On the Scenes and Sounds of Democracy


For well over a year now the American public (as well as many thousands of foreigners who reside here and elsewhere) were subjected to countless de­bates and discussions, articles and editorials, speeches and commercials per­taining to the grand event that, like the International Olympics, occurs every four years in this country: the American Presidential elections.

      Many are the seekers of the highest elected and the most prestigious of­fice in the land. Early in the game, they make their desires public one way or another. Then we slowly come to know so much about all these ambitious, and often little known, public figures: their records and their remote past, their values and world views, their tax status and tragedies, and lots lots more. Through a process peculiar to the American system, two of them emerge as the leading contenders of the two leading parties by late July or early August.

      During this process, there are many ups and downs for the contenders, hopes and disappointments, and continual mutual aspersions also. There is no telling who will emerge as the final candidate, for the most unexpected event could spell the doom of a candidate. One year, for example, we saw a promising politician tumble down because he was discovered smooching with an attractive damsel while his wife stayed far away with their children. Another time a potential president promptly withdrew because he had quoted from the speech of a British politician without acknowledging the source. Yet another hopeful was once counted out by the public when he claimed direct conversations with God almighty. It’s okay to talk to God, but if you claim to have received a return call, it is serious.

      Anyway, finally the two major parties select their standard bearers, and these two in turn, by judgment, for regional strategy, or through just bad advice, an­nounce their running mates. Often a couple of inconspicuous marginal candidates also show up on the list. Their impact is invariably to wreck the chances for one of the principal candidates.

      Then begins the season of wooing the public. Now newscasters get even more eager, the candidates consult media magicians who, like medieval potion-peddlers, try to transform the dullest dunces into charismatic Caesars. Word-smiths concoct catchy phrases and speeches, handlers tell the candidates what to tell to whom and when, and the candidates themselves rehearse gestures and smiles for TV cameras.

      Some news organizations, impatient for the final results, periodically poll a handful of potential voters and proclaim, on the basis of basic (and ques­tionable) statistics, and naively replying on the honesty of the respondents, who is likely to win if the elections were held that week. What purpose such an imaginary news item serves is a mystery that few can fathom. But it has become part of the ritual.

      A small section of the public that reads the papers, listens to PBS, and watches Meet the Press and Face the nation, gets to know the issues and what the candidates stand for. The majority forms their impressions from TV commercials and newspaper headlines, and is generally swayed by those that say the sweetest things about themselves and the most horrible things about their opponents. A significant fraction of the population is more thrilled by foot­ball and video movies than by political ideologies.

      And so at last the momentous day arrives. This is a feast day for TV com­mentators, experts who play on a large touch screen to show which states are blue (Democratic) and which are red  (Republican). It used to be that competing networks based on their statistical programs announced at the earliest who, according to their calculations, has won even before the polling booths closed in California.

      Then the decisive moment arrives. The results are announced. One of the candidates concedes, in the presence of his tearful supporters, victory to the opponent. This is the price one pays for this democratic system: Every four years 50 +/- % of the people have to shed tears on this November day when the next Presi­dent of the United States is announced to the world at large.

All this is part of the sounds and scenes of democracy in action.  There is much one can criticize here, there is much to be improved in the unfolding of the spectacle. But we should not lose sight of the fact that one way or another, every willing citizen of the land is drawn into the process. Teachers and truck drivers, artists and scientists, doctors and plumbers, one and all are touched by the din and dance of the democratic drama.

The most moving and significant occur­rence in all of this is that climactic moment when one of the candidates con­gratulates the other. This is civilized government at its best: The reins of govern­ment go from hand to hand, not through bloody battles or conniving conspiracy, not by sabotage and subterfuge, or by taking the head of state prisoner, but in full view of the public and in accordance with what the ballot box dictates.

So it was that Donald Trump was declared President-Elect, i.e. the next President of the United States early this morning (November 9, 2016). At least some credit or blame for his success must be given to forces that created, rightly or wrongly, fear  and job-insecurity in the hearts of vast numbers of simple Americans.  While millions rejoice in his victory there are also millions in the country today who are saddened and dejected by the defeat of a patriotic, intelligent, and immensely qualified candidate who could have become the first woman president of the United States. That is a great disappointment indeed.

My own feeling is that the next four years may not turn out to be as terrible as some fear, nor perhaps as glorious as some others are hoping for. All we can do is to join the vast majority in praying for the well-being and well-fare of the country.

