RACHEL CARSON


It looks partly as if it were made of poisonous smoke; very possibly it may be: there are at least two hundred furnace chimneys in a square of two miles on every side of me.

-John Ruskin

These words of John Ruskin were among the voices that spoke out in different ways about the dangers implicit in a civilization that was being slowly molded by the mind and mortar of the Industrial Revolution. Before smokestacks and exhaust pipes began to sound their alarm bells, pesticides had been saving crops from creatures that were feeding on the fruits of our farming, while subtly having other unpleasant effects.

In 1939 The Swiss chemist Paul Muller showed that the chlorinated compound with the tongue-twisting name of p-p-dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane annihilates in a jiffy bugs and beetles, moths and mosquitoes and other low life that are a downright nuisance to human happiness. We now had a pesticide that could eliminate mosquitoes and malaria in one stroke. What a boon from the chemical world! Thanks to DDT, in just a few years malaria which was killing millions was eradicated in some regions of the world.

In the 1950s, the grand successes of science and technology were most impressive: aside from automobiles and an endless array of gadgets that were adding year after year to humankind’s creature comforts, nuclear energy had been tapped for peaceful purpose, agriculture was booming with the liberal use of fertilizers. Insects eating away crops in the fields were dealt with, no longer by the use of chemicals containing sulfur and arsenic, but by DDT.

The hope and dream was that in due course all this would be multiplied a hundred-fold so that all our material needs would be amply met. Before the end of the century we were expected to have only rich and healthy, well-fed and happy people in the nations of the world. The utopia of literary dreamers seemed just a few decades away.

But some things happened to wreck all this hope. Worse, cheerful fantasies morphed into frightening reality. In 1957, when an airplane dusted Olga Huckins’ wooded land in Massachusetts with DDT to rid the area of pests, many songbirds in the land dropped dead. The shocked Olga wrote to her friend Rachel Carson if she knew anyone in Washington DC to arrange to stop the insecticide-spraying service on her land. Carson was a marine biologist who was working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This request prompted her to inquiries and further research into the impact of pesticides. She discovered case after case their dismal effects in many parts of the country. It was important to present all this information so that the public might know what was happening.

This was a dramatic instance of the eudys principle: Anything positive introduced into human society will result in some negative side-effects sooner or later.

So the Silent Spring came to be published in 1962. It began with an explanation of the book’s title through an imaginary town where the folks nonchalantly sprayed pesticides in abundance, imagining it was like swatting flies in the kitchen or stepping over an intruding bug in the foyer. Most of the pests were decimated, but stronger strains began to develop which were resistant to the poison. More seriously, the DDT that was sprayed lingered in the soil and water for much longer periods. It slowly got into the food chain of birds and bees, of algae and fish, until, little by little, all the birds died. Then, when the cold of the winter gave way to the sunshine of spring, there was an eerie silence in the air: no crow or cuckoo, no swan or sparrow. It was a somber silent spring indeed.

Rachel Carson’s book went on to report specific cases: the Clear Lake in California where DDT had entered plankton and fish; attempts in New England to eradicate the gypsy moth which killed birds in the region, etc. The book was a shocker. The public got angry. The pesticide industry was infuriated: she had called their product biocide. The industry reacted predictably: It financed a heavy negative propaganda, calling Carson extremist and hysterical. But Carson’s critics had a disadvantage: They were in an open society. It was difficult to arrest the mounting calls for facts, and holding reckless industries responsible for polluting air, water, and land.

A major paradigm shift in the public’s view of science and technology was instigated by this powerful book

So began the environmental movement, spurred by a book that was alarmingly informative and powerful in its impact. Congressional hearings began, and soon the National Environmental Policy Act and the Environmental Protection Agency came to be. Rachel Carson died of cancer before the end of the decade.

Many of her warnings materialized little by little. More seems to be in store. The paradigm shift from regarding science and technology as the panacea for all problems to looking upon them with the gravest concern and fear has already occurred. It remains to be seen how, in the context of so much knowledge, but also under considerable economic pressures, humanity handles this most serious threat to its very survival that has arisen from a needs-satisfying and wealth-generating technology that fuels modern civilization.

