Saturday, November 27, 2010

Einstein and Gandhi – the meaning of life

Einstein and Gandhi – the meaning of life

Ramanath Cowsik

Motivated by the extraordinary lives and thoughts of Einstein and Gandhi, the aim of this presentation is to show that science and spirituality provide us with complementary perspectives on truth – both unbiased and universal. Such a perspective motivates us to realize the futility of human desires and mundane passions, and to develop a feeling of universal empathy and thus induce us to work for the betterment of the world. It is this selfless toil that imbues life with meaning.

Einstein’s scientific contributions revolutionized almost every aspect of modern physics: Quantum Theory, Theory of Space-time, Gravitational Physics and Statistical Physics. The very concept of space-time in which the physical events take place and the objective reality in quantum systems were redefined by him. Whereas the Copernican revolution which started nearly 500 years ago, moved us away from a geocentric point of view, the theories of relativity of Einstein connected up space and time into a single manifold and made the very question, as to where does the center of the Universe lie, itself meaningless – there is the absolute freedom of choice. Moreover the equations of Einstein’s Theory of gravitation revolutionized cosmology in the following way: The Earth on which we live is about 150 million kilometers away from the Sun which is a star. The stars that fill the firmament, about 100 billion of them are conglomerated as the Milky Way galaxy. Again there are scores of billions of galaxies filling space distributed in a quasi-random way. Thus the cosmological principle was stated: The Universe is homogeneous and isotropic on large scales. When Einstein’s equations were used to investigate the consequences of this aspect of the Universe, the solutions indicated that the Universe was expanding in a very special way – the galaxies moving apart from one another similar to dots on an expanding balloon. It was as though the fabric of space was being created distancing the galaxies from one another. Edwin Hubble established that the galaxies were indeed moving away as predicted by Einstein’s equations. All this was about 90 years ago.

Astronomical research during these intervening years has shown that indeed the Universe expanded from an extremely hot condensed state called the big bang. As the Universe expanded and cooled, the primordial exotic particles and fields gave birth to the quark-gluon plasma, familiar to the Standard Model of particle physics today. When the Universe was just 1 second old, the quarks had combined and we had the particles of nuclear physics – neutrons, protons, electrons, positrons, neutrinos and neutrino-like particles and, of course, radiation. But they were still too hot. By about 5 minutes the Universe cooled enough to synthesise helium. Since the nucleus with mass 8 is unstable, helium nuclei could not fuse to give heavier nuclei and the Universe consisted of neutrinos and neutrino-like particles, electrons, protons, -particles or nuclei of Helium and radiation. There was no carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron or other elements – the building blocks of life and our familiar world were yet to be made.

For a million years the Universe went through an uneventful expansion, just cooling down continuously. Now the temperatures were cool enough for the electrons and protons to combine to form atoms of hydrogen. This suddenly released the close coupling between radiation and matter with dramatic effects. During the cooling down process the neutrino-like particles had also cooled and their random motions had become slow, allowing their self-gravitation to clump them together into clouds. Since these neutrino-like particles do not emit or scatter light they are called particles of dark matter. The clouds of dark matter gravitationally attracted the atoms, which radiated and slowly settled into the central regions of the clouds. Such clouds with atomic gas merged to form galaxies. Our Milky Way is one such system.

The gas in the central regions in such systems condenses into stars. The central core of stars has a temperature of about 10 million degrees and here nuclei of hydrogen and helium fuse to form the heavier elements, which are then dispersed back into the interstellar space by stellar winds. Occasionally, when the mass of the stellar core exceeds the Chandrasekhar mass, it undergoes a collapse under self-gravity and the outer regions are expelled in an explosion and this debris contains the heaviest elements, even up to uranium. In about 8-10 billion years since the birth of the Universe, such processes had seeded most of the galaxies with heavy elements and in one such galaxy our solar system formed about 4.6 billion years ago. Thus everything that we see about us has an intimate connection with the birth of the Universe and with the subsequent stages of its evolution - we are all made of star-dust.

It is only perhaps during the last billion years that life appeared on this Earth, in the form of unicellular organisms, and the slow evolution of the species led finally, within the last hundred thousand years, to humankind as we know it – and the history of civilized man with agricultural capabilities is even shorter – a mere ten thousand years – say.

