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Culture and Science





To put it simply, over these years, since childhood on to today, it has been my privilege to meet with creative minds who have been variously categorized as scientists, seers, philosophers, poets, writers, painters, dancers, musicians and, above all, many who in socio-economic terms are erroneously called ‘tribal’ or ‘illiterate’: I call them the holders of the oral traditions of wisdom. These range from a Rabindranath Tagore in childhood to D.S. Kothari as teacher, not to speak of other peers or contemporaries, such as Raja Ramanna, E.C.G. Sudarshan, Yashpal, Jayant V. Narlikar, M.G.K. Menon and of course P.N. Tandon, at one end of the spectrum, to a Lakshman Shastri Joshi, Gopinath Kaviraj, R.N. Dandekar, Iti Ravi the great Vedic scholar, and Vasudeva Saran Agrawala (who was also my guide and teacher).  They all used their cognitive faculties, of course, but my complementary world has witnessed manifold expressions through what is known as art.   


And there have been still others, men of vision and perception, not holy men in the ordinary sense, i.e. H.H. the Dalai Lama, with whom I have conversed for years, and the late Swami Ranganathananda, who like Vivekananda asserted the value of a scientific approach in matters which could transform individuals, society, and the world. I am deeply indebted to these and other masters of the oral tradition who have taught me to respect world-views and cosmologies which have evolved from an intuitive centre. Needless to mention Jayant Narlikar’s reference to the Navaho identification of the Crab Nebula or the Yoruba’s perception of the ‘Dog Star’, Sirius. 


My list is obviously not restricted to India, for the experience of the West has been equally invaluable. I.A. Richards of the behavioural school (who was also my tutor), Julian Huxley, and of course Kathleen Raine, the great contemporary poet who fiercely interrogated Cartesian dualism and called attention to the value of a Yeats and Blake, the visionaries.  Thus, I am no more than that empty vessel, the Patra, which has been filled and re-filled with knowledge and experience to a point where there is no ‘I’ to be situated; it is simply what has been ‘received’. To put it in other words, I am an old stone which has gathered much moss–—so much so that there is no stone visible.


Each of these encounters has been enriching. Besides, the confluence of those with diverse perspectives in the multidisciplinary seminars on space, time, the five elements, chaos and order, organized by me in the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), has prompted me to ask the question: are the domains of science and those of the broad field of culture antagonistic, or are they complementary, even inter-penetrative? It appears to me that they are almost conjoined and inter-dependent. Science emerges from a cultural milieu. Indeed, there are cultural imperatives of science and science affects the world as a great poem or a creation of monumental architecture. If the world is not the same as Oppenheimer said after the Scientific Revolution of 1543, and yet is it the same after the Ṛg Vedic rishi’s creation called the ‘creation hymn’, or the sculpture of the Sarnath Buddha, or the Pieta of Michelangelo? Why are we still fascinated by these creations, and constantly interpreting and re-interpreting both meaning and form? Polyvalence and multiplicity as also a certain constancy are inherent in both.


So then why have a bias? Or why speak of the inherent tension between the two or privilege one against the other—such as Science is this-worldly, useful and rational; Culture is other-worldly, not particularly useful and often irrational; and the Arts are either a mirror or an escape and, at worst, as we all have accepted, entertainment, a cultural programme, to follow serious reflection as relaxation? I suppose I am also in the last category, of a cultural programme!


It is to investigate some of these preconceived notions that I thought that the subject was relevant for the distinguished fellows of the Indian National Science Academy who have been engaged in the study of science with all its sub-fields ranging from botany, molecular and cellular biology, neurosciences, physics, chemistry, astronomy and space science to mathematics.


Long introduction, a trifle too long, but necessary as explanation before attempting to place before you some thoughts on a subject, as I said, just too vast.  Although not all aspects can possibly be covered in a single presentation even with my very limited capacity, I thought it may be profitable on this occasion to offer an overview of the history as observed by a non-scientist.  For felicity, I have divided the article in four sections:


1. Working definitions of Science as also Culture, however imprecise even in their respective assertion of precision.


2. The historiography of the debate between Science and Culture in the 20th century, e.g., Conversation between Tagore and Einstein in India and C.P. Snow’s book The Two Cultures (1959).


3. Some recent developments of the interest of scientists to identify correspondences between the domains of science and culture, more specifically philosophy, and vice versa.


4. To take certain examples to illustrate the inter-dependence of the two domains, indeed their conjointedness.



Working Definitions of Science and Culture


To begin with preliminaries and elementary etymologies, something that I was taught by my teachers of language and literature whom I have not mentioned: The word ‘Science’ in the English language can be traced back to the Greek word ‘Schizein’, which has a Sanskrit cognate 'chhinatti', meaning to split, or the more familiar Malayalam word 'chinnabinnam' also in Hindi 'chinnabina' or even more popular Hindi word 'chhed'.  The Latin roots of the words ‘scissors’ and ‘science’ are the same. In short, all these refer to splitting, cutting, breaking and therefore analysing.


In contrast, two other words are important—(a) the enigmatic and problematic word ‘religion’, which is derived from the Latin word religo, which is ‘to centralize’, ‘to come together’, ‘to synthesize’, and (b) the word ‘culture’ which suggests ‘cultivation’, from the Latin word cult.  


This is not the occasion to dwell at length on the two concepts.  However, it is not irrelevant to mention that both from the Greek and Latin roots, there appear to be a tension between the process of analysis and the process of synthesis.  On the other hand, when we turn our attention to etymologies in Sanskrit or for that matter Pali, we arrive at something different. Here, jnana and vijnana are not two separate entities and in fact vijnan (vigyan) is the ascension of the human mind to comprehend. Thus, in the Indian tradition the three crucial words are jnana, vijnana and prajna, denoting knowledge, comprehension of a high degree, and self-awareness.


While there is an impressive body of textual sources which deal with the concepts of jnana, vijnana and prajna, not to speak of the crucial word Dharma, which cannot be equated to religion or religo from its Latin root, there are only a few theoretical discussions on sanskriti. One can only infer that sanskriti is the process of cultivation of both the material world as also the human world. Process and refinement are its attributes. In the tradition there appears to be no polarity between jnana, vijnana and sanskriti.


