Monday, August 28, 2006

It's pouring divinity everywhere!

The monsoon story this year unfolds with a twist. No, no, lest you jump to the contrary conclusion -- I'm not claiming that this year there has been any dearth of the regular floods that have become such a ritualistic part of our customs and traditions. Witness Surat, which is staking its claim to a Guinness mention as the biggest swimming pool on earth. (Last heard, some politicians were planning to show this in their report cards as one of their delivered promises -- that of providing fillip to sports. And who can blame them -- after all it's from places like Surat that some day our Olympic swimming champions will emerge.) Or take Gujarat, where fifty thousand had to be evacuated. (I guess very soon we are going to see Medha Patkar come out in full support of building dams -- after all, during rains the poor can climb atop the dams and save their lives!) And we don't even need a typhoon Katrina to submerge our New Orleanses -- just a couple of hours of garden variety rain, without commercial breaks, is enough to drown the high and mighty of our cities -- we are so technologically advanced.

But what looks more interesting this year is a deluge of a different kind. It's almost as if the presiding deities high up there have decided to shower their divine benevolences in generous doses to the thirsting masses below. And so we have sea water turning sweet in Mumbai -- and people queuing up with buckets, old mineral water and cola bottles, and what have they -- to take home their quantity of this souvenir -- or panacea as some devotees are hoping. Ok, ok, you'll say I have got to be lying -- nobody in India queues up for anything -- it's a violation of the natural law that applies universally here, inertial or non-inertial frame. The actual reality is closer to people jumping barricades, ducking one policeman here, dodging another policeman there, and pushing each other helter-skelter, to somehow scamper to gulp a mouthful and carry home a bottleful - pesticide residues be damned. But those are just details -- we should mostly be interested in the mind of God.

(Granted -- IIT Mumbai geologists have explained that due to heavy rains in the hinterland, the water table has grown up very high and is disgorging underground torrents into the sea, and such sweet water, being less dense than salty water, is floating on the top temporarily till it gets to mix well with the rest of the saltwater. But then, how can you be so unromantic as to believe that? -- it goes against the very grain of the Indian sentimental psyche, as moulded by the likes of Karan Johar. It's so much more fashionable to view this as a divine grace of Baba Maqdoom Shah whose beach-house is somewhere adjacent to the Mumbai coastline.)

But that's not all -- look around and you'll find Lord Ganesha doing an encore of his milk drinking feat in temple after temple, city after city, state after state. (It was reliably learnt that Manmohan Singh has instructed Sharad Pawar to convene a meeting with secretaries to ensure that enough milk is imported from outside, before a shortage starts looming, and the BJP gets a chance to boycott Parliament on the ultimate nationalistic issue of Lord Ganesha not getting enough milk to drink because of minority appeasement.) And it transpires that the remaining deities too have decided not to miss out on the fun -- so we have the Kali's and the Durga's too partaking of the sip that cheers!

(One could say that surface tension and capillary action would make Ganesha drink alcohol and kerosene too, but, then, how can the heart devoted be so blind as not to suspend reason over belief?)

The heavens have been extra generous under the Indian sun, you think? Hardly. It was only last Christmas that in the West it was seen that Mother Mary was
crying blood. There were even reports of tree barks automatically developing uncanny engravings resembling Mother Mary and people were seen thronging the places, under the floodlights of television cameras, as if there were no Russian circus in town. Oh well, there is a version of the blockbuster released in India too -- reports from Kerala recently have claimed Mother Mary exuding tears of perfumed water. Perfumed water? -- ah, isn't it comforting indeed to learn that perfumed water turns out thicker than blood, after all?

It's not just the gods making their guest appearances -- we also have the regular human cast reappearing in their second and third roles after an intermission. Marilyn Monroe is supposed to have reincarnated as the singer Sherrie Laird. A psychoanalyst working with her has, under hypnosis, been able to extricate from her the unknown mysteries of her previous Monroevian birth. He claims to have enough experience with human nature as to be able to distinguish the real from the charlatan, and is
convinced that Laird is indeed Monroe born again.

