How I discovered the science of bhakti-yoga
As a spiritual teacher with scientific educational background, I am often asked to give scientific presentations on spirituality. After such presentations, a question that comes up frequently is, “Despite having a scientific background, why did you turn to spirituality?” My usual answer is, “I turned to spirituality, because of my scientific propensity, not despite it; I discovered that the spiritual path of bhakti-yoga is itself a form of science that is essential to balance and complement modern science.” Several of my friends who have heard this answer suggested that I pen it in the form of an autobiographical-cum-analytical article. This article is an attempt to serve them – as well as all those who are interested in the relationship between science and spirituality.
I grew up in India during the 1980s, a period when the country was making significant strides in science and technology. Science fascinated me since my childhood for two principal reasons: one intellectual, one practical. I felt that the scientific spirit of enquiry could offer intelligent answers to the questions of the inquisitive mind. Also, I felt that technology – television, cars, airplanes, and computers – would practically make India modern and progressive.
Pursuing my interest in science’s pragmatic side, I studied electronics and telecommunications engineering in one of India's most reputed colleges, the Government College of Engineering, Pune. As my engineering studies neared successful culmination, I was all set to follow the career graph that is the dream of most Indian students: pursuing higher science studies in the United States. Little did I know that an opportunity to pursue a different kind of science was to open up for me in India itself.
During my teenage years, my childhood fascination with science had turned into perplexity. I had fancied science as a means to create a better world, but I was puzzled to see that my scientific colleagues – who I felt were going to be the co-shapers of this better world – didn’t seem, in their personal lives, to be much better than the non-scientific masses.
I was taken aback to find that several of my brilliant peers and seniors couldn’t resist self-destructive indulgences like smoking and drinking. I had no over-moralistic fetish against smoking or other such self-defeating indulgences. I knew several people who had that habit, including a close relative. I could attribute their habit to their deficient intelligence. However, to what could I attribute the self-destructive indulgence of those who had no such intellectual deficiency - who had, in fact, more intellectual proficiency than me?
Astrophysics had been one of my fascinations, but when I met an acclaimed double-doctorate US-returned astrophysicist, I was dismayed to find him a chain smoker. One of the consistent top performers in my department was a chain smoker; I watched in distress as the chain dragged him first out of his fast-track career in a reputed software company due to failing bodily health, and finally out of his body itself. I was appalled as one of the senior professors in our department, who was also a compulsive smoker and alcoholic, committed suicide.
This mismatch among my scientific colleagues between intellectual proficiency in professional life and intellectual deficiency in personal life among my scientific colleagues left me deeply questioning my idealistic hopes of science heralding a better world.
Of course, I knew many other colleagues who led sensible, regulated, productive lives, pursuing science as a bright career. I had also encountered a few – very few – colleagues who shared my vision of science as a tool to improve the human condition. However, overall, my several years of study and stay in a science college slowly brought into the forefront of my awareness as a sharp jab what had earlier been a background nag: science, in and of itself, didn’t bring about a positive transformative effect on those who studied it. Without that transformation of the individual, I felt that all the attempts to improve the world through science – no matter how earnest – would inevitably fall short.
I didn’t know of any science that could transform the individual – util I encountered bhakti-yoga, as it was presented to me by the Hare Krishna devotees.
The catholicity of bhakti-yoga
The devotees presented me with the books of Srila Prabhupada and several devotee-scientists, which I read like a starving man devouring a sumptuous feast. I found the scientific presentation of bhakti-yoga innovative and appealing. Although I had earlier read the works of several well-known Indian spiritual teachers, my scientific instincts had made me regard their claims and beliefs with a healthy skepticism. But here I found my scepticism anticipated and pre-empted. I had at times questioned the scientific validity of belief in God, but now, even before my raising that question, I was presented the design argument for the existence of God. It intuitively appealed to my scientific sensibility; I saw the same intricate and delicate scientific structures and systems that I had studied during my science education in a new light: as eloquent and poignant testimony to the working of a divine super-intelligence. I was also pleasantly surprised to know that these bhakti-yogis were not alone in seeing a designer behind the design in the universe; they share in a respected tradition that includes scores of the most eminent scientists in modern intellectual history – Newton, Pasteur, Kelvin, Plank, Einstein, to name a few.
