Friday, July 01, 2016

The three sided hope

I joined a photography hobbyist group recently, where once a month, we are invited to take photographs based on a theme. The theme for this month is "Hoffnung". In western philosophy, Hoffnung (hope) and Angst (fear) are the two colors through which the world is painted. A young child, a blossoming flower, or a candle in the dark may signify hope. Their opposites signify suffering and fear. Although this dualistic model is the most common way we think of the world today, it is not natural to India. In India, we think in terms of not two, but three qualities or Gunas. There are three sides to hope, which are exactly the same three sides to suffering. A depiction of hope from an Indian perspective should show all the three qualities. I wanted to take a photograph that captures this Indian perspective about hope.

I decided to try my luck  on a Sunday walk in the park. It had drizzled earlier, but the sun had come out by then. Along the stream, there were a few broad leaves that held gleaming beads of water. I stooped onto my knees and took a few pictures, but I was not very pleased with them. I needed to wade through a thick mud to get to a better angle. I did not have the grit and patience to get to that. 

"Es gibt keine Hoffnung hier", I muttered, echoing the words of Buddha. There is no hope to be found in this bubble of existence. As shadows are sustained by light, so is light sustained by shadows. Hoffnung and Angst are two sides of the same phenomenon. They are sustained by the relative mirroring of one impression by another. Das ist pessimistisch, but such pessimism may be healthy as one wades through this mud of life. Suffering can be eliminated by transgressing these relative realities and realizing the void. But this eliminates hope as well.

But what about the gleaming beads of water that I photographed ? They could be a totem to a dissect the causes of suffering. Upon meditating on them, I observed there are three causes for the suffering and confusion in my own mind.

The first is the overawing power of greed in this world. We are rapidly destroying this planet - our only home. Millions of plant, animal, insect and bacterial species are going extinct as we are usurping their habitats for the cause of industrialization. Ancient dwellers of this planet, living for eons before the first human was ever born, are being decimated. They do not have a voice on the stock market. They do not have a political representation. Such is the fate for human culture too, with thousands of languages in the danger of going extinct. Ancient songs and rituals are disappearing, with people forced into a common uniform of modernity, that speaks in only one language. The defining element of greed is expansion. The free flow of capital will not tolerate any barriers. Like a parasite eating a host species from the inside, this greed is corrupting the values of human society and even the very nature of the human self.

The second cause is the impermanence of beauty. The poet John Keats said that a thing a beauty is a joy forever. But is it ? Every object in this world has to grow old and die. Such is the fate of people, plants and animals. Such is also the fate of art, languages, or ideas. Even if one can defend oneself against the onslaught of greed, how can one do so against the very element of death ? This planet will die, the sun will die, galaxies will drift apart in space, and the whole universe will die in a slow heat death. Mirroring this physical decay is the decay of information structure, as entropy rises. This rising chaos of matter and information will eat every object in this universe, including human beings and their relationships. Paraphrasing the words of the computer scientist Norbert Wiener, it is hard to be optimistic when faced with the grim fate of the universe.

The third cause for suffering is the indifference in this world. When one is confronted with the futility of choice between equally impermanent things, nihilism is the only acceptable viewpoint. What can a finite being do to make a difference to an infinite amount of suffering ? It is a rational response for man to be indifferent to the pain of other men, animals, and anything else in the universe. With rising indifference in society, truth will become a casualty. When we admit that everything is going to die, nothing needs a history. Nothing needs a safeguard of protection. As a computer scientist, I see the mighty force of indifference in how we build the internet and its applications. Provenance is stripped from works of beauty as they are converted into bits, and endlessly mashed up. Technology is turning fakery into an art-form, as it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the fake from the real thing. Given enough technology, even human relationships can be faked. This indifference will turn a blind eye to greed. As the more vicious and militaristic of people annihilate the others, the world will shut its eyes in indifference.
According to Hindu philosophy, the three causes of suffering correspond to the three Gunas: Rājas, Satva and Tāmas. They encompass the entire vista of suffering in the world. They cannot be reduced any further.  When one imagines a utopia, one is necessarily ignoring one of the three causes of suffering. It may appear that one cause of suffering is reduced, but this automatically increases the effect of another cause. Minimizing suffering requires one to find and maintain a delicate balance between the three Gunas. This is far more difficult than binary narratives such as choosing the light over the dark.

