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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What is 'eternal'?

Here’s some rather ‘heavy stuff’ that I have written in response to a question emailed to me by an ex-student, now in university:

Another question: How can one discern what is just a passing fad (thousands of Kabbalah believers are flocking to Israel, and that includes some of the biggest Hollywood stars) from what is truly eternal? Even some philosophical lines of thought (the Epicureans for instance) seem to have been just a passing phase. One might become a devotee of one specific line of thought and later discover that it was just a fad (thereby losing a lot of important time).
Please Sir, don't for a moment think that I am either trying to question your knowledge or trying to test you (I am not that audacious). Please think of me as a mere student trying to learn.
Sayan Datta.
That question set off a train of thoughts so long and complex that I realized it would take a pretty long letter to Sayan to do even the least justice to him, and in case I did write this letter, why not post it on my blog, that many others who might be interested get to read and reflect further on their own?

As I have noted in the book I wrote for my daughter, in one sense nothing is eternal in this universe: even the Himalayas are ‘young’, having been around for only 70 million years; stars keep being born and exploding into supernovas just a few billion years down the line, and most of us who are contemporaries will be history and forgotten a hundred years from now: a mere twinkling of an eye from an astronomer’s or geologist’s perspective, ‘too short’ even for historians to pass confident judgment upon. At the same time, don’t we habitually say about World War II that it happened ‘a long time ago’, and that a man who has seen his 80th birthday has lived a long time? It isn’t that these are foolish comments either: after all, as humans, we regard and judge, assess and measure all things first and foremost from the human perspective (so a ship is ‘big’ and an ant is 'small'), and who is to say that that is wrong? As a scholar, a physicist or biologist or historian might know that the sudden death of his child is ‘not important’, but he would be less than human if as a father he didn’t find it earth-shattering! So the poet is justified in talking about ‘the eternal snows’, the French king was right when he sighed ‘the more it changes, the more it remains the same’, just as Heraclitus was right in saying that ‘all is flux’, nothing survives forever … that’s relativity for you! And if anyone finds this little disquisition rather confusing and unsettling, and is provoked to ask what is the need for this kind of philosophical musing, the answer would be that it is a practice that gives you a profound mental poise, clarity and equanimity, even while equipping you with the power to see everything from many different viewpoints – to be dispassionately aware in the heat of battle that it doesn’t really matter in the long-term perspective whether one wins or loses – and so perhaps to be able to act wisely and without haste: a power that is given to very few, especially in the contemporary world, where everybody is so busy ‘acting’ that they have almost completely lost the power to reflect upon and plan their actions, to analyse their own motives clearly, and to take into account the likely consequences. Hence witness the plethora of calamities we have brought upon us by way of the population explosion, nuclear weapons, global warming, millions of disturbed families with ‘educated’ children who cannot spell, and terrorism and counter-terrorism and what have you! It doesn’t do anybody any good to forget that Aristotle warned long ago: ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. He would have been horrified to see how many people there are in the world today with degrees to boast of, money in their pockets and nothing in their heads. Even the CBSE authorities, I read in the paper this morning, are now planning to set examination questions to school-leaving children which will urge them to think more and cram less!

And if Sayan has started wondering ‘when is he going to answer my question?’, I’ll beg his indulgence and ask him to notice that I have answered a part of it already! Most men sleep through a third of their lives; as for the rest of the time given to them, they spend most of it shopping, gossiping, watching TV, attending silly parties which yield no real benefit spiritual, intellectual or financial, being (or pretending to be!) ill, grudgingly memorising things for examinations most of which they will never need in later life, or doing some kind drudgery (think of bank clerks and IT code writers) just to earn their daily bread and drag on their miserable and purposeless existence for a few years more … in fact most of our time is ‘wasted’ anyway, we have just never been made aware of it, that’s all. So there’s no need to fear that you will ‘waste’ your time pursuing some philosophy/practice/ideal for a few (or even several) years: even if you give it up as a foolish illusion afterwards, you will be wiser for having discovered it for yourself. Thomas Edison was not frustrated with his long research that went into discovering the tungsten filament for the first electric bulb; he said he had discovered two thousand things that won’t work (and that was not a silly joke, actually – try to imagine what an immense amout of labour he saved later generations of researchers. That in fact is precisely how science keeps progressing – nothing really goes waste).

