KARNA’S DILEMMA, DHARMA AND MISFORTUNE

KARNA’S DILEMMA, DHARMA AND MISFORTUNE

Karna was often visited by misfortune but others too had to suffer misfortune. Karna’s loyalty and generosity were often misplaced. That was the root of his tragedy

Navaratna Rajaram

Karna the tragic hero

Karna the son of Surya, born as the pre-marital son of the Yadava princess Kunti is a tragic figure in the great historic epic filled with tragedies, The Mahabharata. An important point to note is that Karna was the greatest warrior on the Kuru side, but as fate would have he was also the first of the Pandavas born to Kunti.

While much is made of the venerable old warriors Bhishma and Drona, they were no match for Karna and Duryodhana knew it. Bhishma’s heart was not in the war and Drona was in it only for the money. As Bhima once teased him, he himself was a warrior who incurred no sin by fighting, because as a Kshatriya, it was his duty to fight for the protection of others. Drona, Bhima said was a degraded Brahmin who was killing innocents for the sake of a good life for himself and his family.

Karna was the only Kaurava warrior feared by Yudhishtira as the possible peer of Arjuna. It was Karna who made his friend and benefactor Durydhana feel he was strong enough to take on his rival Pandava cousins. Shakuni was cunning and Dhritarashtra devious and indulgent, but none of that would count on the battlefield.

It is possible that Karna was the only warrior who could have prevented the Mahabharata War. Had he switched sides or at least refused to support Duryodhana, there would have been no war. Duryodhana would not have dared take on the Pandavas and their allies without Karna. Krishna who wanted to prevent war, tried to get Karna to switch, appealing to his pride and sense of justice (Dharma) I am indebted to an article by Pramod Pathak (in the Pioneer) for some of the ideas here. It was Karna’s continued support for Duryodhana that made the war inevitable, and this was the reason for Bhishma’s aversion to Karna.

Karna’s misfortunes

A very interesting conversation between Krishna and Karna before the Mahabharata gives valuable insights into Karna’s mind and motives. When Krishna tries to find out how a person as noble as Karna is taking the side of Duryodhana with his record of Adharma, Karna gives a long reply citing reasons for his disenchantment with Dharma.

He says that his mother abandoned him the moment he was born and he could only survive by a quirk of fate. Even though he was not responsible for what had transpired, he was stamped illegitimate. Dronacharya refused to teach him because he was not considered a Kshatriya — even though he actually was. By concealing his identity, he could persuade Parashurama to teach him but there also, he ultimately got a curse rather than a blessing once it was discovered that he actually was a Kshatriya.

At Draupadi’s Swayamvara he was disgraced. Not quite. Draupadi chose Arjuna who performed the feat that Karna could not, but that was her right as the princess whose hand they sought.

Later, only to save her sons’ life did Kunti, his mother, accept him as her son. So, whatever he had got was owing to Duryodhana’s generosity. How could he possibly be wrong for taking the side of Duryodhana? That was Karna’s rationale for supporting Duryodhana, in spite of his evil and unjust conduct.

 

Krishna too suffered misfortunes

Lord Krishna’s reply to this is worth understanding. He says that he was born in a jail and death was lurking all around him, even before he was born. His brothers and sisters were killed just because they were his siblings. The night he was born he was separated from his parents. He was brought up with poor children and cowherds all around. There were several attempts to kill him even before he could learn to walk. In fact, people would curse him for being the reason for bringing Kamsa’s wrath on them. He could only receive education when he was 16. (He was a prodigy and self-taught.) He had to move his entire community far off to save them from Jarasandha. He was branded a coward for running away from fighting. He was discredited many times.

And he stood to gain nothing from the war. He would be known as Partha’s charioteer. Whether Yudhisthira won or Duryodhana won, Krishna would only remain a bystander. Everyone faces misfortunes and challenges in his life — be it Duryodhana or Yudhisthira. Yet to discriminate between right and wrong is one’s Dharma. No matter how bad the circumstances are, your reaction to them is what matters. Life’s unfairness is no reason to side with Adharma. You have the free will to choose between Dharma and Adharma and your own conscience is your guide.

