What is Life? 

Two answers

1.     Life is a magnificent expression of the Divine Principle that undergirds the Cosmos, the physical embodiment of the abstract and subtle Spirit.   Human life with thinking mind and  feeling heart, with values and meanings, love and laughter, poetry and philosophy, music and mathematics and  associated consciousness is the the ultimate pinnacle of Life. It provides  incontrovertible evidence that there is more to the world that mute matter and entropic energy. Indeed, Life is the tangible reflection of the Unfathomable Mystery that gave rise to the Cosmos with all its space and splendor.

2.     Life is the complex process resulting from the accidental emergence of self-replicating molecules that have resulted in self-sustaining open systems, interconnected in the web of biosphere.  Individual life forms  survive as separate entities for a finite period of time by maintaining a dynamic equilibrium with the environment. They propagate by reproduction and are capable of evolving into even more  complex structures with the passage of time and changes in the environment. Life becomes possible in planets with appropriate physical conditions that include water, carbon, radiation, and other factors. Thus, Life is not unique to earth, and  can arise (arises ) in myriad forms in planetary niches all over the universe as and when external conditions are conducive to its emergence and sustenance.

Debates concerning Life arise and are inevitable when people subscribing to these two mutually opposing views insist on the correctness of their respective perspectives when all that can be said is that:

(1) Gives us a loftier vision that paints finite and fleeing existence on an infinite cosmic canvas in the larger framework of philosophy and religion.

(2)  Provides us with an observationally more tenable and epistemically more coherent framework in the study of life as a natural phenomenon.

It is fair to say (or so it seems to me) that when it comes to providing definitive answers to questions relating to ultimate origins and purposes we are today as much in the dark and in the arena of free speculation as our distant reflecting ancestors were.

April 26, 2016


We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.

  • Native American saying

Our earth is a speck in the vast stretches of the cosmos, in­finitesimal in material substance compared to the mind-boggling mass of the universe.  Our awesome abode hurtles around the sun at enormous speeds and is carried around the galactic center by our central star at a million miles an hour.  During its few billion years existence, the earth has seen countless transformations: continents have shifted, rocks have been compressed and metamorphosed, hills and mountains have risen and fallen, streams and rivers have been forged and dried up, ice ages have come and gone. Through processes not fully clear, the miracle of life arose here below.

After our ancient ances­tors emerged and became self aware and questioning, they learned to  manipulate  matter and energy to serve their ends. Other life forms came under their sway. In a couple of mil­lion years, humans became even more creative and clever. Land and water, birds and beasts, elements and compounds, the savannah and the tundra, the heat of deserts and the cold of the poles, fruits and flowers and minerals deep down,  coal and oil and gas, even the mighty bonds that bind atoms and nuclei, all rapidly  came under human control. In an orgy of  exploitation and consumption of everything for creature comfort and monetary gain we unwittingly began to ruin the beauty of nature and the safety of our envi­ronment.

Already in the nineteenth century some perceptive thinkers like John Ruskin and Mohandas Gandhi had been warning that rampant technology might not be the promising way forward as appeared to be. For many decades the world wallowed in the gadget-gorging of technology, reveled in big cars and destroyed pests with massive doses of DDT. In the process industrial smokestacks are fuming CO2 and other toxic gases into the atmosphere,   water and air; radioactive wastes are lurking  around; rain forests are being depleted, species are made extinct; the ozone layer is cracked open, coral reefs are smashed by ships, the seas have become dumping grounds for our wastes,  acid is in­jected into rain-bearing clouds: Oh, the list goes on and on!

Then, in 1962,  came the Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring: a book that was the modern Book of Revelation. It  alerted us the multiple ways in which Homo industrialis is committing slow suicide by poisoning the very air, water, and land that are sustaining our  existence on the planet, our only home in the boundless Void. Just as the wisdom-traditions of humanity had revered the forces of nature for making life possible, a new awareness arose: environmental consciousness.

Thus, less than two centuries since the ease-giving rampage of the Industrial Revolution began, we  began to realize that we have been endangering ourselves, causing what is currently called Climate Change.

Thanks to the initiative and efforts of Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and his co-workers, April 22 (spring-break in many American colleges) 1970 was declared Earth Day. In due course the idea led to the establishment of governmental branches and the movement spread beyond the borders of the United States. Today more than a hundred and fifty nations observe Earth day in various ways.

It is often said that we are destroying the earth. This is an arrogant appraisal of what we are doing, for we  can never destroy the earth. A billion years from now, long after we are dead and gone, the earth  will be dancing away merrily along its elliptical orbit to the tune of the Keplerian symphony. All we can do is to destroy ourselves, not the earth.

