The wheel is one of the most ancient of human inventions. The name of its inventor is lost for ever. That person could never have suspected that the transcendental number pi is implicit its shape.
Since the nineteenth century, after the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the wheel has come to pay an ubiquitous role in civilization.
Now, for more than a century and a half, there has not been a moment when all the wheels of the world have remained stopped turning. At every minute of the day, every day of the year, hundreds of thousands of wheels have been running machines and driving vehicles. All wheels will cease to whirl only when civilization breathes its very last on planet earth.
We are not aware of any wheels, turning or still, elsewhere in the universe.
May 18, 2013
April Fool Day
It is amazing how ancient and universal some customs can be.
Archaeologists have unearthed cuneiform tablets which show laughing figures with full moon beside them which have been interpreted as an ancient mode of observing the equivalent of a day when people made fun of one another.
In one of his Monologues Plato says that the people of Thales used to set aside a date for poking fun at one another. They called the day Morosimera.
In the Mitypanishad of Sanskrit literature we read: eka divas sakala varsha sarva loka pari haamana: One day every year the whole world is a joke.
The Latin poet Romulus Iocus wrote: ridere secundum mensem sanus est: To laugh in the second month (April) is healthy.
According to Rabbi Ilan Nafta, in Hebrew Gematria (number mysticism) the letters the second month Iyar has the same number as the word for teasing.
In the medieval Arab world, the philosopher Ibn Bei Ku’f declared that laughing at the folly of others is a sign of intelligence.
In the 15th century, Saint Scurra is said to have noted that the angels in Heaven periodically laugh at the fools on earth.
We read in the Divino Inferno: Danar si tolse e lasciollo di piano, e tutti divengono sciocci: They took their gold and smoothly left them off, and they all became fools.
The French poet Bois de Leaux wrote: Nous sommes tous fous, un jour ou un autre: We are all fools, one day or another.
In a play by the Dutch writer Mathiaas Vendel we read: Zelfs de verstandigen worden zot op een dag: Even the wise become fools one day.
Juan Pico said: Cada uno es loco, un dia cada ano: One day each year we all are fools.
And who can forget the words of the jester in Shakespear’s Henry VI:
In the stress and strain that flesh is heir to,
Amidst the pain and pang that fleeing life doth impose,
None that is spared,
Neither lord nor serf, priest nor laity,
Aye, not even the Rex of the Realm.
Wherefore, with wisdom derived from keen council,
The king of Merry England hath made
This the first day of bright April
When flowers bloom and birds coo,
Yes, the gracious sovereign of us all,
Hath declared this as the day
When all and the brother of all
May, with words and acts and tricks,
Make mockery and conjure up events
To mislead, delude or fool friends and family,
And so treat even the wise of all the world,
If no harm be done or meant.
Schillig put it thus: Heute mussen wir wachsam sein, nicht glauben was wir hoeren und lesen: Today we must be watchful, not believe what we hear or read.
And the Tamil philosopher says: innikku yaaraiyum nambaathey: Trust no one today.
Indeed, except for this last line, not one statement in all that I have written above is true.
Happy April Fool’s Day!
Oh, the Power of Faith and Frenzy
More than thirty pilgrims who had come to wash away their sins at the confluence of two actual and one no-longer existent river, died in a stampede at the Allahabad railway station a couple of days ago on their way back to wherever they came from. This was another tragedy: an unexpected byproduct of an act of deep faith. There have been previous accidents of this kind. In 1954 a few hundred people died during this event.
Every years millions go to Mecca – a required visit for all Muslims. So it was that in 1990 in the Al-Ma’aisim tunnel, more than a thousand pilgrims died in a stampede. Since then hundreds more have perished in holy Mecca during their devout trip. It is said that in 1834, during a fire ritual in Jerusalem a good many Christian pilgrims caused a stampede when they were leaving the church. According to one report, hundreds of people died in that rush..
One might be tempted to condemn pilgrimages on this account. But that would be a rash linking of cause and effect. Pilgrimage to holy spots is part of every religious tradition. Dipping into the water for purifying oneself or ridding oneself of one’s sins is older than John the Baptist.
We live in an age when transportation to holy places is easier than in past centuries, so the influx of pilgrims is much greater.
Scores have died in soccer-match stampedes over the years, as also in stampedes at night club fires and cruise-ship capsizing. When hundreds of thousand gather in a place – with or without religious fervor – stampedes and deaths are more likely to occur than when people file into a theater to watch an opera or listen to a lecture.
