right that a more honest approach would be to be agnostic since the concept of God cannot be subjected to empirical investigation, although many of the claims of those who 'believe' can be. There is certainly a fairly well accepted theory that man created God, not the other way around. Of course such a theory can never be put to the test properly in the strict sense either. We do know that man does seek not only questions of how, as you say, but man also seeks meaning and his very existence is threatened which some would argue is enough existential pressure to create God and soul.

The why question only has meaning for one who thinks or feels there may be something more to life than chemical reactions. For many people this question is meaningless. A more pertinenet question for many is what shall I do with myself to find meaning in my life.

At any rate I was simply trying to put a broader perspective on the issue that Madhava was raising. To put it very concisely so that I won't be misunderstood - I am simply pointing out that for many scientists and rationalists the very idea that there is a cause to the origin of life, the origin of the universe etc. other than physical forces is not a plausible explantion - precisely for the reasons we are discussing here. For the empiricist there is no 'consciousness' behind it all that sets it all in motion.

For the spiritualist the origin of everything is consciousness, the opposite is really what is being argued by the empiricist - out of a primordial soup of chemicals in a reducing environments first complex molecules were formed and over time they became organized into self replicating units and from there diversity and complexity arose - in other words - consciousness arose from chemicals, or put another way, chemicals organized in such a way that consciousness was produced.

The spiriualist has a completely different idea - matter is organizing around consciousness, in other words, first there is consciousness and from that matter takes different shapes and functions.

I am all for progress and scientific inquiry. That's how I make my living and how I express myself professionally. Having said that I must say that I am also keenly aware of the basic problem with a myopic world view based entirely on empiricism.

We say 'the cause of all causes' is Krsna - in other words, as spiritualists we are convinced that if we trace back the whys and hows far enough we will arive at consciousness - in our case defined as the Supreme Person, the origin of all. So whether you like it or not, the basic meta narrative that we accept and keep as central to our lives - is in fact quite opposite and diametrically opposed to the general organizing concept behind empiricism which can generally be stated as all phenomena or causes can ultimately be explained empircally and fall into the realm of the physical sciences.
DharmaChakra - Thu, 02 Dec 2004 18:22:21 +0530
I think the problem presented here is not one of facts, but an issue of scientific explanation. Madhava has done a nice job reviewing the various descriptions in sastra of creation, be they of living entities or the cosmic manifestation.

Its interesting to note the two theories Madhava has brought forward The Big Bang and Evolution to examine as the main scientific theories of contention in the Christian community. However, there is another scientific theory that has had at least as far reaching an effect on humans and their world view, yet is rarely if ever contested. (Hence why Madhava would leave it off his list)

But first, let's review the basic kinds of scientific explanations. In only alphabetic order, they are:

Compositional explanation
Evolutionary explanation
Functional explanation
Transitional explanation

Compostional - To explain an object as the properties of its respective parts. An apple consists of 20% fructose, 10% H2O, etc.
Evolutionary - An object is explained in terms of the temporal development of the object. The age of stars can be determine by their current color, and an explanation of how stars change color as they age and cool.
Functional - Objects are understood by being broken down into their most simple components, and explaining how these components work towards the whole. A complex pulley system can be understood with just the physics of one pulley, and applying the function of that one pulley to the complex whole.
Transitional - Changes in state to an object are explained by disturbances to the object and the state of the object when the disturbance occurred. Grain conversion to alcohol can be explained by the brewing process in this manner.

The missing theory I spoke of is the Germ Theory of Disease. This theory is often considered 'the single most important contribution by the science of microbiology to the general welfare of the world's people, perhaps the single most important contribution of any modern scientific discipline'*, yet religious groups never contest its validity. Why? Germ theory has so solidly permeated our consciousness that even those that opt for other forms of medicine (Ayurvedic for example) still practice the basic tenants of sanitation, etc. proscribed by Germ Theory. Germ Theory is not mentioned in any Holy Scriptures, yet no one contests it (ok, maybe Church of Christ, Scientists).

Given the above definitions, Germ Theory is a transitional explanation. State B is arrived at by State A + disturbance (germs). The Big Bang and the Theory of Evolution are evolutionary explanations. Evolutionary explanations have an interesting characteristic; its not that they provide a temporal explanation, as a transitional explanation also deals with change over time, but that an evolutionary explanation presupposes a developmental history to the object prior to the observed state. The transitional can allow for a constructed State A, while the evolutionary needs a definite progression of events.

So the issue really becomes one of history, and how two competing systems explain it. Christianity explains the history of man via Genesis 1 - 2, while science explains the origin of species via evolution. Religion usually calls on a hierarchical explanation for history, with creation delineating not only the advent of living things, but their order in the world as well. (Note Genesis and the relation to when things are created. Man is created last and given dominion over all previously created things.) Hierarchical explanations usually imply type of refinement as well.
QUOTE(Madhava)
7) The manifestation of immovable entities, the varieties of fauna such as trees and plants that share a very low level of awareness.
8) The manifestation of the animal species that act primarily by instinct without inner consideration of right and wrong.
9) The manifestation of the human species.
In the above list, man, the last created, is the only one eligible for bhakti, hence an implicit refinement. This is of course rather explicit in the idea of transmigration itself, where the soul 'falls back' into lower species and slowly moves up the hierarchy. Personally, I think this heirarchical viewpoint is also the source of this mistaken concept of a 'Great Chain of Being' often put forward by creationists.

This recalls a point I made on this topic in another thread, that science and religion can really have very little meaningful dialog on this issue. For the scientist, the Theory of Evolution is cognitively sound (see Thagard's Conceptual Revolutions for the concept) while scripture is so for the religious. Religious creation implies so much more, and answers so many more questions than the scientific account, that I can't help but see any attempt to adjust the religious to the scientific as an exercise in apologia.

* See: http://www.mansfield.ohio-state.edu/~sabedon/biol2007.htm
Subal - Thu, 02 Dec 2004 21:18:22 +0530
The Beginning

ďIn the beginning was
the Word,
and the Word was
with God,
and the Word was
God.Ē

In the beginning of what?
In the beginning
of the creation
of the material universe.
In the beginning
of time.
In the beginning
of space.

Before the beginning of creation,
there was no time or space.
There was just eternity,
without beginning or end,
the eternal now.

There was something at the beginning.
What was that something?
It was the logos,
it was the Word,
it was God.

BANG!
The big bang.
OM!

My God, whatís going on here?
Whatís all this racket?
The event horizon is exploding from the primal singularity.

No one can explain
the beginning of creation.
No one was thereónot scientists or religionists.
Itís pure speculation, mythology.

Persons want to know how creation began.
Where does all this stuff come from?
Science and religion,
explain the unexplainable.
People want to know.

Yet, itís unknowable.
Give us your best shot.
Give us something to hold on to.
Jagat - Thu, 02 Dec 2004 21:23:30 +0530
In the beginning, there was a reason.
In the middle, there is a meaning to life.
In the end, it will all have been worthwhile.

In the beginning there was a bang.
In the middle there was evolution.
In the end, there will be nothing.

Yes, give it your best shot:
Do you want a story with a moral,
or without?