It must be noted that the notion of culture, i.e., sanskriti, is a late-comer in the Indian tradition. Although the word sanskriti is derived from krishi, i.e., cultivation, the textual evidence relating to a discussion on culture qua culture or Sanskriti has to be culled out from many sources and yet it would not amount to definitions of culture which have emerged in the West in the recent past, e.g. the work of Gordon Childe, Durkheim, Kroeber, etc., not to speak about the definition of culture expounded by E.B. Tylor which is quoted in most writing on the subject. I do not have to elaborate these definitions. The word in Sanskrit for ‘coming together’, which would be a cognate of religo in its original meaning, is samanvaya


We need not dwell upon the history of interpretation of the two words ‘science’ and ‘culture’, and certainly not on religion here, but we may remember that these primary definitions do frame the discourse on these categories in the recent times.


Apart from etymologies, generally it is accepted that science deals with the material world or matter, at micro and macro levels, uses instrumentation, observes Nature and reduces entities to smallest components, abstracts them to mathematical equations, which can be universally replicated or applied. Thus science is both empirical as also rational. Science, it is claimed, is universal, and also value-free. Measurement, verifiability, disprovability have been the key words; linearity or a progressive trajectory of overtaking one observation and deduction by another are its characteristics.


Science observes objectively through the naked eye, microscope or telescope; ‘who observes’ is not the question asked until recently. These are only primary, working definitions.


On the other hand, if religion means synthesis, and culture is indicative of ‘processes, cultivation’, in its very nature definitiveness cannot be its attribute. Nor can a standard measure be applied to the diversity of life, inanimate and animate. Culture identifies or at least accepts the centrality of the role of the human as both observer and participator of the phenomenal world.  It also refers to the cultivation of not only the inanimate but also the animate, i.e., the plants, the trees, and all natural beings and their phenomena, and also the cultivation of the inner life, which in turn constitute the basis of the organization of societies and communities. If the world of science at its primary level is without value, the world of culture cannot exist, flower or wither without value. 





Now we may race through the historiography of the debate between science and culture in the West and also examine if such a debate took place in India.


As all of you know better than I do, the debate in the West has to be traced back to Copernicus and Galileo, especially the latter, which marks his Scientific Revolution. It is not necessary to repeat that the tension at that point and what happened in the life of Galileo was a tension not between science and culture, but it was a contestation between science and institutional religion, specifically the Church. All that happened in the West between the 17th century to the recent times has revolved around, tacitly or explicitly, on theories and findings of sciences, which were at variance with the tenets of a particular theology. In the Indian context, from ancient times to what is known as medieval times, the concern of the scientists, particularly the astronomers, mathematicians, and most of all specialists in the medical field, e.g., Charaka, were never in conflict, although they may have been at variance with some philosophic school. Indeed, they were often grounded in philosophic systems, especially in the medical field.  


In the West many developments took place in the 18th and 19th centuries, culminating in the assertion of the pure objectivity and definitiveness of science. Science became abstract and mathematical to a point of discomfort. Voices of dissension could be heard. One amongst these was the emergence of a new discipline called ‘Phenomenology’ where the subjective self and intentionality were placed at the centre of the debate. The first person’s point of view was basic. New philosophic positions were taken. Edmund Husserl was its chief protagonist. The cultural studies and writers were influenced by this turn in philosophy.  We need not mention amongst the names the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Jean-Paul Sartre, the writer, shared the views of these philosophers.


However, it is also necessary to draw attention to the developments in the study of culture or cultures. As pointed out before, definitions of culture emerged within the discipline of anthropology—Gordon Childe, Durkheim, and Kroeber. These concepts of culture led to many bifurcations. One stream subscribed to the evolutionary theory of Darwin; others began to study specific cultures.  For example, Redfield and Brown spoke of the great and little traditions in the context of India. There was the American and British school, and finally the most effective and influential work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French social anthropologist, who opened the debate in a new manner. Although it would not be possible to encapsulate the vast and varied work of Lévi-Strauss, especially in our context, it is relevant to point out that he asserted the need of a scientific approach to the study of culture. Also, he posited elements in culture as an analogous structure to that of language. Thus, each component of culture is broken down to a unit which could be compared to phonemes. In his view, there is need for close cooperation between linguists and anthropologists so as first to pave the way for a truly integrated study of man (Lévi-Strauss 1963:79–80). As we know, the structuralists were overtaken by the deconstructionists, such as Derrida etc.


There was another debate absolutely relevant to our subject of science and culture. Mention has to be made of I.A. Richards’ book Science and Poetry (1935) and C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures (1959). Aldous Huxley wrote a seminal article ‘Science and Poetry’ (1931:10-11) clearly privileging poetry. Interestingly Oppenheimer wrote an important article ‘On Science and Culture’ (1962:3-11). After sociologists, as we are aware, poets such as Blake, Yeats already had questioned the theories of the enlightenment. T.S. Eliot’s poetry embodied the dilemma of the contemporary man.  


Not surprisingly there was a renewed interest in the West by many scientists to find correspondence with Indian philosophic systems or the Chinese system. Need one mention the name of Fritjof Capra and his popular book The Tao of Physics? (Capra 1975)


In India at this time the situation was different. In this context we may remember the findings of J.C. Bose who told us that plants had life and they responded to electromagnetic currents. This was in a way no surprise to the Indian psyche because in the Indian world-view the inanimate and animate were inter-dependent and there was as much life in the stone as in the earthworm, the herb or the tree. His words: ‘We feel like pulling out a leaf to feel it, but we do not think of what goes on inside the plant. Maybe we feel that the plant does not suffer like us, but the plant does suffer. In fact, the pulsation of the plant stops where the leaf was plucked’.


The other great name is C.V. Raman.  I recall the exhilaration with which I heard his lecture at the Indian National Science Congress in 1947. Amongst his many remarkable insights was the emphasis on identifying geometry in nature, both of the organic world as also inorganic. For example, he drew our attention to the fact that the geometrical characters constitute a large part of what we call ‘natural beauty’. ‘An essential element’, he said, ‘of its external aspect, this geometrical character, namely the balancing of right against left, is noticeable in most living forms. In the botanical world, we find other and more highly developed patterns of symmetry which give physical beauty to the foliage and the flowers of plants’. There were other perceptive statements in regard to the geometry of inorganic matter. And, naturally, the intricate geometry of crystals. All this we accepted because it did not disturb the cultural psyche of India.


