The Guide: A non-spiritual perspective

Last weekend, I read “The Guide” by R.K. Narayan on the recommendation of a friend and enjoyed it thoroughly. I wasn’t sure what Narayan wanted to convey however. Even as I thought about it, I looked up the wikipedia entry which links to two pieces which talk of symbolism, illusion, self-deception, maya, man being a tool of divine purpose and so on. I was quite bewildered because all those interpretations seemed entirely forced to me.

There is no explicit philosophy in the story. No moralizing. Just a simple dramatized narration. And that leaves the message open to interpretation. The following is my interpretation based on a simple reading of the story itself. (I am not familiar with any of Narayan’s other works so I cannot claim that this is what Narayan intended to convey). Spoilers ahead. Please read the original work before reading ahead.

Raju is a drifter. He does whatever amuses him, interests him, or arouses his passions. And he does not care what the world thinks of him. He inherits his father’s business – a shop on a railway station – and happens to become a travel guide. Quite by accident. He makes a career out of guiding tourists to places he has never seen himself and telling them history which he makes up on the spur of the moment. He is unscrupulous enough to not mind what he is doing and sharp enough to make a good business out of it.

When he meets Rosie – the neglected wife of an archaeologist, he immediately falls in love with her and gets involved in an affair. Against the advice of his friends. He doesn’t really think about the consequences, about the damage to his business, or anything else. He simply follows his heart. Rosie is from a caste of dancers – treated as public women by society. Raju tells her that he doesn’t believe in caste, and he is telling her the truth, but it is not as if he has consciously rejected the concept. It is just that he has never accepted it, never thought about it consciously, and he is too free-spirited to be bound by rules he does not understand.

When Rosie’s husband discovers the affair and dumps Rosie, she comes to him and he takes her into his home. And keeps her there braving the ire of his mother, uncle and society. Out of his passion for her. Not out of any deep conviction that he is right. But that is being unfair to him. More accurately, Raju is just incapable of deep convictions. He lives his life by the whim of the moment, not by a philosophy.

Being a smart man, Raju is soon able to help Rosie achieve her dreams of becoming a dancer. And he gets caught up in the trappings of wealth, power and influence. He begins to believe that he is the architect of Rosie’s success, not realizing that she is a strong woman who would eventually have found her dream with or without him. He is still insecure about Rosie’s husband and foolishly ends up committing a forgery. By this time, Rosie has grown tired of Raju, and although she does everything in her power to help him financially, she decides to go her own way.

Raju is sentenced to two years of prison. And he doesn’t really mind it! On the contrary, he begins enjoying it. Despite having been carried away by the trappings of wealth, he is still too free-spirited to be troubled by the censure of society.

When he comes out of prison, he has nowhere to go and settles in a village. The villagers mistake him for a holy man and he plays along, getting a sustenance for free out of the offerings the villagers make him. He is sharp enough to make the sort of grand-sounding but empty statements that fool the villagers. The railway guide becomes a spiritual guide. But the spiritual guide is just as fake as the railway guide. The railway guide played on the ignorance of the tourists, on their desires to feel that their holiday was worthwhile without knowing what would make it worthwhile, on their mindless acceptance of the fiction that he told them as fact. The spiritual guide plays on the insecurities of the villagers, on their desire to control what is outside the control of any man, on their mindless acceptance of his empty statements.

Finally, Raju gets trapped into a twelve day fast to bring rain. On the eleventh day, he collapses saying “Velan, it’s raining in the hills. I can feel it coming up under my feet, up my legs –“. And that is how the story ends. Ambiguously. Does he die? Does it rain? It does not matter.