It was Karna’s tragedy he chose Adharma to return Duryodhana’s generosity. Curiously, where Duryodhana was greedy like his father, Karna was generous to a fault, and that was partly his undoing. It was his choice, but he had to face the consequences, no excuses.

Pandavas suffered even more

How about Kunti and the Pandavas, did they not suffer? Widowed when her children were still young, she had to live on the charity of the covetous Dhritarashtra, and Bhishma’s sense of justice, while her children suffered because of Duryodhana’s envy. Though qualified by birth and qualities to be ruler, Yudhishtira was repeatedly thwarted. Dhritarashtra, while superficially extolling Yudhishtira’s virtues as Dharma Raja (King Dharma), he colluded with his son’s nefarious schemes to eliminate them including the ploy to burn them in the house of lacquer built for the purpose. It was only the sagacity of Vidura, the resourcefulness of Yudhishtira and the strength of Bhima that saved them. It was probably because of the sense of insecurity from all this that made Kunti ask them to marry Draupadi as their common wife.

Even after they returned, Yudhishtira was denied his due as the crown prince. Instead Dhritarashtra sent him and his brothers to the wilderness of Khandava to build a new capital. When they succeeded in turning this wilderness into the prosperous Indraprastha which Yudhishtira ruled with wisdom and fame, Duryodhana’s envy still knew no bounds. With the help of his cunning uncle Shakuni, he tricked Yudhishtira into a dice game and sent him and his brothers into a second exile. And they humiliated Draupadi to add insult to the considerable injury. Neither Karna nor any of the elders did anything to stop this gross injustice.

Only the young Vikarna had the decency to protest, but not strong enough to stop the outrage. For this too Vikarna was derided by Karna. And all the five sons of the Pandavas died unfairly. Abhimanyu was killed in an unfair manner when he was unarmed. Their five sons survived the war but were killed in a dastardly night attack by Asvatthama after the death of Duryodhana. In Yudhishtira’s picturesque phrase, they were like a ship that braved the oceans only to sink in a puddle.

Karna too lost his sons in the war, but in fair fight, unlike Abhimanyu and the Pandava sons.

In their individual combats, Karna was generally bested by Arjuna. During the cattle raid in Virata’s kingdom, with the young Uttara as his charioteer, Arjuna defeated all the Kauravas including Karna. Earlier in their forest dwelling when Duryodhana came to show his splendour and was captured by the Gandharva chief Chitrasena, it was Arjuna an and not Karna who got him released, Thanks to Dharma Raja’s generous persuasion.

Krishna’s dharma lesson to Karna

With this background, let us get to the climactic Karna Parva.

The narrative, as with all the war parvas is confusing, but Karna was momentarily immobilized because his chariot wheel was stuck in the blood-soaked mud due to all the blood on the ground. According to some accounts, Karna was forced to get down and free his chariot wheel that was stuck in the mud.

He appealed to Arjuna for time, saying Dharma demanded Karna be allowed to extricate his chariot wheel. Somewhat sentimental Arjuna who had a weakness for Karna and his sons, seemed moved but Krishna would have no part of what he saw as Karna’s self-serving appeal to Dharma.

Then Krishna,, stationed on the car, addressed Karna, saying,

“By good luck it is, O son of Radha, that you remember Dharma!

It is generally seen that they who are mean, when they sink into distress, rail at Providence but never at their own misdeeds. Yourself and Suyodhana and Duhshasana and Shakuni, the son of Subala, had caused Draupadi, clad in a single piece of raiment, to be dragged into the midst of the assembly. On that occasion, O Karna, this Dharma of yours did not show itself. When at the assembly Shakuni, an adept in dice, vanquished Kunti’s son Yudhishthira who was unacquainted with it, where had your Dharma gone?

When the Kuru king (Duryodhana), acting under your advice, treated Bhimasena in that way with the aid of snakes and poisoned food, where was your Dharma gone? When the period of exile into the woods was over as also the thirteenth year, thou didst not make over to the Pandavas their kingdom. Whither had this Dharma of yours then gone?

You people set fire to the house of lac at Varanavata for burning to death the sleeping Pandavas. Where then, O son of Radha, had this Dharma of yours gone? You laughed at Krishnaa (Draupadi) while she stood in the midst of the assembly, scantily dressed because in her season and obedient to Duhshasana’s will, where, then, O Karna, had this Dharma of yours gone?