November 9, 2016

History of Science in Rhymes


TABLE OF CONTENTS

PREAMBLE

I. GENESIS ACCORDING TO SCIENCE

II. MESOPOTAMIA

III. ANCIENT EGYPT

IV. ANCIENT INDIA

V. ANCIENT CHINA

VI. PRE-SOCRATIC SCIENCE

VII. POST-SOCRATIC SCIENCE

VIII. ROMAN SCIENCE

VIII. ARAB & PERSIAN SCIENCE

IX. MEDIEVAL EUROPEAN SCIENCE

XI. EMERGENCE OF MODERN SCIENCE

XII. EIGHTEENTH CENTURY SCIENCE

XIII. NINETEENTH CENTURY SCIENCE

XIV. TWENTIETH CENTURY PHYSICS

The History of Science is great and long

Here you’ll read it, not as song,

But as facts in unmetered rhymes.

From very ancient to modern times.

Sample lines from first few pages 

    I.  GENESIS ACCORDING TO SCIENCE

Hydrogen, helium, interstellar dust,

Rarefied matter was what came first.

They all were of the Big Bang born,

Or from supernovae rudely shorn.

Particles, charges, atoms, ions,

Drawn closer and closer during endless eons;

Were brought within huge confinements

By gravitational enticements

Celestial globules, large and small,

Drops and droplets of the Cosmic Ball:

Massive ones grew hot and more,

Caused nuclear fusion at their core.

So it was that stars were made,

To shine for long, and then to fade.

Of these billions there was one

That slowly became our shining sun.

In its realm and under its sway

Lesser bodies came to play:

Planets, satellites near and far,

Moving for ever around their star.

Sun’s family is itself  bound

To the spiral galaxy it whirls around.

Here a speck we call the earth

Is where we all have had our birth.

In this our home in the cosmos vast

All life we know has had its past.

Life evolved on the temporal span

From molecules to the mind of Man.

Lands were barren, arid, waste,

Landscape not quite to our taste.

Volcanic fumes spread far and near,

While ocean waters were pure and clear.

Ammonia, methane, hydrogen there

In what was then the planet’s air.

Gigantic clouds rose and fell,

Abundant rains caused rivers to swell.

Flowing waters brought salts to sea,

Affecting the ocean’s purity.

Elements from every chemical group

Made the sea  a primordial soup.

Kindled by light, heat, and lightning,

And by factors that could be fright’ning,

Turbulent chemistry did eons take

The first organic units to make.

From inert matter in simpler states

Came amino acids, carbohydrates.

Further reactions now gave rise

To complex systems of greater size.

Self-replicating systems came

To launch life on its random game.

Once the spark of life was lit,

Its range and kind had no limit.

Some trapped energy from heat and light,

Though possessing neither touch nor sight.

Evolving patters of molecules

Brought to life animalcules.

All these were like children’s stories

Compared to the planet’s future glories.

Still no hint of all the creatures

Yet to emerge with stranger features.

Fish and freak of all forms and shapes,

Plants and trees and worms and apes:

All sorts of life now could arise:

 Germs and birds and humans wise.

Nucleic acids held the code,

Slipped and strayed and changed their mode.

By mistakes and unforeseen means

Were mutations made of the genes.

Genetic twists set in motion

Meandering paths of evolution.

As fossil evidence makes one see

All sorts of creatures came to be.

They answered  ev’ry chance and change

That occurred in the planet’s range,

In air and water, and on the land,

In polar realms and desert sand.

Insects, reptiles, also mammals,

Frogs and flies and snakes and camels,

With plethora of trees and plants,

Various as squirrels  and ants

Formed like a Master’s work of art:

Many mind-boggling from the start.

After beings like mare and bear,

One emerged, became self-aware.

It could love and mate, kill and hate;

With hands and mind, great things create.

To itself it could questions ask,

With joy complete a chosen task.

It could be noble, could be mean,

And it could be much in between.

This bundle with intelligence

Named itself Homo sapiens.

Earth this spot on the cosmic slate

Is where are drawn things small and great.

A Doodler sans reason or rhyme

Just scribbles away to pass the Time?

Is all of this  a Divine Plan?

Or just chemistry  causing Man?

Those who on this do firmly swear

Of many things  are unaware.

With all our knowledge, no one can

Precisely date the birth of Man.

Dryopithecus,  Ramapithecus

Followed by Australopithecus.

Apes their problems on trees did  solve.

