About those patterns on your palms

The lines on one’s palms are a result of the hand needing to fold in order to grasp and grab things. Any utility more than that, especially supernatural ones which claim to reveal fate, seem to be the result of the human tendency to seek and find meaning even when it is not there.

We are pattern-finding animals. We have evolved to see meaning everywhere. We saw animal shapes in the stars and that’s where constellations came from. In reality, one combination of stars is no different from another one. It is we who assign meanings to them.

The same goes for the lines on our hands. Because many human beings through history have worked under the assumption that there is a higher purpose behind our existence, ways and customs have always existed that claim to offer insights into this higher purpose.

Palmistry is one such claim. Specifically, it is the claim that information about an individual’s past, present, and future is coded into the lines of their palm and that this information can be read by those who have the training. This art can also be learnt, if one is to believe any one of the many palmistry websites on the web.

People who believe that there is genuine meaning in palm reading either fool themselves and rationalise to make reality fit the readings, or they fail to compare the results to the outcome of complete random chance.

It won’t take much investigation to find a young corpse with a long life line or a homeless man whose palm reading says he is a king. But we generally discard such anomalies by applying layer upon layer of sophistication to the so-called art of palm reading.

Palmistry and its cousins (face-reading for example) feed on the human need to believe that we hold some special position in the universe. The urge to do so is understandable. What are we without meaning? But it is always useful to make a clear distinction between that which is known and that which is not. The human imagination is a powerful weapon. We should use it, not get used by it. If we let it, our imagination will show us our own reflection everywhere.

Don’t believe me? Look at the image below. You cannot not see a face in it. That’s how powerful your imagination is. That’s how strong the urge to find meaning is.

What is truth? The Part proved objectively or the Whole experienced subjectively?

If you have never seen an apple, then you won’t be able to tell if I am holding an apple in my hand or not. You will have to rely on what I say. You will also have to decide whether or not I am worth trusting on this matter of apples.

In order to actually know the truth, you will have to go learn the nature of an apple from multiple other sources which have nothing to do with me. Only then will you be able to determine these two things:

  1. That apples exist.
  2. That I do indeed have an apple.

The apple in this example represents the whole — a complete understanding of all there is. We don’t have an understanding of it. All we have is a kind of projection that says there must exist some kind of completely understandable reality. The belief that reality can be understood completely.

We also have claims about this projection. People who say they know the whole and methods which are presented as being the solution. Unfortunately, these are all subjective. Like my claim about the apple, you can’t verify them because you lack a frame of reference. You have to take these people’s word for it. Maybe you will do so. Or maybe you will not and you will test their subjective methods and come to some conclusions.

But you will not have any way to compare your conclusions with theirs, or to even know if what you experienced was the ultimate truth — the whole. Maybe it’s not the whole. Maybe it’s just a larger part of the whole than you previously knew. Maybe it is nothing more than things happening in the prison of your own subjectivity.

Subjective knowledge of the whole therefore, is a free-for-all freestyle wrestling match. Anyone can make any claim and it will all boil down to whether or not people trust them.

The best we can do is to try and understand the part objectively. What we find out will not be the absolute truth because perhaps there is no such thing. But it will be a part of the whole truth and that’s not so bad.

So in a conflict where subjective understanding of a whole (for which we have no frame of reference) battles against objective understanding of a part, it will be smart to choose the latter. We can always make time for both however. Who said that was not an option?

The tragedy of the Indian education system

The tragedy of the Indian education system can be summed up in three words "mark fetching subjects".

Literature is not mark-fetching, mathematics is. Sociology is not mark-fetching, economics is.

It does not occur to the purveyors of this system that if one is not good at a subject, it will not "fetch" him marks, not unless he twists himself into becoming something he is not. We seem to be functioning under the impression that academic performance is something that can exist in the absence of the person who is performing. For all practical purposes, the student -- the individual performing -- is not part of the equation that powers our school system.

The pursuit of "marks" of course is the pursuit of social standing and, on a more basic level, the pursuit of stability. It is an insurance against poverty and dishonour in a society where everyone is wearing a mask designed to make them look like their neighbour. How respectable a middle-class family is in their society is, among other things, directly proportional to how well their son performs in school and college.

If you get marks, you get a certificate. If you have a certificate, you get a job. If you have a job, people line up to have their homely daughters marry you. Then, right on schedule, you get a car, a flat, have children, and die a satisfied old man who did all that was expected of him.

India is considered "spiritual" as opposed to the material West. But in many ways, we are a vastly more materialistic culture. Our concerns stem, not from a quest for meaning, but from a need for material pleasures so great, we throw our children into the machine that powers it.

Culture is a never-ending war

The source of every creation myth is human ignorance. Or rather, human dissatisfaction with that ignorance. Stories get made up and begin to define the community that tells them. In time, people start to kill and die over these stories.

That's the whole circus in a nutshell.

Why do we make up stories? Because not having an explanation is scary. And we come to love that which defeats this fear. In time, we come to see any question against the story as an attack against us. If the story is a lie, then so is our definition of reality.

And if we don't know what is real, then how do we know we are not mad for believing what we do? And if we are mad, then the person who says we are mad must be sane. And he can't be sane or good or kind because he just destroyed all that we had.

So we fight. And they fight back.

And nobody wins except in sporadic and limited ways. And the dents that we make in each other's armours eventually begin to be seen as parts of the design of these armours.

The story changes a little and gets told to a new generation. They begin to define themselves accordingly.

In time, more questions are raised, more fighting erupts, and the stories continue to change, little by little, until they are so different from the original stories that you might as well think of them as entirely different stories.

Old stories are the same as the new stories. Every fight you see happening around you right now is the same as fights fought ages ago. In the far future as well, we will be fighting these same fights.

This war will never end. It has raged ever since we came into being. We are all children of this war. Everyone fights this war. Everyone loses. Everyone wins.

Can you be atheist while being Hindu?

This will take some explaining. Bear with me.

Words don’t have meanings that are independent of usage. What a word means is an agreed-upon definition. The word “Apple” is used to indicate a specific fruit. Everyone who has handled the fruit and has learned the English language knows of this agreed-upon definition. So the word works.

Now imagine that there was a community of people who used the word “Apple” to indicate a fruit that you and I use the word “Mango” for. Or imagine that in a few centuries, the word “Apple” is used to indicate something entirely different. Maybe people will refer to ships using the word “Apple”. Maybe “Apple” will become a blanket term for a whole range of fruits.

The bottom line is, the usage of specific words changes over time and space.

Here we are talking about words like “Hindu” and “Atheist”. They have particular usages. But these usages are not universal. If we are going to have an understanding of what a “Hindu Atheist” or an “Atheist Hindu” is, we have to be clear in our understanding of what those phrases mean and where they have come from.

