The Theosophical Forum – June 1938


Science and the Eastern Doctrine of Maya

The rapid advance of science toward concepts of the order of the universe hitherto unsuspected in the West has already led to a very near approach to the age-old teaching of the Vedanta expressed in the word Maya, commonly, though imperfectly, translated as "illusion," in contradistinction to "reality."

R. Potter, in Science, December 17, in a synopsis of a symposium on "Philosophical Concepts in Modern Physics" by four leading American physicists, explains that it is no longer possible to regard the atom as a kind of solar system in miniature. No mechanical model or picture can express its true nature. He says:

One needs a sharp mental adjustment to get over the idea that electrons and atoms and electric waves are real things that you can touch or see. Many people know that one can't see electrons, but familiarity with the term lends a sort of mental faith in their reality. These terms of modern physics are merely convenient — and often misleading — mental concepts which represent certain symbols in mathematical equations. The things that may seem real turn out to be merely "tools" of the mind just as a test-tube is a tool of the chemist. . . . And above all, don't put too much reliance on what you may think is your common sense. Remember that common sense, like Einstein's theory, is relative.

But, as he points out, the experiments which are guided at every step by the abstractions and symbols are very practical. Even though we cannot make comprehensible "models" or mental pictures of the symbols the results are definite enough. For instance, recent researches into radio-activity and the production of new elements, etc., have opened a most important field in the cure of disease. Through the study of the relationships of the atomic or electronic "symbols," unknown and mysterious though they be, are we learning something of what is actually happening in that aspect of the universe which is available to our senses.

While it is only a short time ago that mental pictures of the structure of the atom were regarded as valid, physicists (such as Dr. Dampier-Whetham in his History of Science, 1930) were even then expressing their belief that sooner or later the atomic models and any intelligible form of mechanistic explanation of matter would fail and that we should be left face to face with "Mystery'! And this has already come to pass.

Dr. Dorothy Turner, in her article in the Aryan Path for December on "The Ignorance of Science," explains the position of modern physics in regard to "matter" with great clearness, and supports the possibility that science is moving directly toward a purely mystical and spiritual interpretation of the cosmos. We quote a few of her concluding remarks:

Once it was possible to picture the nucleus of the atom as something "real," but nowadays we are left with hardly that much ground to stand on, for we have had to abandon all our early notions of a substance. Modern physics, in fact, leads to the conclusion that the atom nucleus is just a center from which radiations spread. Matter is interpreted in terms of wave motion, and if we ask how can there be motions without some substance to be put into motion, we are left with an unanswered question. . . .

Science indeed is not concerned with any assertion as to realities. It deals with abstractions. Certain factors of experience are taken into account; while others, perhaps those most important to the inner life of man, are neglected. But now that we have shaken off that old bugbear of "reality" it is probable that the aesthetic and moral values will no longer be regarded as factors of experience which can be neglected. It is even possible that men of science will turn from their tenuous world of abstractions to the mystic quest and through spiritual experience find riches never before dreamed of in their philosophy.

In one of H. P. Blavatsky's magnificent passages in The Secret Doctrine where she protests against materialistic physics in 1888, she points out that unless scientists face the problem of the divisibility of the atom (now, of course, established, but then considered incredible because it would lead to doubting the very existence of physical matter) they will find themselves in an impossible position. Yet the divisibility of the atom, carried to its logical conclusion — infinite divisibility — resolves matter into simple centers of force, and brings us face to face with its illusory nature, or the Oriental Maya. (Maya, does not mean illusion in the sense of seeing something that does not exist, but a misleading perception of reality.) H. P. Blavatsky says that the whole science of Occultism is based upon the divisibility of the atom, for it leads directly to the existence of something deeper than physical matter, of "substance" in states of tenuity "undreamt of by the most spiritually disposed chemists and physicists." Let our scientific readers compare pages 518-521, volume I of The Secret Doctrine with the latest speculations of modern physics and see for themselves how truly she spoke when she said that many of the teachings of the Ancient Wisdom would be rediscovered by the more intuitive minds of the twentieth century, and her statements vindicated.

