Jaggi Vasudev is a self-styled new-age guru whose philosophy and agenda are represented by his activities through his organization, the Isha Foundation. Isha Foundation has steadily been gaining a follower base among the educated middle class in India and among Indian expatriates in USA and other countries. Among other things, Isha Foundation and Jaggi Vasudev are primarily purveyors of instruction in yoga and meditation. Through their instructional sermons, blogs, interviews, and other literature, they also dish out unscientific advice about life, health, and diet.
Mr. Vasudev has recently given a few sermons, which, are plainly speaking, anti-science. He tries to cast scientists as being naive outsiders to the supposedly wonderful world governed by the laws described in his pseudoscientific philosophy. In my opinion, the sermons are virulently and dishonestly anti-science. It is quite evident that Jaggi Vasudev does not understand the basics of the method of science that he self-righteously decries as being inferior. My hypothesis is that Jaggi Vasudev’s act of interspersing his religious sermon with science is a conscious attempt to appeal to the urbane middle class. Using intelligently misrepresented scientific concepts, Jaggi Vasudev willfully seeks to discredit the method of science so that his followers adopt his supposedly superior philosophies.
The above video is a case study of sorts into how self-styled modern day ‘gurus’ make their woo-laden sermons appealing to the educated middle class. In general, the educated middle class (in India and elsewhere) is not educated well enough to reject pseudoscience, yet people remember enough science from high school to be awed by popular (mis)representations. Since most people last encounter rigorous science in high school, much of what one should know about science is forgotten later in life. The listeners that Mr. Vasudev seems to appeal are in this demography and know just enough science to ‘understand’ the dishonest and incorrect (pseudo)scientific claims of self-styled gurus. Further, Mr. Vasudev’s cunning and unprecedented use of ‘they’ and ‘us’ to refer to scientists and his followers suggests that he seeks to represent his organization as a ‘only path to The Truth‘-type cult.
Jaggi Vasudev fails to recognize that scientific progress is a remarkable by-product of human ingenuity. He wrongly claims that the scientific method is not the only approach to understanding the universe. At the beginning of the above video, Mr. Vausdev attempts to take listeners on a brief tour of the history of science. More specifically, he mentions facts that most people would remember from high school physics. He attempts a vague exposition on basic physics, by using unsubstantiated but accurate-sounding accounts of the history of modern physics. In the art of spin, such an introduction is probably designed to lend credibility to the scientific accuracy of Mr. Vasudev’s woo and to establish his physics credentials.
Let’s examine critically, Mr. Vasudev’s claims, while playing along with the ridiculous branding of scientists as some type of ‘the others’. Below, I paraphrase or quote Mr. Vasudev’s claims, and point out how he is always either inaccurate, illogical, factually wrong, or dishonest.
Jaggi Vasudev Does Not Understand Physics
Mr. Vasudev says, “They seem to have found something near to what they are referring to as God particle [sic]. The Higgs boson, that has a mass of certain significance.” Evidently, he knows nothing about what he is saying. If the entire premise of Mr. Vasudev’s sermon is the affirmation of the existence of a Higgs-boson like particle, shouldn’t he at the very least, understand what the Higgs-boson is? His claim that ‘Higgs boson has a mass of certain significance’ is not accurate enough to qualify as science. The Higgs-boson is a part of the standard model of physics and there have been several attempts at explaining the significance of its discovery, such as the video below by Jorge Cham of phdcomics.com.
Mr. Vasudev ignorantly claims that 1) yoga attempts to realize the space between particles, 2) scientists seek answers to the same questions (about the space between particles), but have given up on their attempt. The first argument has absolutely no scientific basis. The second assertion is a vague claim at best and false at worst, depending on how generous we are in interpreting it. If we assume that Mr. Vasudev is aware of the quest for understanding dark matter and dark energy, then he is willfully misrepresenting facts because this is indeed a very hot area of research.
Jaggi Vasudev states the interesting fact that much of the universe is ’empty space’ (e.g. in each atom, the nucleus and electron are separated by space that consists of ‘nothing’, loosely speaking). While it is true that ’empty space’ has recently baffled scientists, Mr. Vasudev’s description of the science is inaccurate, vague, and incomplete. Compare his loose remark with the impressive and scientifically accurate explanation by Brian Cox (via Phil Plait) of this very fact and its implications in simple, yet accurate language. Mr. Vasudev, however, attempts to give his sermon a pretense of scientific accuracy. Judging by the number of followers he has, his strategy appears to be reasonably successful.