The word Atheism

Atheism is the opposite of Theism. Theism is a word that has been used to denote a belief in god or a similar higher power. It comes from Theos, the ancient Greek word for god. The Greeks, like the Hindus had many gods. Later in the day, when Rome came about and Greco-Roman culture prevailed in and around the Mediterranean, there was a small sect of troublemakers running around, disrespecting the gods.
Some of these houses of worship were set up in the cities of Asia Minor where John’s Revelation was sent (see 1:4; ch. 2-3). The church at Pergamum (where the Temple of Augustus and the Altar of Victory stood, Frend, p. 148) had some who were eating things sacrificed to the idols (Rev. 2:14). Thyatira, noted for its trade guilds, which required its members to sacrifice to the gods, too had some who ate of these sacrifices (Rev. 2:20). The other churches of Asia and the rest of the Empire met similar problems as these.
These were the “atheists.” They denied the Roman gods. They were also called asebeia-a Greek word meaning “want of reverence, impiety, ungodliness.” (For N.T. usage of this word see Rom. 1:18; 2 Tim. 2:16; Tit. 2:12; usage of its cognate Rom. 11:26; Jude 15, 18.) In their attempts to serve the one and only God, the religious world about them thought that because they did not partake in the same practices that the Romans did, the Christians were atheists.
That’s right. The word that Romans used for these early Christians was Atheist. The reason was what it has always been — rejection of god. Of course, the reason the definition of atheism was different was because the definition of god was different.

Today, in Conservative America, those who don’t believe in the god of the Bible are called atheists. If you ask a modern, educated atheist in America what his or her atheism means, they might tell you that it is a simple rejection of the claim that a god or gods exist. Atheism in the West today largely targets the monotheistic faiths — Christianity and Islam. They also reject the god claims of every other religion, but those are not their primary targets because they are not as close to the power structures of those nations.

In every society that has a dominant strain of religiosity, there exists an atheistic impulse. It pushes against the religion that defines that society. Every religion that holds a society together, also constrains it, suffocating many. This suffocation finds expression in the form of a denial and a revolt.

That’s not to say people become atheists due to suppression. Most atheists simply break out of religious thinking on the basis of their ability to reason and then cement their non-belief using a scientific understanding of the world. In earlier times, when our understanding of the natural world was somewhat fragmented, there was still a lot of space to shove the god concept into. These days, there is less god space in the natural world, but religious people still find it. When they can’t find it, they try to move science around and create patently artificial spaces such as “Intelligent Design”. Western atheists spend a large amount of time debunking these supernatural claims even though their definition of atheism is simply a rejection of the god concept. A lot of Western Atheists might in fact be called anti-supernaturalists. I should also point out that it is entirely possible for an modern atheist to retain belief in supernatural things other than god.

This kind of ambiguity can lead to the word “atheist” being seen as something it is not. Prominent atheists like Sam Harris have even argued against the need for using the “atheism” label. Science proponents such as Neil deGrasse Tyson consciously distance themselves from the atheism label fearing it will automatically associate them with a lot of causes they don’t need.

So to sum up, the word “atheism”, though it seems to have a specific usage, has been differently defined as well as differently reacted to in times recent as well as long past.

What we need to know therefore, is where it sits in the context of Hinduism. Is anyone who rejects the Hindu gods an atheist? Or must this rejection extend to the various “spiritual” schools of thought as well? Does a philosophy such as Advaita count as atheism? Or do its claim about Brahman make it theistic?

We can start with where the word Hindu comes from and what it implies.

The word Hindu

Indian culture has been a melting pot of philosophical influences since ancient times. These influences sometimes came as curious travellers and sometimes as aggressive invaders. Our civilisation did its best to accommodate all of them. Reactions to these influences have been different — sometimes we fought, sometimes we assimilated, sometimes we rejected advances and retreated into shells like the caste system and feudal social structures.

The word “Hindu” has been used to mean different things at different points of time in history. It has been a geopolitical identity based on the Indus Valley civilisation, it has been a blanket term for all races of people living around the Sindhu river, it has been a religious marker for people who swear by the Vedas, it has also been a religious marker for people who abide by the caste system.

Currently however, Hindu is a very distinct religious identity. Though many people still cling to its more overarching definitions (that it’s “a way of life”, or that it’s “Indian civilisation” itself), it is abundantly clear that we think of it as a religion. We write “Hindu” in the religion column on government forms and we identify with Hindu rituals. So let’s just get this lie behind us and agree that Hinduism is a religion. Calling it a “way of life” is a cop-out. Christians say the same about their religion. As do Muslims. Hell! Even cyclists say the same. When the usage of a word or phrase is so ambiguous that it can be applied to pretty much anything that people do, it becomes completely meaningless.

But it is not surprising that many Hindus do not think that they are following a religion. Apparently, many don’t even know if they are atheists. The 2011 Census by the Government of India found that there are 33,000 atheists in India. That’s right — thirty-three thousand people identified as atheists out of a total population of 1,2 billion. Some people have made accusations regarding the intent of the questioning, but I think it might be more a matter of unclear definitions. I think it is totally possible that a good number of people who identify as Hindu actually think they are atheists!

How then, do we go about drawing the line that separates Hindus from atheists? I don’t think anyone would argue that they are one and the same thing.

The first step, in my opinion, is recognising that the word Hindu, just like the word Atheist, is largely meaningless. Saying “I am Hindu” is like saying “Hinduism is a way of life”. It explains nothing about you and conveys only the vaguest sense of cultural identity.

Think about it. When you tell a stranger that you are Hindu, what are you really conveying?

  • Are you saying you believe in god? Not necessarily. You may actually be an atheist.
  • Are you saying you believe the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to be literally true? Not necessarily.
  • Are you saying you believe the epics are only stories? Not necessarily. Maybe you entertain notions about their historicity.
  • Are you saying you abide by everything that the Vedas contain? Not necessarily. Maybe you only appreciate the fact that they are ancient.
  • Are you even saying that you have studied any “Hindu scriptures”? No. Not necessarily. Perhaps you don’t even know Sanskrit.

See the problem? You might be saying all of the above things, or none of them.

The phrase “Hindu Atheist” or “Atheist Hindu” only makes sense if both its parts make sense. Ambiguity renders these phrases meaningless. And in order for the label we are looking for to make sense, we need both parts to correspond to the most widely-accepted definitions.

There may have once been a time when foreigners referred to all Indians as simply “the Hindus”. But these days, the word Hindu is such a broad umbrella that it conveys very little meaning except the one we use when we use it in government forms.

The Conclusion and a Polite Suggestion

The phrase “Hindu Atheist” may simply mean who identifies as a Hindu for cultural reasons but has no belief in god or gods. But as we have seen, the label “Hindu” does not really mean much even if culturally defined. A much more meaningful cultural label is “Indian”. In modern times, it is geographical at the very least.

Similarly, the word atheist also has a lot of ambiguity associated with it, primarily because it says what one is not but does not really say much about what one is. A way more sensible label might be “rationalist” or “naturalist”. And if these labels do not float your boat, you may choose another one — something that does define you and conveys meaningful information about what you do stand for.

At the end of the day, there is no point using a label that conveys no meaning. You might as well call yourself “existentialist ghost” in that case. If the label you put on yourself has to mean anything, it has to correspond to the ideas other people in your society hold. The society we live in these days is global — we interact with people all over the world on an everyday basis.

If you say you are a Hindu Atheist, many will not understand your intention. On the other hand, if you say you are an Indian Rationalist or a Naturalist from India, it will hold much more meaning.

To quote a teacher of mine, “Speak to be understood, not to be misunderstood.”

On the Indian obsession with government jobs

The Indian middle class has existed in relative financial turmoil for the last many decades. They were not poor and they were not rich. So while they were not homeless and destitute, they did have appearances to keep up. Add to this a long list of social and cultural obligations — marriage, parenthood — and you have the perfect recipe for what might be called an obsession with stability.

