Early humans had attributed most of the natural phenomena occurring around them as metaphysical occurrences. From the lightning and thunder, to earthquakes and droughts; rains, floods, storms, etc.; they were all phenomena that were controlled by an unseen force or forces, which governed their world.
Many ancient Indian, Chinese as well as American mythologies suggested that the world they existed upon was held stable by four giant elephants that in turn stood firmly on a titanic tortoise. Such statements may sound absurd to a modern human of the 21st century, but this was the reality millennia ago.
Science is defined as the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. While mysticism stands for belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.
For everything that is occurring in our surroundings, science tries to prove its existence using extrinsic factors and practical justification. Whereas mysticism relates how the world works to almighty powers and intrinsic factors. Science has laid down the foundation of technology. It developed from the curiosity of us humans.
But so did mysticism. Both the fields are similar when it comes to attaining the goal. Their aim is identical, which is to find the ‘truth’ of the universe. But the way they approach it, is what distinguishes one from another. While one takes the path of reasoning and analysis of the physical world, the other strides through the road of reasoning and analysis of the metaphysical.
In today’s era, both the fields have equal importance and influence over mankind, hence it is important to establish whether they are truly compatible to each other, or not.
Conceptualisation of Mysticism and its derivatives
‘Mystical’, is the term that we assign to every commodity- abstract or concrete- which is beyond the understanding of human brain. The real concept of mysticism has been lost in the flow of time. The way we define mysticism has definitely changed over the eras that have passed by.
Currently, anything can be tagged mystical, as long as it has any relation to words like nebulous, esoteric, occult or supernatural. Scholars and theologians have been unable to define the true meaning of mysticism, yet it remains one of the oldest schools of tradition that has been practised by humans.
Amongst the early attempts that were made, include defining mysticism to the union of soul with the divine. This idea was supported by many of the conservative Abrahamic religions as well as Asian societies to a large extent. But still, this idea has come under conflict due to the disavowing of union as the truth of life.
Ancient Hindu practitioners believe the ‘Aatma’ and ‘Brahma’ are not different. In fact as per them, Aatma has always been a part of Brahma, hence the concept of reunion fails. Another theory that negates this ideology is of Buddhism as well as kabala. These religions try to attain ‘nothingness’ and completely shun the idea of union.
A much popular concept that has emerged alongside the scientific revolution is of religious ecstasies and contextual interpretation. With the advent of science which had taken the world by storm and promoted logical answers to fortify its presence, mysticism too began to indulge in ‘practical’ experiences around the world, introducing new-age miracles.
Mystical visionary experiences, dreams and trance were some of the methods which religious communities utilised to improve their followings and compete with science. Religion has always been related to mysticism has been used as its most efficient tool to attract more and more people under its umbrella.
But yet again, a lot of these methods were debunked as ‘staged acts’. While claims of actual miracle still exist, scholars like Peter Moore have stated that they occur spontaneously and do not always pertain to religion or mysticism. Fields of study like neurotheology, cognitive science of religion and altered state of consciousness had emerged which used scientific theories to certify the existence of mysticism and appeal to a larger populace.
Amongst all the concepts, the most alluring ideology is that of enlightenment. Through this route, mystics try to involve and emphasize intuitive understanding of the universe, the existence of self and the surrounding and the purpose of everything that exists. The knowledge of all these aspects is classified under ‘hidden truths’.
Through enlightenment or mystical illumination, a mortal is able to attain the mental state to unravel the truths and acquire the wisdom to solve personal problems or problems of the world. 15th Century Christian prayers have often mentioned illumination as the ultimate form of understanding.
Its Asian counterpart of Bodhi, kensho and satori translate to ‘enlightenment’. Intuitive understanding of the world gave mysticism the touch of spirituality, and its practitioners gained an insight of the true nature of the world masked by their usual appearance.
The expansion of scientific ideology
Unlike mysticism, the proliferation in the field of science started quite late. Although the first contributions to this field were made by ancient Greeks and Egyptians in 3500 BC, the scientific bloom is a young concept as compared to mysticism and religion. It began with humans starting to question ‘why?’ and when they did not receive a satisfying answer from the religious institutions that they were inclined towards, thus began the pursuit of answers.
The early attempts met with much hostility. In the 1500’s, Nicklaus Copernicus was able to create a tempest in Europe. His heliocentric theory met with a mixed response, with most of the churches, especially the Protestants criticising his discoveries.
Less than a century later, Galileo Galilee too was in the centre of major controversy after churches rubbished his support for heliocentrism and comets. He was even imprisoned by the order of the church. The religious heads had tried to establish the teachings of the church as the sole truth. But unfortunately for them, the matter was not going to terminate then and there.