Why don’t we stop this suicidal behavior?  Our economic and international networks have evolved  such that even with much goodwill and determination it is not easy to halt the harm we are wreaking. Every effort to control pollution adversely affects jobs and profits. Moreover, the danger and doom  implicit in reckless technol­ogy will hit hard only generations yet unborn. This gives little incentive for today’s self-centered hedo­nists.

We must act in sure but quick ways to dampen the damage and reverse the trends. For this we need  more con­sciousness-raising and  global aware­ness. We must transcend national and commu­nal conditionings and think in planetary terms. For what is at stake is not the well being of this nation or that religious group, but the fate of the human family. The diseases of  racial hat­red, religious intolerance, and economic self-aggrandizement are the major threats to our harmony and existence. In our woeful inability to perceive the world as a habitat to be shared and nurtured by one and all, including other crea­tures of the planet, we pollute our minds and hearts too, and upset the ecological balance.

Enlightened industrialists and realistic ecologists must work hand in hand in a spirit of mutual respect to resolve the problems that we all face together. Through education, understanding, and enlightened values, through legis­lation and reasoning, and with the resources of science and technology, we must strive to increase our awareness of the assault on nature that  humans have been perpetrating.

One day every week is  devoted to a planet, but only once a year do we have an Earth Day. We need to treat every day as Earth Day

April 22, 2016



Spring shows what God can do with a drab and dirty world.   – Virgil A. Kraft

For many people of Indic culture, April 14 is  New Year Day. It is, in fact, a welcoming of the season of spring. It is sometimes called Yugádi, which means the beginning (ádi) of a yuga. A yuga, by classical Hindu reckoning, is one of the four cyclical eons (each lasting several hundred thousand years) through which the universe goes. The traditional belief is that the so-called New Year Day recalls the Day of a renewed  phase in the Cosmic Cycle. This stands to reason: The universe could not have started on some arbitrary date in the year. That day should be commemorated as the first day of the first year that ever was. In terrestrial astronomical terms it is taken as the day of the vernal equinox (mesha sankránti) when the sun is supposed to enter the constellation of Aries. In Thailand they celebrate the day as Songran.

The day has different names in different parts of India: Noba Barsha in Bengal,  Puththándu or Varushappirappu in Tamil Nadu, Rongali Bihu in Assam, Vishu in Kerala, etc. People celebrate  this auspicious day in a variety of ways:  going in large numbers  to sacred rivers of a purifying dip, participating in colorful fairs, singing and dancing, wearing new clothes,  paying homage to the Sun,  etc.

In the Sikh tradition, this day is called Vaisákhi or Baisakhi (pronounce: Baisaakhi). It begins the year as per their tradition.

Baisakhi has great historical significance in the Sikh framework. Briefly, it is as follows: Aurangzeb, the mean-spirited Mogul monarch who had ascended to the throne in 1657 after  murdering his kith and kin, started a frenzy of religious persecution whose goal was to Islamize the whole of India: world conversion is the goal of all proselytizing religions. His advisors told him that if he could convert the Brahmins, the rest would follow like sheep. He therefore levied exorbitant taxes on Brahmins and exerted other painful measures to achieve his goal. The Brahmins of Kashmir, in virtual panic, approached the Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur for assistance. When Tegh Bahadur went to Delhi to negotiate with the emperor on this matter, he was promptly chained and thrown into prison: a not uncommon practice among rulers of his ilk in the bad-old days. It has been said, one would hope exaggeratedly,  that the Sikh guru was thrown into boiling oil and  killed in this terrible manner, then his body was thrown on the street. No one had the courage to remove it or give it proper funeral. Later two men came stealthily and removed the corpse and  gave a proper cremation.

When Tegh Bahadur’s son Gobind Rai heard about this, he was so ashamed of the cowardice of his people who had not dared go and claim his father’s body that he decided to instill some martial spirit in the followers of the Sikh Guru. So it was that on Baisakhi day in the year 1699, the new Guru Gobind (1666 – 1708) called for a meeting of all the Sikhs at Anandpur Sahib in the Punjab. He spoke to the crowd passionately, and brandished his sword as a sign of valor and determination. He called upon volunteers to commit themselves to a life of bravery and sacrifice; initiated a ceremony called   pahul (the equivalent of baptism), invested each of the five volunteers from different classes and sects with  five insignias of Sikhism; and asked them to baptize him in return. It was from that date that Sikh men stopped shaving and cutting their hair, started wearing a comb and an iron bracelet, and began carrying the dagger at their side. From then on, all Sikhs assumed the last name of Singh (Lion). This was the beginning of the Panth Khalsa (order of the Pure). That is why Baisakhi is of great significance to Sikhs: It is more than just a new year celebration.

