Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Stephen Hawking is reductionist

I haven't heard the reductionist paradigm on consciousness expressed as forcefully as by Dr. Stephen Hawking. In his own words

What do you believe happens to our consciousness after death?Elliot Giberson, SEATTLE

I think the brain is essentially a computer and consciousness is like a computer program. It will cease to run when the computer is turned off. Theoretically, it could be re-created on a neural network, but that would be very difficult, as it would require all one's memories.

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2029483,00.html#ixzz14miSAfvu

Dr. Hawking's opinion is that consciousness is nothing but a peculiar sequence of symbols. This gives rise to the same kind of philosophical dilemmas as I have discussed in my post on Kurzweil's horcrux - opening up, amongst other things, the possibility of achieving immortality.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Kabir Project

Ajab Shahar- Kabir Project film/music clip from Ajai Narendran on Vimeo.

This is a set of four great documentaries on the music of Kabir and its influence in India and Pakistan. Filmed by Shabnam Virmani and produced by the Srishti school of design in Bangalore.

Indian folk songs playlist

I am composing a playlist of folk songs and dances from all corners of India. Please check it on youtube and enjoy :)

Please do recommend me more songs if you think of any.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sliding through Grooves of Time

The biggest questions of physics and of philosophy are one and the same. At the centre of all this is the notion of time. What is time ? Does time flow, does it have a direction ? What does it mean to be sharing a moment with others ? Is there a distinction between the past and the future of time - is there ever a choice for shaping the future ?

Answers to these questions, if they ever come by, would reveal us the true meaning of freedom. Since freedom is the most fundamental yearning for a human being, these questions ultimately define the human experience.

I have been going through Brian Greene's book "The fabric of the cosmos". Though the book is occasionally verbose and indulges in lengthy prose, it explains clearly the scientific underpinnings of those questions. Einstein's theories of special and general relativity are particularly pertinent, as they blur the boundaries between time and space. The book conjures the analogy of a loaf of bread to visualize this space-time fabric, which I found quite captivating.

We can cut the loaf into slices, and these slices of bread are the "moments" of time that we experience passing us by. Each moment is a consummate set of objects in space that one shares existence with. What the theory of special relativity says is that these slices can be cut not just vertically but in any direction. So depending on how a person is cutting the bread, he / she would experience time in a different way. And crucially, the "moments" of time experienced by two persons need not be the same.

According to relativity, there is no distinction between the past and the future. The whole 4D-loaf of space+time may very well be frozen like ice. Visualize a bullet of light (a light-car) driving through this icy block, and that is the conscious experience of a human being. In this fatalistic world, a human being is a mere spectator to the machinations of the future.

Quantum mechanics, however, gives some provision for "choice", and potentially, for acting on free-will (for a human being, animal or any other object in the universe). This choice (or quantum indeterminacy as it is called) is a mysterious thing. We do not know what this actually means - whether it means the freedom to just choose the direction of our light-car through the loaf, or actually the freedom to shape the loaf itself !

Imagine that this 4D-loaf of space time has grooves, each like a slide in a playground or like the rails of a roller coaster. Once you step into a groove, you would slide through that path. If you can recollect your first experience of skiing or roller-skating, you would understand this easily. The path of the groove defines how you experience the ride. There is hardly any control (especially if you are not a skillful skier / skater) that is left for you after you step into the groove.

I think that our conscious experience as human beings is very similar to this. Decisions once taken in life pull us down the chutes of their paths. As we pick up speed along the chute, the conscious experience becomes repetitive - because it gets etched into our habit. We crave for the same kind of opponents, the same kind of building blocks to organize our thoughts. We expect the same kind of pleasures and pains, frustrations and release, boredom and excitement. We cannot afford to look beyond the patterns of repetition, as that scares us out of our wit's end, as we have to face the reality that we are sliding down a chute with no control whatsoever.

The more choices you exercise your will upon, the more bound to them you will be. From big choices such as the occupation of your work, the person you get married to.. down to much simpler choices like the friends that you see regularly, the food that you eat, the news that you read, the political causes that you feel passionate about, the websites that you visit.. With each of these choices exercised, there is lesser and lesser freedom for perceiving, inspiring and creating new ideas. This is possibly why the wise people of the old have said that children are God's beings. They have far greater freedom than adults.

In our modern consumer society, we think of choice as freedom. But they are not at all the same. Choice, when exercised without awareness of where it leads to, actually reduces the freedom of a person. But complete awareness is impossible to obtain, even the wisest human beings cannot see beyond a few days or months of where their choices lead. In a way, most of us people are blind and cannot see beyond a few minutes of our actions. When people make choices in such haste, they cannot but experience chaos and frustration.

In my opinion, the web-browsing experience is symbolic of the frustration that people feel in a larger sense in their lives. Whenever you see a hyperlink, you have to decide whether to shift your attention to a new page. This constant exercising of choice leads to browser fatigue. We human beings criminally waste the most precious resource that we have - our attention. Part of it is not our fault, because each past choice reduces our freedom in making future choices. The fatigue experienced by chaotic web-browsing is similar to the fatigue that experienced in modern life. The lasting aftertaste is that of disappointment, confusion and a distinct lack of freedom.

So what is the solution ? Can we escape sliding through these grooves in time ? Are there any sections in this space-time loaf that let us slow down and look around in serene dignity ? I don't know.. But if you ever find one such place, I suggest you make a habit of visiting it regularly. Because freedom is ultimately just a state of mind. If you visit that state regularly, it might even become a habit.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Meru Mountains in Thailand

I think the most beautiful renditions of the Meru mountain are not to be found in India, but in Thailand.

The Buddhist stupa was probably the first architectural construction that was consciously moulded over the concept of the Meru mountain (which is of high symbolic importance in Buddhism). The later Hindu temple architecture in India was undoubtedly influenced by the architectural model of the stupa.

As Buddhism spread to East and South East Asia, people there found several brilliant ways to represent this concept. The pagodas of China, Burma and Japan have evolved out of the stupa. In my opinion, the very best of these representations is the Thai temple. One day, I have to go and visit these places myself :) By the way, the traditional Thai headgear itself looks like a Meru.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The devas of Samkhya - natural or supernatural ?

I came across an online text titled the "The Samkhya aphorisms of Kapila". It is an old English translation done in 1885 by one James Ballantyne. It seems pretty interesting, and should be referred if anybody wants to further explore Samkhya philosophy after my introduction in the last blog post.

The very first line of this translated text says : "Well, the complete end of man (liberation) is the complete cessation of pain arising from any of the 3 causes : adhyātmika (self-imposed), adhibhautika (arising from natural elements) and adhidaivika (arising from 'supernatural' elements)."

This line came as a huge surprise to me, as I understood Samkhya to be a very 'naturalist' philosophy. In fact, the classical version of Samkhya forcefully refutes the presence of a God (Ishwara) either external or internal to the universe. So what are the supernatural elements being talked about ? Adhidaivika is a compound word : adhi (from) + devas. So the supposed supernatural beings referred to here are devas. In this post, I will try to provide some background on them. But first, let's understand what supernatural means.

What is supernatural ?

Anything external to nature can be called supernatural. But this is an inadequate definition, because we have to first specify what nature is. From a simplistic perspective, nature can be defined as composed of matter. But then, modern physics talks about fields of potential, mass-energy equivalence etc. So more broadly, nature can be defined as any set of laws that can be observed repeatedly and experimentally validated by measurement. The key words here are observation and measurement.

In my last post, I have explained the division of Kapila on the measurable and unmeasurable parts of the universe. The measurable (maya in Sanskrit) refers to Prakriti in all her 5 layers. The unmeasurable refers to Purusha. In fact, Indian science text books simply use the word prakriti to refer to nature.

If there is anything in Samkhya philosophy that can be considered "supernatural" (beyond scientific measurement), that is Purusha. Do the devas belong to Purusha then ? No. Purusha is beyond all types of action and causation. The devas obviously belong to Prakriti. So why are they called supernatural ?

Reality check : Devas of Hinduism today

The word "deva" is translated in English today as "god" (or "demigod" in order to denote the polytheistic aspect of Hinduism). In fact, "deva" in many Indian languages today simply means "God". People refer to the God of a temple as a deva, and they offer him / her prayers - seeking progeny, promotion in employment, wealth etc. Many customs in Hinduism today can be considered as superstitious, and invoke various devas to act supernaturally on behalf of the devotees - raising back the dead, reversing time (I am not kidding). According to current language, the word "deva" can indeed be supposed to mean supernatural beings made of "woo". But in this post, I would like to discuss the ancient meaning of this word, as apparent in philosophical texts.

Another word from text quoted above "bhuta" is translated (correctly) by Mr. Ballantyne as a natural element. In fact, the word for physics in Indian science text books today is "bhautika". However, in common parlace, the word "bhuta" has come to mean a ghost or an evil spirit ! Languages evolve rapidly, and it would be stupid to use modern meanings to translate ancient texts.

Devas in Samkhya : Evolutes of Prakriti

Samkhya identifies pancha tanmatras or 5 essential properties of Prakriti that evolve in the very beginning of time : sound, touch, form, taste and smell. As described in the earlier blog, every element of nature has a different proportion of 3 qualities (transparence or sattva guna, increasing or rajas guna and intertia or tamas guna). The above tanmatras get manifest in various objects of nature based on the relative composition of the 3 qualities.

The pancha bhutas (5 base elements of nature) arise from the tamas aspect of the tanmatras :
  1. akash (sky) possessing only sound
  2. vayu (air) possessing sound+touch
  3. agni (fire) possessing sound+touch+form
  4. apah (water) possessing sound+touch+form+taste
  5. prithvi (earth) possessing sound+touch+form+taste+smell
Everything in the physical nature can be represented as one of these. So the word "earth" here doesn't mean to the third planet revolving around the sun, but all the material universe. Similarly, "water" here doesn't mean H2O but all aspects of matter without the property of smell etc. Several modern textbooks continue to misinterpret these words, when reading not only Indian philosophers, but also Greek philosophers who used very similar terms.

The sattva and rajas gunas produce subtler elements of nature, which are as follows.

The pancha jnana indriyas (5 forms of sensing : literally "knowledge sensors") arise from the sattvic aspect, depending on which of the tanmatras they sense. They are hearing, touching, seeing, tasting and smelling.

The pancha karma indriyas (5 forms of acting : literally "action sensors") arise from the rajas aspect, depending on how many tanmatras they act upon. They are speaking, grasping, moving, procreating and excreting.

As you can see, the word for a sense organ in Sanskrit is "Indriya", which is what is used in Indian science textbooks today. The word "Indriya" literally means "that belonging to Indra". and the "Indra" here is the supreme king of devas as mentioned in the Vedic texts. Thus, Indra is basically the lord of senses, and "devas" refer to the various sense and action organs present in any natural object.

Such organs are present in various degrees amongst human beings, animals, plants and inanimate matter. A deva just represents a particular organ in any object present anywhere in the universe. So the correct translation of the word "adhidaivika" would be "that arising out of the process of sensing or acting". Nothing supernatural about it.

The 33 devas in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

Samkhya is considered the oldest of all the philosophical systems in India, probably going back to the Indus valley civilization. The Upanishads are philosophical texts which were written several centuries later (around 500 BCE) - they liberally borrowed terminology from Samkhya to explain their ideas. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the largest and most important of these texts, and it contains a very nice discussion between Vidagdha Sakalya (student) and Yajnavalkya (teacher).

Sakalya : How many devas are there in all ?
Yajnavalkya : 3003.

Sakalya : Yes. But how many devas are there in all ?
Yajnavalkya : 303

Sakalya : Yes. But how many devas are there in all ?
Yajnavalkya : 33

Sakalya repeats his question again, and Yajnavalkya replies as 6, 3, 2, 1 and 1/2 and finally 1. Then he explains that the 3003 are a projection or manifestation of the 303, who themselves are a projection of the 33, who are known from the hymn of viswedevah (devas of the universe) in Rig Veda. The 33 devas are as follows.

8 vasus (that in which any natural object is placed) : fire, earth, air, sky, sun, heaven, moon, stars

11 rudras (that which depart from any natural object) : the ten supposed breaths of a person and the mind as the eleventh

12 adityas (that which move carrying all the universe) : the twelve months of a year, literally signifying time

1 indra : who rules over the senses

1 prajapathi : who symbolizes procreation of natural objects

As with earlier philosophical terms, the words "sun", "moon", "sky" etc. carry very different meaning than the modern interpretation. All these 33 devas are a division of space and time in the universe across the 5 layers of complexity in nature. All of them are completely natural beings, and indeed define nature (prakrithi) for what it is. The ancient religious texts of Vedas and Upanishads just considered these elements of nature to be worthy of praise (stuti).

Sakalya then asks to explain how these 33 are described as projections of just 6 devas. Yajnavalkya replies saying that the 6 are : fire, earth, air, sky, sun and heaven. It can be seen that the certain tanmatras and Indriyas of Samkhya are compressed into grander terms - "heaven" and "sun".

Then Yajnavalkya explains that these 6 can be compressed into 3 : the three worlds of inanimate matter, the world of forefathers (signifying culture borrowed from the past) and the world of devas (signifying life, sensing, intelligent action etc).

The higher devas become more esoteric, and one would need a better teacher than me to understand what they mean. Yajnavalkya says that these 3 worlds can be compressed into 2 : "food" and "breath". Obviously these two words don't mean their modern interpretation, but something subtler. The 1 and a 1/2 deva is explained as "this air here that blows". And the 1 deva is explained as "the breath".

These devas are thus the most principal elements of nature, and become subtler as they get reduced in number. As I explained in my earlier blog, these layers of complexity in existence are represented pictorially by the mountain of Meru, which serves as the architectural basis for any Hindu temple. The various devas can be found as statues on the walls of a temple tower. They are to be contrasted with the idol of Ishwara that sits inside the temple, at the very center of the tower. As I argue below, the word Ishwara (and not deva) is the closest in Hinduism that can be rightfully translated as "God".

The Trimurti : the 3 great devas of the Puranas

The Puranas are mythological and philosophical texts, that were written around 300 AD. As compared to the earlier Samkhya, Vedas or Upanishads, they are very theistic and encourage the love and worship of a personal God (Ishwara). The epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata have also been edited significantly around this time. Current Hindu religion is defined primarily by the ideas from Puranas. This religion has evolved as a reaction to the complete neutrality (in the philosophical understanding about the Absolute) and equality (in the social relationships amongst people) by Buddhism. Each of the Puranas have created a mega-deva, of infinite wisdom, love and other such good qualities. They also solidified the different social inequalities into a rigid caste system. The several religions that evolved out of the Puranas can be considered monotheistic, and quite comparable to Abrahamic faiths. They usually glorify one deva as Ishwara and delegate all the others as his attendants or angels.

But the Puranas have not been written in a philosophical vacuum. They borrowed intensely from earlier systems, particularly from Samkhya. The various Puranic devas of today (such as Ganesh, Shakti, Lakshi, Vishnu, Shiva etc) are inspired from the devas of Samkhya.

At the core of this hierarchy of devas are the trimurti (literally 3 forms) which are three figureheads to represent the universe in its entirety. These 3 forms are meant to denote the 3 gunas of Samkhya, and are thus known as guna avatars. They can be visualized as the reflections of the infinite Purusha on the finite Prakriti from three angles. In a crude language, they represent the Purusha, and their wives the Prakriti into which they are being reflected. But it should be remembered that they are only the reflections, and not the true Purusha. The male and the female versions of the trimurti are exactly identical : the male gods signify actors and the female goddesses signify the corresponding actions. The two are equivalent ways of understanding the same concept, which is the dynamic evolution of Prakriti.

Brahma : signifies the rajas quality of increasing. Broadly speaking, he represents the intelligent being in any person, who observes nature and communicates by spoken word. This spoken word is represented by his wife Saraswati, as the goddess of speech and knowledge. Upanishads have unanimously stated that the spoken word is not sufficient towards understanding the absolute and essential nature of reality. So Brahma is disparaged in the Puranas, though Saraswati continues to be worshipped today, especially by students.

Vishnu : signifies the paradoxical sattva quality. As explained in my previous blog, this quality is related to the reduction to a zero in counting higher numbers. Thus, Vishnu actively participates in the evolution of this universe (including the human civilization) into forms of higher complexity, as represented by the order of his various avatars : fish (matsya), turtle (koorma), boar (varaha), lion+man (narasimha), pigmy man (vamana), hermit (parashurama), king of early civilization (rama), philosopher king (krishna), philosopher (buddha) and the awaited destroyer of all evil (kalki). Broadly speaking, Vishnu represents life, and his wife Lakshmi denotes the wealth and beauty that accompany life.

Brahma is said to germinate from the navel of Vishnu (just as a new series of numbers germinates at a higher place-holder when every preceding level becomes zero). Brahma, thus germinated, is considered the creator of the universe, which is preserved by the connection to Vishnu and by his constant engagement.

Shiva : signifies the tamas quality of inertia. This quality denotes death and destruction for all finite objects of nature. Hence, Shiva is considered as the destroyer of the universe, but he also represents the essential element that remains. He is symbolized by ashes, that which remain after any object is burnt in fire. This destruction of the relative and finite existence in nature is considered essential to realize the non-dual and infinite existence. Thus, Shiva is considered the most essential of the trimurti, and worshipped devoutly. His wife Shakti (Parvati) denotes the Prakriti in all its potential, and thus becomes the most essential of the female version of Trimurti. The word Shakti literally means energy and is thus used by Indian text books even today ! Broadly speaking, Shiva (or Shakti) can be interpreted as temporally symmetric laws of nature, such as the force-fields of physics.

Thus, at the core, even the devas of the Puranas can be interpreted in a completely naturalist manner. It is very amusing how they give rise to supernatural beliefs amongst the followers of the religion.

So, are the devas natural or supernatural ? I think it depends on how you "look" at them. It is just like asking if a creaking door is natural or supernatural.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Samkhya : The arithmetic of nature's evolution

Let me introduce you to the most important thinker of India.