“If you look at the universe, you see nothing. But if you look closely enough into an atom, it yields to you.[sic]”- This sounds so much like what a scientist like Carl Sagan would say. Yet, this platitude is neither complete, nor accurate as Mr. Vasudev intends to portray. Let’s assume for a moment that by ‘looking at the universe’ Mr. Vasudev refers to astrophysics. He seems to suggest that turning our sensors to the vastness of the universe teaches us nothing about the nature of matter. In reality, astrophysics is crucial to our understanding of the nature of matter. For starters, early particle physics involved studying cosmic rays in cloud chambers. Mr. Vasudev could have been useful to the popularization of science and the scientific method had he played on this platitude and suggested to his followers that they build cloud chambers to study cosmic rays, which is an interesting DIY project for a weekend. Such an exercise would teach us much more about the universe than any of Mr. Vasudev’s own pseudoscientific sermons. Actually, there is no better place to look for Higgs-Boson or any other sub-atomic particle, than in cosmic rays. As Ian Sample points out in this interview, the reason that the massive accelerator was built on the earth was because it is a much cheaper alternative to sending a sufficiently sensitive detector into outer space to look for the Higgs boson in cosmic rays that are not sullied by atmospheric effects. It appears that Mr. Vasudev is also ignorant, willfully or otherwise, of the entire field of cosmology. Only by ‘looking at the universe’ was Edwin Hubble able to arrive at the conclusion that the universe is expanding, leading eventually to the development of the big bang theory, and its verification via the discovery of background radiation.
Jaggi Vasudev Casts Scientists as Being Ideological Rivals of His Cult
Paraphrasing Mr. Vasudev, ‘they’, the scientists “first discovered the atom, then groped around, and discovered that there are things still smaller, etc.” That is again, a disingenuous claim as indicated by the derisive tone that Mr. Vasudev adopts. He seems to suggest that ‘they’, the scientists, don’t know what’s going, that ‘they’re just groping in the dark and with each discovery, face the crushing realization that they were wrong all along. In reality, that is a pretty inaccurate reading of the life of scientists. The gaps in understanding are rarely a cause of despondency for the scientist. Rather, for the scientists of Mr. Vasudev’s false dichotomy each ‘known unknown’ is a remarkable opportunity to seek answers, to sate curiosity. Thus, one of the goals of physicists since the mid-19th century has been to understand the composition of the atom to as fine a detail as possible. Each discovery related to particle physics enables us to get a more detailed and accurate picture of the world around us.
Mr. Vasudev says that ‘yogic systems always claimed’ that knowing the microcosm is knowing the macrocosm, and tries to portray these claims as being consistent with modern physics. The words ‘microcosm’ and ‘macrocosm’ are philosophical or literary terms that don’t have rigorous scientific definitions. This makes redundant and harmful, any attempt to link such an interpretation of what is vaguely mentioned in the vedic scriptures to science. Even if we assume that ‘microcosm’ and ‘macrocosm’ relate to the different scales over which phenomena occur, it is grossly wrong to claim that somehow, physical laws are invariant over scale. The most obvious counterexample to such a ‘microcosm-macrocosm’ equivalence is quantum phenomena which are drastically different from classical phenomena.
The second sermon which is a lengthy tiresome elaboration on Mr. Vasudev’s brand of woo is here:
In this sermon, Jaggi Vasudev ups the ante in his imagined clash with scientists, perhaps emboldened by his appearance on national TV. He proposes that there is a grand unified community of scientists who are ‘becoming good marketers’. Haven’t we seen enough of such accusations of conspiracy elsewhere in the community of religious apologists? Every woo-peddler from the homeopath to the climate-denialist has adopted this line of attack. Skepticism and falsifiability are crucial to the method of science. Anyone who has experienced rigorous peer review knows how far from reality Mr. Vasudev’s unified-agenda-driven-community-conspiracy-theory is.
