In Spirit: Science and Spirituality

During my anthropological university studies, where I specialized in the study of “new religions”, the research group of which I was a part observed a current tendency to stigmatize Religion (the history of Quebec is a rather vibrant example of our days), without neglecting a form of belief. The term used was no longer “religion” but “spirituality”. Spirituality often has the same connotation. It refers to a space of intimate experience where the practitioner has direct contact with the spiritual, be it God, energy, runes, Krishna or others. The practitioner, thus, no longer needing an intermediate person to make the channel, like a priest, seems to find a certain agency and independence vis-à-vis his relationship with the divine.

Spirituality, which has become an intimate experience, has taken many forms and syncretism is today in the image of Western society. We mix practices (yoga and tai-chi) and traditions (druidism and chakras, Buddhism and tarot), not to mention associations with social activities (yoga and hiking, yoga with my dog, yoga while skiing, etc.). Spiritual shopping where everyone can make their mix—this is what the architecture of modern spirituality offers.

The recent history of religious studies that have reached academic circles is a sign of academic questioning. Faced with a society that modernized and atomized itself, became more advanced than ever on the medical and technological level, sociologists and philosophers foresaw the death of God, the disappearance of belief systems in our culture. Yet, far from dying, they reinvented themselves. Today, if we look at the religion department, we find everything: “history of yoga”, “Sufism, mysticism of Islam”, “Kashmiri Shaivism”, “material culture”, “new religions and spiritualities “, to name just a few courses offered (University of Montreal and Concordia).

Academic reflection, as real and effective as it is in providing great tools to explain and analyze, has unfortunately lost its global perspective. The scientist and academician today can no longer afford to believe or be inspired, they must confine themselves to analyses anchored in the matter and mental exercise, which was not always the case. The intuitive knowledge system, so recognized in the traditional sciences has totally disappeared from the modern Western approach. In Sanskrit, conceptual knowledge, sarvikalpa, is important, but it is the knowledge called “non-objective”, intuitive, nirvikalpa, which remains central and conditional to a deep understanding. As René Guénon writes:

The modern man, instead of trying to rise to the truth, claims to bring it down to his level.” (René Guénon, The crises of the modern world)

There was a time when science and spirituality dealt with the same subjects, the knowledge of the world, whether through the approach of practice, philosophy, art or science. In the last century, some figures can still echo traditional principles. René Guénon or Albert Einstein were among those, as well as Professor Srinivasa Ramanujan, a matemathician we are going to talk about in the following paragraphs.

Ramanujan was a young man born among a very modest brahmin family, in a small village named Kumbakonam, about 100 kilometers south of Madras. He learns mathematics alone from basic books while he was a teenager. He quickly began to produce many mathematical formulas, some of which are still used and studied today. In his early days, he wrote his work on the floor of the temple in his village, the paper being too expensive for his condition.

At age 27, Ramanujan is invited to Cambridge in England, to meet the most brilliant Western mathematicians of that time. One of them takes him under his wing, Godfrey Harold Hardy,, fascinated by the boy’s spirit. The young man’s approach is free, no one understands where his genius comes from and how he manages to create mathematical formulas of such brilliance without demonstration. Nearly 100 years later, we are still corroborating some of his misunderstood formulas. Ramanujan was a mystic of genius. More than a mathematician, he was inspired, carried by his God. In dreams or meditation, Ramanuja recounts how he was guided by the goddess of his village, Namagiri, who “[deposited] the formulas on [his] tongue.

An equation has no meaning to me, unless it expresses a thought of God.”

The formulas of Ramanujan describe the divine space which is the infinite, without form, without word, preexisting before any manifestation, contraction of the universe. It is the zero, the Bhraman, the absolute, which is also called annuttara in the Kashmiri system. Annuttara is marked with the prefix a- which is a form of negation. In other words, since the absolute cannot be described, named, since the word itself derives from the absolute, is an inferior manifestation of it, the only way to speak of it is by the negation, that is to say what it is not.

When the Absolute manifests, in its first level it becomes God. The trinity that follows is the reflection of the divine, its energy, called, goddess or Prakriti. From this step, all states of manifestation cascade. Arun J. Manattu describes one of Ramanujan’s basic systems explaining the Infinite and its manifestation as follows:

“(2^n – 1) will denote the primordial GOD.
When “n” is zero, the expression denotes ZERO.
Ramanujan spoke of “ZERO” as the symbol of the absolute (the Brahmam, of the Hindu monistic school of philosophy). The absolute is the reality to which no qualities can be attributed, of which no qualities can be expressed yet.
When “n” is 1, it denotes UNITY, the Infinite GOD.
When n is 2, it denotes TRINITY.
When n is 3, it denotes SAPTHA RISHIS and so on.”

God is everywhere, the Absolute infuses the world. If scholars see in man the need of believing in order to explain his existence or to respond to an inner anxiety, the traditional perspective, on the other side, perceives things differently. It places itself from the perspective of the Absolute, in which everything is global and reflects its dynamic manifestation. Religion is no longer dogma or stigmatization, science is no longer an egotic affirmation of knowledge. The dichotomies give way to the meeting of perspectives that celebrate the essential, the divine, the source of all manifestation.

Why then does man need to believe, to invent spiritual systems, so wobbly it can be? Because, essentially, we all seek the same thing : the return to this source, the connection with what is our essence. Nothing is too superficial, it is not a path of logic, it is not a way forward, it is a way back to oneself. One must leave the conceptions and accept that we speak of something incomprehensible but in which we have the sentiment of greatest evidence. Trusting life that unfolds. Exploration of every moment.

“The difficulties in the study of the infinite arise because we try, with our finite minds, to discuss the infinite, assigning to it the properties we give to the finite and the limited; but this … is false, for we can not speak of infinite quantities as being one greater or less than or equal to another.” (Galilée – Two New Sciences 1638 )

Photo credit: from the Microscope series by Stef d.

Mariette has a master degree in anthropology from the University of Montreal. She teaches a yoga that echoes the philosophy of non-dual tantric Shaivism from Kasmir. She is regularly travelling to India to follow up her research on esoteric traditions from the Tantras. Mariette is also a visual artist, using photography as field notes and cultural exploration.

Mariette est diplômée d’un master en anthropologie de l’Université de Montréal. Elle enseigne un yoga qui fait écho à la philosophie du Shivaisme tantric non-duel du Cachemire. Elle voyage régulièrement en Inde pour poursuivre ses recherches sur les traditions ésotériques des Tantra. Mariette est aussi artistie visuelle, employant la photographie notamment comme notes de terrain et eploration des cultures.

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