Having indulged the reader on the nature of suffering, I have now the tough task of convincing of hope. But as I said, the three causes of suffering have their counterparts in three causes for hope. To convey this, I need to evoke the Rasa of Shringāra in the mind of the reader. Taking inspiration from the Sanskrit poet Kāḷidās, I will try to describe hope through the beads of water in my photograph. Upamā kāḷidāsasya, as the saying goes in Sanskrit. The simile belongs to Kāḷidās, as he rendered it in the most fetching manner. In Sanskrit poetry, Alankāra refers to ornamentation, which engages the attention of the reader. From Upamā (simile / comparison) are derived Utprēksha (transposition by imagination) and Rūpaka (metaphor / equation of one to another). I will render them in my own limited manner. 

The pearls of water stand tip-toed on the leaves, dispassionate to the world around them, just as Brahma sits in meditation on the lotus rising high above the cosmic ocean. They tell us that in this world of sorrow, imagination and non-attachment will take one to a higher plane of happiness. Each drop is a world of its own, but it reflects the light from every other drop, leading us to imagine if that light is the omnipresent Vishnu who spans between the worlds. This light reveals to us that the greed and narrow-mindedness of people living in their own bubbles will eventually be overcome by the expanding presence of love. The world seems blessed with these rain drops, as water washes the leaves of their sins and renews them, moving them from death to rebirth in every single moment, as Shiva the immortal one is realized as every single object in this universe.

The trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva represent the three Gunas of Satva, Rājas and Tāmas. Every object in the universe has an intrinsic composition of these qualities, and based on how they are balanced, it evolves over time. Reflected inwards, these three Gunas converge in the trinity that lead to the inner self. Reflected outwards, they diverge and become Dōshas (faults). Thus, the Gunas are like three gates that lead to hope when opened simultaneously. But when any of the Gunas is taken to excess i.e, when any of gates are opened in isolation, they lead to suffering.

Brahma creates a new virtual world over the cosmos as it exists now. Over time, this virtual world expands in a greedy manner and tries to eat everything. In our minds, and in our societies, we keep creating such virtual worlds. The economic world dictated by money is one such world. Our conceptions of religion, honour, ethnic identity are all such virtual worlds. When this virtual world is not balanced with the two other Gunas, it metamorphoses into greed, which is the first cause of suffering. This greed needs to be overcome by the expanding presence of love, symbolized by Vishnu, and by the indifference to the historical ego, symbolized by Shiva.

The expanding presence of Vishnu to reach into every single object in the universe, also means it has to bear their decay and death, which is the second cause of suffering. Loving attachment to anything in this universe will inevitably cause pain. So this Rājas quality has to be balanced with the creative capacity of Brahma and the ever-renewing quality of Shiva.

Shiva's complete indifference to the historical ego of self (the story that one tells of one's past) will make one oblivious to the pain of others, which is the third cause of suffering. It also makes one not care for one's cultural roots. It leads to the annihilation of passion for beauty. Social and ecological relationships will thus be destroyed. So this Tāmas quality of Shiva has to be balanced with the loving presence of Vishnu and the creative capacity of Brahma.

Thus, the three sides of hope are also the three sides of suffering. Like three sides of a triangle, these three Gunas describe the universe in its entirety and enclose the self. Hope is achieved by the realization of the thinking mind that it is none of the three Gunas, but the deeper self that is centrally located, which transcends them altogether. In Bhagavad Gīta, this is mentioned as
Swadharmē nidhanam shrēyaḥ, paradharmō bhayāvahaḥ
Following the nature of one's own self (swadharma) causes happiness. Following the nature of the others (paradharma), as given by the identification of the three Gunas, causes fear.

This Ātman (self) or its nature (swadharma) are ineffable terms. They can neither be described by words nor depicted as pictures. Thus, all my attempts to capture a photograph depicting Hope are hopeless. However, hope is present in the silence between the sounds, in the unmediated sight, and in the unspoken word. Chinese philosophers call this same phenomenon as the Dao. When one chants a mantra in full attention, or when one sings in full honesty, or when one dances in complete abandon -  when one is completely absorbed in any activity that one forgets one's own ego, in that very moment, Hope is realized as the inner self.

Using water is apt in describing this otherwise ineffable moment, as the Mantra in Taittirīya Āraṇyakā says,
Yopām āyatanam vēdā, āyatanavān bhavati.
The one who knows the root of water, will get established in his roots (his inner self).