My scientific background had trained me to place a high premium on the intellectual tools of reason and logic. Naturally, I used these tools to scrutinize the philosophy of bhakti-yoga, as explained in its foundational texts, the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad Bhagavatam. Just as science had appealed to my intellect earlier, I now found the bhakti-yoga philosophy similarly appealing. Like the propositions of science, the principles of bhakti-yoga had a magnificent intellectual catholicity to them. I found bhakti philosophy to be:
- Universal: All living beings, irrespective of gender, nationality, caste, race, even religion and species, are the beloved children of the same one God (Bhagavad-gita 14.4),
- Non-sectarian: The essence of one’s spirituality is not one’s religious label, but one’s selfless love for the same one God who is the goal of all religions. (Shrimad Bhagavatam 1.2.6)
- Beneficent: Spiritual advancement inspires one to render broad-minded, compassionate, heartfelt, holistic service toward all his children (Shrimad Bhagavatam 3.25.21)
- Sustainable: We are all spiritual beings, whose real happiness comes not by material acquisition, but by spiritual realization. (Bhagavad Gita 5.21-22) (I had already figured out that the only way humanity could sustain itself on the limited resources of our finite planet would be by becoming less materialistic)
A self-transformative spiritual science
The second reason for my attraction to science had been its practical benefits, I was soon to discover that bhakti-yoga had remarkable pragmatic potency.
I had been repeatedly and increasingly exasperated to see my lofty intellectual ambitions thwarted by the routine passions of youth. The bhakti-yoga practice of mantra meditation filled me with a sense of inner peace, pleasure power and purpose, thereby enabling me to thwart the passions that had thwarted me till then. My earlier readings in spirituality had given me the notion that bhakti-yoga was for un-intellectual, sentimental people. But my experience was dramatically opposite; far from requiring me to abandon or even downplay my intellect, bhakti-yoga had facilitated me to better access, utilize and develop my intellect.
To check whether bhakti's transformational potency was a one-off fluke or a universal feature, I started sharing my new-found spiritual wisdom with my engineering co-students. Those who accepted and practiced became positively transformed within a remarkably short time; they easily broke free from undesirable behavioral traits and indulgences, and became better students, better citizens and better human beings. For me, their transformation meant that bhakti-yoga had passed the scientific litmus test of repeatability.
Soon I happened to read The Nectar of Devotion, a sixteenth century treatise on the progression of devotion that is subtitled as “The Complete Science of Devotion”. Therein I found a coherent and cogent theoretical framework within which to understand this empowering and freeing potency of bhakti. This freedom was the predicted fourth stage called anartha-nivrtti in a well-defined nine-stage devotional trajectory that culminated in pure love for God. To me this systematic analysis with detailed description of each stage resonated with the scientific benchmark of predictability; a good scientific theory should predict the results of the experiments based on it in a clear way so that the theory can be either verified or falsified. This was exactly what the bhakti texts were doing – and our experiment, or our experience, to be more precise, was verifying its predictions.
I was soon to realize that the pragmatic benefits of bhakti-yoga were urgently relevant in our current techno-centric world. While technology had given us increasing ability to control the external world, it had provided us with little, if any, ability to control the internal world. Technology had led to the production of hi-tech commercials that could tempt even an intellectual scientist into chain-smoking, but it could not equip anyone with any medicine or mechanism to regain the lost self-mastery. This inability to develop self-mastery could have consequences much graver than the ill-effects of smoking, which some might downplay as a negligible indiscretion or as a cultural norm. The inability to resist sexual temptations could lead to an epidemic of life-threatening sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS. The inability to resist anger could lead to shootings in schools and during fits of road rage. My apprehensions about the lop-sidedness of technology-centered efforts to improve the world were vindicated when I read a quote of Albert Einstein: “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”
My experience had shown me that science could improve our technology, but it couldn’t improve our humanity. To me it was evident that improving our humanity necessitated that we become equipped with some means to increase our self-mastery, for that alone could enable us to act in humane ways.
