In the second session of the one-day symposium held in Dharamsala on modern science and ancient Indic knowledge, the Dalai Lama observed that Tibet kept the intellectual legacy of Indic sciences intact during centuries of turmoil and invasions in the subcontinent. He drew a symbolic parallel between the Hindu Lord Shiva who dwells on Mount Kailash in Tibet and the Indian prince-turned-monk Sakya Muni whose successors brought Buddhism to Tibet. The two civilisations are hence inseparably intertwined, he pointed out, although Tibet also had ancient and intense intellectual interaction with China. In the field of astronomy, for instance, Tibet knows of both the “white” tradition, imported from India and the “black” school brought by the Chinese.
This was His Holiness’s preamble to IIT Professor K. Ramasubramanian’s overview of Indian astronomy. A physicist and a Sanskrit and Vedantic scholar, Ramasubramanian is known for his translations and detailed explanatory notes on various mathematical and astronomical Indian texts and he made it clear at the outset that jyotish-shastra, “the systematic science of (celestial) illuminating bodies”, is primarily concerned about determining time through calculations of the exact positions of the sun, moon and other astral objects, not about reading individual destinies. While astronomy is purely based on observation (pratyaksa shastra) astrology, he pointed out was a later adjunction.
Ramasubramanian recalled that as per references found in the Upanishads, jyotish is a vedanga (a limb of the Veda) pertaining to the domain of aparavidya (relative science, concerned with the natural world and samvrti satya, relative truth), as distinct from paravidya (transcendent knowledge, related to the self and to consciousness: paramartha satya).
Jyotish studies various natural cycles of time measured against the planetary motions on the background of “fixed” stars and defines time (kalakriya) according to recorded events. The main purpose is to keep track of time and hence it is rightly called kalavidhanashastra: a timekeeping technique based on dikdesakalanirmaya: definition of space, place and timeframe. Hence, astronomy is the source of mathematics. By developing the necessary sophisticated mathematical techniques, Indian astronomers seem to have achieved extraordinary precision in computing planetary positions in very ancient times, as acknowledged by western astronomers like John Playfair, who concluded in 1798 that observations would have had to be made and recorded since 4,000 years before the Christian era.
The astronomical tables and calculations brought to Europe by Simon de la Loubere in the 17th century and studied by Bailly and others in the 18th made some of them wonder how such accuracy was achieved.
On a philosophical note, the speaker reflected that man can only say what is the time in a zodiacal-calendric frame of reference, but not what Time itself is. The emphasis laid by Indian astronomers on direct observation and validation of parameters for computation of planetary positions, enabled them to periodically correct the data provided by their predecessors. Ramasubramanian also added that there is enough evidence to prove that the common western contention that the Indians were unoriginal and merely adopted concepts and methods invented by Babylonians and Greeks, is thoroughly misconceived. The invention of infinite series for Pi and other trigonometric functions by the Kerala school of astronomers, was in fact a landmark in the history of astronomy and mathematics.
Another important feature of Indian scientific philosophy is its open-model methodology which rests on the acceptance that a theory need not portray reality accurately as long as it is useful to reach the desired knowledge or result. Validity is not a matter of accuracy but of effectiveness. This idea is related to the philosophical and ethical notion of upaya or “adroit means” embodied in the Sanskrit word kausala. Theories, interpretations, ways and means are asatya and change with time. As long as they are internally consistent, and serve as useful tools in realising the ends (upeya) they are valuable.
A language, for instance, may be analysed through diverse grammatical and semantic methods, but what matters is their ability to make sense of it. The axiom is “set your goal and then select your method accordingly”. The latter requires simplification and omission of many details in order to be understandable and pragmatic. Calculations are theoretical tools which do not embody reality; hence, unlike Greek science, the Indian vidya does not set constraints on representations.
Indian astronomy integrates the awareness that nothing is ever fixed, that many models can coexist and that there may not be a single way to explain or depict nature.
The mythological, puranic cosmology which survived all along, despite contradicting the Siddhanta’s scientific data (flat earth vs spherical earth whose shape and size as well as the moon’s distance from it were known to ancient Indian astronomers) is often cited by modern scholars as proof that ancient Indian civilisation was shrouded in fantastic superstitions and theological mysteries, but even in today’s world, in which science has pride of place, vast proportions of people continue to repose faith in biblical and other traditions based on authority and dogmas.
