Vishu 2018…

In Johannesburg, another autumnal day, 15th April 2018, dawned like any other, wrapped in a chilly 12 deg C. Yet, suddenly from an overcast sky, the sun emerged, sending out golden rays as a radiant reminder of Vishu in the warm summer of my home state of Kerala in India, where people usher in the new year with predawn visions of prosperity as symbolised in the bounties of nature by way of assortment of fruits, new linen, gold and silver, neatly arrayed,
together with an icon of Krishna in a brass vessel known as uruli.

2018-04-15-PHOTO-00000069 (1)

My mind harked back to the celebratory aspect of Vishu during my school days over half a century ago. The festival follows the solar cycle of the lunisolar as the first day of month called Medam, invariably falling in the middle of April as per the Gregorian calendar, on or about 14th / 15th April every year.

Vishu literally means equal, and in the festival context it connotes the completion of spring equinox. Vishu signifies the sun’s transit into the Meda Raasi or the first solar month. That is the reason why it is considered as the beginning of the year, a day in which the duration of day and night is equal (equinox).

The festival is notable for its gaiety and is marked by family time, preparing colourful, auspicious items and viewing these as the first thing on the Vishu day, seeking to view, inter alia, golden blossoms of the Indian laburnum or Cassia fistula, locally known as Kani Konna, and receiving money or silver items as handout from elders (Vishukkaineetam). The day also attracts merriment of fireworks in the presence of children, wearing new clothes and eating a special vegetarian lunch known as Sadhya.

In accordance with tradition, the first sight people see upon waking up on Vishu day is arranged, by the lady of the house, the previous night itself so that the setting serves as the initial auspicious vision for all family members in the early hours of the morning. Parents cover children’s eyes and lead them to the pooja room where the Kani is arranged. After looking at own reflection in the valkannadi (traditional mirror made of metal), one then admires the image of Krishna, to remind oneself that divinity exists within everyone and that each one must show love and respect equally to everyone else.

Intaking the symbols of prosperity –  rice, vegetables, fruits, sacred texts, jewellery, coins etc – is believed to usher in a prosperous new year. The belief is that these auspicious sights will continue throughout the year.

Kanikkonna flowers (Cassia fistula) blossom during Vishu and is used to decorate the Kani. Lighted brass lamps and an adorned statue of Krishna are central elements of Vishu Kani. The Malayalam word kani literally means “that which is seen first”. The belief is that one’s future is a function of what one experiences, that the new year will be better if one views symbols of prosperity as the first thing on Vishu.

I vividly reminisce my late mother on her feet at pre-dawn hours, going to each member of the family one by one, blindfolding and waking each one up, walking them to the front of the setting. She then releases the blindfold so one can see the symbolic setting, and then greet others and radiate the blissfulness of another new year.

The mixing of sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavors for the Vishu meal is similar to the traditional festive recipes, that combine different flavours, as a symbolic reminder that one must expect all types of experiences in the coming new year, that no event or episode is wholly sweet or bitter, and to make the most from life’s transitory events and experiences.

Flash forward to the reality of our ongoing three-month sojourn in Jo’burg. It has not been possible to recreate the spirit of Vishu in all its ritualistic perfection here. The highlight of our visit this time around is certainly seeing Dev, our grandson, born on 14th July 2015, presently as a bubbly and chirpy kid of a little under three years of age. He has been, since last year, going to the pre-school class at the nearby German school, formally known as the Deutshe International School Johannesburg (DSJ), a renowned institution over a century old and cited as the best run German school outside Germany, in which as many as 1100 students of 35 different nationalities seek school education in cordial cosmopolitanism. I have temporarily taken upon, from his parents, the delightful task of driving him to school every morning and picking him back in the afternoon as he is still too young for the school bus permissible for kids from 1st standard onwards, which is another few years away as class one follows four years of pre-school, and two years of lower and upper kindergarten, unlike in India where the entire process speeds ahead by an year.








The Vishu day was hence expediently chosen to conduct Vidyarambham, initiation into learning. Dev was ritually initiated into the world of Akshara (Sanskrit, loosely translated as ‘letters’), through a simple ceremony with him seated in front of a lighted oil lamp, with his parents alphabetically guiding his index finger on a platter of rice grains, scripting Hari, Sri, Ga, Na, Pa, Tha, Ye, Na, Mah. Akshara means that which is present everywhere, denoting Brahman, or that which is imperishable. The infinitely expanding field of knowledge is similarly appreciated to be beyond destruction. Submitting the index finger to the deemed guru’s guidance in the ceremony is an expression of relinquishing the ego. When knowledge dawns, humility follows. A truly knowledgeable person will be humble. Seeing the divine in everyone, he will respect everyone. While knowledge is considered to be divine, ego is a human creation.



The chant, Om Hari Sri Ganapataye Namah, symbolizes all 50 alphabets in Sanskrit treated as the embodiment of nadarupini, the goddess of sound. In the mantra, Hari represents Vishnu, Sri represents Lakshmi and Saraswati. And Ganapati represents Om—the primal sound. In essence, the mantra is a complete form of worship.

As the ceremony began, I chanted the prayer, which is an invocation to goddess Saraswati, the epitome of all forms of knowledge, including knowledge of the performing arts. The Shloka is as follows:

Sarasvati namastubhyam
Varade kamarupini
Vidyarambham Karishyami
Siddhir Bhavatu Me Sada

Translated as, O Goddess Saraswathi; salutations to you, the giver of boons, the one who fulfills desires. I shall begin my studies. May there always be accomplishment for me.

And so the day went, with Vishu also serving as an occasion for Dev’s ceremonial initiation into learning. At DSJ, he is positioned for an year-to-year progression to complete high school studies, by way of clearing the German Abitur in class 12. German being the medium of instruction and English figuring in as a second language, he is mostly bound to be cut off from his linguistic and cultural moorings. By first week of June 2018, my wife and I will be returning to India, and, in a few years, celebrations linked to Indian culture will fade away from his memory, to be, hopefully, replaced by newer interests and excitingly rewarding pursuits spread across hitherto unseen horizons. Well, these are  hopes and expectations, not a prophetic glance into futurity, foretelling what will be. As the song goes, Que sera sera…

The Waste Land…

“Thank God men cannot as yet fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth”, pondered Henry David Thoreau couple of centuries earlier, obviously consoling himself, at the same time bemoaning, the rapidly accelerating imprint of industrialization and burgeoning levels of pollution.

Mankind has since been not only flying high up the skies and between far-flung lands but the Elon Musk among them is also eyeing possibilities of colonizing outer space through inter-planetary travels, probably compelled by need to seek an exit option from steadily mounting volumes of inorganic waste and filth threatening to devour life on earth, as startlingly exposed by a recent spectacle, which may be an alarmingly recurring event at various regions around the world, of a dead elephant floating across the Pamba River. The post-mortem report attributed the death to indigestion caused by ingestion of plastic along with food as evidenced by significant traces of plastic found in the pachyderm’s alimentary canal. Located in the south Indian state of Kerala, Pamba is the third longest river in the state. The hill shrine of Sabarimala, to where there is heavy influx of pilgrims, is located at the banks of the river. The area surrounding the hill shrine is densely forested and teeming with wild life. Fortunately, the peak flow of pilgrims happens mostly during a sixty day period stretching from mid November to mid January every year. The numbers of pilgrims, however, keep rising every season disturbing the wild animals and polluting the environment with empty food cans, plastic bottles and other debris readily picked up by wild animals for traces of food. Forest conservators and veterinarians inspecting elephant trails post the pilgrim season discovered to their horror pieces of plastic, toffee-wrappers and more from samples of elephant dung drawn from sites alongside trails. The elephants, it is inferred, cannot distinguish between plastic and foodstuffs, tempted as they appear to be by the sugary and tangy taste of food residues inside left-over cans and bottles,

How to diverge from the disastrous path to which humanity seems to be headed? “If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production” was how in the last century folk singer Pete Seeger  envisioned the eco system to be sustained for the future. The spectre of countries submerging under mountains of plastic and life altogether extinguishing may no longer be in the realm of fantasy. It is extremely difficult to move around towns and cities in India, where management of waste is one of the worst anywhere in the world, without encountering humungous quantities of rubbish piled up. There is garbage billowing out of fields in the villages, on the forest floor, and in the beaches, where one’s toes are tickled by strands of plastic. Not too late in the day is the governmental mission of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission, a campaign aiming to clean up the streets, water bodies and environs of the country’s urban and rural areas. Not too late in the day too is the central government’s project to clean the Ganga that provides water to forty percent of the country’s population, and for a phased conversion of public transport from diesel to electric vehicles. Yet there is little determination to promptly implement relative policies or follow through on performance targets. Also, the government machinery is too often seen as buckling under pressure of vested interests and lacking in political will to mete out deterrent punishments to offenders.

