Monday, 20 February 2012

Dr. Ravin Thatte on 'Advaita'

He is the stuff of Legends. For over 20 years, while serving together on sundry neighbourhood committees, we have differed often, which is not surprising considering that my one eye is often closed and his both eyes are ever vigilant. Despite being on the opposite sides of arguments so many times, I can honestly say that I know hardly any one for whom I have greater respect today. I introduce to you our first Guest Blogger, Dr. Ravin Thatte.

Dr. Thatte’s resume is daunting. Internationally renowned Plastic Surgeon, First recipient of  the Life Time Achievement Award of the Association of Plastic Surgeons of India, credited with more International Papers on his subject than anyone in India, he has selflessly given his services free to hundreds of poor patients over the years. His contribution to social issues ranging from Environment, Language, Culture, Science and Civic matters such as RTI are known to half of Mumbai and beyond. A deep thinker, his translations of Dnyaneshwari, the great Marathi work of Thirteenth century Poet-Saint Dnyaneshwar, into English introduced a new generation to the ever green, ever relevant masterpiece. At 73, he is more active today than most people half his age, and, inevitably, he is also a prolific blogger on his Medical speciality at:

For today’s Guest Post, Dr. Thatte has contributed the text of a recent speech he delivered at  Maharashtra Institute of Technology, Pune,  for a  UNESCO sponsored seminar on the Advaita (monism) philosophy.. As an appetizer I quote a random excerpt  ‘….please realize the idea of God was invented by people who thought the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it’. If you can spare some quality time to read and a bit more to think, you are in for a treat…..

'The first verse of Dnyaneshwari sums up the nature of the universe'

