How Would the Discovery of Alien Life Affect an Eastern Religion?

In many traditional Hindu writings, we find assumptions and assertions to the effect that there are many worlds that are inhabited by different beings, and even by souls of the departed from the terrestrial world. In some systems of Hindu thought, those beings guide people living here below. Therefore, the Hindu world is not likely to be greatly jolted by any discovery of extraterrestrials. If anything, some Hindus might claim that this merely confirms the views held by their ancestors.

However, in this context, it is also important to distinguish between aliens as conceived by modern ET astronomy and the aliens of mythic lore. In modern astronomical thought, “aliens” refers to entities that have evolved biologically in distant planetary systems quite independently of terrestrial life, and are believed to have attained sufficient technological and intellectual sophistication to be able to at least attempt contact with other similar creatures in the star-studded stillness of space (of whose existence they must have been scientifically convinced). On the other hand, in traditional religious/cultural views, those inhabitants of distant worlds are connected to humans some way or another. Therefore, the question posed is really inappropriate because the word “alien” has quite different connotations in science and religion. It is not unlike asking how the discovery of black holes might affect religion. Ancient religions have talked about hell, but is not quite the same as the explosive singularity of a supernova.

From a global scientific/cultural perspective, even a slight indication of the existence of ET life anywhere in the universe would be a fascinating, and indeed a shocking, discovery. Concrete proof of an advanced ET civilization would be more than an eye-opener: It would be the most revolutionary discovery in all of human history. Yet, it is not likely to jolt the collective consciousness of humanity as much as it should because few people have reflected on the moral, religious, and conceptual significance of something like that—for we will cease to be special and singular in this vast universe that seems to stretch beyond our maximum spatial needs. Affirmations of God creating man on the last day of the creation project may have to be drastically reconsidered because any confirmation of ETs would demolish the centrality, primacy, and uniqueness of terrestrial consciousness in the universe. Confirmation of ETs will shake the very foundation of all human-centered religions.

However, if a religion subscribes to the view that human consciousness is a spark of a “cosmic fire” (as Hinduism does), and also realizes that there are countless (probably bio-friendly) planetary niches in the vast universe (as current astronomy suggests), then from the perspective of that religion, it is extremely likely that similar sparks have found thriving spots elsewhere in the cold galactic expanse, embodied in carbon-based, silicon-based, or whatever frames. In such a framework, discovery of the existence of aliens may be greeted with more applause than apprehension.

April 2, 2010


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