MY COUNTRY, MY CULTURE!


yádum úré yávarum kélír  Kanian

It is all my town, where I’m in.
Whoever they are, they’re also my kin.

So wrote the Tamil poet Kanian, and it is from him that I have taken inspiration in these musings. Others have expressed similar view. In the Rig Veda (1:89) we have the words:

Á no bhadráh kratavo vishvato: May auspicious powers come to us from all sides.

The Latin poet Publius Terentius afer (Terence) wrote: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto, I am a human being; nothing human can be alien to me.

Up until the middle of the twentieth century people were divided as nations and religions. From the last quarter of the twentieth century, another factor has come into play: ethnic identity. In so far as this adds to the psychological comfort level of peoples who were marginalized for several centuries by European colonialism  and the earlier Islamic expansionism, in a world where economic, scientific, and linguistic hegemony still reigns ethnic pride is worthy of being nurtured. But in so far as it generates confrontation, feelings of animosity, and belligerent postures towards others, it can and does add  to the mutual hate index in the world. Indeed ethnic pride often dilutes the spirit of the Maha Upanishadic aphorism: vasudhaiva kutumbakam: The world is one family, and goes against the framework of humanism whose four characteristics, in the words of E. M. Foster, are “curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race.”

Pride in one’s culture and heritage is appropriate, but this need not diminish our respect and appreciation for cultures and achievements of others.   Every culture is rich in creativity and insights. There have been great poets and thinkers, scientists and sages all over the world. When it comes to good and bad people, ultimately (in the words of Andrew Marvell)

The world in all doth but two nations bear,

The good and bad, and these are mixt everywhere.

So I will continue to reflect on events and episodes, men and women, not from the perspective of one anchored to a particular culture, religion, or nation, but as a conscious entity that has been part of the human saga on this planet for a brief bracket in time. Let me recall in this context the following poem entitled My Country:

“This is my country, and I am so proud,”

Said a man in a voice a bit too loud.

Another said, “Of course that’s true,

But sometimes I like to say this too:

My country is much larger still.

I’ll tell you why, if listen you will:

Antarctica is my country too,

And all the oceans black and blue.

Mexico and Moldavia,

Canada  and Colombia,

Panama and Peru,

And every country old and new.

Uganda and Nigeria

Morocco and Algeria,

England, Europe, even Finland,

Scotland and also Ireland,

All of Europe, east and west.

North and south and all the rest.

North African lands like Tunisia,

Egypt and Syria,

Iran, Iraq, Libya,

Yemen and Saudi Arabia

Mine is Russia and Armenia

Nepal, Bhutan and India,

Afghanistan, Uzbekistan

Israel and Pakistan.

Two Koreas and Japan

Mainland China and Taiwan,

Australia and New Zealand,

Thailand, Lapland and Greenland.

African ones like the Sudan,

I can go just on and on

Alphabetically all the way

From Angola to Zimbabwe.

My country is large, it even lies

Beyond land and water, over the skies.

Includes Mars, Venus and Saturn

No matter where in space you turn.

Sun and stars and the Milky Way

Far and near, whatever you say.

I claim all these as mine in verse,

‘Cause I was born in the Universe.

My  problem is: With all this might

I’ve no foe with whom to fight.

This World is My World

This World is Your World,

From the South Pole to the North Pole

Extending to the Universe Whole.”

February 5, 2016

MAHATMA GANDHI


Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon the earth.                                                                – Albert Einstein.

On 30 January 1948, when, after  participating in a prayer session in which Íshvar (a Sanskrit word God) and Allah were both evoked, Gandhi out to talk to a crowd an angry young man approached him, saluted him, and fired shots at his chest. The pious politician slumped and died. Thus ended the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known with affection as Bapuji and with reverence as Mahatma Gandhi to India’s people.

