Mixing bhakti with science means bad science and confused bhakti

Many devotees think that science has a place in the field of bhakti. For example, some think that by using the scientific method to evaluate the descriptions in bhakti scriptures, one can demonstrate the veracity of bhakti scriptures. Others think that preaching to an increasingly scientific, modern audience requires speaking to them in a language they can understand. Interpreting the scriptures through a scientific lens, and making them accessible to people can help make bhakti relevant and build faith for it in people. Unfortunately, such ideas are problematic, because science does not fit the definition of bhakti.

First, those who believe in testing bhakti’s claims as a hypothesis, thinking it to be a ‘science’, are not practicing uttama bhakti, because the goal of uttama bhakti is uttama bhakti, not hypothesis testing. Good hypothesis testing necessarily requires a robustly skeptical outlook. Skepticism, however, has no place in bhakti. Bhakti is a path of faith in scripture and surrender to a genuine guru. Surrender to the guru cannot occur when one harbors skepticism. Without surrender, bhakti does not yield results.

Those who are attempting to use science to further the cause of bhakti, tend to do bad science because they are plagued by confirmation bias, rather than the skeptical outlook required for good science. Their claims cannot be taken seriously because of their ideological biases, which causes them to ignore contrary or inconvenient evidence.

Those who use science to interpret scriptures run into their own set of problems. First, it is not clear that science is a valid hermeneutical method to interpret scriptures. There have been efforts, for example, to reconcile the cosmology of the Bhagavata purana with modern day cosmology, but whether such reconciliations are valid is unclear. The Chaitanya Vaishnava tradition has its own hermeneutical methods for interpreting the scripture, and the cosmology in the Bhagavata purana is not meant to be taken as a quantitative description of the universe at all.

Mixing bhakti with science means bad science and a confused understanding of bhakti.

2 replies »

  1. This is a really good general presentation of the point, but in its helpful brevity does it omit some important detail? For instance, before initiation, the guru and disciple are told to be a bit skeptical in that they are to test each other. If the guru is found to be a cheater or exploiter, the disciple should go elsewhere. Similarly, if disciples are not sincere, the guru should not accept them. Furthermore, even after surrender to the guru, the disciple should also surrender to sadhu and shastra, so that (for example) if a guru tries to flatter a disciple into becoming his “gopi” sex partner, the disciple can consult sadhu and shastra to confirm that this is exploitation, not surrendered uttama bhakti.

    So, we can see that skepticism does have a place in bhakti, for the uttama bhaktas who must be skeptical of disciples’ entreaties and for disciples who will deepen their faith as they compare the guru’s instructions to sadhu and shastra. The ordinary daily experience of the guru-disciple relationship will be of trust, not of scientific skepticism, but it is cultism to squelch honest doubts in the name of “surrender.” The doubting disciple will develop greater faith upon resolving honest doubts, while the skeptic will never approach the realm of faith that would allow the resolution of doubts.

    • It is not cultism to surrender to the guru. It is the only means for the disciple to get uttama bhakti. The existence of unqualified gurus and unqualified disciples in modern times does not mean that the uttama bhakti tradition is also presently invalid.

      Questions and answers are certainly a part of uttama bhakti. The Bhagavatam is basically a series of questions and answers. But a disciple asks them not because he/she is skeptical of the guru and the path, or wants to test the guru’s fidelity to sastra, but to understand how to perform uttama bhakti properly and clear his/her misconceptions. This is not skepticism at all – it is part of the limbs of uttama bhakti.

      The unfortunate scenarios you mention basically occur when surrender has not taken place between a qualified disciple and a qualified guru.

Leave a Reply