From them, some think did Man evolve.

Others feel that it’ is a shame

If Man from monkeys truly came.

Science tells us how we came about.

On this, of curse, there is some doubt,

It’s not for science to just suggest

What to humans may seem the best.

As a witty man reminded us

Let’s  look upon the question thus:

If Creation’s ex-ape is you and me,

We also happen its apex to be.     

Mystics and science both do claim

That all life is of the family same.

Four million years or maybe three

Have passed since the biped’s arms were free.

It roamed the land in search of foods,

Ate and slept, explored the woods.

It mated, it procreated,

No arts or craft, it yet created.

Lice and mice, Man ate them well,

Frogs and worms, he liked their smell.

Every creature that moved in sight

Was fit for catch, then for bite.

‘Twas perhaps of a deer or ass,

Man stumbled on its raw carcass.

Might have been old, might have been fresh,

Man formed a taste for massive flesh.

And it became, to say the least,

A thrill to slay or tame a beast.

In the new age that we enter

Man becomes an expert hunter.

Hunting, wild though it seems,

Calls for plans and secret schemes.

In plans and schemes to engage

Man required a language

Spoken words were great and mighty

They sowed the seeds for society.

Not too harsh are Man’s teeth and jaws,

Not to piercing are his claws.

And so his games to fully kill

Man had to use some other skill.

After trying many a trick

He forged his tools with stone and stick.

Technology thus came to fore,

Its first goal was just to gore.

A lightning flash that caused much fright

Did perhaps a forest light.

Or the scorching sun on a summer day

Burnt perhaps a leaf away.

Or random strokes of rocks in dark

Did produce a fiery spark.

Through such events did Man acquire

His knowledge of insubstantial fire.

That, in truth, was a great event,

Alas, it unrecorded went.

So we know not how or when or where

Man first of fire became aware.

Subtle fire was ever so helpful,

Strange sometimes, but also hurtful.

Warmth it gave in wintry weather,

At night humans moved hither and thither.

It protected him from beasts of prey

Which by fire were turned away.

It fell not down, and defied touch,

‘Twas not feared, for it did so much.

When cities, temples, and prayers came,

Humans began to worship flame.

Seeking food, every month of the year,

Humans hunted foxes, yaks and deer.

Humans were restless,  nomadic

The food they found was sporadic.

Then ten thousand years ago

Humans began some grains to grow.

They had learnt to sow and reap

And harness beasts like cow and sheep.

When humans grew  greens and grains

And learned the role of falling rains,

They knew there was no further need

To move and search, themselves to feed.

Now they started settling down,

Building roads from town to town.

The great Agro-Revolution

Slowed and stopped constant motion.

More creatures were domesticated,

Life became more complicated.

But while they sat and they did wait

For seeds to sprout and germinate

They’d watch the sky or tell a star

“How I wonder what you are!”

They’d sing and dance or take a ride

On their mind fertile, so far and wide.

Unchained thoughts, when free to rise,

Often tend to civilize.

When society tries to curb free thought

Civilization begins to rot.

The Full Book is Available on Amazon.com & in Kindle.

ON PHILOSOPHY


To suck the sweets of sweet philosophy.      – Shakespeare: Taming of the Shrew I.1

Philosophy is as ancient in human culture as thinking and wondering. The etymology of the word in most European languages is from Greek,  meaning  love of wisdom or knowledge. Knowledge is what we know; wisdom is the capacity to use knowledge for individual and collective  good.

Hebrew and Russian use the same word for it as English.  Arab thinkers coined the word  falsifa for philosophy. In Sanskrit the word for philosophy is darshana which  means a view or vision of something significant. In my language Tamil one calls it tattuvam which means essence. Combining these  we may regard philosophy as love for views on the essence of things.

The world, to all appearances, consists of gross matter, subtle energy, and throbbing life-forms. Life is a series of fleeting experiences. For humans these include joy and sorrow, hope and despondency. Beyond sensory titillations we have a mind that is capable of extraordinary feats. One of these is reflection on what is experienced. Philosophy is serious reflection on any aspect of  human life. In simple terms, then, the moment we go beyond just reacting to sensory inputs and begin to comment on any experience we are philosophizing. One is philosophizing even when one  makes fun of philosophy with answers like: What is matter? No matter. What is mind? Never mind. Pascal put it this way: Se moquer de la philosophie, c’est vraiment philosopher: Ridiculing philosophy is really philosophizing.

