Both Judeo-Christian religion and Islam clash with science almost to the point of impasse that no further attempts to bring science and religion together seem possible. When deeper probing of religion is done with a desire to explain some phenomena with current science, religion and science diverge in a way that there is no hope of reconciliation. Many scientists find orthodox and stubborn religious beliefs stumbling blocks that hinder scientific progress and thinking.
In the West, generally, anyone who questions the authority of religion is branded as a heretic. Similarly, any theory not substantiated by the traditional scientific methods is not well received. When it comes to the esoteric and mystic phenomena alluded to in the spiritual literature, modern science had its difficulties in accepting them. We find science and religion at odds with each other in the western world. In Hinduism, the authority of Vedas itself can be questioned without being relegated as a lunatic or heretic. The more recent religions like Islam and Christianity do not subscribe to the scientific thinking of matter, energy and genes. A theosophical discussion with a scientific basis is almost pointless and surely an exercise in futility.
What happens to a soul after it leaves the mortal body? A simple explanation would be to say that there is no soul and the body is a mere organism that lives for a prescribed period of time and then perishes. That is the end and there is no more. This view leaves no room for any other speculation and thought process. If one is of this rigid belief, read no further. However, if one agrees with all religions of the world that claim that the soul is eternal and is released from the body after death, then one can examine the different theories proposed by the different religions about the afterlife. The mind has to be receptive to alternative theories if a hypothesis is to be entertained. A closed mind is a dead end street! For a scientist it is not easy to accept something as abstract as afterlife and a soul. It is easy to say that these do not exist and leave it at that.
Western religions propose that the departing soul goes through a trial during Judgment Day. God then decides the fate of the soul depending on the account of sin verses good deeds that the person accumulated during his lifetime. Then the soul is sent either to heaven to enjoy the fruits of a decent life or condemned to eternal hell and damnation forever. Is there any possibility that this theory can be proven in the future? Is there a place called paradise with a lush garden with flowing steams and fruit trees? Is there a dungeon called hell, where torture and mayhem are practiced? Are these places in another dimension in the cosmos, not seen by humans during their lifetimes but a soul can reach? There are no answers to these questions and there cannot be any hope for an answer. One simply accepts it or not. Science has a serious problem with the theory. If God is benevolent why did He create humans with enormous disadvantages right from the time of their births? Why a disabled child? What sin did the child commit? When did the newborn child commit a sin as to be born with disability? Despite the proverb, all men are not created equal, are they? Can anything other than karma explain it?
Perception of science has changed over many centuries. Humans during the medieval times could not have believed in their wildest imaginations that the modern scientific progress would be possible. Electricity, telephones, gasoline driven engines, television and air travel must have seemed like fantasy and fiction, even a century ago. The presence and the function of genes and DNA were not even known until the middle of the 20th century. What appears far-fetched today may be taken for granted and become commonplace years from now.
The mechanism of assimilation of memory in the brain is still not understood by science. Neurotransmission was not a word in the scientific lexicon only a few decades ago. Now we know that all actions and reactions are as a result of a chemical process in the body. We also know that genetic code in the genes are chemical imprints that can be transferred to the next generation through the tiniest of cells in the sperm and ovum. True, the soul is not an organ like the brain or the heart. There is no recognizable cell (not yet, anyway) that makes up the soul. But could the existence of soul as some form of energy with its own chemical codes, be proven some day in the future?
Eastern religions seem to be more attuned to science. The laws of karma and rebirth are easier to accept scientifically, if one has an open mind. If soul is considered as a form of energy, it cannot be destroyed when the body ceases to function. Energy is neither created nor destroyed but only transformed. One form of energy changes to another. Karma helps to imprint a code on the soul, similar to the genetic code on the genes. A good deed can be viewed as a positive charge and a crime or a bad deed as a negative charge. Compassion, love, non-violence, truth, forgiveness are extolled in Bhagavad-Gita as divine characteristics that will accumulate good karma (positive charges). Lust, anger, greed, arrogance, pride and hypocrisy are negative characteristics. With different emotions different areas of the brain are stimulated through chemical reactions. Could this also happen to the soul? Could emotions as a result of good or bad deeds imprint permanent chemical codes on the soul?
When the body dies and the soul (energy) is released, it carries the acquired chemical code with it. As the unseen soul rises upwards, the number of positive or negative charges that are on its map determines its future course. A soul heavy with negative charge (bad karma) drifts down to the earth to be recycled (and reborn). The soul full of positive charge (good karma) ascends into the cosmos to be eternally released. Is this nirvana or moksha?
Hindu sages, at the dawn of civilization, thought of this remarkable possibility of rebirth of the soul and explained it in the Upanishads. A soul (jiva-atman) is a piece of God (parama-atman). Every religion says that God created man in his own image. Soul is immortal and it gathers the consequences of it s actions (karma) and wears it like a shroud around it when released. There is no escaping the effects of karma for the soul. The karma that is accumulated (as an imprint) stays with the soul forever through many cycles of births (recycling of energy).
In Chandogya Upanishad there is a story of a student wanting to understand the origin of life. He asked the sage to help him understand it. The wise sage asked the student to pick a fig from a large tree and open it. He then asked him to break open one of the seeds. When asked what the student saw inside the seed the student answered, 'Nothing, sir, it is empty!' Then the sage asked his student the question, 'How is that a huge fig tree could have grown from nothing?' The energy that is responsible for procreation is beyond perception, minute and infinitesimal. Just like the emptiness inside the seed, the parama-atman is imperceptible but yet so powerful as to be responsible for the creation of the whole universe.
In Eastern philosophy there is no heaven or hell as envisioned in Christianity or Islam. These are present on earth and a soul depending on its karma from the past (its acquired code) as well as the current life undergoes changes that affect the body that carries it. These very changes can be construed as heaven or hell by the individual body. But the soul always tries to better its chances of improving. The Eastern philosophy believes that all souls are inherently good. There is no day of judgment; there are no trips to heaven or a place called hell. There is no God sitting on his throne like the patriarch dispensing justice and punishment. Every soul is responsible for its own actions and will face the consequences of its actions. Eastern religion and science can proceed side-by-side without dispute or clashing with each other. Even an atheistic religion like Buddhism holds this belief of rebirth because the intervention of God is not necessary for such a progression of the soul after its release.
Is the Eastern religious belief of reincarnation more scientifically feasible? Can the soul carry the 'memory' of its deeds with it when released from the body just like the brain carries the memory of our experiences and learning? These are profound questions but may one day be scientifically proven and accepted. The chances of such proof are more likely with the Hindu theory of rebirth and recycling of energy rather than the Western conjecture of presence of heaven or hell in an unseen world. Which of these two theories is more plausible?
I realize that there are more questions in this article than answers. A scientist has to keep an open mind and accept the possibility of karma and reincarnation that may be proven someday beyond doubt. Then life on earth will appear to be more transitory and spiritual.
Someday it may even be possible for the soul of a skeptical scientist to orbit into the empyrean, carrying his karma with him, looking for a suitable body to be born into!