Science and Spirit

Paragon House, New York, USA in 1990


Sample Excerpt

Excerpted from the essay

First section, “Three Views of Nature” in the essay

The Indian View of Nature
by Ravi Ravindra and Priscilla Murray

In the West, Nature is almost always viewed as alien to human beings. This alien is hostile and needs to be conquered, subdued, and reduced. In fact, for many a century the Westerners have not referred to Nature as she; she has been reduced to an it. There is a hostility, or at least a competition: it is Man versus Nature. Man is right and nature is wrong. This in its turn reflects another duality: that between God and Man. God is right and Man is wrong. In each of these dualities the lower aspect needs to be controlled and subdued. This needs action: technology (based on the scientific laws) to control external nature and religion (based on the Law of God, Torah) to control human will, the inner nature. Nature must be bent to the will, benefit, and use of man; and men to those of God. In either case, the unruly and wild nature needs to be tamed for some utilitarian purpose. Post-Renaissance science and technology offer the paradigmatic case of the Western attitude to Nature. There is something very deeply anthropocentric in this attitude: Man separated from nature, hostile to it, and determined to conquer it. And nature exists for the use and benefit of Man--an attitude with a discernible continuity from the Genesis story to the so-called Anthropic Principle in contemporary physical cosmology.

Control is the main feature of the Western man's relationship with Nature; and it is almost always mental. Whenever this rational control is called into question, the relational pendulum swings to the sentimental. In general, the developers and the conservationists subscribe to the same level of spirituality, even though at that level their actions and the consequences of these actions are different and call for appropriate choices.

In the cultures influenced by the Chinese worldview, as one can see especially in Japan, Nature is not ‘true’ or `natural' as she is. She must be molded or assisted to become `natural,' which is an ideal form of her; then she is truly beautiful and perfect. This ideal form, which results from a transformation of Nature, is given material and visual expression, and does not exist only in the mind, as is the case with Plato's ideas. Nature must be transformed to be loved. It is perhaps not an exaggeration to suggest that the Japanese love not flowers but flower arrangements! Nature to be contemplated is not what she is, untransformed, but what she ought to be, ideally. If Nature is exploited in America, she is reformed and decorated in Japan! For example, the gardens in Japan are not natural in any ordinary sense of that word; something artificial and artifacted is drastically imposed on them, an unnatural order. Whenever this imposed order transcends the merely mental and emotional, as in some exquisite Zen gardens (as rarely happens in a Western garden, however pleasing to the mind and the senses it might be), there is present an unearthly--might we say supernatural--beauty and quality.

Formalization of Nature is based on a rejection of Nature in the raw. If the West imposes a grid of mathematics on Nature, Japan imposes a formal aesthetic sensitivity, yielding not abstract mathematical laws but hidden deep formal structures and arrangements. If the Western natural philosopher calculates and measures, the Chinese one contemplates and draws. In the one case, there is a technological control and manipulation, in the other there is an aesthetic awe and adjustment. In both cases, the attempt is to find what is hidden in Nature, below the surface. And in both cases a Man-Nature duality remains, although the nature of the relationship between the two in the duality is different. Rather than being hostile, Man is a part of Nature in the Sineatic view; Man has his place in Nature, as he has in the social relations--albeit ritualized and formal. In no case is Man only for himself, atomistically separated from other beings--in society or in Nature on the large--concerned only for his own advancement or convenience; a human being is always a part of a group or of a whole larger than himself. The new science of ecology is likely to find much more kinship with the philosophical traditions of China than with any other.

Moving to India, one moves away from the gardens altogether--whether they be French, English or Zen. The great Mughal gardens of India are not indigenous to the Indian sensibility, which is at home not as much in the garden as in the forest. No man-made order, mathematical or aesthetic, can be imposed on the forest, without reducing it in some way. The whole of Nature is like a giant forest: wild, mysterious, awesome. She is what she is: she cannot be tamed or controlled. She must be accepted as she is. There is a deep-seated acceptance in the Indian attitude towards Nature, and towards everything else. Nothing needs to be controlled or altered or transformed except oneself. What needs to be changed is the level of one's vision. If one sees from the perspective of the Vastness (which is what Brahman, the highest Reality in Indian thought, means literally), one sees rightly and knows the true order in which everything has its right place. Nature does not need to be improved or corrected; it is one's vision which needs to be cleansed. The true order is not something to be imposed on Nature by Man, mathematically or aesthetically, by eliminating the surface. Nature does not need to be controlled or transformed or decorated; she needs to be accepted in her entirety as a whole--in depth as well as on the surface; and the depths cannot exist without the surface. She can be loved and celebrated as she is; or if one finds her too much of an enchantress she can be rejected as a whole. But she is alive and must not be diminished or reduced.

