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Gauri Shankar

Unraveling Mysteries of Life - Modern Science and Ancient Wisdom


Since the advent of industrial revolution in the 18th Century scientific and technological developments have profoundly impacted the humanity as a whole. Modern means of transport, communication and production; medical, biological and genetic sciences; new materials; nuclear technology; space research and digital technology have transformed human life beyond recognition. Modes of transport have catapulted human life from simple horse ride to spacecraft cruising at unprecedented speed into outer space. Simple wooden boats have been transformed into large luxury sea cruisers, which are no less than floating cities on the ocean surface. Simple two-way oral communication has travelled a long way to high speed wireless internet and cellular and satellite phones with instant connectivity all around the globe and beyond. Traditional small and cottage industries have been transformed into large scale production units with unprecedented automation, churning out billions of magical products every day to satisfy ever growing human desires. Genetic and medical sciences have done precise mapping of human genome and body organs; and have invented highly complex systems of diagnosis, medication and surgical intervention. From simple bows and arrows the armament industry has covered a long distance to inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear sub-marines bringing the entire globe within their range. Sophisticated nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and highly advanced systems of their delivery have replaced sword wielding foot soldiers. New means of production and transmission of energy have intruded into every sphere of our life from cooking to washing to shopping to entertainment to production to transportation and communication. Similar transformations could be seen in many other walks of human life. Internet, cellular and digital connectivity have reduced the world to a global village.

Most of these amazing transformations have occurred in our own life time. Moreover the pace of transformation continues unabated and at an ever increasing rapidity. We are in for many more future shocks with growing appetite for innovations and ever increasing competition. Innovations and technology have become the hallmarks of modern society. Tipping points are reached in multiple areas on a daily basis leading to path breaking innovations and new technologies in diverse fields. With these unprecedented technological advances during the last two centuries there is a growing tendency to discard our ancestors and their life-style as primitive and unscientific. Quite often their life style is looked at in derogatory terms. This led me to think aloud. If such advances in science and technology did not take place in the past what could be the reasons? Whether our ancestors were not intelligent enough? If so how could highly developed civilizations exist in several parts of the world? How could they construct highly sophisticated temples and other structures in Egypt, Greece, Italy, India and China? Even the most sophisticated high-rise buildings of modern era appear pigmies compared to those ancient structures. How could they develop highly scientific languages and astronomical charts based on advanced mathematical equations? How come their writings on basic issues of life and existence are still considered not only relevant but sacrosanct? Do these ancient writings provide any clue to their thinking process? Do the modern scientific discoveries provide better answers to the basic issues of existence such as origin and functioning of the universe, evolution of life, interaction between human civilization and the nature, purpose of human life, human development and human happiness? Are these unprecedented innovations and discoveries and large scale production technologies leading to human well-being and happiness or are they merely creating an illusion of happiness?

This book attempts to address some of these fundamental questions through comparative study of the discoveries of modern science and the wisdom of ancient writings left behind by our ancestors. Widely accepted contemporary scientific theories, discoveries and inventions addressing fundamental issues of life and existence constitute the basis of modern scientific explanations. The Vedic and some ancient Greek writings constitute the core of ancient wisdom expounding on these basic issues. The Upanishads, the Bhagvad Gita, the Brahman Sutra, the Srimad Bhagavatam and the Mahabharata constitute the primary source of ancient Indian wisdom. Relevant writings of pre-Socratic times and those of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus constitute the primary source of ancient wisdom from Greece.

Based on the comparative study of the two an attempt has been made to address some of the mysteries of creation and the purpose of human life. Following the comparative study of the two, the book brings out the relevance and richness of the ancient wisdom. Though the modern science and new technologies have transformed human life beyond recognition through spectacular material comforts these have failed to address the basic questions of life and existence. Human happiness remains elusive despite these material comforts and scientific advances. Humanity is getting lost into details forgetting the fundamentals. The question whether the ancient wisdom is based on scientific discoveries or is merely philosophical in nature has also been analysed in a step by step approach. Fundamental issues addressed in this book include; the origin of the universe, mysteries of the universe, creation/evolution of life, human health, play of human life, mission of life, meaning of development and human happiness.

The book has been divided into two parts. The first part deals with macro issues. These include chapters on the origin of the universe, the power of the empty space, cosmic order or the functioning of the universe, cosmic energy, the idea of development or what constitutes development and human health and medical sciences. The second part deals with issues concerning the constitution of a human being (who am I), human behaviour, human desires, purpose of life and human happiness. The following is the brief outline of these chapters.

Origin of the Universe:
The origin and source of this vast entity called the universe has always been a subject of curiosity. At least once a while in our life time each one of us must have thought with awe and wonder at this magnificent creation while gazing at the vast blue sky at night, studded with millions of stars and waning and waxing moon. What constitutes the universe? Is the universe finite and measurable? If so what lies beyond it? When and how did it originate? Does it have a beginning? If so what existed before its origin? Was it created by somebody? If so who created the creator? These are some of the fundamental questions that have been agitating human mind since times immemorial. With advances in modern science several explanations are available on these mysterious questions. This chapter analyses the most widely accepted explanations provided by modern scientific theories to these questions based on the Copernican Principles, Big Bang Theory, Edwin Hubble’s Law, and Quantum Physics. Thereafter explanations given in ancient Indian and Greek writings addressing these mysteries of the nature have been examined to explain the origin of the universe and other related questions.

