Thursday, 3 March 2016

Franz Kafka’s Blue Period (2016)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIV, 2016

Appreciating the Octavo Notebook Aphorisms
By Alex Stein

A lecture I gave at a college in California, on the relationship between art and mysticism, in conjunction with a recently published book, led to a request that I offer commentary on some of the aphorisms contained in Franz Kafka's 'Octavo Notebooks'. It has been my pleasure to do so. To meditate upon the works of Kafka (author of The Trial and Metamorphosis, among other high-water marks of World Literature) is to meditate upon the human condition. As the primitives did on their cave walls, so Kafka does in his writings: he expresses the quintessential.

Franz Kafka's Blue Octavo Notebooks aphorisms, written mainly in 1918, were first published in 1953, under the heading 'Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way.' That header, with its stair-stepping triplet of charismatic nouns-Sin! Suffering! Hope!-along with its deft note of plea, was one of the innumerable publicity tweaks that Max Brod, zealous agent of Kafka's literary estate, would, in time, perform on behalf of the spiritual reputation of his enigmatic friend.

It was Brod who had refused to destroy Kafka's writings after Kafka's death, in 1924. This was despite explicit instructions given by Kafka that he do so. 'I told him I did not agree to it,' Brod said. 'I told him I would never do such a thing'.

Kafka had culled some of his key ideas, in the form of aphorisms, from a pair of blue notebooks. He transposed these, slightly editing several, onto numbered slips of paper he had arranged at his bedside. It was these slips that Brod would recover, along with the notebooks, from Kafka's personal effects.

Illness had set Kafka free. He had just turned 34 when tuberculosis declared itself. It was August, 1917 and he had coughed up a little blood. Kafka would spend the next eight months, convalescing in Zurau, in the Bohemian countryside, at the house of his sister Ottla. In a letter from that time, Kafka compared himself to the 'happy lover' who exclaims:  'All the previous times were but illusions, only now do I truly love.'

Indeed, just three days into his stay, Kafka scribbled:  'You have the chance if ever there was one, to begin again. Don't waste it.'

The sequence he produced was a first, for Kafka, in at least two regards. It was, and would be, the only text in which Kafka directly confronted theological themes, and it marked, within the broad scope of his writings (that included novels, stories, and a voluminous intimate diary) the first appearance of a particular literary form: the aphorism.
Aphorism #33

Formerly I could not understand why I received no answer to my questions; today I cannot understand how I could have believed I could question. But indeed I did not believe, I simply questioned.

Aphorism #51

One must not cheat anybody, not even the world of its triumph.
Kafka had turned his affliction into a badge of honor. Being bed-ridden was Kafka's permit to dream. It was a special dispensation. Proust once wrote that the neurotics have given us everything. They are the ones who have saved the world, created the world, made the world worthwhile. Perhaps, invalidism had eased Kafka of the burden of himself. Eased him of the chattering fears that told him, 'You must do better!' That told him, 'It will always be beyond your abilities, whatever you choose. You will never be good enough or go far enough.'
Aphorism  #45

The choice was put to them whether they would like to be kings or the couriers of kings. Like children, they all wanted to be couriers. So now there are a great many couriers who post through the world, shouting to each other (as there are no kings left) their meaningless and obsolete messages. They would gladly put an end to their wretched lives but they dare not because of their oaths of service.
In the two slender notebooks, those two blue octavo notebooks, like those used by school-children, we get Kafka's private conversations. And in private conversations all of us tend to think more plainly, more directly, about hope and suffering, good and evil. If Kafka were to have translated those private conversations into public fictions or some other form that could have been folded twice and shot skyward under the cloak of literature, his style would have to have been more self-conscious, more ambiguous. But, because these were entirely private conversations, and because they were left so, they became perfect mirrors. Revelations. Beyond the fairy tales of the bardic. Verging on the estate of the vatic.
Aphorism #5

From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.
Aphorism #10

A first sign of nascent knowledge is the desire for death. This life seems unendurable, any other unattainable. One is no longer ashamed of wishing to die; one prays to be conducted from the old cell that one hates into a new cell that one has yet to hate. There is in this a vestige of faith that during the changeover the Master may chance to walk along the corridor, contemplate the prisoner, and say: 'You must not lock up this one again. He is to come to me.'
One might call aphorism #10 a prose fragment. Or an anomaly. Or a dream page from The Book of Mysteries. I am perfectly content to call it a poem. But for me it is really a vision of Grace. And Kafka is a mystic.
Aphorism #12

Like a road in autumn: Hardly is it swept clean before it is covered again with dead
The novelist, J. D. Salinger, once wrote of Kafka that certain lines in his diaries could be used to usher in a Chinese New Year. Considering that, one might translate this aphorism as: After meditation, how quickly the thoughts begin again to arise.
Aphorism #27
Virtue is in a certain sense disconsolate.
This one had been crossed out by Kafka. It was Brod who restored it. This raises issues about authors, about editors and about intentions. Let us say you had the privilege to know him. Let us say you were Kafka's executor and you had seen that strike-through and read what was beneath. Do you publish Kafka's diaries? Do you publish Kafka's laundry list? Do you ask yourself: Where does Kafka end and literature begin? Where do you draw the line? At what he agreed not to burn?

I am with Max Brod. Everything Kafka wrote (or said, or did) is valuable because whatever he does, he is still doing the work. And even if the work is just self-work, so, too, could the same be said for any of us, of anything we do, in any capacity-from fence-mending, to love-making, to bridge-building-that it is just self-work. With Kafka we are given the opportunity to witness a self-work master seeking, with elegant precision, his own hinterlands, focused in a state of such contained urgency that it is almost a trance of clairvoyance . Kafka is us, without our illusions.
Aphorism #29

The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy the heavens. Doubtless that is so, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for the heavens signify simply: the impossibility of crows.
The 'crows' are a group of theologians, posing an ancient dichotomy. I would rephrase the aphorism like this instead: 'The theologians maintain that a single contrary revelation could destroy the heavens. Doubtless that is so, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for the heavens signify simply: the impossibility of a single contrary revelation.'
Aphorism #36

It is conceivable that Alexander the Great, in spite of the martial successes of his early days, in spite of the excellent army that he had trained, in spite of the power he felt within him to change the world, might have remained standing on the bank of the Hellespont and never have crossed it, and not out of fear, not from infirmity of will, but because of the mere weight of his own body.
I adore this one. It is intractable without being obtuse. It brings an historical figure at the beginning of his destiny into contact with the scope of eternity and the mystery of his own free will. It is a portrait in the myth-making ilk of Leutze's famous 'Washington crossing the Delaware,' but drawn in ether upon the canvas of Time.
Aphorism #41

The hunting dogs are still playing in the courtyard, but the hare will not escape them, no matter how fast it may already be flying through the woods.
The novelist, Martin Amis, once referred to Kafka's prose as: 'dream-shaped.' This is a good example of that characterization.
Aphorism #46

Faith in progress does not mean faith that progress has already been made. That would be no faith.
This one rings for me like a joke one might tell between numbers at an old-fashioned music hall.

