Ramayana – Really Regressive?

As you would probably know, I don’t much write about about things being discussed or debated (of late I don’t write much on any topic, but specifically …), but a topic which came up some time back, with some people referring to the incident from the Ramayana where Lord Rama asks for Agni-Pariksha for Goddess Sita as being regressive. Given that this didn’t quite make sense to me, I delved a little deeper, and tried to reason things out.

Now, this post is meant for people who find this incident regressive. There are a number of ways we could relate to the Ramayana. Lets look at these ways, along with where they lead us.

  • Ramayana as Literal History: One could take Ramayana as a literal telling of history, where a king asks his queen to walk through fire. Indeed, this would be regressive, but if one takes Ramayana as literal history, then one must also take a number of things, including Mareechh turning into a golden deer, Ravana abducting Goddess Sita in his Pushpak Viman, of Jatayu fighting Ravana, of the construction Ram Setu, of Lord Hanuman carrying the Dronagiri mountain, and many more, as being a literal telling of history. If one isn’t treating the Ramayana as history, then what exactly is regressive?
  • Ramayana as Social Commentary: One could on the other hand, take the Ramayana as a commentary on social norms and values of a given time. Again, if one does so, one must try to include very diverse societies, including humans, asuras, gods/demi-gods, astral beings and so on into a coherent social fabric. If one is to reject the existence of all of these, then one needs to be able to describe what each of these ‘social units’ stands for. If one isn’t even doing that, what does one find regressive here?
  • Ramayana as Fiction: One could treat the Ramayana as purely fiction, but if one were to do that, then there is only a story being told, and whats regressive about stories?
  • Ramayana as Philosophy: Many commentators have written that epics/scripture are written at multiple levels. There is a literal level, and one which is the deeper level, which actually deals with the philosophy of the scripture. The literal level is the first aspect addressed above. At the deeper level, there is immense symbolism to be found. For instance, one interpretation defines Lord Rama as the Self, the soul, the individual seeker (if you may), and Goddess Sita as the Mind. The self and the mind are in a state of perfect harmony until the mind is “abducted” by the tendencies and activities of the world (Ravana, who is defined as representing Rajo-guna, that which defines the tendency of unabashed participation in the goings-on in the world), and the mind and the self can be united only through the mind passing through a process of “cleansing” in the fires of spiritual contemplation, or meditation. Now, if one were to accept this interpretation, where does the notion of regressive come from?

So, as we can see, whichever way one looks at the epic, there doesn’t seem to be a way to define something as regressive. Unless, of course, one chooses to believe in bits and pieces from each such interpretation, and making a cocktail of beliefs. If thats what one believes, then one needs to articulate that.

Please do shed some light if you believe I missed out something.


God and Science

Topics on which people hold very strong beliefs … sometimes these beliefs are no more than just those. While on the one hand some of those who believe in God take Scripture literally, and will tell you that indeed the world was made in 6 days, or that there was indeed a time when snakes talked or horses flew. Little does it occur to them that maybe these stories are more allegorical, and one must look into their subliminal meaning which seems to be a consistent characteristic of Scripture to get a true understanding. Scientists on the other hand use these same stories, read at their superficial level to try to prove that religion flies in the face of logic.

There is another aspect of the scientific discourse which tells us that there is no ‘need’ for God since all phenomena can be explained by science, those which can’t be explained today would well be explained at some point. Let’s take an example to see the folly of this logic. Let’s say you have to go from place A to place B. Now, you could do this commute on foot or by bus. Now, since your commute can be explained by walking, there is therefore no ‘need’ for the bus and therefore the bus doesn’t exist.

Another logic which is most prevalent is that there is no proof of God. Now, one could also on the other hand say that there is no proof for the non-existence of God, but then that takes us into a different byway, so for the moment let’s shelve that one. Let’s say, for instance, if you are asked to cook a meal with a pen, crayons, toothpicks, and a screwdriver and wrench. Doesn’t sound logical, does it? Fact is, different tools are meant to be used for different purposes and extending this it’s easy to see why science has not, maybe will not, been able to prove the existence of God … that as a tool science isn’t the right one.  Let’s try to analyze that. Science is essentially a study of this creation, maybe (if we keep the idea of the multiverse aside for a moment) of the universe. This means that science, meant to study nature, isn’t meant to study whence nature came from.

Is that why so many scientists are so antagonistic to the idea of God?


Krishna Leela

This is a sign of laziness that one thinks of writing about something quite amazing, and then takes a few weeks to get round to doing it. Especially when it is an amazing performance of the Krishna Leela, the story of the life of Lord Krishna.