Delusions About Finding Physics in the Vedas and Meditation
He proceeds to mock how scientists expend effort and money into finding answers that are either, 1) ‘realizable’ via meditation, 2) given in the vedas. While some secular intellectual achievements of ancient Indians are impressive, these claims by Jaggi Vasudev are dishonest falsities. Mr. Vasudev is misleading his followers and the general public by claiming that the nature and composition of the universe can be discerned by contemplative meditation or by turning to the vedas. Such a claim would be laughable had it not been such a common belief among woo-peddlers and their customers. Mr. Vasudev takes the standard approach of suggesting that references to infinity, ‘Brahman’, etc. are actually scientific comments about the nature of the universe. This is totally false.
Modern physics rests heavily on observations and experiments that confirm hypotheses about the physical laws governing the universe. There is not a shred of evidence in the entire corpus of Hindu scriptures or archeological findings to suggest that ancient Hindus had any experimental or observational basis to support their contemplative musings. It is impossible for the authors of the vedas or anyone prior to at least the 19th century CE to have had any access to the knowledge and technology that has been indispensable in the development of physics. The path from physics as it stood prior to the 17th century to its current state can only pass through all the important technological advances since. When the famous biologist JBS Haldane was asked about the falsifiability of evolution, he replied that that the absurd and impossible discovery of rabbit fossils from the precambrian era would destroy his belief in evolution (600 million years ago- when there was barely any life on earth, while real rabbits have only existed since a few million years). Like Haldane’s proverbial precambrian rabbit, the impossibly likely event of finding fragments of large telescopes among archeological artefacts of ancient India would be sufficient evidence to convince the world of ancient India’s precocity in matters related to modern physics.
Meditation and yoga are functions limited to the human brain and the body. There is no way of learning anything about the physical nature of the universe from the kind of contemplation marketed by Mr. Vasudev. The only approach to understanding nature is to competently apply the process of rigorous theorization, observation, and experimentation that is characteristic of the scientific method. Further, competent application of the scientific method also involves a thorough understanding of the state of the art. Competence at being able to apply the method of science cannot be achieved without spending thousands of hours acquainting oneself with the scientific literature in one’s field. ‘Self-realization’ and other such approaches related to the act of contemplation are loosely defined religious concepts that entail none of this rigor and training. Thus there is no way to truly understand the laws of physics via meditation and contemplation as Mr. Vasudev seems to suggest. Meditation and yoga only result in personal experiences which, by their very confinement to an individual’s experience, are neither generalizable nor reproducible.
Mr. Vasudev Draws False Equivalences Between Vague Vedic Concepts and Modern Science
Jaggi Vasudev refers to the vedic classification of ‘existence’ into ‘sthUla’, ‘sUkshma’, ‘viJNAna’, and ‘shUnya’. Mr. Vasudev defines these terms in vaguely mystical terms, apparently consistent with the Hindu scriptures. The inexact nature of such classifications precludes the possibility of relating them to modern science. It is thus wrong of Mr. Vasudev to draw an equivalence between these supposedly Vedic concepts and modern science.
On Jaggi Vasudev’s Deceptive Appeal to Authority
Jaggi Vasudev then makes an appeal to authority. He claims to have spoken to a ‘great scientist’ about matters related to his own worldview. Mr. Vasudev uses the age old argument that ‘Indian culture is dialectical, narrative, etc.’ and wrongly attributes the superiority of modern science in describing the behavior of nature to an apparent difference between the ‘Eastern way of thinking’ and ‘Western way of thinking’. Mr. Vasudev makes what is arguably a sales pitch for his philosophy, when he asks listeners to follow his approach to ‘realize the self’ to ‘realize the universe’. This again is dishonest as he obfuscates by not naming the ‘great scientist’ who supposedly agrees with his philosophy. I call out Mr. Vasudev to name this scientist and narrate the supposed anecdote in more detail so that it can be subject to critical examination.
Vedic Speculations Are Irrelevant to Understanding the Universe
Mr. Vasudev claims that modern science conforms with the views of the vedas that the universe is ever expanding or endless. The history of human thought is full of conjectures about the nature and extent of the universe. Vedic views are yet another set of such abstract conjectures with no scientific foundations. The only reliably correct model of the universe is the one derived from the laws of physics as affirmed by rigorous observations and experiments. These are no mere conjectures, but hypotheses backed by solid, rigorous, and reproducible empirical evidence. Jaggi Vasudev disingenuously casts the results of modern science as being equivalent to the contemplative speculation of the Hindu scriptures. This is an obviously false equivalence. As stated earlier, there is no evidence that the authors of Hindu scriptures had any access to the technology that enabled say, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, JJ Thomson, Edwin Hubble, and every important physicist in the last two hundred years, to arrive at accurate and reproducible conclusions about the composition and extent of the universe.
