cosmology's time-scale for the universe is in consonance with modern science'
- The Rediff Special
/ Carl Sagan
THOUSAND YEAR BARRIER -
By Glenn R. Smith
cosmology's time-scale for the universe is in consonance with modern science'
The Rediff Special
/ Carl Sagan
Sagan, the distinguished
Cornell University astronomer and Pulitzer
Prize-winning author, who succumbed to his battle against cancer on December 15,
in fact lived for millions of years in the relative time scale of experience.
This legend in his own lifetime was a first grade
philosopher, poet, scientist and a splendid example of human greatness all
rolled into one.
His true genius lay in the many esoteric
philosophical and scientific endeavours which only specialists can really
appreciate. But he became an instant pop science icon when he co-authored COSMOS,
a television series devoted to astronomy and space exploration.
A part of that awesome series was shot in India. In
the early eighties, Sagan met then Indian diplomat Placido P D'Souza and
in a conversation explained the India connection and the relevance of Gandhi.
You have been host of the television programme COSMOS
which deals with astronomy and science exploration. And yet India figured in
this programme. Could you tell us how India fits into this series?
Let me first say something about the series in general, and something about the
Indian part of the series. The television series COSMOS is designed to
breach the barrier that many people feel about science. They cannot understand
it, and it is foreign to them in approach and content. Our experience is that
children grow up with an absolute zest and passion for science, and something
happens to discourage some of them - sometimes many of them - from pursuing this
We thought it was our job to excite the children, and
reawaken the interest in science of adults. So we will use any approach to gain
people's attention, and show them that science is something not just that they
can understand, but that they can become excited about and can use as part of
the way they view the world.
The series has been extraordinarily successful. It has
been shown in a year or two in the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of
China. I hope some day it will be shown in India. The tenth episode of COSMOS
is largely about cosmology - the study of the universe in a perspective in which
the Earth is like a grain to stand in vast beach or desert - and the way we
approach the subject is through Hindu cosmology.
We have done that for several reasons. We went to Tamil
Nadu for the festival called Pongal. Like festivals all over the world, it
celebrates the changing of the seasons, and remind us that our ancestors were
astronomers, who kept calendars and watched the skies. It was essential for
extremely practical matters: when to sow seeds and to harvest grain. It was a
matter of life and death to be an astronomer.
the main reason that we oriented this episode of COSMOS towards India
is because of that wonderful aspect of Hindu cosmology which first of all gives
a time-scale for the Earth and the universe -- a time-scale which is consonant
with that of modern scientific cosmology. We know that the Earth is about 4.6
billion years old, and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is
something like 10 or 20 billion years old. The Hindu tradition has a day and
night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years.
As far as I know. It is
the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth which talks about the right
time-scale. We want to get across the concept of the right time-scale, and to
show that it is not unnatural. In the West, people have the sense that what is
natural is for the universe to be a few thousand years old, and that billions is
indwelling, and no one can understand it. The Hindu concept is very clear. Here
is a great world culture which has always talked about billions of years.
Finally, the many billion year time-scale of Hindu
cosmology is not the entire history of the universe, but just the day and night
of Brahma, and there is the idea of an infinite cycle of births and deaths and
an infinite number of universes, each with its own gods.
And this is a very grand idea. Whether it is true or
not, is not yet clear. But it makes the pulse quicken, and we thought it was a
good way to approach the subject.
And then the Chola bronzes in Tamil Nadu were very
lovely to film, and gave us a visual approach to go along with the intellectual
approach. It was also a way of de-provincialising our presentation. After all,
we claim that science is an endeavor of the human species. To shoot the whole
film in the United States or Western Europe would have been extremely
provincial. We shot in Japan and 12 or 14 other countries, besides India. Let me
also say that the subsidiary benefit for my wife and me is that we had a chance
to visit India for the first time, and especially Tamil Nadu which we enjoyed
You mentioned the Chola bronzes and I see also that in
your book COSMOS one of the chapters called 'The edge of forever' begins
with a picture of Nataraja. Could you say something to explain its relevance in
The traditional explanation of the Nataraja is that it symbolises the creation
of the universe in one hand and the death of the universe in the other - the
drum and the flame - and after all, that is what cosmology is all about. So in
addition to being artistically exquisite, the Nataraja provides exactly the kind
of symbolism that we wanted. The Nataraja that is photographed in the book COSMOS
is in a museum in Pasadena, California, but it will be returned to India at some
specified time within the next decade.