As children, there are certain things we hold in very high esteem. Could be a restaurant, a particular shop which we went to with our parents, and which we thought, as children, to be something so amazing that we look forward to the day when we go back to those things as grown ups. I am sure all of us would have something which fits this description. Then life takes you away from those places or things, and after a gap of a few decades, you happen to have the chance to revisit those grand places that you so admired as a child. Usually, though, they dont quite seem to be the same, grand places that were painted in your mind’s eye. But this is an amazing exception.

I remember, as a child, watching the Krishna Leela … the story of the life of Lord Krishna. This was performed by the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, and the performances used to happen around the time of Krishna Janmashthami at the Pearey Lal Bhawan, right next to Shankar’s Doll’s Museum. I also remember having been to performances of the Ram Leela, the story of Lord Rama, which used to happen at the place where the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Terminal stands today. And i remember these performances being grand, and quite a treat to watch, as a child.

Recently I got a chance to watch the same Krishna Leela after more than two decades, and nothing of what i have written seemed to hold true. The performance was every bit as grand and fascinating as it was, and enhanced by the use of technology which is available to us today.

In this performance, the story of Lord Krishna is played out in the form of a dance-drama. There are no dialogues, except only at specific points of the performance, to make specific points, and the entire story is told in the form of a play which is enacted in the form of dance. A number of dance forms, from across India, including Kathakali, Odissi, Manipuri, Bharatnatyam, Chhau performed by the players to enact different roles in the life of Lord Krishna. And each of these blend into each other quite nicely, so that you dont get the feel of a patchwork of dance forms which might happen when such disparate dance forms are brought together. Rather, you find the story being compellingly told through the brilliant harmony of the different dance forms, and the way they blend with each other, and the usage of the appropriate dance form to portray particular characters in the life of Lord Krishna.

Here are some images:

Lord Krisna with Radha

Lord Krisna with Radha

The Divine Leela

The Divine Leela

 

Krishna with Arjuna

Krishna with Arjuna

As you can see, no words are necessary. The art of the dance is used to the fullest to powerfully tell a compelling story. And these pictures are not from the performance (photography isnt allowed inside the auditorium), but as you might have guessed, these are photographs of the posters of the performance.

The same Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra also delivers equally powerful performances of the Rama Leela, so if you are in Delhi during the month of October, leading up to Deepawali, do make it a point to explore the wonderful story of Lord Rama, told beautifully.


Discover, not Invent

Einstein once said:

I want to know God’s thoughts; the rest are details.

Ramanujan once said:

An equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.

Two geniuses of our times, two men recognized the world over for their far-reaching contributions to the realm of science. And yet men who understood something, something i believe to be fashionably unfashionable in the scientific realm of today. A simple thought, yet profound. A thought which one could understand simply if only one asked the right questions, or simply took some of the scientific premises scientists are working on to their logical conclusion. Something these great men probably did.

The conclusion is simple. If we understand one basic truth about the nature of science, that science doesnt invent, science discovers. Beginning with prehistoric man, who didnt invent fire, rather found a way to generate it. Or, if you take the steam engine, the power of steam the engine harnessed always existed. Who gave steam the power? Lets take this question further. Who created the consistent laws of nature which science discovers? Who created the picture science is trying to unravel? Who created gravity that Newton discovered? Who created the infinitesimals which, for example, differential calculus explores? If these be seen as different parts of the same picture, somewhat like a jigsaw, who made sure the pieces all fit together, and that each of the pieces is consistent with all the other pieces?

And this is what i believe these great men understood. That science is trying to understand the picture, not the creator of the picture, because while the picture hints at the existence of the creator, it cannot help understand the creator. And this is where, i believe, human development needs to lead to.


Cause and Effect

Over coffee last month, i was discussing some of the philosophical aspects which emerge from science the way scientific knowledge stands. As you can understand, the topics were revolving around Quantum Physics, and Relativity (not that i understand either, but my friend Sanjay Sethi does, quite a bit). And as you can imagine too, this was a discussion which was very interesting. At least those parts i wasnt talking. Without getting into the discussion we had (for the simple reason that i cant remember one half, and couldnt understand the other half, and there are no more halves to tell), Sanjay recommended reading a book on Relativity by Albert Einstein. I have been looking for the book, but it doesnt seem to be available. Few days back, i had a boys evening out at Landmark. Sonny got a nice Toy Story 2, and a wonderful book about Eagles (birds, not band), and i reluctantly asked if they had this book in stock. They did. But it didnt end there. After that, the guys at the shop had quite a time trying to find where it was.

So why am i writing about this? Simple. This brought to mind a thought i had for some time. What is the relation between a cause and its effect? Is it not that the relation between the cause and its effect is built through the passage of time? I someone doesnt shave, then he has a beard. But this needs to be given time. Now the question is, as Relativity points out, time is not constant, which means that due to time dilation, the passage of time slows at speeds close to the speed of light. Now, does this mean that at the speed of light, the relation between cause and effect doesnt exist? If someone travelling at the speed of light doesnt shave, will they still have a beard? Or can we look beyond the material manifestation of this relationship to another relationship between cause and effect which is unvarying, constant, Ultimate?