May 27, 2016

OMAR AL-KHAYYAMI


Dead yesterdays and unborn tomorrows, why fret about them, if today be sweet?

  • Omar Khayyam

He was perhaps the most brilliant mathematician of his time in the11th -12th century, earning the title: King of the Wise. It was said that “in science he was unrivaled – the very paragon of his age.”  He had, like Paracelsus of later times, an impressively – not to say unpronounceably –  long name: Ghiyathuddin Abu’l-Fath Umar bin Ibrahim al-Nisaburi al-Khayyami. We know Umar or Omar by his poetical name Khayyam. He was one of the greatest thinkers of Persia. He is said to have been born on 18 May 1123.

Omar studied and classified cubic equations, and is said to have declared their analytic solution impossible. He examined Euclid’s fifth postulate as seriously as 18th and 19th century mathematicians. He wrote on astronomy too. He formulated a new calendar system, initiating the Jalali era, named after Jalal-ud-din who, like Pope Gregory of a later era, assigned him the task. He computed the number of days in a year as 365.24219858156. According to Edward Gibbon, it approached the Gregorian calendar in accuracy.  

The world remembers Omar Khayyam as the author of some 1200 quatrains (rubaiahs). Scholars are not sure if all these can be attributed to him. Less than ten per cent of them were transcreated  into English by Edward FitzGerald in the 1850s. It was more than a free translation. Persian scholars say that FitzGerald conveyed the spirit rather than the text of the verses. Sometimes he added to them, Since that work was published, Omar Khyayyam’s name came to be known all over the world. J. R. Lowell commented:

        These pearls of thought in Persian gulfs were bred,

        Each softly lucent as a rounded moon.

        The diver Omar plucked them from their bed,

        FitzGerald strung them on an English thread.

The Rubiyat’s rhyming scheme of AABA was slightly altered by FitzGerald  to ABAA, but only those who read ancient Persian and modern English will notice the difference.

Omar Khayyam was blessed with a keen and critical mind. He was a no-nonsense philosopher who would not take the religious mumble-jumble of his religious tradition  seriously. He  had little respect for the ulema, even less for mystery-mongering Sufis. He was a philosopher: pessimistic here, cynical there, but always intelligently reflective. He declared that it’s good to refrain from everything, save wine, and from being inebriate, squalid and vagrant. He has been compared to Voltaire, but, as Karl Ethé reminded us, the French wit never wrote “fascinating rhapsodies in praise of wine, love and all earthly joys” as did the Persian philosopher who sounds like a bon vivant when he says:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness-

Oh, Wilderness were Paradise now.

Here is what he thought of hell and paradise:

      Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!

      One thing at least is certain – This Life flies.

      One thing is certain, and the rest is Lies –

      The Flower that once has blown forever dies.

It is not surprising that he came to be described/decried as a freethinker, and condemned as a materialist,  atheist, hedonist: all of which he was. Did he not say in the very beginning of his Rubiat:

Dreaming when Dawn’s left hand was in the sky

I heard a voice within the tavern cry

“Awake, my little ones, and fill up the cup

Before life’s liquor in its cup be dry.”

But today, even an Iran governed by Mullahs, takes pride in him as its  own.

He expressed in poetic terms what physicists call irreversible processes:

The Moving Finger writes, and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Indeed, he was always aware of the ticking away of irrevocable time. He wrote:

            Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,

            Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,

            The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,

            The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

For the poet, truths always relate to the human condition. Thus, it is not simply Laplacian determinism that reigns, but fate, destiny, and Judgment Day. So Omar wrote:

The First Dawn of Creation wrote

What the Last Day of Reckoning shall read.

Here he was saying in simple yet powerful words the philosophy of  fatalism that is implicit in many religious systems: not only a pseudo-explanation for the endless happenings in the world, but also serves as some solace when tragedy strikes.

 FitzGerald summarized Omar: He “diverted himself with speculative problems of Deity, Destiny, Matter and Spirit, Good and Evil, and other such questions, easier to start than to run down, and the pursuit of which becomes a very weary sport at last.”