For a long time, the private sector was not the most lucrative of places. If one came from a business community background — like Marwaris for example — one had a bedrock of support for entrepreneurial ambitions. The rest found stability in the idea of a mai-baap government. The government was everything — law-giver, license-provider, certifying authority — you get the picture.

In the last couple of decades, the middle class Indian has ventured out of the governmental sphere of influence because of economic liberalisation and media-fuelled aspirational mindsets. But the appeal of the “government job” remains strong.

I come from a small town, and I can say from experience that there is no dearth of young people who want nothing more than to grow old behind a sarkaari desk. They want as little work as possible, as much comfort as possible, and as much freedom to not do anything as they can have. Often, this is because they have grown up in a home where government employment was the only thing they knew of and they cannot even imagine employment being anything more than being a babu. Sometimes it is because their families value a steady income and social position above anything else.

Empowerment of the private sector has been a good thing because people have started considering options other than babudom, but every once in a while, when market forces rock the boat and the inherent instability of non-government jobs become apparent, we run back to the safety of government employment.

Why did cows never acquire aggressive traits?

The assumption being made here is that the cow we see around us today is the same as what it has been for millions of years. In reality, the cow, like every other species, has undergone a lot of changes. And we don’t even have to go back millions of years to see aggressive cows. A mere ten thousand years will do.

Scientists have concluded that about eighty wild oxen were domesticated by human beings roughly 10,500 years ago. These domestications happened in Europe as well as India. And the animals we domesticated were not docile cows. They were wild aurochs much larger than the biggest cows we have today.

After being domesticated by human societies, subsequent generations of cows felt less and less in need of being wildly aggressive. Over generations, aggression was bred out by artificial breeding. They lived in safe habitats and their food needs were taken care of. This is why today, we have cows which are much less aggressive.

I should point out however, that I have been chased by stray cows when I was a child. My grandmother spent her last years hunch-backed because a cow rammed her in an unfortunate accident. The instinct for self-preservation never really goes away.

The human brain is not very good at perceiving changes that occur over very long or very short periods of time. So it is a natural mistake to think that cows are just cows and not the result of a really long process of evolution. The scientific method allows us to look back at history for ourselves and uncover the face of nature.

How much is entertainment worth?

Over the course of a conversation with the producer of a YouTube comedy channel some time ago, the matter of money came up. The videos published on this channel are, like almost every video online, free to watch. The producers of the channel make no money from viewers. The money comes from ads — not only the ones that run inside and around the video player, but also ones that the channel produces for brands.

I was informed by my friend that something peculiar happens when they publish a “brand video”. He said that in the comment section of these videos, viewers accuse them of “selling out” and becoming “commercial”. We wondered if that is such a bad thing. Why is it that the smell of money seems to taint creativity in the eyes of some viewers?

Creators have more or less come to terms with the fact that advertising is a harsh reality of their lives. Ads sell video channels, TV programmes, and even newspapers. Without the money that advertisers invest, the business of creativity will not run.

That is not a universal truth though. Cinema halls have always charged money for tickets. Newspapers cost money too. Recent years have seen some experimentation with paid content models wherein creators and producers ask viewers to pay money to read / watch their work. But by and large, ads continue to be the default monetisation route for creative people who do not wish to die of starvation, or worse — get a boring job.

But it would seem that at least some members of their audience want them to not touch ad money with a barge pole. These people presumably work under the assumption that creating art does not require money, or at least should not require money. You might think that if these people were made aware of the fact that their beloved creators were short of cash, they would be happy to pool in contribute funds. But you would be wrong in assuming that. You would be right however, if you assumed that people will steal creative content and feel no guilt for having done so illegally.

People want their stories, their videos, their music for free. Actually, people want everything for free, but they would prioritise almost everything else over creative work if it came to paying money. Somewhere deep in the heart of our culture, stories have no monetary value.

Our culture has stories at its very foundation. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, along with a host of puranic tales that embody an elaborate mythological universe, travelled the length and breadth of the world on the backs of storytellers. These stories have, over millennia, moulded our civilisation into the shape that it is in currently. Then why would we not pay for them?

The answer is simple — we won’t pay for them because we think we already own them. And this sense of ownership (entitlement?) stretches out and pulls in all stories, even ones that have never been told before. We won’t pay for them because we have never paid for them. Because we have never paid for any story. We believe stories to be a communal inheritance — things anyone can tell anyone, anywhere, and at any time. The bards who travelled with folk tales memorised, and the village theatre groups which enacted stories for eager audiences everywhere, never charged a dime for their efforts.

Stories have always been free. And in doing so, they have marked the act of storytelling as a free service as well. Most people who have taken writing up as a profession will know what I am talking about. Writing is not considered a “real” job. In the utilitarian world we all occupy, it is a hobby at best and at worst, a waste of time. After all, why do something anyone can do? Why expect to make a living doing something nobody will spend money on?

That’s our problem in a nutshell. It is a matter of culture. The solution to this problem has to be cultural as well. And it boils down to how we answers questions like this:

  • Do artists deserve to be able to make a living with their art?
  • Are stories worth money?
  • What are the ways in which creative people might fund their endeavours?

People have been looking for answers to these questions for quite some time. And the fact that they are still looking, gives me some measure of relief.

When was the first human born?

Prepare to have your mind blown. The answer is… never.

That’s right! The first human was never born. There was no first human. And it gets even more interesting. There will never be a last human. In fact, it is safe to say that there is no such thing as human. “Humans”, as we know them, have no independent existence.

What does exist however, is a relative existence. It is a limited, in-between kind of being — something that started happening when we began to speak, is happening right now, and will continue to happen until evolution turns us into something that can no longer be defined using the word “human”.

And that’s all “human” actually is — a word. It has no more meaning than what we have assigned to it. It is a very specific word with a very specific usage that has currency among members of a particular species who use spoken language to communicate with each other. They think they are something. Some of them even think they are everything — the pinnacle of creation, the very height of perfection, the most sublime expression of the universe’s will. It’s the funniest thing ever!

Did human beings evolve to love stories?

Different animals have evolved to communicate their impulses to each other in different ways. Peacocks attract females by dancing and displaying their feathers. Certain insects ooze chemicals from their bodies so that others of their species might detect their presence. Non-human apes make sounds and gestures to attract attention as well as to communicate fear, general information, and warnings. Sometimes, apes even lie!

Human beings underwent a cognitive revolution and developed language. In the beginning, they too used language to communicate the same things that other apes did, but eventually, it became that language could be used to do much more. Humans found that not only could they use language to tell their tribesmen that they had discovered a tree, they could also explain where the tree was exactly, what fruit grew on it, and whether there were wild animals around it they should be careful to avoid.

On occasion, when there was the need to communicate why one group of humans was different from another, language began to be used to create imaginary brackets such as clans (we are the tiger people), religions (we are god’s chosen ones), and nations (we stand by this flag). To reinforce these brackets, stories began to be told.

For example, religions are held together by stories like myths, accounts of miracles and prophecies. Holy books are full of them. They become rallying points around which people of a certain faith gather and cooperate.

Similarly, nations are held together with stories which are sanitised versions of historical accounts. These include heroes, leaders, and value systems (which may or may not be drawn from religions).

At the end of the day, the human ape has evolved to tell stories. Stories form the framework that holds human societies together. Stories are the currency that we deal in on a daily basis. And it is not as if the ones I mentioned are the only such stories. Many new stories are being told right now. Some of them will grow to envelope us in the future and might even decide the course of human evolution in times to come.

