Nature has awed humans since ancient times. From the humble plants and animals to the mighty celestial bodies, every object of nature has enthused us. Various questions have arisen in the ever enquiring human-mind such as “What causes the various natural phenomena?”, “Why are we alive?”, “What is life?, “What happens to us after death?”
While answers to many of these questions have become convincing and concrete over time, many philosophical ones have remained either unanswered or unsatisfactory. For example, the Rig Vedic Aryans, ignorantly attributed rain to Indra-the rain god but the modern human, using scientific study, today understands the water cycle as a simple cause and effect of temperature changes.
The desire to know the truth has always been a strong driving force for the human mind. In ancient times, saints are said to have used their spiritual powers to arrive at theories about the universe and the cosmos. The Upanishads are an evidence of these ancient metaphysical speculations which gave the abstract concepts such as “Maya” i.e. world as an illusion. Various preachers such as Shankaracharya built upon these concepts to deliberate upon the question of reason and nature of existence.
Lord Buddha, in his quest for Nirvana or the realisation of the ultimate reality, spent years as an ascetic. He learned various yogic practices from different teachers and finally, after a long period of intense meditation (Samadhi), it is said that he found answers to all the questions and hence was called the Buddha or the enlightened one. He then decided to spend the rest of his life teaching the ways of life (ashtangmarg) that can make everyone enlightened. His teachings led to the formation of Buddhism as a religion.
On the other hand, the modern enlightenment thinkers stressed on the study of observable phenomena using empirical methods to arrive at some basic laws of how the world works. This was called the ‘scientific’ method. Unlike speculative methods this is supposed to be based on observation, reason and logic. For example, Sir Isaac Newton (Laws of motion) and Harvey (human body). Due to objectivity, scientific methods tend to be accurate and universal and not subjective as in the case of speculative methods.
The Vaisheshika Shastra of Kanad Muni speculated the presence of Atoms i.e. “Anu” as the fundamental building blocks of matter about two thousand years ago. However scientists such as Rutherford and Bohr, in the 19th century, actually performed laboratory experiments and discovered atoms. Similarly, scientists at Large Hadron Collider today are trying to find how the universe originated. However Christianity and Islam had tried to answer this question long back by attributing the origin of universe to God or Allah.
A similar comparison can be drawn in social-sciences also. The questions of reasons why socio-economic inequalities exist or why there is a need for a state, have been answered by various economists and social and political scientists.e.g. Karl Marx gave the concept of dialectic materialism for inequalities and power structures. Religious theories used varied explanations in this regard ranging from Karma and divine rights of the kings to God’s great plan.
A notable feature of the various concepts of science such as gravity is that they are in fact abstract concepts that can only be explained by theory and not by concrete material evidence.e.g., because all the things that go up, fall back to the ground, there has to be some force pulling it down to the ground i.e. gravity
Also, a lot of times imagination has played an important role in defining these ideas. Albert Einstein gave credit to his imagination for his general theory of relativity that required imagining the Space-Time as a fabric and heavenly bodies as weights lying on it creating a depression which leads to the creation of the gravitational force. Only recently the theory was actually proven by detection of gravitational waves.
Religion, on similar lines, uses imagination, to establish a belief in a supernatural force as the basis to realise the ultimate reality. The belief in the Akal (Sikhs), Shiv(Shaivites), Allah(Islam) and the utmost reverence to that infinite power, along with some routinely practices is the way to realise God according to these religions. Here, God must be implying ultimate reality.
There are limitations to both the approaches. Science cannot work in a hypothetical realm alone because it requires observable evidence. The capacity to gather observable evidence in material form is itself limited by the technology of the day and the human senses. Hence, science couldn’t prove gravitational waves a hundred years ago when we did not have LIGO(Laser interference gravitational-waves observatory) to detect it, although theoretically Einstein had already given the concept.
On the other hand, religion many times doesn’t stand the test of reason and logic and becomes too arbitrary and speculative. This makes way for fraudulent god-men who start exploiting followers for selfish interests.
Hence science and religion, in their own ways, have been trying to discover the ultimate reality, be it in the form of God, Brahman or Quantum Gravity(Theory of everything) to find answers to the fundamental questions of existence. Essentially both are the two sides of the same coin. The objective of both is the satisfaction of the ever curious human mind as well as the discovery of ways to live healthier, happier and more meaningful lives.
Both have certain similarities in their approaches but in general, religion tends to be abstract and subjective while science is objective. Also. the limitations of one necessitates the sustained existence of the other and hence they compliment each other. This must have been the reason why Swami Vivekananda tried to bridge the gap between the two by calling ’religion’ as ‘the science of consciousness”.