The Science of Religion

Religion in the deeper, spiritual sense is not defined by sentimental flights of poetry, nor by prayers pleadingly offered in wan hope of a response. Rather it is a pragmatic science which gives practical results.

Religious teachings contain lofty sentiments as well. These, cynics often scoff at as maudlin for the fact that they are not merely sentiments, but lofty. The sentiments which those teachings emphasize, however, can be tested and proved. If they give universal, and universally desirable, results, why discount them simply because they promote happiness?

Indeed, why for that reason label them unscientific? Widespread human experience is equivalent, in its way, to experiments in the laboratory. If experience demonstrates, for example, that kindness is more effective than selfishness, and not merely useful as a technique of diplomacy, but effective for the fulfillment it gives him who offers it, wouldn’t it be foolish to toss the demonstration aside as irrelevant, pragmatically?

Jesus Christ said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” The supreme argument against selfishness is that in the long run it simply doesn’t work. People who amass fortunes for themselves but never share of that abundance end up feeling soured on life.

The happiness people really want in life is not found in egoic self-absorption, but by expanding the sense of self to embrace others. Generous giving is pragmatic, therefore, and not merely a dogmatic precept. The blessing brought by generosity is a reality one discovers in consciousness, not with test tubes or telescopes. In that realm it gives definite, desirable results.

There is another aspect of scientific religion. Its results, too, are specific, and don’t require support from any system of belief. It is based on observation, and on the actual experience of concrete realities. It includes the feeling aspect of consciousness, which is centered in the heart.

The feeling aspect is one of the four aspects of consciousness, all of them with their corresponding centers in the body. The intellect is centered in the forehead, between the eyebrows. The ego is centered in the medulla oblongata, at the base of the skull. The mind in its perceiving, pre-discriminating aspect, radiates outward from the top of the head.

From Paramhansa Yogananda:

In 1917 I asked Sir Manindra Chandra Nundy, the Maharajah of Kasimbazar, to consider sponsoring my work. At the time I planned to offer boys an all-rounded education: physical, mental, and spiritual. The maharajah decided to test my fitness as a teacher of spiritual truths. To this end, he summoned a group of pundits, or scriptural scholars, to subject me to an examination.

I could see the moment I entered the room that they were ready for a theological bullfight! My own approach to truth is experiential, not scholarly. I decided, therefore, to seize the initiative by examining them! After a momentary, inward prayer for guidance, I said to them, “Let us limit this discussion to what we’ve actually experienced of scriptural truths.”

This was, I knew, an aspect of the subject to which they were strangers, even though the scriptures themselves insist on one’s need to realize the truth. I then posed them a question to which I knew they wouldn’t have the answer.

“The scriptures tell us,” I said, “that consciousness has four aspects: mon [mind], buddhi [intellect], ahankara [ego], and chittwa [feeling](1). They also tell us that these four have their corresponding centers in the body. Can any of you tell where those centers are located?”

Well, they couldn’t answer. The scriptures themselves, you see, are silent on the point! I then gave them the above explanation: Mon, I told them, is at the top of the head; buddhi is at the point between the eyebrows (the ajna chakra as it is called); ahankara is in the medulla oblongata; and chittwa is centered in the heart. There was no further discussion! The maharajah was happy to sponsor my school.

Notice how, when a person thinks deeply, he tends to knit his eyebrows. If he allows praise to “go to his head,” he’ll draw his head back in the universal posture of pride. When first he becomes aware of something, before discerning what it is, his awareness withdraws a little to the middle of his brain, the center of which is at the top of the head.

And when he feels something deeply, he may even put one or both hands to his chest over the heart, for this is where his feelings are centered. When feeling is emotional, it radiates outward from that center. When it is intuitive, it withdraws to its own center. Here in the heart are generated a person’s likes and dislikes, his desires and aversions.