Raju is a free spirited and intelligent man but he is not a thinker. He never plans ahead. He doesn’t reflect on what he is doing. He does not ponder moral questions. He does not live by the rules of society, and he does not make his own rules either. There is an oft-cited maxim for a good life “Follow your heart”. Raju symbolizes that maxim. And the story is a brilliantly dramatised account of how that maxim actually plays out. The free spirited man without a guiding principle becomes a tool for others – all through his life. First, as a railway guide, visiting places he is not interested in visiting, because others are interested in visiting them. Then, as a partner with Rosie, promoting art that he doesn’t really understand or appreciate, because the object of his love appreciates it. And finally as a holy man, proclaiming beliefs he does not hold, because others hold them. His entire life is shaped by other people’s decisions. There are two other important characters in the story – Rosie and Marco. Both know what they want, are passionate about it, and work tirelessly toward it without compromising. And both achieve their dreams. Marco publishes a book, Rosie becomes a dancer.

There is no short-cut to happiness. Those who mindlessly abide by second-hand beliefs do not achieve it. Narayan doesn’t even bother with them. But those who mindlessly reject the second-hand beliefs do not achieve it either. And that, to me is the meaning of this story.

What is Mysticism? – Part 1

Background:

In a comment on my previous post, I wrote:
“My working definition of mysticism is:
Any claim about reality (not just the self) which cannot be verified by another person.”

“If you say that your mind tells you X and my mind does not tell me X, and there is nothing in external reality that can validate X, clearly we are at an impasse. No further communication is possible, which, not surprisingly, is the core of all mystic claims”

To which Ajit Jadhav replied:
The matters of truth and falsehood are not established in reference to other people. It’s all between your own self, and reality, full-stop. The objective standard is (your grasp of) reality, not other people. And, note, “reality” also does include consciousness, i.e., “self” (and the selves of others). Primacy of existence doesn’t deny that fact. Consciousness is real.

the issue really is only with the qualifier: “external.” Agreed? If so, would you please tell me why you insert that qualifier? And, could you offer me a definition of the term “external?”

Main post:

The exchange above raises the crucial question: How does one evaluate claims related to consciousness- such as telepathy?

Quoting Rand:

A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something.

Directly or indirectly, every phenomenon of consciousness is derived from one’s awareness of the external world. … It is only in relation to the external world that the various actions of a consciousness can be experienced, grasped, defined or communicated.

Communicated, yes. But experienced, grasped and defined too? Can one not experience pain or pleasure without relation to the external world? What exactly does external mean here? Consciousness (mine as well as other people’s) is a part of reality. It exists too. Does the external world include the consciousness of other people but not one’s own? Does it exclude all consciousness?

All concepts are formed by a process of abstraction. One cannot form a concept from a single unit. That holds for the concept of consciousness too. Before a consciousness could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of other entities having consciousness. A baby raised in total isolation with no conscious entity around it, could not conceive of consciousness, could not conceive of any difference between the external world and the products of its own consciousness, could not achieve certainty about anything. It should be clear now that what one perceives and infers about other people’s consciousness is crucial to the concept of consciousness as such.

For instance, a child may see people walking around a table instead of colliding with it. This allows him to infer that the table exists external to the consciousness of these people and his own. The child sees (readily) that his mother does not understand what he wants. This allows him to infer that his desire is internal to his own consciousness and is not accessible to his mother. The child sees (readily) that he does not understand what his mother wants. This allows him to infer that her desire is internal to her own consciousness and is not accessible to him. Without such an understanding of what is internal and what is external, the child would not be able to develop the concept of consciousness at all.

The external world is those aspects of reality to which other people have access. Or, employing the concept of consciousness, the external world is those aspects of reality to which any consciousness has access. With this understanding of the external world Rand’s “It is only in relation to the external world that the various actions of a consciousness can be experienced, grasped, defined or communicated” makes sense.

That is enough for this post. I will pursue this later.

Mind-body dichotomy

Just happened to hear this old song that talks of “pure love” and it struck me as a perfect expression of the mind body dichotomy.