Two points are to be noted here: A systematic and a progressive sequence of evolution has brought the world to its present state. Man himself with his intelligence and capacity for articulation and organization is shaped by the progressive evolution of the exotic particles and fields of the early Universe, the formation of galaxies, nucleosynthesis in the stars, the origins of life on this planet and its subsequent evolution into the modern man. The second point that is to be underscored is that the span of man’s existence is but a minuscule speck in this vast Universe, which is about 14 billion years old and has an extent of 1023 km. Yet, man’s indomitable spirit has strived to comprehend this cosmos. I would like to return to the discussion of these two points shortly.

Continuing with our description of Einsteinian cosmology, we note that normal matter like hydrogen and helium contribute only about two percent to the average mass density of the Universe. In contrast the neutrino-like-particles of dark matter contribute about one third of the mass density on the average and these dominate the formation and dynamics of the galaxies. What is the rest of the 65% made of?

Einstein at the time of inventing the relativistic cosmologies, had also discovered a way of causing the expansion to be either halted or accelerated. In a manner that was in perfect consonance with the mathematical aesthetics of physics, he had introduced the -term into his field equations. Such a term finds support with the concept of the “Quantum-vacuum”, according to which even perfectly empty space has a dynamics of its own, with particles, antiparticles and radiation continuously being created and annihilated, all in a manner perfectly in agreement with the conservation of energy and quantum mechanics. It is remarkable that during the last ten years astronomical evidence is mounting that such a vacuum or dark energy indeed is present to account for the 65% missing energy density. It is showing its unique vacuum character, of a gravity that repels, by making the Universe accelerate in its expansion! Thus we see that normal matter, with which we are all made of, is only a tiny fraction of dark matter and further more the dynamics of the Universe now is controlled by vacuum energy, which is not matter at all. All this reinforces our connectivity with the Universe and at the same time leads us away from a simple anthropocentric view.

Let us now briefly turn to Einstein’s spirituality. His god-concept was more sophisticated than the common view of a personalized God who is the lawmaker, punishing man for his sins and rewarding him for his virtues. He said “my comprehension of God comes from the deeply felt conviction of a superior intelligence that reveals itself in the knowable world”. His religion was an attitude of cosmic awe and a devout humility before the harmony in nature. Einstein considered himself an agnostic and his spirituality was closely similar that taught by Buddha and much later by Spinoza – not unlike the ‘paramarthika’ or the transcendental interpretation of the Vedanta delineated by Shankara in contrast to the Vyavaharika view held by the common man. In close parallel with the Hindu saints, especially Gautama Buddha and Shankara, he felt the futility of human desires….individual existence in pursuit of mundane materialistic goals impressed Einstein as a sort of prison and he felt a deep inner urge to experience the Universe as a significant whole. Thus Einstein’s spirituality is close to the philosophy of Advaita of Shankara. Just as Einstein opened up science which had reached a watershed in the beginning of the 20th century, so did Shankara revitalize the religions of India with spirituality in the 6th century. Einstein felt that whatever there is of God and goodness, it must work itself out and express itself through us – we cannot stand aside and “let God do it”. He was truly a karmayogi and followed the diction of Gita mā té sangōstvakarmani (do not detach yourself from your duty), as he strove incessantly to prevent war and bring peace amongst the nations.

It should be emphasized that there is a universality to Einstein’s cosmic experience which is closely akin to that of the monks and nuns in deep and fervent prayer or of the mystics of the east during meditation. A common characteristic is that these experiences are so intense that they transform the individual in a fundamental way. The neuroscientist Andrew Newberg has noted that these “religious” experiences are common to all faiths, they induce a sense of oneness with the universe and a feeling of awe that impress such experiences with great importance. They feel their sense of self dissolve, they feel a loss of boundary and their sensory inputs weaken and even turn off completely. The attendant psychosomatic reactions imbue such experiences with deep significance characterized by great joy and harmony – similar to the feeling of parents when they see their new-born off-spring – a feeling described as Bhakti by the spiritual leaders of India. A part of the nervous system of creatures, including humans, has been perhaps hardwired this way to ensure the survival of the species and sustain evolution.

