Science and Religion : Maria Wirth

Maria Wirth is a German and came to India for a holiday after finishing her psychology studies at Hamburg University. She visited the Ardha Kumbha Mela in Haridwar in April 1980 where she met Sri Anandamayi Ma and Devaraha Baba, two renowned saints. With their blessing shecontinued to live in India and dived into India’s spiritual tradition, sharing her insights with German readers through articles and books. For long, she was convinced that every Indian knows and treasures his great heritage. However, when in recent years, she noticed that there seemed to be a concerted effort to prevent Indians (and the world) from knowing how valuable this ancient Indian heritage is, she started to point out the unique value of Indian tradition.


When I was in high school in Germany, I had a recurring phantasy. I imagined that some fine day the anchor in the news broadcast announces that science has found proof that God exists. This was at a time when doubts started creeping in whether it was true what I had believed so strongly in childhood, and such an announcement, I felt, would settle the issue once for all.

This was in the 1960s, when science made great strides for example in space exploration. Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut in space, allegedly said after returning to earth that he had not seen any God out there. His statement did not carry too much weight, as he was Russian, and we Germans generally did not trust any Russian during the height of the cold war…

Still, for those of us who knew a little about history and were interested in science, ‘religion’ – which meant Christianity in Germany – came under scrutiny and did not come out of it unscathed. My elder sister was one of the first in our small town who rejected officially her membership in the Church, undoubtedly influenced by her husband who did so as well. My mother was very concerned – not so much that my sister would now burn in hell for all eternity, but what ‘the people will think’. I, only 15 at that time, got the message not to follow suit.

It was a big dilemma. I intuitively believed in God, a supreme, all-mighty Being, that is the cause of our existence and somehow ‘knows’ what we think, feel and do, but I could not reconcile what religion told me about this God. I could not believe that he is so unfair, even cruel, that he would let me burn forever in hell only because I had skipped Sunday mass.

The fear of hell had been real for me as a child. I had skipped Sunday mass once when I was 9 years old and was terrified that I could die before I had confessed my ‘sin’ to the priest. I was sure that in that case, I would go straight into hellfire. (Skipping Sunday mass was a cardinal sin for Catholics at that time with hell as punishment).

Now, being older, this fear had left me. Eternal hell after a life of a few years simply did not make sense. This claim seemed rather a tool to frighten people into falling in line with the doctrine. Furthermore, why would the creator of all human beings punish the majority of them with hell because they believed in another religion? Why did this God not let everyone be born in a Christian family if he wants everyone to believe in the Bible? Or be born into a Muslim family if he wanted all to follow the Quran?

It did not make sense and I was not interested anymore in religion, even more so when I read in the library of my uncle, who was a priest, about the violent history of the Church and its suppression of scientific knowledge. Can anyone imagine the pain of a scientist who knew for sure that the earth goes around the sun but had to keep quiet because it was politically incorrect to have such a (correct) view? How painful must it have been for Galileo for example to realize that the Church was the sole arbiter of what is true, even if it is clearly not true?

Fortunately, courageous men like Voltaire and others struggled hard and succeeded to restrict the power of religion. Secularism was introduced, blasphemy laws repealed, and now science flourished in Europe. However, there was no connection to religion. Religion did not foster science. Science flourished in spite of religion, not because of it. Or did it?


Here, maybe we should finally define ‘religion’.

Strangely, there is no clear-cut definition. The common denominator is usually that religion is about the belief in and worship of the Divine, God or whatever name one wants to give it.  Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism are the major religions. Minor ones are Jainism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Taoism, etc. Yet why are all these different traditions put into one basket and called ‘religion’? Is this justified?

‘Religion’ comes from Latin and means ‘to bind’. It was first used for the Catholic Church. Later, when the Turks were at the gates of Vienna, Islam was also called ‘religion’.

Why was a new term introduced? Was the term Christianity not clear? It surely was as it referred to the followers of Christ. What else needed to be conveyed? To what had the follower of Christ to be bound?

