The indifference of Shiva

Rohit Gupta | Updated on April 06, 2018 Published on April 06, 2018
Leaves of three to Murugan (Kartikeya) by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), from his series of paintings based on
the works of Kalidasa

Leaves of three to Murugan (Kartikeya) by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), from his series of paintings based on the works of Kalidasa

Rohit Gupta   -  BUSINESS LINE

On the presence of a recurrent Trinity, from mythology to modern physics

“Three various forms and functions three

Proclaim thy living majesty;

Thou dost create, and then maintain,

And last, destroyest all again.”

These lines in praise of Brahma are taken from an English translation of Kalidasa’s poem Kumarasambhava (circa 5th century CE) by American Sanskritist Arthur W Ryder (1877-1938). The epic poem describes the birth of Shiva and Parvati’s son Kartikeya (widely revered by the name Murugan) who is worshipped across the subcontinent as the Hindu god of war.

The primordial figure of three, or “trinity”, emerges naturally in many religions and numerous fundamental mathematical discoveries. For example, the first odd prime number is three, the orbits of three bodies in a mutual gravitational field are unsolvable (their future trajectories unknown), and the Pythagorean triangle is a fundamental metric of two-dimensional geometry. The conceptual genesis of computers in the universal Turing machine takes the form of three abstract notions (the tape, the head, the state); so does the electronic device which made fast, modern computers possible — the transistor, with its three terminals, reminiscent of Shiva’s trident or trishul (base, collector, emitter).

Speaking of Shiva himself, the god most associated with triangles, who sits atop a triangular mountain in a triangular sitting pose, with three closed eyes (trinetra), Kālidāsa (in Ryder’s words) describes his generative principle through Parvati’s mouth: “All forms are his; and he may take or leave/ At will, the snake, or gem with lustre white/ The bloody skin, or silk of softest weave/ Dead skulls, or moonbeams radiantly bright.”

Even though trinity is a ubiquitous generative principle, none of its pristine minimalism is seen in the phenomenon it actually generates — the infinity of prime numbers bear no evident relation to the number three, bodies in a solar system move in unpredictable chaotic orbits over millennia, simple computer algorithms lead to problems of extreme complexity, and neither do the forms and shapes found in the material and biological world adhere to any obvious geometry. The seeds of the universe, it would seem, bear no resemblance to their fruit.

In fact, the very sign of symmetry in a landscape indicates artifice, or the presence of some intelligent “builder” species such as bees, spiders, or humans. Only when we scale up from the biological realm upwards, the spherical shape of planets reveals that gravity must be a force that is symmetric in all directions, or that it is a law of nature that is indifferent to direction in space. The law of gravity effects cannonballs and the moon, or even moonbeams in the same way.

As physics historian John D Norton puts it, “A symmetry expresses an indifference in a cause. We should expect that same indifference in the effect, since we lack a sufficient reason for it to be otherwise.” The indifference of gravity shows up as an effect in the shape of planets. Like Shiva, the symmetry of the equilateral triangle expresses its indifference to orientation in space, or rather an equanimity for whatever may spew forth from its limbs in whatever direction — poison or elixir, life or death, peace or pralaya (apocalypse).

In the early 20th century, the atomic architecture of matter itself was thought to be made of another trinity of elementary particles — neutron, proton and electron. “Trinity test” was also the first atomic detonation on planet Earth (July 16, 1945), so named by the physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, who famously recited the Bhagwad Gita on that occasion: “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” ( He had learned Sanskrit under its renowned translator of classics, Arthur Ryder at Berkeley.)

Nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein likens Oppenheimer to Arjuna before the battle of Mahabharata, who “has been enjoined to battle by something bigger than himself — physics, fission, the atomic bomb, World War II, what have you — and only at the moment when it truly reveals its nature, the Trinity test, does he fully see why he, a man who hates war, is compelled to battle. It is the bomb that is here for destruction. Oppenheimer is merely the man who is witnessing it.”

The poem Kumarasambhava (cited at the outset) continues to exhort Brahma thus: “Thou art the objects that unroll/ Their drama for the passive soul / Thou art the soul that views the play / Indifferently, day by day.” Comparing the universe to a theatre of another trinity — actors, stage and story — the triumvirate metaphor is extended from cosmic to human.

Kalidasa seems to inquire: Are the pieces on a chessboard indistinguishable from the player? (Yes, no and maybe are the trinity of possible answers.) At least within the playground of quantum physics, where the act of observation affects and changes the state of objects being observed, the player is played by the game, the hunter is entangled with the prey, and no scientist will remain an innocent bystander at the unveiling of dark truths.

Rohit Gupta   -  BUSINESS LINE



Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah; @fadesingh

Published on April 06, 2018
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor