Interlude: Why Even Take Hindu Thought Seriously?


why hinduismSome of the great achievements of Hindu thought are explained. Key notions that will play a crucial role throughout the essay are introduced, such as the notion of “gunas”.


[Note to blog readers: I have updated this post as of 11-22-15 to the actual Introduction that appears in my book What is Science?]

Contents: What is Science?

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10



I am feeling somewhat self-conscious as I release the 10 part essay that uses yoga to explain Western science.  What gives me the right to do this? Am I just some naive chump who buys into any old fairy tale?

Well, no.  The reasons for invoking Hindu thought, which is where yoga comes from, are compelling.  I’ve been studying Hindu thought since about 1985, so about 30 years.  Over this same time I have been studying Western science.  Further, I don’t just study, but practice both.  I am a practicing scientist; it’s how I earn my paycheck.  And I practice methods that fall under the yogic techniques. Over 30 years I have held these two views side by side in my mind, and lived both viewpoints in my daily life.  Here, I want to offer only a cursory and small defense of my position. 

Bit of History
The British invasion of India that began in the mid-1700s was the first true contact of the modern West with the ancient culture of Bharat (see here).  Of course, at the time, these dark skinned people were pagan heathens.  Their one salvation was a bountiful land and rich country for which it was the “white man’s burden” to step in and see to it that such resources were properly utilized.  Under the conquest of the Brits, over time a legitimate academic culture of “orientalism” sprung up and scholarship in the Indo-Aryan cultures began in earnest.  Perhaps up to the 1940s, the teachings of Hindu India were studied from the point of view of the superiority of Western traditions with their roots in Athens, Rome and Christian Europe.

This is to say Hindu thought has never in the West been accepted as being on par with Western thought.  It has generally been merely another specimen subjected to the Western methods of intellectual analysis.   It was only in counter-cultural movements, themselves gestated in the British Empire, where pockets of understanding flowered that saw Hindu thought not even on par to Western thought, but decidedly superior to it.  I refer to the Theosophical movement, started in the 1870s under the Russian mystic Helena Blavatsky.  Over one hundred years later, such sentiments are still counter-culture in the West. To this day, Hindu and Western thought are not put on equal footing.

Therefore, I list here a few of the accomplishments of the Hindu thinking that show they somehow had access to understanding that has only been rediscovered in the 20th century in the Western cultures, or whose influence has become so pervasive in Western thought that it is generally forgotten that the ideas came from Hindu India.

What Have the Hindus Ever Done For Us?

  1. Zero. Where would we be without zero? Compare to the dumb, literal Romans who needed a symbol for every single place in a number.  Where did the Hindus get the idea of zero?  Even today the origin of the concept of zero is ill-understood in the West, in spite of the massive advances in Western math over the past several centuries.

Zero derives from a core tenet of Hindu philosophy that usually is today translated as “unmanifest” and contrasted to manifested existence. “Nirguna” is one Hindu term for unmanifest. It means, “lacking the gunas”.  The gunas are what everything manifest is made from.  In the West we think of everything as made of patterns of energy.  This is exactly what the gunas are, although the gunas concept has much broader implications, as discussed throughout the essay.

If everything that is manifest is made of gunas, then there can be a state “without the gunas”, and this state is translated into English by the word “unmanifest”.  It is a bizarre concept of something that, in some sense exists, but does not exist in the realm of manifested, overt existence.  It is the state of being that has the value of “no being”. This is similar to how we think of zero.  Zero is a quantity: it is the quantity that is “no quantity”.    Nirguna is the state that represents no state. The notion of something that in one sense exists and, in another sense, does not exist is a core theme in Hindu cosmology, and an idea like zero arises naturally from this basis.

  1. Infinity.  Yes, infinity is an explicit facet of Hindu thought.  Even the basic arithmetic of transfinite numbers was understood in Hinduism.  The Hindu idea for infinity is “Brahman”.  This term means “everything”.  There is nothing that is not Brahman.  The manifest, the unmanifest, it is all Brahman.  There is only Brahman.  And Brahman is the very definition of unlimitedness.  Nothing limits Brahman.  Not words, not concepts, not time, space, or any quality.  In the West since the time of the ancient Greeks was the debate over potential and actual infinity.  To the Hindu mind, actual infinity exists, we are inside of it, and it is Brahman.

