Sunday, July 22, 2012

The worth of creation and the creation of worth

The medieval Advaitic poet sadAshiva brahmendra asks:
kim vachanIyam kim avachanIyam kim rachanIyam kim arachanIyam?
sarvam brahmamayam re re sarvam brahmamayam!
The question raised by the poet, and its subsequent resolution or resignation, that resonates with a mystic and is reticent about workaday concerns, maybe rendered in words familiar to us as follows: 
"What is it that is worth reading into and recounting? What is it that is worth creating and writing about? The Greatest is all there is and all there will remain, and remain ever-growing. After all, and before anything else, This is all!"

To simply gaze upon the world and say that all that can be said about it is that 'This is all', leaves unanswered the aspirations of the artist and the scientist, who wish not simply to acknowledge the world,but to express or explain something about it. Neither expression or explanation seems to be the motive of the mystic, who seems content with a description of the world like 'This is all' or 'All is This', echoing in the rhetorical question, "What else could there be?". "What else could there be?" is far from a rhetorical question to an artist or a scientist, a question in which they see the beginning of a quest where a mystic sees an end. "What is worth understanding and what is worth creating? What is worth explaining and what is worth expressing? How did things come to be this way and what else could there be?", are questions of the scientist and artist that resemble sadAshiva brahmendra's question closely in letter but not in spirit. The Advaitic guide to inquiry into the world is 'nityAnitya vivekavichAra', a persistent questioning of what lasts and what doesn't, resembling in letter the scientific language of transformations and invariants, but not in keeping with the scientific spirit of viewing truths as provisional rather than transcendental. The Buddhist conclusion about the nature of the world is that the world bears the 'three marks of existence', 'anicca, anatta and dukkha', which can be thought of as impermanence, impersonality and incompleteness of desirability. This conclusion is compatible with the  lack of expectation in the contemporary scientist's mind of anything but a 'blind pitiless indifference underlying the Universe', but serves neither as a stimulus nor a resolution of ongoing scientific inquiry, or for that matter, the artistic endeavour to 'create meaning in a world where there is none'.

Though the priorities as well as the conclusions of the Vedantic Advaitins and the Buddhist Theravadins seem removed from those of art and science, preachers of both schools have not reserved judgment on these human endeavours, nor have they refrained from enjoining a certain attitude towards the arts and sciences in their followers. Here, we treat the word 'art' as subsuming in its meaning both 'practised skill' and 'chosen trade', and use the word 'science' in its usual sense subsuming all human endeavour seeking understanding of the observable Universe. The bhagavad gItA, a text held as authoritative by Vedantists, in Chapter 16 Verse 23 seems to recommend what would today be viewed as a conformist attitude towards art, if not downright censorship, by sanctioning only those kinds of creative endeavour that are circumscribed by the shAstras. The text's attitude towards what is Science today, can be glimpsed in Chapter 13 Verse 20 where there is an implicit belittling of inquiry into Nature rather than God, and then in Chapter 16 Verse 8 where is outright hostility expressed towards the human endeavour to understand the world in terms of Matter rather than Spirit and in terms of Chance rather than Providence. The centrality accorded in the bhagavad gItA to the shAstras, which refer to texts which to the orthodox represent both scientific conclusions about the Universe and rules of conduct for humanity, has historically meant that scriptural literalism (or overinterpretation) and hereditary professions (with resultant opportunity-denial) have greatly circumscribed Indian endeavour in the sciences and arts, both in antiquity and the medieval periods. Buddhism is, in principle at least, less restrictive on art and science, preoccupied as it is with the question of human suffering and choosing to comment on art or science only when these endeavours impinge upon suffering and well-being in some tangible way. We may, for instance, expect practising Buddhists to object only to that sort of artistic expression that causes tangible distress and hence departs from Right Speech in the Eightfold Path. In sum, it seems that mystics and preachers have more to say on the enforced limits on the arts and sciences, rather than on unexplored possibilities of the same.

Progress in any art of science depends on re-examining limits and re-imagining possibilities. In ancient scripture, the knowledge of these limits is dated and the imagination of possibilities beyond the ones realized, is scarcely even attempted. While a scientist's quest for Knowledge and an artist's response to Imagination are both indifferent to the limits known to the writers of scripture, there are nevertheless some limits which every conscientious scientist and creative artist is mindful of. The greatest minds are limited by life-span and attention-span, which in the course of history have respectively widened and narrowed with the generations, but will nevertheless remain finite, bringing to the questions of what to understand and what to create, both a seriousness and urgency so contrary to the mystic's indifference. In no generation could scientists of artists afford to ignore these perennial and pregnant questions with the mystic's 'This is All'. In our generation, the question manifests itself in the simultaneous presence of multiple claims on our attention and challenges to our discipline that limit both the potential quantity and quality of our productions; and of unprecedented access and availability of resources to facilitate readier production, wider presentation and safer preservation. Should our attitude towards exploration and expression be one of cheerful abandon since time is short and is more usefully spent doing than thinking; or should our choices be more considered and mindful of the fact that only our best must be bequeathed to an ever-lengthening posterity? Should we subordinate all our efforts to the creation of worth as measured by our peers or our forebears; or should we simply wholeheartedly celebrate the worth of creation for its own sake? These are questions to be always asked rather than ever answered, and certainly not to be dismissed as routine or as resolved by answers that are cursory or canonical, but, like any situation pregnant with possibility, deserving of gracious acknowledgment and mindful anticipation.