In his preface to an early edition of The Castle (Kafka's dream-shaped novel of alienation without redemption) the German essayist and short story writer, Thomas Mann, called Kafka a 'religious-humorist.'
Aphorism #66

Theoretically there exists a perfect possibility of happiness: to believe in the indestructible element in oneself and not strive after it.
Sometime around 1420, the Indian mystic, Kabir, wrote, similarly: 'I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty.'
Aphorism #75

Profane love can seem more sublime than sacred love; of itself it could not do this, but as, unknown to itself, it possesses an element of sacred love, it can.
I don't care much for this aphorism, or for its sentiment, but it does give me a chance to say some things about Kafka and his relationship to the world. In a letter to Milena, one of the two or three unfortunate woman who would care very deeply for him, Kafka will write: To try and catch in one night, by black magic, hastily, heavily breathing, helpless, obsessed, to try and obtain by black magic what every day offers to open eyes!

Imagine you are Milena! Imagine being the recipient of such a letter. 'Black magic?' Imagine being a young woman learning about her young man, and receiving such a letter. How could it not sting? And imagine being the one who had sent such a letter. Imagine being the young man. How can such a letter ever be lived down? It is too big to regret. It is Van Gogh's ear. It is too much to take back. Sometimes a voice, out from the chaos of spirits, cries and one finds oneself having written.

Can one say that? Or perhaps it is only poetry. The young man, in fear of the young woman, writing of sack-cloth and ash, wishing his body would be burnt away. Nothing more to it. Whatever is dammed must find another outlet. Whoever is damned must find another heaven.
Mystics from every tradition can be wildly erotic, but because they are addressing themselves to God they feel safe.

For Kafka, the mystic ritual he called 'writing' was his safe zone. Mysticism, like everything else, takes the shape of the desire by which it is summoned, and the desire behind Kafka's writing is an arrow launched toward union.

Much of what we read in Kafka is too personal. Transient neurotic contemplations. Documents for the doctors at the Sanitarium of Hypochondria. It is the repressed, surfacing, deviously, in masquerade. And part of what we read in Kafka is a universalized, lived, sensuality. Shy experience of the self as other. Veiled encounters with the beloved. Butt-naked tusslings. And why not? To get there means 'union', long longed-for (or, it may be, 'reunion,' long hoped for) and union induces bliss.

The 'impotent' who eroticises the world, some say he is the prophet. In his novel,Justine, Lawrence Durrell calls them, 'the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets...all who have been deeply wounded in their sex.' The statement lacks proportion, but there is some truth in it.

To be wounded in that way is to dam a furious river that begins, as the poet Rilke tells us, 'in the sky.' 'Making music is another way of making babies,' writes Nietzsche. And yes that is sublimation and yes it does color thought, but doesn't it color thought in wonderfully feverish flesh tones and isn't all that frailty and failure a living part of Kafka's legacy-a necessary aspect of its divinity? Isn't all that partly its sacrament? And isn't the chaos and aren't the death-thralls just autumn leaves in their season?
Aphorism #80

We were fashioned to live in Paradise, and Paradise was destined to serve us. Our destiny has been altered; that this has also happened with the destiny of Paradise is not stated.
I think of this one as a trance message like those the sleeping prophet Edgar Cayce used to gather from the universal record books, where all thought and event, even our dreams, past and present and future, are collected and preserved.

The 'true artist' is a mystic. As to the 'true way,' here is a shrewd insight from Kafka.
Aphorism #1

The true way goes over a rope which is not stretched at any great height but is just above the ground. It seems more designed to make people stumble than to be walked upon.

Aphorism #13

A cage went in search of a bird.
A critic can quickly grow discouraged trying to categorize an author's writings. Aphorism #13 is obviously a puff of ephemera, but it is also like a mirror that is floating in the middle of space. One can look at this aphorism solely for the uncanny condensation of its phrasing. Each of us is a cage-a cage of bones. In poetry, birds signify creative imagination. (As: 'Flights of fancy.') Is this simply an aphorism that says: A poet went in search of inspiration? If so could one extrapolate from that and say: A pilgrim went in search of her soul?
Aphorism #17

Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry; this occurs repeatedly, again and again: finally it can be reckoned upon beforehand and becomes a part of the ceremony.
One of the most famous of Kafka's aphorisms. Arguably one of the greatest aphorisms of all time. It combines story, idea, symbolic logic and a dense poetic construction. It speaks deftly of the human condition, and of how belief is constructed and defended. Plus, it has leopards in it, lapping up the sacrificial wine, 'repeatedly, again and again.' And that's just cute!
Aphorism # 19

You are the problem. No scholar to be found far and wide.
Meaning: You must solve yourself, if no one else seems to have taken up the task. If there is no scholar of you 'far and wide', you must become that scholar. If you are Kafka, you have not stinted that 'must,' and should it come to proof, you will be able to stand before any judgment seat clear of conscience. All those close written pages were for what if not to solve the problem that you were to yourself?

But, did you solve the problem of yourself? No, of course you did not. Thinking cannot solve the problems of thought. Thought only creates more thought. Thought cannot carry thought past itself. If you are Kafka, your voluminous writings are a good indicator of that. (But also of the positive qualities that thought returning to thought, over and over, do give rise to, namely: condensation of idea, excellence of conception, and brilliance of realization. In other words: poetry).
Aphorism #20

From a real antagonist, boundless courage flows into you.
The artist comes up against the limitations of his own understanding and does not shrink back but reaches through the darkness before him and if necessary climbs inside of it. All in order that he not fail in his duty to his art. Those who feel no duty to their art will never understand how those who do feel this duty believe they must render their services.
Aphorism #22

How can one be glad of the world, unless one is flying to it for refuge?
Recite a love-lyric that makes your heart ache more than does this aphorism. Imagine if Kafka had set about to present himself as a romantic figure. Once you have realized that Aphorism #22 is actually a love poem, a deepened understanding of it becomes inevitable. What refuge has the world? Where is that refuge to be found? Without worldly love, without the reality of worldly love, the idea of other-worldly salvation might never have been conjured.
Aphorism #23

There is a goal, but no way; what we call the way is only wavering.
Is there a way or is there no way? When we have reached our goal we understand there never was a way. We were already at our goal. Stop wavering. You have reached your goal, Kafka is telling himself. Just allow yourself to accept this understanding. But the wavering has its history and wants on that account to repeat itself. Can thinking tell thought that it must no longer waver? Oh, poet friends, would that it could. Only not-thinking can tell thought anything helpful about how to get out of the way of itself.