Neither denied the role of ‘feeling’ in the study of both phenomena and man.


Also we have to recall the seminal discussions between Tagore and Einstein (1930), in which Einstein asserted, 'That the universe exists is a matter of faith for me’ and Tagore’s reply , ‘The universe can exist only if I know that I am human’. At the same time they had a most engaging conversation on the nature of music, on the difference between melody and polyphony, from their respective points of view.


There were many other contemporary discussions which did not reflect any sharp divide. However, there was also a gradual but clearly discernible discourse on the tension between a ‘progressive’ India and a culturally static India. The first advocated the need for India to be an equal member of not only the comity of nations but also take leaps and bounds in the technological field.  Policy directives were not so clear. While, on the one hand, there were the public statements on the emphasis on science, there were also public statements on the need to preserve and conserve the cultural heritage. In this context, perhaps with some diffidence one might say, especially with the advantage of hindsight, Jawaharlal Nehru’s use of the term ‘scientific temper’ in The Discovery of India was lifted out of context. A reading of this remarkable book makes it clear that he did not suggest an antagonism between science and culture. However, at the programming level it would appear that the phrase was lifted out of context to suggest de-prioritization of the humanities and the arts in the educational system, which did tantamount to relegating the study of the cultural history of this country to an unimportant stream. 


A review of the university system and the establishment of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), without perhaps meaning to do so, did succeed in de-prioritization of the subjects ranging from archaeology, even anthropology, not to speak of the humanities, liberal arts and artistic traditions. The social sciences claiming to be science adopted indicators—well-meaning—which were grounded in the categories evolved by those who had wished to look at culture from a distance, as Lévi-Strauss said, with the objectivity of a telescope. Where then was the room for the Indian observer to be a participant in the phenomenon of the observed? The scholar of culture remained an outsider, without the advantage or disadvantage of being totally distant and dispassionate. 



Some Recent Developments


While it is not possible to draw a purely linear graph of developments whether in the domain of science or discussions on culture, both in the West or the East, it is possible to identify the broad trends in the discussion, certainly post-Newton and even post-Einstein, especially the latter. Either through direct experimentation or reflection, there has been recognition of the principles of uncertainty, paradoxes in mathematics and above all the complex relationship of the observer and the observed. As we know, science has generally been associated with distancing and objectivity. Now doubts arose. There was a serious debate on the finite and the infinite as also on matter. The very processes of the analyses of the matter brought the scientists to matters of no matter. It was natural that the uncertainty principles of Bohm and Heisenberg or the paradox of Godel’s theorem or the self-organizing system of Ilya Prigogine, would engage the scientists. The Indians, particularly scientists such as E.C.G. Sudarshan and Raja Ramanna, began a journey of finding correspondences of scientific principles with cognate notions embedded in particular Indian philosophic systems.


Sudarshan elaborated through many articles and research papers that ‘Science is the discipline which organizes our experimental communicable "public" knowledge. It is rooted in experience ("experiment") and draws on all our linguistic and computational expertise and is thus both a branch of philosophy (‘natural philosophy’) and of semiotics, comparable with a page of a research paper in the theoretical physics. Depending upon the aspects of experience that are emphasized the kind of science is also altered’ (Sudarshan 1995:22). In a paper ‘Nature and Function of Matter’ (1995), Sudarshan draws attention to the structuralist tradition and the functionalist tradition in science. Then he goes on to make comparisons with the structuralist as also the functionalist tradition in Indian philosophy, particularly the Vaisesika and Sankhya systems, and the functionalist tradition of Uttara-Mimamsa.


Ramanna, on the other hand, seeks to find parallels between the scientific philosophy of modern times and the early Buddhist philosophy.  In many papers he has elaborated on the concepts of Acit, Cit and Isvara. Each time he attempts to find parallels between science and philosophy, and draws attention to understanding the key concepts of Acit, Cit and Isvara:


Acit: All material things, and whose behaviour is best explained by modern science.  

Cit: All things which have life and exhibit biological behaviour and hence possess a consciousness. The exhibited consciousness being higher in quality, depending on the evolutionary status of the concerned object.

Isvara: A power which develops a consciousness with a desire to do good to all life.

(Ramanna 1995:27)


Understandably, I have tried to place dense discussions in as simple a manner as possible. Mention has also to be made of the environmental scientists, P.S. Ramakrishnan and Madhav Gadgil, who have repeatedly stressed the scientific basis of some myths and rituals and cultural, practices of the so-called under-developed communities. P.S. Ramakrishnan’s work on biodiversity and cultural diversity is as important as Madhav Gadgil’s work on the mangroves.    


Of equal importance is the work of natural scientists, who have begun to recognize that the insights and perceptions of the fishermen of the West Coast during tsunami were as important scientifically as their methods of investigation through instrumentation.


And last is the work of Anvita Abbi who has established linguistically that the language of the Andamanese is a distinct language.  This finding has been corroborated by DNA tests. 


Needless to mention the development in the neurosciences—the discussions on the right or left side of the brain and much else, which our Chairman has been engaged in to explore the relationship between body-mind-consciousness. Of course there is the fascinating and the much discussed work of V.S. Ramachandran—Phantoms in the Brain (Ramachandran and Blakeslee 1998) on phantom limbs. I shall never forget a public dialogue with him on this issue from our respective points of view. The Nataraja and his multiple limbs was the subject. In the cultural field—what one would call discourse in Indian texts—there is a long and continuous and complex discussion on the categories of sarira, mana, buddhi, chetana, atma, not to mention the role of that intuitive knowledge identified as vijnana.    


Mention need not be made of your Gurus, such as Meghnad Saha. For me the discussions with Professor D.S. Kothari were most engaging and full of value. He made a distinction between science and anti-reason or rationality, but gave value to a realm beyond reason. He said, ‘science through understanding of nature enables us to transform matter into energy, clay into gold, as it were. Faith [my word culture] can transform men of "clay" into men of love, compassion and without fear’ (Kothari 1990). Further he said, ‘Science provides an understanding of and control over nature, but it is the moral and spiritual insights which give meaning and purpose to life, individually and collectively.’


