Before we dive into this topic, lets start with the meaning of the word ‘Science’ from wikipedia:
“Science (from Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.”
In modern India, the word vijñāna is the vernacular translation of the word science. So physics in Hindi is called Bhoutik vijñāna, Chemistry is called Rasāyan vijñāna and Biology is called Jīva vijñāna.
vijñāna in the scriptures means direct perception.
Kṛṣṇa also uses the word ‘vijñāna’ in the Bhagavad Gita: jñānam te aham sa vijñānam vakṣyāmi (7.2). But he uses this word in a different sense then its current popular meaning in Hindi. In the seventh chapter, Kṛṣṇa is about to impart jñāna in the sense of ‘information’ about himself. What he will impart has the quality that it is ‘sa vijñānam’, that means, he will also reveal the means to immediately realize the knowledge.
Kṛṣṇa emphasizes the idea that this knowledge is to be realized in Gita 9.2 with the words pratyakṣa avagamam. The word pratyakṣa literally means ‘before the eyes’, and avagamam means ‘understood’. So pratyakṣa avagamam is something that is understood as if it was ‘before one’s eyes’.
The word vijñāna in Gita 7.2 means a method or means to immediately and directly realize the jñāna revealed in chapter 7.
sākṣātkāra is another word that conveys the same meaning, lit. the experience of seeing something or someone before one’s eyes. The entire Bhāgavatam was written after its author Vyāsa had sākṣātkāra – direct experience of its truths. He then proceeded to record it down so that others could have the same experience. Here direct experience means to perceive Kṛṣṇa as one is perceiving these words on the screen.
Bhakti is not a type of science.
Bhakti is a path of immediate perception. It is not a path of payouts in the next life, like jñāna or karma yoga. Who has seen the next life? However, bhakti is not a type of science.
There are at least two types of usage when bhakti has been called a science. In one usage, bhakti is explained to involve a method that will always give a specific result if practiced correctly, and will not give the result if practiced incorrectly. So one may call bhakti a ‘science’ in the sense that it is a ‘precise method’. This usage is fine, because it may help get people who are used to the word ‘science’ to understand what is being explained.
The word ‘science’ in the modern context also implies the ‘scientific method’ which is reproduced below from wikipedia. I have underlined the elements in this definition that are completely absent from the method of bhakti.
“The scientific method [..] involves careful observation, which includes rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions about how the world works influence how one interprets a percept. It involves formulating hypotheses, via induction, based on such observations; experimental and measurement-based testing of deductions drawn from the hypotheses; and refinement (or elimination) of the hypotheses based on the experimental findings. These are principles of the scientific method..”
In another usage, ‘preachers’ of some modern sects assert that bhakti is a type of ‘science’. Academics have interpreted this assertion as an attempt to influence the public to take up religion by using the enormous current prestige of science. There may be some truth in this. A number of preachers of these sects simultaneously indulge in science-bashing, and insisting that bhakti is the ‘real’ science. But they would be hard-pressed to even define what ‘science’ is; and most of them have never made a scientific discovery in their life! Such preachers are primarily interested in strategy- how to get an individual to take up bhakti. Their methods keep on shifting depending on current winds in society, and so their views are evolving constantly to suit their eager audience. The ends justify the means- after all, preaching bhakti to society is a noble cause.
But what about the truth?
The truth is that science has revealed accurate and verifiable information of the universe, and much of it appears to either contradict the bhakti scriptures, or is plainly absent from them. This is a simple truth that the science bashing preachers can’t or won’t see.
Science is outside-in, while vijñāna is inside-out
Scientific knowledge is ‘outside-in’: starting from contact between sense objects and the senses, then processed in the mind as information and finally understood. In the sense of this mechanism, it is very different from bhakti as we will see below. This is also why bhakti involves vijñāna, but not science.
The sākṣātkāra of Sri Suka or Sri Vyasa occurs ‘inside’: revealed directly by Kṛṣṇa to the चेतना – consciousness- through a self-revelation which is independent of the mind, senses etc. (check for Shri Satyanarayana dasa Babaji’s commentary on Tattva-sandarbha, anuccheda 29.3). This perception is then recorded in the mind and manifests outward (inside-out) through the senses in the writings of the sages. The writings are not for ‘verification’ purposes by practitioners as happens in a hypothesis-testing science, but rather to inform them of the need to turn their consciousness toward Kṛṣṇa if they desire a similar self-revelation.
Such sākṣātkāra occurs on oneness of the heart (bhāva) with the guru, so there is no question of the ‘rigorous skepticism’ in the above definition. Without a paramparā, and one-ness with it, no such perception is possible. This knowledge is not ‘verifiable’ by anyone or any process outside the paramparā. Nor is verification the purpose of a paramparā.
Now such sākṣātkāra has been criticized in academia because it appears to only verify what is in the scriptures. After all, the phenomenon of confirmation bias is well known. Oneness of bhāva is a pre-requisite for sākṣātkāra, and so naturally Kṛṣṇa will appear as Shyamasundara to anyone in the Chaitanya Vaishnava paramparā. He is not going to appear as someone else. This appears like confirmation bias, because this reality is itself biased. It self-reveals itself to one according to their bhāva.
Another way bhakti is different from science is that one has to have faith in it as we have already seen. I have seen fallacious arguments from preachers that science also requires faith (a strawman fallacy), but we will leave this aside for now. In bhakti, the supreme independent reality itself infects someone with the thought-desire to pursue bhakti (nirguṇa bhakti-śraddhā). When someone takes to bhakti in the modern age of science, it must appear irrational because it is beyond logic.