Hum ne dekhi hai un aankhon ki mehakti khushboo
Haath se chhoo ke ise rishton ka ilzaam na do
Sirf ehsaas hai yeh, rooh se mehsoos karo
Pyar ko pyar hi rehne do, koi naam na do

Film: Khamoshi (1969)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Lyricist: Gulzar
Music Director: Hemant Kumar

Translation:

I have seen the fragrance of those eyes
Dont accuse my looks of any ties by a touch
This is just a feeling, experience it with your soul
Let love remain love, don’t give it a name.

Old Hindi movie songs were brilliant in terms of lyrics, melody and music. Over the last two decades, with a very few exceptions, they have lost all of that. Over the same time, misplaced idealism has been replaced by dogmatic pragmatism (yes, there is such a thing). Cause and effect?

Cheating at school exams

I just happened to land on this post about the prevalence of cheating in school exams. Somehow, I had forgotten about this particular aspect of school life and the numbers came as a shock even though they shouldn’t have. From the post

According to a private research, 68% of middle class students and 75% of high school students cheats in general during exams. Why cheating is so high? We talk of controlling corruption, where the root lay? The only way to find out the root of the problem is to analyze this problem from the standpoint of a student. What rational he uses to decide whether to cheat or not?
(bad grammar in original)

From my own experience those numbers seem about right – perhaps on the lower side which is not surprising given that not everyone who cheats will admit to cheating. Most of my classmates at school cheated. I would put the figure at around 80% of the boys (I don’t know what the figure was among the girls – I suspect it would be significantly lower). It was considered helping each other. The few students who did not allow others to copy were regarded as selfish – particularly in middle school (5th – 7th standard). Even I succumbed to the pressure to allow “friends” to copy answers from my answer sheets in middle school. I did get over that by high school though – partly because I grasped that cheating does not in fact help anybody and partly because the pressure to allow others to cheat was lower in high school – a no cheating stand was not looked down on as selfish (I certainly was a long way away from grasping that selfishness is a virtue at this point).

The surprising thing is that those numbers are not as bad as they seem. In junior college, I was in a section of students who were all preparing for IIT JEE. I don’t know anyone there who cheated or even copied assignments. Ironically, this honesty did not last in IIT itself. There were atleast a few cases of cheating in IIT exams. Copying of assignments was routine.

I am glad that I never copied an assignment or an answer in an exam, but the variation of the prevalence of copying matches very well with my own estimate of the importance of those exams. Even though I was under some pressure from my parents to study and excel (in terms of marks and rank) in school, I always knew that most of the exams and half the subjects (Hindi, Social Studies and Biology in particular) were of no importance to me. In junior college, on the other hand, everyone knew that the competition was fierce and one had to do one’s best to get into a good college. The goal was worthy and the studies were interesting. I put in disciplined and sustained efforts in those two years – I have never worked with that sort of discipline before or after that. I think the same is true of most of my friends as well. In IIT, I still had some pressure (self-imposed) to do well (in terms of grades) but atleast half the courses in each semester were boring. Most of the assignments seemed pointless.

My reading of the trend seems to be that students copy when they do not care – either about the studies or about the significance in their own lives. The prevalence of cheating is an indicator of how poorly designed the education system is (of course, that is hardly a novel conclusion!). More importantly, it indicates that most people (atleast in my generation) have no intrinsic respect for abstract principles like honesty. While self-interest tends to make people honest (as in junior college), in situations where there is no immediate self-interest (having to study courses in engineering when you want to get into finance or consulting), there is no incentive for honesty. My generation does not believe in virtues or principles or philosophy – only in concrete results. If honesty pays, they will be honest; if it seems pointless, they don’t give a damn. They call it being pragmatic. What they don’t realize is that by not believing in any philosophy, they have never developed any identity and so their behavior is determined by the world around them. They are driven entirely by incentives, not by motives. All that someone has to do to enslave this generation is to arrange the incentives conveniently. It has always cracked me up when people write that this generation is going to reform India, because it is pragmatic and not dogmatic. After thinking through this post, this reform thing cracks me up even more. This generation is the most malleable ever in the last few decades.

