Science and Mysticism

Dr. N.V. Kulkarni

The Method and Domain of Science

One is free to define ‘science’ any way one wishes as long as one is consistent. But one must at the least distinguish between the method of science and the domain of science.1 The method of science refers to the ways and means by which science manages to gather facts, data, or information, and manages to confirm or refute propositions vis-à-vis data. In other words, it refers to the ways in which science manages to gather knowledge.2 The domain, on the other hand, simply refers to the types of events or phenomena that become, or can become, objects of investigation by science. Method refers to the epistemology of science while domain refers to its ontology. Let me give a crude analogy. We are exploring the caves at Badami near Bagalkot, Karnataka, in the dark of night. We take a flashlight with us for shedding light on the various caves. The flashlight is our means or our method of gaining knowledge about the caves. The caves are the different objects or domains that we will investigate and illuminate with our methodology, i.e., our flashlight.

One cave might contain buried treasures of gems and gold, another skeletons, and the third mud and bats – all discovered by the same flashlight. But we don’t want to confuse these objects simply because the methodology of investigation was the same.

It will be more useful to ask what is a scientific method and what is a scientific domain than to question vaguely what is science. The English word derives from the ancient Greek term ‘methodos’ meaning ‘the pursuit of knowledge’ or ‘a way of inquiry’ (literally ‘way of pursuit’). The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that a method is a way of doing something in accordance with a plan, or a special procedure; or it is a regular systematic way of either treating a person or attaining a goal. It is also a systematic or orderly arrangement of topics, discourses or ideas. Thus one can speak of a method for gutting fish, baking a cake, wiring a fuse box, or surveying a given piece of landscape. There are also methods for teaching languages, e.g., the immersion method; there are methods for teaching the violin to the very young, e.g., the Suzuki method; there are methods for learning and playing tennis or golf; and so on. In general, there are methods whereby one can teach (or learn) a given subject, present an effective case in a law court, write up a report, and so on.

It would be very surprising if one did not find methods of the above sorts in the sciences. Thus, for astronomers who use optical telescopes, there are methods for making observations of the positions of heavenly bodies and the times at which they are observed, and methods for recording the information. For biologists there are methods for staining for viewing under a microscope, or preparing cellular matter for DNA analysis. For chemists there are methods for preparing solutions with a specific pH value. For sociologists there are methods for preparing questionnaires and there are statistical methods for analyzing their results. Mathematicians give us methods for solving various kinds of differential equations, or for finding the curve which best fits some given data. There are also methods for presenting data, methods for presenting the outcome of an experiment and methods for setting out papers for publication. The sciences are full of special methods, techniques and procedures for conducting experiments, analyzing data, preparing results, etc. Not to follow these methods, techniques or procedures is, in some sense, to be unscientific or at the very least to be sloppy and unsystematic in a way which undermines the goal of the activity in which one is engaging.

Most of the above examples fall either into the category of what one might call ‘the material practice of science’ (e.g., making a solution of a given pH value, or conducting a particular experiment), or into the category of ‘mathematical methods’ (e.g., techniques for finding solutions to differential equations, or methods such as the method of least squares in curve fitting, etc.). But philosophers and scientists are also interested in a range of methods which transcend the material practices of any particular science, or transcend the mathematical methods used to solve particular problems in each of the sciences. More generally they might want to know about the methods for making inferences in science, say from a given data to determine the truth or falsity, or the probability or improbability, of certain hypotheses. In turn, such an idea of a scientific method becomes a part of the province of epistemology, viz., there are methods of justification, accepting and rejecting beliefs not only in science but elsewhere. It is method as a province of, or a close relative to, epistemology, understood as the ‘knowledge-getting enterprise,’ that is usually under discussion by philosophers, and not so much the material practices of science or mathematical methods which are also abundant in science.

Science is a generic term. In his book, Greek Science in Antiquity, M. Clagett enumerates two criteria by which any activity can be designated as science: a) the orderly and systematic comprehension and/or explanation of a natural phenomenon, b) the tools necessary for undertaking such a project, including especially logic and mathematics.3 Coming back to scientific method, it is a method of gaining knowledge whereby hypotheses are tested (instrumentally or experimentally) by reference to experience or data. This data is potentially public, or open to repetition (confirmation or refutation) by those who want to indulge in the activity.

In bare essentials, it means that the scientific method involves those knowledge claims open to experiential validation or refutation. This definition of method makes no reference to the domain, or objects of scientific method. If there is a way to test a knowledge claim for whatever domain by appeal to open experience, then that knowledge can properly be called ‘scientific’4

This definition does not say that only sensory or physical objects are open to scientific investigation, like saying that with our earlier flashlight we can inspect one cave only. The term scientific can thus be applied to the realms or domains of biology, psychology, history, geography, anthropology, sociology, spirituality and mysticism. Scientific method, while dividing scientific and non-scientific, does not divide physical and metaphysical, but what is experientially testable and non-testable or merely dogmatic pronouncements.

