If we trace the evolution of the interaction between modern science and religion, we shall find that at one time, may be up to two centuries ago, modern science was in its infancy and there was no organized branch called holistic science. Instead, there was religion – although a science in itself -based mainly on faith, only vaguely understood. Even this faith had a rational and experiential basis, which was not well understood. During this phase Abrahamic religions vehemently opposed modern science. Galileo was humiliated and Bruno was burnt alive.
But modern science maintained its relentless march and soon shallow religious beliefs were on the defensive. Modern scientific discoveries shattered faith in heaven and hell – even threatened to disprove God. It was during this period of scientific ascendancy that Swami Vivekananda presented to the West Vedanta as the scientific religion.
We are now in the third phase when modern science, having realized its theoretical as well as applied limitations, and having appreciated the scientific nature of religion and its usefulness for the individual and society, has decided not only to shake hands with it – now called holistic science – but also try to understand it with its own tools of investigation.
The first to change stance was physics – atomic physics, or more precisely, subatomic and quantum physics. Its discoveries were so startling that we heard great modern physicists speak like mystics, and people started telling that religion and science are shaking hands. But physics is only one branch of modern science. Biology, physiology, and medical science are also material sciences. Even psychology is a science – science of the psyche or mind. And, it did not take long for honest material/modern scientists to realize that mysticism is also a science – science of the spirit. But there are other scientists also, who are not willing to assign the term ‘science’ to mysticism. Instead, they try to understand mysticism and spiritual phenomenon with the help of modern scientific methods, which they feel are the only authentic tools to understand everything happening in the world, internal or external.
Before we take up the study of spiritual experience in the light of modern science, especially neurosciences, we must clearly understand what spirituality means. Swami Vivekananda equates religion with realization: ‘If there is God, we must see Him; if there is a soul, we must realize it’. So, then, religion is not merely faith, but realization – a real, mystic experience. But that is not all. Religion is also ‘being and becoming’, and a transformation of personality.
But how are spiritual experience and transformation related, if at all? The great spiritual masters tell us that true spiritual experience cannot be obtained unless one passes through rigorous and prolonged spiritual discipline for many many years. Without such a discipline, if the person obtains an experience, it will either be misunderstood or will not last long. Cases are on record of such ‘stumbling upon truth’ without due preparation, and the result of such an experience had been beneficial as well as harmful to the individual and society.
Secondly, a genuine spiritual experience must transform the personality of the experiencer. Swami Vivekananda has categorically said that if a fool enters samadhi (superconscious experience) he comes out a saint. The real spiritual experience is so profound that it wholly transforms the character of the individual. And this aspect of religion is far more important than experience. Take for example the three descriptions of ideal states to be attained in the Bhagavad Gita: the sthitaprajna, the ideal bhakta, and the trigunatita. Although there is no mention of spiritual experience there, a detailed description of the moral and ethical characteristics of a person is given. Here is the description of an ideal bhakta, paraphrased by Swami Vivekananda:
“‘He who hates none, who is the friend of all, who is merciful to all, who has nothing of his own, who is free from egoism, who is even-minded in pain and pleasure, who is forbearing, who is always satisfied, who works always in Yoga, whose self has become controlled, whose will is firm, whose mind and intellect are given up unto Me, such a one is My beloved Bhakta. From whom comes no disturbance, who cannot be disturbed by others, who is pure and active, who does not care whether good comes or evil, and never becomes miserable, who has given up all efforts for himself; who is the same in praise or in blame, with a silent, thoughtful mind, blessed with what little comes in his way, homeless, for the whole world is his home, and who is steady in his ideas, such a one is My beloved Bhakta.” Such alone become Yogis [The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 1:193.]
In Sri Ramakrishna we see a complete demonstration of the spiritual phenomenon. He often used to have samadhi and varied spiritual experiences. With this, he was wholly established in moral values like truth, unselfishness, renunciation, continence, non-possessiveness, purity, love and compassion, etc. This was not all. Even his nervous system had been transformed. He could not touch a coin, even in sleep. He would feel lost if he unconsciously or unknowingly possessed even a little packet of condiments! In short, we find all the three features of spiritual phenomenon – experience, moral excellence and physiological transformation – in Sri Ramakrishna. (For details of Sri Ramakrishna’ s physiology, please consult “Physiology of a Man of God” by Dr. C. S. Shah, The Vedanta Kesari, May, June and August 1999.)
