Spiritual Phenomenon in the Light
we trace the evolution of the interaction between modern science
and religion, we shall find that at one time, may be up to
two centuries ago, modern science was in its infancy and there
was no organized branch called holistic science. Instead,
there was religion - although a science in itself -based mainly
on faith, only vaguely understood. Even this faith had a rational
and experiential basis, which was not well understood. During
this phase Abrahamic religions vehemently opposed modern science.
Galileo was humiliated and Bruno was burnt alive.
modern science maintained its relentless march and soon shallow
religious beliefs were on the defensive. Modern scientific
discoveries shattered faith in heaven and hell - even threatened
to disprove God. It was during this period of scientific ascendancy
that Swami Vivekananda presented to the West Vedanta as the
are now in the third phase when modern science, having realized
its theoretical as well as applied limitations, and having
appreciated the scientific nature of religion and its usefulness
for the individual and society, has decided not only to shake
hands with it - now called holistic science - but also try
to understand it with its own tools of investigation.
first to change stance was physics - atomic physics, or more
precisely, subatomic and quantum physics. Its discoveries
were so startling that we heard great modern physicists speak
like mystics, and people started telling that religion and
science are shaking hands. But physics is only one branch
of modern science. Biology, physiology, and medical science
are also material sciences. Even psychology is a science -
science of the psyche or mind. And, it did not take long for
honest material/modern scientists to realize that mysticism
is also a science - science of the spirit. But there are other
scientists also, who are not willing to assign the term 'science'
to mysticism. Instead, they try to understand mysticism and
spiritual phenomenon with the help of modern scientific methods,
which they feel are the only authentic tools to understand
everything happening in the world, internal or external.
we take up the study of spiritual experience in the light
of modern science, especially neurosciences, we must clearly
understand what spirituality means. Swami Vivekananda equates
religion with realization: 'If there is God, we must see Him;
if there is a soul, we must realize it'. So, then, religion
is not merely faith, but realization - a real, mystic experience.
But that is not all. Religion is also 'being and becoming',
and a transformation of personality.
how are spiritual experience and transformation related, if
at all? The great spiritual masters tell us that true spiritual
experience cannot be obtained unless one passes through rigorous
and prolonged spiritual discipline for many many years. Without
such a discipline, if the person obtains an experience, it
will either be misunderstood or will not last long. Cases
are on record of such 'stumbling upon truth' without due preparation,
and the result of such an experience had been beneficial as
well as harmful to the individual and society.
a genuine spiritual experience must transform the personality
of the experiencer. Swami Vivekananda has categorically said
that if a fool enters samadhi (superconscious experience)
he comes out a saint. The real spiritual experience is so
profound that it wholly transforms the character of the individual.
And this aspect of religion is far more important than experience.
Take for example the three descriptions of ideal states to
be attained in the Bhagavad Gita: the sthitaprajna,
the ideal bhakta, and the trigunatita. Although there
is no mention of spiritual experience there, a detailed description
of the moral and ethical characteristics of a person is given.
Here is the description of an ideal bhakta, paraphrased by
who hates none, who is the friend of all, who is merciful
to all, who has nothing of his own, who is free from egoism,
who is even-minded in pain and pleasure, who is forbearing,
who is always satisfied, who works always in Yoga, whose self
has become controlled, whose will is firm, whose mind and
intellect are given up unto Me, such a one is My beloved Bhakta.
From whom comes no disturbance, who cannot be disturbed by
others, who is pure and active, who does not care whether
good comes or evil, and never becomes miserable, who has given
up all efforts for himself; who is the same in praise or in
blame, with a silent, thoughtful mind, blessed with what little
comes in his way, homeless, for the whole world is his home,
and who is steady in his ideas, such a one is My beloved Bhakta."
Such alone become Yogis [The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda,
Sri Ramakrishna we see a complete demonstration of the spiritual
phenomenon. He often used to have samadhi and varied spiritual
experiences. With this, he was wholly established in moral
values like truth, unselfishness, renunciation, continence,
non-possessiveness, purity, love and compassion, etc. This
was not all. Even his nervous system had been transformed.