Experientially testable pronouncements are exposed to confirmation/refutation based on open experience, while dogmatic statements may be based on evidence no more substantial than the ‘because I tell you so’ variety. If science were restricted to physical sensory object-domains, then mathematics, logic, psychology and sociology could not have been called scientific, since the central aspects of those domains are non-sensory, non-empirical, non-physical or meta-physical occasions.5

The truth value of a mathematical theorem can always be tested. But the test is not based on sensory evidence but on mental evidence, the inward experience of the mental coherence of the train of logical propositions, an inwardly experiential coherence that can be checked by the minds of other equally trained mathematicians. This inward experiential coherence (not correspondence) has nothing to do with physical sensory evidence. Thus test by physical sensory evidence is only one way of testing by experiential evidence, and that’s why mathematics, logic, psychology, etc., are properly called “sciences.”6


Now what about Mysticism? Prof. R. D. Ranade defines mysticism as “that attitude of mind which involves a direct, immediate, firsthand, intuitive apprehension of God.”7 William James says: “In mystic states we both become one with the absolute and we become aware of our oneness.”8

Now does mysticism deserve the status of scientific knowledge? Or are mystical phenomena such that they become a proper domain for the scientific method? There is mystical experience just as certainly as there is psychological experience and sensory experience. In that sense we can speak of the science of mysticism just as legitimately as we speak of the science of psychology, biology or physics.

The central feature of mystical experience is that the experience itself is public, because consciousness can be trained to apprehend these domains. We will come to what this training means later on. As mathematical knowledge is public knowledge to all equally trained mathematicians, just so contemplative knowledge – the mystical art consists of contemplation on God – is public knowledge to all equally trained contemplatives. Simply because mystical experience is apprehended in an “interior” fashion with the eye of the mind, intuitively, it does not mean that it is merely private knowledge, any more than the fact that mathematics and logic are seen inwardly makes them merely private fantasias without public import. Otherwise, the post realizational language of mystics from any land and any period would not have been the same. To give an example. Tauler, a Christian mystic who lived from 1300-1361, says: “When through all manner of exercise, the outer man has become converted into the inward man, then the Godhead nakedly descends into the depths of the pure soul, so that the spirit becomes one with him. Could such a man behold himself, he would see himself so noble that he would fancy himself God, and see himself a thousand times nobler than he is in himself.”9

Maitri Upanishad (II 1-3) tells us that when a man reaches the acme of his spiritual realization, “he sees his self, his own form, suffused in a halo of dazzling light.”10

The Ontology of Science

Now to what domains then is scientific method applicable or how many caves are there under the sun which we may go exploring with our flashlight? That is, what realms of experience, or modes of being, or aspects of reality are available? Roger Penrose describes the enigma of consciousness, wherein we get our experience of various existences, in terms of three worlds. Karl Popper also puts forth a similar representation. However, we will consider Penrose’s worlds. Imre Lakatos has said that without taking into account the interaction of the three worlds, history of science cannot be understood.11

The first is the physical world. In the words of Penrose, “It contains actual chairs and tables, television sets and automobiles, human beings, human brains and the actions of neurons. In this world are the sun and the moon and the stars, so also are clouds, hurricanes, rocks, flowers and butterflies; and at a deeper level there are molecules and atoms, electrons and protons and spacetime. It also contains cytoskeletons and tubulin dimmers and superconductors.”12

Then the second world. “This we know most directly. It is the world of our conscious perceptions. Yet it is the world that we know least about in any kind of precise scientific terms. It contains happiness and pain and the perception of colours. It contains our earliest childhood memories and our fear of death. It contains love, understanding and the knowledge of numerous facts, as well as ignorance and revenge. It is the world containing mental images of chairs and tables and where smells and sounds and sensations of all kinds intermingle with our thoughts and our decisions to act.”13

Again, speaking of the third world. Penrose continues: “There is also one other world, though many find it difficult in accepting its actual existence. It is the Platonic world of mathematical forms. There we find the natural numbers 0,1,2,3…. And the algebra of complex numbers. We find Lagrange’s theorem that every natural number is the sum of four squares. We find Euclidean geometry’s Pythagorean theorem (about the squares on the sides of the right angled triangle.) There is the statement that for any pair of natural numbers a x b = b x a. In this same Platonic world is also the fact that the last result no longer holds for certain other types of ‘numbers’ (such as with the Grassmann product). This same Platonic world contains geometries other than the Euclidean one, in which the Pythagorean theorem fails to hold. It contains infinite numbers and non computable numbers and recursive and non recursive ordinals. There are Turing machine actions that never come to a halt as well as oracle machines. In it are many classes of mathematical problems which are computationally unsolvable, such as the polyomino tiling problem. Also in this world are Maxwell’s electromagnetic equations as well as Einstein’s gravitational equations and innumerable theoretical spacetimes that satisfy them – whether physically realistic or not. There are mathematical simulations of chairs and tables, as would be made use of in virtual reality and simulation also of black holes and hurricanes.”14

I have taken the three worlds of Roger Penrose in order to show that when a mystic gains cosmic consciousness, he/she finds his/her identity with all these existences plus God. Before we turn to the actual experience of the mystics, we will discuss the different aspects of mysticism in some detail.