Jean Staune, Philip Clayton and other organizers of this meeting have noted that a shroud of disenchantment progressively covers all of us, as science describes both humankind and nature in purely reductionist terms, somehow depriving life of meaning and values. Ever since Descartes and Locke made their powerful and important contributions, the theory of knowledge has progressively banished the considerations of values from their central place in human thought. It is fair to say that over the recent decades, the discussion of values is again taken up so as to provide the foundations for ethical and moral systems. One of the distinguishing features of the Indian philosophy is the continual unwavering importance attached to the discussion of values, a characteristic preserved over the times, perhaps because the barriers of distance and language from Europe prevented an over emphasis of the reductionist paradigm.

Postponing a detailed discussion of the Indian values, to a later occasion, let us focus attention on implications of Einsteinian cosmology to the question at hand. The two points that were underscored during the discussion of cosmology are: (1) Our connectivity with the grandest events in the Universe and even to the big bang, through a sequence of evolution, and (2) the extremely miniscule span of humans in the vastness and enormity of cosmic space and time. Even this Earth upon which we live is more than 4 billion years old – enormous compared with man’s sojourn on it. Subtlest conditions of light, temperature, water and a proper mix of the elements more than a billion years ago led to the birth of life on this planet. During most of the epochs of evolution, nature was all powerful. Nature nurtured life and made life forms that became stronger progressively, and man appeared on the scene. He too was nurtured by nature and even though he is but Nature’s creature, he for the first time has become so powerful that he can control Mother Nature. He can choose to destroy her or he can protect her and make her even more beautiful. Science alone can not and will not tell us what we should do. Spirituality has a prescription but can not adequately defend it. But a complete perspective jointly provided by science and spirituality can point to a set of values which will guide us to make the right choice.

Let us for a moment take inspiration from our connectivity with the rest of the Universe and sensitize ourselves to the character of progressive evolution to higher levels that is innate in us. To assume that those values that support such an evolution are the right ones is both natural and consistent with the teachings of the great leaders of mankind like Buddha, Jesus and Shankara. When we recognize our connectivity with the rest of the world – with the inanimate mountains, deserts, rivers and the oceans and the living things upon this earth – the trees, grass and flowers of every hue and birds and animals including man, and we sensitize ourselves to our common origins, we will be endowed with an empathy that will give us strength to follow the precept of Universal love, including “love thy enemy” taught by Jesus amongst others. Is this really true or is it just an ideal?

Mohandass Karamchand Gandhi with his deep commitment to ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (pursuit of truth) showed that one can live by the precept of the Christ. In Einstein’s own words, speaking of Mahatma Gandhi and the peaceful movement he launched in South Africa and India to gain freedom from prejudice and oppression, he said “A leader of his people, unsupported by any outward authority; a politician whose success rests not upon craft nor on mastery of technical devices; but simply on the convincing power of his personality; a victorious fighter who has always scorned the use of force; a man of wisdom and humility; armed with resolve and inflexible consistency, who has devoted all his strength to the uplifting of his people and the betterment of their lot; a man who has confronted brutality with the dignity of a simple human being, and thus at all times risen superior. Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth”.

Volumes have been written about Gandhi. The quotation from Einstein touches upon some of the salient aspects of his personality. Let me merely add that Gandhi was born in India, about 10 years before Einstein, and discovered the method of peaceful non-cooperation in South Africa. This method of bringing about socio-political change peacefully through moral persuasion rather than through the use of force is called satyagraha. Even General Smuts, who always exerted iron-handed control, is said to have remarked “I do not like your people and I do not care to assist them at all. But what am I to do? You help us in our days of need. How can we lay hands upon you? I often wish you took to violence like the English strikers and then we would know at once how to dispose of you. But you will not injure even the enemy. You desire victory by self-suffering alone and never transgress your self-imposed limits of courtesy and chivalry. And that is what reduces us to sheer helplessness”. As the quintessence of Gandhi’s virtues, I may perhaps state universal love, ahimsa (or non-violence) and satya (truth). These three qualities blend in him, supporting and adding glory to one another. These qualities became luminously clear during the long struggle for freedom in India. The unflinching and unwavering adherence to truth, not unlike that of an exemplary scientist, is at the heart of his personality, a quality from which emerge his Christ-like love and his non-violence even in thought. In support of this idea, we may quote Gandhi himself: “To see the universal truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest creation as oneself…For me the road to salvation lies through incessant toil in the service of my country and humanity. In the language of the Gita, I want to live in peace with both friend and foe”. Thus, not surprisingly, he called his freedom struggle – Satyagraha – or pursuit of truth. This method proved remarkably successful – time and again – in bringing freedom from discriminatory control of one people by another – a freedom which was permanent and which left both the people not in antagonism but in friendship. Thus we see the two facets of Gandhi’s personality – the spiritual inner-self forever devoted to the pursuit of truth and the outer-self which found expression in this world as his deep love of humanity and as his untiring efforts towards its betterment.