What is impressive in all these instances is the power of faith in religious contexts, and that of frenzy in sports: Most people who go for these are well aware of possible accidents in such contexts. It is no secret that there is a high risk of fatalities when accidents intrude in large gatherings of people engaged in harmless entertainment, enjoyment, or experience. But often faith and frenzy are stronger than fear and probability.
So such events will continue, as such accidents too.
February 11, 2013
Finished re-reading Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener in which the taciturn hero is hard-working and focused in his job of copying documents, but is adamant about not doing anything else he is asked to do by his boss at the Wall Street Law Firm where he was working.
The story was at times tedious, because it was repetitive, yet it kept my interest because I was eager to know what exactly was the problem with the poor fellow. I couldn’t believe he was put in prison for no serious crime at all. But the easy-going atmosphere of the prison was good to know.
Later I read some commentaries on the story. Some have suggested that the character was a projection of Melville’s own self when he felt he wasn’t very successful or productive. My own interpretation is that Mr. B was suffering from some kind of autism of which people in those days were not very aware.
I was also surprised to learn that this short story was written in 1853 when Guy de Maupassant was only three years old. I vaguely reading somewhere that Maupassant was the first to start the genre of literature called short stories: Maybe it was so in French, but Maupassant was certainly one of the most prolific short-story writers. I recall reading his Les Bijoux years ago: a beautifully written sad little story about a necklace. The woman who had borrowed a diamond necklace from a friend to go to a party lost it. She and her modest husband borrowed a vast sum of money to buy an identical diamond necklace to return it to the friend, and ten full years to replay the loan. In the meanwhile they had sacrificed a lot. In the end they discovered that the borrowed necklace had been a fake. A story beautifully told, and with an unexpected ending.
February 1, 2013
2. atra śūrā maheṣvāsā bhīmārjunasamā yudhi.
There are heroes, mighty bowmen,
The likes of Bhima and Arjuna are in contest. 1.4
These are the opening lines for a full description of the battle scene in which able fighters on both sides, armed with a variety of weapons are confronting one another, ready for the eruption of the historic battle. When one reads the list of names of eminent kings and valiant men of stature who were present, it is difficult to imagine that these are but concocted names. There is something very authentic and historical in all this, especially when we see a name like the King of Káshi who was there.
Battle-myths are as ancient as epics The Sumerian epic Gilgamesh is about a king who is so dedicated to wars that the gods send Enkidu to fight him. The Latin poet Virgil’s Aeneid deals with the Homeric Trojan war. Here we find the idea that some day Rome would conquer all nations, and there would be no more wars. Virgil wanted to establish that Roma-rájya by inspiring his people. “You, Romans,” he wrote, “Remember, these are your arts: To rule nations, and to impose the ways of peace, to spare the humble and to war down the proud.”
The Classic Japanese epic Heike Monogatori narrates the fights between two clans for the full control of the country. Here we read: “The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.” This reminds us of the satyameva jayate principle.
. The medieval English epic Beowulf narrates the conflict between Swedes and Geats caused by claims of water. Indeed,
the storm of their strife, were seen afar,
how folk against folk the fight had wakened.
The Mahabharata War is etched in the Indic cultural psyche, as the Trojan War of Homer’s Iliad is in the Greek mind. Most ancient Greeks believed that the war was as historical as we take take the Kurukshetra war to be. Later generations began to doubt this. In the late nineteenth century some archeological finds in Turkey were interpreted as the region of ancient Troy. Whether the pin-pointing of an area is proof that the Trojan War actually occurred is a matter of deep conviction more than for scholarly debates. The general consensus seems to be that some conflict of the kind described in the Iliad probably took place. But as to whether the characters like Helen and Menelaus, Paris and Agamemnon once lived in flesh and blood is not as incontrovertibly established.
Be that as it may, to me these details suggest that in any conflict situation there are protagonists on both sides. Each side is convinced it is for the righteous cause. Ideally, and in all myths and movies, there is a just and happy-ending in which the good ones ultimately triumph.
There have been instances where the righteous have indeed won. But it has also happened many times that the righteous cause has not been the winner. In the meanwhile, however, competing values and perspectives keep playing out their role. This phase may last longer than the victory celebrations by the winning side. During this time, countless innocents suffer and perish. Right now in our own times, bloody conflicts: ideological, economic, political, societal, and more are going on all over the world, Sometimes it is difficult even for an objective outsider to determine who is right and who is wrong.
