It was a little strange to see netizens mock ISRO Chief K Sivan for visiting Tirumala to seek blessings of Tirupati before the launch of Chandrayaan – II. The notion that science and religion can’t co-exist is a medieval one, harking back to the time the Church hounded Galileo for showing how the solar system functioned.
While no Godmen making unscientific comments should be countered, and any form of superstition should be systemically challenged, it’s important to understand that science and religion can co-exist, more so since the world’s believers won’t suddenly turn into atheists.
In fact, religious men have played their part in emboldening science. The Big Bang theory for example was first hypothesised by a Roman Catholic priest Georges Leimatire. Perhaps because unlike the Abrahamic faiths, Hinduism has no single origin story, the idea of the syncretisation of science and religion isn’t so strange.
Perhaps that’s why Western scientists have such a particular affinity for Hindu deities. In fact, Oppenheimer recalled two verses from the Gita when he witnessed the first test of the atomic bomb:
“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the mighty one’ and "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
Another Hindu god that Western scientists have taken a liking to is Lord Shiva.
Maha Shivratri, celebrated on Feb 21, 2020 is an important Hindu festival. Nataraj is the ‘life force’, and it’s interesting to note that there stands a 2-metre statue of Lord Shiva at CERN, Switzerland, one of the premier research institutes of the world that holds the Large Hadron Collider.
The statue was unveiled on June 18, 2004 and was a gift from the Indian government. Next to it stands a plaque by Fritjof Capra: “Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art and modern physics.”
The statue captures Shiva performing the Tandava which goes from creation to destruction:
• 'Srishti' - creation, evolution
• 'Sthiti' - preservation, support
• 'Samhara' - destruction, evolution
• 'Tirobhava' - illusion
• 'Anugraha' - release, emancipation, grace
Fritjof Capra is one of the foremost proponents of the link between ‘Eastern philosophy’ and science.
He explained in The Tao of Physics: “The Dance of Shiva symbolises the basis of all existence. At the same time, Shiva reminds us that the manifold forms in the world are not fundamental, but illusory and ever-changing. Modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures, but is also the very essence of inorganic matter. "According to quantum field theory, the dance of creation and destruction is the basis of the very existence of matter. Modern physics has thus revealed that every subatomic particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance; a pulsating process of creation and destruction. For the modern physicists then, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter, the basis of all existence and of all-natural phenomena.”
Another scientist Aidan Randle-Conde from Belgium noted in a blog during his stay at CERN: “The Dancing Shiva represents the changes in the universe around us, as matter and energy constantly bump into each other, create and destroy systems and keep renewing the world."
He added: "I suppose we can attach any meaning we like to this, the constant chatter of culture, the renewal of our population as people die and children and born, the violent cosmological events that keep reorganizing the universe. Any and all of these interpretations are beautiful, powerful and majestic, but for me there is one interpretation which excites me more than any other and holds a very deep truth in it. This cosmic dance is the interaction of matter and antimatter.
Popular scientist Carl Sagan was another exponent and had said in his show Cosmos: “Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, no doubt, by accident, to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma 8.64 billion years long. Longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half of the time since the Big Bang. And there are much longer time scales still."
In fact, Capra had an interesting titbit in which he discussed the connection between ‘modern physics and Eastern mysticism’, the legendary Heinsenberg (the physicist, not the drug dealer) had written back:” Many thanks for sending me your paper ‘The Dance of Shiva.’ The kinship between the ancient Eastern teachings and the philosophical consequences of the modern quantum theory have [sic] fascinated me again and again…”
Incidentally, current Defence Minister had claimed that his time with Tagore and the Vedas helped Heisenberg formulate the Uncertainty Principle. However, it was proposed in 1927 and Heisenberg met Tagore in 1929.
That being said Heisenberg did find solace after meeting Tagore.
Heisenberg actually told Capra that he had spent time with Tagore in India helped him realise the ‘recognition of relativity, interconnectedness, and impermanence as fundamental aspects of physical reality, which had been so difficult for himself and his fellow physicists, was the very basis of the Indian spiritual traditions’.
Heisenber said that the conversations with Tagore’ helped some of the ideas that had seemed crazy, make more sense’.