Spirituality and Scientific Temperament

(This article was published in the December 2014 issue of Vedanta Kesari, the spiritual and cultural monthly in English published from Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai .)

Many youth of today are very hesitant to identify themselves as religious but do not mind identifying themselves as spiritual. By religious, they mean activities like going to temples, performing ritualistic worship, sporting religious marks or clothing and visiting places of pilgrimage. By spiritual, they mean activities like practicing yoga asanas and meditation, visiting ashrams to listen to talks on personality development and ethics, reading books on disciplined life and participating in social service activities by ashrams.

Why would a person want to identify as spiritual and not religious? What is it that he is trying to identifying with? What is it that he is trying not to identify with?

The most important difference that people claim between being spiritual and being religious is the scientific temperament. They feel that by being spiritual, one need not give up one’s scientific temperament; but by being religious, one has to give it up. To understand these complex phenomena, the assumptions, apprehensions and misunderstandings, we need to dive deep.

Scientific Temperament

What is scientific temperament? It is an attitude that

  • welcomes questioning
  • tries to give logical explanations to observed phenomenon
  • presents principles free from dependence on personalities
  • prescribes actions which give the same consistent observable results irrespective of the person doing it
  • tries to give logical explanations to prescribed actions
  • keeps the doors open for more knowledge and understanding

One of the first definitions of scientific temper is by Jawaharlal Nehru: “[What is needed] is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind—all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems.” [The Discovery of India, page 512]

Developing a scientific temper is listed by the Indian Constitution as a fundamental duty of every citizen of India.


When science asks questions about the external world, spirituality asks questions about the internal world. The pursuit within, in search of the answers to the big questions of life – like “Who am I?”, “What is good?”, “Why should I be good?”, “Why is there sorrow in life?”, “Who is an ideal person?”, “What is the goal of life?” – in an open, rational and meaningful manner, in the spirit of scientific temper, is what is called the spiritual quest. As maturity comes, sooner or later, every thinking person will have to ask these questions and find their answers.

According to the French Nobel Laureate, Romain Rolland, the Vedantic spirit is scientific temper. He says, “The true Vedantic spirit does not start out with a system of preconceived ideas…. each man has been entirely free to search wherever he pleased for the spiritual explanation of the spectacle of the universe.” [“Life of Swami Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel” page 147] Mahatma Gandhi rightly said, “Hinduism is a relentless pursuit of Truth.” [“What is Hinduism”, National Book Trust]

Spirituality as the Pinnacle of Human Pursuit

The beauty of spirituality is that it seeks a comprehensive answer to the various questions, which are at best addressed or inquired only as different compartments by other branches of human knowledge. Ontology inquires into the fundamental nature of existence. Physics tries to find the theory of everything material. Psychology tries to understand the mind of man. Ethics tries to understand right and wrong. Spirituality, on the other hand, tries to find a unified integrated solution to the existential, psychological, ethical, intellectual quests of the human being. Thus, spirituality is the pinnacle of all human pursuit after knowledge, purpose and culture.

Pursuits of Spirituality

The Vedas classify human pursuit into four categories – called purusharthas.

  1. Artha – Security. Every living being has an instinct to preserve its own life. Many of human activities and pursuits are also merely to ensure the survival of self and one’s near-and-dear ones.
  2. Kama – Pleasure. Beyond the bare survival, every living being seeks pleasurable experiences and avoids painful experiences. This forms the next motivator in human beings also.

These two are common to animals and to human beings. A human being is no better than an animal if he stops with these two only. To qualify as a human being, he has to pursue two more goals.

  1. Dharma – Virtue. Human beings alone have the concept of virtues like satya (truthfulness), ahimsa (love), brahmacharya (sense-control), asteya (fairness in possession) and aparigraha (voluntary frugality). It is man alone, who can take these virtues to their fullest bloom, where a person can be willing to sacrifice his life to uphold truth or to help a fellow human being. No animal fasts on certain days or follows the voluntary restraints of brahmacharya. These are what make human beings stand apart from animals.
  2. Moksha – Freedom. Life throws its mixture of ups and downs at every one. It is only a human being who can put up a brave smile and face life head-on. No power on earth has the capability to make a human being sad, if he has decided to be cheerful. This tremendous power of the will to brave circumstances in life is a special freedom which is always there in every human being. Manifesting this freedom is called jivanmukti (free when living) [Gita 2.11, 2.55, 2.56, 2.57, 2.71].

Thus, the Vedas put forth a very simple, logical, down-to-earth list of human pursuits. The first two are animal pursuits. The last two make man into a divine being. Thus, spirituality caters to two basic questions which is very relevant to every human individual and society:

  • Inspired by what, would a human being be truthful, kind and self-controlled, even unto great inconveniences, including death?
  • Inspired by what, would a human being be undaunted in spirit even at the face of extreme ups and downs in life?

These two are the main pursuits of spirituality. They are universal, logical and undeniable. In trying to come up with a model to found these two pursuits, spirituality builds up a rational system that explains reality in a most logical manner.

Nature of the Individual

Freewill is the core of all human pursuits and purpose. Without freewill, there can be no accountability for actions. All concepts of morality, ethics, and purpose of life – everything human – will fall without a foundation. Freewill is the foundation of the concept of being human.

