In Memoriam: John Dobson

The world of Vedanta and cosmology lost a good friend in January. John Dobson was a devoted student and proponent of Advaita Vedanta.

John DobsonJohn spent twenty three years living in the Hollywood Vedanta Center as a monk in the Ramakrishna Order. He left the order in 1967 but remained closely aligned, returning for frequent lectures. He spent the last several years of his life at the Vedanta Center until his death at the age of 98.

John also gained a large measure of fame as the creator of the telescope that now bears his name. The Dobsonian telescope, an innovative and low-cost instrument for exploring the cosmos, has enabled generations of amateur astronomers to view the heavens with an intense magnification and clarity that was previously unavailable to anyone without access to a scientific observatory. As a co-founder of the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, John spent a good part of his life traveling around the world teaching about telescope building, and setting up his telescope in public to promote awareness of astronomy. As John once stated, “The importance of a telescope is not on how big it is, it’s not on how well made it is – it’s how many people, less fortunate than you, got to look through it.” An eccentric and colorful character, John reveled in opening the eyes of the public to the magnificence and wonders of the universe as seen through the telescope.

John was equally passionate about promoting his cosmologically unorthodox views which were greatly informed by his spiritual training. Under the rigorous tutelage of Swami Ashokananda, John became fluent in the philosophy and viewpoint of Vedanta. Swami Ashokananda tasked him with the assignment of reconciling the Hindu scriptures with the findings of modern physics. With his typical dry wit, John noted to his friends, “I don’t know what your problems are, but that was mine.” He plunged into this assignment and his explorations resulted in several books including, “Advaita Vedanta and Modern Science”, and “Beyond Space and Time”.

John denounced the Big Bang theory. As he contended – despite what the scientists say – something cannot come from nothing. He even wrote equations that he claimed proved his point. John preferred what he called his Steady State theory, which essentially says that the universe has no beginning or end and is constantly recycling. Noting that modern cosmologists take nonexistence for granted and hope to get a universe out of it, John took a totally different tack, assuming that existence is, prior to space and time, and that what appears as the universe is Maya. It was John’s hope that eventually physicists would soon come to see that quantum mechanics and relativity are evidence that the universe is apparitional rather than actual.

As John wrote in an article for the Sidewalk Astronomers:

“Modern cosmologists usually take nonexistence for granted and hope to get the Universe out of nothing. But must we assume that in the absence of the universe and in the absence of space and time there would be nothing? Or can we find clues to what might remain if instead we take existence for granted but leave out space and time? Could what remains through apparition or Maya, appear as this Universe?

The mystics take existence for granted and want to get from “here to there”, (to see behind the apparition), and that is possible. But for the most part the scientists take nonexistence for granted and even if you accept Swami Vivekananda’s point of view that the universe is the absolute seen through the screen of time, space, and causation, still you cannot ask how that became this. The absolute does not become the universe – it is only appearance, a misinterpretation….

The question is not, ‘how did that become this?’, but, ‘why do I continue to see it this way?’
The aim of science is to make a better map, and what is needed is a better understanding of the first cause. The aim of religion is to help the pilgrims on their way, to help them see beyond the screen, and what is needed is a better map by which to chart the journey. Both science and religion are investigations into the nature of the world and our place in it. How did we get here, and where do we go? What is also needed is the simple recognition that we are all pilgrims on whatever paths, headed for the same goal. Our problem now is to get beyond the thralldom of the genes, to discriminate between the underlying existence and the apparition, between the real and the make-believe, and to let the make-believe go. Individually, we can do it even now.”

Although this sophisticated spiritual understanding of physics is too unconventional at this time to be accepted by modern science, John remained firm in his stand in Vedanta. Nevertheless, in addition to leaving behind many devoted friends, fans, and admirers, John received honors for his life’s work. In 2004, the Crater Lake Institute presented John with its Annual Award for Excellence in Public Service for pioneering sidewalk astronomy in the national parks and forests. In 2005, the Smithsonian magazine listed John Dobson as among 35 individuals who have made a major difference during the lifetime of that periodical.