Clearly, an effective solution to a problem of gigantic proportions cannot work without efforts on war footing from all stakeholders, of which the statutory agencies are just one. Additionally there is the general public or the consumers of goods and services, and the producers or the industry churning out goods and services to cater to the need and, nay. greed of people. When we think of waste stream management, we often think compartmentally of downstream or upstream solutions. Citizens must consume less with focus on eco-friendly products. Waste must be segregated at source and organic waste to be compulsorily composted at source. Going upstream, producers have to mandatorily switch to reusable packing like glass bottles replacing plastic. For far too long, private enterprises have been allowed to appropriate profits arising from an expanding economy and socialize the cost of coping with the waste generated. The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid in the form of mass production of FMCGs and ensuing profits has apparently been realized by many well established companies but the people at the bottom of the pyramid have been left in the lurch to grapple with detritus of that fortune.

It is high time for industry to take its social responsibility with greater seriousness as otherwise things are bound to spiral out of control. With India going digital, there is a massive and potentially hazardous e-waste generation. Even though recycling helps to harvest valuable metals from e-waste, it does not solve the problem as the residual waste is highly toxic if it is allowed to leach into the ground and water bodies. E-commerce, the other sunrise sector in India, is expected to register quantum leaps in volumes, set to grow from current usd 16 Bn to usd 200 Bn by 2026. The generation of huge amount of plastic and other packing materials that the sector is set to consume may further exacerbate an already worsening scenario. Imagine a geometrically scaling up situation with increasing consumption of a growing population; every available stretch of land and water will see rising levels of styrofoam, plastic, cardboard and metal resulting in endangered public health and environmental hazards. Global production of plastic has gone up from 1.5 million metric tons (MMT) a year in 1950 to 300 MMT per annum at present, and only 14% of such plastic is recycled. In India, more than 15000 tonnes of plastic is generated every day, a third of which remains uncollected; where the missing plastic ends up is anyone’s guess.

The only real solution is for the corporate sector to join hands with governments as producer-regulator, to control and enforce strict norms on the consumer. The need is to shift to a production and consumption protocol that is smart, innovative, and sustainable based on efficiencies across the entire life cycle of the product. The shift must focus on reducing, if not eliminating, the use of plastics, particularly single-use, wherever practical, contributing to reduction and conversion of waste to energy through aerobic and anaerobic digestion. The “clean and green Madukkarai” is an illustrative example of corporate social responsibility under the laudable initiative of ACC, the largest cement company in India, partnering in the management and recycling of waste in Madukkarai, a south Indian city suburb; the place is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s largest largest recycling initiative. With the help of around 50 women, who are now called ‘Green Friends’, and a simple, scalable model, it is leading the way for efficient waste management. Next, the focus must be on redesigning products and developing alternatives. Recycling and recovery of plastics for reuse by the industry and as raw material in sectors such as construction will considerably reduce plastic waste.

Sooner or later, we will have to recognize that the Earth has rights, too, to live without pollution. What mankind must know is that human beings cannot live without Mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans. One of my early glimpses of an urbanizing society, sadly seeing increasing realization in the present and boding ill for the future, was the modernizing Eliotian world-view where civilization has been reduced to a ‘waste land’, with the land losing its fertility and ability to bring forth life, with even the living apparently suffering from some kind of spiritual wound. But how can we fix such societies? By regaining spiritual and psychological enlightenment and making peace with our demons. There is a need for deep self-realization, that we have an organic relationship with nature, duly acknowledging that human beings have an eloquent bond with all of creation. Rumi’s verse gives it lyrical expression: “Be like the sun for grace and mercy. / Be like the night to cover others’ faults. / Be like running water for generosity. / Be like death for rage and anger. / Be like the Earth for modesty. / Appear as you are. / Be as you appear”.

Journey To Truth…

Over the years, I am, I think, experiencing a transformation from an unquestioning belief about the nature of reality, acquired through systematic process of conditioning and informing by culture and religion, to a stage of rationalist delving into the underlying essence that appears to be too dynamic, like a shifting target receding into the distance, eluding all attempts at grasping it. It is no more believing but seeking, a persistent search for truth, to un-conceal that which is buried below several layers of gross edicts, ritual and dogma. The question, “What is truth?” has reverberated down through history. Probably, India is the only country that carries the dictum, satyam-eva jayate, in Sanskrit, meaning “Truth alone triumphs.”, a mantra from the Mundaka Upanishad. Following the country’s independence, it was adopted as the national motto of India in 1949 and inscribed in script at the base of the national emblem

The pursuit of truth is interestingly captured in an ancient Indian parable that has since been put to rhyme by an American poet, John Godfrey Saxe: “It was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined, / Who went to see the Elephant (Though all of them were blind) / That each by observation might satisfy his mind”. In the story, each of the six visually challenged travelers takes hold of different parts of the elephant and then describes to the others what he has discovered. The poem concludes: “…And so these men of Indostan, disputed loud and long, / Each in his own opinion, exceeding stiff and strong, / Though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong”. Though each one was describing the truth, the description fell short of the whole truth.

We look at the story from a perspective distance and smile with a degree of condescension, equipped with the knowledge of what an elephant looks like. That someone could make a judgment based on one aspect of truth and apply it to the whole seems absurd or even unbelievable. On deeper thought, can we not, however, recognize ourselves in these six blind men, pleading guilty of the same pattern of thought at many stages in our lives? The world is often seen “through a glass, darkly” and, yet, it appears to be part of human nature to make assumptions and frame observations on incomplete and misleading inputs. Inadequate sensory perceptions and life experiences can lead to limited access and overreaching misinterpretations. Can a person with a limited touch of truth turn that into the one and only version of all reality?

Here I am reminded of a story about a couple who had been married for sixty years. With not many tiffs during their time, their days together apparently fleeted by in happiness and contentment. They shared everything and had no secrets between them, except one. The wife had a box that she kept atop a sideboard, and she told her husband when they were married, that he should never look into the box for the contents. After long years elapsed, the moment came when the husband took the box down and asked if he could finally know what it contained. With wife’s consent, he opened it to discover two doilies and dollars 25000/-. Upon asking his wife as to what it meant, she responded, “When we were married, my mother told me that whenever I was angry with you or whenever you said or acted in a manner I did not like, I should knit a small doily and then talk things through with you”. The husband was moved to tears, marvelling that during sixty years of marriage he had only upset his wife enough for her to knit only two doilies. Feeling highly elated, he took his wife’s hand and said, “That explains the doilies, but what about the $ 25000/-?” His wife smiled sweetly and added, “That is the money I got from selling all the doilies I’ve knitted over the years”.

Not only does the story point to an amicable way of dealing with marital discord but it is also illustrative of the folly of jumping to conclusions aided by insufficient information. So often the truths we tell ourselves are merely fragments of truth and sometimes they are not really the truth at all.

What then is truth?. Is it something that appears in tiny and tantalizing nuggets to the persevering mind to merely relegate it to an unending quest likely to be riddled with frustration? Is it really possible to know the truth? And how should we react to things that contradict truths learnt previously? Some of the greatest thinkers have attempted to answer these questions. The elusive nature of truth has been a favourite theme of renowned poets and storytellers. The intriguing aspect of truth is brought forth in Shakespearean tragedies where the plot often turns on a misunderstanding of an important truth.

