Let’s make things people better
To hear India’s space mission the crowning glory of India’s scientific accomplishments being called a waste of time is intolerable to me,” Amit poured out as soon as we sat down for our meeting
“I had also felt like that a dozen years ago,” I said, smiling reassuringly. “Amit,” I continued, “I too loved space research since childhood. In fact, when I was studying engineering, I decided to change my career to do a post-graduation in astrophysics and scientifically pursue my childhood fascination.”
Amit’s eyes opened wide. “What happened then?”
As I contemplated on how to answer, my mind spontaneously went back to a fateful meeting some 13 years ago, a meeting that had changed my life’s direction.
A SMOKY EYE-OPENER
One of my classmates told me about his brother Rabi, a double Ph.D, working as a scientist at the Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), a premier space research institute in Pune, Maharashtra. I was excited, almost awed, to meet him. He had achieved what I was dreaming of: a graduate degree from IIT, two doctorate degrees from eminent American universities, and a respectable position in a leading research institute.
Rabi was a tall, fair, bearded, bespectacled young man in his thirties. As we were walking together to his house through the labs filled with captivating pictures of distant galaxies, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was dreaming. Suddenly, something jolted me out of my dream. Rabi lit a cigarette nonchalantly as we walked. I was taken aback, but I put aside my emotion.
We reached his quarters and the door swung open to reveal a scholarly-looking, fair young lady. “She’s my wife, Razi.” (Rabi and Razi, I later learnt, were “cool” versions of their traditional names, Rabindranath and Raashi). “We met in America during our college days. She’s done her Ph.D in mathematics, and we are working together at IUCAA.”
Over snacks, we talked for hours about their work and their life. I was pleasantly surprised to see how friendly they were. Perhaps my classmate had told them that I had bagged the top rank in GRE in Maharashtra that year, and so they saw me as a promising future colleague. But one thing spoiled the relish; the cigarette never left Rabi’s hand he seemed to be a chain smoker.
Razi said casually, “You know, he smokes too much. I have told him to decrease, but he just can’t.”
Her facetious tone and the mischievous look in her eyes puzzled me, but it didn’t prepare me for what came next.
Razi opened her purse, took out a thin female cigar and started puffing.
Our meeting soon ended.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I was not gazing at stars in the sky. I was trying to make sense of the stars that had fallen in the sky of my heart.
Since early childhood, I had seen science as an ennobling, uplifting search for the higher truths of life. The pleasures of the scientific quest, I had thought, would raise me far above the petty desires and demands of the body and the mind.
My dream was attacked during my college days. Co-students, who, I had to grudgingly admit, were brighter than me, smoked and drank freely. A final-year student with the enviable record of being the topper in all his eight semesters in college was a chain smoker. He was selected by the best MNC during campus interviews, but died due to lung cancer in his first year at work. One of my professors, a brilliant author of several books on electrical engineering, did not get a coveted prize in a paper presentation competition and killed himself.
How could those who saw through the enigmas of science not see through the illusions of bad habits? Rabi and Razi were nice, clever people. They were not the typical foolhardy street smokers and drunkards that I had encountered in my childhood town. Why could those who were relishing the intellectual pleasure of space research (which, to me, represented the highest of all scientific pleasures) not give up the self-destructive pleasure of smoking?
As we returned to the discussion, Amit added soberly, “From my life in IIT, I know that students use their internet connections far more to download pornography than to do academic research.”
I then qualified our observations: “Of course, both of us know scientists and intellectuals who lead sensible, regulated lives. But the number of intellectually brilliant people leading reckless lives is distressingly high. This contradiction brilliance in professional life and recklessness in personal life bewildered me for years, until the philosophy of Krsna consciousness revealed the answer.”
“What was that answer?” Amit asked eagerly.
“Our modern society operates on a fundamentally flawed notion of progress,” I began. “This notion of progress is distilled in a famous slogan: ‘Let’s make things better.’ The Vedic notion of progress can be expressed as: ‘Let’s make people better.’ Or, more pragmatically, ‘let’s make ourselves better.’ Today, a society is considered progressive when it helps develop things, facilities, gadgets, for its people. In the Vedic paradigm, a society is considered progressive when it helps develops qualities and virtues in its people.”
“That’s an interesting way to put the difference,” Amit remarked.
I summarized, “Albert Einstein put the problem well: “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”
PROGRESS FOR A HIGHER SELF
I paused as Amit pondered on our discussion. He asked thoughtfully, “Science helps develop our technology, but how do we develop our humanity?”
“Your question brings us to the topic of what constitutes real progress,” I replied. “The Vedic texts explain that all of us have a higher self and a lower self. The higher self inspires us to be selfless, broad-minded and principled, whereas the lower self incites us to be selfish, mean-minded and opportunistic. The higher self is who we actually are: pure, godly souls; the lower self is who we think we are: our material bodies and minds, which cover and pervert our godly nature. Among all the species of life, the human form alone offers us the opportunity to conquer the lower self with the higher self. The victors in this inner battle attain the ultimate goal of life: a life of eternal, enlightened, ecstatic loving harmony with the Supreme. Therefore, a truly progressive society facilitates its people to nourish the higher self and starve the lower self.”
“But modern society deems the facilities that feed the lower self as signs of progress,” said Amit, catching on.
“Exactly,” I replied, delighted to see his perspicacity. “With this notion of progress, our society directs all human energy, even scientific energy, principally for catering to the desires of the lower self. But the lower self, filled as it is with insatiable desires for selfish enjoyment, causes people to act in ways that harm them individually, socially, and globally. Normally the lower self is regulated by the higher self. But nowadays, people, being preoccupied with “progress,” spare little, if any, to nourish their higher self, resulting in the deterioration of whatever little good qualities they have. And we end up with the contradiction of people who are walking encyclopedias but living failures. Thus, the modern notion of progress, by pandering to our lower self and distracting us from our higher self, perpetuates our suffering.”
A MISSION OF MASS DISTRACTION
“But the moon mission doesn’t perpetuate our suffering,” Amit protested.
“The moon mission is a prime example of a mission of mass distraction,” I answered. “It infatuates our ego, which is the basis of our lower self, with the sense of having accomplished something wonderful, while distracting us from the truly wonderful work of conquering our lower self. Thus, from the perspective of real progress, the space mission is not only unproductive, but even conter-productive.
“If all the energy and money spent on the moon mission were used to educate and train people in mantra meditation, millions of people would have become equipped to curb their lower self and tap virtues like self-discipline. That would reduce obesity, check the AIDS menace, decrease the global health expenditure by billions of dollars, and free our scarce monetary resources for basics like food for the starving millions. Thus real progress, spiritual progress, would lead to holistic development, with more food and better health for millions of people.
“Let me conclude with a quote by the British scholar C. S. Lewis: ‘We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.’ India, with its profound philosophical wisdom and ancient spiritual culture, has the unique opportunity to lead the world in turning back from the road of unbalanced materialistic progress. Turning back doesn’t mean giving up all material progress, but giving up the undue emphasis on material progress and focusing on holistic progress.
“Still there are signs of hope. The global acceptance of yoga, meditation and chanting has prompted many Indians to re-examine their national, spiritual legacy. But will India rise to its full potential as a global spiritual leader? Time alone will tell.”
Caitanya Carana Dasa holds a degree in electronics and telecommunications engineering and serves full-time at ISKCON Pune. To subscribe to his free cyber magazine, visit thespiritualscientist.com