Are we less spiritual than we used to be?

Consider the phrase “the letter and spirit of the Constitution”. Or the phrase “she is with us in spirit”. What does spirit mean in these cases?

It means meaning. It means essence.

We search for meaning — it appears to be the primary human occupation. We are convinced there is purpose behind everything, we think there must be a reason for our being here, we even speak of an almighty agency that assigns purpose. So convinced are we of its existence, that we take to wondering if “spirituality has disappeared from modern culture”.

There never was a time when we didn’t ask this question. For those among us who think meaning and spirit must exist, the fact that it is not evident anywhere in reality, brings dissatisfaction. People in every age have complained about creeping materialism and lack of religion. There have always been people who have said that there isn’t enough spirituality. There never seems to be enough!

We make a distinction between what is mundane and what is spiritual. And then we put the spiritual on a pedestal without clearly defining it. Truth is, meaning does exist, but it is not an objective quantity that comes to us from on high. It is something we create on an ongoing basis. It never disappears. Its definition changes.

Abrahamic thought puts sex in the mundane bracket (pleasures of the flesh and all that) but there are those who have considered sex as a means to spirituality. Similarly, scientific inquiry is considered by many to be a discipline that necessarily deals with the mundane, but Einstein called his work an attempt to understand the “mind of god”.

Matters of spirit will always find themselves under threat by the mundane reality of the world. This is because they are a means for human beings to deal with the mundane world. They must necessarily come into conflict with realities of human society. And the reality is that there is nothing spiritual except what we decide to call spiritual.

The best holy book for humanity

Talking about teaching humanity to mankind is like talking about teaching birdness to birds, or teaching vegetability to vegetables. Human beings are not special. Like any other order of things or beings, they have their own way of dealing with each other and they make changes (improvements?) to these methods as and when their environment requires.

The Bible, The Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita are books. Their content is not the same, but their intended purpose is arguably the same — giving readers (followers?) a moral framework to function inside. Generally speaking, all three books (despite the Abrahamic ones being of a distinctly different flavour from the Dharmic one) tell man the way to be. These ways to be are sometimes commandments, as in the case of the Bible and the Quran, and sometimes they are offered pathways that man may choose, like in the Gita. But all three tell man what to do. They presume to know more about humanity than the reader does. Oftentimes, that is the case and the reader does indeed know less. But what must be made clear is that these books are not necessary. Reading them is not an absolute necessity. It is not as if one has to choose one of these options in order to “learn humanity”.

If you are human, and I think you are, then you already know a lot about being human. You are aware of what it feels like. You know what feels good and what creeps you out. You have imagination and reason. You have grown up surrounded by human beings and you have a pretty good idea what that involves. You can tell stories, build machines, navigate your surroundings using your understanding of natural laws. You learnt all this without the Bible, the Quran or the Bhagavad Gita.

And it might come as a surprise to you, but the three books we are talking about were also written by people exactly like you. Well… almost exactly like you. If you ever went to school, I think it is safe to say that they knew a lot less about the universe than you do right now.

Of course, none of this is to say that you know everything and you don’t need to read any of these books. I would say read all of them and then keep going. Don’t stop at any one book and accept all it has to say as absolute. When it comes to “learning humanity”, the simple truth of the matter is that you can only do so if you accept that humanity is a work in progress. It is not what it used to be when these books were written. And it won’t always be what it is right now. So if you ever write a book with the intention of “teaching humanity” to people, know that it too, will not be enough.

The definition of morality changes

Morality is a circle that encompasses all human action. And it is a circle that, barring a few exceptions, grows outwards, encompassing more and more aspects of reality, peoples, cultures, orientations etc.

Regardless of what moral frameworks end up achieving, their goal is usually the same — the betterment of everyone. How different societies define “everyone” differs of course, and therein lies the reason behind why moral frameworks often alienate some people based on either their gender or their sexual orientation or their caste or their nationality or the colour of their skin.

Once upon a time, people of a certain community believed that it was correct to relegate women to a secondary status in society by letting them have no say in how their society functions. Once, it was believed that people of a certain skin tone were somehow inferior to others and that it was alright to treat them like cattle. These actions were seen as correct. And if not, they were at least not seen as wrong.

What changed? Our understanding of the world improved. We learnt that men and women were equal in many ways. We became aware of the fact that all human beings are fundamentally the same. The circle of moral action expanded and took these categories into itself. Now, gender bias and racism are considered immoral.

Similar assimilations happened to various other categories — nationalities, linguistic communities, ethinicities, and so on. The circle keeps expanding.

The expansion of the moral circle is a result of understanding. It is a process whereby we relate more and more with the world that we live in. It happens when we look at other people and see our own reflection in them.

Should Hindus also have demanded a separate country in 1947?

No. And there are very good reasons for it in history.

The year was 1947. Jinnah, the soon-to-be father of Pakistan was routinely attending meetings with the then heads of the Congress regarding the distribution of resources that was about to happen in the days to come.

But Jinnah was under the impression that these meetings were about the creation of two new nations. Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel corrected him in the presence of Jawaharlal Nehru. He told Jinnah that what was about to happen was not the creation of two new nations. It was the creation of one new nation — Pakistan — which was separating itself from an already-existing nation, India.

Jinnah had been imagining a Hindustan-Pakistan dichotomy, which would have given a seal of credibility to the two-nation theory on the basis of which he had demanded the Partition. But the Indian leadership of the time decided to stick to the old name.


First, there was no need for a renaming of the country. After all, nobody had wanted a brand new nation (except Jinnah’s Muslim League) when freedom from the British had been sought. They had only wanted the ability to govern themselves. Second, India had been India for a long time before the British ever appeared on the scene. Their departure would not fundamentally alter the nature of India.

Third — and this is really the bit that answers this question — the Indian identity has cultural capital. The word India means something, and that meaning has more value in the international market than the word Hindustan. Let us not even talk about the cultural value of Pakistan.

Brand-building is not easy, especially when it comes to a nation as large and as prone to cultural storms as India. This was as true of Pakistan as the newly freed India. But while Pakistan had to start from scratch (and consequently made a mess of things), India chose to build its future reputation on top of the already-existing story.

So the road this country took then, and is largely still on today, came from an ancient culture, a history of scholarship and spiritual wisdom, good relations with lands near and far, and most importantly, a reasonably good rapport with the leaving Britishers themselves. No small part of the impression India has today internationally comes from that decision long ago to retain the name India.

When the world looks upon India today, they do not see something that was born in 1947. They see a much older geopolitical unit. The value of this may not seem apparent at first look, but when you think about it, it is obvious.

But would things have been different if India had become a full and proper Hindu state?

Becoming a Hindu state, first and foremost, would have meant letting Jinnah’s two-nation-theory win. It would have been a capitulation of everything that India had been until that point in time. By becoming a Hindu state, we would have thrown out pluralism, diversity, and our entire history of acceptance and accommodation that had defined this country.

You might argue that Hindu culture is inclusive by nature and that it would not have mattered. I would respond (while doubting your premise), that given the political climate of the time, nobody would have given a damn about Hinduism’s credentials. We would still have been seen as Pakistan’s sulky elder brother.