Dr. Ravin Thatte
The first verse of the Dnyaneshwari begins with “Aum”. This vocalized sound when expressed by man is without any taint of peripheral articulatory intervention, such as palate, tongue or teeth. It is reverbatory in character. Reverberation producing a vibe or a vibration. It is both a pulse and an impulse. Also poetically and figuratively supposed to emulate or mimic the snoring sound of that or it which predates everything that we perceive as the cosmos. It is the pre-cosmic throb or the sound that the universe will later hum. Never mind the fact that sound as we know needs an atmosphere to travel. But if light can travel through vacuum as waves, so can this throb or the pulse. If there was something in the beginning it had to have an existence which quivered or quickened. The word ‘spandan’ in Sanskrit which has no linguistic parallel in the English language is meant as all of the above as well as the quickening of the child in the womb. That thing from which the cosmos was to spawn had to have a presence. Even a stone inert as we think it is, is alive with the sub-atomic movement in the silica of which it is made and that stone is trying to dig its feet deeper into the earth by virtue of gravity. The movement of the electrons might appear to us as random but the madness in that randomness has to have a method and you cannot imagine a movement without its hum. At the beginning this so called sound might have been contained within a pin point dot awaiting that happenstance when it will expand with a roar. The basis for that roar was this miniscule throb. That throb in that dot could only circle around itself and did not have the physical presence that the dot might have had and has therefore been called a “shoonya” or a zero. The dot remained a dot because all its potential forces were cancelled against each other leading to a dynamic equilibrium where it could be said everything rests or wrestles with each other and loses. That cancellation had in the human mind a vacuous characteristic also leading to the concept of nothingness. It or that thing was both full and empty, a fullness which could not be emptied, a fullness when divided continued to be full and also throbbed. It was not like the sound which comes forth with the beating of the drum. It has been called ‘anahata’ because nothing was beating against each other. It was beating by itself. This beat was to spread through the cosmos and then our earth to produce what we call sound. Bird song, the mewing of the cat, the animals growl, the whistling wind, the majestic purr of the sea, rustling of the leaves, the bubbling of the spring, the morning call of the cock, all owe their origin to this original pulse and impulse. Man was still to arrive. There was no one around to ask that philosophical question, was the sunrise beautiful before man came to describe it as such? When man appeared he was fascinated by both sound and light, by what he could hear and what he could see but he felt friendlier with sound because he could produce sounds himself. Light was alien. It came from far, it came and went. It was ethereal, not innate. Helen Keller, the blind and deaf diva of the handicapped world when asked is on record to have communicated through gestures that ‘she would rather be blind than deaf’. Man thus played with sounds and created vowels and consonants and words and grammar and sentences and prose and verse and music. He played the flute, beat the drums and strummed threads. He did it alone and together. Sometimes someone sang and the others listened. It has been said that in nature no sound is out of scale or out of tune. There is a sur in nature which never becomes besur. The seven swars in all the music systems all over the world have been borrowed from nature. Man learnt from this phenomena to create a body of work which sent out waves when sung that seem to set aflutter the very thump of our entrails. Man thus experienced somewhat a return to the original anahata naada. The sublime experience of listening to Bhimsen is in fact not compartmentalized. The singer and the listener both undulate to an auditory experience where the ear of the ear comes in to play. In more profound moments the singer tends to close his eyes and even puts his hand over his ears. Those are not mere gestures or mannerisms. The singer is telling us that the external ear is long lost. There is no need to listen but only to feel. This is what is meant when it is said ‘converse without speaking, feel without touching within a gentle quiet heart’. But these exalted moments when we reverberate with the drumless drum are short lived. We rise for a moment and soon fall to our mortal masks. The very development of language defeats it own purpose. The art and act of communication presupposes more than one entity and therefore duality. In that slightly fanciful, imaginary thinking when life begins and says ‘I am’, the other has to be present and comes into existence. When life says ‘I will struggle to survive’ that this survival will occur at the cost of another looms large and a conflict is a distinct possibility. When life gets permeated by intelligence, the effects however can be diametrically opposite. Intelligence has the potential for wanton disruption as well as fecund construction. The ravaging effects of mans activities over evolution which occurred over hundreds of thousands of years in a matter of two centuries is a point in example of this destruction.
The stage is now set for enunciating the second word in the first verse, ‘Aadya’. As in primal or first or ancient. The first as in number 1, the twin of the reverbatory phenomena also imagined as zero. The bi-carmal system of numbers is now in place. Any kind of number can now be written down leading to an endless chain or series, variety looms, diversity becomes a rule. Comparisons can be made, movement can be measured, time comes to be counted and nature unfolds. The bumble bee and the butterfly, cats and caterpillars, dogs and donkeys, emus and elephants, monkey and man and also woman and the Gods in their imagination. This is the zone in which love, lust and longing, expectation, aspiration and ambition and struggle, failure and triumph happen with or without faith.  Evolution is a series of events, a flow that slowly meanders taking a path of least resistance and occasionally showing persistence when confronted with hostility and obstruction. It adapts and moulds or may perish or fold. Its course is inexorable, many lights burn bright and then dip and dim and extinguish. Seasons come and go, rutus in a rhythm, we get drowned in our own environment, nary a thought for what is behind all this. It is within us, around us, behind us, but we lose it.
Is this all motivated or designed or planned? Does the Aadya have a mind? Is it intelligent? Does it have a drawing board? Does lightening strike out of vengeance or do rains sulk out of displeasure? Do floods and cyclones and storms wreak havoc to settle old scores?
