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Relationship between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism

Introduction
Almost all aspects of human society is profoundly influenced by modern physics. Atomic
physics is all around us, it has crucial applications in the industrial world, in the political
arena it makes its presence felt in the form of atomic weaponry. It even extends into culture
and philosophy where the study of atomic and subatomic particles led to the revision of our
ideas regarding the conception of the universe, and its relation with us.
Recent studies have revealed striking similarities between foundational theories in the field of
quantum physics and basic ideas in the philosophical and religious traditions of eastern
mysticism. The way in which eastern mystic religious philosophies of Hinduism, Buddhism
and Taoism see the world is strikingly similar to the world which quantum theory and
relativity theory, the two foundational theories of twentieth- century physics, forces us to see.
This strong synergy between the fields of quantum physics and eastern philosophy is what
lead me into further pursuing the relationship between the two.

The split between philosophy and science


Sixth Century B.C., the first period of Greek philosophy is where the roots of physics trace
back to. It was a time when culture did not make distinctions between religion, science and
philosophy. The primary aim of the sages of the Milesion school was what they termed
Physis, the discovery of the real constitution, the essential nature of things. This enquiry
into the essential nature of all things is where the origins of modern physics can be traced to.
The Milesion view is similar to Indian and Chinese philosophies in its monisticity and
organic nature of thought. This similarity is even stronger in the philosophy of Heraclitus.
Heraclitus considers all static being as a mere illusion, a deception. According to him any pair
of opposites is a unity and, the dynamic and cyclic interplay of these pairs is what all the
changes in the world arise from. He called this unity Logos, that unity which contains all
opposing forces and transcends them.

The Eleatic school believed in an intelligent and personal God who is above the world,
directing it. It is this view which brought about the separation of spirit and matter or the
advent of dualism which is a characteristic of Western philosophy. Parmenides of Elea took a
drastic step in this direction by challenging Heraclitus concept of Logos. Elea believed that
changes were just mere deceptions of the senses. He considered change to be impossible.
In the fifth century B.C., Greek philosophers tried to reconcile the idea of Logos (Heraclitus)
with Being (Parmenides). This further lead them to believe that the Being exhibits itself in
certain invariable substances, the attractive and repulsive interplays of which cause changes
in the world; Ultimately resulting in the idea that matter is composed of tiny indivisible units
called atoms which are purely passive and intrinsically dead particles moving in a void. The
cause of this motion was considered to be a force of spiritual origin which was fundamentally
different from matter. This image of separation is what lead to the dualism between body and
soul in Western philosophy. With the passage of time philosophers focused more on the
spiritual world than the material. Aristotle believed that questions regarding the human soul
and spirituality were more valuable than an enquiry into the material world. This belief is
what garnered interest from the Christian Church which was a strong supporter of Aristotles
doctrines.
The development of modern science took place in the Renaissance, when there was a
renewed interest in nature. Men began questioning the ideas of the Church and Aristotle, and
for the first time the study of nature was approached in a truly scientific spirit. This interest
was paralleled by developments in mathematics which finally led to the formulation of
scientific theories on the basis of experimental proof and expressed using mathematics.
Empirical knowledge was combined with mathematics for the first time by Galileo and he is
hence known as the father of modern science.
While modern science developed, growth in the philosophical front also took place
simultaneously. This lead to an extreme formulation of spirit/matter duality. In the
seventeenth century, Rene Descartes came up with a view that nature is composed of two
fundamental, separate and independent realms; one of matter (res extensa), and that of mind
(res cogitans). The Cartesian world view treated matter as a dead entity, completely separate
from their mind; It saw the material world as a collection of objects assembled into a huge
machine. Around the same time, Sir Isaac Newton constructed his mechanics on the basis of
the same theory and therefore laid the foundation for classical physics. Newtonian model of

