Re - Reading the Rig Veda
-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
Vedic Physics: Scientific Origin of Hinduism(1999), by Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Publishers: Golden Egg Publishing. Paperback. $19.95
The Rig Veda does not contain history. Nor is it a treatise on astronomy. Nor is it just a praise to the Gods. And surely it is not the emanations of a group of soma-drunk men who wrote the first "magic-realism" novel. What it is, says Dr. Roy of the University of Toronto, is a treatise on cosmology and that it provides a better understanding of the nature of the cosmos than all the modern physicists have come up with till now. The Rig Veda is a book of science and the only reason that we have not been able to understand the science in it is because of the layers of ignorance and misinterpretations that have accumulated over the millennia, says Roy in his intriguing book, Vedic Physics: Scientific Origin of Hinduism(1999). If you are planning some interesting summer reading, I recommend this book. (Ed. Click here to read more about this book on Amazon.)
Many during the early 80s' were fascinated with books that tried to explain quantum physics to lay audiences as well as make connections to what seemed to be parallels within eastern mysticism. I was teaching at the Valley School in Bangalore those days and my colleagues and I would read books by Capra, Zukav and others that dealt with quantum physics and eastern mysticism and our discussions would drag on into the night. After all, in a school that was based on J. Krishnamurti's philosophy most teachers were familiar with Krishnamurti's dialogues with scientists, mathematicians and psychologists. And there were those innumerable tapes of his discussions with the theoretical physicist David Bohm (author of Wholeness and the Implicate Orderand some twenty other books on theoretical physics, cognitive science, etc.). Since then there have been other works by Capra, including the movie Mindwalk(1995) based on his book The Turning Point. Zukav wrote a more critically acclaimed book than Capra, titled The Dancing Wu-Li Masters. To this day of course Capra's The Tao of Physicsenjoys the status of a "modern classic of science". The day Zukav's book was published The New York Times printed"a rave review of it – all praise and no criticism". I mention these books because in the past decade or so it seems like the readership for such books is fading. The "establishment" has won and the experimental physicists and their fellow travelers have been constructing more billion dollar accelerators and cyclotrons and chortling over the pictures that the Hubble telescope is beaming back to Earth. But if Dr. Roy's book makes any inroads into the establishment scientific enterprise there could be renewed interest in Hinduism and what its ancient texts may reveal and tax payers could worry less about their moneys going towards digging deep holes in the earth.
Most of us, if not all, in the Krishnamurti schools were more knowledgeable about the books being written by Westerners than of any attempts by Indians at reconciling the findings of modern scientists with the knowledge/information contained in the Vedas. Very few of us were interested in or knew Sanskrit. The physicists and aeronautical engineers amongst us knew their science and technology but cared little to read the Vedas or other Hindu texts. The philosophers amongst us knew little Sanskrit and less physics. Our knowledge of Hinduism was "second hand". In short, there wasn't a Dr. Roy amongst us. A research scientist at the University of Toronto, Roy, a native of Bihar, did his undergraduate work in metallurgical engineering at IIT, Kanpur and got his M.S. and PhD from Ohio State University in Materials Science and Engineering. That is his engineering and science background. But unlike the ordinary Indian engineer or scientist, Roy has not confined himself to his scientific work As he says in the preface to his book, he has combined his early learning and training in Sanskrit with his scientific and engineering vocation. From the marriage of the two comes this fascinating and challenging book.
There are quite a few in India who claim that the Vedas are full of all kinds of scientific knowledge, but when asked to adumbrate all that they can do is to mouth some third hand version of the "greatness" of Hinduism. There are also a variety of gurus and god men who make the claim that the Hindu texts contain all kinds of meanings and messages but then they are not trained scientists to make effective connections between modern science and ancient texts. Some of them may know their Sanskrit but they don't know their physics.
Most of us who are trained as scientists, or social scientists, or who have grown up in modern, technological societies are skeptics when it comes to accepting the "scientific" worth of ancient texts. There are also too many charlatans and too many "men of faith" who are willing to take people for a ride as long as they can sell their religion. Given the trend in modern Indian education too, there are few of us who are willing to spend time digging into the texts of the past. Moreover, the trend for a long while was to see Indian texts mostly as spiritual-religious texts. The latest and most lucrative path is to "deconstruct" the texts through literary, political, philosophical and psychological analyses. Thus it was that at the last South Asia Conference in Madison in October 1998, there were Sanskritists who "deconstructed" aspects of the Ramayana: one professor, wearing a ring in his left ear, speculated that when Hanuman "grew large" and lifted a mountain and transported it across the sea, it was merely a metaphor for Hanuman getting an erection after watching the many semi-clad and/or naked beautiful women in the gardens and palaces of Ravana. Professors from Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard and elsewhere cheered and commented on such "exegesis" (or you could say "excesses") and there was only standing room in the conference hall to listen to such "deconstruction". I bring this up because we are more comfortable with such analyses and believe they are "modern" and/or "scientific". In such a world it is rather difficult to make a new case for old texts. We will believe linguists or literary critics, but we will be skeptical of other kinds of "deconstruction, " the ones that go against the grain.
