There is a criticism made that Shankara described world processes in terms of the physics of the time. His statements are wrong – as for instance when he says that the world is composed of earth, water, air, fire and ether. Shankara in 700 AD simply could not be expected to know the conclusions of science so his presentations are simply mythological. Thus the critics.
If we enquire, what is the science that David Hume knew and Shankara did not know, we shall find that a major element was the doctrine of phlogiston. It is recorded in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in 1778, which was the current knowledge of science at that time of David Hume and Tom Paine, both of whom were so contemptuous of those who could contemplate a flouting of the “laws of nature.” Like a conjurer they slip in the assumption that the laws of nature were known to them, but that is completely false. Things burned because they contained phlogiston, which consumed itself and left the ash residue. Shankara did not know this, but the doctrine, as a matter of fact, is quite wrong. It did explain some things but it was finally exploded about 1800 mainly by the French chemist, Lavoisier, who was an aristocrat and who was executed by the Revolution on the grounds that “The Republic does not need savants”. In that way the Goddess of Reason, who had been enshrined in Nôtre Dame to replace the Almighty God of Christianity, was not particularly effective in helping humankind.
It is true Shankara did not concentrate on subjects like economics or physics because he did not think that they had much to do with the central purpose of man’s existence here. If we look at our modern triumphs in technology, they are mostly concerned with making us more comfortable, or more effective at killing each other; they are not concerned with making us more intelligent. Nor do we know how to make ourselves honest again. We have no idea how to do this.
Then there may be effects which we do not know about. The Romans produced masterpieces of architecture such as the Pont du Gard which was only part of a great water course serving what is now the city of Nîmes. But it was lined with lead so they were poisoning themselves. It may well be, for instance, with short wave radio going through the air all the time, that we are affecting our minds but are unaware of it, though perhaps the symptoms of a sort of degeneration in taste do appear in most of the arts. People do not send each other Picassos as Christmas cards or even half-fill a concert of 20th century music.
Shankara believed that the world is created by the Lord to provide a stage for men to work out their past and present karma actions; the process is to liberate the Lord who is also apparently bound by Maya – trick of illusion – in the succession of bodies. Shankara looked for health to make this purpose easier, but not to comfort or luxury. He thought that a minimal description of the world process was sufficient. For instance the sequence earth, water, air, fire, ether represent the solid, liquid, gaseous phases with fire as chemical combination and ether as what is now called the space-time continuum. He does make comments about the divine administration of the universe as for instance when he says in his commentary to the Prashna Upanishad that “The goddess of the earth pulls the life energy of men just so much; if she pulled more strongly, they would fall flat on their faces and if she stopped pulling they would float away into the air.” This was 900 years before Newton’s theory of gravity as a pull. But Shankara presented this statement, and others like it, with a view to bring worship into daily life, thus purifying the mind. He did not think that measuring gravity would serve any useful purpose. The enquiry and search were to penetrate not into details of the Maya illusion externally but into the nature of the divine source of the external Maya, and by yoga practice into the internal unveiling of the Lord within.
© 1998 Trevor Leggett