Friday, April 20, 2007

The Road to pSingularity

Second Edition
First Edition


Sages and seers from time immemorial have held that the Truth is beyond reason, transcends the boundary of the physical world and can only be perceived at an intuitive level. Nevertheless, this particular effort seeks to reflect the Truth in the still waters of a dispassionate rational analysis.

A rational approach, based on physical phenomena, may have many limitations but the desire to abandon it is an act of intellectual laziness. While it is true that many mystics have perceived the truth intuitively, it may be more satisfying to take the intuitive approach as a matter of choice and not of necessity.

This analysis begins with the principles of Advaita Vedanta and maps them against known facts from the world of science. Unlike past efforts, we have neither tried to invoke Quantum Mechanics and other forms of modern physics – which are both dated and sometimes as unprovable as religious beliefs themselves – nor used the barren sterility of Artificial Intelligence. The analysis may not be logically complete. We admit that there could be gaps in the chain of argument but we have not taken shelter in the beliefs and mythlogy of religion. Instead we have used mathematics itself to argue that such gaps can never be completely eliminated and we need to learn to live with them. Only at the very last stage – when we are at the edge of the rational and looking at the vista of the infinite – do we invoke the grace of the divine. But even this is not really necessary. We introduce this element as a matter of choice, for personal satisfaction.

We have created a pattern of thoughts by connecting a number of apparently unrelated ideas, namely ..
• The principles of Advaita Vedanta as enunciated by Sankara in the 8th century
• The plausibility of illusions and non-material information transfer
• The computational metaphor of the Universal Turing Machine
• The persistent and evolving nature of the ‘Selfish Gene’
• Godel’s Theorem of Incompleteness

in a manner that is unique and has not been attempted in the past. Without being dogmatic and parochial about the greatness of the the Hindu relegion, we show how this ancient philosophy is not only relevent in the contemporary environment of rational science but how it has infact anticipated thoughts and ideas that have now appeared twelve hundred years later.

The lure of the unknown is irresistible. Any frontier is a challenge for the intrepid few who will want to push it back. This is the spirit of enquiry and enterprise that has taken human civilisation across oceans and now into the deepest reaches of interplanetary space. The boundaries of the physical sciences are no less challenging -- can they be pushed back to include the ultimate truth ? Even if the goal proves elusive, the journey itself is worth the effort. And as we walk along this path it is but natural that we meet fellow travellers with whom it is a pleasure to exchange our thoughts.

Hence instead of using the platform of the we-know-all discourse, we have used the format of a dialogue between a seeker and a sceptic to first articulate, then challenge and finally reaffirm the mosaic of ideas that add up to this unusual image of the Truth.

The last chapter, the thirteenth, is different in style, tone and tenor. After twelve chapters of patient equivalence, of trying to see and address the point of view of the sceptic and carefully constructing logical arguments to defend the primary hypothesis, the last chapter dumps it all in the cauldron of faith, belief and conjecture. If all the logic that has been offered so far has still not been able to convince the reader, then in all probability he or she will never be convinced. So why try any harder ? On the other hand, if by then the reader is sympathetic to the point of view that is being articulated, then it is more likely than not that the he or she would have little difficulty in accepting the idea.

So the final chapter replaces dialogue with didacticism. It is a straightforward essay with a simple, unambiguous, though possibly controversial, message that articulates a specific world view. This view could have been delivered directly as a sermon or a discourse but we hope that its acceptability will be far higher if, and only if, one has read through the dialogues in the first twelve chapters.

To borrow a phrase from Tavleen Singh, the author believes that this book explains how the cosmos works. If someone else has a better explanation then please let us know. We are willing to listen.

Preface to the Second Edition

Like the fifth postulate of Euclid, the twelfth chapter of this book has been a source of discomfort both for me as well as for some of my friends and readers. The need to introduce the Divine to plug a loophole in my logic – an inevitable loophole, given the limitations of the Gödel’s Theorem of Incompleteness – was rather irritating and yet it seemed that there is nothing I could do about it. Then I met a friend who alerted me to the existence of a very simple concept that was functionally analogous and one that would allow me to bridge the gap. But does it work ? and have I succeeded in doing so ? That question is best answered by the reader I suppose.

Technology has moved significantly since the first edition and nowhere is this more evident than in the area of 3D displays. Direct connectivity between the human brain and a digital device has also improved dramatically but we are yet to reach the level of maturity that is necessary to blur the border between the real and illusory as envisaged in “Are You Real”, the experimental movie referred to in the book. In a pre-Google era, I would have tried to list down some references to these technologies but today I refrain from doing so because the reader can easily locate more recent references by searching on the web.

The final and perhaps the most important reason for this edition is that the print-on-demand technology with which this book is printed is now available in India and so the total cost of procuring this book – including delivery – is now far less. Hence after acknowledging my gratitude to for introducing me to this technology I have now moved over to who I am sure would be doing as good a job in printing and delivering this book.

Prithwis Mukerjee

Kharagpur, India
Dolyatra / Holi : 19th March 2011 – a Supermoon day !

1 - Rollover 2000

Midnight @ Hill View, Purulia, 31st December 1999

Why do you insist on calling this a rollover when the rest of the world is going gaga over the millennium ?