Since Christianity and Islam both have fixed doctrines contained in certain books and both claim that only their doctrine is true and whoever does not believe this will burn in hell, it can be safely assumed that the term religion indicated that the followers were bound to the exclusivist doctrine of Christianity or Islam respectively – over many centuries even at the threat of death if they tried to loosen the bond. They had to ‘religiously’ stick to the tenets given by the clergy, like going to mass on Sunday or praying five times a day at specified times.

In exchange for this loyalty to the doctrine, the believers were left in peace from blasphemy laws and promised heaven after death. Further they were assured that they are on the ‘right’ path when there are ‘wrong’ paths as well. In short, God loves them, but not the others.

Where does Hinduism fit in in this scenario? Actually, it doesn’t fit in. It does not bind its followers to a fixed doctrine. It not only allows a free enquiry but encourages it. No blind belief in unverifiable dogmas is demanded. Yet in the 19th century, the term religion was now used for the ancient traditions from India, China and Japan, as well. And intriguingly, all those traditions got an ‘ism’ added: Hindu-ism, Buddh-ism, Tao-ism, Jain-ism…

Usually an -ism is associated with a narrow doctrine, developed by one person like Marxism, Stalinism, Maoism or has otherwise a negative image like Nazism or “Islam-ism”, which is meant to be seen as different and worse than Islam. That Juda-ism, which always was at the receiving end of Christianity and Islam, also got an –ism just would confirm that the –ism is not as ‘noble’ as the ending of the two “only true” religions.

Did the west try to obfuscate the fact that the Eastern traditions, foremost of all the Indian, had profound philosophies at their core and portray them also as ‘belief-systems’ with unverifiable dogmas at their core? For millennia these eastern traditions have lived harmoniously together without fighting each other but rather debating each other, in stark contrast to Christianity and Islam.

One thing is clear: Christianity/ Islam on one side and India’s traditions on the other are two very different categories:

One group makes unverifiable claims about the truth, demands blind belief in those claims and threatens with dire consequences, while the other group freely enquires into the truth by inner exploration, debates, guided by the ancient texts and saints who had experienced being one with all.

For one group the goal of life is to reach heaven and avoid hell after death by religiously sticking to the doctrine which is taught. The other group sees the goal in realising the blissful truth that we are one with all in the depth of our own being while we are alive.

One group depends on conversion and indoctrination to gain followers, while Hinduism is Sanatana (eternal) Dharma (righteous way of living).

Every Christian or Muslim had forefathers who were not Christians or Muslims. At the start, often the sword was used to convert, as the ‘truth’ of the dogmas was not self-evident and even went against common sense. Later, indoctrination of children and blasphemy laws kept the followers subdued.

The reason why conversion is necessary for the dogmatic religions is simple:

Suppose a community on some island is completely unconnected to the modern world. They will never become Christians or Muslims because they need to be told a story from the past about God sending his only son to earth 2000 years ago, or about Allah sending Mohammed as his last prophet some 1400 years ago.

Yet if these islanders deeply enquired into what is true and how to live a righteous life, they might come to similar conclusions like Sanatana Dharma, as it does not depend on some event in history. It requires deep enquiry into That what truly is – eternally.
Yet let me go back to my personal discovery of a connection between science and ‘religion’.

Meanwhile, I had stopped going to mass. When I told it to my mother, her reaction was, “And what if you go to hell?” “I won’t go to hell”, I replied. If there is a God, he surely won’t be so petty-minded to insist on a specific way of worshipping him. I also had had some inkling that indeed, there may be a God. An article on modern physics had explained that all is basically one energy and the different forms in this world are not really solid or separate entities. Strangely, this made sense and I felt: If there is a God then that one energy must be him.

Yet in the 1970s, we students at Hamburg University were so ‘modern and progressive’ that we would have rather bitten our tongues than admit that we believed in God. Yet it was ok to be interested in Buddhism or Transcendental Meditation (TM) or Bhagawan Rajneesh, as Osho was called then.

