What Is In a Word?

In a previous era, the Bard of Avon made a similar poser pointing to futility of names using a floral allusion, going on to state that what matters is the thing itself, by way of totality of features and characteristics, and not its name howsoever fanciful it may be. Put differently, the play is the thing by which one can catch the conscience of the audience. Couching a lifeless string of scenes in promotional hyperbole sans the element of dramatic content would not amount to anything more than failure of purpose.

So what is in a word? The right answer is a world of meanings, the ‘name’ itself being a word heavily laden with multiplicity of meanings and associations extending with it. Phrases like ‘in the name of the law’, ‘name your price’, and ‘names of books and writers’, appear to spread the meaning beyond the simple notion of labelling. One of the dictionaries assigns the meaning of ‘name’ as a ‘word or words by which an entity is designated and distinguished from others’. The given meaning, however, lacks precision as I know hundreds of people by the name of Ramakrishna, starting all the way from spiritual avatars taking the names of Rama and Krishna in the Vedas. Group a dozen of the same name-bearers in a room and the name ‘Ramakrishna’ ceases to designate or identify any one of them from the others. George Foreman, the former pugilist, named his five sons, George, George, George, George and George. Foreman says he can beckon them easily enough with added advantage of a sense of oneness promoted by the nominal uniformity, but he has a problem when each sibling blames the broken furniture on George.

Upon referring to the voluminous Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it is seen that definition of ‘name’ spans five pages of small print beginning with, “1. The particular combination of sounds employed as the individual designation of a single person, animal, place or thing….” What follows is a rambling of several other definitions that reads like compilation of rules for the game of cricket. The etymological reasons for it are interesting enough to lead the reader to colourful history of the language. The word ‘name’ has been used by Anglicans over the ages to mean different things, often as a noun, but sometimes as a verb, adverb or adjective, as illustrated in the following uses of the word: “Your name is music to my ears / If I had a dollar to my name, I could make a name for myself / We name Henry as chairman of the committee / Maria would name her price; namely everything he owned / The mentalist could not name the composition in the maestro’s mind / In the name of the most benevolent and merciful, take one of my belongings / The name of the article was ‘Named Actor Seeks Anonymity’/ Geetha was able to name the state capitals, but not the animals in the zoo”.

The ‘name’, obviously, is a word that carries a wealth of meanings and linkages stretching almost endlessly. As a noun, its meaning is so broad that other words and phrases have been coined over the years to tote some of the baggage. A representative sample of synonyms for the word ‘name’ consists of surname, namesake, cognomen, anthroponym, autonym, nomen, pseudonym, patronym, matronym, moniker, appellation, epithet, sobriquet, agnomen, hypocorism, nom de plume, nom de guerre, alias, anonym, demonym, acronym, brand, signature, toponym, genus, icon, badge, symbol, label, title, classification, designation, rubric, denomination, type, specie, entity, and so on and on. Linguists themselves cannot agree on what a name is. Some argue that the meaning of a name is simply the real-world object to which it refers, while others attempt to show the linguistic meaning of names. Some say names are disguised descriptions of things, while others think they have no function in language except as pointers to objects. Some say that names have no meaning at all and still others maintain that the relation between a name and its bearer is outside the study of language.

The philosophical wrangling over the word has gone on since Socrates and continued by such notables as William James, John Stuart Mills and Bertrand Russell and more recently David Chalmers. Around the world in many languages, in academic fields of study like semiotics, linguistics, semantics, pragmatics, and onomastics, scholars have taken the investigation farther beyond familiar territories. As one navigates around the various theories of names, one visualizes a greased pig that seems always to slip away whenever one thinks it is in the grasp. Nonetheless, we still think we know what a name is, that at the center of all confusion and ambiguity, the word ‘name’ still has a meaning we can understand and identify with, even though, the word, in its enormous fluidity, is like a greased pig. Like all human ideas used to weave the fabric that clothes the gamut of expressions in a language, the ‘name’ continues to be an evasive word constituted by sounds and symbols forming brocades in the overall linguistic apparel, as one of distinction and discrimination that is chosen, conferred and announced. It always belongs somewhere to something, it can travel the world and be understood like Ford, Toyota or Airbus. It ignores the rules of grammar to become a Bronte adjective, or it can Houdini itself to be a verb. Names have meanings instead of definitions. Proclaiming themselves on badges and emblems, names promote themselves on banners and signs, belonging also to birth and breed, title and tradition.

All other symbols, signs and sounds in a language are just common words, often chained together to serve sentences. They are slaves to grammar and syntax, clothed by connotation and context, artless when alone, dispensable when not. Whereas common words are only threads woven together in patterns and pieces, the names are brocades adorning the linguistic apparel.

When reams of data become imperative in the matter of elucidation of multifarious shades of meaning of an apparently simple word as ‘name’, one can well envisage the enormity in the formidable task of compiling the dictionary of a language in its entirety. The herculean task begins with reading vast amounts of literature of the period or the targeted subject. As the editors read, they copy on cards every interesting or rare word, every unusual or peculiar occurrence of a common word, a large number of common words in their everyday usages, and also the sentences in which these usages appear. In short, the context of each word is collected together with the word itself. In a mega venture such as the multi-volume OED, millions of such cards are collected, and the task of editing goes on for decades, in the case of OED as much as seven decades. As the cards are collected, alphabetized and sorted, there may be several hundred quotations for each of the words on the cards. The editor reviews the cards closely, discards many to trim it to what appears to be the several senses and shades of meaning of a given word. The writing of a dictionary, therefore, constitutes a meticulous recording of the meanings of various words as it meant to authors at different times in the past. The lexicographer thus is more of a historian than an authority on words. The authority, if at all, has its basis in and derived from the numerous ways and contexts in which words appeared in the past and maintaining its currency or datedness in the present.

Given the humongous scale and complexity of endeavour even for native speakers of the language, one can very well visualize the epic dimensions of lexicography for a German missionary and linguist visiting India of the 19th c, to learn a few Indian languages, acquire adequate mastery in one of them and proceed to write the first dictionary in the south Indian language of Malayalam, followed by as many as thirteen books in the same language, which is my native tongue as well. The mastermind here is none other than Rev Dr. Hermann Gundert, who arrived India in the first half of 19th c. He settled down in Thalassery on the Malabar coast, a town located about 154 miles north of my home city of Cochin in the present day state of Kerala (see header pics of Hermann Gundert and his statue installed at the stadium in Thalassery, pics courtesy Google). The grandfather of renowned novelist and Nobel Laureate Hermann Hesse, the exceptional achievements of Hermann Gundert may probably be unique in the annals of world literature.

If there is one book I have grown up with, it is the Oxford Dictionary, starting from its abridged edition in my secondary school to the advanced learner’s format and subsequently to the voluminous compilations of OED and Webster in my graduate and post-graduate years. It is a matter of pride to look back appraisingly at my learning progression in the English language, which is not my mother-tongue, right from alphabetical stage to a modest level of proficiency across a timescale of fifteen years. The same interest prompts a peek at the fascinating story behind making of the OED. In 1998, the British journalist and writer Simon Winchester published a book called ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne’, a book about the life and works of Dr William Chester Minor, a former American army surgeon who became one of the most prolific contributors to the OED in the 19th c, while still locked up in a lunatic asylum for murder. The publishers emblazoned the words “A tale of murder, madness and the Oxford English Dictionary” on the cover of UK edition, while the US edition was named “The Professor and the Madman”, the title of professor referring to Sir James Murray, the chief editor of OED from 1879-1915.

It is interesting to follow the cue of madness and its relation to such a highly erudite endeavour as compilation of the dictionary of a language certainly is. Even as scholarship is an acknowledged criterion to plumb the depths and explore frontiers of a language, it would appear that a lunatic streak combined with a felicity for expressions enables the capture of its nuances and elementals. The degree of automatism that comes with lunacy is a perfect conduit for the linguistic savant. The lunatic, uninhibited by conservative norms and cautious self-interest that capitalism hardwires into society, transgresses boundaries, the first being the limits of civility. Though there were several compilations of dictionaries in the English Language, starting from the 16th c, these were mostly amateurish, lacking in breadth and depth of scholarship. The credit for bringing out the first comprehensive dictionary in the language goes to Dr Samuel Johnson. The masterly compilation, published in the 18th c,  represents a monumental feat in the English language, it being the output of nine years of industrious effort, executed single-handedly, with negligible clerical assistance, by Johnson, whose genius was coloured by his prejudices and eccentricities, which manifested in many of the entries in the dictionary. For example, the word ‘Oats’ is explained, rather impudently, as “A kind of food grain that horses eat. But in Scotland, it is used to feed people”. Rather amusingly, the elephant is described thus: “The largest of all quadrupeds, of whose sagacity, faithfulness, prudence and even understanding, many surprising relations are given. This animal is not carnivorous, but feeds on hay, herbs and all sorts of pulse; and it is said to be extremely long-lifed. It is naturally very gentle; but when enraged, no creature is more terrible. He is supplied with a trunk, or long hollow cartilage, like a trumpet, which hangs between his teeth, and serves him for hands: by one blow with his trunk he will kill a camel or a horse, and will raise of prodigious weight with it. His teeth are the ivory so well known in Europe, some of which have been seen as large as a man’s thigh, and a fathom in length. Wild elephants are taken with the help of a female ready for the male: she is confined to a narrow place, round which pits are dug: and these being covered with a little earth scattered over hurdles, the male elephant easily falls into the snare. In copulation the female receives the male lying upon her back; and such is his pudicity, that he never covers the female so long as anyone appears in sight”. Johnson’s detractors cite the entry as an example to berate the usage of an uncommon word like ‘pudicity’(meaning behavior that shows a sense of shame) to describe an elephant as also the sexual hint in the narrative, probably applied deftly with a commercial motive centuries before such a gimmick became cool.

The immensity of Johnson’s singular contribution as a lexicographer can be inferred from the fact that none thereafter, with the sole exception of Hermann Gundert as mentioned earlier, even attempted anything like a dictionary as a single-handed task; it was always planned as a group effort spread over long time spans. The same is the case with the OED which followed well over 170 years later. Ironically, it was James Murray, one of Johnson’s reviled Scotsmen, who helmed the OED project. In an endeavour that in current times will be described as crowdsourcing, Murray enlisted the help of thousands of far-flung volunteers, among them amateur philologists, to track the correct meaning and usage of English phrases past and present. Due to the hybrid or mongrel nature of the language, unlike Italian, French or German, English virtually received words and expressions from France, Germany, Greece, the Celts, in addition to other regions and languages around the world. It is, therefore, not pure, but defiled; yet robust as a fugitive language that initially benefitted from the Empire’s reach to partially embrace the world’s linguistic diversity and enrich itself in an eclectic process continuing into the present.