Unknown

I read an interesting book on the life of Ramanujan, titled The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel. The book gives an interesting idea of the concepts which Ramanujan presented to the world without needing an advanced degree in mathematics to understand. But thats not what i am writing about. There is an interesting aspect which is written about. While it is the logical, rational process to prove a theorem with the tools of mathematics available to the mathematician, what to prove is a less logical thing to find out. What is the theorem which should be proved. How to find out what to prove. And this is what i am writing about. As G. H. Hardy is quoted:

unconscious activity often plays a decisive part in discovery; that periods of ineffective effort are often followed, after intervals of rest or distraction, by moments of sudden illumination; that these flashes of inspiration are explicable only as a result of activities of which the agent has been unaware – the evidence for all this seems overwhelming.

This means that while the mathematical process is logical, there are aspects of mathematical discovery which are not completely rational, which depend on something which is beyond the human mind. I have written about this earlier, where i have asked how it is that scientists decide the questions they seek answers to. Or, how does a mathematician what should be the form of a theorem, which they can then go ahead and prove. Some of this comes from a part which seems to be inexplicable to the world of science. Inspiration, we may call it, or intuition. Or give it another name, but this is something which remains outside the domain of natural enquiry. As David Gurteen had pointed out, a quote from Poincare:

It is by logic that we prove but by intuition that we discover.

What this means is just that logic takes to a particular point, where something else takes over the process of discovery. What this is, i would not name, for we all have different names for this. But this is something which we need to recognize as the source of a number of great scientific discoveries.


Determinism, Computability, Observer Effect

I am reading a fascinating book, The Emperor’s New Mind, by Sir Roger Penrose. In the book, he has very forcefully brought out the idea that the deterministic view of science, developed over the past five centuries, taken to an extreme area by those supporting Artificial Intelligence as a viable alternative to Human Intelligence, is largely misplaced, and that while there are certain aspects which are deterministic in nature, there are many others which are not and even others which are not computable even though deterministic.

Whats the difference? To my understanding, deterministic is the property of a system which tells us that there is some logic, or rule, or algorithm by which given the current styate of the systesm (in sufficient detail, lets add for good measure), the stateof the system at another point, in space, time, or both, can be determines. Computability, on the other hand, is the property which defines the possibility of this determinism being carried out. In some scenarios, this may not be possible to compute because there may be operations which are mathematically not possible, for example, division by zero. Thats a basic one (and the one I understand), though I am told there are others.

The question of determinism and computability apart, because not what I think I am writing about (though with topics like these ones, can never be sure), what I am writing about is my own puny interpretation of the observer effect. For those not familiar with that (either definitionally or conceptually), let me juwst mention the scenario has has described:

In a two-slit experiment, one possibility to describe the interference effect could be the photons of light get split (or maybe the vibrations of the wave function do, I am not quite sure which … or shall we say I am uncertain which?) and each part goes through one of the slits. This can be found out using particle detectors, which would be able to observe either full or non particles. However, if a particle detector is placed at one of the slits, so the observer can see which slit the electron or photon went through, the interference pattern disappears. For the interference to happen, there must be a lack of knowledge about which slit the electron went through. In other words, an observer, by his very presence can make the experiment unfeasible.

Interesting, this. Lets look at this in detail. Who is the observer here. Or rather, what is the observer here? The particle detector. And what is the cause behind the particle detector being there? The cause was human. So, shall we say that the observer in this scenario is human? If we were to say that, then we would also need to agree that what this means is that the presence of the human observer impacts the outcome of the experiment.

Why would that be? Are subatomic particles or photons allergic to human beings? I dont think so. If they were, we would all be invisible because photons would stay away from us. And nobody would ever get an electric shock because electrons would avoid the human body. Do you think I am rambling? In a word, I am. But not from here.

If these particles or waves (take your pick) are not allergic to observer presence then there must be a rule of nature which leads to the phenomenon observed. Is this rule only with respect to the scenario described or can it be generalized? If we were to generalize it, then would it be an over-generalization to say that there are some aspects of nature which are not meant to be observed or measured? We cannot say that these phenomena dont occur because we cant observe them, because we can observe their manifestation. But we have to accept that we are not meant to observe the phenomenon itself. Question then is are there other such phenomena? There are phenomena which have been predicted but not yet observed, but this doesnt mean they would never be observed. There could, I believe, more such scenarios which would arise from developments in scientific thought. And this is where, I believe, we need to understand that not everything is meant to be observed or measures at the material level. That there are things which lend themselves more to thought than to observation, things study of the material universe may never be able to define.