May 18, 2016

MALARIA, MOSQUITO AND RONALD ROSS


The belief is growing in me that the disease is communicated by the bite of the mosquito. She always injects a small quantity of fluid with her bite – What if the parasites get into the system in this manner?               – Ronald Ross

Malaria is an ancient disease which has consumed the lives of millions  over the ages. One of the goals of the World Health Assembly (which opened its annual meeting in Geneva on May 13, 2002) was to eradicate malaria from the face of the earth by the close of that decade. In 2015, thirteen years after that commendable resolution,  some 214 million people were affected by malaria. It is an evil whose cause is known, thanks to the painstaking probes of scientists, but which is still haunting humanity because of ignorance, lack of education and sanitary conditions, as also shortages of resources.

According to some scientists who are studying global warming, tropical diseases like malaria will be spreading into the temperate zones before long.

An interesting question in this context is:  “When and how did we come to know about what causes malaria?   

This question brings us to Ronald Ross. He was born (May 13, 1857) to English parents parents living in India in the year when Indian patriots  rose up in arms against British occupation of their country. His father was a general in the British Indian army. As a youth in school in England, Ronald wrote poems, composed music, and did some drawing too. But, on the advice of his father, he entered medical college and  took a degree in medicine. He then became an army surgeon, traveled back and forth between India and England,

In those days it used to be thought (as the name betrays) that malaria was caused by bad air (Italian male: bad; aria: air).  In the 1890s the Scottish physician Patrick Manson, who is regarded as the founder of the field called Tropical Medicine, put forward the hypothesis that parasites can   flourish within mosquitoes. Tiny mosquitoes have  been a nuisance in many parts of the world, as much by their annoying buzz as by their frequent stings whose purpose is simply to suck blood from the bodies of more massive creatures with a circulatory system. This is their sole mode of nourishment.

When Ross returned to India in the capacity of a medical officer of the British government, he went to many places including Bangalore where he was to report on a cholera outbreak. Next he was on assignment in a town near Ooty where he discovered a new kind of mosquito. Here succumbed to malaria and recovered. He  got interested in the then emerging field of bacteriology.

Ross took blood from malaria patients and fed it to mosquitoes. It is said that Ross  paid less than a tenth of a cent (by today’s reckoning) per mosquito-bite to a malarial patient, examined hundreds of the little creatures. He began his research on the subject in May 1896. He explored Manson’s idea by dissecting mosquitoes to see if they carried any disease-carrying germs. He did not find any. But he did not give up. His relentless efforts led him to the discovery that  there are different types of mosquitoes. Today, entomologists say they have identified more than 3500 varieties mosquitoes.

One species, when dissected by Ross, revealed something unusual in the stomach. On 20 August 1897, Ross discovered that anopheles mosquitoes were the culprits. These are the ones that carry the malarial parasites called sporozoites.  This is a stage in the life-cycle of the organism that enters into the body of the victim. It took another fifty years for scientists to uncover the various stages of the life cycle of the anopheles.

Thanks to Ross’s work, we came to know that these parasites develop within the body of  the mosquito. When the mosquito sucks  blood from a human, the parasites are transmitted through its saliva into the victim’s bloodstream.  This  was a major discovery for two reasons. First, it pointed out the cause and mode of transmission of a disease which had been taking the lives of millions of people all over the world. This knowledge helped in the prevention of the disease by getting rid of and/or keeping away from mosquitoes.

Second, it revealed how diseases may be transmitted through complex and unsuspecting modes. The idea of a disease-vector (agent) arose from Ross’s work. A politically inappropriate analogy would be that the parasites are somewhat like malevolent immigrants who come into a country with lethal weapons to cause destruction in the host country. Mosquitoes correspond to the cargo ships that bring in the agents of  destruction.  

Later in life Ross reflected that he had tried to better the human condition by investigating the  “the causes of those diseases which are perhaps mankind’s chief enemies.” He meant physical diseases; mankind’s enemies also include mental diseases such as racism, bigotry,  and religious persecution.

Ross was knighted for his achievement, and he was also one of the early recipients of the Nobel Prize for Medicine (1902).