The Mystic Pathway

The Turning-Point

As long as one is content with one’s life in general, one does not search for answers to questions like “Who am I? Why am I here?” and so on. But one who sees the disparity that exists between the desert and the fruit in the world court which is full of anarchy, where good people suffer and bad prosper, starts wondering why it is so. He/she tries to seek meaning in the ultimate sense of this disparity between the desert and the fruit, of disappointments, delusions, frustrations inflicted upon by the social order of human society. He/she also makes possible the acceptance of these conditions and adjusts to them by inculcating a firm belief that whatever happens, happens for his/her own good.

Incentives to Spiritual Life

After this turning-point, one realizes that he/she must seek the truth, the nature of ultimate reality, a supra-empirical view of the larger totality in order to understand his/her relationship in the wide panorama of the cosmos.

One may be also driven in this quest on account of old age, misery, illness and sin. Prof. R. D. Ranade has elaborately discussed in his works the various types of incentives which lead one towards the path of God. He has said: “If we make a comparative study of the philosophies and religions of the world, and especially of the lives and teachings of those who, in various stages of humanity and in different ages and lands, have walked on the path of God, we shall see that there are certain broad characteristics common to the pathway which they have trodden in the attainment of God. These might for convenience sake be summarized under five heads. First, there are certain incentives which prompt men to spiritual life.”15 They are:

1. Philosophical, axiological and physiological incentives.
2. Moral Preparation: moral advancement – cultivation of virtues and avoidance of vices.
3. Spiritual Preparation which inter alia means desire to acquire knowledge about God and Saints; their mutual relation through literature on the subject.
4. The Pilgrimage: This is the actual spiritual journey undertaken by the aspirant. It begins with the initiation of the aspirant by a worthy spiritual teacher. It proceeds along the path of devotion. The aspirant surrenders himself at the feet of his spiritual teacher, who guides him on the spiritual path till the former attains his goal. This pilgrimage constitutes meditation on the Divine Name imparted by the spiritual teacher.
5. The Highest Ascent: Finally the aspirant, after having walked on the pathway for a long time, i.e., carries out his meditation with full concentration and devotion, day after day, for long hours, year after year. Through travails and turmoil of body and mind, of nature and society, he is able to envisage to himself, certain landmarks, certain lamp posts, which are verily experiences of God. Having started to realize the fruits of his pursuit, he is now able to walk with courage and confidence on the pathway to God and attain the highest ideal he has been seeking.

Varieties of Mystical Experiences

As the body has five external senses through which knowledge of the external world is gathered, similarly the soul has five corresponding senses through which it gains the knowledge of its Maker. The process of mystical experience is centrally initiated, intuitive and super-sensuous. The experiences are as if through the senses but not through the senses.

Generally, the aspirant is first able to visualize ‘Spiriton,’ atomic manifestation of God, the spiritual atom, a perfect round circle, dynamic and full of luster – as if a Divine Pearl or Jewel. He may visualize strings of pearls or necklaces. Jewel subsumes colour inside the form. The aspirant may see lights, hear unstuck sound, smell sweet scents, taste delectable things.

The Veracity of Mystical Experiences

The veracity of mystical experiences depends on certain beliefs which science may term as postulates, since they will not be open for verification and therefore available for refutation. Mysticism assumes that a person must be a partaker of the divine nature, if he/she is to know the divine. Only if the self is real can it hope to know reality, and so it assumes that every creature is by nature akin to the creator. There is within every living soul a divine spark, that which seeks reunion with the eternal flame.17

It is well known that God is known not so much by a discursive process as by an intuitive process, by immediate feeling. But our immediate feelings have no content but what the five senses supply. On the other hand, mystics emphatically deny that the senses play any part in the very-highest type of knowledge which their transports yield.18 The basis of the system (mysticism) is ‘orison’ or meditation, the methodical elevation of the soul towards God. Through the practice of orison, the higher levels of mystical experience may be attained.19 With such postulates, we will examine the mystical state proper and its nature from an Indian perspective.

Mystical State

William James calls mystical moments as states of consciousness of an entirely specific quality.20 The Mandukya Upanishad calls it Turiya, the fourth state of consciousness. The Upanishads supply a number of descriptions of this unitive state, where all duality vanishes. We quote: “Where indeed something like duality exists, there the one smells, sees, hears, addresses, thinks upon, knows the other, but where everything has become one’s own self, what other thing, and through what means, can one smell, hear, see, address, think upon, know?”21 The same Upanishad says: “He is that Atman [describable as] ‘not-so’, ‘not-so’, incomprehensible, because he cannot be comprehended; integrate, because he cannot be disintegrated; unattached, because he has no attachments; indestructible, because he is neither affected nor injured.”22 Again the Mundaka Upanishad: “That which is incapable of being seen or grasped, devoid of relations or forms, eye-less and ear-less, lacking hands and feet, and with all eternal, all pervading, all-penetrating, extremely subtle, beyond all mutations, and the source of all beings or thing.”23 These descriptions are verily of the ultimate reality, for which one has to rise higher and higher in his/her meditative state, dive deeper and inward to reach the goal which is the source of everything and which transcends all the “thusness” of things.