Besides, the father of modern India’s Constitution was Dr Ambedkar, who had very serious reservations (to put it mildly) about Hinduism, having grown up in the dark shadow of rampant casteism. In fact, it was he who led large number of Dalits into Buddhism in those years. He rejected Hinduism yes, but he didn’t have a high opinion of Islam either.

At the end of the day, ask yourself this: In the modern world we live in, which side of the fence would you rather be on? The side on which secular democracies are on — America, European nations, Japan etc? Or the side where our only friends would be Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt etc?

Playing “what if” with history is never easy. It is of course possible that we might have done way better than we have by becoming a separate Hindu country back in 1947, but if everything that has happened since then is any indication, I think we did the right thing by not travelling down that road.

Is morality anti-evolution?

No, morality is not anti-evolution. In fact, morality is very much a part of the equation when it comes to the evolution of human societies.

If I had to guess, I would say that the questioner is misinterpreting evolution to mean a savage struggle to survive. This is a common mistake. What needs to be kept in mind is that a single animal does not evolve, populations do. So the process of evolution by natural selection works on entire generations through the successful transfer of genes.

To transfer genes, animals play by certain rules in their groups and communities. Chimpanzees abide by the leadership of the alpha male. Lions have similar structures too. Birds have flocks that are governed by rules too. These are essentially a way for members of a group to interact with each other. Without them, groups couldn’t function.

Human groups — nations, religions, cultures — have rules too. These rules make up what we call morality. Morality can be religious or secular. It can come from a holy book or it can come from a constitution. By and large, moral codes among human beings are the same, with minor differences depending on factors like geography. For example, a desert community’s moral codes will have items governing camels and water while a merchant culture will have corresponding laws regarding money and inheritance. Moral codes look different but they perform the same function — keeping the community together and functioning.

Morality is very much a part of the evolutionary process.

Does evolution ever get it wrong?

In order to establish whether evolution ever gets it wrong, we have to understand what “right” means in this context, or if it means anything at all.

Evolution is a blind process whereby, aided by random genetic mutation and natural selection, species either continue to survive or die out. The number of species which die out as a result of not being able to cope with their surroundings is way larger than the number of species which do.

If survival is the criteria by which we are to define “right”, then it is safe to say that evolution gets it wrong more times than it gets it right.

However, evolution does not have a direction. It has no end goal. It does not seek to create a species or end one. Evolution is simply something that happens. For some reason — genetic mutation and natural selection perhaps — we have come to be in the enviable position of getting to watch this storm in action.

And a storm is exactly what evolution is — unthinking and unreasonable. You and I are leaves in the wind.

Why is there no protestant Hinduism?

There are many protestant Hinduisms. They have been coming up all through the history of India. Historians refer to them as heterodox schools of thought[1] of course, but the reasons for their origins resemble the ones that brought Protestantism into being.

Protestantism came into being because the Catholic Church was becoming too suffocating for some people who wanted to continue calling themselves Christian. So they broke away from the Church in “protest”. Hence the name Protestant.

In the history of India, many sects and cults have broken away from the dominant strain of religiosity that pervades the sub-continent’s culture. Some of these protestant Hinduisms are known by names such as Buddhism and Arya Samaj.

Buddhism wasn’t really a break-away movement, but it is believed that one of the major reasons behind its popularity was the people’s resentment with the caste-based structure of Hindu society.

Arya Samaj, established by Dayanand Saraswati, was a clear break-away from mainstream puranic Hinduism and sought to refashion the Hindu identity using the Vedas as a foundation. Dayanand Saraswati rejected the puranas and the epics as rank nonsense and asked Hindus to turn towards the Vedic truths that he believed had been corrupted over time.

These are just two examples. The Hindu religion has been fragmented time and time again into many such schools of thought. Some of these fragments became independent religions and some didn’t.

Is there anyone as enlightened as the Buddha?

How exactly do you measure how enlightened someone is? And if such methods do exist, have they been applied to Gautama Buddha and have the results been compared to every other meditator and monk?

No? Okay. Then I will speculate to the best of my ability.

I think one of the ways we usually determine how enlightened a particular monk or meditator is by the numbers. There is nothing scientific about this method. It is assumption by way of democracy. We look at the number of followers a religious figure has and we say to ourselves that there must be a reason for such a large following. We associate this large following erroneously with the merit of the monk’s message.

In reality however, the only reason Buddha is even part of this question is because we have heard of him. Is it not possible that there might have been an “enlightened” figure somewhere in history who was on a much higher level than Buddha but never chose to step out of her house and tell people her message?

Buddhism became popular when people adopted it after rejecting the belief systems they had been brought up with. Later on, it became even more popular after people of power like emperor Ashoka adopted it and made it a foundational principle of his rule.

If these things had not happened, we would not be discussing and running comparisons about the Buddha right now.

From what I have read, the Buddha probably would have balked at the thought of being considered enlightened. And he may have been even less enthusiastic about being compared to others. If there is one thing that defines Buddhist thought, it is the individual’s ability to determine the truth on his or her own.

When will science prove that Sanskrit language has magical properties?

Before you ask “when”, ask “if” science will ever “prove that Sanskrit is like the universe’s programming or controlling language, and that everything has some level of consciousness”.

The way science works is that a hypothesis is made to explain certain observed or observable phenomena. Then experiments are carried out to confirm the hypothesis. Then the results as well as the experiment’s methodology are presented to the scientific community. Then other scientists repeat these experiments and present their results. If an overwhelming number of experiments provide the same results under the same conditions, the hypothesis is eventually given the status of a scientific theory. This theory is then generally accepted as a way to explain reality or certain aspects of it.

What this question presents is, at best, a hypothesis. And it has two parts:

  • “Sanskrit is like the universe’s programming or controlling language.”
  • “Everything has some level of consciousness.”

Having given a brief introduction to how modern science goes about proving things, I now move on to provide a list of things one will need to prove the above hypotheses.

  • You will need to prove that the universe even needs a programming language. Right now, there does not seem any need for the universe to have any programming language or a controlling language. Existing natural laws serve as adequate explanations of observable phenomena.
  • You will need to formulate experiments which demonstrate that Sanskrit has the properties you describe.
  • You will need to demonstrate to the scientific community that chanting of Sanskrit verses and shlokas can manipulate matter and energy in the ways you describe.
  • You will need to demonstrate that everything has some level of consciousness. Right now, there is neither any need to assign consciousness to everything, nor is there any need to think that we live in such a universe.

Science goes where the evidence is. If there is observable and demonstrable evidence, it shouldn’t be difficult to prove any hypothesis. But the evidence can’t be things you have read in a book. And it can’t be things you believe (no matter how firmly you believe).

What is honesty?

Honesty is a quality human beings assign to people when they call them honest. It may also be defined as a quality that an honest person possesses.

Put simply, an honest person acts in accordance with what he or she believes to be true. If and when what they believe turns out to not be true, they acknowledge the shift and change their views to suit the truth.

So to a large extent, honesty is about acknowledging the difference between what we know and what we don’t know. It is about appreciating the limits of one’s understanding and learning to live with it. It is about avoiding the temptation to fill gaps in one’s knowledge with speculation and imagination and simply saying “I don’t know”.

Why doesn't evolution only produce beautiful people?

When a lion chases a herd of buffalo, which ones survive?

If you answered “the fastest buffalo”, then you are kind of wrong. The answer is “everyone except the slowest buffalo”.

If anyone who was not the most beautiful person failed to get a mate to reproduce with, the implication of this question would be true. But we know that is not the case.

