When I was in graduate school, there was a physics colloquium that left a deep impression on me. The speaker, presumably a physicist with a religious bent (or at least curiosity) was trying to explain in scientific terms the miracle of Jesus walking on water – specifically his walking on the Sea of Galilee to approach the ship carrying his disciples in stormy weather.

Jesus walking on water is one of the fundamental miracles of the Christian faith. The colloquium speaker, however, contended that the event had a simpler explanation that was less than divine. In his view, it was a matter of optical illusion – a mirage of sorts. In high wind and darkness, when Jesus was walking on the beach and coming toward the ship -- which the storm had forced to remain close to the shore -- he simply appeared to be walking on water. When Peter actually tried to step on the sea to get to his master, he nearly drowned and was rescued by Jesus in relatively shallow waters.

The speaker tried to buttress his point with pictures of beaches on the Sea of Galilea under various weather conditions. But what intrigued me most about his explanation was not so much the science itself as the willingness to bring scientific scrutiny to bear upon religious events that are imbued with faith but are of questionable historicity. Here was a case study of science facing religion, I thought appreciatively, and almost facing off against it.

Later in life, I became friendly with an Englishman who taught mathematics in college and who had “found faith,” in his words, as a young man. Talking to him, and also other religious Christians with a rational or scientific mind, I found that they had certain discomfort with many of the so-called miracles of their faith. This is especially true of Roman Catholicism where, even to this day, two miracles vouched for by observers are considered sine qua non for the canonization of a deceased person to sainthood.

This exposure to faith and science had the following effect on me. I began to think that the faith I inherited at birth, namely Hinduism, ought to be subjected to similar scientific scrutiny. I began to make statements to that effect, to anyone who would listen, without quite realizing or properly articulating what I meant. To begin with, I was not sure which miracles to scrutinize. While Hinduism is full of mythological stories, wherein deities interact with humans and perform wondrous acts, there are relatively few miracles with all human agents. The handful of modern ones – typically, snakes protecting babies, Sai Baba remotely sending aromatic ashes to his devotees, or statues of Lord Ganesha dispensing milk through tusks – are too mundane to merit a thorough investigation and debunking.

Recently, however, I discovered a huge gap in my knowledge. I learnt that Bengali authors of a previous generation had indeed grappled with certain stories widely popular in the Hindu faith, and tried to bring the divine down to the merely mortal. I am referring here, in particular, to how Kunti conceived her children in the Mahabharata.

Per the story as narrated in the Hindu epic, Kunti was an unmarried princess who, at her father’s behest, took on the task of looking after and providing hospitality to the irascible sage, Durvasa, when he came to visit their kingdom. Durvasa was very pleased with her effort and gave her a mantra as a boon, through the incantation of which she could invoke any god and bear a child by him. The young Kunti, naturally curious, tried the mantra once before marriage and had a child (Karna) by the Sun god. Later, after being married to Pandu and becoming aware of his curse (of certain death during copulation, which might arguably be a fig leaf for impotence), she got her husband’s permission to have three sons by three different gods, and taught the mantra to Pandu’s second wife, Madri, to let her bring forth twins.

This story at some level screams for scientific rebuttal, and I found out that it was given by two stalwarts of Bengali literature. First, Samaresh Basu, writing as Kalkut, posited that the boon story was nonsense and Karna was in fact the love child of Rishi Durvasa. Next Prativa Basu went a step further and speculated that the children of both Kunti and Madri were fathered by Pandu’s half-brother, Vidura.

Both these explanations are entirely plausible, but that is not the point I wish to make. Rather, I wish to explore why (aside from my limited knowledge of literature on the whole) I was not aware of these alternate stories for fifty-odd years, why these stories never got traction or currency to compete with the version described in the Mahabharata. The explanation, I believe, lies in the human reaction to miracles, myths and their intersection with faith. For the reasons described below, I have now tempered my previous enthusiasm for the use of scientific methodology to challenge tall religious tales.

First of all, Mahabharata, at some level is a soap opera on paternity. Hardly any of the chief protagonists is a son (or daughter) of their putative father. The epic is instead full of juicy stories about who fathered whom and how. The Kauravas cannot trace their lineage to King Kuru, nor are the Pandavas biological children of King Pandu. Draupadi emerges not as a baby from her mother’s womb but as a fully-formed young woman from King Drupad’s yagna fire. To speculate and insert characters like Durvasa and Vidura into this paternity mix, howsoever logical, is therefore not scandalous per se – simply quotidian. The modified narrative is unexciting to the secular, sacrilegious to the devout, and is of limited interest overall.

Second, unlike a miracle, which typically involves ordinary humans, myths by definition involve supernatural beings and deities or demigods. As a result, they are far more difficult to put under the scientific microscope. Mahabharata’s stories, mostly paranormal and mythological, are therefore harder to bring under the ambit of scientific inquiry.

Third, even for religious miracles from the Bible or the Koran, it is not clear how many people truly care about their possible scientific interpretation. I have heard attempts to explain the parting of the Red Sea by Moses, and its subsequent reversion to drown the Egyptian Army, in terms of dams, water diversion and breached levees. I do not see any sign that such explanations have gotten hold of the popular imagination. On the contrary, people seem content to fantasize about tall tales and not worry overmuch about their reality or scientific credibility.

Finally, there is the question of faith. Faith essentially consists of a willing suspension of disbelief, but it is more than that. It is a type of suspension of disbelief suffused with soulful spirituality. Empirical science appears there as an unwelcome intruder, unless you are inclined to challenge the basic spirituality itself. The devout will never be swayed by ordinary logic.

Let me summarize this way. I am still deeply impressed by scientists trying to explain Biblical miracles in empirical terms. I still hold that Hindu beliefs need to be subjected to a similar scrutiny. But I also realize that such challenges make sense for the modern-day milk-dispensing Ganesha rather than mythologies from Hindu epics or puranas. Certain myths, after all, cannot be framed in terms of scientific inquiry: God saving Isaac from being sacrificed by Abraham in the Old Testament; the angel Gabriel foretelling the birth of Jesus to Virgin Mary in the New Testament; or Prophet Muhammad’s overnight trip from Mecca to Jerusalem in Islam are but some examples. I am now more inclined to put a majority of stories from ancient Hindu scriptures in that category.



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