You may believe there is no such condition of mind as 'without thought'. But, there is no need to believe. Simply practice without expectation. You will come to experience this condition yourself. It has also been called, 'non-duality,' but I find that terminology provocatively metaphysical. The practice of 'no-thought' is not metaphysical. It is purely mechanical. Focus on breath. Or count by ones until you fall into a trance of forgetfulness. The mind is empty. Thought is nothing more than a habit.
Aphorism #34

His reply to the assertion that he POSSESSES perhaps, but never IS, was only a trembling and pounding of the heart.
There is a Zen Buddhist koan that may be apropos of Aphorism #34::
'Who is it that responds, when your name is called?'
Kafka is in the Zen Buddhist tradition (among other traditions) when he recognizes 'with trembling and pounding of the heart', that the self is just another purchase we have made on the way through this world. The worldly self is like a cupped handful of water. We have it for as long as we can hold it. What we truly are (and what the His of this aphorism 'never is') partakes of the eternal and cannot be reduced or constructed, let alone possessed.
Aphorism #42

You have harnessed yourself ridiculously for this world.
If one wishes to apply oneself fully to the task one has chosen, one must risk looking ridiculous. Or, as the great Japanese haiku poet, Buson, wrote:
Chrysanthemum grower,
you are the slave
of Chrysanthemums

This essay owes part of its thinking, and even some of its language, to a series of conversations I shared with the poet Yahia Lababidi. The edited transcripts of these conversations were collected and published in 2012 as The Artist as Mystic. We spoke of Kafka, Baudelaire, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Rilke. Motui Vivos Docent, Lababidi toasted, when we first conceived that project: The dead shall teach the living.

About the author: Alex Stein, with James Lough, is the co-editor of Short Flights: 32 Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration and Wit. He is also the author of 'Made Up Interviews with Imaginary artists,' a hybrid including interviews and literary essays.

Address for correspondence:

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

The Nexus of Philosophy and Science (2016)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIV, 2016

Ontological musings

Exploring the limits. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope uncovers the oldest burned-
out stars in our Milky Way Galaxy in this image from 2002. These extremely old, dim, 
'clockwork stars', provide one way of calculating the age of the universe. (Image source: NASA)

By Keith Tidman

Philosophy and science have come, increasingly and often, to dramatically intersect with one another, with implications for reflection on all sorts of metaphysical matters. This is why two recent, much publicised, confirmations in science bearing on physical reality have garnered people's enthusiastic awareness every bit as much for philosophical as for scientific reasons.

The first confirmation, of gravitational waves - ripples in the fabric of space-time - was predicted by Einstein a century ago; while the other, relating to the Higgs boson subatomic particle, concerns longstanding questions about the mass of elementary particles.

Both confirmations are fundamental to cosmology, providing an increasingly fine-grained look into our almost fourteen billion year-old universe and conjuring philosophical questions about the meaning of humankind and civilisation. Why fundamental? Massively energetic events like the Big Bang's birthing of the universe (as well as, later, black holes colliding, neutron stars rapidly orbiting one another, and stars exploding) have caused the geometry of space-time to distort. Or so scientists jubilantly claim after detecting those gravitational waves following their decades-long search. A hard-to-overstate peek at the universe's violent beginning and subsequent billions of years of behaviour.

Fundamental to philosophy, though, is an hypothesis whose genesis and significance straddle both science and philosophy. This is that 'nothingness' is unstable and that the default condition is instead 'something'. This notion, that something must always exist, contravenes millennia of philosophical contemplation, as well as everyday thinking, about supposed emptiness.

An emptiness once thought to lie beyond people's view of the most-distant galaxies, and beyond the presumed sensibleness of nothingness, as contemplated by philosophers like Aristotle, Leibniz, and Heidegger. Yet the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics suggests that the default condition - that there has always been 'something' - might be true. Here, in part, is why: The uncertainty principle says that it is impossible to know (that is, measure) both the momentum and the position of a particle with equal precision. 'Quantum fuzziness', it is dubbed.

Yet in transgression of that last point, nothingness requires, for instance, that both the measurement of an electromagnetic field and the measurement of the rate of change of that field need to be precisely zero. However, such equally precise measurements of the field (other examples exist) violate the uncertainty principle. Therefore nothingness cannot exist. Or, conversely, something (a universe of some kind) must exist!

A parallel observation also bearing on the notion of emptiness is tied to quantum fluctuations - virtual particles that rapidly come into existence and equally rapidly are annihilated, with no net loss or gain of energy. This space-time turbulence occurs within an extraordinarily small time scale and extraordinarily small distances. That is, 'empty' space really isn't empty, despite the handiness of the everyday model that people harbour of a vacuum. A model shared, variously, by Plato, Aquinas, and others. Nothingness defaults to something, with no transcendent, original creation-force at the beginning of some causality chain. There are no turtles standing on turtles.

These circumstances suggest that a universe might exist even in the absence of an external designer. They point to answers to the common question about what preceded the Big Bang. That is, under these circumstances, the singularity (starting point) associated with the Big Bang isn't the beginning of space-time at all: to talk of the time 'before the Big Bang' thus has no meaning. These factors, related to the instability of nothingness (and the eternality of something), raise questions regarding core philosophical principles and the need for a god to breath purpose into humankind and to grant humankind a hospitable landscape on a particular planet in a particular universe.

That said, not all universes are equal‚ far less their philosophical implications. For example, without the Higgs field, all particles would be whizzing around at the speed of light, resulting in a cosmos with unbridled disorder and, by extension, devoid of the constants necessary for life. From a philosophical standpoint, that flavour of chaotic universe would existentially lack rationale, its unsatisfying quality being merely to exist. Yet in a scenario where multiple (even an infinite number of) universes might exist (that is, a multiverse) some universes might indeed exhibit such disorder and thus lack the constants essential for life. Such seemingly pointless universes might make one wonder just how much 'creative intelligence' lies behind them.

Without the Higgs field, all particles would be whizzing around at the speed of light, resulting in a cosmos with unbridled disorder and, by extension, devoid of the constants necessary for life

Of greater philosophical poignancy, however, is the thought that in this multiverse model, other potentially habitable universes might coexist with ours. These universes, like ours, might house conscious, intelligent, curious, evolving, thriving (and perhaps conniving) life forms in the billions and by extension challenging the uniqueness and 'exceptionalism' of human civilisation. Especially if any of those civilisations have had a major head start on ours, in the order of millions of years.

