ON MYSTERY


Most ancient cultures accepted the existence of occult principles, and even celebrated these. These were the mysteries of religions. Mysteries were associated with Isis and Osiris in ancient Egypt, with Demeter and Kore in ancient Greece which had its Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries, with Indra and yajnas in ancient India, and so on. Mysteries have continued through the ages. Their eerie aspects have sometimes faded, but their vestiges are still very much with us, in every rite and ritual of religious praxis.

In the temple at Chidambaram in South India, built between the 10th and the 14th centuries, there is consecrated an ethereal rahasyam or mystery. It represents formless divinity: the grand mystery of all.

Religions attempt to grasp Divinity. They try to articulate the inexpressible, they help us experience the unfathomable. In these efforts, sooner or later, we are confronted with  Mystery. In the solitude of wilderness, during a gaze at the starry heavens, or in silent contemplation of life, we encounter mystery in our different ways. In the words of Omar Khayyam, mystery is a door for which we find no key, the veil through which we might not see. Sometimes it is wiser to accept that there are mysteries, rather than to strive to comprehend them. The recognition and surrender to Mystery can be more fulfilling than refusal to acknowledge it or awkward struggles to unravel it.

Many cultures guard(ed) higher truths from easy reach of the common people. Wielders of wisdom have often practiced secretive possession and transmission of what they regarded as knowledge of mysteries.  Egyptian priests, Vedic chanters, Jewish kabala were among the practitioners of the knowledge-for-the-initiated-few-only school. Pythagoreans called it esoteric knowledge To outsiders, what these men were engaged in was truly mysterious.

Mystery is not confusion in the face of complexity, nor puzzlement at a problem, magic-mongering least of all. It does not call for abandonment of efforts in the quest for answers to worldly problems. In the metaphor of Edwin Arnold, mystery is the veil that lies beneath all the veils that we can strip off. I see mystery as  the profound response of  a sensitive mind to the awe provoked by the magnitude and majesty of the perceived universe. It is a feeling of reverence and humility in the face of very deeply felt experience, a wonderment at the ultimate source of  joys and sorrows and the interlude of  human consciousness. It is a reflection on the marvel of the ephemeral flicker of terrestrial existence, an irrepressible why and wherefore of it all.

Machines manufacture and computers calculate, but the human alone experiences mystery. If we do not wonder about origins and ends at least once during life’s course, we are but biochemical blobs that devour matter and energy for a time-span, sport and make noise, and then go into eternal extinction. There is fulfillment in the experience of unuttered awe, enlightenment in the recognition that there are question marks with nothing to follow. Mystery is like the blanks that frame the printed page: They surround much that convey matter and meaning.

Sometimes, mystery induces us to deep silence, to marvel and meditate. In the religious framework, mystery is both unknown and unknowable, but one can get experiential glimpses of its presence. When we pray or worship, when we light a candle or wave a  flame to a divine symbol, when we prostrate, bow down or kneel, when we sing a psalm or chant a mantra, we are acknowledging the Mystery that eludes us.

March 27, 2016

THOUGHTS ON GOOD FRIDAY


Since He (Christ) took the most horrific death to redeem us, He showed that suffering and pain have great power.                                                                       – E. A. Bucchianeri          

This is a day of mourning for Christians, for it marks a sorrowful event in their history: the Crucifixion of Christ. It was the darkest day for all who have been touched by him, inspired by his teachings, and transformed by his presence. It must have been heart wrenching for those who adored him, and particularly painful to Mother Mary.

Crucifixion was a barbaric Roman custom: the nailing of a human body that was first whipped mercilessly until the back was bleeding and the flesh was out. This inhuman punishment was meted out to robbers and others convicted of crimes. In this instance, Roman soldiers are said to have derisively adorned the head of Jesus with a wreath of thorns. They inscribed in three languages, again in mockery, that Jesus of Nazareth was the king of the Jews. The torturing punishment was a public spectacle.

They say the cross was raised at 9 in the morning. A Roman soldier, perceiving Jesus in thirst,  is said to have held a sponge soaked in wine, brought it up close to Christ to moisten his parched  lips. We are reminded by this act that there can be kindness and goodness even in the midst of harshness and heartless cruelty. According to Luke, Jesus said, “Father, unto thy hands I commend my spirit.” By three in the afternoon that day, the mortal frame of Jesus ceased functioning.

This was not just another instance of a custom by which the condemned were executed in the bad old days.  It was, rather, a milestone of great moment in the history of humanity. There was something deeply moving and meaningful in what transpired, for it was the climax of a life that exemplified sacrifice in the best connotation of the word. The figure of Christ on the cross with a crown of thorns, with his face turned to a side, his arms stretched out, the limbs nailed to the cross: this has becme the symbol for whatever is peaceful, gracious, caring, and all that is implicit in the teaching of one who came to be seen as the embodiment of divine qualities in flesh and blood. 