He could not touch a coin, even in sleep. He would feel lost
if he unconsciously or unknowingly possessed even a little
packet of condiments! In short, we find all the three features
of spiritual phenomenon - experience, moral excellence and
physiological transformation - in Sri Ramakrishna. (For details
of Sri Ramakrishna's physiology, please consult "Physiology
of a Man of God" by Dr. C. S. Shah, The Vedanta Kesari,
May, June and August 1999.)
this short introduction about what spiritual phenomenon actually
is, let us now turn to psychoneurology.
branch of physiology identifies the areas of nervous system
associated with spiritual phenomenon and mental modifications,
thoughts, emotions, instincts, etc. Recently a new discipline
called Neurotheology has come up. It studies the neurobiology
of spirituality and religion. Its aim is to identify regions
of the brain which are associated with spiritual experiences,
especially the sense of the presence of God or God realization.
Newberg and Eugene D'Aquilli used a brain-imaging technique
called Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT)
to determine regions of brain which respond to altered states
of consciousness during prayer and meditation. The experiments
were carried out on Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns.
They recorded an increased activity in the frontal lobe area
of brain - it 'lights up' at the peak of meditation. They
also found that there is reduction of activity in parietal
lobe of brain. Parietal lobe is also known as Oriental Association
Area (OAA) since it controls our sense of space. It requires
continuous sensory inputs to do its job. During intense meditation,
no activity was observed in ОAA. During transcendental spiritual
experience, OAA is dormant and boundaries between self and
other worldly things are dissolved. A state of absolute calmness
and contentment is attained - self appears united with God.
The temporal lobes help to relate religious symbols or images
to feelings, thus triggering a sense of awe. When the temporal
lobes are artificially stimulated, a sense of divine presence
is felt. (Ref: "Divine Experience and Neurobiology"
by P.N. Jha, Times of India, Thursday, July 4, 2002).
an ordinary motorcycle helmet, modified with electromagnetic
coils, Dr. Persinger was able to artificially induce a profound
spiritual experience. This device works by inducing very small
electrical signals with tiny magnetically induced mechanical
vibrations in the brain cells of temporal lobes and other
selected areas of the brain. These lobes produce what are
called 'Forty Hertz Component' of brain waves detected in
electro encephalogram. These 'FHC' are present during waking
and dream state, but are absent during deep sleep. These FHCs
are important for the experience of the personal self or reality.
By suppressing the FHCs the sense of individual self is reduced.
This is what Dr. Persinger's helmet does. When brain is deprived
of self-stimulation and sensory input required for defining
itself as being distinct from the world, the brain 'defaults'
to a sense of infinity. So the experience of self simply expands
to fill the perception of the world. One experiences becoming
one with the world (http://www.bidstrup.com/mystic.htm).
scientists have given another interesting explanation for
'God realization'. There are two temporal lobes in the brain:
the right and the left, which are connected to each other.
Sometimes this connection gets disturbed by sickness, stress
and strain, the FZ components also get disorganized and then
the normally silent right hand sense of self is experienced
by the left hand sense of self. The scientists call this God
experience - an experience of another self within the self!!
electromagnetic helmet experiment is interesting. Although
the experiment is described, we don't have the follow-up to
show whether there was any change in the character and conduct
of those who were subjected to it. It must be emphasized that
in spiritual traditions, such 'God experiences', or experience
of unity, etc. are not granted to disciples without years
of arduous practice of spiritual discipline, for two reasons:
Without due preparation, they would not be able to retain
it and keep it up, and
More importantly, such 'God experiences' granted or obtained
without proper purification can have dangerous repercussions
for the individual or society. It is on record that such 'stumbling
upon truth' has resulted in bringing out the angel as well
as the devil out of the person.
point to remember, therefore, is that spiritual life is not
merely an isolated experience - it is a phenomenon, which
includes transformation of character and conduct as well as
rigorous spiritual practice. In the long run, the spiritual
phenomenon leads even to total change in the nervous system,
to the extent of changing the psychic and physiological reflex
actions, as had happened in the case of Sri Ramakrishna.
is the scientific method of treatment of mental disorders
by means of brain surgery. Although such a surgery was performed
in 1894 by a Swiss doctor, this operation of destruction of
the frontal lobes of brain for treatment of emotional disorders
was technically advanced by Sir Victor Horsley in UK and Harvey
Gushing in USA. Later in 1931, operation called lobotomy,
or leucotomy was developed, which consisted of severing nerve-fibre
tract between the thalamus and frontal lobes by using a special
knife called leucotome. Later a quick and easy procedure called
'Trans orbital leucotomy' was developed which could be done
within a few minutes under local anaesthesia. Thus in the
40's and 50's more than 50,000 persons were subjected to lobotomy
all over the world, based on very scanty and flimsy (and even
unwarranted) evidence for its scientific basis. Soon it became
evident that although lobotomy was able to control severely
agitated and violent behaviour and becalm psychotic patients,
there were many undesirable side effects. Prefrontal lobotomy
produced 'zombies' - persons without emotions, apathetic to
everything and reduced drive and initiative. They also lost
several important higher mental functions such as socially
adequate behaviour and the capacity to plan actions.
the advance of minimally invasive surgical techniques such
as functional stereo-tactic neurosurgery, physicians were
able to destroy with high precision much smaller areas of
brain involved in emotional control. These small lesions have
virtually no effect on intellectual or emotional spheres,
and are generally very effective in controlling violent behaviour.