the universe remained unchallenged till the late nineteenth century and was paralleled by the
image of a monarchical God who imposed his divine law upon the world from above.
Descartes famous quote: Cogito ergo sum- I think, therefore I exist- leads one to believe
that ones identity is equated to ones mind, instead of with ones entire organism.
Consequentially, westerners considers themselves as isolated individual egos existing inside
a physical body. The mind and body have thus been separated and the mind has been given
the futile task of controlling the body, thus causing an internal conflict between consciousness
and involuntary instincts. Each individual gets further split up into large number of different
pieces based on his/her activities, talents, feelings, beliefs, etc., generating endless internal
conflict, confusion and frustration.
The outwardly manifestation of this division is in the tendency of the conditioned western
mind to view the world as a multitude of separate objects and events which can be exploited
by different interest groups for their benefit. Nations, races, religions, political groups etc.,
are manifestation of the same division in society. This division has alienated us from nature
and from our fellow human beings; The consequence being a life which is mentally and
physically unhealthy. The Cartesian division and mechanistic world view have thus been a
boon and a bane at the same time.

Eastern mystical world view


In contrast to the mechanistic world view of Western philosophy, Eastern mystics believe in a
more organic view. Eastern mystics consider the concept of isolated egos, our tendency to
divide the world into separate things, as an illusion which results from the human tendency to
measure and categorize. Buddhist philosophy calls is Avidya, a disturbed state of mind that
has to be overcome:
When the mind is disturbed, the multiplicity of things is produced, but when the mind is
quieted, the multiplicity of things disappears
-Ashvaghosha, The awakening of Faith.
Eastern mysticism emphasizes the basic unity of the universe and this is the central feature of
their teachings. The highest aim of any follower of Buddhism, Hinduism or Taoism is to
transcend the notion of an isolated individual self and become aware of the unity and mutual

interconnectedness of all things, finally identifying themselves with the ultimate reality. This
act of emergence of awareness or enlightenment is not only intellectual but involves the
whole person, it is religious in its ultimate nature. Therefore most Eastern philosophies are
essentially religious. The Eastern world view is intrinsically dynamic, considering objects to
have a fluid and ever-changing character. The cosmos is seen as one single inseparable
reality; forever moving, alive, organic; spiritual and material at the same time. Motion and
change are considered essential properties of things and the forces responsible for imparting
them are of intrinsic nature unlike classical Greek philosophy which assumes it to be an
external entity. Another difference between the two is that of the image of the divine- Greeks
think of the divine as a ruler who directs the world from above and Eastern mystics think of
the divine as a principle that controls everything from inside:
He who, dwelling in all things,
Yet is other than all things,
Whom all things do not know,
Whose body all things are,
Who controls all things from within He is your Soul, the Inner Controller,
The Immortal.
Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad, 3.7.15

Parallels between Quantum Physics and Eastern mysticism


The unity of all things is the central theme in Eastern mysticism. Eastern philosophy
perceives all phenomena as different manifestations of the same ultimate reality;
Interdependent and inseparable parts of the cosmic whole. This reality is considered the
essence of the universe, in Hinduism it is called Brahman, Buddhists call it Dharmakaya
(The Body of Being) or Tathata (Suchness), It is called Tao in Taoism.
The this is also that. The that is also this That the that and the this cease to be
opposites is the very essence of the Tao. Only this essence, an axis as it were, is the centre of
the circle responding to endless changes.

Fung Yu-Ling, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy


An analysis of the process of observation in Quantum physics shows us that subatomic
particles as individual, separate entities have no meaning, but can only be understood as a
reactive connection between the preparation of an experiment and the subsequent observation
and measurement of observable, measurable quantities. Thus one can say that Quantum
theory reveals the basic unity of the universe. It shows that one cannot decompose the world
into isolated tiny entities capable of an independent existence. The deeper we look at matter,
the more we realize that matter is not a collection of tiny independent particles but an
interconnected web of complex relations between parts of a whole.
This is one of many striking parallels between modern Physics and Eastern philosophy.