Nikola Tesla was a scientific luminary who undertook seminal work in the field of electromagnetism, taking the study of modern alternating current electricity supply systems to such heights that the SI unit of magnetic flux density was named tesla in his honour, by the General Conference on Weights and Measures in 1960. Tesla’s legacy is ubiquitous in many ways today, with everything from books and films to television productions and even video games being made to edify him, in the contemporary world. Many legends around Tesla have persisted over the decades since he passed away in 1943, be it his eidetic memory, his unparalleled work habits or his brand of humanism. What is often forgotten is his rather idiosyncratic exchange with Swami Vivekananda and the spirituo-scientific tephra that emerged from Tesla’s upsurge of philosophical and scientific ruminations.
While he pursued physics and engineering for his higher education, he never quite received a degree for the same. His was the way of attaining practical experience in the industry, with stints in industrial powerhouses like the Continental Edison and Edison Machine Works. He devised an alternating current induction motor, which formed the basis for a polyphase system launched by Westinghouse Electric. Tesla soon branched out with the income he earned from the marketing of his inventions and founded the Nikola Tesla company. What was more noteworthy in this phase of his life is that Tesla pushed the boundaries of research in and into areas that his discoveries had opened up. Even though it was later disproved by empirical tests, Tesla maintained an anti-reductionist stance by arguing that atoms were immutable and irreducible, and that there could be no such thing as an electron to carry electric charge.
As much as he is remembered for some of his proactive pursuits, he is also known for his support for theories of ether and his opposition to the theory of relativity. Whether he was speaking against the mass-energy equivalence encapsulated in Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2 is debateable. The kernel of truth in this equivalence had various precedents before Einstein. One of the earliest such precedent was by Sir Isaac Newton, who speculated on whether matter and light particles can be converted into each other, by saying
“Are not the gross bodies and light convertible into one another, and may not bodies receive much of their activity from the particles of light which enter their composition?”Ref: Query 30, Opticks by Sir Isaac Newton
Before Einstein, various others such as Olinto de Pretto, Samuel Preston and Nikolay Umov had posited various mass-energy relations. Even the premise of the equivalence, which came from seeing how a body giving off a certain amount of energy E in the form of radiation makes its mass diminish by the amount E/c2, was studied previously in somewhat different forms by Heaviside, Thomson, Searle, Wien and Lorentz, to name a few. In sharp contrast, Tesla once famously said
“There is no energy in matter except that absorbed from the medium“Ref: The Eternal Source of Energy of the Universe, Origin and Intensity of Cosmic Rays by Nikola Tesla
On the surface, Tesla seems to be strongly against speaking for any contribution to energy of a physical system besides that extracted from the medium. However, a closer reading of his thoughts and interactions with his peers as well as Swami Vivekananda gives us a slightly more nuanced perspective. And the most interesting aspect in all this may be the role that oriental philosophy and Vedanta may have played in his views on this important topic of relevance and interest!
Nikola Tesla and Swami Vivekananda met by chance at a rather curious event: the staging of a play known as Iziel, which was on how a courtesan attempted to seduce the Buddha as he spiritually progressed towards enlightenment and subsequently used the story of the courtesan’s advances to speak on the vanity of the world. This was a rather curious foray by the Western world into the doctrines of the East, and who could have been better than Swami Vivekananda, steeped in Vedantic thought and experience as well as the knowledge of Western culture and rationalism, to have engaged with such a production. And so he did! His presence was deemed as so extraordinary by the star performer of the play – Sarah Bernhardt, that she arranged for a meeting with him after the play. What worked rather curiously, if one could argue for a grand machination in the Universe, was the fortuitous manner in which Bernhardt also happened to invite Nikola Tesla for this meeting! The way in which these two great luminaries related to each other was rather, and curiously so, resonant. Swami Vivekananda had always been fascinated by meditations into the substance of life and sentience (a subject which Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose would study, somewhat also motivated by Swami Vivekananda’s disciple Sister Nivedita), while Tesla was intrigued by the connections between energy, ether and vitalism.