The eclecticism of the OED team is particularly evident in the manner in which the extensive scholarship of Dr William Chester Minor was gainfully accepted in the compilation of the dictionary. Regardless of his highly dissolute lifestyle punctuated by frequent bouts of delusions and paranoia, he became one of the project’s most effective volunteers, reading through his large personal library of antiquarian manuscripts to compile quotations illustrating the usage of particular words and phrases. Miller was even visited by the widow of the man he had murdered in a fit of schizophrenic fury; the merciful lady, sympathizing with his insanity, made further donations of books to his library. His invaluable contributions were duly acknowledged by James Murray stating, “We could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone”.

While work on the OED progressed steadily, Miller’s condition deteriorated to the point of delusions of being abducted and sped away to places as far away as Istanbul and forced into paedophilia; in a fit of revulsion, he commits the gruesome act of cutting off his own genitals, an act that amounted to the doctor performing amputation of part of his own anatomy. The appalling event did not, however, die out before inspiring two elderly women lexicographers who were on a train journey from the Oxford station. The incident was narrated to them in all its grisly detail: the sharpening of the knife, tying of ligature, the gritted teeth, the fatal slice – as the narrator completed the story, the male folks in the railway coach crossed their legs reflexively. But not so the two old ladies who remained unperturbed and impassive. Perhaps the cerebral gears were shifting creatively in their minds. In the next moment, they yelled out almost in unison, ‘autopeotomy’, explaining ‘peotomy’ as amputation of the genitals and, by logical extension, the neologism ‘autopeotomy’ to refer to the same act carried out by a person on his own body. Simon Winchester narrates the incident in his book where the lady lexicographers were egging him on to frame sentences using the new word so that it gained enough currency for inclusion in the next edition of the OED.

The march of words is a continuing saga, sometimes hilarious and at other times in serious vein, more so in English and to a comparatively lesser degree in other languages worldwide. The language is no more a well of English undefiled, as purveyed by Chaucer, as it has since travelled vast geographical swathes, keeping up with extent of the empire and drawing from and contributing to myriads of cultures in colonial times, and stretching across liberal minded world of today. Like wandering minstrels of yore and itinerant travellers of this day and age, words bob and weave, accommodating diversities, growing by accretion and altering in meanings according to demands of custom and habit, transforming as the world changes. It abhors uniformity, embraces incongruity, causing language to become hollow if everything around is hollow. Neologisms arise out of incongruities, as new words create new realities.

Do I Mind or Do I Matter…

Do you mind if the chair is shifted further across the living room? Does it matter if Maya moves out of home now? How does the method matter so long as it serves the purpose? Who minds the kitchen while Mary is away? A lot of thoughts ran through Gayatri’s mind. Does the apparent fact that they don’t mind settle the question in your mind? The recently concluded presidential election raises many questions in the minds of Americans. Does it matter if Britain exits EU? We can do nothing to change matters. A great deal of work was done in the matter. Can the matter be placed before the Appellate Court? Let us hope the Courts will pursue the truth, no matter where it leads. Anne’s adherence to Communist ideology is a matter of record. Incoming emails are scanned for viruses as a matter of course. It is not merely in the matter of sharing water that states tend to act in an irresponsible manner. To make matters worse, the free mid-day meals for school children were suddenly withdrawn. Anyone can train if he sets his mind to it. He was one of the greatest minds of his time. I tried to take my mind off the uncomfortable situation. Gifted with considerable management acumen, he had a deep contempt for the bureaucratic mind. Employees are expected to keep their minds on the job. His arms embraced her as if with a mind of their own. Does it really matter, or is it all in the mind? I am not sure if it is the effect of medicine, or mind over matter, but I feel much better. The mind is willing but the flesh is weak. If you do not like me, remember it is mind over matter. I don’t mind and you don’t matter. The dancers cavorted gracefully in risqué moves, crossing the barrier between their friendship and courtship, but neither demurred because neither minded.

As two words tossed around myriads of situations in our quotidian lives, matter and mind inform human thinking and discourse as few other words can, as may be construed from aforementioned queries and statements culled from sample interactions. Evidently, matter and mind are linguistically so open-ended that it can stretch almost infinitely to capture an astounding panorama of expressions against a dazzling cyclorama of emotions and wonderment in its semantic and syntactic reach, transcending routine communication and discourse to straddle the fields of religion, metaphysics, science and philosophy. It inspires awe and stokes curiosity forcing continual inquiry and search for truth, in the process of which the discerning mind is compelled to question widely held beliefs and discover the fallacies therein, often striking at the root of several deeply entrenched positions. At every stage, old theories keep fading out and new ones unravel like lifecast of unseen objects kindling the sparkle of such effusive joy as occurs to the toddler upon first sighting self in a mirror.

Familiar as a phrase commonly heard in discussions, mind over matter underlines the supremacy of thought over physical obstacles, of intellectual faculties overcoming threats and successfully tackling challenges. The powers of the mind to generally control and influence the body in the execution of various tasks constitute a generally recognized characteristic of life. The image of a scantily clad Buddhist monk, unaffectedly holding up against the harshness of snowy winter in a remote Himalayan mountain fastness, emerges as a ready example of resolve and mind power conquering physical weakness. This, however, need not be the case with millions of people stuck in the reality of thoughts running wild due to inability to control their minds. Here the mind and the external reality are deemed to be two different things. The physical reality can change without a person’s involvement, which can temporarily make him happy if the change is good, whereas a downturn in circumstances will send him plummeting in the doldrums. The situation can certainly be different for a person who has the capacity to rein in thoughts galloping away in his mind. Scientists long believed that the human brain, the seat of the mind, solidifies as an individual reaches adulthood with negligible plasticity thereafter. Recent research has developed the technology to map changes in human brain, depending on the demands imposed on it, to yield astonishing results. Mind over matter is now a scientifically established fact, as authoritatively set forth by J.M. Schwartz, Sharon Begley and several others. Subjects persistently mulled over and meditated on have the power to radically alter the brain. The grey matter of a musical maestro is significantly different from that of a beginner in music. A visually challenged person has his other senses rewired and enhanced. Buddhists monks who have spent long years in the meditation and practice of love and compassion are registered as the happiest people on earth, as, when hooked up to scanners, their brains showed colourful explosions while those of novitiates in the test group hardly displayed any changes.

From the foregoing, can we say that mind and matter are substantially different things, with one controlling the other, or, with both operating as two ontologically distinct substances at higher and lower planes, the one subtle or noumenal and the other material or phenomenal? It was considered as such for a long time based on theories fuelled by proponents of dualism led by Plato, Rene Descartes and few others. Descartes posited two major categories of things, res cogitans and res extensa, loosely translated as mental phenomena comprising non-physical substance, and physical phenomena known as matter, emphasizing the radical difference between mind and matter, variously denying that the mind is the same as the brain, and that the mind is wholly a product of the brain. From the Cartesian standpoint, neither is reducible to the other. The dualists fall into several camps depending on how they think mind and body are related; of these, the interactionists believe that mind and body causally affect each other, which is denied by occasionalists and parallelists, who affirm that mental and physical events are attributable to godly co-ordination. According to the parallelist, our mental and physical histories are co-ordinated so that mental events appear to cause physical events and vice versa by virtue of their temporal conjunction; it is also not caused by continuous godly intervention as the occasionalist holds, but by pre-designed harmony divinely built into creation that obviates any continuous need for godly intervention.

Epiphenomenalists propound that bodily events can have mental events as effects. Mental events are viewed as completely dependent on physical functions and, as such, have no independent existence or causal efficacy. The faster pounding of the heart as a result of fear is, according to epiphenomenalism, actually caused by the nervous system. Property dualists argue that mental states are irreducible attributes of brain states or non-physical properties of physical substances, of which consciousness is a widely recognized aspect. Dualists in general assert the distinctive nature of mind and matter by citing Leibniz’s Law of Identity, according to which two things are identical only if they simultaneously share exactly same qualities. Attributes of the mind such as privacy or intentionality contrast with those of matter such as temperature or electrical charge, and vice versa, apparently establishing the duality.

The arguments against duality are that it is inconsistent with scientific findings, conceptually incoherent because of inability to individuate an immaterial mind. There is the inconceivability of mind-body interaction and its likely reduction to solipsism, the epistemological belief that one’s self is the only verifiable and knowable existence.

How to navigate one’s way forward from such conflicting theories and assumptions? Are qualia or mental phenomena non-material, or are they entirely a function of matter? Do I subscribe to substance dualism or materialism, or is it that the absolute truth dwells elsewhere, as yet unknown? What about non-dualistic materialism or materialistic non-dualism, aligning approximately with epiphenomenalism or neutral monism, as postulated by Baruch Spinoza, setting forth mental and physical as two ways of organizing or defining the same elements which are themselves neutral, being neither physical nor mental, where both are commonly bound by the same kind of components known as cognita or sense data?

Delving deeper, a closer examination would reveal that qualia is not all that subjective. It does contain an objective element as seen from the way people relate to one another through commonality of emotions resonating in sympathy, empathy and shared interests. Despite uniqueness of individual mindscapes, there is ample universality in mental horizons where sentiments and perspectives converge in appreciation of joyful sunrises and enchanting moonlit nights.

Can it then be concluded that dualism is inconsistent with the facts of human evolution and foetal developmemt? Paul Churchland, among modern philosophers, would seem to think so, arguing that life evolved from entirely physical beings as a long introgression between innumerable species, denisovans, neanderthals and homo sapiens. The newly fertilized ova and the unicellular organism in the primordial waters did not have minds or conscience of its own. Into those absolutely material origins, there is no indication of any non-material additions, whereas evolution is explained sequentially from unicellular stage to later complexities by means of random mutations and natural selection in the case of species and through nutritional intake and interactive process in the case of animals and humans, pointing to the fact that living forms are purely physical creatures, and, thereby, giving the lie to the theory of duality. Most of the organized religions object to theory of evolution and insist that god, by timely infusion of the growing foetus with a soul, is integral to the process. Be that as it may, hardly any value is placed on such proclamations by contemporary scientists and philosophers.