Salient to this discussion of 'something' rather than 'nothing' is that Higgs-driven mass (and gravitational forces) allowed the formation of 'lumps' in the universe and with it the accretion of matter to form stars, planets, and galaxies. When subatomic particles interact with the Higgs field, which exists everywhere in the universe, they acquire mass of different amounts, with the resulting gravitational force drawing swirling particles together to form larger and larger bodies of matter like the stars.

For without stars there would be no supernovas scattering their detritus, and in turn no 'stardust' - no heavy elements - to provide the material genesis of human beings' existence as literally star-based life. This idea of stardust's essential role creates a tantalising and even poetic, and also humbling, picture of our prosaic presence in the larger scheme of things. From a philosophical standpoint, the resulting universe - the one we inhabit - may well have a chance of some kind of purpose (a nonzero chance), even though that purpose has proven exasperatingly hard to define.

Expanding out from the foundational role of stardust, we see the stunning precision of the many physical conditions of our universe's makeup that are necessary for the existence of conscious, intelligent, complex life (us and aliens, the latter potentially having their own sciences, philosophies, and theologies). These many precise, life-enabling conditions, such as:
• the right amount of gravitational force,
• the matter-antimatter balance,
• the uniformity of the universe,
• the right amount of nuclear force...
... are referred to as the anthropic principle (or the 'Goldilocks' factor, with everything just right). (Goldilocks being the character in the children' story who finds one of the bowls of porridge in the bears' house 'just right'.) To some philosophers and scientists, these precise conditions exceed mere coincidence.

The 'strong' anthropic principle allows for premeditation or design in our universe and its accommodation of life, on which some people have hung their hat as evidence of an ethereal god's existence. Another variant, the 'weak' anthropic principle, points to the universe being a fluke of such constants. That is, the conditions being just right for life existing by chance, not design. It is essential to note, however, that even if the strong anthropic principle does indeed imbue the universe and humankind with such purpose, it might prove unknowable.

To go one step further, the universe might house the explanation of its existence within itself: a self-reasoned, self-sufficient, eternally self-sustaining universe of space-time, with no beginning or end. Yes, infinite, despite the pain some philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians feel whenever infinity enters the picture.

Now, during the first roughly six or seven billion years, the universe's expansion was slowing down, because of the pull of gravity among matter. Then, around the seven-billion-year mark, the universe's expansion began to accelerate, as the repulsive forces of 'dark energy' proved stronger than gravity. Although dark energy, and its presumed 'antigravity' characteristic, remains for now a scientific mystery.

The universe's expansion leads to the other great cosmological question, which is how the universe will end and its philosophical implications. The idea is that the universe is seen as continuing to expand at accelerating speeds forever until, in roughly a couple of trillion years, it will go 'dark and cold' - albeit allowing for the far less likely possibility of a Big Crunch (contraction) and then the next Big Bang.

As to civilisation's eventual extinction, and the implications for its purpose, measured in billions of years, two other events loom: our sun becoming a red giant and incinerating the solar system; and our galaxy, the Milky Way, colliding with another, the Andromeda galaxy, with enormous forces pulling the galaxies' spirals apart. Does this lead to fair questions why a designing force - deliberative original cause - would position civilisation for extinction, if humankind (and conscious, intelligent aliens, for that matter) were special enough to keep around?

Perhaps, given that our species stemmed from the spewed detritus of supernovas, it should suffice to embrace an eventual return to stardust - one interpretation of 'dust to dust' and of 'eternal life' substituting for an amorphous soul. How much this ephemerality matters to our argued 'exceptionalism' as a species is left for the reader's own speculation. The possibility of otherworldly intervention appears implausible.

Yet, to take the high road, a lack of exceptionalism doesn't necessarily prevent ethical secular humanism from spurring individuals and societies to do everything to maximise human welfare!

Another aspect of the 'something-rather-than-nothing' debate relates to reality resting on the bedrock of mathematics, as it has done since Newton and well before, evoking questions about mathematics' association with reality - all reality, from the objective to the subjective (even qualia, or individuals' sensory experiences). Arguably, mathematics is scientists' most thorough means to understand and describe the universe.

Here's another central philosophical question: Is mathematics invented or discovered? If it's invented, then we assume scientists simply make up the methods, and the 'syntax' and 'semantics', of mathematics as yet another (though powerful and precise) language to describe the universe.

But if mathematics is discovered, it becomes foundational to the universe's existence - the Platonic essence of reality. Indeed, Galileo famously referred to the universe as having been 'written in the language of mathematics'. The elegant correspondence between mathematics and the physical world is startling: the simplest expressions usually suffice to describe reality effectively. Some mathematicians refer to this simplicity as the 'elegance' of equations. Might it behoove other disciplines, including the humanities (not just science), to apply Occam's razor to acquire such elegance?

Or consider that today many neuroscientists attribute consciousness, decision-making, and human action to neural networks. Some philosophers agree that decisions might derive solely from the biology and physics of the brain; no one has yet shown otherwise, though investigation continues.

Quantum physics, on the other hand, points to a world of probability and partial unpredictability, where human observation (or measurement) influences which reality plays out. That is, observation collapsing mathematical wave functions, resulting in one version of reality from among multiple possibilities‚ an 'observer-centric' model of reality. Consciousness and observation are key, evoking a subjective reality. This, again raising questions about whether free will is necessary to allow for an external designer to create humankind with an inspired place in the cosmos. These philosophical issues - consciousness, cognition, determinism, subjective reality - churn among philosophers and scientists alike.

The idea of 'nothingness' being unstable and defaulting to 'something' doesn't exist in a conceptual vacuum, as the backdrop is the formal arguments in philosophy for the existence of an external designer. There are many such arguments for God, including those of giants like Plato, Anselm, Aquinas, and Descartes.

Of course, many have attempted to refute those arguments. There is the ontological argument (a priori‚'logical‚' necessity, whereby nothing greater can be conceived to exist); the cosmological argument (inference for a first, necessary cause); the teleological argument (a design leading to existence); and the moral argument (moral thought and experience affirming God). Although some philosophers through history stuck to a single argument, others hedged their bets by supporting more than one argument - as if diversifying financial investments! (Famously, Pascal concluded it was a safe wager to believe in God: with nothing to lose in declaring belief, whether or not God exists; but with something to lose in disclaiming God if God turns out to exist.)

Above all there is the philosophical idea of a great designer. Yet, even theistic design might not necessarily lead to exceptionalism. Likewise, intelligent consciousness, awareness of self, societal connections, memories, awareness of alternative futures, memories, awareness of the arrow of time, creative innovation, analytical thinking, parsing of life's subtleties, humanistic morality, comprehension of the world, abstract thought and all else‚ do not necessarily imbue our species with specialness. It might well do so, given consciousness's extraordinary qualities; but it might not.