Some reminiscences of John Dobson by SRV students

John Dobson spoke at the SRV Ashram in Portland twice in the late 1990’s. During his first talk he described an experience he had as a young man while at the Griffiths Observatory in Los Angeles. He was observing the great pendulum clock that was suspended from the storeys high ceiling, which knocked over the hour markers for each day’s 24 hours. As I recall, the question that he said arose in his mind was, “What is this moving in relation to? Everything on Earth is moving along with the spinning of our planet as it orbits the sun. The universe is also spinning. When everything is moving, how do I recognize the movement of the pendulum?” As this thought captured his whole mind, he related that he perceived and became forever convinced of the reality of an unchanging, immutable Substratum. Now, the way he described all this made a deep impression on me. Over the 15 years since this talk, I have revisited this description countless times contemplating his reverie that traces one to awareness of Sarvadhi Sakshibhutam, the original Witness of all phenomena.
–by Annapurna Sarada


Only recently, I learned that John Dobson – Vedantist, legendary astronomer, and unorthodox but brilliant cosmologist – passed away at the age of 98.

I can say with a certainty that his ideas have inspired me for some years. John did something no one else before or after him has ever accomplished. Many have written of finding a common, reconciliatory ground between quantum mechanics and Vedantic spiritual philosophy, which on the face of things, seem to express such similar ideas. But whereas before, all these writers engaged in hopeful speculation, John took it to the next stage: he actually accomplished it. I had the pleasure of meeting him once, and the inspiration I derived from this meeting made me hope I would meet him again someday, at least once. Now, with the news of his passing, it is entirely appropriate – especially as John Dobson was a Vedantist – to remember and affirm that in light of the non-dual nature of existence affirmed by the Vedanta, that nothing has really changed. In the Infinite, the Undivided, there is no coming to be, no ceasing to exist, no coming and no going. The eternal essence that is Atman, which for a short time associated with this particularly brilliant mind, remains unmoved and unchanged.

I met John Dobson almost 20 years ago, while living at the SRV ashram in Portland, Oregon. I had never heard of John before, but he had been invited to come to the ashram to give a presentation. The little I had heard about him had me looking forward to his talk. When he arrived, his atmosphere preceded him. He had the bearing of a highly esteemed professor whom many people listened to attentively with great deference. So I proceeded to listen to him, and imagine my pleasant surprise, when he spoke not only of the idea of a reconciliation between science and mysticism, but that he had actually achieved this reconciliation himself, and using Einstein’s own equations! Additionally, he spoke of things which a non-scientist such as myself could only hope to grasp – such as the spin of electrons. But what really struck me, was that in giving out descriptions on such arcane lore – which easily go over my head – he began to explain how what he had observed in his calculations, essentially showed the existence of an all-pervading spiritual Reality, or God. I thought: “Is this man for real?” But I was hooked. He spoke of the response from other, more orthodox scientists, who were not happy with his conclusions, and basically did not want to hear such things as might challenge their more materialist world-view.

I thought, “Here’s a real scientist: fearless in his search for truth; not deterred by ridicule from entrenched, establishment scientists…” John went on to speak in a different language than any I had heard, using Vedantic philosophic terminology, yet equating these terms with scientific ideas. Finally, I was listening to a man in whom both authentic science and mysticism had met, speaking on this hallowed topic, on a truly deep level. The most amazing thing was that he explained everything in a way I could actually understand. And the things he spoke of seemed far beyond what I had once read in those other books.

Concluding the evening, John allowed us to look through one of his telescopes, which he had brought with him. But what really interested me were his cosmological ideas. Acquiring his book, an updated and expanded edition of his booklet Advaita Vedanta and Modern Science retitled Beyond Time and Space: Is There An Unmoved Mover behind the Deep Field, I got down to some serious reading. I concluded that no scientist had ever written as this man. He spoke of the ancient seers of India – the writers of the Upanishads – and said that they were spiritual scientists, giving out advanced scientific ideas, and then proceeded to fill in the details, relating their teachings to the most cutting-edge cosmological theories. He related his ideas on “Apparitional Causation,” essentially a science-based theory which is fully in line with classical Vedantic teachings on Maya. The classic teaching story of the Snake and the Rope gets a full scientific treatment in this book.

In 1948, Swami Vivekananda said: “This absolute has become the universe by coming through time, space, and causation. This is the central idea of Advaita. Time, space, and causation are like the glass through which the Absolute is seen, and when it is seen on the lower side it appears as the universe.” Now in our time, speaking on this apparitional causation (Vedanta says the relative, phenomenal universe appears through a process of Vivarta or “false mental superimposition”) John says: “It is here, in apparitional causation, that we understand, for the first time, the physics behind gravity, electricity, and inertia. It is apparitional physics — what we shall here call ‘square one physics.’ It is here, in apparitional causation, that we understand the physics behind those old Sanskrit terms Asti, Bhati, and Priya. Every object of our perception is said to be characterized by existence, Asti, perceptibility, Bhati, and dearness, Priya. Asti is the changeless, seen in the apparently changing. Bhati is the infinite seen in the apparently finite. And Priya is the undivided seen in the apparently divided. Whatever transformations we see here are ultimately driven from square one. Mass and energy, space and time, gravity, electricity, inertia, and the conservation laws arise in square one. The intergalactic hydrogen arises in square one.”