That the full realization of these conceptions involves giving an absolute go-by to all phenomenal manifolds as such, is an idea most definitely announced by the description in the Mandukya Upanishad of the fourth or the Turiya stage (of consciousness). This “fourth state of the soul is that of pure self-consciousness, when there is no knowledge of internal objects, nor of external ones, nor of the two together, when the soul is not a mass of intelligence, transcending as it does both consciousness and unconsciousness, when it is invisible, incommunicable, incomprehensible, indefinable, when it is beyond thought and beyond the possibility of any indication, being virtually the quintessence of self-intuition, in which all the five kinds of sensations are finally resolved. When it is tranquil and full of auspiciousness and without a second, it has then to be called Atman.”24

Jonathan Shear, in his article “Experiential Classification of the Problem of Self” in The Third Tucson Discussions and Debates quotes as above from the Mandukya Upanishad and concludes: “All of this, one hopes, is enough to show something of the potential value for our traditional philosophical discussions of the self and mind of taking into account the pure consciousness experience, widely discussed in Eastern, but not Western, philosophical traditions. For if the phenomenological analysis above are even roughly correct, it appears that this experience is capable of resolving some major Western issues about the self, clarifies our commonsense intuition, and is properly identified by philosophical analysis as being experience of self itself.”25

Intuitive Nature of Mystical State

Louis Dupre’ in his article, “The Mystical Experience of the Self and Its Philosophical Significance,”22 states: “In privileged instances, the intellectual intuition, so peremptorily exorcized by Kant’s unique critique, reasserts its rights and the mind literally perceives as directly as the senses do. …The intellectual visions are truly the visions in that they belong to the order of perception, even though all sensory input and perhaps all images have been halted.”26 Scaramelli, in his renowned Directorio mistico, does not hesitate to use the word sensation for those direct perceptions.27 Luis de la Puente distinguishes separate senses: “As the body has its exterior senses, with which it perceives the visible and delectable things of this life, and makes experiences of them, so the spirit with its faculties of understanding and will, has five interior acts corresponding to these senses, which we call seeing, hearing, smelling and delectable things of Almighty God, and makes experiences of them.”28

Mystics talk about the experience of God, the one Absolute, and therefore their language is universal. We will corroborate the above statement by quoting from the Vedas to Jnaneshwari.
Seeing without the physiological device is always extolled in the Vedas. In the Rigveda, for instance, we have the following statement: “Mortals see only the tangible body, but Munis possess the intuitive power of visualizing the spiritual within that body.”29 The same Veda points out that the mind’s eye functions even in the absence of a visual organ: “Being gifted with the vision of the secret celestial eye, they (Mitra and Varuna) are able to see better and in a more perfect manner than those who can see only with their empirical eye. They can behold quite clearly even when their physical eyes are closed.”30

The Mundaka Upanishad summarizes the process leading to the mystical state: “The self cannot be described by words nor perceived by the eyes and the senses, nor revealed by rituals and penances. When the understanding becomes calm and refined, one’s whole being is purified, and then, engaged in meditation, one realizes Him, the Absolute.”31 The Svetasvatara Upanishad is also along the same lines: “His form does not stand within the range of the senses. No one perceives Him with the eye. Those who know Him through the faculty of intuition as thus seated in their heart, become immortal.”32 Commenting on the Bhagavad-gita, Porf. R. D. Ranade says: “In a famous line of the ninth chapter, the Bhagavad-gita speaks of the mystical experiences as Pratyakhavagam, Susukha and Avyaya.”33 In these three words all the criteria of mystical experience have been well expressed. ‘Pratyaksa’ is super-sensuous. ‘Susukha’ is beatitude or bliss. ‘Avyaya’ is permanence or continuity. Suppose I get an experience today and I fail to get it or lose it tomorrow, that is no real experience at all.

Super-sensuousness is what corresponds to transcendence of the senses. Intuition refers to the faculty by which we get super-sensuous experience. In this context one comes across the peculiar expression ‘central initiation.’ In the psychologists’ sphere it is opposed to what we may call peripheral initiation. It is not anything impinging upon our senses from the outside that constitutes beatific experience; it is something which comes from inside. As psychologists of mystical experience are aware, the different forms which the mystic sees, the sounds that he/she hears, the smells that he/she enjoys and so on, are not drawn from the outside world. They come from within. They are centrally initiated.

The great Maharashtrian saint Jnaneshwara, in his famous commentary on the Bhagavad Gita known as Jnaneshwari, in chapter VI verse 36, makes a categorical statement: “I will make you enjoy Brahman’s experience through the senses which are incapable of doing the same.” Jnaneshwara is referring to the subtle senses of Sankhya philosophy – the tanmatras, viz., the sense of sound, touch, taste, form and odour.

Synesthesia and Cumulative Experience

In synesthesia, an individual experiencing a sensation in one sensory modality also experiences, involuntarily, a sensation in another sensory modality. The most common experience seems to be seeing colour when hearing sounds. This cross-modal sensation is reproducible in a given individual during his/her lifetime, so that a given sound or word always leads to the perception of the same colour. With newer methods it has been shown that when synesthetics “see sounds” they do, in fact, use the area of the cortex dedicated to higher visual function. The word often means a higher knowledge of spiritual things, esoteric or transcendental knowledge.34

In the mystical realm, cumulative experience, i.e., combined experience of form and colour, light and sound, colour and odour and other combinations, fall to the lot of an advancing mystic. Edward Carpenter says of his own experience of the mystical consciousness: “The perception seems to be one in which all the senses unite into one sense.”35

We will give an example. The Hindu saint Ramananda, spiritual teacher of Kabir as well as of Raidas, in one of his famous songs says: “Where shall I go out? My whole house has been filled with colour, and with different kinds of colour. Once upon a time the idea occurred to me that I might make a very fragrant mixture of sandal and other perfumes, and then go out to worship God. But my teacher showed my God within myself to whom I could make all my offerings.”36 Gurudev Ranade points out that colour and fragrance as manifestations of spiritual energy are somewhat rare.