Philosophy and science's studious intersection, with 'something' cancelling out the instability of nothingness, comes with mind-matter dualism (of the Cartesian variety), consciousness, and free will. Differentiating the nonphysical, thinking mind (consciousness) and the brain still finds its way into contemporary thinking. Yet, still philosophers and scientists struggle to resolve dualism's knotty problems. One modern wrinkle in the possibility of an immaterial mind influencing the brain is whether such a relationship violates the laws of thermodynamics involving the conservation of energy. As a modern twist, two collaborators developed a mathematical argument regarding free will, concluding that if we have free will, then elementary particles must also, a priori, share this attribute.

Without doubt, the question of whether consciousness is tethered or untethered to the biology and physics of the brain, and how that bears on free will's presence or absence, challenges notions about rationality, responsibility, and accountability for human decisions and actions, with implications for ethics, justice, sociology, psychology, relationships, and governance.

One shortcoming remains the elusiveness of an agreed definition of consciousness. Yet, since people are a part of the universe, and people have consciousness, the universe must be considered to possess consciousness - at least to that degree. So, key is whether consciousness is an attribute only of individual 'persons' among the possibly billions of intelligent species that might populate the universe, and thus ultimately prove to be physical and measurable. Or, whether consciousness is omnipresent and isotropic (evenly spread throughout the universe), existing as a fundamental element of the universe itself, elusive like dark energy and dark matter.

To come full circle: what is apparent is the coevolution and convergence of philosophy and science, discarding discredited theories while exploring outer margins and shifting to better-supported explanations of reality. Undeniably, there's a cohort of scientists who set a firewall between science and philosophy, refraining from addressing the philosophical implications - implications that nevertheless call out - of scientific discovery. Some scientists opine that as for science and philosophy, ne'er the twain should meet. In diametric opposition, other scientists, from physicists to astronomers, biologists, and neuroscientists, fulsomely acknowledge and tackle head-on the philosophical implications of scientific discovery.

Despite the differences in methods (but not in rigor or eloquence) between the priesthoods of philosophy and science, they typically figure out ways to transcend their 'cultural' differences, with once-seemingly intractable problems yielding to solutions. At the nub, much modern science and modern philosophy inextricably depend on each other; not uncommonly, the one cannot fully explain reality without being informed by the other.

About the author: Keith Tidman provides occasional editorial support to organisations that examine a range of global and national policy issues. He is the author of The Operations Evaluation Group: A History of Naval Operations.

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Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The Delirium of Appearance (2016)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIV, 2016

Ontological musings

Ganesa writing the Mahabharat, one of the two epics of Ancient India. (Image Source: Detail from a 17th century illustrated manuscript.)


By Abhilash Nath

The philosophy that the Ancients developed around their understanding of Brahma, or the real self, or in a modern sense, the pure form of time, actually parallels the Tao of Chinese philosophy. A central concern is that the apparent self, the psychological self, should be negated to realise the true self, Brahma. The Ancient epics portrayed Krishna as someone who achieved precisely this.
Time unhinged carries with it fear and fury. In an increasingly interconnected world, a crisis of conscience, stimulated by the attachment to material things, haunts our beings. Its reverberations are heard from the beginning of the modern age. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche screams: ‘The wasteland grows: woe to him who hides wastelands within’. More than ever, it is in our present time that the crisis of conscience demands attention and hence the nectar from ancient wisdom that can only nourish life. In this essay, I aim to make sense, both for myself and for the reader, of the insights that one such tradition developed in the Indian sub-continent.

In the following, I am going to focus on a crisis that unfolds in Vyasa’s epic poem, the Mahabharata, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India (the other being the Ramayana) and the solution that is offered there. If the Ramayana expounds the perfect King, then the Mahabharata illuminates the process of making him. It focuses on the purging from the heart of anger and emphasises understanding and empathy. By narrating the moral degeneration and violence of its time, it teaches us to show compassion to all, and encourages us to understand the fundamental nature of the psychological Self and physical reality. The insights that can be found in revisiting the epic can become only more valuable in times when we are at increased risk of losing touch with ourselves.

In an eternally replayed drama, birth in human form is a chance for a life to attain self-realisation, and freedom from reoccurrence. For this reason, both Brahmin sociology and Buddhist mysticism give it immense value. The tale of King Yudhisthira is the most virtuous of the five Pandavas, the five acknowledged sons of Pandu, and so, he is the only one at last sets foot in heaven. At the end of the Mahabharata, Vyasa uses this occasion as a way for the King to remind us of the central purpose of the poem. At heaven, the King, however, becomes angry, when he finds there his enemies, the hundred cousins, and not his wife and brothers. Worse, after he enquires about the fate of his relatives he finds out that they all are in hell! So, he blames the Gods for betrayal. At which, the Gods ask the king, why are you angry, if you have already renounced everything? If you couldn’t forgive, even after renouncing your kingdom, brothers and the wife; are you truly worth? Why couldn’t you renounce anger?

This questioning gains force from a deep intuitive reasoning that understands, that the material world is eternally changing, and that reality is not a creation, but rather, an effect of processes. Thus, neither pleasure nor pain derived from material possessions last; but formed alongside, pleasure and pain are sides of the same coin. It is by renouncing both, through selfless action (inaction), that one can lead oneself to liberation.

This profound insight is one of source of the Bhagavad Gita’s radiance, the ‘Bhishma Parva’, or the sixth episode of the Mahabharata. Reckoned as one of the five jewels of Sanskrit literature, it has a simple plot a discourse between two friends. Prince Arjuna, the brother of King Yudhisthira, and Krishna, the transcended one, wearing the disguise of a charioteer, talks to each other and us. The exchange unfolds in the midst of an impending war, in a war-chariot drawn up between the armies of the Kauravas, led by the wicked King Duryodhana and Pandavas, headed by King Yudhisthira, in the flat country that surrounds the city that is now the modern Delhi.

The Bhagavad Gita, or what Sir Edwin Arnold, English poet and journalist called The Song Celestial, is Krishna’s advice to his cousin and childhood friend, prince Arjuna, while the impending war adds an extra dimension. As the war-chariot settles at the centre of the armies, the view from there creates a moral quandary for Arjuna.

The Gita’s meaning unfolds at more than one level. On the simplest, it is in the advice to the son of Pandu, the prince Arjuna, who belongs to the warrior class of India. Arjuna’s duty in life, therefore, is to fight against evil and fight for the right. His social duty demands him to defend his brothers in their legitimate claims against their wicked cousins. Hence, by custom, he is expected to defend the rights of his brother. However, the view from the centre of the gathered armies is a revelation that to earn a victory for his brothers he has to kill his own family, his cousins, grandfather, and even his teacher. Hence, Arjuna finds himself facing a crisis of conscience. He has spoken words that he should not have spoken, brave as he may be. As Arnold, describes it: when Arjuna arrives at the open ground between the armies, he says these words;
‘Krishna! as I behold, come here to shed their common blood, yon concourse of our kin, my members fail, my tongue dries in my mouth, a shudder thrills my body, and my hair bristles with horror; from my weak hand slips Gandiv, the goodly bow; a fever burns my skin to parching; hardly may I stand; the life within me seems to swim and faint; nothing do I foresee save woe and wail! It is not good, O Keshav!’
In other words, he cannot see any good coming out of the war. This deep crisis in conscience unsettles the balance of his body. From the centre of the gathered armies, he foresees the end of his clan, and as the Hindu chronology says, he predicts rightly. The end of the war marks the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age.