With this short introduction about what spiritual phenomenon actually is, let us now turn to psychoneurology.
This branch of physiology identifies the areas of nervous system associated with spiritual phenomenon and mental modifications, thoughts, emotions, instincts, etc. Recently a new discipline called Neurotheology has come up. It studies the neurobiology of spirituality and religion. Its aim is to identify regions of the brain which are associated with spiritual experiences, especially the sense of the presence of God or God realization.
Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquilli used a brain-imaging technique called Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) to determine regions of brain which respond to altered states of consciousness during prayer and meditation. The experiments were carried out on Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns. They recorded an increased activity in the frontal lobe area of brain – it ‘lights up’ at the peak of meditation. They also found that there is reduction of activity in parietal lobe of brain. Parietal lobe is also known as Oriental Association Area (OAA) since it controls our sense of space. It requires continuous sensory inputs to do its job. During intense meditation, no activity was observed in ÎAA. During transcendental spiritual experience, OAA is dormant and boundaries between self and other worldly things are dissolved. A state of absolute calmness and contentment is attained – self appears united with God. The temporal lobes help to relate religious symbols or images to feelings, thus triggering a sense of awe. When the temporal lobes are artificially stimulated, a sense of divine presence is felt. (Ref: “Divine Experience and Neurobiology” by P.N. Jha, Times of India, Thursday, July 4, 2002).
Using an ordinary motorcycle helmet, modified with electromagnetic coils, Dr. Persinger was able to artificially induce a profound spiritual experience. This device works by inducing very small electrical signals with tiny magnetically induced mechanical vibrations in the brain cells of temporal lobes and other selected areas of the brain. These lobes produce what are called ‘Forty Hertz Component’ of brain waves detected in electro encephalogram. These ‘FHC’ are present during waking and dream state, but are absent during deep sleep. These FHCs are important for the experience of the personal self or reality. By suppressing the FHCs the sense of individual self is reduced. This is what Dr. Persinger’s helmet does. When brain is deprived of self-stimulation and sensory input required for defining itself as being distinct from the world, the brain ‘defaults’ to a sense of infinity. So the experience of self simply expands to fill the perception of the world. One experiences becoming one with the world (http://www.bidstrup .com/mystic. htm).
Neuro scientists have given another interesting explanation for ‘God realization’ . There are two temporal lobes in the brain: the right and the left, which are connected to each other. Sometimes this connection gets disturbed by sickness, stress and strain, the FZ components also get disorganized and then the normally silent right hand sense of self is experienced by the left hand sense of self. The scientists call this God experience – an experience of another self within the self!!
The electromagnetic helmet experiment is interesting. Although the experiment is described, we don’t have the follow-up to show whether there was any change in the character and conduct of those who were subjected to it. It must be emphasized that in spiritual traditions, such ‘God experiences’ , or experience of unity, etc. are not granted to disciples without years of arduous practice of spiritual discipline, for two reasons:
1. Without due preparation, they would not be able to retain it and keep it up, and
2. More importantly, such ‘God experiences’ granted or obtained without proper purification can have dangerous repercussions for the individual or society. It is on record that such ‘stumbling upon truth’ has resulted in bringing out the angel as well as the devil out of the person.
Another point to remember, therefore, is that spiritual life is not merely an isolated experience – it is a phenomenon, which includes transformation of character and conduct as well as rigorous spiritual practice. In the long run, the spiritual phenomenon leads even to total change in the nervous system, to the extent of changing the psychic and physiological reflex actions, as had happened in the case of Sri Ramakrishna.
Psychosurgery is the scientific method of treatment of mental disorders by means of brain surgery. Although such a surgery was performed in 1894 by a Swiss doctor, this operation of destruction of the frontal lobes of brain for treatment of emotional disorders was technically advanced by Sir Victor Horsley in and Harvey Gushing in . Later in 1931, operation called lobotomy, or leucotomy was developed, which consisted of severing nerve-fibre tract between the thalamus and frontal lobes by using a special knife called leucotome. Later a quick and easy procedure called ‘Trans orbital leucotomy’ was developed which could be done within a few minutes under local anaesthesia. Thus in the 40’s and 50’s more than 50,000 persons were subjected to lobotomy all over the world, based on very scanty and flimsy (and even unwarranted) evidence for its scientific basis. Soon it became evident that although lobotomy was able to control severely agitated and violent behaviour and becalm psychotic patients, there were many undesirable side effects. Prefrontal lobotomy produced ‘zombies’ – persons without emotions, apathetic to everything and reduced drive and initiative. They also lost several important higher mental functions such as socially adequate behaviour and the capacity to plan actions.
