In the year 1887, Srinivas Ramanujan was born in the temple town of Kumbakonam, the last redoubt of orthodox Brahminism against the onslaught of European modernity.
Despite his lack of a formal, western-style education and his extreme religiosity, Ramanujan had a natural genius for logic and mathematics.
His genius did not go unnoticed, however, and through the intervention of sympathetic parties, he was offered a position at Cambridge University, studying mathematics with G. H. Hardy, the foremost mathematician of the era.
This is not, however, a story about Ramanujan. Suffice it to say that the rationalist Hardy had a hard time connecting with the brahmin Ramanujan, who credited his substantial mathematical abilities to the goddess Namagiri. The story ends tragically, when the slight, vegetarian Ramanujan succumbed to the chill of an English winter.
Today, Ramanujan is a household name in India, not least because he was living proof that the Indian/Vedic and European/Enlightenment ways of understanding of the world could co-exist harmoniously.
Ever since the Europeans arrived en masse in Asia, European technological superiority has caused a deep-seated anxiety among Asian elites.
The Japanese and Chinese responded to the challenge posed by modern science by attempting to dispense with tradition altogether: the Japanese during the Meiji Restoration, and the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution.
By contrast, the Indian response was an intellectual sleight-of-hand, where any potential conflict between science and tradition was waved away by declaring them not to be in opposition at all.1
If this leap of logic seems startling, it is justly so. After all, science is the study of observed phenomena and the material world, and Vedic religion, the study of that which is beyond our sensory perception.
But, according to the Vedic scientists, if science is a search for what is real, then so is Vedic science, except they call this ultimate reality “Brahman.” Brahman is the foundational building block of the entire universe, a non-material life force.
The most well-known proponent of the idea of a Vedic science was Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk, who once said, “Modern science is an echo of Vedanta [a school of philosophy based on the Vedas], never its adversary.”
Swami Vivekananda argued that because everything in science was already in Vedic learning, there was no need for a reckoning in Hindu India such as the one in the Christian West.
The way Swami Vivekananda saw it, the Christian divinity is apart from nature, a “magical force” directing it from the outside. So scientific explanations for the workings of nature are, by necessity, at odds with this divine direction.
The Hindu divinity, by contrast, is an impersonal force that lives in nature, in every particle of matter, including ourselves. The absence of an external directing force allows Hinduism to explain natural phenomena in a way that does not pit it against science.
Nearly a century after Vivekananda, in a lecture entitled, “Modernization without Westernization,” the intellectual D. B. Thengadi claimed for ancient India such scientific discoveries as the atomic theory, the earth’s revolution around the sun, and Einstein’s space-time relativity, among others.
Of course, if the Vedic sages already knew all about modern science, how come we have no proof of the experiments they may have conducted?
To that, the answer is that the Vedic sages went beyond sensory knowledge into the realm of the spiritual. By turning inward and contemplating their own true nature, they were able to understand the true nature of universe, since the reality underlying the two was one and the same, i.e. Brahman.
While there is much to criticize about Vedic science,2 one can also admire the genius with which a dominant culture neutralizes threats to itself.
When the Buddha criticized the excessive ritualism of the Vedas, the culture responded with the Upanishads and later, the Vedanta. When Islam questioned the dominance of the Brahmins, the culture responded with the devotional Bhakti cults. And in response to the challenges posed by European modernity, the culture has now given us Vedic science.
There’s a reason why Hindu civilization has lasted thousands of years.