Swami Vivekananda and Nikola Tesla deliberated on the fundamental Vedantic concepts of âkâsha, kalpas and prâna, which were posited to be the notions of ether, aeons and vital energy, or rather units of matter, time and energy, respectively. Apparently Tesla assured Swami Vivekananda that these ideas of Hinduism could be related to well-established concepts and constructs in modern Western science. This chance meeting was later described by the latter in a letter dated 13 February 1896 as follows
“Mr. Tesla was charmed to hear about the Vedantic prana and akasha and the kalpas. He thinks he can demonstrate mathematically that force and matter are reducible to potential energy. I am to go to see him next week to get this mathematical demonstration. In that case Vedantic cosmology will be placed on the surest of foundations. I clearly see their perfect union with modern science, and the elucidation of one will be followed by that of the other.”
While Tesla was unable to prove this mathematically, his deliberations formed an interesting set of ideas and ruminations on the subject. Swami Vivekananda also interacted with two other luminaries of Wester science, while being in the United States: William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and von Helmholtz.
People often assume that the quest for unifying energy and matter brought forth a scientific legitimisation of Vedantic thought. Nothing can be further from the truth. The Vedantic way has always been premised on a dynamic, not inert, tendency of reflexivity, of `being conscious’. Of a certain vitalism, beyond just an Einsteinian equivalence relation. The key question is: should we, or rather could we, scientifically validate or negate this line of thought? Swami Vivekananda, like ancient Indian seers and luminaries, always spoke on the distinction between the transcendental and the immanent, the spiritual and the physical. Anyone who truly understands the meaning of the Vedantic Brahman or the Sankhyan Purusha shall know that both conceptions of ultimate reality are premised on that which cannot be visualised or described in terms of the empirical. While the Kathopanishad speaks of Brahman as
यदिदं किं च जगत् सर्वं प्राण एजति निःसृतम्
Whatever there is-the whole universe-vibrates because it has gone forth from Brahman, which exists as its Ground.Ref: Kathopanishad (Adhyay 2 Valli 3 Verse 2)
This `Ground’ is beyond the empirical from when the empirical arises. Gautama Buddha spoke of the most basic empirical reality being relational and not absolute: things exist in relation to others, effects arise due to specific causes, and the world exists in a reality defined by Pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination).
In Western science, while there have existed various kinds of contemporary pluralisms, pragmatisms and realisms that operate with a pre-Kantian view of things being self-existing distinct entities ere entering into relations with each other. There have been two other broad schools of thought on this front. Some advocate for Kant’s agnosticism towards the concept of the noumenon, saying the self is entirely unknowable, while others go with a more Hegelian understanding that entities become more self-aware through their `awareness’ of objects around. Vedanta, as Swami Vivekananda promulgated it, stands for an interesting third in this battle of post-Kantian idealisms – the absolute reality is not reducible or knowable in terms of empirical differences of basic building blocks and their combinations nor is it entirely unknowable, since it can be accessed by the individual through self-illumination and consciousness. Vedanta and the broader Hindu way of thinking has always clarified that this fundamental reality is inaccessible to empirical tests. Tesla was sifting through the layer just immanent from this unempirical background. In his famous words,
“There manifests itself in the fully developed being – Man – a desire mysterious, inscrutible and irresistable: to imitate nature, to create, to work himself the wonders he perceives. […] Long ago he recognized that all perceptible matter comes from a primary substance, of a tenuity beyond conception and filling all space – the Akasa or luminiferous ether – which is acted upon by the life-giving Prana or creative force, calling into existence, in never ending cycles, all things and phenomena. The primary substance, thrown into infinitesimal whirls of prodigious velocity, becomes gross matter; the force subsiding, the motion ceases and matter disappears, reverting to the primary substance.”Ref: Man’s Greatest Achievement by Nikola Tesla
While the concept of luminiferous ether was debunked by the famous Michelson-Morley experiment and any possible `creative’ force or energy spoken of by Tesla was devoid largely of vitalism besides the phenomenon and conditions concerned, many have posited the emergence of the zero point energy and vacuum of quantum fields as the background from whence empirical particles can arise. It is still premature to speak on whether this can reconcile Vedanta and modern physics, not only because the unification programme of physical fields is still incomplete but also because the ultimate reality of Vedanta may always remain untestable and uncharacterizable by constructs of modern Physics.
That, however, does not take away from the idiosyncratic position of Tesla’s ruminations, on bringing forth the truth encapsulated in the Vedas and Upanishads in terms of a more dispassionate and scientific perspective, in the annals of history. That is the truly Dharmic way: the way of Satya (सत्य) – truth, which can help humanity if followed beyond and besides dogma and doctrines of the Hindu way of life.