The theory posited by David Hume and other philosophers is that there is nothing like mind as a thinking thing since all that is apprehended as self by introspection is a collection of ideas for which there is no repository such as mind. One only has a stream of impressions and ideas but nothing like a substantial self to constitute personal identity. If there is no substratum of thought, then substance dualism is false. That the mind is not a substance but is simply a unifying factor that is the logical preliminary to experience has been emphasized also by Immanuel Kant. It has been taken forward in the last century by philosophical behaviourists, notably Gilbert Ryle and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Gilbert Ryle stated that “when we describe people as exercising qualities of mind, we are not referring to occult episodes of which their overt acts and utterances are effects; we are referring to those overt acts and utterances themselves”. Thus, “when a person is described by one or other of the intelligence epithets such as ‘shrewd’ or ‘silly’, ‘prudent’ or ‘imprudent’, the description imputes to him not the knowledge, or ignorance, of this or that truth, but the ability, or inability, to do certain sorts of things”. So the cleverness of the clown is attributed to his ability to fall off the trapeze and land on the safety net in several bounces to make it appear comically accidental, or the student is deemed to be bright because of her ability to solve complex mathematical equations. Mental events reduce to bodily events or statements about the body as clarified by Ludwig Wittgenstein, “It is misleading then to talk of thinking as a ‘mental activity’. We may say that thinking is essentially the activity of operating with signs. This activity is performed by the hand, when we think by writing; by the mouth and larynx, when we think by speaking; and if we think by imagining signs or pictures, I can give you no agent that thinks. If then you say that in such cases the mind thinks, I would only draw your attention to the fact that you are using a metaphor”. Accordingly, the emphasis is on the external behavioural aspects, coupled with de-emphasis on inward experiential and inner procedural aspects, broadly offering behavioural-dispositional construal of thought.

Yet another dimension that has engaged our thinking is the non-existence of physical objects as they are naively conceived to be, similar to the independent existence of mind and matter equated as thoughts and objects. Is everything mental, if not material, and is everything material, if not mental? The scientific theory of reality may lead to the belief that only mental events can be known just as rationally it may also maintain that even mental events are a function of matter. If mind and matter are totally different, then the question is how can one affect the other? It is not possible to think about going to the concert hall with the body seamlessly following the thought process, or one’s thought that is at variance with a physical event affecting the action. As mind does affect matter, we do experience both mind and matter so they cannot be substantially separate, is the line of thinking accepted by most researchers. The traditional eastern and western schools of thought are mostly divided along the lines of either one or the other, with former embracing the mind and latter, the matter.

Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired in the morning, noon and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired”.
George Smith Patton

Thoughts, according to the materialist, are electrical energy and chemical actions occurring in the brain. Chemicals can change the way people think as evidenced by the effect of alcohol on normal people, or drugs in treating those suffering from depression or schizophrenia. Feelings of happiness, sorrow, elation and depression are all caused by actions of chemicals in the body. The argument cannot, however, be stretched beyond a point. Like for instance when one is looking at a monument with a scanner connected to the brain; the scientist can only see it recorded as chemical and electrical events therein but not the actual monument. Hence external images and events in the brain are different and not matching in just the same way as the play of lights and subsequent images seen on the television. If materialism is wrong, and if the choice is only between mind and matter, then the only remaining possibility is that everything is mind, a state sometimes described as idealism in philosophy. The word idealism here is not in the same sense as aspiration to attain perfection; it means dealing with ideas. Idealism claims there is no matter, only ideas, or mind, exist. However, the problem is that it conflicts with common experience of real things out there. When we see a chair, we assume and believe a chair is really there.

The clutter of theories surrounding substance dualism in philosophy, religion and theological discourses have largely trundled out only to obfuscate lines of thinking by couching it in irrational terms like non-material consciousness and, unable to progress any further, filling inexplicable spaces with god-of-the-gaps solutions. Whereas every new advance in science lends greater clarity to narrow the gap between mind and matter. Without seeking to divide mind and matter, the quantum theory in physics leads to more coherent understanding than the dualistic and reductionist approaches. There is no separation between substance and essence, observer and the observed, subject and the object. There is an intelligible relationship between mind and matter, with one being the function of the other; mind is neither an epiphenomenon having no relation to matter nor a reduced ideal occurring as thoughts. New qualities have been established at the fundamental level of particle physics, which enable matter to become operative at higher levels of organization such as that of brain and nervous system. The whole universe is in some way enfolded in everything and each thing is enfolded in the whole or internally related to the whole, and, therefore, to everything else. The external relationships are then displayed in the unfolded or explicate order in which each thing is seen as relatively separate and extended, and related only externally to other things. The explicate order, which dominates ordinary experience, thus appears to stand by itself, even though it cannot be understood properly apart from its ground in the primary reality of the implicate order which is not static but basically dynamic in nature, in a constant process of change and development. All things emerge from an implicate order of continually evolving potentialities, enduring explicitly for some time and ultimately falling back into it. While they last, their existence is sustained by a constant process of unfoldment and enfoldment, which gives rise to their relatively stable and independent forms in the explicate order. The same principle, logically, applies even more directly and obviously to mind, with its constant flow of evanescent thoughts, feelings, desires and impulses, streaming into and out of each other as if in a process of enfolding and re-enfolding. To put it differently, the general implicate order is common to both mind and matter. The quantum theory implies that all material systems have a wave-particle duality in their properties. Particles at macroscopic orders of distance from each other, under certain conditions, appear to be able, in some sense, to affect each other, even though there is no known means by which they could be connected.

In physics, a potential describes a field in terms of a possibility or potentiality that is present at each point of space for giving rise to action on a particle which is at that point. What is crucial in classical (Newtonian) physics is then that the effect of this potential on a particle is always proportional to the intensity of the field. One can picture this by thinking of the effect of water waves on a bobbing cork, which gets weaker and weaker as the waves spread out. As with electric and magnetic fields, the quantum field can also be represented in terms of the quantum potential. But unlike what happens with electric and magnetic potentials, the quantum potential depends only on the form, and not in the intensity of the quantum field. Therefore, even a very weak quantum field can strongly affect the particle. It is as if we had a water wave that could cause a cork to bob up with full energy, even far from the source of the wave. One may think of the electron as moving under its own energy. The quantum potential then acts to inform its motion (the word in-form is here taken in its literal meaning, i.e. to put form into), and this form is related to the form of the wave from which the quantum potential is derived. There are many analogies to the notion of active information in our general experience. Thus, consider a ship on automatic pilot guided by radar waves. The ship is not pushed and pulled mechanically by these waves. Rather, the form of the waves is picked up, and with the aid of the whole system, this gives a corresponding shape and form to the movement of the ship under its own power.

Similarly, the form of radio waves as broadcast from a station can carry the form of music or speech. The energy of the sound that we hear comes from the relatively unformed energy in the power plug, but its form comes from the activity of the form of the radio wave; a similar process occurs with a computer which is guiding machinery. The ‘in-formation’ is in the programme, but its activity gives shape and form to the movement of the machinery. Likewise, in a living cell, current theories say that the form of the DNA molecule acts to give shape and form to the synthesis of proteins (by being transferred to molecules of RNA). Our proposal is then to extend this notion of active information to matter at the quantum level. The information in the quantum level is potentially active everywhere, but actually active only where the particle is (as, for example, the radio wave is active where the receiver is). Such a notion suggests, however, that the electron may be much more complex than we thought (having a structure of a complexity that is perhaps comparable, for example, to that of a simple guidance mechanism such as an automatic pilot). This suggestion goes against the whole tradition of physics over the past few centuries which is committed to the assumption that as we analyze matter into smaller and smaller parts, their behaviour grows simpler and simpler. Yet, assumptions of this kind need not always be correct. Thus, for example, large crowds of human beings can often exhibit a much simpler behaviour than that of the individuals who make it up, a variation not supported in physics.

We may here make an analogy to a ballet dance, in which all the dancers, guided by a common pool of information in the form of a score, are able to move together in a similar organized and orderly way, to go around an obstacle and re-form their pattern of movement. If the basic behaviour of matter involves such features as wholeness, nonlocality and organisation of movement through common pools of information, how then do we account for ordinary large scale experience, in which we find no such features? It follows from the above that the possibilities for wholeness in the quantum theory have an objective significance. This is in contrast to what happens in classical physics, which must treat a whole as merely a convenient way of thinking about what is considered to be in reality nothing but a collection of independent parts in a mechanical kind of interaction. On the other hand, in the quantum theory, the ‘ballet-like’ behaviour in superconductivity, for example, is clearly more like that of an organism than a mechanism. Indeed, going further, the whole notion of active information suggests a rudimentary mind-like behaviour of matter, for an essential quality of mind is just the activity of form, rather than of substance. Thus, for example, when we read a printed page, we do not assimilate the substance of the paper, but only the forms of the letters, and it is these forms which give rise to an information content in the reader which is manifested actively in his or her subsequent activities. A similar mind-like quality of matter reveals itself strongly at the quantum level, in the sense that the form of the wave function manifests itself in the movements of the particles.

Let us now approach the question from the side of mind. We may begin by considering briefly some aspects of the nature of thought. Now, a major part of the significance of thought is just the activity based on a given structure of information. More generally, with mind, information is thus seen to be active in all these ways, physically, chemically, electrically, etc. Such activity is evidently similar to that which was described in connection with automatic pilots, radios, computers, DNA, and quantum processes in elementary particles such as electrons. At first sight, however, there may still seem to be a significant difference between these two cases. Thus, in our subjective experience action can, in some cases at least, be mediated by reflection in conscious thought, whereas in the various examples of activity of objective information given here, this action is immediate. But actually, even if this happens, the difference is not as great as might appear. For such reflection follows on the suspension of physical action. This gives rise to a train of thought. However, both the suspension of physical action and the resulting train of thought follow immediately from a further kind of active information implying the need to do this. It seems clear from all this that at least in the context of the processes of thought, there is a kind of active information that is simultaneously physical and mental in nature.

Active information can thus serve as a kind of link or ‘bridge’ between these two sides of reality as a whole. These two sides are inseparable, in the sense that information contained in thought, which we feel to be on the ‘mental’ side, is at the same time a related neurophysiological, chemical, and physical activity (which is clearly what is meant by the ‘material’ side of this thought). We have however up to this point considered only a small part of the significance of thought. Thus, our thoughts may contain a whole range of information content of different kinds. This may in turn be surveyed by a higher level of mental activity, as if it were a material object at which one were ‘looking’. Out of this may emerge a yet more subtle level of information, whose meaning is an activity that is able to organize the original set of information into a greater whole. But even more subtle information of this kind can, in turn, be surveyed by a yet more subtle level of mental activity, and at least in principle this can go on indefinitely. Each of these levels may then be seen from the material side. From the mental side, it is a potentially active information content. But from the material side, it is an actual activity that operates to organize the less subtle levels, and the latter serve as the ‘material’ on which such operation takes place. Thus, at each level, information is the link or bridge between the two sides.