1970's, development of radio surgery has allowed surgeons
to remove tiny bits of brain tissue without opening the skull.
Surgeons are now able to pinpoint with great accuracy areas,
nuclei, or fibres inside the brain by high-tech methods. However,
the indications for such surgery are highly selective and
only 200 surgeries are performed every year in USA. (The History
of Psychosurgery by Renato M.E. Sabbatini, Ph.D.; http://www.epub.org.br/cm/
n02 / historia / psicocirg_i.htm)
is obvious from this historical review and latest update of
psychosurgery that its scope is extremely limited. It is indicated
only in mental abnormalities which cannot be cured or controlled
by antipsychotic drugs or psychotherapy. Needless to state
that such procedures cannot have anything to do with spiritual
experience, life, or phenomenon.
is not merely spiritual experience. It means complete transformation
of personality - even changing the whole physiology. Conquest
of lust, greed and anger are essential parameters of spiritual
evolution. Can this be attained artificially through surgery?
Although greed, lust, anger and similar other emotions are
considered evil and hindrances to spiritual life, the solution
does not consist in destroying them altogether. They must
be transmuted and sublimated. Destroying the neural centres
responsible for these will be like killing a restive, uncontrolled
horse rather than breaking it in. These emotions are forces
which must be sublimated. Anger must be carefully controlled
and directed against those factors which stand as hindrance
in spiritual life. Lust means desire for union, and it must
be directed towards God.
is another branch with the help of which neuroscientists have
tried to understand the psychic phenomenon. Scientists have
identified certain chemicals called neurotransmitters and
neuromodulators. These substances are released at the nerve
junctions and act by altering the electric potentials of the
cell membrane. They not only transmit the message, they also
selectively facilitate some and inhibit some other information.
types of neuroreceptors are present in different parts of
the brain and this can account for complex and multiple effects
of medication, meditation, concentration and contemplation.
For example, a subtype of 'glutamate receptor' appears to
mediate the function of brain plasticity, a process considered
important in learning and memory.
Choline helps in memory, motivation, perception and cognition.
Another neuromodulator is serotonine. Its increase can produce
hallucinations, as happens after LSD intake. Variations in
serotonine content affect behaviour, arousal and sleep pattern.
Another neurotransmitter, norepinephrine, causes changes in
mood - excess leading to elation, and deficiency causing depression.
Excess of dopamine levels lead to schizophrenia and psychosis.
of the antipsychotic drugs act through one or more of the
above chemicals. The question however, is, 'Can any of the
available drugs help in the spiritual life or produce a genuine
drugs acting on the mind are of various types. The hard drugs
like morphine and heroine produce severe psychological dependence,
and are banned. Tobacco, alcohol and certain sedatives are
less dependence producing and are used incidentally. Then
there are the tranquillizers which have a calming and soothing
effect. Of these, major ones are used in psychoses, while
minor anxiolytics and antidepressants are the most commonly
prescribed by the physicians in medical practice. There is
a group of drugs called psycho-dysleptics, which produce hallucinations
and alter the sense of time, make sensations more vivid, and
obstruct memory revival.
and marijuana are often called 'mind manifesting'. The experience
produced by them is often weird and unpredictable. It leads
to lethargy and social passivity. Some of these drugs are
unfortunately used non-medically for relief of anxiety and
tension, and at times for 'fun', amusement, and what is called
is a custom among some of the traditional religious sects
to use some of these drugs for spiritual purposes. It is true
that these drugs may give a spiritual-experience-like feeling.
But as has already been stated, spirituality is not merely
an isolated experience or feeling. It is an extremely complex
phenomenon which includes transformation of character itself.
