Book Review

Vedic Physics

Raja Ram Mohan Roy
248 pp, paperback, 1999


Of all the great ancient religions, only Hinduism gives an age of the universe with numbers resembling those obtained by modern science. According to the Bhagavad Gita, one kalpa or (12-hour) day of Brahma lasts for 4.32 billion years. The Brahma lasts for 311.04 trillion (3.1104x10^14) years overall, after which the universe is destroyed. Hindu texts are very specific and precise in their description of the relevant time intervals. They are also unique in their description of the creation process and of forces of nature in often inanimate terms or, at most, personified in a highly sophisticated symbolic representation of inanimate forces.

The means by which the Hindus arrived at this information is equally mysterious. The Hindu monks would purify their minds by depriving themselves of food, and then meditate in silence, in effect inducing a form of sensory deprivation. The belief was that in so doing, sensory input from the outside world would be eliminated, and information from the Universe would then become accessible.

Unfortunately, finding the original sources for these beliefs is difficult because of the large amount of original material. Also, most of these ancient writings are quite difficult to interpret, as they are written in a poetic, symbolic language in which forces of nature are personified, and they are full of obscure literary allusions. The end result is that to a contemporary Westerner, these works appear as mostly gibberish.

Thus is is no surprise that the Rig Veda, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita are accompanied by an extensive commentary, and it should also not be surprising that different commentators derive opposite meanings from the same text. For instance, the gunas (three properties of Prakriti or Nature) are described as fundamental forces of matter in The Bhagavad Gita (as translated by S. Nikhilananda), but as personality characteristics in The Principal Upanishads by S. Radhakrishnan. Commentators often try to impose their own views on the text. The editor of The Principal Upanishads, for example, interprets each paragraph in terms of how similar it is to some passage in the Bible or works by Aristotle and other Greek philosophers.

The Rig Veda is generally regarded as the most obscure of the Hindu writings, and consequently is the most misunderstood. Compounding this is the fact that the Rig Veda is a little weak in biology. For instance, one verse says that cows descended from horses, and goats and sheep descended from cows. This is not even taught in Kansas.

However, even a cursory reading of the Upanishads, which elaborated and explained the Rig Veda, will reveal that the Hindus had a sophisticated concept of space and time. For example, Brahman is not the name of a deity but is a term for the extended space-time continuum which supposedly has attributes resembling a sort of consciousness.

The Rig Veda is also full of statements like "emanating from the unmanifest", suggesting that rather than being about cows and sheep as it first appears, it is actually describing the ancient Hindu cosmological beliefs. There is clearly some physics, or something like it, in the Rig Veda. It is therefore reasonable to ask, as the author does, whether any other beliefs in this work may resemble theories and facts that have been arrived at scientifically. If so, it would have great significance not only for understanding the people of the Indus Valley region but, if the information is as accurate as their chronology of the universe, may even provide ideas of possible use as hypotheses worthy of scientific investigation.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to jump in and start drawing speculative parallels between Vedic texts and modern cosmology. To do so would only discredit these misunderstood ancient writings further and discourage future investigation of any such parallels. One only has to look at the many fanciful interpretations of the so-called prophet Nostradamus and his nonsensical prophesies to find an example of what can result. Many of the post-Vedic interpreters similarly came up with nonsensical, fanciful, and mutually contradictory interpretations of the Veda. The author of Vedic Physics continues in that tradition.

For example, the verse "Three fourths of the Purusha [the Conscious Principle] is above, his one fourth is born again and again. Then he covered them all, those who eat, and those who don't" would seem to have something to do with reincarnation and possibly something biological. But the author informs us, with no convincing reason, that 'eating' in fact refers to a transformation of matter into energy in the Big Bang, and that this insight is confirmed since the subsequent verse refers to Virata [Purusha] "dividing after being born". Similarly, "Purusha ... is beyond also in ten-fingered form" is interpreted to mean that the Purusha is actually a god who is outside the universe in a 10-dimensional space, an implausible interpretation at best. The book continues relentlessly in this vein, interpreting Varuna (the name of a god) as 'electrons', Pasumedha (animal sacrifice) as 'quark confinement' and so on, ultimately culminating in more and more fanciful attempts to relate magnetic monopoles, neutrinos, and even gamma-ray bursts to the Rig Veda.

A few of the interpretations in the book are somewhat plausible, such as the interpretation of a growing golden egg as a fiery big bang. But most are clearly nothing more than unconvincing overinterpretations of the Vedic scriptures.

The book completely overlooks the more interesting questions like the meaning of manifest/unmanifest. Instead, the book advocates a one-to-one substitution of Vedic words for popular concepts from physics. In so doing, the book does a disservice to this great historical work, a disservice to historians and scholars who tried to understand the Rig Veda, and a disservice to physics. I must admit that after reading about two thirds of this book, I tossed it in the trash and threw banana peels and coffee grounds on it and stamped on it. (OK, I didn't really do this, but I wanted to). Although Hinduism is a fascinating religion, full of suggestions about a deeper reality, anyone seeking an understanding of its progenitor work, the cryptic and mysterious Rig Veda, will have to look elsewhere.

Update - March 2, 2007 One reader suggested that this book review may have been too harsh. I think, on the contrary, it was too lenient. The approach taken in Vedic Physics is not one of scholarly inquisitiveness. The author doesn't compare the Rig Veda with other writings to ascertain whether his interpretation is the correct one. After all, it's possible that the ancient Hindus really did mean "cows" when they talked about cows. In this book, it's as if the correspondences between Hindu concepts and modern physics were picked at random. This book comes close to being a work of "UFOlogy".