Future Visions

The course of human history is instigated by many factors, perceived and unperceived, gradual and sudden, tangible and intangible too. Thus, the rise of the rishis in India, of the Buddha, the Christ, or the Prophet Mohammed were among the major perceived factors, whereas the impact of viruses and microbes on the course of human history were never recognized as such. The impact of the Copernican-Galilean science was gradual, that of the French Revolution was sudden. The onset of the computer is a tangible factor, while that of the Human Rights concept is an intangible one.
So, when we forge visions about the Future, we can only be approximate in our assessment. While we may be well-intentioned and enlightened in our planning, there is no telling what the future holds.
We do know that with all its stupendous scientific breakthroughs and marvelous technological achievements, the last century has also created horrendous problems, pressing and potential. A population explosion in the face of diminishing water and fuel reserves and mineral deposits, environmental pollution through automobiles and industrial effluents, perilous nuclear wastes, depletion of rain forests: these are challenges of no mean magnitude. Then there are social and human problems, ranging from poverty and malnutrition to illiteracy and disease.
Added to all this are simmering racial, religious, and economic divides, which, if not bridged or abridged, could lead to explosions of immense proportions. In this context, we recognize forces within many societies that accentuate the differences, and perpetuate mutual suspicion and hatred. They erupt sometimes from the narrow conviction of the superiority of one’s own group or subgroup, sometimes from deep-rooted animosities engendered by centuries of oppression and historical injustices.
Thus, in the new century, though there is much to look forward to in new technologies, increasing economic opportunities, interplanetary adventures, and the promise of cure for deadly diseases, we will be living in a fool’s paradise if we are indifferent to the problems that the human family will be facing in the impending decades.
We cannot afford to engage in the grand illusion that there is no distinction between one group and another, that the message of every prophet is the same. We should rather nurture more effectively the notion of cultural and creedal pluralism, recognizing multiplicity as intrinsic to the human condition, and looking upon races and religions as rainbow is in the heavens: colorful, and majestic, beautiful by virtue of the harmony in the hues.
Future possibilities are immense and unpredictable, for the good and for the bad: The discovery of a new and limitless non-polluting energy source could bring about a golden age of prosperity for all of humanity. The rise to power of a mindless maniac with nuclear capabilities could unleash irrevocable devastation on our species. Education and science could free all humans from ignorance and superstition, but scarce resources could deepen the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Religious and racial bigotry could fire simmering suspicions into horrendous conflagrations, or perhaps the emergence of an enlightened religious outlook would foster understanding and harmony among differing faiths. Or again, the long and checkered course of human history could be snuffed into a mere glitch in the planet’s saga by the rude intrusion and blind fury of a stray asteroid lured by earth’s gravity. What awaits us in time, no on can tell. Not all the factors that shape the future are within our ken or control.
In this crucial hour of India’s and humanity’s long history, and on the auspicious occasion of its Platinum Jubilee celebrations, the Indian Philosophical Congress could perhaps play a valuable role. According to ancient Indian tradition, philosophers do not simply speculate in ivory towers. The symbolism of the Bhagavad Gita suggests that philosophical issues should be explored in the thick of the battlefield of life and the crucible of confrontations, and that vision and wisdom and call to action must be formulated in the context of the dharma of the day. Remembering this, this organization can perhaps take a lead in convening a meeting of the leaders of all religions, and intellectuals of all shades, and persuade them to make a joint public declaration of unity by which they would urge all people to leave behind the psychological hurt of ugly historical memories, eschew angry exchanges provoked by opposing ideological commitments, and commit themselves to the greater cause of national unity and universal harmony. Just as any philosophy devoid of ethical content is mere noise, one that inspires love and promotes the cause of peace and well-being would be a magnificent mingling of ancient wisdom, scientific enlightenment and humanism, all at their best.
Let us dream of a day when the children of this planet of whatever sect or creed will work together hand in hand, and utilize their combined resources towards solving the world’s problems. Let us dream of a day when the peoples of the world, of every race, religion, and color, will be able to appreciate and enjoy the richness and wisdom in the world’s great traditions.
Now, as never before in human history, we must realize that we are all co-passengers in the only space-ship that is ours to share. Fortified by the knowledge that come from the sciences, and enriched by the values and wisdom that come from traditions, we must make every effort to forget the antagonisms and animosities of the past, and strive to build a world civilization that will make this our planet a more rewarding place to be in.