It should be recalled that the Mogul emperor did not, indeed could not, leave the Khalsa in peace. In this he was also instigated by some Hindu rajas who did not like Guru Gobind’s repudiation of the caste system. But the emperor’s mighty army was roundly defeated by the valiant Sikh soldiers in a memorable battle in 1705 in a place called Chamkaur.  It is said that the Sikh Guru sent to the losing Aurangzeb a memorable letter written in verse in Persian. This Epistle of Victory (Zafarnáma), is it was called, has a long history of being lost, re-constructed, and preserved. It concludes famously with the lines,

All modes of redressing the wrongs have failed.

So raising the sword is pious and just.

This is a restatement of what prompted the Battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata. It has also been a recurring theme in many other contexts in the history of the world. Appeals and appeasement seldom work against ruthless tyrants and intransigent enemies. Mindless oppressors understand only the language of  determined physical force.

Today, much of the sordid details of the history behind Baisakhi are kept in the background. Instead, one pays a visit to a gurudwara (Sikh house of worship) where special devotional songs are sung. There are also social dimensions to the celebration where one rejoices in festivities. People dance the dynamic bhangra which expresses the sheer joy of life. There are the rhythms of the dholak (drum) to add to the exhilaration. There are musical enactments of plowing and sowing and reaping, for this is as much a welcoming of spring and harvest in that part of the world.  And, like the internet and international capitalism, Baisakhi and other celebrations of regional festivals  have also crossed the seas and find expression all the continents of the globe.

April 13, 2016

Materialism vs Spiritualism

1.“The underlying basis of the physical, biological, and psychological universe is physical: i.e. matter-energy in space-time.”

2.“The underlying basis of the physical, biological, and psychological universe is spiritual: i.e. non-material-energetic and transcending space-time).”

These two perspectives are not logically derived conclusions, but basic propositions from which one views, experiences, and explores the world.

The first arises from the enormous successes of modern scientific methodology.

The second arises from deep-felt experiential certitudes resulting from self-introspection, meditation, and scriptural sources which can carry as much weight as experiments and mathematical formulations.

What this means is that people subscribing to one of the two views cannot by discourse, debates, and discussion, let alone mutual denigration, ever come to see eye to eye with those who hold on to the opposite view.

What may be possible (at least for some people) is to adopt the first perspective in certain contexts which makes the interpretation of perceived reality more rational, consistent, and fruitful; and adopt the second perspective in certain other contexts which makes lived life meaning, joyous, and fulfilling in many ways.

Trying to prove or disprove transcendental truths and reality via logic and scientific methodology may be as fruitless in convincing one’s oppponent as making scientific discoveries or proving mathematical theorems through spiritual modes.

Ancient Hindu thinkers were very aware of this when they made a clear distinction between apará and pará truth

April 11, 2016


The satellite observations are as yet of insufficient length  to answer the question whether the sun is varying in luminosity on timescales longer than the 11 year sunspot cycle.   – Douglas V. Hoyt

The Sun has been seen by human beings since the emergence of our species, wondered at and worshiped for ages, and has been studied within the framework and with the instruments of science in recent centuries.

Ever bright and shining, always orange or red or white hot from where we stand, the Sun’s apparent disc  has such brilliant perfection that no one can imagine blemishes on its spotless face. And yet, even as the greatest of human beings are never without a fault, the Sun too displays dark patches now and then. One of the first features of the sun that came to be recognized in the era of modern science is that  we can sometimes detect black blurs  on an otherwise unblemished solar surface. But it is said that already in 28 BCE some Chinese observers reported spots on the Sun.

It must be noted that when the planet Venus or Mercury happens to orbit in front of the Sun on the plane on which we see it, the planet in question seems like a dark spot on the Sun.  But it was only in the first decade of the seventeenth century that telescopic astronomy clearly uncovered sunspots. In fact, the Dutch astronomer Johannes Fabricius was one of the first to have observed  sunspots, on March 9, 1611 to be exact. He was certainly the first to write a book on the phenomenon: De Maculis in Sole Observatis: On the Spots observed in the Sun. In the diagram below Jupiter and earth are indicated as relative sizes with respect to the sun’s surface.

