Three popular science books had made a deep impact on the young minds of some of us still in college, about the ultimate human destiny and the insignificance of life on Earth in this fathomless infinite Universe. They were: George Gamow’s One, Two, Three… Infinity, James Jeans’ The Mysterious Universe, and Fred Hoyle’s The Nature of the Universe. While Gamow’s book presented flickers of optimism, Jeans and Hoyle painted a picture of gloom, doom and helplessness. I had to carry this depressive outlook throughout my life because no evidence to the contrary was forthcoming.
Commenting on the fate of humans, the great English astronomer, Fred Hoyle said that “religions are nothing but lame consolations for the stark reality confronting humanity”. This has been reiterated by the famous Indian astrophysicist, Jayant Narlikar in his book Introduction to Cosmology where similar views have been expressed.
What is this “stark reality?” The fear and depression created by Hoyle’s statement propelled me to embark on a journey to know reality. A depressed mind will naturally fall back upon religion for solace.
So did I. Beginning with the religious texts ~ the Bible, the Gita, the Vedas, the Upanishads etc. ~ I started going through the teachings of the Prophets, Buddhist literature, Sri Aurobindo’s Life Divine, The Gospels of Ramakrishna, lives of the Himalayan Masters and Swami Vivekananda’s speeches and writings. I also started meeting Sadhus and saints in their Ashrams and religious organisations. Swami Vivekananda’s powerful writings impressed and influenced me the most.
He was a rationalist and a nation-builder rather than a mere monk or a religious leader. He was against blind faith. Swamiji said, “Do not believe in a thing because you have read about it in a book? Do not believe in a thing because another man had said it was true… Find out the truth yourself. Reason it out. That is realization.” Unorthodox as he was, unlike a religious saint, he declared, “You can reach God by playing football rather than reading the Gita.” He wanted well-built strong youth to rebuild India.
Organised religions have created a paradigm of belief systems which are required to be followed by followers as unquestionable faiths and ultimate truths. The monolithic Abrahamic religions are common in many ways ~ single God, single religious text, heaven and hell, the burial of the dead, and the Day of Judgment. In contrast, the Indian religions believe in multiple gods, the continuity of life, indestructibility of the soul, reincarnation, a cycle of births and deaths till one achieves Moksha (salvation), cremation of the dead by fire and the theory of Karma.
India presents a kaleidoscopic picture of several organised and unorganized religions, many philosophical schools of thought, countless gods and goddesses, innumerable sects and creeds, many religious orders, thousands of meditating sadhus and saints sacrificing worldly life seeking salvation in the hills, and hundreds of interpretations about their religions and gods. Worshipping of animals, trees and stones, not found elsewhere, is also a part of religion. The beauty of the Indian religions, especially within the Hindu fold, has been the freedom to debate and criticize their own religion and their gods and goddesses making them the most “Argumentative Indians.”
There is a school of thought, the Charvakas who do not believe in the existence of God but still belong to the Vedic religion. Interestingly, all ancient civilizations worshipped multiple gods and goddesses ~ the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, the Mayans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese and the Indians. With the destruction of these civilizations and the incursion of new organized religions, except the Chinese and the Indian, which are the only two surviving and continuing civilizations, all their gods and goddesses faced extinction.
China which worshipped multiple gods and goddesses abandoned all of them when the Communists came to power and changed the country’s culture to make Communism the only religion. It is only in India that all gods and goddesses of the ancient civilization have survived in their original form in spite of continuous onslaughts on them. My religious experiments including a resolve to join a socio-religious order ended with a sense of nihilism and frustration. I thought Marx was not much off the mark when he said, “Religion is the opium of the people.”