The most fundamental principle of a true philosopher in India is non-violation (ahimsa). Nature is right as she is, as is Man deep down, essentially. There cannot be a conflict between what is and what ought to be. If one would see deeply, in reality, and not be stopped by the surface appearances, one would see the basic rightness of all there is. `All this is Brahman,' says one of the Upanishads. There is no duality between Man and Nature, any more than there is between God and Man. No one needs to be subdued or controlled. Strictly speaking, viewed from the highest level of insight, which is by definition the most comprehensive and the clearest vision, there are no others; there is an essential underlying unity of all that exists. To be sure, if one's attention is co-opted by the surface of things then Nature, rather than being a revelation of the essence, becomes a veil. Nature is maya, which means both the creative power of Brahman, as well as the magical illusion hiding Brahman. There is this persistent tension in Indian thought: between Nature as revelation of Divinity and Nature as illusion.
At root, the Indian attitude to Nature is metanatural: Nature does not exist by herself or for herself; she is dependent on the Divine Energy and exists for Its sake. In this it parallels India's metasocial attitude to society: society does not exist for its own sake, no more than a human being does for his own. All small and large arrangements, organisms and constellations exist as varied manifestations of the Divine, and for the sake of Divinity. Ultimately, all forms derive their existence from and have their meaning in what is eternally beyond form. Truth, with a capital T, is not in forms; they are true to the extent they participate in the Truth. Truth, Freedom, and Brahman for the Indian are radically beyond the pale--the pale of society, language, thought, and time. At his best, the Indian is a complete supra-formal maverick, bound by no form or convention or law, responding only to the whispers from the Other Shore. Only the Buddha could have said, “I wander alone in the world like a wild rhinoceros.” Perhaps not he alone: Yajñavalkya could have said that, as could have Mahavira, Patañjali, Shankara, Ramana, or Krishnamurti. But not Confucius, nor Aristotle.

That which is `outside the square (fang-wai)' would be outside his concern, once declared Confucius, the master of Li. Li, the unnatural order of social norms and ceremonial rites created by man to govern his behavior and emotions, is operational only when it has the four walls as its reference of relevancy. The only worthy concern of a serious person in India is that which is `outside the square,' any square: only with respect to that can what is inside the square have any significance. At any level of perception, there is the pull of the visible and there is the ability to see beyond. Indian sages seem to have consistently sacrificed the visible for the power to see clearly. In that clarity, as the Yoga Sutras (1:48) of Patañjali says, `the insight is truth-bearing.'
However, all great insights are bound to be understood at a lower and degenerate level when the requisite tension of the clear vision of the moment is dispersed in concepts and sentiments. It cannot be said that India (or for that matter China) has had a particularly praiseworthy record of care for the environment or natural resources, either in the modern times or the ancient. It may be that the strong pull of the transcendent concerns in India has almost always led to a lack of concern for the visible world, and the consequent devaluation of Nature--space, time, materiality and causality. This is especially striking in the Vedanta and Madhyamika schools of thought which display nothing of the exuberant love and celebration of Nature and earthly life so characteristic of the Vedas.

In summary, remembering that a great deal needs to be elaborated and qualified in such large-scale generalizations; the Western attitude to Nature is predominantly scientific and technological, centered on Man; the Sineatic attitude is aesthetic and poetic, patterned on the relationships in the Society; whereas the Indian attitude is mystical and metaphysical, focused on Brahman. Clearly, these attitudes overlap each other and are only rarely met in extreme purity. None of these cultures has a monopoly either of wisdom or of stupidity; their perspectives can be understood at a high level of clarity and sensitivity or at a low one. Within each major culture, for it to have survived long, all variety of human responses are met.

However, each culture has its own peculiar genius and unique emphasis; each one presents a distinct cluster of attitudes towards Nature. Also, it is worth noticing that when one speaks of the Western attitude, one is speaking of something which has developed largely in the modern times, although with a discernible continuity with its own past; but in speaking of China or India attention is focused on the classical periods, perhaps with some continuity into the present. This is understandable historically: the impulse for major intellectual, economic, or military initiatives in the last few centuries has started in the West, and the modern epoch has been dominated by the West. The only insights and practices in the non-Western world which have not been swamped by the Western influence are pre-modern ones; they alone present possibilities of distinct contributions to the emerging global culture.

Excerpts from Reviews

“A comprehensive treatment of science and spirituality… This book reveals the great value of Eastern thought to understanding in areas previously taken to be the main preserve of Western science, and the cognitive power of mysticism. A significant contribution to the fields of philosophy of science, comparative religion and religious studies. First-rate scholarly minds, who also have considerable spiritual sensitivity, deal with science without being intimidated by science, yet respecting its virtues and contributions. A fresh approach to the dialogue between science and religion, East and West.”—Jacob Needleman, author of The Heart of Philosophy, A sense of the Cosmos, What is God? and many other books.


“This is a significant contribution…This book will certainly be of interest to the general public and all those concerned with the relationship between religion and science.” –S. H. Nasr, author of Encounter of Man and Nature, Science and Civilization in Islam, Sufi Essays  and many other books.