When from the apartment reserved for the ladies, innocent Krishnaa was dragged, you did not interfere. Where, O son of Radha, had this Dharma of yours  gone? Yourself addressing the princess Draupadi, that lady whose tread is as dignified as that of the elephant, in these words, viz., ‘The Pandavas, O Krishnaa, are lost. They have sunk into eternal hell. Do you choose another husband!’

You looked on the scene with delight. Where then, O Karna, had this Dharma of yours gone? Covetous of kingdom and relying on the ruler of the Gandharas (Shakuni), you summoned the Pandavas (to a match of dice). Where had your Dharma gone?

When many mighty car-warriors, encircling the boy Abhimanyu in battle, slew him, where had your Dharma then then gone? If this Dharma that thou now invoket was nowhere on those occasions, what is the use then of parching thy palate now, by uttering that word? You are now for the practice of Dharma, O Suta, but you shall not escape with life.

The Pandavas, who are free from cupidity, will recover their kingdom by the prowess of their arms, aided with all their friends. Having slain in battle their powerful foes, they, with, will recover their kingdom. The Dhartarashtras (Kauravas) will meet with destruction at the hands of those lions among men (viz., the sons of Pandu), that are always protected by Dharma!

In the Gita, Krishna had no use for Arjuna invoking his misguided idea of Dharma for not fighting his adversaries. He had even less sympathy for Karna’s appeal to Dharma in his moment of distress and impending defeat.

There is an ancient Sanskrit saying: “Dharmo rakshati, rakshitah.” Dharma protectcs those who protect it, but Karna in his cynicism had given up on Dharma. He could not now appeal for mercy in the name of Dharma.

Dharma is both duty and justice. It is not something to select and discard at one’s convenience. And that was Karna’s end.

In his play Julius Caesar, Shakespeare wrote “Brutus is an honorable man,” with more than a hint of sarcasm. So too was Karna and noble as well, but his nobility was not accompanied by judgment. That was his tragedy.

VEDANTA IN TODAY’S WORLD 2: ON HUMAN BEHAVIOR

VEDANTA IN TODAY’S WORLD 2: ON                                    HUMAN BEHAVIOR

Vedanta analyses good and evil on the basis of three gunas, it calls Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. This clearly explained chapters 14-17 of the Gita. Many of its insights might be useful in understanding the turmoil in the world today and how to deal with it.

Navaratna Rajaram

Background: Method of Vedanta

As noted in my previous article on the topic, Indian thought does not draw a clear line separating natural sciences and the human sciences.       Vedanta includes an immense body of literature. Of these the numerous Upanishads are the primary philosophic works. Among these there are several minor and major Upanishads. The famous Bhagavad Gita (or the Gita for short) is an accessible summary of the Upanishads in relatively simple language and accessible to most people. It is the pre-eminent philosophic poem in the world. There is none even remotely comparable. All this has made it highly popular and widely translated and studied. The Gita is essentially a profound but brief metaphysical study of the world and its phenomena.

Hence Vedanta which is a method of analyzing the world and its phenomena is applicable also to the study of human behavior. This is exemplified by Krishna in his analysis of Daiva (enlightened) and Asuric (materialist, power hungry) individuals driven by three gunas (or traits) that are classified as sattva (purity or enlightened), rajas (forceful) and tamas (dark, that is ignorance and inertia).

All three traits are present in humans. The dominance of one or other dictates the conduct of leaders and their followers. Any combination can influence a leader or even a nation. Especially dangerous is the combination of tamas and rajas (forceful ignorance). This is what lies behind fanaticism.

It is important to note that fanaticism cannot be defeated by sattva alone. Judicious use of force is needed to root out fanaticism. One can cure the ignorance of a child by education but not the fanaticism of a hardened fanatic. There are no soft solutions. This is the reason why Rama had to invade Lanka and end Ravana’s asuric rule and replace him with his more enlightened brother Vibhishana.

Devas and Asura in Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Devas and Asuras

Devas are enlightened persons, Asuras are guided by material gains, wealth and power by use of force. The Lankan King Ravana was a typical example of that. Some scholars following the late Swami Chnmayananda use divine for daiva and demonic for asuras. I  have avoided it since it may suggest something supernatural. In addition in the Rigveda at least, some deities like Varuna and Indra are called asura, meaning mighty. Krishna describes them as follows. They follow deities and practices in keeping with their natural tendencies.