The frontal lobe of the brain, anatomically speaking, is our most recent acquisition. This is the focus of the higher aspects of consciousness, including the intellect. Notice how, by contrast, the foreheads of lower animals slope sharply backward.

The seat of the intellect is, as I’ve indicated, just behind the forehead at a point midway between the eyebrows. Only human beings have access to the higher aspects of consciousness, including not only the intellect, but also the will power, concentration, and superconsciousness. The ancient teachings described this as the seat of spiritual vision, calling it “the spiritual eye.” By deep concentration at this point, all the higher faculties are stimulated.

The heart center, or anahat chakra, is in the dorsal plexus of the spine, just behind the heart. This is, as I said, the center of feeling in both its emotional and intuitive aspects. Intuitive feeling includes spiritual love and devotion, without which aspiration itself remains an abstraction.

A disappointed lover may lament, “My heart is broken!” He will never express his pain by crying, “My knee hurts!” Devotion can be developed by awakening the heart’s energy. Vague efforts to awaken it by prayer alone are far less effective.

The spinal energy flows in two directions: up, toward the brain; and down, toward the base of the spine. When the upward flow is the stronger, one’s consciousness rises also and produces a happy, positive outlook.

Thus, an interrelationship exists between the directional flow of energy and that of consciousness. The energy-flow is controlled by feeling in the heart. Positive feelings direct that flow upward; negative feelings direct it downward. When the energy flows upward, it inspires happiness.

That direction is first generated, however, by the desire to be happy. Desires, plus energy, produce will power. The will directs the energy to flow either upward or downward depending on whether the desire directing it is positive or negative. The energy-flow facilitates, without defining, the direction of consciousness. Even so, an upward flow of energy increases the feeling of happiness. First, then, must come the mental predisposition to be happy.

A downward flow of energy, on the other hand, is produced primarily by depressed feeling, but it also increases the intensity of those feelings. A number of physical factors can draw the energy downward also, and may in their turn draw the consciousness downward also if the will is not resistant to that direction. Toxins in the lower bowels, for instance, can draw the energy downward, exacerbating one’s negative feelings if he has the slightest tendency to feel depressed already.

People everywhere on earth, regardless of any expectation based on belief, are to some extent conscious of these movements. They may not be sensitively aware of the energy flowing in the spine, but they are familiar with “that bubbly mood,” and with “that sinking feeling.” When they are happy, they may exclaim “I feel high,” or, “I’m feeling uplifted.” When they are sad, they may complain, “I feel downcast,” or, “I’m rather low today.”

Popular fancy locates heaven above us in the sky, and hell below us inside the earth. The simple facts, objectively considered, offer no support for these concepts. No telescope has ever revealed angels flitting about in outer space; nor has any up-to-date mining method raised demons in angry protest on an oil gusher.

What is “up” for us is “down” for the people on the other side of the earth. Obviously, then, heaven and hell are not literally above and below us. Nevertheless, the popular fancy should not be dismissed as a superstition. What it actually describes are two directions of energy in the body. Every language must contain comparable expressions, reflecting these universal realities.

Posture, too, affects the energy movements in the spine. A person who is unhappy sits slumped forward, walks heavily on his heels, hangs his head, and looks naturally downward. The corners of his mouth turn down, and his lower eyelids sag revealing white below the iris.

When one is happy, on the other hand, he sits up straight, walks and stands with his weight lightly on the balls of his feet, holds his head up, and gazes more naturally straight ahead, or even upward. His mouth curves up, and his lower eyelids rise slightly, perhaps touching the iris, in an alert attitude.

People who slump forward, gaze habitually downward, and display other physical signs of depression, are not likely to exclaim, “I’m wonderfully happy!” Nor do they walk jauntily, keep their heads up, curve their mouths upward in a smile, or gaze level with the ground, or upward (except, possibly, in truculent challenge!).

It would require an act of will to contradict these natural tendencies, which have nothing to do with social conditioning or with any religious belief. They do in fact, however, correlate with spiritual experience.