When Christians say Jesus died for our sins, it means much more than the horrific drama of that day of lamentation. It means that in some mystical way, our many trespasses will be forgiven if and when we take refuge in any symbol of the Divine.

I am not a Christian, but I have always felt that there is something profoundly serene in  the aspect of Christ on the cross: a reminder, perhaps, that even when many in the world are blessed with comfort and convenience, mirth and gaiety, there are also many in pain and suffering. The crucifixion of Christ reminds me that the little that many of us do as service or charity or sacrifice to the less fortunate is paltry compared to the incredible pain that Christ in physical frame went through in his commitment to serve and save others: which means that I too  should exert a little more.

The French call this day Vendredi Saint, and the Spanish Viernes Santo, meaning Holy Friday, and in German it is Karfreitag which has been interpreted as lamenting Friday. But in English it is Good Friday. Etymologists have had a tough time tracing the origin of the term. Some have suspected it is a modification of God’s Friday, God becoming good as in Good-bye which (according to some) is a contraction of God be with ye! However, The OED refers to a 13th century document wherein one reads the Latin phrase: die qui dicebatur bonus dies Veneris: day which is called good Friday.

In any event, according to one official Catholic publication, “There is, perhaps, no office in the whole liturgy so peculiar, so interesting, so composite, so dramatic as the office and ceremonial of Good Friday.” So on this holy day, to be followed by Easter, I convey my respectful thoughts for the day to all Christians.

Friday 25 March 2016

Reply to Question from Mr. Ulakanathan of South Africa


​​Please can you give us the meaning of Humanism in Tamil. And then translate into English.

Usually the dictionary would give the word 

manida néyam (மனித நேயம்)  as the Tamil equivalent of Humanism.

     There are two ways of interpreting the human experience. The first is to regard it as a unique gift from the Almighty Creator of the universe. Because of this gift, we are able to appreciate, understand, and enjoy every aspect of the world. For this we must be grateful, thankful, and reverential to God. Much of religion consists in recognizing this and paying homage to the Divine through hymns, worships, and offerings of different kinds.  The religious approach is/has been enormously meaningful and fulfilling to millions of people in all cultures for many long centuries. Indeed it is necessary for most human beings

     Unfortunately, it has been subject to the eudys principle by which  all good things in human societies eventually develop some ill-effects. Thus religions (basically good in intent) have led to sectarianism. To give only a few examples, Vaishnavism and Shaivism in the Hindu world, Mahayana and Hinayana in Buddhism, Orthodox and Reformist in Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism in Christianity, Sunni and Shia in Islam, etc. These, in turn have led to mutual hatred, persecution, wars, conversions, killing in the name of God, etc.

     The Humanist movement suggests that ultimately we must look upon the world in terms of human dignity, respect for all human beings, rejection of caste and race to assert superiority and inferiority among people, respect for woman and the handicapped, cultivation of  the ethics of caring, kindness, compassion, non-hurting fellow human beings, rejection of superstitions, and blind veneration of ancient texts, respect for knowledge acquired through science and reason, and quest for the Truth. None of this requires adherence to any traditional religion.

     I consider myself a humanist in all these ways. I also respect people affiliated to traditional religions in so far as their faith  brings spiritual fulfillment to them through their chosen ways (This is a basic Hindu perspective). I do not consider any race or religion, sect or sub-sect, language or people to be superior to any other, or a pet-child of God.

March 24, 2016

WORLD-DAY FOR WATER


Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.                                                        – Jacques Yves Cousteau

As per a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly March 22 became the World Day for Water from 1993 on. The goal is to make us all more aware of the role and relevance of water in today’s world  and act more responsibly in the use of water. We are told that this day is to be devoted “as appropriate in the national context, to concrete activities such as the promotion of public awareness through the publication and diffusion of documentaries and the organization of conferences, round tables, seminars and expositions related to the conservation and development of water resources and the implementation of the recommendations” of the U.N.

So I reflect on water today. We live on terra firma: a small fraction of the earth’s surface. It is estimated that there are some 1.33 million trillion cubic meters of water in the oceans and only some 231 trillion cubic meters in rivers, lakes and ponds. There is  plenty of water as ground water and in glaciers.  For the most part we depend on rivers, lakes, ponds, and wells for our daily needs. Aside from serving as habitat for animals, plants, and microorganisms, rivers have also given rise to civilizations: Herodotus described Egypt as the gift of the Nile. The Yellow River and the Ganga have done likewise in China and India. Lakes too have been nourishing and sustaining societies since time immemorial.