Professor Ramasubramanian illustrated the ability of Indian scientists to explain rationally the traditional metaphor of devata prasadam: gift of the gods, invoked to explain a scientific finding “as clarity in thought obtained through grace”, and not as the deity coming to the seeker and revealing knowledge to him. Thus according to the tradition, devataprasada is the result of hard work (tapasya), and as such any form of knowledge is fallible and always subject to revision, which would not be the case if it were a literal divine revelation.
The discussion about Indian and Tibetan cosmological and chronological notions led to a summing of the proceedings, which the author of this article preceded with an overview of emerging concepts and speculations in astrophysics, mathematics and biology.
The universe appears as made up of information “spread across an infinite memory bank” (Jacques Vallee) with “matter and energy as incidentals” (John Wheeler). Information turns into knowledge when it is inserted in an epistemic context which gives it meaning that can be shared.
The “laws” that are said to rule nature look more like “attractors” such as the famous “Golden Number” and may be regarded as acquired and evolving habits in certain domains within an erratic universe, whose randomness is an effect of our fragmentary perception of a process we perceive as a set of discontinuous events and separate structures, incoherent when seen apart from the greater whole to which they belong.
Similar to our communication with our fellow humans, our interaction with the outer world is mediated by sensorial and intellectual signs or symbols (like icons on a computer screen or words in speech, according to the Interface Theory) that are only conventional and select, simplified images of the underlying imperceptible reality. The latter appears discontinuous in the space-time frame in which we “read and write it”, but is in fact continuous and unbroken when grasped altogether.
The most advanced models of physics such as the String Theory are unable to make sense of the universe, which no longer looks “natural” in the sense Einstein gave to that adjective, but rather appears as a multiverse (without beginning, eternal and infinite, hence shapeless?) in which a Grand Unified Field Theory becomes ever more elusive and in which laws are only “arbitrary messy outcome of random fluctuations” (Quanta magazine).
To paraphrase Einstein, it is not God who plays with dice but the dice play with Him. Sri Krishna says in the Gita that he is the game of dice itself.
Biological processes cannot be reconciled with “laws” of physics. Non-linear dynamic systems are apparently chaotic, hence unpredictable and challenge scientific criteria such as replicability and falsifiability. Truth in science is only a “fractal truth quotient”, recalling the Indic notion of relative truth and mathematics is an invented tool, which strips sensible symbols of their concrete content by reducing them to numerical abstractions. Instead we may have to look for a Theory of Everything Else as Vallee calls it, concerned with the properties of Information.
Recent discoveries about the process of human perception show that our cognition rebuilds a consistent, unbroken picture of reality on the basis of discontinuous fragments of sensorial input and that the brain processes and structures the images a very short time before we become aware of them. The world is truly “created” by our mind out of a “metasystem” which we can neither describe nor envision, but it may be described as a “total conscious process” shaped by the interactive behaviour of all its components that retain constant degrees of complexity at all scales of magnitude.
We are not even able to tell whether that matrix, that web of maya or Indrajala, tantra is multidimensional (as we see it) or two dimensional, but we find such interactive networks at all levels of creation, from the subatomic world to the rhizomes and “fungus internets” studied by botanists and on to the galaxies and the even larger “webs” that connect and encompass them.
To take that image further, reality is a textile, a text and a tissue like the quasi-crystalline patterns found in physics and like the fractal sets and pavings mapped by Mandelbrot and Penrose. In such a structure, chaos and order are entangled and may be seen as two sides of the coin. A new simplifying physics is called for to get us out of the maze of contemporary theories, according to the Perimeter Institute’s Neil Turok. It requires a new mathematics for a new science, designed as an art and a technique to study and mimic the cosmos, in the spirit of Hindu-Buddhist “natural philosophy”.
The hope expressed at the end of the Dharamsala symposium is that India might lead the way in this new epistemology. The Dalai Lama invited the participation of scientists and scholars from other Asian countries including China in the ongoing process of “Mind and Life” conferences that he has hosted for years in Dharamsala.