Prashanth Gopalan

Founder & Curator, TEDxUW


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Can the science vs. religion debate even apply to Hinduism?

As one of the oldest continuous belief systems in the world, Hinduism comprises the beliefs of more than 1.3 billion people worldwide.

Although the outward religious cladding of many Hindu institutions has led many to view it as a religion, the fact is that Hinduism is more of a geographical/ethnic marker than it is a single religion. If this distinction is adopted, then it is technically possible to identify Hindu Atheism, Hindu Agnosticism, Hindu Theism and Hindu Materialism as equally valid, but mutually contradictory and separate belief systems.

More than two thousand years ago, the Persians identified a distinct civilization that lived on the far side of the River Sindu (now in Pakistan), as Hindus (after significant linguistic corruption). Subsequent Arab, Turkish, Mongol (Mughal) and British conquests of the Indian subcontinent strengthened this appellation, who attempted to identify the subjugated people and give them a name.

Thus, the name Hinduism, although commonly used to describe the predominant religion of India, was actually a term used to describe the way of life of the people who lived in the geographical region of the Indian subcontinent, and was used to showcase the difference between them and their conquerors - e.g. Islam, British Protestantism.

Without regard to the diversity of these peoples' beliefs (be it theistic, atheistic etc), by giving these people a singular name (Hindus) simply by virtue of their geographical location and close proximity to one another, these conquerors succeeded in "creating" a "religion" which has now come to be "imbued" with the qualities of tolerance and heterodoxy - unlike many other religions.

These are my questions:

Does the religion vs. science debate that has gripped the West by storm today, even apply to Hinduism? Can it apply?

If Hinduism is considered more of a religion than a geographical/ethnic marker, does this make the religion/science debate even more tough on it?

I'd love to get your thoughts.

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    Mar 12 2011: It is an interesting thought. And there are many who think like you .. especially with regard to Hinduism :-) At some point in the past I had asked this same question myself. And I have travelled a long journey from this point. I will share my thoughts below:

    - Does the religion vs. science debate that has gripped the West by storm today, even apply to Hinduism? Can it apply?
    The debate that has gripped the west, as far as I have understood, has risen out of the conflict between the notion of the Christian "God" that controls the fate of the universe and impersonal laws of the universe held by "modern" science ( which as a matter of fact will remain incomplete ). The conflict never seemed to have happened with Hinduism, probably because Hinduism in its true form ultimately remains a way of life. The core principles of Hinduism remain the same within their multiple expressions through different traditions. The real name of Hinduism in Sanskrit is Sanatana Dharma, which simply means "eternal way" or in other words Hinduism is just a way of life. How can one question any way of life ? How can one say American's way of life is the only right way ? I guess that is where Hinduism differs from Christianity ( besides the idea of sin ).

    The debate definitely happens in the east though. There are atheists in India who questions various practices of Hinduism, various rituals, beliefs in deities etc. However because of the richness inherent in this ancient religion's scriptures, a logical explanation can be pointed to mark out the dichotomy between science and Hinduism, especially in the domain of subjective experiences within, and progress of consciousness towards a non-dual and ultimate state.

    I believe in the ultimate analysis, Hinduism sees the individual as a part of a greater cosmic being as one's true nature, where science fixes the notion of an independent observer observing the laws of nature - the idea which breaks down easily when takes in marijuana
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    Mar 17 2011: Einstein said: "All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree"
    I think he wasn't so wrong with that.
    Religion and science have basically the same goals, which is finding answers to our age old questions.
    What differs is the approach.
    However, over time religions became more scientific, while science pushed into realms, that are not very tangible anymore (quantum physics).
    So, while I prefer the scientific approach, I think that science and religions aren't as far apart anymore as the were a few hundred years ago. And I think the gap is closing more and more.
    I believe, eventually science and religion will merge into just one.
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    Mar 12 2011: - If Hinduism is considered more of a religion than a geographical/ethnic marker, does this make the religion/science debate even more tough on it?

    = Here is the deal. All religion arose from individuals who experienced this non-dual state of consciousness ( not through marijuana ;) ) through their own individual path, and through their own individual insights. These individuals have identificed such a state to be the ultimate state, which is completely devoid of thoughts, and is beyond intuition ( which Einstein had praised to be the source of all true ingenius scientific theory ). All religions, in its truest sense points one to this ultimate state of consciousness which can never be defined or described in words. However, with time , individuals who experienced this state of consciousness failed at some point to guide their students to experiene the same, and from that point on Religion became an instrument of greed and power. It has happened all over the world. Even with Hinduism.

    Ultimately , to question the validity of hinduism, it would require science to do a purely scientific investigation of such a consciousness state. Science simply hasn't progressed that far yet. Without coming to a conclusion with regard to this idea, science simply cannot question the validity of Hinduism for sure. All other religions fall along these lines of logic.

    However, questioning the social practices on the basis of science could open up new areas which could probably explain how different periods in history gave rise to different social practices. If Hinduism is treated as a mere ethnographic marker, it would be equivalent to depreciating the noble principles of ways of life to such social division, which doesn't erase the above points of difference with regard to the non-dual state of awareness/consciousness about which science still has nothing special to draw upon. - to study the core principles of Hinduism ; master course there is a gem :)
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    Mar 11 2011: Prashanth,

    Thank you so much for this interesting look into your culture. Your question is of great interest to me because of my belief that without moral grounding the sciences are a dangerous waste of our human potential.

    How can we instill the moral wisdoms intrinsic to certain belief systems and cultures without talking about the aspect of religion?

