This paper examines the relationship between Science and Religion in terms of their modes of representation. It argues that representations in different cultures are structured by the fields of knowledge which give rise to them, as well as by developments in representational technologies; and that in turn, new modes of representation impinge upon and reconstruct the very ground of knowledge from which they emerged. Finally, with the virtual reality art of Char Davies as a point of departure, this paper investigates if the integrative, immersive, interactive and holistic nature of the representations enabled by today's technologies might engender a rapprochement of sacred and scientific theories of knowledge in the new millenium.

Keywords: Science, Religion, Art, Cosmology, Representation, Virtual Reality, Epistemology

"Our Lord is the Dancer, who, like the heat latent in firewood, diffuses His power in mind and matter, and makes them dance in their turn"
Tiruvatavurar Puranam [1]

Before the Renaissance, the role of the artist was to articulate the expressions of a symbolic order, based on scripture or tradition. Invariably, at the root of this order would lie a cosmology—a holistic theory of the form, process and meaning of the universe. Within the traditional paradigm, a cosmology serves as the basis of an integrative theory of all knowledge. Indeed, the sacred paradigms of the ancient Egyptians, the Indians, the Chinese, the Jews, the Muslims and the Christians are all founded on integrative representations of the physical and metaphysical universe. In Vedic, brahamanic, Jain and Buddhist theory, "the universe is transfixed by a vast axial mountain, about which at varying levels are ranged the continents of our own world and the layers of heavens and hells .. For the Hindus the Universe is a round egg, covered with seven concentric shells composed of different elements. For the Jains, on the other hand, it is shaped rather like an enormous man, or sometimes an hour-glass with a narrow waist, . for the Buddhists the universe consists of three horizontal layers: the world of desire, in which lies our own earth, surmounted first by the world of form, and then, floating well above the summit of the axial mountain, by the mysterious world of no-form, which is clearly a translation into spatial terms of various mystical states of conscious." [2] These and other cosmologies were represented visually, sculpturally and architecturally in the cosmographies of the respective sacred arts.

Ananda Coomaraswamy explains that the image of Shiva or "Shri Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance, is represented as having four hands, with braided and jewelled hair of which the lower locks are whirling in the dance. One right hand holds a drum, the other is uplifted in the sign of do not fear: one left hand holds fire, the other points down towards the demon Muyalaka, the left foot is raised. There is a lotus pedestal, from which springs an encirling glory ­ a tiruvasi, fringed with flame, and touched within by the hands holding the drum and fire." [3] The essential purpose of the dance is threefold: First, it is the image of Rhythmic Play as the source of all movement in the Universe, which is represented by the Arch: Secondly , to Release the Countless souls of men and women from the Snare of Illusion: Thirdly, to locate the Place of the dance, Chidambaram, the Centre of the Universe, within the Heart." [4] Coomaraswamy reveals the grandure of this conception as arising from its masterful synthesis of science, religion and art.

In the practice of the Hindu art of sculpture the image of a devata, latent in canonical prescription, is inwardly visualized by the icon maker in an act of 'non-differentiation'. This finished inner image is the model from which he proceeds to execute in a chosen material. The viewer, in turn, applies his or her own 'imaginative energy' to the physical icon, 'realising' the devata within the 'immanent space in the heart'. Thus, the physical or outer image is instrumental in generating an analogous inner image in whose radiance 'harmony or unity of consciousness' is achieved. [5] Neither in this mode of 'representation' nor in those of others like Islamic geometry or Gothic architecture, was there a separation of religion from science and technology. Indeed, sacred art can be understood as a technology or 'calculus' with which to transcribe universal truths. Like modern science, this art generates and articulates symbols for the underlying realities of our existence.

An 'epistemology', in the broadest possible sense, is 'a theory of the method or the grounds of knowledge'. [6] The early theories of knowledge from both East and West stressed its absolute, permanent character. In Plato's view knowledge is the awareness of absolute, universal Ideas or Forms, existing independently of any subject trying to apprehend to them. Plato's epistemology is in keeping with theories of knowledge in Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, Christian and Islamic tradition. Even for Aristotle who recognised logical and empirical methods for gathering knowledge, this knowledge was ultimately an apprehension of necessary and universal principles. [7] Ananda Coomaraswamy sets out the traditional approach thus—"knowledge as such is not the mere report of the senses, nor the mere act of recognition, but is an abstraction from these reports, in which abstraction the names of the things are used as convenient substitutes for the things themselves. Knowledge is not then of individual presentations, but of types of presentation; in other words, of things in their intelligible aspect". [8]