Two reasons : First the millennium begins in 2001, not 2000 and second, what millennium ? Of Jesus Christ ? That is of very little relevance to us who are not Christians .... we could have started the count from any other avatar like Krishna or perhaps Gautama Buddha.

But why "rollover"

Because all the digits on the date -- day, month and all four characters of the year -- would change simultaneously. The dates would look quite different, there is a certain novelty about it but not worth traveling all the way to the Andamans to see the same old sun rise out of the same old sea. Are we not quite comfortable here at Purulia today ...

You may not celebrate but you still attach some significance to this date ... otherwise you would not be engaging in this dialogue and then writing it down as well

True. Having accepted the Gregorian calendar, I have no choice but to record the rollover.

So what stops you from celebrating the millennium ? or rather the pre-millennium.

This is a free country, we can celebrate anything on any date. We have accepted the Christian calendar for convenience, not out of any conviction -- just as is the case of English language. The global economy is after all dominated by the Christian currency, the dollar and now the euro. So it does not make sense to break step and be pushed over ...

So you do accept and acknowledge the might and majesty of western civilization and its impact on culture and society

I hate to be either comparative or defensive but once again there are two perspectives. First, the grandeur of western civilization is a recent phenomenon. In a history spanning millions of years, of which we remember perhaps the last 5000, rational science -- that forms the basis of today's grand edifice, has been in prominence for only the last 500 years. This is but a wink of an eyelid on the face of eternal time -- who knows what will happen in the next 5000 years. Secondly, western civilization is successful along one the potentially many dimensions of the human experience. A long stick loses its size when viewed from the end. A sheet of paper appears non-existent if viewed along the edge.

But the length of the stick is important -- to gauge the depth of a river and the spread of the sheet of paper is good to write on. What is wrong with that ?

Nothing. Rational science has many uses and they are too well known to be repeated here. But then a stick is no good to write upon and a sheet of paper is no good to keep things in. For that you need to move into another dimension. Similarly, rational science is necessary and sufficient for many of the wonders of the world. It may not be necessary and is certainly not sufficient for many other things.

Like ...

The mystery of the human mind, or rather the human psyche, and of course the biggest mystery of them all -- the question of creation. Who, if at all anyone, created all this and why ?

Are you kidding ? Science has progressively pushed back the layers of ignorance to reveal more and more of the unknown. The movement of the planets, the weather, the cause of disease and its cure. You name it and either science has solved the problem or is in the process of doing so. It is only a matter of time.

But all these are in the domain of the physical world. There are other worlds that are delineated by the mindscape -- both individual and collective -- of the intelligent being. These worlds are visible or perceptible to mystics and sages and sometimes to those who are under the influence of certain hallucinogenic drugs.

These "worlds", if you could call them as such, do not exist. They are simply the products of a vivid imagination.

How can you say that they do not exist ? You may not have seen or experienced them but countless others have, for example Gautama Buddha, Ramakrishna, Aurobindo, and if you step outside India, we have people like Blake, Meister and Jesus himself. These people were neither fools nor charlatans. Would you not believe them ?

This is not a question of belief. Science can prove things to me. I do not have to believe anything.

But are you ready and prepared to understand these so called proofs ? Do you understand the proofs of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity ? You need not be ashamed -- very few people do !!

I may not be able to fathom the proof but there are other more knowledgeable people who have tested out these things and I have faith in their words.

Aha. That brings us back to "faith". You say you believe certain people -- possibly scientists who are on the editorial boards of respectable journals or who carry out certain experiments -- who certify that Einstein's theory is correct, even though you have no direct evidence or proof. Then what is your difficulty in having faith on Vivekananda when he says that Ramakrishna showed him the face of god.

But if I am intelligent enough and if I spend the time to learn mathematics and physics, I will be able to understand the relativity. The process is repeatable and demonstrable. Can we carry through a similar process and arrive at god ?

Of course. In this case you would need, instead of intelligence, a measure of certain cognitive abilities and you must learn the ways of the adept -- the techniques of sadhana -- thoroughly. Then you can see what the mystics can see. But this may take a very long time and you must have the patience and perseverance.

That opens up two more issues : First, what are these special cognitive abilities that one must have and second, the physical world is something that I can touch and feel. It is real. Not so in the case of psychic world that you say exists for the mystics.

Let me address the second issue first. You say that the physical world is real and that you can touch and feel it. I will challenge your confidence here. Can you see, touch and feel the atoms and molecules that form this world. Our faith in the logical explanation given to us by scientists allows us to believe that they really exist plus of course we have certain indirect evidence. For example the images on the screen of an electron microscope or the marks left on a photographic plate. So there is a veil or middle layer between the observer and what is being observed that reflects or distorts the true picture. However this distortion is minimized by refining our tools and applying adequate intelligence and logical reasoning. The same is true in the psychic world. There is some truth out there but it is veiled and distorted by a middle layer of perception. This is picturesquely referred to as Maya. This Maya must be corrected by using some tools and techniques and by applying, not intelligence, but something else.

What is that ?

This brings us to your first question. The cognitive abilities that help us to perceive the psychic truth can, for the lack of better word, be referred to as intuition. Just as logic and intelligence are the tools that help us to understand the physical world so are intuition and insight when it comes to tools that help us to probe the mental landscape.

Intelligence and logical reasoning is available to varying degrees in all humans. What about insight and intuition ?