In order to understand the absurdity of Mr. Vasudev’s (and other Hindu apologists) claims that obscure references to the infinitude of the universe in the vedas are legitimate scientific statements, let’s indulge in a short thought experiment. Imagine, 2000 years from now, someone comes across the work of Isaac Asimov. Let us suppose that some speculation of Asimov’s, say, the existence of portable sources of nuclear power as used by humans in the fictional universe of Asimov’s Foundation series is a reality in the year 4000 CE. As contemporaries of Asimov, we know that it would be ridiculous for humans of 4000 CE to claim based on readings of Foundation that Asimov actually invented such devices. Science fiction of the recent past is replete with such uncanny predictions. HG Wells considered the possibility of a network such as the world wide web in a 1937 essay. The TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation from the late 1980s and early 1990s features personal computers that resemble the iPad. Yet, while we would readily agree that Asimov, Wells, and the writers of Star Trek were no more than just visionaries and speculators, most Hindu apologists are loathe to admit the same about ancient Hindus. In reality, any Vedic reference to an endless or ever expanding universe is no more than a speculative byline, with absolutely no relation to modern science. I should add that I am also assuming Mr. Vasudev is not lying in claiming that there are references to an infinite universe in the vedas. Once again, by peppering his spiritual sermon with misrepresented science, I am of the opinion that Mr. Vasudev intends to make his woo more credible and appealing to the middle class.
Lies About ‘science being nothing without its ability to create useful technology’
The most malicious claim in the sermon is reserved for the end. Mr. Vasudev claims that ‘scientists are nothing without technology [sic]’ and worse, that ‘science would be dead if it did not produce useful technology to the world to justify the enormous money spent on scientific research’. This is so egregiously wrong! The most significant scientific (and mathematical) breakthroughs came about without any apparent utility. Starting with Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, through James Clerk Maxwell, Albert Einstein, all the way to the work related to the Higgs boson, few, if any of the fundamental breakthroughs in physics were ever motivated by the need to create useful technology. Mr. Vasudev’s smug condescension about the inferiority of ‘science before it is/was useful’ is thus based on a wrong understanding of the history of science.
Jaggi Vasudev, like his fellow hustlers, Ravi Shankar, Zakir Naik, Deepak Chopra, the Catholic church, and others, is ignorant about science, and yet he dishonestly argues against science. As is de rigueur among the community of ‘spiritual’ ‘gurus’, ‘sadhgurus’, ‘jagadgurus’, and their apologists, Mr. Vasudev’s claims are intellectually dishonest, factually incorrect, and riddled with logical holes. In this article, I have elaborated on these mistakes in light of the true nature and history of scientific progress. Employing subtle malice and derision, Mr. Vasudev casts the entire community of scientists as his ideological rivals. By including allusions to science and the scientific method, Mr. Vasudev seeks to appeal to the educated listener. However, the general philosophy of science, the history and nature of scientific progress, and several key concepts in physics are grossly misunderstood and misrepresented by Mr. Vasudev. Further, contrary to Mr. Vasudev’s claims, one cannot discover the nature and composition of the universe from the practice of yoga and meditation. Supposed Vedic allusions to the nature of the universe are mere scriptural and philosophical comments and have no relation to the modern descriptive model of the universe, most of which is known to be correct and accurate beyond reasonable doubt. The unknowns concerning our universe cannot be discovered by meditative contemplation and the method of science is the only way forward.
No, Mr. Vasudev, Solar Flares Do NOT Affect Human ‘Consciousness’
On July 21, 2012, Mr. Vasudev posted yet another pseudoscientific message on Youtube. This one pertains to how ‘human consciousness’ is affected by solar flares. Again, Mr. Vasudev is trying to capitalize on recent news from the world of science. The claims again, are utterly untrue.