Roland Ross met with many hurdles on his way, as reflected in the following verse in which he reveals his humility and religious inclination:

    Before Thy feet I fall, Lord who made high my fate;

    For in the mighty small, Thou showed’st the mighty great.

    Henceforth I will resound but praises unto Thee;

    Though I was beat and bound, Thou gavest me victory.

So it has been with wars against diseases. Preachers and traditions say with smugness that diseases, like earthquakes, are expressions of divine wrath at misbehaving mankind. But scientists have a different vision of Divinity, and they work hard to mitigate pain, relieve suffering, and uncover the cause rather than curse the victims as recipients of punishment for past misbehavior in the past. 

It is strange that, after all the discoveries of modern science that have brought relief and cure to millions of  victims of diseases all over the world, there are people who argue about the reliability, inadequacy, and truth-content of scientific knowledge, and plead for ancient worldviews as keys to unlocking the secrets of nature.

It is also one of the ironies of history that an Englishman worked to rid India and the world of the tropical disease of malaria while his country was holding the country as a colony. This is just one instance of the general truth that even unhappy historical occurrences have had some unintended positive effects.

May 13, 2016

 RICHARD FEYNMAN


Scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge of uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and the evil seems inadequate.                 –  Richard Feynman

Poets describe nature in soothing and inspiring language. Philosophers reflect on the human condition in insightful and meaningful ways. Physicists formulate natural phenomena in mathematical and fruitful equations.

Of those who caught the magic of the electrons and protons in profound ways was Richard Feynman (born: 11 May 1918). He studied and taught physics at prestigious institutions, and with some of the most celebrated physicists of his time. As a graduate student he had independently derived the relativistic equation for the electron. He was fascinated by mathematics, including topology. He played with sheets of paper, and made hexaflexagons: geometrical figures of several sides and faces constructed by folding a sheet of paper. He recognized what was later re-discovered as intragenic suppression. He struggled with the problem of the self-energy of the electron, for which he was to find an solution later.

In his mid-twenties Feynman got involved with the Manhattan project. He was among the few who witnessed the first explosion of the awesome bomb that has turned the course of human history. In Feynman’s words, when they saw it all the physicists present “jumped up and down, screamed, ran around slapping each other n the backs,”… Everything was perfect” except for the goal. They were “proud as hell,” and hoped (rightly) that the war  would end soon.  But it was at the cost of countless innocent lives, reminding one of the confrontation in Kurukshetra.  

At Cornell Feynman worked out his path-breaking techniques in quantum electrodynamics. When he presented his (second renormalization) theory to the major players in theoretical physics at an exclusive conference in 1948, Niels Bohr is said to have commented that this young man hadn’t grasped the basics of quantum mechanics: so revolutionary was his idea. More than once, Feynman was ignored because others did not understand his highly original ideas. But he always persisted, and won.  He took the physics establishment by storm, with his path integrals and their powerful computational consequences.

Feynman worked on superfluidity (motion without friction of liquid helium at temperatures very near zero K), elucidated the results of deep inelastic scattering, and helped unravel the mystery of weak interactions..

Feynman’s name is indelibly linked with the diagrams in microphysics which are transparently illustrative of the processes they describe and also valuable in doing the associated sophisticated calculations. [These were considerably improved upon in the 1990s.]They strike those who revel in such matters as sublime modes of penetrating into the deep-down mysteries of the microcosm.

Bright brains function in extraordinary ways. But geniuses create great art and music, science and mathematics, open up new pathways for thought and perception, and make utterly new breakthroughs in our understanding and utilization of the world around us. Such indeed was Feynman. His first love was mathematically enriched physics, but he had  other interests too: like playing bongo drums expertly, acting in the play South Pacific, joining a local samba group playing the frigideira in Copacabana, participating in the Carnival in Brazil, dressing up as  Mephistopheles at the Municipal Theater in Rio, , and teaching himself Chinese.

Intelligence shines bright in accepted modes, but genius strays from the trodden track. So it was that Feynman was unorthodox in his attitudes and approaches. He was blessed with a razor-sharp mind and an uncanny ability to recognize the core of a problem. He was also a practical joker, delightful speaker, and author of some excellent physics texts. He influenced the course of physics, and also physics courses. He contributed substantially to its conceptual framework, and touched the professional and intellectual life of many fellow physicists. He provoked laughter and reflection, the jealousy of some, the wrath of a few, and the admiration of all.