So, we are back to the crucial question of value-free and value-loaded.



Some Examples


Friends, you may well respond that ‘You have tested our patience too much; will you now say something about Culture?’ Yes, I shall, to the best of my ability. Continuity, fluidity of categories, process and not product, are some fundamental features of Culture. It is cultivation; cultivation where organicity is essential. Mutation, transformation from the gross to the subtle, from the graspable to the ungraspable, from the measurable to the immeasurable, is its intrinsic character. Thus, human mind perceives and reflects at the same time, establishes correspondences and gives multi-meaning to the same natural phenomenon which the scientists analyse through experiment and verifiability. The method is varied. Primary, however, is the processing of this experience and the articulation of it through that very distinctive faculty of the human, viz., speech (vak). Comprising experience and its articulation, speech is the structure of the artist or in broader terms the maker and participator of what are known as cultural manifestations. Metaphor, myth and ritual are the instruments of his expression. What we consider to be the natural world and phenomena in the domains of science becomes the ground plan of the evolution of a cultural system, a world-view. In some cultures, the man-nature relationship is considered fundamental; in others there is a tension because man (human) is considered as supreme. His task is to overpower and control nature. In turn this gives rise to individual behaviour as also organization of societies. The classification of people and societies referred to earlier implicitly accepted the notion that societies which lived in harmony with nature were perhaps inferior to those who subscribed to the view that the human was only one amongst all life forms.


Nevertheless, neither could deny that creative expressions are both cause and effect of the processing in the mind of the phenomenal world. The primary instruments are the sense organs and the sense perceptions. It is through the sense organs and sense perceptions (the sensory and motor) that comprehension begins. Little wonder that in India the concept of the indriyas permeates all disciplines, from the scientific to the artistic. There are many chapters in the primary texts of speculative thought, the Upanishads, the Abhidharma-kosa of the Buddhist philosophy, the medical texts of Caraka and of course the texts on the arts, literature, music (sound, speech), sculpture, painting (vision), architecture and dance, i.e., movement, which devote attention to the subject of jnana indriyas and karma indriyas.  Processing in the mind results in aesthetic expression.   


Let us now take a few examples, very few indeed, from India, only to identify the manner in which the phenomenon of nature is given cultural value. These have been chosen to demonstrate the interrelationship, inter-dependence of the domains of science and culture, both terms understood in the common usage. Indeed, one could hypothesize that ‘culture’ creates a superstructure on what it perceives as natural phenomena, identifies some traits and gives them meaning and significance. This is evidenced in the human’s identification of the primacy of the five elements—fire, water, earth, air and ether—as of the vegetative world, the animal world, the sun, moon and the stars, as of the structure and function of the human body. 


Here I restrict myself to citing examples from the vegetable and animal world, the perceptions of ecology and of the human body. Not even a cursory elucidation of the perceptions of science on the primal elements can be made here. I am all too conscious of the vastness of the subject, having edited eight volumes on these and on the notions of time (kala).


First the identification of ‘seed’ (bija), an entity of primary importance. The botanist analyzes the form and size, dissects the seed, classifies varieties of seed, measures the process and progress of germination. Culture or the cultural eye also identifies the primacy of the seed. However, its (culture) concern is with the identification of the organicity, the process, from embeddedness to sprouting, growth, development, decay and renewal. None of this negates the botanist’s identification. However, the artist, thinker and philosopher are fascinated by the two traits, one of organicity, and the other of a seemingly invisible secret (guha) becoming visible. It is the immeasurability as also the latency and potency which is grasped. Almost logically the language of ‘metaphor’ is culture’s instrument of expression and articulation. From a single ‘bija’ (seed) of an idea, concept, s/he constructs an entire ‘tree’ of a poem, painting, sculpture and above all architecture. The ordinary bija of nature becomes a cultural symbol endowed with significance and value. One may repeatedly ask the question: Is there a divide between Nature and Culture or ‘Science’ vs. ‘Culture’?


The concept of the ‘seed’, bija, has permeated the Indian consciousness for millennia. Our first references come from the Vedas where the Sun is addressed as agnibija. This is followed by countless references in the Upanishads, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and of course the Gita, where Krishna likens himself to a bija. Detailed analysis of the nature of the metaphors is not possible here; however, let me place before you a few quotations which speak for themselves from different disciplines of the Indian cultural traditions.


In the Ṛg Veda (R.V. X. 129), semen (retas) and bija are identified as the source of energy. Aditya (Sun) is termed agnibija. A concretizing of the metaphor is done by now identifying soma as retas and bija. No yajna can begin without placing the symbolic seed (bija).


In the Vishṇu Purāna occurs a beautiful description which says that the entire cosmic creation exists as an unexpanded germ (bija), other categories evolve from it. After its evolution it is again reabsorbed in its seed.


As the wide spreading Nyagrodha (banyan tree, Ficus benghalensis) is compressed in a small seed, so at the time of dissolution the whole universe is comprehended in thee as its germ. As the Nyagrodha germinates from the seed, becomes first a shoot, and then rises into loftiness, so the created world proceeds from thee and expands into magnitude.

Vishṇu Purāna 1.12. 65–66, Wilson 1840:94.