His name might surprise you; you might not have heard of him, even if you are an Indian. But his philosophy is the anchor on which Indian culture rests. Indeed, the thousands of religions that took birth in India can be merely considered as footnotes to what he said. They consider him as the greatest of saints ever lived, even though what he said is essentially atheistic !

A.N.Whitehead has once said that western philosophy is merely a series of footnotes to Plato. Such is the influence that Plato exerted on western thought. But here is the Indian counterpart to Plato, who has brought in far more lucidity in thought, and whose metaphysics is more relevant to modern science. Who is he ?

He is the sage Kapila. In an ancient time, at least 3000 years ago or more, Kapila reflected thus.

"Whatever can be named in this universe, I shall name it.
Whatever can be measured in this universe, I shall measure it.
Whatever can be enumerated in this universe, I shall number it.
For what can be named, can be measured. And what can be measured, can be enumerated."

And the legend goes that he has succeeded in doing it ! And that through this success, he achieved enlightenment. We do not know whether this is true. But the questions that Kapila posed himself have never lost their relevance - they are exactly the same questions that science addresses. So it is interesting to tally what Kapila said with experimental evidence in the modern day.

The first thing Kapila observed was that nature is dynamic, and that every object in nature evolves from one form to another. The second thing he observed was that every natural phenomenon has a cause, and every cause has a deeper cause. So if Kapila's philosophy has to be summed up in two words, it will be evolutionist and causal. Since Kapila wanted to enumerate every object in nature that can be enumerated, he proceeded to do it in a way which respects the evolutionary and causal relationships between objects. In fact, the treatise that he propounded is called Sāmkhya (enumeration), and it is the topic of this blog.

The order of complexity in natural objects

Kapila found 5 different layers of complexity in which natural objects exist.
  1. Annamaya : The very first layer (colored indigo) is that of inanimate matter, composed of matter and energy.
  2. Prānamaya : The second layer (colored blue) is that of life, composed of life-forms which breathe. So far, the only planet that we are aware of to consist such life-forms is the earth. This second layer is exponentially more complex than the first one, and it is reflected in the size of molecules that comprise organic matter.
  3. Manomaya : The third layer (colored green) is that of mind, composed of life-forms that have a brain through which they monitor reality in a dynamic way. We can loosely say that this layer consists of animals, as most of them have brains. This third layer is exponentially more complex than the second one, and this complexity is reflected in the electrochemical signals that are transmitted between the nerve cells.
  4. Vijnānamaya : The fourth layer (colored yellow) is that of understanding, composed of life-forms that can speak of both space and time in an abstract language of symbols. So far, we are aware of only human beings to possess this kind of communication capabilities. This fourth layer is exponentially more complex than the third one, and it is reflected in the size of messages that can be transmitted across people. We can consider computers to also belong to this layer as they communicate in very complex symbolic languages.
  5. Chinmaya : The fifth layer (colored red) is that of ego and consciousness, composed of life-forms each of which has a self-image of itself, makes plans and executes them to achieve its desires, and reacts to the environment in a self-conscious way. Most human beings are in this level, except when they are very young children. But so far, we have not built a computer that achieved this level of consciousness. This fifth layer is exponentially more complex than the fourth one, and it is reflected in the complexity of plans (in space and time) that a conscious human being executes.
Of course, Kapila was not aware of computers, or bacteria, or the various types of elementary particles in modern physics, but the levels of complexity that he described are still as valid today. Kapila has also identified a cause for this exponential increase of complexity between successive layers - recursion. For example, the second layer is built by the same elements as those of the first layer, but whose interconnections form self-loops. Such recursion always produces an exponential increase in complexity.

The word "maya" which suffixes the words for each of these layers means "measurement", making clear Kapila's philosophy that all of these layers can be measured and thus enumerated in order. We can visualize all these five layers as consecutive circles. The outermost indigo circle represents the entire universe. The next blue circle represents the universe of life-forms which breathe (as far as we know, it is just the planet earth) and so on.. The layers of higher complexity are shown in smaller circles because they are much fewer complex objects in nature than the objects which are simpler. I showed the circles with linearly decreasing radius for easy visualization, but in fact, their radius is "exponentially" decreasing. The same layers can also be visualized with respect to their complexity, and this resembles an object similar to a Mexican hat, of the following image.

Kapila observed that the various forms in nature evolve across these 5 layers, and that the higher layers are built from the lower layers. What he set out to do was to enumerate all the objects in nature in all these 5 layers, and how they evolve between each other. He would give a number to an object based on how complex it is in this scale of evolution.