However, it should be taken into consideration that the Hindu chronology does not really follow the occidental; the times of the Ramayana and the  Mahabharata do not, in fact, run parallel to the Western understanding of history. The turning point of an age in Hindu chronology is marked rather by the decline in Dharma, the veiling of the True Self, or the pure consciousness. Dharma is the essential nature of beings and things. According to the moral degeneration of the age, the essential nature of beings and things is veiled and becomes unrealisable even to the finest beings. Dharma, hence, is the inner bliss and tranquillity, the true cause of the sense of duty, and thus, is a virtue.

Valmiki, the ancient poet, who wrote the Ramayana, could talk about the perfect king during his time, because Dharma revealed itself in the phenomenal world. In other words, people lived their Real Self and, therefore, revealed their essential nature. Time, experienced as the pure consciousness, revealed its essential nature. Gods walked on this land. The time of the Ramayana is Ideal.

Nonetheless, Vyasa had to take into consideration the moral degeneration of his time and meditate upon the process of making the perfect king that is, the process of attaining Dharma. However, things degenerate further in Kaliyuga, our age, as John Algeo, former President of the Theosophical Society America, writes:
‘In Indian dice, kali is the one-spot; and to throw a kali is to lose the game—to crap out. So the Kaliyuga is the most degenerate era of history, the losing time. Arjuna foresees that the onset of the Kaliyuga will result from the battle.’
Kaliyuga is the age of Apparent Self, the ego. Hence, the one-spot, the ‘I’, is the form of time. Gita unfolds during a period, when time itself is about to take a spin on its pedestal. The Song Celestial, thus, is a teaching for humanity, to arm itself against its own degeneration.

At another level, it is part of the Hindu metaphysics and cosmology. In this metaphysics, the Trinity is personified in the triple synthesis of time. First, Brahma is immoveable and eternal. It is the pure consciousness, the original cause of creation. Secondly, Vishnu personifies the force that maintains the great cycles of time. Of the ten grand cycles, we live in Kaliyuga, the last cycle. Each cycle ends with one of his new incarnations, and Krishna is among them. The divine itself reoccurs in time, and for this reason, Vishnu also personifies the eternal reoccurrence of life. Life reoccurs until one realises the pure consciousness, the Real Self. He is the personification of the circular time.

The third element, Shiva, is the divine spark that tears the every passing unit of time; his dance at once destroys and creates worlds. The feminine force, personified as Adi Shakti, is the primal force, the all-pervasive primordial cosmic energy, the base of creation. In this metaphysic, things or states are transitory by nature; they are only snapshots of change in progress. From a modern standpoint, as Norbert Wiener, the mathematician and developer of cybernetics, for instance, has observed:
‘We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.’
In such a system, pure consciousness, the blissful state, is not a property of space; but rather space is a morphogenetic field, a field of endless unfolding through modifications. If space is indeed a field of energy, then all rational forms unfolded in it are persuaded by irrational processes. In such a field of action, though pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional. In consequence too, the blissful state can only become an inner experience, the creative potential of one’s inner silence and liberation comes through a union with the inner silence. However, hindrances to one’s attainment of pure consciousness and eternal bliss attained through inner silence vary according to the moral state of an age. Then again, Gita says, devoid of the moral degeneration of the age, those who are armed with the deepest truth of the nature of reality would be compassionate to all the living things. As W. J. Johnson, the translator of Gita for the Oxford World’s Classics series, puts it:
‘For the supreme bliss comes to the yogin whose mind has grown calm, whose passion is stilled, who has become Brahman, without taint,” and such an existence would see the same thing ‘in a wise and disciplined Brahmin as in a cow or an elephant, or even in a dog or an outcast.’
Dharma is action motivated by one’s deep insight into the nature of time and causality. The time of the Mahabharata revolves around Krishna. He is the hinge, the pointed finger that spins his beloved weapon, the Chakra. When Arjuna and his grandfather, Bhishma fight each other during the war, they test the will and the patience of the time. Both men admire each other, and wouldn’t desire to defeat one another. The battle goes on yet without conclusion, and thus, Krishna is forced to intervene, and attacks Bhishma. As he turns against Bhishma; Chakra, the absolute tyrant, time itself spins at his fingertip.

This incident from the epic offers an insight that would explain the nature of time and Dharma that Krishna embodies and their relation with each other. Throughout his life, he is a character that rejects the conventional morality. When Draupadi, the Pandavas wife, is dragged and ill-treated in the court, none of the great men present there reacted as they are confused, and thought the essence of Dharma hidden in its path is difficult to grasp. Besides the conventional morality taught them that the master is the lawful owner of the save, and since Duryodhana won her and her five husbands as slaves in dice game, he has absolute authority over them.

However, Krishna does not have such hesitation, and he offers help as she needed it. Free from guilt and the traces of the conventional morality, Krishna shows the character of a visionary, and is willing to sacrifice his name and fame in his fight to end dark forces and establish a world of righteousness, a world of light.

Still, his moral principles are not imposed from outside, they are strictly not conventional morality. They are formed through his realisation of the true self, the untainted Brahma within. What Krishna sets into play is the difference between the ‘written law’ and the ‘spirit of law.’ The spirit of law is the good-in-all. However, law is dependent on context. Its essence changes with context; for this reason, no law is universally applicable. In the battlefield, when Drona asks the king Yudhisthira to inform him about the truth of his son’s death, the king conforms to the conventional morality by clinging to the truth in word and lies in spirit. The king is upset because he does not want to lie to his teacher, even though Drona is fighting for a wrong cause – the victory of darkness.

On the other hand, when Krishna rushes towards Bhishma in the aforementioned context, he is breaking his vow of not fighting in the battle. Provoked by Duryodhana’s incessant badgering that he is not sincere in battle; Bhishma is in a blind fury. Like a whirlwind, he destroys everything on his way, and this forced Krishna to ask Arjuna to stop him. And yet while encountering him, Krishna noticed that Arjuna is not striking back with all his heart. Breaking his vow, he leaps out of the chariot, holding a chariot wheel he picked up from the field. When Bhishma sees the approaching Krishna, he says to him: ‘Come, come Krishna, and put an end to my life today.” Arjuna runs after Krishna and reminds him repeatedly that, if he does not stop, the world would call him a betrayer of his own word, a common liar. Still, Arjuna could only stop him after a furious struggle by holding on to his legs from behind and clinging on to them.

