Monday, 19 May 2014

Time - the Agent of Change

One of the most intuitive and (thus) inexplicable concepts that we have got too used to to wonder about, is time. We ask for the time, ask for more time, manage time, and even kill time! But to define time in all its complexity and depth is much more challenging, if not impossible. 

Two related aspects of time come up in everyday life. The first is the concept of duration, which is conveyed by questions like "how much time does it take to complete this activity?" or "how long have you been living here?", and definitions such as "a day is the time taken by earth to rotate once on its own axis". The the other aspect - as implicit in questions like "what time is it?" or "when did that happen?" - is obtained by applying the first one in combination with an arbitrary reference point. While we understand these aspects and use them freely, these are actually points or intervals in the continuum that we know as time. The question of what time is remains as elusive. 

According to Srimad Bhagavatam, time is the potency of God that brings about change. It is without beginning or end, undifferentiated, and can only be inferred from its effect, which is change. Not surprising then, that all measures of time are actually measures of change. For example, a day is the measure of change in the angular position of a point on Earth's surface by 360 degrees. However, it looks like we can't use just any change for measuring time. For example, time taken for me to count from 1 to 100 is seldom accepted as a unit. This is because we somehow decide that this time cannot be guaranteed to be the same each time I count. So, in this age, measures of time are defined pretty elaborately, with a second being the duration for a certain number of radiations corresponding to a specified transition of Cesium 133 atom. But how do we know that this time is constant? 

If you ask me, it is just defined so as to be made a constant. But at least, it is defined in a way that does not conflict with our inherent, intuitive notion of passage of time; in a way that is consistent with measures based on many other phenomena which we accept as periodic. For example, the time taken for moon to go through a cycle of waxing and waning has a more or less constant relation with the time taken by earth to complete a rotation, or with that for earth to revolve around the Sun. These, again, are in sync with our biological notion of time - heart beat, cycles of sleep or hunger, growth and ageing. 

Time, as we generally agree, is uni-dimensional - there is only past, future and an intervening present. Furthermore, our experience of time is unidirectional - it keeps flowing forward, from past to future, and never in the reverse direction. According to thermodynamics, this directionality is a result of the natural tendency of all systems to progress in the direction of increasing randomness (entropy) as laid down in the second law of thermodynamics, famously referred to by Eddington as the Arrow of Time, and follows from the premise that randomness cannot be undone. Take the example of two rooms separated by a closed window, one with hydrogen and the other with oxygen. If the window were to be opened, the gases each diffuse into the other room and gradually reach a state of uniform distribution across the two rooms. The reverse of this change has not been observed, and hence its direction is aligned with the intuitive direction of time which we all accept. 

For a moment, let us consider the fascinating possibility that time can, and it actually does, flow backward. Since the forward direction of the time is the direction in which our memory builds up, the backward direction would be the one in which it gets undone. So even if we were shuttling back and forth in time, we would remember only one direction of it since all trace of the other would be erased in our memory! In case we actually do manage to remember, then we would remember it as our past and direction of progression will appear to us as from past to future. Not sure if this is very convincing to others, but I believe that our consciousness of something having happened, or us having undergone an experience is what makes it the past, and gives direction to time. The thermodynamic arrow of time just seems to be aligned to it so far as we have observed in this universe. 

My thoughts on time travel, its implications and applicability are based, chiefly, on the consciousness or memory arrow of time. Say, a person experiences a grave tragedy, then goes into the past and undoes its cause (assuming he could do that), will that tragedy remain in his memory even as a dream? If it will, that means one cannot completely remove an experience even by going into the past, because a memory remains of that experience and memory is all that remains of many other past experiences. If not a trace of it remains in his memory, then he wouldn't remember going into the past and applying a correction either - so any learning from that experience is totally lost and he is likely to commit the same mistake again - until he is prepared to accept the tragedy along with the learning that comes with it. It is the ability to undo the results without undoing the learning that makes checkpoints so valuable in video games. This is possible because in a game, memory is held by the player and results are reversed or lost only for the character. In real life, if memory is associated with our undying consciousness (the player) while the consequences for body and mind are reversible through time travel, we may have a similar advantage! 