Part of the problem in the search for truth is the failure of human wisdom going by the many examples of things that mankind once inferred to be true but were since proven false, ranging from the flatness of the earth, to cerulean blueness of the sky, to numerous planets in their designated orbits, and to most elements constituting the universe still shrouded in mystery. The problem of the origin of man was almost exclusively a theological one until the end of the nineteenth century. Since then, surprisingly, the problem has entered a new phase, the phase of positive science. Human paleontology and prehistory have discovered a series of impressive facts whose volume and quality must be considered transcendental, since these scientific facts lead to the idea that the origin of man is evolutional: the human phylum has its evolutionary origin in other animal phyla; and within the human phylum, humanity has adopted genetically and evolutionally distinct forms until it has arrived at present-day man, the only one until now with which philosophy and theology have concerned themselves.

The undeniable somatic evolution, however, leaves untouched another fact that must be kept in mind and integrated with evolution if we are to explain the phenomenon of humanity completely: the essential irreducibility of the intellective dimension of man to all his sensory animal dimensions. An animal, being merely sentient, always and only reacts to stimuli. There can be, and there are, complexes of stimuli structured as units, often endowed with the character of a sign, and an animal selects from them according to their attunement with the tonic states it feels. Still, it is always a case of mere stimuli. In contrast to this, man with his intelligence, responds to realities. Intelligence is, not the capacity for abstract thought, but the capacity that man has to perceive things and deal with them as realities. Between mere stimulus and reality there is not a difference in degree but in essence. What we are accustomed to call, improperly, “animal intelligence” is the refinement of the animal’s capacity to move among stimuli in a very diversified and fruitful way, but always on the level of giving an adequate response to the situation with which the stimuli present it; and this is why it is not, properly speaking, intelligence. In contrast, man does not always respond to things as stimuli, he also responds to them as realities. The richness of man’s response is of an order essentially distinct from that of an animal’s. This is why his life transcends animal life, and the evolutional lines of man and animal are radically distinct ones which follow divergent directions. An animal, for example, may be completely classified; man cannot. For psycho-biological reasons, man is the only animal that is adaptable to all climates of the universe, that tolerates the most diverse diets. But this is not all. Man is the only animal that is not imprisoned in a specifically determined medium but is constitutively open to the undefined horizon of the real world. Thus, he constructs artifacts he has no need of in the present situation against the time when he might have need of them. He handles things as realities. In a word, while the animal only “settles” his life, man “projects” his life. This is why man’s industry is not found to be fixed or to be mere repetition; rather it denotes an innovation, the product of an invention, of a forward-moving, progressive creation.

The truths people cling to, define the quality of societies as well as individual characters. Where such truths are based on incomplete and inaccurate data, they mostly end up serving selfish ends. Part of the reason for poor judgment arises from human tendency to blur the line between belief and truth, as, too often, belief is confused with truth, thinking that just because something makes sense or is expedient, it must be true. There is also the other extreme of truth not being accepted or rejected because it would require one to change or admit that one was in the wrong. Truth is mostly rejected when it is not in consonance with previous experiences. Another dimension of truth is that it exists beyond belief. What is true is truth, even if no one believes it, and there is such a thing as absolute truth, unassailable, unchangeable truth.  It is different from belief and hope. It is not dependent upon public opinion or popularity. Polls cannot sway it; not even the authority of celebrity endorsement can change it. Over the centuries, many wise men and women—through logic, reason, scientific inquiry, and, yes, through inspiration and intuition—have discovered truth. These discoveries have enriched mankind, improved lives, and inspired joy, wonder, and awe. Even so, the things we once thought we knew are continually being enhanced, modified, or even contradicted by enterprising scholars who seek to understand truth. Such studies can be summarized under different, clarifying heads:

Absolute Truth or Inflexible Reality:
“Absolute truth” is defined as inflexible reality: fixed, invariable, unalterable facts. For example, it is a fixed, invariable, unalterable fact that there are absolutely no square circles and there are absolutely no round squares. In the Vedas, Truth is defined as “unchangeable”, “that which has no distortion”, “that which is beyond distinctions of time, space, and person”, “that which pervades the universe in all its constancy”.

Absolute Truth versus Relativism:
While absolute truth is a logical necessity, there are some religious orientations (atheistic humanists, for example) who argue against the existence of absolute truth. Humanism’s exclusion of God necessitates moral relativism. Humanist John Dewey, co-author and signer of the Humanist Manifesto1, declared, “There is no God and there is no soul. Hence, there are no needs for the props of traditional religion. With dogma and creed excluded, then immutable truth is also dead and buried. There is no room for fixed, natural law or moral absolutes.” Humanists believe one should do, as one feels is right.

Absolute Truth – A Logical Necessity:
It is not possible to logically argue against the existence of absolute truth. To argue against something is to establish that a truth exists. Absolute truth cannot be argued against unless an absolute truth is the basis of one’s argument. Consider a few of the classic arguments and declarations made by those who seek to argue against the existence of absolute truth…

“There are no absolutes.” First of all, the relativist is declaring there are absolutely no absolutes. That itself is an absolute statement which is logically contradictory. If the statement is true, there is, in fact, an absolute – in saying that ‘there are absolutely no absolutes’..

“Truth is relative.” Again, this is an absolute statement implying truth is absolutely relative. Besides positing an absolute, it supposes the statement to be true and “truth is relative.” Everything including that statement would be relative. If a statement is relative, it is not always true. If “truth is relative” is not always true, sometimes truth is not relative. This means there are absolutes, which means the above statement is false. When you follow the logic, relativist arguments will always contradict themselves.

“Who knows what the truth is, right?” In the same sentence the speaker declares that no one knows what the truth is, then he turns around and asks those who are listening to affirm the truth of his statement.

“No one knows what the truth is.” The speaker obviously believes his statement is true.

There are philosophers who actually spend countless hours toiling over voluminous writings on the “meaninglessness” of everything. We can assume they think the text is meaningful! Then there are those philosophy teachers who state, “No one’s opinion is superior to anyone else’s. There is no hierarchy of truth or values. Anyone’s viewpoint is just as valid as anyone else’s viewpoint. We all have our own truth.” Then they turn around and grade the papers!

Absolute Truth – Morality:
Morality is a facet of absolute truth. Thus, relativists often declare, “It’s wrong for you to impose your morals on me.” Or, as, in a particular context, my managing director’s advice (during my career years) “not to categorize people and events in black and white terms, but in relative shades of grey”. By declaring something is wrong, however, the relativist is contradicting himself by imposing his morals upon the other.

One might hear, “There is no right, there is no wrong!” If so, it encourages the query whether that statement is right or wrong?

If a relativist is caught in the act of doing something he knows is absolutely wrong, and someone tries to point it out to them, he may respond in anger, “Truth is relative! There’s no right and there’s no wrong! We should be able to do whatever we want!” If that is a true statement and there is no right and there is no wrong, and everyone should be able to do whatever they want, then why are people becoming angry? What basis do they have for their anger? No one can be appalled by an injustice, or anything else for that matter, unless an absolute has somehow been violated.

Relativists often argue, “Everybody can believe whatever they want!” It makes us wonder, why are they arguing? We find it amusing that relativists are the ones who want to argue about relativism.

