Archive for September, 2006

Vedanta and Physics

September 30, 2006

Anybody who is working in Indian academia will sooner or later encounter a retired or about to retire scientist who has discovered, at the end of a career devoted to roundworms or turbulence or whatever, that the truths of quantum mechanics or particle physics are to be found in the Veda’s or Vedanta. Not suprisingly, the Wikipedia article on Vedanta has a whole section devoted to this topic and has more references for Vedanta and Physics than Vedanta per se. The pattern is remarkably invariant: it doesnt matter whether the scientist has worked in solid state mechanics or mathematical modeling, the locus of interest in science and spirituality is always Quantum Mechanics or Particle Physics and the Indian Philosophical system of choice is almost always Advaita Vedanta, which is a particular form of Vedanta philosophy.

The former predeliction can be partly explained by the kind of physicists who have taken interest in Indian Philosophy: Erwin Schrodinger and David Bohm, who were both interested in the foundations of Quantum Mechanics and were unhappy with the current state of affairs in that domain (and later popularized by Fritjof Capra in the Tao of Physics). But part of the problem is that the Brahmins (mostly South Indian Brahmins) who dominate Indian science are always hankering for something deep and unexplainable, i.e., a metaphysical mystery. Since they have spent most of their adult lives in a field that eschews metaphysics, except in the domain of quantum mechanics and particle physics, its no surprise that at the end of their working lives when spirituality rears its head and cannot be ignored, they turn to Advaita Vedanta, independent of whether their own family religious traditions are Advaitic or not.

In the west, the corresponding figure is the person (like Roger Penrose) who talks about Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness, the other great scientific mystery. I am almost certain that the intellectual history of the ideas relating QM and consciousness goes through Indian philosophy, though neither Penrose nor other western scientists would be consciously aware of that history. Whatever the case might be, my point is the following: whether in India or in the west, the QM and Consciousness/Vedanta groupie is looking for metaphysical truth, but science doesnt deliver that kind of truth. Not only that, modern society as a whole doesnt believe that such truths are available at all. So what is a scientist to do?


Swallowing the beast.

September 17, 2006

Those of you who have read Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games will know that it has its share of Hindi words in it, including an amazing variety of swear words. Interestingly, these words are presented as is, without italics, without any effective translation in the text and without a glossary at the end. I think it is the first time that a major Indian English novel has been presented without any apologies to the expected Western readership.

Now, you may think that this unapologetic Indianism is a cute affectation on Chandra’s part, and may be it is that too, but I also think that it is a sign of growing confidence amongst Indians that they can engage with modernity on their own terms. In fact, I am going to come out and declare that the match is over and the visiting team has won, i.e.,

(a) India, as a culture, has swallowed and digested western modernity.

(b) From now on, the most innovative philosophical, intellectual and cultural trends are increasingly going to come from places like India.

For example, I find that young women in Bangalore look good in Indian as well as Western clothes. Earlier generations of middle class women carried themselves well in Indian clothes and awkwardly in western clothes (if at all they wore them), but now jeans and shirts seem to fit quite naturally on them. Now that indigenous aesthetic preferences have started raising their head, you can see a vast variety of hybrid Indo-western clothes on the streets of Bangalore, clothes that will look strange on Western women. We all know that womens bodies are the terrain on which cultural battles are fought, so it will be interesting to see the shifts in preferred body types as Indian women and their aesthetic choices become normative the world over.

Men on the other hand, still seem to prefer awful shapeless polyester pants; the ones with three pleats and a ragged crease running down the middle. I am sure there’s a moral to be drawn there.

While we digested the west by reading western novels, watching western movies and TV programs, and most importantly, by living in western countries, the west is getting increasingly isolated from trends in other parts of the world. I have yet to meet a class of American and European intellectuals (not individuals) who, as a matter of course, have read the Mahabharata or know the names of the last two Indian Prime Ministers.

I am not saying that India is going to win the clash of civilizations or anything remotely like that. In fact, the situation is rather sad. Europe retreats into a self imposed permanent vacation, with thirty five hour work weeks, and the US bombs one country after the other, the possibility of a universal civilization is becoming increasingly remote. Unlike my postmodern and postcolonial friends, I am still sold on universal values and rights.

The Identity Politics of International Travel.