Water stands still in lakes and ponds, calm and serene, except for ripples caused by breeze or  an intruding stone one may fling on its surface. It flows gently as streams or brooks, gurgling as it skips over pebbles on the way. It gushes forth or  meanders lazily in rivers. Sometimes the serenely flowing river becomes a rapid, “rising and leaping, sinking and creeping, swelling and sweeping,” as the poet Robert Southey wrote. Now and again a river may unexpectedly take a precipitous plunge as a cascade or waterfall.

Water is at the root of our biology: Every cell in our body contains water. Minerals would be unusable without the water in which their ions migrate. Water is in  sweat and saliva, in blood and tears. Even our language is touched by water. Arguments hold no water, things are water-tight, one feels like fish out of water, we let off steam, etc.

Water is cleanser of body and purifier of spirit. It has been deified as Varuna, Poseidon, Neptune, Chalchiuhtlicue, Sequana, Anuket, and more.   Like the Divine, water is pure in essence, imperceptible and  transparent, pervades everywhere. It flows from high to low, and serves human needs. The Divine too comes down from heaven to help us in our predicaments. In the religious framework, godly thoughts, like water, cleanse and purify our minds.

We often think of water in its liquid form, cool and fresh on a hot summer day, or boiling in a kettle for a hot beverage. But water can also be in frozen stiffness as ice cubes in a glass, as frail patterned snowflakes or icicles, and as mammoth icebergs too. There is water in cushiony clouds, in the air around, and in deep underground. Water pours down as drizzle or summer shower and flows on land as streams and rivers, replenishing lakes and aquifers.

Periods without rain cause draught and death, but people have also perished in heavy floods. Too little of a good thing can be as bad as too much of it.

People row on canals and experience spiritual elation dipping in sacred rivers. The Seine gracefully cuts through Paris inspiring poets and lovers, as does the Danube and other rivers  elsewhere. Ganga and Nile, Mississippi and  Amazon sustain agriculture  in  the lands they course through.

The glory days of abundant pure water seem to be receding. True, in some countries households have more than one bathroom, and Jacuzzi to boot. But  many regions  suffer from acute water shortage.  Things are changing for the worse,  symbolized as it were  by the fact that millions walk around in towns and cities with potable water in plastic bottles. According to a UN report, cities in  Europe are using groundwater at unsustainable rates. Today more than a billion people  don’t have easy access to safe drinking water.

Vast oceans, home to countless creatures, as well as lovely lakes and sacred are being polluted. Rivers that have nurtured civilizations for millennia are threatened by the very civilizations they nurture.

Experts tell us that our water needs will grow by 40% in the not too distant future, and that in a few decades some 3.5 billion people will be without sufficient fresh water.  According to one dire prediction, by 2030 vast regions of the globe, now abundant in agriculture, will become unsuitable for farming. Modifying Coleridge, we might say.

Water, water, everywhere, yet not enough for all to drink,

            Water crisis everywhere, of which we all must think.

We can’t afford for long to be wasteful in watering lawns, cleaning cars, and taking showers. We can’t  be indifferent to  the impending water scarcity in regions near and in distant lands. The hunger and thirst of fellow humans anywhere on earth should make every conscientious person cringe.

Even in the face of all this, we must not succumb to despair. Our species has extraordinary resilience. Many groups and governments and committed individuals are striving to find solutions. We need a better informed public, ideologically unfettered politicians, and enlightened leaders in every country who will  go beyond political bickering, religious hatred, and parochial self-interest in confronting the challenges we all face as earthlings. With the knowledge that comes from science, the know-how from technology, and the wisdom and goodwill that flow from awakened religions, we should be able to deal with the threats that are lurking.

Some scientifically informed optimists assure us that by successfully tapping the sun, we can provide enough energy to every nation in the world. Some day we will be desalinating sea-water on a larger scale at reasonable cost, and harvesting rain-bearing clouds that pour down wastefully over the seas.

While such projects are underway, let us continue to gaze at shifting clouds in the sky, rejoice in pearly dews on tender leaves, marvel at falling snow and dangling icicles, delight in a glass of cold water when the day is unduly hot, swim where we can, boil water for beverages and rice, for  soup and spaghetti. Let us be grateful for the water cycle that enables snow and shower, irrigation and drinking water.

Homage to Water

Source of all the life we know,

Covering most of the earth below,

In tides you roll, in highs and lows,

In sap of trees, in blood that flows,

You’re in the protoplasm first,

You cool our bodies, quench our thirst.

In creek and brook and pond and lake

The world a wondrous place you make.

You rise as vapors, make a link,

With land through rain that we may drink.

Neither rock nor stone can break you,

But slowly you erode them too.

By your flow in many a land

Many a culture does proudly stand.

As steam and ice you come and go,

Your molecule is H-2-O.

You are a boon to us indeed

You, every life does need.

To you, we our homage give,

Without you none can live.