If one attempts to tell a relativist the difference between right and wrong, one will no doubt hear, “None of that is true! We make our own reality!” If that’s true, and we all create our own reality, then our statement of moral accountability is merely a figment of the relativist’s imagination. If a relativist has a problem with a statement of absolute morality, the relativist should take the issue up with himself. In defining truth, it is first helpful to note what truth is not:

• Truth is not simply whatever works. This is the philosophy of pragmatism – an ends-vs.-means-type approach. In reality, lies can appear to “work,” but they are still lies and not the truth.
• Truth is not simply what is coherent or understandable. A group of people can get together and form a conspiracy based on a set of falsehoods where they all agree to tell the same false story, but it does not make their presentation true.
• Truth is not what makes people feel good. Unfortunately, bad news can be true.
• Truth is not what the majority says is true. Fifty-one percent of a group can reach a wrong conclusion.
• Truth is not what is comprehensive. A lengthy, detailed presentation can still result in a false conclusion.
• Truth is not defined by what is intended. Good intentions can still be wrong.
• Truth is not how we know; truth is what we know.
• Truth is not simply what is believed. A lie believed is still a lie.
• Truth is not what is publicly proved. A truth can be privately known (for example, the location of a buried treasure).

The Greek word for “truth” is aletheia, which literally means to “un-conceal”, “disclose” or “hiding nothing.” It conveys the thought that truth is always there, always open and available for all to see, with nothing being hidden or obscured. The Hebrew word for “truth” is emeth, which means “firmness,” “constancy”, “veracity”. Truth is presented as “Satya” in Sanskrit. It also refers, in Indian tradition, to virtue, of being truthful in one’s thought, speech and action. In Yoga, satya is the virtuous restraint from falsehood and distortion of reality in one’s expressions and actions, being true and consistent with reality in one’s thought, speech and action. Such definitions imply an everlasting substance and entity that can be relied upon.
From a philosophical perspective, there are three simple ways to define truth:

1. Truth is that which corresponds to reality.
2. Truth is that which matches its object.
3. Truth is simply telling it like it is.

First, truth corresponds to reality or “what is.” It is real. Truth is also correspondent in nature. In other words, it matches its object and is known by its referent. For example, a professor facing a class may say, “Now the only exit to this room is on the right.” For the class that may be facing the teacher, the exit door may be on their left, but it’s absolutely true that the door, for the professor, is on the right.

Truth also matches its object. It may be absolutely true that a certain person may need so many milligrams of a certain medication, but another person may need more or less of the same medication to produce the desired effect. This is not relative truth, but just an example of how truth must match its object. It would be wrong (and potentially dangerous) for a patient to request that their doctor give them an inappropriate amount of a particular medication, or to say that any medicine for their specific ailment will do.

In short, truth is simply telling it like it is; it is the way things really are, and any other viewpoint is wrong. A foundational principle of philosophy is being able to discern between truth and error, or as Thomas Aquinas observed, “It is the task of the philosopher to make distinctions.”

Aquinas’ words are not very popular today. Making distinctions seems to be out of fashion in a postmodern era of relativism. It is acceptable today to say, “This is true,” as long as it is not followed by, “and therefore that is false.” This is especially observable in matters of faith and religion where every belief system is supposed to be on equal footing where truth is concerned.

There are a number of philosophies and worldviews that challenge the concept of truth, yet, when each is critically examined it turns out to be self-defeating in nature.
The disciples of postmodernism simply affirm no particular truth. The patron saint of postmodernism—Frederick Nietzsche—described truth like: “What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms … truths are illusions … coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.” Ironically, although the postmodernist holds coins in his hand that are now “mere metal,” he affirms at least one absolute truth: the truth that no truth should be affirmed. Like the other worldviews, postmodernism is self-defeating and cannot stand up under its own claim.

A popular worldview is pluralism, which says that all truth claims are equally valid. Of course, this is impossible. Can two claims – one that says a woman is now pregnant and another that says she is not now pregnant – both be true at the same time? Pluralism unravels at the feet of the law of non-contradiction, which says that something cannot be both “A” and “Non-A” at the same time and in the same sense. As one philosopher opined, anyone who believes that the law of non-contradiction is not true (and, by default, pluralism is true) should be beaten and burned until they admit that to be beaten and burned is not the same thing as to not be beaten and burned. Also, note that pluralism says that it is true and anything opposed to it is false, which is a claim that denies its own foundational tenet.

The spirit behind pluralism is an open-armed attitude of tolerance. However, pluralism confuses the idea of everyone having equal value with every truth claim being equally valid. More simply, all people may be equal, but not all truth claims are. Pluralism fails to understand the difference between opinion and truth, a distinction Mortimer Adler notes: “Pluralism is desirable and tolerable only in those areas that are matters of taste rather than matters of truth.”  In order to understand absolute or universal truth, we must begin by defining truth. Truth, according to the dictionary, is “conformity to fact or actuality; a statement proven to be or accepted as true.” Some people would say that there is no true reality, only perceptions and opinions. Others would argue that there must be some absolute reality or truth.

One view says that there are no absolutes that define reality. Those who hold this view believe everything is relative to something else, and thus there can be no actual reality. Because of that, there are ultimately no moral absolutes, no authority for deciding if an action is positive or negative, right or wrong. This view leads to “situational ethics,” the belief that what is right or wrong is relative to the situation. There is no right or wrong; therefore, whatever feels or seems right at the time and in that situation is right. Of course, situational ethics leads to a subjective, “whatever feels good” mentality and lifestyle, which has a devastating effect on society and individuals. This is postmodernism, creating, if it can be so described, a post-truth society that regards all values, beliefs, lifestyles, and truth claims as equally valid.

The other view holds that there are indeed absolute realities and standards that define what is true and what is not. Therefore, actions can be determined to be either right or wrong by how they measure up to those absolute standards. If there are no absolutes, no reality, chaos ensues. Take the law of gravity, for instance. If it were not an absolute, we could not be certain we could stand or sit in one place until we decided to move. Or if two plus two did not always equal four, the effects on civilization would be disastrous. Laws of science and physics would be irrelevant, and commerce would be impossible. What a mess that would be! Thankfully, two plus two does equal four. There is absolute truth, and it can be found and understood.

To make the statement that there is no absolute truth is illogical. Yet, today, many people are embracing a cultural relativism that denies any type of absolute truth. A good question to ask people who say, “There is no absolute truth” is this: “Are you absolutely sure of that?” If they say “yes,” they have made an absolute statement—which itself implies the existence of absolutes..
We all know there is absolute truth. It seems the more we argue against it, the more we prove its existence. Reality is absolute whether one feels like being cogent or not. Philosophically, relativism is contradictory. Practically, relativism is anarchy. The world is filled with absolute truth.

A relativist maintains that everyone should be able to believe and do whatever he wants. Of course, this view is emotionally satisfying, until that person comes home to find his house has been robbed, or someone seeks to hurt him, or someone cuts the line in front of him. No relativist will come home to find his house robbed and say, “Oh, how wonderful that the burglar was able to fulfill his view of reality by robbing my house. Who am I to impose my view of right and wrong on this wonderful burglar?” Quite the contrary, the relativist will feel violated just like anyone else. And then, of course, it’s okay for him to be a relativist, as long as the “system” acts in an absolutist way by protecting his “inalienable rights.”

Meaning of Life? – This has been the ultimate question since the beginning of mankind. It seems inherent in our nature to ask questions such as “Where did we come from? How did I get here? What is my purpose on earth? Where do I go when I die? What’s the meaning of all this? The answer to this question cannot come from human intelligence or reason, but only from an unrelenting pursuit of the Absolute Truth that pervades and transcends the material world. As we see in today’s naturalistic society, once we remove such pursuit from the equation, we only have materialism to engage our thinking. Or else, we really do have a transcendent purpose, and really do have meaning for our lives. Not only do we find day-to-day significance in our lives, but an ultimate significance in the form of a cherished hope to ascend to progressively higher states of awareness. Based on the Absolute Truth, we remove the moral relativism that pervades today’s society, and we replace it with a standard of absolute right and wrong, which also lends significance to our day-to-day choices. We can choose to live a meaningless life or a life with absolute and eternal purpose. Some people would say there is no true reality, only perceptions and opinions. Others would argue there must be some absolute reality or truth. What matters is to stop taking sides as believer of one or the other, and transform into a seeker. As yet another year recedes into history, it may yet be that ultimate truth resides in the Absolute, Relative, or Plurality or even way above known fields in finer material nature or subtler realms of the spiritual. It is, nonetheless, important to journey on in questing continuity. As Mark Twain quipped, “truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t”.