The reminder : what cannot be enumerated

There is a phenomenon in nature that Kapila observed, but judged that it cannot be either measured, or named (explained in words), or enumerated. That is the phenomenon of the conscious feeler who experiences sensations from nature. Kapila said that such "feeler" is present in all forms of life, including human beings. He named this feeler Purusha and held it in contrast to all the 5 layers of Prakriti (nature), including the layer of ego. He said that such a feeler cannot be evolved out of any of the these 5 layers of natural forms. He used the masculine to denote the Purusha and the feminine to denote Prakriti (nature). I will do the same in this blog, even though a Purusha can be present in women too.

What Kapila said was that either Purusha exists by himself, or he does not exist at all. Literally, this footnote of Kapila's philosophical system has become the bone of contention of million thinkers in India who gave million different answers to who this Purusha is and if he exists (some thinkers have answered in the negative), how he is related to the 5 layers of nature. This spawned a million religions in India, all of which recognize the validity of Kapila's 5-fold division of nature. They also follow the masculine / feminine division of Kapila. So any female goddess that you find in Hinduism is an aspect of Prakriti and any male god that you find is an aspect of Purusha (as reflected in Prakriti, because by himself Purusha cannot be described by any word or image). The totality of Prakriti and Purusha put together is called Brahmān, or the Absolute, which contains all types of existence within itself (please note the neuter gender for the Absolute).

We can loosely translate Purusha as the western concept of soul, but it is not at all the same. Firstly, a soul is created and then judged by God. In contrast, Purusha has no birth and suffers no change. He is constant and eternal - the closest western counterpart for that is God Himself ! Secondly, unlike God, the Purusha has no special powers. He cannot tamper with the laws of nature, nor the evolution across forms. Thirdly, unlike the soul, the Purusha is held completely distinct from ego (self-image), which is considered to belong solely to the realm of nature.

In Kapila's own system, the Purusha exists and stands at the very centre of these 5 circles (shown in the picture as a tiny grey circle), or right in the middle of the Mexican hat (in the 3D analogy). Of course, Kapila didn't call this a Mexican hat, but termed it the mountain/tower of Meru. This Meru mountain has mythic significance in all Indian religions, and indeed forms the architectural basis for every Hindu temple.

Kapila said that the vertical distance to the walls from where a Purusha stands in this tower of Meru gives the amount of happiness that is felt by him. Thus, if a Purusha stands within the outermost indigo rim of inanimate reality, he can feel only a minute amount of happiness. He feels an exponentially higher amount of happiness if he can somehow jump upwards into the layer of life, and so on. Ultimately, if a Purusha manages to reach the very centre of this tower, he would never touch the tower walls of happiness, and thus feel infinite bliss (termed as ananda). This infinite bliss is said to be within the reach of every human being.

In a Hindu temple, the main idol (murti) sits right underneath the vimana tower (symbolizing the Meru mountain) - signifying the infinite bliss of Purusha seated at the very centre of Meru. Devotees circumambulate this idol in an act of worship - in a symbolic act of witnessing the Divine from all possible views. They ultimately seek to merge in the Divine, which is supposed to reside within their own innermost selves.

Kapila says that this desire for higher and higher bliss is what prompts nature to evolve into more complex forms of existence. Just as the branches of a tree and its leaves go upwards to reach to the sunlight, the branches of the tree of life go upwards to layers of higher complexity. We cannot say how every single twig faces in a tree (and some of them do face downwards), but the general direction of growth would be upwards. Kapila has a name for the tree of existence -Ashwattha (which encompasses not only various forms of life but also inanimate objects). This Ashwattha tree is said grows on the walls of the Meru mountain and tries eternally to reach up to the top.

The arithmetic of nature's evolution between layers

Depending on the height at which an object of nature stands on the Meru mountain, it gets a number according to Kapila's scheme (To be short, I will call this the "Kapila number") . Every such object has a finite existence - both in space and in time. Eventually, it will die and a new object will take its place. In this finite existence, Kapila observed that it moves along the mountain, in a step-size that is capable of its finite reach.

Kapila mentions that every natural object has a decision with 3 choices with respect to the Kapila number :
  1. To increase : proclination to do so termed rajas quality
  2. To stay the same : proclination to do so termed tamas quality
  3. To decrease : proclination to do so termed the satvik quality
Here is the most interesting (and most misunderstood) part of Kapila's philosophical system.

Let's observe choice 1. An object can only increase of a step-size that is delimited by the layer in which it exists. Since the next layer is at an exponentially higher level, irrespective of how much an object tries to increase, it can never reach to this next level. Consequently, the rajas quality (greediness) is disparaged by the Sāmkhya philosophers.