Two more confusions need to be cleared up, Sayan. While it is indeed true that lots of people run after one passing fad or the other (some, in fact, live to chase fads lifelong!), the things they are chasing as fads may not actually be mere fads at all! The message of Harry Potter is anything but a fad (I find it is essentially the same message as that of the Gita!), though the decade-long craze over the books has indeed been a fad with nine out of ten ‘fans’ – you will see how right I was when you observe that those nine out of ten have forgotten all about the craze as well as the books ten years from now. So with the Kabbalah: if you make a short search on Google, you will find for yourself that though it might have caught a lot of people’s fancy anew (and for the passing moment only), thousands have been studying and practising it with the utmost seriousness and devotion for many centuries, unmoved by whether they are currently in fashion, or being ostracised and oppressed for it. As for Epicureanism, who says it has been forgotten? One of its ideas – do not believe in gods and omens – has become a central tenet of ‘modernism’ since the days of the 18th century Enlightenment in Europe, while another – eat, drink and be merry, with no thought for the morrow – seems to have become (alas!) the dominant philosophy of the early 21st century, though 99.9% of its subscribers may neither know its name nor its history, let alone what its founder really meant! And secondly, do not go by what ‘some of the biggest Hollywood stars’ are currently doing – since when did that particular tiny section of the populace become leaders of thought? The wisest man I have ever heard of insisted with his last breath on the necessity of thinking things out for oneself: he was a teacher in the grandest sense of the word, and he knew better than anyone else that the best of teachers can only hold your hand for a little while; they cannot lead you to enlightenment.

I shall open up one last line of thought: why focus exclusively on what is eternal? Jesus, who like all great masters taught us to aim at eternity, also asked us to catch the day and make fullest use of the passing moment – ‘be thou as the lilies of the field… give us this day our daily bread’! Tolstoy wrote that the most important time is always now, and Longfellow (in A Psalm of Life) and Kipling (in If) have insisted on the selfsame outlook. So that, too, must not be lost sight of. It is in striking a happy equilibrium between living in the present and aiming at eternity that there lies the mystery of living the good life!

Let that be enough for the time being. If Sayan (or other readers) have some questions, please post them on the blog itself, and I shall try to answer them to the best of my ability. – and if anyone asks whether or not I am sufficiently employed (seeing that I seem to have so much time left over for doing stuff like writing this little essay), and what I get out of it, I shall only say that it gives me a kind of pure enjoyment that I could never have got out of pursuing a merely hedonistic life, eating and drinking and killing time at multiplexes and shopping malls, or brooding over credit card bills, quarrelling with my wife, eyeing other people’s wives, or yelling at my daughter to study hard and get more marks in school. I am infinitely thankful to God that he has given me a livelihood and lifestyle which allows me to think and talk like this all the time. I am also immensely thankful that I am in touch with so many old boys like Sayan who keep prodding my grey cells all the time with questions like the one above: without such regular exercise, I would have become brain-dead, like 90% of my contemporaries! Sayan has belittled himself quite unnecessarily out of a most gentlemanly modesty. He is not a ‘mere’ student but a student in the finest and rarest sense of the word, and I am proud to be remembered (and still consulted) by many people like him.


Sayan said...

All I can say is a BIG THANK YOU.I haven't the maturity to either criticize or assess your essay.I have only started to learn.But I do have something to say.
"act wisely and without haste" - I was suddenly struck by the line.I have had to face some unfortunate events in my own life and if I had learnt something(though not fully consciously)it was that it was important to act in a planned manner and without haste.
"with degrees to boast of, money in their pockets and nothing in their heads" - I can't(sadly) disagree with you.I am a final year B.Tech student and I have seen this so very clearly in my fellow students.They 'beleive' that the highest purpose in a man's life is to get a job in IBM or in a big IT company(Socrates will certainly rise from his grave if he hear's this)and sadly they can't be made to see otherwise.I can share a story here.
A fellow student has got a job at TCS.A percept from his interview goes-
Interviewer - You are a Bengali?
My friend - Yes Sir.
Interviewer- So am I.Tell me who wrote 'Pather Panchali'?
My friend - 'Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay'.
Interviewer- You are confident?
Friend- Yes Sir(Emphatically)
And my friend got the job.
I was amused beyond my wits when I heard this.
Secondly,when I spoke of the Kabbalah I wasn't questioning Kabbalah faith,I was only surprised by the sudden increase of Kabbalah devotees.Kabbalah faith itself goes very deep(as shown in the movie "Bee Season").
Thirdly,A question- I have a problem with the thought- 'Striking a balance between present and eternity'.I can't see how there can be any contradiction between present and eternity if a man spends his'present' contemplating 'eternity'.
Thanks for telling me that a teacher can only show the way.The student has to walk all by himself.
THANK YOU once again.
Sayan Datta.

Bijit said...

Dear Suvroda,

Just a couple of comments on the last two paragraphs of your essay for the time being.

1. May you remain "unemployed" this way for long! None of us will begrudge you that. Reminded me of vintage Russell in "An Outline Of Intellectual Rubbish".