Power of the Empty Space:
Whether we realise or not we are always surrounded by space. Probably over 99% of the universe consists of nothing but empty looking space. Space is the most subtle of all physical existence. Given its subtle nature mysteries of space continue to defy the scientific community till date despite path breaking advances in the modern science. Let us leave aside the details; there is no consensus even on the definition of space. This short chapter has been devoted to understand the power and utility of this empty looking space surrounding us. The chapter expounds as to how this empty looking space is the most intelligent and the most essential element of the creation constituting the holding place for all physical and non-physical existence, their movement, and functioning. The chapter also amplifies as to how this empty looking space remains unaffected even by violent movements and radical transformations constantly taking place in the universe.

Cosmic Order:
Functioning of the universe continues to be one of the greatest mysteries of all times. Movement of heavenly bodies, shooting stars, cyclical nature of planetary rotation, creation and dissolution of life, change of seasons, interaction between the nature and the consciousness and host of other natural phenomenon have always fascinated humanity. Is there an order in cosmic conduct or the universe is running merely by accident? How do the forces of nature function? Are there any laws governing these multiple forces? If so, who is the law maker? If not, is it simply a matter of coincidence? How can we explain the origin of life? How does life sustain itself? Is there any time cycle governing evolution and dissolution of life? I have tried to address some of these questions in this chapter. Modern science based on the spectacular advances in physical sciences has provided enormous details about the movement of planets and stars, galaxies and inter-galactic space. Advances in biological sciences offer many explanations about the evolution of life. An overview of the explanations provided by the modern science to these questions is based on the theory of conversion of energy into mass and mass into energy, the concept of Lambda, the theory of Big Bang and Big Compression, theory of evolution by Charles Darwin and other known scientific theories. Subsequently, the ancient Vedic writings taken from various ancient Indian scriptures and writings by Greek philosophers have been examined to find answers to these mysteries of nature.

Cosmic Energy:
The very survival of life depends on energy. Moreover each one of the human activities revolves around energy. The food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the fossil fuel we burn, the electricity we use in our daily life, the fuel we need to run a vehicle and the battery we need for our cell phone are some of the examples of the sources of energy. Is there a primary source of all such energies? If so, what is that source? What is the role of the sun in the energy cycle? This chapter brings out the pivotal role of the sun as the primary source of cosmic energy and how it impacts profoundly on life in general and human life in particular. The origin and functioning of cosmic energy as explained by the modern science as also in the ancient Vedic writings constitute the core of this chapter. The chapter also examines the Vedic concept of pranic energy and its functioning in the human body.

The idea of Development:
What constitutes development? What are the defining elements of development? How do we measure development? Are the modern economic theories based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and per capita income good enough indicators of development? How the unbridled race for growth of GDP and per capita income is impacting on human life? Is material development synonym to human development? Are the large-scale production units and the super-markets and mega-malls filled with millions of products leading to our happiness? This chapter tries to address these issues of our daily existence. An overview of Human Development Index computed by UNDP, excessive exploitation of natural resources and their impact on eco-system, other environmental issues and sustainable development have also been covered briefly in the course of this chapter. Thereafter the ancient concept of human development and quality of life has been compared with the modern one. Finally the chapter tries to elaborate the idea of development taking into account the primary objective of attaining human happiness and societal cohesion.

Human Health and Medical Sciences:
Human body is the most miraculous and harmonious machine ever created. Every particle of the body is intelligent and performs multiple functions simultaneously. Functioning of the nervous system and human brain are mind-boggling to say the least. The digestive system of living beings is the only machine that is capable of transforming the inanimate into animate. Body’s self-sustaining and self healing properties are unparalleled. Good health is the greatest joy and the most important objective of life. What constitutes human health? How could we keep good health? What is the role of human mind in the overall health of the body? How does the inanimate food we eat convert into animate and intelligent body parts? What is pranic energy and what is its role in the human body? Spectacular advances in recent times in medical and bio-sciences have transformed the diagnostic techniques, pharmaceutical industry and surgical techniques. Super-specialization has reached a new zenith. Are these advances indeed helping human health and well-being? Are modern drugs, intrusive surgery and super-specialization better than the ancient holistic and non-invasive approach and herbal medication? Are the modern medical practices healing the basic disorders of human body or are they scratching on the surface treating only the symptoms? What about side-effects of drugs? How does modern life-style impact on human health? On the whole how does the modern medical system compare with the ancient medical practices such as yoga, ayurveda, acupuncture, homeopathy and other traditional medical practices? Will the humanity be better off with herbal-based, holistic and non-invasive medical sciences developed by our ancestors? These and other similar issues constitute the core of this chapter.