The proposal is then that a similar relationship holds at indefinitely greater levels of subtlety, whereby it would appear that this possibility of going beyond any specifiable level of subtlety is the essential feature on which the possibility of intelligence is based. It is interesting in this context to consider the meaning of subtle which is, according to the dictionary, ‘rarefied, highly refined, delicate, elusive, indefinable’. But it is even more interesting to consider its Latin root, sub-texere, which means ‘finely woven’, suggestive of metaphor for thought as a series of more and more closely woven nets. Each can trap a certain content of a corresponding ‘fineness’. The finer nets can not only show up the details of form and structure of what is trapped in the coarser nets, they can also hold within them a further content that is implied in the latter. We have thus been led to an extension of the notion of implicate order, in which we have a series of inter-related levels in which the more subtle—i.e. ‘the more finely woven’ levels including thought, feeling and physical reactions—both unfold and enfold those that are less subtle (i.e. ‘more coarsely woven’). In this series, the mental side corresponds, of course, to what is more subtle and the physical side to what is less subtle. And each mental side in turn becomes a physical side as we move in the direction of greater subtlety.

Let us now return to a consideration of the quantum theory. What is its relationship to the interweaving of the physical and the mental that has been discussed above? First, let us recall that because the quantum potential may be regarded as information whose activity is to guide the “dance” of the electrons, there is a basic similarity between the quantum behaviour of a system of electrons and the behaviour of mind. But if we wish to relate mental processes to the quantum theory, this similarity will have to be extended. The simplest way of doing this is to improve the analogy between mental processes and quantum processes by considering that the latter could also be capable of extension to indefinitely greater levels of subtlety. To bring this about, one could begin by supposing, for example, that as the quantum potential constitutes active information that can give form to the movements of the particles, so there is a super-quantum potential that can give form to the unfoldment and development of this first order quantum potential. This latter would no longer satisfy the laws of the current quantum theory, which latter would then be an approximation, working only when the action of the superquantum potential can be neglected. Of course, there is no reason to stop here. One could go on to suppose a series of orders of superquantum potentials, with each order constituting information that gives form to the activity of the next lower order (which is less subtle). In this way, we could arrive at a process that would be very similar to that to which we have been led in the consideration of the relationship of various levels of subtlety in mind.

One may then ask: what is the relationship of these two processes? The answer is that there are no two processes. Rather, both are essentially the same. This means that which we experience as mind, in its movement through various levels of subtlety, will, in a natural way ultimately move the body by reaching the level of the quantum potential and of the ‘dance’ of the particles. There is no unbridgeable gap of barrier between any of these levels. Rather, at each stage some kind of information is the bridge. This implies, that the quantum potential acting on atomic particles, for example, represents only one stage in the process. The content of our own consciousness is then some part of this over-all process. It is thus implied that in some sense a rudimentary mind-like quality is present even at the level of particle physics, and that as we go to subtler levels, this mind-like quality becomes stronger and more developed. Each kind and level of mind may have a relative autonomy and stability. One may then describe the essential mode of relationship of all these as participation, recalling that this word has two basic meanings, to partake of, and to take part in. Through enfoldment, each relatively autonomous kind and level of mind to one degree or another partakes of the whole. Through this it partakes of all the others in its ‘gathering’ of information. And through the activity of this information, it similarly takes part in the whole and in every part. It is in this sort of activity that the content of the more subtle and implicate levels is unfolded (e.g. as the movement of the particle unfolds the meaning of the information that is implicit in the quantum field and as the movement of the body unfolds what is implicit in subtler levels of thought, feeling, etc.). For the human being, all of this implies a thoroughgoing wholeness, in which mental and physical sides participate very closely in each other. Likewise, intellect, emotion, and the whole state of the body are in a similar flux of fundamental participation.

Thus, there is no real division between mind and matter, psyche and soma. The common term psychosomatic is in this way seen to be misleading, as it suggests the Cartesian notion of two distinct substances in some kind of interaction. Extending this view, we see that each human being similarly participates in an inseparable way in society and in the planet as a whole. What may be suggested further is that such participation goes on to a greater collective mind, and perhaps ultimately to some yet more comprehensive mind in principle capable of going indefinitely beyond even the human species as a whole.

Finally, we may ask how we can understand this theory if the subtle levels are carried to infinity. Does the goal of comprehension constantly recede as we try to do this? The appearance of such a recession may in essence be just a feature of our language, which tends to give too much emphasis to the analytic side of our thought processes. To explain what is meant here, one may consider the analogy of the poles of a magnet, which are likewise a feature of linguistic and intellectual analysis, and have no independent existence outside such analysis. As shown in a magnet, there is a potential pair of north and south poles that overlap each other. But these magnetic poles are actually abstractions, introduced for convenience of thinking about what is going on, while the whole process is a deeper reality—an unbroken magnetic field that is present throughout space. Similarly, we may for the sake of thinking about the subject, abstract any given level of subtlety out of the unbroken whole of reality and focus our attention on it. At each such level, there will be a ‘mental pole’ and a ‘physical pole’. Thus as we have already implied, even an electron has at least a rudimentary mental pole, represented mathematically by the quantum potential. Vice versa, as we have seen, even subtle mental processes have a physical pole. But the deeper reality is something beyond either mind or matter, both of which are only aspects that serve as terms for analysis. These can contribute to our understanding of what is happening but are in no sense separate substances in interaction. Nor are we reducing one pole to a mere function or aspect of the other (e.g. as is done in materialism and in idealism). The key point is, however, that before the advent of the quantum theory, our knowledge of matter as gained from the study of physics would have led us to deny that it could have a mental pole, which would enable it to participate with mind in the relationship that have been described here. We can now say that this knowledge of matter (as well as of mind) has changed in such a way as to support the approach that has been described here.

Many of us may have at least read about if not directly experienced highly evolved people possessing extraordinary powers of the mind that enable such feats as walking on water, levitation, temporarily leaving the body for journeying both in the external world and other regions of existence. It is said that several thousand years ago, sage Bhogar vanished from what was then the southern region of present-day India to appear as Lao Tzu in ancient China to guide people towards enlightenment. Such powers and journeys of the spirit have been known by various descriptions but all of these have now been grouped under the generic term of ‘out of body experiences’ (OBE). The conventional scientific paradigm may not be able to explain such possibilities as the spirit otherwise described as consciousness is considered to be an epiphenomenon of the brain which restricts its working outside the bounds of the body. Even if it could travel outside the confines of skull then the question is how does a disincarnate consciousness sans sensory organs receive information from the external world? The radical new hypothesis that allows modern science to accommodate OBE within its latest dimensions is that the experience is neither subjective nor objective but a mixture of the two. We need to change our understanding of the actual nature of the term ‘eternal, consensual, reality’ to align with the new model containing three crucial elements, the Zero Point Field / Zero Point Energy, Bose-Einstein Condensates and the Pineal Gland. The theosophical concept that links these three elements is the ‘Book of Life’, otherwise known as the ‘Akashic Record’.

Akasha is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘sky’or ‘ether’ that is all pervasive, within which is recorded the entire spectrum of action, emotion, thought, feelings and experience of every living being. In other words, it is an exhaustive data base that captures everything. Mystics have long suggested that this information is accessible in certain states of elevated consciousness that enables the downloading of data for future application. Known by quantum physicists as zero point field (ZPF), Akashic Record, according to philosopher-scientist Ervin Laszlo, is a well known scientific phenomenon. Particles can never be at rest, not even at absolute zero, the coldest state known to science, calibrated as minus 273.15 degrees Celsius, a metric that is three degrees below the temperature of vacuum of space.  Due to the existence of high energy even at absolute zero, all space is replete with this quantum vacuum energy, technically known as plenum. Thus the quantum vacuum is not a vacuum but a plenum.

Such a premise has interesting parallels with ancient eastern philosophies, articulated as prana or universal energy, defined as attribute-less and formless in the Vedas. For Chinese philosopher Chang Tsai the bedrock of reality is the Ch’i. Translated as ‘gas’or ‘ether, ch’i is a tenuous and non-perceptible form of matter existing throughout space, capable of condensing into solid material objects. An amazingly prescient idea, ch’i is scientifically supported in the Bose-Einstein Condensate, the fascinating new state of matter, which is recognized as the fifth state of matter in addition to solid, liquid, gas and plasma. Unsurprisingly, the new state of matter was first predicted by Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, a scientist brought up within the eastern philosophical tradition. Bose stated that if a particle was cooled to a few degrees beyond absolute zero, it may change from being a single particle to a collection of particles that act as if they were one. These condensates pull their energy in the form of zero point energy directly out of zero point field. Practical applications of it can be seen today when we listen to music using a compact disc player, where the information contained in the disc is read using a laser beam, which is technically coherent light with all the light particles (photons) sharing a single coherent state; the other application of laser that has direct reference to the human brain is the hologram, which is a three-dimensional image created by using laser to ‘photograph’ an object and then reproducing the subsequent image by illuminating it with another set of lasers. Thus by applying coherent light, a seemingly solid image can be reproduced from stored information. Latest research findings are that coherent light is generated in vast quantities by tiny structures found deep within the neurons of the brain. Known as microtubules, these structures are so small that it is possible that the energy they use to generate the coherent light is zero point energy drawn directly from the zero point field, conceptually same as what Helena Blavatsky called the Akashic Record and what Chang Tsai knew as the chi’i.

Extending logically further, the inference is that the human brain has direct access to the Akashic field and the virtually unlimited information therein, as Akasha is akin to a super mega cosmic database storing records of all happenings and events past, present and future. If modern quantum physics is correct, there are trillions of universes containing billions of copies of every being that has ever lived and will ever live. Each one of these consciousnesses will download their life experiences into the Akasha vide their microtubules and similarly they can upload limitless data from Akasha through the same process. The Akashic data can be reassembled using coherent light to create apparently three-dimensional holographic images of archived information, creating in the mind of the experiencer a three-dimensional version of the recording that would in every manner be totally life-like. Thus the external reality supplied to us through our sensorial inputs may not be as real as we believe, no more than a holographic perception, a construct of the brain modelled out of the electro-chemical information supplied to it by the senses.

Is there a portal within the brain by which the riches of Akasha can be accessed? The connector is believed to be the mysterious and enigmatic structure in the brain called the pineal gland, equating to the ajna chakra or ‘third eye’ in the Vedas. Based on this hypothesis, out of body experiences can be explained as simply consciousness experiencing the external world from internally generated information. These visions may be generated spontaneously, during sleep or borderline states of sleep, during times of immense stress or during a near-death experience. Some of these hypothetical models need to be vetted further to arrive at unimpeachable conclusions; accordingly, the studious adventure continues along the track of a very intriguing journey into the centre of what it is to be a sentient being in a seemingly indifferent universe.

