Science, Technology & Faith
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
If Arjuna, the great warrior prince of the Gita, were here today he might ask, “Our times are considered civilized and advanced. We have put our faith in science and technological growth, and we have achieved tremendous breakthroughs. Why is it that the problems we face are more menacing than anything faced in previous centuries?”
“Faith,” in this context, is a rather inadequate translation of the Sanskrit word shraddhā, which means much more. Literally, shraddhā is ‘that which is placed in the heart’: all the beliefs we hold so deeply that we never think to question them. It’s the set of beliefs, values, and prejudices that colors our perceptions, governs our thinking, dictates our responses, and shapes our lives, generally without our even being aware of its presence and power.
This may sound philosophical, but shraddhā is not an intellectual abstraction. It is our very substance, Sri Krishna will say: it reflects all that we have made ourselves and points to what we will become. It is a highly sensitive expression of our values: what we deem worth having, attaining, being. We back our shraddhā with our time, our energy, our very lives.
In these tremendous verses from the Upanishads –
We are what our deep, driving desire is.
As our deep, driving desire is, so is our will.
As our will is, so is our deed.
As our deed is, so is our destiny –
that “deep, driving desire” is our shraddhā.
If scientific knowledge is the test of evolution, if technology is the standard by which to measure progress – if, in other words, we have put our shraddhā in the right place – then it stands to reason that with all our scientific progress, we should be more at peace with ourselves and with others. We should have banished sickness from both body and mind and banished violence from the earth.
Technology has become the faith of our fathers, yet we are finding the fruit of it often bitter. And we feel bewildered, like Arjuna. We did so much with science and industry, went so far. Why is the world more fraught than ever with alienation, hunger, and insensitivity, with violence so virulent that one or two individuals can hold whole cities hostage, with side effects of industrial growth that blight the planet?
I have a very high regard for science, and would be the first to acknowledge the debt we all owe to technology in making our world safer and more comfortable. But we need to remember that in other ways, technology has made the world vastly more dangerous and less comfortable, often in the pursuit of goals that do not, in retrospect, seem worth the price.
If we look at medicine, for instance, I think we have to be careful about boasting of the progress we have made. On the one hand, science and technology have done so much to improve human welfare since the Middle Ages. But drug-resistant strains of diseases that plagued our past for thousands of years are returning, proving more adaptable than science can ever be.
In the meantime, of course, we still face the same degenerative diseases that have become epidemic in the developed world because of “lifestyle factors”: things we do to ourselves, whether individually, nationally, or globally.
Science has achieved great things, but it has also enabled us to magnify the consequences of our desires to such an extent that our ways of thinking are literally killing us, as prematurely and pervasively as a virulent disease.
As I look at our modern civilization, I see a transference of faith in God to faith in technology and all that goes with it. We have come to believe that technology can solve all problems – even though we know that technology has given rise to more problems than solutions.
If we had leaders who could show us how to use technology as a faithful servant – to make sure, for example, that children all over the world have the minimum comforts that they need – then technology could play a great part. But that’s not where technology goes. Technology goes where profit goes. And wherever profit may call, it is leading us down a blind alley.
Sri Krishna says, “You are what your shraddhā is.” Here is a modern shraddhā of both individuals and nations: that life is physical. It leads us to evaluate everything on the basis of appearance. We are typically impressed by size and fascinated by speed. Bigger and faster are always better. We find ways to build tankers so big that their seams give from their own weight, tasteless oranges as big as grapefruits, bombs that can incinerate thirty cities at a tenth of the size it used to take to destroy only one.
The karma for all this is extremely interesting. Overuse of chemical fertilizers, for instance, is very much like abusing drugs: you get Mother Earth hooked. It does mean high yields the first few years, although natural ways have been developed of getting even higher yields. But each hit of phosphate fertilizers, though a shot in the arm for the crops, actually depletes the soil. The next time you need a stronger shot to get the same results, which of course depletes the soil further. Pesticides have similar problems: over a period of time, they actually make crops more vulnerable to pests.
The whole idea of unlimited progress rests on the prospect of unlimited resources. We are seeing that prospect dry up today, but many think it is only a matter of particular shortages: if we run out of one source of fuel, for instance, we can develop another one, and so on. But everything is limited, and we are gobbling the earth as if it were ours, all ours, to gobble.
If we had had a different shraddhā, when petroleum was discovered we would have said, “All our successors are entitled to this – our children, their children, all succeeding generations.” We would have used it very thriftily, so that they could do the same. But we do not see so clearly when the children are out of sight, perhaps in other countries. And when they are still unborn, how many of us remember that to consume the present is to steal from the children of the future?
In fact, in terms of energy resources, “There is always more in the future” translates very easily into “I can take whatever I want now.” That is the shraddhā. “What do I care what happens in the future? What do I care what is left for my children and grandchildren?
“And global warming? They’ll think of something. Why should I change my vacation plans, my lifestyle, just because of something that might happen thirty or forty years down the road?” That’s really the meaning of this attitude, and we are beginning to reap the karma of it. It is lack of love.
