Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Natural Genius - Part 1

This article is a tribute to one my teachers - Mangipudi Peri Sastry. We affectionaltely call him 'మాస్టారు గారు', and in the usual Vizianagaram colloquial slang - 'మేషారు'. Many people know him as a great mathematics teacher. I am fortunate to be counted among his 'close friends' - so I know a great deal more about him. He told me some very remarkable stories and experiences of his life. I will try and narrate them in this article - for the benefit of some of his old students who remember him fondly. It is very difficult for me to refer him by his name - so, i will refer to him in this article - with some difficulty - as Sastry Garu.

We used to live in the same street - adde palli vari veedhi. His house was just a few houses away from ours. He is a long term associate and friend of my father - Pappu Parthasaradhi. Apparently, my father typed his appointment letter - as a lecturer in mathematics at M.R.College, went to his house, and handed the appointment letter personally. Everytime I meet him, Sastry Garu refers to this incident. He has a some special soft corner for me probably because of his friendship and association with my father.

The first thing that strikes everyone about him is his charming smile. It always reminds me of a fresh jasmine flower - very simple, pure, warm, affectionate and very intoxicating. Perhaps this is a reflection of his inner beauty. These days, old age claimed all his teeth - and the smile is even more beautiful.

Sastry Garu belongs to a very rare breed of Natural Geniuses - people like Ramanujam, Tyagaraja, Potana and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. According to Shakespeare - some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon themselves. I guess these are people who are born great.

Usually, all of us first assimilate a lot of detail, and by painful process of internalization of the detail, we arrive at understanding. But, there are a class of people - a rare breed - who seem to first reach a very fundamental level of understanding and then they work out the detail as it is presented to them. Because they have a certain deep understanding - they can approach any subject and treat it as mere information. They can pick up a completely new subject, and read it like a telephone directory - just information, nothing else. In Sanskrit - this is called 'sahaja siddi'. Even though, in many stories, it is made out as some sort of wonderful gift, in fact, it involves a very painstaking effort on oneself. I hope to write another article on this theme some other day.

However, very briefly, it involves achieving conscious access to the subconscious structures and circuits. For most people, the subconscious is very random, unorganized and inaccessible mechanism. We cannot toss a problem into our subconscious at will and let it come up with a solution. We also do not know how to 'store' something in our subconscious memory. For most people, it remains an automatic and inaccessible function. We cannot - by our own will - access that function. But, these Natural Geniuses seem to have crossed that 'chasm of fire'. They managed to take a ‘leap of faith’ – very similar to Hanuman’s crossing of the ocean.

Sastry Garu chose to remain an invisible master. There are many people in this world who reach an extraordinary state of development, but remain unknown. It is perhaps not because the world was cruel and indifferent to them, or even because their accomplishments did not receive the due recognition. I have come across many people like this in my life, and my understanding is that they choose a very specific function in this world which necessitates that they wear the cloak of invisibility.

Once I offered to write Sastry' Garu's biography and publish some of his musical compositions - but he just waved his hand, gave one his radiant smiles, and said that there is no need for any such thing.

Perhaps this article is not supposed to be written - but I cannot resist. I cannot narrate some of the miraculous stories of his spiritual attainment that I heard from him, but I will confine myself to purely 'performance'.

This is a three part series. This is the end of Part-1. I will post the other two posts by end of this month.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Scholar, Systems Thinker and the Sufi

In this post, I examine the attitudes of various thinking categories. There is no need for scholars to be offended. This is not an indictment of the scholastic community. I intend to update this article soon and make it more complete.

In the last couple of years, i had a very bad experience working with scholars and the so called intelligentia. I thought about the source of my discomfort with them. Basically the problem is not with a scholar, but with the attitude of a scholar. They all have the attitude that "I thought this tought, therefore it is right". It may be right - but not because you thought it.

In order to illustrate the consequences of such a thought structure, I shall use Marvin Minsky's famous ornithological example.