That too is available in different degrees with different individuals. Just as some people are more intelligent than others so are some people more intuitive than others.

That is a very generic statement. Can you prove it ?

I will but first let me protest at your need for a "proof". Proof is something that is very common in the world of logic and intelligence. Here we are deliberately moving away from that world. So proofs lose their significance. Instead of proving something we must move into the paradigm of "experiencing" something.

Fair enough, but I would still hold that you have made a very generic statement about the dichotomy between logic and intuition

The human brain has two halves: the left and the right. Many functions are duplicated, for redundancy, across both halves but the left half is dominated by the faculties that deal with analytical and rational activities. The right side deals with our emotional and intuitive abilities. This is well documented in the rational literature of modern science. To put it crudely, this means that in scientists and mathematicians, the left brain is more developed but in case of artists, musicians and mystics the right side is more active. So there is physiological basis for determining why some people are more logical, analytical and perhaps more "intelligent" while others are more emotional and intuitive. I am not talking blue skies here ....

That was a very long digression .... where were we ?

I was responding to your statement about the might and majesty of western civilization. Without denying your observation, I wish to highlight the Hindu perspective that is as, if not more, significant.

What is this Hindu perspective ?

The spiritual and mystic angle ..

You are falling back into the tired cliché of how Hindus are not materialistic, that they are a spiritual people. That is a joke. Would you call Harshad Mehta or Jayalalitha spiritual ? Or are you saying that our farmers, traders, engineers and computer programmers are spiritually inclined. They want money and power as much as anybody else. Their spirituality begins and ends with a tilak on the forehead.

Agreed. The vast majority of Indians are motivated by greed but there is a slim minority that is capable of transcending this level. This is no different from the situation that prevails in US and Europe. However there are two differences...

What are these ?

First, the proportion of spiritually inclined people within the population is higher in India and secondly this slim minority is heard and to a certain extent even respected by the rest of the population. All of us may not be able to emulate Vivekananda and become sanyasis but many of us have a great regard for his ideals and try to follow in his footsteps.

But even in the Christian world, people go to church. There are hundreds of church denominations, priests, bishops. The Vatican is an empire in itself.

I am not an authority on Christianity so I will not try to analyze this further. All that I say is that in the Hindu scheme of things, our goals are very simple -- the realization of what, for the lack of a better word, is called God --the Brahman.

Is that a physical entity ?

I wish I knew, but then I am far away from this realization. Those who have realized Brahman -- the Buddha, Ramakrishna or the anonymous sages who have written the Upanishads, have tried very hard to describe their realization. But all these descriptions are flawed and cannot give the true picture.

Why is that ?

These descriptions are based on language -- a construct that is rooted in our rational, left brain faculties. The realization on the other hand is at an emotional, intuitive level and is a right brain capability. There is a fundamental disconnect that is impossible to bridge. Hence the Brahman has to be realized, it cannot be realized.

But what is the use of realizing the Brahman ? Will it help me in any way ?

Utility, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Money or Power may be very important for someone. Fair enough, I have no quarrel with them as long as they do not hurt others in the process of acquisition. But money and power may not be important for others who seek beauty in art and nature. Happiness or pleasure can be derived from many things, but the bliss that is experienced when one realizes the Brahman is unparalleled.

How do you know ? Have you experienced it ?

No I have not, but I have faith in the words of those who have -- Vivekananda, Aurobindo

Why would you believe them ?

Why not ? If I come back from a trip to Darjeeling and tell you that the Kanchenjungha is a wonderful sight, would you not believe me ? Perhaps you will, but even if you do not, fair enough, do I really care ? Someone else will. I have no axe to grind and neither did the great sages.

We have digressed again, where were we ?

I was trying to explain why the Hindu perspective -- that seeks to realize the Brahman -- is important and significant.

Can we come back to that please ?

It is the Christian bible that I believe states that "money is the root of all evil", to which Mark Twain added that it was the lack of money that was the real root of all evil ...

But I thought that you were trying to prove just the opposite ... that money is not all that important .

Patience .... that was just an illustration. I was trying to establish that the lack of happiness (that Mr. Twain equated to money..) is the root of all evil. This happiness -- true happiness -- can only come in the form of spiritual bliss. This absolute happiness can only come when we realize the Brahman.

I am confused. If happiness is my goal then what is wrong with pursuing the western model of rational enquiry that leads to civil order and economic prosperity.

There is not contradiction. The western model leads to a level of material prosperity and happiness but only up to a point. Not beyond that. When there is intense hunger and poverty we need the western model to bring a modicum of comfort, dignity and sense of well being. Without this, man is reduced to the barbarism of the animal world. But this basic level of comfort is not enough. Material comfort is not synonymous with true happiness. It is necessary, but not sufficient. To be truly happy, mankind, as a whole or at least specific individuals, must move beyond mere economic prosperity and into the domain of spiritual fulfillment -- the realization of the Brahman.

That was quite a mouthful. Let me take a simple test case. Do you mean to say that people in "spiritual" India are more happy than people in the "materialistic" United States ? I don't believe that. Had that been the case, there would not have been the long queue for the US Green Card.

You are making it too simplistic. The world cannot be described in pure black and white. We need the shades and nuances of grey...

Your are trying to duck the question.