Humans and Apps In A Sea of Whales…

‘For the times, they are a-changin….’, goes the refrain of one of Bob Dylan’s fascinating ballads. Dylan never fails to enchant, with his genius as a lyricist and counterculture musician; he also remained unfailing in his capacity to shake the audience up with his songs. The climatic shake-up came just last year from the Nobel Committee who decided to award him with the Nobel Prize for Literature, rattling the global literati, who would have wished for one of the celebrated litterateurs to be so honoured, instead of heaping another encomium on an already acclaimed musician burdened by the weight of Grammy, Academy Award, Golden Globe, numerous Halls of Fame citations,  and the Pulitzer Prize among several others in a glorious, over five decades old, musical journey. Be that as it may, the momentous task confronting us all even after well over half a century, from the year the song was first released, is the challenge of coping with change itself.

On the one side, there is the ever growing Artificial Intelligence (AI), piling up at the rate of one smart machine upon another, and steadily progressing to, more ominously, spawn in bewildering numbers, sizes and varieties of smart machines. While the bad news is that these machines are programmed to dominate human lives consigning it to steadily rising levels of subjugation, the ugly news is that AI’s thrust into man-made structures to engulf areas of human endeavour is already on, with unnerving speed. A sampling of such an experience is when one tries to type in a simple message on the smart-phone; with only two alphabets keyed in, the smart-phone has identified the complete word which may not always be the one thought of by the individual; then it becomes a tussle to finally make the machine register the exact word that is planned to be conveyed. For the time being, the exercise may appear to be an amusing banter between us and the machine, with the machine doing our thinking, and accepting our input when it is failing at times. But as tasks attain complexity, process rigidities are bound to set in whereby machines may not be accommodative of any interference.

Driver-less vehicles are another example. It is known that these automated vehicles work according to algorithms. You get into a driver-less car to take a spin. Before entering, you want to switch on the engine to work the air-conditioner so the car interior is cool by the time you step in with your friend. But the moment the engine is switched on, a computer voice begins requesting you to wear the seat belt, and keeps repeating it with the tone becoming increasingly louder till you step in and comply with the orderly request. Fastening the seat belt is a safety imperative, which is required if you are driving the car or are a passenger in a moving car. But not when the car is stationery in a showroom and you are only inside it to initially see the sleek console and interior, and engage in a conversation with your friend who chaperoned to see the new car. Nonetheless, you need to act as programmed if it is a driver-less car.

The driver-less concept is not limited only to overland vehicles. It is extending to unmanned air-crafts and ocean vessels. American Bureau of Shipping, more popularly known in its abbreviation ABS, a leading provider of classification and technical services to the offshore and marine industries, joined the Unmanned Cargo Ship Development Alliance, to work with industry partners, classification societies, shipyards, equipment manufacturers and designers, to advance autonomous shipping. The design will incorporate features of independent decision making, autonomous navigation, environmental perception and remote control. In decades ahead, unmanned deep-sea cargo ships navigating the world’s ocean routes and ports may well become a reality.

Robots conspiring with the each other to exterminate, or, at least control, the human race are the stuff of celluloid blockbusters. Arnold Schwarzenegger made a fortune, after all, personifying the amorphous fear in many minds about the potential danger of AI. The notion of benign home appliances chatting with one another to ‘help’ their owners certainly does neither fill all humans with boundless gratitude, as the prospect of a machine-managed life eventually spiralling out of control (btw, my laptop insists on only one ‘L’ for ‘spiraling’ instead of two ‘Ls’ as in the British ‘spiralling’ which I am used to and exhibits its protest by persisting with underlining the double L’d word in red) would not seem unrealistic at all to the average technophobe, nor does scientists airily pooh-poohing the idea of inventions developing a mind of their own, quite literally, allay fears as long as Frankenstein’s monster remains a favourite trope.

Otherwise, what does one make out of the current spectre of teens and youngsters blindly falling prey to the Blue Whale travestying game rounds in many countries? Quiz most of the youngsters about the whale, and all that they may readily come up with is it is a marine mammal and the largest animal on earth. But further details like the many types of whales, specifics of size, weight, habitat etcetera may not find any recall. The actual blue whale is indeed the largest animal, larger than any of the dinosaurs, with the biggest recorded being a female in the Atlantic ocean which was 30.5 metres long, as long as a Boeing 737, with an estimated weight of 144 tonnes. The tongue of a blue whale can by itself weigh as much as an elephant, and capable of holding an entire football team thereon.

The other type, known as the Sperm whales, are champion divers capable of going up to 3 Kilometer depths and staying there for about couple of hours to feed mainly on squids found in deep waters. Its huge head, up to a third of its body, houses the heaviest brain in animal kingdom, weighing up to 9 kgs. Among the popular types are the sharks and dolphins, the Pacific Grey whale, Bowhead whale, having the longest lifespan going up to 200 years, and Beluga whale. Beluga whales are known as ‘canaries of the sea’ for their chirping sounds like little yellow birds. Sperm whales are the loudest, making sounds of over 230 decibels, with the blue whale following closely behind grunting at about 188 decibels (sounds over 120 decibels are harmful to human ears). The whales sing in warm waters while breeding and giving birth.

In sharp contrast, the Blue Whale lurking in cyber space started to show up in the media with a series of click-baiting stories on Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, describing the bizarre Blue Whale challenge as an on-line game preying on teenagers, with a moderator giving every participant a series of escalating challenges, culminating in the participant’s compelling urge to commit suicide. The British tabloids ran with it next, and soon, solicitous police departments were warning parents. From Brazil to India and most other countries around the world, the Blue Whale story has been heard all over. Amidst all the brouhaha, no one seems to have direct knowledge of the delinquent subculture floating such weird and nefarious games targeting a click-happy generation of teenagers everywhere, and spreading like a contagion, prompting saner elements to wonder as to the direction the world is hurtling towards.

The emerging situation is not amusing anymore. AI, it is reported, can now figure out when its interlocutor is being sarcastic. That AI can be smart was evident when two chat-bots created their own coded language that left humans fuming while guessing. Smarter machines end up making humans dumber. The multiplication table became a chore, if not entirely redundant, with the advent of the calculator. Phones that can store contact details by thousands have drained human memory of its earlier ability to recall numbers by the dozen. Doomsayers may be condoned for conjecturing that bots and robots would be ‘talking’ and plotting, even as their creators loftily decry the idea of ever being outwitted by mere machines. They would be chuckling at the supreme arrogance of flesh-and-blood mortals deeming their intelligence to be artificial, as there is nothing artificial about intelligence. Be it human or machine, intelligence is always real.

What then is the way forward? Is it desirable to dump machines and resume all over again based purely on human capabilities and capacities? Should planet earth, from its presently advanced state of machines and Apps self-destruct, regressing into humanoids, Neanderthals and apes, receding all the way to the primordial unicellular organism? The answer is an emphatic no to all these queries and, instead, embark on a continually progressive mission of embracing technology and progressively enhancing in intelligence, while keeping machines subservient and employing it exclusively to expedite the pace of development and social weal. Several years ago, a management school discussed a thesis submitted by one of the research students. It spoke of a value-based approach to measure economic development. Just as economic growth is necessary for human development, human development is critical to economic growth. Lack of wealth was not the barrier to overcoming world’s hunger, poverty and social ills.

Citing data from UN World and Human Development Reports 1998, it was indicated that in 1997, Europeans and Americans together spent more on cosmetics, perfumes and pet foods than it would have taken to provide reproductive health, basic health and nutrition for all people on the planet. And military spends on the same period was twenty times that. It was also pointed out that Kautilya’s  Arthashastra inspired the revival of many kingdoms after his reign. The healthiest state of affairs was one in which values higher than worldly possessions received honour and approval; maximum production was not the supreme objective of the economic organization; commerce or wealth creation was not an end in itself; and merchants and manufacturers carried out their activities in a trust for the society they lived in.

