Religion and Science~I

Overwhelmed and overawed by unexplained natural phenomena thunderstorms, rains, earthquakes, droughts and diseases, early humans conjured the supernatural events being conducted by supernatural powers whom they started worshipping as gods. With imagination, they constructed images of various gods controlling various natural phenomena and departments of nature. Thus was born the concept of multiplicity of gods. It is a strange coincidence that all ancient civilizations Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Mayan, Chinese, Indian, Greek and Roman worshipped multiple gods and goddesses

Religion and Science~I

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Modern civilization, whether we call it an Industrial civilization or simply the Western civilization, has basically been a scientific civilization propelled by the unprecedented speed of new inventions, discoveries and technological developments, moving fast towards a Universal Civilization.

Everything around us is the gift of science. From the safety pin to the mega spaceships marching towards Mars and Saturn; the megacities; the mega structures ~ skyscrapers, autobahns, bridges, tunnels, ports and airports; the mega carriers ~ the container ships, bullet trains, the supersonic fighters and jumbo jets; the supercomputers, cloud accounting, the internet, smart phones, Chat GPT and Artificial Intelligence; and all our daily needs ~ pen, pencil, paper, books, specs, domestic appliances, foods, medicines, fashions, cars, sports, entertainment and everything else have been the result of scientific investigations, inventions and sacrifices of millions of people.

Recognizing that modern life revolves around science, the question naturally arises: what is the relevance of religion in a scientific world? There is no easy answer. The response may range from a dry smile of disapproval of the agnostic to a violent reaction from the faithful. Only the atheists, a few agnostics and a fraction of scientists would vouchsafe that religion has been a hindrance to modernity. But the vast majority of the world’s population is deeply entrenched in the wheels of religion and any critical analysis is considered as sacrilege. Where does the truth lie? In order to appreciate the reality and demystify the myths and the delusions, it is necessary to delve into the process of human evolution and the devolution of religion.


Modern humans or Homo sapiens (sapiens in Latin means ‘wise” or “intelligent”) emerged in Africa around 300,000 years ago, not before they went through a painfully slow process of evolution from the primates (orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobobs) which began 85 million years ago. They started walking out of Africa and dispersing in various parts of the continents around 50,000 years ago. Development of an articulate language for communication with the community also took place around the same time ~ 50,000 years ago. Invention of writing was the next development which was accomplished around 5,000 years ago, and that too not with alphabets but in symbols, each symbol representing a word or expression, in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Indus Valley and China. Human civilization started flourishing very slowly around 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture and domestication of animals (initially in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India) producing crops, cottons, fruits and vegetables and urbanization of habitats getting sustenance from the surplus of agricultural production. The English word “civilization” comes from a 16th century French word which refers to the culture of a complex society ~ civilise’ (“civilized”), from Latin civilis (“civil”), related to civis (“citizen”) and civitas (city). A civilization “is a complex society characterized by the development of the state, social stratification, urbanization, and symbolic systems of communication beyond common spoken language (namely a writing system)” (Adams, Robert McCormick, 1966, The Evolution of Urban Society). We take supreme pride in belonging to a modern scientific civilization in an urban atmosphere, in our achievements, living standards, ethics, morality and religion. But what about a large section of humanity ~ the indigenous tribes and the uncontactable peoples ~ who have been living outside our modern civilizational network and also in the deep forests of Amazon, the Andamans, the remote Indonesian islands or New Guinea? Are they not civilized? The Anthropologists will argue that these tribal societies are in many ways more “civilized” than the modern society as they follow natural laws and morality, have no artificiality and are completely in harmony with nature. While the “missing link” between the primates and the humans, broken around 300,000 years ago, still remains a mystery, it is well-established that the closest link had been the common chimpanzees and the bonobobs (not the monkeys or baboons), who share 98.7 per cent of human DNA. It took another 290,000 years for the Homo sapiens to build a modicum of modern civilization with a process of urbanization and establishment of a supply chain.