Sattvikas are devoted to worshipping virtuous and gentle deities. Rajasic are devoted to practices that value wealth and power and worship such spirits.  Tamasic  persons are devoted to evil and fanatical traits.

The same traits are notable in their food habits. Sattvikas favour foods that are healthy and nutritious. Rajasic persons favour spicy, energetic but often unhealthy foods. The tamasic favour attractive but addictive and damaging foods.

The same is true of their rituals and yagnas. According to Krishna, Sacrifices done for the benefit of society without any ambition for personal gains is Sattvic. One that is done to gain power and wealth for oneself, see it as Rajasic. Tamasic is done with violent goals, without proper method or vision, meaningless and fierce in content.

Daivic and Asuric traits

 

Mahishasura (Chamundi Hills, Mysore)

Avoidance of violence, truthfulness, control of temper, peacefulness, mildness of manner and speech, kindness towards all; brilliance of thought, cleanliness, forgiveness, fortitude, lack of excessive pride, these are traits of the daivic.

Excessive pride, love of display, arrogance, fierce temper, use of force, ignorance of right and wrong, these are among the asuric traits.

Daivic leads to freedom while asuric leads to bondage. Grieve not O Arjuna, you are of daivic disposition. Now let me tell you about asuric traits.

They (asuras) know not to distinguish between acts that should be done and those one should refrain from. They have no sense of inner or outer purity. Nor do they have any sense of truthfulness.

They view the world entirely in material terms, hold there is nothing spiritual, and only need and greed are the basis of existence.

Guided by narrow vision, driven by insatiable desires, being slaves to endless desires, they are the cause of destruction without end.

Holding themselves superior to all, even their acts of ritual are driven by desire to display of their wealth and power.

“I have gained this much, I have this much more to gain. I defeated so many, I have so many more to overcome, and no one can stop me. I am the master of all I hold, and will soon hold everything not in my possession.”

One who gives up all notion of dharma, but acts solely for himself will find no happiness in this world or the next.

So Arjuna, do your duty guided by good books and their teachings. This is my teaching to duty bound warriors like you.

Birth not a factor

It is worth emphasizing, deva and asura traits are acquired and something one is born us. All of us have daivic and asuric traits, we become one or the other depending on the traits (sattva, rajas and tamas) all of us possess and choose to follow. So, birth has nothing to do with it. Prahlada and Vibhishana were born into an asura dynasty, but chose to become daivic. Duryodhana on the other hand was born into a noble family, but chose to follow an asuric path. The result was the holocaust of the Mahabharata War.

VEDANTA IN TODAY’S WORLD 1:PHYSICAL REALITY

VEDANTA IN TODAY’S WORLD 1:PHYSICAL REALITY

The central problem of quantum physics is not wave-particle duality but the nature of reality.

N.S. Rajaram

 

The central problem of quantum physics is not wave-particle duality but the nature of reality.

N.S. Rajaram

Veda and Vedanta: primary and derived knowledge

            The Indic (Hindu) knowledge system does not draw a clear line separating the natural sciences and the humanities. It does, however, make a clear distinction between knowledge that is paurusheya (human created) and apaurusheya (of primary, non-human source). Apaurusheya knowledge is called shruti or sensed while the paurusheya knowledge is often referred to as smriti or recalled. Smriti is derivative while shruti is primary.

            Veda is apaurusheya, which means that only primary knowledge (or shruti) has the right to be called Veda. Vedanta refers to the body of knowledge derived by human thinkers and other workers based on the Veda. In the present article and in much of my work relating to science and Vedanta I find it convenient to use this as the working definition. I feel there are advantages to taking such a clear cut position in today’s world. (It is best not to engage in endless hairsplitting over the etymology of Veda and Vedanta both of which can be derived from the root vid.)

Patanjali in his Yogasutra observes: pratyaksha (direct), anumana (inferred or derived), agama (compiled) and others not germane here. His commentator Badarayana Vyasa makes the pregnant observation that anyone accepting derived knowledge implicitly assumes that someone has direct knowledge (pratyaksha) from which it has been derived.