What does the future look like from the inflection point in which we are in? Cybernetics, robotization and artificial intelligence appear to be hurtling humanity into situations where people may be competing with machines and hybridizations of men and machines, set to catalyse humanity either towards the evolutionary path of still higher skills and capabilities or otherwise perish against nature and machines. It is paving the way for a new brand of trans-humanism that challenges human limits by means of science and technology combined with critical and creative thinking. The inevitability of ageing and death are sought to be reversed through continual enhancements to intellectual abilities, physical capacities and emotional development. Humanity is seen as a transitory stage in the evolutionary development of intelligence, using science to accelerate the move from human to trans-human or post-human condition. These values are presented as a kaizen-like concept for continuous improvement, enabling human species to advance to superhuman dimensions, to transcend itself, not just sporadically as individual here in one way or an individual there in another way, but in its entirety as humanity. It envisages the invention of ultra-intelligent machine, defined as a machine that can far surpass intellectual prowess of man, however cerebral. Since designing more advanced generations of machines is set to be one of its capabilities, the ultra-intelligent machine would design even better machines resulting in an ‘intelligence explosion’, leaving human intelligence far behind; in the process, the first ultra-intelligent machine may effectively be the last invention man may ever produce. Postulated as extropianism, a philosophy of Max Moore, it describes a pragmatic consilience of trans-human thought guided by proactionary approach to human evolution and progress. Extropians foresee the eventual realization of indefinite life-spans based on expected future developments in biomedical technology or mind uploading of those bodies or brains preserved by means of cryonics. In this context, the recent case of a British teenager terminally afflicted with cancer comes to mind. On pleading her case that as a young fourteen year old she considered herself too young to die and asked for cryonic preservation of her body to allow for potential of later resuscitation and cure vide anticipated advances in medical science probably even hundreds of years later, she was able to obtain a favourable verdict. Though the girl is no more, her body remains cryogenically frozen as per court order to be hopefully brought back to life at some point of time in futurity.

As the song goes, it may be que sera sera for a future not ours to see. It is not so with the hoary past where matter is stated to have coalesced from quasars in outer space. As matter so formed interacted with itself, certain complex and repetitive patterns began to emerge, some of which exhibited emergent behaviours, such as self-replication. Thus it probably was that life arose epiphenomenally from matter, as an emergent phenomenon. Then as patterns of life gained even greater complexity, mind arose from life. Matter did not disappear when life arose and neither did life upon appearance of the mind. These three elements may be visualized to exist as a pyramidal structure, with matter at the bottom-most layer, whereby sans matter, there is neither life nor mind. The animated whole is only on account of the synergy created by consonance of the constituents, where each part detached from the whole and on its own is inconsequential.  The ancient pyramids of Egypt may well symbolize the truth of planet earth being a sea of inanimate and animate pyramids, existing interconnectedly and interdependently, strutting around in cycles of origin, consummation and termination. The matrix of future may even eliminate humanity in a catastrophic cycle of genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics. George Dyson in his thought-provoking book, Darwin among the Machines, puts it rather eerily, “In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of machines”. What then is the conclusion? Just nothing for now, except that I mind because I matter.

Emptiness and Infinity…

Is there anything like emptiness? Conceptually and sensorially may be, to denote the sense of vacuity, barrenness, or the state of containing nothing. The infinite void of akasha or ether, and fathomless blue of the ocean do not lead to emptiness but is indicative of a fullness defying quantification. According to Upanishads, infinity is endlessly divisible without being diminished, “Om Poornam Adah Poornam Idam / Poornaat Poornam Udachyate / Poornasya Poornam Aadaay / Poornam Evaa Vashishyate” meaning, ‘You are the fullness. There is fullness, here is fullness. From fullness, the fullness is born. Remove the fullness from fullness and the fullness alone remains.‘ To put it differently, Brahman, or the universal consciousness, is full; the Atman, or the individual consciousness, is full. One fullness proceeds from the other fullness. The invisible Brahman that remains continues to be in fullness.

Nagarjuna, the second century Buddhist master, posited that emptiness resides at the heart of everything. Grasped wrongly, emptiness is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end. We will be bitten. Even though all phenomena are existentially empty, it does not mean they are empty. Viewing emptiness only as complete nothingness, or in emptiness of essence, would be nihilistic and destructive. What it really means is that things do not exist the way our perceptions define it to be. While emptiness is the true nature of things and events, it should not be construed as an absolute reality or an independent truth. Nothing we see or hear ever stands alone; everything is a tentative expression of one seamless ever-changing landscape, existing inter-connectedly, bound by love and compassion. In other words, emptiness, as Thich Nhat Hanh would have it, is a state populated by‘inter-beings’ who not merely are but ‘inter-are’. The concept clarifies itself to the discerning mind capable of visualizing a cloud afloat in the day’s newspaper, as without the cloud there is no rain, without which there are no trees and without trees no paper whereby the cloud and paper are inter-are. Looking more deeply at the newspaper, the holistic mind is able to see the sunshine, without which neither forest nor life itself can sustain; it is able to see the grain fields, the farmer and the logger, the one inter-being in a long chain causing food to reach the table and the other inter-being responsible for cutting trees and consigning it to the paper-mill.

Taking the larger view of Nature and its composite beauty, it can be seen that the five elements of space, air, fire, water and earth are foundational to the entire physical world. These same aggregates comprise all forms, animate and inanimate; in human beings these elements flow like a river multiplying into tributaries of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness. Thus to be, is to inter-be, integrated vertically and horizontally in the vast ocean of emptiness stretching infinitely into maha shunyata or grand void.

Nothing, therefore, exists in isolation. But everything exists in emptiness. An empirical statement that an object is empty, must mean that it is empty of something. A cup of water is said to be empty by divesting it of its content. Yet in its deemed emptiness, it is still holding air and the sum total of its constituents rendering its form. Hence to say an object is empty is merely to mean it is empty of a separate, independent existence, yet sustaining in its interconnect with everything else. It is only empty of a separate self or beingness, which means it is full of everything. Likewise form is empty of a separate self but full of everything in the cosmos. Form, therefore, is emptiness, and emptiness is form as exemplified by the waves in the sea which are forms caused by play of wind and ocean currents on water and existing in the emptiness of water permeating it all, in just the same way as Universal consciousness or Brahman permeates all inter-beings. Even the tiniest speck of dust is a portal to the divine, as, if it does not exist, the entire cosmos becomes non-existent and vice versa. The enormity and interconnectedness of all beings bloom forth powerfully in the poetic outpourings of John Dryden, “From harmony, from heavenly harmony, / This universal frame began: / When nature underneath a heap / Of jarring atoms lay / And could not heave her head./ The tuneful voice we heard from high:/ Arise, ye more than dead”. And William Blake, “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour”, pointing to underlying harmony that serves as the great integrator, clarifying that notions of existence and nonexistence are just created by our minds. The entire cosmos can be put on the tip of a finger and the sun and the moon can be seen in a mustard seed. These images depict that one contains everything, and everything is just one.

Such thought processes had its resonance in the Pythagorean synthesis of religion and science, in the definition of ‘music of the spheres’, and the theory of numbers, which postulated that the numbers one to ten are not merely mathematical numerals but manifestations of diversity in a unified continuum, with one signifying the dominant Oneness wherefrom all things emanate, whereas it emanates from nothing. It is indivisible and it is everything in power. It is immutable and never departs from its own nature through multiplication (1 x 1 = 1). Everything that is intelligible and not yet created exists in it; the nature of ideas, the Cosmic Power, Truth, Beauty, Goodness and every intelligible essence, for each of these things are conceived as One and existing in itself. The essence and power of the vision lies in its all-embracing, unifying character that sweeps in religion, science, mathematics, music, medicine, cosmology, body, mind and spirit in an inspired and luminous synthesis.

The Pythagorean view is that kosmos is a ‘world-order’, as an ‘ordered-world’. The Greek word kosmos means both order and ornament. In saying that the world is ornamented with order is the statement that the universe is beautifully ordered with every part maintained by the hierarchical principle of harmony, with multiplicity of its phenomenal realm merging into fabric of the whole in the Oneness of the cosmos.

It is despairing to ponder over the disparate and highly fragmented situation of contemporary life in spite of the treasures of wisdom in the Upanishads, Buddhist teachings and its many resonances in later religions and philosophies, in the insightful observations of sages and savants, and in the masterly synthesis of Pythagoras over two and a half millennia ago. Cosmic wisdom would elucidate that humanity progresses through integrated approach that takes into perspective the many-sidedness of life and experience, relating to both the universal and the particular, with true nature of parts being determined in relation to the whole, understanding that all things are essentially inter-dependent, bringing together the eternal and temporal levels of being so as to be at home in the universe. It is interesting to speculate whether the process of fragmentation started with compartmentalization of science, religion and philosophy and, if so, if it pre-dated the industrial revolution as a cause, co-existed with it as a collaborator or triggered as a consequence of specialization, quantification and commodification of life. At some point, the concept of worldly life as mechanical prevailed over the organic, technology domineered over political, ethical and social control and initiated the divide of human knowledge and experience into multiple domains.

Delinked from the ethical and philosophical aspect which tempers knowledge and belief, science narrows in perspective, transforming into a servile instrument of technology, aiding development of mechanization, eventually leading to deleterious consequences of fracturing the integrated approach. The scientific revolution turning nature into machine occurred concurrently with the industrial revolution resulting in mechanistic conceptualization of the natural order, organic life, and of human beings. The end purposes were economic imperatives of capital formation and augmentation. The enhancement of material profit witnessed a diminution of human spirit. Free market economies raised millions of people above poverty line. The question whether increasing material riches can usher in happiness is often posed but seldom answered as, in the given context, happiness is the satisfaction derived from material comforts.

Science is subservient to the military-industrial complex of the modern state and, in the process, conflated with technology. The ideal of a universal or inclusive science does not exist anymore. The problems of present-day societies manifest in the angst over a pervasive sense of looming crisis – gross materialism, hedonism, decline in culture, environmental degradation and the bigger threat of ecological disaster, rising philistinism through invasion of monetary values reducing everything to sensual immediacy.The far-fetched notion that machine can elevate and refine the human spirit reveals the incongruity at heart of the modern world, where means justify ends in a world with a plethora of means connected to instrumental purposes, not ends. The unity of all life has been broken up into its parts, quantified, priced and marketed. Failure to see the parts in its relation to the whole is resulting in lack of balance. If imbalance is the problem, it follows that restoration of balance is the solution, which lies in harmony, the linkage of all parts in happy hierarchy, affirming the potential of humankind to become a sacred steward of the earth as co-creator with Nature. In failing to recognize such co-creation as co-evolution, humanity is sliding into destructive separations, into a hell of its own making.