Not to have the Orient fall behind -- we also have postulates about Amitabh Bachchan being a rebirth of the actor
Edwin Booth, and Shahrukh Khan being a duplicate of the dancer Sadhan Bose. There were reports in the newspapers, some months back, of a five-year old Haryana kid 'remembering' his past life and walking back to his erstwhile family several villages nether. He claims he was murdered in his previous birth, and threatens to identify his killer too if paraded before him.

A Nepali boy was reported to be sitting under a tree for six months without break, in a meditative trance -- might as well be called a media-tative trance, with the electronic media filming every non-movement of his body -- raising the spectre of the
Buddha born again. The Christ, it may be recalled, is also destined to be back in the field, though his appearance, mind you, will not be as peaceful and unobtrusive as that of the Buddha. He is expected to be more destructive than Sehwag in his second innings, obliterate everything, and thereby re-establish the Kingdom of God (though I very much doubt it will happen -- Christ will prefer rather to call it the Presidency of God instead, in keeping with the modern idiom, though with the clause of stepping down after twice being in office clinically amputated, and with His election being of even greater permanence than that of President Musharraf). Now, if ever you heard of a casting coup...!

The relentless, James Bond-ian chase of the Godly has to be the longest potboiling sequence in the theatre of life. Not even the American gold rush has drawn in so many pursuers, that too in so many different eras, nay, every era. It's a force that's more pervasive than gravity (and produces even more baffling distortion of spacetime). I wonder if they have thought about according it its place of honor in the Grand Unified Theory alongside electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and gravity. If I were Einstein, I'd refuse to accept any such theory, unless it integrates explaining the physics of why people run towards the divine with a speed greater than that of light.

How do we indeed approach the question, which keeps bursting into the scene, expected or unexpected times? Could there possibly be a way to reach the undercurrent which manifests itself in these phenomena on the surface? Could we achieve an integration of science, philosophy, religion, psychology and spiritual thought into a unified whole through which we could harness answers to not just the phenomena of the inanimate realm, but also those that are connected with the animate, and human existence?

It's quite clear that a fragmented, compartmentalized way of investigation will not satisfy everyone. It runs a greater risk of regression into the unsavoury world of superstition if mainstream thought is unable, or unwilling, to address the questions of life, consciousness and the relationship with the physical universe. It cannot be denied that there indeed exists a void in the human mind, which if not filled with a wholesome, cogent understanding, will always rush to get occupied by the cloud of the preternatural. Unless we understand the dynamics of life as an unbroken continuity, unaffected by the birth and death of its containers - individual organisms -- there will always be a temptation to invent oddities like the same person being born again, which is no different from saying that the same glass of water which I drank has reappeared in another place on another day again.

Talking of folks who have attempted an incursion into the realm of both physics and the spiritual, Gary Zukav, Harvard grad, whose work "The Dancing Wu-Li Masters" on the new physics won an American science popularization award, has postulated in his book "The Seat Of The Soul" that every human being is endowed with a soul. The soul, though immortal, is somehow in search of some healing, which it tries to obtain through its human experiences. Not only that, whatever a person does generates 'karma' which apparently disturbs some kind of equilibrium in the world and has to 'balanced' by reaping the results of that 'karma' in another, if not the same, birth (some kind of "law of conservation of karma"?). Moreover, though souls have no beginning, some souls are younger than others, as they have yet to go through many experiences -- some souls press the accelerator of wisdom and advance quicker, while the rest learn through 'fear and doubt' making retarded progress. All souls would emerge much the wiser from these experiences, and finally get completely 'healed' and become one with the overall soul of the universe, which is God.

Old wine in new bottle! These concepts have since time immemorial been a part of Hindu philosophical doctrines. Zukav writes in a flowing, sweet-sounding, poetical language which is very easy to agree with, for its utter lack of offensive idiosyncrasy. The result: with millions of copies gobbled up, the book is already souled out.

Now, Gary Zukav is no physicist. Though he has written a reasonably well-noted book on quantum physics and relativity, he's not an expert in the field -- not someone who has lived the ideas long enough, or has sufficient grounding in the rigorous methods of science, so that we could safely assume that he'd write only out of conviction born of painstaking, critical examination. So shall we take him at face value then and agree with him?