And the intergalactic hydrogen John speaks of? In his understanding, this original, primordial hydrogen, which was the basis for all the later elements which formed, was itself apparitional, non-actual. Just like in the Vedanta. Of course, this suggests that as these later elements formed from this hydrogen “falling together” by gravity, they would also be non-actual.

To say the least, this man had my attention. I remember being deeply inspired by an epic poem in this book, describing the entire sweep of cosmic and biological evolution, all within the context of the Advaitic, nondual idea. I can remember but one line from this poem: “Mother is the hydrogen. Mother is the star. She falls it all together, to make us what we are…”

The essence that was until recently, the name and form “John Dobson” is still with us, all-pervasive. It is Atman, eternity. What John started, he didn’t really originate. All knowledge is in the Atman. John perceived this knowledge, and helped to reveal, to unfold it for our modern world. I believe the seeds he has planted will continue to grow. 
–by Paravasta Sam Bailey

I had not heard of John Dobson prior to the talk he gave at the SRV Ashram around fifteen years ago. To my surprise the event was standing room only and the room could barely contain the crowd that appeared.

I was intrigued about his background as a Vedantist and an astronomer who was also well versed in theoretical physics. I had just read an interesting article by a quantum physicist from Portland State University and was eager to question John about several points in the article that were unclear to me. These questions regarding physics and the nature of reality were readily cleared up by John. He did so in a confident and humorous manner that were full of spiritual implications.

Particularly memorable were his reminiscences of his time with his guru, Swami Ashokananda. He spoke reverently of the intense Socratic like dialogue that the Swami would engage in with his disciples. Not content to just lecture, Swami Ashokananda would put his students on the hot seat, asking questions, and forcing them to think for themselves and to show how well they had digested the teachings. We could see the effect of this process in John’s presentation, which was frequently punctuated with the phrase “You must have noticed…”

Finally, as a person, he cut a memorable physical presence. Although he was well into his eighties at the time, he literally clapped his hands and leapt into the air when he got excited about a point he was making. As he left the ashram to put on his shoes, rather than pull up a chair, I saw him park himself down on the wooden porch to put on his sneakers and tie his shoelaces. With his long pony tail, from behind he looked like a middle-aged but youthful hippy and it occurred to me that his physical body was as supple, and agile as his wide-ranging mind.
–by Anurag Neal Aronowitz


I was at the Hollywood Vedanta center on Sunday and Swami Brahmavidyananda mentioned the passing of John Dobson in his talk on Jnana Yoga – that is when I found out. At the Satsang after the lecture, I steered the discussion towards pulling out stories of John, especially in his final days. Swami Brahmavidyananda was clearly a close friend of John’s as well, so when he began sharing the story of John on his deathbed, I knew I should record it so I pulled out my phone.

The best portion was just prior to me hitting the record button. Swami Brahmavidyananda had gone with another devotee to the hospital in Burbank where John lay. That was on Tuesday evening, Jan 14th. They walked in and sat, listening to John breathing very heavily. He was not conscious of them, or anything, as they could tell. After some time, the two of them decided to go back to Hollywood. But as they were walking out, approaching them were Swami Sarvadevananda (the chief minister), Swami Atmatattwananda (who goes by ‘Shiva’), and a few others. They had gotten lost and didn’t know where John’s room was, so together they all went back up. Then Shiva sat down and began reading from the Bhagavad Gita. At this point, John’s breathing became much quieted and peaceful. He was conscious of who was around him, while listening to the words of the Lord. The Swamis took turns reading a chapter each. During this time, they could see a light in John’s eyes. And he was giving the thumbs-up sign to each of them as they finished their part. They all left in the late evening, and John passed the next morning around 11am.

Swami Brahmavidyananda continued speaking towards John’s coalescing of science and spirituality, while other devotees were chiming in with their own memories. Afterwards, they thanked me for sparking a good satsang.
–by Mahesh Madhav