Gandhi was a multifaceted individual:  He was a man of extraordinary inner strength and interpersonal skills; lawyer, politician, philosopher, social activist, strategist, saintly humanist, idealist, preacher, and disciplinarian. Though not a scientist by training he did experiments, not with measuring rods and  microscopes, not with beakers and Bunsen burners, but with Truth. He had contemplated becoming a doctor. He read works on nature cure, and served as midwife when his second son was born in 1900. He had a scientific mind for he reasoned well, analyzed situations, and drew insightful conclusions. But he was suspicious of technology to a fault, the spinning wheel symbolized for him cottage industries. His instincts on the matter were often  right: He feared and foresaw that technology would uproot traditional culture and values, and dehumanize societies.  He was simple in lifestyle but complex in thought; modest in attire, but magnificent in morals; good to his enemies, but adamant in his principles.

      Gandhi fought for human dignity in South Africa long before he was called a Mahátma (Great Soul). He spoke out against the scourge of caste hierarchy and  condemned untouchability in Hindu society. He played a charismatic role in the Indian National Congress, sometimes subtly disarming those who called for violent approaches for achieving the goal. He was the power behind the party that led to India’s rebirth as a modern nation with an enlightened constitution, a unifying national anthem and a waving tricolor with the wheel of justice and a motto that proclaims that Truth alone will ultimately triumph.

The paradox in the life and appraisal of this hero of history was that some adored him and others vilified him: symbolic of the tension between lofty ideals and crass reality. It has been said that an Utopian is a poet who has gone astray. More exactly, a Utopian is a thinker who draws humanity to a nobler path. Utopians strive to bring more value and merit to  human societies. 

There are a hundred obstacles on the way. Gandhian principles would work wonderfully well if only decent people populated the world. Gandhi wrote a letter to Hitler pleading with him not to start a world war. In some contexts, the Gandhian approach simply doesn’t work. The landing on Normandy is sometimes necessary to suppress unadulterated evil. Just as superstitions are sometimes the price we pay for the comfort and solace that religions bring, harsh measures are sometimes needed to eradicate the weeds that destroy civilization.

No doubt, in many cases “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” works. But returning good for bad, and love for hatred, is also an ancient experiment in civilization, and it too has worked in many instances. It has invariably produced more happiness, peace and harmony. There is greater glory in a victory achieved through nonviolence and handshakes than in all the battle cries and bombs of violent and hate­ful confrontations.

Gandhi has lost much of his luster in his native India. The new generation, frustrated with Kashmir and related intransigence, blame it on Gandhi’s goody-goodiness. There is, alas, some truth in this. Yet, in these times, when nations confront one another with mistrust, when we seem to be sliding to catastrophes of mutual destruction, the world is crying out for Gandhis: in Palestine and Israel, in India and Pakistan, in Syria and elsewhere. The world needs not one Gandhi here and one there, but Gandhis everywhere:  leaders who are more sensitive to the needs and predicaments of the adversary, more willing to sacrifice and serve.

Notwithstanding Winston Churchill’s disdain of him, Gandhi became a most remarkable personage of his times. He was second only to Einstein in being named Man of the Century by Time Magazine. The United Nations Organization, the voice of humanity, has declared his birth-date (October 2) to be the International Day of Non-Violence. It is a matter for rejoicing that notwithstanding all the animosities and rivalries that tarnish humanity the world still recognizes Gandhian ahimsa as supremely civilized behavior. Gandhi’s ahimsa was not just vegetari­an­ism and avoiding leather shoes. It was the showing of love in the context of confrontation

Civilizations survive and evolve by tireless perseverance in adhering to ideals. Love is surely nobler than hatred, non-violence more civi­lized than violence, kindness better than cruelty. Those who cling on to such principles add glory to so­ciety and history, whether they win or lose. Such are martyrs and saints. Such was Mahatma Gandhi.

Long after the dust and debris of hate and hurt settle down, and  the Gandhi-bashers of today (mostly in India) are laid to rest, the visions of the likes of Gandhi will be celebrated by humanity as worthy symbols of whatever is noble and enlightened in the human spirit. Gandhi’s message will shine bright in the firmament of human ideals. By then we would have realized that planetary peace is not simply the silence of guns, but  the embrace of all with love, caring, and compassion, and harmony among the peoples of the world will be based not on suspicion and suicide bombs, but on on social justice and mutual respect.