2. Apropos what you wrote in the penultimate paragraph of your essay, you may like your students to read a wonderful short story by E.M. Forster, "The Eternal Moment". Somewhere, though not identically, I found that cutting across decades, the two of you were thinking on very similar lines. Perhaps, that is what eternity is all about -- thoughts, thoughts, thoughts... the rest, they perish.

Dutta said...

There is no place for comment Sir, leave alone criticism ! I have tried to get the message that you have tried to convey through your post - and I feel that I have got some of it. Sir, I would like to say something, or rather, say whatever you have said, in a different way.

Life is a road. After going some distance it bifurcates. One branch leads to the fruit orchard beside a clear water lake - the road to reach there is difficult to traverse and needs toil, courage and the ability to tolerate hardships !!! The other road leads to the desert where one gets lured by the mirage very easily in a desperate search for water to quench the thirst, and ultimately, one finds that he/she has had a temporarily "happy" and meaningless life (during the journey to the desert), and a slow, painful and even more meaningless death (during the useless search for water in the desert) - the road that leads to the desert is wall paved and attractive to trod on !!! Now it is the human mind's choice - whether it is going to take the easy path or the difficult one.

That is all, Sir. Please excuse me if you feel, I have exaggerated at any place and please do let me know about my exaggerations.

Sayan Sarkar said...

Mr. Datta has put forth a question which has troubled me quite often.
A few years back, in a television show, I heard an historian comment that it was too early to adjudge the full effects of the French Revolution, since a mere 200 years have elapsed after the Bastille Day. And I began to seriously ponder over the ephemeral nature of life only after then.
For the sake of brevity, I would only, lamely, reiterate what Sir has said in his fine essay ( if I am to judge that as a reader)- a man can understand the purpose of life, and the purpose behind every action if and only if he is thoughtful enough to reason and find out the message that is embedded in each action we perform.
And at those times,one realizes that every living being is a part of a great unending scheme which manifests itself in so many lives and so many actions.
One comes to terms to the fact that one is, on her own, a mere speck in that gigantic scheme of things, but also ,on the other hand a very indispensable part of it.
A wise person, I guess, is the one who constantly and relentlessly strives to relate her thoughts, and her actions to this eternal cycle.

Greek.theatre said...

The eternal is I believe all that defies the temporal. The point is that the sentence constructs an impossibility. There is nothing and absolutely nothing that is atemporal or ahistoric. Yesterday, I walked in the rain in darkness along a hilly road in Darjeeling, interrupted by the sound of rain following me, the screech of an owl and I stopped for grub at the cafe on the road where they played Bob Marlyn and where Mark Tully has been. These were moments in time and yet disrupted its linear juggernaut with what a flaunting professor of mine said was 'parenthetic interposition'. Today, in the morning as I walked up to Loreto College, here in Darjeeling, the Kanchendzongha was all over us claiming the better part of the skyline, beyond the grey hills. It was eternal till the clouds came and triumphed and then the valley was again beautiful but gloomy. Yes, there is only the oxymoron called 'eternal moment' as Bijit-da pointed out. Please, do read E M Forster's story.

Sayan said...

To everybody,
I searched the book 'The Eternal Moment'on firstandsecond.com.The search results showed a book published by Harcourt(paperback)which costs Rs.605/-.Does anyone know of a lesser priced edition?
Sayan Datta.

Sudipto pondering said...

Eternity, as you rightly noted, may indeed be a relative term that depends to a good extent on the scale of time we are choosing. So after all, nothing is eternal in a certain sense-- at least nothing that is material.

The Taj Mahal may well be nothing but a heap of stone in some centuries but the memory of immortal love-- the Romeo and Juliet story-- shall remain in our minds forever (maybe the name shan't remain 'Romeo' and 'Juliet', but the legacy shall live till humans know and learn love).

Bijit da has rightly noted that only thoughts remain-- the thinkers perish. And that's the only thing which humans need to do in life-- think and act. Those are the only good we leave behind on the earth; even our faults and mistakes get forgotten after sometime.

sion said...