The word ‘economics’ comes from Greek, ‘oikonomos’, or ‘household management’. When we begin to manage our companies and our economies with the same character and interest as we would our households, it becomes easy to build the Gross National Character (GNC). Hence what is required is not mindlessly chase growth in Gross Domestic Product, familiarly known by its abbreviation GDP. The foremost requirement is for GNC. Character, wherefrom mental strength and superior emotional quotient are derived; edifying character, capable of resilience and fortitude, adding up to a country’s GNC that will surely deliver consistently higher GNH (Gross National Happiness) and, consequently, GDP.


Make Planet Earth Great Again…

As the world observes yet another global environment day, the events in the background paint a mixed picture. There is America opting to exit from the Paris Accord on climate change mitigation, signed in the year 2015 by 194 countries committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and restricting the rise in global average temperature to below 2 deg C above pre-industrial levels. The previous US administration had played a major role in facilitating the historical accord by committing to overdue emission cuts. Yet the gentleman now at the helm in America attributes his decision to ‘the unfairness’ of the deal, the special treatment for India and China. Regrettable a response and the height of irresponsibility one would think, coming from a country that presently is the second highest polluter, just a tad below China. The following table puts the figures in perspective:

Country CO2 emissions (kt) in 2015  % CO2 emissions by country Emission per capita (t) in 2015
 World 36,061,710 100%
 China 10,641,789 29.51% 7.7
 United States 5,172,338 14.34% 16.1
 European Union 3,469,671 9.62% 6.9
 India 2,454,968 6.81% 1.9
 Russia 1,760,895 4.88% 12.3
 Japan 1,252,890 3.47% 9.9
 Germany 777,905 2.16% 9.6
 Iran 633,750 1.76% 8.0
 South Korea 617,285 1.71% 12.3
 Canada 555,401 1.54% 15.5
 Saudi Arabia 505,565 1.40% 16.0
 Brazil 486,229 1.35% 2.3
 Mexico 472,018 1.31% 3.7
 Australia 446,348 1.24% 18.6
 South Africa 417,161 1.16% 7.7
 United Kingdom 398,524 1.11% 6.2
 Turkey 357,157 0.99% 4.5
 Italy 352,886 0.98% 5.9
 France 327,787 0.91% 5.1
 Poland 294,879 0.82% 7.6
 Thailand 279,253 0.77% 4.1
 Taiwan 279,174 0.77% 11.9
 Kazakhstan 267,978 0.74% 15.2
 Spain 262,683 0.73% 5.7
 Malaysia 245,371 0.68% 8.1
 Ukraine 228,688 0.63% 5.1
 Egypt 226,985 0.63% 2.5
 Vietnam 206,028 0.57% 2.2
 United Arab Emirates 199,253 0.55% 21.8
 Argentina 191,199 0.53% 4.4
 Venezuela 178,568 0.50% 5.7
 Netherlands 165,317 0.46% 7.8
 Iraq 160,623 0.45% 4.4
 Algeria 147,692 0.41% 3.7
 Czech Republic 111,092 0.31% 10.5
 Uzbekistan 109,845 0.30% 3.7
 Belgium 97,002 0.27% 8.6
 Kuwait 95,013 0.26% 24.4
 Turkmenistan 94,236 0.26% 17.5
 Qatar 88,825 0.25% 39.7
 Oman 78,446 0.22% 17.5
  Azerbaijan 38.000 0.30% 3.9

 (Statistics courtesy Google)

It must be noted that per capita emission is more important than percentage of emission as it is an index of the living standards of people. A higher per capita emission would point to higher consumption of amenities and utilities arising obviously from superior lifestyles. Whereas the (UK included) 28 member European Union with a population of 510 million, and America with a population of 326 million account for per capita emission that respectively equates to nearly four times and eight times more than India with a population of 1.34 billion, it is explicitly clear as to who the world’s biggest polluters are.

So was the previous US administration extending any special concession to India and China? Saner thinking would point to clarity that prevailed earlier in due recognition of economic and social development achieved by Americas and Europe through enormous consumption of earth’s resources and burning of fossil fuels the process entailed, a situation still largely continuing, and the consequent imperative of curtailing emission levels whilst prudently allowing populous and developing countries (read India and China) to viably pursue the path of progress using low cost energy such as coal and oil. While it is incumbent on developed economies (read USA and EU) to curtail carbon emission by migrating to cleaner forms of energy, it is certainly not fair to insist that developing countries also adopt the same path, as the sudden switch to clean energy requires huge investment which is not immediately feasible for many of the developing economies. Hence the Paris Accord is not a concession to India and China, it only accommodates a sense of fair play and the polluter-pays-principle while insisting all signatory countries to commit to stipulated emission controls, without legal binding.

The White House Rose Garden tirade of the present occupant against the Paris Pact has, therefore, no basis in fact. India did not make its participation contingent on receiving billions of dollars in aid from developed countries, other than insisting on realistic timeframes and targets based on judicious assessment of various constraints and compulsions of developing economies. Total foreign aid to India in the year 2015 was a meagre usd 3.1 billion, of which American contribution amounted to just about usd 100 million, which is being whittled down to usd 34 million. Interestingly, India buys Californian almonds worth usd 100 million every year, in addition to armaments equating to billions of dollars in value. India today is more of an aid donor than aid recipient and offers ample opportunities for investments with availability of qualified and skilled manpower, and demographic dividend quantifying to 650 million people below 25 years of age, apart from being a huge domestic market for consumer and capital goods. No other country holds similar advantages. The other hyperbolized US claim is that the Green Climate Fund (GCF) is of usd 100 billion whereas the actual corpus is only usd 10.3 billion. All contributions to GCF are voluntary, thus it obligates neither US nor any other country for finances. The gentleman in the White House is reportedly contemplating on giving his consent to renegotiate for a re-entry into Paris Deal, but the reality is terms of the agreement signed by 194 countries around the world cannot now be renegotiated. Does anyone want to waste time talking to a gentleman who does not believe in documented scientific data, who does not believe that Arctic ice sheets are melting, summers are getting harsher and winters more extreme?

There is no truth in either India or China planning massive investments in coal based energy plants as several major cities in both countries are reeling under high pollution levels and perforce need to migrate to clean energy. Despite its developmental challenges, India is rapidly increasing its renewable energy capacity. The goal is to achieve a forty percent reduction in emissions in planned forward time horizons. While Kochi, my home city, already boasts of the first fully solar-power operated international airport anywhere in the world, my home state of Kerala with a population of about 33 million is commemorating world environment day by planting 10 million saplings, thereby committing every third person in the state to becoming part of the Green Kerala Initiative. Including Kerala, many states in India are planning the gradual shift to electric vehicles to replace diesel run vehicles in public transport services.

On the macro front, the US exit may well catalyze a new EU-Asia axis to pursue emission targets set forth in the Paris Accord. It is not also as if all states in America are united behind the exit. Atlanta recently became the 27th city in the US to pledge going totally green, committing to transition all its buildings to clean energy sources by year 2025 and 100 percent renewable energy by year 2035. It means that even if US administration is not in the Paris agreement, individual states and cities in the US may remain supportive of the deal. The other encouraging trend is the price of solar and wind energy equipments are declining, giving further traction to enterprises of countries driving the shift to clean energy. The recent study by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) corroborates that climate protection and sustainable development can go hand-in-hand. The report estimates that on an average usd 6.3 trillion of investment in infrastructure is required annually between year 2016 and 2030 to meet development needs worldwide, with an additional usd 600 billion a year over the same period to make these investments climate-compatible, a relatively small increase considering the short and long term gains in terms of productivity, growth and well-being.