I am free to decide my current action and I am fully responsible for my action. I have all the knowledge, memory, tendencies and power to analyse the pros and cons of various reactions to the current situation. With all these, I am the final decision-maker. I am the individual, who holds the freewill. Now, if I, the individual, am merely a product or property of matter, there is no scope for freewill. Freewill has to be “free” for it to be meaningful. So, I should be an entity, independent of matter, and who uses the body and mind as instruments to interact with the world. Thus, I am not the body; I am not the mind. [Gita – 15.9, 18.22, 15.16, 6.5]

Nature of the Whole

For me to be able to use my freewill, there should be a constant Law connecting cause and effect, upon which I can use my freewill. If there is no constant Law of cause and effect, my freewill will be meaningless. Thus, the Law of moral causality, also called Law of Karma, has to be there to interact with my freewill. Thus, if I accept freewill, I am bound to accept Law of Karma also. Thus, I am connected with the whole Universe in a cause-and-effect relationship.

There are several cells in my body. Each cell is a living being in its own right. However, I have an individuality. Similarly, when we make a statement like “India decided to ratify the protocol”, the whole of India is considered as a single logical entity. Thus, a group of people has its own logical identity and has its own dynamics. Similarly, when we put together everything that exists, we get a logical Universal entity. That entity, to whom the entire physical universe is the physical body, all the minds of all thinking beings put together is the mind, whose dynamics is the whole history of the universe, is called as Ishvara in the Vedas. [Gita – 7.4, 7.5, 13.13-13.16]

Interacting with the Whole

Depending on the context of interaction with the Whole, I would have to invoke that aspect of Ishvara. If I consider myself as an Indian citizen, Ishvara would be Bharat Mata. If I consider myself as an earthling, Ishvara would be Bhumi Mata and Surya Narayana. When I go to take bath in Ganga, Ishvara would be Ganga Mata. When I am trying to earn money, Ishvara would be Lakshmi. When I am starting a new activity, Ishvara would be Vignesvara. When I am the wielder of freewill, Ishvara would be wielder of the Law of Karma. When I am doing social service, Ishvara would be person who accepts my service. When I am working in my profession, Ishvara would be my customer whom I serve. When I am serving my parents or children at home, it is Ishvara whom I really serve. Ishvara is the Supreme Conscious Being, whose Consciousness reflects in the heart of all conscious beings as the Self. [Gita – 10.20] Thus, there is nothing that exists in this universe other than Ishvara. [Gita – 7.7]

As Ishvara is the Supreme person who exists as everything around me and knows my innermost thoughts [Gita – 18.61], I can worship Ishvara through any form and through any ritual that I am naturally attracted to [Gita – 7.21]. Forms and rituals are needed by the human mind to express emotions. The country is all around me. If I want to show my emotion of devotion and gratitude to the country, I put a flag and salute it. The form and ritual help me to express my emotions and also deepen them. Similarly, various forms and rituals help me to interact with Ishvara, who is in-and-through everything in the universe. The all-knowing and all-capable Ishvara responds to my worship through the very same form and ritual that I use.

Spiritualizing Everyday Life

Thus, by a small set of a logically acceptable principles, spirituality transforms mundane everyday life into one of a great purpose. By having the bigger picture always in mind, a human being can develop the tenacity to stick on to a life of values and also face the various situations in life with great poise. This is the message of Vedas. This is the message of Hinduism. All the rest are details to help an individual to bring this broad vision into practical life.

Based on Principles

Spirituality does not depend on any individual for the validity of its claims. It is based on logical principles. Swami Vivekananda says, “Every one of the great religions in the world excepting our own, is built upon such historical characters; but ours rests upon principles. There is no man or woman who can claim to have created the Vedas. They are the embodiment of eternal principles; sages discovered them; and now and then the names of these sages are mentioned — just their names; we do not even know who or what they were. In many cases we do not know who their fathers were, and almost in every case we do not know when and where they were born. But what cared they, these sages, for their names? They were the preachers of principles, and they themselves, so far as they went, tried to become illustrations of the principles they preached.” [CW III-183]

A Theory of Everything

Spirituality gives its own “Theory of Everything”, based not on matter, but on a universal Consciousness. Upon scrutiny, one would find that this theory is no less logical than any of the theories put forth by science. Swami Vivekananda says, “It seems clear that the conclusions of modern materialistic science can be acceptable, harmoniously with their religion, only to the Vedantins or Hindus as they are called. It seems clear that modern materialism can hold its own and at the same time approach spirituality by taking up the conclusions of the Vedanta. It seems to us, and to all who care to know, that the conclusions of modern science are the very conclusions the Vedanta reached ages ago; only, in modern science they are written in the language of matter.” [CW III-185]

Foundation of Morality

In one integrated system, spirituality gives a logical meaning to a moral life, without depending on any dogma or commandments. Swami Vivekananda says, “The rational West is earnestly bent upon seeking out the rationality, the raison d’ être of all its philosophy and its ethics; and you all know well that ethics cannot be derived from the mere sanction of any personage, however great and divine he may have been. Such an explanation of the authority of ethics appeals no more to the highest of the world’s thinkers; they want something more than human sanction for ethical and moral codes to be binding, they want some eternal principle of truth as the sanction of ethics. And where is that eternal sanction to be found except in the only Infinite Reality that exists in you and in me and in all, in the Self, in the Soul? The infinite oneness of the Soul is the eternal sanction of all morality, that you and I are not only brothers — every literature voicing man’s struggle towards freedom has preached that for you — but that you and I are really one. This is the dictate of Indian philosophy. This oneness is the rationale of all ethics and all spirituality.” [CW III-189]

Spirituality and Scientific Temperament

With these broad principles of spirituality, which is in total alignment with scientific temper, the reader can attempt to answer the big questions of life. The reader can also try to throw more questions at the model given by the Vedas to see how rational answers come to them. Thus, the Vedas provide the framework for spirituality, which can cater to the intellectual, emotional, cultural and spiritual quest of modern youth. Spirituality is religion packaged in such a way that it nurtures the scientific temper of the practitioner.

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