Let's now inspect the choice 2. For any object of finite existence, staying the same means only one thing - death. Consequently, the tamas quality (inertia) is considered the most harmful by the Sāmkhya philosophers.

Now, let's see the choice 3. Surely, decreasing would only mean the object goes down the Meru mountain. How can it be a good thing ? But indeed, it is so. To understand this clearly, we should see the number system that is most directly inspired from the Sāmkhya philosophy : the system of counting with zeros, which originated in India. If we use the base 10 for counting, the numbers go


If you look at the last digit, it goes to zero before the number advances to the next level. The same is true at every decimal level. This is exactly how the Kapila number of an object changes. It has to renounce (make zero) its current level of existence to proceed to the next level. This is the only way a finite object can advance up the Meru mountain and reach heights that are incapable of the rajas method of increasing.

This paradoxical quality is the reason why renunciation (of sensual desires, wealth, fame, ..) is so valued in Indian culture. Consequently, the satvik quality (translated properly as transparence or lucidity) is valued the highest by the Sāmkhya philosophers, despite it standing for decreasing / making zero the respective Kapila number.

However, each person is exhorted to cultivate all the 3 qualities in equilibrium. When the three qualities are exactly equal with each other, a person would not make a decision, but maintain equanimity against nature. This poise is considered essential for a person to make the right decision when the right time comes. Amongst Indian religions, only Buddhism exhorts people to renounce immediately, so that one can reach enlightenment. Other Hindu religions ask people to wait and take the right decision at the right time of one's life.

Pitfalls of excess greed

I will conclude this post with the practical system for ethics that is provided by the Sāmkhya philosophy.

Irrespective of where an object stands in the Meru mountain, it suffers from the temptation of excess greed. This would magnify the rajas quality and render it blind to the true reality of the mountain. Amongst the 5 layers of existence, the layers 1 (matter), 3 (mind) and 5 (ego) are considered primary. The other layers 2 (breath) and 4 (understanding) are considered as intermediate sheaths that connect the upper and lower layers.

When one tries to advance in the matter layer, one receives the pleasure of taste. When one tries to advance in the mind layer, one receives the pleasure of possessions. When one tries to advance in the ego layer, one receives the pleasure of fame and recognition. Each of these pleasures will blind oneself to the deeper reality of nature, and the greater happiness that is obtained by jumping to the higher layer. When one desires too many tastes, this excess rajas quality is termed as lust. When one desires too many possessions, it is termed as greed. When one desires too much fame, it is termed as pride. These three are considered the 3 primal enemies of one's journey life. They all occur due to excess rajas quality in a person.

The clarity that is provided by the satvik quality at the respective layer is considered essential to counter this pitfall. In order to prevent oneself succumbing to lust, one must sacrifice sensual pleasures and seek the higher pleasures of learning. In order to prevent oneself succumbing to greed, one must sacrifice the pleasure of possessions and seek the higher pleasures of recognition. In order to prevent oneself succumbing to fame, one must sacrifice the pleasure of recognition and seek the higher pleasures of self-knowledge. This is Kapila's advice for any man or woman on how to lead one's life.

In this blog, I presented a modern perspective of the Samkhya philosophy. I have used concepts and terms that were not known during the ages when Samkhya was developed, but which would help us modern people understand Samkhya in an easier manner. To compliment this understanding, an interested reader can refer to a traditional version of Samkhya philosophy, such as Samkhyakarika. A very good traditional explanation of Samkhya is available from Deshpande Ji's blog.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Taking the Obvious not for Granted

If I should summarize intellectual pursuit in one phrase, I think I would do that with "taking the obvious not for granted". This is because

  1. what we think of as obviously true, need not be true at all.
  2. even if it is indeed true, there could be a deeper "cause" why it is so.
But the process of questioning the obvious will invite anybody to ridicule. This fear of ridicule is what makes most intellectual stalwarts of an age to not question the prevailing dogma. In fact, most people are even blissfully ignorant of the dogma : the fundamental assumptions on which their entire world view is based on. The only people who often end up doing this sort of questioning are philosophers. Scientists think of them as raking up the mud. As famously worded by Dr. Richard Feynmann "Philosophers are people who kick up the sand, and then complain they cannot see". But sometimes raking up the mud will open up unseen pathways in this maze of existence called our universe.