Next to Einstein and perhaps Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman  was  the most widely known physicist of the 20th century. Thanks to his prodigious intellect and eccentricity, his name became a  household word among physicists. Since the 1986 Challenger disaster for which he discovered the O-rings as the cause, and the Nova program about him, his fame became even more universal. Whenever he entered a hall with physicists or students, an eerie silence or hushed whispers would ensue. Looks of admiration would result as if a famous movie star had arrived. There was great affection for this unusual man who was honest to the point of being blunt, serious yet jovial, a master of complex calculations, yet also a prankster. Some wondered, half-seriously, if Feynman was a human being.

James Gleick’s Genius which narrates in detail the life and science of this genius and Jagdish Mehra’s The Beat of a Different Drum which presents in detail the technical work of Feynman, equations and all, are among the many books that are relevant in this context.

May 11, 2016

 

LA DIVINA COMMEDIA


He who sees a need and waits to be asked for help is as unkind as if he had refused it. – Dante Alighieri (Born: May 9, 1265?)

All literary traditions have their shining stars, some brighter than others. Italian has Dante’s  La Divina Commedia, unsurpassed in rhyme and rhythm,  unique in style and symbolism.  It is one of the greatest  masterpieces of world literature.  Known in English as The Divine Comedy, it has a hundred three-lined Cantos,  evenly divided in three Canticas of thirty-three cantos, plus an introductory one. The numbers have significance: Three stands for the Trinity, thirty-three for Christ’s age at crucifixion, and hundred signifies perfection. The work is regarded as an allegory for the slow march of the human soul towards the Divine. Comedy, in is name, is not play with a jolly ending, but a harmonious world which, with all its chaos and confusion, is heading towards a lofty heavenly goal.

The poem is in the format of a tour of the  post-mortem realms of Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and  Paradiso (Paradise) that poet has taken.

The epic begins by saying that when the poet was in the middle of his life’s journey he strayed away from the straight path. He encountered a leopard, a lion, and a wolf, symbolizing the sins of fraud, pride, and greed. In that frightened state there appeared (at the urging of Beatrice – his love of youthful years) the ancient Latin poet Virgil. Virgil escorted Dante  to the first two of the ethereal realms with their several circles and layers.

In the first circle of the Inferno they saw Greek and Latin writers and thinkers  who had lived before they could be saved by Christ on earth, such as Homer and  Heraclitus, Horace and Ovid, and many more.  Just as one unfamiliar with Indic sacred history, cannot understand the references in the Bhagavad Gita, one unacquainted with Western cultural history will be utterly confused by Dante’s allusions.

They  went through other circles, like visitors to a zoo watching creatures in cages. They saw sinners: gluttons, misers,  wasters and such. These were sunk in mud or at hard labor. Devils tried to stop them from the City of Dis, but angels helped them go in. Here they saw heretics, despots, murderers, cheats, thieves, traitors,  and other sinners, everyone in excruciating pain, caused by red-hot iron, boiling blood, and other torturous agents.

Dante could recognize among the denizens of these places individuals he had known or read about: They included some famous people,  politicians and prophets, archbishops and popes. One of them said to Dante, like Henry Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion:

I don’t know who you are or in what way

You’ve come down here; And yet you surely seem,

From what I hear – to be a Florentine. (xxx:10)

Finally, they came to the bounds of Inferno where Lucifer was chewing away Brutus and  Cassius – the Caesarian assassins – as well Judas, – the betrayer of Christ.

Then they come to Purgatory which was made up of seven terraces, one each for the seven deadly sins: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Laziness, Miserliness, Gluttony, and Lust. At its portal was an angel that etched on Dante’s forehead the letter P for peccata (sins).  The poet was commanded to cleanse his forehead of that mark. As they marched forward they heard celestial voices. There again they saw repentant sinners begging for mercy.