People choose mates on the basis of a wide variety of criteria. Beauty, though an important factor, is just one among many such factors. It does play a role in mate-selection, but so do a million other things.

Some people actually don’t care much about the physical appearance of the person they have sex with. They go for other elements — intelligence for example, or wealth, or power.

Does India need a national language?

No. Because India already has several national languages. English is one of them. Hindi is also quite widely spoken, thanks to the influence of the Hindi film industry.

Languages cannot be imposed on populations. Well technically they can be imposed, but the outcome is good neither for the language, nor the people. The tongue in which people speak, grows and evolves into its status. It is a very organic process.

The debate about north vs south India, and the one about Hindi vs Tamil is a dead horse that some people are still flagellating because they never caught up. If you are someone who still sees some kind of tangible distinction between the north and the south, ask yourself why there is no such divide between the east and the west of India and why Gujaratis are not expected to speak Bengali?

The divide is bogus. The language issue is a non-issue.

I think English is an Indian language. It may not have been born here and it may not be the language that the Mughals or the Hindu kings used, but it is here now and it has been here for a long time. The person who asked this question knows and uses English. Everyone who answered also uses English.

In keeping with its inherently diverse nature, India should have as many “national” languages as it can. Linguistic diversity is a cultural advantage. We need to stop treating it as a handicap and wishing for a homogeneous single language that, like Sauron’s “one ring” in LoTR, will unite all Indians. This will not happen unless you make the conscious decision to devalue all existing native languages of India.

What is wrong with making India a Hindu nation?

Plenty. Because “Hindu Rashtra” is a useless label and it means nothing. All it will do is help the spread of wrong ideas about India and make people think we have changed for the worse somehow.

Ask yourself what will change if we start calling ourselves a Hindu nation? Will we send away all non-Hindu people? Will we change our Constitution to reflect so-called Hindu values? Will we make practice of other religions illegal?

If you answered no, you know why I am calling the label useless. If you answered yes, you are part of the problem, not the solution.

India is a pluralist society that has always provided accommodation to those in need. In this respect, the culture of this country is inherently Hindu in many ways. One might say we are already a Hindu nation in that respect.

But we are also the sum total of all the cultures that we have assimilated over the millennia. We are Muslim, Christian, and Zoroastrian too. India is much more than a Hindu nation. To limit its scope to one cultural identity would be doing the country a disservice.

What was a big deal in the 1990s but isn't anymore?

I remember growing up in the 1990s hearing about how the Population Explosion was a really bad thing. For some reason, nobody talks about that anymore.

Instead, there is a general mood of optimism about India’s billion-plus population. News anchor gush about our “largest democracy” and economists talk about the demographic dividend. I find this strange because back in the 1990s, the Government used to put up a Population Clock on TV every morning warning us all about how bad things were going to be in a few years.

The next thing is the idea of Brain Drain that people used to constantly worry about in the 1990s. The thing was even in government school text books! We worried India will suffer because smart people were leaving the country in search of better resources in the West instead of contributing here.

That doesn’t happen anymore. To the contrary, now people talk about the importance of the Indian diaspora abroad. I think a big reason behind this is that nobody in the 1990s foresaw a world as connected as it is today, thanks to information technology. Overall, there is less guilt associated with travelling abroad for work. People don’t see it as a betrayal of India anymore.

Open Letter From a Grammar Snob

I can’t blame people for considering writing an easy thing to do. And I am not even talking about creative writing whereby you craft stories and poems and tales of epic adventure. For all practical purposes, ever since the world wide web got here, we all became “writers”. After all, the keyboard is the default tool for interacting with the internet, is it not?

So we type our hearts out and we chat each other up and we opinionate about all things under the sun as and when they happen because we feel we must. This is okay, I guess.

What I don’t think of as okay is the assumption that the rules of language are somehow secondary to our urge to communicate. And that people are justified in saying “so what?” when bad sentence structure and faulty grammar is pointed out to them. The unspoken refrain seems to be — don’t tell us we are wrong – it hurts our feelings.

As someone who deals with the written word day in and day out as part of work, I can’t say I care much for the feelings of people who disrespect the rules of language. Grammar is the vessel that holds language together. And while colloquialisms do change the course of linguistic flow over periods of time, that is no excuse for bad usage, especially when you are doing it out of deliberate carelessness (as opposed to honest ignorance).

A piece in Vagabomb caught my attention this morning. It says correcting other people’s grammar is “pretentious, patronising, and elitist”. While there is definitely a point to be made here about rudeness not being a nice thing, the piece seems to generalise far too much when it comes to the “be nice to people” aspect. I think that when someone corrects my grammar, she is being respectful towards me. What manner of politeness is being exercised when you let a friend misspell a word without correcting them? What social purpose is served by letting SMSese and WhatsApp level text become the default mode of communication among educated people (or worse, children)?

Newspapers have stylesheets for a reason. A well-constructed sentence tells you more than its meaning. It says that you are a writer capable of articulating your thoughts in a lucid manner. It says that you have clarity of thought and that you can convey that clarity to your readers. It speaks volumes about your reliability as well. People tend to trust writing that is of good quality more.

You ask, “But what of people who are not good at English? Do they not have the right to express themselves?” My answer of course is yes, they do have the right to express themselves. But they also have the responsibility of doing it properly. If your response to that is that grammar does not matter, I can only assume that you do not care about how seriously they and their words are taken.

The point about being nice to non-native English speakers is also a red herring. We should be lobbying for them to be able to use their native languages online with ease, not fighting for their right to write bad sentences in English. It is not patronising to fix people’s grammar. It is patronising to suggest that these people can’t do any better.

For the record, I write this with full awareness of the fact that language changes; that the mistakes of today become the default usages of tomorrow; that everyday culture changes the meanings of words. But there is a difference between a culture’s adoption of an altered language and the casual mutilation of a language by an individual because she does not give a fuck. That is where good grammar snobbery comes in. A Grammar Nazi is someone who, by their very presence, forces people to try harder and do better. Please don’t tell me that’s not important.

A Human Understanding of Humanity

The word humanoid means that which looks human. If we find humanoid species on another world and they call themselves Romans, they might call us Romanoids. I say this, not merely to be playful with words, but to make a more interesting point.

When we visualise gods and deities, they always have human chracteristics. Apart from looking like us, they also share our capricious natures, our sense of morality, and our tendency to be territorial. This is because we see the world through human eyes — which are the only eyes we have. A dog with an imagination will also visualise god with dog-like characteristics. It is only natural.

Subjectivity is our prison. And our relative inability to view the world from outside it even shows when some people speak of human beings being “more evolved” than other animals. Evolution has no path. There is no direction that it progresses in. Species take shapes that best suit the need for their continued survival. This applies to human beings as well as it applies to the “lowliest” single-cell organism.

Every characteristic we have that we consider an advantage over other living creatures exists because it became essential to our continued survival — not because we were worthy of it and nature bestowed it upon us. In fact, mutating in order to better adjust with our surroundings is not even a guarantee that a species will survive. Numberless animals and plants have disappeared because nature’s rate of change was faster and more powerful than their ability to adapt. Evolution requires one to not only be willing to change, but also to be able to change fast enough.

The only thing great about being human is the ability to understand the processes that brought us into existence. We can value this understanding and make an effort to maintain it. Or we can consider ourselves the pinnacle of evolution and while away our time until nature pushes us in more inhuman directions.

