Monday, 9 May 2011

Rabindranath Tagore: On Science, God and Truth

It’s really a great day for florists here. It’s 25 Boiśākh, 1418 today! Rabindranath Tagore turns 150 today according to the Bengali calendar. So it’s a moment for all of us to feel proud about the man who won Asia its first Nobel, who composed songs which we cannot stop listening to, wrote poetry we never forget and the man who gave the country our national anthem. But should we? Last year, on this day, I expressed my feelings about the celebration of his 150th birth anniversary. (Why do we have such fondness for multiples of twenty-five?) We have decorated the statue of Tagore with endless garlands to feel good and have only added to the halo that surrounds the “image” of Tagore. Making Tagore a divinity to worship and not a human being to discover (and re-discover and re-re-discover) is, I believe, something Tagore himself might have considered an insult.

Today, in this post, I’ll explore an aspect of Rabindranath which is rarely discussed about him, except, perhaps, in academic circles. (I had another topic on mind which is almost never in limelight, but let’s keep that for another day.) I wish to ignore all the titles, prefixes and suffixes that surround Rabindranath’s name and cut right to the heart of his ideas. It goes without saying that I am writing this also because it’s a very personal topic to me – a topic that always stirs up my thoughts. I am absolutely unqualified and incompetent to offer any conclusive viewpoint. At best, my aim is to explain why the topic matters so much to me and I don’t think I can do that very well because some of these ideas are way beyond my comprehension.

Rabindranath is often regarded as some sort of a spiritual leader, a prophet. Some noted Westerners were openly contemptuous of Tagore’s apparent mysticism, while, needless to say, many others embraced it. Tagore’s almost-saintly appearance and the poems which, on the surface, express some mysticism, perhaps discouraged – and encouraged – those who believe a book should be judged only by its cover and they refused to delve deeper into the images Rabindanath painted with words. After his death, Rabindranath became our official Thakur (the Bengali surname for the Tagores, which also means “god”, of all things) apart from the seasonal ones. It shouldn’t really have surprised me, then, when I saw some bloke on TV claiming that Tagore endorsed astrology. Whenever I run into a discussion about the existence of a god (as described in the religious texts), the argument goes: Tagore believed in god, Tagore is god and so, such a religious god is a fact. In fact, of late, I have grown weary of seeing many people claiming Tagore as one of their own to suit their own agenda and nonsense rhetoric.

In discussion about god and religion, one name that inevitably pops up to support the existence of a religious god is Einstein, who, I am often told, worshipped His Great Powers. Just as Einstein is used an icon of dogmatic religious views, Rabindranath can't escape that as well. Let me put this clearly: there have been very few people in India who were more rationalistic than Tagore. There are not many I can think of who were harsher critics of organised religion and pointless social rites which plague our minds and make us clockwork oranges than Tagore. The poem this blog owes its title to is itself a paean to rationalism and reason. But I refuse to believe that the “Father” addressed at the end of the poem is some sort of a Great Puppeteer described in religious texts rather than an abstract manifestation of the collective soul of humanity. It’s a pity that it’s Tagore’s abstract spiritualism (for the lack of a better word) the misconception about which drives the thoughts about Tagore and not his scientific bent of mind, at home and abroad.

One of the least talked-about books by Rabindrantah is Vishwa-Parichay (1937), in which he explores the wonders of the universe. The book is dedicated to Satyendranath Bose, who needs no introduction to anyone who has heard the word “boson”. In the introduction, Tagore describes how scientific discoveries amaze him. It’s baffling for even a Tagore admirer (I wouldn’t use the term “fan” here) such as myself to learn how interested Tagore was in science and how he never missed a chance to devour any book on astronomy and physics. The science he discusses in this book is very modern. Let’s have a look at things Tagore discusses: atoms, atomic bonds, modern spectroscopy, stellar spectroscopy, nuclear physics, quantum mechanics, radioactivity, U-238, cosmic rays, X-rays, alpha-particles, bombardment of nuclei by neutrons, nebulae, Theory of Relativity, spacetime curvature, the finiteness of space, variable stars, double stars, dwarf stars, the gases in the atmosphere of Pluto, infrared imaging, sidereal day, cells among other things.

