Collapsing the Cosmic Hierarchy

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At a conference of the Isthmus Institute in Dallas, Texas, Dr. John Hagelin, a highly qualified physicist, gave a lecture tying together modern physics and ancient Vedic science. In the words of Lee Cullum, who covered the conference for the Dallas Times Herald, Hagelin showed that “ordinary awareness of the details of life can be transcended by unbounded awareness of the unified field, the basis of the mind and of all nature.” According to Dr. Hagelin, the unified field of the physicists is identical with the unbounded consciousness of Vedic science.

In the latest theories of physics, all the matter and energy in the universe are thought to be generated by a single, unified entity called a quantum field. In Vedic science, both material phenomena and our consciousness of these phenomena are said to flow from a unified source of absolute, unbounded consciousness. By equating the unified quantum field with this unbounded consciousness, Hagelin reconciles modern science with ancient Vedic wisdom. Thus he provides an ultimate, unified explanation for both subjective and objective aspects of reality.

It sounds good—but unfortunately it’s bogus.

Even though there are many schools of thought in ancient Indian tradition, certain standard features are common to all of them. Hagelin’s theory requires the wholesale elimination of many of these important features.

Let us begin by discussing the role of theism in Vedic tradition. According to the Vaishnava school, represented by texts such as the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the ultimate cause of all material and spiritual manifestations is an eternal Supreme Person, known by many names, such as Krishna and Govinda. Hagelin certainly doesn’t advocate this philosophy, which he might likely dismiss as simplistic or sectarian.

Then what is he referring to by the term Vedic science? The answer is that Hagelin follows the teachings of a yogi who claims allegiance to Shankaracharya (A.D. 788-820), the founder of the Indian school of philosophy known as Advaita Vedanta. The only true reality, Shankaracharya taught, is the field of absolute, undifferentiated consciousness known as Brahman. All else is illusion. Thus Hagelin’s Vedic science is the system of philosophy expounded by Shankaracharya, and Hagelin’s “unbounded consciousness” corresponds to Shankaracharya’s Brahman.

Now it turns out that Shankaracharya also spoke about Krishna, of whom he wrote many Sanskrit verses in praise. Here are two examples:

"This whole universe with its sky, wind, etc., has sprung from Him. The life on this earth is sustained through His blissfulness. He is the destroyer of the demon Madhu. At the time of deluge, the whole universe merges into Him. He is all-pervading. May such Sri Krishna appear before my very eyes. He resides in this universe and controls its activities. But this the universe does not know. This is the way the Vedas describe Him. He, the Lord, is pure and is the Controller of the universe. He is fit to be meditated upon. He liberates the seers, the gods and men. May such Sri Krishna appear before my very eyes."

What is going on here? Is Shankaracharya praying to see a Being that in his opinion does not exist? Yes and no. A key point in Shankaracharya’s philosophy—one often overlooked in the West—is that he does teach that Krishna exists, and that Krishna is the creator and controller of the universe.

The difference between the Vaishnava philosophy and the teachings of Shankaracharya is subtle. According to the Vaishnavas, Krishna is the cause of all causes, and Brahman is His all-pervading impersonal effulgence. The ultimate goal of life is to worship and serve Sri Krishna. In contrast, Shankaracharya taught that Brahman is the ultimate basis of reality, and that everything else is maya, or illusion. He included Krishna in the category of illusion. Yet he still regarded Krishna to be the controller of the universe (which he also regarded as illusory).

In other words, Shankaracharya held that Krishna is at least as real as everything else in the manifest universe. By worshiping Krishna, Shankaracharya taught, one can attain ultimate liberation in Brahman. This is the explicit purpose of verses such as the ones we have just cited.

Now, the great teachers of Vaishnava philosophy tell us that placing Krishna in the category of illusion is a grievous offense that will block one’s advancement in spiritual life. They have also pointed out that Shankaracharya inwardly accepted Krishna’s transcendental status. In India, Vedic teachers have debated these matters for centuries.

For the purposes of this article, however, it is enough to note that Shankaracharya accepted the existence of a personal creator and controller of all natural phenomena. In the actual Vedic science, this is an unavoidable feature.

It is also a feature totally incompatible with the views of modern unified field theorists. According to these theorists, all natural phenomena are vibrational states of a highly abstract impersonal entity called the unified field. As the universe emerges from the Big Bang, the phenomena generated by this field are initially chaotic, but they are said to undergo an impersonal evolutionary development, in which planets emerge and organic life springs forth on planets with suitable environments. Personality arises only when evolution produces suitable brains and nervous systems.

Hagelin quite clearly seems to agree with this view, but unfortunately this puts him squarely in opposition to all traditional schools of Vedic thought. All Vedic schools hold that the universe is governed by an ishvara, or personal controller, though they may disagree on whether the ishvara is within the domain of maya or beyond to it.

Beneath the Supreme ishvara,the Vedic literatures describe a hierarchy of demigods who control the various workings of nature. These beings, such as Brahma, Varuna, and Agni, are invariably described as persons, and they are said to have powers that strongly contradict the known laws of physics.

If the vision of the Vedic sages was indeed consistent with the outlook of modern physics, how could the sages accommodate these beings? Did the more sophisticated of the Vedic sages perhaps regard them as something akin to impersonal quantum modalities and describe them as “persons” only in works intended for simple folk?

To test this theory, we randomly opened the Vedanta-sutra, the most abstract of all Vedic philosophical texts. There we encountered a reference to Samyamani, the city of Yama. The demigod Yama is in charge of punishing sinful persons after death, and in the Vedanta-sutra (3.1.14) this punishment is said to take place in Samyamani. It’s hard to see how to fit Samyamani into the existing theory of quantum fields without severely twisting the Vedic system of thought.

This also leads to another problem. The idea of punishment after death depends on the central Vedic concept of transmigration of the soul. According to Vedic literature, a living being in the material world has a gross body, made of earth, water, fire, air, and ether, as well as a subtle body made of mind, intelligence, and false ego. Within the gross body rides the subtle body, like a driver within a car, and within the subtle body rides the atma, or conscious self.

When the gross body dies, the atma and subtle body continue to exist, and they transmigrate to a variety of destinations. Propelled by karma, the atma and its subtle body may be placed within another gross body, about to develop. This body may be on a lower or higher planet. Or the atma may receive punishment for some time in the realm of Yama. The atma may also receive liberation, or moksha, by becoming free from the subtle body.

Hagelin would identify the atma with the unified field, and the gross elements with solids, liquids, plasmas, gases, and the classical space-time continuum. (He has also proposed identifications for the five tan-matras, or subtle sense objects.) But he provides no idea of what, in the world of modern physics, could possibly transmigrate from one body to another, carrying with it detailed information about the personality of an individual now deceased.

In summary, one of the main errors in Hagelin’s theory is that he collapses the Vedic hierarchy. Modern physics began with theories of gross observable matter and went from there to entities such as atoms, subatomic particles, and quantum fields that are further and further removed from the world of our direct experience. Physicists thereby arrived at a hierarchical picture of reality, with a hypothetical unified field at its most fundamental level.

This hierarchy, however, is very simple. It has few levels, compared with the cosmic hierarchy of the Vedic literatures. One can cram the Vedic hierarchy into the narrow box of current physics only by throwing most features of that hierarchy away, thus converting it into something completely alien to its true nature.