It is important to note here that Vedanta, which is what our work involves, makes no demand on our religious belief or even belief in any god; this is not to say you have to be an atheist, only that much of Vedanta and Vedanga are non-theistic— they don’t make any religious demands. Like science and mathematics Vedanta is a philosophical cum metaphysical system (or systems) that address the great questions of the world. It leaves religious belief to the individual. This is one of the main reasons why Hinduism has never clashed with science.

Metaphysics, not theology

It is important to emphasize this point: Vedanta is a philosophic system and not a collection of religious texts. Confounding Vedanta and ‘religious’ Hinduism has done disservice to both. Indian philosophy is metaphysical and not theological. It is concerned with issues of existence (ontology), perception and reality (epistemology) more than justifying the existence of God and devotion to him (or her). In particular, the question of reality occupies a central place in Vedanta as it does in quantum physics.

As I hope will become clear from the rest of the article, Vedanta is a powerful metaphysical system that can and has shed light on some of the fundamental problems of modern science. (Erwin Schrödinger claimed he derived his fundamental idea of the ‘wave function’ in quantum physics from Vedanta.)  No problem in physics today is more important than the problem of reality. The rest of the article is devoted to the problem of reality and what physics and Vedanta have to say about it. What follows is a summary.

Reality in modern physics

            Until about a century ago scientists didn’t worry much about the reality of the physical world they were trying to understand. They implicitly assumed that things they were observing and measuring were real. When doubts arose about the reality of some ideas used in their theories, like light waves in the eighteenth century, they assumed that the question would be resolved by some clever experiment. This did happen in 1801 when Thomas Young in a famous experiment demonstrated the wave nature of light.

But the situation began to change when scientists started introducing into their theories things like atoms that could not directly be observed. Even in the twentieth century there were scientists who refused to believe that atoms were real. What convinced scientists was not any experiment but Einstein’s explanation of the irregular movement of particles suspended in a liquid, a phenomenon known as Brownian motion. Jean Perrin’s 1909 experiment verified one of Einstein’s predictions based on the atomic theory of Brownian motion without actually observing atoms. This was the beginning of atomic physics that soon became entangled with quantum theory and all that came with it. (This is an oversimplification, but will do here.)

No one today doubts the reality of the quantum any more than the reality of the atom, but Max Planck in 1900 had introduced it as a purely mathematical device in a desperate attempt to resolve some anomalies observed in heat radiation; he never believed that the quantum had a physical existence. Five years later, Einstein extended the quantum idea to light to explain the photoelectric effect which the wave theory could not. As he saw it, light flowed not in a continuous stream like water but in discrete lumps like ice cubes out of a vending machine.

Unlike Planck, Einstein had no doubt that his light quanta, now called photons were real. He also realized that he had brought about a fundamental change in physics. Writing to a friend in 1905, the ‘miracle year’ in which he created the special theory of relativity, explained Brownian motion and introduced the light quantum, he described only the last as being ‘truly revolutionary’. At a conference in Salzburg in 1909 Einstein proclaimed: “The next phase of the development of theoretical physics will bring us a theory of light that can be interpreted as a kind of fusion of the wave and particle theories.”

Neither Einstein nor anyone else in 1909 could know where this wave-particle duality of light would take physics. At first, things seemed natural enough with the Bohr-Sommerfeld model of the atom explaining light emission and spectral lines, though Niels Bohr, soon to be recognized as the second seminal figure of twentieth century physics (after Einstein) professed that he didn’t care for Einstein’s light quantum idea.

In his relativity theory Einstein had already shown that matter and energy are one and the same; now he was saying that light, which is a form of energy, is both waves and particles. Louis de Broglie connected the two and proposed that matter also had waves. This too received experimental support. Next, if matter can be a wave, there must be a wave equation describing it. This was supplied by Erwin Schrödinger (a self-confessed student of Vedanta) top, though no one at first seemed to understand what it was wave of.

Then Max Born offered the explanation that it was not really a wave like a water wave or a sound wave, but an abstract mathematical function that allowed one to calculate the probability of where a particle like electron would be found. This is coming a full circle since Plank had introduced the quantum as a mathematical entity in the first place.

