The Faithful Hound

Friday, November 17, 2006

The domain of unfinished accounts

I sometimes find myself torn between two streams of thought. First is the desire to approach every question or problem in my life with a purely rational thought process and second is the knowledge that the bounds of human experience are infinitesimally small relative to our universe, thereby trivializing the scope of rationality.
I was discussing this with my father and he told me of someone else who was able to balance the two while leading a productive and fulfilling life.
This is an excerpt from Amartya Sen's introduction to Rabindranath Tagore's 'Boyhood Days', translated by Radha Chakravarty (Puffin Classics, 2006)

"Tagore's commitment to reasoning was strong - sometimes fierce - throughout his life. This is well reflected in his arguments, for example, with Mahatma Gandhi (whom he chastised for obscurantism), with religious parochialists (whose reasonless sectarianism upset him greatly), with the British establishment (for their crude treatment of India, in contrast with what he admired greatly in British intellectual life and creativity), with his Japanese admirers (who received, despite Tagore's general admiration of Japan, his sharply angry critique for their silence - or worse - in the face of Japan's newly-emerging supernationalism, including the Japanese treatment of China), and with the administrative leadership of both British India and the Soviet Union (he compared the Soviet achievements in school education across its Asian and European span very favourably with the gross neglect of school education in British India, while also chastising the Soviet leadership for its intolerance of criticism and of freedom of expression).
Tagore's commitment to a reasoned understanding of the world around us came through also in his wholehearted support for scientific education (his school insisted on every child's exposure to the new findings emerging anywhere in the world). The same commitment to reason is seen also in Tagore's cultural evaluations, including his firm mixture of pride in Indian culture and rejection of any claim to the priority of Indian culture over all others. It is also seen in his refusal to see something called "the Indian civilization" in isolation from influences coming from the rest of the world: this remains very relevant today, not just as a critique of what is now called the "Hindutva" approach, but also of the widely popular theses of the "clash of civilizations," which is frequently invoked these days as a gross - and rather dangerous - simplification of the complex world in which we live. In every case, Rabindranath's firm convictions were driven explicitly by critical reasoning which he clearly spelt out.
And yet to many contemporary observers in Europe and America, Rabindranath appeared to be anything but a follower of reason. It was faith he was identified with, and with a penchant for mystification over seeking clarity. While some of Tagore's admirers (of suitably mystical kind themselves) loved this "re-done Tagore," others found it unattractive, even detestable. A clear formulation of that interpretation of Tagore can be found in two unpublished letters of Bertrand Russell to Nimai Chatterji. On 16th February 1963, Earl Russell wrote to Nimai Chatterji: "I recall the meeting [with Tagore] of which Lowes Dickinson writes only vaguely. There was an earlier occasion, the first upon which I met Tagore, when he was brought to my home by Robert Trevelyan and Lowes Dickinson. I confess that his mystic air did not attract me and I recollect wishing he would be more direct. He had a soft, rather elusive, manner which led one to feel that straightforward exchange or communication from which he would shy away. His intensity was impaired by his self-asorbtion [absorption]. Naturally, his mystic views were by way of dicta and it was not possible to reason about them."
In a later letter, dated 26th April 1967, Russell was even sharper in his denunciation of what he took to be Tagore's flight from reason: "His talk about the infinite is vague nonsense. The sort of language that is admired by many Indians unfortunately does not mean anything at all."
Rabindranath's understanding of intellectual priorities did, in fact, have some special features which contributed to the misunderstanding that is being examined. One of them was Tagore's willingness to accept that many questions will remain unresolved and their answers can remain uncompleted. The domain of unfinished accounts would change over time, but not go away, and in this Rabindranath saw not a defeat but a humble - and also beautiful - recognition of our limited understanding of a vast world, even an incomprehensibly large, possibly infinite, universe (the kind of remark that so exasperated Russell). Rather than seeing this as a defeat of reason he clearly saw this as the way reason works in human life, at any point of time. He also saw some aesthetic beauty in the continuing incompleteness of our answers: this is where, I presume, Russell would have walked away had Tagore not been sitting at Russell's own home."

The full text of the introduction can be found here. TR and WS, you will find an interesting criticism of translations further along in the text.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Mysticism of DaRaKu

Dr Rajkumar, the late doyen of the Kannada film industry, known to his legions of adoring fans as DaRaKu, was a man born way ahead of his time. His genius transcended the silver screen and shone through every aspect of his life.
A fact known to few is that this great man earned his title by completing a Doctorate in Applied Physics at the prestigious Technische Universität München in Germany. Captivated at an early age by the works of Einstein, the young genius from Gajanur devoted his academic life to research in the Unified Field Theory. His work in particle dynamics almost brought him a Nobel prize in 1953, but, in an act of graceful humility, he rejected the nomination, opting instead to return to his homeland to share the secrets of time and space with his countrymen.
A true man of the people, DaRaKu decided to share his learnings only with the poor, the illiterate and the downtrodden masses of rural Karnataka through the one medium that appealed to them - film. Embedded into song, dance and fight sequences in his 206 movie appearances were subliminal messages that explained the secrets of the Universe to his impoverished audience. It was through these teachings that Bangalore eventually rose from the dust to become the world's foremost destination for technological outsourcing and scientific research.
Below is an example of DaRaKu explaining the Theory of Relativity through an English song and dance number titled "If you come today". Please watch it with the volume on before reading the explanation below.