It is in fact none of the above. The aadya has been described as blind, lame, old and as if in a final insult of a neuter gender, neither a man nor a woman. It is alone. Space is yet to form and movement is impossible so a verb fails. It is incomparable because there is nothing to compare it with so an adjective will not sustain. Name it what you want. The word God or Parmeshwar is very popular. Brahma is more logical and linguistically more accurate because it spreads from the Sanskrit root ‘Briha’. From it comes creation but the word Aadya does not imply or envisage an entity called the creator. It is not a karta or subject, nor does it perform as in a verb or a kriyapad and it does not contemplate a karma or object. The sentence that ‘it created the cosmos’ therefore falls flat on its face. The cosmos or the world emerged from it is an expression that can survive in human language which has been around for not more than 15,000 years against the billions when the cosmos actually started expanding. This emergence can now sustain the artificiality of a subject, object and action all of which were bundled into one in that entity called Aadya or also called the primal or in the language of physics the singularity. To the discerning however, traces of this unity is evident in an objective experiment. When two fundamental particles say electrons are propelled in the opposite direction at the speed of light which cannot be surpassed during their travel in the opposite direction if one is tickled, the other wiggles. This is beyond human comprehension because physics cannot explain how two simultaneous events choreographed at a distance and at the speed of light in opposite directions. What emerges is the umbilical cord between the mother and the child. Aadya is the mother and the particle only its child. Not to mention the fact that the particle itself is sometimes a wave. It is not difficult to believe that these waves form a chain link and this link is dotted with these particles and its undulations are a one single whole. To answer the sarcastic question ‘does the flutter of a butterfly’s wing in south America could cause an earthquake in Scotland’ one can say it is not that an apple falls on the earth because of her gravity but theoretically the earth too falls on the apple because the apple too has its gravitational force and there is no such thing as up and down in the cosmos. The protagonist in the Geeta is bamboozled when he is shown the cosmic apparition and mutters ‘what is here, above and under, east and west have all gone asunder.’ The Aadya is not partial, it is always full. It is infinitely fine yet it never drips or drains. The expanse that came to be created from it shares the Aadya or the primal completely. As to why evolution came about it is simply a karmic event. We continue to know more and more about the antecedents of many karmic events but history stretches too far back and the human condition too short to grasp the whole truth at least at this moment. The experiment to observe the Higgs God particle is also a post-facto experiment. It hopes to mimic the conditions immediately following the so called big bang by ascertaining the resistance to the post-event force field to this particle. It remains one step removed from the aadya.
The next word in the first verse is ‘veda pratipadya’. The word ‘veda’ is a generic term for a certain literature but the root of ‘veda’ is ‘vida’ in Sanskrit to mean ‘to know’. This knowledge can be inspired or can be acquired by observation and then reaches a conclusion. The observational element is related to the word ‘video’ in another language and also to ‘vidya’ in Sanskrit both arising from the root ‘vida’. The word ‘pratipadya’ requires to be split in to ‘prati’ to mean towards but the other half ‘padya’ is more consequential. The word ‘pada’ means a term. When a term assumes a meaning, as in ‘arth’, you get a ‘padartha’ and this meaning can only come out when the term describes something. A table is as such when it stands on one or many legs and it then becomes a ‘padartha’. Till then it could be either wood or steel which too are ‘padartha’ but in a different form. The word ‘veda pratipadya’ therefore collectively means that the aadya with which we were struggling so far in this presentation is the subject of discussion or comprehension of the veda. The word has a starkly liberal hue and is open ended. It negates or dismisses any fundamentalistic or rigid position. Elsewhere it has been said that to know the aadya is equivalent to walking on your back or in the western example to pull yourself up with your own boot straps. The word opens avenues to different systems by which the singularity can be approached or sought. You can reach it via nature by observing her both in the gross as well as in the minute but you can come to know of it by turning inwards and then feeling its presence in your sanctum according to a unverifiable theory. The dialogical method of Socrates in the intellectual domain, Plato’s contemplative and intuitive description of the material world as geometrical condensation of space or Aristotle’s search of the truth by observing nature and natural forces all fall in the ambit of the word ‘veda pratipadya’. This is like a Pilgrims’ Progress through physics or physiology, chemistry or carbon dating, archaeology or anthropology or by just the opposite by turning your mind around by meditation to savour what lies at its back. By a simple process of successive reduction you are likely to arrive not at the aadya but only at the concept of Aadya. As to the question of what will happen to information if it is gulped by a black hole so full of gravity, it has been argued that the word information is about formation or form and for anything to form, time is of the essence however small it may be. In a black hole or the aadya, time stands still and even light cannot escape it beyond its horizon. Therefore the question itself gets invalidated. Form, formation and information are post-facto to the entity called aadya and therefore language fails. The aadya has no history or for that matter geography. You can describe what follows it or what issues from it but it cannot be described. It will not burn nor get wet nor be cleaved because it is fire, water and weapon all in one. It encompasses all possibilities and is and also was. Next word of the first verse is ‘swa samvedya’, the prefix ‘swa’ is self, for the rest we have to return to the verb ‘vida’ to mean, ‘to know’. In Sanskrit the verb progresses to ‘vedana’ to mean a sensation or a feeling. Its current usage as pain at the physical level or sorrow or sadness at the emotional level are somewhat contrived. In some Buddhist schools vedana remains only a sensation, a series of events which constitute your mental life. The whole word ‘swa samvedya’ therefore implies that the singularity or the aadya or the Brahma is alone privy to its own sensation. There is no centrifugality attached to its vibe in its pristine form. It is curled up on itself till it unfurls. The modern terms extrovert and introvert might just give you a glimpse as to what is meant here. But that is pure oversimplification. The introvert who jams up within himself is subject to suffering in spite of and because he fails or refuses to communicate. He is bottled up and unlike in the singularity the forces that seethe within have not cancelled each other. The introvert appears quiet but is in fact not calm. That calmness