Purpose of Life and the Universe

Someone asked me whether I thought there was any purpose to life and to the universe.

I think it is important here to distinguish between short range and long-range purpose.

Short range purpose relates to matters of temporal significance: My purpose in writing this note, the purpose of a bird catching a fish and taking it to its nest, the purpose of going to a restaurant, the purpose of the leader of a nation addressing his people, etc. To say there is no purpose in such contexts is missing the meaning of life.

Long range purpose relates to grander aims, such as a purpose in the creation/emergence of the universe, a purpose for the emergence and evolution of Homo sapiens, a purpose for the sky to be blue and light to obey Snell’s/Descartes’ law.

The religious spirit affirms/is convinced that there is a long range or ultimate purpose, and it tries to convince the materialist naturalist of this <truth> because it has serious implications to our values and worldviews.

The naturalist thinker is not convinced that there is, and  thinks the religious thinker is seriously mistaken.

The religious person believes that the World and Humans were created by a personal God. Many things that we humans create, especially of a mechanical kind that functions in accordance with laws and principles – from axes to airplanes, from watches to windmills – has a purpose. Can you name a machine that was constructed without a purpose? So how can one imagine that the universe, which is the most gigantic machine there is (from the materialist-mechanistic perspective) be without a purpose? So argues the religionist.

Then again, there is something deeply unsatisfying spiritually (for the religiously inclined) to accept the idea that we are like fireflies that glow and go into oblivion for good. All the thoughts we generate, all the love we give and receive, all the ideas that we cherish and all the arts that we experience cannot be mere cerebral eruptions that appear and disappear, only to be extinguished collectively with the Heat Death of William Thomson and the Warmetöde of Clausius or the Pralaya Hindu eschatology. Even if these were to come about, there must be a reason for that. We cannot understand the why (for what purpose) of it all, but it doesn’t follow there is no answer to the why.

As I see it,  if one accepts a Creator, the idea of Ultimate purpose is not all that unreasonable.

On the other hand, there is also an interesting theological position in the Hindu world (due to the 15th – 16th century Vallabhacharya) who argued that the universe is a game that the Divine is playing, and it has no other purpose than to entertain the Divine. The naturalist – whether religious, irreligious, or anti-religious – is quite satisfied with the explanations one  keeps getting from the scientific citadel about the phenomenal world, and s/he is quite happy with to the reminder: Momento homo quia pulvis es, et pulverem revertis and applies this to every aspect of the individual, including all the feelings and experiences that were part of the deceased one, and finds no need to imagine indefinite persistence in a non-corporeal format for the late Mr/Mrs So-and So, not even in cyberspace as assured by  Mr. Tipler with his Physics of Immortality.

For my part I feel that if the universe has a purpose, only the Universe can know it, and that means the Universe is a knowing (conscious) entity. This is exactly why there can never be a reconciliation between scientists and religionists on this issue: Scientists (by and large) assert that there is no God, i.e. the universe has no consciousness, whereas most religious perspectives have no doubt that there is one..

Personally, I don’t even understand for what purpose the United States is in Afghanistan. I don’t even know for what purpose my neighbor leaves home promptly at 7 AM every day. How can I speculate on, let alone presume to know why God created the universe, or whether, Who and how that God is? I am quite happy as long as the believer and the non-believer are both happy with their respective knowledge and convictions about whether or not, and what purpose the universe has.

January 25, 2011

Betelgeuse to become a Supernova

Astronomers and astrophysicists observe and analyze the fates and fortunes of stars up there, leaving lesser mortals to worry about oil depletion, global warming, threats of terrorism, and the like. They entertain themselves in conferences and with technical papers dealing with topics of stellar significance, rather than in tea-parties. But once in a while they let common folks know of matters of sky-watching interest, should these become imminent in the nocturnal sky. So now they have announced they have reasons to believe that the star Betelgeuse in the Orion constellation is on the verge of a grand explosion, and that this would result in the emergence of a supernova, which would be clearly visible to curious terrestrial spectators.

Betelgeuse is what one calls a red supergiant. It was the first star whose diameter was determined.  We now know that it is so huge that if it took the place of our sun, even Jupiter would be within it, what to say of our earth! With a mass almost twenty times that of the sun, it is so large its density is unimaginably low – almost a vacuum. It is 640 light years away and is still one of the brightest stars in the sky.

