Vanity thought #1668. Terminology

The very first thing when trying to explain “magic” of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam “scientifically” should probably be clarification of terms. Direct translation into modern languages is easy but in many cases it’s grossly inadequate because reality of our lives is different from theirs.

Some might object that reality doesn’t change significantly but we often don’t realize how many of our assumptions are influenced by ever changing external conditions. Nowadays, due to introduction of knives, forks, or even chopsticks, not having an overbite would be a medical condition but when people used only hands to eat their food it was the opposite and no one had an overbite at all.

Another example is bodily odor – the sweat gland responsible for it is often completely missing in certain nationalities and so when people of these different cultures meet they can have very surprising and often unpleasant discoveries about each other, most often blaming it on lack of proper hygiene while back at home some wear their odor with pride or maybe fight it with strong cologne or deodorants. In Japan, on the other hand, deodorants are hard to find because no one uses them ever.

I once read that teachers in Ireland were going on a strike because temperature in their classrooms has risen to 26 Celsius while in tropical countries people work outdoor in 40s and then set their air conditioners to 26 to cool off inside. That’s roughly 100 and 80 in Fahrenheit.

Maybe these are not very good examples overall but I just wanted to demonstrate that our perception of what is “normal” can vary greatly even now, what to speak of “normal” in previous yugas. People can grow 10 cm taller in only a couple of hundred years, imagine if they kept growing for a couple of thousand. The only conditions necessary are better food and less diseases, which depend on climate as much as on human practice of medicine. I’m not going to discuss why the skeletons of these giants are missing from our fossil record here, maybe some other time.

When “normal” reality changes so greatly we shouldn’t try to see ancient people through our prism. We just can’t see the same things anymore because they no longer exists and so we use our poor substitutes which seem real to us but would probably not be recognized by the ancients themselves.

We don’t believe in yoga siddhis, for example, because no one has them in our society. Well no one practices celibacy in our society either and that’s the primary condition for developing “supernatural” abilities. Another example is that no one can see God anymore and therefore we assume that it was true in Vedic times, too. When Vedic sages wrote about demigods appearing on certain occasions we can’t believe it either. Conditions for demigods to grace us with their presence are still the same and we use the same words but their meanings are different now.

The place needs to be pure, for example. We can clean it up, get a guy with a mop in and scrub it, and disinfect it, too, but that won’t be “pure” by Vedic standards. They probably won’t consider anything plastic as pure in principle and they would require purity from people being present, too. We can send everyone to take a shower but that won’t be enough because demigods require internal purity, ie freedom from lust, and that we can’t provide. It just doesn’t exist anymore. Anyone who has ever eaten unoffered food, let alone meat, would contaminate the place with his gluttony, too.

We can’t even imagine what a really pure assembly place would look like even though we still use the same words. They mean different things to us from what they meant in Vedic times.

For scientific discussion specifically we should highlight the difference in meaning of fire, water, air, earth etc – gross material elements. We assume that ancients used these words just like we do – because they didn’t know what water or earth was made of. For them these elements were prime building materials – take some earth, meaning clay, shape it, put it into fire, and get a pot. Primitives! We can’t even begin to think that these words meant something completely different in Vedic terminology.

Take “earth”, for example. How do we expect to differentiate it from water? By touch, of course. Earth is more or less solid, just put your hand on the substance and you’d know whether it’s “earth” or liquid. In Vedic times, however, earth was associated with smell. If it smells, it’s earth, while touch was a symptom of air. What what?

We are clearly talking about different things here, not common clay and water. We don’t grant the ancients the ability to analyze the matter differently from us. We think that the only way to understand common water, earth, etc is to find their chemical composition and this again forces us to see the world in a very restricted way without even realizing it.

We can’t imagine ancients to make scientific progress using their weird classification, we think that we have the monopoly on honest scientific inquiry while they were hopelessly corrupt and invoked gods to mask their ignorance all the time. That’s another common stereotype, probably completely without merit. We can’t even think about ancients advancing in their scientific understanding on their terms, our brains are not wired for that, there’s a societal pressure, and no one honestly tried it, even for fun. The fact that people even in India can’t pursue yoga anymore doesn’t help either. Even if there are successful yogis there they won’t be mixing with us, the modern people, and so they can’t be studied in laboratories. They’d avoid our atheistic mentality like a plague, and they should be very good at it, too – due to the same yogic powers.