No I am not. Let us begin be defining a level of economic prosperity -- a level that can be measured or expressed in various units like per capita income, per capita calorie intake or average disposable income. As long as an individual has not achieved this level of prosperity, his goal would be economic advancement. In India, the number of people below this level is huge -- both in absolute terms as well the fraction of the population. These individuals are always trying to do various things to improve their economic status and this includes immigration to the US.

And what about those who have achieved their desired goals of economic comfort ?

These are people for whom spiritual happiness is more important...and for these people, it is more advantageous to be in India. They can take advantage of the ambient environment of spirituality that makes this land and its people so unique.

But first we need to be as rich and prosperous like the Americans before we seek spiritual bliss ...

We need to be economically comfortable. This level of economic comfort varies with individuals. Some are comfortable with two square meals a day while others need a crore of rupees in the bank before they are comfortable. But whatever may be the level, it is necessary to achieve it before once can look for spiritual progress. However those whose expectations are low can hope to achieve this level faster and begin their spiritual journey much earlier. This is perhaps why some people admire "plain living and high thinking"

It has been quite a while since we have been talking ... but where have we arrived so far ?

There are two dimensions to human progress -- an economic dimension and a spiritual dimension. Rational behavior leads to economic progress but this is not enough for the highest states of human happiness. Man must take an emotional and intuitive approach to progress along the spiritual dimension and this will lead to the ultimate bliss -- when he becomes conscious of the nature of Brahman and himself becomes a part of the Universal Consciousness. That is Nirvana.

What must one do to progress along the spiritual dimension ?

I wish I had a clear answer to that question but all that I can say at the moment is that there are many ways to move forward. Different sages and seers have practised, advocated and taught different techniques -- all of which can be loosely classified under the broad concept of Yoga.

Yoga ! you mean the body contorting exercises that we see on TV and read about in magazines.

That is only a small part of the much larger domain of Yoga. Literally, Yoga means union of the individual consciousness with the divine consciousness. There are hundred of yogic techniques -- some physical, some mental and some psychic, that if practised diligently and sincerely will lead to the ultimate Yoga.

Can you teach me some of these practices ?

No. I am not an adept. I do not know enough. You must find some one who knows these things and take his help in moving forward.

How shall I find such a person ?

When the time is ripe and you have achieved the right frame of mind and an appropriate level of maturity, a set of circumstances will propel in the right direction.

You are being extremely vague and evasive. Can you please explain this "right frame of mind" business ?

It is an elusive concept and very difficult to articulate in words. A crude but effective analogy would be the sexual act. Unlike the purely physical acts of touching the nose or lifting a leg, a sexual state like an ejaculation or an orgasm cannot be achieved by mere will or desire. One must create a conducive set of circumstances -- that may involve thoughts, images, sounds and actions, under which the mind and body react in a manner that leads the individual to a state that is extremely pleasurable.

Are you saying that sex leads to spiritual progress ?

No. I am merely using it as an analogy. Pieces of glass can be used to represent diamonds, but diamonds are far more precious than pieces of glass.

But I believe that Tantriks use sexual techniques to attain spiritual progress ....

As I had said before, there are many ways of reaching the goal. Yoga is an umbrella concept. It encompasses many tools and techniques. Tantra falls within the overall ambit of Yoga but Tantra itself has many schools of thoughts. Some of these schools believe in using the sexual imagery.

We are drifting into details. Can you please give me a broad picture of the various approaches that one might take...

That is not difficult. I think it was Vivekananda who had enunciated the classification : (a) Karma Yoga -- the path of work and service without expecting any reward, (b) Bhakti Yoga -- where the seeker drowns himself in pure and unalloyed belief, devotion and adoration. (c) Gyana Yoga -- that involves a thorough study and deep knowledge of all available sources of spiritual guidance, and (d) Raja Yoga -- where the mind is used a powerful instrument to look within itself and see the reflection of the divine. These four streams of Yoga are not mutually exclusive. Many sages traverse a creative combination of two, three or even four paths.

Can you explain each of these paths in greater detail ?

No I am not knowledgeable enough to explain the specific nuances of each of these schools of thought and even if I could, it would take too long.

If you were to choose a path, which one would you take ?

I am too lazy to be a true Karma Yogi and I have not been initiated into the path of Raja Yoga. As a student of science I am more comfortable with handling Gyana or knowledge but I believe that Bhakti or devotion is the final catalyst.

Are you sure that this is the right path ?

Perhaps I am wrong but let me tell you what the Healer had to say to Satyananda in the closing chapters of Bankimcandra’s novel – Anandamath :

The true Hindu rule of life is based on knowledge, not action. And this knowledge is of two kinds – outward and inward. The inward knowledge is the chief part of the Eternal Code, but unless the outward knowledge arises first, the inward cannot arise. Unless one knows the gross, one cannot know the subtle.[1]

What is the outward knowledge ?

It is the knowledge of science and technology based on rational enquiry and investigation.

Now wait a minute ! You had started this dialogue with the premise that my faith in the might and majesty of western civilization is misplaced. That its impact on contemporary society and culture is transient. And now after all this you have the cheek to come and tell me that science and technology – which is one of the cornerstones and crown jewels of this way of life – is important. Am I missing something ? Somewhere ?

The world of full of paradoxes and perhaps it is best that you learn to live with them.

Is this a paradox or is this a contradiction or – if you allow me to be generous – a confusion on your part ?