This verse is known as Mantra Pushpam. It says that the stars are the root of water, and water is the root of the stars. Everything in the cosmos is maintained by water. In the Sāmkhya philosophical system, water is one of the Pancha Bhūtās - the five elements related to the sensory apparatus of the mind. Water refers to that part of the universe which can be accessed by the senses of hearing, sight, touch and taste, but not by the sense of smell. Unique among the five senses, the sense of smell is completely dependent on memory, and thus on the historical ego. Thus, in this philosophical sense, to sense water, one has to let go of one's memory and ego. This would lead one to the ineffable moment which contains Hope. The presence of water in this universe is a totem that hope is available, however desperate the situation may appear.
Yopām pushpam vēdā, pushpavān prajāvān pashuvān bhavati
The one who knows the flower of water, will become the holder of flowers, society and animal wealth. Through this ancient verse of the Brāhmaṇs, I wish the reader a life filled with Hope.


1) Readers who are conversant in western philosophy will notice that my translation of the German word "Angst" as "fear" is crude. This is for reminding the reader that my translation of Sanskrit terms to English is equally crude. To properly know a tradition, there is no alternative to learning the original language in which the ideas re expressed.

2) Here is an interesting exposition of the Mantra Pushpam through Bharatanatyam.


4) The mantras are supposed to be chanted by a person in full attention. There is a specified intonation in how one should chant the mantra, which are marked on the written text. These mantras have been passed down by oral transmission for thousands of years.

5) The Mantra Pushpam is typically chanted at the end of Hindu ceremonies, when a flower is ritually offered to the deity. Notice how the ritual ends with an Ātma Pradikshana - a circumambulation around themselves, signifying that the deities are present within their own bodies. 

6) Earlier, I wrote a gentle introduction about the Sāmkhya philosophical system in this blog. I followed this up with an introduction to the Devās in Sāmkhya and the Pancha Bhūtās. I also described the Indian logic of Catuṣkōṭi

7) Identifying a cause for hope is one of the hardest challenges for atheism. Modern atheism is built through a criticism of organized religion in the west, especially Christianity. I can broadly summarize three responses to this problem. If readers are aware of more responses, please point them to me. 

7.a) I found the first response articulated in the excellent book by Bill Bryson "A short history of nearly everything". He says that the odds of the universe constituting itself (all the physical constants in their right proportion) are so low that there is good cause for hope. Furthermore, the odds of a person being born as an individual, with all the genetic forefathers surviving and finding their mates, turns the odds for hope much further. The drawback of this response is "shit happens", also known as the "Problem of Evil" in Abrahamic mythology (tackled, for example, in the Book of Job in the bible). Just because the past has been good, nothing can be taken for granted for the future. Otherwise, we will succumb to the classic error of the gambler. 

7.b) This is the Transhumanist response: medical science will prolong our lives forever and make us immortal. We will merge with the machines and upload our consciousness to a computer. The drawback with this response is that it only addresses the cause-2 of the suffering: death. There is no guarantee that the 1st and 3rd causes of suffering will vanish. In fact, they might be accentuated. People can become immortals and lead crappy lives for an infinite amount of time. Transhumanism is  inspired by the Omega point of Teilhard de Chardin, which I think is derived from an incorrect reading of the Vēdānta philosophy of Aurobindo. The subtle nature of the 3 Gunās as both the cause and cure of suffering is lost.

7.c) This is the response I used to give whenever my friends were feeling down: we have insufficient knowledge about the future, so we cannot assume that it will be bad. Assuming that it is bad means we are making an error of prejudice with insufficient data. I think this is a philosophically sound response to the problem of suffering, but psychologically not effective. 

I think the three-sided response for hope rooted in the Sāmkhya system gives a strong naturalist alternative, but it argues that there is an aspect of the self (Purusha) that cannot be reduced to the constructions of the mind. Other Hindu philosophical systems like the Vēdānta are derived from Sāmkhya, but they posit a reality that is greater than the universe.

8) Deconstruction has become a philosophical pastime in the past century, often being used as a weapon to destroy existing systems of politics or works of art. When applied internally, this is a cause for good, as symbolized by the perennial renewal of Shiva. But when applied externally to other objects, in isolation from the other two Gunās, it becomes a cause for suffering. I think many plans for utopia, going back to the earliest iconoclastic religions, have failed because of this misunderstanding.

9) Water plays an important role in Buddhism, as a meditative tool and similar to how it is used for the Abhishēka of Shiva. Buddhism derives from the Shramāna systems of India, from which Shaivism is also derived. So it emphasizes the deconstruction path of investigation into self. The Shaiva traditions follow a similar line. In contrast, the other religious systems like Vaishnavism or Yōga emphasize the other Gunās of Satva and Rajas. But maintaining a balance between the Gunās and ultimately transcending them is a central aspect of all Indic religions.

10) Here is a website explaining the three Gunas. I found the Celtic looking symbol at the top of this blog from this page. I wonder if ancient European pagan religions had a similar three-fold understanding of reality. If anybody is aware of this, please let me know.