Thursday, January 17, 2013

Natural versus Supernatural

What is supernatural depends on what is natural.  In the context of Newtonian physics instantaneous action at a distance is natural.  With Einstein's special relativity,  the instantaneous action at a distance is supernatural.

One should distinguish supernatural from super-human.  Certainly the Vedic devas were superhuman in that they had powers ordinary humans did not have.  Were they supernatural?  Well, as per the story, by the power of his tapasya, the Rishi Vishwamitra created the southern skies, the antipodes.   (Vishwamitra had promised the disgraced king Trisanku that he would get to heaven. So when Indra barred Trisanku, Vishwamitra extended the heavens.)  So these powers were not seen to be supernatural, only superhuman, and humans, by dint of effort, could achieve these powers.  The power of tapasya accrued to both what we would call morally good (such as the rishis) as well as what we could call morally bad (such as the asuras and rakshasas) and thus, like nuclear power, was morally neutral, not granted by gods and simply a part of nature.  In fact, there are many stories of the devas feeling threatened by someone or other's tapasya.

I'd say that for most part, the ancient Hindus did not attribute supernatural powers to their gods, only superhuman powers.  When Lord Rama ordered the ocean to make a passage to Sri Lanka, the Ocean deva pleaded with him,  that he (the ocean) could not go against his fundamental nature; that all he could do was that if Rama built a causeway, he could refrain from washing it away.  If Hindus were Biblically inclined, the sea would have parted, as it did for Moses, a miracle.

A case of bad physics, no doubt, with the ancient Hindus; and no doubt what was seen as natural back then should now be understood to be supernatural; but those who want to find a religion within a Hindu belief in the supernatural, will have to think quite a bit about that.