What I mean is that they’d practice mind control where mind means something different from what it means to us. They would practice control of their senses where senses mean something different from what they mean to us. How can we withdraw the sense of smell, for example? Or the sense of sight? We completely lack the ability and so we don’t believe it’s possible for yogis either. That’s just projection of our own limitations and it’s unscientific but often that is all the modern science can offer on this subject.

Vanity thought #827. Cultural baggage

It doesn’t take long for any visitor to realize that India is a backward, disorganized and extremely dirty country inhabited by irresponsible and cunning people you can’t trust, and you surely wouldn’t want them for your neighbors. As devotees we try to see past this reality, as educated people we try not to generalize, but come on, you can’t take that country seriously, can you?

Comparing to well groomed Europe and parts of North America it looks like a cesspool. It’s a fact of life.

So, how can we hope to learn anything from them? Why should we even try? What have they got to show for all that allegedly superior knowledge? How can we not see their degradation?

I think every devotee has his own answer to that, we all try to reconcile the reality with what Srila Prabhupada taught us. Some learn to see it as famous bubbles on the surface of the Ganges. Some learn to see spots of goodness in places and in people, some just get used to it so it doesn’t bother them anymore, some learn to see simplicity instead of poverty, ditto for ritual cleanliness vs external hygiene. Some build areas of western like perfection around them, like we do in Mayapur. We all have our own ways, if we want to become devotees we must learn to cope, there’s no other way.

I think the reason for India’s sad state of affairs lies not in their degradation per se but in fundamentally different approach to life and in pursuing fundamentally different goals.

They always put dharma first and leave the rest in the hands of God. They know it’s Kali Yuga and therefore they don’t expect much from it.

Over in the West we think we are firmly in control of our destiny, we are responsible for our surroundings, and so we must take matters in our own hands. Instead of focusing on dharma we are into fixing things that can’t be fixed. Of course our efforts don’t go in total vain and we manage to build oases of sattva and even keep them that way but all our efforts are ultimately artificial.

We waste a lot of our energy on swimming against the current. Kali yuga will eventually prevail, if we stave it off in our neighborhoods it will enter our hearts and corrupt us from inside. It’s noble and heroic to put up this battle but it’s a battle in a war that can’t be won.

Kali won’t be stopped by decorating the corpse of our society, He can only be stopped by chanting of the Holy Name, and even in that case it’s not certain that we can extend victory inside our hearts to victory in our material surroundings.

So Indians take a philosophical approach to this. Just follow you dharma, serve the Lord or whatever it is you are supposed to serve in your position, and the rest will take care of itself. And if it doesn’t, no big deal, your job is to earn a lot of good karma for the next life anyway.

Maybe I don’t have an accurate representation of life in traditional Vedic society but all I read about it paints a picture of people who earn their livelihood by praying and conducting yajnas. They don’t work very much, or very hard, I don’t think they spend more than four-five hours of their day on work.

There are vaishyas and shudras, of course, who need to put hours in taking care of cows and farms but I’m talking about kshatriyas and brahmanas, and general traders here. Those are definitely in the “service economy”, ie they are being served. They spend five six hours every morning on their spiritual duties, then they retire for midday break before noon and they don’t come out until it cools down outside in the late afternoon. They have a couple of hours of evening activities and by six it’s time for spiritual duties again.

They don’t push themselves into what they believe is responsibility of the Lord or of their karma. You know how sometimes things just fall into place and sometimes you work so hard and things keep falling apart anyway? They know it, too, and they simply observe what’s going on. If something sucks they simply take notice of it but it doesn’t urge them into action. Philosophical, as I said.

So, if we see obvious imperfections in the Indian way of life we can try to be philosophical about it, too, and don’t fool ourselves into thinking that we are in control of the material nature. Let us chant, the rest will take care of itself. Or it won’t, the important thing to keep chanting.

On the other hand, Srila Prabhupada couldn’t tolerate such irresponsibility. He demanded perfection in everything we do. He demanded the best of us, he wanted us to be even more meticulous in attention to detail than we are at home. He wanted us to be Germans in managing things, Swiss in precision, Americans in creating things, French in cooking, Italians in design, and Russians in dedication to the cause, to paraphrase the popular saying.

Isn’t it a contradiction? I believe not, because all those things are needed for the benefit of Lord Chaitanya’s mission, not for our own comfort.

We should be philosophical about our own lives but we must have a completely different attitude in service to the Lord. This is where we should apply all our energy and all our efforts while maintaining our own bodies can be left to karma’s devices.