I even took initiation into TM. The Beatles had paved the way. I loved those 20 minutes of meditation in the morning and evening. Yet there was a lot of negative reporting in German newspapers about TM at that time. The Church had set up commissioners for sects, and warned one can go mad by meditating. Parents were asked to keep an eye on their children so that they don’t fall prey to the brainwashing of those sects. Maybe, this negative propaganda had its influence because I stopped meditating after two years.

Even more than TM, the Hare Krishna ‘sect’ was demeaned and ridiculed by the media. Their followers were portrayed as weird, mad chaps. Hinduism already had a bad image. I had learnt in primary school that it was about a terrible caste system and untouchables. Now the media did their best to make it look even worse.

In December 1979 I planned to go to Australia with a stopover in India. This stopover became a turning point in my life. It lasted meanwhile 37 years. The reason why I stayed on in India ironically was because of the much maligned Hinduism. I realised the amazing depth and breadth of Hinduism and wondered, why it was portrayed so wrongly as a primitive, oppressive religion when it is actually the best option for mankind. The Dalai Lama said that India has great potential to help the world. He is right and the negative propaganda in the west is wrong. Hinduism is least dogmatic and closest to the truth. If it binds at all, it binds or rather unites (yog) the individual with the Divine.

Back to my stopover. I visited the southern tip of India, Kanya Kumari. A little off the coast on a huge rock, there is a memorial for Swami Vivekananda. At a bookstall there, I bought ‘Jnana Yoga’. I had not heard of Swami Vivekananda, but wanted to learn about Indian thought while in India.

Swami Vivekananda had swum to this rock to meditate in December 1892. His guru, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, had died in Calcutta six years earlier. The young man had realised that under British rule his countrymen had purposely been cut off from their culture. He wanted to wake them up, give them back their self-respect and pride in their Hindu tradition.

On this rock, he decided to participate at the World Congress of Religions in Chicago in 1893, and present Advaita Vedanta, one of the highest flowerings among the different Indian philosophical systems. Advaita Vedanta is explained in the Upanishads, the last part (=anta) of the Vedas, and postulates that essentially, everything is a Whole (a-dwaita = not two).

Swami Vivekananda became the star of the World Congress. He got a standing ovation, and was asked to give a lecture tour in the US. He was sought after by influential persons, including scientists like Tesla. But the Christians went after him. In his own words at a lecture at the Victoria Hall in Madras after coming back to India:

“There is not one black lie imaginable that the Christian missionaries did not invent against me. They blackened my character from city to city, poor and friendless though I was in a foreign country. They tried to oust me from every house and to make every man who became my friend my enemy. They tried to starve me out.”

Why did the Christians do this? Did they fear that people realise that Advaita Vedanta makes far more sense than their dogmatic belief-system?

I read ‘Jnana Yoga’, and it was fascinating. Swami Vivekananda expressed clearly what I vaguely had felt to be true. For example that all is interconnected or rather: ONE. Everything in this creation including ourselves is permeated by the same great intelligence, like waves are permeated by the same ocean. The waves may be convinced that they are separate from the ocean as they have a distinct form and name. But ultimately all the waves are nothing but the one great ocean and nothing is lost when their form is lost. Similarly, though we may consider our person as separate from others, in truth we are the one consciousness and nothing of substance is lost when form and name are lost.

Further, Swami Vivekananda claimed that the so called reality is not really real. It is a sense deception, in a similar way, as at dusk a rope is mistakenly seen as a snake, even though in reality there is only a rope. Truly true, he claimed, is our inner being (Atman) that permeates everything and makes all appearances miraculously shine forth. It is infinite, eternal. It is not an object that can be seen with the eyes or thought of with the mind.

“Brahman is not what the eyes can see but That whereby the eyes can see. Brahman is not what the mind can think but That whereby the mind can think…” declares the Kena Upanishad. It is however possible to be Brahman. Rather, we are it already – “Ayam Atman Brahman” (the individual consciousness is one with the universal consciousness) is one of the Mahavakyas (great uttarances)  of Vedanta.

Now this ocean analogy of all being one sounded almost like that article on modern physics which I had read in high school. How come? Did the scientists discover this independently or were their theories inspired by the Vedas? Had the scientists reflected on the profound insights of the Indian rishis?