Suppose we say that All birds can fly. Now, if we tell a scholar that X is a bird, he will conclude that X can fly. Let's say that we tell him that Penguin is bird, but penguin cannot fly, and that X is a penguin. He will immediately say that the first assertion that all birds can fly is wrong (because penguin is a bird and it cannot fly). In effect, a scholar will throw away the axiom instead of invalidating his previous conclusion. For some strange reason, they think that their conclusions are more important than the axioms. This is counter intuitive. Any scientist will know that axioms are far more valuble than conclusions. A true scientist knows that axioms are real knowledge, where as the conclusions are transcient and incidental.

Roger Penrose, in his monumental work Road to Reality explained this beautifully. According to him, a bird exists in a platonic world - it does not exist in this physical world of phenomena. A bird is an abstraction. There are parrots, there are crows, there are eagles - but there is nothing called a Bird in this world. THe same is true of all mathematical concepts. The number 2 does not exist in this world, it exists only the platonic world.

In this world, we see only an approximate representation of the platonic world. So a true bird does not even exist - only its approximation exists in this world.

But the Scholar takes the statement in the language it is expressed, because his logic needs the language. So, he will start to analyze the initial statement - "all birds can fly". The language in this case is a vehicle to express the truth and it is a very crude vehicle to begin with. However, because of the nature of his work, the scholar has no option but to engage with the expression. He will start to take it apart. All birds - according to him - means every single bird that ever existed on this planet - past, present and future included. Using the principles of logical deductions, he will go on to interpret it as "if something is a bird, it must be able to fly". But, the intent of the original statement does not have any of these associations. The original intent of the statement is to enable us to recognize a bird, by giving us a very useful abstraction. That is all there is to it - nothing more or nothing less.

Suppose if everyone takes the scholastic view, then how will we be able to ever explain what a bird is to a child?

A systems thinker would go one step ahead of the scientist. According to a Systems thinker, the axiom that birds can fly is a higher dimension axiom, and the fact that a penguin cannot fly is a fact of the lower dimension. The axiom is very useful because it allows us to understand what a bird is, and it is an essential characteristic of a bird. If one fact does not correspond with that essential characterisc, he will not throw away the higher dimensional truth, he is comfortable to look at other characteristics of birdness. So, for a systems thinker - something does not have to be a fact for it to be true. He is comfortable with the coexistance of such contradictions.

A yogi would relate it to it differently. For him, the platonic world is the real world. He does not even concern himself with the world of the phenomena, because it is so unreliable. He will say that this world is an illusion, the real world is the platonic world (where the true bird exists). He will invite us to that world and refuse to engage us in the world of observation, he will refuse to accept that it even exists.

A zen monk will say that Penguin has forgotten its wings in the heaven. If we give it its wings - it will fly. So, he will refuse to accept that a penguin cannot fly, as far as he is concerned - it has forgotten to fly.

A sufi's approach is completely different. According to a Sufi the apparent is the bridge to the real. The apparent - meaning wings, flight of the bird etc., are there so that he can recongize the real birdness. The birdness is the manifestation of the divine. The Birdness is the Allah in a every bird, and every bird has that Birdness by His divine Will. From a sufic point of view, what is important is that why did the bird forgotten to fly? A sufi would say that may be it has forgotten because there was no need for it to fly. May be a community of birds live in an environment where they find their food on earth, there are no predators etc. So, a Sufi will not blame or hold Allah responsible for the lack of flying ability of the birds. At the same time, he recognizes that not all birds want to fly, because there is no need for them to fly.

The Sufi approach is always a practical approach. His interest is in helping birds fly - thus realizing their birdness inherently in them. However, not all birds may have a need to recognize thier birdness. This will show him a course of action.

There may be some birds who have a genuine inner need to discover their true nature - the Birdness that exists in all of them. The sufi chooses to work with such birds - he will teach them techiques of flying, and at the same time he will also create circumstances for them to increase their need to fly.