I don't know if my post deals as directly with the question of eternity as it does with the question of fads.However,I guess it will still be relevant to this post.
As the days go by,I find myself regularly become less of a communal being.It is something that is-as I see it-one of the most the most essential things that I have realised in the the span of my life.Slowly I find myself becoming pretty cynical about the existence of any cluster or group beyond the individual being.
Let me elaborate it.What is the founding principle of any community.The obvious answer is mutual faith and a resolution to put the greater good of the whole before that of the unit.To me, this is an incredible demand to make of anybody.This is not a moral judgement that I am making.It is just that I believe that it is something beyond the naturally endowed capacities of a human.There is a limit.Of course,humans can achieve a lot through perseverance, but that does not mean that we can grow fins like a fish by trying to develop them.That is what I meant by limit.When a man is hungry-I mean very hungry,like they are in many Jack London stories-he will have no mercy.He will have no qualms about eating up his child raw.In that situation he would not be considered culpable.That is natural-go blame evolution if you want to!
I believe that one individual is the largest real community possible.This because it does not violate the basic principle of always working to a common end.Your liver will not act in away that helps it but damages,say,the intestine.This obviously is a very basic way of presenting the thing.On a social level,as human beings we have always made choices, and such which have always looked after our own good.Yes,sometimes we put the wants of the ones we love ahead of those of ours,but if we are stretched to the limit-the thing I talked of in a previous paragraph-the self is bound to to take preference.
So does this mean that I am a profound misanthrope?Do I think that I refuse to call us social animals?My beliefs do not stem from any kind of mistrust regarding our race.I also do not mean that we are to live secluded, aloof from society, and viewing every other person as a potential enemy.Why this kind of a thought pattern helps me is because it helps me moderate my expectations from life, which is most important for me to achieve what is the ultimate aim in my life-to be happy!It helps me to deal with breaches of faith and unfair dealings in life much more easily.At the most basic level,I will alone be accountable for only those deeds which I performed.Whereas that means that I alone get the prizes I deserve, it also means no one shares my punishments.Recall the transformation of Valmiki!
All of us are similar in this respect.Sometimes,we do not realise it.Each fad is an individual case of of obsession.So a fad is bound to have both mortality and immortality.For those who acquire only a passing fascination for it,the fad dies,as in case of those who blindly follow Hollywood trends.For those with a lasting interest in it like the age-old followers of a certain faith,it lives on.A fad cannot have an independent life-it's life is borrowed.
Thus,I feel that Sayan can beat the kind of disillusionment he is feeling by understanding that he is the one who counts.He can never follow an extinct fad because the very moment 'he' starts following it,he bestows life to it,and perhaps,in a way that is more pertinent to his original question,makes a mortal addition to it's life-span which when multiplied exponentially becomes what we perhaps mean by Eternal.

Bijit said...

To Sayan (and others who might be interested):

When I was a student in Jadavpur University, we had this small paper-back book, whose title, if my memory doesn't fail me, was "Modern Short Stories". At that point of time, it was priced at around Rs.45/-. Even if there has been a hike, it should still be quite affordable, and more importantly, being a text-book, readily available.

"The Eternal Moment" was the first story in the collection.

Hope you enjoy the story.

SleepyPea said...

My comment is meant especially for Sion:
While I almost absolutely agree with your views regarding the community and the individual, I would like to make a couple of points.
1. Caring for the community means that one has to define the community, and its members. In 'my' community my very own self-defined community, I will wish that none experience some tortures, certain pains, and certain aches. I generally harbour good will and respect towards all individuals (until and unless something violently and seriously repulses me) - but, I will not eat another human being, and especially not a human being from my own self-defined community - no matter how hungry or desperate I am. This I know.
2. My community runs in concentric circles - with each one getting smaller and smaller as in terms of number of 'members'. For some I will gladly lay down my life if it were necessary (you know maybe through a deal with God or whatever. Although I have sort of stopped playing these deal-games with God, after God convinced me that they weren't as fundamentally necessary as I think they are); and for a 'double couple' of rare individuals if it ever came down to it - I would sell myself and whatever else if that meant they did not go hungry or starving.

3. The Self indeed does take preference. But My Self would be in a state of torture if these rare individuals in my 'community' were suffering and there was something, anything that I could do to relieve their suffering. And that is a Truth that each individual needs to figure out for him/herself.

4. One other connection; If you remember Lord of The Flies (William Golding) - you will remember that while some of the boys became nasty brutes, and completely inhuman, Ralf (if I remember the boy's name right) was the one who didn't lose his sense of humanity. One boy locked in an island refused to forget what it meant to be truly human.
I end my comment here.
By the way Suvro da - Thank you for this post. I don't know how I missed it earlier...

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

Again thanks to Shilpidi for talking about this post. You have given me much to think about Sir and I wish to ask a question; I read an article where an eminent psychiatrist said that at some point every individual comes to terms with his or her own mortality. Does this, in a sense mean the same thing as contemplating the eternal as opposed to the here and now Sir?


Suvro Chatterjee said...

How strange that I should have missed your question for a whole year, Vaishnavi! My deepest apologies.

'Coming to terms with one's own mortality' is certainly a most important landmark in everyone's life. Not everyone can do it successfully though: death strikes many people witless right till the end. Those who can come to terms with their own mortality - and even more so, their inconsquentiality in the larger scheme of things - are obviously the most mature among us, and the most serene in the face of the mahabhay!

However, that is not to say that it is quite the same thing as contemplating the eternal. Do read the post closely once more. If then there are questions, I shall try to answer them.