On West and Non-West

1. Do you envisage or foresee a fight in this century not between West and non-West but between Enlightenment and “archaic” traditionalism within various societies?

I suspect the conflict between the West and non-West will arise on two fronts:
(a) Economic disparities and disproportionate consumption of materials and energy by the West.
(b) Conviction (right or wrong) on the part of the leaders and intellectuals in the Non-West that the West is out to destroy their culture. In my view, this arises largely because of a confused identification of modernism with the West.

2. What kind of conflicts do you expect within the Non-West?

The internal conflicts within the non-West are likely to be largely ideological between the two following perspectives:
(i) We should embrace science and Enlightenment which is recognized by those who know history as of Western vintage in their modern versions, but of immense practical value; and by those who manipulate history as claiming to be already there implicitly in their own ancient wisdom, books, etc. This latter approach is adopted by thinkers in some Non-Western countries, and can be helpful in ushering in science and enlightened values there.
(ii) We should reject the scientific worldview and Enlightenment values. This is recommended by some post-modernist Western scholars in the West, as well as by rabid fundamentalist reactionaries elsewhere. But even they adopt all the technological offshoots of modern (Western) science. But bereft of the Enlightenment framework, this can be terribly dangerous for the whole world.

3. Do we have, from your point of view, any chance to prevent this fight turning into violence?

Simplistic answer: Yes. Mass education in the basics of physics, astronomy, biology, and history of ideas, while being extremely sensitive to the religious, cultural, traditional roots of the people in non-Western societies. The fact is that very few non-Western societies have a well-documented SOCIAL HISTORY, with the result that very few (even educated) people in those countries are even aware of the dark and unconscionable sides in their own societies in times past, though they are well acquainted with the postive and enormously rich cultural, philosophical and intellectual history. On the other hand, they are well acquainted with the exploitation and oppressive behavior of the imperialist West, they have little conscious understanding of the West’s contibutions to science, medicine, and the re-discovery of the rich and ancient history of the Non-West.

Reflections on The Passion of the Christ

There have been so many discussions, public and private, about this movie that I wanted to find out what was so special about it. The main points that were made by commentators included the following: First, many Christians felt that it was for them a most moving experience to see how much suffering Christ had truly undergone to save humankind from all its sins. Then there were discussions on the authenticity of the presented episodes, though by and large they followed the Biblical texts. Some expressed the fear that the movie would unleash or revive intense anti-Semitic feelings, which would be quite dangerous, especially in the current international political scene. Another criticism was that the movie was too gory in its details, and underplayed, not to say ignored, the message of Christ which is far more relevant and significant that his crucifixion.
As a result of such comments, I had little inclination to go see the movie. Yet I went and saw it because I wanted to understand, appreciate, and participate in discussions on it. I also wanted to see it because the topic is of perennial interest: after all, the crucifixion of Christ has given an everlasting symbol to Christianity. I re-read chapters from John, Matthew, Mark and Luke, before I went to see the movie, and was surprised to see things in common and also differences in the narratives.
I was not disappointed by the movie, because I did not expect much from it, having heard and read more negative than positive accounts of it. I was not surprised because the reviewers and discussants had already described much of what I was to see. I was not entertained, because I witnessed far too much pain, and no touch of humor in the entire film. I was not impressed because, though the acting was good and the photography excellent, there was nothing extraordinary in all of that. I was not educated because I did not learn anything new from the movie. I was not enlightened because I found no new insight in it, either about Christ or about humanity.