With the advance of minimally invasive surgical techniques such as functional stereo-tactic neurosurgery, physicians were able to destroy with high precision much smaller areas of brain involved in emotional control. These small lesions have virtually no effect on intellectual or emotional spheres, and are generally very effective in controlling violent behaviour.
Since 1970’s, development of radio surgery has allowed surgeons to remove tiny bits of brain tissue without opening the skull. Surgeons are now able to pinpoint with great accuracy areas, nuclei, or fibres inside the brain by high-tech methods. However, the indications for such surgery are highly selective and only 200 surgeries are performed every year in . (The History of Psychosurgery by Renato M.E. Sabbatini, Ph.D.; http://www.epub. org.br/cm/ n02 / historia / psicocirg_i. htm)
It is obvious from this historical review and latest update of psychosurgery that its scope is extremely limited. It is indicated only in mental abnormalities which cannot be cured or controlled by antipsychotic drugs or psychotherapy. Needless to state that such procedures cannot have anything to do with spiritual experience, life, or phenomenon.
Religion is not merely spiritual experience. It means complete transformation of personality – even changing the whole physiology. Conquest of lust, greed and anger are essential parameters of spiritual evolution. Can this be attained artificially through surgery? Although greed, lust, anger and similar other emotions are considered evil and hindrances to spiritual life, the solution does not consist in destroying them altogether. They must be transmuted and sublimated. Destroying the neural centres responsible for these will be like killing a restive, uncontrolled horse rather than breaking it in. These emotions are forces which must be sublimated. Anger must be carefully controlled and directed against those factors which stand as hindrance in spiritual life. Lust means desire for union, and it must be directed towards God.
Biochemistry is another branch with the help of which neuroscientists have tried to understand the psychic phenomenon. Scientists have identified certain chemicals called neurotransmitters and neuromodulators. These substances are released at the nerve junctions and act by altering the electric potentials of the cell membrane. They not only transmit the message, they also selectively facilitate some and inhibit some other information.
Different types of neuroreceptors are present in different parts of the brain and this can account for complex and multiple effects of medication, meditation, concentration and contemplation. For example, a subtype of ‘glutamate receptor’ appears to mediate the function of brain plasticity, a process considered important in learning and memory.
Acetyl Choline helps in memory, motivation, perception and cognition. Another neuromodulator is serotonine. Its increase can produce hallucinations, as happens after LSD intake. Variations in serotonine content affect behaviour, arousal and sleep pattern. Another neurotransmitter, norepinephrine, causes changes in mood – excess leading to elation, and deficiency causing depression. Excess of dopamine levels lead to schizophrenia and psychosis.
Most of the antipsychotic drugs act through one or more of the above chemicals. The question however, is, ‘Can any of the available drugs help in the spiritual life or produce a genuine spiritual experience?’
The drugs acting on the mind are of various types. The hard drugs like morphine and heroine produce severe psychological dependence, and are banned. Tobacco, alcohol and certain sedatives are less dependence producing and are used incidentally. Then there are the tranquillizers which have a calming and soothing effect. Of these, major ones are used in psychoses, while minor anxiolytics and antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed by the physicians in medical practice. There is a group of drugs called psycho-dysleptics, which produce hallucinations and alter the sense of time, make sensations more vivid, and obstruct memory revival.
LSD and marijuana are often called ‘mind manifesting’ . The experience produced by them is often weird and unpredictable. It leads to lethargy and social passivity. Some of these drugs are unfortunately used non-medically for relief of anxiety and tension, and at times for ‘fun’, amusement, and what is called ‘kick’.
It is a custom among some of the traditional religious sects to use some of these drugs for spiritual purposes. It is true that these drugs may give a spiritual-experienc e-like feeling. But as has already been stated, spirituality is not merely an isolated experience or feeling. It is an extremely complex phenomenon which includes transformation of character itself. These drugs can’t produce that. On the contrary, prolonged, habitual use of these drugs may lead not only to dependence, but also to moral debasement and depressed sensitivity. Let it be understood clearly: There is no shortcut to spiritual life.