September 9, 2006

I am back in Cambridge (Massachusetts, not England, just like the narrator in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s “English August”) for a week. It feels about the same as when I left the place four months ago to go to India, but I had an intense experience of culture shock in the London airport. All those gleaming aisles and fancy stores and nicely laid out boards indicating where to go to get food or catch your flight – it seemed too ordered, too rational to me. Everything was there for a purpose, there was a higher power that had made a plan for our stay in Heathrow and we humans either had to conform to that higher power or suffer in silence. Nothing in India is ever organized in such a Cartesian grid, where everything has a place (or to be more precise, where nothing is out of place). Its in London that I realized that I have gotten used to the organic structure of Bangalore in the last four months. Was it Galbraith who said that its a functioning anarchy? I think that’s what it might appear to a Westerner, but I think its because they are so used to their order being transparent. I think we like our order to be a hidden, so that it never becomes a commandment, never a dictatorship of the intellect. Our order (or orders, as in being told what to do or not to do) is open ended, capable of revision and in the worst case scenario, retractible. That may seem like anarchy, but I think it reflects the open-endedness of life.

Anyway, airports always strike me as interesting places to study humans. Even airplanes. I was sitting next to an old Kannadiga couple who were leaving India for the first time. They did not know Hindi or Tamil, let alone English, so I had a hard time being their interpreter. Fortunately, the gentleman in the row behind us stepped in and helped them out as much as he could. Meanwhile, the Indian stewardess hired by British Airways to liason with clients like my rowmates was miffed that they didnt speak Hindi or English. She spent the flight making sure that she was not in any way from the same kind of people as those two Kannadiga’s. Meanwhile, the guy behind me increased his solicitations as the flight went along, hoping that his goodwill will mollify the BA goddesses.

Its strange that the same helplessness made one person angry and the other person helpful. Meanwhile all the white BA stewardesses were chatting away with the few white passengers. When I we disembarked, I noticed that while the Anglo’s got nice “Good Bye Sir’s”, the Indian’s only merited nods. I am not saying that the BA staff were racist (overtly anyway). I think that international travel amplifies all similarities as well as the distinctions. Since its the primary means by which countries get foreigners these days, its no surprise that the gatekeeping function of airports seeps into the psychology of the airline staff.

Anyway, BA should hire a Kannada speaking stewardess for the Bangalore-London sector.

How not to fight corruption

September 3, 2006

The Hindu reports:

“Bangalore: H.T. Sangliana, Bharatiya Janata Party MP, on Saturday announced the setting up of an `Anti-Corruption Front’ to fight corruption, which, he said, was eroding public life and democracy.
The former Commissioner of Police told presspersons here that the suspended Assistant Commissioner of Police Sangram Singh, an accused in the stamp paper racket, who had been released on bail, had joined the Front.
Mr. Singh was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation, which is investigating the stamp paper racket. “

Ummmmm….. if you were starting an anti-corruption front, wouldn’t you want to recruit someone else as your first candidate?

Gracious Gurus and Super Stars

September 3, 2006

I was talking to Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad about various issues in the embodiment and enaction of knowledge. As we all know, western philosophy has a hard time acknowledging that knowledge is embodied – read this insightful if somewhat bloated book by Lakoff and Johnson to get a cognitive science critique of classical western approaches to knowledge. Anyway, I am not going to gripe about Plato et. al. this time. Ram and I agreed that in the Indian traditions embodiment is quite well accepted – in fact it is enshrined in the pedagogical process itself, for we say that without a Guru, there is no hope for the seeker to get knowledge. Unlike the modern person (including me), who can just pick up a book and try to learn Advaita or Nyaya or whatever, the traditional student would have been forced to study with a Pandit. Of course, even a book is embodied, but its not the same as sitting, discussing and arguing with a qualified teacher.

Be that as it may, one could say that the Indian traditions fetishize the role of the teacher, leading to all kinds of abuse etc – more on that topic in a bit. After all, why is a teacher necessary for getting knowledge qua knowledge? This is too long a topic to address in one blogpost but here is a hint: the need for a Guru is related to the relationship between reason and emotion. In particular, it is related to the relationship between Trust, which is an emotional virtue, and Truth, which is a epistemic virtue. A Guru is one whom the student trusts with his entire being, and that faith (combined with a healthy skepticism) is necessary in order to grasp the truth. The Guru legitimizes the students understanding – so while the western philosopher may define knowledge as “justified true belief“, I might counter by saying that one might as well define knowledge as “legitimized true belief”.

Coming back to Gurus – Ram and I were wondering why is it that when a Guru is accused of financial or sexual excesses, newspapers, magazines and websites are full of articles talking about the cult-like character of the Guru’s following and by association, of all of Hinduism (doesnt happen to Buddhist teachers as much, but the accusation of cultism is always in the background in the Buddhist case as well), while the shenanigans of Sports, Business and Movie Stars in the west are seen as failings of egoistic humans? Here’s an answer: Guru’s are seen as being central to the epistemic claims of Hinduism while they are not so in the Super Star case supposedly.