Further, contemplation of the nature of Brahman led to ideas identical to transfinite arithmetic.  Consider the following excerpt from this web page (note this is a quote within a quote):

“Bhaskara wrote over 500 years after Brahmagupta (Brahamgupta wrote in 630 AD). Despite the passage of time he is still struggling to explain division by zero. He writes:-

‘A quantity divided by zero becomes a fraction the denominator of which is zero. This fraction is termed an infinite quantity. In this quantity consisting of that which has zero for its divisor, there is no alteration, though many may be inserted or extracted; as no change takes place in the infinite and immutable God when worlds are created or destroyed, though numerous orders of beings are absorbed or put forth.’ “

From Bhaskara’s quote, it does not seem to me he is struggling. He seems to understand perfectly what a number divided by zero means. He says quite clearly that adding a finite quantity to infinity returns infinity.  Hindus understood this well before Cantor proved it in modern terms. As the quote illustrates, Hindus understood basic transfinite concepts by contemplating the nature of Brahman.

  1. The Big Bang. There are several points of overlap with Hindu and modern cosmology.  Both agree the Universe is really, really old, and it began in a condensed state where, the condensed state contained the entire future of the cosmos. The Contributors to the Wikipedia page on Hindu Cosmology did a nice job explaining the same ideas I only outline here.

3A. The Hindu conception of time.  It is vast. A single universe, such as what we currently inhabit, is said to have a life of 4.3×109 solar years, or 4.3 billion years. We currently know with some reliability that the universe is about 14 billion years old and will continue on for some time. According to one current estimate, the universe may exist for some tens of billion more years. The ancient Hindus appear to have been off by perhaps a factor of 10. That in itself is pretty amazing for an ancient culture. However, the 4.3 billion year span is called a “kalpa” or a “Day of Brahma” (note, NOT Brahman, but Brahma, the creator of universes). The Hindus do not stop at one kalpa.  In Hindu cosmology, a single universe is not the ultimate extent of manifestation.  Existence lasts 100 Brahma years, which is 311 trillion solar years. Thus, our current understanding of physical cosmology lags the Hindu estimate.

3B. Existence began in an “egg” called Brahmanda.  It is worth quoting directly (from here) so the Reader can appreciate the elaborateness of the Hindu conception of creation. I know it has a lot of unfamiliar words, but try to read it anyway:

“The transformation of Maha Purusha and his ‘alter-ego’ Prakriti i.e. the Kshetrajna and Maha Tatwa led to the Brahmanda or the Golden Egg in which sat the Four Faced Hiranya GarbhaBrahma, the Creator. Within the Golden Egg, are situated Seven Lokas, Prithivi, Seven Samudras and Seven Dwipas, Massive Mountains and Thousands of Rivers. Within the Golden Egg are the Sun, Moon, Stars, Planets, Wind and Lokaloka. While there is an enclosure of water as huge as ten times more around the Golden Egg, there is ten times more of Tejas or Radiance surrounding the water. Ten times larger than the enclosure of Illumination is of Vayu (Wind). Around the enclosure of Wind is that of Ether (Akaasha or the Sky) which is ten times more of Wind. Even enveloping the enclosure of ‘Nabhas’ or Ether is that of  ‘Bhutadi’ (Ahamkara or Ego) and that too ten times larger. Yet another enclosure to Bhutadi is ten times more of Nabhas , but that of ‘Mahat’ is equally bigger to Bhutadi. Filnally, Mahat is surrounded by ‘Pradhana’ or the Supreme. Thus there are seven enclosures around the Cosmic Egg viz. water, radiance, wind, ether, Bhutadi, Mahat and the Pradhana the Unknown; all these ‘Avaranaas’ cling to each other.”

A few points are relevant to modern minds steeped in the Big Bang theory of the creation.

First, note how the entire universe and its future is contained in the egg. There is the “…the Sun, Moon, Stars, Planets”. The Brahmanda, like any egg or seed, contains the future potentiality of the full-grown creature. This is a more natural way to express the idea used in modern cosmology that the Big Bang contained all the necessary conditions for the present universe and then followed a deterministic trajectory to the present, and beyond into the future.