Some of the things that he propounds which I find to be quite half-baked ideas, if not flights of fancy, are that lesser animals do not have individual souls -- what they have instead is a "collective soul of the species", though every human being gets to have one soul for himself (or herself, except feminists who are denied any souls). For such "collective souls" the experiences of all members of the species contribute to the experience of the soul. And it's possible for the lower-order soul to graduate to higher order over time.

Now this sounds quite preposterous to me. For this implies that other forms of life are somehow subjugated to human, which I disagree with. Humans have merely specialized themselves in terms of having a bigger brain, and information processing capability. Other species have also specialized themselves in other ways -- dogs can detect the smell of mere molecular traces, others animals can see ultraviolet light. Even the lowly cockcroach has specialized itself in having an immutable genetic code which has made it stay exactly the same for 320 million years, and which is why it's said that in a nuclear holocaust only the cockroach species would survive, as all other genetic structures would be mutilated beyond survival by the radioactivity.

The essential 'life' is no more in possession of human beings than it's in other living beings, including plant life, even the first unicellular beings. They have all had a consciousness, a knowledge of their own being, due to which they reproduced, proliferated, and evolved into the complex, multicellular life forms of today, culminating in the human form. To offer a private-bedroom of an individual soul to every human, while offering a dormitory-like collective soul to lower forms makes no sense. Since humans evolved from apes (which in turn evolved from others, and so on), at what point did the individual soul really emerge? And since the human population has grown from some millions in about a few thousand years ago to the six billion of today, are individual 'souls' being manufactured for each of them, like garments in a factory? Or are we to invent some kind of mitotic soul-division to account for it?

Moreover, this appears to be taking recourse to the anthropomorphic principle - that the universe exists for humans to come to being. This arises from nothing but an extremely narrow world-view reeking of arrogance, quite akin to that of the frog in the well, who when he meets a frog from the ocean refuses to believe that anything bigger than his well can exist. For all we know, there may be much higher-order living beings elsewhere in the universe, compared to whom humans would quite have the same status as dogs compared to humans.

In fact, in his book "The Last Three Minutes", science-writer Paul Davies conjectures about how intelligent beings would cope with a universe approaching heat-death, when all energy-sources have extinguished themselves through nuclear-transmutation, and coagulated themselves into sterile entities like black-holes. It would be at a time when everything would shut down, implying that there won't even be other galaxies to go and colonize, which would have anyway been done much earlier.

He conjectures that by that time intelligent creatures would have evolved to a point where they would be capable of having an infinite amount of thoughts, feelings and experiences in an instant, even in a hibernating mode. So for them the flow of time would appear to be so slow that they'd never reach 'the end'.

(There is another possibility, depending on the actual mass present in the universe, of everything winding back into the furnace of a big-crunch, but even in that scenario the coping mechanism would be the same.)

So how can we be sure that such creatures don't already exist in remote corners of the universe today, which would have the real golden 'soul' compared to whom us humans would be mere paupers?

In fact, theoretical astrophysics does not even rule out the possibility of there being multiple universes. The reason they being called separate universes rather than part of our own is that no information can escape from those universes. The interior of black-holes are conjectured to be of similar condition as existed where our universe began with a big-bang - just the cradle for another universe to take shape. Just as there could be such baby universes, it's also likely than some universes would be old enough to be nearing heat death. In such universes, the supra-intelligent being could already be in existence. So shall we reserve the 'soul' for the honor of such a being (or community of beings) while consoling ourselves with a "collective soul" as we are currently deigning to offer lower species on earth?

It may not altogether be such a bad idea. In fact, it would even find support from mainstream psychologists today. One thing that's pretty well accepted today is the existence of an unconscious mind in every human being. It exists side by side with that part of the mind which we perceive as being in our conscious control, but it's different in being entirely independent and incapable of being affected by 'will'. It makes its own decisions and is often the seat of our instincts, intuitions, and 'inner voice'. It's information processing is far superior, requiring much less explicit data input (or may be it works on a much bigger data bank to which it has exclusive access). It's capable of tremendous leaps in decision making - its algorithms are just far too optimized - something we associate with wisdom. The only deficit is that it's not at our beck and call -- it chooses at what point it'll touch base with us, and that too it does in a very cryptic language - in the form of inexplicable dreams, out-of-the-blue revelations, stumbled-upon realizations and such. In fact, much as the conscious mind differs from person to person, the unconscious mind is marked by a homogeneity.