What were your general impressions about India?
I was absolutely delighted with Tamil Nadu. First of all, there was the sense of
an intact cultural framework. I did not have the sense of people greatly
alienated from their society - you certainly see a great deal of that in the
West. I had a sense of people caring for each other, an intact social fabric,
and technology coming along quite fast. Not just large industrial parks.
In a way what impressed me most was the widespread use
of the bicycle, not only for carrying agricultural products and manufactures
from one place to another, but also as a means for young people to visit
neighbouring villages, and a sense of exuberant communication, because now
people are not closed in a small village. They have a much wider range of places
that they have access to.
We spent some time in Madras and in Bombay. But these
were slow stages to get us to Tamil Nadu. We saw mainly tourist things which
were certainly pleasant, but we did not have the sense of getting to know the
people. We could have, but it did not work out that way, whereas in Tamil Nadu
we got to know the people.
I will give you an example. Here we are at 6:30 or 7 in
the morning - a group of us consisting of cameramen, soundmen, writers,
directors, producers and me, who go marching single file by a pond in which
there are lovely lily and lotus blossoms. Going to two small temples of the bull
god (Nandi). A boy, less than 10 years old, saw us coming, looked at us, dove
into the pond and came up near a lotus flower. He then swam back with it,
climbed out of the pond, went up to my wife, gave her the lotus blossom and
introduced himself, saying "Hello, my name is…" I forget what his
name was. It was done with such elegance and charm and with no thought of
reward, but just a sensibility which I found very impressive. Anyway we loved
it. How colorful it was…
must also say the sari is a kind of work of art, especially seeing hundreds of
them all together. Also, women washing the saris gives a kind of swatch of color
to the landscape… I thought it was wonderful… I had a sense of a healthy
society. I didn't know to what extent this is characteristic or not, but I was
very impressed and would love to have a chance to go back…
Well, you know you have a standing invitation to visit
India…Was that your first visit?
Yes. I had been invited before by a number of people, including J B S Haldane, a
British biologist in Bhubaneshwar. I knew him well in the last few years of his
life. He even made me promise to visit him in Orissa, but he died before I had a
chance to do so.
Sagan and Hindu cosmology – video
Did you know any other Indian scientists?
Oh, yes. I knew Vikram Sarabhai who spent a year at Cambridge, Massachusetts,
when I was on the Harvard faculty. I was a student of the world-renowned
astrophysicist Subramanian Chandrasekhar at the University of Chicago. An old
friend from the graduate school days in Kameshwar Wali, now a Professor of
Physics at Syracuse University. For 17 years a close colleague who has been
working with me in laboratory experiments on the origins of life is Bishun Khare.
So I had a succession of fairly close friendships with Indians. I have always
felt some natural affinity, I suppose.
Have you seen the Gandhi film?
Yes. It well deserved the Academy awards. I though it was splendid on many
different levels. One is the idea that there are ways for the people to move
governments by unconventional approaches including civil disobedience - but not
only civil disobedience - at a time when, in my view, the people of at least
some countries have much more sensible views about the nuclear arms are than
their governments. They can affect the policies of governments that seem to be
slow-moving, intractable and riddled with a bureaucracy that is decades behind
Also, the American civil rights, movement, of course,
was powerfully influenced by the degree to which Martin Luther King, Jr admired
Mohandas Gandhi, and I think that it is important for us, Americans, to remember
that connection… of the time when events in India were relevant to events in
the United States. That kind of thing seems to me to be extremely important.
It has been argued that this kind of movement is all
right in a colonial situation and in very special circumstances, but when you
have functioning democracies, is it valid to adopt what could be considered
extra constitutional measures?