In the rare event that somebody musters up enough courage to ask these questions - neat and straight, in a language that is understandable by scientists and theoreticians, there are always easy and completely non-informative answers. They are on the lines of
  1. It is just so. There is no reason behind it.
  2. It is just a random choice. Nothing curious behind it except that you are interested in it. As far as the universe is concerned, it is just another random jump.
  3. It is so because God ordered it to be so. And we cannot understand the mind of God.
  4. There are some elements in the universe not comprehensible to human mind. We should just be humble enough to accept this and move on.
The basic outcome of all these answers is the same. "End of your question, let's get back to our daily life." It is funny that positions as philosophically apart as theism and atheism, absurdism and ignoramibusism adopt the same defensive mechanisms as far as inconvenient questions are concerned !

I would like to ask my share of annoying questions today. I don't claim to know the answers. I am just annoyed to the hilt with these questions and would like to spread my annoyance around. Please reply using all your defensive mechanisms. May be some of them will work for me. :)

Why is the universe evolving into forms of increasing self-awareness ?

What I said is obviously true. The stupid clouds of dust that the universe started out with are definitely stupider than the beauty of stars and galaxies. Then, we have the curious incident of life popping up out of nowhere on earth, which is a great leap beyond mere chemical existence. Then we have this life evolve into increasingly complex life-forms, proceeding to animals with brain mechanisms to model reality dynamically, and culminating with human beings who can do abstract and symbolic reasoning. The humans themselves didn't sit tight, their culture has evolved on an exponential curve. Over time, we humans have become more and more aware of what it means to be "human" and redefined our rights and responsibilities. We have this burning curiosity to understand more and more about the universe, producing artefacts of a scientific civilization that can only be described as "the universe looking at itself with a mirror, and understanding itself more and more clearly". This is a very very curious thing, why is it happening ?

What is the difference between a human brain and a car ?

Our human brains are supposed to be capable of self-consciousness. A complicated network of neurons somehow decide to breath into life and create an independent agent with goals and desires. We look at the human brain and claim that the frontal lobe is concerned with complicated reasoning, the left-half is concerned with language abilities, the limbic system is concerned with emotions etc.. But what is the guarantee that understanding these systems completely can reproduce human behaviour ? Imagine that we are looking at a car. We would find out that the combustion engine is concerned with converting chemical energy to mechanical energy, the stereo system is concerned with playing music, the steering wheel is concerned with choosing direction for the motion of the car etc.. But that does not mean the driver of the car does not exist. What if there is indeed such a driver for the human brain ? This is a very annoying question for neuroscientists because it conjures up the image of the Homunculus or the Cartesian theatre of duality which postulate a "soul" that sits in the brain and enjoys the show. But what is the guarantee that such a thing doesn't exist ? What can be done to "prove" that such a thing does not exist ?

And if such a thing exists, what is the guarantee that the same thing that is steering my brain is also not steering your brain ?

That will be my next question. What can be done to "prove" conclusively that the disturbance thing in both the brains is different ? If it is indeed the same thing, this gives rise to the conclusion that what I feel inside my head is the same as the entire universe. Then the obvious question to ask would be, "If this thing is so powerful as to operate millions of objects around the universe, why did it not put all these objects into coherence and make them all feel good ?" Why does there have to be diseases, earthquakes, bad food, failures in love and life, obese people, Bollywood films and all that crap ? Why is there not a single and happy universe that just knows what it wants and gets it ?

Why is there existence at all ?

It is the biggest killer question. That which Albert Camus once described as "the question which pounces from a street corner and punches you in the stomach". I don't think my stomach is any stronger than Camus', but I still do have a right to complain about the inconvenience caused by this question.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Cat of Curiosity

I have a cat, who roams free range
The cat of curiosity
His universe is sparkling strange
And shrouded thick in mystery

"Why do", he once asks, "things persist
In time ? what keeps reality
Together, and makes it resist
Breaking into absurdity ?

Why don't objects, from nought, alight,
Wobble, and then vanish from ground ?
Why is left left, and why's right right ?
Why won't axes swivel around ?

Now if you're not quite so upset
May I ponder, May I wonder
Why does it not, the cosmos, get
Spontaneously torn asunder !?"

"Hark", I warn, "these questions yield but
Spiritual calamity !"
"But", he says, "I can't them abort
For the sake of serenity !

Cynicism - a dog's good at
Etymologically he's
But were I only not a cat
I should wish be Diogenes

Let me jump to, zip in this bag
A cat can do only so much
To show why do questions me nag
Without leeway or recess as such

Where does the cat end, now explain
And where begin the bag's intents ?
Are we two, or do we contain
The same principal components !?"

"You are", I say, "curious to rag
But we cannot resolve this spat
The cat shall be out of the bag
When the bag gets out of the cat !"