In fact, this so-called unconscious mind may very well be the glue that binds together all human beings, and by extension all members of the biosphere. It's the common cord that runs through all life, and unifies it. It may the ultimate super hard-disk that carries a record of all events so far; the ultimate, multi-billion-node parallel-processing quantum-supercomputer that has processed everything, and will create whatever is processable or knowable or experienceable or existable in the future, of its own sovereign will. If the individual unconscious mind is itself so powerful, imagine how infinitely powerful this mega-community of the unconscious would be, if it could just have communication buses. Does such a communication bus exist? Our understanding is still so primitive that we immediately look for connection wires -- which obviously can't be found. The entire mechanism is wireless, whose complete physics we perhaps have yet to work out. According to some psychologists this "collective unconscious" is what comes closest to what our idea of God is.

This is not as far-fetched as it appears on the surface. After all, we all consider ourselves as one unit each, despite the fact that we are just an assembly of billions of individual, self-contained cells (which again are subassemblies themselves of nucleus, mitochondria, microtubules, protoplasm and membranes). If that sounds perfectly acceptable, then how can we overlook the fact that we may ourselves be subcomponents of a much larger whole? Just as the billions of cells still communicate with each other despite being one at the toe, and the other at the head, so too individual organisms could very well contribute towards a unified existence, despite not even having direct physical contact.

Come to think of it - if our laptops can participate in the internet without a network wire, and mobile phones can talk to each other across the globe, what's so impossible about there being a inter-living-being net, life being an infinitely superior device than an ordinary gadget? Wouldn't it be a more preposterous thing to assume that life is not equipped with its own version of Bluetooth? And just as from the time of our birth to our death possibly every single cell in our body has died and been replaced by a counterpart (through cell division), despite our having an unbroken living experience, so too the existence of life as a whole is unaffected by the birth or death of any individual organism, so long as we allow enough room for internal replenishment. This may well be what is implied when it's claimed that though the body is mortal, the soul itself is immortal.

Even if we could unite all life into a common manifesto and proclaim "Living beings of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your ignorance", the question would remain: what of the relationship that it has with the inanimate, physical world? Did life and consciousness emerge as an accident from inanimate matter, or whether it was consciousness in the first place that gave rise to matter?

This is a tricky thing to address. It pertains to the very nature of matter itself. Does it even have an independent, sovereign existence? Or is it a mistake of our perception? Though we know that what we call as life, is nothing but a coexistence of protein bodies which are themselves organized by the genetic code embedded inside genes. The DNA of genes itself being composed of assemblies of different types of molecules, which molecules are in turn formed of various atoms. The atoms of all heavier elements are formed through cosmic, stellar phenomena which cause primitive hydrogen to transmute to everything else in a complex nuclear interplay, which phenomena are all reproducible in today's laboratories. So does it imply that matter gave birth to life and consciousness?

One thing that is easily observed is that it's the finer thing that drives the coarser. Like a huge crane is moved by our finger pressing an electrical button, our finger itself being moved by nerve impulses, the impulses themselves being generated by some activity in neurons in the brain, the neurons themselves firing because of - because of something that I can't define, but of a microcosmic nature. Modern physics has allowed us to investigate the world of the microcosm. And what astounding things we find there!

The entire predictability that's at the core of our perception of matter -- the house or the rock that I saw today remains there tomorrow and day-after and whenever I observe -- is lost! It's a world of uncertainty! Uncertainty not merely in measurement, but even in theory. Try to locate the particle that we know as an electron, and which we have so effectively harnessed in our electrical and electronic technology, and lo! what you find is that it does not even exist at a single location at any point of time. It's just a cloudy indefinable something, that only probabilistically exists. The moment you try to encage the particle, it becomes a wave and escapes like water from our fist. Moreover, it even defies ordinary electrodynamics by accelerating continuously without radiating out any energy in steady state.