Stretching the enquiry further on the concept of emptiness and infinity, it leads to appreciation of the circle figuring as zero, and the endless cycle of Creation and Destruction occurring in circles repeating itself endlessly. Two circles placed horizontally symbolize infinity at the loci of two energies, spiritual and physical, converging at the still point in the middle which represents the source, the seed of all creation. The midpoint is the anchor, or zero-point consciousness, in turn representing two polarized opposites that balance each other, reflecting the parallel nature of all things in creation. As the smallest and the largest number, zero is nothing that contains everything, both empty and full at the same time. Zero-point is the connecting point, the point beyond measure in space-time connecting all that is, with all that could be. It is considered to be the gateway that connects the space-time of Mind with space-time of Brahman. Reality is made up of infinite zero-points radiating energy and information into the space-time of the mind. Among these, there is one special connecting point that affects consciousness and the human life experience. That point, or the gateway, is in the human heart, which is the first organ to form in the foetus. The heart’s beating creates an electro-magnetic field surrounding the foetus; within the field are signals, energy and information that interact with and direct the field of all other organs, cells, and tissues that will progressively constitute the fully formed baby, child and adult. The signals from the heart also shape the baby’s mind, preparing it to correctly perceive and function in the physical world into which it will emerge.

Emptiness and infinity are aspects of the Universal Soul in that it is infinite emptiness populated by inter-beings. Emptiness is an optimistic concept. It constitutes form; if I am not empty, I cannot exist. Every atom geometrically distributed in the infinity of space, and dancing and moving to the music of the spheres, is a nano aspect of emptiness.

From 1991 to 2016…

What is significant about a time-frame of twenty five years? Well, a quarter century is more than enough to experience a catastrophic slide to failure and extinction or a steady upswing in fortunes, resurrecting from extreme straits to unbelievable success and prosperity. As with individuals, so with countries.

The last quarter century has seen India scripting her success from virtual penury to phenomenal progress and prosperity. I was among the millions of expatriates careering in the middle east during the 1990s, as the country was literally scraping the bottom of the barrel as a cumulative consequence of inept management of an economy, that had to grow from scratch, linked to complexities of a highly diverse, largely illiterate, poverty-ridden populace at the time of attaining political freedom. The economic policy during independence was influenced by exploitative aspects of colonialism, and by exposure of the leadership to the redeeming features of Fabian socialism. Hence policy veered towards protectionism, with strong emphasis on import substitution, industrialization under state monitoring, intervention of the state at micro level in all businesses especially in labour and financial markets, a large public sector, and central planning under a highly restrictive regulatory apparatus.

India’s Five-year Plans resembled central planning in the Soviet Union. Major industrial sectors such as steel, mining, heavy machinery, telecommunications and insurance, and public utilities like water, and electricity, transport modes such as railways and airline were all under state management since the 1950s. Private enterprise remained mostly stymied under stringent licensing regime between 1947 and 1990. The Indian economy remained virtually closed to the outside world. The currency, the Indian rupee, was non-convertible; high tariffs and import licensing prevented foreign goods reaching the market, and labyrinthine procedures of a bureaucracy frustrated any easy endeavour at entrepreneurship. The government also prevented firms from laying off workers or closing factories. The lurking memories of colonial exploitation and championing of socialistic ideals coupled with belief that the country could rely on its domestic markets, and not international trade, for development, were the guiding factors. Central planning and the state, rather than markets, would determine how much investment was needed in which sectors.

The story continued on these lines till the end of 1990, till the country became mired in serious economic crisis due to mounting fiscal deficits and burgeoning balance of payments.  The government was close to default, with its central bank refusing new credit and foreign exchange reserves plummeting to a level where India could barely finance three weeks of imports. The government was constrained to respectively pledge two lots of forty seven tonnes and twenty tonnes of gold to Bank of England and Union Bank of Switzerland as collateral to get IMF to agree to bailout loan to discharge balance of payment obligations. The other negative fall-out was the string of conditions set by IMF as qualification for obtaining financial assistance. India had no option but to implement them and the same ranged from industrial de-licensing, sale of public sector equity, increase in prices of fertilizer and other regulated commodities, elimination of subsidies, to opening up of the economy to foreign investment, substantial devaluation of currency and easing of all controls. Being an expatriate, I was one of the beneficiaries of home currency devaluation but wondered how Indian agro products and industry would be able to counter the might and compete with the financial heft of multi-national conglomerates. It looked as if the country’s agriculture and commerce would be swamped by corporate behemoths from advanced economies. But later events proved that my apprehensions, as of thousands of others so used to a climate of state control and captive markets, were unfounded, as Indian commerce and industry not only flourished by competing quite capably with foreign products and registering its mark in world markets, but many Indian companies also scaled up to become multi-nationals themselves. While apples from Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir, and oranges from Nagpur and Punjab continue to hold their own against Washington Reds and Fuji’s crunchy apples, India’s Basmati rice and huge variety of mangoes and other agro products such as spices, tea, coffee and array of dry fruits command an impressive presence in shopping malls worldwide. The nation’s industrial successes  manifest in the form of world-class players in IT and Software, small cars, auto ancillaries, textiles and garments, gems and jewellery, pharmaceuticals and healthcare services. In e-commerce, India’s Flipkart and Snapdeal are competing quite comfortably against Amazon and Ali Baba, as are app-driven taxi services like Ola and others against Uber. The rise in commodity prices and general cost of living have been offset to a great extent by substantial increase in income levels. The entertainment and hospitality industry are riding an ever rising wave of success with Indian TV channels and movies, arts, music and festivals, chains of hotels and restaurants enjoying unprecedented popularity in many countries around the world. Constituting a ratio of one Indian in every global headcount of six people, the Indian diaspora is virtually everywhere. Many of the corporate multi-nationals have Indians at the helm.

For all its glory, has liberalization, and globalization, been an unmixed blessing? It is not, as like most things in life, it has come with much smooth and some rough edges cutting at sections of societies. The skeptics claim that it has benefitted only the upper crust. Facts, however, are otherwise. Concluding presentation of path-breaking budget on 24th July 1991 in the parliament, against the background of economically dire straits in which the country was in at that point of time, Dr Manmohan Singh, India’s then finance minister, commented, ‘India is now wide awake. We shall prevail. We shall overcome’. Those words rung true as, going forward from then on, statistics reveal that 138 million people have been lifted out of poverty line, a commendable record by itself. Yet it pales in comparison with China, which started the liberalization process way back in 1978; China achieved a more impressive poverty reduction feat by lifting 800 million people above poverty line between 1978 and 2012, also transforming itself into the world’s factory churning out goods at low prices, and making enormous strides in infrastructure development.

Nonetheless, India’s progress post liberalization carries considerable lustre given the country’s size and diverse polity set amidst the demanding pulls and conflicts of a parliamentary democracy. All through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, India was probably the world’s biggest mendicant, a bottomless barrel for foreign aid, soaking up forty percent of the funds of International Development Association, the soft-loan window of World Bank. A major feature of my earlier career years in shipping was having to handle relief ships, vessels carrying food-grains donated by international relief agencies such as CARE (Co-operative for American Relief Everywhere) and CRS (Catholic Relief Society). I recall my school years in the 1960s, when India faced successive droughts in 1965 and 66. The country literally sustained on steady supplies of grain from America. It would be no exaggeration to say that those years meant a ‘ship to mouth’ existence for the country. In sharp contrast, India was in a position to successfully tackle drought years in 2014 and 15 drawing from buffer stocks of grains generated through high-yielding farming practices developed by India’s agro-scientists. In 1991, India was a member of G77 group of developing countries. In 2016, India is a proud member of G20, the group of most powerful countries in the world. Even though India is still a recipient of international funding, borrowing on commercial terms, it is also more of a donor to world’s financial institutions. The country was a net food importer earlier but today it is a net exporter of food-grains. Where the country was hardly an economic entity by global reckoning in 1991, today India is the world’s third largest economy in terms of PPP (Purchasing Power Parity), with only the USA and China ahead of it. It is also the world’s fastest growing economy.

Many challenges still remain in a country of 1.25 billion people deriving strength from the unique diversity of its culture, and the almost absolute freedom constitutionally guaranteed to all citizens of what is authentically the world’s largest democracy. It is also the youngest democracy, both as a nation  riding its seventh decade of independent sovereign status and in terms of demographic component of nearly 800 million people below the age of thirty years. Hitherto, the private sector was the main engine of growth in a market driven economy, averaging a GDP growth of 7.7% per annum over last thirteen years. The social impact across all sections of societies has not been to the desired extent, which is indicative of failure of successive governments in the form of tardy implementation of appropriate measures, bringing about policy changes and speeding up pace of reforms. India holds the potential of a USD 20 trillion economy if committed and strongly dedicated leadership can deliver efficient governance to productively tap the capabilities of her 800 million young citizens. With right effort, the world will see a USD twenty trillion economy emerging in the next twenty five years. It is not really necessary that it should happen only under a democratic system of government. It may even be a benevolent dictatorship, as in Singapore. The end result matters regardless of the type of government. As Alexander Pope observed in an earlier era, “For forms of government let fools contest; / Whate’er is best administer’d is best: / For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight; / His can’t be wrong whose life is in the right”.

Such passionate espousal of liberalization and globalization may appear to be a little inconsistent especially in the context of recent events playing out in various parts of the world arising from Brexit and the resultant convulsions across Europe and America, creating a backlash against easy movement of goods, services and people. There is regressive leaning towards conservative policies, protectionism, right-wing ideologies and a mindless fetish with identities, all of which are bound to balkanize and destroy societies. Irrespective of the value attached to identities and traditions, the hard fact is that growth is not possible by operating within its confines or blindly clinging on to it, as it is not viable in a strongly interconnected, interdependent and globalizing world that will keep growing through trade, travel and migration. Societies and communities opting to remain cloistered do so at their peril. There is no stopping, or even regulating the speed of cultural fusion and economic interconnection, the juggernaut of technological innovation and global communication. These are, as generally believed, not driven by the forces of capitalism or the momentum of progressive and beneficial change. Actually it is merely a socio-economic phenomenon that has been relatively dormant at certain times and hyperactive at other times throughout history. Presently we are witnessing an acutely volatile phase of the aforementioned recurrent phenomenon, which, on the whole, has led to decreased poverty and increased prosperity over the last quarter century of its hyper-active phase around the world, as exemplified by the progress of China, India, South Korea, Singapore and other Asian economies. The velocity of events across regions ultimately trends towards expansion of a cosmopolitan culture, tolerant and accommodative, eventually enveloping the globe in its sweep.