The texts of aesthetics and philosophy abound in the use of the metaphor of the seed to explicate their perceptions, each time emphasizing the potency of the seed to grow. For example, two of India’s greatest philosophers and aestheticians frequently use the metaphor of the seed. Abhinavagupta, the expounder of Kashmir Saivism, says, ‘Just as in the seed of the banyan tree lie all the relevant parts, viz., sprout, branch, leaves and fruits, even so this universe lies in the heart of the Supreme’ (Paratrisika Vivarana 25–26, Singh 1989:244)


Bhartṛhari says at one place that the Sastras do not become extinct; instead they go back to the original source and remain embedded in seed form in the Vedas.  Hence he writes, ‘Nobody admits that there is any written tradition not associated with a particular author. When all such written tradition disappears, the three Vedas continue as the seed’ (Vākyapadīya 1.132, Subramania Iyer 1966:119). And at yet another place: ‘A series of sounds (nada) are the agents which sow the seed of words in the intellect in the form of bhavana (experience) which when it attains maturity, conserves the word, and grows like a tree’. The texts of linguistics are equally eloquent. One says: Syllables are of two types, viz., bija and yoni (seed and the receptacle of seed). Seeds are known as vowels, while yoni is known as consonants. The metaphor is extended to primeval sound. After devouring or withdrawing the entire universe within, it remains established in itself as the seed (vowels) and seedlings (consonants). The seed denotes consciousness when it has not yet manifested differentiation. Seed then is the primary cause, as vowels or undifferentiated consciousnesses.


It is not necessary for me to refer to the branch of mathematics called bija ganita. Some of you have written extensively on it.


However, let me conclude our discussion on bija with a quote from the writer of the first monumental text the Natyasastra on dramaturgy, aesthetics, viz., Bharata.  He says, ‘As from the seed the tree is born and from the tree flowers and fruits are born, in the same way all sorts of bhavas have their firm root in rasa (aesthetic pleasure)’ (Natyasastra VI.38).


Abhinavagupta commenting on this says: ‘Thus the root representing the seed lies embedded as aesthetic pleasure (rasa) in the poet. The poet, indeed, is an aesthete. Poetry or any artistic creation represents the tree. The action of the dramatis personae and others stand for flowers of the tree. The enjoyment of rasa (aesthetic pleasure) by the aesthetes stands for the fruit’ (Abhinava Bhāratī, VI.38).


Other examples can be cited from many disciplines ranging from philosophy to the arts to demonstrate that the botanical seed attains the level of a theoretical construct.  It alludes to any concept which is capable of organic growth. Also, it is the secret communication between the teacher and the disciple as bija mantra.





The botanist identifies the lotus as an important species. There is an impressive body of literature with which even I am familiar. Who does not know of the lotus? Is there a poet or painter or sculptor who has not been captivated by the beauty of the lotus flower and the lotus leaf? There is evidence of the attraction of the lotus in the sculptural reliefs of early civilizations, Egyptians and Chinese alike. In India it is not only the beauty of the lotus, but its process of growth which occupies the mind of the linguist, the poet, philosopher, sculptor and architect alike. The specialist and the layman are captivated by the symbolic value of this process.


Now the simple ordinary phenomena of the ‘lotus’ which is important but not value laden is given cultural significance of monumental proportions. There are numerous cognates of the word padma. We are familiar with Kamala, Jalaja as names of women.  Also, Padmini, Pankaja, Nalini, Arvinda, Utpala, Saroja, Rajiva, Neeraja etc. The significance given to the lotus in cultural terms is the denotative meaning of purity. Born in mire and muck it is pure and unsullied. 


Thus the Tamil phrase Chethile mulaitha chenthamarai (denoting one who rises from a deprived background or surroundings to a position of prominence or glory). Women often teach their daughter to live their lives with the purity of a lotus leaf. There are volumes of poetry in all Indian languages. Most important is the concretization of this phenomenon of nature into a structure of architectural design. Just as the seed was the centre of the stupa, the temple, akin to the womb (garbha), the lotus is the pinnacle of all Indian stupas as also temples. 


Now the seed, especially of the amalaka (Amla), and the lotus coalesce into a single form full of functional and structural significance, as also symbolic value. The coping stone of sacred architecture is the inverted lotus as also the amalaka. No architectural design could be conceived without a sensitive and sharp perception of the botanical nature of the lotus, but no significance at the philosophic and artistic level could be sustained if it did not acquire the status of a cultural symbol of great value.   


‘Culture’ uses metaphor, extends it to myth and concretizes both to artistic form. In turn, the metaphor condenses myth into icon. It is this artistic form which transcends limited chronological time. This is facilitated by the metaphor and the myth entering into common community discourse. All this may sound altogether too familiar and ordinary but a minute’s reflection will make us aware how the cultural mind perceives the phenomenon, evolves imagery, to communicate perceptions and concepts in a language of symbol. This processing of observation and experience in the mind cannot be measured but its results are visible. Validation comes from acceptance of the manifested articulation through speech or in visual narration by the people of a given culture. This explains why the ordinary lotus is elevated to the highest value.  To give examples now, the Goddesses sit on lotuses. Buddha is on a lotus pedestal and is in a lotus pose, padmasana. Are we not familiar with names such as Padmanabha? Lakshmi sits on a lotus and Brahma is born from the lotus stalk. The Bodhisattva is Padmapani. The imagery is extensive, intricate, which has the possibility of expansion, multiplicity of meaning and of value not only in specific cultures but also across cultures. It would appear that what an equation is to scientists, metaphor and myth is to the cultural imagination! The artistic manifestations of the botanical species of lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) are neither imitation nor reflections; they are more, the result of inner experimentation of the human mind.





To return to the seed. The seed is the cause of the tree. The tree has a trunk, a structure. Amongst the trees is the species of the Ficus religiosa, Ficus benghalensis, identified as the Peepal (bodhi) and the Vata, respectively.  While we know the peepal is venerated and feared, it is equivalent to the Asvatha. In the perceptional or imaginative world it is the Asvatha which is a major preoccupation of the poet, writer, philosopher, seer. The metaphor becomes a symbol of denoting the processes of life at the micro and macro levels. We have already referred to the seed giving rise to the structure of the tree. Bharata and Abhinavagupta alike have spoken of this. Also not at all necessary to remind ourselves of the mighty metaphor of the Urdhva Mulam, the upside-down tree of the Gita. The Urdhva Mulam becomes a symbol of supreme knowledge in its dynamics of ascension and descent.


While it is not possible to elaborate on the extensive literature on the subject, suffice it to mention that Siddhartha becomes Buddha under the Bodhi Tree. The Bodhi Tree is the source of enlightenment. The relationship of the tree and the human is reciprocal and not mutually exclusive.


