Dinakaran Meenamkunnu, in his talk “Science and Religion and the Image of the World Around Us,” explored the idea of maya and the relationship of appearance and reality. Quoting Shankara and Schordinger with equal ease, Meenamkunnu wove together the ideas of thinkers from across time, space, and disciplines, from Freud to Narayana Guru, to only go a full circle and offer a solution to this fundamental question. By doing so, Meenamkunnu drew into focus the historical trajectory of the question of illusion versus reality, which haunts the twin disciplines of science and religion.
Meenamkunnu began his talk by investigating the idea of maya in Shankara’s philosophy. The world is seen as a mirror image, a dream state, where everything seems true only as long as one is experiencing it and until she wakes up. Narayana Guru would put it in more beautiful words a thousand years later: the whole world that we see is a magic carpet woven out of time and space, one which has been kept on top of reality, as devi is doing all her lila, her playfulness, on it.
Meenamkunnu then cut to Erwin Schrodinger, the Austrian-Irish physicist, who said:
“I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us.”
Science tends to get lost in the inexhaustible complexity of phenomena. It relies on mathematical proof, whereas spiritual wisdom uses intimate conviction arising out of the contemplative experience. And yet, science too uses contemplation and wisdom; scientists have forged ahead on several discoveries on the basis of gut instinct. Science has its own questions about appearance and reality – sounds are waves, and matter is mostly blank space. Wisdom and contemplation are not restricted to only spirituality, but both science and religion struggle with the same question of reality in different languages.
Peeling off layer and player of appearance will not lead up to reality, but only into a void. Instead, Meenamkunnu suggests, we should understand being as seeking fuller expression in becoming. That there is a ground behind an appearing world, and its significance lies in the effects it causes to appear. Form and essence are one and the same; they are very closely interlocked. Rupam is shunyata, and shunyata, rupam. The question then is not ‘what is reality and what is appearance’, but ‘how do we understand and accept the world we see as true, while understanding that its essence runs far deeper as well?’