Indeed this had been the case. The great scientists who were responsible for replacing Newton’s paradigm of a universe full of separate ‘things’ with an interconnected, homogeneous Whole were inspired by Vedanta: Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Pauli, Einstein, Oppenheimer, Tesla and others, all knew about and reflected on India’s ancient wisdom.

The Church was surely not amused that the brightest brains in the Occident endorsed Indian wisdom and she might have schemed to blacken this image by teaching schoolchildren all over the world that ‘Hinduism’ means a bad caste system and sinful idol worship. I heard already in primary school about ‘untouchables’ which left a lasting, negative impression about Hinduism. The Brahmins, it was claimed, were the worst. Little did I know then, that the Brahmins had taken great pains to memorize and preserve the Vedas for posterity, and the atrocities of the caste system come nowhere near the atrocities by Christians and Muslims in the name of their god.

In 1982, an international conference on the “convergence of ancient wisdom and modern science” was held in Bombay and I wrote about it for a German magazine. The program for the conference explained that India was purposely chosen as the venue as the scientific theories propounded were based on ancient Indian insights. This was as explicit as it could get: Indian wisdom helped scientists to formulate their theories.

Fritjof Capra, Rupert Sheldrake, Karl Pribram and other scientists explained that new research in physics, biology, neurology and other subjects clearly pointed to a convergence between ancient wisdom and modern science. Scientists, while searching for the substance of things, had stumbled upon a homogeneous ONE energy. Matter and energy are interchangeable and the three dimensional space and the linear time have become the four dimensional space-time–continuum that is beyond human imagination. There are no separate objects or separate existences. Everything is related and is in perpetual movement. Fritjof Capra likened it to Shiva Nataraj – the dancing Shiva.

So it was now scientifically approved that our senses deceive us and that nothing that the senses perceive truly exists –in tune with the ancient Indian concept of Maya. And science is considered as the highest authority regarding the truth. Is this view justified?

Psychology also got a major facelift at the conference thanks to transpersonal psychology. It was a new branch that was based on the Hindu concept of Atman – the transpersonal or transcendental essence in all human beings. The core of Vedanta are the four Mahavakyas of the Upanishads, which proclaim that Atman (the individual consciousness) is one with Brahman (the universal consciousness), like in “Ayam Atman Brahman”.

Finally Sanatana Dharma got its due, I felt. The comforting knowledge of unity would surely not stay only in the heads of some scientists but would influence the lives of the common people. After all, according to Hinduism, the goal of life is to realise what we truly are – not a separate person but Satchitananda, – blissful awareness.

My optimism was wrong.

If anything, there were even greater attempts to hide the profound philosophy and the contribution of India to science since the early 1980s and to prevent the common man from appreciating the Hindu way of life.

Let’s take transcendental psychology. At the conference in 1982, Swami Muktananda gave a presentation of the non-dual tradition of Kashmir Shaivism. The participants were taken to his ashram in Ganeshpuri. It was not made a secret that he was the guru of Christina and Stanislav Groff, who organised the conference on behalf of the Association of Transpersonal Psychotherapy.

Yet today, in the internet age, Wikipedia says about “transpersonal psychology” at the start:

“Amongst the thinkers who are held to have set the stage for transpersonal studies are William James, Carl Jung, Robert Assagioli and Abraham Maslow.  Commentators also mention the psychedelic movement, the psychological study of religion, parapsychology, and the interest in Eastern spiritual systems and practices, as influences that shaped the early field of transpersonal psychology.”

Not a word about India. Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism, which deserved to be mentioned before all other contributors, is missing. The long Wikipedia piece ends with a revealing remark:

“According to Cunningham, transpersonal psychology has been criticized by some Christian authors as being “a mishmash of ‘New Age’ ideas that offer an alternative faith system to vulnerable youths who turn their backs on organized religion (Adeney, 1988)”.

Those Christian authors do not offer arguments to rebut the new (ancient) theory of a transpersonal self but call it names: “mishmash of new age ideas”. They fear that vulnerable youth turn their back on organised religion.