Thank you for your generosity but let me clear this confusion for you. As I have just said, or quoted from Anandamath, the knowledge on which the Hindu rule of life is based consists of two kinds of knowledge : internal and external. The rivers of this ‘external’ knowledge have unfortunately run dry in this country. So we cannot follow their course back to the fountainhead, the well spring of ‘internal’ knowledge, where the Truth in all its crystalline clarity, gushes out to quench our thirst. That is why the Hindu way of life – the Sanatan Dharma, the Eternal Code, has become confined to this dry ritualism of polytheistic idolatry.

So what do you suggest ? Go back to science and technology again ?

Yes. You need to master these techniques, rejuvenate this external knowledge or at least know and acknowledge them before you can have the confidence to walk along the path that leads to the inward or subtle knowledge.

Can share the experiences of walking along this path ?

I am not yet ready for the journey so let me prepare myself and then we can meet again ..

When ? and where ?

Meet me after seven years … at the chai-shop on the Road to the pSingularity – the primordial Singularity

[1] Anandamath or the Sacred Brotherhood, Bankimcandra Chatterji, translated by Julius Lipner, Oxford University Press. Part IV, Chapter 8, page 229

2 - Beyond CHAIPANI

It has been six years and ten months since our dialogue at Hill View.

And a lot of things have happened in between.

Mostly terrible things though … nothing to make me smile.

Why ? The Great Indian Story is panning out in its wonderful detail … Software companies are going great guns, the GDP growth has doubled from the pitiful 4% ‘Hindu’ rate of growth ! You should be all smiles.

Oh really, you make me yawn.

Why are you so cynical ?

Because I can see that behind all this glitter there is a mountain of misery that still torments this country …. the disease – polio and dengue are back, the despair that lurks in the eye of those who have been marginalized into poverty ..

You are talking like a politician who is currently sitting in the opposition .. they are the ones who cannot see anything good that is happening in the country.

Perhaps I am, but it is these very politicians – cutting across all party barriers – who are the reason why India continues to wallow in a cesspool of poverty and distress.

That is a cliché repeated so often, say something new …

I will but let me reinforce this point with three examples of how politicians are ruining the country.

Go ahead ..

First look the reservation policy. Our education system is the only one thing that we had to look the world in the eye. The IITs – something to be proud of – and here we are ruining them by forcing them out of their ability to nurture the elite – the educational elite, not the financial or political elite.


And then we have communists who would go to any length to wreck any meaningful economic activity and stall any reform process .. and they are hand in glove with the bureaucrats in the public sector who too would go any length to preserve their right to loot the public exchequer ..

And what is the third ?

Why … our new found enthusiasm for the terrorists who kill and maim in the name of Islam. We know who they are … and yet we hesitate to move against them because it will hurt the national vote banks ..

Vote banks … have you not hit the nail on the head.

What do you mean ?

Look … all three examples that you quoted can be traced back to our fatal obsession with vote bank politics.

I agree … and that is what makes me even more despondent.

Why ?

Because of the maxim that as are the people, so is the prince.

So ?

Do you not see that what this means is that the fault dear Brutus is not in our politicians but in us that we are undeserving underlings … condemned to a second-class or perhaps even a third-class existence.

But I thought for a moment that you were trying to blame our politicians for this misery ..

Sometimes you may have to go for the unreal to know the real … look for the image to see the reality.

You are talking in riddles …

Perhaps I am … but the fact remains that while politicians are the easy scapegoats that we intellectuals tend to blame in coffee table discussions ( like this ) the real culprit is that we as a nation are ‘like this only’. We are a nation that is awful enough to vote for, elect and in a sense entrust our destiny to, a bunch of hypocrites and thugs ..

Is that not true for other nations ? Have the Americans not elected Bush ?

Could be true, I am not here to lecture you on comparative politics, but perhaps we are an order of magnitude worse.

Worse than tribal Africa ? Worse than the medieval Middle East ?

As I said, I am not into comparative politics … and my only interest is in the land that lies in the shadow of the Himalayas.

OK, so tell me about India … and about Indians.

Have you heard of CHAIPANI ?

You mean tea and snacks ? Of course ..

That is the literal translation … but in India, or at least in the Hindi belt of Northern India, chaipani means more … the little extra that gets things done.

Bribes ? So what about it ? Are you talking about corruption ?

Chaipani, for me is an icon for India – as it was, as it is and as it will be …

I do not get you at all …

Fine, let me start … C is for corruption .. pervasive, inevitable and absolute. An extraordinary large percentage of us are either personally corrupt, and so find it quite OK to bribe others, or given the slightest opportunity would happily become corrupt. And interestingly enough we have given to ourselves laws that encourage the practice of corruption at every conceivable opportunity. Any Indian in any position of authority or in any position that allows him or her to exercise discretion for the benefit of anyone else … will, with a high degree of probability, take advantage of this position – monetarily or otherwise, without batting an eyelid.

That is quite an indictment …

H is for hypocrisy. No nation is as hypocritical as we are. We swear by equality and egalitarianism and many of us, the educated types, may have put the caste system behind us .. but look at the matrimonial columns and you will see categories based on caste.

But it is dying out ..

