The silent ventriloquist

Rohit Gupta | Updated on January 08, 2018 Published on October 20, 2017
Orb it: Spherical harmonics, plotted on a computer by author and professor of metereology Alex DeCaria

Orb it: Spherical harmonics, plotted on a computer by author and professor of metereology Alex DeCaria

How do forms emerge from the clouds of history, and how do they die?

“You say that the ultimate point of Time is not apparent. Give me an illustration of that,” inquires the Indo-Greek king Menander of Bactria, of the Buddhist monk Nagasena. To this the monk replies: “By reason of the eye and of forms there arises sight, when these three come together there is touch, by reason of touch sensation, by reason of sensation a longing ( tanhâ, thirst), by reason of the longing action ( karma), and from action eye is once more produced. Now is there any end to this series?”

The above excerpt from Milinda-Panha ( The Questions Of Menander), a dialogue written around 100BC, illustrates the peculiar emergence of spiritual thought in 800-300BC. All of a sudden in this “Axial Age”, according to Karl Jaspers in The Origin And Goal Of History (1953), we see the simultaneous emergence of minds such as Archimedes, Homer, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Zarathustra, Mahavira and Gautam Buddha. The reasons for this could have been manifold — the realisation of a pan-global existence, the invention of metallic coinage, which virtualised human labour (karma) into something abstract like numbers, or perhaps the growth of writing, which amplified theorising powers of the human intellect.

The evolutionary backdrop to such a radical departure from prehistory has been imagined, in particular, by Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). He asks how did the people ruled by pharaohs and oracles perceive their own minds?

“Jaynes calls the mental space of these pre-conscious people the bicameral mind. It is a mind with two chambers, the mind that is divided in a god part and a human part. The human part heard voices and experienced these as coming from gods,” explains Erik Weijers. The subsequent breakdown of this ventriloquist dictatorship of divine voices resulted in consciousness, a reflective mind that could think for itself. Jaynes further notes, “The importance of writing in the breakdown of the bicameral voices is tremendously important. What had to be spoken is now silent and carved upon a stone to be taken in visually.”

And, yet, in this newly found freedom the Buddha showed the seeds of a new kind of imprisonment. The answer by Nagasena portrays the human mind as a “desiring machine” (not unlike the 20th-century French philosopher Gilles Deleuze) forever caught in a cybernetic feedback loop created by the bodily senses, a sort of reflective whirlpool out of which the soul of this ‘spiritual cyborg’ must climb.

One is tempted to ask what shapes had emerged in the Buddha’s mind after the breakdown of two-chambered, schizophrenic, primitive bicamerality?

The depictions of the Buddha in human form began in Greek hands, and there is a clear symbolism in the crown ( ushnisha) of his head and surrounding knotwork of hair. The temporal lobes of his mind had become a harmonic resonator with numerous bead-like chambers, reflecting the 10,000 worlds ruled by 10,000 Buddhas (as in a Mahayana trichiliocosm).

Complex, curving lines in mathematics can be expressed as a combination of elementary components — sine and cosine waves, a method known as Fourier analysis. How does one do something similar to the Buddha’s head, which, for the sake of simplicity, one might approximate as a sphere? We call this method ‘spherical harmonics’, which is used to study a wide range of phenomenon — from neuroimaging to the magnetic fields of planets and stars, the cosmic microwave background, tidal waves, atmospheric patterns, and, after the emergence of quantum physics in the 1920s, the configurations of electronic orbitals inside atoms.

One of the founders of quantum theory, Max Planck can be quoted from Das Wesen der Materie (1944): “There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter.”

In a sense, one might say that minds such as those of the Axial Age emerge naturally through the pressure imposed by history, which demands a new psychological paradigm. The human world has thus far seen only the four seasons repeating year after year, faintly modulated by Earth’s stoic revolution around the sun. What if the changing temperature and composition of the atmosphere were to demand a new harmonic phase of the seasons, resulting not in the quaternary year we have known but four seasons in a day? The clouds as seen from space would look no more like wasted swabs of medical cotton, but a bead-like knotwork, pierced by two polar mountains of ice.

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

Published on October 20, 2017
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