Cow-dung on the Wall

29 Dec

Puran Singh was a scientist by training and profession (more about his work here). Even as he continued his research and publication on matters of industrial chemistry, he wrote on matters of the soul and of spiritual progress in the society. Those who read his works on spirituality see him as a mystic and a poet. Reading the book for this month, I am looking forward to know about his world-view: do science and spirituality intersect to create a common ground? Or are they two parallel universes of reality?

The first few pages of the book give a glimpse of his views on epistemology. On the topic of knowledge – and we must remember that as a scientist, he was into ‘knowledge production – he writes:

“Beware of the magic of Brahmanical philosophic analysis of everything, even the most secret and complex infinites of faith, life and love. It killed them, it shall kill you. Analysis is the opposite pole of feeling. I worship my mother, I love my wife, but what would they be if I wished to know them by analysis!” [16]

As per Puran Singh, to know something or someone by analysis is the opposite of knowing someone by feeling, by experiencing that something or someone. This becomes all the more pertinent when that something is a ‘state-of-being’ or the being itself. Matters of the soul “are beyond our analyzing intellect”, he writes.

Analysis of information (coming either from experiments based on interventions or field studies based on observations) is the core of scientific research. It involves identifying the elements of a system and the relationship between those elements. It is analysis that makes the information meaningful. Than merely knowing that A and B happened, it is more meaningful to know the nature of relationship between A and B: did A cause B? Or are A and B correlated?

Why this skepticism about analysis? Isn’t Bani all about causal relationships? Bani is both descriptive and normative: it explains why things are the way they are (for example, why people are unhappy) and also suggests desirable goals and the means to achieve those goals. And isn’t it knowledge of causal relationships that underlie those explanations and advice?

Furthermore, Puran Singh writes:

“True knowledge is not knowing, but being. Knowing is always wrong, being is always right. What I gather round me does not confine me. What I produce out of me does not exhaust me. Knowledge does not add anything to me. Ignorance does not diminish me.” [25]

Language, while enabling us to think and communicate, also restricts our thought and communication. When I think of a person in a wheelchair as being confined to the wheelchair, I forget that what is confinement to me could be freedom to that person. The wheelchair offers her freedom from an otherwise confined world. A door opens us to something, but it also locks us away from other things.

Likewise with language (but the other way round):  Does language confine our expression while seeming to offer us a medium to communicate, to express, to think? Also, isn’t the Bani an attempt to also describe the indescribable tale or unspoken speech (akath katha) and praises about Guru’s glory even while acknowledging that “gur ki mahima kathan na jayi”? When I read the following,

auAw kI mihmw kQnu n jweI ]1] [392] or qw kI giq imiq kQnu n jwie ]3] [393]

I wonder, is it something about the Creator, or the Guru, or the Saints that cannot be described? Or is it something about language itself that renders the experience (or the understanding gained) as indescribable? Or is it that language is adequate to describe the characteristics of the Guru but that experiencing the Guru renders one wonder struck, speechless?

Asking these questions reminds me of the conversation I had with the Nihang Chief at the Gurudwara Mata Sahib Kaur Ji in Nanded, India. My brother, who was with me on that trip, always made it a point to stop at this Gurudwara and wish the Nihang Singh a heartful gur fateh. On this occasion, as my brother and I took leave, the Nihang Singh asked us to visit the Gurudwara soon againcowdung-wall.

“I can’t,” I said. “I will be away for quite a while now. I am going to the US for my PhD.”

The Nihang Singh smiled. He had a twinkle in his eyes and his eyes were smiling too. I could discern the smiles clearly through his glasses.

“In that case, don’t forget to do your nitnem. Be selective about what you read. And importantly, don’t become like the philosopher who, when he went to a village in Punjab, stood transfixed in front of a hut for several hours, He stood there watching the wall on which lumps of cowdung were drying in the sun to be later used a fuel. When someone asked him what was it about the wall that he found so fascinating, the philosopher replied that he was still trying to figure out how the cows managed to get the dung on the wall and  that too in such a perfect pattern.”

The Nihang Singh was still sporting his knowing smile as we left. I’ll be seeing him in a couple of months when I go to India and visit Gurudwara Mata Sahib Kaur Ji. I won’t be surprised to be greeted with the same smile and the twinkle in his eyes asking me, “So have you finally figured out how the cows … ?”

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