Perhaps but it will take a long time. Caste may not be irrelevant for many of us – and that includes me as well – but that is not the point. I am not questioning the belief per se, but let us admit that what we say is far removed from what we believe in ! And that is true not just in the case of caste … we have the Orwellian tendency of meaning the opposite of what we intend to say. Hence trade unions claim to champion the cause of labour but covertly act as agents of unscrupulous management. We know very well that our cities are getting choked but still condone and even encourage illegal slums and settlements to create vote banks. We have no qualms of reaping the benefits of work outsourced from the US but out own bank employees go on strike when Indian banks plan to outsource their own work. We know very well that foreign funded madrasas are the breeding grounds of Muslim terrorists and yet we pretend that being secular and inclusive is the right path to nirvana.

I see what you mean .. but is this hypocrisy ?

It is a very peculiar behavior and for the lack of a better word, I shall stick to hypocrisy to describe it .. and the more you look, the more it strikes you in the face.

You are right … we condemn apartheid and yet we have no qualms of referring to coloured Americans as “kallus”. This is the land of Kama Sutra and while we have no qualms about inviting tourists to Khajuraho we go to great extents to stop sex education among our own kids. We celebrate the Ras Leela of Radha and Krishna and then in the same breath, breathe fire and brimstone about Valentine’s Day. If you have a better word to describe this situation then I would be happy to use it .

But that will upset your H in Chaipani !! Anyway you have A next .. what is that for ?

A is for Anarchic … we are truly anarchic. We will not obey traffic rules and are rude to our fellow drivers and yet we sullenly resent when others, especially traffic police are equally rude and offensive to us. We cannot resolve any dispute in a civil manner .. we will have bandhs, morchas, rail and rasta roko-s, with murder and mayhem as necessary collaterals.

But that is because our government would not listen otherwise.

That is because the government – or for that matter anyone in authority – is equally anarchic. Those who frame the rules are the first to break them – our lawmakers are our biggest lawbreakers – and if we cannot break them, we will find a million loopholes so that the law itself becomes a joke.

Why is that ?

Well, that will loop us back to the C – for corruption and it also points forward to the next letter of chaipani … I for Incompetence.

Incompetence ?

We are terrible in doing anything worthwhile. Our constitution is the longest in the world and has had to be amended the most ! Our laws are so incomprehensively convoluted that they are open to the most virulent abuse. We cannot manage our own affairs … no project in India, government projects in particular, have ever finished in time … and when they do get finished, the deliverables are terrible. Look at the mess that we have created with our streets, the traffic, the airports … our telephones never used to work until they were privatized ..

Would that not mean that it is our government that is incompetent and not the people ?

Our government consists of our own people .. we have no foreign rulers here ..

Perhaps our government is structured in such a manner that only incompetent people reach positions of authority, where they can take incorrect decisions ..

That is bigger incompetence ! or should I say meta-incompetence !! We as a nation are so incompetent in managing our own affairs that the worst, most incompetent, most corrupt people end up in positions where they can cause the maximum damage to society. What could be more damming than this ..

The CHAI – or tea – that you have brewed for us is very dark and strong. C for Corruption, H for Hypocrisy, A for Anarchy and now I for Incompetence .. all this can leave a very bitter taste in the mouth.

Do not panic ! I have some clear PANI – water – for you to freshen your mouth with !

Surely you must be joking Mr. Seeker !

Not at all, not at all. Consider the next letter – P for Patience. We as a nation have infinite patience to tolerate this litany of woes. Any other society would perhaps have given up their ghost by now.

Iraq exists, so does Somalia and Nigeria …

True …but let us look up at societies that are better placed .. looking downwards does not help.

So you ask us to be Patient ..

Patience gives us the wherewithal to tolerate all this crap … this Corruption, Hypocrisy, Anarchy and Incompetence .. but to evolve, to move forward .. we need something to look up to .. and fortunately, we do have some positives ..

Good .. and what is that ?

A for Advaita Vedanta ! The crown jewel of our intellectual achievement.

What on earth is that ?

The school of philosophy on which the entire edifice of our intellect is built. First enunciated by Sankara in the 8th Century, it has been refined over the ages by a succession of intellectual giants .. of whom the last two are Aurobindo and Vivekananda.

Can you explain …

I will, I will .. but it will take some time.

Can you be brief ..

It is a long story but in essence it says that there is just one truth and that is Brahman – not Brahma, the four faced god who is a part of the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – but the Brahman of the pure consciousness.

What is the nature of this Brahman ?

You have led me to the next letter N for Negation.

What does that mean ?

This Brahman cannot be described in the normal language. It has no attributes … you can attempt to describe it through a set of negatives … not solid, not liquid, not any known shape, not of any known colour … in fact we could go on and on with a set of negatives and we would still not reach the goal. In fact we must negate the existence the physical world itself to reach the core of Advaita.

Negation ? as a fundamental principle ? This is awkward … we cannot have a world of negatives, there has to be something positive, something real … somewhere ..

Negation, nothingness is a very crucial part of the Hindu world view. You can see this in the fact that the modern numeric system, based on the zero, which has emerged out of India uses the same word Shunya for both zero as well as empty. Brahman is the only truth, the only positive – if you really want to use the word – but words are not the right vehicles to carry the message here.

How can you do without words ?