Some others also claimed priority in spotting the spots. They were not aware of the much earlier Chinese observation in the fourth century BCE, or even of the ninth century report by a Benedictine monk to the effect that he had seen the transit of Mercury across the Sun which looked like a moving dark spot. Be that as it may, most modern historians of science assert that Thomas Harriot was the first to observe sunspots using a telescope in 1610, and Christoph Scheiner in 1611, though they did not publish their discovery before Fabricius. Galileo, noting their movement across the solar disc, stated that this was proof that the sun was spinning on its axis.

In the nineteenth century it was discovered that intense sunspots showed up periodically, roughly every 11 years. The largest number of patches observed thus far, some seven thousand in all, were the Great Sun Spots of 8 April 1947, exactly 69 years ago. The most recent one was in 2014.

We have come a long way since those patches were regarded as mysterious blots that revealed the rotation of the sun. Today solar physicists know (strongly suspect) that they are regions of enormous magnetic fields, appearing as pairs of north and south polarity, dark only because they are regions of  much lower temperature than their surrounding areas. They are of stupendous surface area. The spots recorded in 1947 covered seven billion square miles. But that was only a 6000th part of the Sun’s total surface.

The 1947 flare-up instigated great interest and further study of the sun by astronomers. In the 1960s and 70s, interplanetary probes to Venus and Mercury got pretty close to the sun. In the 1990s one of these revealed that, unlike the earth, the sun does not have any magnetic pole: What this means is that if one gets lost on the sun’s surface, no magnetic compass would point the errant traveler to  the way 🙂

Associated with sunspot activity are solar flares: ejection of massive quantities of highly energetic electrically charged particles: essentially protons and electrons. They are huge superhot emanations  from the normal sun: like gigantic fireballs from a mammoth dragon’s tongue. During sunspot season they become thousands of times more intense. When they gush forth every which way and arrive in our vicinity, they wreak havoc on earth’s more stable magnetic fields. Their arrival in the geomagnetic polar regions at speeds of millions of miles an hour give rise to spectacular auroras, revealing that there can be magnificent aesthetic grandeur even in (what may strike us as) the Sun’s horrendous belching.   

It used to be said that when America catches a cold, Europe sneezes. It is even more true that when there are spots on the sun, wild magnetic storms are created here on earth. These are known to affect some birds in their egg-laying habits. But they meant little for us until the advent of electro-technical civilization. To give but one example of how we can be affected, when there was a sunspot-triggered  geomagnetic storm in 1989, it drastically upset the hydroelectric generators in Quebec and caused a huge blackout. There was also significant disruption of communication systems, including transmission of TV signals. What can be more disastrous!

While we earthlings live our fleeting years in all the gore and glory of our cultures and civilizations, pursuing our sciences and religions in great and grotesque ways, the Sun and stars do their routines up there in the sky dancing to the music of the laws of physics, but on much, much grander scales. They may sometimes have detectable impact on us: that of sunspots has been well established by science. As to the astrologically proclaimed effects like Venus affecting Romeos and Juliets or Jupiter rocking the stock market, these are only as true as comets foretelling the demise of kings or full moon causing hyperactivity in asylums, i.e. not in the least valid on the basis of scientific data.  Nevertheless statements like the following by William S. Jevons have received wide publicity and credence: “Periods of higher solar activity (reflected also in the sunspot cycle) are associated with a stronger appetite for risk, more bullish equity markets, and stronger growth.” And they don’t diminish human proclivity for believing in pseudoscience, one might add.

 Yet, we know not how happenings way out there affect and have affected things here on earth. Only a couple of weeks ago, some astrophysicists announced that perhaps the blasting of a supernova up there in a distant niche in the Milky Way ejected certain isotopes of iron which found their way to here below God alone knows how or with what subtle consequences.

April 8, 2016


(Philip Gosse) was not only a many-sided and experienced naturalist, but one who did more than all his scientific contemporaries to popularize the study of natural objects.  B. Brady.

Upon, within, and deep underneath the broad blue waters, thrive countless creatures of many forms and sizes: from the tiny plankton that are tossed by the heaves of the seas and the more than twenty thousand varieties of salt-water fish to giant whales and the benthos of the nether world which are strange beings that have lived and died for eons in the pitch darkness of ocean depths. Snails and sponges, starfish and seaweed, and a thousand other variety of life-forms have evolved in the aquatic haven of our planet earth. Indeed, our very origins may be traced to the primordial oceanic soup where complex molecules, instigated by warmth and lightning and heaven knows what other stimulants, combined to create the first palpitations of terrestrial life, leading eventually to what we regard as the glorious climax of all that live: ourselves. Or, at least, so it seems to current science.