With all that, I don’t regret having seen the movie because never before, in all of history, literature, art or narration, has the passion of Christ been so effectively, movingly, or graphically presented as in this film. And it was fun listening to Aramaic.  Therefore, the movie will remain a classic for generations to come; perhaps it will be repeatedly shown on TV every Easter season.
The general impression one might get from watching this movie is that the Jews who treated Christ in such a deplorable manner were somehow unique in this respect. But the fact of the matter is that since the most ancient times human beings have been pretty crude and cruel in their treatment of those they regard as offenders. In practically every ancient culture and civilization, punishments meted out to convicted individuals were gross, inhuman, and torturous, way beyond our current capacity to imagine: these included burning, stoning to death, drowning, mutilating, and the like. According to historians, crucifixion with all its inhumanity had been in vogue in ancient Egypt, Persia, Greece, and of course in Rome too. The Jews had also adopted it. Centuries later, it was meted out to some Christian missionaries in Japan. It is difficult to visualize the abominable inhumanity of this punishment, and Mel Gibson has done an excellent job of reminding us in shocking detail what it was all about.

It should also be remembered, however, that other types of tortures persist to this day behind closed doors in a number of nations – all members of the U.N. The only difference is that in our own times such government-perpetrated atrocities are not displayed as a spectacle for all to see and share, much less acknowledged in public by the leaders of the lands. Abhorrence of such behavior is largely a modern phenomenon: one of the blessings of modernism.
The gruesome mangling that was wreaked on Christ’s body was all part of the ancient practice. And it was presented in the movie with intentional intensity. Most normal people would cringe at what was shown, whether the atrocities were perpetrated on Christ or even on a much lesser person. The goal of the producers was clearly to show the unimaginable suffering that Christ underwent to save humankind. One may wonder if this is where the true greatness of Christ lies. Certainly not, from the perspective of a Non-Christian. And yet, there was hardly any hint of how exactly humankind was saved by Christ being subjected to such pain. Furthermore, given that Christ did not go through the whole horrible episode voluntarily, it is fair to ask if that really was an act of sacrifice. Then again, if Christ had been expelled to distant lands, and he had not suffered the crucifixion, would his message have been any less potent or any less meaningful?
For the most part, from what one sees in the movie, Christ went through the excruciating experience as any normal person would, suffering very much like any other human victim, appealing to God for help, exclaiming why God had forsaken him: one of the earliest articulations of theodicy. “If God can do this to His own son,” I thought, “is it any wonder He lets such and worse fate fall on lesser creatures?”
What did make Christ special was his return of love and understanding to his enemies even in the face of their terrible treatment of him. Here he shines as a beacon for the rest of humanity. If anything is superhuman, his return of Love for Hate is. But even this made Christ a noble, admirable, and remarkable human being rather than divine.
Indeed, with all its alleged religious intent, there is very little in the movie that persuades one to the view that Christ was in any way divine. He was, all through the film, a sad target of hate and anger for claiming to be the Messiah, and for threatening to blow up the Jewish Temple. It is a sad commentary on human history that Christ was neither the first nor the last to have been treated with such heartless cruelty for refusing to accept the claims of other self-proclaimed prophets, and for proclaiming new visions. For that is often what blasphemy is all about.
On more than one occasion, as it says in the Gospel, Christ foretold what was to happen. This raises a profound theological question, because the implication of Christ’s prediction is that God Himself had ordained it to be so. If that were the case, can we really blame Judas or the others who betrayed and crucified Christ? Was not all that part of the Divine Plan? Indeed, if Judas had not betrayed Christ, wouldn’t that have shown Christ to have been less than a seer of things to come?
Aside from the unspeakable pain caused by the horrible process of crucifixion, the gratuitous cruelty of the mob against an already tortured Christ, and the cheerful revelry of the officiating agents, though faithful to some passages in the Bible, struck me as rather exaggerated. It is incredible that while Christ was writhing in pain, his skin peeling and bleeding from the scourging, some of the men who were goading him with his cross kept taunting and whipping him mercilessly, mocking him as the King of the Jews, and yet others were drinking, laughing, and playing with barbaric callousness. This again is a commentary on the Zeitgeist, rather than on the intrinsic depravity of any culture or people. In any case, such depiction should provoke contempt for and anger towards such individuals and the value-framework which permits, even encourages such behavior, rather than indictment of a whole people. Also, while the clamor of the enraged mob for the crucifixion of Christ is dramatically shown, the plea of the few – who were also Jews – who asked the Roman ruler to forgive Christ was underplayed in the movie.
And this is a crucial point: The sordid saga of Jewish persecution in Christendom arose from the utterly erroneous theological perspective that a whole race of people are by nature evil and deserving of discrimination and dehumanization because a handful of them in a remote age and place behaved in such an outrageous manner towards one who has been accepted as the Savior by many others. The attribution of collective negative characteristics to a group on the basis of some features in a random sample is what constitutes racism. It is an unhappy commentary of Christian societies that they have been unwittingly racist for many generations in the name of Christ. The fear that such an irrational and evil mindset would re-emerge from this movie, though understandable, also strikes me as naïve. With all its problems and pains and pathetic features, the average person in at least some societies is no longer provoked to such barbaric behavior by a movie. But who knows!
All in all, in my view, this movie has received more attention and commentary than it really deserves, and, as a consequence, has grossed more millions than it otherwise would have. We live in an age where violence and cruelty have become an intrinsic aspect of the entertainment industry, and it seems to be appealing to a great many people. Mel Gibson has taken full advantage of this, with the apparent purpose of telling the world pictorially the passion of Christ.

