By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
More than a quarter of a century ago I attended a conference addressing the mighty role computers would play in reshaping the world. Since then, these powerful data-processing machines have taken over many functions on the campus, in the library and laboratory, in business and communications, and in many other daily activities.
A Time magazine cover story titled “Can Machines Think?” examined recent advances in the capacity of computers to duplicate human behavior. Contributor Robert Wright described the celebrated chess match between the reigning world chess champion and his man-made opponent: “When Garry Kasparov faced off against an IBM computer, he wasn’t just after more fame and money. By his own account, the world chess champion was playing for you, me, the whole human species. He was trying, as he put it shortly before the match, to ‘help defend our dignity.’”
Fortunately, our human dignity does not rest on the ability to outmaneuver a chess-playing computer.
The article in Time reminded me of a question that arose at the conference I attended long ago: “Do you realize that these computers are going to do everything that we humans can do, even learn to think?” It was clear that the audience of scientists and businessmen was looking upon these astonishing mechanical monsters – which filled the space of a large room – as the last frontier of human genius. “Even if these super-machines could learn to think,” I commented, “it is only when we have gone beyond thought that we come face-to-face with the supreme reality.”
In the West, there have been great scientists from Sir Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein who have contributed to our understanding of the physical universe and our ability to create technological marvels like the computer. Similarly, in the East there have been great spiritual figures like the Compassionate Buddha, Shankara, Sri Ramakrishna, and – in our own times – Mahatma Gandhi who have made the stupendous discovery of the supreme reality which lies in the depths of consciousness beyond the reach of the thinking process.
Gandhi’s description of this reality is as scientific in its universality and verifiability as Einstein’s formulation of the law of relativity. “I do dimly perceive,” Gandhi stated, “that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever dying, there is underlying all that change a living power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and re-creates. That informing power or spirit is God.”
Einstein, the preeminent physical scientist of the twentieth century, summed up the career of its preeminent spiritual scientist when he said of Gandhi: “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”
Mahatma Gandhi was able to go beyond human limitations while remaining in the midst of the common people and changing them little by little, day by day. His life became an irresistible river of consciousness which inundated India from the Himalayas in the north to the temple of the Divine Mother at the southern tip of the continent.
Great spiritual figures like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Teresa of Avila have also risen in the West. But for two centuries we have allowed the Industrial Revolution to drown their soft voices in the heady uproar of science and technology. While we have gained many physical comforts, we have lost sight of the source of divine wisdom hidden in the heart of each of us.
In ancient India there was no conflict at all between scientific knowledge and spiritual wisdom. It is often forgotten that mathematics, physics, astronomy, and other scientific fields were highly advanced in those times.
In the Upanishads, the illumined sages declare that the Lord started the creative unfolding of evolution about 15 to 20 billion years ago. Modern scientists too describe the detailed processes through which the evolution of the universe has taken place over a cosmic period of 15 billion years.
The sages, rooted in the experience of Self-realization, would not see any conflict between these two discoveries, one spiritual, one physical. They would accept, for example, that human beings evolved from other forms of life which emerged from other forms of matter, back to the beginning of time. But they would trace the evolution of the cosmos to the Lord, who has entered into all creatures.
In the uninterrupted Hindu tradition, extending over thousands of years, there have been many men and women who have made their lives luminous by discovering the Lord hidden in their hearts and fulfilling the highest purpose of life. It is a discovery which has been verified by mystics of all the great religions, who have undergone difficult disciplines to extinguish self-will, still the mind, and go beyond thought.
Among Western scientists with whom I am familiar, Albert Einstein came nearest to understanding the vast practical applications of the supreme goal. “A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space,” Einstein said. “He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
That is why Einstein was able to appreciate the immensity of the transformation that Mahatma Gandhi brought about in his consciousness, working day by day for twenty years in South Africa.
Although the Industrial Revolution has brought the developed nations many conveniences, its narrow emphasis on science and technology is in danger of becoming an end in itself and not the means to an end. The obsessive belief that we are our bodies and nothing more, that our problems have only physical or technological solutions, is robbing us of our humanity. Despite the vast explosion of information, we have almost lost our connection to the core of divine inspiration within us. We are fast becoming robots that can be programmed by the mass media, and any civilization that loses the precious human capacity to cherish high ideals cannot endure for long. That is why I feel deeply that a spiritual revolution is necessary and urgent.
While the impact of science is changing the face of the globe, I still have full faith that there will arise in the not distant future shining men and women who will remind us all of our deepest spiritual roots in accordance with the latent capacities and the current needs of the twenty-first century. Many more Gandhis, St. Francises, and St. Teresas may have to appear to bring about a spiritual revolution which can correct the excesses of the Industrial Revolution.
Such a revolution can never be brought about by machines that think, only by men and women who can go beyond thought, discover the supreme reality, and release a river of love which spreads over the earth and finally reaches the Sea of God.
We can all play a part in this peaceful revolution by practicing the spiritual disciplines which have come down the centuries in the great religions of the world. The heart of these disciplines is the regular practice of meditation.
The method of meditation I have followed can be used in any great religion because it involves the silent repetition of memorized inspirational passages drawn from all the major spiritual traditions. Training the mind to develop sustained attention on these inspired words brings about a gradual transformation of character, conduct, and consciousness. When we concentrate profoundly on the magnificent Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, for example, we find his healing words – “It is in giving that we receive”– sinking into our hearts and changing our lives. We no longer see ourselves as physical, separate, finite creatures.
As we begin to find fulfillment within ourselves, we lose our dependence upon manipulating the external world to cater to our greed and our lust for power over nature. This shift in priorities can lead to an artistic simplification of life which will keep the air pure, the water clean, the forests green, and fossil fuels abundant for our children. Finding fulfillment within rather than without enables us to move from the world of profit and power into the world of peace and love.
We can enter this new world by making far-reaching changes in education, the upbringing of children, relationships between the sexes, and our attitude toward other countries. Only then can we develop the full understanding that we are a global family of all nations, religions, and races. In this global family the birds and the beasts, the seas and the mountains, the forests and the fields are each an integral part. We are all the children of God, who has given us this beautiful earth to nourish us. Realizing our unity through the practice of meditation and the allied disciplines, and acting upon that awareness in every aspect of daily life, is what a spiritual revolution means.