Apart from these personal qualities that helped Gandhi face fearlessly any onslaught, including incarceration, during his satyagraha movement, he had another deep idea that has relevance even today: He felt that no individual, no group nor nation, whether poor or rich should be without gainful employment. Just as the poorest eking out a living can be redeemed when provided with an opportunity to work and earn a living, even the rich either through inheritance or in a nation with easily accessible mineral deposits, would benefit greatly if they work hard regularly in their chosen fields of interest . The Charka or Khadi programme of Gandhi was a tremendous help to the poor in India in the 1930s. Even today no one can remain merely a consumer. All of us should be engrossed in creative effort – this will give ‘meaning’ to our lives.

Impressed by Gandhi’s Christian love and indefatigable energy, Romain Rolland describes Mahatma Gandhi as the “St. Paul of our days” and equally impressed by the frugality and asceticism and his self-identification with the poorest of the poor, C.F.Andrews aptly likens him to St. Francis of Asissi. To use the words of Martin Luther King - “there is another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet. Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi discovered it a few years ago, but most men and women never discover it. They believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; but Jesus comes to us and says ‘this isn’t the way’ ”. Nelson Mandela was also inspired by Gandhi and in a remarkable achievement, he brought apartheid government in South-Africa to an end and established universal democracy. King and Mandela, each of them was awarded the Nobel Prize in profound recognition that the Gandhian method of non-violence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our times and the need of the hour is to overcome our fears and move courageously towards peace along the Gandhian path.

Thus we see that science and spirituality both tell us that we should work to sustain the positive universal evolution, or, in other words, follow ‘dharma’ according to the Hindu scriptures. And in our incessant effort towards peace – which is essential for this positive evolution – we should follow the path shown by Buddha, Jesus and Gandhi. This method is not restricted to the oppressed and the poor but to the rich and powerful as well, as indeed Asoka the Great showed more than 2000 years ago. To summarize, we see that the reductionist approach of science has clearly pointed out our connectivity with the rest of this vast Universe and events that occurred in the depths of time. Science has also shown that a positive vector of evolution has transformed the exotic fields and particles of the big bang into the world in which we live. But the reductionist approach, as it stands today, can not tell us how to attach value to things or actions. We can resolve this impasse by augmenting the reductionist approach with an additional axiom: Let us say that all actions and attributes that support the positive evolution we referred to as having a positive value. For example, love of humanity, non-violence and efforts towards betterment of the world will now be endowed with positive value, just as the great spiritual leaders have been telling us all along. But their message could not find support in the minds rigorously trained in the reductionist approach, which tended to ignore the subtle urgings of our inner self. This extra axiom allows us bridge the gap between science and spirituality and gives meaning to lives dedicated to bringing about peace and tranquility in this world and to lives engaged in the creation of beautiful art, sensitive poetry and yes, to lives engrossed in science bringing us ever closer to truth. I cannot do better to end this brief essay than by quoting Rabindranath Tagore

“where the mind is without fear and the head is held high

where knowledge is free;

where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

where the words come out from the depths of truth;

where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way in the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

where the mind is led by thee into ever widening thought and action

— into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake”.


  1. आइंस्टीन बड़े वैज्ञानिक थे और जिस मानता की बात कर रहे हैं उसी को नष्ट करने के लिए परमाणु बम बनाकर अमरीका को बेचा और आज उसी की विभीषिका में संसार जल रहा है। गांधी का सत्य, अहिंसा और पीर पराई का दर्द महसूस करने का सिद्धांत ही मानवता की रक्षा कर सकता है। मार्टिन लूथर किंग को भी आपने उद्धृत करके यह साबित किया है।