The imagery in the Gita of mighty forces facing each other is a powerful portrayal of this not infrequent human condition, both in the metaphorical sense of forces for good and evil within oneself held in tension, and at the real-world level of groups and nations staring at each other with bitterness and readiness to unleash a battle.
Bhima, Arjuna, Bhishma, Drona and all the rest strike me as so many names for the countless opposing convictions that are always tossing us in the chaos and confusion that is the human predicament. The linking of Dharmakshetra and Kurukshetra is a powerful metaphor for this. Never in all of human history, save in the imaginary utopias of great and inspiring poets, has there been a world or a country, where peace and righteousness reigned supreme. This is not to say that we must not aspire for this, but rather it is to remind ourselves that confronting such oppositions is part of being human.
Many have now read news reports to the effect that Ashis Nandy, an eminent academic and scholar, unwittingly blurted out at a “Literary Festival” in Jaipur that “Most corrupt people come from …” and mentioned certain caste-based sub-groups in India.
Though I am inclined to think that Nandy did not quite mean what the statement literally says (for which he has apologized) culturally offensive words like that deserve to be repudiated, criticized and condemned. They should not go unchallenged by other scholars and commentators.
However, subjecting the man to police questioning, and calling for his arrest with threats of putting him in jail for making an outrageous, inappropriate, and morally reprehensible statement is another regressive step towards re-affirming our medieval mindset which has been raising its ugly head all too frequently in various contexts in various garbs.
I fear that many Indians will hesitate to express an honest thought about what or how they feel about aspects of their culture, religion, society, or politics, unless it is soothingly adulatory.
God knows there are nations in the world where even stricter codes of behavior and beliefs are enforced on the helpless populace by the governments in power. So far India has kept away from membership in such Dark Age clubs.
It is refreshing that some bold thinkers in India have come to the defense of Nandy, not for what he said, but for his right to speak out his mind in however clumsy and offensive a mode. They realize that the freedom to express one’s thoughts, sublime or ridiculous, enlightened or absurd, is a precious kernel in any civilized society in the modern world. Curbing it is among the necessary acts for reverting to the bad old days.
January 29, 2012
1. dharmakṣetre kurukṣetre samavetā yuyutsavaḥ
māmakāḥ pāṇḍavāś caiva kim akurvata sañjaya 1.1
In the field of dharma, in the field of Kurus, gathered and eager to fight,
My own men and the Pandavas, what are they doing, Oh Sañjaya?
The Gita appears in the epic Mahabharata which recounts many events and episodes from Indic sacred history. But the central thread of this longest epic in world literature is the rivalry between two families of cousins: the noble Pandavas and the ignoble Kauravas.
Conflict is the motif in many epics: the confrontation between the forces of good and the forces of evil. In many of these works, as in Greek and Babylonian myths and in the Puranas, the manifestations of good and evil are mythic beings. But in others they are earthly ones, men and women like the rest of us. In the Mahabharata, which is not without its supernatural elements, Pandavas and Kauravas, though endowed with superhuman strengths, are still humans. Therefore, the Gita tells us not about wars between demons and angels, or between asuras and devas, but about perennial struggles that are part of human history.
Then again, Pandavas and Kauravas are not strangers, but cousins. The French thinker François Fénelon said: toutes les guerres sont civiles; car c’est toujours l’homme contre l’homme qui répand son propre sang, qui déchire ses propres entrailles: All wars are civil wars, for it is always man spilling his own blood, and tearing his own. So is the war in the Mahabharata: it is between kith and kin.
Many have pointed out that the first word in the Gita is dharma: a term that is as untranslatable into English as the term hermitian operator is into Sanskrit. Dharma has been variously interpreted as religion and righteousness. Etymologically it refers to a framework in which one supports, i.e. one is at peace with oneself and with the world around. It is clear that this is not easy to achieve, but this is what most normal people crave for. The Gita offers pointers for achieving this by revealing to us much about the human condition.
The second word is the field of Kurus, suggesting that our physical life is also the field of adharma, of unhealthy forces. This is why many commentators interpret the Battle of Kurukshetra, not as another historical encounter between enemies on a battle-field, but rather as the tug that ethically bound human beings often experience. Some enlightened Muslims of our time choose to interpret jihad in such terms. In these instances we see how ancient religious texts may be given different interpretations. These depend as much on the context where they are applied and the goals for which this is done, as on the personal philosophy of the interpreter.