It is my thesis that representations in different fields of knowledge are structured by their respective grounds and that when technological development gives rise to new modes of representation, these new modalities impinge upon and reconstruct the very ground of knowledge from which they emerged. The transformation of medieval optics into a scientific perspective in the 15th century, and ultimately photographic representation, has given us our modern sense of 'being in the world' ­ our ontology. Indeed, Brunelleschi's mirror image of the Florentine Baptistary confirmed the notion of a hermetically sealed ego, negotiating an external environment via a physical envelope of senses. As Brian Rotman observes, "Each image within the code of perspectival art … offers the spectator the possibility of objectifying himself, the means of perceiving himself, from the outside, as a unitary seeing subject…", as the receiver of "… messages whose interpretation requires the active presence of a physically located, corporeal individual who has a 'point of view'". He quotes Bryson "The vanishing point is the anchor of a system which incarnates the viewer, renders him tangible and corporeal, a measurable, and above all a visible object in a world of absolute visibility".[9]

By engendering perceptual and cognitive modes that index a singular, homogenous human 'self', the representational technologies of the Renaissance shattered the unity of the Medieval world view. Indeed, accompanying this representational transformation was what George Holmes describes as a "rather extreme and sudden secularization of ideas".[10] It can be said that the Humanist 'avant-garde' instigated a disengagement of the sacred from the natural world. In Coomaraswamy's terms, the Renaissance gave rise to an 'extroversion of human consciousness'.[11] This shift in human consciousness was accompanied by congruent shift in epistemology. It was during the renaissance that empiricism, which sees knowledge as the product of sensory perception, and rationalism, which sees it as the product of rational reflection, became the basis of the western theory of knowledge.[12] This has resulted in the contemporary separation of scientific from religious knowledge. Indeed, from this point of rupture onwards that religion could deal only in spiritual matters and science with descriptions of the bare facts of the world; and art concerned itself with the production of objects for pure aesthetic contemplation. Sadly, all that is left in modern knowledge, of the magnificent integrative cosmologies of the ancients are a materialistic astronomy and an astrophysics impoverished of its inherent metaphysics.

As we near the close of the 20thcentury, however, the diverse idioms of scientific, artistic and sacred representation are merging once again. Beginning with the inspired realisation that the computer's facility for numerical manipulation could be applied to expedite lexical 'processing' all categories of representation have ceded to the digital domain. The differences which arose from the physical particularities of the specific materials of analog representation have been leveled in the reductive and integrative logic of digital media. This is introducing an unprecedented degree of interpenetration in all arenas of representation and communication. Representations can now take the form of interactive immersive environments, engaging the 'viewer' in a participatory mode of 'viewing' in which the prior ocular encounter becomes a holistic bodily experience. The distance between viewer and viewed is dissolved as the viewer is transported into the view.

However, most virtual reality environments still emphasise a visually oriented illusion of space. Paradoxically, while the familiarity of the Cartesian terrain heightens the idea or notion of a body in space, the immateriality of the impinging optical simulation causes the immersant to loose touch with his or her sense of corporeal being. While it is not within the ambit of this paper to address the 'corporate' agendas that underpin the development of virtual reality technology, I cannot resist the following illustration of the absurdity of the disjuncture of the visual field from the physical 'being' of the body in contemporary VR. Recounting his own introduction to VR at the Berlin Video festival in 1991, Dovey writes, " the first thing I am struck by is how the participants in the helmet and glove, the VR voyagers, are immediately rendered blind by the technology. Arm out ahead, head covered, they look like victims in a medieval dance of death. The impact of the sight is not lost on the spectators; they laugh and giggle as the poor unfortunate stumbles around the stage, getting stuck in impossible corners, only to be rescued by the beautiful assistant in the white suite. O yes, I forgot an essential fact, the installation is sponsored by Phillip Morris tobaccos, the white suits are the company acolytes." [13]

Dovey continues, " When my turn comes I strap myself into the heavy gear and set off on my voyage to the future. I see a rather poor graphic of a lobby. Moving my hand moves a silly hovering hand that has popped up in the bottom left hand of my frame. Using the hand as a direction pointer I appear to move through the lobby.". Having found his way through a set of double doors, he continues "I find that I am staring into deep space. From the depths of the star pattern tiny dots appear to rush toward me as they get bigger. They turn out not to be stars but tiny packs of Marlborough. I try to reach out and catch them as they hurtle by. It was hard, perhaps I wasn't supposed to do that, perhaps I was supposed to plunge off into deep space flying like superman. I tried, I fell down. It was then that I discovered that the programme would continue to run despite my prostrate form. So much for interactivity." [14] Until tactile simulation approaches the present capabilities in visual simulation, immersive virtual reality will remain a technology of dislocation in which being immersed is, ultimately, less like being some place else and more like being no-place at all.