Mystics hear luminous sound, see sonorous light, smell singing flowers – meaning light and sound or sound and light, colour, fragrance and words are experienced together.


In the Bhagavad-gita Arjuna requests Krishna: “Show me the form which is sung in Upanishads; which is seen by the Yogins in their hearts; which is the sole inspiration of sages like Sankara; that form, which is thus heard, I now wish to see. If thou wert to grant me a boon, please grant me this.”37 Then Krishna underwent the great ‘Transfiguration’ as described in the eleventh chapter of Gita. It may be noted that a Transfiguration is a mystical experience of the highest order, and intuitive vision is therefore necessary for this experience.

Rudolf Otto regards ‘The Holy’ as a sui generis category of value, beyond the categories of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. He regards the holy as an a priori category. Otto coined the word Numen to signify this category of value, which has, according to him, supreme divine power lying inside it. He quotes the Great Transfiguration in the Bhagavad-gita as an example of ‘numinous’ poetry.

Consummation of God-Realization – Joy & Peace

The mystic experience is something very special, as is evident from the proclamations of mystics about their experience. The Rigveda depicts post-ecstatic exclamations of the blessed-one: “Contemplating upon the rays that emanate from the light eternal, they actually beheld their own spiritual form and were transported with joy and thereupon their thunderous shows of victory radiated warmth in heaven and earth.”38

In the taittiriya Upanishad is preserved a post-ecstatic monologue of the greatest of mystics, which appears as a passage of unsurpassed grandeur throughout both Upanishadic as well as post-Upanishadic literature. When he had transcended the limitations of his earthly, etheric, mental, intellective and beatific sheaths, he sat in utter silence of solipsistic solitude, singing the song of universal unity: “How wonderful, how wonderful, how wonderful, I am the food, I am the food, I am the food-eater, I am the food-eater, I am the food-eater, I am the maker of their unity, I am the maker of their unity, I am the maker of their unity.” These utterances only mean, metaphysically, that he was himself all matter and all spirit as well as the connecting link between the subject world and the object world as well as the entire subject-object relation.39

As regards peace, Gurudev states: “Of course, a man attains to this exceeding peace (as described in Bhagavad-gita Chp. VI verse 22) only after the attainment of God-realisation. Peace does not lead to joy but joy leads to peace, and hence it is that peace might be regarded as the apex of joy, even though its nature seems to be incompatible with the beatific experience.”40 St. Catherine of Siena talks about peace in this manner: “She is so full of peace that though she presses her nerves, her bones, no other thing comes forth from them than peace.”41

Effects of the God-Realisation

For a perfected soul, all distinctions of time are wiped out. Taylor has admirably pointed out that time is the measure and expression of the yearning of the individual to fulfill his dissatisfied aspirations. It is an indication as well as an experience of his unfulfilled cravings. Just as for the Absolute all ‘ought’ becomes an eternal ‘is’ similarly for a perfected mystic, who is an ectype of the Absolute, no desires remain unfulfilled; and therefore, the distinction between the no-longer, the now, and the not-yet, vanishes for him.42

Finally, so far as the mystical aspect of jivanmukti is concerned, the saint heeds not whether the body survives or perishes, when he/she has strengthened his/her meditation by means of the primeval mantra: when the mind is filled with the remembrance of the Reality, which is higher than the highest; when he/she has seen the spiritual form of God with his/her own eyes; when he/she has seen the Eye within the eye, and when he/she has visualized his/her own Form, as in a mirror. Jnanesvara, the greatest of Maharashtra mystics, is unsurpassable in his description of the vision of the self as in a mirror: “Krishna and Arjuna were like two clear mirrors, placed each against the other. Arjuna saw himself along with God in God, and God saw himself along with Arjuna in Arjuna, and Sanjaya saw both of them together. When one mirror is placed against another, the difference between the original and the image vanishes. When one mirror is placed before another, who can say, which reflects which?”43

Thus does the individual self become identical with the universal self. The self now becomes the eternal spectator of all existence, sarva-saksi. The Gita describes this aspect of sarva-saksitva in the verse 22 of Chp. XIII as Upadrishta-numanta. Furthermore, on account of the yogic, psycho-ethical, metaphysical and mystical characteristics, the released soul becomes the purifier of the entire universe. He takes his lodgment in the universal life, and realizes his identity with man, nature and God. Having realized God in every nook and corner of the universe, and in fact, in all forms of existence – cosmic, psychic, epistemological and mystical – the saint plunges himself into a wonderful rapture. This has been described by a Kannada Saint Mahanta in his poem “Tanna ta tilidamale inneninnenu” (What else remains to be known when one has realized one’s own self?) The poem has been dealt with by Prof. R. D. Ranade in his book, Pathway to God, in Kannada Literature.