With global response strengthening against the threat of environment deterioration, the momentum is bound to swing towards safer and sustainable practices whereby coal and oil interests are destined to find themselves out of sync. It may as well be a human response to a long overdue love and compassion to earth, with an abiding concern for future generations. The compelling necessity is to work towards abundance and rejuvenation epitomized in the seed dissolving into the womb of mother earth to spring forth as flowering plants and fruiting trees with a profusion of seeds to drive home the message of giving, and multiplying unconditionally, a gesture that humans have hitherto been gleefully exploiting without limit. The question is if it can at this late stage be reciprocated in some measure by the world coming together to make planet earth great again? Or, will it continue in mindless greed, and insanity as reflected in the words of Hubert Reeves: “Man is the most insane of species. He worships an invisible god and destroys a visible Nature. Unaware that this Nature he is destroying is this god he is worshiping”.



The occasion of Earth Day of April 22nd this year preceded a day that communicated to me at different levels. Coincidentally, as it since dawned on me, I receive a call from my sister, persuasively requesting my attendance at the annual puja in ancestral temple at my maternal village where I was born over sixty-two summers ago. The place known as Aroor, though still a village, is presently designated as a census town. Even as it still is technically part of neighbouring Alapuzha district, Aroor is considered to be a suburb, located just about seventeen kilometers away, serving as a two-way entrance from southern side to my home city of Kochi. The name ‘Aroor’ takes its origin from the phrase Arayarude Oor, meaning the place of fishermen, later shortened to Arayaroor, eventually contracting to Aroor. True to its origins, the region continues to support a thriving fishing industry by virtue of its proximity to the fishing harbour, seaport of Kochi, and Vembanad lake, a part of the state of Kerala’s one of many enchanting backwaters. The eco-system enables prawn and shrimp farming to be an alternative to low-lying paddy fields, having interlocked water system connected to the backwaters. The abundance of marine wealth and logistical advantages facilitate growing exports of seafood, processed by womenfolk at numerous units and shipped out in refrigerated freight containers that are a common present-day sight on the surrounding roads.

As requested, I drive to Aroor and present myself at my maternal uncle’s house in the morning of 23rd April. The place was a regular inclusion in my school years’ itinerary during summer vacations every year. In those halcyon days, the attraction of Aroor was that it afforded a refreshing change of scene from hustle of town life and rigours of school routine, to the rustic charms of a village, amidst kids of same age group comprising mostly children of relatives staying within walking distances of my maternal grandparents’ house. Calling it a house would be an understatement as it was a mansion sprawled across a huge acreage supporting a large assortment of trees such as mango, jackfruit, sapodilla, gooseberry, cashew, in addition to several ponds and a water canal with a liberal sprinkling of hyacinths; behind these and near to the hedges lay, spread out at various sides of the huge estate, three Sarpa Kavus environed by groves and lush vegetation. It had the aura of a feudal ancestry tracing back to over four centuries. A typical day’s routine of those summers consisted of being up in the morning, gorging on breakfast and rushing out into the open to join the gang of waiting kids, and thereafter participating in a medley of games ranging from marbles and hide-and-seek to a kind of village cricket called kutteem-kolum, or gilli-danda as it is known in other parts of India. The gaming monotony is relieved by climbing fruiting trees towards noontime for thrills offered by aerial view of surroundings whilst greedily plucking and biting into succulent mangoes and cashew-apples, and after being so refreshed, form teams and play a brisk game of football before climaxing with a plunge into the pond for a vigourous swim and splashing around in the water along with other kids. The evenings meant joining the elderly ladies and gents of the house to visit the three sarpa kavus to light oil lamps in worship of the nagadevatas, thence to the ancestral temple for another round of worship in front of lighted oil lamps. Those were days without electricity, thus night-times in households would see lanterns and lamps lit on kerosene. Can you imagine hot summer nights sans electric fans and air-conditioners? That was the reality in this village where people, after downing lantern-wicks to dim the lights, retired for the night by working up a breeze using hand-held fans called visharee to gradually slide into a restorative eight-hour shut-eye.

With the passage of years, transformative changes swept the village. Joint families and properties underwent divisions with people going their separate ways and properties changing hands through succession and sale to third parties. Relatively smaller, electrified houses with latest amenities replaced old structures. The mansion that once nestled in the huge estate of my maternal grandparents is today just a hazy memory. Gone are the ponds, the canal and the sacred groves teeming with lush trees and water bodies. Antiquated constructions were demolished and the land levelled and cleared by new investors for laying out newly designed structures. As if like a pendulum, my mind swings to the present moment at the sign of commencement of the puja at the ancestral temple that now also houses the nagadevatas displaced from the three sarpa kavus. The presiding deity is one of the familiars believed to be dedicated to protect the families of extant and later generations. At one side of the temple, old ladies from nearby households huddled around a lighted oil lamp singing hymns in praise of Krishna and Rama which gradually tapers off as the the priest begins the aarti (the ritual of offering oil and ghee-lit lamps to the deity, derived from Sanskrit araatrika, meaning dispelling raatri or darkness with lighted lamps) to accompaniment of chiming bells. The air becomes sanctified by the sound of bells and aroma of lighted incense and camphor. I stood there maintaining a physical presence while my gaze drifted to nearby expanse of vacant land that was once adorned with the grand mansion surrounded by water bodies and sarpa kavus. A steady wind kept blowing my way, apparently parading images of childhood days spent here. The ancient portraits of great grand-sires on wood panelled walls, and visuals of many old relatives on faded tapestries glided before me in a surreal collage.


Family Temple – view 1


Family Temple – view 2


Serpent Gods


The family estate where the ancestral house was situated

While the past ushers in a sense of nostalgia, I have reached a stage where I do not have any obsessive attachment to people, places or properties. I value the experience of being in a continual transit, where one must necessarily keep moving on from the old to revel in the new, to keep dying in grossness to constantly renew into refined and subtler experiences, and, in so doing, transcend to higher levels of consciousness. Krishna sums it up beautifully in the Gita, “Whatever happened, happened for good. / Whatever is happening, is happening for good. / Whatever will happen, that will be for good as well. / What have you lost? Why are you crying? / What did you bring with you, which you have lost? / What did you produce, which was destroyed? / Whatever was received, was received from here. / Whatever was given, was given here / You brought nothing when you were born / You are taking nothing with you when you die / Whatever is yours today was somebody else’s yesterday and will pass on to someone else tomorrow. / Change is the law of the universe”.

The concept of a creator-god is a matter of belief. The entire body of Vedic texts exhorts one to become a seeker of truth, and not a blind believer. The universe is not creatio ex deo, or creation out of the being of some god, but creatio ex materia, or creation out of pre-existing, eternal matter. The only other thing that is eternal is Dharma, the order that sustains the cosmos in its profoundly deep and infinitely wide connection. Hence the worship of serpents and other orderly manifestations of nature is essentially in deference to life force and an all-embodying pantheistic consciousness where god, if at all there is one, is the final result of the initial cause of the cosmic process. To elaborate further on Sarpa Kavu, or sacred grove of the serpent, it is a typically well-preserved abundance of trees and bushes seen in Kerala state of south India. These pristine groves usually have representations of several Naga Devatas, or serpent gods, which were worshipped by ancient tharavads or joint family households, as part of nagaradhana (snake worship) prevalent primarily among Nair community of Kerala during past centuries. Stories about nagas are still part of contemporary culture in predominantly Hindu regions of Asia, specifically India, Nepal, and the island of Bali. In India, nagas are believed to be nature spirits protecting springs, wells and rivers; they bring rain, and thus fertility, but are also thought to precipitate disasters in the form of floods, drought and disease. As snakes capable of assuming human form, nagas are malevolent to humans when they are ill treated; due to their association with and guardianship of water bodies like rivers, lakes, seas and wells, they are susceptible to mankind’s abuse of the environment. According to legend, Kerala was reclaimed from the Arabian Sea by Parasurama, an avatar of Vishnu, and donated to Brahmins in recompense for the sin of having slaughtered numerous kshatriya dynasties. The densely forested land was teeming with snakes and wildlife. To make it livable for the Brahmins, Parasurama requested Shiva for a solution and his advice was for the Brahmins to start worshipping Ananta, the king of snakes. Thus began the tradition of snake worship in various parts of Kerala. Aside from its mythology and tradition, Sarpa Kavu contributes to soil and water conservation besides preserving biological wealth. The ponds and streams adjoining the groves are perennial sources of water, also doubling up as a resource for birds and animals to quench their thirst during scorching summers. Sacred groves enrich the soil through its rich litter composition and the nutrient contents thus generated are not only recycled within the grove but also find their way into adjoining agro-eco systems.

