Vedantic Concept of Life
Science Magazine in its 125th Anniversary Issue came up with the title “What Don’t We Know?” where it listed 125 crucial questions facing science over the next quarter-century. A major question of foundational importance that is listed is, “How and Where Did Life on Earth Arise?” Some of the other interesting questions that were listed are, “Can the Laws of Physics Be Unified?”, “What Determines Species Diversity?”, “How Will Big Pictures Emerge from a Sea of Biological Data?”, “How Far Can We Push Chemical Self-Assembly?”, “What Are the Limits of Conventional Computing?”, “Do Deeper Principles Underlie Quantum Uncertainty and Nonlocality?” and “What is the Biological Basis of Consciousness?”
The magazine also noted the statement of 2004 Nobel Laureate in Physics, David Gross, that “Fundamental questions are guideposts; they stimulate people.” Thus hundreds of years of the glorious history of modern science have failed to provide any satisfactory answer regarding life and its deeper reality. Science without knowledge of the scientist (life) who is exploring Nature is thus incomplete.
In 1828, the German chemist Friedrich Woehler synthesized urea, from ammonium cyanate, a purely inorganic compound. This profoundly influenced the minds of chemists and they began to accept a completely materialistic view of life. In 1859 Darwin published “The Origin of Species”. His claim was that all existing organisms are the descendants of simpler ancestors that lived in the distant past. He proposed a completely materialistic theory of evolution in which natural selection is main force driving this evolution. This provided further support to the wholesale materialistic and mechanical conception that life could have arisen as an emergent by-product of material combinations.
Darwin thought that his theory of evolution would, “serve to bring together a multitude of facts which are at present left disconnected by any efficient cause.” In natural science, abiogenesis is the theory of the origin of life that considers life on Earth might have emerged from non-life. It is generally assumed by modern scientists that it might have happened sometime between 2.7 to 4.4 billion years ago. Almost 150 years have passed since modern science adopted an approach based upon Darwinian evolution as the basis of all their efforts at understanding life and its deeper reality. But it seems that we are witnessing that over all these years modern science has failed to give us a clear understanding of how life originated.
This is evident from the 125th Anniversary Issue of Science Magazine, where it has listed 125 questions for which modern science has no tangible clue to their answers. One of the questions is, “How and Where Did Life on Earth Arise?” In this regard Hubert Yockey, an information theorist argued that, “One must conclude that, contrary to the established and current wisdom, a scenario describing the genesis of life on earth by chance and natural causes, which can be accepted on the basis of fact and not faith, has not yet been written.”
The RNA world hypothesis contains many difficult aspects needing explanation. Every other idea of the chemical evolution of life also give rise to many intractable questions. There are many unknowns in the chemical pathways. Over the years in an attempt to understand life, modern science has made extensive attempts to understand only the molecular constituents like RNA and DNA in the bodies of living entities.
In this regard Dr. TD Singh, founder director of Bhakivedanta Institute, attended a lecture on the origin of life by the world-renowned reductionist, Professor Stanley Miller. Dr Singh asked him during the question and answer session, “Suppose I were to give you all of the ready-made bio-molecules —DNA, proteins, lipids, sugars, etc. — would you be able to produce life within a test-tube by combining these molecules?” Professor Miller replied, “That I don’t know.”
The vedantic idea is directly opposite to the idea of chemical evolution. Srila Prabhupada presented it in a very profound and simple way as, “Life Comes from Life.” According to the Taittariya Upanisad, 'asadva idamagra asit': Brahman or Consciousness existed before the manifestation of the material world. Thus Vyasadeva, the compiler of all Vedic literature exhorts that the prime duty of the human form of life is to inquire into the original basis of existence, which is Brahman or consciousness, “athato brahma jijnasa”.
Furthermore consciousness is one of the prime symptoms of life. Thus according to Vedanta life is really a very deep reality and the full realization of the characteristics, meaning and purpose of life requires the conception and help of more than any material principle.
According to Vedic knowledge the nature of dead matter and life are completely different. For example, consciousness is one of the symptoms of life which dead matter does not possess. The major problem, which appears in the present approach of modern science, is that it assumes (without having sufficient scientific evidence) that life is of the same nature as that of matter and then tries to understand life. This approach has been adopted by science for years and due to this we don’t have any theory in modern science which could give us a clear scientific idea about life.
Scientifically, the origin of matter as well as of life is not known. This fact is also evident from the questions listed by Science Magazine in its 125th anniversary issue. There is no final theory of matter. Scientists – physicists and chemists – only try to understand the properties of different chemical components that make up the various lumps of matter and their physical and chemical properties. Biologists and biochemists, following the footsteps of physicists and chemists, are also on the wrong path – because they borrow the concept that life is a product of chemical evolution.
So in reality, they don’t study life. Therefore they cannot go much further. Darwinian paradigm has ensured that, the search for life was conducted only from a materialistic approach. This idea is actually only a theory, although it is now accepted and taught as if it was an unquestionable fact. Yet even after so much effort is the origin of life remains an unsolved problem. Many difficult questions raise the doubt that whether this paradigm can stand a true scientific analysis. If this one sided assumption can be removed from the studies on life and if the studies are carried out following the indications given in the Vedic literature regarding life then modern science may be able to provide many breakthrough findings on life and its deeper reality.
The Vedantic paradigm is summarized by Srila Prabhupada as Life Comes from Life. Furthermore matter also comes from life. It begins the study of the origin of life by including a divine or spiritual element coined as spiriton by Dr T. D. Singh. The Vedantic paradigm is an ancient paradigm and has been well studied within the traditional schools of Vedanta throughout the ages. Thus the Vedantic conception of life is that it is non reducible to matter, like atoms, molecules, chemicals and forces.
According to Vedanta an ignorance of the original conception is the cause of sufferings. But when the actual Origin of both matter and life is understood, then peace and harmony are simultaneously achieved. Thus there is a great hope if scientists of the world can come together and study the question of Life by including the spiritual conceptions of the world, including the Vedantic conception. Today in science, in a strictly materialistic approach, we are facing many difficult and intractable questions. Thus a synthesis between the Vedantic idea and modern science is sure to expand the domain of our scientific conception of Life.
(This paper was presented at the International Conference on Science and Spirituality for World Peace held at the RIMS Jubilee Hall in Imphal on November 23-24, 2007. The writer is a Research Scholar in the Dept. of Chemical Engineering at IIT Kharagpur)