Forget the topics Tagore has discussed, the writing style itself never gives any indication that the book isn’t written by a seasoned scientist. The ease with which he explains the scientific concepts show how deeply he understands these concepts. It was written by a person who was known as poet, playwright, educationist, painter and a philosopher! It’s a common misconception that science and arts are two mutually exclusive spheres and one cannot excel in both. Rabindranth proved it wrong, as did Einstein with his penchant for music and literature. Which brings us to the conversations between the two men.

It’s a well-known fact that Tagore and Einstein were admirers of each other. Einstein was one of the very few who could actually understand Tagore and their conversation makes for a fascinating read. Their viewpoints about the universe and truth are different, but the most fascinating aspect about such a conversation is that one opinion does not have to completely negate the other. Here are some excerpts from the conversation between the two. (Excerpts are from the 1930 NYT article Einstein and Tagore Plumb the Truth and the book Three conversations: Tagore Talks with Einstein, with Rolland, and Wells.)

EINSTEIN: There are two different conceptions about the nature of the universe - the world as a unity dependent on humanity, and the world as reality independent of the human factor.

TAGORE: When our universe is in harmony with man, the eternal, we know it as truth, we feel it as beauty.

EINSTEIN: This is a purely human conception of the universe.

TAGORE: The world is a human world - the scientific view of it is also that of the scientific man. Therefore, the world apart from us does not exist; it is a relative world, depending for its reality upon our consciousness. There is some standard of reason and enjoyment which gives it truth, the standard of the eternal man whose experiences are made possible through our experiences.

EINSTEIN: This is a realisation of the human entity.

TAGORE: Yes, one eternal entity. We have to realise it through our emotions and activities. We realise the supreme man, who has no individual limitations, through our limitations. Science is concerned with that which is not confined to individuals; it is the impersonal human world of truths. Religion realises these truths and links them up with our deeper needs. Our individual consciousness of truth gains universal significance. Religion applies values to truth, and we know truth as good through own harmony with it.

EINSTEIN: Truth, then, or beauty, is not independent of man?

TAGORE: No, I do not say so.

EINSTEIN: If there were no human beings any more, the Apollo Belvedere no longer would be beautiful?


EINSTEIN: I agree with this conception of beauty, but not with regard to truth.

TAGORE Why not? Truth is realised through men.

EINSTEIN I cannot prove my conception is right, but that is my religion.

TAGORE Beauty is in the ideal of perfect harmony, which is in the universal being; truth is the perfect comprehension of the universal mind. We individuals approach it through our own mistakes and blunders, through our accumulated experience, through our illumined consciousness. How otherwise can we know truth?

EINSTEIN: I cannot prove, but I believe in the Pythagorean argument, that the truth is independent of human beings. It is the problem of the logic of continuity.

TAGORE : Truth, which is one with the universal being, must be essentially human; otherwise, whatever we individuals realise as true, never can be called truth. At least, the truth which is described as scientific and which only can be reached through the process of logic — in other words, by an organ of thought which is human. According to the Indian philosophy there is Brahman, the absolute truth, which cannot be conceived by the isolation of the individual mind or described by words, but can be realised only by merging the individual in its infinity. But such a truth cannot belong to science. The nature of truth which we are discussing is an appearance; that is to say, what appears to be true to the human mind, and therefore is human, and may be called Maya, or illusion.
You sure realise that the religion Tagore is talking about here has nothing to do with the religion the texts of which describe an omnipotent figure creating the universe out of nowhere according to His will and being vengeful on not being worshipped. He talks about the religion that Einstein talked about all his life. (The religion Richard Dawkins distinguishes from the other Religion in his books.) Religion to Tagore, as he clarifies, is the values attached to truth.