Well, here’s a thought – have you considered the possibility that in this entertainment saturated age, Super Stars are absolutely necessary in order to legitimize the knowledge produced in modern society, so that they perform exactly the same epistemic function in the modern west as Guru’s do in India? Why else do you think we see posters of Wittgenstein (captured staring intensely here) in philosophy graduate student apartments? And unlike Guru’s there are no cultural norms regulating Super Star tantrums. So who’s the real cult follower?

Cognitive Differences and the Constitution of Objects

September 2, 2006

I have been talking to my friend, Sushumna, about the differences between Indian and Western (religious, literary etc) traditions, from the point of view of anthropology, which led me naturally to the question “to what extent are cultural differences cognitive differences?”

Traditionally, in the west, this question of cognitive difference is discussed in terms of the Whorfian, “Language influences Thought” paradigm, which basically says the Indians (or Eskimos) are different from Westerners because Indians believe in A while Westerners believe in B, and that Indians have belief A because their languages have some particularity that biases them towards believing A while westerners have belief B because their languages have some particularity that biases them towards believing B .

But, as S.N Balagangadhara points out in his study of Indian religious traditions, The Heathen in His Blindness, cultural differences can cut deeper – in fact they are not diferences between different belief systems at all, since, according to Balu, one side ( i.e., Indians in this case) do not believe at all, atleast not in the western sense of the term belief. According to Balu, while western religious traditions make truth claims about the world (their beliefs are claims that the nature of world is X or Y), Indian traditions are ways of acting, which makes sense to me. Since childhood I have been told “do not do this or do not do that” but nobody ever told me “Believe this or else”. which I think is the norm in Hindu families.

Therefore, the distinction between belief and action has to be acknowledged as a source of cognitive differences, since one would expect that a way of thinking that is grounded in action is different from thinking grounded in belief. To cut a long story short, we could have a revolutionary take on cognitive science by saying that particular western modes of cognizing have been taken as universal and normative, when in fact the range of phenomena is much larger, which would automatically lead us to the question of how the objects of cognition are constituted in Indian communities versus European communities.

If we take a concept like religion, or caste, or literature, we find that certain western ways of theorizing have aggregated phenomena under each one of these concepts that are actually not the way Indians would aggregate them. In other words, each one of these concepts comes along with a theory of how to apply that concept that really doesnt hold in the Indian context, since (to use a Balu-istic analysis) the way we experience and reflect upon experience is not the same as the western theorist.
So far so good. But there is something more I think – the debate is not just about whether western theorizing about religion in the Indian context is true to their experience but not to ours, but also how objects are constituted in their experience versus our experience. For example, a culture that is literate is always going to constitute its notion of literature as being made of fixed texts with unique authors etc. These texts are the objects of study for them. But the Mahabharata, to take one example, cannot be constituted as an object in the same way – hence the usual western claim that its not really a text, since it was composed by different authors over several centuries and has several layers. Sure, that might be their experience, but I would say that for an Indian, thats not how we constitute a literary object at all. So the problem, I think is not just about theories and concepts but also the objects of our experience.<!– D(["mb","


In the case of religion we could say that for a western theologian, the object of experience is always out there (God for example) and religious beliefs are true statements about these objects. But for Indians, according to Balu as I understand him, the objects are nconstituted by actions. What kind of objects are these, if they are not out there, but constituted by actions?


In your case, I wonder if some of the problems of the feminist readings of Akka are not just about using modern feminist theories but also that they constitute a text as an object in a completely different way than Akka would have and her listeners would have. In other words, if you ask the question (as you do in your thesis), what kind of knowledge does Akka have, one can only answer that relative to the objects of that nknowledge.If the objects are constituted in ways that are incommensurate with feminist theorizing about patriarchy etc, as one might think they are, then one cannot make claims about Akka precisely because you cannot claim something that applies to apples when the object is really an orange. n


I am just trying to point that there is another critique of the appropriations of Akka etc that are not just critiquing the mode of theorizing, but also of the mode of the object-ing (I didntg want to use the term objectifying, since that has other connotations).n



Hope the Jeans are A+.

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In the case of religion we could say that for a western theologian, the object of experience is always out there (God for example) and religious beliefs are true statements about these objects. But for Indians, according to Balu as I understand him, the objects are constituted by actions. What kind of objects are these, if they are not out there, but constituted by actions?

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