Wednesday 25 July 2007

Origin of the Universe-Ancient Indian theories

Sunday Observer, 26 April, 1992

Within the terrible womb of Kali

Shivanand Kanavi

Stephen Hawking mentions in his A Brief History of Time that in 1981 the Catholic Church organised a seminar on cosmology. At the end of the conference the participants of the seminar were granted an audience with the Pope, who told them that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the Big Bang, but they should not enquire into the Big Bang itself, because that was the moment of creation and therefore the work of God!

What happened at the Big Bang or before it? Physicists say these questions cannot be answered in the present model. The Big Bang represents a critical point in the theory. At that point certain quantities become infinite, certain others become zero, or in mathematical terms the Big Bang represents a singularity in theory. For the same reason we cannot extrapolate the model backwards to the period before Big Bang. Though the Big bang model satisfactorily explains the observed data so far, scientists do not like infinities appearing in theory.

Thus attempts are on to avoid the Big Bang singularity. Hawking himself has worked on one such attempt called the ‘no boundary model’, but in this model we have to give up our present concept of time. Here time has to be treated as any other space dimension or in mathematical terms we have “Euclidean space-time”.

But the predictive capacity of various cosmological models is extremely limited. Even basic data regarding distances of various galaxies from ours, the rate of expansion of the universe and the total matter in the universe is still not available. Till more observational data is available, maybe, from the Hubble Space Telescope or the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope near Pune, we have not much to choose from one model or the other, which predict the expansion of the universe and the leftover primordial Microwave Background Radiation.

How did ancient Indian philosophers view the creation of the universe? While the various theistic cosmogonies of the Puranas and other Vedic literature are know, what are not so well known are the equally ancient atheist explanations of the origin of the universe.

In his book Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, Dennis Overbye says that he once mentioned to Stephen Hawking the Kali myth in Hinduism – “the terrible one of many names whose stomach is a void and so can never be filled, whose womb is giving birth forever to all things”. He then tried to draw a connection between Kali and black holes. Hawking snorted : “It’s fashionable rubbish. People go over board on Eastern mysticism simply because it is something different that they have not met before. But as a natural description of reality, it fails abysmally to produce results... If you look through Eastern mysticism, you can find things that look suggestive of modern physics or cosmology. I don’t think they have any significance”.

If one tries to find scientific theories in ancient philosophy or myths and legends, then one would be disappointed unless one looks for space travel, nuclear weapons etc in the Ramayana, Mahabharat as some try desi versions of an Erich von Daniken (Chariots of the Gods) type of mumbo jumbo.

But ancient Indian philosophy is not homogenous in content. There are theistic, super-theistic and atheistic trends in it. Moreover proto-scientific elements can be found in the naturalist and observational approach of some of them towards their hypotheses. This is far more important than the hypotheses themselves. The atheistic explanations later became part of definite schools of philosophy to such an extent, that different schools having divergent world views and some times having their own quaint metaphysics like Samkhya, Lokayata, Purva-Mimamsa, Buddhism, Jainism and even early Nyaya-Vaiseshika, that is, almost all schools of Indian philosophy except Vedanta and later Nyaya-Vaiseshika shared one common element – their enthusiasm for nirisvaravada or atheism !

As Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya has pointed out, one of the earliest references to atheistic cosmology is in a strongly theistic Svetasvatara Upanishad placed roughly before the sixth century BC. In it, the author mentions seven atheistic alternatives for the “fist cause”: 1) kala (time), 2) svabhava (inherent nature), 3) niyati (fate), 4) ydrachha (accident), 5) bhutta (elements of matter), 6) prakruti (female principle, primeval matter), 7) purusa (male principle)

The first alternative – that time is the first cause of the universe – seems to have been associated with some ancient astronomers, but in subsequent developments this did not find any serious adherents. Similarly the alternatives of fate, male principle and accidentalism also did not have much of a future.

However the explanations of svabhava, bhuta and prakruti are most interesting both in their scientific orientation and deep influence on Samkhya, Lokayata, early-Nyaya-Vaiseshika and even Buddhism.

As Gunaratna, the great medieval Jaina logician, explained: “The naturalists claim as follows: By svabhava is meant for transformation of objects by themselves – because of their inherent nature. Everything that exists comes into being because of svabhava is meant the transformation of objects by themselves – because of their inherent nature. Everything that exists comes into being because of svabhava. Thus for instance earth is transformed into pot and not cloth... form the threads is produced cloth and not pot. Such regular occurrence cannot happen without the operation of svabhava. Therefore everything is to be finally viewed as due to svabhava. So it is said:

‘Who makes the thorn sharp?
And the beasts and birds so varied?
All these come into being from svabhava.
There is none whose desire forms them;
What is the use of postulating his effort?”

As Hiriyanna comments, “svabhavavada or naturalism recognises that ‘things are as their nature makes them’ traces all changes to the thing itself...Hence according to svabhavavada, it is not a lawless world in which we live; only there is no external principle governing it. It is self-determined and not undetermined.” Thus in svabhavavada, a protoscientific theory, we have the early recognition of law of nature.

Svabhavavada was recognised as the mechanism of origin of universe by Lokayatas who considered everything to be made up of elements of matter or bhutas. Samkhyas who spoke of prakruti or pradhana or female principle or primeval matter transforming itself into everything in the universe also adopted svabhavavada.

Even the early-Nyaya-Vaiseshikas, the atomists, also drew on svabhavavada to explain atomic combination. Only while discussing foetal development, due to lack of development of embryology. Gautama, one of the early atomists, spoke of the adrishta (unseen) as also an active element, besides the atoms. This unseen is not to be seen as God but as material force, as elsewhere the atomists cite the case of water rising up the plants and needle being attracted by the magnet as examples of the unseen.

Out of the two theistic philosophies Vedanta showed unconcealed contempt towards logic and the technique of debate. The only concession made by Samkara in Advaita Vedanta was that logic was alright so far as it agreed to rationalise scriptural declarations- as embodied in the Upanishads – a view strikingly resembling the warning given by the Pope to Hawking and other participants in the seminar on cosmology in 1981.

However, the other theistic school of later-Nyaya-Vaiseshikas tried their utmost to provide serious, logical, inferential proofs about God as the nimitta karana or efficient cause of the universe. Thus all the medieval atheists belonging to Budhism, Jainism, and Purvamimamsa concentrated their energies on demolishing the later –Nyaya Vaiseshika inferential proofs. These proofs were based on examples such as : While clay (matter) is necessary for making a pot, the clay by itself does not become a pot but needs a potter. This God, is required to put the atoms (which he did not create) together and create the world. Sophisticated arguments were worked out by the atheists to show the fallacies in this inference.

It is interesting to note that the only serious theistic philosophers themselves took recourse to God, only to provide the “first impulse” for the formation of the primeval dyad; diatomic molecule in modern parlance. From the all powerful creator of all beings, God is thus reduced to the role of a cosmic potter (brahmanda kulala) who does not even create the clay but only puts it all together!

This turn towards theism among the atomists seems to be a compromise with the prevailing religious pressure. A phenomenon we are all too familiar with in Indian scientific circles even today. Of course, one should also recognise the low level of understanding in those days about the laws of combination of atoms and that they had to rely on primitive technological examples from pottery, weaving or masonry.

Hawking does not seem to be aware of the nuances of ancient Indian philosophy. It is another matter that with the overwhelming presence of millions of gods, idealist metaphysics all around and the fact that these proto-scientific theories could not develop their potential due to mainly sociological and political reasons, that many Indians themselves are not aware of it.

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