Genetic Engineering and Spiritual Phenomenon
In 1989 the launched a spectacular multi billion research project called ‘ ‘ to reveal the entire human genetic code. Its aim is ‘human enhancement’ by planned alteration of genetic codes. Genetic engineering and alteration in genetic codes have already been used to produce hybrid plants and cereals. It is also known that there are certain genetic diseases where a defective or abnormal gene in the patients’ chromosomes is responsible for the disease. It has been envisaged therefore to achieve cure of diseases by modifying the genetic code.
So far so good. But more ambitiously, the biotechnological scientists plan to produce hybrid humans through genetic engineering! This very idea poses a number of important questions: Is such tampering ethical? Can human advancement be achieved purely by tempering at the physical level? Can matter be the cause of mind? Can human evolution be hastened by genetic engineering? Can a Buddha or a Gandhi, or worse, a Hitler be produced in laboratory? And if this were at all possible, what will happen if such a biotechnique falls into the hands of some unscrupulous person with scant concern for social welfare? Cloning and test tube babies are other areas in which biotechnology is trying to interfere with the natural phenomenon of birth.
It is interesting to note that Indian Mythology presents a number of instances of biotechnological interferences, especially in the process of birth. We have, for example, the case of life produced from dead matter; Ganesha was born out of the bodily dust of Mother Parvati. The Bhagavatam describes that there was a tyrant king Vena who had to be killed. But he had no heir. So the Brahmins churned his dead body, out of which a dark dwarf with evil propensities arose. Then came out a divine couple. The male became king Prithu and ruled for long.
The second phenomenon is birth of Draupadi and Drishtadyumna through yajna – a case of birth without parents. Sri Rama and his three brothers were born when the milk obtained from yajna was fed to the mothers. Here, although mothers are there, there is no contribution of the father, and no sexual union. Mother Mary too conceived immaculately to give birth to Jesus.
Then there is the interesting case of transference of embryo from the womb of one mother to that of the other. According to Jain mythology, the soul of the prophet Mahavir first got embodied as an embryo in the womb of a Brahmin mother. However, the gods transferred it into the womb of a Kshatriya mother – a queen. A similar transference of the embryo of Balaram from the womb of Devaki to that of Rohini is described in the Bhagavatam.
Cases of growth and nurturing of a fertilized ovum outside the mother’s womb – equivalent to test-tube babies – is also found in Indian mythology. The embryo of the Kauravas emerged from the womb of Gandhari in the form of a single egg. It was kept in an incubator outside the womb. But when it did not grow into a baby for a long time, in desperation it was broken into hundred pieces each one of which became one Kaurava prince. The embryo of sage Agastya too hatched outside the womb, in a pitcher.
Then, there are stories of duplication of bodies – similar bodies having being produced from one body, akin to cloning. Sage Kardama produced with the help of yogic power nine bodies identical to his own. Raktabija was the demon out of each drop of whose blood one similar demon was born. Finally, there are a number of examples of resorting to yajna, tapas (austerities) or yoga for obtaining progeny of one’s own choice.
Thus in Indian religious tradition the possibility of unnatural occurrences and interference in the natural biological processes has not been denied. But they have never been encouraged or given undue importance. Such interferences are unpredictable in their results and may even prove dangerous. Instead, it is always much safer to resort to yogic practices, yajna or tapas to modify the natural biological processes.
The decoding of the whole genetic code of a human genome has not yet been achieved. So far genetic engineering has only been able to alter the physical characteristics of the living organism. It is yet to be seen whether it can affect the mental characteristics. For this, to begin with, the bioscientists will have to identify the genes responsible for mental traits like lust, greed, love, compassion, hatred, etc. They may well study the genetic structure of sages and seers, and compare them with those of sinners and criminals. And then would arise the question of the applicability of such a knowledge. Even theoretically it is difficult to accept the principle that matter can produce mind, and it is still more improbable that change in the physical structure would change mind in a predictable manner. In all probability, genetic engineering would also end up with giving us a few more methods for treating some mental diseases. It is always far safer and wiser to resort to yogic, psychological and spiritual techniques for mental transformation.
