Tree of knowledge

The Tree of knowledge

Where Science and Spirituality Converge

Yoga picks up where the separation of science and spirituality leaves off, encouraging us to explore the inherent intelligence in all things — and to draw our own conclusions.

— Linda Johnsen



The fields of religion and science have been at odds in the West since Copernicus suggested that the earth circled the sun. But in the East the division between science and spirituality never occurred. The sages and scientists of ancient India weren’t competitors; in fact, they were often one and the same. In spite of how supercharged today’s debate between science and spirituality may seem, the disconnect is not inevitable. The sages tell us there is an intelligent force inherent in nature, underlying all matter, and that yoga can provide the missing link that ties science and religion together. Westerners may be surprised to learn that ancient India had its own school of scientific materialism, Lokayata, meaning “this physical world is all that exists.” It was one of the major darshanas or “viewpoints” of Indian culture.


The Brihaspati Sutra, the most famous book of this tradition, written around 600 bce, maintains that seeing is believing and that the only sure knowledge we have is that which our senses provide us. Everything we perceive, it tells us, is made up of some combination of the four states of matter: earth, water, fire, and air. Even our own awareness is nothing more than a temporary product of the physical processes of our body. The Lokayatas explain this by saying if you mix ground betel, lime, and areca nut, you’ll create something that didn’t initially appear in these three ingredients: the colour red. Just so, they say, the components of our material body combine in such a way as to create our experience of consciousness. At death, when these components break down, our self-awareness simply vanishes.

But who combined all these components in such a complex and coherent way that life became possible in the first place? “Who paints the peacock’s tail? Who teaches the bird to sing? There is no cause other than nature itself,” claim the Lokayatas in the Sarva Siddhanta Samgraha. Many centuries later Charles Darwin echoed this sentiment. Originally, the Lokayatas sustained a formidable presence in Indian history and were frequently referred to in Hindu and Buddhist texts, including the Bhagavad Gita. But their influence gradually waned, and today they’re hardly even remembered.
The Chhandogya Upanishad tells the story of two students, Indra and Virochana, who approached their renowned guru, hoping to learn the highest truth. Their teacher advised them to look at their reflections in a bowl of water. “That body you see there is the reality,” he taught. “That’s who you are.” Virochana returned home, satisfied that his physical body and the material universe it functions in are the whole of reality. But Indra didn’t buy it. Year after year he continued to serve the guru, asking over and over for the real truth about the soul.

Finally the teacher relented and shared the sacred tradition with his determined student. “The wind doesn’t have a physical body, nor does the lightning or thunder, yet they are completely real,” he said. “There is a serene intelligence inside you that exists in and of itself, independent of matter, always joyous and free. Sometimes it puts on a physical body, but when it directs its mind, like a divine eye, back onto itself, it recognizes itself as unborn, undying awareness. You are not your body, Indra, any more than you are the coat or shirt you have also put on. You are that pure, tranquil, non-material intelligence itself.”

The name of that teacher was Prajapati, the same name given to the divine intelligence that created the world! The Upanishad is slyly hinting here that it’s easy to mistake the material world for the whole of reality, as Virochana did. But if we continue to search further, with patience and determination, we will find a deeper, more comprehensive truth.

India has long been the land of siddhas, advanced yogic adepts. And these masters uniformly rejected the idea that the universe is nothing more than the random permutations of matter. Materialists such as the Lokayatas could make a case against greedy, corrupt priests or self-deluded, would-be psychics, but siddhas couldn’t be dismissed so easily. Again and again people saw them perform miracles that couldn’t be explained away. And given a choice between the strident claims of the Lokayatas versus the siddhas’ testimony about higher dimensions of consciousness, the people of India decided to trust the spiritual masters. The adepts, after all, offered sincere and committed students such as Indra a host of techniques through which they could scientifically test their claims and experience higher orders of reality for themselves. As a philosophical school, Lokayata gradually lost its foothold in India until Europeans reintroduced the materialistic paradigm a few centuries ago.

More next week: ‘Science and the development of life: The yogic view’.


Linda Johnsen, MS, is author of Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece (just released), and Meditation Is Boring? Putting Life in Your Spiritual Practice (both available from the Himalayan Institute Press).



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