The real paradox of changing the past that led to the present (from the present) is that it would undo the change you made to the past as well, nullifying the course of events that led to the present action of changing the past, bringing everything back to square one. I understand that there are some people who believe this paradox can be circumvent by considering numerous parallel universes, with each decision in present giving rise to a new branch of reality, and a change to the past switching you form one branch to another. That is, having read this article, if you go into the past and kill me before I write this article, you'd actually be killing a me in some other universe, inhabitants of which would be spared the ordeal of reading this article by a miraculous savior who appears out of nowhere (well, a parallel universe, to be precise - but they might not realize it because they didn't get a chance to read this article!). On the other hand, if you had killed the author from your own past, you wouldn't have got a chance to read the article and seek out its author, which means the author will be spared, giving you an opportunity to read this article and seek out the author, and so on, indefinitely (hence the paradox!). The reason I believe the parallel universes hypothesis does not really solve the paradox I mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph is because in this case you're not altering the past that led to this present, but entering an alternate past that leads to some other present. 

Considering the uni-directional flow of time in a single universe, changing the past seems to be a very difficult opiton - at least to explain within the confines our our logic (Personally, I don't believe that the infinite truth has to fit into finite human logic! But due to the limitation of my intellect, I'll stick with a logical analysis for now). Even in a multiverse setting, with a universe for each possible different quantum state, there doesn't seem to be any real option of "changing" the past. The best you can do is end up in another past where the choice you made has already been decided. What is interesting is that in this case you even don't have any control over the future because all futures already exist, and you are simply part of one or the other - a fatalism that many would find scary. Even if we consider the evolution of a single universe with time, if the laws of nature could be applied on the current state of the universe with absolute accuracy to predict a future state, we would end up with a similar degree of fatalism. All that is to happen will already be pre-determined, and would happen as dictated by the flow of time. Is the entire universe subject to this tyranny of time? This will be the subject of our next discussion.

Watch this space for the next part in this series on time. Or, better still, subscribe to Avalokanam by email so as to never miss a post! 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

First of April - Fool's Day Special

As a child, April was a much awaited time of the year. Annual exams would be over and we'd be into the honeymoon period in the next class. New textbooks, optimism of a fresh beginning, determination to correct mistakes of the past and to do better than ever before, all of these made us all generally cheerful and energetic. The first of April was even more special, this being religiously observed as April Fool's Day. I would start planning a couple of days in advance devising ingenious pranks and coming up with innovative strategies to fool people. Most would involve, among other elements, a scenario in which another, a possibly unsuspecting, person would believe something I say – which would actually not be true – and I'd have the satisfaction of having made a fool of him. Though I usually believe in being truthful, these pranks somehow did not fall in the range of my moral radar. That is, until my father told me something that made me think. 

On that fated April Fool's Day, I was bragging to my father about how big a fool I made of a friend of mine, and he asked me with a smile: "If your friend became a fool for having believed what you said, what does that make you?". I did not have an immediate answer for that, but instantly knew that it it was not something to be proud of. If a person's trust in me becomes his weakness, that makes me more pathetic than him. After all, it takes a certain amount of courage to trust a person and good judgement to trust the right one; to betray that trust betrays the lack of either quality. Even on one special day in a year, even in a (seemingly) most innocuous flavour, that act of betrayal still didn't seem right. 
The desire to fool people, however, had deep roots within me and so I began to think of ways to achieve it without stepping into the forbidden territory of betrayal. One effective way was to exploit their incredulousness on that day by telling them something that's incredible but true, so that they don't believe you. A clever scheme can be designed to make them look stupid for not having believed you or listened to you. There are many other ways to play harmless practical jokes on people, each of which exploit a certain weakness of theirs. This weakness could be their greed, pride, ambition, anything – but never their trust in you. A good example of this is how someone I know once sent me by post, a carefully packaged parcel with a fake university name on the cover, making it appear that I had received a rare honour from a renowned institution, while the actual content "certified my foolishness" and awarded me a doctorate in it. 

The more well-deserved a prank, the more beautiful it is, I guess. Take for example, the case of smart fellow who advanced the time in his roommate's watch and cell-phone by half-an-hour after he had slept. To deprive a lazy person of half an hour of his morning sleep is indeed very cruel! As this roommate dressed hurriedly and left for college half an hour earlier than required, the prankster watched with deep satisfaction and pride, explaining that he had some errand to run for which he'll have to miss the first hour. Till he reached his class at the right time as per his own watch, when he was actually late by half-an-hour, he did not realize that his friend had turned his very own trick on himself! 

