The title of this book, Shiva’s Dance, is a metaphor for life seen as a cosmic dance. It was inspired by Shiva, a Hindu deity, in his guise as Nataraja, the lord of the dance. A giant statue of Nataraja is at CERN, the European Center for Research in Particle Physics, with a plaque by noted physicist Fritjof Capra “… In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art, and physics.” This book is a personal exploration of the absolute truth and reality through a synthesis of science and the wisdom of the ancient sages. It is about a journey of self-discovery.
My journey inward started, in earnest, some twenty-five years ago. I was forty then. In the first part of my adult life, I lived a life focused on making a living, raising a family, and seeking material success. I had lived a life that was externally focused. My self-worth was tied to what others thought of me. However, I felt that something was lacking in my life. Even though in the eyes of the world, I was a success, I did not feel fulfilled. There was an unease inside of me. Something was missing.
I was trained as a scientist and relied on science to understand the world around me. Science gave me a foundation and a belief system to process and understand life. Science gave me tools to understand the world outside of me, but the unease was inside of me. This unease pulled me to look beyond science to other ways of understanding the world around me and, more importantly, the world inside me.
I was born into a Hindu family, went to a Catholic high school, and was a science major in college. My holy trinity was Hinduism, Catholicism, and science. Science dominated my worldview, while Hinduism and Catholicism lurked in the background.
Through science, I understood how the universe came into being (Big Bang theory), how life evolved from simple matter (Theory of Evolution), and how matter coalesced to form galaxies and planets, including earth. Einstein’s theories explain how matter interacts with other issues at the macroscopic level, and quantum mechanics explains interactions at the subatomic level.
Unlike my forefathers, I do not have to invent gods and spirits to explain natural phenomena. “In science I trust” has been my version of “In God We Trust.” Science has given me an unshakeable foundation on which to build my worldview. Most natural phenomena are explained by science, and science is the basis of our technological progress.
Science forms the bedrock of my belief system. I look to science for answers and rely on it to guide me in making objective choices. Objectivity has been the operative idea for me in search of truth and meaning and on which to build my belief system. Science has taught me to separate the subjective from the objective.
The consequence of focusing on science alone was that I pushed aside, examining what was going on inside of me. What was inside of me–my feelings and my thoughts– was subjective and open to many interpretations based on who did the interpreting, and therefore not “scientific,” and therefore, not infallible. Hence, what went on inside of me could not be my guideposts for how I lived my life. Or, so I believed. Science helped me separate the subjective from the objective, but in doing so closed me to examine what was going on inside of me. I had locked myself to understanding “me.” I have paid the price for this. Something was missing. I understood the world outside of me but had no idea what was going on inside of me. My inside, as it were, was calling out to me to pay attention. This was when I began to reach outside of science to find answers to what was going on inside of me. For the first time in my life, I began to discover that there was a world inside of me. A world of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. A world that was as fascinating as the world outside.
I read Freud, Jung, and books by eminent neuroscientists such as V.S. Ramachandran (Phantoms in the Brain) and Antonio Damasio (Self Comes to Mind). I read science writers such as K.C. Cole (The Hole in the Universe) and Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe). A new frontier of knowledge was opening up to me. I was once again childlike. I was exploring new worlds.
My focus was to integrate the subjective world that was inside of me with the world outside of me. I looked to scientists who had taken a similar journey. I chanced upon Fritjof Capra, a physicist who wrote The Tao of Physics. In this book, he drew parallels between eastern philosophy and physics. This opened my eyes to the possibility that perhaps there was wisdom in eastern philosophy that I had shut myself to because of my western education and biases. I began to find other writers who were bridging the chasm between science and eastern philosophy. I read Gary Zukav’s book, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which further piqued my interest in exploring the intersection between physics and eastern philosophy.
I began looking for western educated scientists, people like me, who had started out as scientists and taken a deep dive into eastern philosophy. I came across Ram Dass, who was born Richard Alpert. He was an eminent Harvard psychologist and a colleague of Timothy Leary. He gave up academia and went to India in search of his guru and was transformed by the experience and changed his name to Ram Dass. He wrote the seminal book BE HERE NOW. This book influenced me greatly. In it, I found resonance at several levels. In Richard Alpert, I found a person I could relate to as a scientist and as someone who had explored his subjective self “scientifically.” He had integrated two threads of my own nascent journey. His experiences lay at the intersection of science and eastern philosophy. His book, Be Here Now, demystified eastern thought for me. It stripped Hinduism of its rituals and myriads of deities and brought out the wisdom that was hidden from me behind the rituals and the symbols.
I began to look deeper into eastern philosophy. I sought out people whom I respected as scientists and who had studied Eastern philosophy in-depth. One such person was and is my father-in-law. He is a physician and a learned Vedantic scholar who has written the book Creative Explosion: An Introduction to Vedanta and Freedom. I engaged with him in discussions about the Vedas. We had daily dialogs spanning many years. I came to these discussions as a skeptic. I was looking at his beliefs and understandings through the filters of science. Our conversations were heated, but through the clash of ideas, I came away with a better understanding of and appreciation for his knowledge and wisdom and an experience of the meaning behind key concepts of the Vedas. The Vedic concepts were unfathomable and seemed almost absurd when first introduced to me by my father-in-law.
Over time I came to accept and embrace these “absurd” ideas, and now these ideas are more real to me than the world that I perceive through my senses or understand through science. It has taken me twenty years of probing, exploring, reading, joining meditation groups, taking up yoga, delving into neuroscience, revisiting quantum physics, and synthesizing these disparate streams to accept these ideas. I now marvel at how the Vedic sages came to these insights.
The key insights of the Vedas are a radical departure from the foundational belief of science. Science is the study of the observed universe apart from the observer. Science separates the observed from the observer. The observed is objective, and the observer subjective. Science is after “objective truth.” Vedas say that to understand “truth,” one cannot separate the subjective from the objective, and one must see that there is no such separation. What is inside is outside. There is only the whole or the “one.” When introduced to this idea, my first reaction was, how could this be so? My senses belie this. How could I be the same as, or one with my dog, or the tree outside or the walls in my room? How is this even possible?
There are three other mind-bending insights from the Vedas that I have come to accept. These are 1) All of existence is an illusion or Maya, 2) This moment is all there is, and 3) The most radical of all insights, self itself is an illusion. These three are worth repeating to emphasize how “far out,” as I would have said in the 60s, these ideas are: All of life is an illusion, there is no past, no future, only the present moment, and I (yes that is me) do not exist. It has taken me over twenty years to accept and embrace these truths. This book is about that journey.
The inspiration for the title of this book, Shiva’s Dance, came from discovering that CERN, the leading particle collider in Europe, had installed a statue of Shiva in his pose as Nataraja, the dancer, representing all of creation as a cosmic dance. My journey has been a dance through physics and the Vedas, and the title is an apt metaphor for it.
The book is organized into eight sections detailing how I came to braid scientific knowledge and the wisdom of the Vedic sages into an understanding of the world around me and the world inside of me. Through this understanding, I am more at peace with myself now than I ever was. I have found my true north.
This book is, by no means, a prescription for anyone else to follow. There are ideas here that may not be familiar to many. These unfamiliar ideas, like kaons, may awaken in some a desire to find their own truth.
For those not familiar with Hinduism, the Vedas are not religious canons, though Hinduism has evolved out of the Vedas. Vedas and especially the Upanishads are records of philosophies handed down by sages in India two thousand years ago. Advaita Vedanta is the philosophy subscribed to by my father-in-law and is the one that is referred to in this book.