January 29, 2016

WOLFGAND AMADEUS MOZART


Mozart’s music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the Universe.                                                                                                                                            Albert Einstein

In the Hindu framework, music (gána) is one of the several modes (márga) of experiencing the Divine. So one speaks of gána márga as a spiritual path.   At its best, music is spiritual experience of a high order for it can  provide us with an ecstasy that is as close to an inkling of the Divine as any. Even as the saints and seers of traditions guide us to religious insights and awakening, the great composers of the world have taken us to lofty experiential heights through their magnificent works.

One of the great composers – known even beyond his own cultural matrix –  is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (born: 27 January 1756). The prolific works of this most remarkable creative genius are cast in every musical form and format. His more than 620 compositions included  lively minuets, heart warming symphonies, operas serene and comic, concertos for different instruments, and more. He inherited his talents, at least partially, from his father Leopold Mozart who was a composer-violinist himself.

Like Sambandhar of the Tamil tradition, Mozart began composing when he was very young. His father thought it was a great idea to make a spectacle of his son’s extraordinary talents. The lad and his older sister Maria played the key-board and violin traveling from town to town, performing even at the royal court in Vienna.  They went to Paris, Milan, London and Munich, displaying Mozart and his music.

Mozart became a member of the then growing Freemasonry movement. With inspiration from ancient Babylon and Egypt this secret  society was sworn to symbols. Many of its early members were stone masons of medieval cathedrals.

Mozart lived at the Classical Period in Western cultural history, and he enriched its musical dimension immensely. This was the time when creative minds in art, poetry, and music were influenced as much by the majestic stature of ancient Greek architecture as by the order and symmetry in the laws of physics that were being discovered. Thus inspired, many lasting works emerged in poetry and art, science and music. There is something as aesthetically grand in the compositions of Mozart and Hayden  as in a theorem of Euler, a poem by Schiller, or a law in Newtonian mechanics. They all have implicit in them an ideal perfection. In due course, there arose a rebellion against the sheer balance, order, and symmetry of it all. Old order changed, yielding place to something new.

Even with all the free abandon, unrhymed verses and unrestrained creativity of the Romantic era,  the marvelous works of the classical period have continued to live and be loved, like the religions of our distant ancestors. Down to our own times, countless musicians have played Mozart’s many pieces, giving unadulterated joy to all who have had the opportunity to perform or listen to his immortal works.

There are so many jubilant movements in Mozart’s sonatas, symphonies and concertos, so many dancing fingers in his piano pieces, there is never a dull moment in any of his works.  Those who haven’t listened to the Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or the motet Exultate Jubilate,  haven’t hummed with Papageno, been thrilled by the Queen of the Night’s aria, or chuckled at Leporello’s litany of the rake Don Giovanni’s exploits in Spain and Italy and other places, have missed some of the most tickling musical delights available to human ears.

The notes and melodies that enter the creative mind of a gifted composer are like the majestic lines that flow through the pen of epic poets, or the theorems that light up a mathematician’s mind. As Karl Barth famously wrote, “We must certainly assume that the dear Lord had a special, direct contact with him (Mozart).” Even those who are  skeptical about religious revelations will have to recognize something magnificent and  mysterious in human creativity that seems to elude rational explanations. The creative geniuses of the human family have left works that form a true treasure-chest in humanity’s cultural legacy.  So, on his two hundred and sixtieth birthday day, I honor the memory of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

We live in an age when great music  can be heard right in our homes through many channels, including the You-tube. If you have never heard Mozart before,  urge you to begin by accessing one of them, like https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSL5-wxgvFY

January 27, 2016

 

The Non-Unus and the Est-Non-Est Epistemology of Jain Philosophy


Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.                                                                                                              -Marcus Aurelius

Jainism is one of the four major Indic religious. It dates back to the fifth century BCE, but its followers hold that aside from its historical founder Vardhamana Mahavira, the system owes its existence to twenty-four founders, known as Thirthankaras, and that Mahavira was  the last of these. The first Thirthankara is known as  Rishabha to whom the vision of Non-violence first arose. The 23rd was Parsva,  born two centuries before Mahavira. The Thirthankaras are referred to as Jainas: Victorious Ones, for they had conquered the bondage of life.