Right… or the opposite question: in a country like Nazi Germany, would civil
disobedience have in any way been effective? Would the leaders of civil
disobedience not have been executed and nothing would have changed? They are
both good questions, and my answer is that the approach of Gandhiji is
not precisely applicable in every political situation. However, the reminder
that there are conventional ways of affecting the perceptions of masses of
people on issues of the greatest importance is very important reminder.
In democracies - you talk about functioning democracies
- there are traditions. For example, the approaches to the nuclear arms race are
institutionalised, and progress is made very slowly. Armaments are increased
easily, decreased with great difficulty, and people think about historical
analogies of Munich in 1938 and so on without fully having come to grips with
the fact that the invention of nuclear weapons has changed everything. And for
that reason I think that something other than politics is necessary when all
nations and the human species are faced with the extremely grave possibilities
of a nuclear war.
I am not saying that civil disobedience is necessarily
the answer. But one thing which was so impressive about Gandhiji was the
way he was able to communicate to large numbers of people and to excite people's
passion and courage. There was a great deal of courage needed to have followed
him, especially in the early days of his movement.
I think something along those lines is needed worldwide
if we are to break out of this impasse in the nuclear arms race.
I thought the movie was beautifully filmed, and in many places, extremely
moving. Maybe the most moving for me was the scene toward the end, in which
Gandhiji says to the despairing man who has killed children in a riot:
"I know a way out of hell". I found that an enormously moving approach
to the problem, that the way for a Hindu, to make recompense for participating
in the riots, is to raise a Muslim child as a Muslim and vice versa.
I thought it was a superb movie and well deserving of
the acclaim it has gotten here and elsewhere.
It has certainly made an impact, and moved people to
think about Gandhi and India. To the extent that it has made people think a
little, it has served its purpose.
I agree, it demonstrates that extremely unconventional approaches are practical
politics. Surely Gandhi has made major achievements in practical politics by
methods that the British discounted immediately, and were proved wrong. It is
good to remember that…
Placido P D'Souza is a former member of the Indian
Foreign Service and currently editor of New India Digest.
Top of Page
site of Shiva's cosmic dance,
has been the center of Shaivite art and thought for over a millennium. Its great
temple, built by successive southern Indian dynasties between the 8th and 12th
centuries A.D. is dedicated to Shiva Nataraja, and is said to be the site of his
legendary dance in the presence of his consort Parvati. Shiva's dancing icon
resides in the Golden Hall, a symbol of the nucleus of the atom and of the
center (bindu) of the universe. The Upanishads, Vedas, Puranas and other sacred
Hindu texts are represented by parts of the temple complex, the temple as a
whole standing for the totality of Hindu knowledge. Shiva's dance to Parvati is
celebrated in a great festival in December.
Chidambaram is one of the most ancient and most celebrated of shrines in
India. It is of great religious as well as historic and cultural significance.
Chidambaram is associated with Nataraja, or Shiva in his Ananda Tandava pose
(the Cosmic Dance of bliss) in the cosmic golden hall and the hall of
consciousness (Chit Sabha). Shiva is also worshipped in the "formless
form" of the Chidambara Rahasyam, while the temple is known for its Akasa
Lingam, an embodiment of Shiva as the formless Space. The word "Koyil"
or temple in the Tamil Saivite tradition refers to none other than the
Chidambaram Nataraja temple.
origins of this vast temple are buried in antiquity. Literature talks of a
tradition of Shiva (Nataraja) worship in existence even as early as the Sangam
period (very early on in the Christian era), and the Tamil Saints have sung its
fame when an established worship tradition was in place. The later Chola Kings (Aditya
I and Parantaka I) adorned the roof of the shrine with gold, and the other Chola
Kings treated Nataraja as their guardian deity and made several endowments to
the temple as temple inscriptions testify. The Pandya Kings who followed them,
and the later Vijayanagar rulers made several endowments to the temple. There is
a stone image of Krishnadevaraya in the North Gopura which he is said to have
erected. In the wars of the 18th century, this temple was used as a fort,
especially when the British General Sir Eyre Coote unsuccesfully tried to
capture it from the Mysore Kings. During this period, the images of Nataraja and
Sivakamasundari were housed in the Tiruvarur Tyagaraja temple for safety.