Rabindranath, in his poems, inclined to a subjective interpretation of the world. “Subjective”, you must understand, refers to the human consciousness Tagore describes above and not merely personal opinions. In a poem titled Ami (which means “I”, no less), he says it’s because of our consciousness the emerald is green, the ruby is red, the world is full of light and the rose is beautiful and truth is poetry. (Forgive me, but I cannot hope to even vaguely translate that poem.)

In one of the essays by my grandfather Prof. Dhiranando Roy, he distinguishes between the self-centered “me” and Rabindrik “me” beautifully: the former “me” looks for material comforts of life which are determined solely by profit and loss. Rabindranath’s “me” regards loss as profit and death as an extension life. (My grandpa’s articles would make for separate blog posts.) Tagore’s viewpoint is simultaneously simple and infinitely complex to understand: Any truth completely unrelated to humanity is utterly non-existent.

“The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth,” said Niels Bohr. Nothing more appropriate can be said about the versions of truth as interpreted by Tagore and Einstein. It’s worth noting that Einstein and Bohr endlessly debated about the nature of, well, nature and scientific truth and scientific determinism. Many eminent scientists, including Bohr, were of the view that quantum mechanics encouraged a subjective view of the scientific truth (as Tagore did), while many others, such as Einstein, thought otherwise. The debate has, perhaps, no end because this debate deals with truth and perception rather than mere facts such as “earth goes round the sun”. As a student of science, I can merely try to understand what the great scientists are trying to say. Can you decide whose argument you agree or disagree with? This is the highest form of intellectual debate, in which no argument could be completely refuted.

Here’s another excerpt from Tagore-Einstein conversation about scientific determinism and randomness:

TAGORE: I was discussing with Dr. Mendel today the new mathematical discoveries which tell us that in the realm of infinitesimal atoms chance has its play; the drama of existence is not absolutely predestined in character.

EINSTEIN: The facts that make science tend toward this view do not say good-bye to causality.

TAGORE: Maybe not, yet it appears that the idea of causality is not in the elements, but that some other force builds up with them an organised universe.

EINSTEIN: One tries to understand in the higher plane how the order is. The order is there, where the big elements combine and guide existence, but in the minute elements this order is not perceptible.

TAGORE: Thus duality is in the depths of existence, the contradiction of free impulse and the directive will which works upon it and evolves an orderly scheme of things.

EINSTEIN: Modern physics would not say they are contradictory. Clouds look as one from a distance, but if you see them nearby, they show themselves as disorderly drops of water.

TAGORE: I find a parallel in human psychology. Our passions and desires are unruly, but our character subdues these elements into a harmonious whole. Does something similar to this happen in the physical world? Are the elements rebellious, dynamic with individual impulse? And is there a principle in the physical world which dominates them and puts them into an orderly organisation?

EINSTEIN: Even the elements are not without statistical order; elements of radium will always maintain their specific order, now and ever onward, just as they have done all along. There is, then, a statistical order in the elements.

TAGORE: Otherwise, the drama of existence would be too desultory. It is the constant harmony of chance and determination which makes it eternally new and living.

I cannot hope to add any footnote to it without sounding foolish. It’s notable that both Tagore and Einstein are almost in agreement in this passage.

What’s most interesting to me is how Tagore sought to combine science and arts. He believed that the approach to arts should be scientific (that does not mean mechanical). Our emotions, reactions to art are not independent of science, he believed. His thoughts on this matter is evident, again, in his conversations with Einstein:

TAGORE: Melody and harmony are like lines and colors in pictures. A simple linear picture may be completely beautiful; the introduction of colour may make it vague and insignificant. Yet colour may, by combination with lines, create great pictures, so long as it does not smother and destroy their value.

EINSTEIN: It is a beautiful comparison; line is also much older than color. It seems that your [Indian] melody is much richer in structure than ours. Japanese music also seems to be so.

TAGORE: It is difficult to analyse the effect of eastern and western music on our minds. I am deeply moved by the western music; I feel that it is great, that it is vast in its structure and grand in its composition. Our own music touches me more deeply by its fundamental lyrical appeal. European music is epic in character; it has a broad background and is Gothic in its structure.

