In the context of preaching Krishna bhakti to the scientific community of the world, I would argue, that a change of direction is direly needed. There could also be a strong argument to stick with the formula endorsed by Srila Prabhupada, too, so my arguments are presented simply for consideration, and they might be based on a wrong understanding of devotees or Prabhupada’s vision, too.
The basic premise of Bhaktivedanta Institute in the 70s was that devotee scientists can win over atheistic scientists by producing top-notch research, publishing books and articles accepted by peer review journals, and by holding conferences. In a way it was a science version of converting westerners by learning to eat with knife and fork – beating them on their own turf and on their own terms. It didn’t work for spreading Krishna consciousness and, after forty years of trying, it clearly doesn’t work with science, too. There could always be another book, another article, another conference so devotees can always find some source for hope but, realistically speaking – it doesn’t work.
We can look at stories of Intelligent Design or Young Earth Creationists who are simply shut out on ideological basis no matter how scientifically solid their research is. Flagella motor as an example of irreducible complexity still doesn’t have evolutionist explanation even though devotees presented it at one of the conferences when Prabhupada was still present, and they weren’t the ones who discovered it either. Michael Behe used this and many other examples in a widely read book published in 1996 but when he tried to present his case in peer review journals he was told that it wouldn’t be possible. Ten years later he was called to testify on behalf of Intelligent Design in a trial over school board policies and a judge clearly unqualified to make such a decision ruled Intelligent Design not to be science and that was the end of it. Atheists just legislated against it. Anyone going the same way will face the same fate and so we should be smarter.
Politics of science is only one problem, though, and politics can be beat, but there’s another, more fundamental reason why this approach is not likely to produce results – we can’t produce Krishna conscious science based on materialistic premises. I’m afraid we often don’t even realize that we work on the wrong assumptions. We think that we know we are not these bodies and that life comes from life and that this knowledge alone is enough to distinguish us from materialistic scientists. Our illusion, however, goes deeper than that.
Following atheists we assume that the world is the objective reality and we can learn it as it is by employing scientific method which is meant to erase traces of subjectivity and bias from our learning process. We assume that Srimad Bhagavatam also describes this same objective reality and so by perfecting our research we can reconcile Bhagavatam description of the universe with that of modern science. We think, just like atheists do, that the solution can be achieved by pressing forward and expanding the knowledge, both Vedic and modern, until they eventually converge.
This assumption, however, goes against Vedic model of creation. Oh, and we, following the atheists, also think that the universe was created in the beginning, either in six days according to the Bible or after the Big Bang, and now it has become the object of our study as if we are independent observers and not cogs in the creation ourselves. This assumption alone – that we are independent observers able to measure things – is already an illusion and so we can’t come to any true knowledge if we start from here.
Vedic creation is like an upside down tree, and we of course know that from Bhagavad Gita, but one rather obvious consequence of this principle is that modern science is a branch going in another direction. Reconciliation, therefore, is not somewhere ahead but back up the tree before science branched out. We need to know how this branching occurred and what choices were taken differently, as well as reasons for making these choices. The path to true knowledge is not in moving forward, which is expanding the tree, but in going backwards – up the tree, not down.
In other words, we need to understand Vedic science first – how the universe was created and how our reality is created every moment of our lives, and only then we can describe emergence and “progress” of modern science. We need to know Sankhya inside out and this will give us understanding why the universe appears as it’s described in Srimad Bhagavatam – Sankhya and creation go hand in hand, it’s plain obvious from the Second and Third Cantos. It’s possible that at this point the need to explain modern science will simply disappear but, in any case – we can’t reconcile modern science with something we don’t yet know ourselves because it’s the challenge of the next order of difficulty.
One hard to digest aspect of Sankhya is that all reality is subjective, that it’s really “mind over matter” in every way. If we want to change the reality we need to change ourselves. We think that poetic description of the sky exists in the minds of poets and physical description of the universe is in the minds of astrophysicists but the sky itself is “objective reality”. This may be so, but the choice to see the universe through the eyes of astrophysics is subjective, not objective one, and so the description of reality it produces is also subjective. A poet, on the other hand, might place significantly higher value on beauty and he might understand how scientists prefer logic and reasoning but will never find it appealing. To him the sky will always be a thing of beauty, not of relativity and thermonuclear reactions.