However, besides the Asvatha and the Bodhi tree, there are others, such as the Sala, which becomes the theme of the arts and is given ritual status. I refer only to one common pervasive simple and complex motif of Indian art called by its various names—–Salabhanjika, Vriksika, Asokadohada, and later as Surasundaris, Alasakanya, and yet later Madanika etc.—in short, the 'woman embracing a tree' motif. Woman cannot be fertile without the embrace of the tree. The tree cannot flower without the embrace of the woman. The early western historians called these the animistic traditions of the Hindus (spelt then as Hindoos). This artistic motif is pervasive in all Indian art from the north to the south, from the east to the west, from the 2nd century BC to the 18th century. The architectural edifices of Bharhut, Sanchi, Mathura, Sangol, Khajuraho, Bhubaneswar, Belur, Halebid are an irrefutable proof of the Indian cultural world-view, which identifies the reciprocal relationship of the vegetative and the human world. Its pervasive acceptance is, as mentioned before, analogous to a mathematical equation, for the same single perception of tree and woman has been universally accepted over many geographical areas, extending to South East and East Asia. However, unlike the mathematical equation it has fluidity in its very conceptual design.


This is not the ‘animism’ of underdeveloped societies or decorative design for projection of feminine beauty. It is a cultural statement of significant value. There are references to the Asokadohada in the Ayurvedic texts. The bark of the Asoka tree is beneficial for regulating the woman’s menstrual cycle; the flowers have a similar medicinal function. Communities in Mayurbhanj still hold rituals around the Asoka tree, both as fertility as also regularity functions. Thus the cultural mind identifies species function, utility and communicates these through significant form, i.e., of woman embracing the tree. It states this through speech (verse and poetry), sculpts the motif, and gives it a status as community ritual. 


Thus one fundamental perception is extended to communicate in many ways.





We have now to turn our attention very briefly, almost as bullet points, to the scientist’s perception of the phenomenon of the earth and the sky, the earth and the planets, and the cultural ramifications of identifying scientifically or otherwise the human’s perception of the given situation of the earth, sky and the human’s life. Without touching the field of early astronomy in India and senior D.P. Chattopadhyaya’s work, it is important to remember that the relationship of the earth and the sky—here antariksa, not akasa (space)—has occupied the Indian thinker from earliest times. There are parallels in other cultures and civilizations, e.g., Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Aztec and Chinese. While some dwell on the movement of the planets—moon and the stars—others evolve ‘cosmologies’ of great significance, and in yet others there are cosmogonies (i.e., the origins). This is a field altogether too vast and complex to be touched upon here. Naturally astronomy and mathematics are basic. The identification of this perennial phenomenon in regularity gives rise to many cosmologies articulated through explicit statements as also myths. 


I can only restrict myself to the perception of the simple common immutable universal phenomenon of the oceans, earth and the sky.  Earth is considered mother universally. The prehistoric sculptures of all civilizations are replete with images of the mother goddess, the primeval Venus. However, in India the human mind focusses attention on the need for harmony and peace of all life, inanimate and animate. Need we remind ourselves of the all too familiar Shantipatha, which is recited on all occasions, particularly solemn occasions? Often mechanically recited, without concentration on its contents, it is a major cultural statement of natural phenomenon.  It begins by invoking Peace (Shanti) in the sky or space (antariksa) and goes on to invoke Earth (Prithvi), the herbs (aushadi), vegetative world (vanaspati), etc., to other elements, particularly water:  


Unto the Heaven be Peace, Unto the Sky and the Earth be Peace,

Peace be unto the Water, Unto the Herbs and Trees be Peace,

Unto all the Gods be Peace, Unto Brahma and unto all be Peace.

And may we realize that Peace.

Om Peace Peace Peace



This indeed is a perception of ‘totality’ and variety, and each element given significance in an interconnected phenomenal world of matter which can and does have significance beyond matter. The Prithvisukta of the Atharvaveda is a majestic narration of the perception of the ‘earth’ as fundamental ground with its multitudinous variety.


Our latest concern is maintenance of ecological balances. The contemporary debate on global warming, climate change alludes to the imbalances in the natural ecological processes.  The imaginative mind finds charming dexterous ways of articulating the relationship of earth and sky, and also the need to maintain ecological balances through the language of myth. We are all acquainted with the name Gangadharan and give it no more attention. At best we say, ‘Oh, this is one of the epithets of Siva’. However, does the lay person or even the educated pause to ask, why Gangadharan? So, to entertain you, let me recount the myth:


Several versions of the myth are found in the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the several Puranas, while details of names of saints and heroes differ in many cases and sometimes become localized. Central to the myth is the connection of the ocean and the sky and the channelization of river systems through human effort. In traditional language, it is the story of the King of Oceans, Sagara; the Milky Way of the sky, Ganga; the saint Agastya; the tapas or austerities of Bhagiratha, the Man; and the forests of the locks of Shiva.


In one version, Agastya who in some ways is related to solar energy, once swallowed the entire ocean. Although he meant well as he wanted to expose the demons hiding in the sea, it had the effect of depriving the earth and all beings of the necessary life-sustaining water. This made it necessary for the celestial river, a kind of Milky Way, to descend from the sky.


Now it fell to the share of another human, a pious Bhagiratha to undertake great austerities so as to bring the heavenly Ganga to earth. He was sorely in need of water to appease and gratify the ashes and souls of his deceased forefathers who had perished in a similar natural catastrophe of drought.  Leaving the administration of his kingdom to his ministers, he left for a place in South India called Gokarna (‘cow’s ear’). With unflinching determination and perseverance, he practiced austerities, tapas, through discipline and commitment. Eventually, Brahma was pleased and promised to grant him a wish. Bhagiratha asked the god to let Ganga descend to earth. Brahma agreed but drew attention to the necessity of soliciting Shiva’s help and grace. He feared that if the mighty river of heaven with her torrential waters were to descend directly, it may cleave the earth and shatter it. Someone would have to break the fall by receiving the gigantic cataract on his head. This only Shiva could do. Bhagiratha once again continued his austerities until the god was appeased. He stood on one leg with his arms uplifted (Urdhvabahu); he practiced the penance of the five fires (Panchatapas) and finally Shiva appeared and acquiesced. The head of the great god took the first full impact of Ganga’s torrential flow. The matted hair of the jatas piled high, delayed the cascading current which then in meandering through the labyrinths of the forest of his jatas lost its force, was tamed and channelized. Its water descended gently to the Himalayas and then, majestically, to the Indian plains, and thus the earth and its creatures were rejuvenated for she was the life-giving boon.