I had discovered that bhakti-yoga delineates clear principles and practices for making self-mastery a realistic attainment for one and all. Put in contemporary parlance, these principles state that all of us have a higher self and a lower self that are in a perpetual internal battle. The higher self inspires us to be selfless, broad-minded and principled, whereas the lower self incites us to be selfish, mean-minded and opportunistic. Bhakti philosophy helps us understand that the higher self is who we actually are: pure, godly souls, whereas the lower self is who we think we are: our material bodies and minds, which cover and pervert our godly nature. Improving our humanity means empowering our higher self to control and conquer our lower self. That culture which equips and facilitates its people to nourish the higher self and starve the lower self is truly humane, for only in that culture will the people develop humane qualities.
Scientific = Materialistic?
Unfortunately, atheistic materialism masquerading as science - also known as scientism - has caused the unwarranted expulsion of spirituality from the world of science, thus creating the unnecessary dichotomy and duel between science and spirituality. Consequently, many people today mistakenly equate being scientific with being materialistic. I could soon understand that this erroneous equalization was the root cause of the mismatch between professional competence and personal character that I had seen in my scientific colleagues. The prevailing materialistic ethos left them with little or no intellectual room for knowledge of or belief in a higher self, leave alone any impetus or facility to nourish that self. And, being participants-cum-victims of the same materialistic society as the rest of us, they remained just as vulnerable to the onslaughts of their lower self as the rest of us. No wonder several of them couldn't resist their lower self's promptings for self-defeating indulgences.
The narrow-mindedness that equates being scientific with being materialistic does a great disservice to the glorious potential of science as an open-minded search for the truth. And it does greater disservice to the glorious spiritual potential of humanity by forcing it down the blind alley of self-destructive materialism in the name of being “scientific.” To break this unfair monopoly of materialism on science, a widespread awareness of how spirituality can be scientific, as it is in the case of bhakti-yoga, needs to be created. Only such awareness will restore to scientifically minded people their freedom of choice for evaluating both materialism and spirituality for their merits and demerits and then making a wise choice.
I feel fortunate to have been given that freedom of choice before it was too late in my life. And I strongly feel that every human being deserves this freedom of choice. Why should anyone be brainwashed into believing the white lie that, in order to be scientific, one has to be materialistic?
In order to share with others the freedom of choice that had been granted to me, I decided over a decade ago, to focus my life on practicing and sharing the science of bhakti-yoga. Material science has its importance, but there were many who would be more than happy to take my seat in the American science college. There were very few who would become scientific spokespersons for bhakti-yoga. I felt impelled to choose the road less traveled.
My fifteen years of sharing bhakti-yoga has provided repeated confirmations of my initial experience: bhakti-yoga is indeed a way - and an eminently practical and powerful way – for improving our humanity. I have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of people experimenting with – and experiencing within – the empowering effects of bhakti-yoga.
As I look back at my journey initially through science and later through spirituality, I can see a clear continuity: the same values and purposes guided me through both phases of my journey. The question that started this article assumes a radical discontinuity, even incongruity, in the two phases, but I find this assumption unnatural, untrue and undesirable. I see myself neither as a scientist nor as a spiritualist, but as a human being who wants to improve himself and play his part in improving the world. For this purpose, I am willing and eager to utilize all possible resources, be they scientific or spiritual. I feel both have important roles to play: science can help us to make things better; spirituality can help us to make people - ourselves – better.
Of course, the interaction of science and spirituality is a complex, multi-faceted topic, and not all aspects of science and all aspects of spirituality can be harmonized. But that is an entirely different topic. The focus of this article is to illustrate, through the journey of one human being, how we can benefit from the fruits of both these human enterprises - science and spirituality - so that our lives become easier externally and happier internally, and we become equipped and enriched to make a positive difference in the world. My readers can decide to what extent that purpose has been served.