Two most significant positive developments took place during the process of evolution around 50,000 years ago. First, the Homo sapiens developed a larger brain, more than three times the size of the primate’s brain, which enabled them to think philosophically and also induced the faculty of creativity, innovativeness and inventiveness. The second development was the change in the structure of the hands and the fingers, especially, the all-crucial thumb, which gave them tremendous dexterity and power to use tools and create things; it also gave them the ability to write. The negative impact of the evolution had been that it made the Homo sapiens physically the weakest amongst the higher mammals (cows, horses, dogs, lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopards, elephants etc.) with whom the difference in DNA has been less than 2 per cent. As against the instant survival ability of infants of higher animals, human babies take about two years to walk and talk and 18 years to reach adulthood, requiring constant protection and guidance.

Civilization has created an illusion that humans are superior, heaven-born and different from all other species but in reality, humans are also animals (rational!) and they are very much an integral part of the animal and the natural world, as they can be seen in the Amazon forests. One of the greatest inventions of man, perhaps the most significant, has been the concept of a Creator or God who being ‘omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent’ controls all lives.

This was the beginning of philosophical thinking about the purpose of life and thoughts about the mysteries of birth, death and afterlife and respect for the dead. At the beginning, the unwritten code of conduct and rules set by the tribal chiefs did not include the concept of religion. The code of conduct and the rules based on laws of nature and the universal moral principles had been their religion. The universal moral principles which pervade the universe are followed by the animal world so also by man in primitive society. One of the significant aspects of the universal moral principles has been ‘live and let live’ and that you don’t harm anything and anybody except in selfdefence or as an item in the foodchain.

Overwhelmed and overawed by unexplained natural phenomena ~ thunderstorms, rains, earthquakes, droughts and diseases, early humans conjured the supernatural events being conducted by supernatural powers whom they started worshipping as gods. With imagination, they constructed images of various gods controlling various natural phenomena and departments of nature ~ the sun, moon, thunder, winds, rain, rivers, wealth, prosperity, power, love, death etc.

Thus was born the concept of multiplicity of gods. It is a strange coincidence that all the ancient civilizations ~ Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Mayan, Chinese, Indian, Greek and Roman, worshipped multiple gods and goddesses with a chain of temples and images creating a beautiful system of social order, harmony and devotion. The Greeks and the Romans were masters in the fine art of building temples and beautiful (also erotic) marble and stone statues of various gods and goddesses creating a wonderful ecosystem.

Ancient India had been unique in that the Puranas (mythologies) talked about the existence of 33-crore Devata (gods) and the Sanatana Dharma said that there is Narayana (god) in every living being, human and animal, (which explains the number) and that is why Indians worshipped, in addition to the common gods, also the animals, the trees and the stone images. It is a tragedy of human history that all the ancient civilizations along with their gods and goddesses, except the Chinese and the Indian, were destroyed by the barbarians and the ferocious nomadic tribes through relentless invasions supplanting the indigenous culture.

In China, which was least affected by invasions, it was not the invaders but the atheist Communist regime which banished all their ancient gods and goddesses to the dustbin of history. It is only in India that all the Vedic and non-Vedic gods and goddesses along with the divine as well as the self-styled god-men and god-women have been surviving with full glory. What is religion? Many years ago, my father left home in search of a genuine Guru who could satisfy his religious thirst. He met many Gurus but none of them could satisfactorily answer his questions. Frustrated, when he decided to return home, he accidentally met Sri Anukul Chandra Thakur of Deoghar, founder of Sat Sangh, who was visiting Khulna (our home district in East Bengal) at that time. Among some incisive questions, he asked “Thakur, tell me what is Dharma (religion)?” Sri Anukul Chandra without dropping an eyelid instantly replied in a colloquial couplet, “Know it all that the essence and principle of living, survival and growth is the Dharma.”

My father was immensely impressed and immediately accepted him as his Guru. This was Gita simplified: the Gita is all about Dharma and Karma ~ life should strive for Nishkam Karma with divine devotion. But none could give a better definition of religion than Swami Vivekananda, “Religion does not consist in erecting temples, or building churches, or attending public workshops. It is not to be found in books, or in lectures, or in organizations. Religion consists in realization.” The objective of religion is to make man more humane, more spiritual, and more ethical and help self-development and self-actualization (nirvana or salvation!).

(The writer is a former Dy. Comptroller &Auditor General of India and a former Ombudsman of Reserve Bank of India. He is also a writer of several books and can be reached at brahmas@gmail.com)