I think we should continue to celebrate April Fool's Day, not just because it gives us all an opportunity to sharpen our cunning, or because it's fun to fool others and yourself be caught off-guard at times – but because this one day practically demonstrates to us the importance of honesty and integrity by making us live a single day in a world in which it is hard to tell what is real and what isn't; what to trust and what not to!

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Perpetration of Blame

We live in an age when people become popular by highlighting the failings of others rather than through their own achievements. We have heads of elected governments who care less about governance and more about blaming other leaders of corruption and other crimes. An ordinary person who takes a casual look at the newspaper is drowned in news of heinous crimes which fuel their "righteous" indignation. Deploring a crime and rebuking its perpetrator gives us a sense of satisfaction from feeling that we are better than many others. However, Bhagavatam tells us that feeling such a satisfaction puts at at the same level as these criminals!

When Dharma in the form of a bull was being beaten and tortured by Kali in human form, King Pareekshit asks Dharma who caused him so much suffering. Instead of pointing a finger at Kali, Dharma notes that there are different views among philosophers - with some of the opinion that we reap the fruits of our own actions, others ascribing it to heavens, fate or destiny, others to nature, etc. Dharma continues to note that there are still others who believe that the cause of suffering cannot be ascertained or be expressed, and so it is for the King to decide for himself. Pareekshit, impressed by the impeccable reply of the bull, says:
धर्मं ब्रवीषि धर्मज्ञ धर्मोऽसि वृषरूपधृक 
यद् अधर्मकृतः स्थानम् सुचकस्यापि तद् भवेत् 
You speak dharma, O knower of dharma - you are Dharma himself in the form of a bull. [You know that] He who identifies adharma also deserves the same place as those who perpetrates it. [SB I:17:22]

Now, this might sound strange. How can one who point out a crime be considered at the same level as the criminal he brought to light? While I cannot claim to know what Pareekshit had in mind when he said so, I do have my thoughts on what his reason might have been. The main reason could be that to recognize evil in others, we need to have (at least) a spark of that evil in ourselves. The more indignation we feel, the more true this is. When I feel bad and angry at an act of cruelty by another, what I really feel bad about and ashamed of is that trace of cruelty within myself - and by decrying the perpetrator of this crime, I am just trying to hide the ugliness in myself (perhaps unconsciously).

The King perhaps also meant that whatever suffering we undergo is deserved through our own actions, and is nobody else's fault. If we deserve to suffer, who can save us? And if we do not deserve, then who can put us through suffering? As Sri Krishna observes in this sloka from Bhagavatam, not even Indra, the lord of Devas, can change this rule. What, then, is to be said about the petty politicians.
किमिन्द्रेनेह भूतानां स्व स्व कर्मनुवर्तिनाम् 
अनीशेनान्यथा कर्तुं स्वभावविहिताम् नृणां 
What can Indra do for beings who undergo the consequences of their own actions, whose destiny is based on their own nature? [SB X:24:15]

Whenever we blame others for our problems or for the evil that is around us, we are missing the real problem that is within ourselves. If we were to fix ourselves, our world would also get fixed. We all have so much to fix in ourselves rather than go and find faults with others. This is what Kabir conveys through his doha
बुरा जो देखन में चला बुरा न मिलिया कोय 
जो दिल खोजा आपना मुझसे बुरा न कोय
I went in search of evil, but found no evil. When I searched within my own mind, there is no one more evil than me

As true as this is in our personal lives, I believe this should also be the model we follow in politics. The level of our society and politics cannot be elevated by more negativism and by reemphasizing its shortcomings. Exposes, sting operations, creating list of corrupt politicians, and other ways of tainting opponents should give way to more introspection and setting righteous examples set in good governance.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Path of Karma - Sandy Beach Similitude

One who has wet his feet and sandals on a sandy beach most likely remembers the exasperating experience of trying to rid them of sand. The less experienced are easily fooled into attempting to wash their feet against the next wave, only to find that the wave replaces any sand it removes with a fresh lot and that there's a limit to how clean you can get through this process. Those who know, know that a much better strategy is to dry your feet in the sun, and once all the water is dried up, let the sand fall off on its own. If you try to remove the sand without first removing the water, you will continue to collect more sand as you walk on the beach. On the other hand, if your feet (and the sand) are not wet, you can walk freely without the risk of having the sand stick to them. 