Throughout his life, Krishna does not follow the conventional morality once, but rather, he acts according to a higher morality that is derived from self realization, and therefore, his actions are not prompted by greed, by anger, by vengeance, by jealousy, by bitterness and resentment, by intolerance. Valmiki portrays the man as someone whose consciousness is steadily rooted in Brahma – as a sthitaprajna. He is time’s inner silence, its untainted and pure consciousness.       
As time’s inner silence and its will, he is the divine witness and the measure of the virtues of the time. Though great men fought this battle, they show weakness. Drona decides to fight to protect his son; Yudhisthira is slow in grasping the meaning of dharma; Arjuna is emotional; Bheema is a ‘foodie’; Bhishma is preoccupied with his image as the martyr, the self-sacrificer. As an incorruptible man of total integrity, he enters into the war to keep his vow that he would always stand with the ruler of the land. So, though unwilling in spirit, he fights for the evil. Besides, his narcissistic obsession with his image fails him to guide his grandchildren away from wrong doings.

And therefore, what Arjuna foresees as being the end, is in Krishna’s vision, only a transition and a beginning. In this way, his intervention into the affairs of this world itself is a selfless act aimed to run the transition smoothly. What the Gita offers us is his way of life.

The Gita’s stress on selfless action (inaction), directed towards transition and new beginnings, takes political form in modern times in the life of Mahatma Gandhi. And Gandhi was introduced to the Gita by the theosophists, while his reading of Henry David Thoreau’s essay ‘On Civil Disobedience” in turn inspired his policy of passive resistance (or Satyagraha). Inspired in turn by Gandhi’s policy, Martin Luther King created his own program of non-violence. This underlines that in an increasingly interconnected and complex world such as ours, works like the Gita or the Tao Te Ching offer guidance for cultivating the self. Politics today strongly demands clean minds and selfless action, and it demands from us leaders and thinkers, who can foresee a future beyond caste, class, race, gender, religion and nation, and lay down strategies to achieve a better future for all.

If the historical myth of Gita is a discourse between two friends at the turning point of a golden age in the background of an ancient civil war, then the archetypal myth of Gita speaks about our inner struggle.

After deep introspection, Gita locates the spirits of the microcosm and the macrocosm as identical. It teaches us that the human spirit and the universal spirit that pervades the phenomenal world are nothing but the same. This deep insight primarily hints that life on this planet is neither the work of an alien force nor an accident. Alan Watts, the Twentieth century British-born American philosopher, known as an interpreter and populariser of Eastern philosophy, suggests in the seminar titled ‘The Nature of Consciousness’ that neither the ceramic model (meaning the kind of world imagined in the book of Genesis, where the world is given as an artefact; the creator, God imposes his will on the primordial matter, clay, and breathes life in it, and thereby, it is informed and its intelligence therefore is granted by an external energy and an external intelligence) nor the fully automatic model of the world (in such a model, the world is created by a dumb energy, through natural selection and evolution. Darwin developed such an understanding of the world), gives an adequate myth or an image in terms of which we can make sense of the world. Hence, in order to manage our sensations and our feelings, we need a most sensible image of the world.

On the other hand, in the Oriental myth the universe is a self-contained intelligent process, and as Watts puts it playfully, if the earth is a grand apple tree, then its fruit is life. Gita calls this pure consciousness the Brahma. Self-contained bliss, purity and indestructibility are its qualities. Just as the entire sun is reflected at once in perfect miniatures in each and every dewdrop, Brahma is omnipresent and perfect. It is like the salt of the great oceans that can only be tasted, but cannot physically be located. Brahma residing within each of us is our Real Self, the source of inner peace, harmony, perfection and the blissful state.

Those who realise the state of Brahma from within would see the world from its point of view, and this is the reason why, Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu, maintainer of the great circles of time, is the divine witness.

Like the Great Tao, Brahma, or the Real Self, is devoid of all qualities; it lacks sound, taste, form, smell and touch, and, for that reason, it does not act, and is not an agency. Self-contained and undivided, it is not a sense of itself. Brahma is the Real and the only perfect. It is inaction, selfless action. Those who achieve this state enjoy mental tranquillity and freedom. It is the reason why, Krishna tells Arjuna: ‘The learned do not mourn” and advises him to ‘be thyself,” which means, to realise his essential nature, the Real Self. Dharma, then, is this self-realisation, and the sense of duty derived from one’s self-realisation. The sage lives in the Real Self. Unconscious of the worldly phenomena, it is his night and his day is the Real Self. For ordinary people, their day is the worldly phenomena, and unconscious of their Real Self, it becomes their night.

However, our emotional investment and fidelity is in a transitory reality, which is, Gita warns, a hindrance to self-realisation. From his different standpoint, Heraclitus too directs our attention to the unpredictability of the phenomenal world. He writes:
‘As they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them.’
In Hindu tradition, the mind-body complex is the apparent Self. In a field of energy, when fading connections link body and mind, ephemeral points emit apparition. The apparent Self is such an emission. The sense of ‘I’, the doer takes form, when one synthesises from a field of relations, a sense of the world, my world. Produced at once with the synthesis, it offers itself as apparition. When the mind senses itself as the body, the sense of ‘I’,  or the doer is a disguise that projects itself at once with an ego.

With the sense of doer, there is a receiver. However, neither the receiver nor the doer is real, rather both of them are apparitions formed in a temporal unfolding that involves the body located in space and mind unfolding in time. Since the space is infused with energy, it removes objectivity from intentionality. Hence, both the doer and the receiver becomes a difference in degree in a field of feelings, and emotions that essentially sets that field to change. In this field of continuous interpretation and evaluation, as one identifies oneself in that field as agency, the selfless act or the inaction that the Gita advocates does not take place. In contrast, the ‘I’ or the doer links one into the causal chain.

With the apparent Self, the Real Self, the form of selfless action, is veiled into the depth within. In one fragment, Heraclitus writes, ‘Nature loves to hide.” This veiling of nature is due to our indisposition to know ourselves. We fundamentally lack insight into ourselves.

Heraclitus also hints: ‘Not comprehending, they hear like the deaf. The saying is their witness: absent while present’. Adding, ‘Not understanding how to listen, they do not know how to speak.’ Ordinary life, for this reason, is an eternally unfolding drama, a play of light and shadow, on which neither the doer nor the receiver has authority. In contrast, the Real Self, like the sun in Plato’s cave allegory, is the true source of light. In Gita, Krishna sees the world as its light; he is the form of inaction. As the personification of the formless, as the Real Self, he is omnipresent and perfect, inner bliss is his state; and therefore, Gita sees him as the divine spark within us.