There is another link between the body and the feeling quality. When a person is happy he naturally fills his lungs with air, as if to affirm his enjoyment of life. By contrast, when one is unhappy he tends to breathe shallowly — except, indeed, in preparation for a heavy sigh. Shallow breathing suggests a desire to have as little to do with the world as possible. Normally, when one is unhappy, his exhalation becomes stronger. When, conversely, his feelings are “up,” his inhalation is stronger than his exhalation.

The breath is not only a mechanism for bringing oxygen into the body and for expelling from it carbon dioxide. It interrelates with the flow of energy in the spine, and affects thereby a person’s state of consciousness. With inhalation, the energy rises; with exhalation, it descends. Indeed, on a subtler level the energy-flow produces the physical breath. Thus, there is a reciprocity between the two. Happiness draws the energy upward, and strengthens the inhalation. One can also raise his energy, and achieve greater mental upliftment, by simply inhaling deeply. The opposite is as true: A sigh not only expresses sadness: It can also induce it.

These are objective facts. They don’t depend on any belief, religious or other, but are a simple manifestation of universal realities. They do, however, correlate with religious teachings, inasmuch as they influence one’s state of consciousness.

In many religions, certain aware persons have explored these realities to enhance their spiritual practices. By sensitive application, these facts have been developed into an actual science of religion.

Such, indeed, is the basis of the great science presented to the world in the nineteenth century by Lahiri Mahasaya of Benares, India, who resurrected it from ancient times and gave it the unpretentious name, Kriya Yoga. Kriya, in Sanskrit, means action. Kriya Yoga is a particular kind of action or technique that draws on universal, central, and to some extent commonly known facts of human nature.

The Christian Hesychasts of Greece, centuries ago, drew on these facts when they counseled that the recitation of the well-known prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us,” should be uttered in conjunction with the breath. The first three words, they said, should be uttered while inhaling, and the next four, “have mercy on us,” while exhaling. The first part of the formula is an appeal.

It is therefore offered up to Christ and to the superconscious with the upward-flowing energy. The last part is a request to receive grace into the body and into one’s self. It therefore accompanies the downward-flowing energy with exhalation, as if seeking to bring grace down to oneself.

It is noteworthy that in this practice the upward- and downward-flowing energies are not associated with thoughts of happiness and sadness. Thus, we see that those moods are simply examples of the effect of the upward and downward movements of energy.

In Kriya Yoga also, the rising and descending energies in the spine are not expected to make the practicant alternately happy and sad, but to make him increasingly aware, rather, that he himself is the source, indeed the controller, of every like and dislike. Centering those reactions in himself rather than in outer circumstances, he brings his very awareness to a center within himself.

No longer does his “zero point” signify, for him, a cancellation of outward-directed reactions: It becomes a cancellation in the deeper sense of nullifying his separation from the Infinite Spirit. The upward flow, then, becomes an act of total worship, and the downward flow, a withdrawing more and more deeply into his inner self.

The dual flow of energy finally so magnetizes the spine that the flow enters deeply into the deep spine, and becomes a steady upward flow toward the top of the head. This is a subtle aspect of these realities, however, and is less capable of being related to common experience. It would therefore be unsuitable to develop it further in the pages of this book, which is being written for the general public.

Suffice it here to say that self-offering to God is more than a “good mood,” and that withdrawal into the Self does not, in the deeper sense, make one sad! Instead of sadness, withdrawal becomes calm, inward recognition of high spiritual realities.

The Gregorian chant expresses, as does much devotional music in all religions, a melancholy yearning for higher-than-earthly fulfillment. This, again, is not sadness in the ordinary sense of the word, and its ultimate fulfillment is blissful union with God.

Knowledge of these subtle truths is extremely helpful for anyone seeking deeper understanding of spiritual law. That knowledge results in a science greater than any material science — one, indeed, deserving consideration as a science of all sciences, for the benefits it confers far outweigh anything promised in the earthly sciences.

