2019 Newsletter 2: Bija Mantra

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Summary: As I said in my previous essay, we understand the heavens quite well; it's the earth that confounds our imaginations. What is it to be terrestrial? What does it mean to be enmeshed in a world? These are questions we understand poorly. Samsara invites us into the conditioned world; while the term has pre-scientific origins, can it be reshaped to accommodate what we now know about the objective universe?

Note: Parts of this essay are littered with jargon; I have even mentioned pretentious names. Feel free to ignore those bits.

What is samsara?

Every time you open your eyes, a world appears in front of you. What if it's dark? If nature calls in the middle of the night, you use your hands to feel your way to the bathroom. Then too a world appears, except that it's tactile rather than visual. A world appears when you're dreaming too, though the rules are a bit different in dreamland.

This world of sights and smells and lost loves and kids birthdays is what we mean by the phrase "the real world." TRW for short. There's nothing else that has the robustness and trustworthiness as TRW.

Which immediately creates a problem, for science (the science of the all-seeing eye as I call it; the all-seeing eye will feature prominently in our deliberations) tells us that nothing about TRW is real. Colors and smells are in our brain, that rock you just kicked is mostly empty space and your kid's birthday is of no consequence to the martians who are landing outside your window.

Is that it? Are we doomed to living between a theoretical reality we can't experience and experience that's mostly illusory? With the samsara project, I want to rescue TRW from the all-seeing eye. It's partly:

  1. an exercise in counterfactual science, imagining what scientific inquiry would look like if it came out of Indian philosophical intuitions rather than the Galilean-Cartesian tradition we actually inhabit.

  2. an exercise in reconfiguring the Indian tradition (do remember that Galileo wasn't appreciated in his lifetime and Descartes fled France for Holland) to make that tradition less anthropocentric while targeting questions that are persistent problems in standard science and

  3. a quixotic romantic quest to imagine a new kind of knowledge that will end in a whimpering tragedy

Bija Mantra

About once or twice in a person's life a word or an image sails across the ocean of conventional wisdom, like a seed blown across the world to a Pacific island. If you are even luckier, the new seed burrows underneath, sprouts and grows, making itself indispensable to one's intellectual development. Let's call such an idea a generative intuition. An older phrase might be even better: bija mantra.

Samsara is a generative intuition for me. I don't know where I first read about it - perhaps an Amar Chitra Katha about the life of the Buddha or C.V Rajagopalachari's abridgment of the Mahabharata. Reading must have come later, I am sure the underlying ideas were expressed by an adult earlier on; i.e., I don't remember its origins and perhaps I shouldn't remember.

What is to be done with this bija? That question arises because of the historical circumstances that surround modern India. If I had been born in the US and had "machine" as a bija mantra, I would have started building gadgets in a garage right away. But Indian terms don't have that luxury - they are stuck in a no-man's land between tradition and modernity, neither of which offers hospitable terrain for growth and flourishing. We have to form the soil and plant the trees in parallel.

That parallel processing is the work of philosophy for me, i.e., philosophy as the design and prototyping of knowledge. The main contrast is with philosophy as sanitation, where the philosopher cleans up the mess left by scientists and others who create knowledge. If scientific understanding is research, sanitation is postsearch and my idea of philosophy is presearch. I have written about the design of knowledge elsewhere in much greater detail, so I won't say more about it here.

What I have is a question: can we develop the idea of samsara by creating the terrain for it to flourish by taking the seeds of the past, planting them and watching them grow?

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Samsara is a term used so often in Indian repartee that it's become entrenched with several meanings, though all of them have something to do with being enmeshed in the world without a clear sense of escape. Was it a technical term once, raised to prominence through the teachings of Buddhists and others who used it to illustrate our earthly condition? Or was it an everyday term that was elevated upstairs to metaphysical status?

It could be both. We are a metaphysical culture, where questions of being and existence are debated on the street. I am inclined to take street metaphysics as an asset but it could well be a liability. Depends on whether it's possible to give the term new meanings while drawing energy from the past. Can samsara 2.0 absorb the enormous expansion of scientific knowledge and turn that new library to its advantage? I think so.