Now the prediction is that Betelgeuse is on its way to a major life-transition. Though quite young, it is going to explode with such ferocity that it will become a supernova spectacle. [Actually the explosion would have occurred 640 years ago for us to notice it now.] More exactly, though astronomers are sure the star (from our perspective) is on it ways to extinction, the expected eruption could occur sometime within the next ten thousand years.

Whenever it may be, what we will be seeing won’t be like a faint comet or an eclipse transient interest, nor a spectacle of gigantic celestial dimensions, but something still note-worthy, like a bigger-than Venus addition to the twinkling gems in the nocturnal sky.

Anything unusual on the celestial canvass tends to strike many earthlings as something ominous or symbolically meaningful. Given that on the basis of inscrutable reckoning some  elders have said that there would be one of the periodically predicted end-of-the-world events in 2012 – nothing to do with the American presidential elections – , this announcement by astronomers has boosted  soothsayers to start chanting their “I/They told you so!” slogan, trying to convince the gullible  that without telescopes and astrophysical equations some ancients knew all about when the next supernova would blow up, or at least in which year the world would come to a deadly end. The assumption is that the debris of the Betelgeuse burn will hit us all, resulting in a disaster (a word which literally means bad star).

As historical irony would have it, the way things are going with all the conflicts and confrontations, oil depletion and scarcity of water, glaciers melting and air pollution, not to mention banks closing down and China overtaking the U.S. in every sphere, and increasing disagreements about the existence of God, the prediction of an imminent catastrophe doesn’t seem to be all that unlikely. And yet, there are compelling reasons to believe that humanity’s end is not that near, or that it would come as a result of an event that probably took place more than six hundred years ago in a remote constellation.

In any event, if and when evidence of that fantastic astrophysical demise of a distant star reaches us, and no matter how the general public reacts to it, professional astronomers will have a field-year to study the phenomenon and write papers on the topic for various astrophysical journals.

In the meanwhile, enterprising entrepreneurs will most likely make mugs, medallions and other memorabilia – most probably in China – and sell them to eager buyers all over the world, to mark the belching of Betelgeuse. This would perhaps the first time that a supernova would turn out to be an economic boon to some. I remember star gazing as a high-school student, fascinated often by Orion wherein the star stands. An astrologer told me then that Betelgeuse was a good-luck star. I had no idea what he meant, but now I think it might bring good fortune to some trinket-merchants.

January 22, 2011

On a Governor’s Statement

The new governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, is reported to have said that we are all brothers and sisters, and added (according to the Birmingham News): “Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.”
I will ignore for a moment the political naiveté of a statement like this by the governor of a state in a country which has people of all faiths and no faith whatever as citizens, But it is unfortunate that this well-meaning Christian is confused about his theology. From the Christian and any theistic perspective, we are all children of God and not descendants of Jesus Christ who is therefore neither our Daddy (as the governor thoughtlessly said), nor our great great granddaddy or anything like that.
Using his jargon I have to remind him that that all of us: Christians and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, Jains and Wikkans, Sikhs and Buddhists, Bahais and atheists, Americans and Non-Americans,  and all human beings do have the same daddy: namely the unfathomable and inscrutable God for whom, I am sure, Mr. Robert Bentley has great reverence.. So, Mr. Governor, whether your heart can accommodate it or not, whether it is within or beyond what your mind can grasp, I regard you, and every citizen of this country and every inhabitant of this planet as my brother or sister, son or daughter, uncle or aunt, or to whatever category they may belong.
I would also say this to the governor: I understand the evangelical spirit in which you made this statement, and I respect your deep devotion to Christ. But the same Divine Spirit that created the universe and humanity and human culture and civilization has also brought about revolutionary changes in our appraisal of God and humanity. We live in a complex and interdependent world, but also in a culturally and religiously rich world. We  are destined to fall into the dismal ditch of intolerance, hatred, and killing those who don’t embrace our vision of God and his messenger, if we continue to exclude others from our embrace of fellow human beings who worship different symbols, who come from different traditions, who pray in different languages and those who are just human beings with no religious affiliation, because in the core of every human being there is a little of the God that you and others venerate. By opening our hearts to one and all we can enrich ourselves, our community, our culture, our nation, and humanity at large.
May peace be with you and in the world!

