Friday, July 20, 2007

What You See, Is Not Real

I have often wondered and marveled at this great creation that we call the human body. Nothing though, amuses me more than the human brain, the complex organ that effectively acts as the center of our nervous system, and is the one feature that we all are proud of as it apparently makes us superior to the rest of the creatures on our planet. In fact, the very abstraction of being proud is a figment of our brain once again, isn't it!

Center of control
The more I think about the brain though (who is "I" by the way? Isn't it my brain again?), the more I realize how much it is in control. Of who I am, what I sense, what I think, what I believe and eventually what I do. Why do we trust the brain so much? Why do we trust the signals it senses? Are the sensory organs we own the epitomy of perfection, so much so that all other devices we create for measurement and sensing should be judged against our sensory organs?

If one reads the ancient Hindu scriptures, one can read about Maya, also known as Mayajaal. It can be described as this veil that covers our eyes, and blinding us from the truth, the reality. Not that what we see is not true. Yes, that is a truck hurtling down toward you on the streets! What we see though is only one perspective of the truth, part of the whole, perhaps better described as a projection of the real thing on a smaller dimension, but yet something we are happy to accept as true. No matter how marvelous our senses, especially our eyes are, one can definitely question whether it can see everything as it is.

This whole thing sounds so "Matrixy", doesn't it? But, the very fact that it is very hard to accept we don't see the truth and that "Seeing, may not always be, believing", is why this is not very commonly heard either. Those who know that we cannot see the truth with open eyes, only advice that one must attain this realisation on their own. One cannot be told or shown what the truth is, but one can be guided how to seek it. Reminds me of a line from Brave New World by Iron Maiden -

What you see is not real, those who know will not tell
All is lost, sold your souls to this brave new world.

What does education have to do with it?

We turn up in schools with an open mind, as absorbent as a sponge, only to be taught some of the most outdated material one can dole out. This is especially true of all sciences including Mathematics. Perhaps we could leave out biology to some extent. All that we learnt were labeled as theoretically perfect sciences, where every statement worth its weight had a proof, devised in a precise, orderly fashion. Little did we realise that these perfect sciences were all standing on the foundations of certain axioms and statements of truth, that never needed to be proved. Indeed, if you think about it, such a science which is based on devising proofs and conclusions and cause-and-effect theories, can never exist without such axioms to start with.

I am not saying all we learnt was bullshit. But, could it not be possible that these axioms were only sufficiently biased to not be generally applicable? They may only apply to a limited array of problem-spaces, but all of these fill up our daily lives and overwhelm us so much, we don't realise there might be more to it that is missing . Take for instance, the Newton's laws of motion. We apply them everywhere today. It is impressive standing on its own. However, it only took a few nuclear scientists to start digging into sub-atomic particles and their microscopic properties, and someone called Einstein in 1917 to take the macroscopic view at the universal scale to realise that Newton's laws no longer dictate how things work. They weren't found wrong, but inadequate.

From behind the spectacles

Our eyes give us this amazing perspective to life and our surroundings and dictate our interactions with it. They are excellent when it comes to helping us survive on earth. But we all know its limitations. We can only see radiation in the optical wavelength range, which is just so miniscule compared to the whole observed spectrum in the universe. We already cannot see everything. Add to this the fact, we cannot view objects below a certain size and beyond a certain distance, and we come to know, there is so much more we would want to see, if only we could!

Let me present another interesting example of our limitations. We know this from school as Geometry. But, today, in scientific circles, it is classified as Euclidean Geometry. Why? Ever wonder why we could always solve those theorems and proofs on a sheet of paper? Because it only applies to flat surfaces and planes! If you try to take your theorems to a curved surface, like say the surface of a sphere, they fail to apply! A straight line on a flat surface is obvious - shortest line between 2 points. We can use the same shortest line argument on a curved surface, but of course, this line is no longer straight. The sum of the internal angles of a triangle is 180 degrees. But on a sphere? It's greater than 180 degrees! The figures below show "straight lines" on our spherical globe (latitudes), and a triangle on a sphere with sum of angles equal to 270 degrees..

What can we see?

We only "see" what we are taught to see. Over years, we have developed a notion of what is "real", and we understand images based on this perspective. The eyes and the brain combine to form an instrument, which together "see" what they are trained to, within the limitations of the eye as a lens with a fixed focal length range, and a filter that can decipher only a few of the radiations out there. This doesn't imply I shouldn't trust the things I see, but only that I should believe there are more ways to interpet what I see that can mean a lot more if only I tried. There are more revealing illustrations to feed one's mind and make them suspect their firmest beliefs, which I will leave for future posts for now. But, believe me, there is more out there than meets the eye!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Push Pa For No Dowry

I am proud of my country and its rich heritage, the traditions, the spirituality embedded in every aspect of life and the fact that all of this has survived the test of time in a melting pot of the most diverse cultures one can find in any single country. But, at the same time, I despise belonging to a society where the masses still adhere to cooked up practices that no one understands, but everyone accepts. One of the most widespread of such practices is the tradition of dowry for a marriage.

