Vedanta and Physics

Anybody who is working in Indian academia will sooner or later encounter a retired or about to retire scientist who has discovered, at the end of a career devoted to roundworms or turbulence or whatever, that the truths of quantum mechanics or particle physics are to be found in the Veda’s or Vedanta. Not suprisingly, the Wikipedia article on Vedanta has a whole section devoted to this topic and has more references for Vedanta and Physics than Vedanta per se. The pattern is remarkably invariant: it doesnt matter whether the scientist has worked in solid state mechanics or mathematical modeling, the locus of interest in science and spirituality is always Quantum Mechanics or Particle Physics and the Indian Philosophical system of choice is almost always Advaita Vedanta, which is a particular form of Vedanta philosophy.

The former predeliction can be partly explained by the kind of physicists who have taken interest in Indian Philosophy: Erwin Schrodinger and David Bohm, who were both interested in the foundations of Quantum Mechanics and were unhappy with the current state of affairs in that domain (and later popularized by Fritjof Capra in the Tao of Physics). But part of the problem is that the Brahmins (mostly South Indian Brahmins) who dominate Indian science are always hankering for something deep and unexplainable, i.e., a metaphysical mystery. Since they have spent most of their adult lives in a field that eschews metaphysics, except in the domain of quantum mechanics and particle physics, its no surprise that at the end of their working lives when spirituality rears its head and cannot be ignored, they turn to Advaita Vedanta, independent of whether their own family religious traditions are Advaitic or not.

In the west, the corresponding figure is the person (like Roger Penrose) who talks about Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness, the other great scientific mystery. I am almost certain that the intellectual history of the ideas relating QM and consciousness goes through Indian philosophy, though neither Penrose nor other western scientists would be consciously aware of that history. Whatever the case might be, my point is the following: whether in India or in the west, the QM and Consciousness/Vedanta groupie is looking for metaphysical truth, but science doesnt deliver that kind of truth. Not only that, modern society as a whole doesnt believe that such truths are available at all. So what is a scientist to do?

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