“Of these, the wise one who is in full knowledge in union with Me through pure devotional service is the best. For I am very dear to him, and he is dear to Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.17)
Question: “In the history of religion in Europe and parts west, for the longest time science, intellectualism, and philosophy were considered taboo. You basically had to accept whatever the church thought, attend the various functions, and resign yourself to the fact that you were the lowliest sinner who ever walked the planet. The Enlightenment period followed by the breakthroughs of modern science did much to tarnish the image of established religion in these regions, for past ideas were discredited through discovery and application of the intellect. Where does the intellect come into play in bhakti-yoga? What about scientific discovery?”
The term “bhakti-yoga” can be translated in so many different ways. His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, himself a true renaissance man, preferred the English translation of “devotional service.” He also coined the term “Krishna consciousness,” for the devotion in bhakti is meant exclusively for God. One of God’s many names is Krishna, which means “all-attractive.” Full attractiveness is for an object that is animate, and animation thus means that the object of service in bhakti is a distinct personality.
As consciousness is the true objective of bhakti-yoga, which is considered the culmination of all religious practice, anything can be used in forming it. Science and intellect are but aspects of nature, after all. If my goal is to eat to my satisfaction for dinner tonight, whatever ingredients exist in nature are at my disposal. I can utilize flour, sugar, butter, fruits, vegetables, etc. The objective is to eat, which brings a certain taste.
Krishna consciousness also has a taste, and it can be generated through the temporary body that we possess. We didn’t order this body. We didn’t go to the store and pick it out. We didn’t sit naked as a spirit soul and beg for someone to bring us a covering. It came to us through nature’s arrangement. In this way we know that we are inferior to nature. Even the person who denies the existence of God at least acknowledges the higher power of nature. Their supreme authority is the nature which always controls them.
The arrangement of nature delivers our body. In this body we have an intellect, which is sharpened through knowledge. One form of knowledge gathering is experiment. Come up with a theory, run a test, and then study the results. This works for any type of knowledge, not simply that relating to the physical world. To say that science is forbidden in a practice meant to please the original controller of nature is quite silly. Indeed, the majority of knowledge acquired throughout the time in life is from practical realizations, where very small, informal experiments take place on a regular basis.
As intellect and experiment can be used to be conscious of God, they can also be used to forget Him. It may have been that such prohibitions in the past were implemented with this fear in mind. Nevertheless, the person who is fully knowledgeable actually takes the greatest delight in devotion. In the Bhagavad-gita, the personality Krishna says that four types of people initially approach Him. There are those who want money, those who want relief from distress, those who are inquisitive, and those who are already knowledgeable. It is this last group which becomes most dear to Krishna, for they are free of all material desires.
“Free from all contaminations of material desires, the distressed, the inquisitive, the penniless, and the seeker after supreme knowledge can all become pure devotees. But out of them, he who is in knowledge of the Absolute Truth and free from all material desires becomes a really pure devotee of the Lord.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 7.17 Purport)
For reaching the goal of God consciousness, one is fully encouraged to exercise their intellect.
“Question everything so that when you are sure that there is more to life than just sense gratification you will be ready to take up devotional service to God in earnest. Blind faith may help you for a while, but if you aren’t fully convinced of the authority, glory, and superiority of bhakti-yoga, you won’t get the full taste from it.”
We can look to some early experiments in the history of electricity to see how science can be used to help one better understand God. For the longest time, it was believed that lightning was a direct attack from God on those who are sinners. In one sense, there is some validity to the punishing aspect, but in the Vedas the clearer explanation is provided. The material nature operates within three modes and inflicts three types of punishment. These exist for every person living here, regardless of time or place. The results are administered by godly personalities in charge of the material elements, and those results arrive accordingly with karma, or action and reaction.
When such facts aren’t known, one has no choice but to speculate. Therefore previously the consensus opinion amidst the less intelligent was that lightning was directly coming from God and that it intended to hit its targets. A printer living in America in the 18th century was spending much of his retirement conducting scientific research. He was fascinated with electricity, of which little was known at the time. He proposed the idea that lightning and electricity were one and the same. He devised some tests that could be used to see if this was true, as he had seen how pointed objects attracted electricity and carried the electrical charge through a wire that was grounded. He proposed several experiments that could be done with lightning to test this theory. These experiments were proven in France and later on by himself in the most famous flying of a kite in history.
When the theory was proven, the people of France in particular rejoiced. They then put up lightning rods on their buildings, especially on the taller ones. Previously there were church bells rung whenever there was a lightning storm, as the hope was that the sound would ward off the storm or that the bell would alert others to seek safety. Lightning was causing a bit of a problem, as many tall buildings had been damaged through lightning strikes. So many of the men ringing the church bells also perished, for no one realized that since the church towers were often the highest buildings in the area, they had the best chance of being hit by the lightning. The lightning rod thus helped to save so many lives.
There was some who were not happy about this, however. One notable personality wrote that the lightning rod was now going against God’s desire to punish people with His lightning. The soon to be even more famous printer from America responded that the same offense would have to be made by any person who ever erected a roof, for rain is also God’s will. If one seeks shelter from rain, why would they not from lightning?
"Surely the Thunder of Heaven is no more supernatural than the Rain, Hail or Sunshine of Heaven, against the Inconvenience of which we guard by Roofs & Shades without Scruple." (Benjamin Franklin, Letter to a friend, 1753)
Though this scientific discovery disproved common church teachings at the time, it can be also helpful in so many ways in understanding God. One can use the lightning rod to aid them in their devotion, in the same way that the roof on top of the temple allows the residents to continue to always contemplate the beautiful features belonging to the Personality of Godhead. The resourcefulness of the printer shows that man has advanced intelligence, more so than the animals. That intelligence can be used to do good. The greatest good is to allow the mind to always think of God. Despite all the obstacles, even those which are sometimes offered by organized religions, one can figure out a way, through applying their intellect, to stay devoted.
“That abode of Mine is not illumined by the sun or moon, nor by electricity. One who reaches it never returns to this material world.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.6)
By knowing that lightning is electricity, one can also more fully appreciate the Supreme Lord and His potencies. Lightning is but a small representation of His immense strength. The collective material nature indeed is more powerful than the lightning, and that nature is also a rather insignificant energy of God’s. In the Bhagavad-gita it is said that in Krishna’s eternal abode electricity is not needed; the realm is self-illuminating. Thus through applying the intellect, gathering transcendental knowledge from Krishna Himself, and understanding everything in terms of the larger picture, one can ascend to the realm of self-illumination to always bask in the sweetness and intelligence of the original author of everything.
To avoid science should we try?
Or the intellect we should apply?
Of the four who to Krishna first go,
The wise are the most dear to Him so.
So your full intellect and observation use,
Blessed are the intelligent who devotion choose.
But with material energy time best not spent,
To land of self-illumination devoted souls are sent.