Mahanta portrays the various phases of the experience of cosmic consciousness. One must realize, he says, one’s identity with all cosmic existences, such as earth, water, light, wind and space, as also with the sun and the moon and the stars, in fact, with the whole universe. The co-ordinated operation and integration of the laws of nature imply the existence of a conscious principle, call it spirit or soul, and it is this spiritual principle which Mahanta visualized, and by which he could identify himself with all Forms of cosmic existence.44

Mahanta proceeds to tell us that one must also realize one’s identity with all psychic existences, as well as tongue, nose, eye, ear, skin and heart; in fact, with all sensory and motor organs. One may note that it is the self, or the unity of apperception, as Kant calls it, which brings together the sensory and motor organs. The existence of an ordered unity in the sensory and motor organs implies the presence of a spiritual principle in the individual, and it is this spiritual principle, underlying the sensory and motor organs, which the mystic visualizes, and thereby identifies himself with all forms of psychic existence.

After realizing one’s identity with the cosmic and psychic existences, the poet goes on to say that one must also realize one’s identity with the microcosm and also with the macrocosm. The macrocosm contains the microcosm and the microcosm mirrors the macrocosm. Mahanta tells us further that one is himself all existences implied in the numerical such as a lakh, a thousand, a hundred, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two and one.

As regards the epistemological aspect of the cosmic consciousness, we are told by Mahanta, that one is also identical with all epistemological existences such as Truth and Reality. We have noticed above how the realized soul becomes identical with all forms of existence – cosmic, psychic and epistemological

We have seen the domains of science: we have seen the domains of mysticism. Now we will see how a scientist experiences these domains, to bring out the mystical nature of science. I have selected Heisenberg as my scientist.


Heisenberg was a mystic of the platonic variety. We have selected his views on the following topics to bring out the mystic in him: a) Scientific and religious truths, b) The concept of matter, c) Science and the beautiful.

Scientific and Religious Truth

In the early summer of 1952, atomic physicists had assembled in Copenhagen to discuss the construction of the European accelerator. Werner Heisenberg was glad to meet his friends Niels Bohr and Wolfgang Pauli. One evening during a discussion with Pauli, Heisenberg asserted that one can certainly reach the central order of things or events as directly as one can reach the soul of another human being.

Heisenberg found scientific truth unassailable and at the same time considered that the content of religious thinking could not be dismissed as an outmoded phase in the consciousness of humankind.

Scientific truths are not based on immediate experience but on idealization of experience. The idealization is deemed correct as the phenomenon to which it refers can be expressed in a mathematical form. In this connection, Heisenberg points out that immediate experience teaches us that the earth is at rest and the sun moves around. If rest is considered this way, then Ptolemy was right and Copernicus wrong. However, since we talk about movement, we must consider motion as a relation between two bodies. With this notion we understand the sun as the still centre of the Solar system and the earth going round it. Copernicus’ metamorphosis of immediate experience into natural laws was realized and appreciated by Newton. Newton formulated these laws into equations. Kepler considered these mathematical laws as the visible expression of the divine will and the beauty of God’s works.

According to Heisenberg, locating scientific truths in the phenomena is tantamount to directing attention to one aspect of divine activity only, losing sight of the totality. He says: “Even if technology and science could be employed merely as means to an end, the outcome depends upon whether the goals for whose attainment they are based are good ones.”46

No doubt science and technology have bettered material conditions of large sections of society. Heisenberg notes that, despite material conditions being bettered, much unhappiness still persists today. He attributes the reason not to material hardships but to a lack of trust that gives life meaning.47

To remove this discord, he feels that, since ethics is the basis of social life and ethics is nothing but that basic human outlook which he calls the spiritual pattern of society, efforts must be made for gaining a common outlook which is convincing to the younger generation. For bringing about this a right balance in scientific and religious truths is needed.

The Concept of matter

The structure of matter has fascinated thinking humanity for thousands of years. Heisenberg takes up this issue in view of the developments in atomic physics, which may conclusively shed light on this age-old problem.

Leucippus and Democritus were founders of atomism. For them the atom was eternal and indivisible. All things were composed of atoms, which manifested themselves in various forms. Atomism thus was intended to explain the ‘one’ behind the ‘many’.

Plato also took up this problem. Plato’s atoms were not strictly material. For him geometrical forms represented certain tendencies of elements. For instance, the cube was the smallest particle of the element earth and also indicated earth’s stability. But those geometrical figures were not atoms. Plato considered them as made out of triangles which formed their surface. The exchange of triangles led to mixing of elements with one another, e.g., two atoms of air and one atom of fire formed one atom of water. Therefore, Plato was of the view that the form determines the structure of material objects, i.e., Ideas are more fundamental than the objects, and Ideas could be described mathematically.

In modern times the atom no longer remained indivisible. But it was confirmed that the smallest units of matter are real physical entities, albeit not visualized by the naked eye, yet whose presence could be captured in a cloud/bubble chamber.