These drugs can't produce that. On the contrary, prolonged,
habitual use of these drugs may lead not only to dependence,
but also to moral debasement and depressed sensitivity. Let
it be understood clearly: There is no shortcut to spiritual
Engineering and Spiritual Phenomenon
1989 the USA launched a spectacular multi billion research
project called 'Human Genome Project' to reveal the entire
human genetic code. Its aim is 'human enhancement' by planned
alteration of genetic codes. Genetic engineering and alteration
in genetic codes have already been used to produce hybrid
plants and cereals. It is also known that there are certain
genetic diseases where a defective or abnormal gene in the
patients' chromosomes is responsible for the disease. It has
been envisaged therefore to achieve cure of diseases by modifying
the genetic code.
far so good. But more ambitiously, the biotechnological scientists
plan to produce hybrid humans through genetic engineering!
This very idea poses a number of important questions: Is such
tampering ethical? Can human advancement be achieved purely
by tempering at the physical level? Can matter be the cause
of mind? Can human evolution be hastened by genetic engineering?
Can a Buddha or a Gandhi, or worse, a Hitler be produced in
laboratory? And if this were at all possible, what will happen
if such a biotechnique falls into the hands of some unscrupulous
person with scant concern for social welfare? Cloning and
test tube babies are other areas in which biotechnology is
trying to interfere with the natural phenomenon of birth.
is interesting to note that Indian Mythology presents a number
of instances of biotechnological interferences, especially
in the process of birth. We have, for example, the case of
life produced from dead matter; Ganesha was born out of the
bodily dust of Mother Parvati. The Bhagavatam describes
that there was a tyrant king Vena who had to be killed. But
he had no heir. So the Brahmins churned his dead body, out
of which a dark dwarf with evil propensities arose. Then came
out a divine couple. The male became king Prithu and ruled
second phenomenon is birth of Draupadi and Drishtadyumna through
yajna - a case of birth without parents. Sri Rama and his
three brothers were born when the milk obtained from yajna
was fed to the mothers. Here, although mothers are there,
there is no contribution of the father, and no sexual union.
Mother Mary too conceived immaculately to give birth to Jesus.
there is the interesting case of transference of embryo from
the womb of one mother to that of the other. According to
Jain mythology, the soul of the prophet Mahavir first got
embodied as an embryo in the womb of a Brahmin mother. However,
the gods transferred it into the womb of a Kshatriya mother
- a queen. A similar transference of the embryo of Balaram
from the womb of Devaki to that of Rohini is described in
of growth and nurturing of a fertilized ovum outside the mother's
womb - equivalent to test-tube babies - is also found in Indian
mythology. The embryo of the Kauravas emerged from the womb
of Gandhari in the form of a single egg. It was kept in an
incubator outside the womb. But when it did not grow into
a baby for a long time, in desperation it was broken into
hundred pieces each one of which became one Kaurava prince.
The embryo of sage Agastya too hatched outside the womb, in
there are stories of duplication of bodies - similar bodies
having being produced from one body, akin to cloning. Sage
Kardama produced with the help of yogic power nine bodies
identical to his own. Raktabija was the demon out of each
drop of whose blood one similar demon was born. Finally, there
are a number of examples of resorting to yajna, tapas (austerities)
or yoga for obtaining progeny of one's own choice.
in Indian religious tradition the possibility of unnatural
occurrences and interference in the natural biological processes
has not been denied. But they have never been encouraged or
given undue importance. Such interferences are unpredictable
in their results and may even prove dangerous. Instead, it
is always much safer to resort to yogic practices, yajna or
tapas to modify the natural biological processes.
decoding of the whole genetic code of a human genome has not
yet been achieved. So far genetic engineering has only been
able to alter the physical characteristics of the living organism.
It is yet to be seen whether it can affect the mental characteristics.
For this, to begin with, the bioscientists will have to identify
the genes responsible for mental traits like lust, greed,
love, compassion, hatred, etc. They may well study the genetic
structure of sages and seers, and compare them with those
of sinners and criminals. And then would arise the question
of the applicability of such a knowledge. Even theoretically
it is difficult to accept the principle that matter can produce
mind, and it is still more improbable that change in the physical
structure would change mind in a predictable manner. In all
probability, genetic engineering would also end up with giving
us a few more methods for treating some mental diseases. It
is always far safer and wiser to resort to yogic, psychological
and spiritual techniques for mental transformation.