Limit on knowledge

            The reality question arises because in the quantum world, the observer cannot be removed from the phenomenon. Whether light is a wave or a particle depends on the experiment being performed. Unlike Newton’s Laws of Motion which are independent of the observer, as is the velocity of light, quantum phenomena depend on the observer. They have no independent existence. Even this is limited in the following way.

Bohr, Heisenberg and Pauli

Werner Heisenberg threw a bombshell into this conundrum with what is now called the uncertainty principle. He claimed that it is impossible to know both the position and the momentum (or velocity) of a particle exactly. Just as Einstein’s relativity theory placed a limit on velocity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle placed a limit on knowledge. All one can calculate is the probability of a particle like the electron going from one place to another, say from the earth to the moon, and not the path by which it gets there. Worse, the electron doesn’t even exist until we observe it on the moon. So it is the observer that defines its existence.

So here was the new reality: a wave equation without a wave that is needed to find a particle that becomes real only when we observe it. As Heisenberg saw it, “Reality has evaporated into mathematics.” His colleague Pascual Jordan, who might have won a Nobel Prize but for his unsavory politics (he became a Nazi storm trooper) said, “There is no reality; we ourselves create things with our experiments.” Bohr, the high priest of this new physics proclaimed: “Physics is not about reality but about our knowledge of reality.”

This gives new meanings to the concept of reality: reality of the physical world and reality of the world described by our physical theories. Acharya Madhva had anticipated it over five centuries ago, as we shall see in due course. This gives an altogether different meaning to the term duality, not only physical but also of existence (or ontological).

Einstein was unhappy with the turn of events in the revolution that he had done so much to launch. To him the physical world was reality, not something that evaporated into its mathematical dual created by physicists. “Do you really believe that the moon exists only when I am looking at it?” He once asked.

The curious thing is that this metaphysical muddle grew out of experiments, not just philosophical speculation. Theologians like Saint Augustine and Saint Bonaventure were always interested in reality, even if only as a preliminary to their theology. But they took its existence for granted, as the work of God. Even Newton believed God’s intervention might be necessary to maintain the stability of the solar system. His successor Pierre Simon de Laplace, the founder of both celestial mechanics and probability theory saw no such need. When Napoleon berated him for not mentioning the Creator in his masterwork on celestial mechanics, Laplace retorted: “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Vedanta sheds light on the reality question

To make sense of this mass of contradictions, some of the pioneers like Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Robert Oppenheimer and David Bohm turned to eastern philosophy. There they found that problems lying at the center of new physics like reality, and existence had received the attention of Hindu philosophers of the school known as Vedanta (of which Yoga is probably the best known).

Madhva’s orders of reality

The medieval philosopher Madhva (1238 – 1317, left) had explicitly observed: “There are two orders of Reality─ independent and the dependent.” And in what may be seen as an anticipation of physicist Hugh Everett’s many worlds interpretation of quantum physics, Madhva asserted: “The knowledge of the many through knowledge of the One, is to be understood in terms of the preeminence of the One.”

His predecessor Shankara (788 – 821) saw the world as conceived in latent form in pure consciousness like the tree in a seed. “The relation between the world of multiplicity and the Absolute is an inconceivable one,” he wrote. Shankara, some of whose ideas are close to those of Immanuel Kant. Shankara, unlike Laplace didn’t have to contend with Napoleon, but he did have to deal with Hindu and Buddhist critics who held up scripture as authority. Anticipating Laplace by a thousand years Shankara retorted:

“Scripture is not any word of God, but consists entirely of perceived truths. This perception can be from karma (actions or empirical observations) and jnana (gnosis or thought) through reflection or deduction.” And most significantly for our purposes, he claimed: “Any attempt to connect the Absolute with its manifestations in the shape of the world must end in failure, for no relation can be imagined beyond the sphere of duality.”

How did they see the problem of reality, centuries before it arose in physics? Where does all this leave us? Reality and our conception of it, can the twain never meet?

Vedanta and Reality

I see the question of Reality as the meeting ground between Vedanata and modern physics, especially quantum mechanics. Reality is the Holy Grail of quantum physics; it is an area in which Vedanta can make a contribution and thereby come to occupy the center stage in modern metaphysics.