DaRaKu begins the number with a flashy dance sequence showcasing his characteristically smooth moves. He does this to gain the audience's attention and make their minds receptive to his teaching. Once he has accomplished this, he begins to sing;

If you come today, its too early
If you come tomorrow, its too late

Upon initial consideration, these words are conflicting and confusing. Assuming that today ends at 11:59:59 PM and that tomorrow begins at 12:00:00 AM and that the former is too early and the latter too late, the audience is left with the question - When would be the right time?
Again, DaRaKu sings;

If you come today, its too early
If you come tomorrow, its too late

The audience gives up. There can be no right time!
Then the good doctor gives us a clue;

You pick the time

What was that? Today is too early and tomorrow too late, but any time I pick is correct? How can that be?

tik tik tik tik tik tik, Darling!

DaRaKu tantalizes his audience with the sound of a ticking clock, reminiscent of the unyielding passage of time. 'Time is your master!' he seems to say mockingly, 'You will always be its slave.'
He continues;

Did you say morning? No, no, its not good,
Did you say evening? No no, its too bad,
Did you say noon? No no, its not the time

What is he telling us? 'It's not the time'? The audience looks at each other, searching for answers.

What did you say?
Hey, what did you say?

DaRaKu encourages his audience to think deeper, probing through recesses of their minds that they never knew existed. Light begins to dawn where once there was darkness.
DaRaKu gives us one final hint;

Nothing? oh its all right
You pick the time
tik tik tik tik tik tik

Now it is clear. There is no right answer! There is no right time! Time is relative. It does not exist. Time is not a universal constant, but a personal measuring stick to help quantify other physical phenomenon. Time exists only in the mind of the individual observer.
The brilliance of this observation thrills the audience who rise up and dance in the aisles with 'Annavuru', their symbolic elder brother. Any time they pick is the right time because they are now the masters and time is but their slave.
DaRaKu senses their enlightenment and he is elated. In his joy, he bursts out;

Million drums beat in my heart,
Million dreams haunt my heart,
Million desires spring in my heart,
Million memories seize my heart

His aspirations for his people are slowly coming to fruition and his ecstasy knows no bounds.
He reminds his followers;

You pick the time,
tik tik tik tik tik tik

You pick the time because you own time. The ticking clock is now the drumbeat to which his victorious army marches, as they ascend to a higher level of awareness.

Next:- The wit and wisdom of Rajnikanth

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Using my Religion

When I was very young I read a book about a boy who had magical powers. It was one of those Soviet children's books that flooded Delhi back when India was experimenting with her socialist side. The boy's name was Ivanushka (or maybe it was Misha or Kolya or something) and he awoke one morning to find that he had the power to make things happen just by thinking about them. The rest of the story was the usual rot about the pranks he pulled (with the milkman and the school-teacher and such) and about the eventual responsibility that such power brings, but my imagination was fired. I could not get the idea out of my head and I always wondered when my own dormant magical powers would awaken.
A few months later I read a magazine article about Uri Geller, that fraud of a spoon-bender, and then I saw the movie Star Wars and pretty soon I was convinced. I simply had to practice and concentrate to build up my powers and the world would be at my feet.
When I went out with my parents I would focus, for example, on the car ahead of us at a traffic light. "Turn-left-turn-left-turn-left..." I would say in my head as I squinted at it in total concentration. If the car did indeed turn left I was further convinced of my powers. If it did not then I knew that I had to work harder to hone my skill.
As I grew older I began to use my powers on more difficult tasks. I tried to get India to win cricket matches on TV ("Four-or-six-four-or-six...") and to make the skirt of the hot girl in my school bus ride higher when she crossed her legs ("Move-up-move-up-move-up.."). Again I was largely unsuccessful, but the rare occasions that things went my way gave me the confidence to go on (Kind of like my golf game, come to think of it).
The big turning point came about when I was around thirteen and was visiting my grandmother. Her dog had some kind of seizure and collapsed in a heap after eating something weird in the estate. My cousins and I all loved that young mongrel dearly and were in tears assuming that the poor creature had bought it for good. My grandmother was a strict and pious old Catholic and she ordered the lot of us into the chapel (she had a large, fully functional chapel inside her house) to pray for the animal. Since I was the only half-Hindu among the cousins, I was 'allowed' to wait outside while the rest got into a vigorous bout of Our Fathers and Hail Maries. I figured that instead of twiddling my thumbs, my time would be better spent putting my super-powers to good use. "Rana-get-up-Rana-get-up-Rana-get-up..." played over and over in my head as I concentrated the full force of my magic at the backyard where the mutt lay wrapped in a towel.
The next morning we woke up to find Rana waiting for us at the breakfast table. He was a little more reserved than usual, but otherwise bright eyed and waggy tailed. "Pass the sausages" he said with his eyes.
My grandmother instructed us all to give thanks and rejoice in the wonders of the Lord, but I was too busy rejoicing in the wonders of myself. I knew exactly who had saved that dog and it wasn't anyone in heaven. Rana's savior was sitting at this very table and stuffing his smug face with buttered eggs and toast.
Over the years, common sense and practical reasoning took the place of childish fantasy and my belief in my powers diminished, but never completely disappeared. All the way through engineering college I would sit in exam rooms muttering "No-laplace-transforms-no-laplace-transforms.." at question papers before turning them over. Once a classmate noticed my lips moving and asked if I had been praying. "Sort of" I replied.
You see the whole thing had become almost like a habit at this point. The same way that religion is to most people. I didn't really believe it worked but what the hell, when the chips are down then there's no harm in trying anything right? It was probably a habit that excused me from any kind of religious belief at an early age. If religion is a crutch that people need when they feel powerless, then what's wrong with having an internal crutch rather than a super-natural one? In fact I think it’s healthier.
So, good reader, the next time you need a miracle and feel the urge to pray, why not drop me a line instead? I will apply my powers to the matter and I guarantee you a strike rate as good as anything the big Guy in the sky can give you. And at least I will call back and apologize if it doesn't work out.