we were to accept Darwin's Theory of Evolution, man has evolved
out of a mollusc or an amoeba. Darwin certainly does not say
anything about the evolution of life out of matter. He only
traces the evolution of life-forms. As a matter of fact, although
Einstein has been able to give us an equation to describe
the relation between matter and energy (E=mc2), no scientist
has so far been able to discover an equation between mind
and matter, and unless this is defined, every attempt at tampering
with matter to influence mind would remain unpredictable.
next great leap in evolution was when the nerve tissue was
evolved. Initially it was merely like a nerve net in Hydra,
but later evolved into two nerve cords, leading to a single
nerve cord. This again got differentiated in the front to
form a nerve ganglion. This again divided into three parts:
the fore brain, the mid brain and the hind brain. As evolution
proceeded, the fore brain evolved into neo-cerebrum, being
the seat of intellect; mid brain became limbic system and
thalamus - the seats of emotion and instinct respectively;
and the hind brain formed the medulla - the seat for centres
for vital functions like respiration and heart beats. In humans,
the fore brain or the neo-cerebrum is far more developed than
in animals, signifying that in humans intellect plays a far
more dominant role than in lower animals.
the vital question is: what is the next step in human evolution?
Some have envisaged a superman. What is the biological speciality
of such a superman? Will he have a special structure or part
added to his already evolved brain? Or, will there be only
a functional and not anatomical change, in his brain? But
before we venture even to give some speculative answers to
these questions, we must at least define a 'superman', in
philosophical, psychological, sociological and spiritual terms.
Modern material sciences have no clear idea of a superman.
However, all religious traditions of the world have not only
clearly defined a 'superman', they all owe their very origin
to such a divine being. Buddha, Christ, Sri Ramakrishna and
the like are the prototype of the next stage of human evolution.
All the scriptures of the world clearly delineate the characteristics
of such a super or divine being. And the human evolution is
progressing towards it.
terms of psychology, some prefer to use 'yogic consciousness'
as the next step in evolution. Although the very concept of
consciousness is vague, modern psychologists have tried to
understand it with the help of biology. They associate the
concept of consciousness with the evolving nerve tissue in
the species. Mukhopadhyaya credits consciousness only to the
brain and not to the neural tissue below the brain level.
According to him there is a brain-stem consciousness related
to waking and sleep states; the mid brain or limbic system
consciousness concerned with our instincts and emotions, and
finally the cortical consciousness associated with our intellect.
He postulates that the higher consciousness in the process
of evolution is supra-cortical consciousness. (Dr. A.K. Mukhopadhyaya's
Paper presented at NCERT seminar 1987, quoted by Shah, C.S.).
also claim that the two hemispheres of the brain have different
psycho and physiological functions. To this, they have given
the name bimodal consciousness. The non-dominant hemisphere
is supposed to have functions which are more holistic. However,
they are not able to say as yet what the anatomical locus
of yogic consciousness is. And unless these issues are answered
and clarified, the role of biotechnology cannot possibly be
assessed. Some speculations as to the alteration in the structure
and function of brain which might be associated with the evolution
of a yogic consciousness are postulated by Dr. C. S. Shah:
Certain centres in the brain may be suppressed, while others
may get stimulated.
Dormant connections between the nerve cells may be opened.
New connections might develop between the brain cells and
Quality and quantity of neurotransmitting chemicals which
transfer messages from one cell to another may be altered.
New centres may develop as has happened in human beings during
the evolutionary leap from ape to man.
Shah further suggests, quoting reliable authorities, that
brain has great plasticity and its structure can be altered
by training, upbringing and experience. We must look for this,
rather than something embedded in genes. While natural evolution
takes thousands of years to effect such changes, some people
can achieve the same results in a few years through conscious
and deliberate meditative efforts to control the mind. (See
Shah, Dr. C. S., 'Physiology of a Man of God', Part III, The
Vedanta Kesari, August 1999. p. 311-313).
cannot be denied that the investigations of modern biosciences
into the realm of religion have helped in understanding the
spiritual phenomenon, and to dispel the clouds of mystery
around mystic happenings. We have also understood the limitations
of biotechnology in bringing about spiritual experiences or
in helping in hastening the process of spiritual evolution.
It is also a fact that spiritual phenomenon is essential not
only for individual fulfilment, it also plays a major role
in social well being. Such scientific inquiries further strengthen
the view that spiritual life must be led in right earnestness
if we seek personal emancipation, welfare of the society and
ascent of the human race to the higher ladder of evolution.
Yoga and not biotechnology is the path to higher consciousness.
Robots may have their utility, but they are not substitutes
for rishis. What we need today are rishis - in hundreds and