'Osmose', a work, conceived by and produced under the direction of Char Davies, is the first major immersive VR environment to 'resist' simulation of perspectival space and to attempt to heal the rift between vision and body inherent in conventional virtual reality. Inspired by the sense of full body immersion experienced in deep sea diving, this work presents an enveloping, womb like, experience of space. Using available motion capture equipment to track the position of the immersants' head and the tilt of the spine and a custom breathing vest to measure the expansion and contraction of the immersants' chest, Osmose translates breath and balance into mobility in the virtual realm. Navigating this realm is a question of breath control and centering the body and most significantly the immersant is denied the possibility of reaching out to 'touch'. Using textural markings and transparent texture maps to dissolve the boundaries between objects and space, a reversed figure/ground relationship, with more distant objects often passing in front of closer ones and soft luminous particle streams, the space of Osmose is given an organic, enveloping fluidity. "We wanted participants to feel centered in their physical bodies during immersion . we wanted to enable a sensation of floating—with emphasis on vertical movements rather than horizontal or frontal movements . we desired to facilitate an experience of 'being in the world' rather than 'doing' . We also hoped to find a way to dissolve boundaries between interior self and exterior worldspace". [15]

If the body emerges from Osmose and the later Ephémère, as a reintegrated site of being, it is because the perspectival cone of vision is undermined, while the physicality of body is delicately reaffirmed, albeit with a subtle energetic and not a gross corporeal ontology. Returning to the thesis of this paper, I propose that, in fact, VR representation is inherently cosmological, with the body as root metaphor in an immersive, interactive , real-time 3D cosmography. Indeed, the parameteric nature of VR makes it well suited to the representation of cosmological environments. So conducive, in my view, that architectural walk throughs and their ilk are, in fact, struggling against the grain of the medium. As a response to this thesis Char has remarked, "Osmose and Ephémère really do have a cosmology within them .., for those same elements, of body, of roots/rocks, earth, flowing water etc. have recurred in my work for several decades, as far back as 73". [16] Indeed, in Osmose and the later Ephémère 'worlds' or 'realms' are structured holistically and transitions between them programmed to impart a sense of continuity, deploying VR to its best cosmographic potential. While Char's cosmology, arguably, represents an environmental theology, it is not canonical and is ultimately a personal one. Nevertheless, its structure, mechanisms and metaphors are similar to the esoteric diagrams, meditative techniques and meanings associated with sacred cosmologies.

The Hindu, Bhuddist and Jain universe is anthropomorphic in that its structure is analogous to the form of the human body. In the Vedic 'Hym of the Cosmic Man' or Purusasukta the gods sacrifice the giant Purusa, to create the physical universe. "Purusa is this all, that has been and that will be . From his navel was produced the air; from his head the sky was evolved; from his feet the earth . " [17] The human body is the source or, in linguistic terms, the root metaphor for the universe, which in turn, is what is 'modeled' or represented in the Hindu temple. As Bruckhardt observes, "that which is in ceaseless movement within the universe is transposed by sacred architecture into permanent form". Just as the "Vedic sacrificer identifies himself spiritually with the altar, which he builds to the measure of his body . the architect of the temple identifies with the building and with that which it represents . ", conferring "upon his work something of his own vital force". [18] Analogously, in developing the meanings of Ephémère, Char Davies refers to the Life Flow and the inexorable force that pours through all things that according to Heidegger, the Greeks called "physis", "In truth, physis means, outside of all specific connotations of mountains, sea or animals, the pure blooming in the power of which all that appears and thus 'is'".[19] Indeed, Ephémère is structured in terms of spatial and temporal "flows" of 'landscape',' earth' and 'body'. It is the innovative user interface that translates breath into spatial and temporal experience and locates the body as the root 'metaphor' in Ephémère and in Osmose as well.