January 19, 2011

RTL: Joan of Arc of Robert Southey

After reading Southey’s  The Inchcape Rock, I  was drawn to his epic poem Joan of Arc, written in the last decade of the eighteenth century. I  was struck by the fact that this English poet was writing so beautifully about a woman whom his own countrymen had bought as a slave and allowed to be tried by their stooges and burnt at stake. But that was back in the fifteenth century, and it was good that the old animosities had been washed away from the mind in the eighteenth century when Southey composed the poem. Stranger still, the great French writer and philosopher Voltaire had written a satire in very poor and unbecoming taste on Joan of Arc  (La Pucelle d’Orléans) earlier in the century.

As I was browsing through Southey’s long, long poem I was struck by a scene. The first part of it was literally like the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna puts is weapon on the ground and tells Krishna he simply can’t do battle:

So saying, from his belt he took
The encumbering sword. I held it, listening to him,
And, wistless what I did, half from the sheath
Drew the well-temper’d blade. I gazed upon it,
And shuddering as I felt its edge, exclaim’d,
‘It is most horrible with the keen sword
To gore the finely-fibred human frame!
I could not strike a lamb.’

Then comes a passage that should resonate with many in our times who argue that there is no choice but violence in certain circumstances:

He answer’d me,
‘Maiden, thou hast said well. I could not strike
A lamb. But when the invader’s savage fury
Spares not grey age, and mocks the infant’s shriek
As he does writhe upon his cursed lance,
And forces to his foul embrace the wife
Even on her murder’d husband’s gasping corse!
Almighty God! I should not be a man
If I did let one weak and pitiful feeling
Make mine arm impotent to cleave him down.
Think well of this, young man!’ he cried, and seiz’d
The hand of Theodore; ‘think well of this,
As you are human, as you hope to live
In peace, amid the dearest joys of home;
Think well of this! You have a tender mother;
As you do wish that she may die in peace,
As you would even to madness agonize
To hear this maiden call on you in vain
For aid, and see her dragg’d, and hear her scream
In the blood-reeking soldier’s lustful arms,
Think that there are such horrors ; that even now,
Some city flames, and haply as in Roan,
Some famish’d babe on his dead mother’s breast
Yet hangs for food. Oh God! I would not lose
These horrible feelings tho’ they rend my heart.’

Jan 16, 2011

RTL: The Inchcape Rock of Robert Southey

Lorelei reminded me of Robert Southey’s Inchcape Rock I had read decades ago. That’s the poem in which

The Abbot of Aberbrothok
Had placed that bell on the Inchcape Rock;
On a buoy in the storm it floated and swung,
And over the waves its warning rung.

But the evil Ralph the Rover and his men approach the Rock in their boat.

The boat is lower’d, the boatmen row,
And to the Inchcape Rock they go;
Sir Ralph bent over from the boat,
And he cut the bell from the Inchcape Float.

Down sank the Bell with a gurgling sound,
The bubbles rose and burst around;
Quoth Sir Ralph, “The next who comes to the Rock,
Won’t bless the Abbot of Aberbrothok.”

He and his men go away, did more plundering, and came back to the shores of Scotland. But now there was haze in the sky and they could not see the sun. Rover stands on the deck and can’t see the land. He says:

“Now, where we are I cannot tell,

But I wish we could hear the Inchcape Bell.”

Yes their boat crashed on the Inchcape Rock. In this predicament,
Sir Ralph the Rover tore his hair,
He curst himself in his despair;
The waves rush in on every side,
The ship is sinking beneath the tide.

The moral of the poem is contained in a pithy Tamil saying,

keDuván kéDu ninaippán:

Who is going to be ruined thinks (of doing) evil.

Both The Lorelei and the Inchcape Rock talk are about the crashing of boats on rocks in the sea. However, Heine’s Lorelei, with all its melodic beauty, doesn’t convey any obvious moral lesson as the rhythmic Lake-Poet Southey’s Inchcape Rock does.

Jan 15, 2011

Pongal: The Tamil Festival on January 14

[Warning: This is a longer-than-usual piece!]

Many colorful festivals are marked in the Hindu calendar. Each has its own particular  mode of celebration. But there are also local variations. This should not be surprising in a vast country like India where many languages and customs have evolved in different regions. It is the same in Europe also, where, for example, the way in which Christmas is observed in Germany  is very different from the way in which it is celebrated in Spain.  Such variety makes cultures that much richer in their expressions.