The Widening Gyre…

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned. / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”.  Describing the atmosphere of post-war Europe, these prescient words were strung in poetic form by W B Yeats in 1919 in the aftermath of first WW and beginning of the Irish War of Independence that followed the Easter Rising, at a time when  British government was preparing to send in the Black and Tans to Ireland. The nickname ‘Black and Tans’ arose from the colours of improvised uniforms initially worn by a hastily conscripted group of soldiers, composed of mixed khaki and rifle green uniform parts of British army’s RIC contingent.

The Black and Tans became infamous for their attacks on civilians and civilian property. Due to ferocity of the Tans’ conduct in Ireland and numerous war crimes they committed, feelings about their atrocities continue to run high. The term Black and Tan can still stir bad memories because of the beastly brutality associated with it. One of the best known Irish Republican songs is Dominic Behan’s, Çome out Ye Black and Tans. The Irish War of Independence is sometimes referred to as the ‘Tan War’ or ‘Black-and-Tan War’, a term preferred by those who fought on the anti-Treaty side in the Irish Civil War and is still used by Republicans today. Modernists read the poem as a dirge on the decline of European civilization in the mode of Eliot, but later critics have pointed out that it expresses Yeats’ apocalyptic mystical theories, and it is thus the expression of a mind shaped by the 1890s. The gyre, a historical cycle of about two thousand years in the given context, denotes a doomsday vision predicting the anticipated anarchy that would be let loose around two millennia after birth of the Saviour. The gyre also hints at the image of a world spinning outwards to such an extent that it cannot recall its own origin. These anxieties are closely tied to traumas of a continent at war, and the rise of industrialism and militarism on a global scale. The beastly nature of traditional ruling classes of Europe, who were unable to protect European traditions from materialistic mass movements, comes into sharp focus in the concluding lines, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”, underlining Yeats’ belief in cyclical nature of events in history, with his age representing the end of cycle that began with rise of Christianity.

Fast forward to the gloomy scenario ninety seven years later where, in a dramatic turnaround on 23rd June 2016, the rough beasts reversed, apparently with nihilistic fervour, the integrity of a unified Europe, assiduously built up across a period of over four decades. I clearly recall the euphoria over UK and continental Europe emerging as a unified entity in the mid 1970s in the form of EEC, a glorious precursor to fall of the wall of shame that subsequently paved the way for reunification of Germany. It signified the convergence of a splintered world, where bits and pieces of diverse hues were harmonizing into artistically graceful forms on the stained glass of unity and inclusiveness. Brexit heralds not just Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU); it probably marks the shattering decline and fall of carefully nurtured ideal of a liberal and globalised world. It opens the lock-gates to draw in the destructive ethos of ultra-nationalism and racist xenophobia, mindlessly blaming foreigners and minority communities for all ills, and claiming, against every logic and humanism, that turning your insular self on the world will somehow usher in a golden age of prosperity.

What next from current events looming like an Armageddon that certainly appears to be an inflection point in the global geo-political situation? From grand contours of a unified and expanding community of nations born out of the ashes of two world wars, sans borders and squabbles on lines of control, the discordant note sounded by Grexit (Greece) earlier, which though still hanging in the balance, continues as Brexit. Adding to the growing clamour for separation, are demands for Nexit (Netherlands), Frexit (France), Swexit (Sweden), connecting to secessionist moves in Italy seeking to break away from, and majority swings in Scotland and Northern Ireland desiring to continue in, the European Union. On other side of the Atlantic, there is electoral rhetoric aplenty and cacophony trumping up to such a crescendo that no one is quite sure which way the dice will roll.

What went right and what went wrong? For sure, there were several rights and few wrongs. Prominent among the rights are passing of the Human Rights Act by UK in 1998, ostensibly under pressure from EU; open borders facilitating free flow of people and investments, accompanied by freedom to work, study and live anywhere in Europe, and financial stimulus packages for backward regions of every member country. Ironically, it is these very well intentioned measures that ended up becoming expedient tools in the hands of exit hawks. Whereas globalization has benefited the well-heeled in the upper strata of societies, successive governments have grossly failed to ensure that the advantages of free trade and liberalization percolated to the lowest denominators and economically vulnerable class consisting of factory workers, farm labourers, and the unemployed. The unskilled, unable to keep abreast of a technically advancing economy, the uneducated, up against those with university degrees, the outlying underdeveloped provinces versus the developed metropolitan areas, all constituted a social time bomb ticking away and capable of detonating without warning. Regardless of the type of government, it takes enlightened leadership coupled with consistent dedication to address these problems. Unfortunately the only thing that is obtaining is a steady supply of short-sighted politicos solely targeting winning the next election riding on whatever discontent on which a campaign can be mounted. Lopsided governmental policies over last several years saw huge cuts in welfare spends, resulting in reduction of jobs, depleted allocations for schools, hospitals and housing, and allowances for the elderly disabled. Instead of putting in place corrective measures in these areas and creating more employment opportunities, the demagogues exploited the situation by laying entire blame on the EU for job losses and declining public services. To hell with EU, if the situation could be flogged for rabble-rousing to secure a quick access to # 10, Downing Street, may have been the thinking in all likelihood.

If the reports on post referendum events in Britain are anything to go by, it appears that Brexit politicos are already reneging on many of the promises made to an unsuspecting and beleaguered multitude of people who voted in favour of leaving, while the politicos are now happily celebrating their victory playing cricket with glitterati and dancing in discos till wee hours of the morning with hardly any regret about the state of the country that once was one of the largest colonial powers on earth, now fast set to dwindle to a tiny fraction consisting of England and Wales, which can still regressively attenuate if Cymrophobia and Anglophobia are allowed to further tear the fabric asunder.

One of the glorious objectives of the EU was to create a unified market, rendering it a borderless region within which wars were impossible, and thereby setting itself as a shining template for smaller nation states in rest of the world to consolidate into larger confederations, enabling free flow of trade and greater interaction between communities, reducing borders through lesser number of countries and thereby potential for internecine conflicts and warring regions. For the time being, it looks as if all these goals are taking an unexpected beating. At this juncture, it may be desirable to shift the focus to Juno, the spacecraft launched by NASA in 2011, set on the new frontiers mission en route to planet Jupiter. Programmed to orbit Jupiter on the 4th July 2016 after traversing a distance of 2.9 billion kilometers, Juno is tasked to unravel hitherto unknown facets of planet Jupiter by continuing its orbit for a period of twenty months. The name Juno derives from Greco-Roman mythology; the god Jupiter drew a veil of clouds around himself to conceal his mischief, but goddess Juno, his wife, is able to peer through the clouds to see Jupiter’s true nature. The name Juno also inspires the backronym, JUpiter Near-polar Orbiter. As the mission attains a successful completion up there, down here on terra firma the fervent hope is that countries will emerge stronger from temporary frustrations, with bigger resolve to steer towards directions leading to uplift and ultimate progress of humanity.


In an old song in my native language, the lover describes the girl of his dreams to be as glitteringly beauteous as a fanciful celestial city beside a milky ocean at night hours, bathed in  silvery light of vaishakha full moon. What is so special about a full moon night in vaishakha or vaishakha pournami, as it is called in Sanskrit (Vesakha in Pali)? The sun and moon assume extra brilliance in vaishakha, more than other times of the year. Corresponding to April-May in the Gregorian calendar, vaishakha is the second month of the year in the Indian almanac. In Nepal, and in the regional calendars of Punjab and West Bengal, where it is respectively called baisaakhi and boishaakh, it is the first month of the year and ushers in the arrival of summer. Considered to be one of the holiest months, it heralds the cyclic beginning of sathya yuga, or the pure age of truth in Vedic timescale, marks the birth of Karthikeya (Ganesha’s brother), features three avatars of Vishnu in addition to the births of Hanuman and Shani (Saturn); at  lower end of the scale, an array of luminaries embarked on their earthly journeys in the month of vaishakha, from Shankara in the 8thc to Rabindranath Tagore and Chinmayananda Saraswati in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It is also considered to be the month in which holy river Ganges materialised, as a manifestation of goddess Ganga. The seventh day of vaishakha is known as ganga sapthami or gangotpatthi, the day holy Ganga flew out of sage Jahnu’s ear and thenceforth came to be known as Jahnavi, or Jahnu’s daughter. When Ganga descended to earth after being released from Shiva’s locks, her torrential waters inundated Jahnu’s fields and disturbed his penance. An enraged Jahnu, in retaliation, drank up all her waters. At this juncture, the gods pleaded with Jahnu to release Ganga so that she could continue on her mission to quench the thirsty land and release the souls of king Bhageeratha’s ancestors, as the king had earlier carried out a thousand years’ penance for transgressions of his ancestors; whereupon Jahnu relented and released Ganges through his ear.

It is by far the most auspicious time of the year, as Akshaya Tritiya, the birthday of Parasurama the sixth avatar of Vishnu, falls on the same day. On this day sage Vyasa is deemed to have commenced the writing of world’s largest epic ‘Mahabharata’, as a series of dictations to  Ganesha, who documented it. It is the day of Ganga’s earthly descent, also signifying the cyclic beginning of Treta Yuga (treta means three, as the yuga or epoch accounted for three avatars of Vishnu, viz., Vamana, Parasurama and Rama), following Satya Yuga in the Vedic sequence of time. It was on this day Shankara composed and recited Kanaka Dhara (meaning shower of gold), hymn in praise of goddess Lakshmi, while he was seeking alms from an impoverished family who could only offer him a gooseberry. Lakshmi responded to Shankara’s hymn by profusely showering down golden gooseberries as a blessing on the poverty stricken family. It was on this day the penurious Sudama paid a visit to his childhood friend Krishna with compelling purpose of seeking aid but eventually returns after the meeting without disclosing his actual situation to an omniscient Krishna, only to find his modest dwelling transformed into a palace with all riches. The Sanskrit word akshaya means never diminishing; the day is thus considered auspicious for all ceremonies, acquisitions, and starting new ventures. I moved into Grale Haven, my newly constructed house, on Akshaya Tritiya day in the year 2004.

The sanctity and auspiciousness assigned to highly spiritual days of vaishakha is clearly attributable to it being the supremely favourite period of Vishnu, the presiding deity of the month,  also known as Madhusoodana. The names Madhava and Madhusoodana appear in Vishnu Sahasranama, a hymn glorifying Vishnu in a thousand names. Madhava means one who is the consort of goddess Lakshmi and the giver of all knowledge and prosperity. Madhusoodana denotes the destroyer of demon Madhu, a preserver as sweet as honey, directing an individual towards performing good deeds guided by true knowledge, overcoming negative karma of the past and attaining ayu, or longevity, yash, or fame, pushti, or sustenance, moksha, or liberation from worldly bondage.