If we cared about those who come after us, we would not waste anything, because nothing is ours. Nothing on earth belongs to us. We are tenants on earth, nothing more.
The entire industrial world, this technological wonderworld, has been built up because we have been watching helplessly, hypnotized by its brilliance, unable to turn our eyes away from the life of luxury it promises, or to make the small changes in our daily habits which might mitigate its destructiveness. This is what Gandhi called “knowledge without character” – extraordinary technical expertise without the will or wisdom to use it well.
In Gandhi’s perspective, it is up to individuals like you and me to reverse this situation. Environmental abuse and exploitation are not “necessary evils” – no evil is necessary. In fact, Gandhi went so far as to say that evil in itself is not even real; it exists only as long as we support it. The moment we withdraw our support – the moment we make the connection between what we know and how we behave – it begins to collapse. As the eighteenth-century British statesman Edmund Burke put it, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Nevertheless, in our current situation, good people have little time to lose. At a breakneck pace, we’re seeing drastic changes in our atmosphere, our agricultural resources, our forests, and our seas. The cost in life is immeasurable, though it is the sad task of many of today’s scientists and naturalists to bear witness to it. They draw up lists of the hundreds of species of higher animals now threatened – the elephant, the whale, the snow leopard, the polar bear, the jaguar, and the cheetah among them. If present rates of destruction of the world’s rainforests continue, as many as half the world’s species of animals, plants, and insects will become extinct.
And, I would add, our time is coming. Extinction does not happen only to other creatures. If we do not change our ways of living and thinking, it is slowly but without doubt coming to us.
All this comes from the underlying shraddhā that life is essentially physical. From that it follows that the satisfactions of life are physical and external. To enjoy life we have to travel around, have a lot of things, do a lot of things, move, consume, get, hold, and hoard. Why? We cannot bear the thought of reducing, of wanting less, having less, going fewer places, looking inward for satisfaction instead of outward, even though all this is not only necessary now but beneficial.
Our problem is that science and technology make good servants but very poor masters. And we have let the servants take over the house – in the shraddhā that for every problem we face, every desire we want fulfilled, technology has the answer.
“You are what your shraddhā is.” It is right shraddhā when we function rightly, wrong shraddhā when we function wrongly; but everyone has shraddhā of some kind, and even if your shraddhā is of the lowest kind, you can always elevate it. If your shraddhā is very selfish, you can change it to selfless. If it is violent, you can make it loving. This, to me, is the real glory of the human being: not intellectual achievements or prowess in science or any other external field, but the fact that there is no one on earth who cannot change the meanest shraddhā into the noblest.
Until I took to meditation, I had no idea that this could be done. I had read that spiritual disciplines could transform the human personality, but this was knowledge placed in the head; it did not affect what was placed in my heart. Like most people with a university education, I believed in intellectual knowledge, and it shaped my life: when I had time, I used to spend it reading or going to plays or lectures.
Gradually, however, this faith began to weaken. When great literary figures came to my campus to speak, I would be seated right in the first row to take in everything they said. But when we began asking questions afterward, the answers such people gave seemed ordinary, immature, or misleading. I knew that if I asked my illiterate grandmother the same questions, the answers would be mature and helpful.
It was terribly unsettling. Yet as my discomfort grew more and more acute, I began to see that my grandmother embodied an entirely different shraddhā than all the other people I had come across. In her understanding of life she towered above every other person I knew, above every literary or intellectual figure I had heard or seen or read. That is the purpose served by a spiritual teacher. She showed me that a human being does not have to be caught in this shallow shraddhā that everything is physical; she taught me to question the very basis of life as it is generally lived.
A British biologist, Sir Peter Medawar, once advised a group of aspiring scientists, “You must feel in yourself an acute discomfort at incomprehension.” That is a fine phrase. Most human beings take everything for granted. But there is a particular kind of person – the scientist-to-be, the philosopher, the mystic – who begins to feel increasingly dissatisfied with what the world accepts as real and to desire a deeper explanation, a prior cause.
It is the same with changing to a higher shraddhā: it begins with an acute discomfort with the way things are around you. If you look upon yourself as physical and think of life as having no higher goal than the satisfaction of physical desires, you should feel uncomfortable. As Gandhi says, it is good not to feel well adjusted in a wrong situation.
Our collective shraddhā can be changed – for better, as well as for worse – and when it is, the result is a revolution in outlook. To take a trivial example, for years in athletics everybody believed that running a four-minute mile was an inherent human limitation. Then Roger Bannister, an athlete who didn’t believe in that limitation, ran a mile in under four minutes. It was humanly possible! Belief in a four-minute mile collapsed. Today nobody is willing to set a limit to how fast a human being can run.
On the one hand, the shraddhā of our times does have ruinous ramifications. But on the other hand, shraddhā is full of potency, so if we can change it, we can shed these ancient, imprisoning, disastrous superstitions as a snake sheds an old, constricting skin in order to grow.
I want to emphasize again that science and technology are neither good nor bad. I am never critical of science in itself. But I am often critical of the uses to which science is put, and deeply apprehensive of making it the basis of our civilization’s shraddhā.