You have to rely on the I for Intuition. That is the only tool that we can use and trust. This huge edifice of Advaita and the concept of nothingness on which it rests can only be understood, can only be realized at an intuitive level. That is how saints, saints here in India and elsewhere … like Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, Sankara .. right down to Ramakrishna get a glimpse of the ultimate truth … that is how they attain Nirvana.

So you say that CHAIPANI is the key ?

This acronym was just my way to describe the situation. The dark hopelessness of CHAI is where we find ourselves and to wipe out all that darkness, we seek the cool, clarity of PANI. We are stuck. We find ourselves in a situation where we find ourselves in a cul-de-sac of hopeless despair … of corruption, hypocrisy, anarchy and incompetence …and yet, a situation where, if we have the patience to delve into the depths of advaita, it is possible to negate all these and intuitively find a path to the ultimate goal.

What is that goal ?

That is known only to those who have reached it.

I understand goals like health, wealth, fame, peace … how can I reach for a goal that I cannot even articulate ?

Then you have to wallow in the triviality that you understand … for me all this stuff is trivial .. I yearn for the ultimate Truth, the pure consciousness .. which again for the lack of a better word we shall refer to as Shiva : The Good.

And you claim that Vedanta is the only way out and forward ? Is that not too arrogant ? Is it not that there could be as many paths to the goal as there are travelers ? Are you not following into the same pattern as that of the people of the Book ? Just like the followers of middle eastern religions that say that salvation lies if and only if you follow their exclusive path .. the path defined in the Book – whatever Book that may be ..

Not at all … please feel free to traverse any path that you want .. but in the end you will end up here .. and I will be here to walk along again with you.

Well if I have to come back and start here .. I might as well do it right now ! But can you explain all this to me ?

It is a matter of realization, not understanding … but we can always try to, and then if we are lucky enough, we may get a glimpse of the basics of Advaita Vedanta.

3 - Basics of Advaita Vedanta

What is Advaita Vedanta ?

It is a rather and complex subject but I shall try to explain to the extent that I understand it at the moment and to the extent to that I can articulate what I seem to understand …

You are being very cautious but please go ahead.

It is one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy and in the opinion of many, including me, the one that is most complete and in a sense the best.

One of the six ? what are the others ?

Well you have Charvak’s school of extreme materialism at one end – where he says, wreenam kritwa, ghreetam pibet drink ghee, even if you have to borrow money for it : or in short make merry at the cost of anything else – and the other end we have Patanjali’s Yoga – the classical school of asceticism that is based on ethical behavior, physical and metabolic activities and intense, introspective meditation. And then you have a few others schools of thought.

Like what ?

We have the school of logic, Nyaya, and this is used by many other systems as a foundation for reasoning and debate. We have the school of Vaisesika, that considers visesa, or uniqueness, as an important aspect of reality. Then we have Samkhya which introduced the duality of Purusha and Prakriti.

What is that ?

We will come to that later, but let me complete the list. Samkhya is the foundation of Buddhism as enunciated by the Buddha, even though his followers deviated from that path and then we have Mimamsa, which in a sense to leads us to that exalted pinnacle of the Hindu world view that is Vedanta. … and all these schools of thought try to address in their own way some basic questions like
* Who am I ? From where have I come from and why ? What is the relationship between me and the universe and other human beings ?
* What is the essential nature of my being and what is the essential of the universe ?
* What is the relationship between consciousness and the objects of the universe ?
* What is truth and how do we arrive at rational conclusions on the question of truth ?

So where does Advaita Vedanta lie ?

It is not quite a linear spectrum so that I cannot say that it lies so far from one end … but in a sense, it builds upon the work of Patanjali and Visishta-Advaita and was articulated most elegantly by Sankara – who was born in Kerala in the 8th century AD.

The same Sankara who created the four maths or institutions at Dwaraka, Kedarnath, Puri and Sringeri …

Yes at the four corners of the country … to reestablish the Sanatan Dharma in the face of aggressive Buddhism.

One second, are we talking about religion or philosophy ?

Let me step back for a moment .. and restart. The word Hindu religion is a misnomer and it does not exist in the lexicon of the people who are supposed to be Hindus ..

I know it was created by Greeks to refer to the people who lived to the east of the Indus or the Sindhu river.

So unlike the religions that are based on “books” that is Judaism, Christianity, Islam or their common ancestor Zoroastrianism that emerged out of Persia, the way of life of the so called Hindus is guided by a set of principles that are referred to as Sanatan Dharma, or the Perennial Philosophy.

But still these so called Hindus have some religious texts – the vedas, the upanishads, the brahmana, the puranas and the great epics. This is what Hindu philosophy should be based on .. is it not ?

They do, but if you observe closely the Hindu word for philosophy is Darshan and this can be loosely translated as vision, sight or even better insight.

So are you saying that the philosophy is world view ? Are you not playing semantic games ?

Darshan refers to the insight that certain individuals had – these individuals are referred to as Rishis, the learned ones – into the nature of the universe. Their articulation – to the extent that this was possible using the finite grammar of a language – and the subsequent attempts to interpret these articulations have resulted in a set of codes of conduct that were of importance for the stability of human civilisation. The set of codes represent the Dharma or religion of the land – the ‘Hindu’ religion or Sanatan Dharma – but the original insights form the basis of the philosophy – and in this case we are interested in the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta.

Sankara was the one with the original insight ?