Who Am I:
Who am I and what constitutes I; are fundamental and primeval questions. How many of us try to analyse and understand one’s own self and the way we function? Reason dictates that one must understand the functioning of one’s own self before we try to understand others. Normal tendency is to look outside than to look inwards. We spend considerable time and energy in understanding others. Why? Therefore this chapter I have tried to analyse the human constitution, inter-se relationship of these constituents and their functioning. Brief analysis of human body, senses, mind, intellect and soul constitutes the core of this chapter. Scientific explanations have been given to prove the existence of human soul. Specific examples have been provided to explain the concept of gross and subtle and how the human constituents proceed from gross (human body and senses) to subtle (mind) to most subtle (soul). The chapter also touches on the role of pranic energy and the different states of human body. Known scientific explanations and the ancient Vedic writings have been used to elaborate on human constitution and its functioning.

Mind and Intellect:
Seeds of all creation are first sown in the human mind. No action or innovations are possible unless a seed sprouts in human mind. Before a high rise building is constructed, idea of such an edifice must arise in someone’s mind. Human thought of flying like a bird in the space gave birth to airplanes. Wars are won and lost in the minds of men, says UNESCO’s constitution. This explains enormous power of human mind. What is human mind? Where does this powerful constituent of human body exist? How does it function? What is the relationship between human brain, mind and intellect? What is mind-body relationship? This chapter analyses the functioning of human mind and intellect, their powers and limitations and their role vis-a-vis human functioning and behaviour.

The Concept of Dharma:
What is right and what is wrong? What is ethical and what is unethical? What should we do in a given situation and what we should not? Are there any moral absolutes? Every moment in our life we keep debating about right conduct and right behaviour. More often than not we are in a state of dilemma. What is right conduct or behaviour vis-a-vis one’s spouse, children, parents, neighbours, superiors, subordinates and so on is a constant struggle we face in our daily life. The issue of right conduct keeps following us like a shadow both in our personal and official life. What is right in one place or country could be utterly wrong in another. Similarly what was right yesterday could be wrong today and what is right today could be wrong tomorrow. How do the societal laws, ethics, morality, religion and traditions impact on the definition of right and wrong? Are there any yardsticks or standards to judge right and wrong? If so what are they? These behavioural issues constitute the core of this chapter. These issues have been examined in the context of ancient Indian writings on the concept of dharma.

The Law of Karma:
We often meet people who are constantly suffering in life though they are honest, upright and hard working. On the contrary we also meet those who are intellectually impoverished and financially corrupt but are flourishing and doing quite well. Why is this gross injustice? Why some babies are born with silver spoon in their mouth while some others in the conditions of extreme poverty and deprivation? Some people are lucky all the time while some others are invariably unlucky. Why? Do our actions have any role in our pains and pleasures? Or are they simply destined? What is destiny or providence? What role does it play in our lives and how? These questions have engaged human mind since antiquity. Different explanations are found in different civilizations. Is there a law governing human actions? If so how does it operate? This chapter, therefore analyses the law of Karma (law of action and reaction),its operations and complexities with specific examples from our daily life..

The Concept of Maya:
What is the real nature of the world we live in? Why does this world exist at all? Why do we have temptations or desires? Can these desires be satisfied? If yes then how? If not can we overcome these desires? What is the purpose of life? How do the desires for wealth, power and sex, attachment for the near and dear and individual ego impact on human behaviour? Is the satisfaction of these desires primary purpose of life? How does human creativity work? These are primeval questions with no simple and straight forward answers. This chapter I have examined the ancient Indian concept of maya to explain the nature and the functioning of the world and how human creativity is driven by the engine of maya. How the magical power of maya keeps us engaged ceaselessly under its spell? Relationship between human desires and maya and how they interact to keep us spellbound and engaged is yet another important aspect covered in this chapter.

Path to Happiness:
What constitutes human life? What is the nature of human life? Why do we experience pleasure and pain in our daily existence? What is the role of time? What do we mean by happiness? Why do we look for happiness? Is happiness achievable at all or is it simply a mirage? If it is attainable then what is the path? This chapter addresses some of these basic facets affecting human life and analyses at the causes of pain and pleasure. Thereafter it synthesizes various aspects of human life and existence discussed in previous chapters to crystallize and clarify the idea of happiness and the mission of human life. The chapter also deliberates whether happiness can be achieved following the path laid down by modern science and contemporary life-style. Finally, based on the wisdom of our ancestors, some suggestions have been made to achieve true and lasting happiness in life.

An Overview:
To summarise, I have made an attempt in this book to briefly but succinctly analyse the mysteries of the creation, functioning of the natural forces and the basic issues of human existence, human life and human behaviour taking into account the findings of the modern science and the wisdom left behind by our ancestors. These are highly complex issues with no simple answers. Even volumes may not be enough to explain them in detail. In fact each chapter can be developed into a separate book. Therefore the idea behind this book is not to search for definitive or authoritative answers to these vexed issues but to provide an overview in one single volume to stimulate new thinking on ancient wisdom of our ancestors. The book also dispels the notion that our ancestors were primitive and not intelligent enough; and that the modern science has reached the horizons never reached before. Simultaneously this work also aims at provoking new thinking on the wisdom and the validity and sustainability of the direction the humanity is presently engaged and pursuing.