Photo by Michael Jasmund on Unsplash

While the idea of samsara plays an outsize role in my thinking, I don't want to sentimentalize my engagement with it. Sometimes one absorbs bad ideas in childhood and are condemned to a lifetime of illusion. What if it's a virus that's taken over my mind without any connection to reality? Why should anyone else care?

Empty Worlds

The first hint comes from looking at our collective condition today: we have been told that we understand what the universe was like when it was 10^(-35) seconds old and yet we don't know how to feed and clothe everyone, we are destroying the lives of every other species and our collective activity is bringing us close to a state of collapse. Profound understanding mixed with profound violence suggests profound incoherence. Surely there's a flaw in a system that's got such a glaring contradiction at its core.

OK, fine, we agree that something's wrong with the United Nations, but why is a renewed focus on samsara the antidote? Rejection of A doesn't imply the assertion of B unless there's some intrinsic link between A and B. There's no escaping the hard work of establishing that link - I will be prototyping the various connections throughout this year - but it's worth stating the underlying hypothesis right away:

We have a profound misunderstanding of what it means to be a terrestrial, conditioned beings. In contrast, the samsaric intuition is the deepest exploration I know of what it means to be conditioned.

Assuming the existence of a shared, intelligible world that's both out there, i.e., objective, and in here, i.e., subjective, we have been able to probe it's beginning, its material basis and the structures of reason that make those origins transparent to us. There's much to be taken for granted - we have such ease in the world: stones make themselves available for throwing, trees for climbing, the sky doesn't fall on our heads and it's not as if one corner of the earth suddenly disappears as if there's a bug in the simulation. In total: it feels real and our faith in that reality is the foundation for all other inquiries.

If only our faith in reality was enough! Unfortunately, our curiosity is boundless. Where does that faith come from? What structures the world so that it's believable and solid and everything we might need today, tomorrow and for ever? That's a question asked by many within the western tradition as well. Starting with Kant, there's a profound new answer: that the foundations of the world are in the subject. We impose the fundamental structures upon the world; the reason the world feels so easy and obvious is because it comes out of us. Not at the empirical level - it's not as if the mind creates the world. The constitution of the world by the subject lies at a higher level. In the 20th century, the phenomenological tradition starting with Husserl explored the constitution of the world in ever greater detail. But then there's the next question: what if that transcendental mind is unstable? What if that transcendental subject is as empty as the empirical subject?

The Indian tradition zeroes in on that foundational belief. Samsara is empty, it's conditioned, the ground keeps shifting beneath our feet. At best, the world is like an ice-floe, a temporary solid surface that's melting all the time. There's no escape at any level. So what? We shouldn't be afraid of degrounding; the shift from a solid to a fluid world is the first and most important step in a future science of samsara.

Let me say it again: the world is empty. The center cannot hold. To recap, here are the three steps of the ladder so far:

  1. The empirical, i.e., take the world for granted. Doing so has its advantages, for then we can worry about the precise way in which its structured: is it the sun going around the earth or the earth going around the sun? We can't ask that question unless we believe the world is solid and that its patterns are one way rather than another. Then comes the transcendental step:

  2. The transcendental: take the world for granted at the empirical level but then probe its structures at the transcendental level. As questions such as: why does the world appear the way it does? What structures it? Answer: the subject, or if you think like Heidegger, a certain special being, Dasein. But then we can go to the next level:

  3. The samsaric, where we start by undercutting the transcendental. After all, why is there such a world in the first place? Is it solid or is it empty? If it's empty, then what is the nature of our conditioning? What lies beyond and how does one realize that beyond?

Two notes:

  • I don't want to knock the empirical level - once our formulation of samsara is well established, we will soon be reformulating its main tenets. The classical understanding of samsara is as anthropocentric as the ptolemaic view of the solar system. That's got to go.

  • Degrounding comes later in our journey for we are very good at displacing the question of samsara in favor of the all seeing eye.