The development of spirituality from a biological lens: Spirituality and the Roots of Civilization
by Vaishnavi Singh
Dr. Mahesh Bhatt is a surgeon, a public health consultant, and an author. He is not a fiction writer; instead, he combines his scientific research with his visionary muse to define the spiritual nature of human beings in terms of evolutionary biology.
It is common knowledge that matter came into being about fourteen billion years ago. Life, as we know it, emerged on Earth about four billion years ago. Evolution happened, and now we drive motorised vehicles at inhuman speeds and exchange messages with our friends on the other side of the globe in seconds. A standard question that often racks our brains is–what makes human beings “special?” How did we, as a species, evolve into something more advanced than other species?
Historian Yuval Noah Harari wrote in Sapiens that three momentous revolutions have shaped the course of human history. Dr. Mahesh Bhatt focuses on the first revolution, namely the Cognitive Revolution, in his book The Inquisitive. In a conversation with Ukiyoto, Dr. Bhatt talked about the Cognitive Revolution as well as the succeeding Agricultural Revolution.
The Cognitive revolution happened around 75,000 years ago. It is responsible for creating human beings out of a simple biological species. Dr. Bhatt explained that during this time, human beings “started thinking differently. We started communicating differently; we developed consciousness.”
Harari’s theory was that “our language is amazingly supple. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences.” Another feat of human communication is that we can transmit information about things that do not exist, a concept we recognize as fiction.
Dr. Bhatt’s The Inquisitive delves into the neurobiological ecosystem of spirituality, religions, philosophies, and science inside the human brain. He connects the idea of spirituality with biology. He traces the development of spiritual thought in human beings and the way it makes us “different” from other animals.
On his writing inspiration
Dr. Bhatt has been writing since his college days. He used to write poems and articles for newspapers but he became a published author in 2018. Since he is a surgeon, specialising in gastroenterology, he meets people from all walks of life via his profession. The people around him are his inspiration “Their struggles, their innovations, their creativity, and their perspectives” inspire him to write. His patients and the way they react to urgency prove to be fine inspirations for him.
On the inspiration behind the book’s theme and title
It is a biologically established fact that the brain is the most crucial organ in the human body. Our brains have developed differently than our fellow earth-dwellers because, as Dr. Bhatt said, “human beings have a far more complex ecosystem of thoughts.”
He equated the brain with an electronic machine’s hardware. It is the root of all physiological and evolutionary processes that have occurred throughout human history. The mind is akin to software. It is formulated by our experiences, memories, experiences, social settings, and environmental influences. Dr. Bhatt agreed that a person with “a specific learning can develop a completely different kind of brain than someone else.”
While an individual’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ) depends on genetics to a great extent, one’s Emotional Quotient (EQ) depends mostly on immediate surroundings during one’s developmental years. Our thoughts are a part of this sensory, intangible thing known as the mind, which is the source of our conscience. Thoughts are essential in the lives of human beings as they impact “our daily life, personality, as well as physical, social, mental, and spiritual health.” Dr. Bhatt wanted to explore this dimension of the human psyche.
On his purpose for writing this book
The Inquisitive, as must be evident by the discussion up till now, is about human thoughts. Even though the book has a biological root, Dr. Bhatt has written it in a way so as to not alienate readers from non-scientific backgrounds.
He looks at the varying definitions of spirituality, its evolution through the years, and its distinction from a religious thought process. The religious thought process, he explained, “is an evolved form of the primitive thought process.” The spiritual thought process, although considered old-school by many, “is very unique to human beings.” Dr. Bhatt has used the findings of his years of research to deduce his conclusions in the book.
During the Cognitive Revolution, our primary survival tactics evolved into religious and socio-cultural ideas. Thousands of years ago, religion grew as a tool for bringing human beings together, transforming herds of hunter-gatherers into social and political groups. That is how religious faith is at the heart of civilization. Gradually, we developed a philosophical approach to life. Existential questions about our birth, purpose on earth, and fate after death became the epicentre of human intelligence.
On the message he wanted to convey
A lighter turn to the conversation led to Dr. Bhatt assuming what people might mean when they hypothesise that one must think with the heart and not with the brain. The heart is only responsible for pumping blood, so this assertion sounds irrational. The heart is essential to the functioning of all other organs. Dr. Bhatt said that “a good heart is necessary for a functioning brain.”
The heart, traditionally, has been associated with moral qualities and the ability to do the right thing. In a spiritual sense, the heart, mind and consciousness are not seen as separate entities, but as parts of a whole that overlap with other parts.
Within the past few decades, spirituality has developed outside an explicitly religious context. It is concerned with a search for meaning, unity, connection, and transcendence. It is defined as an individual quest for fulfilment while religion is based more on societal norms and is considered to be an institution. Linda Woodhead and Paul Heelas (2005) argue that a spiritual revolution is taking place, where religion is giving way to spirituality.
On this note, Dr. Bhatt talked about locating the line between fact and myth, between truth and falsities. He has seen instances where people are exploited in the name of spirituality. Spirituality is an appealing practice; people are tempted to believe in religions, gurus, and anything that promises peace of mind.
This widespread temptation creates opportunities for con-people to satisfy their social, financial or political interests by exploiting the common population. It is a practice which leads to negativities in society. By seeking to define spirituality in scientific terms, Dr Bhatt upholds the general public’s spirituality while also differentiating it from exploitative strategies.
The relationship between spirituality and science
Spirituality is seen as separate from any specific religion. As opposed to modernism which denied the belief in the supernatural completely, aspects of postmodernism are leading to an increased fascination with spirituality. As Anne C. Jacobs writes in her paper on the development of spirituality, the construct of ‘spirituality’ is now accepted in individual, personal, and community-related contexts where people look for fulfilment. “It is no longer regarded as unscientific as was the case when positivism was the reigning paradigm.”
Research backed by scientific evidence is sure to change the lens with which we look at concepts of spirituality. Dr. Mahesh Bhatt’s The Inquisitive is a promising exploration of how human beings became spiritual and why it is an important factor in our evolution. Carl Jung viewed spirituality as necessary for mental health.
After all, science is not about refuting every claim that is presumed to be irrational. Science helps us understand the world, but there is much about life that remains a mystery. One thing that remains consistent and must be encouraged is our ability to question.
[Watch the interview with Ukiyoto publishing here: LIVE WITH MAHESH BHATT]
Get a Copy of THE INQUISITIVE by Mahesh Bhatt.
Harari, Yuval. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Penguin, 2018.
Jacobs, A., 2013, ‘Spirituality: history and contemporary developments – An evaluation’, Koers 78(1), Art. #445, 12 pages. http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/ koers.v78i1.445
Heelas, Paul, et al. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality. 1st ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2005.