|Nov/Dec 1999 Book Reviews|
Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ph.D.
Golden Egg Publishing, 1999 248pp
Ancient religious scriptures, as much as any other form of literature, have been thought to harbor covert meanings which lie in interpretive layers beyond the vision of the empirical reader. If in the beginning was the word, then in its aftermath is an aggregation of hidden messages that await discovery. In the Vedic Physics: Scientific Origin of Hinduism, Dr. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a research scientist at the University of Toronto, claims he has unearthed the genuine, scientific meaning of the Rgveda, one of the holy books of the Hindu religion.
Seeing no conflict in applying scientific knowledge to the sacred Hindu texts, Roy comes to the conclusion that the Rgveda is in actuality, an accurate record of cosmology, whereas in comparison, modern physicists have failed to explain the formation of the universe correctly. At least according to Roy, who reminds us in Vedic Physics that "modern science is not the only way to investigate the subtle nature of reality." With the help of particle physics, coupled with the unwavering conviction of his Hindu beliefs, Roy attempts to teach modern science a thing or two by presenting his case that the Rgveda unambiguously answers the eternal question of how the universe evolved.
Working towards that end, Roy surpasses the traditional view of the Vedic texts-of which the Rgveda is just one of four-, a view primarily held in the circles of Western scholarship. These scholars could envision no other proposition from the Vedas other than that of a spiritual, mythological, and psychological nature, thereby excluding the presence of a scientific sensibility in them. Roy however, resuscitates the scientific value of the Vedas by arguing that the ancient Vedic sages discovered the existence of a Vedic physics and cosmology centuries before the advent of modern science. The sages meticulously surveyed such essential aspects of cosmology as "subtle notions of potential and atomic structure" and the "boundaries of the universe" in the Vedas long before the theories of Albert Einstein rose to prominence in the West. By recapitulating the Rgveda through a scientific prism, Roy offers to demonstrate a native, pre-modern scientific knowledge that in various cases is quite distinguishable from that which eventually predominated the Western world.
One of the most salient examples of this opposition between the Vedas and modern science involves the birth of the universe. Modern physicists have gravitated in recent decades towards the famous "Big Bang" theory. "Big Bang" stipulated that the universe arose out of the concentration of mass-energy in a single point. It is from this point that the universe was filled with tremendous heat, thereby producing the energy that propelled its accelerated expansion.
Relying on a deconstructive and analogical methodology, Roy challenges the Big Bang theory with his unique interpretation of the Vedic origin of the universe. To begin with, Roy is convinced that the universe issued forth from an absolute vacuum. Mass-energy did not exist in this initial "cold" phase. It was produced slowly at first on the surface of the universe-the "surface" of a universe coming out of a void being a strange idea in itself, but one that Roy presents interesting hypotheses for. He goes on to say that the creation of mass-energy will continue like a perpetual assembly line providing that the expansion of the universe does not run out of steam. In contrast, there is no current production of mass-energy in the Big Bang theory as all of it was produced at the very outset of the universe's evolution.
Vedic Physics is filled with this kind of carefully laid out, scientifically-based construction of the nature of the universe. This is at once one of the book's attractive but problematic qualities. Although Roy's ideas are an intellectually fascinating read, many of them are at the same time difficult to comprehend at first glance for the lay reader. Unless one is an expert in or an aficionado of the field of physics, attempting to absorb Roy's melange of scientific interpretations-many of them distressingly technical and convoluted-will take a fair effort on the part of someone who has little or no knowledge of such a complex area of study.
Compounding this problem is the varied assortment of Hindu terms and names in the Vedic Physics. Although Roy deserves credit for being thorough in his inclusion of the key figures in the Vedic scriptures, his exposition requires some serious streamlining. Roy becomes carried away by his ardent passion for the ancient texts as you can almost feel him obliviously expanding on an already confusing glut of characters, supplementary characterizations, and interpretations in the text. This consequently makes it a perplexing chore for novices and newcomers to the Hindu scriptures to remember, let alone absorb, who is who in the book, who did what, and what each term and character represents, not to mention their relationship to Roy's ideas. A glossary near the end of Vedic Physics helps to alleviate this problem somewhat. But with the dizzying plethora of tongue-twisting information that Roy throws out, one could be forgiven for giving in to frustration and even disinterest.
Yet another complication that is conspicuous in Vedic Physics is the absolute certainty that Roy projects through his interpretations. It is one thing to pose alternative interpretations of an ancient religious book. It is however, another matter to portray those interpretations as the categorical truth and nothing but. Roy suffers from what Umberto Eco calls "an excess of wonder" when it comes to his interpretations of the Hindu texts. Roy's enthusiasm for the Vedas causes him to "overestimate"-to borrow again from Eco-what is essentially his subjective decoding of the scriptures. True, Roy has displayed a respectable amount of depth and rigor to support his findings. But this still does not ensure-nor will it ever-that Roy has arrived at an interpretation for the Vedas that will put an end to all others. This is especially the case for an ancient holy text that is as susceptible to a broad spectrum of interpretations as the Rgveda is.
Besides, why should all other interpretations of the Vedas be considered either misconstrued or inadequate just because Roy insists he has raised his standard on the final interpretive ground? Roy may think that he has ultimately transcended competing interpretations of the Vedas, but this does not give him the objective right to disregard or de-emphasize previous interpretations, or shun another reader's venture at undermining his understanding of the scriptures even if an equally rational and in-depth case for interpretive license is made. Any interpretation is worth considering providing that it is based on sound reasoning and evidence, for textual interpretation is meant to be liberally inclusive and not the private property of an exclusive group or individual.
Lamentably, Roy remains in steadfast solidarity with those who would turn away from novel interpretations other than their own. But never is one so out of touch with reality as when he or she believes they have answered all the questions. Roy's smug confidence in his interpretations has turned Vedic Physics into a condition where the readers are first shown the narrative of their interpretive rejection, a narrative that is used to marginalize or extinguish any differing perspectives they may have. It is too bad because Roy concocts an interesting blend of science and religion in his book, not an easy task. Regrettably, it is a mixture that is eclipsed by interpretive dogmatism and an alarming affectation of certitude on the part of the author.