When they were out of Purgatory, Beatrice appeared, and Virgil left Dante. Beatrice was the one for whom the poet had taken fancy when they both were nine-year-olds. They had seen each other a decade later, but she married someone else, only to die soon thereafter. Beatrice had always been in the poet’s heart.

Now Dante and Beatrice entered Paradise which was engulfed in sheer radiance. He could hear the harmonies of the heaven of which Pythagoras had spoken, the cosmic shabda of aum, one might say. As they moved from region to region Beatrice became more and more beautiful. The heavenly realm   included the Sun and the Moon and all the known planets too. Dante learned about mystic powers and Redemption, and was blessed with Love.  He recognized eminent saints and philosophers, scholars and poets: King Solomon, Aquinas, Boethius, and  the Venerable Bede were among the luminaries blissfully residing in Paradise. The realm of the stars was the Eighth Heaven. On two occasions (Cantos 22 and 27) he spied the planets from the constellation Gemini: The earth was  so pitifully small it made him smile: a remarkable flight of imagination for his time.  

Then he had visions of Christ and Mother Mary, as also of the Apostles. There was a higher Heaven still. In that Ninth crystalline pinnacle he saw  God in all glory, but it was all blindingly effulgent. Beatrice asked him to open his eyes, but he only saw a multitude of splendors on which there was a shower of lightning. Finally,  Beatrice bade him goodbye and merged with the blessed ones. Dante listened to a prayer uttered by St. Bernard upon hearing which he was overcome by ecstasy for he realized the centrality of “Love that moves the sun and the other stars: l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.” No other writer before Dante seems to have referred to the sun as another star.  

As with other great literary classics of the world, La Divina Commedia has been read, studied, translated, and commented upon by countless people over the centuries. Its sweep of  post-mortem fantasy worlds is impressive. While its notions of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven are not exactly original,  their review as a stirring tour-guide is fascinating and unusual, besides revealing the grotesque landscapes of heaven and hell in pre-modern times: Views, with all their horror, implausibility, and Divine heartlessness, are still taken as Reality by millions even today. The broad pictures are somewhat trivialized by placing particular historical and mythological personages in various regions. Dante’s views on values and morality are medieval and traditional: chastising gluttony, lust, anger and greed: mostly victimless crimes. Its philosophical reflections are interesting but not highly insightful. Its descriptions of Hell and its torture chambers are not much different from what one  reads in the Vishnu Purana or in the Holy Qur’an. With all that, La Divina Commedia of Dante is a masterpiece because it is grand poetry. Its simple yet majestic lines chiseled in terza rima (ABA-BCB-CDC-DED rhyming pattern) make it magnificent poetry in the original, and enjoyably readable even in translations. 

 May 9, 2016

RABINDRANATH TAGORE


I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awake and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy!                                             – Tagore

Few poets are  as widely read and fewer writers are as deeply venerated as Rabindranath Tagore (born: May 6, 1861). He enjoys a unique honor: Two countries (India and Bangladesh) have adopted his songs as national anthems.

Tagore’s creative output was prodigious: 40 plays, more than a 100 books of poems, some 50 novels and short stories. Add to this his impact on Bengali language and style, and it is easy to understand his stupendous stature in the world of Bengal.

Tagore transformed his father’s ashram in Santiniketan into Vishva Bharati University: a peaceful place of learning, away from the hustle of noisy cities, some of the best expressions of the human spirit were taught, sometimes in the shades of sprawling trees.

Tagore was a child of Indic culture. The blood in his veins was of ancient vintage. His reflections were rooted in the mystical tradition of a Indic thought.  But he was no narrow traditionalist. He condemned superstition and casteism,  acknowledged values in Western science, industry, and enlightenment.

Tagore was a sensitive thinker who wondered about the universe and the meaning of life. His poetic vision resonated with beauty in nature. Words flowed from his pen to express his robust sensuousness. In his Naibedya (Offerings) Tagore mused on the inner essence of Reality. It is here that these oft-quoted lines first appeared (no. 72):

      Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

      Where knowledge is free;

      Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

      by narrow domestic walls, …

      Into that Heaven wake this Indian land!