The "traditional" take on the Rig Veda therefore would be that of scholars like Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, who has selected and translated 108 hymns out of the 1017 for a book (The Rig Veda) published by Penguins (1981). She basically claims that the Rig Veda contains details of daily life, the symbolism and mechanism of ritual and that it provides insight into mythology, philosophy and religion. Very few would argue about those aspects and most are happy to accept the Rig Veda as such. Even the great commentators like Madhwacharya, or the great works like the Upanishads focus on the "spiritual-psychological-symbolic" aspects of the Vedas. We are happy when traditional texts or teachers tell us that the central teaching and the central aim of the Rig Veda is "the seeking after the attainment of Truth, immortality and Light, " and that the supreme goal of the Vedic sages was discovering the "One Reality". Thus the hymns on creation, especially the Purusha Sukta ("the hymn of man" as it is ordinarily regarded), have been made famous. According to the traditional reading of the Purusha Sukta the gods created the universe by dismembering the cosmic giant, Purusha, the primeval male who is the victim in a Vedic sacrifice (O'Flaherty, p. 29). She claims that the theme of cosmic sacrifice is a widespread mythological motif and it is just a part of the Indo-European corpus of myths of dismemberment. So far, so good, you may say. But Roy argues that the Rig Veda is a book of ancient cosmology "where the authors have chosen fundamental particles and forces of nature to describe the cosmology in a dramatic way...." So, let us see how he interprets the particular verse in the Purusha Sukta (10.90.15): "What does the sacrifice of Purusa-animal mean? How can the God himself be sacrificed? The sacrifice here means a change of form, a change from unmanifested form to a form of manifested universe.... As the Purusa ceased to be what the Purusa was before the creation, he was symbolically sacrificed. This had nothing to do with human sacrifice" (p. 37-38). Skeptical readers may say, "oh, it is just a little twist to the original formulation". But let us look at just one or two more verses and see if we the "ordinary" or "literal" meaning makes sense. If it does not, then we need to try and figure out the symbolism. 10.90.01 is translated by O'Flaherty thus: "The Man has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. He pervaded the earth on all sides and extended beyond it as far as ten fingers". A thousand feet and a thousand eyes, we could say, is just a poetic metaphor for "God" who is "everywhere" and "sees everything". But what about the ten fingers? A thousand eyes and now "his" reach only as far as ten fingers? Roy says the ten fingers represent "ten dimensions". In modern physics direction and dimension are synonymous. Thus, he claims, that in Vedic cosmology universe is seen as ten-dimensional. He quotes the Vayu Purana (4.74-75) in which it is said that the "whole universe including moon, sun, galaxies and planets was inside the egg and the egg was surrounded by ten qualities from outside". Roy provides a more careful context for the reader to speculate about the nature of the universe. There are numerous verses from the different hymns of the "ten books" of the Rig Veda that Roy translates and provides a "context" which makes better sense than the merely poetic. A careful reader would therefore have the opportunity to compare both Roy's translation of the relevant verse and the analysis of the same.
The next important point that the author makes is that since the Rig Veda is a book of cosmology whatever "history" there is in it is not "real history". Similarly, he says that whatever else is there in it is merely tangential. For the establishment historians and other nay-sayers therefore this is a book that will befuddle and confuse. It is also a book that will undermine their claims about the Aryan invasion of India, for Roy musters some fascinating evidence (see p. 110 and p. 123) to support a fresh interpretation of the Harappan civilization.
Roy is aware of the argument by skeptics that the attempts at finding scientific meanings in scriptures is that they are made only after the discovery of those scientific facts. But the importance of his work is that he has tried to show how the scientific meaning contained in the Vedas is in many ways different from what modern scientists/physicists have put forward. Let us look at the difference. I will just summarize a few major points.