This example, with its gross elements, is pretty easy to understand and appreciate. However, a more subtle scenario that is similar and in fact omnipresent, is easily overlooked. Troubles, suffering, and deficiencies in our life are a result of our actions. To cleanse ourselves of these worldly impurities and attain happiness and contentment through further action is as foolish an attempt as to cleanse our feet against waves in the previous example. No matter how purifying certain actions may seem, they only replace within us, some tendencies and propensities with others. They cannot completely cleanse us of impurities as long as we are wet with attachment. If we bask in the sun of knowledge and "dry out" this attachment, not only do impurities accrued through interested actions in the past fall off, further actions will also not affect us. 

If actions are the cause of suffering, are we expected to desist from actions altogether? This is neither possible, nor required. As Sri Krishna notes in the Bhagavad Gita:  

नियतं कुरु कर्म त्वम् कर्मज्यायोह्यकर्मण:
शरीरयात्रापि च ते न प्रसिध्येदकर्मण:
Do the actions ordained to you, for action is better than inaction. 
Even the maintenance of this body is not possible by shunning all actions (III:8)

Walking back to the car parked on the road requires walking on the sand, which cannot be completely avoided. The problem, as we observed, is not the sand, but the wetness which causes it to stick to our feet. Once the wetness is removed, the sand ceases to be a problem. Similarly, when attachment to action (and its fruits) is removed through knowledge, performing right (prescribed) action is conducive to our ultimate good. This is what the Lord further instructs:

तस्मादसक्त: सततं कार्यं कर्म समाचर 
असक्तोह्याचरन् कर्म परमाप्नोति पुरुष:
Therefore, always do dutiful actions without attachment. 
By thus pursuing action without attachment, one attains his supreme goal (III:19)

This analogy can further be extended to help better understand the role of action in our development, especially in the early stages. Let's assume our feet is covered with mud or dirt (and not sand). If we just let it dry, the dirt will still be on our feet. Now, if we expose our feet to the waves on the beach, with each wave some dirt gets replaced with sand, until no more dirt remains. Then, if we dry our feet, the sand will fall off and our feet will be clean. So the purpose of action, is to replace more persistent impurities with less persistent ones - or with those that are easier to get rid of. The more Sattvic our actions are, the weaker our Rajasic and Tamasic tendencies become. In the end, we have to get rid of Sattvic tendencies as well, and become beyond all Gunas. However, even if we cease action at a time when our Rajasic and Tamasic tendencies are strong, they might lie dormant for a while, but will sprout and take control whenever conditions are favorable to them. True knowledge, of course, destroy all seeds of latent tendencies and frees instantly; but such knowledge is rare for those who are predominantly Tamasic or Rajasic by nature. So by consistently pursuing the path of right action, we can reach the state where action may be shunned. This is explained by Bhagavan in the Gita chapter on Abhyasa Yoga:

आरुरुक्षोर्मुनेर्योगं कर्मकारणमुच्यते 
योगरूढस्य तस्यैव शम: कारणमुच्यते 
For the ascending (developing) Yogi, the path of action is advised, for the Yogi who has reached the peak, refraining from action is advised. (VI:3)

The purpose of all action is only to bring us to such an action-less state. Those who do not realize this lose themselves in the endless cycle of Karma. On the other hand, those who renounce action without attaining the required maturity will find the hard way that their latent tendencies will eventually drag them down and chain them to the field of Karma. Knowing both these pitfalls, the wise spiritual aspirant constantly engages, without attachment or desire, in spiritual activity that purifies him and prepares him for receiving the ultimate knowledge that will eventually free him from the tangles of action. 