Why do they threat this scenario? Obviously they do not even try to evaluate whether the ‘I’-feeling could indeed be transpersonal and the same in all: whether the new theory could be closer to the truth is not an issue for them. Loyalty to the ‘revealed truth’ overrides it. The mind is stuck in a straitjacket.

A pious Christian cannot allow himself to think freely. The Christian doctrine is the unquestionable truth for him. Of course this applies not only to authors but also to scientists. There may be self-censorship regarding the theories they propose.

Can a pious Christian archaeologist even consider that human civilisation started millions of years ago? How would he explain that God sent the Bible so late to humankind? He would be in serious trouble. A genuine dialogue between science and religion within his mind cannot happen. A Hindu in contrast would have no problem; on the contrary, he is encouraged to think in huge timeframes. Even one mahayuga (cycle of the four yugas) lasts 4,32 million years and there are many much greater cycles.

Could Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Einstein and others have pushed the frontiers of science and even done away with the reality of individual persons if they had been pious Christians? Probably not.

Yet strangely, even today western scientists consciously or unconsciously close their eyes to the huge contributions of India to science. For most of them, the world ends in Greece.

In an interview with National Geographic in 2015, the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg talked about great scientists. He went back to Archimedes, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galileo, Newton and Leibniz, but not a word about India, for example that the Rig Veda, the most ancient scripture in the world, in 10.22.14 already stated that the earth goes around the sun, yet Copernicus is credited with this discovery. Or that the Rishis had estimated the age of the universe correctly. Is Weinberg ignorant about those contributions or why would he not mention for example the Bhaudyana sutras which contained the Pythagoras Theorem long before Pythagoras was born, or Aryabhatta who was a path-breaking mathematician and Astronomer of the 5th century CE? Why are Indians not credited with the work they did, but their insights were often lifted and appeared under western or Arabic names? The infinity Foundation is documenting the Indian knowledge of science and technology in 20 volumes and substantiated many such cases.

The interviewer of Steven Weinberg also did not ask about India, but he did ask about “the golden age of Islamic science”.

Weinberg, a Jew, clarified that the scientists were not doing Islamic science, but science and many leading scientists during this golden age were actually irreligious or hostile to religion. He might have said this from personal experience, too. In our modern times, scientists with Jewish names are clearly overrepresented, yet nobody ever suggested, least of all those scientists, that we live in “the golden age of Jewish science.”

Al Jazeera aired a documentary on the great Muslim scientists recently, yet if one looks closer, the source of many of the inventions those scientists are credited with, for example the decimal system or algebra, is India. In India even the steel (Wootz) of the famed Damascus sword was produced.

Dogmatic religions never fostered science. What sadder example can there be than the burning of the great Nalanda University by Islamic marauders in 1193 AD. The collected treasure of the best minds was turned into ash and thousands of students were killed. Voltaire rightly said, “Those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Yet times are changing. The awareness that we would be better off without dogmatic religions is growing. Christianity is losing its hold over the mind of its followers in the west. And Islam is more and more scrutinised, too, in spite of media trying its best to out ‘Islamophobia’ as unacceptable.

But let’s find out why science flourished in India in ancient times and why Sanatana Dharma did not obstruct it. The reason is simple: Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism is based on science, or rather, it is science. Veda (from Sanskrit) means knowledge and science (from Latin) means also knowledge. Science is defined as knowledge gained from observation and experimentation. The rishis added one more method – knowledge gained from inner exploration. This inner exploration or meditation lifts Hindu Dharma actually above science and the arrogance which scientists often show towards Hindu practices is unwarranted and stems from ignorance.

“Science is also a religion. It also depends on belief”, a friend who holds a doctorate in physics said once provocatively. He has a point. The scientists believe in theories that seem to explain what they observe. Yet they don’t know for sure whether they are true. For example mainstream scientists still hold that consciousness is a kind of by-product of the brain. They may have to revise this theory ultimately.