March 21, 2016

 

 

 

EMMY AMALIE NOETHER


A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.    – Paul Erdos

This is a wonderful world we live in: with its variety of changes, new things happening every day and creativity all around. In all of this there is transience: nothing seems to be permanent. Yet, undergirding all this are the immutable laws of nature that don’t change with time or place. The laws that govern processes here today must have been present eons ago: apples fell down from tree branches in days of yore as of now.  These same laws must be operating in the stars and in the farther-most galaxies too. Or, as physicists would put it, the laws of physics are invariant in space and time. When one probes into the fundamental features of the physical world with the microscope of mathematics, one uncovers a few other principles of invariance also.

It turns out that invariance is intimately related to the symmetry aspects of the world. For example, a circle is perfectly symmetrical. No matter how you rotate it, its form is the same. A square and an equilateral triangle are also symmetrical, but in different ways: only rotation through certain angles will bring them to their original forms.  If we move along a straight line in empty space, everything remains the same from any point on it. This is called translational symmetry. If we turn around in space from one direction to another, the world appears the same. This, as with the circle and the sphere, is known as rotational symmetry. Reflection and scaling (altering the size) are other symmetry operations.   

Then again, processes in the world are constrained by rules of conservation. There is only so much matter-energy in the universe, so much momentum, so much electric charge, etc. Irrespective of what happens, the totality of these remain the same. It is remarkable that enormous variety and complexity arise under meticulous quantitative constraints.

There are intrinsic connections between invariance, symmetry, and conservation. For instance, energy is conserved because the laws of physics don’t change with time.

We now know that for every continuous symmetry there is a law of conservation, and vice versa.  [In technical jargon, corresponding to every infinitesimal transformation of the Lorentz group there is a conservation theorem.]

This is one of the most fundamental insights of 20th century theoretical physics. It was proved in 1905 by Emmy Amalie Noether (born: 23 March 1882).

Many people have heard of Madame Curie who was an eminent experimental physicist/chemist. But not as many know about Emmy Noether, the prolific pure mathematician: much of her work is quite esoteric and little related to everyday experiences, which is why she is not as famous. When a person writes a doctoral dissertation entitled On Complete Systems of Invariants for Ternary Biquadratic Forms, one cannot expect its author to become a household word. But among mathematicians Emmy Noether shines like a star of the first magnitude. In the appraisal of the mathematician-historian Eric Temple Bell, “she was the most creative abstract algebraist in the World.”

In 1900 – 1902 Noether was studying French and English because her goal was to become a teacher of these languages. In 1903 she began to audit courses in mathematics at the university. She could not register herself for a degree, because, after all, she was a woman. Constance Reid recalls in her biography of David Hilbert that the reasoning of the mathematics professors was: “How can it be allowed that a woman become a Privatdozent (one with a license to teach at the university)? Having become a Privatdozent, she can then become a professor and a member of the University Senate. Is it permitted that a woman enter the Senate? … What will our soldiers think when they return to the University and find that they are expected to learn at the feet of a woman?” [This was during the First World War.] Few could argue with this impeccable logic. To think that training in mathematics automatically enables one to think rationally and clearly on all issues is a gross error. Rational thinking often melts away in political, religious, and social issues without the victims knowing it, because in these contexts deeply experienced emotions, ingrained prejudices, and unconscious craving for power blind the mind’s eye.

One of the prices societies pay for keeping records is that later generations get to know the absurdities and atrocities of their ancestors. People in societies which have no such records are not only blissfully aware of past horrible deeds, they are all too eager to fantacize how great and flawless their ancestors were, and how they have always treated women and members of the lower strata of society with great respect. They can’t understand that shabby treatment of women was not unique to Germany or the Western world.

Be that as it may,  the foremost German mathematician of the time David Hilbert  had the wisdom to say, “Gentlemen, I do not see that the sex of a candidate  is an argument against her admission as a Privatdozent. After all, the Senate is not a bath-house.” So it was that Noether was allowed into a doctoral program which she completed in three years with the highest honors. From 1919 they let her teach in Göttingen at the insistence of Hilbert, but only as a second class professor, and with hardly any remuneration.

In the 1930s matters turned from the ridiculous to the ominous in Nazi Germany when the absurdity of not allowing a woman to be professor was replaced by the outrage of not permitting Jews to hold any position at all. In 1933,  Emmy Noether accepted a position  in Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She went back to Germany, only to come back for good to the United States. A good many future mathematicians derived the benefit of her guidance and inspiration in Bryn Mawr.

When Emmy Noether died in 1935, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to the New York Times in which he described her as “the most significant creative woman mathematical genius thus far produced.”

Fortunately, we have come a long way from the unconscionable prejudices that cloud people’s minds to the conviction that competence in mathematics, music, or whatever is a function of race and religion, gender and nationality. It was the likes of Emmy Noether who gave the lie to that mindless nonsense which fails to see that ultimately we are all human beings endowed with capacities that are invariant under racial, religious, national,  and gender differences.

March 23, 2016