No – he came much later and it is to his credit that he interpreted the Vedas, the Upanishads -- referred to as end of the Vedas or Vedanta – and came out with an exquisite, coherent and consistent description of the nature of the universe.

But all schools of Hindu philosophy – with the possible exception of Charvak – are based on the Vedas and Vedanta .. so what is different here ?

Let me begin with the basic tenets of Advaita, to the extent that I am aware of them.

Are you being modest or being sarcastic.

Neither, only being truthful … for if I really knew or had the first hand experience of Advaita, then I would not be – or need not have to be – explaining all this to you or anyone else.

Curious, but I shall let that pass.

The world Advaita can be literally translated as non-Dual.

Is that what you refer to as Singularity.

Yes, but there are scholars who would not accept that word, they will say it is not Dual, but whether it is Singular or not is debatable.

Sheer semantics.

True, but as I keep repeating, the fact that I am speaking (or writing ) this and you are listening to me .. means that I am not yet free from the limitations of Semantics .. and you have to learn to live with this ..

OK .. no offence meant

None taken, except that we are slowing down. So let me continue with the three principal characters of this great play - the Atman, the Brahman and Maya.

And who are they ?

Atman - the Self : The entire phenomenal world is bound by time, space and causation and as long as one is confined by these concepts, the experience is limited. Beyond the realms of time and space, there is an absolute and unconditional Reality that has no beginning and no end. That is Atman, the Self. The Self cannot be experienced by the senses. This Self is both within and outside the body. Unlike the body it is beyond death and decay. The Self is the fountainhead of the life force that animates and motivates the mind-body complex. According to Sankara, this Self is the all-pervading, self-illumined Consciousness.

Brahman - the Supreme Consciousness : Brahman is the ultimate Truth within and without. Brahman is also all-pervading and self-illumined Consciousness and the relationship of the Brahman to the Self is that of the forest to the tree. The entire universe emanates from Brahman, exists in Brahman and at the time of dissolution returns into Brahman. Stepping beyond the primitive monotheism of the Judeo-Christian philosophy/theology, Sankara asserts that the individual Atman and the universal Brahman are one and the same and the concept of a creator that is distinct from the creation is a cosmic illusion.

Maya - the Illusion : The phenomenal universe that can be perceived by the senses is actually an illusion called Maya. This Maya is what causes human beings to perceive worldly phenomena and respond to the environment. Vedanta states that Maya shields the Truth or Brahman from the Self or Atman. The concepts of time and space that veil the face of Truth are aspects of Maya. Because Maya veils the Truth, the individual Atman misconstrues both the world and itself as different from the Truth or Brahman.[1]

The concept of Non-Dualism or Advaita, goes back to the luminous era of pre-Mahabharat India ..

I see that you are consciously avoiding a reference to the dim, dark past of history !

Yes, for me it was neither dim nor dark .. because it was in these Vedic or Upanishadic era someone visualized ( remember “Darshan” is insight ) this idea – this spark of illumination – and it was subsequently developed by Sankara around the 8th century and elaborated by many others including Vivekananda.

And what was this spark all about ?

At the core of Advaita is the startling assertion : Brahma satya, Jagat mithya – the Divine is Real, the World is Unreal. For the lack of a better word, I have translated Brahma as the Divine, but it could also use terms like the Universal Consciousness or the Universal Soul none of which however are quite adequate.

I suppose this Brahma is different from the four faced ‘god’ of creation ..

Good point, you are right .. Brahma, the four faced ‘god’ is one of the members of the Hindu trinity … but that is more of mythology and doctrinal religion, far removed, and in a sense irrelevant to the principles that we are dealing with in Advaita. Here the word Brahma refers to the Brahman that I had introduced in the Dramatis Personae of our Advaita story.

The first part of the statement, in its English translation, certainly seems like a self-defining axiomatic play on words, but given the limitation of the language I can let it pass. But I have some difficulty with the second part of the statement – that asserts that the world as we know it is unreal – is very startling. How is it that the world that we KNOW so well be not real. … How can all this be illusory ?

Perhaps you have to learn to give up this most cherished belief ..

How can this be ? How can this world be unreal ? The world has form and shape, colour and texture that we can see, feel, hear, taste and smell. This observable world has a persistence across time, space and individuals. We know that the Taj Mahal has existed for the past 500 years and countless individuals have recorded its existence over generations. Fossil records date back even longer and if one were to look at astronomical evidence then we have records stretching back to the Big Bang, that created the observable universe. In the face of such irrefutable evidence, any attempt to deny the existence of all these observable objects as well as the physical existence of millions of conscious observers is impossible, if not downright absurd.

I know that this is like running into an impregnable wall – a wall that has been built with the bricks of meticulous observations and resting on a solid foundation of logic and rationality. I do not deny that this is difficult but as I said before, we have to learn how to give up our most cherished beliefs and learn to accept the inevitability of living with illusions.[2]

[1] This brief introduction to Vedanta is based on the book "Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy" by Pandit Rajamani Tigunait, Ph.D. ISBN 0-89389-076-6 © 1983 by The Himalayan International Institute

[2] Ya Devi Sarvabhuteshu Bhranti-roopena Sangsthita, Namastasyai Namamstasyai Namastasyai, Namoh Namaha – Salutations to the Devi who abides in all beings in the form of Error or Illusion.