    I believe we need to, instead of focusing on the differece so much, focus on where sciece meets faith in agreement.
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    Feb 28 2011: The debate of Science Vs Religion is an useless thing that can happen and which actually is happening all the time. While the base of science is reasoning, logic, observation, proven fact etc, the base religion is mere belief or blind belief. So because of subjects contradictory roots ,there can't be any debate on these.

    Though everytime , some people with rligious belief try to prove their religion is scientific ( they do it as their intelligence is above average and can't accept they are bound with blind belief), the moment they get stuck , they go back to square 1 and say , it's a matter of belief and comes up with lame excuses. So I think let the people who want to be in religious belief without harming others , to do so. Same applies to people with scientific approach.
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      Mar 5 2011: Great post Salim, I'd like to share this post from Chris Watson on another conversation thread. I think he really had a great point to share. What are your thoughts?

      "I think the biggest problem here is that the future for each of us personally is entirely unknown exactly, but partially known both scientifically and spiritually. It is what we do with what we know and what we do when we don't know or don't consider our knowledge that distinguishes the difference between a believer and the faithful of any religion or lack thereof. The faithful Athiest will find much in common with the faithful Christian, Muslim, Hindu etc. The believers are those who have reached out into the abbys of time and future, with nothing more than a guess at understanding. The difference in people is the difference illustrated in the streets of Egypt recently. Some of the believers think they know the religion, when in fact they have scarcely understood more than it's politics and rituals. Others on the other hand displayed a faithful understanding of their common reality that led them in the direction of cooperation and peace, because they knew their fellow people knew the truth of the world.

      Faith is powerful because it includes fundamental knowledge. Belief is a shot in the dark at boogie-men. Religion and religious text is neither. Religions are studies of knowledge, and behavior, they are not knowing but rather they are the knowledge, Only People and minds can know. So it is how we act within our personal "religion" that separates us from each other, or brings us together. Faithful people, no matter the religion, will understand each other just fine. Believers will start a fight."
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        Mar 17 2011: Thanks Prasanth , for your compliments & also sharing some very good points and thoughts of Chris Watson. Last two sentences are really great ! Have a good day :)
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          Mar 17 2011: Are you saying faith is scientific?
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    Mar 18 2011: Not really Wayne , I don't think faith is scientific , rather I was amazed by the comment as he was trying differentiate religious people , into Faithful & Believers !!! Which seemed interesting to me
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    Mar 17 2011: It is a little mind that glorifies its self because it can - at will - manipulate the time and space of things smaller than itself. It is this same mind than cannot support the idea of something bigger willfully manipulating it.
  • Mar 7 2011: Hey this is a very interesting topic. Well if we were to trace back a "religion it would have started off with a messenger or a prophet who spread the word of God to a community.
    In the case of Hinduism i have not actually heard of one specific prophet or messenger who had preached the word of God.
    Yes we Hindus did come from that civilization off the river Sindu, but after we moved out and formed other communities we were exposed to the teachings of various sages, rishis and messengers of sorts.
    That would technically mean we Hindus are actually a mixture of various (supposed to be ) religions.
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    Feb 28 2011: For me it's simply a debate of facts vs. fiction.

    What the fiction exactly is, be it the crucified son of a virgin or a four-armed man with an elephant's head dancing on a rat, it all comes down to the same thing - no factual proof, only blind belief.
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      Mar 1 2011: ouch.
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      Mar 2 2011: I read the proposition to be that "a four-armed man with an elephant's head dancing on a rat" is not actually Hinduism. According to the post above, being a Hindu is more of an identity than a religion, and the belief in particular gods is something that SOME Hindu people might share but others may not.

      I have no idea if what he is saying is true, but it's an interesting alternative point of view. I think Sabin's comment ignores the point of the message, and would hope that in future he will addres the central question fo whether "Hindu" is a religion or a "geographical/ethnic marker"
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        Mar 5 2011: Thank Chris, I think you've understood the gyst of my argument. One of my biggest frustrations is that there's a significant lack of understanding around Hinduism's tenets - some of which I think would help alleviate some of the world's great problems.

        As a skeptic, I am loathe to recommend a full-blown religious solution, but I think that some of Hinduism's teachings are quite compatible with lifestyles in the West (e.g. read Schopenhauer's "The World as Will and Representation" to get a good segue into how Hindu philosophy intersects with German metaphysics).

        If all that's currently known about Hinduism can be distilled down to "a four-armed man with an elephant's head dancing on a rat" and Kama Sutra, then I think my work's been cut out for me.

        Thanks for helping build this conversation.
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      Mar 5 2011: Thanks for the comment Sabin but I think you missed the point of my description above. Christianity devoid of a divine Jesus would be greatly scaled-down but still somewhat practicable. Hinduism without "a four-armed man with an elephant's head dancing on a rat” would still be practicable, because of the diverse and heterodox belief systems that thrive under its banner and contribute to its rich and varied tapestry of philosophies.

      With this in mind, does the religion and science debate apply? If we relegate religion to the realm of philosophy, would that help the debate progress towards a more constructive solution? What if we treated Hinduism as an identity marker, how would that change the way we regard it as a belief system?

      Please don’t behave like the other militant atheists out there who are equally narrow-minded and opposite in disposition as some religionists. People like these give us all a bad name.
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        Mar 17 2011: Sorry for the apparent misunderstanding.

        In my opinion you have to differentiate when you ask this question, assuming that Hindu Atheism, Agnosticism and Theism can be treated as a whole when asking whether science vs religion is debatable is to me questionable.