Roy summarizes for us the latest in modern cosmology, from the versions of Big Bang to versions of the Steady State models (Chapter 18). He summarizes their strengths and their weaknesses and then he adumbrates what he believes (and provides evidence for) is the model that the Rig Veda constructs. The sages considered the universe to be made of "fluid" (not as fluid as in water but "the flow of matter particles") and that it was rotating. The rotation's effect on this spherical volume of fluid makes it take the shape of a spheroid (the shape of an egg). In the standard Big Bang model the universe is not rotating but its constituents are. The Big Bang theory has been challenged, for example, by those proposing a steady state model and the book provides quick but precise summaries of those opposing theories. The Big Bang model also proposes that the mass-energy before the universe came into being was concentrated at a single point. The Vedas instead tell us that in the beginning there was no mass-energy. It was a complete void. Ed Tyron in 1973 put forward a theory that makes the same argument. The Vedic sages considered the creation of mass-energy to be continuous and that it was being created on the surface of the universe. If you wonder how a void can have a surface Roy has some fascinating explanations. In the Vedic model the universe has a center which is at absolute rest. There is an axis of the universe passing through this center around which the universe is rotating. Space can be divided into two, manifested and unmanifested and the creation of matter and antimatter will continue as long as the universe is expanding. While in the Big Bang model the universe can be open or closed, the Vedic model suggests differently. And the cyclic model proposed by scientists, that is the universe will expand and contract continuously is also modified in the Vedic model. It suggests that each cycle is independent of the other and there is no limitation on how many cycles there can be. Roy supports all his claims by providing the specific location of the verse in the scriptures. The verses have been translated into English and the scientific meaning of the verse is explained by dissecting the words and providing other supporting evidence from elsewhere in the Vedas.
The work of Roy is important in that he tries to figure out the hidden meanings in the Rig Veda by drawing careful analogies and comparisons and telling us when he is not sure of a particular meaning of a particular word or hymn. Thus the contracting universe is "Martanda", the living universe Vivasvana, the first pair of particle and anti-particle (matter and anti-matter) are "Yama" and "Manu", the early part of the universe when the surface tension was the most important force constraining the expansion of the universe the battle between these two forces is the immortalized epic battle of Indra and Vrtra. Radiation is Rudra and the remnants of radiation from the early universe, the cosmic background radiation, is Visha. Brhaspati represents the expansion of the universe, gramya (the domesticated animal) is boson, aranya (wild animal) is fermion and so on. All of Roy's claims are buttressed by relevant hymns and he also provides interesting asides on how the myths and fables of other cultures and religions were borrowed from the latter Brahmanas and thus were misreadings and wrong or partial interpretations of Vedic knowledge.
At this point, skeptics may wonder how the Vedic sages knew what they knew. Roy claims that they arrived at their findings and conclusions based on sound reasoning. This may seem like the Vedic sages were the precursors of Descartes! I do wish that he had speculated more deeply on how these ancient people discovered these fascinating truths. What was the Vedic methodology? Was the nature of the universe "revealed" or was it discovered? Readers may think this is a weakness of the book but he, however, makes it plain that modern scientific methods are not the only way one can investigate the "subtle nature of reality" (p. xiii). In his foreword to the book, Dr. Subhash Kak (author/co-author of books on astronomy, mathematics and computer science and a leading figure in the re-interpretation of Vedic knowledge) says: "Roy's basic premise is that the mind – by analysis, reflection on everyday phenomena and grasping the nature of its own self -- can discover a considerable amount of science and this is what the Vedic rishis did.... Roy's method goes counter to the orthodoxy that outer knowledge cannot be discovered by an analysis of the inner. But there is accumulating evidence from cognitive science and biology that the inner and the outer are connected. For example, biological systems are equipped with clocks tuned to the motions of the sun, the moon and other astronomical phenomena. Indian thinkers have always insisted on the presence of such connections, claiming that this is how the mind is able to know the physical world. In Vedic thought this is expressed by the notion of 'bandhu' that connect the biological, the terrestrial and the astronomical.... The Vedic focus on mind and consciousness is paralleled by the central place of the observer in modern physics. In quantum mechanics the state changes in an abrupt fashion when an observation is made and this has prompted some physicists to claim that consciousness should be the primary category of the universe, distinct from physical matter" (p. xiii, xiv).
What do I wish to see different in this book? Some re-organization, a more carefully chosen and substantive bibliography and some stylistic changes could make this book a bestseller. Some readers may also find it a little frustrating to come across an interesting idea and then be told that the explanation of that will come somewhere later in the book. There are also some repetitious claims of how the Vedas are mysterious and how they are also scientific. This is so especially in the earlier chapters. But these are minor faults and I hope you will not make the mistake of not picking up this book just because you don't like typos or that you have to do some going back and forth.
There have been some other books published recently that deal with the scientific nature of the Vedas: for example, R.L. Thompson's Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy(1996) and Subhash Kak's The Astronomical Code of the Rgveda. However, I believe that Dr. Roy's book is more ambitious and presents a more fascinating picture of the grand nature and sweep of the Vedas. This book represents a good marriage of the knowledge of modern science and ancient Hindu texts. I hope the book will attract a wide readership and rekindle interest in the study of the Vedas not just by linguists and literary scholars but by scientists and lay people.
Originally published on Friday, June 25, 1999.