Jainism is very relevant in today’s world because of its value-system and philosophy. Perhaps the most important tenet of Jainism is ahimsa: non injury. Its first meaning is the non-hurting of fellow humans. There is perhaps no simpler and more precious nugget of ethical principle than this, for it embodies the quintessence of all moral injunctions. This should be a necessary and foundational principle in all ethical systems. Any system that permits or fosters the hurting of fellow humans is not worthy of being considered a civilized system. Extensions of this principle include non-injury to, and respect for, all creatures great and small. In no other culture in the history of humanity has this principle been so explicitly enunciated. Caring for one’s family and compassion for others is already a major step forward. But to apply this to every living being is as major an ethical leap forward as the jump from planet earth to walking on moon is on the physical plane.  Whether practicable or not, this is a mind and heart expanding vision of human goodness, as yet beyond the mind’s reach of the vast majority of people.  

Classical Jaina writings include philosophical and scientific speculations about the nature of matter and mind. In this context Jaina thinkers propounded what is called anekánta-váda or Not-One thesis. To make it sound metaphysically technical it may be called (coining a Latin word) the non-unus thesis. It states that any issue can be considered from a variety of perspectives, each leading to a different understanding. The idea was illustrated in Godfrey Saxe’s poem about the blind men and the elephant:

      It was six men of Indostan

      To learning much inclined.

      Wanted to see an elephant

      Though all of them were blind

      That each at least by observation

      Might satisfy this mind….

On the basis of their own observations they variously thought that the elephant was like a wall, spear, snake, rope, tree, and fan. Recognizing that multiple understandings of fundamental issues arise because of our limited scopes is a profound insight in the context of ideological and religious conflicts.

Related to this is the tenet known as  asti-násti-váda: This may be called the est-non-est doctrine by which a statement and its opposite might both be correct, depending on the context. Thus, the following contradictory pairs of propositions are all true, depending on one’s appraisal of a situation: (a) There is a God; (b) There is no God. (a) Humans are intrinsically good; (b) humans are intrinsically bad. (a) An electron is a particle; (b) an electron is a wave. (a) Religions are benign; (b) religions are evil.

What this implies is that there are many fundamental questions on which one can’t make absolute statements. The same sky can be dazzlingly bright and also pitch dark. Binary logic is not universally applicable. Moreover, each such statement, though challengeable, can still have contextual value and significance. Adopting a particular position on a complex issue is often useful and necessary in many contexts, but this should never be done at the expense of the first ethical principle of not hurting others in our actions.

January 25, 2016

CASPAR FRIEDRICH WOLFF


Consider our form and features now. They have changed since we were  babies, but they are not newly formed: We have grown with the eyes and ears, limbs and heart with which we were born.

But what about our prenatal state? Were we with arms and legs, eyes and ears since the day of our conception? Of course not, is what most informed people would say today.

But there was a time, not too many centuries ago,  when people spoke of homunculi: little human beings. These were  microscopic creatures in the mother’s womb: all fully formed. They   slowly grew and grew and became so big they were ejected from the mother’s womb. The word embryo originally meant a young swelling animal (in the womb). It was derived from a Greek word which means to swell or be full. This was the scientific equivalent of the idea that God created man: face, body, limbs and all, as a fully-formed creature.

Today most people brush off the idea of a miniature man or woman in the uterus, gradually enlarging in size, expanding like a three-dimensional photograph which becomes bigger to visible dimensions from a tiny film. 

Up until the 18th century the notion of completed minuscule creatures bulging to become babies was widespread. This was known as  the theory of preformation. The term evolution meant in those days the gradual enlargement of preexisting organs of the embryo: something  very different from what it connotes today.

In 1759, a young medical student at the University of Halle by the name of Caspar Friedrich Wolff (born: 18 January 1734) published a dissertation entitled Theoria Generationis. In this, he rejected the preformation idea held by most scientists of the day, incurring their displeasure. He wasn’t allowed to lecture at the University of Berlin. Rather than be intimidated, Wolff went ahead and published a book in 1764, entitled Theoria Generations, expanding further on his original idea. His work gave scientific credibility to the notion of epigenesis: development from a homogeneous state to a very heterogeneous one.