This is the basic message of Bhagavad Gita – work done for your own benefit is the source of bondage, so ignore it, while work done for the benefit of the Lord is the goal of life and should never be stopped. And it also brings the highest possible rewards, so no loss.

So, I guess it’s okay to be sloppy in our personal lives, as long as this sloppiness doesn’t affect our service we shouldn’t worry about it. And we shouldn’t worry about other people not worrying about their own lives, too.

Our cultural baggage needs to be left behind, but that has to be done with proper understanding otherwise it will keep following us and forcing us to commit all kinds of offenses. I hope this idea will help, even if only a little.

Vanity thought #329. Getting on with science

I’m trudging along with “Advancements of Vedic Culture” I mentioned earlier, the initial excitement has worn off. Half way through the book something occurred to me, though, and I’m in two minds about it.

First thing is that the book actually betrays Vedic civilization. There are a couple of places where the underlying attitude shines clear – science is the king, we all came from monkeys, it’s just that ancient Indians were a little better at this than everyone else.

This is a hugely disappointing discovery and I’ve noticed this attitude quite a few times among people who outwardly profess to believe in God. Christians gloss over stories of the Old Testament, Muslims are proud of their medieval scientists, and now it came down to Hinduism, too.

These are reactions of people who don’t have any strong faith, only a faint hope that their beliefs might have some merit in them. These are the reactions of people firmly schooled in materialism and empirical science, people still convinced that the scientific method of learning about the world is absolute and supreme.

The only concession they give to the religion is that there might be something else there, beyond the experience of their material senses, but in no way that experience can overrule what they see with their own eyes, or someone else had seen and taught them about at school.

These are reactions of people who think that the material illusion is real.

Even when they appear to challenge the scientific view of history they still rely on the same empirical evidence and explanations, same kind of reasoning and arguments, and indoctrinate their followers in exactly the same way as scientists.

Christians do it with creationism where they just keep drilling into people that the universe is only seven thousand years old and hope that they would become immune to scientific arguments. I guess they figured out that if it works in politics it would work in religion, too. They do not (and cannot) explain why the science is wrong and their calculations are right, they just hope that if they repeat their lines often enough people will stop thinking about that.

“Advancement in Vedic Culture” is trying to do the same thing with Hinduism. It substitutes self-revealing knowledge passed down through the parampara system with twisting conclusions drawn from results of sensory experiences. It doesn’t say that Krishna lived five thousand years ago because that is what the gurus teach us, it says Krishna lived five thousand years ago because they found some empirical evidence for it.

By doing so it preaches materialism.

The second thing is that I don’t know whether this approach is right or wrong. As devotees we have certain lines drawn for us – that which leads to materialism and impersonalism is wrong, that which leads to developing of devotional service is right. In the big scheme of things both materialism and impersonalism is the philosophical service provided by the Lord for conditioned living souls desiring to forget about Him but, as I discussed yesterday, by accepting this service the living entities deprive themselves of their eternal knowledge and bliss and devotees shouldn’t be callous towards that.

The thing is that I don’t know where books like this, or preaching creationism in the West, lead their readers. I would happily give Stephen Knapp a benefit of doubt in this regard, I hope he knows what he is doing and he has a plan but I also have doubts that he fully realizes the power and the direction of the force he is unleashing, I don’t think anyone does.

He doesn’t present this book as a devotee and he doesn’t sneak in religious ideas, so far he sticks to empirical arguments only, and that is fair to his readers. He also clearly hopes that once the readers develop appreciation for the Vedic culture they will take Vedic scriptures a bit more seriously and start developing actual faith. In this way he increases people’s mode of goodness that is essential for practicing any religion. I hope that works.

On the down side we have a massive nationalistic movement in India that has nothing to do with serving the Lord and gets mentioned in the news mostly for barbaric violence towards Muslims or Christians. These people use Vedic traditions only to prove their own supremacy and I bet they would gulp books like this in one sitting. Who will take responsibility if it inspires someone to burn another train carriage full of people?

This is the danger of getting on with science – we think that we can inject ourselves into the workings of this world and came out clean. We think that we are transcendental and so won’t be affected by the laws of karma but that is not true. The blazing fire of material existence that we are engulfed in right now started with a one little spark of interest.

Alcoholism starts with the first beer and addiction to drugs starts with the first cigarette. No one takes those steps with the goal of becoming a drug addict or an alcoholic, it just happens, and so dabbling in science has all the potential to produce very very undesirable results.

Our life is short, we shouldn’t be spending it on dangerous things unless absolutely necessary, we should be very careful pouring our enthusiasm into clearly materialistic activities.