All religions are enveloped in illusionary precepts and vague answers without hard evidence, which is obviously expected as all religions pre-dated modern science. No religion or saint has the answers to the basic questions of life and death. The fundamental questions confronting human conscience and existence have been: Is there a God or Creator? Who created God? Where is the abode of God? Where are Heaven and Hell located? Is there life after death? Does the soul exist? Is there transmigration of souls and rebirth? What is the mechanism and medium through which the soul enters another womb? When is the Day of Judgment? How did the Messengers of God reach earth ~ in rockets or space gear? Are humans different from other creatures created by God? Where do we come from and where do we go? What is the ultimate destiny of life? It would be an illusion to think in a religious way that man has been specifically designed by God and that they are the highest creation destined to rule the world. They are not.
The theory of evolution has disproved it. The difference between man and higher animals like elephants, horses, tigers, lions, cows, dogs etc is less than 2 per cent in DNA. Physically, Homo sapiens is the weakest and most delicate of all the higher animals. But with a higher intelligence quotient, power of speech and language, dexterity of the fingers and the ability to write, and a series of accidental inventions, humans have been able to build an artificial monstrous civilization posing a dangerous threat to all other species who also have equal rights to live on this earth.
Basically, the civilized folks, in their original state, are no different from the tribes living like and along with other animals in the deep jungles of the Amazon, the Andamans and the Indonesian islands. They perhaps don’t worry about birth and death, the afterlife, religion and God and remain happy in the natural environment rejecting man-made civilization. Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Donald S. Lopez Jr. in his book Buddhism and Science also attributes this to Einstein: “The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology.” It is a science which endeavours to find solutions to the pressing questions of life and the Universe.
The answers are to be sought in science and not in religion because religion is fast losing its relevance and importance in the scientific world. A galaxy of astronomers, astrophysicists, cosmologists and the “Cosmic Detectives” like the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Space Telescope (JWST) have been able to scan a major part of the known Universe and unravel some of its mysteries. These magnificent telescopes have also changed our understanding of the Universe. The vastness and complexity of the Universe are beyond the comprehension of humans.
For example, travelling at the speed of 300,000 km per second, it will take 225 trillion light years or 225,000,000,000,000 years for light to reach the end of the known universe. Hubble has discovered an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the universe, and it could be around 200 billion with further improvement in space telescope technology. It is estimated that there are 200 billion trillion or 200 sextillion stars in the sky. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way itself is so vast that it will take 100,000 light years to go from one end to another. ‘The Voyager’ would take 1,700,000,000 years to traverse the entire length of the Milky Way. Hubble’s Space and the James Webb Space Telescope have found no indication of intelligent life in the scanned universe or the location of heaven and hell or the abode of God.
The galaxies carrying billions of gigantic fireballs like our sun are running and rotating at break-neck speed in space but surprisingly not crashing into each other. The ancient civilizations knew well that the sun is the source of life on earth. That’s why they worshipped the sun god. Scientists have recently discovered that our sun has reached it’s mid-life and will transmit energy for another 4.5 billion years before it turns into a dead star. It is also conjectured that after another 1 billion years if the sun loses 10 per cent of its energy, our earth is likely to be frozen to death – a chilling possibility. That will be the end of human civilization and the end of all species.
Whether there will be a cold death or hot death, death is certain in due course. This is the “hard reality” that Hoyle spoke of. A man shouldn’t forget that human existence is intricately linked to the macro eco-system of the universe and the micro eco-system of the sun and the earth. The earth’s ecosystem calls for harmony, equality, and respect for all the 9 million species who have the right to live in this world and amongst the Homo sapiens, men and women, of different regions and religions.
Humans suffer from an incurable disease (not present in animals) of arrogance and self-glorification. The misplaced superiority that man has been specially created to rule the earth at the cost of destruction of the earth’s delicate ecosystem and the environment has been self-destructive.
Marvelling at the stunningly beautiful and wonderful construct of the universe with billions of suns smiling at us, Homo sapiens should at least develop the humbleness to realise the insignificance of human life and futility of man’s achievements in the context of the Cosmic configuration and must understand that human destiny is intricately linked to the destiny of the earth, the destiny of the sun and the destiny of the universe itself.