Deekshitar, one of the foremost
composers in the Karnatic Music tradition sings the glory of this temple in his
kriti 'Ananda Natana Prakasam'. The Alwar Poems of the Naalayira Divya Prabandam
sing the glory of Vishnu, whose image is also housed in this temple, and his
shrine is referred to as 'Tiruchitrakootam'. Adi Sankara is said to have
presented a Spatika Lingam which is still under worship in this temple.
Sekkizhaar's Periya Puranam, describing poetically the life of the Saivite
Saints (63 in number) was composed in the 1000 pillared hall, and was expounded
by the author himself in the presence of the Chola emperor Kulottunga II, who
had comissioned the work, amidts great festivity and fanfare.
Each of the four most revered Saivite
Saints (Appar, Sundarar, Sambandar and Manikkavacakar) has worshipped at
Chidambaram, and the bulk of Manikkavacakar's work is in praise of Shiva at
Chidambaram. Accordingly, their images are placed in the temple entrances
corresponding to their points of entry into the temple. (Sambandar - South,
Appar - West, Sundarar - North and Manikkavacakar - East).
associated with this temple:
Aadi Sesha, the serpent (couch) of Vishnu,
heard from Vishnu the grandeur of Shiva's cosmic dance. Filled with
irrepressable desire to witness this dance in person at Chidambaram, Seshan
descended to the earth as Patanjali (the one who descended). Vyagrapaadar,
another devotee of Shiva prayed to obtain the tiger's claws so that he could
obtain with ease the sacred Vilva leaves meant for Shiva's worship at
Chidambaram. At the appointed hour, Shiva (with Sivakami) granted to Patanjali
and Vyagrapaadar, a visual treat in the form of his Cosmic Dance of Bliss, to
the accompaniments of music played by several divine personalities in the Hindu
pantheon. This Dance of Bliss is said to have been witnessed by Vishnu, and
there is a Govindaraja shrine in the Natarajar temple commemorating this. The
dance of bliss of Shiva, is also said to have been enacted upon Shiva's (Bhikshatana)
victory over the married ascetics of Daruka Vanam.
Yet another legend, commemorating the
dance duel between the doyens of dance Shiva and Kali is associated with
Chidambaram. Shiva is said to have lifted his left foot towards the sky in the
Urdhuva Tandava posture, a definite male gesture, which out of adherence to
protocol, Kaali could not reciprocate, thereby causing Shiva to emerge
victorious, delegating Kaali to the status of a primary deity in another temple
in the outskirts of Chidambaram. This legend is portrayed in the Nritta Sabha,
one of the halls within the Chidambaram temple.
There is another recent legend associated
with this temple. The sacred Tamil works of the Nayanmaars had been missing for
several years, and it was during the period of Raja Raja Chola (the builder of
the Grand temple at Tanjavur) that formal research was initiated to trace these
fine works of devotional literature. These works of the Saivite Saints - rich in
musical content were recovered in a dilapidated state in one of the chambers in
this vast temple, after the monarch brought images of the Saint trinity in
procession to the temple.
In Hindu cosmology we are all manifestations of the
divine, playing at life, forgetting, as children forget themselves in the middle
of a game, that we are aspects of divinity at play. In the game, as in the
delusions from which the Buddha of legend hoped to free the world, we experience
ourselves as distinct personalities; to be liberated is to understand that the
game, the personality, our individual suffering, are not the big picture. That
we die and are reborn with each moment that passes. That death and birth are
aspects of one another, just as creation and destruction are both embodied in
Shiva, a single Hindu deity. That we are not separate from the great cosmic
Top of Page
Did You Know
A Celtic Deity
Like their Indo-European Hindu counterparts, many of the Celt's Deities are
depicted in full lotus posture, as on this enamel piece. The stylized swastika
pattern on the chest is identical to Hindu versions. Even the vocabulary is
amazingly similar. The following are just a few examples:
The ancient Irish law system, The
Laws of the Fenechus, is closely parallel to the Laws of Manu.
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