EINSTEIN: This is a question we Europeans cannot properly answer, we are so used to our own music. We want to know whether our own music is a conventional or a fundamental human feeling, whether to feel consonance and dissonance is natural, or a convention which we accept.

TAGORE: Somehow the piano confounds me. The violin pleases me much more.

EINSTEIN: It would be interesting to study the effects of European music on an Indian who had never heard it when he was young.

TAGORE: Once I asked an English musician to analyse for me some classical music, and explain to me what elements make for the beauty of the piece.

EINSTEIN: The difficulty is that the really good music, whether of the East or of the West, cannot be analysed.

TAGORE: Yes, and what deeply affects the hearer is beyond himself.

EINSTEIN: The same uncertainty will always be there about everything fundamental in our experience, in our reaction to art, whether in Europe or in Asia. Even the red flower I see before me on your table may not be the same to you and me.

TAGORE: And yet there is always going on the process of reconciliation between them, the individual taste conforming to the universal standard.

As I come to the end of this post I inevitably come back to the beginning, because it’s really a circle. It’s an endlessly rewarding experience to think about the thoughts of Tagore and how he expressed his thoughts. This deserves more posts because I have a lot more to say, but I'll stop now. Although I am incapable of properly understanding Tagore’s philosophy, I can always keep discovering him. But there is something I can say. As an atheist, I worship the god Tagore (and all great scientists) worships, the god, Tagore says, is worshipped by the Moon and the Sun, the god . . . well don’t you know which god I am talking about?


Space Lover said...

Had a conversation on Facebook about this post with a wonderful friend. I requested him to repost his comments here, but he suggested that it should read more like a conversation. So here it goes:

Shashank Sreedharan: I am spell-bound. Yes, I read it.

the truth is independent of human beings. It is the problem of the logic of continuity.
31 minutes ago ·

Shashank Sreedharan: That line, the Pythagorean interpretation of truth which Einstein agrees with, along with Tagore's interpretation of truth. At the cost of being repetitive, I said along with and not opposed to. Well, totally drives home my belief that everything we assume is true and don't know how to determine and/or don't want to determine is but a human construct. Now, to call it a mere human construct would be inappropriate. But yes, I'd say even sentiments, the concept of right and wrong is a human construct. It all boils down to one thing: truth and justice is a human construct. Therefore, we need a reference point. Just like we take electrostatic potential at infinity to be zero as a reference point, the 'humane' concept of truth should be taken as referene point. Albiet it being a human construct. Thus, we can differentiate between right and wrong. Yes, this is not related to the 'column' for want of a better word. But I can see light very clearly with regards to something I've been thinking about a lot.See more
26 minutes ago ·

Shashank Sreedharan Thank you :D
26 minutes ago ·

Upamanyu Moitra: That was a WONDERFUL comment! (Believe me, I'm not emphasising) But I don't think your comment is unrelated to my blogpost. If I wanted anything as a writer, that's my readers' personal view.
17 minutes ago ·

Shashank Sreedharan: The very 'concept' (for want of a better word) of human construct- the answer to the jigsaw lies in science. I think. to me, its no less scientific that something like, say space-time fabric.
11 minutes ago ·

Shashank Sreedharan: There is this book, titled the 'Fabric of the Cosmos' by Brian Greene. Read it? I've been meaning to.

Anonymous said...

You have to write more on such topics. Reading them is an experience. I'm going to start reading up on Quantum Physics soon. I may understand nothing, but I'll try nonetheless, since the topic has stirred my interests. Write more. Keep writing. Cheers!

Space Lover said...

Anonymous: Since you've revealed yourself, there's no point in chanting Hominem revelio. Well, thank you! Responses like these keep me going on. Keep reading and keep commenting!

P.S.: No one's gonna send you a Howler if you use your real name the next time.

Anonymous said...

what I was looking for, thanks

Anonymous said...

Hi I also read this conversation but I dont understand it completely.