The works of Copernicus, Galileo and their contemporaries were rediscovered and were brought to the limelight again. By this time, a lot of classical scientists had solidified the roots of science in the society. The systematic enterprise that builds and organises knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe, had gained a stronghold in the common folk.
Major changes emerged as a result of the large scale experimentation’s that were being carried out by scientists across the world. With the fine-tuning of Galileo’s telescope and Von Leeuwenhoek’s microscope, humans were exposed to both the celestial and the microscopic worlds that existed unbeknownst to them for so long. Science helped improve the lives of the people.
The likes of vaccination and pasteurisation helped eradicate major diseases and control spoilage of milk and wine respectively. Darwin’s work on evolution, Watson and Crick’s explanation of the structure and function of the DNA, sending the first men on moon; humanity would not be able to achieve such great feats had there not been a scientific revolution beginning in the 16th century.
Mysticism and Science
“Truth is by nature self-evident. As soon as you remove the cobwebs of ignorance that surround it, it shines clear.”
It is the truth that both the schools seek, yet it is clear that both have chosen two distinct paths to uncover it. Mysticism has subjective approach and seeks to achieve its goal in a non-empirical way, while science is the stark contrast to it. Hence, a major difference arises between the two here- mysticism is subjective and science is objective.
We also find that while mysticism on the surface looks well organised into thoughts and beliefs, but the subjectivity makes the essence of mysticism very vague. On the other hand, science backs up all its statements with experimental statistics and figures at the same time, it is well structured down to every concept that falls within its boundary.
Mysticism therefore has abstractness and amorphous attributes while science is driven by rational and logical judgement of reality. Another huge difference that we note while comparing them, is that science limits itself to the physical universe. It uses experiments and observations alongside rational reflections to define only what our five senses can perceive.
But mysticism goes a step further and tasks its followers to determine the cause and effect of transcendental activities and occurrences. With so many dissimilarities, we can clearly demarcate mysticism from science as two separate paths.
Yet it is the very nature of these paths that bring out similarities between the two. Once again, turning to our history lessons, we find that there has been overlapping between science and mysticism in the past, in the form of religion and ancient knowledge. The most prominent example includes that of Tu Youyou.
She was the first Chinese woman to win the Nobel Prize in medicine, even though she held no degree in the field. She had found a cure to malaria, but it was only possible for her to do so, because of her deep understanding in the ancient Chinese medicines that were used by the predeceasing civilisations.
An even more relatable example is ‘Yoga’, the ancient practice that originated in the Indian sub-continent. What the western culture has adopted is only a part of the art. Yoga in its true essence is a discipline which helps the practising individual in spiritual, mental and physical upliftment.
A good lot of our ancestors have been a complete package of mysticism and scientism embodied in a single individual. Aryabhatta, Varahamira, etc. were as religious as they were scientific. Even though over the period of time a rift had been formed between these two parties, the main reason for this disparity can be corresponded to the western scientists who had started the notion of condemning mysticism as a whole.
The latter itself did no good job when it shunned the scientific discoveries which are supposed to make our lives better. Abortion is one such topic that remains a hotspot of debate amongst scientists and religious leaders. Hence it is important for both the sides to become tolerant and considerate towards each other.
Scientists should understand that just like they have meticulously honed their craft to study the empirical world, the mystics too have improved their craft to understand the metaphysical world. At the same time, real mystics have never questioned scientific ventures.
It is only the insecure, frauds who are critical of science just to be in the news and retain their followers. Such individuals should be avoided and ignored as much as possible, in order to make mysticism and science compatible and work together to achieve wisdom.
Mysticism and science are two major fields that have influenced our lives ever since they were conceived. While initially, their paths seemed to intertwine with each other; our own judgement had caused them to divide into two separate sects. But as of the present times, our liberal attitude can help us generate a holistic perspective towards mysticism and science.
The practitioners of each of the fields should understand the importance of each other and learn to accommodate themselves accordingly. Science has been expanding its horizons and so is mysticism. Both are in pursuit of exploring the true nature of the universe.
No matter how many planets, galaxies, and universes we discover; or atoms, neutrons, quarks we are able to visualise, as long as our consciousness does not register the gravity of such discoveries and equally scintillating inventions and observations, science becomes a subject of irrelevance.
And consciousness is an existence that is studied by the mystics. The vice-versa holds true for the mystics. In the end, the ultimate goal that encompasses both their goals is to attain ‘knowledge’, which shall be utilised by us as a tool to enrich the lives of humans and other species on this planet.
Thus, it is necessary for both the faculties to merge together and adapt to each other. While compatibility had always existed amongst the two, it is our duty as the future of our planet, to hone this relationship and utilise it for the good.