Thursday 14 April 2016

Indian Intellectual Traditions and Modern Physics

Comments at NIAS symposium on "Modern Physics and Ancient Insights on Reality: A Dialogue across Traditions" , Dec 12, 2015--Shivanand Kanavi

I am not an expert in Indian darshanas. I am speaking here as a physicist. We have had very interesting remarks earlier by experts in Jaina, Bouddha, Advaita, Yoga and Kashmir Shaivite darshanas. I think while it may not be prudent to look for modern physical ideas in ancient darshanas, we can still learn a lot from them.
For example Samkhya posits that both Prakruti and Purusha are Nitya that is eternal, which basically rules out the creator and moment of creation, which are anyway very problematic for scientists. In fact Samkhya is Nirishwara darshana.
It also speaks of the dialectical interaction between matter and consciousness leading to the existence of our many splendored universe. The Prakruti-Purusha relationship is described as one that exists between a lame and a blind person. The lame (Purusha) can see but cannot walk (act) where as the blind (Prakruti) can walk (act) but cannot see. Thus either one on their own lead to nothing, where as the two together lead to the universe.
Similarly the concept of Svabhava in Samkhya is very similar to the Newtonian Law of Nature or properties of matter.
It is a known fact that the concept of one cause producing an effect the normal causality is too simplistic to explain complex phenomenon and if misapplied can lead to conspiracy theories. Here the Buddhist theory of Pratitya Samutpada of many causes leading to an effect provides a more realistic explanation of complex phenomena.
The Vaiseshika, Jaina and Ajivika theories of Atomism provide a very practical way out of the conundrum of continuum and posit a discrete structure of matter, space and time. This is also dictated by common sense which enables comparison of two entities like a stone pebble and a mountain because both have different amounts of finite and discrete matter in them.
The concept that nothing is static but everything in this universe is in motion expressed beautifully in Isho Upanishad as "Jagatyam jagat" is fully supported by modern physics as against the old Newtonian concepts of absolute space and time and state of complete rest and motion.
The methodology of proving any statement strictly according to Pramanas as expressed in Nyaya is again the basis of modern scientific method. Especially if you consider Veda or Agama pramana as Apta Vakya (reliable source) of Samkhya, which is certainly not infallible as it is after all paurusheya or human in origin.
The Jainas have profoundly expounded the concept of relativism of truth through Anekantavada illustrated beautifully by the parable of blind men and the elephant also thereby illustrating the asymptotic nature of cognition. Anekantavad amply allows for diversity of opinion, humility and mutual respect which are the basis of a rational discourse as well as democracy.
I once again thank the organisers who gave me the opportunity to participate in this symposium and listen so many experts in Darshanas from which I have benefitted.