Between 1907 and 1910 Tagore used to wander in moonlit mango groves, sleeping barely three or four hours. He was “very rest­less” and “anxious to know the world.” During that period he wrote Gitanjali, his most famous book. The poet touched was by the color and beauty, songs and sounds of the wondrous world around him. There are somber touches here and there. Nature is a heart-throb of love for the bliss of the sensitive soul. There is God in the work in the glorious sense, immanent and revealing, the light that illumines human experience. There are  references  to  dark clouds and downpour, gushing winds and swelling rivers,  serene boatmen and sacred temples, flute and veena, and more. The love and joy of God are all in Nature’s beauty:

      Lo! there streams your nectar so pure,

      Flooding all heaven and earth in love, with life.

It bursts into song and fragrance, into light and rapture.

      My life, drunk with that nectar,

      is full to the brim….     (No. 6)

If God and soul, rivers and flowers dance Gitanjali, so do the grandeur and shame of humanity. Tagore was profoundly moved by the insights of Upanishadic seers, he was no less pained by the inhumanity of castes and the mindless  mutterings of orthodoxy.

      Leave this chanting and signing and telling of beads!…

      He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground,

      Where the path-maker is breaking stones. (No. 11).

The longings of sages find ex­pression here: “Let all the strains of joy mingle in my last song: the joy that makes the earth flow over in the riotous excess of the grass, the joy that sets the twin brothers, life and death, dancing over the wide world, the joy that sweeps in with the tempest, shaking and waking all life with laughter, the joy that sits still with its tears on the open red lotus of pain, and the joy that throws everything it has upon the dust, and knows not a word” (No. 58).

English renderings of Tagore’s works led to world recognition, with the Nobel medal. Not only William Butler Yeats,  Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, not only Bernard Shah and Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, but scores of other writers and intellectuals, and millions of common folk have been touched by this melodious Indian poet and sage

Tagore composed music too. His Jana gana mana became free India’s national anthem. A whole body of music, bearing his name, stirs the soul of every Bengali, from peasant to professor and all between. His tunes touch every emotional chord. Rabindra Sangeet is unlike other classical Indian music. Not all of it is  God-directed. Tagore invented new ragas by blending some ragas to harmonize more beautifully with his poetic compositions.

The power of music to soothe sorrow is expressed in a song (jokhon tumi bandhcchile taar) in which the minstrel sings to his beloved that while she was tuning the strings he experienced pain, and when she started playing the instrument his sorrow disappeared. In another love song (kachche theke duro chilo) he complains that even when his beloved was near him, she was distant, there was a strange kind of separation even in proximity. In all this we see the poet’s gift to convey through simple words profound truths about the human condition. To experience the beauty of this music, one has to listen to the songs.

Past sixty, Tagore took to drawing and   painting. His sketches  included one on himself with Gandhi, and a variety of themes. Many of these are on display at his home in Kolkata.

One can go on and on, reflecting on Tagore’s music and poetry, plays and prose. In the centuries to come, for as long as the lan­guage of Bengal is uttered, for as long as civiliza­tion prizes art and creativity, for as long as music and melody enthrall the human ear and the beauty of words brings joy to the human mind, Rabindranath Tagore will be remembered and celebrated, his songs and verses re­cited and enjoyed.

May 6, 2016

Homage to Yashodhara


My eyes are full, my garments wet, tears fall,

As my husband nectar-like, do I recall.

He went leaving our son, I now remember

Dows this world together such as I?

From a folk poem on Yashodhara (translated by Ranjini Obeysekara)

Most religious traditions tell us that Gods and angels reveal themselves more often to men than to women. Nevertheless, in some religions – certainly in all pre-Abrahamic religions there are goddesses as well as gods: Isis and Athena, Minerva and Sarasvati, Brigantia and Frigg, for example.

Very little of historical authenticity is known about these reverence-worthy women who command great respect in humanity’s cultural history. But their stories have become part of sacred history. Days on the calendar are sometimes consecrated to celebrate their presence in the faith-systems of the world. In this way religions have memorialized Esther in the Judaic tradition,  Radha in the Hindu, Mary in the Christian, Aisha in the Islamic, and Yashodhara in the Buddhist.

