In my last article on Baan Ganga, I briefly recounted its oral history — Lord Laskhmana pierced the earth with an arrow and actualized Mother Ganga in Walkeshwar, to quench Lord Rama’s thirst, some 2.5 million years ago as per yuga time scales. The modern mind tempered by science can imagine advanced drilling machines building an underground passage way to transport Ganges across hundreds of miles but that would take years to achieve. How could a mere arrow shot into the ground instantly actualize far away Ganges in Walkeshwar? How can religious stories that stand in contradiction to scientific laws be taken seriously as part of history?
To properly investigate this issue of Puranic chronology scientifically requires covering a lot of ground. In this article, I will just explore a separate but related Vedic notion of “Dharma”. Swami Prabhupada, one of the foremost exponent of Vedic knowledge in modern times, pointed out that while one can change from one religion to another just as one can go from one college to another, dharma connotes to the essential nature of things which cannot be given up. Even a purely material object can have its dharma. The dharma or essential nature of sugar is to be sweet; the dharma of fire is to burn. Sugar will cease to sugar if it ceases to be sweet.
Similarly, animals also have their essential dharma, or nature. The dharma of a tiger is to kill another animal and eat. But the dharma of an elephant is to be a vegetarian. The distinction between dharma and religion should be more clear now. Religion applies only to human beings, but dharma is said to govern the behavior of all things: material objects, plants, animals and human beings. Thus, dharma is universal.
Scientists are also in a sense trying to find the essential nature of material objects, even if they do not call it by the name dharma. For example, a falling apple, a revolving planet, and a speeding train are all different objects in motion but the first major advance in modern physical came when Newton showed that they can all be treated generally as a single kind of object, a point particle carrying mass, and in motion.
But the resulting laws of nature were deterministic, and brooked no exception. An apple freely falling under gravity cannot suddenly decide to go up, or even change its course in another downward direction. This gives the feature of universality of the scientific law. The Vedic idea of dharma also holds that starting from inert objects, up to animals, they are obliged to follow their essential nature and act. Whereas, in the human form of life, one can choose to follow one’s essential human dharma or act as per one’s lower nature that we share with animals and lower life forms.
So, on the one hand, both science and the worldview of dharma seem to accept that material objects must follow their essential nature and the laws governing them. But in comparison, science is closed, and not upward compatible, i.e. science at present contains no room for free will and choice, if we consider human beings also as complex material systems. Science is missing something crucial within its world view of the natural world.
But, surprisingly, even physics, which studies only inert matter, is being forced in modern times to move away from classical determinism toward laws that allow choice even for inanimate objects! For example, Nobel prize winner Ernst Rutherford asked Niels Bohr as early as 1913: “how does an electron decide what frequency it is going to vibrate at when it passes from one stationary state to another? It seems to me that you would have to assume that the electron knows beforehand where it is going to stop.”
This question is yet to be fully answered even now within quantum physics, a century later! In this sense, we can say that the true quantum revolution is still at its beginning stage. It is very likely that as science probes even matter deeply, it may come to include choice within its framework, not necessarily in terms of human free will but at least in some simpler form. If so, while science and conventional religion may be difficult to reconcile, science and dharma may yet have an eventual meeting point. I can even go one step further and ask: Can the Vedic notion of dharma of objects be properly understood and demonstrated to be relevant or useful to solve the above foundational problem in physics? That will open a new window on the issue of science and dharma. My own work in macroscopic quantum mechanics for the past thirty-five years is very much in this realm.
In all of this, the original point remains: before a modern mind can reject baan ganga origins or puranic time scales for human history on scientific grounds, it might do well to recognize that modern science has much progress to make even in the study of inert matter on relevant fronts.
© Ravi V. Gomatam. The author combines deep expertise in both science and religion. He holds a Master’s degree in engineering and a Ph. D. in foundations of quantum mechanics. He has over 40 published research publications. He is also an ordained Vaishnava monk for nearly four decades. He is writing a book on the concept of matter in Bhaghavata Sankhya. He directs two institutes (www.insist.ac.in and www.bvinst.edu).