In the Hindu world, even the significance of a festival may change from place to place. Thus Divali means one thing to the Hindi speaking world, and something quite different in, say,  Bengal or Maharashtra.

Similarly, Pongal corresponds to a more general Hindu day of observance, yet it is a specifically Tamil festival. Normally, festivals are devoted to one or another of the various divine manifestations in Hinduism. But sometimes they also have astronomical or seasonal origins. Pongal is an example of this.

To see this, let us turn to a little astronomy. As we all know, the earth is rotating like a top about its axis, giving rise to the phenomenon of day and night. Also, in the course of the year, it makes a complete revolution around the sun. Now, it so happens that the axis of rotation of the earth is slightly tilted, somewhat like a spinning top which is not spinning vertically. A consequence of this is the seasonal variation: from spring to summer to autumn to winter, and to spring again.

From the point of view of the earth, of course, the earth’s rotation appears as the rising and setting of the sun each day. And the earth’s revolution around the sun appears as if the sun is moving back and forth between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn every six months, passing over the equator during both journeys.

Now, aside from the sun and the moon and the planets, there are also countless stars in the sky. The stars appear to be arranged in patterns, and with a little imagination we can picture them as forming groups that resemble the shapes of people or animals or things. Such groups of stars are called constellations. In its apparent motion in the heavens, the sun has  one constellation is its background during a period of about a month. Thus there are twelve major constellations in the background of the sun as it seems to move in the heavens in the course of a year. These are  the twelve signs of the zodiac (called râshis in Hindu astronomy).

Also, during the year the sun seems to be moving from the southern hemisphere to the northern, in the course of which people living in the north go from winter to summer through spring;  and then from the northern hemisphere to the southern during which we pass from summer to winter again, via autumn.

Now let me introduce a few Sanskrit words that will be of relevance here. The apparent passage of the sun from the southern to the northern hemisphere is called uttarâyana or the northern movement. The reverse passage from the north to the south is the dakshinâyana or southern movement. The day when the sun enters a new constellation is referred as a sankrânti, which literally means a union or a going together.  The sankrântis are considered to be auspicious days in the Hindu calendar.

In December/January, the constellation in which the sun finds itself is Capricorn. In Sanskrit this is Makara. In June/July the sun is in the constellation of Cancer, known as Kataka in Sanskrit. Thus we get Makara sankrânti and  Kataka sankrânti. Makara sankrânti is, in effect, the first day of the sun’s northward journey or Uttarâyana with the sun on the Tropic of Capricorn. In astronomical terms, this corresponds to the winter solstice, which is around the 22nd of December. But Hindu reckoning which is based on more ancient systems, takes this to be around the middle of January. This is an important day throughout India. The famous Kumbh Mela in Prayag at the confluence of Ganga and Jumuna, is a major event in Hindu culture. It is this day that is celebrated in the Tamil tradition as Pongal.

Now what is so important about Makara sankrânti? Well, remember that as the sun moves farther and farther away in winter, it gets colder and colder in the northern hemisphere, and unless it turns back to return we will experience greater and greater intensities of winter and all life may freeze to death in the northern regions. So, every time the sun stops in its dakshinâyana or southward course, and turns back on its uttarâyana or northward course, it is a matter of jubilation and thankfulness to the Sun.  We should never forget the unseen forces of Nature that make life on our planet possible and pleasurable. Enlightened religious experience is achieved when we become consciously aware of the unknown principles that guide and govern our existence on earth.

In the Tamil language, Pongal means three things: Its literal meaning is to boil. In particular it refers to the boiling of milk. When we ask on this day, “pongiyâcca? (Did it boil?),” what is meant is, “Did the milk boil?”, for this is  an auspicious sign. The longer it takes to boil, the better will the year be. The  second meaning is the name of a delicacy made by boiling rice with  milk or lentils. Pongal may be sweet or salted. The third meaning is  this festival for which we make pongal, offer it to the gods and share it with friends and family.