The blind Dhritarashtra asks helplessly, “What are they doing?” Like Dhritarashtra, in our state of ignorance we wonder what we are doing in the context of ethical dilemmas. Jiddu Krishnamurti once remarked: “Hitler and Mussolini were only the primary spokesmen for the attitude of domination and craving for power that are in the heart of almost everyone.” But there have also been spokespeople for the opposite longing: for caring and compassion, for peace and justice, This ancient truth is implicit in the very lines of the Gita. It is in such insights that we recognize why the Gita has been described as a work that embodies perennial truths. Like the laws of nature, such truths about the human condition transcend culture, religion and nationality.
We went to the Orchestra Hall Symphony Center in Chicago on December 30, 2012 to enjoy some joyous Viennese music that often lights up the season in many parts of the world. Situated right across the Arts Institute, the Symphony Center is a beautiful hall with lovely chandeliers. It was good to see the hall full, even at what struck me at steep ticket-prices.
The conductor Klaus Arp, with his graying beard and friendly mischeivous smile, was an absolutely delightful impresario for the afternoon event. He introduced every number on the program with a touch of wit and history, and told us about Joseph Strauss and Victor Herbert. I did not know that Herbert was originally Irish. His Royal Sec was n the program as a Champagne Gallop. Arp told us about black-haired Gypsies, and introduced us to the blond soprano Monika Rebholtz who sang Heia, Heia in den Bergen from Gypsy Princess. Ms Rebholtz’s voice was simply fantastic, drowning the loud orchestra behind her. It was her debut performance in Chicago.
The tenor Zrinko Soco, originally from Croatia, who had started his career at the Zagreb National Opera, not only sang his solos Freunde, das Leben ist lebernswert and Dein ist mein ganzes Hertz, and duets Dieser Anstand and Wer hat die Liebe uns ins Hertz gesenkt, with extraordinary dynamism; he was also a most charming showman in his gestures and moves.
The ballets Schatz Waltzer and Leichtes Blut Polka by Johann Strauss Jr and Franz Lehar’s Gold and Silver Waltzes performed by the three young men and the three young women of the Vienna Imperial Ballet added spice to the music played by the Chicago Philharmonic.
At the end of it all we were treated to some sumptuous extras – not in the program – which included the Blau Danau, Auld Lang Syne of seasonal relevance, and the ebullient Radetzky March in which the audience participated with rhythmic clapping under the direction of the Klaus Arp.
It was a most enjoyable afternoon, reminding us that even in the midst of all the calamities, man-made and nature-instigated, humanity is capable of so much joy and good cheer, especially from art and poetry, and especially from great music. We are grateful to Vienna at the birth-place of so much magnificent music in humanity’s heritage.
December 31, 2012
The world in which we live is constrained by Reality.
But there is far greater freedom and possibility in the world of wish and fantasy.
Placing myself in that world I pray for health, happiness, and interesting experiences for all those who read this, and their families.
And I pray for Peace around the World in the year 2013 that is imminent.
This is the starting of date numberings when digits will no longer be repeated as on 04.04.04, 11.11.11, or 12.12.12, depriving imaginative numerologists of paltry pleasures.
Chance is a causally intractable, or as yet a not causally reduced, event in the natural world.
If and when a chance event has an impact on human life (whether expected or unexpected) the event is regarded as a stroke of luck or ill-luck, depending on whether the impact is positive or negative.
Scientifically inclined minds are unwilling or unable to accept that there can be non-causal occurrences: such events strike them as irrational. In the absence of any detectable cause they attribute hypothetical causes to what seem to be chance events.
Thus arose the elaborate pseudoscience of astrology, and the less irrational explanation that luck is a special blessing from an almighty God on select individuals. In the Hindu framework one also attributes unexplainable happy events to benign acts performed in a previous birth: thus assigning a causal link.
Another hypothesis is that aside from the classical deterministic level, the statistical mechanical level of probability, the quantum mechanical level of built-in probability, and the non-tractable level of chaos, there is a hypercomplex level (relating to human thoughts and events). At the hypercomplex level occur utterly unpredictable events.
Call it luck and ill-luck, the people you will be meeting later today or the next week, the newspaper headlines you will be reading next week, and the thoughts evoked by reading this: all these belong to the hypercomplex level of reality.
You may look into my book: Truth and Tension in Science and Religion for more details.
December 25, 2012