May 2 is the Day for Yashodhara for many Buddhists. So I will reflect on her today.

King Shuddhodana – Buddha’s father – had a sister named Pamitá. She was married to King Suppabuddha. Yashodhara  was the name of this couple’s daughter. The name means One who bears Glory.  Other names for her are Bimbadevi and Bhaddakacchana.

As per tradition, Siddhartha (who was to become the Buddha) was born on exactly the same day as Yashodhara. The two grew up in luxury in their respective families. When they reached the age of sixteen, they were married. The couple lived happily. Many years later, when both were 29, Yashodhara gave birth to a son. The child was named Ráhula.

It says in the lore that Prince Siddhartha left his wife, son, and palace on the very day of the child’s birth, in his quest for higher truths. He went out to solve the puzzle of human suffering and to discover the ultimate cause of pain and anguish in the world. In another rendition of this event,  when Siddhartha wore a monk’s attire and was about to leave on his mission, crowds came to pay respect to him. Yashodhara was conspicuously not there among the visitors. Alone in her chamber she thought of the Enlightened One, felt there was no need for her, and waited to see if he would leave her without taking leave.

Siddhartha noticed that Yashodhara’s absence, and he asked about her. His father said she was in her room. The young prince  went at once to see her. Yashodhara was overwhelmed with joy and sadness. She fell at his feet and sobbed heavily. Siddhartha’s toes were drenched by her tears. But the sage left her calmly, saying she had always been loyal to him, even in a previous birth.

First Yashodhara was thrown into tremendous sorrow by her husband’s abandonment. After she understood the purpose and significance  of Siddhartha’s spiritual quest she decided to follow the ascetic path herself. She cast away jewels and silken robes, changed to ordinary raiment, and began taking only sparse food.

Gabriel Constans wrote a historical fiction: Buddha’s Wife (2009). This re-telling of Yashodhara’s story,  while being respectful of the Buddhist tradition raises fundamental questions on spiritual life. It makes us think about some of the  injustices towards women.  In this fictional account of the scene Yashodhara says: “Shakya walked out of the door the day I delivered Rahula. Dazed after the strenuous labor, all I wanted to do was sleep. But I was woken out of my reverie by cries of ladies in waiting. Gathering my strength I walked out to witness the happening. Tears flowed effortlessly. I saw Prince Siddhartha devoid of his status, clad in mere robe moving away from the palace without a knowing gait. I quickly clad myself and ran out of the palace doors. I ran knowing I could lose everything if it happened. I ran amidst wailing crowd begging Siddhartha to change his mind. I ran to protect my child who had just opened his eyes to this world. By the time I caught up with my Prince, he had transformed to the point of no recognition. He simply looked at me and walked on. I ceased running and fell to the ground hoping that he would look at me. He kept walking. I passed out over the fading footprints of Shakya on the palace grounds.”

We read in the lore that many came to give Yashodhara moral support. It is even said that some princes came forward to marry her and look after her and the child. But she would have nothing of that. Instead, she persisted in her own ascetic life and followed five hundred other women who also became bikkhuni (nuns) of the order. Later, son Ráhula also joined the monastic order established by his father. Yashodhara he lived to be 78. She became an enlightened soul (arhat or arahant).

There are books on Buddhism that make no mention of Yashodhara, for what matters to the authors is the wisdom from the Master: not the pain and wailing of one abandoned woman. The saga of Yashodhara  is symbolic of the story of women all through history  who have endured neglect and abandonment, sometimes even abuse and  persecution, while their husbands go on the search for higher truths and ideals. While men are absorbed in hours of scientific research, artistic creation, spiritual quest, business affairs, or whatever, the devoted wives are at hard work in the kitchen and the laundry, often attending to children’s needs and the husband’s other meals.  With due respect to the many great men of wisdom and creativity who have labored for the welfare of humankind in their different ways, one shouldn’t forget that countless women have silently and selflessly sacrificed their personal comforts just to enable their male consorts to achieve their goals.

The world has changed for the better in some ways. Still, on this  Day, let the males of the species  recognize how much they owe to their, rightly called, better halves, and reflect a little more on their roles and responsibilities in daily chores.

May 2, 2016