At the same time, we should refrain from making excessive claims. Vedanta is not a mathematical or quantitative system. Any comparison can only be at the metaphysical level, without mathematics. Quantum physics is mathematics, too much so according to some critics like Lee Smolin (Trouble with physics), with the tail of mathematical physics often wagging the dog. Some mathematical models like String Theory have no physical counterpart.

As just noted, the same question was asked, and partly answered by Vedantic thinkers like Shankara and Madhva centuries ago, and is being asked again beginning with Albert Einstein nearly a hundred years ago and now by many others, notably John Stuart Bell of Bell’s theorem fame. A point I would like to emphasize is: raising questions about Reality in the Vedantic context should not be seen as advocating other-worldliness. (In any event otherworldliness is less a Hindu idea than Buddhist and Jain notion.)

As I observed earlier, the Reality question lies at the heart of quantum physics and we should welcome any efforts to bring Vedanta into the picture.  It is a tribute to our ancestors that they had addressed the same question centuries ago. The real question is the relationship between their thought and that of modern physics. Here are a few examples from some of the greatest scientific thinkers of the 20th century.

No objective reality?

The concept of objective Reality… evaporated into mathematics that no longer represents the behavior of elementary particles but rather our knowledge of it.

Werner Heisenberg

Through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again; it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness.

…it is this entering of an impression into our consciousness which alters the wave function.

Eugene Wigner

… there is no [reality]. We ourselves produce the results of the measurement.

Pascual Jordan

Quantum mechanics says that nature is unintelligible except as a calculus, that all you can do is to compute with the equations and operate your apparatus and compare the result.[with the predicted values].

David Bohm

Do you really believe that the moon only exists when I am looking at it?

Albert Einstein

This means that the notion of reality is an illusion (or maya). It is interesting to compare these with what Indian Vedantic thinkers had to say. Madhva, an early Indian philosopher schooled in Vedantic metaphysics wrote: “There are two orders of Reality─ independent and the dependent.” (I would rephrase the original Sanskrit svatantra and paratantra as ‘coherent’ and ‘incoherent’— with the coherent referring to the observable world and the incoherent to the unobservable quantum world.

In this the goal of Madhva’s metaphysics was “not merely to realize the distinction between appearance and Reality, but to understand and appreciate the still more fundamental difference between Independent Reality and dependent realities.” This according to Einstein should be the goal of quantum physics also.

This sense of duality lies at the heart of Madhva’s philosophy as it does in quantum mechanics also for which reason it is known as the dvaita (dual) school. Madhva then goes deeper into the subject; invoking ancient Vedantic texts known as the Upanishads he goes on to observe: “The knowledge of the many through knowledge of the One, taught so prominently in the Upanishads, is to be understood in terms of the preeminence of the One; or by virtue of some similarity (of natures) between them; or on account of the One being the cause of the many…”

Nor is this an isolated case, but the culmination of a centuries-long quest for the nature of Reality. Madhva’s predecessor Shankara took the radical view that scripture is not any word of God, but consists entirely of perceived truths. This perception can be from karma (actions or empirical) and jnana (gnosis or thought) i.e., through reflection or deduction. Shankara’s eminent modern commentator S. Radhakrishnan explains the situation as follows:

“The relation between the world of multiplicity and the Absolute is an inconceivable one and this inconceivability is denoted by the word Maya.” Thus Maya is not illusion as often mistranslated, but inconceivable. He further comments: “Any attempt to connect the Absolute with its manifestations in the shape of the world must end in failure, for no relation can be imagined beyond the sphere of duality.”

From this we may see that some of the central problems of modern physics like Duality, Reality, Consciousness and observables had engaged the great philosophical minds of Classical India. I feel that this metaphysical convergence of science and Vedanta is of fundamental importance to both. This does not rule out other approaches, but has the potential to attract talented youngsters as I found during my lectures in the U.S., U.K. as well as in India. It is important for aspiring young minds to see Vedanta as a powerful metaphysical tool that can shed light on fundamental problems. It is no more a mere antiquarian tool than the zero and the place value system, thousands of years old.

Based in part on lectures given at the University of Manchester, U.K and MIT, Cambridge, MA. I am grateful to the late Professor K.T. Pandurangi for enlightening me on certain aspects of Vedanta, especially relating to the much neglected Dvaita (dual) school of Madhvacharya.