Does evolution have purpose? Do we have purpose?

As far as we can tell, evolution does not have a purpose. It is like a rock rolling down a slope. It may seem like it has a goal — to get to the bottom of the slope, or to crush a particular something on its way down — but those are just things that happen by the by. All that is happening is that a rock is rolling down a mountain.

The only way we can honestly answer this question is with the help of what we know. The rock exists, the mountain exists, gravity exists. That’s all. There is no deeper meaning than that. We can make stuff up and tell stories about where the rock came from, who rolled it down, and why, but that’s all they are — stories and conjencture.

The question about human purpose therefore, may also seem meaningless. After all, in the larger scheme of things, we are as insignificant as slimy germs that grow on the aforementioned rock, why bother with anything? Why not just die?

We don’t know this for sure, but it does not seem like any species — animal or plant — other than us bothers with meaning. They just live and die. It is only the human species that bothers with all this fancy philosophical wonderment.

This fancy philosophical wonderment however, has been the source of all religion. Through it, and because we have this need to find purpose, we have convinced ourselves that purpose exists. We have, in effect, made up stories to help fulfill our desperate need for purpose.

These stories have told us that not only does purpose exist, it is divine purpose, ultimate purpose, even cosmic purpose. Through the ages, our convictions and beliefs have led us down various paths in pursuit of this purpose. Some of us are convinced for example, that our purpose is to serve god’s will and to make him happy. Others are convinced that their purpose is to kill and destroy every member of their species who does not agree with them. Some others are convinced that our purpose is to take care of this world and make sure no harm comes to it.

All these reasons of course, are man-made. These are things we made up because we can’t stand being purposeless. The thought that we exist for no reason drives us crazy. I feel that the entire history of human civilisation can be described in terms of a quest to escape this pit of madness.

This is why every way of thinking that goes against the currently accepted purpose-philosophies is treated with hostility. This is why religious ones freak out when you suggest there is no god — who will they please if there is no god? This is why people wedded to a particular political philosophy lose their shit when you suggest their way may be pointless — what are they supposed to do if there way is not the one true way? Purposelessness is madness and death to a human being. It is hell.

In such a scenario, a human being chooses purpose. He chooses to belong to a story of his choice — one that makes most sense to him, makes him happy, gives him something to look forward to. He may choose from among already-existing options and become a member of a religion or ideology. Most people choose the ones they are close to — the religion they were born into or the ideology their parents live by. Others choose to break free and go see what’s on the other side of the fence. Still others make up their own philosophies and live unique lives.

At the end of the day, there is no “supposed to”. Human beings do what they can do with what they have. And what they have is an understanding of their place in the universe. It tells us that in some respects we are not special and that in some other respects we are rather unique. We can expand our understanding of the world using science. We can communicate this understanding to each other using language and storytelling. And lastly, we can put this understanding to practical use and make the lives of each other and our descendants a little easier. What else is there to do?

Why did humans make great progress when no other species has done so?

Have we really made “great progress”? Feeling rather pleased with ourselves, are we? It’s not as if a council of species gathered around a large table and declared human beings as the only ones who have made “great progress”. It is humans themselves who have declared themselves the masters of the universe.

Imagine an ant somewhere out there, looking over the vastness of its anthill and then logging on to ant-quora to ask, “Why did only ants make such great progress since their existence and no other species has managed to do so?”

You might argue that the ant really has no understanding of the scale on which human society operates. Ideas such as economics, philosophy, and cosmology will make no sense to it. I accept that objection. But my point is that human beings don’t have the ant’s frame of reference either, or the giraffes, or a bird’s, or a dolphins. The only lens through which we might look at the world is the human lens. And so wedded are we to the idea of being human that we have convinced ourselves that our way of being is superior.

What we consider to be progress may not even feature on another species’ priority list. A bird might look at all we have built and consider it less valuable than the ability to just stretch its wings and fly. An elephant might scoff at human achievements and decide that it is better off travelling freely without the need for settlements. Dolphins, when faced with human civilisation, may scratch their heads wondering why any of it is necessary.

The question about why nobody else did what we did has no meaning. Just as the question about why we did not do what birds and dolphins did has no meaning. We went one way, they went another way. There is no why. It’s just the way things happened. There are physical explanations for these paths of course, and these are available in science. But the idea of progress is a human invention and is useful only in the context of comparing human societies.

Evolution is a Sad Song

If you think of the origin of life as often as I do, you perhaps have a mental image somewhere of a fish bravely crawling out of ocean water on to ground. Perhaps you imagine it desperately clawing at the sands in its attempts to move deeper inland. Perhaps in your mind, the fish survives and prospers and its equally competent descendants turn — bit by bit — into animals that are more and more suited to life as land animals.

You aren’t wrong. But what you are probably forgetting is the many, many, many fish who died after failing to do what this fish succeeded in doing. And this fish is the mere opening note of a sad song that has been playing ever since.

Earth’s evolutionary history is a tragic tale full of death and lost possibilities. Species never get mutations — especially significant mutations — exactly right the first time around. Each attempt to change is tested under nature’s merciless gaze and more often than not, rejected.

Before the fish that made it, there were many fish which came out of the water and died moments later. And before that, there were many fish that died even before they could approach shallow waters. Some fish, before this, developed mutations that might have allowed them to survive on land, but continued to live underwater and made no use of the mutations (which of course, disappeared in the course of the generations that followed).

Picture, if you will, evolution as an infinitely long corridor. Each door, on either side, opens into a whole new corridor, each full of its own evolutionary possibilities. A mutation is the equivalent of a species struggling with a door latch. If the struggle works out, the door opens and the species walks through it into a world full of more possibilities.

Here is a rather crude example to illustrate the point. Human beings never evolved to grow wings and fly like birds. But there must have been a door in the corridor somewhere which would have allowed the wing mutation to pass through. Once on the other side, we would have travelled down a corridor full of doors that will then have given shape to the flying man’s evolutionary path.

But we never opened any of those doors. As a species, we never even opened the door that led to those doors. If, at some point in the past, human beings did begin to show signs of wings, these signs must have quickly disappeared because another door — another evolutionary path — proved more suited to our continued survival than flying did. We don’t fly because nature selected us to go down another evolutionary path.

And it is not just us. For each species that lives today, there are millions that never came into being. Of all the animals that could have existed on this planet, most do not.

If you are alive, you are extremely lucky. We were “lucky” not in the sense that we were “chosen” somehow. We were lucky in the sense that we are all that remains of a great big storm — an evolutionary storm that has raged on this planet since the first self-replicating molecules caused ripples in a pool of shallow water 3.5 billion years ago.

And the storm rages on.

Looking for Life on Other Planets

We keep wondering why aliens have not made contact with us. And we keep wondering why we have not been able to find intelligent life in the universe. But do we even know what we are looking for?

Imagine an anthill somewhere near the building you live in. In it, are ants who wonder if there is life outside the anthill. Their explorers venture out into the grass that extends in all directions and come back with nothing. Their astronomers (antronomers?) train their telescopes outwards and report that they can see no anthills. Largely, the ant community comes to the conclusion that they are alone in the universe.

Occasionally they see immense objects wandering about in the vicinity of their world. These are too large for them to make sense of and mostly stay clear of the anthill. The ants sometimes daringly climb up these objects to look for other ants but they find nothing and find themselves mysteriously brushed off by unseen forces. The view that they are all alone in the universe takes root among the ants.