According to Theosophy, man has indeed the power to penetrate the veil of Maya, and to get a true picture of things as they really are. To quote from G. de Purucker's Occult Glossary:

There is a deathless Reality behind, which forms the substratum or the Truth of things, out of which the phenomenal in all its myriad relative manifestations flows. And there is a Way, a Road, a Path, by which men may reach this Reality behind, because it is in man as his inmost Essence, and therefore primal origin. In each one is fundamentally this Reality which we are all in search of. Each one is the Path that leads to it, for it is the Heart of the Universe. — pp. 150-1

Photographing the Atom

Though we must regard the atom as only appearing to be a solid material body, whose nature is still a mystery, yet Sir William Bragg recently showed by means of X-Ray pictures that it is possible to take shadow-photographs which record the arrangements of the atoms in the molecules of crystals. He says: "even the distances between individual atoms in a crystal can be calculated accurately to within one per cent, from these pictures, and the dimensions of a unit "cell" in a crystal can be measured much more accurately." In this way it can be shown that the differences in arrangement of identical carbon atoms in the diamond, in graphite, and in coal, clearly explain their respective characteristics, such as hardness, softness, etc. The cause of such differences is of course as unknown to modern science as the real nature of the "substance" of which atoms are composed. Occult science denies that the tremendous forces which guide these identical atoms of carbon into such different patterns, and which hold them in place, are purely mechanical and blindly unconscious. But in order to penetrate deeply into the mystery of Causes, where only a very few can hope to succeed, methods other than those of physical science must be used, as the Mahatman K. H. states in his famous letter of encouragement for Professor Crookes (The Mahattna Letters to A. P. Sinnett, pp. 341-2), saying that the seekers for Truth must have in themselves "the elements of success," elements that are not merely intellectual (Mdnasic), but spiritual (Buddhic), perhaps a surprising thing to tell a modern scientific researcher, at least in the nineteenth century.

Cosmic Rays and Evolution

The Swedish Sydsvenska Dagbladet publishes an article by Dr. Axel Corlin on this subject which supports the ancient belief in the interdependence of everything in the universe, a concept hinted at by Eddington when he says that the activity of the smallest electron on the earth affects even the distant galaxies. As Dr. Corlin says, the discovery that X-Rays can modify the heredity of plants and even of some higher forms of life, causing mutations, suggests that the far more powerful Cosmic Rays may produce similar effects and be the cause of tremendous changes in the evolution of terrestrial life-forms.

The Cosmic Rays become more numerous as we ascend into the higher regions of our atmosphere, and if they help to produce new species it would seem that in elevated plateaux or in mountainous regions we ought to find a greater variety of species than in low levels. Corlin points out that Hamshaw Thomas, an English scientist, made a study of the comparative abundance of both wild and cultivated species of plants in low and high altitudes in similar latitudes, and found that an increase in varieties actually takes place with increasing altitude. This is a good argument for the Cosmic Ray hypothesis.

Other researches, by the German scientists Krebs, Rajewski, and Zickler, have shown that plant mutations can be modified by protective arrangements which control the impact of the Cosmic Rays. Dr. Corlin believes that even if Cosmic Rays can affect only the lower forms of life, higher forms may well be affected by environmental changes produced by the modifications of the others, with whom they are closely associated. He closes his article with the interesting suggestion that if Cosmic Rays really produce effective mutations: "the fundamental idea of ancient astrology returns in a modern guise; the distant stars do interfere with life on earth."

While there is much truth in this statement, we cannot agree that such a cause as the mere mechanical action of the Cosmic Rays can be responsible for the majestic and purposeful march of evolution on earth. The cause is far too insignificant to account for the effect; a conclusive argument which can be used against all the soul-denying evolutionary schemes of the mechanistic theorists.

Unexplained Change of Climate in Northern Europe

The weather provides a safe topic of conversation, but we are less interested in discussing climate because, as the schoolboy said, "It goes on all the time." But this is not quite correct, and we have an example of a surprising change in a comparatively short time in a recent report from Northern Europe. Dr. Kurt Tinnberg, Stockholm archaeologist, has recently found that only four thousand years ago the far northern territory of the Laps, well within the Arctic Circle, had a warm and genial climate as is shown by the discovery of unmistakable remains of grape-vines! We shall be grateful if some friend in Sweden will send us further information about this matter as it may be of importance in regard to certain Theosophical teachings about pre-historic conditions. Other researches, in more southerly parts of Europe have shown that twelve thousand years ago the inhabitants were sufficiently civilized to keep sheep, cows, and horses, and to make excellent leather. Above all, they had linen garments made of flax at that remote period! Is it merely a coincidence that these northern Europeans were using linen at the same time as the Badarian settlers in the Fayum, Egypt, were making linen of a quality unsurpassed, in fact un-equaled, by the best that we can produce today, as Dr. Petrie and others have reported? The earliest remains of the Badarians, so far discovered, date back about fourteen thousand years from the present day, as proved by the rate of deposition of the Nile mud. (This date is referred to in The Secret Doctrine, II, 750.

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