At a time when gruesome murder and overt sex have become the norms in movies and on TV, the graphic portrayal of the road to the Crucifixion should not be all that shocking, and perhaps contributes to the movie’s popularity. After all, one can partake of all the violence one craves for on the screen with a sense of moral indignation and religious fervor. What more can one asks for?
For many devout Christians The Passion of the Christ is probably an authentic representation of a climactic episode in the life of their Savior, but for a non-Christian who has reverence for Christ and his message, this particular episode in Christ’s life, and its movie version seem to be a case of much ado about something which should not be stressed as much as the message and meaning of the Christ symbol.
I am inclined to think that in a few months this movie would be relegated to the DVD and Video status like every other movie, great or mediocre.
March 15, 2004

Matter and Mind

What is this fleeting entity in the human body that inquires and analyzes, reflects and reasons, comprehends, calculates and creates? What is this mind that is at the root of our philosophies and literature, religions and sciences? Is it simply a consequence of the ultimate structures that grid the brain? Is it, in other words, no more than physics and chemistry at extraordinarily complex levels? Is it a marvelous macro-property of molecular motions?
Poets and philosophers have spoken about the powers of the mind. Manilus of ancient Rome declared majestically : “Nothing can withstand the powers of the mind.”
Barriers, enormous masses of matter, the remotest recesses are conquered by the mind, for with it you can travel wherever you please in no time at all. All things succumb. The very heaven itself is laid open.
Every accomplishment of the human spirit has involved the mind. Illnesses have been controlled and cured by the powers of the mind.
Tales, ancient and modern, have painted mind-power over brain (matter) power. Some believe that there can be a mind without body. In certain mythologies the mind can leave the body, travel far and wide, and come back like a homing pigeon. In others, it can suck in information about events occurring in far away places. It has been argued on the basis of quantum mechanics that the mind is an open system and can work more wonders than it already does. But on the basis of what is normally observed, more often than not, it is Mohammed who goes to the mountain than the other way around.
We can throw a monkey-wrench in the normal functioning of mind by polluting the brain. A modicum of mescaline will do the job. When disease invades the brain, or brain cells age, the mind withers too. Destroy the matter composing the brain, and off goes the mind with it. All talk of mind over matter is true only up to a point. One is obliged to concede that mind is subservient to matter. Ultimately, matter triumphs, at least on our scale.
All this does not negate the fact that the human mind is more marvelous than routine life-throb. It is a flicker perhaps in the cosmic sea, but a mysterious light it is that shines brighter than any galaxy, for, but for mind, all the grandeur and glory of the world would remain unsought, inexperienced, and unsung.
So we grant that matter is more powerful, but we may claim that the mind is more meaningful, for, as the poet said :
Man’s mind’s a mirror of heavenly sights,
A brief wherein all marvels summèd lie,
Of fairest forms and sweetest shapes the store,
Most graceful all, yet thought may grace them more.

On a Coleridge Quote

“Samuel Taylor Coleridge: To believe and to understand are not diverse things, but the same things in different periods of growth.”