Since very ancient times people have been struck by the beauty and richness of aquatic  creatures. They built pools and ponds to cultivate, observe, and appreciate them. We see fish in Egyptian frescoes and also in the flags of ancient kings. In Hindu mythic vision the Divine is said to have incarnated once in the form of a fish.

In the the nineteenth century the idea of modern aquariums: glass-walled enclosures through which we can see swimming creatures emerged. Today there are hundreds of aquariums all over the world  that house and nourish thousands of fish, crustaceans, amphibians, even some mammals. Many people have fish tanks in their homes.

One of the pioneers in this endeavor – indeed the who propagated the aquarium hobby – was Philip Henry Gosse (born: 6 April 1810). His dedication led to the opening of the first public aquarium at the London Zoo on 17 December 1853. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History came about a couple of years later. Gosse coined the word by shortening aquatic vivarium.

Gosse was an English naturalist who worked for a while at a whaler’s office in Newfoundland, taught in Alabama, and collected natural history specimens from Jamaica. He had a fascination for marine life, and the keen eye of an observational scientist. Stephen Jay Gould described Gosse as “the finest descriptive naturalist of his day.” Aside from scientific articles on natural history,  Gosse wrote a detailed account of marine life in a book called  Manual of Marine Zoology. His other books included Evenings at the Microscope, and A Year at the Shore.  

Philip Gosse described Natural History thus: “That alone is worthy to be called Natural history which investigates and records the condition of living things, of things in a state of nature; … (Natural history) tells of their sayings and doings, their varied notes and utterances and songs and cries, their actions in ease and under pressure of circumstances…” Obviously he had great love for all creatures great and small.

With all that, when it came to theorizing in science, he was embarrassingly pre-modern. This was because he was handicapped by unswerving allegiance to a fundamentalist group which was committed to actions and attitudes governed by a literal interpretation of the Scriptures. The members of this well-meaning religious group were unwilling or unable to accept anything in the Bible as symbolism or allegory, except for the parables. They have their like-minded cousins in all religious traditions where people subscribe to legendary/puranic accounts of how creatures came to be. One may empathize with some of them and respect them for some of their beliefs, but some of the ardent subscribers of literal scriptural interpretations have to feared for when and where they come to power, the lives of dissidents are usually in peril. Theocracy (which is one-party government by self-appointed spokespersons for God) brooks no dissent. Philip Gosse admitted frankly: “If any choose to maintain, as many do, that species were gradually brought to their maturity from humbler forms… he is welcome to his hypothesis, but I have nothing to do with it.”

So, the otherwise intelligent Gosse authored a book called Omphalos in which he argued with a straight face that fossils and other evidences for a much older earth were illusions, pure and simple, generated by God who is playing a big joke on fossil-mongers and evolutionists. Thus Adam had not only an apple in his throat, but a navel (omphalos, as it is called in Greek) too, as Eve also did, even if they really didn’t have a biological birth in which case alone a navel becomes relevant. Just as Adam’s navel was a make-believe to delude us into the suspicion that  he had a mother, when in fact this was not the case, the fossils were there just to give us the impression that very ancient creatures once lived and died. Some theologians were offended by such a proposition because it implies that God is a Prankster at best and a Deceiver at worst.  Scientists scoff at this idea which, incidentally, is taken seriously by some anti-evolutionists even today. But one must grant that it is logically irrefutable. Herein lies the strength of unfalsifiable theories: they can’t be shown to be wrong, nor right. On the principle that anything is possible, especially if it is God’s work, scientists have to say, “Yes, of course,” and resume their more serious pursuits.

That such a good naturalist as Gosse could come up with the proposition that Adam and Eve were not only there as first Man and Woman, but also sported belly-buttons which were utterly uncalled for, only to mislead us shows to what extent reasonable people can rise or descend to defend what they regard as unshakable Truths in their holy books.

With all that we may still recall the name of Philip Gosse for his contribution to human culture. He is not the first one to have done something positive in science even while entertaining beliefs that are unscientific, if not laughable. After all, Newton believed in Biblical chronology and took alchemy seriously. Joseph Priestly, the discoverer of oxygen, subscribed to the four-element theory of the ancient Greeks. Charles Darwin had a low opinion of the people of Africa.

It is important to recognize that we are all conditioned by the dominant thought currents of our times, as also by the fundamental convictions that give meaning to our lives. This is not to justify untenable beliefs and silly superstitions, but to remind ourselves that none of us has a firm hold on all the truths.

April 6, 2016