Tag Archives: Hinduism

Bhagavad Gita

Among the religious texts of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita is the most revered one. Literally presented as the word of God, the Bhagavad Gita enjoys a stature similar to the Bible or the Koran. Like all scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita also can be read, not merely as an act of devotion, but as a philosophical discourse as well. It presents a philosophical stance in understanding the world, which forms (for those from India) the basic and fundamental assumptions in dealing with life, and the unknowable reality around them. In fact, it is more than just assumptions and hypotheses; it is the basis of commonsense handed down from generation to generation. It is the foundations of intellect, which form the instinctive and emotional understanding of reality that is assimilated before logic and cannot be touched or analyzed with rationality. They are the mythos that trump logos every time.

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Pride and Prejudice

Swami Vivekananda gave a few speeches at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. These speeches still fill us Indians with a good deal of pride. I managed to locate an old recording of them on the Internet and cleaned it up a bit. Here it is for your listening pleasure.

The skeptic in me, however, will not let it to go without a critical self-examination. What exactly am I proud of? I would like to say his deep thoughts on the Hindu philosophy and his lucid expose on it. But the fact of the matter is, I was proud even before I heard or read the speeches. If you are proud as well, let me ask you this: did you actually listen to the whole speech? If you did not, what are you really proud of? By the way, I have the latter part of the speech (his paper on Hinduism) posted below, for your reading pleasure. One way or another, you are going to pay the price for your pride!

Swami VivekanandaI suspect my pride is a throwback to the colonial era, and the reverence of the associated foreign language that we somehow assimilated from our parents or grandparents. May be it is a bit more than that — may be it is that Swami Vivekananda managed to impress the heck out of a bunch of them, the colonial masters, which is something all of us want to do at some deep level. May be it is just his strong and fluent diction, and his command of the language.

If you see a dog walking on its hind legs, it’s not so much that it does it well, as that it does it at all. Is it appropriate for other dogs to feel proud of a dog that can demonstrate this alien trait? Are we doing something similar when we admire each other’s command of this foreign tongue? After publishing a column on Reading Between the Lines in a local newspaper, I got a phone call from a fan. Let’s put aside the feeling of creepiness in getting a phone call from a stranger on your cell phone; the gentleman (who sounded kind of old) was pleased with the what I wrote and how I wrote it. Now, thinking back about that call, I feel as though his admiration was also perhaps a remnant of our shared colonial past (though, in my case, the past was one or two generations removed). May be he felt that I had finally learned enough English to make an efficient clerk. This dog had finally mastered the art of walking on his hind legs.

Whatever its origin, this pride of mine has a flip side to it. It is the rise of the evangelical TV talk shows in India, and the instant nirvanas offered by new gurus. A while ago, I published a piece warning of the dangers posed by the modern gurus. While conceding that I may be prejudiced against them, I would like to draw your attention to this video where a guru is demonstrating the magical powers of a newly re-discovered ancient concoction, manufactured and sold by his nephew. A believer sees in this spectacle a genuine miracle, or at least a good, albeit hidden, reason for the guru to be doing this demo. I see only a bad reason. Instances like this video (and the live show I happened to have caught) fill me with the opposite of pride — shame. But then, what do I know — may be a hundred years from now, long after I’m dead and gone and forgotten, at least some of these modern gurus may be revered the same way Swami Vivekananda is now; though I wouldn’t count on it. In any case, I am pretty sure that their descendants will be a lot richer than mine.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Quf3Ynu-Qq4 (This video where the guru himself performed the demo seems to have been removed for obvious reasons.)

Here is another such demo in a different context where nobody will have problem spotting the trick.

These videos and their message may have offended some of my readers, and for that, I apologize. When people invest their time and energy into spiritual endeavors, they do not want to be made aware of the negative aspects of their path, because seeing something negative in their pursuit is, in their view, tantamout to questioning their intelligence. This peculier resistance to truth also gets masterfully and cynically exploited by the new-age spiritual movements. I only want to say that I mean well, for some of those affected are people very dear to me.

And as promised earlier, here is the paper on Hinduism by Swami Vivekananda that he read at the Chicago conference.

Photo by Premnath Thirumalaisamy cc

Uncertainly Principle

The uncertainty principle is the second thing in physics that has captured the public imagination. (The first one is E=mc^2.) It says something seemingly straightforward — you can measure two complimentary properties of a system only to a certain precision. For instance, if you try to figure out where an electron is (measure its position, that is) more and more precisely, its speed becomes progressively more uncertain (or, the momentum measurement becomes imprecise).

Where does this principle come from? Before we can ask that question, we have to examine what the principle really says. Here are a few possible interpretations:

  1. Position and momentum of a particle are intrinsically interconnected. As we measure the momentum more accurately, the particle kind of “spreads out,” as George Gamow’s character, Mr. Tompkins, puts it. In other words, it is just one of those things; the way the world works.
  2. When we measure the position, we disturb the momentum. Our measurement probes are “too fat,” as it were. As we increase the position accuracy (by shining light of shorter wavelengths, for instance), we disturb the momentum more and more (because shorter wavelength light has higher energy/momentum).
  3. Closely related to this interpretation is a view that the uncertainty principle is a perceptual limit.
  4. We can also think of the uncertainly principle as a cognitive limit if we consider that a future theory might surpass such limits.

All right, the last two interpretations are my own, so we won’t discuss them in detail here.

The first view is currently popular and is related to the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. It is kind of like the closed statements of Hinduism — “Such is the nature of the Absolute,” for instance. Accurate, may be. But of little practical use. Let’s ignore it for it is not too open to discussions.

The second interpretation is generally understood as an experimental difficulty. But if the notion of the experimental setup is expanded to include the inevitable human observer, we arrive at the third view of perceptual limitation. In this view, it is actually possible to “derive” the uncertainty principle.

Let’s assume that we are using a beam of light of wavelength \lambda to observe the particle. The precision in the position we can hope to achieve is of the order of \lambda. In other words, \Delta x \approx \lambda. In quantum mechanics, the momentum of each photon in the light beam is inversely proportional to the wavelength. At least one photon is reflected by the particle so that we can see it. So, by the classical conservation law, the momentum of the particle has to change by at least \Delta p \approx constant\lambda from what it was before the measurement. Thus, through perceptual arguments, we get something similar to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle \Delta x \Delta p = constant.

We can make this argument more rigorous, and get an estimate of the value of the constant. The resolution of a microscope is given by the empirical formula 0.61\lambda/NA, where NA is the numerical aperture, which has a maximum value of one. Thus, the best spatial resolution is 0.61\lambda. Each photon in the light beam has a momentum 2\pi\hbar/\lambda, which is the uncertainty in the particle momentum. So we get \Delta x \Delta p = (0.61\lambda)(2\pi\hbar) \approx 4\hbar, approximately an order of magnitude bigger than the quantum mechanical limit. Through more rigorous statistical arguments, related to the spatial resolution and the expected momentum transferred, it may possible to derive the Heisenberg uncertainty principle through this line of reasoning.

If we consider the philosophical view that our reality is a cognitive model of our perceptual stimuli (which is the only view that makes sense to me), my fourth interpretation of the uncertainty principle being a cognitive limitation also holds a bit of water.


The latter part of this post is an excerpt from my book, The Unreal Universe.