In a tradition rooted in several ancient cultures around the world, snakes were seen as entities of strength, fertility, and renewal, and worshipped as gods to seek blessings. Snakes symbolized the umbilical cord, integrating humans to Bhumika, or Gaia, or mother earth. The base of the human spine is the seat of primal energy, referred to as kundalini, visualized as a coiled serpent. Serpents are deemed to be potent guardians of temples and other sacred spaces, a connection grounded in the observation that, when threatened, snakes such as cobra and viper hold and ferociously defend their space by attacking the invader. Serpents have a revered place in Vedic and Buddhist scriptures, manifesting as Ananta, the coiled bed of Vishnu sprawled on the ocean of bliss, as Kaliya afloat in the Yamuna river on whose hoods a benevolent Krishna danced and played on his flute to symbolize a world of meanings, and as Macalinda who appeared from beneath the earth to protect a meditating Buddha from the elements. In other words, the serpent is a metaphor of communion between humans and nature as opposed to the hostile and scary view of snakes in western culture mostly drawn from Semitic religions.

Be it preservation of sacred groves, serpent worship, conservation of water bodies, according due sanctity to ancient rivers such as Ganga, Yamuna, Kaveri, and lakes Manasarovar and Pampa Sarovar, and hills of Sabari and Tirupathi, and peaks such as Mount Kailash, the real significance behind it all is the keen perception that we are not different from the earth. If these wondrous manifestations of nature are in danger, so are we. Days and nights happen only because of earth’s revolution. We are extracts from earth, having come out transitorily from earth’s womb, to be sucked back into it in due timescales. Humans celebrating the Earth Day is ironic and audacious at the same time. What is desirable is to think and act like the earth because that is what humans ultimately are, existing only as a minutest part sustained by deep connections to everything else in the cosmos. Spirituality and environmental conservation, therefore, are not disparate goals; they are exactly the same whereby one ascends the sublime peaks of spirituality by bringing to bear the highest environmental consciousness in everyday life, as reflected in the pangs of concern in the words of Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, / O let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet”.

On Friends and Friendship…

One of the sound bites echoing through corridors of my mind is the saying that a friend in need is a friend in deed. It broadly manifests as childhood friends, school friends, amiable neighbourhoods, college friends, career friends, best friends, boyfriends and girlfriends. Being part of an eco system of relatives and absolutes, acquaintances and strangers, friends and foes and many other dualities, I have, probably like others of my age, been through a string of school and college reunions over the last couple of years. It was a really pleasant experience catching up with old friends, many of them mellowed in their features and deportment and a few still retaining vestiges of their old selves and unrefined attitudes akin to unchanging stripes of leopards.

We spend entire lives building relationships. From preschool, where we all learn that “it takes a friend to make a friend,” through adulthood, where we mingle at coffee houses, bars and around water coolers, we crave closeness with other human beings.

We just need to know that someone out there connects with us.

Whether we have a small group of close friends or an expanded group of personable entities, each of our friendships brings something new to our lives, inspiring us to see the world in novel ways, giving us a reliable shoulder to lean on, and an enthusiastic cheerleader to root us on.

Friendships come in all sorts of forms: serious ones, like the college friend you discuss politics and social issues with, silly ones, like the boisterous squad you eagerly play Holi with, chill ones, like your wine and Netflix buddies. Some friendships just keep growing, turning out into rewarding relationships that add to joie de vivre.

Every friendship offers something totally unique — and irreplaceable. Every friendship ultimately contributes to making who we are.

This is why we spend so much time cultivating these equations and learning how to be a good friend. This is why we show up in reunions after separations, at graduations, at weddings, and at funerals. This is why, near or far, our friends hold a special place forever in our hearts.

We all know a true friend is hard to find. So when you do find one, hang on tight. It also does not hurt to let your best friends know every now and then just how much they mean to you.

But like all cherished values, even friendship has undergone a steady transformation over the years. In the corporate world, where I spent all my career years, there are mostly no friendships anymore as it is purveyed in the form of contacts and networking. You become a resource to the management and your success and efficacy is measured by the extent of your network. That said, there is an element of truth in such an assessment because of the fact that networking is a force-multiplier, by way of enhancing value of a resource to an organization and the efficacy it provides in the everyday business of life.

Who is a real friend, is a question often doing the rounds and eliciting widely different answers, ranging  from proverbial friend in need is a friend in deed to a varying verbiage of  similarity that the human mind is capable of conceiving. The legendary pugilist Mohamed Ali observed that “Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.” Shakespeare captures another facet in stating that “A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.” Albert Camus exhorted, “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” Another perception of friendship is embedded in the feeling about some people arriving and making such a beautiful impact on your life that you can barely remember what life was like without them. Friendship impresses a life even more deeply than love. Love risks degenerating into obsession, friendship is never anything but sharing. Helen Keller, who found light in darkness, enthused “I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.” Henry David Thoreau chips in expansively to affirm that “Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”

One of the challenges of modern times may be the almost endless circumstances and situations parading before our mundane lives for the eventual, though not always, zooming in on a person conforming to the definition of a true friend. The journey of such a discovery is often frustrating because a real friend is a rarity. A close and objective analysis would reveal the aspect of underlying greed and selfishness in the statement that a friend in need is a friend in deed, which is neither love nor friendship because the self-serving motive is to use the other as a means. Here it needs to be understood that no human being is a means, every woman or man is an end unto herself or himself.

The real question is whether one is capable of extending a friendly hand to another who may come his or her way, as exemplified by Portia stepping in appropriately with her courtroom eloquence to save Antonio from the clutches of a spiteful Shylock in the Bard’s drama which still keeps playing through varying shades of character and nuances of situations in life’s grand theatre. No need to keep sifting through life’s situations or looking out to discover that rare entity that one can call a friend who may turn out to be a disappointment or not appear at all. In comparison, even maritime explorers of yore out in the turbulent seas to discover new lands had a greater chance of success going by huge number of countries that  since attained cartographic definition. Hence, instead of worrying about who is a real friend, the question is am I friendly to people? While human love is characterized by a degree of consummating lust and possession, friendship takes love to a higher and more refined plane where it is devoid of the grossness of desire, possessiveness and exploitation. It is not needing or avariciously tapping the potential of the other but only privileging, by kind sharing that rains down from generosity of spirit. You have an abundance of material riches and countless other graces you would wish to share. And whosoever is ready to share your joy with you, dance to the rhythm and sing the song of your life, you become grateful to him for being afforded the opportunity of giving. As a true friend, there is no expectation from your side to make him feel grateful and obliged to you. A genuine friend always feels grateful to those who enable him to exercise the virtue of friendship by being recipients of his munificence..

Creating friendships with the motive of using people goes against the canon of true friendship even though it exactly is how friendships manifest in the highly manipulative and competitive world we are in. If you have anything in plenty, share it, and whomsoever is a beneficiary is your friend. There is no obligation on that friend to either reciprocate the gesture or to come to your aid in a time of distress. If it happens, well and good; but if it does not, it is still deemed to be perfectly okay as it is totally up to the other person whose actions should not be your concern. It is not for me to feel that my friend was nowhere in the scene in a time of need.

The focus ought to be on one’s own self, on draining out negativities of greed, anger, hatred, envy and arrogance, and ushering in freshness and spontaneity, thus forming the wellsprings of  care, affection, sensitivity, love and compassion. What we call love has grosser dimensions of biology but friendship is animated by the subtler and elevated aspects of life and informed by the finest spirit of humanism. So while one may only fall in love, one rises in friendship.

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.