Now return to being yourself. If human beings knew that cosmic loneliness of the aforementioned sort was haunting ants, how much would we care? Would we care enough to communicate the fact of our existence to them? What, if anything, could we tell them about ourselves? What, if anything, would an ant understand of the scale on which humanity operates? What would economics mean to ants? Or religion, or literature, or even things as basic as reading glasses?

An ant’s capacity for understanding is not limited by absence of information. It is limited by the ant’s inability to process information even when it is abundantly available to it. The ant is not looking for life so much as it is looking for ants.

The human quest for extraterrestrial intelligence is marred by this very same limitation. We are looking for something, but we do not really know what we are looking for. We have some ideas regarding what it will look like when we do find it, but for the most part, these ideas are pictures of us. We are staring out into the cosmos with unblinking eyes, looking for our own reflection.

Should human beings not have become intelligent?

Variations on this question get asked very often. Because the fundamental flaw in them is a single error of perception, I want to make this essay a standing resource that can be referred to each time such questions arise in the future.

A few examples of the kind of questions I am talking about:

  • Why do we human beings have civilisation when no other animal does?
  • Why did only humankind get intelligence and other animal species did not?
  • Would the world be a better place if humans had never become intelligent?

There are many versions of these questions but you get the idea. Basically, the questioner wonders why humans have certain qualities that are not commonly found elsewhere in nature or the animal kingdom.

The error I want to bring to light stems from the anthropic bias. That’s the urge in humans to see human beings as somehow fundamentally different from their surroundings. Religion has supported this bias for a long time by putting man on a pedestal of course, but even in the minds of people who are not given to religious arguments, this bias persists. It makes us think of ourselves as special and unique. In truth, every form of life is unique in some way. And if they were to think of themselves as special, we would consider them biased. But we don’t often apply such critical thinking to ourselves.

Consider this:

Leopards can outrun us, fish can outdive and outswim us, birds can outfly us. You might say that we can do all these things thanks to our intelligence. My answer to that would be that our intelligence is not a thing that we possess. It is us.

Leopards don’t ask: Why did we become runners and other animals did not? Maybe we were not supposed to be fast but became like that?

Fish don’t ask: Why did we become capable of breathing underwater when many other animals did not? Were we not supposed to swim but became that way?

Birds don’t ask: Why can we fly when other animals can’t? Were we not supposed to fly but became that way?

The reason these questions seem silly is because we, as humans, don’t see animals as removed from their skills. A fish swims. A leopard runs. A bird flies. Without these qualities, these creatures would not be what they are.

But when it comes to ourselves, we begin to make a distinction between what we are and what we have. It’s a false dichotomy. It has no meaning unless we give it one.

If human beings had not been intelligent, they would not have been human beings. They would have been something else. The moment you understand this simple truth, the need for this question goes out the window.

When we ask if something was “supposed to” happen or not happen, we automatically lend credibility to the assumption that there is some kind of guiding force or deciding authority that has laid down an objective path or standard that we have to follow.

All we know is what we are and what we have been, that’s all. The human condition is as much a product of evolution as our bodies are. The cities we have built will not be built by any other species. If they ever build cities, they will be theirs. The same goes for our economies, the expression of our sciences, and all the complicated artifacts of our culture. These are not things we received. These are things we are.

The alleged value of human life

Who says human life is valuable?

Human life is considered valuable… by humans.

There is no scale of how valuable different species’ lives are that has been prepared by an unbiased observer. All the scales we have, despite our pretensions of objectivity, are made by us. And we have, rather conveniently, put ourselves on top of these scales of importance.

And not only that, we have even convinced ourselves that our reasons for doing so are more than plain old vanity and self-love. We have made up stories about how important we are in the order of things, about how much value we bring to the workplace (this planet). In these stories, we have even told ourselves that there exist reasons for our being here, that there are conscious higher beings who created us out of compassion and have a clear vision of our future.

…like Narcissus of Greek myth.

We human beings are one among many species of life on this planet. Our reasons for being here are as random (in the evolutionary sense) as any other species’. A large part of what we are is our ability to coordinate and cooperate. It is why I am sitting inside a room right now, typing this into an electronic device that will, network permitting, push my ideas out and make them accessible to other members of the human species. When others read this note, they will hopefully consider my life as having some value. And even if they don’t read it, they will consider my life valuable because they and I are characters in the same story.

The societies we have built from the ground up, the world we have created, all depend on the assumption that there is sense in valuing human life and that every single human being, as long as he agrees with a set of rules (contained in the general narrative of the aforementioned story) is worth having around. Because we have all believed in the story about our importance, we have continued to exist. And because the story has proved useful, we continue to tell it to ourselves and to each other.

Objectively however, human lives have no more intrinsic value than anything else. It’s just that our belief in the importance of human life keeps us going in a generally useful direction.

Justice is an illusion, the Afterlife is a lie

We are apes. We came from an ape-like ancestor roughly ten to fifteen lakh years ago. We have made our way on this planet by using a few qualities that evolution bestowed upon us. One of these qualities is imagination. Yuval Noah Harari (author of Sapiens) calls the acquisition of this gift the Cognitive Revolution.

From human imaginations came structures that hold society together. These structures were not physical ones, but they did end up being the foundation for a lot of physical things in our lives — places of religious value, sacred artifacts, clothes that mark some members of society as being different from others (priests and monks), ideas like good & evil, morality, and even justice.

I have personally come to the conclusion that the idea of justice, more than anything else, is the reason behind the idea of an afterlife.

Think about it. What is justice? It is the assumption that human beings are responsible for the consequences of their actions. Nations have legal frameworks that ensure justice is meted out. Holy books of many religions speak of what constitutes good deeds and bad deeds. They even contain elaborate descriptions of the consequences that people will suffer for their deeds. Some of these consequences come to us while we are still alive — prison, a thousand lashes, stoning, banishment etc. Other consequences — punishments and rewards so great that nothing in this world can possibly measure up — are said to belong in the life after death.

Religions are stories that we made up to make sense of our place in the world. These stories grew in size and scope and listeners became followers and then actual characters in the stories. The rules of the stories began to apply to the people who were listening to them. It is not something that is often readily apparent, but the stories you listen to, can swallow you whole. It starts when you cry while reading a novel, or while watching a movie. The next thing you know, you are cosplaying at the comic con. Humankind, the species of ape that is us, was swallowed by the stories it told when it did not have a very good grasp of the way the world works.

Justice does not exist. It has no reality outside of human imagination. It only works because we make it work with the help of each other. And often, it doesn’t even work then. You don’t need me to give me examples. We all know good people who have suffered and bad people who have gotten away without punishment. Justice is a fiction that must be real if human society is to work.

So here we are. We need to believe justice exists (otherwise, what’s the point?). But we can see with our own eyes that there is no absolute justice in the world. So we push the boundaries of our story and tell ourselves that justice does exist, that the good will be rewarded no matter what, and that the bad will be punished no matter what. We tell ourselves that death is not the end and that there is space for justice to work even after a human being ceases to exist. And since the imparting of justice requires judges law enforcers, and punishers, the afterlives we imagine are full of gods, angels, demons, and divine jail keepers.

Conversation with a Ramayana literalist

Long comment thread conversation with someone who believes the Ramayana is actual, literal history.