No thinking person can avoid philosophizing now and then. This makes every person a philosopher of sorts.  I say of sorts because some do it at a loftier level than others. Many have seen the Niagara Falls, the Himalayas, and other natural wonders. Most people exclaim, “How beautiful!” or “How magnificent!” But some write a poem on the experience. Many people witness quarrels and rivalries, broken love and exploitation. But  a few turn them into  novels or epics.

So it is with philosophy. Reflection on any aspect of human thought and experience is sublimated to serious philosophy when it ascends to higher regions of thought. A sandwich at a burger-joint is food as much as a gourmet banquet, but there is a difference. You may tell a despondent friend, “Come on, don’t say life worthless!” But the poet says, “Tell me not in mournful numbers life is but an empty dream!” So it is between the simple exclamation, “We can’t be sure of anything!” and a treatise on Agnosticism. There is a difference between a limpid airless balloon and a full blown colorful one soaring in the air.

If you’d like to receive these essays on Philosophy on a regular besis feel free to send me a note at:

vvrsps@rit.edu

POLYSOPHY


Over the centuries  thinkers in all cultures have reflected on various aspects of human thought and condition. Their serious reflections constitute what we call philosophies. This multiplicity is what I call polysophy.

The truth content of scientific propositions are governed by criteria of consistency, coherence, and verifiability/falsifiability. They are not the opinions of individuals. The strength of philosophical positions rests on reasoned arguments, cultural context, and emotional appeal: they often originate from individuals, but may spread to form schools of thought.

Scientific results have had significant impacts on human civilization. Philosophical reflections have influenced human culture subtly and palpably. Both science and philosophy affect our worldviews in meaningful and substantial ways.

In this new bi-weekly series I plan to write brief essays on various elements of polysophy and their originators.

Many of you have already expressed your interest in renewing your inclusion in my distribution  list (DL). You are welcome to forward this to your DL and/or send me the e-mails of friends who you think may be interested in receiving these. 

Be well!

vvrsps@rit.edu

Zarathustra


 

When we recall names and events in history, the associated dates and years are not always very precise, especially when dealing with the ancient world. Aside from the multiplicity of eras and calendars and changes in these, not all ancients kept log books and precise notes. Even if they did, few  of those have survived. In such contexts, we rely n the vague memories of those who spoke or wrote generations later, and on tradition. Sometimes we calculate for convenience.

No one knows when or where precisely Zarathustra lived. There is some scholarly consensus  that he lived well before 600 BCE.  In ancient times it used to be thought, with more imagination than evidence, that Zarathustra lived as far back as 5000 BCE, or even earlier.

His name is mentioned by ancient Greek and Latin writers, including Plato, Pliny and Plutarch, who transformed his Persian appellation into something like Zoroaster. Tradition says that the sage laughed when he was born, and this frightened away the naughty spirits in the neighborhood. Though some modern interpreters speak of Zoroaster as only a philosopher, according to another tradition, Zoroaster announced that he had been asked by God to purify religion, by which was meant the worship modes and symbols of the people among whom he was born. So he rebelled against the religion of his time and place. This was Mithraism which   included worship of  the bull, and the drinking of its blood. Zoroaster had a different vision of God. His vision of the creator of earth and heaven was as Ahura Mazda or Lord of Light.

He perpetuated, if not originated, the notion of good and evil spirits, of man being torn by the two, of life being a struggle between the two opposing forces. Depending on which side we take, we are in the army of God or of the Devil.

This notion is etched in the cultural psyche of many peoples to this day. It probably has its roots dating back to even more ancient times. Zoroaster also spelled out our most basic duties: to convert an enemy into a friend, to transform the wicked into the righteous, and to bring knowledge to the ignorant. These are the fuels of any proselytizing religion.

Zoroaster was a thinker who believed in causal connections between events in the real world. He was among the earliest  to apply the physical principle of cause and effect to the moral realm: good actions result in good results for the individual and bad actions in bad results, a notion that is implicit in the Hindu law of Karma and in the doomsday idea of later Middle-Eastern religions.

Whether Zoroaster intended to do so or not, he did found a religion: or rather, a religion grew around his name. Like Confucius and Gautama Buddha, he may have been only a wise and awakened thinker, and as happened with the other two, in the long run a religion emerged with an -ism appended to his name.