Selfishness and death

I happened to watch a Hindi movie “Hu tu tu” while on a short break. The movie is about two people who are suffocated by the corruption of their politician parents and the system in general. In the climax, the couple blow themselves up along with their parents at a political rally. The socialist/communist sympathizing is disturbing but the climax is striking. It illustrates what bad philosophy does to serious minded people who question the system. Something is very wrong when killing someone, no matter how evil, becomes a higher purpose than living one’s own life. In one scene the male protagonist (Sunil Shetty) explains that he doesn’t know if what he is doing is right or wrong, but he knows that it is not selfish and that is extremely satisfying. Perhaps the script writer did not realize how effective the story line is as a warning against selflessness. A proper life is selfish and consistent selflessness is death. The movie illustrates that very well.

Update: The script is written by the celebrated Gulzar and his daughter Meghana

Science and philosophy – 1

A couple of days back, in a comment on this video, I wrote

Unfortunately because of the philosophy of logical positivism, most scientists today are afraid or unwilling to accept the necessity of metaphysics at all.

Today, I started reading a book “dreams of a final theory” by Steven Weinberg. Early on in the book, he writes

Speaking of a final theory, a thousand questions and clarifications crowd into the mind. What do we mean by one scientific principle ‘explaining’ another? How do we know that there is a common starting point for all such explanations? Will we ever discover that point? How close are we now? What will the final theory be like? What will it say about life and consciousness? And, when we have our final theory, what will happen to science and to the human spirit?

A few pages later, explaining what the pursuit of a final theory means, he starts with “Chalk is white. Why?” Some answers (light, wavelengths etc.) and then another “why”. Some more answers (atomic structure, energy levels etc.) and then another “why” and so on until he comes to a point where he does not know the answers. Finally, he writes,

Even so, it is a tricky business to say exactly what one is doing when one answers such a question. Fortunately, it is not really necessary.

and then, a few paragraphs later,

Ludwig Wittgenstein, denying even the possibility of explaining any fact on the basis of any other fact, warned that ‘at the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.’ Such warnings leave me cold. To tell a physicist that the laws of nature are not explanations of natural phenomena is like telling a tiger stalking prey that all flesh is grass. The fact that we scientists do not know how to state in a way that philosophers would approve what it is that we are doing in searching for scientific explanations does not mean that we are not doing something worthwhile. We could use help from professional philosophers in understanding what it is that we are doing, but with or without their help we shall keep at it.

As an engineer, I can certainly sympathize with what Weinberg is saying. Philosophers such as Wittgenstein have betrayed science (and philosophy). But that is not a good enough reason for scientists to abandon philosophy. Proper science needs a solid base in philosophy. I dare say that without an explicit (philosophical) understanding of what “searching for scienific explanations” means, scientists will not discover a final theory. I think science has reached a level (based on some reading of quantum mechanics) from where it cannot proceed without answering some fundamental questions that are not just scientific.

Anyhow this is a fascinating subject, and I will return to it often. I have been fascinated by this subject for about an year now, and have been reading some books off and on when I find time. So far I have not written on this subject, because I do not like to write unless I have a clear idea of what I am writing. But it seems unlikely that I will find answers to questions like this without a lot of thinking. So I intend to think by putting my thoughts on this blog instead of doing it before going to sleep.

Morality is just evolution – says David Brooks

In an inappropriately named and pointless (if correct, which it is not) article, David Brooks writes

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote, “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and … moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.”
The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution…

Speak for yourself, Mr Brooks. It may well be that you don’t use reason to reach your moral (or any other) ideas. And given the mish-mash of incompatible ideas you write about, that seems very likely. But don’t make the claim that no one does. And if your ideas are merely a product of evolution, why bother to write this article? Oh I see, it too is just a product of evolution. But my ideas are not determined by evolution and so I refuse to be influenced by the evolutionary force of your article.

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