Evolution and Biotechnology
If we were to accept Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, man has evolved out of a mollusc or an amoeba. Darwin certainly does not say anything about the evolution of life out of matter. He only traces the evolution of life-forms. As a matter of fact, although Einstein has been able to give us an equation to describe the relation between matter and energy (E=mc2), no scientist has so far been able to discover an equation between mind and matter, and unless this is defined, every attempt at tampering with matter to influence mind would remain unpredictable.
The next great leap in evolution was when the nerve tissue was evolved. Initially it was merely like a nerve net in Hydra, but later evolved into two nerve cords, leading to a single nerve cord. This again got differentiated in the front to form a nerve ganglion. This again divided into three parts: the fore brain, the mid brain and the hind brain. As evolution proceeded, the fore brain evolved into neo-cerebrum, being the seat of intellect; mid brain became limbic system and thalamus – the seats of emotion and instinct respectively; and the hind brain formed the medulla – the seat for centres for vital functions like respiration and heart beats. In humans, the fore brain or the neo-cerebrum is far more developed than in animals, signifying that in humans intellect plays a far more dominant role than in lower animals.
Now the vital question is: what is the next step in human evolution? Some have envisaged a superman. What is the biological speciality of such a superman? Will he have a special structure or part added to his already evolved brain? Or, will there be only a functional and not anatomical change, in his brain? But before we venture even to give some speculative answers to these questions, we must at least define a ‘superman’, in philosophical, psychological, sociological and spiritual terms. Modern material sciences have no clear idea of a superman. However, all religious traditions of the world have not only clearly defined a ‘superman’, they all owe their very origin to such a divine being. Buddha, Christ, Sri Ramakrishna and the like are the prototype of the next stage of human evolution. All the scriptures of the world clearly delineate the characteristics of such a super or divine being. And the human evolution is progressing towards it.
In terms of psychology, some prefer to use ‘yogic consciousness’ as the next step in evolution. Although the very concept of consciousness is vague, modern psychologists have tried to understand it with the help of biology. They associate the concept of consciousness with the evolving nerve tissue in the species. Mukhopadhyaya credits consciousness only to the brain and not to the neural tissue below the brain level. According to him there is a brain-stem consciousness related to waking and sleep states; the mid brain or limbic system consciousness concerned with our instincts and emotions, and finally the cortical consciousness associated with our intellect. He postulates that the higher consciousness in the process of evolution is supra-cortical consciousness. (Dr. A.K. Mukhopadhyaya’ s Paper presented at NCERT seminar 1987, quoted by Shah, C.S.).
Psychologists also claim that the two hemispheres of the brain have different psycho and physiological functions. To this, they have given the name bimodal consciousness. The non-dominant hemisphere is supposed to have functions which are more holistic. However, they are not able to say as yet what the anatomical locus of yogic consciousness is. And unless these issues are answered and clarified, the role of biotechnology cannot possibly be assessed. Some speculations as to the alteration in the structure and function of brain which might be associated with the evolution of a yogic consciousness are postulated by Dr. C. S. Shah:
(a) Certain centres in the brain may be suppressed, while others may get stimulated.
(b) Dormant connections between the nerve cells may be opened.
(c) New connections might develop between the brain cells and the centres.
(d) Quality and quantity of neurotransmitting chemicals which transfer messages from one cell to another may be altered.
(e) New centres may develop as has happened in human beings during the evolutionary leap from ape to man.
Dr. Shah further suggests, quoting reliable authorities, that brain has great plasticity and its structure can be altered by training, upbringing and experience. We must look for this, rather than something embedded in genes. While natural evolution takes thousands of years to effect such changes, some people can achieve the same results in a few years through conscious and deliberate meditative efforts to control the mind. (See Shah, Dr. C. S., ‘Physiology of a Man of God’, Part III, The Vedanta Kesari, August 1999. p. 311-313).
It cannot be denied that the investigations of modern biosciences into the realm of religion have helped in understanding the spiritual phenomenon, and to dispel the clouds of mystery around mystic happenings. We have also understood the limitations of biotechnology in bringing about spiritual experiences or in helping in hastening the process of spiritual evolution. It is also a fact that spiritual phenomenon is essential not only for individual fulfilment, it also plays a major role in social well being. Such scientific inquiries further strengthen the view that spiritual life must be led in right earnestness if we seek personal emancipation, welfare of the society and ascent of the human race to the higher ladder of evolution. Yoga and not biotechnology is the path to higher consciousness. Robots may have their utility, but they are not substitutes for rishis. What we need today are rishis – in hundreds and thousands.