The science of religion, then, embraces much more than spiritual attitudes, important as these are. When the energy is directed upward to the brain, outward, worldly tendencies disappear as a matter of course.

Positive attitudes can be affirmed, and therefore reinforced, by sitting upright, holding the chest up, looking up, and breathing deeply. Right posture is not spiritually essential, in itself, but it naturally accompanies inspiration, and is, for most people, easily performed. Why not, then, cooperate with Nature?

To ignore these facts with the pious rationale that one would rather depend on God’s grace alone is, indeed, an indication of willful blindness. God, after all, gave us these laws. They should be taken as a sign of His grace, which can be used to facilitate spiritual progress…

Another impediment is the tendency to gaze habitually downward. It is possible, of course, to pray with a bent back, as some people do who associate that position with humility. Stooping, however, obstructs the flow of energy in the spine. As for a downward gaze, some people may consider it proper in the presence of the Divine Majesty, and anything else a presumption. In fact, however, a downward gaze while praying and meditating takes the mind downward, not upward to God.

Downwardness suggests a feeling of unworthiness, when in fact God invites the soul to soar. Stooping suggests a servile attitude also. Attitudes of unworthiness and servility are negative. They are not at all the same thing as humility. Humility, indeed, begins with self-forgetfulness. True humility uplifts the energy; it doesn’t abase it. Any posture that obstructs that upward flow hinders the development of all ennobling attitudes, including humility.

There is another practice that initially appears purely physical, but that conduces greatly to spiritual development. It is to gaze, as well as concentrate, upward at the point between the eyebrows, the “spiritual eye.” The eyes, in superconsciousness, turn naturally upward. Saints, therefore, are often depicted praying with their eyes upturned. They have frequently been observed in this position.

These are all simple practices, but invaluable for attaining ultimate bliss. Spiritual attitudes, as well, develop naturally with these practices. Best is a combination of the two: right spiritual attitude coupled with right technique. Together, these two ensure steady and rapid progress on the spiritual path.

Ultimately, it must be added, what liberates the soul is divine grace. It is unrealistic, however, to claim that man plays no part in the process. Nectar cannot fill a chalice that is turned upside-down. One must cooperate consciously with grace. To wait passively for grace to descend may mean waiting a long, long time! Neither spinelessness, which is craven, nor arrant presumption can lead anyone to God.

True religion is a science. It shows how to find permanent freedom from all sorrow and attain Conscious Bliss. True religion offers the only workable solution there is to the deepest needs of all humanity. For this reason it deserves to be called the science of all sciences. It is, indeed, the driving force behind civilization, without which there would be no “civilized arts,” but only the clumsy cudgeling of self-aggrandizement.

Ego-boosting desires, unless directed upward toward the attainment of bliss, are useless for attaining lasting happiness. People devote enormous amounts of energy to fulfilling them, even risking their own safety, while ignoring the one thing anyone really cares anything about: lasting happiness. Driven like paper boats on a lake by the hurricane of ambition, they founder repeatedly in suffering.

Every fulfillment is evanescent. The little boat, so crisp and jaunty when it was first placed in the water, grows soggy and shapeless. The flowers in the garden of happiness become, by nightfall, withered on their stalks, and lifeless.

The science of religion is the reasonable aspect of spiritual teaching. It still emphasizes all the ennobling virtues, but adds to them the satisfaction of solid, practical demonstration.

Many thousands of years ago, in India, this science was explored under the name yoga. Yoga means “union”: the complete integration of body, mind, and soul, bringing union with Conscious Bliss. The essence of yoga is contained in the great technique which I mentioned earlier: Kriya Yoga.


  1. Chittwa means the feeling aspect of consciousness. Most scholars are not clear on this word, explaining it vaguely in such terms as, “consciousness in its lower aspects,” or, even more vaguely, as, “mind stuff.”
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