Among scientists themselves, string theory is not generally accepted as real science. It lacks empirical confirmation and proof might never be coming due to physical constraints – a straightforward tests require a particle accelerator the size of the solar system, I heard. The beauty of the math behind it, however, is indisputable in the eyes of many and on this basis alone they keep pushing it despite all odds. They’ve learned to hold conferences, give speeches, and publish articles that don’t mention string theory at all and some apply math derived from it in everyday applications without any attribution. They live in a parallel universe of their own, so to speak. One of their ideas is to strip the need for experimental confirmation from scientific method altogether because they find it too restrictive. String theorists way of co-existence and relative prosperity is, incidentally, one way to beat politics of science.
Within mainstream science astrophysicists don’t see the reality the way quantum theorists do but they probably should, and it could completely overturn their model of the universe because in quantum world stars can’t shine light in all directions and light won’t bounce off the surface of the Moon. Astronomers still treat the universe in a classical way and refuse to apply philosophical conclusions from quantum mechanics after nearly a hundred years.
From Sankhya we can learn that this resistance to keeping up with other branches of sciences is not based on logic but on far deeper attachments – the branching is further up the tree than intellect. Likewise, to become devotees we need to make changes within our hearts, not just on the level of intellect or mind. Intellect and mind will follow the choice within the heart instead and, with time, we’ll start actually seeing the universe as Krishna’s energy with our eyes, too. This is one of the reasons why I think that advancing Vedic science means making changes deep within our beings and so it might lead to a loss of interest in reconciliation with modern science that looks so attractive now, or in proving whether the Earth is flat or whether NASA really didn’t go to the Moon.
It is more likely that it will lead to an increased interest in how to re-establish the system where we can become truly dependent on performance of yajna. Right now we treat chanting more like we treat our mobile phones – press here and here, then magic magic magic, and then all Prabhupada’s books appear at our fingertips. We don’t understand the “magic magic magic” step and think understanding it is not necessary, so the exact process of yajna, which turns chanting into dharma, artha, kama, and moksha, remains a mystery, too. And yet we expect chanting to yield artha and kama, let’s be honest. With the phones we expect engineers to work it out.
With Sankhya and yajna scientifically minded devotees would, I expect, learn how each and every aspect of this interaction works as well and learn to apply it to support farming based communities where we have to place our fates directly into the hands of Krishna working via demigods rather than rely on modern food production industry.
Regardless of my musings, the actual direction of Bhaktivedanta Institute needs to be worked out in cooperation with each other. Some time ago I was given a first edition of Caitanya Caritamrita, not the full set but just one volume, printed in Japan in 1973. It could be my most valuable possession so far and it starts with the description of Advaita Acarya’s branch of Lord Caitanya’s tree and right in the beginning there’s a verse about some of his sons becoming asara – useless. In the purport Srila Prabhupada describes the situation in Gaudiya Matha after the disappearance of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and says that by refusing to cooperate with each other in forming and submitting themselves to GBC both warring factions became asara, too (CC Adi 12.8). We usually use this purport to differentiate ISKCON but this is what also happened to Bhaktivedanta Institute where two remaining branches, the one out of Mumbai and the one in Calcutta, don’t acknowledge even each other’s existence on their respective sites. Alachua branch quietly died out after disappearance of Sadaputa Prabhu, though recently they brought it back to life.
As I said in the beginning, it’s nice to revive his legacy but if it’s done in a separatist manner and no reconciliation happens within our own society then what is the hope of reconciling our views with modern science? Reconciliation could be beyond the capabilities of Alachua devotees themselves and lack of cooperation should not be the reason for them to abandon their efforts but at least the understanding of the need and the desire should be there. Maybe one day our ISKCON authorities will take notice and help solving this sectarian problem. First things first – we need to solve our own problems and advance our own Vedic science before we can hope to convince anyone else.