Ordinary life is trapped in the clutches of likes and dislikes, which are effects of a process that involves differentiation and separation. Since it is a process, its qualities are shaped by the past. However, the past takes form through the adding up of dreams and imaginations into the lived experience. This addition itself is nothing but a process. The Song Celestial tells that beings pass through various wombs according to their contacts in this world. In this way of thinking, they really do. Moreover, beings are conceived here as becoming. Still, to become a process, that is to institute change in progress, there must be a stable foundation. Brahma, the Real Self, provides the necessary foundation. It is pure, subtle, omnipresent, and indestructible, and consequently, it is a blissful state. Even then though, it does not change with the ceaseless change, the change in progress veils it within us.

Maya is the veil of our true nature. This veil essentially is that of the world of name and form. It is neither an illusion nor a mirage but an obstacle that hides the Reality. Thick strata of desire, inhibitions, values that clouds the sun within us, a golden lid that covers the face of the Truth. Otto Pfleiderer sites Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the foundering figure of the movement known as German Idealism in The Philosophy of Religion on the Basis of its History:
‘Our seeing itself hides the object we see; our eye itself impedes our eye.’
Reality is not actually seen with the eye, but with the eye of the spirit, which means, we haven’t yet touched the reality. Gandhi in his interpretation of the Gita, writes:
‘The reality at the back, the substance of which the diversity is but the shadow, is seen not with the eye of flesh, but with the eye of the spirit.’
Or, as Heraclitus tells it:‘our senses are liars’. Camille Flammarion, the nineteenth century French writer and enthusiastic astronomer, for instance illustrates how they are so:
‘We see the sun rise above the horizon; it is beneath us. We touch what we think is a solid body; there is no such thing (as a solid body). We hear harmonious sounds; but the air has only brought us silently undulations that are silent themselves. We admire the effects of light and of the colours that bring vividly before our eyes the splendid scenes of Nature; but, in fact, there is no light, there are no colours. It is the movement of opaque ether striking on our optic nerve which gives us the impression of light and colour. We burn our foot in the fire: it is not the foot that pains us; it is in our brain only that the feeling of being burned resides. We speak of heat and cold; there is neither heat nor cold in the universe, only motion. Thus, our senses mislead us as to the reality of objects around us.’
Reality lies behind the world of name and form, and the ancients called it Brahma. The divine light breaks up while passing through the world of name and form, just like when light passing through the prism breaks up into colour rays. It seems, as Gandhi says: ‘The prism is the gross medium of our fleshly senses’. Hence, the world is nothing but a reflection of the Absolute, the Brahma (Brahma, at this point, is neither god nor concept, it is rather pure consciousness, devoid of qualities). Realising the true Self, the Brahma is at once the relief from the physical and psychological bondage of the world of senses.

On the other hand, diversity is the Maya of the true Self. Maya that brings forth all things is the primordial nature as the feminine force. Its relation with Brahma, purusha, parallels the yin and yang of Chinese philosophy. Brahma is the universal Self, but when reflected in the maya of prakriti, appears as individual soul. Though in itself unconscious, maya dwells consciousness, and in this metaphysics, the pure consciousness is the Brahma. All forms take form through the play of these primal poles, prakriti and purusha. However, none can predict what might have triggered those primordial elements to initiate a process that led to the birth of the universe. And still, with such a system, it can be intuited that the universe is an organic unfolding.

Interconnected by nature, Maya unfolds alone with Brahma. Hence, the white radiance of eternity, the Brahma reflected and diffracted is the world of senses. Algeo writes:
‘Each of us is a consciousness (purusha) functioning through material forms (prakriti)—a reflection of the one pure consciousness in the matter of prakriti.’
In the non-dualist, advaita school of Hindu philosophy, the Brahma is the only real; god, as its personifications, are only masks that would direct one to self-realisation and to the state of Brahma, the real Self. In the theistic devotional movement (Bhakti) developed in medieval Hinduism, devotees choose deities on their path to self-realisation, according to their spiritual and emotional state. However, liberation from the causal chain and the self-suffering inflicted by it are the ultimate goal of all mysticism.

Gita teaches both these tradition: one based on devotion and the other through intuitive reasoning of the real Self or Brahma. The first path, of selfless action, involves agency as here the devotee disciplines the mind through the devotion to a script or a great teacher. Here the Great War becomes our inner struggle for self-realisation. In this struggle, Arjuna is us, our individual selves; Krishna the omnipresent; and the blind king Dhrtarastra the mind under the spell of Maya (or ignorance). Since one could observe that each character in the epic is unique, the blind king’s hundred sons, the Kauravas, embody as numerous evil tendencies of human mind.

Imitating human experiences, Gita unfolds in multiple layers. It starts with the blind King Dhrtarastra’s exchange with his charioteer, Sanjaya, who tells the unfolding events at the battlefield using his intuitive perception. It contains the images, noise and the rhythms of the battlefield from various angles, including Arjuna’s vision from the war-chariot settled at the centre of the gathering. His moral quandary, when he sees the good peoples gathered on both sides, Krishna’s discourses with his friend and, Duryodhana exchanges with the teacher, Drona and his allies create a kaleidoscopic and intense visualisation. Gita suggests, if one could follow with devotion the divine spark then one would eventually master the mind and attain self-realisation.

The second path taps an innate intelligence that Gita calls Buddhi - the faculty of intuition and understanding. Buddhi pervades the microcosm and the macrocosm, and is innate to both the individual spirit and the universal spirit. It is insight, and is with such insight that we can at last identify and negate the apparent self and realise the True Self.  Here the negation, however, is not dialectical. It is not the negation of negation, as systematised by Hegel and the later Marxists but rather, grown in a vibe of inner bliss, it is an absolute negation. This would liberate such an existent from the play of causality that link and differentiate the self and the other.

By transcending the play of causality, the material becomes the source of a spiritual awakening. Negating the apparent self thus affirms the whole. By affirming the whole, such an existent transcends the past, and life becomes a pure play. The Bhagavad Gita reveals that the one who has realised the true Self requires no further scripture or teacher.

About the author: Abhilash Nath completed a PhD in philosophy at the JNU, New Delhi, and is at present teaching International Relations at the Faculty of Liberal Art, Adamas University, Kolkata. His interest in philosophy is centred on the philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of life and the metaphysics of the nature of time and causation. His current research interest is, if things go well, to undertake a systematic study on the materialistic understanding of time.

Address for correspondence: Abhilash G Nath (Guest Faculty), Faculty of Liberal Arts, Adamas University, Adamas Knowledge City, Barrackpur – Barasat Road, Kolkata – 700126, India