Many colorful practices have evolved in the Tamil tradition for the celebration of Pongal. Early in the morning,  a ceremonial bath is taken. In olden times the workers in the fields would carry sugar cane and freshly harvested paddy with coconuts and plantains to their land lords. Nowadays such offerings are made only to the gods at home. Brothers give gifts to sisters.  In the countryside where there are cow-sheds attached to the homes, the horns of the cattle are smeared with turmeric and red by a senior member of the household, the cows are fed with sugar cane and banana leaves, and escorted to the river or the local tank for a special drink. Harvest and agriculture have always gone  hand in hand with cattle in ancient cultures. In some parts of Tamil Nadu – in the regions of Kauveri and Vaigai especially – there are or were  bull fights in the Indian style in which garlanded and adorned bulls with bells around their necks are provoked and let loose in an open meadow where they are subdued by  sturdy young men, to the applause of an admiring audience that includes young women. The event is described in a renowned Tamil novel called Kamalâmbal Caritram by Rajam Iyer. No, it is nothing like the gory slaying with swords of bulls which have already been pierced by  painful darts, by richly attired matadors, to much pomp and ceremony,  such as what I once witnessed in the famous arena in Madrid at the insistence of a Spanish friend.

Like all festivals, Pongal is a colorful event in the Tamil tradition. It is a welcoming gesture to spring which is also a harvest season in that part of the world. It has its typical delicacies  around a sumptuous feast and there is much rejoicing. Hindus who have moved far away from our native land, need to continue our ancient traditions, even if it be only in modified forms. It is good for our children to know of these festivals, and we may hope that when they grow up and have their families, they too will remember and celebrate these festivals.

It is not simply for the  good food  we share and the happy hours we spend together that we celebrate festivals. More importantly, in the act of celebrating we remember our past and recall the events and symbols that gave meaning  to our parents and grandparents. When we celebrate Pongal, or any festival for that matter, we communicate implicitly with our distant ancestors,  we are saying to them, “We have not forgotten you. We remember how you spent Pongal with your children, and they with their children, and so on …. until the day of the festival has come down to us.  And we intend to pass these on to generations yet unborn.”

January 14

RTL: Baudháyana’s Dharmashástra

In the ancient Hindu framework life was to be governed by codes that included canonically prescribed thoughts, words, and deeds. The goal was to guide people to lead righteous lives with the ultimate goal of inner peace, societal harmony and spiritual liberation. The principles of right living are collectively known as dharma. Classical texts embodying them, often as pithy aphorisms, are known as dharma shástras (200-500 BCE). Once there were many of these, scholars tell us,  not all concurring in all issues. Only a few have survived. One, attributed to  Baudháyana, begins with the following:

adbhish shudhyanti gátráNi

buddhir jñánena shudhyati

ahimsayá ca bhútátmá

manas satyena shudhyati

The outer body is purified by water,

Intellect is purified by knowledge,

The inner soul by non-hurting of others (ahimsá),

And the mind by Truth.

In the Hindu worldview, spiritual liberation (moksha, nirváNa) consists in apprehending satya (Reality, Brahman). This involves erasing mistaken views, ignorance, misperceptions, etc. This is somewhat like sweeping the floor of the dust and dirt that cover it.  That is why, in Hindu metaphor, purity and purification are important notions.

We are made up of a physical body, an inquiring intellect, an inner spirit, and the capacity for awareness that is associated with the mind. This verse explains that just as the physical body is cleansed by water, intellect is freed of its impurity (ignorance) by knowledge, and the spirit attains a higher level of purity by non-engagement in words and actions that hurt fellow-beings. Purity in awareness, i.e. awareness of the nature of all existence, is attained when we have grasped satya or Truth (nature of Ultimate Reality).

In olden times, these were meant only for the upper castes, mainly for bráhmins. One may interpret this to mean that these principles are essential for the intellectual, moral, and spirituals leaders of society.  However that may have been, it would certainly be a great progress for the tradition if  religious and secular leaders in our own times recognize that in the modern world this framework should be extended to everyone, men and women, Hindu and Non-Hindu alike, for the era of privileged nations, classes, castes, and religions is slowly being pushed into the past. An increasing number of  awakened Hindus, lay and religious, like their counterparts in other nations and cultures,  are trying to do  just that, but in the process tensions and clashes inevitably arise. This has been so  all through history, religious and otherwise: the shift from long-held views and practices to new ones is often more than a shift: It is emancipation from the fetters of an old order which only reluctantly yields place to new.

13 January 2011