But the Hindu idea of creation is much vaster than our modern view. “Within the Golden Egg, are situated Seven Lokas…”, and I can stop quoting here. The idea of the Seven Lokas refers to all the states of matter, not just physical matter.  What we call the universe is the lowest, the bottom of the 7 lokas, which is called the “physical plane” in contemporary occultism.  There are 6 other levels to the universe of which modern science is completely unaware. We return to this idea in Part 9 when we introduce Hindu cosmology.

Second, we note that there is a description of what created the singularity:

“The transformation of Maha Purusha and his ‘alter-ego’ Prakriti i.e. the Kshetrajna and Maha Tatwa led to the Brahmanda.”

This requires some translation. Maha Purusha and Prakriti refer to something called the Shiva-Shakti Tattva in other Hindu traditions.  This refers to processes that occurred well before manifestation, or, in modern terms, before the Big Bang. It refers to the fundamental separation in consciousness of the observer and the observed.  This act is considered in Hindu thought to be the most primordial act of creation.  In some ways, it is analogous to the “Fall from Grace” taught in Christianity.  The possibility of a mental act preceding creation of the physical universe is outside the scope of modern cosmology. But this is what Hindus teach is responsible for the Big Bang. We come back to the Shiva-Shakti Tattva in Part 10, when we discuss the relationship between knowledge and power.

The other interesting aspect is that the singularity, the Brahmanda, did not exist by itself. An elaborate description is given of seven layers, or “screens” (avaranaas) surrounding the Brahmanda.  The magnitudes involved are logarithmic: each screen is 10 times the size of the previous, so the largest screen ‘Pradhana’ is 107 times larger than the first screen, ‘water’. To liberally translate these into more modern terms:

  • A fluid-like layer, perhaps a quark-gluon plasma fluid? (“water”).
  • A layer of radiation (“radiance”).
  • A layer of force (“wind”).
  • A layer of space (“ether”)
  • A layer of the cosmic primordial elements (Bhuta means “element”)
  • A layer of a cosmic force akin to electricity (electricity, it is taught, is the lowest manifestation of Mahat)
  • A layer of, for lack of a better term, the dynamics of creation.  We consider what this means in point 4:

The above list sounds very similar to the time sequence of events since the Big Bang in standard cosmology (see graphic). The Hindu description suggests they are simultaneous. From the standpoint of general relativity, all space and time can be thought of as simultaneous, as forming a block universe. From that vantage point, the Hindu and modern views match.

  1. Dynamics.  This one is super-important, so please pay attention. Hindus discovered dynamics long before the West.  Dynamics, as a branch of physics, was started by Leibniz when he discovered kinetic energy.   Today, dynamics is a general science, where we have found three main types of dynamical patterns in nature.  We call these “point attractors,” “periodic attractors,” and “chaotic attractors”.   The latter, chaos, came of age really in the 1980s even though it had been described by Lorenz earlier, and others such as Cantor and Poincaré had also understood aspects of chaos around the beginning of the 20th century (some good history here).

But at least as far back as 250 AD, if not farther back, Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras described the gunas.  Patanjali did not invent the idea and they predate him.  There are three gunas: satva, rajas and tamas.  We can readily understand the gunas in terms of attractor state dynamics. Satva refers to dynamic systems with a limit cycle attractor.  Rajas are dynamical systems with chaotic or strange attractors. Tamas are dynamics with fixed point attractors.  This is summarized in the following table:


Guna Type of attractor state
tamas point attractor
satva limit cycle
rajas strange attractor


Obviously, the Hindus did not use the mathematical apparatus we use today to define these concepts.  Instead, they understood the concepts qualitatively. Today, the diversity of qualities associated with each guna makes it difficult to clearly see the connection with dynamics.

