Do You Believe In?
Special, Guest-Edited Issue on Religion, Healing, ad Public Health
can't hide from religion in Georgia. If you don't go after it with
a positive agenda, it will come after you."
Director, Interfaith Health Program
understand our patients fully, we need to understand their beliefs,
or we will not be effective as their healers."
Lori Arviso Alvord,
Assistant Professor of Surgery and Associate Dean for Student Affairs,
Dartmouth Medical School
Perspectives on Health and Healing
Can Science and Religion Work Together?
A three-pronged approach to health, healing, and spirituality
P. Venugopala Rao, Associate Professor of Physics
Carla Gober, Registered Nurse and Doctoral Candidate, Graduate Division
and Modern Medicine
Science on a wing and prayer?
Patient and Healer
Four anthropological observations
first, it made all of us uncomfortable. But it quickly became clear
that sitting in front of a small group of colleagues from across
the university and reading out loud your own personal history—your
own journey and the roles science, medicine, healing, and religion
played in it—was an intriguing, moving, enlightening, and
often surprising exercise. We had rediscovered something we lost
in college or, for many scientists especially, something we had
never discovered in the first place—a piece of why we were
the way we were and why we studied the things we did. We have done
this in a number of faculty seminars in science and religion over
the years, and we used the technique in undergraduate courses as
well. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been surprised, but
as academics, this type of thinking had been trained out of us.
The exercise proved the easiest, most revealing, and most effective
way to connect people from the humanities, sciences, and social
sciences. Here, to give you a sense of these statements, P.V. Rao,
a physicist, and Carla Gober, a woman of many degrees currently
pursuing another in religion, were kind enough to share theirs (meant
to be read aloud) from our most recent faculty seminar.—Arri
P. Venugopala Rao, Associate Professor of Physics
The foundations for my beliefs
were laid down long ago in my childhood. I grew up in a large family
in rural India. Before I became a teenager, I witnessed several
deaths in the family—five of my grandfather’s generation
and six infants. They were all treated by doctors who practiced
the native ayurvedic (Hindu) tradition as well as by those trained
in allopathic (Western) medicine.
My traditional Hindu family embraced the advancing allopathic medicine.
In fact, many members of our extended family eventually became allopathic
practitioners. My life has included both faith-based treatment as
well as science-based medical treatments. The times of healing gave
me opportunities to examine my worldviews critically.
When I was four or five years old, I had chicken pox. I still remember
sitting on a high-raised seat, while somebody walked around me with
a pot of liquor, poured it on the floor in front of me, and swept
my body with a small bunch of green leaves. This ritual was to ward
off the evil with which I was afflicted. I remember going sometimes
to my village priest before sunrise with a bunch of freshly picked
grass. He would chant a mantra and wipe my face and neck with that
grass—apparently to wipe away the rash on my cheeks and neck.
Later, when I was seriously ill, two of my uncles who are trained
in allopathic medicine treated me until I recovered. My grandparents
and parents prayed and performed puja (a service offered to God
in prayer and ritual) for my well-being all through that time. For
almost twenty-seven years I was under the attention of doctors trained
in both allopathic and ayurvedic medicine. During this time my concern
for my health did not affect my enthusiasm for living fully and
with hope and expectations. Then the amazing thing happened: I came
to this country. For the next forty years, I had no health complaint
except for minor colds and flu. Ten years ago, my doctor declared
me diabetic, which only forced me to lead a more disciplined life.
A heart attack a couple of years ago really taught me some lessons
in leading a good and healthy life.
I grew up with knowledge of and involvement in the religious practices
of my Hindu family. I saw my great-grandfather follow a daily spiritual
routine and helped him perform pujas and meditations. I watched
my grandfather, too, but I noticed he was not as strict as my great-grandfather
was, and my father was even less strict. Yet all of them remained
devout Hindus. On the other hand, my great-grandmother, my grandmother,
and even my mother were more involved in religious rituals. There
is a strong family tradition of being religious—performing
rituals and pujas and celebrating religious festivals. Each generation
adjusted its style to the times in which it lived.
As a physicist I wonder constantly about the nature of the world.
The more I know about the structure of the universe, the more surprised
I am. The knowledge I accumulate makes me feel good. It is humbling
to know that we know little or nothing about 95 percent of the physical
universe. I realize that I rely heavily upon what science gave us
in my lifetime. But beyond this worldview provided by science, which
I believe is incomplete and materialistic, there is the view I have
gathered based on my Hindu tradition and philosophy—the knowledge
that nourishes the spiritual in my life. I was brought up with the
hypothesis that all that exists is in the category of intelligence—Brahman,
as Hindu philosophers refer to it. The rest of the universe and
I are parts of a cosmic intelligence. My mind and body are part
of that unity. I need not be the victim of Descartes’ error—Damasio’s
famous argument that “I think, therefore I am” is wrong.
My own reading of the current literature on the connection between
emotions, feelings, and health has reinforced my respect for the
model my own tradition created for me. This idea has become a powerful
source of comfort, especially when I was recovering from that heart
attack. My week in the hospital was a period of intense introspection.
I recognized that my mind can influence the workings of my body.
Instead of wondering what might happen, I trained my mind to focus
on what should happen. While I felt comfortable that medical technology
and science have advanced sufficiently to take care of my body,
the urge to follow and test the path suggested by Hindu models of
the universe bolstered my optimism. Hope needs to supplement the
scientific, materialistic model; my tradition built that hope into
Which of these models came to my rescue? That question is irrelevant
for me now. Maybe both of them contributed to my well-being. Since
then, I have begun to think of myself and my place in the world
in a more positive and challenging way. Maybe this is what we call
healing. Curing requires and must take into account every advance
in understanding the body and its functions; science and technology
provide us with a very efficient road map to gain that knowledge.
Healing, however, requires in addition a worldview that accommodates
spirituality and the role of mind. The models of religion have an
edge over science in this respect.