This uncertainty is the governing edict of everything that exists in the subatomic world. They just thin out into something wavy, and lose their particulateness. Which just implies that they dissolve into something finer, and renounce their material properties that are the hallmark of our perception of them. This has even led to physicists beginning to view matter as merely something where 'events' are co-located -- we observe just the 'events' and extrapolate it to the presence of a material particle, which may not exist at all in strict terms. It's only the 'events' that have any perceivable existence -- the rest is merely our assumption, or perhaps a model that we use for our own comprehension. As is well understood by physics, matter is nothing but a condensed state of energy, and the two are interchangeable.

It's quite possible that this energy in its most primal state is what consciousness is all about. This energy cannot be weighed, it does not have a physical location, but still overspreads everything and everywhere. Isn't that how we characterize our God too?

It's from this energy that matter forms as coagulates, and which further specializes to organic compounds, and ultimately to the expression of life, and to intelligence which then embarks upon a reverse comprehension exercise (reverse engineering is not such a new idea after all!). It's all as if the primitive energy is trying to be aware of its own self, through its own manifestations.

This leads entirely to the world of what is called as mysticism. It's also inherent in the principle of non-dualism expounded by Hindu philosophy, where only the Brahman is accorded absolute existence -- everything else being just different manisfestations of it. The manifestations are deniable (like the position of an electron somewhere) and therefore unreal or only partially real -- only the Brahman is undeniable and therefore truly real. For it's nothing but Consciousness in its primal form. Consciousness is the only thing that is undeniable -- because the very denial of it presupposes the existence of consciousness that'll do the denial. Sankaracharya had an excellent deductive doctrine - only that is real which cannot be denied. He engaged in debates with all the leading masters of his time, who held a different doctrine, and was able to defeat them all in logical discourse. It's a fascinating way of life -- in the finest scientific, logical and democratic traditions -- and how far removed from the modern obsession with the supernatural!

Heisenberg himself was aware of these parallels and had discussed the matter in detail with Tagore when he visited the latter. It probably indicates how the tradition of the ancient saints and prophets (who somehow inexplicably got a wind of the same concepts much ahead of their time) now lives on in scientific investigators of today. And someday we'll have a combined, comprehensive, all-encompassing theory of everything. What we have so far unearthed may be an accident, but even if it's an accident, the accident will in all likelihood continue, and reach its logical conclusion. The direction is unmistakable; so could its inevitability too be.

Till that time we might do well to remember what was once said: There are only two ways to lead your life -- one as though nothing is a miracle; the other as though everything is!

(-- Einstein)


Some more info:
BBC report on Nepali boy
University of Virginia researcher on cases of rebirth
Sai baba not to be undone by Mother Mary


  1. Hmmm... too long to read.. needed lots of patience...

    Overall, I feel you did lot of study before jotting down this blog.

    It has been a tradition of humans especially the Asians(If I can call so) to have such faith in the miracles that they wait for miracls to happen in their daily life. We are some times oblivious of the people who some times take advantage of our emotional attachment and create such scenarios. There are definetly some wonders in life but there should be some thing very special or cynical about the things when they happen in such a short span of time as if the miracles are waiting in a queue to happen or they too are competing in this rat race..

  2. Well I read it all. Quite fascinating actually!

    Delving into the unknown can be risky, but at the same time very safe. Risky because you cant be sure what you find, and safe because one can say much without having to confront opposite views as no one knows about it anyway.

    When I read the title, however, I thought it akin to the experiments of Sri Aurobindo in bringing down the supra- mental on earth.

    Europe might need to conceed finally to the fact that ancient human civilization in India was more than a bunch of savage traditions tied together. Read what Max Müller had to say about the Veda here.

  3. You have covered so much material in a single post that I don't know what I'll comment about! Should I talk about how witty some of your observations are, or about how similar your writing style is to some of the master cynics like Nietzsche, or about how I find you having quoted conclusions and observations from some of our equally pointless and wide-ranging discussions?!

    But one thing I gotta give, you've got a great writing style and sense of wit! I can see that book taking shape now :).