But the developments in quantum theory showed that the elementary particles do not exist in the sense that stones and flowers do. Heisenberg asserts that the “smallest units of matter are not physical objects in the ordinary sense of the word; they are forms, structures, or – in Plato’s sense – Ideas, which can be unambiguously spoken of only in the language of mathematics.”48 Thus at the heart of nature, mathematical symmetries exist, which will pave the way for a unified theory of nature – the ‘one’ behind the ‘many’.

However, Heisenberg is well aware of the limits of ordinary language. Atomic physics cannot be described in ordinary language without ambiguity. This exposes the tension between scientific method and the relation of society to the ‘one’, the main principle underlying all phenomena. The society’s relation to the ‘one’ has to be explained in a language which all can understand, and not in precise mathematical formalism that can be grasped by only a trained person.

Heisenberg concludes that “if the harmony in a society rests on a common interpretation of the ‘one’, the unitary principle behind the phenomenon, then the language of poetry (which evokes arche-types planted in our soul from the beginning), may be more important here than the language of science.”49

Science and Beautiful

Heisenberg raises a question as to where the beautiful can be met in the realm of the exact sciences. As a boy he was interested in numbers. His father wanted him to learn Latin and therefore procured a Latin treatise by the mathematician Leopold Kronecker. Heisenberg was fascinated by the book as he found that, from the problem of partitioning a circle, he could learn something totally different about elementary number theory. The book gave him the impression of something being beautiful, a direct vision which was not required to be debated.

In the physics auditorium of Gottingen University, two mottos are written in Latin, which say “The simple is the seal of the true” and “Beauty is the splendor of truth.” Heisenberg considers beauty as “proper conformity of the parts to one another, and to the whole.”50

In mathematics, the parts are the properties of whole numbers and laws of geometrical construction. The whole is the system of axioms and underlying-axioms of arithmetic and Euclidean geometry.

He finds beauty in the fitting of these parts in each other as well as their being constituents of the whole. As axioms they are true, and as single parts they are simple. This view of beauty brings to the surface the ancient problem of the ‘one’ and the ‘many’ in close proximity with the problem of ‘being’ and ‘becoming’.

Heisenberg then traces the roots of the exact sciences in early Greek thought to ‘Thales,’ who considered ‘water’ as the first principle of all things. He then asks: “If existence of a unitary principle is granted, then how can one explain away change, especially in view of Parmenides’ celebrated paradox – “Only being is, non-being is not”? And if being only is, nothing outside it is responsible for change. Hence being will have to be conceived as eternal, uniform, and unlimited in space and time. The changes we experience can thus be only an illusion.”51

Heisenberg then focuses his attention on Pythagoras. In Pythagoras, it may be said that the mathematical order could resolve the problem of ‘one’ and ‘many’. Pythagoras made the famous discovery of numerical ratios being the source of harmony when it was found that plucked strings whose lengths involve certain ratios produced consonant musical notes. Here, the part was individual notes while the whole was the harmonious sound produced. Assemblage of parts produced beauty. This gave rise to a change in the fundamental thinking that after all the basis of being may not be a physical element as ‘water’ for Thales, but an ideal principle or form. Thus the connection between intelligible and beautiful was established.

Further development for Heisenberg comes from Plato. Plato, influenced by the Pythagorean thought, enamored of mathematics, located the ground of reality in something deeper and eternal than mathematical forms. For Plato this ground of reality was not accessible to the senses but could be apprehended by acts of the mind. This ground of reality, the ideal being, was the fount from which the phenomenal world and the human mind spring. These ideas, the ideals of things in the phenomenal word, already exist in the soul, before it acquires a mortal coil. In this multitude of the ideal is the main Idea of the Beautiful and God, in which the divine becomes visible and at the sight of which the wings of the soul begin to grow.

Here Heisenberg is reminded of a passage in Phaedrus expressing the following thought: “The soul is awestruck and shudders at the sight of the beautiful, for it feels that something is evoked in it that not imparted to it from without by the senses but has always been already laid down there in a deeply unconscious region.”52

Heisenberg then cites Galileo’s troubles to find mathematical forms corresponding to facts obtained by experiments: that a moving body will continue to move in the absence of external forces. He found simple mathematical laws governing natural phenomena. This happened also in the case of Kepler and Newton. The structure of Newtonian mechanics reminds Heisenberg of the definition of beauty. “Beauty is the proper conformity of the parts to one another and to the whole.” The parts are individual mechanical processes and the whole is the unitary principle mathematically established by Newton to which all processes comply.

Coming back to the Latin motto “Beauty is the splendor of truth”, can it have any other meaning? Heisenberg very succinctly comments that the experimenter first realizes truth by this splendor, by the way it shines forth. He further states that the relativity theory and the quantum theory emerged as the result of this shining forth. Years were spent, details over details piled, then suddenly everything was reduced to order – a connection was visible largely un-intuitable but still ultimately simple, convincing, by virtue of its abstract beauty, to those who could understand and speak an abstract language.