In proposing the transformative potential of VR Char Davies quotes Gaston Bachelard, "by changing space, by leaving the space of one's usual sensibilities, one enters into communication with a space that is psychically innovating… For we do not change place, we change our nature". [20] Indeed, from a Mahayana Buddhist point of view the 'strong force' within matter is mind. As absolute reality is voidness, and the objective reality of things is relative, the collective imagination's power to shape things is unlimited. Insight into voidness releases powerful visualizations capable of bringing pure Buddha lands into reality.[21] The Tantric mandala is a representational device deployed in realising these environments of universal enlightenment. Two dimensional geometric mandalas in materials like paint and sand and three dimensional constructed ones are used to trigger inner visualizations of subtle cosmological environments within which the adept locates himself or herself. These 'heavenscapes' or realms of peace have the power to foster wisdom and compassion in our mundane physical universe, drawing it towards the perfected state.

Immersive VR reproduces digitally the bio and psychic technologies of the past. Perhaps holistic, cosmological character of representations in this new medium will lead us to a reintegration of the sacred/scientific totality of knowledge. While, it is a shortcoming of this paper that it leaves unaddressed the specific nature of scientific representation and undemonstrated the particular impact upon science of VR; it should not be difficult to complete the argument in a future paper. To paraphrase Ananda Coomaraswmy, religious representation addresses 'first causes', while scientific representation deals with the 'mediate causes' of the same events. [22]


1. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, "The Dance of Shiva" in The Dance of Shiva, The Noonday Press, New York, 1957. p 70 (quoted from Kadavul Mamunivar's Tiruvatavurar Puranam, Nallasvami Pillais's translation, Shivajnanbodham, p 74)

2. B. Carmen, & L. Michael ed. Ancient Cosmologies, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London, 1975. pp 13-14

3. Ibid [1] pp. 69-70

4. Ibid [1] p 77

5. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Transformation of Nature in Art, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, 1935. pp 5-6

6. J. B. Sykes ed. The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1976. p 349

7. F. Heylighen, "Epistemology, Introduction" in Principia Cybernetica Web, 1993. http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/EPISTEMI.html

8. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, "On the Pertinence of Philosophy" in What is Civilisation Golgonzola Press, Ipswich, 1989. p 13

9. Brian Rotman, Signifying Nothing, St. Martins Press, New York, 1987. p 19. p 14

10. George Holmes, The Florentine Enlightenment 1400-1450, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1969. p 64

11. Ibid [5] p 3.

12. Ibid [7] http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/EPISTEMI.html

13. Jon Dovey, ed. Fractal Dreams, New media in Social Context, Lawerence & Wilshart, London,1996. p xi

14. Ibid [13] pp xi-xii

15. Char Davies and John Harrison, "Osmose: Towards Broadening the Aesthetics of Virtual Reality", first published in ACM Computer Graphics: Virtual Reality, XXX: 4, 199

16. Email from Char Davies to the author, 1999.

17. R. Gombrich, "Ancient Indian Cosmology" in Carmen, B. & Michael, L. ed. Ancient Cosmologies, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London. 1975. p 115

18. T. Burckhard, Sacred Art in East and West, Middlesex: Perennial Books LTD, 1967, p 17.

19. Char Davies , "Ephémère: Landscape, Earth, Body and Time in Immersive Virtual Space" in R. Ascot ed. Consciousness Reframed : Proceedings of the Second International CAiiA Research Conference, CAiiA, Newport, 1998. (referring to Michael Harr's The Song of the Earth: Heidegger and the Grounds of the History of Being, Indiana University Press, p 8.)

20. Char Davies, "Changing Space: VR as an Arena of Being" in John Beckman ed. The Virtual Dimension: Architecture, Representation and Crash Culture, Princeton Architectural, Press, Boston, 1998. (from Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space. P 206)

21. Robert Thurman, "Tibet, its Buddhism, and its Art" in Marylin M. Rhine and Robert A. F. Thurman,Harry N. Abrams ed. Wisdom and Compassion:The Sacred Art of Tibet, New York, 199. pp 33-38.

22. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, "Gradation, Evolution and Reincarnation" in The Bugbear of Literacy, Perennial Books, Middlesex, 1979. p 122.

This article may include minor changes from the original publication in order to improve legibility and layout consistency within the Immersence Website. † Significant changes from the original text have been indicated in red square brackets.

Last verified: August 1st 2013.