But science can be put in its place. We want to arrive at that delicate balance where science will not deprive us of our humanity but will serve us with humaneness: where it will help us solve our problems rather than add to them or create new ones. This is a difficult balance to achieve, because technological progress is heady stuff. We can get swept away with it and lose our personal relationships, our sense of the unity of life, without ever being aware that we are losing anything at all.
I want a technology with a human face, on a modest scale. I can give you a personal example. Recently I had to make an emergency visit to my periodontist, a very skillful man. I admire all the technology he used, which enabled me to recover quickly and get back to giving my talks. (During my lengthy appointment, the mantram was my consolation and my joy. I wish I could let every patient who goes to a dentist or a periodontist know how wonderful it is to use the mantram at that time!)
So I’m not against technology at all, but I want a technology that doesn’t put forward arrogant claims that it can fix anything – a technology that is humble, efficient, and nonpolluting, that supports a simple, healthy lifestyle.
By simplifying our lives, we can get more time and energy and interest for working with, loving, and serving other people. Instead of multiplying human wants, we can begin to reduce them voluntarily. Such a civilization is not poor, not even in a material sense. It has a place for every material thing that enhances human life. But it has no place for things that are at the expense of life, or that sap vital resources – including time, most vital of all. It renounces, so as to leave life freer for the things that matter most. With such a shraddhā guiding our lives, our health would improve; depression, alienation, and boredom would shrink or disappear.
In our relationship with the environment, we can bear in mind that the real power does not lie in the hands of technologists or politicians or directors of multinational corporations. It is individuals like you and me who make the final decisions about what is bought and sold at the mall, how much carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere, and what is dumped into the sea.
To counteract climate change, we do not have to renounce fossil fuels. There is a reasonable margin for their use, since Mother Earth provides an abundance of trees to “breathe” in our carbon dioxide and return oxygen. But all of us, as an expression of love for our grandchildren and for the earth, can look for ways to produce less carbon dioxide.
We need not be unrealistic: there are occasions when we need to travel by airplane, for instance, but let’s try to do it only when necessary. And we often need to use our cars – then we can express our love by taking a few people along. Try to rearrange your schedule so you can start early and go a little out of your way to pick up a friend. This will not always be easy, but every time you travel with two people per car instead of one, you are cutting your personal pollution by fifty percent.
We can also look into ways of reducing the amount of garbage we produce, especially items like plastic cups and bottles, batteries, appliances, and household chemicals. Every week, each of us produces about twenty-five pounds of garbage. Why not just plan to reduce this figure by five pounds? Make it just twenty pounds per week. That will leave a little extra room in the garbage can, and you won’t have to take out the trash so often.
This doesn’t have to be done overnight. You might start by simply trying to cut back on the amount of packaging you buy. And when you need to buy products packaged in metal or glass, please be sure to recycle. But even better – especially where plastics and toxic chemicals are concerned – reduce waste before you buy, by choosing the least-packaged, least-processed product available.
If these suggestions seem like trifles, remember that there are a large number of tremendous trifles in life. We think they are trifles until we look back and add them up; then we discover that, taken as a whole, their effect has been tremendous. Each time you buy the least-packaged, least-processed product, you are helping to reduce the garbage glut.
To me, cutting down on waste is a fine example of combining thrift and cooperation to make daily life a work of art. In every form of art, from painting to architecture to poetry, isn’t it considered the height of taste to leave nothing superfluous, to use every element of the composition in the most elegant and efficient manner?
By this standard, what could be more beautiful than a meal that comes straight from the farm, or from your own garden? I go to the theater regularly and enjoy concerts and dances, but I can think of nothing more utterly artistic than such a meal. Not only is it fresh, tasty, nourishing, and free of toxic residues, but it is a living expression of love for Mother Earth. This is postindustrial art at its highest. And, as I said, it does not have to happen overnight.
If we make enough positive changes like these, we shall see over time such a revolution in human welfare and human happiness that we shall look back on today’s civilization as the Dark Ages – despite its microchips and CT scanners and its hard-won capacity to destroy itself several times over.
At the start of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is suffering from a very contemporary malady, paralysis of the will.
This is often our problem too. We can diagnose our shortcomings and give a brilliant synopsis of the world’s woes, but as long as our knowledge is limited to intellectual analysis, we will not have the capacity to make the necessary changes.
Following in Gandhi’s footsteps, I believe that unless we learn the very difficult art of getting some mastery over our desires, for instance, the environmental problem will not find a permanent solution. We will not be able to prevent pollution, avoid war, or even bring together estranged families and friends.
For all these, we need meditation. If our shraddhā is the key to our destiny, then meditation is the key to changing our shraddhā. Through the practice of meditation, we can learn to withdraw our trust from the things that separate us from others – wealth and pleasure, power and prestige – and place it more and more in what contributes to the welfare of us all.
Sri Krishna, in his infinite grace, helps Arjuna find his source of strength within himself. Through meditation, we too can grow fearless and strong enough to grapple with the grave problems that threaten us all.
This article is from the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of the Blue Mountain Journal.