Zarathustra’s  wisdom and sayings were compiled into what came called the Avesta, which is the Zoroastrian scripture. It has hymns and stories and inspirational thoughts. Passages in the compendium have remarkable similarities with the Hindu Rig Veda, but it also has world views not unlike the Babylonian. After all, the regions (the Indian subcontinent and Iraq) are geographically contiguous to Iran.

Zoroaster’s  followers survive to this day as Zoroastrians. Driven away from their Persian homeland by Islam, they sought and found refuge in India where they came to be known as Parsees. Many of them have now migrated to other countries as well, practicing their ancient religion peacefully with non-intrusive success.

October 24, 2013

 

ATTITUDES TO OTHER RELIGIONS : A PERSONAL APPROACH


 

Many decades ago, my father initiated me into the recital of Sanskrit shlokas.  But he also wanted me to learn about other religions.  So he sent me to a Jesuit school for two years.  Here I studied Latin and took a course in Moral Science (Bible study).  My father taught me that to be a good Hindu I should be respectful of other religions.

A few years later, in a biography of Sri Ramakrishna I read that when the saint was in his mid-thirties, a Hindu sufi introduced him to Islam.  Ramakrishna repeated the name of Allah many times, wearing a white Arab garb.  The Hindu icons vanished from his psyche.  He is said to have experienced the Prophet Muhammad within himself.  Some years later, he meditated on Madonna and Child, which resulted in his feeling of merger with Christ.

In my adult life, I began to approach religions from cultural-historical perspectives, and read with care not only the scriptures of the major religions, but also the lives of saintly personages in various traditions.  It became clear to me that the well-intentioned thesis that all religions say the same thing is really not true.  Not even all the sects within  a religion say the same thing.  Then, were personages like Ramakrishna, Guru Nanak, and Ramana Maharishi fooled into thinking that all religions are the same? \

In an effort to find an answer to this question, I launched a project for myself many years ago.  Every week I visited a place of worship of a different denomination, often accompanied by my wife.  Fortunate circumstances in my life have taken me to various churches, synagogues, mosques, and also to Buddhist, Bahai, and Hindu temples: mosques in Cairo and Algiers, synagogues in Curaçao and Penfield, Churches in Vienna and Seoul, Bahai temples in Wilmette and Delhi, Buddhist temples in Bangkok and Los Angeles, Gurudwaras in Calcutta and Rochester, Hindu temples in Kanya Kumari and Kalighat, and to many other places of worship.  I even spent an hour at a worship center in Lapland. 

 

Everywhere, I participated in the collective spiritual mode, not as an observer, but as one who wanted to feel a little of the spirit that moves people to piety.  These were enormously rewarding experiences.  I know very well that not all religions say the same thing: a well-intentioned, but naïve generalization that has rightly come under attack.  Unfortunately such attacks come, not always from people who have the most generous heart towards, or respect for others, but more often than not from religious chauvinists who fear that any such identification would bring their own religion from the pedestal which they feel is its due.  Every frog within every religious well is always croaking that not all the wells contain the pure and clear water that its own well does.

My own conclusion is that Ramakrishna wasn’t at all deluded, as some of his critics suggest.  I interpret his truth to mean that all religions have the potential to give an aspirant genuine spiritual fulfillment.  Everywhere I went during a worship service, I saw an outpouring of reverence and devotion for the Unfathomable Mystery visualized and invoked in different languages and modes, through different symbols and gestures.  Even with all the atrocities and abominations perpetrated in the name religions by brutal bigots and deluded devotees, something sublime and spiritual is infused in the hearts and minds of people who are prayerful in a place of worship.  Of this I became certain.

After my experiment, I was more convinced than ever of the wisdom in the lines:

      akâsât patitam toyam yatha gacchadi sâgaram

      sarvadeva namaskârah shrî kesavam pradigachadi.

As waters falling from the skies go back to the self-same sea

Prostrations to all the gods return to the same Divinity.

 

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To The Reader


Dear Readers

I see you come from close and distant lands ,

From continents across the seas,

From places speaking different tongues

And viewing the world differently.

I trust you like some of these posts,

Others perhaps you care not for,

Some you may very much like,

And others may strike you as really bad.

This must be so ’cause though as human

We have much in common,

Each one of us is different,

Like fruits in an orchard or trees in the woods.

But whatever the case, I’ like so much

To hear from you a word or two,

Saying what you think of what you read,

Who you are and how you came to this,

And if you’d like me to write on a specific theme.

With best regards to Whoever and Wherever you are,

V. V. Raman

July 14, 2016