Buy my love, love

Marriage is supposed to be a sacred bond between two bodies and souls that get tied to each other for eternity - as they say in those Western marriage vows - in sickness and in health. When it does sound so much as a pillar of strength and equality, how the hell did the concept of dowry fit into the scheme? Why does the bride-to-be have to pay her husband for his "services"? Last I checked, most men actually end up getting the service - both with their demands in the bedroom and with the daily household chores, and after there are kids in the house.

I don't really know when and how this tradition took shape, and I don't even care to research and find out, because what it has ended up becoming is a totally inexplicable farce. My explanation is that the woman has always been seen as the weaker sex and one needing protection. When she is born, she walks into the loving protecting arms of a father. When he finally hands her over to another man, he hands over the responsibility of protecting and caring for her, and ends up paying a price.

Not many fathers have qualms about this, as they do not want to risk taking on the orthodox society they live in. Or worse still, because they have themselves received a dowry once upon a time. Not many girls raise their voice as most women still don't consider it right to speak up against the norm for fear of being outcast and bringing shame to the family. Hell, she instead turns into a bride-burner herself! Dowsing the newly wed bride with kerosene and lighting the match after an unsuccessful demand for more dowry.

What does education have to do with this?

Nothing, apparently. The practice is as prevalent in cities, as it is in the villages. Some urbanites actually pride themselves in "preserving the culture" in the face of invasion from western thoughts and this preservation naturally involves sticking with age-old practices like dowry.

I was never more shocked than when I brought this issue up with my fellow classmates during my Masters. It should be noted that these guys are some of the brightest young people around who have been afforded the chance to go ahead and get the finest education possible in the country. But when it comes to the issue of dowry, they were still massively orthodox and openly accepted that they expect a dowry, and that in fact, since they have had the privilege of studying in the top technological institute in India, they expect to land a fat one. Ask them how it is justified, and pat comes the reply. "My parents spent a fortune getting me this higher education, and I will ultimately end up earning more because of that. Hence, I need to expect a higher dowry." I persist, "But, why expect a dowry at all? Never mind the size of it." The reply has the same tone, "Who will repay my parent's efforts?". I am pissed by now - "Who will repay the girl's parents? Don't you know that the girl today also studies as much as a guy does? How can you not be ashamed to ask for money when you will never have less because of your pedigree?"

There are other explanations I hear too. "Girls have high expenses, dude. Her parents will have to cover for that." "My parents didn't find it wrong, why should I?" "We will be paying for my sister, I should get some back." Just to add spice to all this, I should let you in on the figures I heard. Try 50 lakh rupees for size, will you? If all this doesn't sound absurd by now, you are most likely part of that elite gang of thugs.

Save for the marriage, not retirement

Being a girl's father is sometimes cursed in this sense, as is being born a girl child. The minute you are born, daddy decides to start saving on that marriage fund. Even though he may want to raise the girl as well as he would raise a boy, he will still make compromises. Fewer girls make it to higher studies this way. Its a toss-up between spending on education and on the marriage, both once-in-a-lifetime events. I need not say more here. If you have a sister or better still, are one (!), you probably know all about this woe.


What can one do against a whole society of orthodox beasts who clamour for a slice of the pie everyone can get their hands on? We can pass legislation. Oh, but that's already been done. No one comes clean against the offenders, and no one testifies, so according to the law, it doesn't happen. I, for one, am definitely going to be invited to a lot fewer weddings, because I have threatened my buddies that they daren't get caught accepting dowry with me around.

How about the girl's dad refusing to relent? Well, not many will marry his daughter then, and if your daughter gets turned down by a few, people are already thinking she is "characterless". It all then boils down to the one person who is the central character throughout. The bride. If she refuses to marry a guy, openly and in full public view, and tell the world the guy is looking for a dowry, it will be the first step. I wish all the girls could do this and be strong enough to face the consequences. Marriage is not a matter of life and death. A collective action will definitely bring a change. But, one girl here and another there, cannot make a difference.

Recently, I was amazed by a daring move by one such woman claiming to be a dowry victim. This amazing personality from Gujarat had already lodged a complaint with the local police against her husband and mother-in-law (bride burner!), but got no response. She just marched out into the streets in broad daylight stripped to her undergarments to catch the attention of all and sundry and to highlight her plight. She definitely got the attention, but I am not sure it will be more than a "I saw a sleaze show on the streets of Ahmedabad" in the short-term public memory. Nevertheless, I salute her courage. The world just needs more.

There used to be an advert of a talcum powder (huh?), where this female would turn down a relation with a man because he asks for dowry. And then, as the whole world scorns at her and her dad looks forlorn, a handsome guy walks in from nowhere and asks her hand in marriage. The talcum powder actually helps. Maybe there are enough guys out there to walk in on a distraught situation, and I bet there are, given the male-female ratio in our country!

So, what are you waiting for? Push Pa! For no dowry. Not necessarily like Pooja Chauhan did by marching semi-naked onto the streets.