Heisenberg is convinced of the abstract basic structures unfolding in the instances of the history of the exact sciences. He finds the answer to the passage in Phaedrus, and is certain that the immediate recognition is not a consequence of discursive thinking. He attributes it in Kepler’s words: “That faculty which perceives and recognizes the noble proportion in what is given to the senses, and in other things situated outside itself, must be ascribed to the soul”53


Heisenberg’s mystical outlook can be summarized as follows:

A. Behind all the phenomenal world and its multiplicity lies a central order which is accessible. The central order is the ‘one’ or ‘All’ with whom the mystic identifies himself/herself.
B. The pursuit of science and technology may better material life but does not bring happiness. A right balance between science and religion (the mystic way) will bring about this.
C. Harmony in a society rests on the common interpretation of the ‘one’. For this the language of poetry (which evokes archetypes planted in our soul from the beginning) which is non-discursive will be more important than the language of mathematics used by the scientists.
D. Heisenberg’s ‘beauty’ in science is on a par with the ecstasy of the mystic, Kant’s sublime and Rudolf Otto’s holy. His description of the being as eternal, uniform and unlimited in space and time, and the flux of change as illusion, the maya of Vedanta philosophy, sets him out as a mystic of a high order. The discovery of some scientific truth which shines forth to the experimenter is a mystical act, when unison is established between the experimenter and the ‘ONE.’


1. Ken Wilber, ed., Quantum Questions (Boston: Shambhala, 1985), p.12.
2. Robert Nola and Howard Sankey, ed., After Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend: Recent Issue in Theories of Scientific Method (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000), p.3.
3. Job Kozhamthadam, ed., Contemporary Science and Religion in Dialogue (Pune: ASSR Publications, Vol 1, 2002), p.226.
4. Wilber, p.13.
5. Ibid., p.13.
6. Ibid, p.14.
7. R. D. Ranade, Mysticism in Maharashtra (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1988), p.1 of the “Preface.”
8. William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Mentor Books, 1958), p.350.
9. Ibid, p.6.
10. Ibid, p.7.
11. See Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, ed., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.180.
12. Roger Penrose, Shadows of Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p.412.
13. Ibid, p.413.
14. Ibid, p.413.
15. R. D. Ranade, Pathway to God in Hindi Literature (Nimbal: Shri Gurudev Ranade Samadhi Trust, 1997), p.34.
16. Ibid, p.34.
17. Margaret Smith, “The Nature and Meaning of Mysticism,” in Richard Woods, ed., Understanding Mysticism (New York: Image Books, 1980), p.21.
18. See William James, op. cit., p.350.
19. Ibid, p.339.
20. Ibid, p.333.
21. Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad II.4.14. S. K. Belvalkar and R. D. Ranade, History of Indian Philosophy (New Delhi: Oriental Books, Reprint Corporation, 1974), p.381.
22. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad III.9.26. History of Indian Philosophy, p.381.
23. Mundaka Upanishad I.1.6. History of Indian Philosophy, p.380.
24. Mandukya Upanishad 2.7. R. D. Ranade, A Constructive survey of Upanishadic Philosophy (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1968), pp.100-101.
25. “Toward a Science of Consciousness,” in Stuart R. Mamerott, et al, eds., The Third Tucson Discussion and Debates (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), pp.482&487.
26. Richard Woods, OP, The Nature and Meaning of Mysticism, (New York: Image Books), p.451.
27. Scaramelli, Directorio mistico, Treatise 3. No 32, 1754.
28. Woods, p.464.
29. Rigvedas X. 136.3. K. D. Sangaram, Pathways to God in the Vedas (Solapur: B.R. Kulkarni, 1995), p.239.
30. Rigveda, VIII.25.9. Pathways to God in the Vedas. P.259
31. Mundaka Upanishad, III 1.8. The original words Jnana Prada mean higher mind and the faculty that reveals the Atman. (Translator’s note). In Swami Sarvananda, Mundakopanishad (Madras: Ramkrishna Matha, 1989), p.63.
32. Swami Tyagisananda, Svetasvatara Upanishad (Madras: Ramkrishna Matha, 1987), p.95., IV.20
33. Bhagavad-gita, Ch. IX Verse 2. R. D. Ranade. The Bhagavad-gita as a Philosophy of God – Realisation (Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 2001), p.207.
34. Richard E. Cytowie, M.D., The man to Tasted Shapes (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1998), pp. x, xii, note 9 on p.218.
35. Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism (London, University Paperbacks, 1960), p.7, footnote.
36. Pathway to God in Hindi Literature, pp.136-137.
37. Pathway to God in Hindi Literature, pp.136-137.
38. The Rigveda III 31.10. Pathway to God, p.296
39. R. D. Ranade, A Constructive Survey of Upanishadic Philosophy (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1968), p.257.
40. Varieties of Religious Experience, p.235.
41. History of Indian Philosophy, p.441.
42. See R. D. Ranade, Pathway to God in Kannada Literature (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1960.
43. Ibid., p.279
44. Ibid., p.281.
45. The details about Heisenberg are taken from his Physics and Beyond (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), Across the Frontiers (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), and The Physicist’s Conception of Nature (New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1955).
46. Ken Wilber (ed), Quantum Questions, p.32.
47. See ibid., p.43.
48. Ibid., p.51.
49. Ibid., p.54.
50. Ibid., p.56.
51. Ibid., p.57.
52. Ibid., p.59.
53. Ibid., p.64.

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