Many people think that science and spirituality will always be at odds, but true religion must be supported by science, and true science must be supported by religion.
Real religion is sanatana dharma, or eternal duty. It is based on universal truth rather than rituals or superstition. Real religion is about truth because God is truth. When religion is true, it is applicable to the material world and can be used to explain natural phenomena. Here's how by taking three science courses (astronomy, chemistry, and biology) and studying three scriptures (The Bhagavad Gita [BG], The Srimad Bhagavatam [SB], and The Brahma Samhita [BS]), I was able to strengthen my understanding of God.
When I started taking science courses a couple of years ago, I began with astronomy. We learned that from a moment of extreme conditions, the universe expanded (and continues to expand), accompanied by a sound vibration. By studying scriptures (BS 5.48, BG 17.23-24), I learned that through Mahavishnu's exhalation, our universe began to expand with the primeval sound vibration of "om."
In fact, The Srimad Bhagavatam frequently refers to the universe as "the cosmic ocean," with the planets as "islands." This analogy was used countless times in my astronomy textbook, since outer space is composed mostly of, well, space. Although we know how our universe began, our astronomy textbook concluded that modern scientists are not sure how (or if) our universe will come to an end. Will it expand forever? Will it end with a "big crunch"? Scriptures reveal that our universe will eventually be absorbed by Mahavishnu's inhalation.
The Srimad Bhagavatam and The Bhagavad Gita also casually make reference to extraterrestrial life. Although we have not yet made contact with aliens, astronomers are also aware of life on other planets, simply because it is a statistical reality. As Carl Sagan says, there are "100 billion galaxies, each of which contain something like a 100 billion stars."
Because most stars have planets, life on other planets must exist. The Arecibo Observatory was created in 1960 largely with the intention to search for alien life. The Drake equation can be used to estimate how many planets in our own galaxy, at this moment, could feasibly contain life intelligent enough to contact us. The equation depends on a number of variables, but Khan Academy has completed the equation in an online tutorial, concluding that there could be 12.5 of such detectable civilizations. (But of course, if they can go faster than the speed of light, and we're still eating flesh, talking to us just isn't worth their time.)
My astronomy course also discussed the four types of universal forces: the strong force, the electromagnetic force, the weak force, and the gravitational force. The strong force is what binds the protons in the atomic nucleus together despite the fact that positive charges should repel each other. Although without this force, the universe would be chaotic, scientists have yet to explain how the strong force functions. As The Brahma Samhita (5.35) describes, Krishna, the controller of the universe, is responsible for the strong force. He maintains order through His energy, which pervades His material creation: "All the universes exist in Him and He is present in His fullness in every one of the atoms that are scattered throughout the universe, at one and the same time."
Astronomy fascinated me because the concepts discussed were so mind-boggling. Everything I learned in the course was confirmed in the scriptures, and what I read in the scriptures was confirmed by the course.
Next, I studied chemistry and biology, and one of the first things that we learned about were combustion reactions, the burning of fuel with oxygen. Chemistry explained the process of digestion as essentially being a slow combustion reaction of carbohydrates and oxygen as reactants, and carbon dioxide and water as products. In BG 15.14, Krishna says, "I am the fire of digestion in the bodies of all living entities, and I join with the air of life." Moreover, He keeps our bodies running smoothly not only by facilitating the digestion process, but also through his presence within us as the Supersoul (BG 13.23).
Another elementary principle we studied was the conservation of energy, also known as the first law of thermodynamics. This law establishes that energy can never be created or destroyed. Energy can be transferred, for instance from the sun's light energy into the chemical energy used by plants to create glucose, but energy will never cease to exist. Similarly, our immortal souls can never be created or destroyed. As Krishna says of the nature of the soul (BG 2.20), "For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain."
That being said, although the energy will not disappear, some energy is always lost in transfer. This is the second law of thermodynamics. This explains why only a few animals are at the top of the food chain; it is impossible to support more due to the significant loss of energy at each step in the food chain, which can even be a 90 percent loss per trophic level.
It is energetically inefficient to eat from the top of the chain, because we receive only a small portion of the energy we would obtain if we ate directly from the bottom. In my biology course, I learned that since plants are producers of glucose, it is most environmentally efficient to eat plants directly rather than to eat animals that have eaten the plants.
Herbivorous animals live in symbiosis with plants, because we produce the carbon dioxide that they need, and they in turn produce the oxygen that we breathe in to break down the glucose in our cells, produce the energy molecule known as ATP, and power all of our bodily reactions. Moreover, our brains run on glucose and require a continuous supply. (There are actually numerous citations--both scientific and spiritual--that support a flesh-free diet, but I'll save that for my next post.)
This brings me to my final point: Newton's third law, which is also known as the law of karma, states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. What we eat has a direct and profound impact on our physical and mental wellbeing, which is why scriptures encourage an ahimsa (non-violent, vegetarian) diet for those that are serious about their spiritual development. Studying science only strengthened my conviction and commitment to this amazing, spiritual, and delicious diet. It also complimented what I'd been reading in various ancient scriptures and made my faith even stronger.
Unfortunately, there will always be people who misinterpret data and misquote scriptures. People who do this will always be questioning the validity of "the other side," but in actuality, science and spirituality must always be aligned. Both are valid because both are based on truth.
*Note: This post also appears on my personal blog.
*This post has been updated for clarity after publication.