This theme is narrated so beautifully and majestically in the reliefs of Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram), an example of the richness and complexity of culture. Here is a narration, almost like a modern hoarding, interpreted differently, for some it is Bhagiratha’s Penance and for others Arjuna’s Penance.


So, a natural phenomenon is perceived, interconnection identified and then a myth is evolved. The message of the myth has moral and ethical value. It calls attention to the human’s un-harnessed greed and thus pestilence. Expiation is possible to restore balances through restraint. The cultural word is tapasya, i.e., penance. As a constant reminder, the myth by volition is collapsed into an icon, as a sign or symbol into iconographical form. With the Ganga sitting on the jatas of Siva, finally it reaches a ritual status when the water of the Ganga falls on Siva Linga. The icon of the altogether too popular image of Nataraja with his jatas flowing and the Ganga sitting as a beautiful maiden in diminutive form, is used as a constant reminder, that the forest cover (the Siva’s jatas) must always be conserved.


A common phenomenon is where devotees throng to Siva temples to see the rather incongruous sight of the water of the Ganga being poured on the Siva Linga. Few pause to reflect on the significant visual statement, because now unquestioning faith for boons overtakes comprehension and significance. Many other examples could be cited. This is the thin dividing line between significance of metaphor, myth and icon and blind faith.


The ecological theme pervades the Indian artistic traditions.  Just as woman and tree were mutually beneficial, the animal and the human are equally interdependent. Thus to put it in half liners: no rodents and elephants, no Ganesa; no serpents and nagas, no Seshasayee Vishnu; no peacocks, no Subramanya or Muruga; no tigers, no Durga or Ayyappa, on and on and on—all dismissed as pantheism, instead of as statements on perceptions, on functionality as also mutuality of the aquatic and terrestrial world of fauna and the human.





I had referred to astronomy and had said that the subject is both fundamental and complex. However, at a popular but pervasive level, the comprehension of the relationship of the human and the planets is translated into an annual calendar of fasts, feasts and festivals. Except for Sankaranthi, all others revolve round a lunar rhythm. This is as true of Holi, Diwali and Onam as it is of Eid. The computation of the calendar requires mathematical skills of a high order. Even the most non-believers consult the almanac (the panchanga)! A group of scholars are working on the Indian panchangams in Kyoto. That apart, Sunya or zero is crucial. In mathematical terms it is the Indian contribution of the place value of the decimal. Besides scientists and philosophers, Jawaharlal Nehru has said in The Discovery of India: ‘The adoption of zero and the decimal place-value system unbarred the gates of the mind’.


Whether the notion of Sunya in Indian philosophic thought preceded the mathematical notion of zero can be debated. The concept of Sunya in the cultural sphere acquires many dimensions.  It denotes the twin processes of totality and differentiation, as also the process of no form (arupa) to multiplicity of forms (pratirupa), to beyond form (para rupa). Also it denotes emptying the mind through concentration. An extremely instructive publication has been brought out by the Indian National Science Academy, edited by Shri A.K. Bag, in which the concept of Sunya has been discussed both from the point of view of the mathematician as also the philosopher and the cultural historian. 


Gita chapter 15, verse 6 sums up the relationship of fullness and void as follows:


That Consciousness, however, being Absolute, is far beyond all that we know as such. Knower and Known exist as one in it…It is in fact no consciousness for us, being beyond the Fire of manifested life, the Moon of Mula-prakriti, the Sun of the unmanifested Atman. It is the Void; it also is the Full. Having gone thither, none return again.


The verse is significant at many levels. We shall return to the theme of Consciousness later.


And finally to the understanding of the human, the agent who observes, or who is the ‘knower’, what are his/her attributes, his/her structure, i.e., anatomy, the functions of the organs and bone armature, i.e., anatomy, what is the nature of the metabolic system, and above all what is this body-mind-consciousness triad?  The scientist as also the philosopher and the artist are engaged in the enquiry. 


While the Indian texts of medicine present their analysis of the human body and speak at length on the role of anatomical structure, specially the spine and joints, and identify bones, organs and the crucial role of the senses (motor and sensory), they also speak of the metabolic system and emphasize that ultimately the human body is a microcosm where there is an entity beyond measure, called spirit, prana, not merely breathing. The scientists have also been engaged in a similar enquiry. 


S.R.N. Murthy tells us that despite the phenomenal advances in genetics involving elaborate research in DNA and RNA, the study of the molecules have not been able to help ascertain the role of spirit in the induction of life. He draws attention to the wisdom of the Taittiriya Upanisad which has made important observations on the evolution of life. It traces the life evolution to space.  Accordingly, space is noted to evolve into air, air into fire, fire into water and water into the earth. Earth generates the vegetative kingdom which gives rise to food. From food is life on the earth, it contends. The life or purusa is constituted by anna-rasa. Subtle is this annamaya-kosa, which is the field of food and subtler is pranamaya-kosa, the field of life. Also the manomaya-kosa or the field of mind (chetana or spirit) is still subtler and the field of science still subtler—vijnanamaya-kosa. The final and the subtlest of all these fields is the anandamaya-kosa, i.e., the field of bliss—eternal bliss.


Specialists of modern medicine as also practitioners of Ayurveda have all stressed the primary role of diet. It is food which is processed in the metabolic system to nurse all other systems, the cardiovascular and the neuromuscular and physiological. Little wonder that no matter from which perspective we move, we recognize the transformation of the gross to the subtle.


It is not for me to comment on the valuable work of Dr P.N. Tandon and his engagement with the theme of the body, mind and consciousness, on which he has written and spoken frequently. Let me begin with the most elementary understanding of the body, whether it is Gray’s Anatomy or Charaka, as the first concern is with the anatomical structure. In the Indian arts there is an equally important discussion on the panjara of the sarira, i.e. the cage of the sarira. Many texts on dance, specially the Natyasastra, give a detailed account of the body, the principal limbs and particularly function of the joints in motor action. Identifying the physical possibilities of special joints, a correspondence is established with emotive value. The same is the case with the organs, especially the eye. The hand gestures are really the exploration of the movement of fingers and the metacarpus to evolve a most effective language of hands. None of this would be possible without an understanding of the physical possibilities.