Maybe one could say that science is in between Christianity and Islam on one side and Sanatana Dharma on the other. It is not rigid as the dogmatic religions are, because it is open to change if new insights emerge. But it is lacking the most important knowledge – the knowledge of That which alone is true.

Scientists have discovered the oneness of all, but for them the oneness is dead, without life. The rishis have discovered the oneness many thousand years earlier, but for them this oneness is alive and knows itself. So far the rishis have never been proven wrong in areas which were tested, like the age of the universe or even the distance between the sun and the earth.

Would it not make sense for modern scientists to take their claim seriously that the underlying all-pervading, pure consciousness – satchitananda – is the eternal truth, and names and forms are more like virtual reality. The truth is not something abstract, cold, and theoretical. It is the conscious, loving essence in all.

It follows that everything is sacred, everything is permeated by satchitananda. So is it really so incomprehensible when Hindus worship rivers, trees, the sun or the cow who gives so much to human beings and herself is so peaceful with the most beautiful eyes? Is it not arrogance and hypocrisy on the part of western scientists, when they rush to debunk as superstitious unexplained happenings, which Hindus consider as wondrous, yet keep mum when miracles are ascribed to Christian ‘saints’ like to Mother Teresa recently?

Are Hindus not far more on target when they see Divinity in all? Is it not true? Is it ‘more true’ to see the sun only as a ball of helium? Or water only as H2O? The Aerospace Institute in Stuttgart conducted research which indicated that water has memory. Does it not mean it is alive?

Or take the cow: Now scientists discovered that the indigenous Indian cows give better milk then for example Jersey cows. Traces of gold were confirmed in the milk of Indian cows which is useful in Ayurveda. Swami Ramdev is setting up special cow research institutes, to confirm the long held Indian beliefs about the usefulness of even the cow urine for example. How long will western scientists mock Indians worshipping the cow or using her urine as medicine?

Great scientists like Einstein did not demean spiritual practices but were aware of the huge amount of knowledge that they are NOT aware of. Lesser scientists quickly ridicule what is unfamiliar to them. Or are these scientists caught in their fixed Christian belief system and cannot think beyond it?

According to Indian texts, we live presently in a dark era, the Kali Yuga, where people are materialistic and their mind power is weak. They wrongly think that they are only body and mind. Many thousand years earlier, in the Satya Yuga, Treta Yug and Dwarpara Yug, human beings had a better connection to the spiritual dimension of their own being. For them “Aham Brahmasmi” was more real than it is for us today.

Yet the realisation of true knowledge won’t come by thinking. It comes by sinking into the vast intelligence from where thoughts emerge. Intuition springs from there. And somebody who can tap this intelligence naturally can bring superior knowledge into his mind and express it.

When the mind is stilled by dropping thoughts, the divine dimension of one’s being shines forth. True inspiration and intuition come from this level, and true happiness as well. It is this, our true nature, which we are all seeking in our pursuit of happiness. We won’t find lasting happiness among the names and forms.

And how to drop thoughts? In the Vijnanabhairava, one of the texts of Kashmir Shaivism, 112 methods are described. Maybe they are already patented in the west and come to India in the form of seminars held by foreigners charging hefty fees? The participants from the English speaking Indian elite would not notice, as they still, like under British rule, don’t learn anything about their tradition, not even about their ancient history.

The Chandogya Upanishad describes how the sage Uddalaka prodded his son Svetaketu to know “That by knowing which everything is known” and how he helped him along with valuable questions and metaphors. Today, scientists like Hawking, also search for ‘That by knowing which everything is known’ but they still have a blind spot. They don’t search where it is to be found: Within their own consciousness.

And no, I don’t dream anymore that the anchor in a news broadcast announces that scientists discovered proof that God exists. I realised that scientific proofs are valid only within assumptions that have been proven already not to be absolutely true. The apple falls down, ok, but ultimately there is no apple…

“I am” alone is self-evident. It is the truth that needs not to be proven. This truth is our greatest treasure. It is supreme, blissful Intelligence. It is within all of us. In English one could call it ‘God’.

by Maria Wirth

Interview with Steven Weinberg