However, the identification of the gunas with dynamical systems is so important a topic in the scope of this essay that I want to quote the source that made this connection. It was I.K. Taimni who, in 1961, clearly linked the gunas to dynamical patterns in his book The Science of Yoga. Here are the relevant excerpts:

“Although the theory of Gunas is one of the fundamental doctrines of Hindu philosophy it is surprising how little it is understood. The Gunas are referred to over and over again …and yet, nobody seems to know what the three Gunas really stand for. There is a vague idea that they have something to do with properties because the word Guna in Samskrta generally means a property or attribute… But one looks in vain for any clear exposition of the real significance of the word or what it really stands for in terms of modern thought.”

“The advances which have taken place in the field of physical sciences and the light which this has thrown on the structure of matter and the nature of physical phenomena has now placed us in a position to be able to gain a faint glimpse into the essential nature of the Gunas.”

“If we analyse the flux of physical phenomena around us in the light of modern scientific knowledge we shall find three principles of a fundamental character underlying these phenomena. These three principles which ultimately determine the nature of every phenomenon are all connected with motion and may be called different aspects of motion. It is very difficult to express these principles by means of single words, for no words with a sufficiently comprehensive meaning are known, but for want of better words we may call them: (1) vibration which involves rhythmic motion of particles [satva], (2) mobility which involves non-rhythmic motion of particles with transference of energy [rajas], (3) inertia which involves relative position of particles [tamas]. These principles are really the three fundamental aspects of motion.”

The bracketed comments are mine. Indeed it is hard to put these concepts in words. That is why one requires the machinery of mathematics to express the dynamical states in a clear and unambiguous fashion.

So, the Hindus see all of nature as being made of the three gunas.  This is really amazing when you compare it to the Western ideas that began with the ancient Greeks.  The ancient Greeks started the tradition of thinking that the things in the world were made out of substances.  “Atom” is the ancient Greek word for “the fundamental unit of stuff out of which the world is made”.  The Greeks thought the world was made out of some kind of substance.  This idea dominated well into the 19th century, and it was not until Einstein that the West realized that material substance was just patterns of energy.

Compare this to the fact that from ancient to modern times, Hindus never conceived the things of the world to be made of substances, but instead to be made of dynamical patterns, the three gunas.  Furthermore, how the Hindus treat this idea has not yet made its way into Western science.  The gunas are treated as analogous to the three primary colors red, green and blue.  All possible colors can be derived from mixing red, green and blue in various proportions. Similarly, all possible states of matter and energy can be obtained by mixing the three gunas in various proportions. I kid you not; this is exactly what is taught about the gunas.

To the Hindu mind, things are not made of substances at all.  Things – rocks, wood, chairs, people, clouds, stars – every apparently material thing is actually made of the three patterns of movement, the gunas, combined in different proportions.  Hopefully, some smart dynamics person is reading this and can figure out how to implement the idea in terms of our modern dynamics.

The above only scratches the surface.  Let’s summarize the above discussed, where Hindu though either influenced or predated our modern ideas:
  • Zero
  • Infinity and transfinite arithmetic
  • The extremely long duration of the universe
  • The Big Bang
  • A theory of dynamics

Some of these ideas directly affected the evolution of Western thought such as the concept of zero.  Other of these ideas could not even be understood until the advent of 20th century math and science, such as transfinite quantities, the extremely long time of the universe, and understanding that the gunas refers to dynamics.

In comparison, think of the British Christians who invaded India in the mid-1700s, who believed that the universe and all creation was 6000 years old, who believed that material things were made of atoms or some type of substance, and who believed the universe was the static creation of a God in Heaven.

Seriously, who is the barbarian in this picture?

It is therefore natural to ask: how could the Hindu mind come to such a picture of the universe? Where did Hindu Cosmology come from?

Well, an idiot would say it was a coincidence, a lucky guess.  Someone smarter than an idiot would perhaps invoke ideas of the collective unconscious, myths and archetypes, and aspects of the human unconscious that are constant across time; the Joseph Campbell way of thinking.

Someone who is not an idiot would just ask the Hindus where they got these ideas.  And their answer would be: from yoga. The great Rishis and Sages of Hinduism, the authors of their so-called “holy books” were one and all practitioners of yoga.

So, it’s not as weird or as dumb as it may seem at first glance to use the yogic ideas to understand science. In fact, it is something like a teenager asking his Grandfather for advice.

Jump to the other parts of What is Science?

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10

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