will come only if the vedanas or the sensations which arise from the external world are perceived in a certain perspective and allowed to cancel each other to create a zero. The calmness that will then ensue will then border on what is often called as bliss. The Patanjali school who asked you to focus on your breathing know that breathing alone is both voluntary and involuntary. In medical terms it has both a hastening mode (sympathetic) and is subject to a slowing mode (parasympathetic) and the collective is called the autonomic nervous system. The oldest of our ancestor systems from the time of the amoeba. The Patanjali technique unveils only a portal and breaks open the lock and allows you to enter yourself free from the outside world to approach the inner realms where each organ, organ part or even the cell partake in an unique collective existence. When the mind empties your own real internal person is revealed to you. The verb ‘swa samvedya’ is posited for the human intelligence to contemplate and to aspire to as an ideal. This is about returning to your roots to shake your umbilical cord which stretches back millions of years to confirm and validate your primordial existential ancestor. And now we come to the last word in the first verse ‘atma roopa’. The word in a way is devolutional. The word ‘atma’ has many meanings but one of them is vitality or vital force or spirit and any force by the standards of modern physics has to have a field. This roughly in Sanskrit is the ‘kshetra’ of the 13th chapter and you are the ‘kshetradnya’ or the subject of this field. The word ‘roopa’ means an appearance or a form. A combination of a vital force and form can in fact be a contradiction unless one evolves from the other or is contained within the other. Modern physics should endorse this intuitive construct that a wall breaks your head but a cotton pillow does not is all a matter of how much force or energy is packed in it and the nature of matter that has been formed. The transformation of energy to matter occurs when you wind an old grandfather clock which in the process gains weight. A car travelling at great speed weighs more and so do you if you are within the car. As to why you cannot travel at the speed of light is explained by a paradox which comes out of this principle. When speed increases the mass of the object increases, leading to some deacceleration. When the speed of light is being approached the mass increases in such humungous proportions that it itself becomes a greater hindrance to acceleration. A photon, the particle in physics which constitutes light can do this impossible task because it has no mass. In a way the constraint of time does not apply to a photon. That you see the sun several minutes late because it takes that much time to travel to your eye is in a way correct but also false because there is no such thing as old light and new light. Light is ubiquitous that is forever present at all times and everywhere and the same at each place. The duality of ‘atma’ and ‘roopa’ therefore is a “non” unless you compound the word and call it ‘atmaroopa’ and present a logical reality. This transformational characteristic should appeal to modern physics. True, it takes a huge amount of energy and a certain circumstance to create a gram of matter but it happens and that is why we have the well known equation of e=mc2 where c is the speed of light which is huge and unsurpassable but that is because we judge our events on the backdrop of time. If events occur at the speed of light they will only be a flash or even not that. But when under more sedate circumstances energy does get transformed into matter or mass with a lesser speed a clock weighs more when it is wound up. As I speak to you the dance of the ‘atmaroopa’ continues unbridled from the chemicals of my neurons through cables called nerves to the vocal chords and their mechanical flutter to the mouth to a variety of articulations and then their land fall on the diaphragm of the microphone onwards to a copper coil within a magnet to new cables with movement of electrons within till it falls on your eardrum then through the mechanical movement of your ossicles to nerves and your neurons with their chemical energy. The results of these actions might not be uniform. This is the zone of anger, envy, pleasure or pain, bitterness and betrayal, bonhomie and brotherhood and also an area in which credit cards, floor space index etc. thrive. Some might think I am wordy and verbose making too much out of nothing. Others will find fault with my ideas. Some might think I am very flippant about too profound a subject. Some might be prejudiced by my earlier presentations. Others might think I am not religious enough. How can a person they would say who is speaking on Dnyaneshwari not mention God or Parmeshwar with any dignity? Others might even think that I will suffer for this offence. But please realize the idea of God was invented by people who thought the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it. But mind you all this appears in a pre-existent screen. That screen can be clean or covered with dust or it might be cracked or splintered, not what we inherited at birth or at our conception. That screen or consciousness too has evolved from the cytoplasmic brain of the amoeba which warns it of dangers and tells it to divide when circumstances force or facilitate a division to animals who are more complex but mainly instinctive to us whose internal mental environment has so evolved over the last 50,000 years that we gather here to discuss what this is all about.
I leave you now without mentioning the word ‘advaita’ or monism. The idea of this seminar was to be dialogical to exchange ideas and viewpoints and not to wave a fundamentalistic flag which is alien to the Indian tradition. It has been said that each truth begins as a blasphemous idea. In that respect the first verse of the Dnyaneshwari is blasphemous. I am not sure because I am no pandit but I think the gender allocated to adjectives that are contained within the first verse are masculine and therefore a mistake and that statement of mine is also blasphemous but that must not occupy our mind as we contemplate what Dnyaneshwar was driving at under a set of social circumstances. This is not about a caring, creating and killing God. That idea is human, very convenient, probably practical and useful and therefore has survived and might have even been responsible for causing inter-religious havoc. But that idea I think appears on an already cracked and splintered screen. That virgin clean screen that we came with needs to be kept clean if we have to logically approach our ancestor. That screen came from the ‘aadya’. We need to discuss it through ‘veda pratipadya’. It must remain unsullied by our mental and physical experiences, ‘swa samvedya’ and we must realize that our essence is energy, transformed into matter and it inhabits every cell and sinew of our being, not only the brain. I thank the organizers for the invitation and also thank the audience for their patience.


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  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. A superb speech:erudite, stimulating and provocative.