The lustre of Vaishakha turns all the more effulgent in abundant grace, afforded not only by luminosity of Rabindranath Tagore and Chinmayananda Saraswati but also by the divinity of Buddha and Shankara. While Tagore is renowned as the renaissance man of India, imparting a uniquely musical dimension to poetry, notably in Gitanjali, a collection of his poems invested with undertone of pantheism, and going on to  become Asia’s first Nobel Laureate, Chinmayananda inspired audiences with Advaita Vedanta, the philosophy of non-dualism propounded in the Upanishads, as a missionary, and teacher of Indian philosophy in universities across Asia and America. Chinmaya in Sanskrit stands for pure knowledge, and ananda, bliss; conjoined, chinmayananda is bliss attainable on realization of pure knowledge. Tagore’s vehicle was music, as he considered it to be the most euphonious expression of infinity. In the poet’s own words, “Last night, in the silence which pervaded the darkness, I stood alone and heard the voice of the singer of eternal melodies. When I went to sleep I closed my eyes with the last thought in my mind, that even when I remain unconscious in slumber the dance of life will still go on in the hushed arena of my sleeping body, keeping step with the stars. The heart will throb, the blood will leap in the veins, and the millions of living atoms of my body will vibrate in tune with the note of the harp-string that thrills at the touch of the master”. For Chinmayananda, pure knowledge resided in the Upanishads, and he went about propagating it as precepts pointing to desirable paths in the forward march of life, not as empty rituals and dogmatic principles of good and evil, god and satan, or heaven and hell designed to instill fear, with ulterior motive of increasing numbers through proselytization and directing societies towards narrow concerns of vested agendas.

Going back two thousand five hundred sixty years from today, the world experienced the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path, as clearly defined by the master who laid no claims to sainthood or godliness; just that he was awake, to sorrows and sufferings of worldly life born out of attachments to people and possessions, to the impermanence of all things, prompting the need to strive for liberation from the cycle, or misery-go-round, of birth and death by practicing right living based on dharma. Several centuries down the line, Shankara put it forth as tat-twam-asi, exhorting humanity to transcend ego to realize the divinity within.

As yet another vaishakha full moon makes her resplendent appearance in the night sky today, May 21, 2016, to watch the slumbering earth shackled in darkness, may it awaken people towards higher realizations, as a day memorializing the birth, enlightenment (nirvana) and passing away (parinirvana) of the master, as a month profoundly blessed by coming into being, inter alia, of evolved souls like Shankara, Tagore, and Chinmayananda.


Sixty Boxing Years…

The words box and boxing have multiple meanings and associations. One of the most familiar images of the box is when it is dressed up in colourful wrappings for its contents to assume the form of gifts or presents on social occasions like birthdays and weddings, anniversaries and festivities. The day after Christmas is widely celebrated as the Boxing Day when boxes of gifts are exchanged between relatives and friends. In a larger perspective, the box is a preserver of values, bonder of relationships, facilitator of trade and connector of markets.

Flashback to the 1950s, when an American trucker by name Malcom Mclean, routinely transporting cargo from nearby industrial areas to the harbour, contemplated on the humongous expenditure of time and money involved in moving cargo from origin to port warehouses, whereafter, based on vessel arrivals,  transferring it again therefrom to the shipside for piece by piece loading on board the ship. The conventional process of handling cargo in different types of packing, loaded and unloaded by vast crews of dockworkers was unwieldy, unreliable and so slow that ships spent longer time docked in ports than they did sailing at sea. Pilferage of cargo was rampant with dockworkers, as it was spoken about in lighter vein, happily returning home after every eight hour shift work with moderate earnings and all the swiped Scotch and goodies they could carry home.

In a sudden epiphany, on one of his daily trucking loops between inland warehouses and the harbour, Mclean wondered at huge savings in cost and time if the entire cargo-laden truck or, optionally, cargo compartment of the truck could be detached and loaded aboard the ship. The concept of loading cargo-laden trucks into the ship’s holds was given up for the time being because of large wastage, in so doing,  of potential cargo space on board the vessel. He returned home to work on his vision and subsequently collaborated with engineer Keith Tantlinger to develop the marine freight container, container handling equipments and purpose-built ships for international carriage of containers.

Mclean’s efforts eventually bore fruit when he succeeded in loading fifty-eight trailer vans, later called containers, aboard a refitted tanker vessel by name ‘Ideal X’, sailing her on 26th April 1956 from the port of Newark, New Jersey to Houston, Texas. The rest, as they say, is history of how international transportation evolved in consonance with growth in world trade. Today, the container is at the core of a highly automated system for efficient movement of goods from anywhere to anywhere. The price of everything fell, starting with the cost of loading and unloading. When Mclean looked at the costs of his first container ship, he found that it cost $ 0.16 per tonne of containerized cargo compared with $ 5.83 per tonne of loading loose cargo. Shipments could be made in smaller lots in containers than the bigger aggregations of cargo required to qualify for space in conventional vessels, thereby reducing capital locked in larger inventories. Incidence of damages, inherent in multiple physical handling of cargo packages at various points, plummeted, and pilferage of cargo was practically eliminated because freight containers were packed and sealed at factories. Productivity surged at ports; where earlier the dock labour only moved a few tonnes per hour on to a conventional cargo ship, they were now able to load a few hundred tonnes per hour on to a container ship. As a consequence, ships became bigger in size and enhanced in efficiencies, spending lesser time at ports. Since the freight container was able to move on multiple modes of transportation, it could be switched from ship to rail car, or trailer truck, or a barge, and vice versa to traverse entire distances from farm to fork in the case of agro produce and, as far as manufactured products were concerned, from centers of production to interim distribution and final consumption locations.

The tremendous strides in container movement across all modes of transportation coincided with a global reduction in trade barriers as a result of European integration and various agreements on tariffs and trade between countries. Ports such as Busan in South Korea, Charleston and Seattle in the USA, and, progressively, Singapore and Hong Kong moved into the front ranks of world’s seaports, and massive new ports sprung up in places where none had existed before, such as Felixstowe in England, Salalah in Oman, Jebel Ali in UAE, Laem Chabang in Thailand, Kaohsiung in Taiwan, Tanjung Pelepas in Malaysia, Nhava Sheva, Vallarpadom, Krishnapatnam and Kattupalli in India. Growing countries desperate to scale up in economic development were now hopeful of realistically becoming suppliers to wealthy nations situated across enormous distances. Huge industrial complexes mushroomed in developed countries leveraging on lesser cost of bringing in raw materials and turning them out as finished products.  Supply chain management companies were enabled to develop value-added services like JIT (Just In Time) deliveries, where spare parts to assembly lines or raw materials to production centers were delivered as close to actual requirement as possible, effecting significant cost savings in holding inventories. The scenario also facilitated multinational operations of industrial majors who could integrate isolated factories into networks facilitating competitive sourcing of production from available options. A study of 22 industrialized countries indicate that containerization has substantially boosted trade volumes and globalization, more than all the trade agreements put together in the past fifty years.

First containership in India, APL's 'ss.President Tyler' call at Cochin port on 23rd November 1973.

Not bad for the box that holds a greater significance in my life, dominating my career years in its revolutionized manifestation as freight container. What is so important about the freight container as to specially deserve its statement in glorified terms? By itself it is nothing. A soulless aluminium or corrugated steel box, held together by welds and rivets, with a wooden floor and doors at one end, the standard freight container has all the romance and allure of a world traveller. The value of this utilitarian object lies not in its form, but in how it is used. The freight container enables multimodal transportation of all types of packed goods, bulk dry and liquid, and perishable cargo, making shipping an end-to-end logistical operation in place of earlier port-to-port movement under conventional cargo vessels. A modern container terminal bristles with traffic, at a scale that strains the limits of imagination. Everyday thousands of containers arrive and depart by trucks and trains. Tractor-trailers laden with containers stream through terminal gates, where scanners read the unique number on each container and computers compare it against data in ships’ manifests before the trucker is directed to the delivery location. Tractor units arrive to connect trailers laden with containers that have been discharged from the ship by RMQCs (Rail Mounted Quayside Cranes). Trains carrying double-stacked containers roll into an intermodal terminal near the dock, where giant straddle cranes remove one container after another from rail-flats. Outbound container trains, bound to rail yards adjoining manufacturing and logistics hubs located a few thousand kilometers away, are assembled on the same terminal for loading containers by same straddle cranes. The totality of all these activities amounts to a nearly seamless system for intermodal transportation of freight around the world.

By the time I entered the scene in Bombay in the latter half of 1977, containerization was in its infant stages in India. Involved in diverse responsibilities ranging from operations, marketing and profit centre management of containership services and multi-modal logistics across major ports in India, the Middle East and Africa, I have been witness to the steady growth of containerisation in all these geographies. The first container ship to call an Indian port was of APL, with ‘President Tyler’ arriving at the port of Cochin in 1973, virtually pioneering the concept in India (see pics, all images courtesy private archive and google). It was soon followed by other major carriers operating regular liner containership services initially from Cochin, Bombay and Calcutta, and subsequently from all other major ports of India. Global trade is presently facilitated by the annual movement of close to a whopping 175 million boxes (measured in TEUs or twenty foot equivalent container units) laden with all varieties of agro produce, perishables, raw materials and finished products, a figure that is growing at an annual rate of 6 to 7%. If these statistics are considered in terms of total throughput at container terminals worldwide, the current annualized number would swell to around 600 million TEUs, as throughput includes movement of transhipmemt and empty containers.

Refinements in container types and features, container ships, container terminals and container handling equipments appear to be at a saturation stage, at a time when stakeholders are crossing the sixty year milestone of boxing with challenges of shipping and intermodal logistics. Where to, will international trade and developments in transportation advance from here? While international trade is poised for consistent growth in a globalizing world that is rapidly shrinking into inter-connected, increasingly compacted entities, where markets are expanding through steadily increasing demand and supply of merchandise, it is difficult to surmise future innovations and developments in transportation. As the world salutes the inventiveness of Wright brothers and Henry Ford, in regard to airplane and automotive assembly line, every freight container, on a tractor trailer, rail flat or aboard ship, is a celebratory reminder of the genius and pioneering endeavours of Malcom Mclean and Keith Tantlinger. The glowing testimony thereof is the by now ubiquitous box, and box-ship, constituting vitally integrating links in global transportation and supply chains.