Coleridge was talking in a religious philosophical context where belief is the foundation. He was not speaking in a scientific context where understanding is more primary. He was, above all, a romantic poet, a
philosopher inspired by German thought, one given to opium, and a brilliant
thinker also. [He was an Anglican in religious persuasion.]
It is true that when (religious) belief is etched in the heart, there is also a special kind of understanding about the human condition. This is the sort of
thing that Coleridge was probably talking about.
On the other hand, in science the goal is to understand the myriad
workings of the phenomenal world. When that understanding is there, one’s
belief about Nature and Human Existence is also considerably altered.
Thus it is perhaps fair to say that in religion, belief leads to understanding of one kind; and in science, understanding leads to belief of another kind.
The understanding that religions provide gives meaning and purpose to human existence. The belief that science leads us to provides an intellectual appreciation bordering on mystical experience about the
phenomenal world.
Each is enriching in its own different way.

On Population Growth

Would it not be really dysfunctional for cultures to compete by producing more babies than their opponents?

I am not so sure.
For one thing it depends on whether the culture is living in a closed system, independently of others, or is a minority in a larger culture. There are regions in the world where some minority groups are intentionally breeding at a faster rate to achieve greater power vis-a-vis the majority. They have already succeeded in this in many contexts.
Population increase is for some groups (religious, racial, or linguistic) what the bottom-line is for capitalist investors. They give a damn for what happens to the world at large, or for the majority of the nation of which they are a part. Their goal is to fatten their purse because this gives them more power with respect to others.

On Science-Religion Conflicts

Conflicts between the adherents of rational/naturalistic modes and those inclined to magic and mystery have existed at all times. In ancient Greece, Anaxagoras was prosecuted for his impiety. In ancient China, the works of Mo-Ti were fed to the flames because he was too much of a scientific philosopher. The materialist Carvaka was vilified in ancient India. Scientific heretics have had to face the wrath of traditionalists in practically every culture. The fate of Galileo was not a unique phenomenon in human history.
When inquisitions, excommunication, and book-burning became no longer fashionable (in scientifically awakened societies), and it was becoming ever more difficult to challenge on logical grounds the scientific mode of comprehending the world, the devotees of supernaturalism started to argue, in the spirit of if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em, that religion and science were perfectly compatible and complementary. Modern apologists of non-Christian traditions have followed suit, suggesting that there has never been any conflict between science and religion in their own traditions. Thus, enlightened advocates have been ably pointing to the commonalty between science and the particular theologies to which they subscribe, albeit in appropriately modified and nebulous versions of the same. Their goal has quite simply been to make the world views of their favored revered texts as compatible as possible with the scientific tenets of the age.
Given that, for the non-Western world, modern science is of alien vintage, and seeing the sorry spectacle of pollution, crimes and climbing divorce rates in industrialized countries, some argue that Western science, based on materialistic values and leading to exploitation of nature, may have much to learn from non-Western cultures wherein the sacredness of Nature, harmony and other wholesome ecological insights have always been the guiding principles. In this context, a few popularizers of science have been propagating the thesis that the esoteric epistemology of current fundamental physics is merely a re-formulation of ancient mystical aphorisms.
While this happy marriage between science and mysticism is being conducted, another ancient school of thought still survives. Its goal is to demonstrate that scientific knowledge (a) is not reliable; (b) that even if it were, it is certainly not more reliable than religious knowledge; (c) that it is not as objective as it is claimed to be; and (d) that it is potentially dangerous.
Already in the 16th century, Cornelius Agrippa warned that “there is nothing more deadly than to be, as it were, rationally mad.” From George Berkeley in the 18th century who wrote The Analyst as “a discourse addressed to an infidel mathematician wherein it is examined whether the object, principles, and inferences of the modern analysis are more distinctly conceived, or more certainly deducted, than religious mysteries and points of faith,” to the modern philosopher who regards science as “conspicuous, noisy, and impudent”, there have been any number of intelligent thinkers who have reveled and rejoiced in exposing the limitations of the scientific enterprise.
Scientists in their professional work are generally indifferent to these noises, so science marches on with its thousand strides. They recognize, often at a deeper level than some of their harshest critics, what the scope and limitations of science are. Few serious scientists would claim that science’s views of the world are absolute or ultimate. Unfortunately, the scientific enterprise also adamantly refuses to pay homage to unscientific endeavors to explain the world, let alone solve our material problems. This provokes the wrath of the anti-science crowds.