Wolff’s work brought him fame beyond his Germany, and he was invited to the newly established scientific academy in St. Petersburg. The Russian Empress Catherine II who founded this institution used to import scientists from Western Europe at that time, somewhat as the U.S. started doing in the 20th century from all over the world. Wolff felt so satisfied in St. Petersburg that he became a Russian citizen.

Wolff’s view that there is a gradual development of the organism, plant or animal, from its initial creation, was based on careful studies of plants and unhatched chicks. It took several decades and translations before his insight came to be universally recognized. Now he is now regarded as the founder of  scientific embryology. Students of anatomy read about the Wolffian body. Needless to say, his original explanations on how this development occurs involved ideas that are no longer acceptable.

Such is the progress of science: not always smooth or easy for those who bring about major shifts in our views about how the world behaves. Authority, be it of individuals or of institutions, can be quite powerful even in the march of science whose avowed goal is to understand how the world functions. But that quest is carried out in well defined frameworks, under clear cut parameters in different fields. Making breakthroughs and discoveries within the existing framework in terms of the generally accepted parameters is fine. But if and when one tries to change these, the task becomes horrendously difficult. Yet, and this is strength of science: Sooner or later, as a Hindu maxim declares, satyameva jayate: Truth alone will win.

January 18, 2016

KAGAMI-BIRAKI (鏡開き)


 

Never forget your indebtedness to ancestors                                  – A Shinto teaching.

At a time when the actions and utterances  of a growing number of people affiliated to various religions tend to degrade the vision of religion in the minds of many thoughtful people, it may be of some interest to reflect occasionally on the more interesting and beautiful aspects of religions. This should not be difficult because though every historical religion has its dark sides, all of them have more than a few positive elements also.

 Hinduism is an integral part of India, Judaism of Israel, and Islam of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, etc. The West is distancing itself more and more from Christianity: for the better because this has led to its intellectual and spiritual emancipation; and for the worse in that some see as its path to cultural suicide. 

In this context, consider Shinto which is part of the religious framework of  Japan. Shinto is an ancient religion whose etymology has been traced to Chinese words meaning ‘The Way of the Spirits’. Since the 8th century CE, Shinto and Buddhism have been the integrated religion of the Japanese people.

Shinto recognizes the existence of many Kamis (神: spirits, deities) which manifest themselves in Nature, sometimes even as human beings. So it encourages the worship of rivers and mountains and all of Nature. There are  Shinto shrines all over Japan, many adorned with origami (paper of the spirits) which people visit regularly during their life.

I recall visiting the Meiji Jingu (shrine)  in Tokyo in 1961 with my friend Professor Takahiko Takabayashi of Kyoto University. He explained to me that the Shrine, dedicated to the late Japanese Emperor Meiji and his Empress Shoken had been renovated recently, after it suffered bombardment during the War. It is located smack in the middle of a huge forest with more than a hundred thousand sturdy trees and countless plants.

Coming to the theology, the chief of the Kamis is Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess. I was surprised that it was a goddess since from own cultural upbringing, Súrya was a male deity. Only some years later did I discover that though many cultures regard the Sun as Divine not all consider it to be masculine. Sekhmet and Hathor of ancient Egypt, Saulé of ancient Latvians, Söl of Norse mythology, to name a few,  were all Sun-Goddesses. Some twenty years ago I came across a book by Patricia Monaghan which argues that there were more goddesses than god representing the Sun.

Be that as it may, the imperial family of Japan is said to be descended from Amaterasu Omikami. In the Hindu epic Ramayana, the emperors of his lineage were of the solar dynasty also. According to the Shinto sacred history, the first emperor of Japan was Jimu Tenno. Ametesaru gave a round mirror  called mochi to  his grandson, to be included in the royal treasures.

In modern Shinto calendar, 11 January is a celebratory day. It is known as Kagami-Biraki. The term has been roughly translated as  the ‘breaking of (the New Year) rice cake’.