The same is the case with the texts on music relating to the production of sound.  The first chapter of a great musical treatise, the Sangitaratnakara, could be as much a medical text as a music text.


Whereas music, dance and theatre use the human body as an instrument of communication, the architect explores the human body as a paradigmical model for the creation of the stupa or the temple. There is a familiar language of the parts of the body to denote both the vertical and horizontal structural entities.


A major text on dramaturgy, i.e., the Natyasastra, mentioned before, evolves a theory of rasa which has in turn connections with traditional Indian chemistry. In the aesthetic sphere the theory of rasa has been and could be interpreted as a theory of identifying the principal emotive states of the human, such as love, pathos, laughter, fear, heroism, all of which can be communicated through body language; speech, sound, music; sculptural symmetry and asymmetry along the spinal cord; and the juxtaposition of the parts of an architectural edifice from the ground plan to the elevation plan. There is thus a scientific understanding of the body and the extension of the image of the body to create significant artistic form.


However, neither physical possibility nor the seven emotive states are absolute, for the artist begins from a state of rasa, now equivalent to bija, i.e. the elemental experience. His artistic creation is a tree with branches of the seven rasas, but the ultimate goal is to communicate to the recipient and the participator a rasa, juice, taste, which is beyond measure. 


Abhinavagupta, the aesthetician, specially of the rasa, compares the ultimate state to the after-taste of a meal when food has been masticated, when you no longer know the different ingredients of the food but know the taste!


One last comment on the theory of rasa which has engaged the Indian mind for 2000 years is that it is the final experience, corresponding to the highest level of consciousness, whether from the point of view of the scientist or the philosopher. In the Indian system this state has been called the twin brother of the supreme consciousness of bliss—brahmananda sahodara.


Metaphor, as I said, was the essence of the art. What could be a more appropriate metaphor of the body, the senses, the mind and the discriminating consciousness than the chariot, the horses, the reins and the charioteer? The Katha Upanisad states in a remarkable passage:


Know the Atman as Lord of the Chariot, the body as the chariot itself: know the buddhi to be the charioteer and the mind (manas) as the reins.


The senses, they say, are the Horses, the sense-objects the path on which they run. The Atman united to senses and mind is said by the wise to be the Experiencer (bhokta).


He who is without intuitive judgment (vijnana) whose mind (manas) is not constantly controlled, his senses become unmanageable like the vicious horses of a charioteer.


But he who has intuitive judgment, whose mind is ever held firm, his senses are controllable like the horses of a charioteer.


He who is without intuitive judgment and is of uncontrolled mind, ever impure, he does not reach that goal, but wanders in the ocean of the World.


But he who has intuitive judgment and is of controlled mind, ever pure, he attains that God (padam) whence he is born no more. 


The man who has intuitive judgment as his charioteer and the mind as reins, gains the End of the Road. 



I might underline the word ‘vijnana’ here because it is the high state of intuitive knowledge. Paying my tribute to the scientist and philosopher let me quote my Guru, Professor D.S. Kothari, in conclusion when he speaks of the body as ksetra (field). Quoting the essence of the Gita, Kothari says: ‘Body = ksetra, ksetra = five elements. And whence from do these five elements come? They come from nature, nature here understood by its Sanskrit name prakriti. Is nature dead without attributes? No, there is no absolute dead matter, because nature itself is psycho-physical, psycho-somatic because it is gunatmaka (i.e., with attributes and qualities). Thus the system by which man comprehends nature and its elements is not just physical or material, it is a psycho-physical system.  It begins with the wholeness’. At a multi-disciplinary seminar on the ‘Primal Elements’, Kothari in his inaugural address asks the simple question: ‘Why do we feel warm in the sunlight? Why does the sun feel warm?’ This is the first and the last question.  An attempt to give an answer to this question has been the history of civilizations. He goes on to ask: ‘Is it the body that feels warm?  Is it nature that provides the warmth? Is it only the sun that provides the warmth? Or are there other elements in interaction with the body which produce the warmth? If it is the body that feels warm, then what is body? Is it matter? Is it an aggregation of the five elements?’


Kothari continues to draw attention to the concept of ksetra in the Gita, when Krishna calls Arjuna ‘Kaunteya’, that is the biological link.  But is sarira only a physical organism? Sarira is the ksetra.   Krishna enjoins upon Arjuna to be the ‘knower of the field’. He who has the capacity of ‘knowing’ (comprehending) the field is ksetrajna. ‘Body, therefore, is equal to the ksetra.  And what is this field? The field is the five-fold body—the sheath of nature, comprising the five elements’. We are back to the question of the ‘knower’ and the ‘known’. In Kothari’s words, ‘I am more than the assembly of the parts and the moment I am more than the assembly of the parts, the implications are clear. I am part of ananta and infinity, and infinity and continuity despite every moment of flux and change; Consciousness is the eternity and the immutable’.


Finally, and absolutely finally, Science and Culture are ‘the two birds on the same branch’.  The Katha Upanisad speaks of the two birds on the same branch as the ‘experiencer’ (bhokta) and the ‘seer’ (drasta)—and one cannot live without the other.


(Lecture delivered at the Indian National Science Academy Platinum Jubilee celebration in New Delhi on January 10, 2009)


Banner Image: Sculpture of the Bodhi Tree, meditating under which Gautama Buddha said to have obtained Enlightenment, from the stupa at Sanchi (east face of the south pillar, east gateway of Stupa 1). The Buddha is represented by the canopy under the Bodhi Tree, in keeping with the conventions of this period of Buddhist art.


Note on the Asvatha Tree: This is mentioned in a number of texts, including the Vedas, Bhagavad Gita and the Katha Upanisad, where the tree with its roots above and branches below is identified with the Supreme Brahman ('ῡrdhva-mῡlo’vāk-śākha eṣo’śvatthas sanātanaḥ', Part 2, Canto 3, Verse 1).





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