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Alcoholism - A Social Evil Sustained by Greed

Some time back, I was involved in a discussion regarding the right of individuals to chose their destiny. My general view is that people can do with their lives whatever they wish as long as it does not infringe upon a similar right of another. This is why I supported the right to drive without seat-belt, ride without helmet, adopt an unhealthy lifestyle, and even end one's life if that is what one wishes for. Of course, it is not that I support or advise any of these, it is just that I think a democratic government has no business interfering with people's choice on any of these. (Democratic is the operative word here, because a benign King, on the other hand, can and must, in the spirit of a father towards his children, implement laws that bring about well-being even at the expense of personal liberty) Those who agreed with my views and many of those who took an opposing position in that debate both expressed surprise at the fact that I do not include the right to consume alcohol and other mind-altering substances (such as narcotic drugs) in this category. In fact, I am of the opinion that a complete prohibition of alcohol will be good for society, and that even a democratic government should take this step to guarantee the rights and safety of its citizens. 

The primary reason I consider alcohol a social evil, and not just an unwise personal choice, is because it causes a person to lose control over himself and increases his likelihood of causing harm to those around him. If we look at many of the heinous crimes committed in society, they are done under the influence of such mind-altering substances which make the user incapable of differentiating between right and wrong. In addition to being intuitive and pure common sense, this is also supported by studies around the world. For example, the Alcohol and Crime report prepared by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics notes (based on data for 1996) that "Two-thirds of victims who suffered violence by an intimate (a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend) reported that alcohol had been a factor. Among spouse victims, 3 out of 4 incidents were reported to have involved an offender who had been drinking". This shows how alcohol can make people commit acts that they wouldn't even dream of in a normal state of mind.

In a large percentage of homes in economically backward classes in India, it is a common sight for the male member of the family to spend all his earnings on alcohol, and indulge in domestic violence in an inebriated state. If alcohol were to be completely banned and made unavailable, the fundamental right to a peaceful life of the wife and children of such a person will be better guaranteed. It may be argued that there already are laws against domestic violence, and that they should be used to book the offender rather than curtail his freedom to drink. However, most women will be unwilling to sue their husbands and thereby further jeopardize the family. Also, when there is an easy way to prevent a crime, why wait for it to happen and then deal out "justice"? Clearly, one of the important steps that government can take to bring down crime in general, and more specifically domestic violence and assault on women, is to make alcohol unavailable.

There is at least a perception that both the number and intensity of crime has increased recently, and I think this has also to do with higher rates of alcoholism among youth. This rise, in turn, has to do with the change in portrayal of alcoholism in mainstream media and movies. For example, in older movies (at least Malayalam), it was usually only the detestable villain who drank and smoked, while the hero was presented as a paragon of virtue. In many new movies, however, alcoholism is an essential part of the hero's character. This has, over years, subtly eroded the social stigma associated with the consumption of alcohol and corrupted impressionable minds. Many young men (and women), well-educated and otherwise sensible, think it perfectly okay to consume this poison - some fools go to the extent of taking it as a matter of pride and identity. It has been thrust into their minds that to have fun or enjoy the company of friends, they first have to cease to be themselves. How unfortunate that art, which has the potential to uplift the spirit of man, is being thus used to cloud his reason and turn him into a brute!

It would be difficult for this depravation to have happened by chance or on its own - rather, it seems to be a result of conscious and calculated effort to create demand for a substance that has negative utility. From celebrities who endorse the use of alcohol, to companies that sell it, considerable human enterprise is wasted in bringing more people under the influence of liquor. Business, in my opinion, has to fulfill a social need. To feed upon weak men by feeding their weakness can hardly be called that. So rather than call it liquor industry or business, I think of it as a mafia involved in the lucrative crime of selling and promoting alcohol. A crime that is still legal for no better reason than it also being one of the largest sources of revenue for the government.

Even though it is not easy to get the government to mend its ways, in our capacity as individuals and socially responsible citizens, we can contribute to eradicating this plague. As an individual, I will not consume alcohol, nor buy it for someone else; nor will I encourage another person to have alcohol or pretend it is cool to lose oneself to this lowly chemical. I refuse to profit - even indirectly - from the sale of liquor, and will have no business with organizations that exploit people's weakness and lack of judgement. I will impress upon my children and friends that those who need to bank on bottled spirit to celebrate or make merry are truly weak of the spirit. I will look down upon cowards and weaklings who cannot face life as is, and need to depend on alcohol to escape reality. This is the least I can do to play my part in this struggle.