When steamed rice is pounded hard, it becomes what is called mochi in Japanese. It is made to set in the form of a small circular mirror. When this is warmed, it becomes hard gluten which cannot be easily broken. The word kagami means a mirror, and bikari refers to its breaking or opening.

This is also a festival for celebrating martial arts, which are part of the Samurai tradition in Japan. Jujutsu is an ancient Japanese martial art. It is said that as early as in the third century BCE, there used to be combative competitions between unarmed participants. These were known as hikara-karube. Over the centuries various schools and systems of the marital art emerged. Like Yoga from India Judo has spread all over the world in recent years.

Cultural diversity is wonderful as long as cultures don’t become intrusive and demand to be integrated into other cultures. This is one of the challenges the world is facing today: the transformation of the melting-pot ideal to the salad-bowl ideal in modern multicultural societies. This transformation can further enrich or completely dilute the original culture of nations that foster multiculturalism. It is too early to tell what will happen in the long run.

January 11, 2016

 

Kinds of Original Thought


It is curious how we hit on the same idea.                        – Charles Darwin

There are and have been  more original thinkers in the world than are recorded in history. Original thinking is of there kinds or orders:

First order originality is when a person not only gets an idea for the first time, but also publishes it one way or another and gets full credit for it.

Second order originality is when although it be original to a person, someone else had the same idea and had published it earlier. But, thanks to historians, eventually one acquires some credit for it.

Third order originality is when the original  idea comes too late for being recognized by the world.

Consider the following example of first order originality. If we are asked  what name comes to mind when we hear the words natural selection and evolution, chances are most people would say Darwin.

But there is another name that deserves to be mentioned here: Alfred Russell Wallace (born: 8 January 1823) who famously wrote. “In my solitude I have pondered much on the incomprehensible subjects of space, eternity, life and death.”

In the early 1850s Wallace formulated the principle of natural selection. He wrote about a struggle for existence “in which the weakest and the least perfectly organized must always succumb.” In 1858, he sent his essay On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type to Charles Darwin. It was received and read with great admiration and some shock. “If Wallace had my manuscript sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract!” Darwin exclaimed.

When he was eighteen, he bought a book on botany to guide him in making a herbarium. The book drew him to a deeper study of nature. In order to explore plants and animals in distant lands he set sail for the Amazon in Brazil with his friend Henry Bates. He was overwhelmed by the plush richness of the rain forests; he followed remote rivers, encountered indigenous peoples, marveled at the variety and abundance of plants, trees and flowers, birds, reptiles and monkeys.

He became to reject the idea that species were fully formed when they first came to be. He was convinced that they arose as a result of physical laws, that they changed under external influences. He jotted down the details of whatever he saw and reflected upon. But he lost his notes in an accident on his way back home. In fact, he barely escaped when his ship caught fire.

The calamity at sea did not deter him from taking another long voyage, this time to the Indonesian archipelago, thousands of miles away. He was away once again from his native England, for eight years this time, studying the land and the people, the rocks and the life forms of those regions. He amassed information on  thousands of specimens: enough material for many scientific papers.

When Russell was exploring the Amazon little did he suspect that in less than a hundred and fifty years later, it would be in great peril, thanks largely to cattle and leather trade. Nor could he have known that the alarming deforestation will have grave consequences for humanity at large. And yet, already in the 1860s, Wallace was concerned about species extinction. He urged governments to do something for the preservation of various plants, trees and animals, warning that, if that were not done, “future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations.” How true even today! One shudders to think of what our current collective behavior will have on future generations.

Though not religious in a traditional sense, Wallace was attracted to spiritualism. He published a small book on the Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural. This shocked some of the naturalists like Charles Darwin and Darwin’s ardent supporter Thomas Huxley. They didn’t understand how this apostle of evolution could speak of the spirit. But then Faraday, Maxwell and many other outstanding creative contributors to science, were also deeply religious.

Wallace lived to the ripe old age of ninety, arguing for socialism and women’s rights in his later years.

When we talk about biological evolution and our role in affecting the ecosystem it is good to remember Alfred Wallace as well.

January 8, 2016