There is no way solar flares can affect the human brain the way Jaggi Vasudev wants us to believe. He also alludes to the moon affecting the human brain. There is only one way in which the moon can affect humans, that is with its gravitational pull. This is the only way you can ‘feel the energy’ of the moon. A simple back of the envelope calculation gives us, for a 65 kg human,
F = GMm/(R^2) = (6.673*10^(-11)*7.36*10^22*65)/(3.84*10^8)^2 = (6.673*10^(-11)*(7.36/1500)*65)/(0.0001)^2 (units: mass in kg, distance in m)
This equation basically tells you that the effect of the moon is approximately the same as the effect of an object that is about 8 grams situated at a distance of 0.1 mm. That is the entire gravitational effect of the moon on the entire human body is as negligible as that of fruit fly near your skin. Jaggi Vasudev, being savvy, perhaps knows that whipping up hysteria based on the ill effects of the moon may be futile given how outrageous the claim is. Thus, he resorts to scare-mongering using the more complicated phenomena of solar flares.
Solar flares are essentially electrical storms and their interaction with terrestrial objects (via changes to the earth’s magnetic field) is mainly electromagnetic in nature, governed by the laws of electromagnetic induction (Maxwell’s equations, etc.). If one were to compute their effect on the human body, it would still be negligible, since the entire human body is not large enough for large currents to be induced. More details can be found here: http://helios.gsfc.nasa.gov/qa_sw.html
Then, Mr. Vasudev appeals to empirical evidence about how people suffering from psychiatric conditions report exacerbation during lunar phenomena. This is again absurdly nonsensical. Skeptic Dictionary (skepdic.com) has a summary of studies which disprove this. To quote from The Skeptics Dictionary:
the moon, madness and suicide
Probably the most widely believed myth about the full moon is that it is associated with madness. However, in examining over 100 studies, Kelly et al. found that “phases of the moon accounted for no more than 3/100 of 1 percent of the variability in activities usually termed lunacy” (1996: 18). According to James Rotton, “such a small percentage is too close to zero to be of any theoretical, practical, or statistical interest or significance” (Rotton 1997).
Finally, the notion that there is a lunar influence on suicide is also unsubstantiated. Martin et al. (1992) reviewed numerous studies done over nearly three decades and found no significant association between phases of the moon and suicide deaths, attempted suicides, or suicide threats. In 1997, Gutiérrez-García and Tusell studied 897 suicide deaths in Madrid and found “no significant relationship between the synodic cycle and the suicide rate” (p. 248). These studies, like others which have failed to find anything interesting happening during the full moon, have gone largely unreported in the press.
postscript: There are likely to be many studies in the future that find a positive correlation between some lunar phase and some human behavior (or process affected by human behavior, such as the stock market). Remember to consider a few caveats: correlation doesn’t establish causation; studies that are well designed still need to be replicated before they are accepted as not being flukes; some studies with positive results will suffer from design flaws or methodological errors. For example, in 2005 Yuan, Zheng, and Zhu found “that stock returns are lower on the days around a full moon than on the days around a new moon. The magnitude of the return difference is 3% to 5% per annum based on analyses of two global portfolios: one equal-weighted and the other value-weighted.” Whether this is a lunar effect remains to be seen. The study needs to be replicated with a significant number of data points.
Mr. Vasudev ends the video with a call for people who wish to be saved from these effects (‘in the coming six years’ in his words) to join him in his plan. This again sounds eerily like the manifesto of a salvation cult such as Heaven’s Gate whose members committed suicide in the absurd belief that the appearance of the comet Hale-Bopp in 1997 was going to affect their lives in some way.
The author would like to thank Arvind Iyer for his comments on the draft versions of this article.
Post-post-script: I’d like to add Arvind Iyer’s comment below. He points out that such views about mental illnesses as espoused by Jaggi Vasudev’s are harmful and disrespectful to people who actually suffer from psychiatric conditions. Quoting Arvind Iyer,
“The pseudo-psychiatric scare-mongering mentioned in the post-script is especially worrisome. One shudders to imagine the plight of folks from ‘at risk’ populations buying into the psychosis promoted by the likes of Jaggi Vasudev, instead of availing of genuine and potentially life-saving help from relatively unsung organizations like Metanoia (It will be worthwhile to compile a link of India-based resources). Psychotherapeutic quackery, which is as old as witch-doctoring, is as dangerous as other more common forms of medical quackery if not more.”